U.S.-Iran Relations

U.S.-Iran Relations

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Ariane M. Tabatabai, associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation and adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, discusses U.S.-Iran relations, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.


Ariane Tabatabai

Associate Political Scientist, RAND Corporation; Adjunct Senior Research Scholar, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference call series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, at CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have Ariane Tabatabai with us today. Ariane Tabatabai is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation and an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs. Prior to joining RAND, she served as the director of curriculum and a visiting associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and as an international civilian consultant for NATO. She is the co-author of the book Triple-Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China, and she is a Council on Foreign Relations term member.

So, Ariane, thank you very much for being with us today. There is a lot to talk about vis-à-vis Iran. We’ve seen tensions continue to rise around attacks on the Saudi oil facilities last month. So it would be great if you could just bring us up to speed and talk about what you see as what the future holds, if anybody can tell us that.

TABATABAI: Irina, thank you so much for having me, and all of you or joining us on the call.

So I think what I’m going to start by doing is talk a little bit about how it is that we got where we are, and what it all means, and what it tells us about what we should be looking for. I will try to stay away from making predictions. We all know how that ends. But I’m going to give you at least some signposts to look for.

I think what is important to understand is what Iran is reacting to here and what their strategy is—or, at least what they think they’re doing. And to do that, let’s start with the May 2018 announcement made by President Trump that he was withdrawing the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA, the nuclear deal that had been concluded under the Obama administration by the United States, Iran, and U.S. partners and allies. President Trump has long expressed his displeasure with the deal. He had said that he found it to have a number of shortcomings. And throughout the campaign he had said that, you know, he would like to withdraw the United States from the deal. But initially in the first few months of the administration—for a year and a half, in fact—the U.S. didn’t withdraw. It tried to kind of look for workarounds.

Ultimately on May 8, 2018, President Trump announced that he was withdrawing the U.S. from the JCPOA. And he announced the beginning of what has now come to be known as the maximum pressure campaign. This is a strategy that is aiming to change Iran’s behavior. Secretary Pompeo laid out about twelve points where he would like to see changes in Iranian behavior. And that spans from Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s missile activities, and regional interventions and support for terrorism. So it’s a very broad agenda that the United States is trying to deal with here.

The Iranian response to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and the maximum pressure campaign has been phased. There have been two phases so far. The first one was what the Iranians call strategic patience. Strategic patience was this idea that Iran wasn’t really going to do anything for a while, and that was the case for a year after the U.S. withdrawal. Iran’s supreme leader sort of laid out the groundwork for this in some remarks that he made shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, saying that Iran was going to continue implementing the deal. It was also going to work with the European Union and three European countries, France, Germany and the UK, are stakeholders in the JCPOA. They helped negotiate the deal and they’ve been implementing the deal along with Iran, Russia, and China.

And for Iran, the idea was to kind of get the Europeans to step up, and to help compensate for the U.S. withdrawal in order to keep the JCPOA. So that is precisely what happened for a year. The Iranians didn’t really react, but at the same time they started to prepare the groundwork for the potential collapse of the JCPOA. A year after the U.S. withdrawal, in May 2019, Iran actually decided to change course. And it started phase two of its strategy, which is where we are today. Iran’s president Rouhani made some remarks on May 8, so the one-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal, saying that Iran was now going to start introducing a number of nuclear activities in violation of the deal. And this was track one of Iran’s strategy.

Since then, Iran every sixty days or so has introduced step by step incremental actions in violation of the JCPOA. And it has announced it. It’s actually one of the first times where Iran has been so clear and pretty open about what it’s doing on its nuclear program. Previously it tried to hide violations. Now it’s doing so in the open. And at the same time, Iran also started to take a number of actions outside the nuclear realm, including the most recent attack on Saudi oil installations that Irina mentioned a few minutes ago, as well as some activities both through proxies in Iraq, and in Yemen, and also directly—for example, taking tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz to exercise pressure on the Europeans.

