NEW YORK – Asia Society
23 July 2015
KEVIN RUDD: Welcome everybody to the Asia Society and welcome in particular to this event this evening which we’re convening as the Asia Society Policy Institute. It’s worthwhile asking ourselves a simple question – why are we here? There are a few good reasons. One is, we here at the Asia Society are in the business of professional bridge building. Sometimes it is unfashionable to build bridges, many folks like to blow them up but we prefer to build them even when it comes to some of the more difficult relationships in the world. Which we leads me to what the Asia Society itself has done way before I came here to work over the last decade or so, which is to encourage dialogue and to provide a platform for dialogue between the United States and Iran during a very difficult period in that relationship. Culminating most recently I think in 2013 with President Rouhani speaking here and tonight we see as a natural extension of the above because we are still in the business of bridge building, others have been building bridges as well in terms of the negotiations we have seen unfold before our eyes in Geneva most recently.
So there is a further reason why we’re here, it’s not just about Iran and the United States, the third element in this equation is called nuclear weapons. I think sometimes we in the 21st century lose sight of the centrality of this as a factor in international relations today. It is almost as if we have pushed this off as a phenomenon in modern global politics. It is 70 years since we’ve seen the absolute destructive potential of a nuclear weapon. In fact come August it will be 70 years in terms of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The capacity of states in the world today who are nuclear weapons states and states which aspire to be nuclear weapon states, to bring about untold levels of destruction towards one another is something we need to remind ourselves afresh. With the conclusion of the Cold War many of us (INAUDIBLE) this had just disappeared off the edge of political reality. But when we’ve had significant questions raised about the Iranian program and our focus now will increasingly turn to what’s happening in North Korea, these are profound questions for us all. The sheer destructive potential of a single nuclear bomb is beyond our collective imaginings, way beyond what the newsreel footage shows us happened back in 1945. So for that collection of reasons we are here this evening and I thank you one and all for your attendance at this sell-out event here at the Asia Society in New York.
I’m Kevin Rudd, I’m President of the Asia Society Policy Institute. I’ve been in this fair city and this fair institution for nearly six months now. No one should quiz me on the geography of this town – I know how to get from East 49 Street to here and a few points in between but other than that I’m still largely lost. But I’m enjoying New York and I’m enjoying very much the Asia Society and we’re building a brand new think tank called the Asia Society Policy Institute. I’d like to recognize also the Asia Society’s patrons and trustees and members who are here with us this evening in great number – good to have you with us. I’d also like to welcome all those who are watching the program via webcast and we have a large number as we do with all of our programs and I suspect with this one in particular. Also there will be a Q and A session after the discussion and we hope that you’ll join the conversation.
To today’s program, two years of arduous negotiations between Iran and the P5 plus one. Culminating last week with a comprehensive deal aimed at reigning in the Iranian nuclear program. The talks, as we know having observed them from afar, passed one deadline after another. Gritty determination by all concerned and my own twitter response when the deal was produced was in fact to honour the contributions of all, the Iranian delegation included. This was hard and difficult diplomacy and of course its results are much-debated. I’m sure that debate will unfold here this evening as well. The essence of the arrangement, of course, is that in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions that have pressured the Iranian country and its population for so long, Iran will now curb its nuclear program in a way that – according to the experts – would prevent it from developing a bomb for at least a decade. More on the detail of that as we unfold the conversation.
Of course, many have welcomed the agreement. Many have not welcomed the agreement and have violently opposed it, at least in the political debate. Partly here in the United States but also in Jerusalem, in Riyadh and in other parts of the world as well. Of course, the nuclear deal in itself is a critical part of the play here but there is a broader play as well which is the future trajectory of Iran’s relationship with the United States and where that heads to in the years ahead. This will be deeply shaped by the way in which this agreement is implemented. Some are sceptical as to whether this opens up any new vistas of possibility in collaboration between the United States and Iran in other areas of foreign policy given the vast differences which still exist between the two countries on so many policy issues. Or whether in fact there are now new opportunities which present themselves and we will be discussing those as the evening progresses.
We are blessed this evening to have with us an absolutely first class panel. Led by Ambassador Frank Wisner who is known and loved by so many in this room and beyond, a good friend of mine, a career foreign service guy, previously US Ambassador to India, Egypt, the Philippines and Zambia, also having served as Undersecretary of Defence Policy and Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs. And I claim Frank as a member of the Asia Society Policy Institute advisory council which I’m sure is your most important designation of the ones I’ve just listed. Frank thank you for being with us this evening.
We’re also genuinely delighted to have with us Karim Sadjadpour who comes to us from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And Carnegie, I’d like to recognize here tonight, have done some extraordinary work on the Iran question in general and the nuclear issue in particular. He served as the Chief Iran Analyst at the International Crisis Group based in Washington and Tehran. You may also have seen him speaking most recently around the famous table on Charlie Rose last week. He had an interesting comment in Tom Friedman’s article in the New York Times which you may have seen quoted which is, “The young people of Iran when looking at their future would rather be South Korea not North Korea.” An interesting and succinct observation.
Joining us on screen from Washington DC in Robin Wright who unfortunately could not be here in New York with us this evening, she is – he says as a statement of religious faith – joining us via video from Washington. Robin is a journalist, author and policy analyst at the Wilson Centre, Editor of the US Institute of Peace’s Iran primer which chronicles relations under six American Presidents and offers a comprehensive overview of Iranian politics, its economy and military. Also, she is the author of an extraordinary piece which has just appeared in the Newyorker which is entitled, “Tehran’s Promise: The Revolution’s Midlife Crisis and the Nuclear Deal,” and in it has some great reflections on what has occurred over a long period of time as we’ve reached towards this agreement but also great reflections on the way in which these negotiations were conducted and we’ll be all ears to hear your thoughts on that as the evening progresses.
So with those remarks if I could ask our two panellists in the flesh to move up to the front here. Please take a seat and I’ll explain the order of procedure. The order of procedure will be a little like this – for the next three quarters of an hour or so we will largely engage with the panel itself, I will throw an opening question at each of them about the over dynamics of this agreement and where it takes us into the future, then we’ll have interactives among us before about 7 o’clock I throw it open to you and our online audience as well to ask whatever questions you will. I think again, the panel for being with us.
So to open proceeding, Frank, I thought I might ask you and the other panellists this evening just to step back two or three paces of what’s been transacted in this nuclear agreement and give me the overview – where do you think this takes us into the future, what the implications narrow and broad in terms of where we go to from here, not just on nukes but also regional reactions and how this will unfold here in the United States and other places in the world? Over to you my friend.
WISNER: Well Kevin first of all let me thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen to come at this time of truly historical significance to the United States, to the world at large. We have just witnessed an agreement that is truly unprecedented in our lives, which on one side of the table the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia all came together – I know of no case in modern history that the great powers have lined up – and on the other side of the table, Iran. To reach an agreement of great complexity. Kevin, your invitation is important that we begin to think about this agreement and not get lost in its many details as important as they are. To remember what at heart is at stake and what can be accomplished. I am going to make two quick points and I’m sure that Karim and Robin, you will all expand in your ways on the same themes.
