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Iran expert Norman Roule on escalating tensions with Tehran - "Intelligence Matters"

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In this episode of "Intelligence Matters," host Michael Morell speaks with Norman Roule, former senior CIA operations officer and the intelligence community's former senior officer responsible for Iran, about the state of nuclear talks with Tehran and the likely trajectory of continued international diplomatic efforts. Roule explains the recent nuclear advances Iran has made in apparent defiance of global restrictions and discusses its continued funding of proxy militias and aggression toward Israel. Morell and Roule discuss a variety of hypothetical scenarios involving military, covert and cyber actions taken against Tehran. 


  • On Iran's nuclear advances: "[O]ver the last 10 months, Iran has ignored a growing number of significant restrictions that were placed upon it by the nuclear deal, and it is undertaking activities at declared facilities that far exceed its civilian nuclear requirements...Iran has now acquired the knowledge and experience - and that can't be pulled out of their heads - that significantly undermines the nuclear agreement to the extent that it's difficult to see how the nuclear agreement survives."
  • On Iran's continued malign, regional activities: "Iran has shown no sign of being willing to withdraw from any of the areas it has undertaken investment in the past, and it has continued to provide weapons, political and military support, which pose a lethal, ongoing and, in some cases, daily threat to thousands, if not millions, of people who live in the region, to include Americans." 
  • On Iran's diplomatic advantage: "Iran is also faced, in my view, with an international community which is deeply fragmented, in which Russia and China are not on board with pressure against Iran. And diplomacy lacks any coercive element at present. So this is a very good time for Iran to seek additional concessions and long-term concessions from the West for a nuclear deal."

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PRODUCER: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, thanks for joining us again on Intelligence Matters. It's great to have you.

NORMAN ROULE: My pleasure.

MICHAEL MORELL: There's a lot going on with regard to Iran, so I want to jump right in. Can you walk us through, Norm, what the Iranians have done with regard to their nuclear program since the U.S. pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018? What have the Iranians been up to?

NORMAN ROULE: Sure. I'd like to begin maybe a little higher and just sort of say if we were to try to frame this question or this issue with a few fundamental questions, I think we would first ask, "Has Iran undertaken recent work beyond its civilian needs that could improve its ability to quickly produce fissile material, a nuclear warhead or improve its delivery systems for a weapon should it decide to build one?" The answer to all three questions would be yes, yes and yes.

I think we would then ask, "Well, does does Iran appear to believe that the international community is united and willing to undertake whatever is necessary, from diplomacy to military action, to constrain its nuclear ambitions?" And here the evidence, public evidence based on Iran's actions, would look clearly no.

And last, I think I would say, "Well, is there evidence that Israel believes that it may be increasingly alone and if current conditions remain unchanged, will Israel take actions, to include military operations, to neutralize Iran's nuclear program even at the risk of a regional conflict, because it believes its existence is at stake?" And again, the evidence here, I think, publicly, is yes. So I think that's the problem.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, that's a great summary. That's a fantastic summary, Norm. It's it's like you were trained as an analyst instead of an operations officer.

NORMAN ROULE: Thanks. You've got a lot of analysts listening to this who are breaking their number two pencils in frustration.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, so back to where are they on their nuclear program. So how far have they pushed?

NORMAN ROULE: So I think the first line I would say is that there is no public evidence of a covert nuclear weaponization program right now, or that Iran has made a decision to build a nuclear weapon.

However, over the past 10 months in particular, let alone since the United States left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, over the last 10 months, Iran has ignored a growing number of significant restrictions that were placed upon it by the nuclear deal, and it is undertaking activities at declared facilities that far exceed its civilian nuclear requirements. And it has also denied the International Atomic Energy Agency the access Iran promised and the world would seek. That, in essence, means we have less insight and visibility into Iran's program.
So I think there are three areas that I would mention of interest. And in all of these areas, Iran's activities right now exceed the status of their nuclear program prior to the JCPOA. 

