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Foreign Affairs Media Call on Iran Negotiations with Elliott Abrams, Suzanne Maloney, and George Perkovich

Speakers: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle Eastern Policy, Brookings Institution, Gideon Rose, Council on Foreign Relations, and George Perkovich, Task Force on Nuclear Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
February 20, 2014
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have all speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to a procedure to follow if you'd like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Gideon Rose. Mr. Rose, you may begin.

ROSE: Hi, everybody. Gideon Rose here, the editor of Foreign Affairs, and I'm delighted to be able to welcome you to a great conversation on what's going on with the Iranian nuclear talks and why and what should come next. The occasion for this is the release of our new e-book, "Iran and the Bomb II: A New Hope," those of you who like Star Wars' sequel titles. We decided not to do other more inflammatory titles, like "The Republic Strikes Back" or "Mullahs in Paradise," or various other sequels. Actually, I wanted to do "Catching Fire" in my -- my staff wouldn't allow that.

The -- but basically, we had a whole string of fantastic coverage of Iran on the website, in the magazine recently, and we're bringing together a lot of those people in this -- in this e-book, and we have three of them here on the call with us. Elliott Abrams is a CFR fellow -- a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies and a former deputy national security adviser. Suzanne Maloney, who's a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and a former member of the State Department policy planning staff, and George Perkovich, who's vice president for studies at Carnegie and is on the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Nuclear Policy and was a former advisory and speechwriter to Joe Biden.

So we actually have CFR, Brookings, and Carnegie represented today with a range of opinions, which is interesting, and a lot of experience, of course, in government, as well as intellectual firepower.

So let me start off, Elliott, with a question to you. Is your biggest worry that these talks will fail or that they will succeed?

ABRAMS: My biggest worry is that the P5-plus-1 will agree to a bad deal. My biggest worry is that the administration is desperately committed to the appearance of a foreign policy success and that they will therefore agree to a deal and claim that it's a great deal, but it will not actually do much to retrain and limit the Iranian program. That's my fear.

ROSE: OK. And the -- I'm going to stick with you for 200. Why is a bad deal so worrisome and dangerous?

ABRAMS: Well, I think it's clear that if you look at the nature of the Iranian program, it's not about energy. It's about acquiring either a nuclear -- a military nuclear capability or the bomb itself. And the danger, of course, is that they will be able to get a lot closer to having a bomb under a bad deal and that that will, in fact, destabilize the region and potentially lead others to try to get closer to a bomb or to get a bomb, or -- and/or will embolden Iran to engage in even more bad conduct than we see it engaging over the last 10 or 20 years.

ROSE: OK, so I'm going to stick with you for one last question before setting it up with the others. What in your opinion is the minimum that a deal would have to involve for it to be a good deal worth the P5-plus-1 signing?

ABRAMS: Well, here I'm kind of where Gary Samore was in his recent interview. I mean, I think you need -- you need, obviously, very intrusive inspections. You need to eliminate the underground site at Fordow. You need to limit the number of centrifuges and sites to -- to what they would need if they were just trying to produce energy, just trying to do Bushehr. I think those are reasonable standards. They claim it's an energy program. Those are the standards we can impose.

ROSE: OK, George, let me turn to you next. Do you buy that? And do you think that what the -- a deal of the kind that -- obviously, in my opinion, if we could get the kind of deal that Elliott just described, I think that would be a great deal to have. Is it a realistic possibility? And is it something, in effect, that's worth holding out for, pressing for, and not being satisfied with the somewhat lesser deal that we have in front of us?

PERKOVICH: Well, I mean, I think the parameters that Elliott put out are -- you know, are clearly the objectives of the U.S. and the other counterparts to Iran. And, you know, it's unlikely that you're going to get all of them or that anybody will be fully satisfied, because that's the nature of any kind of negotiation here.

I'd say, you know, a couple of things about the particulars. Yes, it is an emphasis that the Iranians should eliminate the underground facility at Fordow. There are also other ways to deal with it. It could become an R&D facility.

