Friday, January 19, 2018; 10:00a.m. - 12:30p.m.
Russell Senate Office Building
2 Constitution Ave. NE
Room 485 Washington, D.C. 20002
For more information about this event, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-296-6767
To access full video from our recent event at the National Press Club "Examining U.S. - Saudi Counterterrorism Cooperation" click here.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER: Good morning, everyone. And welcome. I’m Richard Schmierer. I’m the president and chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. And I’m very pleased to welcome you here today for what is our 91st Capitol Hill Conference. We do these quarterly. We’ve been doing them since early in our existence. We began in 1981. We’re an educational organization, really, focused on trying to promote better understanding between the U.S. and the Arab world. As our – the name of our organization indicates, we tend to focus on policy-related issues. And I think today we have one of the more interesting and certainly very topical policy-related issue.
One logistical issue, if anyone wishes you’re welcome to move to the front. Those in the back, since we still have plenty of seats in the front. I think there will be some more people trickling it, but I know it’s not always easy to get in here early on a Friday morning. So please feel free to come forward.
We have an excellent panel this morning. Let me first, though, say a few words about our organization for those of you who are not familiar. As I mentioned, we were founded in 1981. We have really three primary activities that we do on a regular basis. One is this quarterly conference. We do this every three months, usually in one of the buildings here on Capitol Hill. Today we – and we’ve been doing it for a while here in the Russell Building.
We have a quarterly journal. And you may have seen on the table coming in some copies of our journal. If there are any left, you are welcome to pick them up on your way out. We’re very proud of our journal. We have, I think, some 11,000 subscribers. And it’s found in libraries all over the region and all over the U.S. So we feel it does have a very good impact.
And then our third program is an educational outreach program, primarily aimed at secondary school students and teachers. And we feel that’s a very important element of our effort to try to promote understanding, in this case, particularly among young people towards the region. We do have a website, www.MEPC.org, where you can find out more about our programs. And our TeachMideast website, www.TeachMideast.org. So you can find out more about our educational programs there.
But now let’s move onto this morning’s event. First of all, let me mention that we are livestreaming the event this morning. So let me also then welcome our audience who are watching us over the Internet. Also, the video of the conference will be put up on our website as soon as it’s ready to be posted. We will ultimately eventually put up a transcript as well. And we’ll also be sending out a – kind of a summary and posting a summary of today’s discussion. So we do try to make sure that the excellent content that you’ll be seeing and hearing here in a few minutes is disseminated as widely as possible.
We have four excellent panelists with us today. So let me begin by introducing them. Our first speaker will be Adam Ereli, former ambassador to Bahrain and a long-time friend of mine from the State Department who has stayed very engaged in the region and will be talking about his experiences there in the Gulf, in Iraq, and elsewhere. Our second speaker will be Paul Pillar. Paul and I were colleagues at Georgetown a few years ago. And Paul is still associated with Georgetown, after having spent a very distinguished career with the CIA dealing with the region. Our third speaker, Ms. Geneive Abdo, is currently with the Arabia Foundation, most recently with the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council. And then our fourth speaker, Alex – let me get this right, Alex – Alex Vatanka is with the Middle East Institute and also a recognized scholar on the area.
The way we’ll be conducting the program is we’ll have each of our speakers give a brief presentation on their views on the current topic. What we’ll then do is move into a question and answer session. My colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, who’s our executive director, will moderate that session. Now, to make that effect, I would point out that we have index cards on all of your seats. What we would like you to do is during the presentations, as a question comes to mind, write it down on the index card and just hold it up, and a member of our staff will collect it and bring it up to Tom. Tom will then sort through the questions and he will use them as the means of conducting the discussion session.
So without further ado, Adam, I’ll invite you to the podium.
ADAM ERELI: (Off mic.) Oh, really? OK. Got it. Great, great.
Thank you, Ambassador Schmierer. Thank you, everybody, for coming. It’s like Iran overload the last couple of weeks. I mean, I’ve tried to go to as many Iran panels as possible because you always hear something different and something new.
So obviously we’ll be speaking about Iran and the Arab world. And what I thought I would do in my remarks is sort of tee things up for the other panelists, who will explore various aspects of Iran’s policies – external policies. But, you know, as we all know from – (laughs) – from the United States, all politics is local. And foreign policy is a reflection of the regime’s sense of itself and its own hold on power. And so what I’d like to do is talk a little bit about I guess two or three things. One is what the – what the protests tell us about the regime and its hold on power. And number two, what, given that, we can perhaps expect to see in the coming weeks and months and years, both internally and in terms of Iran’s external policies.
So, again, none of what I’m saying is going to be new, but I just think it helps us to put things in context and understand, and give us a better sense of how to look ahead to the future. So I guess it’s not – it’s not a terribly brilliant insight to say the regime is at a critical moment in its history. I think we all kind of knew that before the protests, but the protests brought it home in a very visceral and tangible way. It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s been 40 years since the revolution, 1979, almost 40 years. And 70 percent of Iran’s population was born after 1979, which means that they don’t have – to use a colorful phrase – they don’t have a dog in this fight. They don’t know Khamenei. They don’t know what came before him. They’re not invested in this the way the previous generation was.
Number two, Iran has a long history of protests. I mean, this is not a population that is pliant or obedient. There have been, you know, since ’79, significant protests almost every 10 years, sometimes more often, in which people come out and protest some aspect of the regime, some aspect of the economy, often with very violent and disastrous consequences. Obviously, the protests of December and January were different in a number of ways. And again, this has been pretty thoroughly analyzed but just to recap, first of all, there were – there was no sort of leadership of the protests. They were pretty much from the grassroots. They were not organized, they did not have sort of institutional or command structure. They were – they were largely economic, and they were largely on sort of bread and butter issues.
They start off as economic, they then became political. They attacked – in ways that haven’t been criticized – the regime, the basis of the regime, the legitimacy of the regime, the legitimacy of the revolution. And we all know what the slogans were. And, very interestingly for this panel, the extent of Iran’s involvement outside of Iran and neglecting the needs of the people of Iran. They were widespread in a way that other protests in the past have not been. Most of the protests in the past have been confined to Tehran, to intellectual, educated activist groups. These were much more widespread in terms of geographic diversity, in terms of social diversity, in terms of economic diversity.
They were, you know, in 100 cities throughout Iran, 29 of 31 provinces. Interestingly, 73 percent of the cities where there were protests were – had fewer than 380,000 citizens. What does that tell you? Small towns are towns that are generally more conservative, that are generally poorer, that are – and that, interestingly enough, are towns where everybody knows each other so the cost of protest are higher, since everybody knows everybody else and you’re taking a lot bigger risk by drawing yourself to the attention of the authorities. So the fact that so many of the protests were in small towns that hadn’t seen unrest before tells you that the level of dissatisfaction is high enough to compel these people to overcome their inherently conservative tendencies.
Looking at, again, the sort of socioeconomic demographics of the protests, one analyst pointed to the fact that early in the – early in the wave of protest two of Iran’s poorest provinces were the most active in the protests. And those two provinces were Kermanshah and Kurdistan. And looking more closely at those provinces, they saw the highest rates of youth unemployment, as well as the highest rates of water shortages.
So, frankly, what surprised me – given the depth and breadth and scope and intensity of these protests, is that the government reacted in a relatively restrained way. I mean, there wasn’t the brutal crackdown that many were predicting. They seemed to have headed off – headed off sort of further expansion and deterioration of the situation. And I find it very interesting – and this, I think, takes us closer to the subject of this discussion. I find it very interesting that in the last few weeks both the supreme leader and the president, Rouhani and Khamenei, have acknowledged that – have acknowledged that people have legitimate grievances, that they have the right to voice those grievances, and they consider themselves – or they hold themselves accountable and responsible.
For the supreme leader to say that is – and, you know, again, he also blamed the outsiders for doing this and all this stuff. But to me, that indicates – that indicates – it is a departure from the norm. And it indicates a willingness of – or a readiness for self-examination, self-criticism, and perhaps reform, moderation, change, whatever word you want to use to describe it. So the question – the question that I would – that I would offer, that I think is worth looking at more carefully is what is the – what really is the capacity or willingness of the regime to change, so as to either address what are clearly widespread and deeply held grievances of the people, and, frankly, a real threat to its legitimacy – the revolution’s legitimacy and the regime’s legitimacy.
What is their capacity to change both internally and externally? And how likely is that? And what are some of the constraining factors to change? I will – I will give a shout-out at this point to my colleague, Paul Pillar, who wrote a great article, I refer to you – I would recommend to you all in LobeLog, that clearly the regime will have to adapt. So the question is, how and what can we expect – what can we look for? Again, and I would offer just a few thoughts for your consideration.
Number one, you know, it’s interesting, if you – (laughs) – if you compare what Rouhani said on the campaign with what he did since taking office, the second term – both the first and the second term, there’s a wide gap between what he promised and what he delivered, which, for many analysts, helped to – or contributed to the protests. Whether it’s in terms of opening up his Cabinet, whether it’s in terms of loosening restrictions on women and other social and economic reforms. So I think there’s, number one, reason to be skeptical, simply because there’s a track record of expediency – and not to make a pun – but there’s a track record of expediency by the Iranian leadership of saying what people want to hear but then sticking to the old ways of doing things. I don’t know that there’s any reason to doubt that that pattern won’t continue.
Second of all, would question – you know, look, the basic problem is economic, right? And that’s what’s driving this thing. One analyst – you know, different analysts have said that Iran is spending between $6 and $20 billion a year in Syria. You know, if Rouhani’s going to reform the economy and the inefficiencies and corruption and structural dynamics of the economy are so screwed up, can he do it? Number one, he can’t do it alone. He has to have the supreme leader and the Expediency Council and the Governing Council behind him. Number two, fundamentally changing the economy will impinge the – or will have an impact on the coercive power of the state, which is not likely to succeed.
Number three, I think it’s also important to point out that Rouhani only controls one third of the – of the national budget. The other two-thirds are in the hands of organizations, institutions and authorities that are not under the president’s control. So, you know, even with the – even with the best will in the world, his ability to follow through and do things that are going to have meaningful impact on, you know, all the drivers of dissatisfaction – unemployment, wages, the banking system which on the verge of collapse, a pension system which is on the verge of collapse, the agricultural system which is on the verge of collapse. You know, it’s doubtful to me that he can do the – that anybody, other than a – anything other than a full and intensive and, in quotes with little R, “revolutionary” transformation of the economic system of the state is going to – is going to suffice.
You know, there’s been a lot of – (laughs) – there’s been – some analysts have sort of suggested that Iran should take a page from China in reforming its economy but not loosening the control of the state or the regime over politics and expression. But, you know, that ignores the – that ignores the final, to me, biggest constraint for Iran, which is that China, yeah, they did do revolutionary things and turn things around and all that sort of stuff. But China was connected to, integrated into, part of the international system of capital, of trade, of institutions. They were not under sanctions. They were not a pariah. They could access dollar accounts which – and, oh by the way, they didn’t have a supreme leader who believed in an economy of self-reliance, which is what Khamenei’s stated policy is.
Finally, you know, I guess I would ask how far Rouhani is willing or able to push things, given the fact that he has ambitions to replace Khamenei and he has to stay on the right side of the hardliners, the conservatives, who are opposed to any compromise or concessions to those demanding change. So for all these reasons, you know, it strikes me that even though we hear – and it sounds like they’re learning some of the lessons from the protests, their ability to actually carry through on what needs to be done to avoid further protests down the road, given the past pattern of popular dissatisfaction and popular uprisings, seems to me unlikely.
Finally, and, you know, to lead into Paul and Geneive and Alex’s comments, what does this mean for what – for American policymakers and others in the region – what does this mean for Iran’s history, pattern, policy of intervening in conflicts and political systems beyond their borders? Will what happened in Iran serve as a wake-up call to the regime and lead to a pullback or in some way or another impact its behavior? Again, I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons. Number one, my sense is that the Iranian regime’s – contrary to the way we see it, which is aggressive, offensive, interventionist policies with regard to the neighboring states. Iran sees them as defensive, right? So they’re protecting the – they’re not attacking their neighbors. They’re protecting the homeland.
