Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, seen here in a 2011 photo, gave some behind-the-scene details of a September 2012 minesweeping exercise at a Jan. 27 luncheon. (MCS3 Billy Ho / US Navy)
RICHMOND, VA. — A 2012 minesweeping exercise in the Arabian Gulf helped diffuse tensions in the Strait of Hormuz and buy time for U.S. diplomats to engage Iran, a former senior military commander in the Middle East said Monday.
Making a rare public appearance, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis gave some behind-the-scene details of the September 2012 exercise.
Earlier that year, Iran — angry over international sanctions imposed over its nuclear program — had threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. Planting sea mines would be one way to close the waterway through which a fifth of the world’s oil flows.
“The free flow of oil has got to be maintained for the global economy,” Mattis — who at the time was the head of US Central Command, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East — told the US Global Leadership Coalition at a luncheon.
So, CENTCOM organized a massive minesweeping exercise.
“We didn’t make an anti-Iranian exercise, we made an anti-mine exercise,” Mattis said.
The general thought a dozen countries would show up. But in the end, 29 participated.
“The Iranians looked at it and realized they were actually creating an international coalition against them that was brought forward by the only navy in the world that could have done it, the U.S. Navy,” Mattis said. “It silenced them and bought time ... for our diplomats to try to solve this problem.
“It shows how the military can help stabilize and drive down the risk of fighting to buy time ... for economic and policy efforts to integrate and find a way forward without another catastrophic war in the Middle East,” he continued.
Since the incident, the U.S. and international community has increasingly engaged the Iranian government, leading to a late 2013 agreement on nuclear issues.
Mattis said the 2012 exercise is an example of how the Defense and State departments can work together on diplomatic efforts.
“The military gives significant advantage to the State Department,” he said.