Against the backdrop of the recent U.S. strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, Tony Blair discusses the current tensions with Iran and the implications for international policymakers. Mr. Blair discusses the critical role of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including ways the IRGC mobilizes and radicalizes its fighters for violence at home and abroad, and the road ahead for the United States and Europe.
HAASS: Well, good afternoon and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on Iran and, if I can get away with it, a few other issues. And I promise that we’ll have a majority of the program available at 5:00 on the record. (Laughter.) Work with me. Too soon for Iowa jokes? (Laughter.) OK.
I’m, by the way, Richard Haass, president of the Council. And we are truly honored to have Tony Blair with us today. As I’m sure everyone in this room and beyond knows, he was prime minister of the United Kingdom for a decade, from 1997 to 2007. Full disclosure, he and I worked together during that time on Northern Ireland. And he deserves, I believe, tremendous credit for what was accomplished there. He was and remains as well an important voice on Brexit—not to be confused with Megxit, by the way.
After leaving office Prime Minister Blair served as the Quartet envoy to the Middle East peace negotiations from 2007, I think, to 2015. He’s also spent an awful lot of time working against religious extremism, first through his faith foundation and more recently through the newly established Institute for Global Change. Now, what’s going to happen is Mr. Blair’s going to make some remarks about the situation vis-à-vis Iran. He and I will then have a conversation about Iran, but we’ll, again, probably add a few other things. And then we’ll open it up to you, our members, to ask the tough ones.
Prime Minister, it’s great to have you back here. (Applause.)
BLAIR: Thank you very much, indeed, Richard. And it’s a great pleasure and honor to be back at the Council on Foreign Relations, to thank the Council for all the amazing work that it does, and thank Richard for his leadership not just of the Council but as an extraordinary intelligent and insightful commentator on foreign policy for many, many years, and also one of the sometimes under-sung heroes of the Northern Ireland peace process. It was a pretty tricky negotiation. We needed America to be helpful and supportive all the way through. And Richard played really quite a key and instrumental role. So thank you.
And I’m delighted afterwards to answer questions about things other than what I’m going to talk about now, but Brexit and not Megixt, thank you. (Laughter.) Even abroad, it’s important to be careful, because there is that Tower of London. It’s still there, if you make a—(laughter)—make a misstep.
So when speaking about Iran, always start with a clear disclaimer: The Iranian people are an impressive, great people, rich in history and civilization. Iran, without doubt, should be a power in its region and the world. Neither the people nor the country should be defined by the oppressive leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And anyone British speaking about Iran should do so with some proper humility about our past actions there.
My institute has been researching the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps long before the killing of Qassem Soleimani in January this year. But that event and its aftermath, not yet certain in its consequence, gives added relevance to this work. And the document we publish today is a detailed examination of the ideology of the IRGC. And it draws upon documents in Farsi, translated we believe for the first time, which shows the nature of this ideology.
In summary, it is—the IRGC is an organization steeped in revolutionary Islamist ideas and practice. Were it not the arm of the Iranian state, there is little doubt that it would be treated in the same way as al-Qaida or any of the other myriad of Sunni terrorists nonstate actors. That’s why we advocate that countries follow the example of the United States and designate it as such. And we spell out how that would inhibit some of its activities.
Because the Islamic Republic of Iran has been with us for over forty years now, we can forget that it began as a revolution, based on a revolutionary ideology, which very quickly disposed of its partners, communist and liberal, after removing the shah, and established a clerical-run state committed to the export of that revolution. We tend to see its actions as governed by a primary attachment to national interests, something we can more easily relate to, and a conventional desire for regional hegemony.
What we miss in this superficial and Western-oriented analysis is the core motivation, which is, was, and forever will be the promulgation of that ideology, rooted in an extreme version of Shia Islam, which is the Shia equivalent of the more radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Salafi Jihadism. The internal IRGC documents which we analyzed are explicit. The organization is committed to ideological political training of recruits. They proclaim an existential threat to Shiism from Sunni Arabs, Zionists, Western actors. They mandate on religious grounds the expansion of the revolution to other nations. They authorize the killing of Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, and pressure to make them give up their devious beliefs. And they share the same litany of extremist views on social issues, including the status of women, hostility to gay people, and the sanctity of their image of Islamic society.
Since 1979, their influence on the region has been balefully destructive. Some of this is obvious, as in their interference in Lebanon, and of course more recently Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Some of it is less obvious, as in their support of extreme groups all over the region and their work to destabilize existing Arab states. But least noticed is the impact of the Iranian revolution on Saudi Arabia. Now, with the preparedness of the new leadership in Saud to admit what happened following the Iranian revolution, we can see the degree to which the storming of Mecca in late 1979 resulted in a lurch towards ultraconservatism in the kingdom, which stunted that country’s modernization and exported that conservatism around the world, with profound consequences.
