Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters en route back to Washington on Thursday from the Middle East that Iran is nefariously “mucking around” in upcoming Iraqi elections with cold, hard cash.
Iraqis go to the polls on May 12, a parliamentary election vote delayed from last September because of the ongoing battles to oust ISIS from Iraqi territory. That mission-accomplished was officially declared in December.
Mattis met with leaders in Oman and Bahrain this week as well as dropping in to Kabul to meet with representatives from multiple nations in Afghanistan.
In Bahrain, Mattis visited with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Crown Prince Salman and security officials along with more than a thousand U.S. Navy, Marines, soldiers, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen stationed there.
“Good questions. A lance corporal not old enough to drink adult beverages questioned me about the sufficiency of the National Defense Strategy in regards to shifting to great power competition. At the same time having to fight the violent extremists and how do you balance it,” he said. “That’s from an E3 in one of our services. So, it says something about quality of the troops we have today. I can’t imagine when I was his age having that sort of understanding or being able to give that sort of a challenge.”
Mattis said “one thing that came through loud and clear” on his visit “is the suspicion of Iran and the evidence of Iranian destabilizing efforts.”
“And this is — you know, I heard it when I was up in Afghanistan. You know, what’s going on with Iran’s support to Assad. Now, Iran is following Russian’s example of mucking around in Iraq’s elections,” he added.
“Down in Yemen, you know, our purpose is to drive that to the U.N.-brokered negotiating table. Down there, you can look at the Bab-el-Mandeb — that is the strait between the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea — as the Aberdeen Proving Ground for the Iranian military,” the secretary continued. “It’s where you find their radars, their ballistic missiles, their anti-ship cruise missiles. We found their mines, their explosive boats all being tested, increased capability being demonstrated down there.”
“Interestingly, in the Gulf itself, they are not coming as close to our ships. The provocative actions in the Gulf seem to have relented somewhat. They’re not doing as many bellicose confrontations and that sort of thing. So you’ve got the support, you know — and it’s reported on widely — in Syria and what’s going on. Even in Afghanistan, we find Iran doing things that are not helpful as we try to reconcile and end the war.”
Mattis said Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian Navy “don’t seem to be engaging in the same provocative behavior as before” but “I don’t know why.”
Asked to elaborate on Iran’s interference in Iraq elections, Mattis said he has “worrisome evidence that Iran is trying to influence, using money, the Iraqi elections — that money is being used to sway candidates, to sway votes.”
“It’s not an insignificant amount of money, we believe. And we think it’s highly unhelpful. Iran should leave the Iraqis to determine their own future,” he said, adding, “I don’t know the effectiveness of it. We know they’re trying. And we know they’re trying to influence the election.”
“I don’t want to speculate on which direction they’re going, because it would be more speculation, and I don’t engage in that. But we know the money’s going over. We know that they’re doing what they can to impact the elections. And we don’t like it in our country, when it happened, Germany doesn’t want it their country, and we don’t want to see it in Iraq, either.”