The first theme is, and I’m stealing a page from Kevin, is the nuclear age. This agreement addresses and deals with a serious issue of potential nuclear proliferation that has dogged the world’s footsteps for many years now. Under this agreement, Iran has undertaken to control its nuclear program in a manner that is virtually unprecedented. It has agreed to limit its nuclear stockpile, it has agreed to limit its production capabilities, to shrink the three facilities down to one that will be operational in Iran at the moment and to subject all of the production capabilities for the next 15 years to a system of international verification the likes of which the world has never designed. The International Atomic Energy Agency will be given very free reign of Iran from its production of raw material right through the processing and be able to access to all of it – there is one partial exception, that is military facilities where in no case anywhere in the world does anyone have free access to a nation’s secret military facility. But under certain conditions and properly coordinated, even those will be opened to the IAEA inspectors. I emphasise verification because there is no point in trust in this agreement if you cannot verify. In fact, if I go to the core of Iran’s problem with all of us and particularly with the United States it is the question of trust. They don’t trust us, we don’t trust them. This nuclear agreement attempts to build trust on a vitally sensitive subject. Not some peripheral subject. But it doesn’t begin to deal with all of the issues and it never was meant to. For had we tried to negotiate everything we would have accomplished nothing.
The second critical feature to keep in mind is, for us as Americans in particular this agreement opens American diplomacy in the region and with Iran for the first time in 30 years. Until this point in the chaos of the Middle East we’ve been able to deal with many problems but never in conjunction with one of the region’s major powers, Iran. Now with this agreement the prospect of being able to address the crises underway today – in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in the Gulf itself, in Lebanon, in Yemen – we have a footing now to be able to begin diplomacy and from a narrow American perspective to be able to look at the region in terms of the classic dictates of the balance of power. With the United States bringing itself down, bringing its weight to bear on issues that are important to our security but also to the potential still to be worked out of a better situation in the region.
Let me end my remarks with one final point. That is, I’m going to be very blunt, I take my hat to the President and to John Kerry for what they’ve accomplished. There are many people walking around today saying that the United States has lost influence in the world. And yet I believe our diplomacy, the choice not to go to war and to find an agreement lay in the power of our example, our ability to pull together this international coalition, not only for sanctions purposes but also for the purpose of peacebuilding. It is a huge tribute to the United States are our influence in the world that we’ve been able to assemble a coalition and bring this agreement to the fore. I take great pride from it and I hope all of you will as well.
RUDD: Thanks so much Frank. On your first point about the unique significance of having Russia, China and the United States together with the major Europeans around a table framing an agreement such as this on a matter of genuine peace and security of such profound dimensions when we start talking about nuclear weapons. Let me add to something you said. I was talking to the Chinese mission just a couple of days ago here in New York and the Chinese take on these negotiations is that in this global environment we have at the moment where we can point at precious few things in which the major powers are working constructively to seek a common solution to a common problem, they the Chinese place particular significance on what you the major powers have been able to do collectively and in which some pride on the way through as well not having been simply passive bystanders. That’s just a mild take from the Chinese side.
Robin, you’re here with us from DC. Karim being the gentlemen that he is has said that the person who is on screen often feels neglected and left out and I’m told that by nature you’re a shrinking violet who is not prepared to put her view sharply and bluntly. He has yielded the floor to you and I’d just like to commend you on the terrific article you’ve just put in to the Newyorker. Over to you for your overall take before we get down to some nitty gritties.
WRIGHT: Well I think one of the most important things to understand is that this was designed originally to be transactional, to be about one issue and that was the nuclear question. But what has happened over the past two years is a very interesting diplomatic dynamic in which two countries who have been alienated from each other for 36 years – longer than the gap with Vietnam after a deadly war with them, longer than the gap with China after its revolution. These two countries have learned how to deal with each other and that has laid been the groundwork for what could be over time – and I emphasise, over time – lead to discussion about other flashpoints in the region. There are other common concerns, particularly the threat of ISIS. I’ve been in Iran now three times in the last 18 months and I’ve found that increasingly, during the diplomacy Iranians were looking further and further beyond the deal. There was an assumption that the deal was going to happen and they were looking at what was next. I even spoke with some of the hardliners who seem interested in ensuring that there was a common perspective, a common agenda even if not a common strategy in dealing with some of the crises in the region.
I think at the same time we have to be not too euphoric about this breakthrough in diplomacy, that we are headed for some very tough moments. The Iranians have made it clear that they want to have their debate too and they’ve said they’re not even going to vote in their majles on the nuclear agreement until after Congress has had its vote on whether it will approve or disapprove, and how that plays out with the White House and whether it has to veto and so forth. We’re into a period of the next 60 to 80 days that we’re going to be wrapped up just in seeing whether the two sides actually accept what they agreed. Then we have to go through a period of four to six months, potentially even longer, during which Iran has to take those steps required by the deal – dismantling its facilities, converting the plutonium facility at Arak, getting rid of some of its uranium stockpile. These are going to be complicated steps and only at the end of that process will the implementation begin, will the lifting of sanctions begin, will the potential for discussion on other issues. We made history by coming up with a deal in common terms but there is an awful lot that has to be done to actually begin the implementation process and, as we all know, the ground truth in the Middle East is that events on the ground often overtake diplomacy and so I think we’re facing a tough time and there could be some challenges even during that period.
RUDD: Thank you for those remarks and you are right to cautious that one swallow does not a Summer make. And we have a long ways to go yet. What do you think that the impact will be in Washington DC and the Congress in its deliberations on this of the decision by the Iranian Parliament, just online today I saw and you’ve referred to it, in deferring their deliberative vote on this until after the Congressional deliberation? They’ve referred it to their own Parliamentary Committee. How do you think that is going to play out in terms of perceptions in Washington DC?
WRIGHT: I think that the only road that is really going to count is in Washington. The Iranians have a mechanism through the Supreme Leader to reign in Parliament. There will be feisty debate. I went to see the Chairman of the Majlis Foreign Policy and National Security Committee and he told me that 200 of the 290 members of Parliament, even more than that, were sceptical, critical of a deal with the United States just for the principle of a deal with additional disputes over the specific terms. So I’m not as worried about the Majlis but it have it’s own very feisty debate and in some ways it will want to be seen to have its own feisty debate so it isn’t any easier for the Iranians to agree to a deal than it was for Congress. There is a mirror image psychology going on here both in Tehran and Washington.
RUDD: I found the report fascinating and it struck me as a critical practitioner in parliaments myself as an interesting exercise in, I won’t say reciprocal theatre, but there is an interesting dynamic at play. You tantalizingly mentioned before some of the discussions you’ve had in Tehran yourself about Iranians, notwithstanding the complexity of the period ahead looking to where this might go in terms of a broader strategic dialogue with the United States, can you give me a sense of where you think that could head? I’m getting a little ahead of myself here in terms of the time we have before us tonight. In terms of where that might go and can you tell us something more of the dynamics around the actual negotiations themselves as they have been conducted in Geneva in the last several weeks?
