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Transcript: From Fist Bumps to Missile Fire: One Month since President Biden's Middle East Trip

Michael Doran, Jonathan Schachter & Robert Greenway

Following is the full transcript of the Hudson Institute event titled From Fist Bumps to Missile Fire: One Month since President Biden’s Middle East Trip.

Disclaimer: This transcript is based off of a recorded video conference and periodic breaks in the stream have resulted in disruptions to the audio and transcribed text.

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Michael Doran:
Hi, my name is Mike Doran. I’m a senior fellow and the director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute. And today we are having an event on the state of play between the United States and the Middle East one month after president Biden’s visit to the region, and I’m joined by three very distinguished fellows. Two of them, my colleagues from the Hudson Institute, Rob Greenway and Jonathan Schachter and one from the Foundation for Defensive Democracies, Andrea Stricker.

Andrea, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to get your opinions to get us rolling. Just for the benefit of our viewers, we are recording this on Monday afternoon. The news has just come out that Iran may or may not be responding to the offer by the P5+1 that it received last week. It will be responding by midnight tonight, Monday. So it’s possible that we could be waking up tomorrow morning to news that the world powers and Iran are returning to a nuclear agreement. Whether that happens or whether it doesn’t happen, we have a pretty good idea already of what the contours of that agreement are going to be. I wonder if you could just give us a sense from a technical nuclear point of view of what you’re looking at.

Andrea Stricker:
Sure and thank you for the great introduction Mike and for hosting. I know at FDD, we really appreciate all the great work that all of you do. Just a quick note, I’m going to stay off camera. I just had an eye procedure and I know that it still seems to frighten small children, so I’ll stay hidden so we can focus. But with that Iran’s nuclear program, it’s been advancing quite rapidly under president Biden’s watch.

Now he’s talking about reentering this expiring nuclear accord. So I think it’s good to go over some of the advances that they’ve taken since the original accord. The regime appears to be exploiting the administration’s willingness to lift sanctions and negotiate the JCPOA’s return. I believe it’s either buying time by drawing out the talks to make additional nuclear advances and doesn’t plan to make a deal. Or it’s just waiting for an extreme amount of concessions to reenter this accord when the deal will be too good to pass up.

So since Biden has been in office, they’ve enriched uranium to 60%, that’s the highest purity they’ve ever achieved in a technical stones throw from 90% or weapons grade. They have enough enriched uranium overall to make more than five nuclear weapons. And they’ve installed a big plan to install at least 1500 of their faster advanced centrifuges at highly fortified underground sites.

They’re also working on nuclear weaponization aspects on the open. They made uranium metal, which is a material used in the core of nuclear weapon. And then they’ve been reducing International Atomic Energy agency or IAEA monitoring of many of their activities while openly extorting the IAEA for access to camera footage and safeguards data. So now they’re threatening that they’re close to the nuclear threshold. And I think that threat coming from senior Iranian officials, we take that to mean that they’re saying they’re very close to atomic weapons, even though they claim that this program is peaceful at the same time, they’re making these threats that they’re able to step over this threshold.

We take that to mean that they’re very close and they could do so without being stopped. Whether or not that’s true, we could debate. Probably they’re not right there yet where they could take the final step so quickly that we couldn’t stop them. But I think it’s worth heading the warning from the Institute for Science and International Security, the good ISIS. They think that Iran could detonate accrued nuclear explosive in a test within six months while timelines are longer to put it on a missile.

You mentioned that Iran has a deadline of tonight to answer whether it will rejoin this deal. I’m not sure that European Union really plans to enforce that deadline. Iran doesn’t like these sorts of deadlines. So I would expect them to blow by it. But one of the most troubling concessions we’ve heard that the Wall Street Journal reported last week is that the European Union is offering to close a separate IAEA safeguards investigation related to Iran’s non-compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in order to re implement the JCPOA, and the IAEA’s board of governors previously did this in 2015 in order to pave the way for the original deals implementation.

So I think that’s a huge warning sign that we have major concessions ahead, and we’ll never probably get answers about Iran’s NPT violations. So I think that’s in a nutshell where things stand on the nuclear side.

Michael Doran:
That’s beautiful. Before I move on to our colleagues Andrea, can I just ask you a few follow up questions?

Andrea Stricker:
Yes.

Michael Doran:
First of all, can you just define for us what we mean when we say or what you mean when you say a nuclear threshold state?

Andrea Stricker:
Sure. My colleague Anthony Ruggiero and I have been looking at this and we think of it as they have all the technical abilities to take the step to make atomic weapons before being stopped. Essentially, if they diverted enriched uranium from their enrichment plants, we couldn’t bomb it in time. We couldn’t stop their centrifuge production facilities, which they’ve taken deeper and deeper underground, and fortified against aerial strikes. I think there’s still time to act even with economic penalties in order to deter them from taking that final step across the threshold. But the window’s getting shorter as we waste all this time with the talks and not getting them to meaningfully restrain their activities.

Michael Doran:
The other question I wanted to ask you is about their NPT violation. Can you just … You said that this is a warning sign, the fact that they are not coming clean to IAEA about the evidence of their violations of the NPT. But can you explain to us why this is a separate or more severe warning sign from some of the other ones that we’ve always been noting?

