Washington (AFP) – The United States will keep working with allies to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday, a day after President Donald Trump withdrew from a deal aimed at doing just that.
Mattis, a retired four-star general who saw his Marines killed by Tehran-backed militias in Iraq, has frequently lambasted Iranian actions in the Middle East.
But he has been a staunch advocate of America’s long-standing alliances and became a quiet defender of the Iran deal as Trump mulled pulling out.
“We will continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon, and will work with others to address the range of Iran’s malign influence,” Mattis told a Senate panel.
“This administration remains committed to putting the safety, interests and well-being of our citizens first.”
Trump defied the wishes of major world powers by announcing Tuesday that the United States would pull out of the historic nuclear accord and impose new sanctions on Tehran.
The agreement puts limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting international sanctions.
Mattis, who is seen as a voice of moderation in Trump’s cabinet and enjoys broad bipartisan backing, is now in a minority among the president’s increasingly hardline coterie of close aides.
Along with former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former national security advisor HR McMaster, as well as chief of staff John Kelly, Mattis was one of the original “axis of adults” seen as tempering Trump’s volatility.
But with Tillerson and McMaster both out, and Kelly’s relationship with Trump reportedly strained, Mattis must now navigate potentially more precarious waters.
McMaster’s replacement John Bolton is an Iraq War-era hawk who has advocated military action in both Iran and North Korea, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was an opponent of the Iran deal.
– ‘Malign activities’ –
In October, the Pentagon chief said it was in the US national interest to remain in the Iran deal, and in January, he said it was “imperfect” but added that “when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
Then last month, he said the deal allowed for “pretty robust” inspections of Iranian facilities.
Still, Mattis blasted Iran for its “malign activities,” including its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and for backing Huthi rebels in Yemen.
“We have not seen any drawdown or reduction in Iran’s malicious activities and malign activity across the region,” Mattis said.
“At the same time we have walked away from the JCPOA because we found it was inadequate for the long-term effort,” he added, using the formal abbreviation for the accord.
Senators asked Mattis if the US withdrawal from the deal presaged a military conflict with Iran.
While the Pentagon always maintains military options, there is no “default” to war, Mattis responded, saying diplomacy remains the preferred path.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal was “not only wrong but reckless,” and questioned whether the United States would be able to convincingly work with allies in the future on Iran.
“Now that the United States is walking away from it, I cannot believe it will inspire any confidence among our allies about our word and our reliability in the future when it comes to these agreements,” Durbin said.