The Ongoing War in the Persian Gulf: Why Does It Matter to the US?

The Ongoing War in the Persian Gulf: Why Does it Matter to the US?
(David Des Roches, August 28, 2019)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

David Des Roches is Associate Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies at National Defense University. Prior to this, he was the Defense Department director responsible for policy concerning Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Prior to this assignment, he has served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Liaison to the Department of Homeland Security, as senior country director for Pakistan, as NATO operations director, and as deputy director for peacekeeping.

An Airborne Ranger in the Army Reserve, he was awarded the Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan.  He has commanded conventional and special operations parachute units and has served on the US Special Operations Command staff as well as on the Joint Staff. He graduated from the United States Military Academy and obtained advanced degrees in Arab Politics from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, in War Studies from Kings College London, and Strategic Studies from the US Army War College. He has also attended the Federal Executive Institute, the German Staff College’s Higher Officer Seminar, the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.His academic awards include Phi Kappa Phi, the British Marshall Scholarship, designation as a Distinguished Alumnus of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, and selection as a Joseph Malone Fellow of the National Council of Arab American Relations.

His most recent publication is “Dominance versus Disruption: Asymmetry in Gulf Security,” which analyzes the security objectives of the Gulf Arab states and Iran. He previously spoke at Westminster on the Push and Pull of Religious Extremism: Who Are the Terrorists, How Are they Recruited, What Can We Do?


Robert R. Reilly:

We’re very happy to have back with us today Dave Des Roches, who is a veteran Westminster speaker. I invite you to find his talk from many moons ago. There’s an Arabist saying kimosabe, so you know Dave is deeply experienced in a number of cultures. He’s Associate Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies at the National Defense University. Prior to that he was the Defense Department Director responsible for policy concerning Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. I didn’t ask what he did with his spare time. Prior to that [he served in the] Office of the Secretary of Defense as Liaison to DHS, Senior Country Director for Pakistan as NATO Operations Director and so forth.

He was also an Airborne Ranger in the Army Reserves, in which he is a colonel. He’s commanded conventional and special operations parachute units and served on the U.S. Special Operations Command Staff. He has a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan. Dave is also a West Point alumnus. His degrees and studying of Arab politics and affairs in a number of institutions of higher learning, a number of them in London, I won’t go into because I don’t want to upon his time, so please join me in welcoming Dave Des Roches, who will address us on, “The Ongoing War in the Persian Gulf: Why Does It Matter to the U.S.?”

David Des Roches:

Thank you very much. I do quite a bit of speaking at various locations, universities and things, but for some reason it’s very rare I get invited back to a location, so I’m quite honored to be here and I have to point out that I am paid by the U.S. government, but I do not speak for the U.S. government, so please do not quote me as government policy. I am considered to be an academic. As Bob said, I’m a graduate of the University of London. That should be apparent to anybody who has heard me speak. My accent gives it away and I am a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. My class is currently running roughshod over Washington, so one of my classmates is the Secretary of Defense, one of my classmates is the Secretary of State, so within the class I am known as ‘loser’.

I appreciate you all coming out tonight on a beautiful summer night and it is summer, and you will notice I am wearing a navy blue suit with my Montreal Canadiens tie because I felt that you all deserved excellence and this will be immortalized. I asked my wife what she thought about the sartorial combination and she said I don’t care, just hold your gut in.
So as Bob noted, I was in the army. I was in the active Army for about nine years and then I was in the Army Reserve for another 21 [years]. I got mobilized three times and I spent most of my time as a paratrooper and different services, different branches of the service, different specialties have different things like if you’re a sailor, you’re expected to know how to actually handle boats. If you’re a pilot, you’re expected to do all this. Paratroops, we’re kind of into weather. A good paratroop officer, NCO, is expected to have a good feel for weather because of winds and things, and you know, a two mile-an-hour difference in wind makes a big difference when you’re jumping.

So when I commanded a parachute battalion in the Army Reserves, my first drill we went down to Fort AP Hill and we went down, we were staying outside, camping as it were, a ‘bit of whacking’, I suppose we say in the Army. And we had to jump the next day, so I got with my sergeant major and I knew he was trying to assess me. So night fell and we got in our sleeping bags and looked up at the sky. And I was about ready to go to sleep and sergeant major said, “What do you think about what you see sir?” And I knew he was assessing me and I said, “Well, sergeant major, I’m looking at the stars and I see there’s a faint haze around them, which means we have about a 20-40% chance of rain tomorrow.” He says, “What else do you see, sir?” And I said, “Well, I see some red, the haze has a little red thing, which means that the winds at altitude are going from inland towards the ocean, which means that we’ll probably have good winds tomorrow.” And then I figured I’m going to put – so I said, “What do you see Sergeant Major?” And he says, “I think some bastard stole our tent.” I think I’ll leave now while I’m ahead.

So again, I do not speak for the United States government. I’m going to talk about the general situation in the Persian Gulf. My thesis if I have one is that we’re kind of at a low-level state of war that’s been going on pretty much since the Iranian Revolution, and at times we choose to ignore it, at times we choose to pursue it, and at times we choose to confront it, but it hasn’t gone away. And this is based on some study and numerous consultations in the field. I went to Saudi Arabia about five times in the last year. I go to the Gulf quite frequently and I can tell you that there is a sense there amongst our partner not allies, partners, that they’re under attack.

So if you are interested in this topic, I’ve got all my contact information, my social media, and I’m quite active on Twitter particularly, and I’m on the Arabic media quite a bit. If you speak Arabic, sometimes I’m on things like Al Jazeera English, but I post documents all the time, studies and things of that nature that may be of interest to you. But once again, I don’t speak for the U.S. government, so here’s what I’m going to talk about today. If you have questions, you can ask me at any time. Oh, no, you can ask me at the end. Okay, you can ask me at any time that Bob says is okay. I will welcome your most difficult questions, but I’ve got to tell you if the questions are really hard, I cry.


Let’s start off with geography. So geography, let’s start at the very beginning, always a good place to start. Does anybody know what this map shows? This map shows religious diversity in the Greater Middle East. The darker green are areas of Shia Islam influence, and as you can see, there are areas here in Yemen, Iran of course, and also Syria, and Lebanon, and then some other variants of this in Turkey. You have Sunni Muslims of the Wahhabi variety here in Saudi Arabia, fewer Sunnis, the light green is Sunnis associated with different schools of Sunni Islam. There are four major schools of Sunni Islam.

But basically, this is of interest to us because since the Iranian Revolution, the Supreme Leader of Iran does not hold a formal title in a state government, and if you’re interested in pursuing his role, Shireen Hunter at Georgetown University writes very well on this, and frequently on it, but basically, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is the velayat e-faqih. He is the representative on earth of the vanished Twelfth Imam, and so he is not subject to any other rules of man. His situation is somewhat similar to the Pope’s prior to the Reformation and under the doctrine of Velayat e-Faqih, the Supreme Leader and the Iranian state asserts a right to protect the interests of and intervene in any Shia Muslim community. They assume leadership whether it be in Bahrain, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, even Egypt and further afield, places further afield. So that is very significant because this doctrine is somewhat similar to Vladimir Putin’s idea that if there’s any Russian minority anywhere in the world, he has the right to intervene on that. That is a recipe for continued conflict.

