The Gulf - big gaps in Biden’s strategy on Iran.
The Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi drills deep.
March 3rd, 2021
The Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi drills deep.
March 3rd, 2021
Ian Williams: Hello, everybody, this is Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association in New York and we're very pleased to have back with us Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. And we're doing this event today even more timely than usual, if I could mention the events - even as we speak bombs have been raining down on an Iraqi camp in Syria, allegedly from Iranian militias. This is in retaliation for the US dropping bombs on Syria and so on, there's no end to this sort of shadowboxing. And the problem is, of course, one of the punches is going to hit somebody very hard and that might well ricochet. And hence as we mentioned in our event description, this is beginning to make Sarajevo in 1914 seemed like a safe haven. There are just too many loose factors wandering around here. Trita has always - he is no fan of the Iranian regime, but he looks at them objectively and does not look at it in terms of how its services other countries' foreign policy needs by getting them. Other stuff going on today, apart from that of course, is whether or not the JCPOA or the Iranian nuclear deal is going to be triggered. And there we seem to be "after you, after you" as each party is waiting to see who goes first, who takes the ticket to go on the ball-floor and hovering behind all of this, the interesting, intriguing pictures of the huge digs at the Dimona nuclear reactor, which I think we both safely assume just before this Trita and I have made a definitive judgment that this is not an archaeological excavation going on. We Don't know what it is, but we definitely rule that one out. So, on behalf of the Foreign Press Association, once again, Trita, we are pleased to have you here. Since we last spoke you have moved to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Tell us what it is and how it applies in this particular circumstance.
Trita Parsi: Thank you so much, as always, it’s a great pleasure to be with you and thank you so much for having me again. The Quincy Institute is a new think tank in Washington, D.C. We opened our doors a bit more than a year ago, and it sets itself apart from other think tanks, in our view, because unlike other think tanks that either are explicitly endorsing or implicitly accepting the broader grand strategy of the United States, as it has been for the last quarter century, which is liberal hegemony and primacy, the Quincy Institute believes strongly that we need to shift our grand strategy and what we favor is one based on restraint as developed by people like Barry Posen and others. We believe that the United States will actually make itself safer by pursuing a national security strategy that is centered on diplomacy and on military restraint. We believe that is the only way that we can get out of the endless wars that we currently are embroiled in, in fact, we see the endless wars as a direct, logical outcome of the grand strategy of primacy and liberal hegemony. So, in that sense, we are arguing for a much deeper rethink of America's role in the world and its posture globally rather than what we have seen coming from other think tanks. We took our name, Quincy, from John Quincy Adams, former president as secretary of state, who exactly two hundred years ago this year, he had a very famous speech in which he said America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy, if she does so, she can become the dictatress of the world, but it will come at the expense of our own liberty and her own spirit.
Ian Williams: So, looking around, there do seem to be monsters abroad at the moment, whether the US seeks for them or not, do you want to give us a quick sort of zoology of what the players are and what the threats are? Because it is a threat to world peace, isn't it? We've got within a few thousand miles radius of Tehran and Tel Aviv - we have lots of nuclear weapons and lots of potential nuclear weapons.
Trita Parsi: We certainly do and what we're seeing in the Middle East, if we take a thirty thousand feet view of it, is the type of instability and tensions that unfortunately are inevitable as we go from one stated order to another. We have no longer the equilibrium in the Middle East. Equilibrium that existed that was enforced by the United States was also destroyed by the United States by invading Iraq in 2003. Ever since, we have seen ourselves and this essentially orderless Middle East and the effort to be able to establish a new one is going to be tense. The process of ordering is inherently illiberal and violent unfortunately, the question is from the US perspective - is whether our assumptions that the US has primacy and military domination of the region is necessary in order to bring about stability in the region or if it actually has potentially contributed to instability. Those are questions that are not asked. And I think it's becoming increasingly clear, in my view at least, that turning ourselves into a belligerent rather than a peacemaker has actually contributed to the instability and that a reduction of our military presence in the region actually will incentivize countries of the region to pursue their own diplomacy, rather than relying on the United States to resolve the problems for them, which in the cases of some countries, at a minimum, Saudi Arabia, for instance, has led to a more disruptive foreign policy on behalf of Saudi Arabia, precisely because of the fact that they have this perception that they have a standing green light in Washington and that the United States will come out and bail them out every time they get themselves into trouble. Putting a stop to that in and of itself would be a very welcome measure that could help bring about stability in the region.
Ian Williams: And this has been one of the new factors, I think possibly since we last spoke has been the sort of, Riyadh - Tel Aviv access where both are trying to influence the US to get on their side and to make the prime focus of its policy anti Iranian and that's something that it is a new factor and even more unstable because there is a certain stability to a binary politics, 'goodies' and 'baddies' but when you've got three parties and more circling each other, it gets even more complex trying to reconcile it.
