Press Call: Iran and Iraq, What Next?

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Press Call: Iran and Iraq, What Next?

Iran, Iraq and Regional Security Threats

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
9:00 AM Eastern Time

As the violence in Iraq continues to swell and ISIS expands its controlled territory,  the Obama administration plans to send 300 military advisers to Iraq to assist the Iraqi military against the Sunni insurgents. At the same time the White House is attempting to manage the situation in Iraq, they are considering what role neighboring Iran could and should play in quelling the sectarian uprising. With increased diplomatic ties between Iran, the U.S., and its allies and the impending July 20th deadline to reach a final nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic, the idea of partnering with Iran holds promise for some and peril for others.


Dr. Colin H. Kahl, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at CNAS; and an associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
From February 2009 through December 2011, Dr. Kahl served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. In that capacity, he developed and implemented the U.S. Defense Department’s strategy and policy toward Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. During his tenure, he played a lead role in: designing and overseeing the responsible drawdown and transition strategy in Iraq; shaping the Pentagon’s efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and destabilizing activities; promoting unprecedented defense cooperation with Israel; building a Regional Security Architecture in the Gulf; and crafting the Department’s response to the Arab Awakening. In June 2011, Dr. Kahl was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service by Secretary Robert Gates.

Major General Paul D. EatonNational Security Network Senior Advisory
Maj. Gen. Eaton served more than 30 years in the United States Army, including combat and post-combat assignments in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia. As a major general he was assigned to Iraq from 2003 to 2004 as Commanding General of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team (CMATT), where he designed, manned, trained and equipped the Iraqi armed forces for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the security forces for the Interior Ministry. Prior to that assignment, he commanded the Army’s Infantry Center and was Chief of Infantry for the Army. Eaton has appeared on a number of news and commentary programs including Face the Nation, Hardball and all major networks.  During the 2008 campaign season, he advised candidates for both congressional and presidential campaigns.  He holds a bachelor’s degree from West Point and a master’s in French Political Science from Middlebury College. He is married to PJ, has two sons and a daughter, all soldiers.


John Bradshaw, J.D.Executive Director of the National Security Network
Prior to joining NSN, Bradshaw served as the Executive Director of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress. Bradshaw served as Washington Director of Physicians for Human Rights. Bradshaw also served as the coordinator of the Human Rights Leadership Coalition, a group made up of 12 major U.S. human rights organizations. He simultaneously worked as a Senior Advisor at the Open Society Policy Center. Previously, Bradshaw was a Foreign Service Officer, serving in Venezuela, Brazil, and Burma, as well as in the State Department’s East Asia and Human Rights bureaus. He also served as a foreign policy advisor to Senator Paul Wellstone and to Senator Robert Torricelli, both members of the Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier in his career, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. Bradshaw received his B.A. in Political Science from Yale University and his J.D. from New York University School of Law.




To listen to the call, click here

Please note that the audio for the call starts at 00:13:30

JOHN BRADSHAW: This is John Bradshaw. I’m the Executive Director of the National Security Network. We’re hosting this call today along with ReThink Media. As you saw on the advisory, we will cover today the situation in Iraq, nuclear negotiations with Iran, and linkages between Iran and Iraqi issues. We have two expert panelists: First, Major General Paul Eaton who served for more than 30 years in the United States Army, including combat and close combat assignments in Iraq, Bosnia, and Somalia. He was assigned to Iraq between 2003 and 2004 as Commanding General of the Coalition Military Assistance Training program where he designed, manned, trained, and equipped the Iraqi forces. Next, we have Dr. Colin Kahl who is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security and an Associate Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. You have more extensive bios of the panelists in the media advisory.

So first we will hear from General Eaton on the situation in Iraq, what’s happening on the ground, and possible U.S. responses to the crisis there. And then, after that, we’ll turn over to Dr. Kahl who will talk about the situation in Iran, Iran nuclear negotiations, and what’s happening on U.S.-Iran cooperation on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)/Iraq issue. We’ll then have a question and answer session. Each reporter should state your name and your outlet when you’re ready to ask a question. With that, we’ll turn it over to General Eaton. Go ahead, Paul.

MAJOR GENERAL PAUL EATON (RET.): John, thank you very much. What we’ve been watching is a political train wreck in slow motion that accelerated when U.S. forces departed in 2011 when an unrestrained Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki slowly disenfranchised the Sunni population and tinkered with the Iraqi military and police forces’ leadership in particular by replacing strong Kurd and Sunni leaders with Shia leadership that was more loyal to the Prime Minister than perhaps competent.  So the ISIS, the organization that actually started under the al-Qaeda banner in 2006 and 2007, flourished at that time when the Sunni population decided to throw in with the United States. It morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This organization then was squeezed out of Iraq into Syria, and over the last couple years, with the Syrian debacle, has developed into a pretty sophisticated organization militarily but also from a governance perspective. And with the Free Syrian Army, other insurgent organizations in Syria, and the Syrian government pressure on ISIS, they went back home and began to go to war in the North, working on Mosul, Tikrit, and on to Baqubah by jeep. Along the way they’ve developed a war chest of some $2 billion. They’ve taken away a significant amount of U.S. donated equipment and they have routed at least two divisions – right now 60 of 243 Iraqi battalions are combat ineffective. The remaining battalions are to be seen.

