A New Case for Containment in Iran – Moving Beyond the Status Quo


EVENT TRANSCRIPT: A New Case for Containment in Iran – Moving Beyond the Status Quo

DATE: 4:00-5:00pm, 30/08/22

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Jason Brodsky, Alex Vatanka, Catherine Perez-Shakdam

EVENT CHAIR: Dr Burcu Ozcelik



Welcome, everyone, and thank you for joining us. Today’s event hosted by the Henry Jackson Society is ‘A new case for containment in Iran – moving beyond the status quo’. This promises to be a very interesting and certainly very timely, relevant discussion about what’s going on today with respect to discussions over the Iran nuclear deal, but especially I think our focus is going to be on potential new avenues, new channels, new opportunities, beyond the status quo, beyond the tried and tested and the conventional. And so that should be quite interesting. We’re looking forward to that. I see that Alex now has joined us. Thank you, Alex, for being here. And thank you, Jason, of course. I’m Dr. Burcu Ozcelik, I’ll be chairing and I’m going to be handing over to our knowledgeable panellists in just a moment. I do want to introduce them briefly. Their full bios are of course on our website and you will have seen this already.

Jason Brodsky, to start off with, is currently the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran. He was previously a Middle East analyst and editor at Iran International TV. He’s been widely published, and is a known expert on this topic, we look forward to hearing from him. Catherine Perez-Shakdam is our very own research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Again, a well known expert commentator on Iran and the wider Middle East, and has been very widely published, more currently around issues with respect to the nuclear deal and what that could mean if it goes forward. Alex Vatanka, who I believe has joined us after a different panel that he was on earlier today – so thank you for that, thank you for joining us – he’s the founding director of the Iran programme at the Middle East Institute, specialising in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a focus on Iran. We’re very pleased to have you here today.

I would encourage everyone who’s joined us listening in to please type in your questions as we go along, I will be monitoring. We have allotted about 30 minutes at the end of our discussion for a Q&A, which we look forward to. So please use the raise hand function to type in your questions. Our speakers will have about 10 minutes each on their topics. I think we will start with Jason, Alex and Catherine in that order if we proceed. And I look forward to our discussion. Thanks very much all again. Jason, do you want to start?


Sure. Thank you so much for that kind introduction. And thank you to the Henry Jackson Society for arranging this conversation. I appreciate, Catherine, the invitation. And it’s always great to be with Alex who’s work on Iran I greatly admire. I want to discuss the challenges and the opportunities that I see as it relates to the Iran policy landscape. First, I always say this, but I think it bears repeating that Iran is not just a nuclear file, I feel we need to be countering and empowering across a wide range of files at the same time. But unfortunately, in my view, the nuclear file both during and after US participation in the JCPOA has dominated the transatlantic conversation on Iran. During the US participation in the nuclear deal, there was no serious multilateral effort to counter Iran’s non-nuclear malign behaviour, the missile and drone proliferation, hostage taking, support for terrorism and most significantly, the human rights abuses inside the country. There was a hesitancy, particularly as I see it in Europe of doing anything to disrupt the nuclear deal. For example, the EU levied only two rounds of sanctions on Iran since 2013, one in 2019, after the bomb plot in France, targeting an Iranian dissident rally, and another in 2021, on human rights related issues. And even last year after the attack on the Mercer Street vessel, which killed two Europeans, it was only the US that levied sanctions, not the Europeans. And I think that that really has to change and especially with the trend lines that we’re seeing in Ukraine now, with Russia getting Iranian drones for use in Europe’s own backyard. So we need to be collaborating more closely and holding Iran accountable with these behaviours.

So in theory, I think the talking point about putting Iran’s nuclear programme in a box to be able to free up resources to deal more effectively with the non-nuclear concerns, you know, sounds very attractive, but in practice, the reality at least from my perspective, has been much different. This is especially the case when the most powerful tools in the US architecture, in the form of sanctions on Iran’s energy sales, are lifted as a return to the JCPOA. And this flies in the face of representations  that the JCPOA does not take away any tools to concentrate or counter Iran’s non-nuclear malign behaviour. And I would say that there are news reports suggesting that there may be non-nuclear sanctions relief being offered even to revive the JCPOA particularly under Executive Order 13876 targeting the office of Iran supreme leader, the most powerful and also repressive elements of the Iranian system. So, you know, demarches and statements expressing concern on the other non-nuclear behaviour, you know, are not a policy in my view. There is currently momentum and towards reviving the JCPOA but we’re not there yet as questions over the issue of guarantees and the closure of the IAEA safeguards probe hang over the talks. But even if there is a deal, I worry that the implementation will be so cumbersome, especially with Iran conditioning reimplementation on the closure of the IAEA safeguards probe, that it will again divert and deflect attention away from these critical pressing and non-nuclear issues on Iran. And this strategy, by the way, in my view, serves Tehran quite well. It uses the nuclear programme as an albatross to deflect attention away from the real crown jewels of the system, the missile and the drone programmes, support for terrorism, proxy militias, hostage diplomacy and its treatment of the Iranian people and human rights abuses. And in the end, all of these issues, on my view need urgency to be addressed Deal or No Deal. In recent days, we’re seeing the US trying to demonstrate it’s able to push back against Iran and Syria. That was good. We’ll see if the deterrence that they build lasts, but we have to do this consistently across the board.

