Our 101st Capitol Hill Conference
Friday, July 17th - 10am - noon ET
This event was held virtually through Zoom. A full video and event recap are now available.
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Well, good morning, everyone. I am Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, vice chairwoman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m pleased to welcome you to this, our 101st Quarterly Capitol Hill Conference, virtually.
Our topic today is: “Progress of Conflict: What to Expect for U.S. Policy in the Middle East?” As we prepare for the next term of presidential leadership in January 2021, whether President Trump or President Biden, we already have a track record to consider and a body of work to review. What might change as a new administration addresses the challenges brought on by civil war in Libya, the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, or the threat of annexation of occupied territory? What difference in our stance toward Iran, if any, should we expect?
Well, we are fortunate today to have with us a panel composed of experienced policymakers and subject matter experts. They will lead us in an examination of the fundamentals that will likely underpin the U.S. approach to the Middle East going forward, regardless of administration.
However, before I turn to today’s program I’d like to say a few words about who we are. The Middle East Policy Council was established in 1981 for the purposes of promoting dialogue and education concerning the United States and the countries of the Middle East. We have three flagship programs: Our quarterly Capitol Hill conference, such as today’s event; our quarterly journal, the Middle East Policy, which enjoys a strong reputation among those with an interest in the Middle East and it can be found in some 15,000 libraries worldwide; and finally our education outreach program, Teach Mideast. It provides educational resources on the Middle East targeted mainly toward secondary school students and teachers. So please visit us at our website at www.MEPC.org and our Teach Mideast program on the web at www.TeachMideast.org to learn more about our organization and our activities.
For today’s event, I am pleased to welcome all of you who have joined us from around the world. And the conference proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, as will a recap of this discussion. And edited transcript of the program will also be published in the next volume of Middle East Policy.
Let me now briefly introduce our panelists. We will begin the program with Ambassador Anne Patterson. She currently serves on the Dow Jones Special Committee, and she is the former assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs at the Department of State. She also served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt and to Pakistan and is one of our most thoughtful specialists in the region, and was recently profiled in the book entitled, “The Ambassadors: American Diplomats on the Front Lines.”
Next we have Mara Rudman, who currently serves as executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress. Her government positions have included serving as deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs for both Presidents Obama and Clinton. She’s been deputy envoy and chief of staff for the Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace at the Department of State, and the assistant administrator for the Middle East at the Agency for International Development. Mara is also a faculty fellow at Georgetown University, and early in her career, when we first met, she was chief counsel for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Next we have Dr. Sanam Vakil, who is deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House. There, she leads the Future Dynamics in the Gulf project and the Iran Forum. Dr. Vakil is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, and the James Anderson professorial lecture in the Middle East Studies Department at the Johns Hopkins University, SAIS. In addition to her many accomplishments, she is author of “Action and Reaction: Women and Politics in Iran.” Welcome, Dr. Vakil.
And our final speaker is F. Gregory Gause, III. Dr. Gause is professor of international affairs and the John H. Lindsey ’44 chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He has also served on the faculties of the University of Vermont and Colombia University, and has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and at Harvard University. He has published three books, including “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.” Welcome, Dr. Gause.
I’d like to thank all four of you for joining us today. The program will begin with each panelist delivering brief remarks. And this will be followed up by a discussion session which will be moderated by my colleague, Dr. Thomas Mattair, who is the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. And with that, I will turn the screen over to Ambassador Patterson.
ANNE PATTERSON: Thank you very much, Gina. And thank you to MEPC for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to b with such a distinguished group of experts. I’m going to focus on what I think U.S. policy would be in the Middle East in the next administration, regardless of who wins the election. And then I was asked to make some remarks about Egypt.
I think whoever wins the U.S. election will confront a more confused and violent situation in the Middle East than we’ve seen in years. Libya now bears similarity to Syria as a civil war, with lots of outside intervention. Lebanon’s melting down. Jordan’s under pressure. There have been some curious explosions in Iran recently, with strategic consequences. And we’re very fortunate to have, I would say, the country’s most preeminent expert on the Gulf with us today, Dr. Gause, so I’ll leave that part of the world to him.
But the questions are: What should the U.S. do about it, and what are U.S. interests in the region now? First, I thought I’d start with some of the trends that any income administration would have to focus on. And the first, I think, is the Turks are back in the region with a vengeance. I was personally a little surprised that Turkish troops could actually turn back General Haftar, who had gotten support from Egypt, and the UAE, and Russia. I thought that would probably put him over the top, but the Turks now have troops in Qatar, they’ve played a preeminent role in Syria, they are aggressively asserting their claims on energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. So the Turkish presence is a – any administration is going to have to deal with that.
And the second is renewed Russia influence in the region. Of course, this goes back to Russia’s absolutely ruthless support of Bashar al-Assad with air power. But there’s no question that Russian success in Syria – and let’s call it success – has improved its standing with Arabs, and has made them a major, and perhaps permanent, diplomatic and military presence in Libya. So any new administration is going to have to deal with the Russians, and not just in Libya and Syria.
The third important trend, I think, is going to be economic strife, particularly in countries that were already on the brink. Remittances, not just from the Gulf but also from Europe, because of COVID are supposed to fall by over 20 percent. In Lebanon, which – a country that’s been surprisingly resilient in recent years – remittances account for 12 ½ percent of GDP. In Egypt, the figure is 8.8 percent of GDP. Egypt, a country which has had some considerable economic success in recent years and a very major gas fine, is now facing a double head of a drop in tourism revenues and remittances.
And maybe here is a good part to talk a little more about Egypt, which is still the most populous and important Arab state, but one which has watched its diplomatic and cultural strength falter considerably in recent years. So quite apart from economic challenges, Egypt is now facing two major strategic ones: What to do about Libya, and what to do about the Ethiopian dam. First, on Libya, I read an anonymous analysis a couple of days ago which basically said that the Egyptians can’t do much in Libya to support Haftar to combat the Turks because of their short supply lines and their configuration of their force.
That sounded about right to me. We’ve seen the shortcomings of the Egyptian army against an insurgency in the Sinai, where the Israelis had to bail them out. But it’s certainly true that the Egyptians have legitimate security interests in Libya, because when Gadhafi fell weapons flowed out to the Sinai, as well as every other armed actor in the region. I suspect they will proceed cautiously, but you can see a scenario easily in which Turkish and Egyptian troops would come into direct conflict.
And the second strategic challenge for Egypt is Ethiopia’s filing of what’s called the Greater Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will reduce flow to the Nile. This will aggravate Egypt’s already climate change-induced reduction of arable land. And fertility rates in Egypt are going up, after a recent decline, which will put even more pressure on agriculture. The Obama administration and the Trump administration, from what I can tell, has worked to resolve this issue between the Ethiopians, and the Sudanese, and the Egyptians without much success.
I don’t know the current status of the negotiation, or what the Ethiopians are doing on actually filling the dam right now. That’s a subject of some speculation. But I do know that this is basically a life or death issue for Egypt, and a lot more important than a bunch of Turkish troops in Libya. I don’t know what they can do about it, except to pursue diplomatic solutions. But even when I was in Egypt there were hints of military action if the Ethiopians should proceed with the dam.
On the domestic side, much has been written about Egypt’s crackdown on activists, and journalists, and now doctors. Still, I think the main long-term threat to President al-Sisi would come from his colleagues in the military who either want a crack at the top or who are worried about what he is doing would undermine the prestige of the military. But at least in the short run, I don’t think Egypt will be on the list of those crises countries that any new administration would have to deal with early on. But I think the long-term trends are hugely challenging.
So any American administration’s going to have to confront the profound fatigue with the region, and a lot’s been written about this. Historically our interests have been in the free flow of oil and gas and the protection of Israel, and those have faded. The Israelis can take care of themselves. The free flow of oil and gas didn’t fade as much as people thought when American senators and President Trump had to get on the phone and talk the Saudis down from their oil price war with the Russians. The U.S. still has interests, of course, in alleviating human suffering, counterterrorism – which I want to stress is still an important objective. And we’re really only one attack away from the war on terror coming back with a vengeance.
Any American administration is going to have to decide what to do about presence. When we talk about presence, we’re really talking about the big bases in the Gulf where most people are – Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait. But the troops are also in Syria, and Iraq, and Jordan, and the U.S. participation in the MFO. There’s been a lot of talk about reductions, but as far as I can tell they haven’t been substantial, and we even put troops into Saudi Arabia, now withdrawn, after the Abqaiq attacks. The National Defense Strategy called for taking more risk in the Middle East, but no one really knows what that means. But still, I think with the U.S. jaw-dropping deficits and lots of pressure for domestic spending, there are going to be huge pressures on the defense budget. So economic priorities are going to coincide with fatigue to encourage, I think, a more rapid U.S. drawdown.
A corollary to this is arms sales, which I suspect a Biden administration would look at with more skepticism. I think this will include both arms that countries pay for themselves and those that the U.S. taxpayer provide, like in Egypt. All of these are valid tools in the American playbook, but they need to absolutely increase partner capacity and interoperability and not just give countries what they want to get their hands on. So I think a Democratic administration is going to take a hard look at both arms sales and security assistance throughout the region.
So let me speculate about President Biden. His views on the House of Saud are well-known. He articulated those in a debate, somewhat to my surprise. But I think you can go to Dan Benaim’s article about Saudi Arabia and see where, I think, the Biden administration is coming out on Saudi Arabia. There’s going to be a lot more emphasis on human rights. I think throughout the region they’ll be more interested in labor rights, women’s rights, historically important Democratic priorities, and I think far more interested – far more emphasis on ending the war in Yemen.
