HomeHow ToFormer Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross on regional instability — “Intelligence Matters”
Former Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross on regional instability — “Intelligence Matters”
March 23, 2023
In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with former senior U.S. ambassador and Middle East envoy Dennis Ross about growing instability in the Middle East, including tensions between Israel and Palestine, controversial judicial reforms in Israel and consistent advancements in Iran’s nuclear program. Ross, now counselor and a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offers suggestions for a clearer and more muscular U.S. policy vis-a-vis Iran and weighs the implications of a possible unilateral military strike on its nuclear facilities by Israel.
On Iran advancing its nuclear program: “They’re doing it because they don’t see it as being risky. They want to put themselves in a position where, if they wanted to go for nuclear weapon, they’re poised to be able to do that. It’s true none of what you’ve just described and I’ve added to means that they are weaponizing. But as you said, there is also no legitimate civilian purpose for enriching to the levels that they’re enriching to now.”
U.S. articulating consequences for Iran: “Unless we convince them that something has changed, they’re going to continue down this path. And my fear is we will end up seeing a war that may start with the Israelis striking the Iranians, but quickly becomes a regional conflict. And that’s the last thing we need right now.”
Unrealized possibilities in the Middle East: “So this is a region characterized by a lot of potential conflict that can be worrisome. But also there is a sense of possibility. The Abraham Accords reflected a change in the region. And when I’m asked the question, ‘How do the Abraham Accords change the region,’ I say the question is a good question, but it’s the wrong one: ‘How did the region change so the Abraham Accords became possible?'”
MICHAEL MORELL: Dennis, welcome to Intelligence Matters. You’ve been on our show before, and it’s very nice to have you back.
DENNIS ROSS: Mike, always a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
MICHAEL MORELL: You’re welcome.
Dennis, as you know, I want to talk about Iran, particularly the Iranian nuclear program, but I want to ask you a couple of questions before we dive into that.
The first one is the current ongoing fighting between the Palestinians and the Israelis. What’s causing that? Are we heading toward or are we already in a third intifada? How are you thinking about that?
DENNIS ROSS: Well, I’m worried about it because I think there is a very different dynamic at play right now. Several different factors we need to take into account.
Number one, on the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority is deteriorating. It has very little credibility with its own public. It is dysfunctional when it comes to governance. It is highly corrupt. And you have a Palestinian population in the West Bank where more than 80% would like to see Mahmoud Abbas retire or leave. And a very strong majority is almost inclined to see the Palestinian Authority go away, which speaks volumes because this is the first time the Palestinians have actually had a kind of governing body. And yet it is so discredited that it becomes harder and harder for those who represent the security forces to actually act on its behalf against those who might be carrying out or planning acts of terror.
But it’s, ironically, it’s not just the issue of going and arresting those who might be carrying out acts of terror. It’s also there’s almost no law and order in the West Bank right now. So all Palestinians in the sense who live there are suffering from that. And we have in addition to just the dysfunction and the corruption of the PA and its loss of legitimacy, we have a generation of Palestinians who don’t remember the second intifada and the terrible cost to the Palestinians of the second intifada.
The second intifada took place basically from the fall of 2000. But really, it didn’t start until closer to the summer of 2001 and effectively went until 2005. 1,100 Israelis were killed. Close to 4,000 Palestinians were killed. The Palestinian economy to this day has not gotten back to what it was prior to the second intifada. So that memory is very strong with most of the Palestinian public. But it’s not strong, it certainly isn’t something that’s even apparent with a younger population. And it’s that younger population that is mostly responsible for carrying out acts of terror that really began about a year ago in Israel.
What adds to this younger population sort of being in a different place is they have access to weapons that they just didn’t have access to before. Guns are plentiful and social media plays a different role now. Groups like the Lion’s Den, which are essentially in Nablus, these are people mostly between the ages of 18 and 26. They are lionized on social media for their readiness to to go and and fight the Israelis, their readiness to sort of stand up to the Israelis. So the more they’re made into heroes, the more they have a sense of identity.
