Lindsey Graham on Iran's Nuclear Program

A Conversation With Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham

U.S. Senator from South Carolina (R)

Amy Davidson

Staff Writer, New Yorker


Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) joins the New Yorker's Amy Davidson to discuss the ongoing international diplomatic process over Iran's nuclear program. Graham offers his perspective on the negotiations, noting that even if the Obama administration procures what it considers to be a good deal, trusting Iran over the long-term is an uncomfortable proposition. Consequently, Graham emphasizes the importance of intrusive inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities as paramount to any final agreement. Graham considers the possibility of a military conflict between Iran and the United States, and discusses the state of the U.S. alliance with Israel. He goes on to address the broader geopolitics of the Middle East, Islamic extremism, and disagreements within the Republican Party on foreign policy matters.


DAVIDSON: Hello. I'm Amy Davidson. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina.

Senator Graham was first elected to the Senate in 2002, and as you all know, has been particularly outspoken on foreign policy issues. He served in the Air Force, and is today one of only three senators in the Guard or Reserves.

Senator Graham will be delivering remarks about the P5+1 Iran Nuclear Negotiations before sitting down for a conversation with me on questions from members. I would also like to welcome the CFR members from around the nation and the world participating in this meeting through the live stream on teleconference. We'll hear from them during the question-and-answer session. Thanks.

GRAHAM: Good morning. You couldn't be with Ted this morning, I take it? I'm getting the leftovers.

How about a round of applause for the Council on Foreign Relations and all the contributions Richard and the gang make to a robust discussion about foreign policy. If you're interested in foreign policy, your ship is in. If you have an institute talking about how to save the world, then it's a good year to be fundraising.

I want to talk to you—gosh, you're going to need every dollar you can find. I want to talk to you very quickly about Iran, and just sort of a general construct that I'm trying to come up with myself. Fifteen minutes—if you have 15 minutes to explain the world's situation, it'd be very difficult. Do you agree? I don't think you could get all the countries in.

Iran: At the end of the day, the P5+1 is trying to accomplish what I think would be a good thing; controlling the nuclear ambitions of the Iranian regime. Ending their nuclear ambitions with a diplomatic solution, do you all agree, would be good for the world?

Let's start with the general proposition here. I want audience participation. It makes it more fun for me. How many of you believe the Iranians in the past have been trying to build a nuclear bomb, not a peaceful power program?

OK. So we start with the proposition they're liars. I think to conclude otherwise, you probably shouldn't be allowed to drive to New York if you really thought they were trying to build a power plant. One, I don't know why you want to drive to New York anyway.

But the bottom line is I think that's the proper construct to take. So the first thing you've got to realize is the guy and person sitting across the table from you had been trying to do something they say they haven't been trying to do. How many of you believe that the reason they wanted a nuclear weapon is to probably ensure regime survivability?

Most people. I got (inaudible) and a lot of hands raised. From their point of view, I think they're kind of nuts, but they're not crazy. That's not a bad place to be for the regime.

The North Korean model's working pretty good, right? You've got a guy whose grandfather was born inside of a mountain, and it's working for them. His dad played one round of golf and had nine holes in one. That's when the North Koreans lost me. I was with them up until then.

So we laugh about a pretty out-there regime having nuclear weapons. The reason none of us laugh with the Iranians, has caused a ripple effect. A nuclear-capable Iran would be enormous, do you agree?

When I look at a problem, I try to take the worst possible outcome off the table. And to me, the worst possible outcome in the Mideast right now would be a nuclear-arms race in the Mideast. Does that make sense? They're doing a lot of damage to each other and the rest of us without nuclear weapons.  

So the construct goes like this: A good deal with Iran would be a blessing. It would bring to a close what I think would be an incredibly dangerous moment in world history. A nuclear-arms race between a theocracy in Iran and Sunni-Arabs who feel like they cannot live in peace and prosperity if the Iranians had a nuclear capability to hang over their head—to hold over their head.

So how do you prevent that? The nature and the quality of the deal will shape world events more than any single event that I can think of. This is the most consequential decision that any administration, world organization, group of nations, will make in my lifetime. I believe that.

Where are we headed? I don't know the details, but let's just assume for a moment that some of the press reporting is accurate, which is a leap, but we'll assume that. If it is thousands of centrifuges, then you're going to have a problem with Sunni-Arabs.

The UAE signed a 123 Agreement to build a nuclear power program without enriching. There are 15 nations on the planet today, have peaceful nuclear power programs that don't enrich uranium; Canada and Mexico. We've been urging some of our closest allies to have a nuclear power plant program, but don't enrich.

Here's the question for us: If we make an exception for the Iranians, under what theory would we make that exception? What would be the consequence?

I can understand to a point an enrichment program in the hands of the Iranians. And let me outline what I think would be acceptable. This whole negotiation started over the idea of the Iranians having a nuclear-enrichment capability so they're not trapped by the world at large. They had the dignity—or whatever comes from being able to produce your own fuel—to supply one power plant.

What are the practical needs of any nation when it comes to providing an enrichment capability to service one nuclear power plant? If that was the original goal, have we moved from that goal? I'm by no means an expert on nuclear enrichment, but the people that I do rely upon to advise me about such matters tell me that hundreds of centrifuges, rudimentary in nature, probably gets you to where you want to go if your goal was to produce commercial-grade fuel for one power plant.

