EMF Conference Part 8: What Would Be Necessary to Rethink the Iran P5+1 Agreement? – Dr. Yair Hirschfeld 5-7 December, 2016

by on January 08, 2017

EMF Conference Part 8: What would be Necessary to Rethink the Iran P5+1 Agreement?
Dr. Yair Hirschfeld – Vice Chair of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue
EMF Conference 5-7 December 2016
Larnaca, Cyprus

The newly elected US president has expressed his dissatisfaction with the Iran P5+1 agreement and signalled his willingness to renegotiate it. Dr. Hirschfeld discusses possible options for curtailing Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, which will most probably be reinforced by the deal in its current shape. One of the options includes closer cooperation between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, potentially leading to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as support for the Kurds in Syria.


Christodoulos Pelaghias (C.P.): We have with us Dr. Yair Hirschfeld of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, and my co-host is Air Commodore Andrew Lambert. Dr. Hirschfeld, welcome.

Yair Hirschfeld (Y.H.): Welcome, I’m very happy to be with you. It’s a wonderful occasion and a great challenge.

C.P.: Dr. Hirschfeld, you were going to tell us some more about the Iran P5+1 deal and the state of play, and perhaps share your thoughts with us. Please go ahead.

Y.H.: I’ll be happy to do so. Actually, I wanted to start with telling you what should be changed. Because the assumption is that President Trump and the entire team that he’s assembling now is committed to reopen the discussions with Iran under the assumption and the argument that I personally share most of it, that the agreement was good but far from being good enough. I’ll tell you why it was good. It was good that they seriously put the Iranian efforts to develop a military nuclear armament on the slower track. It is postponing the dangerous day when they will have nuclear arms, but it’s postponing it maybe not far more than ten or eleven years. Which may be an important success but it still is not good enough.

I’ll tell you what was lacking in the agreement. There were three or four things lacking. What was lacking is a far more excessive control system of what is going on, although there are quite serious control matters. What is lacking is control system of the missile system and the capability to deliver, the ballistic missiles armed with nuclear carriers – that is not included. What is probably worst of all is that the terror activities, the hegemonic tendencies of Iran in the Gulf and beyond, these have been strengthened and reinforced by the agreement instead of weakened.

So if we want to change things, these are the things you would like to change. We would like to change an understanding that there will be no day when they can have the bomb. Not in ten, not in twenty years they will have nuclear arms, and the armament developments will stop, and that other aggressive means they can develop in order to dominate the entire area, and actually Europe and United States also, that this will be strongly limited. And we obviously want Iran to stop its support for terror organizations like Hamas, like Hezbollah and other groups.

Now, the question is not what we want to change, but the real question is how we can achieve this. And I will give you first a theoretical answer, and then I’ll look at the theoretical answer if you’re okay.

There are three options. The first option, and option that was used actually in the past, is an effective means of coercive policy. For coercive policy you need five conditions. And I would question the fact that I don’t believe that these five conditions are all in place.

The first condition is a very clear and very simple demand that has to be brought forward. And actually we have more than a simple demand. We have group of demands that have to be put ahead towards the Iranians. You need, second – and this is more difficult – an all-embracing regional and international coalition to support the demand. And it’s not clear we can achieve this. Then third, you would need sanctions to apply in order to make clear that we are serious. Now, forth, you will have to make clear that you are willing to use military power to obtain the outcome you need, not necessarily immediately, but in the process if you are going along. And fifth, you need to give the Iranians a way out, a certain face-saving they can actually go along with the demand, but not lose too much face to their internal political set up. So aggressive, coercive policy would demand all these five points. I’m not sure if we have the capability to put this in power now, but it is an option that we should look at.

The second option that we have is an option of containment. And containment would be that you build a strong international regional coalition to minimize the danger they can do, mainly on the regional affairs, mainly on terror affairs, and mainly making it clear that you can renew, you will take and renew sanctions whatever moment you want, and in any way you can go ahead and make further demands of them.