So, you know, the first demand is to eliminate, but, you know, you can imagine a range of solutions that would be satisfactory, but short of elimination. Similarly, the difficult issue of limiting the number of centrifuges -- I think Elliott pointed in the right direction where you want to try to peg it to actual demonstrable need, but that isn't as straightforward, either, I mean, because Bushehr, which is a power plant that the Russians have finished building -- I mean, if the Iranians were actually going to fuel that themselves, they'd need more than 100,000 centrifuges. So -- but they don't need to, because the Russians will supply the fuel. So -- but this is why it's a difficult negotiation, because you can say we'll limit it to needs, and the Iranians say, right, so we want to fuel Bushehr and this is what would be required.

That's why this is going to take a long time, which is one point, you know, I'd like to leave people with. It's very unlikely that you're going to resolve and get a final deal within six months, precisely because these are such hard issues, but the alternative you have to compare it against is, you know, no deal or no ongoing process where all sides have a motivation to be constructive and not make the others conclude they should walk away from the table. I think those would be less desirable outcomes than to continue trying to work towards a deal, like the one Elliott suggested.

ROSE: OK. So actually, Suzanne, let me turn to you now. Is continuing to talk even in the context of a deal that's not optimal better than just simply holding out for better terms and either continuing the pressure that exists or -- or even increasing it, as some in Congress might like to do? If pressure has helped bring them -- the Iranian regime to where they are today, something that they deny, but many in America feel is true. Why -- why wouldn't more pressure be even better?

MALONEY: You know, I think that -- that it's quite true that pressure has helped get them to the table, so I don't think that there's any productive discussion denying that or buying into the Iranian rhetoric that they can survive sanctions. It's quite clear that they're here today because of the economic constraints that they've faced over the course of the past couple of years, particularly.

But I think that, you know, there is a distinction between an imperfect deal and the situation that we've experienced for most of the past decade when the nuclear crisis has been at the top of every U.S. government agenda, which is that, you know, we now have at least some of their activities frozen, we have an ongoing discussion about what kind of a rollback, how big of a rollback we can actually achieve. That's a far preferable position than one in which Iran simply continues to advance without any constraints whatsoever, despite the fact that economic pressure is intensifying.

You know, I think, obviously, if we could have gotten a deal in 2003, if the Bush administration had been prepared to negotiate and join the E.U. at that time and try to get a deal then, we might have prevented any kind of Iranian enrichment capacity. But today we're stuck with the situation that we have. It's not optimal. The deal will not be ideal by anyone's standards. But I suspect, if we wait another couple of years, the deal will be even less optimal.

ROSE: Do you worry about them having -- sort of reaching, in effect, breakout capacity on the sly while we're talking and then simply presenting us with a fait accompli?

MALONEY: I think it's been demonstrated that we have, you know, an incredible reach into what Iran is doing. It's not perfect, but we've been able to expose their facilities as they have attempted to hide them in the past. And I see really no reason to believe that while these conversations are going on, while there are daily IAEA inspections ongoing, that there's going to be the sort of, you know, October surprise that comes to light that undercuts the very purpose of the negotiations.

I think it's also quite clear, Iranians signed onto this interim bargain, they got very little from it, in terms of immediate economic relief. All these trade delegations are really just a fancy word for tourism. There isn't likely to be any sort of major new investment that comes into Iran as a result of this six-month opening for very narrow sectors of the economy. And so ultimately, the Iranians signed onto the interim deal because they need the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They need the final deal. And they have a greater incentive at this stage than the P5-plus-1 to sign on -- to get to a final deal.

ROSE: OK, now we've got a (inaudible) going. Elliott, do you agree with what George and Suzanne just said? And if not, why not?

