Deal or No Deal: Update on Iran’s Nuclear Program
Our panelists discussed the Biden administration’s ongoing negotiations to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) following the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal, and the role of other actors in the negotiation process, including Russia and Israel.
MOHAMMED: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting entitled “Deal or No Deal: Update on Iran’s Nuclear Program.” I’m Arshad Mohammed, diplomatic correspondent at Reuters, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.
I’d like to introduce our panelists.
Elliott Abrams, who served in a number of jobs in the U.S. government. He’s now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was, most recently, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran during—well, 2020 and 2021.
Bob Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, former senior advisor for nonproliferation and arms control at the Department of State from 2009 to 2013.
And Laura Rockwood, who is director of the Open Nuclear Network program of the One Earth Future organization. She is a former section head for nonproliferation and policy in the Office of Legal Affairs at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Thank you all for being with us today.
I’d like to begin by asking each of our panelists, starting with Elliott and then Bob and then Laura, for sort of a lightning round of what you think are the chances that there will be a nuclear deal or, to be more precise, that the JCPOA would be revived, and if you would give us a probabilistic estimate—if you would give us your percentage guess on the odds of revival.
ABRAMS: Twenty percent.
EINHORN: (Off mic.)
MOHAMMED: You know, Bob, you were muted. Could you unmute and say it again?
EINHORN: I seem to be unmuted. You can hear me now?
EINHORN: OK. So I would agree with Elliott. Less than 50 percent. Maybe not as low as 20 (percent). I would say 40 (percent), 45 (percent). We could go into why, you know, in a minute. But if this is a lightning round that’s my answer.
MOHAMMED: Great. And Laura?
ROCKWOOD: I hate betting against myself but I’ll split the difference and call it 30 (percent). I really wish it were closer to 50 (percent).
MOHAMMED: So thank you. Let’s do exactly what Bob suggested. Can you each tell us why you think the percentages are where they are?
ABRAMS: I don’t think the one issue that everyone is talking about, which is the FTO designation for the IRGC, has yet been resolved. But, more fundamentally, I think the supreme leader has always been equivocal. He was about the 2015 JCPOA. I think he is now, and he knows it won’t lead to a massive outpouring of investment as it did not last time. So I don’t think he’s pushing hard for it, and I think the mere fact that the administration and others have been negotiating for, what, fifteen months suggests it’s unlikely.
MOHAMMED: Bob, what’s your take?
EINHORN: Well, I agree the supreme leader is and has always been equivocal toward these arrangements. But I do believe Iran sees some economic benefit in reviving the JCPOA. There will be some economic boost given to Iran. I think that’s why, even after the conservative Raisi government was installed in power, it was prepared to negotiate, you know, fairly seriously and made some key concessions.
So I think they still have incentive to reach a deal, although there’s a lot of opposition to the deal within Iran, including in the IRGC. I think the Biden administration would like to see a deal. It believes that this will, you know, make it very difficult for Iran to have a threshold nuclear weapons capability for at least eight more years.
But I think there’s strong domestic opposition to making further concessions, especially on removing the IRGC from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. The European Union negotiators have tried to find a way of bridging the difference and, you know, there have been some trips and some discussions.
But I’m not terribly optimistic that they’re going to be able to succeed. I think the main thrust of what they’re trying to do is persuade Iran either to drop its demand or to, you know, essentially, accept a face-saving solution, and I just don’t know if Iran is prepared to do that.
MOHAMMED: And, Laura, what’s your view?
ROCKWOOD: Fundamentally, I agree with Bob. I think the problem is very similar in Tehran as it is in D.C. You have a government that is led by, in the case of the president, someone who really believes the JCPOA should be enforced.
You see an Iranian president who probably sees more value than a very, very strong conservative faction in their governments, and it is a very tough, uphill battle for both of them to try to convince the hardliners and quite a substantial majority, in the case of United States, of hardliners of the value of the JCPOA.
I think in Iran’s case the economic benefit is obvious. I think the U.S. government has been less willing to accept the nonproliferation benefits that comes from a JCPOA and I think they’ve kind of lost track of that as an overriding benefit of the JCPOA.
So it comes down to a divided government.
MOHAMMED: I’d like to go exactly to that question of the value of a revived JCPOA.
Bob, you wrote a piece over the weekend, or that was published over the weekend, in which you argued that reviving the JCPOA even now, even after Iran has violated so many of its core nuclear limitations and has acquired, presumably, an enormous amount of expertise by enriching to higher and higher levels up to 60 percent now—you argued that it is still valuable to be in the JCPOA.
Can you tell us why you think that is? And then I’d like to go to both Elliott and Laura to hear why you think there is or is not benefit to a return.
EINHORN: Thanks, Arshad.
