Iran’s Imperial Foreign Policy

Iran’s Imperial Foreign Policy

Don Pollard

More on:




Panelists analyze Iran's foreign policy strategy, including their regional ambitions and interventions in Syria and Yemen, and offer recommendations on ways the United States should proceed after withdrawing from the JCPOA.

KANAAN: Good evening and welcome. Welcome to the second session of the Council on Foreign Relations symposium on “Inside Iran: Forty Years After the Iranian Revolution.”

I’m Mona Aboelnaga Kanaan, a managing partner of K6 Investments and I’m thrilled to preside over this session focusing on “Iran’s Imperial Foreign Policy.”

We have a terrific panel here for you tonight, both here and in Washington. I’d like to welcome first our panelists in Washington: Philip Gordon, the Mary and David Boies senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy here at the Council; Dr. Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. And right here in New York: Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow, Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

So, forty years later, we have just as much to talk about over the decades as we do over the past couple of days or even last night. So I think I’ll just start off by saying—by asking, looking back at the past forty years and where we find ourselves today, where Iran finds itself today in its foreign policy, has this imperial foreign policy been a success?

Karim, you want to start?

SADJADPOUR: Should I start? Thank you very much for having me.

KANAAN: And if—and if you could—sorry—if you could also, you know, we’ve had so many discussions about it being ideologically driven or pragmatic, and if you could also weave that into your thoughts.

SADJADPOUR: Well, I agree with what Ray Takeyh said earlier, which is that it hasn’t been a continuation of the shah’s government. I always think that the most sensible thing that’s been said on Iran is from Henry Kissinger, that Iran has to decide whether it’s a nation or a cause. And what we’ve seen of Iran in the region is really Iran behaving much more like an ideological cause than a country following the national interests, the security, and prosperity of its people.

It has been successful in malign ways, right? Hezbollah has been, you know, Iran’s greatest creation since 1979. Hezbollah has been quite successful. They’ve been successful as a result of the U.S. removal of Saddam Hussein and the Arab Spring, which created important power vacuums, which they have, in some cases, filled quite successfully.

But it’s certainly been a failure for I would argue the Iranian people, the Iranian nation. This is a country, if you consider its human capital, its natural resources, its size, its geopolitical location, this is a country which, by all accounts, should be part of the G-20. You know, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, countries which had a far-lower GDP than Iran in the late 1970s, are both part of the G-20.

But it’s a country which has really chosen to be a regional spoiler rather than a global player. And so I think it’s been successful in malign ways, but it’s been ultimately unsuccessful for the people of Iran and I think ultimately it will prove unsuccessful for the longevity of the Islamic Republic.

KANAAN: Thank you.

Michael, any thoughts?

RUBIN: I largely agree with Karim on this. The Islamic Republic has not been as successful as its government might want to make it seem. And oftentimes, the bluster doesn’t match the reality. We saw this a few years ago when Iranians wanted to send ships into the Atlantic Ocean, they ended up breaking down and having to port in Durban, South Africa. And the Iranian sailors were starving until they could get towed back and they had to rely on the charity of the South Africans. That’s just one example.

The Iranians are constantly—they’re more pragmatic the closer they are to their borders. We certainly see that in Iraq. We see that in other countries.

One of the more interesting debates—and this goes into the nature of the pragmatism versus ideology now—is, as Karim noticed and as everyone who grew up in the ’70s and so forth remembers, one of the big slogans of the—of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic revolutionaries was neither East nor West, but Islamic Republic. But in recent months I should say, there’s been a debate about whether the neither East nor West still stands, whether the Iranians need to be in perpetual antipathy towards the East. And by this oftentimes in the papers, they mean Russia. And there is an interesting dynamic developing where the leadership of the Islamic Republic seems to be much more willing to reach out to the Russians than the ordinary Iranians who have a historical memory of the colonialism and the imperialism of Russia. There’s an—this debate is now extending into the notion of China.

Just I think last week, Yahya Rahim Safavi, the former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who’s now an adviser to the supreme leader, said that the basis of Iranian strategy should be outreach to both China and Russia because antipathy towards the United States and Israel is all that matters. So there you see the ideology mixed with pragmatism.

But my last point here would be that, while the Iranians—the Iranians in many ways are like the Americans. The Americans, especially us in Washington, like to naval gaze and we forget that there’s other players in the sandbox. The Iranians can sometimes fall into the same trap where, as they discuss outreach to Russia, as they discuss outreach to China, they forget that China and Russia have other possibilities laid before them and that they may not look at Putin the same way that Putin looks at them.

And so let me just leave it there because there’s lots more to chime in on, but we have a while to do that.


Philip, what do you think? Has it been a successful foreign policy?

GORDON: Yeah, I guess I agree with my colleagues. Maybe another way of looking at it, though, would be to say that, from the point of view of Iran’s neighbors, Iran’s foreign policy has been successful. And that is to say—defined as Iranian foreign policy, you’ve got this competition going on in the region that, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is geopolitical. It’s Arab-Persian. It’s Sunni-Shia. And if the Iranian definition of a successful foreign policy is winning that competition, as viewed from the Saudis the Iranians are winning. I mean, you hear this narrative throughout the Gulf about Iran controlling the four Arab capitals and wielding its influence in Beirut and Baghdad and Damascus and now Sana’a. And their perception, the Saudi, Emirate, even Qatari to a degree perception, is Iran is all too successful because they’re pretty darn influential in all those places. And as Karim pointed out, even more in Iraq. I mean, what a success, again defined from the Iranian point of view, that you have this big oil-rich country in the heart of the Arab world that the Iranians now strongly influence. I won’t say control, but very much influence.

So I want to be careful in not, you know, giving too much of a blanket success because that is—that implies it’s been successful, like, more broadly defined, for the interests of the Iranian people and that I wouldn’t agree with. But in terms of the way the Iranians narrowly defined it and the way their neighbors see it, yeah, I think probably so.

