Yikes, Mattis Still Has It in for Iran!

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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)

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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.

7 Comments

  1. Thanks to Jim Lobe. Obviously Mattis knows a lot less about Iran and it’s people heritage than the student who asked him a question about “the Arabs especially Iran”! He didn’t not even correct the students that it is true that iran is located in the southwest Asia region but the Iranians are NOT Arabs! A person with military background who knows about a few guns and how to shoot with them is not a historian nor he is educated enough about anything or any nation to even suggesting to the people of other nations what kind of government they should select for themselves! How dare you! Ignorance and illiteracy and lack of knowledge about the rest of the world amongst the US leaders bound to bring disastrous policies and horrible consequences for the planet earth!
    By the way Mr Mattis General Soliemani from Iran would probably loves to meet with you somewhere on Iraq and Iran border and perhaps can teach you a little about the region history!

  2. Tony asks: “So, Jim, which bit of what he said about Iran’s terrorist activities, and its lack of real democracy, is factually incorrect?”

    I’d now like to point out that our weasel words for today are “real democracy”.

    Iran’s democracy is no more – and no less – “real” than is the United States.

    Neither allows anyone to simply put their hand up and thereby stand for President.

    Both involve a preselection process that is designed to weed out the undesirables, and the only significant difference is that Iran’s system does not insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending that this is anything other than a system designed to ensure that undesirables never get as far as Election Day.

    The US system of preselection does play that game of pretendies, and has done so for so long that nobody even notices any more.

    But, that aside, onto the specifics……

    Teddy Fischer: “How can the United States create an atmosphere of trust with the Arab people, especially in Iran?”

    Oh dear, apparently Teddy doesn’t know that Arabic isn’t the language of Iran.

    Mattis: “That’ll be a little tough, since it’s not really an election”

    Well, so sorry, yes it is. People go out and vote for the candidates. That’s an “election”, Jim.

    Mattis: “It’s the supreme leader decides who gets to run.”

    No, sorry, that statement is incorrect. The candidates are vetted by a committee of twelve, and of that twelve only six are selected by the Supreme Leader.

    It’s actually a more open and transparent system than in the USA, as anyone who has taken any notice of the DNC email hacking scandal can attest.

    Mattis: “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.”

    No, it is nothing like that. It is more like a system where the position of Head of State is a completely different occupation than that of Head of Government.

    In that way the Iranian model is like Most Of The Rest Of The World, and it is the US model that is the odd-ball wacko way-out crazy system.

    Mattis: “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.”

    Says Jim, and good for him in mouthing his opinion even if it is incompressible sloganeering.

    I don’t doubt that Iran “as a country” acts in strident opposition to the Middle East machinations of Jim ‘n’ His Gang. They do, and do so throughout the Middle East.

    But I also don’t doubt that they do this because they believe it is in the best interests of “their own people” to oppose Jim Mattis and his plans for overhauling a region that is way, way, way closer to Iran than it is to the continental USofA.

    Mattis: “They tried to murder an Arab ambassador in downtown Washington D.C. for example.”

    That’s one baaaad example, Jim. Looked much more like a classic FBI sting operation to me.

    Mattis: “And so, you can see why President Obama was so anxious to try to block them on getting a nuclear weapon.”

    No, actually, I don’t see that at all. The CIA assassinates people left, right, and centre. Does that mean we should be anxious to take your nukes away from you, Jim?

    Mattis: “Right now, they’ve moved ballistic missiles down to Yemen that were shot into Saudi Arabia from Yemen”

    Simply untrue.

    Mattis: “You cannot confuse them with the regime.”

    Oh, dear. Very worrisome. I distinctly remember Robert Fisk writing in 2002 that when he heard George W Bush mention that the USA had no dispute with “the Iraqi people” that he knew, without a doubt, that Bush had already decided that he was going to kill a vast number of those same innocent Iraqis.

    Which turned out to be true.

    Iraq redux, only this time it’s Mattis playing those silly word-games.

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