And the third option is to move to negotiations. Negotiations where they could be part of it. Now, the way it was done in the past, the way it actually happened was that the Obama administration, with Israeli insistence and with the support, strong support of Great Britain, France, went along the logic from coercive policy approach to a containment approach to negotiations. And I would be very happy if this would be pragmatic. If you would ask me, I’m in a quiet room (inaudible) but I will tell you I don’t think this is very doable today. And I’ll tell you why. We’ve been gone through this and there are too many players. And the sense is that the agreement that has been signed has been a great achievement. You have Russia who wants to support Iran strongly, at least in some ways, and the American move against Iran in doing it, you have the Chinese who will not probably go along with it, Europeans have also difficulties, and in United States itself there’s opposition against the strong state arm coercive policy approach. And it won’t be easy at all for Trump to build the necessary coalition that would make it necessary to present a successful coercive policy. So it is clear that this is what is going to happen.

Now, it is clear, I would say that this is altogether bad news approach. But I’ll try to give you good news approach. And basically I’ll give you my major conclusion. The major conclusion is that in order to build a successful containment, I believe the key in many ways lies in Israel and Saudi Arabia. And the containment has to be part of a wider concept, and the containment has to be different on different issues. On some issues it may have two different approaches. It may have a different approach to Syria, a different approach on the Gulf, and different approach on the wider regional concert and the international activity.

Now, from an Israeli point of view, the assumption today is that Israel’s interest is clearly to build a close security alliance with the Sunni Arab states. And assumption goes actually beyond that. The assumption is not that this is only an Israeli interest, but it is because containing Teheran is a very substantial interest of Saudi Arabia, of Jordan, of Egypt, of the United Arab Emirates, of the Gulf Council countries. That there is a common interest in doing that. And for my understanding, Trump is in this concept. In this field on the Israeli-Sunni Arab theater of action, Trump is in a negotiating position. Trump can actually make a lot of moves to put this action together. You have today serious cooperation between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Egypt and also a little bit less between Israel and Saudi Arabia on the military areas. But it is necessary to upgrade it and to take it several points forward. We’ve got Prime Minister Netanyahu willing to pay an important price on the Palestinian issue on this matter, and it goes along with President Trump’s demand to be in a negotiating position also in Israeli Palestinian arena. Now, I believe it cannot start on Israeli-Palestinian arena directly, it has to go via the regional circle. And we have to start negotiations here, Israel and Saudi Arabia, by the Israeli understandings with the Sunni Arab countries, and then follow up on the Palestinian side. On the Palestinian side there’s also a potential negotiating position, and the potential negotiating position on the Palestinian side is actually what our prime minister quietly told the prime minister of the Netherlands. He said he’s willing to do serious state building for the Palestinians where they are not allowed to do state-building today against some differentiated understandings on settlement activity, particularly in the settlement blocs. And whatever this deal will be, it would put Trump in a negotiating position with Israel, you have Trump in a negotiating position on Saudi Arabia-Israel, and then Saudi and Israeli-Arab Sunni understanding, on the Palestinian understanding, a possible negotiating position in the Israeli-Palestinian concept as a result of it, as an outcome of it. And I think this is a block that would starkly show Iran that they have to be very careful in causing too much trouble. It probably will cause serious Iranian provocations and it will be necessary to put the arrangements in place, but it will be creating new rules of game, new rules of understanding, it will make it clear that the Iranian aggression with Hamas and Hezbollah and al-Qaeda and all of these other “wonderful people” who are murderers and terrorists, that the Iranian support for these guys will cost a very serious and high price.

It is a different situation in Syria. We know from the Egyptian president, we know from King Abdullah that they fear that the devil we know is better than the devil we surely will get if the devil we know will go away. And you have a very clear position in most of the Arab world today that kicking Assad out of power now will create a very serious void which the most militant groups will move into and cause far more damage than it’s done.

We also know that Russia must be involved. That in order to take action and contain Iran on one side it will be important to have some understandings with Russia on Syria too, so that you contain Iran in the Gulf, you contain Iran in all the terror activities, but there may be some joint interests regarding Syria that one has to follow up.

My point of view would be essential and very, very important is to assist the Kurds in Syria to move ahead and strongly establish a de facto autonomy in close cooperation with the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq. And it will open up a new ways for stabilizing also Syria, and also Iraq, in a coordinated matter.

