Iran’s leaders may fear regime collapse enough to consider renegotiating the nuclear deal, but President Trump could walk away anyway. Expert Iran watchers Saeid Golkar and Ilan Goldenberg explore the ramifications of ending the Iran deal on this week’s Deep Dish.
Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about the increasing likelihood that President Trump will withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal in less than two weeks. I am joined by Ilan Goldenberg, who is the senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Welcome, Ilan. Good to have you here.
Ilan Goldenberg: Hi. Great to be here.
Brian Hanson: He is a foreign policy and defense expert with extensive government experience, who has covered Iran's nuclear program, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the broader challenges facing the Middle East.
Also joining us remotely is Saeid Golkar, who is the assistant visiting professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Saeid is also a good friend and a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Welcome, Saeid. It's good to have you back.
Saeid Golkar: Thank you very much for having me.
Brian Hanson: As many of our listeners will know, Saeid has studied Iran's paramilitary forces extensively, and has an intimate knowledge of the secularization and political culture of Iran. To jump into this subject, Ilan, I was wondering if we could start with you, and if you could just refresh us on the basics of where we are today, what the JCPOA is, and why is May 12th such an important deadline.
Ilan Goldenberg: The JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement or nuclear deal, was signed ... Now, it's been over two years since President Obama agreed to it with the Iranian government, and also all the other P5 plus one powers. The fundamental element to the agreement is Iran agrees to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and economic benefits. Now, President Trump has come in, and he campaigned against the agreement. He says it's the stupidest deal ever, the worst deal ever, various things like that, and has criticized it on a number of different fronts. The two most important ones being his concern that it does not address Iran's other regional behavior, policies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the other being what's called the sunset provisions, elements of the agreement that expire after 10 to 15 years.
What the Trump administration has done is started negotiations with our European partners on ways to address what they see as the concerns of the agreement, which the Europeans aren't really all that keen to do, but what Trump has said is, "If you don't negotiate on these elements and try to find ways to placate my concerns, I'm going to walk away from the agreement." Every three or four months, he has an opportunity to walk away from the agreement, because every three or four months, he needs to sign documents that continue to keep U.S. sanctions off of Iran. This is why May 12th has now become this major deadline, because the president in January said, "This is the last time. We are going to wait until May, and if I don't see progress in terms of addressing what I see as the major concerns in the agreement, I'm walking away."
Brian Hanson: Saeid, you follow developments in Iran very carefully. Is the deal working in Iran? Is Iran complying with the provisions of the deal?
Saeid Golkar: Based on our understanding, yes, Iran is complying, but for Iranians, the question is the deal actually doesn't work completely, especially for the hard-liners. Although all of the sanctions was supposed to be relieved after the signing in 2015, and many sanctions actually have been relieved, the problem is still Iran cannot attract foreign investment, the money that they need to empower their economic situation. The Iranians are blaming President Trump and the U.S. administration for creating an environment of uncertainty, that even the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians are not completely willing to invest in Iran. For Iranians, even if President Trump does not walk away from the deal, the deal does not work completely. That's the main concern of a hard-liner in Iran. The Iranians are actually very angry on this issue.
Brian Hanson: Ilan, let me follow up on that point, because President Trump has positioned himself as this unconventional foreign policy guy. One of the things he's said is, "Everybody else has failed. If we are tougher with our adversaries, we're going to get things we want." Is this an attempt by the Trump administration to put extra pressure on Iran? Is it likely to work?
Ilan Goldenberg: Fundamentally, I think the president's actually just dissatisfied with this agreement for a lot of different reasons, partially because of how resentful he is of a number of different things that President Obama has done, and disagrees with. Part of it is just really about that. I think there's things that make sense and there's things that don't make sense. Just walking away from this deal with no plan for what you do afterwards, with little support from our allies, that's not going to work. Threatening to walk away from the agreement and then using that as leverage to get our partners to get more serious about addressing other issues, which is what he's tried to do, has actually been useful. It's given him leverage.