Oil and Gas

The next thing I want to talk about is oil and gas. The red if natural gas. The black is oil. Some people say that the American interest in the Middle East stems solely from this, but honestly, how much did gas cost a gallon before we invaded Iraq? How much does it cost now? You know we don’t do things economically. We’re just not that smart, quite frankly. We do things for ideological reasons, but what you see is that a large proportion of the oil and gas is either in the Gulf or it’s in areas where it can only be effectively extracted through the Gulf.

Now, of course the development of hydraulic fractioning, fracking, horizontal drilling, various things have changed the situation a bit. The United States has gone from a net oil importer to an oil exporter. There’s a three billion dollar plant for natural gas in Louisiana that was designed to deliquefy natural gas, so it could be used in the United States and they were halfway through with it and they spent another billion to do it so it can export natural gas because they were actually flaring natural gas off in North Dakota in the shale fields because they didn’t have any way to effectively get it to market, but this is still important because the world is more than just the United States, and we are a nation based on trade.

There’s a reason why our constitution – I’m sorry, sir, you served on the Midway. I appreciate your service. I’m a parochial army guy, but what does the Constitution say? It says we shall establish a navy all the time, raise an army when we need it. Okay there, I admit it, I admit it. Okay, we shall not speak of this moment again, alright.

Strait of Hormuz

Now, let’s talk about the Strait of Hormuz. Everybody knows about the Strait of Hormuz, but the point I want to give to you is that the situation is actually much tighter and much more geographically constrained than we think it is. So this is the strait. It’s very narrow, but in the strait, the Gulf is extremely shallow and the shipping lanes themselves are even narrower than that, and if one were to fly over this, you would see a number of ships waiting here to transit and a number of ships waiting here to transit as if it were a canal, as if it were a canal, which in effect it is.

The second thing I want you to know about this is that these three islands – Jazireh-ye Tonb-e Kuchek, Abu Musa, and Jazireh-ye Tonb-e Bozorg – that’s actually Farsi rather than Arabic, so it would be Tunb a Kabir, Tunb a Savir from my friends in the United Arab Emirates. These used to belong to the United Arab Emirates or the Emirate of Ras Al-Khaima. When the Emirates became independent in 1971, it was uncertain if Ras Al-Khaima was going to join and in keeping with the general practice where we were concerned that rapidly decolonizing places would become communist, the Shah of Iran took those over and we did not object kind of like East Timor, and we did not object, but then of course there was a revolution. And the sea lanes go between Iranian islands, Iranian-controlled islands that belong to the United Arab Emirates and the mainland of Iran. And the Iranians have put missiles on there.

The other thing I want to point out is that this is a very shallow and relatively saline basin that flows through this narrow channel into the Indian ocean, which is big and beautiful and less saline. And if you talk to guys who work in antisubmarine warfare, the traditional ways we use to find mines, submarines, stuff like that are frustrated by differences in water density, salinity, chemical composition of water. I was in the infantry, I don’t understand this stuff, but smart guys have told me this is a problem for finding mines, submarines. Things of that nature confound sonar, so this is a very, very critical area for us to deal with this.


Now, let’s talk about oil. This chart is from 2012, but basically what you see is the size of the circle indicates the relative amount of oil that transits each of these locations. The Panama Canal is relatively small. The reason for that is because the major market is the United States and we have pipelines going back and forth, so we don’t have to put oil in a pipeline to ship from Galveston to the Panama Canal to get it to the refinery in Richmond, California, San Francisco. Also this was before the Panama Canal was widened so it can take bigger ships now.

So regardless of what happens, the Strait of Hormuz is the critical chokepoint for so much of this energy. Now again, we can frack, but we are not going to be a prosperous and strong nation if we are self-sufficient, fat, dumb, and happy, and our allies and partners and trading partners but not allies – possibly peer competitors – if they are poor and we are rich, we are going to be poor. That is only a momentary advantage. Oil is a global market and so we have decided that we, in conjunction with our partners and allies, are going to maintain the freedom of navigation here.

U.S. Foreign Policy

And so let’s talk a little bit about U.S. foreign policy. I’m going to start with a historical overview, which some of you may argue with me about, but you can’t do it until the end of the presentation because that’s what Bob said, so you’re going to have to sit very quietly while I do this. Let’s talk about U.S. foreign policy.

There are three major threads in U.S. foreign policy. The first is isolationism. This is George Washington surrendering his commission as commander and you recall of course that as president his farewell address, “Beware of foreign entanglements,” don’t get drawn into Europe’s problems. That was pretty much how we operated up until Woodrow Wilson in World War I.

Some of the people in this room are old enough to have read John Dos Passos. I don’t know why he’s neglected, but his trilogy, U.S.A., The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money, a neglected masterpiece of American literature that is conducted in the experimental style, that his little scraps of news reports and poems from the days, narratives, stories, and then theme-poems. And the theme-poem on Woodrow Wilson is the most cogent and brilliantly executed statement of the isolationist appeal in American literary history. So it’s in 1919 by John Dos Passos and if there’s one thing you take from my talk, you know, read John Dos Passos, love the guy.

The second of course is idealism and I spoke of Woodrow Wilson, here he is, the man in the middle between Clemenceau and Lloyd George at the Versailles Conference. The idea, the first big involvement of the United States in the world, was at the Versailles Conference where we went in there. We didn’t wage this war for territorial aggrandizement. We got in there in order to advance ideals. We did not leave World War I with more stuff than we had going into World War I and we promoted independence for the Czechs, for the Yugoslavians.

Now, we lumped some people together who didn’t want to be lumped together – Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Slovaks and Czechs – but by and large, you know, this idea of nationalism started there. Not everybody got what they wanted. Ho Chi Minh showed up at the Paris Peace Conference and was told to fly a kite, but, you know, he was patient and eventually – well, he didn’t live to see what he wanted, so, you know, there you go.

So idealism is a second thread in American foreign policy and the modern thread of idealism is represented by people such as Samantha Powers, who in her book A Problem from Hell formulated the idea based on observing the massacre, the genocide in Rwanda that my battalion in Vicenza responded to. She got a Pulitzer Prize for writing on Rwanda and I got a new pair of jungle books. She basically said if there is genocide going on anywhere in the world, regardless of borders, regardless of colonial history, if somebody has the ability to stop it, they have not just the right to do it, but the duty to do it. It is called the Responsibility to Protect.

Now obviously, she annunciated that, it was adopted to a certain degree in the Clinton administration with the intervention in Kosovo, which people forget was done without a UN sanction, and then of course the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush, and then of course by our friend Vladimir Putin who currently I think has seven areas in otherwise independent countries that his armed forces occupy: two in Georgia, one in Moldova, Crimea, eastern Donbass, border guards in Tajikistan, and there’s one other, but it’ll come to me. So idealism, which obviously calls for more interventionism and a bigger presence abroad than isolationism.


