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Lauri: I want to welcome everyone to this afternoon’s webinar featuring the always brilliant Victoria Coates discussing the various dangerous alliance between Russia, China, and Iran. There’s a new world out there, and our enemies are not only on the march, but they’re uniting against us, moving into parts of the globe that used to be dominated by American presence that helped maintain stability in various regions. As America withdraws and its foreign policy becomes more ambiguous, confused, and weak, our global position as the world’s only superpower is being challenged. While President Biden’s horrific withdrawal from Afghanistan sent a message to all of America’s enemies, the ripple effects will continue to be felt for years to come. The expanding Russia, China, and Iran axis involving military and economic cooperation is intended to diminish American power and exert influence. Here to discuss all of this is Victoria Coates, who is the Vice President of the Heritage Foundation’s Catherine and Shelby Column Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. Thanks for joining us today, Victoria. [inaudible]

Victoria: Well, thank you, Lauri.

Lauri: It’s always great to have you. I want to start with a quote from a recent column by Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal. He said, “President Barack Obama was the great denialist in geopolitics, temporalizing, and tap dancing, appeasing and apologizing as an axis of anti-American revisionist powers consisting of China, Russia, Iran, and their satellites stepped up their resistance and began to coordinate policies. Russia invaded Ukraine and reentered the Middle East. China embarked on the greatest military buildup in the history of the world, and Iran built a regional empire while Washington dreamed beautiful dreams.” I’ll add that Biden came into office picking up where Obama left off. Then Russia invaded Ukraine while building a sphere of influence in Africa. Iran intensified its drive toward regional hegemony and nuclear weapons, and China deepened its ties to Russia and Iran while increasing pressure on Taiwan. Iran’s threats to Gulf oil have led to the U.S. sending thousands of Marines to the region to protect oil tankers traversing through the Straits of Hormuz. Russia and China are conducting joint maneuvers around Japan and Alaska,
and a pro-Russia military coup occurred in Niger. Mead stated, too many Americans still think we are living in Barbie’s world, not Oppenheimer’s. One of my biggest frustrations, Victoria, is that Americans don’t vote on foreign policy. It’s not just a priority for them despite the existential importance of strong national security. We’re going to get into the specific issues, but how concerned should we all be about this expanding Russia-China-Iran alliance, and in particular, how strong is it, and do you think it’s here for the long term?

Victoria: Well, thank you for that excellent introduction, and I did think Walter’s piece was excellent, particularly in conjunction with the extraordinary tablet long-form interview with the author who wrote the book on young Obama, which got basically no attention when it came out but is now being re-examined, and very clearly what was the Obama doctrine, which was to reconfigure the United States on the global stage, not as the lone superpower, and not even first among equals, but maybe voluntarily relinquishing a lot of our kind of dominant advantages to create some kind of new global order, which in Obama’s mind would be more successful, and this meant bringing along countries like, as you define, China, Russia, and Iran, all emerging for most of us as very strong enemies and adversaries for the United States, but in the Obama world approach, that by allowing them to sort of grow and expand their power, and by curtailing American power, we would somehow get to a better place, and I think we’re seeing very clearly now that Biden is essentially the second, or third Obama term. It’s all the same people doing all the same things, and I think most interestingly, in terms of the Iran piece, what’s been revealed over the last couple of days is the negotiations on some kind of a nuclear deal in Vienna are ongoing. It is not clear if the Russians are still playing the mediating role that they were really, I mean, they had continued to do after the invasion of Ukraine, which was extraordinary, because the Iranians won’t engage directly with the United States, so you’ve got the Russians kind of playing post office, and what’s been revealed is they’re not even working on a full agreement.

They’re working on an unwritten understanding, I believe is the quote, so you can’t have an unwritten understanding of a nuclear program. It’s too complex. It’s too technical, and so this is a non-starter, especially if the Russians are the ones who are essentially negotiating it, and what was amazing is the U.S. side leaked that they have asked the Iranians, I’m sure very politely, to stop selling drones, weaponized drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, which is just laughable on the face of it. To your point about the strength and durability of this sort of cooperation, I don’t call it an alliance because these countries don’t have allies. They have partners in crime, but this cooperation, in this case between Russia and Iran, is very specifically military supplies to Russia that will continue to blow up U.S. supplies into
Ukraine and the fact of the matter is the Iranians aren’t going to stop that, regardless of how polite we are in Vienna. They’re going to keep doing it. It’s a source of hard cash for them. They’ve also just raked in the $6 billion for the hostages, $1.2 billion ahead for the unjustly detained Americans, so I think this is something we need an administration to come into power that will really focus on this issue, and just to wrap up this one, to your point about Americans not voting on foreign policy, I think that is true, but I think what they will vote on is national security, and when we have things like the Russians and the Chinese doing joint military exercises off the coast of Alaska, that focuses people’s attention. The spy balloon, nobody liked that, drifting over the continental United States, surveilling our most sensitive
military installations, so I think for candidates to be effective going forward and attracting people’s votes on these topics, they have to think about it as national security.