Vice President Biden has also said he’d reenter the Iran nuclear agreement. I think the real issue there is under what terms. The Iranians are out of compliance with the agreement now. It only has five or 10 years to run, depending on how you look at it. How would they reenter or renegotiate? And then I think you can go to an article by Jake Sullivan and Dan Benaim that they are proposing a broadscale dialogue on the Middle East, mostly between Iran and the Gulf, but not exclusively. It would be complicated, but I think people who are in the international community could handle this.
So I think that’s pretty clear. I think there are other questions about what any administration would do with the Israeli-Palestinians. There’s been a lot of talk about a reassessment of our policy toward Israel by Democratic progressives. I guess I’d be skeptical that any administration is going to have to decide about what to do about the two-state solution. Quite apart, in my view, is not only what to do about the lack of a Palestinian partner, but about the economics of this, because any peace plan is going to require a huge amount of money. And the conventional wisdom has always been if you could get to that point, Congress would write a blank check. I just don’t see that happening anymore. And any peace process, to be successful, is going to require a lot of financial support.
A couple of positive notes, I hope any administration would continue to support Tunisia. It’s been a – it has current – you know, some current problems right now, but it’s been a remarkable success story. I think – and there’s been articles written on this recently. Maybe the policy in Syria is really working. And maybe there’s an opportunity now and with the impact of the Caesar sanctions to really move Assad toward some kind of political deal. If you’re skeptical, I understand that after all these years. And then the issues of the – of the camps – (inaudible) – huge displaced persons camp. We desperately need to up our diplomatic game. Our embassies are closed, and understaffed, and evacuated from COVID. And we’ve never gotten over the risk aversion from Benghazi. So we’ve got to get people out into these regions.
And then finally, I want to say a note of caution about the transition, which I suspect if Vice President Biden wins could be very rocky indeed. They’re always rocky. But if you’re in the Middle East and you know the U.S. is distracted, are there gains you want to – you want to lock in while the Trump administration is still in power, and prevent the Biden administration with a fait accompli? You can sort of think through some unpleasant scenarios with that. But I’ll stop here and maybe we can discuss this more in the questions and answers. Thank you.
MARA RUDMAN: Thanks, Anne. I think I am up next. And I want to start with a thank you to the Middle East Policy Council for bringing us together, for Gina, and Anne, as always, really appreciated hearing your thoughts. You laid out very helpful framing for me to step in here. I am – I want to talk particularly about where we are on – where the United States is and may be going on Israeli-Arab, specifically Israeli-Palestinian issues and challenges. And I would say I agree in part and disagree in part with Anne’s layout of some of those issues. I believe very strongly that the United States has a strong interest in working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in being seen to be doing so.
I think this is for a variety of reasons and has continued over time, even as politics certainly around the world, between and among the actors, and the United States may have shifted some on this, in various directions. But to me, the United States still has very – a strong interest in a more sustainable regional security and stability, points that Anne made. I continue to believe that working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually key to actually being able to get to that sustainable regional security and stability. I also think there are links to our ability, the United States’ ability, to help to form more lasting regional, economic, and security cooperation structures.
I think that Sanam, who is talking – Sanam who’s talking after me may further emphasize that, particularly in how we most effectively come together to deal with the ongoing threats from Iran and looking at new ways of – in the next administration; I don’t think it's going to happen in this one – of getting to a different or – a different Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with respect to Iran. I’m going to leave that to my colleague, Sanam, to talk more about, but I think working on the Israeli-Palestinian effort in a more constructive way than has been the case for some time could help significantly in these other regional issues.
And I also – and this is where Anne and I may differ some – I strongly believe that the longstanding ties to Israel by the United States, that relationship continues to be critical. To me, it’s important to note that that’s premised not only on Israel’s role as a key security ally in a volatile region, and it’s also historically because of our shared democratic values. I think it’s the second part is the most vulnerable now. And so that may be part of the question of how those interests by some are being reevaluated. But I would, again, put them in the category of that’s why it’s so important to think in new, creative ways going forward about what opportunities are to resolve this long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
The U.S. approach that has embraced – this administration, that has embraced unilateral annexation goes in exactly the opposite direction, to my mind. It helps to solidify a one-state reality. It limits U.S. opportunities to construct some of the viable regional structures that I think are so important. And so it results in constraining our options with respect to Iran and other challenges in the region. And it certainly further dims the political horizon for a sustainable two-state solution. I fully appreciate the very open questions about how attainable that two-state solution is at this point.
It is also clear to me that a one-state reality is not in the interests of – the current contours a one-state reality are not in the interests of, to my mind, any of the parties on the ground – certainly not to the United States and to the other opportunities for us in the region that I laid out. It stands in the way of that. I would – I would want to focus in terms of how we can do better going forward. And let me just be clear, I think there’s a low – that’s a low threshold right now, given how we have done on some of these issues for some period of time. But I would look at four basic ways that the United States, going forward, could improve on, and increase the opportunities to get to a – to some sort of resolution between Israelis and Palestinians that serves our interests and theirs much better.
I think the first – and I’ll step through the four briefly and then come back and go into a little bit more detail. I think the first is to focus on context and politics, both – for everyone involved in the region, for the players, and being mindful of that in the United States. I think second, America leads best by keeping our eyes – by helping to keep all eyes on the horizon, laying out a clear political horizon, working with the parties to do so, and helping to play the path for reaching it. And I think that, third, progress is most likely when we can, in doing so, get the parties to engage directly with one another.
And finally, appreciating Anne’s point about the challenge overall on the economic situation and on being able to get support politically for the kind of massive assistance that might be necessary should the conflict be resolved, I also think it’s important to keep in mind that U.S. assistance on the path to getting there is critical. And it is a very important tool, used effectively. I do not believe the efforts to deploy that coercively are likely to be helpful with either party.
So, first, focusing on context and politics, I think there are tremendous opportunities for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front if we correctly account for the geopolitical surroundings and look critically at Israeli and Palestinian politics. Let me give an example. When we look at the security interests and concerns that Israel has in the region and really think about what they would – how they would benefit or how they would be harmed going forward by the amount of – by annexation of the Jordan Valley as part of – it’s obviously part of the current plan of President Trump, the Kushner plan that’s out there. Annexing the Jordan Valley is within the 30 percent of annexation that is laid out in that plan. And is certainly a very open question right now within Israel about whether that will proceed.
Going forward with annexation would leave a number of Israeli settlements, regardless of views on the legality of those settlements, would leave them – would have them require far more Israeli security, military work, efforts, cooperation. It would be deeply destabilizing to Jordan, key player on the security front for the region, and whose relationship with Israel in that respect is very important. And would have a destabilizing – significantly destabilizing effect in multiple ways in the rest of the region. So looking at Israel’s security interests and being able to have conversations with Israelis in the terms that are important to them but being able to show why and how the ways they might proceed are contrary to those interests are important.
It's as important to recognize, in my experience, how important security is for Palestinians. And by security there what I have heard repeatedly from Palestinians, most of the Palestinians I know, is the importance of having a secure future for themselves and their children, for being able to carry out the aspects of daily life that are important, and do so in a way that is safe, and stable, and certainly, I would say, more open than it is at this point. Water is another key issue. Anne referenced in the context of Egypt and Ethiopia, but really throughout the region it’s both a critical resource, a scarce resource, and one where there have been very effective efforts to work together regionally on various water – desalinization and other issues. And so looking at that opportunity as well, to be able to do more understanding where all the parties are and figure out ways forward based on what has worked successfully in the past.
And then I’d also reference, of course, the security and economic architectures regionally that are quite important to a number of players, and particularly in the context of dealing with Iran, but also more generally. And so being able to look at how working towards resolution of this issue can also help in building or further strengthening regional security and economic architectures is a real opportunity for the United States. And doing so by – for America, by both creating a vision or helping to understand where the parties are, then work with them on what that vision might be, and then look at how we get there.
So we certainly need Israelis and Palestinians to agree on what the – what is necessary to be able to sustain peace going forward. Generally they have done better when there are various players focused on understanding their needs and being able to help to move things forward in that respect. And as I said, that’s by assessing the politics of all involved and understanding what the United States gets out of it. I think we can do a much better job of articulating why things are in our interest, and why continued investment and engagement to move forward with an ear towards where the parties are and where we think they can get to is very, very crucial.
This also goes to the fact that progress is most likely when the parties engage directly with one another. They are very far from being able to do that right now, but one thing that we have seen with certainty is that attempts to impose solutions by the United States or others, generally counterproductive. On the flipside, when the parties come together on their own, and the United States comes in to support, and maybe quietly in the background helping them along the way to get to those first engagements, Oslo – the Oslo talks in Norway as one example of that, even earlier President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, and the Camp David agreement that followed from that, is another example.
We need to find ways, find what it will take to be able to help the parties get to a place where they can actually engage productively with one another because any sustainable solution is going to depend upon that. And I would say at this point the solutions out there, we should be open to them taking many different forms. I continue to believe that the best approach would be getting to a Palestinian and Israeli state but, again, to me, the underlying import is getting to what Palestinians and Israelis can agree upon and getting them to the place where they can actually be engaging to define those terms.
