• Israel
    How Much of a Threat Does Hamas Still Pose to Israel?
    Israel has made eliminating the threat from the Gaza-based militant group a central war aim, but it’s not entirely clear at what point that condition will be met.  
  • Iran
    Iran’s Succession Woes, ICC Angers Israel, South Africa’s Election, and More
    Podcast
    Iran’s regime carefully vets candidates for new presidential elections after the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash; Israeli leadership reacts to the International Criminal Court (ICC) request for warrants to arrest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant; South Africa prepares for a general election that could contest the ruling African National Congress’ long-standing majority; and Taiwan inaugurates Lai Ching-te as the new president, aggravating China.
  • Middle East Program
    Virtual Media Briefing: Iran After Raisi and New ICC Charges
    Play
    CFR experts discuss the implications of the death of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, new International Criminal Court charges against Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leadership, and other updates from the Middle East. ROBBINS: Thanks so much, Will. And welcome, everybody. As Will said, this is on the record. I’m Carla Anne Robbins. I’m a senior fellow here at the Council. And I’m co-host the Council’s The World Next Week podcast.   We’re joined today by three Council experts and friends of mine. They’re well known to everyone, so I’m just going to give a very brief introduction.  Steven Cook is in the Eni—I can never do this one, Steven—the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and African Studies. And he’s an expert in Arab and Turkish politics and U.S. Middle East policy. He’s also a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. And his next book is The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East.   David Scheffer is a senior fellow with a focus on international law and international criminal justice. And among his many roles during the Clinton administration, he was the first-ever U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues and led the U.S. delegation to the U.N. talks establishing the ICC, and signed the Rome Statute of the ICC on behalf of the United States on December 31, 2000, before the George W. Bush administration pulled out. He also negotiated the creation of five war crimes tribunals.   And Ray Takeyh is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council. His area of specialization are Iran and the modern Middle East. Prior to joining CFR, he has served as a senior advisor on Iran at the State Department, a fellow at Yale University, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Middle East Center at University of California, Berkeley—my alma mater. And is most recently the author of The Last Shah: America, Iran in the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.  Steven, Ray, David, and I will have a discussion for about twenty minutes and then open things up for your questions. So, Ray, can we start—(background noise)—who’s talking to me? So, Ray, can we start with you? How does the death of Iran’s president in this helicopter crash change the power structure in Iran? Not only was he the president, the betting was he was going to replace the ayatollah, supreme leader.   TAKEYH: Well, this certainly was a succession crisis that the regime did not anticipate. And it creates a measure of paralysis in how it works. Ebrahim Raisi was a fairly lackluster president. He lacked the imagination and the skill for that job. But he was Ali Khamenei’s ideal president because he was so in line with him with everything that he said, and so forth.   Whether he was suitable successor to the current leader I’m not entirely sure, because he lacked that sort of skill and cunning that you need for that job. But he was—certainly would have been part of the structure that would appoint the new supreme leader. So in that particular sense, that particular structure—which is fairly opaque—has to be reconsidered anew, and perhaps a new member added to the commission that was already investigating that possibility and vetting various candidates. He could very well have come up to that job, given the fact that the Islamic Republic is sort of a grading on a grade inflation basis these days.   In terms of the—and, obviously, they have to have a new president. That opens up the possibility of election within fifty days. That opens up a lot of old wounds about who’s going to allowed to be run, who’s not going to run, and who will actually be anointed to become the next president. So it will create some sort of a division within the elite once more. Those divisions, of course, have always been there, as the Islamic Republic has been so relentlessly purged of the old establishment figures in the past few years. So, once again, you begin to see those wounds be aggravated.   And then the decision will be about who should be the next president and whether you go for the younger generation that are waiting for his turn, or some of the more seasoned political figures. My guess is, it’s probably going to be one of the members of the younger generation who are a dominant faction in the parliament, and so forth. In terms of Iran’s foreign policy, it doesn’t really affect it that much. Raisi rarely, essentially, said anything about matters of international relations other than supporting whatever the regime was doing at the time. He doesn’t—he didn’t seem to take initiative, foreign policy was not an area where he was active, like his predecessor President Rouhani.   In terms of the management economy, the economy is cratering at high inflation, unemployment rates, and his policies have largely been criticized on that front. And, as I said, on the security issues he would usually be an affirmative voice for what was happening, as opposed to initiate his own—his own ideas, and so forth. So there’ll be some changes, but those changes are going to be particularly in the realm of succession about who is to succeed and what is a process of succession.  And also it will be impacted, in terms of the country has to have another election in fifty days. It can potentially go beyond that. And that will create some degree of political space where you begin to see all disagreement surface and the possibility of some degree of disquiet at home, given the fact that the Iranian people are going to be summoned to certify another choice for president that they had very little to do with. That may create some degree of popular agitation. And that’s what the regime has to be very concerned about.   This is only the second time the Islamic Republic has had to deal with a president who was killed before his term expired. The first time, ironically enough, was in 1981-1982, when Ali Khamenei rose to the office of presidency, because his predecessor was blown away by a terrorist. So they haven’t had that kind of experience for a long time. And now they have to deal with this issue, at a time when they’re dealing with so many other issues whether it’s in the region or at home. And this was a complication that the system certainly didn’t need.   ROBBINS: So, just really quickly, were you surprised that they so quickly attributed to mechanical failure and didn’t go for the conspiracy theory? Maybe that the Israelis were behind it, perhaps?  TAKEYH: Well, the conspiracy theories are going to be pervasive throughout the country anyways. The official explanation is never accepted. So they’re going to be attributing it to Israelis, to the Americans. They’re going to be attributing to internal political factions, this and that. So the official explanation is unlikely to be accepted, because it appears that in Iran today nobody dies of natural causes or accidents. So some conspiracy theories will find their way into the political atmosphere in that country, irrespective of the—of the official explanation. But I think the official explanation is not only correct, but also does not invite for the confrontation at this time with Israelis.  ROBBINS: I mean, I think that’s mainly why I was asking it. It seemed almost, dare we say, a responsible response on their part.  TAKEYH: Right. It would be very difficult for Israelis to build that mountain so quickly anyways. But so I think incompetence is usually the way to go on these issues. These helicopters were, I believe, Bell helicopters that the shah was building in Isfahan in 1978-79. And Javad Zarif has actually complained about the fact that the sanctions on the aviation industry has caused these mechanical failures. So for those who want to see if the sanctions work, well, they seem to have worked in this case, in an indirect way. But, you know, the existing explanation seems sufficient for their purposes at the moment.  ROBBINS: Thanks. David, the ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said today that he had requested warrants for prosecution for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, for Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader within Gaza, for Mohammed Deif, Hamas’ military leader, for Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ Qatar-based political leader. What does that mean, a request? What comes next? And can you talk a little bit about the crimes? President Biden, I think, said all of this was outrageous. Is this it? Is this an indictment? And what do we take away from this?  SCHEFFER: Well, thanks, Carla. The procedure under the International Criminal Court is that the prosecutor must request an arrest warrant, which we would consider to be an indictment. And that has to be then approved by a three-judge panel on what’s called the Pre-Trial Chamber of judges. What’s a little unusual—and that can take weeks, it can take months. There’s varied practice before the ICC as to how quickly these judges actually arrive at these determinations. It would not surprise me whatsoever if the judges take a few months. It also would be a little surprising to me if perhaps they did not reach decision before their summer break in August. I would think they’d sort of pin that as an objective, to try to reach a decision before the August break at the court. But it certainly—unless, you know, I’m shocked—unless it’s an immediate decision by the judges, but I somewhat doubt that.   I am a little surprised that the prosecutor went public with this request to the judges. That’s somewhat unprecedented at the ICC. Typically, the prosecutor keeps this in house, gets the judicial decision, and then there’s the public announcement of the arrest warrant. In part because you don’t want the targeted individuals to flee prematurely before the arrest warrant is actually confirmed by the judges. So I think maybe an interesting question for the media with the court would be perhaps to try to ask that of the prosecutor’s office. Why is there a public announcement before the judges have actually decided?  In terms—and, by the way, nonetheless, this does not surprise me as an intensive watcher of the court. We know that this has been under investigation since late October, early November. Obviously, at some point there are going to be arrest warrants issued, given the scale of the alleged criminal conduct in the Israel-Hamas war—whether it be on the Hamas side or the Israeli side. I mean, it’s not going to be indefinitely no arrest warrants. Of course there are going to be warrants at some point. I was a little surprised at how quickly this came, but so be it.   