Transition 2021 Series: What's Next for U.S.-Iran Relations?
Panelists discuss U.S. policy toward Iran under the Biden administration and how changes in U.S. policy will affect relations with other countries in the Middle East.
The Transition 2021 series examines the major foreign policy issues confronting the Biden administration.
POLLACK: Thank you very much. Thank you all for joining me today for this panel discussion on U.S. relations with Iran. I am Kenneth Pollack. I am a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This meeting is part of CFR's Transition 2021 Series, which examines the major issues confronting the Biden-Harris administration in the foreign policy arena. We have many members registered for this virtual meeting, and we're going to do our best to get to as many questions as possible during the question-and-answer period. I'll also say at the start that we have an ideal panel to discuss this topic.
As some of you probably know, I've written three books on U.S-Iran relations and a lot of people consider me an expert in this field. But I'd like to tell you a little secret to start us off. And that is that these are the people whose work I read and who I turn to when I have a question about strategic issues related to Iran. So this panel is truly the Iran experts panel. Now because all three of them are so accomplished, I can either give them the introductions that they deserve, which would take up the entire hour, or I can just give them the briefest of introductions. With your forbearance I've chosen to do the latter.
So first, we have Dr. Suzanne Maloney, who is the vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department official. We also have Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment, who is, among other things, the author of an exceptionally thoughtful new piece that I recommend to all of you. It's a piece in The Atlantic called "How to Win the Cold War with Iran." And finally, General Amos Yadlin, who is currently the executive director of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, former head of Israeli military intelligence, and a former fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. In fact, we like to joke that General Yadlin is a practitioner of nuclear nonproliferation because he's already helped stop two nuclear programs—Iraq's and Syria's—and now he's going for his third. Iran would complete his hat trick.
Okay, so to start off, I'm going to ask our panelists a series of questions and then about halfway through we'll open things up to your questions. Our time is short, so I want to jump right in. Suzanne, I'd like to start with you. And I thought I would ask you to frame the American side of our conversation. So let me start by asking you to just give us all a sense of how the Biden administration is approaching Iran. We obviously are reading the newspapers. We see all the pieces about the technicalities of the nuclear negotiations. But more broadly speaking, what is the administration's strategy? And what's the end state that you think they're seeking to create? And if you have the time, why do you think that they made these choices rather than pursuing alternative strategies that they might have pursued instead?
MALONEY: Thanks so much, Ken, for the kind introduction and thanks to you and the Council for including me in such a distinguished panel. I'm really looking forward to the conversation that we're going to have here this afternoon. I think, you know, what we're seeing from the Biden administration reflects, first and foremost, the context for U.S. policy in this particular moment as the president and vice president articulated a series of priorities prior to the inauguration that made clear where they rank a variety of different international challenges. And obviously during this time of pandemic, managing the rollout of vaccines, dealing with the economic repercussions of a global recession, also trying to confront some of the other crises facing this country, whether it's on the climate emergency or around racial justice issues, those were the four big priorities that the new administration set.
And I think that what we've seen is an administration that is really sticking to its guns in terms of trying to keep its eye focused on those very priorities that it set at the outset. But, of course, the Middle East has a way of intruding upon even the best laid plans and Iran was always going to be an important issue with respect to the international system and to the reemergence of this administration trying to reestablish American leadership after a particularly tumultuous past four years. And so even though Iran is no longer, I think, at the top of the priority list for this administration, nor do I imagine it would be for any administration at this time, there is inevitably, I think, some pressure to try to right the ship, if not to make Iran the sort of centerpiece of a new approach to the Middle East in different ways that both the Trump and the Obama administration sought to do.
I think what we're seeing is a Biden-Harris administration that is seeking to manage a crisis that has some degree of urgency with respect to the nuclear issue, but in a way that's really intended to repair and reset a preexisting set of arms control arrangements rather than to try to remake or create some kind of a breakthrough with the Iranians. I would say it's not clear to me yet whether or not the administration has a holistic approach to Iran. Obviously the nuclear issue takes precedence. But we did see some early efforts on the part of the administration to make a point that it wasn't going to be only a nuclear issue, but they appreciate the regional considerations and the human rights concerns with respect to Iran. It is not quite as urgent in terms of the time pressure to resolve them. They are certainly every bit as crucial to American interests in the region and to those of our allies and partners in the region.
And so I thought it was notable that the very first thing that Secretary Blinken did after his confirmation hearing in which he insisted that the U.S. approach would be aimed at trying to get a longer and stronger deal, i.e., not simply a reversion to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or 2015 Iran nuclear deal. It was to reach out to the families of those Americans and dual nationals who've been held in Iran on trumped up charges as a means of the Islamic Republic trying to gain leverage in any kind of talks with the United States. I think that was an important signal that the administration appreciates. If there is a very Iran-specific context to its approach right now, there's the broader international context of both the pandemic and the great power competition with China and Russia. But there's also an Iran-specific context, which we have to appreciate. And that is that we are not simply dealing with a nuclear issue.