So let's evaluate that deal in terms of how this whole negotiation started. The negotiation started to dismantle their program. 2006 resolutions by the U.N. call for the dismantling, suspension, enrichment, and the removal of highly-enriched uranium.

We're so far to the left of that resolution, it's a bit scary. As the P5+1 talks have evolved over time, we've left in our rearview mirror the concept of dismantlement. I think we've forgotten what stared this whole process; giving them the ability to enrich solely for peaceful purposes from one reactor.

At the end of the day, the new goal is to lock in a program where it would take one year for them to break out. The question for the rest of us; will that sell to the Arabs and the Israelis?

How many people—how many of you believe that 6,000 centrifuges (inaudible) break out as the goal will sell to the Arabs? How many think it won't sell to the Arabs?

So we'll end where we started. If the goal is to prevent nuclear proliferation, maybe we have not achieved that goal if in fact we lock in place thousands of centrifuges.

As to the heavy-water reactor in Iraq, that doesn't fit in anywhere that I can see in terms of civilian nuclear power program for peaceful purposes to supply one reactor. As to the highly-enriched uranium that may be left in the country, under the 2006 resolution, all of it should have been removed.

The P5+1 talks are ongoing. And here's what I think the response in Congress will be: If there's a framework by the end of the month, sometimes in April, there'll be a vote in the Congress—Corker, Menendez, Graham, other people—requiring any deal between the P5+1 to come to the Congress for a vote of disapproval when it comes to lifting congressional sanctions.

Are you familiar with the 123 Agreement, or the Atomic Energy Act? Kind of copies that. Under the Atomic Energy Act, Section 123, there's a requirement that Congress approve, disapprove, or remain silent, on commercial deals between the United States and a foreign nation—we've done that 24 times—including Russia, China, Argentina, and that rogue nation, Canada.

So if the Congress feels a need to review nuclear power agreements between the United States and countries like Canada, I find it impossible that we would take a pass on the uranium deal. So using the construct of the 123 Agreement as a precedent, what I think you will have is the Corker legislation will become law. There will be a veto-proof majority voting in April to make it law.

And here's what it says: Within five days of a deal being announced, it has to come to the Congress. And within 60 days, we'll have hearings, debate and a vote. And we'll have to get 60 votes to disapprove the agreement.

And the reason Bob and I agreed to do it that way is it requires six Democrats to join with the Republican Party, if all of us voted against the deal, before you could disapprove. Some fear that we would say no to anything Obama did. I promise you this, there are people in my party who would do that. I'm not one of them, because a good deal would be a Godsend. And it's not like I have run out of things to disagree with the president over.

So this vote will be coming up in April. And I think there will be an overwhelming bipartisan support for the concept that no congressional sanctions will be relieved permanently until we have a say through the disapproval process. I think that makes imminent sense, and is what the Congress should do, with this president and any other president.

A couple of scenarios that worry me: What if the president took the deal to the U.N. Security Council before he came to Congress? What if the P5+1 (inaudible) agreement, the Iranians, and he tried to get it approved at the U.N. Security Council, relieving the U.N. sanctions, the E.U. sanctions, and all other sanctions other than congressional sanctions?

That would be—that would be met with a violent response in the Congress. I don't think that's good for the country; to take a deal that could affect world order to an international body before you take it to your own people.

Here's what I hope would not happen; that in the process of trying to get this deal approved by the U.N., you break a relationship between the Congress and the United Nations itself. I am an internationalist when it comes to the Republican Party's foreign policy. I'm in charge of the 150 Account, the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, all foreign aid, all money that we spend on the U.N.

I wanted that job because I think it is a tool to enhance our national security, every bit as effective, if not more so, than kinetic tools. I do believe in building up others that would be willing to live in peace with us is part of winning the War on Terror; actually, the dominant part. And the kinetic part is important, but quite frankly, a smaller piece of the puzzle.

The last thing I want is to be put in a box where I have to take the U.N. on. If the president changes course regarding Israel and the peace process, and would allow a U.N. Security Council resolution to go forward, defining the peace process, the terms of the peace agreement, without getting agreement on the ground first between the parties, there would be a violent backlash by the Congress, bipartisan in nature. But the one that would create equal amount of backlash would be an effort to go to the U.N. before he came to the Congress.

So, Richard, you asked me about the P5+1. Keep it up, negotiate the best deal you can, get ready to justify it to the Congress, to the American people, and the world at large. And if you fall short in our eyes, that doesn't mean that we're saying stop; it just means we're saying, "Not good enough." That's all it means.

To my last day, as a member of the Senate or any other job I may have, I want to pursue a peaceful end to the Iranian nuclear ambitions without firing a shot. Because here's what happens if we can't find a peaceful resolution: It means military force.

How many of you believe that the Iranians no longer believe that America would use military force to stop a breakout? Until they believe that, we'll never get a good deal. So somebody's got to reset the table in that regard.

And I tell my colleagues if we ever had to cross the Rubicon of using military force to stop a nuclear breakout by the Iranians, then you're opening Pandora's Box. They could strike us in the Gulf, they could do a lot of damage.

And to the business people here, radical Islam in general is bad for business. But it would be a great upheaval. If they acquired a nuclear capability, it would be emptying Pandora's Box. Those are your choices if you can't get a negotiated settlement. I prefer not to have to pick between those two.

What are the two holdups? The Iranians are going to demand immediate sanction relief, and I hope we'll say no. Until the IAEA verifies what they've been doing in the past, I think it would be ill-advised to relieve the sanctions.