Trita Parsi: Certainly, and I think there is a general perception that what has driven the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel together here is simply the threat from Iran, and that what we're seeing as a result is a positive development in which countries that have deep, deep divisions are not coming together in order to be able to address this issue. I think it is a massive oversimplification and, in many ways, actually quite inaccurate. Without a doubt there is an Iranian threat that has focused the minds of these countries and these leaders and have helped bring about some of these changes. But is it the main cause? I actually don't think it is. I think what the main thing that is driving these countries closer together is not the threat of Iran per say, but the threat of the United States reducing or in fact, leaving the region militarily. We have seen for the last 15 years that in the United States, president after president is promising to leave the Middle East militarily. Obama did so. Trump ran on it. Biden has said that the Middle East is its fifth highest priority, but far, far below China, Europe and other places, and that he wants to shift out of the Middle East. Over and over again American presidents are saying this - the reason for is quite simple - strategically it does not make any sense for the United States to devote so many resources to an increasingly strategically marginal region. And at the same time, the American public is absolutely sick and tired of being mired in these endless wars in the region. This is terrifying if you're sitting in Dubai, if you're sitting in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. It is problematic, but not terrifying if you're sitting in Tel Aviv. The Israelis have a much, much better ability to be able to handle themselves security wise politically in the region, even without the US's military presence. But if you're sitting in Riyadh, you have been enjoying an artificial balance of power for the last twenty-five years, a balance that they don't want to lose, understandably, but a balance that they could never themselves have created mindful of the limits of their power, it could only have been created as a result of the United States putting its thumb on the scale of balance of power in the region. What is bringing them together is an effort to make sure that the United States does not leave, that it remains committed militarily to the Middle East and what is very useful for that effort is to play up the threat of Iran. Again, I want to emphasize it is not that there isn't a threat from Iran or a challenge from Iran that we perceive, but I do believe that it's been highly exaggerated precisely for this reason, that they want the United States to stay in the region. So, what you're seeing is a coalescence of these countries coming together in order to pressure the United States to stay in the region. And that's also, incidentally, why they're pressuring the United States not to go along with the JCPOA, not to return to the JCPOA because the JCPOA beyond being a nuclear agreement, actually was the ticket for the United States to be able to remove itself from the region militarily and start shifting its focus eastwards.
Ian Williams: You mentioned this. And one of the things that we're dealing with things that are regarded as axioms from many people that Iran is a major terrorist player, that it's a major military threat to its neighbors, and it's certainly not a nice regime, but I mean, it has not invaded any of its neighbors directly in the sense that others have. It has not got troops on the ground like the Emirates and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It's only lately it's resumed. Would you say its threat was more sort of ideological in the sense that it was exciting Shia minorities in the area or presenting an alternative form of robust Islam? What is the Iranian threat in reality?
Trita Parsi: Let's first start off by just establishing that all of these different countries, due to various degrees, pose a challenge or a threat to each other - this is not a uniquely Iranian thing, even though that is where the focus has tended to be in the Western discourse. The Iranians are deeply threatened by the fact that the Saudis and the Emirates are spending eight times as much on weaponry as the Iranians are. The Iranians are deeply threatened by the fact that the Israelis are conducting assassinations inside their country. They're deeply threatened by the fact that the United States is providing the most sophisticated military equipment to some of these countries because the Iranians were the brunt of that as well, 30, 40 years ago when the United States and other countries in the West were providing not only military intelligence, military equipment and even the ingredients and portions that Saddam used to create chemical weapons against Iranian civilians. So the threat goes both ways, but there is definitely also a challenge and a threat that these countries face from Iran. It is not necessarily an invasion. And you're quite correct. Iran has not invaded a country for quite some time, but Iran is interfering extensively in the internal affairs of other countries, and it is doing so in a way that is not necessarily different from other countries, because the UAE has all of its own proxies. The Saudis have their proxies in Syria. The UAE has plenty of them in Libya, the Turks have their own. They're all playing, unfortunately, the same game. The Iranians, however, perhaps have been playing it a little bit more efficiently, and that has actually eroded the strength of states and themselves. So where the Iranians have been involved, as in Iraq and Lebanon, et cetera, it has contributed to the status of those countries being weakened at the expense then or to the benefit of militias, political parties, whatnot that the Iranians have been involved in creating. And that is without a doubt, a significant problem that needs to be dealt with. What we have tried to do from the Western perspective in dealing with it has been utterly unsuccessful. So the question then is, if we truly agree that this is a problem, then we should also be preferencing a solution and a policy that actually has some track record of proven success. The ones that we have pursued thus far, with the exception of diplomacy, do not have that track record of success.
Ian Williams: So how is the new administration rethinking would have escaped from the shadow of Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu's view on the region, but it does seem to have slipped back towards that. How would you assess its current moves, trying to put the current bombing and counter bombing in perspective?