And then the third strand of American foreign policy is realism, and of course, the avatar is realism is this man, Henry Kissinger, still with us, with Richard Nixon, who is looking at him a little suspiciously as well he should. And the idea of realism is that we have interests, these interests have to be presented, sometimes those involve us taking action, sometimes those involve us making deals with unsavory people. Those are the three main strands in American foreign policy.

Now these strands are like a fugue in music. They are always present, but they switch: one is on top, one is on the bottom, and they come back and forth and they keep going, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Now, in medical science the term ‘fugue’ refers to a flight from reason, a prolonged period of irrationality, which brings me to the Trump administration – cheap joke, it plays better with college student unions. Somebody said anybody can tell a joke and get a laugh. The real art is telling a joke poorly and getting a laugh.

So what I would argue is that in the Trump administration the fugue that is dominant in the persona of Donald Trump is isolationism, the realist thread of American foreign policy is always present there in the people around him because realism is basically the dominant Washington perspective, so that shapes a great amount of our engagement in the Middle East and it explains things like why we remain involved in Saudi Arabia even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post columnist who was murdered in Istanbul. And if you think that’s over, it’s not. There’ll be a special addition in The Washington Post on the one year anniversary, which is coming up.


So let’s talk a little bit about history. The history between Iran and the United States is not good. Does anybody know who this guy is? Mossadeg. So according to the Ben Affleck view of history, everything was great in Iran and then he was overthrown. That narrative has taken hold in large part because Kermit Roosevelt who was involved in this wrote a very, very self congratulatory autobiography about doing this.

It’s as if the nurse in Romeo and Juliet – the actor playing the nurse – was asked to describe this play and started off by saying, “Well, there’s this nurse, see.” We joke that the difference between a fairy tale and a war story is a fairy tale starts off with ‘once upon a time’ and a war story starts off with ‘no kidding, there I was’. He put himself at the center of this, but, you know, and I don’t know how he got it through the 1970s Central Intelligence Agency publishing thing, but I think it has something to do with the fact that his last name was Roosevelt.

And so that combined with natural inclination in Iran to see a conspiracy behind any negative action has led to the Ben Affleck view that this guy was the man who had it all there and the evil guys from the United States and Britain came and threw him out and everything beyond that is our fault and we deserve what we get. You know, if you want to talk about crimes against humanity, I saw Gigli, the Ben Affleck film, in a theater. That is a crime against humanity, but, you know, we’ll leave it there.

Of course, the taking of the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979 is not going to be forgotten. That was a true violation of the rules and not the just formal rules a codified in the Vienna Convention on the sanctity of diplomatic missions, but also the informal rules. It’s just not done and it still burns, it still rankles, and people of my generation remember this and you know and remember you know every night you know Ted Koppel became a star, you know, ‘America held hostage’, so that was kind of the counter blast to that.

Then of course we had the bombing of the Marines Corps barracks in Lebanon. People forget that this was a really ignominious moment in American force projection. Does anybody remember why we originally landed marines in Lebanon in the ’80s? To facilitate the Palestinian Liberation Organization evacuation, that’s right, that’s right and then the mission was expanded to supporting the Lebanese government, we became viewed as another faction. We know now that you know the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was behind this. The deaths there have not been counted.

I should point out people say this was the Marines, the Marines have a new plan that their infantry squads are going to be 14 soldiers, 14 Marines, 11 of them will be infantrymen, three of them will be public affairs officers. There were army soldiers killed in Beirut as well, as well as naval corpsmen who normally do that. There was a detachment from the field artillery school, U.S. Army Field Artillery School target acquisition battalion, but as with every action that involves Marines and army, the army presence is out. I should also point out that the 147th infantry regiment of the Ohio National Guard fought as infantry on Iwo Jima. Nobody knows that.

Okay, and then finally this is the wreckage from the shoot down of an Iran air flight by the USS Vincennes. If I were the admiral in charge of the Taskforce with the USS Vincennes, I would have removed the captain of the Vincennes from command. He was looking for trouble. He found trouble. He made a mistake. He did not intend to shoot this down in my view. He did not intend to shoot down a civilian airliner, but he was looking for trouble and given the time and the tone, he was awarded with the Legion of Merit.

The United States paid $61 million to the Iranian government. We recognized that this was something that we should not have done, but rewarding the captain is kind of like the Graham Greene novel Our Man in Havana where it was just too embarrassing for the government to realize that, so they awarded everybody. This is still remembered by everybody in Iran and the problem is you know so they have a grievance, we have a grievance, we have a grievance, they have a grievance, this is not a situation that lends itself easily to resolution.

Iran-Iraq War

Okay, this is a part of history that we don’t often know, but what this shows is location of missile attacks and chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq War, so what you see is a significant number of Iranian cities came under sustained missile attack from Iraq and we were not directly, we weren’t shipping missiles, but we were supporting Iraq in that war and so the way they tell it, we might as well have been sending them missile components. And again, this leads to negative feelings and it doesn’t create the situation where things can be resolved. This shows some of the damage. This was an elementary school that was bombed in Iran.

But then of course we have the Iranians attacking our ships. This was the USS Stark, which was hit by a missile and the book I would recommend to everybody to read is called The Twilight War by David Crist. David Crist is the official historian of the Joint Staff. His father was the Central Command Commander when this was done, and it refers to the naval confrontation between Iran and Iraq. And Crist – most of my analysis dumping on the captain of the Vincennes actually comes from Crist, so if you’re friends with him, don’t blame me, blame Dave.

This is a MRAP that was destroyed by an IED in Iraq. We know now that these IED components, expertise was provided by [Iran]. We know that there [were] Revolutionary Guard officers in Iraq doing this and the bodycount has been estimated by the Department of Defense as about 647 people, 647 American soldiers killed due to [Iranian] agents operating in [Iraq].

These are the IEDs themselves and the part that they provided here was you see the shape charge here. This technology what that does is it’s an inverted cone and so when the explosives go off, it collapses on itself it creates a hot jet that penetrates armor and that came from Iran there. So this was recovered in 2005, so they got active in this early on and, of course, they placed them in an array so that if they miss part of it, they would hit part of the vehicle. I live right across the street from Walter Reed and you know I swim in the pool there and I see guys without legs do to that, do to that, so we’re not going to forget this.

US Bases in the Gulf

Now, this is a very, very interesting map. This shows the Iranian perspective. This map was actually produced by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Now, these guys are clever because it is a Department of Defense map and what they did was they put what they see as all the U.S. bases in the Gulf. Now, there are not this many U.S. bases in the Arabian Peninsula, but this looks so good, I have seen U.S. government officials show this slide you know because they just Google this. I need a slide, right, yeah, U.S. bases in the Gulf.

For example, the United States does not have a single base in Saudi Arabia that is capable of projecting power, although we are just re-standing up a small, token presence at Prince Sultan Air Base. A lot of these things, for example this, base number 14, we have a hangar with a C-21 jet that carries mail at Muscat International Airport. But some of these are bases. This is a large air base. Of course the base at Al Udeid Air Base, As Sayliyah, Al Dhafra Air Base, we have a number of bases in Kuwait.

