EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The Iran Nuclear Deal: Insecurity across the Gulf
DATE: 3pm, 10 May 2021
SPEAKERS: Col. Richard Kemp, Dr Pupak Mohebali, Jason Brodsky, Rob Clark
EVENT MODERATOR: Rob Clark
Robert Clark 00:02
Well, thank you to everyone joining us today for this afternoon’s events, Iran nuclear deal insecurity across the Gulf. My name is Robert Clark, and I’m a defense fellow here at the Henry Jackson Society in London. This event comes at a point in time for both Middle East and British policymakers who urgently need to address these security issues. As the ongoing negotiations in Vienna between Iran, the original remaining signatories to the nuclear deal and the United States continue. Tehran seeking to leverage their own version of maximum pressure onto the West, in order for the resulting deal to note itself more favorably to their liking. This is a highly myopic perspective. However, and one considers the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as made involved in the uranium regime to further widespread nuclear non compliance, including ever increasing uranium enrichment, which will significantly narrowed the breakout time to develop nuclear capable warhead. Not only that, but the widespread sanctions relief which came in force in 2016. onwards, and return for supposedly compliance around really enrich the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their ability to export terror and violence across the region. Now, join these ongoing talks in Vienna, the United States is determined more than ever to revive the inherently weak deal. Just as Iran begins to increase this pressure attempting set the timings to their preference to coincide with the election is next month. Both the United States and the United Kingdom must remain resolute not to buckle down join these talks for the sake of a quick bill, which will ultimately prove to once again be the wrong deal. It gives me great pleasure to now introduce our three speakers for this afternoon. Before I do so however, just a quick reminder that the audience q&a will be going ahead after our speakers remarks. So if you have any questions which you would like to put to our panelists then please do just type them ahead on your screens and we will address them shortly. Our first piece Our first speaker is Jason Brodsky. Jason is a senior Middle East analyst and editor at Iran International in Washington. Jason’s research specialties include leadership dynamics in Iran and its Revolutionary Guard call the Shiite militias and us Middle East Policy more broadly. Thank you, Jason, the floor so to speak as yours.
Jason Brodsky 01:59
Great. Thank you, Rob, and to the Henry Jackson society for putting on this timely panel. As we speak, negotiations are underway in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal. These are complicated talks, defining compliance sequencing and scaling back around nuclear advances and still us withdrawal all loom large. I think that there was an attempt at the beginning of the Biden administration to make rejoining the nuclear deal akin to flipping a switch around foreign minister said it could be done in three executive orders. Some supporters of the nuclear deal thought President Biden would move swiftly and cleanly to re enter the JCPOA. But months to the Biden administration, the US hasn’t rejoined the deal just yet. Why, there are a multitude of technical issues at stake. But this is more than just the technical puzzle as to how to get Tehran and Washington back into the agreement. There are broader implications for US policy in the Middle East and Iran zone domestic policy and politics at play. Over the years, there have been many critiques of the nuclear deal sunset, inspections, its lack of coverage of other sources of raw, Iran’s malign conduct, the list goes on. But there’s a fundamental problem with the agreement. And that has been that there’s never been a sufficient political constituency in Washington. And by that I mean bipartisan to sustain its existence across administrations. That was certainly the case in 2015. But with the clock already ticking, nearly reverting to a 2015 situation will make the divide, I fear even worse. And so I’d like to discuss some of the political and technical challenges ahead that I see. The domestic political landscape in Tehran and Washington have shifted since the original deal was signed. On the US side, President Biden is a first term commander in chief grappling with a pandemic, nursing the wounded economy and dealing with a whole slate of other more pressing challenges that’s been defeated. That’s the difference to the 2015 situation when President Obama was in the second term, and the presidential inbox wasn’t as overwhelming as it is today. And while it is true that Republicans control two houses of congress in 2015, President Biden still faces narrow margins in the US Senate, a 50-50 split, as well as fewer democratic seats in the House of Representatives. So this dynamic coupled with competing priorities may limit the amount of political capital the president seeks to spend on necessitating an agreement that was controversial and highly unpopular among almost all republicans and many influential Democrats, including the current US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez. So in short racing to rejoin in agreement without demanding any amendments, right, lengthening the sunset provisions, or at the very least extracting some binding commitment For follow on negotiations could be a bridge too far for this administration. The situation in Iran is complicated as well. The presidential election is scheduled to take place on June 18. And the electoral jockeying has already started. While it’s the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was the final word on the nuclear file. The President lacks independent decision making authority in this context, but he does have input as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council. The President Rouhani faces competition from two more ambitious and conservative officials the speaker of Parliament Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who are both potential presidential contenders and both have seats on the supreme National Security Council as well. They were not on the council when the original deal was inked. And so they are unlikely to defer to rowhani on these issues, and so with the octogenarian Supreme Leader aging, the next Islamic Republic president could very well be holidays less, and as a result, I