Our 99th Conference on Capitol Hill took place on Friday, January 17th, 2020.
The full video, transcript and event recap are now posted.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER: Good morning, everyone. And welcome. Thank you for joining us this morning for what I’m sure will be a very, very interesting discussion on a very timely topic. My name is Richard Schmierer. I’m the chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. Today we are holding our 99th Capitol Hill Conference. And as you know, the topic today is U.S.-Iranian Confrontation: Domestic, Regional and Global Implications. We have a full house. There are a few seats – those in the back, there are a few seats still here if you want to try to find one over there, a couple. But we do have a full house, so I apologize for those who aren’t able to find a seat.
Before we begin, as you saw in the announcement, I’m a former ambassador to Oman. And I would like to just take a moment to note the end of an era in the region. And that was the passing of his majesty Sultan Qaboos on January the 10th. For almost fifty years, Sultan Qaboos was a source of great wisdom and very good counsel to many, including many American presidents, who sought his advice to deal with the challenges of the region. I was privileged as ambassador to have the opportunity to do the same. And there’s no one that I respect more in terms of his intelligence, and his knowledge, and his efforts to try to bring peace and stability to the region than Sultan Qaboos. So he will certainly be missed.
Now, before I turn to today’s program let me say a few word about the Middle East Policy Council. The Council was established in 1981. And our purpose to promote dialogue and education concerning the U.S. and the countries of the Middle East. We have three flagship programs: our quarterly Capitol Hill conferences, such as today’s event; our quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, you saw copies on the table outside, which has a very good reputation among those with an interest in Middle Eastern affairs and can be found in some 16,000 libraries worldwide; and our educational outreach program, and it’s called TeachMideast, which provides educational resources on the Middle East targeted mainly towards secondary school students and teachers. So I would encourage you to visit us on our website, www.MEPC.org and our TeachMideast program on its website, www.TeachMideast.org to learn more about our organization and our activities.
Turning to today’s event, let me note that this program is being livestreamed on our website. So I’m pleased to welcome all of those who have joined us online. It is also being broadcast on C-SPAN. The conference proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, as will a recap of the discussion. An edited transcript of the program will be published in the next issue of our journal, Middle East Policy.
Let me now briefly introduce our panelists. We will begin the program with Dr. Suzanne Maloney, the deputy director for foreign policy and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security, and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Next we will have Ambassador Doug Silliman, who is the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a former ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait. After Ambassador Silliman, will come Ms. Joyce Karam, the Washington correspondent for the UAE newspaper The National, and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. And finally, we will have Ambassador John Limbert, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and a former Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I’d like to thank all four of you for joining us today.
The program will begin with each panelist delivering brief opening remarks. This will be followed by a discussion session which will be moderated by my colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. Please note that we have placed index cards on all of the seats. And for those of you in the back, our staff can provide you with index cards. Please use these index cards to write down questions which you have as the speakers are speaking, and then hold up the card. Our staff will then collect the cards during the presentations and give them to Dr. Mattair, so that he will have the chance to consolidate the questions for the discussion session. Thank you for your cooperation on that. Please also remember to silence your cellphones. Thank you.
With that, let met turn over the podium to Dr. Maloney.
SUZANNE MALONEY: Good morning. Sorry for the technical difficulties. I was expecting to sit and talk, but I’m really happy to stand and talk, especially since so many of you are standing. Thank you all for coming. Thank you to the Middle East Policy Council for including me in this event, surrounded by ambassadors as well as by Joyce Karam, who is a bit like the ambassador of the regional press here in Washington. So I’m humbled to be in the position to kick things off.
And just wanted to make one other note. This is the first time, I think, I’ve been back to speak before the Middle East Policy Council in about 20 years. That last event that I spoke at was also a Capitol Hill Forum. One of my fellow panelists asked me to coffee before the event to discuss what we might say, and our younger son turned 11 today. So just in case you don’t know, Washington can be a place of great romance, great opportunity. (Laughter.) And I hope that in 20 years there are many other – (laughs) – benefits to this discussion beyond that sort of thing.
Let me just make a couple of quick points. Speaking from someone who focuses on Iran even when it isn’t quite as much in the headlines as it has been over the course of the last month or so, I think we are – the world dodged a bullet – (laughs) – with the attack that killed Qassem Soleimani, the renowned, infamous, iconic Iranian commander of the Quds Force, and the Iranian response last week – it feels like it’s been more than a week – which I think gave both sides what they needed in terms of an opportunity for de-escalation.
From the Iranian side, the launch of a barrage of ballistic missiles, despite the warning from the Trump administration not to respond in a significant way, gave them the kind of optics that they needed for their own population, particularly at the close of what had been three days of an epic commemoration of Soleimani’s life, a way to bring the country together at a time when certainly the legitimacy, and the popularity, and the strength of the regime appears to be very much fraying. At the same time, it gave the Trump administration an opportunity to walk away, simply because there weren’t any fatalities as a result of that – of that missile strike, at least on the American side.
We now know, of course, that there were 12 people who were seriously injured, medevaced out of Iraq, for injures that ranged from – included traumatic brain injury. And that is a detail that is just coming out at this stage and may give us a little bit more awareness of how close we came to what might have been the first full-fledged conventional exchange of military conflict between the United States and Iran in at least 30 years, dating back to the tanker wars and the kind of skirmishes that went on in the Gulf. We came extraordinarily close, and we are really not in, I think, a safe zone yet.
And that’s the main point that I wanted to make. Neither side, in my estimation, wants to – wants a war. The Iranians understand – they’ve had a front-row seat for American conventional military superiority in the region. They understand that in a direct shooting war with the United States it’s not simply a defeat for Iran. It would inevitably end the regime itself. And they don’t want to end up in a spider hole, or in some of the very unfortunate endings of other Middle East leaders who faced the intervention of the United States or the broader international community, in the case of Moammar Qadhafi.
However, they also have plenty of incentives to escalate. From the Trump administration perspective, I think this is a president who accurately reads the national mood and has done so actually before many of his contemporaries both on the left and the right. He recognizes a war weariness among the American population. He has an overwhelming incentive to avoid a full-fledged military intervention in the Middle East. He’s been campaigning for years about the costs that have been attributed to the war in Iraq, and how that might have been spent better at home. There’s very little, I think, wag the dog scenario for Trump that would be an upside for his political prospects in this election year if he were to find himself in a conventional war with Iran – with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
However, as I said, I think that we are in a set of circumstances largely because of the Trump administration’s decision to walk away from the nuclear deal in May of 2018, to reimpose economic sanctions, and then to try to drive those sanctions into overdrive in May of 2019 with the decision to rescind the previous waivers that were enabling the Iranians to continue to at least legally export about a million barrels a day of their oil, nearly 50 percent of their pre-sanctions level. A decision to try to drove those oil exports and oil revenues down to zero – much more significant economic pain that what the Obama administration was able to impose with the support of the international community between 2012 and 2013, one of the elements of Obama’s policy that helped lead to the first successful sustained negotiations between the Islamic Republic and Iran and the United States since the negotiations that ended the hostage crisis in 1981.
The Trump administration’s decision obviously led to a shift in Iranian policy. And everything that we’re dealing with today is a function of, a direct result of that shift in policy in May of this year, which began with a series of small attacks on merchant ships and other infrastructure in and around the Gulf. It was calibrated. It was precise. It was intended to send a signal to the international community. Number of messages intended there that I think are still very much consistent with what – the way that Iran is responding to the situation that it’s in today. First, the Iranians have a kind of long-standing strategic doctrine that holds that the best defense is a good offense, that if you sit back and accept pressure that it will be read as weakness, and you have to punch back, and punch back hard.
And we saw that over the course of May, and June and July, when there were, as I said, a number of attacks, including rocket fire, on American military, diplomatic and private sector facilities and personnel in Iraq. We saw that, of course, in September when the Iranians hit – the Iranians first, perhaps for the first time from Iranian territory, hit the Abqaiq gas – oil processing facility, which took out about 5 percent of Saudi oil production. A significant strike, a precise strike. But one, like all the previous ones, that avoided civilian casualties, that avoided significant environmental damage in the region, that also avoided precipitating the kind of escalation that we very nearly found ourselves in last week, and that I think we are likely to see emerge once again.
This is the Iranian playbook. There is really no reason for them to change that playbook now. They have, in fact, more reason to push back and to punch back, and to demonstrate to the Trump administration and the world that they’re not going to simply live with the siege of their economy, which has cost 50, 100, 200 billion (dollars), depending on which statistics you believe, not just in terms of the oil revenues that Iran has had to forgo, not just in terms of the assets and revenues that are locked up in foreign bank accounts, but in terms of the opportunity costs, the growth that Iran would have experienced. Instead, the Iranian economy is estimated to be retracting upwards of 10 percent in this year alone. That’s an enormous historic reversion of an economy.
And it’s not sustainable indefinitely. So the Iranians need to push back because they need to galvanize international support for their position. They need to press this crisis so that it’s not simply suffered by the Iranian people, by the Iranian leadership. They need to find a way to make this a problem for the entire international community. They also, of course, now have the extra incentive of needed to avenge Soleimani’s death, perhaps needing to restore some of their own domestic legitimacy that has been, I think, further shattered by the revelation that it was, in fact, the Iranian military that shot down a civilian airliner and killed 176 mostly Iranian or Iranian heritage individuals in the midst of the ballistic missile strike.