In terms of the crimes that are actually in the arrest warrants, the arrest warrants against the Hamas individuals focus very, very much on sort of the raw crimes of war crimes and crimes against humanity—extermination, murder, sexual violence, rape, torture, holding of hostages, et cetera, cruel treatment. These are all signatures of what we’ve been reading about in terms of the Hamas actions.   When it comes to the Israeli—the arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Gallant on the Israeli side, interestingly the warrants focus pretty exclusively on the crime of starvation and the consequences of starvation with the civilian population. The prosecutor pointedly did not put any charges in that arrest warrant dealing with the bombing campaign in Gaza. And he actually says towards the end of his explanation, that remains under investigation. But this arrest warrant against Netanyahu and the other one against Gallant do not have the bombing campaign.   Now, I would also say that there are no genocide charges whatsoever in these arrest warrants. Both sides, you know, are—I mean, certainly, we know from the South Africa case in front of the world court that the charge of genocide is very central to that particular case, at the world court. And, of course, Israel could quite legitimately argue that the actions on October 7 were very genocidal in character, and that Hamas is demonstrating that genocidal intent. None of that is in these particular charges. Genocide is off the table, at least for the moment, in terms of these announcements.   And then, finally, I would just say that, from what I’ve seen this morning coming out of both Israel, Washington here, I would not have suggested that what has happened today is, quote/unquote, “outrageous.” I mean, it’s entirely predictable. No one should be surprised by this. But I would say that—you know, obviously, it would be fair to say that it’s very distressing to see these arrest warrants being applied for with respect to whatever side you want to express your distress on, particularly the Israeli side. But “outrageous” is sort of, if I may coin a term, you know, a bit over the top in terms of how one might describe this.   And then may I just finally say, Carla, very, very quickly, I think we should keep in mind how this could all play out in a negotiated settlement to the end of the war. There are lots of options that are now on the table because of what’s happened this morning that could play very critical roles in any negotiation to actually end this conflict. And there’s leverage put on the table now. And I can get into that if someone wants to question me about it.  ROBBINS: I’m sorry, can you just answer that really quickly? Which is, doesn’t this—if the court agrees with the indictments, I mean, the court doesn’t get to sit around the table and say we’re going to take the indictment off the table if you agree to a two-state solution.  SCHEFFER: No. No. No, no, of course, not.  ROBBINS: Doesn’t it mean that there’s less leverage there? Because he can’t go to 124 countries then, if he’s indicted.  SCHEFFER: No. No, that’s not the way it could work.   ROBBINS: OK.  SCHEFFER: It could work as follows, that the negotiators at the table—let’s say it’s—it’ll have to be Israel, it’ll have to be the Palestinians. I mean, at some point they have to talk to each other. And they can actually reach a couple of agreements.   One would be that, upon recognizing the state of Palestine—in other words, the end of the process would have to be a two-state settlement, of course, or solution. That when that occurs, then Israel and Palestine would enter into what we call an Article 98(2) non-surrender agreement, under the Rome Statute, whereby they would each agree not to surrender any suspects to the ICC which are in their custody. OK, for Israel and Palestine. Now, that would be a tough deal, because, you know, obviously, many would want to see the Hamas targets prosecuted someday. And then, of course, many on the other side would want to see the Israeli officials prosecuted. But that could be a deal cut in order to get to a two-state solution.   The other possibility—and I’ll stop with this—is that there could be an agreement among the permanent five of the Security Council as part of a two-state settlement or solution deal that the Security Council would vote under Article 16 of the Rome Statute to suspend all ICC investigations and prosecutions relating to the Israel-Hamas war for one year. And that would just then block the ICC from taking any further action. And then they—of course, they’d have to renew that each year, if it were to be perpetuated. I’m not advocating any of that. I’m just saying those are objective options that could be put on the table.  ROBBINS: Huh. That’s—thanks. Thank you, David, for that.   So, Steven, even before what happened with the ICC, it wasn’t—it was a pretty horrible, terrible, no-good week for Bibi Netanyahu. His War Cabinet was seen to be publicly unraveling. There was a resumption of street protests, which had been very quiet. Can you talk a little bit about what was going on before, and how this changes it or doesn’t?  COOK: Yeah. It has been not a very good period for Prime Minister Netanyahu. It obviously hasn’t been a good period for him since October 7. But, nevertheless, last week was particularly bad. And the trigger for this was the fact that the IDF was back engaged in pretty intensive fighting in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, a place that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declared “pacified” in November.   And Gallant went public with his criticism of Netanyahu and his resistance to hammering out a day-after plan. And, also, he called upon the prime minister to say and declare that Israel has no intention of establishing settlements in the Gaza Strip. This came on the heels of a rather large protest of the settler right, which is seeking to resettle the Gaza Strip. Not an insignificant number of people and not an insignificant percentage of the Israeli public actually support the resettlement of the Gaza Strip. And Gallant, I think echoing the IDF high command which does not want to be the military administration in the Gaza Strip, was calling for, one, that declaration, as well as a day-after plan.  A couple of days later, Benny Gantz—the other member of the War Cabinet, in addition to Netanyahu—came out and said, basically, he needs a day-after plan. And he needs it by June 8, otherwise he’s going to leave the government. Netanyahu, obviously, responded and said: Our first goal is the destruction of Hamas. If Gantz leaves the government—the War Cabinet, it doesn’t really matter in terms—and the government—it doesn’t really matter, because Netanyahu’s coalition would still command sixty-four seats in the Knesset.   And the reason why Netanyahu is unwilling to comply with the demands from his defense minister, as well as his—other members of the War Cabinet, as well as the United States, is that if he spells out day-after plan that does not include settlement in the Gaza Strip, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who together control fourteen seats in the Knesset, will bolt from the government, thereby bringing the government down. And then the question of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s legal jeopardy once again emerges.   So that is where things stood before this statement from the ICC prosecutor. I’ll leave it to David and others to figure out why he went outside the norm to declare that he was seeking these warrants. I’m not an expert in that area. But the Israeli response has been to criticize, obviously, the ICC for putting the prime minister of Israel and the defense minister of Israel—a country that still has a functioning judiciary—on the same plane as the terrorists of Hamas.   And in despite the fact that Netanyahu has been at loggerheads with Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, both Lapid and Gantz have come out with scathing criticism of the ICC decision. So it may actually end up helping Netanyahu, this closing of the ranks, the perception—you know, David is quite right. You know, nothing has actually been decided here. But in Israeli political discourse, as well as American political discourse, a lot has been decided. And we know that we live in an era where narrative is the most important thing.   And so it may help Netanyahu with the Israeli public, who already feels besieged and isolated. The world is against them. Antisemitism is rife everywhere. And in may encourage the Israelis to ignore those kinds of warnings from the Biden administration, despite the president’s criticism of the ICC thing, to really go forward in a very big way in Gaza. Which I think they’re planning anyway, but then I think the outlook will be, well, we have nothing to lose anyway. No matter what we do we’ll be criticized or indicted or warrants will be sought for our arrest. And so we might as well, as Netanyahu said before the country on Israel’s independence day, if we have to go it alone, we will go it alone. We’re the only ones who know how to secure our country.  ROBBINS: With that, happy thought, I’d turn it over to our many participants.  Will, can you explain—remind people how to ask a question?  OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)  ROBBINS: Waiting for people to raise their hands. So as we do that, this could be, of course—we have an explanation in the chat about how to do this. So waiting for people to ask questions. We have reporters. Come on, you guys, ask questions. I’m a reporter. I’ll ask a question. So, Steven, just a little bit more on the—we seem to have—ah. Can you—is it Pouya Lavian? Can you identify yourself and ask your question?  Q: Hi. Good afternoon. This is Pouya Lavian from Wells Fargo. Thank you all for taking the time.   Question for Ray. Do you see any sort of change in attitude for support of proxies by the Iranian regime while they’re dealing with internal issues relate to succession? Or do you feel it’s going to be full speed ahead for what they’ve been doing, you know, to date?  TAKEYH: The proxy war strategy, the notion of axis of resistance, that is a consensus position within the state. Within the regime it’s a consensus position because it’s been so spectacularly successful. They have managed to have a multinational force that they can deploy with limited cost and has been very effective in various fronts. So I don’t see disruptions in that particular realm.   Now, in terms of their approach overall to the Israeli-Gaza conflict that is taking place, well, they have to kind of figure out what their next steps are, because their entire strategy was that they would inflame the Israeli boundaries, and they would inflame international opinion, and they would inflame the American opinion, and that would impose some restrictions on Israeli conduct of war. And that has happened. Israel has become a very isolated country internationally, as was indicated with these particular measures by the international court. It’s been increasingly division—a divisive issue within the American political system. But all of that has not led to restraints on Israel, per se. So where they go from here in terms of that strategy remains to be seen.  This is the first time that the axis of resistance strategy hasn’t worked as was intended to. And it even led to a confrontation between Iran and Israel that hadn’t happened in forty-five years and could have potentially seriously gotten out of hand. So that aspect of it has to be rethought and reconsidered, and maybe be more aggressive in terms of the rings of fire around Israel, or hopefully that somehow the international community will once again seek to impose some kind of a restraint on Israeli public. And maybe that is—that is going to happen. But it hasn’t happened thus far. But overall, in terms of using these proxies to achieve your strategic objectives, that is a position of consensus—at least within the governing elite.  