feel that the political space for pragmatists like rowhani may shrink, if Ayatollah Khamenei aims to pave the way for a more hardline disciple in this post, which may make Quran more uncompromising during the Vienna talk, to avoid giving Rouhanis allies a boost during the election. The European diplomats have already commented that Irans negotiators appear to have little room to maneuver in Vienna. That’s why harmony has greenlighted these talks and thrown a bone to rowhani. His team may be on a short leash. And in terms of just talking about some of the technical challenges ahead, defining compliance will be a significant undertaking. The JCPOA was premised on the easing of nuclear related sanctions, but there were also a multitude of missile terrorism and human rights related designations, which has been added to the US sanctions arsenal during the Trump presidency. Iran deputy foreign minister has defined us compliance with the nuclear deal is removing all US sanctions that were re imposed or relabeled. After the US withdrew from the nuclear deal. As mentioned above, this position has evolved into a demand by some in Tehran for restoration of even the 2015 nuclear conditions. But there has been some indication of flexibility in Vienna among some Iranian delegates. Tehran is stating very clearly that it will demand certain non nuclear sanctions relief as a part of the revival of the agreement. likely candidates include the terrorism sanctions levied on Iran central bank, the oil ministry and the National Iranian oil company under executive order 13224. But if the bride’s administration were to agree to take such a step merely to revive the 2015 terms of the deal, I feel it would run into a political headwinds on Capitol Hill given the evidence that the US Treasury Department has laid out in justifying such designation. Likewise, the Iranian domestic debate has emerged over the concept of verification, meaning how Iran would verify that us sanctions have indeed been lifted, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have said it would not take much time and that it could be done rapidly. In contrast, Iran Parliament Research Center warned that the process can take between three to six months. That’s a timeline would be a non starter for the United States without reciprocal Iranian steps to scale back its nuclear escalation. And these sanctions minefields don’t even begin to tackle how to address the technical knowledge Iran has gained since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. There are disagreements over what will happen to the new advanced centrifuges, Iran is installed since the US withdrawal. Some parties like the US and France may want those centrifuges destroyed. But others might be more amenable to taking them out of the country or simply disconnecting them and putting them under IAEA seal. This has proven to be a troublesome stumbling block and something to watch in the weeks and months ahead. So therefore, I do think that the chances are high, there will be an agreement, but I question what the timing of such an agreement. But again, nearly reverting to the 2015 context is not a strategy, the strategy because it has no sustainable political constituency. As far as Washington is concerned, the strategy needs to be a longer and stronger deal. And yet and thus far, Europe and the United States, in my view, have not demonstrated that there is a plan as to how to get to that next step. And so I’d like to turn the floor back over to you, Rob, and look forward to the questions.
Robert Clark 09:34
Well, thank you very much, Jason, some really good insights. Thank you. Our next speaker is Dr. Pupak Mohabali, an Iranian political scientist and multimedia journalist working at an Iran International TV. Pupak specializes in nuclear diplomacy, national identity, PhD research was focused on the JCPOA itself. Just a quick reminder as well for those wanting to submit your questions you can do so for this conversation. I will address them shortly. Thank you. Thank you for your comments.
Dr Pupak Mohabali 10:04
Thank you so much, Rob, to you and the Henry Jackson Society for organizing this very timely event. And thanks for having me. While the political and technical aspects of the JCPOA have been in the very capable hands of Jason, I will tell you more function stories here. So there is more than one aspect to how the sanctions affected Iran. Today I’m going to address the economic and political impact of sanctions on Iran. Even though most sanctions imposed on Iran nuclear activities have been lifted after fighting the nuclear deal. The deal wasn’t enough to persuade European banks to work with Iran. And this is even before the Trump administration withdraw from the deal in 2018. That’s mostly because the US penalty is linked to other long standing issues such as Teheran ties with groups designated as terrorists by Washington rescue in place. global companies are afraid of breaching regulations and risking multibillion dollar fines. Iranian officials complained that the remaining us sanctions still are harming their ability to do banking work with the world. And some trades, for example, for humanitarian and other good examples by the Treasury Department continued but with delays because the banking system intensified with close scrutiny. Business will also be disrupted as foreign banks and companies try to better understand try to better understand the new sanctions. And later, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA has had serious trade related implications. So not only around the economy has been badly affected by the sanctions imposed over the country’s nuclear activities, but it also made it more difficult for many more punitive for the global businessman to do business with Iran. Now, okay, so if we want to examine the impact of intensified us sanctions on Iran and its trade with Europe, I say that, of course, they did hate Iran more than the UK or Europe, but lifting the sanctions would mean easier trade for the UK and Europe. April May 2018, was the day the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and like of course two days ago was its third anniversary. Since then, the E three global group of Germany, France and Britain. They set up the company called instruments in support of trade exchange, no no insects in January 2019 to bypass us sanctions on Iran, which this company was supposed to enable money US dollar and non safe trade between the European Union and Iran in defiance of us sanctions. In fact, completed his first transaction