Lauri: I have to say that I actually joined Morgan Ortagus’s board on POLARIS National Security because it’s so important that candidates understand these issues before they get into the Senate and the House, and so I’m glad that you’re mentioning that, because I think it’s so important, and what we have to do is also make sure that Americans understand the significance of foreign policy to their security here. So you mentioned the joint naval operation near the territory off the coast of Alaska, which was the first of its kind that triggered a large response from the Navy. The close cooperation between these two nuclear powers is unprecedented as far as I’m aware. It’s highly provocative and it’s extremely concerning. This is also on the heels of another joint exercise that occurred last September. What do you believe is the purpose of these exercises? I mean, is it to test our response in metal, or was it intended as a true threat and a dry run for future aggression? And do you believe that Russia and China will cooperate militarily elsewhere, whether Ukraine, Taiwan, or someplace else that America has national security interests like the Middle East?

Victoria: I would embrace the [inaudible] there. I think they’re doing all of these things. So certainly they want to test what the U.S. response will be. This is unprecedented, but for good news reason, which is historically the Russians and the Chinese have not been partners. There is a long history of animosity between them, and one wonders if the rapprochement between Xi and Putin, which is largely a marriage of convenience, will be able to survive an actual shooting war. So I think that is a potential gap or scene that the United States should keep a very close eye on and look for ways to push on it. That said, we do have this unprecedented military build-up on the part of the People’s Republic of China. We have also the first land war in Europe since World War II, which has been started by Russia. And at this point, I wouldn’t give China the benefit of the doubt on whether or not they are participating in the Ukraine war. They have acted as Putin’s bankers from the beginning of this thing, continuing to suck up cheap, illicit energy imports from Russia, which they love, that’s great, providing him with a stream of cash to continue the war effort. And now there are increasing reports that China is actually sending material military stuff into Russia for resupply. And then you have these exercises. So there is a kind of a conventional wisdom narrative, I guess you’d call it, which I think is largely pushed by Beijing, that Xi is a very reasonable person, very measured in his actions. He doesn’t like to engage militarily. He’s far more subtle in his approach. Well, I mean, tell that to the Uyghurs or the people of Hong Kong. They will say that he’s maybe not quite so gentle after all. And I think he will not hesitate to use military force if necessary. I mean, we’ve had the incursions in India, for example, if they further his interest. So really a very interesting event with the joint naval exercise, interesting to see the U.S. response. And it’s something we’ll have to keep a very close eye on.

Lauri: Do you agree with Gerald Baker, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month that it’s clear that clearer than ever that Xi Jinping has shackled himself to a twitching corpse, one booby trapped with nuclear weapons, but a dead weight all the same. Long live that alliance.

Victoria: Yeah, Gerald has quite the gift of an artful phrase and I’ve used the phrase beating off the corpse. So that’s definitely the dynamic that is emerging, that Russia will be a dependent and a vassal state. I mean, we could maybe think of this more about that feudal pyramid we all learned about in fifth grade, about kind of a medieval construct of China being the lord, the top dog and Russia being a vassal. And as long as this is beneficial to Xi in terms of cheap natural resources, which he needs, Russia will carry out a lot of his dirty work, which is always nice to have. I think he will be perfectly happy to remain in the relationship. That said, it would be very interesting for me if, say, Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon in Europe. I don’t think that’s likely, but it’s always possible. If he does, the international outcry is sufficient, you could see that stink start to stick to China. And I’ve said repeatedly that I think we should inform Beijing that we consider them complicit in any Russian nuclear use, that they’re not going to be able to have plausible deniability here because Putin wouldn’t do it unless he got Xi’s sign-off. So they’re going to have to own that in terms of their responsibility. And that will be, I guess, part of Xi’s calculus when he decides how to handle that particular problem set. So I do see a potential real downside for China going forward if Europe and the United States made the decision to impose the truly crushing secondary sanctions, which I think are the best way to end the Ukraine war, by basically grinding the Russian economy to a halt, which we had a chance to do in March, and April of 2022, but decided not to really lower the boom on them because the Biden administration wanted Russian energy to continue to flow into international markets to keep prices down here at home, that if we did do that, that would be also a very strong cause for pause on Xi’s part because he’s facing some fairly significant internal economic downward trends, which are going to be a real problem for him. We have levers, and we have leverage that we could
use to make their lives more miserable. We’re just not doing it right now.

Lauri: So you brought up the Ukraine war and the Russia-China alliance in regards to that. So I want to have you elaborate on some of this a little bit. And Seth Probst wrote in the Wall Street Journal column that China’s actions demand recognition from the US, and its allies in Ukraine, that Beijing is a full, if stealthy, supporter of Russia’s war. He added, if the US doesn’t act, it risks handing a decisive victory to Russia and a geopolitical gain to China. I mean, do you agree? And can you actually elaborate more on whether we have a Ukraine strategy that could help Ukraine win?