So the situation right now is, with the arrival of U.S. advisors, we will be able to see into the status, the true status, of the Iraqi security forces and they will be our directed telescope, if you will, for feedback into how we might help Iraq get this thing turned around. Al-Maliki is calling Shia-dominated units up for the defense of Baghdad. He is holding out his hand to the United States and he is working to develop alliances as he can. We’ve seen recent air strikes attributed to the Syrian Air Force up on the Iraq-Syrian border. So we’re not sure whether ISIS is going to consolidate right now or whether they’re going to try to expand their current footprint. What specifically happens in insurgencies is that the insurgents will start off in tiny packets and they will hug the population, and then at a certain point, they will shift into a more conventional type of warfare which leaves them very vulnerable to more high intensity warfare strikes like artillery, missile, or air delivered fire. So right now, we appear to be at a consolidating phase, but frankly, we’re not sure. With that, I’ll turn it over to Dr. Kahl.

DR. COLIN KAHL: Great, thanks Paul. So let me give you an update on where we are with the Iran nuclear negotiations and then I’ll say a word at the end about how the nuclear issues and the Iraq issues may become intertwined in some ways. So last week, the so called P5+1 – the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany – met yet again with Iran in Vienna. They started drafting the text of the comprehensive nuclear accord that they hope to conclude by July 20th, which is the deadline – the end of the current interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), which was signed last November and went into effect in January. The parties will reconvene on July 2nd for the home stretch and my understanding is they will basically remain in constant talks between July 2nd and the deadline of July 20th. An extension of the current interim agreement is possible if they can’t reach a final deal by July 20th, but all of the parties are signaling they are hoping to wrap things up by the original deadline so we’ll see. They have closed the gaps in a number of areas. There’s  some suggestion that the Iranians may be open to compromises on modifying the Arak heavy water reactor, for example, to address some concerns about plutonium production, so that’s the good news.

The glass-half-empty news is that there are some pretty significant gaps on key issues. Probably the biggest one is on Iranian centrifuge capacity. The Joint Plan of Action basically concedes to Iran that they will have a limited enrichment program at the end of the day through a comprehensive agreement that is consistent with Iran’s practical needs for nuclear energy. The devil is in the details, however, so much of the negotiation is how much capacity and what are their practical needs. The United States and other P5+1 powers are trying to roll back Iran’s centrifuge capacity to lengthen the so-called breakout period, that is the time it would take Iran to use its centrifuge capacity to produce hypothetically weapons grade uranium. U.S. officials have suggested they would like to lengthen that breakout capacity to at least a year. Doing that would require rolling back Iran’s current centrifuges, which number about 19,000, to the low thousands, so that’s a pretty substantial rollback. The United States claims that a small centrifuge program of perhaps 2,000-4,000 machines would also be sufficient to meet Iran’s practical needs for fueling research reactors, claiming that they already have enough fuel for the Tehran research reactors and that the Arak heavy water reactor, if it’s modified to use a different type of fuel, would only need a couple thousand centrifuges to provide that fuel. So the American argument is we can get the lengthy breakout timeline and Iran can fuel its basic practical requirements for its research reactors with only a few thousand machines. Iran, on the other hand, asserts that they need to be able to indigenously produce fuel for nuclear power plants. They only have one at the moment, at Bushehr. The Russians provide the fuel through 2021 and have said that they would provide fuel forever if the Iranians want it, but the Iranians assert that they need the ability to produce the fuel for that power plant, and additional power plants when they’re built, without having to depend on the international community. The problem with that argument is, if you accept that interpretation of Iran’s practical needs, that would require tens of thousands of centrifuges, probably somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 centrifuges, which is an enrichment capacity that the P5+1, not to mention other countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, would never accept. So there’s a big gap between a few thousand machines being acceptable or tens of thousands of machines.

Related to that is the issue of time. How long will the agreement last? The Iranians will have to sign up to some pretty extraordinary constraints on their program and verification procedures – how long will those constraints be in place? Will it be five years? 10 years? 15 years? 20 years? The P5+1 would like this agreement to be a long-term agreement, while the Iranians would like it to be a short-term agreement. So I would say there’s a gap there.

