Atlantic Council

Iran’s Regional Role After the Nuclear Deal

Nasser Hadian,
University of Tehran

Bilal Y. Saab,
Senior Fellow, Middle East Peace and Security Initiative,
Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council

Barbara Slavin,
Nonresident Senior Fellow, South Asia Center,
Atlantic Council

Huma Haque,
Associate Director, South Asia Center,
Atlantic Council

Location: Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.
Date: Monday, September 14, 2015

Transcript By
Superior Transcriptions LLC

HUMA HAQUE: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am Huma Haque, the associate director of the South Asia Center here at the Atlantic Council. And on behalf of my colleagues and our president, Frederick Kempe, I’d like to welcome you all here today for a timely discussion on Iran’s regional role after the nuclear deal.

I’d also like to welcome our live audience who is maybe watching at home.

We sit at a critical juncture for Iran, the United States and its allies and the entire international community. After over 30 years of relative isolation and intensifying sanctions, Iran may be entering a new phase of engagement spurred by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached in July.

At the Atlantic Council, we view this historic moment as one that holds immense opportunity. Our Iran Task Force has served as a comprehensive source of analysis on Iran. By bringing together key American, Iranian and regional stakeholders, the task force has made significant strides in increasing our understanding of the JCPOA and investigating its geopolitical effects.

Until now, we have primarily heard perspectives from outside Iran on the deal, but today we’re going to hear more about the deal from an Iranian perspective. We’re going to learn more about the internal dynamics and Iran’s intended role in the region and international community following the JCPOA.

These viewpoints are going to be presented by Nasser Hadian who is a professor at the University of Tehran. He’s going to be joined by Bilal Saab who is a senior fellow with our Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Brent Scowcroft Center of the Atlantic Council, who is going to take a broader view of Iran’s intentions in the Gulf and the Middle East.

Today’s event is part of the South Asia Center’s Iran Task Force which is chaired by Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat and led by senior fellow Barbara Slavin.

I would like to thank the Ploughshares Fund for their generous and continuous support of the Iran Task Force.

I’ll now turn the floor to Barbara who will introduce our speakers and moderate today’s discussion.

BARBARA SLAVIN: Thank you, Huma.

Thank you all for coming on this beautiful day.

Well, once again, I think our timing is really excellent. And with apparently the Congress about to hold its nose and allow the Iran agreement to go forward, one of the key questions is, how will Iran behave in the region? Will it take additional funds from sanctions relief and, in the words of opponents, march into a fifth Arab capital? Will it double-down on more interventionist policies or not?

And for that reason, we thought it would be very important to have a discussion. And we are so lucky because, as Human mentioned, we have a guest from Tehran, Nasser Hadian. He is a professor of political science at the faculty of law and political science at the University of Tehran. He’s also served there as director of graduate studies. He’s been a visiting professor and research scholar at the Middle East Institute and at the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Columbia University.

Nasser also held a prominent role at the Center for Strategic Research, which is a think tank in Iran that’s close to President Hassan Rouhani. And his areas of scholarly and research interests include Iranian contemporary politics, Iran’s nuclear program and political Islam.

Nasser got his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

And then we have our own Bilal Saab who, as mentioned, is at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Bilal has more than 13 years of experience working as an analyst, adviser and corporate manager on the Middle East. He’s a military and security expert with a focus on the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, Syria, Hezbollah, Iran’s role and influence in the Levant.

Bilal has a B.A. from the American University of Beirut and two masters degrees from the University St. Andrews and the University of Maryland. And I recommend to you an excellent paper that he did just a couple of months ago, which dealt with the issue of “containing,” quote, unquote, Iran.

I’m going to invite our guests to come up now and take a seat and sort of begin with a question to Nasser.

So gentlemen, why don’t you come up here.

In the middle, Nasser. And Bilal on the other side.

Nasser has written a new paper which should be up on our website so you can read it yourself, but I’m going to begin by asking him to discuss some of the points in this paper and also to pose a question to him.

A few years ago, I interviewed a very astute journalist in Iran, a man named Mohamed Atrian Far. And he told me when I asked him about Iranian influence in the region, he said we are not going to stretch our legs beyond the capacity of our carpets.

So my question to you, Nasser, is, how big is that carpet? (Laughter.) How big should it be? How big will it be? And what is the nature of the debate that is taking place in Iran about Iranian regional policy, in particular?

NASSER HADIAN: OK, let me thank you very much, Barbara. I appreciate you for inviting me to share my ideas with you regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the regional issue.

But the anecdote which you used, I would like to a little bit give more nuances to it, you know?

There was a time which, you know, the carpets in Iran were much bigger. And in fact, we used to carpet almost every space which we had in the room. But recently, you know, the fashion is the carpets just are in the middle and they’re much smaller. (Laughter.) But of course, finer, if I can say that one.

So I guess I can say basically there is not one view in Iran now regarding the region. And as I have mentioned in the report, which you can read it, you know, there are two views. One view, basically we shall call them sort of pure stabilization view. They are the ones who call for basically Iran to be – to be a stabilizing force in the region and produce security in the region. All around us are insecure and unstable.

In other words, sitting in Tehran, what you are seeing is Afghanistan in our east is not secure and, you know, we have a lot of problems. We have a lot of problems with the refugees, with drugs, narcotics in Afghanistan. We are somewhat worried about Pakistan as well, particularly in the Balochistan area, and the rise of extremism there. We worry about Iraq and what’s happening there. And also see Lebanon; to a lesser extent, Yemen.

So they argue within the next 10 to 15 years, the primary objective of our foreign policy should be stabilizing the region and Iran should be a country that basically produces security. The argument is we cannot be an island of security and be dismissive of the insecurity around us. That’s the official view of Iran and that’s the dominant view of Iran.

But there is an alternative view which recently is gaining more popularity in the policy circles and in the think tanks. And you can find it, of course, at the university among the pundits, that they would argue, you know, Iran is already overstretched, we don’t have any more resources to allocate and basically we are fighting with Daesh now. We are the primary force in fighting with Daesh, of course, through Iraqis and the militia in Iraq.

And that’s not our fight, basically. They will argue by such a fight we would make ourselves the target of Daesh attack. If Daesh has not yet attacked Iran, it is not because they are not capable of doing, but it is because they have not made the decision to do so. Otherwise, they can easily penetrate into our territory and explode bombs in Mashhad, Tehran, Shiraz, Zahedan, whatever.

So why we have to do that? The argument is our engagement should be minimal, minimal basically to those who are really vital and necessary, meaning Baghdad in the south in Iraq and Damascus and the coastal area basically in Syria.

So if Sunnis are really interested to have Daesh as their representative, as their government, why we should bother? I mean, if they want it, let them have it.

But after all, we don’t – I mean, it is not all that much concern for us. It is going to be – I mean, if they consolidate their power, basically that’s going to be a threat, not for us, but it’s going to be a threat for the Saudis, Jordanians, Yemenis, to a certain extent towards Americans.

Their argument also is that because they know that if they want to come to the south they have to fight and the fight is going to be severe and the fight is going to be a serious fight. And normally, if we assume they are not totally crazy, just only partially crazy, you know, the natural trajectory of their territorial expansion would be toward Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen rather than going toward the area in which they are going to face a heavy fight.

So the argument of the second group would be basically, thus we are better off to withdraw and to make our engagement to the minimal level.

But the first group argument would be this is somewhat naive. That if you think that, you know, in the longer term, you know, we are not going to face a problem with the Daesh, they’re going to be a major threat, if not in the short term, but rather in the long term they’re going to be a major threat for us.

But also, the issue of Kurdistan is very important, what would happen in Kurdistan. In other words, I mean, if the south announced independence, the Kurds for sure is going to go for the independence. And what would be your position? Because Iran now, I can argue, is the most important country who has called for preservation of territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria and is supporting that idea.