In my view, what has been disappointing though, has been the lack of policy consequences for the targeting of Iranian dissidents in Europe and the United States, particularly Masih Alinejad, current and former US officials, like former US national security adviser, former Secretary of State, my organisation has been targeted as well. Traditionally, these are handled as law enforcement matters, but there are no policy consequences. It’s usually handled as an indictment of someone who will never see the inside of an American courtroom, piecemeal sanctions of people who don’t have assets outside Iran. There are also a statement or a warning from a US official, but that does not translate into any policy consequences from the US government. And how can Iranian’s inside Iran, expect the international community to empower them when we seem afraid to be able to do anything that rocks the boat with the nuclear deal. And that’s been my concern all along. It was not too long ago, in 1993, when there was an assassination attempt against George H W Bush when Bill Clinton was in office. This was in Kuwait when the US even in an attempted assassination launched airstrikes on Iraqi intelligence to restore deterrence, to deter the Iranian system. So that’s been a missing element. Diplomatic isolation is an option as well, in responding to these attacks and attempts I should add. After as many of you will recall, in the 1990s, with the fatwa, some European countries severed relations and withdrew ambassadors, and that did have an effect, at least in the short term. So these are some tools I think that can be brought to bear.

Last and most certainly not least, I want to talk about empowering the Iranian people. The transatlantic public diplomacy on Iran, needs to be dramatically enhanced. On the US side, at least from my view, it’s been frustrating because we have Persian Instagram accounts, Twitter accounts, but in my view, the content on these accounts and the messaging is stale and removed from what’s pulsing on the streets of Tehran. When we have protests, usually protests develop over the last year, there’s a belated statement from a US official, but there’s very little follow up. And I think that a more robust effort to engage the Iranian people is necessary. So that even people who support a return to the nuclear deal should want this because it would be the US government and our E three partners highlighting the choices that the Iranian system is making, prioritising ideology, all too often ideology and proxies over its own people’s welfare.

So these are just some thoughts across the board on what we can do. We can declassify more information on the Iranian leadership’s corruption, our work with allies to support the Iranian people’s free access to the internet and develop a protest kind of toolkit that we have already made available policy options for when these protests happen so we’re not constantly being reactive. So those are just some thoughts that I have across the board on a lot of the challenges that we have with Iran policy. And I look forward to the conversation.


Thanks very much, Jason, thank you for that. I think there’s several strands to pick up there. During the discussion. We look forward to that. I’d like to move on to Alex now.


Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here with you, with Jason, with Catherine and I look forward to it. And again, I apologise for being a bit late, I was on another panel. Look, I just very quickly react to some of the things, many solid points that Jason just made. I noted three of them down that I hope we can get to talk about in more detail.

That Iran is not just a nuclear file – very true. And no nuclear agreement with Iran can stand scrutiny or be sustained unless there is adjustments, changes elsewhere with Iranian behaviour, it’s just a question of time is assuming, for example, there’s a new nuclear deal tomorrow between the Biden White House, and the Iranians, even Ayatollah Khamenei, the reigning supreme leader will admit, at best, it will last two years, which takes you to the centrality of this problem. It’s not just about Iran’s nuclear programme it’s much more.

The other point that I thought Jason made, which is very true is on the issue of deterrence. Deterrence is essential, and it works. And so does pressure. The Islamic Republic of Iran does respond to pressure. I mean, the most recent example of that, it’s not nothing too political, nonetheless, is somewhat political. You know, they allowed a group of Iranian women to enter a football stadium or soccer stadium to watch a game the other day, purely out of pressure from FIFA and the World Football authority. So yes, pressure does work and needs to be kept in the toolbox of the United States in the West, generally speaking.

And the last thing that Jason said, which I hope we get to talk about is empowering Iranian people. I mean, that is by far the biggest policy instrument, the United States has vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. You know, it’s the anger that you have in this population of about 85 million people. And if you find ways to tap into that anger, the regime, Ayatollah Khamenei, the generals, and the Revolutionary Guards, all of these people who’ve been running around since 1979, will have no choice but to pay attention. But I wanted to sort of very quickly divide my remarks. And I go through and forgive me for doing this. But I know time is limited, and I want to hear everyone’s thoughts.

So I will go through sort of bunch of bullet points in the next few minutes. And I wanted to talk about why does internal reform not happen in Iran? I asked the question, “can Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, you know, basically stay the course”? He’s been there since 1989, one of the longest running leaders anywhere in the world today, and maybe perhaps in recent World History. And then the question I also wanted to touch on is on the notion of hybrid containment, you know what to do and what not to do. So let me start off by why we are struggling to see any sort of Iranian opposition. As I said, before, there’s so much anger in society and anybody who’s an Iran watcher like we are, you know, we have so many examples to show you where this anger is and how it’s expressing itself on a daily basis, literally. So this is a ruling elite in Tehran that is very much detached from the people, certainly the younger generation, who were in Iran in 1979, they don’t understand what’s going on. Certainly, a majority of them do not like to see the policies that are coming out of officialdoms. Ayatollah Khamenei and his state, spend millions, if not billions of dollars, even while being under sanctions to promote this image of the Islamic Republic, all sorts of efforts are put into sort of shape their image in a positive way in the minds of the public. And frankly, the track record speaks for itself, they’re not doing a very good job. Instead, what we have is hard evidence, how they’re failing. And one way of looking at it is the number of people who are leaving Iran, literally on a daily basis. Iranians are leaving the country. And I think that is the biggest sign of a failed system that your own people, your citizens, don’t have faith in it, and they leave. I’m not going to sit here for a second and argue the Islamic Republic doesn’t have any base of support. It does. Clearly it does. And I think to argue otherwise would just be counterfactual. 43 years it’s been in power. But how big is it? And I would say it’s probably around the 10-15% mark. Again, a clear majority, based on everything we can point to, wants change wants regime change, frankly, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

