The Iran Nuclear Deal: Insecurity Across the Gulf

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The Iran Nuclear Deal: Insecurity Across the Gulf

DATE: 10th May, 3:00pm – 4:00pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Dr Pupak Mohebali, Jason Brodsky, Col. Richard Kemp CBE




Robert Clark 00:02

Well, thank you to everyone joining us today for this afternoon’s event, Iran nuclear deal insecurity across the Gulf. My name is Robert Clark, and I’m a defence 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 is seeking to leverage their own version of maximum pressure onto the West, in order for the resulting deal to make itself more favourably 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 narrow the breakout time to develop nuclear capable warheads. Not only that, but the widespread sanctions relief which came in force from 2016 onwards will embolden the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and facilitate their export of terror across the region. Now, joining 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 pressure, attempting to set the timings to their preference to coincide with the election next month. Both the United States and the United Kingdom must remain resolute and not join these talks for the sake of a quick bill, which will ultimately prove, once again, to be the wrong deal. It gives me great pleasure to introduce our three speakers for this afternoon. Before I do, 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 panellists, then please type them up and we will address them in due course. 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 is yours to speak.

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 requirements, and scaling back around nuclear advances, and still US withdrawal looms large. I think that there was an attempt at the beginning of the Biden administration to make re-joining the nuclear deal akin to flipping a switch—a foreign minister said it could be done in three executive orders. Some supporters of the nuclear deal thought President Biden would move swiftly to re-enter the JCPOA. But months into the Biden administration, the US hasn’t re-joined the deal. 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 is at play. Over the years, there have been many critiques of the nuclear deal’s sunset, inspections, its lack of coverage of other sources of raw materials, Iran’s malign conduct—the list goes on. But there’s a fundamental problem with the agreement: that there’s never been a sufficient political constituency in Washington. And by that I mean bipartisan support 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 even worse. And so, I’d like to discuss some of the political and technical challenges that lie ahead. 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 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. In short, racing to re-join an agreement without demanding any amendments, right, lengthening the sunset provisions, or at the very least extracting some binding commitment during the 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 who has 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. 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 have seats on the supreme National Security Council. They were not on the council when the original deal was inked, and they are unlikely to defer to Rouhani on these issues. So, with the octogenarian Supreme Leader aging, the next Islamic Republic president could very well holiday less, and as a result, I feel that the political space for pragmatists like Rouhani may shrink, if Ayatollah Khamenei aims to pave the way for a more hardline disciple, which may make Iran more uncompromising during the Vienna talk, to avoid giving Rouhani’s allies a boost during the election. European diplomats have already commented that Iran’s negotiators appear to have little room to manoeuvre in Vienna. That’s why these talks have been greenlighted—to throw a bone to Rouhani. 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’s deputy foreign minister has defined US compliance with the nuclear deal as removing all US sanctions that were re-imposed or relabelled, 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 a revival of the agreement. Likely candidates include the terrorism sanctions levied on Iran’s central bank, the oil ministry, and the National Iranian oil company under executive order 13224. But if Biden’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 political headwinds on Capitol Hill, given the evidence that the US Treasury Department has laid out in justifying such a 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’s Parliament Research Centre warned that the process could take between three to six months. That’s a timeline that 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 that Iran has gained since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. There are disagreements over what will happen to the new advanced centrifuges that Iran has 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 the 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 that there will be an agreement, but I question the probable timing of such an agreement. But again, nearly reverting to the 2015 context is not a strategy, because that strategy has no sustainable, bipartisan political support. As far as Washington is concerned, the strategy needs to be a longer and stronger deal. And yet, 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. I 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 Mohebali, an Iranian political scientist and multimedia journalist working at Iran International TV. Pupak specializes in nuclear diplomacy, national identity, and her PhD research 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 Mohebali 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 functional stories. So, there is more than one aspect to how the sanctions affect 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 withdrew from the deal in 2018. That’s mostly because the US penalty is linked to other long-standing issues such as Tehran’s ties with groups designated as terrorists by Washington. Global companies are afraid of breaching regulations and risking multibillion dollar fines. Iranian officials complained that the remaining US sanctions are still harming their ability to do banking work with the world. And some trades, for example, for humanitarian and other purposes continued but with delays, because the banking system came under intense scrutiny. Business will also be disrupted as foreign banks and companies try to understand the new sanctions. And later, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA has had serious trade related implications. So not only the economy has been badly affected by the sanctions imposed over the country’s nuclear activities, but it has also made it more difficult 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 period when the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and of course, its third anniversary was two days ago. Since then, the E3 global group of Germany, France and Britain, has set up a company called INSTEX in support of trade exchange in January 2019 to bypass US sanctions on Iran. 