Robert Malley, Karim Sadjadpour, Ömer Taşpınar
The following is an edited transcript of the sixty-seventh in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Thursday, January 5, 2012, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating.
THOMAS MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
Given the changes sweeping the Arab world, especially the demands for popular participation in government and the success of Islamist movements, we want to consider in this conference who are the winners and who are the losers among the Arab world's neighbors. For example, will Israel be more isolated than before, and if so, why? Does Iran have the ability to gain any advantage outside of Iraq, or have its ideological, economic and political tools been too diminished? Are the balancing and containing efforts of other powers in the region going to keep Iran isolated?
Turkey has made a decision to abandon its zero-problems foreign policy by taking very strong stances against Qadhafi, Mubarak and Asad. It has also developed a version of Islamist democracy. Are these two developments going to make Turkey a model to be emulated by other Islamists in the region? Will they make Turkey a power to be courted or a power to be countered in the region? Will it be able to contribute to Arab-Israeli peace? Will it be a partner for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states? Will it be able to help counter or integrate Iran?
ROBERT MALLEY, Middle East & North Africa program director, International Crisis Group
Before addressing the question of the impact of the events in the Arab world on Israel and how Israel might react to them, let's spend a few minutes on where we are today with the tumultuous events that have shaken the Arab world over the last 12 months. First of all, a sort of truism — it's very much a work in progress, only the first chapter in a multivolume book. The early enthusiasm about the pristine days of the Tunisian uprising and then the Egyptian uprising certainly have given way to something very different. Many of the key features of the uprisings — their nonviolence, the fact that they were indigenous, without any foreign intervention, the fact that they were consensual movements — have given way as we have moved from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Bahrain and Syria.
I think it's important to look at the background, but also to understand that in some ways the Arab uprising today has become a combination of two phenomena, at least. One is a complete political rebargaining of the social contract in virtually every Arab country. This is affecting the domestic political balance of power. Added to that has been a complete renegotiation of the strategic balance of power in the region because of what's happened in Egypt and Syria and Bahrain and so on.
The two obviously interact. Changes at the domestic level in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere are affecting the balance of power strategically in the region because of the changes in regimes and outlooks that that entails. Conversely, of course, the competition on the regional level is affecting how countries are positioning themselves in the domestic struggle for power — in Syria, where you see Iran and Hezbollah taking one side and the West taking another side; in Bahrain, where you see Iran taking one side and the West perhaps not being as forceful in its support for democracy movements on the other. It's the interplay of the domestic political and the regional strategic that makes it all the more complex and challenging for foreign countries to react to without ambivalence.
It was said at the outset of these uprisings that they're not about foreign policy. Fair enough, but to say that they are not going to affect foreign policy is inaccurate. It's as if to say that although Mitt Romney might not be elected president, certainly he wouldn't be elected on the basis of foreign policy. His election certainly would have a huge impact on it. These uprisings in the Arab world didn't have much to do with foreign policy at their inception, but they will continue to have a great impact on it. This is why a country like Israel or Turkey or Iran looks at this through a bifurcated lens of what's happening domestically and how that's going to impact the regional balance of power.
With that background in mind, let's turn to Israel. If you were sitting in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem looking at the regional landscape and trying to figure out what's changing and how it's going to affect your calculations, there are about six features of this new environment that would come to mind. The first is the great uncertainty and unpredictability of the situation in the region. This is a real challenge to Israel's strategic outlook, which has been based historically on the notion of preempting threats. This is not a Bush doctrine; it's very much an Israeli doctrine. You preempt threats and you take action on them.
But in order to do that, you need to have a pretty good sense of what those threats are and how they're going to unfold. It's almost impossible to do so when you don't even know what the character of the regime in which the threat might appear will be in a year's time. It's one thing for Egypt to develop a certain strategic posture if President Mubarak or General Tantawi is in power; it's very different if you have the Muslim Brotherhood. So the whole strategic concept on which Israel has relied over the last several decades is challenged by this unpredictability and uncertainty.
The second feature is the unprecedentedly greater role of public opinion in Arab countries. Whether we move toward democracies is not really the question; you now have actors who weren't able to play the kind of role they wanted to play in a position to influence foreign policy and strategic choices. This, of course, has a direct impact on Israel because one of the issues that is going to guide public opinion in the Arab world is the question of Palestine. That's different from saying that people care on a day-to-day level about what's happening to the Palestinians. But the symbolic, psychological and moral question of Palestine weighs heavily on public opinion.
