Colin Kahl on Iran

KahlBefore being nominated as Deputy Secretary of Defense for Policy, Colin Kahl pushed for renewed diplomacy with Tehran. “It would be wise for the administration to dial back the rhetoric, open high-level channels with Tehran, and signal a willingness to reenter the nuclear deal as a starting point for new negotiations,” he wrote in May 2019. The Trump administration eliminated “significant, long-term and verifiable constraints” on Iran’s nuclear program after it withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. Kahl also criticized Trump’s crippling economic sanctions on Tehran, which had backfired. “Iranian moves to evade sanctions are likely to increase the scale and value of smuggling” and expand the black market dominated by the Revolutionary Guards, he wrote in October 2018. Kahl was Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor from 2014-2017. The following are remarks by Kahl on Iran.


On the nuclear deal and future diplomacy with Iran

Essay in Foreign Affairs on Oct. 24, 2018: “By abandoning the Iran deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), Trump has recklessly tossed aside an accord that places significant, long-term, and verifiable constraints on Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. Prior to the deal, Iran was in a position to produce the fissile material for nuclear weapons in as little as two to three months. The JCPOA reduced the number of Iran’s operational centrifuges by two-thirds and dramatically shrank the country’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, extending that timeline to at least a year. The deal also dismantled the core of Iran’s plutonium reactor, closing off another potential pathway to a nuclear bomb, and imposed the most stringent inspections and verification regime ever negotiated, making it exceedingly difficult for Iran to develop nuclear weapons in secret.

“It is true, as Trump administration officials note, that under the JCPOA, certain constraints on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity loosen in 2025 and 2030 (at the 10- and 15-year marks). But other key elements, such as the monitoring of Iran’s uranium mines and mills and centrifuge production facilities, last 20–25 years. And Iran’s obligations to allow intrusive inspections of its declared and suspected nuclear facilities, as well as its commitment under the JCPOA not to build nuclear weapons, never end.

“The ‘sunset’ provisions in the JCPOA were always intended to provide a test of Iranian intentions. Since the Obama administration and its P5+1 partners concluded that permanently scrapping Iran’s uranium enrichment program was not achievable, the goal was to provide a lengthy period of time to verifiably establish the exclusively peaceful purposes of that program. If Iran failed that test, the United States would be well positioned to mobilize the international community to pressure Tehran to extend JCPOA constraints. But the Trump administration has taken a nuclear crisis that it anticipated would occur in 2030 and artificially brought it forward to 2018—and done so in a manner that ensures little international support for Trump’s Iran policy.

“Pompeo insists that Trump’s maximum pressure policy will force Iran to accept a better deal—one that eliminates the JCPOA’s sunset clauses, dismantles a significant portion of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, ends Iranian support for terrorism and regional militancy, and addresses the regime’s systematic violation of human rights at home. It won’t. Trump may hope to isolate Tehran, but it is Washington that finds itself largely alone. Widespread international opposition to Trump’s Iran policy—buttressed by the fact that Iran continues to meet its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA—makes the prospect of unilaterally imposing better terms slight.”

Remarks at Stanford University on Feb. 20, 2018: “The notion that Obama kind of foolishly prioritized the nuclear issue to the detriment of everything else strikes me as crazy because as the official in charge of the Iran portfolio and many other countries in the Middle East at the beginning of the Obama administration, most of my time was spent thinking about what happens if we go to war with Iran because of their nuclear program. Either because we would launch a war to stop them from crossing the nuclear finish line or the Israelis would launch a war and drag us in. The prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear armed state, the equivalent of North Korea on the Strait of Hormuz, or a major war launched by US or the Israelis to forestall that outcome, was an enormous preoccupation.

“The second thing is it is true that there were that there were people who believed that only way to solve the nuclear issue was to pursue a policy of regime change. While people weren’t really signing up for a massive military invasion of Iran, a country the size of Iraq and Afghanistan put together in terms of population, there was hope that some combination of military threats and crippling economic sanctions could in essence bankrupt the regime into collapse.

