Suzanne Maloney, Douglas A. Silliman, Joyce Karam, John Limbert
The following is an edited transcript of the ninety-ninth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on January 17, 2020, in the Russell Senate Office Building with Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer moderating and Executive Director Thomas R. Mattair, PhD, serving as discussant.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER, Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
As you saw in today’s program announcement, I am a former ambassador to Oman, and I would like to take a moment to note the end of an era in the region — the passing of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos on January 10. For almost 50 years, Sultan Qaboos was a source of great wisdom and counsel to many, including 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. There’s no one I respected more in terms of his intelligence, his knowledge and his efforts to try to bring peace and stability to the region than Sultan Qaboos. He will certainly be missed.
SUZANNE MALONEY, Deputy Director for Foreign Policy and Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security and Climate Initiative, The Brookings Institution
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. I’m humbled to be in the position to kick things off. I just wanted to make one other note. This is the first time I’ve been back to speak before the Middle East Policy Council in about 20 years. That last event 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 and opportunity. I hope that in 20 years there are many other – (laughs) – benefits to this discussion beyond that sort of thing.
Speaking as someone who focuses on Iran even when it isn’t quite as much in the headlines as it has been over the last month, I think the world dodged a bullet with the attack that killed Qassem Soleimani, the renowned, infamous, iconic Iranian commander of the Quds Force, and the Iranian response, which I think gave both sides what they needed in terms of an opportunity for de-escalation.
Iran’s 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 missile strike, at least on the American side.
We now know, of course, that there were 12 people who were seriously injured, medevacked out of Iraq, for injures that 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 a war. The Iranians understand — they’ve had a front-row seat for [watching] 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 Muammar 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 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 drive those oil exports and oil revenues down to zero, [causing] much more significant economic pain than 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 of 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, a direct result, of that shift in policy in May of last 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. A number of messages intended there that I think are still very much consistent with the way that Iran is responding to the situation that it’s in today. First, the Iranians have a kind of longstanding strategic doctrine that holds that the best defense is a good offense — that if you sit back and accept pressure, it will be read as weakness, and you have to punch back, and punch back hard.
We saw that over the course of May, 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, perhaps for the first time from Iranian territory, hit the Abqaiq 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 to the region. It also avoided precipitating the kind of escalation 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 it now. They have, in fact, more reason to push back and punch back, 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 or $200 billion, depending on which statistics you believe, not just in terms of the oil revenues Iran has had to forgo, not just in terms of the assets and revenues 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 contracting upwards of 10 percent last year alone. That’s an enormous and historic reversal.
This is not sustainable indefinitely, so the Iranians need to push back to galvanize international support for their position. They need to press this crisis so that it’s not simply suffered by the Iranian people and 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 a need to avenge Soleimani’s death, and perhaps needing to restore some of their own domestic legitimacy that has been further shattered by the revelation that it was 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 going to be pushing back, doing it again precisely and calibrated. We see from the satellite imagery even in the attack on Al Asad and Erbil, that the Iranians appeared –– and they have stated this publicly –– to try to avoid military casualties, to control the cycle of escalation. But they are not going to back down.
Let me just close with two final points. First, 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 give the international community time to find ways to further ensure that Iran would not be able to develop or have access to a 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, or an opponent, today we are in a place where the United States and Iran have been very close to conventional war, and we 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 the status quo ante no matter what all of the democratic candidates say. That deal is now, essentially, all but lost to us.
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; Iran is not simply a nuclear issue. There is a range of other interests involved, most specifically and dramatically, of course, over the last few weeks, the regional interests.
One final point I want to make, although it’s a bit outside the issue of the U.S.-Iranian confrontation, is the reaction that we saw on the streets both to the Soleimani death and to the downing and revelations about Ukrainian Air 752. This, I think, underscores how volatile Iranian public opinion is 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 are shared widely. You saw that in the response to Soleimani’s death.
Yes, many people go into the streets because they’re encouraged or in some cases coerced to do so. But many went to mourn Soleimani’s death because they saw him as someone who was protecting them from the wider world, from all the threats they have faced since the Iraqi invasion in September 1980. He was popular, even with people who detest the Islamic Republic. But what you saw in the aftermath of the Ukrainian air disaster was a 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. There was a political editorial that described it as a crisis of competence. There is a sense –– whether it’s the Kermanshah earthquake, the floods, the dust storms, a variety of economic and social issues 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.
This is an incredibly powerful sentiment, one facing a leadership confronted by succession, elections and aging. 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 it responds to the challenges it’s facing.
