In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews one of the nation’s leading authorities on Iran, Norm Roule. Roule spent 34 years at the CIA, where he was the intelligence community’s Iran mission manager. After leaving the CIA, Roule joined ODNI as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran from 2008-2017. Currently, he is serving as a senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project and United Against Nuclear Iran. On Intelligence Matters this week, Roule analyzes past administration failures dealing with Iran, the consequences of inaction, and what Iran may be looking for in a future nuclear deal.
- On past policy failures to deal with Iran’s involvement in Iraq: “Some in our U.S. policy world thought we should be opening a consulate in Iran at the time, others thought we should be detaining or conducting even kinetic activities against Iran’s IRGC officials in Iraq. Some people believed a grand bargain with Iran was possible. Others believed the regime was beyond redemption. Again, these discussions all involve very smart, patriotic people to include from partner countries who held very passionate views, but they tended to nullify each other and in that airspace, Iran moved forward.”
- On a future nuclear deal: “In the near term, they’re going to seek a nuclear deal that does several things. First, I believe they’ll seek to maintain a capability to engage in a civilian program that could allow them to build a nuclear weapon should they ever decide to do so. And I stress they may never decide to do so. But retention of that cash that I mentioned earlier, documents from their nuclear weapons program tells you that their leadership had an intent, that maybe they would one day build a weapon. Secondly, I think they want permanent sanctions relief on key sanctions. “
- On the consequences of U.S. inaction: “I think this taught the the Quds Force and Iran’s leadership a very dark lesson, and that is that America’s red lines can be pink lines. And indeed, if you look at the history of America’s responses to Iran, Iran’s terrorism, Iran’s killing of Americans at Khobar under the Clinton administration, the deaths of Americans in Iraq, the attempt to kill then Saudi Ambassador Al-Jubeir, we generally respond with diplomatic activity or sanctions. Which mean nothing to the Quds Force and the people involved in these operations.”
“Intelligence Matters” transcript: Norm Roule
Producer: Ariana Freeman
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, thank you for joining us, it’s great to have you back on Intelligence Matters.
NORM ROULE: My pleasure, Michael.
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, you know that this is going to be an episode in our series of spy stories that we’re not going to so much talk about what’s going on today in the world. But we’re going to look back at a specific time, at a specific situation and talk about that. That’s going to be the Iranian response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the U.S. response to that response across really two administrations, both the Bush and Obama administrations. So with that in mind, Norm, let me start with some context.
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, where were you in terms of jobs, in terms of responsibilities, to the extent that you can say in the run up to the Iraq war? Where were you in the several years after the war?
NORM ROULE: By the late 1990s, I had served in a handful of Near East locations where I worked on Iraqi issues at headquarters. During that same time frame, I managed CIA’s HUMINT operations against Iran’s political, security, economic and foreign policy targets. I did not do WMD during this period. During the period immediately prior to the invasion, I was a station chief in the Middle East at a location where we focused almost exclusively on Al Qaida, Iran and Iraq. That location also put me in direct and routine contact with our senior most military leaders in the region. Immediately after the invasion, I led CIA’s interagency Iran task force.
MICHAEL MORELL: Then what about after that? Kind of between 2003 and the end of the decade, where were you?
NORM ROULE: Following that period, I served as a Senior Manager in the Near East Division. I was again assigned overseas to another Near East location. Then I became the National Intelligence Manager for Iran, a position I held for more than eight years and that put me in routine contact, almost daily contact with multiple officials from the Bush, Obama and indeed Trump administration.
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, you have deep expertise, deep experience in the region and you had that at the time of the Iraq war. As you know better than anyone, CIA does not recommend a policy, but officers certainly have personal views on policy. You can’t help having those views right doing the job. I just wonder what you thought about President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Not in retrospect, right? Not 17 years later. But what did you think at the time?
NORM ROULE: At the time, I had been steeped in the horrors of the Iraqi regime’s action against its own people. I had collected sometimes personally dozens of dramatic and corroborated reports about how the regime’s leadership tortured its own people, some in a very cruel fashion in terms of terrorism. I monitored Saddam’s relationship with Palestinian terrorists and Arab terrorists. There was no question he supported Carlos the Jackal, Abu Nidal. But the connections to al-Qaeda never seemed deep.
As I said earlier, my focus was not WMD. This said, while I was not aware of any new covert nuclear weapons program, I closely followed and we produced much information on Iraq’s aggressive efforts to frustrate the UN nuclear inspectors. When the war began, I had no information that Iraq was building a nuclear weapon or working in any significant way with al-Qaeda.
