Meeting

Networks of Influence: Iran's Agenda in the Middle East

Thursday, November 16, 2023
West Asian News Agency/Reuters
Speakers

Vice President and Director of the Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution

Majid Khadduri Professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; CFR Member

Distinguished Scholar, United States Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson Center; Columnist, New Yorker; CFR Member

Presider
Arshad A. Mohammed

Diplomatic Correspondent, Thomson Reuters; CFR Member

Panelists assess Iran’s interests in the conflict in Gaza and its ties to Hamas, and discuss its broader influence in the Middle East, as well as the future of U.S. policy towards Iran.

MOHAMMED: Good morning. Thank you all for being here. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Networks of Influence: Iran’s Agenda in the Middle East.” In addition to the members joining us in person today, we’re happy to have more than two hundred people who have joined us online. I’m Arshad Mohammed, diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. And I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion. 

We have a wonderful panel. Suzanne Maloney, to my immediate right, who is vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Next to her Vali Nasr, the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a CFR member. And to my far right, Robin Wright, distinguished fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and also a columnist for the New Yorker, and also a CFR member. 

I’d like to start with looking at the relationship between—can you all hear me? If you can’t—yes? Some yes, some no. I’ll try to speak louder, sir. No one has really contradicted the Biden administration’s view that there’s no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the October 7 attack, on the day itself. But, of course, there’s plenty of evidence that—of Iran’s long-term support for Hamas. I’d like to turn first to Iran’s current strategy, five weeks into the conflict, and in particular to the surge of attacks that we’ve seen on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. Iran, of course, insists that it has no control over its proxies or its militias. But on the assumption that it does, and I’m going to turn to you, Suzanne, first on this, what is Iran trying to do here? If it does turn on and off these attacks, what is the intent? Is it trying to kill Americans? Is it trying not to kill Americans? Is it trying to deter the United States or Israel from an attack on it? What’s your take? What are they doing here? 

MALONEY: Well, thanks, Arshad. And I really want to thank the Council for bringing us together to have this conversation today. 

You know, I think the Iranian strategy is quite clear, that they use proxies both to test the will of the United States and the broader international community to apply pressure to Iran, but they also, I think, use those proxies to send a signal of intent, which has been very clear since 1979. The Islamic Republic would like to see the United States, and particularly its military presence, out of the Middle East entirely. And so they sense a moment of opportunity. And I think that they turned up the heat, which, of course, has been, you know, on and off over the course of the past two years, in particular since the Biden administration took office. As a way to see exactly how much steel is in the spine of this government. 

They saw the U.S. moving battle carrier groups into the Mediterranean and then into the Persian Gulf. And I think that they wanted to send a signal that, you know, your blood is on the line too. You know, they do have control over these militias. We know this, and the U.S. government knows this. And there’s been direct communications to the Iranians to encourage them to turn down the heat and to reinforce that there will be consequences if there are lives lost.  

I think what’s been interesting, and I’m sure others will comment on this as well, is that, you know, what we’ve seen from proxy groups, especially in Iraq and Syria but also Hezbollah, is that the escalation appears to be relatively calibrated. There appears to be an intent not to kill Americans or not to kill others it might draw in an American response. I think the danger and all of that, of course, is just that we’re all one catastrophic miscalculation away from something that would be profoundly escalatory, and something that I think no party in the region actually wants. 

MOHAMMED: Vali, do you concur with Suzanne’s analysis, both that Iran’s—the Islamic Republic’s intentions have not changed since ’79, they want the United States out? If that’s the case, why aren’t they doing more? And if it is calibrated, what is your view of the intent of the calibration? 

NASR: I mean, I agree, generally. I would just add a few points to it. One is that, you know, this entire Iran’s role in this is part of a longer shadow war that it’s been having with Israel. And I would say that actually they began escalating pressure for a strategy of combatting Israel, particularly after the killing of their nuclear scientist in Iran, and particularly the way that Israelis bragged about it, tried to humiliate Iran. There were then a series of industrial accidents, attacks on drones and centrifuge locations. And so I don’t want to call it necessarily payback, but it’s a strategy that Iran always has had in this combating in Israel, that you have to keep Israel busy on its borders because if it’s not busy on its own borders, it’s busy on our borders. 

And so it was a—I would say, it was a strategy of trying to revive the Palestinian issue, try to turn the tables on the way Israel felt confident in the region. But I think that the way that this attack happened, what Hamas got done, the way it embarrassed Israeli intelligence and the military, and then the way Israel has reacted to it, is nothing that I think Tehran had calculated. So they, like others, are also trying to basically grapple with the way that this war is unfolding.  

I think the attacks have too—ongoing attacks have had a number of reasons. One is that obviously they are already trying to think in terms of what would be Israel’s long-term reaction to this. When the Iranian foreign minister went to Lebanon, he put these words in Hassan Nasrallah’s mouth, that Israel would want to first finish off Hamas, then Hezbollah, then then it’s going to come basically after Iran. And that, in a way, you have to follow a strategy that tries to preempt that. And whether or not Iran will escalate, Hezbollah will escalate from here on, I think it has a lot more to do with whether they would see waiting for Israel to fight this war with them on its own schedule is a better idea, or trying to actually overwhelm Israel in a way that would prevent that. So I think it’s a much longer calculation. 

Secondly, you know, before October 7, the national security adviser said the Middle East had never been this calm. It’s partly based on an assumption that there was some kind of status de-escalation between Iran and the United States that might hold until at least after the elections, in the absence of anything serious. So the U.S. is obviously—it has brought its—you know, a lot of firepower to the Mediterranean. It put a freeze on the $6 billion that was part of the prisoner exchange.  