They still need to break the siege. And so they’re still going to be pushing back. They’re going to be doing it again precisely, calibrated. We see in fact from the satellite imagery even in the attack on Al Asad and Erbil that the Iranians appeared, and they have of course stated this publicly, that they were appearing to try to avoid military casualties. They were appearing to try to control the cycle of escalation. But they are not going to back down.
Let me just close with two final points and turn the mic over to my colleagues. First is, it’s going to be very tempting for all of us to blame this on the Trump administration, the dysfunctional policy process, the catastrophic decision to walk away from a nuclear agreement which, while not perfect, was at least functioning as intended to try to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and try to give the international community time to find ways to further ensure that Iran would not be able to develop or have access to nuclear weapons capability.
Let’s try to resist that temptation, even though it’s an election year. We need a serious discussion of where we go from here. Whether you were a supporter of maximum pressure, as some certainly are, or an opponent of maximum pressure, today where we are is in a place where the United States and Iran have been very close to conventional war and are likely to be back there once again soon. We are in a place where the nuclear deal is not functioning as intended, and we simply can’t revert to status quo ante no matter what all of the democratic candidates say. That deal is now essentially all but lost to us.
And we have to start thinking about how we create opportunities for some kind of new negotiation. It will have to involve both the United States and Iran. It will have to address the nuclear issue. And I think it will almost certainly have to find a way to build confidence that it’s not simply a nuclear deal, because Iran is not simply a nuclear issue. There are a range of other interests involved, most specifically and most dramatically of course over the last few weeks, the regional interests.
One final point which I want to make, although it’s a little bit outside of the issue of the U.S.-Iranian confrontation, and that is the reaction that we saw on the streets both to the Soleimani death and to the – to the downing and the revelations about Ukrainian Air 752. This, I think, underscores how volatile Iranian public opinion and how precarious the regime is at this time. I don’t say that because I’m a believer in an American policy of regime change, but I think it's important to recognize that there are a lot of nationalist passions that re shared widely. And you saw that in the response to the Soleimani death.
Yes, many people go to the streets because they’re encouraged or, even in some cases, coerced to do so. But many went to the streets to mourn Soleimani’s death because they saw him as someone who was protecting them from the wider world, from all of the threats that they have faced really since the Iraqi invasion in September 1980. And so he was popular, even with people who detest the Islamic Republic. But what you saw in the aftermath of the Ukrainian air disaster was this fierce recognition on the part of Iranians that has been echoing across society in many different arenas over the course of the past several years.
I think there was a political editorial which described it as a crisis of competence. This sense, whether it’s the Kermanshah earthquake, whether it’s the floods, whether it’s the dust storms, whether it’s a variety of economic and social issues that Iran has been facing that the government is not capable of doing what it needs to do. It is not, in fact, trying to protect the best interests of the Iranian people. It’s not advancing a better way of life for Iranians.
And this is, I think, and incredibly powerful sentiment. And it is one facing a leadership with is being confronted by succession, elections, and aging. And as a result, I think we have to be prepared for a lot of uncertainty within Iran and a lot of unpredictability in the way that it responds to the challenges it’s facing. Thanks.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: And I remind you that if you’ve written a question, could you hold your hand up and we’ll collect it?
DOUGLAS A. SILLIMAN: Good morning, everybody. First of all, I’d like to thank Rich and Tom and the Middle East Policy Council for having this seminar here and broaching this topic and inviting a very good panel. So I’m hoping for a good discussion.
There are three things that I’d like to do in my short remarks this morning, mostly to spark further discussion later on in the program. I want to first expand a little bit on the timeline that Suzanne just laid out of events of the last few years. I want to talk about my interpretation of where Trump administration policy is and may be going. And I’d like to talk a little bit about the impact of this probable return to a status quo ante and what the impact could be on Iraq, where I spent five of my last 10 years.
First of all, if you’re talking about the timeline between Persia and Mesopotamia, you have to set your timeline. I’m not going back thousands of years. I’m not even going back into much of the 20th century. I could pick 1953. I could pick 1979. In the interest of time, I’m going to pick 2003 as my starting point, where you already have the Islamic Republic well-entrenched in Iran, and the American decapitation of Saddam Hussein’s government let loose in Iraq a lot of the old rivalries from Mesopotamia. Sunni versus Shia, urban versus rural, tribal versus urban. There are many, many fissures within society in Mesopotamia.
Iran tried to take advantage of that and worked very hard to insinuate people who supported Iran, people who support Velayat-e faqih, the leadership of the country by the religious leadership into the leadership inside Iraq. And Qassem Soleimani, as he took over the Quds Force, worked very hard to create in Iraq security structures which very much mirrored what had been created under the Islamic Republic. So you saw the creation of militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah, which cut their teeth militarily fighting American forces at the end of the surge and through the departure of American forces in 2011.
At the same time, you also saw the attempts by people in Iraq who were either Shia nationalist or were pro-Iranian in their – in their outlook, to put into government positions, especially in the second tenure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, people who were sympathetic to Iran. And you see through the middle levels of bureaucracy in Iraq the impact of this on decision-making today. American forces left the country in 2011. Again, there was a bit of a power struggle among Iraqis where Qassem Soleimani, Shia factions – particularly Shia militias – gained in strength.
And then with the rise of ISIS and its invasion of Iraq in 2014, it brought the United States and the coalition back into the country, but it also gave Soleimani and the Quds Force an opportunity to legitimize the militias that they had created earlier and expand on that in the Popular Mobilization Forces.
This changed significantly with the Trump administration when it came in in 2017. And it was clear, by the time you get to the middle of 2018 when the administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement and imposed the maximum pressure campaign on Iran that the relationship was going to fundamentally change. And the reaction of Iran initially was relatively predictable. From the American withdrawal from the agreement and imposition of economic sanctions, Iran tried to work with European countries, with China, and other trading partners to find workarounds to prevent the American economic sanctions from having a profound effect on the Iranian economy.
They tried that for the better part of a year, had almost gotten to a deal with the European Union on trade mechanisms, but those fell apart because of the secondary sanctions imposed by the U.S. administration. And after a year, I think the Iranians decided they were not going to succeed in reducing the economic pressure through this kind of diplomatic and economic means. So they then began to announce their withdrawal from particular commitments under the nuclear agreement, without actually coming out of the agreement itself, again, to try to put pressure on the other signatories to the JCPOA to pressure the United States to keep the deal intact and help open up the Iranian economy.
This did not work terribly well either. So by the middle of 2019, Iran took a different strategy. And that was to increase the cost to the friends and allies of the United States in the region of the economic sanctions. There was no way that Iran could impose upon the United States economic sanctions that would have the same impact that the United States sanctions did on Iran. So what they did instead was a series of small pinprick and deniable attacks on oil shipping and on America’s friends in the region, in the hopes that those friends would put pressure on the United States.
So you saw attacks on shipping outside the Strait of Hormuz near Fujairah. You saw the seizing of a British oil tanker. You saw some attacks by Houthi rebels from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, twice on the Abha Airport and on a desalinization facility. A shootdown of an American drone. And then, in September of last year, the strikes on Abqaiq oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia and Khurais oil field. All of this did not produce the desired effect that the Iranians wanted. It did not roil the oil markets. It didn’t hurt financial markets. It did not result in significant pressure on Washington to relax the sanctions.
So about a month after the attack on Khurais and Abqaiq, at the end of October, Iran escalated once more. And you see the beginning of a series of rocket attacks inside Iraq on the green zone near the American embassy but, more importantly, on a series of Iraq military bases that house American and other coalition personnel. And through end of October, November, into early December there was not much impact. On the 8th of December, attacks on a counterterrorism service training facility injured six CTS soldiers, but no Americans or coalition forces. But I think throughout this period the Trump administration, through private communications and public communications, said that the red line of the United States is an American casualty at the hands of Iran or Iran’s allies. And we will hold Iran responsible if there is an American casualty.
I think the Iranians expected to get some sort of reaction in at least some of the things that they had carried out during the fall of 2019. And for the attack that took place on the 27th of December on an Iraqi base near Kirkuk, it was a qualitatively and quantitively different attack. It was a barrage of 31 rockets fired at a base that had both Iraqi and American military personnel. It killed one American military contractor who, ironically, is a naturalized – was a naturalized Iraqi American. Killed a couple of Iraqi policemen and injured American and Iraqi soldiers. But they seem to have intentionally wanted to cross the Trump administration’s red line. And in so doing, they set off a very quick succession of escalation that we all remember from three weeks ago.
Almost immediately after the Trump administration ordered attacks on Kata’ib Hezbollah bases in Iraq and Syria. That was followed by an attempt to storm the American embassy in Baghdad, followed by the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. Followed by the Iranian barrage of ballistic missiles on or near two bases in Iraq. And I agree with Suzanne that neither side wants a shooting war. And the – what struck me from the Iranian commentary on the killing of Soleimani is that since the United States took responsibility for that killing, Iran as a state had to take responsibility for a response to that killing, and therefore was very open about the way in which it sent its ballistic missiles after American military forces in Iraq.
But that kind of squared it off. So what I expect to see going forward is a return to the status quo ante. And you’ve seen already the American administration double down on sanctions. Last week, Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Mnuchin announced new sanctions. So there will be increased American pressuring on the Iranian economy. I expect over the course of the next few months to be – to see more activity by Iranian proxy forces in the region, and perhaps elsewhere, again, to try to increase the cost to the United States and American allies of the economic sanctions.
