Bonus: Schieffer's Green Room on Iran
October 8, 2019
Bob Schieffer: I'm Bob Schieffer.
Andrew Schwartz: And I'm Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And this is The Truth of the Matter.
Bob Schieffer: This is the podcast where we break down the policy issues of the day. Since the politicians are having their say, we will excuse them with respect, and bring in the experts, many of them from the CSIS. People who have been working these issues for years.
Andrew Schwartz: No spin, no bombast, no finger pointing, just informed discussion.
Andrew Schwartz: This is a special bonus episode of The Truth of the Matter. As many of you know, Bob Schieffer hosts the Schieffer Series at CSIS. We're doing a new thing this year called Bob Schieffer's Green Room, where Bob and the panel warm up in the green room and we record it. The discussion this time was about Iran and the recent attack on Saudi Arabia. The discussion was so lively, that we wanted to bring you the whole thing right here so you could hear it on this podcast.
Bob Schieffer: Jon, you put out a piece the other day about how Trump really didn't want to make any news the first couple of times he was at the United Nations, and now it turns out he probably needs the United Nations and might even admit that.
Jon Alterman: The first time he went, he had the rocket man quote, seized everybody. People were afraid to go to the UN because they didn't want to offend Trump, and they didn't want to say anything nice to Trump, because that would offend the voters back home. The second time he had that weird boast about how he had done more than any other leader in the United States, and people laughed at him.
Jon Alterman: I thought part of the really striking downbeat tone of today, when he gave this speech to the UN, he didn't want to make news. The real news, from the speech, was that before the speech, the leaders of France, the UK, and Germany came out and said, "We think the Iranians are responsible for the strike." That's exactly the kind of coalition building normal American presidents do. Before they go to the UN, they try to build a case.
Jon Alterman: I think, actually, the Trump administration is understanding, "We're not going to take care of this unilaterally. We need the allies." And I think we're starting to build a traditional case, a traditional alliance, to move the Iranians because maximum pressure alone, isn't doing it.
David Sanger: But he didn't quite get there in the speech though. He didn't have a plan in the speech to gather everybody together. He didn't call Security Counsel together. He didn't say he wanted authorization to use military force. He just talked about doing what they've been doing. It was almost as if the attack hadn't happened.
Seth Jones: Nor do we have an actual way forward that the Europeans have bought into right now. They're still back at the JCPOA and some modest modifications, so we don't have a way forward at this point.
Bob Schieffer: Seth, you had a report out this summer that almost to the last pin that dropped, predicted what was going to happen. You talked about Saudi Arabia and how vulnerable they were to an attack from Iran and that's basically what happened. What do you think? What's next?
Seth Jones: Well, I think the issue here, it's pretty clear that the Trump administration again, does not look like it wants a military response. Or, at least, it's hedging right now on a military response.
Seth Jones: I think what we're looking at right now is what does the public case look like? We still don't have sufficient public information about what the Iranians did, how they did it, with what combination of cruise missiles and drones. And then, how is the US going to respond militarily, or through the Saudis? And how, and if at all, and this is where I'm concerned, to what degree is their allied participation in a broader political way forward with Iran? Because otherwise we're just in an interminable tit for tat.
Jon Alterman: What I keep hearing from Arab diplomats is if there's not a real strike, the Iranians will absolutely turn it up. There will be another attack and another attack.
David Sanger: But what you’re hearing from the Europeans and the Saudis is they don't want them to attack because their... If Saudi Arabia was this vulnerable this time, and boy I would not want to have the job of whoever was in charge of Saudi Air defenses a week ago because it would probably not be a great place to be. But if there is a significant attack back, whether it's kinetic, whether it's cyber, the Saudis are feeling pretty exposed that if the Iranians escalate, they don't have…
Bob Schieffer: Why do you think this attack was aimed at?
Seth Jones: I think it was aimed at the Saudis. This is a textbook Iranian attack. They tried to hide this, or largely hide it to some degree, but it was not targeting the United States, which would have really risked escalation. It hits the Saudis and it also was an attempt, at least a signal, to hit them in their pockets.
Jon Alterman: Right. And I think importantly for all of the Iranian escalation over the last five months, I don't know that there've been any fatalities from the Iranian perspective. We have suffered economically, so we will impose costs on others, economically., I think they think they're staying in their lane. The risk of miscalculation as Walter Russell Mead wrote in the Wall Street Journal, is real and either we have escalation that invites a response, there's a mistake, it invites a response, but the possibility for a genuine war is certainly increasing.
David Sanger: That's why we wrote in Monday's paper that this problem has essentially been handed to cyber command, because nobody wants to be doing a traditional military strike inside Iran on Iranian facilities, and yet nobody wants to sit around and feel like the Iranians were sent no message.
David Sanger: What they're discovering over time is cyber presents the same problem the traditional strike does. If it's so big that it really sends a message, it could lead to escalation and if it's relatively minor, the way the one that we did against the Iranians in June was, it clearly isn't going to be a deterrent.
David Sanger: We hit them in June, wiped out their databases that control understanding the traffic in the Gulf, and they came back and hit the Saudis two months later.
Bob Schieffer: But correct me if I'm wrong here, but after reading your report, it occurred to me if Iran had wanted to hit the Saudis harder, there were other things, like the desalination program.
Seth Jones: They could have. 70% of Saudi Arabia's potable water comes from desalination plants, including ones that would be very vulnerable to a strike. The electricity grid. Certainly the SCADA systems that run a lot of its grid. If the Iranians wanted to hit them harder, or if they're reserving the possibility for escalations, Saudi Arabia is extremely vulnerable to a separate…
Bob Schieffer: Because how much of their water comes from the ground is from rather than coming from these plants?
Seth Jones: 70% of the potable water comes from desalination plants. They'd be very vulnerable to a strike.
Bob Schieffer: They're more desalination than any country in the world.
David Sanger: I figured it in Washington, I learned this lesson from Bob Schieffer, in Washington I'm having a good day if I understand 5% of what's going on in any given day. Bob always knew 10 I figured five would be fine for me.
David Sanger: In cyber you got to wrap the secrecy part around it. The good news out of this is we're at a point right now where the cyber strikes, in order to make a point, can't really be that covert. The only thing that might be covert is exactly who did it and how it happened, but if it's so covert you can't see it, then it's probably not hurting them.
Andrew Schwartz: There's no deterrent value, if that's the case, too.
Bob Schieffer: There's another rule, especially when it comes to scandals and things like that, that I've developed over the years. What we know is always better than what we don't know, as we get further into the issue.
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