The Middle East Policy Council's 84th Capitol Hill Conference, held Tuesday, April 12th at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, has concluded. The video and transcript are available below. To receive invitations to future events, click here, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook. To view our recent Capitol Hill Conferences, click here.
The following is a transcript of the eighty-fourth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2016, with Thomas R. Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council moderating. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
Thomas R. Mattair, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
Thank you for waiting, and welcome. I think our video issue has been resolved, so we can begin. And I'm sorry for the late start. But this is the Middle East Policy Council's 84th Capitol Hill Conference. The title is "The Saudi-Iranian Rivalry and the Obama Doctrine." And it features Ambassador Schmierer, Ambassador Jeffrey, Alireza Nader and Fahad Nazer, who I will introduce just a little later.
But before I do — I see some friendly faces here, but for those of you who don't know us we're now 35 years old. We have three core programs. This conference program is one of them. And we always tackle contemporary policy issues such as this one and try to have some debate about the policy choices the United States has. For those of you in the physical audience, please write your questions down at any time they occur to you throughout this hour. And our staff will collect them and then I'll ask them during the Q&A session.
Would you please let me know when the live streaming starts so that I can tell them that they can also submit questions?
And we will post the video on our website and post the transcript on our website tomorrow. Can you all hear me? Can you all hear me? OK.
Our premier program is our journal, Middle East Policy, which has been edited for 32 or 33 years by Anne Joyce, who just walked up to the podium a moment ago. It's the most frequently cited journal in the field of contemporary policy issues in the Middle East. It's published by Wiley-Blackwell. If you visit their website you can learn how to subscribe.
And our third program is an outreach program for educators and students. It's Web-based but there are also public events, workshops and seminars for educators and their students. And you can see it all on our website, which is www.mepc.org. We hope you'll visit that website to see archives of journal articles and archives of videos of previous conferences, et cetera.
I have a few introductory remarks to make about the topic before I introduce the speakers, just to try to set it up. As I said, our panelists are going to discuss the Obama Doctrine and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Early in the year there was a lot of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran which made us start thinking about this topic. And then there was a Jeffrey Goldberg article in The Atlantic a few weeks ago which outlined the Obama Doctrine based on interviews with the president and many of his aides, so we tied them together.
The Obama Doctrine seems to be one that emphasizes restraint in the use of U.S. military force unless the United States is directly threatened, and that also emphasizes the importance of diplomacy, for example in reaching the agreement on limits to Iran's nuclear programs. The question that will be examined today is whether that's appropriate and sufficient in the Middle East or whether it may possibly involve some misreading of the nature of the threats that we face in the Middle East — threats to our partners in the region, to Europe, to ourselves, to the whole international order.
The Obama Doctrine also cautions against U.S. involvement in what it calls proxy wars fueled by Saudi-Iranian competition in the Middle East, as, for example, in Yemen and Syria. One question to ask about that is, is that grounded in a fair assessment of the reasons for the competition — the geopolitical, ethnic, sectarian and ideological reasons for the competition being? The doctrine and the policies flowing from it may or may not have caused some meaningful debate in Iran about engaging with neighbors and engaging with the United States and possibly moderating their policies in the region. But another question is, how much scope do reformists have in Iran to do what they'd like to do, given the power of the leader, Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards?
Certainly the doctrine and its policies have aroused deep concerns among our traditional partners and allies in the region — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the other GCC countries — who fear that it means the U.S. is acquiescing in ongoing Iranian expansion in the Arab world. And so the idea of sharing the Middle East concerns them because that's how they interpret it. Secretary Kerry heard these concerns last week at a GCC meeting in Bahrain. President Obama will likely hear these concerns when he attends the GCC summit in two weeks in Saudi Arabia.
And with that introduction, let me introduce our speakers. You have this invitation and on the back of this invitation there are detailed bios of the four speakers, so I'll be brief. Our speakers are going to speak in the order in which they're listed.
We have first Richard J. Schmierer, who is the chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. He is a former United States ambassador to Oman and a career foreign service officer with the State Department.
We also have James F. Jeffrey, who is the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and also someone who also has a — he also sits on the secretary of defense's Defense Policy Board and has had positions in the National Security Council, and a distinguished career like Ambassador Schmierer.
We also have two excellent political analysts who write in major publications. We have Alireza Nader from the RAND Corporation — a number of his very pertinent publications are listed here in the bio — and Fahad Nazer, who is from JTG, Inc., a think tank and consulting firm, also a nonresident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, formerly a policy analyst at the Saudi embassy and a public diplomacy specialist at the Department of State, and also someone with many publications.
So it's a group that can discuss this subject and also express some different opinions about the issues. And with all that, I say welcome again and introduce Ambassador Schmierer.
RICHARD SCHMIERER, former U.S. ambassador to Oman; chairman of the board of directors, Middle East Policy Council
Thank you very much, Tom. And again, welcome on behalf of all of us at the Middle East Policy Council.
Tom and I actually were traveling in the Gulf when the Atlantic article appeared, and it certainly won't surprise you if I say that it provoked quite a response there, in particular with our interlocutors in Riyadh. It also certainly triggered an avalanche of commentary in opinion circles both in the region and in the U.S.
In my remarks today on the Obama Doctrine, as that doctrine is presented in this month's Atlantic article, I would — I will be drawing on my experience as a diplomat, as Tom mentioned, both in Europe and in the Middle East. I will devote the bulk of my remarks today to the issue of diplomacy, which I think is a key issue brought out in the article. But before doing so, I would like to first address a few of the elements of the article which specifically are relevant to today's discussion; that is, the Obama Doctrine as it relates to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The article doesn't actually say a great deal about Iran, and what it does say I would like to discuss nearer to the end of my remarks. It does say a lot about Saudi Arabia. And having served as a U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia for six years, I believe that some of what it said has been misunderstood, so I would like to take a minute to address that issue.
For example, some have suggested that the article refers to the kingdom as being a "free rider." In fact, I don't think President Obama or anyone else in the Washington circles thinks of Saudi Arabia as a free rider. In the article the term is actually used in connection with defense spending by the U.K. and the efforts to confront Muammar Gadhafi during the Libyan uprising. In both cases, U.S. efforts to ensure appropriate contributions by our allies succeeded, and as a result there were no free riders.
I can assure you from my time as a diplomat that we have for a long time had ongoing free-rider discussions with our European allies but, in contrast, I'm confident that there is a longstanding appreciation among U.S. officials for the contributions which our Gulf partners — Saudi Arabia foremost among them — have made to regional security, regional economic development and global energy stability, among others.
Some of the responses to the article took issue with specific factual claims or implications. An item in Bloomberg, for example, took exception to the idea that young people in Asia are unique in their focus on creative and entrepreneurial activity. It cited precisely such efforts witnessed firsthand by the author, which are also being undertaken by young Saudi men and women. The point is taken. There are certainly aspects in the article which are open to different interpretations and I'm sure that that will be one of the elements of our discussion today.
The second issue which I would like to briefly follow up on is the recurrent theme in the commentary on the Atlantic article that Obama's views suggest that he believes in what is called a foreign policy of realism — i.e. that he applies a cold-hearted calculation of vital U.S. foreign policy interests and then acts only when such interests are threatened. The criticisms which I've seen indicate that he doesn't always stick with that approach, and by not doing so he has had several foreign policy failures.
Among these foreign policy failures that have been cited are the surge in Afghanistan, the effort to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the response to the Arab Spring, and Ukraine policy. In all of these cases, however, the criticisms amount to the proposition that these were all lost causes with no vital U.S. interest and thus a truly realist president would have not have involved the U.S. Now, it may be argued that critical U.S. interests were not on the line in these cases, but each one involved either prior significant American investment, such as Afghanistan, or spoke to who Americans are as a people, our fundamental values and the role that we play as the world's most powerful nation.
It appears to have been those considerations rather than a dispassionate realist calculation of vital U.S. interests which tipped the scale towards U.S. action. Walking away from Afghanistan, declining to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, failing to support Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square or Ukrainian protesters in the Maidan, standing by as tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Libyans were massacred in Benghazi, these were not courses of action I believed even a realist U.S. president could take.
While these are the kinds of considerations which permeate the commentary which has appeared in response to the Atlantic article, I would like to take the conversation in a bit of a different direction. To me, the crux of the Atlantic pieces lies in its fundamental message about U.S. foreign policy interests and how we should pursue them. To put it succinctly, in my view the article really speaks to the president's attitude towards diplomatic engagement.
In fact, Atlantic editor James Bennet makes just this point in his editorial about the article. As he wrote, quote, "Threaded through this article, as through this president, is a basic question: Is the patient and at times even humble pursuit of diplomacy a better bulwark of American credibility than the spectacular deployment of forces," end quote. As I read it, the Atlantic piece describes the president's thinking as it relates to both allies and antagonists abroad, as well as to regions of the world, and draws on that thinking to raise important questions about how we use our engagement with these countries and with these regions to protect Americans and to enhance their well-being — i.e. to pursue American interests.
The article notes Obama's views of certain actions and policies of various countries and their leaders and points out areas in which he believes some changes in these actions and policies would be to the benefit of Americans. As someone who has engaged on many of these issues, I can attest to the fact that U.S. diplomats have long been seeking to convince both friends and antagonists to change behaviors in cases where we see those behaviors as detrimental to U.S. interests. But while doing so, we have continued to pursue policies which maintain basic U.S. strategic interests and those of all allies.
It is important here to understand the role of diplomacy as it functions in tandem with policy. That is, any country, including the U.S., follows policies which protect its interests while at the same time pursuing diplomacy that seeks to further advance those interests. The policies are based on long-term fundamental partnerships, on the one hand, and ongoing, often long-term antagonisms on the other. Diplomacy comes into play in both kinds of relationships, or at least it should. The role of diplomatic engagement is to try to get other countries, both partners and antagonists, to adopt behaviors and follow policies which promote U.S. interests and those of our allies.
It is instructive to look at some of the diplomatic issues raised in the Atlantic article concerning certain countries and regions and consider the U.S. policies which are in place in connection with those countries and regions. For example, while in the article President Obama is critical of Europe as a whole for its under-funding of defense, this has not prevented him from maintaining policies which have continued the decades-long U.S. approach of supporting a strong NATO and continuing to provide a security umbrella to the NATO countries.