So I think the Iranians are also trying to sort of send their own deterrence and warning shots at the U.S. The intent, I don’t think, right now is to kill the Americans, but to say that if you go beyond the point, if you actually try to interdict our sale of oil, if you basically go back on whatever the understanding was in Oman, that then there’s going to be consequences. And it’s kind of like a game of chicken. You know, yes, you can—you can get into a war, but is that what you really want? So it’s a warning, I think, directly at the United States. 

And thirdly, I would say that these attacks are also designed to sort of take advantage of this moment for both Hezbollah and Iran. That the Arab world was caught on the verge of recognizing Israel, despite the Palestinian issue. That ultimately there is a lot of sympathy for the Palestinians on the street. And so they are—they are trying to do enough to show that they are in the fight. But I don’t think, as Suzanne said, that their intent right now is to go to war. But the danger of it, as Suzanne said, is that, you know, there’s always going to be one attack that goes awry, and then, you know, it can get out of control. 

MOHAMMED: Robin, I’d like to ask you two things, if I may. One, if you would—if you would follow up on Vali’s point about this being a part of—the latest act and a much longer-term shadow war. Question one: What do you think about the nature of the U.S. response to the surge in attacks since October the seventh? I believe there have been three series of U.S. retaliatory strikes. The latest one, Sunday night, believed to have killed a number of people on the ground in Syria. What effect is that having? Is it sufficient? Should it be more, should it be less? 

Second question, and I warned— 

WRIGHT: I’m old enough that I need one at a time. 

MOHAMMED: OK. We’ll do one at a time. Please. (Laughs.) 

WRIGHT: Is anybody else having trouble hearing? Yeah, if you could help us back there, it’d be really great. 

A couple of big thoughts. One is that the war between a country the size of New Jersey against a territory the size of Philadelphia, is that there’s the short war. The long war is ultimately confronting the United States and Iran, and the big decisions they have to make about how far they’re willing to go to contain, harass, force the United States out, or, you know, pressure Iran on a wide array of issues, including its nuclear program, its foreign policy, and so forth.  

The United States response has been, I think, short term effective in signaling we’ll do what it takes to make sure that this war, if it is widened, will—you know, we have the means to contain it, or strike back. The problem is, and I lived in Beirut in 1982 when the Marines came, that they came as peacemakers, and they ended up being forced to leave. That they become—they offer a whole new set of targets. I think the Iranians have been very clever, as they always are. They surprise us. And rather than take on the United States or get directly involved in Gaza—or, higher profile in the Gaza war, it’s gone after Americans who are based in Syria and Iraq on a whole different issue. And that’s containing ISIS. 

And I think their goal is, as it was in Beirut, to get the Americans to leave. That you put pressure on them, and U.S. doesn’t want to deploy more firepower or put it—make itself more vulnerable. And that the Iranians are hoping that the—that the Americans will pull back some, or perhaps most, of its forces who were there simply as advisors and trainers and so forth. So I think, you know, short term, the United States has contributed, I think, to the containment. The Iranians know there would be a big price. But I think long term, the war in Gaza is likely to put the various parties in the Middle East, the United States and Israel on one side the Iranians and their proxies on another, on a faster track for some kind of confrontation down the road. 

MOHAMMED: I’m going to ask each of you a lightning-round question. Starting with you, Suzanne. What do you think—and I would ask you to answer in probabilistic terms, give me a percentage estimate—what are the odds that this does escalate into a wider war? And what is your reasoning? 

MALONEY: You anticipated this question to us, and I’m still going to try to duck it because I think there’s really—you know, to put a number on it is, you know, sort of a Las Vegas odds kind of a question. I think that what we’ve seen now over five weeks is that the—the main parties that could escalate and could drive this into a wider war have chosen not to. And they’ve chosen to do so very deliberately. And my assumption is that that holds, outside of what we can’t predict. Which is something going wrong or one of the proxies going a little bit rogue. And I think there we have to worry especially about the Houthis in Yemen, because obviously the Iranians provided a lot of support, training, equipment, materiel, but it’s not entirely clear that they’re as docile and as, you know, sort of tightly controlled as some of the other Iranian proxies might be. So I think that is a bit of a wildcard. And we’ve seen that over the course of the past couple of weeks. 

You know, my estimation is that we’d likely see a continuation of the current—the conflict in its current domain. But we will see an intensification of other theatres that has implications for U.S. security across the region. And, I think, for, you know, the hope that the Biden administration had, as Vali said, to, you know, extricate itself as quickly and as seamlessly as possible from any direct day-to-day engagement in the problem of the region. So I think we’re going to see, you know, the sort of gray-zone warfare continue in a significant way. We’re going to, I think, undoubtedly face more extremism.  

And we’re going to have to think about extremism again—something that, you know, this administration has sought to put in the history books—in a way that, you know, detracts from the other big priorities that the administration has here. And that, in and of itself—it’s not the wider war. It’s not the worst-case scenario. That’s still a possibility. But that, in and of itself, having to deal with an unstable Middle East in which the United States’ role remains crucial, is something that I think nobody really had banked on. 

MOHAMMED: Vali, are you willing to give us a number? 

NASR: Well, I think Suzanne is right. There are multiple numbers here, because of the different scenarios. So I would say that, you know, Iran’s initial calculation, and perhaps Hezbollah’s, was that the air war is going to be catastrophic for Gaza, but it’s not going to—Israel cannot achieve its objectives through air war. Ultimately, it has to go in it if it wants to uproot Hamas. And their assumption was that that actually—they will grind into eventually a prolonged war. And they’re not going to achieve what they—what they want. So partly, I think that’s the question. Israel is now determined to prove them wrong. In other words, we’re going to go all the way and we’re going to uproot Hamas. I think that is the real trigger. 