And, you know, the argument is, you know, if we don’t – if we don’t ensure the protection of, you know, our borders and our – you know, our vulnerable areas beyond our borders, then we are neglecting our own domestic security. Hence the policies in Iraq. Look, Baghdad – I mean, not Baghdad – Damascus is absolutely critical to their relationship and their bridgehead in Lebanon. So, I mean, this is all well-known. So I really don’t see them – I don’t see them making a conscious decision or an unforced decision to limit their overseas – what we see as their overseas adventurism, but what they see as measures to protect the revolution and their – and their way of life.
However, I think it’s also safe to say that, you know, you always deal with the threat that is closer to home, right? And when the United States says or when other countries say they want to roll back Iran in Iraq or Lebanon or Syria or wherever, you know, the best way to do that – if you – if you go up against Hezbollah or the Shia militias in Iraq or Syria, you’re going to get whacked. And it’s – you know, that’s not where the – the balance is going to – the balance of power is not going to be in your favor. But if you – if the regime from within Iran is facing pressures that require it to focus its attention and resources on problems at home, that will necessarily limit their ability, their capacity, their bandwidth to intervene abroad.
But again, the situation at home would have to get a lot, lot worse before that ever happened. But I just think it’s worth noting that – or worth considering that the link between – the link between what happens at home and Iran’s adventurism or power projection abroad is closely linked. And if you want to see – if you want to see what’s going to happen in the overseas, you’ve got to start with what’s happening at home.
I think that’s pretty much it. So over to the next speaker.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: And I want to remind people that if you have questions write them down. And if you do have one, raise your hand so that we can collect them now.
PAUL PILLAR: Well, thank you and good morning. I think it’s important to understand, and I believe it will be useful to review – and that’s what I intend to do – some of the fundamentals of Iran’s place in the region, how Iran sees that place in its region, and the implications of all of that for Iranian objectives in the Arab world. History, as well as geography and demographics, dictate that Iran will be a major player in the affairs of the Middle East and have major influence in the region.
History, of course, goes all the way back to the ancient times of the Persian Empire, which is not just a historical footnote but is in the back of Iranian minds when they think about their nation’s place in the region. There’s the size of the country. Iran has about the same population of Turkey. It isn’t much farther behind in population than Egypt. So it’s one of the biggest countries in the region. It’s much more populous than any of the other Arab states besides Egypt. And of course, as we all know, it has a disproportionate share of petroleum resources.
It is natural, and Iranians see it as natural, for such a nation to have a leading role in this region, and to have major influence over regional affairs. And that perspective does not depend on any particular ideology or grand strategy. It does not depend on the political coloration of the Islamic Republic or the revolution that brought it into being. Much of the same thinking and much of the same background would be relevant, even if the Pahlavis were still in control in Tehran.
Despite the size and the oil and the ancient glory, Iran has certain disadvantages that it faces when looking out at its place in the region. It is a multiethnic, predominantly Persian country in what is a predominantly Arab region. It is a mostly Shia country in a region in which most people are Sunni Arabs. Those are disadvantages that, to some extent, offset the advantages of size and resources. It means Iran must – and Iranian leaders realize they must – work harder to win friends and influence people in the region.
It also means there are natural lines of conflict that contribute to a sense of being threatened by foes and forces in its own neighborhood, which speaks directly to one of Ambassador Ereli’s last points about seeing themselves on the defensive. Iranian leaders look around themselves and see at least as many threats and dangers to worry about as they see opportunities to exploit.
No experience contributed more to the Iranian sense of defensiveness against threats in the near-abroad than the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Iraq started the war. The eight-year long conflict was enormously costly. Deaths on the Iranian side numbered something in the hundreds of thousands. Besides the grueling warfare on the front, the war also featured, during some of its phases, Iraqi missiles raining down on Iranian cities, an experience that still has major effects today in Iranian leaders thinking about their need for ballistic missiles as a deterrent.
The war, which took place during the first decade of the Islamic Republic’s existence, was a formative experience for many current Iranian leaders. Iranians remember who took which side during that war. Most Arab states, including those facing Iran across the Persian Gulf, took Iraq’s side, notwithstanding their own differences with Saddam Hussein. That history has added to the Iranian sense of beleaguerment in its own neighborhood. Iranians also remember the position that outside powers took toward the war, especially the United States. The United States took the side of Saddam Hussein, with the only partial exception to this, what we know of as the Iran-Contra Affair, being seen in America as a scandal.
This history is part of a larger picture in Iranian eyes of how hostile outside powers have interacted with forces inside the region and exploited intraregional divisions in a way that threatens Iran. Threats have sometimes grown to pose direct compromises of Iranian sovereignty and independence. The relevant history includes the British and Soviet occupation of Iran during World War II in which, in the Soviet case, extended somewhat after the war, and the U.S. and British stimulated overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Today, the Trump administration’s fostering of a U.S.-Israel-Saudi axis centered on hostility to Iran is the latest chapter in that history, and unavoidably is seen, in some Iranian eyes, probably as an axis of evil.
The big, and rather obvious, lesson for Iran to draw from Saddam’s invasion in 1980 and the horrendous war that followed is that Iran must do everything it can to prevent another hostile regime from coming to power in Baghdad. Whoever governs Iraq need not be a client, or a puppet, or even an ally. But it does need to have cordial relations with Tehran. Parallel perspectives today govern much thinking about the relationship in Iraq, which also suffered greatly during the war in the 1980s. The current basically friendly relationship between the Iranian regime and the Abedi government in Baghdad reflects those perspectives in both countries.
Sharing a 900-mile border with Iraq, Iran has no interest in endless instability there. Iran certainly welcomed the gift from the U.S. of ousting Saddam and making possible greatly influenced Iranian influence in Iraq, but its interests are not served by un-ending turmoil along its western border, especially giving much borders spanning geopolitical circumstances as ethnic, Kurdish, and Arab minorities inside its own territory. Sectarian tensions being, as we know, one of the most potent sources of internal instability in the Middle East, it follows that Iran does not have a stake in indefinitely stoking such tensions, however much natural sympathy it may have for Shia co-religionists.
A similar perspective guides the Iranian approach toward the rest of the Arab world, even without the especially intense security concerns about the immediate neighbor on the other side of the 900-mile shared border. Iranian leaders are constantly aware that there are more Sunni Arabs than Shia ones, even though Shia happen to be a majority inside Iraq. And therefore, insofar as the Islamic Republic aims a religiously infused message at the region in the course of asserting regional leadership, it is a message of Islam in general and not specifically of Shi’ism.
The overall Iranian approach to the Arab world is shaped in other ways by what plays well in Arab opinion. Iran’s posture toward anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best understood in these terms, in addition to whatever natural sympathy there would be for the Palestinians regarding their plight. The issue continues to have plenty of resonance in Arab streets in ways that Arab regimes cannot ignore, as was underscored by the recent votes in the United Nations in response to the Trump administration’s statement about Jerusalem. Iran does not have an interest in being more Palestinian than the Palestinians, but it does have an interest – as one means for trying to gain influence in the Arab world – in being a vocal and active leader on the issue.
This is the basis for what has been Iran’s support for Hamas, even though Hama has not particular taste for getting embraced by Iran. But it does welcome the aid in the absence of other alternatives. It also is one of the factors of importance to Iran in its relationship with Lebanese Hezbollah, given the way Hezbollah has posed as a supposed protector against Israel. There certainly are, obviously, other factors underlying that particular relationship, including the major role that Hezbollah has come to play in multi-confessional politics in Lebanon, as well as the wider security role that it plays. The Palestinian issue also underlies Tehran’s rhetorical posture toward Israel, although, again, there are other factors, including an Israeli posture toward Iran which is every bit as hostile and which has expanded to more than just rhetoric, including things like assassination of Iranian scientists.
The revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran is now four decades in the past. As the ambassador noted, Iran has passed through more than a generation since then. Although in the early days of the – after the revolution, there may have been an almost Trotskyeque sense of permanent revolution – that is to say a sense that unless there were likeminded revolutions that took place in the neighborhood in other countries, Iran’s revolution would not survive. But it has survived. And even though the Islamic Republic clearly is not immune to further revolution, it has survived a lot. And so far, at least, has survived its most recent round of protests.
Iran’s overall approach toward the Arab-inhabited part of its neighborhood is not revolutionary or even especially Islamic, or even especially an easily encapsulated in terms of any one grand strategy. Mostly, it is playing a more ordinary, largely ad hoc and reactive, and as they see it defensive, game of regional politics intended to meet its perceived threats, to secure its established interests, and enhance its influence to match or exceed the influence of its local rivals. Specific Iranian policies have little to do with any more of a grand scheme than this, and a lot to do with the specific positions that history has thrown at Iran, and with the specific circumstances and events in individual countries.
Beyond the particular situations that I’ve already mentioned in Iraq and Lebanon, there is, for example, Syria, with which Iran has established probably its strongly alliance in the Arab world, an alliance that originated in those two regimes’ common rivalry against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Economic ties followed that have survived Saddam’s regime and further strengthened the relationship. Given the previously mentioned challenges that non-Arab Iran has in trying to operate inside a predominantly Arab region, Tehran is understandably very reluctant to lose this favorable position that it has established in Syria. And as the Iranians and the Russians are quick to remind us, they are supporting the established regime, one that if count the father, Assad, as well as the son, has how been in power for 48 years. As they see it, it’s the states supporting the Syrian opposition that are destabilizing things and trying to achieve revolutionary change.
In Yemen, there’s another specific set of circumstances. It’s more of a sideshow for Iran compared to the countries I’ve already mentioned. Iran does not really have a direct dog in that particular fight, given that the Houthis have ignored Iranian advance on such matters as weather to seize the capital, Sana’a, and can hardly be described as proxies. But whatever material aid Iran has given the Houthis is a relatively low-cost way of making the Saudis and Emirates, the Iranian’s cross-gulf rivals – with their far greater and more direct military involvement in Yemen – to make them bleed, as long as they seem determined to continue their military adventure.
The customary ways here in the United States of characterizing Iranian policies and actions – and I’m talking about the more general public and political debate we hear every day – characterizing those actions vis-à-vis the Arab world are largely unhelpful and not descriptive. Talk of an Iranian drive for regional hegemony reifies a grand scheme that isn’t really there or, at best, overstates a more common sort of striving for increased influence. Talk of nefarious, malign, destabilizing behavior – you know all the terms – rarely gets beyond those general pejoratives and into specifics.
To assess Iranian regional policies and actions, and to respond to them intelligently as a matter of U.S. policy, requires us to ask more specific questions. What exactly, beyond the pejorative labels, is the Iranian concept to which we are referring? How does that conduct differ, if at all, from what other countries are doing? How does that conduct affect, if at all, U.S. interests? What are the Iranian motivations and objectives that underlie the concept? And what does the answer to that last question imply for the prospects for changing the conduct? And what inducements would be required for changing it?
A careful examination of the answers to these questions would reveal something more ordinary and probably less ominous than the sweeping alarmist rhetoric that has become ubiquitous. But we will keep hearing the rhetoric because there are other reasons that people have an interest in speaking it. Thank you very much.
MR. MATTAIR: Any questions?
GENEIVE ABDO: Good morning. Thank you very much to the Middle East Policy Council for organizing this event, and also for inviting me. As it turns out, I wrote, when I was a correspondent in Iran, for the journal of the Middle East Policy Council. So it’s a pleasure to be connected once again.
I’m going to focus my remarks today on a bit of a slightly different perspective, and that is how Iran’s expansionism in the Arab world is being received by Arab societies, because I think that we often focus on their military activity and their expansionist tendencies, for obvious reasons, but a dynamic, as least as I see it, is you have Iran marching forward, but then the other side of this equation is how are they being received and what are Arab societies doing to either accept this kind of military expansionism or reject it.
And the reason I’m focusing on this particular sort of perspective and this part of the issue that we’re discussing today is that I spent from 2012 to 2016 in the region trying to answer this question in many Arab countries, which resulted in a series of monographs for the Brookings Institution, and my latest book, which is called “The New Sectarianism,” which came out a year ago by Oxford.
So let me begin, before I get into the specifics and some of the case studies I want to share with you, with the protests. Because I think the protests sort of are the beginning of the narrative of the story. For the first time, really, in three different waves of protests that have happened in Iran, as some of the other previous speakers have mentioned, for the first time – and this is very significant – people in Iran are linking Iran’s military spending with the domestic economic crisis. And this is something that, at least to my knowledge, has not happened in the past.