“Our analysts in the entire period that I was there in the Obama administration never thought that the regime was on the brink of economic collapse, even just before the Iran nuclear deal struck. One interesting data point for people to keep in mind is at the point that the Iran nuclear deal was struck, the sanctions that we imposed on Iran had done something like 200 billion dollars of damage to the Iranian economy. But this same regime suffered 600 billion dollars of damage and nearly a million casualties during the Iran-Iraq war and it still took him eight years to settle for a tie. This was not a regime that was teetering on the brink of collapse. And the problem with the regime change folks was that if you made regime change your policy, you were likely to increase the motivation of the regime to pursue nuclear weapons.”


On U.S. sanctions against Iran

Essay in Foreign Affairs on Oct. 24, 2018: “Even under pressure, Iran has many reasons not to agree to Trump’s maximalist demands. The Iranian regime has invested enormous resources and domestic legitimacy in defending its nuclear rights. And given the fact that Trump’s long list of nonnuclear requirements for a better deal cut to the very core of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary identity, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian hard-liners are likely to view complete capitulation as a bigger risk to their regime than attempting to weather the storm.”

In fact, Trump’s sanctions may actually enhance the IRGC budget. Iranian moves to evade sanctions are likely to increase the scale and value of smuggling, expanding the country’s black market, which the IRGC dominates. And, politically, the IRGC is already using increased threats from the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to push for additional resources. Supreme Leader Khamenei, who recently called on Iran’s armed forces to boost their military capacity, is clearly receptive to such arguments.

“More broadly, Trump’s strategy completely ignores the fact that Iran’s success across the Middle East stems less from the resources at its disposal than from the opportunities that regional chaos, poor governance, and instability create for Tehran and its proxies. By farming out Syria diplomacy to Russia, and giving Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates a blank check to escalate their war in Yemen and implode the Gulf Cooperation Council by blockading Qatar, Trump’s approach has actually provided Iran with more, rather than fewer, opportunities to expand its influence.

“Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic has survived crippling sanctions before, and there is no evidence that either the economy or the regime is on the brink of collapse. Protests remain diffuse, popular opposition to the regime is disorganized and leaderless, and the theocracy retains potent instruments of co-optation and repression. While it is conceivable that dissatisfaction with the regime’s incompetence will rise as Iran’s economic troubles deepen, Trump has given Iranian hard-liners fresh opportunities to shift blame for those problems onto the United States.

“Paradoxically, the more the administration’s policy ‘works’ to cripple Iran’s economy, the more likely Tehran is to take actions that produce a military confrontation. During previous rounds of sanctions, Iran rapidly expanded its nuclear infrastructure to generate counter leverage. So far, Iran has been relatively constrained in its response to Trump’s re-imposition of sanctions. But if the costs get too high, this restraint could eventually erode.”


On escalation between the U.S. and Iran

Remarks at Stanford University on Jan. 16, 2020: “Had American blood been spilled [in Iranian retaliatory strikes for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani] I think you would’ve seen strikes inside Iran in retaliation.”

“Once we would’ve struck the Iranian homeland, I think there would’ve been a massive escalatory dynamic.”

“For the Iranians, they say [the strike on Soleimani] as a declaration of war and in that context their ballistic missile response was actually fairly restrained.”

Op-ed in Foreign Policy on May 7, 2019: “Thousands of U.S. troops and Iranian-backed forces operate in close proximity to one another in Iraq, Syria, and the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continue to pursue their air campaign against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen despite international outrage over the world’s worst humanitarian disaster there. And Israel regularly conducts military strikes against Iranian arms shipments and infrastructure in Syria. In this volatile context, the scenarios for an intentional or inadvertent U.S.-Iran war are legion.

“If Iran or its proxies respond to U.S. pressure in ways that draw American blood or deal a major blow to critical oil infrastructure in the region, things could quickly get out of hand. Unlike in the latter years of the Obama administration, there are currently no high-level lines of communication between Washington and Tehran to manage a crisis. And hard-liners on all sides seem keen for a fight, looking for opportunities to escalate, rather than de-escalate, tensions.”

“This all adds up to a very dangerous moment. Before matters spin out of control, it would be wise for the administration to dial back the rhetoric, open high-level channels with Tehran, and signal a willingness to reenter the nuclear deal as a starting point for new negotiations. But there is zero prospect the administration will take this course. It is doubling down on a strategy of maximum tension, and there is growing evidence it is on a path toward war—whether Trump realizes it or not.”