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The following is a transcript of the eighty-fourth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2016, with Thomas R. Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council, moderating. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
Thomas R. Mattair, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Obama Doctrine seems to emphasize restraint in the use of U.S. military force unless the United States is directly threatened. It also emphasizes the importance of diplomacy — for example, in reaching the agreement on limits to Iran's nuclear programs. The question that will be examined today is whether that's appropriate and sufficient in the Middle East or whether it may involve some misreading of the nature of the threats that we face in the Middle East, threats to our partners in the region, to Europe, to the whole international order.
The Obama Doctrine also cautions against U.S. involvement in what it calls proxy wars fueled by Saudi-Iranian competition in the Middle East, as, for example, in Yemen and Syria. The question arises whether that is grounded in a fair assessment of the geopolitical, ethnic, sectarian and ideological reasons for the competition. The doctrine and the policies flowing from it may or may not have caused meaningful debate in Iran about engaging with neighbors and with the United States and possibly moderating their policies in the region. But another question is, how much scope do reformists have in Iran to do what they'd like to do, given the power of the leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards?
Certainly the doctrine and its policies have aroused deep concerns among our traditional partners and allies in the region — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the other GCC countries — who fear that it means the United States is acquiescing in ongoing Iranian expansion in the Arab world. So the idea of sharing the Middle East concerns them. Secretary Kerry heard these concerns last week at a GCC meeting in Bahrain. President Obama will likely hear these concerns when he attends the GCC summit in Saudi Arabia in two weeks.
RICHARD SCHMIERER, Former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Tom and I were traveling in the Gulf when the Atlantic article appeared, and it certainly won't surprise you if I say that it provoked quite a response there, in particular with our interlocutors in Riyadh. It also triggered an avalanche of commentary in opinion circles both in the region and in the United States.
In my remarks today on the Obama Doctrine, as that doctrine is presented in this month's Atlantic article, I will be drawing on my experience as a diplomat, as Tom mentioned, both in Europe and in the Middle East. I will devote the bulk of my remarks today to the issue of diplomacy, which I think is a key issue brought out in the article. But before doing so, I would like to address a few of the elements of the article that specifically are relevant to today's discussion: the Obama Doctrine as it relates to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The article doesn't actually say a great deal about Iran, but it does say a lot about Saudi Arabia. And having served as a U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia for six years, I believe that some of what it said has been misunderstood. For example, some have suggested that the article refers to the kingdom as a "free rider." In fact, I don't think President Obama or anyone else in Washington circles thinks of Saudi Arabia as a free rider; in the article, the term is actually used in connection with defense spending by the UK and the efforts to confront Muammar Gadhafi during the Libyan uprising. In both cases, U.S. efforts to ensure appropriate contributions by our allies succeeded, and as a result there were no free riders.
I can assure you from my time as a diplomat that we had, for a long time, ongoing free-rider discussions with our European allies. In contrast, I'm confident that there is a longstanding appreciation among U.S. officials for the contributions our Gulf partners — Saudi Arabia foremost among them — have made to regional security, regional economic development and global energy stability, among other things.
Some of the responses to the article took issue with specific factual claims or implications. An item in Bloomberg, for example, took exception to the idea that young people in Asia are unique in their focus on creative and entrepreneurial activity. It cited precisely such efforts, witnessed firsthand by the author, that are also being undertaken by young Saudi men and women. The point is taken. There are certainly aspects of the article that are open to different interpretations, and I'm sure that that will be one of the elements of our discussion today.
The second issue I would like to briefly address are the recurrent theme in the commentary on the Atlantic article that Obama's views suggest he believes in what is called a foreign policy of realism — that he applies a cold-hearted calculation of vital U.S. foreign-policy interests and then acts only when such interests are threatened. The criticisms I've seen indicate that he doesn't always take that approach, and by not doing so he has had several foreign-policy failures.
Among the foreign-policy failures that have been cited are the surge in Afghanistan, the effort to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the response to the Arab Spring, and Ukraine policy. In all of these cases, however, the criticisms amount to the proposition that these were all lost causes with no vital U.S. interest and thus a truly realist president would have not have involved the United States. Now, it may be argued that critical U.S. interests were not on the line in these cases, but each one involved either prior significant American investment, such as Afghanistan, or spoke to who Americans are as a people, our fundamental values and the role that we play as the world's most powerful nation.
It appears to have been those considerations, rather than a dispassionate realist calculation of vital U.S. interests, that tipped the scale towards U.S. action. Walking away from Afghanistan, declining to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, failing to support Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square or Ukrainian protesters in the Maidan, standing by as tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Libyans were massacred in Benghazi — these were not courses of action I believe even a realist U.S. president could take.
While these are the kinds of considerations permeating the commentary that has appeared in response to the Atlantic article, I would like to take the conversation in a bit of a different direction. To me, the crux of the Atlantic piece lies in its fundamental message about U.S. foreign-policy interests and how we should pursue them. In my view, the article really speaks to the president's attitude towards diplomatic engagement.
In fact, Atlantic editor James Bennet makes just this point in his editorial about the article: "Threaded through this article, as through this president, is a basic question: Is the patient and at times even humble pursuit of diplomacy a better bulwark of American credibility than the spectacular deployment of forces?" As I read it, the Atlantic piece describes the president's thinking as it relates to both allies and antagonists abroad, as well as to regions of the world, and draws on that thinking to raise important questions about how we use our engagement with these countries and regions to protect Americans and enhance their well-being — that is, to pursue American interests.
The article notes Obama's views of certain actions and policies of various countries and their leaders and points out areas in which he believes some changes in these actions and policies would be to the benefit of Americans. As someone who has engaged on many of these issues, I can attest to the fact that U.S. diplomats have long been seeking to convince both friends and antagonists to change behaviors in cases where we see them as detrimental to U.S. interests. But while doing so, we have continued to pursue policies that maintain basic U.S. strategic interests and those of our allies.
It is important here to understand the role of diplomacy as it functions in tandem with policy. That is, any country, including the United States, follows policies that protect its interests while at the same time pursuing diplomacy that seeks to further advance those interests. The policies are based on long-term fundamental partnerships, on the one hand, and ongoing, often long-term antagonisms, on the other. Diplomacy comes into play in both kinds of relationships, or at least it should. The role of diplomatic engagement is to try to get other countries, both partners and antagonists, to adopt behaviors and follow policies that promote U.S. interests and those of our allies.
It is instructive to look at some of the diplomatic issues raised in the Atlantic article concerning certain countries and regions and consider the U.S. policies that are in place in connection with those countries and regions. For example, while in the article President Obama is critical of Europe as a whole for its underfunding of defense, this has not prevented him from maintaining policies that have continued the decades-long U.S. approach of supporting a strong NATO and continuing to provide a security umbrella to the NATO countries.
Just as the president might like to see our NATO allies raise their defense expenditures, he might also like to see changes in the approach European countries take to integrating their Muslim populations, or in the approach many of these countries take towards issues of privacy protection, and intelligence and law enforcement cooperation. Changes in their approach in these areas would potentially lower the security threat to America and Americans; they would be in the American interest. Thus, while you can be sure that U.S. diplomats are engaging their European counterparts on these issues, the U.S. interest in encouraging such changes in European policies has not prevented the president from increasing U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement cooperation with European countries.
The same holds true in the Middle East. President Obama may feel that certain policies being pursued by Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel are not the best policies for the interests of the United States, and his diplomatic efforts have sought to get the prime minister to change these policies. But that has not stopped him from providing the greatest amount of U.S. security assistance to Israel of any president in American history. Again, the fundamental U.S. interest — a strong and secure Israel as a strategic U.S. ally in the region — continues to be the aim of the policies he has in place, even as he and American diplomats engage with Israel in ways that seek to convince the Israeli government to pursue policies he believes are more in the interest of the United States.
Likewise, in the Arab world. President Obama might wish to see the governments of Sunni-majority Arab countries make a greater effort to improve relations with their Shia minorities and with the Shia Arab world as a whole. Similarly, he might want them to take more steps to empower women in their societies. He might like to see them increase their efforts to expand civil society. And he might like to see a different approach in the educational support they provide to Islamic communities in other regions of the world. And in support of these views, he would use diplomacy to seek to influence these various countries' actions and policies in these areas. He would do so because he believes that adjustments in these policies are in the interest of the United States, since such differences in approach could be expected to reduce regional tension and conflict and improve regional stability and economic performance, all of which would be in America's interest.
