Mattis explicitly agreed with the Arab impulse to make countering Iran a major foreign policy priority. “Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran,” he said. “So, right now, what we are seeing is the nations in the region and others elsewhere trying to checkmate Iran and the amount of disruption, the amount of instability they can cause.”
The Iranian presence was underscored on Monday when the Islamic Republic announced that it had dispatched a flotilla to the Gulf of Aden, in an apparent effort to buttress support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are fighting a civil war against forces loyal to President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. The recognized Yemeni government is supported by a coalition of Gulf Arab nations, which are directly participating in the conflict, with some indirect assistance from the United States.
President Donald Trump ordered a Navy SEAL operation in Yemen, roughly a week after he took office, leading to the controversial death of one American commando. It was the first military action ordered by the new president, but was directed not against Houthi forces but against Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula. On Wednesday, Mattis dismissed the notion of direct military involvement in the civil war itself, though he did single out Yemen as a place where political pressure and the provision of assistance to US allies would have to be used to push Iran out before pursuing a political solution to the ongoing crisis.
Reuters reported upon this aspect of Mattis’ visit and quoted him as saying, “We will have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah, but the bottom line is we are on the right path for it.”
Middle East experts have repeatedly made the comparison between the Houthi and the Hezbollah terrorist group, as well as suggesting that Iran was making efforts to build other Hezbollah-like proxies in Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Last month, the National Council of Resistance of Iran released information acquired the network of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, detailing the expansion of the training programs for foreign terrorists and paramilitary fighters maintained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
With such evidence pointing to the undiminished support for global terrorism being offered by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Trump administration is currently reintroducing questions about the wisdom of the previous administration’s Middle East policy and specifically the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
NBC News reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has notified Congress that the administration is reviewing whether to break the agreement over the issue of Iran-backed terrorism. The negotiations that concluded in June 2015 were focused solely on the nuclear issue and resulted in tens of billions of dollars’ worth of relief from US-led economic sanctions that had been imposed on the Iranian nuclear program. Terrorism and human rights-related sanctions were exempt from suspension, but this has not prevented opponents of the deal from arguing that the applicable sanctions relief would be channeled partly into the hands of terrorist groups.
The US is technically permitted to impose new sanctions over such non-nuclear issues, and it has already done so to a limited extent, with the Treasury Department announcing last week that the Tehran Prisons Organization and the younger brother of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani would each be barred from exchanges with US-linked companies or banks. Such moves, however, have tested the limits of the Iranian regime, which vowed that it would perceive any new sanctions as a violation of the “spirit” of the nuclear deal, and would walk away from it in retaliation.
It was not immediately clear whether the administration was considering walking away from the agreement preemptively or merely maneuvering Iran into a position where it would be likely to do so on its own. A Reuters report on Wednesday suggested that there is not currently any sign that the administration intends to cancel the deal. Furthermore, Tillerson’s comments on the issue came in the midst of the administration’s first report on Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, which is due every 90 days. The report indicates that Iran appears to be in compliance, meaning that there would presumably be no way to fault Tehran for the deal’s abrupt cancelation.
Nevertheless, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted that President Trump’s call for a review of the agreement reflected persistent concerns about the possibility of Iranian cheating. However, the terrorist issue remained foremost in the administration’s commentary, thereby directly addressing criticisms that had been levied by other opponents of the agreement.
A Washington Post editorial pointed out on Wednesday that Middle East expert Michael Oren had specifically called for a “strong link” to be established between the JCPOA and Iranian misbehavior in other areas, including support for terrorism. The editorial also claimed that these unresolved issues make Iran a bigger threat to Western interests than Syria and North Korea, both of which seem to have been given more attention in Trump administration policymaking up to this point.
But Tillerson’s comments on the nuclear agreement and Mattis’ discussions with Middle Eastern allies over Iranian influence in places like Yemen seem to suggest that this situation might be changing. The White House previously laid the groundwork for assertive policies toward Iran, as when Trump directed the State Department to review the possibility of designating the Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization.
The Republican-led Congress has been broadly supportive of these sorts of efforts, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee putting forward a bill last month that would extend terrorist related sanctions to the entirety of the IRGC. Furthermore, Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, visited Albania last Friday to meet with relocated former residents of the embattled Iranian exile community of Camp Liberty in Iraq. The visit was decried by Iranian officials as an example of broader policies that seemed to increasingly align the US with the Iranian Resistance and against the clerical regime.