DOUGLAS A. SILLIMAN, President, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington; Former Ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait
There are three things I’d like to do in my short remarks, mostly to spark further discussion later on in the program. I want to first expand a bit on the timeline 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 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 Persia and Mesopotamia, you have to set your timeline. I’m not going back thousands of years or even going back into much of the 20th century. I could pick 1953 or 1979, but in the interest of time, I’m going to pick 2003 as my starting point. 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 Iraqi society.
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 that mirrored what had been created in Iran under the Islamic Republic. So you saw the creation of militias like Kataib Hezbollah, who 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 pro-Iranian 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 and Shia factions –– particularly Shia militias –– gained in strength.
Then the rise of ISIS and its invasion of Iraq in 2014 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 they had created earlier and expand on them in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
This changed significantly in 2017, when the Trump administration came in. 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. 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 with other trading partners to prevent the American sanctions from having a profound effect on the Iranian economy.
They tried that for the better part of a year and 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. 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. They then began to announce their withdrawal from particular commitments under the nuclear agreement, without actually leaving the agreement itself –– again, to try to put pressure on the other signatories to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] 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: 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 U.S. sanctions did on Iran. What they chose instead was a series of small pinprick and deniable attacks on oil shipping and on America’s friends in the region, in the hope 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 seizure 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; the shootdown of an American drone; and then, in September of 2019, the strikes on the Abqaiq oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia and the Khurais oil field. This did not produce the effect that the Iranians wanted. It did not upset 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. You see the beginning of a series of rocket attacks inside Iraq on the Green Zone near the American embassy but, more important, on a series of Iraqi military bases that house American and other coalition personnel. Through the end of October, November and into early December there was not much impact. On the eighth of December, attacks on a counterterrorism-service (CTS) training facility injured six CTS soldiers, but no Americans or coalition forces. Throughout this period, the Trump administration, in both private and public communications, said that the red line of the United States was an American casualty at the hands of Iran or Iran’s allies: we will hold Iran responsible if there is an American casualty.
I think the Iranians expected to get some sort of reaction to at least some of the things they had carried out during the fall of 2019. But the attack that took place on December 27, on an Iraqi base near Kirkuk, was qualitatively and quantitatively different. It was a barrage of 31 rockets fired at a base that had both Iraqi and American military personnel. It also killed one American military contractor who, ironically, was a naturalized Iraqi American. It killed a couple of Iraqi policemen and injured American and Iraqi soldiers, but Iran seems to have intentionally wanted to cross the Trump administration’s red line. In so doing, they set off the very quick escalation that we all remember from three weeks ago.
Almost immediately afterward, the Trump administration ordered attacks on Kataib 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. I agree with Suzanne that neither side wants a shooting war. What struck me from the Iranian commentary on the killing of Soleimani is that, since the United States took responsibility, Iran as a state had to take responsibility for a response to that killing. Therefore, it was very open about the way in which it sent its ballistic missiles after American military forces in Iraq.
That kind of squared it off. So what I expect to see going forward is a return to the status quo ante. You’ve already seen the American administration double down on sanctions. Last week, Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo and [Treasury] Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin announced new ones. So there will be increased American pressure on the Iranian economy. I expect over the course of the next few months 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 now. 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 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 support for proxy forces in the region and, in some quarters, concerns about human rights and religious freedom in Iran.
Going back a little further in the administration to the first Iran policy paper, the press mostly focused on the desire to pull out of the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement. In that same strategy, however, real concern was expressed about Iranian adventurism in the region, but also about the fundamental underpinnings of the Iranian state being tied to the revolution, and therefore having enshrined, in the laws of Iran, a radical ideology to liberate Muslim territories, to help oppressed peoples around the world.
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. 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.
Finally, I want to talk 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 it. They have a larger network of political support in Iraq than in other places. They have the largest network of military support there, through the Popular Mobilization Forces. And I expect that we will see in the future more pressure on the United States and coalition forces there. 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 Iran can use Iraq for its strategic 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 parliament and most of the Sunni members boycotted the session. 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 parliament and vote against the continuation of coalition forces in the country. There will be a big fight during the course of the next six months to a year over whether this direction by the parliament is legitimate, whether a caretaker prime minister can accomplish this, and whether there need to be new elections.
Unfortunately, somewhat forgotten in all of this has been the very real pressure from the Iraqi street, 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. This generally means Iranian influence, because that’s much more prevalent in the south. What I see going forward is a return to the status quo ante and, in the short term, no shooting war between the United States and Iran. Both are likely to double down on their earlier strategies: economic sanctions and action through proxies. We’ll have to see how that plays out.
JOYCE KARAM, Washington Correspondent, The National (UAE); Adjunct Professor, George Washington University
While reporting on the killing of Soleimani, I tried to think of his parallel in Western politics. A head of intelligence? The 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, head of a U.S.-designated terrorist force, a viceroy in the Middle East, an advisor to the supreme leader and a political operator. Two weeks after his killing, it has very much shaped the region, and here is how. 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 Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq are still trying to recover. They’re hunkering down and appear to be reassessing their security and political operations.
