James Mattis Doesn’t Understand Iran or ‘Moderate Arab Regimes’

During his presidential campaign Donald Trump repeatedly expressed his desire not to get the United States involved in another destructive war in the Middle East. He expressed his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003; he was opposed to the NATO intervention in Libya [although he had originally supported the wars in both Libya and Iraq]; he expressed appreciation for Russia and Iran fighting Daesh [also known as the ISIS] in Syria, and Iran helping Iraq in its own fight with Daesh there, and he repeatedly criticized Saudi Arabia, declaring that the Saudis were "mouth pieces, bullies, cowards," who were "paying ISIS." I did not vote for Trump, but like millions of other antiwar pacifists I was hoping that he would deliver on his realistic positions regarding the Middle East.

Alas, everything changed as soon as Trump took office. The President’s national security team, from Defense Secretary James Mattis, to CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of Middle East affairs at the national security council, Derek Harvey, is virulently anti-Iran. Pompeo has hyped Iran’s "threat" by claiming that "Iran is intent on destruction of our country;" has opposed the nuclear agreement between Iran and 5+1, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) fiercely and wants to roll it back; has downplayed the political and economic cost of bombing Iran claiming that "2000 bombing sorties" will do the job, and has called for regime change in Iran. He has also claimed that the so-called "global war on terror" is a war between Christians and Muslims. Mattis has declared that the JCPOA "fell short;" that "it is fun to shoot some people," and has called for a war on "political Islam." He has also claimed falsely that Iran and Daesh are in cahoots, which proved to be pathetically false after Daesh’s recent terrorist attacks in Tehran. Trump national security team been beating the drums of war, and is putting the United States on a clear path to war with Iran, one that if, God forbid, happens, all the past and present wars in the Middle East will look like child’s play, affecting the entire world.

The danger of Trump’s national security team is not only because of its rhetoric regarding Iran and Islam, but also due to its deeply flawed and dangerous misunderstanding of both Iran and the rest of the Middle East. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Mattis’ statements and arguments regarding Iran and the rest of the Middle East. At a time when the role of Saudi Arabia in creating and cultivating terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere has become crystal clear, Mattis still insists on "the importance of U.S.-Saudi Arabia strategic relationship," to the point that he has been supporting the Saudis criminal war in Yemen, and asked the President to remove restriction on U.S. military support for that country. Before his appointment as Defense Secretary, Mattis repeatedly called for arming of "Syrian moderate forces" that exist only on paper and in the imagination of the necons and the War Party.

As a Marines General, Mattis has had a decades-long grudge against Iran, which has totally colored his views of Iran, to the point that he was fired from his post as the Central Command chief, which is responsible for all US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, because he was perceived to be too eager for a military confrontation with Iran.

Mattis recently granted an interview to Teddy Fischer, a high school student in Seattle. The interview reveals Mattis’ deeply flawed and dangerous misunderstanding of practically every important issue facing that region, varying from which regime is "moderate" and the true meaning of "moderation," to Iran’s role in that region. For example, when Fischer asked Mattis, "Do you believe that Middle Eastern theocracies can be more moderate? If so, what steps can be taken to achieve this?," he responded, "I was talking to the king [King Abdullah] of Saudi Arabia, he’s dead now, but was the king a couple years ago, and he said the only way to improve drivers in Riyadh was to give every girl above the age of 16 a driver’s license because the men are such bad drivers."

If granting a very basic and primitive right to the Saudi women in the 21st century is a sign of "moderation," then, Iran is the most moderate nation in that region. Iranian women constitute over 60 percent of all college students in Iran, have the right to vote (and drive!), and they are also present actively at every stratum of the society as lawyers, journalists, social activists, human rights advocates, teachers and professors, members of the parliament, ministers, governors, members of city councils, and even vice president.

Mattis then continued, "He [the Saudi King] decided he would give his boys and girls a four-year scholarship to any college in Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States …. He had over 100,000 four-year, free-ride scholarships going off to Ontario, Canada, and London, England, and University of Colorado and University of Washington and everywhere else." Yes, but the ideological education that these girls and boys receive at home is still based on Wahhabism, the most reactionary and backward interpretation of the Islamic teachings, which is why hundreds of the same Saudi students left their scholarships and education in the United States to join Daesh.

When Fischer asked, "How can the United States create an atmosphere of trust with the Arab people, especially in Iran?," instead of answering the question, Mattis began attacked Iran and its elections – elections that do not exist in Saudi Arabia or any of the US"strategic allies" in the Persian Gulf Area – saying, "It’s not really an election [in Iran]. It’s the supreme leader [Ayatollah Khamenei who] decides who gets to run." True, Iranian elections are neither democratic – because not everyone can run – nor fair – because the hardliners control many instruments of power that use to their advantage – but the elections are completely competitive, unpredictable, and with meaningful consequences for the lives of ordinary Iranians, which is why over 70 percent of Iranians consistently vote in the presidential elections.