So what is Iran trying to do here, and what does it tell us about where we’re going next? Well, I think there are a few things here. You know, we know that President Trump would like to have some sort of engagement with Iran. He has made that pretty clear. That is not a view that has been shared over the past couple years by everyone in the administration, but the president himself has been pretty clear that he would like negotiations. Generally speaking, though, the administration is looking for some sort of change in behavior. It’s not always clear which components of the twelve-point plan that Secretary Pompeo has laid out take precedence over others, or if all of those things need to be addressed before we have some sort of agreement. But that is essentially where the U.S. is going.

Iran, for its part, is—I think there’s a recognition in Iran, and there’s been some reporting on this recently, that at some point negotiations will be inevitable, that the current economic situation is not tenable. However, there is also a belief, I think, within the highest levels of the regime, that right now is not the time for negotiations, that right now is the time to fill up their pockets with bargaining chips, to build leverage so that when they do come back to the table they’re not starting the conversation at core national interest issues, so that when Iran comes back to the table the conversation doesn’t start with, you should really stop enrichment, but starts with, can you go back into the JCPOA’s limits?

So this is Iran trying to come to the table from a position of strength rather than from a position of weakness, which is what it would have been a year ago had it not undertaken the actions that it has been taking recently. Now, the challenge here, of course, is that as these activities continue and as the calculation remains what it is—what I’m describing here, the chances of—the risk of—the risk of some sort of inadvertent military exchange becomes higher. I do believe that neither side wants an all-out war, and both sides really try to calibrate their activities in such a way where they do not end up in a full conflict.

But at the same time, you know, we have now come to the brink of some sort of military exchange several times over the past six months. So it is incredibly challenging to continue this escalation while managing every aspect of it. And that is the main thing that I think we need to look out for, is not some sort of decision on either side to actually get us into some sort of conflict, but the calculations that have been made on both side essentially spiraling out of control and bringing us close to some sort of exchange.

I think I’ll stop here, Irina, and see if you have any other questions, or if you want to open it up to Q&A.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you very much. Let’s open it up to the group.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question comes from Sheikh Ubaid with the Muslim Peace Coalition.

UBAID: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was wondering what gives Iran so much extra confidence. Do you think that Iran and Russia can form an alliance, given the fact that they have a three-hundred-years-old history of border warfare? And second, what role will Pakistan play, as Trump has asked Imran Khan. And with India getting closer to Israel, Iran, which was closer to India, might be leaning more towards Pakistan.

TABATABAI: Yeah, thanks for both those questions. I guess there’s actually really three questions. But let me start by grouping your questions about Russia and India a little bit, because I think we actually are dealing with very similar situations, at least underlying assumptions, in both cases. Russia and Iran, on the one hand, and India and Iran on the other, have a tendency to compartmentalize their relationship. And there is an understanding I think on both sides, both on the Iranian side and also on the Russia and Indian side, that there are different interests to be balanced. India has a decent relationship with the United States, and it needs that relationship. Of course, Iran has an adversarial relationship with the United States. And so India has to balance its interests vis-à-vis the U.S. on the one hand its interest in the region, including with Pakistan, including in Afghanistan, with Iran.

So the two countries have cooperated, I think most successfully perhaps, in the case of the Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran, a port that is very important to Afghanistan and, of course, where the Indians have been involved. But it’s been slow, and it hasn’t been a relationship that has really thrived in ways that I think many would expect given the historic sort of ties that have existed between the two countries, predominantly because the Indians are so concerned about preserving and pursuing relations and interests that they’d be in conflict with those of Iran.

Similarly, with Russia, what you do have is a number of overlapping interests. But you do also, as you were mentioning, you know, there’s a long history of conflicts. There’s also a long history of cooperation. There is a great deal distrust. And both countries here too have different interests and objectives that they have to pursue. And they don’t always—and they have been able to do that pretty well, I guess. In Syria, for example, putting some of the distrust on the backburner to pursue interests that are common. But at the same time, I don’t see that becoming an alliance. One, because the Russians actually don’t really do alliances like the United States does alliances. They have a much more compartmentalized view of their relationship with all countries, essentially. And Iran is no exception.