Trita Parsi: Well, I would say it's a bit of a mixed picture, but there are plenty and perhaps an increasing number of worrisome signs. I think the decision to end the arms sales to Saudi Arabia that are used for offensive purposes in Yemen was an extremely important and positive development. It came fast. It's a bit unclear exactly what it will be, mindful of the fact that the emphasis here is on the use of offensive weapons. Who defines that? What does it mean? We still do not know. I know members of Congress have tried to get clarification for it. They have yet to receive it. But I think overall it does definitely fall into the category of positive measures. It should be noted, however, that this decision did not come out of the blue. It did not come because the administration had decided to make that an utter priority compared to many other issues that they're dealing with. It came because the signal from Congress was that they are going to go forward with introducing legislation that prohibits these types of arms sales and that they would do so at their own schedule and not wait for the president. So instead of then waiting for Congress to introduce and pass those pieces of legislation because they were passed under the Trump administration, Trump vetoed it. Biden did not seem to want to be in a position to have his hand forced by Congress and as a result moved very quickly and swiftly on that issue. He did not move quickly and swiftly on Iran, diplomacy, for instance, and instead has gotten himself stuck in a rather unhelpful and frankly childish game of who goes first while at the same time slipping into old patterns, such as thinking that using military airstrikes there, we can establish some form of a deterrence in the region that will be beneficial to the broader strategic goal. And I want to separate I understand clearly that the US was attacked and retaliation, in that sense is justified. But what is justified and what is strategically helpful is not necessarily the same thing. If we keep on doing tactical things that are justified, but that mires us in the same old pattern of the past, which does not allow us to extract ourselves from the Middle East in the manner that Biden himself says that he wants to do and ultimately, what was justified on a tactical level was disastrous on a strategic level. And my fear is that we're now very quickly in this new presidency, being driven into tactical measures rather than strategic considerations.
Ian Williams: This cycle of retaliation and counter retaliation, how is that working for Israel?
Trita Parsi: There is no easy exit from it, and this is where I think perhaps there's been a harsh reaction in some quarters to Biden doing this, but the reason why there was a harsh reaction was because he was a new president. He had the opportunity from the very outset, which is the best opportunity has to change that game and change the way that we're dealing with this issue. That's why I think there was a sense of deep disappointment in many quarters, some because of what it means strategically, some because of it continues a disregard to the role of Congress and the Constitution when it comes to this. Keep in mind, some of the biggest critics of his decision were not necessarily based on whether the strike was justified or not, but whether it was legal or not, because he has an obligation to go to Congress. In testimony, Tony Blinken did say that he wanted to work with Congress to revise the AUMF from 2002, and that is still being used to justify all kinds of military action throughout the region, even though they are not targeting al-Qaida, which is what is a AUMF was originally was designed to address.
Ian Williams: Do you have any sense - it's early days to get into Kremlinology about the Biden White House, who the movers and shakers are in there but I'm presuming that there must be some sense of different factions within the White House who are pushing more for sort of conciliatory, forward looking policies and those who "let's give my good friend Benny in Tel Aviv something to go and smile about - let's pander to so-and-so." So do you get any sense of where that decision came from? Presumably Biden didn't just wake up in the middle of the night and say, "look, great idea, let's go bomb Iran."
Trita Parsi: The people I've spoken to essentially have made it clear that this came from the president himself. Having said that, there's also clarity in my mind that there are factions that are being created, there are different opinions on these issues, and particularly when it comes to how to deal with the JCPOA, I do not think that this is an issue in which the administration is on one mind. There's clearly various, if not factions, nevertheless, groupings and trains of thought when it comes to this. I don't think it has crystallized the point in which we can say that some clear factions necessarily have been created. But I do want to point out one thing. As much as this is a team that's fought very ferociously to defend the JCPOA and some of the decisions Obama made, it is also important to understand the differences between this team and the Obama team. Some of the key people that were in the Obama administration that I saw up front back in 2014 and 2015 when I interacted very closely with them, who were very firm on issues such as recognizing that if you do want to get a JCPOA, you're going to have to accept that there's going to be a political price to pay at home. You're going to have to accept that there's a political price to pay in Saudi Arabia and with Israel. You cannot escape that. You can try to minimize that because you're trying to find ways to make sure it doesn't get too bad, but you cannot escape them. Furthermore, recognition that at the end of the day, in order to get diplomacy to work, you cannot allow domestic politics to be a driving force of how you act and how you speak about those negotiations. Yes, they will always be a factor, but you have to at times really compartmentalize and be willing to take heat back home in order to succeed diplomatically in Vienna, in Geneva, in Lausanne or wherever those negotiations are taking place. I think some of the strongest voices in favor of that type of strategic focus are not necessarily in this administration. You do not have John Kerry taking part of this conversation. He is in the administration, but with a different role. Bill Burns is in this administration, but at the CIA and I assume he's not involved in these conversations in a deep level. Ben Rhodes is not there. And perhaps most importantly, Barack Obama himself is not there. And I think it's important to keep that in mind because it is not to say that this is in any way, shape or form an administration that doesn't know how to do diplomacy. It's just to point out that the perception that seems to have existed, that this is just a continuation of Obama, too, is an oversimplification. Some of the most important elements and figures that actually played a key role in making sure that we stayed focused on diplomacy for a very long period of time and were willing to take the political heat are not in this administration.
