Secretary Mattis on Iran

Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a major player in the formation of U.S. policy on Iran. He has repeatedly criticized the Islamic Republic for supporting militant groups across the Middle East and meddling in other countries’ affairs. “Iran has simply got to find that it's got a better path forward for its people by not being the one to export insecurity,” he said on July 27. “They've got to start living by the international rules, and we all know what they've done to keep [Syrian President Bashar] Assad in power.”

Mattis resigned in December 2018 after disagreeing with President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The following is a collection of excerpted remarks by Mattis on Iran in reverse chronological order. 


MattisRemarks after his resignation

“The United States should buy time to keep peace and stability and allow diplomats to work diplomacy on how to keep peace [with Iran] for one more hour, one more day, one more week, a month or a year.”

“Iran's behavior must change.”

“The military must work to buy time for diplomats to work their magic.”

—May 20, 2019, in remarks to the majlis of Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan

Remarks as Secretary

MR. BAIER: Today, Secretary Pompeo released a statement saying Iran has test launched a ballistic missile with multiple independent warheads. What can you tell us about this launch? And how would you rate the threat from Iran, maybe compared to the threat of North Korea? 

SEC. MATTIS: Iran is an interesting case of a regime that does not care for the best interest of their people. They’re a revolutionary cause at that level. They take actions, constant actions, that actually put their people in worse position. 

The threat from Iran is multifaceted, and certainly what they have done with this launch is violated the sense of the United Nations Security Resolution, that told them not to do these kinds of launches. It shows that our best efforts to try to talk them out of their aggressive support of terrorism is probably going to be as unsuccessful as the U.N.'s effort to stop them from launching missiles.

And right now the strategic level of threat from Iran is less worldwide than Korea's, but it is certainly significant regionally, and it could grow beyond that if it's not dealt with.

MR. BAIER: And this recent launch is significant? 



Clearly this administration has changed direction when it comes to Iran on foreign policy focus from the last administration. Some of the critics say maybe too far. The Wall Street Journal today reported that the CIA has medium to high confidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman personally targeted Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist, and probably ordered his death. Do you agree with that? 

SEC. MATTIS: Well, first, when it comes to Iran, that is a factor we're going to have to deal with. It's best dealt with diplomatically. Where diplomatic means don't work, the more we can unite everyone to confront Iran, we have to do so. 

When it comes to the Khashoggi murder, we have every expectation that whoever was involved in this, whether directly involved or directing the murder, is going to be held to account. That is our country's expectation. We see that as not in any way reducing the strategic imperative to work together, as many nations as possible, to keep Iran, keep their mischief, their murderous mischief, under control, to reduce it, to roll it back. 

You know what they do through their proxies, Lebanese Hezbollah in Lebanon. You've seen what they've done in Syria to keep a murderer in power, and he would not be in power today were it not for the Iranian regime.

Again, we do not have issues with the Iranian people; it's the regime. And what we're going to have to do is figure a way to have the two thrusts, accountability for Khashoggi's murder, and unified confrontation against Iran's mischief, their terrorism, their murder, their mayhem, and keep those two lines of effort unrelenting. 

We want to know what happened by -- who all was engaged with Khashoggi. At the same time, we cannot deny the threat that Iran poses to all civilized nations. 

— Dec. 1, 2018, in remarks to the press


Q:  The Australian officials have said they're concerned that the U.S. is preparing air strikes and -- or military strikes against Iran next month.  Can you assure the American people that the U.S. is not preparing military strikes against Iran?  

Mattis:  I have no idea where the Australian news people got that information.  I'm confident it is not something that's being considered right now, and I think it's a complete – frankly, it's – it’s fiction.  It's the best I can give you, Jennifer. 

—July 27, 2018, at a media availability


Q:  On Iran, you've now seen the Iranian-backed Houthis attack oil shipping off of Yemen.  It seems like it might be a test of chokepoint operations by the Iranians.  Tell people, if you can explain, what your current level of concern is about Iranian rhetoric about trying to potentially shut oil shipping in the Persian Gulf.  If the Australian report is wrong, fine, but that doesn't really take away the Iranian threat that you might be looking at, and your concern about it.  So can you talk to us about that?

Mattis:  Yeah.  Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.  They've done that previously in years past.  They saw the international community put -- dozens of nations of the international community put their naval forces in for exercises to clear the straits.  Clearly, this would be an attack on international shipping, and -- and it would have, obviously, an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took, because of the world's economy depends on that energy, those energy supplies flowing out of there.  

