Trump’s generals thwart him on the Iran deal
It’s no secret that President Trump is desperate to withdraw the United States from the Iran deal. Trump blatantly resents the agreement, the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, and lambastes it whenever he can. That included his speech last month at the U.N. General Assembly, during which he called the deal “an embarrassment” and hinted to reporters that he was ready to scrap it.
Now the White House faces its latest deadline — Oct. 15 — to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the deal. Trump has grudgingly given that approval two times this year, but has loudly signaled that he won’t keep doing so. Speculation over the deal’s demise has given a wing to a flurry of op-eds from neoconservative wonks and Iran hawks in Washington, cheering on possible “decertification.”
But there’s a crucial constituency that may not be on the same page as Trump: “his” generals. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and fielded questions on the administration’s thinking regarding the Iran deal.
During the hearing, Senator Angus King (I-Maine) asked Mattis: “Do you believe it’s in our national security interest at the present time to remain in the JCPOA?” (The JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the formal term for the Iran deal.)
“Yes, Senator, I do,” Mattis responded.
He also stated that “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.” Iran’s Press TV pointedly featured the comments on its social media accounts.
US Defense Secretary Mattis backs #Iran nuclear deal pic.twitter.com/OueOgRDzG6
— Press TV (@PressTV) October 3, 2017
Mattis, known for his antipathy toward Iran, is hardly the sort of official whom conservatives can deride as an appeasenik — nor was he the only Marine in the room to back the deal. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Iran “is not in material breach” of the deal and that the agreement’s implementation has “delayed the development of nuclear capability by Iran” — precisely as the Obama administration intended.
But the White House sees things differently from the Pentagon. Trump insists that Iran has abrogated the terms of the agreement “in spirit” by testing ballistic missiles and continuing its destabilizing activities in the Middle East. A move by Trump to decertify Iran would give Congress two months to decide whether to restore sanctions on Tehran — an act that could compel Iran to renege on its own commitments. (Congress could also possibly do nothing and let the deal slumber on with European partners taking the lead, which they have pledged to do.)