Most importantly, what Mattis does not say or know is that the Supreme Leader’s apparent choices have been defeated multiple times in such elections, including in the elections for the two terms of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, and for the two terms of the current president Hassan Rouhani. And, when Khamenei’s choice in the 2009 elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his supporters committed fraud in order to ensure a second term for Ahmadinejad, we had the democratic Green Movement with millions of supporters that provided the inspiration for the Arab Spring of 2011.

In the elections that were held on May 19, Iran’s "deep state" had its own candidate, hardline judge Ebrahim Raisi, and despite the "deep state’s" best effort and Khamenei’s, he lost by a landslide to Rouhani, and ever since there has been a fierce power struggle between Rouhani, the people and his supporters, on the one hand, and Khamenei and the "deep state", on the other hand. The elections were actually far more interesting than many others around the world, as so many taboos were broken and so many redlines were crossed.

Mattis then shed tears for the Iranian people, saying, "So the point is that this is a country that is acting more like a revolutionary cause, not to best interests of their own people so it’s very, very hard." The people of Iran, a nation with an overall 82 percent rate of literacy, with the rate being 97 percent among the young people; 45 million (out of 80 million) people who use the Internet; thousands of websites, and its per capita number of bloggers is one of the largest in the world, do not need Mattis’ tears. They can decide what is good for them. Over the past 20 years the civil society has become increasingly stronger in Iran, and step-by-step the hardliners and fundamentalists are retreating. The Iranian people will eventually get rid of the corrupt clerics as well, by the path that they have been taking.

Mattis also said, "The Iranian people are not the problem. The Iranian people are definitely not the problem….. We’ve got to make certain that the Iranian people know that we don’t have any conflict with them. I’d start with that." Yes, but how? The US has not yet invented a bomb or any other weapon to attack Iran and only kill the Iranian leaders, and not its people and not destroy its infrastructure, never mind that it would be illegal to do so. The same claim was made about Iraq. We were told that the Iraqi people were not the problem, but 14 years after attacking it, one of the most advanced Arab nations is in complete ruins.

Mattis also demonstrated his lack of understanding of the Iranian nationalism, as well as his ignorance of the current developments in Iran when he told Fischer, "You don’t want to unite the Iranian people with that unpopular regime because if you pressure them both then they will grow together." But, the US has already done this. The most important reason that 75 percent of Iranians voted in the May Presidential elections was that they heard the Trump administration’s saber rattling and beating the war drums. Somehow – and I do not know how – Mattis believes that he can threaten an entire nation with war and economic sanctions, but can also demonstrate to its people that they are not the target, even though he told Fischer that the US must resort to tough economic sanctions again: "What you have to do eventually is what then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, which was to move sanctions, economic sanctions, against them and force them to the negotiating table because they want to stay in power." This is magic, not rational thinking.

Mattis then went on a rage: "They [the Iranians] tried to murder an Arab ambassador in downtown Washington D.C." Yes, what happened to that fabrication? After a short period of time in which every imaginable ridiculous "theory" was offered to buttress the false claim that a bipolar used car salesman had been recruited by Iran to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Ambassador in Washington (and current foreign minister), suddenly the entire episode died, and we never ever heard of it again. Practically, no credible Iran expert believed the story (see, for example, here, here, and here).

Instead of condemning Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen, Mattis attacked Iran. "Right now, they [Iran] have moved ballistic missiles down to Yemen that were shot into Saudi Arabia from Yemen," he told Fischer, repeating the Saudis propaganda. This is while credible experts have said repeatedly that there is no evidence that Iran has provided any significant arms to the Houthis in Yemen, and that even if Iran has provided small arms to them, its purpose is to make Saudi Arabia’s nose bloody. Otherwise, Yemen has no strategic value to Iran. And, by the way, if Saudi Arabia commits war crimes in Yemen, why should the Yemenis not defend themselves by attacking Saudi Arabia? No sane people want war. But every sane person fights back, if a war is imposed on his/her nation.

Fischer then asked, "Is Iran the most dangerous country in the Middle East?" Mattis uttered the usual nonsense, "It’s certainly the country that is the only reason Assad has been able to stay in power," but later on contradicted himself by saying, "The only reason that Assad is still in power is Russia’s diplomatic veto, Iran’s military power, and now Russia’s military power." So, which is it?

