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Transcript: Barbara Slavin talks Iran with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Barbara Slavin, former journalist and Director of the "Future of Iran Initiative" at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Morell and Slavin assess the U.S. foreign policy posture toward Iran and the effect of diplomatic efforts made to date. Slavin offers insight into Tehran's calculus as the 2020 presidential elections approach, as well as its rapprochement with Russia and China. She also outlines Tehran's likely regional and global objectives in the near term.

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Highlights

  • On Iran's likely next steps: "I think they will keep the pressure on, certainly through nuclear steps. They have already started enriching uranium again at Fordow, which is an underground facility, very difficult to attack. I would expect more centrifuges to be installed. Perhaps the level of enriched uranium to creep closer and closer to weapons-grade. They may begin to play some games with the inspectors."
  • If a Democrat wins in 2020: "I think they're expecting that the U.S. would return to compliance, to the JCPOA. I think they also understand that any U.S. president would probably want new negotiations, because a lot of the limits in the deal expire in short order, 2024, 2025, 2030."
  • On Aramco attacks: "…I think what they're trying to show… [is] If the U.S. is going to declare economic war on Iran, then U.S. allies in the region will bear the brunt. Iran is smart enough to know that they can't kill Americans and get away with it, but they tested Donald Trump. They saw that he did not even retaliate for the shoot-down of the drone. They've decided that he is a Twitter tiger and that they can escalate without risking military action against Iran."
  • On Russia-Iran relations: "Strategically, their interests have coincided. And together, they saved the Assad regime in Syria. And Iran is using Russia more and more for its banking channels. The Russians are also under sanction. I think we're in danger of creating a coalition of the sanctioned, frankly. There are dealings that involve repression. The old KGB and now the FSB have passed onto Iran a lot of its techniques for repressing dissent very brutally. So they are getting closer at that level."

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - BARBARA SLAVIN

CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON

MICHAEL MORELL:

Barbara, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show, and it's great to see you.

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Thank you. Pleasure.

MICHAEL MORELL:

There's so much domestic news that's dominating the headlines that I think some very important foreign policy issues are being squeezed out. So given that, over the last several weeks, we've done episodes on China and North Korea, just to try to keep up with what's happening on key national security issues, which don't go away, as you know, simply because we're all focused on impeachment. So we've done China and North Korea, and we thought we needed to do the sa

me on Iran, so thank you for coming on the show to help us do that.

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Okay.

MICHAEL MORELL:

But before we talk about Iran itself, I'd love to hear how you got interested in the Middle East and how you got interested in Iran in particular.

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Okay. Well, I was a journalist, starting in the 1970s, and I think one of my early stories as a young reporter for UPI, I got sent to the United Nations on a Sunday to ask Henry Kissinger about the disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria. So that's probably the first time I actually wrote about anything to do with the Middle East. But I subsequently went to work for the New York Times. I worked on the Weekend Review section, it was then called.

MICHAEL MORELL:

I loved that section, by the way.

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Yeah, we used to do summaries of world news. There was a whole column called "The World." And I was half of "The World" for six years, and for some reason, my partner, I don't know, he was more interested in Europe, so I got all the Middle East summaries to write, including when Sadat went to Jerusalem.

When the Iranian Revolution started in 1978, I was the one who was doing a summary, almost every week. And then the hostage crisis, as well. So I think that was my first introduction to Iran. Subsequently, my husband and I moved to Cairo, where I was the correspondent for the Economist, based in Cairo but traveling to Libya, Iraq, pretty much every place but Iran. So the four years in Cairo was my real education the Middle East -- yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. So your program at the Atlantic

Council is called "The Future of Iran Initiative." What is that, and what are you trying to do?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Well, we sort of changed the name. We had a bipartisan taskforce on Iran at the Atlantic Council that I managed, that worked very, very heavily on the nuclear issue. So put out policy recommendations in 2013, some of which were adopted by the Obama administration, not all of them.

And then during the negotiations that led to the JCPOA, worked very hard on that. In January of 2016, we very optimistically thought that we were going to, you know, turn a page with Iran, with the implementation of the nuclear deal, and that there would be more things that we could do, in terms of people-to-people engagement, explaining Iran to an American audience.

