Countering the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC)
Regional Meddling, Domestic Suppression
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
12:00 noon – 1:30 pm
902 Hart Senate Office Building
COSPONSORS: Iranian American Communities in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Countering Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
Regional Meddling, and Domestic Suppression
July 26, 2017
On July 26, 2017, a briefing occurred in the Senate. The title is Countering Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—Regional Meddling, and Domestic Suppression. The moderator was Dr. Ramesh Sepehrrad, Scholar Practitioner of, George Mason University. Panelists included Amb. (Ret,) Robert Joseph, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security; Michael Pregent, Adjunct Fellow, Hudson Institute; Lee Smith, Senior Fellow, The Hudson Institute; Nader Uskowi, Visiting Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (TWI); Dr. Ilan Berman, Senior Vice President, American Foreign Policy Council.
SEPEHRAAD: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Before I begin, I wanted to take a moment and really express the sentiment of the Iranian-American communities for Senator McCain and our best wishes and prayers for him. We are so glad to see him back in Senate and working. We all know he’s a fighter and he continues to fight and we are confident he’s going to overcome this. So, our message to him, and quite frankly, the messages that are flowing from Iran, Europe, particularly in Albania is all best wishes and good wishes and good health for Senator McCain, so [applause] so with that, thank you so much for joining the Senate briefing, titled “Countering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Regional Meddling, Domestic Suppression.” Let me also begin by thanking the Iranian-American communities, particularly the Iranian-American community of Maryland for organizing this event, this timely event.
My name is Ramesh Sepehraad and it is a distinct pleasure to moderate such a distinguished panel today and I just shared with some of our panelists that our event really takes a greater importance today, particularly in light of the passage of the H.R. 3364, the bill that includes a title as “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017.” Yesterday, Speaker Paul Ryan explained the bill passed with an overwhelming bipartisan support and it is one of the most expansive sanctions packages in history. The bill already has a full support in Senate and I think it will be a matter of time before it is written into a law.
So, our panel today is going to also be exploring what next and the importance of our discussion in light of today’s, yesterday’s bill and the passage in the House of Representatives. And what else can be done in dealing with the Iranian threat in its entirety? Our speakers will be speaking about those topics, and particularly, talk about a road map for change and really understand what the U.S. role is when it comes to change in Iran.
So as mentioned, we have very distinguished panelists joining us today. Our first speaker, I’m going to ask our speakers to join us at the podium as I’m calling them, as I’m told we’re having a bit of a difficulty with some of our microphone here, but our first speaker is Ambassador Robert Joseph. We are very delighted to have him with us today. Ambassador Joseph was the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from May 2005 to March 2007. He reported directly to the Secretary of State as the principal State Department officer for counter-proliferation matters, arms control, arms transfer, regional security, defense relations, and security assistance. He also served as U.S. Special Envoy for Nuclear Nonproliferation from January 2001 through November 2004. Dr. Joseph served on the National Security Council as a special assistant to the President and Senior Director for Proliferation Strategy, Counter-proliferation, and Homeland Defense. Please welcome Ambassador Robert Joseph. [Applause]
JOSEPH: Well, good afternoon. It’s great to be here. Let me first start by thanking the organizers of this event. This is a critically important topic, a very timely topic, given the Trump administration across the board review of Iran policy. Now how that review will turn out, I think is still a very open question, but it’s that question that I would like to explore today.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Iran is viewed as a major threat by the top level national security officials in this administration, and I think this undoubtedly will be reflected in the review’s outcome, both in terms of regional stability and in terms of proliferation. And I think this recognition represents perhaps the principle difference from the previous administration, and I believe it to be a very welcome step. As a result, my expectation is that we will likely see a stronger led effort by the United States to counter Iran’s expanding presence, particularly in Syria and Iraq. I think that the formation of the so-called Sunni coalition when the president was in Saudi Arabia may be seen as an important initial move toward this tougher stance. But beyond that change in threat perception, and the expectation of the significant effort to counter or roll back Iranian regional adventurism, there is little to suggest, at least to me, at least to date, that there will be a fundamental change in U.S. policy.
Press reports indicate that the usual interagency battle lines are being drawn from those that support regime change to those that advocate a continuation of past policies, even though the latter are of course dressed up in different, tougher language.
But the real key as to whether there will be a true shift in our Iran policy will be what the administration decides on the future of the JCPOA, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action. President Trump’s stance on the Iran nuclear deal is well known. It was very direct during the campaign. He referred to the JCPOA not just as a personal failure of President Obama, but as a disaster. I think he said it was a huge disaster. He called it the worst agreement ever negotiated, and that is saying something. In the spring of 2016, then candidate Trump vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, saying, and I quote, “My number one priority, my number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But much seems to have changed in the past six months.
The Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense have both reportedly stated that although Iran remains the major funder and chief sponsor of international terrorism and the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, we should nevertheless stick with the agreement. Of course, both men have said that we must demand strict compliance by Tehran, but this, as you recall, is something the Obama administration was fond of saying as well.
I think most telling are the two findings reported to Congress by the new administration that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. If this assessment is accurate, and that’s the question, if this assessment is accurate, it would be so only in a very narrow technical sense. Iran may be complying with those terms of the agreement monitored by the IAEA, but that certainly doesn’t mean Iran has stopped work on nuclear weapons. Just recall the potential or possible military activities identified by the IAEA in 2011 were swept under the rug, and Iran stated explicitly it will not permit inspectors into those facilities suspected sites for many of those activities. If Iran currently does not have a covert program, it would be the first time in decades. And I think the revelations recently made public by the National Council of Resistance of Iran make clear that Iran’s nuclear and missile programs are alive and well and moving forward.
Iran today continues to aggressively pursue both ballistic missiles, and as I said, I believe a nuclear weapon’s capability, although the latter is now cloaked in an agreement that lavishly rewards the mullahs for pretending that they’ve stopped their pursuit of nuclear weapons. And while Iran pretends to abide by the agreement, and we pretend to believe then, their ICBM program continues to move forward. And remember, the only purpose for an intercontinental ballistic missile is to deliver a nuclear warhead.
So, let me outline the arguments for and against staying in the JCPOA—arguments that are presumably being made in the policy review. First, the pros. And here, two arguments are most often heard. The main argument in favor of sticking with the agreement is that it slows the nuclear program, at least for the period of the agreement, and provides some transparency into the program. Better to have 5,000 centrifuges spinning than 12,000 or 19,000. Better to have quantitative and qualitative limits on low-enriched uranium and limits on heavy water and the Arak reactor than not to have those limits. While it is clearly better to have these limits and this visibility, you have to ask how meaningful they are in the broader context of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and at what cost?
The second argument is that leaving the JCPOA will lead to widespread criticism, particularly by the other parties to the agreement, the other P5 members and Germany. John Kerry raised this specter of what he called being isolated, the U.S. would be isolated if we did not go forward with the agreement.
As for the cons, or the arguments in favor of withdrawal, five stand out. First, the JCPOA simply does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, which was its intended purpose. Even defenders of the agreement acknowledge that it represents at best a pause in that pursuit and that Iran retains the capacity to sneak out or to breakout of the agreement and possess a nuclear weapon in months, if not weeks. And Iran is openly pursuing more advanced centrifuge designs that will permit them to have an almost immediate breakout capacity, even before the terms of the agreement expire. And after that time, even President Obama acknowledged that the breakout period would be, in his words, “essentially zero.”
