Former NATO Supreme Commander Admiral James Stavridis (USN, ret.) joined me this morning to discuss what can and should be done to help the #IranProtests:
HH: I am joined by Admiral James Stavridis, retired from the United States Navy, former supreme allied commander of NATO, former commander of Southern Command, author of the wonderful book, Sea Power, and The Leader’s Bookshelf, leader of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, and a friend. Good morning, Admiral, Happy 2018 to you.
JS: Boy, same to you, Hugh. It’s great to hear your voice this year.
HH: If we had been talking the week before Christmas, I doubt either of us would have anticipated the first story of the new year would be convulsions in Iran. What is, before I get to specific questions, what’s your overall reaction to events unfolding in Tehran and throughout the country?
JS: Well, it’s both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that this will lead to this resistance movement being absolutely crushed by the ayatollahs. It would be the second time in five years we’d see that. And that would set the clock back. The opportunity, obviously, is that if this goes high order the way it has in Ukraine, the way it has in Eastern Europe, the way it has across many Western democracies, and populism really takes on these mullahs, this is an extraordinary opportunity as well.
HH: The President has made clear he is weighing in. Now 24 minutes ago, Admiral Stavridis, he tweeted the people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their pockets. The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching. What is your advice to the President, the Vice President, other world leaders on being vocal about these protests?
JS: Yeah, I think it’s a flashing yellow light for the world leadership in the sense, Hugh, that what you don’t want to do is take the story away from the corrupt ayatollahs and make it about the great Satan coming to interfere in Iranian politics. So this is a very delicate hand. And I think that a little bit of a lower key approach here would make some sense at least over the next 48, 72, 128 hours while we say which way this thing is going. Don’t become the story would be my advisement.
HH: There are a number of measures that I have read extensively about being undertaken. One is that Saudi Arabia in league with its Arab allies in Jordan, the Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt, and perhaps Israel, are providing satellite wi-fi to the protestors so that the attempts by the regime to shutter telegram and other services are being gotten around. What do you make of that intervention?
JS: Makes enormous sense, and that is precisely the kind of thing we can be doing, but not coupled with a high-profile public campaign. So going after cyber, going after the money and cutting it off, confronting Iranian Revolutionary Guards in places like Yemen and Syria and Iraq so that cannot be deployed on the streets of Tehran. Those are things we can do. We ought to do them in a relatively low-profile way, and letting our allies in the region take the lead is exactly how we should approach it.
HH: I had not thought about that. They do in fact have the IRGC in expeditionary mode in places like Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
HH: So you’re suggesting now would be a good time to increase the pressure on those units so that they could not be repatriated to assist in repressive measures?
JS: Hugh, that’s exactly right. And if you think about why we haven’t seen the Iranian Guard on the streets so far, I think part of it is caution on the part of the ayatollahs. The other is because the Iranian Guard is stretched pretty thin around the region. We ought to keep the pressure on now.
HH: You used the term talking about the money. In the Oval Office once, George W. Bush, I can’t quote him exactly, it’s off the record, used the term disintermediation with regards to assets of rogue regimes. Do you think that’s appropriate here?
JS: I do, and I think it’s a strategy that we’ve used relatively successfully in the Bush administration, somewhat in the Obama administration. It’s something that could be applied in Venezuela, for example. It could be applied against Russia, against Vladimir Putin, who has billions and billions of dollars stashed around the world. Separating these rogue regimes from access to their cash gets their attention and reduces their options.
HH: Admiral Stavridis, both Haaretz and the Times of Israel have relayed a report from Kuwait, “U.S. gives Israel go ahead to kill power Iranian general.” Newspaper says Washington, Jerusalem have overcome the differences that saw Americans tipping off Tehran about Israeli attempts to kill Qasem Soleimani three years ago. What do you make of such, what used to be called wet measures?
JS: I am certainly in favor of aggressive U.S.-Israeli cooperation, Hugh. And in fact, in a couple of weeks, I’m going to Israel to spend a week there, to look at how we can amp up our cooperation with the Israelis. And I think that extends from wet work, as you’re describing, all the way to very conventional aspects of missile defense. We cannot overstate the importance of Israel as our principal ally in the region.
HH: Covert measures were mentioned to me yesterday as among the tools that the United States has in its arsenal to use, but I have no idea what they are and whether or not with the legacy of Mosaddegh, we ought to actually be embracing them, and Mosaddegh, of course, being the popularly-elected Iranian leader of the 50s that the CIA effectively removed.
JS: The best covert measures we can use right now, Hugh, I’d say, are in the cyber world. And those can be both offensive, going after financing. They can be defensive, protecting our own systems. They can be kind of in the middle where we use strategic messaging to change the way a population looks at their leadership. So covert is cyber. Covert can also be activities that are undertaken kind of classically in espionage and working with allies and partners in the region. And then thirdly, you can work through a proxy, through a third nation as a cover for operations that you’re doing, and that would be an example of what we could do in the Iranian situation.
HH: Now we have a bunch of different kinds of sanctions, Admiral Stavridis. We have trade sanctions which apply generally to a country, and individual sanctions which have been applied to individuals like Soleimani, who is allegedly under a travel prohibition, though he keeps popping up in Moscow and other places.
