Sarah: Okay. Good afternoon, and welcome to yet another extremely topical, extremely timely, and critically important EMET webinar. Despite the fact that President Biden had declared in December that the Iranian nuclear negotiations were dead after talks that dragged on for approximately two years, it appears as though the administration has turned to the small country of Imam, sitting on the Southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, as an intermediary to resuscitate these talks. He traveled to the Imani capital of Muscat on May 8th. Apparently, what the US has proposed is a “freeze for a freeze”. That means moving their threshold of acceptable limits of uranium from the 3.67 percent, which was in the original JCPOA to a new threshold of 60%.
On May 30th, a South Korean official confirmed that the United States was working with his government to unfreeze approximately $7 billion of Iranian assets. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, while speaking before an APEC group on Monday stated that “there is no danger that Israel faces that’s graver than the one posed by the Iranian regime.” Yet he also stated his Administration’s belief that “diplomacy is the best way to verifiably, effectively, and sustainably prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” If convinced that Iran had crossed the nuclear threshold, he did not rule out the threat of military force.
Yesterday, US ambassador to the UN’s international organizations, Laura Holgate, said that “Last September, Iran ended hopes that a mutual return to the JCPOA implementation may be near by demanding that the safeguard obligations be implemented differently in Iran than in other states.” As we know, such demands are simply impossible to accept. Yet we are getting contradictory messages. Will the administration ever truly run out of patience with Iran? How seriously do the Iranians and the others in the region take the threat of deterrence or military force from the United States?
With us today to discuss this and many, many other pressing issues is a wonderful friend and scholar from FDD, Behnam Ben Taleblu. Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at FDD, where he focuses on Iranian security and political issues. Benham previously served as a research fellow and Senior Iran analyst in FDD. Prior to his time at FDD, Benham worked on non-proliferation issues at an arms control think tank in Washington leveraging his subject matter expertise and native Farsi skills. Benham has closely tracked a wide range of Iranian-related topics, including nuclear non-proliferation, ballistic missile sanctions, the IRGC, the foreign and security policy of the Islamic Republic, and internal Iranian politics. Benham is frequently called upon to brief journalists, Congressional staff, and other Washington audiences. Benham has also testified before the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament. His analysis has been quoted in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Reuters Box, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse, among others. Additionally, he has contributed to or co-authored articles for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Fox News, The Hill, War on the Rocks, The National Interest, and US News and World Report. Benham earned his MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago and his BA in International Affairs and Middle East Studies from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
The first question for you is, Benham, that yesterday Iran opened its Embassy in Riyadh. That was after a seven-year diplomatic hiatus. What is actually going on with the GCC countries and Iran? How should the United States react to these developments?”
Benham Ben Taleblu: Well, Sarah, first and foremost, let me say thank you very much for hosting me, and thanks to EMET for all you do in the media space on The Hill and elsewhere. It’s always a pleasure to be with you, and thank you for the very kind introduction when you were reading. And I said, “Well, who the hell is that guy?” [laughter] So thank you very much. It’s always a pleasure. And your question is exceptionally timely, given our visits to the region. Maybe 20 years ago, if there was a rift between Saudi Arabia and America, a high-level American delegation could be enough in terms of the status bun that some of the GCC countries needed and some of the hand-holding that is needed between the US and its allies when there is a tiff or when there is a crisis. But I fear no longer.
Benham: And the reason I say that is there are a couple of economic and political predicates the American audience needs to know about why some of our foremost allies in the region continue to hedge away from the American order that defended them and that they benefited from, and that they supported with blood and treasure at times. And in this sense, you’ve had Saudi Arabia where the predicate for the relationship for the US, for most, if not all of the Cold War and into the present era and into the counterterrorism era, and now into the great power competition era has been energy for security. For the past 10 to 15, perhaps even 20 years, there has been a change in that energy for security relationship. The security side has been a bit wobbly, perhaps not from every American perspective, but perhaps from a sustained Saudi perspective.
Benham: They saw four very different presidents take four somewhat different approaches to the region, ultimately with the net conclusion that the Americans are going to be leaving the region. If you remember, you had the Bush era in the Democracy promotion and some of the waves that created, particularly after the US war in Iraq in 2003, and that spooked the Saudis. Then, of course, you have the Obama era and the desire to publicly talk about pivoting to Asia while negotiating with the nuclear rogue behind the back of many of America’s allies in the region, for so long and ultimately granting something that it does not permit many of its allies and partners to do, which is limited uranium enrichment on its own soil. So this spooked the Saudis; rules for thee but not for me, it seemed like.
Benham: Then during the Trump administration, the Saudis wholeheartedly supported publicly and privately, the maximum pressure and the political, economic, and even military deterrence and containment of this Islamic Republic. But when the Islamic Republic[?] began to push back, the Saudis and the other partners in the region didn’t necessarily see the American Security architecture as being there. Sometimes the American Security architecture didn’t even defend itself, and this led to two shockwaves throughout the kingdom.
Benham: You layer on the complexities and the political problems with the Yemen War, which as of last September had entered into its 8th year, even though there was a ceasefire. Now, it looks like they’re going to be extending that truce for more than a second time. And then the Biden administration, where the Biden administration campaigned, calling Saudi Arabia a pariah, overhyping the politics of the Khashoggi killing, trying to square peg round hole the US-Saudi relationship, and seeing it through a limited series of tactical engagements, whether it was about the Russia oil price cap and OPEC supply issues, or about the Ukraine war, or about more limited human rights engagement in the region, and not seeing the breadth and depth of that US-Saudi relationship.
Benham: So, all of this has sent shockwaves throughout the kingdom. And as much as we may not like it, it is predictable, understandable behavior. When you layer on top of that an adversary who they live literally on their front lines, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, for instance, the Islamic Republic’s MO with much of the Arab states in this region has been what I call a knife in the handshake. They put the knife in the back and the handshake in the front. And in this sense, Iran’s short to medium-term goal, because its long-term goal is still the export of the revolution, the eradication of Israel, and the evicting of the American course presence from the Middle East, the short to medium-term goal, the impediment to that goal is to humble and cow the Arab supporters of that order.
