U.S.-Iran Tensions Media Call - June 18, 2019

U.S.-Iran Tensions

Photo: U.S. Navy (CC BY 2.0)
from Media Briefings

More on:


United States

CFR experts examine growing tensions between the United States and Iran, in light of recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Iran's threat to breach key limits of the 2015 international nuclear deal, and the announced deployment of 1,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East.  

Philip H. Gordon

Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy

Ray Takeyh

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies

Lori Esposito Murray

President, Committee for Economic Development

MURRAY: OK. Thank you. Hello. I’m Lori Esposito Murray. I’m an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and I will be hosting today’s call. Thank you for joining us. We’ll be discussing this pivotal moment in U.S.-Iran relations, particularly in light of the recent attacks on the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Iran’s threat to breach key elements of the nuclear deal, and the just-announced deployment of a thousand more U.S. troops to the Middle East.

I’d like to introduce our senior fellows who will be dissecting this issue with us today, and thank you very much to our senior fellows. We have Philip Gordon, who is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy; and Ray Takeyh, who is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies.

And this is an on-the-record call. And let’s get going. We’ll have a moderated discussion for the first twenty minutes and then we’ll open it to questions from all of you.

So, Phil, if you would start us off, as tensions continue to mount between the U.S. and Iran, very serious questions and concerns are being raised as to whether we are heading towards a spiraling military conflict via either miscalculation or design, and whether there are any offramps on this escalatory ladder. And I’m hoping, Phil, what you can do is maybe step back and give us an overview of how we got to where we are today, since the president’s decision just a little over a year ago to get out of the nuclear deal, and what you think the prospects are for this spiraling into conflict, and what are—if there are any offramps.

GORDON: Sure. Thanks, Lori. And thanks, everyone, for joining. I look forward to the discussion.

I mean, I’ll start with where we are right now, which I think is a particularly tricky situation with not a lot of good options and a significant risk of escalation. I’ll get to some of the possible offramps, but it’s precisely because all of the offramps are themselves unlikely that I think it’s right to worry about escalation.

But to take a step back and put it in context, it’s actually a little bit surprising. You know, we’re two-and-a-half years into the Trump administration now, and only now we’re getting to this crisis. And why is that? You remember, you know, Trump had promised to tear up the nuclear deal, which he said was terrible—the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—on day one, but actually for the whole first year of his administration he didn’t withdraw. He didn’t like it, but if you remember he had to continually certify that it was working and waive the sanctions, which he resented but he did because his advisors told him it would be problematic to leave and he just went along with it. And so it took a year before he was finally ready to say, look, I’m not certifying it as working anymore, I don’t like it, and we want out. For a short time he challenged the Europeans and the Congress to, quote/unquote, “fix” the deal and deal with the issues that he didn’t like about it. That proved impossible. And so it wasn’t until May of last year, 2018, that the United States pulled out.

But even that didn’t provoke an immediate crisis—one, because it took six months before we actually put the new sanctions back in place. You know, what pulling out of the deal meant was that we were going to reimpose sanctions on other countries that did business with Iran and bought Iranian oil, so six months before that happened. And then even after that happened the Iranians didn’t pull out of the deal because they seemed to be calculating, well, as long as they can still sell some oil and muddle through, maybe they’ll just wait it out and see if a different president gets elected and the deal gets put back in place. So that’s why it’s taken this long before we got to a crisis.

But even after the Iranians decided to sort of wait it out for a year, earlier this year the Trump administration decided to escalate. And I think that’s what brought us to the crisis that we’re in now. You’ll remember in April they designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, the first time a sort of state military was so designated, notwithstanding warnings by U.S. military and intelligence officials that that could lead to Iranian retaliation. And then they decided last month to not just impose the secondary sanctions on other countries buying Iranian oil, but to try to drive those exports down to zero by taking away the waivers that they had issued for certain countries—around eight countries, mainly China and India—to continue to purchase Iranian oil. And that has really severely punished the Iranian economy. They were getting by before and still selling almost a million barrels a day, but now with their exports really going down Iran finally felt they were under so much pressure that they had to respond.

And that’s what we’re seeing now. They’re responding to this escalating pressure by—instead of just waiting it out, they’re doing two things. One, apparently undertaking these sabotage actions, and I don’t have much doubt that it was Iran behind the sabotage of ships in the Gulf and the explosions that we saw last week. But then also, ominously, restarting the nuclear program and announcing that they’re no longer going to feel obliged to stick with the cap on low-enriched uranium that the deal limited them to. And that’s what—you know, in and of itself a few kilograms of low-enriched uranium here or there might not be a big deal, but exiting the nuclear deal is a big deal because it’s a slippery slope towards not having any of those constraints at all.

So that’s where we are now. And just very briefly, the reason I’m worried about escalation—because you asked about offramps—is it’s hard to see what those offramps are. One was meant to be a new deal, right; that the administration said when we put this pressure on Iran they’ll come back to the table and negotiate a new deal. Well, let’s just say if that is ever going to happen it’s not going to be anytime soon. The Iranians are showing no sign of willingness to do that. And I am personally skeptical that that deal exists, one that would meet the Trump administration’s conditions. So I don’t think that is happening soon.

There was also the notion that by squeezing the Iranians so hard the people would rise up and push the regime aside. That doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.

