As Western diplomats meet this week in Baghdad to try to coax Iran’s leaders to disclose its full nuclear program, Gen. James Mattis will be keeping an eye on the Persian military.
Mattis wanted to send a third aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf earlier this year, The Daily Beast has exclusively learned, in what would have been a massive show of force at a time when Iranian military commanders were publicly threatening to sink American ships in the Strait of Hormuz. The four-star Marine Corps general and CentCom commander believed the display could have deterred Iran from further escalating tensions, according to U.S. military officials familiar with his thinking.
But the president wanted to focus military resources on new priorities like China, and Mattis was told a third carrier group was not available to be deployed to the Gulf.
The carrier-group rebuff in January was one of several for the commander responsible for East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Working for the Obama administration, Mattis has often found himself the odd man out—particularly when it comes to Iran.
Military sources close to the general tell The Beast that Mattis was worried that the president’s decision, announced in November, to fully withdraw from Iraq would leave the U.S. military without access to the country’s bases and with few options to project power in the region. The military had been negotiating with the Iraqi government for continued access to bases there for some intelligence, training, and counterterrorism missions until Obama announced his decision to the press in November.
“General Mattis is a key player in administration debates and a vital implementer of the administration’s policies,” said Denis McDonough, a deputy national-security adviser and one of President Obama’s most trusted advisers on foreign affairs.
Those who have worked with Mattis say his views when it comes to Iran are more in line with those of America’s allies in the Persian Gulf and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with his own government’s. At a recent charity event for Spirit of America, Mattis, known by admirers as the “warrior monk” and by detractors as “Mad Dog Mattis,” said his three top concerns in the Middle East were “Iran, Iran, and Iran.”
The official U.S. national-intelligence estimate on Iran concludes that the country suspended its nuclear-weapons work in 2003, but sources close to the general say he believes that Iran has restarted its weapons work and has urged his analysts to disregard the official estimate.
While Mattis has largely voiced his dissent about recent U.S. Iran assessments in private, on occasion his displeasure has spilled into the public record. In March, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Mattis, “After all the sanctions that have been imposed on the Iranian regime, do you believe the regime has been at all dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability?” Mattis responded: “No, sir, I have not seen that.”
The general also serves as a critical liaison with America’s Arab allies in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which share Israel’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program. Since 2007 the United States has approved an unprecedented level of arms sales to those countries.
“General Mattis is reflecting two pretty traditional concerns,” said Thomas Donnelly, the codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “One is that of a regional commander who has to every day deal with our allies and partners in the region that do not fear Israel, but do fear Iran.”
At times, Mattis has even served as an important interlocutor with the Israelis—even though Israel is the one Middle Eastern country that does not fall within his area of responsibility. According to U.S. and Israeli officials, Mattis has had regular contact with Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, the military attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. These meetings are not on the public schedule and are often over dinner, according to these sources.
Mattis’s unsuccessful push for a third carrier group was a significant request. There are only 11, and that number will go down to 10 this year when the USS Enterprise is decommissioned after 50 years. And Obama’s new military strategy unveiled in January calls for a beefed-up military presence in the Pacific Ocean to counter China.
The general did get an afloat forward staging base, or AFSB, a floating dock that can host smaller aircraft or launch the rigid-hull inflatable speedboats favored by special forces—though in February Adm. John Harvey, commander of fleet forces, denied press reports that the AFSB would be used as a SEAL mothership.
“It appears that General Mattis is at the point where he knows his power projected from land will decrease over time with the close of two land-centered wars,” said Peter Daly, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute. Daly retired from the Navy in August with the rank of vice admiral. His last job was as deputy commander of U.S. fleet forces, the Navy’s broker in the global-force-management process that the U.S. military uses to determine where to place its numerous assets.
“Unlike the past, where we’ve had permission to go into these other countries and operate, that is less likely in the future. It is appealing to operate from the sea, where you do not need permission.”
Mattis was commanding his area of responsibility in an “outstanding manner and with great skill,” said George Little, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Little added: “The secretary trusts his judgment implicitly on some of the most pressing security and military challenges of our time, including the war in Afghanistan. General Mattis is seasoned, studied, and the consummate warrior. He is also among the best of advisers, candid and honest, and always in keeping with—and in full support of—our national interests. He’s one of America’s finest military leaders.”
A senior U.S. defense official acknowledged that Mattis has differences with the White House on Iran. “He’s doing exactly what we need any combatant commander to do: telling us what he thinks he needs, giving us his perspective on the problems he faces,” this official said. “That’s what you want. That’s what you expect. And he does it all privately, with all the more credibility. There isn’t a single other leader in government who doesn’t share some concern over the direction Iran is headed.”
Mattis declined to comment for this article.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the U.S. sold F-22 fighter jets to the UAE.