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