on 31st Of March 2020, which was about worth of $540,000 US dollars medical equipment, we see that the European counterpart tries to preserve the civilian economic engagement with Iran. However, they have further support the US efforts to counter Iran’s proliferation activities and support of militia groups in the region in January 2019. The EU also added Iran’s intelligence service and to intelligence operatives is terrorism related sanctions list, in response to allegations of Iranian terrorism plotting in Europe and Germany in Italy have denied lending rights to Iran Mohan Air, which the United States at the time has designated as a terrorism reporting entity. Iran believes that Europe and UK have not done enough to counter the US sanctions and salvage the JCPOA. Iranian officials say that they stick to their position of rejecting negotiations until the US sanctions imposed on Iran falling 2018 are lifted and Iran is compensated for the economic and financial damage as a result of this sanctions. In some way, the Biden administration has a sort of answer to this complaint. Step one, as they say is to go back to JCPOA. Then step two will be to negotiate something longer and stronger that will work for everyone. But what this port, nobody said we had Trump administration’s by maximum pressure campaign that some believe it works. And that’s why Iran is back to the negotiating table. And others say it didn’t hit its purpose. And many Republicans in replacing a maximum pressure campaign with what they call a maximum concession campaign will only embolden Iran and its activities and intervention in the region. Others say the previous us administrations sanction policy on Iran does not work. Richard Nephew, the Obama administration, Principal Deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the Department of State, for example, believes it is because the US pursued a maximum sanctions pressure campaign, but it didn’t pursue a maximum pressure campaign. So the question here is, what can the UK and European parties to the JCPOA do to ensure Iranian compliance. Now the UK and Europe, in my opinion, they need some more proactive approach to Iran to be involved more with Washington as well as the key Middle Eastern countries, because for the JCPOA parties as the regional players, it is important to reach a deal with Iran that goes beyond the bounds of your activities, and include around ballistic missiles and original behavior. And therefore, I believe original security framework is needed to lower tensions resolve conflicts and reduce regional competition across the Middle East. For the Europe due to its proximity to the Middle East, their security is more directly impacted by Middle East conflict and instability to then better us. So long term engagement in easing your attention, and that the lising complex could be seen as a priority for European economic and security interests. In the recent rounds of negotiations, the US has agreed to leave most industry wide sanctions and acknowledging they were imposed after 2016 as a result of the nuclear deal, but the US is less preferred to leave sanctions imposed on individuals and some entities if they then link to Iran continuing acts of terrorism or breaches of human rights rather than its nuclear activities. European nations like the US also believe that early around the price in Vienna, place emphasis on whether the US will lift all sanctions imposed on Iran and not enough has been served by Iran, and when and how it will fulfill its parallel commitment to return to compliance. Thank you so much. And I’ll leave the floor to you and our next guest.
Robert Clark 17:40
Thank you very much Pupak. Thank you. Okay, great. Our next speaker is Richard Kemp. Richard is a retired British army colonel, who commanded British troops in Afghanistan before going on to work for the Joint Intelligence Committee, and also for Cobra. Richard, thank you very much for your time.
Col. Richard Kemp 18:12
Thank you very much, Rob. And thank you to you and the Henry Jackson Society for putting on this zoom conference. And also, the the excellent report that I think is due out in a relatively short time very, very timely report. Iran has breached the the the JCPOA 48 times since it was agreed since it was agreed, not just in the time, since President Trump initially pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018. But since it was initially agreed, and those 48 times are laid out in Rob’s report on this for those who have any doubt. The JCPOA has failed, utterly failed, in my view to constrain Iranian nuclear proliferation. And again, the way in which that has happened is set out in among the breaches in that report. At the same time, the funds released and the easing of restrictions on Iran released as a result of the deal have increased regional terrorist aggression across the region across the whole region, including against Gulf shipping, as well as elsewhere, including in Europe. So these are the main purposes of the JCPOA was to contain Iran’s nuclear program and also to restrain it as a hostile power around the world. The JCPOA was worthless in the way it was conceived, basically paving the path for a nuclear Iran and is now becoming increasingly irrelevant as as some sets, in some cases already expired, and all are due to expire within the next 10 years. Meanwhile, sanctions imposed by the US under President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, were biting, causing damage to the stability of the regime, and perhaps to an extent at least, now impacting on Iranian aggression. We should always remember that the overwhelming priority of Khamenei and the IRGC is the stability of the regime above all else. And I think we can read by the increased aggression of Iran, including larger number of rockets, and recently drone attacks against the US in Iraq as well as aggression elsewhere, as indicative of Iran’s desperation, to get back into the JCPOA. And the economic relief that it provides, again, especially for regime stability, as Pupak has rightly said, the US hope, I think, was to return to the deal as phase one and then phase two, expand it and make it more demanding. But the reality is, I think for those who have any understanding of Iran, that won’t happen, once they’re back in the deal, that’s where it’s gonna stay. There’s little prospect, in my view, if any of Iran accepting any further restrictions. And it’s only now when Iran is feeling the pressure, as we’ve seen, I think from their recent behavior, that better terms