The discussion is summarized below in the form of Q&A.
Q: What are the historical and regional contexts of the recent escalation between Iran and the US in light of the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Iraq?A: Rami Khouri
What we have seen, broadly speaking, since the early 1980s, is a recurrent ambition of Western leaders to create and lead an Arab-American-Israeli alliance to confront Iran. These attempts failed badly; and US President Donald Trump is trying to do that again, with no success. Today, a few conservative Arab countries have actively stoked the anti-Iran rhetoric, and I think they exaggerated the threat that Iran poses.
The Obama administration worked with the P5+1 to agree on the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran nuclear deal) in 2015. It showed a serious ability of major powers to negotiate with Iran, rather than intimidate it. Then Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement. In 2019, we saw an escalating series of events, with both the Americans and Iran going back and forth at each other. The Americans accuse Iran of having carried out 90 attacks, against them, after May 2019, mostly carried out by proxies. This escalated in the last couple of months: Iran shot down an American drone; some groups attacked oil tankers and Saudi Arabia. This was a serious escalation. Then the US pushed back by attacking targets in Iran; later Iran struck back with the embassy attack; with the US then assassinating Soleimani. This whole line of events must be seen as one continuum.
Q: What went wrong in the US approach to engaging with Iran then?A: Rami Khouri
Western powers and their Arab allies regularly misread why and how Iranians behave the way they do. They don't understand the central ethos of the “resistance culture", which is key to understanding how the Iranians behave. In fact, groups like Hezbollah and Hamas also have this ethos. We can criticize this seriously and legitimately - they tend to be top-heavy with human rights abuses. Nonetheless, this ethos drives the way Iranians engage, and the Americans don't understand this. The problem, however, is that the resistance culture (and Soleimani was a representative and a leader of it) is both admired and hated by many people. While Arabs don't want anything to do with this kind of culture, many Syrians, Lebanese, and Iraqis abhorred Soleimani. The long-term aim of the Iranians is to protect their country from constant foreign threats, invasions, and sanctions that they feel are not always legitimate – while remaining open to engage with the international community as the 2015 agreement showed.
The complexities of the different actors are astounding today in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, etc. This is a very fluid situation and nobody can make any serious prediction on what will happen next. All we know is that this contest is going to continue in different forms for many years, until responsible leaders can negotiate with each other, and include the regional powers. This would allow all countries in the region to live in peace.
Q: How does Iran's nuclear program feature in the current wave of escalation between the US and Iran?A: Ali Ahmad
First, it is important to understand what the nuclear program means to Iran. The nuclear program has now become a major component of Iran's identity, and it widely reflects on the issue of pride and dignity of the Iranian nation. Internally, this rhetoric has a wide appeal across the political spectrum. Differences are often manifested on political approaches, rather than on the need for the nuclear program itself. This internal consensus is supported by what Iran perceives to be its right to develop, research, and use peaceful nuclear technologies under article IV of the Non-proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory.
However, because of Iran's standing and positioning on the global and regional stage, coupled with the intrinsic “dual-use" nature of any nuclear program, its nuclear program is highly politicized. There are countries with similar, or even more pronounced, nuclear capabilities than Iran, and they are not as scrutinized or sanctioned. That is not to say such a scrutiny is not justified, but rather to highlight an imbalance in the way global powers look at risks of nuclear proliferation.
Before the assassination of General Soleimani, the dynamics between the US and Iran were governed by the “maximum pressure" policy on the side of the US, which was largely based on re-imposing sanctions, faced by “maximum patience/resistance" on the side of Iran. In that balance, the nuclear program provided Iran with an escalatory card that is measured and elastic. However, as shown by the recent developments, both sides have now moved to a new level of confrontation, which I believe is not over yet. Ironically, in the context of a potential war, by unilaterally lifting or threatening to lift restrictions on the nuclear program, Iran's move could be interpreted as a de-escalation signal because of two main reasons.
- In the short-term, and up to a certain point, rolling back of nuclear commitments is a reversible process. Also, there is usually a time delay between announcing something and converting it to tangible actions.
- Rolling back nuclear commitments offers diverse and gradual response options that can help the Iranian leadership avoid taking much more dramatic responses that can ultimately drive Iran, the US, and possibly the whole region into a war. Iran's reversal on its nuclear commitments should not be taken lightly, however. The continuation and escalation of tensions will provide Iran with the pretext to genuinely develop a nuclear weapon program. In the past, I did not believe that it would be in Iran's calculus, now, the perception of any existential threat might just tip the balance toward weaponizing the nuclear program.
Q: What are Iran's escalation options nuclear-wise?A: Ali Ahmad
My view is that Iran would like to keep its nuclear options available and flexible. The Iranian leadership knows that they are dealing with a very unpredictable administration in the US, and having this flexibility might be useful down the road. In principle, Iran can act on the several threats it made so far, including breaking enrichment ceiling(s), increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium, reviving the original plan of the Arak heavy water reactor, ousting IAEA inspectors, etc. Though the most serious action is perhaps Iran's withdrawal from the NPT (The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). For now, I don't see this happening, as Iran remains interested in getting support from the Europeans and the wider international community, who do have some sympathy for Iran. However, if we go to the next level of confrontation, and the regime in Tehran faced what it perceived to be an existential threat, I don't think they will care much about diplomacy and reputation – certainly US threats to target historical and cultural sites don't help as they feed into Iran's growing sense of insecurity.
Also, if Iran leaves the NPT, we should expect a regional response of equally shocking magnitude. In the region, there are already two regional powers (Saudi Arabia and Turkey) that are contemplating a nuclear program right now – Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that “it is unacceptable that Iran is not a nuclear weapon state". With such clear intentions, any miscalculation on Iran's side may trigger very serious and problematic security developments across the region, including the possibility of a nuclear arms race.
Q: Looking ahead, what are the possible scenarios? Are we going towards a war?A: Rami Khouri
Trump and the people around him represent a level of uncertainty, bizarre and unpredictable behavior that we've never seen before from the White House. From the Iranian side, the Iranians are very predictable – they do what they say, and they tell you what they are going to do. One way Iran responds to threats is by having its strategic allies around the region respond. For example, the attacks on Saudi Arabia – we still have no concrete evidence on who attacked the oil facilities! There is no definitive verification; the Iranians probably played a role but there is no proof, and they deny it.
Iran will continue to use these tactics, and they will respond in ways that are commensurate with the perceived threats. We will see more responses to the assassination of Soleimani; we don't know who will carry them out, or where and how. But I'm sure this will happen – to judge by previous Iranian behavior.Rami George Khouri
is an internationally syndicated political columnist and book author, a professor of journalism and Journalist-in-Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was the first director, and is now a senior fellow, at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He was the executive editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, the editor-in-chief of the Jordan Times, and was awarded the Pax Christi International Peace Prize for 2006. He teaches or lectures annually at the American University of Beirut and Northeastern University. He has been a fellow and visiting scholar at Harvard, Mount Holyoke, Princeton, Syracuse, The Fletcher School at Tufts, Northeastern, Denver, Villanova, Oklahoma and Stanford universities.Ali Ahmad
is director of the energy policy and security program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. His research and teaching focus on nuclear security and energy in the Middle East. Prior to joining AUB, and with a PhD in nuclear physics, Ali was a research fellow at Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security where he worked on informing nuclear diplomacy with Iran during the critical period between 2013 and 2015.