Benham: And in this sense, whether it was the arming of the Houthis or whether it was fundamentally changing the regional balance in Iraq after 2003 or continuing to arm the dictator in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, against all costs for more than a decade, butchering his own people, the Islamic Republic is now diplomatically cementing its military wins. And for Saudi Arabia and many of these states, which unfortunately many in Washington have seen as risk-tolerant, they are actually risk-averse. They are very successful economies. They’re actually threatened by the instability produced by the outpouring of the axis of resistance, of the export of the Islamic revolution, of the violence and instability of Islamist Iran’s numerous proxy wars throughout the region.
Benham: So, as an economic calculation, try to potentially placate this Islamic Republic to try to do what the US, many called what the US was doing in Vietnam, which is to seek either a face-saving line of retreat or potentially with some of the other wars in the region, like the Yemen War, a decent interval where they could buy peace for a certain period of time. In my view, this stuff never works, but nonetheless, one can understand why it’s happening.
And then you layer in the final element, which is while the energy politics and the energy sales, and the GCC trade balance, and particularly the Saudi-American trade balance, has changed in the past 10 to 15 years, it’s swung almost in a zero-sum fashion towards the east. So, China now actually is the major importer of Saudi oil and Iranian oil. And in this sense, us bungling a relationship with an ally is going to have ramifications not just for the pro-American order in the region, not just for the success of the Abraham Accords in the region, not just for countering Iran’s mission, but the global geostrategic imperative of countering Russia and China and really successfully adjudicating great power competition. So, I’m very worried about the direction this is going in, and I don’t necessarily see the Biden administration taking this seriously as it should.
Sarah: Right. According to Iranian pro-regime media, “a number of regional countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, are going to form a new naval coalition in the northern parts of the Indian Ocean.” We’ve already seen the United Arab Emirates, which was among the first to sign the Abraham Accords, pretty much abandon the US naval forces to work with Iran, Russia, and China. Do you believe that other GCC countries are going to follow suit? And how does that leave the United States and Israel in the region?
Benham: I think this is where reporting has to be fed into that larger… I apologize, if it was a little bit boring, but that larger narrative history I gave in the beginning. For instance, since the story broke about the UAE, some would say defecting or leaving that maritime security construct, one which, if we may not forget, was erected during the Trump administration’s maximum pressure period precisely because of fears of the need to defend GCC shipping and, in particular, UAE and Saudi shipping, but not just limited to UAE-Saudi shipping. So this entire construct was built to defend that pro-American architecture. But when you have an adversary like Iran that punches back and when you have risk-averse partners in the region that cannot sustain that kind of cycle of escalation, and the adversary knows that, and then the US is missing in action, unfortunately on a bipartisan basis, these are the kind of hedging moves that are going to result.
Benham: Now, in my reading of the situation, it has been reported that the UAE has re-clarified its position on the quote-unquote, “leaving of the maritime security construct.” I think that’s a space to watch for the future. And here, with the potential Saudi interest in some kind of naval exercise or activity or construct with the Iranians, I still see that as more of a molehill that has the potential to move into a mountain. So I would take it with a grain of salt. But nonetheless, in the aggregate, when you add A plus B plus C plus D plus E, it will give you F in the medium to long term.
Benham: So it’s not that we need to write it off. We need to be watching it, but we also need to understand what it is and what the Iranians are trying to make this. Whether it is the normalization deal with the Saudis, whether it is the UAE leaving that maritime security contract, or the Saudis entering some kind of maritime exercise with the Iranians, what the Iranians are trying to do here is paint a picture of the Arabs hedging away from the American order permanently, whereas the traditional behavior of the Arabs in the region is that hedge back and forth and back and forth. And in this process, you buy time. And when you buy time, you buy security. And when you buy security, you buy peace. And peace permits the conditions for good economic growth.
Benham: And that is a traditional understandable pattern of behavior. But the Iranians are trying to make it look like it’s permanent, like they permanently moved towards the American, towards the Iranian side, and in so doing sell their own narrative. For instance, the Iranian narrative about the opening of the Embassy in Riyadh is essentially as follows, that Tehran beat Jerusalem to Riyadh. They basically say its vision of the region rather than the American and Israeli vision of the region is what is now ascendant. So we should be careful also as we try to make sense of these moves to not lend the political and diplomatic credence to some of Iran’s political and diplomatic moves in the region because that’s precisely what it wants. It wants to ride this wave of fear. And through fear, enact and force its will on our partners.
Sarah: All right. We know that Iran has begun enriching uranium to at least the 83.6%. We’ve seen traces that were found in Fordo. And at least in one other facility, they stockpile that the Iranians have of Highly enriched uranium, the 60% level is now 23 times, the amount that was specified and the 2015 JCPOA, the nuclear agreement. Why has the IAEA, the UN nuclear Watchdog, agreed to close an investigation on some of these suspected nuclear sites? We know that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the IAEA on a cabinet meeting on Sunday, saying that the agency has become politicized. What is your feeling about this?
Benham: It depends on what one person’s definition of politicized is. And as much respect as I have for the former IAEA director, General Amano, I think some would say under the Obama Administration it was politicized towards that placating Iran’s side. I don’t necessarily see that with the IAEA under Director-General Grossi today. I see that as a shift in the right direction, more kind of universal baseline adherence of the rules. But over the past two years, Grossi has traveled to Tehran multiple times, tried to be used. It’s not his fault, but it’s what the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization has been doing. Tried to use his trips to the region to try to blunt diplomatic pressure, particularly at the Board of Governors for instance, so that Iran avoids ensure and that Iran avoids Security Council referral.
Benham: And you’ve seen the IAEA director really stuck between a rock and a hard place, try to defend the monitoring verification regime, try to defend the comprehensive safeguards agreement, try to defend the additional protocol, and really, really even defend the NPT even when the Islamic Republic is in violation of it and tried, through to multiple diplomatic sacrifices, hold together this monitoring verification regime through spit and gum and glue and sheer political force. And it’s simply not working well because you have an entity like the Islam Republic, which is keen on gutting that monitoring verification regime at all costs and doing I think what Italian political scientists in the past used to call the politics of the artichoke, one at a time. Pulling it off, one at a time.