So if Iran withdraws from that position, the disintegration of these two countries are very easy to imagine.

But this first group, which is the dominant view, would say that, OK, what would be the positions toward Kurdistan if Iraqi Kurds announced or claimed their independence? What would be your position?

Of course, this second group’s argument would be, you know, we have good relations with our own Kurds, we have good relations with the Iraqi Kurds, we have important intelligence, security and commercial infrastructure in Iraqi Kurdistan, we can benefit from the situation and they are not going to pose a major threat for us.

But as I said, I mean, this group thinks this is a naive argument. And I mean, the independence of Kurdistan is basically opening a Pandora’s Box in the region. And then we are going to face an entirely different Middle East, not just one, two, three. What are the many areas which may claim for independence?

Thus, it is not appropriate to basically support any sort of cessation of movement or accept the independence of any one of these territories, any of these independent territories. Rather, we have to preserve the territorial integrities of this country.

So let me stop here.

MS. SLAVIN: OK, thank you, Nasser. That’s very helpful.

Most people on Washington, I think, are not even aware that there is a foreign policy debate going on in Iran.

Now, as you have mentioned and have also written in your paper, the dominant view still in Iran is that Iran must be a force for what it calls stabilization.

But of course, Bilal, you know very well that what Iran calls stabilization, Arab countries call meddling or worse in the affairs of Arab countries. So I’m going to ask you to give your analysis of Nasser’s paper and how you think the Iranian debate can be somehow factored into the debate that’s going on in the Arab world, if there is a debate. If they haven’t already reached a conclusion about Iran, how they can be influenced to see Iran’s activities in a less negative light.

BILAL Y. SAAB: Sure. Thank you, Barbara.

My wife tells me that my speaking skills have regressed, so I’m going to go back to basics with a few slides.

Two parts to this conversation: There’s Iranian intentions and Iranian capabilities, so what Iran wants to do and, regardless of what it wants to do, what its capabilities are. So I’ll address both because I think they’re important.

The issue of Iranian intentions is still a big question mark for me. I listened very carefully to what Nasser had to say and I read with great interest the paper that he wrote. But to me, when I hear of a significant debate happening inside Tehran, I look for two things: evidence of that debate, so news commentary, statements by Iranian leaders and even some reporting about it, and I also look for a clear description of what the players are and what their views are.

I did not hear that today. And I understand that there’s certain limitations with which you have to deal with, Nasser, but I think it would be extremely useful and important, and I cannot overstate this, for the public policy community in Washington and for several key players in the region to know who’s advocating for what inside Tehran. This is hardly an academic exercise.

Let me turn to the issue of capabilities.

Let me see if I can work this. And I think I have that printed out outside just in case I am very quick with my slides.

The issue of capabilities is very important because in the American policy debate about Iran and its regional role, those capabilities are either completely misdiagnosed or, worse, neglected. So I’d like to offer a little bit of nuance into that because it’s important.

Never underestimate what Iran can do in the region to advance its own interests: Marine barracks bombing 1983; Khobar Towers 1996; the IEDs in Iraq that killed dozens of American soldiers, 196 to be precise according to declassified Pentagon documents.

The Iran-Iraq War that lasted for eight years, at the very end of it, the other side, the Iraqis, which was heavily financed by some Arab Gulf States and armed to the teeth by the West, that side was the one that was on life support until the very end of his, that’s Saddam Hussein. The Iranian nation survived very well.

Hezbollah, the most successful, non-state actor in the world, the most lethal, the most disciplined, that’s all because of Iran.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, not as effective, but probably the most important security threats to the Israelis to this date.

Let me say it bluntly. Lebanon will not have a president unless Iran says so. Hezbollah has no meaningful future without the decision of Iran.

Assad’s fate and Syria’s future is a function of Iranian designs.

Israel’s national security is a function, among others, of Iranian designs.

Gulf security overall is a function of Iranian designs.

Iran has succeeded in entangling its main adversary, that’s Saudi Arabia, in a very vicious fight in Yemen.

Iran has a dominant influence, whether we like it or not, in Iraq. The only actor that can actually credibly threaten it is ISIS today.

Finally, there cannot be any major wars in that part of the world without Iran having a say in it, or one of its surrogates. So major questions of war and peace, that’s an Iranian decision as well.

Those are no small feats. Because of these accomplishments, Iran today has considerable political bargaining power in the region. And so if you’re sitting in Tehran today, you’re feeling good about your regional position; however, Iranian capabilities are a very mixed bag. And this is where the bad news starts.

The proxy wars in which Iran is involved today have stabilized not a single state and have failed to build peace. Iran may have succeeded in bleeding its Saudi adversary, but that comes with a heavy price. That comes with a price of telling the world that it is supporting an illegitimate militia, which is the Houthis, that has revolted against an elected and legitimate president.

The Houthis today are – and that support for the Houthis will neither reconstruct the country or help it to achieve a political solution.

The Iranians have been successful in protecting Assad in Syria, but that comes with heavy casualties for Hezbollah, alienating almost the entire Sunni world and perhaps causing some military overstretch for the IRGC. The Economist had a terrific piece about that and the risks of overstretched. Maybe they’re exaggerating the claim, but there is some truth to it.

On Iraq, whoever said it was OK to give Qasem Soleimani a free hand in Iraqi politics is clearly wrong, some of them the most important and influential people in Iraq today. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, rumor has it, fired a very angry letter to his counterpart, Ayatollah Khamenei, complaining about the Iranian commander’s handling of Iraq’s Sunni politicians, perhaps alienating them and not handling them with care.

Rumor also has it that Mohsen Rezaee, a former IRGC commander, is now back in action to hold him in check or perhaps just watch over his shoulders.

There is also a prize for awakening Gulf and Arab nationalism because of this excessive intervention in their affairs. Anti-Iranianism, if that’s a word I can use, is at an all-time high in the Sunni world today.

Because of Yemen – here I get to military effectiveness for the Arab Gulf States, or at least some of them – because of Yemen, some of these countries are actually now learning how to wage combat with some of the most important and powerful weapons on earth. That’s never good news for the Iranians.

With all the talk about Iran’s prowess in asymmetric warfare, we have to remember that this is a country that has very modest conventional capabilities also. The Iranian air force is irrelevant in any military scenario or any dogfight with Arab Gulf fighter jets.

Iran has considerable skills in land warfare due primarily to the Iran-Iraq War, but if you think about the Iranian military threat today the last thing really you should be worried about is Iran’s land capabilities. Territorial conquests should not really be occupying the top of our list of concerns.

Iran’s missile arsenal is quite impressive. It’s not reliable, though. It’s not precise. It’s not as lethal as we think it is. Moreover, its adversaries happen not to be defenseless also. They field some of the most powerful missile defense systems in the world. And there has been some progress, let’s not overstate it, over the past two, three years of integrating those missile defenses regionally.

So in short, Iran is very good at asymmetric warfare. But whether it’s on land or at sea, the most it could do is create problems, not really necessarily win wars. So let’s put to rest any notion that Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz anytime it wants. It simply can’t.

In closing – I know I’ve taken too much of your time, Barbara – it matters less what Iran’s intentions are when we try to assess the country’s regional role after the nuclear deal.

What matters much more is actions and those speak much louder. Those Iranian capabilities that I describe are clearly not inadequate or inferior. But they also do not match the rhetoric coming out of Washington and some of the Arab Gulf States that we are about to witness a rising regional hegemony that is bent on conquest and domination. That’s just simply not true.

There may be a debate going on inside Iran today, but I think an equally important, if not far more important debate that should be happening today – and you wrote about it, Nasser, in your paper – is between Iran and the Arab Gulf States.

How it happens, I don’t know. Oman has done a good, you know, job at mediating that. It doesn’t matter what the intermediary is. What matters is that it should happen as quickly as possible.