The problem is, if he walks away from the agreement on May 12th, he loses all that leverage. We're going to end up in a situation where we have some sanctions being reimposed on Iran, but a weaker sanctions regime than we had in 2012 and 2013 when the sanctions regime was at its peak. We're going to have an Iran that doesn't immediately go back to a nuclear weapon, but starts moving in that direction. We're going to have an Iranian people and government that does not have any interest in negotiating with the United States again, after having the U.S. go away.
So, a much smarter approach in my opinion would be to look for an add-on or a follow-on agreement. Here's the thing. The president says his biggest concern is the sunset provisions, the fact that in eight to 10 years, Iran will have the freedom to start building up its nuclear program again. Fine. We have lots of nuclear nonproliferation agreements. A lot of them have sunset provisions. What do you do? You do a new deal. You do an add-on agreement, but you usually don't do it in year two of a 10-year agreement. You wait a few years. You build confidence. If it's working, you go back to the Iranians with the Europeans, and the Russians, and the Chinese, and say, "Look, we don't want you to do this after year 10, so let's look at additional incentives we can provide you at that time."
My hope is now that we can get a deal between Europe and the United States which agrees to statement like this, that says we're going to be tougher on this question of sunset provisions, and by the way, in exchange, President Trump will stop the uncertainty and the drama of every three months threatening to walk away from the agreement, which is exactly the uncertainty we were talking about before. It makes it impossible for Iran to get the benefits. So, the Europeans, the Iranians, everybody wants the end to the drama, and this is what they get from Trump. In exchange, they're willing to make concessions and commit to him that they're not going to let Iran go nuts on this nuclear program after year 10. I'd be fine with that deal.
Brian Hanson: Saeid, looking at Iran, do you think it is possible that Iran would agree to something along the outlines that Ilan just laid out, in terms of a way to resolve this situation?
Saeid Golkar: If you listen to Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian Supreme Leader, talk, you came to this conclusion that no, it's not possible, Iran is not going to talk about and negotiate about its regional policy, but history shows us that the Islamic Republic usually is willing to negotiate when they see the survival of the regime is in danger. One, in 1988, when they signed the resolution of 598, in the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq, and the second one was 2015, when Iran signed the nuclear deal. At that time, I can tell you, Brian, 99% of Iranian watchers believed that Iran was not going to sign that. Then you saw that Iran signed the deal.
So, go back to your question with Ilan. I think, actually, this strategy of being tough man, and being crazy, when your method's crazy, it's working to some extent. I am not encouraging that. I agree with Ilan that you have to use that as leverage. You cannot just walk away from the deal. If you walk away from the deal, you don't have anything. Iran can accuse the U.S. that the U.S. cannot trust it, so we cannot go in to have a negotiation. You can use it as leverage to push Iran to come back to the negotiation table, but if you walk away from that, I cannot see an exit strategy from this.
Ilan Goldenberg: Right, because the one thing is, I'll say just reacting on that, the whole madman theory of international politics, which people reference sometimes to Nixon, it only works if you actually have a plan and an idea of what you're going to do afterwards, if you're going to execute. Trump's madman approach has actually worked to get everybody really ginned up about what are ... I supported the nuclear agreement. I still think it was a good deal. Do I think there were problems with it? Of course. No deal is perfect, and in international negotiations, you always have to give things up. So, you want to use the madman strategy to build leverage? Great, but then don't actually go ahead and be the madman. The second you do that, you lose all your leverage, and you just prove yourself to be ineffective. I think this is the danger of where we might be going on May 12th.
Saeid Golkar: Actually, I completely agree. I think on May 12th ... Usually prediction in political science and international relations is a very stupid thing to do, and as you know, I am usually trying to show that I am stupid. I think, actually, I think on May 12th, President Trump ... This is my idea, that he gave another four months to Europeans. He renewed again the sanction waiver. He said, "Okay, for the next four months, the European allies have more time to work with Iran." They continue this uncertainty, and then they put more pressure on Europe to talk with the Iranians. Then, because of all of these social, political, economic crises in Iran, Iran in the long term, I think, they came to this idea they have to come back to the negotiation table. Although there is speculation that President Trump will walk away from the Iran deal on May 12th, in my opinion, there is a huge chance that he will renew again for another four months or three months, and then they ask the Europeans to work with Iran. I hope he is wise enough to do that.