Andrea Stricker:
Sure. So the IAEA has investigated around nuclear programs since 2002, since there were international revelations that it was building clandestine nuclear facilities. In 2015, the world powers agreed to close this probe before it was finished. And Iran had truthfully answered and come clean about it in order to implement the JCPOA. The investigation was removed from the IAEA’s agenda and it’s active investigations. But in 2018, the Israeli Mossad, they stolen archive of Iran’s nuclear files from a warehouse in Tehran. And this showed photographic evidence, technical planning plans for nuclear weapons production facilities that were under construction all up until 2003.
When it seemed that the spotlight of the international attention, the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq propelled them to downsize, to not produce nuclear weapons, but decide to continue progressing their ability to do so quietly and more covertly. Now, the IAEA is investigating some of the sites named in this archive, and it asked Iran for access to three sites in 2019 and 2020.

And Iran delayed on a couple of them. They removed evidence. They sanitized the sites. The IAEA wants to know the reason for the presence of uranium that it detected and where it is today, because this has to do with Iran complying with the NPT, and it’s required to declare where it’s producing nuclear material and explain those activities. And that’s a fundamental legal obligation separate from a political agreement, like the JCPOA. So we risk that Iran won’t explain what it was doing. We risk not being able to figure out if they have ongoing activities today.

Michael Doran:
Well, thank you very much. Rob, let’s turn to you next and I’d like to get your analysis of what you think the Biden administration is doing … Well, let me put it to you this way. I think that Andrea mentioned being very, very careful not to go beyond the facts. She said that the EU made this proposal to and these are not her words, kneecap the IAEA a last week. My own feeling is that the EU wouldn’t have done this without a green light from the United States. And in fact, since the proposal was put forward, we haven’t heard any sign from Washington that there’s discomfort with this.

What do you think is happening here? I mean, we have the step taken by the EU. In addition to that, then we have Salman Rushdie is attacked by a man who seems to be at least inspired by the teachings of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the calls against the Salman Rushdie. We’ve had attacks on a number or plots against a number of Americans, including former officials in the Trump administration by the Iranian regime. Just as we’re going to air right now, I saw on the news that our social operations force are based in al-Tanf in Syria, was attacked by Iranian affiliated militias in Iraq reportedly.

No sign whatsoever that the United States is going to move away from these concessions to Iran in the nuclear arena. How do you think that the administration is framing all of this and why do you think they’re doing it? And what do you think the consequences are? All in five minutes, Rob.

Robert Greenway:
And I bet I get started. First, thanks for the opportunity to speak with all of you today and appreciate Andrea as always. Expert lay down of the current landscape. Look, let me start first with how the region perceives US approach, because I think at the end of the day, that’s equally important. I think without belaboring it, there is an intrinsic conflict in the current US approach.

In the one hand, we are hell bent on return to the JCPOA. We’re not enforcing our sanctions as a result of it and incentivizing the wholesale relief of a full range of sanctions, including those beyond the scope of Iran’s nuclear program and outside the scope of the JCPOA, those that relate to terrorism specifically, and the IRGC in particular. Who as you mentioned are responsible for many of the incidents you just mentioned in just the past few weeks. This has led our regional partners to be confused and frustrated because on the one hand, we’re feeding the greatest risk of their regional stability and their prosperity.

And at the same time in their view abandoning the many ways to their own devices without US support to reconcile. And so this intrinsic conflict between the US approach to create a problem and not necessarily to deal with the entirety of it has eroded the trust and confidence in our partners and allies in the region. And this obviously is a problem. Now, the result of this, of course, is our partners are seeking to diversify their dependency on the United States to meet their security concerns relative to Iran.

And this pushes them further and further away from the United States and closer to China and Russia, which will come at our and frankly, their expense. Now they don’t want to do this to be up front, and it’s why they haven’t up to this point, but they feel that they don’t have an alternative. Now, again, this is really not the time to do it. As we recover from a pandemic, the global economy is edging towards or in recession, depending on who’s expert opinion to believe. And in any case, there’s historic disruptions to global energy markets and food supply, and the global supply chain.

All of that is at risk because of our current approach. Now, at the end of the day, in terms of negotiations, like I would judge the administration believes, and this is all about belief. Actions are always based on some sort of belief. There’s a belief that if we increase Iran’s capabilities and decrease our partner capabilities, we’ll get to some new balance. This incidentally is the same approach. I think that the administration, same individuals that occupied similar positions in the Obama administration, it’s the same approach I believe they’ve taken toward Israel and Palestine, wherein we would decrease Israel’s capabilities and ability to deal with the Palestinian terrorist threat. Increased the Palestinian position, and this would bring us to some sort of daytime.

And so we’re seeing this play out at a strategic level. That belief informs their policy approach, and we have subordinated all other policy decisions and all other national security objectives to that. And the problem of course is that belief is based on flawed assumptions, it’s not valid. And if we listen to our partners in the region, they would all tell us as they have exactly the same thing.