Ian Williams: We've got several questions coming in. One of the key ones is on the JCPOA - regardless of the justification, the US dropped out. So, you could say it should be the one that makes the first approach. But on the other hand, if you look at it from a real statecraft point of view, Biden has made a big concession in terms of the US and the forces there by offering to rejoin the JCPOA. Shouldn't Iran sort of see this as a gesture and make it? Are they going to sit on their hands through protocol and let the opportunity go by? Who should make the first step and how can they do it without looking craven then capitulatory?
Trita Parsi: I don't quite understand the premise of that question. For the United States to rejoin a deal that it itself negotiated, for it to rejoin a deal that these officials in the Biden administration have said were of a strategic imperative to US national interests, is not a concession to the Iranians. It's a concession to what they themselves have said is the right thing to do for US national security. So, the idea that just being able to say "well, we're willing to go back in" is a concession to Iran, frankly, I find nonsensical. None of the major steps that were done in the JCPOA were done because the Iranians liked it or was a concession to Iran. The US pursued this because there's a line clearly in the US's national interest to make sure that the Iranians do not have a pathway to a nuclear weapon and to make sure that there was a war avoided. And at a deeper level, even though the Obama administration didn't seem to like to talk about it too much because it was necessary in order to be able to do a pivot away from the Middle East, an area that the Obama administration itself defined and the Biden administration has reiterated is increasingly strategically marginal to the United States. So, if I could just add one more thing - if this is in our national interests, the idea that we're going to get stuck on it on something based on who goes first is really quite astonishing. We should do everything we can to get back in. Now, there are obstacles and the Iranians are going to have to give things and make concessions of their own to make it work but wasting all of these weeks in order to have that type of a public fight ultimately undermines the type of confidence and the type of atmospherics for diplomacy that is necessary in order to achieve the longer-term objective. So, let me pose this counter question. If we think this is difficult then what did we think negotiations with Iran over missiles are going to be? What I'm worried about here is that I'm not seeing the type of political will and decisiveness to get this to a completion that is necessary in order to get it to completion, that is necessary in order to get it to be successful. To see this type of hesitation at this early stage does not give you confidence about where this can lead to. We need to see much stronger confidence from both sides at this early stage. So instead of focusing on if this is a gift to Iran or not, our focus should be what's in the US's national interest.
Ian Williams: Well, one of the points here is that it's two sides, as you say. But for example, there was often quite a lot of distance between the Obama standpoint and the Europeans, sometimes the Europeans were more skeptical about the JCPOA, we often forget, or some of the Europeans were. It was a joint agreement between all of these parties. Do you think that there is a divergence or convergence between the Biden administration and the former US partners in the JCPOA?
Trita Parsi: There was I think the Biden administration's focus has been to make sure that they have a unified camp between the EU and the EU three, I would say, and the United States in favor of this approach of first isolating Iran before going to negotiations. The real divergence that is taking place is within the EU. You now have EU states that have very little impact onto what the E3 decide on this issue and are quite confused about some of the measures the E3 have taken, some of the statements that they have issued, and yet the United Kingdom is part of the E3, even though it's no longer part of the EU. You have a significant division between the EEAS as well as the E3. And you can see that clearly from some of the messaging there, for instance, not just EEAS, but other member states, not at all particularly convinced that the measure that the French and the British are pushing for in the IAEA board right now to censor Iran for its reduction of its obligations to the JCPOA or indeed the IAEA and the NPT is a particularly wise move because this is coming right days after Grossi went to Tehran and worked out a compromise. So, the Iranians essentially took a political domestic hit at home for agreeing to this compromise. Grossi was quite praising of the compromise because at the end of the day, he had helped avert a major crisis. And then the Europeans or the E3 are pushing for a censor language resolution in the IEA board. However, again, justified that can be on a tactical basis. What does it do strategically? Because it now risks collapsing everything that Grossi had work to work out with the Iranians. So I think what I'm quite curious about is to what extent the E3 constellation will continue to be able to be a part of this, mindful of the fact that the UK is out of the EU and the division, the gap between some of the EU states and the E3 is starting to become increasingly clear.
Ian Williams: Of course, it's not just the European Union. I think there's been a pause on the so-called Abraham peace accords, are they going to last or were they just transitory attempts for domestic political advantage on the part of the Trump administration?