Second, the flawed verification provisions of the agreement mean that we cannot verify that Iran has stopped work on its nuclear weapons designs. The intelligence community may again assess that Iran has stopped work on weaponization, but it would do so based on the absence of information and in contrast to the position of the IAEA, which takes a much more cautious stance.
Third, the premise of the agreement has been demonstrably shown to be false. Far from leading to a more moderate Iran, the agreement has resulted in more funding of international terrorism and a large expansion of Iran’s intervention in Syria and elsewhere.
Fourth, staying in the agreement undercuts the U.S. ability to contain the broader Iran threat by providing legitimacy to an illegitimate regime and by strengthening the Iranian economy and thereby the regime itself. This undercuts the regional coalition to roll back Iranian adventurism and its military aggression. And it is certainly inconsistent with the stated views of Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis that suggest that the only lasting solution to the Iran threat is for the theocracy to be ended.
And fifth, the JCPOA in the form of an executive agreement reinforced by a U.N. Security Council resolution usurps the constitutional prerogative of the Senate, which under Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution, is granted both the power and the responsibility to advise and consent on all treaties, and it’s clear that the Obama administration deliberately chose not to pursue a treaty, because it would have been rejected by the Senate.
President Trump will ultimately make the decision as to whether or not we stay or leave the nuclear agreement. If he decides to leave, I believe it will be against the advice of his principal cabinet members—State and Defense—as well as the institutional security, national security complex both in and out of government. But this would nevertheless be the right decision as the arguments pro and con show decisively, I believe.
But the arguments aside, a decision to leave would not be easy. It’s always temping to postpone a hard decision that will invariably bring widespread criticism. There will be 100 reasons to wait, to postpone leaving.
We did this with Korea year after year after year and today we see the results—a dangerous adversary on the brink of acquiring a nuclear armed ICBM. And press reports in the newspapers today note that we have now moved up the timeline for North Korea with the expectation that they very well may have a nuclear armed ICBM by 2018. That’s just six months away.
This is the future with Iran—the near future—unless the president acts decisively and ends our participation in the JCPOA. In its place, and this is vitally important, in its place we need a comprehensive strategy of containment and regime change. What we need to realize and what we need to acknowledge as a foundation is that this regime is at the heart of the threat. This regime is the source of the nuclear and missile programs. This regime is the source of Iran’s expansionist policies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This regime is the source of the brutal domestic repression. It is a regime that will not change and cannot change, because if it does change, it will mean its downfall. Until the mullahs’ regime is brought down, we will not succeed on either the proliferation front or the regional stability front.
The key in Iran is regime change from within—something that was ruled out by the Obama administration. We can’t impose change from the outside, but we can support internal change and those popular forces that can bring it about. Despite the propaganda from Tehran’s apologists, this is a weak regime. It has little popular support, and like other repressive regimes, it is brittle, and with time will go the way of the Ceausescu regime.
We must work to accelerate this outcome. Our policy should be to give hope and sustenance to the opposition forces in Iran that support democracy, human rights, and a secular government, focused not on repression and missiles and nuclear weapons, but on the needs and the aspirations of the Iranian people. Thank you very much. [Applause]
SEPEHRAAD: [0:39:12] Thank you very much, Ambassador Joseph, for your enlightening remarks. Our next speaker is Michael Pregent. Mr. Pregent is an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute. He’s a senior Middle East analyst and a former adjunct lecturer for the College of International Security Affairs, and visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies and National Defense University. Please welcome Mr. Michael Pregent.
PREGENT: I was hoping to go last so I could be smarter on this, but we’ll do this. Thanks for having me today. I appreciate this. It’s an honor to be here. My role, I was an intelligence officer for 28 years. And this is a great opportunity to speak to future members of Congress and Senate and our intelligence community just based on the audience here. And the one thing, so if you think about that, a decade from now, as the audience here at these tables, a decade from now when you’re in positions where you’re actually making policy, actually responsible for that, members of the intelligence community. Remember that in ten years because of the Iran deal we won’t be talking about just the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. We could be talking about Iran’s nuclear capability in ten years. What the Iranian military could look like in ten years based on their ability to buy advanced military equipment, advanced systems.
One of my roles that I served in 2015, I was the executive director for Veterans against the Iran Deal. And what we were, well we still are, we’re former intelligence officers, former special operations officers, former military officers and NCOs and soldiers that were somehow either victims of Iranian terrorism or knew somebody who was and wanted to represent those voices as we looked at the JCPOA, the Iran deal, and how it would actually embolden the Revolutionary Guard Corps. And what we looked at, and I talked to General Madison and General Allen at the time, and what the Obama administration did, they were very smart to ask General Madison and General Allen to contribute their ideas, and what they needed to see on the nuclear part of the JCPOA.
Where they were able to weigh in, and this is something that happened towards the end, was Annex 2 of the JCPOA, the nonnuclear concessions made. What Iran wanted and what Russia and the Chinese pushed our administration to accept in the last weeks of sealing the JCPOA, and that was to basically reenergize and delist the Revolutionary Guard Corps logistical and operational capability by taking people like Qassem Soleimani off a sanctions list, by taking the leader of the Bassij, the person responsible for putting anybody in jail who speaks their mind in Tehran against the regime. His name is Mohammad Reza Naqdi. Those of us in the intelligence community started seeing these names and wondering why they somehow made their way onto Annex 2.
And if you remember Secretary Kerry’s Senate briefing, he said, “Well, that’s not the same Qassem Soleimani.” He actually mispronounced his name. Said Qassem Soleimani is a very common name in Iran. And that kind of dismissal of our concerns as veterans as we looked at what Qassem Soleimani and the IRGC did in Iraq with basically kidnapping American soldiers and executing them when a kidnapping attempt went wrong in order to liberate four IRGC operatives that were captured in (Erbil). So, these things have ramifications.
If you actually look at what the IRGC has done simply in Iraq going back to 2006, you should be very concerned, because those activities have actually prolonged this war in Iraq and actually prolonged and spread it to Syria. If you look at the actions the IRGC has taken after the JCPOA, you see an emboldened Qassem Soleimani. You see an emboldened Revolutionary Guard Corps. Remember, Assad was teetering on being toppled before we signed the Iran deal. And the IRGC was able to take that money, was able to pay its militias in Iraq to actually go to Syria where they had an ongoing fight against ISIS and the Revolutionary Guard Corps was able to take capabilities out of that fight and move it to Syria to bolster Assad. Qassem Soleimani was able to travel to Moscow to get Russia to come in. And the intelligence community was back on its heels.
And as a former intelligence officer, I just want to say something. How many of you have heard the 17 intelligence agencies agree, somebody’s heard that, right? The Coast Guard, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Department of Energy, they are not intelligence agencies, they’re consumers of Intel. So, when you hear 17 intelligence agencies agree, it’s really 12 analysts from three to four major intelligence agencies. It’s (DI), CIA, NSA, and depending on what your focusing on, if you’re focusing on drugs it’s DEA and Department of Justice, if you’re focusing on cybersecurity it’s these other things. So why I bring that up is the intelligence community under the Obama administration had all the Intel they needed to show that Iran was already cheating. And if you look at the procurement of S300s, that’s a system that the Iranians aren’t supposed to be able to buy yet but the Russians have already given it to them. Under the JCPOA they’re not supposed to be able to buy advanced weaponry until five years, basically three more years from now.
