By Peyman Pejman
As a foreign affairs and national security writer for The Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon arrived in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Until that point, and by his own admission, he had spent little time in the region. The pro-Iran Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three others. War was imminent, and Solomon was getting a front seat in the combat zone that was the Middle East.
His new book The Iran Wars is the culmination of 10 years of ground-breaking reporting by a journalist whose work on counter-terrorism and arms proliferation has earned him three Pulitzer Prize nominations. Solomon’s career took him from Lebanon that hot summer to the carpeted conference rooms of Washington, Vienna, Geneva, and Lausanne, where nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States took place.
In one of the most detailed and thought-provoking recent accounts of the relationship between Iran and the United States, Solomon paints a meticulous picture of how the key players in the Iran nuclear deal came to play their crucial role.
Historians, political operatives, researchers and lay readers alike will find a wealth of interesting details in his book, and find out about Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s background and prior contacts in the United States (including the fact that his children were born in America); Secretary of State John Kerry’s initially single-handed diplomatic overtures to Iran via Oman, at a time when he was still Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and the way in which those diplomatic maneuvers intersected with the political ambitions of President Barack Obama.
Solomon spoke to Kayhan London in a telephone conversation from Washington, D.C. and offered extra insights into the Iran-U.S. relationship.
The Iranian nuclear deal is a hot political topic in the United States. How do you think the Trump presidency will react? Can it pull out of the agreement legally? What would the repercussions be if it did?
It is hard to say, because there was so much rhetoric during the [presidential] campaign [that it’s difficult] to know what exactly they will do. On the first two national security appointments – [Republican] Congressman [Mike] Pompeo as head of the CIA, and General [Michael] Flynn at the National Security Council – those guys are pretty hawkish towards Iran, to say the least. I think there will at least be a change in tactics, either to enforce the Iran agreement or to combat Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups.[But] I don’t think Trump wants a crisis in his first few months in office. The Iran deal’s weakness is that the White House decided not to make it a treaty, because they knew they could not get it passed in Congress. It is basically just a bunch of executive orders which Trump could reverse on day one. He is not legally bound by anything. The deal was enshrined in a U.N. Security Council Resolution, but it is not some sort of Chapter 7 Resolution that the U.S. would face penalties for if it backed down. I’m sure the allies would be upset, but there are a lot of countries that are in non-compliance of Security Council resolutions, and they just go about their business. There would be some kind of diplomatic issue where the Europeans and Russia would criticize the Trump administration, but if they [the Trump administration] really wanted to, there is nothing legally that would stop them.
You make it clear in the book that getting the nuclear deal with Iran was a priority for Obama. Why? Was it just to avoid the Iraq “fog of war,” or was it based on other convictions?
I have talked to White House officials about this, and I believe it was a confluence of issues. Obama campaigned to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was told that engaging Iran was important because Iran was a major regional power. One of the issues he championed the most in the (U.S.) Senate was nuclear non-proliferation, and obviously Iran was seen as the most pressing nuclear issue he would face.
He also wanted to get an early focus on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. He had this world view aimed at making peace with historic U.S. enemies: Cuba, Iran, Burma (Myanmar), and maybe North Korea. I talked to U.S. officials who described Iran as a kind of issue through which so many other problems he was facing could be resolved. Iran was kind of the nexus of a lot of other problems, and the belief was that if he could have some kind of rapprochement, so many of these other issues could be resolved.
Even Iranian officials would agree that the US-EU sanctions were biting them quite hard at the end. Could Iran become more adventurous in the region now that sanctions are removed, or could the deal embolden US conservatives into coming out even more against the Iranian government? Will this deal ultimately have its intended impact?
The political fallout in Iran is hard to say. I know the Obama administration made the argument that ‘‘we have this nuclear deal with the Iranian government, it was championed by [President Hassan] Rouhani and Zarif, and it should bring economic growth to Iran.” So the administration have been pretty open about their hope that the deal itself will help more moderate factions inside Iran, and over time, weaken the position of the hardliners. That is the political bet that Obama and Kerry made.
If you look at the Iran deal honestly, in 10 to 15 years, Iran could pretty much grow its [nuclear] program as much as it wants. If you have more moderate factions [in power], there won’t be as much concern about that.
What is hard to see is how much Rouhani has become empowered. I have not seen that much evidence that the deal has empowered moderate factions. [Parliamentary election] results earlier this year were okay for Rouhani, and the presidential elections early next year are seen as a litmus test. That is yet to play out.
What I have not seen is the Revolutionary Guards or hardliner factions diminishing their activities regionally because of the Iran deal or engagement with Iran. I don’t know how they can be any more aggressive in Syria than they already are. The U.S. says [the Revolutionary Guards] have been shipping weapons to Huthi rebels in Yemen to combat Saudi operations. And their support for Hezbollah is not a secret. I have not seen any evidence that they’ve moderated their support at all for those types of groups.
You mention in your book that Rouhani aides warned the president that Iran would run out of hard currency if it did not reach a nuclear deal. Do you believe that was Rouhani’s primary motive? Did he find it existential, was it to help him move his moderate agenda forward, or was it both?
I think it is both. I definitely have the sense from trips to Iran that when Rouhani took power in 2013, there were really crippling sanctions: the oil embargo, sanctions [targeting] the Central Bank, kicking Iran off the international banking system – and they had just been in place only for about a year. There had been sanctions on the regime basically from the time of the Revolution, but the really nasty ones were put in place in mid-2012.
So when Rouhani came to power, they saw the double whammy of [outgoing President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad mismanaging the economy and the sanctions basically making it impossible for Iran to restart oil revenues. The only way for the Rouhani administration to plug those holes was to get a deal that would allow them to bring back the cash.
