Iran’s Global Ambition

Iran’s Global Ambitions
(Ilan Berman, March 2, 2016)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Dr. Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. An expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation, he has consulted for both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, and provided assistance on foreign policy and national security issues to a range of governmental agencies and congressional offices. He has been called one of America’s “leading experts on the Middle East and Iran” by CNN.

Mr. Berman is a member of the Associated Faculty at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies. A frequent writer and commentator, he has written for the Wall Street JournalForeign Affairs, the New York TimesForeign Policy, the Washington Post and USA Today, among many other publications.

Mr. Berman is the editor of four books – Dismantling Tyranny: Transitioning Beyond Totalitarian Regimes(Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), co-edited with J. Michael Waller Taking on Tehran: Strategies for Confronting the Islamic Republic (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America (Lexington Books, 2015), co-edited with Joseph Humire, and most recently, T he Logic of Irregular War: Asymmetry and America’s Adversaries (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) – and the author of four others: Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America (Regnery Publishing, 2013), and Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power (Encounter Books, 2015).


Robert R. Reilly:

Our speaker tonight, Ilan Berman, I’m happy to say is a former colleague. I’ve had the privilege over the years on and off to serve as a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council of which Ilan Berman has been the Vice President for quite, quite some time.

He’s a very well known expert on national security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation and he’s consulted widely with the CIA, Defense Department, and other agencies. He’s a member of the Associated Faculty at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies. He’s a prolific writer. He’s a columnist at Forbes and The Washington Times and he serves as editor of the journal of International Security Affairs.

Just to give you a little sample. On March 1 in Forbes- no, sorry, USA Today, you have so many venues it’s hard to keep up, titled, “Iranian,” quote unquote, “Moderate Victory Anything But.” Also on March 1, U.S. News and World Report, an “Ominous Election in Iran.” Less than a week before that, “Iran’s Eurasian Adventure,” Foreign Affairs [Magazine], et cetera.

Now, Ilan has edited several books and written four himself, including Tehran Rising: Iran’s challenge to the United States, Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam. One of his areas of expertise is public diplomacy and the war of ideas. Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America, that was fairly recent, 2013, Regnery Publishing, and the book on which we’re meeting today, Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power. Please join me in welcoming Professor Berman.

This is the book. It’s available for sale and for Ilan to sign for you after the talk.

Ilan Berman:

Thank you.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you.

Ilan Berman:

And by the way, feel totally free to reserve judgment about whether or not you want to buy the book. I think it’s important to know what I’m selling before you buy it. Thank you Bob. This is wonderful.

I gave a book talk on my Russia book a couple years ago here. It’s always nice to be back. It’s always nice to see a lot of old friends and friendly faces. And I see a couple of bona fide Iran experts in the audience so I’m going to have to mind my Ps and Qs as I go through this but I think I’m going to be okay, so I’m a recovering lawyer. It’s a lifelong process but it requires me to say that everything Bob said is correct but I don’t represent the views of the government.

I represent the private, nonprofit institute called the American Foreign Policy Council. We were privileged to have Bob as one of our senior fellows before he moved on to bigger and better things, but the lawyer in me is compelled to say that if the agencies that I’ve consulted for actually listened to me, we might be having a somewhat different conversation, but what you hear – my office is on the Hill. We have a nice shiny townhouse on Capitol Hill, and from that vantage point, what I get to hear if not an insider’s perspective, it’s at least an informed outsider’s perspective. You know, I spend a lot of time working with the military. I spend a lot of time working with congressional offices on these issues, on Russia, on radical Islam, and on Iran and it’s amazing how much information is still lost sort of in that conversation that’s happening on Capitol Hill.

So let me start here. There’s sort of a little bit to unpack but let me start with something that’s a somewhat provocative contention, which is that we don’t understand Iran, and in diplomatic parlanc,e Iran is far more sophisticated than we are. The reason for that is that, well, I mean we are now in what Americans call the silly season, right? Deep in the heart of the political primaries. But, generally speaking when we have a Chief Executive, the Executive says what he means, we think, and one hopes, means what he says, and it tends to be a unitary message that is conveyed to both domestic audiences and to international audiences and Iran is not like that.