Benham: And here it’s still anybody’s guess. I think the Wall Street Journal reporter, Lawrence Norman, had a good thread about the potential reasons as to the closure. Even one person’s definition of closure is not akin to another as it’s not a resolution. It simply may be coming to terms with the fact that there is no new information coming. It’s simply taking stock of the current status, and in my view, can and should be seen in red as a measure of the Islamic Republic’s unresponsiveness. It remains to be seen If this is Grossi’s ploy in the medium to long term to try to get resolution on some other side, some of those 3 other undeclared sides that were also mentioned in the atomic archive that Israel seeds and explorers.
Benham: So if he’s trying to deflect with one and pull towards the other, or if the Islamic Republic is trying to say, “Well, hey if I keep stonewalling the IAEA, if I keep escalating my program, I will basically create this effect of greater nuclear capacity and less monitoring.” So it has this funnel effect, and this funnel effect is going to freak out US policy, and it’s going to freak out the IAEA, and they will do more and more to placate me. And if the past is prologue, they will see the past closures of other nuclear files and say, “Hey, we’ve been able to trim down the other outstanding questions they have, so maybe we can keep trimming this guy down and keep trimming, this organization down, so long as we play this cat and mouse game.” So it’s still very much a work in progress. It’s still very much a movie for everyone to be watching.
Sarah: Right. As you know today, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken is in Jeddah meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. We have read about the Saudi demands for normalization with the United States and Israel, and they include a formalization or codification process which would have to go through the US Senate are most sophisticated arsenal of weapons including the F-35, and help with their construction of a nuclear program. How likely do you think it is that the United States can meet all these demands and push Saudi Arabia towards normalization?
Benham: Well, I think you certainly do want to have normalization, right? Particularly normalization at the highest diplomatic and political levels between Israel and Saudi Arabia, particularly because of this outsized political and security threat that the Islamic Republic is posing, and its ability to show that it can have an impact on the American order in the region. So I think now is as good a time as any. What you don’t want to do is rush into a situation where you create more medium to long-term problems down the road, particularly when you have a partner that has the capability to hedge how Saudi Arabia does. So in my humble perspective, and this is just my personal view, treat that as an opening gambit. There is no reason why we have to square peg in a round hole this, look at the text and say that this is, come on down from high, and that it’s either this way or the highway.
Benham: Washington should negotiate on that. Washington should riff on that. Washington should be workshopping a whole series of different alternatives, mixes. It’s basically like a cocktail. In every major cocktail, you’ll have one major component and a bunch of supporting components. And as long as you can flesh out what the key intention behind every southern major ask is, and you try to meet that intention with a different mix of actions and basically carrots, you might get a slightly different picture or slightly different mosaic at the end. In my view, yeah, if Saudi Arabia, much like its neighbor and partner in the GCC, the UAE, wants to have a 123 agreement, they certainly can and should. And then you should want American firms in there rather than South Korean or Russian or French, for instance. That would be a win for the American nuclear industry. That would be good for business. But you don’t want to further erode the non-proliferation safeguards that we already have been eroding due to our politics and our diplomacy with another actor across the Persian Gulf, which is Iran.
Benham: And these are the results. These are direct results. When Saudi Arabia may or may not want to bypass part of this nuclear order, these are results of an American ally saying, “How come you would give this to an adversary but not for me?” So there’s lots of stuff there to unpack. With the F-35 also, you have to understand, is this more status, or is this more security? I’m sure the UAE is also going to have an ask like this if the Russians give Iran the SU-35, that advanced fighter. There were some stories potentially walking that back in the Iranian press. But nonetheless, if that does happen, I would certainly expect American partners in the region to once again first get on the phones with the French, try to secure some offer, and then try to play that off against us and try to get the F-35.
Benham: So I think Washington should not freak out. I think the goal should still be normalization. I think we need to understand the intent behind many of these Saudi asks. I think we need to be a better partner. I think we still have much more in common together. I think we can help rebuild and recalibrate the rules of the road so that it matches the 21st-century needs of the Saudi-American relationship, whether that is economic or security or political, or even in the nuclear non-proliferation realm. And then from there, move towards what that consensus on that intent looks like in practice. So no need to freak out yet, but to understand what each ask really means.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, we’re definitely experiencing an end of the normal liberal rules-based world order that we’ve seen since the end of World War II with America at the helm. Doesn’t this sort of diversification of the Gulf States’ portfolio, where they’re speaking to Iran, speaking to China, speaking to Russia, and speaking to the United States, make Israel feel increasingly more abandoned and isolated, leading to more of a potential that they’ll act out on their own?
Benham: It really depends on in what domain act out on their own. Act out on their own vis-a-vis Iran. They may feel like they may have to give in the hedging. I, for one, don’t think the hedging in the medium to long term is going to be borne out because the Saudis are going to be opening up an embassy soon. The Iranians have opened up an embassy, fine, but the larger structural part of problems in that relationship remain. And I think that fundamental driver that has forced the states to slowly hedge towards Iran may also, again, force them to move closer to Israel once that Iranian behavior goes past a certain threshold. Don’t ever mistake the Iranians’ capacity here to shoot themselves in the foot. There may be a brief drop-off in the period of time that they’re sending things to Yemen, but it may spike up again.
And don’t forget that in many of these areas where Iran is the patron to a terrorist proxy, there are still historically patron-proxy problems. So even though Iran has control, direct control looks and feels very different with a group in Syria versus a group in Iraq versus a group in Yemen, and it can depend on personal-to-personal relationships. That’s why Soleimani, the former Chief terrorist of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, was so essential to be that connective tissue for the militias in that Heartland where Iran is trying to build that land bridge from Iran to Iraq to Syria, to Lebanon, and then project power in the Eastern Mediterranean down against Israel there.
