After re-imposing sanctions, Trump’s new “Iran Action Group” is the latest step in his destabilization campaign against Tehran. International Crisis Group President Robert Malley, who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal under the Obama administration, discusses the White House’s goals and Iran’s response.
[This is the first part of an extended interview on US policy in Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, with Robert Malley, a senior Obama administration official on Middle East issues and one of the negotiators of the Iran nuclear deal]
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
After pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions, the Trump administration has unveiled the next step in its campaign to destabilize the Iranian government. It’s a new coordinated inter-U.S. government task force called the Iran Action Group.
MIKE POMPEO: The Iran Action Group will be responsible for directing, reviewing, and coordinating all aspects of the State Department’s Iran-related activity, and it will report directly to me. In May of this year, President Trump withdrew from the flawed Iran nuclear deal, which failed to restrain Iran’s nuclear progress or its campaigns of violence abroad. In its place, President Trump has instituted a campaign of pressure, deterrence, and solidarity with the long-suffering Iranian people. Our hope is that one day soon we can reach a new agreement with Iran, but we must see major changes in the regime’s behavior both inside and outside of its borders. The Iranian people and the world are demanding that Iran finally act like a normal nation.
AARON MATE: At the top of the White House agenda is pressuring European countries who remain in the Iran deal to help the U.S. in its effort to isolate Iran. One reliable partner in this effort remains Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hosted National Security Advisor John Bolton this week.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: And I look forward to discussing a whole range of options. But the most important one is how to continue to roll back Iran’s aggression in the region, to make sure that they never have nuclear weapons. There are many other things, but I think this is a good starting point.
JOHN BOLTON: Obviously we’ve got great challenges for Israel, for the United States, for the whole world. And the Iran nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile programs are right at the top of the list.
AARON MATE: Well, joining me is someone who played a key role in the Iran nuclear deal that Trump and his allies want to destroy. Robert Malley is the president and CEO of International Crisis Group. He served in the Obama Administration as Special Assistant to President Obama, and White House coordinator on the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf region. And he helped to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal. Rob, thanks for joining us on The Real News.
ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.
AARON MATE: What is your assessment of what Trump and his administration is up to? What do you see as their ultimate goal here?
JOHN BOLTON: Well, I think several of them have different ultimate goals, right. At a minimum they want to do away with the deal; some of them because of ideological views about Iran, and others- and I’m thinking of the President in particular- because of his animus towards President Obama and his desire to destroy everything his predecessor had done, which seems to be more important for him than achieving anything of his own. So I think you had a spectrum of views between those who thought the deal was a bad deal, those who thought Iran was a country whose regime would be toppled, and those who felt, like President Trump, that anything that President Obama did was by definition unworthy of keeping in place. All of them converged. The anti-Iran, anti-Obama ideological view all converged on one thing, at a minimum which is to get rid of the deal.
Now, the question is where they go from there. Is there regime change strategy? Is there a simply try to suffocate and try to marginalize Iran strategy? Or is there this, in my view, illusory belief that they could negotiate a, quote-unquote, better deal with the Islamic Republic?
AARON MATE: And do you have a sense of which path they’re going to opt for?
ROBERT MALLEY: You know, it’s very hard to tell with this administration. I think it’s anyone’s guess. Again, I think at a minimum what they are going to do is try to put maximum pressure on Iran to try to hurt the regime, and to try to deprive it of resources, to make sure that it can’t lead the foreign policy it wants to lead. And then going from there you’ll have different people maneuvering for different things. Some people are going to- I’m thinking more of John Bolton type, who are going to think maybe this leads to the downfall of the regime. To others who think at a minimum this regime is going to pose less of a problem. To those who think, and this could be Trump’s, you know, [we saw it] with North Korea. He may have this belief that he’s the best negotiator, and that once Iran is sufficiently weakened its leaders will come begging for a new deal that he’ll be able to announce triumphantly.
And so where they will go I think depends in part on how Iran reacts, how other countries in the region react, and who within the administration manages to maneuver himself best. So I think whatever path is a much worse path than the one we were on, and it’s a gratuitously dangerous path. But there’s the more to less dangerous spectrum.
AARON MATE: In terms of this option to try to suffocate Iran and further collapse its economy, is it fair to say that the Obama administration already tried that approach? From the book Losing an Enemy by Trita Parsi, who was an insider to these talks, he writes that one major calculation behind the Iran nuclear deal was that the Obama administration, which you served in, calculated that it couldn’t collapse Iran’s economy fast enough. And so then it turned to negotiations. Is that a fair assessment of what happened?