We don’t understand Iran because while we speak in one diplomatic voice, the Iranians speak in many, right? I’ll give you an example of what I mean. The last two years have seen the mainstream media and the Obama administration fixate overwhelmingly on this language of pragmatic arms control coming out of the Iranian regime, right? The idea that the nuclear deal is a possible commercial transaction. It’s a pragmatic transaction. It’s one that is going to leave the United States better off. It’s going to, it’s one in which the Iranians are willing to give up things that they really care about and they seem eminently reasonable and, you know, this is sort of a horse-trading exercise.

The Iranian regime as a result looks very pragmatic. It looks like a government as you’ve heard the administration officials talk about a great deal, a government that you can do business with. Hear the interlocutors are important. It’s not a coincidence that the people that the Iranian regime rules out as the voice peace, voice boxes of this pragmatic dialogue, our people who wear nice suits and they speak English and they are the darlings of Columbia University or what have you because that’s the image that’s one side of the face the Iranians are trying to show. They’re trying to show that we can actually trust them and we can do business with them. But that’s not the sum total of what Iran is saying because as Iran is pragmatically, or appears to be pragmatically, talking to us, the language that they’re speaking in to the Muslim world is entirely different. Alright?

On one level they’re talking in pan-Islamic terms. They’re talking about Iran as the natural inheritor of the Islamic Ummah, the community of the faithful, Iranian ideological competition with Saudi Arabia, right? I wouldn’t say their near peer but certainly their ideological rival across the sectarian line in the Sunni world. It’s a struggle for ideological primacy. But it’s one that has very, very clearly animated what Iran has done in the Gulf, what it Iran is doing now in places like Yemen and Syria. And it’s a very real narrative and it’s a narrative that as a result of the nuclear deal is gaining currency.

You also see them talking in Shiite sectarian terms when the Iranians talk to Yemen’s Houthis, when they talk to the Alawites in Syria, when they talk to Iraq’s Shiite militias, they’re talking about- so within that ideological competition between Sunnis and Shiites and they’re trying to empower their own team, right? They’re trying to empower the Shiite sectarian portion of the conversation. And they’re also simultaneously speaking in a language that isn’t religious at all. They’re speaking in the language of third world populism.

The best example of this is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he was President of Iran, would come every September to New York to give a speech at the UN General Assembly. We tend to remember those speeches from sort of for all of the memorable lines that he says right? He saw a halo going around him. The Prophet Muhammad imbued him with divine wisdom and the audience sat rapt with attention, right? And this is sort of what makes the headlines.

But if you actually read his speeches, he spends very little lip service on religious ideas. He’s talking like a third world populist. He’s talking like a Marxist. He’s talking about a new world order in which the disadvantaged of the world should band together against the prevailing dominant powers, i.e. us and the Europeans. This is the narrative that has carried a lot of currency in Iran’s relations with countries like Venezuela for example… or Bolivia. And that’s a language that is animating diplomacy even today, right?

So the Iranians simultaneously are speaking in all of these different registers, even though we’re only hearing one, and what Iran says in those other voices is very different but it’s no less important. In fact, I’d argue it’s more important than what it says in the one that we’re hearing because the Iranians have a definite, defined idea of manifest destiny. Iran is not a status quo power. Iran’s a revisionist power.

The best way to think about Iran… Henry Kissinger a few years ago in an interview with The Financial Times talked about how Iran ultimately will have to choose between being a country and a cause. Right? First of all, I don’t believe that contention at all. I think Iran is doing really well not having to choose between being a country and a cause.

But it is a good way to think about Iran. Iran is a revolutionary movement with borders and it’s a revolutionary movement that is inexorably based upon their foundational documents, based upon the Ayatollah Khomeini’s seminal book, Islamic Government, based upon the Iranian Constitution, is expanding outward if it can, right? And so you see this manifest destiny that animates what the Iranians would like to be, a global hegemony, right?