The bottom line is paranoia is its own reward, there are a lot of Americans, there is a lot of American presence over there, so when the Iranians look across the Gulf, they see all of this and they see a dagger at their throat. It doesn’t have to be rational. It doesn’t have to be logical, it doesn’t have to be proved, and given the history, there’s an absence of good will. So if you don’t have the assumption of good will, you see capabilities and you assume the worst of intentions. There’s just no place to go from there. That is unfortunate.


Now, let’s talk a little bit about strategery as we say. So how does Iran fight? I have written a short book. This short pamphlet is available on the inter web if you look at my name, if you just google my name and put dominance versus disruption around, you’ll come up with it. And basically, what I’ve argued is that Iran does not seek to control everything – that’s the book – what they want to do to achieve their goals [is] they just have to disrupt it.

So Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, the United States, Britain, China, Japan, South Korea – if we want to achieve our security goals in the Gulf, we have to make it placid. We have to create a situation where every commercial ship can sail unmolested without fear, without armed guards, without escorts, you know, without insurance rates, marine insurance rates, going up through the roof. If Iran wants to achieve their national security goals, all they have to do is just mix things up. They don’t have to defeat the U.S. Navy, they just have to make insurance clerks in London nervous. They have to disrupt and disruption is cheaper.

So how do they do this? They do this through proxy attacks. They have groups like Hezbollah, the Houthis. Not all of these are owned and controlled. Sometimes they will refuse orders. Sometimes they act on their own account or their own might, but they are proxies. They will disrupt shipping and we saw that over the summer with limpet mine attacks on ships and seizing ships. They will take hostages.

The Spectrum of Hybrid Warfare

In short, this is the spectrum of hybrid warfare, so modern warfare – and indeed all warfare – runs the gamut from political subversion, which doesn’t really involve soldiers, through proxies to intervention over to covert and coercive deterrence and my thesis is that the Iranians operate most effectively here in the proxy sanctum and the covert intervention. The intervention includes things such as cyber disruption, unattributed attacks on ships and airplanes, perhaps terrorist attacks that are difficult to attribute like the attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. So they operate in that area.

Now, the next slide I’m going to show you is what scares the living heck out of our partners on the Arab side of the Gulf. This is what they call the Shia crescent. The idea is that and you hear this all the time from Arabs is that Iran has a longstanding plan since the revolution that they are going to use Shia populations in Lebanon, semi-Shia Alawite populations in Syria, Shia populations in Iraq, Shia along the Eastern Province, and then down in here in order to encircle the Arabian peninsula and choke it off because they believe not without justice that they are the heirs to a many thousand years old civilization. That’s the part I don’t dispute.

The part I do dispute: and they are destined to rule over all these people who are undeveloped and basically are only wealthy because we in the West came and said hey, this worthless piece of sand you live on is not quite so worthless, there is actually something underneath it. Let us pull it out for you and make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. That’s the Iranian vision. So this concept of the Shia crescent and a number of our partners in the region believe that we are just blind to it, that we are gullible because we think the Iranians are like the Canadians, and we just don’t think about it.

Press and Media

So how do the Iranians do this? Well, first they have a sophisticated press and media operation. I know that you guys are interested in international affairs. What do these graphics and this setup look like? Exactly, it’s the same font and the same color scheme as the BBC. And I was actually in a hotel in Dubai, I was watching this for five minutes and I was like wait a minute, I thought I was watching BBC, but then I realized that guy is not wearing a tie. That was the only clue. This is an Iranian thing.

They do this in multiple languages and it has the same scroll, the same font, the same everything. This is a very, very large organization and in parts of the Middle East it is viewed by more people than Deutsche Welle or the French service or even the BBC. So they have a sophisticated thing there. They do programming from Britain, from the United States, things of that nature.

Secondly, they have a large cyber capability. This is the screenshot that came up on the Saudi national oil company and the Saudi national bank when it was disrupted a few years ago by a cyber attack. The Iranian Cyber Army, which is probably not even based in Iran, but based among the expatriate communities in Western Europe. Of course, they’re not the only guys that do that. If you read The New York Times this afternoon pointed out that we may have done a cyber attack against a capable thing.


Then they disrupt things by using missile attacks by proxies. This handsome man is standing in front of a Burkan 2 missile which was fired at Riyadh International Airport in November of 2017. They call it a Burkan 2, but it actually is an Iranian Kayhan missile and it was sent in sections, it was cut in sections, from Iran to Yemen and then welded back together in Yemen and then fired at Riyadh International Airport from Yemen, so they do that to get attention. Of course, since they use a proxy force they say oh, it’s nothing to do with us. This was domestically developed in Yemen, which as far as I know has not developed a dishwasher and so, you know, would probably be challenged with a missile. And I’ve been all over this and I’ve dug through the components and there’s Iranian aircraft and I can show you pictures later on.

Iran’s Ballistic Missiles

This is their arsenal of missiles. They have a significant number of missiles and as you see some of them have significant range and there is expected to be a space launch in the next few days. The space launch vehicle pad in the main Iranian launching has just been repainted. We think they’re going to do a space launch. Theoretically, if you can put a satellite into space, then you now have an intercontinental ballistic missile, although these probably don’t have the proper payload for it.

The second thing the Iranians have done is develop drones. These are senior officers in the Iranian military establishment at an air show inspecting new drones. Now, part of the psychological operation [is that] they show things at air shows, [but] they might not produce them, so we don’t quite know. You know they show a lot of stuff. The question is I’m not sure whether it’s done, but there have been a number of drone attacks from both Yemen and from Iraq on Saudi targets, the Saudi oil industry. This is from an Iran-allied thing which shows a model of the drone which we believe conducted some of the attacks. This is a composite picture. This didn’t really happen, but we believe this attacked some of the airports in southern Saudi Arabia. Does anybody recognize this terminal? Good, you haven’t spent as much time in the region as I have. I spent a lot of time here. This is Dubai International Airport, which is I think the second busiest one.

Disruption at Sea

The next thing they do is disruption at sea. The easiest way to do this is with mines, so this is a Revolutionary Guard Navy ship. You see it has the old school Rocky and Bullwinkle kind of mine there, still difficult to defeat. I can tell you one of the greatest failures of the U.S. Navy is that they have not come to par with mines. I guess it’s just not sexy enough and I don’t think there is the will there. The landings at Incheon in 1950, that was supposed to be a double envelopment from both sides, but the landing on the east coast was defeated by use of Russian imperial mines, you know, like really old mines, simple stuff, but just it took the Navy so long to sweep it, they actually had to bring Japanese Navy guys in to do this, not very well known.

Do you all remember the USS Pueblo? Okay, so after the Pueblo was seized, Commander Bucher after he was freed there was talk of court-martialing him and then they realized it’s very hard to court-martial a person who has served in intelligence because he’ll say well, I’ll talk about my missions in my defense, so they couldn’t court-martial him, they couldn’t throw him out of the Navy, so what did they put him on? Mines, yeah, so that kind of shows, I can tell you after the seizure of the Pueblo, Lloyd Bucher was not the fastest rising star in the Navy. Okay, so there needs to be a little more of an emphasis on this.

