Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Special Assistant to President Obama and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region (2013-2015); Former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State (2009-2013)
Senior Research Scholar and Director of the International Security Program, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; Former Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy, U.S. Department of State (2013-2015); Former Director for Iran, National Security Council (2011-2013)
Chief Executive Officer, Pharos Strategic Consulting LLC; Former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (2008-2017); Former Chief, Iran Operations Division, Central Intelligence Agency (2006-2008)
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research; Former Research and Visiting Fellow, Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science
Journalist in Residence, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service; Former Global Affairs Correspondent, CNN
Panelists discuss current U.S. policy toward Iran and how the United States should approach the relationship moving forward.
LABOTT: Thanks very much. And thank you everybody for joining us. Maybe you’ve been on a Council meeting before virtually, but obviously this is a new way of communicating, and we look forward to having a good engagement.
We have a very large audience today, and not only do we have a very distinguished panel, but we have a very distinguished looking panel because we put a lot of thought into our backgrounds, although we haven’t all been able to get haircuts—speaking for myself.
Anyway, we’re here to discuss, you know, what to do about Iran, a new Council series that’s looking forward to some of the biggest challenges. And if we look back to the last three years, critics and proponents of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, both can feel their position is justified because, on the one hand, the Trump administration has caused unprecedented economic pain for the Iranian regime that hasn’t really precipitated an Iranian breakout and, you know, the U.S. has killed the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani. That didn’t really cause a major crisis in the region.
So the U.S., on one hand, was able to achieve the best of both worlds, but at the same time, there has not been much progress to what the administration says it wants, which is a new, comprehensive deal with Iran. Iran has expanded its nuclear activities, and it hasn’t really achieved much in the way of American interests. There’s no new negotiations, and it hasn’t really provoked meaningful change on Iran’s behavior in the region or its political instability inside. So there’s no unity amongst its allies.
We certainly have a lot of challenges ahead with Iran, and a lot of people think that the November election might be a real turning point. But I think all of the Iran watchers on this call know that there is no magic wand.
So we’re here to discuss what’s going to put us on a better trajectory with Tehran. There are many opinions how we got here. We’ll address that in some bit, but we really want to look forward in that context about where are the inflection points where both sides can be willing to move forward regardless of who is elected. And we have a really strong panel to talk about that today.
We have Phil Gordon, senior fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and former special assistant to President Obama, and White House coordinator for the Mideast. He is also the author of the upcoming book, Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East. It’s out in November, as I said, before the election, but it is available for pre-order—just saying.
Richard M. Nephew, senior research scholar and director of the International Security Program at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs; also the former deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the Department of State, and former director for Iran at the NSC.
Norm Roule, the chief executive officer of Pharos Strategic Counseling, and a former national intelligence manager for Iran at both the DNI, and the CIA, former chief, Iran, Operations Division.
And Karen Young is the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, former research and visiting fellow at the Mideast Centre of London School of Economics. So obviously some real notable voices in the Iran debate.
Phil, let’s start with you. You know, a lot of people think that Iran is just biding its time until the Trump administration is out. The Trump administration also thinks that, you know, Iran is scared. But clearly everybody is looking ahead to November. Do you think that’s going to be the real turning point with Iran?
GORDON: First, thanks, Elise. It’s great to see you and to be on this panel with friends and colleagues, and hello to everybody.
Yes. Is it going to be a turning point, like the turning point? Obviously not because there are a lot of other factors. But is it important? I think, sure, because I think the two presumed candidates for president are proposing pretty different courses of action on Iran. I mean, we’ve seen the Trump administration’s course of action, which has been pretty clear for the last three-and-a-half years, and they have gambled on the notion that if you just squeeze Iran hard enough, you will get it to change. It will come back to the table and agree to a new and better nuclear deal. I would note that—(laughs)—it hasn’t happened yet, and it doesn’t feel like it’s about to happen; that you would deter it from conducting nefarious activities in the region—that hasn’t happened yet, either—or maybe you would even provoke enough unrest in Iran to bring about a different regime.
So that’s pretty clear. Whether you agree or not, the Trump administration is proposing that course of action, and I think it’s also saying, if it is re-elected, then it has four more years to continue this approach and squeeze on Iran to produce those outcomes.
And I think that a potential Biden administration would have a significantly different view, and that view would be based on the notion that Trump’s approach hasn’t worked; I mean, they’ve had a different view for the past three-and-a-half years, and I think that a Biden administration would be skeptical that you can just continue to squeeze Iran to the point that somehow it’s going to come back and produce this deal.
So I think that, you know, Joe Biden has said that if he were elected president, he would clearly still take a firm line on Iran and its regional behavior, and defend and protect our allies and our interests, but where the nuclear deal is concerned, he has said that he would return to it because the last three-and-a half years have shown that pressure alone doesn’t bring about that magical new deal. And I’ll just end with that point because you said something I think important in your opening remarks when you said, you know, critics and supporters of the administration can argue it either way, and supporters say that we’ve delivered a lot of pain on Iran. That is certainly true, but my view on that is that’s not the objective. I don’t think anybody doubted that the United States of America was powerful enough with our $20 trillion economy and our secondary sanctions to make Iran feel pain. The argument was that that pain was going to lead to a better and comprehensive nuclear deal that forced them to abandon any sort of enrichment forever, and not test ballistic missiles, and not interfere in the region, and that’s what the Obama administration—where Joe Biden was the Vice President—assessed was not possible through pressure.
And so that’s a pretty significant difference—that pressure would lead to a new nuclear deal, better behavior, possibly even regime change, and so of all the variables, yeah, November is a pretty important one.
LABOTT: Well, I mean, I just want to quickly follow up, and Jake Sullivan and Dan Benaim wrote an article in Foreign Affairs—obviously, both with the Biden camp, supporters and advisors to Biden—about the U.S. immediately reestablishing some kind of nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and try and salvage what it can from the 2015 nuclear deal.
I mean, is there a, you know, expectation, though, that Iran is also waiting for that and, you know, feels that it will be in the driver’s seat if there is a President Biden because it realizes that, you know, the administration will want to, you know, kind of pick up where it left off. I mean, who has the real leverage if that’s the case? I mean, is there a danger of going into that too soon?
GORDON: Yeah, I do think that is the way Iran is thinking about it to a degree; that they know—you know, they might have thought they could do a deal with the Trump administration over the past year or two, and there were various feelers, but now I think that’s off the table, right, especially after the Soleimani killing and the escalation. The Iranians don’t think they can do a deal with the Trump administration.
What Jake Sullivan and others have said is that, yes, a Biden administration should come back to the deal that we believe was working at the time, but then from there engage in serious diplomacy to attempt to deal with some of the issues that everybody has acknowledged need to be dealt with. So that’s the significant difference.
I think the Iranians would be mistaken if they thought that somehow—you know, just wait it out, new Democratic administration comes, and no work to do, and they get off the hook, so to speak.
LABOTT: I mean, just quickly to finish the point, though, wasn’t that the objective of the original nuclear deal; that this kind of comprehensive deal would lead to discussion and perhaps moderate Iran’s behavior in the other way. Did that really happen, or was there not enough time before the administration ran out?
GORDON: Well, no, it didn’t happen, but again there are two core pieces to this. The core bottom-line objective of the nuclear deal was to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And I’m sure we’ll get into this. It was getting pretty close to that famous breakout timeline where, within a couple of months, would have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
So even if you never thought Iran would change its behavior in any way, the case for the nuclear deal was—
LABOTT: The goal was nuclear.
GORDON: —and by a lot of time. And I think this is also often underestimated because people talk now as if, well, we’ve used up all that time, and we’re on the verge of this problem immediately, and in the first months of a Biden administration or a Trump administration, you need to deal with this.