Let me talk a little bit about my interpretation of where Trump administration policy on Iran is. And I think one of the problems that many in the press have, and probably people in Tehran as well, is that the Trump administration has not clearly articulated the goals that it seeks in its Iran policy up to this point. Depending on who you speak to or who is interviewed on TV, they talk about a permanent end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, an end to Iran’s ballistic missile program and deployment of ballistic missiles, an end to a support for proxy forces in the region, and in some quarters concerns about human rights and religious freedom in Iran.
What I think is probably – going back a little but further in the administration to the first Iran policy paper that was written that the press mostly focused on the desire to pull out of the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement. But also in that same strategy there was real concern expressed about Iranian adventurism in the region. But also, the fundamental underpinnings of the Iranian state being tied to the Iranian revolution, and therefore having enshrined in the constitution, in the laws of Iran, this radical ideology to liberate Muslim territories, to help oppressed peoples around the world.
And this was – and I was reminded this week in speaking to an Arab ambassador in Washington that this is one of the biggest problems underlying negotiations with Iran. Because if the Trump administration, as the president says very directly, doesn’t want regime change, per se, they certainly do want a fundamental change in the behavior of the Iranian government in the way that it deals with the world. We can delve into this a little bit later in the discussions.
Finally, I want to talk just a little bit about Iraq. If I’m looking at the places in the world where Iran is best equipped to use its proxies to put pressure on the United States, Iraq is the easiest for them because they have the largest network of political support in Iraq than other places. They have the largest network of military support, through the Popular Mobilization Forces, in Iraq. And I expect that we will see in the future more pressure on the United States and coalition forces, because one of the main goals of Qassem Soleimani and the Quds Force over the past decade has been to push all Western military forces, and as much Western economic influence as possible, out of Iraq, so that Iraq can use – excuse me – so that Iran can use Iraq as its security, political, and economic strategy depth.
You already saw this with a vote in the Iraqi parliament a week and a half ago, where most of the Kurdish members of the parliament, most of the Sunni members of the parliament boycotted the session. And while the vote was 170 to zero, I heard behind the scenes on my social media feed a lot of allegations of death threats against Shia MPs and family members if they did not go to the parliament and vote against the continuation of coalition forces in the country. There will be a big fight over the course of the next six months to a year over whether or not this direction by the parliament is legitimate, whether a caretaker prime minister can accomplish this, whether there need to be new elections.
And unfortunately, somewhat forgotten in all of this has been the very real pressure from the Iraqi street, and the hundreds of thousands of young Iraqis who have been demonstrating – particularly in the south of the country and in Baghdad, for government reforms, government competence, reduction in corruption, and reduction of foreign influence, but generally meaning Iranian influence, because that’s much more prevalent in the south. So what I see going forward is a return to the status quo ante, and in the short term not a shooting war between the United States and Iran, but now bot the United States and Iran are likely to double down on their earlier strategies – economic sanctions or action through proxies. And we’ll have to see how that plays out.
MR. MATTAIR: Any questions?
JOYCE KARAM: All right. Good morning, everyone. Good to be with you. Happy birthday to Susan’s son, and thank you to the Middle East Policy Council for gathering us here. It’s been such a slow month, if you’re in the news business, but I’m going to keep my remarks short mostly about the aftermath of the Qassem Soleimani killing.
So while reporting on the killing of Soleimani, I tried to think of his parallel in Western politics. A head of intelligence? A head of an army? A senior advisor to a president, to a leader? An envoy? I quickly gave up. There was none. He was a general. He was a head of a U.S.-designated terrorist force, a viceroy in the Middle East, an advisor to the supreme leader and a political operator.
So two weeks into his killing it has very much shaped the region, and here is how. So for those in the Soleimani camp, what do we see? There is definitely a sense of shock. They’re mourning. Groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq are still trying to recover. they’re very much hunkering down and appear to be reassessing their security and political operations. If we zoom in on Hezbollah and Lebanon being the biggest military group that Iran sponsors regionally, I see three tracks. So, first, it’s trying to use the killing of Soleimani to rally its base. And they’re doing this very skillfully. Their TV, Al-Manar – I don’t know if any of you are familiar with it – they aired exclusive interviews – obviously previously taped – with Soleimani where he’s speaking to Hezbollah fighters in Arabic. They had, I think, four or five of these.
We also saw they’ve released behind the scenes photos of Soleimani and Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah. And Nasrallah also spoke twice already about the Soleimani killing. And from what we gather from the Hezbollah optics and Nasrallah’s optics is he appears to be carrying the Soleimani torch when it comes to commanding the leading the axis of militants and resistance – what he calls resistance – groups. The second front that Hezbollah is taking, and according to experts who follow the group very closely, they appear to be boosting their security inside Lebanon, trying to fill in intelligence gaps. This shouldn’t be surprising, because Soleimani was Beirut – we don’t know if he went to Syria after – but he was in Beirut before going to Iraq, where he was assassinated.
Third, politically – and here we see a trend in the reaction in both Iraq and Lebanon – that the preference after the Soleimani killing has shifted to a one-color government formation in both Baghdad and Beirut. So whereas Hezbollah before was willing to – negotiating still with, you know, Hariri and other people from the opposing coalition, right now they’re very close to forming a government with just their immediate allies. The same we see also in Iraq. I think what the ambassador mentioned about the vote in the parliament in also another indication. So that’s for the Soleimani camp – for the pro-Iran camp in the region.
For those not in the Soleimani camp, obviously no one is mourning his death. But there is a sense of anxiety among U.S. partners in the region on what is next. I was speaking to one Gulf official, and the concern is what if the U.S. leaves Iraq? Where will Iran retaliate next? Nobody thinks that the Al Asad retaliation – that it’s going to stop there. What will the U.S. do if a GCC state is targeted? So these are questions we’re hearing in the U.S. partners, basically, in the region.
For the protests that have erupted before the Soleimani killing, if you follow Iraq and Lebanon, they already had led to resignations of governments there in Beirut and Baghdad. But the event, the killing of Soleimani, has very much overshadowed the rallies in Iraq. So we’re seeing more harassment of activists by militias, and just in the last five days we saw the killing of two Iraqi journalists and one activist just yesterday. In Lebanon protests are becoming more violent, but they continue. They’re less affected with the killing of Soleimani, but that definitely adds pressure on Hezbollah. So that’s, for me, the picture, the regional framework, I wanted to present. I look forward to discussion. Be nice in your questions, please. And I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Limbert.
JOHN LIMBERT: Well, thank you very much. And good morning to everyone. I’m so impressed and thank everyone for coming out on this Friday morning at the beginning of a long weekend. It’s a wonderful comment about Iran always being in the news, even on a – even on a Friday morning in Washington. I want to thank our – join and thank our hosts also for putting all this together.
I’m going to start on a personal note. My connections to Iran go back a long way. They go back about 60 years. As a tourist, as a teacher, as a researcher – as an academic researcher, very briefly as a diplomat, and for an unfortunate length of time, as a prisoner. But my real connection is as a member – very proud to be – a member of an enlightened and welcome Iranian American family. So I have Iranian connections as a husband, as a brother-in-law, son-in-law, and of course father and grandfather of people – of you people who are part Iranian.
I should say at the beginning, in the interests of full disclosure, I am not a big fan of the Islamic Republic. That position is not based just on personal experience. It’s a feeling that our Iranian friends, relatives, they deserve better than they have. They deserve a government that treats them decently, that doesn’t throw in jail intellectuals – women’s rights activists, human rights activists, Baha’is, journalists, anybody else they don’t like.
Now, on the other hand, I’ve always sought – thought that we need some kind of different relationship than what we’ve had. For 40 years the relationship has been sour. You can describe it in a lot of other ways, but it hasn’t – it hasn’t been productive. It hasn’t produced anything. We and the Iranians, we’ve – 40 years ago we were yelling and threatening each other. Today we’re still doing the same – we’re still doing the same thing. I suppose – it may be too much to ask for friendship, but at least an ability to talk to each other. I mean, we talk to a lot of countries with which we are not friends.
These views have not always been popular. They’ve earned me labels like the Manchurian candidate, and others which I can’t repeat. This is being televised, I understand, so I can’t repeat some of the other things that I’ve been called. But again, this is – you know, this has – this has been over time. And back in 2009, when the first – during the first Obama administration, when the administration decided to make its efforts at outreach, it looked for people among the foreign service and elsewhere who had direct experience with Iran.
And they came – they came to me. They asked me to lead – I was happily teaching at the Naval Academy at the time. And they asked me to come and work in the administration. And I asked them: How did you find me? And they said, we opened the gates of Jurassic Park, and we saw this beast grazing happily in the corner. And we said, you know, that looks to me an awful lot like an Irannosaurus. And those of us dealing with Iran over the long time are somewhat – are more and more in that category.
But let me step back. I want to step back a little bit from the headlines because I was trained as a historian. And historians love to say: Let’s go back to the beginning. And I also used to tell my students: He who forgets history is condemned to repeat sophomore year. (Laughter.) But I’ll spare you going back – I think Suzanne mentioned this – I’ll spare you go back to the book of Daniel and Cyrus the Great, although there was a rather bizarre tweet I saw yesterday from the State Department that mentioned Cyrus the – that mentioned Cyrus the Great.