Now, the great question is how this will work together with Turkey? How will Turkey be part of it or will not be part of it? As much as I understand the tendency in Washington will be to reach out to Ankara. The tendency in Washington will be to seek a coordinated Turkish-Saudi-Arab-Israeli containment of Iran in coordination with Russia. I am not sure that this will work. I’m not sure that this would work because Egyptian-Turkish competition, Saudi-Turkish competition, basically the tendency of Erdogan to be all dominant or make it very difficult to force, to create one united position.

Now, the picture that I’m actually trying to paint is that if we want to go from coercive policy to containment to negotiations, I think we are going to fail. But if we are going to take the other way – from negotiations to containment – the negotiations actually build the ways and means of a containment, of effective containment of the Iranian aggressive activity, of effective containment that will make it possible to really revisit also the nuclear issues and the ballistic and missile issues. If we go from negotiations to containment, we can move then from containment to a coercive policy. But it does not work if we don’t get the supportive coalition together.

Now, whether this is going to happen or not – I don’t know. But by and large I think it is a policy concept that we could work on. You have to tell me how Cyprus comes into that picture. For my point of view there are many issues I didn’t speak about. I didn’t speak about the energy issue. I didn’t speak about the military control of the Eastern Mediterranean, of preventing Iran and Russia to have a strong foothold in the Mediterranean, of strengthening Egypt and the presence of the situation of having a coordination with Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Egypt as a block that can strengthen Western and the regional interest in this area, also in the energy component, also the security component, also in the promotion of trade altogether. This has to be somehow part of it but if the negotiations on the Gulf, on Israeli-Saudi and Israeli-Arab cooperation and have to be different, if this is a different block it will fit in into it. But I am far more to listen to you how you see it, because you have far more knowledge and far greater understanding. I was saying so far my introductory remarks.

Andrew Lambert (A.L.): Can I ask you the first question then? You seem to be optimistic, or perhaps not as much as optimistic, but at least you hinted that you thought there was a possibility you could make a change, so that Iran could never have nuclear weapons. Did I understand that you think that is a real possibility, or is that just a utopian ideal?

Y.H.: I think, you know, if Iran has nuclear weapons under this regime, this is a very, very dangerous situation. “Never say never” in politics, but if they’ve postponed it for ten years, you can postpone it for another ten years, and for another ten years, and you definitely have to take an action not to allow Iran to have this toy that can destroy the world. And from a Jewish point of view, an Israeli point of view, it’s an existential threat that we take very serious, you know. We live in a very small place and if they drop one nuclear bomb or two nuclear bombs at us, the disaster is outrageous. Now, we have deterrence capacity and we are serious in using our deterrence capacity. I would not rely totally on actual rationalism of the Iranian regime. The logic of taking irrational steps is often very, very serious.

A.L.: Do you think there will be an attitudinal change than between now and, say, ten years from now? Will the current crop of young Iranians now be in a position of power and say, “We don’t really want this capability”? Is there some means of inducing a change in the mentality of the young?

Y.H.: I think the answer is you have to work on it, in many ways. I’m just reading the book on Kissinger. In 1953, he suggested exactly activities how to do this with the Soviet Union in a policy of containment. That’s not only containment but has a psychological warfare component, where you reach into the Iranian society. I’ll only give you an example. We have a wonderful singer Rita who sings wonderful Persian songs and they are broadcasted to Iran, and they open up hearts, and they create attitudinal change. Now, this song alone doesn’t do it, you have to do far more than that. You need a policy of both containment and confrontation.

You need a policy of what I would call confrontation-dialogue at the same time as containment before a policy can succeed. It’s a strong confrontation regarding us and Hamas and Hezbollah and all of the support of the US, and there’s a dialogue on other areas. And I think you can pursue this quite effectively and we have a lot of means that have been learned in the last sixty-seventy years that we can apply. The answer is “yes”. Yes, there can be an attitudinal change, and I would say more than that. You know, my PhD is on Iran. What has happened in Iran is a tragedy. There was an ideological change. And there’s a new regime since 1979, but they’ve lost the hearts of the people. Iranian society is far more progressive, far more liberal than some of the Arab societies. But they’re suppressed by totalitarian, authoritarian regime that keeps itself in power with the means that we do not justify. And I think we have means to deal with it, and we have means to also opening up, to also put them in place. I think it is worth to think of the necessary attitudinal change, yes.