Of course, as we all know, Trump got elected nine months later and while we still work to  

the extent possible on people-to-people engagement, trying to explain Iranian history and culture to an American audience, a lot of what we've been doing, frankly, is trying to preserve the bones of this agreement, in hopes that we can return to compliance on all sides.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So you supported the agreement?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Yes, I did. You know, with open eyes. There were a lot of imperfections. Clearly it didn't do everything that a lot of people hoped it would do, but I thought it was a great foundation for more U.S./Iran diplomacy. And for me, as somebody who's followed Iran since the revolution, one of the most encouraging aspects of it was that it brought about this direct, high-level conversation between Americans and Iranians. I thought that was very important.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Barbara, let's dig into Iran. Maybe the place to start is with a couple of big-picture questions. The first one is your views on the overall dynamic in the relationship between Iran and the United States. And I should say that you wrote a book in 2007. It was 2007, I believe?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

Called Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies; Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. What was the theme of that book? And would you change anything about the theme if you wrote it today?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Hmm. You know, it was about this love/hate relationship between the United States and Iran that has gone on for a long time, I mean maybe even before the revolution, to some extent. I think you always have a difficult relationship when you have a regi

onal power and you have a superpower.

So I don't think it was ever easy, even under the Shah, but clearly since the revolution, we've had no diplomatic relations, we had the hostage crisis, we have killed each other's personnel in the Persian Gulf, during the 1980s. Iran has supported groups like Hezbollah, that have killed Americans in Beirut and in Iraq.

And the United States has waged an economic war against Iran, almost since the beginning. It's much worse now, frankly, than it has ever been in many ways, and I think the title of the book would still hold. What's really depressing though is that we are in some ways in a worse place now than we were when I wrote it, because we've had the experiment of diplomacy with Iran, leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal. And then we've had a president come in and trash it for, in my view, no good reason.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Barbara, how do you think they think of us? Both in kind of a macro picture, stepping back over, you know, several decades, and then how do you think they think about us right now?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

You know, I think Iranians have always had an admiration for the United States, because of the freedoms with enjoy, because of our economic success, because of our openness until relatively recently to immigrants from all over the world, including Iran. We have perhaps a million Iranian Americans, people who've come before the revolution and since.

But unfortunately, the positions taken by the Trump administration have begun to change that. While people still admire the United States and on an individual basis like Americans, are very welcoming to Americans, they've been very, very upset by U.S. policy.

I mean, it began with the travel ban. Trump had barely been in office a week when he decided to make it almost impossible for people from Muslim countries to come to the United States, and that felt disproportionately on Iran, which I think had something like 30,000 visitors to the United States before Trump. People coming to see their families, coming to weddings, coming to meet new grandchildren--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Coming to study?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

--coming to study; 12,000 Iranians studied in this country. I'm sure the number is much lower now. So that was the beginning of it. And then of course there was this constant undermining of the Iran nuclear deal, which culminated in the U.S. withdrawal in 2018, and then in this year, the decision to try to prevent Iran from exporting any oil.

So I think people have soured certainly on

Trump, but perhaps to some extent on the United States. We're not considered reliable anymore. If one administration can break the promises of a previous one, then why should anyone trust anything the United States agrees to?

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Barbara, the second kind of big question is in your view, what does Iran want in the region and beyond?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

You know, it's a hard question to answer, because obviously different Iranians want different things. I would say the majority of the population wants to be respected, wants to be able to travel and trade freely with neighbors, does not want to be seen as any kind of pariah state or a meddler in regional affairs.

But there are others who see a kind of forward defense is necessary for Iran, to protect it from its enemies. And that means

a lot of influence in neighboring countries and countries that have large Shia populations, so Lebanon and Iraq, Syria obviously, and to a much lesser extent, Yemen, Afghanistan, Central Asia. Now we should remember that this hegemonic impulse predates the Islamic Revolution. Iran was Persia. It was an empire for centuries.

MICHAEL MORELL:

The Shah wanted to do this?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Well, the Shah of course did. I mean, actually the support for downtrodden Shia Muslims in Lebanon began very heavily under the Shah. But if you look at the languages that are spoken and the religions in places like Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and so on, the influence of the old Persian Empire is still there.

So those, for example the Saudis and others who say that Iran should, you know, stay out of Arab affairs, well, Iran was an empire.