So the first is, Iran manufactured, deployed and is operating advanced centrifuges at a scale that is unprecedented. For the first time, Iran has enriched uranium to 60 percent. Now that's about 99 percent of the enrichment work required to produce weaponization-status uranium, and some believe that 60 percent is actually sufficient for a nuclear weapon itself.

And last, Iran has undertaken the production of uranium metal, and that's important because that becomes the stuff of the warhead. So for breakout time - something that we have looked at in terms of about a year and that would allow policymakers and the international community to get their act together and come up with a plan -it's conceivable, in a worst case scenario -and there's a lot of "it depends" - that Iran could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon in a matter of weeks, perhaps less than two months. Some say even a month.
And finally, I would say what Iran has undertaken can be, in many cases, reversed. However, Iran has now acquired the knowledge and experience - and that can't be pulled out of their heads - that significantly undermines the nuclear agreement to the extent that it's difficult to see how the nuclear agreement survives.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Norm, you said something really important, and I just want to double tap it. So you would say that the Iranians are beyond where they were when the nuclear deal was agreed to in 2015.

NORMAN ROULE: Without a doubt, and this is public information.

MICHAEL MORELL: And why have the Iranians been so aggressive? Why are they doing this? What's their motivation?

NORMAN ROULE: I think Iran's motivations are to do two things. First, to raise the price of a non-agreement with the international community. And that agreement, they now insist, will include relief, permanent relief for sanctions. And many of these sanctions are in place also because of Iran's terrorism and missile program. So Iran is looking for broad term sanctions relief.

Iran is also faced, in my view, with an international community which is deeply fragmented, in which Russia and China are not on board with pressure against Iran. And diplomacy lacks any coercive element at present. So this is a very good time for Iran to seek additional concessions and long-term concessions from the West for a nuclear deal.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, so that's great. So Norm, can you now walk us through, do the same exact thing with regard to Iran's malign activities in the region? But in this case, can you walk us through the type and degree of those activities before the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015 and then between the signing of that deal and the U.S. pullout in 2018 and then since the pullout. Can you break it down that way?

NORMAN ROULE: Sure. So upfront advocates and architects of the nuclear deal have repeatedly stated that the deal was not meant to touch Iran's regional program or missile program. Those were issues that were meant to be covered in subsequent engagement. And indeed, the Iranians, repeatedly prior, during, after and today, since the nuclear deal, have refused to allow discussion of any of those issues in talks. In fact, they have said there will be no discussions on those issues.

Prior to, during and after the nuclear deal, Iran's regional activities continued relatively unabated. There are some exceptions, as the when the Trump administration pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions - which still remain in place under the Biden administration - that constrained the amount of resources available to Iran's proxies. Iran continued to provide those proxies with hundreds of millions of dollars. But in fairness to the case, it had less money to give, and that did limit Iran's proxy reach.

Iran has shown no sign of being willing to withdraw from any of the areas it has undertaken investment in the past, and it has continued to provide weapons, political and military support, which pose a lethal, ongoing and, in some cases, daily threat to thousands, if not millions, of people who live in the region, to include Americans. 

MICHAEL MORELL: So Norm, a broad question from a from a strategic perspective: why does Iran feel the need for a nuclear weapon or feel the need to get close to being able to make a nuclear weapon? And why does it undertake the regional activities it undertakes? Are those largely for deterrence? Is it because they're afraid of us? Is it because Iran is a revolutionary state and has an interest in exporting that revolution? Is it a desire for hegemony? How do you think about the 'why' question with regard to both the nuclear program and the regional activities?

NORMAN ROULE: Very complicated and very multifaceted issue, but some myths that I would pull away: Iran's regional presence does not deter U.S. military action. Militias in Yemen, Syria and Iraq do not have a capacity to deter our military from undertaking anything it does in the region. So this is not a forward defense issue. This is a transformation of the DNA of the cultures and polities of these countries in a very similar way that Iran's DNA itself was transformed by the revolutionary elite and the Revolutionary Guard.

