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Norman Roule on the U.S./Iran Contest

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.

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.

The international community, which claimed that following the deal they would push back on Iran’s other malign activities, failed to develop an architecture to do so. On nuclear issues, Iran retained an enormous cache of nuclear-weapons material captured by the Israeli intelligence. This cache, in and of itself, is not a nuclear weapon. Papers and compact disks are not a nuclear weaponization program. But they are exactly the sort of material one would keep if one planned to restart a weaponization program in the future, or at least keep open the option to do so. Iran committed to allowing IAEA inspections anywhere in country. But its military officers routinely and publicly stated that Iran would never allow IAEA investigation inspectors to touch military bases, which would be exactly where you think Iran would build a covert nuclear military program.

It also increased its rhetoric against the United States in ways that it knew simply wasn’t true, but did so for domestic political reasons. The U.S. aggressively supported the deal’s sanctions-release aspects (some would say too aggressively) but this was what policymakers agreed to. Yet Iran repeatedly maintained — and Javad Zarif continues to maintain — that the U.S. and others failed to deliver on commitments regarding the trade benefits Iran expected from the deal. The fact is, Iran is just not a very profitable place to do business. And Iran’s non-nuclear malign actions — terrorism support, for example, or the taking of detainees — not only repels investment from people who don’t want their companies associated with such a country, but also from managers of those companies who must recognize that any significant investment they place in that country is at risk of future sanctions because of Iran’s support for terrorism. Before the Trump Administration pulled out of the nuclear deal, Europe’s trade with Iran, I believe, was less than its trade with Serbia. This is the entire European Union’s trade with Iran. I think we overstate sometimes in the Western narrative the economic potential of the deal simply because Iran is not that attractive of a place.

OR: Can you talk a bit about Yemen and more broadly about the Iran vs. Saudi contest? How closely would you say that U.S. and Saudi goals align, if in your opinion they do align?

Roule: It makes a great soundbite to talk about Saudi/Iran competition, but there’s a lot less of this than people understand. The Saudis are a status quo power. They wish to continue their leading role in the region as well as to maintain the powerful voice which comes with their guardianship of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Although the Saudis and other regional actors and the United States have provided money and weapons to regional militias fighting terrorism, the Saudis don’t provide advanced missile technology or explosively formed projectile technology to militias. The Saudis don’t create militias with an ideological or political bent as much as Iran does. The style of an Iranian proxy is to have ideological and political DNA and a loyalty to Tehran’s political posture in the region.

In general, Saudi and U.S. strategic goals align very closely and they have for decades. Although we certainly have different views on human rights and the cruel and grotesque murder of Jamal Khashoggi has understandably — and appropriately — shaken the relationship.

But our main interest in the kingdom should be aspirational. We want to see stability and prosperity in the Middle East and to restore the lives and futures of those living in countries such as Yemen, Libya, Syria, even Iraq. We want to see the empowerment of women and minorities. We want the region to advocate a moderate form of Islam. And we want to end American military fighting in regional conflicts. So although we require engaging with all regional countries to achieve these goals, there’s only two countries in the region that can significantly affect these issues for the foreseeable future: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And therefore it’s very much in our interest to do everything we can to support their progress because of the strategic importance of their success — while condemning and taking appropriate action and response to such things as the Khashoggi murder.

Iran, on the other hand, is a state with a foundational bent for being anti-Western, anti-monarchy, anti-U.S., anti-Israel. There are very few countries who chant “death to America.” There are very few countries who put “death to Israel” on their missiles. Iran’s population is twice that of the Kingdom, 83,000,000. It has a vast array of natural resources in addition to hydrocarbons and one of the most talented and educated populations in the world. Yet when you look at Yemen, it’s clear Iran has no strategic interest in Yemen. The last time Iran effectively operated in Yemen was the mid-seventh century C.E when the Parthians supported Yemeni tribes against the empire of Aksum from Ethiopia.

Iran’s presence in that conflict has exacerbated the human suffering, now unprecedented in a world where such horrors have become all too common. Iran has launched a missile conflict, which is now the longest and most intensive missile conflict that the world has seen since the end of the Iran-Iraq wars. It’s now become a matter of routine and that’s extraordinary.

The Saudis in Yemen are stuck on their borders fighting a militia that represents a very small portion of the population: the Houthis. Take a splash of Lebanese Hezbollah, a splash of ISIS, and a splash of the militant nationalism you see in some Iraqi tribes. That is the Houthis. This is on the Saudi border.

The Saudis cannot allow the Houthis to develop a missile capacity, which would not only threaten Saudi Arabia and be located 400 miles from Mecca and Medina, but also be next to the Bab-el-Mandeb, through which a significant portion of the world’s global trade (including oil and food) transits every day. That would also be a choke point for the Red Sea Basin economy.