RUBIN: If I may just add. What we oftentimes don’t see, but anyone who spends a lot of time in Iraq and with Iraqis will see, is that we need to perceive the blowback which the Iranians also face. Because, like you said, on the surface they’re successful, but as every Iraqi will point out it’s not a coincidence that when the riots erupted in Basra that it was the Iranian consulate which had burned to the ground.

GORDON: Right.

RUBIN: There’s a great deal of resentment among the peoples of the—citizens of these states that the Iranians control the capital. There’s a great deal of resentment about the overbearingness of some of the Iranian interventions.

GORDON: Yeah. And, you know, I mentioned the Saudis, but the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Americans are pretty much obsessed with Iranian foreign policy, so they must be doing something, quote/unquote, “right.” (Laughter.)

KANAAN: Don’t forget the Egyptians.

GORDON: Everybody in the region.

SADJADPOUR: So Iran is really the only country in the world, I would argue that is simultaneously fighting three proxy wars with America, with Israel, and with Saudi Arabia. All of those have the potential of going hot and have gone hot at various points. But I think one point which is commonly misunderstood in the Iran-Saudi rivalry, which Phil mentioned, is that, despite the fact that the Saudis and the Sunnis have a demographic majority in the region, the major asymmetric Iran has over Saudi Arabia is the fact that virtually all Shia radicals in the world from India to Lebanon are willing to go out and fight on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whereas virtually all Sunni radicals in the world want to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia. (Laughter.) And this is a huge, huge asymmetric advantage which Iran has.

Over the last decade, I keep going to back to Yeats’s poem Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Iran’s proxies have passionate intensity. They believe in the cause of the revolution, whether that’s Lebanese, Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, increasingly the Houthis in Yemen and so they, in many ways, own their proxies.

Saudi Arabia can, at best, rent their proxies. They throw money at folks, but they’re not willing to go out and risk their lives for Mohammad bin Salman the same way that Iran’s proxies are.

KANAAN: OK, thank you.

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Trump declared that his administration had acted—has been acting and has acted decisively and successfully to confront the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Let’s take apart that statement. And if you could, if the three of you could, you know, comment on every part of that. Has he acted decisively? Has it been successful? Has it been efficient? Are we where he, the Trump administration, wanted to be at this point, given such a change—changes in policy? And is Iran the threat that President Trump finds it to be relative to the threat assessments that his advisers or the intelligence that his military and intelligence advisers have certainly been talking about very recently?

SADJADPOUR: Why don’t you guys start in Washington?

GORDON: Sure, I’m happy to because I think it’s a great question. And I would start—so on the last question, I said, you know, if you define it the way the region defines it, on this one, I would say, if you define it the way the Trump administration defines it, then they have not been successful. And what do I mean by that? On one hand, I think it’s a core contradiction in the way the Trump administration discusses its own Iran policy. So we say, as Mona pointed out, the president says in his State of the Union, I have stood up for Iran and it’s working and I’m getting this done, but every day we hear the administration talking about all of the terrible things Iran does on a daily basis throughout the region vis-à-vis all of our friends and vis-à-vis us and it’s the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and you can’t trust them.

And it seems to me it’s either one or the other. Either we have decisively changed course and we’re now standing up to them and successfully dealing with them, in which case hats off, or they’re doing all these terrible things on a daily basis and we’ve got a big problem on our hands. So even if you or especially if you define it the way the administration defines it, then I think the answer is no.

The second point I would make on that is that I think less on the side of are they successful then, what are they actually doing? There, I think there’s also a gap between the way they describe a total transformation from the allegedly soft and weak policy of the Obama administration to this tough reversal of that under Trump.

So in terms of the nuclear deal and sanctions, for sure there’s been a real transformation and those sanctions are having a big effect and that’s pretty tough. Beyond that, I don’t know. I think the bark is much bigger than the bite in terms of genuinely confronting Iran. And you see that most recently in the Syria pullout. You know, a genuine confrontational policy against Iran would be one that included a willingness to put troops on the ground and use force when and where necessary and genuinely contain this Iranian intervention in the region. But I think the president indicates every single day he’s not interested in doing that.

Sanctions are the easy part, right, and secondary sanctions and they have an effect and that hurts Iran. But there, I think there is—they are a long way from being successful. I’ll end with this and I’m sure we’ll come back to the nuclear issue. But I just want to say on that, pain on the Iranian economy is not the end goal; that’s meant to be a means to get them to stop doing things that we don’t want them to do, both on the nuclear side and in the region. So I’m not prepared to give them credit for even the secondary sanctions yet until we see that result. When they definitively give up the nuclear program and stop meddling in the region, then you say, OK, the sanctions are having an effect. But if all the sanctions are doing is making the Iranians more grumpy, but they’re still, according to the administration, doing all these bad things in the region, then that’s not a successful policy to me.

RUBIN: If I may add. I’m a historian by training, which means I get paid to predict the past and, admittedly, I’m right about half the time. (Laughter.) But I can think of twice in the history of the Islamic Republic where pressure has forced the Iranians to backtrack off what were policies which they promised, which Ayatollah Khomeini promised they would never step away from. The first was with regard to what it would take to release the U.S. hostages and the second was what it would take to end the Iran-Iraq War.

With regard to the hostages, after the hostages were released on the first day of the Reagan presidency, it was actually the Council on Foreign Relations which published a book of many of the people in the Carter administration looking at how they had achieved this. And the basic point was that it was the persistence of diplomacy. But the late Peter Rodman wrote a piece I think in the Washington Quarterly in which he said, no, we’re looking at it the wrong way, it was actually the Iraqi invasion of Iran, which led to the isolation of Iran to be too great to bear, which changed Khomeini’s negotiation posture.

We also know with regard to what it would take to end the Iran-Iraq War from declassified Iranian documents that were published after an embargo in one of Rafsanjani’s annual memoirs, that in 1982 there was discussion about, since the Iraqis had been largely pushed out at that point or stalemated, perhaps ending the war, but the Revolutionary Guard when to Khomeini and said no, we’ve got to keep doing this until we meet our objectives. Well, there followed six more years of stalemate, but eventually Khomeini got up and gave that famous speech, it’s like drinking a challis of poison, but I must drink from this challis if I want the revolution to succeed, because the cost of continuing in that war had become too great to bear.