But even while Obama might choose to use diplomatic engagement with these allies to encourage such changes, he has continued and, indeed, enhanced U.S. security cooperation with them. The U.S. Fifth Fleet still patrols the Gulf from its base in Bahrain. The United States still has other significant military assets located in the region. And we still conduct regular exercises with the militaries of our partners in the Gulf, in particular, to demonstrate an ability to keep the vital Strait of Hormuz open. And we still sell advanced military equipment to these allies and have, under Obama, enhanced such security cooperation through the launching of a strategic security dialogue with the countries of the GCC.
Similarly, while the president has sought to use diplomacy to try to change behaviors in countries that are either adversaries or — at the least — antagonists or competitors, he has continued policies that maintain the U.S. commitment to countering negative actions by such countries. Thus, while, as he said in the Atlantic interview, "We have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful rising China," he added, "We have to be firm where China's actions are undermining international interests."
He proceeded to then cite U.S. actions that have signaled such a stance. Indeed, he has deployed U.S. naval assets to challenge provocative Chinese maritime claims. He has worked to broker a trans-Pacific trade partnership designed to augment U.S. economic engagement with the region as a counter to Chinese economic influence, and he has maintained the robust U.S. military presence in Japan and South Korea, which stands at the heart of our security commitment to the region, all while undertaking efforts to engage the Chinese diplomatically on issues of mutual interest and to encourage them to buy into and support the global economic and security system.
In the Middle East, a similar dichotomy has been in place on Obama's watch with longtime adversary Iran. The president has sought to change Iran's malign behavior in the region through diplomatic engagement, triggering criticism by both leaders in the Sunni Arab states and political opponents in the United States. The most prominent outcome of such engagement to date has been the Iran nuclear deal, concluded last summer. I was the U.S. ambassador in Oman when the seeds of that effort were being planted. That undertaking itself grew out of a successful effort facilitated by Oman to gain the release of three Americans being held in Iran. From the small steps involved in that effort, a sufficient level of trust was established to allow for the possibility of exploring a more ambitious agenda of engagement, ultimately leading to the historic nuclear deal.
That deal had tremendous intrinsic value in its own right. It addressed the fundamental and destabilizing challenge of a potential Iranian nuclear-weapons capability, but it also opened the possibility of a more deep-seated change in Iran: the possibility that Iran's leaders would use the economic benefits and potential renewed economic access to the international community deriving from the nuclear agreement to change the country's behavior. Rather than continuing on its course of meddling in the region, Iran might be convinced to focus on addressing the drastic economic shortcomings and challenges in the country, a focus supported by the vast majority of the Iranian people and one at the heart of the agenda of Iran's more moderate political factions.
I was pleased to note in the Atlantic article that President Obama himself underscored the important role of diplomacy in his approach to U.S. engagement in the world. So let me close by quoting how he characterized his views: "You know, the notion that diplomacy and technocrats and bureaucrats somehow are helping to keep America safe and secure, most people think, eh, that's nonsense, but it's true. And by the way, it is the element of American power that the rest of the world appreciates unambiguously."
JAMES F. JEFFREY, Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey
This is a very, very important issue, but as much of it is built on looking at two countries — Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which I've never served and am not considered an expert — you might say, why is he up here? The reason is, I think that we're talking about how America should deal with this, and we're looking at it through the focus of President Obama's foreign policy. A, he is the president. B, he has very helpfully, in the Atlantic interview, revealed his most inner thoughts about how America should function in the world. I'll come back to that in a second, but I want to talk about the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran and how we need to deal with it, from my perspective, and the extent to which we are, or are not, dealing with it at present.
As someone who's practiced diplomacy for 35 years, I quickly have learned that you discover there are two kinds of international disputes: those between country X and country Y that are all about a set of issues unique to country X and country Y — the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan or Cyprus between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and, for reasons based upon a whole series of 1960 treaties, between Greece and Turkey. And then there are disputes in the international realm that are of a different nature.
If you believe that there is an international order — a political, legal, quasi-governmental system of behaviors and collective security to support that order in the world — then you have to distinguish a difference when there is an interstate dispute that affects that order. It can affect it in various ways. It can be an interstate dispute in order to advance a challenge to the international order. I would say the German challenge to Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland is a good example. It can be a dispute primarily local in nature, not all that different from Pakistan and India but which, by the nature of the actors and the nature of the issues involved, rapidly becomes a challenge to the international order.
Those critics of American policy in Vietnam are absolutely right that this started off largely as a dispute about the future of Vietnam between the North Vietnamese government, the winners of the war against the French, and the Republic of South Vietnam, supported by us. But those supporters of the war were also right that very quickly, in the context of the Cold War and how the Cold War had been run in a dozen conflicts and struggles and issues since 1945, it had real impact on how the international order was perceived and how the United States was perceived as supporting that order.
Similar were the many disputes in the Balkans in the 1990s. They had all the earmarks of the similar dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, some of the same issues and, in fact, the same ethnic religious groups. But very quickly the nature of the slaughter, particularly in Bosnia — far greater per capita than we even have seen in Syria — and the threats to the regional and thus global order emanating from those conflicts led to the conclusion by the Clinton administration that this was a threat to the international order.
That's very relevant to the United States because, for many reasons, the United States, since 1945 and arguably since 1940, has been at the center of this global international security, economic, values-driven, rule-of-law order. Therefore, threats to the order require a different response from the United States than the dispute over Northern Ireland, ultimately between the Irish and the British, where the United States with former Senator George Mitchell played a huge role over a decade. But, nonetheless, it wasn't one where the questions of the international order were in play.
My point with the set of conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran is that they involve an issue of the international order. But before I get into that, a little bit on what it means and doesn't mean if you have a conflict that affects the international order. It doesn't mean that one side is right and the other side is wrong. It doesn't mean that all the convincing arguments are on one side. Frankly, the vast majority of Sudeten Germans really were unhappy about being part of Czechoslovakia. It's historical propaganda to think they were good, cuddly people who just wanted to learn to speak Czech. But that doesn't mean that the nature of that struggle was not exactly what, looking back, we think it was: an effort by Germany to expand its power as part of a global ambition that was destructive of the international order.
It's the same thing between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both are very flawed countries, from our parochial American/Western point of view. Both have a lot of good arguments that can be deployed against the other. The question is, as it has to be in any conflict, is this a Pakistan-versus-India conflict, or is it something like Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait or Milosevic's effort to dominate the Western Balkans?
My argument is that it is. Iran is fundamentally not happy with, does not accept, and is trying, at least in its own neck of the woods, to overthrow the international order. It does this in two separate ways, which complicates things for us. Henry Kissinger once said that Iran is both a cause and a country and that it has to decide which it is. But even if it decides, it's going to be a problem. When I went back to Kissinger once and asked him about this, he said, right, but even as a country.
What does Iran want in the region? Here's a list of ideas from one Iranian: America fully out of Afghanistan and Iraq; cessation of arms sales to countries in the region, at least by the United States; the weakening of Israel, not further defined; and a Gulf regional-security, economic and political — I want to say "co-prosperity sphere" but that would perhaps bias my point of view unduly — common arrangement, led by Iran.
The point is, this isn't Ahmadinejad or Qasem Soleimani who said this. This is most Americans' favorite Iranian liberal, Hossein Mousavi, in his book on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, written while he was in exile from Ahmadinejad at Princeton.
That is the problem the Saudis, the king of Jordan and many other countries see. They see an Iran heavily involved in the Arab world in countries, with the exception of Bahrain, that do not have overwhelming Shia majorities — so Iran cannot even make a religious argument convincingly. Syria has no Shia majority, even if you call the Alawites Shias; far from it. Lebanon gets close. Iraq is possibly as high as 60 percent Shia, but, once again, close to half the population is not Shia. The same can be said for Yemen, not to speak of other areas where Iran is on the march.