At the end of the day, they’re left to deal with the consequences. And we’re likely to see an expansion to the already ongoing arms race in both the conventional and potentially in the WMD sense in the near term, as a result of our abrogation. Our inability to check Iran’s capabilities that Andrea mentioned before, as they get to zero breakout and threshold status. And I agree with her and colleagues at FDD that I would not be surprised if they were to get to the point where they would attempt to test within the next six months, because our track record on this has been 100% wrong.

We’ve never been able to anticipate any emerging threat or even our partners and allies for that matter attempt to obtain nuclear weapons capability. And I think that our loss of visibility and our lack of visibility in so many areas of Iran’s program are key here, which is why Andrea’s point about the NPT violations, the lack of verification and the failure to meet the safeguards pro is not a historic issue. It is a current one. If in fact they never stopped their program. If in fact that program continues, it’s important to know that. It’s not a matter of historic relevance. It’s a matter of current relevance. And if we’re going to undertake an agreement with Iran, we ought to make sure that there’s some level of trust. And I don’t think we’ve any basis for that trust and I don’t think we ever have.

So at the end of the day, I think we’re likely to see a couple of things. First is as I said, there’s likely to be an arms race and proliferation risk growing. The likelihood of regional conflict and escalation is important. And because of that, I think we ought to take every step that we can to support Israel’s efforts to normalize and support Israel’s relations with those that have normalized diplomatic relations recently with the Abraham Accords. I think it’s critical that we do so, and that pouring cement around that bull work, or in some way, safeguard our interest and theirs as we enter a period of unprecedented risk in the Middle East.

Michael Doran:
Rob, let me stick with you for a couple of seconds here, just to follow up on a couple things you said. One of them is the issue of the Abraham Accords. When you say that we should be facilitating the expansion strengthening of the Abraham Accords, are you stressing primarily the military value of normalization, or do you see this simply the normalization itself and economic interaction as part of the bull work?

Robert Greenway:
They’re interrelated. Our approach was to build an economic relationship between countries that had shared and convergent interests and capabilities.

Michael Doran:
Sorry one second Rob, let me just … I didn’t go into link the bios at the beginning. Let me just say for our viewers out there, when you say our approach, you were the senior advisor to president Trump on the Middle East and so is that what you mean when you say our?

Robert Greenway:
Yeah, the previous administration approach of which I was a part, our approach was behind the Abraham Accords was to connect these countries in an economic basis. So that having been so integrated that they would defend that interest because it was in their economic, it was tied to their future prosperity. The logic was not security first, economic second. The logic was very much economic first security then second.

Because again, that foundation, that logic had to presume. You look at it in contrast with ’79 in Egypt and ’94 with Jordan, it was a security first economic second approach. And in the process, it costs the United States in particular a significant amount of resources in order to maintain it. I think it’s a good investment by the way, but our approach was decidedly different and it doesn’t cost the United States. I think it’ll be more a durable as a result. And so I think that has to be invested in what is already created. And I think the expansion of it is logical and I think is something that we should prioritize without a doubt.

Michael Doran:
One other question for you, Rob. I think a lot of people, you mentioned that there’s this belief, assumption in the white house that by strengthening Iran, we’re going to get to some kind of equilibrium. And this is I think hard for a lot of people to grasp, including a lot of, I would say die hard Democrats. The administration doesn’t come out and openly say that. You can glean that here and there from some statements, particularly statements by the former president Obama. But how do you think that they have arrived at this notion that this is the way to reach equilibrium and we will achieve it, and it’ll be good for the United States?

Robert Greenway:
Look, I think first it comes from a frustration of having such a significant presence, US blood and treasure expanded in the region, especially since the results and our response to 9/11. So I think first there was a recognition that it was not sustainable to have a significant US presence in the region. Second, I think there’s an ongoing debate across the political spectrum in the United States about our enduring National Security interests in the region.

And third, I think that there’s been, let’s say a lack of enthusiasm for our support of traditional partners and allies in the region and the expense associated with it. And you tie all of that together. And I think is a desperate search for alternatives. And I think it’s valid and I think it’s wise to pursue alternatives. I think those that adhere to this belief landed in the wrong place and they did because in my judgment, it just doesn’t comport with the available facts or experience in the region, which is why I think if we listen to our partners who live there, we would I think universally here and have heard from them that this approach is not sustainable.

And again, looking for alternative is not a bad one, which is strength and capability among our partners and allies in the region to a far greater extent and enable them to wield a much greater capability and to do that by integrating with each other. So an extension of the normalization efforts with Israel was our project to introduce what we call the Middle East Strategic Alliance, but is really just a regional enduring security architecture that integrates our partners and allies into the region to deal with the host of threats, including Iran much more effectively.

Michael Doran:
Thanks. Jonathan, let’s bring you in on this. I do want to get your view on where this equilibrium notion comes from. But before we do that, could you just give us a little bit of a sense? I think nobody on this call understands the Israeli point of view better than you do. Can you give us a sense of how you see the Israelis reading this? And it looks like it’s five minutes to midnight right now, and I’m not hearing the Israelis saying that. Why is that?