WRIGHT: I spent a lot of time talking to both the American and the Iranian delegations and it was fascinating to get their take on the moments of tension. There will clearly at least five times over the last nine months that the talks were at a crisis point. One of the most interesting was the May 30th confrontation in Geneva where there was a lot of bad blood. It was the first time that Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif had seen each other since the Lausanne talks and when they started talking about the specifics they realized that they were on different pages and it was described to me as a ‘brutal’ showdown between the two delegations. Both left deeply pessimistic about the prospects for getting a deal. It was the next morning that Secretary Kerry out of his frustration took his racing bike and rode into France and in the process hit a kerb and of course broke his leg. It took a –
RUDD: That would have improved his humour and the subsequent track of the conversations.
WRIGHT: Well one of the interesting things was one of the first emails he got afterwards was an email from Foreign Minister Zarif wishing him well. He’d already returned to Iran. But it took a lot of negotiating by the Chief Negotiators – Wendy Sherman for the Americans and Abass Araghchi for the Iranians – to get those talks back on track. We don’t realize all the really extraordinary challenges that went into getting these two countries onto the same page on a huge array of very technical issues. There were some very tough moments and even during the last 19 there were two occasions where there were kind of showdowns. One became famous because the delegations were shouting at each other and one of Kerry’s assistants had to walk in the room and let them know that they were being heard down the corridors of Coburg Palace. And then the next night when there was a moment when they had a feisty exchange where Secretary Kerry and the EU representative, Federica Mogherini were talking with Zarif and it got heated again and at one point Zarif shouted back, “Never threaten an Iranian,” and as that became public the hashtag on twitter ‘#neverthreateniranian’ became very popular and of course was a rallying cry for the Iranians. But there were moments and they didn’t know until the very last day that they were actually going to get there and it was a dramatic moment when Foreign Minister Zarif went down to Secretary Kerry’s office the night of the 13th just before midnight and they shooed everyone else out. It was the three of them, again Mogherini, Zarif and Kerry and they got to the final issues. I talked to an American official within an hour of that agreement who was chronicling the tensions and how tough it was right up to the end.
RUDD: Well that is extraordinary. I’m sure there is a good book that can be written on this subject and I’m sure the thought may have possibly passed your mind in terms of when it could possibly hit the bookstands. This looms as a great study in international relations practice quite apart from the central dynamics itself. Thank you for sharing some of that with us. Karim, you once quoted Henry Kissinger and his description of Iran, “There are few nations in the world with whom the US has more common interests and less reasons to quarrel than Iran but Iran has to decide whether it is a nation or a cause.” You’re a person who has studied this extraordinary country for a long time, I’ve heard you speak before in various forums. Again standing back as I have asked both Frank and Robin to do, please give us here this evening your overall before we get down to some of the finer details.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well first of all it is wonderful to be here, I hope you guys can hear me okay? It is great to see a lot of familiar faces in the audience and to be here with Kevin and Frank and Robin. I very much agree with Frank and Robin that this is an historic moment. When I used to based in Tehran in the early 2000s you could go to prison if you advocated dialogue with the United States, if you wrote an op-ed in an Iranian newspaper and who advocated dialogue with the US you could go to prison. Now the Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, has spent more time with the US Secretary of State John Kerry than any other foreign official in the world. That is pretty significant and I have a simplistic view of international relations which is it is basically like human relations or interpersonal relations between human beings. Countries, after all, are run by human beings and the idea that I think about is a divorced couple which hasn’t spoken for 36 years meeting up together in a hotel in Vienna and spending three weeks together. It is almost implausible in a human context so I think what Frank said, in the history of contemporary international relations –
RUDD: The only thing missing from Robin’s account was the smashing of plates.
SADJADPOUR: That’s right but the way I look at it is to separate this deal into three boxes: there’s the non-proliferation box, there’s the Iran domestic box and then there is the regional box. I think in the non-proliferation box it is net positive. It is more good than it is bad in that it subjects Iran’s program to more transparency and it curtails Iran’s program. I think the domestic Iranian box it is also positive, it is net positive in that look at who it is in Iran who is very happy these days – it is civil society, it is the younger generation that want to be integrated with the rest of the world and who is most concerned are the hardliners who have really thrived in isolation. So I think in the domestic Iranian box it is net positive. In the regional box I think it is the one that’s somewhat more concerning. Iran’s existing regional policies have been quite consistent over the last four decades and I think it is quite unlikely that they are going to change in the coming months but they are going to have many more billions of dollars to pursue those policies. I think that’s something we can talk more about in the Q and A. These deals are never 100% positive or negative – there is good and there is bad.
Frankly, all of you who have studied the history of the Middle East know that the Middle East is a graveyard for empires, it is also a graveyard for forecasters. If we look back at the major events in the Middle East over the last three or four decades – the Iranian Revolution, the Oslo Accords (Frank, you were at the State Department then), the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and more recently the Arab Spring of 2011. At the time these events were happening everyone was uncorking the champagne saying who great they were going to be and we look back in retrospect and they were all failures. I’m not saying that this deal with Iran will be a failure but I think Robin is right to cautious us about celebrating prematurely.
The last thing I was going to say goes to the question of why Iran decided to compromise, why did Iran sign this deal? There are kind of two schools of thought. The first school of thought says that this was merely a tactical compromise that Iran’s Supreme Leader was forced to make because the country is experiencing a perfect storm economically. They’re haemorrhaging hundreds of billions of dollars because of sanctions at a time when oil prices have collapsed – they’re losing tens of billions of dollars because of oil prices – and they’re spending many billions of dollars trying to sustain their chief regional ally the Assad regime in Syria. Some would argue that it was a tactical compromise motivated by economic expediency.
Then there are others who would argue that this is just the beginning of a strategic shift after three and a half decades of being isolated and having an organizing principle of ‘Death to America’. This is now ‘Revolution 2.0’ in Iran and it is now a new generation of leaders who are starting to prioritize the country’s national interest before revolutionary ideology. I think the reality is that both of those answers are right and that you do have, for some individuals in Tehran (and I would put the Supreme Leader into this category) it is a tactical compromise. He’s not interested in having an amicable relationship with the United States. But I think for others – President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif – if they could push a button and start to change Iran’s relations with the outside world I think they would do so. This is a debate which is going to play out over many years in Iran and I do think that when Iran really starts to prioritize its national interest and economic interests before revolutionary ideology – as Henry Kissinger said – there is plenty of room for cooperation between the two countries.
RUDD: Thanks for that. Let’s stay with this theme of how this deal plays into Iranian domestic politics both in terms of the execution of the arrangements outlined in the deal but also on the much broader question, which all three of our speakers tonight have touched upon, which is where to next? The cautionary tales, I think from everyone up here, that let’s not assume that we are looking at a period of peace, enlightenment and universal brotherhood and folk dancing in the streets in Tehran and Washington as we discover new love and fraternity between all. But, as you’ve all pointed out, there are new possibilities and new potentialities. So as folk who have looked at the Iranian phenomenon over the last 36 years give me your sense of how this plays out in Iranian domestic politics in terms of where they could possibly work with the United States in creative areas? Then we’ll go onto a further conversation – once we’ve retrieved Robin from the blackbox of eternal despair – to look at the regional reaction both from the Gulf States, Saudi and of course from the State of Israel.