If we zoom in on Hezbollah in Lebanon, the biggest military group that Iran sponsors regionally, I see three tracks. 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, aired four or five exclusive interviews –– obviously on tape –– with Soleimani where he’s speaking to Hezbollah fighters in Arabic. They’ve also released behind-the-scenes photos of Soleimani and Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, who has spoken twice already about the Soleimani killing. From what we gather from the optics of Hezbollah, Nasrallah appears to have taken up Soleimani’s role in leading the axis of militants and what he calls resistance groups. The second burden that Hezbollah is taking up is trying to fill in intelligence gaps. According to experts who follow the group very closely, they appear to be boosting their security inside Lebanon. This shouldn’t be surprising; Soleimani was in Beirut before going to Iraq, where he was assassinated.
Third, politically, we see a trend in the reaction in both Iraq and Lebanon; the preference after the Soleimani killing has shifted to a one-color government formation in both Baghdad and Beirut. Whereas Hezbollah before was still negotiating with Hariri and other people from the opposing coalition, right now they’re very close to forming a government with just their immediate allies. We see the same thing in Iraq. I think what the ambassador mentioned about the vote in the parliament is another indication. That’s the trend for the Soleimani camp, the pro-Iran camp.
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 that it’s going to stop with the Al Asad retaliation. What will the United States do if a GCC state is targeted? These are questions we’re hearing from the U.S. partners.
The protests that had erupted before the Soleimani killing, if you follow Iraq and Lebanon, had already led to resignations of governments both in Beirut and Baghdad. But, the killing of Soleimani has very much overshadowed the rallies in Iraq. We’re seeing more harassment of activists by militias, and just in the last five days we have seen 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 by the killing of Soleimani, but that definitely adds pressure on Hezbollah. That’s the regional framework.
JOHN LIMBERT, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran; Former Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania
My connections to Iran go back a long way, about 60 years: as a tourist, a teacher, 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 proud member of an enlightened and welcoming Iranian American family. I have Iranian connections as a husband, as a brother-in-law, a son-in-law, and of course a father and grandfather of people who are part Iranian.
I should say in the interest 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 and relatives 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, Bahais, journalists and anybody else they don’t like.
On the other hand, I’ve always 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 been productive. It hasn’t produced anything. We and the Iranians 40 years ago were yelling and threatening each other. Today we’re still doing the same thing. It may be too much to ask for friendship, but at least an ability to talk to each other. 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.” This is being televised, so I can’t repeat some of the other things that I’ve been called. Back in 2009, when the Obama administration decided to make its efforts at outreach, it looked for people among the foreign service and elsewhere who had direct experience with Iran. I was happily teaching at the Naval Academy at the time, and they asked me to come and work in the administration. I asked them: How did you find me? They said, we opened the gates of Jurassic Park and saw this beast grazing happily in the corner. And we said, that looks an awful lot like an “Irannosaurus.” Those of us dealing with Iran over a long time are more and more in that category.
But let me step back a little bit from the headlines. I was trained as a historian, and we love to say: Let’s go back to the beginning. And I used to tell my students: He who forgets history is condemned to repeat — sophomore year. But I’ll spare our going 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.
But to put things in context, there are two geographic historical realities that still apply today and shape the way Iran sees itself and its relations with the outside world. One is that Iran views itself as a besieged fortress. It needs to control the Persian-speaking heartland on its central plateau. But whoever rules Iran must also protect the non-Persian-speaking periphery, particularly the mountain walls to the west and the north. 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 Iran would be meddling in Iraq. That’s the western approach to the fortress that protects the walls. Another area they’ve always been interested in is their northwest. The loss of the Caucasian provinces in the early nineteenth century was a blow I don’t think Iran has ever recovered from. It still suffers from the removal of a natural barrier in the north.
The second reality is that Iran in its region is an outlier. It’s not like the other peoples and places. It is not Sunni. It is not Arab. It is not Turkish. It is isolated culturally, historically and –– thanks to some very inept diplomacy under the Islamic Republic –– politically as well. Who are its friends in the region? Not many: 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 the Shia religion with Iran. I call the Iranians the Bretons of the Middle East.
Another reality is what I call the 100-year struggle of Iranians to assert their independence and dignity, and to have a government that treats its people decently. Go back 100 years and 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 5 percent who were literate, they knew they were in a bad place. They said, we have to do something. Originally in that struggle you have the constitutional revolution and other movements. You also have the oil-nationalization movement. The United States was originally on the side of the good guys. We supported this struggle until 1953.
