Mattis backs Obama on Iran

Under pointed questioning from Senate Republicans, Gen. James Mattis, commander of Central Command, said diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions are not stopping Iran's nuclear program. But, lending his full-throated support to President Obama’s handling of the regime, he said that sanctions are damaging the Iranian economy and that negotiations are worth pursuing.

Mattis is due to leave his command soon, following much reporting (and some speculation) that the White House was pushing the revered Marine general out a few months earlier than planned because he was believed to be too hawkish toward Iran than the adminisration preferred.

Mattis was pressed by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee for his frank assessment of Iran’s intentions and of whether U.S. policy has made any progress in stopping Tehran from inching closer toward nuclear weapons.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the committee’s ranking member, asked, “In your professional opinion, are the current diplomatic and economic efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability, are they working?”

“No, sir,” Mattis said.

“Good,” Inhofe replied.

But Mattis later expanded his take, removing any daylight between himself and his commander-in-chief.

“Just to be clear, I fully support the economic sanctions,” Mattis told Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who expressed concerned Iran was only stalling actual negotiations to buy time for further enrichment. “I fully support the diplomatic isolation and accruing the international community's support to try to stop this. I believe they are trying to buy time with the negotiations. But that should not be in any way construed as, ‘We should not try to negotiate.’ I still support the direction we're taking. I'm just -- I'm paid to take a rather dim view of the Iranians, frankly.”

Ayotte pressed, saying, “Well, here's our problem. If we -- if they have a history of using negotiations as a dilatory tactic while they're continuing to enrich and march toward a nuclear weapon, then we know how dangerous that they are. How do we stop this pattern to make sure that they know that we are serious that we will not accept them having a nuclear weapon?”

“Senator,” Mattis answered, “…I think that we continue everything we're doing right now. But as the president has said, he's taken no option off the table, and my role is to provide him military options.”

When Ayotte, a third time, repeated she felt Iran was just stalling, Mattis said that didn’t mean the U.S. was sitting idly by in the meantime.

“I don't believe that we should stop negotiations because they do not prevent us from doing other things at the same time,” he said. “For example, while negotiating, I've requested and received additional forces in the Gulf by the decision of the secretary of defense to ensure that we are ready to reassure our friends that we mean business and temper the Iranians' designs.”

“Well, I thank you very much, General Mattis,” she said.

CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images