I'll just recount one anecdote, which I'm sure Ömer could say much more about. The Turkish model — what Erdoğan and the AKP represent in the region — could have been popular for many years. You had the case of an economically vibrant country that had managed to bring an Islamist movement to power, in which the military was slowly being put back in its barracks. But that model didn't really inspire the Arab world. Turkey only began to inspire the Arab world when Erdoğan took on Israel: When he walked out of his meeting with Shimon Peres at the Dallas Forum, when we had the Gaza-bound flotilla incident, when Turkey started to speak loudly about the Palestinian cause. That's what gave Turkey its resonance in the Arab world, not all the other things that Turkey could be proud of.
This, combined with other things we're seeing today in the Arab world, tells us that the question of Palestine still resonates more deeply than any other, and it's going to be very hard for any aspiring political leader in these countries to try to gain capital by normalization or by advocating peace with Israel. I'm not foreseeing the breaking of treaties, I'm just saying that it's not going to be a very popular stance today to say that we need to reach out to Israel. This is obviously going to have a big impact on how Israel assesses its situation in the region.
The third feature, which is directly related, is the rise of Islamism. One of the truisms at the beginning of the uprisings was, this is not about Islamism. Some of us challenged it at the time. I think now it's become quite evident — in fact, surpassing my own expectations — of how well Islamists are doing in Tunisia and Egypt and Morocco and elsewhere. This certainly is a feature that Israel is looking at extremely carefully and warily. They see it becoming a wave that is going to force the West to reevaluate its relationship with Islamism, and perhaps even force Israel to reassess its relationship with Egyptian Islamism, to begin with. And perhaps, if they start with Egypt, Palestine and Hamas can't be too far behind.
The fourth feature is a reduced margin of maneuver. When I was in Israel a few weeks ago, people were speaking very openly about the fact that, had the terrorist attacks in Eilat or the rocket attacks from Gaza happened several years ago, Israel's response would have been much more aggressive. It is much harder to do now, when Egypt is in a period of transition and Israel wants to keep from doing anything that's going to push either the SCAF or Egyptian public opinion into an even more hostile stance. Israel has to be careful now in measuring what it does. It can't simply calculate what a Mubarak or a King Abdullah might do. It also has to think about the more complex dynamic of how it's going to affect public opinion and therefore the actions of leaders who have their eyes much more focused on their people than they do on Washington these days.
The fifth feature is declining U.S. and Western influence. President Obama can't pick up the phone and speak to an Egyptian leader and tell him what he wants to be done or what he hopes will be done. The calculations are much more complex, because relations with the United States have become much more delicate. The declining U.S. role, in particular, is a much more long-term, secular process, probably going back many, many years. It has had two accelerators. One was the Iraq War, which discredited the United States and weakened its posture militarily and morally in the Arab world. The second accelerator is the Arab Spring. It gives the United States much less leverage. Washington has much less familiarity with the new actors and a much less powerful position from which to influence actors on the ground. That too, of course, is going to impact how Israel views the region.
The final new feature of this region is, if not the end of the peace process, certainly its dramatic transformation. The Palestinian people are now looking at the rest of the region and seeing a very different future horizon from the one they saw before. And the leadership can no longer rely on the leaders it relied on before either. President Abbas can't look to President Mubarak as the kind of ally he used to be. More broadly, the entire paradigm of the peace process, since Oslo, was built around the notion that you're going to have these “pro-American, moderate Arab leaders” who would bolster it, give cover to the Palestinian leadership, and reassure the Israelis that, if there were a peace deal, Arab leaders would normalize relations. That's the very foundation of our peace initiative.
You can forget that, at least for now. Who are the Arab leaders who are going to stand with President Abbas in the event of a peace treaty? You have King Abdullah of Jordan, who never had the role and influence that others had. But are you going to have a General Tantawi? Are you going to have King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia? Who will be there to give the kind of credibility and legitimacy to an agreement — or even a peace process, forget an agreement — when you'll have Al Jazeera and other Arab media denouncing whatever happens as, at best, a farce and, at worst, a betrayal?
The peace process was perhaps defunct for a long time, but certainly today it has become much more clear that there's going to have to be a reinvention of the paradigm. What it was based on in the past — strong Arab leaders who could bolster Abbas and reassure Israel, a firm U.S. role — all of that is now in question.
Given all this, how is Israel going to react? Some people have argued that the Arab Spring is good for Israel's leadership today because it advances democracies and freedom. Democracies are supposedly less likely to go to war with other democracies; Islamists are going to have to govern, militants are going to be less interested in being hostile to Israel because they have to focus on domestic affairs; any future agreement will be reached with real, legitimate, representative governments and therefore will be more solid; and it will bring down a regime like Asad's in Syria and therefore will weaken Iran and Hezbollah. That's the good-news story.