The nuclear deal bought, at minimum, ten years for some of the categories of constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, but 15 on the most essential ones—the size of the stockpile, the 20-percent enriched uranium—so we’re not talking about 2020 or 2021. In some cases we’re talking about 2031. So the Biden administration would have time to come in. If it got Iran to go back to those constraints—which, by the way, Iran is no longer abiding by because the Trump administration put out the deal—pulled out of the deal and put on sanctions. If you could get it back to that deal then I think you would have time to pursue diplomacy on all of the other issues that we care about.
LABOTT: OK. Norm, let’s talk about what the drivers are for U.S. and Iran. I mean, even if there is a new president or, you know, miraculously, President Trump has a change of heart in the second term and wants to make a deal with Iran, do you think that anyone is really prepared institutionally—whether it’s on the U.S. side, on the Iranian side, or the Europeans and the whole Gulf. Is everybody ready to just make a deal if the conditions were right?
ROULE: No, I don’t believe that would be the case. And by the way, good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak. And it is wonderful to see old friends and colleagues.
I think, first, we have to look at this from the Iranian perspective, and I’m not convinced that Iran is yet prepared to engage constructively with the international community or the region. Whereas the establishment of a regional dialogue, engagement with the international community are critical and priority goals, and should be foremost in our foreign policy, there is no evidence that Iran is interested in engaging in this relationship on the terms that we would believe to be appropriate.
Indeed, the Supreme Leader has repeatedly publicly and angrily stated that he is against such interactions because he views this as corrosive to the ideological foundations of the regime. Khamenei may die at any time—he is in ill health—but his most likely successor will almost certainly share his views.
Iran will also have a new president in early 2021, an individual who will take some time to assert his influence and build his administration. That individual will certainly welcome the economic relief provided by a return to the nuclear deal, but we need to repeatedly state he has no—he will have no influence over the direction of Iranian foreign policy on these issues. That will be in the hands of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards.
Iran’s leaders in the early part of the next administration will certainly seek to gauge what our intent will be and what they need to think about in terms of their own internal debate for concessions. And this may take some time. Iran is likely to arrive to a new administration by demanding that the U.S. return to the deal without preconditions, may even demand compensation for perceived losses during the U.S. pullout. And Iran may also question U.S. commitment to the deal—given the Trump withdrawal—and demand additional protections or economic compensation to ensure the long-term commitment of the U.S. to the deal. And that would weaken our ability to coerce them in other directions.
Briefly, regarding other partners, of course the European Union, China and Russia will enthusiastically welcome a U.S. return to the deal. But there is no evidence that they are willing to undertake a meaningful activity beyond diplomatic engagement to reduce Iran’s regional aggression, its support for terrorism and, to a large extent, even its missile program. Indeed, there is evidence that Russia and China are willing to support an expansion of Iran’s conventional weapons system, and that will be the subject of additional debate.
Israel, Jordan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council will be very suspicious of any return to the deal. They will want assurances that the U.S. will support their security and not simply empower Iran through economic relief, increasing its aggression on their borders.
But I think finally and most importantly, we ought to look at this in terms of how we ourselves are arrayed on this issue. The good news is, although a deal constructed in 2014 may not be exactly perfect for the world in 2021, I think it’s critical that we underscore that the extraordinary work done by the technical experts on that deal, both in the sanctions world—people such as Richard Nephew over here—and the brilliant individuals from the Department of Energy. And there are technical supporters in other agencies. That is the foundation for a new deal, and that extraordinary work, particularly in the technical realm, I think tells us the direction where to go on a deal.
However, proponents of the deal are sometimes given to describing Iran’s regional aggression, its support for terrorism as “other issues” that we must contend with. And opponents of the deal look to that language as evidence that we don’t take those sufficiently seriously to push back. So an open engagement on that would reassure opponents.
I think, in conclusion, it’s important that we consider how we could develop a new deal in terms of a bipartisan approach to Iran policy. That is clearly absent right now, and those of us who went through the extraordinary and bitter debate prior to the execution of the deal with Congress and the administration saw that that was—it’s not exactly the most helpful way of approaching policy.
And whatever your views are on the current administration’s views on the deal, there are—its views are shared by many members of Congress. So failure to reestablish a bipartisan approach I think would be used by Iran—
ROULE: —to question the deal and could hamper us for the future.
LABOTT: OK, thanks, Norm. That really sets us up for what I wanted to ask Richard.
You know, we talk in very kind of general terms about an Iran nuclear deal or breakout or, you know, what the program was. But let’s talk a little bit more specifically about the Iranian nuclear program. You know, we’re waiting—I don’t think the IAEA report has come out, has it?
NEPHEW: No, not yet.
LABOTT: It’s going to come out any day—the quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program—but regardless of what they say, I mean, I think it’s clear we have an Iranian nuclear program that has restarted in significant aspects. And so in your view, will the Iranian nuclear program be a lot closer to breakout in November or, you know, even January, than it is today, which means we’re going to have to deal again with an Iranian nuclear program that’s very real and not just in terms of, you know, theoretics?
NEPHEW: Yeah, absolutely. And thanks, as well, for having me here today.
I think it’s absolutely true that the Iranian nuclear program is closer to breakout today than it was a couple of months ago, and certainly when—
LABOTT: How close?
NEPHEW: —Donald Trump became president.
Well, I mean, you know, technical experts will have different assumptions of various things. If we were at about a year away from their ability to produce enough fissile material for one weapon at the start of the Trump administration, we’re probably closer to six months away at this point.
But really we need that IAEA information that you mentioned is coming out soon to get a real sense of what we’re dealing with. It will tell us what the stockpile of enriched uranium is, it will tell us about how many centrifuges they have running, how many they are installing—those sorts of details are pretty important. But at a minimum—at a minimum, we’ve lost months, and potentially half as much of the time as we thought we would have.
By the time we hit—
NEPHEW: —November, it could be a matter of three to four months as well. Iran is really in the driver’s seat there. They can step on the gas, and install a lot more centrifuges, and up their production of enriched uranium to be very close. In fact, they could probably be back to where they were when we did the original agreement—two to three months from a bomb—when we get to January of 2021.
So while I very much agree with Phil, under a JCPOA, the Iran nuclear clock has still got a lot left time on it. But if we are dealing with the kind of breakout scenarios I think we’re going to be dealing with, this will be an urgent problem that will need to be dealt with in January of 2021.
And I think this is where a lot of the ideas about returning to the JCPOA are seen as so attractive because they are seen as a way of basically not just hitting pause, but hitting reverse on the program, and giving us an opportunity to at least buy some of that time that we’ve lost back.
LABOTT: So Karen, I mean, notwithstanding the economic pain that the Trump administration—this “maximum pressure” campaign, it failed to produce a nuclear deal or a change in Iranian behavior. But Iran, until very recently, chose to really kind of remain in the deal even while refusing to fully implement it. And they haven’t, you know, officially kind of closed the door in the face of these sanctions.
So do you think that this underscores the importance that they attached to this—the regime attaches to the strategic as opposed to the economic benefits of this? Do you think Iran is biding its time, as many in the Trump administration think it is? Do you think Iran is biding its time—or many in the Trump administration think they’re scared—you know, and is Iran in the driver’s seat right now? What do you think?
YOUNG: Well, thanks, Elise, and it’s good to be with all of you.