Trita Parsi: The question is helpful to what it is helpful for there to be stronger coordination between the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Israelis, which are the main actors here, in terms of making sure that the United States is a little bit more boxed in when it comes to its maneuverability in the region, making sure that the U.S. is going to have an increasingly difficult time making decisions that these three allies are not in line with. Yes, in that sense, vis a vis the United States is going to be helpful to them because they're joining forces to reduce the US's maneuverability there. Is it going to be helpful to achieve peace? Well, there was never a war between the UEA and Israel. And the Israeli intelligence collaboration goes back more than a decade. And it's been there quite clearly - it's never been formally accepted in a manner that the Abraham's Accord is doing now but it's always been there or it's been there for quite some time now, more than 15 years or so. Is it going to bring about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians? I see absolutely no sign whatsoever as to why it would do so. Rather this is getting more buy in for a permanent occupation of the Palestinians, which have a very hard time seeing how that ultimately is going to be to the benefit of any of these things. So in that sense, I don't think it is helpful for some of those other objectives, but for the objective of making sure that these three countries have a united front vis a vis some of the decisions that the US has sought to make, then, yes, from that limited perspective, it's helpful to them.
Ian Williams: I've got a quite a complex question here, I'm going to have to try and summarize it from Roger Kaplan. From the point of view of military capability, is it feasible to stop Iran indefinitely from getting nuclear weapons? Looking at the alliances from a diplomatic perspective, what would be the roles for Turkey and Russia, because we see Turkey and Russia sort of facing both ways here. We already mentioned the EU. Turkey is its own player. It hasn't been a team player for some time in the region. To what extent is Iran working with Turkey?
Trita Parsi: So, let me take that first part of the question. Yes, absolutely. I think it is quite possible to make sure that the Iranians do not get a nuclear weapon. In fact, if we take a look at the track record of the NPT itself and not just talk about energy, just the NPT. It is quite remarkable at the end of the day that we have so few nuclear weapon states. But is that solely because of blocking their pathways? No, that's only half the story. Now, it's important to be able to make sure that those pathways are blocked. And if you take a look at what the JCPOA achieved, the combination of restrictions on their program that limited their ability to have material on their own soil and some of that technology combined with transparency measures, which made sure that if they were to move towards a nuclear weapon, they would be caught almost instantly or at least within twenty-four hours to a week because of instruments and cameras to the IEA had inside the nuclear program. If you take the combination of those two things, the JCPOA ensure that the material that the Iranians could have on their own soil would mean that they would never have enough material to be able to build a nuclear weapon. In fact, the breakout capability for Iran, meaning from the point of making a decision to get a nuclear weapon to having the material for a nuclear weapon would be one year. But the transparency measures which are permanent, they're not limited, would mean that Iran would get caught within twenty-four hours to a week if it tried. So, they would need to be able to evade getting caught for a full year but the mechanisms are such that they will get caught within a week. At worst, that made it next to impossible or close to impossible that we could get to making sure that they wouldn't have a pathway to a nuclear weapon. The other aspect of it then is not whether they have the supply side of that, but to also then to make sure that they don't have the demand side, meaning you will be even more effective, even more effective in foreign leaders. You would be even more effective in making sure that they don't go nuclear if you can change the incentives and making sure that they actually don't want to go nuclear, meaning that they don't face a threat that would make them want to have that type of a deterrence. The Iranian nuclear program has actually existed for more than 50 years. It was started during the time of the Shah. The Shah was convinced by the United States that he needed to have a nuclear program and that he needed to buy his reactors from Westinghouse and other American producers. But the Shah himself at the same time pursued a program that put him on the verge of having the capability of building nuclear weapons. I spoke to the number two person in the Iranian atomic energy person at the time who had confronted the Shah, saying that some of the things that you're asking us to buy we really do not need because they have no civilian use. And the Shah's answer was, I want to have the capability to be able to go full out if I end up in a situation in the region in which we will need a nuclear deterrent. That the Shah had been convinced by an ambassador of the United States to Iran that because Iran was not part of NATO, the United States would never come to its defense if Iran ended up in a war with the Soviet Union. And the Shah's focus was almost exclusively on the Soviet threat, combined with the Soviet threat supported by the Soviet Union, was giving to certain Arab states. So, the idea of being on the verge has been there for quite some time for the Iranians. The JCPOA even takes that away from that. But more importantly, Iran has been going along with this nuclear program for 50 plus years. The Pakistanis went from zero to a nuclear weapon in nine and a half years. Why is it that the Iranians have not gone for a nuclear weapon in 50 years, whereas the Pakistanis did so, so quickly because their engineers are not as good? Well, that is not giving a satisfactory answer. The answer actually lies in that it doesn't make strategic sense for them to do so or not. Iran is a major power in the region. Conventionally, it dwarfs most of its neighbors. It has a population of eighty-five million plus it has a landmass that is massive strategic position. If Iran were to go nuclear, it would risk sparking a nuclear arms race in the region that could cause much smaller states such as Bahrain, for instance, to either build or buy a nuclear weapon. And then suddenly Iran and Bahrain, tiny Bahrain that is not even a fiftieth of Iran's landmass population would be a strategic parity with Iran. This would be a strategic disaster for the Iranians. So, they have clear inhibitions as to why not to go in that direction. We should focus as a part of a broader strategy of making those inhibitions even stronger. And the JCPOA, if it had been built upon rather than sabotaged by the United States under Trump, would have given us the pathway of being able to change not just Iran, but many other actors, strategic calculations and defense calculations in the region. That is the ultimate way that we could have prevented not only a nuclear bomb in Iran but elsewhere, but also hopefully a stronger commitment and possibly towards a broader peace in the region.
