Washington, DC – Donald Trump’s choices to head key national security agencies broke from the President-elect’s more provocative campaign rhetoric on Iran in confirmation hearings this week. General James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, nominated to head the Pentagon and State Department respectively, cautioned against tearing up the deal outright and expressed skepticism about new unilateral sanctions. However, they each signaled a harder line on Iran that may nonetheless undermine the sustainability of the nuclear deal. Since Trump’s election, many opponents of the Iran deal have warned against directly dismantling the agreement, instead calling for the U.S. to ratchet up pressure to provoke Iran to back out of the accord.
General James Mattis called Iran the “biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East” in his testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee and characterized the Iran deal as “an imperfect arms control agreement,” but said the U.S. should maintain it. “When America gives her word,” he said, “we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
Mattis, who reportedly clashed with the Obama administration while heading U.S. Central Command over his desire to take a more provocative military approach towards Iran, has cautioned against backing out of the Iran deal in the past. He reiterated that the deal should remain in place but said he would not have signed it and called for new Congressional oversight to ensure Iran adheres to the agreement. He said he “would ask Congress to have a joint committee from Banking, Armed Services, and Intel to oversee the implementation of it. Should there be any cheating then the Congress would be kept informed.”
President-elect Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, suggested the new administration would uphold the Iran deal but look to address shortcomings under the deal – though, when pressed for details, he suggested the agreement prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons but not from purchasing nuclear weapons. He later acknowledged he misspoke and that Iran is indeed obligated under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to not purchase a nuclear weapon, and that the Iran deal text reaffirms this commitment.
Tillerson similarly proposed that Iran’s enrichment program, which the Iran deal affirms as protected under the NPT, should be curtailed – threatening to reanimate a major flashpoint that for years deadlocked negotiations over the nuclear dispute. In the years prior to the nuclear deal, Iran’s nuclear program rapidly expanded as the Bush Administration demanded Iran curtail all enrichment as precondition for negotiations. The compromise on enrichment, in which Iran’s program is heavily monitored through permanent inspections, was what enabled the nuclear deal and the rollback of Iran’s program to succeed. Relitigating the issue would be a nonstarter and could throw a serious wrench into the sustainability of the existing agreement.
Both Tillerson and Mattis appear to hold skepticism toward unilateral U.S. sanctions. Mattis pushed back on the notion of the U.S. imposing new, “non-nuclear” sanctions on Iran, cautioning the panel that he believed sanctions worked best when does as an international effort rather than a unilateral one. Previously, Tillerson had expressed similar views as head of Exxon-Mobil, indicating that sanctions are often ineffective unless implemented comprehensively, which is often difficult to achieve.
At the hearing, Tillerson revealed his philosophy on sanctions, explaining, “sanctions are not a strategy” but instead a tactic. “If we’re going to engage in trying to address a broad array of serious issues, I’d like to have this as a tool, as a tactic. . . If it’s already played, it’s not available to me as a tactic in advancing those discussions, trying to come to some conclusion that best serves America’s interests and, America’s national security interests.”
Tillerson was grilled on reports that a non-U.S. subsidiary of Exxon engaged in business with Iran, as well as Sudan and Syria, in the early 2000s in spite of those country’s designation by the U.S. as State Sponsors of Terror. While U.S. law did not bar such dealings by non-U.S. subsidiaries until 2012, and those provisions were eased recently to encourage Iran’s reintegration with the global economy in return for nuclear concessions, the reports were seized on by some Democrats on to oppose Tillerson’s nomination. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), an avowed sanctions supporter and Iran hawk, questioned Tillerson extensively on the issue as well as Exxon’s lobbying efforts with regard to sanctions on Iran.
Tillerson was also questioned about his views on the Iraq war and broader philosophy on U.S. imposed regime change. Using President-elect Trump’s own words that the Iraq war was a mistake, Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky-R) asked whether Tillerson agreed. Tillerson suggested the Iraq invasion was “well-intended” but “had unintended consequences that in the end, did not achieve the stability that we sought or the national security.”
Paul raised the example of Iranian Americans to discuss the perils of U.S. imposed regime change. “One of the interesting things you find as you meet Iranian Americans, many of whom lost all of their land, all of their wealth and you ask them about Iran and you say, ‘would it be a good idea to militarily invade Iran?’. And they say completely the opposite. That much of Iran is younger. Much of Iran is pro-western and with the first bomb that is dropped, you’ll reverse a lot of good will that is potentially there when Iran does finally change its regime on it’s own.”
Tillerson agreed with Paul and stated that there is a conflict between achieving the “projection of our American values” and “national security interest.” He added that any military actions taken against states that violate human rights must be balanced by what is in the national interest of the U.S. He stated that he believes the role of the Secretary of State is to avoid conflict and use non-military means whenever possible. However, in the case of Iran he ended on a hard note and emphasized the importance of combating Iran’s “widespread support of terrorism.”
Notably absent from either hearing was any significant discussion of Saudi Arabia’s role in the region or ties to ISIS and other salfist groups. Tillerson declined to comment on Saudi human rights abuses when pressed, saying the country was headed in the right direction. He also suggested that the U.S. should work with the Saudis to reduce civilian deaths in Yemen, where cluster bombs are being deployed. Mattis suggested the U.S. should work with allies in the Persian Gulf to establish a missile defense system to counter Iran.
Senate Republicans are hoping to hold a final vote on both nominees by next week, before Trump is sworn into office.