Within hours of President Trump’s announcement that he was pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted the move and insisted that Iran would continue to negotiate with the other signatories. The U.K., France and Germany expressed disappointment in President Trump’s decision and said the deal is not dead. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister told CNN that Saudi Arabia will seek a nuclear bomb if Iran does.
Cipher Brief CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly talked with the former National Intelligence Manager for Iran for the ODNI, Norm Roule, and asked him what the decision will mean in the region and what response the U.S. should anticipate.
Norm Roule: Let’s break this down into three pieces. When you talk about Iran – there is first Iran, and then there are Iran’s surrogates – finally there are the countries in the region. First, Iran will respond with public defiance and with a sense of self-reliance that is unfounded based upon their economic problems. It is not unreasonable to assume that Iran will also undertake some steps that will allow it to demonstrate to the world that it can make things in the region worse unless people attempt to deal with Iran. Regarding Iran’s surrogates, I think they will be mixed. First, there will be some concern among its surrogates in terms of what this will mean for financial and material support from Iran. Lebanese Hezbollah is heavily dependent upon Iran, but it’s not the only surrogate who is dependent upon Iran, so there will be a number of them that will say- What happens to the cash? Finally, for the region, they will appreciate the fact that the U.S. is taking a stronger position on Iran. They will worry about potential Iranian responses, but they will also wonder- OK, what’s the plan moving forward?
Suzanne Kelly: That’s a great point, and leads me to my next question, which is how important is Plan B? We’ve already seen the Europeans say we’re not giving up on this, we’re scrambling to try and get to a plan B, what do you think the US should and could do to be a part of that plan?
Roule: I think we need to talk about what the European position has been. For two and a half years, the Europeans have done very little to confront Iran for its regional behavior, missile programs and indeed some of the statements of the Iranian leader that would imply that Iran was not going to comply with its JCPOA commitments. The Iranian’s committed to allowing inspectors to visit any location needed. Iran’s IRGC and Supreme leader have stated they would not be allowed to visit military sites. Which is it? So the Trump administration has a fairly strong case. Regarding moving forward, I think the Europeans have to basically decide the extent to which they are willing to punish Iran. And it’s here we have a problem. There have been intense diplomatic discussions between the US, Germany, France and the UK since late last summer. But they have not yet produced a series of measures from the Europeans which would compel Iran to reconsider its positions on the region, or its missile program. And certainly there has been no pressure placed on Iran, or considered against Iran that would cause them to re-consider the concessions that have already been made, in the nuclear deal and consider more. So in the near term, I don’t see any significant shifts by any of the parties. I think the Europeans are going to struggle to come up with a solution that will forestall the first set of sanctions, the contract revocations that will occur in early August. I’m not sanguine that they will be able to do so. It requires that they move from minor sanctions and designations against Iranian officials and companies and focus on insurance, financial channels and oil revenue. And this is something the Europeans have not been willing to do.
Kelly: When we talk about near term, what are you most worried about next? And a second part to that question, are there opportunities here?
Roule: Let me handle that in two ways. First, what I’m most worried about is what I’ve always been most worried about, that Iran’s regional behavior, and it’s proliferation of advanced missile technology, could provoke a region-jarring incident. If, God forbid, a missile fired from Yemen, empowered by Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran, strikes a significant Saudi facility, the Saudi’s will be forced to react. Likewise, Iran’s establishment of a missile infrastructure, and other anti-Israel, anti-Jordan infrastructures in Syria, it could engage in activity which could provoke a regional response. And we don’t have now, a firm or clear coalition to respond against Iran at this point.
And for the second question, the opportunities here are basically to do what the Trump administration seeks, and that is to say- how do we deal with all of Iran’s behavior? When the JCPOA was originally constructed, Secretary Kerry and President Obama routinely stated that the deal did not prevent us from using sanctions and other tools to constrain Iran’s behavior. Opponents of the deal claim that those sanctions, the anti-Iran architecture was never put into place. I think the opportunity is for the President, and his team to establish some sort of architecture that addresses all three aspects of Iran’s behavior, which is missiles, region and nuclear. But again, I do not believe this is possible in the near term. The Iranians have no reason to make concessions. The Europeans are currently unwilling to take hard steps, and we have a lot of issues that are still being fleshed out. Secretary Pompeo’s trip to North Korea is consuming time and a deal or package against Iran will take enormous time and focus.
Kelly: We talked about missiles and what you’re worried about, and region and nuclear. Let’s focus on nuclear for just a second. The Saudi’s in particular have said that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, they’re going to do the same. Is that still something we should have on our short term radar, for how they are potentially reacting to this news?
