The National Press Club, Washington DC | November 21, 2017
Sponsored by: Organization of Iranian American Communities – US
Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan
Well good morning, everyone. Welcome to the National Press Club and welcome to Washington, D.C. Most importantly, welcome to today’s panel discussion on U.S. policy on Iran, what next after the IRGC terror designation. My name is Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, I’m a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Baltimore where I direct two of our graduate programs in the College of Public Affairs. And one of my areas of interest is actually contemporary U.S. Iran policy, where I studied the regime’s use of terrorism to expand their violent arc of influence and studied the democratic opposition in exile.
I’m delighted to serve, therefore, as the moderator for today’s discussion. And at the outset I’d like to thank the organization of Iranian American communities for hosting what I think is a very valuable and timely discussion. And I’m delighted, delighted to be joined today by two senior former U.S. officials. To my left right here is one of the most respected statesman in American politics, Senator Joseph Lieberman. And on the far end of the stage, one of the most experienced senior military leaders in the United States, General Charles F. Wald.
Now before I introduce our distinguished panelists, let me frame some of the observations that you’ll hear today and tell you why I think today’s event is so timely and so important. A brief story, I think, illustrates the massive discontent that is emerging on the Iranian street. Just over a week ago, a devastating earthquake struck Iran. Five hundred and thirty individuals lost their lives. More than 7,000 were injured. Twelve thousand homes were destroyed and another 15,000 homes were badly damaged. But this tragedy has been compounded by the Iranian regime’s failure to provide basic services and assistance to those whose lives have been devastated. The Iranian diaspora, including many in this room and many watching on TV right now around the world, have offered their support while the regime has abrogated its responsibility to its own citizens.
Now to be clear, recent changes in U.S. policy toward Iran show enormous promise. And yet today we stand at a crossroads. The White House first put Tehran on notice for engaging in regional destabilization shortly after taking office. Then they pursued comprehensive sanctions targeting Iranian ballistic missile programs. And they directed the State Department to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, effectively blacklisting it from the global economy. The IRGC, it should be noted, was listed along with more than forty additional entities. And a prominent book that I have here, I’ll show you in just a little while, in fact I’ll show it to you now, that was put out by the National Council of Resistance office here in Washington, D.C., back I believe in March, identified many of the individuals that were later added to this terrorist organization list by the Department of the Treasury just this past October. But there are still literally dozens, dozens of offshoots and affiliates of the IRGC that require further scrutiny and that need to be targeted by U.S. officials.
But in the final analysis, ridding the world of the IRGC will require eliminating the regime that created it in the first place. And so the White House must therefore pay attention to how they plan to facilitate regime change from within, thereby assuring a permanent solution to the Iranian threat. Ladies and gentlemen, a Persian Spring is possible. Tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates committed to democratic change gathered to call for regime change this summer in Paris. It was clear to all of those in attendance that there is a democratic alternative to the ayatollahs, and that regime change is within reach.
The Trump administration deserves credit for turning the page on the failed policies of appeasement to Tehran, but now is the time to turn up the heat on the Iranian regime. Sanctioning the regime was necessary. Formally designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization was valuable and important. But now is the time for the White House to truly step up the monitoring and oversight needed to leverage this new terror designation and cripple the regime so that it no longer can engage in the terrorism it sponsors around the world. This will require oversight of financial transactions, illicit purchases, weapon shipments, and the regime’s corruption and bribery. All of these things will require enforcement of penalties. President Trump is to be commended for observing that the people of Iran are the principal victims of the regime’s terror, but this now means that the United States has a duty, a duty to treat the regime in Tehran as perpetrators. And this will mean targeting the regime’s human rights abuses. It will mean allying with those that have been persecuted and victimized. And it will mean that the United States needs to strike a chord of solidarity with those seeking freedom in Iran, including the organized opposition.
The world now has a clear choice to make. A huge gap, a huge gap has opened up between the ruling elite in Iran and the people of Iran. Rising discontent resulting from endemic corruption, bribery, and demagoguery is reaching a fever pitch. All you have to do is listen to the chants in the streets and what you hear are the same chants that existed before the shah’s tenure was ended. This past July, Ambassador John Bolton said that “the regime should not be allowed to see it’s 40th anniversary.” Well, it’s 40th anniversary is just around the corner in 2019. Scholars and analysts know that Tehran is not a fixture, not a fixture of the Middle East landscape and that authoritarian regimes only exist when the world allows them to exist. Without fundamental change in Tehran the world will see more terrorism exported abroad, more violence directed at Iranians at home. The world will get more ballistic missile tests, more covert arms transfers, more illicit nuclear activities, and more human rights abuses.
To be clear, there are individuals here in Washington that are hoping for moderation. But we know that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. And the regime that jails its own dissidents, and suppresses its own people, a regime that props up a Syrian dictator responsible for slaughtering citizens, his own citizens, with chemical weapons, and forcing migration by millions, this is not a government that can or will reform from within. So the question becomes, where do we go from here? What are the next steps that must be taken? We no longer need to make the case that the regime is a regional threat or a global threat, these things are absolutely clear. But we do need to know what steps we can take to dislodge the regime and end their grip on power.
