Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Former Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, U.S. Department of State
Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Former Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, The White House
International Correspondent, National Public Radio
Experts evaluate the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, the issues that have arisen in the past year, and what the new administration should consider for the future of the deal.
The President’s Inbox series examines the major issues confronting the administration in the foreign policy arena.
AMOS: I’d like to draw your attention to the front of the room, please, and away from your lunch. I would like to welcome you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations President’s Inbox meeting. It’s a series. And today we’re going to talk about the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known in presidential circles as the worst negotiation ever. (Laughter.) This meeting is on the record, so what you say will be held against you.
We have a great panel to talk about this. I’ll start with Robert Einhorn, senior fellow, Brookings; Gary Samore, executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; and Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle East studies, Council on Foreign Relations.
And I want to start with the obvious. The president has been keen on making good on his presidential—on his campaign pledges. He did say that the Iran deal is the worst-negotiated deal ever. Is he going to get rid of the nuclear deal? Let’s start with you.
EINHORN: No, he’s not—he’s not going to do that.
Let me say something about what the deal does and what it doesn’t do. This JCPOA—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran deal—it doesn’t solve our entire Iran problem. It wasn’t intended to do that. It focuses on the most dangerous and immediate threat from Iran, which is the nuclear problem, and that’s what it focuses on. It doesn’t cover Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region. It doesn’t cover Iran’s repressive behavior at home. It’s really focused on the nuclear issue.
I remember early in the Obama administration a conscious decision was made: Do you want to deal comprehensively with the Iran problem? And it was decided, much too complicated, much too multidimensional. It was probably not achievable. So it focused on the nuclear issue, and I think that was the right decision.
I think the Iran deal focuses very well on the Iran deal—on the nuclear problem. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, has certified several times that Iran has fulfilled its obligations, it’s reduced its nuclear capability to a small fraction of what it was. And if the deal is faithfully implemented in the future, I think there’s a good chance that it will block Iran’s ability to have nuclear weapons for at least 15 years. So it does focus on the nuclear issue.
What it doesn’t focus on are a range of provocative Iranian behaviors not covered by the deal. Whether it’s Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, its support for the Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen, its ballistic missile activities, its harassment of U.S. naval vessels, its incarceration—unjustified incarceration of dual-use nationals within Iran, doesn’t focus on it at all. But the deal doesn’t—the deal doesn’t say anything about these activities, doesn’t prevent them.
But the deal doesn’t preclude the United States from pushing back against these activities. That’s up to the United States. The Obama administration promised that it would push back against these activities. Many believe it didn’t push back hard enough.
Now it’s up to the Trump administration. The Trump administration could have scrapped the deal from the beginning. It decided not to do that. This would free Iran to build up its nuclear program, and we wouldn’t have had support from anybody else in the international community. Another option was to try to renegotiate the deal, but no one wanted to renegotiate it. Iran wouldn’t do it. Even our European friends are content with the current deal. They wouldn’t support a renegotiation.
So, to answer your question, no, Trump is not going to scrap it. What he seems to be gravitating toward is to preserve the deal, enforce it strictly—although I’m not sure what that means—and then push back hard against Iranian behavior not covered by the deal.
AMOS: Gary, can you take this one step further? Because I’m assuming you’re going to say no, that he’s not going to scrap the deal, even though he continues to say it’s the worst deal ever, and he did when Netanyahu was in Washington. His partners—international partners don’t want that deal unraveling.
AMOS: But he also has his own allies in Congress, the Israelis, the Saudis. What’s changed in his viewpoint to make this such a hard no, that they’re not going to do that?
SAMORE: Well, he doesn’t have a practical option to either renege on the deal or to renegotiate it because there isn’t any international support from all of the other countries that are party to the agreement. And without that support, the U.S. could blow up the deal by ourselves by reimposing sanctions, but it would be very hard for us to resurrect the coalition that first Bush and then Obama put together to sanction Iran and which made the deal possible. And, of course, the Iranians, if the deal fell apart, they would be free to resume the nuclear activities that are currently suspended or limited. So I think Trump has done the only sensible thing that was available to him, which is to abide by the deal while the Iranians continue to abide by it, and at the same time—as Bob says—try to focus on the other elements of Iran’s behavior that we object to.
And there’s a tension there. I’ll give you a good example. There’s a bill in the House called the Terror-Free Skies Act, and it would punish one of the main—one of the main airlines in Iran for providing weapons and logistics to Syria. But that bill, if it becomes law, would make it very difficult, perhaps prohibit, Boeing from selling civilian aircraft to Iran, and that’s one of the benefits that Iran got under the nuclear deal. So, if we were to deny that sale of Boeing aircraft, it wouldn’t destroy the deal—because most of the sanctions relief would be in place—but it would take away one of the benefits that Iran gets. And Iran would presumably retaliate, perhaps by limiting its cooperation on the nuclear parts of the agreement, like allowing IAEA verification. That would become a big issue. The U.S. could retaliate, Iran could answer in return, and through that kind of a tit-for-tat unraveling of the agreement it could come apart. So Trump’s got to balance his interest in preserving the deal for the time being with the measures he wants to take to push back on Iran’s activities in other areas, in non-nuclear areas.
AMOS: Ray, can you look at this from the Iranian side? How seriously did they take candidate Trump’s pronouncements that he would get rid of the deal on day one? And how are they calculating what they see now?