Just as the president might like to see our NATO allies raise their defense expenditures, he might also like to see changes in the approach which European countries take to integrating their Muslim populations, or in the approach which many of these countries take towards issues of privacy protection, and intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, because changes in their approach in these areas would potentially lower the security threat to America and Americans; i.e. they would be in the U.S. — in the American interest. That's why you can be sure that U.S. diplomats are engaging their European counterparts on these issues. The U.S. interest in encouraging such changes in European policies has not prevented the president from increasing U.S. intelligence and law enforcement cooperation with European countries.
The same holds true in the Middle East. President Obama may feel that certain policies being pursued by Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel are not the best policies for the interests of the United States and his diplomatic efforts have sought to get the prime minister to change these policies. But that has not stopped him from providing the greatest amount of U.S. security assistance of any president — to Israel of any president in American history. Again, the fundamental U.S. interest — a strong and secure Israel as a strategic U.S. ally in the region — continues to be the aim of the policies he has in place, even as he and American diplomats engage with Israel in ways which seek to convince the Israeli government to pursue policies which he believes are more in the interest of the U.S.
Likewise, in the Arab world, President Obama might wish to see the governments of majority Arab countries make a greater effort to improve relations with their Shia minorities and with the Shia-Arab world as a whole. Similarly, he might want them to take more steps to empower women in their societies. He might like to see them increase their efforts to expand civil society. And he might like to see a different approach in the educational support they provide to Islamic communities in other regions of the world.
And in support of these views, he would use diplomacy to seek to influence these various countries' actions and policies in these areas. He would do so because he believes that adjustments in these policies are in the interest of the United States since such differences in approach could be expected to reduce regional tension and conflict and improve regional stability and economic performance, all of which would be in America's interest.
But even while Obama might choose to use diplomatic engagement with these allies to encourage such changes, he has continued, indeed enhanced, U.S. security cooperation with those countries. The U.S. Fleet still patrols the Gulf from its base in Bahrain. The U.S. still has other significant military assets located in the region. And we still conduct regular exercises with the militaries of our partners in the Gulf, in particular to demonstrate an ability to keep the vital Strait of Hormuz open. And we still sell advanced military equipment to these allies, and have, under Obama, enhanced such security cooperation through the launching of a strategic security dialogue with the countries of the GCC.
Similarly, while the president has sought to use diplomacy to try to change behaviors in countries which are either adversaries or, at the least, antagonists or competitors, he has continued policies which maintain the U.S. commitment to countering negative actions by such countries. Thus, while, as he said in the Atlantic interview, quote, "We have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful rising China," end quote, he added, quote, "We have to be firm where China's actions are undermining international interests," end quote.
And he proceeded to then cite U.S. actions which have signaled such a stance. Indeed, he has deployed U.S. naval assets to challenge provocative Chinese maritime claims. He has worked to broker a trans-Pacific trade partnership which is designed to augment U.S. economic engagement with the region as a counter to Chinese economic influence, and he has maintained the robust U.S. military presence in Japan and South Korea, which stands at the heart of our security commitment to the region, all while undertaking efforts to engage the Chinese diplomatically on issues of mutual interest and to encourage them to buy into and support the global economic and security system.
In the Middle East, a similar dichotomy has been in place on Obama's watch with longtime adversary Iran. The president has sought to change Iran's malign behavior in the region through diplomatic engagement, triggering criticism both by leaders in the Sunni Arab states and by political opponents in the U.S.
The most prominent outcome of such engagement to date has been the Iran nuclear deal, concluded last summer. I was the U.S. ambassador in Oman when the seeds of that effort were being planted. And that undertaking itself grew out of a successful effort facilitated by Oman to gain the release of three Americans being held in Iran. From the small steps involved in that effort, a sufficient level of trust was established to allow for the possibility of exploring a more ambitious agenda of engagement, ultimately leading to the historic nuclear deal.
That deal had tremendous intrinsic value in its own right. It addressed the fundamental and destabilizing challenge of a potential Iranian nuclear weapons capability, but it also opened the possibility of a more deep-seated change in Iran: the possibility that Iran's leaders would use the economic benefits and the potential renewed economic access to the international community deriving from the nuclear agreement to change the country's behavior. Rather than continuing on its course of meddling in the region, Iran might be convinced to focus on addressing the drastic economic shortcomings and challenges in the country, a focus supported by the vast majority of the Iranian people and one at the heart of the agenda of Iran's more moderate political factions.
I was pleased to note in the Atlantic article President Obama himself underscored the important role of diplomacy in his approach to U.S. engagement in the world. So let me close by quoting how he characterized his views. Quote, "You know, the notion that diplomacy and technocrats and bureaucrats somehow are helping to keep America safe and secure, most people think, eh, that's nonsense, but it's true. And by the way, it is the element of American power that the rest of the world appreciates unambiguously." End quote.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Ambassador Jeffrey, please?
JAMES F. JEFFREY, Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey
First of all, I'd like to thank the Middle East Policy Council and Rich and Tom for inviting me here today, and all of you for coming.
This is a very, very important issue, but as much of it is built on looking at two countries — Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which I've never served and am not considered an expert — you might say, why is he up here? And the reason is, I think — as introduced by Rich was we're talking about how America should deal with this, and we're looking at it through the focus of President Obama's foreign policy. A, he is the president. B, he has very helpfully, in the Atlantic interview, revealed his most inner thoughts about how America should function in the world. I'll come back to that in a second, but I want to talk about the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and how we need to deal with this, from my perspective, and the extent to which we are or are not dealing with it at present.
As someone who's practiced diplomacy for 35 years, quickly you discover that there are two kinds of international disputes. There are those international disputes between country X and country Y that are all about a set of issues unique to country X and country Y: the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, or Cyprus between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and indirectly — actually directly, for some reasons based upon a whole series of 1960 treaties — between Greece and Turkey. And then there are disputes in the international realm that are of a different nature.
If you believe that there is an international order, a political, legal, quasi-governmental system of behaviors and collective security to support that order in the world, then you have to distinguish a difference when there is an interstate dispute that affects that. It can affect it in various ways. It can be an interstate dispute in order to advance a challenge to the international order. I would say the German challenge to Czechoslovakia over the Sudeten land is a good example of that. It can be a dispute primarily local in nature not all that — not all that different than Pakistan and India but which, by the nature of the actors and the nature of issues involved, rapidly becomes a challenge to the international order.
Those critics of American policy in Vietnam are absolutely right that this started off largely as a dispute about the future of Vietnam between the North Vietnamese government, the winners of the war against the French, and the Republic of South Vietnam, supported by us. But those supporters of the war were also right that very quickly, in the context of the Cold War and how the Cold War had been run in a dozen conflicts and struggles and issues since 1945, it had real impact on how the international order was perceived and how the United States was perceived as supporting that international order.
Likewise the many disputes in the Balkans in the 1990s. They had all of the earmarks of the similar dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, some of the same issues in fact, the same ethnic religious groups. But very quickly the nature of the slaughter, particularly in Bosnia — far greater per capita than we even have in Syria — and the threats to the regional and thus global order emanating from those conflicts led to the conclusion by the Clinton administration that this was a threat to the international order.
That's very relevant to the United States because, for many reasons, the United States, since 1945, arguably since 1940, has been at the center of this global international security, economic, values-driven, rule-of-law order. Therefore, threats to the order require a different response from the United States than the dispute over Northern Ireland ultimately between the Irish and the British, where the United States, with George Mitchell, played a huge role over a decade. But nonetheless, it wasn't one where the questions of the international order are in place.
Now, my point with the set of conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran is that there is an issue of the international order here. But before I get into that, a little bit on what it means and doesn't mean if you have a conflict that is affecting the international order. It doesn't mean that one side is right and one — the other side is wrong. It doesn't mean that all the arguments are on one side and all the arguments are on the other side.
Frankly, the vast majority of Sudeten Germans really were unhappy about being part of Czechoslovakia. It's historic propaganda to think they were good, cuddly people who just wanted to learn to speak Czech. But that doesn't mean that the nature of what that struggle was was not exactly what, looking back, we think it was: an effort by Germany to expand its power as part of a global ambition that was vitally destructive of the international order.
It's the same thing between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both are very flawed countries, from our parochial American Western point of view. Both have a lot of good arguments that can be deployed against the other. The question is, as it has to be in any conflict, is this a Pakistan-versus-India conflict or is it something like Saddam Hussein going into Kuwait, Milosevic trying to dominate the Western Balkans?
My argument is that it is. The reason is that Iran fundamentally is not happy with, does not accept, and is trying, at least in its own neck of the woods, to overthrow the international order. And it does it in two separate ways, which kind of complicates things for us. Henry Kissinger once said that Iran is both a cause and a country and it has to decide which it is. But even if it decides, it's going to be a problem either way — which is a point that, when I went back to Kissinger once and asked him about, he said, right, but even as a country.
What does Iran want in the region? Here's a list of ideas that one Iranian has said: America out of — fully out of Afghanistan and Iraq; cessation of arms sales to countries in the region, by the United States at least; the weakening of Israel, not further defined; and a Gulf regional security, economic, political — I want to say co-prosperity sphere but that would be perhaps biasing my point of view unduly — common arrangement, led by Iran.
Now, the point is, this isn't Ahmadinejad or Qasem Soleimini who said this. This is every American's favorite Iranian liberal — maybe not everybody's favorite Iranian liberal but most of them — Hossein Mousavi, in his book on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, written while he was in exile from Ahmadinejad in Princeton.
That is the problem that the Saudis, that the king of Jordan and many other countries see. They see an Iran heavily involved in the Arab world, heavily involved in countries, with the exception of Bahrain, that do not have overwhelming Shia majorities, so therefore Iran cannot even make a religious argument convincingly. Syria has no Shia majority even if you throw in the Alawites as Shias. Far from it. Lebanon gets close. Iraq, possibly as high as 60 percent Shia, but once again give or take close to half the population is not Shia, and the same thing with Yemen, not to speak of other areas where Iran is on the march.