So the question as a historian I would ask, is there anything in our policy that matches the isolation that Iran was feeling back in 1981? Or is there anything that matches the pain that Iran was feeling in 1988?

Now, I’m not advocating to replicate that sort of isolation or pain, but ultimately I do think we have to be honest about what causes Iran to change behavior and whether there’s the international consensus to achieve that the way that perhaps there was early on in the revolutionary era.

Now, that said, I agree that when it comes to our tactics there’s also—I mean, the Clinton administration, people forget, was probably the toughest administration on Iran when it came to the executive orders back in 1994 and 1995, when it came to the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. And we had many of the same debates then that we do now with regard to extraterritorial sanctions and so forth.

One of the dangers of the sanctions regime that I’m worried about is not to replicate the mistake that we made in Iraq where the sanctions become so pervasive that it’s impossible to rebuild the economy once the regime changes. And by the way, I don’t think we’re going to be responsible for regime change. I don’t think the reformists can because of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But I do think there could be trouble looming with the forthcoming transition.

Now, the last point I would make is we do need to pay attention to our tactics, as well, and avoid some of these own goals. I was asked to talk a little bit about Iraq and with regard to the president’s statement that we’re going to keep troops in Iraq to watch Iran. And this is one of those things that drives the Iraqis crazy because they’re willing to allow—I mean, I’ve had conversations with senior members of the Hashd al-Shabi and with the Badr Corps and they know that the Americans are there, they know the Americans are watching them. Even they are willing to turn a blind eye to that so long as no one talks about it. But as soon as someone talks about it—I mean, it’s one thing having a hornets’ nest outside your window, it’s another thing putting your finger into it. And ultimately, what we’re doing is stirring up the hornets.

Now, perhaps what Donald Trump didn’t understand here and the Iranians are seizing this to maximum advantage, is, unlike many other Arab states, public opinion does matter in Iraq, it is a democracy, as flawed as it can be. And so to give the Iranians a populist wave with which they can push back American influence is just political and policy malpractice.

But let me end there because I’m sure Karim has a lot and at least I always learn a lot from listening to Karim so I want to—I want to listen to him.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you. Well, at the risk of appearing too obsequious to my host—I see Richard back there and I think Richard really put his finger on the Trump doctrine when he said that, to the extent there is a Trump doctrine, it’s withdrawal, withdrawal from the Paris Accord, withdraw from Syria, withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. And that is really—it’s an impulse more than it is a strategy.

And you asked me would I describe it as a—is it a failure or a success, the Trump administration’s Iran strategy? The way I’d categorize it is that it hasn’t yet been a failure. It hasn’t been a success certainly, but I think the predictions that were made of what would happen if he—if we pulled out of the nuclear deal really didn’t yet come to pass. We’ve so far been able to have our cake and eat it, too, and that Iran is continuing to adhere to the deal. But we’re sanctioning them, preventing them resources to fund their regional proxies. And so it hasn’t yet been a failure.

But what I would think of as kind of a successful or a sound strategy, a sound template for dealing with Iran would borrow from our Cold War strategy, successful Cold War strategy, especially in the ’80s. And if you read John Lewis Gaddis’s book Strategies of Containment, he described really three pillars of U.S. Cold War strategy. Number one is you want to—you want to strengthen the capacity of your allies, right? And we really haven’t done a good job, the Trump administration hasn’t really done a good job of strengthening the capacity of U.S. allies in the region to counter Iran.

Number two is you want to fragment, he said fragment the international communist movement. So fragment Iran’s Islamist movements, we haven’t done a good job of doing that. We have in fact created more unity there than we have created divisions.

And third is to try to compel the leaders in Iran to conceive of their interests differently, right, to at least try to accentuate the divides in Tehran between those who want Iran to be a nation state and those who want it to be a cause. One thing we commonly forget about popular uprisings, revolutions, is that we—there’s really two prerequisites, two ingredients for popular uprisings to succeed. One is you need divisions from below. But more importantly, I would argue, you need—I’m sorry, you need—you need—you need pressure from below. But more importantly, you need divisions from above. And the Trump administration’s strategy is focused entirely on fomenting divisions from below. But rather than actually accentuating divisions from above, I would argue that they’ve fostered more unity in Tehran than divisions.

KANAAN: So going back—

GORDON: Mona, can I—I’m sorry. Can I add one more thing on the success or failure issues?


GORDON: So just very briefly, but Karim made an important point by giving them an incomplete. And I just want to compliment that by saying, you know, in some ways for policymaking incomplete is failure at least until it produces something. And on this, I think there are three things that I would be looking for to see if this becomes a success. Because I’m not—I also agree, you know, it remains to be seen and it’s early.

But the administration says that it’s taking this tough policy on Iran and reimposing secondary sanctions to achieve specific goals. One would be a renegotiation of the nuclear deal that is, quote/unquote, “better than the previous one” that would not have sunset clauses or allow inspectors to go wherever they want, that would last forever.

RUBIN: Ballistic missiles.

GORDON: That would include ballistic missiles. And so if these sanctions produced something like that, then it will be a success.

A second degree of success would be if it persuades Iran to stop meddling in the region, right? Iran is a problem, they’re meddling with all the neighbors, we’re going to get tough, we’re going to stand up to them. If they stop doing that, that will be a success.

A third, it seems to me, would be changing the Iranian regime. If none of those first two things happen, but the sanctions are such that the Iranian public really gets fed up with their regime, they push it aside, and a better, more democratic, more humane, more cooperative regime comes into place, then that will also be a success. So I think we know what we are looking for. And I would just say, so far, I don’t see any of those three things happening. They might yet, and if they do I think we all have to tip our caps. But those are the things, it seems to me, that that would be the definition of success. Increasing pain on Iran is a means, not an end.

