The Cable

Top General Admits Disagreements With White House Over Iran Deal

Gen. Dempsey comes clean at Senate hearing.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 07:  U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey (R) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (L) answer questions during a hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee July 7, 2015 in Washington, DC. Carter and Dempsey testified on the topic of "Counter-ISIL Strategy."  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 07: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey (R) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (L) answer questions during a hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee July 7, 2015 in Washington, DC. Carter and Dempsey testified on the topic of "Counter-ISIL Strategy." (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In a break with the White House, outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Wednesday he advised against lifting sanctions on weapons and ballistic missile shipments to Iran as part of the new nuclear deal with Tehran.

Asked directly by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) if he voiced opposition on that part of the pact, Dempsey said: “Yes … and I used the phrase ‘as long as possible,’ and then that was the point at which the negotiation continued.”

“But, yes, that was my military advice,” Dempsey, who is retiring in September, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. The hearing was the administration’s latest attempt to sell Congress on the historic deal, which limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing harsh economic sanctions against the country.

The sanctions prohibiting the shipment of parts for ballistic missiles to Iran are due to expire in eight years, according to the agreement that was struck July 14. Economic penalties for shipping conventional arms will be lifted in five years.

Dempsey also rejected President Barack Obama’s July 15 statement that, “Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East.” Dempsey flatly told Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) that “at no time did that come up in our conversation, nor did I make that comment.”

He added: “I can tell you that we have a range of options and I always present them.”

On a trip this month to Iraq and Afghanistan, Dempsey expressed other reservations with the accord. He said “there is every reason to believe” Iran will use increased revenues from the lifting of sanctions to fund the country’s “malign activities,” including its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and funding Hezbollah. “Time and Iranian behavior will determine whether this agreement has achieved the purposes we intended it to achieve,” he said.

Testifying at the same hearing, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Iran has an estimated $50 to $60 billion in banks worldwide that it may begin accessing in coming years.

On the military front, both Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Dempsey noted the increased training and partnering activities between U.S. troops and allied forces in the Middle East that have been designed to help contain Iran, including new sales of missile defense capabilities to the region.

“We are doing a great deal in the Gulf,” Carter said. “We have to, and are, doing a lot to strengthen our posture.”

Dempsey also said the U.S. is working with Gulf allies to bolster ballistic missile defenses, partnering and training with local special operations forces, along with working on counterterrorism and cyber defense. Just before the hearing began, in fact, the State Department announced a pending deal with Saudi Arabia for 600 new PAC-3 Patriot missile interceptors for $5.4 billion.

The massive deal follows an April agreement with Riyadh for $2 billion worth of Patriots, and another $1.5 billion sale, announced this month, for Patriot interceptors in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon will produce the missiles.

Meanwhile, Israel is buying new ballistic missile systems and is preparing for upcoming deliveries of the F-35 fighter jet, Dempsey said. He also noted U.S. efforts to help Israeli counterterrorism activities and counter-tunneling work, in a reference to tunnels used to smuggle arms and fighters from the Sinai into Gaza.

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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