Sarah Stern: Welcome to yet another extremely informative, extremely topical, and timely EMET webinar. Last July, President Biden said, “We are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East to be filled by Russia, China, and Iran.” Yet all of us woke up Friday to this tectonic ship with an appended world order.
The world Pax Americana that we all knew since the end of World War II seemed to be shifting. As all of you are aware, Beijing announced that they had reached a deal to restore diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, bringing China out of the domain of pure economics, and into that of a major player in the diplomatic realm.
This was announced exactly 1 day after an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, specifying what security guarantees Saudi Arabia would expect from the United States in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, including security guarantees, help with the development of its nuclear program, and diversification of its economy away from oil.
And then this. All of this suddenly happened while we were all acutely aware that Iran has enriched uranium to 84% just a hair’s breadth away from the 90% purity level necessary for weapons-grade uranium, which even Rafael Grossi, the head of the IAEA, had said, could not be used for peaceful purposes.
And this is after 2 years of dragged-out, on-again, off-again negotiations where it became apparent to all of us who were paying attention that the Iranians were using the negotiations as a smoke screen and making impossible demands on the Americans.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran was severed back in January of 2016, but really, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies probably since the inception of Islam way back in the 7th century, when they were rivals as to who are the rightful heirs to the crown.
In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that Iranian leader, Ali Kamani, was worse than Hitler. And after the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran backed Shi’ite rebels and back Iran Houthi rebels in Yemen, Bashar al-Assad, and his brutal civil war in Syria and has launched wave after wave after wave of attacks on the L’Aigle infrastructure Aramco, particularly in 2019.
How is all of this playing out? Where does this leave Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans for achieving the crown jewel of his normalization plans with the all-important Saudi Kingdom? Is this radical change of dynamics more a reflection of the way the Saudi feel about Israel, or about their relationship with the Biden administration?
And most importantly, is Israel now, once again, isolated in the Middle East? And how are we to contend with the fact that Iran is gradually making unprecedented gains towards a nuclear bomb, which is something that presidents of both political parties have repeatedly vowed that they would never allow to happen?
We cannot possibly be in more capable hands to answer these and other questions than with Rich Goldberg. Rich is a brilliant analyst, a treasured friend of EMET, and a great American. Rich Goldberg is a senior advisor for FDD. He served as director for encountering Iranian weapons of mass destruction for the prior administration.
He was a founding staff director of the House US-China Working Group and was among the first Americans ever to visit China’s Human Space Launch Center. Rich is a leader in efforts to expand US Missile Defense Cooperation with Israel, and he’s played a key role in US funding for the Arrow 3 program, the Iron Dome program, and the development of an advanced missile defense radar in the Negev desert.
He’s been a leader in efforts to expand US Missile Defense Cooperation with Israel for years. I first met him as a staffer for Congressman Mark Kirk, and then for US Senator Mark Kirk. And Rich has been the chief architect for the US Strategy of Sanctions against Iran. He’s also served as an intelligence officer in the US Naval Reserve, and it is a real privilege and honor to have you back, Rich.
So, okay. First, Richard, how real is this piece between Iran and Saudi Arabia? To what degree, is it a genuine peace besides just an exchange of embassies? Will the Iranians withdraw all their malign forces throughout the region in the world from Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, and will they pull back on their missile infrastructure?
Richard Goldberg: Well, that’s a great question, which is sort of a TBD at the moment. But I think all signals would point to the idea that if this is something similar to the 12 Points that Secretary Mike Pompeo had put to the Iranians during the Trump administration.
If you recall, maximum pressure under Trump was based on the idea that we were no longer just going to have pressure focused on the nuclear program. We were going to look at all of Iran’s threats combined. Money is fungible. We’re not just re-lifting sanctions for one threat to use to fund another threat, we needed to have a conversation about all-around the malign activities, all the ones you just mentioned, and more hostage-taking, etc.
And so, if we were going to have that kind of approach, we were going to move off of the paradigm of the old Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA to do that.
The Biden administration, by the way, has said that they wanted to have that same conversation in different ways.
They believed the way to do that was to go back to the old deal, relieve all pressure on Iran first, and then suddenly Iran would want to have a conversation about other malign activities. Obviously, we disagreed with that. I disagreed with that. And in fact, their goal has not been achieved. So, what do we have here in this agreement?
A lot has happened in the last 2 years, right? It’s very stunning, I think, to people who have heard and listened to the interviews or read the interviews that you’ve been referencing Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia speaking as he has for several years about the nature of the Islamic Republic, the root cause of evil and instability in the Middle East, being the Islamic Republic of Iran.
His entire thesis of counter-extremism in the kingdom has to do with an anti-Iran message going back to 1979, and not just the Islamic revolution in Iran, but the attack and hostage-taking at the Grand Mosque and the wave of extremist support that followed from the kingdom to try to quell any Wahhabi resistance and attempts to take the throne in Saudi Arabia, he’s called it a historic mistake.
That, in fact, all of this was ginned up by revolutionism, a revolutionary ideology exported by the regime in Tehran. And he’s focused on counterism, extremism inside Saudi Arabia, around the Middle East, and the world, and also, of course, with Iran.
And suddenly he’s ready to start saying peace in our time, relations with Iran are quite good, we want to build a new era of bilateral relations, we have the finance minister of Saudi Arabia today at a conference. The NBC reported this. It’s on the Reuters wire.
Some people probably saw the headline this morning saying, “We’re ready to start pouring investment into Iran as soon as this agreement moves forward.” These are stunning comments and real reversals, which I think everybody’s like, “What just happened? What’s going on?”
