2016 Leadership Conference Remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes
Remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor
Annual Conference of the National Iranian American Council
September 25, 2016
Sanam Anderlini, NIAC Board member: It’s really my honor to present to you tonight’s keynote speaker, Mr. Benjamin Rhodes, who is the Deputy National Security Advisor, and I didn’t know him. I mean I’ve seen all the news about you of course, but when I was asked to introduce him I started digging, and trying to figure out what I was going to say, and one of the things that struck me was over the past eight years we have had [an] amazing, [massive] paradigmatic shift in diplomacy, if you think about it. Cuba, who thought Cuba would happen, right? Iran, of course, you know we keep hearing about Iran. But other ones, Laos, right? The fact that you have an American President who admits to what happened in Laos, and the unexploded mines and all that work. And Japan, Hiroshima. Who is behind thinking that it’s time for the U.S. to acknowledge some of these things and actually apologize, or at least acknowledge and move forward, and provide some assistance? And as somebody who’s been in this world, in this peace world, or peace-strategy world, for the last 20 years, it’s always a discussion of who was in the room, who is making the decisions, and in the case of this administration, Ben Rhodes has been there in every single one of those spaces. Cuba, Iran, Laos, Japan and I’m sure many other places. And this picture, that’s there, in the oval office with President Obama, and Tony Blinken, and Ben Rhodes, it’s in November 2013 when they got news of the interim agreement. He was in the room there, they were waiting to hear. (applause) So that’s where he is, right. Now of course, he’s not a stranger to controversy. There was a big storm in a tea cup about the messaging around the Iran deal, and in a speech that he gave to the Arms Control Association, he actually kind of nailed it and dealt with the problem very quickly, which was that nobody could criticize the deal itself because it’s a good deal. So what they did was they started criticizing the messaging around it, right, which is absolutely irrelevant when you think about how important this development has been. And then for me, the question was, well how do you have somebody like this? And as I was doing my little internet Google searches, and things like that, three things struck me about him and I wanted to share these with you.
So number one. As we talked about today on the panel, your training and how you were formed matters in this sphere. He is not an international relations person, he’s not a political scientist, he’s not a historian. He’s a literature major and he was interested in creative writing. And this is really important, and for me was very personal, because in 1987 as an Iranian telling my parents that I was going to go and study English literature, you can imagine the eyebrows that were raised about what the hell are you going to do with yourself. But the reason why I raise this is because, what does that give you? And I wondered about this, and I wonder whether he’ll tell us a little bit more about this. But I think when you do literature and when you’re thinking about writing, it teaches you creative thinking, to be creative, to be imaginative, to have empathy, to understand tone, to understand what it means to have respect and to be in the other person’s shoes. And I wonder whether all of those things have been part of why we’ve had somebody like this actually having impact and being able to imagine that alternative future which is, you know, so important. The difference between imagination and inertia. The difference between having solutions in mind as opposed to cynicism. So that’s one aspect of it.
And then the second thing that struck me was that, he’s quite young. And I’m not sure whether he likes us saying this, but I think it’s really important because he was born just before the Iranian Revolution, so he’s a generation, 10 years, younger than me. And it matters because it means that we have a generation coming through that is not formed by the Cold War years, by the idea that it’s superpower stuff, and it’s all high power, high level stuff. There’s an understanding of the complexity of the world, there’s an understanding of the fact that we’re in a multi-polar world, and it’s important to understand that the public matters, public opinion matters. And I think one of the big things about the Iran deal, which is extraordinary, is that it had the two elements which are essential for peacemaking. One is political will, and the other inclusivity. When you bring the public with you and you bring all of the organizations like NIAC, and Jewish Voice for Peace, and everybody is there as a part of the deal and trying to make things happen.
And so I give you, ladies and gentlemen, the remarkable Mr. Rhodes. (applause)
Ben Rhodes: Well, thank you very much for that introduction, and I’m really pleased that I could be with you here tonight. And if you did a Google search you probably had to sort through some fairly negative commentary and that may have something to do with the work I did on the Iran deal itself. I may not be Iranian, but I will say that there’s one way in which the community claimed me for several years. My closest assistant was Ferial Govashiri, an Iranian American from California who sat right outside my office and, let’s just say she was persistent in her advocacy for the interests of the Iranian-American community. (applause) I also have to say, I also got a window into the very intensive family dynamic in the Iranian-American community, which, by the way, reminded me a little about the Jewish-American community, too. I will say that, as I was thinking about what to talk about tonight, I thought one thing that could be interesting is to step back and consider what are some of the lessons that we can draw from the last eight years, principally from the Iran deal, but also from broader U.S.-Iran policy. I think we’re at a natural inflection point as we near the end of our administration, and it’s worth trying to learn from what works, what didn’t work, as we think through both where we are right now with the relationship between our two countries and where we might be able to go.