And with that, I come to USAID, because our assistance around the world continues to be – is a critical tool of foreign policy and of ability to move and help move people where we want them to go. It has – it is while often not politically uneasy to move forward foreign assistance here in the United States, it is – it generally in providing assistance is something that helps the United States as much as it helps the people that we are providing the assistance to. And I think that’s an important frame to have. So having pulled back significantly on assistance to Palestinians over the last several years, when I was running those programs we were providing between $3-400 million a year in economic aid, and another hundred million or so for security cooperation, coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.
That numbers has – the numbers have trickled to almost nothing and we, of course, are not writing any assistance at this point to UNRWA, who – which ran about $300 million a year to the UNRWA and other U.N. organizations. And so they are left to have Qatar and others fill in the gaps when dealing with the very significant Palestinian refugee population around the region, and particularly in Gaza, as well as in the West Bank. And so we, the United States, lose out when we zero ourselves out of the equation on assistance. And that also, to me, applies to security assistance from Israel.
I would go back to my initial points about the importance of Israel as an ally in the region. And I continue to believe that fundamentally that is something that would not change, regardless of who was present in the United States. And so the security assistance we give to Israel supports our interests as much as it supports Israel’s interests in the region and helps to reinforce the relationship that we have with Israel. Just as providing assistance, again, to the Palestinians at appropriate levels to help them deal with issues that are critical for their – for Palestinians on the ground – would further enhance Americans’ ability to have the leverage that we need with the players, as well as with international actors who right now are stepping in to fill the gap that the United States has left by our absence on the assistance front.
And so there’s – I believe strongly that both others cannot do some of these things as effectively as the United States can. And in addition to that, we cede ground. Anne mentioned Russia’s dominance increasing – Russia’s increasing role in the region. China is also – we’re seeing in various respects coming into play. And when the United States takes away – takes away a key tool that we have to be able to be an active player, we hurt ourselves as much if not more than we hurt the parties.
So let me stop there and turn to my colleague, Sanam Vakil, who I’m very interested to hear from on Iran and the broader regional implications. Thank you.
SANAM VAKIL: Thank you so much, Mara. And thank you to Gina for the very kind introduction. It’s a real pleasure and honor to be speaking alongside this distinguished panel. As Mara suggested, I’m going to focus my comments on the foreign policy challenge of Iran, which will undoubtably be very important for either outcome on November 3rd. I think that the issue of Iran is something that isn’t a concern of just the United States at this point. And the wider European policymaking community, the wider Middle East is also very concerned about U.S. foreign policy towards the Islamic Republic. And all eyes have been on November 3rd, and will be on November 3rd, for some sort of perhaps clarity on U.S. position vis-à-vis Iran, and how that is going to impact the region.
So we know that for two years now the Trump administration has been very directly pursuing maximum pressure against the Islamic Republic, having withdrawn from the JCPOA on May 18th, 2018. The stated objectives of that policy were twofold. One, to reduce Iran’s regional influence and, second, to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. And here we are in July 2020 and neither of those outcomes have come to fruition. And I would like to speak to you as to why I think that hasn’t happened, and in principle I’m going to speak to some mistaken assumptions perhaps made by the current administration that are sort of preventing them from achieving an opportunity for negotiations with Tehran that could potentially lead to maybe altered Iranian engagement in the region.
But I think thinking through some of these issues is really important for a Biden administration, as well as a Trump administration, because maximum pressure, I would argue, is really not working. And in fact, what we have borne witness to over the past two years is Iran’s maximum resistance strategy, which has very much dramatically altered Iran’s domestic political climate, but also as part of Iran’s maximum resistance strategy it has sought to transfer pressure and instability to the region as part of its spreading the pain, plan and strategy of obtaining leverage through the sanctions-based strategy.
So let me sort of talk through my thinking on this, and also just let you know that much of my analysis is informed from a research paper that we conducted at Chatham House. And it came out last year. It was an interview-based research study that drew upon expert interviews with analysists and policymakers in ten countries, the signatories of the Iran nuclear agreement, but also drew on analysis from Israeli researchers and policymakers, and Emirati researchers and policymakers, Iranian researchers and policymakers, and also Saudis.
And the findings of the paper that we concluded and drew upon suggested that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, which was designed to sort of achieve concessions from Iran in nuclear areas with regards to ballistic missile program and also with regards to the region, were really a bit of an overstretch, and for a number of reasons. And among the main reasons are some of these mistaken assumptions that the administration, and also many policymakers in the Middle East, sort of make when they look at the Islamic Republic. I think it’s important to look at the domestic decision making inside Iran as one of those sort of areas where these assumptions are oftentimes wrong.
First of all, people assume that politics don’t matter in Iran. And I would argue that they very much matter in Iran. And they matter because this isn’t a sort of monolithic system that all thinks the same. You have contending factions with contending visions. They might be united as members of the political establishment in protecting the Islamic Republic, seeking stability and security for the Islamic Republic, but they have different visions as to how to achieve that end game. And so I see the internal politics as producing different policies.
If you just go back to the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, you will remember that policy was much more confrontational, inflammatory. There was very heated rhetoric. And it’s during that period that Iran moved away from a more concessionary approach that was seen, under the previous administration of Mohammad Khatami, and became confrontational with its nuclear program, and much more supportive of its regional alliances, including Hezbollah. And we saw Hezbollah engage in the 2006 war, for example, in that period.
And politics matter also under – with the Rouhani administration, because that is an administration that had overwhelming public support in Iran. And politics matter because this state – and this, of course, is another area where oftentimes in the United States you hear that obviously the voting in Iran is restricted, it’s monitored, candidates are vetted, but people do vote. And seeing sort of the preferences of the population I think is also quite interesting.
And also seeing the growing apathy that has developed inside Iran as the U.S. has engaged in maximum pressure and imposed sanctions writ large throughout the Iranian economy, we witnessed in the February elections of just this year lowest voter participation that we’ve seen in decades inside Iran. And that’s bad because, of course, it signals that people are disengaging. It’s also bad because the outcome of disengagement generally lends to conservative and hardline candidates from winning elections inside Iran.
And this is important because it – what we are slowly witnessing is the gradual empowerment of conservative groups within the elected bodies of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s parliament is currently – has a conservative majority. That conservative majority is not, again, monolithic. They have different ideas amongst themselves. But this shift is – it suggests and perhaps foreshadows that Iran’s May or June 2021 presidential elections might take a similar shift. And the outcome of that election could bring a more hardline and conservative – or conservative political leader to the presidency.
And with that sort of conservative monopoly of elected and unelected bodies inside Iran, on the one hand, maybe there will be consensus, and that consensus could be good for the United States. But at the same time, that conservative monopoly of power could lead to more confrontational regional policy, confrontational regional policy, confrontational policy vis-à-vis the United States. It’s really unclear. And more importantly, I think, in the domestic environment, that kind of consensus allows for conservatives to dominate the political narrative within the state, and sort of prepare for a succession of the supreme leader that is really on the horizon, and something that Iran watchers have been waiting for, and think that a conservative monopoly would not usher in any sort of moderate or alternative candidates that would come to fruition.
Another assumption here in the Iranian domestic scene that is also – I think reveals a misunderstanding of the Islamic Republic, is that – the assumption that sanctions and the strangling of the Iranian economy would alter Iran’s decision making. And I think that this is reductive, again, because analysists have maybe pointed to the last effort of multilateral sanctions that took place from 2011-2012, where Iran was constrained in its ability to export oil, as the sort of determination for Iran to come to the negotiating table and to negotiate specifically with the United States.
And in my study in specific, many of the respondents – in fact, the majority of the respondents – suggested otherwise, that Iran doesn’t make decisions based on – solely based on its GDP, or its oil exports. They’re important, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to underplay the economic impact of sanctions today. They have been momentous, and I will get to that. But at the same time, it’s – the Iranian shift was seen when the American position shifted towards Iran on the possibility of having a domestic indigenous enrichment program. And that compromise was mentioned overwhelmingly as having driven Iran’s willingness to come back to the negotiating table.
And here, we’ve seen the Islamic Republic leaders from across the political spectrum be very unified on what the conditionality for their return to negotiations is. That is, the removal of sanctions. Maybe not all of the sanctions but providing a face-saving solution and off-ramp for the Islamic Republic to be able to return to the negotiating table. And this would be important to provide some sort of justification to contending voices within the political elite, but also to have some kind of trust and not be at the negotiating table from a position of complete weakness and humiliation. And I think that is an important prism to understand.
Additionally, you know, I think that there’s been a lot of speculation that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse, that it’s weakening. What we have also seen over this two-year period of maximum pressure is that – and this isn’t new to this period but I think it’s important to stress – that the state in Iran is not afraid to use violence to protect the security and stability of the state. We have seen the government be very violent and suppress protests and demonstrations repeatedly. And at the same time, the state is also trying to demonstrate that it is resilient, and its resilience is giving political leaders a bit of confidence.
And what am I referring to? I’m specifically focusing on the economic prism here. Iran’s supreme leader has very much advocated for, as part of maximum resistance, a strategy to build a resistance economy that is very domestically oriented and diversified. And what we have witnessed now is, of course, the economy is under extreme pressure, and in a huge recession. Inflation is back over 40 percent. Unemployment is rising. And it’s ordinary Iranians that are very much feeling the pressure of these policies. But the state, at the same time, has adapted, has diversified, is no longer reliant predominantly on oil and gas exports, and in fact has become a services and manufactured-oriented economy.