Ian Williams: You just reminded me, in fact, a few 10 years ago, more the International Court of Justice was asked to rule on the legality of using nuclear weapons. And it came out with a convoluted judgment that said that the use of nuclear weapons was always illegal, except in the case of an existential threat to a state. And that's precisely the set of circumstances you were going there, the fact that Iran doesn't have such an existential threat. You know, I think anyone that invades Iran is not going to do very well short of massive internal disruption in the state.
Trita Parsi: So, in fact, if I could add one thing to what you just said, a country like Iran with its landmass doesn't have a strategic benefit for it unless an existential threat emerges. And incidentally, the only plausible one right now is the US threat to Iran. Israel has a very different calculation. It's a much smaller state, doesn't have the strategic depth. So it going in that direction is quite different from the Iranians. And there's a reason why the two most populous states in the region, Iran and Egypt, in 1974, jointly introduced a resolution at the UN calling for a WMD free zone in the Middle East. They're the ones that have the most to lose by denuclearization of the region.
Ian Williams: Because it gives the small boys on the block sort of equal status exactly on how to get in there.
Trita Parsi: But the Israelis know this very well because it was an Israeli general who told me that India was 10 times the size of Pakistan until it tested the bomb. Then they were equals.
Ian Williams: That's a pretty graphic image, quite right as well. I mean, there was another - I read an article very recently where somebody pointed out that, in fact, the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert is a sort of a time bomb waiting to detonate since it gives a tempting target for all of its enemies to sort of do nuclear weapons by proxy on Israel. All they have to do is to get the one in and they can create a radiological desert. But a lot more to the point on this, the ayatollah, several ayatollahs', I believe, they issued fatwas on the ethical point saying that the possession of nuclear weapons was immoral and un-Islamic. I mean, to what extent is that a real factor and to what extent is it, you know, is this sort of camouflage and persiflage for the world public opinion?
Trita Parsi: It is an extremely insufficient factor. Such a religious decree, whether it's coming from an ayatollah, from the pope or from anyone else, can by no means constitute the type of guarantee that other states need, desire and require to make sure that they can feel safe, that they feel that they have enough of a guarantee that this is not going to materialize. However, it can be used in a manner that is helpful, which is exactly what also happened during the JCPOA, perhaps not very explicitly. But if the Iranians are actually saying that they don't want a nuclear weapon, well, it lends then to the argument if the Iranians say they don't want a nuclear weapon and they say this a religious fatwa against a nuclear weapon. Great. Now, since you don't want that, it shouldn't be a problem for us to then be able to put together various mechanisms that, on the one hand, prevents you from getting it because you don't want it. And on the other hand, provides the outside world with the confidence that you will not be able to go in that direction were you to change your mind. And that is very much part of the basis of the negotiations. If the Iranians from the outset had said that they want a nuclear weapon or in the case of North Korea, they already have it, you would have had a much, much more difficult negotiation. And is it not necessarily a mystery as to why we don't have as much progress on the North Korea front?
Ian Williams: Ban Ki-moon in an interview this week, says that one of the reasons that Kim Jong Un dropped out was because he saw the Americans break their word on the JCPOA so he realized that he was dealing with a country of little faith whose word didn't carry weight. And, you know, at the very best, its promises lasted until the next election.
Trita Parsi: And on that point, let me say, mindful of the previous question and thinking that, you know, just the US saying that it wants to go back into some sort of a concession. You know, it's not just the Iranians that are going to have a question mark as to whether a deal with the Biden administration is worth the paper it's written on, mindful of the US breaking not just its word on the JCPOA, on Paris and a whole set of other issues. And we also seen that Trump has not reversed many of Trump's decisions on the ICC, for instance. But it's also a question mark in the minds of Europeans of Asian countries, Russia and in the question mark in the minds of companies. So even if a new JCPOA or existing one is returned, how long will it take for European and other companies to feel enough comfort that, yes, this will not be reversed by the United States and as a result, they will reenter the Iranian market? They got burned badly going into the Iranian market and then being sanctioned by the Trump administration. This was extremely costly for them. So, you may even have a JCPOA that politically is resolved, but economically does not deliver what the politicians had promised that it would deliver for the Iranians and that's going to create another mess. But add on to that. We just had CPAC taking place and at CPAC Trump, despite being impeached twice, despite all of his legal troubles, prove that he is still the deciding factor in the GOP and what will that then signal the Iranians - that they will go and strike another JCPOA with the United States, this time with Biden? But then four years from now, if Trump or another Republican returns, that agreement will once again be torn apart? These are real question marks, and they undermine and weaken the US's negotiating position because the US needs to do much, much more to guarantee that it will actually stick to the deal, because at the end of the day, it was the US that got out of the deal, not the Iranians. And under those circumstances, to then come with the attitude that, well, just because the US wants to have a deal it has given sufficient of a concession is really not just not only not going to fly, it's going to further erode that there is any seriousness on the US side.