Secondly, what Iran has done — and I've seen this ad nauseam, literally, in Iraq and have recognized in other places — is to undercut the governmental political — I don't want to say Western, but — legal structures of countries and states that are even friendly to them. Iraq and Lebanon are good examples. Iran, in every way it can, favors nongovernmental armed political movements beholden to Iran and, basically, to one or another degree, at odds with the states in which they live and are supposed to give their loyalty and whose monopoly on force they're supposed to accept. Iran is an active ideological player trying to undercut that in every country in which it's involved.
That's a threat to the international order. It has to color how we look at the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia — which, for all its flaws, doesn't want to overthrow the regional or global order, and that includes its spreading of Wahhabi-based Sunni Islam. It does that for internal reasons, not because it sees itself on some kind of Islamic crusade. It's not a good thing; it's a bad thing. But friends do bad things, and enemies do good things.
The problem this administration has is, from the analytical point of view, clear. What to do is not clear; these are very complicated things. As I said, both sides are awash in wrong policies, biases against the other side, and all kinds of other things that also reflect non-global-system-threatening situations such as Kashmir or Cyprus. Both sides are full of biases toward the other and wrong thinking, and they consistently do the wrong thing. Turkey, one exception, accepted the Annan plan, but in both conflicts that's probably the only exception, over decades.
So how to deal with these things is hard, even if you accept the premises. The problem we have with the Obama administration is how President Obama has reacted to them, because any president sets boundaries for the next president. Even if we have a different policy with the next president, which I predict we will, it will be shaped by what this president did and didn't do. The problem with my analysis, balanced against President Obama's views as laid out in the article and as I've experienced them in my work in his administration, is this: while he accepts that there is a global order, he basically sees it as primarily self-perpetuating. He is such a believer in Western values and the Silicon Valley view of the world that he thinks its appeal is almost irresistible and its dominance, particularly over what he and Secretary Kerry constantly disdain as nineteenth-century values — Putin's values and Xi's values in the South China Sea — is phenomenal. Thus the system will run by itself; it doesn't need American intervention.
Above all else, it doesn't need American military intervention, which he feels doesn't accomplish anything — he's said this many times — other than whacking terrorists and will undercut the value of diplomacy. Here I have a few disagreements, both with him and perhaps, on the margins, with Rich.
Let's start with the final statement that Rich gave us from Obama. I can assure you from 35 years of diplomatic service that, if you take polls of populations, Obama's statement that what people around the world appreciate most about America is its diplomacy is correct — our soft power, our Hollywood. Behind closed doors, not only among the 90 to 100 quasi-allied states, but even among some of the quasi-hostile states or on-the-fence states, what the leaders of these countries really want is American engagement including, when necessary, military engagement to maintain that predictable benefit to all: global order. The extent to which any president — and no one's gone as far as this one — deviates from that, to that extent you're going to have chaos and confusion in the world.
That brings us back to what to do about Saudi Arabia and Iran. It sounds as if my prescription is to embrace Saudi Arabia and push back against Iran. Not necessarily. In and of itself, the Iran deal was a good thing, a great example of diplomacy, my kind of diplomacy. It was diplomacy backed up with 35,000 American troops in the Gulf to contain Iran. It was diplomacy backed up with the red line that people actually believe: the United States, including Obama, would act if Iran — it was only about six to eight weeks away — actually made that final dash to a nuclear weapon. It was diplomacy backed up by really tough sanctions that cut Iran's oil exports by over 50 percent. That's my idea of diplomacy, the diplomacy that other presidents have practiced since World War II.
Thus we need to continue to engage Iran, but we also need to reassure our allies in the region, beginning with Saudi Arabia, that Iran's effort to pick off one after another of the states that they see in their Arab realm as part of an Iranian effort to establish a hegemonic system will be countered, not just with more weapons sales but with active American policies.
Take a look at our reaction to the Iranian missile test. I went back this morning and read UN Resolution 2231. There's no doubt, while the language is a little bit wishy-washy, that this is a violation of that resolution, which is tied to the JCPOA. Our reaction to it has been weak and not particularly convincing to the people in the region. It's a whole series of steps like that: our reaction to the Russians going into Syria, our reaction to Syria, in general, and the desultory campaign that's now about to enter year three against somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 armed ISIS terrorists who have managed to seize a big chunk of the Levant. These all matter in that region.
ALIREZA NADER, Senior International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation
I'm going to briefly talk about Iran's views of Saudi Arabia, specifically the Iranian government's views but the public's as well, and then make some remarks about U.S. policy toward Iran.
The Iranian government considers Saudi Arabia to be the number-one enemy of Iran — not the United States, not Israel, but Saudi Arabia. What are the reasons for this? First of all, the Iranian government believes that Saudi Arabia is actively undermining its stability at home; that Saudi Arabia funds and supports anti-Iranian groups fighting against the Iranian government, whether the Balochi separatists in southeastern Iran or other Sunni jihadi organizations that are active in Iran, and groups outside of Iran as well.
Also, Iran believes that Saudi Arabia, through its anti-Shia ideology and doctrine, is undermining Iran's interests across the Middle East and that Saudi Arabia is aiming to be the regional hegemon, similar to Saudi claims against Iran. In fact, Iranian officials and much of the public in Iran believe that ISIS is a creation of Saudi Arabia, that ISIS's ideology flows from the Wahhabi ideology that defines the Saudi state and gives it legitimacy.
There are several reasons for the Iranian-Saudi competition. I don't think we can really narrow it down to one factor or another. First, there's the geopolitical competition between the two countries that we see today from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq, throughout the Persian Gulf, in Afghanistan and beyond. This geopolitical rivalry has been around a long time, even before the Iranian Revolution.
Although Iran under the shah and Saudi Arabia were both U.S. allies, were in fact the "twin pillars" of stability in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, they saw each other as competitors. The Saudis resented Iran because the shah was very close to the United States at that time. That geopolitical competition with its historical roots has not gone away, and it's not going to go anywhere anytime soon.
There is also economic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially given that Saudi Arabia has such a large role in shaping global oil prices. Saudi Arabia's ability to produce and export oil is much greater than Iran's. As you know, the Saudis have recently taken actions that have really driven down the price of oil, and the Iranian government resents this. It believes that this action is aimed at Iran specifically. There are a number of other reasons (for Saudi Arabia's oil policy), but I think this is a reasonable conclusion.
The Iranian government believes that Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in creating a sanctions regime against Iran. And now that the nuclear agreement is in effect and is being enforced by Iran, Saudi Arabia is still keeping Iran's oil prices down and damaging the Iranian economy.
There is also the issue of the leadership of the Muslim world. Both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia claim leadership to the Muslim Middle East. When you look at their ideologies specifically as states, the two countries make the claim that they represent all Muslims across the world.
Then there's the issue of sect and religion; I think the conflict between Shia and Sunni is now one of the driving forces of conflict in the Middle East. I think, more than any of the other factors I just named, this is the most dangerous one for regional stability and for U.S. interests. Once you have very black-and-white sectarian hatred, it is difficult for the United States to diplomatically and even militarily reduce some of the tensions and armed conflicts in the region.
I've talked about the Iranian government. What does the Iranian population believe? Personally, I've never seen anti-Saudi and anti-Arab sentiment so high in Iran in the past, though it's always been there. Iranian chauvinism toward its neighbors has always been there. But as we saw with the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, there was real resentment among the Iranian people toward Saudi Arabia. By the way, there was evidence to suggest that the Iranian government was not necessarily behind the mob that took action against the Saudi embassy. The government has undertaken such actions before, but there's so much popular anger now toward Saudi Arabia that this could have been a natural reaction.
Iranians overall, I would argue, resent the Islamic Republic and oppose it in various ways. One of the trends in Iran is toward greater nationalism; Iranians say that they're Iranian first and are not necessarily followers of the Islamic Republic. And, due to increased secularization in Iran — a lot of Iranians don't identify with Islam as the state describes it — there is resentment of the Islamic Republic as an Arab phenomenon. In fact, I've heard a lot of Iranians say that Iran's leadership are not really Persian but are, in fact, Arab, so they're not real Iranians.
When the nuclear agreement was signed, I think there were opportunities for Iran and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate their relations. A lot of the analysts and policy experts in D.C. didn't have the expectation that all of a sudden Saudi Arabia and Iran would be friends, but, given the role that rivalry plays in regional conflict, there were opportunities for de-escalation.