There’s also disagreement on the size and sequencing of sanctions relief. The Iranians would like almost all of the sanctions relief up front. The United States and the other P5+1 countries, but particularly the United States, would like to see that sanctions relief metered out and tied to particular benchmarks of compliance with the final agreement. So how much do you frontload sanctions relief versus how much do you phase and sequence it over time – that’s also a devilish issue they’re working through. There are some other issues that they’re tackling obviously, which we can discuss in the question-and-answer if you’re interested, including the investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s previous nuclear research. So to sum up on that: There has been real progress. I think the parties are serious. We’re entering the home stretch. It’s still unclear whether we’ll be able to get a deal by July 20th or if there will be some rollover or extension. But if there is a deal, they’re going to have to overcome some pretty big gaps in a few areas between now and July 20th.

Let me just conclude by saying a couple things about the Iran-Iraq connection. On the one hand, there is no connection between the Iran-Iraq issue and the nuclear issue in the sense that neither the Americans nor the Iranians want to couple the issues. They don’t want to drag the Iraq issue into the nuclear negotiations. It’s already complicated enough, you don’t need to complexify it even more by dragging in regional issues. On the other hand, the bilateral dialogue, which is now quite robust, between the United States and Iran that was opened up as a consequence of the nuclear negotiation does provide a channel, a channel that previously did not exist, for the United States and Iran to have conversations about Iraq. Bill Burns, the Deputy Secretary of State, had a conversation with the Iranians on the margins of the last P5+1 meeting about Iraq. The Iranians and the United States do not have identical interests in Iraq, but they do have some important overlapping interests that include not wanting to see ISIS establish a safe haven in Iraq, not wanting to see the government in Baghdad fall, and not wanting to see Iraq return to all-out civil war and a failed state. At least some factions within the Iranian government recognize that it will be very difficult for the Iraqi government to beat back ISIS without American military help, and the U.S. Administration seems to recognize it will be difficult to push political factions in Iraq to make the type of political compromises necessary to roll the crisis back without Iran pushing Baghdad in a similar direction. So the Iranians in a sense may need us on the military side of the equation and we may need the Iranians on the political side of the equation, and while we may not agree on everything there may be sufficient overlap for us to work together to help resolve the crisis in Iraq. So with that, why don’t we open it up to your questions? Thank you.

PAUL SHINKMAN (US NEWS & WORLD REPORT): General, I wanted to ask you first, do you get the sense that the U.S. is adequately exploiting its nine years of experience in Iraq to find any further non-military solution here? For example, have you been called upon to connect with any of your former Iraqi counterparts to perhaps, at the very least, get a clear picture of what it is we’re actually dealing with here?

EATON: That’s a very flattering question. No, I have not been contacted, but we have a very deep bench and I would expect that the leading edge of the Special Forces Group, plus whoever else is going, includes men who were instrumental in the development of Iraqi security forces. I would also expect we have State Department people in there to attack the root of the problem, which is the political environment internal to Iraq and in concert with what Secretary [of State John] Kerry is doing – trying to mobilize a regional diplomatic campaign plan to bring all interested actors to the table to see if we can influence the outcome here.

BRADSHAW: Thanks Paul.

SHINKMAN: I was just going to ask Dr. Kahl, if he thought that, looking at the prospective U.S.-Iranian cooperation, especially in view of the political situation, do you see the Iranians settling for any less Shiite power in a centralized Iraqi government?

KAHL: That’s a good question. I think we have to be careful not to presume that there is one unitary Iranian view on this. There are factions within the Iranian government, especially those associated with President [Hassan] Rouhani and Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif, who represent a more moderate, pragmatic camp, who are open to the notion of cooperating with the United States to push for a political solution that includes a much more inclusive government. The demographics of Iraq suggest that that it is going to be a Shia-dominated government in the sense that there is almost inevitably going to be a Shia prime minister. The question is, can you have a unity government that incorporates enough Kurds and Sunnis to be seen as legitimate? The secondary question is whether that government could, or should, include Prime Minister al-Maliki. I think that the assumption is that, and argument that U.S. officials have suggested, while it is conceivable that al-Maliki could return at the head of a national unity government that was committed to power-sharing and reforms, he has a real credibility deficit on those issues, given his behavior since 2006, and it may be necessary to find another Shia candidate, perhaps within his own coalition, the State of Law, or within the larger coalition of Shia parties, to put together a national unity government.   But in any case, I do believe that there are factions within the Iranian government that would be open to cooperating on that, or pushing in the same direction on that score. But there are other factions, principally led by the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and Quds Force and the Covert Action Wing that is led by General Qasem Soleimani , who has made a number of visits to Iraq since the violence has escalated there.