RUBIN: If I may just interject, Mona, for a quick second. Both from what Karim and Phil said highlights what I see as one of the continuing intelligence failures with regard from the United States to Iran in that, while we often talk about hardliners and reformers, moderates and pragmatists in the Iranian political spectrum and while we know that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps isn’t homogenous, we really don’t have any good clarity into what the factional divisions are and who’s involved in each of those factions. So if we were going to try to achieve what you’re saying, which is to contribute or amplify fissures above, especially since the Revolutionary Guard is what—it’s the lid on the pressure cooker, then ultimately we have a lot of work to do, even after forty years.

KANAAN: And do you believe that we are well-positioned now? I mean, if our president distrusts the intelligence reports that he’s getting now, what’s your view on how we can get to a better path of believable intelligence to our president or, you know, to the public or, you know, in terms of our—of our positions and statements to Iran?

RUBIN: Well, I mean, ultimately, I think this is a problem which transcends administrations, Democrats, Republicans, and so forth. It’s a forty-year problem. But ultimately, what I would basically argue, that one of the problems—it’s a different subject to get into distrust about the intelligence community, but I do think the intelligence community has undercut itself with shifting definitions with regard to the National Intelligence Estimate.

We were talking about the nuclear program before, for example, and I can think of three major components to a nuclear program. One would be the warhead design, the next would be the enrichment, and the third would be the delivery. The biggest difference between the 2003 and 2007 National Intelligence Estimate was the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate changed the definition of enrichment as to whether that was part of a nuclear weapons program and so forth. Removing the ballistic missiles from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action also created a great deal of cynicism because if you’re going to say, well, Iran we do know has warhead designs because the IAEA has found that, we see that in the reports, they do have enrichment capability, they do have delivery, but we’re not going to define these.

I mean, it breeds a great deal of cynicism, which is something I do think—it reminds me of the yellow rain controversy, going back to the transition between the Carter and the Reagan administrations over whether the Soviet Union was violating the Biological Weapons Convention and ultimately, in that case, the Reagan administration was correct.

KANAAN: So back to President Trump’s comments of just wanting to watch, do you believe we really are just going to watch? Or was he actually signaling perhaps that we really are preparing for strikes or that that might be a greater possibility today than it was perhaps a few months ago?

And, Michael, you’ve argued that the only responsible thing to do is to prepare for strikes. Where do you think we are?

RUBIN: Well, in this case, I think it’s the responsible thing to prepare, but not—I mean, a good—

KANAAN: To conduct.

RUBIN: Not to conduct, exactly. I’ve always been consistently opposed to military action on Iran because I would see it as rallying people around the flag. And also, if you don’t have a policy to address the broader issues of Iranian behavior, then what you’re essentially doing is kicking the can down the road every two or three years at the expense of the blood and treasure of the American military. To me, that’s highly irresponsible.

That said, I mean, ultimately, we do need to prepare. And what actually scares me, it’s now been more than thirty years since Operation Praying Mantis. Many of you remember, in 1988 the Iranians decided to challenge us when we were conducting an operation in response to Iranian mine-laying and so forth in the Persian Gulf and it turned into the largest surface naval engagement since World War II. Ever since that point in time, the Iranians realized that they couldn’t confront us directly and that they were going to try asymmetric, speedboats, swarming tactics, and so forth. I won’t get into the details.

The point of that is, thirty years on, you’ve had a whole generation, you’ve had multiple military generations that have absolutely no memory of that sort of chastisement. And when it goes into the ignorance we have within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, part of not knowing the factional divisions is, to what degree do people in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps believe what they’ve been told, believe the rhetoric, believe what, for example, the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was saying? And we have to assume that some people do because you can get indoctrinated into the IRGC bubble when you’re eight or nine years old. The IRGC has after-school programs, you can think of them like evil Boy Scouts. (Laughter.)

The point of this is that we simply don’t know in this regard. And what worries me is wars in the Middle East aren’t caused by oil, they’re not caused by water, they’re caused by fundamental overconfidence on one side or the other. And so what I worry about, especially with a change in the leadership of both the Iranian navy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy over the last year after more than a decade of the old guy being in charge is we could stumble into a conflict.

KANAAN: So I have a million more questions and I do want to open it up for Q&A. But one last question for you all.

You know, for a country that is under sanctions, that has limited—more limited resources than it would like, certainly their focus, like North Korea, like Russia, on cyberwarfare and attacking both governments and critical institutions and infrastructure has had some pretty significant successes.

So I wonder—and, Karim, I know you’ve written quite a bit about this, we’ve talked about this earlier, but I wonder if you would comment a little bit about where you think they are and how prepared are we for that kind of cyber foreign policy.

SADJADPOUR: Iran is commonly thought of as a third-tier cyber power with the first tier being the United States, Russia, China, second tier being European countries. By the way, Israel is also considered first tier. Iran is kind of third tier.

But what we know about cyberwarfare is that third-tier powers can do remarkable damage to six-tier powers. And it’s very cheap, it’s low cost, and it’s potentially incredibly high impact. So the costliest cyberattack in history was Iran’s hacking of Saudi Aramco, which, by some estimates, caused half-a-billion dollars in damages, sabotaged their entire computer network. It was via a thumb drive that they managed to do that. The most common—the most famous example, of course, in the United States is Russia’s phishing attack against the Democratic National Committee, which leaked all of, you know, Hillary Clinton’s or somewhat sensitive emails. That was also an incredibly rudimentary operation. And so we do know that motivated actors can do real damage with technology that doesn’t have to be that sophisticated.

And I think that the United States is far more prepared now than it was, say, five, ten years ago when people really weren’t paying attention to these things. All of the emails and internet service providers that we use are far more prepared. There was a time I think sis, seven years ago that Iran managed to embezzle I think JPMorgan or one of the banks from $150 million over a weekend. But I think we’re more prepared.