Where do I see this going? I think the handful of mini-conflicts which swarm Yemen will continue. And Yemen’s population will tragically continue to suffer. This is a failure of the international community. The United Nations, the United States, the Europeans, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Kuwaitis have put billions into Yemen for civilian aid. The Saudi-Emirate aid program in Yemen is the largest in the history of the Arab world. They receive very little credit for it. Their anti-mine programs are exceptional. But until this conflict ends, this aid is being poured, I believe, into a black hole.

Iran will continue to provide military support because it faces no penalty for doing so. The problem is the international community has very little leverage over the Houthis. You will often hear groups say that the Saudis must come to the table or the Emiratis or the Yemeni government must come to the table. But there’s very little discussion of the Houthis because no one really has leverage over them. As for the likelihood of that diplomacy, I have spoken to a number of senior regional leaders during the past year. On multiple occasions, we have discussed Yemen. And each of them has told me they are struggling to identify a deal which the Houthis are capable of or interested in executing. They have offered the Houthis substantial concessions. But the Houthis just aren’t interested in stopping the fighting. They believe better deals will be available — and fighting is pretty much what Houthi tribesmen do for a living.

So, in a perfect world, a multinational coalition would bring the best in military technology, civilian aid, and diplomacy to end the conflict. The problem is that everyone wishes to avoid involvement in another Middle Eastern war.

OR: Can the U.S. and Iran come to a long-term accommodation?

Roule: If you look at how the United States and the West have addressed Iran since 1979, it bears many similarities to how the West attempted to address the Soviet Union after its establishment at the end the World War I. Henry Kissinger famously said that the Iranians need to decide whether they’re a cause or a country. I agree.

But I think it’s possibly more important for us to decide how we will deal with Iran — you can’t deal with Iran simultaneously as both cause and country.

If you deal with Iran as a country, you say: we can have normal diplomacy with them and they will adhere to international norms. That certainly hasn’t been true or it’s been partially true. They have maintained the nuclear deal. They have violated every other international norm. If you deal with them as a cause, then you can only think about confrontation. You have to believe that when they say, “death to America,” they mean death to America. When their regime foundation is anti-American, you have to recognize they will never be able to treat America or the West as a routine partner. If you look at the recent debate on the Trump Administration’s sanctioning of the Revolutionary Guards, you see the people fall into two positions. Both of which are simultaneously true. The first is: this is the first time any country has sanctioned what is a formal military element of another country. The Revolutionary Guards have tanks, they have airplanes, they have ships just as any other military. But the Quds Force is equally real. Iran has nested this force within a traditional military, and so they get the best of both worlds: the capacity to employ these and the capacity to protect them from international sanctions.

If you deal with Iran as a country, you don’t want to sanction the IRGC. If you deal with Iran as a cause, you have to ask, “Why haven’t we done so already?” Since 1979, every administration has attempted to engage Iran directly or indirectly. There have been countless back-channel attempts while trying to avoid confrontation that would lead to a military conflict. This is an effort to treat Iran as a country. Sometimes you get bizarre situations, such as Iran-Contra, and sometimes you get positive situations like a constraint on Iran’s nuclear program. But at the same time, throughout that period, the hardliners who run the country and who dominate and dictate the course of action on every issue that is of grave concern for the United States have rebuffed U.S. attempts at long-term engagement. They see little advantage because it undercuts the narrative that they are anti-Western, anti-American. Do you need a revolution in Iran if you’re treating the United States as an equal partner?

So Foreign Minister Zarif, and even President Rouhani, are generally irrelevant on the policies with which we have greatest concern: terrorism, missile programs, regional activity. Foreign Minister Zarif’s job is to whitewash Iran’s activity or buy time for the Quds Force to conduct activity on the ground. His voice in the Syria talks was solely meant to protect Bashar al-Assad and to allow the Quds Force to build an infrastructure on the ground. He succeeded in doing so. And he also fended off international pressure.

Moving from this, when you talk about the “cause versus country” problem set, our own politics have fractured what has been a bipartisan approach on Iran. Whatever your views are on the Trump Administration’s policies, it’s a fact that there are many, many Congressmen who share those views and openly spoke of those views on television during the Iran debate. And they still share those views now.

The “cause versus country” debate also touches on our relations with other countries. Regional states, almost uniformly, saw that the nuclear deal was achieved at the cost of the security of their civilians. And that’s significant. They also saw the secrecy associated with that deal as showing that they now had a very different partner in the United States. It’s reasonable to say that we shouldn’t allow our policy to be dictated by others, but if we’re going to have strategic partnerships, we have to respect the importance of the partners’ views because they do indeed know best for the security of their citizens (as well as the Americans who live in their countries). I certainly support engaging with Iran in diplomacy, but often when people talk about the need for diplomacy, what is forgotten is that diplomacy means negotiations which involve concessions on each side. So those who consider diplomacy and seek negotiations need to think: what might be our concessions? Iran is certainly entitled to a role in the region. It has interests in seismic issues, narcotic issues, refugee issues, environmental issues; Iran has been offered, in multiple international fora, a chance to exert those interests. What Iran is doing now is changing the DNA of the region. Are we prepared to sacrifice the DNA of other countries for a successful agreement with Iran to achieve the “country” side of that equation?

