Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
From a special online experts’ briefing hosted by
the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on March 26, 2020
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser:
- Maximum pressure on Iran should be maintained because there is no other option and because it is working. It puts the regime in a very difficult position. It is losing a lot of money and if its propaganda campaign to blame the U.S. for its failures fails, it may not see a way out of the difficult position it is in.
- Israel wants to see more pressure on Iran and is fully behind what the U.S. is doing right now. At the same time, Israel is trying very hard to prevent Iran from harming it, and is fighting the Iranian presence in Syria and the Iranian efforts to improve the capabilities of Hizbullah in Lebanon with precision-guided rockets.
- The Iranians are very rapidly accumulating 4.5%-enriched uranium, not 3.67% as the JCPOA allowed up to 300 kilograms. They have everything working, both new centrifuges they have developed and the old centrifuges, including in the underground fuel enrichment plant in Fordow. I think they are about four to six months away from having enough fissile material for the first nuclear device if they choose to, and they are continuously shortening the time.
- Everybody is worried, but no one is doing anything about it. This is very dangerous because if the Iranians feel cornered, they could try to make a dash for a bomb. This poses a great danger to the entire world. Even though their chances of success are small – the Americans have already sent two aircraft carriers to the Gulf in order to send a warning – left without any other options, the Iranians may consider it.
Dr. Michael Doran:
- There’s not a lot of appetite in the Trump administration to do anything to change the status quo at the moment because it calculates that time is on its side, that the more time goes on, the deeper these sanctions bite into the Iranians.
- I follow the Iranian social media and see lots of postings by Iranians about warehouses full of antiseptic materials and protective equipment for hospitals that isn’t getting to the hospitals. Collecting these stories, validating them, and making them better known would be a useful activity.
- The Iranian regime has no compassion for its own people; it only cares about its base. Social media now coming out of Iran gives us lots of opportunities to explain to American college students what a rapacious regime looks like, how it behaves, and how it uses our own sense of compassion against us.
- The Iranians got the fear of God put in them with the killing of Qasem Soleimani. It showed that the United States is capable of escalating and can inflict a very big price on them with a single drone or two from Qatar, not even launched from inside Iraq.
Maintaining Maximum Pressure on Iran
Q: What can be done now in order to ratchet up the pressure on Iran either to extract deep concessions or to ratchet up further deterrence?
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser: I think the maximum pressure on Iran should be maintained because there is no other option and because it is working. It puts the regime in a very difficult position. It is losing a lot of money and it is under pressure.
I think that when we get closer to October, the American administration will have to take a closer look at the option of snapback sanctions because this will resume European sanctions and other sanctions, and it will make sure that the Iranians will not be able to get weaponry from the Russians and from the Chinese.
At the same time, the U.S. should repeat its willingness to deliver humanitarian aid to the Iranian people to make sure that nobody can blame them for the suffering of the Iranian people. That the Iranian regime refuses to accept it is a different story.
Dr. Michael Doran: I don’t think that there’s a lot of appetite in the Trump administration to do anything to change the status quo at the moment because it calculates that time is on its side, that the more time goes on, the deeper these sanctions bite into the Iranians. The key is just to forestall any actions by the Iranians in Iraq or elsewhere that could seek to change the dynamic in some significant way.
Theoretically, I think there are a number of things the U.S. could do if it wanted to. One of them is snapback. Technically, the U.S. is still in the nuclear deal, although Trump has announced that we’re out of it.
Secondly, we could do more diplomacy in Europe. I expected after Brexit that Boris Johnson was going to tack toward the United States on the Iran question. As far as I can tell, the British policy on Iran is still an EU policy. I think we have leverage over the Brits now and we should be encouraging them to reorganize themselves in foreign policy with regard to Iran.
I think that there’s a menu of economic sanctions that the United States has not deployed against Iran and we could go deeper after their financial sector and their petrochemicals. There are lots of areas where we could do a lot more.
Secretary of State Pompeo came out a couple days ago with his tweet storm about Iran and the coronavirus and he accused the Iranians of misappropriating and embezzling aid funds that were supposed to go for health. I follow the Iranian social media in translation. I see lots of postings by Iranians about warehouses full of antiseptic materials and protective equipment for hospitals that isn’t getting to the hospitals. Collecting these stories, validating them, and making them better known would be a useful activity.
Even more useful is the China connection. We’ve seen the reports about the Mahan Air flights continuing to China. We’ve seen the reports about the outbreak beginning in Qom, not simply because of Chinese seminarians but also because of the infrastructure projects that the Chinese have in Qom.
The Iranians thought that the Chinese relationship was going to save them from American sanctions. Anything that we could do to put pressure on those channels would be really good. We’ve been given an opportunity here by this crisis that I don’t think we’re really seizing.
Q: What is the Israeli policy?
Kuperwasser: I think the Israeli policy wants to see more pressure on Iran and that Israeli policy is fully behind what Trump is doing right now. At the same time, Israel is trying very hard to prevent Iran from harming it, and is fighting the Iranian presence in Syria and the Iranian efforts to improve the capabilities of Hizbullah in Lebanon with precision-guided rockets.