And the reason I titled my book Iran’s Global Ambition is because the ambition is truly global. I think you can make a credible case that their reach isn’t quite global yet or at least isn’t fully global but it’s getting there. And, in fact, the nuclear deal is one of the ways it will get there. But certainly the ambition’s global. And you see this playing out in multiple theaters over the last decade or so.

In the Middle East, the Iranians try to co-opt, and did a fairly successful job of trying to co-opt the narrative of the Arab Spring over the last half decade. Iranian officials talked a great deal about how the Arab Spring was the belated realization of Khomeini’s idea of Islamic revolution around the region, right? I mean it’s only a quarter century late. Better late than never. The Iranians try to create mini-Islamic revolutions in places like Bahrain, unsuccessfully. They tried to subvert the caretaker government in Egypt, unsuccessfully. But those were learning experiences. Those were early efforts.

As you move further in time closer to where we are now, the Iranians become much more savvy. They become much more successful. And what this looks like is Iran’s propping up of the Assad regime in Syria, right? To the tune of $6 billion a year even while Iran was under sanctions. You see Iran propping up the Shiite insurgency in the southern Gulf state of Yemen, right? Empowering the Houthi rebellion to the point where the Houthi rebellion has taken de facto control of the country and doing so to the tune of multiple billions of dollars a year while it’s under sanctions.

And beyond that, I mentioned Venezuela. I think Latin America’s a really good contrasting example because it’s an area that’s close to here. It’s an area that sort of people don’t think about when they think about Iranian ambitions but it’s a place, a fear, the Iranians are very clearly moving around in a way that’s detrimental to U.S. interests.

Venezuela tends to be the country that we think about when we think about Iran’s entry into the Western Hemisphere but Venezuela needs to be understood as a gateway, Right? The very close personal bonds between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez when he Chavez was alive weren’t the end of the story, they were the start of a very systematic Iranian entry into the region that manifested itself in Iran insulting itself into the economies of the region, building much closer diplomatic and strategic ties to the countries of the ALPA, the poor man’s NATO for Latin America known as the Bolivarian Alliance of the America’s, and building very close ideological ties to ideological leftist regimes like that of Evo Morales in Bolivia, like that of Rafael Correa in Ecuador. But most importantly, with that entry, with that economic entry and then ideological entry, Iran also builds a strategic capability.

And so, here’s a little takeaway that most people don’t know. Over the last decade, Iran has tried to use Latin America as a platform to carry out at least three terrorist attacks on the United States in the U.S. homeland, right? You guys know one, of course, you know of the botched attempt to use the Los Zetas drug cartel, drug and crime cartel, to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to Washington here in town, here at Cafe Milan. That was a botched operation, but from every law enforcement official that I’ve talked to, that was a real operation. There was money transferred from Iranian accounts to the accounts of a middleman, an Iranian American used car salesman. Perhaps not the best agent, but that’s a real plot that would have culminated in a terrorist attack of fairly significant scope.

The one that was even bigger was one that most people don’t know about, which was the 2007 attempt by a Guyanese national that had been recruited by Iran as part of the clandestine network in Latin America, his name was Abdul Kadir, to bomb the fuel tanks underneath JFK Airport. Abdul Kadir was apprehended, the plot was foiled, he was tried in the Southern District of New York. He’s now serving a life sentence in New York. But, if you ask law enforcement officials about this plot, they would say that had it been carried out, it would have been comparable in size and scope to September 11th.

And the third, which is a little bit more amorphous, but I think still worthy of consideration, is the fact that Iranian diplomats, working with Venezuelan diplomats, actually attempted to carry out a program of cyber attacks against U.S. installations, both civilian and military, including nuclear power plants in the fall of 2011. That plot was foiled. The Venezuelan diplomat in question was actually ‘p-and-g’d,’ was declared persona non-grata and kicked out of the country. But it was a real thing and what this shows you is that the conversation that a lot of people have about Iran being a solely Middle Eastern problem, as in it’s over there and no matter how troublesome it is, it’s confined in its activities to being overseas and it doesn’t affect the U.S. homeland is frankly, false.

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