Mattis on Iran: Belligerent, but Don’t Tear Up Nuclear Deal

by Jim Lobe

Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis is the odds-on favorite for Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of defense. It’s worth exploring his views on Iran particularly in light of the ultra-hawkish positions of both National Security Adviser-designate Gen. Michael Flynn and CIA director-designate Mike Pompeo, both of whom have made no secret of their desire to destroy the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Mattis’s most comprehensive public statement on these subjects came at an hour-long presentation he gave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last April 22. It was entitled “The Middle East at an Inflection Point,” but it was really all about Iran. With the exception of the Military Times, the media entirely ignored his talk.

Recall that Mattis was essentially let go as chief of the U.S. Central Command, in which capacity he served from August 2010 to March 2013, largely because the Obama administration felt that he was too hawkish toward Iran. That hawkishness certainly comes through in his CSIS presentation. He sees Iran as the “single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” “the single most belligerent actor in the Middle East,” and as “not a nation state. Rather, he argues, it’s a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem” that has not modified its hostility toward the U.S., Israel, and its Arab neighbors since the revolution. (It would be very hard to imagine Mattis supporting any effort to integrate Iran into a new regional security structure, although he didn’t explicitly address that issue in his talk.)

Nonetheless, unlike Flynn and Pompeo, Mattis makes clear that Washington should abide by the JCPOA, which he sees as an “imperfect arms control agreement,” because any withdrawal, especially in the absence of support from its allies, would put Washington and the region “on a road to perdition.” Moreover, he repeatedly defends sticking by the agreement, saying at one point:

I want to make clear there’s no going back. Absent a clear and present violation [by Iran], I don’t think we can take advantage of some new president—Republican or Democrat—and say, ‘well, we’re not going to live up to our word in this agreement.’ I believe we’d be alone if we did, and unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach to this.

But Mattis also considers Obama’s hopes that that the JCPOA could have a broader, moderating impact on Iran’s foreign policy naïve at best. As long as Tehran itself, in his view, fails to abide by the larger “spirit” of the agreement—such as continuing testing of ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload—Washington should also stick to the “letter” of the deal and avoid taking affirmative steps to enhance relations. He has undoubtedly been unenthusiastic about Obama’s increasingly intense efforts to encourage U.S. companies to do business with Iran.

When President Obama, trying to keep this effort alive, characterized the regime’s responses to the JCPOA as respecting the letter but violating the spirit of the agreement, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Gen. Firouzabadi, contemptuously said, ‘We’ve studied the details of the nuclear agreement and we don’t have any information about its spirit.’ That’s about as abrupt a slap in the face to any effort on our side to try to be fair brokers on this as you can come up with [and] ends, I think, for now any moderate Iranian response.

Mattis described five military threats posed by Iran to the U.S. and/or its regional allies: the “latent threat of the nuclear weapons program,” the counter-maritime program, the ballistic missile program, cyberwar, and the threat posed by Iranian-backed militias, such as Hezbollah. He clearly sees the JCPOA as neutralizing the nuclear threat for defensible reasons but suggests that the others need to be addressed more aggressively.

One key passage also suggests that Mattis believes that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Iran are somehow in cahoots. It came when he was talking about the perception among U.S. allies in the region that the Obama administration was at best indifferent to Iran’s alleged activities and, at worst, somehow making “common cause with Iran, Russia, and Assad…”:

I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief [in the region]. Iran is not an enemy of ISIS; they have a lot to gain from the turmoil that ISIS creates.

I would just point out one question for you to look into: What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. That is Iran. That is more than happenstance, I’m sure.

Unfortunately, Mattis didn’t elaborate on this observation, and no one in the audience followed it up. The following excerpts come from this April 2016 speech.

On Iran’s “War” on the U.S.

