Before he was appointed to the National Security Council, Brett McGurk criticized the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran as counterproductive to U.S. interests. “Iran is now behaving more provocatively, not less,” despite extensive U.S. sanctions, he wrote in Foreign Affairs in January 2020. “It’s stockpiling more enriched uranium, not less. It’s spinning more centrifuges, not fewer, and continuing to support proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.”
McGurk resigned as presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition in December 2018 after President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. He became a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy after leaving office. “Washington cannot point to any goal that the policy has advanced, it now touts economic pressure as an end in itself, as if the policy were designed simply to make Iran poorer, as opposed to changing Iran’s nuclear and regional policies (all of which are now worse) for the better,” he wrote. In January 2021, Biden appointed him coordinator on Middle East and North African issues at the National Security Council. The following are remarks by McGurk on Iran.
On the Trump administration’s Iran policy
Essay in Foreign Affairs on Jan. 22, 2020: “Economic pressure was supposed to enhance American leverage and make Iran more pliant going into new negotiations. Trump himself said he intended to end wars and move forces out of the Middle East region altogether. The unforeseen escalatory cycle is evidence of a policy not working as intended.
“As for the aims the secretary of state listed two years ago, the maximum pressure policy is failing to achieve any of them. Iran is now behaving more provocatively, not less. It’s stockpiling more enriched uranium, not less. It’s spinning more centrifuges, not fewer, and continuing to support proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Because Washington cannot point to any goal that the policy has advanced, it now touts economic pressure as an end in itself, as if the policy were designed simply to make Iran poorer, as opposed to changing Iran’s nuclear and regional policies (all of which are now worse) for the better.
“Indeed, even where the [maximum pressure] policy has been effective in choking Iran’s economy, it has done so at the cost of aggravating the very allies Washington needs if it is to sustain a competition against great-power rivals. The United States has increasingly imposed what are known as “secondary sanctions” on Iran. These constrain U.S. allies, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as their private companies, from engaging in trade with Iran that is otherwise legal. Washington is effectively using its economic might to coerce allies into enabling a policy that those allies believe is self-defeating and unacceptably high-risk.”
On Iran’s support for armed proxies
Essay in Foreign Affairs on Jan. 22, 2020: “Beginning this past October, Kataib Hezbollah (KH), an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, began what senior U.S. military commanders called a ‘sustained campaign’ of rocket attacks on Iraqi bases hosting American forces. These were the first such strikes that KH had undertaken in more than eight years. Having failed to anticipate Iranian reprisals against maximum pressure, the United States later failed to deter the assault or to act effectively once it began. Senior U.S. officials have even speculated that the lack of any American response to the earlier attacks in the Gulf may have encouraged the subsequent attacks on Americans in Iraq.”
“[A] weak Iraqi government risks making the United States unable to stay in Iraq at all, an outcome that has long been Iran’s ultimate aim.”
On the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani
Speaking on MSNBC on Jan. 3, 2020: “We [the U.S.] need to presume that we are in a state of war with Iran. This has been a covert war, a shadow war, for 40 years but with this action I think we need to presume — to protect our people in the region, to protect our interests — that we’re in a state of war with Iran. And that it not something that the Trump administration appears to have been prepared for.”
“We’re now drawn back into the Middle East and we need to be very well-prepared.”
In an interview with NPR’s David Greene on Jan. 8, 2020:
Question: “How significant were Iran’s attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq in response to Soleimani’s assassination?”
McGurk: “It's a major escalation - the first time Iran is really taking credit for a kind of military attack against us.”
“I think this might be the end of Iranian-sponsored direct military attacks, but their MO is to act through proxy. So, you know, all the provocations we've seen since May of last year, which has led to the American troop deployments, the attacks against Gulf shipping, the attacks against Aramco in Saudi Arabia, Iran is not taking credit for any of those attacks.”
“Soleimani did have real discipline over this group. So his removal from the scene, while I think is a net positive but also does increase the risk of some of them acting on their own, acting with less discipline and sparking something that could get out of hand”
Essay in Foreign Affairs on Jan. 22, 2020: “The strike on Soleimani brought U.S. policy contradictions to a head. Tehran has reacted by working to consolidate its grip internally.”
“The impression the president left was that the Soleimani strike was a tactical operation to protect Americans, not part of a strategic reorientation one way or the other. Trump asked NATO ‘to become much more involved in the Middle East’—something the alliance is unlikely to do, given that it acts only with the unanimity of 29 capitals, many of which blame Trump for the current crisis.”