A Path to Reset Iran Policy

| Norman Roule
Norman T. Roule
Former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, ODNI

Norman T. Roule served for 34-years in the Central Intelligence Agency, managing numerous programs relating to Iran and the Middle East.  He served as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I) at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 until September 2017.  As NIM-I, he was the principal Intelligence Community (IC) official responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran, to include IC engagement on Iran issues with senior policy makers in the National Security Council and the Department of State. 

President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech offered an eloquent vision of his intent to build unity within the United States while preserving the principles that form the foundation of American leadership in a multipolar world. The Iran problem will likely be his first foreign policy opportunity to demonstrate the principles that enable us to “lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”

An Iran policy that is based on bipartisanship, respect for the legitimate security concerns of regional countries, and an open discussion of Intelligence Community assessments will provide an example of leadership our partners and adversaries will respect.

Tehran has already begun to do what it can to draw international focus. It continues to expand its nuclear enrichment program and announced that it would not reverse those efforts until the U.S. first lifts sanctions. Even then, Tehran insists that it will consider neither additional nuclear concessions nor concessions on other issues in order to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s military has conducted a series of military exercises meant to showcase its ability to block the Strait of Hormuz and seized a South Korean tanker as a way to pressure Seoul to release billions in oil revenues locked by sanctions in South Korean banks.

Tehran’s actions may seem counterproductive, but they are the calculated tactics of a weak power that senses that its primary adversary is inclined to accept a deal favorable to Iran and that the latter’s attention is focused on more urgent issues. Moreover, Iran knows its regional neighbors are concerned that Washington may no longer be a reliable partner. The Biden administration has routinely stated that the U.S. will rejoin the JCPOA once Iran returns to compliance. Such statements have unsettled Iran’s neighbors, who not unreasonably, believe an end to the nuclear-related sanctions will resource Iran’s aggression against them with little promise that any price will be imposed upon Iran for its actions.

Changing U.S. relations with the region will no doubt encourage Iran. Unless the administration makes a genuine effort to address Israel’s valid concerns about Iran, Washington’s relations with Israeli leadership are likely to be frosty. The Biden team has also repeatedly stated a desire to reassess ties with Saudi Arabia and reduce arms sales to the region. It therefore came as little surprise when the new administration halted planned arms sales pending a review. Incoming Congressional leaders have signaled that they will be even more unsympathetic to Saudi and Emirati security interests.

Yet, none of this means the restoration of the JCPOA is imminent, and the administration agrees that a deal is a “long way off.” Although Biden officials are relatively silent on Iran’s regional adventurism, they agree that any return must be followed by efforts to contain Iran’s massive missile program. The arrival of a B-52 in the Middle East on 26 January follows recent flights conducted by the Trump administration, likely to show Iran that the Biden team has teeth.

Moving forward, the Biden administration can use the Iran problem to show partners and adversaries how it plans to approach challenges. Ensuring a real effort to obtain a bipartisan approach will also help heal domestic fractures. Respect for the security concerns of Iran’s neighbors will show that our definition of multilateralism extends beyond western Europe. And last, the administration has done much to show that it sees the Intelligence Community (IC) as a fair and balanced voice. The IC should be tasked with producing an unclassified overview of Iran issues to serve as a foundation for national discussion.

Restore bipartisanship to Iran policy.

Few issues call for a bipartisan approach more than Iran. The challenge involves a potential nuclear weapons program, a country responsible for the deaths of hundreds of warfighters, multiple terrorist attacks, the creation of militias that have darkly transformed the Middle East, and the proliferation of missiles and drone technology that is routinely launched against neighboring states that serve as home to thousands of Americans. Iran’s actions in Syria have been restrained only by hundreds of Israeli airstrikes. Tehran’s Houthi partners conduct frequent missile attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and drone boat and naval mine attacks on Red Sea oil infrastructure. Any of these issues could escalate into the conventional conflict we all hope to avoid.

Unfortunately, the hyper-partisan debate over JCPOA shattered the traditional bipartisan posture to Iran policy and continues to act as an obstacle to the national discussion this issue demands. Certainly, developing a united approach will not be easy. The administration has little spare political capacity for foreign policy. Iran will use violence and nuclear blackmail to hasten negotiations. Genuine opposition to JCPOA and partisan hackery will make the process painful but making the Congressional Problem Solvers Caucus a partner on Iran policy would help combat this. Jamming through a policy will be far worse. Not only will such a move sustain the toxic debate on Iran policy, but allies and adversaries will see that American unity on foreign policy remains unattainable.

Ensure Iran’s neighbors are an integral part of any multilateral approach.

The evolution of the Iran nuclear deal has wreaked havoc on America’s standing in the international community. Its inception badly damaged regional trust in the United States. Russia and China have ensured that the United Nations Security Council has been silent on Iran’s regional depredations. The Trump administration’s withdrawal infuriated Europe. As noted above, the Biden administration’s plans on Iran (and their own countries) have unsettled Israel and most of Iran’s Arab neighbors.

Critics of the Trump administration routinely decried its failure to build coalitions. Although it is true that the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA was opposed by allies, it was supported by multiple countries in the Middle East. The administration has promised to consult regional parties though this commitment does not imply that we will integrate their concerns into any policy. Failure to do so would be unwise, if only because doing so will complicate our domestic debate and cost us their diplomatic support in the United Nations.

The Role of the Intelligence Community in the Iran Debate

Last, an honest discussion of the Iran issue with Congress or foreign partners requires a level playing field of understanding regarding Tehran’s activities. It would be relatively easy for the Intelligence Community (IC) to produce an unclassified report on key Iran issues. A similar report by Israel and the United Kingdom would also be useful. Such a report could address the status of Iran’s nuclear program, to include any evidence of a covert program. This would represent a valuable update to the National Intelligence Estimate judgments declassified in 2007.

Any IC report should cover the issues already highlighted in Annual Threat Assessments, but in greater detail. These topics would include Iran’s missile program and proliferation of missile and drone technology to proxies; Tehran’s cyber activities; its presence and activities in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq; Iran’s support for proxies and terrorist groups including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda.

On any nuclear deal, several questions come to mind. What malign purposes will any nuclear deal fund? What should we expect regarding Iran’s purchases of conventional weapons now that this restriction has ended? What will happen when missile restrictions end on Iran? Is there any evidence that Iran’s leadership will respond to efforts to negotiate on regional and missile programs? What is the future of Iran’s relationship with China and Russia? Finally, what about the status of American hostages in Iran?

Such a report will not be popular with those who seek to minimize aspects of the Iran problem in favor of a fast return to a nuclear deal before turning to China and other pressing challenges. But only an honest examination of the Iran issue will show that the nuclear deal’s success relies on sound policy and not on the White House’s political muscle as was required to pass the Iran deal in 2015.

Whether the Biden administration will pursue either a bipartisan approach to Iran and/or a multilateral effort beyond the European Union, United Kingdom, France, and Germany remains to be seen. But the path it takes on each will define the administration far beyond the Iran question.

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The Author is Norman T. Roule

Norman T. Roule served for 34-years in the Central Intelligence Agency, managing numerous programs relating to Iran and the Middle East.   He served as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I) at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 until September 2017.  As NIM-I, he was the principal Intelligence Community (IC) official responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran, to include IC... Read More

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