Panelists analyze the death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, implications for the future of U.S.-Iran relations, and potential security ramifications in the region.
ROBBINS: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us. This is—I’m Carla Robbins. I’m an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a longtime journalist, and I’m on a master’s program at the City University of New York. And we’re very lucky today to be joined by Amy Myers Jaffe, who’s the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment and director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council; and Ray Takeyh, who’s the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council. So both experts on the region. And we live in interesting times, so let’s jump right into it.
So, Ray and Amy, after the drone strike that killed Iran’s General Soleimani, President Trump said his goal was to, quote, “stop a war,” “not to start one.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the world is a safer place. What do you think? Three days later, should we see this assassination as an act of deterrence or escalation? Is the world a safer or more dangerous place?
Ray, you want to go first?
TAKEYH: Sure. I think if you kind of look at the past ten years the Iranian regime and General Soleimani had sort of a foreign policy doctrine. That doctrine was we’re going to use proxies to attack our enemies, and that use of proxies gives us a measure of immunity. And this served as a sort of implied deterrence doctrine. That particular act, that particular idea was seemingly invalidated because what the strike suggested is that the United States will now hold Iran responsible for the conduct of its proxies. If that message is registered in Tehran, and it’s too soon to determine conclusively whether it has or not, that is quite an advance because it removes certain immunities from the Islamic Republic that it perceived. It invalidates its idea that if you accuse us of terrorism we can respond with a kind of a terrorism for which we cannot be held accountable for. So it remains to be seen, but that’s not—that’s altogether is a positive message, I think.
ROBBINS: So I just want to remind everyone that this conversation is on the record. And we’re going to talk among ourselves sort of about twenty minutes and then throw it open. And, Amy, I didn’t mean to interrupt you but I needed to do that public service announcement.
So, yes, Amy.
JAFFE: Understood. So I agree with everything that Ray said, but I’d throw a caveat. So it was very important, especially on the oil side, that there didn’t seem to be any deterrent on attacks of any nature. And I think that, you know, going to this extreme where the U.S. embassy is involved, and of course of high symbolic value to really try to embarrass the United States. But on the oil side, the idea that you could have this attack on the major facilities in Saudi Arabia and nothing happened really sort of made this loss of deterrent seem very threatening.
But now that we’ve established and people are agreeing, I think, with Ray on the oil side, you have this second problem, which is that even though they have declared that Soleimani’s deputy is his successor, one has to imagine that with so many key leaders now dead there’s going to be some rivalry among the new level of leaders for all these proxy groups remaining and also inside Iran. And one has to question whether there might be some subgroups that will feel a more personal urge to, quote/unquote, “avenge” these deaths, and whether or not the central control of that process will be as tight as it was under Commander Soleimani.
ROBBINS: So, Ray, I mean, you and Amy both suggest that there was a need for deterrence. And I personally was quite surprised that there was no response at the time of the attacks on Saudi, thereby signaling perhaps to Iran and others that there was no cost to these things. But in terms of proportionality and going after someone of Soleimani’s level, and level—official position and of such a high level, it would seem to me that Iran could not politically afford not to respond, and not to respond in a really forceful way. Is that a misread?
TAKEYH: Well, let me just state, in the aftermath of, I believe, it was September attack on the Saudi oil installations, according to the Iranian press and conversation three things did happen that have not been amplified in the West. Number one, in October there was an assassination attempt against General Soleimani that a number of people were apprehended for. Number two, according to the Iranians, they were subject to cyberattack. And number three, an Iranian oil tanker was hit. So three things did happen. I don’t know who did it. And maybe all of them were not successful. General Soleimani certainly did live in October. So I think the idea that nothing happened as a result of this September strike that has gained currency may not be entirely true. As I said, there are trials for people who seemingly tried to assassinate General Soleimani in October.
Now, to your question, can we expect Iranian retaliation? The question is, what sort of retaliation? I think there’s a lot of confusion in Tehran today about how to deal with a president who’s unpredictable and can actually engage in activities that his predecessor had eschewed. And that represents a sort of a challenge that I’m not quite sure they have wrapped their head around. And to some extent, we have seen some measure of Iranian response. They have resumed what was remaining of their suspended nuclear activities. Now, to be fair, the Iranian government has been reactivating different aspects of its nuclear program every sixty days since the United States left the agreement in May of 2018. And then next round of resumption of activities was already scheduled to take place on January 6th. So the two events coincided. Now, the degree of their abandonment of the JCPOA may have come about as a result of this activity. Maybe they had intended to do less. But certainly we have seen a response on the nuclear front.