WISNER: I would be the first to defer both to Karim and Robin whose direct experience with Iran is much more intense than mine. I admit to having sat across the table from representatives from Iran – both civil society, the academic community and government – now for 12 or 14 years. But I don’t pretend to have the breadth of experience that either of you have. I’m also careful to qualify my remarks by reminding all of us that there are some big risks over the next couple of months. This agreement has got to secure the approval of the United States Congress or the United States will find itself in the anomalous position of undermining an agreement that it signed up for and negotiated and led the world to. We could actually be in the material violation of the sense of the agreement if we don’t figure out a way for the Congress to make one of four choices – approve, disapprove, take no action or to add some language that isn’t inconsistent with the agreement itself.
We have a starting period of intense complexity of about 60 days with the Congress and then another 30 days where the decisions are made internationally. By the end of the year the implementation days come in internationally so lots of things could go wrong. Having dropped that cautionary note, I believe that the Iranian decision to seek this agreement in the first place and negotiate it through in its very considerable details represents a substantial political commitment that will be very difficult for Iran to walk away from. That political commitment is based on an assumption that Iran is opening itself to an engagement with the Western world, including the United States; is opening itself to new possibilities for capital, technology, trade that will give Iran and its future generations a chance to compete on the world stage. The leadership in Iran, in my judgement, would run a terrible domestic – not just foreign policy – risk if it were to walk away from this agreement.
So I start out from an assumption that we are proceeding from a relatively strong position in seeing this agreement through and that a decision has been made in Tehran that this is where the bets have been placed. I say that and I emphasize one subordinate point, that I hear a lot of loose commentary in this country about, “This faction or that faction, where is the Supreme Leader?” I have come to believe, watching the Iranians that I have dealt with, that decisions in Tehran are much more carefully articulated than we’re giving them credit for. That the Supreme Leader presides over a national security mechanism that reviews and makes decisions and binds its participants. That the Iranian actors follow the guidance that comes out of a carefully elaborated national security situation. I think we are looking at a period – with all the uncertainties – of a coherent response from the Iranians and that gives me hope that we can take this agreement and make sure it works. Not perfectly in the sense that there can’t be anything that goes wrong – things will go wrong. But that the structure of the agreement and the political importance will survive which will then open the door for a dialogue between ourselves and Iran over the hugely dangerous points in the region.
Thanks to Robin and Karim for pointing out that we have a lot in this region where we conflict with Iran, we have a lot where our interests run parallel. Robin, I think you pointed out that Daesh and the fight against ISIS is a really common point. Both of us want stability in Iraq and want the Iraqi Government to retake and control its national territory. In Afghanistan both of us want the Afghan Government to manage and contain and deal with the Taliban threat and bring the country along to a degree of stability it hasn’t known in decades. In Syria both of us have a common optic and that is that you need a political settlement and that settlement is going to have to involve all Syrian parties – not the radicals, not the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Daesh – at least to get started. There is a common perspective. And then there are areas where we have real differences – Hezbollah, Israel, Iranian actions in Yemen, Iranian actions in Lebanon. But several of these, frankly, I believe are peripheral. Yemen and Lebanon cannot be central concerns of Iran’s so I see room to manoeuvre coming up to us. I believe that, the second point, I’m relatively optimistic that we can engage Iran – it doesn’t mean reach conclusions – on these regional questions.
RUDD: Robin, when we lost you just for a minute before and I’m sorry about that. I threw the question to Frank coming off what Karim said before about how this deal is seen in Tehran, in Iranian politics itself, partly the reasons why they made this decision. Your thoughts on that and Karim has spoken about that in part already as being deeply symbolic of where they want to go more generically. But what opportunities are now in the minds of the Iranian political elites about where they could go in terms of any further strategic collaboration with the United States? Following that I’d like to bring the panel back to one further question which is, the regional reaction from the Gulf and from Saudi and from Israel. But Robin I’d like to hear your thoughts given your expertize in the field.
WRIGHT: Karim made two very important points. I would add a third in terms of Iran’s motive in getting involved in the negotiations at all and that was this stage of the revolution. Revolution, as Craig Britton wrote in his wonderful book ‘The Academy of Revolutions’, is like an illness. It first goes through a raging fever where you see that period of extremism and bloodiness. Then it begins to move – too slowly often – to the long convalescence, a long fitful period where it goes through phases. The third, is a return gradually to normalcy. I think that Iran is in many ways in a mid-life crisis – its revolutionaries are now in their late 50s, 60s and 70s. The Supreme Leader turned 76 this month. The majority of the population today is under 35. Over half of the electorate today is under 35. So there is not just a generation gap but there is a sense that the younger generation doesn’t share all the priorities of that generation of radicals that ousted the Shah and ended a monarchy that had prevailed for 2500 years.
There is a lot at stake not just in the nuclear deal. The nuclear deal is a microcosm of the broader transition that Iran faces – whether it will finally go through with it this time around it is hard to tell, but it is clearly part of this process. It is also part of the election season. Iran goes to the polls next February to elect a new Parliament as well as a new Assembly of Experts and for a decade the hardliners have had a lock on politics, all three branches. That hold has only begun to be broken with the election of President Rouhani in 2013. Now you have a second branch of government that is up for grabs with Parliament and when I went to see the head of a nine-party coalition of hard-line groups in Tehran in May he told me that if there is a deal that they will be a boost of up to 25% of the voters for candidates who favour or who are sympathetic to President Rouhani. So there is a sense that the nuclear deal will also determine what happens politically. Not just whether President Rouhani will have some openings to engage in other reforms but who is actually holding Parliament and who is able to dominate the political space.
For many of the hardliners the nuclear deal is dangerous less for the terms of the deal itself than what it means for their own political future in Iran. And of course, they fear that President Rouhani is another President Gorbachev – that his openings to the outside world or his domestic reforms in Perestroika and Glasnost are similar to what President Rouhani is trying to do now. Of course, Perestroika and Glasnost led to the unravelling of the Soviet Union so there is that this sense that this moment in history is not just about the nuclear deal but about the fate of the revolution as that generation of revolutionaries begins to enter the final phase of their role in Iran and is replaced increasingly by a younger generation with a different agenda and who make up the voters. Not just the kids, they’re now part of the political process themselves.
RUDD: That is fascinating. A friend of mine, Serene Jones, who’s Head of Union Theological College here in New York came back from a couple of weeks in Tehran recently and theological discourse with representatives of a number of religious traditions in Tehran. Her striking observation, as someone who has not been to Iran before but was with her dialogue with young people about what a radically different mindset she encountered about their interests and deep attachments to forms to American popular culture, their desire to engage the world as any other citizen of any other country. My quick follow-on question is, if that is the zeitgeist of under-35s, or the Iranian Millennial generation, then how does the existing revolutionary elite deal with this phenomenon? Of course the two classical devices available to political leaders is one of co-option and the other is to further polarize. If not using a third device which is just pure coercion. A couple of thoughts on that and then we’ll round out our discussion on the view from Saudi and from Jerusalem.
