Defense secretary nominee James Mattis warns of Iran’s influence

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with General James Mattis at the clubhouse of Trump International Golf Club in Bedminster Township, N.J., on Nov. 19. Mattis, Trump's nominee for defense secretary, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday at his confirmation hearing. Pool photo by Aude Guerrucc/UPI

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) — Former Gen. James Mattis said at his confirmation hearing to serve as the next U.S. secretary of defense that he regards Iran as the Middle East’s biggest destabilizing force.

The retired Marine general, chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to lead the Department of Defense, provided written responses to questions to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The 56-page document identified Mattis’ view of potential conflict spots around the world, and said of Iran: “Iranian malign influence in the region is growing.”

Mattis’ comments differ from the view of the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama that better relations with Iran could be achieved.

Without mentioning figures regarding troop strength, Mattis asserted that U.S. troops need to remain in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

“Our principal interest in Iraq is to ensure that it does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran,” he wrote. “It will be essential to fold any efforts in Iraq following ISIS’s defeat in Mosul into an integrated regional strategy.”

He added that he sees Afghanistan as important to U.S. interests.

On Syria, Mattis offered a starker view than Obama’s or Trump’s, calling the situation a threat to U.S. security. “The brutal civil war in Syria has destabilized the Middle East, contributed to the destabilization of Europe and threatened allies like Israel, Jordan and Turkey, all while ISIS, Iran and Russia have profited from the chaos, none of which has been in America’s national interest,” he wrote.

Although Trump has said U.S. support of NATO should be conditional, according to the financial contributions of its other members, Mattis did not say he agreed with the president-elect. He said NATO countries must display “renewed political will to confront and walk back aggressive Russian actions.”

In the opening moments of the hearing, Mattis contended that Russia “is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance,” a stronger statement than those made by Trump, who has said he would welcome an easing of frosty relations between the United States and Russia.

Mattis’ written statement also mentioned that he opposes military exchanges or security cooperation involving Cuba, and that he would support attacks on terrorists’ families to defeat IS. He was noncommittal on the Obama administration’s approval of opening all combat positions to female soldiers.

Mattis’ approval by the committee, if it comes, will require a waiver from the law obligating a candidate to be retired from the military for seven years before becoming defense secretary. Mattis retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2013. The committee heard from two experts Tuesday who supported granting a waiver, but warned against permanently amending the law. In his written statement, Mattis promised to uphold civilian control of the military if confirmed.

Approval by the U.S. Senate is also a requirement of the position.


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