Trump’s ex-NSC chief McMaster to 'Post': Force Iran to make a choice

SECURITY AFFAIRS: Russia is a key enabler of Iran across the region. It is enabling a proxy [Iranian] army on the border of Israel. It is allowing the strengthening of Hezbollah.

THEN-US national security advisor H. R. McMaster speaks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, in 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
THEN-US national security advisor H. R. McMaster speaks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, in 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
H.R. McMaster is not looking to win a random quarter of a game. His eyes are on the trophy.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, the former national security council chief for the Trump administration from February 2017 to April 2018, retired US Army lieutenant-general and military historian explained the big-picture strategy for how to deal with Iran, China, Russia and the Palestinians over the long term.
Most “strategists,” when compared to McMaster, would eventually be shown to be tacticians who are still not stepping back far enough to see the big picture.
That is why, when he spoke to the Post about Iran, and when he wrote about the Islamic Republic in his new book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, he spoke in terms of the need to “force Iran to make a choice” and the need to “convince the Iranian leaders and the people” that maintaining their hostility to the US, the West and Israel will get them nowhere.
McMASTER’s NEW book, ‘Battlegrounds.’ (Amazon)McMASTER’s NEW book, ‘Battlegrounds.’ (Amazon)
Usually, big-picture debates about Iran quickly descend into whether people support or oppose the Trump administration’s “maximum sanctions” campaign and its decision to pull out of the nuclear deal.
In a fascinating comment in his book, McMaster at one point expresses disappointment that both sides of the debate were so obsessed with staying in or pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2017 that they ignored that each of these sub-issues should be framed by longer-term considerations.
McMaster made it clear to the Post that he thought the deal was significantly flawed, saying, “The idea that weaving Iran into the [global] economy would moderate the regime’s behavior turned out not to be the case,” but he viewed it as a chip that could be used to force Iran to make a choice between “becoming responsible” or “remaining a pariah.”
This was why when Trump wanted to pull out of the nuclear deal even in 2017, the former NSC chief believed that – with all of its flaws – this was squandering an opportunity. He preferred to continue to use the threat of pulling out of the deal as a pressure point, which could be stronger than pulling out prematurely at the time.
Maybe McMaster’s most original contribution to the Iran issue is his readiness to challenge the premise that the Iranian people cannot be reached sufficiently to change their orientation to the West.
So, on one hand, he would disparage those who think just engaging with Iran will get anywhere if there is no “credible military threat” alongside possibly a smarter version of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
On the other hand, he believes that given enough time, a concerted messaging strategy can reconnect Iranians with the time period around 1979 when theocrats “did not have uncontested” control.
“There has been competition there. After the [1979] revolution, there was a civil war” in which, “sadly, the [Islamic] revolutionaries won and consolidated power” compared to portions of the public who helped depose the shah but had more Western orientations.
Questioned about what concrete measures would need to be taken to present Tehran with a credible military threat, McMaster said, “We already have an incredible military capability in the region. The US does, and Israel certainly does. The US must demonstrate the capability and that it is willing to impose costs on Iranian forces and the regime.”
McMaster did not take the opportunity to endorse suggestions pushed by JINSA to publicize contingency plans for striking Iranian targets, such as its nuclear program. But he gave the example of the January targeted killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani as sending the right kind of message that the US “knows the return address” when Iranian proxy forces attack US bases in Iraq or elsewhere.
Pressed that his ideas of a long-term strategy to convince Iran to reorient its attitude toward the US, the West and Israel might take too long, and that Iran could break out to a nuclear weapon in the meantime, he hinted with a veiled threat, “I don’t think it would be in their interest to do so.”
At the same time, he said, “I think it’s wrong to trust the regime,” saying progress would be achieved by conveying a message that the West has greater staying power than the ayatollahs have to outlast concerted pressure.
Asked how such a campaign could work when economic powerhouses like China and Russia are committed to keeping Iran afloat economically despite US sanctions, he said “it is possible to impose costs on” Iran that the ayatollahs would succumb to.
This would be especially true, he said, if smarter work was done to get the EU, Japan and other countries from the free world on board, some of which currently explicitly or passively oppose Trump administration pressure on Iran.
He said it is also crucial to get through to the Iranian people that most of their economic woes stem not from global sanctions but from the regime’s adventurism in foreign countries and corruption.
MCMASTER LOOKS back on his interaction with Israel while NSC chief fondly, and says that during his tenure, cooperation between the US and Israel reached new heights.
His formula for peace between Israel and the Palestinians requires the end of Hamas rule in Gaza and significant shifts in flexibility by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, along with a return of the US to the role of a neutral and honest broker.
Told that this seems like a tall order that will not happen anytime soon, he responded, “No, I am not expecting any breakthrough. I am not going out on a limb saying that. There is no imminent lasting peace” about to occur.
On the other hand, he said, “There have been positive developments. The outside-in approach has been working. The recognition of the Gulf Arab states that Israel is not a security problem and that working with Israel is in their economic and security” interest, leading to “the Abraham Accords, is worth celebrating,” stated McMaster.