A few things to unpack here. Number 1, we have been losing the US-Saudi relationship for the last 2 years. One could argue it was already on thin ice when the Trump administration had come to office, and we were working on salvaging the relationship of where it was headed after the Obama administration.
There had already been a feeling that the United States was pulling back out of the Middle East and would no longer be a security guarantor for its traditional allies in the Middle East. The SUNY governments in the region had seen the lack of enforcement of a red line in Syria more than ten years ago.
The abandonment of Lubar to Egypt. There was a real sea change going on during the Arab Spring of a lack of trust already in the United States during the Obama administration. There was a little bit of a reversal, obviously, the Iran nuclear deal being the crown jewel of that sort of thesis of, “You’re on your own, work for a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, go look for security guarantees elsewhere. We’re now in an era of reaching out to the Iranians ourselves. We hope you do the same.”
That reversal and outreach to the Saudis came during the Trump administration. It’s saying, “No, we agree with you, Mohamed Bin Salman. We agree that the threats of the Middle East are not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” As many have said for many years, they are, in fact, the Islamic Republic.
If you look at instability in Iraq, in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Gaza, in the West Bank, it all has a hand of Iran, and it even goes farther than that into Africa, Latin America, right on our border as well. And so, we want to work with you on a counter-Iran strategy to roll back Iran in the region, pressure Iran, and do what we can while we build a new era of US-Saudi relations that supports MBS as they call him, his vision 2030, that he had rolled out.
This economic vision for Saudi Arabia moving off in an oil-based economy, trying to integrate into the region, access high-tech innovation with an underpinning of that really being between the line, a path towards Israeli-Saudi normalization, knowing that who is the tech center of the Middle East? Who’s the innovation sector of the Middle East? How can you help Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia achieve innovation? You have to do that partnering with Israel.
And so all of that, the security architecture being built, the economic partnership being built, put us back on a good path to restore, strengthen, and revitalize US-Saudi relations from a place where it was not good. Now, there were pitfalls in that movement there. The Trump administration did a few things that bothered Saudi Arabia.
When Saudi Arabia was attacked by Iran in 2019, its oil pipelines taken out by a cruise missile strike and UAV strikes from Iran, there was no military response immediately. Now, there were political reasons for that, that are justifiable in the United States, but to the Saudis, they felt like, “Wait, we just got attacked, where is the protection? Where is the United States coming to threaten militarily in our defense?”
That’s not there. Yes, there is a maximum pressure campaign on there, but what does that really mean? Is the United States willing to put its military might behind this threat if it needs to? The pullout from Syria during the Trump administration, the partial pullout, again, is a difficult sign to the region.
That was mitigated and reversed in January 2020 when President Trump gave the order to kill Qasem Soleimani, right? That was a major breakthrough where the Saudis, everybody in the region said, “Whoa, the United States is willing to use military force.” We got it. Okay. We were worried there. We didn’t know what was going on. Okay, and that put Iran on its back heels. And again, we were on a good trajectory.
By the time the Trump administration left office, Iran was down to just $4 billion in foreign exchange reserves because the maximum pressure campaign is really up against the wall fearing a credible military threat from the United States. Israel, in the meantime, had assassinated, reportedly, the architect of Iran’s nuclear weapons program later that year the [inaudible] today.
So really a big threat picture for Iran, Saudi Arabia is feeling more comfortable and on a good trajectory. Abraham Accords has just come to light towards the end of 2020 in that context. And people are talking about Saudi-Israel normalization being on a fast track. What happens next? We talked about it in past webinars.
This complete pivot back to an Obama-era policy of pursuing balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, trying to restore the Iran nuclear deal, offering to lift sanctions against Iran and the IRGC, Iran’s paramilitary terror organization.
Not just that, the Iranian terror proxy in Yemen that is chiefly responsible for lobbying missiles almost on a daily basis, and drone strikes against Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the Houthis, which were designated at the end of the Trump administration as a terrorist organization.
One of the first actions by the Biden administration was to withdraw that terror designation, hugely controversial and a real shot in the face to the Saudi government as they’re saying, “Whoa, these are the people lobbying missiles at us, and you’re going to lift pressure on them now without getting anything in return?” All part of this attempted reproachment with Iran following the Maximum Pressure Campaign.
Within that context as well, you have obviously the political warfare of the White House against Mohamed bin Salman personally, and that takes us to a very new level. It’s one thing to, on a policy level, be nice in Saudi Arabia in the back, that’s bad enough, but calling to make the Crown Prince a pariah, galvanizing the Democratic Party against Saudi Arabia, declassifying information that had already been in the press to try to embarrass the Crown Prince further, all of these really taken on a personal level in Riyadh and distancing the United States from Saudi Arabia at a critical moment.
Where do we see that play out the most? Oh, there’s a war between Russia and Ukraine. Gas prices are soaring. We need somebody, our great ally in Saudi Arabia to swing oil production to try to help us. The President of the United States calls, and guess what?
Apparently, when you spend a year and a half berating Saudi Arabia and trying to fund its enemies, they don’t like it when you say, “Can you pump more gas to help us right now? Can you pump more oil to help us right now with gas prices?” And so, we knew that there was already a major rift at that moment with Mohammed bin Salman saying, go take a hike to Washington on oil.
We needed serious work immediately to triage the US-Saudi relationship before it was too late. It didn’t happen. The President went to Saudi Arabia, all kinds of media around him. He’s not even going to shake his hand. The run-up to the trip had made it such a terrible environment for the trip as if the president was doing Mohamed bin Salman a favor just by arriving there.