And you will see, from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, in essence, a variation of Iran's own form of government and political goals with the militias it supports. It does this in part because it believes in the revolution. It does this in part because it believes it allows it to constrain and put levers against its regional, traditional regional adversaries, and it provides that a broader footprint in the world stage.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Norm, back to the nuclear program, and you already touched on this a little bit. During the 2020 election campaign, President Biden promised that the United States would rejoin the nuclear deal. Do you have a sense of how those negotiations have gone, where they stand? What's constraining them? How you expect all of this to go? What's your sense of all of that?

NORMAN ROULE: So when the Biden administration came to office and, just to reiterate, I have worked with multiple administrations, Democratic and Republican, on this issue. I am a rigidly nonpartisan.
But when the Biden administration came to office, its regional and international policies were perceived, likely perceived by Iran to have several critical components: America would return to the deal. America was not interested in another military conflict in the region, indeed would withdraw its military forces. America would work closely with Europe, which has never - and I choose the word carefully - supported non-economic coercive measures against Iran since the first moments of the Islamic Republic. And finally, America's relationship with Iran's neighbors, ranging from Afghanistan to the Sunni Arab states, was going to change and was going to be far less close.

So Iran arrives at the table for these negotiations, knowing that it can return to the deal immediately. But the international dynamic now gives it the potential of applying new pressures to see if new pressures will not only fend off any coercive measures against its non-nuclear activity, but also produce concessions from the West in terms of additional sanctions.

How did that work out? Well, it worked out relatively well, although the Biden administration has lifted no significant sanctions under the Trump administration. China has become a regular purchaser of Iranian oil - I think it's more of a China story than an Iran story - and those oil purchases have sustained, in a small but important way, Iran's economy.

I would close by saying, I think what has happened now is, after the six sessions that have taken place in Vienna, that, in my view - and I know the people who are working this are very smart, very capable, very hardworking- but I think the diplomatic process in general is no longer profitable by itself because Iran is now able - and you can follow this in the press - to dominate and even dictate the pace, location, timing and participants in international talks. That is extraordinary.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Norm, one more question on negotiations - and that's about negotiations between Iran and its neighbors, the Emiratis and the Saudis in particular. To what degree are those talks unprecedented? Have we seen such talks before? What's driving both sides to talk? What can we expect from them, if anything? What's your sense on that?

NORMAN ROULE: So I have worked Middle East issues so long I sometimes feel I can recall when the Dead Sea was getting under weather.

Talks between Iran and its neighbors are not a new thing. The current discussions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates actually began in the Trump administration. There is a periodic effort by all parties in the region to reach out to the Iranians, in essence, to see is there a diplomatic door that can be opened? This is in part to better understand the Iranians, to have the Iranians better understand the interlocutors on the other end, and to set up a communications channel to explain issues that get out of hand.

So how was that worked out? The communication channels exist, according to public information, there have been meetings between several countries with the Iranians, but they've produced no results. The Iranians seek diplomatic recognition, the Iranians seek sanctions-busting support, but the Iranians refuse to constrain any of their regional activities and indeed, approach these talks - they aren't negotiations they're talks - with an attitude of, "Look, this is how the world now exists; get used to it. And by the way, let's get the West out of the Gulf so that we can dictate the region's future."

MICHAEL MORELL: And no reason to expect that these talks will end up anywhere that previous talks haven't, right, which is really nothing. 

NORMAN ROULE: Well, previous talks did produce some progress on how issues from the Hajj were handled, how some trade was handled. I think it's reasonable to note at the very least that Iran has not attacked the United Arab Emirates as aggressively as it allows the Saudis to be attacked by the Houthis with Iranian weapons, of which we've acquired tons from the wreckage.

And in fairness, at the same time, I think the diplomacy is perceived by all sides - and I've spoken with a number of senior regional leaders in recent months - as natural, important and good. Will this result in restoration of diplomatic relations? Maybe. Will that significantly change the regional dynamic? Certainly not.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Norm, let's talk about Israel. You've already mentioned it. The Israelis, with absolute certainty, are watching Iran's nuclear activities very closely. A couple of questions about that. First, how do you think Israel thinks about an Iran with nuclear weapons? Do they really see it as the existential threat that former Prime Minister Netanyahu talked about? What's your sense?