And it is surviving by becoming more dependent on regional trade. And I think this is a really important point when thinking about wanting to reduce Iran’s regional influence, Iran is now more than ever reliant on trade with Iraq, with Afghanistan, with all of its neighbors. And it's looking to draw down on its own national defense fund, the development fund, and looking for alternative strategies to stay afloat. So within this domestic climate there’s sort of a lot of misreading of how adaptable and flexible the Iranian state actually is.
A second point would be to also look at the assumption that the United States can really go it alone vis-à-vis Iran. What was really important the last time around in getting to the negotiating table was a multilateral approach. And that multilateral approach saw Russia, China, the countries known as the E3 – Great Britain, France, and Germany – all come together collectively in this negotiating process that became the Iran nuclear agreement or JCPOA. But over the past two years the Trump administration’s very transactional bullying – I mean, and I’m quoting European policymakers here – approach has very much frustrated particularly Europe and European allies, who share a lot of concerns with Washington about Iran’s regional influence, about Iran’s ballistic missile program.
But they can’t go there, and they can’t address these topics because Europe is principally concerned about saving the Iran nuclear agreement above all right now. And it is caught in the middle, unable to provide economic sanctions relief, unable to save the deal, and frustrated because all of the negotiating efforts, the Macron plan that was pursued last year, an effort to bring President Rouhani and President Trump together, also failed to come to fruition. And instead, Iran has reacted by breeching incrementally different parts of the Iran nuclear agreement, such that the nuclear deal today is very fragile. It’s in tatters, if you will.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has passed a resolution condemning Iran for blocking even access to inspectors. And I think the European approach still today is to try and protect and shield the JCPOA from the Trump administration’s efforts to hollow out the agreement before the November elections. And this is going to continue to play out in the months ahead as there is a growing contest over extending Iran’s arms embargo that is meant to expire in October, with the Trump administration threatening to snapback sanctions and destroy the deal if the remaining signatories don’t agree to a formal or informal extension of the arms embargo. So this unilateral approach is another huge challenge.
And then finally, looking at the region itself, there is, I think, a mistaken assumption that regional partners and allies of the United States are feeling more secure by maximum pressure. And I’m sure Greg is going to talk about this a bit more. But this insecurity I think and anxiety from U.S. allies has been very evident to me, as we saw last summer’s attacks on tankers throughout the Persian Gulf, the September 14th attacks on Abqaiq, no U.S. meaningful response took place in that period of time. I think that even – I’ve heard from Gulf policymakers that – I mean, and this is, of course, quite quiet – but the Trump’s – the withdrawal from the JCPOA is even an issue because it suggests that perhaps future negotiations with any U.S. administration cannot be guaranteed as well.
And so, you know, it just sort of enhances the anxieties of regional partners that had hoped that the U.S. would continue to maintain and protect the security relationship and commitment to these states. At the same time, President Trump has dangled the prospect – repeatedly dangled the prospect of a deal with Iran. And I think that fuels competition further. The administration hasn’t been able to solve the Qatar crisis. And at the same time, we’ve seen the United Arab Emirates move closer to Iran in reaction to the events of last summer.
Now, of course, we have January 3rd as maybe a different sort of inflection point where the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani. And General McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM even said that some semblance of rough deterrence has been established via-a-vis Iran. But I think the key point that he made when he made that statement was, for now. And we are sort of – even Tehran is in this sort of waiting game moment trying to also play its cards before November – waiting until they get to November before they make any sort of escalative ploys going forward.
So we haven’t seen a return to negotiations because of some of these assumptions. And I just quickly want to mention that we also haven’t seen a reduced Iranian footprint in the region. And I think that this is also part of a mistaken analysis of how Iran engages in the region. We’ve seen the kinetic action and reaction over the past year, but Iran’s relationship with proxy groups and nonstate actors are not solely train and equip or command and control relationships. The way Iran engages is multifaceted, it’s multi-actored, and it operates at a diplomatic level with multiple actors that are not solely sectarian. It operates on an economic level, not just through the IRGC, but also includes private sector engagement. And be it in Iraq, be it in Syria, and beyond, it operates through the use of its soft power engagement simultaneously.
And then, of course, you do have the military relationship that is not solely IRGC. There’s intelligence, there’s security relationships. So I’m not saying that it will be impossible to manage Iran’s role in the region, but it’s important to understand the contours of that relationship, the depths of those relations, that oftentimes are decades old and familial based and personal. And just rolling back the military footprint isn’t necessarily going to reduce Iran’s presence in the region or Iran’s regional ambitions, if you will.
And looking at the economic ties today and how Iran is more reliant on regional trade than ever, to me, suggests that even if you roll back the train and equip, command and control nature of some of those ties, Iran’s economic engagement and economic burrowing into these economies is going to make Iran even more secure in those relationships. So it’s going to be even more of a challenge.
So where does that leave prospects for a Biden or a Trump administration? It’s hard to see the Trump administration altering course. I’m going to be very honest. I’m hopeful that, you know, perhaps a back channel post-election could be set up. And I think that that would be the best way to try to rebuild some trust and establish the contours of what a new negotiation could look like. But I’m not very optimistic that their – that the administration is going to prioritize and invest in those kind of negotiations, because they’re going to be long, and they’re going to be lengthy, and they’re, frankly, going to be painful. And future negotiations are also going to require greater collaboration with U.S. allies and partners, and of course also contending a greater Russian and Chinese presence in the Middle East.
For a Biden administration, I think that there are some opportunities. I mean, as Ambassador Patterson mentioned, there are indications that there could be a reentry/renegotiation of the JCPOA. I think that’s a really important opportunity to capitalize on. I think that perhaps using the current fragility of the JCPOA to renegotiate is a really good opportunity, and one that could be embraced also by Tehran, because Tehran also had frustrations with the deal and the economic delivery, access to SWIFT, and investment. So there are opportunities there.
And the dispute resolution mechanism is a framework that could be used for all parties to come back together and renegotiate the U.S. entry, and make it conditional for perhaps extensions to the sunsets, maybe inclusion of Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program. But regional issues will require a wider negotiation and a wider framework that will, I think, require discipline and commitment, not just from the United States but also Europe and, I think, the Security Council permanent members as well, and will require multilateral and bilateral processes that will involve many actors in the region. And I’m just not sure that the next administration, even a Biden one, will have the discipline and commitment to invest in that process. I hope so.
Ultimately I would say that having Iran be a partisan issue is a problem. I think that now that I have moved abroad and been abroad for an extended period of time, I think the partisan nature of U.S. policy towards Iran and also to the Arab Gulf does a disservice to American interests in the region and ultimately fosters a greater insecurity around the Middle East. And this insecurity is being really exploited not just by Russia and China, but through the creation of new ideological blocs and new power competition that is taking place in the Middle East.
What you see – you sort of see vague alliances between Turkey, Qatar, you might throw Iran there on some issues, you might not. And against other countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt. And how that plays out I think is going to be really quite dangerous for the region. And it’s not going to be benefitting U.S. security interests ultimately. So I’ll stop there. Sorry if I over spoke. But thank you very much.
And I’m going to turn the floor over to Greg Gause.
F. GREGORY GAUSE III: Thanks very much. I’m in the unenviable position of the last person on a panel where all – everything that’s worth saying has already been said. But of course, it hasn’t been said by me, so I’ll soldier on.
When I think of American policy in the Middle East, American foreign policy, it’s really affected by two things. It’s affected by things happening in the region and it’s affected by things happening here at home. And what I want to do is lay out in very telegraphic form three things that I see in the region that are very important that are going to affect now the next American administration has to deal with it, and then three changes that I think are happening inside the United States itself in terms of our perceptions – our chattering class and our governing class’s perceptions of the Middle East that are going to affect how American policy gets formed.
So the three things that are happening in the region that I think are going to be really central for how any American administration has to confront the region are, first and most important, the long-term weakening and collapse of state authority in so many parts of the region. In some countries, this has been a decades-long process – in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Iraq. In some places it was more sudden as a result of the Arab Spring, Syria, Libya. But these political vacuums that have been created by the collapse of authority in the region are, I think, the fundamental reality of regional geopolitics.
They invite intervention both by regional powers – like Iran, like Turkey, like Qatar, like the UAE, like Saudi – and international powers, like the Russians and us. They also encourage radicalization. Civil wars basically encourage the more radical side. They allow jihadist groups to have areas in which they can operate. This, I think, is the long-term issue in the region. And it’s going to take decades to reconstruct political authority. And the problem for the United States is that we don’t have any idea about how to help people do that. We’re very good at state destroying, but we’re not very good at state building.
The second thing that I think we have to realize about the region is that we’re seeing the modified return of great-power politics. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate here. Russia is not the Soviet Union and China remains very reluctant to get directly involved in the geopolitics of the region – I think because they’re smart. But the unique configuration of the post-Cold War world where the United States was unchallenged in the region, and the unique incentives of the post-9/11 world, where the United States wanted to go in and do a lot of stuff, are basically over.
Third, we have to recognize the gradual decline in the centrality of the region’s oil to the global economy. Now, I emphasize gradual. Not immediate. Middle East oil is still extremely important in terms of global geopolitics, right? We saw that with the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. We see that with China perhaps, perhaps, perhaps creeping into some new strategic relationship with Iran. However, the long-term decline in the importance of the region’s oil is real, and it’s going to affect this issue of state capacity, because so much of state capacity, I think, in previous decades was built either directly or indirectly on oil.