Senator Joseph Lieberman
… This is quite a remarkable time in the Middle East. The entire world is very unsettled, as we know. But America has always been drawn to the Middle East, and it’s really if I can paraphrase a marketing scheme, what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East. It has traditionally affected our national interests, our national values. And we are engaged. And I would describe this moment in the Middle East as a time of great peril and promise. Almost all of the serious peril originates in the radical extremist terrorist regime in Tehran.
The promise is multifaceted. It begins in the growing response and active response from the other nations, most of them, in the Middle East, both Arab and Israeli, to the Iranian threat. But it also, this is not primarily in my opinion Sunni/Shia. This is a question of a conflict between those who are extreme radical dictatorial terrorists and on the other side people who are moderate modernizers, believe in the rule of law, and human rights. And throughout the Middle East now, we see a response growing to the Iranian support of terrorism, to the aggression of Iran in Syria, in Yemen, to the in some ways subjugation or attempted subjugation by the new democracy in Iraq by the Iran. And in most hopeful of all, and I want to speak about this, we see the response, Dr. Sheehan said, coming from the people of Iran. And this puts the lie to the easy distinction which some try to make that this is Sunni against Shia. There’s tremendous opposition among the people of Iran, including primarily the majority Shia population, to the tyranny of the regime that is governing them.
And then the final element of promise comes from right here in Washington. Which is to say from both the continuing bipartisan support in Congress for freedom for Iran, and most significantly the dramatic change in policy toward Iran in the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. You will not be surprised to hear that I’m not uniformly complimentary of the Trump administration and all its policies. But when you look at the policies enunciated toward Iran we have to be honest and say this holds great promise for a better, more secure, more free Middle East, and most importantly, a better, more secure, free Iran.
I said that most of the instability and peril in the Middle East goes directly to the radical regime in Iran. I don’t really have to in this gathering draw that out very much. But this is a regime that is on the move externally. In some ways it’s probably, according to classic operations of a demagogic dictatorial administration, when it’s worried about how it’s doing internally it tries to focus its people on the external threat and external gains. It has in the disaster that is Syria, as you know, Iran has committed tens of thousands of troops, both its own militia and Hezbollah, which is essentially a fully-owned subsidiary of the IRGC. And they represent a significant threat not only to the future of Syria but to the stability and peace of the entire region. It is part of a clear desire, a plan by the government in Tehran, to obtain hegemonic power over the region, to rise again and impose its own extremist version of Islam, its dictatorial governmental form, on as many of the nations of the region as possible. And as I say, we see this in Syria. We see it in the support of the Houthis, really the conflict in Yemen is primarily the result of a decision by the government in Tehran to begin this conflict, to stimulate this conflict. And of course it’s true in Lebanon where Hezbollah occupies a central role in the government and now in Iraq.
There was a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal which you may have seen over the weekend, which said that today Iraq though far from perfect is the most democratic country in the Arab world. There are elections. There’s a free press, there are free media. People abide by the result of the elections. It was very heartening for me as somebody who supported the war in Iraq, General Wald as somebody who played such an important role there, I’m sure it was heartening for you too. But the Iranians are working every day to try to suppress that democratic movement in Iraq and to turn this also great country into essentially a province of Iran. So much of the instability in the region is now being centered in Tehran, and of course that is particularly true of terrorist movements. Our State Department, we say it over and over again, but it bears saying, this is not me, this is not the Organization of Iranian American Communities, this is the United States Department of State saying that the Islamic Republic of Iran remains the number one state sponsor of terrorism. Actually, beyond the Middle East, but in the Middle East certainly of Hezbollah, and now of Hamas. And there you see again that this idea of the big conflict in the region is Sunni/Shia is not right. Hamas is Sunni. It’s really modernizers, moderates, rule of law, human rights people against the extremists, the terrorists, the demagogues and the dictators. Incidentally, that was also proven in the documents that the CIA took from Bin Laden’s headquarters where it showed the intimacy of the connection between Iran and Al Qaeda, also of course a Sunni operation.
So we have now in the region, we can talk about it in the discussion, a rising level of opposition to Iran led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and also of course independently from Israel because the government in Tehran continues to threaten Israel’s existence whenever they have the chance. This is part of the promise, that the people of the region see what endangers them and they’re organizing and mobilizing to stop it. The same is true in Iran. Dr. Sheehan spoke of it, and it’s really quite remarkable. This is the story [laughs] the president always talks about what the mainstream media doesn’t cover. I’ll tell you one of the stories that’s one of the big stories of our time that the mainstream media doesn’t cover, which is the broad public protests by the people of Iran to the government in Iran. And it has two main elements to it, those protests, and they’re enormous. The people taking out are taking a risk, particularly when you think back to the protests after the fake elections in 2009.
The first part is corruption. And really, there are echoes here of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Senator McCain and I went to Tunisia and Egypt about a month after the uprisings in both. These were cries for freedom and human rights. But both of us were struck by the fact as we talked to the leaders in both countries of these uprisings that they were also and perhaps as much or even more an expression of the anger of the people of Tunisia and Egypt toward the corruption of their government, which they understandably took personally. Because their money, the wealth of the country, was being exploited, essentially stolen by their governments. And they were lacking in opportunity. Economic opportunity. And that’s there in Iran today. It’s very clear that the ayatollahs and the IRGC dominate the economy and are swallowing up with a greed that is disgusting the wealth of this great country, and leaving a lot of gifted people without opportunity. So naturally, they take to the streets. And honestly this has got to be one of the most frightening developments for the ayatollahs and the leaders of the IRGC.