So, yes, it’s cause for concern, but not cause for a major freak out yet. There are some… The liberal world order is taking some knocks, some hits, but if you really push a lot of these countries that are hedging, do they send their students to study in China or do they send their students to study in Washington? Do they think Russia, with all of its economic and political problems, is a good model and would be a good guarantor of the norms and security, and the economic prosperity that they need to succeed in the 21st century? Not at all, in my view.
Sarah: Excellent. So in today’s, I think it was AP, we saw that the Iranians have a new supersonic missile that they claim can defeat any kind of weaponry that the United States has. Is this true? Does the United States have anything in its arsenal that compares to this?
Benham: Well, here, I want to take a little bit of time as a missile nerd to unpack this because the Islamic Republic, for more than a decade, if not two decades, has had what the American directors of National Intelligence, both on the Republican and Democratic administrations, have said to be the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. We should take a moment to process that: larger than US ally Israel, larger than NATO ally Turkey, larger than US partner Saudi Arabia. And for many years, in the late Cold War, early years of the war on terror period into the present, the balance in the region was: the good guys have jets, the bad guys have missiles. You remember Saddam’s Scuds, you remember Qaddafi’s Scuds, you remember Assad and Assad’s dad’s missiles even. All those are basically gone, it’s just the Islamic Republic as the main missile power today. And that is forcing countries like Saudi Arabia to begin to hedge towards missile power as they continue to have a robust American-supplied Air Force.
Benham: While the Iranian program, for too long, was seen as merely something that would be used to deliver a nuclear warhead, the Iranians have supplemented and developed more precision strike ballistic missiles, solid propellant systems, new liquid-fueled systems. They have never forsaken range for accuracy. They’ve worked on a space program that could potentially threaten Europe and ultimately the American homeland. They are moving forward on all fronts. And that quantitative advantage, that large arsenal for the past decade, they’ve been trying to make a qualitative advantage.
Benham: Now, I’m using this word “qualitative” specifically here because those folks who know about Israel and the U.S. Congress and the defense appropriations issues know about Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region where it’s not just the numbers, it’s the capability and the capacity and the systems they can bring to bear. So when one looks at Iron Dome, for instance, co-produced with America but ultimately having this track record of success against a conventionally superior number, this is what the Iranians are trying to come up with in terms of now quality. They’re trying to match quality with quality. And hypersonic is a scary word because that’s where the US may even be lagging behind the likes of China and Russia. There’s an allegation in 2021 that even the North Koreans moved towards it. I still see that as more of a hedge.
In my assessment of hypersonic, and again, this is just 5, 6 times the speed of sound, and it has, in terms of the warhead, the Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, the HGV, it can maneuver, it can do what analysts call skipping and gliding, having this drastically unpredictable trajectory that can throw off the kind of guidance you need to be able to detect, track, and ultimately destroy any incoming projectile. I don’t know if this latest system has that skip and glide capability. In my view, this is just my personal view, looking at what’s been said in the Persian language open-source world, looking at Iranian defense sources, knowing what we know about Iranian missiles, looking at what this missile looks like in practice, learning what we’ve learned from the Iranian animations about these systems, it is probably more of a maneuvering re-entry vehicle. Again, look at the finlets on the warhead and then contrast the shape of the warhead with other Russian and Chinese HGVs. So probably it’s not there yet, but it’s getting there. And the Iranians may have labeled the platform as hypersonic because even some of their missiles that re-enter the atmosphere, their ballistic missiles, particularly their medium-range 2-stage solid propellant ballistic missile, like the Sejil, for example, it re-enters the atmosphere, if Iranian sourcing is right, at Mach 10 or Mach 12. That is a hypersonic speed. It is not a hypersonic weapon because it doesn’t have the skip and glide, but Iran already has some ballistic missiles that can re-enter the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.
Benham: So it may have taken that definition pertaining to re-entry, the maneuvering warhead, and then the smaller rocket motor that is pictured inside the maneuvering warhead with the thrust vectoring capability, to show that it can move a little bit and try to take advantage of this fear of hypersonics to actually make this claim of having a hypersonic weapon. I’m happy to be proven wrong, but I think these two camps that we have, one universally dismissing it and two universally believing it, is unhelpful. I think this more nuanced approach of seeing how the Iranians are taking A plus B plus C, trying to take advantage of a larger political and security problem we know we have vis-a-vis Russia and China. And I think this is the smarter, more nuanced approach.
Patriot has been proving pretty successful. We’ll see what else the US does vis-a-vis Russian and Chinese hypersonic capabilities. But make no mistake, even if this is not purely the best-case definition of a hypersonic missile, and again, I don’t think it is, I think it’s that combination platter with a small rocket motor, the maneuvering re-entry vehicle, and the fact that some ballistic missiles do re-enter at hypersonic speeds. I think it’s more of this cocktail package. It doesn’t mean that the Iranians won’t move there in the future. And their ballistic missile program surprised everybody with the precision in 2020, and we should not be surprised if they move towards the speed at some other point in the mid-to-late 2020s. So, even if it’s not, it’s a growth industry, and we need to be able to prepare offsets for this.
Sarah: Right. Are you aware of what Israel has in its arsenal? If Israel is left on its own, could it defend itself against the sort of missile system?
Benham: Well, Israel has probably, in relation to any country, the best layered, tiered, you could say, air and missile defense system. It’s about quantity and quality for them. Unfortunately, what you’ve seen in these recent flare-ups of conflict, particularly from the May 2021 war into the present war that just ended, the different rocket volleys from Gaza, for instance, my concern is: A, the Iranians are looking at how to overwhelm key elements of this multi-tiered system. So even if it’s not a projectile from Iran, if you have a multi-front conflagration and the Israelis may be training for, okay, domestic terrorism vis-à-vis East Jerusalem, and in that way, and then rockets from Gaza, and then potentially rockets and/or PGMS from Lebanon, and/or potentially some kind of conflict with Syria. And then you add an external Yemeni component and an external Iranian component. I don’t want to re- I don’t want to have to live that social science experiment. I don’t think Israel should have to live that social science experiment.
Benham: That’s why it’s still very key to detect and destroy these weapons before they get transferred to proxies. That’s why key sanctions on procurement, production, and proliferation nodes, both in Iran and in these countries, it’s going to be very key. And that’s why ultimately you do want to make sure that Israel has the offensive edge against any of these proxies or its patron.