On Iran, a Generational Divide in American Politics
Doran: We all need to be aware that there’s a generational divide in the U.S. now in politics and it affects the Iran question. If you’ve got gray hair, then you remember the hostage crisis, you remember all the terrorism, and you read Iranian actions within a certain frame. However, the Iranians have gotten smarter about how they use their terrorism tool, and the JCPOA gave them something that they didn’t have before, which is European and American allies. They have actual allies, people who are coordinating with them consciously, and then they have naive de facto allies who don’t actually know they’re coordinating with the Iranians.
When I talk to younger people, I’m aware of how distant the Iranian threat seems to them and how much this kind of Iranian propaganda about how we have to be compassionate and worry about the people affects them. The Iranian regime couldn’t care less about the Iranians who are dying from the coronavirus. As former Iranian minister Djavad Khadem said, the regime has no compassion for its own people, it only cares about its base. The average sophomore in college in America doesn’t have a clue about that. Those realities need to be shown to them and social media now coming out of Iran gives us lots of opportunities to explain what a rapacious regime looks like, how it behaves, and how it uses our own sense of compassion against us. This has to be shown and you can’t just lecture about it.
Trump’s Base Is Divided on the Middle East
I think it is important to understand Trump’s position in the elections in trying to understand his options. He is looking at his base, which is divided between two groups with respect to foreign policy. One group is more traditional Republican and believes in a strong America abroad. They believe in countering America’s enemies and supporting its allies. There’s no appetite in Trump’s base at all for going out and remaking the world, democratizing the Middle East, anything that smacks of a George W. Bush-style invasion of Iraq or anything that could lead to that. Trump has made it very clear that he thinks all of that was a big mistake. What the hell are we doing over there? His instinct, as you see in Afghanistan, is to just get the hell out of the Middle East.
That leads to the second group, the libertarian wing, which basically doesn’t understand what the United States is doing in the Middle East at all, and they’re opposed to any military activity in the region. Therefore, Trump doesn’t want to take any step that can be painted by his opponents, especially during the election season, as a step that’s going to lead to war.
I think the Iranians very cleverly understood this and they developed a strategy after last April, when the U.S. started tightening the sanctions and started going after the civil nuclear waivers that allowed third parties to cooperate with the Iranians. Khamenei came up with a clever strategy where he escalated through proxies on the military front, while aggressively working with the Europeans and the Democrats to present Trump’s policy as a march to war. I think that scared Trump a little bit, and I think the Iranians sensed the fear.
But at a certain point Trump realized that if they were to give in to the Iranians on these maximum pressure issues it would be a defeat. As the Iranians escalated, the United States found ways to respond which led to the killing of Qasem Soleimani.
If you are looking at it from an Israeli point of view, there’s a bit of a contradiction in the American policy with regard to the question of deterrence. I think the administration hoped that the U.S. could suffice with a one-time operation against Soleimani and the Iranians would be deterred. Then you don’t have to engage in the kind of day-to-day deterrence that the Israelis engage in with Hamas in Gaza. Just recently, the Iranian proxies killed two Americans and a Brit in Iraq and there was not really an adequate response to that, according to Trump’s own red lines.
The Iranians are reading that, but I think they got the fear of God put in them with the killing of Qasem Soleimani. It showed that the United States is capable of escalating and can inflict a very big price on them with a single drone or two from Qatar, not even launched from inside Iraq. That is the political context in which all of this is happening.
The Iranians are now launching another campaign. They are using the corona crisis to launch a new information campaign against the administration’s policy. Rob Malley has an op-ed in the New York Times saying compassion requires us to relieve the sanctions against Iran. He runs the International Crisis Group.
With regard to Trump’s base, the libertarian wing’s views on Iran are almost identical to Rob Malley’s views. There’s a point at which one part of the right-wing spectrum and part of the left bends and come together. They both depict Iran as a benign actor whose hostile actions are responses to American aggression and the answer is for the United States to distance itself from Saudi Arabia and Israel and reach out to Iran.
Iran Is Using the Coronavirus Crisis Like Saddam Hussein Did with the U.S. Embargo
The goal of the Iranians right now is to use the coronavirus crisis to get the IMF to give them a major loan. I don’t know that they can succeed at that. I would think that the United States as the single largest shareholder will be able to block that, but you never know. They are also pushing to have some of the money that’s held in the escrow accounts as a result of American sanctions to be freed up, again for compassion. Pompeo’s statements in the last few days clearly show the administration has no inclination to relieve that.
This takes us back to the kind of situation we were in against Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s and early 2000 before 9/11. The United States then had a complete embargo – a siege, basically – on the Iraqi economy. It was claimed that America is killing babies and for compassionate reasons we need to end the siege. That campaign depicted everything bad that happened in the Middle East, including al-Qaeda’s activities, as a response to the inhumane policy that the United States was carrying out against Iraq. The U.S. was killing Iraqi babies and therefore al-Qaeda was hostile to us. Whether the Iranians are actually looking back at that campaign or not, this is what they’ve come to, and the coronavirus offers them a real opportunity.