And so with the challenge of rebuilding political authority facing so much of the region, the decline in oil revenues is going to make that task that much harder, right? So the collapse of authority, the return – the modified return of great-power politics, and the gradual decline in the geopolitical centrality of the region’s oil is something that any American administration is going to have to think about.
How about the changes at home? Again, I’m going to identify three in a very telegraphic way. First, American policy in the Middle East, like American policy on so many things, is becoming increasingly partisan. During the Cold War, and in the post-Cold War period – that golden age of American power in the region which, you know, I think we squandered largely – changes in administrations, even changes from Republican to Democratic and Democratic to Republican administrations didn’t change American policy in the Middle East that much. In fact, hardly changed it at all. There was something of a consensus on how American policy should work in the Middle East, and what America wanted out of the Middle East.
I think that’s over. And I think we see that in three issues. I think we see it in Israel – on Israel. It’s not that anyone in the American political system wants to abandon Israel, or anything like that. But Republicans, they’re much, much more comfortable with the Israeli right, and Democrats are much less comfortable with the Israeli right than they used to be, and much more comfortable criticizing Israeli policies that come from the right wing, which is dominant in Israeli politics now in a way that it has not been in previous periods in American-Israeli relations.
Second, Iran. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Republican Party has become a party of region change in Iran. And I just – I just think that’s obvious. Whereas the Democratic Party is a party that wants to engage with Iran, not because they like the Iranians or not because they support Iranian power in the region, but because they think engaging with Iran is the best way to contain some of the worst-case scenarios that could result from Iranian political development.
And finally, I think this has come out most clearly in the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia has become a much more partisan issue. For decades, the reality of U.S.-Saudi relations was nobody liked the Saudis, but whoever was in the White House wanted to work with the Saudis. That’s Republicans and Democrats. I think that particularly the embrace of Saudi Arabia by the Trump administration, and the embrace of the Trump administration Mohammad Bin Salman, is unique and has driven Democrats into a much more a critical position on Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have misplayed their hand on all sorts of things – Jamal Khashoggi killing, the Yemen war, of course we can go through those. But I think that the partisan temperature on Saudi Arabia in American policy is higher than I’ve ever seen. And I think that will be reflected in a Biden administration. President Trump is both a symptom and a cause of this partisanship. He’s obviously a cause because of who he is, right, and the way he acts. And that’s obvious. But he’s also a symptom. I mean, I think that these trends were happening in American politics before the Trump administration, the Trump administration has simply accelerated them.
The second American reality that I discern that’s going to affect our policy in the region is the increasing belief that the Middle East is just not that important. I think we have to recognize that that’s a product of a couple of things. Iraq-Afghanistan fatigue. I think it’s a product of very exaggerated arguments about American energy independence. Again, I see a long-term decline in the geopolitical centrality of Middle East oil, but there’s a lot of people in the United States who argue that that’s not gradual, it doesn’t matter anymore. And so you see this kind of argument that the Middle East is just not that important. And frankly, you see it from people who used to advocate for very intense American engagement in the region. I think this cuts across the partisan divide.
Third, and somewhat paradoxically given point two, is our inability to cut the cord on the Middle East. The last three elections were won by the candidate who was more dovish on the Middle East. Obama versus McCain, we knew who was more dovish on the Middle East there. Obama versus Romney, still I think President Obama was more dovish. Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. Donald Trump as the one who said that we’re fighting stupid wars and we had to get out of the Middle East. So the last three elections were won by presidents who said that we had to reduce the American involvement in the Middle East, and they haven’t been able to do it.
Our involvement there is still substantial – more substantial than Russia’s, much more substantial than China’s. When I talk to my friends in the Gulf and they say, you’re abandoning us, I say, how many troops are there in Camp Arifjan in Kuwait? How many ships are in the 5th Fleet home ported in Bahrain? How many American airplanes are at Udeid – at the Udeid Air Base in Doha? We are still really involved in the Middle East. And you can’t say that you want to get out of the Middle East, and then decide that you’re going to be involved in the Libyan civil war, as the Obama administration was. Can’t say you want to get out of the Middle East and then have a maximum pressure policy in Iran, as the Trump administration did.
I think of this as the Michael Corleone syndrome. In “The Godfather III,” Michael Corleone said: Just when I thought I was out, they keep dragging me back in. And I think for Americans we have to ask ourselves the question: If we’re so anxious to get out of the Middle East, and so many people in the United States say we should, why are we still there? And that’s a question I don’t think many Americans – even Americans who have dealt with the region – have been willing to think about and confront.
Finally, you’ll notice that there’s one word I have not mentioned at all, and I haven’t heard mentioned by my other panelists, and that’s COVID. Every time I get an email saying: We’re going to have a webinar on the long-term effect of COVID on the Middle East, I immediately delete that message. Epidemiologists can’t figure out what COVID’s going to look like two months from now, so I have no idea what COVID’s going to look like in the Middle East two years from now.
But I will say that I think in the short term COVID just accelerates trends that I’ve mentioned in my three points about the region itself. It makes state building harder. It challenges states that we think are still functioning states. And it presents them a series of challenges that might weaken their state capacity and show them to be not as capable. And it also, of course, accelerates the long-term decline in oil prices. And thus, I think COVID is – it’s not a driver, it’s an accelerator of trends that were already existing in the region.
With that, I’m going to turn it over to Tom Mattair, who’s going to lead questions.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: OK, thank you. I just unmuted myself, so I hope everyone can hear me.
Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground. And so – and we do have questions from the audience, which tend to be of a fairly specific nature. But the first thing I’d like to do is see if I can encourage some crosstalk among the panelists. We’ve discussed various goals and strategies that we have in the region. But I wonder how much agreement or disagreement there is among the panelists. For example, Anne talked about guaranteeing the free flow of oil out of the region. But Greg indicated that over the long term the importance of that oil is going to decline. Mara talked about protecting Israel, but I wonder are there other states in the region that we ought to be protecting as an objective of the United States?
We talked a little bit about advances that are being made in the region by Russia and Iran. There was a time when you articulated American objectives in the region one of the top ones was to prevent any other adversary from dominating the region, so how important is that now? How important is it to prevent Russia and Iran and maybe China from advancing in the region? And what should the best strategies be? I’m not clear from Mara how a two-state solution helps – as a strategy for obtaining our objectives – helps build a regional security architecture. I’d like a little more explanation there. And of course, Sanam talked very well about Iran, but what are really the prospects for diplomatic engagement with Iran as a strategy for attaining our other objectives in the region, when we might have pushback from Israel and Saudi Arabia?
I know that’s a long question, but can we find out how much agreement and disagreement we have before we go to more specific audience questions? You know, another way of putting that is – you know, and Greg wrote an article recently called, “Should We Stay or Should We Go?” And that – another way of putting it is: What should our level of engagement be in the region? Should we be disengaging? Anne said that fatigue will lead to a draw down, but should fatigue lead to a draw down? Anyone can go first.
MR. GAUSE: Anne, why don’t you go first?
MS. PATTERSON: So on the Gulf bases, so my guess is we’re not going to withdraw. It’s not just the free flow of oil. And I entirely agree with Greg that lots of Americans think we can just sort of blow this off, but we can’t. As we just saw, those bases are needed to – for lots of other things, certainly the war in Afghanistan. Also, though, they were seen – and certainly to the countries that host them – as a bulwark against Iran, which is why it’s so important to get the Iran issue settled, because it drives a lot of other issues in the Gulf. And the other reason we have those bases is these – our Gulf allies pay a lot of their own freight.
So that’s probably not the real touchstone of our – of our overextension in the Gulf. So I’d be surprised if we drew down those precipitously. The DOD’s just come out with a rule that there might be dependence there, which is going to – might change the configuration. So if I were a policymaker in the next administration, I’d start with Iran because I think it’s the key to settling the – to settling a lot of the other issues in the region.
MR. MATTAIR: Greg, you’ve pointed out that we are still there in a big way, but should we be there? What’s your opinion on should we stay or should we go?
MR. GAUSE: Sure. And for those who don’t recognize it, the title was, of course, a shoutout to The Clash.
I think we should stay. I think that there are still American interests in trying to prevent war in the oil patch. Unfortunately, in the past we have caused more disruption of oil flows than we have prevented. The Iraq War, obviously, but also our sanctions policies. But given the fact that we’ve had, in the last couple of decades – last three decades – two attacks by Middle East regional powers on Middle East oil – major Middle East oil facilities – the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Iranian attack on Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia in September of 2019. I still think that there’s a role for American military forces as both deterrent and, one hopes, as – or, one hopes that they don’t have to be used as actual defense. To me, the most surprising thing that’s happened in the Trump administration is the lack of reaction to the Iranian attack on Abqaiq. And I would have reacted much more strongly to that.
Let me just say one other thing. I think our long-term goal should be to deal with people where the state is still functioning and try as best we can to promote the restoration of political authority in the places where political authority is now weakened and challenged. That means dealing with Iran because they’ve got an address. I was – I thought JCPOA was a good idea. And I would deal with Iran directly and, I think, go away from this shimmer of a policy of regime change. I would also keep dealing with Saudi Arabia, which also has an address. And in places where political authority has collapsed, I think we have to make hard choices.
One of them is we have to recognize that, unfortunately, the Assad regime is going to govern what’s left of Syria for a while. And what we need to do is get our head around the fact that we’ve got to deal with that fact. We’ve got to decide who we want to back in Libya, because anybody ruling I think is better than what’s going on now. And in Yemen, we have to – we have to get the Saudis to find an exit ramp, because nothing good’s being done there. Yemen has always been a weak state but right now it’s a weak state that’s also a humanitarian disaster. And that can’t remain contained within Yemen for that long. It’s remained contained within Yemen since 2012. And that’s amazing. But it can’t be maintained that way for that long. That’s another reason we have to talk to Iran.