There's also a bad-news story, which, from today's perspective in Israel and given the features I just described, is much more likely to be the lens through which Israel views the Arab world. This is a world in which pro-American leaders have been toppled; in which the margin of maneuver of leaders has been reduced because they have to take into account public opinion; in which popular feelings, of which a basic trope has been hostility to Israel, have been empowered; in which Islamists are on the ascent and in which regimes today may not be there tomorrow. Look at Jordan; it may not be there tomorrow, and the notion of popular uprising may very well spill over to the Palestinians themselves. They may perhaps someday embrace the notion of a nonviolent popular uprising in Palestine. Uncertainty and the collapse of authority will multiply areas of lawlessness and statelessness, as you see in the case of Sinai and the transfer of weapons from Libya and Sinai to Gaza and elsewhere.
The more likely lens through which Israel is going to look at the region, in my view, is the latter one. This accounts for Israel's reaction so far: say very little, do very little, and do it very cautiously. This is a hunker-down mentality. It is not a time to take risks or do anything, when we don't know whether those with whom are be dealing today will be there tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a different regime, certainly in Egypt, maybe in Jordan, maybe in some Gulf states, and perhaps even in Palestine itself.
The notion that Israel is going to seize the moment and decide now is the time to make peace with the Arabs and the Palestinians, to strengthen the secular, moderate forces and weaken the Islamists — I don't buy it. Certainly it is not what I sense when I go to Israel these days. If Israel were to do anything bold today, it would be on the Iranian front. There are elections here, which means that Washington is going to be less likely to take a forceful stance, plus the fact that the United States has withdrawn from Iraq and logistically it may be easier to reach Iran, while the Arab world is distracted with its own problems, and, certainly in the case of Gulf Arabs, more worried about Iran than they were even yesterday. These factors may give Israel the opportunity to do what it believes it needs to do at some point anyway, which is to stop Iran's nuclear program.
This is a picture of a landscape that, from Israel's point of view, is almost entirely bad news, with the exception of Syria. But even Syria itself doesn't seem, at this point, to be going anywhere very fast. That's not a situation in which I suspect the Israeli leadership is going to be looking for opportunities to reach out to. It is much more likely to look for reasons to hunker down.
KARIM SADJADPOUR, Middle East program associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
There's a time-honored tradition among scholars and writers, when they write books, to thank those who have been their mentors but to take responsibility for any errors in their books. I'm neither a writer nor a scholar, but I mention this because Rob was my former boss at the International Crisis Group for four years. And Ömer was one of my first professors in graduate school. We used to call him Doogie Howser, PhD, because he was so young. So, in kind of a Persian tradition, rather than taking credit for my own potential errors in this presentation, I'd like to deflect some of the accountability to Rob and Ömer.
I will talk briefly about the domestic situation in Iran and then about Iran's vision for the Middle East and how Iran's ambitions are playing out. The trend lines in Iran in many ways are the opposite of the trend lines in the Arab world. In the Arab world, power is going from being centralized to being quite diffuse, but in Iran, the trend lines over the last decade or two have been the opposite: power was much more factionalized and diffuse. Over the last decade, however, power and influence and decisions in Iran have been increasingly driven by one individual, one personality — that of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A shorthand way of looking at Iran domestically is to say that Iran is driven by the worldview of Khamenei in the same way in which Egypt was driven by Mubarak, Syria by Asad, et cetera. Khamenei has now been supreme leader for 22 years, and he has a fairly shrewd modus operandi, which is to try to wield power without accountability. In order to do this, he needs a president who has accountability without power. And President Ahmadinejad has, until recently, played that role fairly conveniently.
But over the past year or so there's been tension; Ahmadinejad seems no longer content with simply being Khamenei's loyal lieutenant. There are tensions between the two of them. But when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program, major domestic decisions and Iran's role in the Middle East, decisions are very much driven by Khamenei and the revolutionary guards who act at his behest.
Khamenei's view has always been that the more democracy there is in the Middle East and the more representative governments there are, the better it is for Iran. He's seen over the last decade or so that, when democratic elections have taken place, in Lebanon they empowered Hezbollah, in Palestine they empowered Hamas, in Iraq they empowered Shiite Islamists. So he's confident that the average citizen in the Middle East has much more in common with Tehran's worldview than Washington's. So I think when the uprisings began in the Arab world, Khamenei felt fairly confident that this was going to be in line with Iran's interest, not America's.