Jonathan Schachter:
So thank you, Mike, and I’m delighted to join you and our other colleagues for this call today. I think the answer to that question or series of questions is pretty dense. Going to Rob’s point about the region, I think that when the country’s in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, they look at the United States, not even just over the past decade, but really since 9/11, they see sort of a United States Middle East policy or collection of policies that is very fitful, right?

So it’s sort of it’s up and down and it’s in and it’s out. And I think that the inconsistency of it is part of what has driven their thinking and their decision making until this point. And what we’re seeing now is exactly the hedging that Rob is talking about. So you see them talking more with China and talking more with Russia and talking more with each other in ways that people had ruled out as it’s impossible. It could never be that this Middle Eastern country and that Middle Eastern country would speak with each other.

And now it looks like everybody is in some way speaking with each other, including with Iran, because that’s also part of the way they’re hedging their bets. I think Israel is different in the sense that Israel is also speaking to its neighbors, but it can’t speak to Iran. Israel is not going to send somebody to Iran to try and figure out how to work out this nuclear misunderstanding, but the other countries have been doing that. Israel has to rely on the United States in ways that I think the other countries also do but with fewer alternatives and it has to rely on itself.

I think this has gotten … This has sort of crashed into the domestic politics in Israel right now because the current prime minister and his predecessor I think have been working very hard to prove who they aren’t. And so the model that they’re using and say, “You know what, the Netanyahu government took this confrontational approach with the Obama administration, particularly on the nuclear deal. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to take a cooperative approach.” And what they’re doing now is they’re saying, “And look at the tremendous success we’ve had.” The Israelis are saying that they convinced the Americans not to de-list the IRGC from the foreign terrorist thing. And along the way that also made it more difficult to go back to the nuclear deal.

I think that the US decision not to de-list the IRGC insofar as it is valid and still enforced was based on US considerations, including primarily, I would say the US domestic considerations. There were a couple of times where white house spokespeople were asked how much influence the Israelis were having on decision making. And the answer was very frank. It was zero, was the Israelis are not in fact influencing that decision making.

I think also there’s some historical revisionism going on in the sense that in Israel, I should say especially in Israel, but also in the United States as well, people talk about Netanyahu and his approach to the nuclear thing as if he started with the speech in Congress, he started with this confrontation. I heard people even in 2015 say, “Why is the prime minister making this speech? It’s so public, why doesn’t he tell the president his concerns behind closed doors and quietly so that Israel and the United States can work this out?” But the Israeli policy didn’t begin with this public confrontation. It ended with this public confrontation precisely because the prime minister did make these arguments, did make them quietly, did make them behind closed doors.

The result was that Israel’s concerns about the nuclear deal, which have been born out over time were ignored and cast aside, and the deal just got progressively worse. And of course the administration time also misled the Israelis about what in fact they were even doing with Iran from the beginning. So I think that’s part of what’s going on in Israel right now, whether or not, but at the same time, I should say the Israeli prime ministers, whether it’s Lapid or Bennett or Netanyahu have all consistently said that they oppose the JCPOA, they think it’s a bad deal and they think that going back into it is a mistake.

Michael Doran:
Do you agree with Rob’s understanding of where this equilibrium notion comes from? Do you have any thoughts? I mean, for me, it’s the strangest thing. I have my own views about it, of course, but it is the strangest thing because there as Rob said, I’m putting words in Rob’s mouth, but the evidentiary base for the existence of this equilibrium is incredibly absent in the mind of everyone, except those who believe in it. But they make no effort to show how it’s going to happen. They just seem to somehow know it. And I wonder if you have any insight into that.

Jonathan Schachter:
So I agree with both of you in that, I think during the Obama years, the president himself was much more explicit about this notion. He talked about sharing the region. He talked about balanced. To Rob’s point about Palestinians. I remember president Obama gave an interview. I think it was in the New York Times where he talked about how one of the problems was that Netanyahu was too strong and Abu Mazen was too weak and sort of if only this would change the whole dynamic would change.

I think Obama had a in many ways revolutionary vision for the Middle East. I don’t know that Biden shares that revolutionary vision. You certainly don’t see those kinds of quotes coming from president Biden. And then I think the open question is to what extent does the circle of advisors that they share, that we’re in the Obama administration and are now in the Biden administration share that sort of revolutionary view.

What I think also helps us understand the approach. And it was interesting because this I saw as the JCPOA was being negotiated and then justified after it had been concluded. And you would hear this much more explicitly from European countries than you would from the US administration, I think because of the political digestibility of it. But the approach was … It’s funny, you lay out the terms of the JCPOA to a neutral audience or an audience that’s learning about it for the first time.

And they actually can’t believe it. They are like we did what? So you lay it out and often, I’m met with skepticism. They say that can’t be, how is it possible that the US and E3 agreed to do this, this and this, and for only this amount of time and with these limits. So you say, why would they do this? And what the Europeans would tell you is that this was supposed to be a temporary solution. And that by engaging Iran, diplomatically, and economically, eventually they’d see the light as we’ve heard so many times, we join the community of nations and then the idea was they wouldn’t even think, or that they had a need for nuclear weapons or anything like that. And I think that is a big part of what was driving this in the United States as well. But like I said, I don’t think there’s a lot of appetite for that sort of explanation in the American political discourse.

