Abbreviated transcript (condensed for clarity) for conversation with former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro
Ron Klein: Hello, everyone. This is Ron Klein, chair of the JDCA. We’re very happy to have this call today, in our inaugural series to have the opportunity to hear from people from the highest level—and we consider this first one to be the highest level—contacts and people that help advise us, and provide us with resources and information. As many of you know, people in this call are either JDCA board members, or supporters or interested parties. We thank you for being on this call. It’s going to run about 45 minutes, which is the time Ambassador Shapiro has given us, which is wonderful.
Barbara Goldman Goldberg: Thank you so much. We know that Dan isn’t a stranger to anyone on this call, and I am particularly honored to be able to welcome him to the JDCA, and thank him for taking this time out of his incredibly busy and hectic schedule in Israel to talk to us. Dan is the consummate U.S. ambassador, and he truly sets the bar for all others. IN 2009, after President Obama was elected, Dan became senior director for the middle east and North Africa for the United States Security Council. He attended every Israel-related meeting, and visited with every single Israeli diplomat and military officer who visited Washington, DC. And then in late March of 2011President Obama nominated him to be our ambassador to Israel. He remained as his ambassador until our last inaugural almost a year ago, and he now serves as visiting fellow at the Insitute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Dan has extensive Capitol Hill experience. […] I could go on and on, but it’s time to hear from Dan. So, Dan, it is our privilege to have you speak to the Jewish Democratic Council of America. Welcome.
Dan Shapiro: Thank you. Thank you, Barbara, for the warm introduction. Thank you Ron; thank you Steve. Thank you everybody on the call for being here, and congratulations to everybody for a terrific launch of JDCA. It’s been exciting to see it get off the ground; I think the prospects are very positive for the impact it will have on the Party, and the country, and the community in the months ahead. I’m really happy to be the first person on this series of calls. I thought I would spend a little time on Iran and the protests that have taken hold there there a little bit related to the upcoming and also […] some of you have seen an article in Politico I recently published with a colleague, Mark Dubowitz, executive director and CEO of Defense of Democracies […] an institution I’ve worked with in the past on various initiatives. […] Mark has emerged in the past two or three years as an important and influential critic on some of the Obama Administration’s policies, including the [Iran] nuclear deal. He’s a very outspoken and articulate critic of the nuclear deal, and he and I strongly disagree on it. We have at professional and friendly disagreements on it.
I’ve been a strong defender of the nuclear agreement, and I’ll get back to why in a few moments— during my time as Ambassador, and since I left government as well. But what both of us realized as soon as we saw the protests beginning to take place in Iran was that there was room for bipartisan consensus on something very, very important, and that is supporting the Iranian people in their struggle against a regime that is by any definition, corrupt and brutal and extreme and a malign actor both against its own peoples’ of the legitimate rights but also in many others arenas in the region which sponsors terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, and intervenes in other countries in the region like Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and Yemen. And so, we wrote a piece together entitled “Where We Can Agree on Iran” and we acknowledged upfront—I encourage anybody who has not seen it to go ahead and take a look at it—we acknowledged upfront our disagreements on the nuclear deal but we are going to put that aside because there are things that supporters and opponents of the Nuclear Agreement can agree on. We should make no bones about the fact of what kind of regime we’re dealing with here, we are dealing with a regime—we shouldn’t want in power one day longer than necessary. That doesn’t mean that we know that these protests are going to produce a revolution that could overthrow the regime, as it has been difficult to get reliable flows of information about what’s happening—to know exactly what has produced the protests or what their trajectory is, you know, seem to have a real leadership that is yet around them and of course the regime has kind of cracked down, but its full response probably hasn’t been fully manifest yet. But just even listening to what some of the protesters are chanting—they’re chanting against corruption, they’ve been chanting against Iranian adventurism in other parts of the regions specifically mentioning Hezbollah, and mentioning Syria, where Iranians have died and were significant amounts of Iranian asset have been wasted. And protestors are attributing that to the ongoing economic difficulties in Iran.