I don’t believe you’ll get a response in terms of Iranians actually targeting American installations and personnel, because there is a retaliatory fear. Whether they’ll attack American proxies, Saudis and others, they have to think about whether the president will respond to that or not. And at this point, I don’t think they can exclude that from possibility. So—and on top of all that, we’re dealing with an Iranian regime that is substantially weakened at home as a result of their popular disaffection, with the November demonstrations, and the fact that its economy is in free-for-all. By IMF standards the suggestion the economy’s supposed to decline by another 9 ½ percent, contract by another nearly 10 percent. So they’re just not in a position for a confrontation with the United States, given the disparity of power. And they have to take that into consideration in light of the fact that they’re dealing with a president that is not bound by conventional standards of U.S.-Iranian conflict that they have gotten used to.
ROBBINS: So, Amy, can we broaden this out and look at the reaction in the region itself, and pinch this out a little further? Ray seems to think that this has a potential deterrent effect, in good part because of the weakness of the Iranians. Is this—you know, is this hugely disruptive in the region, or seen potentially as a level of engagement when people were fearful that the U.S. was retreating?
JAFFE: Well, I think that the countries in the region are definitely hedging their bets. And so you saw a trip by Qatari officials. You’ve seen statements by Oman about continuing to play a diplomatic role. You’ve got statements out of Iraq. So I do think that there’s been more conciliation in terms of statement about relations with Iran coming from the Gulf Arab countries post the event. And I do think that there is concern in the region about, you know, suffering collateral damage. So if there’s going to be an attack, you know, is it going to be in one of our countries, and what would the nature of it be? I might say that if you look at the progression of the events—and just to take our listeners back, and members back—we—the tit-for-tat of attacks on oil installations between Iran proxies and Saudi proxies dates back to early 2018, when there were attacks in the Khuzestan province of Iran and also attacks inside Saudi Arabia, including a pipeline to Bahrain.
So this sort of attack on facilities, per se, has persisted. And there has been a ratcheting up nature of these attacks on the Iranian side where they’ve crossed more and more red lines, culminating in the attack on the U.S. embassy. And when you look at the attack on the U.S. embassy, and the imagery of it, and the history of 1979 and what it cost Jimmy Carter, the election, and so forth, you can imagine in your mind that the Iranians were looking for some kind of response that then they could use to push the United States out of Iraq, for example, or even immobilize its own population, specifically because of what Ray is saying, because of their very weakened state. And they were in an extremely weakened state in Iraq, even maybe more than at home.
And so I think the interesting question moving forward is they were expecting a U.S. response. Maybe they were expecting the United States to bomb some militia or to bomb some military base, or something like that, which they could easily withstand and then they would have the upper hand because the United States, quote/unquote, “attacked,” them. So the question really is, the wrinkle of the choice that was made here really throws a real wildcard into the transaction because the measure of it was so different than probably what was expected.
ROBBINS: Although, it would seem just a few weeks ago in Iraq that there were people on the streets calling for Iran to get out of Iraq. And now people are calling for the U.S. to get out of Iraq.
JAFFE: And that, I think, was exactly their point of attacking the embassy, to provoke us to have a response, so that they could turn that table. I mean, I think they were desperate to turn that table because the way their economy was staying afloat was through trade and smuggling in Iraq.
ROBBINS: And so you were also—we were talking before we got on the phone about threats inside of Saudi Arabia right now. Is this people taking advantage, people jumping on this because of the level of disruption? Should we imagine an uptick of terrorism and threats to Americans across the region? Some Iranian-generated and others generated from other places?
JAFFE: Well, the embassy in Riyadh has issued a warning for Americans working in Saudi Arabia. And I do think that it’s not even a question of whether it’s Iran’s response but, you know, one has to worry about just an uptick in sympathetic groups that would have access to being able to harm Americans in Saudi Arabia. I mean, that risk always existed. Maybe it’s a little elevated right now. And I think the real question is going to be is assessing what kinds of risks are going to come from the Iranian regime itself and what risks come in a splintered way.
ROBBINS: So before we turn this over, Ray, do you expect the U.S. to be ousted from Iraq, American troops thrown out? Or do you think this is a symbolic vote?