In 1999 when I was actually on the streets with demonstrators as a correspondent for The Guardian, in probably what was the first significant protest movement, it was very confined to students who were talking about democracy, who were talking about a lack of press freedom. And that’s really what began those demonstrations. And they had a very difficult time, in fact, engaging the middle class in their protest movement or engaging, certainly, the working class, as we have seen in the last demonstrations. So this is the first time, I think, that the issues are different. The issues that – the reasons that people are protesting, the slogans are different. Leave Gaza, leave Lebanon, my life for Iran.
And I think that the lack of transparency in the military spending is finally being realized in a very public way in Iran, even though historically Iranians really have not cared much at all about their government’s regional policies. So much so that even though the government has always focused on a Palestinian cause. During the years that I lived there, every year the Iranians hold what’s called Al-Quds Day. And this is a recognition of the Palestinian occupation. It’s meant to be a day in support of the Palestinians and a condemnation of the Israeli occupation. But during the years I lived in Iran, there were so few people who were interested in this kind of idea and this kind of agenda that they had to bus people in from various cities to participate in Tehran in Al-Quds Day.
So I think we have to take note of the fact that this is a different kind of grievance. And it’s a link that Iranians have not made in the past between military spending and their current economic crisis at home. And I want to share with you just some statistics for example. We don’t really know what Iran’s military spending is. I mean, it’s – the budget, as one of the other speakers mentioned, is not transparent. Different branches of the state control different kinds of money. The Revolutionary Guards has investment all over the world. No one really knows the amount of these investments. No one knows how it’s spent.
So even in an ideal situation, if the Iranian government were to miraculously announce that, OK, we’re going to stop spending billions in Syria and in Lebanon and in Yemen and in Iraq, and we’re going to spend at home, I don’t know that that would necessarily be a believable type of objective, because nobody really knows how money is spent. No one knows is the military spending is coming from the Revolutionary Guards. Khamenei himself presides over an endowment worth billions of dollars that he solely actually controls. So the lack of transparency sort of leave us with statistics that are very arguably, but I’ll just share some with you.
So according to some statistics, the spending on Assad and in Syria totals $15 billion, and this is per year. The spending in Iraq totals 150 million (dollars). And this is per year. Apparently, there were 20,000 militia in Syria fighting on behalf of Assad and with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The spending in Lebanon in Hezbollah per yet is $700-$800 million. And just as a side note, because these figures became more relevant because of the protest, Hassan Nasrallah, of course, the head of Hezbollah, came out and said during the protests, just to sort of address this issue – which is also very unusual – that he only earns from the Iranians $1,300 a month, which of course is highly unbelievable. But the spending on – in Palestine is $100 million per year. So these are just some of the figures that some organizations, including the Project on Countering Terrorism, have published recently to try to give us some perspective on the spending.
So now I’d like to move to talking about what is Arab receptivity to Iranian expansionism in the region because, as I mentioned, I think that the dynamic here is regime resilience, regime expansionism, and Arab receptivity – and what are the dynamics that are happening within Arab societies? And during the research and the years I spent in some countries, it’s very mixed. I mean, if you look at Bahrain as an example – and the ambassador gave us some insight to some degree on Iran’s relationship with Bahrain – I think that Bahrain is a very important story to show us the nuances and the complexities of how Iran becomes involved in Arab conflict.
So the beginning of the uprising in Bahrain, and I spent – I made about five trips to Bahrain in the beginning of the uprising through 2015. In the beginning of the uprising, actually, it was a unified movement between Sunnis and Shia. And their objectives were to just try to create a more open political system, to try to create a more pluralistic political system. But overtime, it became very sectarian. And Iran contributed to that. I would say the Bahraini government contributed to that result, as well as the different sort of religious groups inside Bahrain.
What happened over time, though, is what began as an uprising led by a moderate Shia movement called Al-Wefaq, eventually became more radicalized. So when the polarizations increased and deepened, when certain groups felt that their grievances weren’t being addressed, youth groups then became more radicalized. Some became radicalized online. And I followed some of this radicalization on social media. Some of the youth groups became radicalized and left the country. And in fact in recent years, and as recently as last year, I met some of the opposition groups now who are based in Lebanon.
So young Bahrainis left the country and are now based, some of them, in Lebanon. So who is funding this – these opposition groups in Lebanon? I think that we can guess. It’s either Hezbollah or Iran or both. And so my point is that in some countries Iran is very proactive, as has been mentioned. In other conflicts in the Arab world, when an opportunity arises it becomes a matter of seizing the moment. And I would say that Bahrain sort of falls into the latter category, that this is a situation where despite – and this is – I know that I’m saying is very arguably and controversial. But I would argue that in the beginning, Iran was not intimately involved in this uprising, but its involvement happened over time as opportunities presented itself.
In Iraq, of course, the situation is very different. And I’m going to speak specifically about the clerical establishment, because that’s where I focused my research. And I write about this extensively. I wrote a whole chapter of my book about the clerical establishment in Iraq, because I think it’s very important to understand that the Shia in the Arab world don’t necessarily support Iranian involvement in their countries. And more importantly, they don’t support supreme clerical rule, which is the Wilayat al-Faqih. So and I – this has been an idea that I think becomes very misunderstood, particularly in the West. And I think that the clerical establishment in Iraq is a perfect example of this.
So when I conducted research in Najaf and Karbala, the message from the clerical – most clerics, including the grand ayatollahs of Iraq – I interviewed all of them aside from Sistani – Ayatollah Sistani. And they told me that they want nothing more than less Iranian involvement in their country. They believe that Iran – forget about Iran’s military might and the militias that they’ve created in Iraq, but their soft power, their educational power, their religious, their influence over seminaries, over universities. So the clerical establishment is very much against this.
And the problem is how can they minimize Iran’s involvement? What can they do to push back? And I think that in the case of the militias, unfortunately, Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa of 2014 unleashed a series of unintended consequences with the militias. So he called upon all Iraqis, Shia and Sunni, to fight against ISIS. The result was the formation of some militias, not all of them, of course, because there’s a long history of Shia militias in Iraq. But some militias began to be under the control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
So the Iraqi government now is focused on trying to disarm these militias, trying to bring them under the control of the state because now they’re sort of freelancing, renegade militia. It’s a difficult task. The Trump administration has tried to pressure the Iraqi government to take more control over these militias, to bring them under the control of the Iraqi military. But much like Iran’s activities all over the Arab world, a lot of these militias operate in isolation of the state. So they operate in Syria in isolation of the state to some degree, under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, and in other places. So it’s a difficult task.
But I just want to mention that we tend to – we tend to develop this perception that all the Shia in the Arab world somehow believe in supreme clerical rule and they can’t wait for Iran to, you know, intervene in their country so that they have some sort of alliance with another Shia government. And that’s simply not the case.
The last point I would like to discuss is how Iran has moved away from this kind of revolutionary ideology of pan-Islamism to being much more candid and forthright about pursuing a pro-Shia agenda. This is also very complicated because, as we know, Iran historically and over the last 20 or 30 years has also supported Sunni groups. I mean, they at times supported al-Qaida. At times they supported the Taliban. But for the most part, if you examine the rhetoric that has been articulated by Khamenei since the Arab uprisings – he began with the Arab uprisings as talking about the pan-Islamic awakening. I mean, that’s how he characterized what was happening in the Arab world, that it was a pan-Islamic awakening against the West, against Western domination.
But as the uprisings evolved, and as Iran became much more involved in Syria, as it came very clear that Iran was basically – that Assad was dependent upon Iran’s military might in Syria, that argument became less credible. And if you look now at some of the comments that come from leading people in the Iranian government, it’s much more focused on protecting the Shia. And the result of that has been sectarianism – an increase in sectarianism in the Middle East and in Arab societies. And during the years that I spent research on this issue, there is – there is great alarm among Sunnis in the Arab world that this is not just about geopolitics, that this is about religion, that it’s about ideology. And they really do feel, to some degree, a Shia invasion, not just a geopolitical invasion.
And I think that that’s very important to keep in mind, because it speaks to the receptivity of Arab societies in terms of what Iran has done in the Arab world. And I think that we shouldn’t forget that that’s the other part of this equation. The reason that ISIS became so powerful at one time in the Middle East is that there was receptivity – there was receptivity in Iraq. There was receptivity in Syria, which of course declined over time. But we shouldn’t forget that the Arabs have a say in what is being played out as well. And anything that the United States government can do to support Arab societies, to support Arab resistance to Iran military expansion is just as important as us sitting around trying to figure out how many billions they’re spending in Syria, or how many billions they’re spending in Yemen or in Lebanon.
So I’ll leave it at that. Thank you very much.
MR. MATTAIR: Are there any written questions?
ALEX VATANKA: Am I good to go? Good morning.
Great. Well, thanks to the Middle East Policy Council to invite me. I very much look forward to your questions. But you have to have some sympathy for me, because I’m basically going to comment on everything you’ve heard so far. So my presentation will be a long list of disjointed commentary on a number of different subjects. But I hope – I hope you might be able to stay with me. Let me start with Geneive and take it back that way.
Geneive’s made the point that Iranians have started making a lot more – or paying a lot more attention to what the regime is doing in their name, certainly spending their money outside in the region. I think that is certainly much more true today than it’s ever been. But I think it is also true that the Iranian people have, from day one when the shah’s regime fell back in 1979, have known about the Islamic Republic’s tendency to spend lavishly in the region. And they haven’t liked it.
They haven’t liked it since Yasser Arafat famously got $400 million from the new ruling elite. And we don’t actually know if ever got the $400 million. But the perceptions matter. That was the perception. To this day, people will tell you when Arafat showed up – because Arafat was one of the first foreign leaders, foreign heads of state, whatever you want to call Arafat in 1979, who shows up, gets the keys to the de facto Israeli embassy, and apparently $400 million. Just imagine the anger about that.
Now, this is not to say anything about the Palestinian cause. This is to say there’s been this tendency since day one, since 1979, for the Iranian people to demand from the regime to spend the nation’s wealth on this citizenry – on the people of the land. And it’s struggled, frankly, for four decades doing that.
Another point that – this is the part where I say I’m disjointed – another comment that Geneive made, which I think is very important, is the issue of the Iraqi-Shia clerical establishment. One of the slogans we heard – maybe not in Mashhad – but one of the slogans we did hear from the protesters were – and I don’t want to actually repeat it because I don’t want to offend anybody – but they were actually anti-Islam. There were protesters who were shouting slogans against not Shia Islam, not Sunni Islam, against Islam. This is not my religion. I’m Persian. Take this religion back to Arabia where it came from.
This is the most radical set of slogans I have heard in the 20 years I’ve been covering Iran. Which, you know, if I was Supreme Leader Khamenei, I would ask myself a simple question: Where did we get it wrong? These are our own people. These are our youth. They’re supposed to be the most loyal Shia Islamist-minded, you know, creatures out there. And at least one part of this society – and I don’t want to exaggerate – but a good part of it that’s even willing to come out in the streets, and 25 of them actually died doing so, came out and said slogans that partially not just targeting the Islamic Republic, but going far beyond that. I thought that was fascinating.
In Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani arguably is far more esteemed and respected than Ayatollah Khamenei is in Iran. And, again, I want to leave it with you. But just ask yourself a simple question: Why is that? Why does Ayatollah Sistani, who collects more religious taxes in Iran, why is he that much more popular in Iraq than the supreme leader of Iran? Again, I would tell you, but leave it for you to perhaps ponder this one. I would tell you Khamenei has never been a clergyman. He calls himself grand ayatollah today. He might have started as an 11-year-old when he went from Mashhad to Qom and joined the seminary. But basically, his entire life he’s been a politician. You can’t say that about Ayatollah Sistani.
And if you’re real pious today in the Middle East and you see all the sectarianism going on, and you see how politics has corrupted not just Shia Islam but also a good part of Sunni Islam, you have to ask yourself the question: Are we better off politicizing Islam, the way Khomeini promised and did in 1979? And unfortunately, other countries followed suit. The separation of power, the mosque and the state, that ought to be something people should give more thought to.
I think – along those lines, I think it’s great to see countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE welcoming someone like Muqtada al-Sadr and Arab Shias. I’ve been one of those voices who have been saying, and being critical of the Gulf Arab states who, back in 2003 when the United State removed Saddam Hussain, came up and said: Look, when you remove Saddam Hussein, you’re making this place into satellite state of Iran. And that turned out to be largely true. But what they could have done back in 2003, those Gulf Arab Sunni states, was to target Iraqi Shias because they were Arabs first and Shias second. They didn’t do that. That was their strategic mistake.