Sarah: Right. Okay. On September 2022, as you know, Mahsa Mini was arrested and murdered for having a few strands of hair showing out of her hijab. There have been, up until today, there are still demonstrations going on on the streets of Iran, which very few people are aware of. And we have occasionally, maybe heard a few comments, but both the administration and the media have been relatively silent. And I see this as a wasted opportunity. Are you aware of anything besides a few rhetorical comments that this administration is doing to support these brave dissidents throughout Iran?
Benham: I think the surest sign of the administration’s change of heart and change of head on Iran would have been to wholeheartedly embrace these protesters. I mean, I think the people who were at the helm in September/October 2020 in the Biden administration, again, being veterans of the Obama administration, rightly learned lessons of the silence during the Green Movement in 2009. But I think just like you’ve seen them over-learn the lessons of the politics of the JCPOA in 2015, they, with immense respect to them, may have overlearned lessons as it pertains to the politics of supporting the Iranian people, about how to not put your money where your mouth is, but how to simply strategically exercise your mouth. Again, with immense respect to the people at the helm today.
Benham: I think they have had some engagements with key Iranian dissidents and opposition voices here, but not enough. I think they have struck a very good, helpful rhetorical tone, particularly in the fall of 2022, about the need to stand with the Iranian people, about the need for internet freedom in Iran, about the need for freedom of assembly in Iran, about the need to hold accountable and name and shame all of these oppressors, whether they’re in the judiciary, the political branch, or the security branch, of the people actively repressing the Iranian people’s freedom and hope for change in their own country. But then they will also default to things like keeping the door open for the JCPOA, and you can’t do one without the other. You can’t talk about and even do selective sporadic sanctions against different rounds of IRGC officials engaging in crackdowns and be unwilling to point a finger at those issuing that, which is the Supreme Leader of Iran and the President of Iran. For some reason, these two individuals are still not subject to human rights penalties.
Benham: That is a gross mistake. There are issues where we are short of the Europeans on. This is worth noting. The various European legislators, nationally and even I think the EU Parliament, you have had members adopt Iranian political prisoners and those taken as prisoners of conscience. I don’t believe, to the best of my knowledge, that there has been a lot of good vocal rhetorical support, and there is a bill that has the love and attention respect of much of the Iranian American Community called the Mahsa Act, which has been making its way in and out of markup and may even have a Senate companion and maybe move into the NDA process, who knows? But it has much attention of the Iranian American Community today that aims to plug these human rights sanctions loopholes. But even that is necessary but not sufficient in my view because we still don’t have a major US Senator or congressperson doing fully what the Europeans have been able to do when it comes to political adoption.
Benham: Now, I understand there may be hesitancy due to legal reasons or hesitancy due to the fact that the Europeans have diplomatic relations with Iran and we don’t. But I think the Langford Committee back in 2012 did this for two individuals. I see no reason to pull punches today when we may have been able to levy them in 2012. That’s my personal view. So, there is a lot more basic things, even that could be done. I don’t know if on the intelligence side, if on the industry side, if on the business side, and on the public-facing government side, we have aligned our ways, our means, and our ends on things like Starlink and satellite communications. And making sure the Iranians have access, not just to VPNs, but to things that can shut off their regime’s own attempts to create a tunnel narrow Halal intranet, which is basically a national internet in that country.
Benham: Since 2019, there have been more than just sporadic internet blackouts, locally if not nationally. I said this line most unfortunately in 2019 when everyone was talking about democracy here at home. The line was from The Washington Post, “Democracy dies in darkness.” The Iranian people are also dying in the darkness. And so long as we don’t amplify their plight, the regime will be increasingly content on this divide and rule and conquer and co-opt and kill. And you see this purge and executions now in that country at record-setting highs. This is all exceptionally disappointing.
Benham: And in my view, the Biden Administration, while it did deserve credit for some of the activities and in the early fall, and there may have even been some follow-through, perhaps in the interagency process, who knows? I see it now ground up in the same series of things that grind up the rest of the US policy. One is time. They may not have the time or they may not believe this issue can be solved in the time they’re in office, so they kick the can down the road or they ignore it. Two is risk tolerance. They don’t want to go out on a limb on this issue. Because they can’t get a domestic political win on it, they don’t want to go out on a limb on it. And that correlates with number three, which is political capital. Unfortunately, the way the Iran issue is being handled is a direct signal to the Iranian American Community, Iranians in the diaspora globally, and anyone who cares about this issue nationally or globally, that it is not worth the political capital of the administration. Which is precisely why to go back to the way you began our conversation today about that off-the-cuff Biden line about the JCPOA being dead, but the administration not willing to officially declare it dead and do something that is needed like snap back at the UN with its E3 partners.
Benham: The reason is the administration is still trying to use the corpse of the deal because it believes the corpse of the deal will give it some deterrent dividend to kick the can down the road, to make it in 2024. So I don’t think the administration has learned the facts that are actually on the ground in Iran, that it needs to be taking its cues from the Iranian people. I think, most unfortunately, it’s just going to be counting a couple of sanctions and centrifuges, and in the end, so long as three disastrous things don’t happen, it will declare a political victory regardless of the state versus street versus society divides, which are very big in that country.
And since 2017, Iranians have been protesting for wholesale change and not just reform. And A, the behavior and the rhetoric of the Biden administration doesn’t seem to get that, but B, to go back to those three things, so long as, in my view, Iran doesn’t enrich to 90% purity and stockpile at 90%, so long as Iran does not kick out inspectors and/or leave the NPT fully, and so long as there is no kind of underground test, the administration is not going to pull the plug on this selective, piecemeal “kick the can down the road” and, do a few sanctions, do a few handshakes to the Iran problem.
You could say that’s also because things other than Iran matter, like Russia and China. I understand you could also say we need to focus on things at home. I understand. I disagree with some of those views, but I think Iran is essential to be getting right on so many of these other foreign and security policy problems. And again, with the exception of Israel, it’s one of the few places in the Middle East where your head and your heart on policy can be aligned. And the administration, which talks so much during the campaign and when he came into office about aligning those two things, about being the adults in the room, really, to take a quote from the Palestinians about the Palestinians, should not miss this opportunity to miss this opportunity. And I fear we have.