It’s important to keep in mind that, while Rouhani and Zarif were given the lead on the nuclear file, they have not been given the lead on any other foreign policy issue in the region.  The IRGC and its Quds Force has the dominate role in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, etc., and the Revolutionary Guard-trained Shia militia groups that viciously attacked U.S. forces during our time in Iraq, killing hundreds of American forces, the IRGC  Quds Force has been instrumental in supporting [Bashar] Assad’s government in Syria and they are the vanguard of Iran’s revolutionary ideology, and resistance movement, so they have a much more militant perspective towards these types of issues and the United States, and they may be more supportive of a solution in which Shia militia are mobilized inside Iraq to roll back ISIS in that way. That is a very dangerous road to go down, because it risks reigniting civil war in Iraq, which is a dangerous outcome for Iran. My hope is that cooler heads will prevail in Tehran, and they will realize that a political solution is much better than a military solution, and that will empower those voices who want to cooperate more with the United States.

BRADSHAW: Thanks Colin. Next question, please state your name and your outlet.

STEVE COLLINSON (AFP): Could I follow up with that? Prime Minster al-Maliki today has ruled out the idea of a unity government, at least in the short term. Assuming that remains the position, how does that constrain military options the President might be thinking of conducting in Iraq? Members of the Administration have already spoken about the need not to be seen as acting as “the air force of one” route? Do you think that al-Maliki’s statement today reflects some of the views of the IGRC and the Quds Force you just mentioned?

EATON: I’ll address that. Dr. Kahl brought up the word “legitimacy.” Until the government can be seen as legitimate, the Iraqi security forces, the individual members, will have a difficult time feeling that they are legitimate actors. In the beginning, when we developed the Iraqi Army, we developed it to model the demographic picture of Iraq, 20% Kurds, 20% Arab Sunni, 60% Arab Shia, and the effort was that those men would feel that they were empowered to act on behalf of a legitimate Iraqi government. We do not have that right now. We have units that that have gone sectarian and we have a government that has disenfranchised the Sunni population. The Kurds have been content to pull up the draw bridge up in the north and defend themselves with their own Peshmerga, so it’s a real problem if we don’t get the al-Maliki government to appear and to act like a legitimate government.

KAHL: This is Colin. I wouldn’t over-interpret that portion of the al-Maliki address. My understanding of what he said is that he was not in support of setting up an “emergency administration,” whatever that means, but that he did call for national unity and struck a much more conciliatory tone. In fact, much of the reporting seems to suggest that the tone has appeared to have shifted quite dramatically since Secretary Kerry‘s visit. I don’t think we’ve seen al-Maliki throwing down the gauntlet that he refuses to put together a national unity government.

I also think that it’s important to keep in mind that U.S. leverage is not principally or only on Prime Minister al-Maliki, it is on the Iraqi political system as a whole. The Iraqis are going through a period of government formation; the Iraqi judiciary certified results of the parliamentary election last week. This sets in motion a two-week clock for the Iraqi parliament to convene, select a speaker and president, and that sets in motion, theoretically, a 30-day clock for forming of government. That entire process starts as of July 1st. Secretary Kerry was able to get al-Maliki on the record admitting that that process would start by July 1st, and it’s important to keep in mind that Kerry didn’t just meet with al-Maliki; he met with Ammar al-Hakim, who’s the head of another large Shia collation and potential kingmaker on the Shia side; he also met with [Usama] al-Nujayfi, the speaker of the Parliament—a Sunni—and went up to Erbil to meet with President [Masoud] Barzani, the Kurdish president, and I think that there is widespread recognition among Iraq’s political elite, Sunni, Kurd and Shia, that the government has to be a national unity government that includes both Sunnis and Shia, and Arabs and Kurds, and also has real power-sharing and real reforms that dial back the authoritarian powers that al-Maliki has accrued to the office of the Prime Minister. If al-Maliki can’t agree to form such a government, they will pick another candidate. Al-Maliki’s coalition, the State of Law, won the largest number of seats in the parliament, but they do not have enough seats to form a government all by themselves. They can only form a government with the cooperation with other Shia Islamic parties, as well as the Kurds and probably the Sunnis too. So our leverage is not just with al-Maliki, but with the system as a whole.

BRADSHAW: Thanks Colin. Next question please.

LISA RIZZOLO (ARD GERMAN TV):  Regarding the U.S. troops that are on the ground, the Administration keeps saying that these teams are there purely to assess the cohesiveness and readiness of the Iraqi security forces. Do you think that this is truly all they’re doing at this point, or do you think that they are trying to eyeball targets for any sort of drone or airstrikes?