I think in the short term, yeah, Iran has a lot of leverage. In the longer term, the medium term, the United States has a window of opportunity. And the short-term leverage is, you know, part of our domestic politics right now, you see the Trump administration in burn it down mode, this is not the A Team running Middle East policy. This is a real window for the Iranians to make havoc. And frankly, I think some of the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, has been surprised that Iran hasn’t taken more aggressive action since the Abqaiq attacks and particularly with the removal of some of the Patriot batteries over the last month or so.
And so it’s—there is this period, I think particularly running up to the election and even up to January/February, in which Iran can have us all on our toes a bit. But what’s different in my view in 2020-2021, compared to 2014, is that life has intervened. And life meaning the COVID crisis, the oil price collapse, the global economy is a very, very different situation. And so for Iran the economic squeeze has been real, and it has not achieved the objective of returning to a deal that’s true. But it’s also going to have this increasing effect of isolating Iran, putting Iran closer to its only economic kind of lifeline, which is China. And Iran is going to be blocked out of what will be, I think, opportunities for other states in the Middle East to move towards some kind of liberalization.
Everyone’s going to be in a really tight fiscal position. Iran’s deficit will be about 7 percent of GDP next year. They’re going to face continued high inflation. But they’re not going to have the buffers or the outlets, the opportunities that other states have. They don’t have access to debt finance. They’re having trouble even accessing IMF support. They’re not going to have the chance to consolidate industries in airlines, or tourism in the way that other countries in the region will. And what we’re seeing in the oil industry is that capex across the board, 130 countries, capex is down about $88 billion.
So if Iran was thinking that, you know, there would be a chance sometime in the future where growth would come, it’s not going to be in the next couple of years. And so I think for the United States this is an opportunity to be more present in the Middle East—not as a military actor, but as a diplomatic and economic actor, as a facilitator of access to finance. Not in grants and aid, but as in a facilitator of access to loans and private capital. And Iran is going to miss that boat.
So I gives us I think a chance to, you know, offer that carrot. But in the next six months it’s not happening. So for me, this means a period in the short term in which Iran has leverage, has the ability to do kind of surprise action, aggression, and a Trump administration that could respond in a myriad of ways, either ignoring it, or overreacting. It really creates a lot of unknows. So that’s why in my view I think this period right now is particularly dangerous.
LABOTT: Let’s talk about some of these waivers that have come up, and the one that’s coming ahead. Let’s start with these—you know, and how that has to do with kind of sanctions leverage. Richard, let’s start with you. This equilibrium, the U.S. has been enforcing sanctions, and then last May America decided to cease granting these waivers that allowed, you know, importing limited amounts of oil. And now there’s another debate or tension between the U.S. and the major European allies, the E-3, over waivers that foreign companies can help Iran’s civil nuclear activities. And that’s really kind of pissing the Europeans off. I do want to get Phil in a minute into the arms embargo particularly but is this really where the U.S. kind of—there are a lot of places where the U.S. can pick its battles with other partners in the deal. How much have these particular waivers, A, hurting Iran versus, B, advancing the U.S. cause?
NEPHEW: Yeah. I have to say, if we had to pick a set of sanctions waivers to get rid of to hurt ourselves, this would be the set.
LABOTT: Seems like the civil—it seems like the civil ones. I mean, that’s exactly what the U.S. was hoping the other countries would do, right?
NEPHEW: Right, especially—
LABOTT: Kind of like advance the civil.
NEPHEW: Right, especially when you—when you look at some of what the waivers cover. For instance, the transformation of the Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor from one that could product one to two weapons’ worth of plutonium a year to one that can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium in normal operations. And even if you changed it around, it would take a lot of years to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
So, you know, look, I think ultimately the decision about the waivers was not a nuclear weapons prevention decision; it was a political posturing position and decision. You know, by getting rid of these waivers we created, once again, a demonstration that we the United States don’t agree with the JCPOA. OK, fair enough. But in the meantime, Iran now has a choice and potentially an opportunity to go back to building the Arak reactor as it was, to stop importing fuel from Russia that was the reason why they weren’t producing their own 20 percent enriched uranium, which is closer to being weapons-grade than lower enrichment levels. But more importantly, it created just one more irritant in the transatlantic relationship, where it demonstrated that we just don’t care what anyone else thinks about our sanctions policy, our Iran policy, or have any real interest in working with others on it.
So I think, ultimately, this was a decision that was made to satisfy our own political base here and to demonstrate how tough we are on Iran. It won’t hurt the Iranians, not a bit. Really, more than anything it just creates a decision in Tehran: Do we equal what the Americans have done by restarting the Arak reactor as it was, by restarting 20 percent enrichment, those sorts of things, or do we look more restrained and more reasonable and wait them out till November? That’s not exactly, I think, what the Trump administration had in mind when they decided to cancel these things.
LABOTT: Phil, let’s talk about the arms embargo because that’s really before November, a kind of shorter-term policy test. The U.S. is looking to extend the arms embargo at the U.N. in October. It really—as far as I can see, it hasn’t really affected Iranian military capabilities or their regional behavior. Russia’s certain to block this at the U.N. Security Council. And then the U.S., I think, provokes the provision in the deal which includes the snapback. You know, on the larger issue, what does this do in terms of Iran’s calculation?
GORDON: So you’re right, Elise. The arms embargo, I think, is the next big policy clash. Let me say one quick word further about waivers before I turn to that because I just wanted to add one thing.
Richard was totally right to focus on the nuclear waivers. And by the way, if you don’t believe Richard, the administration’s own statements every time they did the waivers previously—they even called them “restrictions,” which they weren’t—but every time they previously went ahead with them, the statement explained that it would contain Iran’s nuclear program and help make sure that it wasn’t inclined to proliferation. And so suddenly—this sort of reinforces Richard’s point that this is political and designed to kill the deal. In their own words these things were helping contain proliferation, and now suddenly they’ve gotten rid of them.
My second point on waivers is those are the nuclear waivers. You also mentioned the oil waivers. And that’s what I think got us to where we are now. To remind, you know, we went through two years of the Trump administration before Iran decided to start violating the year. Even a full year after we pulled out of the deal, Iran was still abiding by the restrictions. It was only last spring when we said we’re going to increase further pain and drive your oil down to zero that Iran said, all right, well, that we can’t do. I mean, I think the Trump administration could have declared victory a year and a half ago or even a year ago and said they’re still abiding by the deal but we’re hitting their economy. But when we took away those oil waivers, you got in relatively quick succession Iranian attacks on tankers, the Iranian shootdown of an American drone, the Abqaiq attack that Karen referred to. So it was taking away the oil that could have got us where we are today.
On the arms embargo, the reason I say that’s the next thing is a lot of what we’re talking about is sort of, you know, speculative—what happens with the election, will Iran come back to the table, is Iran going to escalate. The arms embargo we kind of know what we have before us because the Trump administration has made very clear that it is not going to allow the expiration of the arms embargo.
And again, just to put it in context, you know, why is the arms embargo set to expire in October? It’s because—and I don’t want to get too much into the weeds—but, you know, the United Nations Security Council, with us, successively put an embargo on Iranian arms exports in 2007 and then conventional weapons—heavy weapons imports in 2010 as part of the leverage to get Iran to do a nuclear deal. When we did the nuclear deal in 2015, the Iranian view—strongly backed by Russia and China—was those embargoes were designed to get a nuclear deal; if we do a nuclear deal, then the embargo has to—
GORDON: It was our position that we would rather keep the arms embargo for reasons I think people understand, but that was the deal. And the Obama administration was faced with a choice. We could have not had a nuclear deal, and those embargoes would have stayed in place even if they weren’t well-enforced, but the judgment was it was worth it because the embargoes were put in place to get a nuclear deal to move forward on that basis. And what we got was a five-year extension, even though the Iranians and the Russians and the Chinese—
LABOTT: OK. And that’s about to expire.