That’s a very schematic set of policy goals, Tom. But that’s where I would start if I were running the show. But as you well recognize, I’m not running the show.
MS. RUDMAN: I’m happy to jump in here because I just want to say I support fully the layout that Greg just provided to us. And I would – and his earlier comments as well. On the state building issue, fully agree. And it’s been one of my long-term frustrations in the time I’ve spent in government on figuring out why and how the United States is not better at it than we are. But I think that that is one key thing going forward that we need to continue to work on. I believe that it serves United States interests to figure out what the right level of engagement is. But departing or withdrawing does not serve us. And just to be clear, by level of involvement I mean diplomatic as well as military and in ways that, again, fit what our needs are, which I think are also with an eye to what makes the region more stable and more secure.
With respect to Israel, protecting Israel is not a zero-sum game. It doesn’t mean that – to me, and in my experience – it doesn’t mean that supporting Israel takes away the opportunities, and the ability, and what we are in fact doing in supporting and securing a number of other countries in the region. – again, where we see shared interest. So it is not and either/or.
And with respect to the extent to which a two-state solution – first of all, even is an open possibility, and I think that remains a question. The tie for me to our security and economic interests in the region were probably best articulated, frankly, by the UAE ambassador, Ambassador Otaiba, in an opinion piece in Haaretz, where he talked, I thought, extremely clearly about the – some of the natural interests that bring together Israel, and the Emiratis, and the Saudis, many of which are tied to Iran, as well as the economic openings, interests. And the difficulty of being able to proceed fully and in a sustainable way on those fronts if the ability to resolve issues with Palestinians is taken off the table. And that was, of course, in the context of annexation moves.
But that, to me, is part of the broader issue. The – I fully appreciate the difficulty at this point, and the very – what I would describe as a very slim opening to be able to get to two states right now. And I believe that we are in a one-state reality. I don’t think that’s a solution. And that’s where the key distinction is. It’s not a solution for Palestinians, for Israelis, for regional actors. What we need is to find a way to get Israelis and Palestinians to come together, discuss with one another with whatever help from outside actors, to work towards what is workable for them. If that could be one state, terrific. The likelihood of agreement on that seems slim to me. But figuring out how we – how we move forward, given what the facts are on the ground, is what is – is what is key. And I think is part of the things that Greg just laid out in terms of U.S. engagement at multiple levels in the region to serve our interests and to help the region as well.
MR. MATTAIR: Before I go on, Sanam, do you want to comment on anything?
MS. VAKIL: Sure. I would like to say that I think we all agree the U.S. should stay. (Laughs.) I think it’s important for the U.S. to stay because in the context of all of this regional competition that is very much heating up, leaving the region to fend for itself and sort of play out some of the ideological divides that we’re witnessing in Libya, in Yemen, that we saw in Syria, I don’t think it is the responsible thing to do. And I’m not arguing just because the U.S. was in Iraq, and they sort of – I’m not arguing the broke it, you fix it sort of responsibility. But the U.S. has been the principal external actor in the region for decades now.
And it’s presence – or, its absence I think would be a huge destabilizer. And being there would be an important reassurance for Gulf states that have become increasingly anxious by the uncertainty of the relationship with the U.S. September 14th was a huge turning point. I share Greg’s assessment about September 14th. I too was incredibly surprised that there was no action taken against Iran. And I think that even Iranians were surprised. The Iranian establishment was surprised. (Laughs.) I might venture to say that.
I think, you know, that was a big turning point for everybody in the region. And the lack of deterrence or the two months later, or three months later deterrence I don’t think sort of set the record straight. I think really ultimately what is needed – because it does seem that we’re on the trajectory for a U.S. departure, just a question of when and in what capacity and over what period of time, is for the beginnings of a regional security discussion. And there are very few countries that can bring all of the parties together. And this is not just a U.S.-Iran discussion. It’s a huge part of the problem, but it’s an Iran-Saudi, it’s a Qatar-UAE.
I mean, there are so many dynamics that need to be addressed beyond also the civil wars that continue to go on, the Yemen war which, as Greg mentioned, is a humanitarian catastrophe. The Israeli-Palestinian issue that seems to be really on the sidebar now to the Iranian one. And Libya, which I think really doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it needs to because what’s playing out there is really a reflection of intra-Arab state competition, ideological – a clear ideological divide as to the role of Islamic political groups and parties within the Arab state system. And you know, these things need to be discussed.
There needs to be clear, established lines on sovereignty and stability in the region. And there needs an outside – you know, an outside interlocutor is needed to do that. It can’t be, perhaps, the U.S. alone anymore. But forcing everybody together to sit down and not just look to the United States to balance or contain the Islamic Republic, I think that isn’t going to work anymore. And it’s time to have some tough conversations about whether containment is truly effective as a policy.
And maybe that containment has to be balanced with a bit of engagement in order, again, to take that maybe longer term approach and strategy vis-à-vis Iran and the region, one that is going to obviously require time, confidence-building measures, and an investment on the next generations in the region, because they’ve been bearing witness to all of this conflict for so long. But I think sides have really hardened. And so the U.S. should stay there and try to bring people together, if possible. But I’m dubious that that’s going to happen.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. Thank you.
Now, as I said, audience questions tend to be a little more specific. But we’ve been talking about Russian advances, and Iranian advances, and whether China wants to advance or not. So here are a few questions. Why is it that we have done nothing about stories of Russian intelligence paying bounties to kill Americans in Afghanistan? That’s one. How are we going to react to the – what appears to be emerging agreement between China and Iran in areas of trade and military cooperation? Well, let’s start with them, and then I’ll have questions about Iran and Turkey following that. And, again, these questions are for anyone.
MR. GAUSE: Tom, I’m happy to go into the bounties business. So I heard General McKenzie, our commander of CENTCOM, today on NPR say that he wasn’t convinced by the intelligence yet that there were actual bounties being paid. But to me, this is a great non-issue. I mean, the Russians are trying to make our life difficult in Afghanistan. They’re trying to make our life difficult everywhere. That seems to be Mr. Putin’s – one of his strategic goals in life, including within our own domestic politics. And so you know, the Russians in classic realpolitik have decided to deal with the Taliban, whose fathers and uncles killed Russians and drove them out of Afghanistan when it was the Soviet Union.
So to me, this is just – we shouldn’t be shocked when gambling is going on in the back room. And we shouldn’t be shocked that the Russians are, you know, dealing with us, the way they feel that we dealt with them back when we were the ones who were helping the people who were killing them in Afghanistan. So the larger question is, you know, what should we go in Afghanistan? And that’s something that I don’t feel competent to discuss, because I just don’t know enough about Afghanistan.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. Well, you said earlier that they’re not the Soviet Union. And that’s true, they’re not the Soviet Union. But I mean, they are – they are in Syria. They are in Libya. Some of our partners are hedging and forming relations with them. So they’re making advances even with our partners and friends. Does that concern you?
MR. GAUSE: Not really. I mean, I think of Russia as a gas station with nuclear weapons. And I just don’t think – they don’t have a message that resonates with anybody. And so people are going to deal with the Russians based on self-interest. And the Saudis and other oil producers have real interests in having a decent relationship with Russia. They have parallel interests but also, at times, competing interests. We saw that – we’ve seen that this year, both the competing interests and the parallel interests.
And so this is just part of the modified return to great-power politics, I think, is that the Russians are going to play in the region, but they can’t play – they cannot provide the kind of military protection that the Soviet Union could plausibly provide to clients and allies in the Middle East. I mean, they don’t have a navy. I guess that their air force is getting better. I’m no specialist on this. But they’re not what they were. And I don’t see them as a huge threat. I see them as an irritant.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. And what about this Iran-China agreement? Maybe Sanam wants to take that.
MS. VAKIL: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about that. I know this agreement has received a lot of attention in the press over the past few days. And this isn’t a new agreement. So I tend to – I’m not underplaying its importance, but Iran and China signed a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. Iran and China have had economic and diplomatic ties for decades now. The Chinese have been investing in the Iranian economy, albeit at a limited rate, also for decades now. And China has comprehensive strategic partnership with four other countries in the Middle East, and seven strategic partnerships in the Middle East. So the Middle East is really, you know, a critical nexus for its Belt and Road Initiative.
It'll be interesting to see how COVID impacts China’s ability to invest in the region. I mean, it’s pursuing pandemic diplomacy but, of course, its fiscal capabilities are also going to be somewhat restrained as well. It’s perhaps going to focus more on its nearer abroad rather than investing in the Middle East. And this 25-year-old deal that is being penned has been in the works for a few years now. I think it’s being politicized both in the international community but also domestically inside Iran.
And it’s important on the one hand because it shows Iran’s priorities to maintaining trade ties with China. It doesn’t have very many other relatively strong relationships where it can draw upon. But at the same time, this suggestion – I’m a bit dubious that China’s going to be able to invest $400 billion in the Iranian economy because its own investments – strategic investments for the Belt and Road Initiative, I believe the figures were between 600 to 800 billion (dollars).
