The following transcript addresses the Iranian nuclear program and the P5+1 negotiations as well as Iran’s role in the ongoing Middle East turmoil. It is part of a symposium entitled, “Regime Collapse and Sectarian War: Where is the Middle East Headed?” The symposium was held on March 15, 2015, to mark the launch of the newly named Rubin Center for International Affairs in honor of MERIA founder and former editor the late Prof. Barry Rubin.
Editor’s Note: Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the world has witnessed the collapse of a number of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the consequent opening of an ungoverned space. Two formerly strong states, Iraq and Syria, have ceased to exist. The result has been the emergence of a series of paramilitary and political organizations–most based on ethnic and sectarian identity–all competing for control on the ground of what were once those states. There has also been an attempt by existing and intact regional powers to move into that space to take advantage of it for themselves. The Islamic Republic of Iran now controls part–though not all–of Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, while Turkey is another contender. This symposium examines this issue from a number of different angles, including the role the West has played.
I’ve been asked to speak about the Iranian nuclear program, at a conference dealing with regime collapse and sectarian war. They seem to be separate subjects, but I’m going to try to merge them in my brief remarks.
When we speak about the Iranian nuclear program, the elements that most of us who follow the subject are aware of–that we find most disturbing–are, of course, the fact that Iran developed its own enrichment program. Even if you accept the claims that the Iranians make that this is all for civilian purposes, those countries that have civilian nuclear programs do not require an enrichment program. They import their own enriched uranium from other sources–including the United States, which has its own enrichment facilities but brings in imported uranium in order to meet its needs many times.
The second element is that if you carefully read the normally rather boring reports, but if you look at them with a magnifying glass, you’ll see how disturbing they are. Those are the regular reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA. Beginning in 2011, the IAEA reports contained some details that for any Israeli who would look at them would be worrying and terribly disturbing.
I’m speaking specifically about the element that Iran will not disclose, and has not disclosed, despite the repeated requests of the West that those elements be put on the table. It’s called PMD–possible military dimensions–of the program.
In both the May and November reports of the IAEA, there are details about Iranian work on the Shahab-3 missile. The Shahab-3 is the missile the Iranians have had in their armed forces since 2003, when it became operational. According to these reports, the Iranians are planning to replace the conventional warhead on the Shahab-3 with what is described in the IAEA reports as a “spherical nuclear payload.”
So that’s not an Iranian nuclear program for the purposes of producing electricity when someday in the future they run out of oil or gas–which is in the far future–but something which has a definite military application.
There is a facility in Iran called Parchin, which the West has long believed is the location of much of the weaponization work that is related to this specific sentence from the IAEA report. The West gained access to Parchin in 2005, and since then has not been given access. In 2013, when the first interim agreement was reached between the P5+1 and Iran, the White House spoke about the likelihood, the possibility, of gaining access to Parchin, to inspect Parchin. Well, Parchin has not been opened up to anybody.
But at least what we do know–and we know this largely through the efforts of the very important think tank of David Albright in Washington–the Iranians have been busy pouring asphalt all over Parchin in the suspected areas, which will make taking soil samples and therefore detecting radioactive elements in the ground virtually impossible.
Now, we all know that there have been negotiations going on between the P5+1 and Iran. We know about the U.S. involvement–and actually perhaps even leading those negotiations–but I have something I want to raise that has to do with not the technical aspects I spoke about but the title of the conference.
I’ll introduce it by telling you about a conversation I had a number of years ago, in 1996. At that time, I was foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu. I was invited to Amman, Jordan, by the then Crown Prince Hassan, who used to conduct these kinds of mini-conferences called Middle East Fora, and they were held in the Hashemi palace.
There was always a strange combination of practitioners and academics that would come to these meetings–people like the foreign minister of Qatar, people like Conrad Black, and of course, Henry Kissinger. And I was new to this world; I’d just become foreign policy adviser, and I ran into Henry Kissinger and introduced myself, and he said, “Young man, sit down.”
He says, “You know what you need in the Middle East? You need a Code of Conduct in this region.”
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. And when I got home from this conference in the Hashemi palace, I had a few Kissinger books, so I pulled them out from my shelf and looked under “C” for “Code of Conduct.” There was nothing there.
So the following day, I had a meeting, I went to the prime minister’s office–because as foreign policy advisor, you had to actually go to meetings, meet there with Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, take notes, and deposit those notes in an archive. In any event, I sat with Kissinger inside the aquarium–those are the glass doors of the prime minister’s office–and I asked him, “Listen, excuse me for confessing my ignorance, but what was this Code of Conduct you were talking about?”
So he brings me back to the earliest arms control negotiations. He says, “Well, I was negotiating the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), SALT1. The year was 1971, 1972, and I was concerned that I would be sitting with the Soviets and negotiating missiles and limits on the growth of our missile forces, and in the meantime, the Soviet Union would be active in the Horn of Africa, in Angola–all over the world basically, in the third world–eventually, we know of course of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that came years later–and there we would be, reaching agreements with the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union is undermining the stability of the world through its interventionist policies.”