ABRAMS: Well, I worry a good deal, as I said before, about the terms of any deal. And I worry about maintaining the terms. You know, even if you -- let me put it this way. The history of arms control negotiations seems to me to suggest that once a deal is done, people fall in love with their deal, and then they don't want to hear about cheating. It reminds me of the Krasnoyarsk radar array, you know, in the Cold War. People don't want to hear about the fact that the deal's falling apart or that there's been cheating on the deal or that they may need to do something more. So that's a problem even if you get a deal.

The more immediate problem is, there's very strong Iranian rhetoric now suggesting that any terms like those that, for example, George was seeming to me to be talking about would be acceptable to Iran, and Iran may think that it is seeing a weakened P5-plus-1 unity, it is seeing a weakened American determination to maintain the sanctions, in which case we're in for, at the very least, an extremely tough negotiation and, at worse, no deal.

I mean, that's another question that we're going to have to face down the road. We might be able to agree, George and Suzanne and I, on what would be a reasonable deal, and we may not be able to get that deal.

ROSE: So, Elliott, let me stick with you again, since you're the odd man out here to a certain extent. What -- there's a concern in a lot of quarters that you have hawks and doves on the Iranian side, to some extent, and that having -- with the moderates -- however many quotation marks you might want to put on that, having gotten some bit of upper hand or opportunity to try to take a softer line and enter negotiations, make an interim agreement and so forth, that there needs to be some kind of reward for them for continuing that process, or else you'd strengthen the hands of the hawks or the hard liners in Tehran. Do you buy that argument at all? Or do you think that sort of, in effect, there's an infinitely elastic capacity to just pressure the Iranians into more and better concessions?

ABRAMS: Basically, I don't -- I don't buy the argument, first, because I don't think we know enough about what's going on inside the Iranian government to be able to fine-tune our policy so that we help this guy on Monday and that guy on Tuesday.

Secondly, I think that you need to show that bad behavior on the part of the Iranians will hurt Iran. I don't think that, for example, weakening our position so that we give gifts to the so-called moderate Rouhani or the so-called moderate Zarif, who just visited the tomb of Imad Mughniyeh. I don't think that's the way to do it. I think the way to do it is to show that we have a united front at least of the E.U.-3 plus the United States and that Iranian refusal to compromise will be punished by very heavy additional sanctions...

(UNKNOWN): I'm sorry. I know we didn't speak yesterday, but I'm totally fine. But I'll call you...

ROSE: Sorry. Sorry. Can somebody please silence their phones when they're not talking? Great, OK. Thanks.

Sorry, Elliott. You were going to say?

ABRAMS: No, I'm just -- I think you -- we go back again to the Kremlin or something. You do not help the moderates by appearing to be infinitely malleable or weak. You help them by giving them an argument to give to the hardliners that if there is no compromise, Iran will suffer. I think that's a better way to go at it.

PERKOVICH: But that -- that argument...

ROSE: OK, George?

PERKOVICH: Yeah, I agree, but that argument's already been made and demonstrated in terms of the sanctions and the pain that that's caused, which had a demonstrable effect in terms of the Iranian election and the surprise victory of the guy who ran on the platform of "I can get the sanctions lifted," and everything else.

So the message about, you know, bad behavior having consequences and the need to, you know, compromise, that has been received. But there's a -- there's the opposite problem. So we say, well, bad behavior will hurt Iran. Well, then what the leader of Iran believes and others is that good behavior also will hurt Iran.

And so when they agreed in November to the interim deal and limited enrichment and did the other things in that deal, and then there was a move in the U.S. Senate to increase sanctions or at least pass a new sanctions bill, it reinforced the leaders' conclusion that no matter they do, good behavior, bad behavior, the same answer comes out of the U.S., which is squeeze until you get regime change.

And so I think that's part of the problem that we have to address, and one can go through lots of examples, because if -- in the leader's mind and in Zarif's mind, who was the negotiator, same thing happened in December of 2001, when Iran cooperated with the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan, and Iran promised the U.S. that it would -- if U.S. pilots or planes were in jeopardy, they could land in Iran and be protected. That enabled or helped the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, and then in 2002 January, President Bush does the axis of evil speech, and the leader turns to Zarif and these guys and said, "You guys are all fools. You persuade me, we cooperate, and then this is what happens." So there's an equal challenge of, in fact, demonstrating to them that we will live up to a deal.

