John Glaser and Emma Ashford join us this week for a discussion on the “Iran nuclear deal” that’s been in the news lately. What is this deal—what did the US and Iran agree to? How did it happen?
Why did Iran agree to limit their nuclear program in the first place? What are their regional goals? Is Iran complying with the deal so far? What will President Trump do?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Here’s Ashford and Glaser’s Policy Analysis, “Unforced Error: The Risks of Confrontation with Iran” and some associated content:
- “Alternatives to the Iran Deal Carry Too Much Risk” appeared in TIME on September 19, 2017.
- “The Iran Nuclear Deal: Assessing the Impact of Decertification,” a Cato Hill Briefing event.
- “Are There Alternatives to the Iran Nuclear Deal?,” a CatoConnects live event.
- “Iran, Decertification, and the Dangerous Alternatives,” a Cato@Liberty blog post by Ashford.
- “Overwhelming Resistance to Trump’s Plan to Scuttle the Iran Deal,” a Cato@Liberty blog post by Glaser.
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus. Joining me today is Emma Ashford, Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, and John Glaser, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.
Welcome to Free Thoughts, you two.
John Glaser: Thanks very much.
Trevor Burrus: Today we’ll be talking about Iran … the Iran deal, which is a paper you two put out, right in this week when we’re talking about the Iran deal. What is the actual name of it again? The …
John Glaser: Joint Comprehensive Plan [00:00:30] of Action.
Trevor Burrus: The JCPOA. That’s not a very good … Anyway, we’ll just say the Iran deal then. And Trump is talking about de-certifying it. But first, aside from the fact we know there’s a deal with Iran, what is that deal and how did it come about?
John Glaser: Sure. So the Obama administration, especially towards the second half of the second term, was in long arduous negotiations with something called the P5+1, which includes Russia, China, the United States, [00:01:00] Britain, France, and Germany, with Iran. The subject matter was their nuclear program.
Over the past 10 or so years, their number of centrifuges had grown from under 2,200 to about 19,000. They were developing higher levels of enriched uranium and it was a concern to the United States and the international community. And so what these parties tried to do, after a long time of increasing economic sanctions on Iran to try to pressure them to make [00:01:30] concessions, this agreement essentially rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. They gave up 98% of their enriched uranium stockpile. They gave up two thirds of their operating centrifuges. They converted a number of their main enrichment facilities into peaceful research centers. They gave up entirely their path to a plutonium weapon by pouring concrete into the core of their heavy water reactor. They agreed to a number of restrictions. So for 10 years they can’t [00:02:00] have better, more sophisticated centrifuges, and they have to have a cap on the number of them. For 15 years they can only produce or maintain 300 kilograms stockpile of enriched uranium and it has to be at the lowest threshold. And they agreed to only enrich at a single facility … the Natanz Facility. Whereas before it was redundant throughout the country and that was part of the problem.
There’s various restrictions that expire [00:02:30] in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 25 years. For 25 years, for example, there is constant monitoring of Iran’s mining and milling operations from which they get the uranium ore in order to help produce enriched uranium, et cetera. So the inspections regime that they’re now subject to is widely understood according to the head of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. And Ariane Tabatabai who’s a non-proliferation expert [00:03:00] at Georgetown University who actually wrote a PA for Cato earlier, that this is the most intrusive inspections regime that any party has ever voluntarily agreed to. Since implementation day, there have been more than 450 inspections of somewhere between 30 and 40 different sites. The amount of transparency that we now have on the program and visibility in it is really unprecedented. So that’s the background of the deal.
The [00:03:30] context that we’re currently facing is that Trump wants to de-certify. Now what that means is, after the deal was signed on the Obama administration, Congress passed a piece of legislation that said, “Whoever’s President, they’ve gotta, every 90 days, certify to Congress that, indeed, Iran is complying with the deal,” and if he de-certifies and said Iran is not complying with the deal, then Congress has 60 days with which they can choose … They’re not obligated to necessarily, but they can choose to [00:04:00] reimpose the sanctions that were lifted under the Iran deal. So that’s the kind of precipice that we appear to be at.
Trevor Burrus: Why did Iran make the deal?
Emma Ashford: Yeah, so what John basically left out of his description of the deal, which was very good, but what he left out was that Iran actually does get something out of this deal. The background to that is that in the run-up to the Obama administration’s negotiations on the nuclear deal, they and a group of other countries, Europeans, members [00:04:30] of the UN Security Council, put together a really intrusive draconian sanctions regime. And in particular, from the point of view of Europe, this included a ban on Iranian oil exports. Faced with all of these economic burdens, economic impacts, the Iranians decided that they would come to the negotiating table.
So what the US and its partners get out of this deal is a significantly restrained Iranian nuclear program. What the Iranians get out of it is sanctions relief [00:05:00] and the prospect that they might be able to start re-opening their economy to foreign companies, to foreign banks, that they might be able to get out of this economic rock that they’re in.
Trevor Burrus: Is it safe to say that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon earnestly before? Were all those facilities that you talked about, John, for power? I mean, were they actually pursuing a nuclear weapon pretty earnestly and then suddenly decided, “Oh, no. The economics matters more.” ‘Cause that doesn’t make a lot [00:05:30] of sense.
John Glaser: That kind of depends on who you ask and what perspective we’re talking about. The first thing to understand is that Iran is not a monolith. There’s a dynamic political system in Iran. There’s hardliners, there’s doves-
Trevor Burrus: It’d be like that in all countries [crosstalk 00:05:43].
John Glaser: Like all countries. [crosstalk 00:05:44]. Exactly.
Trevor Burrus: In North Korea, I guess.