Michael Doran:
Well, thanks. Andrea back to you. I put words in your mouth a minute ago when I was talking to Rob, and I said that you said that this was kneecapping the IAEA. This, I mean, the concessions regarding the possible military dimensions of the program that have been presented to the IAEA in which it is actively investigating the suggestion or the proposal from the EU to close those files.

First of all, it’s a question. I assume you agree that will actually kneecap the IAEA and I wonder if you could walk us through the current director of the IAEA, he seems to be pretty keen on pursuing these investigations. How do you imagine if the Iranians accept this proposal that he will respond and the board of governors will respond to him?

Andrea Stricker:
Sure. I think on the IAEA’s investigation, I’d be very surprised if when it comes down to it, Washington and Europe would force a show down with Iran and say, “Look, you have to provide truthful answers before the deal could be re implemented.” I mean, they’ve set the precedent already in 2015, they got away with it then. So I think, and Tehran has said very clearly that unless the probe is closed, it won’t restart a new deal.

So I think to your point, it puts Rafael Grossi in a very tough position. He has said very clearly there’s no political solution, but at the same time, what is he realistically able to do if the board of governor’s votes to close the investigation? I’m still asking contacts whether they think there’s more he could do privately, whether he could say, “Well, we’ll revisit these questions later.”

I don’t see any other option if he’s really gung-ho about this but to resign. And I don’t think that’s likely to happen. So he may try to couch this as he’s following the board’s decision, but the case isn’t closed for him. But this is very troubling for non-proliferation efforts. We have a state sponsor of terrorism that we know for a fact because of the nuclear archive had a crash nuclear weapons program. They planned to keep it going, and they’d be able to get away with it again. And of course they could continue their covert progress on weaponization and missile delivery while in the JCPOA, and then emerge in a few years with really a technical unstoppability the nuclear threshold status that we talked about to go for the bomb.

Michael Doran:
Andrea, this 60% to which they’ve enriched the uranium, correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s no technical or non-military purpose behind that. I’m saying if the Iranians wanted to have a fig leaf to hide behind, there’s no legitimate purpose for doing that other than bomb. Am I wrong?

Andrea Stricker:
No one uses 60% rich uranium in reactors, for example. And I think they had said in the past that they might go to 60 as a step toward going higher in order to make fuel for nuclear submarines. But they don’t have that technology at all. So it is just a pretext to go further.

Michael Doran:
And one of the things that’s been interesting to me is there’s more and more in the Iranian, not directly from the highest officials, but from people around them. There’s more and more open talk about getting a nuclear weapon. I mean, they’re not even hiding behind the fig leaf of the non-existent fatwa anymore. Is that right?

Andrea Stricker:
That’s right and the fatwa you mentioned is supposedly the Supreme leader said, it’s forbidden under Islam to make nuclear weapons, but no one has ever seen this fatwa. It was never apparently published. There was a website about it, but they took it down and fatwa are apparently changeable. So they’re talking … Go ahead.

Jonathan Schachter:
Sorry. What was interesting if you go back to the IAEA reports up to and through 2015, it was like pieces of a puzzle. The IAEA is very careful and they write sort of legalistic language about what they have and what they don’t see. And you get these sort of sentences like what we are seeing is consistent with the military nuclear program, but it doesn’t actually come out and say.

It always felt like you had these pieces of a puzzle. And then when you get the nuclear archive, I remember the first time I looked at those materials, I was like this is the solution to the puzzle. You were looking at the whole puzzle completed. You’re looking at the designs and plans for an Iranian nuclear weapon. And I think to Andrea’s point, I think the difference between what the IAEA can do now and what they could do in 2015 is different because in 2015 first of all, they didn’t have the archive.

And second, the particles, the uranium that they’ve discovered, and that the investigation, the investigations are open about are particles that the IAEA itself has discovered. And so I think the threat to the independence and the professional side of the IAEA very brave. Would you agree with that, Andrea?
Andrea Stricker:

Yeah, absolutely and I know you’ve been working this issue for years, so totally agree. It’s a very negative prospect that the small might be shoved under the rug once again.

Michael Doran:
So this would … Andrea, if the director were to resign or to be publicly seen to be capitulating to pressure from the greatest powers on earth, this would have a deep demoralizing effect on people working at the IAEA. Is that how you would read it?

Andrea Stricker:
I would say so. They did quite a bit of work from 2002 to 2015. If they don’t have the supported world powers, then they don’t have any reason to get access to sites. They don’t have the pressure on Iran to answer their questions. They may not even get Iran to meet with them in the future about these issues. So it’s a real problem.

Michael Doran:
This is an amazing story, Rob. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s no, all of the … The thing I find most amusing about it, if I can be amused by this sad story, is that all of the supposed justifications for the JCPOA back in 2015 that the Obama administration put forward, they have pretty much all melted away. We’re not getting a more moderate ran. The chance that we’re going to have find an equilibrium in the Middle East is about nil. There’s certainly nothing the administration can point to, to an open minded, fair-minded observer to say that we’re going to get equilibrium as these guys get stronger.

