A top US general said on Tuesday that American efforts aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon were not working, even as he voiced support for crippling sanctions and diplomatic efforts aimed at isolating the Islamic state.
"I still support the direction we're taking. I'm just paid to take a rather dim view of the Iranians, frankly," General James Mattis, the head of the US military's Central Command, told a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
"I believe they are trying to buy time with the negotiations but that should not be in any way construed as 'We should not try to negotiate,'" Mattis said, noting US President Barack Obama's warning that military intervention was an option if all else were to fail.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis said “Iran remains the single-most significant regional threat to stability and prosperity.”
He added that the Iranian government’s “Reckless behavior and bellicose rhetoric characterize a leadership that cannot win the affection of its own people or the respect of any responsible nation in the region.”
Mattis warned that an Iranian "miscalculation" could spark a disastrous conflict, pointing to the Islamic Republic's support for the Syrian regime, along with its "maligned activities in the Middle East."
Mattis named Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Gaza as example of Iranian attempts to unsettle the region, before pointing out that, "even here in Washington, DC, [Iran made] an attempt to kill the Saudi ambassador.”
He stressed that Iran is not only a threat to the Middle East but also to other areas of the world, as well as in cyber space.
Mattis also painted a daunting portrayal of events on the ground in Syria, where he said the situation was too complex at this point for him to support arming rebels battling Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
"We don't want to inadvertently, with the best of intentions, arm people who are basically sworn enemies," he said before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.
Iran supports Assad and Mattis predicted that a fall of the Assad regime would represent a major setback for Tehran, prompting an Iranian backlash that would see it arming militias in Syria to "try to create a Lebanese-Hezbollah-type effect."
"The collapse of the Assad regime, sir, would be biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years," Mattis said in response to a question from Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
Asked by Reed whether the United States would plan for that scenario explicitly, Mattis responded: "And we are, Senator."
Mattis said "quiet planning" was also underway with regional allies for potential stability operations if needed after the Syrian regime's collapse, and pointed to regional organizations like the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as groups "that may be able to take this on."
"We are doing some planning with the regional militaries and getting basically a framework for what this would look like," he said.
Still, Mattis said the situation in Syria remained "fundamentally unpredictable," even though Assad's power base and geographic area of control were eroding.
Asked how long he believed Assad could hold onto power, at least in a sub-region of Syria, Mattis said: "I really don't have the ability to forecast this well, Senator."
"I'd hate to give you some kind of certainty that I don't sense right now," he said.