Western policy towards Iran has not covered itself with glory, not before nor after 1979. Since the revolution, we have oscillated between wanting to destroy the regime and to contain it. And it can’t be said that anything has worked particularly well. At first, we backed those who would fight it, most notably Saddam Hussein, out of which came the Iran-Iraq War, with a million casualties and the birth of the present regime’s nuclear program. After the removal of Saddam, we thought the regime would be disposed to reform and engagement. And indeed, for a time it appeared that new presidential leadership might be open to that. But that soon gave way to Iran’s determination to wreck the idea of an independent Iraq and the mobilization against coalition forces and in favor of sectarian government.
Then the Obama administration concluded the JCPOA, a deal to curb the nuclear program. Now, it’s hard these days on this side of the Atlantic—or, for that matter, on my side of the Atlantic—to have a rational political debate. So for what it’s worth, I think the deal was a well-intentioned and painstaking attempt to deal with a hugely difficult threat. In its own terms, it succeeded. But even the architects would recognize that the hope that relaxation of sanctions would result in changed behavior in the region turned out to be misplaced, which further highlighted anxiety about the sunset clauses in the deal.
If anything, the regime doubled down. When President Trump re-imposed sanctions, the effect on the Iranian economy was immediate and severe. The last year we’ve seen a 60 percent devaluation of the currency, contracting GDP, and protests which attack not just the regime’s economic record but its ideological and authoritarian nature, menacing its existence. It therefore decided to externalize the problem, attacking U.S. allies, including an audacious attack on Saudi oil facilities, testing the region’s and the United States’ appetite for conflict, and trying to force the lifting of sanctions.
The result was not what the regime expected. They indeed found the region did not have appetite for conflict, but they’ve also found that, though the Americans did not want anything resembling a war, they were willing to retaliate in a very direct, but also very unpredictable, way. This has, though possibly only temporarily, unbalanced the regime. We are now in this position: the regime is internally vulnerable, has discovered that there is no desire for a war, but no risk-free options in taking steps towards one in order to force a change in policy. There remains, on all sides, an acute danger of miscalculation. The regime can’t afford the status quo. They need sanctions relief. The USA and the region might want a change of regime, but they’re not going to make regime change a policy. On the contrary, if Iran is prepared to mitigate its actions, they’re prepared to go back to containment and allow any change to come from the people and not from outside agency.
So a possibly way forward, in summary, would be, one, for Iran to enter into new commitments in respect of the nuclear program. Two, to buttress that with commitments on ballistic missiles and destabilizing activities in the region, including threats to erase Israel from the map. Three, for the USA to accept that if these commitments are implemented Iran should be part of the discussion about the region and resolution of its challenges. Four, the sanctions relief should accompany such changes. And five, that the West should continue to support the cause of transformational change in Iran, and leave the door open for such change to bring about a wholly new relationship with it, but without taking active steps to undermine the regime from outside.
This would amount, effectively, to a much broader strategy of containment and one that does not mean abandoning those in Iran who want a new future. It would give the regime a way out, but one designed so that they genuinely change behavior and across the peace, not just on the nuclear dimension. The threats, including those against the development of nuclear weapons capability would remain in place.
So as a summary, in my brief opening remarks, the document we produced today is about the IRGC. The IRGC is critical to this. If it continues as under Soleimani it will make impossible any such discussion with Iran. The Iranian regime therefore has a fundamental choice. In my judgement, the West should be united. And it should be united in making it and helping it choose wisely. Thank you. (Applause.)
HAASS: Well, thank you, sir. So let’s start right in on things Iran. And you’ve just issued this report on the IRGC. Why should we talk about the IRGC in isolation? Why not simply see it as a tool of Iranian statecraft or national security? So rather than focusing on it as a terrorist organization, why don’t we see when the IRGC does something this is Iran committing acts of war, and we should simply see it as Iran practicing warfare against the rest of us?
BLAIR: Well, you can look at it like that. I mean, the reason we focus on the IRGC is to try and show how if you study the ideological component of it, you see that it is—it is, right at its very core, dedicated to a series of ideas and policy that is profoundly hostile, not just to the West but to those that disagree. But of course, the IRGC is an important arm of the state. The question is, for European policymakers particularly, they have resisted the idea that you designate it as a terrorist organization. America has gone one way. Europe has gone another way. And really one thing that I’m trying to say to European policymakers is you should keep an open mind about doing this.
HAASS: So let’s talk about the targeted killing Qassem Soleimani. There’s two questions. One was whether you believe it was legal and, two, whether you believe it was wise.
BLAIR: (Laughs, laughter.) So I think it was a justifiable retaliation against what the IRGC had been doing, the Quds Force had been doing. I think its wisdom in the end will be judged by whether it’s part of a strategy and not simply an isolated act. So I don’t—I mean, from the study I have done of everything that Soleimani has contributed to in his life, I can’t—I can’t disagree with the idea of preventing him doing this anymore. I think the killing of Soleimani, though, has to be set in the context of what the strategy is to deal with Iran over the long term.
HAASS: Are you worried that this, in any way, lowers the bar against targeted killings by Iran of others?
BLAIR: No, because I don’t think the Iranians really think like that. And I think the one—look, it’s—you know, it’s a curious thing with—let me try and put in this in the right way diplomatically when I’m talking about your president. But it’s—(laughter)—
HAASS: Nah, don’t. (Laughter.)