ROSE: OK. I'm going to turn this over to our calls -- to our people on the call who are a very interesting audience and want to participate, as well, in just one second. I think one last question. I'm going to be a little politically incorrect about it in the American political debate, that is. So in the spirit of our late contributor, Kenneth Waltz, who basically argued that letting the Iranians go nuclear would help to sort of stabilize the situation without producing too many downsides, on the analogy to all the other nuclear diads that have occurred, my question to you guys is, worst-case scenario, is the worst-case scenario here that we get into a war with Iran, a proliferation war, or is the worst-case scenario that Iran somehow actually goes nuclear? And if you had to ultimately choose between sort of a proliferation strike, a preventive strike, or letting them get some kind of small capability, which is -- which is a worst-case?

ABRAMS: Well, this is Elliott. I am where I think President Obama is and where he certainly has said he is; they cannot be permitted to have a nuclear weapon and we need to prevent that, including by the use of military force.

ROSE: Didn't President Bush say that about North Korea? And didn't -- they had it for a decade and hasn't it been relatively stable or at least no worse or more unstable than it was the decades before that?

ABRAMS: I don't think the analogy between North Korea and the purpose of a nuclear weapon for North Korea and the situation in Iran works, particularly given Iran's locale and -- and given the rhetoric being used by Iran's leaders.

MALONEY: Can I just say -- I'm going to duck the question, Gideon, simply -- this is Suzanne -- because I think it's preemptive. I think for the first time in a decade, we're involved in a very serious and at least initially constructive dialogue with the Iranians about how to curb their nuclear program. We've seen at least some possibility that that dialogue can pay off in terms of an agreement that is viable and is sustainable.

Let's continue to pursue that policy. I don't think there's anyone in the Western world or, frankly, anyone outside of perhaps Belarus and Venezuela who would like to see the Iranians with a nuclear weapons capability. I'm convinced the Iranians are willing and capable of bargaining some of their program away. The question is, what price are they going to demand? And what price is tenable to the international community? And how do these negotiations proceed?

ROSE: On that note, let's bring in our audience. Operator, let's ask for questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the one key in their touch-tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. Again, to ask a question, press star, one. We are currently holding for questions.

ROSE: OK, while people are queuing up, I'll take one, guys. Has anything that's happened over the last three or four months in the period since the interim agreement was announced and the negotiations really got underway that has changed your mind or significantly altered your position on any major aspect of this? Or are we, in effect, having exactly the same debate we had in the mid-fall?

PERKOVICH: This is George. It's a good question. The one thing I would say on that is -- is I've come to appreciate recently how -- the difficulty of the time that a final agreement would extend to, in other words, like many people focused a lot on the enrichment question and what to do with the Arak heavy water reactor and so on, and I'd focus less on, you know, the question of how long the agreement would last.

And the more I think about it, the more actually that issue, I think, is going to be fundamental to what's possible, and it's really, really hard. In other words, the restrictions we want from Iran on the nuclear program you might be able to get if the deal is of a relatively short duration, say, 5 years. We want a longer deal, like 20 year, in which case the longer it is, the less they're willing to, you know, bound the future, and that's a really hard issue, it seems to me.

ABRAMS: I would add one other, I think, difficult issue, which is that, though theoretically arms negotiations are always distinct from the rest of one's relationship with the country you're negotiating with, in reality, they aren't, so that if you find Iran's conduct from the American point of view worsening with respect to Syria or with respect to Bahrain, or even Saudi Arabia, it's going to be hard to insulate the negotiations from those other issues.