But to put things in context, and all of the – all of the wise words that you heard from the colleagues – there are two geographic historical realities that still apply today, and that shapes the way Iran sees itself and its relations with the out – with the outside world. One is: Iran views themselves as a – views itself as a besieged fortress. There is – it needs to control the Persian-speaking heartland on the central plateau. But whoever rules Iran must control – must also protect the non-Persian-speaking periphery, particularly the mountain walls to the west and the north, because once these walls are pierced, Iran is open to conquest. Control the main towns, the roads, and the rest is easy.
So you can see, why would Iran be meddling in Iraq? Because that’s the western approach to the fortress. That’s how – those – that protects the – that protects the walls. Another area they’ve always been interested in is their northwest. The loss of the Caucasian provinces in the early 19th century, that was a blow I don’t think Iran has ever recovered from. I think it still suffers because it removed a natural barrier from the north.
Second reality is Iran in its region is the outlier. It’s not like the other peoples and places. It is not Sunni. It is not Arab. It is not Turkish. It is – it is isolated. It is isolated culturally, historically, and – thanks to some very inept diplomacy under the Islamic Republic – politically as well. I mean, think, who are its friends in the region? Not many. I mean, devastated Syria and, of all places, isolated, land-locked, Christian Armenia. The Armenians and the Iranians get along very well because they both hate the Azeris, who share Shia religion, by the way, with Iran. I call the Iranians the Bretons of the Middle East.
Another reality is 100 years – what I call the 100-year struggle of Iranians to assert independence, dignity, and to have a government that treats its people decently. Go back 100 years, Iran was in a very bad place. Literacy was 5 percent. Life expectancy was 30 years. Infant mortality was about 50 percent. University places, zero. And that – among that 5 percent that was literate, they knew they were in bad place. And they said: We have to do something. That struggle – and originally in that struggle you have the constitutional revolution, you have other movement – you have other movements. You have the oil nationalization – the oil nationalization movement.
The U.S. was originally on the good side of that. We were on the side of the good guys. We supported this struggle until – well, until 1953. And another thing that often – in my experience, bothers a lot of my Iranian friends is that when – as Iran struggles, the Arabs sometimes do better. And that bothers Iran. You know, think of – think of the green movement in 2009, then the Arab Spring followed in 2011. And the contrast was brought up in a very – a very clever slogan that someone was chanting on the streets of Tehran. They said – I’ll just and then I’ll translate it for you – “Tunes tounes, Iran na-tounes” – Iran could – no, sorry. “Tunisia could, Iran could not.” And that seems to be – the struggle goes on the failures go on.
Now, let me just end with talking about Iran and Iran experts. Let me say that being an Iran expert in this town actually isn’t very hard. Because you only have to be able to say two things. One is, I don’t know, and the second is, it’s very complicated. (Laughter.) That covers I think about 95 percent of it. I would just ask you to be wary of what – things that you hear about Iran. You’ll hear – I mean, you already, rightly – I think everyone in this room is rightly suspicious of the phrase “the imminent threat,” and the “attack on four embassies” that we – that we hear about. And demanded – and you rightly demanded evidence that was never provided.
I would also – I would ask you to be careful when you hear phrases like “malign behavior,” and “Iranian hegemony,” and “Iranian threat.” I would just ask you – just ask yourself: What does this mean? When you say threat, threat to whom? Who is threatened? And how much are they threatened? And a closer look might reveal a reality that’s a little bit different from maybe the first impression. Let me just end with one incident that, to me, illustrates what a better relationship would look like. Is anyone here familiar with something called the Mississippi Delta Health Project? Some of you – good, good. It’s really a very interesting program.
The Mississippi Delta, as I’m sure most of you know, is one of the poorest regions in our country. And efforts to improve health conditions down there haven’t paid off. They’ve had different projects. They’ve tried different things. So some people in Mississippi heard about a program in Iran called hanei (ph) behvarz, or the rural health houses. And they thought, that sounds interesting. It might apply. Maybe it would be useful by a useful amount, to reach remote and difficult areas – difficult areas.
So they approached – privately they approached the – they approached the Iranians, the people responsible, and said: We’re interested in your program. Could you help us? And the answer was, of course. And this program has been going on quietly for many years. And a group of Iranians – a group of Americans, I’m sorry – went to Iran. They were near Shiraz. And they went to a – they stopped at a teahouse near Marvdasht, a small town near Shiraz. And they were talking with – they were sitting there.
And the Iranian and the Americans were talking to each other in English. And the local people asked: Who are these people? Who are these foreigners? And the answer was, well, they’re Americans. And the response was, Americans? I thought we got rid of the Americans. And they said, no, these are Americans who are here to learn from us. And the response was, oh. That’s different. I never knew that the rain could fall up. Now, to me, that story in a small way is perhaps where we should be – where we should be.
Well, I thank you for your attention. And I look forward to our discussion. Thank you.
MR. MATTAIR: First, thank you to the speakers. And I will start by saying almost every question from the audience has to do with Iraq and the impact of all these events on Iraq. But before we get to that, I’d like to ask a question that Suzanne raised, and – particularly Suzanne raised, and find out what the other panelists think about it in more detail.
It’s a question that has been asked in the media, namely: Has the action taken by the United States in killing Soleimani established deterrence or has it raised the possibility of escalation? So a lot of people think that Iranian response was very, very carefully calibrated to not lead to further U.S. actions. Suzanne, you said it provided an opportunity for de-escalation – in the short run, I think you meant – because you also said Iran has many incentives to continue escalating, or at least to continue – and they could, of course, just continue the calibrated responses that they’ve engaged in over previous months, before they killed a U.S. contractor in Iraq.
So what do the other panelists think about the kinds of responses that Iran will now engage in, and whether they will miscalculate, and whether there will be another U.S. death, and another U.S. – another escalation? And how the United States will respond? And before I ask you to respond that, I’m recalling something said by someone at a panel last week that Iran understands that in our democracy it’s going to be hard to develop a response to what they do because there’s going to be a debate, because there’s going to be disagreement. So can people respond to that? Do you want to – do you want to start by saying anything more about it?
MR. SILLIMAN: I’ll be happy to respond. And I have sort of two comments on that. First of all, I think that to some extent if you’re thinking in conventional security terms, the killing of Soleimani does in fact establish a bit of deterrence, mostly because the Trump administration had not reacted to most of the Iranian and proxy provocations earlier in the year. And I think the Iranians didn’t really know what the real red line was, even though it had been publicly stated. I also think it adds a bit of unpredictability to an American response, because it was something that I’m sure that the Iranians did not expect.
From the American side, I think that this administration tried to respond to the drip, drip, drip of Iranian movement into Iraq, movement through Syria, potential threats to Israel, attacks on shipping, on Gulf allies, interference in Pakistan – there’s Iranians tentacles, through the Quds Force, in many places. But like a frog in water, it’s hard to determine a point at which a response is warranted. And I think this very unconventional or radical response from the administration was intended to send a message to Tehran that we will not simply let you incrementally gain victories without paying a cost.
So, again, whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s going to create additional problems, I still think in the short term we will see a return to more indirect pressure on the United States. But I think that there was both a message sent from Washington and received in Tehran. But I leave to others who know more about Iran to discuss how that might be – what kind of reaction it might be from the government.
MR. MATTAIR: Joyce.
MS. KARAM: I mean, I do agree that Iran was in shock. It took them a few hours to even acknowledge the death of Soleimani. But on the question of deterrence, I think the jury is still out. We know from the attack on the Iraqi U.S. Joint Base Al Asad that it was intended to kill. We now know that there’s been dozen wounded. Attacks are still ongoing, since the killing of Soleimani, from Iraqi militias on whether Taji base or others in Iraq. So this hasn’t stopped. So I think it’s really too early to tell. And it still remains to be seen if the red line is crossed again, where U.S., you know, personnel is killed or Iran could respond through proxy, and have that deniability.
And here’s it’s actually important, if you listen to the leader to Hezbollah, his first speech after the killing of Soleimani. And he was clear: We will respond, but you just need to know that our operations, we’re not getting instructions from Iran. So he’s already offering Iran the path to deniability. So I do think it’s very complicated to answer one way or another.
MR. MATTAIR: John?
MR. LIMBERT: Well, I would just endorse what some of the other speakers said, that what remains puzzling for me was what was the goal of it? What did we – what did we see to achieve? I’ve never heard it explained. I’ve never heard it articulated. So one suspects that there’s little it in beyond making us feel good. And you never – you never lose much politically in this – in this town by bashing the Iranians. We’ve been doing it for 40 years. We’ll do it again.
I would also endorse the statement about this contradictory and duality of Soleimani’s status, that to many he represents a very unpopular – he’s supportive of a very unpopular regime and a very unpopular policy that spends Iranian resources in adventures abroad – adventures abroad, at a time when he – many people are feeling economic – straight economic stress. At the same time, he’s an Iranian patriot, and he fought against the Iraqis. He has a very distinguished war record. He helped defend the homeland against Iraq. He helped defend the country against ISIS, with the tacit cooperation of the United States, I might add.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, if the – if the intention of the killing of Soleimani was to deter further killings of Americans, that’s one thing. If it was intended to advance some other American objective, that’s another. But I think we have a disagreement here about what Iran’s intentions were, which has something to do with how precise their ballistic missiles are. Did they or did they not intend to kill Americans? I mean, there were two housing complexes hit on the base in Iraq. And there were injuries. So if they’re precise enough to do that, maybe we have not established deterrence. Although, they did get us three hours advance notice, so do you want to say something?