BLAIR: No, it’s the first—it’s an interesting thing when unpredictability becomes a strategy. (Laughter.) But you’ve got to say—yeah, but you’ve got to say it’s not—in this particular context, it’s too early to judge. But the fact is, they’ve had to think very deeply about their next steps. And you know, I think at this moment in time—so what I’m suggesting, which is a way that you in the end come to a different form of agreement with them, at this moment the Iranian regime will have nothing to do with that. But that is probably because they will wait and see what happens in your election in November.
But after that time, where do they go? Because there’s a—there’s pressure internally. It’s true that there’s no appetite for a conflict within the region. And, you know, when you’re talking to Arab leaders in the region, whatever they think of the Iranian regime, they are focused and anxious about the impact of any conflict on their economies and on their people, on their countries and their societies. But at the same time that they don’t have that appetite for conflict, what the killing of Soleimani has done is made the Iranian regime uncertain as to what its next steps should be, because they don’t know what the reaction of the American president’s going to be. And that’s why—I mean, it’s not a—it’s not really a facetious comment to say that unpredictability is the strategy. And it’s also—to me, it’s a strategy that has some coherence in its own—in its own terms, provided it’s part of a wider approach to the threat that Iran poses.
HAASS: I’ll circle back to that but let me ask one other question first. You said in your talk: The USA in the region might want a change of regime, but they’re not going to make regime change a policy. Well, there’s those of us who think actually regime change is the U.S. policy, if one adds up all the things that the secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo, articulated, I think it was May of 2018. All the things that Iran must do, it’s tantamount to regime change. Plus, we continue to have maximum pressure through economic sanctions, but we haven’t articulated what—in a sense, what you’re trying to get at—which would be, what steps does Iran need to take in order to lead to, say, a reduction in the economic sanctions? So until that is done, a lot of observers think U.S. policy actually is regime change.
And I guess the question I would have, if that might be true, do you think regime change can—or, do you think the Iranian regime is such that no matter what we do it will provide able to resist?
BLAIR: I think it’s not clear to me the degree to which the Iranian regime is now intensely vulnerable inside. And, you know, I speak to a lot of people about this, and I get different—you know, different opinions from different people. I think there is a real sense in which the protests that have been happening are different. They’re different in two respects. One is the protests themselves, which are protests that are actually directed not just at their economic plight, and the difficulties of the people, and the issues around corruption, but a directed very specifically at the nature of the regime, the nature and ideology of the regime. And that is an important difference, I think.
But secondly, the other difference is that if you go back to the protests in 2009, now the IRGC was involved in the policing of those protests. I think roughly—I think it was just over seventy people were killed during the course of that, those protests. The figure was probably around 1,500 in these last—
HAASS: More recent.
BLAIR: Yeah, few weeks. Now, what that indicates too is that post 2009 actually the IRGC became a much more ideological group. The Basij, which is the movement within that, became much more aggressive. And so I think it’s not—what happens if we just maintain the status quo? What happens is that the sanctions are still in place, and therefore the regime remains internally vulnerable, right? At the same time, they are going to be looking for ways of upping the price on the West, and America particularly, in order to say: You really want to come to the table and do a deal with us so that we can get sanctions lifted. So you’re in this strange calibration.
But they can’t be sure that if they take particular actions now it’s not going to have an impact that they can’t—they can’t foresee. So this is why I suspect we will remain in a process of stasis probably for most of this year. And then after that time, I think you’ll have a clearer idea of where we’re going. But it’s very interesting to me, the whole—the whole way this is going. Because I think the other thing that’s of interest is that, you know, in today’s world the youth of Iran are also seeing what happening elsewhere in the world. And I think this is going to become an increasing problem for the regime, because they’re going to want the economic opportunity. They’re not going to see it. They’re going to start to agitate about it.
I mean, whatever else the issues and problems, the fact is there is a social program, modernization in Saudi Arabia at the moment. You know, compare and contrast ’79—I mean, this is one thing I didn’t really understand until after I left office, the absolute centrality of the ’79 Iranian revolution, the storming of Mecca, and the relationship between the two. That is, I think, very fundamental. So the admission that today Saudi Arabia went in precisely the wrong direction when that happened and that they should have gone in a liberalizing direction, that is also, I think, a factor in all of this.
HAASS: I want to drill down a little bit on your prescriptive five points, which you articulated towards the end of your remarks, because there’s a debate going on among America’s Iran-hands, our experts. And I’d say it’s the—one approach is if Iran, say, reins in—does certain things on the nuclear or missile side, we should give them a degree of sanctions relief. Others are basically saying: No. We can’t have something for something. It’s a grand bargain or nothing. That unless Iran does what we want on nuclear, what we want on ballistic missiles, and dramatically reins in its behavior around the region, that there can’t be sanctions relief. Otherwise, they argue, if they get a bit of sanctions relief for nuclear restraint or missile restraint, they’ll be able to do more in Syria, more in Lebanon. Where do you come out on that?
