The following is an unedited transcript of the seventy-fifth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on January 28, 2014 at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, with Ford M. Fraker moderating and Thomas R. Mattair as the discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
OMAR KADER, chairman of the board of directors, Middle East Policy Council
Ladies and gentlemen, we’re ready to begin the panel discussion. On behalf of the Middle East Policy Council, as chairman of the board, I welcome you. I’ve been affiliated with the Middle East Policy Council for about 15 years. I’ve been chairman of the board for about three years. And for the last year, we’ve been working on recruiting a president. So I’m going to introduce this president to you, Ambassador Ford Fraker, and then I’m going to ask Ford to moderate the panel.
The Middle East Policy Council has a variety of programs. This conference — or this panel discussion is one of them. This is the 75th quarterly panel. We have one of the most outstanding journals on Middle East policy in the field, and we have an outreach program to colleges and universities. We welcome you to take a look at our website. It’s a wealth of information for teachers, policymakers and scholars.
I’d like to introduce Ford Fraker and just take an extended few minutes because he has a distinguished career, and we’re very pleased to add him to our council as the president, and we’re looking forward to his leadership. He has spent 35 years in the Middle East in finance and international diplomacy. He served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2007 to 2009. From 2009 to ’13, he was senior adviser to one of the premier Wall Street financial firms, investment banking firms, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. He has continued to promote U.S. national interests at the highest levels of Mideast countries and advises senior administration officials on Middle East policy, with particular focus on U.S. relations with Gulf allies.
Ambassador Fraker is currently a member of the Middle East Advisory Board of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He’s a member of the board of trustees of the International College in Beirut and recently appointed to his current role as president of the Middle East Policy Council, which will have him at this podium reoccurring in the next several months. He lives in Boston, and he’ll be commuting down regularly, so we’ll see a lot of him. We’re grateful that you’ve come. We’re grateful this panel, distinguished panel.
Ambassador Fraker, please.
FORD FRAKER, president, Middle East Policy Council; former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Thank you, Omar.
And good morning to everyone. I’d like to welcome you all, particularly those of you who’ve braved these Arctic conditions to get here this morning. And I’d also like to thank our friends in Europe and the Middle East who are watching this conference via streaming on their computers. Finally, it is also my great pleasure to welcome you all in my new role as president of the Middle East Policy Council.
As Omar said, I have been deeply involved in Middle East banking, finance and investments for actually, now 40 years, Omar, not 35. And like most good Wall Street bankers, I’ve spent most of my career trying to avoid Washington, D.C. However, my time as ambassador to Saudi Arabia convinced me that it was important to be part of the Washington debate on Middle East policy. And that is the mission of the Middle East Policy Council, to be an important voice in the debate in D.C. on Middle East policy, and to do this by presenting a fair and balanced approach to the issues.
So I continue to spend the majority of my time in the Middle East, and in fact, over the last four years I’ve made over 40 trips to the region. In addition, I maintain close relationships with officials at the State Department, and I’m in regular contact with the secretary on Gulf and Saudi matters. Staying relevant in the debate and discussions here in D.C. requires this kind of constant traveling to the region because it is the only way, through real-time, on-the-ground, practical interaction with people in the Middle East, to stay current on events.
And what events? In my 40 years in the region, I can’t remember so many big front-page issues. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran — all major problems, all at the same time, and lots of doubts about the U.S. role, with traditional allies expressing concern and in some cases anger, wondering if the United States is actually a reliable ally, which brings us to today’s topic that lies at the heart of many of these concerns: the U.S., its Middle East allies and Iran; what is the way forward?
We are very fortunate to have with us today a panel of true Middle East exports who, importantly, have the real-time, on-the-ground experience in the region that I mentioned earlier. I hope you have had a chance to read their bios, which are on the back of this flyer here. I could spend probably an hour on each one of them, but instead I will introduce them briefly so that we can get going with the presentations and the questions and answers. After each panelist makes his 15-minute presentation, Tom Mattair, executive director of the MEPC, will take over as the discussant and manage the questions and answers. And I think Tom wanted to make a request now.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
You have cards on your seats, so if you have questions, please write them during the course of the event, and my staff will bring them to me during the course, and I won’t have to deal with them all in the two minutes before we start our question-and-answer session.
AMB. FRAKER: Again, thank you all for being with us here today. I know you will enjoy this discussion.
Now our first panelist is David Albright. David is founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, ISIS, which someone commented yesterday did not stand for Islamic State of Iraq and Sham — (laughter) — which I doubt he would want to be the founder of.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: Trademarked. (Laughter.)
AMB. FRAKER: David is an expert on nuclear proliferation. Earlier in his career, he was a member of the IAEA Action Team and inspected Iraq’s nuclear facilities in the 1990s. He was a critic of the Bush administration’s assertions about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities in the run-up to the invasion in 2003.
Next we have Fred Hof. Fred, former ambassador and special adviser to the secretary of state for transition in Syria, Ambassador Hof from 2009 to 2012 took the lead in an effort to mediate Syrian-Israeli peace and over — and also oversaw efforts to reconcile conflicting Israeli and Lebanese economical zone claims.
Next Richard LeBaron, former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait. A career diplomat, Richard spent over 30 years with the State Department. His particular knowledge and expertise is in U.S.-Gulf security relationships.
And last but not least, Anthony Cordesman, who has become something of a myth here in Washington on Middle East issues, not because he’s been around for a long time but because of his deep knowledge and intelligence. Anthony holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Anthony is a recognized expert in security and defense issues and has held various important positions both inside and outside the government. He has lived in Egypt, Lebanon and Iran and has worked extensively in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
So with that, I will ask David Albright to come to the podium.
DAVID ALBRIGHT, founder & president, Institute for Science and International Security
Thank you very much. (Off-mic exchange.) I don’t want to keep looking behind me, so thank you. Oh, here’s one too. Is this a timer? (Off-mic exchange.)
Well, thank you very much. And I’m very happy to be here. My criticism of the Bush administration on Iraq was mentioned, and I don’t want to go into that, but at the same time as — in the fall of 2002, as we were developing that critique, we were also discovering secret sites in Iran. So in a sense, the intelligence was actually misplaced. They should have been looking — or focusing more on Iran. And in fact, it’s been part of the central problem of dealing with Iran is just that it isn’t Iraq, although there’s a hangover from Iraq that shadows the whole Iraqi — Iranian debate quite severely.
But there are facilities there. They were being built in secret. There’s been a tremendous problem getting Iran to basically open up about what it has. It extends into work on nuclear weapons. If you look around the world, I don’t think it’s very hard to find an intelligence agency that didn’t believe Iran had a nuclear weapons effort at least up until 2004. There’s been debate on whether that’s continued. But again, that also colors the debate because Iranians to this day — and President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif make pointed comments regularly, they never had a nuclear weapons program, ever, and yet it just isn’t believed. And so unlike the case in Iraq, where there really — it either was extremely clear in the late ’80s and early ’90s it had a weapons program, it was — people were trying to stop it. In Iran, you have a situation where there’s a debate whether these programs exist or not.
And yet the intelligence communities are pretty united that they did. There’s a debate whether all of this is an exaggeration, and I — and I know from our experience is that while we were able to clearly see that the Bush administration was exaggerating and presenting flawed analysis on Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons program, we saw clear as day Iranian efforts to acquire secret nuclear sites, secret nuclear capabilities and to march forward with a nuclear program in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that the issues of noncompliance in the agency go back into the mid-’90s. And so there’s a serious trust deficit when it comes to Iran. And one of the issues that makes this whole process more complicated is that — is that — a perception that Iran does not want to admit to activities it undertook in the past.
And yet if it’s activities involving working pretty deeply, is the accusation and the allegation, into nuclear weapons itself, not just gas centrifuges — that was also a secret program — but working on nuclear weapons itself, then how can you trust them today that they’re not going to do it in the future? And so one of the issues that’s come up is that — and it’s — and I’ll start talking about the Joint Plan of Action — that one of the issues that’s come up and that the Joint Plan of Action at least is structured to deal with, that if Iran doesn’t — we would use the term “come clean” about its past nuclear weapons efforts, with the IAEA, not — it can do it in private; it can do it however it wants, but if it doesn’t address all the IAEA’s concerns about possible military dimensions of its program, there will be no long-term solution. And that could play out as simply as a country in the P-5 refusing to allow a resolution to pass the U.N. Security Council to undo U.N. Security Council sanctions, which are at the — really at the heart of the legitimacy of the international sanctions regime.
So I think the bottom line on some of this is that Iran is going to have to change its behavior pretty fundamentally in order to solve this problem. Now, I would also add that I think there’s been a false dichotomy put forward that either we have these negotiations or its military options. And I would argue pretty strenuously that there’s always been a third option, and that’s actually been what’s been in existence in reality most of the time, which is that pressure is putting on Iran, and the costs of crossing the threshold to nuclear weapons is made so costly in their own internal calculations that they simply don’t do it.
So I would say very strongly that if this set of negotiations doesn’t work that we’re not going to be confronted with either capitulation to an Iranian nuclear weapon or military strikes, that we can simply continue with the pressure strategy that can keep Iran from crossing that line until it’s ready to undo its policy and actually rejoin the international community as a responsible nation. So I do think that there are options, and it’s not — it’s not a — while here’s a — the negotiations offer a tremendous opportunity to finally resolve this problem, it’s not so black and white that if it doesn’t work, then somehow we’re at war or that Israel will launch military strikes. So again, I can talk more about that in the discussion.
Now, on the deal itself, I think there’s been a lot of public debate on that. At ISIS, we feel — and we certainly worked for this — we feel that the structure of the deal, the joint plan of action, is a sound one. The limited interim steps are valuable. They do — in a sense, they’ve dealt with the things that were causing a panic that Iran’s nuclear capability was marching forward too fast, that it was going to reach a point too soon when it could possibly decide to build nuclear weapons in secret.
And that the major step of doing that, namely acquiring what we call weapon-grade uranium, the nuclear explosive material, they could acquire enough of that in secret that the International Atomic Energy Agency and the world’s intelligence agencies wouldn’t know about it until that was finished. Now, they’d still have to build the bomb, but it’s a very different situation, if you think about it.
Once they have enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb, they can move it anywhere. And so even if — you take Obama’s policy at face value, that they’ll prevent Iran from getting the bomb, that’s a lot easier to do if they don’t have the weapon-grade uranium because you can simply bomb facilities that are — that would be making it. And we don’t think there’s a hidden parallel uranium enrichment program in Iran. So we know where they would do it. So those facilities could be destroyed.