So I can’t imagine that a country that has taken a relatively balanced approach to its engagement in the Middle East, and very much benefited from the U.S. military presence in the region, is going to suddenly take sides and double down on Iran, when it has important relationships across the Persian Gulf, and with Egypt, and with Israel, and so on and so forth. So I think that we should be a bit more balanced about it and look at it through the prism of domestic politics within Iran, and then, of course, U.S. and China tensions at the same time.
MR. GAUSE: Tom, can I just say one thing about that? Well, you know, I can imagine people in Beijing are feeling a little bit like the person in a relationship who goes out on a couple of dates and then sees the – you know, the engagement announcement in the newspaper being published without their – without their permission. But on the Iranian side, I just think this is a fascinating, you know, Iranian trope. They’re always looking for that, quote/unquote, “disinterested” outside power to come in and protect them from the other powers that were – you know, that are rapacious and that are going after them, because the poor Iranians are always, you know, put upon and threatened.
And, you know, it wasn’t – it was a half a century ago – a little bit more than a half a century ago that the United States was that power that the Iranians wanted to bring in because of the rapacious Brits, and the rapacious Russians. And so I think the Chinese are being offered a role that they should – they could look at the history of U.S.-Iranian relations to see that maybe that merits that they’re being kind of pushed to by the Iranians might not be the happiest marriage in the world.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you. All right, I wanted to deal with Russia and China. Now let’s move to Turkey and Iran. And then we’ll go to Saudi Arabia and Israel. One of the first things that Anne said was that Turkey is back in the region with a vengeance. And someone in the audience who identifies himself as someone who has really appreciated the American role in the peace process – in establishing peace between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, and even some Israeli-Palestinian agreements – is now asking about the power balance in the region and what the U.S. can do in resolving conflicts, but particularly what do we do about our NATO ally Turkey? Which this questioner believes is actually escalating conflicts in the region. And certainly some of the Arab states are concerned about the way Turkey is advancing in the region. It has a base in Qatar. It has – it’s intervening in Syria. It’s intervening in Libya. So what’s our relationship with our NATO ally, and what’s the nature of their intervention in the Middle East?
MS. PATTERSON: Let me start with that. And they’ve been in the Middle East, of course, for – under the Ottomans, which is, of course, a huge issue in places like Egypt. And what I saw when I was in Egypt, and this was under the military agreement – under the military government, not under Morsi – the Turks were commercially in Egypt in a big way. And when al-Sisi came in, I think they were glad to get rid of the Turks and give them their comeuppance. It wasn’t just on the Muslim Brotherhood.
And it strikes me as a similar relationship with Turkey. It’s hugely difficult and hugely complex. But Turkey, to say they shouldn’t be involved in Syria, when they have the disaster on their doorstep, for whatever you might think of their relations with the Kurds, just isn’t realistic. Turkey is not going anywhere geographically. Yes, they perhaps were too aggressive in some – for some – but we absolutely have to deal with Turkey. And I know there’s been a lot written on this recently, but they are a legitimate player, in my view, in the Middle East, because of their historic and strategic interests there. And to think otherwise, to just wish them away, is not going to work.
Libya also has the French and the Italians at each other’s throat. So we really need to sort of – I would hope a new administration would try to get a better handle on the situation in Libya than I’ve seen so far, because it has lots of unfortunate implications.
MR. MATTAIR: Anyone else? OK. Iran. Why are we witnessing explosions in Iran? Is this the – is this an evolution of the Trump administration policy, or is this one of our regional partners taking matters into their own hands, or collaborating with us? And how would this set up a new administration which might want to reengage in diplomacy with Iran? For whatever reason, the Iranian centrifuge development program is being set back right now. Does anyone have any insight on what’s happening?
MS. VAKIL: I’m happy to offer my thoughts, but I’m not sure if I would call it insight, just speculation. (Laughs.) I mean, it does seem that something is amiss. There have been one too many explosions and fires over the past few weeks. And I think that pattern is, of course, very concerning for Tehran. And we’ve seen a number of the media reports and sort of anonymous sort of quotes from officials in the U.S., and in Israel, and in Europe, suggesting two things. Effectively what you intimated, that perhaps the U.S. policy is indirectly supporting Israel’s more direct action to stall the Iranian nuclear program. And I think that – I mean, from my vantage point, that looks like something that could be happening, along with maybe a more targeted cyberattack at the same time.
What I do see as part of the bigger picture is maybe the Trump administration – members of the Trump administration, and also within the Israeli government, seeing the next few months as a window of opportunity to really hollow out the JCPOA, while the president is still in office. So perhaps the calculation from Israeli security and intelligence officials is that there might be a new administration in Washington in November, and they’re very concerned about the calculations and suggestions that the Biden administration might renegotiate or reengage with Iran. And so better to pursue – take this sort of window moment of opportunity and hit Iran while it looks weak.
Interestingly, I think it’s also important to watch Iran’s reaction. They’re being very careful. They’re being very calibrated. And you see them not yet reacting in the public sphere in a meaningful way, because they’re weighing out their options also strategically, and waiting also perhaps to find whatever evidence they can of a foreign hand in these sort of explosions. Because if that is found, there is going to be, of course, pressure for them to respond at the same time. So I think this is going to play out rather carefully from Tehran’s side, because their strategy is very much focused on November 3rd. And I think that there is some consensus within the political establishment to try not to be drawn into anything that could tilt the balance away from negotiations should a Biden administration be elected.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. Is there any other comment on that?
OK then, let’s go to Israeli-Palestinian issues, so we are sure that we have sufficient time for them. I don’t want to be running out of time on that. Someone from the audience asks: Can we expect a more balanced hand under President Biden? Palestinians always seems to get the short end, at least after Carter, in any agreement with Israel. And I would add to that, what would a more balanced hand look like? What would that be?
And another person from the audience is asking, yes, how would the Biden policy be different, and pointing out that in the Democratic Party platform they are taking a stand against the BDS movement. And asking if that’s the right thing to do. And of course, we have this looming annexation coming. So at this stage in the game, when there are so many settlements in the West Bank, and annexation is one the table, and even many, many young Palestinians are talking about a one-state solution where they would fight for equality, what would a more balanced hand on the part of the Biden administration be?
MS. RUDMAN: I’m happy to jump in here. And I would first do some level-setting in terms of pointing to – Vice President Biden has made a number of comments on the record already that I think give some sense of what his perspective is and will be. And he’s been fairly consistent on these issues, I think, over some period of time. So I certainly have heard him come out strongly opposed to unilateral annexation and talked about the ways in which that prevents the ability to – that takes options off the table, that counters U.S. interests in a variety of ways, and looks at it through that funnel. He's also been very clear about his concerns about the boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts, and where and how he believes they’re problematic. And so I would expect that an administration that he’s leading would follow those directives.
In terms of balance, again, I come back to figuring out for the United States what’s in our interest. It’s in our interest to maximize the ability for Palestinians and Israelis to get to a better place than they are now. And doing that requires being able to be trusted by both parties. I think we have at times – I’m not sure I would agree with the premise – I would not agree with the premise of the questioner to start that since Carter we’ve – the United States kind of picks a player. I think we look at what’s in our interest and what we can achieve.
And I think we need a fresh set of conversations, apart from where we think – where we, the United States, think things should go. A fresh set of conversations with the players on the ground about what they want, what they think is achievable, where they see the political risks and challenges. And then part of the job of the United States is working with them to set that horizon, and then do as much as possible to mitigate the risks that leaders on both sides, and in the region more broadly, would be taking to move toward the end goal that they see.
But we certainly need to be seen as credible and seen as engaged by all involved. And in that context, I think that this administration has been particularly bad about every way in which they’ve approached that and have come in looking at – and I think that the – President Trump’s peace plan is great evidence of that. It’s a bad approach, both in that it sets out where everyone should go without hearing what anyone has to say. It’s a very unrealistic plan and way forward. And it – and it comes across, and I believe this administration comes across as largely advocating talking to – having exchanges with one side and taking – as I had mentioned earlier – taking tools completely out of hands, tools that we possess, to be able to help how we are seen and what we can do with the parties involved.
And I would expect that the new administration coming in would look to restore what the opportunities are for the United States going forward. And again, Vice President Biden has talked about his commitment to restart assistance to the Palestinians, and to look for ways to reopen the PLO/PA office in Washington, to find those diplomatic tools and opportunities to the maximum extent possible, and to work, as we talked about with Iran, to work with our allies and our partners in Europe and in the region to come together to increase the set of options, as opposed to what we’ve had, which is a constant decreasing of what options and opportunities are to serve U.S. interests, and which is consistent with also helping the interests of those in the region.
MR. MATTAIR: Would anyone else like to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?
MR. GAUSE: I’d just say that I tend to look at it within the context of that point that I made at the outset about state failure and state weakening. I think it’s in America’s interest to avoid having more collapsed state and collapsed governance systems in the region. And you know, the policy of cutting back on aid to the Palestinians, which is – you know, I understand you don’t want to throw good money after bad, but we’re not talking about huge amounts of money by American standards here – by American aid standards.