Another thing that often, in my experience, bothers a lot of my Iranian friends is that as Iran struggles, the Arabs sometimes do better. That bothers Iran. Think of the Green Movement in 2009, and then the Arab Spring followed in 2011. The contrast was brought up in a very clever slogan that someone was chanting on the streets of Tehran: “Tunisia could, Iran could not.” It seems that the struggle goes on and the failures go on.
Let me just end by talking about Iran and Iran experts. Being an Iran expert in this town actually isn’t very hard. You only have to be able to say two things: “I don’t know,” and “it’s very complicated.” That covers about 95 percent of it. I would just ask you to be wary of things you hear about Iran. I think everyone in this room is rightly suspicious of the phrases, “the imminent threat” and the “attack on four embassies,” that we hear about. You rightly demanded evidence that was never provided.
I would also ask you to be careful when you hear phrases like “malign behavior,” “Iranian hegemony” and the “Iranian threat.” Just ask yourself: What does this mean? When you say threat, threat to whom? Who is threatened? How much are they threatened? A closer look might reveal a reality that’s a little different from the first impression. Let me end with one incident that, to me, illustrates what a better relationship would look like. Is anyone here familiar with the Mississippi Delta Health Project? 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. Efforts to improve health conditions down there haven’t paid off. They’ve had different projects, they’ve tried different things. Some people in Mississippi heard about a program in Iran called the rural health houses, and they thought, that sounds interesting, maybe it would be useful in reaching remote and difficult areas.
So they privately approached the Iranians, the people responsible, and said: We’re interested in your program. Could you help us? The answer was, of course. This program had been going on quietly for many years, and a group of Americans went to Iran, near Shiraz. They stopped at a teahouse in Marvdasht, a small town near Shiraz, and the Americans were talking with the Iranians in English. The local people asked: Who are these people? Who are these foreigners? The answer was, well, they’re Americans. And the response was, Americans? I thought we got rid of the Americans. They said, no, these are Americans who are here to learn from us. The response was, oh, that’s different. I never knew that the rain could fall up. That story, in a small way, is perhaps where we should be.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
First, thank you to the speakers. I will start by asking a question Suzanne raised and find out what the other panelists think about it in more detail. Has the action taken by the United States in killing Soleimani established deterrence, or has it raised the possibility of escalation? A lot of people think the Iranian response was 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 they could, of course, continue the calibrated responses they’ve engaged in over previous months, before they killed a U.S. contractor in Iraq. What do the other panelists think about the kinds of responses Iran might now engage in, and whether they will miscalculate, whether there will be another U.S. death, and another U.S. escalation, and how the United States will respond? Before I ask you to respond to 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, and there’s going to be disagreement. Can people respond to that? Do you want to start by saying anything more about it?
AMB. SILLIMAN: I think that to some extent, if you’re thinking in conventional security terms, the killing of Soleimani does re-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 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 and interference in Pakistan. There are Iranian tentacles, through the Quds Force, in many places. But like a frog in hot water, it’s hard to determine a point at which a response is warranted. 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.
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 there was a message, both sent from Washington and received in Tehran. But I leave to others who know more about Iran to discuss what kind of reaction it might provoke from the government.
MS. KARAM: 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 the intention was to kill. We now know that there were a dozen wounded. Attacks are still ongoing, since the killing of Soleimani, from Iraqi militias on Taji base or others in Iraq. This hasn’t stopped. So I think it’s really too early to tell. It still remains to be seen if the red line is crossed again and U.S. personnel are killed whether Iran could respond through proxies and have that deniability.
Here it’s important to listen to the leader of Hezbollah, in his first speech after the killing of Soleimani. He was clear: “We will respond, but you just need to know that we’re not getting instructions from Iran.” So he’s already offering Iran the path to deniability. I think it’s very complicated to answer one way or another.
AMB. LIMBERT: I would just endorse what some of the other speakers have said. What remains puzzling for me is, what was the goal? What did we seek to achieve? I’ve never heard it explained or articulated. So one suspects that there’s little in it beyond making us feel good. You never lose much politically in this town by bashing the Iranians. We’ve been doing it for 40 years and we’ll do it again.
I would also endorse the statement about this contradictory duality of Soleimani’s status. He’s supportive of a very unpopular regime and a very unpopular policy that spends Iranian resources in adventures abroad at a time when many people are feeling great economic stress. At the same time, he’s an Iranian patriot who 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.
DR. MATTAIR: 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? 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 give us three hours of advanced notice.
DR. MALONEY: I think the Iranians assumed a certain degree of risk, not just with the response to the Soleimani strike but with everything they had done up to that point. The downing of 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. Obviously, the president live-tweeted his decision to call back that strike in July. That gave the Iranians at least some indication that, even at a time when renowned hawk John Bolton was still in the White House, the president was calling the shots, and that he, himself, preferred to avoid an escalation that might lead to a full-fledged war.