The final aspect, I think, that I'm beginning—this may be my own wishful thinking—to see with respect to the administration's approach to Iran, is that I think that at least some of the rosiness from the rose-colored glasses that we saw during the Obama administration has begun to fade. There is a recognition at this point, I think, that in fact, even if we are able to establish some set of new parameters or restored parameters with the Iranians around the nuclear issue, that that isn't going to be a sort of spillover effect on any of the other issues that we deal with with respect to Iran, particularly Iran’s activities across the region and its involvement in conflicts really in every corner of the region.
I do think that there remains, and this may just be characteristically American, this expectation that somehow through the force of our own diplomacy, we can help bring about better outcomes with respect to Iran. That if we are able to do some kind of a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue, that we will, in fact, be able to have a broader positive impact on the domestic politics and even on the regional approach of the leadership. I think that is probably unrealistic and overly optimistic, but it is a characteristic element of American policy toward Iran that we are always presuming that we are a force for good in the country.
Let me just conclude with a word on these nuclear negotiations that have been underway now for several weeks. Obviously, with the United States and Iran shuttling between one another via the Europeans in Vienna, I think we are likely to see some kind of return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action rather than a longer and stronger deal that Secretary Blinken and others spoke to during the early days of the administration. I think this also reflects, as I said, from the outset, the recognition that Iran, while urgent, is not at the top of the priority list for the new administration.
And the prospects that we're getting some kind of an interim arrangement, which puts us on a pathway toward diplomacy, which puts us on a pathway toward a reinstatement of some of the restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities is a preferable outcome to the investment of time and energy that it might take at the outset to achieve the longer and stronger deal that addresses some of the concerns about the timeline for the nuclear deal, the expiration of some of the restrictions in the deal, and about some of the elements that were not, in fact, included in the deal such as Iran's missile program.
That would not have been the approach I would have chosen. I worry that if we get something that looks like a return to the JCPOA that is going to be the end of what we're able to do with respect to Iran. But I can appreciate where the administration is coming from and seeking to resolve a problem rather than try to achieve a breakthrough with respect to Iran.
POLLACK: That's great, Suzanne. It's a terrific start. And I just want to follow up with where you ended and push that a little bit further to ask you to talk a little bit, unpack a little bit more some of the advantages and disadvantages of taking this approach. I think you've just put one very big one on the table, which is it may make it difficult to get beyond the original terms of the JCPOA. But what other advantages or disadvantages do you see stemming from this particular approach?
MALONEY: Well, you said, I think, you know, the real challenge is what we're able to achieve in the short term versus what we might be able to achieve over the medium to the long term. And if we trade an arrangement, which reverts us to some compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, I think it's inconceivable that we'll be able to persuade the Iranians to give any more on their nuclear program or any more on the associated elements. I think from the outset, it was always unrealistic to expect we would be able to negotiate with Iran on its regional activities. We certainly don't want to negotiate on our own regional presence with the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But I would hope that as we're approaching any kind of talks with the Iranians, that what we have done is really built a framework with our partners and allies about the rest of the set of concerns with respect to Iran, so that even if we've gone back into a nuclear deal, that we have some understandings already established, particularly with the Europeans, around how we're going to respond and manage some of the other challenges that Iran is posing toward the region.
One of the persistent issues that we have with trying to push back Iran across the region and trying to limit the damage that Iran is able to do through its interventions in a variety of Middle Eastern states is that there really is no price to be paid on the part of the rest of the international community. There has been no readiness on the part of Europeans historically, for example, to sanction Iran for its destabilizing activities in Iraq, its involvement in the war in Yemen, and some of its other relationships, most notably, of course, with Hezbollah. I think that if we are prepared to accept an agreement with the Iranians, which is ultimately sub optimal and beginning to obsolesce as we speak with respect to the nuclear deal, we should be doing that in a way that really does reinforce our capacity to work with partners and allies on the rest of the issues at stake with Iran.
And, of course, we can never forget the domestic circumstances. As I said, I'm very cynical about the likelihood that we can, in fact, promote real change from within in the short term within Iran. But I think we have to be very aware and very cognizant of the likelihood that as we begin to relieve economic pressure on Iran that will not have a beneficial effect on the leadership's treatment of its own population or on its activities across the region. And so what I worry about is that I haven't yet seen or heard an articulation of an Iran strategy from this administration, which really does take a comprehensive approach rather than this effort to simply solve the problem that sits before them.