TAKEYH: I think they take it quite seriously. And I think they take all hawkish American presidents seriously at the outset, a couple of examples being when Reagan came in you saw the resolution of the hostage crisis, and when George W. Bush was talking about axis of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction you saw a very comprehensive suspension of the Iranian nuclear program—directly related to that. So when hawkish American administrations come in, usually you have Iranians behaving with circumspection and caution—until the United States becomes preoccupied with another crisis, whether it’s the budget crisis, whether it’s the—something on the Korean Peninsula, and then they can kind of resume. But right now they’re in sort of a cautious period of being very careful about how to do this.
And Vice President Salehi, he sort of laid it out, their case, in a long interview he gave about how to deal with the Trump administration. First of all, he said, never attack him personally. (Laughter.) Always maybe criticize his policies. Second of all, he said, we have to at this point adhere to the nuclear agreement, a statement that could be interpreted as he envisions a time—
AMOS: We weren’t going to? (Laughs.)
TAKEYH: —when they’re not going to adhere to the nuclear agreement. But right now I think you’re going to see a period of cautious, to see what happens.
AMOS: Is this good for Rouhani or bad for Rouhani?
TAKEYH: Well, I think he has a critique on both sides, of the left and the right. The criticism from the right is that the nuclear agreement did not yield the economic dividend that he pledged it and overpledged it. The criticism from the left is that he has not adhered to promises of empowering civil society, human rights, and so on. So he’s going to have to deal with both of these narratives as he kind of thinks about his reelection.
AMOS: Can I come back to you, Gary, and ask the question—a bill in Congress that could sanction airlines and could scuttle a Boeing deal. We have a new president, not staffed up, not clear how his relationship works with Congress. Could Congress kind of steal his thunder? Is there enough discipline in the administration that they could ruin the Iranian deal all by themselves?
SAMORE: Yeah, it’s a very good question. Clearly there’s an appetite in Congress for imposing more sanctions on Iran. In fact, the last act of Congress on Iran when Obama was in the White House was to pass a renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act by 100 to nothing in the Senate. So there aren’t too many issues if we get 100 senators to vote in favor of it. But my guess is that the White House, since it is controlled by the Republicans and since right now Trump is a real power in the Republican Party, my guess is that they will quietly do what the White House asks them. So this bill that I talked about is unlikely to pass unless the White House quietly sends signals that they’re prepared to have the president sign it.
AMOS: And you agree?
EINHORN: The question is whether the White House will want to push back against it. There are bills in Congress that are very subtle. You know, there’s one bill that says that any sector of the Iranian economy that is supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program should be subject to sanction. This would raise real questions among the Iranians whether this is consistent with the JCPOA and could lead to real retaliation by the Iranians.
The question is, when the White House sees a bill that looks like it’s going to make implementation of the JCPOA very difficult, are they going to go to their congressional allies and say, no, we really can’t do this? That’s a big—that’s going to be a hard question for the administration, and it could come up pretty soon.
AMOS: And let me ask you—oh, I’m sorry, go ahead.
SAMORE: Yeah, I was just going to say part of the issue here is really diplomatic. If the Trump administration wants to scuttle the deal but to do it in a subtle way—in other words, to provoke Iran into taking actions that destroy the agreement—they don’t want any American fingerprints on it because they don’t—they want to be able to appeal to the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese to support a reimposition of sanctions. So, whatever the White House does, it can’t be too blatant. If they’re going to undermine the deal, it has to be done through small cuts and not through an ax.
AMOS: Ray, Iran is a country that’s often sort of defined as these are the people who invented chess. Whether they did or not is not the point, but subtleness they get. You know, they watch—they watch American politics. They will not be fooled by a thousand cuts as opposed to an ax. Do you think that there are certain things that the administration could do to undermine that deal, to have a reaction in Tehran to essentially make it meaningless?
TAKEYH: You know, I can’t kind of envision it that far. I’m just not sure.
I would say that, picking up on the point that Bob made, in 2005, actually, Condi Rice came out with an idea that the subsequent administration adhered to: namely, you can segregate the nuclear deal from all other areas of contention and work on it as sort of in a prefabricated box. That paradigm is under stress today because you can’t—pushing back on Iran is a slogan, but I’m not sure what it means when you break it down. And principally, the way the United States had pushed back on Iran was through economic penalties and trying to multilateralize those economic penalties. That will be difficult to do with JCPOA.
And I will say one more thing. A lot of the sanctions that were passed by the United States Congress—such as the central bank, the CBI—were not passed for the reasons of nuclear infraction. They were always multilayered. They were for nuclear infractions, terrorism, human rights, and so on. The Obama administration chose to call them nuclear sanctions and relieve them. So there has always been that tension between what Congress viewed as the purpose of the sanctions and how the administration interpreted those sanctions.
And that’s another issue that’s coming under tension now. I hear people talk about pushing back on Iran, and it’s a slogan whose content is never well-defined. When you define it, then the costs become obvious.
AMOS: I want to ask all three of you—and I can start coming down this way again—there are complications as you move away from the deal, and then you start looking at regional politics, and they can’t be—they aren’t—they aren’t separate. So there’s some contradictions with support for Russian policy in Syria, for example, and how you deal with Iran. Do you see that those complications could actually blow back on the deal?
TAKEYH: You mean what is taking place in the region?
TAKEYH: Oh, absolutely. There’s no question about it. The Iranian government is quite aggressive in the region today in terms of penetrating Iraq at all levels, and increasingly even the clerical community.