But certainly, all of—I don’t know, Mike and Phil, if you have two-step authentication for your emails and things like that. All of us who work in this world of foreign policy need to be extra vigilant.


So I’d like to open it up for questions from our members. Just a quick reminder that this meeting is on the record. So please wait for a microphone, speak directly into it and please introduce yourself with your name and your affiliation. And if you could keep it to one question, we would greatly appreciate it. I know there’s a lot to talk about.

GORDON: You’re starting in New York or do you want us to grab a question here?

KANAAN: Well, we have a question here in New York and then maybe, Philip, you can help us field some questions in Washington.

Q: Maziar Minovi, Goldman Sachs.

The previous panel mentioned news or reports that Iran may be starting to talk about enriching uranium again. My question would be, how does that situation, if it comes to fruition, evolve? What would the U.S.’s reactions be? And at what stage do you expect Israel to get involved?

SADJADPOUR: I want to start because I want to hear what Phil and Michael have to say to a scenario which I’ve been thinking a lot about. Which is, if you fast forward to January of 2021 and let’s say there’s a President Biden, say the Democrats win, there will be a lot of debate, I would suspect, even amongst Democrats if Iran hasn’t reconstituted its nuclear activities. I think a lot of even, you know, Democrats will say, listen, we’ve been able to have our cake and eat it, too. We pulled out of the deal in 2017, 2018, and they’ve simply been sitting on their hands, so why should we go back to status quo ante and lift sanctions against them, which, you know, they can use those resources to fund groups that are opposed to our interests? Let’s just maintain the status quo. So I think Ayatollah Khamenei has to be thinking about that as well.

And for that reason, I’ve thought that he has to actually reconstitute that program in some way, shape, or form. Now, I’ve always thought they’re not going to go from zero to a hundred. They’re not going to, you know, kick out all the inspectors and say we’re going for a bomb because they don’t want to unite the world against Iran. But I think if they’re smart they have to restart it in a way maybe they go from zero to twenty, continue to create fissures within the P5+1. But you have to send a signal that there’s a cost to the United States, to the West for pulling out of the nuclear deal, otherwise there is a danger that come January 2021 even Democrats will get quite comfortable with the status quo of having our cake and eating it, too.

But I’m curious how Phil and Michael would think about that.

GORDON: Yeah, Karim, I think you’re right to be thinking about that already. And I’m sure the Iranians are, too, as well as the various candidates for president who are going to have to confront the issue. Let me start, though, with the specific question and I want to get to your thing about the next president.

But on the specific question about Iran resuming its program, so they haven’t done it yet, right? And the IAEA keeps confirming that they are abiding by the accord. And that tells us that they actually would like to keep this alive if they can. You know, Trump pulled out and a lot of people thought maybe the Iranians would pull out right away, too. But instead, I think the Iranians have played it smarter than that and they figure, you know, they don’t want to pull out because that leads to a series of events that could turn against them. They figure they might as well see what they can get out of the other countries and let the Europeans know and the Chinese and the Indians, if you—if you all stop buying our oil completely and really make it not in our interests, then we’re going to resume our nuclear program. And they haven’t been terribly successful. They’ve done OK and the Chinese and the Indians are still buying some Iranian oil. Iranian oil exports are now back down close to what they were at peak sanctions in 2015, but they’re still selling more than a million barrels a day. And with oil at, you know, sixty dollars a barrel, that’s a revenue stream that they are not eager to forgo.

The irony about where we are now is, if it stays there, I think they will stay in for the foreseeable future because it’s in their interests to do so. And that’s why you see the Europeans bending over backwards with a special purpose vehicle to keep them in. The irony is, if the United States is too successful in its sanctions, right, so we brought them down to, you know, still over a million barrels per day, if we get them down closer to zero, which is the administration’s objective, at that point I don’t see how or why they stay in.

And then, agree with Karim, they wouldn’t jump to a full-blown, you know, race for a bomb or a big enrichment program. They would also be smarter about that and they would say fine, OK, United States, you wanted this deal over, you said it was a bad deal, you wanted out, you got out. And so then they start gradually enhancing their program. Someone mentioned 20 percent, enriching at 20 percent, they could do that. Even less provocative than that, they could just start exceeding some of the limits, so we’ll let them have two-hundred-fifty kilograms of low-enriched uranium today, so they go up to three-fifty. Are we going to bomb Iran over a hundred kilograms of low-enriched uranium? They have five-thousand-and-fifty centrifuges at Natanz. They announce one day they’re going to seventy-five-hundred. Are we going to bomb them over seventy-five-hundred?

Then the onus comes back to us and that becomes a real policy for the dilemma for the United States that I don’t know what this administration’s answer to that is. Are we really going to use force against Iran?

And before anyone—and Michael will want to comment on this because you mentioned about, you know, strikes.

Before anyone says to me, oh, you know, you’re painting people against the nuclear deal as warmongers and you say the only alternative to that is war, if credible use of force is what we’re going to rely on instead of the deal, then you have to accept that that is a possible outcome. It’s not accusing anyone of being a warmonger, it’s just sort of objectively saying that if we don’t have the deal, then we might have to actually use that force, which ties us back to the previous discussion on cyber and some of Iran’s potential responses in return. Because if we do use force, you can assume that Iran is not just going to swallow it and apologize for having a nuclear program. They would think of things to do and they have plenty of options against our troops in Iraq or with cyber capabilities.

So that’s why this is—you know, the incomplete we gave them is the operative word. The next two years on this front is going to be interesting. As I say, if we are too successful in sanctioning them, then this might play out in quite complicated ways.

Just very briefly on the interesting point Karim made.

You’re right and, you know, some of us have already started to think about that.

