WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary James Mattis told US senators on Tuesday the United States should remain a party in the Iran nuclear deal.
Asked at a Senate Armed Serviced Committee hearing by Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, whether he believed it was in America’s national security interests to stay in the deal, Mattis said: “Yes, senator, I do.”
“The point I would make is 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,” Mattis later added. “I believe, at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with.”
His comments came ahead of a looming October 15 deadline, when US President Donald Trump must report to Congress whether Tehran is abiding by the terms of the landmark pact forged under his predecessor.
For the last several months, Trump has signaled that he intends to decertify Iran and potentially exit the international accord.
“I think they’ll be noncompliant,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal in August. “I do not expect that they will be in compliance.”
That interview came just after a report in Foreign Policy said the president, after grudgingly certifying Iran for the second time in July, told his aides to develop a case for why the regime has violated the agreement by the next deadline.
He also excoriated the nuclear deal in his maiden address to the United Nations two weeks ago, calling it an “embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions.”
Decertifying Iran would not, in itself, pull America out of the deal. It is part of another agreement the Obama White House struck with Congress, in which the US president is required to verify every three months whether Iran is honoring the deal.
But if Trump does take that action and decertify Iran, it would allow Congress to impose fresh sanctions — or reimpose old sanctions — on the Islamic Republic.
While Trump has repeatedly castigated Iran for not honoring “the spirit of the deal,” both International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and the US intelligence community have said Tehran is complying.
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as much in the same committee hearing Tuesday.
“Iran is not in material breach of the agreement and I do believe the agreement to date has delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran,” he told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York.
Mattis, for his part, confirmed to Gillibrand that the administration is considering its options ahead of the October 15 deadline. He also stressed that even if the administration doesn’t certify Iranian compliance, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily going to back out of the deal.
“It is right now being considered, in terms of the security of the United States. By it, I mean we’re talking about the law that is passed up here where we have to certify — plus the agreement,” Dunford said.
“These are two separate [agreements]. You can talk about the conditions under one of those and not walk away from the other one of those,” he went on. “They are two different pieces. And that is under condition right now about how we deal. Both the legal requirement from the Congress, as well as the international agreement.”
He also said that Tehran’s other regional activities, including threats against Israel and funding terrorism, were worthy of an American — and global — response:
“The amount of misconduct internationally, whether it be with ballistic missiles, rhetoric, support to terrorists, threats to our friends, Arab and Israel, in the region by Iran are areas where they are open to a great deal, I think, of censure by the international community — and we are not naive on their agreement about the nuclear issue and we’re being very alert to any cheating on that right now.”