Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday that the U.S. military has at the ready constantly updated plans to use force to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and the means to do so if diplomacy fails.
"We maintain military options because of Iran's bellicose statements and threats," he said at a hearing of the Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee, and "those plans remain operant."
Mattis was responding to questions from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, who said the risk of war had "dramatically increased" following President Donald Trump's announcement Tuesday that the U.S. is withdrawing from the international agreement to rein in Iran's nuclear programs.
The SecDef said diplomacy is his first choice, but "we are always updating those plans" for the military option. "It's a constant. The plans are updated as rapidly as needed."
Funding in the current defense budget is sufficient to back up the contingency plans for Iran and he does not anticipate asking Congress for supplemental funding, Mattis said.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, questioned whether Trump has authority under existing laws and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to order a "unilateral attack" on Iran.
"I'd prefer not talk about a hypothetical case like that," Mattis said, but "everything that we are doing, and you can see it with Korea, we're diplomatically led on this. We're not talking about any default to war."
In his prepared remarks and in response to questions, he said the U.S. must seek to build on what remains of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was enacted in 2015 under the Obama administration and primarily aimed at reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The plan was agreed to by the so-called "P5 plus one" -- the U.S., France, Britain, China and Russia as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.
Mattis said Trump's announcement ended U.S. participation in the JCPOA and would lead to re-imposing economic sanctions that had been lifted under the agreement.
However, "we will continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon, and will work with others to address the range of Iran's malign influence" throughout the Mideast, he added.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday that the other signatories are prepared to continue with the JCPOA despite Trump's withdrawal. In a phone call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Macron said France wants to maintain the JCPOA "in all its dimensions," French media reported.
Mattis said Iran's "malign activities" are evident in conflicts and terror attacks in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is "still in power today, still murdering his own people" with the backing of Iran.
A main factor in Trump's decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, Mattis said, was that "we found it inadequate for the long-term effort" aimed at curbing Iran's destabilizing influence in the region and limiting its ability to develop nuclear weapons.
Several Democrats on the subcommittee questioned how withdrawing from the JCPOA would contribute to the goals Mattis set out.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said, "The president's decision yesterday, I believe, is not only wrong but reckless."
He said the agreement Trump scrapped had put inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency on the ground in Iran and they had confirmed that it was living up to the JCPOA.
"You have acknowledged that," Durbin told Mattis.
Neither Mattis nor Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford disputed that they had repeatedly affirmed JCPOA was working in terms of verifying Iran's compliance on nuclear programs, but they deferred to Trump's decision.
"It was not a hasty decision," Mattis said, suggesting that there had been a vigorous debate at the White House. In the end, "the president affirmed [JCPOA] was not being lived up to."
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, read back to Dunford his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last July in which he said he was "not aware of any violations" of the JCPOA and "I believe it is in the nation's interest to continue to implement the Iran nuclear agreement."
Dunford replied that "the president has changed the policy," and "my job now is to adjust to that reality."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.