by Jim Lobe
Secretary of Defense James Mattis remains as hostile as ever towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, as he recently made clear in remarks to The Islander, the newspaper of Mercer Island High School. The Pentagon chief, often referred to as one of the few “adults in the room” that presumably makes up the national-security contingent of the Trump administration, gave an extended interview to senior Teddy Fischer, which the Seattle-area school paper published in full on its website. Mattis is a Washington State native, which is one of the reasons he said that he granted the interview to the student.
In Mattis’s view, Iran is responsible for virtually—perhaps even literally—everything bad that has happened or is happening in the Middle East. Among other things, he indicates his hope that the Iranian people “can get rid of this theocracy” and asserts that the European Union imposed tougher sanctions against the regime than the U.S. did. He also suggests that Iran ordered the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and he holds Tehran responsible for all of the mayhem, including setting up camps for “terrorists” (presumably Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Islamic State), that has taken place under Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Granted, the intended audience was high-schoolers, but the analysis seems a little lacking in nuance. The only positive note I could find is the recognition that the Iranian people would rally behind the regime if measures were taken that would put them under pressure. I suppose that would apply to renewed sanctions, let alone war.
Here are the excerpts of the interview related to Iran:
Teddy Fischer: How can the United States create an atmosphere of trust with the Arab people, especially in Iran?
James Mattis: That’ll be a little tough, since it’s not really an election. It’s the supreme leader decides who gets to run. It would be like having the current American president decide who gets to run in the next campaign, and by the way, when they come in he stays in the White House and the others just kind of rotate through. So the point is that this is a country that is acting more like a revolutionary cause, not to best interests of their own people so it’s very, very hard.
They tried to murder an Arab ambassador in downtown Washington D.C. for example. And so, you can see why President Obama was so anxious to try to block them on getting a nuclear weapon. Until the Iranian people can get rid of this theocracy, these guys who think they can tell the people even which candidates they get a choice of. It’s going to be very, very difficult. This is a regime that employs surrogates, like Lebanese Hezbollah to threaten Israel, to murder the former Lebanese prime minister, murder Israeli tourists in Bulgaria which caused the European Union to put more severe sanctions on Iran than the Americans have ever put on Iran.
Right now, they’ve moved ballistic missiles down to Yemen that were shot into Saudi Arabia from Yemen. It’s going to be very hard to deal with them.
What you have to do eventually is what then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, which was to move sanctions, economic sanctions, against them and force them to the negotiating table because they want to stay in power.
I think too there’s a way to make certain that we don’t confuse this regime, which is a murderous regime, and remember it has killed a lot of Iranian people and locked up in jail a lot of young Iranians when they demonstrated against them in the Green Revolution a few years ago. You cannot confuse them with the regime. The Iranian people are not the problem. The Iranian people are definitely not the problem, it’s the regime that sends agents around to murder ambassadors in Pakistan or in Washington DC. It’s the regime that provides missiles to Lebanese Hezbollah or the Houthi in Yemen.
So somehow, you don’t want to unite the Iranian people with that unpopular regime because if you pressure them both then they will grow together. We’ve got to make certain that the Iranian people know that we don’t have any conflict with them. I’d start with that.
Fischer: Is Iran the most dangerous country in the Middle East?
Mattis: It’s certainly the country that is the only reason Assad has been able to stay in power. For example, for so long when Russia vetoed the United Nations so they couldn’t do anything about it, the only reason that Assad is still in power and has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and allowed the terrorists a place to set up camp and millions, literally millions of people, forced out of their homes with nothing but what they could cram into a car or put on their back, it’s all because of Iran.
Iran is certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East and when I would travel to Cairo or Tel Aviv or Riyadh and from Arabs from Jews, all the people in the region, that is their view of Iran. It certainly was my biggest problem when I was the commander of U.S. Central Command. But again, it’s not Iran, it’s the Iranian regime. Most of the Iranian people, I’ve known enough Iranian people or talked to Americans who grew up in Iran and it’s not them, it’s the regime.
Fischer: Are these any lesser known players in Syria supporting Assad in Iran?
Mattis: Nobody. The only reason that Assad is still in power is Russia’s diplomatic veto, Iran’s military power, and now Russia’s military power. Without those two, the Syrian people would have run him out five years ago.
Photo: James Mattis (courtesy Jim Mattis via Flickr)