Victoria: No, we don’t. And that has been my problem with the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine and is now the heritage problem with the Biden administration approach to Ukraine. And our president, Kevin Roberts, has an op-ed in The Hill today, coming out with very strong opposition to the most recent supplemental that’s been dropped by the administration, which provides another $24 billion for Ukraine, on top of the $113 billion that we’ve already supplied. So we wind up, getting pretty close to the $150 billion mark, which is, I believe, 10 times what the next largest donor has provided, and I want to refresh these numbers, but my recollection is it’s the European Union, and that those donations were mostly for civil society things, not military support. So if what we’ve achieved in now 18 months is a grinding stalemate and a lot of dead Ukrainians and a lot of dead Russians, that we can’t seem to resolve. I think all Americans need to ask why we are this enormous donor to Ukraine. And in hindsight, which is 2020, when it was very clear this was not going to be a three-day war, that we wouldn’t be arming an insurgency, and that this would be a much longer, more expensive project than we had anticipated, I think the president really owed it to the country to come to the Congress and explain. You had a really inspiring performance by the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian people. We had enormous outpourings of support from the neighbors of Ukraine who took in huge numbers of refugees. And then the response from the United States and NATO. And that, a year ago, if the president had said, we are going to give Ukraine what it needs to win, that’s what this is and go down the list of whatever it is.

We all learned about javelins and attack them and various things, but enumerate what the United States was prepared to do. Very importantly, what we expected our European partners to do, especially the three largest economies that remain in the EU, Germany, France, and Italy, none of which make their 2% commitment to NATO, let alone get anywhere close to what the United States has done on Ukraine. I think he could have gotten some support for that this is something we’re going to do, we’re going to hand Putin a generational defeat, we’re going to send a strong message to that you can’t mess with NATO. And most importantly, deter Putin from ever doing this again. He’s shown a really annoying tendency to do it every 5, or 6 years, whether it’s fighting off a piece of Georgia, annexing Crimea invading Ukraine, what we really can’t have is his being emboldened. And the next one is Estonia, or, God forbid, Poland because he thinks he can get away with it because that would trigger potential [inaudible] responsibilities on the part of the United States, which is a problem. So, as we now are looking at going into 2024, still in a state of war in Ukraine, because the other thing the administration declared in this supplemental request was that this money would just cover the first quarter of next year. So they’re anticipating that they anticipate coming back to Congress in March with yet another supplemental. So what that tells me is if they’re thinking they’re going to have to come back for more in Q2, they see this going on for at least another year. And they keep saying as much as it takes as long as it takes, but to what end, and I don’t know what it is. So I think this is a really problematic situation, where on the one hand there is a laudable American impulse to support, Ukraine, which isn’t asking for American boots and has been very brave. But at the same time, wonder, why do you sort of basic domestic things, the border, for example, why aren’t these taken care of? If we have these kinds of sums to invest. And if we’re going to put them in Ukraine, as I said, to what end? So I think that is a growing sentiment among the American people. It should not be mistaken as some kind of weird support for Putin or a distrust of Ukraine, but rather a distrust of the way this administration has involved us in this war. And deep concern about what the end game is, if any.

Lauri: So you mentioned sanctions a little bit earlier. And I actually heard you discuss this on a recent podcast, the use of extensive sanctions. But my first question regarding that is, why haven’t we done that yet? If they could expedite the end of the war? And my follow-up would be wouldn’t China assist Russia in getting around sanctions? And what role would Iran play in helping Russia get around sanctions or at least lessening their impact?

Victoria: Yeah, I mean, it’s a very easy answer, which is the price of the pump. So I’m sure everybody on this podcast or most people have filled their gas tanks in the last two weeks and noticed that we’re getting back to these fairly extreme prices for gasoline, which despite the Biden administration’s determination to force us into energy, they like to call it a transition. I call it a regression. It would be the first time in human history that we went from a more dense, more efficient energy source to a less dense, less efficient energy source. So this is new for us as a species. But they’re trying to force that. But even so, it’s not going well. People aren’t buying EVs. They’re expensive. The less expensive ones have a limited range. And so, people continue to buy gasoline at gas stations. And that is one of the most powerful domestic political motivators. You can literally track a president’s popularity with gas prices. It’s a sort of tried and true political reality here. And so if you were to truly sanction Russia and you would also extend those sanctions to Iran, which is engaged in elaborate sanction-busting activities with Russian energy supplies, and you would extend them to China and any bank that does business with Russia, you would immediately remove that Russian product from the market. And you would probably have to, at the same time, start reinforcing the very stringent sanctions that we put on Iranian oil exports, getting them down close to 100,000 barrels a day. They’re now around a million. But if you take those Russian and Iranian illicit exports, but still exports into the global markets off the market, you’re going to wind up with a huge spike in oil prices because the other thing you’ve done is exert a very burdensome regulatory environment onto the United States domestic energy sector, which is, despite the horrible burdens that have been put upon them, still incrementally increasing production because we have good prices, because this is actually a beneficial activity. But they’re doing it despite the Biden administration, not because the Biden administration has taken the decision to unleash American energy dominance. And make us what we should be, which is the world’s largest producer and a net exporter of fuel. We can make that up. We did it with the Saudis when we took the Iranian exports down so low. And we coordinated with them and said, “Okay, you guys have a cartel. You can turn the tab.” Which is, I think, would be a nice luxury to have. But we have a free system. So what we can do is change regulations, and incentivize production, we found we actually had not a blip in oil prices when we took the Iranians down. So it’s doable. But the Biden administration, because of the radical Green New Deal policies, doesn’t want to do it.

