James Mattis on Iran

January 17, 2017

On January 12, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing for retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense. He said that he would not have signed the nuclear deal with Iran but that the United States must live up to its obligations and work with its allies. Mattis offered ideas for how to improve the agreement. The following are excerpted remarks related to Iran by from his January 12 confirmation hearing before the and responses to advance questions. 

Responses to Advance Policy Questions

What are the U.S. national security interests in Syria and what is your recommended strategy to address them?

If confirmed I will examine this complex issue in detail; it does not lend itself to a one or two paragraph answer. The brutal civil war in Syria has destabilized the Middle East, contributed to the destabilization of Europe, and threatened allies like Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, all while ISIS, Iran, and Russia have profited from the chaos—none of which has been in America's national interest. It is necessary to define the problems posed by the conflict, and to establish what level of priority we must assign to solving those problems in the midst of dealing with our other challenges.

What is your assessment of the national security challenges we face in Iraq?

Our principal interest in Iraq is to ensure that it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran and party to Iran's quest for regional hegemony—a quest that poses a threat to peace and stability. At the same time, we have a clear national interest in accelerating ISIS’s defeat. Iran, however, has proven to be the primary source of turmoil in the Middle East, and any outcome should enable the Iraqi people to maintain their sovereignty vis-à-vis Iran.

Iranian malign influence appears to continue to grow throughout the Middle East.

How do you assess the U.S. National security interests associated with the growth of Iranian influence in the Middle East?

Iranian malign influence in the region is growing. Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interests.

What policy objectives should we pursue in the Middle East and what strategy is necessary to achieve them?

Our strategy should be to support responsive governments throughout the region so that terrorism and extremism cannot grow and to checkmate Iran’s goal for regional hegemony.

The United States homeland and its deployed forces enjoy a measure of protection against ballistic missile threats from rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran, yet the threat continues to grow. During the past year, North Korea conducted several missile tests and continued development of mobile long-range missiles. Likewise, Iran continues to test ballistic missiles of increasing range. Russia and China also continue to deploy ballistic, cruise, and hypersonic missiles that threaten U.S. forces, allies and the U.S. homeland.

Do you believe that the U.S. should encourage our regional allies and partners to increase their missile defense capabilities to contribute to regional security and help reduce the burden on U.S. forces and requirements?

Yes. The proliferation of ballistic missiles that can carry weapons of mass destruction is a growing threat to U.S. allies and partners. Efforts of our regional allies and partners in this area are welcome, and if I am confirmed I will encouraged such efforts.


Jan. 12, 2017 Confirmation Hearing (via CSPAN)

Mattis: Sir, I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. It’s not a friendship treaty. But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it, and work with our allies.

Mr. Chairman, once the new national security team is confirmed, we'll work together. But I think to publicly display what Iran is up to, with their surrogates and proxies, their terrorist units that they support, to recognize the ballistic missile threat, to deal with the maritime threat, and to publicly make clear to everyone what they're doing in the cyber realm all helps to constrain Iran.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC): Okay. When it comes to Iran, you said in terms of the agreement we have, we gave our word. Is that what you said?

Mattis: We did. Yes, sir.

Graham: I think president-elect Trump gave his word to the American people, I'm going to change this deal because it's terrible. Do you expect him to keep his word?

Mattis: Sir, once the national security team is confirmed, once confirmed by the senate, I'll work with the other members.

Graham:: Do you think it's a terrible deal?

Mattis: Come up with a best possible situation we can make for America.

Graham: Do you think it's a terrible deal?

Mattis: It's not a deal I would have signed, sir.

Graham: How would you make it better?

Mattis: Sir, the first thing is I would ask the congress to have a joint committee from banking armed services, and intel, to oversee the implementation of the deal. Should there be any abrogation, any cheating, then the congress would be kept informed on a routine basis of what's going on. So that you know what's happening. At the same time, we're going to have to make certain that our intelligence services are fully staffed to watch over them. And that involves ss working with our allied intelligence services that have unique capabilities to work inside the country. Further, we'd put together a combined missile defense, air and missile defense capability for our gulf allies so they can work together with us, and every time we catch Iran up to some kind of terrorist activity, we would take that to the united nations and display it for the world to see.

Graham: Thank you very much. Do you believe Iran's behavior outside of the nuclear program has been destabilizing in the Middle East?

Mattis: Absolutely.

Graham: Do you believe when they held our sailors hostage, that was an affront to America?

Mattis: Yes, sir.

Graham: Do you believe they deserve to be sanctioned based on what they have done in the middle east, test firing missiles, that the regime deserves to be sanctioned for their actions outside of the nuclear program?

Mattis: I think that sanctions will work best if they are international so that they don't -- cannot evade them.

Graham: Are we going to give the world a veto of what we do?

Mattis: I would never give the world a veto.


Cover photo of James Mattis DOD photo by US Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)