John Glaser: And there’s different bureaucracies and there’s different sections of the state that follow certain procedures and pursue certain policies. And so some people inside Iran, some officials inside Iran, describe their expansion of their nuclear programs in the [00:06:00] following way. “We wanted to, as we were suffering from increasing sanctions, we wanted to expand our nuclear program as leverage. And so when we finally got to the negotiating table, we could give up significant portions of it and, so it was a kind of a bargaining chip.”
The other aspect is that Iran is actually deeply threatened. They live in a dangerous region. In the past few years, the United States has launched aggressive regime change in occupation [00:06:30] wars in the countries directly to Iran’s east and west. We constantly patrol the Persian Gulf directly to Iran’s south with fleets of navy warships. We are best friends with two of Iran’s most vociferous regional enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the first of which has nuclear weapons itself. And so there’s certainly constituencies inside Iran that thought to themselves, “Look. We ought to either obtain nuclear weapons as a deterrent [00:07:00] to ensure that the United States or another country cannot bomb us, try to impose regime change, et cetera.” Or, and this is kind of weaselly, “get close enough to a nuclear weapon so that we can have what’s called a breakout threshold capability, so that if we decide that we really need to pursue nuclear weapons, we’ll have all the infrastructure in place and we can essentially build one within a matter of months.”
Prior to the signing of the nuclear deal, that’s about where they were. They had a breakout capability [00:07:30] of about a few months. The signing of the nuclear deal and their rollback of it, now they’re about one year or more from a nuclear weapon.
Emma Ashford: There’s also a time component here to this. Because the Iranians have had a weapons program in the past, but the US intelligence community assesses that it was basically wound down by about 2003, and so their most recent estimates are that the Iranian program, even though it was expanding, was primarily for civilian purposes.
The trick of course [00:08:00] is that all civilian nuclear programs can be used for weapons purposes if you want to do so. If you can achieve the technology to run a nuclear reactor to power homes, you can probably achieve the technology to actually make a nuclear weapon. And so the breakout time that John’s talking about, there are plenty of countries with a really low breakout time.
The Japanese, for example, have a breakout time between three and six months, I believe. The trick is that we trust the Japanese, that they’re probably not going to weaponize this facility. [00:08:30] They’re members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran wasn’t, prior to the signing of this deal, and so the question is how do we ensure that Iran’s programs stayed civilian and that they didn’t quite get all the way to where it was an easy step to a weapon.
Trevor Burrus: Let’s take a step back and look at the region itself. You mentioned, John, that with Saudi Arabia and Israel, but a lot of Americans just … including myself to some degree … Our foreign policy … John and I often talk is … what I know the least about, [00:09:00] and therefore I try to not have opinions about it because uninformed opinions are dangerous, but just to-
Emma Ashford: You’re doing better than most American-
Trevor Burrus: That’s the … I’m trying to. Look at the Middle East and a lot of Americans say that’s just sort of a general region with a lot of problems in it, and not a lot of differentiation between Saudi Arabia and Iran or Turkey or Jordan or any of these countries. Where does Iran fit into the Middle East sort of framework?
John Glaser: Emma’s a regional expert, so …
Emma Ashford: Well, we could go back in history, right? Or we could talk about the history of US-Iranian [00:09:30] relations, which is where the kind of animosity that we have towards Iran comes from today. Iran, actually, used to be our closest ally in the region. We were pretty closely allied with the government. Then in 1953, the Iranian people elected a leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was not friendly towards the US. In return, the US and Britain helped to spearhead a coup in Iran that brought the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah, to power. This is the man [00:10:00] that was eventually overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He was incredibly cruel to his people. His Secret Police were repressive and brutal. And so the Iranian Revolution was, in many ways, a reaction to the US-instigated regime change from years before. So this is the background, the animosity between the US and Iran.
But in the broader regional context, at least since the start of the Arab spring, in about 2010, [00:10:30] 2011, we tend to view the region as this sort of Sunni versus Shia struggle. So the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia are struggling against Iran. And in this light, Iran is often portrayed very negatively, and Iran leads the Shia states. But that’s not really a very accurate picture. That’s the one that you might get from the headlines and the news, but it actually basically boils down to Iran has very few regional allies. The key ally was Syria’s [00:11:00] Bashar al-Assad, which is one reason why they intervened so strongly to prop them up during the civil war. And then we have all of these other states, some of which have taken a pretty hostile line towards Iran over the years … Saudi Arabia or Israel being the example … some of which have shifted closer towards Iran and Iraq after the US invasion is a key example here. Iraq and Iran very much dislike one another. The US invasion brought Iraq a lot closer to Iran.
And then we have [00:11:30] a lot of little states. Places like Qatar, which are sort of ambivalent towards Iraq. They’d be open to better relations. They’d be open to trading with them, but they’re a little constrained by the relations with the bigger states. So it’s a really complex region and the way we see it which is Iran is the baddie and everyone else is the good guy, is a vast oversimplification.
Trevor Burrus: What’s their relationship to ISIS? If they have one. I mean, I know ISIS doesn’t necessarily have a guy you can call, but maybe they [00:12:00] tweet at them.
John Glaser: So that’s one of the remarkable things about recent US-Iranian relations, is that since the rise of ISIS in 2013, which we should remind ourselves was an outgrowth of the Sunni insurgency that rose up to fight US forces in Iraq, so in part, an unintended consequences of the invasion. Since their rise, Iran and its proxy forces have been one of the foremost enemies of ISIS. And they’ve probably carried the heaviest lift in terms of on-the-ground battling of ISIS. [00:12:30] We’ve done a lot of air power and so have some of our allies, but they’ve done a lot of fighting of ISIS-type people in Iraq and Syria. This is one of the sort of elements of Iranian rhetoric at the moment, like, “Don’t be so aggressive towards us. We’re partly, at least in some ways, a workable ally with you.”