potentially could be forced on Iran. As far as Britain and Europe is concerned, I think the Europeans, especially the French, but also including the UK, had severe doubts about the JCPOA when it was first signed when it was first agreed. They bought into it, I think, mainly because of it was President Obama that wanted it that Britain in particular, I think refused to follow us out of the deal in 2018, because it was President Trump asking for it. And now support of the Vienna negotiations are because it’s President Biden, who wants it. So I think the the decisions taken in Europe, but of course, they’re based partly on their desire to increase trade, and presumably to have some kind of stabilizing effect on Iran. But I think it’s more to do with which leader in the US wanted at the time. But even appeasement, as represented by the JCPOA, in my opinion, will not work against Iran. We’ve seen Iranian regional aggression against the US and the UK, including continuing after the JCPOA, including killing Brits and Americans in Iraq, including a bomb factory that was established by uranium proxy in London, just shortly after the JCPOA had been agreed. We’ve seen other attacks by Iran, by Iranian proxies in Europe, after the JCPOA was agreed, including in Cyprus, Netherlands, France, and Denmark. We’ve seen hostage taking US and UK citizens are currently residing in Iraqi jails, including Nazanin Ratcliffe, who the Iraqis are now demanding $400 million to free. They say it’s not. Some people say it’s not connected to the IRGC, but the connection to the JCPOA Iran, but their connection is fairly obvious. I don’t need to talk about regional aggression against Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Yemen, in Israel, by Iran. That’s, that’s blatant, and also the concerns of those countries over Iran’s nuclear proliferation Iran’s nuclear program, including the potential for proliferation, we’ve already seen prospects of that in Saudi Arabia in Turkey and Egypt. The Iranian aggression that I spoke of continues, and in some cases has been increased partly as a result of this problem that Iran has at the moment with its stability and desire to get back into the regime. I would say that it one of the few benefits of the deal is the impetus that it gave inadvertently, admittedly, to driving the arraign the Abraham accords, whereby Israel and a number of Arab countries saw common cause in closer relations, partly probably largely due to the threat they both felt from Iran. I won’t speak much about China and Russia, except to say that I think we should always be suspicious of any deal, such as the JCPOA that is supported by China and Russia. We’ve seen a lot of cooperation, covert cooperation between both of those countries and Iran, against the US sanctions under the radar. And of course, both those countries want to continue providing Iran with arms. Over above the radar if they can, in the case the JCPOA is reestablished. Just a word on strategic implications. I think, too, for the US to show weakness now over Iran by making concessions to them and accepting a renewal of the JCPOA. I think that has global impact. When we look at what particularly China and Russia, how they look at the US actions we and you know, we’ve seen an example recently of the US decision to use to unconditionally withdraw from Afghanistan, we’ve seen President Biden backing down over a plan naval deployments in the Black Sea in the face of Russian aggression. We can’t afford to see any more, in my view any more weakness from the United States, in global terms, if it’s to retain any form of, I suppose, of deterrent effect around the world. Today, I think the US has all the leverage in this and Iran has none. It’s really a historic moment for the US to maintain pressure on Iran, and potentially obtain better terms, rather than reserves revert to the failed JCPOA. However, I do think that the reality is any deal with Iran is not worth the paper, it’s printed on even an enhanced deal on the nuclear issue. We just have to look, as I mentioned at the 48 breaches of the deal, after they signed it. And just one very recent example of how much Iran orders international law only a few days ago, there was a massive seizure of Chinese and Russian weapons in the Arabian Sea. They came from Iran, and they were probably headed for Yemen despite the UN arms embargo on arming Houthis. So this, this illustrates how much respect Iran has for the international system and how much we can rely on any deal they sign. Obama sold the deal in the US and Europe, with what I believe to be the force of that it was the deal that deal or war. Those are not the alternatives, though, in fact, the alternatives, in my opinion, are containing Iran by a combination of diplomatic and economic pressure, plus gray zone operations short of war, or war. Those are the two alternatives, we should not return to the JCPOA. There’s no harm in trying to create a strengthened JCPOA as part of the diplomatic process. But that must be in consultation with Israel, Saudi and the UAE who feel deeply threatened by Iranian action and will feel even more threatened by a weak return to the JCPOA. Meanwhile, we should strengthen naval operations in the Gulf to contain Iran’s aggression against shipping. We should impose stringent sanctions to restrain Iran, including import and export are weapons and we should blockade Iran to enforce those sanctions as far as possible. We should prescribe and actively counter the IRGC in its regional and global aggression. It’s a terrorist organization that has been responsible for many, many deaths, including Britons and Americans. And it and its proxies need to be confronted in the same way as the Islamic State has been confronted. when appropriate, we should support gray zone action by those states are willing to engage in it, including cyber attacks, sabotage, and targeting of key individuals, including involved in the nuclear process. This may be alien to our way of thinking, but I’m talking about acts within international law, and that they are effective, they’ve proven to be effective and damaging Iran’s nuclear program. And it’s a key part of this is these kinds of actions are a key part of the alternative to war, or a nuclear armed Iran. I just finally like to say we should remember, we’re not dealing with a state that operates within the accepted international order, or has any respect for international law under the existing regime as as terrorist state, and its intent on becoming a nuclear armed terrorist state. Thank you.
