Iran is using a “Hezbollah model” of building and arming militias in neighbouring Arab countries to create weak states that are effectively brought under Tehran’s control, the US National Security Adviser warned on Saturday.
In a call to action, HR McMaster told an audience of senior security officials in Munich that the time had come to confront Iran’s expanding influence.
He said Iran was replicating its strategy in Lebanon — where it fostered the birth of the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah — in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, setting up militias that answer directly to Tehran.
“What’s particularly concerning is that this network of proxies is becoming more and more capable, as Iran seeds more and more capable, destructive weapons into these networks,” Mr McMaster said. “So the time is now, we think, to act against Iran.”
The lieutenant general, who served with distinction on successive tours in Iraq, said there was a stand-alone new military force being created in the sectarian ruins of the Syria conflict. He added that Iranian allies were gaining access to more sophisticated weapon technologies, including missiles and rockets.
“Iran is applying the Hezbollah model to the region,” he said. “Tehran wants the Arab world to be perpetually weak while they grow terrorist groups outside weak government controls that they can use against these governments. This is the case in Syria, Iraq, Yemen.”
The urgency of the challenge posed by Tehran is one of the main factors behind President Donald Trump’s demand that the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme be revisited. The sanctions relief that followed in the wake of that deal has provided a dramatic increase in resources for the country’s efforts to promote its interests in the region.
The revival of economic ties with big trading nations — Mr McMaster noted that Germany was one of Iran’s top three investors — has in particular boosted Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC has provided arms, training and funds for Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as fighters for President Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria.
Any review of the 2015 nuclear deal is expected to put in place mechanisms to ensure that a legitimate commercial economy is established in Iran. That would mean banning deals that benefit the IRGC.
Mr McMaster warned investors who dealt with IRGC-linked operations.
“When you are investing in Iran you are investing in the IRGC,” he said. “You might as well cut the IRGC a cheque and say go ahead, kill.”
“As a matter of international security and moral conscience we must stop doing business with IRGC-affiliated business."
Mr McMaster served in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and praised the country's global moral authority. He called for its authorities to take a stand against Mahan Air, an airline that ferries supplies from Iran to allies in Syria. It also operates regular flights “right here in Munich”, he said, calling on Berlin to show that such activities were unacceptable.
Diplomats are working behind the scenes on a package of additional restrictions that could be imposed on Iran ahead of deadline in May when Mr Trump has said he will no longer waive sanctions suspended by the US.
The president has two main demands to fix what he has called the deals' “disastrous flaws”: new sanctions against Iran’s regional destabilisation and the removal of sunset clauses that would see restrictions on the country’s nuclear activity eventually lifted.
Speaking on Friday, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK and Europe remained strong supporters of the nuclear deal but that governments were ready to take new measures against Tehran.
“We agreed that as we continue to work to preserve the deal we also share the US concerns about Iran’s destabilising activity in the Middle East, and we stand ready to take further appropriate measures to tackle these issues,” she said after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.