Emma Ashford: But it’s not entirely clear though, that that Iranian pushback against ISIS is kind of an allied good here because, as the Iranians sponsored [00:13:00] militias … groups like Hezbollah … as they help Bashar al-Assad to seize back control in Syria, they’re helping to promote a really brittle regime, they don’t necessarily have the best interests of some of the population at heart. And so this is the bigger problem in the region, right? So we are fighting on the same side as Iran against ISIS right now, but once the fight against ISIS is over, we’ll have differing objectives again.
John Glaser: Yeah. So the only thing I’d quickly add to that is that a big part of a starting point [00:13:30] of where we try to think about foreign policy is what are US interests? And so when it comes to the Middle East and the terrorism fight and groups like ISIS, the scholar at King’s London, Leif Wenar, who actually came to Cato for a book forum a couple of years ago, looked at the global database of terrorist incidents and he concluded that, since 9-11, 94% of the anti-American terrorism, the terrorism that’s been directed at Americans, has been of a Sunni and [00:14:00] Wahabi variety, which is the Saudi, Pakistani, Qatari„ Kuwaiti-type of groups that are funded through those kinds of channels. It’s not been Hezbollah and other Shiite groups that Iran tends to support.
Trevor Burrus: So inside of Iran, another thing where Americans don’t have a lot of experience … hard to travel there. What is it … highly repressive regime, would you say, for women or for civil liberties? Is it highly oriented around [00:14:30] Muslim fundamentalist ideology? If you went to your average person on the street in Iran and said, “Do you think America should be destroyed?”, would they say, “Yeah.” What does it look like inside of Iran. I’m not sure if the interviewer have ever been, but is it … I’m sure Americans have an idea of it that may be not accurate.
Emma Ashford: Actually it’s really fascinating. If you look at polling from across the Middle East, you will find that the people that view the US in the most positive light are Iranian citizens. It’s not Iraqis. [00:15:00] It’s not Afghanis. It’s not even Saudis. It’s actually Iranian and particularly Iranian youths. And that may owe something to the fact that the US is meddling in a lot of other countries and we’ve largely stayed out of Iran.
But Iran itself is … I would term it a semi-democratic regime, right? There are elections. They’re not entirely free, fair, and open. The candidates go through a selection process first but, nonetheless, the people can vote for the candidates [00:15:30] within that slate that represent their interests. Iran is more liberal than a lot of its neighbors on certain civil libertarian issues. So women in Iran, for example, have always been able to work. The restrictions on dress are less onerous than they are in places like Saudi Arabia. But none of this is to say that Iran is a fully free and open society. There is still censorship. There is still repression. And, in particular, [00:16:00] groups like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Core, still control quite a lot of the economy. And so, actually, one of the sort of underlying impotences behind the Obama administration’s decision to pursue the nuclear deal was this hope that if we could strike a successful nuclear deal, and perhaps Iran could reopen a little more to the West, reopen to trade, perhaps we could nudge that change inside Iran, you know, a more pro-democratic direction.
Trevor Burrus: A lot of conservative critics would say it seems right now that we’ve been [00:16:30] whitewashing Iran to some degree, that this instant, “Oh, it’s not even a big deal if they have a nuclear weapon.” Do you guys think it would be a big deal if they got a nuclear weapon? Yes? Or at least would they pass it on to terrorists who might send it to New York City and put it off in Central Park? These seem like valid concerns.
John Glaser: So it’s profoundly unlikely that Iran, or really any other state, is going to hand off a nuclear weapon to a group like Al-Qaeda or some non-state group to bomb because it’d probably be traceable and they [00:17:00] would suffer really horrendous consequences for it. States with nuclear ovens tend to want to hold on to them and gain control over them because they’re really important in that sense.
I don’t think it’s good if Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons. There are strategic problems with that. There are all kinds of concerns that could arise foreign policy-wise. But it’s not nearly the danger that some, [00:17:30] particularly on the right, depict it as. So the well-known international relations scholar, Kenneth Waltz, who wrote the foundational books of defensive realism in, I think, 2012 wrote an article for Foreign Affairs saying we should let Iran get nuclear weapons because, first of all, they’re not irrational. It’s not the mad Mullahs that we hear about, that they’re willing to commit national suicide. And nuclear imbalances [00:18:00] tend to want to balance themselves, and for a long time Israel has had nuclear weapons in the region without openly admitting it, and their sort of deeply tense relationship with Iran has contributed to part of the motivation for Iran to want to be able to sufficiently defend itself.
Trevor Burrus: It seems a big risk, with Israel in particular, because if we had a revolution like Ayatollah Khomeini came up and was that level [00:18:30] of fundamentalist, would lobbying a nuclear weapon at Israel, even with the possibility of America coming in, would that be something … There’s a lot of people there who are probably willing to do that. And so isn’t that something we should not even let, you know, the possibility of occurring?
Emma Ashford: Yeah. So this is one of those things. Despite being a realist myself, like Ken Waltz, I’ve never really bought this argument, and it’s because the risk is always there. So there are good reasons to oppose nuclear proliferation. [00:19:00] Even if you think that most countries are rational, even if you think that nuclear weapons sometimes help to stabilize things, there are good reasons to want not every country in the world to have nuclear weapons. It’s because the more countries that have it, the more you have the risk of an accident, the more you have the risk of somebody going crazy and deciding to use one. And so, while I genuinely, just like John, I don’t think that the Iranian regime would actually consider using a nuclear weapon even against Israel, I [00:19:30] think it’s very much in our interests to prevent them from getting a weapon in the first place just in case.
John Glaser: I wanna be clear that’s my position too. But there is kind of a dogma in Washington, DC, given what we’ve considered to be our role, especially since 1945, which is to try to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons, that there’s a kind of bias against even the thought of it.