A.L.: Can I ask you, do you think the Iranians will actually stop any further development whatsoever over these next ten or eleven years? The reason I ask this question: I was in India in 1997. And it was very interesting to me. They said, of course, “India does not have a nuclear weapon.” We said, “What do you mean by that”? The fuse is over there and the bomb is over the other side of the room. Or are we in a situation where genuinely it is a long, long way away, and there’s not just a question of joining up the parts, it will actually take them a considerable period of time to manufacture even if, say, Donald Trump withdrew from the Iranian agreement?

Y.H.: You know, in 2003 Iranians suggested to stop the nuclear activities. And they suggested to stop the support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And it was out of ignorance rejected by both President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon. It was an opportunity to do it, but it was no coincidence that it happened in 2003. It was in 2003 when the Americans had taken an active military action against Afghanistan and active military action against Iraq, and the Iranians felt themselves in a dire and complicated situation. It means there was a sense of physical containment in a certain sense of encirclement. I don’t think that this can simply be repeated, but it means that under certain conditions the Iranian decision-making apparatus will go along with the balance that are coming from a united coalition, and directed to them and against them. And I definitely think that this is essential to take along this way, and show them that we are not enemies of Iranian people. We have enormous respect of Iranian culture, of Iranian achievements, of Iranian vested interests. And Iran can play a stabilizing role in the area, and on some issues it does it. And against the – what do you call it – the drug traffic from Afghanistan, Iran is playing a positive role. And in the other areas Iran can create a stabilizing role. But there has to be… It cannot be on win-lose position. It has to be in a win-win position. And in negotiations, you don’t negotiate only because you’re nice to each other, “Please be nice and don’t do this.” But you negotiate also with hard power. What I’m suggesting is to use substantial hard power in order to have effective soft power dialogue with them to see how to get into the most stabilizing mode of action. And the tendency in Iran is a fertile ground to do that. There’s some nationalism, there’s a fertile ground to do that. The difficulty is the institutional setup of the Iranian structure. But you have moderating forces in Iran that are getting stronger. And there’s no reason not to work on that.

A.L.: Is there a role for cyber warfare and monitoring Iranian activity?

Y.H.: I have difficulty using my computer, so I belong to the last millennium, not to this. But the answer is “yes”, obviously. There is a cyber-activity also influencing people, also Twitter, Facebook, and things like this and in many other ways. There’re other cyber activities, Israel has been quite good on it. In cyber protection 20% of the world industry on cyber protection comes from Israel, so we are…  Our population is a little bit less than 20% of the world population. So yes, obviously it plays a role. I’m not the person to ask about it.

C.P.: To bring you back to those five points so that I understand a little bit better that methodology. The five points you mentioned was to impose amendments on Iran or to entice them to come back to negotiating table?

Y.H.: I’m quoting academic theoretical work that is out there, speaking about coercive policy, if you look at the articles and the work done by political scientists. I’m a historian and my enemies are the political scientists, but sometimes I look at what they write. And the political scientists have… There’s good work on that saying that any coercive policy needs these five components: a clear demand, supportive coalition, sanctions, a willingness to use military power, and the way out for the other side too. To put these five conditions into place is not easy. What I’m actually saying is that it would be better to have these five points in place and then go to containment negotiations. But we have to go the other way around because we won’t get those five conditions. We have allies here who don’t want to put these five conditions into place.

C.P.: The objective would be to renegotiate the deal or to show a very strong hand? Because it seems to me that the climate may or may not be right for a renegotiation, because for the Iranians the current deal is quite good. So asking them to renegotiate something which already satisfies them, you’re right, you need a level of coercion. But on the other hand you don’t want to abandon it completely. I mean, it’s a practical issue, you’re right. This is a little theoretical.