GORDON: And that expires in October.
So what happens? The Trump administration says no matter what we’re not letting it expire, and they sort of then outlined a three-step plan. They’re going to try to just get a new resolution at the Security Council, which would be—
LABOTT: Which isn’t going to pass.
GORDON: Is not going to pass, right. It would—I think most of us would agree that would be great if we could get a new Security Council resolution, but it won’t. Russia and China will never agree.
Part two would be to get one of the European participants in the deal to invoke snapback, the mechanism that we negotiated that said if one participant in the deal alleges significant noncompliance like—
LABOTT: Then the sanctions snap back.
GORDON: Then the sanctions snap back. And as a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, we could do that whether anyone agreed with us or not. So that’s another possibility. A European country could do it. I think it’s unlikely. I’ll be interested if colleagues agree, but I just don’t see any of them doing it because, one, they want to keep the deal in place; and, two, they know that the only reason Iran is in noncompliance is because the United States pulled out of the deal, the United States is in noncompliance, and it put on the secondary sanctions.
So if the European countries don’t do it, the Trump administration has proposed this sort of odd gambit whereby it will declare itself a—still a participant in the deal—
LABOTT: Even though it pulled out of the—
GORDON: Even though it pulled out two years ago. That’s why I call it a gambit, because to me it’s—you know, it’s pretty questionable legally and politically. It—
LABOTT: We need an international lawyer on this.
GORDON: We’ve talked to plenty of international lawyers and they have found some, not surprisingly, who will say that, you know, there’s a basis for this. But by the way, the White House statement when the administration pulled out was President Trump declares end of participation in the nuclear deal. So it’s a little bit of a stretch to declare that you’re not a participant, and senior officials for two years have explained that we’re not a participant, to then say, well, we can invoke snapback because we’re still a participant, you know, according to that Security Council resolution. So I’m really skeptical of that.
But last point, Elise, because, you know, we don’t need to debate the legal niceties here. The reason—the main reason I think that’s problematic, you know, beyond just I don’t think it’s good practice to sort of twist words at the Security Council, is the Russians and the Chinese won’t abide by it. If we are the only ones who think this is legally sound and we say, well, whether you like it or not there are—there’s an arms embargo on Iran, if the Russians say, well, no there’s not, then we’ve alienated our partners, it has no effect, and by the way we’ll never get such a resolution again, which was actually—Norm paid tribute to the technical and sanctions specialists at the time. You know, give some—tip your cap to our diplomats who got a resolution that said we alone, if necessary, could allege noncompliance and snap the sanctions back.
LABOTT: OK. Norm, I want to—and Karen—I want to move to how this affects Iran’s more regional behavior. You know, we haven’t seen the kind of actions, especially after the killing of Soleimani, that we thought—you know, we thought—not we, but a lot of people thought, oh, this is war, it’s going to rachet up, and the Iranian response was kind of relatively muted. You know, there’s still some, obviously, tension in the region. But is Iran kind of—has Iran been deterred, as some in the Trump administration think it is? Or is it kind of still, you know, seeing how the pieces play out and still planning what it wants to do? Because as we both—as we’ve both said, whereas, you know, they’ve had serious damage, this is more of an ideological quest for Iran, whether it’s the nuclear program or it’s activities in the region, and they don’t seem to be kind of likely to give up that mentality as a result of, you know, economic pain.
So where are they in terms of do we know what they’re planning? Do we know how they’re—how they’re judging all this? And is there a nuclear deal that’s going to stop them from their other regional activities—their support for proxies, their work in Lebanon, or support for the Assad regime? Let’s start with you, Norm.
ROULE: So I think the complicated nature of this problem is that the nuclear issue often puts an umbrella over all other issues relating to Iran.
ROULE: And when we discuss how we handle the nuclear deal, we rapidly get into the issue of correlation does mean causality. So in my mind—in my mind, if you believe the Trump administration’s assertion that there was restricted information indicating an attack would take place, they removed Qassem Soleimani from the battlespace and that attack did not occur. If you believe the series of facts in that storyline, deterrence did succeed.
The second comment I would make is if you are serious about rolling back the Quds Force in the region—and I’m not saying rolling back Iran in the region—
LABOTT: Are we—are we serious about doing that?
ROULE: The Trump administration claims it is, and the—and the Obama administration claimed it was as well, candidly. But if you’re serious about that and you undertake steps to do so, you must expect Iran to test our fortitude and to pulse our domestic political system, particularly during a time of election year, through small spikes that are meant to play with energy commodity markets and our political system.
And finally, I think we need to recognize that some of these issues would have taken place in any case. If you look at Iran and Yemen, outside the nuclear deal, Iranian equipment has been responsible for 311 missile attacks, more than 360 drone attacks, forty-six drone boat attacks against a variety of energy targets in the west long before Abqaiq. And Yanbu and some of the tankers that were aimed at would have been significant incidents had they succeeded. So Abqaiq was certainly in response, I believe, to the—to the oil restrictions. And there are other aspects—there were certainly—of Iran’s certainly responsible to Trump decision and policy.
But I think—I think Kerry said it correctly: Life has intervened. Iran has moved into the region. It is now playing with its Quds Force in a very aggressive manner, and it is a genuine threat to people in the region. And therefore, if you are going to push back against Iran in the region, this is what you’re going to face at least initially.
LABOTT: Karen, obviously, Iran’s regional ambitions have not, you know—while they may be biding their time, while they may be temporarily kind of hampered by COVID or other such things, you know, clearly it hasn’t kind of dampened their regional ambitions, if not their behavior. So speak to that a little bit, and also the possibility that if this goes on, like, we still haven’t calculated for miscommunication or accidents that, you know, this tension continues to have the risk of.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, I agree with everything that Norm said, and I do think that Iran is weakened—economically, certainly—but could also be biding its time. But there’s a view that COVID has certainly, you know, made it more difficult for decision-making to happen. Soleimani’s death has made it more difficult for decision-making or aggression to happen.
But you know, there’s also an important thing to remember, that Iran likes chaos in the region at a moderate level, not at a high level, right? So the whole notion of, oh, Iran is deterred and stepping back in Iraq, you know, and letting the United States have a say in leadership there, no. Iran is making sure that they still have an economic lifeline into Iraq, particularly into the power sector, right? So they are willing to play along and to play well when it is that moderate level of instability that keeps them also with, you know, some resources.
In terms of the miscommunication issues and what I mentioned before in terms of our own domestic political upheaval, this does make me very, very nervous because I would expect—you know, Hezbollah is weakened, but as Norm says, you know, the Iranian activity in Yemen continues. I mean, we are going to have possibly accident. We’re going to have little attacks that could become big attacks. And how the U.S. responds in the next few months will be critical.
I’d also warn with that kind of forward-looking outlook economically for the region is that, you know, this could be dangerous in that if we’re seeing the same kind of structural issues—massive unemployment, you know, fiscal austerity, reduction of subsides, especially electricity is going to get more expensive for people and utilities are going to be less profitable for governments—you know, this creates social unrest. And Iran is very good at taking advantage opportunistically of those moments in the region. They’ve having their own problems, but they’re not—they won’t be alone, right? And so this is why I keep advocating for more of an American kind of engagement on that point.
LABOTT: OK. We have just a couple minutes and then we’re going to move it over to questions. But I want to kind of ask each of you to speak briefly about: Is there a comprehensive deal to be had where Iran gives up its nuclear and missile programs and its support for proxies and other regional activity? I mean, is there enough of an incentive anywhere to get Iran to do that? And it sounds—it seems to me that if there is, it’s not something that only the U.S. could give. You would have to have some buy-in from regional actors.