NORMAN ROULE: Absolutely, there's no question about this, and that perception is based off of a lot of evidence from Iranian missiles that say, "Death to Israel," from statements by past Iranian leaders that it will only take one nuclear weapon to eradicate a Jewish state, whereas Iran, Persia, would exist after several nuclear attacks. The Iranians have repeatedly attacked Israel with cyber, drone and other tools.

Thus far, Israel has responded with - if one believes public reports and I just note, I'm reading it from the newspaper - with a series of very tailored, surgical actions, which are meant to delay Iran's nuclear program. And that sends two messages: the first message is, "You can't do this without us finding out and stopping it." And the second message is, "You probably want to look at diplomacy for a diplomatic solution, so we don't take this further."

MICHAEL MORELL: So I've heard some people say that - and I don't know if this is this is accurate or not, I've just kind of read it in the media - that the Biden administration has counseled the Israelis to go slow on those programs, those covert programs designed to undermine the Iranian nuclear program because they get in the way of the diplomatic talks. If that's true, what's your sense of that? Do they get in the way of talks or do they actually help?

NORMAN ROULE: So the answer to that question depends entirely on how you perceive Iran. And you have to sort of start at the end - because I've been in those talks repeatedly over the years. So one perception is, "If we engage in talks with Iran and there is such an activity that has been reported in the press, the Iranians won't trust us." The counter to that is, "They never will trust us." There's no evidence - in fact, all the evidence says that, ideologically, they can't trust us and sustain the ideological foundations of Iran's revolution.

The other side of the argument is, "Look, if you do this, it just provokes defiance from the Iranians and they have to accelerate their program." And indeed, in December 2020, one of the foundations for Iran's parliament's decision to order an expansion of the program was this activity. In some cases, all these issues are correct.

But if you're in Israel and your job is to defend the Israeli people and the hundreds of thousands of foreigners, to include Americans, there, you have to also look at the talks and see where Iran is going. Iran is undertaking activities that the US, the EU and the IAEA have said in recent months look like a country preparing to build a nuclear weapon. That's that. The other side of this is, how much time do you give to talks before your adversary of this ideological stridency has a capacity to destroy everyone in your country?

MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, would you say that it is Iranian state policy for the state of Israel to go away?

NORMAN ROULE: Yes. There's not a question about that. And the only question is the way in which Israel is eradicated. They're more strident politicians. Their military generals will publicly say, "This is done through violence." Their non-military personnel will instead capture this issue as, "Within a certain period of time, Israel will not exist."

There are no Iranian leaders, particularly in this government, who have ever considered, based upon my understanding, the existence of Israel as something they would accept.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Norm, we were worried back in 2011, 2012 about Israel taking matters into their own hands and conducting a military strike against the Iranian nuclear program. How concerned are you today about that? Particularly relative to where we were then?

NORMAN ROULE: I'm very concerned, in large part because Iran is undertaking activities today which, ten years ago, observers would have said would justify a military strike. For example, Iran is now enriching up to 60 percent its uranium. That is, as I said, 99 percent of the enrichment work needed to go to the level for a nuclear weapon. Iran has no need whatsoever for this capacity.

You have Iran using multiple advanced centrifuges in ways that are meant to produce highly enriched uranium more quickly than in the past. And just as a footnote on that last point, when you use a more advanced centrifuge, what that means is it not only produces the highly enriched uranium more quickly, but it requires a smaller footprint. And this means that Iran can distribute this capacity to a place that might be difficult to attack, difficult to discover and would allow Iran to quickly develop the fissile material for a weapon.

So there are multiple indicators or actions that Iran has taken that would compel a reasonable observer to say Israel must continue its very close focus on this. And if I can close one comment, Israel has publicly stated that not only will they do so, but they are increasing the funding for their military and and creating a new Iran department in Israel Defense Forces because of this sense that the international community does not take Iran's activities as seriously as Israel wishes and Iran is expanding these malign activities.