At the time, I wondered why containment was not a viable solution and also felt that had a nuclear weapons program existed, we would have seen more evidence and I might have uncovered more evidence in my own operational activity. But my assumption at the time was that the information was held in compartments to which I did not have access.
MICHAEL MORELL: Your general feeling was maybe we should wait awhile here?
NORM ROULE: I had no information to indicate that the imperative for an invasion was as dire as it was stated, but again, I presumed I just didn’t have access to that data. But the data I did have said that Saddam and his coterie, especially sons, were among the most evil human beings I had ever encountered in my life, and that their activities in the region were going to be aggressive for years to come. I just had no evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or a deep relationship with al-Qaida.
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, I want to break Iran’s reaction to the invasion of Iraq down into two questions, kind of the strategic and the tactical. On the strategic side, I want to ask you two questions. So the first is, how did the Iranians at the time think about the potential strategic implications for them of the invasion? Both the potential upsides for them and the potential downsides for them? How did they think about it?
NORM ROULE: That’s a great question, the Iranians had several issues to consider. First, the United States had formed a robust and a very strong international coalition around the idea of destroying a rogue regime that was attempting to build a nuclear weapon and also supporting al-Qaeda. We should all recall that during that very period, Iran was indeed constructing a secret nuclear weapons program, and it also had provided consequential support to al-Qaeda and routinely boasted of it’s support to Hezbollah.
So in essence, the reasons we were going to war against Iraq seemed rather applicable to Iran itself. Second, the U.S. military and its partners had annihilated the Iraqi military in a matter of a few weeks. And our ability to destroy so quickly and so decisively one of the region’s most powerful and experienced military machines, one that had indeed done so much damage to Iran itself, was a tremendous shock to Iran’s leadership.
Throughout that period, I think it’s important to recall that U.S. forces seemed, if you just looked at a map, perfectly positioned to invade Iran itself. We had no intention of doing so, we had no plans to do so, we’d conducted no exercises to do so. But if you looked at a map in 2004, we had about 20,000 troops on Iran’s eastern border and about 140 hundred and 145 troops in Iraq.
NORM ROULE: All these factors compelled Iran to rethink its nuclear weaponization strategy, but also to engage the international community differently. To fracture any potential coalitions, and then to refine and redefine its defense doctrine so that it would rely more on missiles and nonconventional partners to compete with the United States.
But by 2004, the situation had changed dramatically. Iran faced a much more positive strategic picture. Its most hated enemies, Saddam and the Taliban, were both gone. The replacement regimes were weak, chaotic. American forces were present. But we were in a hurry to leave and the public debate in America was becoming toxic on the idea of a war in the Middle East. But worst of all, for us, the U.S. was unable to introduce stability in Iraq. The U.S. response to Iran’s increasingly successful efforts during this period to build a substantial political influence in Iraq and to some extent in Afghanistan, generally involved diplomatic protests and very rare detention and arrests of Iranian proxies or let alone Iranian officials. And these were all released very quickly.
But at the same time, there were actually American officials who sought to engage Iran to pull them into the process of resolving the difficulties we encountered in this country. So it was a much more positive picture for Iran by 2004, 2005.
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, my second strategic question is that I’ve heard you say that our failure to have a policy to deal with Iran’s involvement in Iraq transformed the Middle East. Can you talk about what you mean when you say that?
NORM ROULE: I want to be clear that I don’t mean to be critical of the very smart and hard working diplomats, policymakers and military officials who formulated those policies. Indeed, at the time of the Iraq invasion, we had a general plan that going into Iraq would create a country that would continue to act as a bulwark against Iran, Iranian expansionism, and would also offer an alternative to the regional Shia, to the militant Shia Islam being propagated by Iran itself.