Those of you when your bosses ask you about the JCPOA, when you brief them, and make your bosses smart on the JCPOA and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, ask, find out, and have them ask the intelligence community where those assets went. Those air defense assets went to protect sites the IEAE can’t inspect. Those S300s are located to defend Parchin, to defend Fordow. That’s a key indicator, for anybody who’s ever served in the military, who’s ever looked at air defense assets, or anybody who’s ever served in the intelligence community. Those assets indicate something. And those assets are set up to defend sites that aren’t supposed to be developing a capability for a militarized nuclear weapon.
Also, when you talk to your bosses and they say they’ve seen signal intelligence intercept—we’ve all seen the news, raw intelligence and unmasking, right? That’s important because when I briefed congressional members that were on the fence on the Iran deal they’d say, “Well, I’ve seen the NSA intercepts that say Iran’s complying with the JCPOA.” And I said, “You need to ask for the raw intelligence, you need to see the actual traffic.”
So, if somebody identifies himself, talks about the frustration of adhering to the JCPOA, talks about how they are adhering to the JCPOA, they’re messaging. They’re messaging you. So, challenge the intelligence community. When they say well we have a human intelligence source that says Iran’s complying and we have a signals intelligence source that says they’re complying, therefore it’s 100% compliance, ask about the raw intelligence. Ask your bosses, they have access to do it, ask them to look at it. If the person identifies themselves, talks about the frustrations of adhering to this, we are being messaged. And I actually used those arguments to get two senators to vote against the Iran deal. And that’s important because this is important.
North Korea is the worst thing to happen to the Iranian regime, because we’re looking at the nuclear deal with North Korea and we are now seeing that they are a nuclear capable state that’s getting ready to threaten the United States. There is a current relook in the National Security Council of America’s policy towards Iran. It includes the JCPOA. There’s a look at how do we keep Iran from becoming North Korea ten years from now when you are all in different positions, whether military intelligence or working Congress, state, or the private sector. You’ll be in different positions and you’ll remember that at this time when the Senate and the House present these additional sanctions against the IRGC, that these matters, this can actually curtail what happens in the future. This can actually stop a lot of that.
One of the arguments we made to General Madison, General Allen, and others that were supportive of the nuclear part of the JCPOA was simply enforce it. Enforce it and enforce existing UN Security Council resolutions and continue to put sanctions on Iran’s export of terrorism and Iran will either walk away or we’ll call their bluff. The Obama administration believed that Iran would walk away if we did anything more in Syria. So, if you look at our policy in Syria post the 450,000 civilian deaths there you didn’t see a lot of activity. If you look at Iraq, the same kind of thing, we have a 5,000-man footprint where we’re outnumbered 20:1 by the very Shia militias backed by the IRGC that killed Americans seven short years ago. We need to remember those things. So, as we look at this you look at the activities post JCPOA and afterwards. So now Leon Panetta said it best, if we go against Iran’s strategic interests in Syria or Iraq they could walk away from the JCPOA. The Obama administration thought they would walk away from the JCPOA. If we go against Iran’s interests in Iraq they could also target our troops that are there as advisors, and there have been threats by prominent members of Iraq’s militias that are directly connected to Qassem Soleimani and the Qods Force to threaten Americans.
The Trump administration with each certification, and I don’t like that there’s certification but there’s 120-day process for recertification of the JCPOA. There’s about 30 days left, but with each recertification there’s been rollout of new sanctions. And with the rollout of new sanctions we’ve effectively called Iran’s bluff that they would walk away from the JCPOA. They need it more than we need it. Their interpretation of it is more important than our interpretation. But these are all levers to curtail Revolutionary Guard activity, to curtail Iran’s ballistic missile program, and to actually halt the export of Iranian terrorism through its Qods Force, which is a hybrid Special Forces/intelligence component that does things that our CIA director would be thrown in jail for, does things that its lieutenants would be thrown in jail for by our courts or by the World Court.
And it’s a great opportunity to be able to look at this as you unpack these new sanctions against Russia, Iran and, North Korea, you can see how it actually impacts Russian investment in IRGC percentage owned companies in Iran. North Korea and Iran partnership sharing, sharing of information and assets. These are great tools and great levers in this new sanctioning bill where we can actually change things. Again, this is focused on the oppressive Revolutionary Guard Corps and its subsidiaries, such as the Bassij Corps in Iran that actually puts people that speak like this in jail or puts a woman in jail for speaking her mind or put someone in jail for being homosexual. People should care about that these are all intertwined. These sanctions impact all of that and that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing for your future ten years from now as well. Thank you. [Applause]
SEPEHRAAD: Our next speaker is Mr. Lee Smith. Mr. Smith is a senior fellow also at Hudson Institute and he’s also a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. We are very glad to have him with us today. Mr. Smith?
SMITH: Hi, good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be with you, and I wanted to thank the Organization for Iranian-American Communities, especially that of Maryland, and I want to thank them for inviting me to participate on such a wonderful panel of statesmen, scholars, servicemen and others. So, thank you very much for having me. I’m primarily a journalist so I’m going to keep it very brief, as brief as I can, try to self-edit myself and leave you with what I believe is most significant here.
First of all, I did want to say I think that the news of the sanction legislation is excellent news. First of all, because it’s about time that the IRGC’s malfeasance throughout the region was underscored in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Yemen primarily, and also of course at home, the domestic human rights abuses there. The other important thing, I believe, about this legislation is it gives us sanctions on the IRGC gives us another way to look at how the regime operates around the region. Right now, the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, this is primarily the instrument or if you will window through which we understand the regime in Tehran. And you’ve seen, you’ve already seen different ways in which the JCPOA has held or has restrained the United States from acting in different ways in order to hold on to the JCPOA.
As you may know, last week the agreement had to be certified, and as some of you may know there was apparently a great—a lot of argument over this. It was reported in both Peter Baker from the New York Times and then Eli Lake in Bloomberg View gave some insight into what happened, the argument in the administration. I believe that the president was upset that different aides had not prepared options for him and left him with the only option being recertification.
In fact, I spoke to—I read a column for Tablet magazine, and I spoke to Ambassador John Bolton earlier in the week and published a brief interview with him where this precisely what he said, that he president felt that he had been left without any other option but to recertify. The arguments against recertification, as I understand them, while the president was deciding—remember there was during this rollout there was a several hours delay, and the letter did not go to Congress until very late in the evening.
My understanding is there were three different arguments against certifying the deal. The first was that Iran was actually in violation of the agreement. The second argument was that it was not in the national interest to certify the deal. The third argument was that President Trump did not run and was not elected to continue to certify the deal. As Ambassador Joseph said, he campaigned on the idea that this was a terrible deal, the worst deal ever made. And so, the idea that he was going to continue to certify the deal goes against what he campaigned on. Nonetheless, the deal was certified.
What I want to do very, very quickly is just point to some of the issues, some of the issues that I’m concerned with. Many of you have heard even within the administration they’ve spoken of the possibility of renegotiating the deal. It’s a bad deal, so let’s see if we can renegotiate it. I’m sorry if I’m stepping on anyone’s toes here who believes that renegotiating the JCPOA is a good idea. I think it’s a very bad idea. I think the idea of renegotiation, it’s a middle position between the position of holding to the JCPOA and making sure the JCPOA is crashed, and the concern that this will lead to military action. Renegotiating the deal, it’s not about actual details.