Brian Hanson: Saeid, one of the things that we know has been going on in Iran is, in the beginning of this year, in the beginning of 2018, there were protests on the streets by the population. Is the government concerned about that type of activity being reignited? You talked earlier about an existential threat to the regime. Is there dissatisfaction close enough to the surface that that is actually something that the Iranian government would worry about now?
Saeid Golkar: I think that you are right, Brian. If you just study Iran in 2018, from January to now, you will see a lot of protests, small but spread protests in different cities, different provinces. Some of the protests are starting because of the economic grievances. Some of them start because of the social control grievances. Some of them start because of the environmental problems.
In my opinion, the Islamic Republic is facing an accumulation of social, political, economic, environmental crises, and the situation will get worse in summer. Iran is a dry country, and the water is one of the main security threats to the Islamic Republic right now. This year was a very dry year, and they started a program to reduce the consumption of water. Summer is usually warm, very hot, so the youth usually try to have a very different dress code. They don't wear very black, all of this formal Islamic Republic dress code. They have usually in summer the conflicts with morality police, and the youth and women intensify.
Summer is, May 12th again, President Trump again then will push for Iran there. Because of all of this uncertainty, there is no foreign investment in Iran. Iranian isolation is getting very high. Iran is facing huge unemployment, huge poverty, isolation. All to all, my opinion is Iran is facing more crises in months to come. Then, if you have a President Trump with a madman strategy at the outside to create this external threat, if you have a country like Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region that are pushing Iran ... Just yesterday, there was an attack to an Iranian position in Syria, by Israel, by the U.S. military, it's not known. All of this pressure, the whole idea is all of these internal crises and this external pressure will try to bring Iran to the brink of regime collapse, or to bring him to the table to negotiate over the regional policy, or Iran foreign policy in the region, and hopefully we can have a new deal.
Brian Hanson: Both of you have talked about the preference for an extension of this deal to continue talking, to try to address some of these issues that we've been talking about. I want to think through a little bit what happens if Trump does indeed pull out in March. Ilan, let me start with you. Are there risks to the United States if Trump ends the Iranian deal?
Ilan Goldenberg: What's going to happen? Nobody knows exactly, but you can tell a few things you can be confident about, and have a range of roughly what's going to happen. I think one of the ideas that's out there is that Iran will choose to stay in the agreement and just work with the Europeans to try to separate the United States from Europe. That to me is increasingly unlikely. You see Iranian officials now coming out. They're deeply angry with the Europeans. This was their strategy four or five months ago. They were saying, "We will not be the first to violate," but they are seeing now what the Europeans are doing. They are basically saying that the Europeans are appeasing Trump at every step, so they are going to get out. That's what they're saying.
I think the notion that they're not going to do anything, and just sit on their hands, is dubious. They're going to have to respond politically. There's going to be pressure at home. They're a proud people, and Zarif, Rouhani, Khomeini, these guys will feel pressure to do something. On the other hand, Iran's got a 30-year history of pursuing its nuclear weapons program, and it's always been slow. It's always been purposefully slow, doing just enough to keep moving forward and improve their leverage without triggering a major international response. This is always the balancing act they've tried to hit. People often talk about a dash to a nuclear weapon. What Iran has been doing is crawling to a nuclear weapon. So, they're not going to just go dashing to a bomb. You're going to have this middle ground where there's not an immediate crisis, but a slow, unfolding one. This is what you're going to have on the Iranian side.
Then, on the ability to actually put pressure on, I think you will have some sanctions go back on. European companies, Asian companies who don't want to lose the American market will pull out, but you'll still have some companies willing to do business, especially since you'll have major political opposition almost across the board. One of the most important thing that happened in 2013 that really got the Iranians, the ban that threatened the regime's survival, was we managed through sanctions to cut Iran's oil sales by more than half. We took 1.2 million out of 2.5 million barrels off the market.