But I would argue that, so far, the results have been decidedly mixed. I'll start by talking briefly about Egypt. On the one hand, wherever the cards happen to fall, it's fairly likely that a post-Mubarak Egypt is going to have a better bilateral relationship with Iran than Mubarak-era Egypt did. So the bilateral relationship between Egypt and Iran is likely going to improve. At the same time, I would argue that one of the reasons for Iran's ascent in the Middle East over the course of the last decade has been Egypt's decline. And it's obviously going to take many years before Egypt is ready to look externally; it's still very internally focused. But I think once Egypt does start to look outward, the return of a proud and assertive Egypt is going to challenge Iran in many arenas, like the Levant, the Gulf and elsewhere.
Point two is Iran's relationship and rivalry with Saudi Arabia. I would argue that these countries are trying to put forward two very different paradigms for the Middle East. The Saudi paradigm is very sectarian, and their calculations are purely demographic: around 90 percent of the region's Muslims are Sunni. Iran is Shiite, so let's wave the Sunni banner in order to undermine Iran in Sunni countries. Iran's paradigm is the imperialists versus the anti-imperialists, painting Bahrain or Mubarak's Egypt or the Jordanian ruling family as being lackeys of the United States, against the resistance — Hamas and Hezbollah, more Islamist groups. I would argue that neither of these paradigms has tremendous buying power these days in the Middle East.
As for the growing rivalry between Iran and Turkey, this has been somewhat misunderstood in Washington. There's talk about a growing alliance between Turkey and Iran, but the reality is that, in various arenas throughout the Middle East, the two countries are increasingly competing for power and influence. I'll share with you an anecdote which, for me, crystallized Iran's vision for the Middle East as opposed to, say, Turkey's vision. Several years back, I was at a track-two meeting in Europe, and there was an Iranian official present, a deputy foreign minister. I relayed to him a question that a Lebanese Shiite friend of mine once posed to me: Think about all the money Iran has spent over the years on Hezbollah since its inception in 1982. A conservative estimate is a couple of billion dollars. Think of how many Lebanese Shiites Iran could have sent abroad to become doctors and professionals and engineers, and how much better off the Shiite community in Lebanon would have been, even vis-à-vis Israel, with those types of academic opportunities. Likewise, instead of spending money over the years to arm Hamas and Islamic Jihad, how many Palestinian youth could Iran have educated and sent abroad to become members of the professional classes?
This Iranian deputy foreign minister said, What good would that have done for Iran? Do you think, had we sent these young Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians abroad to become doctors and lawyers and engineers, that they would have come back to South Lebanon and Gaza to fight Israel? No, of course, they would have preferred to remain doctors and lawyers and engineers.
What this crystallized for me is that Iran is cognizant of its strengths and weaknesses and of the fact that it can be the champion of the region's downtrodden and alienated and disenfranchised. But they're also cognizant of the fact that they can't be the champion of the region's upwardly mobile and professional classes. So I would argue that Iran benefits the most when the region is in the throes of chaos and people feel most outraged and disenfranchised.
An interesting passage in Tony Blair's recent autobiography jumped out at me. Blair was talking about his transition from the Old Labour Party to New Labour. He said that the thing about Old Labour was that they were really interested in celebrating the working class, but they didn't seem to focus on turning the working class into the middle class. I think that's also Iran's strategy.
In a way, Turkey is becoming the New Labour to Iran's Old Labour in the Middle East. Young, upwardly-mobile Arabs don't aspire to live in a system like the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Turkish model is increasingly becoming what people look to. Turkey, like no other country in the Middle East's history, has managed to reconcile how to simultaneously be modern, Muslim and democratic.
Again, I would argue that Turkey and Iran are increasingly going to be competitors in the region rather than allies. And Iraq is going to be an important arena of competition between them. Arguably, no country in the world stands to benefit more from Iraq's burgeoning energy resources than Turkey. And no country in the world stands to lose more from Iraq's burgeoning energy industry than Iran. So there's going to be some tension there.
With regard to Syria, I think the Iranians anticipated that the uprisings would only occur in countries aligned with the West, whether Egypt or Tunisia or Bahrain. They really didn't anticipate this uprising in Syria. And the reason this is so troubling for Iran is that Syria has been Iran's only consistent ally — not only regionally, but globally — since the 1979 revolution.
Iran's patronage of Hezbollah, which has been the crown jewel of the Iranian revolution, is going to be very difficult to sustain in the same fashion absent the Syrian passageway. I would argue that, in terms of strategy, Syria's philosophy at home, whenever the regime is under siege, is not to compromise at all. They believe that when you start to compromise, it projects weakness and actually emboldens the opposition.
