FRANK ANDERSON, President, Middle East Policy Council
Well, good morning, everyone. And thank you very much for coming on a — the Friday before a long weekend and what will be tonight the first night of Yom Kippur. It’s a pretty tough issue to get people to line up in a room like this, and I greatly appreciate all of your coming. I’m Frank Anderson. I’m president of the Middle East Policy Council. We are, as I’m inclined to say, a three-legged stool trying to support and inform dialogue on issues that affect American interests in the Middle East.
The first and oldest leg on that stool is our Journal Middle East Policy — and we are extremely proud of it. But our views don’t matter. The views that do matter are organizations that track the citing of academic publications and other publications, and Middle East policy is the — on any given year it’s either the first or second on the list of most-cited publications in the field.
The second leg of our stool is one that we’re engaged in here this morning. We conduct quarterly conferences here on Capitol Hill and targets of opportunity when we have the right issue and an appropriate speaker. We’ll have a breakfast seminar usually in our offices but sometimes in the nice breakfast room of a hotel in town.
And the third is an educational outreach program. We conduct — this year it will be 53 teacher workshops around the country, reaching usually over 2,500. Actually, this year we will have reached 4,000 teachers to teach them — and my two words are — to excite and enable them about teaching about the geography, the history, the culture, the politics and the religion of the Middle East in ways that break down rather unfortunate stereotypes that are otherwise kicked around by society.
If you take those 4,000 teachers — since most of them are high school teachers — and assume that they’re going to be reaching a hundred kids a year, we’re getting close to a half a million people a year who are impacted by these programs — very pleased to be here today. I guess if you’re talking about the Middle East and you’re talking about the Gulf and you talk about Iran, to say that this is a crucial time — I was once the CIA’s branch chief on Iran more than 30 — no, it was 30 years ago that I stopped it. It was a crucial time.
I remember worrying about the Iran nuclear program 30 years ago, talking to analysts who told me that, you know, they could have a bomb within five years. I went away and I came back and met with analysts again when I had a job that required me to supervise that issue for a while. And I was told again, you know, they could have a bomb within five years.
I took over the agency’s Near East and South Asia division in 1991 to learn the disturbing news that the Iranians could have a bomb within five years, and I’ve been retired for 16 years hearing that they could have a bomb within five years. I don’t mean to in any way trivialize that issue, but it is one that’s there.
The other thing that is fascinating about this particular time is America’s reach and influence in the region is in fact waning. And this is a time when our friends in the Gulf have particular need of wise and effective policies on our part, and they’ve been disappointed generally in recent years. And what we’re hoping to do here today is to contribute to a dialogue that will enlighten that discussion and perhaps lead to more enlightened and effective policy.
We’ve gathered together a panel of which I’m quite proud. Our moderator today will be the chairman of our board, Dr. Omar Kader, who will introduce each of the speakers more fully. Our problem with speakers is that they keep being too competent and too accomplished for any of us to introduce them in a short time. But with that in mind — and I apologize to each one of them or ask them — I will forgive each one of them for being so accomplished and talented, and introduce Dr. Omar Kader.
OMAR KADER, owner and founder, Pal-Tech Inc; chairman of the board, Middle East Policy Council
Thank you for coming. As Frank says, this is a critical time in the Middle East region, and I wished I could tell you when it wasn’t a critical time, and I wished I could tell you that there’s nothing hanging in the balance, but this time it’s a different critical. This time — I’d never really heard anyone say you’re seeing the beginning of the decline of American influence in the Middle East.
If any of you were watching TV a week or two ago, I think it was Richard Haass and Brzezinski were talking, and Brzezinski said it as an off note. He said you’re seeing the beginning of the end of American influence in the Middle East.
And none of us want to hear that. So let me just talk with you just for a minute about what we’re going to discuss and raise some questions that Tom and I hashed over. And then we’ll start with Mr. Lippman and run through the speakers.
How does America pursue its national interests in a region in transformation and where the interests are so fractured that we see little progress or change beyond the local level of family and tribal affiliations? What we’re not in a Manichean environment in the Middle East. At one time we could see anything in black and white and everything looked black and white, Communism versus the anti-Islamist versus the secular. Now the lines are complicated and blurred.
How can we pursue our national interest in a region with a simple, straightforward policy such as democracy promotion, support for secular governments or the support for strategic allies? We live in a critical time where judgments matter. Consequences have lasting effects. Costs are critical to anticipate because reactions to poor judgment are likely to boomerang. How should we see the fissures, the battle lines? And what can we do to shape policies that serve our national interest without harming our allies?
We are in the midst of a Middle East in transformation. The changes taking place will take years to show results because they affect Islam, Arab countries, Iran, Turkey and Israel. And while these changes are in transition, the United States finds itself in a cycle of declining influence in a very important region to our national security. Our own policies have produced these declining influences, so we need to get it right first and fast.
Today, we will examine some questions that are important to shaping our responses in the — in the region. We have the Islamic Republic of Iran’s objectives, and what have those objectives been in the Gulf and in the Arab world, particularly since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, and even more particularly during the past year as the Arab awakening has been unfolding.
How have these objectives been based on Iran’s calculations about American power and policy? How much have they been based on competition with the Gulf Cooperation Council states? How successful has Iran been in increasing its influence in the region? What does Iran stand to gain and lose now as an Arab awakening sweeps through the region?
The Gulf Cooperation Council states have been concerned about Iranian capabilities and behavior and tensions for a long time, and they have taken individual measures and collective measures and also banned together with the United States and other Western powers. But their concerns about Iran take on an additional importance in light of the Arab awakening. This has certainly been the case in Egypt and Bahrain, in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, possibly Yemen and now Syria.
What is at stake for the GCC states in these different arenas? How successful will the GCC states be in countering Iranian influence in the region, and how important are the partnerships of the GCC states with the USA now, especially in light of their disappointments with U.S. policies and their questions about U.S. reliability as a strategic partner?
How should all this influence U.S. decisions about its responses to specific uprisings in the Arab world; its diminished credibility in the Arab world; the utility of its diplomacy, economic and military options with Iran; even its Arab-Israeli policy? These are some of the questions our panelists will address today.
We have, beginning with Thomas Lippman — then Thomas Mattair will speak, and then Alex Vatanka will follow up, and then we’ll try to leave enough time for questions and answers. Mr. Lippman?
THOMAS LIPPMAN, former reporter, editor and Middle East correspondent, The Washington Post
Thank you, sir. Good morning. Thank you, and thanks to the Middle East Policy Council for organizing this forum.
I only wish — when we run down that entire list of questions you just posed, I only wish there were definitive answers to any of them. I was thinking about that this week as I was, first, finishing my own book about the future of Saudi Arabia, which will come out in January; and second, thinking about what I should say here today. And I’m going to focus particularly on this entire — this entire set of questions as viewed from Saudi Arabia. But keep in mind that — particularly in Saudi Arabia but I think now to a lesser extent also in Iran — there’s an awful lot we don’t know about who is actually making the decisions and what is impelling them.
I mean, I still do not know which person in Saudi Arabia actually went to the king and said, we have to go into Bahrain, and got the king to say yes. I don’t know who that person was, and of course you’re in an environment where you don’t have public events like this at which policies are discussed and you — nobody’s going to subpoena to the defense minister even if you are ambulatory to talk about this. And so to a certain extent — and I think Alex will address this — there are also internal conflicts in Iran that make it difficult to give some definitive answers there also, but — and so keep in mind that there’s a lot that we — that we don’t know. And it’s sort of like speculating about who’s next in line to be king of Saudi Arabia. There are only a dozen people who know that answer, and they’re not talking to me.
So I came across three news items this week that I thought would be a good way of getting into this discussion. The first one was about an official report by the Saudi Press Agency having to do with the latest round of unrest and disturbances over in the Shiite country in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. And basically what the Saudi Press Agency, which is the official government news agency, reported was that the unrest had been incited by a foreign country.
That foreign country was not named, but I’ll give you three guesses. It was not Bolivia. And it really — that is typical of the Saudi reaction in which, rightly or wrongly, they see the malevolent hand of Iran behind a lot of the trouble all around them. You may recall that without much evidence that I was ever able to discern — and I was even there at the time — they blamed the Iranians for the Houthi uprising in Yemen in which Saudi Arabia intervened for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me.
They certainly — the reason that the Saudis have refused to do business with the Maliki government in Iraq is that they regard Maliki as a stooge of the Iranians, rightly or wrongly, and they — I’m sure many in the audience already know this — they openly backed Ayad Allawi in the Iraqi election — (inaudible) — one of Allawi’s last public appearances before the voting was in Riyadh. And so the Saudis have done nothing to participate in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq as far as I know, or virtually nothing.
The second news item — actually not distributed or printed by the Saudis at all — it was a simple Associated Press story that says in the past week Iran has announced the deployment of ship-based missiles that can target shorelines from international waters, and its naval commander said that Islamic Republic warships could someday be cruising near America’s Atlantic seaboard. Well, I don’t think it stirs much concern in Saudi Arabia that the Iranians would have, let’s say, missile-carrying frigates off the coast of Massachusetts. You know, the security of Martha’s Vineyard is not a Saudi issue.
What they’re concerned about is Iranian capabilities to target and hit Saudi Arabia’s most vulnerable targets, which are the oil installations and also the huge number of water desalination plants, the lifeblood of the country, which are fat, immobile targets clustered along the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. Those facilities are easily vulnerable to a missile strike from the sea.
Now, presumably, if there were such an attack, the U.S. Navy in the form of the 5th Fleet would intervene to halt the perps, but they could do a lot of damage in the meantime. And that’s one reason that — in my opinion and from everything I’ve heard — the Saudis are extremely reluctant to push any contest with Iran to the point of armed conflict, because they understand that Iran’s ability to do damage to them far exceeds their ability to do damage to Iran.
Unlike Iran, the Saudis have no strategic interior into which they could retreat the way the Russians did in the face of Napoleon and Hitler. You go away from the coast, and there’s no food and no water. And so they — the coast is extremely vulnerable and subject to Iranian attack and sabotage, and the Saudis are very conscious of that.
The third item was really not directly about Saudi Arabia. Well, it was an op-ed piece distributed on The Wall Street Journal’s website about what was going on in Bahrain. It contained this striking paragraph. It said that “Bahrain is not just another fallen domino in the Arab spring. Nor is it experiencing a surge of spontaneous resistance by its people against their rulers. Rather, Bahrain is the victim of a long cycle of intrigue and interference aimed at replacing the moderate and modernizing Khalifa regime with a theocracy under Tehran’s thumb.”
Now, I don’t know if that is actually true. I just don’t know enough of the details of Bahraini history or its relations with Iran in the past to know if that’s true. But I certainly know a lot of people who believed it that live in Riyadh. And this was the reason that the Saudis felt that they needed to intervene in Bahrain.
There was a delegation of prominent members of the Saudi Consultative Assembly, the Majlis as-Shura, in Washington shortly after the deployment, and we talked to them at the Middle East Institute in fact, and there was no doubt in their minds that Bahrain represented a red line of Iranian/Shia — it’s hard to say which is worse, Persian or Shia — encroachment on territory that naturally was part of (what ?) Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence and could not be tolerated.
Now, it may turn out in the long run — by which I mean over the course of the next 10 years — that what the Saudi and U.A.E. intervention there did would have a benevolent effect or a positive effect in the sense that it may actually have stimulated the members of the GCC to do some serious long-term military planning and coordination. And we may get into that later in this discussion.
You know, the GCC has never had any effective security role in the region partly because the smaller states fear Saudi dominance. And under the new leadership of a Bahraini military officer the GCC has shown signs of life on this front, which could turn out to be beneficial over time depending on how they use this.