And we now have this ticking clock where Iran is not only showing that it’s willing to undertake military responses, but also about to resume the program. And I think with that, you know, it puts the ball back in the American court, and this is why people like me were skeptical of this approach in the first place. OK, now we’ve torn up the deal; we won’t have any more nuclear constraints. They’ll start expanding their program again, and then the onus will be on the Trump administration to decide how it wants to respond to these new Iranian provocations.

I’ll pause there, Lori.

MURRAY: OK. Well, thank you, Phil.

And actually, that takes us right to Ray, where I was going to ask you if you could take us inside the Iranian regime and give us some insights into what they are thinking. What’s the road forward? It seems like Iranian policy took a dramatic turn after the Islamic Republican Guard decision, to put them on the foreign terrorist list. And that probably happened to coordinate with when the sanctions were hitting, but that seems to have been a turning point. Can you give us some insights into how you see the regime responding to this, as well as inside—among the Iranian people, and what you see as—

TAKEYH: Yeah, thanks. I think for the first two years of the Trump administration the Iranians, with advice from Europeans and perhaps others, had come to the conclusion that, A, the Trump administration would at the end of the day not be able to multilateralize its economic sanctions even if it left the deal; that is would not be able to muster the kind of economic pressure on Iran; and certainly would not be able to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero; and therefore, even though the measures that the administration was taking were punitive, they were prepared to wait them out. And they had convinced themselves, and perhaps others helped convince them, that in 2020 help was on the way and there was no need to, essentially, move beyond that.

There was always a constituency within Iran, usually on the left and even in the middle with President Rouhani and others, who were intrigued by the possibility of negotiating with the Trump administration, and they remained interested in that possibility.

What happened after particularly the oil decision and the fact that the abrogation of the JCPOA did not, in fact, isolate the United States, but further isolated the Iranian economy, and once the administration appeared to be able to significantly reduce Iran’s oil exports—I don’t know if they’ll ever get to zero, but they’ll get to pretty close to that, and I’m not sure if Iran can operate its economy at three, four hundred thousand barrels of sales—then you began to see a very significant economic pressure. And it was at that time that Iranians decided to respond with some measure of retaliation of their own. They made pledges to increase their nuclear activities beyond, for instance, the retaining enriched uranium in the country without exporting it, and even began to molest some international shipping on international waterways. And for those who for the past two years have been relentlessly concerned about the sanctity and viability and the vitality of the rule-based liberal international order, accosting international commerce on international waterways is one of those norms that they should be concerned about. But maybe they’re not.

I think the two sides are now—both have a narrative of success. The Iranian narrative of success is that the Trump administration has increased its deployments in the region because the strategy of maximum pressure has failed. And the Trump administration’s narrative is that its maximum strategy of pressure has succeeded based upon certain quantitative measures.

Look, both these narrative(s) of success are essentially establishing a predicate for negotiations, which is I think where this is going. I think there are critical voices in Iran who want to negotiate. I don’t think the right, led by the supreme leader, are convinced of that fact. But about two, three weeks ago, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei I believe in May 22 gave an interesting speech in which he said, you know, I warned our dear foreign minister and our president against engagement with the United States and transaction of an agreement, but those are executive-branch decisions and I do not interfere with them. Well, if he’s not going to interfere with one executive-branch decision involving agreements and negotiations with the United States, then he may agree to others.

I think the strategy of the Iranian government at this particular stage may be to try to engage the administration in negotiations if possible, and the purpose of those negotiations would be the purpose of their policy of I guess you would call strategic patience—running the clock out until 2020. They would hope that negotiations will lessen the pressure, dilute economic pressures, maybe gain some concessions, and so forth. I think there are critical voices in Iran that want to essentially engage in those type of talks.

Now, the escalation you see in the Gulf may actually hamper that possibility, and if there is a possibility of altercation between the two sides that is essentially something that may actually deter that. But so far I think that’s where the—that’s where the things were going.

Iran’s economy has contracted very substantially. It has gone down, I think by a more reasonable conservative estimate, by 6 percent, with 50 percent inflation, double-digit unemployment. It has essentially destroyed the Rouhani presidency.

So despite all the hysteria of war, I’m not really seeing that on the horizon. There has always been on occasion some measure of incremental confrontation between the United States and Iran—in the Gulf in the 1980s, as has been mentioned before, with reflagging crisis; in 1996, when the Iranians destroyed the American airbase and Khobar Towers; and in Iraq, where they essentially decimated the American military force with the casualties—death casualties of 602 people. So this is not new, and there may actually be some sort of a confrontation between the two countries on the high seas.

The way the Trump administration can best avoid that is by an increase in its deployment and make its red lines clear. And if the Iranians violate those red lines, then they have to suffer the consequences. And I suspect if those red lines are clear and those capabilities obvious, they will adhere to those red lines because that is an aspect of their strategic considerations.

But where all this is heading still, with all the unpredictability that has been noted, I suspect is the negotiating table—a negotiating table that’s likely to be inconclusive and a means of gaining time for Iran until 2020, where they anticipate a more hospitable interlocutor on the other side of the election. Now, by that hospitable interlocutor I’m not just talking about a potential Democratic administration, but even potentially a reelected Trump presidency.

MURRAY: Well, thank you, Ray.