It took these countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE over a decade to come to the conclusion that someone like Muqtada al-Sadr might actually be worth talking to because, as Geneive said, the Wilayat al-Faqih, the idea of a supreme leadership, is a brand-new theological concept. Fourteen hundred years of history of Islam in the region; Wilayat al-Faqih is about 40 years old – 40 years old. I would argue it’s a concept that is not delivering, certainly not in Iran. And you could even criticize it theologically from many different levels. And certainly, that seems to be the case with these hesitant Iraqi Shias who are wondering what on Earth is going on next door in Iran.
In Iran, when you are a Shia clergyman, they have created a nice entity called the Special Court for Clerics. You don’t even go through the regular prison system or the judicial system in Iran. If you’re a clergyman in Iran and you question the idea of a supreme leadership, there is a special court system put up just for you. So they know this is sensitive. But they have managed to crack down or repress this. But if any of you decided to get one of those hard-to-get Iranian visas and go to Qom or one of these Iranian seminary towns, you will hear a lot of criticism of what’s going on in the hands of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards and these other state entities by Shia clergymen – so-called quietist Shia clergymen. You will hear a lot of them say: What they are doing in the name of religion is making our religion look back. And look, our youth are turning against us.
If I may now turn to Paul, just a couple of points. Paul, this is just an Iranian-American guy giving you his piece of mind. And I just want to say, nobody says Iran doesn’t have a right to be a big state in the Middle East, because that’s what it is. As you said, it’s country the size of Alaska, with 80 million people, all the rest of it. I think it would be foolish for Iran’s neighbors to want to wish that Iran would somehow disappear and go away, not bother them. That’s not going to happen either. Now, I don’t think the United States is going to go in, fix whatever it is some of the neighbors want for them. That’s not going to happen.
So basically, there needs to be a dialogue between the Persian side of the Gulf – the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Gulf, whatever you want to call it – the Persian side and the Arab side. That is something they need to start. They’ve done it in the past. The Iranians and the Saudis when Rafsanjani and Crown Prince Abdullah were around managed to do a good job at it. Maybe they should think about it again – at some point in the future. It’s hard to imagine that happening anytime soon, given the conditions we have now.
But one of the criticism you’ll hear from ordinary Iranians when it comes to the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic is so much of what they have done and done badly or costly, has been out of choice not out of necessity. You know, when the Mongols invaded in the 12th century, they just invaded. And they came on these nice things called horses and they just devastated a place, you didn’t have a choice. That was the outcome. But in 1979, when you come up with – and I remember this in school – death to the east, death to the west, we’re going to go our own path, something along those lines. It would be too funky if I did the direct translation from Persian.
And my point is, that was my choice. The Soviets wanted to talk to Ayatollah Khomeini. Certainly, Paul’s colleagues from the Agency as late as summer ’79 were trying to reach out to them and say: Listen, here’s the intelligence we have. We think the Soviets are going to move into Afghanistan. This is something we have in common. The United States wanted to talk to – even Khomeini. Shah was gone by then. The Iranian regime, because of ideological preferences said no. Said no to the Soviets, said no to the Americans. And I think that’s what I want to get to. So much of it is ideological preferences. And so much of it has turned out to be wrong and mistaken.
The Iran-Iraq War. Sure, the Iraqis invaded in September of 1980. No doubt about it. But let me just remind you, the guy who actually first warned about an imminent – or something that Saddam was thinking about was the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, a guy by the name of Ambassador – who was a clergyman, who I believe is still alive – Ayatollah Duwahi, who went back to Khomeini and said: Sir, all this inciting you’re doing against Iran, all this talk that Iranian state media are pumping out there about how the Iraqi Shias have to stand up against Saddam, you’re making the man nervous. He might take for a way to take revenge or, you know, come after us. This was the Islamic Republic’s own ambassador in the summer of 1979, a few months after the shah’s regime had toppled, saying: Cut out the incitement.
Again, I would say that was by choice. Khomeini wanted to spread the revolution. And that was a revolution that from his perspective was something worthwhile ideologically. Now, you ask me, what did the Iranian – ordinary Iranians get out from all this, I can’t tell you anybody got a bigger house, a bigger car, or a more comfortable lifestyle as a result. And when the Iraqis were kicked out of Iranian soil in 1983 and they begged for United Nations to come in and provide the conditions for a ceasefire, it was Iran that said no, we’re going to go all the way to Baghdad and we’re going to go all the way to Jerusalem. I mean, I don’t know, if that’s not ideological, what is? This wasn’t somebody trying to say, you know, you have to act this way. This was the Iranian regime saying: This is what we want. And they paid the consequences.
It was, as Paul pointed out, devastating. I remember. Everything was rationed. But I think they could have wrapped up that war in 1983. I don’t want to get into it, but much of what they actually did in Iran domestically for prolonging the war had nothing to do with foreign policy. It was about domestic politics – factions who felt that they were going to benefit if this war continued. Primarily, the Revolutionary Guards who are still today in Iran and actually very powerful. And this notion of ideological preferences hasn’t gone away. The last time we saw this manifest itself in a big way was when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. If you remember, his big foreign policy model was south and east.
So in other words, forget the West. Ignore the West. The West is a demographically declining entity. They are not the future. The future is somewhere else. So Ahmadinejad spent eight years traveling to wonderful places in West Africa and elsewhere trying to spread the message. But what did he actually get in terms of improving the national security of the Iranian nation, or bringing economic benefits along when he did that? I think the average Iranian will tell you: nothing. He came back with nothing. Those things, those nice photo opportunities the Hugo Chavezes of this world haven’t made life better for the average Iranian, some of whom, we’ve seen, are now in the streets or have just recently been in the streets.
So, yeah, I just don’t want to make a big deal out of this, but you can produce a long list of mistakes – from the American embassy being taken in 1979. What was that for? That was not part of the message of the revolution. To not ending the Iran-Iraq War earlier. To going around assassinating Iranian opposition figures in Europe, as was the case during Rafsanjani in the 1990s. And to perhaps pursuing their nuclear program in the least-transparent way. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to have a nuclear program. The average Iranians say if they want to have a nuclear program they should have the right as a sovereign state to have a nuclear program. That’s fine. But the way they went about it, I thought, has proven to be extremely costly.
If I could just turn to Adam, you know, Adam is asking a very tough question. Or maybe – Adam, I don’t want to put words in your mouth – but Khamenei doing self-examination as a result of these protests. You know, I hope – I hope he does. I think there are a lot of people in Iran who are hoping for gradual change, would hope this man wakes up and realizes, listen, I’m going to turn 79 this coming summer. I’m not going to be around forever. And these people are telling me something, the young are telling me they want big changes. So what do we do? Do we do anything? I’m doubtful. I’m doubtful. If you look at the track record of Khamenei, in ’92 what did he come up with? More repression. In ’99, the same. In 2001, the same. In 2009, the same. And I suspect this time around he’s going to pursue the same thing.
They’re getting good at it in terms of PR. You know, I mean, just imagine. In 10 days in Iran they killed about 25 people. Compare that to the number of casualties in any uprising in any Arab country. Much greater in the Arab countries. They just held back. Revolutionary Guards deployed to three of Iran’s 31 provinces, no more. So there was – they exercised a lot of self-restraint. But all that doesn’t change the fact that you need to create the conditions to move closer to your own people. And that’s the bottom line here. The regime is just too far away from its own people, because the regime pursues this ideological agenda. And sometimes it pursues it because it genuinely believes in it, and sometimes it pretends it’s an ideological entity or animal just because – to have a cover so it can excuse the corruption, so it can excuse all the bad things that are happening.
I mean, this is one of the things we haven’t talked about today, but if you were having an event like this freely in Iran, you could not go around the issue of corruption. How in the Islamic Republic so many of the top officials don’t have one jobs or two jobs, but in some cases 35, 40 paying jobs. Now, I don’t know where in Islam, Shia Islam or Sunni Islam or any other religion, that sort of thing is sanctioned. But these are the types of questions that people are asking, particularly the young who are increasingly coming out of the university system and are not able to find jobs. So they have become so radicalized. And they’ve overtaken the so-called reformist movement in Iran. I mean, today you could make the argument that the reformist movement is dead – entirely dead, because it proved to be without any teeth.
You know, one of the individuals who had slogans shouted against him, surprisingly, was Mohammad Khatami, the darling, the godfather of the reformist movement. Not because he’s done anything bad, but because he’s proven not to stand up to anybody, including, obviously, Khamenei. The irony is the one individual who has really stood up to Khamenei, and this doesn’t usually go down well in Washington, is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he’s totally marginalized. But he’s the only one who stood up to Khamenei and said: You know, sir, you haven’t run in any elections. I got so many million votes. I represent the people.
OK, let me – let me – I can talk forever and ever and there’s so much disjointed analysis you guys can take. So let me turn quickly to two points I want to make and then I’ll leave it at that. Which is continuing what I was just saying earlier. To me, what happened in Iran over the course of 10 days, with about 100 cities being impacted – towns and cities and so on – was how radical they were. This was a new demographic group. This is a new demographic group. Many of these people you saw, if you were watching the social media, the videos – the hundreds and thousands of videos that came out. This is a new demographic group whose political history is extremely limited. And this, what they just saw, is going to be their political references for maybe even in their lifetime.
I sometimes joke with the generation that brought the shah down, I said you know what your historical reference is? You remember when shah made that state visit to Germany in 1968 and you all ganged up with the leftists and you stood in the streets and, you know, it was a huge embarrassment for the shah? For that generation, that then a decade later brought the shah down in ’79, ’68 was their historical moment. And they realize, oh, maybe we can do something about the shah. This crowd that you just saw in Iran have adopted some very radical slogans. And I think this is going to be how – unless the regime figures out a way of taking some of that anger out, the steam out, they’re going to just remain radical, because what option do they have?
You live in a society today where the ones who could have had the visa to Canada, U.S. and Australia already got the visa and got out. So the ones that are home, in many of these places in the countryside, they don’t have the luxury of getting out. They don’t have the money. They don’t have the connections. They’re stuck home. And they’ve lived with this for as long as they have. But now they’re saying: Enough is enough. Hence the reformist movement, unless they do something and Khamenei allows them to become a genuine political voice – remember, back in 1990s in Iran, within the sort of structures of the Islamic Republic.
You did actually have a reformist movement in the parliament that had the power to sort of raise issues, ask for more freedom of the press, ask for, you know, more accountability when it came to the issue of political prisoners. That reformist movement was killed. It was strangled by one man. That man is Supreme Leader Khamenei, who controls who can run for office, what legislation can be passed, and so on. He killed it. And I think unless he can find a way of bringing people back into the system, he will find more of these radical voices outside.
Final point I’d make, and then I will stop, it’s about has Iran been a success or has Iran’s foreign policy been a success story since the Arab Spring? I don’t want to go all the way back to 1979. You could make the argument, sure. Iran is a big player in Syria, is a big player in Iraq. I think people in this town exaggerate now much leverage Iran has in Yemen but still, you know, they’re in Yemen in ways they certainly weren’t 15 years ago. But I also want to ask this question, just put yourself in the position of somebody unemployed with a graduate degree sitting in one of those towns in west of Iran that just got hit by an earthquake and the regime doesn’t come to their aid. Regime is over there in Syria somewhere, or in Lebanon. And they’re sitting saying: What about me, here? I’m an Iranian citizen. I’m sitting here. And where is the aid? Where’s the help?
Those are – that’s how you also can measure foreign policy as a success or not a success. Foreign policy is supposed to do something for the citizens of the country. It’s not a game where you go out and there and say: You know, I have billions of dollars of oil money. I’ll spend it here against country A, B, or C. People are asking tough questions like that. To what end? Don’t tell me we’re in Syria to defeat ISIS, right? ISIS blew up the Iranian parliament, or tried to blow it up, once. That was bad. But is that enough for you to go and engage in a long-term reconstruction project in Syria or elsewhere at the cost of God knows how many billions of dollars that you don’t have?
