Colin Kahl, Middle East Expert: What to Do About Iran

In this interview, Colin H. Kahl, associate professor at Georgetown University and author of the recent Foreign Affairs article “Not Time to Attack Iran,” discusses the outcomes of last weeks’ talks in Istanbul between Iran and the P5+1, and his ideas on what both parties would accept as a possible deal. “I don’t think anybody’s actually talking about a comprehensive deal,” says Kahl. “The tricky issue will be how much the Iranians demand in exchange for making that deal,” which, according to Kahl, would most likely focus on the 20% enrichment issue and the Fordo enrichment facility issue.

Kahl, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East in 2009-2011, also gave his take on the planned talks in Baghdad, the state of relations between Iran and the Obama Administration, and the continued risks for conflict with Iran in the current volatile environment.

The interview was conducted by Till Papenfuss, IPI Policy Analyst.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Till Papenfuss (TP): I am speaking today, over the phone, with Colin H. Kahl, who is an Associate Professor in the Security Studies program at Georgetown University, and who has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East at the Pentagon from February 2009 to December 2011. Thank you for speaking with the Global Observatory today.

Colin Kahl (CK): Happy to be with you.

TP: The main outcome of the Istanbul meeting between the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators seems to be an agreement to continue the talks on May 23 in Baghdad. How significant was the Istanbul meeting and what are the main factors that opened up the current window of opportunity?

CK: I think the Istanbul meeting was important, for no other reason, because the parties had not met in almost 15 months. The last time they met, which was also in Istanbul early last year, the Iranians refused to have any discussions about their nuclear program. I think the Iranian government is feeling the heat, because of the unprecedented sanctions that have already been levied against it and the ones that are coming down the road pretty shortly. I think that’s starting to alter their calculations a bit, and so they have expressed an increased willingness to negotiate.

In some sense, the Istanbul talks were just talks about talks. Nothing was finalized, and the only thing decided was to hold the following meeting in Baghdad. The atmospherics of talks were quite good and the Iranians signaled going into the talks and have signaled since coming out of the talks that they might be willing to cut a deal at least on some of the troubling aspects of their nuclear program.

TP: Hossein Moussavian, a former Iranian ambassador currently at Princeton University, claimed that the Obama Administration “has done more to undermine Iran over the past three years than any US presidency in the 33 years since the Iranian revolution.” He argued that due to mutual distrust, pursuing more sanctions and offering Iran piecemeal negotiations is bound to fail. Is a grand bargain under the motto of “commitment against rights” an actual possibility?

CK: I’ve talked with Hossein Moussavian myself on a number of occasions. He’s a very smart guy and obviously as a former negotiator, involved in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, under the Khatami presidency several years ago in Iran, he knows the issues well.

I wouldn’t agree with his description. The Obama administration came into office with a sincere outreach effort to the Iranian government in terms of engagement. That effort was largely rebuffed, both initially and in the aftermath of the fraudulent 2009 elections in Iran, it became increasingly difficult for the Iranian regime to engage in good faith negotiations with the United States.

So the Obama administration pivoted towards a dual-track approach. One that left open the avenue for diplomacy, but also involved a pressure component which included going forward on unprecedented sanctions through the UN and then passing a number of unilateral sanctions and working with like-minded states to pass complementary sanctions.

The goal remains diplomacy, so a lot of pressure has been put on Iran, but not pressure for pressure’s sake. The point is to encourage, to incentivize the Iranians to come back to the table with the P5+1 countries, the permanent Security Council members plus Germany, to have good faith discussions about their nuclear program.