TAKEYH: I would imagine it’s a symbolic vote. The Iraqi leadership is in a difficult position today, even an impossible position. They try—have tried to have a relationship and even mediate between the United States and Iran. And I don’t believe they would like their country to be a venue for conflict between these two powers. And I suspect they’re informing both parties that they wish for their country to be exempt from this conflict. But at this point, I don’t anticipate a departure of the United States forces, but you know I do think that both the United States and Iran would—should lead to some fights with the Iraqis about not turning their fragile country into a platform for their confrontation.
ROBBINS: Any sign that—certainly the rhetoric coming out of the president’s Twitter account is not de-escalatory at this point. And certainly the language coming out of Tehran is not de-escalatory. Is this—do you—I mean, Ray, you seem, shall we say, calmer than I am. Just why is that?
TAKEYH: Yeah. Well, I’m sort of used to belligerent Iranian rhetoric. They’ve been doing this for forty years of, you know, whipping up this sort of rhetoric. They specialize in that. I think beyond the bombast I’m not quite sure if you see much else. And actually one of the first reactions that the military leadership in Iran had was the suggestion that they would retaliate, but the retaliation would be in time and choosing of their place. So there was a little more circumspection. And I suspect when things calm down they’ll go back and recognizing all the difficulties they have at home, the disparity of power between United States and Iran. So the avoidance of confrontation—which has always been what they have said, even most recently, that they don’t wish to have a war with America. And then they have to kind of figure out how to deal with an American political leadership today that they have never been able to comprehend. But I think that the president has unsettled the Iranian leadership because of this unpredictability. And that, in and of itself, has—should act as a sort of tempering of their anger and ambitions, I think.
ROBBINS: So, Amy, final before we throw this open. The oil markets seem less worried than I am also. Maybe I’m just a naturally anxious human being. Is it because they can react when they need to react? Or why is that?
JAFFE: So the oil market, in my opinion, over the last few months has been very tone-deaf when it comes to geopolitical risk. Some of that is because they have an overly wild, optimistic outlook about how much U.S. production can be added if the market enables it, from price. But I do think that there is this sort of prejudice that cooler heads will prevail, and that the market doesn’t recognize the risk. So, you know, had the attack on Soleimani and his entourage not happened, I think were at actually a very high left that Iraq’s exports were going to get disrupted by just unrest on the ground. And one has to ask oneself, if we go back to turmoil, what would that turmoil look like in Iraq now? It’s not like because of what’s happened, you know, demonstrators might easily want U.S. troops out of their country, ask the Iranians to stop meddling in their affairs. But that doesn’t mean that they’re satisfied now that they have no electricity and water services, and that there are no jobs, or that the economy’s a mess, and there’s a lot of rampant corruption.
So, you know, I still think there’s a high level of risk in the oil market, especially—even if people have made the calculation they don’t think Iran would dare attack Saudi oil facilities again which, you know, you cannot 100 percent discount. But even if you take that position, that you feel that they wouldn’t do it because now the United States would absolutely have sort of a carte blanche to go and attack the Iranian oil installation or missile batteries in Iran, and, you know, you’d have this real escalation at this point that could happen, more likely, I do think you have this prospect that Iraq’s own oil production could get disrupted in any number of a variety of ways, not the least of which is what if the oil workers joined in protests? Or whether the protests go even more severe and it was hard for oil workers to get to the job, which has also happened in some minor fields like Nasiriya and has happened very briefly at major fields like Majnoon and Ramayla. So I don’t think we’re out of the woods when it comes to, you know, could this problem affect actual oil in a way that would be tangible to oil traders and not just as a jittery response.
ROBBINS: So we’re now going to open for our participants and members who are on the call. Just as a reminder, this call is on the record. And, operator, if you could give the instructions for asking the questions to our callers.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question comes from Garrett Mitchell with The Mitchell Report.
Q: Thanks very much for doing this. I want to make a statement. Think of it as a question, if you would. The assassination of Soleimani and the Iraqi—his Iraqi counterpart arguably strengthen the case for an exit from Iraq of American military force, which means it allows for Iranians to play an even stronger role in Iraq. And in both cases, America is the loser. True or not?
ROBBINS: Ray? Ray first then Amy.