And I would say in Iran’s thinking, and in Hezbollah’s thinking, there’s a distinction between Hamas as an ideology and a movement, Hamas as a government, and the al-Qassam Brigade, which actually is the real connection with Iran and Hezbollah. Yes, at the higher level it is Hamas as an organization, but the real operational relationship between the Quds Force and the—and Gaza is through the al-Qassam Brigade. So, I don’t know which one of these is more critical to Iran, like protection of al-Qassam Brigade or extricating it in a way and preserving it or the preservation of a government or a movement. I think they’re less perhaps attached to that. But I’ve heard a lot in the region, for instance, that trigger point can come as sort of a complete Israeli domination of Gaza, that there might be an attempt to prevent a total Israeli success if the Palestinians themselves cannot do it. 

Secondly, and this is, I think, a view across the region, that the humanitarian situation is now increasingly becoming the decision maker. In other words, it’s an independent factor that can create scenarios in which none of the actors, whether they’re Arab governments or Iranians, et cetera, can predict, and that they didn’t predict at the very beginning that it would have the kind of ramifications that it has. There is—I’ve heard said that there’s a difference between ten thousand dead and thirty thousand dead. There’s—so in other words, that’s something to keep in mind, for those who argue to stop the war now. It’s not just a humanitarian issue. It’s s also preventing escalation, because it can—it can push us in directions that nobody can predict. 

Thirdly, you know, there is—the war can escalate either on the axis right around Israel, or it can actually escalate somewhere else completely. Let’s say if Iran very openly—not to the extent that the IAEA has said—very openly restarts going to 90 percent, et cetera, or that it takes aggressive actions against tankers or personnel in Iraq. Then the war is not escalating where we’re thinking, along the Lebanese, necessarily, Israeli border. But it’s actually escalating somewhere else completely in the Middle East. So right now it’s in the Levant. It’s going to be Levant plus the Gulf. And I think that goes to your first question. That’s part of what the Iranians are sort of signaling as a way of deterring U.S. action. 

And then the third issue is that—is, as Robin said, it’s the longer term escalation. In other words, even if it is a ceasefire in Gaza, even if there’s some kind of a move forward, so what’s the next phase in this, right? And I think, you know, perhaps, you know, many people think that Syria is going to become a battle front between U.S., Iran, Israel. That the scenario in Syria can change very, very drastically, it can become militarized in ways we don’t see. Or that, you know, what’s going to be the nature of that shadow war we talked about between Israel and Iran, to what extent it’s going to—it’s going to come out. And that’s a whole different challenge of escalation for the region and the United States than the one—the short-run escalation. And then there is, you know, what will happen in the region in the longer term. 

And I will just say that many Arab countries, as, you know, economic agendas, their visions for the region, the diplomacy they follow—like, for instance, Saudi-Iranian, has been built around the idea of, you know, creating harmony across the region, recognizing Israel, and building, you know, trade corridors. So, as sort of a scenario of long-term escalation basically it precludes that kind of a—that kind of a vision for the region.  

MOHAMMED: Robin, having swung and missed twice, I’m not going to ask you for a percentage. But I would—I would like to ask you—unless—have you got one? 

WRIGHT: No, I do. I do think that short term the potential is high, but the probability is low, very low. Long term, I think the probability is very high. And I think that it’s not just what happens with Gaza and Israel and so forth, but we forget that there’s an idea there. And this is the fiftieth anniversary of the—of kind of Islamism. The ’73 war was fought, the operation—Egypt dubbed its operation Badr, after the Prophet Mohammed’s first victory in the seventh century. And I worry a lot about how we’re thinking kind of in Western terms and the kind of traditional battle lines.  

Every war Israel has fought since 1973 has been an unconventional war. And that’s where I think, A, we need to remember the dangers of unconventional war playing out in other ways. That’s the game the Iranians are playing. We’re playing a conventional—trying to game this by conventional war. And I think this idea that Israel can defeat—“defeat,” I put in quotation marks—Hamas, as it’s structured now, I think it can’t kill the idea. And if you listen to the testimony yesterday of the head of the FBI, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Secretary of Homeland Security, all three of them underscored when they were appearing for the Homeland Security Committee in the House, that the danger—the threat level has escalated this year already. And this has put us in—I think it was raised at a whole different category. 

And they’re very worried about, whether it’s lone wolves in the United States, or the passions unleashed are going to inflame others. We thought in the aftermath of defeating ISIS, or at least pushing back the caliphate even though ISIS is still operational on three continents, that we’d kind of—not won, but we diminished the dangers. And I think we’re into—I think there is a real danger that we see a new phase, a new set of operations. Again, we need to think out of the Western box and think about what the potential is in other ways and other area, and the emergence of other groups, you know? Whether it’s Hamas 2.0, or something else. And, you know, there won’t be—you know, ISIS surprised us. Well, we may well be surprised again. 

MOHAMMED: Suzanne, I’d like to pick up on the question of what happens to the regional dynamics. As Vali said, and it’s widely, you know, understood, efforts at Israeli-Saudi normalization are on ice for now, probably for the foreseeable future. The question I have is how you think this may affect the Gulf Arab thinking vis-à-vis Iran. If we’re entering a more confrontational phase, are the Gulf Arabs going to be more willing to work with the United States in containing, confronting, opposing Iran? 