I don’t think the Iranians are done yet. That’s my point. I don’t think – I think it’s too early to say Iran is the big victor of these recent events in the Arab Spring. Iran will, at best, inherit a lot of broken societies that need a lot of care, attention, and money. And Iran certainly doesn’t have that. If it did, they would do a better job at home. One thing they have done, and that’s the long-term threat. And that’s – any U.S. policymaker needs to think about is the model they have at home with the Revolutionary Guards, which was created in March of 1979. And just to sort of put it to you in a few words. In March of 1979 the Iranian clerical establishment that had taken over from the shah realizes the regular army cannot be trusted because the almost entire officer class was educated in the United States before the shah fell.
So they couldn’t trust their regular army. So what did they do? They created an entity to sit next to the regular army to basically watch, make sure there’s no military coup or anything of that nature. Fast forward to today, that military entity, the Revolutionary Guards, is arguably the third-most powerful center of power in Iran today. After Office of the Supreme Leader, the presidency, it’s the Revolutionary Guards. Now, what the Iranian state is doing in Iraq – I think Geneive mentioned the Hashd al-Shaabi. I think it was last fall that the Iraqi parliament passed a law integrating the militias into the regular Iraqi armed forces.
Now, those guys are going to come with political/ideological baggages. And that’s – for me, that’s – if you believe in the separation of state and mosque, in the case of the Middle East, then what the proxy model – which is not just unfolding in Iraq but also in Syria, and we’ve seen it obviously most successfully implemented over the course of a couple of decades in the shape of Hezbollah in Lebanon. If you don’t like that model, then you should work against the proxy model spreading its wings in the Middle East. And that’s what Iran has tried to do. I don’t think it serves Iranian citizens. I think it serves only Iran’s ideological agenda. But nonetheless, it is a problem and if they get away with it that’s going to be a long-term threat to the United States, its allies – because they don’t shy away from expressing their animosity towards the United States.
Anyway, let me stop there.
MR. MATTAIR: Do we have some more questions, I think?
Well, thank you, all of you. I think the protests in Iran let everyone start thinking about this topic in a different way than we have initially imagined. And I do see some questions from the audience that are of a factual nature. And maybe we could spend a few minutes reviewing the actual record of where Iran is, and what Iran is doing in the Arab world. Because we touched on it from time to time, but we didn’t really cover it comprehensively.
So we know Iran supports Shia militias in Iraq and in Syria, and supports Hezbollah, provides what they call advisory military assistance to those clients. And they even say they do the same in Yemen with the Houthi. But can we go into a little more detail? Bahrain, for example, that’s not a case that’s extremely well known here. We know Iraq and we know Syria and we know Lebanon better than we know Bahrain.
And, Adam, you were the ambassador there. I mean, can you just provide some details of Iran’s actual involvement in the uprising of 2011 and since then? How are they supporting the opposition?
MR. ERELI: Well, I guess the U.S. government was asking the government of Bahrain the very same question in 2011. Well, first of all, the government of Bahrain has been asserting that Iran has been supporting the opposition for a very long time. Number one, again, a historical data point. In 1971, Bahrain became independent from Britain, or Britain said: We’re getting out. You know, you’re no longer – we’re not going to have a presence here. You’re fully independent. So there was a referendum in Bahrain by the Bahrainis. And the current prime minister was the sort of head of government at the time, whether to be an independent state or whether to join Iran, be a province of Iran.
And the referendum went in favor of independence. Iran was pissed off. And ever since then, there has been – there have been voices in Iran that referred to Bahrain as, you know, the 19th province, or something like that – the equivalent of what Saddam Hussein of Kuwait, the 19th province. But basically, Bahrain’s a part. You know, and sooner or later it will be rejoined to the motherland, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So there is, first and foremost, I would think a – I would call it a(n) existential perception that their sovereignty is at risk because Iran has never given up its claim on Bahrain. And so all the Bahraini – you know, any official Bahraini explanation is going to depart from that premise which, frankly, people in the West I don’t think fully understand or appreciate.
But to the – to the actual question of how does Iran practically support the opposition, you know, I would agree with – I don’t know if it was Geneive or Paul – who said that, you know, at the beginning it wasn’t that intense, but – and what Paul says is, you know, Iran sees targets of opportunity that it exploits in an opportunistic fashion. And that was clearly the case in Bahrain. And, again, this is something I don’t understand very well, but is certainly something that Sunni leaders get very exercised about.
And, you know, I could go on forever, so cut me off when I’ve said too much, but Sunnis get very exercised. And that’s something called the thuluth. And there’s a Shia word for it too. What is the Shia word for the contribution that have to give to the madrjayiah (ph)? The khums. The khums. Not the thuluth, the khums.
So it’s a fifth. You know, it’s like any tithe. A fifth of your income goes to the – goes to the religious establishment. Well, the Bahraini Shia, their money goes to Qom. So, you know, the Sunni authorities in Bahrain basically are concerned that a large part of their population is sending a large amount of money to the very forces in Iran that are hostile to Bahrain. So, number one answer to the question is, the Bahraini authorities would say: Our people are funding revolution. (Laughs.) Which is a kind of bad thing. And, oh, by the way, you know, there have been noises that the government may prevent people from giving the khums to Qom, which would be, I think, explosive.
Number two, I think there have clearly been cases where arms, money, undesirables have been infiltrated into Bahrain by water from Iran. Number three, the government would tell you, and I think there must be some evidence of this, and I think the agency had evidence of it as well, that there are link between – and it certainly fits the pattern in Iran and other places – there are links between Hezbollah expertise and Bahraini revolutionaries. But I also think it’s important to point out – and I’ll just make two other – oh, plus explosive devices that the Bahrainis have been using bear all the hallmarks of Iranian tradecraft.
But I would make two – just quick two final points. Number one, you know, let’s – and to a point that Geneive made – is let’s not look at the Bahraini opposition as a uniform thing. Wefaq, the legitimate Shia party, would argue that we don’t take our orders from Qom. Eh, I’m not so sure that some do and some don’t. Some loyalty – some have more loyalty to – it was, I think, unfortunate that the leader of Wefaq was a cleric. That was dumb, right? And that probably had the Iranian – that was probably because of Iran.
MS. ABDO: Well, and he’s educated in Qom.
MR. ERELI: Yeah. Right, so there’s – eh.
MR. MATTAIR: And he supports rule by the –
MR. ERELI: And he supports Wilayat al-Faqih, all of which is anathema to – but, you know, as objectionable as Wefaq might have been, they weren’t revolutionaries. They weren’t, you know, dedicated to overthrow the state. There are some very bad guys who, you know, want the – want the monarchy gone and want a, you know, representative Shia state. Well, that’s just not going to – and they use force and they have ties to Iran, they have ties to other revolutionaries. That’s not going to happen. Simple like that. I was told by a Saudi that there is no way in hell that Saudi Arabia is going to let Iran get a foothold in Bahrain. And if you think that – you know, that’s the whole Saudi justification for Yemen. Oh, you know, we got to prevent, you know, Iran doing in Yemen what they did in Lebanon.
Well, when they rolled tanks – when they and the UAE rolled tanks into Manama in March of 2011, was it, that was because – what is it? It’s not Jubail. It’s Ras Tanura, which is 40 kilometers from Bahrain on Saudis eastern coast, is their large petrochemical and oil shipping thing. And remember, 50 percent of Saudi GDP is in the eastern province. We are talking about the economic jugular – right here, if you cut it the whole body dies – of Saudi Arabia and, I would argue, Asia. No way in hell is Iran going to get in Bahrain. And that’s why the Saudis went in there, was against Iran. Doesn’t matter what we believe. They believe it. And they’re going to take action.
MS. ABDO: I think that you made excellent points. But I guess my point was that this story could have had a different ending in terms of radicalized youth groups being funded by Iran, other groups being funded by Iran. If there had been less of this – less marginalization of Al-Wefaq. OK, if there had been less marginalization of at least the Shia groups movements that wanted to compromise with the government. And, I mean, that – let’s face it, that’s the story of the Middle East for the last 30 years, right? That rather than continue to marginalize groups that are considered a threat to the state – OK, we’ve always looked at state dictators versus Islamists. But the region has become a lot more complicated than that. That shouldn’t be the dynamic in which we calculate or judge the future of the region. It’s become a lot more complicated than that. We’ve moved far beyond that.
And I would argue that in the case of Bahrain, that very binary narrative became, you know, is it the state or the Shia? And as you point out, it was much more complicated than that. And the story could have had a different ending if somebody somewhere – and maybe it’s impossible, could have brought some voice of reason to how the government dealt with the opposition. If the – the reason, if you talk to Al-Wefaq people they will tell you – and I’m not – certainly not a judge of who is right or not. But they would tell you that if the government had only reconciled with them, that would have given less credibility to the more radicalized groups that became, you know, Iranian proxies. So –
MR. MATTAIR: Do you think the crown prince made an effort?
MS. ABDO: I don’t know. I can’t speak to that. I mean, I don’t – you know, I spent time in Bahrain. I went to one government-sponsored conference that was closed. And there needed to be some voice of reason in that conversation because – for all these historical reasons that you mentioned – there is this existential fear of Iran, for legitimate historical reasons. But what was happening at the moment and in the months in the beginning of the uprising, I believe that that story could have had – it could have been a different narrative if – I mean my – and the point – in terms of our discussion today, the broader point I’m trying to make is that as we’ve all agreed, there are certain times when Iran seizes opportunities. And there are other times when it’s proactive.
So my point is that, at least as much as possible, seizing the opportunity is something that outsiders can control. Proactivity probably is not something outsiders can control. But if we can somehow – whether it’s, as Alex mentioned, Gulf states, whether it’s the United States, whether it’s working with, you know, other groups, civil society groups in Arab societies – we also can control, to some degree, the seizing of the opportunity part of this if – we have to get out of this mindset of – you know, of demonizing groups in the Middle East that are more complicated than maybe we view them.
MR. ERELI: Let me just give one anecdote that – last thing I’ll – one anecdote that – or, one anecdote that just encapsulates everything that Geneive said was – and this was – you know, I left Bahrain in January of 2011. And the Pearl Roundabout stuff was in February, right? Yeah, OK. So before I left – shortly before I left I had a conversation with the editor of the largest circulation paper in Bahrain, which was called Al-Wasat. It was a Shia paper. I mean, he was Shia. And it was the largest circulation because it was what the Shia community read. He was married to a Sunni by the way. And, you know, I asked about this. OK, well, is Iran – and remember, things were bubbling in Bahrain for a long time. This isn’t new. They’ve, you know, had Shia unrest and human rights unrest and competition for – you know, the whole stuff for a long time.
But, again, everyone was, like, focused on Iran. I said, what’s your sense of Iranian involvement in what’s going on? And you know, we were friends. So, I mean, he had no reason to sort of hold back. And he was not a radical. I mean, he was somebody who said, look, this system’s got to stay, it’s just got to change. But anyway, he said – he said: Look, you know, Iran has its ties and its channels here, but it’s not – it’s not what’s fueling this and it’s not what’s driving it. But, you know, if the regime continues to take this hard line and demonize everybody, they’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. They will radicalize and drive people into the arms and give Iran opportunities to do exactly what they’re afraid they’re doing, but they’re not doing now.
And again, that was in, you know, late 2010. And it’s right. And oh, by the way, I think a couple of week –
MS. ABDO: They put him in jail. And by the way, they are trying to put him in jail.
MR. ERELI: Well, yeah, but they also shut down Al-Wasat a couple of months ago, or something.
MS. ABDO: Yeah, yeah. Al-Wasat is –
MR. ERELI: Which was kind of the bellwether for tolerance. As long as – as long as Al-Wasat was publishing it was like, OK, they may be torturing people and they may be arresting people, but they’re letting Al-Wasat publish. That was one of the last – you know, it was really in the last year that they went after it, which is – you know, to Geneive’s point, and Monsour’s (sp) point, which is the guy. It’s like, self-fulfilling prophecy. They’re radicalizing. They’re just playing into – they’re playing into Iran’s hands.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, you know, we could probably do a whole event on Bahrain, but before we move somewhere else, I would suggest that it was one of the first countries to begin reforming. When the uprising started in February or March, there was a lot of Iranian broadcasting into Bahrain encouraging the uprising, and a lot of broadcasting from Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia radio stations. And the crown prince did make a pretty serious effort to find some common ground with Al-Wefaq, which didn’t cooperate and boycotted the next parliamentary election. So it’s a complicated story. But for an American policymaker to think about – for an American policymaker, and I’m trying to go through the whole region, you have to try to understand exactly what is Iran’s involvement now. And so we touched on some of the military support they’re giving to opposition.