The first lesson I think we draw with respect to our diplomacy is that you have to be willing to try. And this may seem like the most obvious point, but for a whole host of reasons, for many many years there was a refusal to even try to engage in diplomacy, from both sides. For the United States, that was an approach that was not working. It was not working to solve the nuclear issue, it wasn’t working to resolve other issues in the relationship, and yet it had become the entrenched, conventional approach to dealing with Iran. Now, when President Obama first challenged this conventional wisdom, it was in 2007, this is right when I went to work for him, and he had a debate that had a YouTube component, so people could submit questions, and he was asked whether he would engage the leaders of a number of countries, to include Iran, also Cuba, and a number of the countries I have worked on in the aftermath. And he said he would, and everybody attacked him and said, this must have been a huge mistake, and he has to take it back, and how could he be so naive to say that he would engage the leadership of Iran. And what was interesting about President Obama, and I think was a good window into how he would govern as President, is that instead of pulling back his position, he doubled down. And he said not only do I want to stick to my position, but I want to actually make this a central debate in this campaign about foreign policy, because the conventional thinking that you don’t engage people, you refuse to engage in diplomacy, you treat diplomacy as a reward, doesn’t work. So not only did he stick to his conviction, but again, he made this a central contrast in how he would approach foreign policy, versus other candidates. And interestingly, people responded very positively to that, because it’s a fairly pragmatic approach to the world, and when we took office, that’s the approach he pursued. We initiated diplomacy through letters to the Iranian leadership, through the Nowruz message that he taped to both the leadership and people of Iran, and then through the P5+1 multilateral process that we used to address the nuclear deal. So we had made clear that we were going to do things different.
The second lesson that I think we learned, though, is that you have to be willing to understand that when you hit a roadblock you might have to pivot to other approaches. It was clear to us by the end of 2009, early 2010, that we were not getting anywhere in those negotiations. And remember this was the previous Iranian administration, under President Ahmadinejad. We had put forward many proposals, all of them had been rejected. We did decide to move towards more pressure, more isolation of Iran diplomatically, and the imposition of sanctions. I think what’s important, though, about the way we did this is we did not treat it as a bilateral issue, as the United States trying to punish Iran, but rather as a nonproliferation issue. This was about nonproliferation, and we were going to be upholding an international norm, which is stopping the spread of nuclear power that could be used for weapons. And we had invested a lot in the nonproliferation regime, with the President’s speech in Prague, with our own New START Treaty that we were negotiating at the time with Russia that would reduce our stockpiles. So we were able to say, again, these sanctions are not about simply trying to punish a country, they’re about trying to uphold international law. Therefore, that set the predicate that if Iran were to come into compliance with these international obligations, there’d be a basis for the sanctions to be lifted.
That leads to, I think the third lesson which is important, which is that pressure and sanctions could not be an end in and of themselves. I think oftentimes we impose sanctions on other countries and they become, kind of, a permanent nature of the relationship. I mean on Cuba, we’re still dealing with the sanctions regime that has not only outlasted its purpose, it’s clearly failed in all of its objectives, but it’s just in place because that’s the way we do things. And similarly with Iran, I think that there was a sense among certain quarters here in Washington at least, that we would just continue to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze no matter what happened. Now the problem, of course, with that is that, as I said, we had built the international pressure on the basis of upholding an international norm. And that was the means by which we brought other countries with us, and so it was not going to be consistent to just simply say, we’re going to impose these sanctions indefinitely, or we’re going to impose them for a purpose other than trying to get a resolution to the nuclear issue. So we knew that we had to look for opportunities to find an opening to resolve the issue diplomatically in a way that, frankly, could also lead to sanctions relief to the Iranian people if they could come into compliance with their international obligations. And we got that opening with the election of President Rouhani. This is something I think is very important, that you have to be willing to take an opportunity when you see it, that the world doesn’t offer you many. In fact, the world offers you a lot more problems, a lot more crises, than it offers you opportunities. And so as you are looking at the international environment, when you see something promising take place you need to see if you can test whether progress can be made. And that’s where President Obama, in sending a letter to President Rouhani shortly after his election proposing that we intensify our efforts to resolve the nuclear issue. And we received a very positive response to that letter, and that is what initiated the talks, that were secret at first, and then in the P5+1 that led first to the interim agreement, and then ultimately to the JCPOA.
The fourth lesson is that diplomacy sometimes takes political courage. Diplomacy, interestingly enough, is not always popular here in Washington. It’s popular with people everywhere, frankly, because I think people understand that the peaceful resolution of disputes is preferable to the types of military actions that can lead to suffering on all sides. But I think here, what was clear to us is that it was going to take a certain amount of political courage to defend a successful diplomatic process. That just having diplomacy work its course was not going to be sufficient, that there was going to be a need for a clear marker that we were going to defend diplomacy, and we were going to defend diplomacy with as much vigor as we would defend any other initiative of this presidency.
