Keynote Address by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Soref Symposium 2023
May 4, 2023


Jake Sullivan

Author's Title: 

National Security Advisor


And even the recent diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which we’ve stayed in close touch with the Saudis on all the way through from Baghdad to Oman and ultimately to the deal reached. This too is in line with the fundamental direction and trend of de-escalation that we have supported and encouraged even while we maintain pressure on Iran through sanctions and other means.


In Syria, on March 23, we experienced another attack that tragically saw the first American contractor killed, the first such casualty in this region since we entered office, and other U.S. personnel injured. The president ordered an immediate response, and within hours we turned around a strike against a facility in Syria used by groups affiliated with the IRGC. We’ve now seen at least for the moment a decrease in threats against our personnel in Syria, but we are ready and prepared to respond should Iran or any adversary threaten our personnel in Syria or Iraq or anywhere else.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned, we’ve kept relentless pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda, including a strike just earlier this week in Syria that removed a senior al-Qaeda leader, and the Special Forces raid last year that killed ISIS’s so-called “caliph.”

We’ve also worked with our partners to share warnings of imminent threats, such as last November, when Iran was preparing for an attack against Saudi Arabia. In the face of close security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States, that attack did not take place.

Examples of this cooperation extend across the Middle East. Earlier this year in the Eastern Mediterranean, the United States and Israel held the largest joint military exercise ever in the history of our two countries. There can be no doubt that we are walking the walk and not just talking the talk when we say that our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad. That exercise was followed by one of the largest naval military exercises in the region’s history, with more than fifty international partners— including Israeli and Gulf partner navies—working side by side one another.

We are also engaging Iran diplomatically regarding its nuclear program, and we continue to believe that it was a tragic mistake to leave the deal with nothing at all to replace it. But we have made clear to Iran that it can never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. As President Biden has repeatedly reaffirmed, he will take the actions that are necessary to stand by this statement, including by recognizing Israel’s freedom of action.


Robert Satloff: So the first question I’m going to ask you is about deterrence. Now as you just reaffirmed, the president has committed himself like other presidents before him to ensuring that Iran does not achieve a nuclear weapon. And you affirmed as well that the preferred method to achieve this is diplomacy, but there are other means if necessary, if forced to. And we’ve heard from senior American officials recently as well that Iran may be as little as ten or twelve days away from a military-grade level of enrichment. And today the Israeli defense minister said in Greece that he believes Iran already has five bombs’ worth of 60 percent enriched material.

So let me ask you: in your view, is our deterrent strategy working? And if we’re short on that, what is the missing ingredient to strengthen our deterrence?

Sullivan: So let me start by saying as I did in my speech that the best way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is an effective agreement that stops them from getting a nuclear weapon. And I regard the decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, without anything to replace it or any strategy to deal with it other than the imposition of sanctions—which we have continued and added to actually—is not necessarily a pathway to a clear and straightforward answer to your question.

Because in my view, before the JCPOA, Iran was also sitting on multiple bombs’ worth of lower-enriched-grade uranium, and the JCPOA forced them to basically get rid of all of that. And we should get back to a deal in which—whether it’s five bombs or whatever it may be of 60 percent—that that also goes by the board.

So from my perspective we are back in a position that we were in before—where Iran is enriching, is advancing—and that this nuclear program poses a genuine challenge to our fundamental nonproliferation goals, and we remain determined to ensure that that challenge does not cross the line to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. And yes, we will take the necessary action to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. At the end of the day, that’s the fundamental test: Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon. They do not today, and they cannot have one.

Now, you know, some part of me is sort of like, “They’re accumulating enriched uranium; they would not be accumulating enriched uranium if we were still in the deal; they are because we’re not in the deal.” So it’s a kind of strange position for me to be in to kind of defend a strategy of being out of the deal when, you know, I was one of the people who helped kind of pave the way for it in the first place.

But what I will simply say is that on the deterrence side, working with our partners—including working very closely with Israel, including through that military exercise that I described before, but also through intensive sessions that I have personally participated in with everyone from the prime minister to the national security advisor to the minister of defense—we will continue to send a clear message about the costs and consequences of going too far, while at the same time continuing to seek the possibility of a diplomatically brokered outcome that puts Iran’s nuclear program back in the box.

That is what we think is ultimately the best way to achieve the outcome we are looking for. And we think the best way to do that also is to do it flanked by allies and partners who are fundamentally bought into our strategy. And that includes our European allies and partners who have joined us on both the deterrence side and the diplomacy side.

So this is an issue that occupies the president’s attention, my attention, on a daily basis. Iran’s program has advanced considerably. It is a genuine danger to regional security and to global security, and, indeed, to the United States of America. And we are going to continue to take action to, yes, deter Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and then to seek a diplomatic solution that puts this on a long-term pathway of stability.