Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor
Remarks At The Iran Project, The Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.
June 16, 2016
I’m so pleased to be here with the Iran Project. For years, you have done extraordinary work on one of the toughest issues in our foreign policy. I also know that pursuing peaceful dialogue with Iran can be just a little bit controversial here in Washington, so thanks for your persistent work for many years – it has made a huge difference.
The first week that I went to work full time for the Obama campaign, then-Senator Obama was in a debate about Iran. He had recently said that he would engage the leaders of a number of adversarial nations, including Iran, without preconditions. The conventional wisdom was that this had been a mistake. But one of my first instructions from the candidate was that we should double down on this position. And in the same speech where he said that he would go into Pakistan to pursue Osama bin Laden, he reaffirmed that he would pursue diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program.
It’s easy to say that the positions people take as candidates don’t matter. But in this case, the debate over the summer of 2007 proved to be a good indication of what Barack Obama would do as President. And when he came into office, he began what proved to be a long effort – with plenty of hurdles and false starts – to engage Iran diplomatically.
Today, I want to review the Obama Administration’s efforts to engage Iran – what has been accomplished and what hasn’t; and what lessons we can draw for the future.
In January of 2009, Iran and the United States were drifting towards greater confrontation. After some initial engagement on Afghanistan after 9/11, we were sharply at odds inside of Iraq. The Iranian nuclear program had advanced steadily, moving from zero centrifuges to over 5,000. The President knew that the nuclear issue would be front and center in our relationship with Iran. So at the beginning of the Administration, he set out to do two things.
First, he addressed the Iranian nuclear program as a threat to the global non-proliferation regime, and not just a bilateral – or regional – security challenge. He reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world without nuclear weapons, and to meet our NPT obligation by initiating negotiations for a New START Treaty with Russia. Throughout 2009 – from his Prague speech, to a UN Security Council Resolution which affirmed that agenda – he sought to reinvigorate the global consensus around non-proliferation. And he repeatedly stated that Iran had the right to access peaceful nuclear energy if it met its commitments under the NPT.
Second, he made clear that he was – indeed – willing to pursue diplomacy with Iran without preconditions. In March of 2009, on the occasion of Nowruz, he delivered a message to the people and leadership of Iran that his administration was, “committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community.” He reiterated this message – with a specific focus on nuclear weapons – in his speech in Cairo.
The reason for this approach was simple: it both gave Iran the opportunity to move in a new direction, and it put the onus squarely on the Iranian government. If they failed to take the opportunity, it would be clear to the world that Iran was undermining the NPT and responsible for the diplomatic impasse, and form a basis for applying additional pressure through sanctions.
Regrettably, that is the course that Iran chose. The flawed Iranian election of June 2009 – and the brutal suppression of peaceful protests following the election – made clear that we were going to have to continue to deal with President Ahmadinejad, and an Iranian administration concerned about internal security and disdainful of engagement with the West. Meanwhile, in September, the President’s public revelation of the Iranian covert enrichment facility in Qum demonstrated to the world that Iran was failing to keep its non-proliferation commitments. That fall, nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 failed when Iran refused to accept even a tentative agreement in which there would be international support to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for Iran shipping stocks of low enriched uranium out of the country.
So by the end of 2009, this initial failure of diplomacy was clearly Iran’s responsibility. They had cheated by building their facility at Qum. They had been offered an alternative path. And they could not agree to even modest confidence building measures with the P5+1.
Having tested diplomacy, President Obama pivoted to pressure. Thanks in large part to the reset with Russia, we were able to secure UN Security Council Resolution 1929 – which created the international basis for the most comprehensive sanctions ever imposed on Iran. Working with Congress, we ratcheted up our own authorities to impose and enforce sanctions, culminating in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012 which focused on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.