POLLACK: That's great, Suzanne. Thank you so much. Karim, let me turn to you next. And let me ask you to do the Iranian side of the same equation. So how do you think that the Iranians, particularly the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, see the situation with the U.S.? What do you think that he wants from the nuclear deal? And how does he see it fitting into his wider strategy toward the United States and toward the region?
SADJADPOUR: Thank you so much, Ken. It's wonderful to be with you, with Suzanne, with Amos. I have huge respect for all of you. And before I start, I just wanted to remember Vartan Gregorian. He was someone who was a real mentor to me over the years. I'm sure many people on the call also remember Vartan fondly, so I just wanted to, you know, whoever is listening, just to kind of remember how much we really love Vartan. I learned so much about Iran from Vartan as well. So fortunately, I always agree with everything Suzanne said so I don't really have to add anything. I would say that I agree with her instincts very much that I do feel confident that a revival, either a full or partial revival, of the JCPOA I would argue is pretty probable in the year 2021.
Now, looking at the world from the vantage point of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, kind of the metaphor I've been thinking about is Ali Khamenei is this carpet merchant who really has one very expensive carpet to sell, which is the nuclear issue, the nuclear program. And he is obviously very, very mistrustful. He feels like he's been cheated before. And the United States this time around is coming in to the carpet bazaar as a very earnest tourist that has essentially announced that it intends to buy a carpet. And so I think right now Khamenei feels pretty comfortable and confident that the United States is committed to reviving the nuclear deal? And what we're going to be witnessing in the coming weeks and months is simply what the terms of that agreement are going to be mindful of the fact that, as we just said, Khamenei feels like he was he was cheated by the Trump administration.
But I think to build on what Suzanne said, there is a pretty stark difference in 2021 as compared to 2015 when the JCPOA was signed. And that was in 2015 there really was, I believe, hope and I'm not saying it wasn't a valid hope. But there was a hope that the JCPOA could be transformative, that it could transform Iran's internal politics, and it could transform the U.S.-Iran relationship into something more cooperative rather than confrontational. And I would argue this time around there's far less of that hope, including within the Biden's administration that this revival of the nuclear deal is going to meaningfully transform Iran's domestic politics. So I think there's several signals that Khamenei is probably going to want to send.
Number one is that don't think that a revival of the nuclear deal was negotiated out of our weakness. This is not a sign of our weakness, and we could likely see an internal clamp down to send that signal and, you know, increase regional provocations to send that signal. So don't think we're weak and that you can further pressure us. So that's number one. And you know, we're not going to be reforming internally. Number two is that don't think that a revival of the nuclear deal means the prospect for greater U.S.-Iran cooperation. I think this was an important signal, which they intended to send in 2015, that this nuclear deal is not going to harken a new era on U.S.-Iran relations.
And for Ali Khamenei, his hostility towards the United States is really, as I've said many times, part of the identity of the Islamic Republic. It's one of the central pillars of revolutionary ideology for him. So don't think a revival of the JCPOA is going to improve U.S.-Iran relations. Number three is that the revival of the JCPOA is not going to change Iran's regional positions, whether its support for groups like Hezbollah, the Shia militias in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, Houthis in Yemen, and most importantly, Iran's fundamental opposition to Israel's existence. None of those things are going to change as a result of a revival of the nuclear deal.
And, you know, one of my closest friends, a friend to many of us here, to Suzanne and Ken, is Siamak Namazi. He's been an American hostage in Iran for five and a half years, and he was first detained in Iran just days after the nuclear deal was signed in July of 2015. And so I do think there's a concern that at the moment we perhaps are seeing somewhat of a lull in the U.S.-Iran tension. And in the event of a revival of the nuclear deal, I think we need to be sober and be careful and, especially Iranian dual nationals about being mindful of reality that this is not going to bring about an overnight transformation on either Iran’s internal politics or U.S.-Iran relations. And again, I think, to the credit of the Biden administration having many of the same folks, having negotiated the deal in 2015, I think they are sober to that reality.
POLLACK: This is really good point, Karim. While I'm trying to keep us on track in terms of time, I just—I can't help—I feel like I've got to ask. I think it's important for the audience to hear as well. The points that you're making about how Iran is seeing this deal and how potentially differently—and Suzanne started to lay that out as well at the end of her remarks—what do you think is possible with the Iranians in terms of a U.S.-Iran relationship? It begs the question of what kind of an end state we ought to be looking for, that we should recognize as realistic. And then that obviously also has some ramifications in terms of what policies we can and should pursue toward Iran.