But the problem was that as it became clear that Iran’s on the ground activities were deeply undermining Iraq’s stability and the Quds Force itself began to evolve into a new and very different organization. We had no plan to stop this. Instead, we had competing policies in which engagement and confrontation were each tried to some extent, but this tended to neutralize each of the policies while Iran built facts on the ground. It’s sometimes said that Iran must decide whether it’s a country or a cause. But I have come to the conclusion that we ourselves are unable to make that decision. And instead, by dealing with Iran both as a country and a cause, we tend to be unable to develop an effective policy. Consider what was going on at the time. We had mid-level diplomats meeting Iranian foreign policy, foreign ministry officials who claimed that Iran sought cooperation both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, we had a vast amount of clandestine collection and overt reporting from military personnel and diplomats on the ground that Iran was working to assign some of the most militant Shia actors, some of whom were actual terrorists, to shape the polity of Iraq itself. Some in our U.S. policy world thought we should be opening a consulate in Iran at the time, others thought we should be detaining or conducting even kinetic activities against Iran’s IRGC officials in Iraq. Some people believed a grand bargain with Iran was possible. Others believe the regime was beyond redemption. Again, these discussions all involve very smart, patriotic people to include from partner countries who held very passionate views, but they tended to nullify each other and in that airspace, Iran moved forward. A couple of other points. I think it’s important we shouldn’t overlook Iraq, Iraqis in this. This is not an American issue on its own.
NORM ROULE: Many Iraqis had assured us, me, that they would have no problem maintaining stability and would stand against Iran. But it became quickly clear they had overstated their capacity. They had overstated their ability to direct events. And in the case of some, such as the mendacious Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, they were dealing with Iran itself to include the Quds Force. So throughout this period, our collection and again, the military personnel on the ground starts to tell us that Iran is testing our red lines and finding out that their pink lines and our policy is to prove it prevents us from taking action against Iran because we don’t want to start another war. So what happens by 2005? Iran is routinely using proxies to kill American servicemen and eventually killed more than 600 and as well as wounding several thousands who are still alive in America today and suffering from their wounds. Iran also built a working relationship with al-Qaida that enabled some of al-Qaida’s operational activity.
In this way, Iran was at its most aggressive, but at the same time Iran had undertaken actions to avoid a conflict. Iran mothballed its covert nuclear weapons program and routinely, as I say, spoke of diplomacy. As the war dragged on, I think Iran realized that the U.S. and Europe would put only diplomatic obstacles in its path. We were unwilling to do what was necessary to keep Iran out. We were unwilling to introduce forces aimed to confront Iran and sort of the dark bacillus of Iran’s influence fatally compromised Iraq’s stability. And the Quds Force became a brand new creature with regional capabilities that didn’t exist in the past.
MICHAEL MORELL: We’re talking with Norm Roule, a career intelligence officer with deep experience in the Middle East. So Norm I’m going to switch from the kind of strategic to the tactical here and you’ve mentioned some of these issues. In fact, you mentioned all of these issues already. But I want to go a little deeper on them. The first is Iran’s decision to stop the military aspect of its nuclear weapons program. You’ve already mentioned why they did that, right? Because they thought we might very well come after them. But what exactly did they stop in their nuclear program and what continued? Because I know there’s some confusion around that, some confusion in the intelligence community itself played into with a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which is now declassified. The reason it was declassified was because there was so much confusion about this, so what did they stop and what did they continue?
NORM ROULE: That’s a great question. So I believe Iran stopped its weaponization program because they believed it was less a source of strategic protection and more a magnet for international military action that could undermine and perhaps overthrow the regime.
MICHAEL MORELL: What do you mean by weaponization? Can you make that clear for the listeners?
NORM ROULE: In essence, Iran didn’t just have a program to produce electricity. They were building enriching uranium. They were using plutonium in a fashion to build nuclear warheads, which they would likely attach to their intermediate range ballistic missiles, which would allow them to target pretty much everything in the Middle East and a number of countries up to southeastern Europe. So what Iran did was they first took undertook a significant diplomatic campaign to convince Europeans in particular that a compromise solution on the nuclear program was possible. Tehran allowed inspectors, I recall, from the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to enter Iran. Then they pulled Russia into complete a civilian reactor at Bushehr that had been under construction for many, many years. Iran intensified its diplomatic engagement in these years, but I never had the sense that it’s in negotiations with the Europeans were serious. I will say I never saw a single piece of information to indicate that Iran was committed to these negotiations in a way that would lead to real constraints on its nuclear program.
NORM ROULE: But as to what it did with the nuclear weaponization program itself, that’s really interesting. Iran’s goal was to retain as much of the personnel, equipment and data capacity as possible. And I believe they did so that were they ever to decide to build a weapon, they haven’t, to my knowledge, made that decision and may never make that decision that they would be able to do so in the fastest possible manner. So they’ve denied the existence of the militarization program. They refused to allow any part of that program to be considered in any nuclear negotiations to include in the Obama administration’s nuclear deal. It maintains this position to this day. Iran dismantled and then attempted to sanitize facilities, which is very difficult and ultimately impossible to do. But Iran attempted to clean them so that no one could discover any evidence of a previous military program. Tehran then hid the archives of the entire program. These archives were subsequently seized by Israeli intelligence. These archives are really interesting. The archives themselves don’t represent a nuclear weapons program, but they’re also more than just a cookbook. They’re the directions to tell you the fastest way to do something.