Look, the—a revived JCPOA would, clearly, have some key shortcomings. You know, one is that the so-called breakout time would be shortened. You know, breakout time is the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon, and under the 2015 deal the breakout time was around twelve months.
Under a revived deal, because of all the progress that Iran has made with advanced centrifuges—and you can’t unlearn that experience—breakout time would be as short as six months under a revived deal. You know, also, there’s no guarantee that the nuclear restrictions would remain in force after 2031 when the JCPOA’s limited duration restrictions expire.
The Biden administration tried to persuade Iran to agree to follow-on talks, you know, designed to extend those deadlines, those sunset provisions. But the Iranians refused. So, you know, so there may be no constraints whatsoever after 2031.
So these are real shortcomings. But you have to compare this to having no deal, and with a deal at least you buy at least eight more years before Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon, and you have some prospect of persuading them in that period to accept follow-on restrictions.
And, very important—and this is in Laura’s bailiwick—you would preserve the unprecedented IAEA verification arrangements that the JCPOA provides for.
Now, you know, without a deal the problem is that right away Iran would be free to continue ramping up its nuclear program, and this year, within months—or as David Albright says, right away—would have a breakout time measured in days and that’s—you know, that’s a serious problem and this is going to lead to, you know, greater incentives for one or more governments—I’m thinking of Israel and the United States—to engage in preemptive strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Now, this would set back Iran’s nuclear program, no question, but temporarily, maybe for two to four years, and there’s no question that Iran would retaliate and its proxies would retaliate against the United States forces, against U.S. interests, against U.S. partners in the region, and it could lead to a major Middle East confrontation, which could draw in the United States.
So I think, you know, you have to compare an imperfect revived JCPOA to no deal, and, in my view, the better choice is to revive the JCPOA.
MOHAMMED: Laura, may I go to you? And Elliott, I promise we’ll have ample time.
But, Laura, what is—what are, from your point of view, are the nonproliferation benefits you’d get out of a revived JCPOA? Better than nothing or, at the very least, better than the alternative?
ROCKWOOD: It’s better—much better than nothing, better than the alternative, and, fundamentally, about the only way we can put Iran’s nuclear program back in a box. There is no other way to do it.
Military action won’t stop it. In fact, it could produce a contrary result. You could have Iran pulling out of the NPT altogether, and that could be dramatically destabilizing for the broader nonproliferation regime.
Getting the IAEA back in there on a daily basis would be significant, permitting them to use their containment and surveillance measures, which they weren’t able to use before, and we shouldn’t forget the importance of the implementation of an Additional Protocol in a country like Iran where there are significant questions about the peaceful nature of the country’s program.
It’s absolutely critical. It’s the standard procedure for agency safeguards now, and to get Iran back implementing Additional Protocol would be a terrific plus, in my view.
MOHAMMED: Elliott, why isn’t something better than nothing?
ABRAMS: You know, I’m struck. You mentioned David Albright and he is—in the piece he wrote today, I guess, the IAEA issued a harsh judgment that Iran is violating its safeguards agreement under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, judged as having undeclared nuclear materials and activities. They are in violation of the NPT. It isn’t imaginary. They were in violation under the JCPOA. They continue to be in violation.
One of the things we might well do is make a bad deal that allows them to continue to be in violation because we do not get out of them for the IAEA information about previous—the previous military dimensions of their work. That would undermine the NPT and undermine the IAEA.
I think, you know, the JCPOA is a wasting asset. We’re seven years into it. Everyone understood that it was weak, and this administration came in saying longer and stronger. Longer and stronger. And now they’ve given up on that.
But we need it because this period—it’s not as if, OK, we freeze and we come back in eight years. Every year something else comes out from under the freeze. Every year Iran is permitted to do something it wasn’t the previous year. Already we have the conventional military trade. We get into missiles very soon.
So I think this wasting asset has the problem of reassuring us that we have put the problem in a box. We will not have put it in a box. We will have created a situation where Iran has, in a certain sense, the perfect conditions for continuing to do what it’s been doing, moving toward a weapon.
MOHAMMED: To play the devil’s advocate, though, why would it not be useful? I mean, as you know, under the JCPOA Iran is obliged to export out all of its enriched uranium above a threshold three hundred kilograms or 212.8 (kilograms), depending on how you measure it.
Why would it not be a better circumstance for Iran to have far less enriched uranium on hand and to have greater monitoring and verification mechanisms in place than are now the case?
ABRAMS: It would.
ABRAMS: It would. Would it be better for Iran to have a hundred billion dollars to spend on its military, its proxies, its terrorist groups? I mean, that’s another thing they get out of this deal, and we know that it is not going to feed children in Iran.