SADJADPOUR: In my view, over the last decade perhaps the best paradigm or comparison for U.S.-Iran relations is U.S.-Soviet relations in the last two decades or so of the Soviet Union. I want to emphasize I'm not elevating Iran to the level of a superpower. It's not; it’s a regional power. But the same ways we had this kind of combination of, you know, cooperation, containment, confrontation with the Soviet Union, we're going to need to be similarly flexible on Iran policy. I do believe that there will perhaps be opportunities for cooperation in some ways. You know, revival of the nuclear deal is an example of U.S.-Iran dialogue leading to some cooperation. There's going to be times when we're going to need to confront Iran as we saw early in the Biden administration.
After Iran's attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, we responded in Syria. And the goal in our response was not to escalate the situation, but to deter further Iranian provocation. So there are going to be times when confrontation is necessary. But, in a lot of ways, I think the bulk of the policy will be a form of containment. And I think that, for me, the biggest takeaway from the JCPOA—what the JCPOA proved was that a combination of pretty significant pressure coupled with pretty rigorous U.S. diplomacy can work if there is kind of a concrete limited end game. And what I mean by that is that the goal of the JCPOA wasn't to eradicate Iran's nuclear program, to take it from a ten to a zero. It took it from a ten to a five.
And I think we need to employ a similar formula to think about how do we contain and counter Iran in the Middle East. I don’t think we can eliminate Iranian influence from the Middle East. Right now it is a ten. It's pretty significant when you look at all the places in the region where Iran wields influence. And I think we need to think about what combination of pressure and diplomacy can be employed to take it from a ten to a five. And I do believe an important third pillar of U.S. strategy toward Iran, the first two pillars being nuclear context and regional context is how do we think about championing civil rights and human rights, and yes, democracy inside Iran?
There's a wonderful quote I love from the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, who said that “it wasn't arms controllers that won the Cold War, it was Russian democrats who ended the Cold War.” And I think, similarly, my view is that until and unless we see a meaningful change in Iran's internal politics, we're always going to be responding to the symptoms of our tension with Iran. It's never really going to have a fundamental change in U.S.-Iran relations until you have a government in Iran whose identity is not predicated on opposition to the United States but is predicated on Iran's own economic and national interests.
POLLACK: Very nicely said, Karim. Okay, Amos, as we all know, a critical element of the U.S.-Iran relationship are America's regional allies and partners, which is one of the reasons why we wanted you to be participating in this. So let me turn to you and ask you this question. How does Israel see its current strategic situation with Iran? And beyond that help us understand what Israeli strategy toward Iran consists of?
YADLIN: Thank you, Ken. And I'm privileged to be with Suzanne and Karim, which I see as the most important and knowledgeable experts on Iran. It's a pleasure for me to be with you on the same panel. Suzanne has said that Iran is not in the priority of the Biden administration. We all know that domestic issues—coronavirus, the economy, racial tensions, as well as China and China and China and Russia and North Korea—for Israel, Iran is first priority. We think that Iran is a potential existential threat if Iran will have nuclear weapons. And we see Iran having a strategy of two arms. One of them is the nuclear arm, which has the goal to reach nuclear weapons not as fast as possible but as safe as possible and the threshold ready to develop the weapon. And we say the conventional arm of Iran—so its proxies and lately a direct presence in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, and in Yemen.
So Israel is coping with Iran as its first national security threat. However, in the last two years, we were busy with other issues—a political crisis, four elections, trying to have a functional government. And I think the Israeli government hasn’t paid enough attention to Iran because they have a very supportive U.S. administration that basically accepted the Israeli perception and applied the maximum pressure on Iran. In Jerusalem, they are hardly admitting that the maximum pressure hasn’t achieved the goal. As Karim said, the JCPOA took them from ten to five and maximum pressure on nuclear issues brought them back to seven. So the need to have a new strategy is there.
And there are three elements that call for a new strategy. First, your administration basically stopped the maximum pressure, and according to its commitment on the campaign and according to its ideology, it went back to diplomacy and to the JCPOA. So this is first. Second, we see Iran. Iran is basically very, very cautious and since Qasem Soleimani, it basically hasn’t been as aggressive as it was in 2019. It is now losing the fear from a U.S. administration and losing the fear from Israel doing something with the support of America. So you see, in a way, Iran, reversing the maximum pressure, Iran is now pressing with the nuclear program as the first element of maximum pressure but then attacking Americans bases in Iraq and attacking Saudi Arabia from Yemen. And the Iranians have much more confidence today, and they feel that they are stronger at the negotiation table and they are stronger in the field.