They're going to ask for a research-and-development capability. That scares the hell out of me, and I hope we'll say no. If they demand immediate sanctions relief, the deal probably falls. Then we'll be in no-man's territory. Just, we don't know what will happen next.

And that's the most dangerous time, because that's when they're most likely to break out. Whether they believe that Obama would use force to stop their breakout, after drawing the red line with Assad, I doubt it. Whether they believe that P5+1 would do it as a group, I doubt it after the way we've handled Russia and the Ukraine.

But here's one thing I believe they don't doubt; that Israel, if they had to, would. And the question for us is if Israel decided to engage militarily to stop what they perceive to be a breakout, what would we do?

I think it's in our national security interest to let the Iranians know that we would be with Israel, because the Ayatollahs will have to recalculate. They know they cannot withstand an assault from America; that their regime survivability would be in question. They probably calculated they could withstand an Israeli attack.

If they believed America would come behind Israel, if Israel had to attack to prevent a breakout, I think it changes the entire equation; in a way, more likely to get a good deal. Only time will tell.

But in just a few weeks, Congress will take the first step in the P5+1 negotiations beyond sanctions. And that step will be you cannot deal us out. We will not tolerate a deal that lists (ph) congressional sanctions without us looking at the deal and voting on it.

I don't know how this movie ends, but I do hope it ends well. Thank you for having me.


DAVIDSON: That was—thank you so much. That was...

GRAHAM: Was that 15 minutes? That's a first goal.

DAVIDSON: That was a pretty stark—stark picture of the choices. I think it gave us a sense of what you see as a bad deal, and what you would see as an ideal deal.


But what if what the administration reportedly has on the table, or something even just a little bit better, what if that's as good as it gets in terms of the deal? What if it really is, as the administration has suggested, that or the Iranians walk away, no more inspections, no more—the Europeans maybe walk away, too, blaming us for a breakdown. Does that make the deal look better?

GRAHAM: Well, how many times have you heard that no deal is better than a bad deal? Well, I believe that. So what are we trying to accomplish here? We're trying to give them what they say they want; a peaceful nuclear power program.

I have zero problem with the Iranians having a nuclear power capability. I've told you I have no problem with a small enrichment program designed to service one reactor. If you really want what you say you want, we can get there. If you want more, then no.

So what are we trying to avoid? A bad deal is a deal that leads to a nuclear-arms race in the Mideast. So who am I going to ask, "Is this a good deal?"

I'm going to ask experts, because our national security is very much at risk. But I'm going to ask people in the region. And for all of us in this room, if it is perceived by Israel and the Arabs to be a bad deal that will lead to the consequences of what I am saying, a nuclear-arms race, then I hope we'll all say that's a bad deal.

DAVIDSON: Can you imagine a good-enough deal that Israel doesn't approve of, or is that an essential component of...

GRAHAM: I don't think—we're not giving B.B. (ph) a veto right. But at the end of the day, they're a stakeholder, right? So I mean, we all have an interest here. Given Iran's behavior without a nuclear weapon, one would have to question where they would head if they had sanctions relief.

So let's say tomorrow that we relieve sanctions, what would they do with the money? Would they build schools? Would they build hospitals? They're toppling four Arab governments as we speak; four Arab nations, four Arab capitals. They're building ICBMs that could hit us. They're still the state's largest sponsor of terrorism.


And when the president gives a New Year's greeting to the Iranian people, and he says, "Speak up, speak out," doesn't he realize that you don't speak up and speak out in Iran? You'll go to jail or get killed. So that was sort of a low point to me when the president made a direct appeal to the Iranian people to have your voice heard. And he praised this regime for their compliance with the interim agreement.


So the Israelis' view of the deal will be important to me. The Arabs' view of the deal would be equally, if not more important. And at the end of the day, there is a way to give them what they want, if that's all they want.

But I am not going to have on my resume giving them a deal that results in a North Korean outcome. Why do they need 6,000 centrifuges if their whole goal is to have a peaceful nuclear power program?

DAVIDSON: Now, you talked about the Rubicon, for military action, kinetic action. What is that? What's your red line? It's that John Kerry comes home without anything? Is it that something happens afterwards? Where's the moment when we know that, in your view, it's time to turn to military action?

GRAHAM: Well, Israel has four red lines. I haven't formed one yet. And I will think of it, and get back with you, be the first to...

A red line would be a technologically-driven red line. I mean, I'm not a nuclear expert. At what point in time does this program mature to the point that a breakout could be imminent? So I would get with experts to kind of draw some red lines in terms of their nuclear program.

If I were president, I would communicate those red lines in uncertain terms, and urge them not to cross. Let's get back at the table, see if we can give you a nuclear power program for peaceful purposes. But if you cross these red lines, what would a military strike look like?

In my view, we've gone too far now to probably be able to destroy the nuclear capability they've created, at least that of what we know of. So a military strike at this point would have to be fairly massive to have to be sustained. No ground component.

But to really do damage to this regime and make them pay a price for crossing that red line, we'd have to take their offensive capability into the equation; look at the army, look at their navy, look at the Revolutionary Guard, look at their rocket program. And put all that on the table in terms of the potential target.

DAVIDSON: So you're seeing a massive military move, either with Israel alone or with us backing up Israel once that...

GRAHAM: If they cross red lines, yes.

