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Pentagon Voices Support For Iran Nuclear Deal Amid Tillerson Exit

U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command

A top U.S. military commander expressed the Pentagon's continued support for Iran's nuclear deal with world powers hours after the announced departure of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a top defender of the deal in the U.S. administration.

U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 13 that he shares the views of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joe Dunford that the deal is still in the best interests of the United States.

"From my perspective, the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] addresses one of the principal threats that we deal with from Iran. So, if [it] goes away, then we will have to have another way to deal with their nuclear weapons program," he said.

"There would be some concern, I think, about how we intended to address that particular threat if it was not being addressed through the JCPOA," Votel said. "Right now, I think it is in our interest" to stay in the deal, he said.

Votel's remarks came after President Donald Trump once again criticized the 2015 agreement as "terrible" and cited disagreement with Tillerson over the deal as a reason he decided to fire the top diplomat.

"We got along, actually, quite well, but we disagreed on things," Trump said. "Look at the Iran deal. I think it's terrible, I guess he felt it was okay; I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same."

Trump said that he and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who he said he is naming to replace Tillerson, think more alike. "We are always on the same wave length," he said.

Pompeo, 54, is a strong critic of Iran and the nuclear deal. Trump has vowed to pull the United States out of the deal if substantial changes are not made by May 12.

Media reports last week said that Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would withdraw from the deal if European powers that also signed the agreement do not agree to modifications he is demanding.

The deal, which imposed curbs on Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for relief from sanctions, was designed to constrain Iran's ability to make nuclear weapons for at least 15 years.

Despite Trump's strong opposition to the deal, Tillerson, Mattis and other members of his administration have defended it, arguing that the United States is better off with it than without it.

It remains to be seen whether Pompeo will continue Tillerson's efforts to try to save the deal by working out side deals with European allies Britain, Germany, and France.

Trump delivered an ultimatum to the European signatories on January 12, saying they must agree to "fix the terrible flaws" in the deal or he would refuse to extend U.S. sanctions relief for Iran.

U.S. sanctions will resume unless Trump issues fresh "waivers" to suspend them under a statutory deadline on May 12. Iran has said it will stop complying with the deal if the U.S. withdraws and resumes sanctions.

U.S., British, French, and German officials are due to meet on the deal in Berlin on March 15. The European countries all continue to express support for the nuclear deal while also showing willingness to try to address Trump's concerns.

Trump has said he sees three defects in the deal: its failure to address Iran's ballistic missile program; the restrictive terms under which international inspectors are allowed to visit suspected Iranian nuclear sites; and its "sunset" clauses under which the deal's limits on Iranian nuclear activities such as uranium enrichment start to expire after 10 years.

Trump has said he wants all three strengthened if the United States is to stay in the deal.

"We're working with allies and partners to block Iran's path to a nuclear weapon and confront its sponsorship of terror and bloodshed all around the world," Trump said in a speech at Miramar Air Base in California on March 13.

"Everywhere we go in the Middle East it's Iran, Iran, Iran. Every problem is Iran. Well, we're dealing with it in a very serious fashion. One of the worst deals I've ever seen, was the Iran deal."

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and Reuters