The political opposition you have in Iran today is frankly, borderline comical. I mean, they don’t represent the people, the so-called reformers today, don’t dare speak up. People like [inaudible] and so forth, are irrelevant, essentially. I mean, they’ve been overtaken by the people’s sentiment, and they don’t have anything to offer. And I think that’s why we have a situation where basically the reformist camp in Iran is nicely manipulated by Ayatollah Khamenei. So come election time, there’ll be a bunch of token, so called reformist candidates to prevent or to provide a show to the world that, you know, the Islamic Republic has healthy elections, when in fact, we know Iranian elections are massively engineered, and there are hardly any surprises ever in terms of election outcomes. It is what Ayatollah Khamenei wants that gets through. And I also say final remark on this, that unfortunately, the Iranian opposition in diaspora is – they mean well, but they are badly fragmented, badly disorganised, badly divided. And this, you know, is music to the ears of the officials in the Islamic Republic. They look at 5-6 million Iranian diaspora around the world. They see dozens and dozens of political movements. But they don’t fear it because they don’t think that the opposition in the diaspora has any way of actually hurting the regime in any meaningful way. And again, that ought to be something that any policymaker in the Western is looking at their policy vis-a-vis, the Islamic Republic needs to perhaps reassess.

Look, very quickly, can Khamenei keep it together? The fact is, the man has surprised everybody, when he took over in 1989. Nobody thought he would be lasting three times as long as the founder of Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini who lasted only 10 years as supreme leader. This man Khamenei has been there for 33 years. So don’t underestimate him. And don’t underestimate the fact that he does have a vision and he wants to make sure that vision lives on even to the day he’s no longer on this earth. But this, I think, is also the weak spot of the regime, Khamenei being a micromanager has kept the regime together, has shrunk the regime tent to the smallest size the tent has been since 1979. But the day he’s gone is an opportunity for the Iranian people, the Iranian opposition, the world community, whoever cares about shaping the future of Iran, because once Khomeini is gone, potentially, the system can no longer stay the course the way it has without him. And again, that presents an opportunity. So the succession issue ought to be at the centre of any discussion in terms of the future of the Islamic Republic.

Now, in my last few points here on hybrid containment, I, you know, we can discuss what did the nuclear deal of 2015 was good or bad, what a new deal would be good or bad. But my point is, you can have a nuclear deal with Iran. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have deterrence, that doesn’t mean you can’t put pressure on Iran, that doesn’t mean you cannot increase the cost for the Iranians, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, wherever they are. Increase the cost, so much so that it actually might end up changing their mind in terms of what they’re doing. I would say to you, I don’t think the United States has always put enough pressure, certainly on Iranian regional policies, the counter to Iranian policies hasn’t been strong. Certainly, that’s the criticism one hears when you talk to US allies in the region, from the Gulf states, the Arabs, or the Israelis, and so on. So we have to be very, I think, very smart, very clear-eyed in terms of where to put pressure on the Iranian regime.

My personal feeling on this, and this might be somewhat controversial but I love to hear people’s thoughts on this, I think mobilising the Iranian population as a population of, whatever it is, 85 million, and help them empower them to go out there and stand up to a regime that doesn’t represent them is absolutely the policy United States should pursue. Are we going to be selective as a policy by the United States and support ethnic and religious minorities only against others. This is where I think it starts getting risky. This is where I think we might fall into a trap the regime wants, the Islamic Republic wants the United States to fall into. So they can go out there and repeat the mantra, the claim that the United States is problems isn’t with Islamic Republic, it wants to dismantle the country of Iran. And this is a trap. They love to see the United States fall into it. So when we are trying to empower the Iranian people, we have to be very, very cautious that it’s not something that backfires and doesn’t help the narrative of the Islamic Republic, but certainly I’m all for offering power in the Iranian people, I think they would welcome it. I think they, you know, Jason talked about Masih Alinejad, somebody who left a system she was born into, and she can’t even escape the Islamic Republic in in New York City. And that is just wrong. That’s plain wrong and has to change. But anyway, let me stop here before I talk over my time limit.


No, that’s perfect. That’s just under, Alex, so very nicely done, almost to the second. Thanks very much for that and plenty there to talk about. And I’ve certainly written down a few questions. And I could use my power, my authority as chair to perhaps jump in at the end of this. But Catherine, please do go ahead.


Thank you. Well, Alex, I have to say you actually made my transition very easy, because I wanted to talk about, you know, how is it that we could actually help, how could we help Iranians to, you know, to achieve political self-determination in a way that you know, represents the wishes of the people without creating, you know, a power vacuum or repeating some of the tension that the Islamic Republic has tried to inflame in terms of sectarianism or playing into, you know, the ethnic cordon and positioning communities, you know, against one another on the basis of the ethnicity and arguing that, you know, these points of contention there, and that those people do not really belong to Iran, and the Iranian system.

And I agree with you and I agree with Jason to in terms of, you know, the issue with Iran has is not just about, you know, the nuclear file, that it goes beyond that it’s about, you know, an ideology that has been projected outside the borders of Iran, and has perverted a lot of, not only the Middle East, but I would think the world narrative when it comes to, you know, our approach towards Islamic radicalism or foreign policies, it has tainted the narrative to such an extent that it’s very difficult to unpack everything. And, you know, as far as I’m concerned, right now, when I look at the Middle East, all roads lead to Tehran, and not in a good way at all.