I hope that was useful. Thanks.

MS. SLAVIN: OK. Thanks, Bilal.

There’s a lot obviously to respond to.

Nasser, I think one thing we all have to keep in mind, and you wrote about this in your paper, is that Iran’s policies are based on Iran’s threat perceptions. And as you point out, Iran feels the major threats come from the United States and Israel, and its asymmetric policies in support of Hezbollah are based on that.

I would argue frankly with a couple of things that Bilal said. I think Hezbollah would continue, even if there wasn’t an Iran, because it’s such a strong component of Lebanese society now.

But I’ll let you tackle some of his other points.

MR. HADIAN: Thank you very much.

Bilal, you know, for the first part of your talk, you know, I’m sure there are many in Iran who would love to hear what you said. (Laughter.) You know, I wish, you know, that wish. I mean, they really think, not just only wish, they really think that they have such capabilities.

But the second part of your talk, I guess, is far closer to reality and they don’t like to hear that.

But anyway, let me go and address a number of issues which you raised. First of all, you know, regarding Saudi Arabia and the GCC and Yemen, you know, they’re all different in Iraq and Syria. And our relations with them are very different, too.

Yemen, for instance, is far away from us and the impact of Yemen on Iran’s security is minimal. And to be frank, Yemen is mostly the failure of GCC policies rather than the success of our policy. Of course, I’m sure in Iran they would love to get the credit, you know, that, you know, that yes this is the success of our policy, we happen to do this and that in Yemen.

But the reality is, you know, we have spent just only a few millions of dollars and that’s all and we consider Yemen to be a quagmire. Anyone who goes there is going to remain there. We are not under illusion in Iran, no group, no camp, no organization, no tendencies in Iran are under any illusion that we cannot do anything in Yemen.

If GCC, with all the resources which they have, in the last several years have not been able to stabilize the situation there, to create a stable government there, how possibly Iran with far, far limited resources will be able to, too?

And you know, lumping all these countries together and saying that, OK, Iran is basically meddling in the affairs of this government, expect them to hear, to be frank, from the Saudi politicians, but not from you. But because, you know, these are not real, I mean, these are far – I mean, yeah, there is always the distance between the perception and reality, but it is too far, these perceptions are too far from reality.

I mean, the Americans have reported repeatedly. Our influence in Yemen is very limited, very limited.

But anyway, the GCC, which I would love to center my talk on, is – you know, to me, Saudis have been basically – have adopted the policies regarding Iran since the revolution, and in fact I can say even before the revolution. We shall call it the containment policy. They have tried to contain Iran.

They have built important infrastructure inside Iran in a number of our provinces, you know, training students, spending money, giving money and building mosques, so forth and so on, inside Iran. And they have tried to build infrastructure all along Iran, all along Iran’s border. In other words, if Saudis are in Pakistan spending money there or in all these madrassas, it is they are there basically because they feel that they have to have a base to contain Iran.

Same thing in Afghanistan. There is no reason for them to even displace us. They’re not even in the Arab countries. Of course, I don’t – in other words, I don’t think that, you know, being Arab or Muslim or whatever gave us the privilege or a special entitlement to intervene in these countries, but you know how much money they are spending there.

In Iraq, if you are in Iraq, if you are in Syria, if you are in Lebanon, and we are, it is basically on the basis of our threat perception. Our threat perception is threats are coming from Israel and about the U.S. Thus, on the basis of that threat perception, we define the strategic depth of our forces.

So the strategic depth would be then Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, not Yemen, of course. Thus, we have, basically, we have tried to have an infrastructure there to do two most important things: First, deter Israelis from taking military action against us. Number two, basically retaliation in case of an attack.

We are not there because we are challenging the Saudis. We are not in Lebanon or in Syria or in Iraq because we want to challenge the GCC or Saudi Arabia. In our threat perception, go through every literature, we don’t see Saudi Arabia as a threat. We don’t prioritize them as a top threat. They are very much at the bottom. In fact, after two years ago, even you could not find anything.

So we are not – we don’t consider them as our rivals, we don’t consider that we are competing with them, we don’t consider them to be a threat. Thus, we have not developed infrastructure to deal with the challenge, to deal with the threat.

But that’s exactly the opposite in Saudi Arabia. If they are in Lebanon, they are not there because they want to challenge the Israelis, they are there because they want to challenge us. If they are in Iraq, they are not challenging the U.S. or Israelis, they are there because they want to challenge us.

So in all these areas, these are the Saudis are challenging us, not we challenge them or we consider them as a threat.

But you know, then coming and blaming Iran that, OK, Iran is challenging the Saudis is really strange for me. But even stranger is they can easily balance us. As you mentioned, you know, the combined population is greater than Iraq under Saddam. Saddam could balance us relatively easily in terms of population, in terms of the military weaponries. They have far more sophisticated weaponries than Saddam had. They have a super power behind it. They have a lot of economic wealth. They can easily balance us.

Why they are scared of Iran then? Why they cannot balance us? To me, it is inherent in the political system.

You know, no matter how many times President Obama tells them, you know, we are behind you, we are going to give you this and that weaponries, we are going to support you, and no matter how much we tell them, you know, leave us, you are not threat to us, we don’t want to do anything with you, but inherently, because they are outsourcing their security they feel insecure.

It is not Saudis. Anyone who outsources their security to someone else is going to feel insecure. So that’s – and that’s natural and that has been the case throughout their history because always they worry that possibly, you know, the other guy is going to be – is going to be sold or bought by the other side. I mean, they think that, OK, we are going to pay a higher price to the Americans and so Americans are going to side with us and they’re going to be left to themselves. So unless they rely on their own resources to provide security for themselves, they are going to feel threatened no matter what we tell them or what Americans tell them. It’s not going to resolve.

And they are to me – we are a convenient enemy for them, you know, particularly for the pundits, you know, for some of the policymakers, for some of the journalists. You know, they can easily attack us without paying any cost. Attacking Americans in the newspaper, you know, has a cost. Attacking even Israel has a cost. But attacking Iran is really convenient. And so we are a convenient enemy, I mean now, which will fill a number of psychological desire of a number of these pundits basically in these countries.

Otherwise, just look at our behavior. Forget about the words, forget about the rhetoric, as you mentioned, actions. Tell me the actions which Iran has taken against the Saudis. Tell me the actions, you know, forget about the Mecca situation at the beginning. In the last 30 years, tell me, OK, this is number one, number two action you have taken against the Saudis, you have taken against the Kuwaitis.

And after all, we have a very good relationship with Omanis. The most secret talk of Iran and the U.S. was basically mediated by Oman. We have a very good relationship with Kuwaitis and Qataris. And we do not – I mean, with Bahrain, it is only four or five years we do not have a good relationship. Even with Saudi Arabia, you know, our relationship under Khatami and Rafsanjani have been relatively fine.

The only country which did not have a good relationship with us since the revolution is the UAE. And ironically, we have more than 20 flights a day from Tehran, you know, from Iran to Dubai in which practically we have a very good relationship. Hardly we have – we do not have even, in fact, 20 flights a day to Shahreza or Yazd or Mashhad, which we have to Dubai.

So that is strange that there’s still this myth of, you know, Iran threat is there, because when you look at it one way, one, when you deconstruct it, you don’t know why it is there unless, as I said, I mean, Iran is a convenient enemy.

MS. SLAVIN: I don’t want this to become just a debate between you two, so I’m going to open it up to the floor and ask that you say your name and wait for the microphone. And please ask a question.

So Harlan, did you have one? Yeah. Wait for the microphone.

Up here in front.

Q: Barbara, I hope I’ll have a chance also to ask one, too.

MS. SLAVIN: You will, you will.

Q: I’m Harlan Ullman with the Atlantic Council, and had the privilege of being on Barbara’s Iran Task Force. Thank you both very much. I have a question for Nasser and then one for Bilal.