Robert Clark 28:55
Thank you very much for that, Richard some, some hard hitting realities. I think people need to hear sometimes when we approach the, well, this conversation in particular, and in particular, some suggested policy recommendations, which fall between resumption of the nuclear deal, and all out conflict. So some thoughts to think on, I think, for the q&a, for sure. Thank you to all my speakers so far. And what I’ll do and I’ll open up for the the audience q&a for the next sort of 20-30 minutes as we go through these as well for those of you who are still watching and you’d like to contribute your questions, by all means, carry on carry on doing so we’ll we’ll try to address these as much as possible. The first one, I’m actually going to post to our speakers. Just this one question on its own, I think it’s actually quite a good question as a standalone and that is, what is the purpose of the JCPOA 2.0. If there are no means to enforce it, or no means certainly to enforce the first one, the snapback mechanisms, I think In your opinions, what would be the shape of an adequate mechanism, completing JCPOA 2.0 in order to get the results on the ground, which which are needed, and which seeks to shape? Thank you for that question. If I start with Jason, we’ll go back into the order from which our speakers first spoke. So, Jason, would you like to address that? First, please? Thank you.
Jason Brodsky 30:25
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think we need to relax the assumption that the pathway to a longer and stronger deal runs through the existing JCPOA, because those are my other co panelists have said, Iran has no incentive to negotiate longer and stronger deal if we nearly relieves the most powerful sanctions in the US architecture for the 2015 terms. So I think that breaking away from this JCPOA compliance for compliance goal and mindset is going to be really important for the United States. That’s number one. Number two, I think that maybe settling in the near term for a less for less deal to hold and to buy time, if you will, might be something to consider. In Vienna, there have been some very interesting proposals that have circulated around Washington on this front, it’s meant to preserve US sanctions, leverage the most powerful part of those sanctions. But, you know, I think also, just to keep in mind, the snapback mechanism under the JCPOA, itself expires in 2025. That’s coming very soon. And so, you know, having just just re entering a grid agreement without expiration coming down the pike makes no sense. So I would say that, you know, a less or less some framework is something that I think might be something policymakers in Washington should consider, as well, and not relieving the most powerful sanctions in the US sanctions architecture, nearly for an attempt to rebuild and recreate a 2015 reality that just doesn’t exist anymore, in my opinion.
Dr Pupak Mohabali 32:13
Jason mentioned about the snapback is going to expire in 2025. We have something like some kind of contract agreement, which would be, which was like very soon in 21st of May, which is the one between Iran and the UN, the nuclear inspectors of the Atomic Energy Agency. So that is even like very close. And also next month, we have the presidential elections in Iran, which are both complicated. So if Iran like, even until now, the inspectors didn’t have enough access to the nuclear facilities in Iran, and if that agreement is ended, it’s going to be even more difficult for them to get to the nuclear sites in Iran, and also, for any, like, if the next president in Iran is from one of the hardliner candidates, any kind of negotiation over the nuclear deal wouldn’t be this as as easy as it is right now. Which is which we know it’s not even easy. So there are kind of on a deadline right now, I think, for anything to work. So basically, ratios that US has all the leverage, which I do not disagree, but I think that at the moment with what happens in Iran, the like domestic policy, it’s not about leverage. It’s about like thinking, what is better to do for for the basically western part of the JCPOA.
Col. Richard Kemp 34:01
Yeah, I agree with everything that both Jason and Pupak said about that. I think the reality is that, we just have to look, as I mentioned, when I in my comments, we just have to look at the way that Iran has honored that so called deal it didn’t honor the deal at all. And I don’t believe it is likely to honor any deal, no matter what terms are imposed on it. I also think it’s quite difficult for Iran. And it’s I don’t say this with any sympathy for the supreme leader. But I think it’s very difficult. It would be very difficult for him in the current circumstances to accept harsher terms, shall we say? And to sign up to them? So I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll get to that stage. One thing I would say is that I do think that whatever whatever the whatever deal is agreed. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel should be part of that deal they should be, even if they’re not on paper as part of the deal, they should be certainly consulted, and that their concerns should be met as they were not in 2015. Because, of course, we shouldn’t forget that although Iranian aggression and violence, whether it’s nuclear armed or not potentially affect many people around the world, the key targets for that, for their aggression and for their nuclear weapons are likely to be Israel first, and then other states in that region. So we should never, we should never I don’t believe accept any deal that they’re not willing to sign up to them as well.
Robert Clark 35:41
Thank you. No, I agree wholeheartedly. Okay, the next next question is I’m going to, I’m going to ask the some audience members. And when I asked you names in the audience, if you’re still watching, if you’d like your question, if you just like to unmute yourself, to ask your question. I’ll ask Alec and James, if they’d like to ask their questions. Alec, if you’re listening, would you like to unmute yourself and ask your question in first place?
Alec Cadzow 36:11
Okay. Thanks, Rob. Yeah, I just wanted to ask the panel, to what extent the recent talks between Saudi and Iran are a response to Biden’s proposed re entry to the JCPOA. And if regional rapprochement is reached as a result from Iranian appeasement, would this not be a good thing?
Robert Clark 36:29
Thank you, Alec, and James as well, if you’re watching, and you can hear, would you like to unmute yourself and ask your question as well.
James Gullis 36:39
Thank you, Rob. So my question is to each of the panelists, do you think that the leaked audio file of Foreign Minister Zarif obtained by Iran international will have any impact upon the Vienna negotiations?
Robert Clark 36:54
Thank you, James. Thank you both. Pupak, would you like to address those questions first, and then I’ll then I’ll hand over to to Jason after and then Richard. Thank you.