The second is the cry for freedom, and political opportunity. And what is really striking to me is the way in which the crowds in the streets are going back to the political massacres carried out by the regime in 1988. The result of a fatwa signed in personal handwriting by the Supreme Leader.
People put in jail, really because of their political views. Sometimes because, as you know, they were distributing political leaflets, can you believe that? How offensive that should be to us as Americans. And of course the MEK particularly was targeted by the regime because the MEK frightened the regime most. And within a period of weeks, in that summer of 1988, without any rule of law, I mean trials that were not trials, they were sham trials, they were star chambers, more than 30,000 members of the MEK, and people affiliated, were killed. And incidentally, taken and buried in holes in the ground. And as if nobody would ever know that this happened. There’s a really quite remarkable movement now in Iran to essentially raise this up again to public view and to try to have what you might call a truth commission as they had in South Africa after the time of apartheid ended. And we should only with God’s help and the help of the people of Iran and other allies here in Washington, see that time come where there is a truth commission in Iran.
But look, what’s the purpose of this? Is it just to go back and make sure that we know what happened there? Is it to give the families of the victims some relief and sense of closure? It’s all of that. But the reality here, the painful reality is that what happened in the summer of 1988 throughout Iran with the death squads, didn’t end there. That was the most concentrated massive example of it. But people are continuing to be jailed for their political principles. People are beginning to be or continued to be jailed if they’re just journalists trying to write an opinion or tell a story. I mean since 2013 when Rouhani, the so-called moderate, was elected president more than 3,000 people have been executed, a lot of them by public hanging, and most of them for political crimes. So it’s important that this is happening, and I salute the courage of the people of Iran who are going to the streets demanding a reckoning for the massacres of 1988, because it’s going on. It reminds us how evil this regime is.
So let me come briefly and we can talk about it, I think the policy that President Trump announced in October 13th, I believe, it was really a remarkable change from what existed before. Honestly, the previous administration decided with a singlemindedness that one of its great accomplishments could be to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran. I believe that the agreement itself gave away all the power we had built up with sanctions and got nothing really. They put their foot on the brake for a while, if they keep their promises. They got an enormous amount of money with which they’re fueling their support of terrorism and aggression throughout the region. And the hope expressed by the people in the Obama administration that somehow this agreement would modify the behavior of the Iranian regime, internally and externally, was just naïve. And here you have President Trump standing up on October 13th and basically saying that. So you had a regime that was in some sense previously an administration, previous administration closing its eyes to the evil that the regime in Tehran is doing, and its ears to the evil and the deadly intentions that the regime constantly articulates about continuing on its path to support terrorism, to support aggression, to extinguish its enemies. So the president’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization is very significant.
I think what is really important now is that we continue to put friendly pressure on the administration to implement those policies, the sanctions policies. I was encouraged that just yesterday the Treasury Department sanctioned the IRGC for a broad scale counterfeit operations that was directed particularly at Yemen. I think there’s growing opposition to the nuclear agreement in Congress and I think particularly a willingness to take a look at the absence of adequate inspections that are part of that agreement. The fact is that the Iranian government has not allowed the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to look at the one place where they are most likely to be violating the agreement, which is the so-called military sites. And Congress and the Trump administration really have to demand that that happen.
So number one, I hope that we will continue as the way forward goes on in Iran to support this administration, to urge it to implement and strengthen the policies that the president announced, which are tough policies and the right policies. And that we begin to do something else that we did, we’ve done at our best many time before, particularly in the former Soviet Union, that we, America, begin to give support to the opposition groups in Iran. Just as we did to the freedom fighters in opposition groups in the former Soviet Union. The opposition groups are there. And none is more organized and better prepared to play an active role in bringing about change in Iran than the National Council of Resistance, the MEK. And I want to refer again briefly in closing to the disaster in Syria. One of the excuses given was partially correct but it was ultimately an overused excuse for the United States and our European allies not to get clearly involved to stop Assad’s brutality towards his own people, to stop Iran from coming and stop Russian coming in, because people would say there’s no organized opposition in Syria, we don’t know who to support. In Iran there is an organized opposition, and we in our government ought to be giving them support.
I know that the government in Iran is powerful and it’s maybe hard for some people to imagine change occurring. I think if you look at what’s happening on the ground, as we’ve described, this is the moment. But let’s go back to history, I mean nobody believed that this ragtag group of American colonists could break free of the great power of the time, England. And bring it a little more close today, who imagined even when we were supporting [0:37:14] in Poland and in Russia, who could imagine that the Soviet Union would collapse? It did. And with our continued help, so too will the Islamic Republic of Iran collapse. Thank you very much. [applause]
General Chuck Wald
SHEEHAN: Senator Lieberman, thank you so much for your thoughtful assessments and observations. We’re so grateful to have you here today. Ladies and gentlemen, we have another distinguished speaker joining us today.
