Tillerson's Advice for Biden: 'Hope the Israelis Don't Do Something Provocative'

Former secretary of state under Trump says President-elect Joe Biden must also try to contain Iran and keep Turkey from tilting further away toward Russia

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 16, 2017.
Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 16, 2017. Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's advice for the incoming Biden administration on the Middle East is to "try to contain Iran and hope that the Israelis don’t do something provocative," he told said in a rare interview published on Monday.

Speaking to Foreign Policy, Tillerson said that outgoing President Donald Trump, his former boss, has left the world in a worse place than when he took office, something Tillerson said he "didn't think was possible."

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"If I could put a photo or a picture in front of him or a map or a piece of paper that had two big bullet points on it, he would focus on that, and I could build on that," Tillerson said, adding that "just sitting and trying to have a conversation as you and I are having just doesn’t work."

Tillerson said he was "very concerned" with Turkey's shift away from NATO toward Russia, made evident by Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems. He called the U.S.-Turkey relationship "extraordinarily important," adding that the U.S. must work to maintain dialogue with Turkey and keep it in the NATO fold.

"To the extent that Putin has success with Turkey, he will begin to think about who else he can pick off within NATO and begin to pull away," Tillerson said.

"The S-400 was a significant opportunity for [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to signal back to the United States that he was not looking to lean toward Russia and away from us," he said. "There were countless conversations with him about the consequences of purchasing the S-400s, and Erdogan was given ample and multiple warnings of what a provocative step Turkey was taking. Putin desperately wanted to sell that system to Turkey not for the economic reasons but for the geopolitical reasons—he knew it would create a lot of problems in the relationship with Turkey to NATO, and of course that’s what Putin does. He likes to go out there and plant these cherry bombs that create problems for everybody."

Turkey has recently said it will not reverse course on its purchases, despite U.S. sanctions imposed over the acquisition.

While serving as secretary of state, Tillerson publicly acknowledged his disagreements with Trump over whether the U.S. should withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. After being fired in 2018, Tillerson said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "played" Trump on several occasions, calling him "extraordinarily skilled ... but a bit Machiavellian," adding that "it's always useful to carry a healthy amount of skepticism in your discussions with him."

Tillerson has also said Netanyahu would use "misinformation" in his conversations with Trump, explaining that he would "attempt to persuade [Trump] that ‘We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys." 

 “It bothers me that an ally that’s that close and important to us would do that to us,” Tillerson said about Israel after his dismissal.

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