ROBBINS: Steven, can you talk a little bit about the sort of regional reaction to this level of potential instability inside of inside of Iran?   COOK: Well, you know, clearly the Saudis are, you know, interested in maintaining that level of dialogue that they established with the March 2023 resumption of diplomatic relations. They’re very plain in saying that they believe that the Iranians have violated every aspect of their agreement, but that they do not—but they value the continued dialogue because they see it as a source of stability. The Emiratis view in a similar fashion and are seeking to gain some leverage with the Iranians by dint of investment in joint projects, as we’ve seen over the last couple of years or so. So there is obviously concern about instability and power struggles across the Gulf, because it would potentially impact them.   There’s obviously no love lost between the Iranian regime and these—and the leaders. Particularly unhappy about the axis of evil and the way in which Iran’s proxies have essentially been given license to spread instability around the region. And this could be yet another source of it. But there’s really—I don’t think, unlike the discourse in the United States about Iran in which there is an endless debate about moderates versus hardliners and so on and so forth, the Gulfies really don’t make those distinctions whatsoever. And I think it’s a more realistic view of Iran.   So whoever comes after Raisi will be, as Ray pointed, another affirmative voice in what the Gulf states believed to be is an aggressive foreign policy. The reason why they pulled back from a confrontation from it, is because they just don’t trust the United States would be with them. So they will continue to maintain the kind of dialogue they had to keep the Iranians away from at least undermining their stability and security.  ROBBINS: David, why do you think that there was an announcement about this request from the prosecutor? There are two ways of looking at it, as someone who is not an expert on the court at all. One was they’re trying to jam the judges. And the other one is that they see this as potentially so urgent and that they’re making a political statement, and that perhaps they can save some lives by pressuring the Israelis right now, or pressuring Hamas right now. And they want to get their political message, their deterrent message, out there as fast as possible.  SCHEFFER: Carla, those are precisely the two reasons that are in the back of my mind.   ROBBINS: Darn, I’m good.  SCHEFFER: (Laughs.) Yeah. You’re very good.   First, it’s to literally sort of put the judges on the spot. Which is unusual, because they don’t like being put on the spot like this. They’re going to be under pressure from both the Israeli and the Palestinian side before they reach a decision. There’ll be an enormous amount of lobbying—obviously, through the media, et cetera, and, you know, op-eds and whatever—to try to influence their decision. That’s why you don’t go public like this.  The other thing, of course, is the prosecutor deciding that the imperative of ending these alleged crimes is so important that he’s not going to wait for that multi-week, multi-month process before he—you know, he’s made many statements, or at least several of them, including all the way back to late October, warning parties, both sides—and in particular Israel—don’t overplay your hand. There’s still international humanitarian law that has to be complied with. No one’s questioning the right of self-defense or the just war theory. It’s the question of how you wage just war that is at issue here. And I noticed some of the Israeli comment this morning seems to think that there’s this big criticism of a just war, that somehow it’s not a just war. That is not the argument. It’s how you wage the just war that’s the argument.   Could I just pick up on one thing that Steven said, which I think is very important from the Israeli point of view? The prosecutor made it a point in his statement this morning to say, complementarity is the—is the supreme rule of the International Criminal Court. Namely, if it can be demonstrated that these issues are being dealt with at the domestic court level, then the ICC essentially backs off. That’s a central theme of the entire Rome Statute structure. What Israel could do at this point, given that it has a superb, you know, legal system, is, frankly, before these judges reach a decision, they could demonstrate that there are legitimate inquiries before the courts of some character—I mean, they’d have to figure that out—as to the compliance of their top leaders with international humanitarian law, particularly of the character identified in the arrest warrant which focuses on starvation. And that Israeli courts will take this on affirmatively, and with determination they will—they will investigate this.   Now, I know that’s tough politically. But I’m just saying that’s one way to actually—the judges could just say, well, we’re going to back off and wait until complementarity takes its course. This is exactly what happened for years between the court and the country of Colombia about the whole civil war between FARC and the Colombian forces, Colombia kept saying, back off ICC, we’re dealing with this domestically, we’re going to handle it. And ultimately, they did and the ICC definitively backed off. So it’s a tactic, but it has to be done very, very smartly in order to demonstrate that complementarity.  ROBBINS: Given the fact that—of, what, the Netanyahu government’s desire to basically dismantle the autonomy of the Supreme Court, you could imagine the relationship between the judiciary. I can’t imagine that happening. But, Steven, you know more about Israeli politics than I do. Can you imagine them doing that?   COOK: Well, they have not yet actually undermined the independence of the—of the judiciary. What was happening in Israel prior to October 7, was an effort to do that. But that has not yet been accomplished. And there was significant response from the Supreme Court itself on this issue. I think, though, in the current political environment, it seems unlikely that the Israeli courts will take it upon themselves to investigate charges by the prosecutor that, I think, the vast majority of Israelis believe to be illegitimate and politically motivated. And so I think that that’s probably unlikely. They’re unlikely to find a way to solution that way.   And I suspect—and, again, after listening to David—I suspect that the prosecutor understands that none of these people will ever really be brought to justice. And that may be a reason why, in fact, he went public so quickly with this. There will be—and I think it was a miscalculation on his part. And there’ll be consequences as a result. I don’t think it’s going to save any Palestinian lives. I think there’s going to be consequences in terms of American action, particularly congressional action targeting the ICC. So it is unlikely to do much good on the battlefield and it’s unlikely to do very good in terms of international law.  ROBBINS: Luis Oganes, can you identify yourself, please?  Q: Hi. Luis Oganes, JPMorgan.   My question is for Ray. You mentioned that, you know, the—what’s just happened in Iran won’t change, you know, the hardline position vis-à-vis foreign policy, because that is—there is consensus about, you know, the position of Iran. However, domestically, you know, President Raisi was very unpopular. I understand that only 30 percent of Iranians participated in the last election. And there is a process of, you know, trying to block any reformers from participating in elections. Do you think the conditions are there for a bit more of a wider opening for the next round of candidates, that actually a reformer could emerge this time around? Thanks.  TAKEYH: Well, that’s got to be the very controversial debate within the country, because there will be reform candidates signing up for participating in the election and being vetted by the Guardian Council—the Council of Guardians, which all of this has to take place in the compressed period of time of fifty days. The reform faction has long been exorcized from the body politic. I mean, even before the previous round of elections, the reform candidates were not allowed to participate. And, really, they were not allowed to participate since 2009, with the contested presidential election between former prime minister and, currently in house arrest for all these years, Mir Hossein Mousavi. So that faction is no longer relevant in terms of participation in politics at a formal level, although I think their views and pronouncements remained quite popular within the public at large.   What has happened in the previous elections that was—happened in the mid—for Assembly of Experts and the parliament, that had happened a couple of months ago, is that you have people like former President Hassan Rouhani being disqualified. The longest speaker in the history of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, being disqualified, former minister of interior, and quite a killer in its own right, Mostafa Pourmohammadi being. So right now the disqualifications are no longer centered on reformists that have kind of different political ideas, but only the most reliable and ideological members of the political establishment, which increasingly are younger people in their forties and so forth that have come to political fruition, that dominant faction in the parliament today. And they’re rebelling against the old faction. And those rebellions are being successful, because they tend to be supported by Ali Khamenei.  So in this particular election, you’re going to have, my guess is, a limited number of choices, and limited number of candidates moving forward, simply because you need to fill that spot with alacrity. And you need to essentially fill it with people that are already vested in the system as it’s currently constituted and is currently—the belief structure that they all have. So I don’t see this as an opening for the reform movement, irrespective of the lack of popularity of President Raisi, as, I think, you suggested. I think in the last round—which was, to be fair, for parliament, Assembly Expert, it wasn’t 30 percent. In some of the major cities, like Tehran, it was probably 5 to 10 percent participation rate.  I don’t think the regime cares that much about that at this point. They sort of have bigger fish to fry. They’re going to suggest a greater degree of popular acclaim anyway. I think they suggested 47 percent of popular views. So I don’t see that as a new opportunity for opening the political system. The problem they’re going to have, as they’re dealing with this particular succession, is if somehow Ali Khamenei becomes incapacitated. Then I think the regime will be seriously in danger of the wheels falling off.  ROBBINS: You mean, because they’ll have a dual crisis?  TAKEYH: They’ll have a dual crisis, yeah.   Q: Thank you.  ROBBINS: Andrzej, you’ll have to identify yourself, including your last name.  OPERATOR: Andrzej, please accept the unmute now prompt.  Q: My name is Andrzej Dobrowolski. And I’m the New York correspondent for the Polish Press Agency.   