That’s not to say that we thought diplomacy was definitely going to work. There were certainly lots of roadblocks and problems along the way to the negotiation of the Iranian nuclear deal, but what we didn’t want to happen is have that process derail before we could even test whether you could get a nuclear deal. I think President Obama deserves a great deal of credit. From the very first challenge to the JPOA, the interim agreement, he made clear that he would veto any bill that imposed new sanctions on Iran during the course of the negotiation. And I think that caught a lot of people by surprise. I think that there’s a routinization to the imposition of additional sanctions that was beginning to work its way through Congress, and when he laid down that marker in the January after the JPOA was signed, I think it put everybody on notice that he was going to defend diplomacy, and that he was going to use political capital to do so. (applause)
Now, that led to us having to defend it a few more times, I think, than we even imagined, but the argument that the President made in the first case was the argument that was sustained throughout, which is that if you can resolve an issue like this that can achieve an incredibly important objective, verifying that you’re preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, while also avoiding a war that could be terribly costly to the people of the United States, Iran and the world, we have an obligation to do so. It is a very simple argument, it is very hard to refute. And in fact that, I think, is why many of the arguments that were made kind of moved around in the edges or put forward alternative scenarios that were, frankly, impossible, like sanctioning Iran in perpetuity until they capitulated, or like the notion that a military strike could be more successful than diplomacy. All of these things didn’t hold up to scrutiny, compared to the deal that was being built and negotiated at the table through diplomacy. So again, the fourth thing is that you need to have the political courage to defend diplomacy.
The fifth thing, I think, is that you need to be persistent. It was not an easy negotiation. There are difficulties in these types of negotiations in any case, but particularly when you’re dealing with a country that you really don’t have much of a history in sitting around the table with. And we had to resolve very tough, technical issues in that negotiation. I do think that, and I have to say as the person who was back here in Washington helping with the defense of the deal and the diplomacy, each time we got those extensions made it harder, not easier, because with additional time came additional challenges. But what we also knew is that the time was worth it, that the end product is getting better with time, not worse. That, frankly, we were more able to work through differences because we were building relationships through the negotiation with the Iranians. And if you don’t have relationships, even with countries that are adversarial to you, it is that much harder to work through a tough issue, to explain why a certain proposal is not going to work to, frankly, establish a rapport. I think, frankly, by the end of the deal, the rapport between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif, between Moniz and Dr. Salehi, were essential to being able to design, essentially, a nuclear program that could meet the threshold of the international community, that we could verify that Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapon, while meeting Iran’s needs to have a peaceful source of nuclear energy.
So we were persistent in the pursuit of the deal and I think it bears repeating, even though many people in this room certainly are familiar with the facts, how much it’s worked. That, from our perspective, because of the nuclear deal, Iran has complied with converting its reactor at Arak and filling the core of that reactor with concrete so it can’t be used for the production of plutonium for a nuclear weapon. Iran has removed two thirds of its installed centrifuges, put them under storage and monitoring. Iran has capped its stockpile after shipping out a significant portion of that stockpile, and there is an intensive monitoring and verification regime that is in place. So diplomacy has done more to roll back the Iranian nuclear program, to ensure that it is peaceful, than anything that the United States had been doing in the previous decades, and that can be verified. (applause) And here I would say that the verification is very technical, and it is very transparent. You have an international organization. This is not our word, this is the IAEA that monitors the progress of the deal, and so when people make arguments against this, they’re usually arguing outside the lines of what the written agreement is and what the IAEA is reporting, which time and again has shown that Iran has lived up to its core commitments under the deal. And I should say that [what] was important about having the interim agreement, is that we could verify that each side could fulfill its end of the bargain. That’s the only way that you have the trust to implement a deal.
On sanctions, we’ve had to live up to our end of the bargain, and frankly, there are challenges to ensure that sanctions relief can be provided when you have a very complex and intricate sanctions regime in place, as we do. I will say that we have gone the extra mile in the work that Secretary Kerry has done and the Treasury Department has done to try to clarify and make clear to banks around the world, what is permissible activity with respect to sanctions relief and what might still be subject to U.S. sanctions. And we have seen that sanctions relief move forward. We’ve also shown that we would pursue relief in other areas. So, for instance, the deal allows for commercial licenses as relates to civil aviation, an area we focused on in part because of the grave humanitarian necessity of enhanced civil aviation for the Iranian people, over many years, as well as, obviously, the opportunities involved. And just recently we were able to issue licenses from the Treasury Department for Boeing and Airbus. (applause) So a further indication that we are sending a message that we will fulfill the letter of the agreement, in ways that could create openings for our two countries and, importantly, our two peoples to benefit.
So, there’s going to be more work to be done, though. You know, on the nuclear side, when you have such technical issues, there are going to be occasions, and there already have been over the last three years, where we have to work very diligently with the Iranians to ensure that they’re continuing to comply with the deal. On the sanctions side, there are going to be occasions where we’re going to have to make clear what is permissible so that sanctions relief can go forward. And I think there’s a great danger in complacency, in not keeping this as a first tier priority in our countries and in the other P5+1 countries because, if you have that kind of fraying of the deal at the edges and the fraying of that trust, that space can be filled by people in both of our countries who continue to object to the nuclear deal and the progress it could herald going forward.