When President Hassan Rouhani was elected as Iran's president, he held a public media conference and said one of his primary foreign-policy goals was to resolve issues with Saudi Arabia. In fact, he bragged that, when he was Iran's national-security adviser under President Mohammad Khatami, he signed a security agreement with Saudi Arabia — a relatively minor agreement, but he thought it could lead to Iran's developing better ties with Saudi Arabia. Also, his government has appointed Admiral Shamkhani, an Iranian Arab, as a gesture in part toward Iran's Arab neighbors across the Persian Gulf.
Of course, in the past few months we've seen the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran even increase without any hope for a diplomatic solution. So what is Iran's strategy today? I think Iran is much more flexible diplomatically than Saudi Arabia. I would say today that the intransigent party when it comes to diplomacy and solving regional crises through diplomacy, is more Saudi Arabia than Iran. In fact, Saudi Arabia wanted to exclude Iran from the Syrian negotiations. But Iranian officials do not expect Saudi Arabia to engage Iran, and so they're willing to bleed Saudi Arabia across the region.
A while ago, an Iranian academic who's influential in Tehran told me that Iranian officials believe Saudi Arabia has created a regional infrastructure against Iran, and that Iran must do so against Saudi Arabia. One prime example of this is the conflict in Yemen. Now, the roots of the conflict are not really about Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, when you look at the Houthi movement and its struggle against the central government in Yemen, that is a primary factor. But over time, the conflict has taken on sectarian dimensions and has become more of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
I would argue that Iran did not necessarily want to establish a permanent foothold in Yemen, as the Saudis claim. It's not an area of strategic interest for Iran, unlike Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and much of the rest of the Persian Gulf. But the Saudis fell into a trap in Yemen, and now they're stuck in a war they're not winning. It is a quagmire, and Iran is taking advantage of it by providing limited weapons, supplies and perhaps training to the Houthi rebels. Now the Saudis are spending billions of dollars a month on a conflict that is not critical to Iranian ambitions in the region.
There are other examples of Iran's offsetting Saudi Arabia — for example Syria, where both sides are expending tremendous resources and in the case of Iran, lives, in "winning the conflict." By the way, Iran is not the only country in the Middle East that supports non-state actors. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and a number of other countries also support various groups by providing funding, training and other support as well.
Finally, Iran is not a monolithic country. The ambassador asked whether Iran is a cause or a country. Iran is a country. Anybody who's gone to Iran and has interacted with the people knows that this is a dynamic and pretty advanced culture/country. Unfortunately, it has a system of government dominated by people who think Iran should be a cause, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and much of the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
But even within the elite there are groups, including, I would say, the Rouhani government, that are much more interested in pursuing Iran's interests as a nation-state rather than an ideological cause. In fact, Rouhani, in his many writings, has asked the same question. He said that, for Iran to be successful, it must decide whether it's a cause or a country. And he thinks Iran is a country, although he's part of the elite of the Islamic Republic. So Iran is not monolithic. Its views on the Middle East are not black and white. I think much of Iran's reaction to its neighbors is also motivated by profound insecurity as a Persian-majority and Shia-majority country in a Middle East that is currently seeing a great rise in Sunni anti-Shia jihadism.
So what should the United States do when it comes to these conflicts? My number-one recommendation to any U.S. policy maker would be not to choose sides when it comes to the Sunni-Shia dispute. That is not in U.S. interests. When it comes to the issue of Iran, no doubt the Islamic Republic is a problematic political system. No doubt it does things that undermine U.S. interests in the region. But Iran is not a country that can be ignored. I think, when it came to the nuclear deal, many of America's Arab partners were not worried so much about what kind of technical agreement would emerge; they were worried that the United States and Iran were talking to each other, sitting at the same table discussing the nuclear file and other policy issues. It is definitely in the U.S. interest to engage Iran, although it is still a rival state.
Recently I heard a former Saudi official say that the United States and its allies should put so much pressure on Iran that the Islamic Republic will collapse. There are no indications that the Iranian regime is near collapse. In fact, I would make the argument that, with Rouhani's election and the nuclear agreement, the Iranian regime is more stable than it has been since the 2009 Green Movement protests. The Islamic Republic is not going to go anywhere anytime soon, and pressure alone will not suffice in dealing with this regime.
But I also believe that Iran has long-term prospects as a country. I don't think the Islamic Republic is going to last indefinitely and Iran has a sophisticated, forward-looking population that wants and is demanding change. That change will not come under the current system. That change will not come as long as Ayatollah Khamenei is Iran's supreme leader, but sooner or later change will come. It is important for the United States to consider Iran as a country that is changing although its political system is very much stuck in time.
FAHAD NAZER, Senior Political Analyst, JTG, Inc.; Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Given the institution we're in and the lively debate that the Atlantic piece generated both here in the United States and in the Arab world, and specifically Saudi Arabia, I will focus my remarks for the most part on the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations. Hopefully, I'll have time to speak about Saudi-Iranian relations towards the end.
The Saudi reaction to the Atlantic article was rather swift and overwhelmingly negative. One of the first and most notable reactions — which happened within 48 hours of publication — was an opinion piece written by Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was ambassador to both the United States and the UK and, prior to that, head of the Saudi Intelligence Directorate for about 30 years. Prince Turki penned a reaction that was, in many ways, scathing, and he addressed it directly to President Obama. He specifically took issue with the notion of Saudi Arabia being included on a list of American allies that were referred to as free riders by the president.
Prince Turki went on to take issue with the notion that Saudi Arabia is somehow fomenting the sectarian strife across the region in countries like Syria, Yemen and Iraq, while at the same time apparently — again, from the Saudi view — giving Iran a free pass, when the United States, by all indications, has for many years, considered Iran the prime supporter of terrorism across the globe.
I think in some ways Prince Turki's opinion piece was just the tip of the iceberg. There were many other opinion pieces published in the mainstream Saudi press. Some of the writers took the liberty to not just focus on the content or tone of the piece in The Atlantic but assessed the legacy of the Obama administration in the Middle East overall.
Most of the pieces were not very complimentary. A number of writers accused the Obama administration of weakness and of failing to act as the sole remaining superpower in the world. Others referred to the Cairo speech specifically as a grand deception. Some of the more severe critics even accused the president of adopting Tehran's line, in terms of how he sees Saudi Arabia's role in the region.
There was dismay and perhaps some anger in these pieces, but I think one can also sense, as much as anything else, disappointment, from Saudis and others across the region. I think that in many ways, when Obama became president, many people in the Arab world considered him to be the perfect successor to President George W. Bush, who towards the end of his term was not particularly popular, largely due to the Iraq War.
Some people, not everybody, were expecting President Obama to be a bit more sympathetic to the challenges of the Arab and Muslim worlds. They looked at the fact that, having a Muslim father, having grown up and spent some formative years in Indonesia and having adopted a more cosmopolitan worldview, he would be more sympathetic to their struggles. I think if we recall the reception in Cairo to his speech, it was a testament to the excitement and hope that many people held for President Obama.
Speaking about Saudi Arabia, specifically, Saudi policy makers probably began to view the Obama administration differently around 2012, when the so-called Arab Spring took place. The toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was certainly a troubling event for Saudi Arabia; he was not only a long-term supporter, but one of their more reliable allies for many years. The Arab Spring in many ways compelled Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to reassess some of their assumptions about the region and to re-evaluate their relations with their allies, including with the United States.
If there was one moment when the change really took place in terms of Saudi Arabia's beginning to think it needed to adopt a different foreign-policy posture, it has to be the reversal on Syria. It seemingly happened overnight, when Bashar al-Assad's troops crossed President Obama's self-imposed red line by using chemical weapons outside of Damascus in the summer of 2013. That decision took people by surprise, certainly a lot of people in Saudi Arabia.
I think it was at that moment that you begin to see the seeds of what eventually some people would call the Salman doctrine take shape. At that point, Saudi policy makers were compelled to come to the realization that the United States, under President Obama, has indeed adopted a different foreign policy. There was a fundamental shift in the way that the United States sees its role in the region. It no longer sees itself as the proverbial policeman of the region, and Saudi Arabia going forward will have to adopt a more assertive foreign policy, one that does not shy away from even using military force if need be.