If they have the weapon-grade uranium, it may take them — their estimates vary — two months, six months, two years to have a — either at the lower end for a nuclear explosive device that possibly could be tested, the high end for a deliverable warhead for a Shaheen missile. But it’s going to take a while. But you won’t know what’s going on. And if you want to get the weapon-grade uranium out of Iran, you’d have to bring the country to its knees, and that involves a much greater military effort.
So again, the — or the progress that Iran was making to this kind of capability to have a — to be able to break out, we call it, and produce weapon-grade uranium has been halted. And we think even if the deal ends at six months, the date when they would reach that, we call it a critical capability, would be delayed even further, and so overall see this as a good deal.
Now, I have to say that there’s another part of the deal. They call it in the joint plan of action kind of a comprehensive solution. And that is really all the issues that Iran and the United States identified that they really don’t agree on, that in a sense the interim deal was the things they could agree upon, the comprehensive solution involves the things they can’t. And now, can they? And that’s really going to be the test of the joint plan of action, is that they can overcome these differences that through the fall — summer and fall, they could not. And that’s going to be a big problem.
Now, the — I should say, the interim deal isn’t perfect. And there’s legitimate criticisms for it. I mean, we published a paper yesterday talking about the centrifuge research and development program. That continues under the joint plan of action and will not be significantly impacted by the limitations. So again, there are problems in it. I would argue that the way to deal with those problems is to try to insert them into the negotiations on the comprehensive solution and try to fix these — what have been identified as loopholes in the interim deal.
And I think that the centrifuge research and development is certainly a tough one, and I’m a scientist. But I think what needs to happen is they’re going to — Iran is going to have to accept limitations on the research and development of gas centrifuges. And that it — and that, again, these are — the way this is structured is that this kind of condition and many others would last for a certain amount of time. And that would — I would point out as another difference in the two sides, if I could use that dichotomy.
United States officials have stated, and we understand it, they want a deal or conditions that would last for over 20 years. Foreign Minister Zarif in September talked about three to five months. In private, the Iranians have talked about 10 years. But in — but from a U.S. point of view, looking back at this issue, we’ve been at it a long time.
As I mentioned in the start, there’s a lot of mistrust. So 20 years actually pops out as a pretty reasonable condition from a U.S. point of view, that it just is going to take that amount of time for all these suspicions and questions and problems to be resolved and that three to five years wouldn’t even be worth having negotiations. It just is not enough time to resolve these problems. Ten years, I would argue, we’re open to at ISIS, but we don’t hear an openness in the U.S. government.
OK, great. Another issue that’s been in the press, it’s also I think generated by us, if you look out at the Iranian nuclear program and you’re thinking of breakout — the time it takes to make this weapon-grade uranium, you start to calculate what is an acceptable breakout time. And again, this is — it’s an estimate that has to reflect what happened in Syria recently — that there are two challenges if you’re going to have an agreement. One is you have to detect a secret or a secret plan to build nuclear weapons. You have to detect how it’s playing out. And then you have to have a response time to prevent it from succeeding.
And I think the post-Syrian environment, there isn’t a lot of faith that even the United States can respond quickly if part of the option is a military strike. And so what happens is when you do then calculate what are the breakout times one is comfortable with, we used to think maybe three to six months would be all right, that in that sense Iran goes to make weapon-grade uranium at a declared site, it takes a few weeks or so to detect it by the international inspectors, and then you need time to respond.
And we used — three months to us, even two months was plenty of time, if you believe that the United States would respond militarily and bomb those — essentially bomb those facilities that are involved in the breakout. In a sense — and it could be argued, well, this is an egregious violation of international law under the Nonproliferation Treaty. It violates in a major way U.N. Security Council sanctions. So that — so the United States could muster an argument that this action is legitimate.
After Syria would he actually do it, is a very legitimate question. And so we thought, OK, well, if you’re going to muster an international response that’s going to be a coalition of countries, perhaps have a U.N. Security Council resolution backing it, you’re going to need a lot more time. And so then you’ve got to look at breakout times of six to 12 months. And when you do, then you start looking at the impact on the Iranian nuclear program, and you look at a program right a now that has 18(,000), 19,000 centrifuges that are dedicated or that can enrich uranium, and you then — you’re left, if you look at six- to 12-month breakout, with less than 4,000 of those. And therefore you have to — Iran is going to be asked — and I think it will have to accept — a major reduction in the number of centrifuges in its program.
And those — and whatever happens to them, I don’t know. It was — President Rouhani issued a statement that he would destroy no centrifuges, essentially. Well, that’s not exactly what would happen. So I don’t know. He didn’t actually — certainly he didn’t look at what we wrote and then see. I mean, what you do is you remove those centrifuges, you disable them so they can’t be used quickly. You would actually like to keep a lot of them around as spares, because you also don’t want Iran having robust centrifuge manufacturing complex. And I won’t go into it, but it has a severe impact if you’re worried about a construction of a secret centrifuge plant some place.
But — so you can couch this in different ways, but the bottom line is a lot of centrifuges are going to have to be removed if there’s going to be a deal and that we could find ways to say it’s not destruction. But if they’re not removed, then again, from U.S. interests, I would argue the deal isn’t worth it. It’s better to go back to the pressure of sanctions and the threat of military force than to accept a deal that could, in the end, have them get nuclear weapons in two to three years and be able to have a centrifuge program that would be able to break out and do that in secret, whether it’s at a declared site or at a secret site.
And I would also say, too, we’re not arguing for the elimination of their program. I mean, there’s a lot harder line people on this than us. And I think that what we’re arguing, in the end, is that — (off-side conversation) — OK. What we’re arguing for, in the end, is to come up with a centrifuge program that is viewed as not able to threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East, yet would still exist.
And I would add to that, they have zero need for a centrifuge program. It’s incredibly uneconomical. If they make a deal, they can get as much enriched uranium as they want. They can get nuclear reactors. We don’t even know if they can make fuel safely. There’s big questions. They’re making fuel now for a research reactor in the middle of north Tehran. I mean, would you want to live near that reactor with — where a country’s never made nuclear fuel before and could easily by fully certified fuel for that reactor? It’s a U.S.-supplied reactor, after all. It can buy safe fuel from that reactor from several vendors in the world, and yet would prefer to make it itself than go and buy it abroad even if — and it would be subsidized on top of that. So in that sense, if you — and again, I’m a scientist, so issues of “I want to do stupid things, uneconomic things because of pride” don’t resonate well with me. And I’ve had much in my career fighting that in the United States, because it isn’t — pride is not an issue that somehow Iran owns. And so there’s been a tremendous amount of hubris in the nuclear area, and Iran suffers from it horribly right now. And it’s extremely important to also structure the negotiations, not to say, look, Iran, you can make the kind of same crazy uneconomical decisions we made, Europe made, Japan made, India’s made, China’s made, and then — and particularly when we have suspicions that underneath it is a desire to have nuclear weapons.
So I think it’s — I think all of this is very doable. I won’t say I’m optimistic or hopeful, but I think there is a path now that can solve this problem, and we can reach a point where we’re not going to have to worry about Iran seeking nuclear weapons. So, thank you. (Applause.)
FREDERIC HOF, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center, Atlantic Council
Well, good morning. I’m really delighted to be participating in an event run by the Middle East Policy Council. Years ago, before being dragged back into government service, I actually served on the National Advisory Committee of this fine organization, and now as an Atlantic Council senior fellow, I find the excellent writers who are featured in Middle East Policy to be superb sources of pertinent information and some policy-relevant perspectives. So I regret very much that I’m going to have to leave at 11:45 this morning for another event back at the Atlantic Council, but I’m absolutely honored to be here.
My remarks this morning will focus on the Iran-Syria connection. Syria, in fact, has been the focus of my professional life since April 2009, when I returned to U.S. government service as a deputy to the special envoy for Middle East peace, Senator George Mitchell. From the spring of 2009 until mid-March of 2011, my job was one of trying to build a foundation for eventual formal peace between Syria and Israel. And at some point, I’ll write something about that effort and how far it had gotten before it was ultimately derailed by the decision of Bashar al-Assad basically to declare war on peaceful protests. Suffice to say, it will be an interesting story.
But let me begin my remarks today with some truth in advertising. I am not an Iran expert, and I suspect I will prove that to everyone’s satisfaction in the next few minutes. But I have been participating in some track-two discussions with some very prominent nongovernmental Iranians, people close to President Rouhani, to Foreign Minister Zarif and close even to those elements of Iran’s national security establishment, active on the ground inside Syria. I can share with you, while remaining faithful to the Chatham House rules that govern our discussions, basically what they had to say about Syria.
Now, America and Iran experts who participated in the discussions thought that our Iranian interlocutors were being very frank and direct. But I’ll let those of you who actually know something about Iran be the judges of whether or not I was hearing something real. All of our Iranian interlocutors agreed that Iran’s preeminent national security objective with respect to Syria is actually inside Lebanon. It is the Hezbollah strategic deterrent and retaliatory force located in southern Lebanon. For an Iran threatened by perspective Israeli air attacks on its nuclear facilities, Hezbollah is its first line of defense. Iranian leaders believe that any Israeli leader contemplating such attacks should also consider the possibility of missiles impacting on Israeli cities, economic infrastructure and military bases.
So keeping Hezbollah’s strategic forces fit to fight is not, from Iran’s perspective, a one-time or static affair. The steady movement of weaponry, equipment, spare parts and personnel is essential. Iran has found in Bashar al-Assad someone perfectly willing and even eager to cooperate with Iran in facilitating these matters, even to the extent of conveying weapons directly from the Syrian military inventory to Hezbollah. Iran sees Bashar as essential in this regard, and Tehran sees Bashar as the cornerstone of the regime. Remove him, and the rest comes tumbling down.
More to the point, Iran sees any replacement of Bashar and/or the regime as inevitable, a pale imitation at best of the real thing. One can conclude from this narrative, I think, that Tehran’s appetite for political transition in Syria is, with the current threat of an Israeli assault, nonexistent. This, at least, is what I heard.
The hypothetical possibility of finding an alternative to the Assad regime that would support Hezbollah just as enthusiastically as the real thing is not seen by Tehran to be worth entertaining. A national unity transitional governing body would likely see the Iranian presence in Syria and the link to Hezbollah as problems to be managed and solved, rather than things that are necessarily good for Syria. The Iranian perspective, under current conditions, is that many think post-Assad is a sharp downhill descent for Iran’s national security interests. Indeed, one of our Iranian contacts said that Iran is arming Syrian Shia, creating other militias, not just to prop up the regime but as an insurance policy to maintain some kind of corridor to Lebanon just in case the regime falls.
None of this is to say that any of our Iranian interlocutors viewed Bashar al-Assad as a statesman or as a leader dedicated to the protection, service and well-being of all Syrians. All of them, in one way or another, distanced themselves and their country from the regime’s excesses.
