Arms and Iran

An Interview with Norman Roule

Octavian Report: How do you assess the current state of the contest between the U.S. and Iran? Do you see a war in the offing?

Norman Roule: Each side is currently engaged in an effort to exert what it believes to be a calibrated effort against the other of pressure which will not go so far as to risk a conventional conflict. Such a conflict would not only threaten, from the Iranian perspective, the survival of the Islamic Republic. For the United States, it would risk another costly Middle East war.

Washington's approach is long-term. The Trump Administration is focused and has been consistent in this focus, I would say, on intensifying application of long-term economic sanctions against Iran's ability to export oil, repatriate revenues from oil exports, and use international financial systems. And those three targets are very important. All three of these areas were among concessions made by the P5 to achieve the nuclear deal and were protected by the nuclear deal. But they are the three sanctions that are most likely to move Iran's leadership. Washington's also avoided overreaction to Iran's very aggressive behavior in the Gulf. This allows Washington to control the escalation ladder. It also limits the impacts of Iran's actions on global energy markets.

At the same time, the United States has shifted a very modest number of forces to the region. We're talking hundreds or thousands. And these forces are generally of the type to enable better protection of personnel in the region. Washington's also focused on arming regional states to allow them to constrain Iran. And it's trying to build a coalition from generally unenthusiastic allies. Washington is going to negotiate how sanctions will be lifted. But it's clear that Iran will have to cease past behaviors, which (in fairness to the Trump Administration) previous administrations and our European partners have also opposed.

Iran's tactics are short-term. Iran is seeking to impose short-term, sharp pressures that will create turbulence in energy and commodity markets and (in theory) compel international energy consumers from around the world, who are victims of this turbulence, to pressure Washington into compromise. The sanctions that Washington has imposed on Tehran have been significant and they come at a time when Tehran is facing a simultaneous, and even unprecedented, series of domestic pressures for which it has no policy solution. Money is a way for Tehran to buy time against these problems. However, Iran is yet to face domestic pressures which would require it to compromise on any core, hardliner interest. Tehran is not yet desperate. But it does get weaker every day. And it knows that economic unhappiness will inevitably undermine the political stability of the regime.

So, in many ways, Iran is at a position of relative strength right now and has to move very quickly. It has no allies of any strategic consequence. Russia's it's most important, and perhaps only, real diplomatic partner and Russia has devoted itself to successfully blocking any action against Iran at the United Nations Security Council for many years. Moscow also obviously also supports Iran in Syria, but that tends to be for tactical battlespace issues. Iran pays very close attention to our politics and our press. Its recent comments show that it's aware of our political divisions, our political differences over the nuclear deal. It's attempting to exploit things. We have seen public information that Iran has attempted to use cyber tools to create a Russian-style disinformation pool to shift American thinking. Iran's domestic political dynamic also plays against negotiations at present. Iran's supreme leader's in very poor health. President Rouhani's term will end in 2021. He hopes to replace Khamenei. Anyone interested in replacing the supreme leader cannot be seen as providing concessions to the West that touch on the core interests of those hardliners who will play a large role in selecting that next supreme leader. Khamenei has established a framework in the selection process which augurs for a hardline successor.

So I see very little likelihood that Iran will make a meaningful concession on the regional or missile activity. Although it is possible there may be some minor concessions on nuclear program within the frame that the supreme leader has already approved.

OR: How do you assess the risk here?

Roule: Iran is that rare issue which is simultaneously, as I put it, a strategic, lethal, and urgent threat. I can't think of another issue which encompasses all three of these characteristics.

The strategic threat is Iran's ability to gain nuclear weapons and to develop long-range missiles capable of delivering these weapons against the United States itself as well as Western Europe, Israel, and other parts of the world. And although Iran continues to deny this, which infuriates many in the West, it did maintain a secret military program. Some aspects of its space launch vehicle rocket program have definite applications for an ICBM. Iran is also capable of attacking, as we've seen, energy and trade routes that directly impact the U.S. and global economies. That's the strategic flex from Iran.

Iran is also a lethal threat. Iran has killed hundreds of Americans directly or indirectly and wounded thousands in the Iraq conflict alone. It continues operations which could easily bring about U.S. casualties, let alone casualties amongst other countries. As I've put it, the Iranian missiles that fly from Yemen do not turn left or right over the heads of non-Saudis. And the nature of this lethal threat has been expanded without constraint since 2003 and especially since 2013.

Iran's lethal actions are ongoing. A catastrophic success by any of Iran's tools would introduce more chaos into the region. It could even bring about the conventional conflicts we all seek to avoid.

OR: How do you see Europe responding to the recent provocations from Iran given the somewhat deteriorated state of trans-Atlantic relations?

Roule: In Europe or Russia you have in many ways similar interests. They don't want to see a regional conflict. They wish to see stability in the region. They wish to see change towards moderation by Iran. But the question is how that is going to be achieved and the timeline that they allow for this achievement. Many in the region believe that Europe has paid insufficient attention to Iran's regional activities. You see very few statements from Europe regarding Iran's regional activities. This is unfortunate because, again, there are European nationals and Russian nationals at risk from Iran's lethal activities in the region. But Europe and Russia also have weaknesses that are often not discussed. Just as Europe cannot stop U.S. sanctions, it can't stop Iran's malign activities. Just as Russia cannot stop Israel from attacking Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah facilities in Syria, it cannot, for the most part, stop Iran’s malign activities in the region.