General Charles F. Wald, serves as vice-chairman and federal practice senior advisor at Deloitte Services, where he is responsible for providing senior leadership in strategy and relationships with the U.S. Department of Defense. General Wald is an expert in counter-terrorism, weapons procurement, and deployment and international energy security policy. General Wald retired from the U.S. Air Force as a four-star general after more than 35 years in the U.S. military as a command pilot. In his last position, he served as Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command from 2002 until his retirement from the U.S. Air Force in 2006. In that role, he was responsible for U.S. forces operating across 91 countries—in Europe, Africa, Russia, parts of Asia, the Middle East, and most of the Atlantic Ocean. Over the course of his distinguished military career, General Wald has received major military awards and decorations, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the Defense Superior Service Medal. In 2013, General Wald was named to Defense News’ 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Defense Community. General Wald, we’re grateful to have you with us today. [applause]
WALD: Thank you, Dr. Sheen. That’s a longer introduction than I expected, but I enjoyed listening to it. For the organization of Iranian Communities in America, thank you for having me and what you do every day. I’ve been a part of your activity for many years now and every time I get together with you, it give me some inspiration, the fact that maybe things in the world can go right.
I want to talk to you just a little bit about Senator Lieberman. I think he’s a national treasure and asset. I’ve always admired him. I’m apolitical, so I’m not part of the Democratic party or Republican party. I’m part of the American party, but [applause] but people like Senator Lieberman, and you know this. You heard him speak just a minute ago. Matter of fact, he could—I could listen to him speak all day. Matter of fact, I thought it was [0:40:33] for a second there. [laughter] No, but the, what a great American, wonderful person, and said all the things I wish I could have said even better.
But what I’m going to talk a little bit about today is the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action and kind of where we should go from here in that respect, a little more specific than the Senator. Senator, I think, gave us all exactly what we are concerned with here today and our country and what we hope for in Middle East, Specifically, what we hope for in Iran, and for your people as well in the future, but we just did a study through the Jewish History for National Security of America, talking about post-Syria or post-ISIS in Syria, if you will, and post-JCPOA.
And in there, we talked about President Trump’s two declarations he made last month that were just alluded to by the Senator. One, were a commitment to address the shortcomings of the JCPOA which we all know needs to be done. It’s not a good agreement, but it’s there. And a comprehensive, a call for a comprehensive strategy to counter Iran’s Middle East aggression. The first part addressing the JCPOA depends on the second part and that’s basically our feeling is that we need to do something in the interim.
There’s a, I think a tendency to believe and the Senator alluded to it a little bit. There’s a narrative that has created—a natural narrative is not all bad, but a narrative created to promote somebody’s individual message that may not necessarily be reality is not good. And there’s a narrative that was created that if you’re against the JCPOA, you’re a warmonger. If you’re for the JCPOA, you’re a brilliant international diplomat. I think that’s wrong and I think the deal we got through the JCPOA has a lot of flaws to it, is I think countered toward Iran having the better of the deals and there’s a lack of ability to really enforce the JCPOA even though the IAEA says they’re doing the best they can, but they also readily admit they have no idea what’s happening in a lot of places in Iran today. Because this deal is so flawed, because it did nothing to address Iran’s missile programs or interference in regional affairs, the JCPOA has, I think, in our estimate damaged U.S. credibility in leverage over Iran. Tehran has clearly not wasted any time with exploiting this flaw. I think there’s a very high likelihood they’re cheating on the JCPOA.
There’s a part of the plan, Section T that says Iran will not weaponize toward a nuclear weapon, but unfortunately, the IAEA, led by Yukiya Amano has no access to military bases in Iran. They only have access to the ones that were agreed to in the agreement itself, so there’s a whole bunch of places in Iran that the Iranians can be creating nuclear weapons that we have no access to.
You add to that the Iranian aggression at Syria and going back to what the Senator said a little bit ago, I think one of the big international failures for the entire international community over the last decade is the atrocious allowance of Assad to attack his own people through what we would consider war crimes in America. I mean, granted I was in the Air Force. We were very concerned with splayed casualties and every once in a while we’d have some. It was the worst thing that can happen is that you’re actually killing the people you’re trying to protect. Assad goes out of his way to do that. I mean I think every person in America in the community of the world needs to feel guilt that this person is left to freely run his country, what’s left of Syria, and the United States has failed in the coalition by allowing any of Syria’s aircraft to fly anytime, anyplace. We should have stopped that long ago.
The other part, I think, is how we push back in the interim on Iran for their bad behavior in the region. Our study comes out and has a very specific recommendation, a way to go forward, but the current priority should be a comprehensive strategy that will allow elements of American power in our coalition to leverage against Iran. Unfortunately, the JCPOA the U.N. Security Resolution 2231, President Trump’s decision to decertify the JCPOA sends a strong signal that the United States is taking a tougher line on Iran, Iran’s noncompliance. But we, the United States, shouldn’t try to decide the future of the JCPOA until first restoring leverage and credibility against Iran, is our feeling. For now we should fully enforce all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, including demanding access to Iranian military sites and suspected areas of weaponization work.