What we don’t need is a complete collapse of authority in the West Bank. We already have the problem of the divided authority between Gaza and the West Bank. And what we have is an octogenarian leadership in the West Bank that my sense is, although I don’t follow these issues as closely as Mara does, is increasingly detached from its own population, with an Israeli government that is pushing it, and an American government that’s pushing it in ways that could accelerate the collapse of real governing authority there and just kind of lead to a complete reoccupation, kind of a return to pre-Oslo. And I’m really not sure that that’s in our interest. I don’t think it’s in America’s interests to have failed states and failed governing structures anywhere in the Middle East. And I think the West Bank is a candidate for being one of those if we’re not careful.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, to continue on this, you know, a number of administrations have made good-faith efforts for decades, but really without much success. And a number of people in various administrations have said things such as the expansion of these settlements is not going to prejudge the final outcome. It won’t prevent a fair peace agreement from being reached. But is that true? And, you know, we can resume aid to the Palestinians, but what about the other tenet that we’ve held over the years, which is if we’re – if we make certain that Israel is enjoying a qualitative military edge and feeling secure, that they will make generous, necessary concessions and agreements. Has that worked? And if it hasn’t worked, do we need to look at offering incentives and suggesting the reduction of certain aid if our suggestions are not taken up?
MS. RUDMAN: So, I would first reject the premise that we – it’s in the United States’ interest to provide Israel with a qualitative military edge as a concessions for negotiations with the Palestinians. The United States’ relationship with Israel on security assistance goes to broader regional concerns, and the role that Israel can play in the region. So I don’t see that direct linkage. And I think, again, that’s a faulty premise. I would then take the conversation one step further to emphasize what I was intending to get at earlier, which is that using assistance as a cudgel as opposed to ways to further build relationships has generally not worked for the United States.
I think this also goes to some of the points that Sanam was making about the use of sanctions, frankly, and that it is much easier for political movements, writ large, in the United States to talk about sanctioning or to talk about the things that you can take away, and harder work to organize or mobilize people around what you can offer as incentives for people to move towards what is in your interest. In the diplomacy is the art of letting others have it your way, those are some of the things that give us that ability. And so the assistance we provide to Israel on the security side, the commitment to their qualitative military edge is important to them and important to us, and not specific, in my mind, to the Palestinians.
What we have done with the Palestinians on various assistance fronts over the years has contributed to the security coordination, and to improve Palestinian security forces in a major way, and to increased interaction in a positive way between Israelis and Palestinians. The major amount of assistance we’ve provided for health care, for water, for economic development, similarly has helped us in relationship and has made a difference for people on the ground. I think we could do much better, going back to Greg’s earlier state building point, about how we both deliver that assistance and gain some of the direct connection from what we’re doing and for people’s perceptions on the ground.
But it is – used correctly, it is a critical opportunity for us. And you made the point, Tom, about reaching, you know, all Palestinians and the challenge with Palestinian leadership currently, which I can understand. Part of our ways of being able to reach out more broadly, and we have done this, and to engage the next generation and, frankly, build a bench on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side, is through the tools that we have, assistance and other – and on the diplomatic side. The incentives that we offer going forward.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, finally, people have mentioned Dan Benaim a couple of times. And he’s written an article that indicates that on the Democratic side there’s a debate about whether we should reset or rethink our relations with Saudi Arabia. And the resetters believe that the relationship is – really has considerable strategic value, and that we should try to influence them to modify their behaviors. And the rethinkers don’t really think the relationship has that much value and want to ratchet it down to thinks like counterterrorism cooperation. Where do you think the Biden administration is going to come down on that issue?
MS. PATTERSON: So I think, if you read the article, it seems to me to lean strongly toward the resetters. And for reasons that Greg mentioned, unfortunately Saudi Arabia – and this, I think, has been a huge cost – has become caught up in the partisan debate. They made lots of mistakes, of course. But my own view is that the Biden administration and Vice President Biden himself – good grief, he’s got 50 years of experience in government – I doubt – I think there will be pressure particularly on the human rights, on the female activists, on lots of issues in Saudi Arabia. But I sure don’t think they’re going to throw the baby out with the bathwater there.
MR. MATTAIR: This is your area, Greg.
MR. GAUSE: So I agree with Anne that I think the fact that my fellow Delawarean Joe Biden is at the top of the ticket means that there’ll be less upheaval. But I think if it were a Sanders administration or a Democratic administration from a younger generation within the party, I think you’d see more of the resetters – or, the rethinkers – pardon me – dominating. I mean, I think of all sorts of people, Senator – oh, no, now I’m having a senior moment – Senator from Connecticut. Help me, Tom. Help me.
MS. PATTERSON: Blumenthal? No, Murphy. Senator Murray?
MR. MATTAIR: Chris Murphy.
MR. GAUSE: There we go, Senator Murphy. He seems to me to be a rethinker, not a resetter. And he seems to be a leading Democratic voice on the relationship. I think that if you’re going to reset, the reset should concentrate mostly on Saudi behavior in the region. I think that when we try to tell people how to run their domestic politics it usually backfires on us. And you know, I can point to many examples, but Iraq I think is the most obvious one. I think that what we need is Saudi behavior in the region that is a bit more pre-MBS. And I think we should encourage the elements of the MBS agenda domestically that are positive for Saudi Arabia becoming a state less reliant on oil, and more – better able to use its own domestic workforce. And in that sense, MBS has moved to allow women to drive, which I think in the long run might be the most important thing he will do in Saudi Arabia, is an enormously important step to getting women into the workforce in Saudi Arabia.
But a lot of the actions on the foreign policy front have been, you know, fiascos. And some of them have been, I think, fiascos but unserious, like the clown show about the boycott of Qatar. And some of them have been geopolitically understandable but failures, like Yemen. And what we have to do is get the Saudis, I think, on a path, as I said before, to an exit from Yemen, and to a common view with us about the need to sustain some amount of stability in countries where they’re not having civil wars, and to move to try to ameliorate the conflicts where political authority has weakened or collapsed.
And I will point to one positive thing that I have seen in the MBS period in Saudi Arabia. And that’s a tentative willingness to reengage with Iraq, which I think is going to be absolutely necessary is Iraq is going to, A, rebuild some kind of functioning central authority and, B, in a way that doesn’t make it enormously dependent upon Iran.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you.
Well, it’s noon. The topic was so general that we could take any one of these sub issues and continue for another hour. But at least we covered the region in a general way before we may have a change in government. So I hope it will be helpful to people who read the journal, and it’ll be in the fall issue of the journal. But before that, it will be on our website at www.MEPC.org. There will be a video and transcript of this event on our website within two days, I think.
So let me say thank you to all the panelists. And thank you to the audience for showing up. And we’ll see you next time. Goodbye, everyone.
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
Former Ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan
Executive Vice President for Policy, Center for American Progress
Former Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
Former Assistant Administrator for the Middle East, USAID
Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow,
Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House
James Anderson Professorial Lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies,
John Hopkins SAIS in Bologna, Italy
Head, Department of International Affairs, and Professor,
The Bush School of Government & Public Service,
Texas A&M University
The Middle East Policy Council held its 101st Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, July 17th: “Progress or Conflict? What to Expect for U.S. Policy in the Middle East.” The event was virtual and held through Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The event took a broad look at the key trends in the Middle East that will shape U.S. foreign policy and how a continuation of the Trump administration or a new Biden one might react. The panelists focused mostly on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, Egypt and Iran, while also addressing the Gulf states and competition for regional influence from Russia and China.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Anne Patterson (Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs); Mara Rudman (Executive Vice President for Policy, Center for American Progress); Sanam Vakil (Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House); and Gregory Gause (Head, Department of International Affairs and Professor, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University).
Ms. Patterson described a Middle East more confused and violent than ever, with Turkish intervention in Syria and Libya, renewed Russian influence, and shocks to local economies and remittances from abroad. She highlighted two potential flashpoints in Egypt: first, possible conflict between the Egyptian military and Turkish forces in Libya and second, heightened tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which diverts water from a Nile River basin already water-stressed due to impacts from global climate change. In the event of a Biden presidential administration in January 2021, Ms. Patterson sees a return to more emphasis on human rights in the region, a focus on wrapping up the war in Yemen, and a re-entry in some form to an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
Ms. Rudman advocated for the centrality of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key to sustainable regional security and U.S. national interests. She highlighted how unilateral annexation by Israel works against this goal, undermines other U.S. opportunities in the region and constrains the options of the United States in dealing with other Middle Eastern countries. To improve the situation, she urged focusing on the context and politics facing both Israel and the Palestinians; keeping an eye on the horizon and broader strategic objectives; engaging all parties directly; and recognizing the value of U.S. assistance in furthering American national interests in the Middle East.
Ms. Vakil focused on Iran and the mistaken assumptions that have derailed U.S. foreign policy there. First, the U.S. underestimates the importance of domestic decision-making and internal politics to drive Iranian foreign policy, noting that conservatives are gaining more power in Iran, something increasingly relevant to succession planning for the Supreme Leader. Second, the U.S. can’t “go it alone” with Iran and has alienated the European countries who support some U.S. positions on Iran but are still committed to the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. And third, U.S. regional partners are not necessarily feeling more secure since the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement and the subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign. In her view, this has not reduced the Iranian footprint in the region and the transformation of Iran into a partisan issue in the United States is complicating matters further.
Mr. Gause explained the regional trends and changes in the United States that he envisions will shape U.S. policy in the Middle East over the next few years. The three regional trends include: a long-term weakening of state authority in the Middle East which welcomes destabilizing interventions by state and non-state actors; a modified return to great power politics; and the gradual decline of oil’s centrality in global geopolitics. As for the changes in the United States, he sees U.S. foreign policy becoming more partisan with Republicans becoming the party of regime change in Iran; an increased belief that the Middle East isn’t really that important to U.S. national interests; and the realization that there is an inability for the U.S. to completely “cut the cord” from engagement in the region.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email [email protected].