Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday that Iran's destabilizing actions in Syria risk an escalation with Israel that could spark a larger regional conflict.
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis said Iran has continued to work through its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, to expand Tehran's influence in the Middle East.
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Fears over a new conflict breaking out deepened in February when an Iranian drone launched from Syria crossed into Israeli airspace. The drone was immediately shot down, setting off a day of tense fighting that culminated in the downing of an Israeli jet that had been bombing Iranian positions in Syria.
Sen. Jack Reid (D., R.I.) pressed Mattis on the incident, asking the defense secretary whether he believes there is a "significant risk of escalation at this moment that would not only engulf Syria, but spread throughout the region."
"That's a complex question. I believe the short answer is yes," Mattis replied. "I can see how it might start, I’m not sure when or where, I think that it's very likely in Syria because Iran continues to do its proxy work there through Lebanese Hezbollah there and over into Lebanon, so I could imagine this sparking something larger."
Mattis's comments come as the Trump administration continues to mull whether to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord when it comes up for recertification in two weeks. Though the agreement deals exclusively with Tehran's nuclear program, U.S. lawmakers have complained Iran's destabilizing actions throughout the Middle East violate the "spirit" of the accord.
Mattis told lawmakers President Donald Trump had not yet decided on whether to fix the accord or walk away from it. He said discussions among the national security staff are ongoing but assured Congress the president would settle on a decision before the May 12 reauthorization deadline.
"There are obviously aspects of the JCPOA, of the agreement, that can be improved upon," Mattis testified, using the acronym for the Iran deal. "We’re working with our European allies on it at this time and again, the decision has not been made whether we can repair it enough to stay in it or if the president is going to decide to withdraw from it."
Mattis said the administration is assessing the degree to which the agreement needs to be repaired amid complaints by Trump that the deal is too soft on Iran. Trump has repeatedly threatened to scrap the accord, which exchanges U.S. sanctions relief for a pause on Tehran's nuclear program, but he has signed several waivers keeping its provisions in place.
Mattis, who has said remaining in the accord is in America's national security interest, told lawmakers that while it is "an imperfect arms control agreement," it does contain measures to ensure international oversight.
"It is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat, so the verification, what is in there is actually pretty robust, as far as our intrusive ability to get in," Mattis testified. "Whether or not that is sufficient, that is a valid question."
The nuclear accord currently gives Iran up to 24 days to grant international inspectors access to a suspicious site, a provision Iran hawks have long said could buy time for Tehran to hide evidence of nuclear activity.
House Republicans introduced legislation in January that would toughen the deal’s provisions by imposing an indefinite ban on ballistic missile development and require Tehran to permit "anytime, anywhere" inspections of suspected nuclear facilities. The bill would also slap sanctions on Tehran for human rights abuses and its ongoing support for terrorism.
U.S. law requires the president to notify Congress every 90 days on whether Iran is adhering to the accord. Though Trump has continued to waive nuclear-related sanctions, he warned in January it was the "last time" he'd do so if the accord remained unchanged.