We need to develop credible military leverage against Iran. Many people don’t want to hear anything about additional military activity in the Middle East. There are statements we hear all the time that the American public is war weary. You know, frankly, only one half of one percent of anybody in the United States even serves in the military, so the fact that our civilian population is war weary is a little bit overstated. I can see they don’t want to hear more about it, but war weary is probably overstated. We need to do what we need to do. I will contend that we as a coalition and like-minded partners, are in this fight against extremism that the Senator described earlier for the rest of our lives, frankly. It’s not going to go away as soon as ISIS is defeated. It’s going to stay with us forever unless we take action as a joint community.
The Iranian backed troops fighting for Assad have taken heavy casualties. That’s probably a good thing. But they’re now pushing up against the U.S. and the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF allies in [0:47:08], along the boarder with Iraq.
Iran wants that valuable territory in Syria to secure itself as the arbiter of post-war Syria and to solidify a [0:47:21] bridge linking Tehran to Hezbollah via Iraq and Syria.
United States needs to make clear to Iran we will maintain a force presence in Syria to ensure ISIS does not resurface, and to prevent Assad from retaking the entire country. We need to help our SDF allies hold the strategically valuable territory we won from ISIS. This will help block Iran’s land bridge and give us critical leverage over the fate of the post-war Syria.
Separately, U.S. officials should make clear that they are preparing contingency plans to defend against further Iranian tests of nuclear capable missiles. Frankly, this applies to North Korea as well. This must conclude unequivocal threats to shoot down future tests of Iranian missiles, if necessary. We must also undertake concrete military preparations, including for deploying parts of our [0:48:13] missile defense capability to the Persian Gulf, similar to what we already have in Europe and East Asia. This is over scored by the recent Saudi Arabian shootdown of a Houthi missile from Yemen, which the CENTCOM, Central Command, Commander Air Commander said bore all the markings of the Iranian missile. Matter of fact, I’ve talked to him personally and there are Iranian markings on the missile [0:48:39] last month.
United States also needs to augment the new MOU, memorandum of understanding on defense aid to Israel by removing artificial caps on missile defense assistance, and especially given Iran and Hezbollah’s growing presence on Israeli’s northern border. We need to do that. We also need to work with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt (robust) theater missile defense capability. And potentially help transfer advanced Israeli missile defense systems to some of these countries, which last year at this time, if anybody had associated Israel collaborating with Arab countries [0:49:19] Iran, they would have laughed. IT’s a truism today. The world is shifting rapidly.
We need to defend against missile proliferation into Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. We should also consider explicit military backing for the Saudi Arabia and UAE against further Iran encroachment in the Gulf.
Finally, we need to ensure interoperability of air and maritime defense between the United States and Gulf allies to counter Iran’s growing capability, thanks to the nuclear deal. We also need to increase our internal pressure on the Iranian regime by [0:49:56] foreign [0:49:56] concern about Iranian markets, much of which is controlled informally by the IRGC and which was clearly stated by the Senator is the real pariah in this act.
Only once that we’ve implemented these concentric pressures should we then try to adjust the JCPOA. If this prompts Iran to leave the deal, then at least we built up leverage to deter or deny [0:50:24] for Obama and for future Iranian aggression. If this leverage forces Iran back to the table, the United States should push for improve the agreement. That includes anytime, anywhere inspections, addresses ballistic missiles, prohibits our research and development on [0:50:41] centrifuges, and closed the underground facilities at Fordo and eliminates the sunset clause in the agreement. I think this is going to put enough pressure on Iran if we go down this road that they will then start to have reasonable negotiations and start putting the Middle East on a path to peace, rather than going down the path they are today.
Thank you. [applause]
Questions and Answers
SHEEHAN: Thank you, General Wald. And now we have an opportunity to engage in a bit of a discussion. I’ll get the discussion started, and then I hope that you all will pose questions on your comment cards and pass them forward as well. Senator Lieberman, I’ll begin with you. You describe in the course of your remarks this moment that we find ourselves in as a time of great promise, but also peril. And you described the Iranian opposition as having a valuable role to play and in particular, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Now you’ve been front and center in American politics for more than a generation and I’ve personally seen you standing on the stage in front of more than 100,000 Iranian dissidents and freedom loving Iranians in Paris, and I wonder what impressions you have of the organized resistance and the role that they can play.
LIEBERMAN: That’s a good question and important one. So my impression, having worked now with Iranian communities and what I would call [0:52:38], in other words, outside of Iran, because of the regime, but still very connected in mind and heart to what’s happening in Iran is this movement, which is where it is, is very well organized and certainly externally [laughs] I said, you know, I’ve had some great honors in my lifetime. I’ve spoken to big crowds when I was a Vice Presidential candidate in 2000, but the biggest crowd I ever spoke to was at the NCRI MEK rally outside Paris. So that’s quite a statement. Matter of fact, I said to one of my colleagues, “Are those really people back there or is there a picture of people?” So we walked back [0:53:27], but let’s go beyond that, seriously.
What I have seen in my involvement generally over the years, particularly when I was in the Senate, but now outside as a Chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran is that the NCRI has a very significant and effective presence within Iran, organized, as we know, some of the most critical information about the Iranian nuclear program originated with allies, members of the NCRI in Iran, not even for our intelligence communities or allied intelligence communities. It’s everything from some of the demonstrations that are going on that there’s organized activity there and globally.