But this is all about business. As one of the Iranians put it, for Iran, Assad is part and parcel of Iranian strategy. He is not a bargaining point. There is no divergence in Iran between political and military on this point. Syria is more important to Iran than Khuzestan.
Another put it this way: Our support for Syria is geopolitical. Our objective is to enhance Hezbollah’s deterrent capability. Hezbollah makes Israel think twice. This is why Syria is important. Hezbollah is life and death. Syria, per se, is not.
And according to a third Iranian interlocutor, we cannot keep Hezbollah strong if Iran is out of Syria. Our support of the regime is not based on sectarianism. This alliance is pragmatic, and our objective is to make Hezbollah stronger as part of Iranian security.
It may also be worth noting that our Iranian interlocutors’ unanimously saw Saudi Arabia as their real enemy, both in Syria and beyond. One Iranian said that the kingdom is becoming more and more prominent in Tehran’s calculation of threat. This person claimed that Iran is deeply worried about the implications of civil and sectarian war in Syria, that Saudi Arabia sees its short-term interests as consistent with the promotion of sectarianism. He went so far as to say that the United States and Iran have a common interest to contain sectarian war in the region and to defeat the Saudi challenge to the United States.
Another interlocutor said the following: Iran thinks it has passed the storm in Syria. Iran feels comfortable with the situation. The Iranian narrative is not one of Iranian-U.S. confrontation in Syria. Even our leadership does not see the United States as the cause of the problem. The United States and Iran can find common ground in Syria.
Yet another of the Iranians stressed that their leadership does not see their traditional enemies — meaning the United States and Israel — as having done much at all of consequence in Syria. It’s all about Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, Turkey. Even there, according to one of the Iranians, even Erdogan is now more willing than he was to consider Iranian ideas about Syria.
I’ll close by saying that our Iranian interlocutors expressed varying degrees of regret and even disgust with the humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Syria. Three of the four expressed interest in the proposition that Iran should, in its capacity as one of the world’s great civilizations, work with the United States and others to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Again, three of the four saw merit in bringing pressure to bear on Bashar al-Assad, to grant U.N. humanitarian agencies full access and full permission to operate anywhere they wished in Syria.
One of the four was less forthcoming, saying that humanitarian issues should be subordinated to the interests of the parties, and that the regime is, after all, doing well on the ground. It may be that an Iranian decision to lean on its client, to cease human rights worst practices, will depend on Iran’s evaluation of whether or not there is literally anything the Assad regime can do in the category of humanitarian abomination that could provoke a military response from the United States. If they think that regime excesses might provoke such a response, Iranian leaders might well counsel Assad to be open to the idea of a broad humanitarian truce. Indeed, there are probably some senior Iranian leaders sympathetic to the idea of encouraging Assad to knock off the most egregious of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Yet if Iran concludes that there is literally nothing, nothing Assad could do to provoke a kinetic U.S. response, one that might derail nuclear talks, those Iranians who see the terror campaign as a defensible part of Assad’s survival strategy may well prevail. I would hope that U.S. diplomats are exploring this matter with Iranian counterparts, because what is happening in Syria truly is an affront to humanity. Thank you. (Applause.)
RICHARD LEBARON, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center, Atlantic Council
Morning. My name is Richard LeBaron. I work at the Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East, at the Atlantic Council. And one of the things that think tanks are constantly trying to think of is how to be new and different and have more influence. And I’m always trying to be more trendy since I’m getting older and, you know, not really part of the social media generation, so I joined Twitter, and I thought that was really cool. And everybody else said, well, it’s de passé. So I came up with another idea, and that was: Why don’t we have a flash mob — a flash mob of Middle East experts in Farragut Square? (Laughter.) We could have thousands of them herding into Farragut Square, and we would be able to quantify in some way the extent of Washington’s intense interest in analysis of what goes on in the Middle East, and maybe even come up with something that actually influences policy. So many people with so little influence, it seems, on what actually goes on in the Middle East, and perhaps one of the lessons we’ve learned over the last few years is the people of the Middle East actually control most things that go on there, whether they be in Egypt or in Tehran.
With that proviso, let me make a few modest remarks about the way forward, and I’ll focus mainly on the Gulf, where I’ve taken interest for the Atlantic Council.
In the immediate aftermath of the framework agreement, we saw some predictable reactions from our various allies. Much of the negative reaction from Israel and Saudi Arabia was reflexive. It was reflexive in that it reflected a concern about anything that changes the status quo because most people in the Middle East are comfortable with the status quo and afraid of change in general.
The loudest voices of opposition received the most publicity, of course, while the vast majority of world capitals, the vast majority of people in the Middle East, I’m quite sure found it refreshing that there would be some sort of agreement involving the West and some element of the Middle East, even if it was peripheral — or a Persian one, from the point of view of the Arab Middle East.
It’s also useful to keep in mind as we work through this that this isn’t about only the United States and Iran. This agreement had partners, including Russia, China, the EU, Germany, France and the U.K. So as we move forward, I think it’s really critical that we think in multilateral terms.
The initial positioning of the Saudis and others quickly adjusted to the new status quo — status quos always change, you know, there’s always a new status quo — in which capitals are now considering what they do next. And it’s curious how there’s an acceleration of political time, whenever there’s a change, whenever there’s a big announcement of sometime — something, everybody thinks everything’s going to happen quickly after that.
Nothing ever does happen quickly after that. We lurch from a accelerated political time back into normal political time, which we’re back in now, and there’s no crisis, if there was right after the announcement of the agreement, with the Israelis demanding explanations, the Saudis pouting and talking publicly about their concerns; that’s all sort of lurched back into the — into the background for now in normal political time.
But our topic this morning is the way forward. I won’t dwell on those reactions. I want to talk about a scenario over the next 18 months to two years in what I consider will be a saga of 10 to 20 years. And I completely agree with David’s analysis that this is all going to take a long time and not be a binary situation of conflict or successful negotiation.
I think because of the complexity of the topics and the difficult domestic political environments, in Iran and in the U.S., negotiations are unlikely to produce anything like a comprehensive nuclear agreement over the next year to 18 months. Nonetheless, I believe the Iranians are capable of making enough concessions, of allowing enough international inspection and of signaling enough good intentions to avoid a breakdown in the negotiations.
As we get closer to presidential elections in the United States, some will make Iran policy a campaign issue, but I don’t think they will be successful. I don’t think so because I don’t believe American voters will be mobilized by a foreign policy issue unless it provides — it presents a clear and present crisis. And I’m struck, harkening back to my earlier remarks, about how much there is interest in Middle East policy around here and how little interest there is out there. Americans are fleeing from the Middle East as fast as they can. They don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to know about it. They’re embarrassed by it. They’re mortified by it. The last thing they want to do is be engaged with it in any way other than an economic way. And I find it we sometimes forget that from our perches in Washington.
In the Gulf, I predict a fairly rapid readjustment to the a perception that Iran is likely to move further out of its isolation and once again become a more significant regional actor. We have already seen this in the case of Oman and Dubai, which have had traditional ties with Iran. They — the Omanis were instrumental in our contacts, and the Dubai crowd rushed into the Iranian embrace as soon as the framework agreement was announced. So already we saw that rapid movement in. There’s no allergy to Iran in Kuwait or Qatar, which have had significant ties with Iran over the — in the past. In Kuwait there’s a substantial Shia population with family and personal and business ties in Iran that hasn’t gone away.
These countries, most of the countries in the Gulf, of course, are small countries sandwiched between bigger, two bigger countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And their trust of either of these two bigger countries varies from day to day and from issue to issue. They are not going to risk their security by exclusive unilateral alignment with the Saudis or within some sort of GCC union that is perceived to have the sole intention of countering Iran, nor do I think that most of the countries or that any of the countries in the Gulf have foreign policies that are driven exclusively by sectarian politics.
I think the Saudis are mostly irritated by the prospect of change and of loss of their regional dominance, which they’ve had by default. But I don’t think they’re traumatized by this. They will adjust. And I would expect that there are discreet political contacts underway already. I would not expect the Saudis to pursue a nuclear capacity in the — in the medium term. And as I say, I think it’s — they probably will find ways to communicate with the Iranians over the next year.
In this context, I think it’s important to clearly differentiate between Saudi and Israeli interests vis-à-vis Iran. For Israel, Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would very substantially change its threat environment and present a direct threat to its existence. For the Saudis, the nuclear breakout is not as problematic as the Iranian political breakout. Their fears about Iran are much less related to nuclear capability then they are to the Iranian role in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and, to some degree, their concern about Iranian influence in Bahrain or in Saudi Arabia itself. They interpret the nuclear agreement reached as almost a perverse reward for bad behavior in the region by the Iranians.
This leads to the question of whether the Saudis and others in the GCC will feel the need to bolster their own military forces in order to counter Iran in the future, and will they do this partly because they don’t trust the United States’ stated commitments to their security and the massive presence of U.S. troops and hardware in the Gulf. I don’t think so. I think they will focus on Iranian behavior towards them directly and in Syria in particular to gauge Iranian intentions. They and others in the Gulf will test the proposition that some sort of new equilibrium, as President Obama described recently, is either possible and is emerging. And they may have to turn down the sectarian heat themselves in some cases. We cannot expect a one-way street of unilateral moves by the Iranians.
In sum, over the next two years we’re going to have to live with a fairly high level of ambiguity as Iran decides which path it will choose and others respond and react. Much of this will be about internal Iranian politics. Most of the world is willing to live with this ambiguity. There is no support for a war against Iran absent a clear and present danger, perhaps with the exception of Israel, where there is mixed views. If the U.S. launches a pre-emptive strike, we can only count on Israel to be publicly and, I would say, even privately supportive. I think our allies in the Gulf will distance themselves very quickly from anything they view as a repeat of a preventive war by the United States in their neighborhood. But frankly, it will largely be up to Iranian behavior to lower the risk of conflict.
Finally, I think that there’s an outside possibility that the changing environment could lead to a more mature security relationship between the U.S. and the Gulf, one that would recognize new Gulf military capacity, would recognize the diminished interest in a large U.S. presence in the Gulf based both on lower defense budgets and expanded domestic energy reliance, would recognize also the responsibility of other actors, like China, Japan, South Korea in the protection of petroleum trade routes. Thank you. (Applause.)
ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic & International Studies
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I’d like to really address four military aspects for the way ahead. They do interact, but in 15 minutes what I am really wanting to focus on are the areas surrounding the nuclear issue, which I think are often simply not being addressed.