I have likened the JCPO to an arranged marriage between two parties who don’t trust each other and a prenuptial agreement that only deals with a dowry and not how to make the marriage work. So I’d like to know, what do you think really convinced Iran that this was a good time to have this particular agreement? And what can Iran do over the long term to make it succeed? Because people will be coming out of the woodwork to make it fail.

And for Bilal, I think that the JCPO was a masterstroke by the administration. But I critiqued the administration, because while they can put things in place, they stink at execution. Go back to the Af-Pak strategy, the pivot to Asia, all this nonsense, the Affordable Health Care Act, I mean, how they could screw that up in execution.

So what would you recommend for the longer term on the part of the administration to do that it’s not to make sure that this agreement has every opportunity for success? And if it does fail, what would be plan b and how do you put in place the means to implement that?

MS. SLAVIN: OK, Nasser?

MR. HADIAN: So very quickly, I’ve already discussed that issue before. But I said there are three reasons which made the diplomacy a necessity, two reasons facilitated that and one reason encouraged that.

The three reasons which necessitated it was, number one, war. We thought war, no matter how much the chances are slim, but still, you know, a country thinks that they can experience a war. Basically, it’s not a good thing to happen, so they had to eliminate the chances of this, even the slim chances of the war. So that’s why, that’s a number-one reason why we thought diplomacy was a necessity.

From the U.S. side, the U.S. thought war cannot achieve their objectives. Because basically, I’ve discussed three scenarios of war, and as you know the NIE has reported, at least since 2007, that’s not my argument, my argument is different, that Iran has stopped basically in 2003 to weaponize its nuclear program. Thus, a war can guarantee Iran is going to weaponize its program. In other words, it’s going to, at most, delay it a couple of years and after that Iran is going to basically wholeheartedly go for the war.

If Pakistan four years ago with far limited resources, human and material, could build a bomb, if they decide to make a bomb, we can’t. If we have not made a decision to make the bomb, it is because it does not serve our interests. Not only it is not going to increase or enhance our security, but also it is going to increase our vulnerabilities. I provided 14 reasons why that is the case.

But anyway, we thought war, the U.S. thought war is not going to help them achieve their objectives.

The number two issue was sanctions. I mean, those who negotiated, they knew sanctions are important, they knew that sanctions have impacted our economy and our standard of living. But they have not made us desperate.

Once I was having a dinner with Barbara’s colleague in Tehran and she asked me, can you take me to a – can you take me to a place in Tehran that I see the impact of sanctions? I told her if you expect me to take you to a store with shelves that are empty or people are jumping on top of one another to get food or whatever, such a place doesn’t exist.

So sanctions have not made us desperate, but for sure it has impacted our life. So Rouhani has promised the people it’s going to improve life, so that’s why he had to do something, and sanctions was very important – a very important factor.

For Americans, they thought no matter how much sanctions can be crippling, still it is not going to force Iran to capitulation. Capitulation means zero enrichment. There’s no way, I mean – so no way that can happen. They concluded it is not an option, thus they thought diplomacy has a better chance.

And the third factor which necessitated it was a lack of attractive alternative. What was the alternative, realistically? More sanction on your part? You would have injected UF6 into our second-generation centrifuges. More sanctions, we have operationalized another 10,000 of the installed centrifuges. More sanctions, operationalization of Iraq reactor, plutonium path, so-called plutonium path.

And after two years, we would have come back, Iranians had suffered through the process, but you are talking now with a much more nuclear-capable Iran, 40(,000) or 50,000 centrifuges, second generation and stockpile of enriched uranium far greater than 10,000, possibly 20(,000), 25,000 kilograms, and in fact even 1,000 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. So thank God this alternative was not attractive to any one of us.

These three factors made it necessary, but two factors facilitated the process. These two factors are, number one, a momentum was created because of the Iranian election. No one can plan to create a momentum, momentums happen, they are not a planned phenomenon. But thank God they were both very careful, but our administration and here, and they were careful to use the momentum which happened because of the election. Rouhani had in his campaign said, you know, if centrifuges are spinning, so should the life of the people. So he had a mandate.

And also, the next – this was one factor to basically facilitate this process was this momentum, and then number two was presence of two teams and both captains who really at the same time wanted the diplomacy to work. There have been times Americans wanted diplomacy Iranians didn’t want, there was time Iranians wanted it and Americans didn’t want it. But this time, we are two teams, we have Zarif, Kerry, Zarif and Rouhani in Iran and Kerry and Obama here. They both wanted a deal. So these two factors facilitated the deal.

And the last factor which encouraged it was the regional issue. You know, our friends were in trouble in the region from Lebanon all the way to Syria, Lebanon and Iran and Iraq and also in Afghanistan. So we thought, you know, we need to pay attention to these issues and they are far more important than to have 5,000 centrifuges or 10,000 centrifuges – one sentence.

So we thought that, you know, these regional issues in front of us. And Americans thought, you know, if they want to reduce the presence in the region and pay more attention to East Asia, they don’t want Iran to be a spoiler, so they encouraged them to explore if anything is possible by this deal.

MS. SLAVIN: Bilal, I want to add to Harlan’s question in terms of recommendations for the administration. We’ve heard a lot of talk lately about compensating Israel, compensating the GCC for the Iran deal as though this deal is somehow detracting from their security rather than adding to it.

And my question is whether the provision of yet more sophisticated weaponry, of bunker-busting bombs and whatnot to Israel in particular, but also GCC, won’t simply increase Iran’s threat perception and actually have the reverse effect, will cause a kind of arms race and more conflict in the region.

MR. SAAB: All right. I couldn’t agree with you more. We are where we are, but the implementation has been miserable.

I think that the Iranians have played a weak hand masterfully and the Americans have played a strong hand miserably. But we are where we are. The ultimate purpose was noble right from the start.

I’ll leave it to nuclear experts such as Bob Einhorn and others to really give you details about what is the best way to make sure that this deal does not fail or is not cheated by Iran. But I’ll give you three recommendations that are quite broad, that could be useful for the immediate future and for the next 10 to 15 years.

You have to have empaneled impeccable verification. There’s no question about that. You have to have clear language on consequences of failure to comply with the provisions of the deal. That’s not an option.

You have to get serious about the Camp David deliverables. You show hesitation or ineffectiveness on the delivery of those, the United States is going to end up with far fewer friends in that part of the world.

Compensation, I don’t like that term. At the end of the day, I think what contributes to regional stability should be done, that should be the ultimate purpose. Bunker-buster bombs and all that, I’m not sure how that really contributes to that.

An arms race is really hard to measure. I’m not sure that just a provision of military hardware is what contributes to arms races. There’s tons of scholarship about that. We’re not going to get into that.

With your permission, I think it’s only fair that I would just respond very briefly –


MR. SAAB: – to some of the assertions that Nasser made earlier, which I quite respect, but it’s just useful to provide the counterargument to it because I think it’s important for the debate, not just here, but over there as well.

I think the central theme of what Nasser is saying is that Iran is misunderstood and if only we better understand it and its primarily defensive posture in the region things could be so much better. Fair enough.

We, I think, have a lot of misperceptions about that country, some our own failing because there’s quite a notoriously opaque system over there that’s really hard to read. It is becoming increasingly easier to read due to the long negotiations that have happened between the United States and Iran. We know much better about Iran today, but there’s still a lot that we do not know.

What Nasser describes as stabilizing efforts, as you mentioned, Barbara, are seen by its adversary as nothing but destabilizing. And it’s not a theoretical conversation, there is quite a substantial amount of evidence that goes against Iran’s claim.

For example, and you asked me, Nasser, what is Iran doing for the Saudis to threaten their security? This has never been a direct confrontation between the two. It has always been an indirect confrontation through proxy warfare.