And what adds to this? If this wasn’t enough, you have to be 27 to get a work permit, if you’re a Palestinian. to work in Israel. 160,000 Palestinians every day work in Israel or work in the Israeli settlements, it provides one third of the GDP of the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority.
In answer to your question, are we on the brink of a third intifada? My answer is no, because the broader Palestinian public is not joining in on this, partly because, A, they remember what happened, but B, they also have these jobs which they’re not prepared to give up.
That said, there is this dynamic where, because there’s a kind of heroic sense of resisting the Israelis. And also because they’re well armed. The Israelis, Mike, as you know, they used to frequently go in and make arrests of those that they identified as about to be a ticking bomb or recruiting others who could be threats. They usually succeeded in terms of making arrests. Right now, there’s a resistance and there are firefights. They end up not arresting these guys, but killing them. And inevitably bystanders get killed. And that adds to the broader anger of the Palestinian public, but it also further weakens the Palestinian Authority.
So it’s a really combustible mixture of things. So even if you don’t have a third intifada, the dynamic that is producing violence is one that is very hard to control at this point.
MICHAEL MORELL: So just two follow up questions. One is the Palestinian security forces were always a strength of the Palestinian authorities. Have they been degraded? That’s the first question.
And the second question is for those Palestinians who say they want the Palestinian Authority to go away, what do they want to replace it with?
DENNIS ROSS: The answer to the former is that the Palestinian Authority security forces are weakening as well because they’re only being paid about 80% of their salaries. The numbers are decreasing.
Ironically, many are going to work in Israel where they can make dramatically more than they could. So you have a declining force. You have a force that is reluctant to go into certain areas. They are fearful that if they do go into certain areas, they’ll face resistance not only from those they’re going into arrest, but from the Palestinians, you know, basically in the neighborhoods that they go into, who will resist them as well. And you have this together with an Israeli government that has people like Itamar Ben-Gvir and now is a national security minister and the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who in the past would have been on the fringes of Israeli society. The combination of all this is what I think is is making this really so difficult.
In answer to those who want the Palestinian Authority to go away, what do they want to replace it with? Honestly, I think increasingly they think about, Look, let the Israelis stay. We’ll have one state. They think over time our numbers will allow us to take it over. In the meantime, at least, you know, we can get jobs in Israel. I once asked a a 30-year-old Palestinian what did she most want? And she said, ‘I’d like a job in Israel. I’d like to be able to drink beer and go to the beach.’ And her view was Palestinian Authority isn’t going to provide that.
On the other hand, if you have a vacuum there, I think Hamas has the greatest potential to take over and that’s going to leave everybody worse off. Palestinians, first and foremost.
MICHAEL MORELL: Second question before we get to Iran, is your reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to change the role of the Israeli judiciary?
DENNIS ROSS: I think it’s fair to describe it less as a reform process and more as an overhaul process. One of the things, as you know, Mike, oftentimes when we were facing calls for international investigations into acts that the Israelis had carried out either in the West Bank or in response to to acts of terror, we could always fall back on something that was completely believable. Israel has a very credible, legitimate, independent judiciary. And we could say with no qualification that Israel will be launching its own investigation. Additionally, will conduct an investigation that we know will be credible.
Now, if you carry out the kind of reform as it’s being suggested, you basically will take away the reality of the independence of the judiciary. Many of the provisions of the reform, to call them anti-democratic, is really not right. For example, having the judges selection committee be run by political people. Obviously, that’s what goes on here. Justice Roberts can say we don’t have Republican and Democratic judges, but it sure looks like we do. Administrations appoint judges that reflect their philosophies. So you can’t say that it’s anti-democratic. Having legal advisers in the ministries be answerable and selected by the minister. That’s what we have here. Again, you might say it’s better not to have it, but we have that here.