So this is — these Saudi attitudes about Iran are not entirely paranoia. There’s good reason for the Saudis to fear Iranian intentions and actions. You can — you can pick your point. You can pick the point after the Iranian revolution, when Khomeini began challenging the Saudi leadership in Islam; you can pick the point at which the Iranians were disrupting the Haj back in the 1980s; or you can pick the period in the 7th century when for the — when you had armed conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims and between Arabs and Persians, the same conflict in a — that’s being played out in a different theater today.
And you also — so the Saudis now seem to be concerned about a regionalwide surge in the power of their historic rivals, the Sunni — the Shia, right? Those of you who’ve read Vali Nasr’s book will know more about this than I ever will. But the — they — the Saudis see Shia resurgence stoked by Iran in Bahrain, in Lebanon, in Iraq. And they see the Iranians maneuvering for position all around them.
We can get into later the fact that all the Saudi views are not necessarily shared by all their GCC partners, which have important economic ties in Iran. But this is the Saudi view. And if you go back — I was in Riyadh in the fall of 2009 when King Abdullah made a very open and strong effort to patch up things and rebuild Saudi friendship with Syria. The king invited Bashar al-Assad to be the principal honored guest at the opening of his pet project, the King Abdullah University. The king then shortly thereafter went to Syria on a very well-publicized visit.
He made sure that the editors of all the Saudi newspapers went with him and put these pictures of him and Bashar being buddies on the front page, and without any announcement the Saudis in effect took the Hariri investigation off the table. That was a big sticking point in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Syria. The Saudis held Syria responsible for the assassination of Hariri in Lebanon, and you don’t hear the Saudis — you didn’t hear the Saudis talking about that all of a sudden. They were willing to overlook that in the interest of an attempt to pry Syria away from Iranian — from its partnership, its alliance, whatever you want to call it, with Iran. That was an important motivator for the king.
The Syrian response to that was to invite Ahmadinejad to Damascus for a highly visible love-in in direct — what amounted to a direct insult to King Abdullah, which was not a good idea as you now see in the fact that the Saudis probably more than any other state have taken an extremely hard-line position on Assad and Syria, now saying that Assad has to go.
All of that said — and remember, by the way, that all these events are happening at a time of a certain amount of internal difficulty in Saudi Arabia because they’re beginning to come to grips with the inevitable change in leadership, which could happen at any time. And it’s possible that the Saudis are going to have as many as four kings over the next five to 10 years, and there’s a lot of uncertainty now given the incapacity of the defense minister and the fact that the decision-making process has been impeded by the uncertainties in the leadership.
All that said, as I — as I indicated, I think the Saudis don’t want armed conflict. They certainly don’t want unilateral strikes by us or, worse yet, by Israel against the Iranians. They have certain mutual interests with the Iranians — they — the — their partnership in OPEC, keeping the Persian Gulf sea lanes open because they’re both dependent on the oil traffic, their common antipathy to the Taliban. This is more a managed rivalry than a hostile confrontation, in my opinion, and it’s likely to stay that way for a while. So there are just two more points I want to touch on.
It got a lot of attention when one of the WikiLeaks cables reported that the king had told General Jones, then President Obama’s national security advisor — the king had told General Jones unequivocally that if Iran definitively acquired or developed nuclear weapons, all the countries on the Arab side of the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, would feel compelled to do the same.
Even if the king did in fact say that, I don’t take that as a dispositive statement of Saudi policy. In my opinion — and I’ve spent much more time over the past five or six years than I really should have on this subject and written about it at length — the disincentives for the Saudis to acquire or develop nuclear weapons so far outweigh the potential gains in any form that they’re unlikely to do it. And I’ll be glad to talk more about that in Q-and-A if anybody wants to hear that.
That brings me to one last comment, which is about the Saudi view of the role of the United States in all these issues. I’m sure you’ve all heard that there have been some rough patches in the relationship this year. I got an earful in Riyadh a few months ago about how the United States had abandoned Mubarak and contributed to Mubarak’s humiliation. None of those complaints was accompanied by an explanation as to what the Saudis thought we could have done about it. I did not believe that we were going to send the 82nd Airborne to save Mubarak or drive the demonstrators out of Tahrir Square.
Nevertheless, the Saudis felt that we had shown unseemly haste in our abandonment of Mubarak. They resented Secretary Clinton’s quite restrained, I thought, criticism of the intervention in Bahrain. They have resisted our efforts to get them on board in Iraq. And of course they’re about to be even angrier at the United States because we’re going to veto the Palestinian statehood resolution in the Security Council.
Nevertheless, the Saudis understand that even as their weapons purchases continue, the security role of the United States for the Saudis is not going to change. There’s no place else for them to go. No other country — and by that I include China — has the desire or the ability to play the Persian Gulf security role that the United States plays. The Saudis understand that. There’s not going to be an open breach over this issue any more than there was over the original recognition of Israel in 1948, because neither country wants that, and there’s no alternative to the American role.
However, the nature of that role and the nature of our commitments is quite ill-defined. We have no treaty relationship with Saudi Arabia. And those who talk about the creation of a kind of Persian Gulf NATO or Arabian Gulf NATO to provide an American defense security umbrella over the Saudis should ask themselves what would happen if this administration or any administration went to the United States Senate seeking ratification of a binding nuclear defense commitment to Saudi Arabia.
I don’t believe that’s likely to happen, and so the nature of our commitment remains one in which we have certain obligations. CENTCOM is responsible. The 5th Fleet is there. The Saudis know that we won’t permit long-term blockage of the Strait of Hormuz, and that relationship is not going to change at its core. Thank you very much.
DR. KADER: Thank you, Mr. Lippman. (Off mic.) For those of you that want an in-depth look at this, Mr. Lippman’s forthcoming book, “Saudi Arabia on the Edge” — and you put me on the edge with your speech, so I’m --
MR. LIPPMAN: You can — you can preorder it on Amazon, buy multiple copies, give them out for Christmas.
DR. KADER: Yeah.
DR. KADER: I had not thought of that.
Alex, can you go next?
ALEX VATANKA: Sure.
DR. KADER: OK. Tom would like you to go next.
And by way of introduction, Alex has worked in London and Washington with Jane’s defense and intelligence publishing group. Most recently he was senior analyst on Iranian affairs working on a DOD-funded project.
ALEX VATANKA, scholar, Middle East Institute
Thank you very much.
Can everybody hear me OK? Great. Well, thanks to the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here. I see all you here this morning. I’m going to basically try and limit myself to three key points I wanted to make today, and I hope I can remember them. If I can’t, I’ve written them down.
The first one point I wanted to make is for all of us to remember that what’s happened in Bahrain since February is not creating the so-called rivalry between Iran and the GCC. It’s very important that we go back in time and remember this is a rivalry that’s been going on at least since 1979, and I would argue you can go back before then to the times of the shah.
Point number two I’d like to make is to suggest to you — now, when we were talking about Iran versus GCC, along the lines of what Tom just mentioned a few minutes ago, we were really talking about Iran versus Saudi Arabia. Iran doesn’t really look at most of the GCC states as adversaries. Saudi Arabia’s the exception because of its size and because of the complexities that have sort of characterized relations between Tehran — and we can get to that later on.
But one of the things I’m most keen to talk about — because that’s what I really do spend most of my time doing — is to look at what’s going on inside Tehran and in terms of the debate in the ranks of the Iranian regime when it comes to the issue of Arab states, particularly the GCC states. And I don’t see one Iranian voice. I don’t see one Iranian voice at all. I see differences of opinion. Some of them are actually quite critical when you’re looking at where they’re likely to want to go, take the country. And specifically, the division right now that is of most interest to those of us sitting in Washington, D.C. and looking at that debate in Iran, is between the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the president. They do not see eye to eye when it comes to the so-called Arab spring.
So there are my three critical points. Let me move on and make some — make some comments. As I said, this is Iran-GCC rivalry has to be seen as something that go backs (sic) to the creation of the GCC in 1981. And it was a result of the revolution in Iran in ’79 GCC was created in the first place. And I would say this (round ?) of heightened tension between Iran and the GCC state — states, I should say — again, didn’t start in February of 2011. You could say it started in March of 2003 with the fall of Saddam Hussein. And it specifically relates to the fears that Saudi Arabia has about the so-called domination of the Iranian regime of neighboring Iraq.
So again, I see this not as something that began in 2011 or has been intensified. I see this latest round as having begun in March of 2003. I would go back and say if there’s — a time and period where we can characterize relations between Iran and GCC states as pretty cordial is when President Mahmoud — I’m sorry — Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, was in charge of the executive branch at least in Tehran from ’97 to 2005. But before Khatami left office in 2003, we see relations between Iran and GCC states taking a turn for worse.
When you think about the big picture, the issues that come to my mind at least — and I might miss some issues out, but clearly, I see the fall of Saddam Hussein, the intensification of the Iranian nuclear program, and the arrival of Ahmadinejad in 2005 is the fact that they have come together and intensify fears in the GCC states about what Iran wants to achieve in terms of its regional policies. I would argue Bahrain — and the situation right there continues to be pretty volatile — has brought some of these GCC fears to the fore, made them much more public. I mean, we’re not all lucky as Tom to be able to go in and be able to talk to some of these senior advisors in Riyadh and elsewhere.
But those fears, if I’m not wrong, Tom, have always been there in those circles. Now they’re much more public expressed. And that’s what I think the Bahraini situation has done. But when I look at what the Iranians have actually done in terms of their foreign policy behavior and taking tangible steps towards what’s going on in Bahrain, I cannot point to a single thing that I can say this is as a result of what happened in Bahrain. I think if there’s one word I was forced to choose describing the Iranian behavior, given the stakes involved here, a Shia majority in Bahrain being allegedly repressed, I think the Iranian approach has been very “cautious.” And I think that’s the opinion of most analysts in Iran who are not in the sort of pockets of the regime and can express their views more or less free. They would say they haven’t done much. There’s a lot of anger that’s been expressed towards Bahrain and specifically Saudi Arabia, but as I said, no action, no tangible action.
The thing that stands out more than anything else is absolute lack of action to the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. It was literally nothing that Iran did. And when you put that in context of — the Iranian regime since 1979 has been going around proclaiming itself as a defender of all Shias, and here is one of the one four Shia-majority countries that’s been taken over — if could use the phrases that the Iranian regime will like to adopt themselves — then Iran did nothing, literally nothing. It was Bahrain that broke diplomatic relations with Tehran, not Tehran breaking relations with Bahrain.
Let me quickly say something about what Iran’s policy seems to be. Is to intervene and topple out al-Khalifa, the ruling family in Bahrain; or is it to mediate? At least if you listen to the discourse in Tehran, if you read the media and the official statements, I’m not really not sure at all that Iran wants to intervene. I think above all it seems that they would like to see themselves play a role of a mediator. And I think that sits very much in contrast to Tom’s views about how the Saudis in particular see the Iranian role.
The only aspect of Iran’s policy that seems very disturbing and is very clearly aimed at inciting — it’s the media campaign. I don’t think there’s one opportunity the Iranian state-owned media would let go by without seeking to incite the Shia in Bahrain. There’s definitely that which is visible. And the point that I think is very important to bear in mind is that the Iranian regime acts opportunistically. It hasn’t created any opportunities for itself in Bahrain, but if the opportunities arise as a result of the consequences of other people’s actions, they would seek to fill the vacuum. And I think obviously the best case here is what has happened since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and we’ve seen examples like that elsewhere among the Palestinians and so forth.