Another country we don’t know as much about – you know, we’re following Iraq, we’re following Syria. But Yemen is a newer story, not as well known here. Is there anyone who would describe the nature and the extent of the Iranian support for Ali Abdullah Saleh – the late Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis?
MR. VATANKA: I mean, obviously because of distance Yemen has never really been a big item on the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic, or the shah of Iran for that matter. I mean, the shah of Iran was interested when there was that civil war between the north and the south and the sort of left and the Imamat in the north, but when the revolution happens in ’79, Yemen is not a big issue for one obvious reason beyond the distance, the fact that the Iranians are busying fighting the Iraqis. I mean, their capacity to engage in this relatively faraway place called Yemen was limited.
I would also say the individual who really – to your point about the late Ali Abdullah Saleh – the individual that really kind of blamed so much on Iran early on was Saleh, who at the time was working with Riyadh. And I think the year is 2004 that most people point to as a sort of turning point where Iran becomes – or is seen to be an instigator in Yemen. If you listen to what they’re saying today, obviously the Saudis are pointing to not only weapons, but actually ballistic missiles arriving at the hands of the Houthis. As you can imagine, the Iranians are rejecting these claims.
The last United Nations report – I’d love to hear what others on the panel have to say on this – the last United Nations report on the issue of supplying nations to the various parties in Yemen does blame Iran, but not directly blaming it for supply of weapons. But I believe the wording was something along the lines of: It doesn’t do enough to prevent weapons coming in. I think that’s what the U.N. report said.
But fundamentally, what I would say is if you sit from Tehran’s vantage point, Yemen is basically a disaster, from Tehran’s vantage point, for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It will continue to give. This is how the Saudis are bleeding. So I don’t see why it would be in the interest of the Iranians, other than obviously more reasons want to end it sooner than later, to want to sort of bring the conflict to the end. This is – this is the exposed underbelly of Saudi Arabia. And the Iranians will point to in the past that, you know, some of their Gulf Arab rivals having done similar types of inciting inside Iran, in places like the province of Balochistan, the province of Khuzestan, and so forth.
So unfortunately, I see Yemen as part of this tit for tat competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I don’t want – as I said earlier in my remarks – exaggerate and say Iran is the reason why there’s a Yemeni conflict. Everything I read about Yemen tells me it’s not. That Iran is, at best, doing what we’ve all described, taking advantage of an opportunity, a vacuum.
And to your point, Tom, about – you were talking about the media campaign targeting the ruling Bahraini ruling elite. That’s one of the things that almost always is there, the media campaign. Arabic language media campaigns funded by the Islamic Republic that target places like the ruling elite in Bahrain. And the same with the Yemenis. So I see that having been constant. But I just think there’s so much more uncertainty about the flow of weapons from Iran. Although, as we heard earlier, Hezbollah increasingly seems to be playing a role as the Arab part of Iran’s sort of multifaceted expansionist policies in the Arabian Peninsula.
MR. MATTAIR: There are reports of – but, Paul, before – there are reports of Revolutionary Guards in Sana’a. And Iran says they provide advisory military support. So, Paul, you wanted to make a comment. I think you’re skeptical about the ballistic missile –
MR. PILLAR: No, not at all. I mean, I think Alex’s summary is excellent and I agree with it. There was some U.N. body that did address the question of Iranian personnel. And they basically said: We saw no evidence of it.
But I think we can be pretty comfortable that there has been some supply of materiel. You know, exactly what is included and how extensive, it’s hard to say. And I regret to say that, you know, Ambassador Haley’s show and tell across the river over at DIA didn’t do much to help us with more accuracy on that, since a lot of what was displayed was stuff that the Saudis or Emirates had scarfed up. And U.S. officials were not able to say anything, whether they didn’t know or just weren’t saying, about where the stuff was found, when it was used, by whom – (laughs) – or anything else.
So it really was a matter, like with the U.N. report that Alex mentioned, that, OK, factory markings indicate some of this stuff – at least some of this stuff was made in Iran, or came there. And so if we want to place blame for not having sufficient control over it, that’s one thing that could be said. But beyond that, I think the only generalization that could be made is what the Saudis and Emiratis are doing on the other side, obviously, is a whole order of magnitude different in terms of large scale air war.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. All right. The other topic we might want to go back to and explore is the whole nature of Iran’s motivation, which takes you back to the revolution. What are the reasons for being involved in the Arab world? And, Paul, I’d like to start with you because, you know, you’re talking about the way Iran, as such a big country in the region, would think it had a role to play no matter who was in power, no matter who – no matter what the ideology of the regime was. And, yes, of course, the shah of Iran thought he should be the dominant power in the region. And, yes, he was – I mean, there was concern in Saudi Arabia about his power and his intentions. There were episodes that can explain that – for example, the way he took the three islands in the Strait of Hormuz in 1971 from the Emirates and the United Arab Emirates.
But from a – I mean, from an American point of view, the Pahlavi dynasty, thinking it has a leadership role in the region, has got to be quite different from an Islamic Republic thinking it has a leadership role in the region. American reaction actually would be different. One is – one is not as threatening as the other, to the countries of the region or to us. So that takes you – I mean, do you want to comment on that?
MR. PILLAR: Of course the American reaction is different. But that’s a different statement from what’s threatening and what’s not.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. Well, all right. Alex, I think you were talking about the origins of the Iraq War. Do we take the regime – when the regime talks about the need to export the revolution or the decadence of Arab monarchies, or when the leadership in Iran does call upon the Iraqi people to rise up against the Saddam regime, how do we interpret that in terms of offensive or defensive intentions on the part of Iran?
MR. VATANKA: What I was trying to say earlier, my perspective – and as you can probably hear, I’m very critical of the performance – is to suggest that they came at this game of conducting foreign policy, one, with obviously having their ideological preferences that oftentimes were shaped in the process. I mean, if you sort of look at Iran’s position on, say, the state of Israel, you might think this has been something that kept them up at night for decades and decades, is the creation of the state of Israel. In fact, you know, it really doesn’t become a prominent issue until the late ’60s and ’70s, with some of these Iranians that later end up being on the winning side of the anti-shah campaign, go up in Palestinian camps in Lebanon and Syria, and meet some of these leftist Palestinians. And that’s how they get their – kind of – a lot of their anti-Israel notions from.
Before then – I mean, certainly Khomeini, when he was still in Iran before he was exiled, Israel was not a big issue, as far as I can tell. So in other words, a lot of this was kind of learned while they already had the job. And the – I never forget the quote that was given out by Rouhani when he was the supreme national security council. When Rouhani tells the then-newly elected president or Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that, look, we have to do this and the other, otherwise the International Atomic Energy Agency will come after us, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comment – which I think shows the relative inexperience – is that who pays for the IAEA’s entire budget? And they point out mostly Western states. Ahmadinejad replies, well, you know, tell the IAEA we’ll pay the full budget so they can tell the West to go away. And we’ll pay the budget. I mean, imagine this is the president of a land, and he thinks this is the way you can go about and achieve your foreign policy objectives.
So, I mean, in other words, Tom, when you’re talking about is it offensive or defensive, don’t assume that you’re always dealing with these great chess-playing minds that know exactly what they want. So much of what they did was spontaneous, including, as pointed out, costly like them taking over the U.S. embassy in 1979 – which, by the way, was supposed to be a 48-hour event. It turned out to 444 days. It was the most costly foreign policy decision this system has ever made. They’re still paying a price for it.
And, I mean, today I just did a paper for the U.S. Marine Corps University on the evolution of the Iranian military doctrine. And one of the things when I was doing the research for that paper was, you know, I was getting close to something that looks like the reconstruction of the regular Iranian armed forces. In other words, they’re taking the American-supplied military doctrine of the 1960s and ’70s and turning it into something that looks like guerilla warfare. Now, they’re taking forces from within the regular armed forces and turning them into small groups that can be shipped to places like Iraq and Syria to do that kind of fighting.
Now, they are calling this forward defense, OK? They are saying by Qasem Soleimani taking a number of individuals and go to Iraq or Syria, that’s forward defense. You beat ISIS outside so ISIS doesn’t show up in Tehran. That’s – to me, that’s not a complete logic. You also have to ask yourself the question: By your presence in Iraq and Syria do you generate the conditions within which organizations like ISIS are born? Again, I don’t want to sit here and pretend that Iran is the reason why ISIS was created. But I think some of the Iranian policies certainly didn’t contribute to the level of anger you found among the Sunnis in Iraq.
MR. ERELI: Can I jump in here for just a second? Because I think we’ve lost sight of an important point. And it was implicit in the question you raised, but it was also explicit in something that Paul said. I think it would be a mistake to leave this room with the impression that Iran doesn’t have some overall strategy and plan and that it’s just simply kind of opportunistic and gets things wrong as often as they get things right. That’s partially true, but it’s misleading. And I would simply posit this for discussion, that Iran sees the United States and the United States presence and the United States’ relationship with countries in the region as very threatening. It sees it as threatening to Iranian power, Iranian influence, Iranian projection of Iranian forces, and to Iranian ambitions for greatness.
And that therefore, one of the unifying threads of Iranian opportunism is – and they’ve been very explicit about this – is getting U.S. forces out of the region. They don’t want forces in Saudi Arabia. They don’t want forces in Bahrain. They don’t want forces in the UAE. They don’t want forces anywhere. They – in Iraq –
MR. MATTAIR: In the Gulf.
MR. ERELI: In Iraq, in the Gulf. They want us out. And they are taking advantage of every opportunity either make it too expensive for our allies to host us, to kill us, or to otherwise undermine allies who are supporting us so that they have a freer hand to do – pursue their objectives in the region.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes.
MR. PILLAR: One other thing I want to get out on the table, since I think it’s been understated, is we’re talking about a regime which changes over time, which makes mistakes but also learns from its mistakes. And too often we have the tendency to just talk about, all right, the Islamic Republic, it’s this or it’s that, and not see it as a dynamic creature. I mean, Alex, for example, has mentioned a couple of times the whole hostage crisis. Yes, that was an enormous mistake, a huge act of international terrorism. Can’t imagine a worse way to get your new relations with the United States of America started off. And we, Americans, quite appropriately, stay very conscious of that huge act of international terrorism. Also mentioned, you know, the assassination of Iranian dissidents overseas in Europe and elsewhere. That’s international terrorism too.
They don’t do that anymore. Now, one explanation is they ran out of dissidents to kill. But another one is, and I think a very relevant one, they saw how it was affecting their relations with the European countries. And that was part of another whole set of lessons learned. You referred to the nuclear question, well, this gets into the topic of, you know, who’s willing to talk to whom? And by the time you got to the 2000s, they were quite willing to talk about, you know, having something – agreement, something like what we now know as the JCPOA, except it was the Bush administration that said: We don’t want to talk. (Laughs.)
This is not a fixed phenomenon. It has changed greatly. I tried to allude to that a bit in my opening comments, about how there were some of the very intense fears that the revolution itself wouldn’t even survive unless they had like-minded revolutions in places like Bahrain. They’ve learned that that’s not true, and they’ve learned that, you know, opening up the nuclear program and talking to the West is a – pays more dividends that what they were doing before. They’ve learned that not bumping off dissidents in European countries, that that’s a better way to go – to stop that kind of stuff. It – things change, and the Iranians have changed as well.
MS. ABDO: Yes, I – I really respectfully disagree with Alex. I mean, I think that their – I mean, I was in Iran, OK, 15 years ago, but the same people are still in power, and I found – my impression, whether I met clerics, high-level people in all the ministries is that they are extremely strategic and extremely sophisticated. And I completely agree with Paul. They are – they are fast learners. They learn from their mistakes. I mean, just examine the strategies – and Alex made this point – in the waves of demonstrations, they’ve learned quickly how to deal with demonstrators. I mean, now they can shut down demonstrations in no time. I mean, look what they learned from 2009 to 2010. There were millions of people on the street.
So I think that we should never underestimate Iran, and, I mean, during my years there, I was shocked at how sophisticated they were, whether they were dealing with the foreign press, whether they were dealing with domestic issues, and, you know, we can’t forget the whole structure of the state, which is completely built upon survival and resiliency. I mean, if you look – if you examine how the state was crafted, you can’t remove the supreme leader; it’s virtually impossible. The lack of accountability, the lack of sustainability is quite genius, I think, and so I always put my bets on the Iranian state because they learn quickly from their mistakes, and also – I mean speaking of Europe, look how the Europeans responded to the demonstrations – hardly a squeak, right? And, you know, for some time in 2009 to 2013, I actually ran a project on Iran with the German government, and I can tell you there is a lot of sympathy in German and in the EU – the broader EU for the Iranian state. There just is. I mean, there’s –
MR. MATTAIR: There’s a lot of trade opportunity there.