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, it completed its first transaction on 31st Of March 2020, which was worth about $540,000 US dollars of medical equipment. So, 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 intelligence operatives to its terrorism-related sanctions list, in response to allegations of Iranian terrorism plotting in Europe and Germany and Italy have denied giving rights to Iran Mohan Air, which the United States at the time has designated as a terrorism supporting entity. Iran believes that Europe and the UK have not done enough to counter US sanctions and salvage the JCPOA. Iranian officials say that they will stick to their position of rejecting negotiations until the US sanctions imposed on Iran in 2018 are lifted and Iran is compensated for the economic and financial damage that has resulted from these sanctions. In some way, the Biden administration has a sort of answer to this complaint. Step one, they suggest returning to the JCPOA. Then step two will be to negotiate something longer and stronger that will work for everyone. But some believe in the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. And that’s why Iran is back to the negotiating table. And others say it didn’t hit its purpose. And Republicans, in replacing a maximum pressure campaign with what they call a maximum concession campaign, will only embolden Iran and its activities and interventions in the region. Others say the previous US administration’s sanction policy on Iran did 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, in order 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, which should include discussing ballistic missiles and original behaviour. And therefore, I believe the original security framework is needed to lower tensions, resolve conflicts, and reduce regional competition across the whole of the Middle East. For Europe, due to its proximity to the Middle East, their security is more directly impacted by Middle East conflict and instability than the United States. So, long term engagement in order to ease and mitigate regional tensions should 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, acknowledging that they were imposed after 2016 as a result of the nuclear deal, but the US seems to prefer to leave those sanctions that have been imposed on individuals and some entities if they then link to Iran’s continuing acts of terrorism or breaches of human rights, rather than its nuclear activities. European nations and the US also place emphasis on whether the US will lift all of the sanctions imposed on Iran or whether not enough has been served by Iran, and when and how it will fulfil 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, but also for the excellent report that I think is due out in a relatively short time—a very, very timely report. Iran has breached 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 the breaches listed 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, the main purpose 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 that it was conceived, basically paving the path for a nuclear Iran which is now becoming increasingly irrelevant and, in some cases, has 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 rocket 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 the regime stability, as Pupak has rightly said, the US hope, I think, was to return to the deal as phase one, and then for phase two, expand it and make it more demanding. But the reality is, I think for those who have any understanding of Iran, that that won’t happen. Once they’re back in the deal, that’s where it’s going to 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 behaviour, 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 and when it was first agreed. They bought into it, I think, mainly because it was President Obama that wanted it. That Britain in particular, I think, refused to follow the US out of the deal in 2018 was because it was President Trump asking for it. And now support for the Vienna negotiations are because it’s President Biden who wants it. So too, I think, with respect to 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 it 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—yet the 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 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 one of the few benefits of the deal is the impetus that it gave inadvertently, admittedly, to driving 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, above the radar if they can, in the case that the JCPOA is re-established. 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—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 unconditionally withdraw from Afghanistan, we’ve seen President Biden backing down over naval deployments in the Black Sea in the face of Russian aggression. We can’t afford to see any more weakness from the United States, in global terms, if it’s to retain any form of, I suppose, 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 revert to the failed JCPOA. However, I do think that the reality is any deal with Iran is not worth the paper that 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 observes 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 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 either the 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 grey 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 which are weapons, and we should blockade Iran to enforce those sanctions as far as possible. We should proscribe 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 grey zone action by those states that are willing to engage in it, including cyber-attacks, sabotage, and the targeting of key individuals, including those involved in the nuclear process. This may be alien to our way of thinking, but I’m talking about acts within international law. They are effective and they’ve proven to be damaging to Iran’s nuclear program. And one key part of this is that these kinds of actions are part of the alternative to war, or a nuclear armed Iran. I would just finally like to say that 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 a terrorist state, given its intent on becoming a nuclear armed, terrorist state. Thank you.

Robert Clark 28:55

Thank you very much for that, Richard. Some hard-hitting realities that I think people need to hear when we approach this conversation, and in particular, some suggested policy recommendations, which fall between resumption of the nuclear deal and all out conflict. So, something to think about, I think, for the Q&A, for sure. Thank you to all my speakers so far I’ll open up for the audience Q&A for the next 20-30 minutes as we go through these as well for those of you who are watching and would like to contribute your questions. Carry on doing so and we’ll address these as much as possible. The first one, I’m going to post to our speakers. Just this one question on its own, I think it’s 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, as there were no means certainly to enforce the first one, the snapback mechanisms, etc.? 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 are needed, and which seeks to shape future relations? 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, as my co-panellists have said, Iran has no incentive to negotiate a longer and stronger deal if we relieve the most powerful sanctions implemented by 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 lesser 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 and 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 re-entered a grid agreement without an expiration date coming down the pipe makes no sense. So, I would say that, you know, a lesser or less of 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. That’s my opinion.