The records of of what things didn’t work, what efforts were not productive. So it is a very important archive. The Iranians lost. But finally, perhaps most importantly, Iran moved the key scientist to the program, to a single organization led by the head of the former nuclear weaponization program, the late Mohsen Fok Rizzotti, recently killed by someone in Iran. And they put these scientists in charge of dual use programs that would enable them to conduct what appear to be civilian activities, but also would maintain their knowledge on some technologies that could be useful in a nuclear program. I don’t think the supreme leader or Iran’s IRGC, who are the ultimate decision makers on this program. Iran’s president, foreign minister, have no decision making influence whatsoever on the nuclear program.
I don’t think the supreme leader ever decided how long Iran would forego its weaponization. I think their idea was to retain as much capacity as possible until they felt they needed to make a dash for a weapon or when we just stopped looking at the program itself.
MICHAEL MORELL: We’re talking with Norm Roule, who spent the last several years of his CIA career serving as the Iran mission manager for the entire intelligence community. By the way, if you missed any of today’s show, you can listen to it as a podcast, just search Intelligence Matters wherever you get your podcasts. Just to finish up on the nuclear piece, the Iranians did everything you just said with the military aspects of the program, but they kept the civilian pieces right. The enrichment of uranium going. Why did they do the latter?
NORM ROULE: Well, Iran has sought nuclear power as a form of domestic energy for many years. Indeed, the program began under the Shah and the United States provided Iran with a research small research reactor in the 1950s. However, since the days of the Shah, the United States and others have been very wary of Iran’s work on this program. The Shah himself famously told, I believe, a French newspaper in the 1970s that he might himself consider a nuclear weapon, and that caused the Carter administration to place restrictions and to slow the provision of nuclear technology to Iran.
Iran today continues a general plan that the Shah himself put forward, and that is they seek to build about 20 nuclear power plants throughout the country. China is interested in supporting this along with Russia. And in some ways, this makes sense as an energy source. But it does not make sense that Iran needs to enrich its own uranium. They can buy that elsewhere much as, say, the United Arab Emirates has done. And finally, the plutonium power facility they built at Arak, frankly, appeared designed for weapons work more than for power generation.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, so the second issue, second tactical issue, Norm, which you’ve already mentioned, is Iran’s provision of sophisticated IEDs to Shia militia groups in Iraq fighting U.S. and coalition forces there. Can you talk about that a bit? What made the devices that the Iranians provided so sophisticated? Why did they do this? Over what period of time did they do this and what was the impact? You talked about that a little bit in terms of the number of folks killed. But can you just talk about all that? Because I think it’s so important.
NORM ROULE: It is, and it’s a very important part of the Quds Force evolution and also says something about U.S. policy at the time. And since when the war began, Iran’s Quds Force flooded the country with operatives from Iraqi opposition, Iraqi Shia opposition elements who had lived in Iran for many years and had fought against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. This group was known as the Badr Corps. These included serious, ideologically reliable personnel, and they were trained in military work and political indoctrinated to push Iran’s influence in the region. Several thousand of these came into Iraq immediately after the invasion.
All the while, Iran is sitting with our diplomats saying that they wish to cooperate with us on Iraq itself. In the early days, Iran provided these personnel with small arms and a sort of basic military gear to allow them to push their way into the Shia communities and take charge. But over time, Iran began to provide them with improvised explosive devices, the explosively formed projectiles, the EFP represented a significant shift. So an EFP, an explosively formed penetrator or projectile is in essence, imagine a tin can with a concave copper plate at one end that, when detonated, becomes a molten slug of copper. And this copper travels at a very high speed and can penetrate the armor of any pretty much any armor armored vehicle we used at the time to include our M1 tank. Its a standoff weapon. It can be detonated remotely. It produces mass casualties. It not only killed many American personnel, but the wounds or horrific burns think amputations. The Quds Force manufactured these in Iran. They require very careful machining to ensure that their punch is maximized and smuggled those into country and distributed them around the country, I should say, the Quds Force introduced another weapon after this and began appearing about 2004, 2005 shortly after this they also introduced something called an improvised rocket assisted munition, an ihram. And this involved placing large oxygen cylinders on rocket motors, the 107 millimeter rockets. And they filled these oxygen cylinders with Bulc, both explosives and ball bearings, firing them at a relatively short distance again to cause mass casualties.