I think if you look at the debate here in the United States, what’s interesting is many of the objections to the deal itself have nothing to do with the deal. The nuclear story speaks for itself, and so people raise other issues, which is, again, an indication that it’s hard to challenge the baseline facts that the deal is working. Most prominently, of course, we have the United States being challenged, or the U.S. government being challenged, for the resolution of the claims issue that we had at The Hague. And this, I have to say, was one of the stranger stories, although I’m never surprised by what comes up in the Iran space, given that the President of the United States stood up and announced to the entire world on implementation day that we had successfully completed the implementation of the deal, we had completed a very important exchange to bring some Americans home, and that we had resolved this claims issue at The Hague that was going to be $1.3 billion. That’s diplomacy. Diplomacy is resolving issues that you have with other countries. On the claims side, we have resolved claims in different directions. And the notion that we paid our claim, that the President announced we had resolved, should not be a surprise to anybody. But again, I think it says more about the fact that the deal itself is holding, that the places people go are these areas that are outside of the lines of the deal.
The sixth thing I’d just say is that we have to be very mindful, though, that this resolution of the nuclear issue has not been a broader rapprochement in the relationship between the United States and Iran up to this point. On the nuclear issue, we’ve demonstrated that both countries could approach it differently and could follow through on their commitments, and that’s very important. And we’ve demonstrated that we can establish relationships and channels of communication between our government, and that’s very important, and that’s allowed us to resolve some other issues over the course of the last several years including the issue of detained Americans, or some potential irritants that could have been much greater, at sea for instance. However, we continue to have differences on Iran’s ballistic missile program, on issues related to human rights and I think it’s very important and good that NIAC continues to raise a voice on behalf of human rights in Iran and around the world. Certainly on foreign policy, on Syria we would have much preferred that the type of diplomacy that led to the Iran deal could help make progress to resolve the situation in Syria. Anybody who looks at the situation in Aleppo today and is heartbroken by the humanitarian challenge there and the catastrophe there knows that diplomacy has not yet made the progress that we need to make on issues in the region, chief among them Syria.
So we know that this is just an issue that has been resolved in the nuclear space, we know that it shows, however, that it’s possible to make progress diplomatically on other issues, and we have a responsibility to continue to work in those areas. And the last thing I’d just leave you with is the notion that, as we do that, we have to remember that we are countries of people. And I know that may sound like an obvious point but oftentimes, particularly in these very intractable adversarial relationships, we lose sight of the fact that Iran is comprised of Iranian people and that America is comprised of the American people, and that if it was up to them they would prefer to have a better relationship, a more constructive relationship, they’d focus on what people actually care about. (applause)
You know one of the interesting things is when you poll people around the world and ask them what they care about, they care about getting a good education, making a living, they are interested in science and technology and commercial opportunities, culture. Usually foreign policy issues, the types of issues that are, you know, debated between our governments, don’t rank particularly high on the list of things people care about. And every time that we have an opportunity to get a window into the type of relationship that the Iranian people would like with the United States, we tend to receive very positive messaging, that there is an openness to engaging the United States. Not that there is, you know, again I don’t want to overstate the extent to which there is a history in place and there are institutions in place in Iran that are dedicated to being in opposition to America. There’s an ideology, and a strand of ideology in Iran that almost depends upon the reiteration of that opposition to America. So I’m not ignoring or blind to any of that, but what I am saying is that if that’s all we look at, if that’s all we see, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for our own policies. If you look at a country and only see the worst elements of that country, and you shape your entire policy in response to those elements, you’re not going to able to find any opportunities and you may resign yourself to coming into conflict with those forces. So I think it is very important that, as we make policy going forward, we’re trying to reach out broadly to the Iranian people, to speak to them and hear from them to find ways to engage with them.