And second, even on the Iranian side, there is not really a willingness, an eagerness to pursue an alliance with a country like Russia because of the distrust and because of the fact that, you know, Iran had a whole revolution about not being dependent on anybody else, right? And so the status quo, where they have these comprehensive relationships militarily, politically, economically, is energy-wise something that I think works pretty well for both parties. And we’re likely to see more of that, rather than a fundamental shift and a decision to sort of, you know, have a concrete, all-encompassing alliance that may come with strings attached, which certainly neither Russia nor Iran is looking forward to doing.

FASKIANOS: Ariane, President Rouhani was at the UN General Assembly last week and gave an address there. How would you characterize it and, you know, what signal do you think he was sending?

TABATABAI: Sure. You know, I think that the address that Rouhani gave at UNGA was pretty standard. It wasn’t anything we weren’t really expecting before. The main objective that Rouhani had, and that the Iranian government currently has, is really trying to see what Europe can do to step up and to undermine the U.S. maximum pressure campaign. And of course, the Europeans have become—you know, they’ve been fairly active for a couple years now, but they’ve become especially active in the past few months. President Macron of France has been one of the sort of leaders of, and champions of, de-escalation between the U.S. and Iran. And we know that during UNGA week and before that, during the G-7 meeting, he was sort of going back and forth with Boris Johnson, with Rouhani, with President Trump, trying to get all parties to sit down and to de-escalate. And from, again, recent reporting it would seem that he had some success, except for at the last minute the Iranian side decided that this was not going to—it was not going to move forward with a conversation, a direct conversation, between President Trump and Rouhani.

So, you know, from my perspective it’s clear that, again the Iranians right now believe that eventually they will have to sit down with the U.S., but they don’t believe they’re quite in the right position for that yet. And the fact that the supreme leader stepped in and said, no negotiations right now, and rejected the four-point plan that the U.S. and the French had presented, seems to indicate that they don’t see themselves in a position yet to have that engagement. I think one thing that was quite interesting during Rouhani’s speech was the introduction of this new they call it HOPE.

It’s a new sort of initiative for maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. And it was some sort of opening to the regional space, something that, you know, Foreign Minister Zarif has also said a number of times, that the United States is not a regional neighbor, and so the regional—you know, the U.S. may leave at some point, but that the region will always have to live with Iran. And so the idea was to try to kind of start a regional dialogue about maritime security, perhaps building on the relative success that they had in similar initiative with the Emiratis not that long ago, just a few weeks ago. So that was an interesting one.

There seems to be some traction—we know that the Saudis have sort of been, you know, more forthcoming with regard to possible negotiations with Iran as well. And that would not be a bad place to start. Ultimately I do think that even if we do have negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, the region will never be as much of a priority for the U.S. as it will be for the region, right? So you need some sort of inter—or, intraregional dialogue to get going regardless of what happens between the U.S. and Iran.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Margaret Rose with Episcopal Church.

ROSE: (Off mic)—a bit more about the role that Foreign Minister Zarif might play? He does have many conversations with faith-based groups here. And, you know, from the news it seems that there’s not a lot that is really happening. But you just mentioned it, and I’d love to hear more about that.

TABATABAI: Yeah. You know, so Zarif is pretty clear where he stands. He obviously was the chief nuclear negotiator for the JCPOA. And his entire legacy as foreign minister really depends on the JCPOA being salvaged, or at least not being a complete failure, which currently it is on track to become that complete failure if nothing changes, and if Iran does move forward with its fourth step that it’s announced in the next few weeks, at some point in November, that that would be the case. So he’s obviously championing continued engagements with Europe.

I think if he had it his own way and he were the only decision maker he would certainly sit down with the U.S. But that is not the case and there is a whole decision-making process that takes place with—of course, under the supervision of the supreme leader—but within the supreme national security council that brings together all these different power centers and entities within the regime. So for any kind of movement on this file and on negotiations going forward, he will need that endorsement from that body, which includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and it includes the supreme leader’s office, as well as, of course, different branches of government.