The regime itself is pretty much openly saying it’s going for a bomb, and yet we’re plowing right ahead. So what do you see at this point? Are you totally demoralized, or do you still see a way forward by which we can stop this from happening? This being Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon in the next few years?

Robert Greenway:
Well, look, I’ve had doubt and reservation about our ability to do that through negotiations alone. And I would say at the moment, I don’t think that there’s a viable path forward to prevent what Iran seems committed to do through our current course and the pursuit of return to an expiring deal. I also think we’ve eroded our deterrents. The drone assault al-Tanf Garrison in Syria is just the latest and a string of examples of how we by I think all the observable facts no longer have deterrence.

And I don’t think we can adequately defend our own interests in the region, let alone our partners and allies. And again, recognizing that global markets are incredibly important to the economy that the global economy we help create. And we’re the chief beneficiaries of. Look, no matter how you look at this, we are definitely at five minutes to midnight.

The question then for all of us is what do we do at this point, whether or not Iran answers in response to EU text by midnight night, in the next couple of hours and I don’t think that they will, I think they’ll continue to string it out because they can, and it’s in their interests. I think we are getting to the point where we’re going to have to pursue alternatives. And I think it comes down to fundamentally addressing this threat with our partners and allies in lockstep, not pursuing an alternative path, not pursuing one independent of our regional partners, but arm and arm with our regional partners.

I think we need to starve and around to the resources that it is taking advantage of to threaten the United States on US soil, as well as in the region and our partners and allies. And I think at this point, we need to restore military deterrents and ensure that in their minds that we are not going to hesitate to use the military instrument if we have no other resort available. And I think we’re getting very, very close to that point.

Michael Doran:
Jonathan, when our partners and allies in the region look at our policy and are demoralized by it. How do you think they’re going to respond? Is there any possibility in particular with regard to the Israelis. But not only them, is there any possibility of some of them stepping up and taking increased action against Iran in the absence of an American effort to restore its deterrence as Rob is describing?

Jonathan Schachter:
Yeah, I think before I answer that just to your question about how the supposed advantages of the deal have sort of melted away. It reminds me of the folks who used to defend the Soviet Union as it was crumbling and falling apart and say, “Well, of course, communism is fine. They’re just doing it wrong.” Now it’s the same kind thing like, “Well, JCP is terrific. It’s just that, well Trump did this or it was never fully that, and they never enjoyed the benefits.” And so on. I mean, it’s the same kind of sort of silly non argument. I agree with Rob by the way, I think in some ways I feel like whether or not an agreement is struck in Vienna tonight, tomorrow, or next week, whether or not they go back to the JCPOA.

And it’s actually a question I’d love to hear Andrea address for all the talk about returning to the JCPOA given all of the progress that they’ve made. Is there even a return to the JCPOA? But even if there is, it feels like in any case the United States and others are going to have to start looking at what’s next, because even if you go back to the JCPOA tomorrow, it’s still … The problem with the JCPOA was always that it doesn’t solve a nuclear problem, and it’s getting closer and it’s getting more urgent.

So what is the next step? And I agree with Rob, so far we’re not hearing that. To your question, Mike. Israel’s consistent policy across governments, across prime ministers has been that Israel will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. So what that means, I think I’ll leave to the Israelis to spell out, but I think that in many ways, the absence of the United States posing a credible military threat makes a military threat from others much more likely, not less.

Michael Doran:
Andrea, perhaps you want to respond to what Jonathan said. And I have a related question, but go, go ahead and respond to Jonathan if you will.

Andrea Stricker:
Sure. I think that’s this great point that the deal really can’t put back Iran’s progress into a box. Seven years have gone by they’ve made hundreds of advanced centric uses. I think Israel is estimating that under a revived deal, the breakout time, which is the amount of time it would take Iran to make enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. It would be four to six months rather than the Obama administration claimed it was a year under the JCPOA. Also the JCPOA would put a cap on the amount of enriched uranium Iran can possess and limits on the enrichment purity it can achieve, but they’ve made so many advanced centrifuges, and they’ll all reportedly just be forced to put them in storage so they could overcome these caps more rapidly if they wanted to.

And then the deal, it just allows the program to expand over the next few years. They can make more advanced centrifuges, put them in storage, but then add key equipment that would make them operational in 2027. So the threat, it will expand under the deal. It’s not like a Soviet arms control agreement where we’re putting caps that you have to renegotiate at the end. This actually allows the program to grow, so that’s a great point.

Michael Doran:
Andrea, my last question to you in this with respect to the nuclear threshold. They have right now the capacity to enrich uranium to weaponized levels within a matter of weeks, if I’m not mistaken, but what do we know about their ability to put that material into a warhead and put a warhead on ballistic missiles? What are the reigning assumptions in your community and what facts are those assumptions based on?

Andrea Stricker:
Well, we know a lot more based on the nuclear archive materials. We’ve seen that they’ve done quite a bit on weaponization. They had a nuclear weapon design. They had a series of bottlenecks in the weaponization process that they had not overcome by 2003. And because it would be so secretive if activities are ongoing, very little is known. So I think in Israel and in Washington, they have to sort of extrapolate and guess what the progress would be. And they haven’t seen too many signs of what’s going on.