One key issue is why would Iran want nuclear weapons, and how does it fit into its overall military development and strategic goals in the region. I have seen in various press reports references to Iran as the hegemon of the Gulf. In fact, in many ways, Iran is a military museum. Its aircraft are aircraft that were essentially delivered to Iran when I was serving in the embassy there. The bulk of its surface-to-air missiles are either obsolete imports from China or they are systems which date back, again, to the time of the Shah. They have been upgraded to some degree. But upgrading when you have to do it with a small industrial base, when you have to smuggle equipment in in erratic ways, when you have no access to systems integration from major manufacturers does not give you the kind of capabilities which some of our defense magazines seem to buy with amazing credulousness.
This is also a country which in the climactic battles of the Iran-Iraq War lost between 40 to 60 percent of its land order of battle. Remember that an awful lot of that equipment was involved in eight years of war. It has not had spare parts of resupply in any effective way since basically the fall of the Shah.
What it has done to try to compensate for this is to build up a massive asymmetric warfare capability in the Gulf, some of it sea-based, some of it missiles, some of it in the form of air deliverables. But it is a capability which can only really be used either in attrition, political leverage or in restricting oil exports — if Iran has some credible way to deter what is an immense U.S. advantage in conventional strike capability and a sharply rising Gulf increase in air strike capability. At this point in time the UAE alone has more modern, more capable aircraft that the Iranian Air Force. Throw into that the United States, Saudi Arabia, stealth capabilities, the fact that the United States can provide the Gulf Arab states with the kind of command-and-control integration targeting data situational awareness that no regional alliance can possible provide on its own, and you have an immensely superior conventional capability, one that can escalate if Iran uses this asymmetric capability.
Iran faces the same military challenges in using covert forces, groups like the al-Quds forces, elements like the MOIS, in pursuing its regional efforts. It can transfer arms, it can create problems, it can create challenges through infiltrating or supporting various dissident elements. But what it can’t do at present without some kind of more effective deterrent is compensate for its overall military vulnerability.
Nuclear weapons are one way to do this. Another way is to put your assets into ballistic missiles and long-range artillery rockets.
The difficulty with long-range missiles, as Israel and other countries learned during the Gulf War in 1991, is these are remarkably ineffective systems. Yes, you can put the conventional warhead somewhere into a large area in a country like Israel or Saudi Arabia. But quite frankly, that warhead, which will at most be 2,000 pounds and usually substantially smaller, will be less lethal than a conventional bomb delivered by an aircraft because the closing velocity of the missile essentially creates a major problem in vectoring the explosive, and warheads simply aren’t smart enough on these systems to compensate. What you are talking about essentially is a terror weapon or a weapon of intimidation. And for all the talk of the war of the cities during the Iran-Iraq War, if you talk to Iranians, I’ve known a number who used to go up on the roof of a city and watch the missiles come in because they were so ineffective and basically so random in their effect.
Now, there are two ways you can compensate for this. One is if you have a nuclear weapon and nuclear-armed missiles and the capability to deliver nuclear-armed aircraft, you have a much more powerful deterrent capability. Another way, which Iran is pursuing, is to get terminal guidance for its missile systems. And this gives it a completely different strike capability, not so much against a diversified economy like Israel, but it does against the Gulf because the Gulf has one of the most vulnerable areas in terms of targeting in the world. A combination of desalination plants, critical petroleum and power facilities with very long lead recovery times, creates a situation where a conventional missile can become a weapon of mass effectiveness. There are talk or there is talk about water reserves in some of the southern Gulf countries. But the fact is if they lose a desalination plant, they lose the ability to support the population of a city.
Now, these are realities that virtually everybody knows. They are things which, if you are in the Gulf and you are shaping your forces, you deal with day to day.
The other side of this and one thing to remember is Iran’s ambitions, at least to me, are focused on influence in the Gulf and around it. We seem to have gotten obsessed recently with Syria, and there are good reasons. But remember that there is this small four-letter country called Iraq between Iran and Syria. And if you are talking about strategic interests and you happen to be an Iranian, how much do you really care about Israel, and how much do you use it as an excuse in dealing with your Arab neighbors for what is a very carefully tailored military buildup, one focused on power and influence in the region, and where you are putting at least as much in many ways, through the al-Quds and other elements, into Iraq as you are into the Levant?
Now, this is a structure where we cannot talk about Iranian intentions. As David pointed out at the start, Iran has denied it is working on nuclear weapons. It denied it was working on nuclear weapons when I was in the embassy in Tehran. I think people have tended to forget that at one point, the CIA was actually giving an unclassified background briefing on the fact that the Shah was importing equipment illegally which seemed to be relating to the development of nuclear weapons back in the 1970s. There is nothing particularly new about this process. And you can read through the work of ISIS or, for that matter, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the inspection that has been done by the IEA (to ?) get an idea of just how close they have come to getting weapons.
So we are not talking about some element of prestige. I do not believe we are talking about breakout. I think we are talking about having to give up a key aspect of a strategic plan which grows out of the inability over a period of decades to get access to modern military technology and conventional arms.
Can Iran sacrifice that? Yes, of course it can. This is one type of tradeoff. Will it do it? I simply don’t know.
How well can we actually inspect or monitor this? Again, I have perhaps more questions that relate to the actual development of weapon than I do to enrichment. One thing that we have to understand as people outside the intelligence community and government as we look at any aspect of assessing this, there is absolutely nothing to indicate how far Iran has gotten in weapons design. No one has publicly stated how much of the design data could have been acquired from other countries. I have not seen any credible unclassified assessment of what a nation has to do today to actually design, build, test and deploy an effective implosion weapon. I can say in the past, having had to deal with this for DARPA and others, the whole idea that a physics student can build a credible nuclear weapon is rubbish. This is still one of the most demanding complex aspects of science and engineering imaginable. And if you are going to rely on a nuclear deterrent, you may run a bluff, but to put out a weapon without a fissile test — and I don’t mean an event, I mean a test of that warhead and that weapon — is still an act of almost incredible risk. And three countries demonstrate that. India and Pakistan have had to lie about the yield of their weapons test. We know what has happened in Korea. If it was that easy, you wouldn’t have three countries essentially not succeed.
Now, how will we deal with this? David mentioned the idea of preventive strikes. Let me also note one problem I have seen in the unclassified writing of think tanks is a certain amount of hubris. Targeting is an incredibly complex military task. To do it, you have to know exactly what the intelligence is on the target base. You have to know what your offensive systems can credibly do. You have to make penetration calculations, attritions calculations. And you have to look at suspect and possible targets and the whole array of a vast set of potential aim points and then calculate what the impact will be over time of carrying out a given pattern of strikes.
Anybody can write a supposed war plan, but only people inside the Pentagon can actually assess in any way what the targeting structure is. And all I can say in broad terms is whenever you see somebody work out a preventive strike plan from a think tank or a newspaper that has less than 80 targets, you are looking at absolute rubbish. And if you can find anybody who has done this in a think tank or anywhere else and has not produced rubbish, I would deeply like to know what the reference is. We have tried to go through illustrative capabilities of this kind. But what I have not seen is a look at the realities involved.
Can we probably do it? Yes. Do I have the slightest belief that Israel has the capability to do it? No. I think Israel could take out a few key targets. Could it have any lasting impact? No, I don’t really believe it can. Could we do it with one round of strikes? And this is a critical issue at looking at the way ahead. No. I think we would have to do it by having repeated strikes, target assessment and going through a process where, as we did in Iraq, we would have to be able to guarantee that we could go on restriking if Iran attempted to recover or we discovered new target points and potentially over a period of years.
Now, let me put this in closing in the broader context of where we are. The United States government has said officially that it has rejected containment as a way of dealing with Iran, which would be fine, expect what we are now deeply involved in is containing Iran. We are deploying missile — anti-missile defense ships. They are attempting to get the Gulf states to develop meaningful missile defenses. We are helping — and here let me remind you — a nuclear-armed Israel which had access to French weapons design and test data, advanced missile defense capabilities. So we are talking about a country which might get fissile weapons at some point in the future relative to an Israel which stepped up its range and booster capability in the late 1980s and has had decades to mature a thermonuclear armed force. So when you talk about Iran being focused on Israel, one does not take a fission weapon and deliberately commit suicide and attacking a nuclear power with Israel’s capability and maturity. This is not a clear rationale for action. But using a capability like this to actually deter strikes forces on the Gulf is different.
Now, what are we doing in the Gulf? Secretary Hagel gave a speech late last fall, a very good one, in Manama. And I think this is something to remember in terms of the way ahead. We have over $70 billion worth of arms transfers going into the southern Gulf. The vast majority of that money goes into air and missile defenses and into modern new advanced fighter bombers. Two of the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates, are buying long-range precision strike systems with ranges over a hundred kilometers. They’re not ours. They’re called the Storm Shadow and variations on it, although they are seeking advanced precision weapons from us. Two countries are talking about buying the THAAD, the most, or the standard, the most advanced missile defenses we have. One is Qatar; the other is United Arab Emirates. Almost all of these countries have already bought the PAC-3, which is a much more advanced missile defense-capable version of the Patriot.
For all the talk of a so-called pivot toward Asia, A, our strategy as issued in January of 2012 gave the Middle East exactly the same priority it gave Asia. Second, we have built up and restructured our naval forces inside the Gulf. We now have the capability to deploy the F-35, which adds to the stealth attack capabilities that we have in the Gulf.
This is containment. It is deterrence.
Let me almost note that as we look at alternative security structures in the Gulf, be very, very careful about referring to something called the Gulf Cooperation Council. In reality, every single military force in the Gulf has as its primary partner the United States in a bilateral relationship dictated by the fact that we have the fundamental capability to deploy air, sea and missile power. We have space assets. We have the command-and-control and sensor systems and ability to integrate tactical forces where the Gulf has almost zero capability. The GCC talks about unity; it has been talking about unity since 1981. The one system that it has actually deployed is dysfunctional — it’s called the HAT system — it basically will not be a warfighting system, and it has made zero progress in meaningful integration over the last five to six years. Now, how do we fit all of the political and other factors that my colleagues have brought in? I’m going to leave that to the question period. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Well, thank you to the panelists; I will start with a few questions and then take questions from the floor, both in written form, and people will come to the mic. In traveling through the Gulf, we’ve heard a lot of leaders — and I know this is shared in Israel as well — express concern about any nuclear agreement that would allow or acknowledge Iran continuing to enrich uranium to 5 percent. And yet, Iran is very unlikely to accept an agreement that doesn’t permit them to do that, so Mr. Albright, what are the risks of an agreement that would allow them to continue enriching to 5 percent? What are the scientific risks and the military risks? And are there political risks in insisting on zero enrichment? That’s the first question.
MR. ALBRIGHT: I guess I would first say that there’s risks no matter what. They’ve learned a lot. They have an industrial infrastructure they’ve created around nuclear that can be brought into play whether they have some centrifuges or not. So I think, at least at ISIS, I mean, we were — really, we would rather see no enrichment there, but the task we took on is, what kind of enrichment program can you live with that will protect U.S. national security interests and won’t pose too big of a risk?
