Israeli MK and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Dr. Michael Oren joined me this morning:
HH: I am joined from Israel by Dr. Michael Oren. He is a member of the Knesset in Israel. He is also the deputy minister for diplomacy in the Netanyahu government. He is of course the author of many incredible books, including Power, Faith and Fantasy, Six Days of War, and most recently, Ally, a frequent guests to this show, and I welcome him back. Dr. Oren, good morning, thank you for joining me.
MO: Always special to be with you, Hugh, thank you.
HH: I begin against the backdrop of the decision that President Trump must make this week about whether or not to extend sanction relief to Iran under the Iran deal of 2015 with the protests underway in Iran, but I’m not quite sure what the status of those protests are. To your knowledge, have they been brutally repressed, Dr. Oren?
MO: They’ve been brutally repressed. Not as brutally as they could be. After the 2009 Green Revolution, which was kind of like a dry run for the Arab Spring, Iran, the regime…to secure the apparatus. Anybody who raises up his head too much will get their head cut off. They’re just began it, and like you, we don’t know the exact status of the demonstrations in Iran. We treat the Iran nuclear program as a separate issue. The separate issue now is…
HH: Dr. Oren, I’m going to interrupt you, and we’re going to try and reconnect, because you’re cutting in and out, and I think it’s too important for people not to hear a complete comprehensive view. I did hear you say that it has been repressed, but not as completely as before, and that we really don’t know what’s going on. So we’re going to try and reconnect, my friends, don’t go anywhere. Dr. Oren is always a valued guest, but when you’re talking with people as far away as Israel, you never can be sure. And so he’s back now. So Dr. Oren, President Trump faces a decision this week. Can you describe what that decision is, and your opinion on what he ought to be doing?
MO: On the Iran nuclear deal?
MO: You hear me, Hugh?
HH: Yes, I do. Go ahead.
MO: And the Iran nuclear deal, this is a terrible nuclear deal that threatens Israel, threatens the Middle East, and ultimately threatens the United States and the world. It allows Iran to maintain all of its nuclear infrastructure, and to continue the development and research on more advanced centrifuges, that can enrich uranium at four times the present rate. So when the deal expires in eight years, Iran will have all of its centrifuges, all of its facilities, and the ability to produce hundreds, dozens of nuclear weapons by enriching uranium in violation of international norms. And we know that Iran does that. Iran cheats. So now the time is either to nix this deal, to cancel it, or fix it in two essential ways. One is to ensure that there is a link between the nuclear deal and Iran’s atrocious behavior. Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism threatening governments throughout the Middle East. It’s complicit in the massacre of a half a million Syrians, and it daily calls for Israel’s destruction. There’s no connection in the Iran deal between that appalling behavior and the deal itself. And the second thing is there should not be a sunset clause. This means that after eight, ten years, the same regime, or an even worse regime, will be free of all the restrictions of the Iran nuclear deal. And that’s an untenable position for Israel, for the Middle East and the world.
HH: So Dr. Oren, if the President refuses to extend sanction relief, what do you think happens? What would you project would be the B following A, and C following B steps that would follow?
MO: Well, there’s a conventional wisdom out there that if the United States reimposes sanctions, somehow the world will continue to do business with Iran, and everyone will simply ignore the American position. But our view is precisely the opposite, that if businessmen in the world, and governments in the world have to choose between doing business with a half trillion Iranian economy or doing business with a seven trillion dollar American economy. They’re clearly going to choose the American economy. And America controls some of the major mechanisms for banking and money transfers in the world. Even now, one of the reasons that Iran hasn’t succeeded in recovering, even with billions of dollars in sanction relief, and many more billions of dollars in contracts with European countries, the Iranian economy remains very, very sluggish for the simple reason is that businessmen in the world are uncertain about what the United States is going to do, and unwilling to invest money. Therefore, if America makes a clear statement saying that we are going to stick by these sanctions, the Iranian economy will continue to nosedive.
HH: Now Dr. Oren, were you surprised that given the amount of sanctions relief, and the hundred billion dollars of transfer, a billion of it in cold, hard cash and gold, that the Iranian people felt no improvement in their own well-being, even after that flood of money that occurred in 2015 and 2016?
MO: Of course, not. The regime is deeply corrupt. The Revolutionary Guard siphons off tens of, hundreds of millions of dollars, and Iran has spent billions of dollars in extending their hegemony throughout the Middle East to create a Middle Eastern empire, whether in Syria or Yemen and Iraq, in Lebanon. But then beyond the Middle East, there’s a threat. We know that Iranian agents are operating in your area of the world. During the time when I was ambassador, they plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. They plotted to assassinate him in downtown Washington, D.C. They are complicit with the drug trade. Hezbollah, the political report which you saw several weeks ago, which exposed the connection between Hezbollah and the cartels of South America, Central and South America, we’ve known about that for a long time. Whether the Obama administration turned a blind eye to it, I can’t fully say, but we certainly knew about that connection. And this is part of, Iran is involved globally, and in drug trade, in fabricated, false pharmaceutical trade. Of course, their people aren’t benefiting from that. The Revolutionary Guard, the ayatollahs and Hezbollah are benefiting from it.