MALONEY: Well, I actually think that the level of collaboration from the Arab side of the Gulf with the United States, and even either explicitly or implicitly and indirectly with Israel, has been very strong for quite some time, and has gotten stronger under this administration. Partially as a result to the Abraham Accords, partially as a result of the, you know, sort of recognition that we’re in a different era. We’re not going to be able to contain Iran through a nuclear deal or any other kind of diplomacy. And so there’s just been I think—you know, everything that I’ve heard is that the military-to-military relationship has been very good and very effective.  

But the key capitals in the Gulf have also calculated that they need to have some kind of a relationship with Iran. And so there is a, you know, sort of dual approach. We’ve talked about carrot and stick here in the United States over the years when it comes to Iran. (Laughs.) And I think what we’ve seen, particularly from Saudi Arabia over the course of the past year, especially is a little bit of that, which is to say that they’re looking to contain and co-opt. And the cooptation has come through the reestablishment of official diplomatic relationships between Riyadh and Tehran, welcoming President Raisi to the OIC meeting, the phone call that took place even in the early days between MBS and Raisi after the October 7 attacks.  

They’re letting Iran play a role in regional diplomacy, giving it a stature that Iran craves and has always sought. And I think that that’s very deliberate, because they recognize that they’re not going to be able to get rid of this regime in the near term. That the idea of—you know, we should—much of the region would prefer to see the head of the snake cut off, as a previous leader once was quoted as saying. But, you know, the recognition is that this regime persists, to the detriment of the region, to the detriment of the Iranian people. And they’re going to find a way to try to manage that problem as best they can.  

But I don’t think one side—you know, the containment doesn’t preclude the cooptation. I think ultimately, the containment is fundamentally the most important aspect. And if, you know, what Vali and Robin has just said proves correct, that we’re likely to see an intensification or an escalation of conflict, if not this specific conflict in Gaza, around the region over time, then I think the importance of the containment becomes that much more significant for these—for these days. Because they—you know, they were on the precipice of making the transformation that the region actually needs to a post-oil economy, to a post-conflict economy and society. And now all of that has been, you know, completely, you know, sort of put on ice as a result of this. 

I did just want to say one thing about, you know, sort of where Iran stands and what might precipitate escalation on its part. And I may have misinterpreted Vali, so please excuse me if I did I. I don’t think there’s any world in which the Iranians risk a single Iranian life on behalf of humanitarian concerns in Gaza or the Palestinians writ large. They simply never have. They are prepared to deploy their proxies where it’s useful to them, but they’re also deeply conscious of the risk to the homeland. And so, you know, I’m afraid to say I think the Iranians can live with thirty thousand Palestinians dead. I hope the region can’t, but—and I hope the Israelis can’t. But I don’t think that we’re going to see the Iranians rise to the occasion to try to defend the Palestinian nation. They’ve never done anything of the kind. 

MOHAMMED: Vali, I’d like to pick up on something you said before we turn to questions from the audience and online. You mentioned the elephant in the room, in a way, the Iranian nuclear program. Trying to contain that has been a feature of American policy for twenty years. Most of you may have seen the latest IAEA report, which came out last night, which shows increases in the stockpiles of Iranian uranium enriched to 60 percent and 20 percent. Where are we on that? Is there any hope of a diplomatic—of a revived diplomatic effort to constrain Iran’s nuclear program? Does the Biden administration have any political room to explore that, post October 7? And if not, are we simply in a—in a phase where Iran is free to enrich as much as it wishes, without fear, at least of diplomatic, consequences? And, if we are to believe you all that nobody wants an escalation in the region, also without fear of undue military consequence? 

NASR: Sure. I mean, just to clarify, no, I didn’t mean that Iranians are going to intervene unilaterally for thirty thousand. The issue is that—in fact, they’re the only, probably, country that doesn’t have domestic pressure to get involved. But it’s that this scenario that the humanitarian crisis can create in the region can actually lead to situations where not only then the Saudis, Egyptians, et cetera don’t know, and therefore it’s an unknown. So it’s a point of escalation, in that sense. Not just that Iran would escalate, but the situation itself can lend itself to that.  

You know, this is connect—this issue is connected also to, as you said, where the region sees itself. Because in some ways, U.S.-Iran relations, which for a long time had focused on the nuclear issue, it now involves the regional issue. So even the question of whether there is a pathway to settling this war without, you know, dealing with the Iran issue one way or the other, given that they play such an outsized role in this conflict, and in its precipitation, and the way the Israelis see the Iranians. So this is now no longer disconnected from the nuclear deal. I mean, the idea that the U.S. administration can now arrive at an open, you know, above the above the—above the water sort of an agreement with Iran that can sort of sidestep everything that’s happened since October 7 is—in many ways is out the window. And I think similarly for them. I mean, this is—this is a reality. 

And also, they’re operating in a region that, in many ways, is going to be very different. It’s actually very critical for us not to look at the region through the previous lens. This October 7 and everything that’s happened since then is a complete strategic reset for the region. In other words, you know, the issue for—and nobody really knows. Because, in fact, if you look back, we don’t know how much the Iranians knew. Let’s say they knew a lot more than anybody else knew about what was coming. But everybody got this wrong. I mean, in a way, whether you’re your observer of the region, or whether you were in Riyadh, or you were in Cairo, you were in Abu Dhabi, or even if you were in Jerusalem, everybody got it wrong. So everybody’s actually a bit humble in the sense that they really don’t know what’s coming next. 