In terms of the targeting of the base and this most recent strike, they used ballistic missiles. This was not a 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 in their own telling –– they were making some effort to try to avoid casualties and minimize the prospect that President Trump would then respond in kind in a way that would lead to a full-fledged exchange of hostilities. 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 made with the expectation that it might deter the United States from responding. Of course, that had catastrophic results in terms of the misfiring of missiles against a civilian passenger jet by the Iranian military. So in all of this the Iranians are trying to avoid, I think, an outcome that would not serve their own interests. They’re trying to advance their interests in both 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 as was just said by Joyce and others, there is some sense now that the Trump administration is less predictable than the Iranians might have assumed between May and December of this year, when the responses were more limited. I think now the question of which side is prepared to push harder is an open one. That, of course, makes this situation even more unstable.
AMB. SILLIMAN: If I can go off on a tangent 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. One example I will give of this is that, over the course of 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, on a couple of occasions, posited scenarios to get back into a JCPOA or JCPOA-like agreement. At one point, he said: “And ballistic missiles might also be something we could talk about.” That was withdrawn within two days. He had probably exceeded his brief, and people in Tehran told him that they 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 in Iraq at Ayn al Asad base and at Erbil. And there was an earlier attack on Iran from Iraq on an Iranian Kurdish opposition group in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq using ballistic missiles where the targeting was not particularly good.
I will leave it to military strategists and analysts to explain the development of ballistic missiles and the capabilities that Iran might have displayed in the attacks on Ayn al Assad base and on Erbil. But I have the distinct impression that ballistic missiles are increasingly important to the Islamic Republic and the Quds Force as it moves forward. That, contradictorily, 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. While that’s perhaps a new preference, it might offer options for negotiation discussions down the road.
DR. MATTAIR: 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 take time and could be ugly, because of Iran’s asymmetrical capabilities 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 might do? How would we avert war?
DR. MALONEY: I might try to answer the question that Ambassador Limbert put on the table: what was the point of this strike on Soleimani? Was it 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 the opposite of that of the Obama administration.
It is predicated on the notion that Iran does respond to pressure, but only to really, really severe pressure. And that we have essentially, through a series of administrations –– both Bush and Obama –– declined to take on Iran for all kinds of reasons, like the risks of blowback, the prioritization of the nuclear negotiations. But in doing so, we have essentially empowered Iran by not being willing to put our own risk on the table or using our own conventional military superiority. We have enabled Iran, for example, 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 in Iraq, as well as, of course, hundreds if not thousands of Iraqis.
So the Trump administration, I think –– and I’ve heard this said by someone who is now in a senior position –– believes we have to be disruptive. We have to be prepared to push hard on Iran, and 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 by taking out someone senior. There is some evidence that perhaps the Soleimani strike was a not a unique hit and that, in fact, there was an effort to wrap up other Quds Force senior commanders with 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, just trying to explain it –– is the implementation of a really hardline, get-tough approach that’s not only economic, but actually has a military dimension. I don’t yet know if it’s likely to be more successful than what prior administrations have done, which has tended to be restrained in the application of American military power and more forward-leaning in the attempts, at least, to engage diplomatically.
MS. KARAM: I think, in the short term, it appears 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 about appearing in public. I think they’re trying to unify their ranks, to close any cracks in their intelligence, because there could be other missions that target, for example, PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces), Hashd Shaabi leaders in Iraq.
The bigger question is, what happens in the medium to long term? In the past, we used to have — with Oman, for example — pioneering backchannel diplomacy between the United States and Iran. You don’t have anything like this now. We saw the Qataris make a few trips, but we don’t know if this was related to creating a diplomatic path with the United States. So I would have to agree with Ambassador Silliman that we are probably returning to the status quo ante: managed tension between the United States and Iran for the time being.
AMB. SILLIMAN: Take the publicly expressed Trump administration red line against American casualties seriously. The Trump administration sees the 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 one more thing. The response from the United States was two-pronged. First, after the killing of the U.S. contractor, they hit the PMF with airstrikes. It’s only after the attack on the embassy that they met in Mar-a-Lago and decided to take out Soleimani.
DR. MATTAIR: John, maybe you could say something about the question of war, because you remember the tanker war.
