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Transcript: Anti-Democractic Regimes: Confrontation or Coexistence?

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  • Elliot Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • Evelyn N. Farkas, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
  • Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution
  • Indira Lakshmanan, Foreign Policy Correspondent 

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:  My name's Indira Lakshmanan and I have the privilege of moderating this next session, which is titled Anti-Democratic Regimes: Confrontation or Coexistence.

We have a terrific panel here who will represent a lot of different points of view, not only about how this administration has done with regimes that you can call rogue regimes.  And that George w. Bush called the "axis of evil," called them anti-democratic.

You know, we're going here perspectives from them about how the Obama administration has dealt with these regimes, and how the next administration, whatever that may be, should engage or confront those regimes.

So, starting from my far right, Mark Dubowitz is Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he leads the program on Iran, Sanctions and Non-Proliferation.  And also heads FDD Center on Sanctions and Elicit Finance.

Sitting next to him is Evelyn Farkas, who's a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.  And she was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama Administration.  Previously, she was Senior Advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, a Special Advisor to the Secretary of Defense for the NATO Summit.  And she was also for several years the Chairperson on the Senate Armed Services Committee of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Committee.  OK.

And next to her is Elliot Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations across town.  He served as Deputy Assistant to the President, and Deputy National Security Advisor to George W. Bush.

And next to me is Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, also very close by.  Her research focuses on Iran and Persian Gulf energy, and she previously served as an external advisor to senior State Department officials on long-term issues related to Iran.

So, I think we can start out by, you know, going with what is in the news, which is just today, as we speak, the President is meeting with his national security advisors at the CIA to talk about, as we understand it, Syria and ISIS.  There is talk about perhaps a Plan B to arm Syrian rebels.  That has been reported in the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy.

So I want to start out maybe with Elliott.  Let's talk about Syria first.  This is a situation where the President has said recently that one of his biggest regrets as president, is that he didn't plan enough for the day after -- after the ouster of Gaddafi in Libya.  And that may go some distance to explain perhaps why he's been hesitant with Syria, or unsure of exactly what to do.

Because if you oust Assad, that's fine, but then what's the day after?  What comes next?  So I'd like to hear from you, what is your perspective?  I don't know if you have any inside information on what the discussions are going on today. 

But, perhaps you can tell us, I -- I know that you do know lots of people who are even still on the National Security Council.  You can tell us what your thoughts are on the current policy to Syria, and -- and why you think, maybe, the President has acted in the way he has to date.

ABRAMS:  Thank you.  I would -- I would go back to 2012, and remind everybody that secretary of -- the Secretary of Defense, the Director of CIA, and the Secretary of State, who was Hillary Clinton at that time, advised the President that something was missing in Syria.  And what was missing was a third force, if you will.  There was the regime and there was ISIS.

And we needed to help strengthen the, let's call non-Jihadi rebels, nationalist rebels.  And he rejected their advice.  Fast-forward to today, and we have the same problem, basically.  That is, none of us wants to choose between the Assad regime, which is a murderous regime headed by a war criminal, and ISIS. 

And -- but -- but one can ask the question, as you have, what happens if that regime falls?  Doesn't ISIS take over?  Well, it doesn't if there's another force that is strong enough.  And we have not done what we needed to do. 

The -- the 2012 advice from Clinton, I guess it was Pennetta/Petraeus, was good advice.  And we would not be in as terrible a situation as we are today had he taken the advice of the people who were theoretically his key foreign policy and national security advisors.

So now we get to the point of saying, as you just did, you know, "well, is there a Plan B?  Well, that was Plan A.  And he rejected Plan A.  And now, I hope they will go back to it, because I think that fundamentally the -- the -- the setup is the same.  You've got the ISIS forces, you've got Iranian-backed Hezbollah-backed regime forces. 

And there are rebels, though the President -- the President dismissed them as a bunch of pharmacists.  That was four years ago, and those pharmacists are doing a pretty good job surviving and fighting, despite really quite small amounts of outside help. 

So, I would go back to that.  I think that -- that that is still what we ought to be doing.  The regime is not going to fall tomorrow.  And -- and for better or worse, and we should be trying to create an alternative.

It remains a country -- it was when this began 74 percent Sunni country.  The only way that Assad and other Alawites are going to be able to rule that country going forward, particularly with the slaughters that have taken place, is by brute force.  And none of us should want that.

LAKSHMANAN:  Evelyn, I want to ask you, the larger theme here is of course, how do we deal with anti-democratic regimes in general, the confrontation or the coexistence.  And I wonder, I know you're specialty is not Syria.  You're welcome to comment on what Elliott just said, if you would like.  But you know, the confrontation coexistence --

FARKAS:  Yeah, I have a few points to make.

LAKSHMANAN:  Yeah, I would like to hear those.  I also want you, after talking about Syria, I'd like you to build on the question of confrontation or coexistence with your specialty, which is Russia.

As we know, at the beginning of the Obama administration they wanted to have a reset with Russia.  And there was of course that embarrassing moment with the button, the reset button that Hillary Clinton presented, that apparently had the word spelled wrong in Russian.

And that became emblematic of a failed, supposedly reset with Russia.  And we've seen that, you know, critics of Obama have said, well, because he set this red line over the Syria chemical weapons, and then decided he wasn't actually going to bomb Syria about the chemical weapons.  That, that in turn emboldened Putin to do other things, like Ukraine, like the annexation of Crimea.

And that has sort of created a monster, not that Putin wasn't already, perhaps.  But that it made it worse.  So, I want to ask you about that.  How -- how should we be resetting our relationships?  First if you could talk about Syria, and then about Russia.