Secondly, what Iran has done — and I've seen this ad nauseam, literally, in Iraq and I have recognized in other places — is to undercut — undercut the governmental political — I don't want to say Western; I want to say legal structures of countries and states that are even friendly to them. Iraq and Lebanon are good examples. Iran, in every way it can, favors nongovernmental political armed movements beholden to Iran and basically, to one or another degree, at odds with the states in which they are supposed to live and whom they're supposed to give their loyalty and accept a monopoly on force. And Iran is an active ideological player to undercut that in every country that it's involved.
That's a threat to the international order. That has to color how we look at the dispute between Saudi Arabia — which, for all of its flaws, doesn't want to overthrow the regional or the global order, and that includes its spreading of Wahhabi-based Sunni Islam. It does that for internal reasons, not because it sees itself on some kind of Islamic crusade. It's not a good thing. It's a bad thing. But friends do bad things, and enemies do good things.
Finally, one of the problems we have in this administration in dealing with what I think is, from the analytical point of view, clear — although what to do with that is not clear because these are very complicated things. As I said, both sides are basically awash in wrong policies, biases against the other side, and all kinds of other things that reflect also non-global system-threatening situations such as Kashmir, if you've ever dealt with that conflict, or Cyprus, if you've ever dealt with that. Both sides are full of biases towards the other, wrong thinking, and they consistently do the wrong thing. Turkey, one exception, accepted the Annan plan, but in both conflicts that's probably the only exception over whole decades.
So how to deal with these things is hard even if you accept the premises. The problem we have with the Obama administration — and thus we're dealing with that today because we're talking about the interview — or actually it isn't an interview; it's a running summary of Obama's views given to Jeff Goldberg in The Atlantic — is how President Obama's reacted to that, because any president sets boundaries for the next president. So even if we have a different policy with the next president, which I predict we will, that policy will be shaped by what the president did and didn't do.
The problem with my analysis, as bounced against President Obama's views as laid out in the article and as I've experienced them in my work in his administration, is, first of all, while he accepts that there is a global order, he basically sees it as primarily self-perpetuating. He is such a believer in Western values and kind of the Silicon Valley view of the world that he thinks that its appeal is almost irresistible and its dominance in any system, particularly over what he and Secretary Kerry constantly disdain as 19th century values — i.e. Putin's values, Xi's values in the South China Sea — is phenomenal. Thus the system will run by itself. It doesn't need American intervention.
Above all else, it doesn't need American military intervention, which he feels doesn't accomplish anything — he's said this many times — other than whacking terrorists, and will undercut the value of diplomacy. And here I have a few disagreements with both him but perhaps, on the margins, with Rich.
Let's start with the final statement that Rich gave us from Obama. I can assure you from 35 years of diplomatic service that while, if you take polls of populations, Obama's statement that that's what people around the world appreciate most about America is its diplomacy is correct — our soft power, our Hollywood. Behind closed doors, not only among the 90 or a hundred quasi-allied states but even among some of the quasi-hostile states or on-the-fence states, what they really want, the leaders of these countries, is an American engagement including, when necessary, military engagement to maintain that predictable benefit to all: global order. The extent any president — and no one's gone as far as this one — deviates from that, to that extent you're going to have chaos and confusion in the world.
So that brings us back to what do we do about Saudi Arabia and Iran? It sounds like my prescription is you embrace Saudi Arabia and push back against Iran. Not necessarily. In and of itself, the Iran deal was a good thing. That was a great example of diplomacy. That's my kind of diplomacy. It was diplomacy backed up with 35,000 American troops in the Gulf to contain Iran. It was diplomacy backed up with the red line that this one people actually believe, that the United States, including Obama, would act if Iran — it was only about six to eight weeks away — actually made that final dash to a nuclear weapon. It was diplomacy backed up by really tough sanctions that cut Iran's oil exports by over 50 percent. That's my idea of diplomacy. That's the diplomacy that other presidents have practiced since World War II.
Thus we need to continue to engage Iran, but we also need to reassure our allies in the region, beginning with Saudi Arabia, that Iran's effort to pick off one after another of the states that they see in their Arab realm as part of an Iranian effort to establish a hegemonial system will be countered not just with more weapons sales but with active American policies.
Take a look at our reaction to the Iranian missile test. I went back this morning and read the U.N. 2231 Resolution. There's no doubt, while the language is a little bit wishy-washy, that this is a violation of that resolution, which is tied to the JCPOA. Our reaction to it has been weak and not particularly convincing to the people in the region. It's a whole series of steps like that: our reaction to the Russians going into Syria, our reaction to Syria in general and the desultory campaign that's now about to enter year three against somewhere between 15(,000) and 30,000 armed ISIS terrorists who have managed to seize a big chunk of the Levant. These all matter in that region.
So I'll stop there and go to your questions.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Ambassador Jeffrey.
Are there any questions from the floor that are written that the staff could pick up and bring to me? Don't forget to be writing them.
Alireza, would you like to take the mic?
ALIREZA NADER, senior international policy analyst, RAND Corporation
Good afternoon. Thank you very much to the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me to speak about the Iran-Saudi rivalry. I'm going to briefly talk about Iran's views of Saudi Arabia, specifically the Iranian government's views but the public as well, and then I'll make some remarks about U.S. policy toward Iran.
Well, first of all, when we look at Iran, the Iranian government considers Saudi Arabia to be the number-one enemy of Iran — not the United States, not Israel, but Saudi Arabia. And what are the reasons for this? First of all, the Iranian government believes that Saudi Arabia is actively undermining its stability at home; that Saudi Arabia funds and supports anti-Iranian groups fighting against the Iranian government, whether they are the Balochi separatists in southeastern Iran or other Sunni jihadi organizations that are active in Iran, and groups outside of Iran as well.
Also, Iran believes that Saudi Arabia, through its anti-Shia ideology and doctrine, is undermining Iran's interests across the Middle East, that Saudi Arabia is aiming to be the regional hegemon, much like Saudi claims against Iran. In fact, Iranian officials and much of the public in Iran believe that ISIS is a creation of Saudi Arabia, that ISIS's ideology flows from the Wahhabi ideology that really defines the Saudi state and gives it legitimacy.
There are several reasons for the Iranian-Saudi competition. I don't think we can really narrow it down to one factor or the other. First there's the geopolitical competition between the two countries, and we see that today from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq, throughout the Persian Gulf, in Afghanistan and beyond. And this geopolitical rivalry has been around a long time, even before the Iranian Revolution.
Although Iran, under the shah, and Saudi Arabia were both U.S. allies, were in fact the "twin pillars" of stability in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, they saw each other as competitors. The Saudis resented Iran because the shah was very close to the United States at that time. And that geopolitical competition with historic roots has not gone away and it's not going to go anywhere anytime soon.
There is also economic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially given that Saudi Arabia has such a large role in shaping global oil prices. Saudi Arabia's ability to produce and export oil is much greater than Iran's. And as you know, the Saudis have recently taken actions that have really driven down the price of oil and the Iranian government resents this. It believes that this action is aimed at Iran specifically. There are a number of other reasons but I think this is a reasonable conclusion.
The Iranian government believes that Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in creating a sanctions regime against Iran. And now that the nuclear agreement is in effect and is being enforced by Iran, Saudi Arabia is still keeping Iran's oil prices down and damaging the Iranian economy.
There is also the leadership — the issue of leadership of the Muslim world. Both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia claim leadership to the Muslim Middle East. And really, when you look at their ideologies specifically as states, they can make the claim that they represent all Muslims across the world.
And then there's the issue of sect and religion, and I think sectarian conflict between the Shia and Sunni is now one of the driving forces of conflict in the Middle East. And I think more than any of the other factors I just named, this is the most dangerous factor for regional stability and for U.S. interests, because once you have very black-and-white sectarian hatred, it is difficult for the United States to diplomatically and even militarily reduce some of the tensions and armed conflicts in the region.
Now, I've talked about the Iranian government. What does the Iranian population believe? Personally, I've never seen anti-Saudi and anti-Arab sentiment so high in Iran in the past. It's always been there. Iranian chauvinism toward Iran's neighbors has always been there. But as we saw with the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, there was real resentment among the Iranian population toward Saudi Arabia. And by the way, there was evidence to suggest that the Iranian government was not necessarily behind the mob that took action against the Saudi embassy. It has undertaken such action before but there's so much popular anger toward Saudi Arabia that this could have been a natural reaction.
Iranians overall, I would make the argument, resent the Islamic Republic and oppose it in various ways. And one of the trends in Iran is greater nationalism, Iranians who say that they're Iranian first and are not necessarily followers of the Islamic Republic. And due to increased secularization in Iran — meaning that a lot of Iranians don't identify with Islam as the state describes it — there is resentment of the Islamic Republic as an Arab phenomenon. In fact, I've heard a lot of Iranians say that Iran's leadership, they're not really Persian or they're not — yes, they're not really Persian but they're in fact Arab, so they're not real Iranians.
When the nuclear agreement was signed, I think there were opportunities for Iran and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate ties. We didn't have — a lot of the analysts in D.C. and policy experts didn't have the expectation that all of a sudden Saudi Arabia and Iran would be friends but, given the role that rivalry plays in regional conflict, there were opportunities for de-escalation.
When President Hassan Rouhani was elected as Iran's president he gave a speech, a public media conference, and he said one of his primary foreign policy goals was to resolve issues with Saudi Arabia. In fact, he bragged that when he was Iran's national security adviser under President Mohammad Khatami that he signed a security agreement with Saudi Arabia, a relatively minor agreement but he thought this could lead to Iran developing better ties with Saudi Arabia. Also, his government has appointed Admiral Shamkhani, who is Iranian Arab, as a gesture in part toward Iran's Arab neighbors across the Persian Gulf.
Of course, in the past few months we've seen the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran even increase without any hope for a diplomatic solution. So what is Iran's strategy today? I think Iran is actually much more flexible diplomatically than Saudi Arabia. If I would say today who's the intransigent party when it comes to diplomacy and solving regional crises through diplomacy, I would say it's more Saudi Arabia than Iran. In fact, Saudi Arabia wanted to exclude Iran from the Syrian negotiations. But Iranian officials also do not expect Saudi Arabia to engage Iran, and so they're willing to bleed Saudi Arabia across the region.