And that in return for just arriving there, the Saudis to pump more oil, of course, the response was negative. They started saying, “Okay, well, if the US is not going to be a security guarantor, they’re not going to treat us as an ally and a partner, they’re going to continue pursuing this failed nuclear deal approach even though Iran is escalating its nuclear enrichment, they’re escalating their sponsorship of terrorism, they’re supporting Russia against Ukraine, they’re pressing people.”
All these things don’t change anybody’s mind in Washington because don’t forget, up until last fall, we were still pursuing that deal in Vienna. And so, at some point, the Saudis called Beijing and said, “You have a relationship with Iran. What are you thinking about? What are you doing?”
And we’ve already seen in the past some footsie between Saudi Arabia and China in a very dangerous way to US national security, both on ballistic missile cooperation, and potential civil nuclear cooperation. Those are contrary to US national security interests that already have gotten our attention long ago to really commit to the US-Saudi relationship.
It didn’t. And we saw the historic visit to Riyadh by President Xi Jinping of China. This was in December. And this trip was under the cover of a GCC, it’s the Gulf Cooperation Council with the broader Gulf countries organization in Saud Arabia basically Iran, and host[?] in Riyadh.
This trip was historic in that there was a joint statement at the end of it put out between China and the GCC that basically endorsed the litany of Saudi Arabia, UAE Gulf positions, vis-a-vis Iran, and called for a brokering of a regional dialogue and if you will, a JCPOA of the Gulf where they would come together to counter Iran ballistic missiles, the proliferation of missiles and drones, sponsorship of terrorism, nuclear threats, all of it delineated, just like we would talk about the threats.
And the Chinese agreed to document, and also even sided with the UAE in an island dispute against Iran. This was shocking in Tehran. There were a lot of press reports in December, if you go back, of the Iranians protesting this joint statement, and had to go send a senior leader to Beijing to try to pose for holy pictures to say the Iran-China relationship is still fine.
All the attention was paid to that island dispute, it wasn’t on this other part of the statement about this dealing with all of Iran’s threats. And so, for the Saudis, it’s like, “Wait, China is a great oil customer,” their largest trading partner. They’re not going to do anything to upset the apple cart with China.
And by the way, we during the Trump administration asked the Saudis to sell more oil to China as we were trying to drain Iran’s exports of oil. So, over many years, we have always encouraged the Saudis to have a larger trading relationship with the Chinese when it benefits our interests, and we shouldn’t punish them for that.
But they said, “Listen, we know you’re the ones who are keeping the Iranian regime alive right now. US sanctions are in place in theory, without much enforcement over the last 2 years. What is the enforcement that hasn’t happened?”
It’s this surging of illicit Chinese imports of Iranian oil and other development projects and infrastructure projects that the Chinese are doing for the Iranians in Iran. That is how they’re paying for this oil in ways that we may not see. You have an incredible amount of influence now over Tehran. If you want to go and try to bring them to the table.
Listen, Rob Malley, the US special envoy has been forcing us to meet with the Iranians for 2 years. And that’s true. It’s been US policy to try to force Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Iran for 2 years under the Biden administration. And they have been conducting regular dialogues at lower levels which have largely gone nowhere.
And the Saudis have concluded, “We’ll just go through the motions here. Everybody seems happy that we’re talking to them. It looks good that we’re willing to be diplomatic, and the Iranians are never going to comply with our demands. Full support from the Houthis in Yemen, stop sponsorship of terrorism, stop proliferating missiles and UAVs, stop threatening us in other ways, stop exporting radical ideologies.” Things like that.
If they want to commit to that, sure, we’ll normalize relations again. So, the Chinese say, “No problem. We’ll take care of this for you.” So, the Saudis have nothing to lose here, right? If the Chinese want to go deliver the Iranians to say “yes” to that deal, and all they have to do is say, “Okay, well, we’ll reopen an embassy,” which by the way, only closed in 2016.
And before that, they had normalized relations. By the way, the UAE has had normalized relations this entire time of the Abraham Accord. It’s never stopped the Abraham Accord, hasn’t disrupted it. Yeah, sure, we’ll send back our ambassador. We’ll do trade, all that.
They’re going to have to comply with US sanctions, right? If they do anything sanctionable, the United States Treasury Department would still have to sanction any sanctionable trade, just as we’ve gone after UAE when we’ve seen sanctionable activity which has happened.
So, we got nothing to lose. And the world’s going to praise Mohamed bin Salman for being a peacemaker, and whatever. And they’re betting in Riyadh that the Iranians can’t deliver, right? That they’re just not going to be able to change fundamentally, all of these illicit activities. There’s a two-month period here for these to play out.
The Saudis are going to have to see verifiable commitments. The deal, by the way, is not public. We have not seen it. We’ve seen various leaks and reports about it. If it ever becomes public, we’ll be able to really go through the details and understand exactly what the Iranians have supposedly committed to.
But for now, let’s understand, the announcement itself is absolutely a loss for the United States because if Saudi has decided to go to Beijing to try to help them curb Iranian illicit activities, not Washington, it may be a loss for the United States on the Iran front if somehow this breaks a log jam, discourages the Europeans from moving to a pressure campaign on the Iranians, makes the Iranians feel somehow emboldened, it gives Iran access to new markets, to capital, maybe props up the currency that’s been under a tremendous amount of pressure, which we can talk about.
So, there are benefits to Iran saying yes at this moment as they’re very cast wrap. We’ve seen the Rial go to historic lows in the last couple of weeks, protests are still breaking out inside the country. There’s apparently, reportedly alongside this, a deal on the table to get the Americans to unlock $7 billion that fits in South Korea and frozen funds in exchange for the release of an American hostage.