I was at a conference earlier this month with a well-known scholar [00:20:00] and realist, and we were talking about quote unquote “friendly proliferation” in states like South Korea. That would be not nearly as worrisome as an Iranian nuclear weapon, but it’s something that scholars in academia have kind of entertained as a possibility in the future … a sort of future path forward in our policy in Northeast Asia, but it’s something that’s just not even allowed to be uttered in Washington, DC. So I was trying to push back against the [crosstalk 00:20:28].
Trevor Burrus: A [00:20:30] term you two have both used a couple of times that I wanna make sure our listeners are aware … realist. It’s almost like, “Oh, I’m realistic.” But you’re using it in a different term than that. What is a realist when it comes to foreign policy?
John Glaser: So in international relations, realist has a very particular definition, and it’s hard to get anyone to agree precisely what it is, but it doesn’t mean in colloquial terms like, “I believe in what reality is,” et cetera.
Trevor Burrus: Or, “I’m realistic.”
John Glaser: There’s a broad spectrum. So you have, you know, hawkish people who disagree with [00:21:00] MNI deeply, like say, Henry Kissinger, that are firmly within the realist tent. And then you have much more restraint-oriented realists like Christopher Lane and Stephen Walt, and so on.
But, broadly, what it means is it’s a recognition that the international system is anarchic. That is to say there’s no overweening government. There’s no 911 for a country to call if it gets into a dispute with another country. And that means that it’s a self-help system and in that self-help system [00:21:30] you try to develop the capability to defend yourself. And there’s all kinds of other implications for how states behave in this anarchic system.
It’s also heavily emphasized on the distribution of power and military capabilities in the system, as opposed to what some other liberal internationalists might emphasize … international cooperation, diplomacy, international organizations, international law, et cetera. And so those are the, at least some of the distinctions. Maybe [00:22:00] Emma can be more precise about it.
Emma Ashford: I know you guys talk on this podcast a fair amount about philosophy, so actually perhaps this would help. So-
Trevor Burrus: Please.
Emma Ashford: … realism, I’m afraid to say, is a very Hobbesian view of nature. It’s the idea that the international system is a short brutish state of nature, that states don’t necessarily always cooperate, that we have to be realistic about the fact that we don’t really have friends, per se, in other states. We might have allies of temporary convenience, but we can’t actually necessarily change that. And [00:22:30] then there are other views of international relations, most notably liberal internationalism or constructivism or liberal institutionalism, all of which draw much more from the writings of people like Rousseau-
Trevor Burrus: These were the Rousseauians and the international [crosstalk 00:22:46].
Emma Ashford: Exactly.
Trevor Burrus: “Let us all get along.”
Emma Ashford: [crosstalk 00:22:46]. [Cannes 00:22:47] is considered to be one of the fathers of a lot of these theories. And their argument basically is that we can shape and change the international system. We can make it better and so, I’m afraid to say that I am [00:23:00] a realist, which is to say that I don’t necessarily think it’s possible for us to fix the international system.
Trevor Burrus: Now, you John, you described yourself as a realist too, correct? I’m on that spectrum, just-
John Glaser: I’m … yeah-
Trevor Burrus: … I don’t take Henry Kissinger’s side, but at least-
John Glaser: On Tuesdays, I’m a realist and on Wednesdays, I’m a constructivist. I try, you know, I learn from theories of international relations, and I try to apply them as best I can, but I don’t find myself stuck in one camp in particular. Certainly I’m more of a realist than other particular [00:23:30] camps, and I’ve benefited most from the analysis that it brings, and the clarity and the predictability that it has for how states behave in this international system.
Trevor Burrus: Well, the interesting thing is that we brought up liberal internationalism and going back to the deal, now we’ve taken a segue and leave some groundwork, it seems to some that what your guys are really championing is not anything sort of realism that Emma mentioned, but you’re talking about something like the IAEA and some bunch of deals and we’re gonna talk this out [00:24:00] and we’re gonna pretend to have a kumbaya moment, all the while, while this regime is easily manufacturing nukes and underground bunkers in a country three times … I looked this up beforehand … three times the size of Texas. Iran is very big. It’s about … it’s almost three times the size of Texas, and so right now, really, you guys are the liberal globalists, internationalists who are not being realistic about Iran’s actual aims.
Emma Ashford: In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”
So you’re right. We are using international [00:24:30] institutions to get what we want in this case. We’re using the IAEA to help us do the inspections. We’re working with other countries. But a realist explanation for all of that is really quite easy to make, and it is the idea that the US was the most powerful state in the system, that we wanted this to happen, that we went around and convinced other states to back us, thus increasing the number of states that wanted this to happen, that would be willing to pressure Iran. We brought enough pressure to bear on Iran that they [00:25:00] were willing to agree to our conditions. And those conditions include intrusive inspections. Those conditions include Iran giving up a number of coherent solid things that it really wanted to keep. And so, the realist argument for this would be that we may have used these methods, but it was the fact that we had that coercive power over Iran that let us achieve it in the first place.
John Glaser: Yeah. The other key way to describe this in realist terms is that realists try to take the world as [00:25:30] it is, not as they’d like it to be, and so when you look at the options that we have at our disposal to try to deal with Iran, the alternatives are far worse.
So, dealing with multilateral sanctions that lead to an international agreement that roles back Iran’s nuclear program is one option. Another option is to just continue the pressure, fight Iran in the region, fight its proxies, increase sanctions, et cetera. Another option is trying to foment a regime [00:26:00] change once again by supporting internal opposition groups. And another option is direct military action.
So if you look at the scope of all these, and you look at which route, which channel, which tactic, is most likely to improve Iranian behavior and policies, and which is most likely to have counterproductive results, or ones that are nasty for US interests, and the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal was the least bad option.
Trevor Burrus: Can’t we just walk away? I mean, that seems to me that there’s another option. [00:26:30] We had sanctions. We’ve had sanctions for a long time. We had sanctions before the deal. Leave the sanctions. Walk away. Stop giving them the cover of a deal to let them make these nuclear weapons and hiding. I mean, again, we can get to that, but like that is an option, correct?