DAVIDSON: ... started. And yet, you don't see a ground component to that. You think that airstrikes alone are enough to set back this program. You know, the deal on the table reportedly has a 10-year window. Do you think that airstrikes can go better than 10 years?

GRAHAM: Yes. I think what—the airstrikes that I'm talking about, if they cross, there's a breakout. I mean, all of us should want to stop a breakout, right? Nobody wants them to break out. Well, if you can't negotiate a settlement, then you've got to have a credible military component.

So the credible military component would be to put a large set of targets on the table, not just a few, to make the regime believe that their very survivability is at stake. That means their navy, their army, their air force, their offensive capability.

DAVIDSON: Does that include civilian targets, like industrial capability?

GRAHAM: I've asked my military commanders what would put the regime's offensive capability at the lowest (inaudible). Because if you're going to do it, do it, OK? Don't play around with it. Don't say you're going to do it, and not do it.

DAVIDSON: And yet, you're saying to not go in (inaudible). This is all...

GRAHAM: I just don't see that getting me to where I would want to go. I think the regime will fall one day, as all theocracies and thugs eventually fall. Putin will fall one day. All of this will happen one day. ISIL will be defeated and destroyed one day. The only question is how much damage will be done between now and the time that occurs?

And what I'm trying to do is stop the ability of a rogue regime, a theocracy like Iran, from acquiring a nuclear capability that throws the world into chaos we've never seen before.

DAVIDSON: How do we—how do we avoid getting into a loop where we bomb and they rebuild, and the relations get worse, and the region gets more toxic?

GRAHAM: I think—here's what you do. The most toxic event in the region is a nuclear-arms race. Do you agree with that? That's pretty toxic. If you don't, OK. I do.

OK. I don't think we do. The Israelis have nuclear weapons, don't you all suspect that? I wouldn't bet against it, would you? Not one Arab nation has felt a need to get a nuke because the Israelis. All of them will tell us—to my face, anyway—if they get a nuclear capability, we're going to match it. They, the Iranians.

So the toxic event that I'm trying to prevent is a breakout of a nuclear-arms race. Here's what you've got to tell the Iranians: "If you truly want a nuclear power program for peaceful purposes, it is yours to have, period. If you want more, you're not going to get it. And if we have to go to war, you're going to lose."

They should be more afraid of us than we are of them. They've got a pair of twos. We've got a full house.

DAVIDSON: But it's a pretty complicated game going on.

GRAHAM: Not really.

DAVIDSON: Looking at the region...

GRAHAM: Not really. Not in my mind, anyway.

DAVIDSON: Look at—simple if you're looking at Iran and the nuclear issue. But Iran on ISIS, Iran on Syria, Iran on Iraq, do you—looking at the region, do you see any areas where we might actually have shared interests with Iran, where it could advance American interests and stability in the region to (inaudible) ways to cooperate with them?



GRAHAM: Iran and Iraq is not a good deal. Here's what we're going to do: We're going to have a military strategy to defeat—degrade and destroy ISIL that won't work, but it will destroy Iraq.

Only—I mean, this is amazing you come up with such...

DAVIDSON: You think it's a bad thing that...

GRAHAM: No. I think it's a horrible thing.


GRAHAM: Yes. Because you're destroying the ability to put Iraq back together again. I mean, to degrade and destroy ISIL, do you agree you've eventually got to deal with Syria? Does that make sense? And Iraq alone, the engagement will not degrade and destroy ISIL.

Well, nobody in the Arab world, is going to go in on the ground in Syria just to fight ISIL. I just got back from the Mideast. The emir of Qatar told me he'd pay for the war. The intelligence minister in Saudi Arabia said that, "You could have our whole army with the understanding you take Assad down, too."

No Arab coalition is going to go into Syria and leave Assad in charge when it's all over with, because that gives the place to the Iranians. So that's where it all falls apart. So when you train the Free Syrian Army, which we're trying to do, great, we're going to train 5,000 of them. Well, they're recruiting more than 5,000.

You send these guys in to fight ISIL, and there's a contract. They've got to say they'll only fight ISIL. Well, that's not going to work, because Assad's killing their whole family. So they go in on the ground, they take on ISIL, and Assad says, "Hey, these guys will turn on me one day, let's bomb them now before they get too strong."

Under the authorization to use military force, I asked this question: Could we stop the air attack to protect the people we trained?

And they said no. So under this authorization to use military force, you're training people to go in on the ground in Syria to take on ISIL. You have Assad, who's surely going to kill them before they get too strong, because they'll turn on him one day. We can't protect the people we train. That's immoral and militarily unsound.

So this whole effort to degrade and destroy ISIL is a sham. It's really an effort to take them on in Iraq, do some damage to them in Syria, and pass it on to the next president.

Here's what I think the big damage is to this strategy: By having a vacuum of American leadership in Iraq, you're allowing a ground engagement of Tikrit to be led by the Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guard.

How does that help us advance the cause of building Iraq back together again? What's going to happen in Tikrit? How do you hold and clear when the Shia militias, a puppet of Iran, are in charge? And how the hell do you go into Mosul with this construct?

So I think the Iranian involvement in Iraq, while it's degrading ISIL, is a very bad move for us, and a deathblow to any future of Iraq, if it continues.

DAVIDSON: You mentioned the—leaving things for the next president. And you also referred to your in-Senate colleague. Ted Cruz just announced that he's running for president. Do you have confidence in how President Cruz would handle nuclear negotiations, or a nuclear crisis with Iran?