Mattis continued, "For example, for so long when Russia vetoed the United Nations so they couldn’t do anything about it, the only reason that Assad is still in power and has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people." First, no country should have interfered in Syria. I firmly believe that if the outsiders had not interfered in Syria, the war there would either not have begun altogether, or it would have ended quickly. But, once one side did intervene, why blame the other side? Which countries were the first to intervene in Syria? Mattis should listen to what Joe Biden said at Harvard University in October of 2014: It was Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Turkey, not Iran and Russia.

Second, the US does not get to decide which regime is legitimate; the United Nations does, and as of the time of writing this article, the UN still recognizes Bashar Assad’s regime as the legitimate government of Syria, and that regime invited Russia to help it, and that regime invoked its defense agreement with Iran to help it. How does the US justify its illegal presence in Syria?

Third, it has become a cliché that "Assad has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people." First, there is no proof that he did. Second, true, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, but roughly 26 percent of all those killed have been regular Syrian army and its affiliated forces defending their country against foreign terrorists; about one-third are civilians killed by both sides, 11 percent are "rebels" foreign terrorists, and the rest are "undocumented." In addition, how many civilians has the US killed in Iraq and Syria during its war against Daesh?

Mattis even accused the Syrian government of allowing "the terrorists a place to set up camp….," and, of course, "it’s all because of Iran." In the six plus years of war in Syria, the Assad government has been accused of a lot of atrocities, some of which are true, and some are false or great exaggeration, but never has it been accused of allowing "the terrorist a place to set up." This is new and Mattis presented it without any evidence.

Both in the interview with Fischer and elsewhere, Mattis and other officials of the Trump administration have repeated another cliché, that "Iran is certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East." Here, Mattis does not mention that the BND, Germany’s intelligence services, believes that it is Saudi Arabia whose military interventions in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria have destabilized the Arab world, as do many analysts. Mattis does not also explain that what he really means by "destabilizing" is that countries like Iran oppose US intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere. In other words, what is supposedly being destabilized is what the Pentagon considers as its right to use the US military anywhere in this world without any opposition from the indigenous people.

And, who supports Mattis’ contention? He answers the question: "When I would travel to Cairo or Tel Aviv or Riyadh and from Arabs from Jews, all the people in the region; that is their view of Iran. " Oh, yes, Mattis’ claim is supported by the military regime in Cairo that came to power by overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Mohamed Morsi; the terrorist regime in Riyadh, and Iran’s sworn enemies among Israel’s far right. As the Persian proverb goes, "The fox [after stealing the chicken from the farm and eating it] was asked who is your witness [that stole the chicken}, and the fox responded, my tail."

It is in this context that Mattis talks about "moderate Arab regimes: "There are moderate regimes in the Middle East. The king of Jordan, clearly a moderating influence. The Emirates, the United Arab Emirates, I think almost a quarter of their ministers, what we would call secretaries of departments, are women. Everybody drives there, men, women, whatever." Once again, the measure of moderation in Mattis’ world is that women drive in these countries, even though as Joe Biden said, Emirates supported the terrorists in Syria, and Jordan is a dictatorship with a King whose father was on the CIA payroll for decades, with 60 percent of the population being Palestinians and suppressed.

Mattis also seems to delude himself about what is going on in these Arab countries: "By having everybody feel like they’ve got a sense of the future and a stake in the future, especially the young people, you can create a positive environment economically, politically, and diplomatically with their outreach to other countries that can help stabilize things." Yes, because of the ideological training that the young people of these countries receive based on Wahhabism, they feel that have a "stake" in the future. This explains why the young people of Saudi Arabia constitute the largest or the second largest group joining Daesh. During occupation of Iraq by US, roughly half of all members of the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to Daesh, were from Saudi Arabia. And how many Iranians have joined Daesh or any other terrorist group for that matter? None, zilch, nada.

And, then, Mattis makes the most outlandish claim by comparing Muhammad ibn Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minster to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He told Fischer, "As the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia put it, he’s trying to change fast from a consumer economy to a productive economy and that is a revolutionary effort. There’s a carrying capacity in any society for how much change it can incorporate at any one time. If you study history you can see Lincoln calculating it, you see FDR calculating it…." So, not only Salman, a man who has been described as "impulsive, aggressive" with "poor judgment;" "not a man who learns from his mistakes or even notices that he has made them," and "not only a gambler, but one who recklessly raises his stakes when in trouble," is in the same class as the FDR and Lincoln, it appears that, after all, Mattis thinks being a "revolutionary" is good, but only if the revolutionaries are "US strategic allies," not Iranians.

Mattis has a reputation for being rational; a man who thinks deeply about issues, and is well read. If true, God helps us all.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.