Our U.S. military devoted a lot of time and energy and intelligence work to identifying locations of these devices. The distributors of these devices and some work to close off the border to make it more difficult for Iran to introduce them. But that was never particularly effective, in my view.
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, why do you think we didn’t respond more strongly than we did? Here, the Iranians we knew, with as much certainty as you can muster in the intelligence business that the Iranians were killing American soldiers, why don’t you believe either the Bush or Obama administration reacted more strongly?
NORM ROULE: That’s a very difficult question. I sat in the room on a number of occasions with President Bush and Obama, they and the entire policy leadership, our military leadership, were certainly aware of what was happening in Iran’s responsibility. I think several factors go into play into their nonaction. First, the American public was not interested in another war in the Middle East. Second, there was this competing policy of if we engage the Iranians, we can deal with them as a country where the intelligence and the on the ground activities showed that they were performing as a cause. And those discussions, as you recall from the many meetings we attended together in Washington, can’t seem to go on forever. I think. I should say that the end of the Bush administration, President Bush, did authorize a much more aggressive policy against Iran, but by the time the Obama administration came to power, this had not yet been put together.
And the Obama administration, much like every administration since 1979, has come to power saying we’re different, we will be seen as different, will try to turn a new page and will try to approach things differently. But I think this was this was a mistake. And the reason I think it’s a mistake is there is an issue of groupthink here as well. Let me go back to your book, The Great War on Terror, where you were pretty open about groupthink in the intelligence community on terrorism. We have I’ve seen a groupthink develop that whatever we do against Iran will result in greater losses against the United States. And whatever your views are on the Trump administration, the activities of the past year have shown that has not been the case. It doesn’t predict future activity. I’m just basing it off the last year’s data. So there was a sense that we need to prevent Iraq from getting worse at a time of enormous instability. And taking Iran on would would risk further instability in Iraq itself. And our American military personnel, whom we were trying to withdraw, would be placed at risk as a result.
MICHAEL MORELL: And again, how many killed by EFPs? You said 600.
NORM ROULE: About 603, that’s the conservative estimate that was declassified by the Department of Defense. But I need to underscore that several thousand were wounded. These heroic Americans are still among us with their wounds from Iraq and Iran got away with it. And I think that’s an important part of this dynamic because Iran saw that we would take losses that any other country would either respond to with fast withdrawal or declaration of war. And we would just absorb these losses and keep going with our policy as it was in Iraq. And I think this taught the the Quds Force and Iran’s leadership a very dark lesson, and that is that America’s red lines can be pink lines. And indeed, if you look at the history of America’s responses to Iran, Iran’s terrorism, Iran’s killing of Americans at Khobar under the Clinton administration, the deaths of Americans in Iraq, the attempt to kill then Saudi Ambassador Al-Jubeir, we generally respond with diplomatic activity or sanctions. Which mean nothing to the Quds Force and the people involved in these operations.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Norm, the third specific issue I want to talk about, which you’ve already mentioned, too, is Iran’s handling of al-Qaida during this period. So even before the invasion, they were allowing some transit, as you mentioned. But what impact did the U.S. invasion of Iraq have on the way the Iranians dealt with al-Qaida?
NORM ROULE: So following the American attack on Taliban elements and al-Qaida elements in Afghanistan, thousands of al-Qaeda operatives fled the camps, the al-Qaeda camps, and flowed into Iran. They were detained by the Iranians, they were sometimes fingerprinted, they were briefly interrogated, and then they were sent on their way. Iran also maintained, allowed al-Qaida’s entire leadership council to live with their families in Mashhad, Iran, for some time. Now. I want you to imagine, after 9/11, had Iran said to the world, these people come into our territory, we’re going to turn them over to their home countries or Interpol. We’re going to allow the West to do what it needs to do to kill al-Qaida, what that would have done to the war on terror, what that would have done to Iran’s relationship with the world. Instead, these people went out. Many of them became a propagandist. They’ve trained, they trained others, they raised funds there. They’re now located in areas ranging, they went on to areas ranging from Iraq and Syria to the Sahara. So this is a problem we have today that began then, since that time, as a result of some international pressure, Iran detained under the loosest conditions, al-Qaida’s leadership council. Gradually released a number of them without telling anybody where they’re going. And Iran has enabled some facilitators, according to public information put out by the United States government repeatedly to operate from within Iran. This is inexplicable to me that the world has allowed this to happen when we talk about a war on terror. But we have a country which has provided so much safe haven to al-Qaida itself. But again, most importantly to me, it also says Iran had an opportunity to transform its relationship with the West and it failed to do so.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Norm, let’s switch directions a bit here as we near the end of the episode. And this episode is going to run just after Joe Biden takes office on January 20th. And I would not want to lose the opportunity to talk with you about what is likely to happen between Iran and the United States going forward. And, you know, in that context, what does the U.S. want here? What does Iran want and how do you see the relationship going forward? Perhaps a way to link the history that we just talked about to the president and where we go from here. Is how did the Iraq experience change Iranian policy? How did we respond to that and what does that mean for what President Biden is going to try to do when he becomes president? How do you think about all that?