I have two questions. First of all, what impact President Raisi’s death might have of Iran’s relations with Israel, Russia, other regional players, and the United States? And the second one is, how will his death affect Iran’s support for militias in the Middle East and its involvement in the Ukraine war?  TAKEYH: Those are fair questions. As I said, Ebrahim Raisi was not what you would call a foreign policy president. He wasn’t much of a domestic one, either. But at least he did—he kind of spoke about domestic affairs more so in his speeches. He talked a lot about economy and so forth, and mismanaged it rather dramatically. So he didn’t actually venture that much into providing a perspective on foreign relations, and all the issues that you spoke about, that differed from the established orthodoxy and establish pronouncement of the system. Those are not—those were not his thing. And, to be fair, his principal qualification for the job was that he was a member of the repressive state for a long time, in the judiciary and others, where he had very little problem executing people on as flimsy charges as possible.   So that was kind of his forte. That was his calling card. Now, he could comment on that if you asked him. But, you know, the intricacies of foreign relations, that was beyond him. And that was sort of beyond his foreign minister, actually. His foreign minister, who also perished in this particular accident, was also relatively lackluster in his approach. There is—what is happening in Islamic Republic, that’s been so thoroughly purged Ali Khamenei at all levels, is that you have people who are coming into the system that on a good day aspire to be mediocrities. And they don’t quite get out there, but at least aspire to that. So they don’t have a Zarif kind of a person that could charm the Westerners. They don’t have a Rouhani, who actually thought about issues differently—wrongly, it turned out.  But now you have people who kind of have their talking points, they seem to believe it, they’re authentic in terms of the revolutionary convictions. They believe, in terms of the larger international relations, that Iran has a place in the global configuration of powers, it has these global alliances with Russia and China, and all these three powers are in the same conflict with the United States and the West. And the West in this particular case is identified as Israel, as well as an adjunct of the American power and the Western imperialism in the Middle East. And they seem to think of Iran is a sort of a vanguard state within this great-power alignment. The other great power allies don’t think so. But, you know, as the 1970s song says, you should care if you’re feeling good. So, you know, they’re sort of going along with this.   That particular alignment, between Iran, Russia, and China, will change. And Iran will become more of a player, more of an equal player, when and if it gets nuclear weapons. It no longer will be satisfied with a junior partner status. As far as intervention in Ukraine, that makes no sense. It makes no national sense. It makes no ideological sense. There are no Islamist claims at stake in Ukraine. But that is the price you pay for great-power patronage. With great-power patronage also comes great-power responsibilities. And one of those is for Iran to be, at least for now, almost in an implicit war against NATO—an indirect war against NATO. That’s not in the national interest, or it doesn’t redeem any sort of ideological mission, but that is the price you pay for your great-power allies.  ROBBINS: We have—thank you for that. We have—and I’m going to remember that the great-power responsibilities for proxies as well.  So, Jessica Yellin, if you can really ask your question very quickly, identify yourself, and I’m going to let Steven, and David, and Ray have—jump in with one sentence, whether or not it answers your question. So, Jessica.  Q: Great. Hi. It’s Jessica Yellin. I’m with News Not Noise.   I’m wondering if you’d talk a little bit about the supreme leader’s son. I think is pronounced Mojtaba Khamenei.   TAKEYH: Yeah.  Q: If he were to—(inaudible)—Raisi, would you expect him to prioritize with the leadership change in any meaningful way?  TAKEYH: The Islamic Republic traditionally and historically does not do dynastic successions. That is what happens in—the Persian monarchs did that. The Arab presidents do that. That’s not what they do. Now, that doesn’t mean that the system up and down is not filled with nepo babies. Ali Bagheri is a nepo baby. His uncle was a great member of the clerical aristocracy. And he has all the smugness of arrogance of a nepo baby, if you ever met him. This system has all these nepo babies in it. You know, there’s a marriage to this, to that. But you can’t really formally have your supreme leader as a son of the former one. That’s not the way the system works.  The Islamic Republic, since its founding, has dispensed with some very essential criteria for the position of the supreme leader. You no longer have to have charismatic authority. You no longer have to have theological erudition. But you can’t be a kind of—the guy’s son and come to that post. Now, you can play a big role in the background, and so forth. And I think in that sense, Raisi may have been the right figure because he might have been a fairly passive supreme leader outside, you know, need for executions here and there. But I don’t see them doing dynastic succession.   If a dynastic succession does take place, that tells you how far the Islamic Republic has veered away from its original founding mission and its original creed and original way of doing things. As a matter of fact, most of the president’s songs, whether it’s Ahmadinejad, Rouhani, Rafsanjani, actually don’t do well in that system. Some being prosecutors, some are giving lucrative positions here and there. But in terms of ascension to the ultimate authority in the country, that would be hard to swallow, hard to justify. If they do it, that means they really have moved away and essentially abandoned the original mission of the Islamic Republic, which was some measure of egalitarianism in terms of the selection process.  ROBBINS: Thank you, Ray. It’s 2:45. Steven, twenty seconds. You got one last thought?  COOK: We could use a lot more news than noise. And I think that the that—what’s happening at the ICC is—as I said before—is backing the Israelis into a corner. And that’s not a place where I think it makes for productive negotiations or thinking about how to end this conflict.  ROBBINS: And, David, last thought to you.  SCHEFFER: Well, my last thought is just be cautious about these false equivalence arguments that we are seeing emerge now, that the Hamas side of the equation says, how dare you indict Hamas? The Israeli side says, how dare you indict the Israeli side? The court really doesn’t work that way. But I would suggest that it would have been rather remarkable if he had only issued arrest warrants against Hamas leaders. You can imagine the uproar that would have created. If he only indicted the Israelis, there would have been an uproar on that side as well. So he’s sort of trapped. And I don’t think it’s really a false equivalence. It’s just what do the facts show and where does that take you in terms of framing an actual arrest warrant?  ROBBINS: I want to thank you. Thank you for that. I want to thank David Scheffer. I want to thank Ray Takeyh. I want to thank Steven Cook. Transcript for this will be—can be found on CFR.org, additional resources on CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com. I think Ray is going to have a piece up in a few hours, if not already up there. And thank you all for joining us.  COOK: Thank you all.  SCHEFFER: Thank you.  (END) 

Experts in this Region

Jared Cohen
Jared Cohen

Adjunct Senior Fellow

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk

Lowy Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-Middle East Diplomacy

Ray Takeyh
Ray Takeyh

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies

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  • Iran
    Virtual Media Briefing: Iran's Attack on Israel and the Threat of Escalation
    Play
    CFR experts discuss Iran’s attack on Israel and the escalation of the conflict. FROMAN: Well, thanks very much. Thanks, everybody, for joining. And thank you to our six senior fellows here who’ve joined us for this briefing on “Iran’s Attack on Israel and the Threat of Escalation.” I’m going to briefly introduce them and then ask each of them to speak for two to three minutes, just laying out their perspective, and then we’ll open it up for questions.  Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle east and African studies, and author of a forthcoming book, The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East. Martin Indyk needs no introduction, but is the Lowy distinguished fellow in U.S.-Middle East Diplomacy. Ray Takeyh, Hasib Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East. Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies. Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies. And Linda Robinson, senior fellow for women and foreign policy. All here at the Council. Six people is a lot of people for a panel, but let me just say it just shows the breadth and depth of the expertise we have here on the Middle East, broadly defined. We’re delighted to have these fellows with us today, and to make them available to the 500-plus people on this briefing.   Let me first turn to Steven. You want to take two or three minutes?  COOK: Thanks very much, Mike. It’s a great pleasure to be here with everybody this afternoon.  I’ll just begin very briefly with just six or so points and my response to what has happened in the last few days. First, from my perspective, Iran’s attack on Israel over the weekend was not limited or symbolic, as many have suggested. Given the number of missiles, cruise missiles, and drones that they launched against Israel’s homeland, they were clearly intended to overwhelm Israel’s defenses and cause as much damage as possible. Because of the size, and the nature, and intent of the attack—despite its failure—there seems to be consensus in Israel about the desirability, and in fact the necessity, of responding to Iran’s barrage. There’s a debate, however, over when and how to respond.  And I think much depends on how Israel’s leaders read President Biden’s call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden certainly did not give the Israelis a green light, but he also didn’t give them a red light. He said he didn’t support an Israeli response. One can understand if the Israelis see this as not necessarily opposing but suggesting that if the Israelis decide to go alone, they’ll have to face the consequences on their own. I think the escalation risk from Iran’s attack is quite high, as the Israelis have said repeatedly that they will respond in a devastating fashion. And I think if they do there is a very significant possibility of escalation along the northern front. The Hezbollah factor is very—is quite significant, given the large numbers of rockets and missiles and drones in the Hezbollah arsenal.   And then there’s the question of Arab countries and what they would do in the event of an Israeli counterstrike, given their own vulnerabilities. Dubai is wide open to Iranian missile attack, as are some other major cities in the Gulf. Speaking of which, again, there’s been some triumphalism, especially on social media, about a new Middle East and Arabs coming to defend—coming to defend Israel. I think many of these statements are exaggerated and overblown. But at the same time, I think it’s clear that the Abraham Accords are not dead. The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan is durable.   