Phil, I’m going to come back to you. I was just wondering if you could add a little context or texture to where are the other signatories in terms of the Iran deal in terms of trying to move this away from conflict—their ability to do it, how closely they’re willing to work with the United States, or intercede, or be intermediaries to move this away from the prospects of war in the Middle East.

TAKEYH: Well, there’s a vast procession of foreign leaders coming to Tehran asking for restraint. Obviously, the Japanese prime minister; before that, the French—the British—I’m sorry, the German foreign minister. The British have been on telephone conversations with President Rouhani, as have the French. Helga Schmid of the EU, deputy director, is there today. And I think what they’re trying to do is essentially preserve Iran’s commitments to the JCPOA.

Should Iran follow through on its pledge to increase its level of enriched production and retain it at home as opposed to send it abroad for reprocessing, as was part of the agreement, then Iran will be in breach of the JCPOA. And actually, by installing six centrifuges beyond the allotted thirty they are already in violation of the JCPOA. So the remaining signatories of the agreement—the British, the Chinese, the Russians, the French, EU, and Iran—will have to deal with the fact that there is a violation of the JCPOA, and there’s a procedure for dealing with that violation. Whether or not they will invoke that procedure will tell you a lot about all the measures that the JCPOA was supposed to have in order to expeditiously prosecute a prospective violation by the Iranian government.

GORDON: Hey, Lori, I would just add to that, notwithstanding this procession of foreign leaders that Ray rightly says is going to Tehran, my answer to that question is that the other signatories are essentially on the sidelines. There is not a lot they are doing or can do. The Europeans are deeply frustrated by that situation, being marginalized. They have done all they can. They even in the first year after the U.S. withdrew, you know, when Iran said if Europe doesn’t fix our economy we’re going to withdraw, the Europeans bent over backwards to try to satisfy them. But there’s no way they’re going to defy U.S. sanctions, where they would have to stop doing business with the United States. And similarly, now when Iran says, Europe, you need to do something or we’re going to pull out of the deal, there’s just not a lot Europe can do.

So they are sitting back in frustration. And you know, Ray’s right; if Iran does expand its program and violates the deal, then the Europeans are in an even more frustrating situation because they will deep down feel like it was the Trump administration that brought this about—the deal was working, the U.S. pulled out, and therefore, you know, what do you expect Iran to do. But at the same time Iran would be in violation of the deal.

The only other thing I would add to that, though, is in terms of this question, you know, would they or would they not take it to the Security Council and reimpose sanctions, we focus on that, but it doesn’t matter. The Europeans are effectively imposing sanctions on Iran already just by complying with the U.S. sanctions. So it’s not as if there would be some additional sanctions we would look for, look to Europe for. The fact of the matter is, so long as the United States is punishing people who do business with Iran, then Europe’s not going to be doing business with Iran.

MURRAY: And so you don’t think there’s any prospect of this special purpose vehicle, where it’s basically a barter for trade, ever getting off the ground? I know the ayatollah has called it a joke. Is that pretty much how you see it?

GORDON: Yeah, I don’t know if I would say it would never get off the ground. I mean, there was a scenario if we hadn’t had this recent escalation that, you know, over time they could use it. But remember, that’s mostly for goods, especially humanitarian goods, that are permitted anywhere. And it’s just a financial mechanism to allow banks and other entities to not worry that they would somehow get caught up in sanctions by doing legal trade with Iran. It doesn’t really cover the things that are banned. So even if it was somehow up and running, you know, next week brilliantly, it doesn’t solve the problem of alleviating the pain on the Iranian economy, which is what has, you know, brought this current crisis about.

MURRAY: And, Ray, I just wanted to ask you, because you were talking about this—basically the strategic patience approach by Iran, meaning they would go to the negotiating table. What would an Iranian negotiating position look like? What would be—what areas do you think that they would be willing to move on? You have these specific timelines in the agreement with the—you know, do you think they’d be willing to extend those? Do you—and then you have Secretary Pompeo’s twelve points in terms of their activities in the region. Do you have a sense of what it is—what it would look like if they were going to agree to talk with the U.S.?

TAKEYH: I think the discussion probably takes in the context of the 5+1, and they’ll be as inconclusive as the 5+1 conversations were between 2005 and 2013. It was only 2013 that those conversations became bilateral. And if Minister Salehi, who was foreign minister at that time, memos are to be believed—and that’s always a difficult thing to say—is he informed his interlocutors in the United States that the agreement would be between the two, and it was the job of the United States to impose it on the other members of the 5+1.

But this will be different . I think Iranians will go to the meetings, and make speeches, and offer their grievances. And they will have a long litany of them. And the other five will respond in kind. And they’ll meet in six months and do it again. The purpose of these negotiations would be to essentially avoid a military conflict. It’s very hard for the United States historically to engage in military activity while there’s an ongoing diplomatic process. And who knows? They may attenuate sanctions.

One of the things that happens when United States negotiates with Iran, is the—and particularly when those negotiations become stalemated—is there’s enormous pressure on the United States to essentially revise, and relieve, and water down its terms. You already mentioned Mr. Pompeo’s twelve-point plan. If there’s negotiations between the two sides, every editorial page in the United States and every Democratic presidential candidate will say that those terms are unrealistic, and the United States must dispense with them.