WRIGHT: I’d make one point first of all, that what was striking to me was that the debate in Tehran is no longer about the ideal Islamic state, it is about how you use 21st century technology to change society. I went to see a whole array of the young start-ups, these again are kids who are under-35 and they’ve launched the Amazon of Iran, the Groupon of Iran, the Youtube of Iran. They have opened up a whole different space and they’re very proud of the fact that, whether it is in customer reviews or just the idea of e-ecommerce that they have generated a place where people go to express their opinions, their diversity, their complaints and a lot of other things. It often ranges beyond the quality of a certain electronic device. I went to the warehouses and talked to the start up that’s equivalent to Amazon and is now the largest e-commerce site of its kind in the entire Middle East. That’s important in terms of understanding just where the debate is and what this younger generation is actually doing in a tangible sense.
The second part of you question was… tell me again?
RUDD: The second part of the question was the reaction from the established revolutionaries, that revolutionary generation. We should put too much store, by the way, that this nuclear deal in Geneva was forged on Bastile Day on the 14th of July. In terms of how the revolutionary generation will respond to this significant demographic push – is it coercion, is it cooperation or is it something else?
WRIGHT: We shouldn’t rule out the very important and pervasive impact of the deep state. The invisible forces in particular of the intelligence agencies and the judiciary that continue to intimidate. It is striking how much the deep state has eaten its own revolutionaries. When you look across at the political elites, President Khatami the great reformer can no longer travel outside the country, he’s not allowed to be quoted in the local media. His brother, who was Deputy Speaker of Parliament and who is married Ayatollah Khomeini’s granddaughter – a political activist in her own right – was disqualified from running for Parliament and when he went to the airport last year to fly to Instanbul at an airport named for his wife’s grandfather he was prevented from leaving the country and his passport was taken. President Rafsanjani’s two children have a daughter who was a member of Parliament herself, was charged with propagating against the state, his son was sentenced this year again for actions against the state. Two of President Ahmadinejad’s Vice-Presidents this year have been charged with various offences, including money laundering. The Former Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the former Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi both who ran for the Presidency in 2009 and then charged with election fraud remain under house arrest four years later. There is almost no generation of revolutionaries who hasn’t paid a price in a personal or an immediate family sense. The Revolution does not broker dissent even more from ordinary Iranians so there is the fear factor that plays out. What is so striking about Iran today is that it is a dynamic society full of debate, full of naughty political humour, despite the influence and hold and intimidation of the deep state.
RUDD: That’s fascinating in the internal dynamics of Iranian politics and these deeply contending forces. We’ve just gone seven and I’m going to make a unilateral decision so we’re going to run ten minutes late because we started ten minutes late, in which case as we move to questions from the floor a few thoughts from Frank and others on the panel about the reaction from the Gulf, from Saudi and from Israel and where does that now take us into the future – not least with the relationship with the United States, but more broadly relationships within the region? Starting with you Frank.
WISNER: Hugely important questions and I won’t pretend I can do justice to them given the time we have but I think that we have to take into account that we are facing very serious concerns in the region. They are different in nature so the habit of lumping Saudi Arabia and Israel for example is not a wise way of analysing the issues we confront. Israel’s concerns have been very seriously existential argued over the nuclear issue but behind that issue the changing regional balance, that if Iran is freed to play its cards out it will able to accumulate power, bring pressure to bear on a nation that Iran has declared its opposite, its enemy. That sense of threat lies even more important than the nuclear issue, to my judgement, at the heart of the Israeli question.
On the Saudi question the issue is really quite different. The Saudis have less concern about nukes, they have a lot of concern about politics, about Iranian influence, about the sectarian balance in the region, about Iran’s influence in the Sunni heartland of the Middle East in Syria, in Iraq, even in peripheral points in the Gulf. Saudi is a civilizational concern and it is hard to wrestle with. Here we are as Americans, how do we think about these things? There’s no point in trivializing another man’s fears, to the contrary we have to recognize them and address them. I think on the Arab side the President’s very forthright decisions bringing the Gulf leaders together at Camp David and systematically going through their national security needs, emphasizing the political ties, committing sustained defence presence in the region, assuring his Arab allies that he will personally stay involved in these matters was a starting point to stabilize but it is going to take a great deal of hand holding and it is going to take material measures of defence cooperation, political cooperation and at the heart to make it clear to our Arab allies that the United States will stand with them when their legitimate security concerns are threatened by Iran. That’s the heart of it. And that is where we are going to have to be very careful and very forceful – pick our words carefully.
Israel is of course another question and I believe there is a healthy debate in Israel and its open for all to follow. It’s the Prime Minister and his government, there are also voices from the Israeli defence and intelligence communities that perhaps come at this in a very different way. We have a strong relationship with Israel and we’ve got to defend it but it is going to mean very patiently having to work our way through Israel’s concerns and meeting real security needs with responses. Whether it is defence technologies or assistance of various sorts. But to make it clear that we aren’t going to roll over and play dead. Our vision of a region is a region in which the parties live together and peace or effective understandings between Israel and Iran is part of our vision – not just a passing fancy but a core piece of American political philosophy. So I think we are going to have a tough time, it isn’t going to come easily. It’s going to demand constant engagement on the part of the United States. But I think the Iranians recognize that they have a stake in a stable region. They admit to it and they expect the United States to stand by their allies and that is not out of step with their interests.
RUDD: Karim, your thoughts on the same then I’ll turn to Robin and then over to the floor.
SADJADPOUR: My friend who was President Obama’s Senior Middle East Adviser told me that he used to tell the President that the Israelis have an Islamic Republic problem and the Saudis have an Iran problem. It doesn’t matter if it is the Islamic Republic or the Shah or a secular democracy – Saudi Arabia feels that they are in this inherent rivalry with Iran. And there are three parts to this rivalry. It’s ethic – Arab Suadi Arabia versus Persian Iran. It’s sectarian – Sunni Saudi Arabia versus Shiite Iran. And at the moment it is ideological – US-aligned Saudi Arabia versus US-opposed Iran. Although with the threat of Sunni radicalism having eclipsed the threat of Shia radicalism there is this new odd dynamic in which America and Saudi Arabia are friends but not allies and Iran and America are allies but not friends. We’ll see how long that lasts but if you look at the bloodiest conflicts in today’s Middle East whether that is Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain – they all have elements of this Iran-Saudi rivalry. President Obama talks about and he’s used the word ‘equilibrium’, he wants to try to bring about this equilibrium between the three countries. What we’ve seen is that the Saudi-Iran rivalry has really been exacerbated as a result of this nuclear deal and Saudi Arabia senses that America has always favoured Iran, always been eager to rekindle with Iran.