I picked up some stuff that did not make it into the book [showing that] Rouhani basically made a PowerPoint type presentation to the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamanei] whereby the economic situation could become a national security issue. That is why you saw the quick push, once Rouhani was in power, to get the sanctions relieved, and they started to get it after the interim agreement was reached in late 2013. Rouhani had campaigned on his world view of engaging with the West and Europe as well as on his support of the Revolution, so I would say he had both ambitions.
A number of Iranian scientists were killed, allegedly assassinated by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. Did those have any impact on either the Iranian or the U.S. side?
What I found interesting was how the Obama administration sometimes used the Israeli military threat to help the diplomatic track, and sometimes was very scared of it. They were clearly telling the Chinese and India and Japanese and others that bought a lot of energy from Iran: “Israelis are here threatening to strike, which will disrupt your ability to import energy, and you should help us impose sanctions on Iran so Israel would hold back.”
In 2011, when a string of assassinations occurred, that was when the White House was concerned that tensions between Iran and Israel could escalate. And there were a bunch of plots tied either to Hezbollah or the Revolutionary Guards at the time, targeting Israeli diplomatic missions. There was a concern that this could escalate and that any escalation might drag the U.S. in.
So it was not a coincidence that in mid-2012, when Ahmadinejad was still in power, the Obama administration and Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton sent envoys to Oman to start a direct dialogue with Iran. I was told by White House officials that it was in part driven by fear that if the diplomatic process did not start, there could be a military conflict.
On Syria, you mention that the Iranian team drew a “red line” for Obama not to attack the Assad regime, but that the U.S. administration denies that. Given what has happened in Syria, that would have been a considerable concession to the Iranian regime. Do you believe it actually happened? And did President Obama himself know about it?
I think there are a number of reasons for the Obama U-turn. The Administration said they backed off because they didn’t think Congress would go along. I don’t claim that the congressional issue was not part of it. But as far as I can discern, I don’t know if [Iranian officials] came out and said, “We will walk tomorrow if you strike.” But I am confident that the Iranian position was communicated somehow – whether through the Rouhani government or others: that the U.S. would have known that strikes on Assad would have caused the hardliners in Iran to make the negotiations much harder. I am very confident that they (the White House) knew that.
Why did you write this book? I know you mention that you started thinking about it many years ago. Was it ultimately just to put your many years of reporting about the Middle East in a book, or is there a message that you’d like to convey?
I think the Iran issue was just such a dominant issue towards the second half of the Bush administration and then into the Obama administration that I got the idea that I had never seen one foreign policy issue so consume two White Houses. My journalistic instinct told me that something would come to a head, either military conflict or a big diplomatic resolution, and that is what happened. Having worked in Lebanon, I could see how Iran was not only having an impact on other countries but also on economic issues like oil and finance.
How many times did you travel to Iran, and how many people would you say you spoke to for this book? Did you interview Foreign Minister Zarif or Iranian delegation members in detail?
I made two trips to Iran. As you know, it is not easy to get there as an American reporter. I had multiple meetings in New York, Vienna, Geneva, and Lausanne with Zarif, Rouhani, [negotiating team member Abbas] Araghchi, as well as others. I sat in on dozens of briefings.
I was criticized in the Washington Post, saying I did not interview enough Iranians. I simply don’t think it is true. I made an effort to meet with much more than just the diplomats. I also met with Central Bank officials, finance ministry officials, a former finance minister, a deputy Central Bank governor, members of the Human Rights Commission, Iranian allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to get the regional sense. For a country that is not easy to get into and out of, I think I got a very good and wide perspective from officials and regional allies.
What is your own personal feeling? Who got more out of this deal?
That is a complicated question. As you know, the Iran deal is so political. It is so hard to walk a straight path. The strategy of the Obama administration made a lot of sense to me. The way the negotiating track was established was brilliant. They coordinated with other countries. The used financial leverage. Tactically, if you look at the Iranian position even under Ahmadinejad, it was: “We want an enrichment program, we want the sanctions lifted, we want to continue to develop our missile capability, we are not going to stop any of our support for military groups in the region.” The U.S. position coming in was: “No enrichment, no missile program, no support for Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad or [any] of these groups.”
The Iranians have not only got enrichment [rights], they are allowed to have an industrial-scale program in 10 years. The sanctions may not be lifted as quickly as the Iranians wanted. The missile program: the Security Council kind of frowns on it, but the Iranians can continue to do it without any pushback. And their support for Assad has grown and their relations with Hezbollah are no secret.
I would say that if you are Khamenei and you thought you were on the verge of a financial crisis in 2012 and your economy had contracted by 2-3 percent, and now in 2016-17 your economy is supposed to grow by as much as 6 percent and you maintained all of that infrastructure, I think you came out pretty well.
We are, maybe, in a kind of a truce, but the potential for conflict continues, and the election of Trump is kind of a sign that we could be entering a new phase. On the one hand, Trump has [said] during the campaign that he believes in trade and business, that it is sort of crazy that Europeans are doing trade with Iran and the U.S. isn’t. So on the one hand, there is a sense that maybe Trump could accelerate engagement with Iran if the business side of his brain takes root. He talks about coordinating with Russia and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who is a close ally of the Iranian government.
On the other hand, as I said, [given] some of the people he has been appointing – from Pompeo to Gen. Flynn – even if those are Trump’s own instincts, it would be very difficult for him to execute them, because these officials have made a career of combating Iran.
The Iran issue will continue to be one of the top foreign policy issues, and it will be very interesting to watch.