So one of the things that the purpose of the negotiations would be is to put pressure on the Trump administration to dilute its own twelve-point plans. And essentially this would be one way that Iranians increase pressure on the administration.

GORDON: Hey, Lori, can I jump in on that as well? Because you asked what I think is the essential question about these negotiations. And the reason I’m so skeptical is what realistically could be achieved? I mean, talks for talks’ sake is fine, but, you know, the Trump administration when they criticized the 2015 deal made clear that a deal would only be acceptable if it were different in some fundamental ways, like, you know, instead of having sunsets in ten, or fifteen, or twenty years, it would last forever. And instead of having limited enrichment, there would be no enrichment. And the inspections regime would have to be even more intrusive, so inspectors could go wherever they wanted with no notice. And it would have to include ballistic missiles. And it would often have to include Iran’s regional activities.

So that’s what, for me, the problem with the notion of better deal is. I can imagine, you know, talks. You know, Iran’s under a lot of pressure. They have an interest in something. What’s harder to imagine is the deal would come anywhere close to what the Trump administration says is an absolute minimum. And I say that not, like, being involved with the former deal and somehow thinking it perfect and could never be different. Of course there are things on the margin that could easily be different. None of these things are necessarily written in stone, that Iran has, you know, 5,060 centrifuges at Natanz. But the fundamental things that would have to be different, that’s what seems to me much more difficult for Iran ever to agree to. Which is why it begs the question, well, if not that, then what instead?

MURRAY: I have one more question—a follow-up question for you, Phil, and then to our participants I’m going to open this up for questions from all of you. And just a reminder this call is on the record. But, Phil, just a quick follow-up with you before we open it up. What—I mean, a whole division here in terms of U.S. foreign policy on this Iran deal has been the fissure between our allies who are part of the agreement and our allies in the region—particularly Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the UAE. Would they go along at this point with negotiations? Our allies in the region.

GORDON: Yeah. I mean, first of all, you’re right that a number of the countries of the region never liked the deal in the first place, and you named them. Mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel. In fact, other than them around the world, it’s pretty much broadly supported by everyone. But Saudi Arabia and Iran never liked the deal for different reasons, actually. I mean, the Israelis all along were very closely following all of the details of the nuclear aspects of the deal. But the Saudis were less focused on that, and much more focused on just this fear that this would be a U.S. rapprochement with Iran, and Iran would be able to sell oil and have money to fuel its policies of interference in the region. So those are the reasons that those two countries in particular didn’t like it.

Would they go along with a new deal? You know, obviously depends on what it was. If it was demanding the sorts of—

MURRAY: Or even—or even negotiations. Do you think that’s an off-ramp that they’d be willing to support at this point?

GORDON: I think both would worry. And Ray alluded to this by saying, you know, there’s a—after 2020 not just that a Democratic president would be more flexible, but that Trump would be more flexible. I think the Saudis and Israelis would harbor some concerns, because we’ve seen this before. You know, President-North Korea, for example. Just to get a deal he might flip-flop from these very demanding conditions to something much less than that. In fact, just the other day when he was in Japan he said, well, I just care about the nuclear. You know, where his top officials all along have been saying: This only works with Iran when they do ballistic missiles, and regional activities, and terrorism, and human rights. And Trump just said, well, I only care about the nuclear. And in fact, just yesterday he said that the attacks on the ship were minor and not that big a deal.

So they would be wary of any new talks, because of the dynamic that U.S. might really want a deal, and we would end up agreeing to something that they might not be satisfied with. Again, especially from a Saudi point of view, but also an Israeli point of view. Even if the deal were impeccable on the nuclear side, that is to say much more far-reaching and onerous than the 2015 deal, but it didn’t deal with regional activities then, for them, that would be the specter of an Iran selling as much oil as it wanted, with revenues pouring in, and able to do what it does in the region and support their enemies. So, yeah, I think there would be a lot of skepticism among those countries if there are any talks at all.

MURRAY: Well, let’s open this up. And for those of you who may have joined the call late, just a reminder. We have Philip Gordon, who is our Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and Ray Takeyh, who is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, on the call. And we will open this for questions for this on-the-record call.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take our first question from David Sanger with the New York Times.

Q: Hi, Phil, and hi, Ray. Thanks very much for doing this.

A quick question for you about what you think the administration’s real objective is here. Is it really focused on the nuclear program? Because even if the Iranians go ahead with their—the kind of violations they’re discussing, it would be minimum a year-plus before they could actually have enough to build a single weapon? Or are they are really focused on the rest of the regional activities? That’s something of a reverse from the Obama team, which was deeply focused on the nuclear side?

TAKEYH: I’ll just start out with that. I think that May 2018 speech by Secretary Pompeo was a very important speech, because at that time he rejected the notion that was born in 2005 in the State Department that you can segregate the nuclear issue from all other areas of concern and resolve it on its own merits. And that idea, essentially, became invalidated after 2015, when you saw a nuclear agreement that imposed some restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, but aggressive aspects of the Iranian behavior across the board remains uncontested. You always heard that we’re going to have a nuclear agreement that would push back on Iran. But you never saw any pushback on Iran.

