Iran must show greater transparency over its suspect nuclear programs, Defense Secretary James Mattis told a congressional hearing Tuesday, but he added that it may be in the national interest to stay with the nuclear deal if the U.S. can verify that it is curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Known as a hawk on Iran when he was an active-duty general serving in the Obama administration, Mr. Mattis took a markedly more nuanced view in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on a deal that President Trump has roundly criticized and broadly hinted that he was ready to scrap.
The 2015 deal involving Iran, the U.S. and five international partners over Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program is “something we can stay with” if the U.S. and its allies are granted greater transparency into Iran’s efforts, Mr. Mattis said under questioning from Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent.
The agreement was meant to curb Iran’s nuclear programs in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions, but critics say the agreement has only emboldened the Islamic republic to challenge U.S. interests and allies in the region.
Testifying alongside Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Mattis was pressed by Mr. King on whether retaining the Obama-era deal with Iran over its nuclear program would be good for national security.
After a long pause, a seemingly reluctant Mr. Mattis replied, “Yes, Senator, I do.”
The former four-star general went on to say that the deal would be in America’s best interest as long as Tehran abides by its terms.
But he also noted that the decision was Mr. Trump’s to make. “I support the rigorous review that he has got going on right now,” he said.
He added that reports of internal divisions in the Trump administration over Iran were overstated.
Mr. Mattis has been a staunch opponent of the deal, largely negotiated by President Obama and then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry. He was forced out as head of U.S. Central Command over his criticism of the deal while in uniform.
The Pentagon chief’s vocal opposition fell in line with President Trump’s pledge to restructure or withdraw completely from the deal. Both on the campaign trail and from the White House, Mr. Trump has characterized the pact as “an embarrassment” and “one of the worst diplomatic deals” ever negotiated by the United States.
Mr. Mattis made clear to the Senate panel that if Tehran could clearly demonstrate it was complying with the terms of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, then the White House should stick with the plan.
“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,” he told defense lawmakers. “I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something the president should consider staying with.”
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster added fuel to the debate, saying last week that the Obama administration’s entire Iran policy was centered around sealing a nuclear pact with Tehran by any means necessary.
“What we succeeded in doing was empowering Iran,” he told a Washington defense symposium. “How much do you trust the Iranian regime? I do not think you can trust them very much.
But the Iran deal has proved divisive among Mr. Trump’s aides. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson was among those arguing privately that there would be major diplomatic fallout from simply walking away from the deal. Gen. Dunford on Tuesday told the Senate panel that Iran “is not in material breach” of the agreement and said it appeared the pact has “delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.”
Diplomats from several of Washington’s top European allies argue that they would suffer most from a U.S. pullout from the Iranian nuclear agreement. They note that the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has seen no evidence of major violations by Tehran of the transparency and oversight requirements included in the deal.
Some see Mr. Trump’s threats to withdraw from the Iran deal as a ploy to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table and roll back some of the more contentious elements, such as the “sunset clause” that would lift restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program starting in 2025.
But Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, suggested Tuesday that a withdrawal from the nuclear pact could allow Iran to continue to reap the benefits of eased economic sanctions while the international community would lose what little access it has into Iran’s enrichment program.
Asked whether such a scenario could come to pass if the U.S. ends the nuclear pact, Mr. Mattis replied, “If it is mishandled, yes, Senator, that could happen.”
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