Jordan has been extraordinarily critical of the Israeli government over the course of the last six months, but nevertheless the Jordanian Air Force participated in an operation to shoot down Iranian drones. The Jordanian king has been at pains to indicate that, of course, he was defending Jordanian airspace more so than he was defending Israel, but I think the result is essentially the same. Everybody seems to—everybody in the region seems to dislike and distrust Prime Minister Netanyahu and has recoiled at the tactics of the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip. But it’s clear that they hate and fear Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps more.  This is also—the successful defense of Israel is also a function, I think, of American leadership in the region. Moving Israel into CENTCOM was an important move. But then again, not all is well. The attacks over the weekend, it’s the third time since 2019 that the Iranians or Iranian proxies have attacked a U.S. partner with drones and missiles. The U.S. has periodically responded by hitting militias, but I think these attacks are the cost of America’s self-deterrence. And I think within Washington there needs to be a very significant conversation about how best to deter and contain Iran, given its desire to continue to sow chaos throughout the region. I’ll stop there and look forward to the comments from my colleagues.   Thanks, Mike.  FROMAN: Great. Martin.  INDYK: Thank you, Mike. Good afternoon, everybody.  I have four points rather than six, but there’s a lot of overlap between my views and Steve’s, so I’ll try to cut it short. What’s happened now is that the war between the wars, the shadow wars between Iran and Israel, which have been basically running for more than ten years, have now become a direct conflict between Israel and Iran. That makes the danger of escalation much higher, especially given Iran’s nuclear program. And if it starts to move more deliberately to the nuclear threshold, where it’s already very close. But, counterintuitively, that, I believe, makes both sides more cautious. Think about the concept of mutually assured destruction. That’s essentially what we’re moving to between Israel and Iran.  My second point is that Israel, in my view—I agree with Steve—is bound to retaliate. It can’t just sit tight after such a large-scale attack. And I agree with him, this was no fake attack, especially the strategic attack on the Nevatim Airbase with ballistic missiles, which was obviously a very deliberate effort to strike a strategic blow against Israel’s offensive capabilities. So I think that that affects Israel’s calculations about whether it can just sit back and accept it.   There are a number of options that Israel has, given the fact that there were no casualties. Israel is no stranger—although one might doubt it given recent actions in Gaza—but Israel is no stranger to a calibrated response when there are no casualties on the Israeli side, and especially given the pressure from President Biden about being careful not to escalate this. They have lower range options, a disavowable act, a targeted missile attack on missile rocket production facilities at night, hitting proxies, as they seem to have done in Lebanon today, all of which stay under the line which would make it necessary for Iran to retaliate again.  My last point is with all the focus on military retaliation, some greater attention should be paid to non-kinetic options. And there Steve pointed to the potential here that I believe is very important. What happened this weekend was that Sunni Arabs, particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia, came out of the closet, making clear that the threat from Iran was far greater to them than anything else they might be contemplating in terms of rapprochement with Iran. And what we discovered was that coordination—strategic coordination between the United States, Israel, and these Gulf Arab states is a lot further along than most of us knew, and that it’s functioning highly effectively, and that the Arabs who have been attacked by Iran’s missiles and rockets before now have a credible defense umbrella that is part of a U.S.-Israeli-Sunni strategic cooperation arrangement. And that is, I think, very important—the manifestation of their concern, above all, about the threat from Iran, and the way in which they are operating together with Israel in a way that they don’t care if the world now knows about it to protect their basic and vital interests.  Now, that provides a basis for developing this U.S.-Sunni-Israeli alliance. It means that Israel needs to be more sensitive to their concerns. It adds another dimension to the calculation about retaliation, not to create problems for them. But the most important thing is that Joe Biden has been working on trying to produce an Israeli-Saudi peace treaty which would be the anchor of this strategic alliance, which is possible to achieve in short order. But there’s a catch, and I’ll close on this point: It requires Netanyahu to be forthcoming on the Palestinian issue in ways that will cement this relationship.  FROMAN: Very helpful.  Ray, the view from Tehran.  TAKEYH: I should know how to do this by now. Unmute button.  I’ll say a few things to what Martin and Steven added, and I’m sure my other colleagues will be equally perceptive.  Something happened here that hadn’t happened for forty-five years. The enmity between the United States (sic; Iran) and Israel goes back to 1979 revolution, yet this had never let to a direct conflict between the two states. They were both comfortable to some extent by limiting their competition, their animosities within established parameters. Those parameters were evaporated, and the question is why. Why did the Iranians decide to do this? The proximate cause is a proximate cause, the Israeli killing of General Zahedi and six other(s), his assistants. But this shows a number of calculations, or perhaps miscalculations, that the Iranian leadership made.  Number one, they had assumed, perhaps, that Israel was too preoccupied with pacification of Gaza to be able to respond in a measurable way. They certainly assumed that Israel’s division in the—with the international community, and particularly divisions in U.S.-Israeli relations that have been obvious over the prosecution of Gaza in its latter stages, would cause some degree of restraint on the Israeli part. Those are reasonable things to say, but we also have to understand that there is something else happening in Iran. There’s succession.  We always talk about succession as succession at the top. There’s a succession happening throughout the system. The old elite is being excised from power and there’s a new elite coming. The new elite tends to be more parochial. They tend to be more dogmatic. And as we have seen, they tend to be more daring and more bold. So, to some extent, we’re seeing the national security establishment in Iran changing. We don’t know much about the new elite, where they’re coming from. They tend to be drawn from the security services and more conservative religious sectors. This is not to suggest that the old elite was comprehensible to us and we understood them well, but we’re certainly in a new place.  Finally, this reflects the limitation of Iran’s proxy war strategy. For a long time, you could ask yourself that—why does Iran need to have even nuclear weapons, given how effective they have been assembling proxy forces that could inflict damage on their adversaries without reprisal? They certainly did that to the United States. They have done this to Israel. But this reflects the fact that in some ways the Iranians don’t see the proxy war strategy as effective because, as there have been commentaries in their press, it hasn’t been effective in terms of stopping Israel in Gaza. The purpose of the proxy war strategy was to enflame Israel’s frontier in order to induce the international community to impose restraints on Israel and have a battered Hamas survive. That hasn’t happened, and therefore they’re switching to more belligerent tactics.  I agree with Martin and Steven that the Israelis will retaliate, and the Iranians will retaliate back. And the problem with this situation is we’re increasingly on an escalatory spiral where there’s no obvious way of withdrawing. There’s no offramps that I can see. So usually you would say maybe U.N. mediation, but the Israelis don’t have confidence in the U.N. It’s hard to see who has leverage with the Iranians that can actually impose some restrictions or some limitations on them.  I’ll end with one thing—since October 7, two things have happened that surprised us: Hamas acted the way we didn’t anticipate and Iran acted the way we didn’t anticipate. It is time to turn our assumptions into questions. Our adversaries certainly seem to behave differently; and we have not caught up to understanding how their calculations have changed; and they’re becoming more daring, more bold. And we have to essentially start rethinking about how we had assumed the Islamic Republic would conduct its foreign policy, or for that matter how Hamas has conducted its animosity toward Israel. So this is a(n) invitation for new thinking about new adversaries.  Thanks. I’ll stop there.  FROMAN: All right.  Elliott?  ABRAMS: Thank you, Mike. I’m glad to go after Ray and try to follow up a bit on what he was saying.  One of the questions which I think we should be posing is: What did the Iranians think would happen? That is, I agree with Steve this was no performative action; it was meant to do great damage, and it would certainly have elicited a very strong attack. Did the Iranians who made these decisions not know that? They must have known that. So what did they think would then happen? Did they want to go up that escalation ladder? And if so, why? As Ray said, I think we don’t—we don’t really understand the answers to these questions.  For the Israelis, it seems to me that as they think through what to do now, one of the things they will want to do more certainly than a week ago is Rafah, because I think they will believe they need to do that, as they thought even before, to restore deterrence—that is, to crush Hamas as a military power. I think that if we’re looking ahead a few years, October plus this will change the Israeli view that they understand how to deter enemies, and it makes it more likely that there will be a conflict with Hezbollah because the Israelis will concentrate now on the capacity of enemies, not their apparent or perceived understanding of the enemy’s psychology. And of course, that raises questions about the Iranian nuclear program.  I think it should raise a lot of questions for the United States, because there is an embryonic coalition here against Iran. Moving Israel into CENTCOM certainly helped bring that closer. But I think that the questions that the United States needs to ask itself is: What’s our Iran policy? We have thought, in a sense like the Israelis, that perhaps we could bring them into responsible behavior. We cannot. Or we thought that we had deterred them. We have not. So I think the Israelis and our Arab friends are wondering now what will our policy be.  