I think where we probably disagree is I think the main—why doesn’t Iran have a nuclear weapon? I think the answer to that is deterrence, in good part, and I think that if this fails, if we don’t get a deal, we need to strengthen deterrence and I think we need to do snapback of sanctions in the Security Council. I mean, those are the things that will impose costs and potential costs on Iran.
You know, I mean, the question, I guess, I’d put to Bob is what’s worse, somebody attacking the Iranian nuclear program or Iran having a nuclear weapon? And I think the latter is worse.
MOHAMMED: Bob, what’s your answer to that? Although I know you touched on that in your last comment. But why isn’t Elliott right there?
EINHORN: I’m sorry, Elliott. Could you say—why is the—
ABRAMS: Yes. I mean, it seems to me that it is worse for Iran to have a nuclear weapon than to go through having someone attack that program to delay their nuclear program. And by the way, if you do it once you can do it twice.
I remember when people said—I mean, Bob Gates said if Israel attacks the Syrian nuclear reactor there will be, you know, World War III. And you just said it, and it was wrong then and I think it’s wrong now.
EINHORN: Yeah. I don’t think it’s World War III if there’s a preemptive military strike. I think what you have is an Iran that becomes determined—as Laura said, determined to have nuclear weapons but to pursue it now in a covert way. To evict the IAEA—once it withdraws from the NPT, it’s under no obligation to accept the IAEA presence. It would do it covertly. We wouldn’t know where it stood, and sooner or later it could succeed.
Now, World War III, no. But there’s no question that Iran would use its own forces and its proxy forces to retaliate and there could be a very significant military confrontation, which could conceivably draw the United States back into a land war in the Middle East. And I think that’s to be avoided if we possibly can, and I think—
ABRAMS: Sorry about that.
MOHAMMED: Elliott, does your dog share your views or does he agree with Bob?
ABRAMS: No, she’s very hardline. (Laughter.)
MOHAMMED: OK. So can we pivot here to—you know, all three of you believe that the odds of a resumption of the deal are less than 50/50. What is—you know, what is the alternative to—and, Elliott, you did touch on this in terms of strengthening deterrence—but would each of you sketch out for me and, perhaps, Laura, if you might go first, what is the alternative? Let’s assume you’re all right. The JCPOA withers on the vine.
What policies should the Bush administration—excuse me, the Biden administration and any successor administration pursue? Laura?
ROCKWOOD: Aggressive affirmative support for IAEA safeguards and the actions of the director general. Critical to demonstrate coordinated support in particular with the Russians and the Chinese, if you can get them on board.
It’s really important because if you don’t have the JCPOA all you have are really good safeguards, and you only have really good safeguards if the member states of the IAEA want really good safeguards.
So you’re really going to have to focus on the robustness of the international verification regime and the willingness of the member states to take action in the face of noncompliance.
MOHAMMED: Bob, what’s your take?
EINHORN: I think the Biden administration, if there is no deal, should build on the Abraham Accords to try to foster a strong coalition of regional partners to push back against Iran’s attempt to dominate the Middle East.
I think the U.S. should provide very substantial material support—defense assistance—to its regional partners to protect them against missile, rocket, and drone attacks from Iran and its proxies. It should try its best, although this will be difficult, to try to ramp up, even preserve, economic sanctions pressure against Iran, especially to promote a much more conscientious enforcement of existing sanctions against Iran.
It should preserve U.S. military options, if necessary, to attack Iran’s military facilities if there is clear indications that Iran is breaking out and seeking to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon.
I agree with Laura. We need to support the IAEA safeguards system. We need to try to persuade the Chinese and the Russians also to work with us in trying to prevent Iran from (ending ?) all of its safeguards obligations, you know, including the Additional Protocol and some of the innovative elements of the JCPOA.
But I don’t think we can write off diplomacy altogether. I think the United States should work with the Europeans, in particular, but also the Chinese and the Russians if they’re amenable to try to develop and promote a new nuclear deal, not the JCPOA 2.0. It would differ from the JCPOA in some significant parameters.
But the objective should be to try to keep Iran a safe and verifiable distance from the nuclear weapons threshold. It should be to try to develop what our position in such a negotiation should be. It should try to develop that now.
MOHAMMED: Elliott, what’s—you know, how would you try to address this in the absence of the JCPOA? And, in particular, you were—you know, you worked in the Trump administration, whose policy of maximum pressure did not produce the desired change during the period it was applied.
Is it even possible now to—so I’m interested in your broad answer to the question but also, specifically, in the current environment where oil prices are very high because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and where China has been flouting, by most reports, American sanctions that would normally have barred it from buying Iranian oil, is maximum pressure even possible? Can you coerce Iran through economic pressure?
