Arms and Iran

An Interview with Norman Roule

OR: How much of a threat is Iran to U.S. interests? How would you assess the Islamic Republic's competence in covert actions? Their control of the media narrative?

Roule: Unconventional weapons and the use of proxies represent the main tools of the Islamic Republic for force projection. Some of this has to do with lessons it has learned from and experiences it endured in the Iran-Iraq war. Their missile program is certainly defensive. But it would be wrong to claim that it is not also an offensive tool and power-projection tool. And Iran has proliferated advanced missile technology to the Houthis and Lebanese as well. Their support for terrorism is well known: go back to their attempt to kill then-Saudi ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in Washington. Iran is also aggressive in its cyber capacity in ways which have been the most costly, impactful, and consequential of any cyber actor in the history of the internet. But where Iran is unique is its establishment of a paramilitary covert-action force: the Quds Force.

I can think of no other country in history which has ever attempted to create or employ such a force. Perhaps in the early years of the Soviet Union there were some efforts there. This force combines military, paramilitary, information, cyber and diplomatic tools with covert action capabilities and employs them throughout Iran's near abroad. In many ways, the group manages Iran's regional foreign policy. Certainly Javad Zarif, their foreign minister, has very, very little voice in the foreign policy of the region. This is dominated by the Quds Force. Indeed, they have boasted publicly that several ambassadors to Iraq have been Quds Force officers. To me, the international community's tolerance of this group's sheer existence, let alone of its operations, has contributed to many of the region’s problems. Iran is not the sole source of problems in the Middle East. That's a fact. But it's also a fact that Iran has exacerbated many of the problems in the Middle East and is responsible for a few of them. The Quds Force is armed, trained, financed — a militia movement that consists of at least 100,000 and some say as many as 200,000 personnel throughout the region. These forces fight, sometimes simultaneously, against different foes on disconnected battle spaces. That's a significant and terribly damaging achievement for Iran.

When we look at the Middle East, people often say, "We wish to avoid a conventional war." And that certainly should be our goal. But let me pull that apart a little bit. Iran has conducted numerous missile strikes through existing proxies against Saudi Arabia. More than 150. I would call that a missile war. There are Patriot batteries at the other end shooting them down. Iran has attempted to build missile and other threat facilities in Syria, which has provoked, by Israel's admission, more than 300 air strikes. I would call that an air war. Iran has placed personnel throughout the region — not just Quds Force officers — in Syria, Iraq, and even in Yemen. That's a ground war. Their recent activities in the Gulf aside, Iran has enabled and provided weapons to the Houthis to attack military and civilian shipping in the Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb area. And that certainly is naval war.

So in many ways, the conventional war that we fear is ongoing and has been ongoing for several years. But because it's disaggregated and conducted in fits and spurts, it tends to receive very little attention — save by those countries in the region who see themselves under this threat.

OR: How you assess the nuclear deal — mostly helpful? Mostly harmful? Was the Trump Administration's withdrawal from it mostly helpful or mostly harmful?

Roule: Broadly, any effort that focuses on diplomacy I view as helpful vis-a-vis U.S. interests. We wish to avoid conflict. We wish to avoid suffering inflicted on any regional people (including the economic pain from sanctions). The diplomats, the scientists, and other officials who worked on the nuclear deal — which I saw upfront, I was involved in that effort — are certainly among the most hard-working, innovative, intelligent, and patriotic individuals I have ever known.

But it's fair to say that you can have different views on the deal depending upon how you believe the Iranian problem should be handled and the pace at which you want to handle the problem. The deal achieved what its architects thought. Unprecedented, intrusive inspections on Iran's civilian nuclear program; a series of constraints on the program, some of which never expire and some of which last for more than a decade; Iran committed to never building a nuclear weapon. Multiple IAEA inspections have attested to the fact that Iran has executed its nuclear deal obligations. We also sometimes forget now in the public narrative that at the time of the deal, Iran's nuclear program had only been slowed by economic sanctions. And some thought we were reaching a point where a conventional conflict to halt Iran's nuclear program was more and more likely. That has been pushed aside.

The deal — and this often isn't talked about, but I actually view it as one of the deal’s most important achievements — also allowed Iranians to see that their own government's mismanagement, and not international sanctions, was the root of their economic problems. During January 2018, protests routinely denounced an entire spectrum of Iran's leadership, but there were very few chants of “death to America” or even “death to Israel” and this was because, I believe, the Iranians saw that even with sanctions released, their standard of living and their social conditions were not improving. And maybe what the deal did best — though its architects wouldn't agree with this, perhaps — was that it opened Iran to the world and gave Tehran a chance to demonstrate what they would do with such an opportunity.

And here is the tragedy: Iran failed.

Any history is going to say that the Iran deal was an appropriate, diplomatic effort to test Iran's willingness to be, as Secretary Pompeo has not incorrectly described, a normal nation. But Iran has shown that it just wasn’t ready to take advantage of such an opportunity.