GRAHAM: Ted would noose (ph). Ted would noose (ph). Let's see. I don't know what Ted would do, but he should come up here and answer these questions, don't you think?

You're figuring out what I would do. I hope every candidate would come up and talk to the Council on Foreign Relations about how they would handle this complicated event. I hope the Republican Party will not only just attack Obama, but offer solutions.

I think leading from behind is a disaster. I think leading from the front is required, from a cost-benefit analysis. When we give up the role we've been dealt in the world of being the leader of the free world, it costs us more over time. This flirtation with isolationism in my party, I stood up to it when it was hot as fire, and now it's a little bit cool.

Leading from behind is ahead of where Rand Paul is at. Rand Paul's got to move forward to catch up by leading from behind. There are people—there are people in my party, to the left of Obama. At least Obama would kill Anwar al-Awlaki without getting a court order.

I mean, at the end of the day, we're having a debate in the Republican Party about sequestration.

DAVIDSON: Well, let me ask you about that. Senator John McCain, yesterday on CNN, he was asked if he would—endorsing Cruz—and he said, I'll quote him, "You know, Lindsey Graham is my—is my—the one I think knows best about national security."

So is Senator McCain going to get what he wants? How would a President Graham's foreign policy differ not only from President Obama's, but referring to what you just said, from that of other possible Republicans?

GRAHAM: Well, if we went to the Iranian model of the assembly of experts, we get to pick the next Ayatollah, and made John in charge of that, I'd be in good shape. I don't—I don't see us going the Ayatollah route.

Having John's support means a lot to me, because I admire him greatly. He suffered for his country, unlike very few people. He's a patriot to the core. He was for more troops in Iraq when everybody wanted to leave.

He took on Rumsfeld in his own party when he thought Rumsfeld was wrong. Like him or not, he stood up to torture, because he knows that's not who we are. I admire him greatly. And when he said he thought I'd be a good commander in chief, that was a big moment. It was very touching to me.

But I've got to stand on my own. And here's what I'm trying to offer people: I know the limitations of kinetic operations. How do you defeat radical Islam?

The first thing you do is keep weapons of mass destruction out of their hands, goal number one. The only reason 3,000 people died in this city, and other places in America on 9/11, is they couldn't get the weapons to kill 3 million of us. If I were president, the centerpiece of my presidency is to prevent that marriage from ever happening.

They're large, they're entrenched, and they enjoy great safe-havens, and they're rich. My goal would be to take very radical Islamic organization, make them small, poor, and on the run, and stay after them wherever they go, but spend most of my time building up the capacity in the region of people who would live in peace with us through the 150 Account, through the business people in this room.

Because the only way you win, at the end of the day, is you build up those in the region who would live in peace with you. The KKK was an extremist group that marched by the thousands in Washington in the '20s and '30s. I'm—the first time I ever went to school with an African-American child, I was in the sixth grade.

Democracy's hard, folks. Within the first 100 years of our own country, we went to war with Mexico, Canada, and ourselves. So we've got to have a little bit of patience. And here's what I'm telling you: You should be optimistic.

Most people in the region do not want to turn their daughters over to ISIL. Most people in the region will be culturally different, but they have similar hopes and dreams to the people in this room. While the Arab Spring, as Richard says, has been replaced by a 30-year war, it is real, it is true.

To expect the young Arab, or a young Muslim person to live in a dictatorship for our convenience because we get along pretty well with a dictator, those days are over. Would you live in a dictatorship for somebody else's convenience?

So we've got to fight within the faith. We're reconstructing how you run the Mideast. The strong-man rule versus some form of representative government, all this is going on at the same time. And American has abandoned her traditional role of leadership.

DAVIDSON: Now, speaking of the people in the room, I'd like to, at this time, open things up for questions, invite members to join our conversation. A reminder that this meeting is on the record.

GRAHAM: It is?

DAVIDSON: It is. And wait for—just a little advisory. Wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it, and please stand, state your name and affiliation. Limit yourself to one question, and keep it concise to allow as many members as possible to speak. And I would like to remind national members to e-mail their questions to

QUESTION: Thank you for your remarks, Senator. My name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer. I was in the U.S. government twice, one of which was on the Hill. And certainly (ph) your comments were very specific and moving.

But in advocating military action against Iran, there was one group of targets that you didn't address, I don't think. But I would welcome knowing that, and that's the centrifuges themselves. If I understand, they're in hardened sites, and it would take what you might call "extraordinary ordinance" to get rid of them, unless you had a full-scale invasion, which you also speak against.

GRAHAM: There are many ways to stop nuclear (ph) ambitions. An air campaign, we have some technology, could disrupt their operations. What I would do is just sit down with the military and say, "Here's my goal."

My goal is that they're about to break out. Let's stop them and make them pay a price so they'll never want to do it again. Let's take as much of their infrastructure out as possible when it comes to their nuclear capability.

But when it comes to their ability to wreak havoc on us and the region, let's take as much of that out as possible. Let's make sure that their air force, their navy and their army is a shell of its former self. And let's be ready to respond when they hit us.

Because I've tried to avoid this day, but this day is now here. And I told them what I would do, and I want to make sure they understand I wasn't joking. So your point is well taken. And the point I'm trying to make is if that day ever came, and I hope it would not, they would not want that day to come.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hi, Senator Graham. My name is Nancy Lieberman, and I'm a lawyer at the Skadden-Arps law firm in New York City. My question to you is—because I don't have much hope that President Obama's going to listen very, you know, well to whatever passes in the Senate. If it really got to the point where the Israelis had to take action, do you at all think that they would form a coalition with el-Sisi in Egypt, and the Saudis, and others, you know, in a way that would be unprecedented, because we've never seen anything like it?