I think Bahrain is another case like that. If there’s an opportunity, and the Shia of Bahrain are sort of isolated as a result of the actions of (say ?) al-Khalifa or the guarantors of the al-Khalifa family, Saudi Arabia, then the Iranians would try and see if they can capitalize on that but without endangering, without endangering their overall geopolitical position. As Tom said, they’re not looking for armed conflict over Bahrain. The nearest thing they actually did, which I thought was quite interesting, in terms of trying to pick up arms — (inaudible) — the Iranian state organized for a bunch of Basiji members, militia members, Islamist militia members, to get on a boat, create their own flotilla to go and support the Shias of Bahrain.
And this was then stopped by the IRGC navy before it entered international waters, and the IRGC navy commander told these people, you’re doing something illegal here. Turn around go home.
The whole point was to create this show that Iran cares, that Iran’s going to get involved hands-on. And Iran really didn’t do anything because, as I said, Iran cares about its own geopolitical interests, survival of the regime and so forth. And it’s not looking for a fight. And obviously, the big elephant in the room here, which we all have to remember, is the 5th Fleet that sits in Bahrain. It’s not that Iran doesn’t think it can win a war with Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, because that war means conflict with the United States. That is not something Iran seeks to do or seeks to start.
I made the point about the GCC states not being seen in Iran as one entity, and I think that’s a very important point to bear in mind. The Iranians do fear the Saudis. I think that’s clearly the case. They don’t necessarily fear the Omanis, the Kuwaitis and others. And this rivalry with Saudi Arabia, as we all know, has been going on for 32 years. Again, this isn’t something that just happened yesterday. We’ve seen that in the ‘80s with Saudi support for Saddam Hussein bankrolling the Baathists there in the Iran-Iraq War. We saw Saudi-Iranian rivalry most intensely in Afghanistan in the 1990s with the Iranians backing the Northern Alliance and the Saudis backing the Taliban.
And we’ve seen it, frankly, in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Iranians will tell you, if you asked them repeatedly, what are you doing in Iraq, they will tell you that it’s a proxy war against Saudi Arabia.
The domination of Iraq by Saudi Arabia is seen in Tehran as an existential threat. Tom, again, alluded to the Persian-Arab divide and the Shia-Sunni schism. This is going on, has been going on for a long time. And there’s no doubt that, again, if you listen to what they say about each other, there’s no denial that they delegitimize each other to the extent — to the most extent possible.
I was taken aback by Prince Bandar’s visits to Pakistan recently, where he talked about creating a Sunni alliance against the Shias. If the Iranian-Saudi rivalry gets to that extent when you’re talking about religious war, I think the United States has to look beyond the consequences of what that means for U.S. policy outside the Persian Gulf region. I mean, Bahrain is a country of what? A million and a half — I mean, if we include the expats —
MR. : Right, the (expats ?) —
MR. VATANKA: — if we include the expats — think about the implications of Saudi-sponsored sectarian warfare in a place like Pakistan, a country of 170 million with 30 million Shia. And we see daily attacks on Shias in Pakistan, by the way, which the Iranians blame on Saudi Arabia. Again, everything changes massively if we go down that path, and that’s the danger the United States, I’m sure, is very much aware of, and that is why the United States has very much come out and said that cooler heads should hopefully prevail in this tangle that Iran and Saudi Arabia find themselves in to be. One point that I keep seeing — and I firmly believe this — is that the Iranians, despite everything that’s going on with Saudi Arabia, despite the almost hatred that exists, would still rather have Saudi Arabia remain a neutral state, because for them the bigger fight isn’t between Iran and Saudi Arabia; it’s between Iran, and the West and Israel.
The fear seems to be that the GCC states become a platform — military invasion, or they have been very instrumental and have — in the future policy of containing Iran. That Iran seeks to prevent, and I think that explains why Iran is so cautious when it deals with Bahrain. It still keeps on, hangs on to that hope that you can perhaps at the very least keep the GCC states neutral, because if they become another platform, that isolation that Iran is already under becomes even worse. And again, that’s something they’re trying to avoid.
We also — as I said earlier, we see major differences of opinion in Tehran between the so-called ideologues and the pragmatic forces. I was taken aback by suggestions in certain circles in the Iranian media about how Saudi Arabia to this day is seeking to use the services of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, as you know, in the 1990s overhauled relations with the United — I’m sorry, with Saudi Arabia. They’re trying to go back to someone like Hashemi Rafsanjani, someone like Mohammed Khatami, because the whole appears to be — and I’d love to hear what Tom says about it — in certain circles in Saudi Arabia — that if you look aside from Ahmadinejad, there are still people in Tehran that you might be able to deal with.
Again, there’s also this recognition in Iran that the Saudis absolutely are not looking for war, are looking for ways to bridge the gap with the Iranians, looking for the right Iranians to deal with. Names like Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami and so forth comes up. Elsewhere I have to say the GCC states continue to be divided as far as Iran’s reading of the situation is concerned. I thought it was quite telling to see the Omanis play such a crucial role in the recent release of the two U.S. hikers. You know, certainly Saudi Arabia, I don’t think, would have been trusted by the Iranians to play that kind of role. It shows you again that the GCC states are very much refraining from sort of being led by Saudi Arabia. They’re playing their own cards.
And again, I’d love to hear what others have to say about it. I looked and looked hard for one GCC policy to that — toward Iran. I cannot find it. I think the only moment in the last year where I have seen GCC states genuinely come together was the intervention in Bahrain and the actions of the peninsula force. That was the only time where I saw countries like Oman and Qatar come along and be led effectively by Saudi Arabia. But soon after that when the situation in Bahrain was contained and diffused somewhat and the al-Khalifas were appearing to be safe, we see the GCC states again going their separate ways. And again, we also saw that in terms of the Iran-Kuwait relations and how the Iranians were able to reach out to the Kuwaitis on a bilateral basis and effectively making the Kuwaitis forget about the Saudi pressures that they were putting on Kuwait to stay away from Iran.
The only country in the GCC states that has in recent years become more aligned, I would say, with Saudi policy towards Iran is the U.A.E., and I would specifically point to the — to Abu Dhabi as the — as the entity here that is becoming harsher in its tones against Iran. But elsewhere, as I said, I see GCC disunity, and that disunity serves only Iran. Let me finally very quickly go to the point about the fact that I mentioned earlier there’s no one view in Iran on the GCC states. Policy differences have always existed, but I think these policy differences that we’ve always had in Tehran are becoming more pronounced because of the infighting. So go back to 2009, elections that they had in Iran. We had people like Mir-Hossein Mousavi specifically come out and talk about how Ahmadinejad had failed in his foreign policy endeavors, how Iran was becoming more isolated as a result of that.
But the green opposition movement for various reasons is on the side. They’re not a factor at the moment, certainly not shaping policy. Does that mean the Iranian state has now a more united approach to foreign policy? Well, that’s not the case if you listen to President Ahmadinejad and the speeches given by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. I see the supreme leader far more ideological. I see the Iranian supreme leader playing the Bahraini Shia card more — much more readily than I see Ahmadinejad do. I thought it was very interesting that President Ahmadinejad two weeks ago at the U.N. speech didn’t mention Palestine once, and within days we had the Islamic awakening conference in Tehran led by the supreme leader where he talked about nothing else but Palestine.
I thought it was interesting that Khamenei’s people a few months — actually early in the year, in — I think it was January — were very upset about how Esfandiar Mashaei, which is the sort of right-hand man of Ahmadinejad, invited King Abdullah of Jordan to Tehran. The Iranian — the Khamenei faction in Tehran read the invitation given to the king of Jordan as a signal that Iran was willing to change its ways, reach out to the Jordanians. And, again, for those of us in Washington who sort of try and figure out what the Iranian reading of Jordan is, I can tell you, the Iranians look at Jordan as a country that’s totally aligned with the United States.
So the reading by the hard-liners — and, again, I — when I talk about hard-liners in this context, I’m talking about Khamenei. The reading was Ahmadinejad as a populist is trying to find a way to bridge the gap with some of these Sunni anti-Iran Arab states, including Jordan and so forth. Again, Khamenei doesn’t want that. So this is part of this fight that’s going on. When the foreign minister of Iran, who is obviously appointed by Ahmadinejad, a man by the name of Salehi, he gets into trouble for simply meeting the Bahraini foreign minister at the U.N, it tells you something about how sensitive this issue has become in Tehran. So we know there is a massive infighting going on between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, and we know it’s now extending — it’s moved from just being some — related to domestic politics to the realm of foreign policy.
Now, how does it work itself out in actual terms? How does it impact policy? That’s impossible for anybody to know unless you’re part of the sort of inner core and you have sources that can tell you that. But one thing is very clear. The Iranian regime right now does not see eye to eye. So the supreme leader and the executive branch are not looking even at, say, this Arab spring in the same way.
Let me just wrap up by giving you three, I guess, concluding remarks. I will say Iran will continue to act opportunistically. I think what’s happening in Bahrain above all will depend on how the Sunni states, Saudi Arabia specifically, will play its cards in Bahrain. I think we might see a situation where Iran will benefit again because the Sunni-majority Arab states will play the sectarian card, present all the domestic Shia grievances that they have amongst their populations, and present those people effectively as Iranian agents. And that will benefit Iran because it effectively pushes those Arab Shias, (either in ?) Bahrain or eastern province of Saudi, into the arms of the Iranians. So I think, again, Iran will be there to take that opportunity if it arises, but it’s down to governments in Riyadh and elsewhere whether they’re going to play that card or not.
Number two, I say — and again, I’m stating the obvious — I — based on my travels in the region, I don’t see a lot of the Gulf Arabs or Arabs in general looking at the Iranian system, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a model. I really don’t see that. So when I’m sometimes listening to Bahraini officials talk about Ayatollah Khamenei being the person that these Shia protesters are looking up to, I’m very skeptical. I think it’s much more about socioeconomic grievances that these Shias in Bahrain have, and I don’t think it serves the government of Bahrain well in the long term to pretend that there is something in their — you know, there is an Iranian hand here that, as I said, I don’t see. I don’t see the evidence, although I see why it’s convenient to point to the Iranians, and as I said, I think the Iranians will act opportunistically if that situation arises.
And finally, I say the GCC states, as far as Tehran is concerned, are best kept neutral. Therefore, again, I want to go back to the point I made. Iran will be cautious. Iran will do everything it can not to play the Shia card, the sectarian card, be vocal in its language against Sunnis. Iran will do all those things in the hope that it can keep the GCC states, one, disunited and neutral, but, but, I have to say, its policies are ineffective, again, and that goes back to the fact that there are divisions in Tehran. So I — earlier I mentioned the — one of the visible characteristics of the Iranian approach to the so-called Arab spring, at least in the Persian Gulf, is its insightful media campaign.
Now, the Iranians might think this means nothing; that, you know, inciting Shias in Bahrain is OK. This doesn’t — is not tantamount to a hands-on policy, but that’s not the reading on the other side of the Gulf. And I think, again, that’s — I’m not sure it’s because they’re amateurs or they basically think they can get away having it both ways, and one side saying that they are for what they refer to as popular uprisings while at the same time saying to the ruling governments in these Arab states that they’re not inciting anybody to topple these regimes. I don’t think they can get away with it, and that’s what I mean when I say that their policy is ineffective. They have to make their mind up in terms of what it is they want long-term vis-a-vis GCC states, and they have to have a much more consistent policy approach.
We tend to hear in Washington often talk about the Iranian system as if it’s another Soviet Union: very capable and powerful, resourceful and all the rest of it. I don’t see that. I certainly don’t see one strategic blueprint that Iran has that it implements when it deals with its neighbors, certainly not the GCC states. And I think with that I’ll stop. (Applause.)
DR. KADER: Thank you, Alex. That’s a view that the general public probably hasn’t heard, so it’s always nice to have firsthand knowledge.