So, there are all these things that play here of the Iranians trying their best to resist pressure, resist the economy from collapsing. This may be a part of that, at least for the moment. The Houthis, by the way, has gone on TV stations in Lebanon and elsewhere to say, “We’re not doing that, we don’t answer to Tehran, we’re going to continue attacking Saudi Arabia. They can’t stop us.”
They are a wholly owned subsidiary at this point of Tehran since Tehran could stop them to cut off their resources, their missiles, their drones, pull their IRGC trainers. That all will be verifiable and obvious to the Saudis. So let’s see how this plays out. I think this is a very bad sign for US-Saudi relations.
And I know I’ve talked for a while here because it’s so complex, but let me just say a lot of questions you asked us, how does it play out for Israel? Does this mean, for this Wall Street Journal piece that came out just the day before, that Saudi has put on the table demand from the United States to be a security guarantor and other ways of helping in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel?
How does that compute with now suddenly turning to China, right? What does that mean? Well, just to understand the demands that have poorly put forward are some sort of a treaty-type commitment to Saudi Arabia. A very formal security commitment that we only give to certain countries in the world to come to their military defense, if attacked, and provide them with military means.
Provide them not just civil nuclear power, but do something we don’t do as US policy, which is, to allow the Saudis to enrich uranium on their own soil as part of that nuclear program, which creates proliferation concerns just as we have proliferation concerns with Iran doing that on their own soil and some other items as well.
Is what we saw on Friday with Iran and China the last fastball right by our face, the brushback pitch, as we would say in baseball, to get our attention and say, you have one last chance here otherwise we have a permanent hedge in waiting. Do you want this relationship to be solid for [inaudible] seventy-five years? What’s going to happen there? So that’s one possibility.
And we can’t deliver a treaty commitment to Saudi Arabia, and MBS, I think, knows that. Politically, we don’t have the votes- the United States Senate to do that. We can design other things that meet their requirements, but we can’t do that. We can provide them with civil nuclear power and oppose an Iranian enrichment program, which we should.
We can say we’re done with JCPOA. We’re done with Iran having a right to enrich. We’re going back, we’re snapping back the UN Security Council resolution, calling on Iran, default all enrichment, having a military policy of stopping Iran enrichment by force potentially if necessary.
But listen, UAE already agreed to this gold standard of no enrichment on soil over a decade ago when we did a nuclear commitment to them. We’ll do the same thing for you. You can’t have enrichment on your own soil. It’s better to have US nuclear power anyways, better than the Chinese, better than Russians.
All of those things can happen if Mohamed bin Salman wants that. I’ll say one last thing, and I’ll turn it back. I know there are so many questions here to unpack. Even if the United States didn’t provide all those guarantees and didn’t come forward to Saudi Arabia, one has to question whether or not the fundamentals of why Saudi Arabia could want to normalize relations with Israel don’t still stay in effect.
It would obviously be better for the United States to commit upfront to the US-Saudi relationship to help broker that, just as that is what was the linchpin at Camp David in the 1970s for Egypt that remained the linchpin on the Jordan-Israel relationship and the US commitment to Jordan. It remains part of how we got the UAE and Bahrain onto the Abraham Accord so, it makes sense.
But the only country in the entire world that will ever actually have Saudi Arabia’s back against Iran is ultimately Israel because the US may not want to use military power. They may be in a JCPOA mindset. China is playing both sides helping support Iran’s economy, missile park, UAV park, strategic relations there.
So, the Saudis know they can’t fully trust the Chinese ever. They’re still playing both sides. Who are they going to look to for security relationships for their entire future? It’s Israel. That remains true. And if they’re serious about Vision 2030, they’re not going to get there on just Chinese support. They need the tech innovation genius and Middle East networks out of Israel to get that done.
So, the fundamentals of Saudi-Israel normalization remain. This is a stumbling block. But no matter what, for US interests, for great power competition, for Saudi-Israel normalization, for Iran’s threat for the region, this is absolutely a moment to re-engage heavily, seriously on these demands and see if this relationship can be salvaged with the condition that, listen, China is not your security guarantor.
You can’t have a military relationship there. You can’t have a nuclear relationship there. What’s it going to take to make sure we’re with you and you are with us? I’ll stop there. Plenty of follow-ups.
Sarah: It’s like the old adage. Even if one wants to turn its back on the Middle East, the Middle East has a way of coming back to you. So, in terms of issues of trust, I know that both the United States and Israel are in CENTCOM with Saudi Arabia. How can we rely on the Saudis now that some of our vital security information doesn’t make its way back to Beijing or to Tehran?
Richard: Yeah, listen, the Saudi Chinese relationship is not new, right? So, as I said, they are a very close trading partner. It’s their top trading partner. As the Saudis will let you know in meetings, they have had a past reported relationship in the missile realm, potentially in the future, in the nuclear realm.
And so, you do have to always understand that countries that have closer relationships with China, we in the United States, have to safeguard information and technology and understand what technology can be provided, and what can’t. And there are strings attached to military platforms that we provide, other types of intelligence support that we provide, that it cannot be shared with Beijing.
It cannot be shared with Moscow. There are only a limited number of countries in the world that get access to this kind of technology. And if we ever find that to be violated, that can permanently freeze the relationship strategically. Remember, this happened to Israel once upon a time.
People may not remember, we’re coming up on almost twenty years from this, eighteen years. When I arrived in Washington, first full year as a staffer in Washington, we had the total fallout of US-Israel defense relations over China where the Pentagon froze US-Israel strategic relations. It was bad.