Democrats generally supported the JCPOA. And even though it was interesting who didn’t support it, because there were plenty of Democrats who didn’t, also criticized Trump for pulling out on the grounds that once it existed and Iran was abiding by it, the United States should uphold its agreements. But Karim is absolutely right. If Iran continues to abide by it until the next election and a new president comes in then, it’s going to be hard for a Democratic president to say, oh, let’s just lift sanctions anyway even though they haven’t started their enrichment program again. And that will lead Iran to say—and I’m sure they will say it—we’ve been waiting patiently and, quote/unquote, “sucking it up” for four years, right, waiting for a new president to come in. If that president doesn’t immediately lift the secondary sanctions, then all bets are off and then we’re back to what I just described about these policy dilemmas.

RUBIN: I’ll be very, very brief here. But I agree a good deal with Karim’s analysis. One of the other aspects, however, is, if Trump is a one-term president or, after the first term—if he wins election, after his presidency ends or after the first term of whoever succeeds him if he’s a one-term president, we would still be having this debate about some of the sunset clauses which we’re lifting. But in Washington, we like to debate the past too much rather than be proactive about the future.

All I can say is let’s hope that in the forthcoming election that we actually do have a foreign policy debate because, increasingly, it seems that the only people interested in foreign policy are in Washington and New York.

I do want to push back on, just quibble with one small point. When we do talk about Iran’s export numbers of production of oil and so forth, remember that under sanctions, in order to export some of that oil, the Iranians need to discount it significantly so they don’t get as much as anyone else producing that much oil would get and that creates an inverse—an incentive from some countries, Russia and China, to sort of play a double game and not necessarily ease up in a way that would resolve the sanctions.

KANAAN: A question in Washington?

GORDON: Yeah, Barbara—so we’ve got a bunch of questions in Washington. I’ll try to take them in the order that I saw them. And Barbara Slavin is first.

Q: Yeah. Thanks, Phil. Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council. A bunch of thanks.

First, I think this panel is mistitled. It should be “Iran’s Opportunistic Foreign Policy.” Remember who gave them all the opportunities that they’ve had in Iraq and other places.

Two things. In terms of a Democratic or platform for new negotiations, I don’t think anybody is talking about just going back to the JCPOA for the reasons that Michael mentioned—sunset provisions too close. Is there thinking now on coming back to Iran for a JCPOA 2.0 that would offer them more in return for more?

And then finally, nobody’s talked about the Saudis. How does the Saudi misbehavior and recklessness under Mohammad bin Salman affect the debate on Iran? Are we making a mistake in putting all our chips in that basket? Thanks.

KANAAN: And, Philip, I’ll just—I’ll just add to that because I think you’ve written about, on the subject of Saudis, that they should just unilaterally declare victory and withdraw out of Yemen, which sounds slightly similar to what our president has done in Syria. So just curious, I’d like to add that onto the question.

GORDON: Sure. Those are two very different things, but I’ll try to be brief, unlike the last time I answered a question.

But on Barbara’s first one, which is the, you know, the post, next-president approach, yeah, I think more for more will probably become part of the debate. It’ll have to because it can’t be, as I was saying on the previous thing, I can’t imagine a new president coming in and just saying, well, let’s just go back to the way we were. That’s what the Iranians would like. We had a deal, we’ll go back to it. But by then, we’re four years closer to sunset clauses, Iran is still a problematic actor. And so things like sunset clauses have to be on the agenda, but Iran is not going to give them for free. So you’re not going to get, whatever the party of the president is not going to be able to just come in and say now that we’re four years closer, we’re really kind of bothered, I know we agreed to ten years on enrichment, but can you just—and the Iranians will say no, a deal’s a deal, but let’s talk. And that’s, I think, that’s going to be forced onto the agenda and that’ll be a big part of the debate.

Now, did you want me to answer your Yemen question or let Michael respond to—say anything about that topic first?

RUBIN: Well, I mean, just one dynamic which I see the Iranians engaged in. I’m not going to comment on Democratic foreign policy. I’m not a Democrat. I’m democratic, I’m a Republican, though—small-government Republican.

At any rate, the point of this is that when it—when it comes to Saudi Arabia and when it comes to Yemen, Iran’s engaged in a strategy which is just an economic war of attrition. There’s an order of magnitude between the expense of a Hamas rocket, for example, and one of Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors. And Hamas knows this, the Iranians know this, and they can wage financial war against the Israelis in this way. There’s an order of magnitude difference between the expense of the investment in the Houthis versus what the Saudis are spending in order to combat the Houthis and that’s—I mean, basically, the Iranians have the Saudis by—well, they have the Saudis. And this becomes an issue. A lot of—just as Gamal Abdel Nasser once referred to Yemen as his Vietnam, we’ve had from 1999 and so forth with—who was it—Khalid bin Sultan, his ambitions ended up, I mean, destroyed by Operation Scorched Earth and so forth.

But there are some wildcards out there. I’m not sure whether I’d go into this comparison between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which one’s better, because, frankly, neither of them have a lot to brag about when it comes to human rights and so forth. Public executions are, I think, nine times higher in Iran than in Saudi Arabia, and yet it’s horrible that Mohammad bin Salman kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, but then again an Iranian proxy group killed his father. So there’s no angels here.

I’m wondering what the “hail Mahdi” pass might be, however, if we see, for example, Mohammad bin Salman visit, an Anwar Sadat-type visit, to Israel, that sort of thing and how that might change the debate and the dynamics in the region as we go forward to the next election.

GORDON: Michael’s point about the relative inexpense of Iranian support for the Houthis is actually a segue to my answer to Barbara’s question about Yemen. And that’s what, you know, as I was saying earlier, the administration would have to show to have success for its policy either a better nuclear deal or a change of regime in Iran or and end of meddling. And sometimes the people in the administration will respond to that by saying, well, even if those things don’t happen, at least we’re cutting revenues for Iran. And that’s a fair point, at least we’re cutting revenues for Iran. The problem with that point is this point: It doesn’t take them a whole lot of revenues to supply weapons to Houthis and to do some other stuff, like cyberattacks. So even there, it kind of falls down on the effectiveness piece because, as Michael said, it’s costing the Saudis far more to run their air operations than it is for the Iranians to continue to tweak.