Lauri: And in the meantime, they’ve drained our strategic petroleum reserve. So let me stick with Ukraine for one second in the context of U.S. military capabilities. There are a lot of people who are not in favor of U.S. support of Ukraine in its war with Russia because they argue that we don’t have the ability to simultaneously arm Ukraine and deter China’s invasion of Taiwan, which should be the priority. Last month, there was an opinion piece published in the journal arguing that this is a false choice, as the weaponry that Ukraine and Taiwan require are quite different. And the U.S. has resources for both arming Ukraine and deterring China. Do you agree and are you concerned that our military support of our allies is harming our own military’s offensive and defensive capabilities? I mean, especially when we draw from our own stockpiles and we hear that we’re running out of ammunition. And most importantly, do you think that the U.S. policymakers and leaders will ever get serious about increasing our military and defense budgets?

Victoria: Yeah, this is an excellent question. And I think I am not in the camp that we can do everything all the time. I do think there are some tensions and we have a good paper on this from Heritage if people are interested in doing the deep dive, that if we don’t adjust both how we’re supplying Ukraine with an eye to what would be needed to Taiwan, there will be basically conflicts and friction between what would be needed for those two missions. We’re not there yet, but we’re starting to see that picture take place. And it would take some very strategic appropriating and investment on the part of both Congress and the Defense Department to get to that happy balance where we could do both. And it would take a lot of money. And where I get concerned is when you have a situation like President Macron of France’s trip to Beijing earlier this year, in which he basically said to Xi, “If you go into Taiwan, we are not necessarily bound to the United States. This would not be a NATO mission. This is a Pacific mission.” So if the United States came in, France might take a [inaudible]. We would not consider it a NATO obligation, which is, I mean, it was a really clarifying moment for me because while Macron is perfectly happy to have the United States shoulder the massive disproportionate amount of burden on Ukraine, which is, last time I looked, a war in Europe where France is also located, that he thinks that’s ducky, but no, he’s not going to get his hands dirty in Taiwan. And I thought, well we can’t do this because we don’t have the luxury of saying, “NATO’s everything. We’re an Atlantic power.” That is true, but we are also a Pacific power. And so we have to pay attention to both. We have to be able to walk and chew gum. And if the Europeans can’t muster the gumption to take the lead on their own security when we have to pay attention to this other problem and tell us they’re not going to be with us, we have to be deeply concerned about that, and how we are exhausting our supplies for Ukraine and allowing France and Germany, essentially, to have a free ride. So that is my real, real worry there about how Ukraine becomes, in a way, a distraction from what would be a much more serious problem for the United States and what should be a very pressing problem for France and Germany does not appear to be.

Lauri: So I’m going to move to China for a minute. Last week, two sailors from two separate military bases were arrested for providing classified information to China. And I assume we’re all aware of the history of Chinese espionage in the U.S., in the military and intelligence communities and academia, as China gives hundreds of millions of dollars to American universities. In the private sector, where they buy or steal our intellectual property. And now we’ve learned that they’re buying up over 400,000 acres of farmland near bases across the country, sending spy balloons, as you touched on earlier, over our military bases. And they’re helping to murder over 100,000 Americans a year who die of fentanyl overdoses. And just on a timely basis, I just saw Heritage in their news outlet, The Daily Signal, there was a report on China’s infiltration of K-12 schools, which I found shocking. So how significant are the latest arrests? And do you know how serious the breach was? Do we know what China’s learning from all of this? And can we presume that these recent arrests were just the tip of the iceberg?

Victoria: I think we have to presume that. Unfortunately, from what I know, the two guys they scooped up, they were fairly low-level, had secret-level clearances. But the issue here is for China, all data has value. Because one of the excuses the administration used on the balloon is they could get much more sophisticated satellite imagery anyway, so why would we worry about this balloon? Because they like all of it. They can get different imagery with a balloon that’s at that level, as opposed to a satellite outside the atmosphere. All sorts of things went into that exercise that was interesting in terms of them bringing their surveillance state to the United States. And so these guys at a low level, what do they have access to? Do they have access to maintenance records for these ships? For how often do they have to go into the dock? What their lifespan is? What their capabilities are? What you wouldn’t think of is, “Oh my gosh, they got the crown jewels of state secrets.” But all useful if you’re building a war plan against the United States. So they want all of it. And you had a good comprehensive list there. One thing I’ll add is they’ve been opening up these clandestine police stations in our major cities, the purpose of which are actually to track down their own Chinese nationals and get them back if they’ve been saying things that China doesn’t like. And so they have this very draconian national security law, which makes it a crime in China to criticize the state.