GORDON: Is there a comprehensive deal to be had? Comprehensive? Yes. Perfect? No. There’s a lot of—
LABOTT: Not perfect, but these are ideological in-brain—you know, is Iran willing to completely change its stripes about its ambitions in the region without regime change?
GORDON: No, and that’s why I say there’s not a perfect deal to be had.
You know, you can understand why some Americans might say we’re going to keep the pressure on till they do a deal that has zero enrichment because they have no reason to enrich anything. I agree; I’d like to see them have zero enrichment. That this deal lasts forever; I would rather it lasts forever. That it doesn’t allow them to test or use ballistic missiles. You know, they’ve seen us invade their neighbors to both sides. They’ve been invaded. They had a war with one of their neighbors for eight years.
LABOTT: They’re still standing.
GORDON: They’re not only still standing, but they’re a little bit paranoid, and they use those ballistic missiles for what they consider to be their existence. Now, you know, we might not like that, but if we define the only sort of deal that we’re willing to live with is one that, you know, includes all the elements I just mentioned and a whole bunch of other stuff—inspections where we can go wherever we want, including their military sites and residences, without asking them, no procedures—that, you know, is obviously a deal that we would like, but it’s not one that we’re going to bring about through pressure.
And again—and Karen described it well and we’ve talked about it—the pain in Iran is real. And when you add on that the consequences of COVID and the fall in oil prices so the little bit of oil that they were still able to sell isn’t worth very much—but we have a bad track record. You were kind enough to mention my book on regime change. There is not—
LABOTT: Coming out in October.
GORDON: Thank you for clarifying October. People have time to read it before the election. I know they’ll be busy in November. Available for preorder.
But the track record of economic sanctions and economic difficulty leading to regime change is not a good one, let alone what happens on the other side of that regime change, which is mostly what the book is about because the track record there isn’t great either. But just the notion that economic pain—I mean, think about North Korea. Think about Cuba. Think about Venezuela. Think about even the Soviet Union, you know, where it was fifty years before you saw a change there. So the idea that if we just squeeze a little bit harder, look, this would be very welcome and it’s possible—you know, we saw the Arab Spring. We’ve seen change take place. But to me, I’m very skeptical of the notion that if we just squeeze a little bit more we get that—either that comprehensive, perfect deal or the regime change that many seem to be hoping for.
LABOTT: You agree with that, Richard?
NEPHEW: I do, and I’ll just add two more additional elements.
I mean, I think, one, on technical grounds on the nuclear program, it’s important to remember we can’t un-ring the technical bells that Iran has rung. Even if every single centrifuge and gram of enriched uranium leaves the country, there’s still a lot of technical skill and knowledge that’s been accumulated there. And I doubt that many American hawks on Iran would say, oh, this is—this is fine now, we can live with a nuclear concept existing inside of Iran, we have no latent weapons concerns there. So I think those technical issues mean that on a nuclear side we’re never going to get any kind of perfect arrangement there, too.
The second point I would just add on top of all that is we also don’t need to. And I think this is the important element of the JCPOA. It was not about one thing solves all problems; it was about a multilayered solution in which you had nuclear restrictions with inspections within the threat of sanctions snapback, all within an international system that was organized that all created a lot of pressure on Iran not to do the wrong thing. And that’s where—can we get that kind of comprehensive agreement? Yes, absolutely. And will that be sufficient? In my view, yes, absolutely.
LABOTT: Norm, broaden this out. Is there a comprehensive regional architecture where Iran has an incentive, you know, maybe to give up the nuclear program? We’ve already seen that they’re willing to make concessions on that. I’m talking about the regional piece now.
ROULE: No. Iran is—in fact, I associate myself with many of the comments made by Phil and Richard. Iran was brought into the nuclear deal because of vast sanctions relief and international engagement, but you know, we have to talk about our values. Iran is responsible for aiding barrel bombing in Idlib. Iran is responsible for aiding a government that used hundreds of chemical weapon attacks against its own people. Iran is responsible extending a Yemeni war that is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Arabs. We have to go into this with our eyes wide open. A nuclear deal that leaves Iran empowered to do all of that may be acceptable to us, but in the end of the day if you live in the region—to the Americans who live in the region—they have a very different view.
Iran is moving towards the end of a revolutionary generation that is likely to be replaced by a military influenced generation that will be maybe more willing to engage, but much as hardline as it was in the past. This is a time for some very clear-eyed choices and engagement with our partners. But there is no perfect deal here, and Iran is unlikely to be a compliant player.
LABOTT: Karen, it does seem to me that the regime’s opposition to the U.S. is kind of ideologically and deeply engrained, and the kind of growing American desire to scale back its involvement in the region kind of encourages Iran to stay firm in its regional ambitions.
YOUNG: Yeah. I mean, they clearly have a priority of, you know, the U.S. exiting from Iraq, and that would be a great victory for them. And it seems that either under a Trump administration or a Biden administration that that would be likely. So, you know, that’s an advantage to them, certainly, and I think that’s what makes, as Norm says, our Arab allies in the region very, very nervous. And we haven’t come to terms domestically with what we think the—(audio break)—engagement in the Middle East economically, diplomatically, militarily should be, and we’re going to need some time to work that out. And so in the interim, you know, politics goes on, and domestic politics in Iran goes on, and there will be another generation and with, frankly, a kleptocracy of wealthy Revolutionary Guards who control much of the economy who will have greater incentives to hold onto the structure they’re creating now. So this problem doesn’t get easier. It just gets—it gets more difficult.
LABOTT: OK. We’re going to open it up now for questions. If you kind of raise your hands in the—in the queue on Zoom—I guess you know how to do that—do that. The operator will call on you. Let’s—we have close to two hundred people, three hundred people—three hundred people on the call. So identify yourself, keep your question short, and let’s get a good conversation going.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Jon Greenwald.
Q: Well, thank you very much.
My question, basically, is to Phil Gordon. And it’s what your view is of the importance of the roughly four months from January 21, when I would say a Biden administration is inaugurated, until the Iranian presidential elections, at which time we could assume that the Rouhani and Zarif foreign policy team will no longer be in any form of power. Should the new administration be ready from the very first day with its own initiative, whether it’s just a unilateral return to the JCPOA and implementation of it by us or something more ambitious? Or should it consider it has enough time to simply wait it out a few months, start a study group, and what the new administration in Iran will be like?
LABOTT: Those are some two very big assumptions, right, that Biden is going to be elected and there’s going to be a new foreign policy architecture in Iran. So maybe—you know, obviously, you want to focus on the Biden part, but maybe, you know, what if—what if it doesn’t play out like that?
GORDON: Thanks. So Richard made an important point on this earlier, which is whatever happens there will be one sense of urgency, which is Iran will be much closer to having the fissile material for a bomb in January. And unless there’s a big surprise in the next six months you can almost assume that even if Biden is elected—you know, I made the point earlier that if we can go back to compliance for compliance, we would have time to negotiate over all of these things and maybe even see different changes in Iran. No doubt, the supreme leader will be gone, you know, before there’s another U.S. election. And so, you know, I really believe that’s important. We don’t have to be panicked if we can go back to compliance for compliance.
But on day one of a new administration, you will have the situation where we’ll probably know that the breakout timeline—and the way we defined it is enough material for a bomb—will be in, you know, weeks or months. We won’t know—because there’s an important second part of the breakout timeline, which is weaponization, we won’t know about that. But that’s the problem: We won’t know. So what will be urgent for a new administration is to come to terms on some way to stop their activities that went beyond what was agreed in the deal and reverse them as quickly as possible. So it might be necessary to do something in an interim way. If you’ll remember, you know, before we did the JCPOA we did the JPOA, which as temporary. It was let’s freeze this, we’ll give you a bit of relief, you’ll stop some nuclear activities, and we’ll try to negotiate a deal. That might be necessary, stop the clock.