BLAIR: So I think the calibration between—let’s assume for a moment—I think, at the moment, this won’t happen. But let’s assume for the purpose of argument that you get into a negotiation about a negotiation. The most difficult thing will be how you calibrate the changes in their behavior with whatever you might do by way of sanctions relief. And I think right now you can’t—you can’t tell exactly what the right calibration is going to be, because I think there will be an overwhelming desire to make sure that you don’t, as it were, get gamed in this, so that you end up giving sanctions relief without real change happening.
HAASS: Well, let me just interrupt. As a matter of principle, imagine we get a degree of restraint that we find quite positive on nuclear missiles. Should we—if you were advising the American president, as if you were in your past job or now, would you say: Not good enough. We still have to get Iranian restraint in Lebanon, or Yemen, or Syria? Or should we basically be willing to enter into partial deals with them if we’re comfortable with the details of those partial deals?
BLAIR: I think we need to know the complete nature of the direction and have some sense of genuine good faith—I mean, not good faith, because there’s not going to be a lot of good faith—but I mean, some basis upon which you can justifiably say, this is—this is significant change, in order to put yourself in a situation where you put something back on the table in terms of sanctions relief. But, you know, all the way through you’ve got to say—because one thing you could do is to say: We’re not prepared to have the discussion. We’re not interested. We’re going to carry on doing as we’re doing. And let’s see if the internal dissent pulls down the regime.
The risk of that—and this is why this thing is very tricky. And, you know, because of my own experience, having gone through post-9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and then later, actually, with Libya, and the Arab Spring, and so on. You know, what you—the trouble in these situations is you never know what happens as you—as you reach the situation where they become absolutely desperate about the maintenance of their regime. To what extent do they then say, OK, we’re prepared to go out for full-out regional conflict?
So you have to—you know, they have a—the card that they have to put on the table is a pretty—is a pretty dangerous one for them ever to put down. But, you know, at the same time, if you’re trying to calculate how you get a resolution to the Iranian issue over time in the most—in the least harmful ways possible, I think you’ve got to be prepared to have that negotiation. And I think the other thing is, my view is that in the end these resolutions do fail. So I think it’s probably right, if you can—if you could come out of this with something like the five points I make, it would be worth doing.
HAASS: Well, the parallel to what you seem to be suggesting—and disagree with me if I’m mischaracterizing it—is a version of what Kennan argued towards the Soviet Union. You push back, you contain them, you enter into agreements. And if you frustrate them long enough, this revolution will mellow. And essentially that’s what happened. So what—the logic of what you’re saying is we push back against Iran. We offer them a degree of relief, if they make meaningful changes in their behavior. And sooner or later the internal dynamics are such that this revolution will probably lose its hold on the Iranian people.
BLAIR: Yeah. I think that’s basically true. But I think you just can’t tell what—the calibration of any such negotiation between sanctions relief and changes in their behavior is going to be incredibly difficult to do. And I don’t think you could—I think at this stage, by the way, you can’t say exactly what you’d do. You’d have to look at the circumstances as they develop. But you know, changing their—I mean, changing their behavior in the region is of fundamental importance in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Lebanon—actually, further afield.
HAASS: I’m going to ask one last question, and then I’m going to slightly pivot. You wouldn’t take a deal where just say Iran agreed to what I would call JCPOA 2.0. And they agreed to accept verifiable limits, significantly, on their nuclear program—on accumulated of enriched uranium, centrifuges, whatever—for fifty years, seventy-five years. Also missile restraints. But they would continue to do what they’re going to do in Syria and in Yemen. Why not basically lock in the gains on one, and basically say: We can’t ask arms control and negotiations to resolve everything. We’re going to take what it can give us, and we’re going to do more in places like Syria and push back that way?
BLAIR: There’s a case for that. But I think the problem—the problem, I think, is that—I mean, what you’re essentially saying is you do the JCPOA, but you get rid of the sort of sunset clauses. You have a much longer period of time, and you put the ballistic missiles into it. Now, obviously, for the Europeans that would be deeply attractive. The problem is, you know, you’re giving back sanctions relief. And I think—
HAASS: A degree of it. Not total.
BLAIR: Yeah. But it’s—the difficulty is—and I think, you know, even those people that were the staunchest advocates of the JCPOA would have to accept that the behavior of the regime did not—did not alter outside of the nuclear deal at all. So I would—I would find it—I would find it difficult to have an agreement that didn’t have at least some part of it related to the dimension of the regional activity. And I think, you know, any such deal, because of the way the Middle East is today and actually the relationships between this administration and the Arab states, I think it would be hard to have this fresh agreement that didn’t have the Arab states with some place in it, because they are the—and I think it would be unlikely, to me, to think that you would have a fresh agreement after all that’s happened if you were essentially saying: We’re going to allow them to carry on their activities in these other arenas.
HAASS: We may disagree on that then. The Arab states might also be quite relieved if they weren’t going to face a nuclear Iran, and if they had confidence in what we were willing to do to deal with the regional challenge.