President Assad’s war crimes are Ali Khamenei’s war crimes. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are intimately involved in targeting, militarizing that particular conflict. So that’s another issue that’s difficult.
And also what’s taking place in the Gulf, which is less concern. And the Israeli-Palestinian front has always been the Israeli-Palestinian front.
So this is why I think it’s difficult to segregate the nuclear agreement from all the other issues of concern. And I think that goes back to the conceptual flaw of this paradigm that was initiated in 2005.
AMOS: You can’t separate it?
TAKEYH: I think it’s very difficult to do so. We try to have two lines operate independently of one another. At some point there may be intersections. And, as Gary may say, those intersections may be, you know, marginal—you know, on this issue, on that issue, on this issue, on that issue. And so I’m not just—I don’t think you can put the deal in a prefabricated box and say we’ll see you in 10 years.
SAMORE: So another big problem for President Trump is that he has identified the battle against Islamic State as his primary security objective in the Middle East. And whether we like it or not, that means that we are tacitly cooperating with Iran in both Syria and Iraq in order to defeat a common enemy. So it’s—to the extent that President Trump really wants to focus on Islamic State, that makes it hard for him to pick a fight with the Iranians in Syria and Iraq, which is the primary battleground. And the truth is, unfortunately—I’m sorry this is the case—I think the Iranians have a very powerful position in both Syria and Iraq, and it’s going to be extremely difficult for us to roll them back.
Now, that doesn’t mean Iran is going to take over the Middle East. I think there the options for the Iranians to expand their influence beyond the existing place where they’re operating—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen—are actually quite limited. You’re either dealing with countries that are too strong to succumb to Iran’s influence—like Israel, Egypt, Turkey—or countries that are under the protection of the U.S., like Jordan, Saudi, Bahrain, the Gulf countries, and so forth. So I think there’s actually a pretty stable situation in terms of Iranian—in terms of our ability to push back Iran’s influence, and Iran’s ability to expand is very limited.
There are things that Trump can do on the margins. He can step up naval patrols to interfere with efforts by Iran to arm the Houthis. He can—you know, he can—he could relax the rules of engagement in the Persian Gulf so the next time the IRGC Navy tries to harass one of our ships from the 5th Fleet, they may fire back sooner, may lead to a skirmish. There are some things he can do. But fundamentally, I think the U.S. ability right now to contest Iran is limited.
And I think the smart thing tactically for President Trump is to defeat Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa. And once that’s done, he’ll have more options available to him. There will be a big struggle for influence in Baghdad after the battle for Mosul is over. We’ll be trying to encourage the Iraqi government to make peace with Sunni political forces, to have a diverse political base, and the Iranians will be putting pressure on Prime Minister Al-Abadi to kick the Americans out now that they’re not needed anymore. So I see Iraq as being the next big sort of field of indirect struggle between the U.S. and Iran after the battle of Mosul is over.
AMOS: Is that where they’re the strongest, in Iraq?
EINHORN: Let me just follow up on Gary’s point. If the Trump administration really wants to push back hard against Iranian influence in the region, the way to do it is in Syria. But we have limited options on Syria. Reportedly, the Trump administration is thinking of using its improved relations with Russia to try to cooperate in marginalizing Iran’s influence in Syria. But I don’t think Russia’s going to want to cooperate with us on that. Iran and Russia have become strategic allies in the Middle East. Even if Trump, you know, could convince Putin to—you know, to try to marginalize Iran, I don’t think—you know, offering him removal of sanctions or whatever, sanctions against Russia, and Putin agreed—I don’t know that Putin could actually evict Syria—evict Iran from Syria. It’s entrenched its position in the region.
So I think, basically, the initial focus is going to be on Yemen. That’s safer, pushing back against Iranian support for the Houthis, maybe intercepting a few vessels that are, you know, supplying the Houthis, a bigger military and naval presence.
I think there’s going to be a lot of naming and shaming. I think the Obama administration was too reluctant to speak out against certain provocative Iranian behaviors. I don’t think the Trump administration is going to be hesitant at all to do that.
So, again, you got a lot of that, but I don’t know that on the ground the Trump approach to Iran is going to be all that radically different from what the Obama administration has done.
AMOS: Can I ask one more Syria question? And then I’ll get to that. And that is Syria is much more complex and Turkey is a player. Could they not just sit back and let all of those players work it out? The Russians said nothing when Israel bombed close to the capital. They said nothing when Turkey crossed the border and is sitting in Al Bab. They could almost take their hands off that one.
SAMORE: I think we’re in a very weak position as we enter a period where there’s sort of de facto partition in Syria and a more or less ceasefire. Parts of the country have been segmented off by the different fighting forces. We may be entering now a period of some kind of negotiation. I think we’re in a very weak position to influence the outcome of those negotiations.
AMOS: One more round of questions and then I open it up at 1:30. And that is: Do you see a different constellation of how allies see what this administration is doing, especially in the Gulf and in the wider Middle East? You want to start and go down the line?
EINHORN: Well, you know, first, our European allies, who are—who are very important on this, it’s clear where they stand. And the EU high representative, Mogherini, came to Washington recently, and she was determined to get a commitment that we’re going to stick with the JCPOA and so forth.
Will they be terribly interested in pushing back against Iran in the region? I don’t—I don’t think they’re going to be prepared to lend their hand.