ABRAMS: It’s not possible if you don’t try. You know, for the first few years of the Trump administration there was not a maximum pressure. Then there was for about two years, and then it disappeared. There has been a tremendous increase in the amount of oil sales to China, as you say, and the administration has not done very much about that.
So I don’t think we know how well it could enforce the sanctions. But it should, certainly, try and I’d go back again to say whatever happened to snapback. I think that’s—it’s important to think through what happens if a member of the Security Council, who is a signatory, invokes snapback.
The other thing I’d like to see, the president has said, “They’re not going to get a nuclear weapon on my watch,” and he’s got two and a half years to go. President Obama made an extremely forceful statement in 2012 about this.
I’d like to see the president make, under the circumstances you suggest, another tough statement, saying we’re not going to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, because if you’re worried about nuclear proliferation, boy, that is a step that will likely be followed by more proliferation in the region.
MOHAMMED: One question I’d like to ask each of you is sort of a first principles question. Do you believe that Iran wants to be a nuclear weapon state or, rather, do you believe that Iran wants to be a threshold state, i.e., bumping up right against the line but not actually having a nuclear weapon?
Bob, do you want to start on that one?
EINHORN: Yeah. Look, it’s clear that at least until 2003 Iran wanted to be a nuclear weapon state. It had a structured program to develop nuclear weapons.
Now, in 2003, it made a decision to, essentially, pause one important element of that program, the weaponization program, but to keep its options open for the future by, you know, producing fissile material, by developing missile delivery capability, and so forth.
So, you know, I think what they’ve done—what they’ve been doing is to defer a decision on whether actually to build nuclear weapons, you know, and I think their current objective is to ensure that they will have a threshold nuclear weapons capability, the capability, if they so decided, to be able to produce a lot of weapons-grade uranium in a short period of time.
But they know there are risks involved in doing so. They paid a huge economic cost for being caught, you know, early in the century for pursuing nuclear weapons—a huge economic cost—and I think they have to fear—and I agree with Elliott here—they have the fear a preemptive military strike if they are caught, you know, moving toward nuclear weapons.
So they will make a decision based on, you know, costs and benefits and, in my view, it’s not inevitable that Iran will actually seek to produce nuclear weapons and they may be content with a latent or threshold capability.
MOHAMMED: Laura, what’s your take on that?
Do you think they want nuclear weapons or just a threshold capacity or, to give them their due, do they not actually want to have nuclear weapons, which is their stated position? That their nuclear program is for solely peaceful purposes?
ROCKWOOD: I’m tempted to push back a little bit on this perception of Iran and the government as monolithic. I think there is tremendous national support for their nuclear program—the civilian nuclear program. One of the Iranian negotiators once told me, we kind of tied our own hands because we made enrichment so important as a matter of national pride that it was difficult for them to back off from it.
So I think if I were pressed for an answer I would say it’s closer to looking for a threshold. They still have that fatwa at least in place so they would have to come up with a workaround for that if they decided to go nuclear. I think they could. I mean, I’ve read the arguments on both sides.
But I think they would be content with being able to expand their civilian nuclear program to be able to prove that they’re scientists, can do everything short of a nuclear weapon.
MOHAMMED: Elliott, what’s your view?
ABRAMS: We won’t know for sure, of course, until—we’ll know for sure if they actually build a weapon. But it strikes me that, you know, if they look at Ukraine, Libya, North Korea—you know, all these cases that we all talk about—the possession and lack of possession of the weapon, not the threshold, is what really seems to have mattered more.
So it seems to me the logic would be to build a weapon unless there is a strong deterrent, and that deterrent can be a feeling that their economy is going to be attacked somewhat in the way the Russian economy has been or that there will be a military strike of some sort.
I think they believed that once upon a time, the latter part about the military deterrent. I don’t think they believe—(audio break)—came to believe it.
MOHAMMED: Laura, I’d like to turn to you for a moment and to draw on your IAEA expertise. As you know, a number of news organizations have reported today that the United States and the so-called E3—Britain, France, and Germany—have crafted a draft resolution for the IAEA Board of Governors meeting next week.
The resolution, at least according to the draft, according to our reporting, would, essentially, call on Iran to answer the unanswered questions particularly about its—the presence of uranium at undisclosed or undeclared sites.
As you well know, the United States has not wanted to go down the path of an IAEA resolution of censure or criticism, or at least the Biden administration has not wanted to do that, I think, on the belief that doing so could unravel the negotiations to try to revive the nuclear deal.
Where are we now? Are we now at a tipping point where the United States and Britain and France and Germany and, potentially, a sufficient number of the Board of Governors members might actually go forth with a critical resolution?
ROCKWOOD: So a couple of questions there.