Sarah: Exactly. I fail to understand how when Iran is helping Russia with its drones that they are using to execute their brutal war against Ukraine and even helping them to manufacture some of their own, that people don’t understand that Iran is actually part and parcel of our problem with Russia and China. And that many in this administration, are just mentioning Russia and China as being adversaries when we’re seeing this sort of cooperation. Could you amplify on that a bit?
Benham: For sure. There was a, you could say, unholy trinity or a troika of forces back in 2010 to 2012 that helped focus Western policy, not just American, but Western transatlantic, the EU, the E3, the UN Security Council, even to focus on Iran to get Iran right. We know one was the post-2009 crackdown and the horrible domestic situation there. The second was the bombast, the incitement, the genocide, and the Holocaust denial of former polyester windbreaker-wearing President Ahmadinejad in Iran. And of course, the third was the massive nuclear escalation in that country. Rightly so, we were afraid of 20% enrichment. The Islamic Republic is now flirting with near weapons-grade, and we’re doing it as a write-off.
All of those things, by the way, got us to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which had the most teeth out of any UN Security Council resolution on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in history. And one whose provisions are lapsing now, thanks to UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which codifies the JCPOA, which has sunsets that pertain to 2020, the arms embargo, and the visa ban that already elapsed. And in 2023, the ballistic missile tests and transfer prohibitions, which are set to lapse, as well as asset freeze prohibitions, which are set to lapse, unfortunately, again, as well. And these are all voluntary choices the West has made based on how it manages the Iran policy problem.
Fast forward to a new unholy trinity or a troika of negative forces in 2022/2023, you have the 2017 to present anti-regime nationwide, geographically and demographically diverse street protests. Every different boom-and-bust cycle, Gen Z, the youth, women, lower middle class, lower class, day laborers, trade unionists, teachers, different boom-and-bust cycles, economic issues, social issues, environmental issues, even foreign policy issues being triggers for larger political protests to be directed right at the heart of the regime. For the Iranian people to grab the third rail by both hands and chant “Death to Khamenei.” For the Iranian people to let you know what a different country would look like. Since 2009, they’ve been saying, “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran.” You had the, just as a brief riff, if I may, the son of the late Shah of Iran went to Israel recently on a historic first trip to that country, a real kind of intellectual and political homecoming with his visit to Jerusalem, the Western Wall, and more importantly, his speech at ADL when he came back about calling Iran his temple and now asking the pro-Israel community, the Jewish community, to help Iranians and Iranians in the diaspora rebuild their own temple. Really powerful stuff here. And again, I think that message is not lost on the Israelis, but I do think, most unfortunately, that message is lost on the Americans.
Benham: I think rightly so, we need to be worried about what is going on on the street in Saudi Iran, the massive crackdown, because if that’s how they treat their own citizens, look at how they will treat the rest of the world. And that is a message that I think is quite key. It’s why you have people totally upset with the Islamic Republic, angry, ferocious, even when you look at populations in Iraq, populations in Syria. When you even look at basic polling, I think that Associated Press has put out about Iran’s totally diminished favorability relative to Saudi Arabia across Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. And then you layer on Iran’s provision of drones to Russia for use against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and targets like that. The Europeans rightly got freaked out by this but wrongly are not taking the next series of preventive actions to stop a potential Iranian ballistic missile transfer to Russia.
So this new unholy trinity of a massive crackdown inside the country, escalating nuclear program, and rapidly developing military capabilities, whether you look at drones and missiles, seems to not be enough to get those same actors which snapped into shape from 2010 to 2012 to again snap into shape. And it’s really, really unfortunate. And we’re living in the world created by that where the Islamic Republic is emboldened by the lack of checks against it. It’s not just their capabilities that are advancing, it’s the capabilities are advancing plus their perception of our resolve is diminishing, which will beget the next round of escalation. And if we think our silence will pacify them, that is a gross mistake.
Sarah: So if you were to craft an ideal American policy vis-a-vis Iran, what would you specify? What would your highlights be?
Benham: We may not have time to get into every single facet, but I’ll tell the viewers here to check out just a couple of documents we’ve contributed to at FDD. There was one, I think from October of last year, about maximum support. That’s how to really stand with the Iranian people in practice. We’ve had a much, much older document that now I think is not at all the time for nuclear negotiations, but hypothetically, if there is an administration looking for a nuclear-only view or nuclear diplomacy-centric view or coercive diplomacy-centric view, we had an older good document called Getting to Yes with Iran. And then much more recently, we have had a 200-some-odd policy point plan that FDD has put out called Plan B with Iran that I think came out early this year.
Benham: You layer on those three documents, and then, humbly, I would plug my own ballistic missile monograph if you’re interested in looking at countering, containing, rolling back, challenging, constraining the Iranian ballistic missile threat. I think you have the blueprint for a much more robust policy where in some, maximum pressure on the regime, in some, maximum support for the people. That is going to have to be the new winning formula. You connect the dots in all those documents I mentioned: the “Getting to Yes,” the “Plan B,” the “Maximum Support,” and the Arsenal monograph, the net result will be maximum support… I’m sorry, maximum pressure on the regime, and maximum support for the sequel.
Sarah: Right. It’s like Andrei Sakharov had said, this former Soviet dissident, that if you really want to know a nation’s foreign policy, look at the way they treat their own dissident population. And that’s right. So now with the remaining time, I see we have both Joseph Epstein and Hussein Abu Bakr Mansur on the line. I don’t know which of you are going to be reading the questions that have come in. Okay, Hussein, we’re honored to have you. Hussein just became a father for the first time, and he’s coming off of paternity leave to be able to participate in today’s webinar. We’re so honored to have you, Hussein.