What you see today, you know what that’s called? That’s called pushing back on Iran. And you see how many people are against it. So the concept that Pompeo introduced was the notion of linkage, which had been linkage or de-linkage has been issue in arms control discussion in the 1970s. But what you see right now in the administration’s behavior is they’re pushing back on Iran. And a lot of people who promised to do so, should they have retained their positions, view that as war. So recently the United States, vis-à-vis Iran, can do détente and a confrontation, but it can’t do—a détente or a confrontation, but it cannot do both.

GORDON: David, thanks for the question. I mean, first if would say—I would just remind people why the 2015 deal didn’t cover these other things. And it’s not because the Obama administration, you know, was unconcerned about Iranian policy in the region, or ballistic missiles, or terrorism. It was just a calculation that, you know, it was hard enough to get all of this pressure to get the Iranians to back off of a nuclear program that, by then, was already to the point where they could fairly quickly develop a nuclear weapon—or, enough material for a nuclear weapon, within months. That that was the most important thing, and if we instead tried to accomplish everything and constraint Iranian regional policy and all the rest, instead of getting everything we would end up with nothing. And it was too important to get the nuclear constraints. And that’s what the 2015 deal was.

So now the question is, you know, is that being revisited? And the reason your question is hard to answer is because sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. As I said, you know, a few minutes ago, yeah, if you look at Pompeo’s speak and what most top officials describe as the goal of U.S. policy, use this maximum pressure to get Iran to do all of these things. And officially, there can’t be any agreement with Iran until not only it agrees to a much better, much more onerous nuclear deal, but also starts supporting terrorism, respects human rights at home, doesn’t interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, doesn’t develop ballistic missiles—all of the things that are in the twelve-point Pompeo speech.

So if that’s actually the policy, then, you know, I think that the Trump administration runs the risk that the Obama administration decided not to risk, which is ending up with nothing as opposed to everything. Now, they could have said as recently as two months ago, well, at least we’re constraining Iranian revenues. We don’t have a new nuclear deal and they’re still doing some bad things, but at least we’ve cut off their revenues. And they’re abiding by the nuclear deal. But now we’re running out of time for that, because by increasing the pressure further and taking away their waivers, Iran has started to do some responses, including starting a nuclear program.

So that’s the official line of most top officials. But as I say, it’s unclear because there are other moments where the president himself will weigh in and say: All I care about is the nuclear. So I think that’s a question, you know, really for the administration, because they have been inconsistent in answering it. And if the answer is the official one, that we only lift sanctions when Iran does all of these things, then I really wonder how this is going to play out.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Q: Great. Thanks to both of you for doing this. A couple of questions. First, on the option of negotiations, Trump’s whole modus operandi seems to be one-on-one. So can anyone imagine him going in for a 5+1—really imagine him going in for a bureaucratic procedure? And if not, can anyone imagine Khamenei giving the greenlight for somebody to meet one-on-one with Trump? And then secondly, if there’s no progress on the negotiations, do you see any real military option for the U.S., especially since Trump seems to be already backing off on that? Do you see any real military option for Iran?

GORDON: I guess I can start on this one. Short answer on the first one is no. It’s really hard to imagine a one-on-one. Now, you say that that’s his modus operandi. We obviously have the North Korean precedent. North Korean situation is very different in lots of ways, not only because they already have nuclear weapons and Iran doesn’t, but even in terms of the negotiations and what Trump can get away with, there’s really—there’s much less of a domestic constraint on doing this one-on-on, off-the-cuff stuff with the North Koreans than there is with Iran.

And I think Trump would be willing to do it in a minute, and he’s sort of hinted at that repeated—that he’s ready to talk even though, you know, on every other day he says that we’re not ready for talks. Then he comes back and says that he’s ready anytime. But there would be a lot more pushback to that notion of, you know, Trump just sitting down with Rouhani or something and seeing what he comes up. As I mentioned in response to Lori’s earlier question, you know, the Israelis wouldn’t like that. The Saudis wouldn’t like that. And so he’s much more constrained.

But I think it’s a moot point, because I don’t see the Iranians doing it. They would have no interest in, you know, an open-ended—it would look like a concession from Iran if they just showed up at the table and started negotiating with Trump without some sense of what they would—they would get out of it.

As for the military option, on both sides, yes there has always been a military option. If you mean dealing with the Iranian nuclear program by, you know, taking it out with airstrikes, that option does exist. I think you have to take it seriously, because the national security advisor has for years said that he thinks that is not just an option, but the best option, the necessary option, the only real option to deal with the Iranian nuclear program. Secretary Pompeo when he was a member of Congress said it would be relatively easy to do. And it does exist.

The problem with it—there are a lot of problems with it. One is that it would really only set back the program; it wouldn’t destroy the program. And, you know, let’s say it would set back the program by two years, three years. That’s a lot less than it was set back by the 2015 nuclear deal. So that would be an odd alternative to it. But obviously there would also be responses and retaliation. So in my view, there’s not a clean military option, not one that avoids a lot of asymmetrical responses and unpredictable consequences. But it should be taken seriously, because there are serious people who would conclude that if Iran is not going to negotiate new constraints, the only way to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon, which has been the bottom-line policy of all our recent presidents, would be to use military force to set it back.