FARKAS:  That -- well, yeah.  So first, I think on -- on Syria, the real -- I mean what the President wants to do, and what everybody ultimately wants is a resolution at the negotiating table.  The problem is that we lack sufficient leverage.

So I think this idea of going to -- you know, going to a Plan B, and having a real robust answer, frankly, to Putin's military intervention, which occurred last September, is a good one, because, I've been saying for a while now, we need to have leverage so that our side of the negotiating table is bolstered. 

So I think that -- that -- that's the point I would make on Syria, and we can discuss some of that more in depth if you guys want to.  But, going to Russia, I would say we had to try a reset, in a sense. It's a -- it's a kind of a cyclical thing.  Every administration, frankly, has done it.  George W. Bush did it as well.  President Bush did it as well.  It was done before.

You know, it's -- it's -- I mean it's sort of a tried and true thing that when a -- when a new administration comes in, generally speaking they try again with Russia.  Ever since the Cold War ended, and you had Russia -- the Russian Federation, as opposed to the Soviet Union.

We did -- I mean, the Obama administration did actually get some things for this reset.  Meaning we got -- we got Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, and the northern distribution network.  So that's the route that goes through Russia to Afghanistan, back and forth.  That helped our military tremendously.  So in DOD, we were grateful for that.

LAKSHMANAN:  To allow the U.S. to resupply its troops in Afghanistan when it wasn't able to resupply through the --

FARKAS:  Correct, correct.

LAKSHMANAN:  -- the Afghanistan corridor, because of our issues with Pakistan.

FARKAS:  We got this START agreement, and again we can talk more about Russia's record on arms -- arms control compliance.  But nevertheless, we did get the START agreement, and for now, that's holding. 

We got the 1, 2, 3 agreement negotiated with the Russians.  And we got their acquiescence on -- on Libya.  Of course, that later had repercussions, because they regretted their acquiescence.

But nevertheless, they did that.  They went along with the U.N. Security Council resolution.  And a number of other things, you know, basically for -- for our effort, for the reset, we did get some important things from Russia.

However, you know, when Putin came back into power, things changed.  Medvedev was much more practical, and he was -- he had the running room to work with the President.  The reality is when Putin came in, he had an agenda that was much firmer now, and much more defined maybe than it had been before.

I can't say when it gelled, but I will say that it became very clear whereas in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and occupied 20 percent of its territory, which it still holds.  At that point we in the international community, because of the way it happened, and because of the -- frankly the politics internal to Georgia, and between Georgia and Russia, it was -- there was a lot of obfuscation.

There was not a lot of clarity about who was to blame.  And so people could dismiss it sort of as a one-off, without getting into too much detail, I'll leave it at that.  In the Ukraine case, it's unequivocal. 

Everybody understood Russia invaded Ukraine, they stole -- they tried to steal Crimea, I mean, that's still an open international issue, because they're occupying Crimea.  And then they went into the east, and fomented this military activity, which they're still engaged in right now.  To this day there are Russian troops, and Russian -- Russian equipment in Eastern Ukraine.

It's -- it's the Russian means that they're using now that have really highlighted for us that their objectives are problematic.  And -- and I don't want to speak too long, because I'll monopolize this, but basically, Putin wants to stay in power.  He wants to demonstrate that Russia's a global power on par with us, and our Western allies.

He wants to rewrite the rules of the international order, and this is really important when it comes to the Middle East but elsewhere, as well.  Russia wants to effectively challenge the right of the international community to intervene in states where -- where there is a ruler actively abusing its citizens.

So when you have a despotic brutal leader like Assad, barrel-bombing, chemical -- using chemical weapons against his people, it's Putin's belief, it's the Russian government's belief that the internationality community does not have the right to go in, does not have the responsibility, frankly, to protect.

So, those are -- those are the Russian objectives, and I think it's really important to bear those in mind.  Because Russia is no longer behaving like a status quo power.

LAKSHMANAN:  All right, well before we move on then, give us some prescription for this.  If -- if that is how Putin is behaving, how should the United States, the current president and whoever the next president will be, engage with Putin, given that this is his behavior?

FARKAS:  I think we need a very strong defensive approach.  So in -- in our -- our panel was called like "coexistence or confrontation."  I don't think it's either.  I mean, it's coexistence, but it -- we've got to be stronger than just coexisting with Russia.  So we have to have a strong defensive approach.

I think that the administration policy thus far has had elements of this deterrence, but I believe we -- we need to and we can do more.  And so it's -- it's -- it's giving lethal defensive equipment to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.  Those are the frontline countries that are now under a lot of pressure from Putin because they signed up for the European Union.

Who knew that that would be so, you know, alarming to Putin?  But it gets to how he keeps control over the periphery, and Russia itself.  Using his -- his corrupt economic means.  But I think, so we need to basically do part of this equipping and helping these countries defend their territory physically.  So using military means.

But there's also a lot of things that we need to do economically, shore them up economically.  We need to frankly sign the free trade agreements, that makes all of us strong together.  We need to strengthen our partners and allies in NATO and outside of NATO.

Diplomatically as well, we need to be present in the region.  You know, demonstrating that -- that Putin is offering you a bad deal.  It's -- it's a non-democratic alternative.  And frankly, you know, his means can be tempting even in Western Europe, even in our -- in our fully-developed democratic society. 

So, we just need to have a strong defensive approach towards Putin and the Russian approach.

LAKSHMANAN:  When we circle back, I want to come back to your comment about how it's tempting in our own society because it makes me think about our current election, and to whom you're making comparisons.  But we'll come back to that.  Mark, we're trying to jump around the globe here, look at different anti-democratic regimes. 

So forgive me for jumping, but I know you want to talk about Iran.  So, I want to ask you on the campaign trail, we have seen candidates pledge that if they are elected, they will immediately tear up, or try to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran that was signed with not just the United States, but the P5 plus 1.