PERKOVICH: I can just add one, as well, which is this whole question of the U.S. domestic debate and the possibility of the rival of this whole sanctions issue, I think, is almost inevitable this fall, with midterms coming after the six-month initial period for the interim accord expires, as everyone expects, without a final accord having been concluded, then I think we're going to see a revival of this whole issue of new American sanctions which won't just complicate the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, but will complicate our position with our allies and potentially open up new transatlantic frictions on this point.

PERKOVICH: That's right.

ROSE: OK, Operator, do we have any questions from the floor?

OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Judith Miller with Manhattan Institute.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much. This has been a really interesting discussion, and I think -- you know, it's just Ukraine and other things that are kind of interfering today, but I wanted to ask you two questions. One, speaking of the allies and what they're willing to tolerate and not, can I hear a little more discussion on what you think Israel's tolerance for these talks and the outcome is? And, two, do you think the Iranians are really persuaded at this point that Barack Obama is willing to make good on his pledge of not letting them get a bomb? Because that obviously will affect the extent to which they are willing to make some concessions. So I throw both of those questions open to the three of you.

PERKOVICH: This is George. Thanks, Judy. I would start with the last question, about, you know, are the Iranians persuaded that Obama would make good on his pledge to keep them from getting a bomb?

QUESTION: Thank you.

PERKOVICH: I don't -- you know, obviously, I don't know. I think the -- I'm convinced -- but that doesn't matter -- but I think the harder one from my interactions with Iranians is they're not convinced he could deliver on a deal. And that's the bigger problem for them. I mean, I've had that said to me a number of times, including by Zarif.

You know, they look at Congress, they look at the interactions between Congress and the administration on the budget, on any number of issues, and they say, you know, we're being asked to demonstrate what we can accept in terms of constraint in our nuclear program and everything else in return for some things, and we have no evidence that Obama could deliver on a deal.

And that to them is a bigger problem than, well, will the U.S. strike them? Because they're under sanctions right now. They need that done. The rest of it's all speculative and down the road.

ABRAMS: Judy, this is Elliott. I would jump in on the first one. I think the Israelis want to give this time, first, because, obviously, from a sort of international political point of view, they need to, they have to give the negotiations a chance and, secondly, because they really don't want to have to bomb Iran. I mean, their view is that it's kind of crazy for a small country of 7 million people to have to do this if it, in fact, an important global issue that has engaged the P5-plus-1.

So I think they're willing to wait. And the question for them would simply be whether they see Iran under the current negotiations creeping closer and closer and closer to a bomb or whether they think that things have been more or less stabilized for the course of 2014.

QUESTION: Thank you.

ROSE: OK. Next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Chris Good with ABC News.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call. I guess I have two questions. And I apologize, I joined late, so you may have touched on this, but what -- I'm curious what you think about how closely Iran monitors the domestic political situation in the United States as they follow closely the prospects of veto-proof majorities in Congress for new sanctions, such as you just mentioned, the prospect that Obama wouldn't be able to deliver on a deal. I'm wondering if action in Congress is -- it's followed really closely and if they kind of follow what the pro-Israel groups might do in a campaign season and stuff like that.

And then another question, if I can just tack another one on. I think it was Suzanne mentioned the kind of pot of gold at the end of this for Iran, seeing that they could get those sanctions lifted and some investments. We heard a lot from the U.S. administration about the French kind of delegation of businessmen going there, and there was a lot of push-back against that from Kerry, I don't think from Obama directly, but I can't quite remember. And so I'm just wondering kind of what the -- what the danger is of that. If they go there and they don't actually invest, if it's just tourism, it seems like that would be a good thing that would boost the moderates in Iran by demonstrating that there's some sort of pot of gold. So I'm kind of curious about your take on the push-back from the administration on that business trip. Thanks.

MALONEY: I can start with these, but I'm sure others have comments, as well. In terms of the monitoring, the Iranians have been watching this whole sanctions debate very, very closely for quite some time. And the questions about how -- how strenuous the president would push and how much influence he might have, have been on their minds since well before the conclusion of the Geneva Accords.