MS. ABDO: Right. There’s a lot of trade opportunity, there’s investment, but, you know, I was sitting in the Bundestag with the head of the human rights commission of Germany who tried to convince a bunch of Iranian dissidents that their human rights record had improved. These were people who had gone to jail, and the head of the human rights commission was trying to convince dissidents. Of course they left angry and they were laughing because, you know, I presented them to talk about the human rights situation, but the Germans were trying to convince people who had been tortured and nearly killed in Iranian prisons that their human rights record had improved.
So my point is that they are very smart. If you – you only have to look at the European reaction to the protest to understand how they’ve made headway with European opinion.
MR. ERELI: Well, Zarif –
MS. ABDO: Exactly.
MR. ERELI: – Zarif is Exhibit A.
MS. ABDO: Look, Zarif – Zarif is the best – what did Zarif do? He convinced the Obama administration that the nuclear deal was the greatest thing that could ever, you know, happen between the two countries. He convinced the United States that – and not only Zarif, but Rouhani’s – I was at a conference in Oslo when Rouhani’s chief advisor, during the – 2012, OK – said – told all of us in the room at a private meeting, yes, we’re negotiating the nuclear deal now, but – wink, wink – we’re going to talk about other issues later, meaning Iraq and Syria. It’s now 2018. Have we talked about Iraq and Syria? No.
MR. MATTAIR: Oh, well, that leads me to something else that Alex said and, Alex, it surprised me if I heard you correctly. I think you said there were three centers of power, and you listed them in the order of importance: the supreme leader, the presidency, and then the Revolutionary Guard. That surprised me because, especially when you come to foreign policy, it – actually – actually – who is the junior partner? The supreme leader or the Revolutionary Guard, in that one?
MR. VATANKA: Oh. (Laughs.) Yeah, I mean, I don’t think the Revolutionary Guards alone can run Iran. I don’t think they have what it takes to remain in power. They don’t have the base. They can do it for a short period of time through sheer use of violence, but they – Revolutionary Guards’ commanders alone – I mean, that would become Iran going from being a theocracy to a full-out military dictatorship, which is a scenario that has never been in place ever in the history of Iran. There’s never been a military dictatorship. So –
MR. MATTAIR: OK, even with their control of so many economic institutions?
MR. VATANKA: They have a lot of control, they are doing a lot of bad things at home towards their own people, and you’re right. If you want to – if you want to zoom – if power in this case is limited to which entity in Iran has the ability to project most power in the region, clearly it’s not Zarif – I mean, because Zarif would say to you, no, that’s the Revolutionary Guard. Is it – I mean, why would you send Zarif to Syria when you can send him to Switzerland or Vienna? You send Qasem Soleimani to Syria. They know who is good for a job where, and that’s how the division of labors happen.
But revolution –
MR. MATTAIR: And what kind of influence do Rouhani or Zarif have over policy in Iraq or Syria?
MR. VATANKA: I mean, look, let’s – I’m not in the business of being optimistic, but it is Friday, so let’s for a second – let’s for a second be optimistic. Let’s say the lesson that Rouhani takes from these protests is, look, they’re saying, enough with our adventures in the region. He then goes back, has a conversation – like he did in late 2013 when he takes a big file to the supreme leader and says this is the state of the economy. If we don’t get these sanctions lifted, we’re on the brink. He can do something similar like that if Rouhani wants to be his own man, and I think it’s time for him to start thinking he should be his own man – and say to the supreme leader, we need to maybe think of ways to push back against the Revolutionary Guards.
Remember, the biggest speech he gave right after he became president in 2013 – I can’t remember the exact date in September 2013 – Rouhani came in and said, you guys, you are nervous that reform will come at your expense. You’re nervous that you fought for eight years against the Iraqis. Now things are stabilizing and you’re going to be sacrificed so we can have a normal international image. And then he made a promise: we’ll look after you, don’t worry. There will be enough – and these are the words he used – there will be enough for everybody to eat.
Khamenei, the day after, expressed exact same sentiment. So there was a moment where Rouhani and Khamenei were on the same page because they realized the sanctions needed to go. As soon as the sanctions were lifted, Khamenei decided to turn away from Rouhani again because that’s what Khamenei does. He plays them against each other.
But if Khamenei wanted to take a long-term view and realize that the Arab world might have conflicts for generations to come – I mean, so many conflicts in the Arab world we’ll go and wrestle with, like is Syria a nation-state, should Syria’s borders remain where they are. These are profound questions that it might take generations to figure out. Iran doesn’t have profound questions like that.
In Iran’s case, you can fix the place up pretty quickly in some ways: get rid of or reduce significantly the powers of the supreme leader, get rid of something called the Guardian Council, which is basically the filter that decides who can run for office, what legislation is good legislation. Get rid of those 12 individuals who are not elected, and then everything else in place could work like a pretty representative system. You’ve got elections already, you’ve got a parliament, you’ve got everything else, and you’ve got a long history of institutions, or 2000 years of proper institutions in place which is one of the reasons that – I don’t want to disagree, but I think there was a bit of a disagreement on how strategically clever these people are.
I think when your core issue when you wake up in the morning to have as much power as you can have, in a sense your hands are tied. You can’t be too strategic; I mean, it’s about live another day. And I think that’s why I’m skeptical about the grand strategy that, you know, might be in place. I’m skeptical.
I certainly think what they are doing in the Arab world – they are waking up. And I’ll tell you one area where they are going to wake up and they are already waking up is in Syria. In Syria they’ve been hand in hand with the Russians, and it worked out pretty well. Now everybody is assuming the hostilities, the war itself will come to an end. The hard part begins, the political compromise, and the Iranians are already openly saying the Russians are going to try and throw us under the bus. In other words, they have – they have created these conditions where they are pursuing objectives that, as I said earlier, don’t result in anything net gain for your average Iranian – those guys, cities with 60 percent unemployment and all the rest of it.
A lot of what is going on is ideologically driven, I think, more than just geopolitical interests. These are ideologically driven, and Iran just doesn’t have the money to get in that business. And I think that’s where it’s so dangerous for them going forward unless they – you know they readjust.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, that – you know, we should all remember this last exchange here because eventually we have to come to American policy and what – you know, what opportunities can be exploited by American policy.
But before we get there, there are some other questions that are – that would also help us get to American policy. And, Geneive, you know, maybe you could start by responding, as there’s someone who is asking, with ISIS on the decline, do the Iraqi and the Syrian Shia communities have much to gain by continuing to be friendly with Iran.
And another question here is how do you measure Iran’s influence in Iraq with America’s influence in Iraq, is the Iraqi state in a position to help contain Iran or is the Iraqi state too penetrated by Iranian militias and political parties to help contain Iran. Those are – those are – I mean, the answers to those will help us talk about American policy.
MS. ABDO: I’ll start with your – the question about Iraq, and I’ll answer the question by sharing an anecdote with you.
So one of the days that I was in Najaf, Prime Minister Abadi came to see Ayatollah Sistani, and we were standing outside Ayatollah Sistani’s house. And he refused to see him. And the – most people close to Sistani said that he was so upset with Abadi because of the Iraqi government’s position toward Iran that he did this to demonstrate his dissatisfaction and displeasure. So on that particular day he refused to see the prime minister.
So my point is that there is so – from what – and I’m not an Iraqi expert, but I think that there is a lot of conflict within the Iraqi state over to what degree they should combat Iran and to what degree they need to just sort of, I guess, passively sit by, because the Iraqi state is not strong enough to resist the depth of influence that Iran now has in Iraq. And if you look at the Shia militias, I think that’s a perfect example.
And as Alex said, a law was passed last year to bring the militias under – under the control of the state, but in practical terms that has not happened and is highly unlikely to happen because you have Soleimani directing traffic directly in Iraq with the militias. So as long as you have Revolutionary Guards in place, you have a weak Iraqi military and a weak Iraqi state, how can they possibly combat this level of Iranian military presence, for one thing? And also, how can they combat – I mean, it’s difficult to know the motivation of the Shia militias that came under control of the Revolutionary Guards. Were they doing this to fight ISIS? Were they doing this for ideological reasons? Those are interesting questions that I think we will see answered over time – if there’s any attrition within these militias now that ISIS is no longer there.
But I will say that another thing that is – sort of goes unreported is a lot of these Shia militias were almost as violent as ISIS. I mean, if you look at – I went – when I was in Kurdistan, I met all these young people who had direct contact with the militias, and they showed me videos that I think – I don’t – didn’t have any reason to think weren’t authentic of the militias under the, you know, influence if not direct control of the Revolutionary Guards burning people alive, hanging bodies from lampposts. I mean, that’s exactly what ISIS did.
So my point is that – that a lot of these militias under the control of the Revolutionary Guards are extremely violent. We don’t know the degree of their violence because the media has had much more focus and access to some degree – I mean, a German journalist went and spent in ISIS territory – than they had with the Shia militias.
So, to answer your question, I think that Iran has deep roots in Iran – in Iraq. I don’t think the government is strong enough to combat this, and I don’t necessarily think that certainly the militias, at any point in the near future, are going to be integrated into the Iraqi army. I mean, that doesn’t really seem like a realistic objective.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, since you talking and since you are the author of this book, we could also – I know we’ve talked about the violence of these militias – we could also ask, you know, to what extent the – the message of the Iranian revolutionary regime and its initial activities in the region like reporting or helping to create Lebanon in 1981 or ’(8)2, helping to create, you know, the geopolitical parties in Iraq in 1982, that kind of thing.
To what extent did that promote Salafism or jihadi Salafism in the region? And then, when you get into the last decade, to what extent did these Shia militias provoke the Sunni population and give rise to al-Qaeda in Iraq and Daesh? Because we have – you know, we have sectarian warfare.
MS. ABDO: Absolutely.
MR. MATTAIR: How did it start?
MS. ABDO: I think that Iran’s involvement in the region certainly gave rise to sectarianism and to this feeling among the Sunnis that the political dynamics had changed, OK, because let’s not forget, if you’re – I mean, I – you know, I interviewed Sunni tribal leaders in Erbil who told me that they supported ISIS because they were afraid the Iranians were taking over Iraq.
So – and if you look at the Salafists – and I’ll speak specifically about the Salafists because I spent a long time studying and following them and interviewing them in Lebanon and other places – they are so focused on Iran’s interventions in the Middle East that this is what they write in social media in Arabic, and some of these people – one in particular – has 18 million Twitter followers. His name is Araythi (ph).
And so the Iranians gave the Salafists the perfect gift for advancing a very sectarian agenda, and it just – it’s escalating further the more the Iranians continue their expansionism in the Middle East. And the reason that even the Salafists, who are a minority school of thought within Sunni Islam, were able to attract so many followers on such a massive level, who don’t even agree with their Islamic interpretations, is because of this fear of Iranian advancement.
And I always use Egypt as an example, as an outlier state. There are hardly any Shia in Egypt, OK – less than 1 percent. But if you go to Egypt and you interview theologians at Al-Azhar, they’ll tell you that the Shia are at the door and that, you know, they’re fearing conversions now that are being perpetrated by Iran to convert Sunnis in Egypt to Shia Islam, which is a completely ridiculous idea. But that’s what they believe based upon Iran’s activities in the Middle East.
So I use Egypt as the outlier state and the most extreme example of this very fearful perception of Iran’s influence because I think it’s – it’s relevant in terms of, you know, if Egyptians are fearing this, what does that say for the Sunnis sitting in Iraq or the Sunnis sitting in Syria? So, you know, the perception, the way I have always sort of analyzed this is you have the geopolitics operating on a very high level and the societal perception on a ground level, and the two feed on one another. So the more states advance their own agendas for geopolitical reasons – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf – people perceive this and react to it.
They also perceive and react to U.S. involvement in the region and the Iran nuclear deal. So at the time that I was doing research in the Middle East for my book was during the time of the negotiations of the nuclear deal, and I had Salafists in northern Lebanon tell me that the United States now had completely changed its policy to Iran and they were now allies of Hezbollah – because that was the perception. And I said, well, do you know that the United States has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization? Yes, but that is changing.