So I want to get your take on this.  Is this realistic?  We've heard this pledge from Donald Trump, from Ted Cruise, variations on this.  Is that something they can do?  And would that be wise?

DUBOWITZ:  So I think, Indira, there -- there are two separate parts to that.  The first is can they shred the agreement, the second is can they renegotiate the agreement?  I think it's completely unrealistic to shred this nuclear agreement.

And I think to do so, particularly early on, would backfire on the United States.  Would play into Khamenei's hands.  And it would do to Khamenei and -- and Rouhani what they -- they seek to do for themselves, which is they are trying to legitimize themselves globally, in order to attract significant economic benefits. 

And also to have an internationally recognized industrial-sized nuclear program, that ultimately one day will have nuclear weapons capability, as a result of these restrictions sun-setting, or disappearing, under the nuclear agreement.

So we don't -- we shouldn't do that.  We shouldn't play into their hands.  I think a better approach is to take Khamenei's approach.  You see, Khamenei's -- for Khamenei, the JCPOA was not the end of the negotiation.  It's the beginning of the negotiation.  This negotiation is going to go on for years and years and years.

And in fact, the Iranians since the agreement was reached continue to negotiate greater and greater concessions.  And so, good.  Let's -- let's continue to negotiate.  And in fact, I mean there's a long history in the U.S. arms control of us continuing to negotiate, additional agreements, side agreements, better agreements.

A new president's coming into office.  Seeing that there were fundamental flaws in arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.  And making it very clear that were going over time-- we're going to improve those agreements.

And by the way, it's worth remembering that Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at U.S. cities.  And yet, both Democrat's and Republican's administration of -- on both sides of the aisle, members of Congress, people like Scoop Jackson, for example, insisted that despite the threat the Soviet Union represented, we were not going to live with deeply flawed nuclear deals.

And I think we shouldn't live with this deeply flawed nuclear deal.  But let's be smart, let's be strategic, let's not play into Khamenei's -- Khamenei's hands.

LAKSHMANAN:    So what is a realistic -- what would be, if you were advising one of the presidential candidates, what would be a realistic way to renegotiate?  Now Hillary Clinton, for her part, has not said that she's going to renegotiate.  But she has certainly given the impression that she's going to be tough in the enforcement of the nuclear deal. 

And tough on Iran in all the other aspects, such as terrorism, proliferation, other things that don't, you know, come -- missiles that don't come directly under the -- the nuclear agreement.

DUBOWITZ:  Right.  So one way to renegotiate with Iran is -- is to actually follow exactly that strategy, which is to use the non-nuclear sanctions that the -- President Obama and Secretary Kerry and others, have made very clear are permitted under this nuclear agreement. 

And so to use tough non-nuclear sanctions to go after Iran's missile activities, their support for terrorism, their vast system of domestic repression, their continued illicit financial activities.  Use those non-nuclear sanctions. 

And the Iranians have continued to -- to challenge us in something that I've called the "nuclear snapback," because for years, during these negotiations, they've threatened to walk away from the agreement. 

And they're using that -- that blackmail to try and deter us from using coercive instruments of statecraft against them like non-nuclear sanctions.  And unfortunately we've created this dynamic in the negotiations where I think that this administration has been deterred from really cracking down on Iran's malign activities outside of the nuclear agreement.

So let's get back to that offensive posture.  And let's use what is permitted under the nuclear agreement, and let's call the Iranians’ bluff.  It may be that they walk away from the table.  If they walk away from the table, they will be internationally isolated.  We'll have a greater predicate for -- for stronger action.

If they don't walk away from the table, I think we need to prioritize a small number of -- of fatal flaws of this agreement.  And we need to return back to the negotiating table, making it very clear that these are flaws that we are going to fix.

And the one that it concerns me the most of all of them, and there are many, are these sunset provisions.  This notion that somehow these restrictions on Iran's nuclear program are going to go away over time, regardless of Iran's behavior.  The notion that after five years, the conventional arms embargo goes.

Eight years, the ballistic missile embargo.  Eight and a half years, they can do --

LAKSHMANAN:  But isn't it based on the assumption that they're not violating the agreement in the meantime?  I mean, were they to violate the agreement, I'm sure that nobody would agree to sunset those provisions.  That's what the P5 plus 1 has said all along.

DUBOWITZ:  Well I actually predict that there's going to be an opportunity for a future U.S. president, because there are -- there are key provisions in the agreement where if the IAEA certifies under what's called a broader conclusion that Iran's program is for peaceful purposes only, the Iranians are going to come back in and try to renegotiate the agreement to get these sunset restrictions lifted more quickly.

So I think there's going to be opportunities for a future president, there may be one, there may be others where we'll have an opportunity to use coercive power, sanctions and -- and other mechanisms, and look for the opportunity because Khamenei is continuing to negotiate and renegotiate this agreement, that the United States should look for those opportunities to do so.

But let's not be rash and let's not threaten to shred agreements, and then -- let's not internationally isolate the United States, and in doing so, as I said, bolster Khamenei's leverage going forward.

LAKSHMANAN:  OK.  Well Suzanne, you have very carefully studied the Iranian government.  Of course, it's not a monolith.  But you've studied the reaction in Iran among different factions to the signing of the nuclear deal, to the implementation, which finally happened early this year.

What is your analysis of the internal debate within Iran over the benefits of the deal to them?  And this has sort of pushed certain factions in Iran to demand more because although maybe Zarif and maybe Rouhani, the President, are happy with it, certainly others like the IRGC do not seem to be happy with it. 

So how should the US respond or not respond to the internal debate that we see happening in Iran over this deal and whether it's good for them?

