We have not done enough to prepare for a ‘catastrophic success’ that could be caused by Iran or its proxies using Imprecise weaponry, perhaps even unintentionally, Roule warns
Norman T. Roule, the CEO of Pharos Strategic Consulting, works as a business consultant on Middle East political, security, economic, and energy issues with an emphasis on the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. He served for 34 years in the US Central Intelligence Agency, managing significant programs relating to the Middle East. His service in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations included roles as division chief and chief of station.
As the national intelligence manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 to September 2017, he was the principal intelligence community official responsible for overseeing national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran and Iran-related issues, including engagement with senior policymakers in the National Security Council, the State Department, and Congress. He received multiple national security awards during his career.
He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonresident fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, a 2022 visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, and a nonresident senior adviser with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He is frequently asked to speak on Middle East issues and routinely appears in the US and international media. He is a frequent contributor to The Cipher Brief and has written for US and international print media.
TML: Welcome to the Media Line.
Roule: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
TML: The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to formulate threats and dire predictions for the destruction of the State of Israel. The Jewish state, meanwhile, deflects the threats and invokes increasingly aggressive strategies, to do what? Is the ideal regime change, or is all-out war in the offing?
Roule: I think we have a couple of different issues here. The first is that I believe the entire international community, with very few exceptions, would agree that we wish Iran’s regime would change for a more moderate and reasonable form of government. That’s unlikely, and there doesn’t appear to be much appetite for regime change operations along the size of Afghanistan or Iraq, etc., etc. But what I think you are seeing is a series of actions that are meant to message to Iran’s senior leadership several things. First, that – if the reports are true, I want to caveat that – that Israel is able to reach out at its time of its own choosing with extraordinary surgical precision and neutralize threatening actors and operational activity by Iran. This sends a message to Iran’s senior-most leadership that if they just stop this activity, Israel stops its operational work. Likewise, by setting back programs, it actually buys time for diplomacy, which admittedly there’s little reason to be hopeful about diplomacy at present. Nonetheless, anything that slows Iran’s nuclear program, its terrorist operations, in essence prevents things from happening that might tilt us toward a conventional conflict.
TML: Is there an “in between”?
Roule: No. In fact, this is probably the “in between.” When you’re a senior policymaker, you usually have three sets of tools to engage an adversary. There’s diplomacy, there’s economic pressure, and there’s military action. You sort of put that template against Iran: Do you believe that diplomatic protests would cause Iran to cease supporting Hizbullah? Do you believe that the international community would support a conventional war in the Middle East on the scale of Iraq? So this tends to push you toward long-term corrosive sanctions, and perhaps some activity which according to press reports is being undertaken, that allow you to buy time and to hopefully convince Iran’s leadership that they need again to halt aggressive actions.
TML: Do you feel Israel is in a position to go it alone?
Roule: Yes. Israel has a robust military security capacity with some extraordinary minds who have spent many years successfully defending Israel as well as the United States and other partners. That said, going alone carries a big issue of what are you attempting to do. So if the idea is attempting a conventional war with 600,000 troops, that’s not going to happen. But there is a different way of addressing problems besides a conventional war.
TML: Israel’s reliance on targeted assassinations is one of the most well-known unknowns. Has the pace of extrajudicial killings increased, and how far has that gone? Has it accomplished enough? Do you feel that Israel should do more?
Roule: Without either confirming or denying this, but based on press reports alone, there has been a recent increase, but according to press reports these numbers are relatively modest. Now you can have a position on whether or not you support targeted assassinations. The United States does not undertake assassinations due to executive order and our laws. This said, there is a terrorist environment where operational activity does tend to, let’s say, move in this direction in order to neutralize threats. I don’t think that this is so large of a pace of operations at present that it’s going to tilt us again toward a conventional conflict, but I do believe that if the press reports are correct, that what we’re seeing is an effort to slow down terrorist operations, nuclear weaponization, missile programs. And that buys time for Iran’s leadership to rethink and also for diplomacy to succeed.
TML: How do you measure effectiveness in this particular area?