Iran has never been divorced from its neighbors. And of course the Arabs invaded Iran and brought it Islam in the 7th century, so these are countries that have been interconnected by religion, by trade, by personal relationships, going back centuries.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And you mentioned some of the things that they do in pursuit of this objective, right? Support to terrorism, support to insurgents?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Well, again, we call them "terrorists." They don't call them "terrorists."

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, right. Right, exactly.

BARBARA SLAVIN:

You know, this is our definition we're putting on it, just like, you know, we call it "malign behavior," and they call it their foreign policy. So I mean, you know as a former CIA person that the essential thing

is to be able to see the world through the eyes of your adversaries--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, exactly.

BARBARA SLAVIN:

--if you're going to be able to influence them.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So how do you think Tehran looks at the protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

I think they're looking at it with great trepidation. And of course, they have their own protest movement, as well. You know, by and large, people do not like Iran, the influence that Iran has in those countries. Hezbollah, of course this goes back almost 40 years, and Hezbollah, while it has defended Lebanon, has also brought upon Lebanon the wrath of the Israelis and others.

So very ambivalent feelings, I think, in

Lebanon about Iran. Same thing we've seen in Iraq; these protests are being led by young people who don't remember very clearly the U.S. invasion of their country, but they're very aware of the fact that Iran is very close to a number of paramilitary groups that many of them really act with impunity. They're essentially mafia-type organizations that extort money from people. So this is resented, as well.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And then you've already raised it, but the third big question are the protests that we see inside Iran, itself--

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

--right?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And these aren't the first ones--

BARBARA SLAVIN:

No.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--right? This happens occasionally. How should we think about those? How should the listeners think about those protests?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

They're very serious. They're so serious that the Iranian government shut down the internet for five days, in an effort to prevent the videos of the crackdown from coming outside the country and stirring up opinion, in an effort to prevent Iranians from talking to each other and organizing more protests.

The government has been tolerated by Iranians but has never been really popular. I think, you know, what is it about, you know, "All revolutions die as soon as they succeed"? A lot of people had buyer's remorse from day one when they saw that they were getting an Islamic theocracy that was

extremely repressive in place of the Shah's repressive regime.

So I would say the government has never been very popular. But what's different now, I think, is a lot of people have given up hope, partly because of the U.S. sanctions, which have been so crippling, and partly because of the repressive forces in their own government, which they see as being strengthened by U.S. sanctions. It's so unfortunate, because really, in 2015, you know, there was this welling up of optimism that somehow life would be better. You know, there were lots of Europeans, Americans coming to Iran, people talking about business deals.

Boeing was going to sell them new airliners. Well, maybe it's maybe a missed blessing that they didn't get those. I don't know. Of course, they weren't the 737 MAX. They were other planes, I think. But you know, there was a feeling that finally, after 40 years,

they were going to head into a good patch.

And now all of that is gone. And yes, they blame the United States, but they probably blame their own government more, because you know, Iran has continued to carry out other policies which are clearly objectionable to the Trump administration and many others, and so has brought down the wrath of the United States on them in the form of these sanctions.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So is there a risk to the regime here in these protests, or not?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

You know, I don't think there is at this moment, because the regime was very well prepared for these. We saw that with the internet disruptions. We saw that with a move to very, very heavy crackdown, immediately. There were other protests, economic protests in late 2017, early 2018. About a half a dozen people died in those.

In these, there have been a number of arrests, probably thousands of arrests. So I think this was more serious. Now we have to understand that the catalyst for it was a huge increase in the price of gasoline, which was a tremendous shock to people who are already suffering from 40% inflation and high unemployment and this hopelessness, as I mentioned. A lot of people felt they had nothing left to lose, and so they went out on the streets and they burned banks and gas stations and they were very violent, which in turn caused the government to be very violent in its response.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Barbara, the Iranians have responded to the Trump administration's policy that you outlined earlier with attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, a shoot-down of a U.S. military drone, and an attack on Saudi Arabia's most important oil facility, Abqaiq. What do you think the Iranians hope

to gain from those kind of attacks?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Well, I think the Iranians showed what they called "strategic patience" for a year after the U.S. withdrew. And it was only when Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, said that Iran could not export one drop of its oil that we saw them shift from patience to "resistance," they would call it.

They say that if they can't export oil, then others should not be able to, as well. And I think what they're trying to show, and I wrote a piece about this, that we can't have our baklava and eat it, too. If the U.S. is going to declare economic war on Iran, then U.S. allies in the region will bear the brunt.