KAHL: The initial tranche of special operators, about 90 folks out of potentially as many as 300, have arrived. While we don’t know the exact composition, my guess is that it’s a mix of special operators who were involved in training Iraqi forces previously, as well as those that were involved in targeting what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq networks. My sense is that they are on the ground to provide an assessment; both an assessment of Iraq’s security forces, also specifically probably Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, because our special operations forces worked very closely with Iraqi special operations forces, which by the end of our involvement in Iraq were quite capable, so also figuring out what their residual capabilities are. I think they’re also there to gather intelligence about ISIS, and to figure out the feasibility of kinetic action, U.S. military action, in the case that the President decides that that’s in U.S. interest to do. I think they’re there to assess both: both the Iraqi side of the equation and the ISIS side of the equation. What they’re not there to do is to pull triggers. They are advisors and assessors, they are not combatants, so they’re not going to be out there kicking down doors and going after the ISIS guys in the way they might have done several years ago.

I agree with everything you’ve said. I would add that when we had our teams embedded in Iraqi units, they were also the links to target multipliers that are peculiar to what America can provide: intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance assets, communications, logistics, and delivery of fire. So it would be prudent for these men to have the capacity that, if called upon, they can perform the functions that embedded trainers in Iraqi units provided up until we left.

BRADSHAW: Thanks Paul. Next question, please.

MATTHEW COX (MILITARY.COM): Could either of you gentlemen talk about the recent arrival of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, and what that might mean for increased tensions in Iraq, given his past involvement when the U.S. was fighting in Iraq, and he caused quite a few problems, there were quite a few battles that he was involved with. Could either of you speak on that?

KAHL: At the height of the Mahdi Army, it numbered around 60,000 Shia militia fighters. They were a potent force that opposed United States occupation in Iraq, fought U.S. troops for years. The final showdown with the Jaish al-Mahdi came in 2008 in a series of battles in Basra, in Sadr City, in Amarah, and a number of other areas, and the Mahdi Army was beaten back by a combination of Iraqi security forces and U.S. forces, in addition to pressure from the Iranians to stand down, because the Iranians were fearful of an all-out intra-Shia civil war.

So a combination of factors led al-Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army in 2008. There was still an elite component known as the Promise Day Brigade, which continued to be armed and fight U.S. forces until the end of U.S. presence in Iraq, but it was a much smaller component. There were also other Shia militant groups, some of which associated with al-Sadr’s movement that continued to fight U.S. troops, most notably Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which broke off from al-Sadr’s movement and has very close ties to Iran, as well as Kata’ib Hezbolla, which is an elite Shia militia unit which has direct ties to the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, and so the Promise Day Brigade, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hezbolla continue to fight U.S. forces through the end of U.S. presence in Iraq, even after the Jaish al-Mahdi militia disbanded.

The concern currently is that with ISIS making inroads throughout western and northern Iraq and encroaching upon Bagdad and Samarra, where one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites is, Shia militias have remobilized en masse, and that the Jasih al-Mahdi, once disbanded, will come back. The concern is that you could have a repeat of the situation that we say in 2006 where the atrocities committed by Sunni extremists set in motion reciprocal violence by Shia militia groups, which really tipped the country into an all-out sectarian civil war. So, I think we’re in a race against time here. Either the momentum against ISIS will be reversed by some combination of Iraqi security forces, perhaps with some help from U.S. advisors, or Shia politicians like Sadr will take matters into their own hands and unleash their followers to engage in the nasty business of rolling back ISIS fighters, which could involve a lot of sectarian cleansing, which was quite terrible in the 2006-2007 period. I think that’s the concern at the moment.

JOHN BRADSHAW: General Eaton?

PAUL EATON: No, I have another gray answer.

BRADSHAW: Okay thanks, next question from a reporter please, go ahead.

SUSAN CRABTREE (WASHINGTON EXAMINER): We have these reports of Syrian airstrikes now and the Israeli forces getting involved with airstrikes as well. I’m wondering how that complicates the picture for us and our potential to conduct airstrikes or get involved further in the conflict.

EATON: The more players that you bring who are uncoordinated, as you are suggesting, the tougher it is to govern airspace, the tougher it is to de-conflict targets, the tougher it is to manage the battlespace. So as this thing matures I would expect that, as we identify players, be they Iranians, Syrians, or whoever else may come into this fight, that you will see a command center begin to mature in Baghdad to manage the fight. But right now it’s a complex situation obviously.

KAHL: So I would say a few things. First of all, it’s not been corroborated that it was Syrian warplanes that did those airstrikes. That was reported from Iraqis on the ground. But let’s assume that they were Syrian warplanes that hit ISIS targets along the Syria-Iraq border. I think that what it does is it lays bare two things. One, that the Syrian and Iraqi “battlespaces,” so-called, have fused into one. That is, that the border between Syria and Iraq has effectively been erased, that ISIS is operating all up and down the Euphrates [River] starting in Aleppo and going to Ar-Raqqah down in Syria all the way down the Euphrates into Ramadi, Fallujah, and other towns there as well as up the Tigris [River] to Mosul and Tal Afar and other areas. So this is a span—you know the so-called Sunni Triangle in Iraq—that in this case spans all the way into Syria. So there is one battlespace. So I would expect that you would see Syrian forces who are battling ISIS hit on both sides of the border.