Ian Williams: That's been a perennial. I mean, I have to say that the Clinton administration and the Trump administration were both equally insouciant of other people's feelings on these matters. We come to the misreading of Iranian public opinion. I think, would you agree - would this current regime be re-elected if it was a free and open election or would it be voted out? It's not an outright feudal dictatorship like Saudi Arabia. It is amenable to popular pressure of sorts, even though much moderated.
Trita Parsi: We have seen a clear pattern in the way that the Iranians go to the poll, that they favor the anti-establishment candidate. They did so far sooner than the American public did in 2016. The political spectrum in Iran has been shrinking rather than expanding. If we take a look at the longer trend, which has been highly problematic, of course, the big challenge they have is that at the end of the day, if they were completely free and fair elections, is what kind of alternatives currently exist to the current regime? On the outside I don't think there's any real alternative that have any credibility or actual following inside the country. So, there would nevertheless be other political factions, the ones that are still on the margins of the regime or have been pushed out of the regime or never been part of the regime, but nevertheless managed to be inside the country, that would be the alternative. It would be a very interesting thing to see. But I think the most important point is the outside world, the United States, even though at times it clearly has an impact on these things, its ability to control that impact is more or less non-existent. Its ability to be able to predict the impact is more or less nonexistent. So, trying to play the game of, you know, seeking to influence this or that faction or the political direction of course, of Iran is going to be extremely difficult. I think the humblest approach from the United States is just to simply try to stay out of it at a minimum, try to make sure that they don't do damage, first rule should be do no harm. And that rule should really apply in this case as well. The Iranian people clearly want to move in a democratic direction. They've been faced with massive hurdles and obstacles. Tensions with the United States and the outside world has been a critical hurdle for that. There was a reason why so many Iranians supported the JCPOA, why the people took to the streets and danced when the announcement was made, because they recognized that the openness to the outside world would be essential for them to be able to change the internal political situation in the country. The more the country is closed off from the outside world, the easier it will be for the most hardline conservative factions to control the politics in Iran as well.
Ian Williams: So, this is a sort of an essential conundrum in American policy, surely, because the whole basis in one form or another for several decades has been that economic sanctions will starve Iranians into overthrowing their government. And how's that working out?
Trita Parsi: Where has that worked out? It has never worked out. Regime change through blockades, has never had any real success and even the case in which we're looking at sanctions and blockade as an effort to be able to bring about an overthrow of a country or even democratization and the only example we can give is South Africa. It's a very complex case. In almost every other case, and there's about nine more of them. It has led to the opposite. In Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Iran, Iraq. What it actually leads to is that the undemocratic government, their regime entrenches itself, protects itself, becomes even more repressive, and uses the limited resources of the state to buy off various factions and elements of the population. So, for instance, take a look at Venezuela. Venezuela is actually in a much worse economic situation to a very large extent because of the sanctions. Maduro is dealing with a much worse economic situation than what Rouhani is, but he's still there. And there's still miles to go for the Iranians to reach that level of economic misery. And the idea that that would actually be a successful approach for regime change is yet another one of these Washington fantasies. But what this fantasy also leaves out is the immorality of punishing an entire population for the sake of getting rid of a specific regime. Beyond that, not working what it does do is that it really impoverishes and punishes that population, a population that itself, frankly, has very little control or influence over the policies of the state as a whole. And we're seeing that clearly. I mean, 10, 15 years ago, sanctions were seen in Washington, D.C. as an alternative to war. Now it is increasingly seen, and at least in some Democratic circles, as an alternative way of waging war. And we have seen legislation being introduced that is trying to limit and structure the way that Congress imposes sanctions and require regular reports on what the impact is on the population with the humanitarian impact of such measures, such things have never existed before. One thing I would like to see is that whenever the United States imposes sanctions beyond the fact that those sanctions need to have sunset clauses, they cannot just be permanent and then you have to muster the political will to undo them. You actually have to regularly muster the political will to renew them. But another thing that I think has been missing and will be valuable is to also make an assessment. What is the impact of economic sanctions on the US economy? This has, frankly, almost never been done. We conducted a study in 2014 and 2016 in which we studied the impact of sanctions on Iran, on the US economy, and the impact was roughly two hundred and seventy-four billion dollars over the course of 15 years. It's not a massive amount, but nor is it an insignificant amount of money in any way, shape or form. What was most stunning to me was that when we sent this to the administration at the time, which was the Obama administration, they found it stunning as well and I thought that that was because it differed from their numbers. But the reason why they found a stunning was because they had never done a study to see what the impact of economic sanctions would be on the US economy itself. So, they were stunned to find out that there actually was much of a cost.