MS. MALONEY: Sure. I’m not sure if this is working.
MR. MATTAIR: It is.
MS. MALONEY: Yeah, look, I think the Iranians assumed a certain degree of risk, and not just with the response to the Soleimani strike but with everything that they had done up to that point. The downing of the drone, for example, the U.S. drone, in July I think was done with the expectation that it was at least possible, if not likely, that the United States would respond with some military action against Iranian targets. And obviously the president live tweeted his decision to call back that strike in July. And that gave the Iranians at least some sense – some indication that even at a time when renowned hawk John Bolton was still in the White House, that the president was calling the shots, and that he, himself, preferred to avoid an escalation that might lead to a full-fledged war.
So in terms of the targeting of the base and this most recent strike, they used ballistic missiles. This was not a sort of small-scale attack. They didn’t have the capacity for precision that they would have had with a different type of response. But through the warning and at least – at least in their own telling, they were making some effort to try to avoid casualties, to try to minimize the prospects that President Trump would then respond in kind in a way that would lead to a full-fledged exchange of hostilities. And they were taking other steps to try to avoid that as well.
Apparently, at least some of the reports suggest, that the decision to continue civilian air traffic out of Imam Khomeini Airport near Tehran was done with the expectation that that might deter the United States from responding. And of course, that had catastrophic results in terms of the misfire of missiles against a civilian passenger jet by the Iranian military. So you know, in all of this the Iranians are trying to avoid, I think, an outcome which would not serve their own interests. They’re trying to advance their interests both in preserving the regime and trying to find some way to escalate international pressure on the Trump administration. But they’re also prepared to assume some risks.
And I think, as was just said by Joyce and others, there is some degree of – the sense now we have that the Trump administration is less predictable than the Iranians might have assumed between May of this year and December of this year, when the responses were more limited. I think now the question of, you know, which side is prepared to push harder is an open one. And that, of course, makes this situation even more unstable.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes, Doug.
MR. SILLIMAN: If I can comment – go off on a tangent on ballistic missiles for just a minute. The U.S. government has felt for some time that ballistic missiles are becoming more strategically important for the Quds Force and the Iranian government as a weapon system. And one example I will give of this, over the course of 2019 Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, on a couple of occasions, posited possible scenarios to get back into a JCPOA or JCPOA-like agreement. At one point, and I can’t remember the location, he said: And ballistic missiles might also be something we could talk about. That was withdrawn within two days. And he had probably exceeded his brief and people in Tehran told him that we do not want to talk about ballistic missiles, at least not in this context.
I will note that already Tehran has used ballistic missiles to strategic effect with its attacks aimed at American forces at Ayn al Asad base and at Erbil. And there was an earlier attack on Iran from Iraq on Iranian Kurdish opposition group in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq using ballistic missiles where the targeting was – I’ll say unclassified – not particularly good.
So I will leave to military strategists and analysts, the development of ballistic missiles, the capabilities that Iran might have displayed in the attacks on Ayn al Assad base an on Erbil, but I have the distinct impression that ballistic missiles may be increasingly important to the Islamic Republic and the Quds Force as it moves forward. That contradictorily, possibly, might mean that there is an easier way to a path to get back to a JCPOA 2.0, if the nuclear weapons program is not as strategically important as it used to be. So while that’s perhaps a new preference, it might offer options for negotiation discussions down the road.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, we should talk about what American policy should be in order to resolve some of our differences, if we can. But before we get to that, can we just spend another minute on the question of escalation, miscalculation, killings of Americans, and what the United States – what the Trump administration might do in response. Suzanne, you said Iranians don’t want a conventional war because it means the defeat of Iran and the defeat of the regime. But that could – that could take time, and that could be ugly, because of the asymmetrical capabilities that Iran has, and its ability to inflict damage in the Strait of Hormuz and on infrastructure in the Gulf. So if we get to that point again, what do you think Trump may do? Or how would we avert war in an event like that?
MS. MALONEY: I’ll start, but maybe just with the first half of that question. What do I think Trump would do? And here, I might try to answer the question that Ambassador Limbert put on the table about what it is – what as the point of this strike on Soleimani? Was it just to enforce the red line? Was it just a retaliation? Was it just an appealing item on a PowerPoint slide that the president thought was something cool to do? I actually think it’s part of a broader strategy within this administration. The theory of the case is almost precisely opposite of that of the Obama administration.
And it is predicated on this notion that Iran does respond to pressure, but only to really, really severe pressure. And that we have essentially, though a series of administrations – both Bush and Obama – declined to take on Iran for all kinds of reasons, because of the risks of blowback, because of the prioritization of the nuclear negotiations. But in doing so, we have essentially effectively empowered Iran. By failing to be willing to put our own risk on the table by failing to be willing to use our own conventional military superiority. We have enabled Iran, for example, in question of what is the threat posed, to provide improvised explosive devices to Shia militias in Iraq. That had no constructive purpose, only a threatening purpose, and it led to the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen and -women who were serving in Iraq, as well as, of course, hundreds if not thousands of Iraqis.
And so the Trump administration, I think – and I’ve heard this said by someone who is now in a senior position – believes that we have to disruptive. We have to be prepared to push hard on Iran, and that by pushing hard we may get much more than the Obama administration was going to get. We may find that we set the regime back on its heels, and by taking out someone senior – there is some evidence that perhaps the Soleimani strike was a not a unique hit. That, in fact, there was an effort to wrap up other Quds Force senior commanders with a strike or an operation that did not succeed in Yemen, almost on the same day. So I think what we’re seeing – and I’m not endorsing it; I’m just trying to explain it – is the implementation of a really hardline, get-tough approach that’s not just economic, that actually has a sort of military dimension.
I don’t yet know if it’s likely to be more successful or less successful than what prior administrations have done, which has tended to be more restrained in the application of American military power and more forward-leaning in the attempts, at least, to engage diplomatically.
MR. MATTAIR: Joyce.
MS. KARAM: I think in the short term it appears – I mean, from the reports we’re seeing – that Iran and its allies in the region are focused more internally now. As I mentioned, Hezbollah is hunkering down. You have the Iraqi militias, Khazali, for example, taking more precautions when to appear in public. So I think they’re trying to unify their ranks, to close any cracks in their intelligence loopholes because, yes, there could be other strikes that target, for example, PMF, Hashd Shaabi leaders in Iraq.
The question – the bigger question is, what happens in the medium to the long term? And I don’t know if we have answers to that. Usually in the past we used to have, you know, with Oman, for example, pioneering backchannel diplomacy with Iran – between the U.S. and Iran. You don’t have anything like this now. We saw the Qataris make few trips, but we don’t know if this was related to creating a diplomatic path with the U.S. So I would have to agree with Ambassador Silliman that we are probably returning to the status quo ante and just managed tension between the U.S. and Iran for the time being.
MR. MATTAIR: OK.
MR. SILLIMAN: A quick doubling down on something I said in my remarks. Take the publicly expressed Trump administration red line against American casualties seriously. The Trump administration sees the Obama administration’s unwillingness or inability to enforce the public red lines that it set as one of the key weaknesses of the Obama administration. I do not believe this administration will want to fall into that same trap. So if you see an American casualty, it is possible that there will be retribution against a leader of the PMF in Iraq, if that’s who conducted the attack. There might also be something against an Iranian target as well, because the Trump administration has said an American casualty is a red line and we will hold Iran responsible for any such casualties.
MS. KARAM: Just – sorry, one more thing. The response from the U.S. was two-pronged. So first you saw after the killing of the U.S. contractor they hit the PMF, there were airstrikes. It’s only after the attack on the embassy that, you know, they met in Mar-a-Lago and decided to take out Soleimani.
MR. MATTAIR: John, maybe you could take a little bit on the question of war, because you remember the tanker war.
MR. LIMBERT: Right. I do. And well, also, as someone who did – well, I guess all of us here did serve in the Obama administration. I still go back to something that I think Suzanne said at the beginning. And the question is, what’s the policy toward Iran? Is it – is it overthrow? Is it regime – is it regime change? Is it that awful phrase, “change their behavior”? I mean, if you – if you ever – if any of you have ever been in any kind of a relationship you know what the effect of saying: Everything would be fine if you would just change your behavior. And you know how effective that would be – you know how effective that is.
What is it? What is it? And we don’t know. And we really don’t know what it’s going – what it’s going to be. I don’t think, frankly – I don’t see a – I don’t see a policy beyond being the non-Obama. You pull out of the JCPOA, change all these things that we talked about, criticize him at every opportunity. And yet, here’s something I don’t know if you noticed. But in, I think it was, last Saturday after the missile strikes, when the president spoke publicly, at the end he said – he said I want to – I have this – I want to speak to the Iranian leaders and people – to the Iranian leaders and people.
That’s very Obamaesque. He would – he would never admit it, but this is a direct echo of what Obama said in March of 2009, his first Nowruz greetings – Persian New Year’s greetings to the Iranian people. When he said, I want to speak to the Iranian leaders – or, government, and people of the Islamic Republic. Now, Islamic Republic was probably, for President Trump, a bridge too far. But the emphasis was very similar. And it was – in 2009, it was a great change. The emphasis before was – and you hear this particular from – you hear this a lot from this administration – we love the people of – we love the Iranian people. We hate your leaders. The sooner they’re gone, the better.