And I think, you know, to finish on Jon’s question, that compliance for compliance has to be the baseline. There will be a real American temptation to say, well, you know, that was then. A couple of years ago that sounded good. But now that we’ve got them cornered, let’s get that better deal now. And that will be tempting, and I would welcome a better deal immediately. But you have to understand that immediately, if Iran’s answer was no, you’ve got to be kidding—I mean, the Iranians are going to come back and actually say they want compensation for the two years in which we didn’t participate in the deal. I don’t think that’s realistic and we should reject it, but the idea that we’ll just easily be able to say, well, now that we’ve got—you know, your economy’s hurting more, we actually want you to extend this deal indefinitely or change the terms, you need an answer if they say no. You know, they are a couple of weeks/months breakout timeline, they say no, you need an answer to that question. And I’m not sure that anybody has one.
LABOTT: Thanks for your question, Jon.
Operator, next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Mona Yacoubian.
LABOTT: Hi, Mona.
Q: Hi, Elise. Good to see everyone.
So my question pivots off of something Karen said, and that is the potential for unintended escalation between the U.S. and Iran and the potential that it could spiral out of control. My question—and it’s really for the entire panel—is, what measures, if any, can be undertaken in the short term to deescalate and to ideally insure against that kind of unintended escalation, and by whom? Thanks.
LABOTT: Karen, why don’t you start? We’ll go around the panel quickly.
YOUNG: Well, I’ll defer to the more experienced negotiators and diplomats on the panel, but it seems to me that, you know, we need lots of channels of communication, from kind of the track two small-level up to, you know, using our interlocutors, whether it’s the Swiss or the Europeans or whoever else is willing. Yeah, I mean, and this is something that does concern me a lot. I don’t—I don’t feel like right now that this is something that is a priority for the Trump administration. I think it’s staffed a bit thin on these kind of issues. And, yeah, but I defer to my fellow panelists for their advice.
LABOTT: What do you think, Norm?
ROULE: Well, first, we’ve undergone the risk of a catastrophic escalation for several years. Think of those 311 missiles, the 363 drones, or the—or the boat attacks, if any one of those had struck a significant facility. Think of an embassy in Saudi Arabia. Think of Yanbu. Think of a major U.S. weapons facility. We have what would be a catastrophic success because the West or the Saudi government or the Emirati government would be compelled to respond to both restore deterrence and to demonstrate to their own people that they are standing up against Iran. So we should know that as long as Iran is undertaking this activity, this could happen literally while we’re speaking.
Now, at the same time, we the United States, and certainly the powers in the region, have no interest in a conventional war. This has been communicated many times.
And finally, on the issue of communications with Iran, I have watched this country and various U.S. administrations approach Iran for pretty much thirty-five years. It is one of the easiest countries in the world with whom to speak. We have permanent reps at the U.N. We have the Swiss. We have multiple senior powers. We have multiple other areas of engagement. It’s not necessarily that we have a problem exchanging messages; it’s a problem that we have a problem maintaining a conversation.
So deescalating, saying it ends here, we actually saw that happen on each side after the Soleimani killing, and that ended follow-on attacks.
LABOTT: Richard, I was surprised after Soleimani that there was an immediate kind of de-escalation.
NEPHEW: There was, but there was also an immediate missile attack on a U.S., you know, staffed facility that we—
LABOTT: Well, you knew that they had to—you knew that they had to respond in some way, but you kind of knew—I think that there was an understanding on all sides that that’s it.
NEPHEW: Well, I’m not so confident about that. In fact, actually, I’ll go to Norm’s point about a potential catastrophic success. I mean, as it turns out, you know, we have, you know, dozens of American servicepeople with concussions and other, you know, damage as a result of that missile attack, you know. It wouldn’t have taken much for it to have, you know, led to a direct hit. And having read the CENTCOM internal report where they were talking about, you know, what it was like under the attacks—this is published by CENTCOM—frankly, it underscored to me exactly what our risks are of a catastrophic escalation.
So, look, I think in terms of measures to deescalate, you know, I think there are two that to me are within our control. I think, first, you know, I think the U.S. could do a lot more to reduce the sanctions burden that’s contributing to the COVID crisis inside of Iran. That’s not going to convince the Iranian government that we’re good guys, but it might be able to give you a little bit of goodwill amongst the Iranian population. At a minimum, it buys you goodwill in Europe, and it buys you goodwill amongst partners and allies, and at least contributes to a sense that we’re not trying to do something here that’s, I think, seen as fairly crude, which is to use the current crisis on top of sanctions pressure to collapse the regime.
Second, in hewing to that, clearer statements about our intent. The fact that the Trump administration has had two different messages—that we want to shake the regime and potentially collapse the regime, and the president’s saying I don’t want regime change—is confusing, and it’s difficult for the Iranians to understand where we are on this. I think making clearer statements about our intent vis-à-vis regime change would also be very useful.
And I’ll say—just one last comment—I do think that both of those things are possible under the Trump administration, but I think they’re exceedingly unlikely. And I think that’s more than anything my big concern. I don’t see much scope for this president at this point being able to take any serious steps on de-escalation that wouldn’t have to go well beyond what I just said to demonstrate any real good faith to the Iranians.
LABOTT: Phil, we are where we are right now. What are the one or two things that reasonably you could imagine or recommend that the Trump administration could do to deescalate?
GORDON: The only thing I’d add is just the reminder I—we should not imagine that we’ve somehow gotten through this. I think Mona was right to raise this because I think there is still a real risk of—we haven’t resolved anything. We’ve sort of gotten back to—you know, we got off of that quick escalatory—
LABOTT: In their corners.
GORDON: But we haven’t resolved anything. And you know, Iran had been probing. I mentioned the importance of taking away the oil waivers and sending them a message that they can’t export anything, and I think their response was telling. You know, I think they said the Trump administration thought it was forcing Iran to a deal: either you accept everything we need you to do in the region and on the nuclear side or you’re just going to suffer. Well, then starting last spring Iran said, well, you know what, there’s another option: You’re going to suffer too. And you get the oil tankers, blowing up Abqaiq. If you’re not going to let us export oil, well, your friends aren’t going to export oil either. U.S. drone. The missile attacks that Norm referred to. The missile attacks from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. And they were—they were probing and testing—very carefully, because they’re not stupid; they don’t want to provoke a large-scale military conflict either—but they were probing to see where the line was. And then they found it and they crossed it, and they killed an American in Iraq, and we responded. But you know, as Richard pointed out, there was a time when a ballistic missile attack undisguised from Iran onto a base in Iraq where American soldiers were was a big deal. So the idea that somehow, oh, they didn’t—they didn’t want to do anything or that they weren’t prepared to respond, that was—ran significant risks of killing Americans. It did—
GORDON: —injure a number of them.
And also, don’t forget the time here. It is true it’s now been almost six months since then, but you know, it was three months between cutting off the oil and the tanker attacks and the drone attack, and then it was three months between the drone attack and the Saudi oil facility, and the missile strikes in Iraq have been periodic. So Iran is still there. And as we increase the pressure, at some point they may conclude again it’s time to show that there’s a cost to the United States as well.
LABOTT: Karen, you have a point?
YOUNG: Yeah, I just wanted to—let’s also give credit where it’s due. We have had these prisoner exchanges, so that’s been successful.
LABOTT: Even today.