BLAIR: Yeah, that’s—and, you know, I think this is—the decisions around this are extremely difficult. I mean, I think—and that’s why I approach them with a real degree of—you know, of hesitation about how you—how you try and say where you’re going to land this now. But I think it’s—the truth of the matter is, if the revolution collapsed, and Iran changed, it would be the single most liberating thing for the region. That’s the truth.
HAASS: Absolutely. Let me raise two other issues and then we’ll open it up. You’ve referred to the Middle East. Just the other day, this administration released a plan for the Middle East. You’ve spent a lot of your life in and out of government promoting peace between now just—between Israelis and Palestinians. Do you believe that what has been put on the table is something that the Palestinians should engage? Or do you believe that what is being put on the table is so inconsistent with their legitimate interests that they are correct to reject it?
BLAIR: Well, I’m still heavily involved in the peace process. And I’m still have an active office in Israel. Yes, I think they absolutely should engage with it. The problem is, if you don’t engage—you know, you can engage on the basis, we don’t agree with the plan and we want the following things changed. But, you know, if you take, for example, the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which would obviously be hugely problematic for the Palestinians. They’ll object vigorously to that. They’ll object to the small number of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that go to the Palestinian state. They’ll object to some of the arrangements around the settlements.
HAASS: Actually, no neighborhoods in East Jerusalem proper go to the Palestinian state. It’s on the outskirts.
BLAIR: Well, very little, yeah. So you—but these are the things you’ve got to come and argue. And you know, as you—as you—you know, as you can see from the reaction actually in Israel, it’s been quite interesting because at first it looked like annexation would happen, then there was a certain pushback against it happening. And as we—as we speak, it’s not clear what will happen. But in my view, you know, I’ve thought about this issue so long and so hard. And I completely sympathize with the Palestinian cause for a state. I really do.
But, you know, I constantly say to them—and they often don’t like me saying it, or parts of them don’t like me saying to them—there’s a difference between a strategy for sympathy and a strategy for statehood. And you don’t need sympathy. Sympathy’s the cheapest currency in international diplomacy. Everyone can give you sympathy. So some European parliament passes a resolution. (Laughs.) Literally, what does that—what difference—what iota of difference will that make on the ground? And there are three groups of people that can really impact the Palestinian cause. The Israelis, the Americans, and the Arabs. I mean, that’s the reality.
You can talk about the Europeans as much as you like, and the Quartet, and this, and that, and the next thing. Those three are the people that can actually move the thing for you, right? So if you’re not engaging with the Americans, who are the pen holders on the peace process, you’re not really engaging with the Israelis. And with the Arabs—you know, what people often say about the Arabs is they say they don’t care about the Palestinian issue anymore. It’s not true. They do care. They absolutely do care about it, and they absolutely do support it. But they are also absolutely frustrated with the state of Palestinian politics. I mean, that is the reality.
So my view is, yes, engage, because if you don’t you’ll get all those expressions of sympathy, and all those resolutions passed, and you’ll have people out there making statements in your support. But you’ll not move the thing in the way you need to move it.
HAASS: Should they engage, though, conditionally and say: We’ll engage under two conditions. One is, we have the right to offer any amendments we wish to what was put on the table last week. And secondly, so long as Israel does not take unilateral actions that change the situation on the ground—i.e., annexation.
BLAIR: Well, I think they could probably get both of those things, is my view. But in any event, it’s worth trying. I mean, it’s worth trying. Look, I understand Abu Mazen’s going to go to the U.N. Security Council. What’s going to happen as a result of that? And you know, you can’t—the worry is that in each iteration of this—and, you know, for—despite what everyone says, this is the first time an administration has actually produced a map, it has West Bank and Gaza joined together. It is actually referable to ’67 borders.
But of course, the Palestinians are going to object vigorously to some of the elements within it. But the right thing therefore is to get in front of the administration, to get—and also, the other thing, I think, that’s really important here is if it were the Palestinians I’d pull the Arabs onto my side. I wouldn’t say to them: Have nothing to do with Israel until we end up with a peace deal. On the contrary, I’d say to them: Get the Israelis and the Arabs together, because then you’ve got more powerful people at the table who will support you in your claim. Anyway.
HAASS: Now that we’ve solved two issues, Iran and Middle East peace—(laughter)—let me just briefly turn to a third. As I said in my opening remarks, you’ve been—I thought you were the single most articulate person making the case against Brexit. That said, we are where we are, where we are, where we are. The only thing we don’t know is the details of what will be negotiated between now and the end of the calendar year. Do you believe the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can remain united? Or do you believe this will set in motion tendencies that ultimately threaten the integrity of your country?
BLAIR: We can remain united. I hope we do. And you know, Brexit’s happening now. We’ve got to make the best of it. I think there’s no point in carrying on fighting the battle after it’s been lost. On the contrary, we’ve got to chart a new path for the country. But, yes, it’s—Brexit puts a strain. It puts a strain on Northern Ireland because we now will have border arrangements between Northern Ireland and Britain. So that’s a problem. And it’s also because, you know, the population in Northern Ireland voted very heavily to remain, and actually since the referendum have even come further in favor of remain. So that’s a problem.