TAKEYH: I think I would agree with the fact that it’s unlikely to have a great leader-to-leader summit, but whether there’ll be processes of negotiations over issues I’m not so sure. Minister Zarif has already suggested he wants to talk about prisoner exchanges and so forth, so that may actually start. So there may be some process of negotiations beginning at some point. On the military option, this issue has been discussed so much, and so often, for the past decade and I’m not sure I can add anything to it.

MURRAY: I would just add—the is Lori Murray. I would just remind everyone that when McMaster came in as national security advisor, he actually—his first—one of his first actions was to update the military options back when he first came in. And of course, they’re being updated and reviewed continuously. So the military options, you know, this is something the U.S. has been looking at, is prepared for, and is preparing.

Do we want to take the next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Lyric Hale with Econvue.

Q: Yes, hello. My question is actually a follow-on question to the military-option discussion. I think what markets want to know is what the probability, the possibility, of military option by either side is before the end of the year. Could either of you or both of you assign a percentage probability to that scenario?

TAKEYH: I’m not really sure if I can assign a probability to it, but I would say if there is more attacks on oil tankers and violation of freedom of navigation, which is one of those international norms of the rule-based liberal international order, then it behooves the United States to have some kind of a response.

The best way to avoid that is for the administration to make its red lines clear and its capabilities obvious. Otherwise, if there’s another Iranian attack on an oil tanker, as was the ‘80s and so on, I do think there has to be some kind of American response.

Q: I see. So probability might be rising.

GORDON: I wouldn’t—

TAKEYH: That all depends on how Iranians want to deal with the situation.

GORDON: I wouldn’t want to put a number on it either, but I agree with Ray that it is—you know, it’s not zero and it’s rising. These are realistic scenarios, because it is true that, you know, interfering with shipping in the Strait of Hormuz is a significant challenge, not just in international norms but to core U.S. interests. Even if we’re not getting our oil out of there, if the world economy is getting its oil, then that matters a lot. And it’s hard to see an administration just completely remaining passive as tankers are blown up.

I think the Iranians in this case deliberately chose not to sink them or to kill anyone. You know, they put the mines above the waterline deliberately. So they are showing some restraint. But if this continues or if they were to sink a ship or kill people, it would—there would certainly be a discussion of a military response, because, you know, the failure to do so would just be opening up the possibility of Iran carrying on.

So that’s one path to a military conflict, and the other one is the expansion of the nuclear program that we’ve talked about. And again, previous administrations have also been ready to use force if necessary. The Obama administration ended up doing a nuclear deal instead. But if Iran starts next week to violate the constraints in the deal—and again, you know, a few kilograms of LEU is not so significant, but, you know, you have this gradual process to shrinking the breakout time. And that would force the Trump administration to draw a sort of red line.

Remember what Netanyahu did at the U.N. when he—you know, he put—did that little cartoon thing. And he drew a red line. The administration would have to do a similar sort of thing and say, fine, all right, if you violate the three-hundred-KG cap, that’s one thing. But anything over five hundred or a thousand, we will respond. And, you know, you could imagine the Iranians challenging that and not allowing themselves to be bullied. So it’s a significant risk, even if both sides would prefer to avoid it.

Q: Thank you.

MURRAY: I would also just like to add in terms of violating the 300-kilogram cap on the low-enriched uranium. It is—the administration’s sanctions which did not allow Iran to sell its excess low-enriched uranium or heavy water overseas anymore has actually placed them in the position where they’re accumulating this material. And they either have to stop enriching, which was an important principle in negotiating the agreement, or go over the cap. And so I think it’s inevitable they’re heading over the cap.

GORDON: Yeah. And that, by the way, was an own goal from the administration. I don’t know why. I mean, we gave—really gave Iran a PR victory by taking away this waiver that allows them to send the LEU abroad, which they actually weren’t even doing. They didn’t need to because they weren’t producing enough to need to send it abroad. So they actually haven’t done it since 2015. They were staying under the cap by not producing more or blending it down if necessary.

But because we took away the waiver, Iran can say, well, now we have to violate the cap because the U.S. took away the waiver. So that was really just a PR gift that we gave to the Iranians, I think unnecessarily, but just because we wanted to be tough and show them we were taking away these waivers, which were put in place so that Iran could abide by the deal.

You know, that’s why there were nuclear waivers, and a nuclear waiver so other countries can help them build a proliferation-resistant reactor rather than a reactor that is high-risk. But we even took away those waivers, even though their whole purpose was to allow Iran to comply with the restrictions of the deal.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

We’ll take our next question from Mark Lippert with Boeing.

Q: Asked and answered. Thanks, Ray. Thanks, Phil. You guys already covered it.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

We’ll take our next question from Ethan Bronner of Bloomberg News.

Q: Thanks. Hi, Phil. Hi, Ray.

In the sort of 2010-’11-’12 period, the Israelis were arguing that the sanctions needed to be strengthened, and strengthened because this government was going to fall. And the impression I have, and wanted to ask for your feeling, is that this seems to be still a belief, and maybe the Trump administration believes that. Do you think they believe that if you just keep turning the screws that this government will collapse? A, do you think they believe it? And B, is there any chance that that might be true? Thank you.

TAKEYH: Well, I don’t know if they believe it. I would say the Iranian regime today is at one of its weakest points in forty years, for a variety of reasons. And this being the tenth anniversary of the Green Revolution, it has lost much of its political legitimacy.