But when it comes to having the override of the Supreme Court with a narrow majority of 61 out of 120, then you’re talking about majoritarian rule, then you’re talking about what is no longer a separation of powers. This in Israel is a parliamentary system, which means the executive already controls the parliament. It is there, the majority coalition there, they select the Prime Minister. So the only brake on the executive and legislative branch is the judiciary. And if you allow the judiciary to override the Supreme Court with a narrow majority, well then you’ve lost the ability to ensure an independent judiciary. You’ve lost the ability to protect minority rights.
I will tell you, I do expect the area where the government is likely to compromise is on that one. It is less likely to compromise on the political selection of judges. They want out of their nine people on the judges selection committee and out of the nine, they want to make 6 to 9 governmental appointees. They might compromise that on one, they might go down to five of the nine, but they don’t want to give up a majority on the judges selection committee. And again, that doesn’t look particularly undemocratic if you’re sitting here in Washington, DC.
But on the other hand, if you’re in Israel and you’ve always had judges selected primarily by by jurists who are not political, you can see why in Israel that might be pretty strongly resisted. And we’re seeing that.
MICHAEL MORELL: But it really sounds like that third one is the one that really matters, right?
DENNIS ROSS: I think so, because I think that’s if you do away with separation of powers and you do away with an independent judiciary, then you’re setting the stage for majoritarian rule. And you’re doing great damage to our ability to be protective of the Israelis in international forum.
And I just think, you know, there’s something else. The US-Israeli relationship has been built on shared values. And when suddenly it looks like you’re dispensing with those shared values, that can have consequences.
MICHAEL MORELL: So we’re now we’re going to make a slight transition toward Iran here. Dennis, your reaction to the Saudi-Iranian normalization and what it means for the region?
DENNIS ROSS: You know, I don’t overreact to it. The Saudis and the Iranians, for their own reasons, saw some benefit in terms of restoring diplomatic relations. From the Saudi standpoint, I know that for the last two years at least, they’ve had a dialogue with the Iranians and the consistent condition that they held out on for restoring diplomatic relations, reopening an embassy was that the Iranians basically stop the Houthis or ensure the Houthis will stop firing rockets and drones and cruise missiles into Saudi Arabia. They wanted to see an end to the conflict or at least a cease fire that would be enduring. And it was a non Iranian responsiveness on that, that from the Saudi standpoint, continued to have them say, ‘Okay, we’ll keep talking, but this is what has to happen.’
Now, the Chinese came in and this is one of the things that the the Iranians agreed to. The question becomes, why now? Why now? After having not agreed to it before? And I say the why now is a function of a couple of things.
One, the Iranians want to get out from political isolation in the region. And having this agreement with the Saudis certainly opens up possibilities to, I think, again, given how much their economy has been suffering because of sanctions, I think they’re hoping this may open the door to economic relations with the Saudis and maybe others.
I’m not sure how far that one can go, because the Saudis probably still respect sanctions that we impose. But I do think what you have is the two sides had a mutual interest and that’s why they acted on it.
Now, I would add one other point on the Saudi side. You go back to 2019 when Abqaiq, their most important oil processing facility, was attacked by the Iranians directly, not through proxies, even though they didn’t admit it. We know they attacked it directly. And I think this had a profound effect on the Saudis at that time. The Trump administration really didn’t do anything in response. It made the Saudis quite cognizant of how vulnerable they could be.
Both the Trump administration and the Biden administration, from their standpoint, was not in a position or was was unwilling to do what they felt was necessary to either protect them from such attacks or to be able to deter such attacks. And so I think they’ve had in mind for some time it was worth doing this. But again, they wanted to ensure they didn’t just concede to the Iranians without getting the Iranians to commit to at least acting to restrain the Houthis coming out of Yemen. So I think that kind of explains why now and why both sides wanted to do it. And the Chinese provided the platform for this.
It does put the Chinese in a kind of interesting position because if one or both sides don’t live up to what they’ve said, one or both will then look to the Chinese. As you know, the Chinese have rarely, if ever, played a real mediating role where you assume responsibility. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens if, in fact, this is not implemented.