The Biden administration began with a belief that it could regenerate a good portion of the JCPOA. It could not. And I would say that for the last two years, year and half, we’ve not had an Iran policy at all, and we have watched them creep—certainly with respect to uranium enrichment—closer and closer to the ability to create a nuclear weapon. And in the IAEA, we have done nothing. We have not sought Board of Governors resolutions. We have weakened rather than strengthening economic sanctions on Iran. They have a lot more money now than they did three years ago. So the key question, I think, for us is: What is our Iran policy today and tomorrow?  I’ll stop with that.  FROMAN: OK.   Max.  BOOT: Well, I’d say we’ve been struggling to deal with Iran since 1979. And I don’t think any U.S. administration since then has had a very successful policy. I would say Biden was dealt a poor hand when Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, which was holding the Iranian nuclear program in check. And obviously, Biden failed to revive the JCPOA.   I think that there have been two small victories for the U.S. and our allies just in the last few months. I mean, these are—these are not strategic game changers, but I think they are two small, but significant victories. One is that, of course, immediately after October 7, the Iranian militias began targeting U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria in a very dangerous and provocative way. And that culminated on January 28, on the death of—in the death of three U.S. soldiers at a small base in Jordan. And at that point, you know, Biden—President Biden and his team faced the choice of how to retaliate in a way that would get the Iranians to back off without leading to a wider U.S.-Iran war, and I think they threaded that needle. They mounted a series of air strikes, signaling to the Iranians that this was a red line for us. And there has not been another Iranian attack on a U.S. base in the region since February 4, I believe.  Now, what happened on Saturday, I think, is another huge win for the U.S., as well as for Israel, because it shows—as several of my colleagues have noted—it shows how effective this de facto CENTCOM alliance has been, moving Israel into CENTCOM, and allowing CENTCOM to be the coordinating authority for this new air defense network, incorporating Israel, Jordan, Saudis, Emirates, et cetera, et cetera. And that was a tremendously effective—obviously, 99 percent interception rate, which is, you know, off the charts. And of course, the U.S. played a huge role, but so did everybody else.  I disagree with my colleagues, maybe very slightly, about the Iranian intent, although very hard to know, of course, exactly what they’re thinking. I would say that their intent was to strike a symbolic blow. But they—I don’t think they necessarily wanted to cause mass Israeli casualties, because they knew that that would lead to—could lead to a devastating, larger response. And I think what you’ve seen from Iran in the last few months, pretty clearly, is they don’t want a war with the U.S. or Israel; they’d prefer to keep hostilities at kind of a low simmer, where they’re using primarily proxies. They don’t want to be involved in a massive war.  And so I think—I’m sure that they were surprised that the interception rate was 99 percent. I’m sure they thought there was—they would hit a few targets. But I don’t think they were—I don’t think they were trying to truly overwhelm Israeli defenses. Because if they were trying to do that, then they would be firing the Hezbollah rockets. You know, Hezbollah has an estimated hundred and fifty-thousand rockets, and if they were firing them from that kind of proximity to Israel, there would be a much better chance of overwhelming Israeli air defenses. Whereas this attack came from Iran, and it was telegraphed well in advance. Everybody knew it was coming. The Iranians basically announced we’re about to attack, and everybody knew it was coming, and it gave plenty of warning for this air defense network to get activated. And of course, it was much more successful than anybody could have expected.   And I think now, the issue is with Netanyahu and the war cabinet, is what do they do in response? And I was interested to see, there was a poll released by Hebrew University that showed 74 percent of Israelis say they don’t want to retaliate, if it’s going to hurt Israeli security alliances. I think that’s an interesting data point, because I think the fact that this Iranian attack was so unsuccessful relieves a lot of the pressure for a massive Israeli response, which could lead to this tit-for-tat escalation cycle, which could very readily spin out of control. And so, I would hope that the—that the war cabinet and Netanyahu would be pretty restrained in whatever they do, because I don’t think they’re going to achieve any military objectives by striking Iran. It would be another symbolic blow, which would invite more Iranian attacks, could drag the U.S. into this conflict. I don’t think that’s in anybody’s interest. Israel does not want to fight a two-front war. They’re still in Gaza. They don’t want to be fighting Iran right now. And I think, frankly, at the end of the day, the most effective blow that Israel can strike against Iran is what Martin and others have talked about, which is to deepen the alliance with these Sunni Arab states. And part of that is concluding the war in Gaza, and then, you know, taking down the temperature in the region. And that will create and strengthen this anti-Iran alliance, which will do a lot more to contain the Iranian threat than an Israeli airstrike on some random, you know, Iranian factory or air base.   So I think it’s in Israel’s interest to be fairly restrained in its response, and basically take the victory.  FROMAN: Thank you.  Linda.  ROBINSON: Thank you.  I know that we want to get to questions, so I will be synoptic. Many of my colleagues have made the same points. My history is two decades of covering U.S. operations in the Middle East, and a couple intense years in Israel and the Middle—in the West Bank.  I think the big trend—and this leverages what Max just said, but Israel has been losing support massively in the U.S., among allies, on the international front. And it recouped a great deal of support with this attack from Iran and the coordinated response. And I think, depending on what Israel does next, it could lose a lot of that benefit.  My contacts today and yesterday suggest that the full court press to limit the Israeli response appears to be working, from a number of contacts in Israel. And that, therefore, limits the risk of regional war. And that is what, very clearly, the administration is telegraphing as its primary objective. And I think it’s really adapted its approach from the early days after October 7, the bear-hug approach with regard to a very right-wing government in Israel, and it’s become very clear: It defends Israel, it’s protecting U.S. forces, and it’s against a regional war. And I think this clarity is the basis for good policy going forward.   I wanted to reference the coordinated defense effort, and two colleagues have mentioned this. The CENTCOM—this has been a priority of Central Command for quite a few years, to work on the Middle East security architecture, particularly the air defense aspect. And under General Erik Kurilla and his predecessor, this has really been the military part of the political diplomatic normalization effort, which I testified about eighteen months ago on the Hill. And I think continued progress on this front will be difficult if Israel insists on an aggressive retaliation.   And my read is that, while Iran’s direct attack did cross a line, a major line, it looks to me like a one-time response to the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, very equivalent to that. They’ve been signaling to the Brits, to the Russians, that they will not escalate if Israel does not.  And I think, final point is that the de-escalation of this crisis is necessary to get back to the urgent business of Gaza, and it’s very important that the U.S. officials are being crystal-clear about this, as well, the need to limit civilian casualties. And this really requires some very specific changes in their rules of engagement and their targeting practices, including positive identification, which they have not been following, and in addition, a massive ramp-up of humanitarian aid, and actions to get the hostage release. And I realize it takes two to tango.   But this is the real agenda. Gaza is the focus of the efforts. And we shouldn’t forget the latest killings on the West Bank, and cycle of violence with extremist settler violence, really portends the possibility of a third Intifada. And so we need to really be looking at what Israel needs to do to put out the fires at home.  Thanks.  FROMAN: Thank you.  Before I open it up to the group, let me just ask one question, building on Ray and Elliot’s comments. A policy toward Iran. We’ve engaged, we’ve disengaged, we’ve sanctioned, we’ve built alliances with surrounding countries who have a common interest. What more—what differently do you think needs to be done by the U.S. to affect Iranian behavior?  ABRAMS: Ray?  FROMAN: Start with Elliot—Ray?  ABRAMS: You want to—  TAKEYH: Go ahead, Elliot.  ABRAMS: OK.  I think the problem has in part been that our policy—you know, because we have elections, our policy has changed. And it’s—you know, we’ve had ups and downs, and ups and downs.   I don’t think the question is really what more—or, I should say, what new. I think there needs to be a lot more economic pressure on Iran. We know what they do with the money that they have. They give large amounts of it in the past to Hamas, large, large amounts, up to eight, 900 million, a year to Hezbollah. They support the Shia militias in Iraq. They support the Houthis. They build the capacities that we are beginning to see, in terms of drones that they then give Russia for use in Ukraine.   FROMAN: So your view, Elliot, would be to cut off their oil exports?  ABRAMS: Cut off the cash, to the extent possible. Do not let them have that $10 billion. And try to cut off the—yes, the money that they are getting from the oil exports. The less they have, the better.  FROMAN: Whatever the—  INDYK: The problem with that is we’re in a new environment, as Elliot knows, with the Chinese and Russians no longer willing to cooperate in the way that they did before. So economic pressure’s a lot harder to pull off today than it’s been in the past, not that it was successful in the past.   ABRAMS: It raises the question of whether China—which, unlike Russia, is importing oil from Iran and does not want to see a doubling or tripling of oil prices—might be willing to counsel Iran to avoid actions that will have that effect.  FROMAN: Ray, any—cut off—cut off Iranian oil exports, whatever the impact is on the global economy. What else would you suggest?  TAKEYH: Well, I would say one thing, that over the years—I’m not disagreeing with this proposition—but I think we have exaggerated the coercive impact on—of economic penalties on Iran’s strategic decision making. Now, if the economic situation becomes as dire as suggested, with some sort of coordinated international plan to sequester Iranian oil, then I think that may be more important. For the immediate crisis, because upon Israeli attack, however it is, the Iranians will have sort of a compulsive desire to respond. I think if the Iranians perceive that the escalation ladder will include the United States at some point, then that may serve as a deterrent for them in terms of escalating. And there are some episodes in history where that indicates that they don’t want to get entangled with the United States.   