Now it’s a change. This is a change. So you’re seeing – you know, I keep asking myself, what is it – what is it they want? What do they – what do they really want out of this? And you’re seeing contradictory signals coming out of this – coming out of this administration. If I were sitting in Tehran and listening to this, I’m not sure I’d know what to make of it.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, then let’s move to the question of U.S. policy, what it should be. And that takes us to the question of Iraq too. Doug, you said you didn’t think the administration had clearly articulated its policy. But maybe another way of saying it is – well, maybe another way of looking at it, is that they’ve articulated a policy that may be unattainable. You look at Pompeo’s 12 points. And then implemented a strategy that may be ineffective. So how would people respond to that? And what would a realistic set of objectives be? And what is the prospect of initiating some kind of diplomatic endeavor in the remaining months of the Trump administration that might lead to some compromises? And should it concentrate only on the nuclear program, and getting a better one, or can we get into questions like ballistic missiles and Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon, et cetera?
MR. SILLIMAN: It’s really difficult now to define a good path forward or a policy success with Iran, partially because, one, the administration is mostly acting bilaterally, talking indirectly to Iran. They wanted to have U.S. administration work something out with Tehran. That’s, again, the opposite of what the Obama administration did, in seeking to develop and international consensus, which they did around the need for controls on Iran’s nuclear program. In my experience in recent years, there is general international agreement on the bad activities that the Islamic Republic has carried out, not only on the nuclear program but also on the development and deployment of ballistic missiles, the interference through proxies in neighboring governments, and especially in Europe concern about human rights and religious freedom on the ground in Iran.
There is an international consensus of the things that Iran is doing wrong. What I’d like to see is this administration trying to focus attention of the world on those issues that can be negotiated and made a little bit more concrete. And although I know, John, you don’t like the idea of the phrase “change Iranian behavior,” it is rather, negotiate Iranian behavior to fall within bounds that the broader international community would consider acceptable. This is really difficult, and it doesn’t begin with belligerent statements toward Tehran. It begins with consultations with our key allies in Europe, with Israel, with our partners, in the Gulf, and other major stakeholders.
But if you look at the – the goals for Iranian policy, there is – for those countries in the world that worry about Iran – there is general agreement on the things that we collectively would like to see Iran change. And I’d like to see the Trump administration make more of an effort to internationalize these issues and find a way to begin talks, something that is progressive. This is not a two-week negotiation. This is not a series of meetings between the president and President Rouhani. This is a year’s-long process that will look something like the JCPOA, but far more difficult. But it has probably the advantage of keeping the region a bit more stable during the process of negotiation. So that’s my vision of a way forward. It’s hard to define, however, a set of goals for Iran that might bring the world together to collectively press Iran to change certain behaviors.
MR. LIMBERT: If you – if you are going – you know, if you define your goals in the way you do – and I agree with you. I mean, you can talk about the nuclear program. You can talk about cooperation against ISIS. You can talk about regional issues. You can talk about human rights. There are many things you can talk about. The question is, how do you do it? Do you do it by beating your chest and posturing, which seems to be the preferred modus operandi of this administration – and, to be fair, some previous administrations as well? We have seen another way. We’ve had this tantalizing glimpse of another possible road. But for the moment, it’s – for the most part has been shut off.
MS. KARAM: I think if you look regionally at the Gulf, there’s definitely – the objective would be de-escalation from here. There are concerns among all GCC countries. They don’t want to be caught in the crossfire between the U.S. and Iran. When you look at Saudi particular, there’s a great paper written by Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment. And she lays out clear concerns for Riyadh, primarily all what Saudi has invested in Iraq in the last two years to improve its relations could now go down the drain if we see a U.S. withdrawal or if Iraq descends into a civil war.
On the maximum pressure point, I mean, when you talk to U.S. officials, they frame it as a big success. They think Iran is in a place they wanted Iran to be, that there are protests internally, that the regime is weaker, and it’s not being able to project its strength as it was prior to the campaign. Yeah, I’m not sure, throughout all this time we’ve been reporting on Trump and Iran, that we actually see a comprehensive strategy with plan B or with we’re going to start diplomacy this way, or through this partner. You do see, however, an intent both here and in the region that if negotiations resume with Tehran that regional countries have to be on the table, that it would have to entail ballistic missiles, that it would have to entail Yemen, Iraq, issues that were not on the table during the nuclear deal.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes. In fact, one of their objections to the JCPOA was that they were not part of the – part of the discussions. And they have indicated recently that they would need to be part of any other future discussions. But if –
MS. KARAM: After they accept – I mean, they welcomed the JCPOA at the time. Then, yeah, they –
MR. SILLIMAN: But they did not like the fact that it covered only the nuclear program and not the issues that were of greater importance to especially the Gulf Arabs.
MR. MATTAIR: So whether the Trump administration can do this or not – I mean, there could be a new administration next year that might have to wrestle with this question of whether they can relaunch diplomatic activity. And we’ve talked about the way our allies and partners in the region see it, that it would have to be more comprehensive, something like the grand bargain that was discussed in 2003.
So it looks like, John, you have a different view of sort of the forward defense strategy of Iran, its efforts to establish its influence in Iraq, and Syria, and Lebanon. You don’t see it as being as malign as others do. But it would have to be part of the diplomatic discussion. So even if the Trump administration can’t do this, can we do it? Can we think about it here? What kind of approach might lead to some compromises on every one of these issues that we’ve identified? Do you have something you wanted to say before we go to that, or on that?
MS. MALONEY: I know a candidate who has a plan for everything. I don’t know if she has a plan for this one. I am not affiliated with the campaign, but I was just thinking the whole idea of a plan – it would be nice if there were a sort of ready-made plan that we could just plug in, and whether it's this administration or a future administration, that was guaranteed to bring us to better position on the wide range of issues that we’re confronting with Iran. I don’t think that it’s possible to devise such a plan in whole and perfect form. I do think that we can look back on the experience of the Bush administration which, frankly, started off in a very different place on Iran than where it ended, and think about how one finds a way out of a predicament that may be self-generated.
The decision of the Bush administration in 2003 to cut off a dialogue that existed with Iran, which was at the time one the most significant authoritative, modest in terms of its frequency and its actual accomplishments – but it was the first time you had sort of mid- to senior-level people on either side sitting down periodically to talk, first, about Afghanistan and then about Iran. And in 2003, for a variety of reasons including Iran’s harboring of al-Qaida operatives, the decision was made to cut off that dialogue and to essentially engage in no diplomacy with Iran – which was the first time the United States had ever done anything like that. Since ’79, it’s always been us trying to bring the Iranians to the table.
In 2003, the Bush administration said: Forget it. We’re not going to talk. And of course, came to realize – (laughs) – for a variety of reasons, mostly Iraq, that that wasn’t sustainable. That there needed to be some kind of diplomatic engagement. Specifically, there needed to be some kind of American engagement with the European-led effort to try to manage the crisis over the revelations of a secret Iranian uranium enrichment program. And that culminated in 2006 with the Bush administration’s essential reversal, the decision to not only say we’ll talk to Iran, but we’re going to do it in the company of the P5 and plus Germany, because Germany has been part of the existing negotiations on the nuclear issue.
That set a framework which wasn’t all that useful for a number of years. The Iranians balked at engaging initially because of the demand for a resuspension of uranium enrichment, which had been part of the expressed opinions of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the three European powers that had been leading those negotiations but became very much crystalized as sort of Bush administration obstructionism. But setting that framework in 2006 was vital to getting us to where we were in 2013 when the negotiations really took off.
There were lots of other things that happened in the interim, including much greater economic pressure, including much greater international cooperation with that economic pressure as a result of a number of factors, including the Obama administration’s outreach and willingness to say things like the “Islamic Republic,” and send private messages to the supreme leader. But what was fundamental was that diplomatic framework that was built, that was invested in. Various American officials went dutifully to meetings trying to, waiting to, hoping to have some kind of a productive conversation with Iranian counterparts on the nuclear issue. It took a while.
It took all these other factors. But it actually eventually paid off. And I think that’s what we ought to be trying to devise now, which is some kind of a diplomatic framework. I think the P5+1 actually worked very well, but it’s probably not ideal for the whole scope of issues with respect to Iran. Try to find a way to revitalize this ad hoc multilateralism that worked so successfully with respect to the JCPOA and think through how we approach the different baskets of issues. And of course, Iranians bring their own issues to any comprehensive negotiation, and think through how we’re going to approach all of those. What are the – what are the partners? Who are the parties? And how do we manage this in a way that actually has some prospect of being successful, when and if the conditions are right?
MR. MATTAIR: Any other comments on that?
MR. SILLIMAN: Just, well, the fundamental question that this administration and a Trump 2.0 or a Democratic administration starting next year has to decide on is: Do we seek specific changes in Iranian behavior, as I laid out earlier and as John talked about? Or are we seeing a fundamental change in the structure of the Islamic Republic, which will be much harder to achieve, as John so aptly pointed out. And I think that’s really the question that the administration now needs to wrestle with. I think that we can get, as Suzanne points out, international support for negotiations where you’re making tradeoffs on specific military, political, or economic items. But to change the Iranian constitution, the nature of the regime, is a much more difficult thing. And I doubt that that could be done quickly, if at all.
MR. LIMBERT: And given – and given our record in such things – I mean, both of us served in Iraq – that’s not for us to do, our record of meddling in other countries’ domestic politics doesn’t – particularly in the case of Iran – it usually has not – has not ended well. So when you see figures in this administration talking about the brave people of Iran and talking about their human rights, and then at the same time imposing travel – imposing travel bans and imposing economic measures that make it difficult to find medicines, I think you can understand why these declarations of support and sympathy for human rights of the Iranian people do not meet an overwhelmingly positive response.