You know, the Gulf Arabs—the Saudis in particular, the Emiratis—they’ve been, you know, very hopeful that Iran (sic; Trump) is going to back them much more strongly than Obama, but we’ll see. I think part of the action, the raid against the Houthis, you know, recently undertaken, was designed to show our support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen. But I think they’re going to wait and see as well. But, you know, their initial reaction is very positive.
AMOS: And Sisi I think is coming next week?
AMOS: Yeah. Gary?
SAMORE: So I would say, in general, Trump is greeted with great pleasure and relief in the Middle East. I mean, President Obama so damaged his reputation with all of our traditional allies in the region—Egypt, Israel, Saudi—that just in—just because Trump is not Obama he’s getting a tremendous honeymoon.
And I think, in terms—now, each of the allies have a different interest. For the Saudis, I think if the Trump administration even modestly steps up U.S. operations against the Houthis in Yemen, that will be a tremendous relief for them. That’s their biggest concern right now. They’re stuck in this war of attrition that really isn’t going very well. And if the U.S. increases efforts to deny arms to the Houthis and carries out occasional bombing raids, just like Obama did, the Saudis will be very happy.
I think the situation with Israel is a little more complicated. The Israeli main concern is to limit as much as possible Iranian influence in Syria as we enter this period of a peace settlement. And for all the reasons that Bob and others have said, I think the Iranians are very entrenched in Syria. Assad cannot survive without the support of the Shia militia. He might be very happy to kick them out if he could, and I think some of the Iranians would be happy to leave, but at this point I think Hezbollah and the Shia militia are really essential to Assad’s survival. So it’s hard for me to see a, you know, political settlement in Syria in the near term that, you know, really limits Iranian influence.
TAKEYH: I would just say there are—Bob and Gary mentioned the American alliance. There are tensions in the Iranian alliance. The Baghdad-Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis is going to have problems moving forward because if President Assad wants to take over the entire country, he has to at some point go to war against the Kurds. And that’s not in Iranian interest. It might be in the Turkish interest, but then you have problems in that.
I think there will be problems in Iraq for Iran as—with parliamentary election coming up next year, and President Abadi will try to assess the level of American commitment to Iraq before he responds affirmatively to American requests to push back on Iran. So there will be some conversations and tensions there.
And so moving down, you know, the Iranian imperial surge has been quite seamless, but you begin to see—and also the cost of rebuilding at least portions of Syria, 80 percent of the people living under poverty. The Iranian idea of rebuilding it is have the Europeans pay for it. And—
AMOS: Or the Saudis.
TAKEYH: Well, or the Europeans because of the threat of migration crisis and humanitarian catastrophe. Iranians blow things up they don’t pay for, so the idea is send the bill to the EU. Well, that creates transatlantic problems for Iran—(laughs)—in terms of—so—
AMOS: I think the Russians asked for that, too, like today.
TAKEYH: Yeah. So, I mean, that’s—all that is going to have to be sorted out within that particular alliance as well.
AMOS: And one more short question. I asked you before about is this good or bad for Rouhani. Is there anything that pushes a much more strident candidate forward?
TAKEYH: Well, what conservatives have to do is unify around a candidate, and they’re trying to do that. And the reasoning lately is that they have somebody in mind which is a kind of a dark horse candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, who is a cleric. He was being groomed for a position of the supreme leader, but now they may be putting him in the office of the presidency, the same trajectory that Ali Khamenei followed. He was a president.
If it is Ebrahim Raisi, that’s Khamenei’s candidate, because they’re very close. He was a student. They’re from the same town, the familial bonds. And he’s a real killer. I mean, you don’t have to worry about him not shedding blood. He’s good to go on that front.
AMOS: (Laughs.) Oh, great.
TAKEYH: But if your concern is internal security, then he’s your man.
So, as Iran goes to the next phase of this relationship, where it no longer really needs to have an arms control agreement that requires impressions of moderation, and—
AMOS: The nice face.
TAKEYH: Well, then it focuses on internal security. You might need a different cast of characters. That would be the reason to change horses.
But also, I think it has to be a(n) election that’s contested. I don’t think Ali Khamenei and the conservative right wants to do what it did in 2009, because the regime very barely survived from that. And so then you have to figure out, can this—how many votes can this guy get, and so on and so forth; can you mobilize a constituency on his behalf. But that’s going to be sorted out in the next several months.
The arguments for President Rouhani are very substantial if you’re Ali Khamenei. He’s the best president you ever had. Rafsanjani gave you problems. Khatami actually threatened the whole system. President Ahmadinejad was defiant. He has had no particular problems with—maybe some marginal disagreements on the nuclear issue here and there, but, you know, largely is a good president for him.
AMOS: As he’s been called the Bill Clinton of Iran.
TAKEYH: Well, I don’t know about that. (Laughter.) Or Bill Clinton’s called the Hassan Rouhani of America. (Laughter.)
AMOS: True, true.
I’m going to open it up to questions from the floor. Please say your name and affiliation, and make sure it’s a question.
Sir, and then you.
Q: Steve Friedman, Stone Point Capital.
AMOS: Hang on. Microphone, please.
Q: (Comes on mic.) Oh. Would you please discuss what you see happening as we get to the 10-year, 15-year period, the famous potential sprint to a weapon? What should the U.S. be doing and will the U.S. be doing, in your judgments?
EINHORN: Well, the way the deal works is that some of the key restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capability expire—some after eight years, some after 10, some after 15. You know, right now it would take Iran a year to break out, to have enough nuclear material for a bomb. After 13, 15 years, it would increase its capacity to the point where it could product enough fissile material for a bomb in a matter of weeks. So we have to start thinking now about the out years. What happens after these key restrictions expire?