And you know, I always say to people, when I was growing up in the U.K. and the Troubles were on, I mean, a lot of people in Northern Ireland who were not Republican and not nationalists regarded the south as, you know, very backward, run by the Catholic Church, you know, very socially illiberal. I mean, look at the Republic of Ireland today. I mean, if you told me when I was growing up that you’d have a Taoiseach, a prime minister—an openly gay prime minister of Indian extraction, I would have—(laughter)—you know, asked you what you were smoking. (Laughter.) And it’s—but today you have. So that is also because the Republic itself is today a successful country. So that’s one.
I suspect for Scotland, you know, there were two winners in the British election, not one I’m afraid, two. The Conservative Party and the Scottish Nationalist Party. So, yes, it will impose a strain. But you know, we should work very hard to make sure we overcome it.
HAASS: Last question. The European project. Given Brexit, given the uncertainty in Germany, what will happen after Chancellor Merkel passes from the scene, given the rise of rightist forces in France, illiberal forces in Eastern Europe, in your entire life you’ve been involved with the EU. Do you sit there and basically say: The European project is now facing an enormous challenge, an existential challenge? Or am I exaggerating what’s going on?
BLAIR: Well, it’s just that ever since I’ve known the European Union it’s been in existential crisis. (Laughter.) But somehow—(laughs)—it carries on existing. And I think—I think there are real stresses and strains. And of course, it’s bad for Europe that’s Britain’s left. But you know, no one else is leaving. An important thing to realize about Europe—
HAASS: Might have been the best part of Brexit. It might have discouraged others from following.
BLAIR: Well, there was an element of that, I think. But it’s also because of this: You know, the way the world’s changing you’re going to have two dominant powers, America and China, and possibly in time a third, India. And you guys are the giants, right? America’s a giant. China’s a giant. India, in time, I think will be a giant. The thing you realize about politics in the—in the real world of politics is that if you’re in the land of giants, and you’re not a giant, you’re liable to get sat on. (Laughter.) So the only way you make sense of that is to come together and be big enough collectively to do what you can’t do individually. And that collective power of Europe is what could get it, if Europe is sensible about it, to the top table.
But you know, the giants are going to be so far ahead—because even the tall people, you know, the Japanese, the Brazilians, the Indonesians, OK, they’re still, in population terms, way, way below the United States of America. So the medium-sized countries—that means, Britain, France, Germany, Italy—yeah, we need the European Union. So even when Britain leaves the European Union I think, and I hope, even if we’ve left its political structures and left its trading system, we will have to find, and we should look for ways that we can partner Europe in building collective strength.
And the real weakness of Europe is that it spends far too much time on constitutional introspection and not nearly enough time on just building capacity in defense, in energy, the environment, technology, you know, science. These are the things—this is the challenge for Europe. But Europe—the European project will always be described as in crisis. But I think—I think what holds it together is so powerful in the 21st century. And it’s not about peace. It’s about power. That’ll mean that it continues.
HAASS: Reminds me of Harold Nicolson’s old line about Italian—about Italy, a country characterized by chronic stability. (Laughter.)
OK, we’ll open it up. Just raise your hand, wait for a microphone, identify yourselves. Yes, ma’am.
Q: Chloe Demrovsky, Disaster Recovery Institute International.
Thank you for being with us. Back to Iran for a moment, there was talk that the retaliation by the Iranians could include a cyberattack on a U.S. economic actor. And then there was talk that maybe their cyber capabilities are not exactly what we—what we thought they were. Where do you stand? How does their cyber capability impact or influence the situation there?
BLAIR: OK. So, you know, one of the things that I’ve been able to do since I stopped being prime minister is to try to talk only about the issues I really understand. (Laughter.) When you’re prime minister, you have—(laughter)—when you’re prime minister you have to have an opinion on everything and you have to pretend that you know everything, otherwise the country panics. (Laughter.) But—so I’m a political strategist. I don’t know enough about what cyber capabilities they have. But I think whatever those capabilities are, their thinking will not be so much related to the capability as to what the impact of any attack they launch would be on the U.S. And that’s where right now I think they are going to reflect and think very carefully, because they will worry that if they took action the retaliation would be disproportionate.
HAASS: But one of the advantages of cyber is the non-attribution element of a lot of cyberattacks. They may also be confident that they could—they could escape attribution.
BLAIR: Well, here’s—I mean, as I say, I’m not a cyber expert. But I think it’s actually quite hard to be able to do that sort of attack without any of the—those intelligence agencies, not just here but in the region, knowing.
HAASS: Yes, sir.
Q: Ethan Bronner from Bloomberg. How are you?
You described the JCPOA not in a very complimentary fashion as “well-intentioned.” And you also said that the Palestinian leadership is unrealistic. I’m wondering if you would be willing to assess the Obama foreign policy toward the region. It sounds like you don’t have a very high one.