John Glaser: Walk away from the region entirely?
Trevor Burrus: No, walk away from the deals. That we continue the sanctions, walk away from the deal.
John Glaser: Yeah. So-
Trevor Burrus: Don’t give them cover any more.
John Glaser: Emma will have a lot to say about this ‘cause she’s an expert in sanctions, but sanctions a pretty bad policy tool on their own. They don’t have a lot of very [00:27:00] good history … an impressive history at all of altering the behavior policies of other countries in the direction that the sanctioner wants them to go. They have a really bad track record and sometimes they succeed, but only when certain conditions apply. So when it’s multilateral and there’s a lot of countries that are applying the same set of sanctions, and really pressuring the country. And also when the question at hand is not a matter of profound national security to the state that we’re trying to target. And, crucially, [00:27:30] you have to offer a pathway out.
So if it’s just sanctions, sanctions, sanctions, endless sanctions, and you don’t say to them, “Hey, if you do this to change your behavior,” and provide some incentives this way, “then we’ll lift the sanctions,” then you’re not gonna get much-
Trevor Burrus: For example, what we’re doing with North Korea [crosstalk 00:27:44]. But, Emma, you answer to that?
Emma Ashford: Yeah. So nothing makes me crazier than sanctions policy, right? And this, I think, is the area in which Congress often likes to flex its foreign policy muscles and the area in which the thing they do is most counterproductive. So, for [00:28:00] sanctions to work, and it’s rare that they work … before them to work, they have to be globally active, so a state can’t cheat by going to, say, China instead of what it gets from the US. The sanctions have to be draconian enough to get a result, which is often very difficult to do. And in case a state like North Korea, you’re talking about a state that has no real external economic ties, so how do you sanction that state?
And so it gets increasingly difficult the more you isolate a state. [00:28:30] And then, finally, this point that John made really is important. You have to offer a path out. Sanctions are a tool, right? They’re … we say, “We are sanctioning you. If you stop doing what you’re doing, we’ll take the sanctions away.”
Trevor Burrus: Like grounding a child. You think-
Emma Ashford: Exactly.
Trevor Burrus: … you get television back if you stop doing that.
Emma Ashford: Exactly. And so the Iranian nuclear deal is actually a extremely successful sanctions episode. We put very harsh sanctions on Iran. They worked. They brought Iran to the negotiating table, gave up more [00:29:00] than it really wanted to. We got a fairly good deal. Perhaps it wasn’t perfect, but we got a pretty good deal out of it. And we lifted some of the sanctions in exchange. That’s exactly how it’s meant to work. The version that we’re talking about now, where Trump might de-certify Iran, where Congress might reimpose more sanctions, that’s the exact opposite of what you want to do because it just sends the message, “It doesn’t matter what you do, Iran. We’re just gonna add more sanctions.”
Trevor Burrus: Going back to the question about realism, of people criticizing you two for not being realistic about this. [00:29:30] And it could come from two realists. “No, I am a realist. No, I’m a realist.” Is the fundamental disagreement really Iran? The conception of Iran’s behavior? If you have a conception of it as an irrational suicide-bomber nation, essentially you almost personified it as an irrational nation, then the realist thing to do is to not believe them? Or if you have a conception of Iran as a multi-faceted, you know, some liberal element, some extremist element, something in between, [00:30:00] then maybe the thing to do is to trust the regime and both … that’s how realists could differ?
John Glaser: Yeah. So, a lot of this is just Washington and the US federal government is kind of … they’re a monster of habit. And so, since 1970, when the current regime overthrew the regime that we had imposed, and they developed this national narrative about anti-Americanism and the great Satan, and you know, which is somewhat understandable given what we did to them-
Trevor Burrus: And what they’ve done to us.
John Glaser: And what they’ve [00:30:30] done to us, and their behavior in the region, et cetera, right?
Trevor Burrus: And in a very big sense.
John Glaser: Right. So, given that history, many people in this country on both sides of the aisle are just kind of stuck and viewing Iran as an implacable enemy that you can’t incentivize in another way, that you can’t sort of coddle in a way that offering carrots and sticks, in a certain direction, you can’t alter their behavior. And this represents, I think, a blind spot because Iran is one [00:31:00] actor. They do a lot of nasty things, but it’s also the case that our allies, as I kind of referenced before, have done a lot to the detriment of US interests. And yet you don’t hear these alleged realists or these allegedly not naive people, right-
Trevor Burrus: That’s a good way of putting it, yeah.
John Glaser: … talking about those countries. And again, this is just because there are certain parameters of debate in Washington, DC, and talking about Iran in this way is less acceptable than talking against Iran as an evil [00:31:30] implacable enemy and our allies as always good.
Emma Ashford: There’s a lot of semantics at play here too, right? So a lot of people who call themselves realists don’t really fit with what, you know, academic literature would say is a realist. And over the years, people tried often, repeatedly, to redefine realism as something more like what I want to see in US foreign policy. So Donald Trump, for example, has repeatedly called his own foreign policy principled realism. Now, I personally would be thrilled to see [00:32:00] an administration embrace principled realism. This is not it. So I would be skeptical about anyone that’s calling themselves a realist. Are they actually looking at the world as it is, are they saying these are the options, what is the best of the available options, or are they suggesting some magical thinking where we can somehow walk away from this deal, walk away from all our allies, and through some unknown process, achieve a better outcome?
John Glaser: One last point on this. I wouldn’t discount the sort of political football nature [00:32:30] that Iran has become. So it’s really beneficial to, in this current environment, for Republicans running for election in Congress, say, to talk about Iran as an implacable evil, because it’s the Obama administration’s deal that they reached with Iran. And so it’s kind of politically beneficial, and it satisfies the base, it’s a lot of red meat for Republicans, and so that’s part of what’s going on as well.