In the Trump administration, much of the top leadership, with the very notable exception of Mike Pompeo, is extremely reluctant to flex American military muscles in the Middle East. It smacks too much of the old George W. Bush-style of doing things. The tool that they have landed on, that they see as most successful, is this maximum pressure economic tool combined with a certain amount of deterrence. I don’t see any of this changing until after the U.S. election.
If Trump is re-elected, those same basic dynamics will continue, but afterward there’ll be more opportunity for the U.S. to tweak its policy and change certain aspects. After the election it will be able to respond militarily a little bit more aggressively, if it is so inclined, and there’ll be some room for some creative political initiatives as well. Until then, I think we’re just kind of frozen in place – that is, unless the Iranians choose to escalate again.
Iran Is Facing a Range of Pressures
Kuperwasser: Definitely, the Iranian regime is trying to turn the coronavirus into an opportunity both in order to put pressure on the Americans to ease the sanctions and in order to gain some solidarity from the public. However, basically, it is a threat because it proves that they don’t really care about the people and don’t mind if many people die. It was more important for them to show that they still have good relations with China while everybody else was putting an end to international flights to China, then to take care of their own people. I am sure that is something that everybody in Iran knows.
This comes in the context of the sanctions. Pompeo talked about how Iran misused the money that was earmarked for buying medicine. This comes together with the elimination of Soleimani and the downing of the Ukrainian airplane and the way it was handled. This also comes together with the steps taken by the FATF that actually blocked much of the activity of Iran’s financial sector. This comes with the ongoing Israeli attacks in Syria and maybe also in Iraq, and the American attacks on the allies of Iran in Iraq, together with the unrest in both Iraq and Lebanon in which both prime ministers that were capable of delivering for Iran, especially in Iraq, had to resign. There is now a candidate for prime minister in Iraq who is definitely not someone that is appealing to the Iranians.
Much is happening and many things are falling apart, and the leaders may believe that the base is going to be on their side and stop the public from going into the streets in huge numbers once there is some easing of the endemic. But they cannot be sure about that. It is a very dangerous situation for the regime.
More than that, there was an attempt to drag the Americans into some sort of war of attrition, but the Americans didn’t respond to the attack in Saudi Arabia. When they eventually decided to take action, they killed the most precious asset of the Iranians and left the Iranians with no real answer. It is a situation where if the Iranians fail in using corona as a tool to change the situation and the Trump administration right now is unwilling to let that happen by blocking the request for $5 billion from IMF, the situation will become very dire.
How Will the Iranians React?
I think that it is a situation where there is almost no way out, with the exception of this corona propaganda trick, and in a situation where there’s no way out, the Iranians will look at several options. One of them is to gain something in the Iraqi field, hit the Americans in Iraq and force them to limit their presence there. If they manage to do that, they can at least point to an achievement and they can tell the Iranian people that they are fighting back. For the time being, I don’t see that this is actually working and the Iraqis still refuse to accept the Iranians and the battle inside Iraq continues. The Americans made it clear that they are not going to play the game. Its attack on the Iranian militias is very clear.
The other important option is the nuclear one. The Iranians are very rapidly accumulating 4.5%-enriched uranium, not 3.67% as the JCPOA allowed up to 300 kilograms. They have everything working, both new centrifuges they have developed and the old centrifuges, including in the underground fuel enrichment plant in Fordow. They are going to have enough material to start 20% or 60% or 90% enrichment within a short period of time. I think they are about four to six months away from having enough fissile material for the first nuclear device if they choose to, and they are moving in this direction and continuously shortening the time.
Everybody is worried, but no one is doing anything about it. The IAEA reports about it, the Europeans have triggered the dispute resolution mechanism of the JCPOA, the Americans are furious, and Israel is concerned, but nobody is doing anything. No decisions were taken during the last meeting of the IAEA. The option of a JCPOA snapback is not even being considered by the Trump administration at this point. This is very dangerous because if the Iranians feel cornered, they could decide that if nobody wants to fight us because of all of the above reasons, then they could try to make a dash for enough fissile material to make a first nuclear device. This poses a great danger to the entire world. Even though their chances of success are small – the Americans have already sent two aircraft carriers to the Gulf in order to send a warning – left without any other options, the Iranians may consider it.
We are going to see them choosing one of these options. If they fail with the coronavirus trick and with the Iraqi option, and by repeating what they did in the previous round by hitting Saudi Arabia and by a foiled attempt on Israel in the Golan Heights a couple of weeks ago, they may go to the nuclear option and this is a game changer.
If they fail to do that because it’s too dangerous, and in a few months we see the Iranian people coming out into the streets, then even the option that was ruled out by all will also become an option. Right now, it is out of the question because it is too humiliating and too dangerous for the Iranian leadership to start negotiations with the United States, but if the people are about to go out to the streets and there seems to be no other option, I don’t rule out even that eventuality. For the time being, it is a very low probability.
The situation is very dangerous, unstable and vulnerable for Iran, and much will be decided by the speed of the coronavirus developments.