A while ago I remembered an Iranian academic who's influential in Tehran telling me that Iranian officials believe that Saudi Arabia has created a regional infrastructure against Iran, and Iran must do so against Saudi Arabia. One prime example of this is the conflict in Yemen. Now, the roots of the conflict are not really about Iran and Saudi Arabia, although they haven't proclaimed as an Iranian-Saudi proxy war. In fact, when you look at the Houthi movement and its struggle against the central government in Yemen, that is a primary factor. But over time, the conflict has taken more sectarian dimensions and has become more of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
I would argue that Iran did not want to necessarily establish a permanent foothold in Yemen as the Saudis claim because it's not an area of strategic interest for Iran, unlike Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and much of the rest of the Persian Gulf. But the Saudis fell into a trap in Yemen. They're stuck in a war they're not winning. It is a quagmire and Iran is taking advantage of this by providing limited weapons and supplies and perhaps training to the Houthi rebels fighting the Saudis. And now the Saudis are spending billions of dollars a month in a conflict that is not critical to Iranian ambitions in the region.
There are other examples of Iran offsetting Saudi Arabia, for example Syria, where both sides are expending tremendous resources and, in the case of Iran, lives in, quote/unquote, "winning the conflict." And by the way, Iran is not the only country in the Middle East that supports non-state actors. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and a number of other countries also support various groups by providing funding, training and other support as well.
Finally, I want to say that when it comes to Iran it is not a monolithic country. The ambassador mentioned whether — or asked whether Iran is a cause or a country. Iran is a country. Anybody who's gone to Iran and has interacted with the people knows that this is a dynamic, pretty advanced culture/country. Unfortunately, it has as system of government dominated by people who think Iran should be a cause, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and much of the Revolutionary Guards.
But even within the elite there are groups, including, I would say, the Rouhani government, that are much more interested in pursuing Iran's interests as a nation state rather than an ideological cause. In fact, Rouhani, in his many writings, asked the same question. He said: For Iran to be successful, it must decide whether it's a cause or a country. And he thinks Iran is a country, although he's an elite of the Islamic Republic. So Iran is not monolithic. Its views on the Middle East are not black and white. And I think much of Iran's reaction to its neighbors is also motivated by profound insecurity as a Persian-majority and Shia-majority country in a Middle East that is — in a Middle East that is currently seeing a great rise in Sunni anti-Shia jihadism.
So what should the United States do when it comes to these conflicts? My number-one recommendation to any U.S. policymaker would be not to choose sides when it comes to the Sunni-Shia dispute. That is not in U.S. interests. When it comes to the issue of Iran, no doubt the Islamic Republic is a problematic political system. No doubt it does things that undermine U.S. interests in the region.
But also, Iran is not a country that can be ignored. And I think when it came to the nuclear deal, many of America's Arab partners were not so much worried what kind of a technical agreement would emerge out of the deal but were worried that the United States and Iran were in fact talking to each other, that they were sitting at the same table discussing the nuclear issue and after other policy issues. And it is definitely in the U.S. interest to engage Iran, although it is still a rival state.
Recently I heard a Saudi official say that basically the United States and its allies should put so much pressure against Iran that the Islamic Republic will collapse. There are no indications that the Iranian regime is near collapse. In fact, I would make the argument that with Rouhani's election and with the nuclear agreement, the Iranian regime is more stable than it has been since the 2009 Green Movement protests. So the Islamic Republic is not going to go anywhere anytime soon and pressure alone will not suffice in dealing with this regime.
But I also do believe that Iran has long-term prospects as a country. I don't think that the Islamic Republic is meant to last indefinitely, but Iran has a sophisticated, forward-looking population that wants and demands change. That change will not come under the current system. That change will not come as long as Ayatollah Khomeini is Iran's supreme leader, but sooner or later change will come to Iran. And it is important for the United States to consider Iran as a country that is changing although its political system is very much stuck in time.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you.
FAHAD NAZER, senior political analyst, JTG, Inc.; non-resident fellow, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Well, thank you, Thomas. Thank you for inviting me. I want to thank the Middle East Policy Council for allowing me to be on such a distinguished panel today. It really is an honor.
So given the institution we're in and the lively debate that the Atlantic piece generated both here in the United States and in the Arab world, and specifically Saudi Arabia, I will focus my remarks for the most part on the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations, and hopefully I'll speak about Saudi-Iranian relations towards the end.
Now, the Saudi reaction, as expected, was — the reaction to the Atlantic piece was rather swift and overwhelmingly negative. I think that one of the first and most notable reactions — which happened, incidentally, within 48 hours of the publication of the piece in The Atlantic — was an opinion piece that was written by Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was both ambassador to the United States and to the U.K. for a number of years, but prior to that was the head of the Saudi Intelligence Directorate for about 30 years.
So Prince Turki penned an opinion piece that was, in many ways, scathing, and he addressed it directly to President Obama. He specifically took issue with this notion of Saudi Arabia being included on a list of American allies that were considered free riders, or were referred to as free riders by the president during the course of the interviews.
Prince Turki also went on to take also issue with the notion that Saudi Arabia is somehow fomenting the sectarian strife across the region in countries like Syria, Yemen and Iraq, while at the same time apparently — and again, from the Saudi view, giving Iran a free pass when the U.S., by all indications and for many years, has considered Iran to be the prime supporter of terrorism across the globe.
However, I think in some ways Prince Turki's opinion piece was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There were many other opinion pieces that were published in the Saudi press, in the mainstream Saudi press, and some of these writers basically took the liberty to not just focus on the content or the tone of the piece in The Atlantic but rather took the opportunity to assess the legacy of the Obama administration and the Middle East overall.
So most of the pieces were not very complimentary. A number of people — or a number of writers accused the Obama administration of weakness and of failing to act as the sole remaining superpower in the world. Others referred to the Cairo speech specifically as a grand deception. And some of, I think, the more severe critics even accused the president of adopting Tehran's line in terms of how he sees Saudi Arabia's role in the region.
Now, one can certainly — there was some dismay and perhaps some anger in some of these pieces, but I think one can also sense that — as much as anything else, one could detect disappointment, frankly, I think, coming from Saudis and others across the region. I think that in many ways when President Obama became president, in the eyes of many people specifically in the Arab world, I think they considered him to be the perfect successor to President George W. Bush, who towards the end of his term was seen — was not particularly popular, largely due to the Iraq War.
I think that in the view of some people — not everybody, but I think they were expecting President Obama to be a bit more sympathetic to the challenges of the Arab and Muslim worlds. I think they looked at the fact that, having a Muslim father, having grown up and spent some formative years in Indonesia and having adopted a more cosmopolitan worldview, that he would be more sympathetic to their struggles. And I think if we recall the reception in Cairo to his speech, I think that was a testament to the excitement and the hope that many people held for President Obama and his presidency.
Now, speaking about Saudi Arabia specifically, I think that the Saudi policymakers probably began to view the Obama administration differently right around 2012, which is when the so-called Arab Spring took place. The toppling of President Hosni Mubarak, specifically, in Egypt I think was certainly a troubling event for Saudi Arabia because President Mubarak was not only a long-term supporter and ally but he was one of their more reliable allies for many years. And I think it was — the Arab Spring, I think in many ways, compelled Saudi Arabia and most likely other countries in the region to reassess some of their assumptions about the region and to re-evaluate their relations with their allies, including with the United States.
However, if there is one moment where the change really took place in terms of Saudi Arabia beginning to think that it needed to adopt a different foreign policy posture altogether, it has to be the reversal on Syria, which, you know, seemingly happened overnight, when Bashar al-Assad's troops crossed President Obama's self-imposed red line by using chemical weapons outside of Damascus in the summer of 2013. That decision certainly took a lot of people by surprise. It certainly took people in Saudi Arabia by surprise.
And I think it was at that moment that you begin to probably see the seeds of what eventually some people would characterize or call the Salman doctrine to take shape. And I think at that point Saudi policymakers were compelled to come to the realization that the United States, under President Obama, has indeed adopted a different foreign policy. There's been a fundamental shift in the way that the United States sees its role in the region. It no longer sees itself as the proverbial policeman of the region and that Saudi Arabia going forward will have to adopt a more assertive foreign policy, one that does not shy away from even using military force if need be.
And obviously we see this shift in foreign policy in a rather dramatic fashion in Yemen, as the Saudis are supporting the internationally recognized government of Yemen to push back against the Houthis who, by many indications, are receiving support from Iran. And that campaign is still ongoing. But I think in some ways it is not just — and, incidentally, this coalition that the Saudis are leading is often referred to as an Arab coalition because it does have about 10 other countries supporting Yemen and President Hadi's government. But oddly enough, that's a smaller coalition.
A few months ago, the Saudi's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman held a press conference in Riyadh in which he announced the formation of an even bigger Islamic military coalition against terrorism with as many as 34 different countries from across the Muslim world that will specifically work towards combating terrorism in all of its forms. And while I think the jury is still out as to what this coalition will look like, whether it will ever resemble anything like a formal institution that NATO is, for instance, with its collective security and formal requirements from its members, I think it was — this formation of this coalition was very telling.
And while the crown prince — or deputy crown prince made it clear that this coalition will work in tandem with the wider international community and there will be a lot of cooperation with other countries, one could possibly make the argument that in some ways the Saudis were trying to find an alternative security framework to the international order that we see through the United Nations Security Council, for instance.
And for those who dismiss this argument, I think it's worth going back to 2014 when Saudi Arabia became the only country in the history of the United Nations to refuse its Security Council seat. I think they saw that the international community was not — specifically that body was not living up to its mandate and they were specifically referring to the carnage that was ongoing in Syria. And I think that if one remembers that and keeps that in mind, it really makes sense to see why it is that they're leading this Arab coalition in Yemen. And then they formed this wider coalition against terrorism, including many who are the majority of Muslim-majority countries.
Now, having said all of that, I think it's important to realize and to note that there is more to Saudi-U.S. relations than this perhaps philosophical difference at the top of the political leadership. I think that many — there are — many interests remain between Saudi Arabia and the United States that will help sustain this relationship that has endured for seven decades at this point, even though what people sometimes refer to as the oil-for-security kind of arrangement has changed.