They’re trying to bring that to America and impose their laws in America on people who could be American citizens, who might be naturalized Chinese citizens, but China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. If you’re a citizen of China, in their minds, you are in perpetuity and there is no escape, or should be no escape. So I think all of this is enormously problematic and it’s all happening here in America. So this isn’t some abstract foreign United Nations kind of exercise that makes Americans’ eyes glaze over. This is happening in our streets. It’s happening in our backyards. We pulled our kids out of a school in Philadelphia because it had a Confucius Academy. And I was told with great enthusiasm that all the kids would go to Beijing for spring break in their junior year. It’s like absolutely not. Not doing that.

Lauri: [inaudible]

Victoria: Yeah. And everybody thought this was great and a wonderful source of revenue for the school. Like, no. And we’ve seen what scientific cooperation gets us with China. We have Chinese nationals who have access to our national labs. How is that possible? And then we kept funding the Wuhan virus lab until last month. And it’s mind-boggling that people in our academic and scientific communities think that somehow scientific cooperation with China is going to be a path to greater cooperation. It’s not. It’s a way for them to infiltrate us, as you said, to steal our intellectual property, to get access to our most sensitive sites, and just continue this enormous apparatus of surveillance that’s keeping them in power in China. They want to have that here as well.

Lauri: So your former colleague, Bradley Thayer, who’s the Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy, where you previously worked, published a recent column suggesting that China’s preparing to invade Taiwan and that it’s about to complete the last of three major military dress rehearsals required for such an invasion. The first step was the Chinese military conducting a rehearsal of a joint fire strike campaign around Taiwan. The second was a joint anti-air raid campaign rehearsal designed to establish air superiority over Taiwan. And the final step, which Thayer concluded would occur any day now, involves a joint island landing campaign. So they’re preparing for a large amphibious landing as well. What are your thoughts on this? And is the U.S. making the same mistake that it made with Ukraine in slow-walking Taiwan’s defensive needs? More broadly, does the U.S. have the ability to deter China and protect Taiwan? You touched on this a little bit earlier. But if you can elaborate.

Victoria: It is a very important question. I think there was a false sense of security in Europe before the Ukraine invasion that maybe Crimea was okay, that kind of bought into Putin’s narrative that there was some kind of historic wrong about Crimea becoming part of Ukraine that allowed him to redraw boundaries at will, but that the commerce between Russia and Europe, exemplified by the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines carrying Russian gas into Europe, that that was too important, that Russia was, at the end of the day, not eager for another land war in Europe, that that commerce was the most important thing. Well, that all turned out not to be true. And Putin has demonstrated himself perfectly capable of launching a grotesque land war in Europe and killing tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people, in our modern era, when such things are supposed to be obsolete. I think, to go back to something you said at the beginning, we had the disastrous Afghanistan surrender two years ago, really this week. Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the horrific suicide bombing at Karzai International Airport. I think that was literally a wake-up call, not just for the United States, that we had a problem on our hands with the Biden administration, but for Putin and Xi, that this was a very different construction than we had seen in the United States before, which was really giving them leeway to do things they might not have considered during, say, the Trump administration when they did not do these things. So the latitude that Putin was given, I think, has really focused Xi’s thinking. For him, this is a legacy project. What he thinks of as the reunification of China is enormously important to him. I would see Hong Kong and what he did to Hong Kong as a precursor to this, because Hong Kong was an irritant, because there was some semblance of a free system of government and free markets in Hong Kong, which made it enormously popular and profitable.

And his line is that the Chinese people don’t want democracy. They like autocracy. They want stability. They’re not capable, he’ll say, of democracy. Well, Hong Kong really was a problem for that narrative, and he showed himself to be perfectly ruthless to go in and crush any semblance of a free system and a free market, and people are leaving the city in droves as a consequence. Taiwan’s even worse for him, because there you have a flourishing democracy, which is also enormously profitable, economically strong, and carrying on about its business perfectly happily, and it’s the same people, it’s the same DNA as you have on mainland China. And so, they are capable of this after all. So for him, Taiwan is not just an annoyance, but a province he would like to take back. In a way, it’s a threat to his worldview. So I think if he is indeed emboldened by what he’s seen Putin get away with…

Lauri: I’m sorry about the delay. So thank you for that, Victoria.

Victoria: [inaudible]

Lauri: I had a dog that came to visit me.

Victoria: Well, I’m in Washington, not in Philadelphia, but I’ve had both of my Labradors on my shoulders in webinars.

Lauri: That’s funny. Okay, so turning to Iran now. European intelligence reports released this year indicate that Iran is getting close to testing a nuclear weapon as it seeks to obtain illicit technology from various European countries for its weapons program. Iran also recently announced that it has obtained the technology to build a supersonic cruise missile. Do you think that China and or Russia are assisting Iran with its nuclear weapons program? And that’s despite, as you pointed out earlier, Russia’s involvement in brokering deals. And do you think it’s possible that an Israeli red line may soon be crossed? I say Israeli rather than American because the Obama and Biden policy has always been predicated on what I believe is the misguided belief that a nuclear Iran could be contained. So can you share with us how you see this playing out?