So they watched -- you know, their understanding of American politics is inevitably somewhat skewed by the fact that they don't have immediate access. Zarif is someone who knows many of the players quite well, so he's got a fairly sophisticated understanding, having spent much of his life in the United States, but most of the Iranian establishment has not. And, of course, Khamenei has barely left the country in decades.

So, you know, you have a real range of abilities to sort of interpret how things are likely to proceed from here. And I'm not entirely clear if they're factoring into the equation, the shift in the dynamic as a result of U.S. elections, domestic politics come the fall.

In terms of the push-back, I'm not surprised, and I think it's normal and healthy for the administration, because I actually take a counterargument, that these trade delegations don't help the moderates, because what they do is potentially give, you know, the sort of rejectionists within Iran, the hardliners who believe, as the supreme leader said just yesterday, in a resistance economy, the illusion that they can survive sanctions. And that, of course, has been the Iranian mantra for decades, but there are those within the establishment who believe it, they look at their experience during the Iran-Iraq war and say, we were able to sort of, you know, build the domestic arms industry precisely because we couldn't get access to international supplies.

So, you know, it can, in fact, contribute to the dilution on the Iranian side. And it can, in fact, stiffen their spine and give Khamenei and others the perception that they don't need this deal. And so I think it's quite appropriate for the administration to voice its displeasure, and I think that, you know, our partners internationally ought to be cooperating in that regard.

ABRAMS: This is Elliott. I would just add, I agree with what Suzanne said about their interpretations of Congress. It's hard for any foreign government. It's going to be particularly difficult for them.

I would just say that I do worry about our use of the term "moderate," because we don't know whether a moderate is someone who really wants to change Iran's nuclear program and change Iran's relations with the West or is someone who thinks that Ahmadinejad was an idiot and that if you stop that kind of rhetoric you can get a much better deal without giving hardly anything up. And I don't think the returns are in yet.

QUESTION: OK.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Benny Avni with Newsweek.

QUESTION: Yes, this is Benny Avni. Recently, Khamenei said publicly that he feels the United States is trying to topple the regime. Is that crazy talk as far as you're concerned? Is there fear in some Iranian circles, still fear of regime change? And do you know of any -- I don't know -- secret agreement, one of those meetings in Oman or something, that -- where America has assured the Iranians that it seeks no regime change?

MALONEY: The fear of regime change has been a persistent one for much of the revolutionary establishment since 1979. And I don't think any whispers have been -- have been attempted on our part, nor should they. I do -- I would point to the 1981 Algiers Accords, which ended the hostage crisis, in which the United States made a commitment to non-interference in Iranian politics or Iranian domestic affairs. This the Iranians regularly accuse us of violating that commitment, so I doubt that there's any, you know, words that could be whispered or statements on paper that are likely to reassure them. Khamenei is deeply paranoid, to some extent with justification, and there's almost nothing that we are able to do, I think, to assuage that paranoia.

PERKOVICH: I think that's right. This is George. I mean, you know, they ain't making it up. I mean, this is the view, especially of people around Khamenei and those who haven't traveled and engaged. Their view is that the U.S. aim is regime change, which it is. I mean, you know -- I mean, in reality, you know, all of us, including myself, would like to have government in Iran that was, you know, truly representative, that didn't have an unelected, you know, religious leader, et cetera, et cetera. There's lots of things we don't like about that system.

And it's -- that's expressed in some of our laws. It's expressed in our campaigns. The issue is, you know, will the U.S. do things physically to try to topple the regime or engage, rather, in, you know, kind of debates over values and discourse, which, by the way, the Iranians do in reverse? I mean, you know, their leadership says lots of really, you know, critical things about, you know, U.S. government arrogant power. So the issue is kind of the means by which one will compete in international politics.

ROSE: Elliott, this is Gideon. Would you be prepared to forswear more active measures and say, look, we want the regime to change, but we will allow it to fall on its own -- in its own time?