Dr Pupak Mohabali 37:08
I’d like to start with what James asked about the leaking file, audio file, module, sorry, but Iraninternational. It already had qualified and then negotiations, but based on what I see, and basically, that it had more effect on the domestic politics in Iran rather than the negotiations, again, the parties of the JCPOA why they’ve been part of a process that basically it works with the moderate reformist government of Rohani and, and not only your I mean, for the guard for the government of Tehran, it is important to do something before the administration, but it’s going to end in a month or so. So they want to at least get back to JCPOA, maybe easing the sanctions to leave the country, like not the country, the government in a better state. But for all these parties to the JCPOA is also important that they know it’s not new, for example, the fact that everything like the the supreme leader in Iran has the final say it’s not an it’s not new information. And everybody in Iran or outside knows that. Basically IRGC is the like has has a big role in Iran, politics and their ideas or policies is closer to the Supreme Leader’s ideas and policies, rather than to the reformed reformist government. So I think right now is the question. The question is whether the parties of the JCPOA wants to go like any of their disagreements over the making file, or the they’d rather stay in on the reformist reformist government slide and basically deal with what’s going to happen in Iran if a hardliner candidate becomes President.
Jason Brodsky 39:23
So for the first question on Saudi and Iran talk. Yes, I do think that the motivating factor here is the new Biden administration’s policy. But there have been accounts that some indirect or lower level talks have been taking place in 2019, after the Iranian attack on Saudi infrastructure that went on addressed and unanswered by the US and the immediate aftermath. So I think that that’s an important context. regarding those talks. I think the we just have to, the Iranian Foreign Ministry likes to talk a bit green about how we want to have better relations with our neighbors, but the facts and the reality and the actions that speak louder than the words and the verbiage. So, last over the weekend, despite these talks occurring, the US Navy interdicted a large shipment of weapons in the north Arabian Sea, 1000s of weapons that were in route from Iran to the Houthis. So despite the dialogue and the announcements, this is Iran is still and the IRGC is still acting in the region. So while calls meetings and dialogue is important, I think that the actions of the Kurds force and the IRGC in the region tell a different story. So I think we need to understand that dynamic and that Iran foreign ministry likes to buy time through these pledges to talk and with their regional out with their regional neighbors. But I think the reality in the region paints a different picture. As it relates to the leaked audio file that Iran international obtained. I agree with Pupak. I think she points to an important distinction. I don’t think that the tape had an direct impact on the negotiation, but it is having an impact on domestic politics in Iran. I think the as it relates, especially to Iran’s foreign minister, he, I don’t suspect he will be leaving office. I think that the supreme leader has protected Hassan Rouhani from impeachment. I don’t think Zarif is going anywhere in the near term. At the very least, I think the Supreme Leader allowed him to finish his term as foreign minister. But his future after the Rouhani administration is the big question mark. He said he doesn’t want to run for president. But he has been mentioned in the Iranian media as a potential candidate. But how he gets past the Guardian counsel, given those comments, remains to be seen. And as I mentioned, also, earlier, this upcoming election in Iran for the president is very important for the Supreme Leader, it has the potential to be his last president given his age, and he’s going to want to get this right for his own interest in the regime preservation. So who whomever is elected is going to have a critical role during succession. And so we already see rumors of Ebrahim Raisi the Chief Justice potentially running and if he runs, I do believe he will clear the conservative field. And because they’re all going to want to get onto that train. And that election will be important because not only is he a potential presidential candidate, but he’s also a potential successor to Ayatollah Khomeini. So again, I think that as Pupak says it’s having more of an impact on the domestic politics. But I would say what the one impact I would say it’s having on nuclear file is this. I think that there is this. This this illusion that Javad Zarif has created that he has an independent power center in or throughout his decision making on the nuclear file. And I think that if you see in his own words that he has no influence over these matters, has really shattered that illusion that he’s created in order to get the Western countries to buy into the fact that we have to empower the hard line of the power of moderates against the hardliners. That that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the Supreme Leader’s decision making He is the one who is the decider on these matters as the IRGC, it’s not to say that the President or the foreign minister can’t make a suggestion, but they don’t have the independent decision making authority here. So that’s what I would say on those two topics.
Robert Clark 43:48
Thanks, Jason. Richard, anything to add?
Col. Richard Kemp 43:52
I would all I would say is I’m not at all encouraged by the reports of an Iran, Saudi negotiation. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m deeply discouraged by it, because of its motivation. Obviously, it’s not going to lead anywhere. There’s no doubt in my view about that, as Jason kind of suggested. But the reason it’s happening is the problem and, and it is it is motivated by Saudis, deep, deep concern over being effectively sold out by the Biden administration and being being left to defend themselves. They know they can’t defend themselves effectively against Iran without American backing. And of and, you know, as as also, Jason mentioned, the the the 2019 attack on Saudi, which wasn’t really reacted to probably by the US, I think that was another motivation. So I think it’s really important and when you look at the treatment that the US at the moment is giving to Saudi, effectively ending its support for Saudis proxy war in Yemen against Iran. There must be some very, very worried people in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is such an important ally for us and such an important country in the Middle East that I think, you know, it’s it’s really very, very concerning that that’s a country like Saudi should even be considering negotiating with with Iran in terms of, as I say, not going to lead anywhere
Robert Clark 45:26
Okay, for our next, our next round of questions, I’ll take a bunch of three. If I could ask the speakers just in the interest of time, if we could just keep the answers to a minute or two per question. Again, with the the audience members, if I asked you, if you could ask your question, if you could just unmute yourself temporarily, please. And the first one is from Patrick Flynn. Patrick, if you’re watching, would you like to unmute yourself and ask your question, please.