Continuing, he said, “I hope that, over time, the Abraham Accords, in combination with the much-criticized Trump administration peace proposal,” will help in “ending the perpetual status of the Palestinian people as refugees,” suggesting that the plan could restore some momentum toward negotiations even if it might need modification.
Moreover, he said that Israel’s current leadership had not been given enough credit globally for its peace efforts. He said that even if Israel needs to show more flexibility on some issues with the Palestinians, major changes are needed also from the PA and regarding ending Hamas rule.
MOVING ON to China, McMaster accused the Communist country of covering up the outbreak of the coronavirus (his language was framed in terms of a selfish and negligent cover-up, not a premeditated bio-attack), saying, “All you need to look at is the punished doctors who tried to raise alarms... covering up reports... subverting the WHO, postponing sounding the alarm by the WHO.
“During the pandemic, it [China] became even more aggressive oppressing freedom in Hong Kong and the extension of cultural genocide in Xinjiang,” said McMaster.
Continuing, he stated, “Externally, China carried out massive cyberattacks against pharmaceutical companies, attacked and bludgeoned Indian soldiers to death, rammed vessels in the South China Sea... and threatened Taiwan and Japan.”
To address this threat, he said, “What is necessary is a high degree of economic cooperation. If the US, the EU, Japan and the UK work together, they can compete effectively with China. It must be a competitive approach.”
China will not play by the rules, has “subverted the international order, is exporting the authoritarian model... and is strengthening the People’s Liberation Army” for more potential aggressive actions, he remarked.
However, as the US has tried to roll back China’s dominance in the 5G communication market among allies, there have been mixed results, with some wanting to stick to deals they already had, and some fearing retaliation from Beijing.
Responding, McMaster said, “It’s all shifting now. It’s shifting against the Chinese Communist Party. It is not inescapable.... We bear witness to the weaponization of data to affect not only control over people’s behavior but to control their thoughts... to weaponize social networks against anyone who would criticize the party.”
“This could be turned around pretty quickly in terms of a competitive stance,” he said.
In terms of losing ground to Chinese influence around the world in recent years, McMaster said that the US abandoned and was not even really present on the playing field, having been consumed by internal issues and a poor strategic understanding of the Chinese.
He said that the US must use “competition to convince Chairman Xi [Jinping] and the party that they can have enough of their dream without pursuing their dream at the expense of their own citizens or other nations’ citizens.”
“It is critical to understand this is not a US and Chinese Communist Party problem. This is a free world and Communist Party problem.”
ADDRESSING CHALLENGES presented by Russia, McMaster said, “It is really important to impose costs on the Kremlin and enablers that exceed the costs they [already] factor into their decision-making process.”
“Putin’s playbook is designed not to challenge the US directly, but to drag everybody else down” so he can be the proverbial last man standing.
He said that “Russia preys on perceived weaknesses in democratic societies, takes advantage of divisions... lessens confidence in who we are as a people.”
Continuing, he said, “The Kremlin believes it’s succeeding. Putin has become more aggressive as his situation is becoming more challenged and tenuous with the stagnation of the [Russian] economy, the poor response to COVID-19” and with protests especially in the eastern part of the country.
The former lieutenant-general said this is “all running counter to what he hoped 2020 would be.”
Declaring Russia’s disinformation campaigns to destabilize the West and its intervention in Syria as major problems, he said the West should “not allow it [Russia] to get away with” its plans.
In order to alter Russian behavior, he recommended joint sanctions from the US, EU, Japan and others on Putin’s inner circle.
McMaster said he was perplexed at why “Israel’s economic relationships with Russian companies are deepening when the Kremlin is acting like a pariah state. Russia is a key enabler of Iran across the region. It is enabling a proxy [Iranian] army on the border of Israel. It is allowing the strengthening of Hezbollah.”
Despite the argument that Israel needs Russian cooperation for a stable Syria and to allow it to carry out airstrikes on Iranian militias there, he said, “Israel should impose costs on Russia” and should not believe Moscow’s claim to stabilizing Syria for Israel and others.
“It’s a lie, obviously. Assad is more reliant on the Iranians. They [the Russians] are like an arsonist who poses as the fireman. We shouldn’t let him [Putin] get away with it,” he said.
Pressed that Russia came in only when the US made it clear it would not expend sufficient military force to finish off ISIS and stabilize Syria, he said, “Russia lies about fighting jihadist terrorists. It is in league with the Assad regime, who released jihadist terrorists from prison so he could portray the civil war as jihadists.
“Take the attack on Aleppo: Russia portrayed it as a counterterror operation. It was a campaign of mass murder of innocent civilians. Pay attention to what Russia does, rather than what it says,” he said.
According to McMaster, “Russia, by enabling Iran, really perpetuates the problem of jihadist terror organizations because the fear [of Iran] allows these jihadists to portray themselves as protectors of Sunni Arab communities. The fear of Assad and Iran’s proxy army perpetuates the jihadist problem.”