And they can only justify stepping down if there is an American angle involved, because they still have respect for latent American power irrespective of the incumbent administration. So the proximity between the United States and Israel is going to be important in terms of managing this crisis from being escalated, because at this point both sides on the tiger’s back and neither of them are sure how to dismount. And only by perception of Israelis being closer to the United States and cojoining them, even in the possibility of retaliation, that may actually—that may actually cause them to climb down. But that is a very speculative judgment. (Laughs.)  FROMAN: OK. Let’s open it up to questions.  OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)  Our first question comes from Steven Koltai.  Q: Hi, there. I’m Steven Koltai from the Center for International Studies at MIT.   I wonder, Dr. Takeyh, if you could talk more about domestic Iranian politics. I was especially interested in your comment that the new elite is more parochial. I had thought that we were actually moving to a more liberal government, particularly because of some of the women’s protests that were happening. So I’m curious to hear you talk more about that. Thank you.   TAKEYH: Sure. I think you’re correct about the society that is moving in a more liberal direction, and more secular direction. One of the things about the Islamic Republic, it’s constantly publishing statistics that undermines its own claim to legitimacy. And the minister of interior recently published a statistic saying 77 percent of the Iranians want separation of church and state—sort of separation of religion from politics. So your judgment about the Iranian society’s secular and liberal intent is correct.   What is happening within the governing elites, that is where you’re beginning to see very massive purges taking place. And a new elite is coming. And we just—at least, I don’t—know as much about this new elite as we need to. They’re coming from sort of the religious circles. They’re mostly coming from within the security services, within the Revolutionary Guards, and they have gone through that indoctrination. And I should say, this elite has come of age in the past twenty years, when they have seen the ebbing of American power in the Middle East, when they have seen the Americans eager to dispense with their Middle East heritage, with the Middle East—with their Middle East burdens. So they’re coming to the positions of power with the impression of a declining American power. And that all these crises have kind of fit into that as well. So you’re correct. The state and society are moving in very different directions. And that’s not necessarily to the advantage of the Iranian regime at home.  FROMAN: Next question.  OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Farnaz Fassihi.  Q: Hello, everyone. Thank you for the excellent panel. I’m Farnaz from the New York Times.   I wanted to ask Ray what he thought led to this really brazen decision by Iranian leaders to take this step after forty-five years, given all the strains that they’re under economically, you know, that tensions domestically, a population that rose up last year demanding for the toppling of the regime. So they’ve got all these problems percolating, and yet they decide to really put themselves in a position that could lead to war. What do you think that calculus is? And how—given that Khamenei has the last word and ordered the attack, how much do you think that the younger guard really have any influence on this decision making?   And from the rest of the panelists, if you can address whether—you know what the U.S. can do to really stop this from escalating if Israel attacks, as it seems intending to attack, and Iran attacks back? If the U.S. doesn’t want to get engaged, and if the Biden administration really doesn’t want to get into help Israel in its offensive, what can it do to sort of pull things back and defuse the tensions? Thank you.  TAKEYH: I’ll be very brief. I went through some of these points and I want to give my colleagues a chance.  In terms of why would they do it, given the fact that the domestic situation is as contested as it is, they obviously seem to think they have restored domestic controls. They obviously think that the regime has survived the women’s freedom movement and is now essentially in charge. They may be misreading the domestic situation, but they seem to be comfortable with the—with the domestic controls that they exercise.   As far as why Khamenei—the leader—supreme leader made this decision, I think we’re seeing what we would in America called civil-military relations changing. In a sense that suddenly you begin to see a new cadre within the security services who are more demanding in terms of action, and the leadership usually has to respond to this. Ali Khamenei has become one of the longest serving rulers in the history of the Middle East, because he tends to blend pragmatism with confrontation. He didn’t do so, in this case. So there was countervailing pressures taking place that is changing the orientation of the Iranian foreign policy and how they approach their adversaries. But I’ll—  FROMAN: Would anybody else care to comment?  INDYK: I’ll just answer on what can be done. Look, the United States since October 7, President Biden has been actively involved in containing this conflict and preventing a regional explosion. It’s been a real challenge, but he’s succeeded even up till today, even in the current circumstances with Iran. And so I think that the same techniques will be necessary, weighing in with everybody to cool it, getting the Israelis in the first instance not to retaliate or retaliate in a way that does not provoke the Iranians, getting others to get the Iranians to pull back. And there’s that other dimension which Ray mentioned, which is to make clear that if the Iranians do escalate, the United States will be with Israel. And they will not succeed in splitting the United States from Israel.  FROMAN: OK. Let’s take the next question.   OPERATOR: Next, we have Pearl Matibe.  Q: Thank you so much for doing this. I’m Pearl Matibe with Premium Times.  I just want to ask the panel, what is your view on this? I totally get it that the United States and President Biden has continued to say that support for Israel is ironclad, on the one hand, but at the same time they do not want to see escalation. Both of those statements, to me—are those not countering each other? That no matter what Israel decides to do in its counterattack, that the United States will still stand with Israel then? I get it, that the United States doesn’t want to get into this war, but I just wanted your thoughts on how does the U.S. weigh that balancing act between not wanting further escalation, standing behind and Israel as ironclad, and yet no matter what Israel decides we—it’s basically saying, OK, no matter what Israel decides, the U.S. is going to get behind that. I’d appreciate your thoughts on that fine line. Thanks.  BOOT: I mean, to me it’s a little bit reminiscent of what happened during the Gulf War in 1991, when Iraq was firing Scud missiles at Israel and Israel really wanted to retaliate. And the Bush administration said, no, please don’t. We’ll take care of it for you. And I think, you know, obviously, we didn’t—you know, you saw on Saturday the extent of U.S. forces actually protecting Israel, which is a heck of a lot more than they have done for Ukraine or a lot of other countries where you had, you know, U.S. aircraft shooting down seventy Iranian drones. So I think, you know, coming after the, you know, Biden’s show support for Israel after October 7, going to Israel and really standing up for Israel against a lot of people in his own party who are, you know, much more hostile to Israel, I think President Biden has bought some credibility with the Israeli public.   And, again, I refer to that poll suggesting that 74 percent of Israelis say they don’t want to retaliate against Iran if it’s going to hurt U.S. security alliances. And that’s kind of the message that President Biden is sending to Israel. And I think—you know, I think that’s the right message. It’s to—it’s to, you know, say that we will help secure Israel, as long—but we want Israel to behave responsibly. Now, of course, it’s always possible that Netanyahu is kind of—you know, who often suggests—whose behavior often suggests he’s more interested in Netanyahu’s personal survival than he is about the longer-term interests of the state of Israel. It’s possible that Netanyahu may disregard that and act contrary to U.S. pressure, which he’s certainly done in the past in Gaza, in particular.  But, I mean, I think, you know, there’s always limits to what the U.S. can impose on any other sovereign country, even a close ally. But I think the Biden approach is basically a sound one. And I think that, you know, Israel would be—in the present instance—would be better advised to listen to President Biden, both in Gaza and in in dealing with Iran.  COOK: Mike, can I just get in on this very quickly? I just want to turn directly back to Pearl’s question. I think she has hit on something that I think is very important in the relationship, and which is that the Israelis may very well be calculating that based on the ironclad commitments that the United States has made, based on the fact that the U.S. Air Force and Navy had been deeply involved in the defense of Israel, that should the Israelis choose to retaliate—and there’s certainly consensus within the government in the war cabinet that they should—that President Biden, especially at this moment, will have really no choice but to support Israel.   I think that’s why he gave himself some wiggle room by saying he didn’t necessarily support an Israeli retaliation, but he also didn’t specifically rule it out for the Israelis. And, of course, under these circumstances, as Max points out, it’s very, very difficult for the United States to exert the kind of influence that we all imagine it might have over Israeli decision making.   ABRAMS: If I could just jump in for one sec. I think all that’s right. And it raises an interesting point, because the slogan that the U.S. and Israel have been using for, I don’t know, twenty-five years, maybe more, that Israel has the right to defend itself by itself, defend itself by itself. It didn’t defend itself by itself this past weekend. That may be a major change in the Israeli situation in the Middle East, and in the U.S.-Israel, defense relationship going forward.  ROBINSON: Could I just jump in briefly? I’d like to refer the questioner to the Pentagon briefing today. And again, I think the military is trying to be explicitly crystal clear. And, first, President Biden said the U.S. will not participate in offensive operations. And today, the three lines laid out where, we will defend Israel, we will protect U.S. forces, we are primarily concerned about preventing a regional war. And so they are trying to stop that cycle of escalation right now, with a very limited response by Israel. And I think that is the message and the lesson they’ve learned from these past six months.  FROMAN: Martin, did you want to get in on this?  INDYK: No, let’s go to another question. Thank you.   FROMAN: All right.   OPERATOR: Next, we have Peter Galbraith.  Q: Thank you for this panel.   I wonder if you would comment on what Israel was seeking to accomplish when it struck at the Iranian embassy in Damascus. Surely it contemplated, or would have anticipated, that Iran would respond. And that raises the question, given Israel’s longstanding desire to use force to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, whether in fact Israel’s actions, then or in a possible further escalation, are aimed at bringing the United States into a war with Iran.  