And as you can see, they conceal mines on commercial ships underneath oil tanks. Even simple mines create a great deal of disruption because you never really clear a thing of mines. In the land context in Bosnia people would say has this place been cleared of mines? And the answer you get from an engineer is to a depth of sixty with a confidence interval of 98%, you know. The bottom line is I did not step off the pavement the entire time I was in Bosnia. And this is the issue with sea. Once it’s out there, it creates a psychological state of uncertainty and again, for Iran’s strategy to succeed it doesn’t have to defeat the Navy, it just has to raise marines insurance rates on its adversaries, it has to spook insurance clerks in London. This is an attack boat firing missiles surface-skinny missiles from the IRGC.

This is a picture taken from the flight deck of the Saudi ship Medina. And what you have here is hard to see, but this is a remote-controlled boat called a shark. It has an active guidance unit in it and in the hull it actually has the warhead taken off of a Yemeni Styx missile, which was the Russian shore-to-ship missile as the warhead was homed in remotely on the Medina. And the result is they hit it at the stern and created significant damage, and I’m not if the Medina has ever gone back into service after that. That’s something I’ve got to look up next time I go to Jeddah.

Additionally, at land these look like rocks. These are recovered in Yemen and if you look carefully, they are not rocks because they are edged here, and if you turn them around, you find this is an infrared sensor and what these rocks contain is little cavities in here that are lodged those explosive form projectiles that I showed you early on in Iraq. These have been recovered in Yemen. They’ve also been recovered in Bahrain, so there is an export here, you know, the weapon of the week.

Nuclear Theory

Now, let’s go from the low-end disruption to the big-end. Now, this is something I cannot prove. This chart comes from Livermore Laboratories and what it shows is the doctrine of Russian nuclear escalation, but my supposition, which I cannot yet prove, but it’s interesting to discuss, is that the Iranians I think take their cues from Russian doctrine. And what it basically shows is that when you get up to a thing where the regime is thought to be threatened, they will actually use a nuclear weapon – the Russians will, the Russians will. So if they think there’s a threat of regime change, they will possibly do a limited selective strike on the United States or another thing – the Russians will.

Now the question is have the Iranians instituted that or adapted that? I don’t know, but I suspect, I suspect – I cannot prove – that they may have. Are those enough qualifications for that? So the bottom line is if there is a nuclear weapon, it won’t just be, you know, okay, if you don’t nuke us, we won’t nuke you. It could be in the event of something leading up to regime change.

Qassem Soleimani IRGC Quds Brigade

I’ll talk a little bit about proxies. I’ll go very quickly because I want to get to your questions. This is Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He’s touring a base in Iraq and as you see, he’s surrounded by Iraqi soldiers with weapons, uniforms, armored vehicles that were paid for by your tax dollars. Basically, they have subverted elements of the Iraqi state, the formation of the Hashd ash-Shaʿabi. There are militias that are operating ostensibly under the auspices as an agent of the Iraqi state, but some of them do, and some of them take their commands from Iran.

And of course these are the guys that have had their ammunition depots blowing up in the past few days, which initially, when I heard this, I said okay, do not attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. I would like to claim that’s my quote, but it’s Napoleon. We’re often mistaken for each other. But now it appears that based on remarks in the Israeli press that there actually is something to this.

The second shows Qassem Soleimani. What do these guys look like to you? They look like Chinese, Central Asians. These are Hazaras. They are members of the Shia minority in Afghanistan who have been enlisted into militia to fight in Syria, and this picture was actually taken in Syria.

Iranian Bases and Proxies

And indeed, Iran had a number of bases in Syria. This shows open source intelligence. This was a few years ago at the height of the war. They probably scaled back one or two. Lebanese proxies: of course, Hezbollah. I must say one of the interesing phenomenons in modern insurgencies is insurgents tend to look like the forces they are fighting. If you didn’t have this Hezbollah flag here, you could swear these were Israelis, you know, except for the rifles, and the gear and all that looks like that. Hezbollah is probably the most competent Arab army in the world. This was one of the military commanders of Hezbollah in the Aleppo offensive he died in battle. There is speculation that he was assassinated by his rivals within the organization. But the bottom line is Hezbollah is a very, very potent armed force that has effectively strangled the Lebanese state and has a veto over any action of the Lebanese state.

We have Iraqi proxies. I’ve spoken about that, so I won’t go into that. Now, the question is having defeated or at least defeated the conventional military capabilities of ISIS, will the United States and its partners, having won the war, will we win the peace?

And the metaphor that I look at here is the Soviet Union after World War II where, you know, yeah the Red Army moved all the way in here, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada moved all the way in here, but after the war, these countries became independent and these countries became satellites because of more effective negotiations not of course harmed by the fact that one of the top guys at the State Department was Alger Hiss who did not have our interests at heart.

Win the War or Win the Peace?

So when we look at ISIS here in 2015, what we see is this area by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which was still held by ISIS, this area which was held by the Syrian regime strongly reinforced by Russian and Iranian sponsors or Iranian forces. Now, we’ve moved down here. We have this area. Daesh doesn’t really control anything. It looks like these guys are in a position to move and take this over because we’re not eager to stay here indefinitely and indeed, this is the issue that led to the resignation of Jim Mattis.

And so that’s kind of the situation we’re at. Yellow is the Syrian Democratic Forces and there’s all kinds of problems associated with that, most notably being that the lead elements of this are Kurdish, but only this area is really historically Kurdish. These are Arabs. There’s just the possibility for endless conflict.

So what is the Trump administration looking at doing in the Gulf in confronting Iran? Well, a couple things about President Trump: the first thing is I think the dominant metaphor is the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The administration’s Secretary of State has said that we do not seek regime change, but that is not the same thing as saying we will not welcome regime change if it happens.

Recall the United States and its Western partners did not seek regime change against the Soviet Union. We were surprised by it and so this idea that you starve the beast, force them to make hard choices, seems to be the guiding metaphor, and most of the people occupying senior security portfolios in the cabinet came of age during the Cold War and in the fall of the Soviet Union. Mike Pompeo was on the German-Czechoslovakian border with the Second Armored Cavalry regiment. Esper served in Europe from 1992 to 1995. So you know they were all kind of there.

So what is Trump’s strategy? Well, first of off he’s not transformative and sweeping. That belongs to the idealistic theme of American foreign policy. And I don’t think even his strongest admirers would say that he is an adherent of the idealist school of American foreign policy. I think that’s a pretty fair statement to make.

The second thing is that he’s not into nation building. Nation building has gotten a bad reputation and nation building honestly comes from the idealist strain and a little bit of the realist strain. The idea that we are going to withdraw our military forces somewhat precipitously from Syria kind of indicates his thinking on that.