TAKEYH: As I’ve said, I don’t anticipate a sort of American eviction from Iraq. So I guess I’m not entirely persuaded by the premise. I do think if that happens it will be a setback. But I really don’t anticipate it. I think what Iraqis are going to try to do is, once again, do what they have done sort of since 2003, find a way of accommodating these diverse actors that are operating in their country, and even try to mediate between them. How well they’ll succeed in the aftermath of this particular act, which is quite an extraordinary one, remains to be seen. But I don’t—but I think they’ll go back to that particular posture, as opposed to calling for eviction of the United States, because they do rely on the United States for security assistance, for other forms of—for other forms of aid. And the relationship with the United States is important to Iraq in terms of its entry and inroads into other arenas in the region and beyond.
ROBBINS: And, Amy, were you going to say something?
JAFFE: And I would add just—yes. And I would add to that, you know, the jury is still out on just because we’ve had these extreme events and people are feeling confused on the ground in Iraq, I’m sure, and, you know, mixed emotions, I think we have to look at the longer run. You know, these young people and others who have been demonstrating, none of their grievances have been addressed. And we don’t know how that’s going to play out over time. So I think it’s just really too early, you know, to go into this rabbit hole that somehow this was a tragic mistake and we know why. I’m not sure there are not going to be unintended outcomes or possible outcomes we think we can predict. But I think it’s a very volatile situation in Iraq and so I hesitate to come to, you know, hasty conclusions by how we think it’s going to turn out in terms of the end game.
ROBBINS: Next question. Operator, do we have—
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Stuart with Covington & Burling.
Q: This is Stu Eizenstat.
One area that hasn’t—and I have a personal interest in this, having—feeling like I lost my job in 1980 because of the Iranian hostage crisis. (Laughter.) But more seriously, one thing that hasn’t been addressed by Ray or Amy as a weapon, which could have deniability, is cyberattacks. The Iranians have a fairly sophisticated cyberattack capacity. It does give them some plausible deniability. Do you expect that that will be a weapon? And if so, would it be directly against U.S. assets—banking, credit card companies, insurance—or proxies? Or do you not see it as a weapon at all?
JAFFE: Well, I definitely see it as a weapon. It’s already been used against the Saudis at a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia. We’ve seen some, you know, entry into the U.S., for example. So we know that they have capabilities to hit targets in the United States. So I think the question becomes we, in the international system and for the United States in particular, we have not made clear how we see a cyberattack and what our response would be. That might be a good option for the administration now to really make very clear. I mean, the administration did this very proportional response when the Iranians were attacking oil shipping a few months ago. You might notice that it stopped.
One of the reasons it stopped, actually, was because the U.S. military came up with a great cyberattack that denied the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, or whoever was the groups that were in charge of the attacks on shipping, access to the GPS they were using or the radar they were using to locate the ships to decide which ones to attack. So they jammed that for a period of time. And that was sort of proportional response. It didn’t harm anyone. It showed them what U.S. capabilities could be. So I do think that we’ve already opened that Pandora box by using it ourselves as the American military to deter Iran. And we know that the Iranians have used that in Saudi Arabia. I mean, they also—back as far as 2012, an Iranian sleeper went into Saudi Aramco with a memory stick and knocked out part of their computer system. And they caught it before it got to the oil operations, but that happened way before, you know, we got to the progress of steps we’re all talking about in the last five days.
So I think cyber is a big risk. And the question is really—and Ray has really made this very clear—what kind of actions do the Iranians believe they can take that would not accelerate the conflict to a point where they would not want it accelerated to? And where Ray and I might disagree slightly is that I really feel that the Iranians were really pushing buttons until they could get an attack. They wanted the United States to attack them somehow so that they could get leverage in Iraq and try to relieve themselves from the pressure of the demonstrations. And also maybe inside Iran, because they were so under pressure. So the question is, you know, do they go back to this too-clever-by-half strategy which Ray outlined at the beginning of the call, where they only want to do things where it’s not clear that it was them? But, I mean, is that going to work anymore, as Ray so well pointed out? Or, you know, would they risk a direct confrontation with the United States, because now they can’t be so sure that the United States won’t react?
ROBBINS: And then also—
TAKEYH: I would just—
ROBBINS: Yes, Ray, that’s great.
TAKEYH: And I just don’t see, and did not see, still don’t see, that the Iranian government wanted to have a confrontation with the United States, for which it would be held accountable. I think they would want to get away with things, as they had in the past. So I’m not quite sure if I see this exactly the same way of having provoked it.
Q: The question is, can they have plausible deniability with cyber?