AMB. LIMBERT: Right. I do. And as someone who served in the Obama administration, I still go back to something I think Suzanne said at the beginning: What’s the policy toward Iran? Is it overthrow? Is it regime change? Is it that awful phrase, “change their behavior”? If any of you have ever been in any kind of a relationship, you know what the effect is of saying: “Everything would be fine if you would just change your behavior.” You know how effective that would be — you know how effective that is. 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. Yet, here’s something I don’t know if you noticed. Last Saturday, after the missile strikes, when the president spoke publicly, at the end he said, I want to speak to the Iranian leaders and people. That’s very Obama-esque. He would never admit it, but this is a direct echo of what Obama said in March of 2009, his first Nowruz (Persian New Year) greetings to the Iranian people. When he said, I want to speak to the Iranian government and the people of the Islamic Republic. “Islamic Republic” was probably, for President Trump, a bridge too far, but the emphasis was very similar. And it was, in 2009, a great change. The emphasis before was — and you hear it, in particular, a lot from this administration –– we love the Iranian people, but we hate your leaders; the sooner they’re gone, the better. This is a change. I keep asking myself, what is it they want? What do they really want out of this? And you’re seeing contradictory signals coming out of this administration. If I were sitting in Tehran listening to this, I’m not sure I’d know what to make of it.
DR. MATTAIR: Doug, you said you didn’t think the administration had clearly articulated its policy. But maybe another way of looking at it is that they’ve articulated a policy that may be unattainable –– look at Pompeo’s 12 points — and then implemented a strategy that may be ineffective. How would people respond to that? 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? Should it concentrate only on the nuclear program and getting a better deal, or can we get into questions like ballistic missiles and Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon, et cetera?
AMB. SILLIMAN: It’s really difficult now to define a good path forward or a policy success with Iran, partially because the administration is mostly acting unilaterally and only talking indirectly to Iran. They wanted to have the U.S. administration work something out with Tehran. That’s, again, the opposite of what the Obama administration did, in seeking to develop first an 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 on the things Iran is doing wrong. What I’d like to see is this administration trying to focus the 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 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 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. 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 gradual, progressive. This is not a two-week negotiation or a series of meetings between the president and President Rouhani. This is a years-long process that will look something like the JCPOA, though far more difficult. But it probably has the advantage of keeping the region a bit more stable during the process of negotiation. That’s my vision of a way forward. It’s hard to define, however, a set of goals that might bring the world together to collectively press Iran to change certain behaviors.
AMB. LIMBERT: If you define your goals in the way you do –– and I agree with you –– you can talk about the nuclear program, about cooperation against ISIS, about regional issues, about human rights. The question is, how 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 been shut off.
MS. KARAM: I think if you look regionally at the Gulf, 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 United States and Iran. When you look at Saudi Arabia, there’s a great paper written by Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment. She lays out clear concerns for Riyadh, primarily all 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, 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 able to project its strength as it was prior to the campaign. But I’m not sure, throughout all the 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, regional countries have to be at the table, it would have to entail ballistic missiles, it would have to entail Yemen, Iraq and issues that were not on the table during the nuclear deal.
DR. MATTAIR: In fact, one of their objections to the JCPOA was that they were not part of the discussions. They have indicated recently that they would need to be part of any other future discussions.
MS. KARAM: They welcomed the JCPOA at the time.
AMB. 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.
DR. MATTAIR: 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, John, like you have a different view of the forward defense strategy of Iran, its efforts to establish its influence in Iraq, 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 think about it here? What kind of approach might lead to some compromises on every one of these issues we’ve identified?
DR. MALONEY: I know a candidate who has a plan for everything, but I don’t know if she has a plan for this one. I am not affiliated with the campaign. I was just thinking that it would be nice if there were a sort of ready-made plan we could plug in, and that was guaranteed to bring us to a better position on the wide range of issues we’re confronting with Iran. I don’t think 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 the dialogue with Iran — at the time one the most significant, authoritative — modest in terms of its frequency and actual accomplishments –– but it was the first time you had 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-Qaeda operatives, the decision was made to cut off that dialogue and essentially engage in no diplomacy with Iran. This 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 for a variety of reasons, mostly Iraq, that that wasn’t sustainable. 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. 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 plus Germany, because Germany had been part of the existing negotiations on the nuclear issue.
That set a framework that wasn’t all that useful for a number of years. The Iranians balked at engaging initially because of the demand for a re-suspension 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 crystalized as 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 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 the 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 productive conversation with Iranian counterparts on the nuclear issue. It took a while.
It took all these other factors, but it eventually paid off. I think that’s what we ought to be trying to devise now, 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. Of course, Iranians bring their own issues to any comprehensive negotiation, so think through how we’re going to approach all of those. 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?
AMB. SILLIMAN: The fundamental question this administration and a Trump 2.0 or a Democratic administration starting next year has to decide on is this: 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. I think that’s really the question the administration now needs to wrestle with. I think 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. I doubt whether that could be done quickly, if at all.