Last but not least, the covert shadow war has escalated at least one level. It hasn’t gone to the second floor to a full-scale, open confrontation between Israel and Iran, but it is now in the upper area of the first stage. And because of retaliations from side to side and because of the possibility of miscalculation, it can go out of them because both Tehran and Jerusalem don't want to go to a full-scale war. This is something we have to think about. So all these issues call for updating the Israeli strategy. There are two schools of thoughts in Jerusalem. One, sticking to the 2015 strategy and 2018 strategy. They call for continuing the maximum pressure, but nobody is listening and this is something that comes from Jerusalem. And then they are thinking about going to a public campaign against going back to the JCPOA.
The JCPOA, by the way, Karim, the sunset yields will bring the Iranians not to ten, it will bring them to twenty. And this is the main concern in Jerusalem. So the second school of thought is that basically— I'm writing for it, I advocate for it—is don't go against the U.S. president and the Biden administration. Try to use the fact that they said that we need a stronger and longer. Give them a chance to go for longer and stronger but limit the time that we are approaching the sunset yields. So I think what Israel should do—and it is not yet decided because the prime minister is busy all the time on his political issues and judicial issues—but my recommendation is reaffirming the common goals, which Iran should not have a nuclear bomb.
This should be publicly a commitment of the president and whoever will be the prime minister and then prepare the contingency plan, very much like the 1980s with Reagan and Shamir deciding to have a strategic alliance. And then at that time, the lieutenant colonels, prepare the contingency plan. What to do if the Iranians will not return to the JCPOA, which is a possibility? I'm not sure the supreme leader has decided yet. And what we will do if a stronger and longer agreement will not be achieved within a limited time because when I spoke with the Biden administration people four months ago, they were basically convinced that they can reach the longer and stronger on the first stage.
I think by now, and I fully agree with Suzanne and Karim, that they deserted this goal. They want to go back now to full compliance for full compliance on the 2015 agreement. But they are transmitting or arguing that in a way Trump gave them tools that they can use again if Iran will not amend the agreement. Each one of you can do his own assessment and whether it's really a credible policy. Will it work? But I think Israel and America should agree that if it is not working, we are not coming to the sunset yields and we have a plan what to do in that time.
POLLACK: Fantastic, Amos. All right, we're a little bit over. I could ask you guys a whole bunch more questions. But let's go ahead and turn it over to our members. So at this time, I'd like to invite members to join the conversation with their questions. And as a reminder, this meeting is on the record, and our operator will remind you how to join the question queue.
STAFF: We'll take our first question from Jane Harman.
Q: Oh, what an honor. Hello, everybody. And huge greetings to Amos, who I think should be minister of defense of Israel and should have been that in the last five years, at a minimum. At any rate, this is a fascinating discussion. So a couple of things. Number one, an observation that denuclearization doesn't seem to be a priority at all of the Biden administration. I don't know if I'm right. That's an observation. I think that's because there are higher-level threats, one of which is cyber. But I just wonder if anyone agrees.
But the second, my question is about linkage if there is any or should be any between Iran and North Korea. I mean, both problems from hell. In both cases, I think, the nuclear program is the regime-survival program. And I'm wondering if anyone thinks, given the fact that denuclearization is a lower priority, that some brain cells should be devoted to thinking about these problems in a similar way and possibly focusing on resolving them in a similar way. Maybe the best outcome to achieve is containment. I know that bothers Amos and I understand why it does. But maybe that's the best outcome. And it also would at least possibly affect the proliferation between the countries of nuclear technology, which has gone on for a long time.
POLLACK: Great, thank you, Jane. Suzanne, do you want to start us off on the broader question of the Biden administration's priorities and then Karim and Amos, if you'd like to chime in you're welcome to.
MALONEY: I think that's a great question, and I'm not sure I have a great answer to it. I do think these are both problems from hell—the Iran problem and the North Korea problem. And it's not clear to me if creating any linkage between them actually makes them easier to solve or more complicated to solve. There are obviously players, particularly China, that have an outsized role in the negotiations and the diplomacy around both issues. But we have, of course, the crucial distinction, which is that North Korea is a de facto nuclear weapons state and where the Iranians have not yet crossed that important Rubicon.
And so we do have, I think, an outsized responsibility here, which is, as Amos said, to keep our eyes focused on the real goal here. The real goal must not be a return to a piece of paper or 159 pages of paper in the case of the JCPOA. The real goal must be and it should be one that not just the United States and Israel but all the parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, practically all of the countries that signed on to the various UN Security Council resolutions that led up to this outcome, which is that we want to ensure that Iran does not join the ranks of nuclear weapon states and that we keep Iran, this particular government, as far away from that status as realistically possible. That is a goal that is noncontroversial that is shared widely around the world. And we have to be prepared to work collectively because we recognize that unilateral diplomacy isn't going to get us there.