We’re going to Dr. Thomas Mattair, who has been the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council for the last — about two years, and before that he was the research director. He has a distinguished publishing record. The most recent book is “Global Security Watch: Iran, a Reference Handbook,” Praeger. And so now you’ll hear from Dr. Mattair.
THOMAS MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
I’ll begin by saying that I want to talk about GCC concerns about Iran before the Arab spring and after the Arab spring. And I think that Iran has been on the course of increasing isolation from GCC states and that the prospects for improvement were not very good and that this is even more true even after the Arab spring. I want to make some generalizations about these perceptions and what it means for their security and our security with the caveat that they will have to be refined because there are differences that will have to be refined in the Q-and-A session because there are differences among the GCC states, that don’t see everything identically. But I think they have — their shared concerns and their shared objectives are a little greater than Alex thinks they are, in my opinion.
They are concerned about — they have been concerned about increasing Iranian influence in Iraq following our invasion because it elevated the Shia Arabs. It marginalized the Sunni Arabs. It unleashed a civil war, which could have spread over into their countries. They are, as Tom said, suspicious of Shia leaders, like al-Maliki and al-Sadr. And they will support Sunni leaders who they think can contain Iranian influence, ad that includes Allawi, who’s actually a Shia but attracts a lot of Sunni support. Very important political compromises have not been made in Iraq between the Kurds and the Arabs, and between Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. And there are new problems developing between Iraq and Kuwait, for example, over Kuwait’s building of a port. There are new problems developing between Iraq and Bahrain, for example, with al-Maliki calling for the Khalifa family to step down. And that concerns other GCC states.
GCC leaders are distressed that we ignored their advice about going into Iraq. Frank and Omar and I have heard that in Saudi Arabia. I’ve heard it in the U.A.E. Other people have heard it in Qatar. And they are going to resent the United States even more than they do now if we leave disorder and Iranian influence behind. And that seems to be what we are going to do. These states, these GCC states, have also been concerned about Iran’s increasing influence in Syria and Lebanon and Palestine; their perceived influence and increasing influence with the Shia Arab communities in the GCC states; their alleged intervention in Yemen in 2009; their obvious influence in Afghanistan; their conventional military forces and their potential nuclear weapons.
As far as influence with Shia populations in the GCC states, this year Kuwait arrested several Shia who were allegedly working with Iranian agents to photograph American military bases, and they were sentenced recently. GCC states have had a series of generally unsuccessful diplomatic contacts with Iran even though on occasion Iran has been invited to come over and talk. Qatar invited them to a GCC summit a few years ago, but they have been unsuccessful, and the GCC states don’t have a lot of hope for improvement as long as Ahmadinejad is in the government. We’ve heard that they could get along with Rafsanjani, they could work with Khatami, but they can’t work with Ahmadinejad.
They criticized U.S. and Israeli military threats against Iran. They criticize economic sanctions. They criticize our diplomatic strategy regarding Iran’s nuclear programs. But they’re ambivalent about all those options and strategies. They’re uncertain about what the alternatives are and they are concerned, as Tom said, about military action against Iran because not only does Saudi Arabia have infrastructure that would be vulnerable, but Qatar has the liquid natural gas trains and Abu Dhabi has infrastructure. They support the sanctions and the diplomacy up to a point, up to a point. And Qatar even voted in favor of two U.N. Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. But they are concerned about the military option.
So containing or defending against Iran can rest in part upon what the GCC states continue to see as their essential defense relations with the United States. They have defense cooperation agreements with us. They purchase our military technology. And this remains the case even though they are distressed about out our policy and they see China and India as more important oil customers and as rising world powers. There is concern among some defense analysts in the West that these states may ask China and India to undertake some of the defense responsibilities that the United States has been carrying out, but China does not want to do that. It’s not capable of doing that, likes to be a free rider. And India, I think, would rather cooperate with the U.S. military than replace it.
GCC leaders also argue, I must say, that persuading Iran to forego nuclear weapons means addressing Israeli, Pakistani, and Indian nuclear weapons, and they argue that the Middle East should be a nuclear weapons-free zone, which means Israeli nuclear disarmament. These leaders, these GCC leaders are concerned in varying degrees that Iran poses a serious offensive conventional military threat in the Gulf, and they all take note of Iran’s regular military exercises in and around the Gulf. And U.A.E. officials in particular regularly put a spotlight on Iran’s occupation and militarization of Abu Musa and the Tunbs, which are three small islands lying along the strategic shipping lanes to the west of the Strait of Hormuz. And they have the support of the other GCC states in their claim to those islands, and as a matter of fact, Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia just mentioned that issue in a piece he wrote last week.
These states recognize that deniable, covert, asymmetric aggression is more likely than attributable, overt, conventional offensive action by Iran unless Iran is responding to an attack against itself. And they all note that they have vulnerabilities. And Mohammad bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and deputy supreme commander of their armed forces, has noted that the U.A.E. would be a target of Iranian retaliation.
Oman, I think, of the six may have a little less concern than some of the others. It knows that Iran is a major country in the neighborhood, is going to be there forever. And there is a certain amount of cooperation. They jointly patrol the Strait of Hormuz. And even though Oman does provide military facilities to the United States, it tries to maintain good relations with Iran and uses those good relations to serve as a mediator when no one else can, and they did it during the Clinton administration. They carried messages for Clinton and Gore, and they certainly — as a UC Berkeley alumnus, I have to thank Oman for helping the three UC Berkeley hikers get out of Iran. And that’s an illustration of what they can do with their good relations with Iran.
But I think that proposals to eventually include Iran in a Gulf security structure are very impractical. When they call — when they — when they argue that the U.S. is the problem in the Gulf and they say that they can protect the Gulf countries and call upon the Gulf countries to break their defense cooperation agreements with the United States, those arguments are not falling on fertile ground in the GCC states. GCC states think that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is a means of reducing Iranian influence in the region and a means of reducing Iran’s ability to challenge their governments. And this is an argument that even Obama has made. So he understands it.
Efforts by Saudi Arabia’s king, by Qatar’s emir, by other GCC leaders to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict have not been supported by the Bush administration, and they’re very disappointed that the Obama administration is so timid in its Arab-Israeli policy, particularly when the Obama administration has said that solving this conflict is a vital national security interest of the United States. They support Palestine’s admission to the United Nations. Leaders from Saudi Arabia and Qatar reportedly helped the Palestinian Authority write its draft proposal for admission to the — to the United Nations.
And I note that Khamenei has now said he opposes their admission to the U.N., although in the past he’s been open to the idea of a two-state solution. He hinted that very, very strongly in the grand bargain proposal that they put out in 2003 but evidently he now thinks that this would not be good for Iran, and I agree with him. So GCC states are — that it wouldn’t be good for Iran, that it would diminish their influence. GCC states are constructing their own policies to contain Iran. They’ve included purchasing F-15s and helicopters and Patriot anti-missile systems and even considering nuclear options.
But that’s more — there’s more. They’ve tried to forge Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. They’ve tried to forge better relations between Hezbollah and its rivals in Lebanon. They’ve tried to engineer a thaw with Syria and they’ve even tried to mediate between Taliban and the Kabul government. And they’ve tried to establish better relations with Russia and China, hoping that they will pressure Iran independent of U.S. policy.
Now, the Arab spring has changed the landscape somewhat, and I’d like to concentrate on three cases — Egypt, Bahrain and Syria — to talk about what it means. The Iranian regime encouraged the opposition in Egypt. It claimed that it was an Islamic awakening. It claimed that it had been inspired by the Islamic revolution and the Islamic Iranian government in that model. And it claimed that it would benefit no matter what happened, because if the opposition forces won, it would show how fragile autocratic Arab governments are; and if the regime survived, it would show how brutal Arab regimes are. No matter what happened, they argued that they would benefit.
But the Iranian encouragement to the opposition was not consequential. It’s not what galvanized and motivated the opposition. Iran’s claim about the inspiration it had provided was wrong. Its ability to benefit is limited, and it appears to me that Iran was not a major factor in the thinking of Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. and Qatar and others as they calculated what to do about Egypt. Mubarak was toppled. Egypt began to conduct what seemed like a more independent foreign policy. Iranian warships transited the Suez Canal. The new foreign minister indicated he was more open to diplomatic ties with Iran. They pushed Hamas and Fatah to reconcile. They said they would lift the blockade of Gaza in order to motivate Hamas to reconcile. They said they’d reconsider natural gas deals with Israel. But Egypt is a Sunni Arab state, and it sees itself having a leadership role in the region. And that means it cannot be too close to Iran.
And indeed, the new foreign minister said that the Gulf was a red line that Iran could not cross, meaning that he expressed solidarity with the GCC states. Egypt will also maintain its peace treaty with Israel even though it will be colder than it was under Mubarak and Omar Suleiman. And the Egyptian military will play a very important role, and it will continue to value its relationship with the United States military. And that’s going to limit how close it can be to Iran. Even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood said it was open to better relations with Iran. But they are, again, Sunni Arab Islamists who have reservations about Shia Islamists. And they’re also — the Muslim Brotherhood is dividing into factions, old and young, liberal and conservative. And certainly, the young and the liberal see Turkey as their model, not Iran. And Turkey can also play a more important role in Arab-Israeli affairs now than Iran can, and the Arab street can see that.
Mubarak’s fall was undesirable for Saudi Arabia and other GCC states. It set a precedent they don’t want to see repeated. And our call — and by — and Mubarak had been a partner in regional affairs, and our call for a transition democracy and then a call for Mubarak to step down is another reason for these GCC states to question our reliability as a strategic partner because Mubarak had been our strategic partner. And certainly Saudi Arabia’s king was angry about it. And they’re concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re supporting the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. They’re concerned about circumstances in Egypt after Mubarak because they have economic problems that any government will have great deal of difficulty solving, and it can’t be sure what kinds of political forces will emerge and take over in the future.
And now there’s even talk about increasing Egypt in the GCC, which could take a lot of time to manifest itself, and I wouldn’t expect it very quickly, but it seems to indicate some desire to bolster themselves against Iran, some desire to compete with Turkey for influence in Egypt and some desire to see if another revolution in Egypt can be averted. It’s been argued that Qatar might not have been as supportive of Mubarak, not as concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood as Saudi Arabia. And Al-Jazeera covered it, and its coverage has been cited as an example of how they were not completely in sync with Saudi Arabia.
But as I reflect on that coverage, it didn’t start immediately, indicating that they might’ve been ambivalent or reluctant to pressure Mubarak. When it did start, it covered both sides, including, for example, yeah, protesters burning down the headquarters of the National Democratic Party. And it was a big, big story that they could hardly not cover. And if there was a difference, maybe it was that they saw the writing on the wall for Mubarak before Saudi Arabia and some of the other countries did. And another observation I’d make about that is they did not allow Iran to use its soft power in the Arab street and present itself as a champion of Egyptian protesters without pointing out that Iran had crushed its own green movement just two years earlier and that it was crushing protests in several Iranian cities at that exact moment in February, March 2011.
So now let’s move on. As for the ripple effect of Tunisia and Egypt and other countries like Yemen and Libya into the GCC states, these former states are poor. The GCC states by and large are wealthy. And that insulates them. They also provide better governance than Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and that insulates them. And when protests came to Bahrain in part because the largely Shia majority was inspired by what occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, and then even when Oman experienced some disturbances in Sohar, the other GCC states moved to address that. The wealthier states provided economic support to Bahrain and Oman. The Saudi national guard and the U.A.E. police moved to protect Bahrain’s infrastructure so that Bahrain’s military and police could deal with the protesters.