So the decision-making process has really stymied, I think, what Zarif would really like to see. And he has to operate within the framework that is set up by this entity and by this decision-making process. But he certainly—I do believe that he has played an important role so far in making sure the JCPOA continues to be implemented, at least now increasingly less so, but that it remained in place as long as it did. And he’s been a pretty significant figure in trying to bring more transparency in the Iranian economic infrastructure, which has also been a bit of a challenging project for him. But he has tried to initiate some of these changes with, of course, varying degrees of success.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Jack Miles with the University of California, Irvine.

MILES: Thank you.

This series of conversations generally is about religion and foreign policy. Your analysis of Iran’s situation in the world today has made no mention of religion. Generally we are told that the Sunni-Shia division has much to do with sort of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and, of course, the difference between Islam and Christianity or presumptive Christianity in the West has also been a complicating factor, certainly in the past. Is it fair to infer that you consider these factors insignificant? Or do you have something to say about them?

TABATABAI: You know, I do think that religion plays a role in Iranian security thinking on some level, but I actually don’t agree with the idea that religion is a huge drive behind Iranian behavior. I think religion has been used as a means by Iran over the past four decades, and certainly before that as well. You know, you just have to look at the way Iran has been recruiting and cultivating proxy forces throughout the region. You know, religion and ideology has been really critical means in doing that. But I don’t necessarily believe that religion is the driver or is the end that Iran is pursuing. I think it is a much more interest-drive actor than is often assumed, and that religion really plays more of a role as a means than an ends.

Certainly, though, one more thing that I think needs to be mentioned here is that the sectarian dimension of regional conflicts right now cannot be underestimated. And Iran does have a significant image as a sectarian player. And it has contributed to the sectarian tensions in the region. And there, I think, you know, going back to the previous question too, there are divisions within the decision-making body about the role of sectarianism and religion. There are individuals and power centers within Iran that are quite happy to pursue sectarianism—to use sectarianism as a tool of foreign policy. You know, we can point specifically to Iraq, where Iran in the 2000s was really trying to help the Shia government, even as it was pursuing sectarian policies and sidelining the Sunnis in an effort to sort of increase Iranian influence in the country.

But on the flipside, you also do have individuals—I would point again to the foreign ministry—who recognize that playing the sectarian game is not going to be a winner for Iran. During the rise of ISIS, for example, in 2014-2015, many individuals in the foreign ministry objected to the idea that Iran should play a more active role in crushing ISIS, precisely because they were concerned of the way Iran’s image might be tarnished or it might be affected by more involvement in the conflict and in Iraq. And so, you know, it is a source of tension within the country. I think ultimately Iran, like essentially all other states, has a number of interests that it pursues. But it does have the ability to use religion as a means, and it often does so.

MILES: Why was Iran concerned that its image would be tarnished by joining the fight against ISIS? What sort of tarnish was feared?

TABATABAI: Yeah. Thanks for letting me clarify that. You know, the main tools that Iran had its disposal in the fight against ISIS, of course, were the Shia militias in Iraq. And many of these militias didn’t hide the fact that they were Shia, and that they had deeply sectarian objectives and deeply sectarian outlooks. So when they were being used by Iran, and it was clear that they were an extension of the Iranian security apparatus in Iraq, the concern was that this—their actions would reflect poorly on Iran. You know, there were incidents—a number of them, actually—of theses militias also committing their own share of atrocities. So they were a counter-ISIS force, but they were not a clean counter-ISIS force. And so there were divisions within Iran, within the decision-making elite, decision makers, asking, you know, is this a good tool to deploy, if it comes with these sort of—if it can potentially backlash?

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Stephen Angell with Earlham School of Religion.

ANGELL: Hi. I was wondering if you could comment more on Iran and its role in the Yemen conflict. How closely do you see Iran working with the Houthi rebels? And is there a role for Iran in resolution of the conflict?

TABATABAI: Yeah, that’s a fascinating question. And you know, I have to say, if you had asked me the same question four years ago I would have given you a completely different answer than today. I think it’s one of the conflicts where certainly my thinking has evolved the most in the region.