I think the U.S. administration has taken that iron out of the fire in the past several board meetings. I think they’ve lost patience. I also think that they are committed now to affirmatively supporting Grossi—Director General Grossi’s pushback to the Iranians for their noncooperation on the safeguards issues, the possibility of undeclared nuclear material in Iran. So I think they’re losing patience.
Now, I think the art is going to be in how they craft that resolution. Obviously, the Iranians have already said, if we are reported to the Security Council we’ll take further escalatory actions.
So I’m not sure that now is the time to threaten reporting to the Security Council. But a strong, affirmative, positive support for IAEA and calling on Iran seriously to cooperate with the agency to resolve these inconsistencies. I mean, we’re talking about activities that likely took place prior to 2003 and those activities may not be being carried out.
But the question is where is that material that they worked on, and that’s a present issue. That’s not a past issue. So I think the trick is how they formulate that resolution and I think the U.S. is much prepared—much more prepared now to support that action than it was before. Basically, I think they’re running out of patience.
MOHAMMED: Thank you.
At this time, I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. I’d like to remind everyone that this conversation is—that this meeting is on the record.
And could I request that the operator now remind you how to join the question queue? Operator?
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take our first question from Tao Tan.
Q: My apologies. I accidentally clicked raised hand.
OPERATOR: No problem.
We’ll take our next question from Michael Skol.
The introduction to Elliott Abrams didn’t include the fact that he was simultaneously the special envoy to Venezuela, which many of us thought at the time was an extremely important dual role because it represented what Iran was doing elsewhere than the Middle East. Is the Biden administration paying enough attention to this linkage, what Iran is doing in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua? Are the reporters—is the media paying enough attention?
ABRAMS: Well, I guess the question is how much is enough. I think some attention was paid before to the question of what Iran is doing. Is it being very helpful to the Maduro government, helping it produce oil and export that oil?
But I’m inclined to give the Biden administration a little bit of a pass in the sense that however serious that is, what Iran is doing in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and Yemen is so much more vicious and brutal that it’s not surprising it attracts more attention.
MOHAMMED: Operator, can we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Rose Gottemoeller.
Q: Hello, everyone.
I had a question about Russia and Russia’s role. I know there was a skirmish over sanctions impacts during—after the invasion of Ukraine, but I’m interested in your view as to whether there is a positive role that—(inaudible)—could continue to play in the negotiations and—
MOHAMMED: Rose, I’m—
Q: I’m sorry?
MOHAMMED: I’m so sorry, Rose. We’re finding it very difficult to hear you. May I suggest that you consider putting your—writing your question into the chat and then we will have someone read it aloud?
Q: Is this better, Arshad?
MOHAMMED: Not much.
ROCKWOOD: Arshad, was she trying to get at Russia’s support—the role that Russia has played in the Iran negotiations? That’s what I thought.
ABRAMS: And I thought—and what role might it play with respect to sanctions in the—if—
MOHAMMED: Rose, is that a fair summary? Well, why don’t the two of you—
Q: Yes. That was—actually, yes, that is a fair summary.
MOHAMMED: Great. Laura, Elliott, if you would please answer.
ROCKWOOD: It’s my impression, and I’m sure it’s shared by the other people who have been watching Ambassador Ulyanov in his tweets, that the Russian Federation has until very recently been very supportive of the JCPOA initiative. They’ve really pressed Iran to continue to implement the Additional Protocol.
At some point, that became not viable. But one had the impression from reading his tweets that he was almost personally and professionally invested in the success of the JCPOA.
I don’t see either Russia or China voting for a resolution, even if it’s a moderate resolution, on Iran. But I think they have been constructive in the past. I’d like to think they see it in their continued interest to remain constructive in the case of Iran.
MOHAMMED: Elliott, do you have anything to add to that?
ABRAMS: It remains to be seen. I mean, until three months ago, you know, I would have agreed with that.
Now, with the Ukraine crisis, I think it’s a lot more difficult and, you know, in a certain sense, Russia benefits almost whatever happens because as the price of oil rises they will benefit some, even though they’re having a harder time, and maybe especially now that they’re having a harder time, selling oil.
But I think in the case of Russia all bets were really off the day they invaded Ukraine, and whether that cooperation, which should exist—I mean, Russia and China don’t—theoretically don’t want to see an Iranian nuclear weapon. You know, will that survive? I’m dubious.
MOHAMMED: Bob, if I may, I’d like to piggyback on Rose’s question to ask you a related one. As you will recall, that first weekend in March it appeared that the negotiators were on the cusp of an agreement to revive the—to resume mutual compliance with the JCPOA.
Two things happened. One, the IRGC and whether or not it would be on the U.S. foreign terrorist organizations list reared its head, and, secondly, there was then that ambiguity about what Russia wanted. Russia raised objections, which some people saw as seeking to use the JCPOA negotiations as a way to circumvent some of the sanctions that had been imposed on Russia because of the invasion of Ukraine.