The last point I’d end on is on ISIS. What I’m about to say I think is against the conventional wisdom which is that Saudi Arabia has been the one that has really fuelled ISIS both in terms of its Wahhabi ideology and in terms of funding, and Iran has been the one fighting ISIS. My take on it is a little bit different – not to say that what I just said was incorrect. I actually think that ISIS serves a useful purpose for Iran for a couple of reasons. One is that the scent of ISIS in Iraq, of Daesh, has allowed Iran to expand its influence in Iraq under the pretext of fighting ISIS. Three, four, five years ago if you were to talk to Iraqi Shia, Iraqi Kurds or even moderates from these, they weren’t so keen on Iran’s role in Iraq but now many of them see it as a necessity, as a bulwark against ISIS. Second, when ISIS is out doing horrific things to people – immolating people, beheading people – Bashir Al-Assad increasingly looks like a Norwegian in comparison. I think that for many –
RUDD: I don’t think we’ll cable Oslo and pass that on.
SADJADPOUR: I think that increasingly for a lot of people if the choice is between Assad and ISIS, Assad is the lesser of evils. I think that has served Iranian interests as well. ISIS will never challenge the existence of Iran. ISIS does not pose an existential threat to Iran. Iran is 90% Shia, ISIS is never going to take over Iran. At the most they can cause a nuisance in some of Iran’s Sunni areas. I think that the spread of radical Sunni jihadism does pose an existential threat to Saudi Arabia and to some of the other Gulf countries. The irony here is that Iran is fighting ISIS but you could argue that they are both the arsonist and the fire brigade. The more they support Assad and Assad barrel bomb Sunni communities, that fuels Sunni disenfranchisement and helps ISIS grow. But they are also fighting them at the same time. Saudi Arabia has real difficulty fighting ISIS at least overtly because within Saudi Arabia, the Sunni communities will say, “So you’re siding with Shia Iran to bomb our Sunni brethren?” It is very problematic. I’m not necessarily of the mind that ISIS – it makes sense for the US as a policy to partner with Shia radical, whether that is Shia militias in Iraq or Hezbollah to fight Sunni radicals. Because it is an open question – do you eliminate Sunni radicals or do you create more of them by fighting them with Shia radicals? But I’m happy to talk more about that in the question.
RUDD: That’s good. Finally, from you Robin on this question of the neighbourhood and its reaction to this deal and where that goes to? Then over to the good folks in the audience and online.
WRIGHT: I’ll be brief so you can open up to your audience. I think we have had an indication from Secretary of Defence Ash Carter’s trip to the region that Israel is not going to budge a bit, the Saudis are giving lip service to the deal but they’re clearly deeply unhappy about it. Let’s not forget that the new Foreign Minister is Adel al-Jubeir who the Iranians were allegedly involved in trying to assassinate, according to a case in the United States. So there is both the personal and the historic dimension to this. I do think, as Frank and Karim have both pointed out, that there is a basic balance of power issue that underlies the Iran deal. They are not concerned about Iran using a nuclear weapon in their neighbourhood, that’s kind of a non-starter, but they are concerned that that fundamental balance of power that prevailed in the ‘70s when Iran and Israel were the two pillars of US policy could gradually begin to make a comeback. Remember it was 1979 after the takeover of the US Embassy when Saudi Arabia, which had risen to greater prominence because of the 1973 war and the quadrupling of oil prices, and Egypt in the aftermath of 1978 Camp David peace accord became the replacement to Iran in terms of what were the pillars of US policy in the region. And it changed the dynamics, I think the Saudis and other Sunni governments are deeply fearful that Persian, Shiite Iran will make a comeback in US calculations if not as an important ally of the United States. That’s really the flashpoint that will define I think their positions long-term on the nuclear deal.
RUDD: Thank you very much. The floor is open to our good friends in the audience. What I’m going to ask people to do is quickly self-identify, somewhere will race in your direction to give you a microphone, keep your questions short or sharp or there will be someone to rugby tackle you to the ground if you go on too long – we’ve got a couple of bouncers around the place who could do that. Secondly, if you could address your question to one of the panellists by name if that’s okay, because that way we can through a series of questions quite snappily.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute. This is a question for either Karim or Robin. The famous windfall that is about to accrue to the Iranians, do you expect that you will spend that on making mischief in the region, in shoring up Assad, or will they spend that on their own society? And does this very young, very educated society in Iran, will they have influence in that decision? Because their influence I would imagine would be to see that money spent in Iran.
WRIGHT: Iran at the moment needs $1 trillion of investment to get its infrastructure and its economy moving again. I talked to the Deputy Oil Minister and he told me that they have $200 billion worth of projects in the oil and gas industry to get their equipment and facilities back up to par and producing another 700 000 barrels a day. That there is a great need for the majority of that $100 billion to be used to address domestic preference and infrastructure needs. President Rouhani when he took office said on national television that Iran coffers were empty. Not just because of empty but first and foremost because of the gross mismanagement of President Ahmadinejad. Now, does that mean they won’t use any of it for mischief? I suspect that it is quite possible that some of it will go to their allies. But it is also true that even during the hardest times – whether it was the Iran-Iraq War or the various confrontations between Hamas and Israel or Hezbollah and Israel – that Iran’s allies and the Quds Force, its special forces unit, have never been short of funds, never have been in need, they’ve always gotten what they wanted. Will they get more? Quite possibly. None of us know.
As to the question of whether the young will have an influence, I suspect they won’t in any decision making process but they will when it comes to public noise and the electoral process – as skewed as it came be.
SADJADPOUR: I’ll just talk about the domestic context and I’ll say that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei I think is the most brilliant Machiavellian politician in today’s Middle East. He’s the second longest serving autocrat after the Sultan of Oman. His modus operandi – he’s been leader for 26 years – is to wield power without accountability and in order to do that he needs a President who has accountability without power and he doesn’t want to have a strong popular President. He has systematically weakened all of the previous Presidents. I don’t think it behoves him for this major cash influx to come in and for Rouhani to start to deliver economically and people get very happy and they see that that kind of more moderate, pragmatic school of thought has been what’s delivered. Khomeini’s kind of hardline school of thought has been shown to be a failure. So I don’t personally see it in his interests to have major economic success at before the next elections Robin talked about next Winter and even potentially the next Presidential election.
RUDD: Interestingly on infrastructure, I notice Germany is already convening a conference on infrastructure investment opportunities in Iran.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Steve Clarkman. My question concerns the verification regime plus the snapback provisions. There’s that 24 day period where the Iranians can go through and appeal, challenge procedure – is that too long a period of time and will that allow them to hide whatever they are doing? And on the snapback, it’s sounds like an automatic procedure but how hard is it going to be to reassemble to coalition that was so difficult to put together in the first place in order to reimpose the sanctions?
WISNER: Snapback is, to me, a very important signal from Iran to the negotiators that Iran was prepared to put itself in a mechanism that would even cause sanctions to be able to come back. If you look at the formula under which this takes place, it has a very specific set of steps. You’ve indicated them in general terms. The complaint gets filed, the panel gets to judge, it goes to the Security Council, if it isn’t settled the snapback occurs automatically by agreement. In other words, the sanctions regime is reimposed.