Of course, this was the beginning – not the end – of the work. To impose the broadest possible cost on Iran – and to do so without risking the stability of the global economy – the Administration spent the first six months of 2012 building a coalition to enforce sanctions. For the President, this was a top priority in conversations with foreign counterparts. For our sanctions experts, this meant working through detailed work-plans and analyses of what other countries could do. Ultimately, the European Union imposed an oil embargo. Major importers of Iranian oil – including China, India, Japan and South Korea – voluntarily agreed to significant reductions in their purchases of Iranian oil. Because of diplomacy, the architecture was in place for sanctions to have a powerful impact.
As the Iranian economy faced increasing pressure, we never walked away from our preference to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomacy. We made clear, time and again, that sanctions were a means to an end – achieving a nuclear deal – and not an end in themselves. Indeed, despite those who argued for sanctioning the Iranians into submission, no analysis of the Iranian government ever suggested that they would simply capitulate under pressure, and no international partners were signing on to permanent sanctions for that purpose.
So we continued to address the nuclear issue through the P5+1 format, with little progress. We also tested whether we could establish bilateral channels for discussion with the Iranians, recognizing that we would likely need to have that option. Of course, over the years we had used different channels to communicate with the Iranians – including their UN Ambassador in New York. But none of those channels had effectively facilitated a discussion on nuclear issues.
We did identify a potential option through Oman. In 2011, the Omanis helped secure the release of two American hikers who had been imprisoned in Iran. In 2012, President Obama and Secretary Clinton sent a team to Oman to determine whether or not the Omanis could, indeed, bring together a meeting between the relevant U.S. and Iranian officials. Meanwhile, then-Senator Kerry also had a number of discussions with Omani officials about the prospect of Oman hosting bilateral discussions between the United States and Iran. However, as the President began his second term in 2013, we were still making no progress at all on getting to substantive negotiations with the Iranians in Oman or anywhere else. The sanctions were continuing to have a substantial impact. The Ahmadinejad Administration continued to be intransigent at the P5+1.
A turning point came in June of 2013, when Hasan Rouhani won the Iranian election by a healthy margin, pledging a more moderate course towards engagement with the West. President Obama sent President Rouhani a letter proposing a focus on nuclear negotiations, and for the first time we received a constructive response. Quickly, talks began in Oman – led by Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan – which led to a series of understandings that fed into the renewal of P5+1 negotiations, beginning at the Ministerial level at the UNGA in September of 2013.
That session was a good indication of the possibilities – and limits – of engagement with the new Iranian government. On the one hand, there was a new tone to the nuclear discussions, and Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif became the first officials from each country to meet at that level in many years. On the other hand, a meeting between the two Presidents proved to be a bridge too far for the Iranian side, though the two did speak by phone – the first time that had happened since the Iranian Revolution – and they committed their teams to making quick progress towards a nuclear agreement.
Within a couple of months, the P5+1 and Iran had agreed upon the Joint Plan of Action – an interim agreement that effectively froze the Iranian program, while providing some modest sanctions relief. For two nations with such deeply rooted mistrust, an interim agreement created space for each side to determine whether the other would fulfill their commitments, and remain committed to achieving a comprehensive solution.
I won’t relive the details of the next year and a half – living it once was enough for all of us. I will highlight a few important elements. The P5+1 stayed unified throughout. With respect to the United States and Iran, both sides were able to fulfill their commitments under the JPOA, and each side had to occasionally find a way to resolve a potential hurdle to implementation. Both sides had to show that they could preserve the political space in their own countries to allow for the negotiation to go forward, especially when there were multiple extensions of the timeline for talks, and multiple efforts to derail talks. And both sides had to spend time together – a lot of time, at the expert level, and between our diplomats – in order to break impasses, solve problems, and achieve a deal. For that, much credit goes to John Kerry and Wendy Sherman.
Of course, once there was an actual deal last summer, we had to implement it. And for both sides, this was complicated. Here in the United States, it meant working through a 60-day congressional review period to secure the necessary support to allow the deal to go forward. And while I know that much has been said in recent weeks about our efforts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make one thing clear: the Iran Project needed no convincing from the White House to advocate for the Iran Deal. Indeed, promoting dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue has been the central purpose of this organization for years. People like Bill, Tom and Iris were telling us that this is what we should do long before we did it.