As we all know, the revolution in shale technology has lessened the dependence of the United States on imported oil. At the same time, the Saudis have spent quite a bit of money and training over the years on their own security forces and armed forces and they have become more capable and are clearly taking — playing a leading role even militarily in the region now.
But nevertheless, I mean, the two countries continue to cooperate on many, many different arenas — (coughs) — excuse me — perhaps none more important than the fact that they continue to support each other in the two military campaigns that both are leading. Saudi Arabia has been there from the beginning in terms of supporting the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Syria. And even though they've perhaps held back in terms of the level of participation, I think that we should not underestimate the importance that Saudi Arabia's very public support for the campaign meant.
You know, again, within the first day or so, the first early hours of the campaign, in fact, one of King Salman's own sons flew a mission over ISIS targets in Syria. That should not be underestimated. I think in many ways the participation of Saudi Arabia, given its status in the Muslim world, has debunked this notion that I'm sure many people would have used — many critics of the United States would have used against it by portraying this campaign as some sort of Western crusade. I think the participation — and again, very public participation — of Saudi Arabia debunked that argument from the beginning.
For its part, the United States continues to provide vital logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, and that is no doubt appreciated. And Yemen is at the top of Saudi Arabia's priorities. I'm certain that they would like to bring that conflict to a conclusion and there are indications that perhaps it will — that will happen sooner than later.
And counterterrorism of course is another area where the Saudis and the Americans have cooperated very closely over many years. It's well-documented that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef personally played a role in providing the United States with vital information back in 2010 that prevented what could have been a very serious attack on the U.S. homeland. And he was personally involved in that. The Saudis and the Americans have been working very, very closely certainly since 2004 in terms of cutting the financing of terrorist organizations and individuals. And this continues to this very day.
And while much has been written and said about Saudi Arabia's new foreign policy, I think that some of the economic reforms that are being considered and proposed in Saudi Arabia are equally as important, perhaps even — they have the potential to have even more important long-term ramifications for Saudi Arabia's future.
And in that effort, back in September 2015 when King Salman made his first official visit, by the way anywhere, and he made sure to — and he actually said so at the White House, that he wanted to make sure that his first official visit would be to the United States. But among his delegation was the deputy crown price, who came and spoke in front of U.S. companies and gave them, you know, a piece of what is to come in the future in terms of what his vision is for the economy of — the future economy of Saudi Arabia.
And he made — basically invited them to go to Saudi Arabia and to invest in this — in the economic reforms that are being considered, and saying that we have 12 different sectors that are being opened, that going forward Saudi Arabia will lessen its dependence on oil, that it needs to lessen the size of the public sector and the private sector has to do more of its share and that they clearly want direct foreign investment. And it's my understanding that the U.S. companies kind of got first dibs in that regard. So, like I said, I think these mutual interests will sustain the relationship going forward.
Now, when it comes to Saudi-Iranian relations, I think that one could argue that this is the lowest point they've been in many years. I think that at the heart of this dispute is no doubt what seems to be Iran's almost unconditional support for Bashar al-Assad by most accounts, not just Saudi, but U.S. and observers from the United Nations and other international organizations. The carnage, the destruction that has taken place in Syria, most of which has been done by Bashar al-Assad and his allies, has not been seen since World War II and Iran yet remains to be Bashar al-Assad's strongest and, again, almost unconditional supporter.
As Ambassador Jeffrey said earlier, Iran continues to — as a matter of policy to support militant non-state actors in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Yemen. None of these groups — what's very clear is that they — and I think Hezbollah is a clear example, but the Houthis tried to do the same thing in the sense that they thought that they could physically and violently impose their will on the rest of the country, and that obviously is very destabilizing for the region. There's very little there that — Saudi Arabia does view Iran's meddling in the Arab world to be extremely destructive.
And in terms of the nuclear agreement that was signed last year, I think that officially Saudi Arabia does support it, but they have always had concerns and I think they continue to have concerns that rather than forcing or compelling Iran to modify its behavior, that the agreement will actually embolden it and allow it to continue some of what the Saudis consider to be rather destructive policies, again in terms of supporting militant Shia groups across the region and continuing to support terrorist operations across the region.
So I think I'll leave it there and I'll obviously take questions during the Q&A. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you to all four speakers.
Really, I normally get more questions than this, so if you have more it's not too late. I think I'll combine — I think I'll combine one of my questions with a question from the floor and start with our own chairman, Ambassador Schmierer.
Here's the question from the floor: Has the use of diplomacy made Iran less hostile and destabilizing in the region? If not, what do you do when there is a disconnect between diplomacy and policy? How would you — what evidence do we have of the nuclear agreement with Iran influencing Iran and its behavior in the region in a positive way? Or how long do we have to wait for that? Or what do we do in the interim?
AMB. SCHMIERER: I think that's certainly a very good question. I recall my time in Oman, and of course in my conversations with Omani interlocutors they would tend to emphasize the fact that in Iran there are factions — our speaker spoke to the fact that there are different factions in Iran. And so I think what we need to try to do, but certainly our Omani friends have encouraged us to do, is to find ways to encourage the factions that are actually seeking to change Iran's behavior.
To this point I would say there is no evidence of any fundamental change in behavior, but it is still a bit early. And in fact, one of the concerns I heard when I was in Oman, and generally in the region, recently was the fact that Iran still doesn't really have access to the economic benefits of the nuclear deal because of continuing U.S. banking sanctions.
And so I think anything that can be done to help those in Iran who are seeking to move Iran in the direction of focusing on domestic economic development and closer ties to the region and to the global community, those kinds of steps in themselves I think, will lead to modified and better Iranian behavior. The other elements, obviously, still need to be addressed. If Iran does feel that there's a fundamental anti-Shia attitude on the part of Arab states, that's obviously going to affect its behavior. But I don't think that needs to continue indefinitely if Iran itself begins to take a different approach to the region.
I would just — one thing I would mention is that what we see — I think — Jim, I think you mentioned the launchings of the rockets by the Iranians shortly after the agreement. I think we can expect to see those — the hardliners in Iran always look for a way to demonstrate whenever anything in a more positive direction might take place, like the nuclear deal. The hardliners in Iran will look for ways to very visibly demonstrate and try to provoke reactions against any lessening of tensions. So I think we have to be careful not to overreact to those kinds of provocations.
DR. MATTAIR: Does anyone else want to comment on that?
MR. NADER: Can I just comment really quickly? The nuclear agreement is a nonproliferation agreement. And it has done what it is supposed to do in terms of a nonproliferation agreement. It's not meant to change Iran's behavior. It's not meant to induce political reforms in Iran. It's strictly speaking a nonproliferation agreement. And that's why it's working. Now, you can make the argument that it has produced some dividends on other issues. For example, the United States now has very high-level contacts with the Iranian government. When the Iranian government took the U.S. sailors hostage, Secretary Kerry was able to call Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and get them released. And that's a benefit.
But in terms of Iran's policies changing, I think there are a number of domestic factors in Iran that are going to determine how Iran's overall foreign policy changes in the future. President Rouhani's election was a first step. But even with his election, the framework of Iran's policies hasn't changed. And it's not going to change anytime soon, as long as the system in Iran doesn't change.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, that leads to a whole host of other questions, but before we get there, let's stay with the most general aspects of the Obama doctrine. Basically, and one of our colleagues has raised this. Rich, to what extent does the doctrine, as defined in the article, really cover it all, where Obama cautions against intervention and promotes the virtues of diplomacy? Is there something missing? Has he described it fully? And more specifically, is there more U.S. intervention in the region than he is actually admitting to? Is there more U.S. military activity actually in concert with Saudi Arabia in the region, that really ought to be discussed?
AMB. SCHMIERER: I guess I would say, as I alluded to briefly in my remarks, I think, certainly from my experience recently in the region, our sort of cooperation and coordination on security is — with the countries in the Gulf, the Arab countries in the Gulf, and in particular with Saudi Arabia — is as strong as it has ever been. And I think their capabilities are — the speaker just mentioned — their own capabilities — he mentioned Saudi Arabia but I think it's true more generally in the Gulf — are greater than they have ever been. So in terms of pure kind of security coordination and security capabilities, I think what we have in the region and the capabilities of those in the region are as good, stronger probably, than they've ever been.
The Obama doctrine article really gets more to when are those to be used, and when do we wish to intervene? And it's — well, as you said I the article, it's complicated, because too often, and certainly having been in Iraq with my friend Jim, many of us have seen that actions taken can actually cause more problems than they solve. And so it's a very difficult assessment to figure out when specific actions will actually be more positive than negative. And so even though today one might call for — I think one of our speakers suggested maybe a more confrontational approach to Iran. Obviously many people call for a more aggressive approach with Syria. I can't say that those would not ultimately be positive steps, but they certainly could ultimately be negative steps. And that's, I think, the real trick, and what I think Goldberg was trying to get at in the article.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, Jim, could I ask you to comment on that? But before I do, just a few comments, that we do have a Saudi-American partnership in helping to train and arm opposition forces in Syria, for example. You know, we're thinking about proxy wars, and there we are in a partnership with them, at least in trying to go after ISIS, which we think needs to be done before we can force Assad to make some concessions. And then there's Yemen, where we provide logistical support and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia. And so is that — first of all, can you discuss that? And then, secondly, it seems to me that doesn't seem sufficient to you, and you'd like to take it up a notch. And can you talk about that?
AMB. JEFFREY: Yeah. It's not a question of more apples. It's a question of oranges as well as apples. As Rich said, our military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States has never been better — aside from the fact that we all benefit from that, because how has it manifested? It literally tens and tens of billions of dollars of made in America weapons that we sell to these countries. I'm not criticizing it. I'm just saying it's not something we're doing out of charity.
But the point is, these countries do not think that they're going to be invaded by the Iranian Army. What they believe, with considerable logic, is that they are in the midst of a traditionally weak region with weak governance — and they've contributed to that, but that's another thing — and countries that are failing states or potential failing states, and that Iran has taken advantage of that on a path to try to establish a regional hegemonic position that is inimical to the global order that I talked about earlier in two ways.
One is, it uses non-state actors very, very effectively, in a dozen different countries. It basically rejects, if you will, the Westphalian system. That's an ideological attack on the global order that goes beyond Shia Islam versus Sunni Islam, because Sunni Islam, by and large, has adjusted to the Westphalian order, minus ISIS and al-Qaida. Secondly, it is a classic — we saw it with Saddam, we saw it with Milosevic — effort to try to establish in one's own backyard different rules where you are the top dog and other states are not.