I’ve had a number of regional leaders tell me that they understand what it was like to be in Eastern Europe in the 1930’s and to wake up one morning and to find that other powers had decided that half of them would now live under the influence of the Soviet Union and the other half would live under Germany. And they didn’t get a large voice in that deal. They are very concerned that that might happen in the future.

OR: Do you see a way in which Iran and the U.S.’s current policies result in a miscalculation that might spark off a bigger conflict?

Roule: When you look at the potential for conventional conflict in the region, I don’t think it’s an issue of miscalculation. Each side is working very hard to calculate how the other will respond. I think it has to do with the type of tools and options available to each side. The United States has a capacity to restrain our actions. We have a capacity to maintain long-term economic pressure. We have a capacity to use very precise and sophisticated weaponry. When we fire a missile, we know how far it’s going to go, how fast it will go, how large the warhead would be, we presumably would have a picture of what the target area is like to minimize civilian casualties. Iran, for the most part, has none of those. So the problem with a conventional conflict is actually on the Iranian side. Iran, as it feels it has no choice but to raise the level of pressure on the West, to try more aggressive actions. I sometimes think that we have done an insufficient job in communicating to Iran our redlines. What is a redline for Iran? Killing U.S. personnel? Well, they killed 608 during the Iraq War and they wounded thousands more. Terrorism? They’re responsible for terrorism from Khobar to Beirut. Firing missiles? They have enabled missile proliferation through proxies from Lebanese Hezbollah to the Houthis. They have attacked international trade and energy.

If Iran doesn’t know what a redline is — and this is why I applaud Secretary Pompeo’s recent efforts to convey to them that they cannot touch American personnel or agents — it might think it has not reached a redline. And therefore it might undertake an activity which could bring about the very conflict we hope to avoid.

This is not just about the United States. There are nationals and equities from every country in the world at stake here. The international community needs to convey to the Iranians that they can’t undertake certain types of activity. The U.N. has failed there because Russia has blocked absolutely any effort to censure Iran at the United Nation’s Security Council. So if Iran were to undertake an activity at present, it generally would use proxies. And here’s the risk. What happens if an Iranian missile fired by the Houthis hits an aircraft filled with people at an airport in Saudi Arabia? What happens if a rocket or a mortar fired by militiamen in Iraq hits a busload of Western personnel? What happens if the IRGC navy undertakes another attack on Western vessels in the Persian Gulf or the Sea of Oman and there’s a massive ecological disaster?

There’s going to be a consequence immediately after that and then some automaticity of behavior comes into play. I believe there’s a lot of space between a single incident and a war. There have been some who have, I think, compressed that space unreasonably in the public forum. Countries are thoughtful. Our military, our chiefs of staff are very thoughtful, very experienced. I’ve worked with them extensively. They’re exactly the type of people you want running the military. But there is an automaticity in Iran’s decision to respond. And how they decide to respond — especially if they believe our intent or fortitude is not deep — might lead to a bout of conflict.

OR: Do you see political change — either to a more democratic or more repressive government — in the offing for Iran?

Roule: When you talk about the prospect of political change, you need to recognize upfront that the revolutionary leaders of Iran are aged and in poor health. The structure that chooses a supreme leader is dominated by men in their 80’s or 90’s — and they shall pass. The next generation of leadership will be farther away from or perhaps even unfamiliar with the events of the Iranian Revolution. The head of Iran’s Quds Force is given, I think, too much credit for his activity. He’s a mid-level militia commander at best. He’s never faced a first-world military and wouldn’t do well against one. He did not play any role in the revolutionary period. He was a water company official in the city of Kerman when the revolution broke out. His history was the Iran-Iraq War. Javad Zarif was in the United States when the revolution broke out. And he bravely fought the Iran-Iraq War from the front lines in California and Denver and New York. But these are the types of people who will lead Iran in the future. I think Iran’s next leadership will be less revolutionary, but no less assertive and aggressive — and possibly more so because they have seen, since 2003, Iran able to conduct a variety of activities for which it has paid no penalty.

Europe, for example, has publicly talked about six attempted terrorist attacks by Iran on European soil, from late 2017 through 2018. Iran faced no response to that. If you were to ask the individuals behind those attacks now sitting in chairs of leadership, “Well, why shouldn’t you do that again,” I think they would burst into laughter. That’s the problem set with the next generation of Iran’s leaders. They may be less revolutionary, but no less assertive. They’ll be dominated by people who were in the Revolutionary Guard. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was created to protect Iran’s revolutionary achievements. That’s how it’s mandated, as described in Iran’s very long constitution. The Revolutionary Guard perceives these achievements as being external as well as internal. The head of the Revolutionary Guard is selected by the supreme leader. The senior officers selected by the Revolutionary Guard are approved by the supreme leader. Many people who are in the Parliament or have been in cabinet have had experiences in the Revolutionary Guard. These are the people who will run the revolution in the future.