INDYK: I’ll take that one, Mike.  I think it’s a mistake to impute too much calculation into Israel’s decision to knock off this high-level IRGC leader. It’s easy and I’ve heard it from a lot of people that this was Bibi Netanyahu’s son-of-a-gun theory on how to shift the focus to Iran from Gaza, and he did it brilliantly. I actually have seen reporting coming from Israel, credible reporting from Israel, that the intelligence assessment got it wrong again, and that the assessment was that it would not trigger an Iranian retaliation; that this would be similar to previous targeted assassinations and would not cross a line that would provoke the Iranians to take some strategic decision to change their policy. And given the way in which the IDF has become the gang that can’t shoot straight, unfortunately, I think that’s the more credible explanation than anything else that you might suggest, Peter.  BOOT: Can I just jump in quickly with two very fast points? One is, I mean, I would assume that what Israel was trying to do was to get Hezbollah to stop attacking northern Israel, which they’ve been doing pretty steadily since October 7. I mean, remember, there’s tens of thousands of Israelis who have been forced out of their homes. So I think there’s a reason why Israel wants to go after IRGC targets.  But, two, I think to Martin’s point, the reporting I’ve read suggested that the Israelis somehow convinced themselves that this building next to the Iranian embassy was not really a consulate, it was not really—it sounds to me like they didn’t really think through the implications of bombing that particular target and did not understand how seriously the Iranians would take it.  FROMAN: Next question.  OPERATOR: Next we have Aaron Shepard.  Q: Good afternoon. Aaron Shepard with the Military Commissions.  You know, following up on that point, I’m curious for those of you who may disagree with Max regarding Iran’s intent, that perhaps there was some performative element to this. If Iran truly desired to deal a serious blow to Israel, why didn’t they engage their proxies who seemingly have a proven ability to do that, especially Hezbollah? Or did they simply maybe massively underestimate Israel and their allies’ ability to defend the actual attack that occurred? Thank you.  COOK: Well, I’ll start. I think that the argument that this was symbolic or this was performative is referring—is inferring from an outcome. Of course, the Iranians nor any of us could have imagined that the layered defense that the Israelis have put in place with the help of the United States and regional partners would have a success rate of 99 percent. So it’s only after the fact that we have decided, well, this was—this was performative in some way. Had the success rate been significantly lower, there would have been very significant damage not just to Israeli military installations, but certainly to civilians as well. So I think that we can always—we can always draw a conclusion after an outcome, but it strikes me that the Iranians took it upon themselves because they were—their generals were taken out at an IRGC facility on the grounds of this—of their embassy in Syria, and needed to demonstrate strength as opposed to just putting out there proxies, which is what they have done over time.  It's important to remember that during this long shadow war any time that the Iranians have tried to attack the Israelis directly they have failed, this time with a rather large barrage on Israel’s homeland. They certainly sought to do a significant amount of damage in response.  FROMAN: Steven, can I push back against that? And I’d be interested in anybody else’s response. If you—if you were—if you were Iran, and you wanted to avoid the prospect of escalation that would bring war to your territory, and you wanted to do real damage on Israel, you might have to sacrifice Hezbollah to a certain degree, but it’s one step removed and they have 150,000 missiles. This was 300 projectiles, not 30,000 projectiles, which Hezbollah could have easily unleashed and really overwhelmed—potentially overwhelmed the defenses. So—and they also—didn’t they give—they signaled well in advance what they were going to do. They had hours of preparation. They made it clear to people it was going to be a limited attack. So, again, I just wonder why we’re—going to Ray’s question about turning our assumptions into questions, are we sure—are we so sure that they intended to do maximum damage and failed, or that this was in fact a face-saving stab? They would have been very happy if some of those missiles had come through, no doubt, but it was much less than they might have done otherwise without risking attack on their homeland.  COOK: Let me push back on your pushback for a moment, Mike, at my great risk, apparently.  FROMAN: Not at all.  COOK: First, let me just point out that Hezbollah has always been preserved as Iran’s second-strike capability. It would be devastating for Iran to throw Hezbollah into the fight, given the capacities of both the United States and Israel—and apparently, there is an ironclad commitment on the part of the United States to help defend Israel. So it would be a devastating blow to the second-strike capability. And after all, the primary concern on the part of the Iranians is preserving their nuclear program as well as their regime.  And then, secondly, I think, yes, you make a very good point: The Iranians made it clear what was coming. Buta t the same time, they could have chosen to respond in kind as, apparently, everybody was expecting them to do, which is to attack an Israeli diplomatic installation somewhere in South America, East Asia, Europe, what have you. Yet, they chose a fairly significant response. As Martin pointed out, they specifically targeted a very important Israeli airbase. So I take your points on this, but I think the—most of what people are doing here is, as I said, inferring from an outcome. I’ll underline the point that we had no idea how effective Israel’s multilayered defense would be under such circumstances.  ABRAMS: I would only add to that that, in terms of notifying people, I mean, those ballistic missiles are, I believe, liquid fueled, so the minute you pull it out of bunkers or storage, you start fueling them, the United States and presumably Israel sees that. So we were going to know that this was planned. The drones, of course, have a nine-hour flight. So I don’t think the telegraph thing really suggests that they didn’t mean to do a lot of damage. We were going to know through intel anyway.  TAKEYH: I’ll just say one thing about this. All the commentary before the attack and after the attack have actually come from the Revolutionary Guards and security services. They said before the attack we are going to attack Israel and we’re going to do it ourselves. A lot of the initiatives for this attack, I think, came from within the Revolutionary Guards, came from within the security services. That’s where the initiative came. I don’t think even today the office of leader has issued a statement on this, and nobody cares what the foreign minister says. The most important commentary before and after came from the generals. So, in that sense, you’re beginning to see in a very disturbing way that important policy initiatives are resting in the hands of the most reckless elements.  FROMAN: All right. Nice debate.  Let’s go to the next question.  OPERATOR: Next is Kathy Gilsinan.  Q: Hi, everybody. Thanks for this. I’m with Politico.  I’m curious to hear the panelists’ thoughts on the argument about the need to restore deterrence, which seems to me the flipside of the—you know, we—Israel risks escalation and spinning into a regional war if it responds kinetically here, you know. The counterpoint is, OK, if they don’t respond kinetically, then don’t they invite further aggression from Iran? And I’m curious for folks’ thoughts on that.  BOOT: I would just say very quickly I think that the incredible success of the Israeli air defense, that itself is restoring Israeli and American deterrence against Iran because it’s calling into doubt the effectiveness of the Iranian missile arsenal that they have spent so much money and so many years building up. I think this—the very—this 99 percent success, which is off-the-charts amazing, I think that itself is a huge increase in deterrence, and so is the fact that Israel cooperated with Arab states against Iran. Both of those things, I think, are major blows to Iranian—the Iranians’ aura of danger that they seek to project, and really undercut the menace that they’re trying to project across the region.  INDYK: Plus the fact that the United States was so heavily involved in this effort—successful effort—so that the second line of Israel’s deterrence, which is the United States, was there front and center.  ABRAMS: On the other hand, attempted murder is also a crime that is punished. We don’t say, well, you didn’t—you didn’t get your guy, so walk away, in the criminal context. And I think that’s the question here: Does attempted murder get punished?  COOK: Well, I—the attempted murder analogy—(laughs)—is an interesting one, but I would just point out that historically the lax response—you look at the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia in 2019, attacks on Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and other attacks have invited further attacks from the Iranians.  BOOT: But those attacks worked. This one was stopped. That’s the—  COOK: Well, again, the Iranians learn—have learned that when there are fewer consequences that they can—they can continue. Of course, I do think that the success and the role of the United States does give the actors pause here. But there is a record in the region of the Iranians taking advantage of the desire to stand down on the part of the United States and its partners.  INDYK: I think there’s just one broader context that we should bear in mind here, is that on October 7 the Israeli national security establishment had a total failure collapse, a total failure of its deterrence. And therefore, it feels that it has to find ways to restore that deterrence in a broader sense, not just a particular one. So 99 percent helps, but I don’t think from the Israeli point of view it’s enough.  TAKEYH: Can I just say one thing? The Israeli prosecution of the war with Gaza—in Gaza, which has been aggressive, obviously has not restored the deterrence because of what the Iranians just finished doing. So this line of deterrence that needs to be restored will require a very substantial degree of effort, it just seems to me.  INDYK: Yeah. Yeah. And it may be more effectively done through showing the cooperation between Israel, the United States, and the Arab states, than by acting alone. That’s a new idea for Israel that I think they’re just coming to terms with. But it—but it is an alternative way to deter that arguably is more effective.  FROMAN: Excellent. Let’s—given the hour, everyone’s been incredibly patient with their time. Thank you all for joining us, both the participants and, of course, the panelists. And we’ll continue to provide programming for CFR members, our corporate members, our outreach communities, and the press as this crisis continues to evolve. So thank you all for joining us and wish you a good and peaceful day.   INDYK: Thank you.  (END)   
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