The Slatest

Report: Defense Secretary Mattis Wanted to Confront the Iranian Navy Last Week

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reviews an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Japanese Defence Ministry in Tokyo on Feb. 4.

Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a piece on the confusion and dysfunction on the National Security Council, where the Trump team’s political concerns and unpredictability have reportedly rattled the staff. “Three weeks into the Trump administration,” the Times’ David Sanger, Eric Schmitt, and Peter Baker wrote,  “council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them.” According to the Times, these staffers don’t know who to trust: “Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an ‘insider threat’ program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.”

Much of the article focuses on Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, now the subject of controversy over reports that he discussed the lifting of Russian sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. before Trump’s inauguration. But the most alarming anecdote in the piece is actually about Defense Secretary James Mattis, whom many expected to be a stabilizing force within the administration:

Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was exploring whether the Navy could intercept and board an Iranian ship to look for contraband weapons possibly headed to Houthi fighters in Yemen. The potential interdiction seemed in keeping with recent instructions from Mr. Trump, reinforced in meetings with Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, to crack down on Iran’s support of terrorism.

But the ship was in international waters in the Arabian Sea, according to two officials. Mr. Mattis ultimately decided to set the operation aside, at least for now. White House officials said that was because news of the impending operation leaked, a threat to security that has helped fuel the move for the insider threat program. But others doubt whether there was enough basis in international law, and wondered what would happen if, in the early days of an administration that has already seen one botched military action in Yemen, American forces were suddenly in a firefight with the Iranian Navy.

Yes, what indeed? In 2015, reports emerged that the Obama administration was considering doing precisely what Mattis had explored—a convoy of nine Iranian ships potentially carrying weapons to Yemen’s Houthi rebels was traveling through international waters where some suspected they would be confronted and boarded by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and another American ship. Those reports were immediately shot down by the State Department. “I saw a lot of cable tickers today, ‘Ships Going There to Intercept Iranian Ships,’ that is blatantly untrue,” then State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told the press. The American ships had been moved, the Pentagon said, to “ensure maritime security”—in other words, to show force without the risks of doing what Mattis was evidently prepared to do last week: directly confront Iran in a way that could have set off a deadly military engagement.