That's not going to happen this time, mostly because that requires cooperation from China. China is most likely to call our bluff, and our only option then, at least according to these punishments, is to sanction the Chinese central bank, which would bring the world's economy into total chaos, which isn't a credible threat. The Chinese are going to say, "Really? You're going to unilaterally walk away from this? We're not walking away from Iranian oil." So the sanctions aren't going to have the same bite.
Then you're also going to have an Iranian regime that's going to not want to renegotiate with the United States at this point. I am skeptical that we have the ability to put the pressure on. Saeid was talking about pressure, but the Trump administration, despite all the talk about how it's going to do things differently in the Middle East, and be tougher than Obama on Iran, in Syria, Trump's talking about pulling out. We have done nothing different in terms of Bashar Al-Assad, which is what Iran really cares about.
In Iraq, we have not scaled up against Iran. Instead, we have a political competition. By the way, the same day, May 12th, Iraqi parliamentary elections for the next prime minister of Iraq, where the U.S. and Iran will have to figure out how to deal with each other, because there is no such thing as a prime minister of Iraq that doesn't have at least tacit support from the U.S. and Iran. That's how we've gotten deals the last couple times, so you're going to have issues there.
And the Saudis, are the Saudis going to be the ones that apply pressure on Iran? They've proven themselves to be pretty incompetent over the last few months, one mistake after another.
I don't see how we build the pressure. What I see is a slow-motion situation, weak sanctions regime, Iran empowered, slowly moving towards a nuclear weapon. Not an immediate crisis but two, three, four years down the road from now, we're back where we were in 2011 and 2012, which is on the verge of having to choose between letting the Iranians get a nuclear weapon or pursuing military action. Both of those options are incredibly unpleasant. Iran is a country three times the size of Iraq. The notion we're going to pursue major military action against it, I just don't think the American public's going to go for that.this is why I think it's so foolish to do this on May 12th, unless we really have a clear plan, which I don't believe we do, of what we're going to do afterwards.
Brian Hanson: Saeid, how do you see this playing out if Trump were to take the U.S. out of the deal on May 12th? Do you agree with Ilan, or do you see things differently?
Saeid Golkar: No, I think Ilan is right. When you walk away from the deal, in my opinion, the President Trump administration policy is a collapse of the regime. They believe that with all of these crises that Iran is facing, if they created uncertainty that nobody comes and invests in Iran, or if they created the problem for Iran ... For example, just yesterday, when Israel attacked Iran, Iranian bases in Syria, Iran should answer that, or should be silent? Two weeks ago, they attacked the T-4 base in Syria. They killed about eight Iranians, at least, and the Iranians, they actually promised to retaliate, but they were silent. Again yesterday. All of these actions, Iranians, especially the hard-liners, are under pressure by their own social bases that, "You promised us to retaliate. Israel are coming, are hitting us, and you are not doing anything about it." If it continues, I think they're trying to make Iranians angry to retaliate. Then, if the Iranians retaliated, the situation will get much worse.
I agree with Ilan on the Iran situation. We cannot reach agreement between Iran and Iraq on the next prime minister, and without this agreement, there is no solution for Iraq. Iraq is so polarized, and I believe that if President Trump walks away from the deal, the situation for about a few years will get worse for any country in the region. It is not only Iran. In Iraq, we cannot reach an agreement. Iran, if President Trump walks away, will try to actually expand its regional policy on Yemen, on Syria. There are more conflicts with the Saudis. There are more conflicts with Israel. There more conflicts in Afghanistan, supporting radical Islamists in Afghanistan. If President Trump walks away from the deal without any plan, again I agree with Ilan that I cannot see any plan, I think we will enter a new Middle East more messy and more chaotic for the next few years.
Brian Hanson: How do you see that, Ilan, in terms of other actors in the region? You talked a little bit about the Iraq situation, but how are others likely to react? Is it likely to end up in a more complicated and difficult situation there?