Hussein: Thank you, Miss Sarah. And I couldn’t miss such a critical webinar. Thank you very much, Benham, for such a timely and wonderful presentation. I’ll try to go through the questions that we received from the audience. I want to thank all of those who tuned into the webinar, all those who sent us questions. We don’t have a lot of time, so I’m pretty sure we’re not going to be able to go through all of them. Since we just spoke about the Iranian opposition and about Crown Prince Ali Reza Pahlavi, there’s a question that we received about organized Iranian opposition. Is there a real organized Iranian political opposition that is able to capitalize on the momentum in the streets among the younger Iranians and actually bring results in terms of a political change in Iran?
Benham: I would say this, while the son of the late Shah did, in fact, join this kind of broader coalition earlier this year, that unfortunately, as many observers saw, did fall apart due to some kind of political and personal infighting, that does not at all mean all hope is lost. In my view, and as I mentioned to Sarah before, we should be taking our cues from the streets. And within the streets, there really is only one major opposition figure’s name who was routinely chanted. And that is, again, the son of the late Shah. They also chanted his father’s name pertaining to the nationalism of his father, which the population can use as a tool against the Islamism of the regime they face today. That is one of the major state versus society divides, an Islamist revolutionary government with a post-revolutionary nationalist population that no combination simply cannot hold and accounts for the boom-and-bust cycle today.
Benham: I think we may be past the current era of talking to one group, in particular, the most organized groups. There’s the MVK, for instance. But no one is saying you should be doing deals with an Islamist Marxist cult. I think that would be definitely a step backward, not a step forward for US policy. That would not be doing right by your head. That would not be doing right by your heart. So again, I think we have to take advantage of the boom and bust cycle of protest in Iran, recognize that the coalition abroad is, I don’t want to say fractured, but much more divided, much divided, strike united in terms of those from US policy can go to a certain point with, and then will have to pivot to a different actor. This is not about anointing the political future of Iran. Iranians are supposed to be picking their own political future. The problem is for four decades plus, they have not been able to pick their own political leaders rightly, freely, and democratically at home.
Benham: So my advice is to ride the wave and to benefit from the celebrity and status of many of these opposition figures abroad. Have them in and out of meetings, the White House, the NSC, and the State Department. Benefit from their cultural and political expertise and then lead that into US policy. I think to look for exactly a carbon copy of what happened in the ’70s, that’s one reason why, if I had to guess as an Iranian-American, why the diaspora is so divided because the diaspora did not have any of these conversations. They were only united by their… Sorry, those who were trying to do the revolution were only united by their distaste for the late Shah. And in essence, they put all their differences aside, supported the Ayatollah, and in essence, they live to pay the price when the Ayatollah one by one cut the coalition members, whether it was the nationalists, the liberals, the Marxists, the communists, the leftists until it even began to adjudicate among different grades of Islamists, which has been doing now for three decades. So we have, in some ways, over-learned the lessons of logrolling and coalition politics.
Hussein: Thank you. On this point, I’ll combine a few questions that we received that probably will require some speculation on your part. And I don’t think any of us really know exactly the answer to it, but hopefully, you’ll help us. You just spoke about an Islamist revolutionary Marxist regime that no longer represents the will or the desires of its own population, that a lot of it now is very discontent with the regime, a regime that is constantly deceiving and feeding on its international commitments, a regime that is anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and is building the most impressive military and power projection capabilities in the Middle East, even compared to a lot of US allies in the region. Yet, the Biden administration seems to be very set on getting a deal, rejoining the JCPOA, finding a way to make it work, by hook or by crook, telling people that we paused, and then going to Iman and all of this. Why do you believe or why do you think that the Biden administration is so keen on this?
Benham: So this is where I was saying, you know, part of the answer that was talking with Saah about over-learning some lessons. The Biden administration, particularly the veterans of the Obama ones back in, at the helm now, over-learned the lessons of the politics of the JCPOA. And in this sense, they may not be just 180 degrees opposite Trump. They may be 120 or 90 degrees opposite Trump, and in that sense, they let the sanctions remain on the books but they don’t actively enforce them. They constantly talk about getting a deal, but they actually were unable even to placate the Iranians to get that deal back. And in the aggregate, this goes back to those three points. They don’t believe that a whole deal, if they could get one, is worth the political capital. They don’t think the issue is solvable within a certain time horizon, and they don’t have a certain level of risk to take on new innovative policy ideas.
Benham: And when you layer on the domestic politics of it, which is that the JCPOA has unfortunately become an element of Democratic Party dogma on the foreign policy stage, you get this perverse attachment to a deal that was even improper by 2015 standards with what we knew about Iran’s capabilities, what these Islamic regime’s intentions were, and about its nuclear program. And then we’ve tried to graft that onto a 2023 reality when we have so much more information and more data at the helm.
Benham: So, in this sense, so long as the other three things don’t happen, which is again, that 90% enrichment and the stockpiling, leaving the NPT or fully kicking out inspectors, and some kind of underground nuclear test, so long as we don’t detect- and I should say some of these things could happen, we may not even be able to detect it, God forbid. So long as those three things don’t happen, they will call this a limp-along strategy, which, as you rightly critique, is a success. And they will frame that within the prerogatives of any government has limited time, any government has limited attention, other issues like Ukraine and Taiwan because of the outsized China and Russia threat deserve more attention, and they will talk about budget issues and spending and the military. And they will talk about hyping the fact that we failed left and we failed right, meaning we didn’t win in Iraq but we went in Afghanistan, how can we win here? And then ride this kind of nonpartisan wave within the American body politic to leave the region, to say that our path is the path of the adults in the room, and we have averred catastrophe when, in reality, their path has bought time and provided resources for the ultimate catastrophe.
Hussein: Thank you. I’m going to combine the last two questions that we have. I want to thank all of those who sent the questions, and then I’ll give it back to Sarah. First of all, if Iran reaches nuclear capabilities, how likely, and when do you think if so, is it to try to attack Israel using nuclear capabilities? And the second question is, if all the different parts of US foreign policy in the region, whether with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Iran are interdependent, how possible is it for Saudi Arabia to accept in leu of or instead of the advanced arms and weapons that they ask from- demanded from the United States, including the F-35s? How likely is it that they accept a more aggressive US policy towards Iran, a more realistic US policy towards Iran, a more assertive one, as a supplement or a replacement for these advanced weapons toward normalization?