Patrick Flynn 46:09
My question is around Biden’s orders to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and combined with a potential deal on the JCPOA, would American foreign policy in the Middle East be seen as soft? And what would the implications be for the for the broader region? Thank you.
Robert Clark 46:26
Thank you, Patrick. And then if we ask Maurissa, Maurissa Coleman, if you’re watching, would you like to ask your question, please?
Maurissa Coleman 46:56
It’s just in regards to the Iran reports. The report talks quite a lot about our special relationship, and that we the UK are uniquely placed to build a regional and international consensus on Iran’s malign activity. So I just wanted your opinion, is our relationship really that special? Is it strong enough? And if so, why? Thank you.
Robert Clark 47:21
Thank you, Maurissa. And then if we go to our third question, if we ask Laurence Julius, if you’re watching, would you like to unmute yourself, please ask your question.
Laurence Julius 47:33
How important to the upcoming Iranian elections should in any event negotiations to be deferred until after the elections?
Robert Clark 47:55
As you say, Richard, would you like to kick us off? And any thoughts on those three questions? Would you like to begin, please? Thank you.
Col. Richard Kemp 48:01
Yeah, I’ll try and be brief after your rebuke. I think in terms of the first first question from Patrick, the, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, unconditional withdrawal, and a potential weak return to the GCPOA, I think a very, very important not just in the region, but as I kind of alluded to, in my comments, too, to the whole world, and China, of course, and Russia. But more More importantly, I think China are constantly looking to exploit US weakness, and any signals that are sent are exploited immediately or would potentially be exploited in the future. And you’d have, for example, look at the what’s been going on in Taiwan, since President Biden became president, since he entered the White House, Taiwan has had a very significantly increased amount of Chinese pressure from the air against it in that time, clearly, there’s testing going on looking at Russia in relation to the Ukraine. I think, you know, all of these things have implications much more broadly. And so in the Middle East, of course, they count as well, but I think it’s not just Middle East, it’s global. The message is sent out by these, these, these actions. And in terms of Maurissa’s question about the special relationship, I think maybe Jason is probably better place to comment on the US-UK special relationship. We, we in the UK think we’ve got a special relationship with US. And I think I think actually, I think we have and I think that a lot of that is down to our willingness. And we’re talking obviously about special relationship in security terms our willingness to stand alongside the US through thick and thin in most circumstances, and unfortunately, our recent defense plans to cut defense cut the possibility of troops on the ground is I think going to potentially damage that special relationship and US generals have expressed concern But like I say, I think Jason might be better placed to comment more on that. And the final question, I think, again, really, I think Jason referred and Pupak referred to it earlier on about the importance of the Iranian elections. Personally, I don’t believe that they are significant in the context of the JCPOA. The decisions being taken by the Supreme Leader is not the decision for the president he might have influenced might not have influenced, but I don’t think it makes much difference whoever the president is, or the foreign minister to ultimate decisions in this particular area.
Jason Brodsky 50:45
So on the Afghanistan on the JCPOA, a question. Yes, I think the world is watching. I think withdrawing from Afghanistan, regardless of the conditions on the ground, is sending a message that America is not committed to the region. And that leaves a vacuum for Russia, China, Iran, a whole range of actors to exploit. And it’s dangerous. And we’ve seen this movie before, when the US withdrew from Iraq. We had to go right back in and then we’re already seeing devastating attacks on the school and young girls being killed. It’s just the so we’re going to see more of this, sadly. And I think that this will go down in history is really not something that was a wise US strategic decision. So in terms of the UK, US special relationship, I think that it’s we have an incredibly important special relationship. It’s a critical Alliance for the United States. On his regards to Iran, we have a shared history, both our embassies have been stormed. We both have hostages, that the regime is holding both of our countries, diplomats and personnel have been targeted by Iran in the region. And we so these are this is a critical relationship. It’s really important that we’re launching from the same policy on Iran. But I do think that there needs to be an evolution in US and UK thinking on the JCPOA. And the goal, not just going back into the 2015 accord. So that’s what I would say on that. On the elections, I think. Yes, I agree with Richard, I think the the president really does not matter and they in the Iranian ultimate nuclear posture. It’s the Supreme Leader’s decision. We have seen him hold negotiations with hardliners and more pragmatic forces in Iran. But don’t forget the original backchannel began when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in office. So I just think that there’s this illusion that the US can influence the moderates, as opposed to the hardliners in Iran government. And I just don’t think that that’s possible, given the way the system is built. And its fundamental purpose, which is anti Americanism and, and a revolutionary mindset.