  • Among the many challenges the Middle East faces, I think Iran is actually foremost, and it appears at the same time, that here in Washington we’ve forgotten what is foremost…. I want to put right up front what I hope to convince you of here today, if you need to be convinced of it: the Iranian regime in my mind is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East. For all of ISIS’ and Al Qaeda’s mention everywhere right now, they’re an immediate threat.
  • Somewhere …between [19]79 and [19]83, Iran declares war on the United States for all intents and purposes. [I]t continues on. In 1984, Secretary of State George Shultz declares Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. …It’s interesting that In 2012, the current administration’s State Department notes that Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran have reached a level, a tempo of [terrorist] operations there not seen since the 1990s. [Mattis goes on to cite the bombing of the Israel tourist bus in Bulgaria in 2012 and the alleged plot in 2011 to assassinate the Saudi ambassador at a restaurant in Georgetown.]
  • It remains the single most belligerent actor in the Middle East. …Every morning [when serving as Centcom commander] I woke up, the first three question I had had to do with Iran and Iran and Iran. [He cites embassy and Marine barracks bombing in Beirut.] Their consistent behavior since 1979 through today shows no signs of changing. …[he cites cyberattacks on U.S. and support for Assad] They’ve increased the flow of arms …into Saudi Arabia, explosives into Bahrain, and arms into Yemen. …The idea that we are catching all the arms, that’s a flight of fantasy. We’re certainly not catching them all.
  • …[The] Republican Guard commander has openly boasted of Iran’s control over four capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa. And I think it was oops on Sanaa because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led GCC forces in there, and that has not gone according to plan. Bahrain and Jordan have been publicly targeted by the Qods Force commander, our old friend Soleimani, who is openly calling for the annexation of Bahrain—and, by the way, Bahrain, to many in Iran, is not just the island, but also the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. [Note: It was actually Gen. Saeed Qasemi, commander of Ansar Hezbollah, who made such a demand, not Soleimani.] …The Supreme Leader summed it up very well when he said ‘those who say the future lies in negotiations, not in missiles are either ignorant or traitors.’ …I take him at his word; that is what he believes.
  • [V]iolent terrorists come in two different brands: the Sunni, okay, that’s clear and present. But so far to date, the Iranian brands have basically been left untouched.