We see this shift in foreign policy in a rather dramatic fashion in Yemen, where the Saudis are supporting the internationally recognized government of Yemen against the Houthis, who, by many indications, are receiving support from Iran. That campaign is still ongoing. The coalition the Saudis are leading is often referred to as an Arab coalition because it does have about 10 other countries supporting Yemen and President Hadi's government. But, oddly enough, it's a small coalition.
A few months ago, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman held a press conference in Riyadh in which he announced the formation of an even bigger Islamic military coalition against terrorism, with as many as 34 different countries from across the Muslim world that will specifically work towards combating terrorism in all of its forms. While I think the jury is still out as to what this coalition will look like — whether it will ever resemble anything like a formal institution that NATO is, for instance, with its collective security and formal requirements for its members — the formation of this coalition was very telling.
While the deputy crown prince made it clear that this coalition will work in tandem with the wider international community and that there will be a lot of cooperation with other countries, one could make the argument that in some ways the Saudis were trying to find an alternative security framework to the international order that we see in the UN Security Council, for instance. For those who dismiss this argument, I think it's worth going back to 2014, when Saudi Arabia became the only country in the history of the United Nations to refuse its Security Council seat. I think they saw that the international community was not living up to its mandate; they were specifically referring to the carnage in Syria. If one recalls that, it makes sense that they're leading this Arab coalition in Yemen and then formed this wider coalition against terrorism, including many Muslim-majority countries.
Having said that, it's important to note that there is more to Saudi-U.S. relations than this philosophical difference at the top of the political leadership. There are many interests remaining between Saudi Arabia and the United States that will help sustain this relationship, which has endured for seven decades, even though what people sometimes refer to as the oil-for-security arrangement has changed.
As we all know, the revolution in shale technology has lessened the dependence of the United States on imported oil. At the same time, the Saudis have spent quite a bit of money on the training of their own armed forces over the years, then have become more capable and are playing a leading role militarily in the region now.
Nevertheless, the two countries continue to cooperate in many different arenas. Perhaps none is more important than their continuing support for each other in the two military campaigns that both are leading. Saudi Arabia has been there from the beginning in supporting the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Syria. Even though they've perhaps held back in terms of the level of participation, we should not underestimate the importance that Saudi Arabia's very public support for the campaign meant.
Within the first early hours of the campaign, in fact, one of King Salman's own sons flew a mission over ISIS targets in Syria. That should not be underestimated. In many ways, the participation of Saudi Arabia, given its status in the Muslim world, has debunked the notion that many critics of the United States would have used against it by portraying this campaign as some sort of Western crusade. I think the very public participation of Saudi Arabia debunked that argument from the beginning.
For its part, the United States continues to provide vital logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, and that is no doubt appreciated. Yemen is at the top of Saudi Arabia's priorities. I'm certain that they would like to bring the conflict to a conclusion, and there are indications that perhaps that will happen sooner rather than later.
Counterterrorism is another area where the Saudis and the Americans have cooperated very closely over many years. It's well-documented that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef personally played a role in providing the United States with vital information back in 2010 that prevented what could have been a very serious attack on the U.S. homeland. The Saudis and the Americans have been working very closely, certainly since 2004, in cutting off the financing of terrorist organizations and individuals. This effort continues to this very day.
While much has been written and said about Saudi Arabia's new foreign policy, I think that some of the economic reforms being considered and proposed have the potential for even more important long-term ramifications for Saudi Arabia's future. In that effort, back in September 2015, when King Salman made his first official visit anywhere, as he said at the White House, he wanted to make sure it would be to the United States. Among his delegation was the deputy crown prince, who spoke before U.S. companies and gave them an idea of what is to come in the future in terms of what his vision is for the future economy of Saudi Arabia.
He invited them to go to Saudi Arabia and to invest in the economic reforms that are being considered, saying that we have 12 different sectors that are being opened. Going forward, Saudi Arabia will lessen its dependence on oil and decrease the size of the public sector. The private sector has to do more of its share and they clearly want direct foreign investment. It's my understanding that the U.S. companies got first dibs in this regard. I think these mutual interests will sustain the relationship going forward.
When it comes to Saudi-Iranian relations, one could argue that this is their lowest point in many years. At the heart of this dispute is what seems to be Iran's almost unconditional support for Bashar al-Assad as seen by most accounts, not just those of Saudi Arabia, but those of the United States and observers from the United Nations and other international organizations. The carnage and destruction that has taken place in Syria, most of which has been done by Bashar al-Assad and his allies, has not been seen since World War II, yet Iran remains Bashar al-Assad's strongest and almost unconditional supporter.
As Ambassador Jeffrey said earlier, Iran continues, as a matter of policy, to support militant non-state actors in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. I think Hezbollah is a clear example, but the Houthis tried to do the same thing, thinking they could physically and violently impose their will on the rest of the country, and that has been very destabilizing for the region. Saudi Arabia does view Iran's meddling in the Arab world to be extremely destructive.
In terms of the nuclear agreement that was signed last year, officially Saudi Arabia does support it, but they have always had concerns. They continue to be concerned that, rather than compelling Iran to modify its behavior, the agreement will actually embolden it and allow Iran to continue some of what the Saudis consider to be rather destructive policies — supporting militant Shia groups across the region and continuing to support terrorist operations.
DR. MATTAIR: Here's the question from the floor: Has the use of diplomacy made Iran less hostile and destabilizing in the region? If not, what do you do when there is a disconnect between diplomacy and policy? What evidence do we have that the nuclear agreement is influencing Iran and its behavior in the region in a positive way? How long do we have to wait for that? What do we do in the interim?
AMB. SCHMIERER: In my conversations with Omani interlocutors, they would tend to emphasize the fact that in Iran there are different factions; our speaker spoke to that fact. What we need to try to do, and certainly what our Omani friends have encouraged us to do, is to find ways to encourage the factions that are actually seeking to change Iran's behavior. To this point, I would say there is no evidence of any fundamental change in Iran's behavior, but it is still a bit early. In fact, one of the concerns I heard when I was in Oman, and generally in the region recently, was that Iran still doesn't really have access to the economic benefits of the nuclear deal because of continuing U.S. banking sanctions.
I think anything that can be done to help those who are seeking to move Iran in the direction of focusing on domestic economic development and closer ties to the region and the global community — those kinds of steps in themselves I think, will lead to modified and better Iranian behavior. The other elements, obviously, still need to be addressed. If Iran does feel that there's a fundamental anti-Shia attitude on the part of Arab states, that's obviously going to affect its behavior. But I don't think that needs to continue indefinitely if Iran itself begins to take a different approach to the region.
Jim, I think you mentioned the launching of the rockets by the Iranians shortly after the agreement. I think we can expect to see those. The hardliners in Iran will look for ways to visibly demonstrate and try to provoke reactions against any lessening of tensions. So I think we have to be careful not to overreact to those kinds of provocations.
MR. NADER: The nuclear agreement is a nonproliferation agreement, and it has done what it is supposed to do. It's not meant to change Iran's behavior. It's not meant to induce political reforms. It's, strictly speaking, a nonproliferation agreement. That's why it's working. You can make the argument that it has produced some dividends on other issues. For example, the United States now has very high-level contacts with the Iranian government. When the Iranian government took the U.S. sailors hostage, Secretary Kerry was able to call Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and get them released. That's a benefit. But in terms of Iran's policies changing, I think there are a number of domestic factors that are going to determine how Iran's overall foreign policy changes in the future. President Rouhani's election was a first step, but the framework of Iran's policies hasn't changed. It's not going to change anytime soon, as long as the system in Iran doesn't change.
DR. MATTAIR: Rich, to what extent does the doctrine, as defined in the article, really cover it all, where Obama cautions against intervention and promotes the virtues of diplomacy? Is there something missing? Has he described it fully? More specifically, is there more U.S. intervention in the region than he is actually admitting to? Is there more U.S. military activity in concert with Saudi Arabia in the region that ought to be discussed?
AMB. SCHMIERER: As I alluded to briefly in my remarks, from my experience recently in the region, our cooperation and coordination on security with the Arab countries in the Gulf, and in particular with Saudi Arabia, is as strong as it has ever been. Their own capabilities, as the last speaker mentioned, and I think it's true more generally in the Gulf, are greater than they have ever been. So in terms of pure security coordination and capabilities, the capabilities of those in the region are as good, and probably stronger, than they've ever been.