MS. KARAM: I think Iraq would be the place to watch to see if we see any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement there. We’re hearing more from the White House and the State Department that they’re talking to NATO to have a bigger role in Iraq. I’m not a military expert, so I don’t know if that would be feasible, a middle ground where, you know, perhaps the U.S. leaves or delegates some of its role to NATO in Iraq. Regionally, I think if we see Iran regional negotiations with Gulf countries, that would be mostly, I think, reflected in Yemen, where that goes. The Saudis are already talking to the Houthis there. And we’ve seen – I mean, even the Houthi response to the Soleimani killing was more timid than – they didn’t promise retaliation.
MR. MATTAIR: Rich, did you want to say something?
MR. SCHMIERER: Yeah. I was very pleased, Suzanne, to hear your comments about diplomacy. My comment would be I was the U.S. ambassador in Oman when we began the effort to engage Iran. It was the first part of that diplomatic engagement. There were a number of factors – fortuitous, change factors – that ultimately led to success. It happened that we had a situation with some Americans being held in Iran. They were innocent Americans who had been taken in Iraq. And that effort to resolve that, which was ultimately successful, led to an opening of a dialogue not between the U.S. and Iran, but between Oman and Iran to try to help us resolve that issue.
And what I learned by watching how that played out, and then ultimately was there when the first team came to actually negotiate with Iran, was the importance of the elements of diplomacy. Specifically, there were a number of times when we had to look for confidence-building measures that would convince the Iranians that we were serious, that we weren’t posturing, that anything they did wasn’t – we weren’t going to use against them. We really had to get their confidence that this was a serious negotiation.
The second element was there were several very fundamental misunderstandings about the U.S. on the part of the Iranians. And as we would find those, we would help the Omani negotiators or interlocutors explain those things to the Iranians. And it was amazing how willing they were to learn. They really had some misunderstandings. And once they were clarified, Iranians accepted that. They trusted the Omanis to be giving them the truth. And so those kinds of diplomatic sort of building blocks were necessary, which ultimately then led to the team coming to Oman and having our direct negotiations.
So, Suzanne, when you suggest steps that we might use to try to reopen a diplomatic channel, that’s exactly the kind of thing that those of us in the foreign service, diplomats – you know, the other ambassadors on the panel have mentioned that we have done in the past and could do again in the future. So I would encourage the Trump administration, or any future administration, to look back at the ways in which these kinds of impasses have been taken care of or overcome through these kinds of diplomatic measures – and, specifically, the kinds of concrete steps that need to be taken.
Unfortunately, the passing of Sultan Qaboos has left a gap in leadership in the region which could be helpful in this regard. But there are others. And certainly his successor, who’s a very capable person, could be someone who could help. So there are players who could help us reestablish some kind of negotiation. And I would certainly encourage, as you described, a path to do that.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, some of the people in the audience have asked questions about whether recent events may have strengthened the hand of hardline conservatives in Iran relative to reformists and pragmatists, making diplomacy harder. Some of the people in the audience have asked if we can actually – given the fact that we haven’t really consulted with allies, if NATO countries would be more willing to replace us in Iraq, if we chose to withdraw, or if these events have – are going to lead to us being pushed out. So can people address – and there’s also a question in the audience here from someone who wants to know if we should include Russia and China in these talks. And they were included in the discussions about the nuclear agreement, but could they actually be constructive in deciding what Iran’s role is going to be inside Syria, if we came to something like that? There’s several different questions here. Can people respond?
MS. MALONEY: I will start off, I guess, with the first point about strengthening hardliners. And I’m sorry, this is just my current bête noire. Everything – every moment of U.S. foreign policy there is a question expressed and concern expressed about whether our actions are going to strengthen hardliners. I’ve never seen evidence that we have been able to do anything to unstrengthen or weaken the hardliners in Iran. I’ve never seen any evidence that we have the capacity to tilt the balance of the factional politics in Iran in a meaningful direction toward those who are capable, and willing, and interested, and determined to change core Iranian policies – outside of the nuclear issue, where I think there was a regime consensus around the need for a diplomatic resolution of that crisis because of the economic cost that it was imposing.
But I think it’s unfortunately become a trope, the strengthen hardliners debate, because those hardliners have had ultimate authority throughout the past 40 years. They have had the capacity to retaliate against their own internal rivals and competitors. They have the control of the judiciary, the control of the security services. And there is very little that elected branches of government, even the most reformist leaders that one could imagine being successful in finding avenues of influence within the Islamic Republic, the structure of power as it exists today is absolutely biased in favor of control by hardliners. And we cannot change that. More to the point, the reformists cannot change that. They have tried. It has been 20 years.
It was 20 years ago, when I spoke last time at the Middle East Policy Council, at a time when I actually thought there was a lot of hope for a balanced shift in favor of those who wanted to reform the Islamic Republic from within. They have tried for 20 years. They have been unable to do it, precisely because the structure of power, the control of these key elements, levers of power, makes it impossible for them to do it. So we should be concerned about the way that our policies impact Iranian public opinion. We should be concerned about the way that the Iranian leadership interprets both our rhetoric and our policies. But I think we should give up the mirage of trying to orchestrate some kind of an ideological shift within the current political establishment within Iran, because that is well-beyond our capability.
MR. LIMBERT: If I may just add a bit to that. Suzanne, you’re exactly – you’re exactly right about the futility of trying to balance this faction against that faction inside of Iran. But the reality – the reality is that after 40 years in power, and a lot of these are the same people who came into power back in 1979 – came back into power in 1979 – this particular regime or setup, or whatever you want to call it, by all appearances is very fragile, because it’s dealing with a population that’s very different – that’s aware, that’s savvy, that’s well-educated and wants something different, while the state, the regime, is ossified. I mean, it’s old.
To quote my good friend Karim Sadjadpour, he says: the average age of people in power today is deceased. (Laughter.) And they’ve stayed in power – they’ve stayed in power 40 years by willing to be – by being willing to be very brutal and to – you know, if they need to kill, if they need to repress, they need to imprison, they will – they will do it. But I think they sense things getting out of their – slipping out of their hands when something like the shooting down of the – the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner can send – can send – have such a reaction. You know, who knows? Maybe that’s not going to change the situation, but something else may. Maybe not tomorrow. It may be a year from now. It maybe two years from now. But I think we’re looking at a very fragile situation.
MR. MATTAIR: You think this regime could lose its control?
MR. LIMBERT: I think it well could, because it’s the separate – the difference between – the gap between the state – what I call the state, this ossified state and this savvy, young, well-educated, well-connected population, most of which born after the revolution, seems to be growing by the day.
MR. MATTAIR: You mentioned 2009. And you know how the regime responded to the uprisings in 2009. And also use of force against the popular protesters even within the recent months.
MR. LIMBERT: Well, I mean, look back to the revolution and look back to 1978-79. Once the – once the security forces, the military, simply refused to fire on the protesters, deal with the protesters, it is all over. And you ask yourself, you know, when is that going to – when is that going to happen?
MS. KARAM: On the Syria part, I mean, as you know, Syria is a mess. It’s been a mess for some time now. But if you look how – I don’t see Iran or Russia or Assad in any place now to compromise. They’ve – he’s consolidated power, I mean, at least in the areas of his control. They’re going even for Idlib province now, bombing hospitals, civilian areas. And –
MR. MATTAIR: Two days after declaring a ceasefire.
MS. KARAM: Right. And you have now, you know, Turkey coming in from the North. You have Israel striking Iranian proxies in Syria just two days ago as well. So Syria is just a mess of its own. But you do see – and that’s one element we didn’t address, that ISIS could be taking advantage of the situation. The U.S. military in Iraq had to pause operations because of the difficulties and prioritizing, protecting its bases. So we’ve seen an attack in Kirkuk. Not – I mean, not unusual, but it’s just you do see just small elements that we could see an ISIS resurgence if the sectarian war is back in Iraq.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. And as – oh, did you want to say something?
MR. SILLIMAN: Did you want me to take on – take on Iraq?
MR. MATTAIR: As I was going to say, there are so many questions here about Iraq and what these events have meant for Iraq, how does it impact the popular mood? You know, there had been protests against the government for its economic mismanagement, its just governance in general, and the pro-Iranians – and the Iranian – and the Iranian influence on the government. What does the killing of Soleimani and this recent confrontation mean for all that? You did mention something about the parliamentary vote. Maybe you could say more about that. Is this all going to take place at the expense of the Iraqi people? Is anybody going to replace the United States in leading the counter-ISIS struggle? Or are they going to be resurgent? Is Iran going to now get more influence in Iraq because the United States may have to leave for whatever reason? A lot of questions to that effect from the audience. So can we get to that now?
MR. SILLIMAN: Let me start with the macro-level Iraq policy. And this administration has had pretty good agreement within the administration and with our friends and allies around the world on what we hoped to accomplish in Iraq, which was essentially building Iraqi institutions that are able to defend and further the decisions of an elected government, and opening an economy that would provide more opportunities for young Iraqis. And I hope that by 2023 or 2024 there will be a million new Iraqis every year joining the job market. And the government is not going to be able to supply jobs. So there has to be an expanded private sector to make that happen.
