How Mattis softened on Iran — for now

His position on Iran may not last much longer. But for now, it’s a striking change.

Defense Secretary James Mattis hasn’t been a dove. But he has sought to minimize the chances of a bigger confrontation with Iranian forces and their proxies in the region. | Alex Brandon/AP Photo

By WESLEY MORGAN 01/16/2018 05:00 AM EST

Source: How Mattis softened on Iran – Politio

{I seriously doubt General Mattis has changed his attitude towards Iran. What’s changed is the administration’s approach, his job title, and his boss. You can bet he’s had it up to here with Iran, but I believe he will defer to a different, yet aggressive approach in dealing with Iran and it’s spreading influence in the Mideast. This is pretty much par for Politico. – LS}

As former President Barack Obama’s top commander in the Middle East, then-Gen. James Mattis pushed for military strikes to punish Iran for arming anti-American militias in Iraq.

But as President Donald Trump’s defense secretary, Mattis has softened his stance and emerged as one of the administration’s chief voices of moderation toward Tehran.

Mattis’ position may not last much longer, however, as the U.S. war against the Islamic State transitions into a struggle for territory and influence between America’s allies and Iran’s. But for now, it’s a striking change for the former military commander who repeatedly clashed with the Obama administration’s diplomatic approach — and who once described the top three threats in the Middle East as “Iran, Iran and Iran.”

In the past year, Mattis has openly contradicted Trump by testifying that Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran “is something that the president should consider staying with.” (Trump declined once again to scrap the agreement Friday despite repeated pledges to do so.) And with U.S. troops and their Iranian counterparts often in close quarters in Iraq and Syria, Mattis has so far declined to take a confrontational approach to limiting or rolling back the influence of Tehran and its proxies.

The shift has surprised some insiders.

“For those who were looking for Qasem Soleimani to drop dead the first year of Secretary Mattis’ tenure, that hasn’t happened, obviously,” said one senior administration official, referring to an Iranian general accused of interfering with American interests in the Middle East.

One reason for Mattis’ new stance: As the Pentagon’s civilian leader, he must balance a much larger menu of global challenges than when he led the U.S. military’s Central Command between 2010 and 2013, according to current and former administration officials with experience on Iran policy who know Mattis well.

Another factor is the change in presidents: Instead of working for a commander in chief he viewed as weak on Iran, he now works for one who at times appears to be picking a fight.

“He has to be very sensitive to where the president is,” said James Jeffrey, who was Obama’s ambassador to Iraq when Mattis headed Central Command. “With Obama, he had a president who was very reticent to challenge Iran militarily … so he was forward-leaning, and that probably hurt his relationship with Obama.”

Now, Jeffrey said, Mattis is “dealing with a president who is both extremely aggressive on Iran and very volatile. So he has to be the cautioner, the balance of reason, the ‘look before you leap’ guy. You see him doing this with North Korea, and you see him doing it with Iran.”

Mattis’ office did not respond to a request for an interview.

Trump’s rhetoric about Iran has been aggressive, especially when it comes to the nuclear deal. As a candidate, Trump railed against what he called the “worst deal ever,” and as president he called it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” even as he has repeatedly punted on killing it.

Last fall, the administration imposed new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, and Trump has hailed the popular protests against the Iranian regime — promising that the protesters would “see great support from the United States at the appropriate time.”

Mattis hasn’t been a dove, either. He has called Iran “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror” and last year authorized a rare strike on Iran’s ally, the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. And he has overseen the shoot-down of Iranian drones when they strayed too close to U.S. forces.

But he has also sought to minimize the chances of a bigger confrontation with Iranian forces and their proxies in the region.

One area where that has been on display is the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Among analysts who say that the war has widened Iran’s influence in the two countries, a common fear is the establishment of a “land bridge,” or uninterrupted ground resupply route, from Iran through Iraq into regime-controlled territory in Syria.

After U.S.-backed militias liberated the Syrian city of Raqqa last fall, Iranian-backed forces made a dash for the Iraq-Syria border that some saw as the final step in building the land bridge. Iran hawks had criticized the Pentagon for closing one of its two remote border outposts ahead of that move, saying that keeping it open might have prevented the land bridge from coming to fruition.

But at a recent news conference, Mattis downplayed that fear. “I don’t think there’s a land bridge right now,” he told reporters, saying Iranian-backed forces don’t have the kind of unfettered access across the border that the phrase suggests.

As the war against the Islamic State winds down this year, however, and the Pentagon settles on a new role for U.S. troops in Iraq and, especially, Syria, Mattis may approve tougher pushback against Iranian interference, the current and former officials said.

That means he would revert to his old hawkishness if he thinks the situation warrants it.

Mattis also remains concerned about Iranian land access to Syria, despite his public denial, according to the senior administration official.

“He has given direction to CENTCOM to make sure that we are postured to disrupt that,” without being “alarmist about what the Iranians are trying to do,” the official said. He added, “As we transition away from ‘defeat ISIS,’ our military posture will stay there. … Countering Iranian influence is very much part of that calculus.”

Andrew Exum, who oversaw Middle East issues as a Pentagon official under Obama, agreed that Mattis’ restrained approach on Iran during his first year at the Pentagon might give way to a more aggressive one in year two.

In 2017, Exum said, Mattis was focused on finishing the fight against the Islamic State that he inherited from the Obama administration. This year, though, “the Trump administration is now appropriately moving on to some of the unfinished business we left for them,” including starting to roll back Iranian influence now that ISIS is out of the way.

The fate of postwar Syria may be decided in part by the on-again, off-again U.N.-brokered negotiations known as the “Geneva process.” Those talks are seen as the main hope that the future of the Syrian regime and the rebel groups opposing it can be decided diplomatically.

During a trip to Europe in November, Mattis said publicly for the first time that he supported the Geneva diplomatic process. For Syria watchers, it was the first hint he had given of a potential future U.S. military mission in Syria with broader goals than simply defeating ISIS, the Pentagon’s stated mission in the country.

Jeffrey said Mattis’ remarks suggested he sees a role for U.S. troops in backing the Kurdish and Arab rebels they aided against the Islamic State, and preventing those battlefield allies from being subsumed by the regime and its Iranian patrons. “That’s a way to pressure the Syrians and Iranians and ultimately the Russians to accept a political process that will create something other than the horrors of the Assad regime,” Jeffrey said.

But what form that pressure might take is unclear.

Eric Edelman, who was the Pentagon’s top policy official during the George W. Bush administration, said one way would be to continue using U.S. special operations forces and air power to advise and back up the same Kurdish and Arab militias alongside which they’re already fighting — only now with an aim toward empowering them against attacks from Iranian-backed forces. “You have to have your own forces there behind them so they have leverage in any political negotiation,” he said.

But American troops are in Syria under the legal justification of fighting an offshoot group of Al Qaeda, the group against which the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force is targeted. Military action to take on Iran and its allies in Syria would fall outside that authorization and might require additional permission from Congress.

With thousands of U.S. and coalition troops deployed in Iraq, where they are vulnerable to retaliation by large militias that Iran has advised and armed, the risks of any kind of U.S.-backed military action to roll back Iranian gains in Syria are high, Jeffrey said.

But the alternative won’t be appealing to a defense secretary who still sees Iran as the greatest regional threat, either.

“Imagine if we were pushed out of Iraq and Russia and Iran inherited the victory in Syria. It would be a huge American defeat,” Jeffrey said. “So it’s a fairly precarious position that Mattis is sitting on top of.”

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