On the JCPOA

  • The purpose of the agreement is pretty well understood, although at times I felt I could have made a better argument for it than the current administration is making. …The strategic goal was quite simple; it’s how to make the world safer by preventing [or] delaying that [nuclear weapons] program.
  • …It was clear that Iran could get a weapon; that’s what our intelligence agencies believed. …So how do we delay it? It came down to two options. The military option probably could’ve delayed it for a year or two before we’d have to take more military action. Or there was the diplomatic option where they were aiming to delay it longer. We’re talking about a decade or more…. Our objective was that we had to stop this.
  • Under the new wording and in a late concession in the negotiations for the Iran agreement, what we said was that they could not test missiles designed expressly to carry nuclear weapons. Quite simply, they could say they were not designed to carry nuclear weapons. So we were caught on that one.
  • We have an imperfect arms-control agreement. What we achieved was a nuclear pause, not a nuclear halt. We’re going to have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
  • I think the imperfect but intrusive IAEA agreement is very clearly drawn up with the expectation that Iran will cheat. So, if nothing else, we’ll have better targeting data should it come to a fight at some point in the future. But in terms of strengthening America’s global standing among European and Middle Eastern nations alike, the sense is that America has become somewhat irrelevant in the Middle East, and we certainly have the least influence in the last 40 years.
  • So why would the United States take such a gamble with this agreement? The president may be proven right…. Over the longer term you could see Iran moving more into the actions of a responsible nation and not just a revolutionary cause as is written in their constitution. … I’m go[ing to] be surprised if [he] is proven right with this regime that is holding hostage the Iranian people. We all live on hope …but …hoping that Iran is on the cusp of becoming a modern, responsible nation is simply a bridge too far. … Maybe the folks in the American administration believe the moderates can win. I think you have to be careful [about] that. The coercive forces have proven quite capable of keeping people in line there, using beatings, imprisonment and rape and other things. So I think the time it would take for the economic policies to take root and turn over a new mood amongst the leaders may take quite some time. Another reason is maybe it was the best we could get. The idea that the United States would go into one more fight in the Middle East was probably just not in the cards. So maybe this agreement was the best we could come up with.
  • Iran has a lot to gain for the next 18 months to two years in playing it by the letter and not taking too many chances … as they try to get the economic benefits.
  • If they’re unwilling to live up to the spirit of the agreement and go by the letter, I think we should take some counsel from that and be slow to give something for nothing based on an alleged spirit that we cannot see operating from Tehran.
  • [We should] recognize that this is an international arms control agreement, and not a very good one, although there are some advantages and recognize the advantages as well. But it’s not a friendship treaty. It’s an arms control agreement that fell short of a lot of hopes. But it is not completely without some merit.
  • [I]t was not a mistake [to negotiate the nuclear agreement without addressing regional issues.] In this town, we seem to have forgotten the tremendous effort that went into non-proliferation in decades past. It’s going to be to our regret, and especially our children’s regret, [that] we didn’t maintain that focus. So In the case of Iran, it was not a mistake to engage on the nuclear issue even if we were to give it primacy. The mistake would be to implement it in such a way that we appear to take our eye off the other ball. That’s the mistake, and that’s a choice …we did not have to make. So there’s a way to balance this in trying to make more stability in the region. Unfortunately, we have not executed in that manner yet.
  • [I]f the deal were to collapse today, it would depend on whether or not the economic sanctions could be reinstituted in a compelling manner… We’re now at a point where people are clamoring to get into the Iranian market. If you were unable to reimpose the economic sanctions, then I think you’d basically be on a road to perdition. Because the lines of effort inside Tehran are so contrary to the best interests of Israel and of the Arab states around it that it would lead to a collision. And how you would define that collision—whether it would be open war or a much higher level of terrorism, whether it would be economic blockades …. … But I think we’d be in uncharted territory with probably only bad things to happen.”

Mattis Provides Advice

Among the recommendations for U.S. policy going forward, Mattis called for greater congressional oversight to ensure that the executive branch gives the JCPOA and Iran’s activities priority; an increase in funding for intelligence on Iran; a broadening of “our links to the anti-Iran spy agencies of our friends in the Middle East;” the maintenance of a “very robust” naval presence in the region; closer cooperation with regional allies on missile defense; and a “dust[ing] off” of Radio Farda (which he mistakenly called “Radio Farsi”) to ensure that “the Iranian people …know right up front every day that we have no argument with [them].

“In our future talks with Iran, they should be like our talks with the USSR before Gorbachev,” Mattis advised. “In other words, keep our allies fully informed. Recognize that Iran is not a nation state, rather, it’s a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem. And also make certain we don’t end up with real high expectations from any talks with Iran.”

“The Middle East in the future is going to be ghastly,” he said. “…We know that vacuums left in the Middle East seem to be filled by either terrorists or by Iran or their surrogates or by Russia.…In order to restore deterrence, we have to show capability, capacity, and resolve.”

Photo of James Mattis courtesy of U.S. Naval War College via Flickr.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Hey Rosemary read the news, Iran is fighting a proxy war under writing the Houthis in Yemen. They support Hezbollah with arms,material, money, which undermines Lebanon, they were supposed to demilitarize decades ago. They supply arms and material to Hamas and instigated the last Gaza war. They’ve been trying to destabilize Bahrain for years. Are you not aware of the Shia revival. They hide this information in books and news articles, English is read from right to left. Also read News Week July 5, 2016 Isis carries out biggest attack where? Iran !
    As the late Pat Moynihan says”everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own set of facts”

  2. Please edit last comment English from left to right, I was just translating lots of Hebrew
    Many thanks

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