When the conflict in Yemen started, when the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen, Iran had a relationship with the Houthis. You know, it’s a longstanding relationship but it wasn’t a very deep one. I remember at the time Gulf officials often talking about, you know, Iran is trying to create a new Hezbollah at our border, and we can’t have that. And that was just—it didn’t resonate in Iran. If you had asked the same officials, their counterparts in Iran, they would have told you, well, you know, the Houthis are not—you know, we don’t trust them. They don’t listen to us. We have a relationship because they allow us to pursue our interests, but it wasn’t a deep-rooted relationship.

That seems to have evolved and changed over the course of the Yemen conflict. I think as Yemen has continued to remain in chaos, and as the conflict has exacerbated humanitarian issues and has sort of bogged down Saudi Arabia and its allies, creating tensions not just among the members of the coalition involved in Yemen, but also between Saudi Arabia and the one hand and the United States on the other, Iran has seen more dividends for its intervention in Yemen. This has been a pretty cheap, pretty easy conflict for Iran to be involved in. It hasn’t deployed its own troops, unlike Syria. It hasn’t really had to spend a whole lot of money. It hasn’t really had to do much, aside from support the Houthis a little bit.

And so there has been a lot of return for the investment, from Iran’s perspective. It’s managed to bog down its key regional rival in a conflict that just doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. It’s managed to exacerbate tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The fact that today in the U.S. Congress Saudi Arabia is such a tricky question—you know, you have folks who are constantly calling for and asking about U.S. support for Saudi Arabia—it’s something that Iran didn’t have to do a whole lot to initiate, but it’s deeply profiting from that.

So as the conflict has progressed, as Iran has seen more and more returns on its investment, it has also upped its support for the Houthis. So according to recent reporting it seems like the Houthis are getting more advanced weapons from Iran, and there seems to be more of an emphasis on the relationship on the Iranian side as well. Just to give you a couple of examples, just a few weeks ago the supreme leader’s Twitter account published a photo with the Houthi spokesperson and the supreme leader. And that was the first that Iran had published such a high-profile sort of picture of a meeting between the key decision-makers of the highest political and religious authority in the country, and a member of a delegation of the Houthis. This is the kind of treatment that is normally reserved for the closest proxies, like Hezbollah for example, not for a group that had until not that long ago not been very responsive to Iran’s request.

And just this past week, we have also seen more forthcoming admissions by various members of the IRGC saying, you know, yes, we do support the Houthis. All of that is pretty new. They didn’t really own that relationship in the past. And the reason for it is clear too. When the Houthis decided to take over Sana’a, the Iranians told them not to do that, and they didn’t listen. So the Iranians were very concerned about supporting overtly and comprehensively a group that didn’t necessarily respond to Iran in the way that Hezbollah did, for example, where command and control was limited. And that, again, seems to have changed quite a bit, where that relationship is now much more overt and it is much more comprehensives than it has been, as a result of the progression of the war in Yemen.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Andrew Salzmann with Benedictine College.

SALZMANN: So I have—I have two questions. The first question is kind of about that question of sectarian alliance in the Middle East. So Vali Nasr says—or, said ten years ago that from the Iranian point of view the Pakistani nuclear weapons were almost viewed as a proxy for Saudi Arabia’s kind of power. And I was wondering if that still holds true today. And then my second and unrelated question is that in the drawing up of this agreement with the United States and Europe, the Obama administration worked, in part through Catholic proxies like Cardinal McCarrick and the Vatican Department of State. And I was wondering if there’s still a helpful relationship in kind of—or, still a role that the Vatican diplomatic corps plays in international kind of agreements surrounding Iran.

TABATABAI: Yeah. So on your second question, I’m not particularly aware of the Vatican’s role with regard to Iran. I do also know about, you know, the Obama’s administration’s use of Catholic community leaders and their outreach efforts to Iran. I think that’s a big more challenging today than it was five years ago, in part because I think the Trump administration’s approach hasn’t necessarily been all-encompassing. It hasn’t been as inclusive.

And so it may backfire in some ways, right? I’m thinking, for example, of the travel ban, which is widely seen in Iran as a Muslim ban. I’m also thinking about some of the freedom of religion initiatives in the region. So—which, again, I think in the region are widely seen as being more geared towards Christians than any other community. So I think the Trump administration has a bit of a challenge here. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it shouldn’t or can’t leverage faith community leaders in its efforts. But to my knowledge, it hasn’t really done that. And it has certainly not been effective in the way it has tried to leverage religion in its outreach efforts.

