United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

U.S. General: Iran buying time with talks

            On March 5, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said that he believes Iran is buying time with talks on its controversial nuclear program. But Marines Corps General James Mattis told the Senate Armed Service Committee that negotiations should continue because they are "critical to building international consensus.” 

            “Between economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and encouragement of behavior that does not cost them [Iran’s leaders] such a degree of political support… there may yet be a way to bring them to their senses,” Mattis said. He added that the United States would have “other options ready” if those methods fail.

            “Iran presents the most significant regional threat to stability and security,” Mattis said. The general also warned that Tehran’s “reckless behavior and bellicose rhetoric have created a high potential for miscalculation” that could spark a conflict.

            The nuclear program is not the only potential Iranian threat. Mattis noted that the Islamic Republic is also developing maritime assets, ballistic missiles, regional proxies and cyber-attack capabilities. The following are excerpts from the general’s prepared statement.

            …The ongoing events of the Arab Awakening, blatant brutality by the Iranian-backed Syrian regime and the spillover effects of refugees and violence into neighboring countries, coupled with Iran’s flagrant violation of United Nations security council resolutions, bellicose rhetoric and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, and the persistent threat from both Shia (Iranian supported) and Sunni (Al Qaeda and its affiliates) violent extremists demand international attention…
 
            Threat networks including those maintained by Iran are adjusting opportunistically, and are emboldened by regional developments – to include the Arab Spring and events such as those in Benghazi and Syria. These networks pursue a range of destabilizing activities that include but are not limited to the transfer of illicit arms, as well as the provision of financial, lethal, and material aid support to a range of malign actors seeking to undermine regional security…
 
Malign Iranian influence:

            Despite significant economic sanctions and increased diplomatic isolation within the global community, Iran continues to export instability and violence across the region
and beyond...
 
Potential nuclear threat. Iran continues to expand its nuclear enrichment capabilities,
which enable Iran to quickly produce weapons-grade nuclear material, should Tehran make that decision.
 
Counter Maritime threat. Iran is improving its counter maritime capabilities (mines, small boats, cruise missiles, submarines) to threaten sea-lanes vital to the global economy. The occasionally provocative behavior of the Revolutionary Guard Navy
is an issue with which we deal and we refine our operational approaches in sustaining our stabilizing maritime presence in the Persian Gulf.
 
Theater Ballistic Missiles. Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East and is increasing medium and short range ballistic missile inventories and capability with ranges up to about 2,000 kilometers, sufficient to strike targets with increasing precision throughout the region. While Iran has previously exaggerated its capabilities, there is consensus that Tehran has creatively adapted foreign technology to increase the quality and quantity of its arsenal.
 
Iranian Threat Network. Malign influence and activities (illicit weapons, financial aid,
trained personnel and training) in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Gaza, Lebanon
and Yemen along with the 2011 attempt here in Washington to assassinate the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, indicate a long-term trend that has clear potential for murderous miscalculation that could spark a disastrous regional conflict. Iran continues to seek to establish nodes throughout the region through which to advance its destabilizing agenda.
 
Cyber. Given Iran’s growing capabilities in this sensitive domain, the U.S. must recognize and adapt now to defend against malicious cyber activity.
 
Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs):
 
            The focus of our military efforts over the past decade has largely been on Al Qaeda, its adherents and affiliates (AQAA), and we have achieved measurable successes in combating them. The AQAA “franchise” remains a threat however. An equally concerning long-term threat continues to emanate from the Iran-sponsored Shia brand of extremism wielded by groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah.
 
            In addition to the threat from these terrorists with which we are already familiar,
A clash brought on by these two brands of extremism could pour fuel on the simmering Sunni-Shia tensions we observe from Baluchistan to Syria and incite a worsening cycle of violence…
 
            As the crisis in Syria enters its third year, there is little evidence to suggest the conflict’s end is imminent. Russia and China’s regrettable vetoes in the U.N. and Iran and Hezbollah’s full support have helped the Asad regime to remain defiant in the face of international condemnation…
 
            Moreover, while the opposition has inflicted significant losses on Syria’s military and eroded Asad’s control over many parts of the country, the regime has responded with paramilitary operations assisted by sustained Iranian financial and lethal support. Hezbollah is now heavily committed as a critical partner of the Syrian regime, providing training and oversight to the Shabiha militia in conjunction with Iranian support. This cooperation between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah stands in contrast to the relative disunity of the Syrian Opposition – which is further encumbered by the malign influence of Al Nusrah/AQ-related groups…
 
Click here for the full statement.
 

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