There has been broad international agreement in the United Nations. There is a United Nations mission still very active in Baghdad. The European Union, our European allies bilaterally, developed Asia, and much of the rest of the world focusing on how we can – how the world can help Iraq recover from everything that has happened since 2003. The only real country that has gone against these goals has been Iran. And this has been mostly the policy of the Quds Force, designed by Qassem Soleimani, and to some extent Moscow has facilitated this because they can see geostrategic benefits in pushing the United States out of Syria or weakening our position in the region. But they have no real love for Iran, and probably not much interest in getting deeply engaged in Iraq. So that’s kind of a strategic overview of Iraq.
On these issues, the vote in parliament, yes, was unanimous, but nearly half of the parliament wasn’t there. And there are strong objections from Kurds, from Sunnis, from Christians, Yazidis, and most religious groups – most minority religious groups, as well as educated urban Shia, who do not want to see the departure of Western forces, because that would leave the field too wide open for increase of Iranian security, political and economic influence. So there is still significant support in Iraq for a Western military presence.
My preferred solution – and this is something that has been generally pretty easy for Iraqi politicians to do, is for them to simply do nothing. And the United States should help the Iraqi government sequentially do nothing for the next couple of years, because there’s a legal debate over whether or not the parliament has the authority to ask American forces to leave. There’s a debate on whether or not a caretaker prime minister can abrogate an agreement that was entered into by the previous full prime minister. There is an agreement on – disagreement on whether or not a new prime minister can be selected with or without elections.
And then the exchange of notes between the United States and I think similar notes from the 16 other countries in the coalition all have a one-year escape clause. So when a government simply says: We would like to end this agreement, it doesn’t really end for another year. So as long as everybody can remain claim and remain quiet on the political front, I see this simply dragging into the future. And it may be the middle 2021 before any of these issues come to a head. And the regional politics and domestic politics in Iraq may be significantly changed by then.
If you want to negotiate something new and different, it is possible to reflag Western forces. NATO may or may not be a good option because of the presence of Turkey in NATO. And that was one of the things that made it difficult for the Iraqi government to accept the original NATO trading mission, even though it’s commanded by a Canadian two-star. There are also Turkish officers in the structure, and Turkey has a number of forces in Iraq without the permission of the Iraqi government that rankles very much politically. So, again, that – NATO may be politically problematic.
And it is also possible to essentially reflag the coalition. Right now the command of the coalition is with an American Army three-star, a lieutenant general. That could be flipped to another country if that was something that Iraqi politicians could agree on. But I think there is general agreement in at least half of the population of Iraq that some sort of Western presence – and most people generally say an American military presence – is required to make sure that Iraqi military stays strong, and professional, and competent, and is able to counterbalance the insinuation of Iranian influence in the Popular Mobilization Forces and in the political structure.
So unfortunately Iraqis see this very directly as a battle between Iran and the United States. I think in the long term it’s more properly characterized as a battle between the world trying to help Iraq restore its own sovereignty and independence of action versus Iran’s objection to that. But again, right now the debate, especially after the killing of Soleimani and the Iranian attacks, is very much this is America versus Iran. And I think most Iraqis would probably be able to live with a lower level of confrontation on their soil between those two.
But, as I said, I expect continued indirect pushback from the Iranians. And in conversations with people who work in assistance, people who provide logistics support to coalition and Iraqi forces in Iraq, we have begun to see over the past month more pressure on Iraqi citizen truckdrivers delivering food to military bases. We’ve seen the lack of issuance – the refusal to issue permits to international NGOs and their implementing partners in Iraq to move assistance from point A to point B with inside Iraq to supply IDP camps and other – provide humanitarian assistance.
So it is also possible that a strategy of Iran through the PMF, and whether it’s an Iranian strategy I just simply don’t know, is to separate a Western assistance and military and political presence from its support structure and make it more difficult and more expensive for the West to stay there. So in the short term, I think this is something that the Department of Defense, U.S. contractors, our other coalition partners, United Nations and its implementing partners on the assistance side are going to have to deal with. The fact that there seems to be pressure on both assistance and military may make it easier of the international community to come up with a common position to put pressure back on the Iraqi government to permit these things to go forward, so.
MR. MATTAIR: We have just a few more minutes, but while we’re thinking about this high-level policy, Joyce, you said that the easiest place in which Iran could strike back at us now would be Iraq, with the Popular Mobilization Forces. And of course, one of the reasons that al-Qaida in Iraq and ISIS emerged was because of the Shia militias and their attacks against Sunni population. So on the ground, what happens now with the Popular Mobilization Forces and an ISIS that is not defeated?
MS. KARAM: Right, Tom. I mean, and this is – you know, the biggest concern is if you see Iraq sliding again into sectarian war. We already heard yesterday that PMF is planning a million march. The biggest casualties, and that’s truly tragic, in Iraq that could emerge out of all of this are the protests. The youth that have been out in the streets since early October pulling for very much a patriotic nationalistic agenda. And as U.S.-Iran tension has grown in Iraq, we’ve seen them, you know, get much smaller, shrink in size, and their voices are getting drowned. So if that is the case, I could see, you know, we’re going back to post-2011 phase where the U.S., you know, then pulled out, and we saw a Sunni insurgency, and then ISIS take off, and we saw a rather incompetent government with Maliki that we’re – you know, that’s one reason we’re where we are today. But yeah, the biggest casualty out of all of this in Iraq may be the protests themselves.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, that’s a sad note. But we are out of time now. So I’d like to thank the panelists. And thank you. (Applause.) And I would like to say, the transcript of this conference will be published in our journal – the spring issue of our journal. It will be posted on the – it will be posted on the website within a day or two. And go visit our website if you want to revisit this conference. Thank you very much.
Deputy Director for Foreign Policy and Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security and Climate Initiative, The Brookings Institution
President, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Former Ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait
Washington Correspondent, The National (UAE)
Adjunct Professor, George Washington University
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran
Former Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania
The Middle East Policy Council held its 99th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, January 17th: “U.S. – Iranian Confrontation: Domestic, Regional and Global Implications.” Convened two weeks after the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the panelists generally agreed that the situation would return to a status quo ante with the U.S. continuing harsh economic sanctions and Iran conducting proxy attacks against U.S. – aligned interests in the region. What was less clear is what happens in the medium to long-term, given the lack of a clearly articulated policy on Iran from the Trump administration, rapidly changing political realities in Iraq, and ongoing unpredictability from both the Iranian regime and the general population there.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Dr. Suzanne Maloney (The Brookings Institution); Amb. (ret.) Douglas A. Silliman (President, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington); Ms. Joyce Karam (Washington Correspondent, The National) and Amb. (ret.) John Limbert (Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran).
Dr. Maloney thinks that both sides dodged a bullet in recent weeks but we are not in a safe zone yet. The Trump administration will continue to rachet up economic sanctions and Iran will continue to respond with similar offensive actions in Iraq and the Gulf that occurred in 2019. And while Dr. Maloney argued that the main reason we are in this situation is due to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, she believes we need a serious discussion about where we go from here. In her view, the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration is lost and we need a new form of negotiation to emerge, perhaps including issues beyond nuclear proliferation. In addition to being an election year in the U.S., this will need to consider the unpredictability of an Iranian regime dealing with succession, elections and aging simultaneously.
Amb. Silliman recounted how Gen. Soleimani successfully created security structures in Iraq that mirrored those in Iran over the past 15 years. And while the rise of ISIS led to the tacit alignment of U.S. forces with these security structures, they retain the capability to sow disruption in Iraq. Their disruptive potential makes Iraq a likely target for Iranian retaliation in the short-term, particularly as there is some popular support for the Iranian position there. And while Amb. Silliman agrees about a return to the status quo ante, he emphasized how little success Iran has had over the past year and a half responding to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Iran’s efforts to work with the Europeans, divide the U.S. and Europeans, attack the interests of U.S. allies like the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia and finally the December 2019 attacks on the Green Zone and military bases all have failed to achieve sanctions relief.
Ms. Karam highlighted just how important Gen. Soleimani was to Iran’s military, political and intelligence operations, with no parallel in the West. She also noted how his killing has caused Iran-backed militias in the region to “hunker down” and reassess the security landscape. Looking specifically at Lebanon and Iran-backed Hezbollah, she observes a very skillful response: exploiting Gen. Soleimani’s death to rally the base through media and behind the scenes images of Gen. Soleimani and Hezbollah leaders; Hezbollah boosting their security inside Lebanon to fill intelligence gaps; and politically, a trend in Lebanon (and Iraq) towards “one color” government formation with Iran-backed factions forming their own governments with immediate allies rather than through power-sharing arrangements. More broadly there is also anxiety in the region about the security situation if the U.S. leaves Iraq and an increase in harassment of activists and journalists by Iran-backed militias.
Amb. Limbert believes that Iranians deserve better than what they have with the current regime. Yet so much seems to never change: the intractable relationship with the U.S.; Iran’s isolation in the region, not being Sunni, Arab or Turkish; and the feeling in Iran of being a “besieged fortress” that needs to protect against the non-Persian speaking periphery that can be pierced at any time. Given these realities and perceptions, Amb. Limbert thinks it makes sense that Iran would meddle in Iraq and other areas on its periphery and the U.S. public should be weary of oft-repeated references to Iran’s “malign behavior” or “threatening actions”. Given this static situation, Amb. Limbert sees a general continuation of the current U.S. – Iranian relationship, despite recent escalations, and hopes that the medium to long-term will provide openings to imagine a better one.