Roule: Yes, but I think there are two points that should go along with that. First, the Saudi’s acquiring a nuclear program would also mean the Saudi’s would undergo the terrific economy crushing sanctions endured by the Iranians. It’s hard for me to believe that the Saudi’s would wish to develop a nuclear weapons program, and then have their economy so seriously damaged, because Iran’s economy was shattered, it has not recovered from sanctions. And any state seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, such as North Korea, really endures international economic pressures which are enormous. The second part of this is, that the Saudi’s do have a strong imperative to develop civilian nuclear power. They devote a large portion of their oil production to domestic power generation, they would like to sell that. Likewise, the Saudi’s have natural uranium resources. The Saudi’s are interested in acquiring American technology for their nuclear program, but we bring a lot of restrictions that the other European powers, the Russians, the Chinese, the South Koreans do not bring. So I believe the Saudi’s will push forward with their civilian nuclear program. I remain somewhat optimistic they will continue to seek U.S. support for that program, although they will try to reduce the number of restrictions we place on that program, as part of our provision of technology. But I do not believe the Saudi’s have a significant inducement to develop a nuclear weapon.
Kelly: Interesting. So we talked about missiles, and the nuclear. The other thing is region. By region – just to clarify – are you talking about the use of terrorism, and the push for Iran to have control in the region in general, in places like Syria?
Roule: Iran’s power and its potential for power is generally restricted to those failed states with a strong Shia presence and the absence of a significant external presence so that leaves only a few states: Yemen, Syria and Iraq and Lebanon. I don’t expect the Iranians to develop pressure points in other countries, but the Iranians do have the capacity to undertake terrorist and cyber operations and I could see the Iranians responding to this deal with an uptick in cyber threats against oil and other infrastructure elements in the region, to include Israel.
Kelly: We haven’t really focused on that. Iran’s cyber capabilities have been demonstrated.
Roule: Their cyber capabilities are not only impressive but they’ve tended to deploy them as an asymmetric, unconventional tool in response to sanctions pressures. You sanction my country, I attack your banks with cyber tools. You make deals with foreigners – this is an example of their attack against the Saudi foreign ministry – I will expose all of your traffic, your documentation on the web. You curtail my oil industry, we will attack Aramco in return. It’s entirely reasonable to expect that and I believe if there is an action that should be taken in the near term in addition to looking carefully at any terrorist elements that might be associated with the Iranian government, it is to significantly focus on ways to improve the defense integrity of cyber infrastructure in the region.
Kelly: What do you think happens now between Israel and Iran?
Roule: I think we’re going to see just more of the same. The Israelis are not interested in a conflict with Iran. The Israelis aren’t even interested in a conflict in Syria, but the Israelis cannot tolerate the establishment of a surface to surface missile architecture in Syria, aimed at Israel or aimed at enhancing Lebanese Hezbollah capacity against Israel, they can’t and shouldn’t tolerate this. It is an existential issue given the capacity of Iran to strike so many strategic sites in Israel from such a close proximity, so I anticipate the Israelis will continue to do what they have traditionally done, try to get rid of those facilities before they come online and work with regional countries and the United States to pressure Iran to stop sending material into Syria.
Kelly: When you talk about ‘getting rid of those facilities before they come online’, in the past, the Israelis have conducted air strikes, they’ve taken covert action on the ground, so do you anticipate an uptick in that?
Roule: The Israelis never confirmed that but that has been alleged in the western press and I will just stick with the allegations in the western press and say if those allegations were true, there is no reason to believe that the Israelis won’t continue to do this with every ounce of energy they’ve got. In the wake of the JCPOA withdrawal, the Israelis no doubt also probably are looking for demonstrations of defiance and pressure from Iran and its surrogates, so raising their alert is a prudent thing to do before the Iranians say ‘let us show you how tough we are’ by launching an armed UAV or rocket or missile or even indeed a small team terrorist group.
Kelly: Any closing thoughts?
Roule: I think it’s important that we depart from the partisan debate over whether or not the withdrawal from JCPOA was appropriate and move to working as quickly as we can with our European partners to develop a way to sustain the nuclear oversight infrastructure of the IAEA as well as creating realistic programs to push back Iran in the region and to end its proliferation of advanced missile technology and its interference in regional countries, but the longer we spend debating whether or not this was a smart move, the less time we’re spending on coming up with real solutions. Iran is the problem here, we are not the problem.
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.