MICHAEL MORELL: And Norm, from the perspective of the Israelis perhaps taking action, how should we think about the difference between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Bennett?

NORMAN ROULE: There's certainly a rhetorical difference, but if you were in the meeting in the Curia, the Israeli Defense Forces headquarters, and you're looking at the issue with the empirical manner that Israeli analysts and defense forces examine the problem set, they're not going to differ significantly. This is simply a question of, will the international community contain a nuclear weapon? What do we need to do to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon? What will we do to neutralize that weapon?

MICHAEL MORELL: So Norm, let's play out a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. So the United States does not initially join in the attack. So walk us through the likely course of events if Israeli Prime Minister Bennett called President Biden and said, "We're going. The planes are in the air. We're not asking for any support right now, but we may ask for support depending on how this evolves."

What do you think happens? What are the Iranians do? What do we do? What does this look like?

NORMAN ROULE: Well, I think first, that call would include, "We've been talking to you about this for months," and sharing evidence of where Iran's program is going based on their intelligence collection. They would have conducted those conversations with European partners as well so that people had an opportunity.

So the call would include a, "As you know, as we have stated, but no one has taken action and therefore we must do X because of intelligence that Iran is acquiring a weapon," - at that point, the Israeli actions would most likely be very focused, for two reasons.

First, Israel is not looking for a war with Iran that puts country to country. They're looking to neutralize a nuclear weapons program.

And secondly, Israel's military capacity is finite. Iran is a large country. I would think that there would be cyber aspects to this. I would think that there would be perhaps some covert action aspects to this. This wouldn't just be three aircraft shooting across the sky, dropping weaponry against Natanz or the Fordow facility.
I think there would be some flavors to this which are meant to send a message to Iran that, "You cannot reconstitute this easily without us coming back." And that would go beyond just collapsing a bunker.
And the last thing I would say is when we think of the weaponry that is involved in all of these attacks - we tend to be very 1950s, big bombs, nuclear weapons, maybe a little bit of cyber thrown in - the world of military technology on all sides is advancing. And I think you might see the deployment of some unusual weaponry by both sides.

For the United States and our partners, we would seek to avoid an escalation of the conflict. There would be an urgent move by the international community to contain this violence and pull these actors apart and to protect the various interests in the region. I would see that happening almost immediately. I expect Iran would respond with missile strikes and some proxy attacks, and that would be a significant test of Israel's air defense systems.

MICHAEL MORELL: And how concerned are you about an escalation? Do you think that we could keep this between Israel and Iran, focused just on the nuclear facilities? Or do you think there's a significant risk that we get dragged into this and this escalates? How easy to mitigate the escalation here?

NORMAN ROULE; Nothing is easy, but it is not in Iran's interest to bring the U.S. into a military action. There's a lot of rhetoric on how a war would take place with Iran - and without minimizing in any way the consequences of a conflict, it is just empirical, understanding our capabilities, that our military response would be extraordinary, would be deep and vast, and Iran could not compete with that. And the survival of the regime would be in serious question.

I'm not saying there wouldn't be secondary consequences and violence and bloodshed. I'm just saying that they can't compete against a B-52H, the missiles, the power of an aircraft task force, as they may claim in their rhetoric.

I think Iran and the international community, because of the not only energy supplies that go through the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb, but the terrific exposure the global economy faces to the trade routes in those areas being interrupted - look at what happened when one ship was stuck in the Suez. Imagine if all shipping in the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea is suddenly put on hold. Imagine what that does to supply chains around the world.

I think for this reason a lot of actors will be coming in, the Chinese and Russians included, to say, "We have to stop this." And that would then lead to some sort of diplomatic process which may or may not succeed, and Israel may feel the need to come back, to return. 

MICHAEL MORELL: So Norm, assume this stays between the Israelis and the Iranians. The targets are just the nuclear facilities. They are fully destroyed. How does that play in Iran politically and in terms of their pursuit of nuclear weapons? How does this play in Iran?