Mrs. Rajavi and the leaders of the movement have shown themselves to be capable in principle and (particular), I mean look, this is about power, but it’s also principle. It’s about the way power is exercised by the current extremist regime in Tehran. And Mrs. Rajavi has articulated this platform, which is just all of the values that we would hope for and more in the sense that there’s the potential for a reborn Iran to be a powerful force for a modernizing mainstream Islam. Mrs. Rajavi’s a religious woman. She’s not anti-religious. She’s not even secular. She’s a believer, but a believer with principles that I think are—well, I know are more broadly shared with a majority of the people in Iran, so look, you know, we hope and pray for the change in the regime.
I think it’s hard to, in Tehran, it’s hard to look at what’s happening or even listening to what [0:55:59] or even leaders of the IRGC. They described the Iran nuclear agreement as just they have a separate contract and continue to say to us—this is why I say the times that I felt that the Obama administration was closing its eyes and ears, ‘cause all you had to do is see and listen. The leadership in Iran kept saying, “This doesn’t affect our policies of supporting terrorism.” The U.S. opposing Israel, they don’t quite as overtly talk about opposing the Sunni Arab countries, but clearly they are doing that more and so I’d say whereas the Obama administration followed a kind of see no Islamic Republic of Iran evil, hear no evil, Trump administration I think has its eyes and ears open toward Iran.
And what happens in the future of Iran is obviously ultimately the people of Iran, but I think for us who want—should want change in Iran, it’s heartening that there is a group of the NCRI that is organized and shares our principles.
SHEEHAN: Based on the way that you’re describing the NCRI, it seems to me that we can see why the regime is so frightened of this movement. They meet all of the characteristics of an opposition movement that can affect change in Iran. You know, I’m thinking of a study that was carried out a number of years ago by my distinguished colleague that’s sitting in the front row—Professor Raymond Tanter—where he found that the regime in Iran pays more attention to the NCRI and the MEK than all other opposition groups combined. They have the organizing capacity, they have a viable leadership, they have a detailed platform, they’re willing to take risks, and they have a broad and intricate network of international support, and so you can see why the regime is so fearful and is probably paying attention to even the remarks that are taking place right here in this room.
You know, General Wald, I think you brought up yesterday that that Trump administration added North Korea to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and this is an important step. We know that the North Korean regime doesn’t have a viable eternal opposition along the lines of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and this makes U.S. policy toward North Korea regime a little bit more complicated. But there is this indigenous (position of) Iran and given that the Trump administration is paying such attention to its senior military leadership, I’m wondering what type of advice you would give senior military leaders who have the ear of the President vis-à-vis outreach to the Iranian opposition and the role that they can play in creating change in Iran. Change that would affect security policy.
WALD: Well, I think that the military has a tendency to try to stay neutral on politics, and so I’m a firm believer at [0:59:34] that diplomacy is obviously number one key to any of things coming to the conclusion that we would like. So I’m starting with, I think, it’s a diplomatic issue backed up, you know, it’s kind of like they have this thing called Chairman House Rules where basically you don’t kind of identify who made the comment. Well, I’m from Chairman House Rules backed up by military power. And so I think our diplomacy should be backed up by strong military and we should diplomatically go for some kind of conclusion. From a standpoint, I think your point here, it’s unfortunate there isn’t an NCRI North Korea. That would make (a big dent), I’m sure. If you could ever get there right now because the tolerance level is pretty low, but I [1:00:23] my admiration for the NCR people I’ve met that are part of that group over the years. I think they’re the kind of people the United States could feel very comfortable about being close to a lot of them, so I admire that. And I think a lot of us kind of spirit that we in America think [1:00:40] and have the same spirit, so that’s just a personal comment, but North Korea, Iran have a lot of similarities. They’re both hard to believe how dictatorial they are. I mean I really have a tough time administering my remarks. Believe me that the international community has allowed Assad to do some of the things he’s done. Assad, it just bewilders me why we let that go. And the fact that people, our group and people that are made up of that group may not have enough courage to stand up for what they believe is right and for what their people stand for.
Again, there’s a tendency for people to look at military people and say that we love every nail and hammer. I mean the solution is. Frankly, I think any really responsible, probably successful military person thinks their role in life is to eliminate the need for military. Frankly, that would be a nice thing. Now we’re not naïve enough to think that’s going to happen very soon, but I think we forget sometimes as a nation, as a public and Senator Lieberman, we have to look at this from their standpoint. I think we sometimes forget that it’s important that we care about our fellow human beings, wherever they are, and that’s what we should be standing for as a country. And it’s not corny to think that way. It’s not corny to think that people are actually live a good life. It’s not corny to think that people of North Korea should live a good life or Syria or for that matter. And I might believe goodness and good leadership together like look back at the Senator and think the leadership he’s provided has made a difference. And it’s kept our at the North Star. And I think we begin to be thinking that way as a group and I think people like yourselves, NCRI, or anybody else out there that has that support, but I do, I will say again reality is there’s some bad people out there. They want to do bad things to good people and we need to stand up for them we can. Military (drives) were made for that and we’re all for it.