How the United States adapts to that, that gets back to — and realize — I was thinking, I was self-criticizing myself, I probably didn't do a very good job so I'll take another stab, but I don't know if I'll do much better. There was some, in the case of the Emirates and the Saudis, oh, we don't even want to see the United States talking to Iran. But we could have dealt with that. We managed to convince the Europeans in the 1970s it was OK to talk to the Soviet Union about strategic nuclear weapons, not too different than the Iranian case.
We managed to convince our allies in the Pacific it was OK to talk to China, at the same time, in 1972, or even to North Vietnam, because they had no basic question on where our values were towards the single most important question in all international relations since at least 1940, which is: Is there a global order? And if there is, is by far the most powerful country in the world going to, A, recognize that it's such an order and, B, lead the effort to preserve it? Two comments — and this is where this gets so subtle, because I'm going to have a hard time explaining this, but I catch it and I'm pretty sure, because I know these people — not necessarily the Saudis and the Iranians, per se — but the people in the Middle East to some degree, they catch it too because they're very subtle and very smart.
Two President Obama statements, one out of the interview that we didn't mention yet but we should have because it's certainly germane to this thing. Saudis have to learn to share the Middle East with Iran. Secondly — and you'll say, wait, this is the Middle East. Why is he mentioning that? I actually did a piece for the Washington Institute about eight months, and I think I was prescient. And that is, when the president arrived in Cuba he said: The Cold War with Cuba is over. What that tells me, and what it tells our friends in the Middle East who have an existential interest in being able to count on predictable American responses to challenges to the world order, is Obama has just thrown it all overboard.
What he ended in going to Cuba — and in was in favor of it, frankly, because it wasn't working with the sanctions — but it's not like he was the King of Spain going to Cuba in 1898 and announcing: I'm ending the war on the Cuban population, and pulling their troops out, and going home, and letting you live your own lives. We weren't a colonial power trying to oppress Cuba. We were trying to stop Cuba's efforts to turn the rest of the hemisphere into, A, Soviet proxies, as long as the Soviets were there, and, B, after the Soviets went, Cuba's own ersatz communist totalitarian worldview, that was inimical to the peoples of the region and ultimately to the global order.
And he doesn't seem to get that. It's the same thing with Saudi Arabia and Iran. He didn't say: Iran needs to share the Middle East with Saudi Arabia. Who did he say needs to share it? Saudi Arabia — the implication being the Saudis are misinterpreting Iran. Why are they misinterpreting Iran? Two ways. The first ways is — and here the president is right, and if he had changed his language and said people throughout the region have to learn that Sunni Islam and Shia Islam have to share the Middle East — that's something I believe in.
That was one of the points we made when we went into the Balkans. This isn't about supporting the Muslims against the Orthodox. It's not about religion. It's about the global order and the rules of the global order. Milosevic in particularly — and everybody else to a far less degree — were violating it. And we were going to restore that order. We didn't overthrow Milosevic. Ultimately, his people did. We weren't about that. We were about restoring order and overthrowing disorder.
There is disorder in the Middle East today. Some of it, inadvertently, is the fault, frankly, of the Saudis. We've talked about the Wahhabis. Most of it is the fault, not inadvertently but deliberately, of Iran. The Saudis cannot accept that, nor should any country accept having to live with a country that is trying to upset the regional status quo. That's the problem with this doctrine. And that's why this doctrine will be rejected — has been rejected by the peoples of the region. That's why four of the six heads of state did not travel to Camp David after the agreement to talk to the president.
Not because they were opposed to the agreement, several countries were — they kind of understood the agreement. I've heard Saudi after Saudi tell me, look, we know the agreement, we know the technical stuff about it. It's OK. It was the Israelis who had problems with the agreement, per se. What the Saudis and the rest of the Sunni Arab states, and to a certain degree Turkey, have a problem with is that seeming in ability of this administration to recognize that there is a challenge to the status quo coming from Iran. That doesn't mean you stop talking with Iran. In fact, it's kind of an argument to talk more with this. It doesn't mean that you wage war on Iran. It means — because this is a very tricky area. And as Rick said, you can get into trouble.
What it means is basically you accept that fact. Until we accept that fact, and at least show the countries of the region that we are trying to find ways to deal with that, there's no sense of the president going to this GCC conference any more than it made sense for him to summon them all to Camp David. He doesn't seem to get it, in their minds. And as long as that's so, we're going to have a disconnect between our allies in the region and the United States.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes. I mean, sharing the Middle East with Iran, I think means sharing the Arab world with Iran, which is not an Arab country. And they view that as acquiescing in the expansion of Iran.
AMB. JEFFREY: Exactly.
DR. MATTAIR: Through its arm shipments, you know, that have been found in Kuwait, and Bahrain, and Yemen, and all the other activities that are documented.
MR. NADER: Can I add something?
DR. MATTAIR: Sure.
MR. NADER: So the issue, I think, between the United States and Saudi Arabia is not just about Iran, or primarily about Iran. Look, the Arab world is changing. You know, we've seen revolts from Tunisia, to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen. You cannot possibly say Iran is behind all of those. I mean, that's factually incorrect. The fall of Mubarak happened. And you can make the argument that the United States did not pursue the right policy, that it abandoned Mubarak toward the end, but the reality is Mubarak fell and another government succeed it and the Saudis were not happy with the U.S. reaction to what happened in Egypt. And they weren't happy with the U.S. reaction on a number of other issues.
So it's not just about sharing the Middle East. The reality is, the Middle East is fundamentally changing. The old order is collapsing. We no longer have states that have existed for more than a hundred years, whether it's Iraq or Syria. Now, is it in the U.S. interest to try to enforce the old order at all costs? I think that's impossible. You know, how do you make sure that everything happens according to what the Saudis think are their interests? I mean, should the United States send troops to Egypt to maintain the Mubarak regime? So the reality is, the United States does not have the power to enforce its own interests or Saudi interests perfectly in the region, given all that's happening. And it goes really beyond Iran.
Let's say tomorrow there's a major revolt in Saudi Arabia, you know? That is not necessarily going to be due to Iranian actions. Saudi Arabia faces a lot of internal challenges. I'm not saying there's going to be a revolt in Saudi Arabia, but a lot of analysts thing Saudi Arabia's a fundamentally unstable country — not because of Iran, but due to demographics, the changing economic system, the political system in Saudi Arabia. So I think we have to look at those factors as well, and not just focus on what the U.S. is doing toward Iran or the Saudi-Iran relationship. It's much broader than that.
MR. NAZER: Thomas, if I could?
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah, but can I say something first?
MR. NAZER: Yeah, please.
DR. MATTAIR: But I do want to hear from you. But, Alireza, when I was in graduate school in 1979 there were a lot of people that thought the House of Saud was going to fall pretty soon. And it hasn't. I mean, there are some elements there of stability. And you said you don't think the regime in Iran is going to fall soon, and you're probably right about that too. So we're dealing with two systems that are — two domestic systems that are probably going to survive for a while. And you know, what I wanted to ask you, and maybe — well, say whatever you wanted to say — but Jim was talking about the need to assure Saudi Arabia that Iran cannot pick off one Arab state after another. So could you comment on what they'd like to see there from us?
MR. NAZER: Sure. I mean, one of the aspects of the U.S.-GCC summit that took place last year, that I think was missed, was the two statements that were issued. One was a shorter statement, but there was a longer, more detailed annex that was obviously a joint statement that was issued. And I really recommend that to people in this room and people who are interested in Middle Eastern politics, or especially in U.S.-GCC relations, to take a close look at that document. Because not only did the United States reiterate its commitment to the security of the GCC countries, but the document contained a number of areas in which the GCC and the United States promised to work closely — more closely together.
So security cooperation was obviously a big one, but there was a clause or a paragraph about ballistic missile defense. And there is indications that the U.S. and the GCC is working closely towards that. Obviously there's a lot of training. What I didn't mention, I think, during my comments is that obviously Saudi Arabia continues to prefer U.S. weapons and training. This has been the case for decades. And that is very unlikely to change. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. essentially signed one of the biggest arms sales in history, back in — in the history of the United States — back in 2010.
Since that GCC-U.S. summit, which was less than a year ago, the Obama administration has essentially fast tracked and okayed over $30 billion worth of arms transfers to the GCC. So I think there's — that document really emphasizes the wide common ground that continues between the United States and the GCC, including when it comes to some of the conflicts in the region. When it comes to Syria, for instance. I think if you listen to an interview that Secretary Kerry gave to Al Arabiya just a couple of days ago, he was fairly unequivocal in saying that he cannot foresee a scenario where Bashar al-Assad continues in the future of Syria.
That this is a man who is primarily responsible for the deaths of 300,000 people, at least, and millions of others have been displaced either internally or have become refugees abroad. Entire cities have been reduced to rubble. And, not to mention, that Syria is a — or Raqqa is a so-called capital of ISIS. I've argued years ago at this point that in fact even before anyone had heard of ISIS, back in January 2012, that unless the international community paid closer attention to what was going on in Syria, that Syria had a greater potential to become essentially another Afghanistan, a haven for foreign extremist fighters than Afghanistan ever was back in the 1980s.
This was its location, due to the fact that it has a longer Islamic history, and, you know, essentially Assad made it very easy for them to construct the jihadi narrative that, unfortunately, has resonated with people — with militants around the world. When people who have been — you know, who have joined the fight against Syria, Saudis and others, have been caught and have gone back and have been interviewed about why they went, or what was it that compelled them to join ISIS, they don't get into any kind of religious doctrines.
In fact, most of them — or many of them say: We were not particularly religiously observant. This had nothing to do, or very little to do, with, you know, 17th-century texts by Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab or others. They specifically cite Syria. It's what they've been exposed to in the media. This Syria conflict has dominated the Arab news cycle for the past five years. It's what most people who have gone and who have been caught, and in their statements prior to conducting suicide missions, it's Syria, it's more politics than anything else.