Still, even as we defended the nuclear deal, this period was a test for a diplomatic rapprochement focused on a single issue rather than an entire relationship. Given the enormous differences between the United States and Iran on so many issues – including Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and it’s destabilizing actions in the region – we had to simultaneously make clear that we would not compromise on those issues, while spending serious political capital to hold up our end of the deal. In Iran, there was a similar necessity to beat back challenges to the deal, though it was clear that it enjoyed the broad support of the Iranian people.
So what has happened since the expiration of the review period, and Adoption Day last October?
On the deal itself, Iran has fulfilled its commitments. Two thirds of its installed centrifuges have been dismantled and placed under IAEA monitoring. 98 percent of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile has been shipped out of the country. Iran’s enrichment is now limited to a single facility, Natanz, which is under 24/7 IAEA monitoring. The core of Iran’s Arak reactor has been removed and filled with concrete, rendering it inoperable permanently. Just as was said during the review period, Iran’s breakout timeline to have enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon has been extended from two to three months to about a year. And the international community is in a far stronger position to detect any effort to breakout because of the most comprehensive verification regime ever negotiated – a regime that monitors Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain. The IAEA has repeatedly reported on this progress.
Meanwhile, the United States – and our partners – have taken the steps necessary to provide Iran with sanctions relief. Of course, this continues to be a challenge, given the caution with which banks and companies approach a country that has faced stringent sanctions. But we remain committed to meeting our obligation under the deal. If anything, the limited nature of the relief so far makes some of the more hyperbolic claims of the deals opponents look ridiculous.
Beyond the deal, there has been progress that would have been much harder without the nuclear negotiations. We opened a channel that allowed us to negotiate the release of five Americans held in Iran. We concluded an agreement on a claims issue that potentially saved American taxpayers a significant amount of money. And an incident that could have escalated dangerously, when 10 American sailors were arrested after drifting in Iranian waters, was resolved quickly because of the channels of communication that we now have with the Iranian government.
The Hizbollah Factor
All of that said, many other aspects of Iranian behavior – and U.S.-Iran relations – remain unchanged. Iran has not ceased its support for terrorist organizations like Hizbollah or its threats toward Israel. Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles. From Iraq to Yemen, Iran has continued to engage in destabilizing support for proxy organizations. Despite the diplomacy that has brought Iran into discussions about resolving the Syrian civil war, Iran continues to be one of the chief sponsors of an Assad regime that brutally murders the Syrian people.
In short, Iran’s approach to its nuclear program has changed, but thus far, its broader foreign policy – and the nature of its regime – has not. Some argue that means the deal wasn’t worth it. We would argue the exact opposite. Isn’t it better when a government with a ballistic missile program that supports terrorism doesn’t have a nuclear weapon? The Iran Deal stopped the spread of nuclear weapons to the world’s most volatile region, and prevented a possible war.
More broadly, though, what does this mean for the future of U.S.-Iran relations? After all, it has been less than three years since President Obama spoke to President Rouhani, and only a few months since Implementation Day. To have some context, it’s worth looking briefly at Iran compared against two other adversaries that President Obama has engaged: Burma and Cuba.
In Myanmar, several years ago, the military leadership of the country made a decision to open up their political system, and President Obama decided to engage the government and people of the country – working to incentivize progress, build capacity, and develop relationships. Myanmar’s transition is still incomplete, and progress has been incremental. But the change has still been extraordinary – with political prisoners released, a democratic election, and a peaceful transfer of power to a party led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Put simply, in Burma, our engagement connected with leadership that embraced reform, which is allowing for a transformation in our relationship.
In Cuba, after lengthy negotiations, the leadership of the country agreed to a process of normalizing relations. In less than two years, we have opened Embassies; reached bilateral agreements; established direct mail, flight and cruise links; and begun to open up commercial and people-to-people ties. In March, President Obama became the first U.S. President to visit the country since the Cuban Revolution. We still have profound difference on many issues, including human rights and our respective political systems. But both of our governments made a strategic decision to pursue cooperation, and address those differences, through normalization.