By the way, just one last thought. I don’t see the fundamentals between the two having changed. Iran still wants to dominate the region. The Saudis aren’t going to acquiesce to that. The Saudis would like a kind of secure environment in which to pursue their national transformation agenda. The Iranians may want a bit of a respite themselves, but as I said, the fundamentals haven’t changed. And so the the realities that underpin the relations between the two, those haven’t changed either.
MICHAEL MORELL: Okay, Dennis, let’s turn to the Iranian nuclear program. And what I’d like to kind of unpack here is how far the Iranians have pushed the envelope, why they are doing that, what the Israelis might be thinking about with regard to this and what we should be thinking about and what we should be doing about it.
And maybe the place to start is, let me for a moment play my former role in this room and put some facts on the table and then ask you to react to them. So with regard to the uranium enrichment program: the IAEA says Iran has enriched uranium to 84%, just short of the 90% that’s considered weapons grade. They’re not stockpiling uranium enriched to that amount, they just did it once.
It sounds to me like they’re experimenting with near weapons grade enrichment. They’ve increased enrichment levels at its deep underground facility at Fordow to 60%. They’re stockpiling uranium enriched to 20% and 60%. And given the size of both of those stockpiles, if Iran chose to do so, they could have enough weapons grade uranium for one weapon in a week and enough for four weapons in a little less than a month.
Iran’s also produced a sphere of uranium and metal enriched to 60%. And as you know, a sphere of uranium metal enriched to 90% is literally what’s at the heart, what’s at the center of a nuclear weapon. So let me start by asking you: Did I miss anything here in terms of how far the Iranians have pushed the enrichment program? And then why do you think they’re doing this at this moment in time?
DENNIS ROSS: I’d say no, you did not miss anything. The only thing I would add to your summary is that by the end of this year, going just on their current pace, they could easily have about ten bombs’ worth of enriched material to at least 60%. They have 16 cascades right now that are enriching to 60% of six advanced centrifuges.
So what we’re looking at, and this gets to the second part of your question, why they’re doing this, fundamentally, they’re doing it because they don’t see it as being risky. They want to put themselves in a position where, if they wanted to go for nuclear weapon, they’re poised to be able to do that. It’s true none of what you’ve just described and I’ve added to means that they are weaponizing. But as you said, there is also no legitimate civilian purpose for enriching to the levels that they’re enriching to now.
And the fact that they’re also fabricating uranium metal again is something that you wouldn’t be doing unless you really had a weapon in mind. So it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll go for a weapon, but they’re putting themselves in a position where that is increasingly an option available to them.
Now, as I said, they don’t see any great risk in doing this. And my fear is that the Israelis look at this and say, ‘What’s the point where it becomes too late for us to do something about it?’ Because they’re not just enriching. The other thing they’re doing is they’re hardening all of their sites in their nuclear infrastructure, meaning these become harder and harder to destroy.
Mike, you’ll remember we used to have Ehud Barak, when he was a defense minister, come and talk to us about the zone of immunity. And what he meant by that was that there will come a point where the combination of hardening of their sites and the scope of their program will be such that an Israeli military strike would be rendered pretty much ineffective. So as the Israelis contemplate the Iranians moving closer and closer to that site, that reality there, the prospect of them acting militarily will go up, I think, very dramatically.
So we’re looking at, from my standpoint, to then get to the last part of your question, what do we need to do to change the Iranian calculus? And I start with the fact that they have to have a reason to fear that what they’re doing is too risky as they measure risk. They have to have a reason to understand that they’re going to drive us to act militarily and in a way that would destroy their entire nuclear infrastructure, which they’ve spent 40 years investing in.
Now the question is, what is it we would have to do to convince them of that? Because today they don’t believe we’ll act militarily against them. And I have sort of four suggestions. The first is we have to change our declaratory policy. We have, for a long time, since when you and I were both back in the administrations, we said all options are on the table. The problem with all options being on the table, it’s been set for so long that it has an impact on nobody, least of all the Iranians. So I think we need to change that.