To your first question about how Iran sees the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. It’s a challenging question for Iran, because on the one hand Iran benefitted from the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. The father of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan, was also the head of one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive nuclear technology smuggling and illicit trafficking networks that has ever existed. And you know, it was, in part, responsible for transferring technology to Libya, and also to Iran. So Iran benefitted from that program. And throughout the ’80s, you know, the bases for the current Iranian nuclear infrastructure came from Pakistan. The centrifuges you hear about today, the sort of first- and second-generation centrifuges that Iran uses to enrich uranium, those were based off of Pakistani centrifuge models. So Iran has benefitted from it.

On the other hand, of course, having a nuclear-armed state next door in a country where, you know, Iran and Pakistan have had a challenging relationship, to say the least. Iran believes that Pakistan, as a state, has long helped separatism in the border area. There is very frequently back and forth exchanges between the two sides about, you know, terrorist groups and separatist groups that travel back and forth in that zone, especially in the border with Afghanistan, with relative impunity. So you often have these sort of tensions that play out. And Iran, of course, has long been concerned about the fate of Pakistani nuclear weapons should the state essentially collapse.

At the same time, I’m not sure that they necessarily see the Pakistani nuclear program as a threat by Saudi Arabia, because in the past there have been reports of a request being made from the Saudis for various technologies, and the Pakistanis refusing it. Pakistan, again, of course, has to play a pretty careful role and navigate these lines between the two sides. It doesn’t have an interest in fundamentally raising tensions with Iran, although it has typically and historically been more closely aligned with Saudi Arabia on a number of issues. So I don’t know that Iran necessarily sees that as a major threat. That may not have been the case ten years ago. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case today. But Iran certainly has concerns about Pakistan having nuclear weapons in its backyard.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad with the Minaret of Freedom Institute.

AHMAD: Thank you. I wanted to ask about your characterization of Iran’s incremental non-compliance and violations of the accord. In light of the fact that the United States has withdrawn completely from the accord, and that the European nations are unable to ameliorate the effects on their own, is this non-compliance less a violation than an attempt to pressure Europe to take stronger action?

TABATABAI: I mean, it can be both at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive. Yes, so that is certainly how the Iranians see it. They certainly believe that they’re not in violation of the deal, that they’re doing everything within the boundaries of the nuclear deal. That said, if we’re going based off of what international observers have said—I’m thinking specifically of the latest report put out by the International Atomic Energy Agency, then we’re looking at violations of the deal. In other words, if Iran, like the U.S., had withdrawn from the deal as we started these activities, then we would perhaps not be talking about violations. I don’t think we would be talking about violations. But Iran has chosen to stay in it and take actions that push the boundaries of the deal, and its provisions. So in that case, I think that we can talk about a violation of the deal, but it certainly is also what you’re describing, which is that Iran is trying to pressure Europe, right?

In fact, the way it has designed its pressure campaign on the nuclear front and otherwise is trying to mirror the U.S. approach. It has introduced incremental steps, the idea being that while it was in that year of strategic patience no one, aside from Iran, was paying a price for the U.S. maximum pressure campaign. By taking actions in the nuclear realm and elsewhere, Iran is able to pull in other countries into the sort of tension, and to show that it is not going to be the only country who is paying the price, who is seeing the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent imposition of the maximum pressure campaign.

You know, so the idea being that the Europeans and the U.S., to some extent, were able to have their cake and eat it too before. They were able to sort of, you know, continue business as usual, while having Iranian compliance. Well, now they are not able to do that anymore. And unless they act, they will continue to see their own interests undermined.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Sheikh Ubaid with the Muslim Peace Coalition.

UBAID: Two questions. Do you think, like, Oman would play the role in being a mediation between the U.S. and Iran? Will Pakistan be doing that? And a second thing is you said Iran does not let religion play a major part, but after their 2006 war, and after Iran’s support of the Arab Spring, when the Sunni Arab masses were holding Iran in high esteem, the only reason it seems Iran supported Assad was because of the Shia belief that the later days, as the supreme leader himself said, about Sufyani, the antichrist, et cetera?