So, for the past couple of years, I’ve had many discussions with opposition groups, you know, in the diaspora, within Iran, and I’ve came to the same conclusion – is that there’s very little cohesion. There’s a lot of people who disagree with the regime and would like to see the regime go, but no one really came up with a system, or even an agenda, political agenda, offering solutions to the Iranian people, and I’m talking about, you know, education, the economy, human rights, women’s rights, all those things that Iranians want to see changed, nothing is ever being covered. So a lot of the time, you know, party’s agenda are really, for me kind of reduced down to the point where it’s just a slogan, thrown around against the regime calling for the death of, you know, Khamenei, or his demise, or you know, thrown in jail, it doesn’t really matter. But the point is, there’s no real agenda behind it to back it up. People argue, you know, they saying they want to have a republic, but they want to have a socialist system, they want to have a communist system, again, with nothing to back it up, it’s very difficult for Iranians to actually make up their mind because there’s nothing that is being offered to them in a real meaningful sense. And so, you know, the way I look at it now, I think it’s down to us in the West to offer solutions to Iranians and actually create a space in which, you know, those debates, those discourses could actually take place for them to formulate a political thought. And I thought that, you know, what better way, but to enable people to exercise political self-determination? And what would that look like? So again, I’ve had many great discussions with various people. And I realised that actually, the regime propensity today to actually exclude a lot of the ethnic minorities, which form the greater whole of Iran could actually be a solution to that very problem. So if you look at the map of Iran, and I think that geography does matter, because up until now, the reason why Western capitals have chosen sanctions, versus maybe, you know, regime change, for example, as we have tried to do in Afghanistan, in Iraq, for example, is that the geography of Iran does not allow for military interventionism in the sense that, because the establishment, the regime, the hard core division, rather, is in cased within its mountains, it’s almost impossible for any, you know, foreign troops to get over the mountains of Iran and to hope to reach Tehran and to depose the regime. I mean, it is possible, obviously, but it would take so much military effort, that I don’t think anyone has the stomach for that kind of campaign. And so we kind of reverted back to the idea of sanctions and trying to exhaust the regime to such a point that you would just basically crumble, fall, and the people would rise up and replace it by something else.

Now, maybe, just maybe we need to kind of take a step back from that. And actually think about it in a different way, whereby the people would actually create, basically punch a hole through the regime by creating pockets of resistance against it. And again, geography would allow for this. So now, if you look at the map of Iran, you will see that all the ethnic minorities, and I’m talking about the Azeris and the Kurds, Ahwazians and Taluks are actually on the border with Iraq, Kuwait, and Turkey obviously, and they would allow, through their geography, to actually punch quite a big hole against the regime and create a free zone. So in my mind, and through the discussion that I had, we imagine this scenario where those ethnic minorities would actually come together forming this grand coalition that would not be political per se, but rather a grand effort of resistance against the regime, and the attack of the regime against those communities on the basis of their ethnicity or their religion, to agree that they are facing together, you know, a grave enemy, that it’s time for them to stand as Iranians together, celebrating the differences and understanding that they can actually reach political self-determination within the borders of Iran, and agree that the day the regime falls, they would have a national dialogue and actually agree that, number one, they need to stand equally before the law, that secularism isn’t lost, and that, of course, democracy, obviously, is something that would protect their ethnic rights, their human rights, their religious rights, in a way that hasn’t done before, and is certainly not happening under the Islamic Republic.

And I think that from a Western perspective, that would allow for number one, containment to be a lot more effective than it is today, it would empower local communities to actually, take ownership of their future, to decide what is it that they want for themselves, as opposed to us trying to kind of project our vision of what democracy should look like in Iran, and also allow for this grand national dialogue to take place, and I think it’s well overdue, where, you know, the Kurds and Ahwazi, and other ethnic minorities within Iran didn’t really have a say, every time that we talk, for example, about the Kurdish issue, it was always lost in translation, you know, and kind of lumped up with, you know, Syria, Iraq, and, and Turkey. And even though, you know, the Kurds have one identity, it doesn’t mean that, you know, this identity is not expressed differently, depending on where they are on the map of the Middle East, and how things have evolved over the past decades. And many Kurds very much feel Iranian, and they want to express, you know, their ethnic identity, but within the borders of Iran. And I think it would be interesting to have those conversations with those communities and see, how do they see the future. And again, I think that political self-determination, which is, after all, a cardinal principle of international law, could actually help us to, to at least, formulate the beginning of a solution when it comes to Iran. And really empower Iranians to actually think about the political future, and not so much divide them alongside, you know, the Monarchist camp with the Republican camp, or the socialist camp, or even the MEK, which is unfortunately, you know, the only well organised opposition group, which is a shame, because I think they are more terrorist than political but this is, again, a personal opinion. So maybe just maybe we could use geography to advantage, we could use, you know, sanctions, of course, to support the efforts of the Iranian people, and try to formulate a way forward in a way that, by the way, would I think be well received by neighbouring countries such as Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, on the basis that it would allow them to guarantee some degree of security, energy wise, in terms also of not having a spill over onto their own borders should there be civil unrest if we were to intervene in Iran. Things like that, I think it would be the most organic movement that we could maybe dream about. It’s not perfect. There’s a lot of hurdles, obviously. But I think it’s something that should be discussed. And unfortunately, I don’t think that we have, I haven’t seen many discussions, you know, geared towards that potential idea. So this is something that I wanted to put forward to you, panellists, and also, you know, to the people listening to us and try to gauge a little bit where people stand in regard to what I call hybrid containment basically, which is essentially an introduction to regime change, but in a very different way, that has nothing to do with military interventionism, and purely relies on you know, people’s desire to see political change in a way that is that they will own rather than something that would be projected or imported onto them.