And, yes, the Iranian threat is there. But there’s also—the other very big issue is that the U.S. actually has no credibility. Not only because of its defense. Because it didn’t see it coming. And also, that it’s not in control of the flow of events right now, right? It doesn’t have any plan that even the Israeli share. It hasn’t been able to show the Arabs that if they make concessions that the United States can actually contain Israel, or can contain the worst impulses of Israel. And I have to say, yes, they do blame Iran, but they also don’t see sort of this—all of these issues of extremism, et cetera, necessarily being driven by Iran alone. It’s also what’s happening in Gaza that’s going to—that’s going to endanger them. 

And then when you get to the shadow war afterwards, you know, Iran is one part of the problem. The other part is that who’s going to make sure that Israel doesn’t escalate, right? We don’t know when and how this war will unfold, and whether, you know, this regime can be knocked off. But let’s say the regime may not be knocked off. I mean, can you really have a World Cup in Saudi Arabia in 2034, with missiles flying all over the place? Who’s going to invest in—bring direct foreign investment to the region if you—if you’re afraid of war? So in a way, if you’re sitting in Arab countries, you want the containment of Iran. You want to make sure they don’t target you. But you also want the United States to have a plan for stability in the region. 

How are you going to contain the other side? How are you going to provide—how you are going to make sure that containment of Iran does not mean war in the Gulf, right? That’s, I think, a very key issue. So I think a lot of it will depend on our credibility. We have to—we have to get ahead of this conflict. We have to dictate the end of it at some point. We have to dictate what comes after, if we want to be relevant. And I’m not saying there’s a set—there’s a very obvious path, but at least everybody knows that there is no—right now, there is no there, there, in a sense. 

And that goes to the nuclear issue. So broadly speaking, there was a sort of a calm for calm agreements to punt the nuclear issue down to 2025. Now, you know, whatever they agreed, at least the above the board part of it very quickly was undone by Gaza. So, yes, the Iranians freed the prisoners, but whatever was—they got for it, it’s basically back under lock and key in Qatar. So the 6 million is basically de facto, even the United States has not openly said that it’s re-sanctioned. But, de facto, it’s basically—it is basically not accessible to them. So the question is, OK, what happens when there’s a new administration, right? So is there—is there a pathway back to some kind of a nuclear agreement or not? Or what is it the United States is prepared to do in order to basically prevent Iran from going to 90 percent, et cetera? 

And so the pathways to how you’re going to prevent them are very limited/ Sanctions are not going to prevent them from going. We pretty much have put every kind of sanction and being able to go to the next level is not necessarily going to do it. And I’m not so sure it’s going to be necessarily achievable. And that brings military options, which we’ve always said all options are on the table. But that also can get the United States into where it’s—and the rest of the region—into where it necessarily doesn’t want to contemplate going. So this is going to be a very, very critical issue. And there is also a deadline looming.  

So the administration and Europeans sidestepped, maybe as part of this calm for calm strategy, the—sort of the, you know, mine that was sitting in the road, which was this—the issue of Iran’s—expiration of U.N. resolution over Iran sale of weapons and missiles in October. And it’s noteworthy that that happened after Gaza. So the U.S. basically let that lapse without doing anything on it. But then, the very big one is coming up in October 2025, which is that if JCPOA is still de facto in place, that the whole authority to reimpose sanctions, snapback, expires.  

So either the United States could let it happen, and—you know, you could also see a scenario that administration to administration will handle this like North Korea. I mean every president punts to the next one saying this is going to be your biggest challenge. And then we punt it to the next one. And they get more and more dangerous along the way. And then, you know, Iran will become not only a de facto, perhaps a de jure nuclear state. 

MOHAMMED: Vali, if you will forgive me, we now need to punt to our members. At this time, I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. We’re going to begin here in the audience. Madam. 

Q: Helima Croft, RBC Capital Markets. 

I want to ask about oil, because, Vali, you mentioned the issue of tankers very fleetingly. And Amos Hochstein was out yesterday on Bloomberg basically saying that the White House will indeed tighten energy sanctions on Iran. And the question is, could we potentially see a repeat of what we saw in 2019, where there were attacks on tankers off the coast of Fujairah, infrastructure attacks? Is that off the table or is that potentially in the Iranian arsenal as well? 

MOHAMMED: One thing, just about what Mr. Hochstein said, I think you said that the United States will start enforcing their sanctions, which is kind of a remarkable admission for an administration official. Do you think they’re actually going to do that? And do you think they’re going to do it against China, in particular? 

NASR: Well, I mean, that calm—at least as far as I know—the calm for calm involved a couple of things that—one was that the U.S. and Europeans would not enforce the October issue at the United Nations. The other was that the U.S. would selectively not enforce sanctions. So it’s not lifting sanctions. It’s just not going to enforce it. And doesn’t require going to Congress. It doesn’t require doing anything. But it’s important to know that why did—why did the United States actually go to Oman in the first place? And I would say there were three or four things the Iranians did which was—caught the attention of the administration. 

So one was that it was somehow discovered that they had—there was traces of 84 percent enriched uranium, weapons-grade uranium in Iran. They said, oops, we don’t know how this happened. But it was a very clear signal. Secondly, there was an attack in Syria that did kill an American contractor and injured twelve others. And the third was a was an appropriation of a tanker by IRGC in the Gulf. So if those sanctions are reimposed, you could say the Iranians can basically do those exact three things, right?  