TABATABAI: Sure. Let’s start with the second one, with Syria, because it’s a more complicated question, I think. So I actually don’t think that religion had a whole lot to do with Iran’s intervention in Syria. The main reason why Iran intervened—and let’s go beyond the rhetoric here, because the rhetoric can say one thing, but actions and policy tell us something else. That it had a lot to do with geopolitics. Syria has been Iran’s only real ally in the region, real Arab ally in the region, since the revolution. And that’s been especially the case under Bashar al-Assad, more so than under his father. In fact, during the Iran-Iraq War, the majority of the region was sort of either passive and watching from the sidelines or actively supporting Iraq. And Syria was the only one that really sided with Iran.

So Iran was very concerned about losing its only allied government in the region, and seeing a potential transfer of power transforming Syria from a friendly nation to an adversarial one, potentially, right, sort of joining the ranks of Iranian rivals in the region secretly, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. So, for Iran, the main reason why it intervened in the way it did—in that it committed troops in combat for the first time really in the history of the Islamic Republic outside of Iran’s borders—and that it did spend as much time and energy and resources to protect Assad to make sure he didn’t go, had to do with making sure to preserve its ally in the region. And that it allow the balance of power in the region to shift toward Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, and to sort of remain in Iran’s favor. So I think the main driver here was geopolitical, was just, you know, your realist kind of interest of power, security, survival, rather than religion. So that’s the question about Syria.

On the question about Oman, Oman, of course, has been a really critical force for diplomacy between Iran, on the one hand, and various rivals on the other, for decades now. Oman plays a critical role in initiating the negotiation process that ultimately gave us the JCPOA. The first negotiations that started to happen were conducted in Oman, behind closed doors, and in secret. So they really allowed the process to kick start in a very effective way. The challenge today is—well, several fold. First, the Omanis have to also balance their own interest. They are stuck between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And they have an interest—they have long balanced the two sides. And they have an interest in doing so still because, you know, they’re a small country, relatively to the other ones. And they need both sides. And they have done a really actually, I think, excellent job of balancing between the two sides.

So that is one thing to consider. The second thing is that I think from the perspective of current politics in the United States, certainly, Oman is associated with the JCPOA. Oman’s role is associated with the beginning of negotiations under the previous administration and in the context of the nuclear deal, that this administration withdrew from. So it might be seen as tainted. It might be challenging to use it again. And, you know, it seems like things have moved on from Oman to Europe right now. But there is no reason why Oman would not necessarily serve as another facilitator in the future. Certainly while the sultan is around it seems like Oman is interested in playing that role, and making sure that—you know, in being a force for stability, at least, in the region.

UBAID: A follow-up quick question? I mean, just like in Egypt, when Mubarak fell, the Morsi government was not pro-Saudis. So if Assad had fallen, the government most likely would have been a Muslim Brotherhood and not a pro-Saudi government.

TABATABAI: Yeah. Well, I mean, yes or no, right? It could have gone both ways. And I think from Iran’s perspective, ultimately the risk wasn’t worth taking. It wasn’t worth waiting and seeing what would happen, but rather it was—you know, it was worth sort of intervening and making sure that things were going in Iran’s favor.

I have to also add that I don’t think Iran foresaw the Syrian conflict going on as long as it has. When they initially became involved, it was covert. It was covert operations geared towards supporting Assad without putting, you know, boots on the ground and making a big deal about it. As the conflict progressed, and it became clear that this was not going to be a one-off, that this was going to be dragging on, the Iranians saw themselves becoming more and more involved. But I think they realized eventually that this was not going to be a two-year, or three-year, or four-year war. That it was going to be going on for a while. So but they say the cost of it as being worth the benefits, or the benefits as being worth it, and they didn’t consider the cost as too high for what they would get ultimately. And only in the pursuit of clear objectives and strategy would that make sense for Iran.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Howard LaFranchi with the Christian Science Monitor.

LAFRANCHI: Hi. Yeah. Thanks for doing this call.