That's probably been their advice to Asad, to hold on and not give an inch, because if he starts to give an inch, people are going to ask for six inches. That seems to be what they're doing operationally. There have been some statements in recent months — not from Ayatollah Khamenei, but from President Ahmadinejad — condemning some of the violence. But, in general, I think that the loss of the Asad regime would be a tremendous blow to Iran.
Briefly, on the Israeli-Palestinian front, another ramification that may not have positive results for Iran is related to Syria, and that's Hamas's potential relocation from Damascus to Doha. There are already reports that Iran has threatened to withhold funding to Hamas if they abandon Asad and relocate to Qatar. Again, the fall of the Asad regime in Syria could have important implications for Iran's approach to Palestinian politics as well.
Let me just end on how the uprisings in the Arab world may have influenced Iran's nuclear calculations. For several years now, there's been conventional wisdom that Iran is in pursuit of a nuclear-weapons capability. They want to pursue the so-called Japan model, which is to remain a screwdriver turn away from having a weapon, but stopping short of actually building and testing a nuclear device. I think the experience of Moammar Qadhafi in Libya may have altered somewhat the calculations of the Iranian supreme leader.
There was a very interesting article in The New York Times shortly after the NATO intervention in Libya. A senior White House official said that one of our calculations for going into Libya was to send a message to Iran, that they shouldn't think that they can simply slaughter their own population and the United States will stay on the sidelines and sit on their hands.
The message Iran received from the intervention in Libya was decidedly different. The Iranian supreme leader gave a speech, around that same time as The New York Times article came out, saying that Qadhafi's main mistake was giving up his nuclear program, because that made him vulnerable to this type of outside intervention.
The point I'm trying to make is that the strategy of the United States — and I'm not necessarily saying it's an incorrect strategy — is to subject Iran to significant pressure in order to compel it to come back to the negotiating table and make meaningful compromises on its nuclear program. Looking at the world through the eyes of Ayatollah Khamenei, increasingly his back is up against the wall with these very draconian sanctions against Iran's Central Bank and a disgruntled population. It's unclear to me whether he will seek salvation in a nuclear compromise with the West or whether he will seek salvation in a nuclear weapon.
ÖMER TAŞPINAR, nonresident senior fellow and director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution
I'd like to give you a broad picture of where Turkey is right now, in terms of its vision of the Arab revolutions and in what ways this has had an impact on Turkish foreign policy. As Tom said, if we divide the story into winners and losers of the Arab Spring, one can argue that Turkey is a big winner.
The coverage of Turkey has changed drastically in the last year. Look at the way The New York Times, Washington Post, or European media cover Turkey and the big question of “who lost Turkey?” Turkey was, according to the Western media, becoming an Islamist country allied with Syria, Hamas and Iran a year ago, especially after Turkey and Brazil brokered the nuclear deal and Turkey voted in the UN Security Council against sanctions on Iran. Today we're at a point where everyone is talking about Turkey as a role model for the region. This is the same Turkey, the same government, yet the West has discovered that, when it comes to looking at models for the region between Turkey and Iran, the obvious winner is Turkey.
Turkey has what has come to be called a moderately Islamic government. It has been in power for the last 10 years. It has a booming economy, growing at 9-10 percent. Average growth for the last 10 years has been around 7 percent. Income per capita has tripled. GDP has doubled. So it's not only a political success story; it's also an economic success story based on capitalism, entrepreneurship and political stability at home.
In many ways, Turkey before the Arab Spring was also a winner. There was a vacuum in the Middle East as Rob described, based on America's failure in Iraq and the absence of Arab leadership on the Palestinian issue. Turkey was successfully able to fill that vacuum with its strategic depth; Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called this “zero problems with neighbors.” Tom mentioned that Turkey has abandoned this policy. This is partly true. Yet, if you ask Davutoglu today, he would say that the region has changed, and Turkey has had to adapt to the changes in the region. Turkey would have preferred to have zero problems with Syria, had Syria listened to Turkey and engaged in democratization a year ago.
The region today is no longer the region that it was two or three years ago, so it has become much harder for Turkey to maintain its zero-problems policy. The joke right now is that from zero problems with neighbors, we shifted to zero neighbors without problems. All the neighbors have problems now; look at Syria, look at Iraq. It took only 48 hours for Iraq, after the departure of U.S. troops, to go back to its very poisonous habit of sectarianism. Turkey's main concern is that Iraq will once again return to the dark days of 2004, 2005, with a massive civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. This is a scenario that Turkey blames partly on Iran, but mostly on the United States. There's still a lot of anger over the invasion of Iraq and America's perceived support for Maliki, who is considered by Ankara as an agent of Iran.