Roule: With great difficulty. And you measure it generally on an adversary’s response, which is not in its rhetoric. Rhetoric from Iran or any adversary usually is a mix of defiance, anger, and threat. But if you peel that away, you really want to focus on what exactly are they doing in the wake of diplomacy, sanctions, of conflict, whatever sort of pressures of statecraft might be employed.
TML: Israel was reported to have captured a senior officer of the Revolutionary Guard on Iranian soil and carried out an interrogation deep inside of Iran. This is seemingly extraordinary, a major achievement. But does it indicate Israel’s ability to control the sphere of conflict?
Roule: Well, I have not heard the Israeli government confirm whether that report is correct. But there have been multiple press reports that Israel has been able to successfully operate within Iran over a period of time, which would indicate that a certain level of activity is well within the capacity of Israel’s security services based on these press reports.
TML: Is there a concern that Iran has the same kind of tools in their arsenal, and they can as well be in different parts of the region, threatening as they have, whether it be Israelis or Americans at this time?
Roule: Certainly. Iran and its proxies have operated globally, from Argentina to Europe to the Gulf. I think that represents a genuine concern and requires not only strong intelligence activity but cooperation with partner security services of these other countries to ensure that there is surveillance of Iranian operatives, surveillance of Iranian activity to identify and neutralize terrorist activity.
TML: I’m glad you brought that up. Do you feel there’s enough regional cooperation in this area?
Roule: There’s never enough cooperation but there’s a lot of cooperation. And the regional actors who are worried most about Iran are highly motivated and generally highly successful in preventing Iran from undertaking activity on their soil. There are always exceptions, and all it takes is one failure to result in tragic deaths of civilians. But I think the history of the last 10 years has shown that those adversaries of Iran in the region are quite successful at pushing back.
TML: The question we hear posed so frequently is, how long will it take for Iran to assemble a nuclear weapon? Does the question imply the ability and willingness to use it as well? They’re obviously two different things.
Roule: Well actually, I think the best answer to that is, it depends. It depends on how many weapons Iran wishes to acquire; how much testing Iran feels is necessary. Covert development of a weaponization program is very slow. The less covert, the faster it becomes. What is Iran’s perception of the international community’s − and Israel, obviously, is part of that − response to such information were it to come out? Does Iran believe it could get away with the development of a covert program at all? And I think that’s a very crucial point. It may actually be a defining factor in where Iran takes its nuclear program. I want you to imagine that you are the supreme leader of Iran, and I approach you with one of your lieutenants, and I say, I wish to build a weaponized nuclear program. And you respond, so someone was able to kill [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander] Qasem Soleimani and [Popular Mobilization Forces deputy chief] Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on the move in Iran. Someone was able to kill [physicist] Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, [regarded as the chief of Iran’s nuclear program – F.F.], on the move, a highly secured individual, someone was able to kill [al-Qaida No. 2] Abu Muhammad al-Masri and his daughter Maryam in an urban environment, no civilian deaths. Someone was able to find the nuclear [files] cache, and things are reportedly exploding at our sites. But you are going to tell me that you can do this secretly. And I think that’s a constraint on that decision. But where that could lead us, Iran may just attempt to gradually creep or move toward a nuclear weaponization capacity, and then use that capacity and its diplomacy and rhetoric as a shield against any pressure by the West, which generally is reluctant to do something they feel might push Iran over that weaponization line, or the line where Iran withdraws from the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. So I could see Iran’s leadership awfully reluctant to go into a nuclear weaponization program if they don’t think they can get away with it. But I could see them coming as close as they can and then using that to strengthen their capacity in regional terrorism, militias, missiles, etc.
TML: That’s really the path that I believe we have seen Iran align itself with over the last few years, and they haven’t really deviated from it for the most part. Is that accurate?
Roule: Well, so far that has been the evolution. We have watched Iran undertake no constraints of its regional militias’ terrorist behavior, cyber activity. But we have watched Iran use rhetoric and move in jerks and spikes on its weaponization program but not take those final steps.
TML: The Iranian nuclear deal version 2 according to most is extremely unlikely to happen. Does it really matter?