ABRAMS: I would prefer the relationship we had with the Soviet Union, that is, there were plenty of negotiations with Soviet leaders, but there was also a constant drumbeat of ideological warfare against the regime.

I'm not talking about active measures in the Soviet parlance. I am talking about ideological warfare, for the reasons that George states. It's a loathsome regime. The people of Iran deserve better, and I think there's reason to believe they want a different regime and there's no real reason why we should not say so.

MALONEY: Let me just also point out that one of the complaints that Khamenei made in a speech earlier this week was about U.S. meddling, and he was alluding to a statement released last week on the third anniversary of the decision on the part of the Iranian regime to place under house arrest two very former -- former very senior officials who were, of course, the ostensibly losing candidates in the 2009 presidential election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

So I think it's important that the State Department continues to speak out on these issues. Obviously, I think we'd all think it would be an improvement if Iran could find a way of its own repressive tendencies and begin to liberalize at home, as well as pursue detente abroad.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Patrick McDonnell with Los Angeles Times.

QUESTION: Thank you. Very enlightening discussion. I wanted to ask about this issue that's come up of ballistic missiles and some other things, human rights and so forth, that may potentially come up or have been raised to some extent. Do you think ballistic missiles specifically will be put on the agenda by the United States? And is that a good idea or a bad idea?

PERKOVICH: This is George. It's -- I think we can put it on the agenda. I think the Iranians will have answers to the extent that we're talking about ballistic missiles, per se, which aren't illegal and which lots of countries in the region have, et cetera, et cetera.

If -- but I can imagine that part of the discussion isn't necessarily about missiles, per se, but it's about the modification of the nose cones of missiles and the part where the payload goes, which you have to do in certain ways if you're going to put a nuclear warhead in there, as opposed to a conventional warhead.

So that isn't about, you know, missiles in their entirety, but it's about the -- kind of the front end of missiles. And I think that part is something that the IAEA has already raised and wants to learn more about and is probably a legitimate topic of discussion.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with Mitchell Report.

QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing this. I think that the bulk -- the thing I have most interest in getting your perspective about has been touched on enough, which is leaving the specifics of a deal aside. What is -- what is your collective reading of the Iranian domestic political situation? And I've heard a lot about that, but let me just try coming at it from another perspective, which is that a little over a week ago, another think-tank with another group of Iranian experts, all of whom you would know, during the course of the conversation, one of them -- and I think is someone that is widely respected -- made the observation that there may be developing inside Iran today a kind of Iranian version of glasnost.

I didn't think he overstated that case, but suggested that -- and there were -- there were sort of reaffirmations of something like that from others on the panel with respect to the reformers and where they are today. So I'd just be curious to know whether you -- you think that notion has got any substance to it or is, you know, sort of the triumph of hope over experience?

ABRAMS: Well, I'll jump in. This is Elliott. I think it's the triumph of hope over experience. I do not think you see a diminution of the power of the Revolutionary Guard over Iranian foreign policy. I think you see Iran hard at work in Syria, including having IRGC people on the ground in Syria. The intel community in the U.S. says there was a discovery of some arms that were being shipped to Bahrain recently. So I don't see this at all.

PERKOVICH: This is George. I'm always wary of the metaphor about glasnost for various reasons, and partly I remember the first time I went to Iran was in '97, when Khatami had just come in, and there was a similar kind of resemblance.

And why I'm wary about it is -- well, there are a bunch of reasons, but one of them is, from the leader of Iran's point of view, if you're thinking about that metaphor, glasnost ended horribly. You know, it ended up with the collapse of the Communist Party, the dissolution of the Soviet empire, and so on and so forth. So depending on, in a sense, what perspective you take or whose side you're on, that metaphor suggests a direction you absolutely don't want to go in, and so I think it's problematic for those reasons.