Right. Thank you. Thank you for that, Catherine, Jason, and Alex, thank you for your insight. I think, as I’ve said, there’s a lot there to unpack. And I hope we’ll get a chance to do that in our remaining time. Just one point, I’d like to contribute, perhaps, and this can lead on to a question, the three of you mentioned quite forcefully the importance of perhaps the biggest policy or the pressure point in terms of policymaking that of empowering the Iranian people themselves. And I think that we should probably emphasise there, how that’s a very fine balance, isn’t it? Because whilst we’re talking about empowerment, what we must be mindful of is the risk of underestimating the agency of the Iranians themselves, who have been struggling at great risk, many activists, civil dissidents, women’s groups within Iran, who have been struggling against the regime and its oppressive policy. So that question of agency there, I think, is something that we need to always bear in mind when we’re talking about the West, empowering any group of collective people abroad, or in the rest of the world, let’s say.

And there, I suppose the question is, despite this awareness among a great portion of the population, let’s say in Iran, and Alex, you mentioned that the hard core of the supporters for the regime would number perhaps 10-15%. Right, that’s quite a narrow bandwidth. So, if we’re talking about then a larger population who actually is hungry for change, what is the reason that that’s not happening? Right, and you talk about internal opposition. And there, of course, we can’t put aside the force of the regime’s ability to control and exert power over the tools of repression and violence, right, there is a huge cost to pay a personal cost to pay for these individuals or groups collectives within Iran, who dare to stand up against the regime’s policies. So this kind of feeds off on one of the questions that one of the members of the audience, I suppose put forward, which was, how can we support the Iranian people then without creating some type of reactionary backlash? Right, which is the risk again, Alex, you mentioned this. And there, we have seen this before, right, in terms of a sudden rise in nationalist sentiment, in support of the regime. Iran is, however we put it, is an extremely patriotic or nationalist country or country that rests upon centuries of empire. And so there’s a great degree of pride there and a very high level of animosity or suspicion to external intervention in the affairs of the Iranian people. So how can we develop policies from outside of Iran that would, I suppose, be mindful of this fine balance between intervening too much, and not doing enough to help those on the ground who are poor and putting their lives at risk to affect change in the country? If anyone wants to jump in and respond to that point, maybe, and it’s one of the questions from our audience as well.


Well, I guess, I can start with that. I think we have to be careful about undermining the desire to respect the territorial integrity and the nationhood of Iran. At least the Iranians that I speak to are very hesitant to go into this ethnic dimension and they want to ensure Iranian nationalism and the continuity and the integrity of the Iranian state. So I think we have to be quite careful in that direction. I’m sympathetic, and I understand about the need to prevent a backlash in terms of Western involvement. But I don’t think anyone here is suggesting that the United States or any other country invade Iran, like Iraq style 2003. No one serious, I know, is suggesting that, I think we need to be giving them the tools that allow them to determine their own future. And that is kind of how I would frame it. And that way, the Iranian people’s fate lies in their hands. The problem, as you mentioned, is the repressive nature of the regime and the overwhelming power that they use to suppress any kind of dissent. They’re very practised at it, they shut down the internet early and often whenever there’s even a hint of a protest movement. And so I think that the United States and the international community need to invest in the tools to circumvent those efforts, you know, allowing for internet access. And, you know, those kinds of tools that would enable the Iranian people to promote and empower themselves and to show the world what they want. And along the lines here also comes in the diplomatic isolation. If we have a regime that is, in November 2019 protests killed upwards of according to one estimate, 1500 people, there needs to be diplomatic consequences here and not just engaging in business as usual with entertaining Iranian delegations at meetings and endless negotiations, there needs to be some kind of support given for the Iranian people in that regard. And that means some sort of diplomatic isolation.


If I may, just following up on what Jason said, you know, obviously, I know Catherine means well, but when you hear words like ‘free zones’, what people imagine, I can guarantee you what the average Iranian will imagine is that the United States or some power in the West starts providing Kalashnikovs and then you will have – I know that’s not what you meant. But that’s why exactly why I started off in my remarks saying we have to be very careful, we don’t fall into this trap, where the Islamic Republic narrative wins. The West – this is no different than what Putin is doing right now, by the way in Ukraine, or what the Chinese are doing over Taiwan or Tibet or Xinjiang, the Imperial states have a way of pushing back when they think that their imperial legacy has been challenged, we have to be very careful. The other thing I guarantee you that they support – you know, you’re right, the minority, or the Persian majority. And this is this is a difficult one. I mean, what’s the Persian majority in Iran today? I happen to be a product of a Persian mother and Azerbaijani father, there are millions of us. I mean, what where do I fit in the box? Right? It’s an imperial state people have married over the centuries. This is not this is not Yugoslavia, where you can go in and somebody’s a Serb somebody’s a Croat. And it’s just not that easy to divide it up like that. But the regime nonetheless, is, is ready, as to Jason’s point and have had plenty of practice. If you remember, one of the earliest crackdowns right after Khomeini took over in 1979, was to go up to Kurdistan and crack down or into the Turkmen regions, or the northeast of Iran. They’ve had this practice for over four decades, and the mobilisation among the ethnic and religious minorities is just not that great. They’re not ready. They do not like the Islamic Republic, they hate the discrimination. If you’re a religious minority in Iran, you have no reason to be happy. I mean, if you Bahá’í, if you’re Jewish, if you’re Christian. I mean, their list of grievances is endless. But are they ready to take this step and risk and this is the thing, it’s about risk. So what you’ve seen in terms of trend, Iranian is sort of good or bad, instead of putting their lives at risk at the hands of a very brutal regime – when he wants to be brutal, it can be very brutal – what they have opted to do is to leave the country, to emigrate to look for a visa and leave. This is not the generation of the late 1970s that came and toppled the Shah, it’s a very different generation, and their threshold to pain, despite the anger is in a different place.