Ian Williams: The economic sanctions you'd have thought that Iraq would have sold that one but it comes down to the crucial point from the then secretary of state who said it's a price we think is worth paying when asked about the death rate in Iraqi children and the point about sanctions is, like a lot of American foreign policy it's designed for consumption by domestic lobbies rather than for effect on events overseas.
Trita Parsi: And it was easy to sell. It was easy to sell when it was cast as an alternative to war. Now, when the humanitarian impact is much more clearly seen because of social media and other things, it's much harder to ignore or hide. I do think we're seeing a break in that trend. We're nowhere near where we should be, in my view. But I think we're seeing a break in the trend.
Ian Williams: Talk about left field here, it's way the fringe of this area. But Pedro Pinto Leite asks, can you comment on the absurd statements of Trump and editorialization that it's true that Iran through Hezbollah, would be helping Polisario, militarily in the Western Sahara?
Trita Parsi: He said that I assume, when trying to justify giving Western Sahara to Morocco in order to get the Moroccans to recognize Israel. What I think was quite fascinating was that even prior to that, we saw that the Moroccans were starting to adopt a very strong anti-Iran rhetoric in Washington and talking about Hezbollah being present there as a way of catching the Trump administration's attention. Because if you wanted to catch the Trump administration's attention, all you needed to say was, well, Iran is showing up here. There was such an obsession with Iran. It was the guiding, not just the organizing principle of America's Middle East policy, but it appears to have been an organizing principle of foreign policy as a whole. So, I would not be surprised that that argument did not come from Trump himself and may actually have come from the the Moroccans at an earlier stage in which you were trying to get the United States to be more supportive of the Moroccan position vis a vis the Polisario and other problems that they were facing in Western Sahara.
Ian Williams: But this really comes back to the big question - we think of the embassy, the embassy, but the Israelis bombed the USS Liberty, other people have taken American embassies, there's been big hits on American bases in other places. Can you summarize why it is that Washington - a certain faction of Washington is so obsessed with Iran, far in excess of any rational military or economic threat that Iran might provoke?
Trita Parsi: I think it's an excellent and very, very important question, because you're quite right when you take a look at it on the broader scheme of things, of the challenges that the US faces, that the transgressions that have been committed against the United States, it's difficult to understand why this one has taken this very unique position. I don't think there's an easy answer. I think there's several factors that go into it. I saw, for instance, the hostage crisis was a very traumatizing experience for the United States. A degree of humiliation was clearly beyond what it has experienced in many other places. But at the same time, this is not a country known for its ability to remember a lot of things. So the fact that that one is remembered so clearly and vividly, I think is not explained just by the degree of its sense of humiliation. I think it's also because it is kept alive by those very same interests that want to keep this enmity alive. And that's where I think that the biggest chunk of the answer is. There are strong interests in the United States, in Iran, but perhaps most importantly, in the region as a whole who benefit from a US Iran enmity. It creates all kinds of geopolitical realities for them that are quite beneficial. To go back to what I said earlier on, as long as the US Iran enmity is kept alive, the US will keep a lot of forces in the Middle East that will impact the balance power of the region. It will ensure that the more natural balance in the region in which clearly Iran will be a major power is prevented. And if you are sitting in some of those countries that have benefited from this, whether that is Riyadh or Abu Dhabi or Tel Aviv, then you will try to make sure that you prevent any measure that would lead to a reconciliation between the United State and Iran.
And I remember talking to you and Colin Kahl, who is now going to be deputy assistant secretary of defense, who was an adviser to Biden during the JCPOA and he pointed to me that when the Saudis came and complained about the JCPOA, they never had an argument as to whether the US was being too lenient when it came to the number of centrifuges the Iranians could keep, or whether there should be a stricter measure on the number of kilograms of LEU that Iran should be able to keep on their soil. So, all the arguments were simply, how can you make a deal with that country? Fundamentally different to thinking that this is about the nuclear issue, any deal, regardless of the numbers of centrifuges, etc., would have been objected on the grounds from which the Saudis looked at this. They looked at as an effort by the United States to no longer be that balance in their favor in the Persian Gulf. And this is part of the reason why King Abdullah felt so insulted when Obama told him in that private meeting the United States is seeking to resolve its relations with and tensions with Iran and it advises the Saudis to do the same and then find a way to share the region. This was an insult to the Saudi king because the perception, the expectation was that, no, the United States is permanently going to shift the balance of power in the region in favor of Saudi Arabia and how dare you try to escape that duty and responsibility and obligation?
Ian Williams: Well, speaking as a journalist, of course, I'd much prefer centrifuges to meat grinders. I think there should be limits on Saudi Arabian output of meat grinders and how many they have in action at any time. But apart from that evil and cynical point of view, I've got to thank you Trita. I really welcome your sort of objective and open discourse.
Trita Parsi: Thank you so much.