The third item is that he does want to limit American presence abroad. There is a strong element of isolationism. I think it is brought out. Our very presence overseas creates unanticipated problems. It is very easy to make the argument that the extended American presence in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, the George H.W. Bush Gulf War, is one of the accelerators of the rise of Al Qaeda, which, you know, led us to that, so our presence abroad creates problems that we may not want to have.

He wants to push regional partners to solve regional problems. The large spike in the sale of weapons to our Arab partners in the Gulf I think should be viewed in this. He wants to see capacity built there so that they can solve their problems, so we don’t have to. And I think that if most Americans examine that there and set aside the human rights arguments, which is substantial because none of our partners in the region are democracies, then I think they would agree with this.

And his animating thing seems to be to keep his word in contrast with the Obama administration on things like red lines. At times, it seems to me that the actions of this president vis-a-vis Iran, Syria, things like that, seem to be directed not necessarily at advancing an isolated American foreign policy interest, although that happens, but the driving factor seems to be to say the last administration did this, so I’m going to do this. And I can tell you that with most of our Arab partners that has gone down very well, that has gone down very well because they suspected that the Iran Deal was us as naive people who don’t understand the Iranians playing fast and loose with their interests. And so I’ve spoken long, I’ve spoken about a number of things, and now I will take your questions, and if you want to harass me or cyberstalk me, there we have it. So I will take your questions.


Audience member:

Yes, I have a question about China and Japan’s relationship with Iraq. I know China had a listening station in Gwadar, Pakistan, which I believe listens to the greater Hormuz area. I’m curious about that. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

David Des Roches

This is roughly the Gulf. Gwadar is out here and it’s Pakistan. Until relatively recently like the 60s, this whole coast, the whole Gulf of Oman coast of Pakistan actually belonged to Oman and they ceded it. Gwadar lies as the Indian Ocean terminus of a planned Chinese development that goes Xinjiang where all the Uyghurs are being ethnically cleansed – I think is fair to say – down through the Karakorum Pass, and then into Swat Valley, down along skirting through Peshawar along the edges of the Frontier Province to Quetta and then down to Gwadar.

The Gwadar port is supposed to be a development super-thing, originally to be done by I think the Singapore Ports Authority, and then the project failed and the Chinese swooped in. And now, most analysts of Chinese naval activity view it as a potential Chinese military base, part of their key string of pearls, this idea that they’re going to have bases controlling from their artificial islands, which have been militarized in the South China Sea through the Straits of Malacca, the port that they overtook through a debt trap in Sri Lanka, perhaps a base in Burma. Then on the other side of India. Gwadar is the key of course because it both contains India in the event of a conflict and then allows them to look into the Gulf of Oman.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that wherever a Chinese ship stops, there is an intelligence presence. There is no such thing as a civilian Chinese naval vessel. They are all members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Coast Guard Reserve, and there have been instances of civilian fishing vessels obstructing Filipino patrol vessels in the South China Sea, things of that nature. So there’s no doubt in my mind that that is the case. However, I would argue that in this day and age, it’s overtaken by other things. You know, you don’t have to have a presence right there to keep an eye on this stuff. You can do it over the Internet. You just watch people’s social media posts, so I keep an eye on the Chinese.

Now, the second issue with the Chinese is their oil dependency on the region, and we do know – there was a The New York Times article that said that they’re still major buyers of Iranian oil even under U.S. sanctions not UN sanctions, that what they do is they have various shell companies that are formed and that transfer oil from marina tankers at sea. That’s going to continue. In the years prior to the JCPOA, the Chinese did agree to UN sanctions on Iran, but they did so only because the Saudis said we will sell the exact same amount of oil to you at the same price that the Iranians will. And the Saudis never got credit for that in the West, so I should point that out. They agreed to basically an unfavorable commercial deal in national security interests that aligned with our national security interests, so, yeah, I don’t trust them is the bottom line, is the bottom line. I don’t trust them.

Audience member:

You didn’t say anything about Japan.

David Des Roches:

Well, of course, I don’t know anything about Japan. No, well, look, you know, Japan is in a difficult situation. They are extremely energy independent. There is a large Iranian presence in Japan. People don’t realize, but there are a lot of Iranian expats in Japan. We know it mostly from the Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, who is half-Japanese, half-Iranian. So there’s the potential for some disruption if Japan goes the other way, but you know the Japanese are smart and one of the things that I hope happens is if Canada ever gets its act together and reforms its east-west pipeline network, my hope is that the Canadian tar sands and the Alberta oil fields will be able to meet that.

And then if the United States gets off. We only frack in marginal political areas; North Dakota, West Texas. One of our major basins that’s ripe for hydraulic fracturing is the Monterrey Basin, which is in California, so we could alleviate that. Of course, you know, our major oil exporting partners you know are eager to remain selling to the Japanese. The issue really is the South China Sea is more of an issue for them. Thank you.

Audience member:

What do you think the prospect is of the government’s economic sanctions work on Iran will be successful and on the other hand, how dangerous do you think – well, what do you think is the prospect of a military solution might be?

David Des Roches:

Yeah, well, so the administration as far as I can tell has only enunciated two or three goals for sanctions and that is to restrain Iranian malign behavior. They have been explicit and said we don’t seek regime change. I think – as I said earlier – perhaps that’s not the aim of the policy, but you know I think there is thinking like well, you know, if this happens, we’ll welcome it.

The other thing I have to point out is that this administration kind of feels that it invented sanctions or at least has reinvigorated it, is the first administration to realize the global use of sanctions. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. I think there is a lot of Iranian malign behavior, I think that to the extent that the administration is able to force the Iranians to choose between funding Hezbollah or funding a cancer unit, you know, that’s a good thing.

The problem is – and this is a very hard thing – you have to ensure that you don’t create a siege economy in Iran. Prior to the withdrawal from the JCPOA and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions, Iran did not achieve the economic benefits it expected from the JCPOA, and the reason why it didn’t is because it is a corrupt regime, because there is systemic underinvestment, because the Revolutionary Guards control between 30-70% of the economy, you know, things like cement factories. Who the hell is going to invest their own money?

And when you looked at potential Western investment in Iran under the JCPOA, it wasn’t you know pension funds or small businesses, it was state-sponsored enterprises: Boeing, Pujo, Airbus, things that if the Iranians welsh, there was a whole nation to do it. Nobody wanted to take their own hard earned money and build a cement factory there because you know if the Revolutionary Guards have a cement factory, they can put you out of business and incarcerate you, but that discussion of why do the Revolutionary Guards do all this, why does that daughter of the Revolutionary Guard go to Oxford, you know, that conversation ended when the U.S. sanctions [went into effect], now they can blame everything on us.

So I’m hearing anecdotal evidence that you know like Hezbollah stocked up. Of course, in the most recent Lebanese government shuffle, Hezbollah asked for the Ministry of Health. The smart guys – I’m not really Lebanon-smart – the smart guys said they do that because that position allows them to distribute money and patronage, which in the past they got from the Iranians, so they sought a different cabinet portfolio to make up for, which thus applies that they’re not getting the financial support they got from Iran. But the problem with using the economic element of power [is that] it makes you feel good, but it takes a long time to have a positive effect.