SHEEHAN: So let me pick up with that important theme. Senator Lieberman, General Wald has indicated his deep admiration for you as I did and the respect that members of both parties have for you. It seems to me that bipartisanship is in short supply here in Washington these days, and yet on this issue—Iran and support for the opposition, organized opposition—there seems to be bipartisan support. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a conference here that had as a keynote speaker, Speaker Gingrich and he voiced support for National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Today you’re here and General Wald is here. How unusual is this to find an issue like this where there’s such broad bipartisan support and how do we use this bipartisan coalition to take concrete steps on U.S.-Iran policy? Concrete steps that further what President Trump did earlier this month.
LIEBERMAN: First, thanks to General Wald and to you for your kind words toward me. More than I deserve. I really appreciate. Second, it is true. I mean I was in the Senate for 24 years. Just got more and more partisan, more and more gridlocked as time went on and yet opposition to the regime in Iran was one of the exceptions to that rule. There really was bipartisan support and for instance, for the sanction- the waves of sanctions, legislation that were adopted toward Iran, which had effect on Iran and is part of the reason they came to the negotiating table was I think the was, one, squandered the leverage we had and that agreement, so why did that exist? And frankly, partly it’s just ‘cause of the facts.
I mean this is a, I’ll begin with our national principles General Wald just talked about. I mean it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. It’s our mission that this self-evident truth, that all of us are created equal and endowed by our creator with those rights to life and the pursuit of happiness and it’s pretty evident that God didn’t just give those rights to Americans. That’s a declaration of universal human rights and you can’t always be pure on foreign policy, but to the extent that we—the closer we are to that ideal statement by our founders and their original statement of independence, the better off the country is and it was so obvious that the government that took over Iran in the late ‘70s was, number one, dictatorial, demagogic, denied human rights. Second, was an enemy of the United States, and honestly, over the years, I think people came to see this after supported terrorists and through training of, you know, militias, for instance, in Iraq. The Iranian government, particularly IRGC, well, I would say they commited acts of war against the United States. I mean we could trace during the Iraq war militias taken from Iraq to Iran, trained, go back, and they were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers. And we can go to other, go back to the Hezbollah and the Marine barracks and Beirut in the ‘80s. Anyway, this is why there’s been this bipartisan support for change in Iran and the one exception was Iran nuclear agreement.
And I just have to say, in passing, almost no Democrats voted in the Senate against the agreement, and I believe that’s because President Obama lobbied more intensely for that agreement more personally than he did for anything else during his administration, including healthcare reform. Now he had here to lobby for that, so maybe that’s part of why. And Democrats have then felt some obligation to the President of their party, but they’ve come right back now when it comes to things related to Iran.
I think this community—look, American foreign policy is an expression of American values and interests. The constitution gives every American the right to petition our government and the Organization of Iranian-American Communities and a lot of other people who are not part of the Iranian-American Communities but are likeminded, have petitioned Congress on this issue. You all (have) a very effective group of representatives in the Senate and the House, right, and those were lobbyists who advocate for you. And that’s where as we go forward, I think we’re going to see the same bipartisan action here as well. I look forward to more sanctions being adopted and more pressure on the administration to enforce the sanctions that still are on the wall- on the books for human rights violations, for supportive terrorism now directed against the IRGC to frankly get us back to a point, if possible, where we can get the Iranians back to the table.
And I know people are worried about the Europeans. We’re still the United States of America. We still have the strongest economy in the world, and most important financial banking system in the world. If we give companies in Europe, Asia, and —we force them to make their choice. “Do you want to do business in Iran? Or do you want to do business in America?” Any of them that have any common sense will say, “America.” They can’t really do business effectively without access to the American life and American banks.
So I think the way forward is for continued bipartisan support for the cause of a free Iran and I guess the fascinating question is can that continue in spite of the very partisan swirls around President Trump? And you know, some of the Democrats may look around and say, who are supportive and agreeing with us, look around and say, “Wow. President Trump seems to be saying the same thing. Maybe I should be on the other side.” [laughs] I don’t think so. I think people are going to stick to principle and we got a real chance to keep the pressure on Iran on a bipartisan basis now.
SHEEHAN: General Wald, your thoughts on the path forward and concrete steps U.S. officials can take to really leverage this new terror designation, the IRGC continue to enforce sanctions and continue to monitor, use this for all for change.
WALD: You know, I mean I 100 percent agree with Senator Lieberman. I think the issue here is not enforcing the leverage we have. I mean I think sometimes we overcomplicate things a little bit. You know, we, I think we need to simplify a little bit. It’s going to be tough on Iran if we enforce sanctions and more sanctions should be in good order, if needed. I like the idea of the IRGC being designated. That’s a important. I just can’t imagine me being U.S. military and actually running outside industry or or whatever they do.
WALD: The IRGC is basically does whatever they want and they’re in there, you know, they’re part of the economic leadership of the country. It’s just fascinating. So I look back on we were talking about this in the few minutes we had before the function here. If you look at ISIS, for example, one of their Achilles heels is finding financing. I mean that’s what they needed to do to maintain their viability was to they took, they did taxes. They—we got laughing about it, but they took banks over in Northern Iraq. They did financing. It’s not easy to fight a war without money and weapons, and of course you have to little bit of corruption going on too. I think the IRGC’s Achilles hill is they’ve become more interested in money than they have in ideology in some ways, so yeah, I think we should really hammer the living you know what out of the Iranians on their sanctions, particularly the IRGC. I 100 percent agree with Senator Lieberman. I think Europe, it’s right here on this one. Matter of fact, it’s kind of ironic that if look now to Germany, they’re having a tough time putting (a coalition) together. So they’re a little weaker than they think they are.