So they can attack a tanker. And although here I don’t think they will do a Fujairah or an Abqaiq because they have these relations with Saudis and UAE. But they could selectively harass tankers that are unmarked or not associated with them. They could go back to 90 percent enrichment. They could shut down IAEA’s access to Iran much more aggressively. And, you know, they are attacking, but the calibration may come off, and you may end up with an American killed in Syria or in—or in Iraq. And so we’re back to where we were. Now, all of these, I think, will have at least a short-run impact on the oil markets. I mean, you know, immediately if things get hot in the Gulf, prices go up. 

MOHAMMED: Suzanne. 

MALONEY: I just—I wanted to make two quick points. One is that I think, you know, this sort of implicit understanding that may or may not have been arrived at in Oman that helped—was part of the—what we know to be the public diplomacy around the release of five Americans who’d been unjustly held in Iran for many years, in some cases, in exchange for some access to funds that were Iranian funds tied up in a South Korean bank. I think what we’re seeing now just reinforces how poorly done that diplomacy was, and how ill-decided that diplomacy was. 

Because when you have an agreement where there’s no text, where there’s no even public acknowledgement that agreement—an agreement has been taken on either side, there’s zero accountability whatsoever. And so we don’t exactly know what the United States has committed. I find it inconceivable that any official would say we are not going to enforce our sanctions. That’s simply—you know, it would come back to haunt whomever might have spoken those words. So I think that there’s probably a less—a more flexible interpretation of what was—what was understood on both sides.  

But it is why it’s so dangerous, because it cannot hold. It cannot survive events as they happen on the ground. And so I think this is one of the challenges that we have. The other point is that, you know, even if this agreement does collapse, or whatever understandings are no longer valid, the reality is that Iran—there was no de-escalation. Iran paused for a time, but we’ve seen harassment of tankers since the Biden administration came into office. We’ve seen the attacks on U.S. forces and U.S. interests across the region a number of times. And so, yes, this may have bought us a little bit of a time, but the problem of sanctions enforcement is one that I think is unfortunately a structural problem. 

That the sanctions were effective at a time when there was some understanding among the great powers about the need to deter Iran in a significant way and to use economic coercion to do that. We no longer have that agreement. I don’t know if it’s possible to re-achieve it with the Chinese. I know it’s impossible to get the Russians back on board. (Laughs.) We have to begin to figure out another way of managing the Iran problem that doesn’t simply revert back to tools that were applicable in 2010, and in 2013, and maybe even in 2015, but are no longer viable today. 

MOHAMMED: Sir. 

Q: Thank you very much. It’s very interesting. Chris Isham with CT Group. 

I have a question about Iran’s ultimate objective. You mentioned, Robin, I think, getting the United States out of the Middle East, the way they did in 1982-83. What else are they, do you think, aimed at? Are they aimed at continuing to dominate Lebanon, Syria, Iraq? Do you think they’ve got their eyes on Jordan? They obviously want to torpedo any kind of normalization between Israel and the Arab countries. Is there a sense that they are interested in really in extending an Islamic state, elimination of State of Israel? What is sort of the big picture? 

MOHAMMED: Robin? 

NASR: I would say all, of the— 

MOHAMMED: Well, let’s let Robin go, Vali, please. Thank you. 

WRIGHT: So, this is a bottom-line question, and an important one. Yes, obviously, Iran wants the United States out. But I think one of the interesting things that’s happened recently is that, for the first four decades, Iranians both of—all those in power—the reformers, hardliners, centrists, whatever—ultimately thought there would be a new relationship with the United States that put them on a more even basis. What’s happened over the last three-plus years is that this particular regime has decided that the United States, after Trump walked away from the nuclear deal, really needed a different kind of alliance. And that’s why it’s increasingly solidified its relationship with Russia now as its primary arm supporter, and China as its primary economic partner. 

Now, it’s still a fragile relationship. They’re unlikely allies for a lot of different reasons. But it’s kind of by default. And they have a common enemy. And so when Iran is looking for legitimacy, credibility for the Islamic Republic, and it comes at a very fragile time. It’s seen an escalation of protests since 2017 over economic issues, the price of eggs and poultry, you know, the hiking of the price of oil, and then the women’s protests that started last year and kind of ran into this year. And so Iran faces elections in March next year for parliament, and it is aware that during—for the presidential election in 2021 of the majority of Iranians for the first time didn’t vote. And even if they inflated the numbers, you know, it still wasn’t half the population. So there are reasons that it feels a little fragile. 

I want to make one point, as a follow up on Suzanne’s question. Oh, by the way, I do think that Iran—I do think Iran will become the tenth nuclear power. I think it’s a long game that they don’t play short term. I think they’ve gotten to the point that they have so much, whether it’s the delivery systems, you know, the number of advanced centrifuges, the enriched uranium, that at some point down the road, with the hardliners increasingly in control, the Rev Guards increasingly in political power, economic power, and running a lot of the show, that they will get to the point on the current algorithm—the current trajectory, that they will get there. There are a lot of wildcards, whether it’s the death of the supreme leader and what that does to the—you know, his fatwa, or whatever. But I do think that’s—you know, these are things that, when it looks at what’s going to give it the power and what’s going to give it the legitimacy? And it’s gotten to the point that it doesn’t believe, with the collapse of the nuclear deal and all that that’s added to the kind of complex array of issues, that it’s going to go there. And again, it’s a long game. 

There’s one other point I was going to make and I forgotten what it is, sorry. 

MOHAMMED: Why don’t we come back to it? We’ll take another question and, madam. 

Q: Carolyn Campbell with Emerging Capital Partners. 

The title of the talk today is “Networks of Influence.” And I would be grateful to hear from the panel how you view the influence of propaganda; how you see it’s being used by the main actors, in particular Iran; and how you see it playing out. 