MALONEY:  Yeah, it's been a really interesting couple of weeks in Iran because with the Iranian new year, there's been a sort of revival of the debate within the Iranian political establishment about the benefits of this deal.  And specifically about the questions of sanctions relief, that I know FDD among other organizations has been very engaged in.

The Iranians feel much as Mark has described, as though we are renegotiating the deal, as though we are not obliging all of the -- the requirements that were -- that we committed to under the deal. 

And there is a -- a -- a concern I think within the Iranian political establishment that as happened in 2005, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei is going to begin to get cold feet about this deal and begin to look not simply just to renegotiate, but actually to back away from Iran's commitments under the deal. 

And so what you're seeing is a sort of tug of war within the establishment over how Iran will move forward, how Iran will engage with the rest of the world.  To my mind, this is proof that the deal is actually working exactly as we intended.

It is forcing more choices on the Iranian establishment because in fact, the deal did not provide for wholesale comprehensive sanctions relief.  It provided for quite a bit, but in effect it left enough of the U.S. unilateral sanctions regime, which has proven to be incredibly powerful in influencing the choices not just of American businesses but of the rest of the world in dealing with Iran.

It's left enough of that sanctions regime in tact that in fact the Iranians are not seeing the sort of pay-out that at least the supreme leader and some of the establishment thought that they might.

And so in effect, I think the -- the -- the onus on the administration at this point is to say, you know, to get more you have to give more and there's a lot more we could be pressing the Iranians to give. 

Whether it's within the confines of the nuclear issue, or more broadly because so much of the sanctions regime is in fact predicated on Iran's engagement with terrorism, and its human rights abuses against its own population.

It's a really important moment in Iran, and I think in effect, we have to let the Iranians begin to engage in these debates and really fight it out amongst themselves.  We can't win that battle for them.  There have to be Iranian actors who come to the fore, and say, we need this sort of sanctions relief.  We need the ability to engage in business transactions in dollars. 

We need to be somehow part of the international financial system, just as they did in the period that lead up to the 2013 decision to put a more amenable nuclear negotiating team in place.

LAKSHMANAN:    Elliott, take us back in time and give us the sort of historical frame of reference for this.  What is your view of the lessons that the experience of the Cold War has -- Cold War gave us?  And whether that gives us any lessons for dealing with Iran, specifically with regard to this deal?

ABRAMS:  You know what, I think it does.  And -- and it's been interesting to -- to listen because I think one of the lessons it teaches us, again, we've -- the title was coexistence or confrontation.  And the answer is both.

And I think the confrontation part has been missing.  It was missing in 2009, when we saw the green revolution in Iran.  I've heard administration officials say that, you know, what is everybody complaining about the negotiation with Iran?  Reagan did all sorts of deals with the Soviet Union.  And it's true.

LAKSHMANAN:  And with Iran.

ABRAMS:  Pardon?


ABRAMS:  And -- and he denounced.  And what's missing here is the denunciation.  It's the “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  It's the -- I mean there's the great story that Sharansky tells of Reagan saying it's an evil empire.  And when that reached the gulag, and it did reach the gulag. 

And they said, my god, an American president finally understands the nature of this regime.  It doesn't mean you don't negotiate.  But you negotiate from a position of clarity about what you think of the regime. 

Of do we want the regime to be replaced?  Do we want regime change in Iran?  How could you not want regime change in Iran?  It's a vicious, brutal despicable, terrorist-supporting, repressive regime.

Of course we want regime change in Iran.


It doesn't mean -- It -- you know, it doesn't mean we're going to change the regime any more than we changed the regime in -- in the Soviet Union.  But it does mean that you speak clearly about what you think of the regime. 

And it does mean, when it comes to things like, frankly, propaganda, when it comes to the Internet, that you're sending a clear message to the people of Iran that you understand how terrible this regime is and you are with them in the desire to replace it with a -- with a better regime. 

I think that -- I mean, to me that's one of the great lessons of the Cold War, that the administration has been unwilling to learn.  And -- and instead it's acting as if, you know, we can't say mean things, or they'll walk away from the table.  Of course we can say -- we can -- the mean things we want to say are truthful.

And if this government wants relief from the sanctions, it -- it -- you know, it's not going to walk away because the President said that they're a viciously repressive regime.


MALONEY:  Can I just jump in?


MALONEY:  Because I actually think this is an important issue.  This whole question of our moral authority in dealing with Iran.  And I think that the Obama administration, in its sort of -- sort of single-minded focus on getting to the table, on getting a deal that might be mutually beneficial, and mutually acceptable, spent a lot of time being very careful about its rhetoric on Iran.

And -- and -- and I think there's also an argument to be made that the Obama administration shied away from other confrontations although you can look at the whole kind of 37 year history of U.S.-Iran relations, and point to both Republican and Democratic administrations, including the Bush administration, that might  have done more to push back --

ABRAMS:  Sure.

MALONEY:  -- Iran's engagement around the region.  But I also think that there is a different context in Iran than there was in the Soviet Union.  I agree that the Iranian system is utterly despicable, and that its treatment of its own people, including at least two American citizens who remain in prison today is utterly horrendous. 

But Iranians interpret our actions and words on those issues very differently than Saudis -- than the Soviets did.  And we play into this history, this deep paranoia that the regime exploits to its own benefit, that the United States is somehow interfering in its internal affairs.  That U.S. support to indigenous actors somehow taints them. 

And I think there is -- there is a responsible caution we have to take in the way that we position ourselves toward indigenous defenders of democracy within Iran, of which there are very many.

And so it's a different sort of a strategy.  It's not to say that we back away from our moral responsibility to articulate our abhorrence of Iranian policies.  But it means we also have to appreciate that this is within a context in the region in which Iran's behavior is hardly unique.