One of the things I’m mindful of is that they’re responsible for a significant amount of progress that we were able to make with the issues we are talking about today. I don’t know, I would not guess, that President Rouhani was necessarily the preferred candidate of certain elements of the Iranian system, but the public support for him was so overwhelming that not only was he elected but he had a mandate that demanded that he pursue diplomacy. I believe that the popularity of achieving a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear situation helped make it possible for the Iranian system to accept the terms of the nuclear deal, and I believe that right now there is certainly a contest within Iran to determine whether or not that is the type of approach that will be applied to other issues or not. And that’s not, again, to say we don’t have differences with President Rouhani. It’s very easy to find things he said about Israel, about the situation in Syria, as recently as this week, that we have very strong differences with. But that is to say that if we look at the Iranian public, if we look at how they’ve expressed themselves in the two presidential elections since we’ve been in office, I think you see that this is not a monolithic country, that there is a great diverse opinion. Any experience I’ve had with the Iranian-American community and their discussions of their families back in Iran tells you that there is not a monolith that we are dealing with, but rather a very talented, very diverse, very ambitious populace and that there’s an opening for the United States if we’re willing to engage, and if we are willing to try to use more public diplomacy to look at what can be done in the space of student or cultural exchanges, or arts exchanges, or scientific collaborations, the types of things that benefit people in both of our countries and show that there can be a more positive relationship. (applause)
Now I also, though, just want to say that it’s important for the Iranian-American community to play a role in that effort. In every country I’ve worked on, Cuba, Laos, as was mentioned, Vietnam, there is a community of people here in the United States who care deeply about [that] country. Oftentimes, that community’s presence in the United States is rooted, in part, in a political event, or a war, or a tragedy and there’s an ideological divide among different communities. But it never changes how much a community cares about the place that they came from. I think that’s what guides how a lot of Americans view relations with countries that they feel a unique bond to. Frankly, it explains the way that so many Jewish Americans care deeply about Israel or, again as I said, the way that Cuban Americans care about Cuba, or the way that Vietnamese Americans care about Vietnam. Now I think one thing that would be very important is for the Iranian-American community to have more and more visibility, because it is such an extraordinarily successful community. Truly, since the growth in the Iranian-American community over the last several decades, we’ve seen enormous successes in every type of field, certainly in medicine, and science, and math, and the arts. It’s hard not to look at the more prominent awards that are issued in this country and not see an Iranian American claiming success in recent years.
I do think it’s critically important that that includes civic engagement as well, and that’s why the mission that NIAC has is so important, so that the voice and concerns of the Iranian-American community, in all of its diversity, is a part of the civic discussion in this country, part of the debates here in Washington, and part of the discussion that guides how we’re dealing with these issues. Just as I think very practically, given the ties of family and friendship the Iranian-American community can continue to try to be a bridge to the people of Iran, even as we’re continuing to work through very difficult issues between our governments. So I would encourage you to continue the work that you’re doing, and to do so knowing that there are going to be difficulties, there are going to be enormous setbacks. Sometimes those setbacks are going to be very intentional, and very focused on trying to avoid progress and, frankly, the detentions that we see on occasion of Iranian Americans travelling in Iran are outrageous and, in many ways, are intended to try to put a chill on precisely those types of bridges being built.
But again, I believe that what we’ve learned over the last eight years is it’s possible to make progress on something that once seemed intractable, but you have to be willing to try, you have to be willing to challenge convention, you have to be willing to be persistent and demonstrate political courage in defense of what you’re trying to do. And then you have to see it through. And then you also have to recognize what you have accomplished and what you have not. And on the issues that we have more to work on in the coming years, again, I really hope that when we make policy decisions, we have people in mind, but we also try to find opportunities in policy-making through what people-to-people engagement can accomplish, and through what the type of mutual benefit that we can reach through people-to-people engagement can deliver.
So thank you for receiving me so warmly, I look forward, I think, to having a discussion with Trita. I really do appreciate the friendship that I’ve personally seen from this community. We’ve had huge advocates for the community in the White House. There’s some very successful White House staffers who’ve been Iranian American. One of the things that I have found to be most upsetting in this job is when those staffers have been attacked simply because of their background, when they are, frankly, the most patriotic people that I’ve worked with in my time at the White House. (applause) We cannot live in a country where your patriotism is not judged by what you do, but by who you are. And that has to be a value that we all defend. Now, the benefit is that we’ve had very good Nowruz parties every year, with very good food. So I have to say that I’ve learned a lot from this community and really enjoyed the friendships that I have forged. So thank you, and Trita, I look forward to further discussion. (applause)
Trita Parsi: Thank you so much Ben. Let me first start off by mentioning that I really want everyone in this room to know what a tremendous force for good, for this deal, and for this humanitarian view of foreign policy that Ben Rhodes has been in the White House, together with all of your colleagues and, of course, the President himself. Those of us who have studied this conflict between the United States and Iran knew that there is a solution, but it would take a tremendous amount of political will and the willingness to pay the political price because of the intractable enemies for this progress that exist both in Iran, in the United States and elsewhere in the region. And it would take a tremendous amount of courage and I think it reflects exactly what you were saying in your speech. Had it not been for the courage and the determination that you, the President and your team showed, we would not be sitting here today celebrating a nuclear deal but rather sitting here and wondering how do we end this war that so unnecessarily got started. So please give it up for Ben Rhodes for this tremendous, tremendous achievement. I remember reading in the paper a couple of months ago, or was it a little longer than that, and I was just thrilled that you and the President and your team were going to Cuba. And in the paper you gave a quote, that part of the reason why this trip to Havana was made was in order to ensure that this amazing progress on the Cuba front, which took all of us by surprise. And that’s another amazing achievement, waking up one day knowing that actually that thing has ended. But it was done in order to make sure that the progress that was made was irreversible, and I think a concern that we’ve been talking about for the last two days here is, not only how do we make the nuclear deal not only irreversible but, beyond that, perhaps make sure that there’s more progress on top of that. But if we start of with the task of making it irreversible, you cannot go to Iran, unfortunately, many in this room cannot go to Iran, unfortunately. The President cannot go to Iran. But what else can be done in your view, and what can our community do in order to make sure this is irreversible? That this is not going to be dependent on the makeup of the Senate or who ends up in the White House?