Iran is smart enough to know that they can't kill Americans and get away with it, but they tested Donald Trump. They saw that he did not even retaliate for the shoot-down of the drone. They've decided that he is a

Twitter tiger and that they can escalate without risking military action against Iran. And that's exactly what they've done. Their goal is to force the United States to the negotiating table, to offer sanctions relief in return for new negotiations and to scare the Europeans into providing compensation to Iran for the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, when Iran was in full compliance with it.

It's risky, but Iran, you know, has iron nerves when it comes to this sort of thing, and the fact that the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA has strengthened the more hardline elements in the country, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, entities that are prepared to take these kinds of calculated risks. And we've also seen them escalate on the nuclear front. There has been a gradual breach of limits set in the nuclear deal, in response to the U.S. withdrawal.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So would you expect, Barbara, that they would continue these kind of attacks?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

I think it's entirely likely. You know, we had a flurry of diplomatic overtures around the time of the UN General Assembly. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, came up with an idea for a $50 billion credit to Iran, essentially a credit for future oil deliveries after sanctions are lifted, in return for new talks on aspects of the nuclear agreement that, frankly, are lacking.

And President Trump seemed interested in this, but he would not announce any kind of sanctions easing prior to a meeting with Iran. And the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has made it clear that he's not Kim Jong Un. He doesn't give away photo ops for free.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. And it would be costly to him

politically--

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Yeah. He would gain nothing. I mean, he didn't even meet with President Obama when they reached a landmark agreement, so why would he meet with Donald Trump, who has done so much damage to the Iranian economy?

MICHAEL MORELL:

And how concerned are you? I mean, maybe you're not, given that we're not willing to engage militarily in response? How worried are you that these kind of resistance attacks could escalate into a larger military conflict?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

I'm very worried, because you know, I think from an Iranian domestic political point of view, a confrontation with the United States, I mean, it's risky but it might solidify public opinion around the government, if the United States was seen as being in the wrong.

And Iran is being careful, but you know, accidents happen. And if an American had been at Abqaiq, at that Saudi oil facility, and had been killed, or an American on one of those tankers, that would've made it difficult, more difficult I think for President Trump not to respond in some sort of way.

I mean, so far, I think the reaction from the U.S., there's been some cyber meddling. Probably the U.S. was somehow involved in trying to encourage the protests in Iran. I'm sure that our intelligence agencies were involved in trying to fan the flames, which was probably one of the reasons why the government shut down the internet.

But you know, it's at this gray-zone level. And my hope is that somehow it stays there, at least until our elections, because I think the Iranians, like people around the world, are waiting to see who will be the next president of the United States.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So what do you think Iran's strategy will be between now and November of 2020?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

I think they will keep the pressure on, certainly through nuclear steps. They have already started enriching uranium again at Fordow, which is an underground facility, very difficult to attack. I would expect more centrifuges to be installed.

Perhaps the level of enriched uranium to creep closer and closer to weapons-grade. They may begin to play some games with the inspectors. The International Atomic Energy Agency right now has 24/7, you know, 365-day-a-year access to Iran's declared nuclear facilities. Perhaps that access will be impeded in some way. They will make sure that they stay on the agenda, as hard as that is, given everything else that's going on in the world and of course everything that's going on in the U.S. domestically.

MICHAEL MORELL:

If President Trump wins reelection, do you think they'll be forced to come to the negotiating table, given how damaging the economic sanctions have been?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

I think there's some in Iran who would like to do a deal now, because they sense that Trump is weak and that he's looking for some sort of big win, in terms of foreign policy. So you know, if the sanctions continue, of course the issue with sanctions is that the longer you try to maintain maximum pressure, the more they start to fall apart. And this is particularly the case with sanctions that are unilateral in nature, that are being shoved down the throat of Iran's trading partners, so I would expect that they will erode further, and that more and more countries will find mechanisms to circumvent them by trading in local currencies, avoiding the dollar, avoiding the U.S. fin

ancial system.