I think we need to make it clear while we continue to favor diplomacy as a way to resolve the challenge of their nuclear program, they need to understand, since they demonstrate no interest in diplomacy, they’re putting us in a position where we increasingly will have to act and they need to understand they are jeopardizing their entire nuclear infrastructure.
I think that would if we said that, they would believe that we are beginning to prepare our own public and maybe the international community for the possibility of actually using force against their program. So that’s number one.
Number two, you need to underpin the words with some behaviors that make those words seem credible. So I’d like to see us conduct exercises in the region, joint and multilateral, where we are rehearsing air to ground attacks against hardened targets. And at the same time, because I believe if the Israelis were to strike the Iranians, my belief is that the Iranians would probably retaliate against the Saudis because they would want to demonstrate that they’re not the only ones who are going to pay a price for this.
Now, here again, we should be running exercises that demonstrate that with the Saudis, the Emiratis and others and the Israelis, we are also planning to blunt what might be retaliatory strikes by the Iranians, either retaliatory strikes or initial strikes by the Iranians. They need to see we’re both preparing for such for for reinforcing our words about being prepared to act against their nuclear infrastructure, but also positioning ourselves to protect our allies in the region, our friends in the region from what the Iranians might do in response. So that’s the second thing.
The third thing, I think that the Iranians today not only believe that we won’t act militarily, but we’ll stop the Israelis from doing it. And one way to to counteract that impression is to provide the Israelis some things that they need if they were going to carry out an effective strike – for example, they have no forward basing. The hardening of the Iranian targets means they have to hit these targets multiple times and actually in the same spot. And that means that they need better refueling capabilities for their aircraft.
Now, they have bought four. KC-46s from Boeing, but the first one right now isn’t to be delivered until the end of 2025. I would say if the Biden administration were to push the Israelis to first in the queue, that would send a very interesting message that not only are we not about to restrain the Israelis, but we would be prepared to support them. I think that would be a very important message to be sending the Iranians.
I would also provide the Israelis some munitions that they don’t have that could be more effective against the hardened targets than the munitions they currently have here. Again, sending the message we’re prepared to support them, not restrain them.
And the last thing I think the Iranians need to see that we do something that they completely don’t expect. That’s out of the ordinary. You know, in the last month – we have a small presence, as you know, Mike, very well, a small presence in Syria. And it’s there to ensure that ISIS doesn’t reemerge. And twice in the last month, they have been hit, attacked by Iranian Shia militia proxies. We didn’t retaliate. I would like to see us retaliate, but in a way that is disproportionate to this.
I mean, look, I would take a page from the Israeli book. The Israelis do all sorts of things that they don’t admit. I would be willing to, in the middle of the night, hit some of the training camps where these militias are trained, armed, you know, funded and the like. And these are actually in Iran itself. I wouldn’t admit it because I don’t want to put the Iranians in a position where they have no choice but to respond. But I want them to get the message that something has changed.
Unless we convince them that something has changed, they’re going to continue down this path. And my fear is we will end up seeing a war that may start with the Israelis striking the Iranians, but quickly becomes a regional conflict. And that’s the last thing we need right now.
MICHAEL MORELL: And is your expectation that if they felt the pressure you’re talking about, if they really believed that we were going to take military action, that we were going to go along with the Israelis and support them, that we would bring them back to the negotiating table? Is that the idea?
DENNIS ROSS: It is. I view it sort of as twofold. One is deterrence. I want to start by getting them to realize they need to stop what they’re doing, because first of all, if they stop what they’re doing, it doesn’t solve the problem, but it reduces the urgency of the prospect of actually a conflict erupting. Because I think we’re on a slippery slope right now.
Now, in terms of timing, the other thing it does is it gives them an incentive to look for a diplomatic way out. And right now, they don’t seem to have much of an interest in that. And at the same time, they don’t seem to have much of a fear.