MOHAMMED: Which one of you might like to take that? I see you all looking at me. Suzanne, would you? 

MALONEY: I mean, I thought that the Iranian foreign minister’s visit to Beirut in the days after the October 7 attacks, surrounding himself with members of Hamas and Hezbollah, was the most brazen form of propaganda that I’ve ever seen from Iran. And I’m sure incredibly effective at demonstrating that they’re prepared to go there. Even as there’s—you know, the U.S. is moving assets off the coast of Lebanon, the Iranian foreign minister is going to associate himself explicitly, publicly with the very group that carried out this horrific attack. I think the fact that, you know, that did not in any way complicate their engagement diplomatically at the OIC or with the major powers in the region sends a signal that, you know, they’re going to continue to invest in these proxy militias, in these networks of influence. And it’s not, in fact, going to constrain their ability to be part of the normal diplomatic regional order. And, you know, I think that’s a very powerful and unfortunate signal. 

MOHAMMED: Robin. 

WRIGHT: I just want to add one thing. Iran has been brilliant in building its alliances, axis of resistance. The United States in forming NATO went to countries that were politically compatible or shared an agenda in the aftermath of World War Two. Iran went out and formed these militias. It created Hezbollah. You know, it endowed the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. It backed the Houthi—not—you know, that was an evolution. But I do think that there are differences in its relationship with all of these groups. And I think we kind of lump them all together. And, you know, when it—when the foreign minister appears with all of them and we kind of think, you know, they speak with one voice there. 

The relationship Iran has with Hezbollah is very different than what it has with Hamas. I interviewed the Hamas representative in Tehran once. And he lived in his tiny two-room apartment. I actually wrote about it, and even put his address in. And when I saw it the second time he said, you trying to get the Israelis to kill me, putting my address? And you know. And it was in Beirut. And he was complaining about how hard he had to lobby to get, you know, whether it was funds, or training, or arms from the Iranians. Whereas he complained that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had a much better in. Just fascinating. 

But, you know, the Palestinians are predominantly Sunni, at least among the Muslims. And it’s a relationship that builds up that axis of resistance. But the relationship with Hezbollah is one that dates back five centuries, when Iran had been a Sunni country for millennia. And as the Ottoman Empire expired—sorry. Expanded not expired. As it began to encroach on wider territory, the dynasty at the time wanted to create a different identity so that Persia would not be absorbed by the Ottomans. And it was a political decision. He decided—they decided to convert the whole country to Shi’ism. And where did they turn? They turned to the Shi’ite clerics in Lebanon. And that is the relationship. 

It was—it was a political decision. And the relationship was one that was existential. And it has been for five centuries, the exchange of clerics, the training that they shared, the kind of links. And so when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, they faced—there was the response sending the Revolutionary Guards in. It was an existential support at a time that their allies, who were, you know, concentrated in the south of Lebanon, felt exposed. So I think there is a real—you know, there is a genuine, deep, profound, long-standing relationship with Hezbollah.  

With Hamas, I don’t think that—I’m not surprised. I said—I was talking to some people in CENTCOM in the early days of the war. And my read at the time, so was many of theirs, that Iran just wasn’t as committed to Hamas. And whether they were told—Reuters had a great story last night saying Khamenei met Khaled Mashal and basically told him: You didn’t tell us about the war, and you’re on your own now. Whether that’s true or not, it was a riveting read. And I think I’m not surprised— 

MOHAMMED: I’d like to think it was true, but, yes. (Laughter.) 

NASR: Both true and riveting. 

MOHAMMED: That’s what we aim for. (Laughter.) 

NASR: Just one more? 

MOHAMMED: Yeah, Vali. 

NASR: I mean, just in addition, you know, the sort of public diplomacy side of this war is actually happening on TikTok, Instagram, and Telegram. And basically, in many ways, not just Iran, also Hezbollah, basically have have enormous amount of control over that. This is a long-term investment. They have, particularly in key population groups, have defined the way in which the war is viewed. They have basically managed to sort of create that narrative, if you will. I mean, very early on if you looked at the way some of the clips that the Hamas fighters who went into Israel, you know, all carried GoPro cameras, were putting it up, and it was being edited. And it was uncannily similar to other material that the—that the Revolutionary Guard has put out over time.  

And, you know, the training of Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigade is not just in in weaponry and money. They’ve basically have invested hugely in propaganda, in ways in which to manage this. There is a—there’s a—they’ve been very clever about it. But, in a way, their audience in this is not the audience that we’re tapping into. They’re not trying to impress governments. They’re not trying to impress Western audiences in a sense of looking at Iran as being on the right side, et cetera. They basically are trying to take—basically dominate, if you would, some of the ground that they lost during the Syria war, when they were found on the wrong side, in the Arab world, of supporting Assad. And that’s also true of Hezbollah on its own, but also to sort of dominate, basically, the Arab space in this—in this time period going forward. So the public diplomacy of this is perhaps more important to the regional objectives necessarily than, you know, just sort of where they’re militarily, in that sense. 

MOHAMMED: I’d like to see if we have a question from the online audience. No? OK, we’ll stay here. We’ll go to you, madam. And since we’re getting short on time, may I see if we can bunch some questions? So, madam, if you would speak, and then perhaps you, sir, in the back? 

Q: I’m Paula Stern. 