LAKSHMANAN:  You know, that's very interesting.  And Evelyn, you're the only person on this stage who actually worked in the Obama administration.  So I want you -- you have the honor of -- of, you know, taking on the comment that Elliott made, and to which Suzanne responded.

Which is this notion that President Obama did not do enough, was too careful in his effort to get a deal with Iran.  I know Iran's not your area.  But in general, the question of being, you know, sort of ginger -- gingerly dealing with these regimes.

And not strongly enough morally condemning them.  Is that a fair criticism of Obama administration policy?  And -- and let's even get beyond sort of words.  I mean, what matters is deeds, and --

FARKAS:  OK, that's what I was going to say.

LAKSHMANAN:  Yeah, and Russia of course is your specialty.  I know you also were over at National Defense University this morning, working on an exercise related to North Korea, another very anti-democratic regime.  So I welcome you to speak about that, as well.

FARKAS:  Yeah.  I mean, I think my answer to you was going to be, look. I actually don't -- I think it's -- I don't  -- I don't see a need for President Obama to get up on this stage, and you know, pontificate about how horrible the Kremlin is, or Putin is, or -- or even, you know, any other government for that matter."

I'm more interested in what we do to counter those governments and their -- and their --

LAKSHMANAN:  So what have we done?

FARKAS:  -- objectives, so --

LAKSHMANAN:  Has it been enough?

FARKAS:  So -- so I think -- I think with regard to Russia, you know, I -- I just think we need to pursue our policy and continue to pursue it with more vigor.  On North Korea, I think the administration's been very wise.

You know, I was -- I was in North Korea in 2008 when they had -- when we were in one of these phases where in exchange for, you know, kind of waving the white handkerchief or the white flag, you know, the -- the -- the North Koreans got some more assistance with us.

And the -- the -- the Bush administration was -- was -- was having negotiations.  It was six-party talks.  And it was part of a cycle.  Again, Democratic, Republican, it doesn't matter.

A cycle of, you know, North Korea provokes us, then we say, oh my god. You know, they're -- we really need to negotiate with them.  And then we give them all kinds of assistance.  And then they -- and then they walk away from the negotiating table, and then they provoke us.  And the cycle begins again.

So I think this administration said, OK, we're done with that cycle.  And -- and I think this President rightfully doesn't have patience for those kinds of games.  And I like his kind of, you know, very calm adult response to North Korea.  I think we need to continue to put pressure on North Korea. 

We are, obviously, increasing the pressure and we’ve managed to do it with China, which is also really important.  And also an element of this administration's policy that I have appreciated in addition to watching what they've done in North Korea but in the Ukraine context. 

Because I was one of those people who right away, as soon as the Russians went and invaded, you know, let's get sanctions going, immediately.  You know, what are we waiting for?  And -- and what we were waiting for was to get the Europeans on board. 

And I realized over time how important it was to actually have them on board because they have a lot more economic leverage with Russia.  All you need to do --

LAKSHMANAN:  They certainly do but I have to say that even though Russia's been subject to really widespread, you know, broad sanctions over Ukraine, and even though by all accounts it is hurting their economy, they haven't given up Crimea.  I mean they haven't returned it to owner. 

And they haven't stopped, you know their -- their complete, you know, as you said.  I mean it's really the mess they've made in Donbass and in eastern Ukraine in general.  So what good are actions if you don't get a result?

MALONEY:  Well, I think sanctions in and of themselves are probably not going to solve this problem with Russia.  But I think sanctions are a critical component of countering Russia.  It's a really important mechanism.

It's -- it's actually -- there is a lot of pain being inflicted on Russia, not just because of the low oil prices, although that was probably more important, frankly speaking in the immediate short-term than sanctions, but I do think that the sanction, they are targeted at individuals who are supporting the Kremlin.

They're targeted at entities supporting the Kremlin -- the banks in particular who cannot now get access to Western capital which they need now more than ever.  So, and in the approach that we've taken with our European allies on these sanctions, they're actually not aimed at the Russian people, although the slump in the oil prices obviously affected the Russian people.  So--

ABRAMS:  I just want to say, I -- I -- there is a real disagreement here, I think.  Obviously what one does is as important as -- usually more important than what one says.  But, I think you've kind of dismissed it.

And I think that it is very important for the President of the United States, whoever that is to explain and to condemn and to speak with a moral clarity that I think the President has rarely spoken with because he's thought, well, look, we need to get this nuclear deal done with Iran.

So we need to be very careful how we talk about it and I think this kind of -- I think he was too careful.  I think that the administration made the assumption, if we say what's going on in June 2009 is terrific, then we will actually undermine it because Iranian's hate us because of Mosaddeq.  That's an assumption.  That's not a fact. 

And I think the administration acted as if it were clear that if we endorse in a sense the -- the -- the revolution, the revolution's dead overnight.  I think we should have been speaking more clearly about the Russian role, for example, in Syria, which is to support -- to support a mass murderer.  And we haven't because, well, you know, Kerry's going to Geneva. 

We're going to negotiate this.  He's negotiated basically nothing.  And -- and --

LAKSHMANAN:  You're talking about with Syria now.

ABRAMS:  With Syria.  I mean this is -- this is a negotiation in which we break the arms of the Syrian Rebels to get them to go to the table.  The Russians have had an extremely successful policy in Syria.  And in a way, they've had an extremely successful policy in the Ukraine.  Yeah, there's been some punishment through the sanctions.  Some. 

But I would think from Putin's point of view, it's gone pretty well.  And -- and I do think that -- that one of the things that's missing here is frankly tougher talk from the administration about the terrible conduct of Russia in this act of aggression.  And the terrible conduct of Russia in supporting a mass murderous regime in Syria because that's what they're doing. 