MICHAEL MORELL: Is it your sense that they don’t think the Israelis would act on their own? And it sounds like what you’re saying is they’re wrong about that calculation.
DENNIS ROSS: I think they are wrong about that. I think they believe that we will stop them. Now, one of the reasons I think they believe that is because pretty much effectively, if you go back to 2011, 2012, we did. Now, the times were different then. At that time, you did have Benjamin Netanyahu was also still the prime minister. But the difference was the entire security establishment in Israel was against acting.
Today, notwithstanding all the turmoil in Israel that has been triggered by this move to change the judiciary, you know, there is a consensus when it comes to Iran and Iran’s nuclear capability that this constitutes an existential threat to Israel. And the military establishment and Mossad are in a different place than they were back then.
First of all, they’ve become increasingly convinced that right now, unless something different is done, there is no diplomatic way out of this. And that means that they become more and more likely to feel they have no choice but to act militarily. So I do think it’s different from them.
But I think the fact that we stopped them at that time and there’s been so much that was revealed about that time that the Iranians undoubtedly saw that. And I think they still view us as having a kind of ability to affect Israel in a way that probably exceeds the reality of what we can do to affect Israel.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Dennis, this is probably the hardest question, right? Is the Biden administration – you know these guys very well. I know these guys very well. We’re friends with these people. Why aren’t they following your advice?
DENNIS ROSS: I think a couple of factors explain it, although I see some initial moves in the direction of what I’ve been talking about. But I think the main inhibitor is Ukraine, Russia, and China and Taiwan. And the sense that these are the big threats and especially as it relates to Ukraine, we don’t need to see another major conflict in the Middle East. And so I think there’s a worry that the more active we become, the more likely we make that conflict.
I’m suggesting exactly the opposite, that if you really don’t want to be distracted, you need to focus very heavily on deterrence right now because it looks like we’ve lost that deterrent.
That’s why, the question you asked, why are the Iranians doing this? Because they don’t see a consequence. They don’t see a risk in proceeding. What is the good news? The administration has now run two exercises, unprecedented exercises in the Middle East, one involving 7,000 personnel, U.S. and Israeli, unprecedented in terms of the scope of the number of aircraft involved.
It didn’t involve so much air to ground in terms of hitting targets, meaning hitting hardened targets. But it was geared towards suppression of air defenses, which would obviously be part of anything you would do.
Since that exercise in the last week even, we’ve done some refueling exercises with the Israelis. So these two moves I think are important.
There was a meeting a week ago of a high-level group with the U.S. and the Israelis talking about Iran. And here again, my sense of what was discussed there suggested the administration is moving now. There are things I think it needs to do beyond what they’ve done so far, which, again, I think we the declaratory policy needs to change. And I think even some of the provisions to the Israelis that I suggested would send a message.
But also when you don’t retaliate against Shia militia proxies, it still sends a message that we’re restrained and the Iranians, so long as they perceive us to be restrained, they’re not really going to change the way they think about the risks that they’re running. They need to know they’re making military strikes against them more and more likely. And today they’re not. They’re not at that point.
But I guess what I’m saying is I see some of the moves of the administration giving us some possibility. And I hope that they will see this is actually not a distraction from Ukraine. It’s a way to ensure that you’re not distracted because you end up with a regional conflict, which, by the way, could easily drive oil prices up to $200 a barrel. The last thing the administration needs.
MICHAEL MORELL: There’s another factor here, too, right? Which is just as Chinese President Xi is watching how Ukraine plays out and how the West ends up in Ukraine or not. Or to Russia or not with regard to Ukraine. Same is true of Iran. Right? He’s watching that. He’s watching us not react to Shia militia attacks. He’s watching us not respond to what the Iranians are doing with the nuclear program so we can deal with the Iranian problem and help send a powerful message to the Chinese at the same time.
DENNIS ROSS: I couldn’t agree more. I think the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians need to see behaviors that cross some thresholds on our part. It will certainly affect not only the Iranian calculus, but for sure I think it will affect the Chinese calculus as well.