Rhodes: Well, I’d say a couple things. First of all the difference with Cuba is that the Cuban government made a decision to normalize relations with us and to establish diplomatic relations with us. Frankly, a decision that wasn’t an obvious one that they would make with the U.S. embargo still in place, but I think they were willing to turn that page. The Iranian government has not made a similar decision. That’s not to say that we have either, we clearly have sanctions and have not pursued a normalization of relations. But, part of the limitation is simple things, like President Obama, I think, has made it very clear he would be willing to meet with President Rouhani, but that doesn’t happen because it’s too difficult still for an Iranian President to have that type of meeting. So there’s a limitation that’s imposed on the Iranian side by the kind of entrenched ideological view of the United States, just as there are limitations on our side based on concerns around Iranian policies. What I think will make a difference, though, is we have shown that if we follow through on agreements, it can lead to further progress. The JPOA is an interesting example. The fact that there was an interim deal in place, in which we made our provision of sanctions relief every month and they fulfilled their commitments, that allowed us to have a more ambitious nuclear deal a year and a half later, because there was this time when people showed they could follow through. That led to, again, a greater degree of ambition. The completion of the nuclear deal allowed us to then resolve the issue around a number of American citizens, including many Iranian Americans who were imprisoned in Iran. Also, this claims dispute was resolved and the issue of our sailors who were detained was thankfully resolved quickly, in a manner that it might not have been, had we not had those relationships.
My point is that if we are able to successfully continue to implement the deal in the ways that have the benefits that accrue to both sides and to the international community, and show that we follow through, I think that that allows for openings to pursue other areas of cooperation. Now, we’re going to have very strong areas of difference, but I think a core [necessity] is making sure that we demonstrate that both sides can keep their commitments under the nuclear deal. That’s a prerequisite to additional progress.
Then I think, otherwise, in addition to trying to find openings on the more intractable issues in the world, like Syria, are there areas in less controversial, but, frankly, important space that can show the people of both countries there are benefits? And here, I think, this organization can be very important. And what are the educational openings that can be forged? What are the public diplomacy approaches that can be taken? What can be done in the cultural, or scientific, or medical space, where there’s so much overlapping talent, to show that we don’t need to fear dialogue and engagement in different sectors, and we can benefit from it? And over time, the question is whether that erodes the position of people who insist that cooperation will lead to deception and deceit. If you’re showing people that no, actually people are living up to their end of the bargain and there’s something for this, I think that erodes the position of people who have a vested interest in seeing that progress isn’t fulfilled. And in Iran I think that’s certainly a challenge.
Parsi: You mentioned that on Cuba there was a decision made by that government, which clearly the Iranian government has not made, but it was also not clear to you that the Cubans would make this decision. So we don’t know for certain, exactly what could happen if some of these dynamics were further pursued. The President gave a fantastic speech when he declared the opening to Cuba, and he could have just talked about it in a way of going forward, but he really took the opportunity to criticize the policy of containment, to really point out how little it had achieved, if anything, and as you mentioned in your speech as well, that it hasn’t achieved its objectives and outlived its purposes. Could one say the same thing about many of the remaining sanctions on Iran? In the sense that those unilateral sanctions, they may have a symbolic value but they’re not changing Iran’s policies. And if the objective is to change those policies, we now have a model of how to do that through engagement. Is there an opening? I know you guys have very little time, but we are hopeful in this room. Is there an opening or any other way that this could be done? Because, as you mentioned, the people-to-people exchanges are so important, and a very critical component of people-to-people exchange is the commercial ties.
Rhodes: Well look, I think first of all, as a general matter, I think the President has shown that he’s willing to pursue engagement and that he will deliver if we see that there’s an opening. And with Myanmar, we were ahead of the curve, I think, in testing whether or not there was a shift in policy there. And we felt it was very important to show that would lead to sanctions relief, as certain steps were met. And recently we announced that there will be a full lifting of the economic sanctions, even though we still have concerns with some of the issues in Myanmar, because we felt it was important to show that there is a dividend, and there was an opening that can be pursued, that can benefit us and the people of Myanmar. Cuba, we would like to lift the embargo.
I think with respect to Iran, I think the important principle is what I spoke about, which is, are the sanctions tied to policies that we have concerns about, that are in violation of some international norm of behavior? Ballistic missiles is an area where, if we feel that countries are pursuing ballistic missile programs outside of international commitments, that is an area where we would pursue sanctions. Human rights, you know we make judgments around the world about what sanctions can be imposed that may have a constructive purpose. I think therefore we have to look at the sanctions and say can we draw a line between a certain action and this sanction, or are we just trying to dump a bunch of sanctions on Iran because it’s Iran? And if we apply that test, I think we can also find openings for areas of relief or licensing, like we recently did on the civil aviation. And are there actions that can be taken to open up some space on issues around students and other, more self-evidently people-to-people areas that benefit our countries? So I think we’d see some room, but only if we see some engagement from Iran that indicates that this is a direction we can go in together. And frankly, that’s important here because of the fact that we do have a Congress that is very interested in this issue and when we had an argument to make on the nuclear side, there was an opening to work with Congress to provide that space.
