Iran, Mattis, and the Real Threat to U.S. Strategic Interests in the Middle East

Iran, Mattis, and the Real Threat to U.S. Strategic Interests in the Middle East by Anthony H. Cordesman, Center for Strategic & International Studies

The events in Iran and the Gulf during the last week have been a grim reminder that Iran remains the major threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Gulf and the Middle East, and that General James Mattis has been all too correct in singling out Iran as such a threat. Islamist extremism and terrorism are very real threats—but they are limited in scope and lethality.

In contrast, Iran has the ability to trigger a major war in the region, and to threaten the world's main source of oil and gas exports—the 17 million barrels of oil a day that flow through the Strait of Hormuz. Any such Iranian action threatens the stability of the entire global economy, the global (and U.S. domestic) price of oil and of transportation fuels, and the import and export capabilities of America's key trading partners in Asia—more than a third of U.S. manufactured imports.

There is nothing theoretical about this threat. On January 8, four Iranian Revolutionary Guards fast patrol boats came within 900 yards of the U.S.S. Mahan, a guided missile destroyer that was providing an escort to an amphibious warship with 1,000 Marines on board, and a Navy oiler making passage through international waters in the Gulf. They were heading directly towards U.S. vessels, and the U.S.S. Mahan had to fire warning shots to keep them at safe distance. Moreover, this is only the latest incident in a sustained pattern of harassment and provocation in the Gulf. The New York Times reports that there were 35 close encounters between American and Iranian vessels in 2016, most of which occurred during the first half of the year, and 23 encounters in 2015.

This is a grim reminder of the fact Iran has threatened in the past to close the Gulf to all shipping traffic, and is steadily building up a mix of naval, missile, and air capabilities to threaten shipping traffic all along its Gulf coast, at the Strait, and outside in the Gulf of Oman. This is not posturing or some casual series of incidents. Iran is steadily building up its submarine and submersible capabilities, land/sea/air based anti-ship missile forces, ability to rapidly deploy smart mines, and ability to "swarm" with missile-armed patrol boats and high speed craft armed with explosives that can be used for suicide attacks. At the same time, it is expanding its activities in the Indian Ocean…

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To be honest, these arguments are getting old and tired.

First, America does not need Iranian, or Saudi oil. We are a net producer of oil. So I really don't care what goes through the straits.

Second, if you really want to solve this problem, find a replacement for oil. The only reason the Persians and the Arabs have enough money to fund their military rivalries is because we give them the money to do it. You want to "drain the swamp"? - that is how you do it.

Finally, the conflict between the Persians and the Arabs, or the Sunni and the Shia, or the Kurds and everyone else, are not going to be settled because we bomb Tehran.

Mattis is right about political Islam. There is a legitimate ideological conflict going on between the liberal West and those who seek to spread political Islam. Those two ideologies are incompatible as long as political Islam is not willing to abide by the rules set out in the Treaty of Westphalia. And Iran is not our friend, any more than Russia is. The difference is that Russia is an existential threat to the United States as long as it has thousands of Nukes and the capability to deliver them to CONUS. Iran is not an existential threat.

JMHO, but a place like CSIS needs to be working on new, fresh thinking on how to solve these problems rather than walking us through stale foreign policy concepts.

Edited and added to somewhat from my earlier offering:

If one defines American strategic interests -- in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere -- more in "American values" terms,

Then, in this exact strategic context, can one not best -- and indeed most clearly -- see and understand how Iran might be identified as posing a "real threat," in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere, to exactly these such American strategic interests?


The international order built on the state system is not self-sustaining. It demands tending by an America that leads wisely, standing unapologetically for the freedoms each of us in this room have enjoyed. The hearing today addresses the need for America to adapt to changing circumstances, to come out now from its reactive crouch and to take a firm strategic stance in defense of our values. ...

Is political Islam in our best interest? If not what is our policy to support the countervailing forces?


Thus, in defining American strategic interests more in "American values" terms, does this not allow that indeed ALL of America's opponents -- vis-a-vis the threat that they might individually and/or collectively pose to our such strategic interests -- ALL of these such opponents can now be (a) much more easily identified, and, indeed, can now be (b) much more easily be seen and understood?

Herein to suggest that, as per the above logic, at any given place and/or time, America might consider as its opponents ANY AND/OR ALL states, societies and civilizations -- and, indeed, ANY AND/OR ALL individuals and groups -- that:

a. Do not adequately aspire to, possess or adhere to American values? And who, therefore,

b. Choose to organize, order and orient their ways of life, their ways of governance and/or their attitudes and beliefs more along what might be called "non-American" political, economic or social lines?

(Thus, such things as "political Islam," much like communism before it, to be much more easily understood within this "not conforming to American values = threat to American interests" context?)

We can, of course, easily expand upon and view this "not possessing American values = threat to America's strategic interests" thesis; this, for example, by also identifying as "enemy" those who -- within America itself -- (1) meet the criteria of my "a" and "b" immediately above and/or who (2) view and identify "American values" differently from others. Yes?

Thus, to suggest a possible source (American values; the perceived threat thereto) of many of America's internal and external problems and conflicts today? And, accordingly, a possible contemporary understanding -- for America's military, police and intelligence services/forces -- of such terms as "all enemies foreign and domestic?"