NORMAN ROULE: Well, I think two things will happen. First, and we saw some of this with the response to the killing of Qassem Suleimani, Iran will have to show that it gave as good as it got, and they will make much propaganda of whatever actions they do undertake.

I think there will be terrorist actions against Israeli equities around the world and cyber actions against Israeli equities for some period of time after that, which Iran would continue to point to, in a way, keeping in mind that those actions are meant to be attributable but deniable.

I think Iran at the same time would then say, "How do we reconstitute the prospect of a nuclear weapon?" - because just the prospect of a nuclear weapon constrains international behavior. Look at the the the issue of Iran policy. If I were to ask you to describe the international community's policy on Iran without JCPOA, I don't think you can come up with many nouns.

So Iran, I think, would continue to move in that direction while it thought about, "How would we reconstitute a program that would be protected from a future Israeli attack and Israeli intelligence?" And that would not be an easy task.

MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, Dennis Ross, who you know well, who is one of the great experts on the Middle East, just had an op-ed in which he argued with considerable emotion that the United States needed to put the military option on the table; the United States itself needed to put a military option on the table in order to get the Iranians to move in the negotiations. Do you share that view?

NORMAN ROULE: I would capture it differently. First, Secretary Blinken himself has stated that if there is not diplomatic progress, the United States will be forced to consider other options - that inherently means military work. I think the issue is less to have military options present and instead to have an international unity and a sense that our military intent is genuine if Iran does not take diplomacy seriously.

And in fact, I would go one step further and say diplomacy, without a coercive tool, is just a series of meetings while you are talked into concession. If you believe that diplomacy will end Iran's nuclear program, then you should ask why diplomacy hasn't ended Iran's support for Lebanese Hezbollah. But if Iran believes it will face new and crushing economic and military measures, that threat is there.

One footnote. There are not many economic sanctions options left on the table. The Trump sanctions regime, in large part, remains intact, and it's not as if there's a box under someone's bed that says, "Things we could have done on sanctions but never got around to doing." So the number of options beyond this are few.

And here - and I'll close with this - here is a danger we need to consider. If Iran does not believe there is an intent beyond diplomacy, then we could engage in a series of minor tit-for-tat actions, maybe covert action, diplomacy, as Iran escalates its program in defiance. And soon you become very close to Iran possessing, for all intents and purposes, an actual nuclear weapons program, and there's no room left for anything but a military strike.
So we really need to get the diplomatic dynamic to a point where Iran is not dictating when they meet, with whom they meet, how they meet, what they will meet and end the foolishness that Iran thinks we would provide billions of dollars just to get them to come to the table.

MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, one more question. The CIA just made some organizational changes, and one of those was folding the Iran Mission Center, which Mike Pompeo created when he was director, back into the broader Middle East Mission Center. Good idea, bad idea, doesn't really matter - What do you think?

NORMAN ROULE: Well, one correction. The Iran Mission Center - maybe just a nuance - as a division was created under General Hayden, then folded back in.

It has now folded back in. I think your question really comes down to this: Will we retain a capacity to have a focused, trained and highly developed cadre of Iran specialists? Or will that be spread out into different issues? Because the China center that has been created is meant to build China focus and specialists; we need that on Iran because Iran remains, as its missiles come from Yemen, a lethal challenge, a strategic challenge due to the waterways and an urgent challenge because of the prospect of Israeli action and elsewhere.

So the question I think the CIA should be measured upon is, "Does this produce good intelligence on Iran and Iran's actions in the region" - and there's a 'Yes or no' here, and you can measure that against what we produced last year, the year before, et cetera. But we should measure that. We should test that ,because you don't want to be put in a position where the answer is, "No, we didn't ask," and three years from now or two years from now, we need that information, and suddenly, policymakers are left shorthanded because we're not able to assist that.
But I think Bill is very wise, I know him very well, and I know he takes these things very seriously.

MICHAEL MORELL: Norm, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a fascinating conversation. Thank you.

NORMAN ROULE: My pleasure.

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