Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said Tuesday that maintaining the Iran nuclear deal is in the U.S. national security interest, staking out a position before President Donald Trump decides whether to continue to certify Iran’s compliance.
The White House faces an Oct. 15 deadline to recertify to Congress whether Iran is complying with the landmark 2015 accord, which blocked Iran’s nuclear development program in exchange for easing international sanctions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, has repeatedly determined that Iran has met its obligations under the accord.
Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he supports upholding the agreement as long as the U.S. government can ensure that Iran is abiding by its obligations.
“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,” he said. “I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked Mattis specifically whether he believed it was in the U.S. national security interest to remain with the deal.
“Yes, senator, I do,” Mattis replied.
Trump has recertified the deal twice since taking office in January, but has indicated that he might not this time. If the White House does not certify the deal, it opens the door for Congress to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions that were lifted once the deal was signed by the six world powers who negotiated it.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the Iran deal, making it a major part of his 2016 presidential campaign. Last month, he called the agreement “an embarrassment to the United States” during his debut speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
His main criticism is that the nuclear deal does not address Tehran’s continued development of ballistic missiles, or its support for Hezbollah and other groups deemed “terrorist organizations” by the U.S. government and foreign allies.
The 2015 accord sought only to block Iran from building a nuclear weapon. The U.S. maintains separate economic sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorist groups.
By most accounts, Iran has lived up to its end of the bargain.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the U.N. last month that Iran remains in “technical compliance” with the deal. A week later, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said Tehran is in compliance.
“The briefings I have received indicate that Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations,” Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 26, using an acronym for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Dunford also warned that pulling out of the agreement, without hard evidence of Iran violating its commitments, would undercut the U.S. ability to negotiate other diplomatic deals — namely with nuclear-armed North Korea.
“It makes sense to me that our holding up agreements that we have signed, unless there’s a material breach, would have an impact on others’ willingness to sign agreements,” Dunford said.
Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, made the same argument at his Senate confirmation hearings in January.
“When America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies,” he said then.
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