Dr Pupak Mohebali 32:13

Jason mentioned that the snapback is going to expire in 2025. We have something, like some kind of contract agreement, which would be, which was like due very soon in 21st of May, which is the one between Iran and the UN and 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 in 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 as easy as it is right now. Which is how we know it’s not even easy. So, there is kind of a strict deadline right now, I think, for anything to work. So basically, in terms of ratios, the US has all the leverage, and I do not disagree; but I think that, at the moment, with what happens in Iran, in terms of domestic policy, it’s not about leverage. It’s about, like, thinking: what is it better to do for the western part of the JCPOA?

Col. Richard Kemp 34:01

Yeah, I agree with everything that both Jason and Pupak have said. I think the reality is that, we just have to look, as I mentioned in my comments: we just have to look at the way that Iran has honoured that so-called deal. It didn’t honour the deal at all. And I don’t believe it is likely to honour any deal, no matter what terms are enshrined in it. I also think it’s quite difficult for Iran. And 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 the deal is that’s agreed, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel should be part of that deal, even if they’re not on paper as part of the deal, they should certainly be consulted, and their concerns should be considered 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 of Iranian aggression, and for their nuclear weapons especially, are likely to be Israel first, and then other states in the region. So, we should never, we should never, I think, accept any deal that those state would not be willing to sign up to as well.

Robert Clark 35:41

Thank you. No, I agree wholeheartedly. Okay, the next question is… I’m going to, I’m going to ask some audience members. And when I asked you for names in the audience, if you’re still watching, if you’d like to ask your question, if you would 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?

Alec Cadzow 36:11

Okay. Thanks, Rob. Yeah, I just wanted to ask the panel: to what extent are the recent talks between Saudi and Iran a response to Biden’s proposed re-entry to the JCPOA. And if regional rapprochement is reached as a result of 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 panellists: do you think that the leaked audio file of Foreign Minister Zarif obtained by Iran international will have any impact on 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 hand over to Jason after, and then to Richard. Thank you.

Dr Pupak Mohebali 37:08

I’d like to start with what James asked about the leaked file—audio file, module, sorry, by Iran international. It already had qualifications and then negotiations, but based on what I see, it basically had more effect on the domestic politics in Iran rather than the negotiations. Again, the parties of the JCPOA, and why they’ve been part of a process: basically, it works with the moderate reformist government of Rouhani and for the guard for the government of Tehran. It is important to do something before the administration ends, because 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, it is also important that they know it’s not new, for example, the fact that everything like the supreme leader in Iran has the final say. It’s not new information. And everybody in Iran or outside knows that. Basically, the IRGC has a big role in Iran’s domestic politics, and their ideas or policies are closer to the Supreme Leader’s ideas and policies, rather than to the reformist government. So, I think right now this 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 whether they’d rather stay on the reformist government’s side 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 unaddressed and unanswered by the US and its immediate aftermath. So, I think that that’s an important context. regarding those talks. I think that we just have to; the Iranian Foreign Ministry likes to talk a bit green about how we want to have better relations with our neighbours, but the facts and the reality and the actions speak louder than the mere words and the verbiage. So, over the last weekend, despite these talks occurring, the US Navy interdicted a large shipment of weapons in the north Arabian Sea, thousands of weapons that were en route from Iran to the Houthis. So, despite the dialogue and the announcements, this Iranian government and the IRGC are still acting in the region. So, while calls, meetings and dialogue are important, I think that the actions of the Kurdish force and the IRGC in the region tell a different story. So, I think we need to understand that dynamic, and also that Iran’s foreign ministry likes to buy time through these pledges to talk with their regional neighbours. But I think the reality in the region paints a different picture, especially 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 a direct impact on the negotiation, but it is having an impact on domestic politics in Iran. I think that as it relates, especially to Iran’s foreign minister—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, because it has the potential to be his last presidency given his age, and he’s going to want to get this right for his own interest and in terms of the regime’s preservation. So, whomever is elected is going to have a critical role during succession. And so, we already see rumours 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 domestic politics. But I would say that the one impact it is having on the nuclear file is this: this illusion that Javad Zarif has created that he has an independent power center in or throughout decision-making on the nuclear file. And I think that what you see, in his own words, is that he has no influence over these matters, which has really shattered that illusion that he’s created an order to get the Western countries to buy into the fact that we have to empower the hard line of the 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 suggestions, 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