Roule: Yes, it does. And I think it matters based on how you perceive your requirements in dealing with Iran. Certainly, a nuclear deal that would be conceived at this point would not bring us the benefits of the 2015 nuclear deal. There’s no question about that. But it does bring some benefits. It would set back Iran’s nuclear program, if only for a few years. Now if you believe you would use those few years to either develop a robust military capacity, or some sort of robust diplomatic capacity, or some new sanctions regime, or undertake actions to push Iran back in the region, that becomes useful. So I think the answer to your question is less what does a nuclear deal give us, and rather how would we use the time any nuclear deal gives us.
TML: When the agreement is debated, little is made of Iranian work on its delivery systems and other ancillary threats to Israel and Gulf nations. Did Israel have it wrong? Should Israel have worked to close the deal, to achieve a deal?
Roule: I think again it depends on how you plan to use that time. And there is debate, as I understand it, even within Israel, and within other countries. I think the international community, for a variety of reasons, failed to use the time provided by the 2014/2015 nuclear deals with Iran. In the wake of that, if you were to ask anyone what happened to Iran’s regional behavior, its missile program, I think they’d be hard pressed to identify anything. Or even whether the level of interest in Europe and the United States remained at the same high level against Iran in that post-deal environment. That’s all understandable and explainable, but I think the answer to your question there becomes, if there is a deal, Iran will acquire a vast amount of resources. That’s inevitable. And those resources will go to its missile program and to its regional activity and its proxies to some extent. Not to a large extent but a sufficient extent to empower them. And that will make life harder and more dangerous for your security personnel and the security personnel of the United States and partner countries.
TML: So Norman, this begs the question: Is there a perceived loss of American military strength that is further endangering US lives?
Roule: No. And I think this gets into the realm of how a military conflict would be conducted. Often when this issue is placed before me, I’m struck that sometimes people expect us to send 400,000 troops to win any conflict. When a B-1 bomber with the Massive Ordnance Penetrator weaponry, conventional weaponry, the largest bomb in the world, and our B-52 bombers could decapitate Iran’s nuclear program, destroy any facility in the country. So when you think about action, we often have this peace or an Iraq-style, Afghan-style conflict, where there are slices and gradations in between. And again, if you were thinking of a military conflict, and if forced into that, your most attractive paradigm would be one in which you say, we’re going to destroy a single facility to send a message to the Iranian people as well as its leadership: We have no problem with you, we have a problem with this behavior. Stop it, and we stop it.
TML: How has the United States’ relationship in the Middle East in particular changed over the last decade? And it has.
Roule: Well, it has. I think there’s a sense of the United States as less reliable. At the same time, if you look at our international environment you see that the region doesn’t have many choices. China is utterly indifferent to the region’s security issues. It is willing to sell anything to anybody. But it will not involve itself on the side of either Iran or its regional victims, and it has no desire to do so in the near term. Russia is a malign and vindictive actor. There is no one that says we need to turn to Moscow for solutions. People say we need to prevent Moscow from making things worse. Europe is generally a neutral actor. It is unwilling to use coercive measures beyond economic pressures, and those sometimes reluctantly. That really only leaves you with the United States. So though the reliability is perceived as less, some of that is because our greatest successes are awfully quiet. Let me give you a firm example. The Red Sea contains one of the world’s most important trade arteries. And the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz are three of maybe eight of the world’s most important trade choke points. The United States with its partners and naval activity have kept those arteries free, other than the occasional threats by the Houthis and Iran. But trade flows routinely through those. And that’s keeping the economies and the people safe in that region. There is a reliability to the United States in that regard that I think is often overlooked.
TML: But imagine if you had one flop, one incident, and it has happened, we’ve seen it, that is catastrophic, in the Strait of Hormuz. That whole chain stops.
Roule: You’re absolutely correct. And we saw a vessel stuck in the Suez Canal, we saw what that did to global trade. I think this takes you to the Yemen issue. Because the Bab el-Mandeb is several miles narrower than the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if they could force place a missile base on the Bab el-Mandeb that was able to interdict fuel and trade throughout the Red Sea Basin. This would have a catastrophic effect on economies, including Israel, the Gulf, and East Africa, as well as Europe. So that won’t be tolerated, I think, by any international actor of significance, the United States first and foremost. But it’s a genuine threat.