We know that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh who was an assassinated atomic scientist. He was overseeing an entity called SPND by the Persian acronym. And they were supposedly continuing out, carrying out these weaponization activities. The US sanctioned them in 2014 and then sanctioned additional entities and people in 2019. So at the same time, we’re saying, “Well, we don’t know if the weaponization program continues. We see evidence of it going on in the nuclear archive planning to continue it.” I think that’s what leads the good ISIS and David Albright to say they could probably explode a nuclear device within six months, whether they would want to acquire more enriched uranium to be able to break out, I would say probably yes, they would probably want more than enough for five weapons, which is what they have now. But it just depends on how desperate they are, how quickly they would want to go forward, but they certainly seem to have time to go forward if they want.

Michael Doran:
Rob, you’ve sat in the seat where you’ve had to advise a president on this issue. A president who was not eager to get into a conflict with Iran. And I think it’s fair to say. And if he had an obvious way out of conflict, would’ve taken it. If we were to put you in the room with Joe Biden now, and you were to advise him knowing full well, all of the political pressure on him not to go down the conflict route and it’s on a democratic president with a progressive base, and it’s even more intense than it was on Donald Trump. What are the kind of simple steps that you would advise him to take to begin to restore the credibility of the United States? The credibility of its deterrents that you mentioned a minute ago?

Robert Greenway:
Sure. The first, I think of the most important is to safeguard US interests in the region, which is an obligation. We need to introduce sufficient capacity back into the region that we’ve been assiduously pulling out for uninterrupted for almost the last 10 years, to the point where we probably have the least amount of capabilities in the Middle East that we’ve had in decades. And a time when as we were talking about now, risk is increasing, not decreasing.

So first and foremost, we need to reintroduce capabilities sufficient to defend and protect our own interests. I’d add to it that a lot of those interests is our physical infrastructure, military and diplomatic alike, but also our partners and allies economic assets. I think the last thing anyone including this current administration wants to see is a precipitous climb in gasoline or oil prices because Iran decides again to launch a unilateral attack against Saudi’s oil infrastructure or other regional oil infrastructure. So that has to be defended. And we can’t currently do that adequately.

Number two is in order to over the long term to make this feasible so that the US isn’t there on perpetuity at tremendous expense, we have to really invest in making our partners and allies a lot more efficient, not just individually, which is again I think prudent. And these are paying customers by the way, unlike a lot of our commitments in other parts of the world. And second, we need to integrate them. It’s the difference between putting individual players on the field and putting a team on the field.

And there’s no question I think in anyone’s mind, certainly not in mine is that we need to put a team on the field just as we’ve done in Europe and in instances in Asia. And so I think that’s ultimately required to safeguard our interest. That’s even if we were to pursue a negotiated path to return to the JCPOA way. If that remained a policy objective, we still have to address this enormous gap in our risk, and restore credible military deterrence against our own threats, but also those of our partners and allies and global energy infrastructure.

And then second is all the facts now support the conclusion, I think that there is not going to be a diplomatic resolution to this problem, even if we return to the deal as Andrea pointed out, as Jonathan mentioned, and other experts have, that that’s still, the blanket is still too short for the bed. We’re going to have to come out a way to reconcile this and that has to be done. And there needs to be a plan in order to do it. And all of the consensus judgements for these many years has concluded that Iran response to two things, existential military threat and significant economic pressure.

And those two things are intimately related. They’re both the regime survival issues, and only under those circumstances, will they reverse course on a significant decision of this magnitude. And we have withdrawn both. So we have to return both of those in order to obtain an outcome that meets our interests and our partners and allies in the region. And if we don’t take those steps to reintroduce capabilities, make our partners more capable and to begin to reapply pressure to get Iran to change its course, then we’re going to be left with a circumstance where at the conclusion of a test, we have to basically assume they can deliver the weapon that they’ve tested.
And they would then have this blanket of impunity, which I think the current Supreme leader, knowing his time on this earth is running thankfully short is mindful of. And the fact that he thinks a fragile is really coalition government headed into elections yet again, and a US government committed to negotiations not confrontation.

He may well be judging that this is the best chance he’ll ever have to ensure regime survival by obtaining a weapon. It worked for Russia. It works for North Korea, and it didn’t work in Ukraine’s case where they promised to give up their weapons did so, and now are reaping the lack of security that the west provided them. So I think that all the lessons are pointing to us to pay close attention to the fact that Iran may well be committed to pursuing a path, to developing a weapon. We should assume that’s the case.

Michael Doran:
I was going to make this your last word, but you’ve just … What your comments have smart to question in my mind. So let me go ahead and ask it. There’s a view out there in the Middle East Analysis community, not what I ascribe to by the way, but that Iran doesn’t actually want a bomb. That it just wants to be one turn of the key away and that actually having the weapon is going to cause more problems for it than not. I hear you saying two things, which I think are interesting. One, of course they want the bomb, but also once they have the capacity to test, they will test. They won’t see any downside to testing. Is that right?

