On 29 January, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security hosted a conversation between General (ret) Hayden and the former National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I), Norman Roule. Topics included Iran’s history and its relationship with the US, the state of its current social movements, the development and future status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and Iran’s role in the Middle East. Following the conversation, the panelists took questions from the audience.
The panelists began the conversation highlighting Iran’s rich culture and extensive history, which the US has been an integral part of since the beginning of the twentieth century. While the US served as Iran’s protectorate until the 1953 overthrow of Mosaddegh, the Sunni extremist siege of Mecca and the Iran-Iraq War empowered a violent Iranian regime to establish a fierce praetorian guard and export violence abroad.
The conversation then turned toward the state of demonstrations within Iran over the last decade. Mr. Roule surmised that there is no difference in the current unrest as the common thread continues to be unhappiness with the standard of living and aging, irrelevant leaders. While the recent protests have been violent and deadly with calls for death to President Rouhani, no one is calling for a path to the Green Movement.
General Hayden then asked Mr. Roule to provide his insights on the relationship of the US and Iran regarding nuclear stability considering Iran’s capturing of American detainees and continued disruptive activities in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Mr. Roule stated that JCPOA’s successes are in the delay of the Iranian nuclear program through their dismantling of the IR-40 nuclear reactor and the disruption to its ability to produce sufficient fissile material for at least one year. He attributed this to “hard headed diplomacy and science,” especially in the influence that Secretary of Energy Moniz had on Ali Akbar Salehi, Director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), to manage Iran’s nuclear program in a peaceful way. While the intelligence community can provide treaty verification by counting centrifuges, it becomes difficult when it is conflated with other issues in the region.
One such example, offered by Mr. Roule, is President Trump’s recent decision to waive nuclear-related sanctions again while pressuring European allies to negotiate a better deal with Iran. This demonstrates how opponents of JCPOA view the regional and international peace and security as part and parcel of the treaty. Mr. Roule emphatically stated that this is not the intent of the preface and it is crucial to “take nukes off the table” so that Iran can be open to the West for investment. General Hayden added that multiple Iranian axes of misbehavior, such as capture of detainees, support to Houthi rebels, actions in Syria and supply of missiles to Hezbollah, place additional pressure to ensure JCPOA produces cooperation.
The panelists concluded that the January demonstrations highlight the need for the intelligence community to invest in social media exploitation as it serves as a “strobe light in the party.” While there were considerably less participants in the current demonstrations when compared with the 2009 protests, this generation was born after the Iranian Revolution and in the last days of the Iran-Iraq War. Their calls for “bringing back the Shah” are responses to observing a better living standard in the neighboring countries of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain. This combined with a ISIS activity on its borders, environmental problems, and a large narcotics crisis will push Iranians to the polls.