Y.H.: You know, diplomacy is the art of the possible. What I actually said is negotiations don’t… What you’re saying, and I agree with you, I wouldn’t say to start the meeting negotiations with Iran to reopen them. You’re right, why should they say yes? But if you start negotiate building a containment structure on them, which you have to negotiate with the Russians, with the Saudis, with the Arabs, and then you build one building stone after the other.

A.L.: Can I ask you just about the use of Turkey. You’ve mentioned the Kurds in a number of times. And I was the British commander for the northern no-fly zone for a period and we were charged directly, we were looking after the Kurds and the northern no-fly zone in the northern part of Iraq. But I’m very aware of the absolute hostility of Turkey to anything that involves the Kurds. It seems to me that if we were trying to get Turkey involved, and the Kurds involved, it’s going to be clearly quite difficult, isn’t it, to get some sort of combined position to go to the Iranians with?

Y.H.: No doubt, and the Iranians have difficulty with the Kurds. The truth is that the Kurds… Turkey has managed the Kurdish problem in Iraq in a very intense and a very interesting manner. They have invested heavily in the Kurdish autonomous area and they have turned the Iraqi Kurds into a potential. I don’t want to say ally, but they almost created a Finlandization – the Finland-kind of situation between the Soviet Union and Finland – between them and the Kurds in Iraq. Because the economic structure in the Kurdish areas in Iraq is strongly, strongly supported, maintained by Turkey. The difficulties are in Syria. Now, in Syria you have got two different Kurdish groups. You have the basic, the group supported by the PKK who the Turkish will not be very happy to deal with, and you have the Kurdish groups that are supported by Barzani, by the Iraqi side. There is an ongoing effort by people from your country – I don’t want to go into details – but there is an ongoing British effort to mediate between the two Kurdish groups in Syria. And this is has to be part of the concept. You know, Iranians will not get what they want, but they will get some things they want. The Turks will not get what they want, but some things they want. The truth is for Israel too. So the game is complicated, but you will need to have a policy of dialogue and confrontation with Turkey too, as much as with Iran and the others. It’s easy to think, it’s not easy to make. You may need a Kissinger in order to do these things and I’m not sure we have a Kissinger at hand. He’s now ninety three years old, so too old to become secretary of state. But conceptually I think we have an idea that could work.

A.L.: Do you think the Turks actually have much leverage when it comes to discussions with the Iranians?

Y.H.: I think the Turks have an economic interest in relations with Iran. The Turks despise the Iranians, they fear the Iranians. But you know, politics are not always about love, necessity makes for strange bedfellows. I can tell you that in Germany… I was in Germany weeks ago. The Germans are very anti-Turkish and in in some ways the situation is outrageous. You’re asking Europe to get Turkey part of the European Union and on the other you oppose some of the other things, which is contradiction. In the end I believe that we have to talk more about Turkey. But in the end economic interests will have the upper hand. My sense is that in the United States there will be an outrage to have Turkey and not the opposite. We found more dialogue than containment and confrontation. And I assume that we agree that the more firm policy towards Turkey would be more effective. I don’t think it will react in the short term.

A.L.: Can I press you as well on the likelihood of there being a Saudi Arabian bomb at some stage?

Y.H.: Part of the reason to prevent Iran from a bomb – if Iran has a bomb, Saudi Arabia three months later has also bomb.

A.L.: As soon as that?

Y.H.: Part of the danger of Iran having the bomb is that there will be a tremendous proliferation there, all the others will come after it. Because now everybody is going to be deadly afraid of them, they’re afraid of the military power that it will give to Iran for conventional warfare, and then you’ll have immediately reason to stop Iran which is exactly this: that proliferation will be outrageous and the non-proliferation concept will actually totally fail. If the non-proliferation concept will totally fail, it’s the most dangerous development for humanity, not only for Israel.

A.L.: Of course the problem will be as if somebody does let the bomb off that would just be the first of many.

Y.H.: Short answer: yes.

A.L.: How far do you think the proliferation would extend? If Iran did get a bomb and then Saudis, how many other nations do you think would be likely to follow suit?