This is going to require a sort of collaboration among the international community to ensure. The North Korea problem is a very different one. And I think, unfortunately, we have resigned ourselves to some form of containment there, but it is, in many ways, a more unpredictable and complicated situation than the Iran negotiations because we have been in some way shape or form involved in the negotiations with the Iranians for twenty full years. And this is a problem that stretches back even before the Islamic Republic itself. I know that Amos has done some thinking, has had some conversations, even with one of my former colleagues who's now in the administration working on North Korea, so I want to defer to others’ perceptions about what's possible here. But, you know, I think the distinctions may outweigh the similarities between these two cases.
POLLACK: Great. Thanks, Suzanne. Go ahead, Amos.
YADLIN: Yes, I think the difference between nuclear threat and cyber threat is, thank God, nuclear was employed only twice in 1945 and that's it. Cyberattacks are happening, as we speak, every day, almost hundreds of thousands of them. There are five superpowers on cyber and Iran is not one of them. It’s Russia, China, the U.S., the UK, and Israel. Iran is trying to attack Israel cyberly almost every day. And we have a very good defense system and the capabilities are unlimited. So we are not thinking that they will not improve, as they are now better than they used to be ten years ago.
But cyber with Iran is not the main issue. The main issue for Israel is nuclear. Second—North Korea. We were surprised and we were lucky to discover the North Korean-Syrian cooperation in 2007. It is a job to do with both American intelligence and Israeli intelligence. And at least the lesson learned for us is not to leave North Korea to the Americans. So we have to make sure that we will not be surprised of foreign cooperation. I am not up to date to last year's intelligence, but I will never say that there is no cooperation.
POLLACK: Thank you, Amos. Let's take the next question.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Martin Indyk.
Q: Thank you. Hi, everybody. Thank you very much for this informative and fascinating conversation. I wanted to focus on that element of the longer and stronger deal that has really plagued the first agreement, which is, of course, Iran's nefarious regional activities. And I wonder whether how one can unpack this a little bit in terms of how to deal with it. Given that if we go back to compliance for compliance, the Iranians will have a large infusion of cash just as they had last time. Karim has said they're at a ten in the region already. And so what is to be done at that point about their activity in the region? There is a kind of consensus amongst those who would seek to curb their nuclear activity that there also has to be a curbing of their activities in the region.
But how do you practically go about that? And how, if you're negotiating with the Iranians, how do you prevent a kind of image of a joint condominium over the region in which the United States and Iran are kind of dividing it up? And into spheres of influence? And since the Biden administration has a priority of ending the war in Yemen, how can you do that if you don't actually engage with the Iranians in some kind of understanding as the Saudis already seem to be starting to do? So I wonder if we could unpack it a bit in terms of Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq?
POLLACK: Great question, Martin. Karim, why don't you start us off on answering that one?
SADJADPOUR: Sure. Martin, that is a terrific question. And it's great to hear your voice. I think the very first point I'd make is that in the run up to the JCPOA and its aftermath, I do think that the Obama administration, whether consciously or subconsciously, was reluctant to counter some of Iran's activities and provocations in the Middle East for fear that it would jeopardize the bigger prize, which was the JCPOA. And the Iranians did a much better job of what we call “walking and chewing gum” at the same time. They were negotiating with us over the nuclear issue while maintaining, and in some cases, increasing their regional activities. And I think we need to similarly be able to walk and chew gum mindful of the fact that Iran is going to want to revive the JCPOA for internal economic reasons.
And that should not preclude us from a strategy which attempts to contain and counter them in the region. That's the first point. Second point I make is that, and this may sound elementary, but it is useful to think about where in the region does Iran wield most influence. It's essentially in four countries, which are either failed states or in the throes of civil or sectarian conflict—Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. So, you know, thanks to both the 2003 Iraq War and the 2011 Arab uprisings, Iran, more than any country in the region, has benefited from regional power vacuums. And this is much easier said than done. But over the long haul, one of the things that is essential in kind of containing and countering Iranian influence in the region is trying to build up credible governments and governmental institutions in those countries.
Now, one of the final points I want to make, and I think this is a point which is commonly misunderstood, including at the most senior levels of the U.S. government, and that is, in my view, the enormous asymmetric advantage that Iran has over all of its regional rivals, most namely Saudi Arabia, is the fact that not only does Iran have a monopoly over Shia radicalism, but in some ways it's the only country in the region which has managed to harness Sunni radicalism, as well, in its favor. What I mean by that is that there's a misperception that, you know, Iran is team Shiite and Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf countries are team Sunni, and they're both supporting their various radical groups. But the reality is that virtually all Shia radicals in the region are willing to go out there and fight and kill if not die for Islamic Republic of Iran. Whereas virtually all Sunni radicals want to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. So I think that's a huge asymmetric advantage that Iran has.