The Saudis, and I think rightly so, say that as long as Bashar al-Assad continues in Syria, we will continue to — or ISIS will continue to thrive. And I think this is an area where the — obviously the U.S. and Saudi Arabia agree on. Now, how do you move forward? That obviously — the details need to be worked out. But what's promising, I think, is that neither of them see a future for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
DR. MATTAIR: I'd like to ask you about a fact here. How long did it take Saudi Arabia to get involved in Syria, after the March 2011? Were they immediately there trying to influence events, or did it take them a while to evaluate and assess and decided they needed to do something?
MR. NAZER: No, it did take them — it took them months. And in fact, the — back then the king at the time, King Abdullah, issued several statements essentially imploring Assad and his regime to meet the protestors halfway and to bring the violence to an end. Again, in my view, I think Saudi Arabia does view this conflict as the epicenter of the tumult in the region. It's where the sectarianism has spread to the rest of the region. And again, they see it as the place where ISIS has thrived and metastasized into this cancer that we've all seen. So they, I think, going forward — and while they certainly, I think, are very concerned, and Yemen is one of their priorities.
I think for the long term future of the region, I think they see Syria as a pivotal conflict that could potentially shape the future political trajectory of the entire region. So I think they continue to be committed. They want that crisis to come to an end. But they want Assad out. I think that's very clear. And frankly, I've been very struck by how unequivocal the foreign minister, Adel Jubeir, has been whenever he's been interviewed about the future of Bashar al-Assad. And he said: Make no mistake, he is going. Whether he goes peacefully or not, he's not going to be there. He's gone. Which I always find to be, you know, fairly interesting.
DR. MATTAIR: Comments here?
Well, all right. Here's a question I had at the beginning. We will come back to something general. But actually, Alireza, you were talking about recent events, and Arab Spring, and a changing Middle East, and how Iran is not wholly responsible for these — for instigating all these changes. But let's go back in time, and try to evaluate what Obama said about proxy wars. Obama said: You have a Saudi-Iranian competition fueling proxy wars. But how did that competition start? Now, you spoke about relations between Iran under the shah and Saudi Arabia, and said there was some tension and some rivalry there. But it's qualitatively different after the revolution. And let's talk about that.
MR. NADER: So, yeah, it did start with the Iranian revolution, because Iran's policy did become more ideological. And Iran did try to subvert the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia. That's all true. And Iran's foreign policy until today has been ideological in nature. But the point I'm making is that let's say tomorrow a pro-Iranian government takes — a pro-American government takes power in Iran. You will still have a lot of the problems you have in the Middle East. ISIS will still be around. Sunni jihadism will be around. Iraq and Syria will be unstable. Saudi Arabia's going to face its own internal challenges.
So while Iran does pursue policies that are antagonistic toward the United States and its allies, again, it goes way beyond Iran and its capabilities. I think there's a tendency to make out Iran to be this 10-foot giant, and it's not. And in a lot of ways, it's a very dysfunctional country too, and it has a very dysfunctional government. But it's able to take advantage of a relatively weak Arab world. And it does so by supporting non-state actors very effectively, whether it's in Syria and Iraq, and the Saudis are not able to compete with Iran in that realm. That's basically it.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
MR. NAZER: So some of the statements that Saudi officials have given to the Western media as to the current state of affairs between Saudi Arabia and Iran are very telling. And I think — I mean, I agree with Mr. Nader. I mean, it all begins with the Iranian revolution. And the severing of diplomatic relations, which was obviously triggered by the storming of the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad, was the last straw. But if you listen to Saudi officials, they say that this — Iran has had this policy of exporting its ideology and its revolution for some 40 years. This has not ended. We were hopeful that that would be the case. And the expression that I heard, I want to say it's the foreign minister, again, who said: We have extended an olive branch to Iran for many, many years. But instead we got nothing but support for militant Shia groups across the region.
And frankly, I mean, Iran is one of the few countries or regimes around the world that has been implicated in the attempts to assassinate, and actual successful attempts to assassinate, diplomats around the region, including Saudi diplomats. We all know about the plot to assassinate the current foreign minister, who was at that time the ambassador to the United States, and then to allow the storming of the embassy to take place. Again, this, I think, Saudi Arabia was in the majority where other countries said that Iran, just like every other country, has a responsibility to protect diplomatic missions. This attack could not have happened without Iran's either looking the other way, at least, or approval. Iran's security services are by no means weak. By all accounts, the security services are rather strong. And for such an attack to happen with the — and to go on and to be filmed, again, was certainly unacceptable, in the views of the Saudis.
So, like I said during my remarks, I mean, relations are arguably the worst they've been in many years. But that doesn't mean that there's — I mean, the Saudis have never once publicly said that we expect the Iranian regime to be toppled. There's certainly no evidence that they ever tried to actively topple the regime. I think they've come to terms that the regime will probably — is there for the foreseeable future. But I think this notion that the execution of the 47 people or so, all of whom were convicted of terrorism-related charges — that the execution of the four Shia militants was somehow a provocation of Iran, was obviously seen as a puzzling framing in Saudi Arabia.
And, like I said, I mean, the fact that the regime and the Iranian government allowed the diplomatic missions to be stormed in the way that they were, and that — again, from the Saudi view — that Iran allowed — was playing politics, yet again, with what was essentially an internal issue, from the Saudi perspective. And again, coming on the heels of a rather public rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the stamped at the last Hajj. Again, I think from the Saudi perspective, Iran also took what was a very tragic event to play politics and to — rather than to offer help to — in terms of identifying the victims.
Iran decided to take the opportunity to call for a transnational Muslim body of some sort to take over, to administer the Hajj, which is obviously a non-starter, and insulting to the Saudi government, which has spent billions of dollars trying to make the Hajj as safe as possible over the years. However, I mean, just the logistics of that, and the mere fact that there is, you know, some 2 million people who participate in the Hajj over the course of several days, moving back and forth, such tragedies are very hard to prevent.
So in the Saudi view, Iran has a long track record of fermenting, you know, sectarian violence and political violence. And again, some of the accounts in the Saudi media in terms of some of the terrorism or terrorist cells that have been busted, there's indication in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia, that some of the explosives might have — are consistent with some of the weapons that the IRGC has been tied to in the past as well.
AMB. JEFFREY: Tom?
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
AMB. JEFFREY: Very quickly, to sum up, because I think we got a good example of this. At the beginning I talked about two kinds of state-state conflicts, and then immediately ignored the first one and went onto the second, which is state-state conflicts that either generate or masquerade threats to the global order. The point is, to go back to the first kind, these are real problems. One of them, the Pakistan-Indian one that I cited, could lead to a nuclear conflict — the most likely nuclear conflict probably on the face of the Earth right now. So it's something to take very seriously. In my many years, five tours either in Turkey or as a Greek desk officer, dealing with the Greek-Turkish dispute, until more pressing things came to occupy the minds of their leaders and their populations, there was tremendous enmity on both sides, and they couldn't see anything good on the other side.
You take away this global status quo challenge aspect to the Saudi-Iranian dispute, you will have, as we've heard, going back even to the Shah, you will have rivalries, you will have disputes. Just like even today at a certain nonmilitary level you have disputes between France and Germany. That's almost normal. Take a look at domestic problems. There are many really bad domestic situations in our lives that we know of that it's one of these he said, she said kind of things. And the way you deal with it normally is to try to get people to move beyond it and not try to apportion blame and that kind of thing. It usually doesn't work. But it gets very different when one of the two sides in one of these disputes suddenly starts using violence against the other, expropriates the other's property, or other things. Then you have challenges to laws.
And then it isn't a question of both side are at fault, both sides need to, you know, pull up their socks and start talking together — essentially what Obama was saying with their sharing the Middle East. Then you have to deal with the challenges of violations to the order — using violence, taking away other people's possessions and such. You don't treat people equally. That's the difference in these two kinds of disputes. We're always going to have Saudi Arabia and Iran vying for influence in the Middle East. That's perhaps not healthy, but it's inevitable. What we have today is not healthy or inevitable. It's produced 300,000 dead people in Syria, at least, and potential for many more around the region.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, in the time we have left, maybe we could engage in prescription and prediction. What would you like to see the United States do in the final year of Obama's administration to elicit some positive change from Iran through diplomacy, for example, in Geneva or, you know, what takes place in Kuwait over Yemen? What would you like to see us do there? And should we be complementing that with some additional robust measures to change the situation on the ground? And then prediction, because a question from the floor was: Does the Obama doctrine represent the entirety of U.S. policy? Or are there disagreements in the Congress, the Defense Department, the CIA, the armed services?
Well, the answer to that is yes, of course, there certainly are. In fact, there are disagreements, you know, in the White House. So someone new will be elected. And they bring into office people who view the Middle East differently. So what would you like to see us do in the final year, and do you expect changes in policy when a new administration comes into office, and what do you expect them to be? Anybody?
MR. NADER: Well, I think the most important aspect of U.S. policy toward Iran will be maintaining and enforcing the nuclear agreement. I think that is essential. And that is the best the United States can expect from the Iranian government in the next year. I don't think there's going to be normalization of ties. I've had people suggest to me that perhaps the United States should explore opening an intersection or an embassy in Tehran. I don't think that's going to happen.
Again, Iran has to fundamentally change its political system, has to fundamentally change for U.S.-Iran relations to change. But the nuclear agreement thus far has been effective. Iran did have the missile tests, which are a violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions, but not the nuclear agreement, per se. And so what the United States has done so far I think has been effective. However, if sanctions relief is effected in a negative manner, if Iran does not see major economic benefit through the nuclear agreement, if Congress passes new sanctions, that puts the nuclear agreement in danger.
Now, in terms of the next U.S. president, you know, we know that several candidates have threatened to, quote/unquote, "rip up" the nuclear agreement. I think that would be terrible for U.S. interests, because the agreement is essential in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. And I would hope that the next U.S. president does not undermine the nuclear accord with Iran. Like I said, there is potential for change in Iran. It's not guaranteed — positive change.
It's not guaranteed, but I think we also have to be aware that there's so much the United States can do to drive change in Iran, or anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter. I think the Obama administration gets blamed for a lot of things in the Middle East that are a matter of history and society and religion, things that the United States, or really any country, can't shape. So for now the U.S. should stick with the nuclear agreement. And that's, I think, the best we can hope for.