At that time, very quietly, my old boss was playing shuttle diplomacy in Israel on the ground between the Pentagon and Israel’s MOD trying to figure out how to unfreeze things. Israel made a lot of commitments, a lot of upgrades to its export controls, fired key personnel responsible for that relationship.
And the Pentagon then renewed its relationship on F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planning, strategic dialogues, etc. So, we take this very, very, very seriously in Washington. If we are willing to freeze Israel’s relationship over China, you can bet we would do that to any other country in the world. So yes, that’s something to be taken into consideration of.
I will say a couple of things. One, we touched on this a little bit, it’s important to understand where Iran’s nuclear program is today. We understand that they have- the IAEA has detected 84% enriched uranium being produced at the underground facility at Fordo.
They have 2 facilities where they’re enriching uranium and mostly above-ground facilities, though they are trying to build a lot of an underground area at a time, and then the underground, the mountain one outside [inaudible] in a place called Fordo.
What had happened was, in January, the IAEA learned that unbeknownst to them without declaration, already a violation of the NNPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran had reconfigured its centrifuge cascades at Fordo in a manner that many experts suspect, is to be used to have the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium for the first time.
And in perhaps experimenting and testing and trying to figure out how exactly to do that or even perhaps how to produce some material that could be siphoned off without the IAEA seeing. The IAEA came for a SNAP inspection once they learned about the reconfiguration, tested what was being produced, and found 84% material.
The Iranians to this day are not explaining how that’s possible. We know there’s really only one explanation for that. The stockpiles of 60% high enriched uranium plus their stockpiles of 20% high enriched uranium. Just on the 60% alone, they have enough nuclear material now.
If they wanted to produce one bomb’s worth within twelve days, put together all their high-enriched uranium and a massive low-enriched uranium stockpile, they could be producing 4 or 5 or 6 in just a month or more. And so, on the enrichment path, we are basically at that 90% weapons-grade uranium threshold.
The Iranians are signaling to us the enrichment path is the breakout timeline we had always feared in the past. It’s in the rearview mirror. Breakout is at zero right now. Breakout is defined as the amount of time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb.
All right? Twelve days, we’re at effective zero on the breakout. Why haven’t we seen a military strike? Do you know why? For a long time, everybody believed 90% may be a military red line, a breakout of zero would be a military red line.
We have now changed the dynamic of what we are looking at in Iran’s nuclear program in the United States from breakouts to weaponization. That is now how the Biden administration is grading the threat and when there would need to be action. It may also be how the Israelis are looking at it as well, though their timeline based on their military capabilities may be different than ours.
Richard: And so, that explains- everybody’s probably wondering like, well, 84% weapons a great way. Are we about to have military action? No, we’re looking at weaponization. There’s a danger to that because as we saw in the past, you don’t always know when they’re weaponizing. You think you know; you hope you know, but you may not know.
What they are enriching in front of us we can see, we know. The different aspects of weaponization you may not always know. One other very worrying part. There continues to be a lack of international inspections and verification at the place where they manufacture centrifuges, especially these advanced centrifuges.
And they have been adding centrifuges left than right, according to the last IAEA report. We don’t know if they’re old ones from before the JCPOA, new ones from centrifuges manufacturing, but there are tons coming out and we don’t know where they’re going from that facility, where they’re being diverted to, where manufacturing equipment may be moving to.
They can be setting up clandestine manufacturing sites and producing centrifuges we don’t know about. That’s a very worrying capability. And the IAEA has told us at this point, we will never be able to verify what they have been doing for the last year at this manufacturing site almost a year.
And so, you put that picture together, there could be a military strike necessary, if not by the United States, then by Israel. And that could happen in different ways, and it could happen soon. We don’t know. And so, the question has always been, what does this Saudi-Iran relationship mean for an Israeli military strike?
Richard: There’s been this assumption that perhaps Saudi Arabia wanting to see Iran’s nuclear program destroyed as well, would give Israel clandestine access to its airspace, maybe even land in the desert to refuel as part of any aerial campaign that was needed in the other pieces that come together as part of Israel’s plan.
And that now they’ve normalized. It’s not possible. Israel’s plan is out the window. There’s no possibility now of an Israeli military strike. I have seen very smart people, like very smart people who have issued analyses that say it’s almost impossible now to imagine an Israeli military strike because of this announcement.
That is not true. If Saudi Arabia were to give Israel access to airspace, access to landing rights, or in any other way provide material support to an Israeli military strike on Iran, regardless of if it had normalized relations with Iran or not, in a way that Iran would be able to at some point to suspect or know, the Saudis would expect- and I think we should all expect, Iran would retaliate against Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is very much in the mode right now, clearly not wanting to be attacked by Iran because nobody’s coming to their defense, not Washington, not Beijing. The IAAF is not going to sit there and defend Saudi Arabia while they got Hezbollah retaliating on their northern border and mass launching rockets and still having to try to make sure they’ve got everything in Iran.
So, from a Saudi perspective, this announcement is completely separate from any calculation on supporting an Israeli strike on Iran. We should already assume they have said no if they were going to say no for fear of retaliation. And anything that they are okay providing, they’ll be okay providing even with normalized relations because they probably are making a calculation that the Iranians will never be able to prove they did that.
And so, let’s think of an Israeli strike, not as well, how do they go across Saudi Arabia, but what are all the different pieces of a strike might look like. The cyber pieces, the sabotage pieces. We just saw a drone strike in recent weeks inside Iran launched from inside Iran, likely by Israel.