I filed that in my mind and tried to apply it to other situations, but lately, I’ve been thinking about that Kissinger conversation all the time. Because while the P5+1 are trying to negotiate a nuclear accord with Iran that will deal with its nuclear infrastructure, as well as its historical plans and what we believe were its drive for nuclear weapons, look at Iran.
We’re going to be talking about this today; it’s already been mentioned. What the Iranians call or like to describe as the fall of four Arab capitals into their hands: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana’a.
By the way, that wasn’t a political scientist from the West describing that. That was a statement by a member of the Iranian parliament who boasted that that had been their achievement.
Lately, I have had the opportunity to go to some conferences in various parts of Europe where Middle Easterners attend, and you can get even more insight into what the Iranians have been up to in the Middle East. There I was sitting one day, in the last month and a half, with an Iraqi Sunni general who tells me that during the Ashura festivals–that’s when the Shi’a have their special festivals, which are known in the West for when they hit themselves or flog themselves and they sometimes bleed–the Ashura festivals in Iraq this year, in Nijaf and Karbala, involved over a million Iranians who crossed the Iraqi border, came to the festival without using a passport or a visa: nothing. They just cross in, and the Iraqi general, this Sunni, says to me, “And I don’t know if they’ve left.”
In other words, we talk about the Sykes-Picot border being dissolved, well, here’s another border that seems to be dissolving and an unease with an Iraqi Sunni who felt that Iran was taking over large parts of his country. The way he described it, ISIS was a blessing for Iran, because ISIS allows Iran to move into Iraq as the savior of Western interests against ISIS and legitimizes the eventual takeover of most of that country by Iran.
I also had the opportunity to meet with the Yemenis, who told me a little bit more about the Houthi rebellion supported by Iran in Yemen, and again, the more information that I receive from those discussions, the more disturbing the Iranian intervention appears to be.
Of course, we know the Iranian interest there. It’s to take over the other international naval choke point known as Bab al-Mandab between the Iranian peninsula, between Yemen and Africa. According to the U.S. Energy Administration, approximately three and a half million barrels of oil a day go through that naval choke point. That would be in Iranian hands in addition to the Straits of Hormuz, which gives Iran huge leverage with the West.
Through Bab al-Mandab, the oil involved comes up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, and up to Europe.
But what was most disturbing to me wasn’t those oil flows that I heard about. What was most disturbing to me was that the Iranians were now posting 5,000 Yemeni Shia in the city of Qom, a city where the Iranians housed many of their Shi’i religious schools. The Shi’a of Yemen are called Fiver Shi’a. They place special emphasis on the Fifth Imam, the fifth descendent of Ali. In Iran, it’s the twelfth descendent, they’re Twelvers.
So what do you do if you’re Iran, with imperial ambitions? What you do is you convert the Fivers to Twelvers. And that seems to be underway. Five thousand Yemenis studying in seminaries in Qom, becoming Twelver Shi’a, receiving a state salary from the Iranian government.
So what I see, basically, is an imperial Iran taking over large parts of the Middle East, threatening the interests of the West, threatening the interests, of course, of Israel, of our Sunni neighbors–like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, of course Jordan. But I’m not sure the West is aware–fully–of this Iranian imperial role.
What is its relevance for the subject I was asked to discuss, which is the Iranian nuclear program?
I firmly believe that a country that has hegemonial ambitions to take over the Middle East, to recreate the Safavid Empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries–a country with those kinds of ambitions, there isn’t a chance in hell that they are going to keep any nuclear agreement that the P5+1 signs with Iran.
And therefore, although the talks on the nuclear issue are between experts who specialize in centrifuges and all of the manufacturing equipment for producing uranium fuel, we have to keep our eyes on a much bigger drama that’s going on in the Middle East, because it is that drama that will dictate whether any agreement reached with Iran will work. And in my judgment, those agreements will not work. And that, in fact, is Iran’s ultimate goal.
Audience Question: This is a question to Dore Gold or Martin Kramer, if and when there is a deal with Iran, will Congress will be able to do anything?
Ambassador Dore Gold: Well, according to the U.S. Constitution, international treaties require the advice and consent of the United States Senate, which would mean two thirds of the Senate would have to vote on it. But there is a very tricky way of moving forward if one wants to avoid the role of the U.S. congress: Don’t call it a treaty. Call it an executive agreement. That requires no approval of Congress, which is the position at present in the administration. There is going to be a huge struggle over this; it might even go to the Supreme Court of the United States. Israel can’t get in the middle of this question. This is an internal American question. What Israel can do is provide the information about what are trend lines in the P5+1 negotiations and point out the dangers, such as the sunset clause, which I’m not going to get into, but you’ve I’m sure heard of.
*Amb. Dore Gold is President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was the eleventh Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999). In January 2014, he was appointed as a senior foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term, and in the capacity of foreign policy advisor, Amb. Gold served as an envoy to the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States. Amb. Gold also served as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and was a member of the Israeli delegation at the Wye River negotiations between Israel and the PLO outside of Washington. Amb. Gold has written widely on the Middle East. In addition to five books, his articles have appeared in Asahi Shinbun, Commentary, Daily Telegraph, Die Zeit, Ha’aretz, Jerusalem Post, New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.