You know, we could try to persuade the Iranians that they don’t have any need for a large-scale enrichment capacity, but that’s not going to work. They seem bound and determined to do that.
I think one thing we can do is to—not now, it’s too soon, but you know, in several years negotiate with them to try to extend these expiration dates, you know, to 20 years or beyond. But to do that, I don’t think we have sanctions leverage that we could use to get them to make big concessions, but we could—we could offer some inducements for them to do that.
And, interestingly, it was President Trump who, you know, earlier, before he was president, talked about the primary U.S. sanctions, the sanctions that have applied before the nuclear deal became a big deal. But these were sanctions that prevent U.S. entities, U.S. businesses from engaging directly with Iran. He said, why should we have the U.S. observe an embargo when the Europeans and the Asians, they can do business now with Iran? We have to level the playing field. It would be a big inducement to the Iranians to remove these primary sanctions, and perhaps in exchange for lengthening these expiration dates, slipping these duration dates. And I think that would push farther down the road the prospect of an Iranian nuclear capability.
I think also we have to do one more thing. I think the president has to be very clear. He has to announce that it’s the policy of the United States to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon. And if we see credible information that Iran is moving to break out of the nuclear agreement and get nuclear weapons, we’re prepared to use any means—including military force—to stop that. I think—you know, this would be—this would be easy, I think, for the Trump administration to do. And I think that Congress ought to back that up with some authorization to use military force if the president determines Iran is, you know, moving toward nuclear weapons and provides credible information to the Congress that they’re doing that.
AMOS: Either one of you have anything—
SAMORE: Yeah, I’d just comment. I think the current Iranian government is really determined to take advantage of the provisions in the agreement to modernize and expand their enrichment program as these limits expire, because they are committed to having a nuclear weapons option, and that’s what gives them a nuclear weapons option, having an extensive modern enrichment program. I think we have to wait for a change in the current government before can anticipate having any new negotiation that would extend those limits or impose new limits.
And that means we’re waiting for Ayatollah Khamenei to die. Who knows what happens after that—whether we get a leader who’s more willing to live without a nuclear weapons option, or one who’s just as determined. That’s Ray’s business. All I know is that I don’t think we’re going to get a better deal while Khamenei is alive. Although, I do agree, we some bargaining leverage in terms of offering addition sanctions relief. But I don’t think the Trump administration, much less Congress, sees much advantage at this point in offering Iran more benefits in exchange for additional, you know, nuclear restraints.
TAKEYH: If you look at the history of nuclear proliferation beyond the original countries—Soviet Union, United States, China—it’s almost never a sprint from beginning to end. That’s what the United States did. That’s what Soviet Union and that’s what France did. It’s always periods of activity and periods of inactivity—Pakistan, India. And this is essentially what has happened with Iran. There’s periods of activity, periods of inactivity, in order to reach the ultimate objective. There’s nothing that’s happening in the country today that leads me to believe they don’t want to have, as Gary said, industrial-sized nuclear program with a determination to have a weapons option. I mean, that’s happening in some ways today. The IR8 machine was tested two weeks ago. The research and development portions of this agreement are particularly permissible. And so you begin to see the structure being modernized and developed as—today, as we—as we speak. So I suspect it’s that following the usual model of the second generation of nuclear proliferators, which tend to take a longer road.
Now, whether Khamenei dies, things will change—this is the only arms control agreement that I know whose viability rests on death of a national leader. (Laughter.) You know. My experience with Iran, the next guy is always worse than the previous one. (Laughter.) So, you know. Maybe Gary will be right, the next guy will be better. Or maybe history will validate itself one more time and he won’t be better. I don’t know. I do think—I think Gary and I agree that Islamic Republic has an expiration point. At some point we’ll get to the post-Islamic Republic period. So maybe that’s what we have to wait for.
SAMORE: Knock on wood.
AMOS: Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Arthur Rovine, Fordham Law School.
One of the points that President Trump has made repeatedly about why this is the worst deal ever is that we have paid Iran $150 billion. I don’t know where he gets that number. When Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif were here not long ago, Kerry said $50 billion in their own money tied up in European banks that was part of the sanctions that Hillary put together. We also owe them $12 billion for the foreign military sales deal. They paid us for equipment that we never sent to them because of the—
AMOS: And so your question is?
Q: Because of the revolution. So that’s 12 billion (dollars) more. So that’s 62 billion (dollars). The question is, is there more? Where does the 150 billion (dollars) come from?
AMOS: Is there more that we owe them?
SAMORE: So my understanding is they have a lot of money tied up in foreign banks that they couldn’t expatriate in Europe and in Asia—something close to 150 billion (dollars). But of that money, a lot of it the Iranians had already spent for contracts with those countries, like with China and Japan and so forth. So the actual liquid cash that they could get as a consequence of the deal was something like 50 billion (dollars). But the additional money they’ll get back is goods that they’ve purchased in those countries.
EINHORN: The number that I know is 100 billion (dollars)—and you’re right, only 50 (billion dollars) of which was really disposable. But and, you know, the concern was they would take this—it’s their money. These are Iranian oil revenues that were held up because of sanctions in foreign banks. The concern is that they would take this infusion of cash and apply it to their proxies and so forth. It’s very possible that they—you know, that they did that. But they could take a tiny fraction of that 50 billion (dollars) and still cause a lot of trouble. So I think it’s—you know, the argument was kind of beside the point. With a small fraction, they could cause a lot of mischief.