In terms of policy, okay, so we've—as Bill Burns, my former boss famously said, “I've admired the problem. Now what is the way to contend with it?” The acronym I use, for lack of a better term, is LIE, which stands for limit, interdict, and expose. So limit is, again, you're not going to ever eliminate Iranian support for the Houthis, for Shia militias, for Hezbollah, for Assad, but to the extent you can limit that, limit the dollar amount, limit, you know, how the arms are transferred—that's a positive. Interdict is something that Amos can almost talk about because the Israelis have done that better than anyone, whether it's going after Iranian oil shipments, weapons shipments, etcetera. And the final point of that is expose and I know that this will be a controversial issue for the Biden administration as it was for the Obama administration.
What I mean by expose is I think it is important to expose what Iran is doing. It's important to expose the dollar amount that Iran is sending, you know, X billion dollars annually to Assad, to Hezbollah, to the Houthis. I think it's very important in the Iranian domestic context. It does actually have an impact when people are struggling to make ends meet. They read about how the government is sending billions of dollars abroad. You see that in some of the popular slogans: “Forget about Syria. Think about us.” “Forget about Palestine. Think about us.” And the reason why it's controversial is that I think the Biden administration will be fearful if they are exposing all the malign things that Iran is doing in the region or undermine their argument for reviving the JCPOA. In my view, it actually strengthens it because you say, you know, this is the government, which is, you know, has malign intentions and for that reason we need to limit their regional activities the same way we've limited their nuclear activities.
POLLACK: Suzanne, do you want to jump in and add anything to what Karim had to say?
MALONEY: I think Karim has it spot on. I’d just add that, you know, the rationale between hiving off the nuclear negotiations didn't begin with Obama. It began with the Bush administration, and it was a sensible decision. It remains the right decision. But what we need to do is couple what has become a huge investment in trying to forestall Iran's nuclear progress, one that involves considerable consultation and engagement with partners and allies with a similar effort around Iran's regional malfeasance. We have ceded some of the moral high ground during the Trump administration. There's a perception that the United States is the bad actor here. That's deeply unfortunate because a full accounting of Iran’s activities across the region is not one of a normal state just seeking to defend itself from adversaries.
As everyone in this Zoom understands very well, Iran’s engagement, whether it's in Lebanon, whether it's ten years of waging a multinational war on behalf of Bashar al-Assad to utterly horrific impact on Syrian civil society, as well as, of course, the broader regional security picture and its involvement in Yemen, in similar effect, this is truly a government that is determined to create influence through disruption and through destabilization. And we have an interest and our partners and allies have an interest in ensuring that, as Karim said, we limit and primarily seek to forestall some of those activities. But I, you know, frankly, it has not received the same investment of efforts and attention on the part of the U.S. government as the efforts around the nuclear issue have. So I hope that, you know, one of the advantages of trying to get to some kind of a quick progress on the JCPOA may be the opportunity for the infrastructure that's now established to address Iran to devote the same amount of energy and focus to a broader regional strategy.
POLLACK: Great, Suzanne. Amos, anything you'd like to add to that?
YADLIN: First of all, I'm signing up to everything Karim and Suzanne have said. I want only to add the Israeli perspective. We were very frustrated for the past that Iran got on its regional activity in 2015-2016. We are highly looking forward to a different approach. What Karim called chewing gum—doing two policies. There is the nuclear issue and there is the Iranian regional activity, subversion, supporting terrorism, and building a military force. After saying that, I know that the U.S. is unwilling to go to anything that looks like another stupid war or even a military operation in the Middle East. So what I would like the U.S. to do is a regional alliance of the Sunni Arab states—Karim, not the jihadis—the Sunni Arab states, your allies, and Israel and have something which is a regional alliance against Iran with the support of the United States.
Not troops on the ground, but political support and intelligence support and basically acknowledging that you have to act against Iran. And when I speak about longer and stronger, I'm not putting it in regional activity. It's too complicated, even on the nuclear issue when you have the issue of sunset and every time inspections and PMD, which was the basis for JCPOA. It was found that Iran lied on the answers to the PMD issue and the R&D. If you put the regional issues in, you will never reach longer and stronger. So let's reach a longer and stronger on the nuclear issue. And we are strong enough to deal with Iran regionally if we have the will. And I think Israel is proving it every day in Syria. Thank you.
POLLACK: Thank you, Amos. Can we take another question?
STAFF: We will take the next question from Farah Stockman.
Q: Hi, thank you all for being here with us today. I recently interviewed Ernie Moniz, who helped strike the original deal. And he's of the opinion, he's a nuclear scientist, he's of the opinion that there's been way too much focus on the sunset clauses. He thinks there's a lot of permanent things baked into the agreement that haven't been fully understood. And that if Iran gets back into the compliance and carries the JCPOA until, you know, ratifying the Additional Protocol and all of those things, he thinks that if, in fact, we get there to the end, that it would be very difficult—that basically you would be preventing Iran in perpetuity from building a weapon because it would be so heavily monitored. He's a scientist who spent all that time hammering out 145 pages or however many pages.