Ilan Goldenberg: Yeah. I think the two most important actors to watch in terms of how they react are the Israelis and the Saudis. Mike Pompeo was just in both Saudi and Israel this week talking about precisely these questions. I think there will be support. I think there will be quiet applause. Not even quiet, it will be relatively loud applause for the U.S. walking out of the nuclear agreement. Then the Israelis and the Saudis will turn to us and say, "Okay, now let's do all these other things we want to do." We'll look at them and say, "Wait, no. That's not what we signed up for. What?" What are those things going to be? They're going to want a much more aggressive regional policy, but the president's not up for that.
Brian Hanson: What would that be? What kinds of actions would that be?
Ilan Goldenberg: Look at some of the things that the Saudis are doing, stepped-up support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, which I don't think the United States is going to do. It's not going to bring us an end to the conflict. In Syria, I think that the Israelis would like to see us dislodge Iran from Syria. This is Israel's biggest concern. They don't want Iran to have any permanent military bases in Syria. How do you do that unless you're going to get much more militarily involved in the civil war, not just in countering ISIS, but in dealing with Assad in Syria, and Russia? We're not going to do that. Obama didn't do that, but Trump has also not done that.
There is a better way to do this, which is in my mind, in Syria, if you stay in eastern Syria and hold the territory that we've taken from ISIS, we keep a couple thousand troops there long-term to help build and ensure there's no ISIS successor. It's also leverage in our negotiations with Assad, and the Iranians, and the Russians. You support some opposition groups we've supported for a long time on the Jordanian-Israeli border to at least create a buffer and keep the Iranians off of Israel's and Jordan's border.
Those are good things, but the idea that we're going to radically change ... Trump's talked about radically changing the region and radically changing our approach to Iran. He brought in Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, two guys who really don't like the Iranians very much, and led American troops in Iraq when they were being killed by Iranian weaponry, and came in. Yet after a year of reviewing and looking really carefully at the policy, very little has changed in the region. That's because you come very quickly to the conclusion of, "Gosh, this is hard, and really costly, and not worth the risks, and not worth our interests." Where are we going to dramatically escalate? Do you want to dramatically escalate in Iraq? That's the only place that seems somewhat stable right now. It's going to make things even worse.
I think the Israelis and the Saudis will be happy the day after the U.S. walks away from the Iran deal, but I think six months or a year from now, they'll find themselves deeply disappointed at the fact that it's not yielding anything in the region, and Iran is now back on its track to a nuclear weapon.
Brian Hanson: Saeid, do you want to add anything about other dynamics in the region?
Saeid Golkar: I am sure, as Ilan said, the Saudis and Israel will be happy if President Trump walks away from the deal. Don't forget that for most countries, keeping Iran weak is the main important strategy. The regional strategy for both Israel and Saudi is trying to keep Iran weak if they can, trying to actually disintegrate Iran into smaller pieces. If President Trump walks away from the deal, Iran has a very rational calculation. Iran will extend its regional policy. Then, there are more conflicts. Then, there will be more chaos in the region. Nobody wants to see it. Russia doesn't want to see it. China doesn't want to see it. Even in the U.S., I think there are many people, but some people believe the chaos theory. They believe that we create the chaos, and then after the chaos, hopefully something good will come out.
I really disagree. Without any plan, without any calculated plan, you cannot reach any objective. The whole idea right now in D.C., as Ilan and I can see it, is to put more pressure internally and externally, and the regime will collapse. I hope they are right, but again, I cannot see it in the short term. My prediction ... I came from the Middle East. The Middle East is the land of the prophecy. You have 124,000 prophets, according to the Koranic tradition. Everybody gives a prophecy. My prophecy is, if President Trump walks away, we'll come to a more chaotic situation that everybody will lose, including the U.S.
