JERUSALEM – The Iranian regime has taken highly dangerous steps in recent weeks that make a military strike by Israel more likely in 2021, and thus forcing the new Biden administration to make Iran its top and most urgent foreign policy priority.
That’s the assessment former U.S. Ambassador Dennis made in an exclusive interview with me this week.
Ross served as a senior advisor to President Barak Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden, and on the National Security Council as senior director for the Middle East. He also served as a special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Previously, Ross worked in high-level Middle East policy positions for presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Ross noted that Tehran has announced this month that is it is now enriching uranium to 20%, in direct violation of the controversial nuclear deal that Obama-Biden administration brokered with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or “JCPOA.”
Particularly worrisome, Ross said, is that Iran has produced 12 times more enriched uranium that it was legally permitted.
This means Iran is just “two or three months” away from being able to build a nuclear bomb.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu said in September 2012 when he was speaking to the U.N. General Assembly that if Iran achieved one bomb's worth of 20% enriched, low and low enriched uranium, that for Israel, that was the red line,” Ross told me. “Meaning: if Iran had one bomb’s worth of 20% enriched material, that would trigger an Israeli military response. So, here's Iran now suddenly announcing their enriching to 20%.”
“Let’s be clear for our viewers and readers, essentially, they're going right up to the red line, but not quite over it,” I replied. “Is that how you see it?”
“No, I think they're going over it, they’re crossing it,” Ross said.
“If you don't call a halt to what they're doing, then the odds of military force being used [by Israel] go up dramatically,” Ross emphasized.
“If that one bomb threshold of 20% is still a red line [for Netanyahu and his government] – and I suspect it still is – then the risk, first of all, the risk of action or miscalculation goes up significantly,” Ross explained.
He then walked me through the strategy that he is recommending to President Biden and the new US national security team to de-escalate the situation, and hopefully prevent a new military conflict erupting in the region.
On Jan. 5, Ross published a position paper through the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he now works, explaining the strategy in more detail.
Here is the full transcript of part I of our conversation. Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. The next two portions of my interview with Amb. Ross will be released in the coming days.
ROSENBERG: Hi, this Joel Rosenberg, founder and editor in chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS, coming to you from Jerusalem. And I'm speaking to Ambassador Dennis Ross on today's interview, the first of three parts. Ambassador Ross has been a senior adviser [regarding] the Middle East in both Republican and Democrat administrations, for several decades now. He worked with both George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, but more recently…with President Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton. And, of course, obviously, by definition, therefore, he knows incoming President Joe Biden very well and has worked with him and his team.
So, Ambassador Ross, thank you so much for taking some time out of a very intense and busy and historic week to talk to us about what's ahead in 2021 in the Middle East.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Look, it's my pleasure to be with you and happy to talk about it, and this is a time of change and I'm very hopeful that much of this change can be positive.
ROSENBERG: I appreciate it. And I appreciate that the help that you've given me as I've gotten to travel in and meet with a number of the Arab leaders in the Middle East. You've been very, very helpful – briefing me and letting me test questions against you that maybe I should or should not ask these various leaders.
So, here we are in a big transition from President Trump to President Biden. I'm not sure there could be a sharper contrast. And the question that everybody is asking is: Where we going from here?
We're going to be linking to a transition paper that you just wrote where you're currently residing at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “The Coming Iran Nuclear Talks: Openings and Obstacles.”
Let's start with, How serious is Iran's threat? They've made some moves in recent weeks and months that are particularly disturbing. Would you walk us through what those moves are, and then how do you assess what their objectives are?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Good question to begin our discussion. Thank you, and nice to be with you. I would say firstly, Iran is enriching to 20 percent. And enriching that 20 percent is very significant. I consider it the most significant of all the breaches of the [Iran nuclear deal]. They didn't walk away from the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] for one year after the Trump administration left the JCPOA. They [the Iranian regime] began to walk away in May of 2019. The most serious breach in my mind – we can go through all of them – the most serious one is enriching to 20 percent.
Why? Because the 20 percent is the dividing line between Low Enriched Uranium [LEU] and High Enriched Uranium [HEU]. To go from what they're permitted to in the JCPOA to enrich to 3.67 percent, to purify up to 20 percent, the ability to make that leap is a tougher challenge than it is to go from 20 percent to 90 percent weapons grade. So, the time it takes to be able to perfect the approach to enriching to get up to 20 percent is actually more demanding, takes more time, and once you cross that threshold, being able to go up to weapons grade is much less of a leap. That’s number one.