The entire Rouhani candidacy was based upon the notion that an arms-control agreement could revive economics predicament of the people, and that hasn’t happened. And even if it did, the Iranian people are searching for their political rights and are not inclined to be bought off by economic rewards.

And one of the ominous things that we saw in 2000—in December of 2017 and December 2018 is the protests by the lower classes and the labor. Recently, this week, there has been embargoed videos out of the Iranian leadership in 2009 talking about the 2009 revolt and the aftermath of its repression. And General Jafari, who at that time was the chair of the—was the general of—the head of the Revolutionary Guards, said one of the reasons why they succeeded in 2009 was because most of the protesters were from middle classes, and therefore had something to lose.

In December 2017 and January 2018, the revolt by the working classes and the lower classes that had traditionally been tethered to the regime by piety and patronage. There’s not much piety in the regime, and patronage has dried out. So that’s a very ominous loss of a constituency for the regime that is vulnerable in terms of its domestic political fortunes, and now, with economic decline and general international isolation.

I don’t know if you can predict with any degree of accuracy or, frankly, inaccuracy how a regime collapses. But today the Islamic republic, as I said, is a weak regime because it lacks a constituency. Even its most reliable constituency revolted against it two years ago, and that puts it in a very difficult position. And they know that.

GORDON: You know, I agree that the regime is weak. But I think, first of all, we are really bad at predicting these things. There’s—you know, you get it wrong in most cases. But there’s not a lot of empirical evidence for sanctions or economic difficulties leading regimes to collapse. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. They usually don’t.

And I mean, turning to your question about what they think, I do think there’s some evidence that the Trump administration believes they’re on the verge of collapse. I mean, Trump said similar things when he announced that he was pulling out of the deal. He said, you know, the 2015 deal rescued the regime when it was on its last legs. And in early 2018, when there were these significant protests, I think the administration got, you know, very excited that this might mean the end of the regime.

And, you know, Secretary Pompeo said as much when he was pressed, I guess, in Mike Morell’s podcast recently about, you know, you don’t really think this regime is going to change its behavior, do you? He said, well, you know, maybe not, but we expect that the Iranian people could rise up and get them to change, you know, not their behavior, but the regime itself.

So I do think that the administration is—has been counting on or hoping for that, which is really, in some ways, the best way to explain their policies, because the other outcomes are so unlikely. But I think that is, you know, just not something that you can expect or count on. It usually doesn’t happen.

There is not much of a historical correlation between sanctions and regime change or uprising, you know, and in the region in the past fifty years if you had predicted something like this, you know, in a few specific places—in 2011 in Algeria you’d have been right—but in almost every other case you’d have got it wrong, and I think in this case it’s highly unlikely that the result of this is going to be somehow getting rid of a regime that has shown, as unpopular as it is, is willing to use violence to stay in power and as they did in 2009. And, therefore, to base policy on the notion that the regime won’t be there in the near future I think would be quite misguided.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Jacqueline Albert Simon with Politique International.

Q: Yes. Hello, and thanks to both of you for such a revealing talk.

Most of my questions have been asked, to be very honest. I only have one more that perhaps is peripheral. I am wondering if Russia has, to quote James Baker, “a dog in that fight.” Russia is a signer, I believe, of the nuclear pact. So I would like to have an answer to that only because it’s part of the Trump-Putin arrangement.

GORDON: Well, I would say, you know, in response to the earlier question I said most of the other signatories were peripheral and I mostly focused on the Europeans, who, I said, you know, can’t impact this as much as they would like. That, largely, applies to the others as well, including Russia. It certainly applies to China, which could play a major role by insisting that it’s going to keep buying Iranian oil.

I was actually just in China a few days ago and found them pretty complacent on the issue. It’s just not at the top of their list of concerns and they’re not even willing to sort of go to bat against the United States. They have so many other concerns with the United States that they’re not going to get in our way, so to speak, on the Iran issue.

Russia is a little bit more relevant and it’s involved and, you know, as we discussed, it can play a role in blending down Iranian fuel. But it’s also just not a major player. There’s not a lot they can do to alleviate the Iranian economic difficulties, which is at the core of the current crisis, and they supported the deal because they don’t want to see Iran get a nuclear weapon. But, on the other hand, they’re not at all supportive of U.S. efforts to, you know, lead in the region or force Iran to make other concessions. So I think even, you know, the comment about being peripheral pretty much applies to Russia in this case as well.

Q: Thank you. Thank you so much.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Garrett Mitchell with Mitchell Report.

Q: Thanks very much, Ray and Phil, as always.

A quick question, and that is to what extent and in what ways have we seen and are we apt to see congressional involvement or influence on how this plays out?

TAKEYH: I’m not really sure this is going to be whole lot of congressional involvement. I think there will be more scrutiny of the Trump administration’s claims about Iran. I think those claims are going to be heavily examined by various congressional committees, certainly the House of Representatives. But I’m not quite sure if there’s more to be done from the Congress in that respect. But I could be wrong about that.

GORDON: Yeah, I agree with that. The administration has the power over the sanctions and that’s at the heart of this, and they don’t really need Congress one way or another. Obviously, they would if they chose to submit a new deal to Congress. But that’s a long way away. So in the meantime, I think Ray is right—you know, some hearings and questions like they’re doing hearings this week with the administration witnesses. But that’s pretty much all they can do.