The second element of sanctions is one I’ve called for years, which is sanctioning individuals, and I think that’s actually a positive move. One of the things that has really bugged me is when you have all these guys who spend their entire career , you know, defying us, calling for death and all that, and then you run into their kid at UCLA. So here’s an obscure figure.

Does anybody know Cheddi Jagan is? This guy was typical 1960s colonization socialist/communist, spent his entire career basically frustrating Western interests, you know, the British had to send troops there. He was kind of like a low rent Castro, Anglophone Castro. Do you know where he died? He died at Walter Reed. We took care of him. Yeah, and we didn’t kill him. We were trying to keep him alive.

You know I kind of felt that, you know, we should visit the sins of the father, you know, that if people oppose the liberal, Western order, professionally, that they should be forced to make a choice in that they and their children should not benefit from that liberal, Western order. Now, when I advocate for that, I get told I’m a very bad person, and I am on several levels, but you know, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

I do think it’s a mistake to sanction the Iranian Foreign Minister and, you know, if you’re going to have a solution, you’ve got to talk to somebody. He’s not going to come here if his hotel is worried about having the U.S. Treasury come down if they send three rolls of toilet paper and a couple of hamburgers up to his room. So I think that’s a mistake, but I think that’s a tactical mistake. It’s kind of like the guys in the army maneuver who say okay, we’re going to eliminate all the enemy scouts, kill the enemy scouts in the war game, so they kill all the enemy scouts, and then they say well, our deception plan didn’t work. It’s like yeah, because you didn’t leave anybody on the battlefield to watch it. You have to have somebody to negotiate with. I do applaud this administration’s use of our efforts.

Now, let me – I’m sorry for being so longwinded, but let me give you another thing about sanctions. The utility of unilateral American sanctions are diminishing and will diminish and the more we use them, the more they will diminish. The day after the JCPOA withdrawal was announced, I was at an event with a senior European diplomat and he basically said we have just discovered that our banks are not regulated in Europe, they’re regulated in Washington and that is unacceptable for us, so we need to realize that what this administration is doing now may diminish the utility of that tool further on and if we employ the economic element of national power and sanctions promiscuously or without great thought and care, we will find that tool will not be as effective in the future for advancing our national security.

Audience member:

Do you doubt that sanctions will bring them to the table?

David Des Roches:

I think that eventually they have the potential to do that, but neither side is ready yet. Usually, you get a negotiation when both sides fear losing something and we’re not at that point yet, we’re not at that point yet.

Audience member:

Thank you so much for your time. I was wondering what are the greatest challenges to genocide and prevention and if the U.S. is a primary force like could it be a response force to stop genocide? Do you believe the international community would continue such an operation without the U.S.?

David Des Roches:

Do you want me to speak in the abstract or you’re discussing a specific case?

Audience member:

Your preference

David Des Roches:

Well, let me talk in the abstract. As I said, and it’s now apparent to you because you’ve been listening to me for forty minutes. I am a Master of the Arts of the University of London, and when I was at Graduate School, this is pre-Internet, so about once a week I’d go to the embassy because my mail came there and so I’d go, I’d cash a check. We had to do that to get money in those days. I would cash a check, I’d pick up my mail, I’d get a cheeseburger, I’d get a copy of the Stars and Stripes so I could read baseball news, right? And there was always a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in London.

One day I went there and there were protests with a line of police in the middle. One line, one group of protestors, said, “USA, hands off Eritrea!,” and the second line of protestors said, “Save the Eritreans from Ethiopia!” And I was walking past them the police were pulling them apart. I said to myself, you know, if I walked down the street in any major American city with a hundred dollar bill and said I will give this to the first person who can find Eritrea on a map, you know.

So there are two things I learned from that. The first one is everyone in the world thinks we are omnipotent, and we are not, but we are more omnipotent than everybody else. We are the tallest midget. And the reason why is because we have over generations invested in primarily lift, strategic lift, so when something goes bad, even if we have nothing to do with it, they ask us to solve it, and the big case was, you know, which was a seminal thing for Ambassador Powers, to a certain extent for me [too], was Rwanda, where we had no colonial presence, where we had no vestigial presence, where we had no involvement whatsoever, and there was a case of genocide, and the only people who could do anything about it [was] us. Unfortunately, that is the burden of being a superpower, and it’s just because we have that capacity, we will always be called on to do it. That is just the natural drift. And the alternative if you don’t want to put up with that burden is to sort of lose our capacity. Quite frankly, I prefer to believe we’re a force for good.

Now, this has been articulated in sort of a theoretical concept where they talk about green hats versus blue hats, so when Haiti went down the tubes in the early 2000s, the idea was you have a U.S.-led coalition of the willing, which is the green hats, we go in, stabilize the situation, and we get back-filled by the blue hats, the United Nations or some other established peacekeeping force, maybe a regional force that doesn’t have the rapid deployment sustainability.

Now, do we ever get reimbursed for that? No. Do we ever get credit for it? No. When something goes really wrong like Nepalese peacekeepers practicing unsanitary thing and introduce an epidemic do we get blamed for it and expect to do it? Yes, but by and large, I have great faith and confidence in the overall desire of Americans to do well and in the functioning of the American political system to ensure that our political leaders do well and don’t stray too far off the reservation, but at the end of the day, being a superpower isn’t all skittles and beer. You’ve got to do unpleasant and that’s just the nature of it. I’m sorry for being so longwinded and philosophical.

Audience member:

Can you coming up eight years after the fact, do you have a clear picture or any insights on the consequences of Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011? You have to reverse engineer it, you get greater insights. [unintelligible] It seems he was pro-Shia.

David Des Roches:

Are you from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, sir? Yeah, no, what you’ll hear in talking with people, with Arabs in the region is you handed Iraq over to the Iranians, full-stop. Okay, that is the narrative, that is the dominant narrative and, you know, it’s hard to find, to martial facts the counter.

Now, what is the opposite? I would argue that Obama was kind of left holding the bag, that he was very eager to get out of there, so maybe there was an excuse, the inability to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement. They said okay, fine, we can’t do that, we gotta go, but it is very hard to maintain a military presence in a country that doesn’t want you, where there was an established insurgency, where there was well-armed groups that were being supplied by Iran, that were capable and remain capable of inflicting damage upon us.

And I think that there were some smart people who felt that you know hey, we’ve done our job here, what’s the worst that can happen, you know? And honestly, we didn’t go back until ISIS arose. I can tell you I don’t know anybody who predicted the rise of ISIS. I know a lot of people after the fact who say they predicted it, but I don’t know anybody who did. There are a lot of prominent people in the U.S. security apparatus who were involved in that negotiation and you know unless we’re willing to impose our will on the Iraqi people of 2011 to the point of basically occupying a hostile country, it wasn’t really a valid thing.