Ilan Goldenberg: Can I also say one thing about this regime change issue the U.S. government does seem to definitely be interested in, at least under the Trump administration, though I'm not sure they've explicitly made it their policy though at moments they've spoken about. What happens if they even succeed in that? They might just end up being the dog who caught the car. We've seen one regime collapse after another in the Middle East over the last few years. Nothing good has come from that. It's actually only made things worse. I am not sure you really want to make that the centerpiece of your strategy, because you really have no idea what comes next.
I'm not saying you don't necessarily work for it at all, or you definitely want to work for a more liberal system, you definitely want to work for more pragmatic, moderate voices. You want to see Iran ideally evolve over time, as opposed to trying to collapse it from within, but if they do collapse, are we ready for what comes after that? It could be worse. It could be the IRGC taking over, and getting rid of any notion of clerical rule, and just running from a hard-line dictatorial perspective, even more so than the system you have now.
Saeid Golkar: Actually, Ilan is right. Many people believe that with the collapse of the regime, a new, more secular, more liberal Iran will rise. There are a lot of evidence that support that theory. Iran has a very strong civil society. Iran has a very educated society, connected, and they're right, but at the same time, you have the element that you have to think and you have to be worried. All of these Revolutionary Guards, all of these security, military, they are more powerful people, and they are actually everywhere in the country. If the regime collapsed, what happens to these people? They are not going to give up their power easily, and they will fight for that.
All of us are concerned about the Libya-ization of Iran, or the Syria-ization of Iran, if it became either Syria or Libya. Even if you have this strategy in your mind, of the regime collapse, you have to have a clear idea after that. A lot of people in D.C. are thinking about only regime collapse, but nobody talks about after this. Okay, collapse today. What will happen tomorrow? Who will we have to support? What is our strategy? Nobody wants to talk about it, because it's very difficult to talk about it, like Libya. Everybody was thinking about, "Okay, just overthrow the Gaddafi, and then everything will be fine." Then we saw that Libya became the worst scenario in human history. It doesn't mean that I'm supporting the Islamic Republic. I want to make sure that I think, like Ilan, we are supporting a more secular, more liberal Iran. That's what people desire, but we have to be concerned about what we are wishing for.
Brian Hanson: This has been a very comprehensive and wide-ranging discussion about the situation. You both have illuminated many important points. As we close, I want to get from each of you, what do you think is the most important thing missing or under-appreciated in the U.S. debate that our listeners should bear in mind as they watch the situation unfold? Ilan, why don't we start with you?
Ilan Goldenberg: I think the most important thing to understand is that if Trump walks away, this will play out in slow motion. This won't play out immediately. You will hear all kinds of opponents of the deal immediately saying, "See? You said all of these horrible things were going to happen, and nothing horrible has actually happened. You were over-hyping the situation." Meanwhile, you'll have all the supporters of the nuclear agreement basically out there, hair on fire, talking about where this is all going to go immediately, when the reality is, this is going to play out over two, to five, to seven years. It's not going to happen immediately, and so if you really want to understand the consequences, you're going to have to watch this slowly play out afterwards.
Brian Hanson: Saeid, for you, what's the most important thing?
Saeid Golkar: Sometimes it's good to slow down and try to think, slow down, try to get a little bit farther from your subject, and try to look at it from a different perspective. I think U.S. foreign policy should do the same. They are jumping in one topic, and they think that they can solve it. The history shows us that they make mess, after mess, after mess, especially in the Middle East. My idea is it's good to just slow down for a period of time, and then try to see the region from a different perspective, and think about the consequences of what are you doing right now, and see different scenarios. That's one idea.
Brian Hanson: Well, thank you, Ilan, for coming in and talking with us today.
Ilan Goldenberg: Great. Thanks.
Brian Hanson: Thanks, Saeid, for coming back and joining us on Deep Dish.
Saeid Golkar: Pleasure to have me. Thank you for having me.
Brian Hanson: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have any questions about anything you heard, feel free to ask them in our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them, and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show, let us know by tapping on the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know someone who would enjoy this episode, tap on the share button and send it to them as well.
This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio with help from Alex Hitch. Our audio engineer is Joe Palermo. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon for another slice of Deep Dish.