The honeymoon that existed when the Tehran agreement was signed, brokered with Brazil, is no longer there. In fact, one very important reason that Turkey is viewed under a positive light today in the United States is not only because it's referred to as a model by the Islamists in the region and the countries in the region. More important, it has decided to become a strong agent of the containment of Iran. Clear evidence for this is Turkey's decision to host radar installations for NATO's missile-defense operation. This was a polarizing issue in Turkey, but the government decided to host the radar. And, despite the fact that the Turkish government argues this is not targeting Iran, it's obviously taken by Iran as a hostile sign. It was a courageous decision on the part of the leadership in Ankara to do this, and it put Turkey in a very positive light in Washington and a negative light in Tehran.
If a year ago someone had told me that Turkey's relations with Washington would be going through one of its best times — Abdullah Gül, the president, refers to it as a golden age in Turkish-American relations — at a time when Turkey's relations with Israel are going through its worst time, I would have said this was not possible. You cannot have extremely bad relations with Israel while enjoying a golden age with Washington. Yet this is exactly what we're having, partly because the Obama administration values Turkey, values Turkey's partnership in NATO and, most important, values Turkey's partnership on Syria.
This brings me to the most important challenge facing Turkish foreign policy. To understand Turkish policy vis-à-vis Syria, we have to understand what the drivers are of Turkish foreign policy in general. Instead of looking at Islamic versus secular or Western versus anti-Western ideological categories, we have to be more pragmatic. The main driver of AKP (the ruling party) foreign policy has traditionally been a search for independence. I often say that if Prime Minister Erdoğan had his way, Turkey would be a nonaligned country, totally independent from blocs and not identified totally with the West.
Nationalism, independence and sovereignty are the main drivers of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey wants to have a Turkish foreign policy and does not want to give the perception that it is following a Western one. That puts Turkey on the horns of a dilemma vis-à-vis Syria because it doesn't want to be carrying America's or NATO's water. It wants to have its own influence. One of the slogans of this government has been regional solutions to regional problems. Turkey wants to find a leadership role for itself in Syria, and it has played that role rather well by supporting the opposition, by taking a principled stand in supporting change in Syria.
However, Turkey doesn't want to be the country to which the United States outsources the problem. There is a sense in Turkey that Washington has no clear strategy toward Syria and expects Turkey and the Arab League to develop their own. So there is a complaint in Turkey that there is no American vision for a post-Asad Syria and no American leadership. The slogan of “leading from behind” does not resonate in Ankara. When I talk to Turkish officials, I get the sense that they want clearer international and American leadership. They want something similar to the UN Security Council resolution in Libya, which authorized action. Only then, when there is a multilateral façade, will there be more willingness in Turkey to take action.
Taking action is also a big question mark. Turkey is confused about what taking action means. It doesn't want a military option. Any idea of establishing a buffer zone or humanitarian corridor or safe haven within Syria involves military intervention. Turkey does not want to engage in military intervention, especially unilaterally. So, if there is some Russian support or just a sense that Russia and China would not object, things would be much easier for Ankara.
There was at a certain point some talk about Turkish-French cooperation for a humanitarian corridor, and Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, came to Ankara to talk about this. But just a couple of weeks ago, when a resolution making it illegal to argue that there was no Armenian genocide was passed in the French lower chamber and may become law, Turkey decided to freeze its diplomatic and military relations with France. So we no longer have a Turkish-French coalition, because of the Armenian issue. This also makes the military option less feasible.
I would argue that overall, despite the fact that Turkey appears to be a winner in the Arab Spring, when you look at developments in the Arab world today, the vacuum that existed before the Arab Spring is still there. But the potential for Turkish leadership, especially on the Palestinian question, is no longer where it was two years ago. It's true that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is perceived as a very strong leader, and this is in great part because of his stance against Israel. Yet, when you look at Turkish influence on the Palestinian question, you see that a changing Egypt has already in this past year, despite all the problems in Cairo, gained more leverage than Turkey with Fatah and Hamas. Look at the way the unity government was established. This is something that Turkey tried very hard to do and failed. Yet Cairo managed to deliver on this issue much faster and better than Turkey did. Look at the negotiations over the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Here, too, Turkey tried very hard. Yet Egypt, at the end of the day, got the credit.