AMOS: Ray? OK. Judy, where are you? Yeah.
Q: Hi. Judy Miller. Thanks very much for an interesting presentation.
What do you see as Israel’s options independently or with us if they conclude that breakout is either upon us or nearing?
EINHORN: Just briefly—I mean—
SAMORE: Go ahead.
EINHORN: The Israelis won’t hesitate. They don’t have to issue, you know, a stirring, you know, declaration. People know that if they get good intelligence that Iran is breaking out to nuclear weapons, they’re going to use military force to stop them. There’s no question of that. In the meantime, you know, they’ll try to encourage us to put as much economic pressure on Iran as possible.
SAMORE: Yeah, I think there’s a little bit of tension in the Israel government, that sort of professional officers and intelligence officials and diplomats, they acknowledge that the deal is working in the sense of limiting Iran’s nuclear options for the time being. And they would prefer to see the deal remain in place, as long as it’s working, and focus on the other threats that Iran poses to Israel. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu still harbors, as President Trump does, a lot of unhappiness about the basic terms of the agreement. And I think it’s quite possible that Prime Minister Netanyahu would like to see the deal unravel. But he wants to see the blame cast on Iran, because he understands that if the blame is on the U.S., we don’t have, you know, good options to put the sanctions back in place again.
And I don’t get the sense that President Trump is particularly eager to launch another big war in the Middle East. In fact, as part of his, you know, campaign, he emphasized the mistakes we’ve made fighting wars in the Middle East. And he’s focused on building jobs and dealing with our problems at home.
TAKEYH: I’ll just say one thing. When we talk about the military option, you have to figure out military option against what? An industrial-sized nuclear program has numerous facilities—enrichment facilities, high-velocity centrifuges that operate with efficiency and small numbers. It would be very difficult to use military force against that type of a nuclear infrastructure. It would be very difficult to detect when that elaborate of a nuclear infrastructure is being misused gradually and incrementally for military purposes. So if they get to that level of industrialization, I don’t know if there is a military option that’s quick, easy. And I think there’ll be a lot of disagreement within the intelligence community and trying to figure out what’s happening. So I think there is an inverse relationship between expansion of a nuclear infrastructure and the viability of your military option.
EINHORN: Can I just make one point in there?
EINHORN: One of the benefits of the Iran nuclear deal is that it provides for very inclusive monitoring by the IAEA. They will—and this doesn’t expire after 15 years. The IAEA’s ability to, you know, search throughout Iran and to verify that they haven’t broken out will be—you know, will really be an inhibition against Iran. So, you know, we’ll have mapped out their program pretty well. And I think it’s a credible threat to be able to destroy their critical facilities—their enrichment facilities, any plutonium production reactors. We’ll be able to do that with high confidence, even after 15 years.
SAMORE: I mean, the big question—just to add to that—the big question is whether the Iranians calculate they could cheat and get away with it. Now, in the past, they’ve tried to cheat two times, building secret enrichment plants, and we’ve caught them both times before those facilities were completed. As Bob says, the nuclear deal has additional provisions to verify that Iran is complying with the agreement. But I don’t preclude in the future they might calculate that people are not watching carefully or they’ve, you know, invented better methods to conceal what they’re doing, and they’ll try once again to try to build secret facilities. In that case, we’re going to depend very heavily on our intelligence, and the intelligence of our allies, to detect that kind of cheating.
AMOS: Right there in the back.
Q: What can we do to speed the day that the—
AMOS: Please introduce yourself.
Q: I’m sorry. Seth Siegel.
But what can we do to speed the day when the Islamic regime in Iran falls? (Laughter.)
TAKEYH: Yeah, we have a five-point plan to do that. (Laughter.) Well, I would—(laughs)—I would say the following. The change will come within. And I think to a large extent, in the post-2009 period, you have seen the state and society estranged from one another, and that estrangement goes on. I don’t think United States can create an opposition movement in Iran, but it can help conditions where that opposition movement, should it emerge, can endure and succeed. I do think one of the principal ways we have to pressuring the regime at home was through economic—constraining their economy.
And that gets you into the JCPOA. When you have 70 pages of sanctions relief in that document, you know, that traditionally if you look at the Eastern European model, the economic penalties that the United States imposed gradually eroded the financial pillar of the state. So, you know, that’s one aspect of it. But, you know, again, as we were talking about, the fact the JCPOA would be a barrier to that. And you have to make a decision of how you want to approach it. So that would be one angle.
The other one would be much more of a robust human rights policy, much more of a robust human rights policy, much more of a confrontational policy with the countries in the region as a means of stepping back its imperial frontiers, so delegitimization. There are things you can do, but then you’re getting into a confrontational phase with a country. And do you want to do that or not? Now, again, when you embark on this road, you know, you’re embarking on a difficult thing. But the conditions within the country in my view—and it is a minority view—exist for getting to the post-Islamic Republic.
And one of the things we know, the Islamic Republic is a very curious country. It officially publishes statistics that undermine its own claim to legitimacy. It actually—the number of statistics that they have published about post-2009—the irreligiosity of the country. People aren’t attending mosque, seminaries aren’t able to recruit young clerics. There’s been a serious estrangement between the state and society in the aftermath of the 2009 revolt that was not reconstituted or rehabilitated by President Rouhani. And so that gets you into a different phase.