But Iran has simply got to find that it's got a better path forward for its people by not being the one to export insecurity.  They've got to start living by the international rules, and we all know what they've done to keep Assad in power.  We all know what they've done to provide missiles and other support to the -- the Houthi -- to the civil war in Yemen, to one side of the civil war in Yemen.  And I can go on -- what they're doing to destabilize Bahrain, what they're doing in Lebanon -- I mean, this is -- this is all well-known, so I don't need to reiterate it.  They are the exporter of instability across the region.

—July 27, 2018, at a press gaggle at the Pentagon


Q:  Then for Secretary Mattis, if I may, the President's tweet on Iran suggested a possible military strike.  Where do you see the red line that Iran would have to cross for the U.S. to engage in military force, and are you concerned about some miscalculation between U.S. and Iranian forces in the region based on this escalating rhetoric?

Mattis:  Yeah, on Iran, I think that what we have to look at is the destabilizing influence that Iran has consistently portrayed and demonstrated throughout the region.  And the only reason that the murderer Assad is still in power - the primary reason - is because Iran has stuck by him, reinforced him, funded him.  We see the same kind of malfeasance down in Yemen, where they're fomenting more violence down there.  We've seen their disruptive capabilities demonstrated from Bahrain to the kingdom.  And it's time for Iran to shape up and show responsibility as a responsible nation.  It cannot continue to show irresponsibility as some revolutionary organization that is intent on exporting terrorism, exporting disruption across the region.  So I think the President was making very clear that they're on the wrong track.

—July 24, 2018, at a press availability


"Our problem with Iran is not with the Iranian people. It is with the regime." 

"We will continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon, and will work with others to address the range of Iran’s malign influence." 

"This took us over a year as we dealt with it on the inter-agency ... you saw it was not a hasty decision immediately after inauguration and I can assure you that the chairman and I were given full hearing." 

"[The President] got to a point where he just did not see that this was in our best interest to continue. It had to do with all the other things that Iran is certainly doing ... so all of this had to be mixed together, and to separate out what the chairman's or my advice was on our area, it had to be leavened with foreign policy concerns out of State, intel assessments of where they're at today and where they're going." 

― May 9, 2018, at a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, according to CNN


"Right now, on JCPOA I’m giving my advice as you know in the ongoing decision process that the President will come to closure on soon so I’d rather not go into details, I will say there are parts of the JCPOA that certainly need to be fixed." 

— April 30, 2018, to the press, according to CNN's Ryan Browne


MattisMattis: I have read it [the JCPOA] now three times. All 156 pages, including since I got into this job I was able to read the classified, the short-classified version. And I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran will try to cheat. So, the verification. What is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in, IAEA to get in. That sort of thing. …I think we need to focus on what is in the best interest of the Middle East stability and threat that Iran poses. As the chairman pointed out with this nuclear program if doesn’t get extended and maintain verification.


Senator Jack Reed (D-RI): At your confirmation hearing, Mr. Secretary, you indicated that when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies, which was, in my view, confirmation of our – the strategic needs to stay within the confines of the JCPOA. What’s your position today Mr. Secretary?

Mattis: Senator, I assure you there has been no decision made on any withdrawal from JCPOA. The discussions are ongoing in the national security staff and those of us who are charged with that responsibility of giving the president advice. And it’s going on today as we speak. There are obviously aspects of the JCPOA, the agreement, that can be improved upon. We’re working with our European allies on it at this time, and again, this decision has not been made whether we can repair it enough to stay in it or if the president is going to decide to withdraw from it.

Reed: … The issue of repairing those [aspects is] unlikely to be fully accomplished by May 12. Is it your position that if there is an ongoing effort to make such fixes to the agreement that we should stay within the bounds [of the JCPOA]?

Mattis: We would have to look at what degree of fix we anticipate are achievable and then put that alongside America’s broader interests and decide if its worthy or not.


Excerpts from Mattis’ Written Testimony

"Rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran persist in taking outlaw actions that undermine and threaten regional and global stability."

"Iran’s nuclear ambitions also remain an unresolved concern."

"While our efforts remain focused on increasing interceptor capacity in Alaska, the Department has completed environmental impact studies for four possible ballistic missile defense sites on the East Coast should the Iranian ICBM threat materialize."