ROBERT MALLEY: So I wasn’t there at the very beginning of the Obama administration. I joined in 2014. But I had conversations with people inside. I don’t think that they have ever had, that we ever had, the notion that the goal was to impose such sanctions that the regime would collapse. I think President Obama, with whom I’ve had opportunity to discuss Iran quite a bit, I think he’d never had this notion that our goal was to topple the regime through our sanctions. I think he has learned- as I think most of us should have learned- a history of misbegotten interventions in the region, in particular through regime change, whether it’s through military or other means.
So I don’t think that was the goal. I think the goal was very much to put enough pressure on the Iranian regime, economic pressure and diplomatic pressure, coupled with, over time, the prospect of a negotiated deal that would be acceptable to Iran, although it would be tough for Iran to accept. And that that mix, pressure but also the incentive of a deal that met some of the Iranian needs, would be enough to get where they wanted to go. What would have happened if Iran had not, if we hadn’t written a nuclear deal, that’s a different story. But I think the main difference is I don’t, I don’t believe there was anyone in the Obama administration whose goal was to use the sanctions in the hope that you’re going to create such chaos and such instability in the country that the regime would be toppled.
I don’t, I’ve never heard that from people in the administration I spoke to, and certainly not, it certainly doesn’t seem to be a realistic scenario if you look at the history of the region. Regime change happens in the region, but it normally happens because of very local factors, not because of foreign power. Particularly the United States comes in and decrees that that’s the outcome it wants.
AARON MATE: I didn’t mean to suggest that regime change was the goal of the Obama administration’s policy. My question is is it not unlike what I suppose the more benign end of the Trump administration wants to do now, which is put sufficient economic pressure on Iran so that it feels so much pressure that it has to negotiate a deal that is favorable to U.S. terms?
ROBERT MALLEY: So again, if you take the most benign interpretation of this administration, if you listen to what- you know, every other day President Trump may say, which is I’m open to meet with the Iranian president any day, I want to negotiate a better deal, than you could say it has echoes of the Obama playbook. With several big differences, though. Number one, there already was a deal on the table. And it’s very hard to convince another country, particularly a country like Iran that has had a pretty negative relationship with the United States and one that’s not marked by much mutual trust, very hard to convince them after you’ve just torn up a deal that was, the ink of which was barely dry. And now you going to tell them we want to negotiate a new one, and you’re going to come to us begging because of the sanctions that we’ve enforced. I think that’s a completely illusory strategy. So that’s one major difference.
Another difference is that the U.S. is trying to do this on its own. I mean, it doesn’t have allies in the world other than Israel, Saudi Arabia, and a few others, that are prepared to join in this effort. So whatever impact the sanctions may have had in 2012, ’13, ’14, very hard to replicate today. You don’t have the same kind of international consensus either on the economic side or on the political side. So that’s going to be very hard to replicate. And then third, and it echoes my first point, this is not an administration that the Iranian regime is going to trust. Even less than it trusted the Obama administration. And it didn’t trust that one very much to begin with.
So if that’s in the President’s mind, and I actually don’t think it’s in the minds of anyone else in his administration, I don’t think that’s what Secretary Pompeo- it’s certainly not what the National Security Adviser John Bolton have in mind. Their view is not- partly because it’s not what they want, but partly because they’re more realistic. Their view is not we’re going to pressure Iran so much that they’re going to come and negotiate a deal. Their view is, I think, one of more destabilizing and perhaps toppling the Iranian regime. President Trump, I think he may have a different view. But his view is divorced from reality.
AARON MATE: You mentioned the international dimension to this. What’s your assessment so far since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, reimposed sanctions, how the European Union in particular is faring in terms of its commitment to uphold the deal?
ROBERT MALLEY: So, I spent a lot of time in Europe where the International Crisis Group has done a lot of its work talking to the Europeans to see what can be done to salvage the deal. And I think it’s a, it’s a mixed picture. Politically, rhetorically they’ve gone, I’d say, farther than than I would have expected in terms of reiterating their commitment to the deal, expressing their strong opposition to the steps that the Trump administration took, and trying to work with Iran to try to find a way out, to give them enough economic benefits that would make it worth their while to stay in the deal even though they’ve lost the major economic benefit, which is the lifting of U.S. sanctions. So that’s the, on the one hand.
On the other hand, and this may simply be beyond the European Union’s powers today, they haven’t been capable of convincing their own companies and firms to maintain business with Iran. They’ve left in droves because of the fear of American sanctions even before they’ve been reimposed, and they haven’t yet come up with a real mechanism that’s going to allow real economic trade and transaction to continue with Iran. So I’d say it’s a mixed bag. They’ve offered a lot of political, rhetorical diplomatic support, which matters. I think that has made a difference so far. Iran has stayed in the deal. But concretely, this is still a world economic system that is dominated by the United States. And when the United States says you have a choice, you’re going to do business with Iran or you’re going to do business with us, most companies very understandably choose to do business with the United States.