RUDD: And without veto possibility.
WISNER: And without veto possibility. So will nations who are currently imposing sanctions on Iran refuse to follow it, that’s a stretch. They’ve so far been pretty consistent and it would strike me as less likely that they would walk away. I think furthermore, let’s remember we got the United States. If frankly the system doesn’t work for whatever set of reasons, we have our own capabilities and we will use them. We will have the possibility of jawboneing allies to move forward. I’m less concerned about a major violation. My concern today is that there are going to be so many grey areas that are going to be difficult to distinguish – how many centrifuges, how many kinds of centrifuges. I think that it is going to be in this that the more likely cause of debate will occur rather than a major violation that causes the agreement to crumble. I believe at heart the Iranians, as I said earlier, have made a political decision to go for an agreement that will integrate them in the world system and therefore to engage in some obvious manoeuvre, unless there is a major change of circumstances, it’s not the most likely outcome.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Allan Rubinsky. I’ve listened to the speakers and have not heard one person even mention the Revolutionary Guard. We know that the Guard operates to achieve the goals of the Supreme Leader domestically and abroad, and also control substantial financial and industrial assets in the society. Given that our leaders have negotiated a deal with people who are educated in the West and were likely selected by the clerics to put an end to sanctions, who can easily be replaced, what opinion does your panel have regarding the real or apparent authority or lack thereof of the Iranian selected to negotiate for Iran and the impact going forward of the possibility that Iran made this deal strictly for money?
RUDD: I’m going to turn to Robin and then Karim quickly on this. I think in fairness to Robin, in my question before about how this was going to play domestically, she made an extensive reference to the security apparatus, so she may not have used the expression about the Guard but I think they were certainly in the subtext. Robin quickly and then Karim.
WRIGHT: Well one of the big questions is whether the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will actually be the beneficiary of some of the money, not necessarily as much for arms as for their construction companies and all the different industries that they have created and have monopolies on. It may be a windfall for them and their own kind as much as for the State itself. That may be in fact one of the payoffs by the government. But this is all a matter of speculation. The head of the Revolutionary Guards does not confess all to me.
SADJADPOUR: One of the paradoxes of Iran is that the country’s most powerful officials aren’t accessible and the country’s most accessible officials are not powerful. So Revolutionary Guard Commander, Qasem Soleimani, he doesn’t go to Davos and to Vienna. He goes to Takrit and Damascus and that’s been a perennial challenge in our dealings with Iran. I’d just make a couple of points about how this deal could play ourt which is, the Revolutionary Guards really oversee Iran’s nuclear program and I think it is going to be very difficult therefore for President Rouhani to start to challenge them because he actually needs their cooperation to implement this deal. It is not Javad Zarif who is going to escort the IAEA to the nuclear site, it is the Rev Guards. So I think it is going to be difficult to Zarif and Rouhani to clip their wings. That’s number one. Number two is that in the few instances historically where the Islamic Republic has comprised in a major way they have also clamped down internally to send a signal to their population – don’t think external flexibility signals internal weakness. The very last point I’d make is don’t think of the Revolutionary Guards as 125 000 members of Hezbollah. There’s someone in the audience, I won’t say who, who actually served in the Revolutionary Guards – a friend of mine. He was taken as a conscript from the regular military and a lot of thes guys, the rank and file, when you talk to them they are much more reflective of Iranian society at large. We know it is true that the top commanders are hand selected by the Supreme Leader and they’re kind of loyal to his worldview. But don’t make the mistake of thinking about them as monolith that is bent on antagonism with America.
RUDD: Frank has a quick footnote on this then we’ll go to the question at the front.
WISNER: I do indeed, thanks Kevin. I really question the premise of the argument you advanced and that is that somehow there is a rogue element inside the government that is not subjected to executive authority. I do not believe that. I believe that the Iranian system is a great deal more coherent than your question would imply. That there is a national security structure that includes the Supreme Leader, the President, Foreign Minister, Head of the National Security Council, Defence Chiefs of Staff – these people make decisions and the system then executes those decisions. The Revolutionary Guard, to my way of thinking, is an executive authority, not the origin of policy so I look at the coherence of the Iranian system and believe that that’s where this agreement is a venture we are going to come to see Iran as carrying out its obligations under the agreement. Karim, correct me if you don’t agree.
SADJADPOUR: There has been a division of labour. Zarif would probably admit that Syria policy is not controlled by Iran’s Foreign Ministry, it is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. And you Frank know better than anyone, you served in government, there’s competing interests and competing views between the Pentagon, State Department, White House etc. So I think that is normal in the Iranian system as well.
WISNER: But it is coherent at the end of the day. That’s the important part.
SADJADPOUR: It’s coherent in that all roads lead to Ali Khamenei, in my opinion.
WISNER: That’s right.
RUDD: I’d like to put on the record that I personally have never served in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. You weren’t referring to me.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you, my name is Donald Moore and I’m a lawyer. Spent most of the last seven years in the Middle East. My question is about the sanctions not so much from the Iranian perspective but from the international perspective of who gets to do business in Iran? And there is a process when sanctions have to be lifted, I’ve gone through them not in detail but I’ve looked at the parts I’m interested in. After Iran does certain things then the EU is supposed to lift its sanctions, the UN is supposed to lift its sanctions and the US is only supposed to lift its sanctions against non-US persons. So if US businesses think that they’re going to be in the market, thery’re sadly mistaken because at the moment there is nothing in the agreement which requires that. The whole range of sanctions prohibit US businesses going forward except maybe Boeing because there is a carve out for aviation so they did a good job in getting that in there. So my question is, I’m curious if anybody understands from the dynamics of the negotiations why does Iran want the US-person sanctions lifted and why didn’t the US want the US-sanctions lifted?
RUDD: Maybe I’ll be able to speculate on the latter but who’s best on this one?
WISNER: I’ll take a crack at it but I do so with some care because I think a great deal of the American response is still to be written and we don’t know the answers. But in broad terms we start out with the 60 days the Congress has to decide and that is a decision as to whether the President can waive sanctions and whether his waiver authority will denied him. Now once you’re passed that – let’s assume for a moment the President gets his authority – then you have the 90 day UN period where people gear up. The Iranians begin to implement, each of the participating powers begin to examine their own systems, Iran takes a look at its IAEA obligations under the additional protocol. But nothing happens for anyone at that moment until implementation day, which is itself not clear when that will occur but would it occur before the end of the year or early into next year I assume its going to be later rather than sooner. That’s my assumption.
When it occurs, then the question is, the United States is obliged to lift and waive its sanctions, but what sanctions will it lift and what won’t it lift? There are sanctions that even the UN won’t lift. There are sanctions that nations that are part of this agreement have all said are not going to lift – conventional arms for five years, they’ll be a flat ban on nuclear lifting. So there will be stages out in the future. Then when the European’s begin to come on, when can American’s? It depends. It is going to depend very much on where the United States reaches, what point it reaches and it is isn’t clear yet that none of our sanctions will be lifted. We will remain sanctions that effect terror and Hezbollah but the opening to economic interchange particularly financial services, I wouldn’t rule it out as we get into next year but again I say and I warn that it is too early to be precise.