When Iran lends its full support to a man in Damascus that has single-handedly broken that country and caused a tremendous amount of human catastrophe and tragedy and also has contributed to spillover of that civil war into Iraq, that in no way contributes to stability. When Iran commits terrorist acts inside Bahrain and Iran plants terrorist cells inside Kuwait, that in no way contributes to stability. When Iran provides military assistance to a militia – and mind you, I 100 percent agree with you that Yemen is really not a priority for the Iranians, but I’m not sure why they still dabble in the politics of Yemen regardless just to really poke at the Saudis. That does not contribute to stability.

The verdict is still out on what the Iranians are doing in Iraq. I think there is plenty to praise the Iranian role in Iraq because they are, like no other actor, fighting ISIS. On the other hand –

MR. HADIAN: One area is –

MR. SAAB: Let me just – let me just finish my point.

MR. HADIAN: The one area which we have acted against the Saudis in Syria, in Iraq against the Saudis, not against stability –

MS. SLAVIN: The Sunnis.

MR. SAAB: As I mentioned to you earlier, Nasser, there’s never been direct confrontation between the two countries.

MR. HADIAN: But Saudis are challenging us directly, it is not indirect.

MR. SAAB: Let me make my final point and then you can describe to me how they’re actually doing that directly.

There is plenty to praise in the Iranian role in Iraq. But it is worth asking if the end justifies the means. When Iran recruits Shi’a militias to fight ISIS, that exacerbates sectarianism –

MS. SLAVIN: Right.

MR. SAAB: – which in itself prolongs the survival of ISIS. So you look at these lists of actions that are really incontrovertible, there’s nothing much to debate about them in terms of them having a negative impact on regional stability, I’m not sure why Iran is misunderstood or there is so much to debate about its regional role, at least how the Arab Gulf States view it and how many folks in this town also view it.

I’ll leave it to that.


I want to give our audience time for more questions, but can I borrow this? Because I have something written here that I wanted to read. This is something I wrote for a paper on Iranian regional influence for the U.S. Institute of Peace some years ago, but I think this is still true.

Iran’s goals appear to be largely defensive to achieve strategic depth and safeguard its system against foreign intervention, to have a major say in regional decisions and to prevent or minimize actions that might run counter to Iranian interests. In the service of those interests, Iran has been willing to sacrifice many non-Iranian lives.

MR. SAAB: I’ve never heard an assessment of a country that has actually been on offensive action, it’s always perceived in defensive perspectives.

MS. SLAVIN: OK. Let me open to, let’s see, the gentleman right there if you could take the microphone.

Say your name and ask a question.

Q: Hi. Alex Decina, Council on Foreign Relations. I have a question for Professor Hadian.

I wonder if you could talk some on next year’s Assembly of Experts election and the Majlis election. Do you see the Guardian Council blocking a substantial number of moderates and reformists again? And do you think the success of the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions will have a positive or negative impact on the moderates’ success?

MR. SAAB: That’s a great question.


MR. HADIAN: OK. We are going to have a Majlis election and Assembly of Experts election next February. And very briefly answering your questions, yes, we expect, we meaning forces who are pro the government and we think, you know, what I call the pro-modernization forces, we expect to see a massive disqualification of the big names by the Council of Guardians.

But still, we expect to win the election because the people are hopeful from what has happened, from the deal. And although they are not going to see any tangible impact in their life, but still the hope is there, the optimism is there. And that optimism will lead to basically increasing of the participation rate, and as participation rate increases the chances of these forces winning the Majlis elections are higher.

And normally it has been the case the presidents normally have been able to win the following election to get the control of the Majlis.

But Assembly of Experts is an entirely different thing. Assembly of Experts, for those of you who don’t know, are made up of 86 people and they’re all supposed to be basically Muslim scholars, which happens normally these are clerics, but it need to be clerics, but normally they are clerics.

And they have three main functions. To supervise – not supervise, but rather to check the power of the supreme leader. And in case of he is not handling the job, to be removed. And in case of his death, to be replaced.

So they are not all that important in terms of day-to-day affairs of the country, but they are important for appointing the next supreme leader. So in that regard they are important. But you know, again, we, meaning pro-modernization forces, are not that much hopeful we can have a major input in their elections. It is going to be elections basically between the traditional conservative forces of the society and their rivals, which are hardliners. So we expect and we hope the traditional conservatives can win that election, and they have a good chance of winning that election.

But I wish to address –

MS. SLAVIN: Very quickly.

MR. HADIAN: Yeah, very quickly. I mean, regarding basically, you know, what you said about Bahrain and Kuwait. First of all, we have not exploded any bomb in Kuwait, no one has claimed that. I just don’t know where you get, I mean, you get the information that Iran has exploded bomb in Kuwait.

MR. SAAB: No, but there’s – go ahead.

MR. HADIAN: But regarding –

MS. SLAVIN: There was a discovery they said of explosives that they said had come from Iran.

MR. HADIAN: Yeah, but you know, that’s, you know, there is no incentive, you know, there is no incentive on the part of Iranians to do anything in Kuwait. We are not doing – we have not been doing it and we have a good relationship with Kuwait.

But Bahrain is a different case. And in fact, Bahrain, there are many in Iran, secular and not secular, they feel that the Iranian government has been so passive in its reaction to Bahrain.

To be frank with you, for many it was really humiliating to see Saudi Arabia sending forces and invading Bahrain and scapegoating Iran for what they are doing. It is, believe me, sitting in Tehran, it is humiliating to see that, you know, why Saudis should do that, why they should send their forces there.

As I’m telling you, yes, we are involved in Iraq, we are involved in Syria, we are involved in Afghanistan, we are involved in Lebanon, but we are not involved in Bahrain. It was no Iran.

MS. SLAVIN: Nasser, I want to ask – we had mentioned this earlier, and I wanted to give you a chance also to say something about this. The impression that you get from the opponents of the nuclear deal here in this country is that, you know, it was a huge win for Iran, a huge loss for the United States. But there is a substantial component of individuals in Iran who think they gave away too much.

So I just wanted to give you a chance to mention that.

MR. HADIAN: OK, thank you for giving me the chance for that one, because I have been critical of it myself, too. Of course, at the end of the day I supported it, but I developed four criteria for assessing the deal.

These four criteria are, you know, the timing, strategic weight of what was given and what was taken, strategic composition of what was taken and what was given, and the fourth one is irreversibility, reversibility issue.

On timing, what I mean is cash for cash, promise for promise. Go through 159 pages of the documents, you will see that in terms of the timing, I mean, the concessions which Iran has given is far more.

First of all, we have to remove 2,000 centrifuges from Fordow. We have to remove about 12(,000), 13,000 centrifuges from Natanz. We have to dilute or get rid of about 11,000 kilograms of enriched uranium. We have to transform the core of Iraq reactor. We have to answer the PMDs, possible military dimension, questions to the IAEA. And after did all of those things, then the IAEA should say I’m satisfied, then the sanctions could be suspended afterward.

Frankly, I would not have signed this deal. I would have negotiated a different deal. What would happen if IAEA says I’m not satisfied? What would happen if Congress, U.S. Congress passes a law veto-proof and prevents the president to take whatever measure he is supposed to take? What would happen? So the very – (inaudible) – deal has been, I mean, we get rid of 2,000 centrifuges in Fordow, you have to lift these sanctions. We get another 5,000, you are going to do this one. That was not a right way to do, and that’s exactly what happened.

Of course, I’m optimist. I trust this administration. But it should have not been relied on trust. As you guys say here, it should have been basically based on, you know, a different kind of verification, a different kind of – way of handling this issue.

And number two, strategic weight of what was given and what was taken. I’m not one of those guys who would say it should have been 50/50. You know, that’s too much expecting from the Iranians basically negotiating with six major powers and expecting that 50/50 is good. If we can quantify, which I have done it in my book, that – you know, if I can quantify what was given and what was taken, to me even it is not 70/30. But still, the strategic weight is not all that important for me personally.