AARON MATE: Especially if they face sanctions as a result of it. Let me ask you, finally, when Pompeo, Bolton, Netanyahu, Trump talk about changing Iran’s behavior in the region, what do you think they’re talking about?
ROBERT MALLEY: Well, again, that’s a very good question, because you could have a whole spectrum from saying, well, stop supporting certain organizations like Hezbollah, like Hamas, like the Houthis in Yemen, all the way to we want a realignment. We want you to be on our side, we want you to accept our vision of the Middle East, our vision of relations with Israel. At a minimum it’s stop doing what you’re doing now. That’s what they want to see. And that, again, is- I mean, you know, other administrations have tried to achieve that. One could get into a long explanation as to why. And it doesn’t- by explanation I don’t mean necessarily defense, by any means. But a long explanation of why Iran’s foreign policy is what it is today.
But it is an illusion, again, to imagine that in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions, the lifting of the reimposed U.S. sanctions, Iran is going to change a foreign policy that is deeply ingrained in the regime, and which they feel- again, not trying to defend it, but it’s certainly what they feel- is a foreign policy that has helped ensure the survival of their regime, and Iran’s continued influence in the region.
So I think what the administration would like to see is an Iran that is no longer hostile to it, hostile to Israel, hostile to its interests in American, what Americans perceive the interests in the region. That would be such a change from where Iran is today that it’s virtually impossible to imagine that occurring as a result of economic pressure.
AARON MATE: I’m going to ask you quickly, is there a gap between what officials- whether it’s in the Trump administration, or even under Democratic presidents like Obama, say about Iran’s behavior in the region, and what the sort of internal assessments are? I ask that because when I read what the U.S. intelligence agencies present to Congress, what I read in the specialist journals like Foreign Affairs, you’ll see scholars say that Iran has a fundamental foreign policy strategy around deterrence, around basically protecting itself from attack. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? And then if that’s true, then what accounts for the gap between private assessments and public pronouncements?
ROBERT MALLEY: So the International Crisis Group, I’ll recommend to readers, we published a long report about a month ago about trying to explain, decipher Iranian foreign policy in both the defensive and offensive aspects of it. And what we may see as offensive they may describe as defensive. In other words, I do think it’s fair to say they have a forward power projection strategy which is intended to defend themselves by exporting the fight away from their borders. They don’t want to have to fight right around their territory. They feel encircled. They see U.S. troops in Iraq on one side, U.S. troops in Afghanistan on the other. They have hostile relations with Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. They have hostile relations, obviously, with Israel.
So they look at the region and they say, OK, this is not a situation that we are comfortable in. The way we’re going to defend is not simply by allowing people to come to us. We’re going to take- we’re going to go on offense by pinning them down where they are. So whether it’s by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, which will put pressure on Israel; supporting Hamas in the Palestinian territories, also putting pressure on Israel; in supporting the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen putting pressure on Saudi Arabia, or supporting different groups in Iraq or elsewhere. Now, you can look at it- again, it’s a bit in the eye of the beholder. They certainly have engaged in certain activities, violent- support for violent groups, or direct acts of terrorism. And that’s, it’s hard to describe that as defensive. But they do that in part, in their view, this is the way to put the ball in other countries’ court, and to make sure that that they feel more secure at home.
So I’m not sure that the distinction defense-offense makes a lot of sense. Our job in the International Crisis Group is to put ourselves in the shoes of the different countries, whether it’s the United States, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and try to understand the world through their eyes. And as we try to understand the world through Iranian eyes, it has been very much a process of investing in other groups, often at low cost. I mean, it’s been a very effective foreign policy to that extent. So you invest in a militia group in Lebanon. It didn’t cost them a fortune, but they have an ally there that is able to sort of put pressure on Israel and serve as a deterrent against Israel. Likewise, with what they’re doing today in other parts of the region.
It can often be quite destructive, and often causes huge- I mean, if you see what their policy is in Syria, for example, it obviously has come at a huge humanitarian cost. So again, this is not trying to say they’re doing the right thing by any means, but if we want to understand where it’s coming from, it is an effort to build alliances in a region where they do feel to be in a religious minority. They’re Shiite in a majority Sunni region. In an ethnic minority. They’re Persian in a majority Arab region. And in a political [minority], because they simply don’t agree with the political orientation of regions, of countries in the region, or of the main allies of the countries in the region, predominantly the United States.
AARON MATE: All right. We’re going to pause there, and in Part 2 we’ll come back and talk about Yemen. Robert Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, former special assistant to President Obama. I’m Aaron Mate for The Real News.