We’ve seen reports of other Israeli operations launched from Northern Iraq. We know that the border with Azerbaijan is forced and potentially was used in past Mossad operations. So put all of those pieces together plus the potential to maybe need somewhere to have planes refueling or landing, maybe not, depending on what the target set is. Let’s try to put that piece of it aside from the Saudi-Iran deal because I really don’t think it’s connected.
Sarah: All right. Wow. It is not just plain chess. It’s plain 12-dimensional chess. There are so many. Okay. During the negotiations for the JCPOA, we were promised over and over again swift snapback sanctions if Iran ever violates the deal. What are the prospects of Europe triggering snapback sanctions? Do you think it even enters their calculus that Iran is providing Russia with drones for them to use in their immoral war against Ukraine?
Richard: I think so. I think this is the tension going on, and this is the one piece of the Saudi-Iran deal that worries me if it were actually to come to fruition and move forward. Anything that in some way makes Europe or Washington hesitate about that snapback is bad.
And anything that gives momentum to the idea of, oh, wow, if the Saudis can normalize, maybe we should reconsider JCPOA as well and, you know, put a new nuclear deal back on the table. We shouldn’t snap back. That’ll provoke Iran. We have diplomacy now with latch onto Saudi’s diplomacy. We’ll see what else the other momentum is.
There might be a hostage deal. This could be a breakthrough as well. So that’s the only reason why I say it’s bad. Why do we need snapback? We need snapback for a host of reasons. Number 1, the Iran nuclear deal, the sunset provision of the deal that we recall, the first one in 2020 on the arms embargo going away.
By the way, how is Russia able to promise to sell the Su-35 fighter jet to Iran that we’re very worried about right now? Under international law, legal, because we allowed the arms embargo on Iran, the conventional arms embargo on Iran to expire in 2020.
If we snap back, that transfer becomes illegal under international law and not just the United States can try to use its own sanctions and potential military actions to try to stop it, but others may be encouraged to do so as well citing a UN Security Council resolution.
What else has happened under those sunsets? Well, this October, the next one comes, and that has to do with missiles and UAVs. And so, if you’re worried about Iran’s support to Russia and Ukraine and the transfer of even more advanced drones and short-range ballistic missiles potentially to Russia, you don’t want that international restriction to lift.
Whether you view it as symbolic or forceful of multilateralism as the Biden administration claims that it always is for multilateralism, then you should want that restriction to stay in place. The only way to keep that restriction in place is to snap back before it expires later this year.
And by the way, all the other aspects of Iran’s nuclear program that we are all saying as outrageous, “Oh, they’re enriching this high. They’re using these advanced centrifuges, they’re using these facilities,” all allowed as you go through the sunset, right?
By 2031, Iran’s allowed to enrich weapons-grade uranium as much as they want. They just can’t build the bomb. That’s the only commitment they make long-term. So, it makes no sense at this point that Iran has already sort of fast-forwarded its capability to 2031, essentially.
But we’re going to sit here paying Iran from 2023 until 2031, while all of these sunsets continue to fall off, all the strategic sunsets have already expired. And by the way, the resuscitation or the hope to resuscitate an Iran nuclear deal continues to be something that lifts up just a little bit, that Iranian economy and that Iranian rial and keeps the financial system from total collapse for the regime.
If you snap back, it is pro-Ukraine. It is pro-the people of Iran. It is finally cracking down and holding them accountable for their illicit nuclear program. It’s restoring the international principle of zero enrichment in Iran, which helps us in our negotiations, as I mentioned with Saudi Arabia.
And it puts us back in a multilateral perspective of how we are going to deal with this threat long term. We’re not going to be continuing down a rabbit hole of just negotiating with Iran in an extortion racket of how much money do you want in exchange for what limited concessions will you give us today on your nuclear program while you take that money and fund it for terrorism and missiles and human rights abuses and hostage-taking, and the rest.
We need a new strategy. It starts with snapback, which resets the clock, resets the table, restores all the international restrictions, and then says we are going to impose maximum sanctions on the regime to cut off its access to resources for terrorism and missiles and everything else that it threatens the United States with and our allies.
And we will use a credible threat of military force, either from the United States or the United States providing the assistance Israel needs to do it, to deter, and if necessary, degrade or remove the threat from its nuclear program. We can no longer view the nuclear threat as someone we can deal with with sanctions.
Sanctions as part of a comprehensive strategy are helpful to undermine the regime, squeeze the regime, roll back the regime, contain the regime, or whatever word you want to use. They’re not going to solve the nuclear threat at this time unless the regime collapses quickly.
And so, we need to move to a pressure and deter strategy. That’s what I call pressure the regime in all the other areas of malign activities and deter from acquiring a nuclear weapon and potentially taking action to remove the threat.
Sarah: Brilliant. Now, it’s my honor to- from the podium over to my esteemed colleague, Hussein Aboubakar Mansour who will read some of the questions that have come in and perhaps pose some of his own. Hussein.
Hussein: Thank you very much, Sarah, and thank you very much Richard for such a timely presentation. And thank you very much to all our audience who tuned in to listen to us today and who sent us questions. Thank you very much. We have only 15 minutes, so I’m pretty sure that we’re not going to have the time we need to go through all the questions.
So, I’m going to try to do my best. I have to combine as many of them. Richard, we’ve received the… actually, many times people asking and wondering, they’re not entirely sure what exactly the Trump sanctions, the maximum pressure campaign was abled at achieve. So, the question is, what did those sanctions actually achieve?
Richard: So, what is the goal of sanctions pressure? In the case of small little sanctions being put on, it could be to try to induce behavioral change. We’ve seen sort of the threat of sanctions in a targeted way against a state actor like Turkey used to temporarily destabilize the Turkish economy, the Turkish currency, the lira, in order to get a US hostage out [inaudible] Pastor Brunswick case.