RUDD: Quick footnote from Karim.
SADJADPOUR: My much less nuanced answer is Israel. As long as Iran’s policy remains the rejection of Israel’s existence and support for groups actively opposed to Israel’s existence – Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas – Congress is not going to lift those sanctions and they’re going to vociferously oppose US businesses that want to do commercial activity in Iran.
WRIGHT: I agree.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Agit Panu with The Diplomat Magazine, my question is for Karim. Karim you’ve said that all roads lead to Ali Khamenei. One of the issues I’ve been following in Iran is the succession issue – what happens at the end of the road what the destination changes? Is that something that keeps you up at night, do you worry regarding Iran’s behaviour in the region and the substantive implementation of this deal?
SADJADPOUR: I have to admit that is something I look forward to, when Ali Khamenei leaves the scene. In theory there’s a body called the Assembly of Experts and they’re a group of 82 clerics. My joke is that their average age is deceased. Like half of them are wheeled in on a wheelchair. Literally, over 80 years old is the average age. In theory they have the constitional authority to chose the next Supreme Leader. I think in practice – depends when the Supreme Leader will leave the scene – but I think in practice it’s very unlikely that the Revolutionary Guards who have really eclipsed the clergy as the country’s most powerful institution will defer to this group of geriatric clerics about their next Commander–in-Chief will be. But there is a lot of debate and Robin has been to Iran more recently than I have so she can weigh in about whether it will be a single individual that will replace the Supreme Leader, would it be a council of a few people. There are two boxes that need to be checked – you need to have someone who has experience, bureaucratic experience within the Islamic Republic, and preferably they want someone who is a bona fide ayatollah in contrast to Khameini who wasn’t. There’s only a few peopl who check both those boxes. I think someone to keep your eye out on is the former Head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Shah Rudi. But unfortunately these mullahs have pretty long lives – Khamenei is 76 so he could be around still for a while.
WRIGHT: That’s why the Assembly of Experts election next February at the same time as the Parliamentary election is so important because there’s a widespread believe that the Assembly of Experts, the next one, will be the one that chooses Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor. The Assembly sits for eight years unlike the Parliament which is only for four. It is made up of geriatrics. I think there is a sense that this is an institution where President Rouhani, particularly if you have a more centrist Parliament elected next year, the hard-liners will want to ensure that you get someone even further to the right than the current Supreme Leader and that is actually quite possible. But the question is will that person live all that long. There’s a lot that is at stake in this very fragile transition or in this election season and people are as focussed on the Assembly of Experts as they are on Parliament.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Kevin and I’m a student. I was just hoping I could ask the Ambassador, in regards to Saudi Arabia there’s been an increasing rhetorical streak in the Kingdom possibly pushing for some nuclear options in the far future and in fact there is a relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. I’m just wondering if you see this as being in the future something that could blindside talks and the regional dynamics in general?
WISNER: Very good question. I tend to be a sceptic on the nuclearization of Saudi Arabia. First of all, nuclear infrastructure, while it is not the most complicated form of technology in the world, is very complicated and assumes an industrial base that very frankly Saudi Arabia doesn’t have. The possibility, therefore, of Saudi Arabia in any reasonable period of time to build and construct a nuclear capability strikes me as out there a number years and more importantly, the Saudis know it. Now is it possible for Saudi Arabia to import a nuclear weapon. You’d have to have a seller and I would be very sceptical about Pakistan’s willingness to sell a number of nuclear weapons to another power over whom it would have no final say. But to make matters more complicated imgaine if you were living in Riyadh. Would you like to have ten or so Pakistani bombs parked in your city – I find that a stretch. What I find more possible is that Saudi Arabia, just like the UAE has already done, will begin to construct a civil nuclear program and take the time to do it and do it right. Frankly, on that front the Iranians have been quite clear – they said they have no objection, welcome Saudi Arabia developing such a civil nuclear future provided of course that Saudi Arabia was prepared to accept the same constraints that they operate under. So yes, I think it is possible, it is expensive but I don’t see it ending up with a bomb and I don’t put it high on my list of things I worry about.
RUDD: Thanks for those answers Frank because they go to two of the questions we’ve got via email from Hossein and Sanders about the prospects of Saudi developing a nuclear capability and specifically pointing to the Pakistan connection.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good evening, I’m Andrew Gross and I’m from the Israeli Consulate in New York. One question I have is actually a major problem with the deal that I see is that, unlike in Libya, Iran did not have to expose the military dimensions of their nuclear program. So my question is why didn’t the world powers demand that Iran come clean with their military dimensions?
WISNER: There is a quite clear provision in the agreement about prior military activities at the so-called second stage or adoption phase, the Iranians and the IAEA will begin negotiation over prior military actions. And they are to complete agreement with the IAEA and explain what level of military activities may or may not have taken place. The agreement directly addresses the issue and if Iran does not comply it would be in material breach of the agreement.
SADJADPOUR: Well I just think this was always going to be one of the toughest issues to resolve because, frankly, Iran’s official position was that there is a fatwa against nuclear weapons, it is against their religion and hence they were never going to really come clean about their flirtations with non-civilian nuclear program because they felt it was only going to incriminate themselves. I’ll be curious to see how they manage to reconcile this issue in the coming months.
WRIGHT: I think it is a very important question and it was one of the most sensitive issues but this involves a parallel process, one that has gone on for a long time between the IAEA and Iran. There is a provision that they have to come clean on certain issues by the end of the year. But remember this is exactly what led to this crisis in the first place – that Iran refused to come clean or allow access to its scientists and led to the build up of a confrontation, UN resolutions and so we are all waiting to see whether Iran actually does provide the information that it is mandated to as a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty.
RUDD: As we bring our discussions to a close, we have one question which I should read out. It has come to us online from Benjamin but I don’t have anyone here from the US administration to answer. His questions is, “When one watches network television one sees anti-Iran deal ads. Is there an official rebuttal to these from those who put the deal together? Examples of these ads – ‘ICBMs’, ‘some sites not open to inspection’, ‘two months after ten years?’ I’m trying not to load this question but these are the things that come from the ads.” I don’t know that we necessarily have any answers for this.
SADJADPOUR: There is a new twitter handle that I guess the White House put out called, is it ‘IranDeal’?
SADJADPOUR: So they are taking on some of these critics.
RUDD: So there is an debate at least in the cyber world and the digital world but not necessarily a response on network television.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for tolerating us going ten minutes over time. But what I’d like you to do in particular in just one minute is to thank our panel. The virtue of getting such a brilliant panel together of folks who have studied and worked on this highly complex culture, civilization, polity, its nuclear program and who know the context within the region and all its complexities of Shia, Sunni and Persian civilization, of Arab culture and civilization and then the intrinsics of the nuclear deal itself – centrifuges, uranium enrichment as well as the plutonium program and the important question raised by our Israeli friend just before. We couldn’t have had a better panel, let’s put our hands together and thank them.