If you’re not a nuclear expert believe me you can figure this out and look at it yourself. The idea that somehow the United States is going to get the Iranians back in the room for a second chance at what we messed up with first time around is preposterous. This president knows that better than anyone else. What’s the argument that’s going to come from American negotiators? “Actually, we’ve
become to the conclusion that there shouldn’t be a sunset clause to the deal. The deal should be indefinite.” And now Zarif is going to say, “Actually, you know that’s a really good idea, we’re against the sunset clause too. We’re going to hold on to the deal forever.”? Or what’s the idea, which the Iranians are now going to say, the regime will now say, “You know, you’re right. We’re going to let you into any military facility you want to go into.”?
My concern is the idea of renegotiating the deal, trying to shape different parts, trying to reshape different parts of this argument, is going to delay the difficult decisions that need to be made in the administration, and they are extremely difficult decisions that need to be made. However, the concern is if these decisions are not made, if we continue to delay important decisions that need to be made, regarding the deal itself, and coming to recognize the Iranian role in the region. It’s not just about the JCPOA. Again, as the sanctions underscore, there are a number of different things that are going on in the region, and if the administration and others don’t come to the recognition that serious things, that serious decisions need to be made, we’re going to wind up in a situation where we have something like North Korea very, very soon. We’re going to be confronted with much more difficult decisions and a much more difficult situation. So, I’m just going to leave it like that. Thank you very much for having me. [Applause]
SEPEHRAAD: Thank you so much, Mr. Smith. Our next speak is Mr. Nader Uskowi. Mr. Uskowi is a visiting fellow at Washington Institute. He’s been a senior civilian policy advisor to United States Central Command, and while at his post, at CENTCOM from 2013 to 2017, he studied how best to posture military forces and achieve American objectives toward Iran and Shia militia in the Middle East. Among other issues of his research, he’s focused on interagency coordination. And he is currently working a book focusing on the role of the Qods Force. Please welcome Mr. Uskowi. [Applause]
USKOWI: Thank you so much for organizing this important event. It’s very timely and it’s great to be with all of you and especially with so many staffers I see in the room. So, allow me to answering the question of how to counter Iran with a lesson learned from the past and get to Iran soon.
I’m old enough to remember that we (have) a Soviet Union and our policies toward the Soviet Union was as complicated as it was workable. We had the largest embassy in Moscow. We had largest members of the intelligence community working within that embassy in Moscow, but at the same time, we had, we knew that we also in Moscow, it was the headquarters of the Communist International movement. And we separated those two in our dealing with the Soviet Union. We worked with the government on the issues that we needed to work, but at the same time, we opposed the international communist movement throughout the world and we didn’t see any contradiction between those two. We could walk and chew gum at the same time.
In Iran, the JCPOA and any other agreement that we sign or not sign with the government is really dealing with a government, which is basically in charge of day-to-day management of a country, really does not have any authority on the issues that most affect our national security. What is in Iran and Tehran, and those of us who’ve been in Tehran, who are from Tehran, in the neighborhood and [1:01:08] neighborhood of the city, which is the seat of the government, aside from the government, we have another headquarters in Tehran, and that’s the headquarters of the Shia militant movement throughout the region, not unlike the Soviet Union, that we have a government in Moscow and we had, Moscow was the headquarters of international communist movement. We have to make sure that those two, when we are dealing with them at the same time, they are not self-exclusive.
The, what I mean by the movement of the Shia militancy movement in the region, IRGC Commander, Major General Jafari, told us last year in January 2016 that there are 200,000 Shia youth armed, organized by the IRGC in the Middle East, across the Middle East, outside Iran. This is the army of 200,000-armed people, he said in an interview [1:02:16] in January 2016. Who are those guys? They are organized in many groups. Some of them you know very well. Some of them are not as well known. We have the Lebanese Hezbollah has been set up by IRGC in early 1980s. The Iraqi Shia militias, Hasht’a Sha’bi has been organized by IRGC from, some of them go back actually to the Iran-Iraq war that their formation has been formed by IRGC. The Afghan Pakistani militants that the IRGC is bringing into those wars, some of them against laws of using refugees in conflicts. And there are so many other Shia militants across the Middle East. So, 200,000 armed Shia militias make up a huge army, controlled by the IRGC in the region.
Now, Daesh, ISIS is getting defeated in Mosul and [1:03:38] pretty soon. In post-Daesh, in post-ISIS world, those militias, those numbers of 200,000 armed militias under the command of the IRGC are going to be the most significant danger to U.S. interests and those of our allies, to U.S. personnel, to U.S. interests, and those of our allies throughout, across the Middle East.
And that recognition is important, no matter what we were (to do) with JCPOA. With all of it, I agree that rewriting JCPOA would make the situation even worse. And that’s the JCPOA who allows the IRGC to develop the nuclear program, as they are doing it right now. They’re allowing the IRGC to develop their ballistic missile program as they are doing it now. So, you have a complex system, headed by the Supreme Leader, including the IRGC and the Quds Force that is continuing its research, continuing its development on nuclear weapons, on the, and then (waiting) for the sunset clause to actually develop, to actually get to the breakout within a year or less. You have an IRGC that is developing the ballistic missiles, as [1:05:14] daily basis, they are showing off their newest missiles and then you have an IRGC that has 200,000 militants by their own accounts, 200,000 militants armed in the Middle East. This is the group that we have to oppose. If to counter Iran has to begin with countering the IRGC, with countering this force in the region.
The legislation that was passed in the House is a big step, I believe, towards that goal. The EO [Executive Order] really basically designates the IRGC, not just the Qods Force, basically designate IRGC as the specially designated global terrorist group, if I can read that registration correctly.
And sanctions IRCG because of that designation and any person helping and working with IRGC sanctions all of those based on that legislation. If the legislation become law, and I hope it will be, with all the complexities that is has, if it becomes law, it’s going to be a very major blow to the government in Tehran, to the IRGC, to the Supreme Leader, to all that empire that IRGC has built, the economic empire IRGC has built, to inside Iran and outside Iran, and aside from that, it will bring up a lot of interesting phenomenon.
For example, the (government) in Baghdad, Mr. Abadi, should make a decision then, if this becomes law, if it wants to continue seeing the General Qassem Soleimani in his office every now and then and if he can, they can, the Sha’bi, the Shia militias, can they then, how can they continue their work inside Iraq while they are so closely led by Soleimani and his IRGC?
So going back to how to counter Iran, there must be a realization that aside from whatever diplomacy the current administration wants to pursue with Iran, that kind of a diplomacy cannot and should not exclude the confrontation, confronting the IRGC and the Qods Force inside Iran for the nuclear policies, for their ballistic missile policies, and outside Iran for that army of 200,000 militant youth armed, that they are going to be the biggest danger, the biggest threat to the national security, to the personnel, to the interests of our country, and those of our allies. And if we can continue to make that distinction, I think we can come up with solution much better and easier. And thank you very much for your time. [Applause]
SEPEHRAAD: Our next speaker is Dr. Ilan Berman. Mr. Berman is the senior vice president of American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C., an expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Russian Federation. He has consulted for both Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense, and provided assistance on foreign policy and national security on a range of issues throughout the government, as well as congressional offices. He’s been called one of America’s leading expert on Middle East and Iran. Please welcome Dr. Ilan Berman. [Applause]
BERMAN: Well, thanks very much. This is really wonderful to be able to, so to speak before you at this time and on this topic, something that I think is both a fast mover in American politics and also extremely important to how we begin thinking strategically about the Middle East. So, let me start by thanking the Organization of Iranian-American Communities for giving me the opportunity to be here. I’ve had this opportunity, this privilege before. Again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to sort of to broaden the awareness of the internal dynamics of the regime in Iran, the role that the IRGC plays and most importantly, most empoweringly, what we can do about it, what we can do to begin to push back.