And so, that was an interesting test case of the use of sanctions, a very [inaudible] way for one behavioral purpose. Maximum pressure is a very different use case for sanctions. It’s more akin to the Cold War strategy of using economic warfare as a whole of government multi-spectrum approach to pressure rollback containing a state actor. And so, the point of sanctions is to say, are we better off in US national security doing our best to deny the IRGC resources, or should we allow them free access to resources?
If sanctions can reduce the budget of the IRGC and the KUT force, if they can dry up money for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, if they can make it harder for the regime to access key technologies, import things they need to continue to perfect their missile program, their drone program, et cetera, is that good for US National security?
Even if it doesn’t immediately collapse the regime, it doesn’t stop the action immediately. Is that good or bad? And the answer I had is, in Islamic Republican [inaudible] less money is good for US national security. It is not the only way that we need to go about trying to undermine the regimes. We need to combine that with political warfare, isolating them in the UN, and international bodies.
The snapback is a part of that, calling Security council meetings to put a light on all the horrors that they’re doing. In some ways, they’re helping us more than ever before, shining a light on the true nature of the regime, both with the repression of women and minorities in Iran and their support to Russia.
We should be signing a laser beam on that every single day to undermine the regime, broadcasting maximum support to the people of Iran in various ways, technology, resources, helping them organize, get access to information to undermine the regime. And of course, covert activities that we don’t talk about. And military deterrents.
Those put together is actually how we won the Cold War in the 1980s. And so, it’s not like we just pulled this idea out of nowhere. There’s an entire book about this called Victory by Peter Schweitzer that I encourage everybody to read.
So, what did we accomplish? Well, the regime was back on its heels. It was down to $4 billion in foreign exchange reserves accessible. By the end of the Trump administration, they had lost their top commander of terrorism and were confused in the IRGC [inaudible] corps.
Their relationships were suffering in the region because of the loss of [inaudible] and resources drying up to those proxies because of the lack of money. They had actually finally started impeding some of their missile RND. Covert action by the Israelis had picked up in coordination and empowered by US maximum pressure, which was again creating a deterrence and chilling effect on their nuclear program and elsewhere.
So, put together, this was a regime that was up against the wall in my view, coming into 2021. And it’s not until we relax that maximum pressure campaign that you see Iran go from low-enriched uranium to high-enriched uranium, that you see Iran start escalating its attacks on US troops in Iraq and Syria, that you see continued missile proliferation and other threats against the United States.
We haven’t had a prisoner exchange since maximum pressure. We didn’t have to pay to get our hostages out of Iran. We actually were able to arrange prisoner exchanges. So, I think there were a lot of benefits you can see to maximum pressure. You can see all the pitfalls.
Abraham Accords, by the way, a byproduct of that maximum pressure. Well, changing the strategic dynamic of the Middle East, understanding that great power competition is already happening in the Middle East and that we can’t just say we’re going to leave the region and go to Asia as if Asia was not already in the Middle East, as we just learned on Friday.
So, I think there is a lot of reasons why maximum pressure was the right policy. It may have been in its- formed by the Trump administration, an incomplete policy. It also, unfortunately, suffered from the fact that our European allies did not like Donald Trump, and we were at loggerheads with Europe and our traditional allies over JCPOA and it’s difficult to get past that hump. The JCPOA was a historic, tragic mistake of epic proportions that we’re still paying for today just on top of other tragic mistakes, the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, not enforcing the red lines, etc.
So, we were on a path of repairing those relationships, creating new strategic paradigm for the Middle East, long term, the integration of Arab and Israelis to be able to take responsibility for themselves, which actually does reduce military pressure on us and draining this regime of resources, rolling them out of their comfort zone, reducing their support to proxies, all of that. We can restore that. It’s possible. It just takes a lot of work.
Hussein: Thank you. Well, actually following up on exactly this point, there are a few questions here that are asking about Israel’s isolation. So, as you said, the Abraham Accords was basically a product of different strategies created by the Trump administration that really created an incentive and really a desire for Arabs to normalize with Israel.
Now we’re looking at news Iran now has, instead of twelve years to breakout time, they have only twelve days of breakout time, you have the Chinese entering middle Eastern diplomacy with this kind of deal. You have also some political drama in Israel that might be really undermining the confidence of a lot of people in the Israeli political system.
And if you have a US administration that doesn’t seem to be as committed to the traditional US allies and positions in the Middle East. Doesn’t that create a new situation in which the incentive is the opposite of what it was three years ago, an incentive towards isolating Israel and getting away from Israel?
Richard: Yeah, I think the fundamentals, as I said, still are overwhelmingly in favor of Arab-Israeli integration from an economic and strategic perspective. I think that it was still Prime Minister Netanyahu with right-wing policies that normalized with UAE and Bahrain.
So, the idea that you needed [inaudible] or, you know, Ali Bennett to be able to have the Abraham Accords doesn’t make sense to me because, obviously, we didn’t get a single country added to the Abraham Accords during the Bennett [inaudible] Government.
We only had the Abraham Accords and some follow-on countries quickly while Netanyahu was previously prime minister. That said, the instability in Israel is not helpful to Israel. I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. That is not to assign blame to one part or the other. I think there’s plenty of blame to be going around right now.
The sooner there can be a compromise, clearly the better. And even leading advocates for judicial reform, like [inaudible] urging a compromise and saying, get rid of the judicial override proposal, things like that. So, there’s obviously a clamoring for getting the upheaval behind Israel. It’s not helpful to any relationship in the world when a country’s in political upheaval.