And that led, Mona, to the piece that you referred to that I wrote about Yemen, in which I said—very briefly because I don’t want to take us too far afield—but even if you sympathize, as one should, to the Saudi complaint that Iran is meddling and that the Houthis actually violently overthrew a legitimate government, even if you get that sympathize with it and you sympathize to their concerns about ballistic missiles being on their border and sometimes being used, my point in the piece was that Saudi Arabia’s war is not working and we are four years into it and it’s costing them a fortune and it’s killing their reputation and the humanitarian situation is dreadful and Iran is not weaker, but stronger, and the Houthis are not weaker, but stronger, which is what led me to say that peace talks and a successful diplomatic outcome would be better. But even short of that, it would actually be more in their interests to declare victory and go home.

SADJADPOUR: If I can jump in quickly here, because I think there is this growing perception on the left, including amongst members of Congress, especially after the assassination of Jamal, which is that Iran—the United and Saudi Arabia are friends, but not allies and the United States and Iran are allies, but not friends. And, you know, I’ve heard Barbara ask this question in a hundred different ways over the last decade in Washington, why are we friends with Saudi and not Iran? There’s a very simple answer to that, which is that the government of Saudi Arabia wants to be allied with the United States and the government of Iran wants to be an adversary of the United States. And we can’t force them to make nice. We can’t force the Iranian government to make amends with a regime which they need as an adversary for their own internal legitimacy.

And I think there’s eight years of Obama administration attempts, that really Obama had made unprecedented, but unreciprocated overtures to Iran. John Kerry is my new colleague at Carnegie—Phil can attest to this—he would have loved to have an even greater breakthrough with Iran than just the JCPOA. If under Obama and Kerry you could have had rapprochement, I think they would have very, very much welcomed that.

But we can’t force countries to—we can’t force regimes to do things which would be inimical to their own interests. And we can’t fool autocratic regimes into taking steps that would likely hasten their demise. And so that’s one thing that I think we, you know, we oftentimes lose sight of.

KANAAN: Questions?

Does your—does your view change or does foreign policy, Iran’s foreign policy change much in a succession, in a likely succession? Or does foreign—is foreign policy in Iran far more stable than foreign policy in the U.S.?

SADJADPOUR: Well, so if it’s success to the supreme leader, I’m skeptical that this system can meaningfully change their long-time foreign policy pillars, which are, you know, death to America, death to Israel, increasingly, you know, hostility toward Saudi Arabia. And it goes back to de Tocqueville’s famous observation that the most dangerous moment for any authoritarian regime is when it tries to reform itself.

And I think hostility towards America has become central to the identity of the Islamic Republic of Iran. If I were an adviser to Ali Khamenei, I wouldn’t advise him to do differently. Because if he all of a sudden after four decades says, well, all that talk of death to America and all the costs we’ve paid over the years, we’ve changed our mind, that’s not going to be in his interests.

And the example of China is commonly made, the metaphor, the comparison that, you know, Chairman Mao and Nixon to China and the rapprochement between the United States and China, well, Mao made a decision that the common thread of the Soviet Union necessitated a U.S.-Iran rapprochement.

And so I think for Khamenei, the rapprochement with the U.S. would pose far more of a greater existential threat and danger than continued contained hostility toward us. So I’m skeptical that even if you have a leadership change you will see a fundamental breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations. I think it will have to be more along the lines of—I don’t want to mention—I don’t want to say the word “regime change,” but a—but a—but a transition. As long as you have the system as it is now, I’m skeptical.


Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.

Since you were nice enough to draw a China analogy, I can’t resist. And that is, yes, you’re right, certainly what Mao decided, he didn’t want to have enemies on both sides. But on the American side, you had Nixon had been writing articles about you can’t ignore two-fifths of the world’s population and he was the one who said, well, the main thing is to split China off from the Soviet Union. And even though Kissinger gets all the public credit, he was concerned with Europe and it was Nixon who had to push him to get started on this. So then he got started on it because it was anti-Soviet.

So my question is, who do we have coming up on the American side, a president who will take a different view as to how to handle the Iranians? Who has displayed any interest in this question? I don’t mean all of the loudmouths, the publicity of the moment, but who in public life who has displayed more interest and knowledge on this question and might decide to handle it differently?

SADJADPOUR: Well, my answer will surprise you, but it’s President Trump. I think this is a widespread misperception that this is a president who’s interested in war and conflict and regime change in the Middle East. If this guy could push a button—I mean, I think that the way I’d frame—not that kind of button, a different kind of button. (Laughter.) You know, he—this is how I would kind of frame the polls right now in Washington. You have President Trump, who has written over eight letters, made over eight overtures to President Rouhani to try to have dinner with him. He’s been very clear that he wants to pull out of Syria, he wants to pull out of the Middle East. If he could have a nuclear deal, which I think would be even less favorable to U.S. interests than the JCPOA, if it has name on it, I think he’d be willing to sign it. You saw what he did with Kim Jong-un and Singapore. I think that’s the same type of pageantry he’s interested in with Iran.

A very senior State Department official told me that the greatest fear that Pompeo and Bolton have is that the Ayatollah Khamenei will write Trump a letter saying, why don’t we get together? (Laughter.) Because they know—

KANAAN: At Mar-a-Lago.

SADJADPOUR: —he will jump at that opportunity. But the thing is that Khamenei is not going to do that, so Trump is in some ways safe. (Laughter.)

So I genuinely—I genuinely think—and, you know, going back to the last eight years, President Obama wrote numerous letters to the supreme leader. And I think you had very bright folks like Phil in the previous administration who looked, for example, at groups like ISIS, Sunni radicals that hate Shiite Tehran even more than they hate the United States, and said, OK, there’s a common interest here, can we cooperate, can we collaborate?

There was always on the U.S. end, I think, that willingness to have some type of a strategic dialogue. And I didn’t see meaningful examples when the Iranians wanted to, you know, pursue that or reciprocate it in the region. But Phil can correct me otherwise.