Victoria: Yeah, this is obviously the big question for the Middle East, is will Iran continue to develop? As they pretty plainly and in plain sight are doing the domestic capability to produce a nuclear weapon and what they’ve been doing all along. And one of the fundamental flaws, there were many of them at the original JCPOA, the original nuclear deal was it did not address Iran’s missile program. And so, they dress this up in all sorts of different guises, “Oh my gosh, we’re launching a satellite, which is just for scientific research and climate change. And oh my gosh, we’re going to cure cancer with this nuclear technology.” Yeah, no, none of that is accurate. That it is all a very measured and fairly public march towards both a nuclear weapon and a means to deliver it, first and foremost in their minds to Israel, but that also likes to threaten Europe and the United States, because meanwhile, they’re watching very closely what’s going on with North Korea, a country no one would care about if it weren’t for its nuclear weapons. And nobody really knows what the degree of Chinese, sort of…I don’t want to use the wrong word there, but Chinese involvement in the development of North Korea’s nuclear program is, China says, “We had nothing to do with it. That was a rogue thing. We don’t control them.” Well, yeah, actually they do. And is a nuclear North Korea actually a benefit to China that they can use it as a sort of a secondary proxy, if you will, to harass and make life difficult for Europe and the United States, and they claim not to have responsibility? So I could certainly see Russia or China thinking, “Gosh, a nuclear Iran would really tie the United States a knot.” It’s a more complicated problem set for them because it’s geographically far away. And they also have the problem of being Saudi Arabia’s largest customer for energy products. And they’re also a major customer to both the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait. So their energy flows out of the Gulf. If they allow a nuclear Iran to emerge, that’s going to be a threat. And so for them, I could certainly see the attractions of a nuclear Iran, but at the same time, they have to worry about what that would mean to their energy supplies. And if Iran is nuclear, can the United States continue to play the role we have played as the guarantor of secure shipping out of the Gulf, which is an arrangement, quite frankly, we have to re-examine anyway because when we entered into that in 1980, the idea was that we needed that energy. Now, energy independence is sort of a canard because of the nature of international energy markets, but we are not, or shouldn’t be an importer of any significance at this point. And so, our interests in those energy flows are different, but yet our architecture for protecting them is a 1980 architecture. So that’s something we have to go back and look at, but it interestingly complicates how China in particular would see the emergence of a nuclear Iran.

Lauri: That’s very interesting. You brought up this $6 billion ransom payment that Biden is paying Iran for the release of five hostages. And there was one former hostage who was actually held in Iran for 804 days who described this payment as incentivizing the kidnapping of more hostages and was not in favor of it. So why in the world would Biden be doing this? And I mean, we’re basically funding Iran’s nefarious activities, including their nuclear weapons development and global terrorism. And this is…

Victoria: Hussein, Lauri is…There you are.

Lauri: What is [inaudible]?

Victoria: Sorry, you froze up there for me for a moment.

Lauri: I’m sorry. I don’t know if you can hear me, but I was asking, doesn’t this incentivize further kidnappings and what message does it send to Russia who’s holding a Wall Street Journal reporter right now, Evan Gershkovich?

Victoria: I mean, it’s a terrible message. And Evan’s case is, I think you can draw a direct line from the Brittany Griner case in which, you know, she either did or did not do something stupid, but not something for which she should be tossed in a Russian jail for however many years for, which was an opportunity for Putin to snag a high profile American who was active in Russia, who obviously they were watching closely and exchange a female basketball player for the merchant of death at the moment when he desperately needs a merchant of death to help him run arms into the Russian military for use in Ukraine. So we basically traded a pawn for a king there because the Biden administration was so eager to get Brittany home. And what happened was very shortly thereafter, another high-profile American active in Russia that he knew would get a ton of attention in the US press, rightly. I mean, the Wall Street Journal is correct to be terribly concerned about what’s being done to Evan, but they’re already talking about another prisoner swap. They’re going to get some other big deal Russian, which I’m sure has a military component to him out of the United States for something they really don’t care about. So it’s the same pattern with Iran, which as those of us who are old enough to recall kind of cut its teeth on hostage-taking as what they would consider to be a responsible tool
of statecraft in 1979, when they took the embassy hostages for 444 days and only released them when Ronald Reagan became president.

So they’ve got a long sordid history of this and they’ve been using Americans as pawns. If you think back again to the original JCPOA, what preceded the announcement of that deal was the so-called pallets of cash organized by Brett McGurk to take huge amounts of hard currency into Iran in exchange for the hostages. Of course, we were happy to get them home and they should never have been there in the first place, but what you’re sending is a signal that there’s a price on Americans’ heads. And this most recent group was closest to the Nemazi case, which we worked on in the Trump administration when the president was deeply interested in hostage issues and bringing Americans home, but not at a disproportionate cost that would encourage more hostage-taking. And so we were able to, because everybody knew he was serious, we were able to drive much better deals for the United States, bring home a record number of Americans, but certainly not at $1.2 billion a hostage, because you can just imagine, and it was kind of shameful for Secretary Blinken to say when this went down around August 10th, “I’m not aware of any other Americans unjustly detained.” Well, has anyone told him about Bob Levinson, who has been in Iranian control since 2007? Nobody knows if Bob is dead or alive, but the Iranians do, and they could either send him back, or his remains back to his family so they can have closure. But Secretary Blinken isn’t even acknowledging that that case exists. And apparently, it’s all done, we solved it. But I think it’s a matter of time before more Americans or Western Europeans or Canadians are detained by the Iranian government when they want more money. It’s like having an ATM.

