Iran may push the envelope even further on the nuclear front after the novel coronavirus crisis, but will still probably stop short of a threat which might bring about an Israeli or US preemptive strike, a top former CIA official has told The Jerusalem Post.
Norman Roule served in the CIA’s Operations Directorate in the field and managing Iran-related programs for 34 years, including being national intelligence manager for Iran in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2008-2017. This included before, during and after the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as well as working with five different US presidents.
After a nearly two-year intense nuclear standoff between the Islamic Republic and the US (along with Israel and the Saudis), his work on the coronavirus crisis and the November US presidential election thrown into the mix, the former top CIA official addressed where the standoff will be around US Election Day.
Speaking to the Post, Roule said that in order to continue to pressure the US and others after the coronavirus crisis and between now and Election Day, Iran might take “symbolic, inexpensive, and reversible actions… They could go to 20% uranium enrichment… increase public statements about going to 60%.”
“Perhaps expanding the number of advanced centrifuges by a modest number or talk about leaving the Non-Proliferation Treaty or reducing cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]… Iran may also launch a cyberattack,” he said.
He added that such a cyberattack, “could damage everyone. We are all even more [network] based while our personnel are dispersed and we are all doing more than ever via email, instant messaging and video conferencing. This makes it more difficult to respond to cyber incidents online” as well as the new jump in Zoom use.
Despite such potential provocations, Roule expects Tehran to observe an unwritten boundary to make sure it does not provoke the US or Israel into major military action and so as not to unite other countries behind the US in the standoff.
It would be one thing to “push the Saudis or America or the Israelis with a significant cyberattack,” and another thing for Iran “to push America and the EU closer together, let alone Russia and the US together,” or to risk confrontation with Israel or the US. “I don’t think Iran would go that far,” Roule added.
“Iran likely hopes that its large missile force has the capacity to overwhelm Israeli defenses,” he stated. “But even if this were so, which I doubt, Israel has the capacity to decapitate the regime and destroy its communications.”
“For this reason, Iran will likely continue to undertake aggression that inflicts losses on Israel, the US, or other regional players, but Tehran will calculate what it believes it can do without resulting in an all-out conflict it cannot win,” he explained.
Can the IAEA be trusted to oversee Iran during the corona era?
On March 18, the IAEA told the Post that it was continuously monitoring the situation regarding the coronavirus pandemic, but “will not stop for a single minute” regarding its inspections of nuclear material in Iran or elsewhere.
The not stopping “for a single minute” quote was also noted by IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi earlier in March, as the agency closed its physical doors and switched into a remote operations mode.
Roule was pressed whether he accepted the IAEA’s assurance that it could monitor Iran’s nuclear activities despite the corona crisis. The long-time Iran intelligence manager said, “I have never seen evidence that the IAEA’s scientific monitoring decisions were inaccurate. That doesn’t mean they were always politically sufficient. I also recognize that the IAEA’s political decisions and statements are influenced by Russia and other countries sympathetic to Iran which are on the Board of Governors.
“If the IAEA says it can achieve the most important aspects of its monitoring, then based on my knowledge of their work, I am comfortable [that this is true].” At the same time, Roule said he understood that fewer visits could mean fewer inspections, which could lead to reasonable political doubts about what Iran is doing.
Still, overall he said, he would accept the IAEA’s assurance that “the core requirements” of its inspection activities were being carried out.
Is a potential Israel, US Military strike for real?
Going beyond the question of monitoring, there is a fierce debate among political officials and experts about “the point of no return” for an Iran nuclear program.
In other words, if all else fails, and only military action by Israel or the US could stop the ayatollahs from crossing the nuclear threshold, when would the last chance to launch a preemptive strike be? Would it be before Tehran has weaponized its uranium (earlier) or after it masters delivering a nuclear weapon (potentially later)?
There has also been a debate about whether Israel would need to go it alone in such a situation.
Most of the Israel defense establishment believed – at least until Trump ordered the assassination of Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Chief Qasem Soleimani on January 3 – that the US was unlikely to join in, though it might give a green light to Israel.
Roule responded to this debate saying, “Having been in the room [with key decision-makers] for more than a decade… the US’s military capacity against Iran is significant and has only improved over time.
“As the US government has repeatedly stated, our policymakers have always been committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and all tools, including military options, are on the table,” he said.
Next, he commented, “I simply do not believe either Israel or the US would stand by if Iran undertook weaponization efforts. Once Iran begins to enrich uranium at the 90% level, they would have the capability to develop a nuclear weapon that could be delivered by their Shahab missiles.
“Iran would need to do work on warhead development, but this could be theoretically accomplished while enrichment was underway,” Roule continued.
He added, “If we received evidence that Iran was enriching uranium at the 90% level, we simply could not wait. Even if we had 110% proof that they were not building a weapon, many policy-makers in Washington would reasonably consider that Tehran might change its mind.”