HH: What do you make of both of those, the trade sanctions and the individual sanctions?
JS: I’m in favor of both and using them extensively. Whenever we can reach for a diplomatic instrument, an economic instrument, a legal instrument before going to the hard power measure, we are in better shape. Now Hugh, you and I both know there are times when we need hard power. We’re not going to negotiate a settlement with the Islamic State. But as a general proposition, everything from trade to cyber to maritime interception operations, the enforcement of those kind of sanction regimes, both personally and on nations, they make a lot of sense.
HH: Now Admiral Stavridis, you were on active duty when Tiananmen happened. And we still don’t know officially the extent of the repression in China, though it is believed to have been far more significant than we were led to believe at the time.
HH: …the number of people killed, the number of people imprisoned. If such massive repression and killing occurs in Iran, do you believe that we might use naval forces to blockade or intercept in response?
JS: I think it’s a distinct possibility. It would be one of the tools we would have available to us. And as you and I have talked about previously, that Arabian/Persian Gulf, we can’t even decide what to call it, we ought to be calling it exclusively the Arabian Gulf, is part of the lifeline of Iran. The other part, of course, is their coastline in the Indian Ocean. Here again, a maritime interception operation with our allies, with our partners, coupled with sanctions, coupled with cyber, that’s the way to approach this.
HH: Do we have sufficient naval forces in the region to effectively, in partnership with our allies there, interdict, intercept or deter the passage of Iranian commercial and warships?
JS: We do. And you threw in a key phrase there, which is in conjunctions with our allies. You need, in this case, the Brits, the French, the NATO forces that are there as well as the Gulf States who have very capable, smaller ships, but this is small sea waters. So you can do those kind of interceptions with a Corvette size ship. You don’t need that massive aircraft carrier. The carrier has to be there as backup, but it’s those smaller ships that will go out and choke down the commercial flow in and out of these Iranian ports.
HH: How does the chain of command work, Admiral, in this situation? Who is, if the President says to the Secretary of Defense we want embargo, we want interdiction, we want boarding, how does that get executed?
JS: Within the U.S. chain of command, and I’ll come on to allies momentarily, within the U.S. chain of command, it’s quite simple. It goes from the president to the Secretary of Defense to the commander of U.S. Central Command, it’s a four-star Army general at the moment, to a three-star admiral, commander of the 5th Fleet. He would be the individual who would implement that entire blockade. Now that’s the U.S. chain. And alongside that, Hugh, is a coalition chain of command, which would be all of the ships from the nations I described a moment ago. They would report to that three-star Navy admiral. That would go up to the Central Commander, and he would have a command line both to the United States and to the leaders of the other nations. That’s what I did as the NATO commander, for example. Complicated, but it works.
HH: Now the admiral in the 5th Fleet is stationed in Bahrain, if I’m correct, and I’m a civilian.
HH: So those forces on the Indian Ocean side of Iran, do they come under that admiral’s purview as well?
JS: They do. Very good question. They start under the purview of the commander of the Pacific Command, and the commander of the 7th Fleet, who’s actually over in Japan. But as they were swept up into a counter-Iranian operation, the term we use, Hugh, is they would CHOP. They would become part of the chain of command of the 5th Fleet commander, the three-star admiral in Bahrain, because you want that unified chain of command to conduct an operation like this. That’s the beauty of naval forces. I don’t need to tell you that naval forces can swing all over the world. We CHOP them to different commanders to conduct operations. That’s how it would work.
HH: Okay, last question on the diplomatic side, and this draws on your NATO experience. We need the European Union involved if there’s any kind of success on sanctions or international condemnation. How does the EU get involved and their military forces? You know, Macron is being very active in the region, and Theresa May not so much. But do they work through NATO in this instance?
JS: They could do it either way. Let’s take counter-piracy operations, which have been conducted in the Indian Ocean for about a decade. We see both European Union operations – French, British, Portuguese, etc. under an EU commander. But those same nations also provide ships to the NATO commander. And the two missions run in parallel. It’s not terribly efficient, but it is politically affirmative for those leaders trying to build a European Union that has a robust military and diplomatic capability. In this case, against Iran, I think it would probably end up being the same. We’d see a small EU number of ships, but those nations would also contribute ships under the NATO hat through the 5th Fleet commander.
HH: Admiral, a human question to conclude on. We’re coming out of the New Year’s holiday, the Christmas holiday. American generally stands down. We never stand down completely. The Iranian convulsions begin. How long does it take us to scramble, to get active, to get organized, to become coherent both on the military, diplomatic and political sides?
JS: Hugh, again, you know this. We are always on alert. We are, our soldiers and our sailors, our airmen and our Marines, are always standing on the wall protecting this nation. And there is no stand down for them. If the President decides to implement, for example, maritime operations off the coast of Iran, that is instantaneous. Those ships will go to work.
HH: Admiral James Stavridis, I think we’re going to be talking to you a lot in the weeks ahead. Thank you for spending time with me, and Happy New Year, my friend.
End of interview.