And again, we see that in any case, Iran has the capability to build nuclear weapons now, and it can pursue different paths to that. And so we felt that if you minimize the program, and particularly, applied criteria to it — things like, you know, what kind of breakout time can you live with? And we have our own team at the University of Virginia that — one is an ex-centrifuge expert who did calculations when he worked in the U.S. centrifuge program, and so we can look at these questions of breakout in a very rigorous, detailed way, that if you have those kind of criteria, you can start to make judgments about what you can live with.
And we thought that if the program has on the order of 4,000 of these first-generation machines, or an equivalent number of a little more-advanced machines, you can live with it. You have to have a very robust verification regime that does, as Tony raises, has to — Iran has to come clean in some way on its past weapons activities. And what that would do is, it triggers inspections by the (IAEA ?) of that industrial complex that was involved.
And so, this has been wrestled with in South Africa when they gave up their nuclear weapons program; it was wrestled with tremendously in Iraq, which had a pretty robust nuclear weapons production infrastructure by 1991. So that part of it has to be brought into the verification regime. It’s a little bit outside of what people normally consider (IAEA ?) inspections, but it’s well-trod territory.
You also have to limit other parts of the nuclear program. And I think we’ve published a study — I won’t go into it and bore you with it, but it’s on our website. It’s a program that’s going to be much smaller, and in a sense, Iran would be — excuse — this is sort of an American point of view — kind of on probation, and we would say — and we agree with the administration — it’s going to be on probation for 20 years where it’s going to have a lot more intrusive inspections during that period and will have these limits in place.
And if not, then I would say, walk away. If you can’t get it, then walk away, because I do agree with Tony. Containment can’t — we don’t use containment because we’re not sure — we’re not experts in that, but we think the — something can be instituted that is going to further Iran’s economic isolation, and at the same time, would make it very costly for Iran to actually decide and implement a plan to build nuclear weapons.
DR. MATTAIR: Does anyone else have a comment on that?
DR. CORDESMAN: I think one thing we need to be careful about when we talk 10 to 20 years — David didn’t mention what is a very good study by ISIS on a facility known as Parchin. The days in which you had to carry out a major fissile test of a weapon in the way we used to have to do this are over. You can create simulation and models of nuclear weapons which are relatively functional that don’t use a fissile core and test key aspects of the weapon design.
Pakistan did this; Iran may have done it in Parchin. There is a host of other activities that Iran can carry out in terms of designing weapons without actually have a high probability of detection. Five percent enrichment doesn’t really relate to that. And again, I will praise ISIS, because I did read the paper it did on centrifuges. Remember that Iran can’t go ahead and actually test a centrifuge fully without violating the agreement, but it can carry out advanced centrifuge design in a lot of other ways over time that it probably can conceal, and it can prepare for a different kind of nuclear breakout over time.
So this is not a duel; it is simply dictated by enrichment, and that’s a critical factor. And behind that duel is the fact — how much does the U.S. intelligence community actually know? Because verification is an arms control term. Spying is a somewhat different term. But the ability to spy and the ability to detect Iran’s true capabilities at a classified level will be as critical to this agreement as any aspect of formal arms control.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. My second question is this: Again, in traveling in the region, one of the concerns we hear is that the United States will be so interested in getting a nuclear agreement with Iran that it will acquiesce in the expansion of Iran’s influence in the Arab world. And do you think that this helps explain American policy in Syria for the past six months, when we did not take military action against the use of chemical weapons? And do you think it has a bearing on what kind of agreement we will make in Syria?
AMB. HOF: I suspect that the thing that probably best explains the ultimate decision not to use military force in Syria is the — is the deep skepticism — the abiding skepticism of the president of the United States that it would really do any good one way or the other. I don’t know — I don’t know that Iran really figured in the calculation here. One thing I would — I would suggest people take a look at in this regard is the recent David Remnick story on the president in the New Yorker.
There were several comments by the president on Syria, the main drift of which is his strong belief that short of invading and occupying the country — something obviously unthinkable — very little and perhaps nothing the United States can do — useful in Syria. It raises a question, I suppose, as to whether or not the president was being perfectly frank with the American people when, in the immediate wake of the chemical atrocity last summer, he did indeed say that he had reached a decision that military strikes were justified.
But in the end, he tossed the hot potato to Congress, and then, when a chemical weapons agreement was on offer, he grasped it, which leads me to the conclusion that we should probably take the president at his own word on this, that he’s just deeply skeptical of that sort of enterprise.
DR. MATTAIR: Again, does anybody else have a comment?
AMB. LEBARON: I think the — there’s a paradox that we’ve described — and Tony described the vast capabilities that we, the United States has in the Gulf and the Gulf countries now possess, but these capabilities don’t match the Gulf perception of intention of the United States to use those capabilities to those defense. And the recent statements by the president — the one that Fred referred to is fascinating, I think, when the president talks about a new equilibrium in the Middle East, and Gates, in his memoir, talks about his frustration with the Saudis basically wanting the United States to fight a sectarian war on its behalf.
I think there is a feeling that the U.S. — there is a clear feeling in the Gulf that the U.S. — in a more radical version, it’s conspiring against Sunnis in a more comfortable version — it’s just losing interest in these conflicts at the same time. And when Hagel came back from that trip — and I agree with Tony — it was a very good speech, but I told the people in the Defense Department, stop reassuring them. If you reassure one more time, they’re going to think you’ve abandoned them, so just do it, but leave the reassurance tours behind.
DR. CORDESMAN: I think — I’m going to intervene just enough to say that there are — there’s more than one person I the Gulf. One of the problems you really have is, at one level, you have some extremely sophisticated people in the military command structures, in the foreign ministries who actually deal with the realities of the military balance in the region. Unfortunately, more than practically any other area in the world, when it comes down to the actual details of military capability, people in the Gulf region don’t quantify. They don’t analyze, they don’t model, they don’t do scenario analysis; they simply trot out a conspiracy theory.
Now, not all conspiracy theories are wrong, but most of the military ones I hear in the Gulf are very wrong, and I think that I would have to say that part of the reason they’re wrong is, the U.S. has done such a bad job of actually explaining what its posture has been out there, what it is actually delivering. When you talk about reversing or weakening our position, and you talk about a 10-year rule — we’ve already got seven years’ worth of arms deliveries in the pipeline. And all of them are headed, basically, towards Southern Gulf Arab states. We’re not backing away. Again, we increased our military posture in the Gulf this year. If we made that point more clearly, I think people would be reassured. But in doing so, we also, I think, have to start explaining what’s actually happening out there. And as long as the countries won’t explain to their own people, it’s really hard to reassure the people outside that narrow elite.
DR. MATTAIR: There’s actually suspicion that the United States is deliberately attempting to subvert Sunni regimes in order to elevate Shia regimes in the region, and when you point to American military support for the Gulf Arab states, that’s not a sufficient answer to satisfy them, and when you say that what happened in Iraq was the unforeseen consequence of our action, that also is not an entirely satisfactory answer to them.
DR. CORDESMAN: I don’t think if anybody who was responsible — and I foresaw what was going to happen — was there anyone here who believed that we actually did?
DR. MATTAIR: OK. There’s a question here, Fred — I think the questioner misheard you, because —
AMB. HOF: Let’s hope so.
DR. MATTAIR: — one of the speakers said that the USA and Iran have a common interest in ending sectarian conflict. He doesn’t think it’s true; he argues the sectarian conflict is instigated by Iran. I think you were saying that one of your Iranian interlocutors accused the Saudis of instigating sectarian conflict.
AMB. HOF: Yeah, it was more than one. It was all of them, and obviously, their pitch to the Americans present at these track II meetings was that the United States and Iran should collaborate in defeating the nefarious designs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but that was an Iranian perspective. That was not a perspective offered by any of the Americans.
DR. MATTAIR: And another speaker is really questioning the evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq and Bahrain and questioning whether the Saudi concern about this and the concern of other states is legitimate. Does anyone want to talk about that?
DR. CORDESMAN: Obviously, no one person can be an authentic source on this, but I think if you look at the entire history of what happened through 2003 onwards, at the number of times we were able to clearly trace intervention by the Iranian al-Quds force — David Crisp’s (sp) book gives what I think is a very good chronology here — the extent to which Iran provided specialized IEDs, which we could clearly trace as coming from Iran, and allowed them to move into Iraq. If you look at Iraqi descriptions of what is happening in Iraq, through a fairly wide variety of sources, you’re going to get this.
So I think, when you talk about Iranian intervention in Bahrain, if you simply do a Google search through the press, you’ll find there have been cases where we could actually see arms shipments and problems in terms of equipment coming in from across the Gulf. Now, I can’t say this was a deliberate aspect of the Iranian government. The caution I would give you is that if you are a part of the Sunni elite in Bahrain, you do vastly exaggerate the level of Iranian influence beyond all credibility. And so one of your problems here, again, with conspiracy theories is, some of them are partly true. But when they become ideological extremism, they’re not.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, Tony, here’s another question, which is that you argued that the conventional vulnerabilities of Iran provides them with a reason for seeking nuclear capability. If there — if there were a nuclear agreement where they stood down on that, would it make sense to address their legitimate conventional military needs, and how would we — how would the Gulf Arabs respond to that?
DR. CORDESMAN: First, I don’t think that this is somehow decoupled from a word we really haven’t used this morning called sanctions. Iran isn’t doing this out of altruism or a sudden concern for humanity’s broader interests in the region. It’s doing it because it was forced to do it by outside pressure and a combination of EU and U.S. sanctions.
We are not under any great obligation to somehow give Iran parity in conventional weapons. It certainly is not credible at this point that the United States is going to invade Iran, and certainly, none of the southern Gulf states are going to be invading Iran. There may be a case for a dialogue on Gulf security and finding alternatives to the kind of military buildup that’s been going on for the last quarter of a century, but the idea we should somehow help Iran out by either easing sanctions on conventional arms transfers or providing them to Iran ourselves somehow doesn’t strike me as being in our national interests of any of our partners and allies in the region.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, the last question — and I’m ready to take questions from the mic now, if anyone wants to; I just have one more question before we do that, and that is, what is our policy in Syria now? What is that we expect to achieve?
AMB. HOF: The objective the president has articulated is a — is a negotiated settlement consistent with the Geneva Final Communique of June 30th, 2012, that would result in the creation of a transitional governing body for Syria — a kind of transitional government of national unity which, in accordance with the terms of Geneva I, would seem almost inevitably to be an arrangement that would exclude Bashar al-Assad and his — and his regime.