Trevor Burrus: Not an inconsiderable amount of Republicans who believe the Sharia Law is creeping across the nation and things [00:33:00] like that.
Another realist point though, and I don’t want to be misusing that word as if … but there was someone criticizing the naivete of you two that … I’m putting that in just air quotes or they were calling you naïve. The IAEA … Generally speaking, when I encounter international organizations, if someone comes to me and says, “Well, the UN Human Rights, blah, blah, blah have …”, I really don’t put a lot of stock in that. I’ve known international lawyers. I’ve talked to them. They [00:33:30] have a particular bend on globalistic organizations, thinking that they have many incentives to do their job well. They say, “Oh, the UN said,” and you know most of them are libertarians, most people who are out with their realistic in a general sense don’t just say, “Oh well, the UN said this, so therefore that must be true.” So it’s sort of weird to me that we would put so much stock in an organization, the AIEA, that agreed upon organization that does doesn’t have a profit motive. It doesn’t have a really good incentive to do its job incredibly well. It’s politically [00:34:00] motivated. We know about the UN. Why do we trust them?
Emma Ashford: I’ll make two points about that.
The first is that actually … you know I agree with you. International institutions are often pretty terrible. The IAEA is actually one of the exceptions. It’s been a fairly effective agency over the years. Perhaps due to the fact that most of the people that work there firmly believe in non-proliferation and want us to make sure that states don’t get nuclear weapons. And so the IAEA has actually been quite effective over the years in helping us to negotiate various [00:34:30] arms control treaties and monitoring different countries and, in particular, in monitoring and implementing the nuclear non-proliferation treaties.
So the fact that we went to them for this is not because we just randomly picked an international agency, it’s because this is actually the agency that coordinates global inspections of countries’ civilian nuclear programs. So they’re actually fairly effective.
But the second point that I’ll make here is, the deal does officially call for the IAEA to, [00:35:00] you know, tell us whether they think Iran is complying, but I think we would all be utterly foolish to assume that the US is not itself doing our own intelligence verification of this. And, in fact, if you talk to intelligence professionals, if you talk to scholars that study this issue, what they will tell you is, the nuclear deal is good for intelligence gathering, because it actually means that there is more access to Iranian nuclear facilities than we had before more access to Iranian technical [00:35:30] areas in general. So the deal doesn’t just help the IAEA figure out if Iran is violating it, it also makes it easier for US intelligence agencies to do so.
John Glaser: Yeah. Two quick points. The second point that Emma made is extremely important. It’s not just the IAEA that’s essentially confirming this. The added transparency and visibility that we now have inside Iran as a result of this deal also allows intelligence communities, not just from our own country, but from other countries. Russia and China are sort of opposed to us, [00:36:00] and adversaries in lots of ways in the international relations, that they don’t want an Iranian nuclear weapon either.
Alright, so all the parties involved are really interested in not seeing an Iranian nuclear weapon, and when you talk about the various … the 16 intelligence agencies we have in the United States that draw up reports of this kind, using all their intelligent capabilities, you know, and so there’s lots of redundancy in terms of who’s deciding and who’s confirming Iranian compliance.
The other thing is that it’s true that the government is incompetent [00:36:30] in a lot of ways, and that translates as well to international organizations-
Trevor Burrus: ‘Cause it’s like double government. It’s-
John Glaser: Right.
Trevor Burrus: … not gonna work.
John Glaser: But the US government is really bad at doing vast constructions of how the economy should operate, who should trade with whom, et cetera. They’re really bad at really complicated overarching things, but if the IRS wants to make sure that you don’t misbehave with regard to your tax income, they can easily figure it out, right?
Trevor Burrus: They’re pretty good at that, yeah.
John Glaser: They’re pretty [00:37:00] good at that. So there’s certain things when you’re just looking at something and verifying it, it’s pretty straightforward. You don’t need some magic bullet that governments don’t have.
Trevor Burrus: Now, if you cruise around the conservative bogus fear, which I did before we started recording … Yeah, Emma just made a face. It’s like, “Why did you do that?” As I said, foreign policy is not my expertise, but you do see some claims that, “Yes, we have intelligence at our own looking into it,” but some of those are saying that they’re not compliant. I read as not compliant. [00:37:30] And telling senators that they’re members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that they’re not compliant. And you also have sort of quotes like these … Section T, which apparently is the one that prohibits Iran from conducting certain activities, quote “activities which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device.” Chief Amano of the IAEA has said our tools are limited. In other sections, for example, Iran has committed to submit declarations, place their activities under safeguards or ensure access by us, but in Section T, I don’t see any such commitment.
So we [00:38:00] have some reservations from the IAEA, it seems.
Emma Ashford: Well, let me start with the Section T thing, because I think this is a talking point that’s been getting a lot of play lately. And it’s true. Section T is a sort of annex to the deal, and it basically says if we, at any point, detect that Iran is doing other things that other than enriching uranium, other things that let it get towards a nuclear weapon. So things like modeling how nuclear [00:38:30] explosive devices work, for example. If we learn that we’re doing that, then we can bring it up within the context of the deal. But it doesn’t include any verification measures for this. And the best explanation that I’ve heard for this came from Jeffrey Lewis at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. He’s a non-proliferation expert. And he basically points out that that would include every computer inside Iran that is capable of doing modeling of a nuclear weapon.
The computer that we are using to record this podcast [00:39:00] right now could probably do that. There’s a reason why Section T doesn’t have verification mechanisms and it’s because it’s effectively impossible to do. The reason it’s included in the deal is not because we think that we could ever verify it. It’s because if we detect through intelligence means that we think that Iran is doing this stuff, we want a description in the deal that actually lets us bring this up as part of the framework. So it’s there as kind of a belt and braces approach. It’s not there because we think [00:39:30] it’s something we need to be verifying.