And we're already seeing this with Russia, to some extent, China, and even the Europeans have developed a mechanism. It's not very robust yet, but if Trump is reelected and tries to keep the same policy toward Iran, I would expect to see more trade with Iran from all sorts of quarters.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And what about a Democrat, if a Democrat wins? What do you think Iranians would do?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Well, I think they're expecting that the U.S. would return to compliance, to the JCPOA. I think they also understand that any U.S. president would probably want new negotiations, because a lot of the limits in the deal expire in short order, 2024, 2025, 2030.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Barbara, let me ask you kind of a set of seemingly random questions. We talked

earlier about the street-level protests in Iran and what those mean. What about elite politics in Iran? How would you describe it? Is there a struggle among the elites for the future of the country? How do you think about that?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

You know, Iran has always been very fractious. It's not a totalitarian state. It has politics within set guidelines. So it has always had more conservative and more liberal elements within the elite, the so-called "insiders" of the regime, who are maybe a couple of thousand people, basically we're talking about, who, you know, made the revolution and fought the war against Iraq in the 1980s and now are in positions of authority in a number of institutions around the country.

President Rouhani and those around him I think saw the nuclear deal as a way to sort of push for a more liberal Iran, one that

was more engaged with the West. Now I'm afraid we're seeing those who think that Iran's future lies more with China and Russia coming to the fore. And these are people who, you know, want to keep a very tight ship domestically, don't want to see more liberalization, although I should say that Iranian society has changed beyond all recognition since the revolution, and it's one of the more secular places in the Middle East, if you would believe it.

But they want to keep a lid on it, if they can. And they want to do their deals with Russia, China, and such countries. I think what's happened because of the U.S. withdrawal, because of the protests that we've seen, is that actually there's been a coalescing of the elite behind a rather tough policy.

This policy of resistance has been confirmed, has been supported by almost the entire political spectrum in Iran. They feel  

that it is the appropriate response to U.S. actions. And Iran is going to have elections, parliamentary in 2020 and presidential in 2021, and while unpredictable, I mean, there could be somebody who could come to the fore who could catch the imagination of Iranians, probably it will be somebody from the more conservative, more hardline camp that will win presidential and will also dominate in terms of the parliamentary elections. So I think we're in for a tough period. One thing that could affect that, of course, is our elections. If we elect somebody who wants to engage with Iran, you know, that could have an impact on who becomes Iran's president in 2021.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Barbara, is it fair to say from an Iranian domestic political position-- I'm kind of putting together here different pieces of what you said. Is it fair to say

that the nuclear deal gave some weight to the moderates? I don't know what you want to call them, moderates?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Pragmatists.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Folks in the--

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Pragmatists. I call them "pragmatists."

MICHAEL MORELL:

Pragmatists?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

Who wanted a more liberal Iran, who wanted an Iran that had better relations with its neighbors, and that the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement snapped that back and even in a more hard way, back to the hard-liners? Is that fair?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Partly. I would say that the people who have  

been set back are people who wanted to put their faith in the West. Actually one function of the U.S. withdrawal is that Iran has been forced to rely on its immediate neighbors to survive, so Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia.

You know, Iranians would prefer to trade with Europe. They'd prefer to trade with the United States. So you know, these are fallback positions. This is plan B. But yeah, no, definitely. As I say, I mean, there's nothing worse than dashed expectations, and during all the time I've been writing about Iran, covering Iran, it was always so controversial, the idea of dealing with the United States, with the "Great Satan," as the hard-liners call the U.S.

And then they finally did it, and they got this agreement, and now it's being destroyed. So those who said, "Don't trust the West. You can never trust the West,

particularly the United States," you know, they're being vindicated, and that's a terrible message I think to give a country like this. Remember, 80 million people in the center of southwest Asia/Middle East, with oil, with natural gas, and even more importantly, with a very well educated population that was predisposed to like the West; that's, after all, where most of the Iranian diaspora is. So this is a big set-back, and it's going to take us a long time to recover.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So let me say something and get your reaction to it. So I'm struck, at least it seems to me that the hard-liners are generationally challenged? That you have the original Iranian Revolution generation of hard-liners, you have the Iran/Iraq War generation of hard-liners, and there's not much after that? And so first question, is that your sense, number one? And then number  

two, to what extent are we risking creating another generation of hard-liners?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

You know, I think that's an excellent question. Young people, you know, do still look to the West. I mean, this is a society that has something like 85% internet penetration, almost 70% on social media, particularly Instagram, which is hugely popular. You know, very focused on Western fashion, Western ideas.