Again, I’m a globalist, I guess. I (had a lot of) living in Europe so I’m not an anti-European, but sometimes the Europeans have a more idealistic view of life. They, “This is the way I wish life was, so I think I’ll act that way.” And I think, matter of fact, our previous administration had a little bit of that tendency is to treat things the way you wish they were, the way they really are, how they present themselves.
And so there’s this dichotomy between people that actually care about the human race or other people, people like Senator Lieberman that it’s not corny to have empathy for people. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s not corny for the U.S. to think that we should be an example, how life should be lived, how we should have lives to live. How our families and our friends and allies should feel secure and they can look for a better life. That’s what we stand for. And we should articulate that.
We’ve become cynical about things at times. I mean I’m an unabashed supporter of Israel. You know why? ‘Cause I think Israel stands for a lot of good things that we all should stand for, from the standpoint of freedom of their people. And I think that’s what Iran should aspire to. I think we should all look for that. I think the narratives that are created because of personal political bias is cynical and I think it’s time for us to look at ourselves as a shining light on the hill and go forward with that. [applause]
SHEEHAN: Senator Lieberman, perhaps we can end with you and a few brief observations from you on this. We know that Americans return their attention to giving thanks in just a few short days. And we know that there are many in Iran that are hoping for a brighter future. Now if my research is correct, you marched with Martin Luther King in the summer of 1963 right here in the city. We spend a good deal of time today talking about what U.S. officials should do, what the military can do, but many are wondering out there what ordinary Americans can do to heighten awareness of these issues. And I wonder if you have any reflections or observations on that.
LIEBERMAN: It’s kind of you to ask that question. Thanksgiving is one of the great American holidays. It’s probably the greatest civic holiday because it does, I mean it does come from the initial immigrants to America who expressed their thanksgiving that they were here, their thanks that they were here and freedom and not living under the tyranny of happened to be the crown in England. They also expressed a more direct gratitude to God that they actually had enough that they were able to take out of the ground for food that they could survive. So it’s a great holiday that in many ways those two elements would continue to express, which is both gratitude for our freedom and gratitude for the providers that we lead. And it always seems to me that it’s also an occasion to renew our desire to share those two experiences with people who don’t have—that, I mean as General said, that is the American way. Perhaps in some sense, part of the reason that people are divided now is they won’t, they lost their pride in America. And pride comes from the fact that by and large, over our history, when it comes to our foreign policy, we’re a unique nation. I mean we have done things that were not clearly in our self-interest, but we did ‘em because they were right and we believed that they were consistent with our values. And that is true.
If you do polling among the American people about countries in the world they’re worried about, Iran is way up there. It’s interesting. It’s not just those of us who spend time on these policy discussions or people in Congress, but just average Americans, they get it. They get it that the extremists that are running this country have values that are totally different from ours and are a threat ultimately to our security and our freedom.
And so, you know, at this Thanksgiving time, I hope we will recommit ourselves to being supportive of—I love the term “freedom fighters,” and that’s what, who they are. The freedom fighters in Iran today join a long list of freedom fighters beginning in our minds here, America for the freedom fighters in, for instance, the former Soviet Union.
And what can average Americans do? ‘Cause most of those Americans who said in public opinion polls that they’re opposed to the regime in Iran, that they think we should do something about it, surprising numbers being supportive of aggressive action against this regime, read that they express it to their representatives in Congress and to the White House. And that has an effect.
As I said before, the Organization of Iranian-American Communities have some really excellent representatives who spend most of their lives carrying this message to Congress, some in this room, and I really thank them, express gratitude on behalf of everybody for what you do. But they need help and they need it just not only for the Iranian-American community, but we need it from every other American group justifiably is worried about Iran’s effect—this regime, it’s effect on our future security and prosperity and our values. And remember that Iran is an extraordinary history, great culture, tremendous advances in science and math, and a surprisingly educated population right now that’s just waiting to be liberated. I mean you can imagine what can happen in a free Iran economically and entrepreneurially innovations, so and this Thanksgiving I hope maybe around all our tables here in America from all of us as we commit ourselves to do whatever we can to try to get better, people around the world who don’t enjoy them and I begin with our brothers and sisters in Iran. [applause]
SHEEHAN: Well, and so much about those observations and part of the reason I brought up Dr. King and you marching with him in ’63 is that we know that silence in the face of injustice signals complicity and that’s that message that you all carry forth today and we see from this panel that has gone on a half an hour longer than we anticipated that there is still much important work to be done, but I’d like to thank our two distinguished panelists for spending all this time with us. [applause]
I’d again, like to thank the Organization of Iranian-American Communities and all of you for coming out here to join us. This concludes our panel of national. Thank you for joining us.
Sponsored by: Organization of Iranian American Communities – US (OIAC)