I mean there's half a million people killed already and rising.  And I -- and there's been a sense -- I think on the part of the President that, that kind of language -- that the Reagan, Bush, black, white, moral language -- you know, we're above that.  Well we're not -- you can't be above that.  The United States needs to speak that way, I think at all times.

LAKSHMANAN:  Well, you know --

MALONEY:  But, can I just say, I mean he did go --


MALONEY:  So I -- I agree with you, you have to speak out, but there -- but, you know, Secretary Carter's spoken out quite forcefully.  Vice President Biden has spoken out forcefully.  And the President, himself, he did go to Estonia in 2014 and spoke out there as well.

LAKSHMANAN:  Mark, I'd like you to jump in here because --


LAKSHMANAN:  -- you have been --

DUBOWITZ:  Elliott has perfected the applause lines.


LAKSHMANAN:  Mark, you know, in Washington, you are one of the sort of leading proponents of using the economic warfare cudgel.  And so a lot of people can sit around and talk about words, important, not important, this, that, whatever.  You have said, let's do actions, but let's make them economic actions. 

So I think, you know, certainly the administration, although the administration did not love all of the economic sanction tools that you worked on -- on with Congress, they certainly in the end credited with sanctions -- credited sanctions with bringing Iran to the table.

On the other hand, sanctions don't seemed to have worked with Russia.  So I want to -- or Syria.  And I know you worked on Syria sanctions, even before you were working on Iran sanctions. 

So I want to know, why do you think they're working in some cases and not in others, and were you advising the next president, would you tell them to continue making economic warfare the primary tool they should use?

DUBOWITZ:  So first of all, I mean obviously I've been 13 years working on sanctions, but my staff actually gave me an award a few years ago, called the Silver Shrapnel Award.  And the reason for that is that if you Google Dubowitz silver bullet and silver shrapnel, they found that there is something like 1.3 million references.

And the phrase that I had used for many years was that sanctions were not a silver bullet but they maybe silver shrapnel.  And shrapnel can wound a regime that is otherwise suffering a crisis of domestic legitimacy and is suffering a serious economic crisis.

And I think that's to Elliott's point, which is, I do agree words have meaning.  I think words give you leverage.  I think words undermine the legitimacy of regimes and undermining the legitimacy of --the political legitimacy of regimes is a form of leverage.  I don't think you do it because of moral outrage or because you want to feel good at night.

I think you do that because in undermining a regime's political legitimacy, it helps build up your leverage and I think that, that was Reagan's evil empire, tear down this wall.  It's we're going to undermine the Soviet Union's legitimacy -- political legitimacy and then we’re going to use other tools, of course, of state craft in order to undermine them economically and politically.

I think with respect to Iran, I mean I think that, you know, what's -- what I think is lost sometimes in this discussion, is that I don't think the President has ever fundamentally believed in economic coercion. 

I think economic coercion for the President is perhaps at best, a set of targeted sanctions that are carefully escalated with off ramps that allow regimes to get off them like Putin or Khamenei and you use this in a very, very tailored way.  But I don't think he believes in economic and financial warfare. 

And I think more, if you look at the Iran deal, I think that the administration, or the President -- not the administration, because I think there's some fissures there -- I think he believes more in economic seduction and political seduction. 

I -- I think that he believes that he can somehow seduce the hard men of Iran and turn them in, from dedicated revolutionaries into pragmatic capitalists so that in 10 years or 12 years, whenever that Iran has an industrial sized nuclear program with near zero nuclear breakout.

And advanced centrifuge clandestine sneak outs and perhaps an ICMB program, and that's economically fortified against our ability to use economic sanctions in the future and has regional hegemony, it won't matter because at that time Iran will look more like Japan than the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Because let's face it, you know, Japan today is a turn of a screw from a nuclear weapon and most people don't want -- most people, except Donald Trump don't want Japan having a nuclear weapon.


DUBOWITZ:  But certainly, we don't worry about Japan developing nuclear weapons, at least not yet.  And so I think economic seduction, political seduction has been very much part of the administration's strategy.  I think unfortunately, its sent the wrong message to Khamenei and Rouhani because I think those men -- I know Suzanne might disagree with me.

I think Rouhani and Khamenei are dedicated revolutionaries.  In fact, I think Rouhani's an even more dangerous man than Khamenei, because Rouhani's had the ability to do something that no one else has done, which is begun to reunite the -- the factions of the Iranian elite that -- that fractured after 2009.  And I think that's quite extraordinary. 

He hasn't done it yet, completely.  But I think he's on his way to doing that.  Bringing the revolutionary guards and the hardline clerics and the -- the -- the, you know the Bazaaris and the elements of Iran's elite closer and closer together.

And I think ultimately Rouhani shares the same objective as Khamenei and Suleimani and the revolutionary elite which is, he wants the nuclear weapons option.  He may not want a weapon.  But he wants the option.  And he certainly wants a regional hegemony.  And he certainly wants a powerful country.  And so I think that we're taking a massive bet on Rouhani. 

And I worry that sometimes the administration's Iran policy today is about getting Rouhani reelected on the -- on the view that, that somehow will then again continue to accelerate this pragmatic Iran in this evolution away from the revolution.  Instead we're giving up leverage, critical leverage in so many different areas as we have throughout this entire negotiation. 

And as we give up this leverage, we're putting ourselves further, and further, and further behind.  So that when Hilary Clinton, or Ted Cruz, or Kasich, or Ryan or Elliott Abrams becomes President of the United States --


DUBOWITZ:  You -- you never know these days.


ABRAMS:  You can be reasonably sure, how that might happen.


DUBOWITZ:  -- that when they become President of the United States, that I worry that their leverage, their tools, of course, of state craft will be severely degraded, and I think that has been Iran's game plan.