Look, I also wanted to make another comment on what Catherine said, and I think we have to be very careful about it. Iran has 15 immediate neighbours, you know, and I think we have to be very careful not assuming that these neighbours actually want to see the implosion of the country of Iran. Certainly not right now. Because the consequences that we’ll have on that, if you’re sitting in Iraq the Kurdish issue, in Turkey the Kurdish issue, in Baku, you know, the Republic of Azerbaijan has 10 million citizens there are over Azeris in Iran, suddenly they’re running over. That’s not something they’re ready to take. The Pakistanis would like us to support the Baluchistan in the southeast, the Gulf states do not despite what they’ve done over the years in [inaudible], they are very worried about Iran retaliated against them in places like Eastern Province in among the Shias of Kuwait, and so on. So I don’t think the region is necessarily willing to take those sorts of risks because they fear the Islamic Republic. They don’t like the Islamic Republic, but they fear the Islamic Republic. But that fear alone sort of limits our options. But now nonetheless, what Catherine is talking about is, about empowering the people, is exactly what the United States and others, even regional states should do. Look for smart ways of empowering. For example, I’m not talking about creating seminars and bringing people for conferences, or what on earth is going on with the Iranian opposition? Why isn’t there a couple of catchy slogans that we can all memorise and say all the Iranian opposition believing that, we can’t say it because they haven’t come up with all sorts of catchy slogans?


Yeah, there’s no coalition. No coalition, because I mean, even in Yemen, they managed at some point to kind of agree to disagree long enough to oppose the regime back, you know, back in 2011. But for some, some reason, Iranians in the diaspora, even in Iran haven’t been able to form any kind of cohesive movement against the regime. They’re always very fragmented, and it’s still very difficult for Iranians to back anyone up because there is a vacuum.


Thank you for those comments, Alex. Yeah, especially about the posturing of the regional, regional neighbouring countries with respect to Iran, which we don’t talk about enough, perhaps in our analysis. Catherine, did you want to respond to, to the point about empowerment? Did you want to add to that?


No, I think that Jason and Alex made some very valid point, I don’t have anything to add to this.


Great. So, a lot of the questions that have come in have to do with how best to support authentic grassroots change inside of Iran, what kind of steps can we take to support the Iranian people? And also, someone mentioned a concern over what if we go too far, and what if this resembles the results of the Arab Spring? And so what happens next in Iran, then is either a power vacuum or a coalition of a repressive system, once again, as we’ve seen in Egypt, I suppose under Sisi, so the risks are there, the challenges are certainly enormous. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some channels potentially, of engaging with the Iranian people. Perhaps one solution that has been talked about amongst regional neighbours, of course, is to help this become a regional problem that requires a regional solution. Right, so what Alex mentioned about neighbouring states, they don’t like the regime necessarily, but they fear it. There also there also might be some momentum there to engage in policymaking that could help support some type of change in Iran without going so far as to say those dangerous words ‘regime change’, right. Anything that you wanted to add? I think, Jason, did I cut you off there for a minute?


No, I do think we need to be careful. Of course, it’s not risk free. But we need to, the United States needs to do much more in this space. I would say that we have done and as I mentioned in my opening remarks, we need to be speaking more to the needs of the Iranian people today, not just reiterating the success stories of America, which you see in a lot of our messaging on the Persian language platforms that we have. That’s important too. But we’re not speaking to the daily challenges that the Iranian people are facing now. I can’t think of the last time the President has spoken and acknowledged these concerns. We rarely hear from him on Iran, the Vice President, the Secretary of State at times a little bit, but there is not a high-level attention from the administration on these issues. I think that should really change because if you remember, the President has this focus on democracies versus autocracies. And that’s a real theme of his foreign policy, and Iran fits into that space. And so that’s a missing piece here. And I think that there’s a hesitancy to do anything while we’re engaging with the Iranians in nuclear negotiations, that even is a whiff of regime change. Because there’s a fear that that will alienate the Iranians from the negotiating table. But I would actually argue the opposite. I think that helps to put pressure on the regime and focusing on the choices that it is making. So that’s what I would add on that point,