The Obama Doctrine article really speaks more to when are those to be used, and when we might wish to intervene? It's complicated, because — certainly having been in Iraq with my friend Jim — many of us have seen that actions taken can actually cause more problems than they solve. It's a very difficult assessment to figure out when specific actions will actually be more positive than negative. One of our speakers suggested a more confrontational approach to Iran. Obviously many people call for a more aggressive approach to Syria. I can't say that those would not ultimately be positive steps, but they certainly could ultimately be negative. That, I think, is the real trick, and what I think Goldberg was trying to get at in the article.
DR. MATTAIR: We do have a Saudi-American partnership in helping to train and arm opposition forces in Syria, for example. We are in a partnership with them, at least in trying to go after ISIS, which we think needs to be done before we can force Assad to make concessions. And then there's Yemen, where we provide logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia. Can you discuss that, Jim? It seems to me, you'd like to take it up a notch. Can you talk about that?
AMB. JEFFREY: It's not a question of more apples. It's a question of oranges as well as apples. As Rich said, our military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states has never been better. Aside from the fact that we all benefit from that, how has it been manifested? We sell tens and tens of billions of dollars of made-in-America weapons to these countries. I'm not criticizing it. I'm just saying it's not something we're doing out of charity. The point is, these countries do not think they're going to be invaded by the Iranian Army. What they believe, with considerable logic, is that they are in the midst of a traditionally weak region with weak governance — they've contributed to it, but that's another thing — and countries that are failing or potentially failing states that Iran has taken advantage of in trying to establish a regional hegemonic position inimical to the global order I talked about earlier in two ways. One is, it uses non-state actors very, very effectively in a dozen different countries. It basically rejects, if you will, the Westphalian system. That's an ideological attack on the global order that goes beyond Shia Islam versus Sunni Islam. Sunni Islam, by and large, has adjusted to the Westphalian order, minus ISIS and al-Qaeda. Secondly, it is a classic effort — we saw it with Saddam, we saw it with Milosevic — to try to establish in one's own backyard different rules, where you are the top dog and other states are not.
In the case of the Emirates and the Saudis, there was some sense that they didn't even want to see the United States talking to Iran. We could have dealt with that. We managed to convince the Europeans in the 1970s it was okay to talk to the Soviet Union about strategic nuclear weapons, not too different than the Iranian case. We managed to convince our allies in the Pacific it was okay to talk to China at the same time, in 1972, or even to North Vietnam, because they had no basic question on where our values were towards the single most important question in all international relations since at least 1940: Is there a global order? If there is, is by far the most powerful country in the world going to, A, recognize that there's such an order and, B, lead the effort to preserve it? This is where this gets subtle. I'm going to have a hard time explaining it, but I catch it, and the people in the Middle East to some degree catch it, too, because they're very subtle and very smart.
Two of President Obama's statements, one out of the interview that we didn't mention yet but we should have because it's certainly germane to this thing. Saudis have to learn to share the Middle East with Iran. Secondly, and you'll say, wait, this is the Middle East; why is he mentioning that? I actually did a piece for the Washington Institute about eight months ago, and I think I was prescient. When the president arrived in Cuba, he said: "The Cold War with Cuba is over." What that tells me and our friends in the Middle East who have an existential interest in being able to count on predictable American responses to challenges to the world order, is that Obama has just thrown it all overboard.
What he ended in going to Cuba was not like he was the king of Spain going to Cuba in 1898 and announcing: I'm ending the war on the Cuban population and pulling my troops out and going home and letting you live your own lives. We weren't a colonial power trying to oppress Cuba. We were trying to stop Cuba's efforts to turn the rest of the hemisphere into, A, Soviet proxies, as long as the Soviets were there, and, B, after the Soviets went, Cuba's own ersatz communist totalitarian worldview, which was inimical to the peoples of the region and ultimately to the global order.
He doesn't seem to get that. It's the same thing with Saudi Arabia and Iran. He didn't say: Iran needs to share the Middle East with Saudi Arabia. Who did he say needs to share it? Saudi Arabia, the implication being the Saudis are misinterpreting Iran. How? Two ways. The first is something I believe in. And here the president is right, if he had changed his language and said people throughout the region have to learn that Sunni Islam and Shia Islam have to share the Middle East.
That was one of the points we made when we went into the Balkans. This isn't about supporting the Muslims against the Orthodox. It's not about religion. It's about the global order and the rules of the global order. Milosevic in particular, and everybody else to a far lesser degree, were violating it. And we were going to restore that order. We didn't overthrow Milosevic. Ultimately, his people did. We weren't about that. We were about restoring order and overthrowing disorder.
There is disorder in the Middle East today. Some of it, inadvertently, is the fault, frankly, of the Saudis. We've talked about the Wahhabis. Most of it is the fault, not inadvertently but deliberately, of Iran. The Saudis cannot accept that, nor should any country accept having to live with a country that is trying to upset the regional status quo. That's the problem with this doctrine, and that's why it will be rejected — it has been rejected by the peoples of the region. That's why four of the six heads of state did not travel to Camp David after the agreement to talk to the president, not because they were opposed to the agreement; they kind of understood the agreement. I've heard Saudi after Saudi tell me, look, we know the agreement, we know the technical stuff about it. It's okay. It was the Israelis who had problems with the agreement, per se. What the Saudis and the rest of the Sunni Arab states and, to a certain degree, Turkey have a problem with is that seeming inability of this administration to recognize that there is a challenge to the status quo coming from Iran. That doesn't mean you stop talking with Iran. In fact, it's kind of an argument to talk more. It doesn't mean that you wage war on Iran. What it means is that, basically, you accept that fact. Until we accept that fact and at least show the countries of the region that we are trying to find ways to deal with it, there's no sense in the president's going to this GCC conference, any more than it made sense for him to summon them all to Camp David. He doesn't seem to get it, in their minds. As long as that's so, we're going to have a disconnect between our allies in the region and the United States.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes. Sharing the Middle East with Iran, I think, means sharing the Arab world with Iran, which is not an Arab country. They view that as acquiescing in the expansion of Iran.
AMB. JEFFREY: Exactly.
DR. MATTAIR: Through its shipments of arms, which have been found in Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen, and all the other activities that are documented.
MR. NADER: The issue, I think, between the United States and Saudi Arabia is not just about Iran or even primarily. The Arab world is changing. You know, we've seen revolts from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. You cannot possibly say Iran is behind all of them. That's factually incorrect. The fall of Mubarak happened. And you can make the argument that the United States did not pursue the right policy, that it abandoned Mubarak toward the end. However, the reality is that Mubarak fell and another government succeeded him, and the Saudis were not happy with the U.S. reaction to what happened in Egypt, and they weren't happy with the U.S. reaction to a number of other issues.
It's not just about sharing the Middle East; the reality is that the Middle East is fundamentally changing. The old order is collapsing, whether in Iraq or Syria. Is it in the U.S. interest to try to enforce the old order at all costs? I think that's impossible. How do you make sure that everything happens according to what the Saudis think are their interests? Should the United States send troops to Egypt to maintain the Mubarak regime? The reality is, the United States does not have the power to enforce its own interests or Saudi interests perfectly in the region, given all that's happening, and it goes way beyond Iran.
Let's say tomorrow there's a major revolt in Saudi Arabia. That is not necessarily going to be due to Iranian actions. Saudi Arabia faces a lot of internal challenges. I'm not saying there's going to be a revolt in Saudi Arabia, but a lot of analysts think Saudi Arabia's a fundamentally unstable country — not because of Iran, but due to demographics, the changing economic and political system in Saudi Arabia. So I think we have to look at those factors as well and not just focus on what the United States is doing toward Iran or the Saudi-Iran relationship. It's much broader than that.
DR. MATTAIR: Alireza, when I was in graduate school in 1979, there were a lot of people who thought the House of Saud was going to fall pretty soon. It hasn't; there are elements of stability there. And you said you don't think the regime in Iran is going to fall soon, and you're probably right about that, too. So we're dealing with two domestic systems that are probably going to survive for a while. Jim was talking about the need to assure Saudi Arabia that Iran cannot pick off one Arab state after another. Could you comment on what they'd like to see there from us?