HH: Now Dr. Oren, some of the President Obama partisans, and people who are deeply invested in the political success of the 2015 deal, are saying that President Trump is missing an opportunity to deal with the moderates led by President Rouhani as empowering the hard-liners led by the Supreme Leader. I reject that, but you’re knowledgeable. What’s your assessment of people who cling to that distinction?
MO: They have fallen into the age old trap of believing a false Iranian smile. So Rouhani comes out and smiles at them, and then he goes and kills hundreds of thousands of Syrians. He conquers Syria. He extends Iranian hegemony into Iraq. He takes off a tip of the Arabian Peninsula in the most strategically valuable area perhaps in the whole entire region which controls all the water lanes going from the Middle East to the Far East. He’s moving in a very systematic, methodical measure, and everyone fell for it. Well, not everyone. Certainly, these people fell for it. The Obama people and others fell for it. The moderates is a mask. The regime is the regime. And under that mask, Iran has extended its rule, has massacred tens of thousands of people. Where is the moderation, Hugh?
HH: I agree. And recently, and again, I would look back at the Obama partisans and say they resisted and warned about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which it is. We were a little bit late to the game, I think you said, by about 2,000 years. But we finally got there. And there has been no massive counter-reaction. In fact, I saw a leak out of Egypt where the Egyptian security services were instructing public voices to downplay this, because the time has come to join arms against the expanding Iranian hegemony in the region. Were you surprised by how little reaction there was to the declaration by America of the obvious?
MO: No, I wasn’t. I didn’t expect there to be negative reaction, maybe some by the Palestinians, but not throughout the region. You know, there’s not going to be protests in the streets of Aleppo, because Aleppo doesn’t have any streets anymore. Arabs throughout this region are preoccupied with other things like survival in the face of not just economic hardships, but above all, the Iranian threat which threatens Arab governments throughout the region existentially. And everyone understands at some basic level that their greatest ally in standing up to the Iranian threat is the state of Israel, that if we weren’t here with an army that’s more than twice as large as the British and French armies combined, with all of our capabilities, that we weren’t here, this entire region would implode. And therefore, yes, they may make some harsh statements, but at the end of the day, our neighbors understand that we are there for them, and we will stand by them.
HH: Let me conclude by asking you what lessons would you draw from our experience presently unfolding with North Korea applied to Iran with regards to what happens if they advance their nuclear program, and whether or not we ought to rent…my best friend on this issue across the aisle is a guy named Dan Poneman. He said you don’t buy non-proliferation. You rent it, and we’ve rented it for ten years from Iran. What’s the counter argument?
MO: That was Dan Poneman?
MO: Was he your classmate or something?
HH: He was my roommate, yeah.
MO: (laughing) How did I know that? You guys both went to Harvard. He’s a good friend of mine, Dan, wonderful man, and definitely across the aisle. We have to understand that he, that we are on a global stage today. And what the United States and other powers do in the Middle East or in the Far East impacts globally, has a global ramification. And I tread lightly here. I’m not advocating America take any position. But clearly, America’s position on the North Korean nuclear issue will have an impact. It’ll have an impact with Russia, with China, but also in the Middle East. Everybody is taking notes. And when President Obama didn’t stand up to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, the Russians derived conclusions from that. The Chinese derived conclusions from that in the South China Sea. Everyone takes notes. And therefore, what America does in Korea will affect what happens in our backyard as well.
HH: Last question, are you afraid that North Korea will assist in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in your region?
MO: Well, it already has. We know that North Korea was the major funder/backer of the Syrian nuclear, military nuclear plant that was destroyed in 2007, we don’t say by whom. And we know there are strong positions about a North Korea/Iranian axis both in nuclear weaponry and in missile technology. Now there’s not hard, fast proof about that, but there’s been, there have been intimations and indications. So while North Korea does not aspire to be a global hegemon like Iran, and you can’t compare the North Korean economy to the Iranian economy, Iran, from the Israeli perspective and a Middle East perspective, it’s 50 times more dangerous than North Korea.
MO: And the Iranian, the North Korean nuclear deal was far stricter than the Iranian nuclear deal. If the North Koreans get away with violating that deal, then the Iranians are going to draw conclusions.
HH: So as a conclusion, is it fair to summarize that it is the opinion of the Israeli government that President Trump ought not to extend sanctions relief this week?
MO: Not? No. We are always, oh, not extend sanction relief. It’s sort of a double negative. We are in favor of re-imposed sanctions.
HH: Perfect. Dr. Michael Oren from Israel, thank you so much for joining me. Come back early and often.
MO: Oh, great. Always. Take care. Bye, Hugh.
End of interview.