What is more important is strategic composition of what was given and taken. What I mean by that is basically, personally, I would have preferred to have only three cascades of second-generation centrifuges and reaching in Fordow and closing down the Iraq and Natanz.

But what we have is 5,000 centrifuges, about 5,049 centrifuges, in Natanz of the first generation, which are, you know, very old models. And that’s what I’m critical of, basically I mean the composition of what was given and what was taken.

But on the U.S. side, you had four principles which guided the negotiations. Number one was basically forward path to an atom bomb, so you closed down all the forward paths.

Then there was the issue of detection, so that’s why you basically supported a very robust verification system beyond additional protocol. There are a number of things beyond additional protocol, in fact even in it not only additional protocol, but beyond additional protocol.

Number three, consent number three is breakout or a sneak out, meaning, OK, we detect your compliance or your cheating, I mean, we want to have enough time to react. And that is the time from the time we decide to have enough fissile material for one bomb. It is now about two to three months, they want it to be in one year. So that concept guided your negotiation and that breakout is a subject of basically no more centrifuges, types of centrifuges and enrichment process. So that’s why we have to go all the way down to 300 kilograms of enriched uranium.

Concept number four is reversibility, irreversibility. Many of the things we are going to do are irreversible. Iraq is irreversible. And diluting this or sending out this stockpile of enriched uranium, they are irreversible. But you know, all the time calling it – I mean, practically, some of the sanctions are irreversible, but theoretically, legally, they are very much reversible.

Snapback basically in the agreement and, you know, the architecture and the structure of the sanctions are there. They can be easily be back. So that’s why I say that by these four criteria, we feel that, you know, what was given and what was taken is not equal. But I supported the deal at the end of the day.

You may say, why you supported the deal? Because of the strategic consequences of the deal, for the strategic consequences which are very important for me.

Desecuritization – let me just discuss – desecuritization, normalization of relationship, regional issues, they are not – none of them are in the deal, but these are the consequences of the deal.

And number four are sanctions, which sanctions, of course, is a part of the deal.

MS. SLAVIN: Bilal, you wanted to say something before I take another question?

MR. SAAB: Yeah, just a very quick minute. I’d love to go back to the key point here in this conversation, which is the main argument of the paper, which is this debate. OK?

I’m fascinated by it, but I’m just not satisfied with how we’re ending it. I realize the limitations, once again, to what you can say, Nasser.

MS. SLAVIN: You want him to be more specific.

MR. SAAB: Well, I mean, let me just frame it differently, perhaps it’s a little bit more comfortable. What I’d love to know is there’s debate that is happening, is this the typical, and I know it’s not a useful description, moderate versus hardliner camp or is this happening within the hardline camp? Where does Rouhani and his team fall in this?

I mean, this is all extremely useful for everybody.


MR. HADIAN: Can I say?

MS. SLAVIN: Please, yeah.

MR. HADIAN: I mean, the debate is, as I mentioned, between the – I mean, across the board you can find them on the hardliners, Revolutionary Guard, foreign ministry people, think tank, policymakers, professors of university, we are all debating in different think tanks about this policy. What should be done?

Generally, government is a supporter of the first perspective. Not everyone in the government. You can find it in the foreign ministry, I personally have debated with them, that they support the first thing. They are in key positions in all of these places. But as I mentioned, the general and dominant view is the first one, but by no means that’s the only view. They are debating.

But as you mentioned, you mentioned a good point, and that’s action. I said the indication of what I said is in the actions. If you see in practice Iraqis and Iranians are not moving toward missiles, that’s a good way of knowing the impact of the second group on the policy. OK?

And same thing in Syria. If you see that there are places that the Syrian government, Hezbollah and the Iranians are putting a strong fight, but there are places that they don’t care. It means that the impact of the second group on the first group. So these are the actions. And you can look at the indications.

MS. SLAVIN: Yeah, the lady right here.

Q: Hi, Naza Nouserech (ph) with IHS. And my question is related to what you just discussed. And I would like to hear from both of you because I suspect you would have different views on this.

But it seems to me that two of the individuals within Iran that sort of personify or put a face on Iran’s two different foreign policy camps are Zarif and Soleimani. And before the nuclear agreement, Zarif basically had the nuclear profile while Soleimani and the IRGC had and continue to have the regional file.

Now, post deal it seems that the Zarif/Rouhani camp, they’re capitalizing on this sort of political success and having some sort of a free range, you know, seeking diplomacy within the region.

Now, my question is, to what extent do you think that Zarif and Rouhani have, you know – whether they are actually testing the waters for, you know, actually exceeding restrictions and coming up with some sort of diplomatic solution within the region in, you know, achieving Iran’s objectives in the region, or whether they are sort of Khamenei’s tool of putting some lipstick on Iran’s involvement within the region?

So basically, whether it is just an act or policy.

MS. SLAVIN: Zarif first, then Soleimani.

MR. HADIAN: Well, that’s not a good dichotomy. In fact, they are not all that fundamentally different. Basically, you know, Qasem Soleimani, the way he has been perceived as a mythical figure, you know, as a very powerful individual, you know, like Superman here basically and in Iran, I mean, you know, that’s not the case. In fact, he’s a very pragmatic general and has a relatively good sense of the situation on the ground.

But the most important, the key factor to bring to your attention is these decisions are not being made by any one individual. We have an institution called Supreme National Security Council. All of them, they are all there. They debate the issues, all the issues, major issues basically. They debate it there and once the decisions are made they’re going to be implemented by everyone.

So in that institution, there are people who can be more powerful than both Zarif and Qasem Soleimani. Shamkhani, former commander of our Navy and very key figure in – very key figure in the Revolutionary Guard basically, can be argued is more powerful that both of these men regarding the regional issue. Rouhani by far is exercising more influence on regional issue than anyone else.

And also, so this is not something that, you know, Qasem Soleimani would do, which is only report to the supreme leader and they make the decision or Qasem Soleimani by himself makes these decisions. It is not the case.

Basically, it is going to be discussed and debated and finally make a decision in the Supreme National Security Council. And though the supreme leader has the authority legally to veto the decisions, but normally, almost I can say, more than 80 percent of the time he would support the decision which has been made by the Supreme National Security Council.

It is not a one-man show.

For Zarif for the nuclear issue, Zarif was a negotiator, he was not making the decisions. The decisions about the red lines, what is acceptable, what is not acceptable, those decisions were made somewhere else, not in the foreign ministry.

MR. SAAB: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, maybe I should – the time is allocated to me to answer, but maybe I should give it back to Nasser since obviously he’s ideally placed to answer that.

But I’ll share with you a recent conversation I had with quite a senior Omani official about this false dichotomy actually. And he said the Iranians are incredibly smart, they show the world that there is actually a dichotomy in views and in practice between figures like Soleimani and Zarif, but in fact in practice everybody is working so harmoniously, perhaps not as well, but it is not within the system so fractional and factionalized as he world would like to believe.

MS. SLAVIN: The gentleman over here.

Q: This is Hassan from Pakistan. I am a journalist. So I have a question to Nasser.

If the deal is finally approved by the Congress –

MS. SLAVIN: Or not blocked.

Q: – there is a fear in the Middle East that it will fuel arms race in the region because it will also tantamount to recognizing Iran as a nuclear power. So how would you respond to that fear?

MR. HADIAN: As I said, I guess, I mean, I won’t agree with you, I do not agree with you that, I mean, it would lead to an arms race. And in fact, the reason that we have an agreement is to prevent an arms race.

We don’t have an agreement, yeah, there was a possibility. There was a possibility that, you know, as I said, when you discuss about the alternative, the alternatives were not all that – all that attractive. And if there was a military attack that would have guaranteed Iran to have the – weaponize its program. And weaponization, for sure we know it’s going to lead to an arms race. But with the deal in fact that would stop any arms race if you mean basically nuclear arms race.