TAKEYH: Well, I agree with Amy on the things that she said on the cyber front. And there’s always been a low-intensity cyber conflict between the two nations. Whether that intensifies or not in the remaining weeks remains to be seen. But in terms of whether Iranians wanted to provoke a crisis in Iraq, I’m not quite seeing it with the same degree of crystallization, I guess.
ROBBINS: And I would just raise the additional question, which is: How much political pressure is the leadership in Tehran under to show its own domestic constituency that it’s capable of affecting some sort of vengeance in response, or at least some retaliation. And certainly something that has plausible deniability is not particularly politically gratifying. But that’s—you know, who knows. (Laughs.)
Onto the next question. But a great question, Stu.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Rebeca Kheel with the Hill.
Q: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this, guys. Ray mentioned briefly Iran’s announcement Sunday on the nuclear agreement. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that topic a bit. What does the announcement coming, as it did, on the heels of the Soleimani killing mean for regional tensions? Are we, you know, going to be facing a nuclear crisis on top of everything else?
TAKEYH: Well, I mean, it is important to suggest that this is part of a continuum. The Iranians have been resuming various aspects of their nuclear activities since May 2018. And they had never ceased certain critical nuclear activities since 2015, with the advent of the Iran nuclear deal. They have continued to enrich. They have continued to develop advanced centrifuges, continued to develop ballistic missiles. Those were essentially things that were already happening. What they have done in addition to that is they’re no longer sending out enriched uranium stockpiles for reprocessing abroad. They have brought online a number of advanced centrifuges. And they had reactivated the Fordow nuclear facility, which is the one that’s nestled in the mountains.
So the recent announcement comes on the heels of that. And essentially they’re—for all practical purposes they have pulled out of the agreement, or whatever was left of the agreement that they hadn’t pulled out of. Now do they really want to go back and reassemble antiquated 5,200 centrifuges? They may do that as a symbolic gesture, but I don’t think that’s an extraordinary thing. I think the key to Iranian proliferation was, and has always remained, development of advanced centrifuges that can operate with efficiency and high velocity. And development of that generation of centrifuges takes some time. And they have put a lot of effort into it. And there’s nothing that the Iran did to thwart that.
What should happen, if Iran has renounced its obligation under the JCPOA and its current membership, is for this file to be dispatched to the U.N. Security Council, where there’s a reactivation of the Security Council resolution. That’s the penalty, ostensibly, for violation of the agreement. The European states are the ones who are responsible for doing so. However, the Trump administration has suggested that itself does have the legal authority, even though it is not a member of the JCPOA—it does have the legal authority to essentially snap back, if you would, the U.N. Security Council resolution. But that’s where the debate is going to be. Whether the Europeans are going to do it. If the Europeans aren’t going to do it, whether the United States will do it. But that’s sort of where the discussion is.
In terms of practical effect of this particular measure—and we’ll see in the next several weeks what that implies—I think you could see enrichment up to 20 percent. And you could see—it just is not practical for them to reassembly those antiquated machines, but they may do so just to send a message. But the nuclear deal, as such, which was never a sturdy barrier to Iranian nuclear ambitions, had already been attenuated through a series of steps that Iran has taken. This is certainly the culminating step.
ROBBINS: Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Victoria Bautista with Representative Kendra Horn’s office.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this conference call.
I had a quick question about what you think of the future of the Quds Force under Esmail Ghaani is going to look like. Is he going to be as effective as Soleimani had been in the past of managing those militia connections? Or do you see a weakening of those—the IRGC’s international wing?
TAKEYH: He has been mostly involved in the Afghanistan area. He had been involved in the early part of the revolution and repression of the Kurdish insurgent insurrection, and maybe even in the repression of the internal Iranian uprising in 1992. He certainly is going to be less flamboyant than his successor. It’s hard to see his level of effectiveness as of yet. If you think of the Quds Force as a basketball team, General Soleimani was the guy who scored thirty-seven points and got fifteen rebounds. Do you have another guy on the bench who could do that? Maybe. You don’t have fifteen. So he’s your basketball team after Kevin Durant got injured. (Laughs.) You’re going to—you’re going to score less points. And, you know, go across the street to Brooklyn and see how they’re doing without Kevin Durant.
ROBBINS: OK. (Laughs.) OK. All right. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jameel Johnson with Nasdaq.
Q: Thank you. But actually, Stu Eizenstat asked my very question about cyberattacks. So thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from James Winship with Diplomatic Connections.