All I would say is that 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 it is motivated by Saudis, deep, deep concern over being effectively sold out by the Biden administration, being left to defend themselves. They know they can’t defend themselves effectively against Iran without American backing. And as Jason mentioned, the 2019 attack on Saudi, which wasn’t really reacted to 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 Saudi’s 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 really very, very concerning that a country like Saudi should even be considering negotiating with Iran.

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 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, combined with a potential deal on the JCPOA: will 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

The Iran 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 are the negotiations? And should these negotiations 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 question, from Patrick, 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, to the whole world, and China, of course, and Russia. But 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, to 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, and 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, these states count as well, but I think it’s not just Middle East, it’s global. The message is sent out by 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 in the UK think we’ve got a special relationship with the US. And I think that we have, and I think that a lot of that is down to our willingness. And we’re talking obviously about a special relationship in security terms, given our willingness to stand alongside the US through thick and thin in most circumstances, and unfortunately, our recent defence plans to cut defence expenditure, which reduces 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 on that. And the final question, I think, again, really, I think Jason referred, and Pupak referred to it earlier, regarding 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 are not decisions for the president. He might have influence, he might not have influence; but I don’t think it makes much difference, whoever the president or the foreign minister is, to the adjudication of decisions in this particular area.

Jason Brodsky 50:45

So, on the Afghanistan and 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. So, we’re going to see more of this, sadly. And I think that this will go down in history as really not something that was a wise US strategic decision. So, in terms of the UK, US special relationship, I think that we have an incredibly important special relationship. It’s a critical Alliance for the United States. With regards to Iran, we have a shared history, both our embassies have been stormed. We both have hostages that the regime is holding, from both of our countries. Diplomats and personnel have been targeted by Iran in the region. And so have ours. So, this is a critical relationship. It’s really important that we’re launching from the same policy on Iran. But there needs to be an evolution in US and UK thinking on the JCPOA, with the goal being to not just return to the 2015 accord. So, that’s what I would say on that. On the elections, yes, I agree with Richard—the president really does not matter with respect to 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 that 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’s 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 a revolutionary mindset.

Dr Pupak Mohebali 53:17

Very quickly, I only mentioned what Patrick asked about, like, if we come back to the JCPOA, whether what the Biden administration is fighting is, is it overly complex or not? This is not easy to answer. Basically, we know that in recent years, the hardline conservatives in Iran have often opposed the current government’s efforts to ensure Iran’s 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, it is supporting the terrorism 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 if they start, if the new government stops the negotiations and just decide to go ahead with enriching uranium and developing 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 would 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 to use an opportunity to thank all our three speakers, starting with Jason. If you have any final and closing remarks you’d like to add, then post them on here.

Jason Brodsky 55:23

Thank you, Rob, and to my co-panellists in the Henry Jackson Society. Once 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, and I don’t think it’s sustainable in the region. And also, more broadly, with Iran, we’re going to be seeing—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. So, I just think that there needs to be a broader rethink on the attachment to this 2015 agreement. It just needs to shift in terms of 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 that 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 and his approval, I should say, that needs to be given for the deal to be concluded. So, that is 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 final remarks that you would like to add? Please, thank you.

Dr Pupak Mohebali 57:17

Yeah, thank you so much for your support at the Henry Jackson Society, and thanks to Jason and Richard for this great discussion. I totally agree with Jason that in the upcoming month, all eyes should be on the supreme leader and whether he supports the JCPOA and not the negotiations. And because even if you have a Raisi as the next president in Iran, or any of the likes of IRGC as the candidate, which is not very likely, or even 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. 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 panellists remarks deeply insightful. And I think if anything, they reinforced my view that I commented at the beginning, that any attempt to return to the JCPOA in its current form 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 honour 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 is 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 extreme violence that 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 with the restoration of funds to terrorist supporters, the message that has been given by the Biden administration, I think, if anything, encourages this kind of violence. 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 collectively 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 for your remarks. I think that sort of sums up quite succinctly the issues going on with the JCPOA. And the issues in the Middle East, despite having their origins in the nuclear non-compliance of Iran, are actually far broader, and have far reaching implications for not just regional security and the security of the United Kingdom, but 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 would just like to highlight that the next event here at the Henry Jackson Society is happening 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.


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