I think the second thing that it lays clear though is that there is a very complex set of interests and alignments here. On the one hand, the United States is incredibly opposed to Assad and has been working to get rid of him—some people [say] probably not doing enough—but working to get rid of him for a couple of years. On the other hand we’re also opposed to ISIS who opposes Assad, and this is not actually a case in which an enemy of our enemy is our friend. In this case the enemy of our enemy is still our enemy. We have two enemies: Assad and ISIS. And the question becomes: how can you combat ISIS without helping Assad? And how can you combat Assad without helping ISIS? And the answer to that equation is you have to find a way to synchronize whatever you’re doing in Iraq with whatever your strategy is in Syria. Which is why I believe the administration is taking a hard look at what it’s doing to support the moderate opposition in Syria who is opposed to both Assad and ISIS, so that you can put pressure on both Assad and ISIS on the Syrian side of the border while you’re putting pressure on ISIS on the Iraqi side of the border.

BRADSHAW: Thanks Colin. We’ll take another question from a reporter, and that includes questions about the situation in Iran and the Iran nuclear negotiations, which we also have Dr. Kahl to discuss. Please go ahead with the next question.

JIM LOBE (INTERPRESS): I didn’t want to really ask about the nuclear question, but I did want to ask about the regional question. Now that ISIS has taken over border stations with Jordan and even Saudi Arabia, how do those countries assess what they need to do in light of ISIS’s advance? Do you think there’s some fundamental reevaluation going on, particularly on the part of the Saudis and the other Gulf States?

KAHL: So the answer is we don’t know the answer. The Saudis in the last couple months do appear to have been recalibrating their view of the Syrian conflict in light of growing concerns that the large number of Saudi foreign fighters that have gone into Syria could eventually return to Saudi Arabia itself and cause a lot of trouble in kind of a repeat of what you saw in Afghanistan in the 1980s situation. So you saw the King [Abdullah bin Abdelaziz] replace Prince Bandar [bin Sultan], who had been leading up the Syrian policy inside the Saudi establishment, with Mohammad bin Nayef, the Interior Minister, which a lot of analysts interpreted as a sign that the Saudis were taking the potential blowback effects of Syria more seriously.

Now, fast-forward to the Iraq situation, my sense is that the Saudis are probably deeply conflicted. On the one hand, they are very concerned about ISIS establishing a safe haven in western Iraq. On the other hand, the Saudis have not hidden the fact that they basically don’t trust, and in some ways the King personally despises, Nouri al-Maliki, seeing the Iraqi government as a puppet dangling on the end of Tehran’s strings. So the question is which do they prioritize? Do they prioritize working with the United States to help encourage Sunni tribes in western and northwestern Iraq to turn against ISIS? Or do they prioritize the short-term opportunity to destabilize theal- Maliki government. I can guarantee that Washington is pushing the Saudis to do the former, not the latter, and in fact emphasizing that the latter is a road to nowhere and a road to complete disaster. So my guess is that, in addition to communicating to the Iranians that they need to put pressure on the Shia side of the political equation in Iraq, we’re having conversation with the Saudis about putting pressure on the Sunni side of the equation in Iraq to take yes for an answer when and if there’s a real power sharing agreement in the context of a new government or real offers of more local autonomy to western tribes, those types of things.

EATON: From a soldier’s perspective, I would certainly expect to see a very robust effort on the part of the State Department to do a regional diplomatic campaign to do precisely what Colin is taking about. At the end of the day it’s a political problem, and the military problem, the security problem that we have is a direct outcome of that diplomatic problem.

BRADSHAW: Thanks Paul. Just to make sure we cover all of our topics let me ask a moderator question. This is for Colin. You spoke earlier about the Iran negotiations and the number of centrifuges being right now probably the primary obstacle to overcome. Hardliners on both sides have even exacerbated that by talking about completely dismantling Iran’s centrifuges or having even, some suggested on the Iranian side, a hundred thousand. There are some compromise proposals out there, notably this Princeton proposal that came out a few weeks ago, that would tie the number of centrifuges to the development of Iran’s civilian program and would ratchet them up as the program increased. I wondered if you could assess for us how you think those proposals might be treated by the Iranian side and what the prospects are for getting past that obstacle.