I think that a lot of revisionists are very hostile on the Obama administration, very harsh on the Obama administration, and it is true that they may have seized precipitously on the excuse, but I can tell you that the people who were working the negotiations at the time for the most part were very tenacious, hardworking, and just couldn’t get anywhere. And the real mistake I think was if we wanted to have it done there, then we should have committed in 2004 to a long-term occupation like we did in Germany and, you know, not had elections in two years, but maybe say, okay, in six years we will have elections when we fundamentally rebuild it.

The second point I have to make is my first Master’s thesis was actually on Saddam Hussein. It was before he invaded Kuwait. I started writing on this because we in the West believe that a repressive regime cannot exist indefinitely, it has to fall of its own weight eventually, so I was like how did he stay in government for so long? And the conclusion I came to was that he didn’t make it so that everybody was afraid of him, he made it so that everybody was afraid of what would happen without him. He made everybody complicit in his crimes, so when they were going to execute political prisoners, he would send a note out to every local branch of the Ba’ath Party saying, “We’re going to execute this guy because he’s a traitor. Nominate one person to be an executioner.” And of course, if you want to be a schoolteacher, a mailman, whatever, you’ve got to be a member of the Ba’ath Party, so everybody was complicit in his crimes. The message being: you get rid of me, the mob will tear you apart to.

So when we decided we were going to have a light occupation and you know got suckered by the Iranians and exiles and then Paul Bremer decided on a de-Ba’athification, the entire government just atomized, and the only people who were organized there were just anti-American, Iranian-allied militia or ethnically controlled organizations and that just wasn’t a basis to conduct a negotiation. I’m sorry for giving you such a longwinded thing, but I know I hate some of the people involved in that decision too. You can’t blame all of this on Obama, you’ve got to put some of it on Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer, and those guys.

Audience member:

Where is the MEK in the mix of this?

David Des Roches:

Ah, good question, so the MEK, Mojahedin-e Khalq, is an Iranian opposition group that has an interesting history. It was considered to be a terrorist organization for a number of years. They have killed Americans. They are currently allied against the Iranian regime. They have been engaged in this prolonged process of becoming normalized. They were taken off the terrorism list. There were extended protests in front of the State Department they ran for I think four years, and then they have been holding conferences. They had like Rudy Giuliani speak to them and things of that nature. They also broke the news of the secret Iranian nuclear plants prior to the JCPOA, so they have an extensive network there and I’ve drawn on some of their research. They read like obituaries in Iranian newspapers and based on that you can extrapolate military deaths in Syria.

I am not an Iran expert. When I talk to experts, they say that the MEK has zero, zero following within Iran, so they are kind of – to simplify, to engage in a gross simplification – the rough equivalent of the people who led us down the garden path in Iraq, saying oh, yeah, we’re a government-in-exile, you’ll be welcomed as liberators, but they are very influential. I get invited to events by them all the time. They produce books that may not be authoritative. You have to read with a critical eye, but they are certainly worth reading, but I think the burden of history and the lack of domestic support in Iran is too great an obstacle for them to overcome. And again, I am a vindictive [unintelligible]. This organization has killed Americans in the past. This organization has killed Americans in the past.

You showed that photo of those Afghan Hazaras fighting…

David Des Roches:


Audience member:

…on Iran’s side.

David Des Roches:


Audience member:

Do you have any evidence of Central Asians from other republics under the Persian Empire also fighting?

David Des Roches:

No. No, none, and the reason why they have the Hazaras is these people left Afghanistan as refugees, came to Iran, the Iranians interned them, basically, and so, you know, they’re not going anywhere. They can’t work. I would argue they’re not being dealt with the way refugees are supposed to be dealt with, though I could have made that case a little bit more strongly a couple months ago. So the Iranians say if you go and fight here, you’ll get the full Iranian citizenship.

Audience member:

The Iranians adopt the refugees as Iranians now?

David Des Roches:

If they fight.

Audience member:

Okay, like the Tajiks, the Turkmens?

David Des Roches:

I’ve seen no evidence of – they may have ethnic Tajiks, Turkmens, I have seen no evidence of people from those countries there. Normally, those guys you’d see in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan or along Afghanistan in the Pathan Belt or Pakhtun Belt as you say on the Pakistan side.

Audience member:

I thought you were going to say something about the Israeli attacks in Syria against Iranian installations and now it appears in Iraq and maybe Lebanon as well. So far it doesn’t appear that the Iranians have responded and also what’s interesting is that the Soviets who supplied the S-400, their missiles haven’t been used against an Israeli aircraft. Any comments?

David Des Roches:

Yes, well I did mention the attacks on the PMF/Hash al-Shaabi in Iraq. These are still early days. We don’t know what is happening. It appears though there are a number of – not quite the topic of my speech, but I gravitate towards chaos for some strange reason, although my wife would say she gravitates more strongly towards chaos and she married me – there have been reports of various confrontations in Lebanon, in Syria, as well as in Iraq.

Normally, the Iranian playbook is when they’re pressed in one area, they tell Hezbollah and Hezbollah has a number of effective, you know, very well hidden or located amongst civilian targets, rockets with which they can cause trouble, so there has been some stuff. If you look at the Israeli press, there have been different things in Lebanon as well as in Syria, and of course, Netanyahu has quite publicly said look, we’re going to attack you wherever you are. You don’t have a safe haven. You know, I think that’s going to continue for awhile. It’s also worth noting that the Department of Defense put out a press release saying we had nothing to do with what happened at these ammunition and weapons storage facilities in Iraq, so that seems to be an Israeli thing.

I think everybody realizes – they may not welcome it or accept it, but they realize that the Israelis have an expansive view of their security and they have run raids against suspected weapon facilities in the Sudan and the Red Sea you know they go everywhere, so that’s not really a shift, a step change in action, but it does reflect a broader involvement and may reflect an enhanced technical capacity. Some of the suppositions that the F-35 are used. I don’t know. I don’t want to say anything because we don’t know anything and I’ll look like a moron if it comes out the other way. You know I’m hoping that some of you will leave here thinking that I’m not a complete idiot, so I’m not going to say that. Yeah, that’s it for Syria.

Now, the S-400. It appears to me that there has been a handshake deal. People forget, Putin has very good relations with Israel. Putin’s Russia has very good relations with Israel and Israeli interests are not always the same as American interests, you know, so for example, there are persistent reports that a lot of F16 technology made its way to China via Israel.

And there seems to be an agreement on this and the agreement seems to be that yeah, the S-400 is in place in Syria, but I think it’s primarily dedicated for regime protection and that it’s not in areas that the Israelis are concerned about, and that the Israelis won’t attack the S-400.

And the Israelis have never been hot-to-trot to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, they kind of regarded the anti-Bashar as impetuous because they said hey, at least here we have someone we can deal with, we can pressure, we can twist his arm if need be. The last thing in the world we would want is chaos where we’ve got a bunch of little Hezbollahs that we can’t really deal with, so I think there’s a kind of de facto ‘you don’t go here, we don’t go there’. We’ll know more in a few years, so if you guys ever have me back, I’ll give you an answer.

Robert R. Reilly:

I think we will.

David Des Roches:

Thank you sir.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you so much.