Dr Pupak Mohabali 53:17
Very quickly, I I only mentioned what Patrick asked about, like, if we come back to the JCPOA, whether what Biden administration is, is this fighting is, is it an overly complex jsapi or not? This is not easy to answer. Basically. We know that in the recent years, the hardline conservatives in Iran have often proposed the current government’s efforts to ensure Iran banks adhere to standards set by the Financial Action Task Force , which is basically what Iran is doing, they call it like in breach of the like, is supporting the terrorism in the in the region. Basically, I think that it is different. You can say it’s a weak comeback, whether they want to get back tomorrow or not, because based on what happens in Iran in a month, the if they start if the new government stops the negotiations and just decide to go ahead with more enriching uranium and like developing the nuclear activities, what does the US administration want? They’d rather get back to the JCPOA as it is and build it up from there or they want it to just go away altogether. So I think we cannot say it is a weak comeback or anything like that, because it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Robert Clark 54:56
Next, what I’d like to do is use a opportunity to thank all our three speakers, and perhaps starting with Jason, if you have any final remarks and closing remarks you’d like to you’d like to post on here.
Jason Brodsky 55:23
Thank you, Rob, and to my co-panelists in the Henry Jackson Society. Once again, I again, I think that much of the media attention that we’ve been seeing in recent weeks is focused on what kind of statements and signals are coming from Vienna. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is the sustainability of this Iran policy. And I don’t think it’s sustainable for a mere re entry into the 2015. nuclear deal. It’s not sustainable in Washington, I don’t think it’s sustainable in the region. And also, more broadly, with Iran, we’re going to be seeing there are already Iran was complaining when the US was in the nuclear deal in 2015, that it wasn’t receiving the sanctions relief that it was promised too. So I just think that there needs to be a broader rethink on this attachment to this 2015 agreement there, it just needs to shift in the trade, especially on the transatlantic side. So that’s that. And I would also say it’s just a critical month with the upcoming Iranian presidential elections. And I think the it’s the Supreme Leader that’s ultimately going to make the decision. He is the person to focus on not Abbas araqchi, Javad Zarif, Hassan Rouhani, his rosy predictions that we’re almost there and making progress. He’s been silent recently on the nuclear negotiations. And so he is the person to watch. And it’s his signature is his approval, I should say, that needs to be given for the deal to be concluded. So that was that’s the space that I would be watching in the coming weeks.
Robert Clark 57:05
Thank you Jason, and thank you for those insights into the domestic political scene in Iran. Thank you, Pupak. Any any final remarks? You just like to add, please, thank you.
Dr Pupak Mohabali 57:17
Yeah, thank you so much for your support at the Henry Jackson Society, and thanks to Jason and Richard for for this great discussion. I totally agree with Jason that in the upcoming month, all the eyes should be on the supreme leader and whether he supports the JCPOA or not the negotiations. And because even if no matter if you have a Raisi as the next president in Iran, or any of the likes of IRGC, the candidate, for even like, which is not very likely, but if there is a reformist candidate. As we know, in Iran, it is important to have the Supreme Leader, the supreme leader has the final say, and we need to see what he’s selling, if he shows a green light for the negotiations to go ahead in the future online. Thank you so much.
Robert Clark 58:08
Thank you very much, if I can thank you for your time. Richard, would you like to add any closing remarks yourself, please? Thank you.
Col. Richard Kemp 58:15
Yeah, I mean, I found my co panelists remarks deeply insightful. And I think if anything, they reinforced my view that I commented on the beginning, that that any, any attempt to return to the JCPOA, in its current form is is deeply flawed, and indeed, the possibility of strength and JCPOA, I don’t think we’re dealing with a normal country that can be expected to honor deals that it signs up to. And I’m afraid that as several people who comment on here, I’m afraid that that’s sort of the kind of weakness that could result in, in going back to the JCPOA, but would have not only regional, but also global repercussions. And we shouldn’t forget the context or the geography in which this taking place. Decisions taken by the US and actions by the US are extremely important. And I believe that just as one example of that the the extreme violence we’ve been seeing in Jerusalem in the last few days, is partly due to a complete switch in policy by the Biden administration from the previous administration’s policy. And I think that the the the restoration of funds to terrorist supporters, and also the the, the message has been given by the Biden administration, I think, if anything, it encourages this kind of violence. And And that’s not just the case in Jerusalem. It’s the case in many places across the Middle East. So I think we need to, you know, we collectively do be extremely wary of making any concessions against people who use terrorism as a weapon.
Robert Clark 59:58
Thank you, Richard. And thank you remarks. I think that sort of sums up quite succinctly that the issues going on with the JCPOA. And in the Middle East, despite having their origins in the nuclear noncompliance of Iran actually are far more broad, broad and far reaching implications for not just regional security and the security of the United Kingdom, the United States and our allies as well. So thank you again to all of our speakers for this afternoon. And for those of you watching as well. I just like to highlight the next event here at Henry Jackson Society is on on Wednesday, hosted by Dr. Danny Steed, and it’s on UK offensive cyber, and the National Cyber force. So we look forward to seeing that as well in the next few days. And thank you again, to everyone watching and thank you again to our speakers. Thank you.