Lauri: Yeah, I mean, the Bob Levinson case is horrific and it’s been going on way too long.

Victoria: [inaudible]

Lauri: So we have a lot of questions, but before we get to that…

Victoria: I’m losing you again, Lauri.

Lauri: And…

Victoria: Hussein, can you get…Okay, we’ll just pause for a minute.

Hussein: Okay. I want to oppose this to all our listeners. Lauri is having some technical difficulties. So I hope that we’ll be back in a minute. While she does, Victoria, can you hear me?

Victoria: Yes, I can Hussein.

Hussein: Okay, I think Lauri is reconnecting momentarily.

Lauri: [inaudible]

Hussein: Lauri, can you hear us? I don’t think she can.

Lauri: I can hear you.

Hussein: Okay. Well, okay. While Lauri is able to reconnect, I can actually go ahead and ask you some questions that we received from the audience. We received a lot of questions. One of the questions that we received was, any thoughts basically asking you for a comment on the recent episode with Robert Malley, the U.S. Special Envoy to Iran whose security clearance has been revoked through the mishandling of classified information? Can you share with us your thoughts about this?

Victoria: Yeah, this is really problematic. Malley was instrumental in the negotiation for the original JCPOA and then became the Special Envoy for Iran. And it’s been the lead on the negotiations in Vienna for whatever JCPOA 3.0, whatever option at this point would be. And as such has access to our most sensitive information on Iran. And it was announced some months ago that he was going on unpaid leave, which is pretty hard on the part of the State Department. They don’t generally go for unpaid leave, but it meant I think a pretty egregious breach of security had to have taken place. And then, there were protestations that this would quickly be cleared up, but it hasn’t been cleared up. And what’s been announced is that Malley is now going off to Princeton where he will become a professor. So anybody who has children at Princeton, you might want to watch out for this, that he is going to be there, I guess, extolling the virtues of nuclear deals with Iran. And it’s particularly disturbing because Princeton has a history in this department. There’s an Iranian expat who’s there, Mousavi, who has a very checkered past in terms of his connections to the Islamic Republic. And it really seems like they’re all kind of migrating to this one university. But it’s extraordinary to me that a university like Princeton would take in somebody who has just basically been drummed out of the government in disgrace for a security violation. So I think that’s a really unfortunate episode that demonstrates how some of our most august universities are more interested in making political points than actually providing a good product to their students.

Lauri: Okay, I think I’m back. Can you all hear me?

Victoria: Yes, we can.

Lauri: Okay, I apologize to everybody for that. I don’t know what happened. But before we continue with the questions, I do have one that’s very important and very current regarding the Sahel region of Africa and the recent events in Niger. The democratically elected president of Niger was the last security partner of the U.S. in the terrorist-plagued region and a host to 1,100 American soldiers was deposed by the military with the assistance of Putin’s Wagner Group. It’s a strategic loss. And on the heels of Blinken’s visit to the country in which he called Niger an extraordinary model of resilience, democracy, and cooperation, I think this demonstrates how weak our position influence is not to mention how clueless we are. Victoria, can you just briefly discuss what happened? How did we miss this? And this is a huge geopolitical win for Russia. And it’s also a failure of our intelligence. Also, what strategic importance does Africa have for U.S. national security interests that have now been impaired due to this?

Victoria: Yeah, I mean, for Niger, I mean, if you just want one stat, it’s the world’s seventh largest producer of uranium. And so, it has a very strong importance in terms of natural resources, of the kinds of things that will literally fuel the future. And it had been touted as, in the Western Sahel, one of the surviving bastions of democracy in partnership with the United States. We give them hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign assistance, both in terms of humanitarian aid and then in terms of very elaborate military cooperation. And so, as you mentioned, we have 1,100 soldiers there. We have a very elaborate drone base there, which is one of our surveillance capabilities in the region maintained in partnership with the French. And for Blinken to come through in March and have this historic visit bolstering the United States commitment to Niger and 3 months later, the tanks roll in and Wagner Group is in charge. And what’s all the more shameful is most of the Nigerian military trained with the United States. We know these people. We should have known this was coming and they should have had conduits back to the United States if there was some problem with the president that they found intolerable, there should have been a U.S. interlocutor in there. Instead, it’s the Russians. And it shows you how clueless this crowd is and the articles that have come out subsequently, there was one on NBC yesterday just about how blindsided the administration was by this.

They had no idea it was happening. If we had known one thing in the Western Sahel, it should have been the status of the Nigerian government and we didn’t know. And so we’ve lost a fifth embassy that we’ve had to evacuate. But I have to say, I’m more concerned about the base because we’ve already seen the devastating consequences of losing Bagram in Afghanistan. Here’s another base we might lose, a huge investment on the part of the American taxpayer, also an investment in their security because we don’t want these terrorist groups metastasizing out of Africa, God forbid coming to the United States. And this would be our way to keep track of that.
We’re apparently losing that capability and God forbid Wagner takes it over. So this is a really bad, bad situation, which unfortunately is only likely to get worse.