In this context, the Trump administration is currently in the midst of what is being called a comprehensive policy review of its approach towards Iran. And administration officials have said publicly that this is intended to quote “address all of the threats posed by Iran.” So, to sort of, to digress for just a second, I think it’s important to understand that at least in principle, this is a fundamentally different approach from9 what we had before.
To borrow a term from the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Obama administration defined Iran’s deviancy down during its two terms in office. In the pursuit of a nuclear agreement, with the Iranian regime, it was willing to forgo a whole range of destabilizing destructive brutal behavior on the part of the Iranian regime, in order to get to yes. And this is sort of the legacy that we’re grappling with. This is the legacy that the Trump administration needs to figure out what to do about, right?
So today, a comprehensive policy review—what does that mean? Practically, we’re talking about two separate things. The first is a reassessment of the JCPOA, of the 2015 nuclear deal. There’s a, the macro question here, as Ambassador Joseph alluded to, is whether to get out of the deal entirely or to tighten on its margins, to sort of expand oversight, expand enforcement, expand and enumerate penalties. That choice is fundamental. It’s baked into this review, and if the administration does proceed with a, sort of a walking away from the deal, I think, as Ambassador Joseph said, it would empower the beginnings of serious thought about a sort of, an alternative strategy—one that focuses on democracy, one that focuses on sort of more aggressive rollback. If though, the administration chooses to do something less, then this is a different conversation. And in this context, the sort of the debate that you saw in this town last week over whether or not Iran was compliant with the JCPOA was actually, I think, very instructive.
This was in the parlance of Washington a missed messaging opportunity, because what the administration actually certified wasn’t that Iran was truly in compliance with all of the provisions of the JCPOA, rather what the administration was talking about was that pursuant to its obligations to Congress under the Corker-Cardin legislation which preceded the nuclear deal, Iran was in compliance with just four provisions, right?
This was something that the White House did not articulate properly and it was something that gave the impression, certainly in the media, which Iran is fully in compliance with the nuclear deal. [1:13:33] you can see that the Iranians are not. They are cheating on the margins, they’re cheating in terms of stockpiles, they’re cheating in terms of centrifuge numbers, but the macro point that’s coming across is that Iran is cheating, and this is something the White House talked about a lot. Iran is cheating on the spirit of the agreement. Iran is, while fiddling with how much it can violate tactically, is being a wholesale strategic expansion that is counter to the spirit of the JCPOA and has enormous ramifications for American policy in the region.
So here the administration needs to begin thinking about if it isn’t prepared to walk away from the JCPOA. It needs to begin thinking about what it would actually look like to hold the Iranians to account for it. This is something that frankly hasn’t been talked about. An absurd situation that persists today is that there is no consensus, articulated consensus agreement among the P5+1 powers as to what a material breach is of the JCPOA. The United States and its treaty allies—or not treaty allies, its agreement allies—simply don’t agree, and therefore, anything that Iran does becomes the subject of debate, not between us and Iran, but between us and the other countries that midwifed the JCPOA. That’s an enormously destructive dynamic and it’s one that needs to be clarified if the administration’s really serious about tightening the penalties, tightening the restrictions. There’s a whole host of other issues that need to be assessed, but they will all be driven by that fundamental choice. Do we stay? And if so, how do we make it better? Or do we go? And what does that actually mean strategically?
The second sort of dynamic that’s baked into the comprehensive policy review is a reassessment of everything else, because during its time in office, the Obama administration defined down our Iran problem and did so in a comprehensive way until we were left with just a discussion of Iran’s nuclear program. A new strategy has to encompass the full range of Iranian world behavior—terrorism, human rights, repression, the sponsoring of proxies, non-state actors, the sort of destabilizing effects that Iran is having in its immediate periphery and beyond. All of this important, and all of this, I would note, has gotten worse, because even though the JCPOA has been, was styled as being tactical in nature, dealing with just one aspect of Iranian behavior, the effects that it’s conferred on Iran have been strategic. We’re talking about more than $100 billion, one-quarter of Iran’s annual economy in direct sanctions relief, the reintegration of Iran into international financial institutions, e.g. the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications and Finance, a whole host of other measures that have made it increasingly difficult for a successor to the Obama administration to isolate Iran if it chose to do so. These are the material effects that have already been conferred to Iran, material benefits that’ve been conferred to Iran as a result of the nuclear deal. And the nuclear deal has also elevated the current threat posed by Iran, because it has through this direct and this indirect aid, it has expanded Iran’s strategic capabilities. You’re seeing Iran’s defense budget—a surge to 5 percent of GDP, and the Revolutionary Guard is leading that charge. This is the money flowing from the JCPOA was intended in sort of, if you are- if it is to be believed on the part of the Obama administration, to spur trickledown economics and behavioral change in Tehran. What you’ve actually seen as a practical result has been an expansion of Iranian strategic capabilities and an empowerment of the IRGC in a manner that’s had enormous destabilizing effects for the region as a whole, for America’s presence there, and for our allies in the region.
And this is why the IRGC is essential to both of those conversations—to the conversation about the JCPOA and to the conversation about sort of the other aspects of Iran’s [1:17:57] activities. Because the IRGC is the principal, the principal and a principal beneficiary of the JCPOA and of its benefits to date, and it is leading the charge in the strategic expansion that Iran is carrying out in the region. Because the IRGC is the principal repository of Iran’s strategic programs, including its nuclear program and its ballistic missile program, the former of which is nominally addressed in the JCPOA, the latter of which is intentionally not addressed by the JCPOA. And because, and this is something that Dr. Uskawi talked about, because Iran through the IRGC has expanded its sponsorship and enabling of regional proxies. And this includes not only groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, whose budgets, comparative budgets have surged as a result of Iranian offsets, but also of this organization of this secondary foreign fighter stream.
So, the back of the envelope calculation on the Islamic State is that to date, something like 32,000 foreign fighters from North Africa, from Europe, from Latin America, from the Middle East, have traveled to join the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria. There’s now a sort of—regional governments are beginning to think about what it looks like after the Islamic State collapses, because it’s very likely that those foreign fighters won’t stay there. They’ll go back to their home countries, they’ll create sort of instability sort of as these alumni return home. But the dog that isn’t barking in this conversation is precisely the question of a secondary foreign fighter stream. It is the fact that Iran has mobilized and weaponized Shiite militias, Shiites from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, from Yemen, Shiites from Syria and Iraq in a way that they have created a Foreign Legion that is likely to be able to be directed elsewhere after the fires of Syria’s civil war. [1:20:05] because every war must end and in the context of Sunni foreign fighters, these bad (actors) will return organically to their home countries and regions and we’ll have to grapple with that return flow, but in the case of the Shiite foreign fighter flow, they will very likely be directed elsewhere by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So, what can be done, right? I would argue, right, for the sake of brevity that there are essentially three routes of constructive policy, and all of them revolve around changing the status of the IRGC and empowering the U.S. government in its various forms to move against it, right? The first is Congressional, and you know, we’re sort of convening at a very important time, convening a day after the passage of the Countering America’s Adversaries Act in the House. There is new movement, new signs of life to the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act, which is sort of a companion here in the Senate, not quite a companion, and I’ll talk about that in a second.