AMOS: Anybody else? No? You guys are all right. I want to go in the back of the room. Ah, here’s one.
Q: Wendy Luers, a Foundation for a Civil Society. Hi.
The presence of so many military in the Trump administration, what kind of influence does that have on U.S. policy towards Iran?
SAMORE: Could I say, it’s a very good question. And I think on one hand, these are people who have experienced directly, you know, Iran’s attacks against U.S. servicemen, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are people who lost comrades when during our occupation of Iraq, the Iranians were supporting Shia militia killing Americans. So they have a very strong antipathy toward Iran, which comes from warfare. On the other hand, these are men who fought in two very difficult and, some would argue, quite unsuccessful wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
So I think on balance they’re going to be quite prudent. And I think in particular, General Mattis is quite aware that if we take actions against Iran, the Iranians, once again, have the ability to retaliate by targeting our servicemen in Iraq. I mean, not too many people know, but our people in Iraq are living in the same base as the Shia militia who are commanded by Iran. And they’re getting along just fine now, but anytime the Iranians want to retaliate, they can order attacks against our service people in Iraq. And that can, of course, quickly escalate. So my guess is that people like General Mattis are going to be quite prudent.
AMOS: Anybody else? All the way in the back.
Q: Hello. My name’s Armin Rosen.
So there were documents related to the deal that were submitted to Congress under the Corker-Cardin legislation that are not technically classified but that haven’t been made public either. What would the effects be on the deal if any of those documents were, in fact, made public? This is something that Trump could do on his own initiative whenever he wants. There’s some discussion as to whether he’ll do it or not. What do you think the impact would be if they were made public? Thanks.
EINHORN: I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to. There were a number of agreements that were reached among the negotiating parties in this so-called joint commission, you know, which is there to implement the deal. And initially they were held privately. But they’ve been now made public. They’ve been published as an IAEA document. And so that’s not a problem. There’s one confidential document, I don’t know if it was turned over to Congress or not. This is the plan that Iran developed for the development of its enrichment program under the so-called Additional Protocol that Iran is provisionally applying. It needs to report to the IAEA on its plans for enrichment. And it submitted this. And actually, what’s not very well-known is that it was, in a way, negotiated in the course of the negotiations.
And this is a kind of confidential document, but it’s not one that’s officially in possession of the U.S. government. It was from Iran to the IAEA. But the U.S. government is depending on Iran complying with that plan. And if it—if it didn’t comply, then we would really accuse them of a violation, I believe.
SAMORE: And I’m pretty sure that document’s leaked. I think you can find it on David Albright’s website. (Laughter.)
AMOS: All the way in the back?
Q: Yes, hello. My name is Stefan Lakar (ph). I’m a journalist—(inaudible)—New York—(inaudible).
No, just you mention also that the Americans at the moment are sleeping with the enemy, in a sense, in the barracks with ISIS, and I—fighting ISIS. And my question is, what Trump thinks of the old saying the enemy of my enemy is my friend. During the campaign, I remember him saying ISIS was—oh, Hillary Clinton being responsible for ISIS, and so on. Then he got elected, and he says, we—I mean, he said also before, during the campaign, we are going to crush hard ISIS. But to say that Iran nuclear deal is the worst deal ever, and put at the same time wanting to crush ISIS, OK, I don’t see a strategy here. So can you tell me, what do you really think—I mean, apart from what he says—but who is the real enemy for Donald Trump in the Middle East?
SAMORE: Well, I think it’s too early to tell. You’ll have to wait and see what the administration does. So far, despite the rhetoric during the campaign, President Trump has decided to hold his nose and honor the nuclear deal. He had the option of ripping it up or saying he was not going to abide by it unless it was renegotiated. He chose not to take that option. Instead, he has ordered the Pentagon to come up with a new plan to accelerate the plan to accelerate the campaign against Islamic State in Raqqa. Obama had already accelerated, you know, U.S. efforts to—you know, to attack in Mosul.
So I think—my guess is you will see a real concerted effort on the part of President Trump, which will probably include increased U.S. forces on the ground in both Syria and Iraq, to defeat Islamic State in Raqqa and Mosul. And I think that’s a pretty good guide to what he thinks is the top priority. Now, after—now, what I was saying is after Islamic State is defeated, that’s when the administration will face some interesting options vis-à-vis Iran. It makes no sense to pick a fight with Iran now. Wait six months or nine months or a year, until Islamic State is defeated, and then make decisions about how you’re going to deal with Iran.
AMOS: Do you think he prioritized because ISIS was number one, and you really can’t rip up the agreement first, and then expect that you are going to deal with ISIS?
SAMORE: It’s hard for me to say what President Trump thinks. (Laughs.) All I can say—
AMOS: Yeah, fair enough. Fair enough. Fair enough.
Q: Hi. Jove Oliver, Oliver Global.
If you look at the sort of past round of sanctions relief, and potential future sanctions relief that might be used to sort of extend the breakout windows, how much does that sort of release the pressure that’s built up with the street protests in 2009? Are we seeing that—sort of the economy bounce back a bit? Would it help with future sanctions relief? And would that undermine the sort of street protests?
TAKEYH: I’m not sure if there’s a perfect correlation between the two. I was just suggesting that in the past a contracting economy has been a source of weakening the regime, and therefore loosening its controls. So I’m not sure how that plays to sanctions relief, or release down the road. I don’t anticipate the administration to engage in sanctions relief. And I wouldn’t anticipate, frankly, the Clinton administration to have engaged in sanctions relief. So I think from here on people are going to look at ways of putting economic pressure on Iran. And this is where I think the lines between JCPOA and those efforts may, at time, crisscross each other. And then everybody has to figure out what that—what that entails.
