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Defense Secretary Nominee James Mattis Pledges to Enforce Iran Nuclear Deal Criticized by Trump

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Donald Trump’s pick for defense secretary, retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, testified at his confirmation hearing that Russia remains the “principal threat” faced by the United States, taking a much harder line than the president-elect. He also said he supports the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has repeatedly criticized. We get response from Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council whose forthcoming book is titled “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Legacy of Diplomacy,” and from Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Trita Parsi into the conversation, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. Another aspect that was touched on in the hearing was General Mattis’s view on the Iran deal. He was removed at a certain point by the Obama administration because of his hawkish views on Iran. What’s your—what’s your response to how he answered questions on the Iran nuclear deal and what the prospects are under the Trump administration for that agreement?

TRITA PARSI: Well, General Mattis made it quite clear that he would not have signed this agreement, had he the choice. But as a result of it now being in place, he argued that the United States needs to keep its word and, as a result, respect it. I welcome the fact that a senior member of the Trump administration is coming out with that line, but I also want to point out that the more likely route for the administration, the Trump administration, to undermine the deal is no longer the way that they spoke during the campaign, in which they would directly target the deal and walk away from it and, as a result, bring about an international crisis that would put the United States in an isolated position. The more likely route for the Trump administration to undermine this deal is to actually engage in provocative actions against the Iranians in order to compel them to walk away from the deal, and, that way, get them to also end up being far more isolated. I’m not saying that General Mattis was setting the stage for that type of a strategy. I’m just saying that it is more likely that we’re going to hear comments of that kind from the Trump administration, precisely because they don’t want to be seen as the guilty party once the deal falls apart, particularly if they then engage in a lot of provocative actions with the aim of compelling the Iranians to walk away.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, Mattis led the U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. This was under President Obama. But he cut short his tour over concerns that Mattis was too hawkish on Iran, calling for a series of covert actions there. Can you talk about what those covert actions were?

TRITA PARSI: I’m not entirely sure what those would be, but I think it’s important to understand that between 2010 and 2013, that was the era in which both the Iranians and the United States was engaged in very aggressive pressure tactics against each other—massive sanctions on the Iranians, the Iranians responded by aggressively accelerating their nuclear program, combined with a lot of covert actions on both sides, particularly on the U.S. side with cyber-attacks, etc. But in the—behind the scenes, however, the Obama administration was looking for ways to engage the Iranians and open up a secret channel, which, by mid-2012, was successful. And I think what happened at that point is that the administration was very careful to make sure that those secret negotiations could be successful, which meant that they had to actually tone down a lot of the other aggressive pressures, as well as covert actions. The secret channel was kept extremely secret. I wouldn’t be surprised if General Mattis had no idea about that. And as a result, the recommendations that he was giving and the pressure that he put on the administration to take on a much more confrontational approach vis-à-vis Iran simply did not match with the priorities of the administration, mindful of the secret channel that actually was starting to bear fruit at the moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Trita Parsi, in December, you tweeted the following: “Gave a presentation to #Mattis a few years ago. He told me he thinks of 3 things before he goes to bed each night: Iran, Iran and Iran…” Why is Mattis so obsessed with Iran, in your view?

TRITA PARSI: Well, if you’re responsible for Persian Gulf security, it kind of comes with the territory that your singular focus is going to be on Iran. I think what the problem is, at this point, is that we have moved into a new geopolitical situation. And what I think Mattis is thinking, and particularly some of the answers that was given in the hearing seems to indicate, is a return towards a posture in which the United States wants to adopt a much more hegemonic position in the region, in which the main problem in the region then will be those who may challenge or question that hegemony, not those that necessary are actually active in destabilizing the region and destroying state institutions. As a result, your focus will be on Iran, a country that does challenge American hegemony, but you will be staying completely silent on the role of Saudi Arabia and the very destabilizing role that it is playing, particularly with its spread of Salafism and radical Wahhabi Islam. And I was struck by the fact that nothing was asked about Saudi Arabia at that hearing, and the role that Saudi is playing right now. And I’ve also not managed to find any comments by General Mattis on what his views are on the role of Saudi Arabia. And I was really looking forward to hearing that at the hearing, but, unfortunately, no one asked those questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we get away from Iran, I did want to ask, on a more tangential issue, though, Trita, about President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died this weekend, after a decades-long career in the ruling elite, and the significance of this and what it could mean for the United States.

TRITA PARSI: Well, the immediate significance for this is that it actually may help the moderates and the centrists in the May elections in—this year, which will determine whether Hassan Rouhani will be a two-term president or a one-term president. In the long run, however, I think it will be a great detriment to the moderate forces in Iran to having lost someone like Rafsanjani, who in his latter years became much more supportive of a more centrist and a more moderate political agenda, because he was, at the end of the day, one of the pillars of the revolution and one of the few people that could challenge so many of the conservative restrictions in that society and get away with it. Having lost a person that had that capacity is likely going to be to the detriment of this movement in the long run, unless someone else manages to step up to play that role.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to go back to professor Andrew Bacevich and the discussion of the hearing yesterday, the pork-barrel nature of some of the questions that the senators raised to General Mattis, including the liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren, over what his attitude would be to specific Defense Department projects in their home states.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I’ll answer the question, but first could I just make a brief comment on Iran?


ANDREW BACEVICH: And although Trita Parsi knows so much more about this issue than I do, I’d offer a slightly more optimistic scenario. I mean, let’s remember that the expectation was that the new administration was going to dump the Iran nuclear deal. The fact that we have the presumed defense secretary on the record saying that he supports maintaining the detail is actually good news. I mean, it’s a half a loaf, but a half a loaf is better than none. I do expect that Mattis, and the administration, more broadly, will be skeptical about whether the nuclear deal can lead to a broader engagement between Iran and the United States. But—and here’s my little bit of optimism—to the extent that the focus of the Trump administration is going to be on creating all those millions of jobs that he has vowed to deliver in short order, the logic of engagement with Iran economically is going to present itself. And the expectation that a deepening engagement with Iran can have economic advantages redounding to the United States could ultimately overturn the logic—and I’m not denying the logic, the logic that Trita was describing—of a renewed effort to impose American hegemony. So I’ll just leave that as it is.

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