GRAHAM: Well, President Obama probably deserves a prize for the following; bringing the Arabs and the Israelis together like nobody in history. They've had two common enemies now, ISIL and Iran.

Do I envision a joint military strike with the Israelis and the Arabs? Probably not. If Israel had to go, would we go behind them, is what I ask.

I mean, the question for the country and the world is what would happen if Israel tried to stop a breakout? I want to be on record as saying I would support Israel. I want to be on record that I would vote for an authorization...

DAVIDSON: No matter what Israel's reasons were, no matter if their red line was very different than yours?

GRAHAM: Well, I'm assuming that their red line would be something that they would have coordinated with us on. And they would, they have. I'm assuming they just don't wake up one day and want to pick a war with Iran, because, you know, at the end of the day, who's the most likely target for a response, us or Israel?

So the prime minister of Israel is not going to start a war for the heck of it. And the breakout that I envision would be something that'd be verifiable. So at the end of the day, I don't know if the Arabs would join in a military strike. But I'd say this; there wouldn't be a whole lot of objections.

Anybody been to the Mideast lately? Have you ever seen it like it is today? I mean, people are genuinely worried that the Iranian behavior is driving the region into a spot its never been before. I think there could be a bloodletting like you haven't seen in 1,000 years.

The Arabs and Turkey met in Cairo, because we're not coming up with a game plan. I think you could see a Turkey-Arab coalition form to start pushing Iran and their proxies back, and several capitals throughout the region. Then you'll have a whole-cell sectarian war on your hands.

QUESTION: Hi, Senator Graham. Marty Grouse (ph). How you doing? Could you clarify two things? When people talk about a one-year breakout, are they talking about one year to having enough material for a bomb, or the actual bomb?

And the second thing is, can you imagine an acceptable deal that doesn't provide for inspections anywhere, anytime?

GRAHAM: No, as to the first. The one-year breakout time, I've asked that same question. It's a really good question. To assemble the bomb is a different process than to create the material. They tell me it takes about 90 days to put all this together. That's assuming we know how far down the road they are.

How many of you feel really good about the insight we have into Iran? I don't. You know, Fordo came about in 2009. Natanz was—we found that out from distance. But we're just lucky to find out about the Fordo enrichment facility. Parchin, they won't let us go and see what they've been doing about weapons triggers.

So at the end of the day, I've asked that question. I have not gotten a good response back. So I don't know what the one year entails. Is that assembly on top of the material-making enterprise, or does it include both?

QUESTION: Senator, Stanley Arkin (ph). I'm a lawyer.

GRAHAM: It'd be hard to get a lawyer today in New York.

QUESTION: Too many lawyers. But many too many nuclear warheads. There are 160 in Pakistan, which I'm sure you'll agree—all raise your hand—is not a stable government. And you have, I don't know how many, in India, which is somewhat stable, but not entirely trustworthy in certain areas.

And you have the Iranian—Iranians having one of the most effective intelligence services in that part of the world. What's going to stop them from buying warheads, which will already—in existence, obtaining warheads, which they don't have to make with their own centrifuges? Have you given any thought to that?

GRAHAM: Oh, totally. I'm not the only one to have given thought to that. You know, if you've got 160, could you live on 150? Would you sell 10?

I mean, if you're a Sunni-Arab state, and you feel like the one-year breakout is not a real deterrence for the day you dread the most, when the Iranians blow up something in the desert, say, "Now we've got a nuclear capability," would you spend the time to build an enrichment program from the ground up, or just buy the damn thing?

DAVIDSON: Well, can you see Iran just buying one, in terms of the—you mentioned...

GRAHAM: I bet you this: Pakistan ain't going to sell them one.

DAVIDSON: It's not that—I see what you're—it's not that hard to build a nuclear bomb.

GRAHAM: Well, apparently it is. I mean, that's what we're all talking about. I mean, you know, it's easy to buy one. I mean, the point he's trying to make is a good one. Would the Arabs buy the bomb, rather than invest in the technology? I think that's the most likely outcome, don't you all?

And how do you put this genie back in the bottle, is what I'm saying. I mean, listen, I don't have any really good options for you here, other than, here's the best option: Iran gets what they want, they claim they want, a peaceful nuclear power program. End of debate, and end of story.

I will never stand in the way of that, because I don't think that's an unreasonable request. I just don't trust these guys. I think they're lying, they're cheating, and I don't trust them. And that's why I'd want intrusive inspections 24/7.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) ... retired. I used to be with NBC. During World War II, this country was united as it's never been in my lifetime. And after the war, we had a bipartisan foreign policy.

We were facing the Soviet Union. They had thousands of nukes, and we did. And any accident could have really caused enormous damage. And they had proxies around the world. It was a very tough time. Yet, we had a bipartisan foreign policy.

In facing the issue we have with Iran, and the other issues that will arise, wouldn't our country be stronger if we could reconstitute that kind of bipartisan approach?

GRAHAM: Absolutely.

QUESTION: You and John McCain have been very willing to disagree with members of your (ph) own party, and a lot of those areas in which they wish to move. Can both of you make an effort to try and reconstitute that kind of policy? Blaming Obama is not going to do it. There has to be a concerted way to do it for the good of the country.

