Brett McGurk: Iran’s nuclear programme reaching a 'crisis point'

Senior Biden aide says US is 'fundamentally committed to the territorial defence of Saudi Arabia'

Brett McGurk, the US National Security Council's co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, saw the Vienna talks as more urgent than ever. AFP

A senior US official said on Thursday that advances in Iran’s nuclear programme are reaching a “crisis point” as negotiators return to Vienna to continue nuclear deal talks.

Brett McGurk, the US National Security Council's co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, saw the Vienna talks as more urgent than ever.

The Iranian nuclear programme is "advancing so rapidly that it is approaching a crisis point, [by] the first part of next year, and I think that is lending some urgency to the negotiations,” Mr McGurk told The Gulf States Institute in Washington.

He said the goal of President Joe Biden's administration is reining in Iran's nuclear programme in a way that satisfies US, international and regional interests.

“The only way that Iran can come out of the sanctions is through returning — getting its nuclear programme back in a box,” Mr McGurk said.

Last month, Mr McGurk told the Manama Dialogue conference that if diplomacy fails with Iran, the US is “prepared to use other options".

He drew a distinction between military action aimed at regime change in Iran and at halting its nuclear progress.

“When it came to military force for behaviour change, that is a pretty fuzzy objective for a military force. When it comes to military force to prevent a country from obtaining a nuclear weapon, that is a very achievable objective.”

At the same time, Mr McGurk welcomed dialogue with Iran as well as between major regional players, pointing to how the UAE had reached out to both Turkey and Iran and to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's recent visit to Qatar.

“That's something, by the way, that we very much encourage. We do think, at this time in the world, coming out of the pandemic, coming out of all these crises, it is time to open dialogue across borders,” he said.

On Saudi Arabia in particular, Mr McGurk said the Biden administration is committed to helping Riyadh defend its territory.

He said there are “many issues in the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, but we are fundamentally committed to the territorial defence of Saudi Arabia, no questions asked".

“Helping our partners defend themselves is an axiomatic principle across the region,” Mr McGurk said pointing to the recent vote in the Senate that prevented a block on an arms sale to Riyadh.

“The Saudis need [these weapons] because the Houthis, with Iranian backing, are launching dozens of drones and missiles from Yemen into Saudi Arabia,” he said.

The Saudis are currently defeating "nine of 10 of these threats," he said. "Of course, we want to get that up to 10 of 10.”

As to Syria, Mr McGurk said the US has no intention of withdrawing its small number of troops in the country.

“We are not there for oil, we are not there for regime change,” he said, explaining that the mission is focused on countering terrorism.

Asked about the US position on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, Mr McGurk said the US has accepted the current reality that he is staying in power.

“I think we have to recognise the reality of the staying power of Al Assad and that does not mean, however, we would engage with him.”

The US official said the Biden administration is looking to prevent the creation of failed states and power vacuums in the region.

He pointed to mistakes in the past 20 years made “not just by the United States, but by other actors in the region, in which the hope was that vacuums might be filled by moderate actors, and in fact, we see vacuums filled by Iranian back networks and extremists of ISIS".

Updated: December 9th 2021, 8:45 PM