Trump's former national security adviser says reentering Iran deal would be 'huge mistake'

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served as national security adviser from 2017 to 2018, assesses Trump’s Middle East record, reflecting on his career in the region’s battlegrounds.

al-monitor Outgoing national security adviser H.R. McMaster attends a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House April 3, 2018, in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Nov 3, 2020

In the latest episode of Al-Monitor’s "On the Middle East" podcast series, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, former national security adviser to US President Donald Trump, called the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal "deeply flawed" and "a political disaster masquerading as a diplomatic triumph."

McMaster, the Fouad and Michelle Ajami chair at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told Al-Monitor's Andrew Parasiliti that if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidency, reentering the Iran nuclear deal, as Biden said he would do if Iran is in compliance, would be a "huge mistake."

“What’s immensely important now, and what the biggest accomplishment of the Trump administration has been, is to put the economic pressure on the regime, to force a choice, and ultimately, it will be up to the Iranian people to voice a desire to change the nature of their government,” he said.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) required the Iranian government to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international financial and oil sanctions. In addition to the United States and Iran, the deal's other signatories included the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. 

In 2018, Trump abandoned the deal, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Since then, a "maximum pressure" campaign by Washington has included a slew of new sanctions against Tehran as tensions have boiled over into proxy wars in Iraq and elsewhere.

In his new book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” McMaster writes, “While the JCPOA was presented as a major turn in American policy, in fact it was consistent with a long history of errors and illusions.”

But despite being critical of the deal, McMaster tried to hold off Trump from abandoning the deal entirely until a new Iran strategy was in place. 

“I wanted to stay in the deal to continue the conversation about the Iranian regime and its behavior,” he said. “I felt that once we pulled out, the conversation would be about us. I wanted us to be able to sanction Iran’s behavior outside of the regime, hold them to the deal and then over time try to correct the flaws in the deal.”

That's no longer feasible, McMaster believes.

“Until the Iranian regime ceases its permanent hostility, a conciliatory approach just won’t work,” he said. 

Here are a few more highlights of McMaster’s interview with Al-Monitor:

On Saudi Arabia as part of the Middle East solution

“We ought to have a goal in mind and that goal should be that Saudi Arabia become part of the solution across the Middle East instead of part of the problem. … I think it can. This was the purpose of President Trump’s visit. Everybody thought in 2017, what the heck is Donald Trump doing going to Riyadh for his first trip? They thought this was difficult to understand. But if you go back and read President Trump’s speech and King Salman’s speech, these were landmark speeches. As it turns out, they were aspirational but they were also practical in connection with the establishment of an institution for countering radical islamist ideology as well as a multinational effort to cut off terrorist and extremist funding.”

On US-Turkey relations

“Turkey’s drift away from Europe and the United States and the West has been maybe the greatest geostrategic shift since the end of the Cold War and it’s not in our interest. Hopefully, President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan would realize that he is actually acting against Turkish interests when he aids and abets the Russians. Hopefully, he’s having some buyer’s remorse about that relationship because now he is engaged through his proxies against Russian proxies in Idlib, in Libya and now in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

On US-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain

“I love the Abraham Accords because of the name, because the name communicates to our friends in the region that we are all people of the book. It’s important in connection with limiting Iran’s ability to continue its four-decades-long proxy war, but it’s also important in removing sources of ideological support from jihadist terrorist organizations who want to portray their criminal and political agenda as a war of religion when in fact, of course, we know that the vast majority of victims of these terrorists are fellow Muslims.”

On defeating the Islamic State

I think the acceleration of the campaign to defeat [IS] was positive, as has been the sustained engagement in Iraq, and engagement in Iraq that was in support of Iraqi sentiments against the complete alignment of Iran and the loss of Iraqi sovereignty to Iranian infiltration and subversion of the Iraqi state … and it’s also important to remain engaged in Syria and in Iraq to complete the defeat of [IS]. We should learn from December 2011 that when you leave a war and when one side disengages, that doesn’t mean the competition is over.”

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