LAKSHMANAN:  Well that's very interesting to hear you say because I heard Wendy Sherman speak recently --


LAKSHMANAN:  And she really came down hard on Rouhani negatively, saying, do not -- you know, stop using the word, reformer.  You know, you guys in the press, you've -- you've given this idea that he's a big reformer.  He's not a reformer. 

He's one of the original Islamic Revolutionaries, and she talked about how hard it was to negotiate with them.  You know, there was not some love fest between her and, you know, Foreign Minister Zarif and (Aragci) and (Revanci).  And she talked about, they were hard.  They were adversaries.

DUBOWITZ:  Well I think she's -- I think she's -- I mean to be fair, A, I think she's more hardheaded than Secretary Kerry on this issue.  And she by the way said -- if I remember, she said, don't be misled by Rouhani.  In Iran there are hardliners and hard-hardliners.


DUBOWITZ:  And maybe Rouhani's at best, a hardliner.

LAKSHMANAN:  A hardliner and not a hard-hardliner.  Yeah.

DUBOWITZ:  And also, listen, I also think there's -- you know, there's many political dimensions to what people say and do, including, you know, anyway.  And so Kerry's offered confirmation.

LAKSHMANAN:  So Suzanne, I know you want to jump in.

MALONEY:  Right, no, I mean I think --

LAKSHMANAN:  You wanted to respond to what Mark said, and I'd also -- beyond responding to what Mark said, I'd like you to also address the question of, the Obama's administration's larger aim seemed to be, that this nuclear deal would be one brick in what would ultimately be an improved U.S.-Iranian relationship.  Not a friendship. 

Maybe not a détente.  But something that would allow the United States to work with Iran on Syria, on Iraq, on ISIS and a number of other things.  I'd like you to respond to that, too, whether -- is that happening?  Can that -- is that realistic?

MALONEY:  I don't think that's where the impetus to negotiate the nuclear deal came from.  I do --

LAKSHMANAN:  Not the impetus --

MALONEY:  I do think that the --

LAKSHMANAN:  -- but it was a thought that it was going to be -- it was going to help them.

MALONEY:  -- that there is this sense that we've managed to -- to at least come to some better solution.  Not permanent, not optimal, but better solution than a non-solution to the nuclear issue.

And therefore, there are perhaps other areas where we can find constructive outcomes that we can force the Iranians to go along with or that they may be willing to go along with that actually benefit our own interests.  I don't think that's the driving rationale for the administration in negotiating the deal. 

I do think that the Obama camp looks at the Middle East with a very hardheaded perspective of someone who's interested in solving problems and sees very few that he believes can be solved with the tools at his disposal that don't -- that he won't actually somehow make worse. 

And so he looked at the Iran nuclear issue and saw something where he thought, in a -- in -- in his rational actor mind, there was a tradeoff to be made.  And that if we simply persuaded the Iranians to sit down, as the Bush administration originally invited the Iranians to do, with this broader coalition of states working together.

And maintaining a consensus around -- around the desired outcome that we could in fact come to a solution.  And I think that gamble ultimately paid off.  Whether you like the structure of the Iranian nuclear deal or not, that presumption that we could actually get to a deal with Iran actually proved to be accurate. 

It was accurate though because as Mark says, we built this very incredible arsenal of economic leverage with Iran, but it was an arsenal despite the fact that we may have the ICBMs in that arsenal.  We required the NATO relationship. 

We required the P5 plus 1 relationship and the complicity and the -- the willingness to adhere to the sanctions and in fact, compound the sanctions with their own individual, unilateral and multilateral measures by the European Union and a range of states in Europe and Asia. 

Without that willingness, without the compliance, adherence and well beyond, and even in the cases of Russia, I think we would have -- not produced the outcome.  We would not have had a negotiation that was in any way constructive with Iran. 

And therefore, I think as we move forward, as we look to what -- how we build on this, we've got to do so in a way that tries to reestablish that kind of consensus around the other issues of concern with Iran. 

I don't think we're going to make any progress on Iran’s support for terrorism or its treatment of its own people until and unless we can get the European's onboard with common action.  And that includes how we respond to provocations and compliance issues with the nuclear deal itself. 

We have to have a very clear agenda and a preset arrangement with our allies including with the other members of the P5 plus 1 even where we have differences as with Russia on how we respond to those kinds of provocations and issues that come up.  Because as Mark says, they're going to look to renegotiate. 

They're going to look to test every ambiguity that might be left in that 159 pages of text of the agreement itself.  And we have to be ready for those because that's simply a foregone conclusion.

LAKSHMANAN:  All right, quick point and then I want to open it up to the audience.

DUBOWITZ:  No deal is better than a bad deal.  I didn't say that.  President Obama said that.  And, you know, again we can re-litigate this deal, and I think it's -- it's not useful to do so except in Washington policy forums because we need to be looking forward, I think as Suzanne said.  But fundamentally it is deeply flawed nuclear deal. 

It is a deal that ultimately is going to give Iran a legitimate, legal, internationally recognized industrial size nuclear program where they will have near zero breakout.  They will have advanced centrifuge power with clandestine -- possible clandestine sneak out and the restrictions will sunset overtime. 

So the question facing the Obama administration at the time was -- right?  Was no deal is better than a bad deal.  And I think that the mistake this administration made was not in negotiation with the Iranians.  I always supported that.  Not negotiating on the nuclear file only, and not talking about terrorism or human rights. 

I think there are times where you negotiate an arms control agreement without dealing with some of these other issues, as important as they are.  But in fundamentally reducing our negotiating leverage in a number of different ways.  I mean it's worth remembering that in 2013, Iran was four to six months away from a severe balance of payments crisis.  Right? 