It’s a democracy. They’re going through a major democratic moment. And we have to respect that process and hope it comes out well. But in the end, the things that would probably be undermining would be more rhetoric from certain members of the government. That’s the kind of stuff that I think can be unhelpful to the environment for normalization.
Remember, Saudi Arabia is still the crown jewel. You’re talking about the home of Mecca. To have Saudi Arabia normalize with Israel without a policy and state is an enormous and enormous challenge in and of itself, which may be surmountable, but not with toxicity in the language used by sitting ministers that could be revved up in the Arab world and the press really trigger a lot of emotions.
And so, I think that it’s possible that given the short-term inability right now to work on normalization because of that environment in Israel, there’s an added incentive for the Saudis to say, what do we have to lose to go 2 months, and see what the Chinese do?
There could be one more ingredient there of sort of the calculus, but long term, assuming that this chaos in Israel can calm down, and assuming that a democracy can move through this at some point and tensions are lowered and language is modified to be responsible, you would think that the fundamentals I described on both the security side for Iran and Islamic extremism, the Muslim Brotherhood, we didn’t talk about.
Saudi Arabia still is very much at war with the Muslim Brotherhood and its factions as is Israel, if you’re talking about Hamas and, and other Islamic parties. So, all the reasons to have that integration vision, and 2030 high-tech innovation are all still there as long term.
Hussein: Thank you. There are news reports that President Xi is preparing for a diplomatic round between Russia and Ukraine in the near future. Will this in any way be affected by the recent Chinese success in the Middle East? And will it also influence or thicken the Chinese Iranian relationship as leverage?
Richard: I don’t know. I think this is more the Chinese with some sort of a play that Putin probably wants. I think we should not mistake the Chinese-Russian relationship as anything other than a very close one, where at least for now, the interests are tightly aligned and Xi sees Putin’s victory and dragging out the Americans there and potentially defeating Ukraine as very important to his long-term plan towards Taiwan.
We’ve seen reports of potential security, increased cooperation, military support, etc. There’s obviously an economic relationship that’s ongoing. And we’ve seen reports of just a rhetorical commitment, political commitment of support from Xi to Putin directly. So, whatever this is, I would say it’s likely in Putin’s favor.
But we’ll watch it closely, whether it has to do with them feeling big that they brokered something in the Middle East. I don’t know if I would say that. This is still sort of Russia’s AOR as their area of responsibility. This is Putin’s war and his vision of Russia on the line. So whatever Xi is offering here and doing here would only be done if Putin consents.
Hussein: Thank you, Richard. The last question that I’m going to ask you is about the possibility of an Israeli airstrike on the Iranian nuclear program. How close are we to a point where Israel must act or will have to act against the Iranian nuclear program and how much support do we expect Israel to have from the United States and other Arab countries in case Israel attacks the nuclear program?
Richard: Well, also, there’s a couple of timelines that we’re obviously watching. One is the actual threat timeline, and we don’t have full access to intelligence that folks with clearances do. We don’t know what the Israelis have access to and what they’re watching. And so, we imagine that there are some set of criteria, some indications, and warnings that they have, that if they see anything happening in certain areas, they believe that is their moment to have to act.
There are preparations for something. Now, that may not be putting a bomb together, that may be moving things out of sight, diverting things, and preparing alternative sites, right? The dispersion of the program would be an existential threat. Because as long as things that are most critical to the program are in a place that you know, you can hit that place, or you can sabotage that place.
When it is moved to places that you don’t know, then you have a real problem on your hands. So that’s one piece of it. If they ever actually had weaponization intelligence, you would imagine that’s another piece as well. But it doesn’t have to be that. It could be something short of that. We don’t know that.
The other piece is the capability piece, right? We have to assume that Israelis have various contingency plans for different moments of their capabilities and what they think they can hit and how they’re going to hit it. I would say, we would all agree that the Israelis have been the most creative military and intelligence service on the planet in history over many, many operations that we’ve seen that have defied ability and logic, and technology that we thought of.
And so, let’s not assume we know exactly how Israel’s going to do this, right? When you read the New York Times about some AI machine gun inside Iran that, you know, with a car and all this, so how they got most of them for crew today, like this is stuff that nobody like thinks about. A drone that’s launched inside Iran against a secret Iranian facility… I mean, this stuff’s starting to, like, it’s stuff from movies, right? That’s what the Israelis are made of.
So, we obviously have a timeline for the future potential deliveries of updated F-15s that would be far more advanced for them. Far more advanced, sophisticated refueling air-to-air tankers from the United States, other larger munitions that could come with those updated aircraft that might be larger bunker busters that actually get at the Fordo facility.
But again, let’s not assume we know everything that they’re capable of and that they’re thinking of how to use their capabilities towards facilities. We have our way of how we would envision that attack at Fordo or elsewhere. That might not be what their plan is. And therefore, if they can delay the program to 2025 to take delivery of other things that might make an operation easier or different. If they have based on intelligence, the need to go in 2023, I think they’re going to figure out how to do it.
Sarah: Thank you. Thank you so much, Hussein, and thank you immensely, Richard, for your clear, coherent, concise, and cogent analysis of the ongoing situation and all of the swiftly moving dynamics and factors that go into this multidimensional chessboard of the Middle East.
It is always a pleasure and an honor to work with you, Rich, and to all of the wonderful people over at FDD. And I have been reminded that I have to put in a plug. Please support FDD and also if you like what we do at EMET, I think it’s really important that you support EMET in a world of misinformation, radically changing information from day to day.
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Israel’s View of the Recent Warming of Ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia Transcript
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