Similarly, even if the US had such insights into Iran’s intentions, this might not stop Israel or Saudi Arabia from acting to defend their people.
US staying in Iraq and Qasem Soleimani’s significance
Following the US assassination of Soleimani in Iraq, the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi parliament voted that US forces must leave the country (though notably, a large minority, including the parliament’s Sunni and Kurdish groups, voted for the US to stay.)
Nearly three months later, while some US forces have left, many have stayed, and analysts are still debating whether and for how long the US will maintain a serious footprint there.
Despite the Iraqi vote, Roule said, “Many Americans don’t want to leave Iraq because of our investment of policy, blood and treasure in the future of Iraq. And there are certainly plenty of voices within Iraq who want the US to remain.”
Moreover, he said, “The Iraqi military wants training, they don’t want ISIS to come back. The vote in the Iraqi Parliament showed that the Sunnis and the Kurds are happy with our presence there. But Iran watches US political debates closely and knows there are some in the US who seek to end our involvement in Iraq.”
Evoking one of his more provocative analytical points, he said, “Soleimani has been described as a mastermind or shadow commander. I never thought this to be the case. He was a third-world military commander who built militias in broken states.
“His battlefield opponents were always weaker than the militias he managed. He never faced Israeli or American counterparts. Some of his most high-profile operations were strategic failures even if they produced short-term victories,” said Roule.
“His operations in Syria have cost Iran billions and hundreds of lives. Iran has yet to build the missile base and real threat against Israel it hoped. The recent protest he organized against the US embassy in Iraq [just prior to his assassination] was meant to convey a message that all Iraqis wanted America to leave.”
Instead, “It showed the weakness of Baghdad against militias and produced a sea of Hezbollah and Iranian flags. Many Iraqis were humiliated that the proxies showed their subservience to Tehran over Iraq.”
The bottom line is that Roule does not see the US exiting Iraq anytime soon.
No easing of sanctions on Iran because of the coronavirus
One issue that has been raised in the corona period is new pressure on the US to relax its maximum pressure sanctions campaign against the Islamic Republic in order to give it relief in coping with the humanitarian disaster.
Roule responded, “Medical supplies are more expensive because Iran is sanctioned, but if it reduced its funding of missile programs and terror activities, the prices could drop.”
At the same time, he broke down the financial picture into its complex parts, saying, “It is a moral imperative to send humanitarian relief to Iran. We should send medical equipment and related supplies to help it deal with the coronavirus. Humanitarian channels have always existed, but major banks and companies are reluctant to deal with such an aggressive country with a history of terrorism.”
Next, he noted that, “Even if sanctions were temporarily rolled back, this reputation will discourage most large European and Asian companies from doing business in Iran. These companies not only risk their reputation with US buyers, but their capital investments would be difficult to extract should sanctions return.”
Crucially, he said, “Every US president has been willing to send aid to Tehran following natural disasters. Bush sent aid to help with the earthquake in 2003. There was no need to roll back sanctions in order to help Iran with a humanitarian disaster then, and it is notable that the voices calling for rollback now have long opposed sanctions.”
In other words, Roule believes that there are ways for the US to assist Iran with the corona humanitarian disaster without having to roll back sanctions, as has occurred in the past.
New playing field for Iran
Part of the challenge for the US and Israel with Iran today is, “The world is changing. America’s view of Israel is changing. Consider what it means to recently have 30 members of Congress send a letter asking to provide aid to Iran and the Palestinians.”
Roule said that Iran meticulously follows the US political scene and that any American strategy faces new challenges now that Tehran has more internal support in the US and can continue to expand its influence in the region through its proxies.
“Instead of two guys with swords, the region resembles a strategic version of the game of rock, paper, scissors. Iran knows it cannot compete conventionally. Its technology is weak and it lacks reliable allies,” he said.
“Its military is sufficiently professional to understand that extraordinary power available to US or Israeli war fighters, Iran uses proxies and hybrid warfare knowing that we have fewer tools in that arena.”
The new political dynamics and proxy warfare are more favorable playing fields for Iran and will continue to pose quandaries for the US, he explained.
West underplays coronavirus second wave/future pandemics
Another message from Roule is that the West can ill afford to ignore the breakdown of Syria and other Middle Eastern countries in the COVID-19 era, when more refugees means large numbers of potentially infected people trying to get to the West.
He disapproves of the idea that the US can abandon the Middle East to work out its problems without blowback on the West.
“There is an old joke among old Middle East hands, that what happens in the Middle East never stays in the Middle East,” commenting on Iran exporting the coronavirus around the region through its training proxies in its territory and then flying them to Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
Moreover, Roule does not see the coronavirus as a one-off.
“This is the new normal,” expressing a prediction that the frequency of epidemics and pandemics will increase in the future just as he said they had in recent decades.
Roule is no longer at the center of US policy, but he is still very much in the know and his perspective could be key in interpreting and understanding the future.