Iran has important similarities and differences. The similarity is that President Obama was open to pursuing engagement to advance U.S. interests, rather than having a policy that insisted on – in effect – regime change or capitulation as a precondition. In all three cases, engagement opened up opportunities for the United States to not simply develop relationships, but to make progress on issues that are very important to us. Doing so didn’t remove pressure on these governments – in some cases, it increased pressure – by removing the excuse of our isolation; by raising public expectations; and by shifting international opinion.
That said, the differences are also essential. Let me try to put this as simply as possible. Myanmar decided to change the nature of its own government. Cuba decided to change the nature of its relationship with the United States. Iran decided to change the nature of its nuclear program. In that regard, while the nuclear deal is enormously consequential, the broader progress with Iran is the most limited.
As the Supreme Leader reminds us, Iran is not changing its inherent opposition to the United States. Unlike Cuba, Iran hasn’t shown interest in normalizing relations with the United States, or allowing us to open an Embassy, even if we wanted to.
Of course, it is also true that we have not changed our own policies beyond providing nuclear-related sanctions relief – sanctions on terrorism, ballistic missiles, and human rights continue; our support for Israel and our Gulf partners includes defense capabilities that are expressly meant to counter Iranian actions in the region; our opposition to many Iranian policies continues.
So in conclusion, what lessons can we learn from all of this? And how do they apply to our relationship going forward?
First, engagement creates opportunities that we deny ourselves by insisting upon isolation. The diplomatic work to achieve something like the nuclear deal takes time, personal relationships, and the ability to seize an opportunity when it presents itself. At the same time, the United States does not have to give up anything to pursue engagement. As the President repeatedly said, we retained all of our capabilities with respect to Iran, and all of our commitments to our partners in the region.
Now, a key test for our engagement with Iran continues to be Syria, where a more constructive Iranian policy would be important to resolving the conflict, but has not been forthcoming. Still, we are in a better position on this – and other issues – by having contacts with the Iranian government, and we must sustain those contacts, and look for opportunities.
Second, Iran – like just about every other county – is not a monolith. Those who favor closer ties between the United States and Iran must acknowledge – and flatly reject – the Iranian regime’s violation of international norms, and the bigotry that leads it to fire missiles painted with “Death to Israel.” Yet those who criticize the regime must acknowledge the simple fact that there is a difference between the policies and approach of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hasan Rouhani. The insistence that everyone in Iran’s government is a hardliner, cut from the same cloth, willfully rejects any opportunity for Iran’s own leaders to move in a different direction. It’s self-defeating. It also ignores the role of the Iranian people, many of whom clearly favor a more moderate direction.
Third, the United States must continue to find ways to engage the Iranian people. Their role in the nuclear deal is often under-appreciated. After all, even as Iran is hardly a full democracy, it was an election that brought President Rouhani into office, and public opinion clearly favored a nuclear deal. We should continue to pursue the type of educational, cultural, and people-to-people openings that can build trust and ties with the Iranian people, especially young people. Iran, like any country, is going to change in the coming years and decades. We should make clear to the generation that will step forward that there is no reason why we have to remain in a cycle of conflict.
Finally, it will take the continued ideas, advocacy, and engagement of non-governmental groups like the Iran Project. To have the kinds of track two conversations that can identify potential opportunities. To push back against the inevitable, if not constant, efforts to undermine the implementation of the nuclear deal. To add another voice to our own foreign policy debate, which rarely rewards unconventional thinking.
Time and again, President Obama has said that there is a clear pathway to improved relations between the United States and Iran – one that would be good for the Iranian people, and their integration into the global economy and community of nations. Ultimately, how far Iran moves down that path is dependent upon the decisions and actions of its own leaders. If they fail to take that course, President Obama has shown that engagement doesn’t deny us the capacity to impose consequences. But if they do, it would be good for Iran, good for the United States, and good for the world. We have a responsibility, always, to leave open the doorway to that future.