In many ways, we are at a point where Turkey is discovering the limits of its influence in the region. Yes, Turkey's soft power is on the rise; Turkey is perceived as a model. But on the most important issue where there was a vacuum, I would argue that Egypt is back as the leader of the Arab world. I think this will in time diminish Turkey's soft power in the region. Turkey will have to look at this situation from a different angle and ask itself what its comparative advantage is compared to Egypt's in terms of regional power. If Egypt takes the leadership on the Palestinian issue and has more leverage, where can Turkey gain comparative advantage? I'm not talking about a rivalry between Egypt and Turkey. I'm talking about where Turkey is different and can provide more influence in the region. I believe that area is Turkey's secular identity.
Despite the fact that we refer to Turkey now as an Islamist democracy, this is totally wrong. Turkey is not an Islamist democracy; Turkey is a very secular democracy. It happens to be run today by a government that comes from an Islamic background — which, by the way, denounces its Islamic identity; they don't call themselves Islamist. And Erdoğan, when he went to Egypt a few months ago, made it clear that it is very important to be a secular country, which came as a shock to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey's secular identity, I think, is an important issue that will need to be emphasized in the future. The fact that Turkey's a member of NATO, that it's the only Muslim country able to represent the Islamic world in Western clubs — the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the European Council, hopefully one day in the European Union but, most important, in NATO — is a significant comparative advantage that no other Muslim country has. Turkey's Western credentials will have to be underscored after the Arab Spring, in order to emphasize why Turkey is, in fact, a valuable model.
It is also important to understand that the Turkish model means different things to different people. If you asked the Egyptian military why they look at Turkey as a model, it's really the rise of moderate Islam, and the role that the Turkish military has played in “taming” political Islam. Political Islam is very moderate in Turkey for a reason, according to many people who look at the Turkish model in terms of the influence of the military. The strong military did not allow Islamist parties to carry out an Islamist agenda.
The AKP, Justice and Development Party, today is the third reincarnation of political Islam in Turkey, because its predecessors have been banned either by the constitutional court or by the military. Each time political Islam reemerged in Turkey, it was more moderate and adapted itself to the red lines of Turkish secularism. So here's a different Turkish model for you, which is about the role of the military in taming Islam. That's exactly how I think elements within the Egyptian military and elements within the Pakistani military look at Turkey. Their understanding of the Turkish model is very different.
To conclude, let me say one more thing about the Sunni-Shiite divide. Turkey tries hard to avoid this sectarian divide. As I said, the fact that in Iraq there is now the emergence once again of Sunni-Shiite violence is very troublesome for Turkey. And Turkey is concerned about Saudi Arabia and Iran's sectarian approach to problems. Yet it is unavoidable that Turkey has some sympathy for the Sunni majorities and also has concerns about the rise of the Shiites, especially of Iran. There is this Cold War rivalry with Iran, which is perceived as a country that has a sectarian agenda. Turkey tries to avoid the sectarian division in the region and to transcend it by appearing secular and above such rivalries.
On the other hand, public opinion in Turkey has deep sympathies for the Sunni majorities, especially the Sunni majority in Syria. The way the Turkish media and civil society is covering the Syrian conflict emphasizes that there is an Alawite regime oppressing the Sunni majority. That creates sympathy in Turkish public opinion for the majority in Syria. So Turkey is in a difficult position in terms of avoiding this Sunni-Shiite divide. It definitely wants to avoid it in Iraq, but when it comes to Syria, there's a sense that Syria has a Sunni majority and that the Shiite minority is oppressive.
The final point that I'd like to make is about the Kurdish problem in Turkey. If there's one issue that tarnishes the luster of Turkey as a democratic model, it's the Kurdish problem. Turkey traditionally has been a status quo country that did not want border changes or political instability in the region for one major reason: it doesn't want instability at home with the Kurds. If you have self-determination, political shifts, regime change and democratization, sooner or later this has an impact on the Kurdish problem in Turkey.
This remains the Achilles heel of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. Just last week, an air raid by the Turkish Air Force mistakenly killed 35 Kurdish civilians. The Kurdish problem is getting worse in Turkey. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) is on the rise. And whenever you have violence and terrorism, it has a huge impact on democratization. So we have a paradox in Turkey, which the West refers to as a democratic model for the region. But at home there is growing violence and a major problem regarding human rights and freedom of expression when it comes to the Kurds. Unfortunately, people who support the Kurdish cause are perceived as radicals and may risk going to jail.
There is a cost to Turkish democracy when it comes to the Kurdish problem. And I believe Turkey's ability to provide a model for the region will be highly limited as long as it remains unable to find a peaceful solution to it.