MICHAEL MORELL: So is there some Middle East fatigue here, too, on top of it all? Or not. Is that overstated?
DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think it may be overstated.
I mean, look, what we have in the Middle East right now or have been two basic alignments, and it’s between, I think, the Iranians and the states that they basically control. I like to say about Iran, you know, their main exports are drones, missiles and failed states. And you have arrayed against that Sunni Arab states, not all of them, but Sunni Arab states, especially the Gulf states that want to build these resilient modern societies. And they’ve created this connection with Israel.
Now, that’s the kind of structure of the situation, the reconciliation between the Saudis and the Iranians, as I said I think it’s about defusing tensions. I don’t think it’s going to go away. But to the extent to which it each side has a stake in implementing it, at least in the near term, I think it does reduce the risk of that conflict.
I am worried that we’re going to see greater conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians because of the dynamic we discussed earlier in the show. And I am a little bit worried about in Nasrallah and Hezbollah, you know, the Israelis suffered a terror bombing which was carried out or at least a bomb was planted, an IED was planted by someone sent by Hezbollah into Israel. It has wounded one Israeli. The Israelis were able, I think, to arrest the guy who did it and the Israeli who helped him, an Israeli Arab who helped him.
But Nasrallah, you know, this is – and then there are five others who came in through a tunnel that the Israelis also arrested.
Nasrallah has been very careful about not provoking the Israelis suddenly to take a step like this, even if it’s deniable, even if it claimed they didn’t do it, it suggests a lowering of his risk threshold. He looks a little less risk averse. And one of the reasons he was as risk averse as he was is because, you know, the really the perilous state of the realities within Lebanon, where 80% of the public are completely impoverished. So I think there are these uncertainties that can produce other conflicts. And I think we have to be mindful of them.
But we also have these other elements, including Arab states, that see a future in having ties with Israel. That creates a sense of, I think, possibility. So this is a region characterized by a lot of potential conflict that can be worrisome. But also there is a sense of possibility. The Abraham Accords reflected a change in the region. And when I’m asked the question, ‘How do the Abraham Accords change the region,’ I say the question is a good question, but it’s the wrong one: How did the region change so the Abraham Accords became possible? And Arab states saw, not just in the security area, but when it comes to water, when it comes to food, when it comes to health, they see the Israelis helping in all these areas, plus cyber. And so, that need isn’t going to go away. And so that gives you something, I think, to work with and build on.
MICHAEL MORELL: And last question, Dennis. If the Iranians stood up and said, ‘We want to go back to the negotiating table,’ do you think it would be politically possible for the United States to return to talks?
I’m thinking given Iranian support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, given human rights issues back in Iran, given the fact that the Iranians are trying to assassinate a former Trump administration official to get revenge for the killing of Qassem Suleimani, given all of that, do you think it’s politically possible to sit down and talk to them?
DENNIS ROSS: I think there’s a difference between talking to them and reaching agreements where they would get tremendous sanctions relief that would extend into the tens of billions, even hundreds of billions of dollars. The latter is going to be hard to explain unless you produce something that is dramatically better than the JCPOA. And the Iranians, you know, didn’t exactly rush back into the JCPOA. So are they really willing to do that at this stage? And could the administration sell an agreement? I think they could rationalize talking to him and saying, look, we’re trying to affect things.
But I do think you put your finger on it. Very difficult to rationalize, suddenly providing billions to them. There were these talks the Iranians are putting out that there’s this deal on exchange of prisoners. The problem is the administration says, no, there’s no such deal. I think Iranians are trying to build pressure on the administration, given the Americans who are being held hostage there. I think the administration is not rushing to this because it understands getting people back who are in prison right now, who shouldn’t be in prison and paying what amounts to a huge ransom for it, it’s a pretty hard sell.
MICHAEL MORELL: Dennis, thank you so much for joining us. You are so well informed on this region. And you put a lot of you put a lot of light on what’s going on. Thank you for joining us.
DENNIS ROSS: Mike, always a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.