Y.H.: Egypt and Turkey.

A.L.: You think both of them?

Y.H.: And assume if we don’t have a bomb, we would follow too.

C.P.: Following on the Saudis. You suggested that a Sunni Arab-Israeli-Saudi understanding would help in making Iranian containment more effective. What would be the nature of such an understanding? Would it be diplomatic, economic, military?

Y.H.: You know, we have this discussion in Israel. Our prime minister argues for technical reasons that he wants and there’s an alliance with the Arab states without the Palestinians. If I am an academic, and not only an academic, with some experience in the region, I can tell my prime minister that without making substantial moves on the Palestinian front this will not happen. But if there’s headway on the Israeli-Saudi understanding, it will mean far more security cooperation against incitement, against terror, against smuggling of arms, on economic issues, building up, having a coordinated strategy how to stabilize the region. (Inaudible) the package that has to be discussed. There has to be substantial headway with the two-state solution with the Palestinians. And there has to be resolution of all issues in one phase, you can never take a piece of paper that you could sign tomorrow that will not be worth the ink on it, not even the value of the paper. You need the process of a responsible Palestinian state that has to go along with it. And we can design such a process. We have all the knowledge, the knowledge of how to do it, and there’s a lot of thinking going on in terms of how to promote, how to proceed in this direction.

A.L.: Can I press you a little bit on the hard power options? Because it seems to me the danger of a hard power threat is that one day you may have to carry it out. And if you do that, will the cause of non-proliferation be set back, I don’t know, hundreds of years, if not permanently?

Y.H.: You have an Iranian hard power activity going on. You have Iranian hard power activity. They are paying for terror against Israel, they are paying for other activities in Yemen. They’re doing a lot of military and proxy terror action which is all hard power. And you definitely need to confront this Iranian hard power with hard power action of your own. If it means an outright war? The answer is “no”. Obviously the coercive policy, the aim of coercive policies is to prevent the war. The experience we have is that people who want peace, I come from the peace camp. People who only want peace and they’re not willing to take any action against it will not end up with peace. People are willing to say they’re not for peace under every condition and not against military action under any condition will have a chance of succeeding. There’s not only one way of power. We remember our former head of Mossad who died almost nine months ago. He was a wonderful man. He had a very limited window of using hard power, different forms of hard power. So the answer is hard power is not off the table. There are different forms and different ways of doing this. I’m a big supporter of Rupert Smith’s book on the use of power that you probably will know. But in the end you need some kind of action, you have to make it clear that you are serious about what you say.

A.L.: Do you not think oil might be a better weapon – to put sanctions on their oil which they’ve just recently restarted, to threaten that you would not take their oil?

Y.H.: I’m not sure. I have to think about it. I don’t think that… I’ll tell you what the difficulty is. I don’t want to undermine, I don’t want to permit… It depends. I don’t have a clear answer today. But maybe oil is the way.

A.L.: I’m intrigued. Do you think there are enough costs that you could impose on Iran surrogates, on Iran’s allies, that your hard power would still be effective, certainly as a threat, or maybe as an actual force if you had to use it?

Y.H.: I don’t want to shoot immediately and kill everybody immediately – don’t misunderstand me. There are ways and means to show our determination is fair enough. Let’s test these options one after the other.

A.L.: Sure.

C.P.: Just as a last question. What are the chances of amending the treaty in a way that it’s more in Israel’s favor? If you were a betting man, would you bet on it?

Y.H.: You know, against my own will, one year ago I made a bet that Trump would win the elections, although it wasn’t my wish. But he did. Now I’m in a situation – I have no idea where Trump will take us. Whatever you tell me, I say this is possible. The issue is not betting one way or the other. The issue is try to be proactive for (inaudible) that makes sense, that he could follow it could be successful. So I’m resisting your suggestion to bet, one way or the other.

C.P.: Yair, thank you very much.


See: The Role of Iran in Search for Regional Stability

See: Iran and the Eastern Mediterranean

See: Syrian Peace Talks: Prospects of a Great Power Regional Concert?

See: Syria, Iran and the Future of the Middle East

See: Regional Security Videos

Back to the latest videos