And in this case, Iran was, as both Tom and Alex have said, a major factor in their thinking. They were not going to allow Iran to establish a beachhead of influence such as they had already established in Iraq. They were not going to permit it. In part, the Saudis didn’t want to see this protest inspire the Shia in the eastern province, and I would say other GCC states with Shia minorities felt the same way about it. But their own Shia populations — that was a minor consideration compared to dealing with Bahrain itself. That’s not to say — and I agree with Alex. That’s not to say that Iran was involved in Bahrain in the beginning,, and Defense Secretary Gates said at the time he didn’t see any evidence of it.
But we probably won’t know that for sure for quite a few years, and that is because the thing about covert operations is that they are not overt. It does mean that Iran would have seen a victory by the Shia and the extremist Islamists among the Shia as an opportunity they could exploit, and the GCC intervention was meant to take that opportunity away from Iran. Now, critics have said that their intervention created a sectarian conflict, but there was already a sectarian character to this — to this protest and the problems in Bahrain before the intervention. And the opposition demands were growing every time the regime offered any dialogue or reform. And actually, before the intervention, the opposition leaders said, we’re going to march on the neighborhood where the royal families live.
And that, I think, was just not the right thing to do. I mean, you would expect the Bahrain royal family to do something about that.
There is a sectarian character that continues because al-Maliki, who is a Shia, is looking at that situation, calling for the Sunni monarchy to step down. And again, I agree with Alex. For the moment it looks as if Iran is a power that has not been able to help the Shia of Bahrain despite all its rhetoric, despite its posturing. But it’s probably more important to consider the opportunities that will present themselves to Iran and even Iraq and the setbacks that the GCC may experience if Bahrain does not introduce real reform now. It has stabilized the situation, and if it’s going to introduce reform, it should be now. This is what the Obama administration has been trying to argue. And if they don’t, again, Iran may take opportunities to exploit the situation, perhaps not even in Bahrain, perhaps somewhere else, perhaps in the eastern province. And, again, we don’t know if Iran had anything to do — what happened in the eastern province this week or not. And maybe they didn’t, but if I were a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, I would see opportunities now.
And then the last thing I want to talk about — we do have time for the Q-and-A.
DR. KADER : You’re the boss. (Laughter.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you.
By the way, Sultan Qaboos of Oman has introduced real reform, and that’s something that Bahrainis should emulate. So for those who have argued that the GCC — the — that Saudi Arabia has been leading a GCC counterrevolution to oppose popular movements, I would say that yes, they’ve been trying to defend their own domestic stability and their own forms of government, but they’ve also been making geopolitical calculations about how to defend their allies and how to contain and push back Iranian influence.
And if they were strictly counterrevolutionary, they wouldn’t have been willing to abandon Yemen’s Saleh or Libya’s Gadhafi or Syria’s Assad. And so that takes us to — that takes us to Syria. When unrest came to Syria and the Alawite regime of the al-Assad family — and the Alawites are an offshoot of the Shia. When the al-Assad regime repressed it, Iran did not criticize. And evidently they actually supported the Assad regime, reportedly helping them monitor social media platforms and providing some arms and some economic assistance and reportedly some foot soldiers from the Basij and even the Revolutionary Guard police force. This has been argued by some GCC states and by the United States. And in fact we’ve imposed sanctions on Iran for this.
So why didn’t Iran criticize? Why did — why did Iran support? Well, because Syria has been a partner in supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, thereby helping Iran extend its influence into the Levant. It’s probably its biggest achievement in the last couple of decades. Losing Syria would be a huge setback for Iran and for Hezbollah. It would — it would — it would disrupt the Shia crescent. The GCC states were ambivalent at first. They’ve been trying to wean Syria away from Iran for several years, and we heard in — Omar and Frank and I heard in Saudi Arabia, for example, that they were reasonably satisfied and hopeful about that process in January 2010.
The U.S. has been trying to wean Iran away from — Syria away from Iran. Arab media covered the story, but there was — there was some reluctance to throw Assad under the bus quickly. And Syria even expressed understanding for the GCC intervention in Bahrain, which was appreciated by the GCC and was viewed with a lot of dismay in Iran. Even when the Obama administration accused the Revolutionary Guard of being involved, the GCC still seemed to hope Assad could be a reformer. When the subject of GCC came up at a GCC summit, they decided to delay decisions in order to give Assad more time. But in August the repression was so great that they called for an immediate end to violence, called for Syria’s leaders to resort to wisdom.
And in part this was an acknowledgment of the sentiment in their own street because Sunni Arabs resented what the Alawites were doing to the Sunnis in Syria. In part, it reflected a calculation that Assad probably couldn’t — that they couldn’t wean Assad away from Iran if he survived, and for some others it represented a calculation that Assad can’t survive, period, and that they need to deal with other actors. There’s a sectarian dimension there. Al-Maliki received an official Syrian delegation during the summer, called on the protesters not to sabotage the state. He was favoring the Alawite regime because he owes his power to Iran.
Actually, it’s now emerged that in late 2005 or 2006 when Iraq was forming the new government and the Shias had won but they couldn’t decide on a prime minister the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Quds force went into the Green Zone in Baghdad and negotiated among the Shia coalition parties to make sure al-Maliki won. And we didn’t know it until two years later. So he owes his position to them, and Iran prevailed on Syria to support him as well. So I think initially he wanted to support Assad for those reasons, but now Iran — at least Ahmadinejad has called on Assad to stop the violence and to try to talk to the opposition and try to introduce reform because if he falls they lose their bridge to Lebanon and because they don’t look very good in the Arab street when they’re supporting Assad and this kind of oppression. And that has led their partner Iraq also to start criticizing Syria.
In conclusion, I think that the GCC states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the U.A.E., are playing a much assertive role in the region in part to defend their own achievements, in part to — in part on behalf of people in places like Syria, and in part to limit Iran’s influence, and in part to limit al-Qaida’s influence. And it helps that none of the uprisings have been motivated by Iran’s ideology or al-Qaida’s ideology. Both ideologies have been discredited. So even if the new governments in the region don’t look like GCC governments, I think they’re going to have more in common with GCC than they do with Iran. Thank you.
DR. KADER: Do we have any of the panelists with responses or something you’d like to add that you —
MR. LIPPMAN: I do. Just a couple of comments on what my —
DR. KADER: Please.
MR. LIPPMAN: — on what my colleagues have said — certainly, among the different perspectives and differences and attitudes on the — among the member states of the GCC, I think it’s clear that to the Kuwaitis the greatest threat always is Iraq and not Iran, and it was quite an alarming moment this summer when a member of the Iraqi cabinet asserted that the Kuwaitis were stealing oil by drilling horizontally under the border. Last time I heard that was just before the Iraqis invaded. That could not have made people feel good in Kuwait.
I certainly agree with Alex’s point about Iran’s relative restraint in its behavior. If you look at the incidents over the past couple of years in which Shia have been under stress for one reason or another — the Israeli attack on Hezbollah, the Shia in Bahrain, even the Shia in Iraq — the Iranians have said a lot but they have not intervened, at least not overtly or in any way that you could — that you could counter.
And finally, just one last thing. To me, I would say to Tom Mattair that one of the most surprising developments in this entire story about Bahrain and the Gulf was the endorsement of the Saudi deployment by Qatar. And to me, that showed how much what happened in Bahrain had changed and galvanized thinking on the Arab side of the Gulf.
If I were running Qatar, I would regard the Saudi intervention to clean up a mess they didn’t like in a small neighboring country would be a dangerous precedent, and especially given the traditional antipathy between the Qatarese and the Saudis, which have been papered over but still exist. But the Qatarese were completely onboard with it, and I found that indicative of a new attitude within the GCC.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, I think although there are rivalries, certainly, and, you know —
MR. LIPPMAN: Yes.
DR. MATTAIR: — Qatar might not want to see more Saudi influence in Bahrain. Well, when you’re talking about containing Iran, those states —
MR. LIPPMAN: Absolutely.
DR. MATTAIR: — see things the same way.
MR. VATANKA: If I may —
DR. KADER: Yeah, go ahead.
MR. VATANKA: — just because Syria came up and I didn’t really mention Syria — but let me just tell you two days ago the headline in Iranian Diplomacy — it’s a website run by foreign policy experts or former diplomats belonging to the Khatami administration. It had an article that I thought was quite interesting with the headline, Iran will not commit suicide for Syria.
A lot has changed the last ten years when it comes to Syria. The Iranian position in Syria is not as, say, 10 years ago. I think Iraq in many ways has replaced Syria as Iran’s chief ally in the Arab world. Syria was always going to be a jumping board in many ways. Hezbollah’s situation in Lebanon has consolidated quite a bit. I agree with Tom. Removal of Syria as an ally of Iran will complicate things quite a bit for Iran in terms of the practical means it has at its disposal to keep Hezbollah armed and so forth.
But I think we have to bear in mind that the Iranians do not necessarily look at Syria as, you know, a red line. Again, as Tom pointed out, the Iranians were sitting in shock and horror when Syria supported the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. Again, you should’ve just seen and heard the statements how the Iranians were scratching their heads saying, is this a pragmatic alliance that can last.
And I also say it because I hinted at the divisions that I detect in Iran, Ahmadinejad again, as Tom pointed out rightly, has been far more critical about what’s going on in Syria than Khamenei. He has been so critical that Hasan Nasrallah came out and pretty much said, you’re not welcome back in Lebanon.
Hasan Nasrallah has sided with Khamenei in that Iranian internal fight. Ahmadinejad, as I said, is a populist. He’s not an ideologue the way Khamenei is and he’s looking around and he’s — and it’s very interesting. He refers to the Arab spring as humanitarian uprisings, translated directly from Farsi. Khamenei refers to Islamic awakening. You can right away see the ideological component in Khamenei’s way of looking at what’s going on, and Ahmadinejad obviously doesn’t share that view.
DR. KADER: Questions?
Q: Sure. I was wondering if any of the panelists might be able to comment on Riyadh’s motivation for the proposed GCC expansion to include Morocco and Jordan, and if you’ve seen any indications of or might be able to speculate on Iran’s reaction to the enlargement.
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, on the proposed inclusion of Jordan, I don’t think there’s much mystery about that. You would bring a, apparently by reputation, competent military force into an area that’s conspicuously lacking in them in exchange for Gulf money. That would be the trade-off between Jordan and the GCC.
And as for Morocco, I’m not sure that’s a real prospect. Morocco is what? Fourteen hundred miles away? I just don’t see that — to me, that would be sort of the equivalent of bringing Albania into NATO. I mean, I know we did that, but was it really — was it really a good idea and did it enhance our security?
MR. : (Yeah ?), go ahead.
MR. VATANKA: Just very quickly, the Iranian reaction has been more or less mute, I think, on the prospects of Morocco and Jordan joining I think probably because they don’t take it too seriously, and they looked at it as a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the GCC states because of what happened in Bahrain and fears that, you know, Iran was emboldened and they needed to make a — send us a very clear signal that the GCC states, because of their massive, massive demographic disadvantage that they have vis-a-vis Iran, have outlets for support. And you know, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Morocco, a pretty sizeable country, was one of the ones, as Tom mentioned — (inaudible) — that country that, you know, has a Atlantic Ocean coast suddenly is being considered — membership at the GCC.
On Morocco, I also say this. Again, relations are not that strong with either Morocco or Jordan, but specifically with Morocco when — I think it was 2008, Morocco broke relations off with Iran. The Iranians read that as basically the GCC states having provided incentives, and we can speculate what those incentives were because Morocco had — you know, I think the official line used by Morocco was fears about the expansion of Shias in — Shiism among Moroccans. But I think it was much more of a geopolitical game. At least that was the perception in Tehran, and they saw the GCC states, probably Saudi Arabia, as a key driver behind Morocco’s decision.