AMB. LIMBERT: Given our record in such things, that’s not for us to do. Our record of meddling in other countries’ domestic politics –– particularly in the case of Iran –– has not ended well. So when you see figures in this administration talking about the brave people of Iran and their human rights, and then at the same time imposing travel bans and economic measures that make it difficult to find medicines, I think you can understand why these declarations of support and sympathy do not meet an overwhelmingly positive response.
MS. KARAM: I think Iraq would be the place to watch for any possible U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. We’re hearing more from the White House and the State Department that they’re talking to NATO about having 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 perhaps the United States delegates some of its role in Iraq to NATO. Regionally, I think if we see Iran in negotiations with Gulf countries, that would be mostly reflected in Yemen. The Saudis are already talking to the Houthis there. And we’ve seen that even the Houthi response to the Soleimani killing was timid. They didn’t promise retaliation.
AMB. SCHMIERER: I was very pleased, Suzanne, to hear your comments about diplomacy. 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 fortuitous factors that ultimately led to success. It happened that we had a situation with some Americans being held in Iran, innocent Americans who had been taken in Iraq. And the effort to resolve that, which was ultimately successful, led to the opening of a dialogue, not between the United States and Iran, but between Oman and Iran, to try to help us resolve that issue. What I learned by watching how that played out, and then ultimately was there when the first team came to negotiate with Iran, was the importance of the elements of diplomacy. There were a number of times when we had to look for confidence-building measures that would convince the Iranians we were serious, that we weren’t posturing, that we weren’t going to use anything they did against them. We really had to get their confidence that this was a serious negotiation.
The second element was there were several fundamental misunderstandings about the United States on the part of the Iranians. As we would find those things, we would help the Omani negotiators or interlocutors explain them to the Iranians. It was amazing how willing they were to learn. They really had some misunderstandings, and once they were clarified, the Iranians accepted that. They trusted the Omanis to be giving them the truth. So those kinds of diplomatic building blocks were necessary and ultimately led to the team’s coming to Oman and having our direct negotiations.
So, Suzanne, when you suggest steps we might use to try to reopen a diplomatic channel, that’s exactly the kind of thing those of us in the foreign service –– diplomats, 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 that could have been helpful in this regard. But there are others. Certainly his successor, who’s a very capable person, could be someone who could help. So there are players who could help us re-establish some kind of negotiation. And I would certainly encourage, as you described, a path to do that.
DR. MATTAIR: 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. Given the fact that we haven’t really consulted with allies, would NATO countries be willing to replace us in Iraq, if we chose to withdraw, or if these events are going to lead to our being pushed out? There’s also a question from someone who wants to know if we should include Russia and China in these talks. 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?
DR. MALONEY: I will start off with the first point about strengthening hardliners. This is my current bête noire. Every moment in U.S. foreign policy there is a question 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 weaken the hardliners in Iran. I’ve never seen any evidence that we have the capacity to tilt the balance of factional politics in Iran in a meaningful direction toward those who are capable, willing, interested and determined to change core Iranian policies outside of the nuclear issue, where I think there was regime consensus around the need for a diplomatic resolution because of the economic cost it was imposing.
But I think it’s, unfortunately, become a trope because 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 control of the judiciary and security services. There is very little of 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. We cannot change that. More to the point, the reformists cannot change that. They have tried.
It was 20 years ago, when I spoke last time at the Middle East Policy Council, at a time 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 and been unable to do it. The structure of power — the control of these key elements, levers of power — makes it impossible. So we should be concerned about the way 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 inside the current political establishment within Iran. That is well beyond our capability.
AMB. LIMBERT: Suzanne, you’re exactly right about the futility of trying to balance this faction against that faction inside of Iran. But 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 — this particular regime or setup, by all appearances, is fragile. It’s dealing with a population that’s very different –– aware, savvy, well-educated and wanting something different, while the regime is ossified. I mean, it’s old.
To quote my good friend Karim Sadjadpour, the average age of people in power today is deceased. They’ve stayed in power 40 years by being willing to be very brutal. If they need to kill, repress, to imprison, they will do it. But I think they sense things slipping out of their hands when something like the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner can have such a reaction. 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.
DR. MATTAIR: You think this regime could lose its control?
AMB. LIMBERT: I think it well could. The gap between this ossified state and this savvy, young, well-educated, well-connected population, most of whom were born after the revolution, seems to be growing by the day.
DR. MATTAIR: You mentioned 2009, and you know how the regime responded to the uprisings then, and also used force against the protesters even within recent months.
AMB. LIMBERT: Look back to the revolution of 1978–79. Once the security forces, the military, simply refused to fire on the protesters, it was all over. And you ask yourself, when is that going to happen?