On the issue of Syria, I think Iran is going to expend a lot of resources in defending the Bashar Assad regime, although I would disagree that Iran's support for Assad is unconditional. Iran's foreign policies and support for these groups always have conditions. And I would venture to guess that if Iran thinks that its interests in Syria could be protected, and it doesn't matter if Assad is in power as long as there's a pro-Iranian regime in power in Damascus. Does this provide an opportunity for resolving the crisis in Syria? Maybe. I'm skeptical it'll happen. But again, I don't think Iran's policy in Syria is as unconditional and flexible and we would imagine it to be.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. Yes.
AMB. JEFFREY: Four things that this administration should do, and perhaps could do. First of all, shut up. (Laughter.) The Atlantic thing is going to go down in history, totally apart from what was in it, by the foolishness of a sitting president who then has to go off and deal with the people he spent hours castigating. We need to stop talking about things and not analyzing how diplomacy is this, that, and the other thing. I will spare the audience my views of diplomacy as a deus ex machina. It's neither that. It's nothing more than good, essentially, international lawyer skills to shape basic policies and employ the real hard power that you have — be it economic, be it military, be it in some cases ideological. And with the United States there is an ideological element to that.
Secondly, we have to maintain a serious posture for real change in Syria. That almost certainly means Assad has to go, and we certainly have to keep that open, and we have to actually put bones — put meat on the bones of Secretary Kerry's threats for a plan B. This means more support for the opposition, if the ceasefire doesn't hold. And it means making it clear to the Iranians and the Russians that, frankly, we can outspend them in Syria if we have to, on something that's really important to the region. We're putting hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars into our force structure and everything else. And with a small portion of that, we could get a lot of weapons to a lot of people, who could make a lot of problems for that government. That isn't the preferred solution. The preferred solution is negotiation. But these negotiations are not going to be happy if there isn't an alternative to simply an Assad victory.
Third, we need to get serious about defeating ISIS. The Obama administration's moving closer to that, but not fast enough. And it is hampered by all kinds of almost Obama-esque concerns about using military force. Even short of major ground teams, advisory teams in the front, artillery, attack helicopters — all the things that the Russians use so effectively, with one-tenth the power we have in the region in Syria, and we're still not doing. The reason for this is twofold. First of all, ISIS is the gift that keeps on giving for instability in the region, and it generates all kinds of rationales and reasons for things like the Russians to come in, various Arab states to take questionable actions, Turkey to get in a fight with us over the Kurdish Syrians — it goes on and on. We need to get rid of it. Secondly, at the core of any global or regional security system is the willingness to use force. There are grave questions about that directed at the Obama administration for very legitimate reasons. Legitimate or not, however, they're out there. And as long as we continue to dither on ISIS, we're going to have problems.
Finally, the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, all in all isn't a bad agreement. We simply have to make it clear that we will enforce its terms in the ballistic missiles — I'm sorry, it's in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 in Annex B. those are part of it. We have to take these things seriously. The more seriously this administration takes it, the harder it will be for someone to try to reverse this in the next administration. You do those four things, and you'll start getting better relations with your Gulf allies and everybody else in the region. What will happen? I don't think President Obama's going to do much of my laundry list. He may shut up and he may — I think after The Atlantic thing — and he may be harder on ISIS. We'll see. I do think the next administration almost certainly will do something like that, though.
AMB. SCHMIERER: If we're sort of advising and predicting, I would sort of reiterate what I said earlier, that I think we need to cautiously try to enable the positive change in Iran by looking at things like, you know, the banking sanctions or the engagement of U.S. companies in Iran, such that those in Iran who want to change and want the country to focus more on its economic problems, have the tools to do so and potentially could cause that change to be a more positive change in the region. I certainly agree with Jim. I think reassuring our Arab allies along the lines that you've described is overdue, given where we are. So maybe that will happen in the coming weeks out in the region.
And then, third, I would just say look for and support whatever positive developments there are. One that I would cite that I was pleased to see when I was recently in Riyadh in meeting with a senior Saudi official at the foreign ministry, he mentioned that the Iraqi foreign minister had just been there. And you recall our time in Iraq, how — the efforts we made to try to get the Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, to support the emerging Iraq. In this case, I happened to mention that history to my interlocutor and he said, no, we are completely supportive of working with Iraq. Obviously we're on the same page in terms of fighting ISIS and trying to help stabilize the region.
So when those kinds of positive developments are sort of nascent, to encourage those kinds of things. And there are such things. I mean, I think some of the things happening against ISIL, ISIS, are also things that can be expanded and encouraged. So that's the kind of advice that I would give.
MR. NAZER: Yeah, sure. I mean, I mostly agree with Ambassador Jeffrey's emphasis on Syria, and trying to resolve that crisis. But obviously, given what the Obama doctrine is, and how little time the president has in office, obviously that's very unlikely to — it's very unlikely that the dispute or the crisis will come to an end. But as I said earlier, I think that the violence in Syria is at the epicenter of the chaos that we see in the Middle East. It's where we — it's where ISIS was essentially born and has thrived. The fact that you have so many different international players in there is obviously not good, and has made it a very complicated crisis and conflict. But I think as long as it's ranging and as long as people continue to die on a daily basis, unfortunately I think the chaos will continue in the Middle East.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, thank you. We've run out of time. I thank all the panelists for a stimulating discussion. As I said, we will have this on our website by tomorrow, so you can either read the transcript or watch the video. And it will be in the journal. It will be in the summer issue — summer issue of our journal. So thank you very much. (Applause.)
Former U.S. Ambassador to Oman
Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey
Senior International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation
Senior Political Analyst, JTG, Inc.
Non-Resident Fellow, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 84th Capitol Hill Conference on Tuesday, April 12. “The Saudi-Iranian Rivalry and the Obama Doctrine” explored competition between these two regional powers through the lens of journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent essay in The Atlantic titled “The Obama Doctrine.” In this essay, based upon a series of interviews with President Obama discussing his foreign policy worldview, Goldberg recounted the president’s view that Saudi Arabia and Iran should find “an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” This view — coupled with further statements around Saudi Arabia being a “free rider” on the U.S. military presence in the region — alarmed many U.S. Gulf allies and prompted a series of public responses.
The four-person panel was selected with an eye towards examining the reaction to this article in both Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as assessing what it means for U.S. policy in the region for the rest of Obama’s term and in the next U.S. presidential administration. Richard Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) provided his perspective, having been U.S. ambassador to Oman during the beginnings of negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. James Jeffrey (former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey) shared his view on the global importance of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Alireza Nader (Senior International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation) assessed the Iranian government and public’s view towards Saudi Arabia while Fahad Nazer (Senior Political Analyst, JTG, Inc.) presented the Saudi view of Obama’s legacy in the region. The event — moderated by Thomas Mattair of the Middle East Policy Council — can be viewed in its entirety here.
A former diplomat, Richard Schmierer opened the panel by outlining how, in practice, the U.S. employs diplomacy to balance support for or opposition to the policies allies may pursue in order to advance core U.S. national interests. In his view, the Atlantic article is about U.S. interests and how to best pursue them. Middle East allies may pursue policies that the U.S. disagrees with — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being a prime example — and the U.S. may pressure allies to change behavior, particularly if these policies are viewed as conflicting with U.S. national interests. But diplomatic prodding is quite different from abandonment: in Schmierer’s view, the proof of the relationship is in the deeper economic or security arrangements that the U.S. pursues with different allies. On this front, cooperation has deepened between the U.S. and Israel and between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf allies, something that matters more than public critiques of their policies.
Also a former diplomat, James Jeffrey analyzed the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran through the lens of similar conflicts historically. At root, Jeffrey believes that Iran is pursuing a change to the international order, preferring to operate via strategic proxies and non-government actors as opposed to within an international order, recently dominated by the United States. He gave various examples — from Syria to Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen — where Iran was acting through these proxies to gain influence, often in places where a significant Shiite population does not exist. Iran’s desire to act outside of an international order organized around states conflicts with what Jeffrey sees as Obama’s overly optimistic view of a “self-perpetuating” global order with American (Western) values at its center. While Obama feels that this order will “run by itself” with limited U.S. intervention, Jeffrey explained that many U.S. allies feel just the opposite privately. Specifically, they often crave more U.S. engagement, including militarily, so more predictable benefits will accrue to actors like Saudi Arabia who operate with greater adherence to the international order than countries like Iran.
Alireza Nader reported on how Saudi-Iranian relations were at a new low, and that anti-Arab sentiment appears to be increasing within the Iranian population. Iran believes that Saudi Arabia is actively undermining stability at home, funding anti-Iranian groups. And while he believes that Iran is more “diplomatically flexible” than Saudi Arabia, he does not expect relations to improve due to a regional infrastructure favoring the Saudis that Iran must respond to strategically in ways that weaken Saudi Arabia through over-extension (e.g. the conflict in Yemen). And while the Iranian regime will continue to be fundamentally insecure as a Persian country in an Arab neighborhood, Nader does not see Iran at the root of the region’s troubles. The broader region is undergoing tremendous change and Nader argued that the Iranian regime is relatively stable and consistent. Until the regime in Tehran changes, he does not believe competition with Saudi Arabia and efforts to influence the region will subside in a meaningful way.
Fahad Nazer explained the swift reaction to the Atlantic piece, particularly around the charge that U.S. allies are in some way “free riding.” Nazer suggested that the Saudi view is that Obama’s legacy in the Middle East will not be a positive one, beginning with Obama’s abandonment of Mubarak in 2011. Yet at the same time, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia remain generally aligned around core issues in the region. Saudi Arabia has taken an active role in funding the U.S.-supported opposition in Syria and deepening anti-terror cooperation with the U.S., including taking an active role in the fight against ISIS, an underappreciated element in validating the effort as more than another Western-led military intrusion. They are already taking a more active, solo approach to the region, with their involvement in Yemen being the most vivid example. With regards to the Iranian rivalry, Nazer expressed the Saudi concern that the recent Iranian nuclear agreement will embolden Iran, particularly with regards to their continued support for Assad in Syria, one of the most clear-cut differences between the two countries.
The full video from the event is already available on the Middle East Policy Council website. An edited video by speaker, including 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.