Q: A wonderful panel — thank you so much. For Mr. Lippman, I can think of — you said that according to a WikiLeaks cable the king told General Jones that if Iran develops a bomb, all of the Gulfies (ph) will have to, paraphrasing. I can think of a couple of reasons why the king would have said this in a private conversation that was not meant for public consumption, but I’d be very interested in what you think the motivation was for the king telling him that, because you also said you didn’t believe it was necessarily Saudi policy.
Second question, also for you — you said you did not know who told the king they should invade — I mean, assist — that the GCC should assist Bahrain. And I can’t imagine that it wasn’t a group of his closest advisors — whom I’m sure you must be an expert on — who discussed this, not necessarily one voice that would have promoted — (inaudible).
And a third question — I’m sorry to monopolize for the entire panel. If I’m not mistaken, the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq expires at the end of this year. And I cannot imagine, whatever the discussions have been with Iraq in terms of keeping any U.S. forces there, that there would be a single DOD person in Iraq without a status of forces agreement to protect them, as opposed to being under Iraqi law.
So I wonder if you would comment on that and what impact it will have, even though there is discussion of putting troops in Kuwait, of course, which would be a different issue. Sorry.
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, let me take your two questions about Saudi Arabia. If you — in one of Anthony Cordesman’s really, really detailed, down-in-the-weeds books about the security apparatus and the military in Saudi Arabia — and Cordesman’s been doing this for a living for years and really knows his stuff — he has a list of the national security decision-makers, decision-making apparatus in Saudi Arabia, and has 23 names on it, including the minister of health. And I say that just as a way of indicating that — beware anyone who presents themselves to you as an expert on this process of decision-making in Saudi Arabia.
There is a National Security Council, as they call it. It is nominally headed by Prince Bandar. No one has any idea what Prince Bandar really does all day anymore. (Laughter.) And it was certainly — it was almost certainly not any active-duty member of the armed forces because the — al-Saud have been rigorous throughout their — throughout their regime in excluding the armed forces from political decision-making. So the fact is I really don’t know the answer, but of course it was a certain number of people. Was Khalid bin Sultan among them? Who knows? I don’t know.
On the — on the nuclear question, the king’s reported remarks were in the context of a rhetorical escalation by the Saudis, the king and others, in an attempt to galvanize the United States about the Iranian nuclear program. The Saudis want us to do something about it. And it was in that context that the king was advancing that argument.
DR. KADER: The other part of the question?
DR. MATTAIR: Well, about the decision-making in Saudi Arabia, I’m not sure that the king needed to be advised by anyone. I think the king was perfectly capable of analyzing the situation and making a decision. You know, I think he would value advice, but I’m not even sure that’s a really critically important question. I mean, there are people around him who we know we can identify, but —
DR. KADER: Maybe it would help us understand that if it’s — if — in your question, are you assuming he’s slightly incapacitated or —
DR. KADER: — or lacks some ability to make a decision?
Q: No, I was just — I was just curious to hear a little bit more with respect to — (inaudible) —
DR. KADER: He provoked — yeah, OK.
Q: But I am curious on the Iraq question — or do you think that will change the balance in —
MR. VATANKA: I mean, I can only sort of speak about it from my focus, which is to look at the Iranian regime and their reactions to everything. I can tell you on the SOFA agreement, I don’t know the legal sort of mechanisms in place and what — if you didn’t renew it, what that would mean in terms of specific implications for the few thousand American trainers, instructors and advisers and so forth that are supposed to, at least at this stage, plan to stay in Iraq. I don’t know, but I can tell you, Iranians are sort of assuming that these American military personnel will remain in Iraq. They are reconciling themselves with that fact. They’re happy to live with it.
The last indication I saw in this that in any way sort of touched on the issue was that these American troops should not — this is sort of policy advocacy on the part of Tehran — should not be able to stay there and benefit from immunity, that they should otherwise follow (in their ?) Iraqi law, which I don’t know. Again, I’m not expert on this. I don’t think the U.S. will agree to that, certainly not in the sort of circumstances you have in Iraq.
Q: Definitely not —
MR. VATANKA: Yeah.
Q: — but I do know something about the subject, and without a status of forces agreement, there will — or some ability to put those trainers under diplomatic immunity, they won’t be there.
MR. VATANKA: Right.
DR. KADER: Did you get your questions answered?
Q: Yes, thank you.
DR. KADER: Other questions? Yes, ma’am.
Q: To go back to this from the perspective of the GCC countries individually, obviously you — I think you all agree that there is a spectrum with the Saudis and U.A.E. at one end of it, and the Omanis at the other. Why is it that countries like Oman and Kuwait, then, are not really concerned about Iran apparently?
DR. MATTAIR: I don’t — I don’t know if I would say that Kuwait is not concerned about Iran. Kuwait is probably more concerned about Iraq, but Iraq has a lot — Iran has a lot of influence in Iraq, and Kuwait has a Shia population. And Kuwait from time to time alleges espionage, and arrests and sentences people. And, you know, diplomats get expelled on both sides. So Kuwait has a concern.
And all of the GCC states have concerns about Iranian conventional capabilities, all of them, and there are scenarios in which these can be harmful to the GCC states. Iran’s conventional capabilities interrupted oil traffic in the 1980s, hurting all those states, particularly Kuwait, which is why Reagan had convoys protecting them.
If there’s ever a military confrontation involving Israel and Iran, or the United States and Iran; and Iran retaliates, that hurts everybody, including Kuwait, including Oman. So Iran’s behavior and what it elicits from other states is something that Kuwait and Oman cannot escape from. But again, with respect to Oman — and there are people in the audience who could address this much better than I can — they do want to maintain the best relations they can in order to serve as mediators. And they are perhaps a little farther away from some of the conflict unless it really gets into all-out war where the Straits of Hormuz are being threatened.
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, I would just add to that, if I may, that unlike Saudi Arabia, Dubai specifically, Oman and Qatar —
DR. KADER: (Inaudible.)
DR. MATTAIR: Commercial trade —
MR. LIPPMAN: — Dubai, Qatar and Oman have very large economic interests with Iran. There’s very little commerce that I know of between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But you can — you can sit in a restaurant, an outdoor restaurant on Dubai Creek and look across the water and see big buildings representing the Iranian banks, which can hardly do business anywhere in the world anymore, but there they are in Dubai. You go to Khasab in Oman, and somebody gets a phone call and suddenly 250 — (inaudible) — take off for the — for the Iranian coast because the — they can get — they can get their smuggling done — big economic interests on the Arab side of the Gulf.
DR. KADER: Sir? Would you speak very loudly so that we can pick you up on mic?
Q: Sure. You’re right. Kuwait is probably more afraid of Iraq, but you were kind of selective in picking Iran and the, you know — (inaudible) — and forgetting that it was Iraq that actually under Saddam, the Sunni, that attacked, you know, Kuwait. So that should be, you know, highlighted more, which takes me to a question and what Alex tried to highlight as — 2003 as, you know, a reference point, which is kind of interesting because Iraq attacked Iran, and that was basically the basis for the creation of the GCC. And if we don’t want to, you know, take that as a marker, maybe the Iraqi attack on Kuwait should have been probably highlighted. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.
I don’t think — you know, Saudi Arabia has been shown as a — as a victim here, but I agree with Tom on what — you know, what he said about some of the problems there. But their problem doesn’t stop with I4an. They’ve been having major problems with Yemen, with Iraq, with Oman in the past, and even with — (inaudible). So it’s — you know, there are more problems within GCC than Iran. But the question I have from Tom is I can understand the military reaction of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain. But on the economic side that you mentioned, it’s kind of puzzling because the per capita GDP of both Bahrain and Oman are higher than Saudi Arabia, and yet they’re trying to help there and forgetting, you know, the mess that is being partly created in Yemen. How would you define that or how would you explain their involvement on the financial side? Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: The Saudi — the Saudi involvement?
Q: Yes, the $10 million to each partner —
DR. MATTAIR: (Well ?) —
Q: — to Bahrain and Oman when their per capita GDP in both Bahrain and Oman are higher than Saudi Arabia.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, yes, but Saudi Arabia has a much larger population, and it has a relatively high GDP, even though those two countries are higher. Saudi Arabia — I don’t know why you characterize Saudi Arabia quite this way. There’s a — there’s a large middle class. There’s a — there’s an unemployed youth, of course, coming out of universities not being able to find jobs, not being able to find housing. Saudi Arabia is not a country that has no problems, but it — when you look at something narrow like GDP per capita, you have to take into account what Saudi Arabia’s larger population means and that it is harder it is to distribute throughout such a — such a large population.
They are — that is a country that is investing tens and tens of billions of dollars in the development of their economy and their educational system trying to provide education and housing and employment for their population, and outside of the oil and gas sector, building a diverse economy that can provide diverse employment in information — you know, in knowledge-intensive industries. And this is a government that’s spending a lot of money for its economic development. And it has a lot of money to spend. Therefore, it can raise salaries. It can put money into providing more — I mean, when Arab unrest comes, it can respond by spending more money for housing and employment and has money left over to help Bahrain and Oman.
It’s, I think, a $20 billion fund over 10 years to help Oman and Bahrain. And for Saudi Arabia that’s not — that’s not an immense amount of money, but it’s helpful to those two countries, because again, you — unrest in Oman had something to do with youthful unemployment. And in Bahrain, again, it has to do with economic advantage or disadvantage. So money will address those problems.
DR. KADER: Is there any response, (anybody ?)?
MR. VATANKA: Just very quickly to the good lady’s question — very quickly, my understanding — again, I don’t know the GCC states, the internal dynamics as well as our two Toms here this morning, but my understanding whenever I’ve traveled there is that one of the underlining fears is that Saudi Arabia gets to dominate the entire GCC; and when you can play around as a way of balancing against Saudi Arabia, it helps. I agree that economics, particularly with Oman, are also a driving force. But I also want to highlight that we’re talking about ruling families and officials in the GCC states that are not necessarily looking at Iran just in terms of pure politics. They deal with Iranians. Iranians live among them in these GCC states. Their numbers are quite substantial. There are intermarriages and so forth. So again, I think that complicates or makes it more nuanced in many ways.
I think you’re making a point perhaps, if I may, that it should’ve been Iraq that was the catalyst, or we should present the GCC’s creation as a result of fears about Iraq, not Iran. And that might totally be true. In actual historical terms, I think you’re right. It was Iraq actions that brought the GCC states together. But I think what keeps it perhaps together today — and this is my big fear, and I regret this — is the sectarian issue. And I think in that context Iraq as a Shia-majority country and Iran as a Shia-majority country have become the same in many ways in the eyes of the GCC states.
So if you take that argument — that what is going on is a sectarian divide and the GCC policies, whenever they can come together, is a reflection of that — as I said, it’s regrettable, if that’s what it is, but that — at this point I think it makes no difference if it’s Iraq or Iran, because it’s the Shia issue that’s the — seems to be the driving factor behind some of the GCC policies.
Q: Can the panelists say something about the soft power conflict —
DR. KADER: Speak very loudly so that we can pick you up on mic.
Q: (OK ?) I’m wondering if the panelists can say anything about the soft power conflict where the players, Iran and the GCC especially, Saudi Arabia, but also the United States — which of these countries is the most legitimate. Which ones are seen as really supporting the Arab spring in terms of socioeconomic justice, human rights, increased political rights; and which of these entities is seen as actually imposing the Arab spring? I mean, if the GCC and Iran are in conflict, they’re nevertheless both very anxious about democratic uprisings. America says a lot about supporting democracy, but we’re very selective about which democratic uprisings we support.