MS. KARAM: As you know, Syria is a mess; it’s been a mess for some time now. But I don’t see Iran or Russia or Assad in any place now to compromise. He’s consolidated power, at least in the areas of his control. They’re going even for Idlib province now, bombing hospitals, civilian areas.
DR. MATTAIR: Two days after declaring a ceasefire.
MS. KARAM: Right. And you now have Turkey coming in from the North. You have Israel striking Iranian proxies in Syria just two days ago as well. But you do see –– and it’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 in protecting its bases. We’ve seen an attack in Kirkuk. Not unusual, but you do see small signs of an ISIS resurgence if the sectarian war is back in Iraq.
DR. MATTAIR: There are many questions here about Iraq and what these events have meant for Iraq; how does it impact the popular mood? There had been protests against the government for its economic mismanagement, its governance in general, and the Iranian influence on the government. What does the killing of Soleimani and this recent confrontation mean for all that? Doug, you mentioned something about the parliamentary vote. 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 get more influence in Iraq now because the United States may have to leave?
AMB. SILLIMAN: Let me start with macro-level Iraq policy. This administration has had pretty good agreement within itself and with our friends and allies around the world on what we hoped to accomplish in Iraq: building Iraqi institutions able to defend Iraq and further the decisions of an elected government, and opening an economy that would provide more opportunities for young Iraqis. By 2023 or 2024, there will be a million young Iraqis every year joining the job market. 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, which still has a very active mission in Baghdad. The European Union and our European allies bilaterally, developed Asia and much of the rest of the world are focusing on how the world can help Iraq recover from everything that has happened since 2003. The only country that has really gone against these goals has been Iran. This has been mostly the policy of the Quds Force, designed by Qassem Soleimani. To some extent, Moscow has facilitated this; 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. 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, Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis and most minority religious groups, as well as educated urban Shia, who do not want to see the departure of Western forces. That would leave the field too wide open for an increase of Iranian security, political and economic influence. So there is still significant support in Iraq for a Western military presence.
My preferred solution –– something that has been generally pretty easy for Iraqi politicians to do –– is for them to simply do nothing. 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 the parliament has the authority to ask American forces to leave. There’s a debate on whether a caretaker prime minister can abrogate an agreement that was entered into by the previous full prime minister. There is a disagreement on whether a new prime minister can be selected, with or without elections.
And then there is the exchange of notes between the United States and the 16 other countries in the coalition, all of which 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. As long as everybody can remain calm and quiet on the political front, I see this simply dragging on into the future. It may be the middle of 2021 before any of these issues come to a head, and the regional 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. That was one of the things that made it difficult for the Iraqi government to accept the original NATO training 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, NATO may be politically problematic.
It is also possible to essentially reflag the coalition. Right now the command is with an American Army three-star, a lieutenant general. That could be flipped to another country if it was something 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 –– most people generally say an American military presence –– is required to make sure the Iraqi military stays strong and professional and competent, and able to counterbalance the insinuation of Iranian influence in the Popular Mobilization Forces and in the political structure.
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, versus Iran’s objection to that. But right now the debate, especially after the killing of Soleimani and the Iranian attacks, is very much America versus Iran. Most Iraqis would probably be able to live with a lower level of confrontation between those two on their soil.
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 truck drivers delivering food to military bases. We’ve seen the refusal to issue permits to international NGOs and their implementing partners in Iraq to move assistance from point A to point B inside Iraq to supply IDP [internally displaced people] camps and provide other humanitarian assistance.
It is also possible that the strategy of the PMF –– and whether it’s an Iranian strategy I simply don’t know –– is to separate a Western assistance, military and political presence from its support structure and make it more difficult and expensive for the West to stay there. In the short term, I think this is something the Department of Defense, U.S. contractors, our coalition partners, the 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 the military may make it easier for 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.
DR. MATTAIR: Joyce, you said that the easiest place in which Iran could strike back at us now would be Iraq, with the Popular Mobilization Forces. Of course, one of the reasons al-Qaida in Iraq and ISIS emerged was because of the Shia militias and their attacks against the Sunni population. So, on the ground, what happens now with the Popular Mobilization Forces and an ISIS that is not defeated?
MS. KARAM: This is the biggest concern: whether Iraq begins sliding again into sectarian war. We heard yesterday that PMF is planning a million-man march. The highest number of casualties, and it’s truly tragic, that could emerge out of all of this would be the protesters — the youth that have been out in the streets since early October pulling for a patriotic, nationalistic agenda. As U.S.-Iran tension has grown in Iraq, we’ve seen them shrink in size, their voices getting drowned out. If that is the case, we’re going back to the post-2011 phase, when the United States pulled out, and we saw a Sunni insurgency and then ISIS take off. We saw a rather incompetent Maliki government emerge, and that’s one reason we’re where we are today.