"The 2018 National Defense Strategy recognizes cyberspace as an increasingly contested warfighting domain, where malevolent cyber incidents and attacks present significant risks to national security. Long-term strategic competitors like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are using increasingly aggressive methods and levels of sophistication to conduct malicious activities. The challenge facing the Department is equally applicable to public and private networks across the United States, networks that are already held at risk."

"Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA): President Trump signed CAATSA into law on August 2, 2017, imposing new sanctions to counter aggressive actions from Iran, Russia, and North Korea. I look forward to working with Congress to address the national security implications created by this act. It is important for us to have a flexible waiver authority, otherwise we prevent ourselves from acting in our own best interest and place an undue burden on our allies or partners."

— April 26, 2018, to the Senate Armed Services Committee


"We have worrisome evidence that Iran is trying to influence — using money — the Iraqi elections."

"That money is being used to sway candidates, to sway votes —not an insignificant amount of money, we believe, and it’s highly unhelpful."

"We know that they are doing what they can to impact the elections, and we don’t like it."

— March 15, 2018, to reporters


"Rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran persist in taking outlaw actions that threaten regional and even global stability. Oppressing their own people and shredding their own people’s dignity and human rights, they push their warped views outward."

—Jan. 19, 2018, in remarks at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


Q: And are you concerned the Iranians will be more provocative? Because there's talk about being more provocative, if the president adds more sanctions --

Mattis: Right now, I -- we keep an eye on the potential for more provocations from the Iranians. But right now, we've not seen that. Again, I've been with you, so I may not be current on this, but I don't -- I don't think there's been anything.

Now we always watch for this. The Iranians' destabilizing record -- from Lebanon, to Syria, from Yemen, to Afghanistan. Of course, we watch for this.

Q: Are you planning on changing your posture after the speech?

Mattis: No, right now, we are not changing our posture. We're postured against ISIS. At the same time, we're dealing with issues along the -- that -- we used to call them a disputed zone there, where the Kurdish forces are aligned with the Iraqi forces.

So far, we have not seen any turning away from the primary mission; in other words, they're holding in positionright now. There's been -- there's been movement along there. I don't think it's been combat organizations engaged in a thing called "movement to contact."

When you -- when you're going into combat, you organize, and you move to contact. We have not seen that kind of movement on either side.

We watch for Iran's destabilizing movements and activities everywhere; from Bahrain, to Jordan; from southern Lebanon, against Israel, to Yemen. It's part and parcel for the way they conduct (inaudible).

—Oct. 13, 2017, during a media availability


Senator Angus King (I-ME): Do you believe it’s in our national interest at the present time to remain in the JCPOA? That’s a yes or no question.

Mattis: Yes senator, I do.

Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD): Senator King started this out by asking for a yes or no answer from Mr. Mattis and I’d like to go just a step further than that. With regard to the JCPOA, there is a logic you have used to determine if it is appropriate to stay in it. Could you share with us the logic you have used in determining whether the JCPOA right now -- that it is advantageous to us to stay in it right now. Could you share that with the American public?

Mattis: Absolutely Senator, and thank you. The point I would make is if we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interests then clearly we should stay with it.

I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something the President should consider staying with. There is another requirement we certify that it is in our best interest and it goes into a broader definition of national security. Broadening beyond the treaty or not the treaty, the issue itself. That means that the President has to consider more broadly things that rightly fall under his portfolio of looking out for the American people in areas that go beyond the specific letters of the JCPOA -- in that regard I support the rigorous review that he has got going on right now.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY): How would either a premature ending of the agreement or a US unilateral withdrawal impact our insight into Iran’s activities?

Mattis: Senator as I understand it right now, and I’ve been dealing with the president and the Secretary of State on this. It is right now being considered in terms of the security of the United States - by “it” I mean we’re talking about the law that is passed up here where we have to certify plus the agreement. These are two separate- you can talk about the conditions under one of those and not walk away from the other one of those if you see what I’m trying- they’re two different pieces. And that is under consideration right now about how we deal. Both the legal requirement from the Congress, as well as the international agreement.

—Oct. 3, 2017, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee


"Everywhere you look if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran."

"We will have to overcome Iran's efforts to destabilise yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah but the bottom line is we are on the right path for it."

—April 19, 2017, to reporters after meeting with Saudi officials in Riyadh


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

Mattis: 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?

Mattis: 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?

Mattis: 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?

Mattis: 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. 

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?

Mattis: 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, in response to advanced policy questions from Congress



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.

—Jan. 12, 2017, during Mattis' confirmation hearing



Some of the information in this article was originally published on August 2, 2018.