KAHL: I would start by saying that it’s now widely recognized that the extreme arguments on both sides are non-starters. While the proponents of them may cloak those arguments in the context of favoring a good deal or a good diplomatic outcome, they are so maximalist that you will get no deal. There is no scenario in which the Iranians will completely dismantle their program, so demands, by some in Congress for example, that Iran zero out its enrichment program, that’s a showstopper on the Iranian side. They’ve invested more than a hundred billion dollars and an enormous amount of the regime’s legitimacy in defending this program, they’re not going to scrap it altogether. On the other hand, Iranian maximalists who assert that they should be allowed to maintain their current capacity and ramp it up in very short order to 50,000-100,000 machines, that’s also a show stopper. There is no situation in which the P5+1 will accept that. Not just the Americans, not the other actors, even the Russians and the Chinese are telling the Iranians that. So the maximalist arguments on both sides, even if they’re cloaked in the context of supporting a good diplomatic outcome, are really just spoilers who are looking to undermine the diplomatic outcome.

So the question is really how do you reconcile the demand from the P5+1 for Iran to scale back its program to perhaps 2,000-5,000 machines with the Iranian desire to maintain their existing capacity of 19,000 machines, 10,000 operating, and in short order ramp up to more machines as their domestic  fuel requirements go up. The answer is we don’t know for sure, but there’s [sic] different formulations that you could imagine. One is to think of this in the context of time. So, in a world in which the Russians provided Bushehr with fuel for the lifetime of the power plant, and in a world in which the international community provided fuel guarantees to make sure that Iran got that fuel even if the Russians reneged, then Iran doesn’t need fuel for Bushehr and they wouldn’t need fuel for any other power plants until they came online, and they haven’t even been built yet and they will take at least a decade. So if you have an agreement that’s ten-fifteen years, it could be that after the agreement Iran can ramp up its infrastructure if required to meet the power plants that they would build in the future.

So one compromise is scale back the program now, ramp it up later after the agreement expires. Another potential compromise is to do it based on conditions. That is, to scale back the program now but allow Iran to opt out in a world in which they have practical needs that emerge that aren’t being met by the international community. The danger of that is it might give Iran an excuse to wiggle out of the agreement, so it would have to be crafted very carefully. But the incentive in doing that is that it would incentivize the international community to make sure that Iran got its fuel requirements met by the international market so as not to justify Iran expanding its domestic enrichment. So you may be able to use some combination of time and conditions to bridge what seems like an unbridgeable gap.

BRADSHAW: Great, thanks for that, Colin. We have time for a couple of more questions from reporters. Let me also note at this time that an audio tape of this call will be available within a few hours and then a written transcript will be available this afternoon. You can contact Kate Brown at the National Security Network to get access to those. So let’s go ahead with the next question from a reporter.

RIZZOLO (ARD) I can’t remember which of the participants said with the Iraq situation we’re in a race against time here talking about the possibility of sectarian cleansing. How much time is there? Is there a possibility for something to happen in the right direction here?

KAHL: It was me that made that argument here. The answer is we don’t know how much time, but I think we can make an educated guess based on experience that we don’t have a lot. A lot of it depends on the nature of events. For example, there was a lot of tic-for-tat sectarian violence in Iraq in 2004, 2005, but it didn’t bring the entire country down until 2006 when in February al-Qaeda in Iraq bombed the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which is one of the holiest sites for Shia Islam, which set in motion this mass mobilization and retaliation by Shia militia groups against Sunni communities throughout Iraq, principally in Baghdad but not exclusively in Baghdad.

We have not seen that type of catastrophic event yet, although ISIS is clearly aiming to blow up the Golden Shrine in Samarra again, and Shia militia has mobilized to protect Samarra. And U.S. officials have even hinted that Samarra might be something in which if we saw a bunch of ISIS fighters on the roads heading to Samarra – maybe that’s even an instance in which U.S. airstrikes could be used.

So at the moment there is the danger that some catastrophic event set off by ISIS that hits a very symbolic Shiite target will set in motion uncontrollable reciprocal violence you saw in 2006-2007. That is a real concern and as long as ISIS maintains its momentum and is able to carry out attacks across the country, suicide bombing attacks in Baghdad, the higher the risk that that chain of events will be set in motion.

The other scenario is that you don’t get a catastrophic event, but the Iraqi government concludes that the only way they can roll back ISIS is to fully depend on these mobilized Shia militia to do the job for them because the Iraqi army can’t be counted upon to do the job, which is why it is important, I think, for the United States to try and help the Iraqi security forces, the legitimate security forces, reverse ISIS’s momentum as soon as possible to take away the argument from those who would argue that in desperation the Iraqi government needs to turn to these militia. So that is why we are in a race against time, you need to avoid both scenarios – a catastrophic event that tips the country into civil war or a vacuum by the Iraqi military forces which is filled by Shia militia.

EATON: There is a tendency on the part of insurgencies to over reach and go conventional, and at that point they become extremely vulnerable to conventional fires. Which, I am not sure what these guys are going to do, but they may have learned that lesson from past work. I have to drop right now, but thank you very much John and Colin.

BRADSHAW: Thank you very much General Eaton and Dr. Kahl. Do we have any final questions from reporters on the call?