But for arming ourselves, as I said, you know, we do not have – still, there’s going to be sanctions. And we do not have all the resources. And we guess we don’t need that type of armament to be able to defend ourselves for the future.

The type of threat which we are facing is a different kind. It’s the refugees, it’s the narcotics, it’s the chaos, it is not a country-to-country war that we need to have sophisticated weaponries or whatever. So that’s a type of a thing which we have. And we hope basically that the deal can help us to concentrate more on the region and to stabilize.

And one more thing about the stabilization. In fact, I mean, the first group which are pro stabilization, in fact they would like to go all the way if it demands and needs to cooperate with Saudis, with Americans to stabilize the region. So they are open to it and they would like to adopt that posture to stabilize the region.

That’s the type of threat which we are really worried about now in Tehran.

MS. SLAVIN: I’m going to go to Faye here in the front and then to Laura Rosen back there.

Q: Thank you very much for the talk. I’m Faye Moqtader (ph). I have a question for you, Bilal.

You keep mentioning that Iran is a threat to the Saudi, but could you be a little more specific? What are the specific threats to the national security of the Saudis that’s coming from Iran?

And my other question is it seems like, correct me if I’m wrong, that the Saudi government is a very closed, tight, political structure. They’ve had this for centuries. And it seems to me from the outside that they are more afraid that this thing eventually will collapse and that’s what they’re afraid of rather than a threat coming from Iran. So correct me.

Thank you.

MR. SAAB: I wish we had actually an official representative from any of the Gulf States to speak here, because the last thing I want is to look like as if I’m speaking on their behalf, which is clearly not the case. I will always speak to you as an analyst.

So you asked me, what is the threat coming from Iran to Saudi Arabia? As I mentioned to Nasser earlier, the threat is not direct. The threat is indirect through the proxies that they support throughout the region.

Both countries, which seem to be the main adversaries in the region, have vested interests in a number of theaters, whether it’s in Lebanon, whether it’s in Iraq, Syria and others. And each one backs its own proxy. Therefore, unfortunately, in many ways, this confrontation is seen as zero sum.

Now, the most immediate, if you were to really push me, security threat coming from Iran to Saudi Arabia is what’s going on in Yemen and how the Saudis perceive that their backing of the Houthis and other allies is contributing to the degradation of the national security of Saudi Arabia. That seems to be the most imminent, due to physical proximity, threat to Saudi Arabia.

What goes on in Lebanon, as you very well know, Iran supports the most powerful actor in Lebanon, which is Hezbollah. In many ways, half the Lebanese population, if not more, sees as a major detriment to the stability of that country, right?

And Saudi Arabia has had its own vested interest in Lebanon for quite some time. Perhaps the biggest damage that has happened to Saudi interests and security interests as well happened with the assassination of Rafik Hariri. And there’s no secret about it, a huge, implicit knowledge in the region that those who were behind that assassination were the Iranians and the Syrians. Whoever may have pulled the plug, it doesn’t matter.

Iraq, the same thing.

So I’ll go back to repeating the same thing over and over again. It’s never been a direct confrontation between the two.


MR. SAAB: It is an asymmetric confrontation that is conducted through proxies.

MS. SLAVIN: Yeah. Laura back there?

Q: Thank you for the terrific panel.

I wanted Nasser –

MR. SAAB: I did not, sorry, respond to the Saudi state collapsing. And maybe we’ll get to that if time allows. Sorry about that.

Q: Nasser, I just wanted to ask you to answer something that Bilal asked as well. You know, the Iranians have emphasized after the deal focusing on the region and even the deputy foreign minister had said there might be Iran/GCC talks soon. But my understanding is they haven’t been scheduled yet.

Why haven’t we seen this dialogue begin? Is it the GCC or Saudi side that’s reluctant to engage?

MR. HADIAN: Zarif traveled to two of them. I mean, Zarif traveled to Kuwait and Qatar. But the Saudis, you know, they are reluctant.

In fact, you know, I know for a fact they have tried to approach them several times, you know, for the resolution or for cooperation, at least, you know, tried to, to cooperation to deal with the regional issue. But they are reluctant. They have their own perceptions.

And as I mentioned, I mean, personally, it is hard for me to convince them otherwise. They have made up their mind, and no matter what is happening in reality they have their own perceptions and it’s hard to crack them.

And as I mentioned, you know, no matter how much U.S. or we tell them, I mean, we are not perceiving you as a threat, but they perceive us as a threat.

We are also a convenient enemy for them. I don’t see any reason why they have to equate it very quickly, unless something major, you know, unfortunately, some major things happen in the region. Then they may decide, you know, they may decide to come and to work, to cooperate with the others to handle or to contain the insecurity in the region.

MR. SAAB: I don’t think it’s useful or fair to try to understand one threat perception and completely just disregard the other. I think that – and hence, the primary significance of this debate really.

A set of useful conversations between these two heavyweights is long overdue. I mean, it’s ridiculous how it has been. And Nasser obviously blames the Saudis for not having an interest or not being ready for it. I think if the conditions are right for it, I think the Saudis would be definitely interested in having that conversation.

MS. SLAVIN: Do you think the United States can –

MR. HADIAN: But my point is it should be unconditional. I mean, if you – I know what – I mean, they are waiting to see us if Assad collapses and they would say then, you know – but the point is, hard to do the negotiations right now. Right now let’s negotiate to come up with a solution for the problems.

MS. SLAVIN: Nasser, does Iran have a practical solution if Assad falls? I mean, as we speak, there is more pressure on his forces than we’ve seen in a very long time.

MR. SAAB: Good question.

MR. HADIAN: Of course, the point is the analysis in Tehran is the collapse or the removal of Assad as an authoritarian regime would lead to the collapse of the regime. And collapse of regime is going to create more chaos that no one’s interests is going to be served.

So the point is, right now to negotiate for the transition, for Assad to be removed or to leave office, not right away, but two, three years down the road. In other words, that cannot be a precondition for the negotiation because Assad would not agree.

MS. SLAVIN: Right.

MR. HADIAN: That should be the results of the negotiation, the consequences of the negotiation. But that’s not the way the Saudis would perceive. But that’s the exact – I mean, that’s entirely another issue.

My point is in fact that’s my perception. I may be wrong. If tomorrow Assad says that, OK, King Salman, I’m totally fine with you, I would love to submit myself to your will, they are not going to have any problem with Assad, no matter how much crime he has committed.

The point is they are fighting – there in Syria they are fighting not Assad, they are fighting us. That’s the point we should all take about – (inaudible). We are not fighting Saudis in Syria.

MS. SLAVIN: OK, the gentleman here.

Q: Yes. Nasser, Bill Jones from Executive Intelligence Review.

I was wondering if you could say something about the changing threat perception in Iran, given the very dramatic changes in the international situation. For decades, of course, this was the U.S. versus Iran. The U.S. policy was to isolate Iran. If they couldn’t get a color revolution, they would isolate it. But that isolation has been broken partially by this agreement, but also by the change in the international situation.

I’ll point out three things. China’s role in the Middle East – the promise of the Silk Road Economic Belt which is going to encompass Iran as well as the Arab countries, and China’s going to be playing a more important role there.

We saw that Putin now is sending troops to Syria, I don’t think because it’s simply a power move on his part, but that there’s also a concern for the whole thing spilling out into chaos and he wants a different trajectory. And he has gotten support from the Europeans on that. The U.S. is critical and is saying the usual things, but the Europeans are saying maybe this is the way we have to go to get a diplomatic solution.

And thirdly, the change on the Europeans given the refugee situation where not only did they decide to take in the refugees, but also critical voices being raised about the U.S. and their policy in the region that has caused that. That’s a different ballgame that we’re working, a different world we’re working in.