MR. NAZER: One of the aspects of last year's U.S.-GCC summit that I think was missed was the two statements that were issued. One was a shorter statement, but there was a longer, more detailed annex that was obviously a joint statement. I recommend that people in this room and those interested in Middle Eastern politics, especially U.S.-GCC relations, take a close look at that document. Not only did the United States reiterate its commitment to the security of the GCC countries, but the document contained a number of areas in which the GCC and the United States promised to work more closely together.
Security cooperation was obviously a big one, but there was a paragraph about ballistic-missile defense. There are indications that the United States and the GCC are working closely towards that. Obviously there's a lot of training, and obviously Saudi Arabia continues to prefer U.S. weapons and training. This has been the case for decades, and that is very unlikely to change. Saudi Arabia and the United States essentially signed one of the biggest arms sales in the history of the United States back in 2010.
Since that GCC-U.S. summit less than a year ago, the Obama administration has essentially okayed and fast tracked over $30 billion worth of arms transfers to the GCC. That document emphasizes the wide common ground between the United States and the GCC, including when it comes to some of the conflicts in the region. Syria, for instance. I think if you listen to an interview that Secretary Kerry gave to Al Arabiya just a couple of days ago, he was fairly unequivocal in saying that he cannot foresee a future scenario in which Bashar al-Assad continues.
This is a man who is primarily responsible for the deaths of at least 300,000 people and millions of others who have been displaced internally or have become refugees abroad. Entire cities have been reduced to rubble, not to mention that Raqqa is the so-called capital of ISIS. I argued years ago even before anyone had heard of ISIS, back in January 2012, that unless the international community paid closer attention to what was going on in Syria, that country had a greater potential to become another Afghanistan, a haven for foreign extremist fighters, than Afghanistan ever was back in the 1980s.
There was its location and the fact that it has a longer Islamic history. Essentially, Assad made it very easy for them to construct the jihadi narrative that, unfortunately, has resonated with militants around the world. When people who have joined the fight against Syria, Saudis and others, have been caught and have gone back and been interviewed about why they went, or what it was that compelled them to join ISIS, they don't get into religious doctrines. Many of them say, We were not particularly religiously observant. This had very little to do with seventeenth-century texts by Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab or others. They specifically cite Syria. It's what they've been exposed to in the media. This Syria conflict has dominated the Arab news cycle for the past five years. It's what most people who have been caught have paid in their statements prior to conducting suicide missions: it's Syria, it's more politics than anything else.
The Saudis, and I think rightly, say that as long as Bashar al-Assad continues in Syria, ISIS will continue to thrive. This is an area where obviously the United States and Saudi Arabia agree. How do you move forward? Obviously, the details need to be worked out. But what's promising, I think, is that neither of them sees a future for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
DR. MATTAIR: How long did it take Saudi Arabia to get involved in Syria after March 2011? Were they immediately trying to influence events, or did it take them a while to evaluate and assess and decide they needed to do something?
MR. NAZER: It took them months. In fact, the king at the time, King Abdullah, issued several statements imploring Assad and his regime to meet the protesters halfway and bring the violence to an end. I think Saudi Arabia does view this conflict as the epicenter of the tumult in the region. It's where sectarianism has spread to the rest of the region. They see it as the place where ISIS has metastasized into this cancer that we've all seen, while they certainly are very concerned with Yemen as one of their priorities.
For the long-term future, I think they see Syria as a pivotal conflict that could potentially shape the political trajectory of the entire region. So I think they continue to be committed. They want that crisis to come to an end, but they want Assad out. I've been very struck by how unequivocal the foreign minister, Adel Jubeir, has been whenever he's interviewed about the future of Bashar al-Assad. He said, Make no mistake, he is going. Whether he goes peacefully or not, he's not going to be there. He's gone.
DR. MATTAIR: Alireza, you were talking about recent events, the Arab Spring, and a changing Middle East, and how Iran is not wholly responsible for instigating all these changes. But let's go back and try to evaluate what Obama said about proxy wars: "You have a Saudi-Iranian competition fueling proxy wars." But how did that competition start? You spoke about relations between Iran under the shah, and Saudi Arabia, and said there was some tension and rivalry there. But it's qualitatively different since the revolution.
MR. NADER: It did start with the Iranian revolution, because Iran's policy became more ideological. And Iran did try to subvert the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia. That's all true; Iran's foreign policy until today has been ideological in nature. But the point I'm making is that, if tomorrow a pro-American government takes power in Iran, you will still have a lot of the problems in the Middle East. ISIS will still be around. Sunni jihadism will be around. Iraq and Syria will be unstable. Saudi Arabia's going to face its own internal challenges. So, while Iran does pursue policies that are antagonistic toward the United States and its allies, it goes way beyond Iran and its capabilities. There's a tendency to make Iran out to be this 10-foot giant, but it's not. In a lot of ways, it's a very dysfunctional country too, with a very dysfunctional government, but it's able to take advantage of a relatively weak Arab world. It does so by supporting non-state actors very effectively, whether in Syria or Iraq. The Saudis are not able to compete with Iran in that realm.
MR. NAZER: Some of the statements that Saudi officials have given to the Western media as to the current state of affairs between Saudi Arabia and Iran are very telling. I agree with Mr. Nader, it all begins with the Iranian revolution and the severing of diplomatic relations, which was obviously triggered by the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The consulate in Mashhad was the last straw. But if you listen to Saudi officials, they say Iran has had a policy of exporting its ideology and its revolution for some 40 years; it has not ended. We were hopeful that that would be the case. The expression that I heard from the foreign minister was, again, "We have extended an olive branch to Iran for many, many years, but we got nothing but support for militant Shia groups across the region.
Iran is one of the few countries or regimes around the world that has been implicated in attempts and successful attempts to assassinate diplomats around the region, including Saudi diplomats. We all know about the plot to assassinate the current foreign minister, who was at the time the ambassador to the United States — and then to allow the storming of the embassy to take place. I think, Saudi Arabia, with a majority of other countries, said that Iran, like every other state, has a responsibility to protect diplomatic missions. This attack could not have happened without Iran's either looking the other way, at least, or approving. Iran's security services, by all accounts, are rather strong. For such an attack to happen and to be filmed, again, was unacceptable in the views of the Saudis.
As I said in my remarks, relations are arguably the worst they've been in many years. But the Saudis have never once publicly said they expect the Iranian regime to be toppled. There's certainly no evidence that they ever tried to actively topple it. I think they've come to terms that the regime is there for the foreseeable future. But the notion that the execution of 47 people, along with four Shia militants, all of whom were convicted of terrorism-related charges, was somehow a provocation of Iran, was seen as a puzzling framing in Saudi Arabia.
The fact that the regime and the Iranian government allowed the diplomatic missions to be stormed in the way that they were, and showed that Iran was playing politics, yet again, with what was essentially an internal issue, from the Saudi perspective. Again, this came on the heels of a rather public rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the stampede at the last Hajj. From the Saudi perspective, Iran also took what was a very tragic event to play politics with rather than offering to help identify the victims.
Iran decided to take the opportunity to call for a transnational Muslim body of some sort to administer the Hajj. This is obviously a non-starter and insulting to the Saudi government, which has spent billions of dollars trying to make the Hajj as safe as possible over the years. Just the logistics of that, and the mere fact that there are some 2 million people who participate in the Hajj over the course of several days, moving back and forth — such tragedies are very hard to prevent.
So in the Saudi view, Iran has a long track record of fomenting sectarian and political violence. Some of the accounts in the Saudi media of some of the terrorism or terrorist cells that have been busted, there are indication in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that some of the explosives are consistent with some of the weapons that the IRGC has been tied to in the past as well.
AMB. JEFFREY: At the beginning, I talked about two kinds of state-state conflicts and then immediately ignored the first one and went on to the second: state-state conflicts that either generate or masquerade as threats to the global order. To go back to the first kind, these are real problems. One of them, the Pakistan-Indian one that I cited, could lead to a nuclear conflict — the most likely nuclear conflict on the face of the earth right now. It's something to take very seriously. In my five tours either in Turkey or as a desk officer in Greece, dealing with the Greek-Turkish dispute, until more pressing things came to occupy the minds of their leaders and their populations, there was tremendous enmity, and they couldn't see anything good on the other side.