So I think we need to consistently be able to make that argument about why engagement necessitates some space within the sanctions in a particular area. I do think until you have changes in Iranian approaches on some of the issues that form the basis of sanctions, like ballistic missiles and support for certain terrorist organizations, then you’re going to have robust sanctions in place.
Parsi: The opposition to the deal didn’t just come from some of the members in Congress, but clearly we see now that it’s become a partisan issue which they’ve been pushing very hard and they probably will continue to do so. But what is your assessment of some of the regional countries, allies of the United States, that were very unhappy about this? Do you think they will devote the same type of resources and intensity on doing this even after President Obama leaves office? Or are you more confident that the sustainability of this deal has passed through that phase and we’re in at least a more relatively secure phase?
Rhodes: Well, first of all, let me say a couple of things. First of all just with respect to Congress, put aside other countries, I think the thing we are concerned about is that, and this gets to your question on sanctions, the nuclear sanctions need to be, again as part of this deal, suspended and lifted in some cases, and what we cannot see is a re-imposition of those sanctions under other purposes. Just to answer the short question of where have we seen the greatest challenges, it’s oftentimes, there’s sanctions that are tied to something else, like ballistic missiles, that cross into this deal space, and that is a challenge. I think, then moving to the attitudes of the countries in the region, you know, I think that on the issue of the nuclear program, the success of the deal itself changes the equation with some countries. Now, you know in Israel, I don’t think the prime minister would ever say a kind word about the deal, but you do have, clearly, members of the security establishment are seeing that, wait a second, this is resolving our concern. And I think it has relaxed, significantly, the tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship because the deal is working as we said. So that’s not to say that there’s not going to be all kinds of criticism of other Iranian policies out of Israel, but there’s been a noticeable lowering of the temperature on the nuclear deal itself, and just, by the way, like the JPOA, I think over time, becomes something that, we would argue, the Israeli government is going to depend upon to ensure that this issue does not emerge as a source of tension.
I do think that, more broadly in the region, and the President has spoken about this, the acceleration of tensions between some of our gulf partners and Iran is causing huge challenges and problems and human suffering in Syria and Yemen and other places. And there needs to be, talk about the need for diplomacy, it’s not just diplomacy between United States and Iran. We’ve encouraged diplomacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Iran and the UAE, because ultimately that is going to be necessary to find ways to resolve these disputes in the region peacefully.
That’s not so much tied to the nuclear deal. I think there was some anxiety after the nuclear deal that that was going to put Iran in a stronger position, so that led to a kind of stronger condemnation of certain Iranian actions. But I do think, just separate and apart from the challenges to the deal itself, the diplomacy is not just something we encourage between our two countries, we encourage it regionally as well.
Parsi: And I think that will be very welcome, because what is happening between Iran and Saudi Arabia right now is a tremendous danger for the region as a whole, and diplomacy is needed, but there is also a bit of a shift, it seems, like in D.C., in which there is a more honest conversation about some of the things the Saudis are doing. I was quite surprised by the interview you gave about two months ago, in which you mentioned that some of the seed money going to the creation of Al Qaeda came from Saudi Arabia. So there is a more open conversation about this and it seems to also be a necessity in order to be able to get movement on this issue. Because if it is only business as usual, do we have that much leverage to be able to really press the Saudis and Iranians to be able to become more serious about, as the President said, “sharing the region?”
Rhodes: Well you know the concern, I think, we see is that in positions where one party feels like they’re in a position to exert greater freedom of action, we see that escalating. So in Syria, where the Assad regime and its Iranian allies and Russia feel like they can act with impunity, you see this type of horrific assault on Aleppo. In Yemen you’ve seen this Saudi coalition, including Saudi Arabia, engage in their military action, and [it’s] been a [hard] to find a movement towards diplomacy. So what’s concerning is that where there are these openings to, in some cases, avoid the path of diplomacy, we see the more sectarian nature of the conflict driving things, you know just as we saw Iran supporting the Houthis in Yemen. What we would argue is that there are some basic things we can agree on. Interestingly enough in Iraq, for all the challenges, the common threat of ISIL got everyone’s attention, and the reason you’ve had this progress in Iraq is because everybody, for a moment at least, put aside some of the other differences and agreed to focus on this. And because that happened, you’ve had, you know, greater openness and willingness from the Sunni states in the region to support an Abadi-led government. You’ve had Iranian support for an Abadi-led government, and you’ve had the United States there in a supporting role and they’ve been pushing ISIL out of these areas and then securing those areas, and there’s been this tenuous avoidance of escalation between different militia forces and the Iraqi security forces.