I would just very quickly add a couple of points to what Jason was saying. Look, number one is United States. And this is not just limited to the Biden administration. The United States doesn’t have any Iran strategy other than the nuclear talks, right. And nobody should expect the United States to have this all-inclusive Iran strategy that touches on everything from Iranian drones, missiles, human rights, all the rest of it, it’s not going to happen, but you can focus and you can prioritise. And I hope that one of the things that they will prioritise is how to help the Iranian people in the sense of empowering them. And I know that sounds so awfully vague, what does that mean empowering the Iranian people, but this is this is where the smart people should get in. And think about ways you can actually empower people; I can tell you what you shouldn’t do. I remember the Trump administration came in and everybody was wondering what they’re going to do. He ended up having a policy at some point, the maximum pressure campaign, right. And what was the first thing he did in office, ban all Muslims from coming to United States including people from Iran and anybody sitting in Iran thinking that’s not about American strategy towards Iran, that’s about American domestic politics, he’s playing the Muslim card for American voters. And you know, that’s the sort of thing you don’t want to see, if you care about a foreign policy issue, as I hope the United States does on Iran, you want to have a policy that makes a little bit more sense than just being a reflection of domestic politics. Or, you know, it’s not that the US doesn’t do a lot to help, for example, bring information to the Iranians. I mean, you look at what the US has done over the years, Iranian public benefits from the wealth of information that is coming, thanks to US taxpayers, but you need to take that a bit further. Information creates awareness. But where does that awareness then go in terms of becoming a pressure point for, for the Iranian regime? I think in many cases, it has become a pressure point the regime has been forced to respond. But I think a lot more can be done on some of the more critical issues, like for example, what Iran is doing in the region. You know, the Iranian people, by all accounts do not like what is happening in terms of Iranian regional policies. This doesn’t serve Iranian national interests whatsoever. Not a single job is really being created in Iran, except maybe the [inaudible] force people, but not a single job has been created as a result of what Iran is doing in Arab world, and billions has been spent. How do we find ways to make Ayatollah Khamenei, the generals, and the Revolutionary guards to look at the Iranian people in the eye and answer for what it is they’re doing. But it’s not that particular in the national interest is something entirely different. And I think those are the types of ways you put pressure on the Iranian regime.


That’s very useful. Thank you so much, Alex. I think I’d like to direct a question specifically to Catherine, who I know recently published a piece on this. It’s about Iran’s waters shortages. And so the human tragedy on the horizon here. And the question is, can Iran’s water mismanagement potentially serve as an agent for popular domestic change?


I don’t know. Right now, I think that water has been weaponized by the regime in the sense that [inaudible], which is basically where most of the Iran’s natural resources come from, especially when we’re talking water and oil and gas resources. So what has been happening is that the government has basically rerouted some of the water resources to force communities to abandon their land, which land is then appropriated by the government and then sold on to, to Chinese companies to be exploited, you know, and resources to be extracted. Now, these policies have helped twofold. Number one, it’s allowing the regime to basically acquire access to more resources and syphon resources that way and benefit from it without having to give anything back to, you know, to the province himself. And number two, it’s also putting pressure on both Kuwait and Iraq by way of migration, where they, you know, holding the threat of, you know, pushing people out of Iran and, of course, spilling out onto Iraq and Kuwait and to make it their problem. And, you know, it’s a form of hostage diplomacy that has been played out. Now, what is quite interesting is that, you know, this agenda is actually being replicated in, in the Horn of Africa, where Iran is trying to acquire, again, more natural access to natural resources, and trying to buy out favours in the Horn of Africa, to potentially, you know, use pressure against countries such as Sudan, Egypt. And of course, if they were to play the migration card, Europe, you know, would be on the receiving end of, you know, those migration waves. So this is something that I think is actually quite concerning in the way that if one is trying to formulate, you know, maybe the potential next decade of its foreign policy and the way again, that it’s, it’s trying to use certain cards to apply pressure onto not only Western capitals, but the region as a whole and to destabilise, she basically asserts, you know, its own power and expand its ideological reach by playing up into you know, disorganisation within the region. Again, this is something when it comes to Iran, there’s so many there’s so much to unpack, there’s so much that they do, by way of destabilisation, infiltration, trying to exploit the revolutionary ideology. It’s very difficult to keep not only track, but actually to try to have a cohesive campaign to try to oppose it. Because a lot of the time, I think it has gotten so big, that to some level, I think we’ve given up thinking that you know, it’s too big to handle for anyone and so we tried to find kind of nuggets that we could address without really going after the main and ultimately, we’re going to have to do it at some point.


If I could very quickly just add on the water front, I think to me, it reflects perfectly what’s wrong with Iranian Foreign Policy. Iran right now is a pretty significant agricultural producer. A lot of people depend on their livelihood, on farming these lands around the country. But over the decades, they haven’t been able to keep up with the latest technologies in terms of use of water. So they’re using a lot more water on average per hectare of land producing goods that they then export which they need. If Iran had a different policy, imagining a different world, so you have to bear with me for a second, forgive me for daydreaming almost. But if Iran didn’t have these sanctions imposed on it, because it had a different foreign policy, because it focused on different issues like economic development at home, then Iran could go out there with plenty of billions of dollars in the bank and access to financial markets and access to cutting edge technology and improved agricultural sector. Right now what they’re doing, they’re desperately trying to turn seawater into drinkable water through desalination. And the desalination plants that they’re coming up with are out of date, they use a lot of fuel, they bring a lot of damage to the environment, because they don’t have the latest technology. So again, and we can talk about water for a long time, but it’s just a perfect, you know, problem that you can point to and say, here’s a solution, if you had a different approach to international affairs, you would be able to be much better at dealing with your water problem. Instead, what they have is migration. And this is going to be headed for the Iranian regime, these people leaving the countryside going to the to the big cities looking for opportunities, they’re often not going to find those opportunities that become bitter, angry. This is exactly what happened in the late 70s when migration happened at a large scale and they came and they became the movement that toppled the Shah down in 78’, 79’. So if I was in Islamic Republic, I wouldn’t dismiss, you know, things like water shortages as a marginal issue, while I’m chasing God knows what in South Lebanon or Yemen, that that ought to be something that they should be very conscious of.