The goal, as these pieces of legislation, and they not exactly analogous—the next step is for them to move into conference, right? For there to be a unified bill that comes out that will sort of be presented to the president. The goal of this conference should be to include provisions that designate the IRGC in its totality as a terrorist group that will enable the other provisions of the pill to isolate the IRGC both economically and politically in the region. Right? The one caveat, because, right, there’s no such thing as all silver lining, no dark clouds, right? There is a dark cloud. The dark cloud is that the House bill talks not only about Iran, it talks also about North Korea and Russia.
The Senate version does not, and so there is an inherent danger to our discussion about Iran sanctions being wrapped into the larger conversation about Russia, which is a very politically volatile topic, and it’s up to all of you to make sure that it doesn’t, to make sure that there is clarity to the need to isolate and strengthen provisions against Iran and not let them become a casualty of the current Russia debate here in Congress.
The second pathway that you have to blacklisting the IRGC, designating the IRGC, limiting its capabilities is a new executive order. This is something that the administration thought about a lot at the beginning of its time in office. Unfortunately, I think sort of in a manner in which in the press at least designation of the IRGC became conflated with a designation of the Muslim brotherhood and in terms of terrorist groups. And I would make the argument—I can’t stress it strongly enough—not the same thing, right? And they’re different organizations, they’re structured differently, they’re postured differently. The IRGC is a much more ironclad case that it operates as a terrorist organization and as a unitary terrorist organization than you can make for the Muslim brotherhood, and for that reason, this is an argument that should be had in isolation, but it is an option that’s available to the White House to pursue a new executive order blacklisting the IRGC and for all sort of my impressions, from my discussions with folks in the administration, this is not off the table. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily likely, but this is not off the table. This is still something the administration’s considering.
But there’s actually a third way that’s even easier that accomplishes exactly the same goal which is that the IRGC in its totality can be added to the list of proscribed entities of an existing executive order, right? So, for example, and there, this is not sort of the only one, but this is a dispositive one, Executive Order 13224 of September 2001, which was signed by President Bush after September 11, 2001, creates pretty much exactly the framework you need to blacklist the IRGC in the context of what was then known as the War on Terror.
The Obama administration, during its two terms in office, kept referring back to that executive order to add individuals and companies to that list, because they understood that it was a useful tool. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And I think it’s so- a very useful conversation to have to take a look back, not right now at creating new things, although we’re in Congress. Congress loves to create new legislation and new legislative vehicles, but I would make the argument that there are already existing executive vehicles that can be weaponized and used in a way that would be transformative in terms of the powers that this administration is prepared to act more comprehensively has, for it to act comprehensively against the threat posed by the Islamic Republic, generally, and the Revolutionary Guard, specifically. So, I’ll stop there. Thank you, guys. [Applause]
SEPEHRAAD: Thank you so much, Dr. Berman. I think at this point we’re going to get situated for the Q&A section of our discussion. Let’s make sure that we have all of our mikes on. I think we have about 20 minutes. Is this working, can you hear me okay? Good. And do we have these on? As you grab the mic, please make sure the button is on. These should be on, on the bottom. There it is. So great remarks by all of our speakers. I think we’ve heard from everyone on the importance of yesterday’s bill and the consequences of the bill in the coming days once it’s written into law. And more importantly, where we stand currently with the JCPOA as it comes as it relates to the recertification and the challenges, inherent challenges with JCPOA.
I do want to pick up on something that Ambassador Joseph brought up in his remarks, which is even if you look at the entire JCPOA, Iran’s threat in its entirety is not going to be dealt with until and unless we actually have a change from within. A change in the government. So, Ambassador, let’s begin with you. I’d like to get your perspective on how do we get there. What does change look like, and what does U.S. policy should be in support of that change.
JOSEPH: Thank You. Is this on, can you hear me? Can you not hear me? Let me try this one. Is that better? Thank you. Well thank you, thank you for that question. Let me thank the other panelists, I’ve learned from each of them. I would like to respond to a couple of issues that have been raised concerning the JCPOA and then move on to answer your question.
Sanctions. We’ve heard a lot about sanctions, almost every one of the panelists have talked about sanctions. Sanctions are tools. They’re not strategies. Sometimes they masquerade as a strategy, but they’re tools. I’ve had a lot of experience over the years with sanctions. Sanctions can have a very disruptive, very debilitating of effect on national economies. We’ve seen that over and over and over again. But in terms of sanctions achieving their strategic purpose, not seen that. I’ve not seen that with North Korea, which continues to move forward as a number of us have talked about. I’ve not seen that with Russia. I’ve not seen that with North Korea. We’ve got 25 years of failure in North Korea with sanctions as our primary means of interacting with them and responding to their provocations. Abject failure. So, one needs to be careful. I’m all for sanctions. Sanction the hell out of them, sanction the hell out of everybody. I’m all for that. The IRGC, the Russians, the Chinese in the appropriate context.
And just one war story, in 2003, I had the chance to conduct negotiations with the Libyans on their WMD program, their nuclear program. And these were secret negotiations. I was working at the White House at the time and the State Department, Defense Departments, were involved in this. And I can tell you, when I went to Tripoli it was a real eye-opener. I mean it was dilapidated, it was run down, and you could really see the effects of sanctions on the regime. You could, they had $25 billion, $35 billion we thought in the bank but they couldn’t spend it on things because of the sanctions. But it wasn’t the sanctions that convinced Colonel Kaddafi to give up his nuclear program. It wasn’t. It was the fear that Libya would be next and specifically that Kaddafi did not want to become Saddam Hussein. This was in the fall of 2003. And that’s what led to the outcome, not sanctions. Sanctions, important tool, but not a strategy.
Second, in terms of enforcement and compliance, sure we should enforce all of our treaties. The other parties should scrupulously comply with the treaties. But this is often used as sort of a backdoor way of getting to, well, we’ll put the onus of withdrawal on the Iranians. We’ll get them to withdraw because we will convince them and convince the publics that they’re cheating. Well, let me tell you, the compliance process in the U.S. government is a very lengthy, very legalistic, and very unsatisfactory approach to, once again, achieving the strategic objective. Not that we shouldn’t insist on compliance, but we need in this case to act in our own interest. This agreement is an agreement that cuts against our core national interests and we need to move forward to get out of that agreement, like we did with the ABM treaty. Okay? The ABM treaty prevented us from defending against missile threats from North Korea and Iran, but we made the decision to get out. And we need to do the same thing.
And finally, renegotiation. Could we try to renegotiate? Sure. Would Tehran renegotiate? Probably not. I just find it an uninteresting question because once again we need to do what’s in our national interests. Could we offer to renegotiate to get a good deal, one in our national interests? Sure. But I wouldn’t spend much effort or capital on that.
In terms of what we can do to contain and to accelerate change from within, I think that’s a key question. And I think there are some lessons learned from the Soviet days. Remember our policy, George Kennan’s strategic vision was containment. Containing the threat and allowing it to rot from within. It took a number of decades, but in those decades, we did a number of things. Yes, we talked with the Soviet Union, but we also emphasized the things that Ilan was emphasizing: human rights and democracy. And during President Reagan’s tenure that was a core set of interests that we discussed at every summit, at every ministerial. And that’s I think what we need to do with Iran. We need to give the people of Iran at sense that we are supportive of their aspirations for democracy and for human rights. That is something that I think was tragically missing from the previous administration. And when we, the United States, sat on our hands during the revolution in 2009, I think that was an absolute low point in our history. Thank you.