SAMORE: So just to add to that, I mean, even under President Obama, the Iranians were complaining that they weren’t getting the sanctions relief they thought they were going to get under the JCPOA. And even though the Obama administration went out of its way to try to encourage business, especially in Europe, to resume activities in Iran—
TAKEYH: Their “buy Iranian” campaign. (Laughs.)
SAMORE: —there’s certainly—I mean, the Trump administration, I think, is certainly unlikely to provide a friendlier business atmosphere. So if the Iranians weren’t happy before, they’re likely to be even more unhappy now. And that could have political consequences inside Iran, both in terms of public discontent but also in terms of right-wing arguments against Rouhani, that he was fooled by the Americans.
Q: Great. Thank you. Helima Croft, RBC Capital Markets.
We had the question about the generals and their view on Iran. I’m just wondering if you could comment a little bit on Steve Bannon and the Breitbart gang in terms of how they view Iran, and other potential fault lines in the administration if we do get something, you know, developing in Yemen or in the Straits?
AMOS: Don’t look at me. (Laughter.)
EINHORN: Nobody on this podium really can—he’s one of the architects of the anti-you know—radical Islamic terrorists campaign, and also pushing back hard against Iran. But I don’t know if Bannon has any particular strategy for doing that. I think the White House is going to have to rely heavily on General Mattis, Secretary Mattis, and the military commanders to figure out what to do.
AMOS: Do you think Iran on the list of seven was a signal from that part of the power structure?
SAMORE: Well, of course, they took the list that President Obama had produced.
AMOS: They did.
SAMORE: So my guess is they saw no reason to remove Iran from the list. If anybody thought about it, they might have said, well, we have a bunch of Sunni countries on the list, so let’s put one Shia country on so that we’re even-handed in terms of dealing with all elements of Islam. But I have no idea.
AMOS: You don’t think there was much thought in that?
SAMORE: I don’t think so.
AMOS: Let’s go to you.
Q: Thank you. Yeah, Roland Paul, a lawyer. I’ve been in the U.S. government a couple of times.
Thank you for answering three of the four questions I had at the outset you’ve already answered. My remaining question is—(comes on mic)—my remaining question is: Why did the Iranians ship most of their lowly enriched uranium out of the country? I was surprised, and I didn’t think they had to do that under the agreement.
EINHORN: They were—they were required to do it. One of the most important elements of the deal was to put a cap on this low-enriched uranium at 300 kilograms. That’s because this low-enriched uranium, that’s the feed material that you put in centrifuges to spin up to weapons grade.
Q: They couldn’t downgrade the quality of it in-country?
EINHORN: They could. I mean, one thing to do it is to dilute it. But that’s expensive and the Iranians didn’t want to do that. So what they did is they exported huge, huge amounts of this low-enriched uranium above the ceiling to Russia. And in exchange, they got natural uranium—unenriched uranium. So they got something for that. If they had decided to dilute it in-country, they would have gone to great expense.
AMOS: We have three minutes. So I’m going to take a couple of questions quickly. You two. Anybody in that part of the room? OK, both of you.
Q: Peter Bakstansky, College and Community Fellowship.
How would you assess Russia’s relationship with Iran and Russia’s continuing interest in Iran?
AMOS: Let me have two questions at once, and then we’ll do a lightning round here right at the end.
Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.
Gary and others, Israel, India, Pakistan, we have no publicly announced agreement to curb their nuclear weapons tendencies. We do have this overt agreement with Iran. Now, when you head Mr. Trump’s delegation to Pyongyang—(laughter)—what elements—what elements of the Iran agreement would you include in your opening negotiating position with the North Koreans?
AMOS: (Laughs.) Take which one you want, gentlemen.
TAKEYH: I’ll take Russia. Gary can take Pyongyang. (Laughter.) I think that the relationship with Russia today has been more intimate than it has been in the post-Soviet period. And it’s now increasingly operational at defense minister level going back and forth, the deputy minister of—obviously because of Syria. But also, another aspect of this relationship that has gotten less attention is that increasing cooperation between the two countries with respect to atomic energy organizations. Once again, Iranian scientists going to Russia for training and the Russians pledging to give Iran light-water reactors and so on. I don’t know if that’s going to get off the ground, but the level of relationship between the two countries is deepening at both operational and strategic levels.
SAMORE: So, on the North Korea question, there are many elements of the JCPOA that I would be happy to impose on Pyongyang. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the bargaining position to achieve that. I mean, North Korea, unlike Iran, is much less vulnerable to sanctions, unless the Chinese cooperated, which I think is going to be very limited. We don’t have decent military options with North Korea. North Koreans don’t mind political isolation. And their nuclear program is much more advanced. They have nuclear weapons. They’re not a latent power. So as much as I would like to apply the Iran model to North Korea, I’m afraid it’s not practical.
AMOS: Robert, would you like to have the last word?
EINHORN: And just, you know, one other thing. We permitted Iran to have a very limited enrichment program for a considerable period of time, and then not to have any restrictions on that program after 15 years. With North Korea, we would say no enrichment whatsoever. I mean, so our objectives would be very different with North Korea.
AMOS: Thank you very much, gentlemen. Thank you. (Applause.)