Q: Yes. I’d like to ask the sort of counter question here, which is that: Is there any possibility that, in fact, this attack generates a sort of rally around the flag or rally around the leadership effect that in fact counteracts all of the weaknesses that Ray and Amy have talked about in the regime?
TAKEYH: On that issue, I would say no. The Islamic Republic is a curious government, because actually the debate about Iran is always more interesting in Iran than it is in the United States. And recently the Iranian press itself was publishing opinion polls suggesting 80 percent of the people are dissatisfied with the regime and they draw no distinctions between President Rouhani and anybody else. President Rouhani’s own affiliated website published a poll suggesting a similar set of numbers in the province of Tehran. The regime just finished shooting fifteen thousand—upwards of fifteen hundred of its citizens. And most of those citizens were poor and impoverished—those in whose name the revolution was ostensibly waged has lost very significant legitimacy.
It is no longer a government held together because of piety, but patronage. And its ability to dispense patronage has shrank dramatically because of the contraction of its economy, the mismanagement of its economy, and the rampant corruption of its political system, with class differences and income inequality being quite provocative. Qassim Soleimani may be iconic to Western audiences, but for domestic audiences he was also a person who was wasting Persian resources on Arab civil wars. And he was representing an institution—he was in the leadership of an institution that was responsible for domestic repression. I don’t know how that essentially his killing rejuvenate the legitimacy of the regime that was already battered.
Finally, I will say a regime that is not allowing funeral processions for fifteen hundred people that it recently shot has a three-day mourning for somebody named Qassim Soleimani, I don’t know how those goals go over well for aggrieved parents, if I was one of them. But I don’t think it would be rallying around the flag.
JAFFE: Well, let me—let me add, there was an op-ed on December 31 written by—on news services that are those affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, saying that President Rouhani was responsible for bringing Iran to the brink of war with the United States and putting the country on a war footing. And so they were actually trying to throw that on President Rouhani, as if all these other activities that we know about—you know, the attack on tankers, and the attack on Saudi Arabia, and the attack on, you know, multiple different things really didn’t have anything to do with it.
So I do think that they have continued problems. And I think they have continued problems even among the factions inside the country. And the question of where does the Revolutionary Guard go from here, I think, you know, is still an open question, and could really be very definitive in what happens going forward. Because different leaders might have different orientations. I think General Soleimani considers himself a master strategist. And it’s not clear. Maybe the statements of his successor are a lot more of a blunt instrument. And so it couldn’t be a very—it could be a change. It could be a change.
Q: Does Trump’s threatening of cultural institutions help or hurt that?
TAKEYH: I’m sorry, I didn’t—
ROBBINS: I think that’s about the—damaging cultural institutions. Do you want to take that on?
TAKEYH: No, go ahead.
JAFFE: I was just going to say that one could only hope that that is in the genre of things that get floated out on Twitter that are for the domestic audience—a certain segment of the domestic audience and are not really on the table. Obviously Iran is an ancient and proud culture. And that would be a terrible thing. So I don’t see what benefit whatsoever that could come from doing that. So—I mean, there are things that the Iranian regime has got to know. You know, during the Iraq-Iran War, both Iraq and Iran’s oil industries got literally physically destroyed. And it took the Iranians a long time. Part of the reasons why they were interested in the Iranian nuclear deal was there was still spare parts they needed desperately to keep their petrochemical industry moving.
And I just think that that’s a more fruitful place in today’s world, where we know what countries like China and Europe are doing to move away from oil—you know, the clock is ticking. And if you have assets that you can no longer monetize, the longer you can’t monetize the less valuable they’re going to be, if you could ever sell them again. So I think that the regime is under a lot of pressure from the base economy. And I think it’s not wise to threaten things that go, you know, beyond to the population, that affect the general population that might have been inclined against the regime.
ROBBINS: Operator, next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Peter Coy with Bloomberg Businessweek.
Q: Oh, hi. I have a question for Ray. And it’s about the topic of sort of game theory. If you have sort of a hawk/dove matrix, and if both players play the hawk strategy you go down in flames. But you don’t necessarily want to both play the dove strategy either. So game theory might say that you have more of a mixed strategy. And one could argue that Trump advertently or inadvertently is pursuing such a mixed strategy. Is that something that could work? Or are we giving him too much credit?