SEPEHRAAD: Thank you. I think you brought up a good point in reference to the 2009 green uprising in Iran. It was in that uprising that people actually called for the down of the supreme leader, [1:32:55] which is quite frankly if you look at the Iranian power, the structure is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards but at the helm it is the role of the supreme leader. So, it kind of begs the question when you think about change in Iran and who should United States align itself with, the key question becomes any force or any movement that claims to be an opposition group, what is their view on the issue of supreme leadership in Iran? Because as ironically as it sounds, there are some inside of Iran that consider themselves moderate or reformers but they still stand very strong in defense of supreme leader. So, Dr. Berman would you like to respond too?
BERMAN: Sure, sure. I’m glad you asked me the easy question. [Laughs] So I actually think that this is sort of if not the fundamental question, a fundamental question. Because I think in Washington we very often don’t see the forest for the trees. There is a very evolved, very mature, and completely irrelevant discussion amongst most policy makers in Washington about who’s up and who’s down in the Islamic Republic of Iran. You can call this the new Kremlinology. During the Cold War, there were people who spent a lot of time figuring out who was in the good graces of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who wasn’t in the good graces, and what does that mean for tanks and what does that mean for food supplies and what does that mean for whatever. But ultimately it was an ideological movement, and the breakdown of the ideological movement was the core moment that empowered other change.
And so, I’m sort of I’m reminded of the phrase by the American philosopher Eric Hoffer that ideological movements are inherently competitive. If you want to understand why the Islamic Republic is so allergic to pre-Islamic republic Persian celebrations of Nowruz or of Zoroastrian heritage or whatever it is, you have to understand that things that make those things have legitimacy detract from the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, right? That gets at the heart of your question. The Islamic Republic is an ideological movement. It’s an ideological movement with borders which the IRGC among other parties are trying to actively revise outwards, but it’s an ideological movement with borders. Combating this requires the downfall of the ideological movement.
It’s not a question of who’s up and who’s down or whether or not Rouhani is the comparative moderate. It’s he is a part of a continuum of ideological thought. He has thrived, he has survived, because he is part of that continuum. It is that continuum that everyone here on the panel that Ambassador Joseph I think very directly talked about. It is that continuum, that ideological continuum that make this regime dangerous. We are worried about the Islamic Republic of Iran acquiring a nuclear capability, certainly. But most immediately we’re worried about this regime acquiring this capability at this time in this fashion. And that is a conversation not about technology, although it is partially, but it’s really a question about the finger on the trigger.
SEPEHRAAD: Absolutely. And I think what’s interesting to note is the so-called moderate, Rouhani, in recent days in reference to the JCPOA is actually on the record saying, defensive measures without attention to others we will plan to improve a plan. So as far as the intention is concerned, there is no change from within. And I think you rightly so pointed to the fact that it is ideological structure and unless and until that is changed we will not see a true and authentic sign of moderation and reform. So, Mr. Uskowi, you spoke about the 2,000 Shia militia that the IRGC had essentially mobilized and organized in the region. Some may actually take that as a way of really seeing it as a strength of this regime, that this regime is powerful, is projecting strength, is actually capable of mobilizing and organizing the non-Iranian military force in the region based on the Shia philosophy. And I think it’s very much related to what Dr. Berman just brought up, as well as Ambassador Joseph, talking about that this regime is inherently weak because it is driven ideologically. And so long as we deal with that core, even this perception of the 200,000 Shia militia could within itself fall and lose its momentum and capabilities. I’d like to get your perspective on that.
USKOWI: Any regime based on ideology has inherently weaknesses, because when you believe that you know everything and you have answers to everything, which usually is masking your insecurities. And I think that’s the case with Iran as well. And I said that, mentioned in my remarks, to compare the two sides of the regime to the former Soviet Union. The ideological movement [1:38:33] is exactly what I mean with that movement of the Shia militia outside Iran. I think the time has come for the administration to say that this is a real problem.
This presence of 200,000 Shia militias armed roaming through Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, and eastern Saudi Arabia, is not acceptable to the peace and security of the region. It’s about time that we counter and we eventually dismantle the presence of the IRGC in the region for everybody’s sakes. Not just for us, but for our allies and for regional peace and security. Sanctions are important, I agree. Hopefully the new sanctions will be passed soon through the committees and through the reconciliation [1:39:38] and signed by the president. Interdictions are important to interdict some of the flow of the arms to Iranian militias. But at the heart of it, the whole structure of the IRGC should be countered and at the end of the day should be really dismantled in the Middle East.
SEPEHRAAD: Yes, please.
SMITH: Yeah, I just want to say something quickly. I entirely agree about how the IRGC should be dismantled and attacked throughout the region. Nonetheless there’s bad news. The administration is not moving in that direction in lots of ways. Insofar as there’s a move to continue to support the Lebanese armed forces, which at this point is an auxiliary of Hezbollah, which is the IRGC’s armed wing in the Eastern Mediterranean. So, the idea that somehow the American taxpayer is going to support an army that is coordinating operations with Hezbollah, with the IRGC, and with the Syrian-Arab army of Bashar al-Assad, is a real problem. I lived in Lebanon for several years. It’s a wonderful, terrific country. But we’re seeing a tragedy unfolding there and the American taxpayer does not need to participate in supporting what are essentially IRGC outfits.
SEPEHRAAD: And I think that’s a very important point, Mr. Smith. I think Michael, you brought up the consequences of the bill that was just passed in the House and what would that mean to IRGC’s operation in the region, whether it’s through its proxies or its own presence. I would love to get your thoughts on specific consequences that IRGC’s going to face.
PREGENT: Well, what’s interesting is we saw the IRGC embolden when sanctions were lifted against Iran. We saw what they were able to do. They were able to pay their proxies more, they were able to mobilize them, be able to do things including bolstering Assad’s position in Syria. So, to Lee’s point about the Lebanese Army, designating the IRGC as a special terrorist organization or designating it as an FTO, which is something hopefully we’ll be able to do in the future, but this current designation has power. Because it would actually impact the Lebanese Army working with this organization. It would actually curtail the IRGC’s ability to use finance as leverage to get them to do that. It would also have the IRGC have to pick and choose which proxies make more.
And as an intelligence officer I would look for schisms, I would look for opportunities to say that the IRGC is favoring this militia over that militia and is looking to promote the leadership of this militia over that militia. Right now, the IRGC is in a very good position to be able to identify schisms in Hezbollah, identify schisms within militias in Iraq, and instead of disenfranchising leaders of these movements they splinter them out and create new ones with new capabilities but they’re still able to follow the strategic goals of Iran. So, this is important. So, sanctions on the IRGC, and we specifically talked about Iraq.
So right now, today we have the Russians and the Iranians signing a defense agreement with the Iraqis. And the first conversation, now you know Russia just bought a radio station here in D.C., Sputnik. I was listening to it this morning and something’s telling me I need to vote Trump in 2020, but—that’s a joke because they’re—anyway, thank you, thank you for getting that. Anyway, I’ll stick to talking about foreign policy. Anyway, they’re already talking about kicking out American troops because ISIS has been defeated.