Yes, thanks for that. Thanks Alex, we have about three or four minutes. And before we close, I want to ask you a very big question that you can’t possibly answer in the last remaining three minutes. But it touches upon some of the questions we’ve been receiving, too. So I wanted to ask you if you wanted to comment on, what do you think at this juncture, is the least bad, but realistic option, especially as negotiations to potentially revive the JCPOA continue the least bad and realistic option? And bringing in some of the audience questions related to that, should the [inaudible] military option be on the table?


I’m going to start, I’m just going to make a very quick comments on the JCPOA. And again, this is my personal opinion. So you know, feel free to disagree. I think the JCPOA is completely redundant. The whole idea back in 2015, was to prevent the acquisition to certain, you know, nuclear technology. The technology has already been acquired. So the genie is out of the box, there’s no putting it back, I don’t see the point. So whether or not the JCPOA happens, it doesn’t really change anything in terms of, you know, Iran’s trajectory. I think that the issue today has to do with hostage diplomacy. Jason put it perfectly. There’s a lot more that we need to worry about when it comes to Iran than just the nuclear deal. And I think that it has run away with us anyway, this is just a failure. Let’s put it that way. There is no real cohesive strategy when it comes to Iran. And we need to go back I think, to square one and rethink opposition. You know, Western capitals need to do that. We need to address the elephant in the room. And it’s not just the nuclear deal. It’s all the things that the regime is doing, especially in terms of protecting the ideology outside their borders. This is a main problem, hostage diplomacy that is sponsoring terrorism across the world that is actually putting our strategic partners in grave danger. So yes, so I think that where do we start? We start there, we start by actually coming up with a cohesive strategy when it comes to Iran and try to contain the dragon. And hopefully, you know, the Iranian people will then decide what to do with it and hopefully put it to sleep once and for all.




Sure. Well, I think that this touches upon my opening comments a little bit. I think that we have to recognise that the geopolitical, technical and also internal domestic political context in which the JCPOA was formed no longer exists. Geopolitically, we have Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that has really scrambled the international scene. And right now Russia is looking at Iran as a potential sanctions evasion hub and a return to the nuclear deal needs to be looked at in that context that didn’t exist in 2015. Sure, Crimea was happening in 2014. But this is a whole other level of different magnitude today. In terms of the domestic political reality, look, I think that back in 2015, Hassan Rouhani, and Javad Zarif offered a very useful storefront for the Iranian regime. But now there is no illusion that the return to this deal is going to result in a radical transformation of Iranian policy. And so, you know, that logic, that some, not all but some sold the JCPOA in 2015 on, doesn’t apply today, we are confronting the most sanctioned, unwanted presidency since 1979. You know, Ebrahim Raisi is no Hassan Rouhani. He’s accused of crimes against humanity. And so I think that that changed situation needs to be weighed in as to what our next steps are. And technically, again, Iran’s nuclear programme has advanced to such a state where we can’t guarantee the one-year breakout timeline upon which the original JCPOA was based on, its recoverable. So it’s shorter and weaker today and I don’t think it’s a sustainable proposition for the United States given the bipartisan opposition to return.

And also sorry, I think there was a question on the military. I think we need a credible military threat, there is no doubt that the Iranian regime knows that we have the capability to put their entire nuclear infrastructure at risk. That’s not the issue. They doubt that whether we have the will to do so. And that has been missing in my view for the past year plus of negotiations.


If I may just add very quickly, I think that was the big sort of, if you will, sin of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. They put out a 12 list demands of the Iranians but President Trump reminded everyone all the time that he wasn’t going to attack Iran militarily, the military option was off the table. That’s all the Ayatollah Khamenei needed to listen to, that there was no military option, they’re used to being sanctioned, but they do fear the mind of the United States military. And as I said before, deterrence does matter. So yes, you need to find a way to make sure that Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guards take the US seriously, again, frankly, I mean, that ought to be even if there is a nuclear deal. And you know, I agree with Catherine and Jason, in terms of things have changed radically since 2015. But you know, if the new nuclear agreement gives the US and allies time to prepare, come up with a strategy that I think we all agree today is still missing, that in itself might be worth it. But yes, clearly the Iranians have made advances right now that are going to be possible to roll back now. And you know, good or bad, that’s what we have to deal with.

But look, it must be my final comment, the US needs again, go back and think about what is it the United States wants out of its Iran deal? How does the world having changed make a difference? How did the war in Ukraine change the United States calculations in terms of the future of this big country called Iran, as the world divides into, you know, us, the West versus Russia and China, or the autocracy versus democracy. So we’re going to try and bring the Iran into the Western camp, a country that I think would be perfect to be with the United States under democracies, if the people of Iran actually had a say. So it will have to be a multi-pronged approach. It would have to be something that you do not in a four-year US election time cycle, you actually commit to it, and you don’t have one American president come back and start something all over again and then four years later, something else happens. It needs to be strategic in the sense that you need to be patient and you need to put the people of Iran at the heart of it because I think end of the day the Iranian people want a very different country to live in and a very different future and coexist with their neighbouring states in ways that you know, that obviously this Islamic Republic cannot comprehend so just don’t forget that you have the biggest instrument in the toolbox is that anger in the Iranian population for change, and just find ways to tap into it. I think that would be my answer to that.


That’s hugely important. Thank you very much, Alex. And I think that’s it in terms of time. I want to thank you very much again, for your contributions and your insight. I think this made for a very important conversation. I was very pleased to be here with you. And thank you to everyone who joined in and contributed with your questions. That’s always appreciated. So, thank you very much, and we look forward to next time hopefully. Thank you.


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