Hence, we have the — we have the Geneva conference that started last week, and in some manner of speaking, continues this week. That is the president’s objective, and as the president indicated in his New Yorker interview, primacy of effort — which we’re seeing now being exerted by Secretary Kerry — is on those states — primarily Russia and Iran — that are key supporters of the regime. The difficulty the administration is facing in all of this is that neither Russia nor Iran seem inclined to move, at this point, their client towards the exits, and the United States itself does not have a tremendous amount of leverage in this respect.
So for that reason, the likelihood that this Geneva conference will really tackle the issue of political transition upfront, you know, in the next 20 minutes or the next 20 days or the next couple of months is very slim. What Geneva might provide — and what I would hope it would provide would be a focal point for the United States, possibly Iran, maybe Russia, the United Nations, and ultimately, the regime to find some ways to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place in Syria. And I cannot emphasize that enough.
What is happening inside Syria is absolutely unspeakable, but we’re seeing that this is not primarily the work of these two delegations that are kind of locked away with Lakhdar Brahimi. They’re having trouble working out arrangements for U.N. relief convoys into Homs and things of that nature; this is the job for the so-called great powers. So I think there is potentially an opportunity to mitigate some of the humanitarian horrors. The prospects of political transition when you have Assad supporters sticking with him and Assad himself thinking he is winning on the ground — those prospects are not very good.
DR. MATTAIR: What is the end game in Syria? Is Syria going to survive as a state, or is Syria going to split — is it going to be partitioned? And how long can this civil war last? Ten years?
AMB. HOF: Oh, I’m kind of a veteran of the Lebanon civil war; these things can go on and on and on. You know, what we’re seeing in Syria now is a de facto partition of sorts, with the Assad regime being propped up, it appears, rather solidly right now in the Western part of the country — that is, the part of the country that’s important to Iran in terms of its relationship to Hezbollah.
And the balance of the country, being run by various collections of militias, in some areas by Kurds — so the prospect is that this is going to go on for quite some time. And obviously, the ramifications for American friends and allies in the region are rather serious. The United States is keeping a particular eye on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in this respect, because all of the work that Secretary Kerry and General John — retired General John Allen are doing in terms of security arrangements in connection with the potential two-state outcome in the Jordan Valley — all of those arrangements rest, ultimately, on the performance of the Jordan armed forces. So the implications regionwide are quite serious, and it doesn’t make thing any easier for the president and his team.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. One final comment before — I’m sorry to keep you there — one final comment. Someone made a comment here I’d like to endorse, because we may get somewhere with these interim negotiations, and this interim agreement may become something good, and someone made a comment here that the Sultanate of Oman deserves to be thanked for having conducted the secret talks that led to this agreement.
Q: My name is Hassan; I was born in Tehran. I’ve been in America since 1960; I’ve seen many presidents and many relationships going up and down during these times. Ever since the Iranian revolution, for some reason, America has decided to kind of write off Iran and neglect the population and their desires. I just heard by some of the speakers comparing Iran and Arabia as two big countries. Arabia has only five or 10 million people; Iran has 85 million, and Arabia has lots of people coming in to perform certain things, but anyway, I think, when there is a dispute or disagreement in any kind, if you’re not honest enough to express your grievances and ask the other part their grievances, then, you know, you will not be able to go anywhere.
Dr. Albright said that Iranians are — cheated, or they did lots of things, and they made 20 percent plates to do their reactors, and all they had to do, ask the world community to sell to them, well, they did, and nobody sell to them, and that’s what they did. Now, this event or this conflict will come to an end, either we like it or not, and if the (ultimate ?) is the attack on Iran, people over there are getting ready to receive such an attack, but nobody is welcoming war, and sometime, you know, we have to be very careful when we keep threatening. The options are on the table — not only us — the Israelis also.
If we could have done this five years ago, 10 years ago, or even a month or two months ago, we would have done it. So what this impression gives the other people in that part of the world is our impotence. We say something; we cannot follow through. And I’d like to know if, six months from now, the demand that is made to Iran of dismantling their program is not met by Iranians because they have a stiff opposition inside of Iran right now, what are we going to do?
DR. MATTAIR: I think one of the panelists said that, you know, we could have another interim agreement and that we could — yes.
DR. CORDESMAN: I think we ought to consider where we’re sitting. I would suspect rather strongly that certainly the Senate and House are going to, if we do not have something very credible by way of progress, bring back at least the sanctions that existed before the interim agreement was signed. And I would also suspect there will be a majority for stronger sanctions fairly rapidly.
The other problem is that if, in the process of this, you do not get that agreement, there is any indication of new weapons-related activity, the problem is that all of this ongoing military buildup in the region is going to be focused, even more than it is today, on dealing with the Iranian forces. It is not something where you can have, I believe at least, a long series of delays.
And part of the reason is that we have already been through this. We have been through one set of meetings, one set of agreements to disclose, after another over nearly a decade. There is only so long that you can delay and have any credibility.
DR. MATTAIR: How would the panelists assess the possibility of strikes? I mean, Richard, you said there’s very little appetite for that, other than in Israel, but actually there are some Gulf leaders who would go along with military strikes.
AMB. LEBARON: I think — I disagree. I don’t think there’s a single Gulf leader now who thinks that it makes sense, because the equation has changed. The Iranians have repositioned themselves and so that the burden now is on proving that you have to do a strike at a time when you’ve got a negotiating process underway, which, you know, you can’t — we were talking yesterday to the British — our British counterparts — and they said not even the U.K., you know, after being burned in Iraq and so forth, would go along with this in that case.
I just want to return to the gentleman’s comment, though, because I think it was — there’s an important aspect here that we haven’t talked about, and that’s the demonization of each other’s countries, and that’s a two-way street. You know, this is a big business in Tehran, demonizing the United States. And luckily — and I think one of the things that really needs to be tested is how much of this rhetoric that’s coming out from leaders in Iran now is actually going to translate into something that’s real and therefore can create an environment for political leaders in this building and the building across the avenue to stop demonizing from this direction?
I mean, I’m one of those people who, you know — I joined the Foreign Service in the fall of 1979, you know, so I remember the hostages. I remember it vividly, being up in the middle of the night and the State Department’s operations center trying to get a few of my colleagues out of Tehran. That’s scarred on the memory of a lot of Americans. When they think of Iran, a lot of them in my generation think of the hostage crisis, and that’s the only thing that comes to mind. They don’t think of ancient Persian cultures. They don’t think of Isfahan or the history of Iran. They think of recent historical events that have all been negative.
So I think changing that environment is critical to deciding whether we’re dealing with credible partners; you know, whether those partners can get over the neuroses that — the political neuroses that’s been created over the last 30 years by a pattern of distrust and demonization. And I think that’s — for the Gulf, in a sense, that’s important as well because they’ve demonized as well. And Saudi Arabia is viewed as an enemy by the Iranians, so getting over this politics of demonization is critical.
AMB. FRAKER: Can I — if I can just weigh in on the Saudi side of things.
In my experience in Riyadh from ’07 to ’09, the Saudi position on Iran was crystal clear. The Saudis would have liked to have seen the United States bomb/invade Iran, as they see Iran as their existential threat. The multibillion-dollar fence that has gone up on the northern border in Saudi Arabia with Iraq; it’s not a fence to keep the Iraqis out; it’s a fence to keep the Iranians out. And this pressure has been consistent since 2005.
So I believe the dynamics have changed in that the Saudis understand there is a process going on now. Nevertheless, the most senior people in government in Saudi Arabia will consistently operate from this position, that Iran is clearly the threat and Iran should be dealt with militarily by the United States. And I’ve seen no change in that whatsoever over the last four or five years.
MR. ALBRIGHT: One thing on the military strikes, I think it — I think the Obama administration has been wise to define it in terms of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. I mean, that’s the — they’re trying to find some way to create a — that it’s not a preventive strike; it’s an enforcement action of a clear violation of international laws. And so I think that’s certainly not something that Israel has agreed to but it’s an attempt.
Now, is it credible? I mean, I think everyone would have to just come up with their own answer. I personally believe that it is credible. I mean, it’s not going to be a light trigger. There’s going to have to be substantial evidence that Iran is moving in that direction. But I would — I would hope that the Iranian leaders will not dismiss that and they’d take it seriously.
On another thing, you brought up the 20 percent. I mean, I don’t want to pound on that but it’s another problem. The U.S. thought it had a deal with Iran where Iran would get the 20 percent enriched uranium fuel it wanted, and it was — it was stopped by internal Iranian politics. And Ahmadinejad had pushed it forward, and that it looked like it was done, and then it was undone by the actions of some of the members of the parliament and some other parts of the Iranian government.
Iran later tried to resurrect it but it put forth an agreement, a declaration, with Brazil and Turkey that had deep flaws in it. You know, an example would be all the fuel has to come within a year — when they’d been told clearly by the supplier, the intended supplier, France it would take two years. Iran wanted to say, look, at any — for any reason we can pull out the 20 percent we would send out that would be kind of a fungible material that could be made into the fuel. We could pull it back to Iran for any reason whatsoever.
And so this Iran-Turkey-Brazil declaration was seen the day it was released as deeply flawed. And you have — and it has a consequence here that — and again, Iran may have some of the same concerns but — about the U.S., but here it’s like, can Iran deliver? I mean, the president is not — doesn’t have the power of the president of the United States, so Rouhani can make a deal but is it really a deal that will be delivered?
And I think the 20 percent fuel showed that, yes, the West will provide the fuel. It had done it in the past. Argentina provided 30-30 years’ worth in the early ‘90s. So the West will provide the fuel but it wants assurances that it’s delivering the fuel to a peaceful nuclear program. And then with this new twist, it is — if you deliver something or if you negotiate something with the president of the country, do you really have a deal?
DR. CORDESMAN: I’m very reluctant to use the term “red lines” given its recent credibility, but I think one of the things we need to consider is not what happens on June 20th. One of the real questions would be, what would perceptions be if there was a fissile event in Iran? I personally don’t believe that anybody is going to actually deploy nuclear weapons without having at least some kind of fissile test.
That is a completely different set of indicators from any of the indicators we have today. Would we then be willing to carry out preventive strikes? Would it be too late? Would you have the support of the international community? This seems to be a more credible point in time than June 20th of 2014.
DR. MATTAIR: You’ve been patiently waiting.
Q: My name is Matar Ebrahim, a former MP from Bahrain.
My question to Ambassador Richard: You spoke about the diminishing interest in the Gulf and possibly that the military will reduce with time. My question, is there a chance to see U.S. government on the right side of history before leaving the region, where we can see a constructive role for this engagement on democracy and freedom, where currently the Fifth Fleet kind of obstacle for change instead of being leverage that U.S. government has, where currently U.S. government is dealing with the most extreme element inside the ruling family to operate — and the Fifth Fleet. So I don’t know; do you see there as chances to have a different kind of relation to be much more progressive?