I mean the Iranians, because of sanctions and mismanagement were on the verge of notional economic collapse, and at the very time that we had them on the ropes, we decided -- we the administration decided to block new sanctions and enter into negotiation with this new team.

And ultimately, I believe that they -- the regime got the better of us in getting a deal that is deeply flawed from our perspective.  And I worry about this patient pathway to a nuclear weapon that Iran has negotiated. 

And that -- in five years, eight years, ten years, we may be faced with a much more dangerous, much wealthier, much more powerful Iran which is sitting on the cusp of a nuclear weapons capability and we -- at that point, our course of options may be limited to, we either accept a nuclear weapons capable Iran, or we use military force to oppose it. 


I always oppose military force, and I think if you use military force at that point against Iran, I think the consequences are going to be much more severe.

LAKSHMANAN:  All right, well, I'm sure that Evelyn and -- and Suzanne would both have a lot to respond to that, but before we unpack that all, let's give the audience a chance to ask some questions.  I think there's going to be a microphone going around.  Is there someone with a mic?  OK, we have someone right here in the front row, and I'll get to you.  Thank you.  If you could identify yourself before you ask your question.

MAHMOUD:  My name, Amin Mahmoud, with the Center of Egyptian-American Relations and I would like to ask Elliott, your opinion about Egypt dictatorship and the fascist regime helped recruit terrorists to ISIS.  And I know that in fact, by some people joining ISIS because of what's happening in Egypt. 

And that's also helped other countries like in (Tunis) to was submitting that.  And thank you for participating in the -- in Egypt group, sending letters to Obama to change their policy, and also I criticize Lindsey Graham for going to Egypt and say, you can ignore human rights and ignore democracy for now.  That's -- that's not American.

LAKSHMANAN:  Okay, so we've got one question on Egypt.  Let's take a round of three.  There was a question right here.

(UNKNOWN):  Yes, Egypt was my question.

LAKSHMANAN:  Your question was about Egypt?  Okay.

(UNKNOWN):  Just generally about whether anti-democratic regimes can be a valuable ally on the war on terror.

LAKSHMANAN:  Whether they can be a valuable ally on the war on terror.  Okay, so we'll take that as sort of Egypt, one question.  This one another question.  Do we have another question that someone wants to add into this round?  I see a hand right there, in the second row.

HASINA:  Omar Hasina here, in American Counsel, my questions for both Elliott and Ms. Farkas.  In terms of the Iran nuclear deal affecting our Syria policy, how do you think it's affected that and what do you think are the best measures for the next administration to take in resolving the Syrian issue?  Thank you so much.

LAKSHMANAN:  OK.  Good, thank you.  So let's start with Egypt.

ABRAMS:  I think there is an unfortunate tendency in Washington to say that, you know, we have to be nice to President Sisi.  He's confronting lots of problems and we should just work along with him.  In fact this is a --

LAKSHMANAN:  That was certainly the view about Mubarak before the administration turned against Mubarak.

ABRAMS:  It was although in 2004 and '05, the Bush administration put a lot of pressure on Mubarak, and then mostly lifted the pressure.  I think this is a flawed policy 'cause I think that the Sisi regime first of all is far more repressive than Mubarak was. 

It's an extremely repressive regime which is attempting not to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood only, but really to destroy politics in Egypt to prevent political life, civic life, and it's going after moderates and centrists and democrats.  Not just Jihadis. 

And there is no economic reform, meanwhile because the Army owns have the economy, so Sisi knows they don't want economic reform, and if he really tried it, he'd probably be removed.  I think this is a formula for disaster. 

And I think that it's going to create instability in Egypt.  And I think that the Sisi regime will be increasingly illegitimate, because it is increasingly repressive and it is not creating any kind of economic progress.  So I think we should be -- we, the United States, should be much more critical of the human rights abuses in the regime. 

King Salman of Saudi Arabia was there yesterday.  And he announced a $22 billion aid program.  Big deal, right?  No.  It's a five year program.  That's $4.4 billion a year.  In the beginning they were giving Sisi, $14 billion - $15 billion a year. 

The Saudis and Emiratis are beginning to distance themselves from Sisi, I would argue because they don't think it's a good investment.  And I think we're making a mistake if we invest a lot in a terribly repressive government that is not succeeding, neither from the point of view of economic reform nor from the point of view of fighting terror. 

The terror situation in Sinai, as near as I can make out has gotten worse in the last couple of years, not better, partly because the only way they deal with is vast repression.  So, I'm not a fan.

LAKSHMANAN:  Well, we could ask the same question though about Saudi Arabia, and the gentleman in this row ask the question about alliances with anti-democratic regimes in general, and whether they're useful to us.  I mean, I don't think anyone here is going to say that Saudi Arabia's a democratic regime.

ABRAMS:  No, the argument that I would make is that -- look a government is not a NGO.  We don't have the -- we have security interest, financial interest, commercial interest, military interests, so we're never going to be in a position of being pure about our relationships.

LAKSHMANAN:  But that means we pick and choose that some --


LAKSHMANAN:  -- anti-democratic leaders --


LAKSHMANAN:  -- are OK and our friends and not others?

ABRAMS:  It -- it -- I would -- I would use the word -- well, first, yes. 


ABRAMS:  I mean --

LAKSHMANAN:  So that's --

ABRAMS:  -- we picked -- we --

LAKSHMANAN:  So which -- which are the good bad guys.

ABRAMS:  Wait, we picked and chose Joseph Stalin at a certain moment in our history.  For -- for a reason.

FARKAS:  But I don't think we felt good about that though.

ABRAMS:  No, but-- but we did it.  And we did it because we were in a war --

MALONEY:  Or at least at the end of the war.