My point is, it shows that we can achieve our objectives and it’s going to be messy, there are going to be differences, when we can at least identify what is the common ground that we can all agree on, and I think extremism and ISIL is one place that we argue that everybody can start. While also seeing that you’re ultimately going to defeat yourself through the use of military force in these conflicts. You’re going to exhaust yourself, you’re going to overextend yourself, you’re going to set back your international position. And that, if you can find an opening to achieve your interests peacefully through diplomacy, that’s going to put you in a better position, and that you can’t, frankly, resolve the different conflicts in the region if you don’t have all the countries in the region working together to do so. So in other words, you can’t resolve Syria, you can’t resolve Yemen, you can’t resolve Iraq in isolation, that ultimately you’re going to need dialogue between Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and Turkey, and Qatar, as well as the United States and Russia.
Parsi: You mentioned in your talk about how the patriotism of all Americans should be measured by what we do, rather than who we are, and we had an example of the opposite of that, slipping into legislation back in December, 2015, in which at the last moment some folks managed to put in language into the bill that ensured that, when it came to the changes to the Visa Waiver Program, people would be kicked out of that visa exchange program based on where they were born or where their parents were born. Now these are not Americans, but there was a fear that the Europeans would reciprocate and impose the same rules, which would have affected everyone in this room. Now, many in this room have been affected nevertheless because their family members no longer can come here using the same type of a procedure that all other Europeans can. Now, as I understand it, this was not something the President, in any way, shape or form favored, but it was stuck into that bill by opponents of the President, and it was a must pass bill. It would be great if you could explain how that happened, but also how you think this can un-happen because, to many of us, it was a first indication of how the language of Trump, and that language of xenophobia, is no longer just rhetoric, it’s starting to actually manifest itself in legislation.
Rhodes: Well, I think that time, what we were focused on as an administration, was the threat of foreign fighters into and out of Syria, the threat of ISIL, and the potential for individuals to utilize the Visa Waiver Program to get to the United States where they then could conduct attacks. Now, as we looked at the countries where that was happening, Iran was not, candidly, on the list and it has not been a supplier of recruits for ISIL for a whole host of reasons, obviously. So our interest was, look there clearly were countries where we saw the need to impose additional hurdles to entry and additional layers of screening. And for us the express purpose of that was to deal with the very specific issue, which was ISIL foreign fighters. In the process of legislation, you know Iran was included, I think, on the basis of their position as a state sponsor of terror.
Again, we were very concerned about the hardships that would impose on the Iranian-American community and we heard about it significantly from the community and others. As you said, it was a vehicle that was making its way through Congress with overwhelming support and, frankly, we needed that piece of legislation more broadly. So I think it was an example of, maybe some elements of this are a creeping resistance to others, creeping resistance to people from certain regions that manifests itself in opposition to hosting refugees, or opposition to immigration. And some of this, frankly, is the politics of Iran and how that intersects with a whole host of our national security policies. I do think it’s important that, again, that’s all the more reason, I think, for what I spoke about. The civic engagement of the Iranian-American community, and the visibility of the Iranian-American community, which is geographically concentrated, in some ways, where if I lived in Southern California I’m certainly aware of the enormous contributions of the community. If I live in different parts of the country I may not be. So I think one of the lessons is, as a general matter, shining the spotlight on this extraordinary, dynamic, successful community, patriotic community, and listening to them when you’re making decisions about things that are going to affect them so much. That’s something that, again, policymakers should do, and it’s something that they’ll be better at doing if organizations like yours and others are raising that voice and that profile.
Parsi: And I want to thank you for being the one at the White House who always listened when we had concerns and always took those concerns seriously and when you could move forward to be able to resolve them, that type of an ear in the White House is what we always wished for, a friend like the Obama administration has been. And we’re very much hoping that that will continue, not just for the sake of the nuclear deal or for the sake of the specific interests of our community, but for the sake of democracy in this country, to make sure that all communities and all citizens are being listened to. And I want to really commend you in particular, Ben, for having been such a good friend to our community during these years. Thank you. (applause)
Rhodes: I’ll say one more thing. The last thing I’d just say is, one of the things that I found to be of great value to me, is you listen to everybody and you learn from everybody. And I think where you guys have also been very effective and where I continue to encourage progress is in building relationships with other organizations that work on issues, or work on behalf of certain constituencies. That’s where I’ve seen you guys be a part of a broader constellation of organizations, but to include those who disagree with you, because one of the things is, as frustrating as it can be, just getting in the room and having the argument, and you’ve done this, it makes people at least understand where you’re coming from. So I did just want to make that last point, because I think that I so want to see this community to continue to make itself heard. And again, I’ve been happy to welcome you to the White House for policy discussions, for social engagements, but I’m also thankful for the way in which you’ve welcomed me into your community as well.
Parsi: Thank you so much Ben Rhodes.