A second question to Ambassador Ford: From your experience in Saudi Arabia, do you feel that all influential people in Saudi government are looking to reform in Bahrain as a threat and looking to Shia as just agents to Iranian, or there is kind of different views and there is kind of a possibility to see different prospective for Saudis for reform in Bahrain? I thank you.
AMB. LEBARON: Matar and I have had this discussion before so I won’t belabor it too much, but I reject the notion that in American foreign policy there’s a conflict between security and promotion of our values. I think the United States has a foreign policy that for each country with which we have relations we have a hierarchy of interests, and among the hierarchy in Bahrain one is security, another is progressive change, and I think we give various levels of emphasis to both over time.
I think change in Bahrain is not going to come from the United States. I think the threat to pull out our Navy presence from Bahrain is a hollow one and would not produce change and might be welcomed by the most regressive forces. So I don’t believe that that’s a good formula but I don’t — I also reject the notion that we only emphasize in Bahrain our military presence to completely — at the expense of our views on democracy and change.
AMB. FRAKER: I think from the standpoint of the Saudi view of Bahrain, to the Saudis Bahrain is a — is a strategic asset. They almost consider Bahrain a part of Saudi Arabia. The causeway links them physically. The presence of a large Shia population in Bahrain from a Saudi perspective is a potential weak point in terms of vulnerability and the influence that Iran can exert via Bahrain across the causeway into Saudi Arabia and the Eastern province, which is where the bulk of the Shia community is in Saudi Arabia.
So they view Bahrain as a vital strategic asset and they view the threat of Iranian influence in Bahrain as very real. And we saw them react accordingly by sending tanks and troops across the causeway when they thought there was real danger of the government having difficulties. So that will not change. That will be very consistent. I think there are people in Saudi who don’t view it so much as a Shia-Sunni issue, but it’s the spread of Iranian influence through Bahrain into Saudi Arabia, which is something that the Saudis won’t tolerate.
In a larger context, it’s the spread of Iranian influence throughout the region. It’s not a Sunni-Shia issue as much as it is political influence in the region that has the Saudis upset. They see Iranian influence in Iraq. They see it spreading through Syria. They see it in Lebanon. And they see this as a threat.
DR. MATTAIR: And I would add that they see parties like Al Wefaq as parties that would not necessarily be implementing a democratic platform but that would be following an Iranian line.
Q: (Inaudible) — National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. I read an interesting theory that the Iranians are not trying to build a weapon but rather the capability to build a weapon and then stand in a standby mode with all the parts ready but not assembled until they feel sufficiently threatened where they have to build a weapon for deterrence. So I’m just wondering what your comments on that would be.
DR. CORDESMAN: I think we need to be very careful about real-world scenarios. If you sit around waiting to assemble a weapon without a fissile test, you are at most going to have to consider what you mean by assembling a weapon and how many are going to be ready to assemble, and how you’re going to actually deploy them so they have some credible meaning for the scenario which is triggering this kind of kit affair.
You can, in the worst-case scenario, basically put together something like a gun device, put it on a boat and put it into somebody’s harbor. That’s one way to deliver one weapon one time with some credibility. Exactly what would happen next, however, does not seem to be something that any Iranian in their right mind would consider as a particularly desirable scenario.
So you do not go from this breakout capability to a credible number of warheads you can count on, deployed on actually delivery systems without a considerable amount of warning in time relative to the type of military options that are available. You’ve changed the strategic map because you are not going to suddenly just announce, hey, I’ve got a bomb, to which the logical result or reaction is going to be, so what, and here’s what we’re going to do about it.
So I think it is another way of looking at this — I don’t know how David feels — is we’ll get to the point where no one can ever be sure whether we have a weapon. We may have a deterrent or we may not. And it’s interesting to note that, for a whole variety of reasons, Israel’s been in that position for decades. Nobody knows how many they have, what they have, how they’re deployed. It’s logical that it’s a fairly mature force, more so than Iran. So that is a possible way of dealing with this. But suddenly rushing out at the last moment to create credible nuclear weapons doesn’t really impress me as possible.
MR. ALBRIGHT: I have a slightly different view on it. I think Tony would agree with this. I mean, one of the uncertainties is how much help Iran has had on nuclear weapons. I mean, according to the IAEA information — this is in one of the concerns they want addressed — is Iran did have help. It had help from an ex-Soviet nuclear weapons expert. It may have gotten help, or appears to have gotten help, from the AQ Khan network, which means help from Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, designs.
And in ’03, the AIEA has a document — and again, these documents have to be treated skeptically, but nonetheless it’s taken quite seriously in the IAEA that they had a design that was about — they were working on a design of a warhead about this big, about .55 meters in diameter, small enough to fit in the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab-3 missile, and that they had — by no means had they finished work on that design but that it surprised people. It isn’t some big clunky Trinity-type device. I mean, right from the start, or early in the program, they were looking at miniaturized nuclear designs.
Now, the IAEA, in judging this information in an internal document, said that Iran had enough information or knew enough to build a crude fission-type weapon, but it was unable at that time — you know, ’03 — to be able to miniaturize a warhead for a missile in a reliable way, and particularly the way Tony’s talking about, at a highly reliable, safe, secure military system.
And so — but I would say that Iran probably knows enough and probably has — could — has or could have, in a reasonably short period of time, all the components for a nuclear explosive device, and that device could be how they, in a sense, break out and exert their new status. They would also learn a lot from the test. I would assume they would be looking for key things. And this kind of path isn’t unusual. I mean, it’s the one North Korea has followed. We’re still debating whether they’ve deployed nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles, yet they’ve conducted three tests. But again, no one doubts that they’re a nuclear power.
And so I think the — I would return that the key line. I’m not going to call it a red line, but the line that matters is to keep Iran from getting the fissile material in sufficient quantity for a bomb, and therefore you want to be able to make sure that Iran feels that if they try to get that material at a declared site — which is what we think they can only get it at now — that they’re going to suffer consequences to prevent them.
Over time we’ll have to worry more about secret sites, but the hope of the agreement is to reduce that chance greatly, and I think it can be done. If the agreement doesn’t happen, then we are going to have to worry about covert sites more, and the intelligence communities are going to be under tremendous pressure to continue to find these places. And I will say continue. They have found several. Just the most recent case was in 2009 when President Obama, Prime Minister Brown and President Sarkozy announced the existence of the — of an underground enrichment site at Fordow several years before it was completed.
So intelligence has worked. It’s not perfect, and it’s going to be under tremendous pressure to work if this agreement doesn’t happen and the fear of covert sites increases. But I think it can be done and it’s a strategy that can also prevent Iran from deciding to go that route. And I think that’s going to be the only option, I believe, if this doesn’t work, because I personally don’t think the military options are really that desirable. I would agree with Tony.
I mean, finally, only a U.S. strike — and I would agree, set of strikes — I mean, one of the flaws in the U.S. — in the Israel strategy is they can — I don’t know if you follow this in this detail, but they can — they can stop the Fordow plant from operating. I mean, they can stop the whole program from operating. And Fordow is a deeply buried enrichment site. They can’t destroy the centrifuges in Fordow, according to them. It’s not clear the U.S. can. But Israel can certainly shut it down, but they’re not prepared to come back six months later and try to shut it down again, or to really know where those centrifuges that were in Fordow have been taken to.
And so you have — you have a problem of how are you going to do this over and over again, and only the U.S. can do that. And there are questions of whether that’s what the U.S. is willing to do. And so I personally believe that military options should be not taken off the table but we have to think through these other options, and the military option in the end is — if it’s invoked, if Iran crosses or does certain things that are — that are clearly linked to building nuclear weapons.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, Fred Hof has to leave in a few minutes, so let me just ask one more question, and maybe someone else has a question for Fred. But we’ve talked a lot about Gulf Arabs and how Gulf Arabs are distressed about American policy in Syria. We don’t hear as much about Israeli views on our policy in Syria. Can you address that?
AMB. HOF: I probably — I probably can, but perhaps not with a great deal of precision.
I think it will come as a surprise to no one that in a vibrant democracy like Israel there are any number of opinions. There are multiple and conflicting opinions, as I understand it, within the government of Israel. The opinions in that — in that venue that I suppose count the most would be those of the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of general staff of the Israeli Defense Force.
I think — I think it’s probably accurate to say that senior Israeli officials are deeply, deeply conflicted about what’s going on in Syria and somewhat at a loss as to know what to do about it. Tony mentioned that the — that the word or the phrase “red line” is one that’s gone out of style. Well, not so much in Israel. The Israelis — the Israelis do have a red line and that is basically whenever Israel perceives that there is a process underway of transferring weapons to Hezbollah, Israel will help itself to Lebanese air space and from there will interrupt and intercept that transfer.
So to this point — to this point that’s where the Israelis have put their emphasis — deep concern about the rise of jihadism in the eastern parts of Syria, but abiding concern about the Assad regime’s relationship to Iran and of course the role played by Hezbollah in this — in this equation. So all of this — all of this weighs on Israeli calculations but my sense is that there is no clear policy prescription that emerges from any of it.
Q: My name is Karl Weikel (ph). I’d like to address my questions to the panel. With regards to Russia’s position, that has not really been discussed this morning, it would appear up until the last six months Russia’s ardent support of Iran’s independent track to pursue at once with nuclear weapons, as well as their support with the Assad regime to follow through, these say there’s a link with military weapons supply to both. They have been a large customer from Russia.
Now, what part of the future would Russia’s actions or inactions possibly unfold in this, you know, multilateral, complex area? You know, if you look historically about proxy wars that somewhat are a label of historians and newspapers, they all do start out as regional ethnic conflicts, but if you look at the last 50 years with Russia and the United States, with Vietnam, Afghanistan, Africa, Latin America, is that era over with the Soviet Union collapsing or is this potentially something that may unfold between the United States and Russia?
AMB. HOF: Well, I’ll just say a couple of words on the Syria side of things and then I really do have to leave.
My sense — and I was part of the U.S. negotiating team at Geneva I, so I got to spend several weeks in Geneva being exposed to Russian views on Syria. My overall sense is that Russia’s preferred outcome in all of this, strictly — the Syrian context here, is the survival of Bashar al-Assad. That’s the bottom line. How far — how far Russia will go to try to — to try to make sure that’s the outcome I’m not sure.
You know, as is the case with Iran, it’s not as if there’s a great deal of love lost here. I think when Russians, whether it’s Sergey Lavrov or somebody else, say publicly, we are not enamored of Bashar al-Assad, they’re probably telling the truth, and the Iranians say the same thing. But I think from the — from the point of view of President Putin, there are reasons to support the survival of Bashar al-Assad in power that transcend the issue of Syria itself. It has to do, I think, with Putin’s view of Russia’s comeback as a great power. And I think the — I think the message that Vladimir Putin wants to — wants to put out there is that when Russia stands by a friend or a client, that friend or client will survive, compare and contrast with the performance of others.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you.