Now, there can be a debate about whether those talks should occur incrementally or whether in Moussavian’s view, they include the whole enchilada, a grand bargain, all at once. I think most analysts who have looked at this do not believe that the situation is ripe for a grand bargain, there’s too much distrust between the parties, there’s been too little progress in talks in the last couple of years. So most analysts think that you have to at least start with some confidence building measures. The P5+1 is looking to get an initial deal, potentially to get the Iranians to stop enriching uranium up to 20%, to send their 20% uranium out of the country in exchange for fuel for the Tehran research reactor and to stop activities at the Fordo enrichment facility, which is a deeply buried facility which is really driving Israeli anxieties and the possibility of an Israeli strike. If you get the Iranians to make compromises in those areas initially, to start building confidence towards the type of grand bargain that Moussavian envisions.

TP: What is your take on the future talks in Baghdad? Predicting outcomes at this stage may be impossible, but suppose more significant progress is within reach in Baghdad, do you believe the Obama Administration is able to deliver on a comprehensive deal with Iran in an election year? And how do you see the political dynamics in Europe, China, and Russia in this regard? Would they be able to enter into a bigger deal?

CK: I don’t think anybody’s actually talking about a comprehensive deal. I think the most likely scenario in the near term is that you get an interim confidence building measure that focuses on the 20% enrichment issue and the Fordo enrichment facility issue. I do think, actually, that a deal in that area is possible, because the Iranians have signaled as much.

The tricky issue will be how much the Iranians demand in exchange for making that deal. Some demands that they would make are going to be fairly easy for the P5+1 to implement, such as providing fuel for the Tehran research reactor, or perhaps medical isotopes, which is the purpose of the Tehran research reactor, to treat cancer patients. Things like that would be relatively easy for the P5+1 to agree to. More difficult politically, of course, will be if the Iranians demand substantial sanctions abatement, in exchange for this near-term deal, that could be more difficult. I think the P5+1 could conceivably promise not to pursue additional sanctions, at least for a period of time, but the notion of rolling back sanctions would be hard. It would be a little easier, I think, on the European side of the equation, potentially for them to delay the implementation of their oil embargo for a few months, that might be one example. But it might be very politically tricky in the United States, for the administration to roll back sanctions. So that’s really going to be the issue; which is how much the Iranians demand and how much are P5+1 countries willing to give.

TP: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has recently reiterated that “the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.” What is your read of this statement and how does it relate to the possibility of building up a latent nuclear breakout capability?

CK: There’s different ways to interpret that statement. One is literally, which is that the Supreme Leader believes the use of, or possession even, of nuclear weapons is a grave sin against Islam, in which case we should take at face value his pledge that Iran’s program is purely for peaceful purposes.

I think there’s reasons to doubt that Iran’s program is for purely peaceful purposes. They have engaged in a lot of activities that nuclear proliferation experts would describe as hedging, that is, building weapons-relevant capabilities under the rubric of civilian activities. There are grave concerns among Western intelligence sources but also concerns documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which suggest that Iran’s program has more than just peaceful intentions, and that Iran is, at least, putting itself in the position to develop nuclear weapons at some point down the line if Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, makes a decision to do so.

But even if you don’t take the statements of the Supreme Leader at their literal face value, they are still very important. They are very important because he has repeated those statements over the last seven years and Iranian officials have repeated them over and over again in the last couple of months. The good thing about that is that it creates a domestic narrative inside Iran so that if the regime does agree to a compromise on the nuclear program, it won’t necessarily have to be portrayed as them caving in. Because, after all, they can say ‘yes, we reached this cooperative agreement with the West, but we never intended to get nuclear weapons anyway, so it’s not us compromising anything and we had our rights respected.’ So, the thing that most interests me is not whether or not the Supreme Leader means it, he may or he may not, but that it creates this domestic framework, narrative that may make a face-saving compromise a little easier for the Iranian government to swallow.

TP: In your article in Foreign AffairsNot Time to Attack Iran” you debated the merits and risks associated with a US preemptive strike on Iran. This debate framed the question of whether or not to attack Iran as a choice by the US. However, Israel has also made clear that it may act unilaterally to wipe out the Iranian nuclear threat if it has to, and, overall, the rhetoric had become more and more aggressive in recent months prior to the talks. The Istanbul meeting notwithstanding, is there a risk of brinksmanship, of excessive risk taking that could escalate into war?