TAKEYH: Well, I think there’s been a lot of commentary on the administration’s strategy in the recent weeks, but I’m not sure too many people have accused it of being game theory. (Laughter.) Look, I think the president operates on his instincts. And in this particular case, I think his instincts have been sound. I do think maybe while instinctively he seems to recognize that demonstration of American power and its application can actually cause deterrent among adversaries with far less capabilities, and adversaries that have been significantly weakened over the past three, four years. I do think Iranian regime will have to have some kind of response, but they will try to choose the responses that does not elicit a direct confrontation with the United States and a military confrontation.
And they have been rather insistent on that, even these days, even in the past couple of days, that when they are pledging revenge they are also suggesting that they don’t want war, because they understand that that’s not going to work out well for them. This is a kind of a situation where I don’t think anybody wants war. I don’t think the Iranians want war. I don’t think the United States wants war. I don’t think the Iraqis want war, especially if it’s going to take place in their territory. So you know, in that sense everybody has an interest for kind of reduction of tensions.
Q: Yeah. OK, thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Morgan Chalfant with the Hill.
Q: Hi. Actually, somebody already kind of asked my question about the cultural sites, but I guess I’ll follow up. It is—I mean, can you speak to any sort of strategy in doing this? Amy, I think you mentioned that it could be just for domestic audiences. But I just wanted to get some perspective on, you know, why—what might be the reasoning for kind of putting this out there. Obviously there’s been a lot of talk of, you know, violating international law?
JAFFE: I guess I’ll—I guess I’ll take a crack at that. I think what—if I—if I was going to make that statement a rational statement, because that’s what you’re asking me to do, right? Is there any rational reason why you would make a reference to that? I think the rational statement would be this: When you go to war—when you go to war there’s a lot of destruction. And if you think about what’s happened in Syria, I think what the president may be trying to say—but I don’t want to—you know, maybe he’s just saying what he’s saying and I don’t want to excuse it—that when you go to war a lot of things happen that are collateral damage. And maybe he’s speaking incorrectly maybe in his tonality to the Iranian people. I mean, they have a beautiful country with a lot of historical value and culture, and just monuments, and just spectacular places for people to go and see.
And, you know, if you have a war, if you really have a war, you know, Iran was a little bit lucky in the sense—which is not lucky, because they lost a lot of people—but a lot of the Iraq-Iran War was fought in Iraq. So you know, and they lost a lot of people, much more people. And I think that it’s a place where people don’t think about war lightly, because so many people—so many people died in the Iraq-Iran War. But, you know, when you have a war and things get destroyed, they’re destroyed forever. And I think everyone needs to step back and understand that, that we’re talking about—when I think about the Middle East today, you know, it almost makes me cry.
I mean, think about these young people who’ve tried coming out in the streets because they want a different future, and how impossible it is for them to get there because of these pathologies that have propelled themselves for four decades. And when you think about the evil of that, you really do take pause to think about, you know, can I get you to think about it? And can I on both sides—you know, can I get you to stop and think about the future of this region, and the future of America’s role in it, and think about just that. You know, where are we trying to get to? What is the end game? What kind of society do we want to have? What kind of society do they want to have?
And the president has appealed to that in the past, has talked about, you know, how a different pathway could lead to a prosperous Iran, and not a missile-oriented program but a real more substantial peace agreement. And I know that there are people in government and in think tanks in Washington that don’t believe in that future, and believe that, you know, a strong hand is the only deterrent, and so forth. But you know, one could try to take an optimistic view that this is a country with a long and proud civilization and history that has a lot to lose from having a war on its own soil, and that it may be thought—maybe Iran thought a little blithely about those kinds of things in Lebanon, and Syria, and Yemen. And that it would be a good thing if people were to stop and think. And maybe, you know, maybe there is a possibility that the population in Iran could try to affect change. I mean, maybe that’s unlikely. We’ve been saying it, you know, for years and years and years. But it is kind of tragic, if you really just think about it. and that’s really a shame.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Joel Gehrke with Washington Examiner.
Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. We’ve talked already about what the Iraqi government would do in reaction to this attack—the strike against Soleimani. But I wonder, how do you see this playing among Iraqi public opinion? There are some who argue, perhaps hopefully, that the strike embarrassed the Iranians by revealing their influence in the country, you know, because Soleimani was there, and that this could exacerbate some of the—some of the anti-Iranian sentiment that could be there. Do you see that happening, or is this more—or is this more of a political setback for the U.S.? Maybe the short way to ask that is which pictures of protests matter more?