And so, you know, I think that we have to keep in mind, sitting in Washington, that no matter what the reality is in military terms, there’s also a societal reality, and that plays a great role in the dynamics that go on in the region.
MR. MATTAIR: OK, we have 15 minutes left to talk about American policy choices.
I guess I would start by saying that, you know, the Arab regimes – you were talking about Arab perceptions and public perceptions, but Arab regimes perceived American policy as being – Americans as withdrawing from the region, particularly when we didn’t intervene in a bigger way in Syria.
And we also had been talking about their need to share the burden with us and their need to be more independent. And so some of those governments decided that they needed to take matters into their own hands; that they couldn’t rely on the United States. And that probably explains why Saudi Arabia is in Yemen with a pretty inexperienced military for the first major engagement. Now we have – and it hasn’t gone – it hasn’t gone as expected.
Now we have a new administration and a new national security strategy, which is a confusing document, to say the least. But one thing that it doesn’t do, for sure, is to outline a strategy for deterring, containing or rolling Iran back in the region. It’s – it’s virtually not addressed except for the stronger language about Iran, which has been music to the ears of Saudi Arabians and their neighbors – some of their neighbors.
So what really is it that the United States can and should do now given – here’s another thing. If you remember early in the Trump administration, Flynn was saying that Russia was going to help us get Iran out of Syria. One of you – one of you alluded to the fact that the Iranians think Russia is going to do this.
OK, so now having said all that, you know, what – what does the United States – how should the United States be developing a strategy toward Iran in the region? We have arms sales to allies, we have economic sanctions on Iran and some of its proxies, we have – we’re leaving some troops in Iraq and Syria, providing logistical support in Yemen, talking about diplomacy. Please elaborate on all this and what we – what you think we ought to be doing.
MR. PILLAR: Well, Tom, I earlier made the main message that the main thing we have to do is get beyond the generalities, and I think your reference to the national security strategy – although I wouldn’t put too much stock in these documents in general, you know; they are general statements for public consumption and not real strategy, but I think in this case it does reflect the ineffectiveness of staying at a very general level – oh, we have to push back against Iran somehow.
I would go to the questions I outlined earlier – you know, what exactly – which are the specific behaviors that are of most concern to us, why are they of concern, how exactly do they affect our interests? Are they things where we can make a case that what Iran is doing is somehow different or worse than what the Saudis or somebody else is doing? And, not least important, you know, why are the Iranians doing this, and does that tell us something about is there a possibility of change, and what sort of carrots and sticks would be needed to – to bring about change? You have to get down to the specifics.
You know, our focus is on the Middle East side, but we haven’t talked about to the east of Iran. We’ve had a whole history in Afghanistan, which is – in the past, especially in the immediate wake of 9/11 and Operation Enduring Freedom on our part, we had a very – for a brief period before the George Bush administration shut the door, a period of cooperation based on common interests in doing something about the problem of – of Sunni extremist violence and its alliance with the Taliban, and the whole task of getting underway a new Afghan government.
There may be, you know, additional opportunities to have that sort of cooperative work, which does not have to be divorced from whatever concerns we have about Iranian influence here or there. I mean, we were just talking about Iraq. To the extent that there is a diplomatic – and maybe a military, but I think it’s mainly a diplomatic role for the United States to play in trying to encourage a more stable and whole Iraq, well, the Iranians are going to have to be involved. And I – you know, it’s not a matter of saying, well, somehow we’ve got to browbeat the Abadi government into pushing back harder against those militias. You know, it just – that just ain’t going to work. You have to get – even within the context of one country, like Iraq, get down into those specifics: what are the particular things that affect our interests negatively, and what kind of inducements can we bring about to bring about – to induce change, and what else is more in the area of parallel interests where we can even work with the likes of the Iranians or the Russians.
We’ve always been at 30,000 feet with these things, dealing in the generalities. We have to get down to the specifics and, you know, we can’t cover all those specifics in the next ten minutes.
MR. ERELI: You know, you – Tom, you asked what we should do. I would – I would answer by – with the what we should not do. And what we should not do is promise things that we’re not going to deliver, and this is what concerns me about, you know, our – this administration’s statements on Iran – is, you know, if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. In other words, Trump, the national security strategists – strategy, McMaster, Tillerson at Stanford the other day, you know, have all said Iran is a danger, Iran is a threat, and we are going to confront and contain and roll it back.
Well, you know, and to Paul’s point about generalities is, well, great. How are you going to do that? And what are you going to do? And, oh, by the way, when push comes to shove, are you willing to double down and, you know – and do what it takes because it’s going to – it’s going to take a lot. I don’t think you have any idea what it’s going to take, and I don’t think you have any idea of what the – of what costs you are willing to pay.
And when I say the worst thing we – you know, what we – should we not do, the worst thing we can do, the worst thing the United States can do is to make threats or promises or commitments that they are not willing to back up because that makes us look weak, it makes people doubt our word, it makes people look to others for their security, as many states in the region have done with respect to Russia, with respect to Iran, who they see as more dependable, more capable of carrying through on their promises, you know, and I – again, a concrete example which sort of goes to what Paul said, in Iraq, is Syria. I mean, I read Tillerson’s speech at Hoover, and everybody was saying, oh, great, it’s the first administration statement on U.S. policy in Syria. Are you kidding me? I mean, first of all, he set – he set out objectives that were totally unrealistic.
MR. MATTAIR: Yeah, we’re going to – we’re going to support constitutional reforms –
MR. ERELI: And second – yeah, free and transparent elections –
MR. MATTAIR: – and a U.N.-sponsored political process that will lead to elections that will lead to democracy.
MR. ERELI: Right. And then he – and then he said and here’s how we’re going to –
MR. MATTAIR: (That sounds ?) – (inaudible).
MR. ERELI: – here’s what we’re going to do, right? We’re going to – all right, we’re going to support the free democratic opposition, we’re going to set up a security zone, we’re going to get the Russians to buy into the Geneva process and get rid of – really?
Here’s my point – is if you want to roll back Iran in Syria, you’d better be prepared to play hardball, and if you’re not, don’t say you are going to deal with it, or just shut up.
MR. MATTAIR: Alex, do you have a –
MR. VATANKA: How can I beat that? (Laughter.)
Well, no, I’ll limit myself to something very limited, and that’s on the question of future Iran policy. I mean, I couldn’t agree more with everything that’s been said. It’s very difficult to talk about an Iran policy when you are dealing with a country in so many different places in the Middle East. You know, how do you – how do you make sure when you have an Iran policy that you get the same outcome in Afghanistan you do in Lebanon or Bahrain or Yemen. So it’s very difficult.
But what is not as difficult is for the Trump administration to look at the recent protests as an opportunity to maybe redraft its approach to Iran, and by that I mean I was one of those very disappointed in the travel ban in a general sense, but including Iranians in that travel ban – mostly I was disappointed because I saw how he bombed among the Iranian population. And my take on this is very simple, but I think it is an important one. The biggest instrument in the hands of the United States when it comes to putting pressure on the Islamic Republic is to be aware of and, to the extent that it’s possible, cultivate the sentiment found inside the Iranian population, which tends to be, I would say, 80 percent against the regime – domestic policies but also foreign policy. How do you – how can you tap into that? And that’s – you don’t do that by imposing blanket travel ban on all Iranian citizens – you don’t do that. That doesn’t take a genius to come up with as a – that’s not a policy. That’s campaigning, that’s throwing red meat to the base. That – I thought it was a strategic mistake, if there is such a thing.
So I think it – the protests were a moment for President Trump to develop his tweets when he talks about human rights in Iran because human rights in Iran could just as well mean more accountability in Iran. Accountability means Rouhani has to pressure on Qasem Soleimani and the others who are running around in the region doing what they are doing. So I can see a change process here, but we just need to start also taking into account that there is this thing called the Iranian people. Let’s not forget them. How can we bring them on board as part of this push to get Tehran to change its policies?
MR. MATTAIR: Well, that might be a good place to end it. We have run out of time, so I thank all of you, and I thank the audience.
Can we have a round for the panel, please? (Applause.)
Amb. (ret.) Adam Ereli
Founder and Principal, IberoAmerican Group; Former Ambassador, Kingdom of Bahrain; Former Deputy Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State
Mr. Paul Pillar
Senior Fellow, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University; Former National Intelligence Officer, Near East and South Asia, Central Intelligence Agency
Ms. Geneive Abdo
Resident Scholar, Arabia Foundation; Former Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council; Former Middle East Correspondent, The Guardian, The Economist and The International Herald Tribune
Mr. Alex Vatanka
Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute; Senior Fellow, Middle East Studies, U.S. Air Force Special Operations School; Former Managing Editor, Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst
Amb. Richard J. Schmierer
Chairman, Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council; Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
Dr. Thomas R. Mattair
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 91st Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, January 19th. Following the most significant period of unrest in Iran since 2009, “Iranian Advances in the Arab World” examined the relationship between these domestic grievances and Iran’s increasing involvement and expenditures in Arab countries in the region. The panelists also debated the extent to which Iranian involvement has contributed to instability in the region.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included Adam Ereli (Founder and Principal, Ibero-American Group); Paul Pillar (Senior Fellow, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University); Geneive Abdo (Resident Scholar, Arabia Foundation); and Alex Vatanka (Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute).
Amb. Ereli described how the most recent protests in Iran were different from those in 2009, with the younger generation not being as invested and smaller, rural, more conservative cities and towns leading the way. This is notable, as protest can be riskier in these less anonymous places. This suggests that levels of economic dissatisfaction are high enough to overcome conservative tendencies and the risk of reprisal. Amb. Ereli noted his surprise at how restrained the government response was, possibly due to the reality that many of the protesters were from the traditional base of the regime. He was skeptical of the regime’s capacity to change fundamentally in the aftermath of these protests. He noted how elected leaders like President Rouhani actually only control about 1/3 of the national budget and that any dramatic reshuffling of spending priorities could loosen state control over internal security and expression. Further, he argued that a priority of Iranian leadership is to remove the U.S. military presence from the region.
Mr. Pillar reviewed Iran’s role in the region through the lens of its core national interests. Noting that most Arab countries in the region (and the United States) sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, he argued Iran learned the lesson that it must conduct regional foreign policy with a defensive mindset. Thus, he does not see in Iranian behavior a “grand scheme” for regional domination, but rather Iran’s pursuit of national interests in the context of these historical realities. This means that Iran’s presence in Iraq is driven by a desire to prevent instability there, not to stoke sectarian tensions. The Syria relationship is critical for Iran to preserve, given Syria and Iran’s historical opposition to Saddam Hussein. Iran’s presence in Yemen is a low-cost way to make regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “bleed.” Iranian support for the Palestinians through funding Hamas and Hezbollah is to curry favor with Arab public opinion. Regarding the U.S. relationship with Iran, Mr. Pillar urged an assessment of specific Iranian actions based on how they impact specific U.S. interests.
Ms. Abdo presented research and insights on how Arab communities perceive Iranian expansionism and its pro-Shia agenda. She noted that the recent protests were the first time foreign policy had been so explicitly linked to domestic unrest and that a growing lack of transparency on Iranian military spending is fueling this dissatisfaction. While exact figures are impossible to verify, she estimated that Iran spends around $15 billion/year in Syria; $700-800 million/year in Lebanon; $150 million/year in Iraq; and $100 million/year in Palestine. Her research findings suggest that even Shias living in Arab countries generally do not support Iranian involvement in their domestic affairs, and there is growing concern about Iran’s activities in these countries.
Mr. Vatanka noted how during the recent protest some of the protesters were chanting about the primacy of their Persian identity over their Islamic one (e.g., “I am Persian!”). This is quite radical in the Iranian context and a reminder that the concept of clerical leadership is still quite new theologically. And while Iranians have long demanded that the nation’s wealth be spent on them rather than on foreign operations, the idea that Iranian youth are increasingly detached from the ideals of the 1979 revolution should be unsettling for the regime leadership. While Mr. Vatanka is doubtful there will be any type of transformative change in the regime or its foreign policy, he cautioned that current levels of corruption and the regime’s growing detachment from its citizens might not be sustainable. The reality that many public officials in Iran hold multiple paying jobs while youth unemployment remains high could lead to future instability and disillusionment with the ideals of the revolution.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email email@example.com.