By Kelly Jane Torrance
September 5, 2019
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says he predicted years ago that Iran would escalate its provocations against the United States — and he partly blames the Obama administration’s anemic reaction to an Iranian plot to bomb a restaurant in Washington, D.C.
In his just-released book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, Mattis details his time as leader of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, overseeing military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. “From my first day at CENTCOM, I knew we faced two principal adversaries: stateless Sunni Islamist terrorists and the revolutionary Shiite regime of Iran, the most destabilizing country in the region,” he writes. “Iran was by far the more deadly of the two threats.”
That’s not how the president under whom Mattis served saw it, though, and Barack Obama eventually fired the storied Marine general for what Mattis believes were his insistent warnings about the Iranian threat.
Mattis says Washington didn’t even inform him when Iran committed an “act of war” on American soil.
The duty officer at his Tampa, Florida, headquarters on Oct. 11, 2011 told him that the attorney general and FBI director had held a press conference to announce the arrest of two Iranians who had planned a bomb attack on Cafe Milano, a high-end restaurant in Washington that was a favorite of the rich and famous, including Saudi Arabia’s ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir.
As Mattis writes, “Attorney General Eric Holder said the bombing plot was ‘directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Qods Force.’ The Qods were the Special Operations Force of the Revolutionary Guards, reporting to the top of the Iranian government.”
Many pundits questioned the administration’s assessment that the Iranian government was involved in the plan. Despite Iran’s long history of overseas assassination plots, some observers were skeptical that the theocratic regime would attempt such an audacious attack.
Mattis is certain, however: “I saw the intelligence: we had recorded Tehran’s approval of the operation.”
“Had the bomb gone off, those in the restaurant and on the street would have been ripped apart, blood rushing down sewer drains. It would have been the worst attack on us since 9/11. I sensed that only Iran’s impression of America’s impotence could have led them to risk such an act within a couple of miles of the White House,” he writes. “Absent one fundamental mistake — the terrorists had engaged an undercover DEA agent in an attempt to smuggle the bomb — the Iranians would have pulled off this devastating attack. Had that bomb exploded, it would have changed history.”
The CENTCOM chief thought that point needed to be driven home to the public. “I believed we had to respond forcefully. My military options would raise the cost for this attack beyond anything the mullahs and the Qods generals could pay,” he writes. “First, though, the President had to go before the American people and forcefully lay out the enormous savagery of the intended attack. The American public — and the global public — had to understand the gravity of the plot.”
Mattis envisioned something like the moment that locked American sentiment against Germany in the First World War. “In March 1917, President Wilson received, via British intelligence, a copy of a telegram sent by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to the president of Mexico.” The Germans proposed an alliance that would see Mexico recovering parts of Texas and other states if it helped Germany on America’s entry into the war.
“Outraged, Wilson publicized the telegram to alert and mobilize the public,” Mattis writes. “As President Wilson had done, so too should President Obama go before the American public, lay out the evidence, denounce the Iranian regime, and hold it to account.”
Obama declined to echo Wilson’s use of the bully pulpit.
“Washington was not interested in my Zimmermann analogy. We treated an act of war as a law enforcement violation, jailing the low-level courier,” Mattis writes.
His push, along with accusations, which Mattis denies, that CENTCOM leaked details of its annual war game, “did not raise my popularity inside the White House. But at CENTCOM, I had to deal with an Iran that continued to provoke.”
The provocations were not unlike those of this year, as Iran has stepped up its bad behavior in the region in an attempt to get Europe to salvage the nuclear deal. The regime seized a British Royal Navy small craft in June 2012, declaring it sets the rules in the Strait of Hormuz. A few months later, an Iranian fighter aircraft tried to shoot down an American drone in international airspace over the Persian Gulf.
“I proposed to Washington that we launch another drone on the same track, position a few F-18 aircraft out of sight, and shoot down the Iranian aircraft if it attacked the drone,” Mattis writes. “The White House refused to grant permission.”
He explains his thinking: “I wanted calculated actions, to restrain the regime so it couldn’t thrust us into a war. If you allow yourself to be goaded and trifled with, one of two things will happen: eventually a harder, larger fight will explode, or you will get moved out of the neighborhood,” he writes.
“In my view, we had to hold Iran to account and strike back when attacked. But there was a reason for the administration’s restraint. The administration was secretly negotiating with Iran, although I was not privy to the details at the time.”
Those negotiations would lead to the Iran nuclear deal, signed in 2015. Mattis is critical of the agreement, which President Trump withdrew from last year. “In my military judgment, America had undertaken a poorly calculated, long-shot gamble. At the same time, the administration was lecturing our Arab friends that they had to accommodate Iran as if it were a moderate neighbor in the region and not an enemy committed to their destruction,” Mattis writes. “As long as its leaders consider Iran less a nation-state than a revolutionary cause, Iran will remain a terrorist threat potentially more dangerous than Al Qaeda or ISIS.”
Mattis says his reaction to the Cafe Milano bomb plot contributed towards Obama’s decision to fire him abruptly.
“While I fully endorse civilian control of the military, I would not surrender my independent judgment. In 2010, I argued strongly against pulling all our troops out of Iraq,” Mattis writes. (Earlier in the book, he recounts a discussion he had on the subject in Baghdad with Vice President Joe Biden, who was in charge of Iraq policy but “ignoring reality” and uninterested in the considered opinion of the general in charge of operations there.) “In 2011, I urged retaliation against Iran for plotting to blow up a restaurant in our nation’s capital. In 2012, I argued for retaining a small but capable contingent of troops in Afghanistan. Each step along the way, I argued for political clarity and offered options that gave the Commander in Chief a rheostat he could dial up or down to protect our nation.”
The commander in chief chose another option: fire the CENTCOM leader.
“In December 2012, I received an unauthorized phone call telling me that in an hour, the Pentagon would be announcing my relief,” Mattis writes. “I was leaving a region aflame and in disarray.”
And the biggest threat in the region, Mattis says, then as now, was Iran. He predicted the Obama administration’s reluctance to punish Tehran for its bad behavior while the two sides negotiated a nuclear deal would come back to haunt the U.S. He concludes that “the Iranians had not been held to account, and I anticipated that they would feel emboldened to challenge us more in the future.”