And I want to follow up on this question about the social media, if we want to call it that, because within this period of the attack from Hamas of Israel, members of Congress are saying we are getting so much social media in support of Hamas and Hama’s position. And so I’d like you to—but what the articles I’ve read said that much of this is coming possibly from Pakistan and from other pockets other than Iran. And I’m just wondering, and because we’re talking about Iran, if you could talk a little bit more about how, if you will, officially sanctioned, and where do you think this is going to go here in the United States when it comes to how our domestic politics does shape our foreign policy? 

MOHAMMED: Thank you. Sir. 

Q: Gregory Gause, Texas A&M University. 

Vali said that October 7 was a complete strategic reset for the region. Robin and Suzanne, do you agree? And if so, who has changed their strategic view? Because it doesn’t seem like Iran has. 

MOHAMMED: Which of you might like to address the—sort of the effect of the October 7 attacks on kind of American domestic politics and the surge in, yeah. Vali, would you? 

NASR: I mean, I’m not an expert on American politics. But also I think it plays here a bit differently necessarily than in the region. But, you know, the thing with social media is that it travels. And, you know, it doesn’t need to be always officially sanctioned, or there’s somebody living—sitting in a room doing it. It basically finds a life of its own. And so, you know, it’s become—you know, now it’s not just Iran. You know, you have citizen volunteer journalists in Gaza who are broadcasting. And they have a vast following. In other words, people sort of tell me Lebanon they wake up first thing checking their latest posts. They’re not necessarily looking at media, per se. So there is kind of like a peer to peer sort of dissemination of information, whether it’s correct information, fake news, in some ways, as we know in the U.S., it doesn’t really matter at some point. It basically creates echo chambers of its own. And, you know, in a sense so for the first time this is a—this is a conflict in which media is not monopolizing the flow of information. 

So, you know, impact on the elections, it’s—you know, you could look at it multiple ways. If you go by the mantra of last time that a hundred thousand people in six states are going to decide our election, well, one of them—one of them is Michigan, for instance, which has got a huge Arab American Muslim population. And if you went back to Hillary’s—Hillary lost Michigan by 11,000 votes. So margins may matter. I don’t want to say that that’s the case, but I’m saying, you know, the fraught situation we’re finding ourselves in the U.S., you know, could have, for the first time, impact—a kind of impact on the U.S. that the Middle East has never had in an election, save maybe for the 1979 hostage crisis. 

MOHAMMED: OK. We just have a few minutes left. So if perhaps Robin and Suzanne might wish to address Professor Gause’s question. 

WRIGHT: I do think there’s a reset. I think everybody’s been thrown off by this war. And the trajectory—you know, we thought we were on a—on a path of some kind of diplomacy that would bring the Arabs and Israel—more of the Arabs and Israel together and deepen the relationship. So because they had a common enemy, or rival, or adversary in Iran. That’s still there. But we are likely to feel the fallout of the Gaza war, I think, for a long time to come, and derail it. And I think that a lot of the people—a lot of the leaders who have been interested or willing to engage with Israel are going to be under public pressure right now not to do more or to back away. 

So I think that the—especially because of the range of media that’s available. Remember that I covered the—in ’82, it was the first time you had the American press on both sides. And now you find the American press on one side. There are not American reporters in Gaza. And the reporters who are there for Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera. And they’re beaming a whole different set of pictures. And the fact is, we’re seeing—we’re having very different perceptions of what the cost of the war, the devastation of the war, you know. And so I think that there are a lot of—you know, whether it’s the kind of public perception, or that before there was—when there was a will, there was a way. And it’s a little bit hard to kind of generate that will to go on, to continue where we were for a while, anyway, on October 6. 

MALONEY: Quick answer. I think there’s at least one strategic reset and two possible strategic resets in the region. And the two, we’ll have to wait and see. But I think that the one that we can say for sure is the United States. We are back. We have to care about the Middle East. We have to invest principals’ time. We have to ensure that we have assets in place in a way that, I think, you know, we were hoping that we didn’t have to do. That we could find a way, essentially, to buy a little bit of peace and quiet from the Iranians to, you know, put forward this really innovative opportunity to bring normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And that we could extricate ourselves and focus on the real problems. The Middle East is a real problem and has been for at least fifty years for the United States. It’s going to stay a real problem. And so I think that’s the major change as a result of October 7 for this country. 

I think the two possibilities are, you know, what does it really do to Arab governments? Do we see over time a willingness to walk away from the Abraham Accords, to, you know, take a more adversarial posture toward Israel that has been, you know, sort of fading over time? I am not yet convinced of that, but I think we have to worry when we hear some of the rhetoric, public rhetoric, for example, from the King of Jordan, which is fairly unusual in terms of the criticism of the United States and Israel. I think that there are reasons for concern. So we’ll have to watch that space. But as yet, I think, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily bank on a flip of the posture of the Arab governments of the region. 

And the final point is—you know, early in the aftermath, as the Israelis begin mount the response—the military response in Gaza, there was a chorus of voices saying: This is going to be what forces us to actually figure out a solution for the Palestinian people that gives them dignity and political path forward. If that actually were to happen, and I have very little confidence that it will but a lot of hope. (Laughs.) If that were to happen, that would be a true strategic reset for the region, and it would be, I think, a net positive for all the people of the region. 

MOHAMMED: So we’ve come to 11:30. Thank you for joining today’s meeting. And thank you to our panelists. Please note that the video and the transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Thank you all for coming. (Applause.) 

(END) 

Top Stories on CFR

 

Iran

Ebrahim Raisi was more loyal to hard-line Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei than previous presidents, and whoever succeeds him is likely to be just as conservative.  

United States

A proposed Japanese takeover of U.S. Steel is facing domestic political pushback that could challenge Biden administration foreign policy aims.