So if the Arab people and also the Iranian people are now key players who are demanding human rights, political freedoms, socioeconomic justice, then which of these entities is seen as being really legitimate, if any of them? And how do those new concerns play into the power contest, not just in terms of economic and military power but in terms of being perceived as actually legitimate?
DR. KADER: Who wants to take a shot at that? Tom?
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, I can’t — I really can’t answer that question on any country except Saudi Arabia.
DR. KADER: (Mike ?)
MR. LIPPMAN: And I’d be glad to discuss this at — I mean, we’ve got all afternoon. We could discuss this at length, but I — I’ll just be brief. I believe that the House of Saud, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, are by a great majority accepted as the legitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia. If you define a legitimate government as one that has the consent of the governed, as we did for ourselves, the House of Saud has that. They are known as the people who have spent more than 250 years trying to build a Saudi state, a legitimate, unified state in the Arabian Peninsula.
And if you read all the petitions circulated by all the opposition over the past 10 or 15 years in Saudi Arabia, none of them calls for outright replacement of the regime by another system. They call for modifications of the existing system, greater accountability, greater channels of communication and input into decision-making in the government, but they do not call for a replacement. And I might just say that we of all countries are not well-positioned to lecture countries in the region about governance or about responsive systems or about collective behavior.
Q: And that is because?
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, among other things we — last week we assassinated one of our own citizens. We are — you think the Saudis are not aware of the political paralysis brought on by our governmental system? All around them they see examples of so-called representative democracies that have not served the interests of their populations. They see government paralysis even in Kuwait because of the elected parliament. And so I just — I think that we, who invaded Iraq and ritually support Israel no matter what, are not well-positioned to deliver these lectures.
DR. KADER: OK, thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I would — I would add that other ruling families in the GCC are accepted as legitimate and considered to be providing good governance and good economic development by their own populations, Bahrain being an exception, obviously, for the Shia. And everybody, everybody is making geopolitical calculations about who they are and are not going to support. So nobody is seen as a consistent player in terms of what they support ideologically. We are trading off our ideological and strategic interests all the time. Those countries are as well.
And in terms of Iran, I would say soft power has been a very deliberate strategy for gaining support in the Arab world, presenting itself as a champion of Palestinian rights, for example. And their own behavior in 2009, I mean, has really complicated their ability to present themselves that way. The Arab street can see what they did in 2009. And it may even have something to do, as I tried to say, with why they’re criticizing the Assad regime. Because to be supporting it really makes them look bad in the Arab street, and the Arab street — their popularity in the Arab street is declining pretty dramatically recently. So I think that strategy is not a very good option for them anymore. I think they played it out.
DR. KADER: Go to the next question, and then we’ve got a question from someone in Bahrain online watching. We’ll take that question next. We’ll take this one first.
MR. LIPPMAN: They don’t have enough to do in Bahrain.
Q: Tom, actually, my question is about pretty much the same of the last comment you made. You spoke of the geopolitical considerations (of ?) — and actually, it goes back to one of your comments and your remarks when you — I think I understood that, you know, you mentioned that the geopolitical considerations or calculations by Saudi Arabia pretty much explains why they are encountering revolutions or — they are considered counterrevolutions.
My question now is about — and this is pretty much based on, you know, national interests and geopolitical considerations you mentioned. I want to turn the table around and say why, when Iran acts similarly, perhaps like Iran being — considering threats to a state’s interest when it says, you know, large alliances between the Gulf states and the United States and the purchase of all kind of weapons, and when Iran — (inaudible) — act — somehow want to react to that kind of, you know, threats, then we just pick on Iran and keep, you know, saying that, you know, Iran should not (be doing ?) do this or Iran is just — whatever, expand, wants to control everything — so why we are not — why we’re using different standards for Iran?
And my other question is to the other Tom. I think, I mean, Alex rightly explained at least (one strong ?) constituents, or not constituents, but one of the sources of powers in Iran — Hashemi, who is always a favorite they could — relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So my question is that knowing that — why Saudi Arabia that doesn’t want conflict or war with Iran doesn’t use that kind of, you know, reservoir, Hashemi’s, you know, (weight especially ?) in Iran, to kind of reconcile conflicts between the two or the perceived conflict between the two countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran?
DR. KADER: The question on the first one is, why is there a double standard when Iran pursued—
Q: I didn’t use that term, but you use it.
DR. KADER: — why is there a double standard when Iran uses its national interests to guide its relationships with GCC states like Saudi Arabia does?
DR. MATTAIR: Well, my presentation was really about how GCC states perceive Iran. It wasn’t about Iranian perceptions. But Iran has legitimate national security interests. The Saudi defense minister, Sultan, said at one point in the 1990s some of the Iranian conventional military acquisitions were understandable given Iran’s legitimate defensive needs. But when you’re trying to understand Iran, you go back to the revolution and the anti-American rhetoric and the anti-Saudi rhetoric, I mean, the pejorative references to the states that didn’t even — hadn’t formed the GCC yet, the seizure of islands to which Iran has a very, very tenuous historical and legal claim compared to the U.A.E.’s and its unwillingness to negotiate about it in a reasonable way.
So there’s some rhetoric and there’s some behavior that can’t be ignored. Now, it’s easier — it’s a lot easier to evaluate Iran’s capabilities and to observe their behavior than it is to understand what their intentions are. You know, we really don’t and can’t know fully what their intentions are. And it’s possible that if they’re misinterpreted you can create a self-fulfilling prophesy where you treat Iran in a way that it — it’s going to respond in a way that is viewed as threatening. But Iran, I think, has given enough reasons in the last 32 years to cause concern on the other side of the Gulf about its intentions.
DR. KADER: The second question is essentially, why is Iran ignored when it tries to make gestures for reducing tension.
Q: Not Iran, but Hashemi and —
DR. KADER: Can you handle that?
MR. LIPPMAN: Hashemi?
Q: Well, Rafsanjani, Hashemi Rafsanjani — I mean, if you go back to — (inaudible) — he rightly said that at least Hashemi Rafsanjani is very supportive of a close relationship between Saudi Arabia — (inaudible) —
MR. LIPPMAN: I can’t answer that.
Q: I wanted to hear from the Saudis’ point of view, but it’s all right.
MR. LIPPMAN: I tell you what. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia every year but one since 2011, right, doing all kinds of things, all kinds of — I’ve never heard anybody mention Hashemi Rafsanjani.
MR. VATANKA: If I could just very quickly answer the part Tom just answered, as I sort of tried to suggest to you, I think Iran’s own rhetoric is one of its biggest enemies. It doesn’t seem to listen to its own rhetoric and it doesn’t seem to appreciate when you are a sort of small GCC state and you have a country of 75 million people, right, just across the water — keep talking about, you know, the need to bring Islamic awakening to those shores and so forth, the impact that has on the ruling families, it doesn’t seem to believe that its own rhetoric works or is effective or is powerful. And I think that — they need to figure out what it is they want. What is Iran’s end objective? Because they’re all over the place in many ways, and I think their rhetoric is one of the key issues.
In terms of Rafsanjani, I was referring to statements that were coming from Saudi Arabia as represented by anti-Ahmadinejad forces in Iran: that the Saudis can’t wait for the day where Ahmadinejad is gone and they can go back to the days where — have someone like Hashemi Rafsanjani or Khatami they can work with. Now, whether they will say it publicly in Saudi Arabia to visiting Americans or not, I don’t know, but that was the suggestion. And that totally makes sense, and it is a believable scenario because it’s already happened with the last 20 years. Hashemi Rafsanjani overhauled relations with Saudi Arabia, recognizing that — and he’s said it in many ways. And I think reformists in Iran if they ever came to power will believe that Saudi Arabia should be one of the key foreign policy objectives of any government in Tehran. It’s a critical regional country, and what they have going on right now between Iran and Saudi Arabia is absolutely to the detriment of Iranian national interests.
But as I said, there are — those ideologues — and we can get into why they act the way they do, and I think the sectarian card, again, is a key issue — don’t see it that way, and they play this opportunistic short-term policy of inciting — when it comes to relations with Saudi Arabia — for their own domestic legitimacy issue. And obviously Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the key beneficiary of that approach.
DR. KADER: Alex, I’m going to read the question from Bahrain. I wonder if you’d take it. The question is, is Iran interested in establishing Shiite governments in the GCC in order to force the United States to be friendlier to Iran’s interests due to the U.S. economic interests in the region?
MR. VATANKA: I really don’t think the Iranians are that ambitious. I think at the very best what the Iranians would like to see is that those GCC governments — becoming less hostile to them, or let me put it this way to you — less cooperative with Iran’s bigger adversaries, obviously, the West, the United States and so forth. When the Iranians pick up news that, for instance — gossip — I mean, I should — I should say this is — has been gossip but sort of allegations that Saudi Arabia somehow might be willing to give its airspace to Israel to be able to launch attacks. I mean, that sort of thing obviously registers somewhere in Iran, and they would want to — as I said before, lessens — lessen the isolation that they’re under. And let’s not underestimate the isolation that this country’s under.
And it’s a very glaring mismatch between the isolation Iran is under and the perception it has about itself. When you listen to Ahmadinejad come into the U.N. and talk about taking over the world management from the United States, you wonder where he’s been at. I mean, what sort of tool box is he looking into to sort of come up with a suggestion that Iran somehow can replace the United States?
DR. KADER: Yes, sir? Will you speak very loudly so we can all hear you and pick you up on the mic?
Q: I’ll do my best. This is a question for Tom Lippman. But before that, I’d like to offer a comment on the creation of the GCC, which has come up several times this morning. Neither Iraq or Iran had anything to do with it. It was in response to the takeover of the whole — of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. And that was done by the son of a leader of the — (inaudible) — that supported King Abdul-Aziz in his efforts — early days’ efforts to create the consolidated Saudi Arabia. They were a group of Muslim extremists who wanted to impose a very conservative version of Islam that Abdul-Aziz was not in sympathy with and ultimately turned against them. And it was the son of one of their leaders who led the takeover of the Mecca mosque.
But the reason for the GCC creation in consequence was because this man was arrested, then released in Saudi Arabia. He went to Kuwait. Kuwaitis knew he was there. They knew he was plotting against Saudi Arabia, but that didn’t have anything to do with Kuwaiti security, so they didn’t do anything about it. And the GCC was created in the first instance to bring about a coordination within the various security apparatuses of the six members.
A question for Tom — Tom, you mentioned both the various ways in which the Saudis have approached the United States. Don’t just stand there; do something about the Iranian nuclear program. You’ve also said that you didn’t think that the Saudi response could be escalation into their own nuclear weapons development. What, in your view, do the Saudis want the United States to do about the Iranian nuclear program?
MR. LIPPMAN: You know, a forum like this has a distorting effect. The idea that I’m sitting —
DR. KADER: (Inaudible.)
MR. LIPPMAN: — up there — the idea that I’m sitting up here with a nametag and Jim Placke is asking me questions — so there’s something wrong. Jim knows more before he gets out of bed in the morning — (laughter) — than I ever will, so with that stipulation — you know, Jim, what do the Saudis want us to do about the Iranian nuclear program — I would say the same thing they wanted us to do about the fall of the shah and the fall of Mubarak. Something, something that will make those dreadful Iranians see the light and not do this — I have not heard anyone in Saudi Arabia or from any of the Americans who have greater contact with the Saudi security and ruling establishment than I do, including military people, suggest what that might be, right?
A complete — I mean, you’ll hear — I don’t — in Saudi Arabia, I don’t call it cocktail party talk, although that’s what it is — about a naval blockade. Anybody measured the Iranian shoreline lately? You know, I mean, it’s just not — there is — I don’t know any answer to that.