ZAID BENJAMIN (RADIO SAWA): Do you think that Washington knows that al-Maliki is the problem in Iraq and that he needs to be going out?

KAHL: I think that the Administration has been rightfully cautious about calling for al-Maliki to step down. In part because we can’t make him step down, we can have a preference there, but it’s magical thinking to think that we can just wish him away.

There is also the possibility that we call for him to step down, and he doesn’t step down. There is the situation in which he forms a government, in which we would be left in a situation in which it would be much more difficult to cooperate with him.

Instead what I think the Administration has done, and I think this is the right approach, is to say look whatever government is formed:

A) it needs to be formed very rapidly;

B) it  needs to be a national unity government that is seen as legitimate by all of Iraq’s communities, and is committed to real power sharing and reform;

C) and it needs to be voicing some skepticism that it is not clear that Maliki is capable of forming such a government. But if he is fine, but it is not clear that he is and there is skepticism that he is.

What I think that the Administration is signaling is it is highly unlikely that Maliki can fit the bill, but there is a narrow scenario in which he does form a government that restricts his own powers and has genuine power sharing etc. I think most analyst believe that it would be very difficult for Maliki to lead a national unity government committed to reform. There is just too much water under the bridge for that to work. But we can’t make it happen.

All that we can do is we can have conversations with all of the various political factions, which we are at every level, to make it clear that the level of U.S. support to the Iraqi government will be calibrated, or pegged, to the degree to which that government is committed to real reform. And there is a lot of dissatisfaction within the Iraqi political system towards Maliki – to include among Shia factions. It is completely conceivable that the rest of the Iraqi political system could conclude that they need America’s help and that they have to dump al Maliki to get it. That would be the road to a post-Maliki outcome.

And as I said earlier, that is actually a message which is very important for Tehran to also be sending to Iran’s various factions, especially the Shia but also the Kurds who the Iranians have close contact with as well. There is no guarantee that that is an outcome that will happen, but it is a conceivable scenario.

BRADSHAW: Thanks Colin. We have time for one final question, if there is one, otherwise we will wrap up.

CRABTREE (WASHINGTON EXAMINER): Wondering if you all can talk on the destruction and turmoil in Iraq causing, or will cause, to the oil market.

KAHL: I can talk a little bit about that, although it is not an area of deep expertise for me so I would defer to energy market analysts who do this for a living. I would say the immediate concern is ISIS’s assault on the Baiji refinery. On the one hand the Baiji refinery is, there are conflict reports on if ISIS holds it or not. It is clear they have a lot of control over the town of Baiji, and that they penetrated the Baiji refinery to some degree, although there are Iraqi special operations forces in Baiji and their commander has said they have nominal control over the refinery. Baiji is Iraq’s biggest refinery, but it is almost exclusively used for domestic oil use – that is transportation, electricity, etc. domestically.

The vast majority of Iraq’s oil structure for international markets is clustered around the infrastructure in Basra in the deep south of the country, and to a lesser extent in the north in Kurdish controlled areas. These are areas that ISIS does not threaten. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces are likely to wall-off those parts of northern Iraq where the oil is, and ISIS would have to penetrate deep into the Shia south of Iraq to threaten Basra’s infrastructure, which I don’t think any analyst is predicting is possible. I think in the near-term you are not likely to see direct disruption of Iraq’s oil exports, unless that capacity gets redirected to meet domestic needs from the disruption of Baiji.

I think the greater concern is that there was real hope that Iraq was on an upward trend line in terms of oil exports. Before the ISIS crisis, they were exporting around 3.4 million barrels a day I believe, and they were OPEC’s number two oil exporter surpassing Iran in 2012 to become number two behind Saudi Arabia. And there were hopes that in the next decade they could be exporting as many as nine million barrels a day. I think obviously the violence and chaos in Iraq makes those growth estimates much less likely, and you can actually some decline from Iraq’s current output as a result of instability and redirection to meet domestic needs. You have seen the markets reacting in that way to price that security premium into the cost of oil.

The other challenge is, from my understanding of market analysts, is that there are only 2 or 2.5 million barrels of spare capacity on the global market right now, which means if you saw a dramatic reduction in Iraq’s exports it could quickly absorb that excess capacity in… would put some significant upward pressure on oil prices. I think that the near-term concern is that Iraq will not meet its potential to produce even more oil in the years ahead.

BRADSHAW: Thanks Colin. We will go ahead and wrap up. I would like to thank Dr. Colin Kahl and General Paul Eaton for sharing their expertise with us this morning. As I said, you should be in contact if you want access to the audio or transcript with Kate Brown the Communications Director at the National Security Network she is at With that we will end the call.

For press inquires or questions concerning this call, please contact Kate Brown at


Photo Credit: Iraq-Iran border post near the Iranian southwestern town of Shalamcheh. [PressTV, 6/16/14]

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