I think, you know, the point that Elliott made is also valid. And it raises a bigger issue, not -- getting out of the metaphor, but thinking about the future or the evolution of Iran. As we saw in Russia, you know, we were very happy the Soviet Union collapsed, Communist Party disappeared. The people who remained were the KGB, who then renamed themselves, but, you know, had been kind of the dominant players as expressed by Putin and others.

So there's a real challenge for anybody in Iran who wants to change the system, is how do you actually gain real power and gain control over the levers of the political economy, given that the Revolutionary Guards and their various foundations and organizations do control a lot of the big economic actors, they control a lot of the trade, as well as, you know, the kind of covert activities abroad? And so that's a challenge for the Iranians that they're going to have to wrestle with, but we should at least be aware that it's a genuine challenge.

MALONEY: I'll just come out somewhere -- I don't know if it's a middle or if it's a slightly different perspective. I think what we know about Iran today is that Rouhani was elected to try to negotiate some sort of exit to the nuclear conflict with the international community. He has been given a certain degree of flexibility to do that, including naming, you know, the most Western-oriented cabinet in Iran's post-revolutionary history and undertaking a number of other fairly unprecedented steps in terms of demonstrating his willingness to engage in a different relationship with not just the international community, not just his neighbors, but, in fact, the United States, as well. That's notable, and it's important, and we ought to be pursuing it as we are.

What we don't see any evidence of at this stage is a significant shift in Iran's domestic policy or, as Elliott and George have suggested, its foreign policy. There has been some liberalization of society, largely as a result of the sort of reduction of internal tensions within the regime, but we don't see a sort of wholesale shift to a more open political system or even a much significant openness -- significantly greater openness of the -- of society and culture under Rouhani.

And I think that, you know, the one sort of constant that we see is that this is a system, despite the different factions, despite warring institutions, in which all of the senior leadership is very much committed to the perpetuation of the system. So it's not just Khamenei who fears glasnost. It's Rouhani, it's Khatami, it's all of these individuals who would like to see perhaps some sort of change, but do not want to see, in fact, the system itself in any way imperiled. They're all equally committed to it.

ROSE: So this is Gideon. We're at the end of our allotted timeframe, and one of the things about the Council is we -- we tend to end things on time and start and end on time. So I'm not going to keep people much longer.

I will say and announce in advance that I want to re-assemble our troika for further discussions of this sort down the road, as the deadline for the interim agreement approaches and the final negotiations may or may not begin, and as we could all continue to hash out this subject.

And I just want to add one comment on this broader question of the Soviet analogy. Elliott Abrams just did a very interesting piece that I highly recommend to everybody for the Weekly Standard called "A Misleading Cold War Analogy," which is basically sort of his attempt to blow out the Soviet parallel and say this is not the way we should be thinking about these things. I don't agree with it, but I think it's a good statement of the case.

And I should say that Karim Sadjadpour did a nice piece for Foreign Policy a couple of years ago, essentially taking Kennan's famous "Sources of Soviet Conduct" article in Foreign Affairs -- this was in October 2010 -- and applying it to Iran, basically swapping out the Soviet Union for the Islamic Republic, and arguing that, in effect, a long-term containment policy, a la what we did with the Soviets, is the wisest policy towards there.

And I think those are interesting bookends of sort of this larger question of just what parallels there are in terms of managing this hostile relationship of no more, no peace over the long term, while we wait and hope for and try and prod the mellowing of the Iranian regime, and we all hope this one ends as well as the last one ended.

With that, let me thank you all and welcome you back. I also should say, again, take a look at our book if you haven't, the "Iran and the Bomb II," and continue to follow the website and the magazine. We got a lot more Iran-related content coming up on our regular basis, and we aim to be the place where the serious discussion of these issues takes place, and you can follow it in one-stop shopping. Thank you all to our guests and our participants.

PERKOVICH: Thanks.

ABRAMS: Thank you.

ROSE: Bye.

MALONEY: Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you. This concludes today's conference. You may now disconnect.

END

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