We can recall that the regime was able to describe [the nuclear deal] as a major accomplishment because while they agree the limitations are under the clear program, they receive relief from the very severe, crippling sanctions that actually brought them to the table and caused so much economic pain in Iran. So the argument was, we the regime are the ones who have now produced the relief that will give people some economic breathing space but, a lot of Iranians have not felt any significant improvement and they blame the regime, they don’t blame us, they don’t blame the Europeans, they don’t blame your any outside actor, they are blaming that regime for squandering that money both through corruption and through mismanagement and through wasting it on foreign adventures. That’s a narrative that anybody, no matter where you come down, can support, and so Mark and I wrote about on how what we would recommend any policy include: first of all very clear and very strong and consistent statements in support of the protesters, in support of their rights to peaceful protest, the right to express themselves and their aspirations for their ability to have a better kind of economy. We need to do that in a measured way and not in a way that seems to put us, the United States into the lead in the story but keeps the Iranian people in the lead in the story, we don’t want the narrative to take hold of these protesters who, you know, we have nothing to do with who really sprung up in the lower social economic classes of Iranian cities around the country, not like the 2009 protests, which were more kind of upper-middle class and Tehran-focused. This is a more working class and very organic rebellion, we don’t want anyone to take hold of the idea that they’re somehow being sponsored, or are somehow stooges of the United States, which is obviously the narrative the regime would like to maintain. So our statements have been measured and have been clear in the principles we’re supporting, I think it still gives a very important degree of legitimacy and lift and knowledge that there is outside support for them.
[And] I frankly think the administration has struck the right tone so far in the statements on these protests, and I encourage that. The President needs to be careful not to tweet about every 5 or 10 minutes […] But on this subject I think he’s at least pitching in the ballpark: official statements have been made by officials, and have been made in the correct manner. In addition, we should be recruiting other governments, including European governments particularly, who have a lot of influence in Iran because of their commercial relationships. We should also be voicing, particularly in our statements of support for the protestors, warnings against a crackdown. We should make clear that, in authorizing or using violence against protestors, in rounding up people who have been guilty of nothing other than peaceful expressing their views, we and Europeans together can target and designates specific officials, they can be subject to travel bans asset- freezing, other forms of kind of reputational sanction that, you know, even the most extreme members of the regime don’t particularly want. There are number of tools that Mark and I recommended be deployed for that purpose, as well. We have many hundreds of millions of dollars spare funds; we have extensive networks of Persian language media outlets—radio Farda, the Voice of America’s Persian-language service— as in the Cold War, this is a way of getting a reliable flow of information, this kind of discourse, letting people know what’s going on in other cities, the extent of the protests and extent of support for them— we have ways are getting a right information into Iran, so people hear about it and we can include among those transmissions information about the amount of a sanctions relief that should have been available to the Iranian people and has been squandered through corruption and mismanagement and spending on foreign activities, so, we can provide information that will give the protestors additional information as well. We know that the Iranian authorities are trying to crack down on a social media platforms particularly one is very popular called Telegram, but also Twitter, also Instagram, these platforms that Iranian protesters have used and do use to communicate and organize and the [Trump] Administration, correctly and as we recommended, as we were recommended has already began to work with those companies—many of American companies—to ensure that they did not comply with Iranian regime request to block these channels and to try to keep those platforms up as viable as a means of communication among and between other protestors and between protestors and the outside world. So, and there is one more measure that we recommend I think importantly because this was done with a Republican colleague and that is to lift the ban on Iranian citizens traveling into the United States. This is a moment when we want them to make up clear division between the regime which is hostile— I want to say evil, aggressive regime, all right? Nobody can outdo me in my disdain for the Iranian regime, and we can be very clear about that—but the Iranian people, is a different matter and that’s something we should be trying to make clear. Even if a protestor managed to get out of Iran and come in United States, they would be banned from doing so, just on the basis of their Iranian citizenship. A very, very important and meaningful way of demonstrating our support for the people…would be to lift that blanket travel ban.
So, those are the recommendations some of them are being implemented others are not, I do believe that…I got mixed the reaction to that piece—some people have commented on a kind of Odd Couple dynamic between me and Mark Dubowitz writing that piece together. I don’t see it that those terms, I see it terms of us returning to tradition that is somewhat out of favor, of real bipartisan foreign policymaking. Of making real common cause with partners and friends across the aisle on those issues where we agree even with people who with whom very important disagreements. Some people reacted favorably; some people reacted disfavorably. I believe we should be doing more of that, and encouraging more of that.