MURRAY: The only thing I would add to that is that there is some concern in terms of the authorization for the use of force as there always is whenever force is being considered, and the administration is basing it on the 9/11 authorization to use force, which included Iran, and there were some members of Congress arguing that that needs to be updated and isn’t adequate in terms of the president’s decision to use force in Iran or against Iran.

GORDON: Yeah. To me, it’s a real threat.

TAKEYH: To be fair, that concern has been there all along. In every case, that concern has been there all along. There was concern over Libya. There’s been concern about Syria. I mean, it’s just—it’s one of those perennials we’ll have over—really, in the past couple of decades Congress has ceded so much of its authority and has made itself a less important institution, even though it is a(n) equal branch of government, and that has a lot to do with congressional leadership of both parties.

GORDON: I mean, to me, you can have a legitimate debate about whether, you know, an AUMF design for al-Qaida can be used for Islamic State, it seems to me, and you can even say, you know, it shouldn’t be. It seems to me even more of a stretch to suggest that an AUMF designed to deal with al-Qaida can be used for a conflict with Iran. So I’m—you know, I’m a little worried that the administration doesn’t seem to want to rule that out.

That said, you know, these scenarios that we’re talking about wouldn’t really be under the context of an AUMF. You know, if there’s some response to shipping in the Gulf or even attack on the Iranian nuclear program, it would not be done pertaining to congressional authorizations but, you know, to the president’s own executive authority. So it’s a little bit of a theoretical debate, even if you took away the—(inaudible)—constrained.

TAKEYH: On the books—on the books there is something called War Powers Act, which every president since Gerry Ford has ignored. But that’s just the way it is. Congress has to be more assertive, really, about its prerogatives. The problem with the United States Congress today is it doesn’t have any institutionalist like Henry Jackson, like Bob Byrd—people who believe in the institution and its prerogatives—and they tend to acquiesce to the executive of their own party and, as a result, they have substantially diluted their authority and their standing as a(n) equal branch of government.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Byron Wien of the Blackstone Group.

Q: Is this the possibility that Iran is so confident that the American people don’t want to get involved in another war in the Middle East that they’re willing to be more rambunctious than they ever were before and they committed this act knowing that we would not retaliate or expecting that we would not retaliate because the American people don’t want it and Trump doesn’t want to risk getting us involved in another war in the Middle East?

GORDON: Yeah, I think that helps explain what we’ve already seen. I mean, they wouldn’t—they wouldn’t have attacked these ships if they weren’t confident that the administration was going to be reluctant to do anything about it, and I think they’re going to keep testing it because, frankly, they’re probably right. You know, I know some people speculate that somehow the president would want to show how tough he is and want a conflict before his reelection.

I think the opposite is the case and that he’s signaled that, essentially, that he doesn’t want to and the American public is tired of war and, you know, aside from the other considerations I don’t think he wants to run for election while having Americans in yet another Middle East conflict. So I suspect the Iranians—that’s part of their calculation, too. They, obviously, have to be a little bit careful because you can miscalculate and provoke. But I suspect that’s exactly what they’re thinking.

TAKEYH: There are, I think, two provisions—amendments to that view. Number one, if one of those Iranian-trained militias that are shooting off missiles at American or Green Zone or American embassy and some cause American casualties or if you have an incident in the Gulf where American sailors are somehow apprehended, I think President Trump will respond differently if for no other reason to distinguish himself from his predecessor.

Q: But he won’t do anything in this instance. That’s what you’re saying, that he’s going to lift the—

TAKEYH: I think he will do something.

Q: Yeah.

TAKEYH: I think he will do something in those instances.

Q: Something militarily?

GORDON: Yes. But, Ray, you’re talking about a new scenario of something like a militia in Iraq. I think the question is about—on each of these things—

TAKEYH: Well, there have been—there have been shootings—Iranian-supported militias are shooting off missiles at American compounds in Iraq in the past couple of days. If they result in some casualties, Secretary Pompeo has made already an announcement that Iranian proxies, if they are in such action, the address is not going to be Iranian proxies, but Iran itself. Whether he’ll carry through with that, of course, it remains to be seen.

OPERATOR: OK, thank you. At this time there are no further questions in the queue.

MURRAY: And we have actually hit our ending time, so that’s perfect. I want to thank on behalf of everyone Philip Gordon and Ray Takeyh. This was an excellent conversation. And for those of you who have participated in the call, a reminder this is on the record call, but also there will be a transcript online at CFR.org. And both CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com have extensive materials on the Iran situation. And I also want to add, since we have given you a link to both Ray and Richard Haass’ articles on Iran, that Philip Gordon also has a piece in Foreign Affairs that you can get at ForeignAffairs.com, A Path to War With Iran, that he had just written recently, in May.

So, with that, thank you both Ray and Philip, and thank you to all of you for participating in this call.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

GORDON: Thanks, Lori. Thanks, everyone. Bye.


Most Recent

Top Stories on CFR


The unprecedented Iranian attack on Israel presents U.S. officials with mounting challenges in trying to contain the conflict and maintain a deterrence against Iran and its allies.


CFR experts preview the upcoming World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Spring Meetings taking place in Washington, DC, from April 17 through 19.   


The highlights from Kishida Fumio's busy week in Washington.