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