BLAIR: No, not at all. I mean, I think on the JCPOA I think—I understand exactly what they wanted to do. And I—you know, I didn’t mean to describe it—when I said it was well-intentioned—(laughs)—I didn’t mean to describe it as therefore bad. Since I think good intentions are quite important. What I was really saying was that I think—you know, talking to the people who were involved in it, I think they really did think that it would order a new relationship with Iran that wouldn’t—even though the agreement was limited, and deliberately and explicitly so, to the nuclear side, I think they believed that it would—it would bring about a change in their broader behavior and relationship. And I think, you know, if you talked to them privately, they would accept that it didn’t, even though they would still say—and I understand this argument—look, even in its own terms it was worth having.
In respect of the Palestinian issue, no, I think that where my frustration is with—for the Palestinians, it was never going to get better than President Obama putting forward the plan that John Kerry—and I know, because I helped them on it. He worked night and day to put together a viable plan. But this is the anxiety I have on behalf of the Palestinians is each iteration—you know, going back over the decades—each iteration ends up as worse than the last. And you know, you think back to the Clinton parameters—I looked up the other day the agreement that I actually managed to get the Israelis to agree to in September 2011 after there was a paper presented actually by Hillary Clinton to the Quartet, which the Palestinians objected to. We went back, we negotiated, we got three members of the Quartet on side. The Russians, really at the instigation of the Palestinians, did not agree to this document.
But I went back and I read it just a couple of days ago. I mean, nowadays, frankly, they would be wanting that document. So this is my worry. My worry is not—it’s not a criticism—I think John Kerry actually really, really tried his hardest. It’s that—the worry is—I have for the Palestinians is if you don’t engage and really make sure that you’re—you know, you’re being realistic in your assessment of the situation, then the worry I have is yet another opportunity passes by, and then who knows what’s going to happen? I mean, you don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen in your election. But supposing you have the same administration for another four years—which is when I talk to people they say is not an impossible notion—then you know, where do they go in that four years? And in four years, so much can happen. This is—so that’s why my plea to them is not to agree to the document, but to agree to engage.
HAASS: Mr. Biglari.
Q: Hamid Biglari, Point72.
I’d like to explore the observation you made that you saw coherence in unpredictability as a strategy. The Iranians were also unpredictable in their precision strike against the Aramco facilities. But that was linked to a strategy. The strategy was to send a signal to the Arabs that they couldn’t look for regime change in Iran without consequences, and a signal to the United States that this maximum pressure campaign has a cost. It’s not clear what the Soleimani assassination was linked to as a strategy. If the intent was, we also can use military force not just diplomatic pressure, there were much lower-cost ways of achieving that. We could have responded to the downing of the drone. We could have responded to the attack on Aramco facilities. But we choose this dramatic, highly escalatory response. In what sense do you see that as a strategy?
BLAIR: Well, in this sense: That it’s a signal to the regime that if they take further action they can’t be sure what the response is going to be. I mean, look, this is—one of the things that happens is that—you know, at this moment in time you can’t tell what the consequences are. That’s why I say, you know, it’s uncertain what the consequences of this are going to be. But you’d have to say that in the same what that that strike on the Saudis facilities was a real statement of intent, to say, look, if you want a regional conflict this is what it’s going to me, the Soleimani strike was to say to the Iranian regime, you can’t—you can’t be sure what the next—what the next phase of this is going to be, because it looked like—after the attacks on the tankers, Saudi Aramco, the drone—it looked like America had just decided to hold off, right? So, look, I’m not—I don’t elevate this to strategy. As I say, I think a strategy is what is the whole picture you put together. But I think it’s—you’ve got to at least say it’s open to debate that it put the regime off-balance, somewhat.
HAASS: Tony, to something you haven’t mentioned, which is one aspect of Iranian behavior, which is that as we sit here day, by day, by day, they are beginning to breach the limits of the 2015 JCPOA in terms of centrifuges, in terms of uranium accumulation, enrichment accumulation. And you said things may drift between now and after the American election. Well, Haaretz recently ran an article that as soon as the end of the day Iran could have accumulated enough material for one nuclear weapon. So what—how does that play into your thinking?
BLAIR: Well, I think it takes you back to the pre-JCPOA days when the whole justification for it—which, again, I completely understand—was that if you didn’t have a deal that curbed the nuclear program, it was just going to carry on. But you know, the Iran regime would have to think very carefully of what the consequences of that are, because it’s not only America. There are others who’ve got a very strong interest in stopping them doing that.
HAASS: Do you imagine that Europe would in extremis be prepared to see military force used if Iran were to either reach a threshold or cross it?
BLAIR: I think the Europeans would be very reluctant. (Laughs.) But they will—I mean, I think I would describe the European attitude as the following, because I think there’s a bit of a difference between what Europeans will say in their formal position and what the European leaders I’ve spoken to will say privately. I mean, their formal position is, look, we were part of the JCPOA. We think it was the right thing to do. We’re going to hold to it, and we’re going to keep to it. That’s their position, and that’s why they devised—not that it’s been very successful—this formula to get round the sanctions. But I think if you speak to them privately, you know, what they will say is what I said earlier, which is, you know, they are disappointed in the way that the Iranian regime handled the other aspects of their behavior.