CK: I think there’s a number of possibilities this year that could produce a conflict involving Iran. The one that everybody is focused on the moment is the possibility that Israel will take preventive military action against Iran sometime this summer or perhaps in the early fall. Israeli anxieties are really being driven by, not only Iran’s continued nuclear progress, but the fact that they are making the Fordo enrichment facility, which is deeply buried under the mountain near the holy city of Qom, operational. If that facility becomes fully operational, the Israelis are concerned that a significant portion of Iran’s program will enter into what Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister of Israel, has called a “zone of immunity”. That is, it will move past the point at which an Israeli strike could set it back, which kind of creates a now or never incentive for Israelis to use military action. There may be other factors driving Israeli calculations, but I think that’s the biggest one at the moment, which is one of the reasons why I think the P5+1 countries are focused on the Fordo issue, in addition to the 20% enrichment issue.

But there are other possibilities of conflict as well. I think there is some chance that as the Central Bank of Iran sanctions and the oil embargo against Iran is implemented comprehensively, and Iran is basically cut off from being able to sell any of its oil on world markets, that may incentivize the regime to rattle sabers again in the Strait of Hormuz, which is the world’s most important choke point for the transit of oil. The logic being that Iran is reluctant to take military action in the Strait today because they fear doing so would basically slit their own wrists economically. It would cut off countries like Saudi Arabia and others from being able to export their oil and it would jack up prices for Western consumers, but it would also limit Iran’s ability to export oil. But if Iran is not exporting oil anyway because of a comprehensive oil embargo against it, then it might be willing to take more risk in the Strait. So there’s also some possibility this summer, early fall that you could get a miscalculation in the Strait of Hormuz.

But both that scenario and the Israeli scenario very much depend on what the atmospherics are and what the prospects for diplomacy are. If talks are going well, if progress is being made, if both sides are saying the right things, then I think the prospect of conflict along either of those pathways is much lower.

If the talks, on the other hand, breakdown catastrophically, then of course, the risk of conflict would go up.

TP: Finally, besides the talks of course, there are other factors affecting the calculations of the Iranian regime. The wider Middle East region is going through profound changes. Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are in transition, Syria – Iran’s longstanding ally – may be sliding into civil war, tensions are very high in the Gulf, and Turkey is becoming increasingly assertive. How is Iran affected by these changes and are its calculations influenced by the shifts in its environment?

CK: I think undoubtedly, yes. Although the full nature of those changes are quite uncertain at the moment, I think we know a couple of things.

First, we know that the Arab Spring is fundamentally an Arab populist and nationalist movement. One of the consequences of that is that the perception of Iran among many in the Arab world has actually gone down considerably over the past year. Two or three years ago, Iran enjoyed majority approval ratings in a lot of Arab states. Today, you can’t find any country but Lebanon where there is a majority favorable view of Iran. A lot of that is perceptions of Iranian meddling in the context of the Arab Spring, and just a general upswing in Arab nationalism.

So, Iran’s general stature in the region is in decline, notwithstanding the broader isolation that Iran faces diplomatically and through sanctions. But Iran is also very nervous about events in Syria. As you mentioned in the question, Syria is its only state ally in the Middle East. Most of Iran’s other allies are non-state actors like Hezbollah or Palestinian groups like Hamas. But Syria’s their only state ally. If the Assad regime collapses or even if Syria descends into all out civil war, Iran’s position, probably, in the Levant will be somewhat weakened, which could add to the pressure on the regime.

I think that’s one of the reasons the Obama administration believes that trends are moving in the direction of the United States and the other P5+1 countries in terms of pushing Iran towards a potential deal because Iran is not only more diplomatically isolated and economically under pressure from the sanctions, but the broader geopolitical environment in the region is shifting against them.

TP: Dr. Kahl, thank you very much for speaking with the Global Observatory today.