If you take away this global-status-quo-challenge aspect to the Saudi-Iranian dispute, as we've heard, going back even to the shah, you will have rivalries, you will have disputes. Even today, at a certain nonmilitary level you have disputes between France and Germany. That's almost normal. Take a look the many really bad domestic situations in our lives that are these "he said, she said," kinds of things. The way you deal with it normally is to try to get people to move beyond it and not try to apportion blame. It usually doesn't work.
But it gets very different when one of the two sides suddenly starts using violence against the other, expropriates the other's property or other things. Then you have challenges to laws. And then it isn't a question of both sides being at fault, both sides needing to pull up their socks and start talking together — essentially what Obama was saying with their sharing the Middle East. Then you have to deal with the challenges of violations to the order: using violence, taking away other people's possessions and such. You don't treat people equally. That's the difference in these two kinds of disputes. We're always going to have Saudi Arabia and Iran vying for influence in the Middle East. That's perhaps not healthy, but it's inevitable. What we have today is not healthy or inevitable. It's produced 300,000 dead people in Syria, at least, and the potential for many more around the region.
DR. MATTAIR: In the time we have left, maybe we could engage in prescriptions and predictions. What would you like to see the United States do in the final year of Obama's administration to elicit some positive change from Iran through diplomacy, for example, in Geneva or in Kuwait over Yemen? Should we be complementing that with some additional robust measures to change the situation on the ground? Concerning prediction, a question from the floor was: Does the Obama doctrine represent the entirety of U.S. policy, or are there disagreements in the Congress, the Defense Department, the CIA, the armed services? The answer to that is, yes, of course, there certainly are. In fact, there are disagreements in the White House. This year, someone new will be elected. And they will bring into office people who view the Middle East differently. What would you like to see us do in Obama's final year? Do you expect changes in policy when a new administration comes into office, and what do you expect them to be?
MR. NADER: I think the most important aspect of U.S. policy toward Iran will be maintaining and enforcing the nuclear agreement. I think that is essential. That is the best the United States can expect from the Iranian government in the next year. I don't think there's going to be normalization of ties. I've had people suggest to me that perhaps the United States should explore opening an interests section or an embassy in Tehran. I don't think that's going to happen.
Again, Iran has to fundamentally change its political system for U.S.-Iran relations to change. But the nuclear agreement thus far has been effective. Iran did have the missile tests, which are a violation of the UN Security Council resolutions, but not the nuclear agreement, per se. So what the United States has done so far, I think, has been effective. However, if sanctions relief is effected in a negative manner, if Iran does not see major economic benefits through the nuclear agreement, if Congress passes new sanctions, that puts the nuclear agreement in danger.
In terms of the next U.S. president, we know that several candidates have threatened to "rip up" the nuclear agreement. I think that would be terrible for U.S. interests, because the agreement is essential in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear-weapons capability. I would hope that the next U.S. president does not undermine the nuclear accord with Iran. As I said, there is potential for positive change in Iran, but it's not guaranteed.
I think we also have to be aware that there's only so much the United States can do to drive change in Iran or anywhere else in the Middle East, for that matter. I think the Obama administration gets blamed for a lot of things in the Middle East that are a matter of history and society and religion, things that neither the United States nor any other country can shape. For now, the United States should stick with the nuclear agreement. That's, I think, the best we can hope for.
On the issue of Syria, I think Iran is going to expend a lot of resources in defending the Bashar al-Assad regime, although I would disagree that Iran's support for Assad is unconditional. Iran's foreign policies and support for these groups always have conditions. I would venture to guess that if Iran thinks its interests in Syria can be protected, it doesn't matter if Assad is in power, as long as there's a pro-Iranian regime in Damascus. Does this provide an opportunity for resolving the crisis in Syria? I'm skeptical. But, again, I don't think Iran's policy in Syria is as unconditional as we would imagine it to be.
AMB. JEFFREY: There are four things this administration should and perhaps could do. First of all, go silent. The Atlantic thing is going to go down in history, totally apart from what was in it, by the foolishness of a sitting president who then has to go off and deal with the people he spent hours castigating. We need to stop talking about things and analyzing how diplomacy is this, that and the other thing. I will spare the audience my views of diplomacy as a deus ex machina. It's not that either. It's nothing more than using good international-lawyer skills to shape basic policies and employ the real hard power that you have — be it economic, military or, in some cases, ideological. With the United States, there is an ideological element to it.
Secondly, we have to maintain a serious posture for real change in Syria. That almost certainly means Assad has to go, and we certainly have to keep that open, and put meat on the bones of Secretary Kerry's threats of a plan B. This means more support for the opposition if the ceasefire doesn't hold. And it means making it clear to the Iranians and the Russians that we can outspend them in Syria, if we have to, on something that's really important to the region. We're putting hundreds of millions of dollars into our force structure and everything else, and with a small portion of that, we could get a lot of weapons to a lot of people who could make a lot of problems for that government. That isn't the preferred solution; the preferred solution is negotiation. But these negotiations are not going to go well if there isn't an alternative to simply an Assad victory.
Third, we need to get serious about defeating ISIS. The Obama administration's moving closer to that, but not fast enough. It is hampered by all kinds of almost Obama-esque concerns about using military force — even short of major ground teams — advisory teams in the front, artillery, attack helicopters, all the things the Russians use so effectively, with one-tenth the power we have in the region in Syria, and we're still not using. The reason for this is twofold. First of all, ISIS is the gift that keeps on giving for instability in the region. It generates all kinds of reasons for things like the Russians to come in, various Arab states to take questionable actions, Turkey to get in a fight with us over the Kurdish Syrians — it goes on and on. We need to get rid of it. Secondly, at the core of any global or regional security system is the willingness to use force. There are grave questions about that directed at the Obama administration for very legitimate reasons. Legitimate or not, however, they're out there, and as long as we continue to dither on ISIS, we're going to have problems.
Finally, the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, all in all isn't a bad agreement. We simply have to make it clear that we will enforce its terms regarding the ballistic missiles. I'm sorry, it's in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, in Annex B; those are part of it. We have to take these things seriously. The more seriously this administration takes them, the harder it will be for someone to try to reverse this in the next administration. You do those four things, and you'll start getting better relations with your Gulf allies and everybody else in the region. What will happen? I don't think President Obama's going to do much on my laundry list. He may shut up after the Atlantic thing, and he may be harder on ISIS. We'll see. I do think the next administration almost certainly will do something like that, though.
AMB. SCHMIERER: If we're advising and predicting, I would reiterate what I said earlier: we need to cautiously try to enable the positive change in Iran by looking at things like the banking sanctions or the engagement of U.S. companies in Iran, such that those in Iran who want to change and want the country to focus more on its economic problems have the tools to do so and potentially could cause that change to be more positive. I certainly agree with Jim that reassuring our Arab allies along the lines that you've described is overdue, given where we are. Maybe that will happen in the coming weeks out in the region.
Third, I would just say, look for and support whatever positive developments there are. I was pleased to see one when I was recently in Riyadh meeting with a senior Saudi official at the foreign ministry. He mentioned that the Iraqi foreign minister had just been there. You may recall, during our time in Iraq, the efforts we made to try to get the Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, to support the emerging Iraq. I happened to mention that history to my interlocutor and he said, no, we are completely supportive of working with Iraq. Obviously we're on the same page in terms of fighting ISIS and trying to help stabilize the region. When those kinds of positive developments are nascent, it is important to encourage them. And there are such things. Some of the things happening against ISIS can be expanded and encouraged. That's the kind of advice that I would give.
MR. NAZER: I mostly agree with Ambassador Jeffrey's emphasis on Syria and trying to resolve that crisis. But, obviously, given what the Obama doctrine is, and how little time the president has in office, it's very unlikely that the conflict will come to an end. But as I said earlier, I think the violence in Syria is at the epicenter of the chaos we see in the Middle East. It's where ISIS was essentially born and has thrived. The fact that you have so many different international players in there is obviously not good and has made it a very complicated conflict. But I think as long as it's raging and as long as people continue to die on a daily basis, unfortunately, the chaos will continue in the Middle East.