Number two: Bear in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu said in September 2012 when he was speaking to the U.N. General Assembly -- and he had a diagram – that if Iran achieved one bomb's worth of 20 percent enriched, low and low enriched uranium, that for Israel, that was the red line. Meaning: if Iran had one bomb’s worth of 20 percent enriched material, that would trigger an Israeli military response. So, here's Iran now suddenly announcing their enriching to 20 percent.
ROSENBERG: Let’s be clear for our viewers and readers, essentially, they're going right up to the red line, but not quite over it. Is that how you see it?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: No, I think they're going over it, they’re crossing it.
ROSENBERG: They're going over it?
AMBASSADOR: Yes, they’re crossing it at 20 percent. They have, just to put this in perspective, the Tehran research reactor. This was actually was provided by the United States to Iran before the Shah fell. We didn't provide the fuel for that for a long time. They got it from Argentina. And then during the Obama administration, we thought there was an opening to get them to ship out what was the raw material [spent fuel rods that could be used later to make weapons grade uranium] they were producing. And in return for the raw material they were producing, they would be provided [uranium] fuel [simply to run a civilian nuclear reactor to generate electricity]. Now, that is 19.75 enrichment. It's just below the 20 percent. And now they're saying they're reaching to 20 percent. Is it 19.8 percent? Is it 20.5 percent? Twenty percent really is a threshold.
And this is not an accident. This is a deliberate signal they're sending, along with the seizure of the South Korean tanker. And the fact that they've announced that they're now fabricating uranium metal. They're developing uranium metal. They're claiming it's another way of producing fuel, which is true, but it's also – if you want to build a bomb, you have to be able to encase it, and that's what that's why you fabricate uranium metal.
When you take these three steps – not to mention there's been an increase in the bombardment on our Embassy within Baghdad….
ROSENBERG: And the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, and seized other tankers…
AMBASSADOR ROSS: That was already more than a year ago. I'm talking about what they're doing right now – honestly, what they started doing, you know, in the last two months. These things, I think, are designed to force themselves onto the agenda. They know with the Biden administration coming in – anyone can tell what's the preoccupation? The pandemic. The economy. The President has declared [the US will produce and distribute] 100 million doses [of the COVID vaccine] within the one within the 100 days. They [Iranian leaders] know the priority is domestic. They also know that for Biden, the Middle East is not a priority, per se, when it comes to foreign policy. What the Iranians are doing is trying to put themselves on the agenda. They're basically saying, “OK, we're going to do these things and you better address us because we're going to be a problem otherwise because.”
ROSENBERG: So just to be clear. That would be the most actually the most rational scenario. The other scenario would be that they are moving towards the breakout [to actually build nuclear bombs], but then they might not have announced it.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Right.
ROSENBERG: So, if they're going down this road, saying, “You need to deal with us,” the reason for that would be, presumably, that they want to get out of the sanctions. They need release because they’re suffocating.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Absolutely. Look, the reality of the Trump administration is they did not succeed in changing Iran's behavior. We're counting it right now. Their behavior in the region didn't change. And in the last year, they have moved from a position where they were about a year's breakout time away [from building a bomb] to probably between two and three months breakout time to weapons grade fissile material. So, they didn't change their behavior. But they're under enormous economic pressure.
And the message is – why they're trying to make themselves an issue is – because they want sanctions relief. In fact, the Supreme Leader on January 8th gave a speech in which you said, you know, “The Americans – the West – is obligated to lift the sanctions immediately, and we don't care if they get it back into the JCPOA. That's not the issue for us. The issue for us is the sanctions relief.” And he says, “If they [the US] resume their commitments, then we will fulfill ours.”
Now, that's the mirror image of what Biden has said. Biden has said, “We'll do compliance for compliance – meaning, once you're back in compliance, we can then we can lift the nuclear-related sanctions that we're obligated to lift under the JCPOA.” These are exactly the mirror image, but they're not the same, right? Each entity has a sequence in mind.
ROSENBERG: So, we're going to link, as I said, to your paper, so people can really walk it through it, and they should, so they can understand your full argument. Why don't you give us the synopsis of what you think the Biden team should, and some of the risks, in a summary.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Okay, so what I just described is kind of what actually sounds like they have something in common in mind when they don't. The Iranians want us to go first. Biden wants them to go. Avril Haines today, in her confirmation hearings on the Hill to be the Director of National Intelligence, she was asked a question about this. And she said compliance for compliance, it will take a long time to get there. We're a long ways from that. So, these are actually two different views.