So I think there is still hope with this generation. But if the United States and Iran were to go to war, if this economic siege were to continue, you know, that could have an effect. And there are young hard-liners, too, you know, who use very savvy techniques. They have their own movies.

There's a woman named Narges Bajoghli at Johns Hopkins who's written an excellent book about this young generation and their media products. So I mean, the State

supports ten million people; these are young activists on college campuses everywhere you look, the Revolutionary Guards, all the institutions associated with the Supreme Leader of the country and religious institutions. And no, they're not a majority, but they're not insignificant. So yeah, I think there is a danger, and that's why the next president has to end the travel ban, first and foremost, get back into the deal, the nuclear deal, resume negotiations with Iran, expand our contacts, not constrict them, because otherwise, I mean, we'll have a Cuba or a North Korea situation, which won't be in our interest.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Well, let's assume a Democrat wins and the president has to sit down with you and you gave him those points, and what if the president asked you, "How should we handle their activities in the region? What should our policy be towards those activities?"

BARBARA SLAVIN:

You know, we sanction everything now. That's the all-purpose answer. No, I think the United States has to engage with other countries in the region. These are Arab states, and you know, particularly Iraq, Iraqis would rather have better relations with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, other countries where people speak Arabic, even if many are Shia Muslim.

We should encourage the Arab countries to get more involved and be more supportive of these countries and compete with Iran to the extent we can. You know, invest to the extent we can. Engage to the extent we can. But we're not going to beat them at their own game. They've been doing this for centuries. And sanctions alone and propaganda of the ham-handed sort that we're seeing come out of the State Department, that's not going to do the trick.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Barbara, let's finish up by having me ask you about Iran's relationships with three countries. We've mentioned two of them already. So the first is Russia. How would you describe their relationship with Russia?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Well, you know, Russia took away from the Persian empire, large chunks in the 18th, 19th centuries. Actually invaded Iran after World War Two and took a chunk of Iran at that time. The United States helped Iran get it back. So it is not a relationship of great love.

But strategically, their interests have coincided. And together, they saved the Assad regime in Syria. And Iran is using Russia more and more for its banking channels. The Russians are also under sanction. I think we're in danger of creating a coalition of the sanctioned, frankly. There are dealings that involve repression. The old KGB and now the FSB have  

passed onto Iran a lot of its techniques for repressing dissent very brutally. So they are getting closer at that level.

MICHAEL MORELL:

But how do you think Iranians think about growing Russian influence in the region?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

I think that they're okay with it now, because it generally supports their goals. I mean, the Iranians don't really care about Libya, for example, where the Russians apparently are involved now, as well. But in Syria, certainly they've worked together. The only caveat would be that of course the Israelis deal with Russia in Syria and get Russia's approval for many of the airstrikes that they've carried out, which have killed a lot of Iranians and destroyed a lot of infrastructure.

So you know, their interests are not identical, but they have coincided. And b

ecause Iran is in the position it's in because of U.S. sanctions, I mean, there are not very many big powers they can turn to. If it wants to buy weapons, not many other places it can go. And of course, Russia has invested heavily in Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How about China?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

China has become, or had become Iran's largest trading partner during the last bout of sanctions, which occurred under the Obama administration. It replaced the European Union. There are still very strong economic ties. Again, this is not because Iran loves Chinese products and services. It's because it can't get the European products and services that it would rather have.

So you know, the Chinese have cut back a fair amount on trade with Iran because of sanctions, but they have continued to buy

oil to some extent. They're continuing some of their investments in Iran. So I think this is an important relationship and this is one that will continue and probably grow.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. How about Turkey?

BARBARA SLAVIN:

Turkey is also interesting. Again, there are disagreements, you know, over Syria, for example. But Turkey has been a lifeline for Iran. A lot of financial transactions go through Turkey. Turkey still buys Iranian natural gas and has a waiver, I believe, to do so, because they need it for electricity.

And you know, these are the two great old empires, the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire. They've been rivals, but there's a stronger and warmer relationship between Persians and Turks than there is between Persians and Arabs, interestingly enough.

Iranians go to Istanbul for vacation, or at least they used to when they could afford

it. So I think that relationship will remain important. And we've seen that Erdogan thumbs his nose at the United States, frankly, and does what he pleases, so I'm sure he's going to maintain a strong relationship with Iran.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Barbara, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

BARBARA SLAVIN:

My pleasure. Thanks for asking.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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