How does that reflect in the perception, in the threat perceptions in Iran?

MS. SLAVIN: Very good question, yeah.

MR. HADIAN: Very shortly, they said they think they have been vindicated. They’re like, you know, they would say that OK, that’s exactly that has been our argument. And they feel that, you know, in other words, they feel that, you know, we have to continue the type of policies which we have had.

But that’s very simplifying the reality because, as I mentioned, there is not just one group in Iran. And there are debates and they feel that, OK, you know, in other words, the agreement – this is particularly if you like Rouhani – the agreement would give us a good chance to play a different role. It would give us a chance to be desecuritized.

U.S. as the principal securitizing actor was able to securitize Iran, particularly under former President Ahmadinejad, successfully securitized Iran. And once it securitized Iran, they were able to pass a number of resolutions in the Security Council. And hopefully now by this deal we can basically move toward desecuritization and then hopefully normalization, and then we can deal with the regional issues and, as you mentioned, particularly with China, China being considered as a rising power.

We are debating more and more about China no longer as a factory and we as a market. China is being perceived as a strategic player in the world because no longer the energy security for China is going to be taken as granted. In other words, up to now they have relied on the U.S. to provide the security for the energy. But as a rising power, as a country possibly in 10 years from now, China is going to be the biggest economy in the world.

So China wants to be sure about their energy security. In other words, that’s why they are going to be in Iran, not just only seeking the market or we look at them as a factory, but rather to seek a sort of more strategic partnership.

So we are in the midst of a lot of debate about China, China’s role in the future and China’s role in Iran.

MS. SLAVIN: Jon, did you have a question also?

Yeah, right here.

Q: Yeah, Jon Lindbergh from U.S. Naval Academy. My question is really about these debates on both sides of the Persian Gulf.

And my question is, are there voices in these debates that are advocating for better relations with the neighbors? In other words saying, look, whatever our problems, these people, these others, they are our neighbors, they are not going away, and we share a culture and we share a history and we share a religion; and therefore, we need to change the existing situation which is not in our interest.

MR. HADIAN: Thank you, Jon. Jon, as I mentioned, you know, to report to you is not analysis. When we sit in these meetings in think tanks in Tehran, you know, we never consider Saudi Arabia as an enemy, we never consider them as a threat, that we design the strategies, OK, you know, how to deal with them. We consider them exactly as a neighbor. We think that we have to improve the – hardly you’ll find a voice, hardly.

You know, in the last two years the situation is a little bit different. But even in the last two years, hardly you’ll find a voice which is saying, no, we shouldn’t have a good relationship with Saudi Arabia. I want to say even hardliners. You know, people like Rouhani, Rafsanjani, you know, they have been all along supportive of a better relation with Saudi Arabia. And they thought under Ahmadinejad, you know, Rafsanjani said, well, I wanted to go to King Abdullah. He thought he has a very good relation with him, and he thought personal relationship are important and he can improve the relationship. But even today, in fact, you know, he’s ready to do that. There are a number of other important forces within Iran who are ready to take the initiative to improve the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

As I mentioned, it is very much one-sided. We don’t consider them as an enemy. Why we should – why we should consider Kuwait or Qatar as our enemy, as a big – perceive them as a threat?

But the other side is true. I mean, we are at the top of their threat list. In other words, we are at the top of their threat list.

In fact, you know, I once personally was talking to Shamkhani, national security adviser – of course, he was not then national security adviser – he said – you know, he’s Arab. He’s coming from Khuzestan and he’s Arab. I said, why don’t you travel to these countries, you know, in fact, to improve the relationship with – because of the same language you talk, you may – you may be able to give them more confidence that, OK, I mean, we are not considering or perceiving you as a threat.

But what can be done, in fact? I’m not telling you that the Iranians should not take any initiative, for sure we have to take initiative to put to rest their concerns about us as a threat. But it is not going to be easy thing to do.

As I mentioned, now, in particular the last two years or three years, you know, we have become their convenient enemy. There has to be a reason why they have to leave it.

MR. SAAB: He asked about the Arab –

MS. SLAVIN: Yeah, sure, OK.

Q: Can I just – Nasser, a follow-up question to what –

MS. SLAVIN: Let me let Haleh just add to it and then we’ll get an answer from Bilal.

Q: A quick follow-up question to –

MS. SLAVIN: Say your name.

Q: – to – I’m Haleh Esfandiari from the Wilson Center.

MS. SLAVIN: Thanks.

Q: To what Jon asked you, don’t you think that the animosity goes back to when Ayatollah Khomeini started talking about the Saudi royal family as an illegitimate presence to the look after the holy places, number one.

Number two, I think Iran’s coolness was during the Iran-Iraq War when all of the Arab countries, except for Syria, supported Saddam. And my question is, also to Bilal, why did Saudi Arabia wait so long to send an ambassador to Iran, number one?

Number two, when the Iranians got involved with Hezbollah, the initial state, why didn’t the Saudis get involved, too? Money always speaks. Thank you.

MR. HADIAN: OK. Regarding the – I mean, that’s a good point. That’s a good point, but that was for the first decade of the revolution. We got over it. And you know, we said those stuff, but after that we had a better relationship with them, particularly under Rafsanjani and even Khatami, too.

But you know, historically you are right. Also, there may be in our culture, you know, the negative view against one another. But if you put aside even those stuff, those are not reasons why we shouldn’t have a better relationship.

And as I mentioned, there is more. We have to look at the actions, not just the rhetoric. If you look at the action, the GCC was formed, as you mentioned, not against Israel, it was formed against Iran. They supported all along Iraq in the war. But still, after all these animosities and after what – in fact, you are right. I mean, at the beginning we did not even call them Saudi Arabia, we called them Hejaz, the old name. You know, we didn’t want to recognize the Saudis.

But that’s very much at the beginning of the revolution. But afterwards, you know, things changed and we cannot explain the current behavior on the basis of what happened then because, you know, we have had a much different relationship after those years.

MS. SLAVIN: Did you want to comment?

MR. SAAB: Nasser, you speak with much confidence and candor. It’s really something to admire. And if you were to go to court with a legal case such as yours, I think the judge is going to have a hard time really defending you.

You have to understand that regardless of how valid and true Iran’s claims are today, that country has tons of explaining to do to the rest of the world. It’s not enough to be right, if it is in fact that you are right, you have to explain it to the community of nations around you that just simply do not believe what you’re saying.

The problem is also that there’s tons of evidence actually that goes against what you’re saying. Everybody wants to believe what you’re saying, but it’s really hard to.

On the Arab side, Jon, you asked, who’s really interested in enhancing relations and creating a dialogue between both sides? It’s always a mistake to speak of the GCC as one entity. Right? And you know that very well.

At the top of that community of people who are actively advocating for a dialogue is the Omanis and they’ve been doing it for a long time.

Never equate the Saudis with the Emirates or the Kuwaitis or the Qataris or the Bahrainis. I think the Kuwaitis are rather indifferent when it comes to relations with Iran. It’s not adversarial, but it’s also not entirely positive.

Bahrain has a very difficult perspective when it comes to Iran and they’re in an entirely different league for reasons of their own.

I think Qatar’s relations with Iran and, Nasser, I think you alluded to it, are drastically improving to the chagrin of their neighbors.

Saudi Arabia, we’ve been talking about it all day, there’s no point.

And Nasser, you’re exactly right, I think that perhaps the most intense and adversarial relationship is between Abu Dhabi and Iran, and both of them have their own reasons. As you very well said, Dubai has fewer concerns about Iran than Abu Dhabi.

MS. SLAVIN: I’m afraid – I know there are many more hands out there, but we are at an end. I invite you to stay and ask further questions if you have them.

But I think this has been a very interesting debate that we’ve had here on the Iranian foreign policy debate. And I thank you very much for coming. (Applause.)


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