And I guess the question I had—and about ten days later it seemed like that all died down. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said some things that were widely understood to remove that, you know, impediment, as it were, to a revival of the deal.
My fundamental question is, is kind of where Elliott ended up. Do you think Russia is likely to support a revival of the JCPOA or do you think that it still has enough influence or enough of a motive to sort of throw sand in the machinery or in the process and try to prevent it or try to exact other concessions on other issues?
EINHORN: It’s clear that in March the Russians overreached, you know, trying to use the JCPOA to alleviate sanctions pressure on themselves, and even the Iranians criticized the Russians for this move. You know, the Iranians didn’t want this move to block the JCPOA.
Look, if there is a JCPOA revival the Russians will help. They’ll implement it. They’ll import excess Iranian enriched uranium. It’ll do a number of things to help it. If there’s no deal then, you know, I can see the Russians and Iranians collaborating to avoid sanctions pressure on each other, and I think that will be their effort.
I think they will—you know, Russia will help undermine any effort by the United States to put additional pressure on Russia—I’m sorry, on Iran at that point. I don’t think they’ll play a very helpful role at all.
MOHAMMED: Thank you.
Operator, could we take the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Aaron David Miller.
Q: Arshad, Bob, Laura, Elliott, great panel. Can you hear me?
Q: We’ve now gone almost forty-five minutes with nary a mention of domestic politics, and it seems to me that the whole notion of an American national interest one way or the other is—has become almost completely tethered to pernicious polarization on this issue.
So I wonder—I hate to spoil the purity of a foreign policy debate, but this is a central feature of American foreign policy now more than ever. And unlike Ukraine, there’s not even a fleeting moment of bipartisanship between Democrats and Republicans in support of rejoining the JCPOA.
So could each of you or any of you comment on domestic politics and Iran?
MOHAMMED: Elliott, would you like to start on that? And—
ABRAMS: I’d make one—I guess I take exception to one degree with what Aaron said and that’s the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is a Democrat, who thinks the JCPOA is no damn good, and he’s an influential figure. There are Democrats who—a few—who take that view.
You know, it strikes me that, yeah, you have, basically, party line views here—Democrats for, Republicans against—with one exception, it seems to me, that doesn’t matter. It’s not changing the administration’s policies. And the exception is the big one of the foreign terrorist designation—the FTO designation—for the IRGC.
I suspect there are a lot of people in the administration who would do that if they thought they could get away with it, and there is where, I think, domestic politics jumps in because I think they’ve reached the—the president has reached the conclusion he can’t sell it while Mike Pompeo needs 24/7 bodyguards because the IRGC is trying to kill him.
MOHAMMED: Bob, please.
EINHORN: Yeah. I mean, if there is a deal there’s no question it’s going to be very controversial. It will be opposed by virtually all Republicans and some Democrats. Chairman Menendez has not been terribly supportive and there’ll be some other Democrats. Also, you’ll have Israel, you’ll have Saudi Arabia, perhaps others in the Gulf, criticizing it, and there’s no way the Biden administration is going to win over these critics, at least in the near term.
And that’s why I believe that if there is a revived deal the Biden administration must complement that deal with a resolute regional strategy, a strategy that supports our partners in the region in pushing back against Iran’s efforts to dominate the region and that ensures that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon.
It’s possible that with a resolute regional strategy—and by the way, the absence—the perceived absence of such a strategy under Obama was the Achilles’ heel of the JCPOA in terms of domestic receptivity. So if there is a resolute strategy, perhaps that will temper opposition over time and perhaps make the deal more sustainable.
I mean, if there’s a deal people will be looking at the 2024 presidential election and what happens if the person who takes the White House decides to withdraw again, and with a tough, strong regional strategy, perhaps—perhaps—it will make the deal more sustainable, despite future presidential transitions.
MOHAMMED: Laura, may I ask you a question about Iranian domestic politics, which you had spoken about?
If you are Iran, why would you wish to revive the JCPOA and get the attendant sanctions relief if you face the prospect of either a Republican victory or a retaking of one or both houses of Congress in the midterms or a Republican president being elected in 2024 and, potentially, reversing the policy as President Trump did? I mean, why would you take that risk? Why would you take that bet?
ROCKWOOD: I think that’s one of the most unfortunate fallouts of the JCPOA and the U.S. withdrawal from it. I think it has taught countries very, very bad lessons about the U.S. and the dependence that—the reliance that another country can have on the word of the U.S. government.
I think if they decide to go forward with it they will go forward with it because they see it as in their economic interest, and if the U.S. walks out again, well, then the U.S. walks out again and they expected nothing less from us.