Lauri: Yeah, I mean, I’ve heard that there’s instability again in Mali, which also experienced its own coup several years ago. I’m going to have Hussein ask the last couple of questions before we run out of time, but I did want to, and I should have said this at the beginning of the webinar and I apologize for not doing so, but Heritage, which is a wonderful organization, if you’re not familiar with it, please go to their website and go to Victoria’s page on the website, all of your articles and everything that you… and follow you on Twitter also, I might add. But in the meantime, they are having on October 23rd, their celebration of the 75th anniversary of Israel and of the US-Israel alliance in particular. So keep that date aside, and save the date, October 23rd in Washington, DC. And I also want to mention that EMET is having its annual, after four years of not having it due to COVID, its first annual Rays of Light in the Darkness gathering on December 5th in DC. So please save that date as well. And Hussein, please take it from there.

Hussein: Thank you very much, Lauri. We’ve received again, a lot of questions from the audience. We don’t have a lot of time left, so I want to apologize to all our listeners who sent questions that we won’t have the time to go through. There is a question that’s being asked multiple times here. In your opinion, what would be, or what would a better Iran policy look like?

Victoria: I would, I mean, not surprisingly go back to what was successful during the Trump administration. The JCPOA, the original one was not worth the paper it was written on when the Israelis revealed the nuclear archive that they had captured in Tehran. We knew that the Iranians had not negotiated the original deal in good faith. They had retained the plans very carefully and very secretly, the plans to be able to produce a nuclear weapon. And that’s what they’re sort of headed towards now. But what actually slowed them down in that progress was reducing their funds, so that they had less and less money to pursue this research. It’s a very expensive and complicated process. And if you starve them of funds, then they have less ability to both sponsor terrorism throughout the region and pursue a nuclear weapon. It’s difficult, it takes time, and unfortunately, we didn’t get across the finish line in the Trump administration. I’m pretty hopeful that had we gotten a second term, we might’ve had the opportunity to get them into such terrible economic conditions that they would have no choice, but to come to the negotiation table, talk directly to the United States, and we would have the ability to declare terms favorable for us. We wouldn’t be asking them for favors like we apparently are in Vienna right now.

That’s really the only path I can see. I think we should be fully supportive of the Iranian people in, their very publicly declared aspirations for freedom. We all saw that last fall very dramatically play out. Unfortunately, Iran has imported surveillance apparatus from China, which they’re using to keep their own people down. But that’s a very real movement in Iran and continues to crop up periodically. And the Iranian people have taken things into their hands before, and that’s their choice, not ours. But I do think the United States has an obligation to provide at least moral support for these people, you know, that doesn’t seem as fond of the Islamic Republic as they are made out to be sometimes in the Western press.

Hussein: Thank you. And the last question that we have, so recently the Biden administration seemed to have been engaged in some different moves in the Middle East. For example, we’ve seen that we’re now seeing reports about the administration making available to Iran, according to the FDD estimate, about $16 billion, in which, of course, the amount of $6 billion for the hostage release is included. And at the same time, the administration is conducting negotiations with Saudi Arabia about a potential normalization with Israel, which will include a security pact with the United States. Is there a strategic vision behind all of this that we are missing, or are these just not related moves through which the administration is trying to mend some of its mistakes in the region and make some more?

Victoria: Now, I mean, if there’s a strategic vision there, it eludes me, it’s too sophisticated for my thinking because, to my understanding, Iran’s stated goal is the destruction of Israel. They talk about it frequently and publicly. And so, how you can both enrich and really legitimize a regime like the regime in Tehran, which spends its time saying death to Israel, and death to the United States? So you’re giving them money that they will spend on their military, and then you turn around and say, “Okay, Israel, we’re going to give you a security guarantee against the military that we’ve just enriched.” It just makes no sense. Now, I could not be more supportive of a peace deal between Israel and the Saudis. The fact that it is being publicly discussed this way, there appears to be no negative reaction inside Saudi that I’m aware of. I was in the kingdom in June, it was a major topic in all of our meetings. I think that is very achievable over time, but it’s going to have to come at the price of some kind of bargain with Iran. And also, that this maybe that is the topic of another webinar, but what the deal looks like, will involve congressional action. And so you’re going to have to come up with a deal that is palatable to the Congress, as well as to our international partners in Israel and Saudi. So I am in the long term hopeful about that. But in the short term, the approach of the administration seems to be so internally conflicted, it’s hard to see it really coming to fruition over the next year.

Lauri: I mean, my personal opinion is I think this administration is desperate for a foreign policy when they’re and they’re reaching wherever they can. It is one o’clock and I can’t thank you enough, Victoria, for sharing all of your brilliant insights, as always, and we will definitely have you back at some point. There are a lot of things that we didn’t have a chance to touch on. And I want to thank everybody in the audience for joining us today. Again, please share this far and wide. Please follow Victoria, both on Twitter and at the Heritage website and have a good afternoon. Thank you.

Victoria: Thank you.


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