Robert Greenway:
Yeah. Look, they’re imminently practical. I understand the argument. I also don’t agree with it because at the end of the day, the benefit of having a capability is proving it. You have to be able to prove you have the capability. If there’s doubt, like there isn’t deterrence, then it’s not deterrence. And if you have a weapon capability, you don’t test it, then it’s speculative. And that doubt could seed action. And what I think they’re keen to do is prevent anyone from attacking them.

And they have seen time And again, the only way to do that is to possess a nuclear weapon. And that has worked for North Korea. It works for Russia and it works for other states in the same predicament. And I think in their minds would ensure regimes survival. I think that they don’t want to get to just turnkey. I think they would if they thought that met their objectives. But I think at this point they’ve concluded that it doesn’t and because our positions wax and wane with the change of administrations, I think their goal is to ensure survivability through their possession and demonstration of a capability.

Michael Doran:
Thanks. Jonathan, let me put the same questions to you. If I could get you in the room with president Biden and again, understanding fully the pressures that he’s under, what are some of the steps that you would like to see him take?

Jonathan Schachter:
I think my answer is very similar to Rob’s. One thing I think that is very important even in advance of the president’s trip to the region, there was all this talk about putting together a regional Air Defense Alliance, looking at the missile and drone threat out of Iran. And I think the defense piece is important and I agree with Rob. If we can get a team out there instead of just individual players, I think that’s more effective. I think the incorporation of Israel into CENTCOM is a positive development in that regard. I think if the United States is in a position to facilitate that greater coordination and cooperation on air defense, of course, that’s a positive thing.

My concern is that the US was talking this up and the Israelis were talking it up in advance of the president’s trip, but it’s so focused on defense. And there were so little talk about deterrence as Rob was talking about that I worry about the message. The message that now we have to come to terms with the Iranian missile threat, and that’s just how it is, but it’s actually worse than that. Because at the same time, the US is pushing a return to the JCPOA. JCPOA lifts the missile embargo on Iran, not in 10 years, but next year. About 14 months from now. So you and I were talking about it, to me it looks like it’s like a drug dealer offering to open a rehab clinic. Here we’re going to pump the market full of Iranian—we’re going to boost the Iranian missile threat, but we’ll give you some missile defense along the way.

Just it strikes me as sending a very dangerous message. So my advice would be that you have to strengthen the defense message, but you also have to strengthen the deterrence message. I think the message that Rob was talking about, and the examples he gave were very apt. So I think the Iranians, they look at Gaddafi and they look at Saddam Hussein and they look at the Ukrainian example and they draw conclusions.

I think also very frankly, they look at Taiwan which had its own nuclear weapons program in the 1980s, that the United States pressured them out of. And look where Taiwan is today. I mean, look how we’re talking about Taiwan today, vis a vis the Chinese threat. Obviously no analogy is perfect and I don’t mean to suggest that these things are all cookie cutters that apply.

But I think if you’re in charge of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. And again, it’s a nuclear weapons program and to support the JCPOA, you have to pretend that it’s not, I think that the conclusions they would draw would be very alarming. And I think, again, if I’m talking to the president and say, “Look, I understand the political pressures you’re under, but the path you’re on now is going to make not just war more likely, it’s going to make a nuclear arms race more likely.” And so now is the time not to follow the lead of progressives in your base, but to actually lead by showing them that this is the way toward a safer, more secure and more peaceful outcome.

Michael Doran:
Just to make everybody feel really good. Let me remind them that Rob Greenway, if I’m not mistaken, Rob you’ll correct me. Your entire career was spent in the Middle East as a military officer. Is that right?

Jonathan Schachter:
Correct.

Michael Doran:
Rob Greenway career military officer, before he worked in policy, when he says that our capabilities are at an all time low, that’s the opinion of a very serious and knowledgeable expert. Andrea, as our distinguished guest, you get the last word here. You can give some advice to Joe Biden, or you can leave us with whatever thought you have on your mind.

Andrea Stricker:
Well, I would just like to give people the warning that FTD’s estimating that Iran will get around $275 billion in the first year of the JCPOA alone. At the same time-

Michael Doran:
$275 billion?

Andrea Stricker:
Yeah. That’s what we’re estimating that total is comprised of on frozen assets, oil revenue, lowered import costs, just during the first year.

Michael Doran:
But Andrea, there’s a lot of inflation out there.

Andrea Stricker:
So it could be more.

Michael Doran:
That’s not that much really.

Andrea Stricker:
Or less, but without meaningfully addressing the nuclear threat, halting assassination plots on US soil or stopping any attacks on our troops and our partners in the Middle East, among other reasons for not giving a terrorist sponsoring state access to large amounts of funds. So I would suggest to president Biden back out now, get the policy, correct this time. Don’t go for what’s easy, just because it will delay a bomb perhaps by a couple of years while he’s in office and let go of this Obama legacy issue. We have to address the Iran threat holistically this time.

Michael Doran:
All right. Well, thanks to all of you for joining us and thanks to all of you out there listening. This has been a very informative discussion. Not very uplifting. I’m not leaving in a better mood than the one I came with, but I guess not all Hudson events can be sweetness and light. Thanks a lot.

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