HAASS: Yes, ma’am, in the eighth row, I think it is.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Blair. Khadija Rejto, Solutions International Advisors.
Would love to hear your views about Russia and the role that it has played and continues to play, both vis-à-vis Iran in Syria and in the region in general.
BLAIR: Well, what the Russians have realized is that as the United States and its allies become deeply resistant—for all the reasons we know—to engagement in Middle East conflict, they’ve got an opportunity to reassert their power within the region. And they’ve taken that opportunity. And they’ve done it in Syria by allying themselves with the regime, with Iran. And they’ve done it—you’d have to say they will—they will have regarded—despite the fact they actually have suffered. It’s been expensive for them. They have suffered casualties, albeit sometimes through mercenary outfits. The fact is they will regard themselves as having now the great hand on the future of Syria.
And you can see particularly by what the Russians, for example, do in—are doing in Libya, that they also have extraordinary flexibility. I mean, for the Russians, it’s—you know, people often—because I obviously dealt with President Putin quite a lot when I was in office. And they say, well, we find him hard to work out. I say, it’s not really hard to work out at all. He understands power. And it’s about Russian strength. And his belief is, he’s a Russian nationalist. And that’s his belief. So for him, it’s a very simple thing. And you should be prepared to use the power and put the chips on the table in order to get your way. And that’s what he’s doing.
Now, what he manages to do also is to create this curious alliance between people who resent the West, even if in certain circumstances their interest and Russia’s interest conflict. And he has an immense flexibility and adaptability in the way he operates. I mean, I saw this often in relation to Syria because, of course, the Sunni Arab regimes were opposed to Assad. Erdogan ended up opposed to Assad and is deeply opposed to the person the Russians are supporting in Libya today. But he manages to make an arrangement. So Russia is—Russia is exercising power in a—you know, a tough-minded and very direct way, and in the interests of the Russian state.
The only thing I think it’s always important to bear in mind about Russia is that it’s 60 percent—its economy is 60 percent the size of the U.K. And I always say to people about, you know, with Russia never know whether to be worried or very worried. (Laughter.) But most of the time, I’m just worried, actually. I think how the West deals with China is of vastly greater significance.
HAASS: Just mention China. When you talked about the JCPOA, you are—you basically said that the officials who negotiated it harbored a hope that Iran would evolve, liberalize, open, whatever. And it didn’t happen. When you look at China, for example, we and the Western decision to bring them into the WTO, do you think that we were similarly wrong with China? That we held up hopes that integration would bring about a more open China, a more market-oriented China? And essentially, it didn’t happen either?
BLAIR: Well, it’s—it happened in a way we didn’t expect, let me put it like this. But here’s the really interesting thing about the WTO decision, because I remember that decision because I was in office at the time, right? And this is a sort of shocking admission, but, you know, occasionally it’s right to make them. (Laughter.) If you told me at the time, this is one of the most important decisions you’re going to be taking as prime minister, I would have said: What? (Laughter.) So, yes, we know it was important. But when you think back to that WTO decision, it actually changed the nature of the global economy, right?
Now, my point about China today therefore is we are at risk, in my view, of decoupling—of engaging in a strategy of decoupling without really thinking through all the consequences of what that might mean. And the thing I think that is most important in Western—the Western foreign policy sphere at the moment is to really get into this China debate in a deep way, because my sense is that the Chinese—it’s not as simple as thinking that they’ve just gone in an illiberal direction. It’s more complicated than that, because there are bits of the Chinese economy that are working according to quite market-oriented principles, right? But it’s also obvious that the Communist Party has reasserted its grip.
And whereas, for example, a few years back we would have been content, as it were, to give China the benefit of the doubt, we always assumed that with the evolution of its economy would come the evolution of its politics. And we assumed that the evolution of its politics. And we assumed that the evolution of its politics would basically be in our direction. And that hasn’t happened. So I think we’ve got to really think through how we deal with this in a world in which, as you can see from what’s happening with the coronavirus by the way, the Chinese economy is a vital part of the global economy today. And if there’s a problem with the Chinese economy, it’s a problem with the global economy. And this is what makes it, in my view, completely different from Russia. It’s a different order of problem.
And, you know, the decoupling I think is impossible in terms of supply chains and so on. But the decoupling in terms of technology is possibly, probably. I mean maybe—I mean, there are debates about this, but probably. But that’s a vast decision to take if we really want to set up a global competition with China in that way. My view is that—I mean, I think the China debate is just easily the most important geopolitical policy debate that we should be having. And we need to understand China much better from the Chinese point of view. I still think we have—I think given its power, we still have a colossal expanse of ignorance about how China views the world, and what they think about themselves, never mind what we think about them. But thinking about it from their perspective.
HAASS: Well, there’s very few people in or out of government who could opine on such a range of subjects with such erudition and depth. Though, next time we promise and entire session on cyber issues. (Laughter.) Prime Minister Blair, again, I want to thank you not just for your service in government, but when I think what the prime minister shows is how outside of positions of official power you can remain an important and much-needed voice. So thank you, sir. (Applause.)