John Glaser: Yeah. Let me just add to this.
So, in addition to Section T, there is some things that people point out about the amount of … what was it … heavy water that Iran succeeded in terms of the caps that it’s supposed to keep to. And the way that the JCPOA talks about this is, if there’s any uncured violations. That is to say, this is a very technical process that they’re engaging in, whether it’s enriching uranium or what have you. And accidents [00:40:00] can occur. You can accidentally produce just a bit more than your caps says, et cetera. And when those violations occur, if Iran doesn’t satisfy them. If Iran doesn’t do something to bring itself back into conformity with its obligations, then it’s a violation. And so they’ve shipped out the excess material that they had and so on.
The other thing, it’s important to point out a lot of critics of the deal have pointed to that quote from Yukiya Amano. His position … That’s the head of the [00:40:30] IAEA … His position on the Iran nuclear deal is absolutely crystal clear. He supports it fully. He doesn’t support backing out. He doesn’t support de-certifying Iranian compliance. And he has said numerous times that Iran is actually compliant, so it’s important to put those in context.
Trevor Burrus: When you talk about a violation, does that generally mean that what will happen at the sanctions that resulted that Iran didn’t want before, as you mentioned, Emma, that because they were so broad international sanctions that European embargoes on [00:41:00] oil, for example, were really hurting the country. So do those things come back in really quickly, or do we have this year-long back and forth, like, time where again, John said it’s about a year on their breakthrough point, could they play this system out on violations and then use that as a breakthrough point to produce nuclear weapon, and then that changes the entire game, right? It’s changed it with North Korea. And they do that and suddenly, you know, they work behind the scenes and then they have one.
Emma Ashford: There are verification … There are [00:41:30] procedures inside the deal for this kind of issue, right? So, hypothetically speaking, if the US felt, or another country felt, that Iran was cheating on the deal, that we have discovered evidence that they were in some way developing a nuclear weapon on the side, we would bring that information to the IAEA. The IAEA would ask Iran, “Can we come in and inspect. We think you’re doing something inappropriate.” Iran has 24 days in which to either accept or dispute that. If they do not [00:42:00] let the IAEA in to inspect, or if the IAEA finds something bad, it then goes back to the UN Security Council and the UN Security Council has 60 days in which if they vote … if one single country votes saying that it believes that Iran is cheating, effectively, the sanctions snap back onto Iran … all of these sanctions from before, and they lose the sanctions relief.
So this process, you know, it is about three months when you add it all up. [00:42:30] But it could move a lot faster if countries were seriously concerned about what Iran is doing. And it’s also worth noting that we have seen no cases where this has happened so far. The Trump administration might be saying that they don’t believe Iran is in compliance, but the US intelligence community does believe Iran is in compliance. European countries have all stated that they believe that Iran is in compliance, and so no one has yet actually found any evidence or turned up anything that would lead to them [00:43:00] to even think about starting that process.
Trevor Burrus: We have other options, don’t we? That’s the power of … You get into that in your paper, which I highly recommend. ‘Cause you’re not actually just saying, “This is the best deal ever struck. There’s no concerns with this deal whatsoever. You know, it’s a perfect … in the liberal international order world, bring everyone into line.” You’re saying that this deal is working as we see it, and the other options, and you brought them up briefly, are not good if you’re trying to pursue [00:43:30] Iran not having a nuclear weapon. But, I mean, one of them could be striking nuclear facilities directly with, for example, cyber warfare, which I think we tried to do at one point?
Emma Ashford: We did.
Trevor Burrus: By heating up their … making the centrifuges spin. That seems a possibility that we could maybe trust more than a deal like this. We could try and change the regime, which I know is the position of people like John Bolton. There is a lot of [00:44:00] other options, correct?
John Glaser: Yes. There’s two things, and we’ll … Look, we can get into the details of each option at this point, but before we do, it’s important to note that deal or no deal, we still have all these options. So one of the things that conservatives and right-wing critics of this agreement like to point out, like to try to depict us as having given up something we can’t … you know, this kind of robs us of our ability to use coercive options against Iran, [00:44:30] and that’s just not true.
Prior to the signing of the deal, inside the deal like we are now or, if in the future Iran cheats, we still have all the options at our disposal to apply pressure, if we deem it necessary. And so, it shouldn’t be depicted as either the deal or we have options. We haven’t given anything up.
I meant we’ve already talked about sanctions pretty well. Emma can talk about pushing back against Iran and the region. You mentioned regime change. So this is something that I think Rex Tillerson, in Congressional testimony [00:45:00] almost sort of accidentally mentioned. It doesn’t seem that it’s something that he actually pursues as a matter of policy, but he talked about the option of supporting internal opposition groups inside Iran to try to foment regime change or something like this. This is a really bad option. Again, the history is pretty clear on this. During the Cold War and up to today, the vast majority of regime change operations, whether covert or overt, fail. Even in those rare cases where we do succeed in changing the government [00:45:30] and imposing a new one, it tends to backfire on us. It tends to not be in our interests. And the relationship between the new regime and the intervenor doesn’t improve and, in fact, it often worsens.
The other question for this option is, who do we support? Who are we gonna give support to?
Trevor Burrus: There was a green revolution at one point, wasn’t there?
John Glaser: Yes. So the green revolution is a … It’s called a green movement.
Trevor Burrus: Green movement.
John Glaser: In 2009, they rose up to protest the contested Presidential [00:46:00] elections in Iran. And they’re a group of sort of moderates, and the problem is with supporting them to foment regime changes is that they have no, have never articulated a desire to overthrow the Iranian regime. They’ve articulated a desire to work within the system. And those kind of domestic political ambitions mean that any whiff of US support in support of some kind of regime change operations, is gonna rob them of all that support.