RUBIN: So one thing on that, Karim, and it’s also related to your point about you can’t—you know, if the other country is determined to be your adversary, you can’t change that. Relevant in this regard is obviously North Korea, right? President Trump kind of did that. It was a terrible adversary even under President Trump until he decided it wasn’t. And he did actually what you say, sort of defies gravity.

But it is the exception that proves the rule, and it certainly doesn’t apply to Iran for a whole bunch of reasons. One is, you know, Kim Jong-un was willing to play along and go and have these summits and all that. And he didn’t get any backlash back home. I don’t see Khamenei being willing to do that. The domestic politics are also different. There would be enormous pushback here if Trump tried to do on Iran what he seems to be getting away with doing on North Korea. And the regional politics are different. The South Koreans are kind of open. At least they preferred the lovefest in Singapore to fire and fury, so they kind of welcomed it, let’s see what we can get. Our other friends in the Middle East, I don’t—you know, if there’s a big Iranian-Trump summit, I think the Saudis and the Israelis and just about everybody’s side, even the Egyptians, would not be thrilled about that. So it’s possible, but it ain’t going to happen vis-à-vis Iran.

RUBIN: Very quickly, just two patterns to extrapolate out of Mr. Levin’s question. First of all, one of the things we need to be cognizant of, without knowing which figure might choose a different policy towards Iran, although I largely agree with Karim here, is that we’re in a dangerous situation in Washington in which foreign policy and national security on a number of areas, files and portfolios have become partisan footballs. Iran is certainly one of these, Saudi Arabia is another, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, perhaps Venezuela. There’s only bipartisan consensus now really in many ways with regard to Russia. Bush saw Putin’s soul. The Clinton administration—I’m sorry, the Obama administration tried to have a reset. Now most people agree that Russia is bad. That’s a rarity that we have that sort of bipartisan consensus. Now, that’s one aspect.

So what I’m worried about is a lot of whiplash foreign policy which will only lead countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere and others to sort of cut their losses and start reaching out to China, to other countries as well.

The other pattern which I think we need to be cognizant of is that, as we are talking about the United States falling or defaulting into an alliance, maintaining that alliance with Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia wants it, at the same time the Russians increasingly seem to be falling and defaulting into a Shiite alliance, a sectarian alliance of their own, which is all the more interesting given the demographic realities of the Muslim population inside Russia where within just ten or twenty years, according to my colleague Nick Eberstadt, 30 percent of the conscript-age males going into the Russian army could be Muslim and Sunni Muslim at that. And how would that play out? So I do think we have some shifting patterns here, which color the answers to the question.

KANAAN: Do we have one final quick question in Washington?

GORDON: Yeah. And it’ll have to be quick. I’m going to call on two and that way maybe we won’t have time to answer it. (Laughter.)

But Amy and Odeh. Just briefly, both of you, and then we’ll see.

Q: Yeah. Odeh Aburdene.

Phil and Michael, if there’s a strike against Iran, what’s the impact on the oil industry on oil prices? Oil prices could go through the roof. Have we thought about that?

GORDON: OK. Well, since Amy Jaffee is next on the list, she might answer the question.

Q: Well, I’m the oil expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, but my question is somewhat related.

So I went to a panel in New York and there was a lot of discussion that the Iranian posture is one of, quote/unquote, “strategic patience,” that they’re not going to make any steps whatsoever because why give President Trump the excuse to strike them, right? So I would kind of just—we’ve talked a little bit around this question, but, you know, I just would like to see the panel’s reaction to that. Do you think that they have in their mind that there’s some line? And the evidence given was that they’re not as active in the Gulf hassling the navy and actually the bombings on Saudi Arabia from the Houthi community, again, winding down, could start up again, but right now winding down. Is that, to you, evidence of this, quote/unquote, “strategic patience” and the fear of a strike? Or you think that that idea is just incorrect?

KANAAN: One-minute response.

RUBIN: Very quickly, with regard to Odeh, if there’s military action, of course the price of oil is going to go up. That said, Saudi Arabia would try to pick up some of the slack. And there’s a lot of oil being produced in a lot of places, gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and so forth, that could moot that. But, you know, when Iran says they’re not going to let the USS John C. Stennis go through the Strait of Hormuz, more often than not it’s just a psychological operation to get the price of oil up without going through the hassle of a military strike.

With regard to the second issue, there’s a fascinating dynamic here when dictatorships will sort of negotiate and game the democracies because we have a regular political calendar. But the thing is, when you have a transition every four years, sometimes you get it—if you’re a dictatorship, you get it right by waiting and hoping that the next guy is going to give you a better deal. Sometimes you lose very, very badly in that calculation. And so what the Iranians might say is strategic patience could also just as easily be indecision.

KANAAN: Thank you.

GORDON: For me, super briefly, to Amy’s question, because I think it’s really important, make no mistake, the Iranians do not want to risk a military strike on Iran. And there are people in this administration who would be happy to deliver one. And Iran is going to be careful to take that into account.

That said, they also know that President Trump doesn’t want to go ahead with a military strike on Iran. And that’s why this is a delicate game. Because if they—it’s all very well and good to threaten the credible use of force, but if they trigger that, they have to know that President Trump does not want to run for reelection while, you know, war with Iran with rockets flying to Israel, and assassinations going on in Europe, and cyberattacks on the United States. So it’s deterrence. Iran doesn’t want to be hit, but Trump doesn’t want to go to war either.

KANAAN: On that note, thank you very much for joining us. Please join me in thanking our panel. (Applause.) And we have a reception in Pratt House until 8:15, so I hope you’ll join us. Thank you.


Top Stories on CFR


China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the most ambitious infrastructure investment effort in history. But is it also a plan to remake the global balance of power?

South Korea

President Trump is undermining his peace initiative with North Korea by abruptly raising the cost to South Korea for U.S. security.


Thailand will go through the motions of free elections in March, but the likely result will be entrenched authoritarian rule and further instability.