So, you know, I don’t—I think they want confirmation that it would continue. But they survived it the first time so maybe they’re not as stressed out about that. And then maybe it depends on, you know, who those midtermers are. But I think we’ve taught the world a very bad lesson about reliance on U.S. commitments, sorry to say.
ABRAMS: Well, if I could just—can jump in for one second. That’s why it should have been a treaty, and the fact that it wasn’t a treaty is, largely, because President Obama knew that he didn’t have the votes.
So, you know, we go back to first principles here. If it’s going to be—if you want it to be binding it should be a treaty. If it’s not a treaty everyone knows it’s not binding.
ROCKWOOD: Well, if I may—devil’s advocate—we’ve pulled out of treaties as well.
ABRAMS: It’s pretty rare. Yes. I mean, we’ve done it two or three times in the last fifty years. But I can cite examples of policies—of promises made by the Bush administration, personally by President Bush, to the prime minister of Israel that President Obama treated as a scrap of paper though the Congress voted on it and approved it afterward. President Obama just said it’s meaningless because it’s not a treaty. It’s not binding.
So the lesson is not a new lesson. If it’s an unfortunate one, it’s not new.
MOHAMMED: Operator, may we have—oh, I’m sorry, Bob. Did you wish to weigh in?
EINHORN: Just a footnote to this conversation about treaty.
We are celebrating this week the fiftieth anniversary of SALT I, the interim offensive agreement—the ABM treaty. And this was not a treaty, actually. It was approved—it was a special executive legislative agreement that required 50 percent—you know, a simple majority of both houses of Congress. This was considered legally binding, but it wasn’t a treaty.
I think, given the polarization of U.S. politics today, it would—it might make sense to try to pursue an Iran deal on the basis of this approach. I don’t know if that would pass but it would be much more likely to be adopted and to be legally binding than to seek a treaty, which is absolutely inconceivable in terms of U.S. politics today.
MOHAMMED: Yeah. May we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Raj Bhala.
Q: Hi. Thank you for this excellent panel. I’m Raj Bhala. I teach international law at the University of Kansas.
My question is about India. India is one of the few major countries that enjoys excellent relations with Iran and the United States. It’s also a country that, as we all know, has lived with a nuclear-armed Muslim majority country and gone to war with it.
And let me just ask, can we learn anything from the Indian experience in dealing with Iran and dealing with Pakistan, and is there any constructive role the Modi administration could play in, perhaps, brokering a deal and transcending this death grip that the U.S. and Iran have been in ever since I’ve been in high school?
MOHAMMED: Bob, would you like to address that?
EINHORN: Well, India’s efforts with Pakistan to pursue arms control or risk reduction arrangements is not necessarily a promising model for trying to address the Iran nuclear problem.
There have been efforts, you know, bilateral as well as encouraged by others in the international community, to encourage Indians and Pakistanis to resolve their differences. They haven’t succeeded, and they continue—relations continue to be tense. So I’m not sure what kind of precedence would be valuable in the Iran context.
It’s true India has very good relations with Iran and wants to preserve them, and Modi has expressed some interest in playing a helpful role in resolving the current dispute.
But that hasn’t worked out. There have been various mediators that have tried their best, including some within the Gulf, to try to bring the sides together, so far without much success. So I’m not very hopeful of India’s mediating role.
MOHAMMED: May we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Allen Weiner.
Q: Thank you very much. I’m Allen Weiner from Stanford Law School. It’s nice to see my old PM client, Bob Einhorn. Bob, you are ageless.
First of all, I just want to associate myself with Laura Rockwood’s observation that whether or not the Trump administration would have withdrawn from the JCPOA had a lot more to do with his views about the JCPOA than the legal form of the instrument.
My question concerns this hang-up of the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group. Everybody seems to agree that this is almost without material effect, and, yet, it seems to be a near deal breaker at this point.
Why would two governments want to preclude themselves from being able to reach this agreement over a trivial or unimportant matter?
ABRAMS: I would say I just don’t agree with the notion that it’s trivial or unimportant. The IRGC is currently engaged in threatening the lives of several American officials, Mike Pompeo and others, who need 24/7 protection.
They are terrorists. Taking them off the foreign terrorist organization list when they are a terrorist organization strikes me as the kind of unprincipled compromise the United States should never make, and it’s a very bad lesson to teach other governments that we’ll toss around the terrorist designation for political reasons. We’ll impose it and we’ll remove it, sometimes for political reasons. I think that’s not without consequence. I think it, actually, would be quite consequential.
MOHAMMED: One—if I may piggyback on that. One question that I’ve had is whether the Iranians have asked for that simply to see if they could get it in the final stages of—what then seemed like the final stages of the negotiation, and is it not conceivable that if they come to the conclusion that that’s off the table that they might still be willing to strike an agreement.