DR. KADER: While we’re on this Saudi — or Iranian bomb thing, very little was said about it, but who’s likely and who should we worry about if it gets developed? Who’s going to be the greatest worry? We’ve talked about the relationship within the GCC, but if Iran gets the bomb, what — for the — for the novice out there, what’s the great worry? Because listening to the Israelis, it’s the beginning of the end of the world. Listening to you guys, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in a really interesting novel. (Laughter.) What’s —
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, if I may say, in my opinion, this is one of the most critical gaps in American policy planning at the moment. This is a conversation that I believe the United States, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be having at the highest levels right now, right? If you accept the premise, which I do, that if Iran is really determined to acquire nuclear weapons, it will do so, it cannot be stopped — if North Korea can do it, Iran can do it — if you accept that premise, you ought to be devising a strategy for responding on the day that Iran drops the veil in whatever way that may be. I am not aware that any such planning is under way, partly because the Israelis don’t want us to do it, and they’ve said so.
So I’m not particularly concerned about the immediate regional danger of proliferation or — but I am concerned about the fact that there’s no agreed-upon set of responses among the countries that should be most concerned about it.
DR. MATTAIR: Can I say something about that?
DR. KADER: And those countries that should be most concerned about it are —
MR. LIPPMAN: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and the United States —
DR. KADER: OK, good. And would you speak into the mic so we can hear you?
MR. VATANKA: Can I quickly just follow up on — is that OK? Just indirectly, whenever I’m in Dubai and I have a glass of water, I can’t help but thinking about the Iranian nuclear program — (laughter) — because of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. You know, I think the GCC states have a genuine, genuine concern here. And I don’t think the Iranian regime, from what I can gather, have done anything to sort of reduce the fears on the part of the GCC states about the security of Bushehr plant. I know you’re going with — down the bomb path, but if I could just for a second take the Iranians at their words — and this is — I know it’s a big if — if they don’t want a bomb, they just want to have a civil nuclear program, they still have a lot of assurances to give to their neighbors. And I think the GCC states, just because of the location of Bushehr plant, have a lot of reasons to be both worried and demand things from the Iranians.
But very quickly, something else — I think we were talking about what various countries and entities could do. One of the things — and, again, this is a big “if” sort of scenario, hypothetical. One of the things, for instance, that the GCC states could do is to consider a package of some sort, probably economic as opposed to security — that would be an incentive to the Iranians to perhaps — at a time when the Iranian economy’s going through massive pains — to act as an incentive, at least to parts of the Iranian regime. I would specifically refer to Ahmadinejad and the sort of so-called green opposition. They’re not in power, but they’re still a player.
I wonder what the GCC states have thought about in terms of making themselves attractive as partners, as you know, countries that Iran should look to cooperate with. Instead, what we see — and, again, I’ve said this repeatedly this morning. We go back to the issue of the Sunni-Shia divide. And I think that is totally detrimental to the future of the entire region. Everybody will be losing out as a result of this. I mean, look at some of the statistics showing the trade flows in the region among the neighboring states. It’s almost nonexistent. Iran’s major trading partners are all in East Asia. It doesn’t trade with the Saudis. It doesn’t — this is — when you look, for instance, compared to the European Union, you see how as a bloc they trade among themselves. It helps on the security side. You don’t have that in — between Iran and GCC states.
DR. KADER: You know, speaking of trading partners, I covered the elections in Afghanistan last year. And when I went to breakfast, I ran into a vacuum cleaner salesman representing an Iranian factory. And I asked him how many vacuum cleaners he had sold in Afghanistan, and he said in five years he sold a thousand. So that’s a great market apparently — (laughter) — to stay away from.
Q: Got a lot of carpet —
MR. LIPPMAN: You need electricity to run vacuum cleaners.
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah, about the Iranian nuclear weapon, if it ever is developed, personally, I can’t see how Iran could use it because I still remember the concept of mutually assured destruction. Iran cannot use that weapon without suffering really grievous retaliation. And when you think about how to — how to develop a policy for it, in April 2010 the United States issued a Nuclear Posture Review. You could read that as extending a nuclear umbrella over the GCC states. I don’t know that that’s definitely what we were trying to do, but it could be read that way: that Iranian aggression, nuclear aggression against a neighbor, would be met by American nuclear response. You can read it and see if you think that they’re implying it as strongly as I do.
So that’s one thing that the GCC states have to — don’t have to worry about, in my view. But they do have to worry, I think, about pre-emptive action. In other words, what’s the development of Iranian nuclear weapon going to elicit from Israel or the United States? Because they’ve talked about the damage that can be done to them in such a war. And Iran’s behavior could take them to that. And the other thing that they would be concerned about — if Iran developed a nuclear weapon and nobody pre-empted them or nobody tried to take it out — is just the added weight that it would give Iran in the region. It’s already the biggest country. It already has the biggest population. It already is wealthy in terms of resources, even though it’s isolated. It can already bring a lot of diplomatic pressure to bear on the smaller states.
I mean, if you have — I wrote a book about — the reason I’ve mentioned Abu Musa and the Tunbs several times is I wrote a 500-page book about those islands. Iran will not negotiate. Iran will not allow it to go to the International Court of Justice. And Abu Dhabi can’t do anything about it. Iran is too big and too powerful for a smaller GCC state to have its day in court or even have its day around a negotiating table to discuss the history and the law.
With a nuclear weapon, Iran’s power in the region would be much greater, I think. And you were talking about the economics. One thing the — I’ve heard from GCC leaders is that if Iran had that, they’d be able to bring a lot of pressure on GCC states to enter into really advantageous investments in Iran’s — in the economy, and GCC states wouldn’t have a lot of ability to say no to the deals that were proposed to them. That’s a fear they have. So yeah, I come back to the fact that it would make Iran an even more powerful neighbor than it already is in terms of the way it exercises diplomacy and exercises economic power.
MR. VATANKA: Can I just very quickly add up — add to something that Tom just said on the islands, since we’re on the subject about islands? I think it’s probably important for all of us to remember that the Iranian regime cannot afford to give up any territory to any neighboring state for simple domestic political calculations, be it the islands in the Persian Gulf, be it the division of the Caspian Sea. That would be a huge political liability for them back in Tehran. If you’re going to go back to the days of the Qajar, the Qajar are still being damned for having lost those territories up in the north. No government in Tehran — if you removed Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, and put in charge a secular government in Iran tomorrow, you will still have to deal with those issues of the islands and elsewhere.
The fact is this is a country where crude nationalism still resonates massively across the board. And I don’t — I don’t think if I was a GCC government, I would, you know, look to a game change just because the ruling elite in Tehran were replaced. It’s something they have to deal with, and I don’t think they’re going to demographically, politically, become so powerful that they’re going to be willing to go to war with Iran over those three islands. I think it’s going to be an issue. The question is, is that going to be issue that’s going to stop everything else that could go ahead in terms of economics and other things that could be done, or not.
MR. LIPPMAN: It hasn’t.
DR. KADER: We’ve got a question here. And before we close I’m going to ask each of you to take a minute to tell the audience what the most critical thing — the takeaway from this session is that’s dramatic. You know, like tell them something they don’t know, or — you know or —
Q: Wow — (inaudible) —
DR. KADER: — should they drop — should they — should they drop their diets and go ahead? The world’s going to end. What’s the skinny?
Q: Thank you. My question concerns the idea that under certain circumstances Iran might, quote, “lose Syria” should Assad fall or something else. Given Iran’s positions on Arab-Israeli issues, including its support for Hezbollah, its support for Hamas, and Syria’s interest in getting to go on — (inaudible) — wouldn’t it be more — a lot more likely that perhaps Iran’s influence in a post-Assad regime or if Assad stays, might be somewhat diminished; and Saudi Arabia might have somewhat more influence in Syria but it wouldn’t be losing Syria?
MR. VATANKA: I mean, I tend to simply just consider the Iranian regime as much more survivalist, if not pragmatic, than ideological. And I think I already see the writing on the wall when it comes to Syria. I could see the Iranian regime reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria if that’s the entity that’s going to come winning out of the crisis in Syria. Why shouldn’t Iran be able to do that? They’ve already dealt with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other branches of the Sunni (sort of ?) Muslim Brotherhood. They’ve already reached out in a major scale towards the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. There’s nothing in their way in terms of ideology. It’s just a question of geopolitical calculations.
And I think, as I said, I see certain Iranian plays already being much more forthright, including Ahmadinejad saying Assad is gone. It’s a question of time. How do we salvage as much as we can?
DR. KADER: OK, anyone else? Tom, you want to start a wrap-up? Have you got something just staggeringly, threateningly interesting?
DR. MATTAIR: Not really — (laughter) — but I — you know, my observation would be that I think Iran is losing in the region not only because of its divisions at home and, you know, the way it handled its own election but because it is — it is, I think, about to lose a major strategic ally and won’t have as much opportunity in Syria once the Saudis and the Turks increase their influence there. And they are being foiled in Bahrain, and Turkey and GCC states can play a bigger role in championing Palestinians than Iran can at this point.
So as I — as I started at the beginning of my remarks, I think their influence was declining before the Arab spring, and I think the way the Arab spring is being played out is not to their advantage. And actually, I think that their own mistakes and the accident of the Arab spring might actually do more to diminish them than anything that American foreign policy has done, any diplomacy or any economic sanctions or any military threats.
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, if you’re — if you’re looking for that final thought, let me offer this. Consider the countries that we have been talking about this morning: Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and the United States. What those countries have in common is that none of us in this room knows who will be running any of those countries in five years, any of them, including our own, or what policies those leaders might pursue. So to a certain extent, we’re dealing with managing a difficult existing situation without knowing where we’re going.
MR. VATANKA: Just to follow up on Tom’s known unknowns — (laughter) — what I think I can safely say is that at least in my interpretation I think a majority of Iranians, if not a majority clearly in the — in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran as a political system is not an attractive one. I would go as far as saying it’s sort of bankrupted itself. If anyone had any doubt, then you have to just go back to the protests in 2009 and the fact that the regime simply has the repressive tools at its disposal to keep itself in power. That in itself, I think, should tell us quite a bit about how attractive it is to its neighboring states, including among the Shia populations in the GCC states.
But having said that — and again, something I’ve mentioned a few times — it comes down to how those Arab governments, particularly in places like Saudi Arabia and so forth, play their own political cards, whether they’re going to be accommodating to some of those socioeconomic grievances that clearly are existing in their — in their societies, or whether they’re going to continue to sort of portray what’s going on along the Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian divide, because I think if that’s what they opt to do, we’re going to continue to see grievances like this erupt periodically, as we’ve seen in the last 20, 30 years.
A final point I say is, again, the Iranian regime does not have one plan for the Arab spring. It takes crisis, unrest by — at its own value. It looks at its sort of interest and plays its rhetoric and practical decisions along those lines. I think when you look at what Iran did in terms of Egypt versus what Iran has done, for instance, with Syria and other Arab countries that have had unrest, it’s very obvious that there’s no ideological vehicle that Iran sort of refers to when it acts. Again, it’s an opportunistic system. Maybe all countries are, but in the case of Iran, I think it’s important to underscore that — not make it into some sort of ideological driver that is very attractive, because I don’t think that’s the case. But anyway —
DR. KADER: Thank you to the panel for a very informative contribution. And Mr. Lippman’s book will be on the shelves, “Saudi Arabia on the Edge,” in time for Christmas.
MR. LIPPMAN: (That’s right ?)
DR. KADER: Thank you, Alex. Thank you, (Tom ?)
MR. VATANKA: Thank you.
DR. KADER: Thank you very much for coming.