DR. CORDESMAN: Let me just comment on relationships between Russia and Iran.
Actually, within the last month — and it’s interesting that it follows the interim agreement — Russia again refused to sell Iran the S-300, which is a very advanced surface-to-air missile with some potential to become a significant antimissile missile. It offered a much inferior system called the S-200, to the Iranians’ intense irritation. They have not transferred modern aircraft. The MIG-29s and the SU-24s, in Iranian inventory, are not only limited in number; they’re export versions with, to put it mildly, some very, very serious technological restrictions on their mission capability. They don’t come close to the ones in Russian hands. And these are now, by current standards, older designs.
They certainly have not done anything outside the P-5-1 to indicate that they would not support sanctions. And part of it may be the fact that, again, if you go back and really do a thorough Google search, you’ll find that about five to six years ago the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, came very close to publicly releasing a document on Iranian nuclear weapons efforts, and it then got pulled back, which I think is a pretty good indication that they have their own views of Iran’s efforts and that they are not — that this is a peaceful nuclear power effort.
And here it is, I think, particularly important to look at the design at Bushehr because I don’t see that the Russians have really materially taken serious risks in transferring nuclear technology to Iran, although any transfer of technology has some impact and some lessons.
DR. MATTAIR: Could I coax a former visiting scholar at the Middle East Policy Council to ask a question or make a comment? (Chuckles.)
Q: I guess that’s me. I’m Mark Katz, professor at George Mason University, formerly at the Middle East Policy Council. And I guess I’ve been put on — can you all hear me? I’ve been put on the spot a little bit here, but I think that the description of Russia’s attitude is absolutely correct, that it has an awful lot to do with Putin showing his clients in Central Asia that support for Assad — he can stay in power. If this doesn’t happen, then I see the Central Asians gravitating more toward the Chinese.
And so I think that there’s an awful lot at stake in Syria for Putin besides the Middle East, that it relates to Russia’s relations with its core allies in central Asia and also its own domestic politics. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: By the way, a former questioner said there were about 5 million people in Arabia. For the record, it’s more like 25 million. What’s the population of Saudi Arabia?
AMB. FRAKER: Close to 30 (million) now.
DR. MATTAIR: Close to 30 (million.)
Q: My name is Evan Beurny (ph), and first I’d like to thank all the panelists for taking some time today to come and speak to us.
My question is that so far in Rouhini’s presidency we’re seeing a lot of similarities to the presidency of Mohammad Khatami back in the early 2000s, as they were both fairly liberal presidents who both spoke at Davos and made fairly friendly overtures to the West, especially with Khatami’s Dialogue among Civilizations Initiative earlier. And I was wondering if you guys see any major differences between now and 2004 that might ensure that the diplomatic gains being made would last longer than the gains made back then. Thank you very much.
MR. ALBRIGHT: You know, I’m not an Iranian expert on the politics by any means, but one thing I see as I went through both periods is Rouhani is not a reformist. He’s very deep in the regime. He has a different approach than some but he’s not a — I would not consider him a moderate reformer. He just has a different vision, and Khatami didn’t. He really was a — it was kind of odd he won and he had trouble very soon after he did win.
So I think it — and that’s part of the hope is that since Rouhani is more representative of the regime, closer to the supreme leader — he was his national security advisor in the past — that he can — that when it gets to this problem that I mentioned with yours on the 20 percent, that if he signs a deal, the regime will deliver the deal. But I wouldn’t look — and he — you know, he obviously has some — others should talk, if they want, on — Tony, on some of the other things he wants to do in terms of improving the economy.
DR. CORDESMAN: Let me — I think that you have some fundamentally different pressures: the sanctions that operated up to the point where this decision was taken in the Rouhani regime, but vastly greater pressure on Iran to act in this narrow area than existed at the time of Khatami. I would be a little careful about Khatami. I was the only American at a meeting he was speaking at and I’m pretty certain he had no idea that I was present, but he was not, in any sense, quite as liberal and reformist in the context of that meeting as he sometimes was in public.
But I think the other thing to realize is Iran’s problems are not simply a function of sanctions. What you’ve seen since Khatami is an immense buildup of pressure in terms of employment, per-capital income, and economic mistakes that were made with Iran, which gave the sanctions a great deal of additional force that they would not have had if had not have been for Iran’s self-inflicted wounds.
Now, the real question is, at this point in time, would they put regime stability and the economy before a goal like military security or the advantages they get from nuclear programs? And I guess we’ll find out over the next year because, quite honestly, I think none of us can make that judgment without actually observing and seeing what Iran does.
MR. ALBRIGHT: I don’t want to pile on Rouhani, but I’ve worked on this issue on the nuclear for a long time. I think we have to be very cautious of Rouhani. I mean, in ’03 he was brought in because the Atomic Energy Organization had so bungled the hiding of the program, and the IAEA, working with the intelligence — or governments, had systematically uncovered a whole range of banned activities, and it seriously embarrassed the Iranian government at a time when they were worried about what this Bush administration may do next.
And so there was tremendous pressure. Rouhani came in. He was assigned to take over the nuclear file as the national security advisor. He told the IAEA: We’re going to come clean. You’re going to get a new declaration. These guys hid stuff from you. You’re not going to see anything, you know, that — any more like what had happened. And then — and the declaration was more complete. They agreed to a suspension. They agreed to implementing additional protocol, so he was serious to make serious concessions.
And then he — but he, again, didn’t come clean about the nuclear weapons. And again, I knew nothing about it at that time but I did know that soon after this deal, a major — from our point of view, major military-related site started to disappear in North Tehran called Lavisan-Shian. And it had been linked to nuclear and it would later be linked even more to the nuclear weapons side of things, the military dimension side of things. And so what looked to — you know, as an observer what I have to look at and say as well, OK, they came clean on what they were clearly caught on and they went to hide what they thought they could hide before it was going to be discovered, and that’s Rouhani.
So again, I don’t know; maybe Rouhani is, you know, an angel that decided, we’ve got to get rid of this nuclear weapons program but we don’t want to admit it. But it could just as easily be possible that he said, look, if this is exposed then we’re in real serious trouble of a military strike and we better do everything we can to hide it but keep it alive, in a sense, and that — and the Israelis will argue this — focus everything on the enrichment program. Make sure that survives ultimately. Put it under — you know, be honest and do everything in the open but develop the centrifuge program as best you can over time so that if we do decide to build a bomb, the most important part — in a sense the long pole in the tent — will be finished.
So he may have also never intended to have the suspension last very long. And if you look at the negotiating history, they would always put forward things that you could never accept. You know, they would say, look, we’ll start with a limited centrifuge program — 3,000, they argued. But the trouble was in the next phase they were going to build 50,000 and they knew you would never accept that. So you had a negotiating strategy that, from an observer’s point of view, was never going to work and therefore the end of the suspension was almost inevitable, and then the uptick in the centrifuge activity started to happen.
So again, I don’t want to sound conspiratorial, although this is the Middle East, but I think that we have to make sure that we don’t think of Rouhani as a reformer and that he has a history that one has to be suspicious of, and that he may have been the person brought forth now, in a sense, to handle the nuclear file — it didn’t have to be the president; after all, it could have been the national security advisor of the supreme leader — and to concoct another scheme that buys whatever — or gets whatever the Iranian goal is further along.
DR. MATTAIR: Ben (sp)? This will be our last question.
Q: Thank you very much. It seems to me that these — this negotiation process that’s in train now is the culmination of a long process that began, in a sense, at the beginning of the Obama administration and has antecedence even in the Bush administration with initial contacts and so on, and that the current stage kind of represents a tipping point.
And absent some really blatant Iranian actions, in a sense, it cannot be turned back. The leverage of the Congress has diminished; the leverage of the U.S. has diminished because our allies are going to be very reluctant to reinstitute additional sanctions, and the Russians and the Chinese are not going to play along. So we’ve got a situation that’s probably more likely to succeed over the longer term than to fail.
And in that connection, how do you see tools of soft power being used by both sides (for ?) influence? And I have in mind two things. One is the likelihood that the U.S. will, relatively soon, send Americans to its interest section in Tehran, and two, the possibilities that we might enter into something like a status — incidents at sea agreement with Iran, something that the U.S. Navy, of course, is always interested in.
AMB. LEBARON: Just a couple of comments on that. One of the mottos we had in the State Department in the Middle East Bureau was that it could always get worse. And it usually did. And I — you know, I combine that with sort of a rejection of a linear view of history that says you just keep making progress. I mean, look at what we did in Iraq as the singular example. An administration could come in following this one that takes a radically different approach and could decide, just like the Bush administration did, that we need to shake things up in the Middle East. So we can’t reject that possibility just based on this very thin read of a current negotiating process.
I think we always should have had an embassy in Tehran. I think it was the Iranians’ responsibility to maintain that embassy and maintain the security of it, and I call upon them to make sure that when we do go back, it is a secure and useful embassy. But I think we should have embassies everywhere. We had them in Beijing; we had them in Moscow for the duration of the Cold War, and it’s nonsense that we don’t have an embassy in a major country in that region of the world.
DR. CORDESMAN: On incidents at sea, let me just say we have a set of de facto procedures, which tend to vary. One of the difficulties here is what happens with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s naval group. Normally, they tend to be operating on rules which I think are perfectly functional. And remember, this is very different from the normal situation in the Gulf.
On the other hand, every once in awhile, they will do something that come very close to a collision or something similar, and it turns out that the officer involved tends to get promoted afterwards. And I’m not sure signing an agreement is going to change that situation, to be perfectly honest. It’s not one of those areas where I think you can get a meaningful, formal agreement.
In terms of the interest section, I think the thing to remember here is, actually, a lot of the efforts to begin some kind of effort occurred under Rafsanjani. And Madeleine Albright and others attempted to reach out. If they want an interest section, I think that’s up to them. They certainly can move forward in that area, but just imagine what it would be like, given what happened in Benghazi, to any administration to have an interest section or an incident at this point, having taken the initiative.
I think that this requires Iran to take the lead. And will it do it at this point in time? David made points about Rouhani. You really ought to go and look at what Rouhani is saying in Iran. You need to look at what Iranians are saying there and how defensive he has to be, how he has to explain that they didn’t compromise, they won. This is a situation where they’re simply not ready at this point for that kind of step forward.
AMB. FRAKER: I think, with that, we’ll conclude the program. I’d like to thank all the panelists for their comments. (Applause.) And I’d also like to thank all of you for coming today. Thank you very much.