Benham: Moving backwards, I’m not sure the Saudis would ask that because they may know the Americans may not be able to deliver it, whether under the auspices of this administration or the next. I think this administration will send the right notes, but you hear ultimately CENTCOM and defense voices talking about the US force posture in the Middle East being, I think the word is security integrator or integrator of some kind or sort. Meaning it’s local actors, local solutions to local problems, and we help convene with outside intelligence and technical capability. I think that is going to be part of the formula moving forward, and I think the Saudis, perhaps more than anyone, given the capabilities they have, realize that. And when you’re the integrator, you’re really putting the finishing pieces of the puzzle. You’re not building the puzzle, you’re not connecting the puzzle. You’re doing the last-stage stuff rather than the initial first-stage stuff. So they may expect more of the local actors to pick up the slack on the first-stage stuff, which will create greater problems in security policy coordination between Saudi and American, between Abu Dhabi and America, and elsewhere. So that is going to be one
Benham: Stemming from that is, even if the Saudis do get prospectively under a different American administration, let’s say a more hawkish Republican foreign policy president comes to the helm, well, the Iranians have proven that they would punch back. I think it’s an outsized question: What are the American thresholds of the punch back? As much as their novel move, the killing of Qasem Soleimani, was by Donald Trump, the absorption of the 16 precision strike, short-range ballistic missiles on those two undefended bases is what solidified in the minds of Iranian defense hawks and security planners and IRGC officials that they can get the upper hand with America so long as they strike first, so long as they create the conditions that even though they don’t have the greater capability against America, that so long as they punch back fast, America will absorb it and will stand down. That was Donald Trump’s words. I think, “stand down,” that’s what he said in January 2020.
Benham: So even if the Saudis do ask and the Americans do rhetorically deliver, it’ll be an outsized question. Once the pressure comes back and the Iranians start punching back, well, who is going to be the target first? If you were Iran and you saw this and you’ve lived through this era, you would probably put the target on the GCC first, knowing full well that you can divide the foreign supporter from the local actor, and in so doing, again, create the conditions to hedge. So I am very worried either way, Republican or Democrat, given the bipartisan track record of failure in this space.
Benham: And to pivot to the Israel question, very quick, not that this deserves a short rift, but it does require a bit of creativity because it’s something that hasn’t happened yet. They’ve been putting their money where their mouth is for four decades, but they’ve been putting their money where their mouth is for four decades strategically and cognizant of Israel’s escalation dominance conventional capabilities, and even nuclear capability or capacity. I think they understand redlines vis-à-vis the Israelis much more so than they understand redlines vis-à-vis the Americans.
Benham: I think their impression of America is not at all of the Reagan Administration and the sinking of the Navy, but I think they have a cognizance of what Israel really can do given the war between the wars, the defeats they’ve suffered in Syria, the proxy and supply strikes, as well as, of course, the stuff you’ve seen internally go boom in the night across Iran, really since 2020, nuclear and military missile drone and other. So I think they are still much more cognizant of Israel’s capabilities there than they will lead on. And in that sense, I do see the Iranians having to engage in more strains vis-à-vis the Israelis than the Americans, but that should not provide us with sufficient calm.
Benham: As I was writing the ballistic missile monograph, you’ve had multiple American directors of National Intelligence say that if Iran was going to deliver a nuclear weapon, it would do so with a ballistic missile. We talked about it being the largest arsenal. But you’ve also had the DNI say previously that Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of carrying WMD. And I’m talking about WMD here because Iran also has chemical capacities. And why I’m mentioning this is when I was going through the declassified US record on Iran and the Iran-Iraq war, obviously Saddam’s Iraq used these chemical weapons much more grossly and offensively against civilian and military targets alike, but the Iranians ultimately did begin to respond. And in April 1987, the CIA mentioned that Iran clearly crossed the chemical barrier and that it mentioned that there were previous political and religious prohibitions on Iran’s use of chemical weapons.
Benham: Why I’m mentioning that is because as much as we know about Iranian deterrence and their cognizance of Israeli redlines and the kind of war between the wars and their respect for the kinetic elements of the relationship with the Israelis, is that there may be a day when they cross the nuclear threat of redlines as well where those previously assumed political and religious restraints that many may have assumed would have governed their nuclear work also all of a sudden go poof.
Benham: Now, in my view, I don’t think it’s likely. I think the Iranians are currently even benefiting from their nuclear architecture. They’re benefiting from the conventional deterrents they have been able to pose back. It’s why for four decades, you have not had direct overt attacks on Iranian soil. Their deterrent system has worked. It’s already given them the dividends. They have secured the space. You don’t find another country with a GDP as weak as this and a security policy as aggressive as this still in power and at war with its own people. Its system, most unfortunately, is working. The problem is, once it works so well, would they be tempted to cross that direction? And in that world, I would say, unfortunately, that is a nonzero number. So even if it is a 1% chance, that is, again, the quote, what I was telling Sarah, a social science experiment I nor anyone else would want to nor should have to live through, particularly if you live in the region like the Israelis.
Sarah: Thank you so much, Benham, for your customary wisdom and brilliance on this subject. We’re delighted, and we’re always delighted to partner with the wonderful scholars at FDD. All of this takes a tremendous amount of time, effort, energy, and expense, and the part of EMET. As we’re having this, part of our team is on Capitol Hill right now, and the people in Congress have also grown to depend on us for reliable, accurate, and up-to-date information of what is going on in the Middle East with all these changeable and moving parts, as we speak.
So I really would like to call upon everybody listening to please try to support us to the best extent possible. You could reach us at emetonline.org. And please support our friends at FDD and FDD.org, which is an extraordinary think tank here in Washington, DC, and we’ve grown to depend and rely on them for their wonderful wisdom and expertise. Thank you so much, and we will see you next week when we will have a [inaudible]. We’ll talk about what’s going on with the empowerment of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Thank you. Bye-bye.
Benham: Thank you.
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The View From Israel Within the Perilous, Shifting Sands of the Middle East Transcript
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