YOUNG: Credit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their restraint. And I think the—Phil is exactly right in terms of the way that Iran has calibrated its attacks over the last year, and they have been very careful, I think. And the reaction from the GCC states—from Saudi Arabia, the UAE—has also been extremely careful.
We haven’t been so careful. I think the Soleimani retaliation was a surprise. It was probably kind of a last-minute decision. So, you know, this, again, makes them look a little bit more—them meaning those who actually live in the region—you know, more careful and discerning about their reactions than perhaps we have been.
LABOTT: Yeah. It’s important, as we talked about the release of prisoners, that Iran released Navy veteran Michael White after an Iranian scientist flown back to Iran earlier in the week.
Operator, next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from John Austin.
LABOTT: Hi, John.
Q: Hey. Good afternoon.
My question is to Norm. I want to preface this to make sure I understand your point when you said that there should be more cooperation with the next agreement, considering all the stress that took place under the Obama administration. And I’m curious, what does a better, bipartisan agreement look like, considering that under the Obama administration in the midst of the negotiations Tom Cotton wrote a letter signed by forty-seven senators that undermined the administration in the midst of a negotiation? Trump comes in, he dismisses the agreement. Both his secretary of state and his secretary of defense both advise not pulling out of the agreement. So moving forward, they both seem very polarized in terms of political parties. So in your mind, what does a bipartisan agreement look like?
LABOTT: Thanks, John.
ROULE: Prior to the JCPOA, as part of the Obama administration, I briefed every member of Congress—that includes the Senate—four times, either in large groups, small groups, or on the stage next to Secretary Kerry, Lew, and Moniz—Secretaries Kerry, Lew, and Moniz. I had multiple conversations—private conversations with Democrats and Republicans who expressed very similar concerns about Iran policy, because they’re American patriots no matter where they stand politically. I think an engagement with their—the reasonable people of Congress—and we spend a lot of time in our political system thinking otherwise, but there are certainly reasonable people—and I think ensuring that at the very least this engagement engenders sufficient support so that a deal can receive some expression of bipartisan support I think is very useful.
There will be those who for very good reason—the deaths of Americans, terrorism, missile attacks, these aren’t—these aren’t things you can put aside—let alone the nuclear program, which shouldn’t be ignored either—who will say no deal is possible, we can’t deal with this regime. And I don’t think you’ll be able to shut these people up one way or the other, and that’s democracy. But I did see firsthand a willingness by Democrats and Republicans to work together and engage to come up with a broader Iran policy. I believe those people—I continue to speak with both sides of the aisle—I believe they both exist, and I think there is room for bipartisanship.
LABOTT: Richard, you’re nodding your head.
NEPHEW: I think that’s right. And look, even more important than the fact of that is the need for it.
You know, ultimately, part of the reason why the JCPOA failed is because there wasn’t any bipartisan support. Now, I personally think there should have been. I think the agreement was a good and useful one, and achieved the objectives that we had, and should have been left in place. But the fact of the matter is, it wasn’t. And I think the Iranians themselves see that as well. I think one of the core Iranian demands in a future negotiation will be prove to me this lasts a presidency—prove to me. And so even if I didn’t want to have a bipartisan agreement, I think the Iranians will want a bipartisan agreement, and I think that means that we need to have a discussion.
But—but—critically, this needs to be a discussion based on fact and reality. If it’s a discussion based upon Iran having zero enrichment, well, that’s not a bipartisan good-faith attempt on the other side either. So I think ultimately what we need is a very serious discussion about what we need versus what we want, and then about what we can actually achieve. And if you do that, I’m quite convinced that there is a bipartisan group that can come together on that.
LABOTT: Thanks for your question. Next question, operator.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Patrick Theros.
LABOTT: Hi, Patrick.
Q: Hi. I came on a little bit late, so if this was discussed earlier my apologies.
One of the problems that I see is that those who argue for a tougher policy essentially are arguing for turning Iran into some sort of Finland to Saudi Arabia, which in turn means regime change. Regime change assumes that we know who the new regime will be. Does anybody have any idea how regime change might happen in Iran and who will succeed?
LABOTT: Norm, why don’t you take that one?
ROULE: So, again, as someone who has engaged during and after the deal with many people who would be on, let’s say, the anti-deal crowd, I have never heard anyone in my entire career say we’re looking for a Finlandization to Saudi Arabia. That’s a period. I have—if you look at Secretary Pompeo’s list of problems with Iran from May of 2018 and exclude the first three, which are related to the nuclear deal, I think you’ll be challenged to say which of those should not be important parts of U.S. policy—not necessarily so important that we cease a nuclear deal, but what part of detainees, terrorism, militias like Hezbollah, et cetera, et cetera, in the region do you think we can ignore? And those are valid—those are valid issues.
In terms of what’s going to happen in Iran, I think we have to recognize a limited agency to conduct—to change regimes in other countries. And I’m really looking forward to Phil’s book because Phil is a really smart guy, and I encourage everyone to read it. I’ll buy a few copies and he’ll have to inscribe it. But Iran is moving towards a much harder-line regime that will be dominated by the IRGC. The IRGC is spread throughout its society, throughout the Majlis, throughout the Cabinet. It is inevitable that it’s going to be the driving factor in where Iran is going with its next generation of leadership. That’s inevitable no matter what we—what we do. And I’ve never heard anybody say that if we just overthrow the supreme leader—and I have not advocated that—that we will somehow get a pleasant regime in return.
LABOTT: Phil, what do you—what do you think, Phil, as the author of The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East, out in October?
GORDON: It’s going to be so hard for me to disagree with Norm after he was just so nice to me, but I’m going to—I’m going to do it anyway because he’s a tough guy and he can take it.
Just on the Pompeo conditions which Norm referred to, I think there’s a sort of trick in there. Because you’re right, obviously, Norm; these are things we all should wish for and expect, and it’s outrageous that Iran doesn’t behave according to that list. But what I mean by trick is if you say unless and until Iran meets all of these conditions and does what we want we are going to keep maximum pressure on and squeeze them, you are—because that’s not realistic. I mean, let’s just be honest. I would love for that to result from a negotiation; I just don’t think it will happen, in the—in the same way it hasn’t happened with North Korea. They dig in and preserve their regime that way. And so you’re essentially saying that you’re going to keep that pressure on—
LABOTT: You want a different regime.
GORDON: —until there’s a different regime, and you’re boxing yourself in. So that is a regime-change policy.
And you know, where it leads us, I think, is to where it’s led us now, to an Iran that is no doubt feeling lots and lots of pain, but doesn’t seem anywhere closer to bringing about that regime, certainly not one that would then implement that list. It hasn’t brought them to the table for a better nuclear deal. It hasn’t improved their behavior in the region for reasons you have explained and also for the fact that a lot of what they do in the region is relatively cheap. So even if you’re cutting off their revenues from oil sales, they can still arm the Houthis and Hezbollah and so on.
So that’s why I—you know, I sometimes feel like even though the administration denies it has a regime-change policy, by default that’s what it is unless you somehow imagine—and Secretary Pompeo actually, you know, let his guard down and admitted that at one point when he was pressed by our former colleague Mike Morrell on his podcast. When he said, do you really think this regime is capable of doing those things, Secretary Pompeo said, well, no, but the people are capable of sweeping aside the regime. And that’s what I—that’s the policy train I’m worried we’re on, where it turns out that squeezing their economy isn’t working so let’s take the next step, like foment ethnic divisions, maybe support different groups in Iran. And then I think, you know, that’s just a counterproductive policy that hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work in the future.
LABOTT: Operator, I think we could take one more question.
STAFF: We’ll take the last question from Nayla Rizk.
LABOTT: Hi, Nayla.
STAFF: Ms. Rizk, please accept the unmute now button.