Laura, do you have thoughts on that? Is this a negotiating tactic?
ROCKWOOD: I think I’m going to pass on that. I’m not as familiar with the most recent negotiations that have been happening.
Perhaps Bob or Elliott has greater insight into that.
EINHORN: I think it would be the supreme leader’s gift to the IRGC. I think they would like to get rid of the foreign terrorist organization label, even if it has little practical consequence, and Iran would like to tell wary foreign investors that, you see, we’re not a terrorist state. You can feel safe to trade with us, to invest with us.
So, you know, I—look, Iran is motivated to—you know, to get this designation lifted. But if Iran sees real benefits in the JCPOA—economic benefits—I think it may be prepared to set this issue aside and find some kind of a face-saving solution.
MOHAMMED: And to be clear, Bob’s argument that Iran might wish to use this as an argument would not actually be a persuasive argument in the sense that the IRGC is, of course, designated under a host of other authorities that would, largely, preclude anyone from doing business with them or people affiliated or companies affiliated with them.
ABRAMS: It does have an impact on lawsuits by American citizens—
MOHAMMED: Sorry. Say it again.
ABRAMS: —trying to recover damages for terrorist acts that were committed against them and their relatives.
MOHAMMED: So it makes it harder to recover damages?
ABRAMS: It is easier now with—when they are designated.
MOHAMMED: May we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mitchel Wallerstein.
Q: Yes. Thank you for this good conversation.
It’s curious that the elephant in the room, which has not been mentioned yet, is Israel and how Israel would respond to the permanent collapse of the talks. U.S. went to great lengths during the last few years to prevent Israel from taking preemptive action.
The military challenge of attacking Iran’s nuclear production capabilities would be much, much more difficult than what they faced when they attacked Iraq and destroyed the Osirak reactor.
I’d be interested in hearing your views as to how Israel will respond. Will it maintain the status quo and just watch what Iran does or will it act preemptively?
MOHAMMED: Elliott, would you like to take a first stab at that?
ABRAMS: Who are you asking?
MOHAMMED: Elliott. I was asking you. Forgive me.
ABRAMS: Oh, sorry.
MOHAMMED: Forgive me.
ABRAMS: Well, if they conclude—if there is no JCPOA and they conclude that it is possible Iran will get a nuclear weapon sooner, then a usable—a deliverable nuclear weapon, people—most of the military experts, I think, still say a year, two years.
I think the effect on Israel would be, A, to ramp up preparations for a possible strike one year from now, two years from now, and B, to increase the amount of activity that they undertake in the war between wars—sabotage, cyberattacks, assassinations. And three, they will ask President Biden, I guess, you said they weren’t going to get a nuclear weapon on your watch—what are you going to do about it.
MOHAMMED: Laura or Bob, would either of you wish to address that?
EINHORN: Yeah. I think—I took Obama at his word that he was going to do whatever it took to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I believed that of the Trump administration. I believe that of the Biden administration. So I think both the United States and Israel would be prepared at some point to intervene militarily to thwart any Iranian breakout attempt.
But the trigger points of the United States and Israel are probably quite different. I doubt the Biden administration has decided its trigger point. I doubt that Israel has decided its trigger point. I think for the United States, the U.S. and the Biden administration would want pretty reliable, credible indications that Iran has made the decision to break out and get nuclear weapons.
It would look for signs like production of 90 percent weapons-grade enriched uranium, evicting or significantly reducing the role of the IAEA, the discovery of some covert Iranian nuclear facility or, you know, activities and so forth. Pretty demonstrable proof that Iran, basically, has decided to go for a nuclear weapon.
I think Israel much less so. I think Iran—Israel is much more tolerant—intolerant of Iran creeping up toward the nuclear weapons threshold. And it’s not clear. I mean, in the past, you know, when Iran was much farther away from the nuclear weapons threshold than it is today some Israeli leaders were calling for a preemptive nuclear strike.
So you really can’t tell.
ROCKWOOD: I hope you meant they called for a preemptive strike, not a preemptive nuclear strike, right, Bob? (Laughter.)
EINHORN: Yeah. I’m sorry if I said nuclear strike. Preemptive strike. (Laughter.)
MOHAMMED: Thank you, Laura.
ROCKWOOD: I agree with Bob. I think the threshold for Israel is much lower and they would be willing to take—is that kinetic action? I’m sure they would inform the United States, but they might not be looking for permission at that point.
MOHAMMED: Thank you all for joining today’s virtual meeting and thank you very much to our three panelists.
Please note that the video and the transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Thank you all for joining us.
ABRAMS: Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.