GRAHAM: That's like the really good question. Let me give you my take on it.

I think there's a bipartisan movement within the Congress that I haven't seen before on foreign policy. Obama and Clinton were all over the invasion of Iraq. That's why Obama went primary. You know, she voted for it. He said he wouldn't. That was not a very good bipartisan time when it came to the invasion of Iraq.

Invasion of Iraq you can say was a mistake. I understand exactly where you're coming from. John took on Rumsfeld, to his credit. Leaving Iraq the way we did I think was a mistake. That's all in our rearview mirror.

You know, the low point for me, sir, was when I went to the White House on Labor Day two years ago, I guess it was. President called Senator McCain and myself. I'm in a primary, I've got six opponents from mildly disturbed to like really crazy.

So I've got 60 party-type opponents who are all over me for talking to a Democrat about anything, and accusing me, and won't invade Switzerland, because they've got holes their cheese. So I'm an interventionist, I'm a war monger. You know, I'm a sell-out. I voted Sotomayor and Kagan. It goes on and on and on.

So the president calls in the middle of this process, and John says, "We've got to go."

I said, "You're right."

So we met with Susan Rice and the president in the Oval Office about Assad crossing the red line. And we agree to degrade Assad's capability, upgrade the Free Syrian Army, and change the momentum on the battlefield.

We get out in front of the Oval Office on the driveway. We stand by the president. Boehner, to his credit, said, "Count me in."

Then between then and like Friday of that same week, Monday to Friday, the decision to go to Congress came about. And I've yet to receive a phone call. My numbers went in the toilet. Our man, Ted, and others said, "You can't agree to this." You know, "You've become the air force for al Qaida."

The left and the right came together saying that a Syrian intervention was ill-advised. And now we see what happens because we didn't do it. So how do you go forward?

Corker is the right guy at the right time. Corker and Bob had formed a pretty good relationship. And I've tried to build upon that. Mitch was going to bring the Corker-Menendez-Graham bill up for a vote to Rule 14. We talked him out of it. To his credit, he agreed.

We don't want to lose Democratic support. The (inaudible) hurt some, but the reason I did it is when he threatened to veto the bill, that was enough for me.

So I think in April you're going to see the beginning of a bipartisan effort to make sure that Congress is not dealt out of these negotiations. And we'll have more than 67 votes. Now, can you take that and build upon it?

How many of you believe there has to be an American component on the ground in Iraq and Syria to make sure ISIL is eventually degraded and destroyed? And most people don't want to hear that, but I want to help President Obama have the cover to do that. Three thousand is not enough.

Leaving troops behind in Iraq—excuse me, Afghanistan—I'm going to get a bipartisan resolution supporting the president's decision to leave a residual force behind in larger numbers. So hopefully, going forward, we can support the president's decision not to pull the plug on our presence in Afghanistan.

Hopefully, going forward, we can start giving the president support—support to continue to negotiate with the Iranians; not just saying no to the deal, but urging him to go back with some ideas to what we think would be a good solution. A resolution is the beginning of that process, if we get more than 67 votes.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Senator Graham. Paula Deperta (ph), NTR Foundation. Building on the question of bipartisan and changing the subject slightly, what would be better than Senator McConnell suggesting that 50 governors flout the Section 111 rules on climate change? I know you have been a leader on climate change. Setting aside the issue of the coal industry, which I understand has state-based concerns, that doesn't strike me as a bipartisan. There's a place for a little more bipartisanship.

GRAHAM: Yes. You know, when it comes to climate change being real, people of my party are all over the board. There was several resolutions.

DAVIDSON: Where are you?

GRAHAM: I did the trifecta. I said that it's real, that man has contributed to it in a substantial way. But the problem is Al Gore's turned this thing into religion. You know, climate change is not a religious problem for me, it's an economic, it is an environmental problem.

So I think the Republican Party has to do some soul-searching. Before we can be bipartisan, we've got to figure out where we are as a party. What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party? I don't know, either.

So I'd like to come up with one. I'd like to have a debate within the party. Can you say that climate change is a scientifically sound phenomenon? But can you reject the idea you have to destroy the economy to solve the problem, is sort of where I'll be taking this debate.

One last thing about bipartisanship: Repairing the damage done to sequestration, from sequestration, is the best opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to prove we love the country more than ideology.

I'm going back to your question. We'll have the smallest Army since 1940, the smallest Navy since 1915, one contingency Marine Corps, a Air Force with 30 fighter squadrons grounded without the enemy firing a shot. You've got damage done to the 150 Account that destroys all the gains we made on malaria and AIDS, all the good things we've done in the developing world.

What I hope to have happen, with Senator McCain's leadership, is a bipartisan buyback of what's left on sequestration, using a Simpson-Bowles formula, where Republicans will generate some revenue by closing deductions in the tax code for the few at the expense of the many. And Democrats will engage in some reasonable entitlement reform that will buy back sequestration over a period of time, so that we can defend our nation.

And it's just not the Department of Defense; it's the CDC, it's the NIH, it's the FBI, it's the CIA, it's the National Defense Agency.  All I can tell you is that radical Islam is on the rise. They represent a direct threat to our nation. We're living on borrowed time. Four thousand foreign passport holders intermingled with ISIL, and growing, an existential threat to the state of Israel.