As a military member of the surge who spent five years in Iraq, both countering Iranian influence, targeting Shia militias, and helping build a Sunni force and protect it from being targeted by its government, to not only protect Sunni neighborhoods from Shia militias mobilized by the IRGC, but also to reject Al Qaeda, I know that this is not how you defeat a terrorist organization. You don’t simply knock down buildings in four Sunni cities in Iraq and call it success. You don’t do the same thing in Syria. We’re still dealing with the second iteration. But the IRGC is already celebrating. The Iraqi government is already celebrating. And the Shia militias are saying, “We’re going to Syria next.”
And as they leave Iraq to go to Syria they’re looking over their right shoulders and looking at the Kurdistan regional government, and saying, “By the way, you’re next after that.” So, as you go to Iraq and you talk to military leaders, they say, ISIS is easy to defeat. The real problem is Iran’s influence in Iraq, especially their influence with the Hasht’a Sha’bi, the [1:44:41] mobilization units that you mentioned. We have U.S. designated terrorists operating in Iraq right now that through an Iraqi Army general can call in American air strikes. And I’ve got a problem with that. That’s not how you defeat ISIS, and you certainly don’t defeat ISIS by empowering IRGC proxies, and that’s what we’re doing.
So, sanctioning the IRGC could put enormous pressure, like you said, Ambassador, these are tools, these are levers to be put in place in Iraq to put pressure on the Al-Abadi government not to allow leaders of designated terrorist organizations to run for political office in 2018, or seizing their funds. This also gives European companies pause, gives Russia pause even, and gives Iraqi companies pause to be associated with the IRGC.
One thing you need to know about the Revolutionary Guard Corps, they have their tentacles in every economic sector in Iran, and they do that in Syria, they’re doing that in Iraq. They’re doing that anywhere that they look to fracture and exert their influence, they put their tentacles into the economy as well. So, this impacts that. This is a great tool if we use it. We shouldn’t have accidental success using it. We should actually have a strategy to use these tools to curtail IRGC activities, because as Secretary Mattis said, behind every situation in the Middle East that is bad or deteriorating, you’ll find the Revolutionary Guard operating. And we need to look at that.
SEPEHRAAD: I think that’s a very important point, because when it comes to the question of change in Iran—and incidentally I actually ran across a report just this morning that even the Iranian officials are talking about change, regime change. So, when the regime itself has come to that realization that alarm bells are on and there’s been more than 11,000 protests and rallies over the last year inside Iran, the Iranian public is they’re actually taking a great risk to take their message to the streets and making their voices heard. I think that is a very, very telling point that the regime is very fearful, it is very weak, and I think it’s a matter of coordination from the international pressure, recognition of authentic voice for change inside of Iran, and really bringing about or facilitating a change that the people of Iran deserve.
I think many of us on the panel actually had the privilege of being at the Paris event just last month. I’d love to get some thoughts about your perspective on Iran’s main opposition group, the National Council of Resistance, their platform for change, and what they have done over the last several decades in really making sure that they’re recognized not just within the Iranian community but within the international community as an opposition that was on the forefront to expose Iran’s nuclear threat and continuously bring the intelligence to the world community so that we could in fact talk about an Iranian threat from a global perspective, not just from the Iranian lens. And then the other aspect of the NCRI is their platform. The clarity of what do they envision in terms of a future Iran and a democratic Iran, which really allows us to have a better insight into potential change and means to change much better than obviously the failed experiments that we’ve had in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. So, I’d love to get some thoughts on your perspective on that, Michael maybe starting.
PREGENT: Really quickly, as a former intelligence officer, the NCRI’s ability to produce information of intelligence value, even open source reporting, based on the activities around these nuclear military sites, and also what Iran is doing in the IRGC’s tentacles into the economy, that is something very valuable. And it’s credible, it’s reputable, and it’s being touted as that by major news networks. So that’s important.
As far as the Paris event, what I liked about it is I saw an umbrella organization that could take people targeted by Iran and Maliki’s at Camp Ashraf, an umbrella organization that could include that element, could include an umbrella element that actually supported progressives, progressive positions, and from all aspects of the social arguments from whether or not the Bassij should arrest you if you’re a homosexual or if you’re an outspoken woman or if you’re a progressive. I saw an umbrella organization with a charismatic leader, a principled position, and it was impressive to see that.
SEPEHRAAD: Ambassador Joseph?
JOSEPH: Well, I have had the privilege of attending a number of these events in or near Paris over the course of the last number of years. And I find that Madame Rajavi’s position, her agenda, the agenda that she espouses, the ten-point plan, really strikes all of the right themes. Democracy, human rights, secularism, nuclear nonproliferation, equality between the sexes. It’s a very important set of messages both to those who would support the National Council of Resistance of Iran, outside of Iran, but also and I think more importantly inside of Iran. Because I think it truly is inspiring to see this individual elaborate the optimistic agenda that she espouses given the tremendous sacrifices, the tragedies that she has suffered personally but also in the name of this movement.
I think that we need to support the National Council of Resistance of Iran as one of the principal opposition forces because I know that they have very good sort of contacts within Iran that could spark that last part of the revolution. My sense is the revolution is ongoing today. But you never quite know from previous experiences when a regime, a repressive, brutally repressive regime like that of the mullahs in Tehran will fall. But we do know that it will fall, and it will fall quickly and decisively. And now is the time to prepare that agenda and to promote it so we know what follows.
SEPEHRAAD: That’s great, and Mr. Smith?
SMITH: I think it’s important for the United States and for Americans to engage with people around the world everywhere who call for freedom, who call for liberty, who want to participate in democratic processes. The other thing is that I think that the Iranian regime’s longstanding war with the opposition, I think it continues to underscore the atrocities committed against the opposition. I think it continues to underscore the brutality of the regime.
SEPEHRAAD: Absolutely. So, as we wrap up our panel discussion, I think I’m getting the sign for the time, I’d love to get any last remark from any of our speakers on the topics that we covered today. Dr. Berman?
BERMAN: Well, I think this is, as I said sort of in my remarks, I think this is an important time. I think it’s an important time for a couple of reasons. It’s an important time because there’s ferment within Iran and Iranian opposition groups need to be organized and prepare and espousing a message that resonates on the street because of this ferment. And not equally importantly but from an American policy-maker perspective certainly important, we have to be smarter about what’s happening within Iran, what the consequences, intended and unintended, of our policies are.
And as we move forward, toward a different approach, hopefully a more comprehensive strategy that emphasizes things that have been neglected for a better part of a decade, figuring out sort of what the hidden obstacles are, who the key players are, and what the most effective strategies are. Again, not tactics, right? Sanctions are tactics. I couldn’t agree more. Sanctions cannot be a substitute for a broader vision of where we want Iran to be in a context that makes it a partner, not an adversary of the United States. Sanctions will not do that. Sanctions are a tool. Sanctions bring you into the start of that conversation. Where the conversation goes from there is a question for all of you, is a question for the White House, the new administration, and it’s a question that you should be asking publicly.
SEPEHRAAD: Absolutely. Mr. Uskowi?
USKOWI: The emphasis of the conference was on IRGC so I talked about dismantling of IRGC. Dismantling IRGC means dismantling the regime. IRGC is the most important component of the regime. The Islamic Republic cannot survive without the IRGC. So, of course the opposition inside Iran, the opposition outside Iran should unite and be the main force of not only dismantling the regime but also creating alternative to the regime for future of the country. For those of us outside, especially for this administration and European counties, if they help the dismantling of IRGC they are indeed helping us with dismantling of the regime.
SEPEHRAAD: And on that excellent note, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking all of our speakers today. [Applause] And thank you again for joining us today. Thank you.