JAFFE: In my opinion, I think if progress had been made in changing the Iraqi government to politicians, that would have been more pleasing to the demonstrators. We were making progress in that regard, I believe. And so the question is, you know, is that progress lost now, or not? Can that momentum come back? Because, with all due respect to the votes in the parliament and so forth, the current prime minister who’s announced all these steps was already resigned. And that government had already resigned, and was already being demanded to step down, including the parliament. So the question is, when the dust settles, you know, has anything actually changed? Are people still committed to the course that they were trying to pursue? And having Commander Soleimani out of the picture, does that make it easier or harder? Because one could argue that it could make it easier.
TAKEYH: I think that you have seen a wave of protests, particularly among the Shia population, against the corruption of their government, the inefficiency of their government, and the level of Iranian influence over their government. None of those factors have changed. And I do think it will get back into the position where Iraq has recognized the extraordinary intervention by Iran into their country that has corrupted their politics and even siphoned off their resources that it’s used as their territory for contraband, has ill-served their country. I don’t think that sentiment is going away because Commander Soleimani was killed, and you have these demonstrations.
JAFFE: And just by analogy, though it’s not analogous, if you think about the people who’ve been killed on Pakistani soil without the permission of the Pakistani government, it’s not really clear in the long run whether that has really affected U.S.-Pakistani relations in a—on the long arch. I mean, I’m not saying that we have perfect relations with the Pakistani government, but it’s not clear. I think, you know, what people think in twelve hours afterwards and forty-eight hours afterwards, or seventy-two hours afterwards is not the same as what Ray is saying, which is the long arch of Iraq citizen needs to actually think about, you know, what future do they want. They were gaining on traction on forcing their government to step down. They were demanding an actual physically new government system. And I mean, if they stay that course, they can try to get there.
ROBBINS: So we have five minutes—
JAFFE: Maybe making—
ROBBINS: Sorry. We have five minutes left. So I think we have time for probably two more questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Steve Liesman from CNBC.
Q: Hey, thanks. And a special hello to Carla there.
ROBBINS: Oh, Steve Liesman, hey.
Q: Hey. (Laughs.) Just wondering, from a different point of view, are Iranian oil sites—given the change in production in the United States, are Iranian oil sites potential targets for the U.S.? Do the Iranians know this, if it is true?
JAFFE: So I think you have to step back from that question and ask the following question: What would the United States gain from bombing Iranian oil sites? So I’m not saying that we would never do that because it depends how the escalation goes. But it’s not like the United States has an incentive to bomb Iranian oil sites. I mean, if we were looking for an excuse to bomb Iranian oil sites we could have done that after they bombed Saudi Arabia and said, hey, you know, this is retaliatory. So—
Q: I guess I’m more interested in retaliation.
JAFFE: What’s motivating the question?
Q: I guess I mean more as retaliation, as a possible retaliation to something the Iranians might do, if that would be a potential target in a way that it would not have been, say, ten years ago?
JAFFE: I question whether or not—we bomb Iranian oil fields during the ’90s. So—and ’80s and ’90s. So that’s actually not true. The United States has, in history, bombed Iranian offshore oil fields. So I don’t think that our changed oil position really adjusts that one way or another. I think that the United States understands that our allies in the global economy are dependent on oil, and oil—including oil from the Middle East. And we’re not so insensitive to the fact that we have our own oil, per se.
And the president has shown time and time again that he cares about oil prices being moderate, and that he’s not only willing to tweet a hundred times at Saudi Arabia that they need to do more about it, but he’s increased the sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to reduce the U.S. deficit, at a very high clip. He has made it clear multiple times that he would release the Strategic Petroleum Reserve if there was a shortage in the market. I think the president has done everything he can to make clear that he doesn’t want average Americans to suffer from a high pump price, and the global economy to suffer from an oil shock. So I just don’t see that as being an option unless we’re in an all-out war, in which case he would want to deny the Iranians access to fuel.
ROBBINS: So only about a minute—thanks. Only about a minute left. So, Ray, one last thought before we end the call? On any topic.
TAKEYH: I think some of the—I think some of the sort of—I guess, the word is hysteria—that’s permeating the United States is overstated, and I’m not sure the cataclysmic predictions that are coming about are true. I do think what the president did (was defensible ?) and it did restore American deterrent power.
ROBBINS: Well, I hope you’re right. I’m probably more on the anxiety, if not hysteria.
But I really want to thank Amy, and Ray, and all of you who called in. Just a reminder, this is on the record. And thank you all for joining us today.