Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the DOD budget, May 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the DOD budget, May 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis vowed Wednesday that the United States would work with its allies to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, one day after President Donald Trump pulled out of a key agreement that temporarily halted the country’s nuclear program.

“We have walked away from [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] because we found it was inadequate for the long-term effort,” Mattis told lawmakers during testimony before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for defense. “We will work with our allies and try to bring Iran back into more responsible behavior.”

The defense secretary said the decision to pull out of the JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was not made hastily.

The United States left the agreement, which was negotiated under former President Barack Obama, because it could not be fully ensured that the Iranians were living up to their end of the deal, Mattis said. However in April, Mattis told lawmakers the agreement included a “pretty robust” verification system that appeared to be written under the assumption the Iranians would attempt “to cheat.”

Though Mattis had previously said the agreement with Iran was less than perfect, this was the first time that he stated publicly that he supported withdrawing from it. He indicated the Trump administration would seek other avenues to curb Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons and address its ballistic missile program, its use of cyberattacks and its use of military vessels to disrupt commerce in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

“For over a year, we have attempted to work with allies to address the shortcomings of [the deal],” Mattis said. “I think we now have the opportunity to move forward and address those shortcomings and make it more compelling. That effort is underway already.”

Trump had long vowed to walk away from the deal, making it a central theme of his presidential campaign. In announcing the U.S. withdrawal, Trump called the deal “defective at its core.”

“If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen,” Trump said Tuesday afternoon during an address to the nation. “In just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

The nuclear deal was struck in 2015 with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia signing it with Iran. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran agreed to restrictions on its nuclear program and international inspections through 2031.

American allies, including Germany, Britain and France, unsuccessfully lobbied Trump to remain in the deal before his announcement to withdraw. French President Emmanuel Macron said those nations would remain in the agreement, adding he expected Iran to continue to abide by it. Top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chastised Trump’s decision in public remarks on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported.

Trump said Tuesday that he would re-impose economic sanctions and add new ones against Iran in an effort to “pressure the regime to alter its course of malign activities across the Middle East.”

The first wave of sanctions — on Iran’s currency, precious metals, aluminum and steel — will begin Aug. 6. A second round of sanctions will begin 90 days later and target Iran’s central bank, oil and other energy sectors and shipping industry, the White House said.

Mattis on Wednesday ticked off a list of locations that he said Iran has engaged in “malicious and malign” behavior including Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria, where he said Iran was guilty of ensuring President Bashar Assad has remained in power through a brutal seven-year civil war.

“Assad is still in power today, still murdering his own people,” Mattis said. “Without [Iran and Russia] he would have fallen to his own peoples’ revolt.”

Democratic senators on Wednesday expressed their dismay to Mattis about Trump’s decision to leave the deal, telling the defense secretary that they believed it would only raise tensions with Iran’s regime.

“This is a big mistake,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. “It splits us from our allies and puts us on a path to war with Iran.”

Mattis said he did not foresee war with Iran, telling the panel that he did not plan to ask for additional funding to pay for combat operations against that nation.

However, he added: “Should Iran do something, now that is another issue.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the subcommittee’s top Democrat, decried Trump’s decision, telling Mattis that it would ultimately cripple the ability of the United States to monitor Iran’s weapons programs.

“Equally important, and you’ve acknowledged it, our allies have joined us in sticking their necks out – France, Germany, U.K., the European Union. China and Russia even joined us to make certain that this agreement had universal support beyond Iran,” he said. “I cannot believe it will inspire any confidence in our allies, our work, and our reliability in the future when it comes to these agreements.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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