BERKELEY, Calif. — Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who was responsible for overseeing 20 Middle Eastern countries as the former commander of Central Command, gave a series of lectures at the University of California-Berkeley this week.
With insight into what’s happening in the world today, the outlook if Iran ends up getting a nuclear weapon, and his reflections on working in the Middle East, Mattis offered expert opinion based on knowledge and contacts in the region, along with his 40+ years of service in the military.
On Thursday, he told the a story from his time at CENTCOM, which demonstrated how the military can complement foreign policy, often being used strategically to achieve objectives without ever having to fire a shot.
“The military overseas can do more than simply reinforce foreign policy,” Mattis said. “We can also buy time for the diplomats to do their magic.”
Referencing a map of the Persian Gulf, Mattis pointed out a “choke point” of waterway between Iran and Oman called the Strait of Hormuz that serves as a shipping channel for roughly 40% of the world’s oil.
A few years ago, Mattis said, “You heard an awful lot from Tehran about how they were going to mine these waters” which would have the effect of spiking the oil price on world markets, before Iran finally backed off.
Why Iran backed off stems from a phone call Mattis made to the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquartered in Bahrain.
“I said I want you to do an anti-mine exercise. Not an anti-Iran exercise,” he said. “I want you to do an anti-mine exercise, and I want you to make it international, I want you to put together a coalition. I want you to send a message to Tehran that we can open those straits if you try to close them.”
Assuming he’d get the “usual suspects” who often support the U.S. — France, Britain, United Arab Emirates — Mattis was surprised to get an update on the exercise about a month later.
“There were 29 nations coming,” he said. “Those nations included Canada, Estonia, Djibouti, Japan, Singapore, I could go on. These are not bellicose nations — we had every continent represented except Antarctica.”
“I was looking for a penguin to do diving too so we could get Antarctica,” Mattis said jokingly.
Mattis was clear that the exercise should not be taken as specifically targeting Iran, telling the press at the time “if there is a country that wants to put mines in the water, they should take this as ‘anti-them,’ but we’re only taking care of the mines.”
After the exercise, Mattis said, “we have very seldom heard [Iran] say anything about putting mines in the water.”
“By doing this we were able to coalesce, really, a diplomatic coalition manifested by nation’s militaries, and point out to Iran that what they were doing was they were creating an international coalition against themselves.”
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