by Eli Clifton
President Donald Trump has made numerous hints that he is considering unravelling the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), potentially at the expense of relations with European allies, Russia, China, and Iran. But proponents of the deal may have just found an unlikely ally in Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who earlier Tuesday stated unequivocally that the deal serves the national security interest of the U.S.
The accord, according to U.S. negotiators, was focused on the biggest security threat posed by Iran—its potential to build a nuclear weapon within a few weeks. In 2015, when the JCPOA was concluded, Iran agreed to terms that effectively rolled back its nuclear program and subjected it to unprecedented scrutiny by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors in exchange for relief from far-reaching economic sanctions.
Mattis faced a direct question about the agreement during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asked Mattis, “Do you believe it’s in our national security interest at the present time to remain in the JCPOA?”
After a long pause, Mattis responded, “Yes, Senator. I do.”
That puts Mattis in direct conflict with the administration over its reasons for considering abandoning the deal.
Earlier, Mattis chose to respond to a question by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) by addressing the debate going on within the White House and the potential arguments for abandoning the deal, saying:
As I understand it right now, and I’ve been dealing with the president and secretary of state on this, it is right now being considered in terms of the security of the United States. By “it,” we’re talking about the law that is passed up here where we have to certify, plus the agreement. … You can talk about the condition of one of those and not walk away from the other one of those. They’re two different pieces. And that’s under consideration right now about how we deal with both the legal requirement from the Congress as well as the international agreement.
Under U.S. law, Trump has until October 15 to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement and that it continues to serve U.S. national security interests. Trump has certified Iran’s compliance with the agreement twice since taking office but repeatedly suggested that he will refuse to do so a third time.
Refusing to certify, by itself, would not terminate U.S. adherence to the deal, but Congress would have 60 days to reimpose sanctions on Iran, an action that would mean an end to U.S. compliance with the JCPOA.
If he chooses to make the argument that the deal itself fails to serve U.S. national security interests, Trump will find himself in direct conflict with his secretary of defense who is now on the record clearly stating that remaining in the JCPOA is in the security interests of the country.
Mattis, who was known as an anti-Iran hawk during and after his service as head of the US Central Command three years ago but who had publicly supported the JCPOA before his nomination, reiterated that position later in his testimony Tuesday:
If we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interest, then clearly we should stay with it. I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with.
Mattis’s remarks came just a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, Uzi Arad, also contradicted his boss by urging the administration and Congress not to abandon the JCPOA. A long-time foe of any U.S. nuclear accord with Iran, Netanyahu openly lobbied Congress to kill the accord in 2015 over the objections of a number of top-ranking Israeli national officials, as well as the Obama administration.