You guys clearly don't agree with that, but I would love to hear your reaction to that. And I guess I just, so one is, what's your reaction to whether there's been too much focus on the sunset clauses? And the other is just, you know, if there's any reasonable deal that Israel and Saudi Arabia would—what would that even look like? Because Iran has been under increasing sanctions since 1995. And we know that there are countries like Cuba that have been under sanctions for so many years. They seem to be protecting the regime more than actually changing it. So I guess I'm curious if you could address the cost to the Iranian people of being under this incredible level of sanctions. It's stunning to me how we feel that cutting off this entire country from the rest of the world is actually going to improve life for the people inside or make the people inside, you know, hate their own regime rather than blaming us.
POLLACK: Thanks, Farah. Amos, why don't I asked you to take the first part and the question of the JCPOA and the sunset clauses. And then we can wrap up, Suzanne and Karim, to just chime in a little bit about the sanctions and their impact on Iran and more broadly about Iran moving forward. So, Amos, the floor is yours.
YADLIN: Yes, I think the sunset gives Iran legitimacy for a full-scale nuclear power with all the elements. If they want two hundred thousand centrifuges, the sunset allows them. If they want twenty nuclear reactors, the sunset allows them. And with all due respect to the secretary of energy, we know today that when they signed the agreement, they didn't know everything about what Iran was doing. There are cables that were bought from Tehran that prove that Iran has done a lot of nuclear military work, which is called the PMD—potential military dimension. After the operation in Tehran, I called it DMP—definitely military dimension.
And as they developed, according to the JCPOA, better centrifuges, a much faster and better capability to enrich uranium, they can take the nuclear sites to a very small and a very low signature position. So I fully don't agree with the assumption that the sunset is not dangerous. The sunset is very dangerous. I belong to those who supported the deal in its first year because the first year basically rolled back Iran, as Karim said, from a ten, I can even say, to two. But what we see is that the sunset allows the Iranians to be at twenty—zero distance from the bomb. And this is not Prime Minister Netanyahu or General Yadlin. This is Obama saying to NPR zero distance from the bomb. We cannot live with an Iran zero distance from the bomb.
So, there are loopholes, not only the sunset, but the inspections are also not good enough. When uranium was found in two sites, according to the information that was bought from the [inaudible], the Iranians had no answers why uranium was in these two sites. So there are more covert sites in Iran. The inspection is not everywhere and every time. It's a long, early notice to Iran, and they can hide and they can conceal. So we need better inspections. And as I say, the R&D brings it much closer to the threshold and the building of a nuclear weapon will be a decision in a timeframe that cannot be stopped.
POLLACK: Thank you, Amos. Karim, anything you'd like to say very, very briefly because we're pretty much out of time on the sanctions.
SADJADPOUR: Yes. Farah, I think that the challenge or paradox of U.S. policy toward Iran is that on one hand, to prevent Iran from becoming like North Korea, it’s required sanctions and isolation. But to help Iranian society become like South Korea requires engagement and integration. We do need a better job of reconciling these two policies, which are at loggerheads. The only thing I'd end on saying is that, in my view, my hope is that a revival of the JCPOA does happen, sanctions are lifted.
But I think what you will see, Farah, is that for the Iranian people, it'll be clear that the sanctions will no longer be a pretext for the daily economic malaise, corruption, and mismanagement. So I think it's going to put more pressure on the regime. And finally, it's not only the interests of the Iranian people that are at play here. It's also Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis, Gulf Arabs, Israelis who are worried about what a cash influx does to Iran and its regional apparatus. So this is a very complex issue.
POLLACK: Suzanne, any very, very quick thing you want to add on that?
MALONEY: I will endorse everything that Amos and Karim have said and just add that I think we could probably spend a full hour on the question of sanctions itself, the history of U.S. sanctions in Iran, and current U.S. sanctions policy. But fundamentally we are never going to be able to sanction Iran away from the behaviors that this regime has indulged in. But if we exact no price on the regime for the types of activity that it is engaged in across the region and its treatment of its own population and it's determined pursuit over decades of a nuclear weapons capability, then they will not be deterred. So we have to find a mix of strategies and policy options that are in fact effective but also take into account the human toll in terms of Iranians and their opportunity to engage with the world.
POLLACK: Thank you, Suzanne. Thank you all for joining today's virtual meeting. Thank you to our speakers. And please note that the audio and transcript of today's meeting will be posted on the CFR website. Thank you all very much and have a good day.