I am suggesting, since this is going to take time in any event, and because there's such uniform Republican opposition to the JCPOA, and because the Israel and the Saudis and the Emirates view it as kind of an emblem, why not take a step back? You want to reduce the threat that the Iranians pose. You want to resume a diplomatic process. But you want to retain your leverage so that you can affect Iran on bigger issues.
So, I've suggested a “less for less” deal.
What I mean by that is the Iranians, because they have today, they have more than 12 times the amount of Low Enriched Uranium stockpiles that they're permitted to have under the terms of the JCPOA. So, they're at 2,600 kilograms. They went down to close to 200 as part of the JCPOA. So, I'm saying, all right, let's say they drop back to 800 to 1,000 kilograms, not all the way to the JCPOA limits.
They dismantle two cascades of advanced centrifuges, which are dramatically more efficient than the IR-1’s, the primitive centrifuges they have used for most of their enrichment. These are at least six times as efficient. So, the combination of a stockpile and much more efficient centrifuges – and they weren't permitted to have installed centrifuges until the year 2025 – I'm saying those get dismantled. They stop the 20 percent. They stop the fabrication of uranium enrichment.
And what they get in return for that is we allow them one of two things. They have overseas bank accounts that have moneys that were paid to them for their oil but were frozen. So, they never got the money. And because of the sanctions, they're frozen. They don't have access to it. Truth is, there's about $100 billion dollars in those frozen bank accounts. We could provide limited access, not anything close to what they have in those, but we could provide limited access so they would get some limited sanctions relief. But I'm suggesting, in effect is the following: they don't have to go all the way back to the JCPOA limits, but they have to do enough that stretches that breakout time back up to, say, six or seven months as opposed to two or three. And in return for doing that, they will get some limited sanctions relief. The benefit for us is: we retain the sanctions regime. The benefits for them is: they get some relief, and it's clear that they need some relief.
ROSENBERG: In your paper, you also noted another possible scenario. Rather than releasing some of the bank accounts, you could provide their ability to sell some oil, which would keep the money in the banks, keep that leverage on, and then regulate that valve, as it were. So, you're giving a few options – none of which would be popular in Congress or in Jerusalem or in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi or even Manama – but you're saying it might be better than the year going on with them doubling and tripling their High Enriched Uranium stockpile?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Right. First of all, if you don't call a halt to what they're doing, then the odds of military force being used go up dramatically.
ROSENBERG: By Israel?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Certainly by Israel, because if that one bomb threshold of 20 percent is still a red line – and I suspect it still is – then the risk, first of all, the risk of action or miscalculation goes up significantly.
So, the value of what I'm suggesting is: we retain our leverage. We reduce the immediacy of the threat. We stretch it out and we say, OK, for the next 12 to 24 months, you then try to negotiate what would be a JCPOA 2.0 that extends what Biden says he wants. Biden's objectives are to prevent a nuclear weapon, restore a credible path to negotiations based on “compliance for compliance,” using the JCPOA as a springboard then to a negotiation to extend the sunset provisions, so they don't lapse in 2030; to talk about and address the ballistic missile threat; and to deal with what are the threats within the region.
ROSENBERG: And this would test whether the Iranians would negotiate at all?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Yes. [crosstalk]
ROSENBERG: Make a concluding point, and then we're going have to pick this up on the next program, because I think we really got to understand what Biden's objectives are, and how he might navigate through this.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: The key reason why I think that both the Israelis, the other regional [Arab] states, and even the Republicans could accept what I'm suggesting is that we retain our leverage. What's the greatest single concern they collectively have? If you go back to the JCPOA, what incentive do the Iranians still have to deal with these other issues? And I'm suggesting: here's a way for us to preserve our leverage and not to give it away.
What the Trump administration did is build our leverage. They weren't able to translate it. But you're not going to change Iran's behavior without leverage. I want us to preserve our leverage in a way that gives us the best chance to be able to change Iran's behavior by also, in a sense, bringing all the stakeholders in. The Europeans will also likely support this because they want us to back in diplomacy. So, I'm trying to reconcile what our set of conflicting pressures that the Biden administration is going to face, maximize the leverage we have – because it's not just economic pressure; it's also political isolation, which matters to the Iranians. They don't see themselves as being like North Korea.
ROSENBERG: Fascinating, and it couldn't be more timely. Ambassador Dennis Ross, thank you very much. We're also going have a link to your fabulous new book with your colleague, David Makovsky, Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny, looking at the four most consequential Israeli prime ministers in modern Israeli history. I love it – I've given it away to many friends for both Hanukkah and Christmas.
We'll pick this up on the next broadcast. Thank you so much.
I’m Joel Rosenberg in Jerusalem for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.