I wanted to go back to the war in Yemen. So based on what you said, would you say that Iran has decided that it’s in its interests to just see this war drag on, or is it interested in seeing it, you know, drawn to a close?

TABATABAI: I think the war continuing as long as it has has actually benefitted Iran. And it’s a really sad thing to say, considering the cost of the conflict and the humanitarian impact. But I do think that Iran has benefitted. It’s perhaps the only party that has truly benefitted from the continuation of the war. So it’s not really in a rush to end the conflict. But I do think that if the situation were right, if the other side, meaning the U.S. and its allies and its regional partners, were willing to give Iran what it wants, you know, something that would be beneficial to it, that it would be willing to give up Yemen.

So because of that, I continue to see Yemen as sort of the low-hanging fruit in terms of regional conflicts that can be solved more easily than, say, a Syria, for example, or an Iraq, because Iran has very limited actually interests in Yemen other than bogging down Saudi Arabia, and making sure that it’s spending resources and undermining its own prestige in that country. So I do think that, you know, there is possibility there. And Iran would potentially be OK with sort of leaving Yemen in a way that it would in Syria. It has committed way too much—you know, it has had, in fact, a few thousand deaths in Syria. It hasn’t had that in Yemen. It hasn’t spent nearly the same amount of money and resources in Yemen, as it has in Syria. So it would be more willing to sort of withdraw from that conflict.

But I think it would only be willing to do so if it does feel like it is getting the benefits that it desires. It wouldn’t necessarily just give up. It wouldn’t make a unilateral sort of concession, because why would it, right? Again, it’s a pretty cheap conflict for Iran to continue.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Ariane, can you just leave us with, you know, what would you tell the next administration if you were advising either the Trump administration or a new administration about what approach they should take with Iran?

TABATABAI: Well, I think two things need to happen. The first one is, you know, rebuilding some sort of international consensus about Iran, and certainly getting the allies on board in dealing with Iran. The withdrawal from the JCPOA specifically and the maximum pressure campaign in general have actually hurt U.S. standing with U.S. allies. The reason why the sanctions and the international efforts and negotiations that ultimately led to the JCPOA were so successful was that the U.S. had the backing of its key allies and partners. And that is simply not the case today.

In fact, you know, there have been conversations about imposing sanctions on U.S. allies—close allies in Europe—to punish them for continuing the JCPOA’s implementation. And that, to me, is a serious mistake, because in the long run if we’re going to be effective in ending some of the most challenging aspects of Iranian behavior we do need those allies and partners. And the thing that I think is often missed is that there is no disagreement between Europe and the U.S. on the objectives that are pursued, right? The twelve points that Secretary Pompeo has laid out, there are of course divergences about the specifics of those points, but broadly speaking Europe, like the U.S., would like to see an end to destabilizing Iranian regional activities. It would like to see Iran’s nuclear program curbed. It would like to see limits on Iran’s missiles. So the objectives are shared. They’re the same. The part where there are big disagreements are the means that we have been using to pursue those interests.

The second thing is going back to that idea of regional dialogue and regional negotiations. You know, I think the previous administrations—who lacked some political capital with the region, with the Gulf specifically, to get them to come back to the table and settle their issues with Iran—the current administration seems to have some of that leverage, but it’s not necessarily willing to use it. So going forward, what we need to do is keep and build on that leverage and use it to get the region to sit down and actually have conversations about ending these conflicts, and about moving forward in a constructive manner.

Because nothing is going to change if you only have negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. You won’t get a deal, and you certainly won’t get a sustainable deal on regional conflicts. You need all parties in the region at the table. So those would be the two main areas I would be focusing my attention, if I were advising the next—or, you know, the current administration in—four another four years, or a new administration.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you very much, Ariane Tabatabai, for being with us today. We really appreciate your insights and analysis. And to all of you, for your excellent questions and comments. We encourage you to follow Ariane’s work on Iran and the Middle East on Twitter at @ArianeTabatabai. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements of upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. You can also email us at [email protected] with any suggestions of topics, speakers for future calls, and events.

So thank you again, Ariane, and to all of you. We look forward to continuing the dialogue.

TABATABAI: Thank you so much.


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