Mattis Contradicts Trump on Iran Deal Ahead of Crucial Deadline

Mr. Mattis came to office with well-established, hawkish views of Iran, whose support of Syria’s government and of Hezbollah, he believed, had cost American lives. But he has always taken the position that if he had to confront Iran, he would rather confront a non-nuclear Iran, and that the agreement was preventing the country from possessing or making enough bomb-grade material for a weapon.

Asked on Capitol Hill on Tuesday whether he had changed his view, Mr. Mattis said he supports “the rigorous review that he has got going on right now.”

When that answer did not satisfy the committee, Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, asked whether the defense secretary thought holding onto the nuclear pact is in the interest of the national security of the United States.

Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine general, paused before replying: “Yes, senator, I do.”

An administration official said that no difference existed between the president’s views and those of his secretary of defense on the Iran deal.

But the evident dissonance between the president and his senior national security advisers has taken on greater consequence in the cases of Iran and North Korea, which are potentially questions of war or peace.

Amid the simmering North Korean crisis, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson told reporters in Beijing over the weekend that he was keeping “a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang” to defuse the situation. The next morning, he was slapped down by Mr. Trump, who read newspaper accounts of that conversation and tweeted “save your energy Rex,” complaining that Mr. Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president’s derisive nickname for Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

White House officials said Mr. Trump was angry that his secretary of state was suggesting it was time to talk with North Korea, when official administration policy is that the North must earn the right — by halting missile and nuclear tests for an unspecified period of time.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

It was hardly the first time that Mr. Tillerson, who is widely reported to be frustrated in the job, has publicly split with the president. In August, he conceded that he had argued in favor of keeping the Iran deal, saying he had “differences of views” from the president. At the same time, he acknowledged that Iran continued to support terrorism and was failing to comply with what he called “the spirit” of the agreement.

Newsletter Sign Up

Continue reading the main story

At the meeting with reporters in the American ambassador’s residence in Beijing, Mr. Tillerson hinted he was pressing Mr. Trump to certify to Congress once again that Iran is in compliance with the agreement despite Mr. Trump’s declaration in August that he would have declared the country “noncompliant 180 days ago.”

Mr. Trump must make that decision anew by Oct. 15. But his choice is not necessarily the final word on the deal. Even if he decertifies the agreement, Congress could hold back on restoring the economic sanctions that the United States agreed to ease in exchange for Iran halting its nuclear weapons program. If Congress did not act, the deal would be preserved.

“I don’t want to suggest to you that we’re not going to stick with the Iranian deal,” Mr. Tillerson said. “The president will have to make that decision; ultimately, it’s what he wants to do.”

Mr. Mattis told lawmakers on Tuesday that Tillerson was “probing opportunities to talk” with North Korea and sidestepped questions about the president’s tweets about his secretary of state.

And at his confirmation hearing in January, Mr. Mattis described the Iran deal as flawed but said the United States should remain committed to it, and to working with the other nations that negotiated it: Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. “I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it’s not a friendship treaty,” Mr. Mattis said at the time. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”

In the first eight months of the Trump administration, Mr. Mattis has made a habit of navigating Trump’s bombast with measured — often seemingly contradictory — statements. He has warned about the potential for huge loss of life if the Korean crisis ended up resuming the war that ended in an armistice in 1953. Taken by surprise by the president’s tweet declaring a ban on transgender members of the military, he quietly got wording into the final executive order that gave him time to delay, or upend, the ban.

Inside the Pentagon, Mr. Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., have told aides they are worried that abandoning the Iran deal could make it harder to convince North Korea that the United States would stick with any diplomatic agreement it might be able to reach to head off — or at least pause — the growing confrontation.

General Dunford testified at the same hearing alongside Mr. Mattis, and while he did not take a position on the Iran deal, his description about whether Tehran is violating the accord was at odds with the administration’s talking points. He said Iran “is not in material breach” of the agreement and that it had “delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.”

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

White House officials, by contrast, have said that Iran was violating hortatory language in the agreement about fostering better relations, even if it is not reprocessing plutonium and enriching uranium, the two pathways to a bomb.

Diplomacy Works, an Iran deal advocacy group run by former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who negotiated the accord, lauded Mr. Mattis’s support for the pact.

“The president’s most senior security adviser now joins the likes of the United States’ closest allies and the International Atomic Energy Association in confirming that the Iran nuclear deal is not only working, and that Iran is in compliance, but that it remains the best agreement to protect American interests,” the group said in a statement.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump repeatedly threatened to tear up the deal, and negotiate a better one. In August, Mr. Trump also said that Iran is “not in compliance with the agreement and they certainly are not in the spirit of the agreement in compliance.”


Continue reading the main story

NO COMMENTS