And our response is to disarm and reduce our capabilities in a variety of ways to defend our values and our nation. If there were ever a moment for bipartisanship to take over Washington, and to fix a problem, it is in the area of replacing sequestration.

DAVIDSON: Well, I think the next question we have from a national member, who I hope will keep e-mailing in questions, sort of gets to that bipartisanship issue. It's from Steven Zack (ph) of Boyer-Schiller (ph) in Miami. And the question is, "Do you think the congressional letter sent to President Obama today will have any effect on negotiations?"

GRAHAM: Not really. After the president threatened to veto Corker-Menendez, which says we're not going to agree to lift congressional sanctions we create unless we have input, when he threatened to veto that, then I said, "Hey, wait a minute."

Everybody needs to understand that's a no-go. Ayatollahs included. It won't. It was a dust-up. At the end of the day, people got to vote here pretty soon on whether or not they believe the Congress should be involved in lifting congressional sanctions, whether or not they want to look at the deal before congressional sanctions are waived.


Here's what I believe with all my heart and soul; that most members of Congress, regardless of party, are going to insist on looking at this deal before congressional sanctions are lifted, just out of love of the institution, and the right role of Congress to play when it comes to our foreign policy dealing with congressionally-created sanctions.

So I don't think the letter will stop, will change the vote tally much at all.

DAVIDSON: Well, Senator, a quick follow-up about a different congressional letter, the one that was sent by 47 senators, including you...

GRAHAM: That's the one I just talked about. The Cotton (ph) letter. So I don't think it's going to matter. Today, there was 374 House members. That was a game-changer. I didn't see that one coming.

So here's what you see. Bipartisanship is breaking out in the area that we want to look at the deal with Iran before we lift sanctions, period. Now, I'd like to take it to the next level. I'd like to have a bipartisan deal to replace sequestration before we reduce our ability to defend ourselves against a growing threat. I'd like to be on record saying, "President Obama, if you leave troops behind in Afghanistan, you've done the right thing, not the wrong thing, and give you cover."

And we all want a continued presence in Afghanistan. I mean, the president of the United States shouldn't have to go it alone. I don't mind being on the record saying these are responsible decisions to make. I'll lead that effort. Because we're all in this together when it comes to foreign policy.

The one thing I can tell you is that ISIL sees no difference between Lindsey Graham and Chuck Schumer. And they may be the only people on the planet that see no difference. But in their world, we're just as bad. We believe in the idea of speaking your mind, worshipping God on your own terms, if you want to worship at all.

People have no idea, in my view, of the level of threat we face because the president's not educating the public. They get it at a basic level, but do people really understand that we're going to have to go back to the Middle East with ground troops? Of course, you are, if you're serious about defending this nation.

What follows the day that we get them out of Syria? Do you have any idea how much money it's going to take to rebuild Syria? 220,000 people have been slaughtered. The country is absolutely been raped (ph).

And to rebuild Syria is going to take billions of dollars, and at least a generation. And if we don't have a ground component on the ground keeping the factions away from each other so we can buy some time and space to create a political solution, (inaudible) believe they're not going to be slaughtered, then we'll have made a huge mistake.

Once we drive them out of Iraq, if we can ever get there, to rebuild Iraq is going to take us in the middle, because we're the ones that everybody seems to somehow trust. So if I run for president, here's what I'm offering the country.

Well, I said "if." An honest discussion about the world as I see it, a world that cannot survive without an American presence, a Mideast in flames, and the war is coming here if we don't stop it from keeping it over there. How do you keep it over there?

You're going to need a forward-deployed presence for the rest of my life, creating lines of defenses—sometimes kinetic, a lot of times training indigenous armies—an intel community that can see and hear before they hit us, because they don't mind dying. Bring on the virgins, that's first prize, is to die in their cause.

So the way you stop them is you find out about what they're doing before they can hurt you. And the way you keep them contained is you partner with people over there who will do most of the fighting. But if you withdraw, you're going to get the same thing all over again. It's going to be Groundhog Day.

DAVIDSON: And I'm so sorry, but I think we're out of time. That was a strongly-worded note to end on.

GRAHAM: Thank you very much.

DAVIDSON: Senator, thank you so much.



"The nature and the quality of the deal will shape world events more than any single event that I can think of. This is the most consequential decision that any administration, world organization, group of nations, will make in my lifetime."
- Lindsey Graham
"I think it's in our national security interest to let the Iranians know that we would be with Israel [in any military action], because the Ayatollahs will have to recalculate."
- Lindsey Graham
"I just don't trust these guys. I think they're lying, they're cheating, and I don't trust them. And that's why I'd want intrusive inspections 24/7."
- Lindsey Graham
More on This Topic

Iran and Policy Options for the Next Administration. Session II: The Nuclear Dimension and Iranian Foreign Policy

A symposium discussing Iran and policy options for the next administration, focusing on the nuclear dimension and Iranian foreign policy.

Recent Events in Iran and the Progress of Its Nuclear Program

CFR Senior Fellows Ray Takeyh and Matthew Kroenig discuss the escalating tension with Iran and the challenges it poses for US strategy in this Council on Foreign Relations Special Briefing.

Terms of Use: I understand that I may access this audio and/or video file solely for my personal use. Any other use of the file and its content, including display, distribution, reproduction, or alteration in any form for any purpose, whether commercial, non commercial, educational, or promotional, is expressly prohibited without the written permission of the copyright owner, the Council on Foreign Relations. For more information, write