February 15, 2017 / 5:46 PM / 5 months ago

Trump's choice for national security adviser had early exposure to Iran

WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - As a teenager in the early 1970s retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward played football and basketball, was popular with classmates and, like many American high school students, was known for partying.

But Harward, to whom President Donald Trump has offered the post of U.S. national security adviser, to succeed Michael Flynn, spent his teenage years not in his native Rhode Island, but in pre-revolutionary Iran, where his father, a Navy captain, advised the Iranian military.

During his teenage years, Harward lived in an Iranian neighborhood, attended school with Iranian-American students and played sports against Iranian teams. Those experiences gave him an unusual familiarity with Iran's culture and people in the years before the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the pro-American Shah.

"During very formative years of his life, he was exposed to everything that was Iran," said Joseph Condrill, who knew Harward, known by his classmates as Bobby, when they were students at the Tehran American School. "Iran was one of our homes, and we got to know the Iranian people very well, in a very intimate way."

The Trump administration has offered Harward the job of national security adviser, two U.S. officials familiar with the matter said on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if Harward had accepted, the sources said. A White House spokesperson had no immediate comment.

Harward would carry his experience into the Trump White House, charged with coordinating national security policy and responding to threats including Iran's ballistic missile program and support for militant groups in the Middle East.

While Flynn put Iran "on notice," and Trump has tweeted that Iran is "playing with fire," Harward's experience with Iran is more personal.

The revolution that brought Iran's theocratic government to power forced the closure of the Tehran American School and cut short the tours of American families living in Iran.

Rather than being isolated on a military base, Harward and other Americans at that time lived among Iranians, rode local buses, and were exposed to Iran's attractions through field trips, his classmates said.

"It was not a completely isolated culture for us," said John Martin, 61, of Reston, Virginia, who was in Harward's high school class and attended the U.S. Naval Academy with him. Harward even picked up fluent Persian while he was in Iran, Martin said.

"For those of us that had once lived in Iran, there's an after-effect, the effect of the Islamic Revolution," Condrill said. "There is definitely a sense of suspicion, if you will ... based upon that experience of the Iran that we once knew."

It is not clear, however, how Harward's memories might influence U.S. policy, because the national security adviser's job is to coordinate, not make, policy. In addition, administration officials said, Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller have closer ties to the president than Harward would have and would present a rival power center.

In 2012, as deputy head of the U.S. Central Command, he told a conference that "Iran's well-established past pattern of deceit and reckless behavior have progressively increased the potential for miscalculation that could spark a regional, if not a global conflict."

At the same event, he recalled with some wistfulness his own experience living in the region.

"I think back to the days when I graduated from the Tehran American School in 1974, where as a Westerner I could freely travel through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and other countries in the region and be greeted, and welcomed, because of the policies and strategy the West employed in the region," he said. "Yet I look today, we are in a much different world."

Harward did not respond to a request for comment and officials at Lockheed Martin, where he is a top executive, declined to comment.

After graduating from high school in 1974, Harward returned to the United States, joined the Navy, became an elite SEAL and rose through the ranks, eventually serving as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East. He served there under General Jim Mattis, now the U.S. defense secretary.

Earlier in his career, Harward worked on counterterrorism as a military officer on the National Security Council, an assignment seen as a marker of a rising star.

Several former U.S. officials who worked with Harward described him as experienced and smart, but not known for his personal experience with Iran.

He is well-liked and respected and seen as unpretentious despite his distinguished military service, according to people who have worked with him.

"He was a very good and effective bureaucratic player," said Derek Chollet, an assistant secretary of defense under the Obama administration. "He understands the role the military plays within the broader tool set of American policy."

When Harward was a commanding officer in Afghanistan, he was known for making his rounds without full body armor to send a message that Afghanistan was safe, said a U.S. official who worked under Harward there.

"He had no ego," the official said, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak. (Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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