TML: So what’s the big trade race when you look at the Middle East warming up together relations with the United States and many of the actors, particularly the Gulf states, concerned about Iran − an enemy of an enemy is my friend. Is it really around the person, the organization, the country that is keeping things together at the moment? Or is it just there and is momentary, and that all can fall apart too?
Roule: Well Iran has been a threat since 1979. And it’s unlikely to change in the near term. It’s going through a leadership transition. The next generation of leadership will have very few connections to the revolution. But they have grown in the cauldron of the [1980-88] Iran-Iraq War and at a period of time when Iran sustained itself in the face of international sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Its next generation of leaders will be based on the lineup that’s currently in power. Equally assertive, equally aggressive, probably more willing to engage. Probably more willing to partner on certain types of projects. And hungrier for foreign direct investment to allow them to compete in a world where just across the Gulf you are watching extraordinary social, technological, and economic transformation take place in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain. Imagine being in Iran, thinking how does your economy compete as that moves forward? And that becomes a regime-threatening pressure over time. So I think you’re going to see Iran engage. Now the reverse of that is, the region may say, you know we see opportunities in which if we attempt engagement as well, perhaps we can lower the temperature. That doesn’t necessarily change Iran’s strategic goals, but it might prevent attacks that lead to a conventional conflict. And we’ve seen the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Kuwaitis, the Omanis, the Qataris all engage Iran diplomatically. The talks have been, based on my understanding, relatively sterile because Iran’s not changing its position. But the talks themselves, this process, takes time, and historically diplomacy and engagement hasn’t been very successful with Iran, but diplomacy should always be our first choice.
TML: Norman, we’re concerned about a nuclear Iran, and yet a war could take place that can have nothing to do with nuclear proliferation. It could have to do with food insecurity or energy issues. Do you see that as a possibility?
Roule: It’s the greatest possibility. And in fact, we have perhaps not done enough to prepare ourselves for what I would call a catastrophic success by Iran. Imagine that a missile were to strike an important government leader in the Gulf, an aircraft with hundreds of multinational partners. Imagine that an incident occurs in the Red Sea against some sort of freighter that causes an ecological or ship trade disaster of some sort. Iran may have not even intended this, but because it’s using imprecise weaponry, often in the hands of actors who aren’t the best targeters, aren’t the best users of this weaponry. But nonetheless, they’re deploying lethal capacity. Saudi Arabia, prior to the Ukraine conflict, had received more missile and drone attacks than any country since the Second World War. And the international community essentially stood by, providing defensive capability but saying this is your fight, not ours. And look at Israel. Israel is fighting essentially alone, with some defensive capacity, a conflict in Syria. And the international community should be standing with Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s actions in these countries because the consequences of a successful Iranian attack could be that conventional war we all wish to avoid.
TML: What do you think at this very moment should be the modus operandi, what is everyone not getting?
Roule: First, Iran is best confronted by multilateral diplomatic and economic pressure. And that’s one of the greatest weaknesses of the current diplomatic environment. That’s going to be impossible to achieve. You can’t imagine China, Russia, and the United States working together on Iran. Secondly, within the United States, we need a bipartisan approach to the Iran issue. Both sides of the aisle in the United States, Democrats and Republicans, agree completely on what they want to see in an Iran policy. But they differ dramatically on how to get there. So I think that’s critical. If I had to come up with a broader point: Henry Kissinger famously stated that Iran must decide whether it’s a cause or a country. I think we need to make that decision. Because if we say it’s both or today I think one over another, it causes our policies to vacillate left and right based upon an administration and their perception of the diplomatic environment. That inconsistency favors Iran’s longevity.
TML: Norman Roule, thank you for your in-depth look at what’s happening in the Middle East, particularly vis-à-vis Iran and some of the state actors.
Roule: My pleasure. Thank you.