Opening Remarks by William J. Perry at the Luxembourg Forum Conference “New Crisis in Iran: Put a Stop to Escalation”. July 14, 2020

Remarks by William J. Perry

Luxembourg Forum Conference “New Crisis in Iran: Put a Stop to Escalation”

14 July 2020

During the Cold War Americans imagined that the major threat to us was a surprise nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, and that belief determined our nuclear policies, our force structure, and our deployment. Now, thirty years after the Cold War, they still do.

I doubt whether a surprise nuclear attack was the major threat during the Cold War, but it is certainly not true today. I am not an admirer of either President Putin or President Trump, but I am convinced that neither is suicidal or stupid. So a surprise nuclear attack is not the danger; the danger is that we will blunder into a nuclear war.

The blunder could result from a technical error, for example a false alarm; or it could result from a political miscalculation. Either is a real possibility. So our policies should be directed at reducing the likelihood of such a blunder.

Today Iran’s nuclear program is a problem that is ripe for a political miscalculation. For several decades Iran has been pursuing a nuclear program that they describe as non-military, but which appears to have a dual-use capability. That is, Iran could divert their nuclear facilities to the production of highly enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons, as North Korea did.

If they did, it could have even more serious consequences than did North Korea’s actions. It is highly probable that Israel would respond with a military strike on the suspected facility before it could produce a nuclear bomb, which in turn could lead to a military involvement of other Mideast nations.

In the ensuing chaos, there is a likelihood that the U.S. and Russia could get involved supporting opposite sides, opening the path to a serious political miscalculation that could lead to military conflict between the U.S. and Russia—a conflict that could all too easily escalate into a nuclear exchange.

I want to be clear: I do notbelieve that such an exchange is likely; but the consequences would be so severe that we must be concerned about such miscalculations, even if it is a low probability.

During George W. Bush’s second term in office, a group of European nations entered into discussions with Iran, trying to resolve this problem, but the U.S. chose not to join them.

These discussions did not appear to be going anywhere, perhaps because the U.S. was not included.

I thought the U.S. was mistaken not to join, so I decided to engage in some Track 2 diplomacy to see if I could at least determine whether the Iranians were serious about reaching an agreement.

I met three times with Dr. Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, at times when we were in the same location for other reasons: twice in New York City, and once in Amsterdam. We had very constructive discussions and I came away believing that a deal could be had, particularly if the U.S. would join the European discussions. I of course reported this to our Secretary of State, who seemed interested but seemingly unable to persuade the president (I think Vice President Cheney was the holdup).

But shortly after my discussions with Secretary Powell, we had a new president come to office.

And shortly after that, the U.S. did join the European group.

The rest is history that you are well aware of: We reached an agreement with Iran (the JCPOA); an agreement that was better than I believed we could get, based on my discussions with Zarif.

That agreement was ratified by the UN and went into force in 2015.

And for several years, the actions that could have resulted in a nuclear Iran were halted. The agreement established very intrusive inspections, so we were confident that Iran would not become a nuclear threat with all of the bad news that would portend. Iran remained a problem in other areas, particularly in their support of terrorism, but not in the nuclear field.

When Trump was running for president he was critical of the agreement, and remained critical after he took office. But for three years he did nothing to act on his criticism.

Then a few months ago he abruptly withdrew from the agreement, imposed heavy sanctions on Iran, and tried to get other nations to join his sanctions. He said he wanted a better agreement before he would rejoin, but the chance of that is close to zero.

It is not clear what Trump really wants or expects to happen. The primary criticism of the JCPOA is that it did not put restraints on Iran’s bad behavior in other fields, particularly their support of terrorism.

Russia and the other European nations did not join the renewed sanctions and urged Iran to continue honoring the agreement. At first they did, but in the last month or two seem to be violating it. This has been further exacerbated by a series of explosions at Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Iran believes are being perpetrated by Israel or the U.S. or both.

So the situation in Iran appears to be devolving into military action; not diplomacy. The only thing that is certain is that the present situation is not stable; that is, it will change: probably dramatically and possibly much worse.

The change will probably involve other nations, with China and Russia taking some action in support of Iran, confronting Israel and possibly the U.S.

Nothing good can come from such a confrontation.

Indeed, this is exactly the kind of situation I discussed at the beginning of my talk: A situation ripe for a political miscalculation with a very bad outcome.

It seems to me that the prudent action for all sides is to cool it for a few months. It is possible that we will soon have a new president in the U.S. who will seek to reestablish the JCPOA, thus getting us out of the crisis mode on this dangerous problem.