NORM ROULE: That’s a lot. So let me begin by saying something that in our hyper partisan environment may not be easily accepted, but U.S. policy against Iran has been remarkably consistent since 1979. We don’t want and it will likely continue under Biden administration to follow the same pillars. We don’t want a regional war with Iran. We want to employ long term corrosive sanctions to convince Iran’s leadership to alter its decision making on security issues. We will empower regional allies with the defensive capacity or intelligence support to the extent that we perhaps not play, but we believe sufficient to defend themselves. And finally, we will try to work with a generally unenthusiastic European and United Nations community to build coalitions against Iran. That’s kind of, I think, the framework of where the Bush administration will go as well. But in essence, what the Biden administration is looking for is Iran to normalize its relationship in the region and with its nuclear program. I think that will be difficult.
MICHAEL MORELL: How do you think the Iranians are thinking about coming at this? Are there differences in Iran?
NORM ROULE: Again, one of the differences between ourselves and the Iranians is that we tend to replace our our leadership every few years, sometimes more frequently than that. Iran’s leadership stays in place for decades. Iran’s current supreme leader sat in his chair since 1989, he has seen our playbook over and over. Engagement, confrontation, engagement, confrontation. Iran seeks broadly regional hegemony and treatment by the great powers as an equal. Iran loves to be in a room with the U.N. Security Council leadership dealing on discussing regional issues and nuclear issues. In the near term, they’re going to seek a nuclear deal that does several things. First, I believe they’ll seek to maintain a capability to engage in a civilian program that could allow them to build a nuclear weapon should they ever decide to do so. And I stress they may never decide to do so. But retention of that cash that I mentioned earlier, documents from their nuclear weapons program tells you that their leadership had an intent, that maybe they would one day build a weapon. Secondly, I think they want permanent sanctions relief on key sanctions. And what I mean by that is the nuclear deal, in essence, as if in exchange for Iran’s cooperation, it can sell oil, use international financial systems and repatriate the the revenue from all of its exports. If you say those are protected by the nuclear deal, then you’ve got to wonder, what are the sanctions tools of any impact? Should Iran conduct a massive terrorist attack or a missile attack? Finally, Iran wants to make sure the nuclear deal touches no hard line equity. It doesn’t impinge their activities in the region. It doesn’t cut funds to their missile program, and it doesn’t weaken, it doesn’t introduce a cultural contagion that undermines the regime’s ideological soundness.
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, if you could give President Biden one piece of advice as he tries to figure out how to deal with Iran, what would it be?
NORM ROULE: President-elect Biden is extremely experienced. I have sat in the room with him and listened to him speak dozens, if not hundreds of hours as of you on this issue and I don’t think he needs any advice. But to the greater polity, I would say that the most common mistake or characteristic maybe that’s a better word I have seen repeated over the years is in every administration, there are those who believe things are going to be different and they believe it because maybe they have great stature. They they are a new general. They are new secretary of state. They have some accent. They’ve known Iranians or they speak some Persian. Inevitably, they come from come to the engagement, come with a sense that they can fix this and here’s the danger. If you’re not careful, the process of engagement becomes the product. And those who are engaged in that process become very unwilling to walk away. And then if the process stalls, suddenly, it’s not a request for additional sanctions, additional concessions, because usually when we approach negotiations, we say we’ll make a concession to start things instead of saying the Iranians have to make a concession to start things. And inevitably we learn that those with whom we speak diplomatically have absolutely no influence whatsoever over Iran’s missile program, its terrorist program, its proxy program, or indeed the direction of the country under its most significant leadership. So I think I would focus on a negotiation that has us arriving with the capacity to walk away and not be too anxious for a deal.
MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, thank you very much for joining us. It’s been a great discussion