Q: I’m sorry; I did not have a question, so please go to someone else.
LABOTT: OK. You know what, I’m going to ask the panel—we have a few minutes. Actually, let’s go to one more question and then I’m going to ask everybody to offer a closing thought. Operator, one more question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Edward Burnett.
LABOTT: Hi, Edward.
Q: Hey. This is Ed Burnett. Thank you all for coming together. I used to work for Norm when I was in the IC. So, hey, Norm? Hey, what’s going on, boss?
I know that agreements are really personality based a lot of times, and you have to have the right people on the—on the other side to actually make things come to pass. I’m interested that even if we have a Biden administration come in if they have the right people on the Iranian side to still enact some of the details and get down into the specifics like they had for the last time.
LABOTT: Norm, do you want to take that one?
ROULE: Sure. I think the—Iran has a number of very capable diplomats, technicians, sanctions experts, and lawyers who would be able to engage with their U.S. counterparts. Iran’s foreign minister has no authority on policy. He can only work within the boundaries set by the supreme leader. The current foreign minister is unrivaled in both his mendacity and capacity to whitewash regime work, but they’ll have another foreign minister who will be in the same position. In the end of the day it comes down to what will the supreme leader authorize.
LABOTT: But, Phil, I mean, that might be true, and I—and I do believe, obviously, everyone knows that in the end it’s the supreme leader—but I did find, you know, having covered the Iran talks, that that chemistry between not just Kerry and Zarif, but you know, among the whole group really was important, and especially after the deal in terms of, you know, some of the miscalculations or potential escalations that Karen was forewarning against. I thought that having that kind of chemistry was kind of key to the atmosphere of the talks.
GORDON: You know, I think it is the case that the supreme leader gave Rouhani some space to pursue that course, and that tells us something. I mean, to the extent we understand anything about Iran internally, which we should be humble about—and Norm knows more about it than anyone—it looked to us like—you know, keep in mind Rouhani came out—you know, they exclude a lot of people who can run for president. He was among those most interested in engagement among those that they allowed in, and he significantly won the election pretty strongly. I think to the extent we can read these things, that sent a message that, guess what, the Iranian public is not happy being isolated. They don’t like economic isolation. Rouhani symbolized a course of action that was a nuclear deal with the West and economic openness, and the Iranians massively voted for that to the extent that they have the liberty to vote freely. So we took that as a sign, and I think it was, that the supreme leader was giving Rouhani some space, along with Zarif supporting him, to see if he could negotiate a deal that was in Iran’s interest because he detected that that’s what the Iranian public wanted.
And Iran is not a totalitarian society. I mean, for all of these—the way the regime runs, this is not North Korea, and the Iranian public has a degree of say, and the supreme leader can’t ignore that entirely. So I do think he gave some space to Rouhani, Zarif, and company to—only a certain amount of space, but some space to try to negotiate that deal. And that’s what we took advantage of, and we got that deal. But now it’s going to be that much harder the next time out, I think, because the supreme leader, in some ways he and the hardline—the harder-line position is strengthened by saying, I told you you couldn’t trust these guys, and there are too many opponents of our country in the West and in the United States, and that’s why, you know, Iran is on its heels and weakened right now, I think.
LABOTT: OK. I’m going to ask you—we’re really at time, and you know that’s really one of the only rules of the Council is that we end on time. But I’ve gotten special compensation to—you each have one minute. What does a broader, comprehensive policy in the Middle East that is multilateral, sustainable, and holds the greatest chance of getting Iran to compromise and maintaining some kind of international coalition on that? Richard, why—you have one minute. Richard, lay that out for us.
NEPHEW: Just that? So I would say, you know, three things, really, would be my structure.
I mean, first, I think we still have to deal with the wolf closest to the sled, which is the nuclear issue and the immediate threat that we’ve got of a regionwide conflict erupting from Iran’s nuclear program. I think we need to bear in mind the reason why the Obama administration prioritized the nuclear issue is because there was real concern that Israel or other states would have to strike Iran, and that that could incite a regionwide conflagration. I think that still is a problem we need to deal with. So, first and foremost, we need to deal with that.
Second, I think even if it’s going to take years and years and years, getting an actual regionwide dialogue on security issues going is a real need. And I think if anything else, the Saudis and the Emiratis and to some extent the Israelis have had kicked into them a little bit by the Trump administration even if you think your guy is there, it’s not necessarily going to be sufficient to be able to get what you want, so you need to have some kind of discussion.
And I think third is to, you know, demonstrate for our own part that we are prepared to defend our interests inside of the region, and that includes energy supply coming out of the region, but that we are not going to invest ourselves into fighting other people’s wars just ‘cause. And I think that creating that sense of limited bounds to what our policies and what our interests are in the region will actually lead to some constructive and realistic policy decision-making on the part of all states that are located there.
LABOTT: Thanks, Richard.
YOUNG: I would just say I think we are headed for a really difficult time in the region economically and it’s in the U.S. interest to see a strong recovery. And that includes a recovery in Iran. And so regional security dialogue architecture is a big part of that. And you know, we are better off when the region itself is better off, and we can do a lot to help facilitate that.
LABOTT: Norm, lay that out for us in terms of getting—especially on the piece of getting Iran—giving Iran an incentive.
ROULE: Iran has valid issues in the region: counterterrorism, counternarcotics, environmental, refugees, trade. These are the same issues that any normal country is allowed to have. But Iran also maintains its foreign policy in the region under the domination of the Quds Force. So I agree with what Richard and Karen have stated. A nuclear component, a regional component, and our national commitment component will have to be measured. But as—while we’re talking—while we’re talking, bombs are being dropped on people in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. And there is a truism—and I mean no criticism to, certainly, anybody here or elsewhere—that the people who are most willing to be patient in those process(es) usually live the farthest away from the battlespaces where their children are being impacted by Iran’s activity, and the people who are the least patient are the ones who have children who are under the threat of Iranian activity that day. And that’s a very difficult dynamic.
Phil, just quickly wrap—take it home for us, OK?
GORDON: Thanks, Elise. This is, obviously, a super-hard problem, as this discussion underscores.
I agree, and I’ve already said, I think the nuclear thing is most urgent, and that will need to be put back in the box very quickly after the election regardless of who wins.
I think we do need to maintain deterrence. We’ve had a lot of discussion here about whether deterrence works, and I’ve been skeptical about the administration’s approach, but Iran needs to know there are lines. We remain far stronger than Iran militarily. We have friends in the region. And we should make clear that when they cross certain lines, they pay a big price from that. But we at the same time need to leave an out and a future for Iran where they don’t see us just as relentlessly determined to eliminate their existence and their regime.
And then on maybe a more—and by the way, those first two things aren’t inconsistent. Norm’s absolutely right about the urgency of the missiles, but not having a nuclear deal doesn’t deal with that problem either, right? So it’s not one or the other, and sometimes in the Middle East you got to take what you can get.
But to end on a maybe more hopeful note—and this was kind of the point about buying time—Iranians don’t want to live in this situation either. And I think one of the things we have seen over time is that the Iranian public, Iranian youth are fed up with this. And if we can deal with the wolf at the door and show the Iranians that we’re not implacably hostile, ultimately—I made the Soviet analogy earlier in the context of regime change. In that case it wasn’t a revolution from below, but a leadership that decided it really needed to change. And I think there is some hope that in the long run the Iranians will end up in a similar place.
LABOTT: Well, unfortunately, we’re out of time. I’d like to thank all of the panelists. And thank you so much to the Council for this discussion and all the wonderful work you’re doing to keep all of members and the public informed and continue to have these discussions. And thank you to everybody for watching.