The world needs to take a tougher stance against Iran and the US should rally support for tighter enforcement of economic sanctions, a former US national security adviser said on Tuesday.
James Jones, a retired general who served as president Barack Obama's top adviser from January 2009 to October 2010, called for resolute pressure to be applied to Tehran, predicting that “sooner or later the people of Iran will do the right thing”.
Mr Jones criticised aspects of US policy in the Middle East, from George W Bush’s “poorly thought out” invasion of Iraq in 2003 to Mr Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
But the former Marine Corps commander, and fellow retired general John Kelly, who until this year served as US President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, warned against a US retreat from the region.
“I think this is one of the most important regions. We should never take our eye of it,” Mr Jones told a panel discussion at the Skybridge Alternatives, or Salt, investment conference in Abu Dhabi.
“We should never do anything that causes our friends and allies to doubt our resolve.
“We should be extremely concerned about the threats that face the region.
"I believe Iran is an existential threat and I think there is a lot that the US can and should do, to make sure that our friends and allies and ourselves work together to overcome this existential threat.
“And I think it will be overcome, by the way, but you don’t negotiate with the Iranian regime, you have to be tough with it and be consistent.
"And sooner or later the people of Iran will do the right thing.”
Mr Jones said he did not believe it was necessary to go to war with Iran but he called it “the number one exporter of terror in the world”.
He said it had started trying to spread its influence to Africa.
“I don’t understand why we let Iran get away with that,” Mr Jones said.
“The politics of appeasement don’t appeal to me. The economic sanctions and the international community should just isolate them until the Iranian people do what I think they’re going to do.
"Then we have a plan to help the Iranian people recover.
“I think the sanctions are working and I do think the Trump administration on that score has done a good job.
"I think we need to martial international support to make sure everybody is with us, so there is not one country trading and another country not. I think we need to be resolute.”
Meanwhile, Mr Kelly, also a retired Marine Corps commander, said he believed the Trump administration had moved away from its desire to play a lesser role in the Middle East.
He said a view expressed in the US, that the country should retreat because it no longer needed oil from the region, “makes no sense”.
“I think now the administration is on a campaign to have countries do more, to assist this part of the world and keep it stable, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
“But I don’t think this attitude of withdrawal is as prevalent in the White House as it once was early on.”
Mr Kelly served with Mr Trump between July 2017 and January 2019, and suggested the president had been frustrated that he could not run America as easily as he had his property empire.
“What he brought to the White House was who he is,” he said.
“I think his experience in business, doing what he did in real estate, my sense is it was it was a very flat organisation and he could do anything he wanted by snapping his fingers, if is it was within the law, naturally.
"It was much simpler I think. I think his style, you see it all the time, is a pretty rough one, a pretty aggressive one.
"I think what I brought to the White House for 18 months or so was a system, a process, that allowed him to be exposed to every facet, angle, inside out, of every topic he was considering so he could make the best informed decision for the US.”
Mr Kelly said that since his departure from the White House, Mr Trump might not be receiving the correct counsel.
“Everyone that needed to be in the room was in the room, and those that didn’t need to be in the room weren’t in the room,” he said.
“But I think now, people went back to the old way before I got there, and that is people saying, ‘Hey boss, this is what I think we need to do’. ‘OK, go ahead and do it’.
“And only then do you find out that it’s a bad idea for other parts of the government, and we’ve seen a few examples of that.”