Trevor Burrus: That sounds like it would be like if some foreign country decided to support the tea party in regime [00:46:30] change. Like if the grassroots movement, they came up and then, but wanted to work within the system and then, let’s say Russia came in and said, “We wanna support the tea party to overthrow-
John Glaser: Exactly. [crosstalk 00:46:39].
Trevor Burrus: That would be problematic.
John Glaser: It would be a backlash.
The other group that a lot of people, like John Bolton and the people that you’ve been citing, that are critics of the deal like to point to is the Mujahadeen-e Khalq, or M-E-K it’s sometimes referred to. This is a Marxist-Islamist revolutionary group that rose up in the ’60s and ’70s in opposition to the Shah—our guy in Iran. [00:47:00] And up until 2012, they were designated on the state department’s official list of terrorist organizations. So this is not a great group to be supporting. They’ve done a lot of lobbying in recent years to try to depict themselves as liberal democrats and worthy of US support, but they’re not a trustworthy or reliable group, and they have zero support group inside Iran. They’re an exile group.
So the options about who to support, and the mountains of academic literature, and very recent history show that regime [00:47:30] change operations just aren’t all that good.
Emma Ashford: We do examine some other options in this report that John and I have just put out. Another one is this idea that we push back against Iran and the regions. So we either use the US military or we work with friendly forces in the region, push back against groups like Hezbollah and Syria, Iranian-sponsored militias inside Iraq. And that does absolutely nothing to solve the nuclear problem, so this is much more about the complaint that [00:48:00] the nuclear deal does nothing about Iran’s behavior in the region.
But it’s also really problematic. As we’ve seen from the last 10 to 15 years, US involvement in the region has not made it any more safe or stable. And it’s not really clear that pushing back against Iran in this way will actually improve things. It’ll probably just make it worse and does nothing on the nuclear question.
And so then people often escalate from that to the question of direct military action on Iran. You know, should we, as the Bush administration considered back in like 2006, should [00:48:30] we engage in targeted strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, on Iranian military facilities, and this will help us prevent their nuclear program? But a conflict like that is gonna escalate pretty fast. And it’s gonna definitely suck US troops into the equation. It’s going to put them in danger, the ones in Iraq and Syria, and it’s probably not gonna produce an outcome that we like.
And so, these are all … The military options, are really pretty terrible. And the Obama administration, in many ways, pursued the nuclear [00:49:00] deal because it wasn’t a great option, but it was better than the alternatives. To borrow from the movie, Argo, just since we’re on the Iranian theme, Ben Affleck shows up and he presents his plans for breaking Americans out of Iran, and the guy says to him, “Really? You don’t have a better idea than this?” And he says, “No. This is the best bad idea I have.” And that’s the JCPOA. It’s definitely not the best thing ever, but it’s far better than the alternatives.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
John Glaser: What about … Crucially on that military option. The Pentagon in 2012 ran a [00:49:30] war game, which they often do, to try to figure out what policy should be in various regions. And they concluded that even a pinprick strike would escalate pretty radically. Iran has ballistic missiles. They would target our bases in the region. They would probably engage in some asymmetric retaliation with their proxy groups. It would definitely be drawing the United States into a years-long military effort that, if it went the worse way possible, could cost more in blood and treasure than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars [00:50:00] combined.
A final point on this. Nothing would persuade Iran more that it needs to get a nuclear weapon than a US military attack. And, if we signal to the world, including to North Korea, that when we engage in diplomatic negotiations and draw concessions out of other countries, but then we just say, “No, we’ll throw away, not uphold the commitments that we make,” no other country has any incentive to engage in diplomatic negotiations with us.
Trevor Burrus: [00:50:30] And what about what I would predict that Trump would do, or I guess I first need to ask you, what will … do you think Trump will do, but I think the Trump doctrine is the better deal doctrine. So, the other one … We listed these, regime change, and targeted strikes, and sanctions. No one is make another deal, say, more inspections, better surveillance, making sure that they’re not breaking the deal and stiffer penalties if they do. And that’s the kind of deal that Trump [00:51:00] believes that he will make. What about that option?
Emma Ashford: It sounds like a lot of Trump’s policy-making, right? You know, step one is withdraw from the deal. Step two is unknown. And step three is better deal. And so-
Trevor Burrus: And profit, yes.
Emma Ashford: Exactly.
Trevor Burrus: And four is profits.
Emma Ashford: But like so many things that he’s done. He seems to have the first step very well mapped out, but he has absolutely no flam for how to get us to step three. And it is completely unclear at this point why Iran would come back to the negotiation [00:51:30] table, why they would agree to more concessions, and quite frankly, why our allies in Europe … Why Russia? Why China? … would join us in taking this incredibly self-destructive step.
The most logical outcome of this is not a better deal, it’s that the US ends up completely isolated and looking like we’re the bad guys.
Trevor Burrus: And what do you think he will do?
John Glaser: He’s been pretty clear that he’s gonna de-certify the deal, but recent reporting has seemed to indicate it, that the administration [00:52:00] will then subsequently encourage Congress not to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions. So I reference that piece of legislation that requires him to certify and then Congress has the opportunity. So he seems to, in a political sense, want to broadcast his distaste for the deal, but then not formally pull out of the deal by encouraging Congress and his allies and the Republican Party on Capital Hill not to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions as they have the opportunity to do after de-certification.
Now, [00:52:30] Iran has been clear that if the United States backs out, that the rest of the parties continue with the deal, that it will continue with the deal. But that’s a very difficult thing to continue to do if the United States, all the way, pulls out and Congress reimposes sanctions. So really, this is up to Congress at this point. Whatever they do might determine the viability of the survival of this deal.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us on the web [00:53:00] at www.libertarianism.org