DR. MATTAIR: Rob, you spoke about Israel wanting to be cautious given the unpredictability in the region, and you spoke about the Palestinian issue weighing very heavily on Arab consciousness. Can you assess the possibility that this uprising will sweep all the way to the Palestinians and that there will be another intifada? Why hasn't there been one? Why haven't they been part of this? How would Israel react, given the fact that new Arab leaders are going to be more responsive to public opinion, which is pro-Palestinian?
DR. MALLEY: That's a very good question. I have referred to it from the outset as the dog that didn't bark. There's no sympathy among the Palestinians for the occupation, whereas, in Egypt, I'm sure some people were familiar with and sympathetic to Mubarak, as in other countries. In Israel, you might have thought Palestinians in the occupied territories could have really united over this. And it would have presented, of course, a huge dilemma for Israel. How do you react to nonviolent popular protests when the West and the international community are celebrating it elsewhere?
If Israel had reacted as one might predict, more harshly than it should have, how would the United States have reacted at a time when it was celebrating a nonviolent uprising? I think it would have been sort of a game changer. There are many reasons why it hasn't happened. First of all, it's not as if Palestinians have not tried to rise up before. They may not have done it in the best of ways, but they've suffered the consequences, particularly of the second intifada. And they're still licking their wounds. The economy was devastated. The Palestinian Authority was on its knees. People are just now resuming a normal life, and to jeopardize it by rising up when things look to be slightly better is problematic. You also have the divisions between Fatah and Hamas, which weigh heavily, and neither is in the mood to encourage people to rise up in a way that might escape their control. When there was an effort a few months ago, both sides did their best to keep this under wraps — the PA because it doesn't want it to get out of its control and to have to suffer harsh Israeli retaliation, Hamas because it wants to lock things down in Gaza.
In addition, it's not self-evident how you'd carry out that uprising, because of the Israeli presence in the West Bank and the fact that the settlements are protected from Palestinians or isolated from them because of the checkpoints and the obstructions to movement. So it's not as if a large Palestinian demonstration tomorrow in a central square in Ramallah would make any difference to the occupation.
I think this is one of those questions that keep Israeli decision makers awake at night. What will they do if tomorrow tens of thousands of Palestinians march towards Jerusalem or a settlement, or take some other action that would capture the imagination of Palestinians, of Arabs and of world public opinion? They would face a choice of how to respond in a way that is forceful enough to nip it in the bud, but not so forceful as to trigger negative reactions on the part of our government or other governments.
I think this is something that's going to take awhile because of the political constraints, the logistical constraints and simply the fact that Palestinians today, in the West Bank in particular, don't seem to be mobilized in a way that would allow them to do something that could cost them quite dearly.
DR. MATTAIR: Karim, you talk about Khamenei thinking that there are advantages for Iran from the spread of democracy and popular will in the Arab world. I suppose early in the Arab uprisings, 10 months ago, he certainly thought that. But what does he think now? How actually would they continue to exercise the soft power they've been trying to exercise when Arab public opinion can see how they've treated their own popular demonstrations for participation, and they can see how they've been supporting the Asad regime?
MR. SADJADPOUR: I remember that, in the aftermath of the Israeli war against Hez-bollah in Lebanon in 2006, it was often said that Hezbollah won by not losing. I think that Khamenei's philosophy for the Arab uprisings is somewhat similar; he thinks that Iran wins if America loses. America has lost an important ally in Hosni Mubarak; the West has lost Tunisian leadership that was very sympathetic to them. And I think, as you mentioned, Khamenei anticipated that what was taking place was the fall of regimes that were aligned with the West. But, as you rightly pointed out, when the uprisings spread to Syria, they had to recalculate.
On one hand, the Iranian regime has long said that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 has been a profound source of inspiration for Arabs across the Middle East. So, when the uprisings took place in the Arab world, they obviously had to claim that they were the model for them. But Iran is peculiar; it is geographically located in the Middle East, but in some ways it's not of the Middle East. I actually don't think that the uprisings over the last year, throughout the Arab world, were greatly inspired by the 2009 uprisings in Iran.
Once in a while I'll hear an Egyptian protester or others say, we were motivated by Iran's pro-democracy protests in the summer of 2009, but for the most part I think it was very indigenously driven within the Arab world. Likewise, there's been a lot of hope that the uprisings in the Arab world are going to reinvigorate and resuscitate Iran's opposition movement. I really haven't seen that happening. On the contrary, I think there's a cynicism among Iranians about the very idea and concept of revolution. That's one thing that's been interesting to me in the discussions among the Arab and Egyptian youth, who use this word “revolution” in a very positive and even romantic light. In Iran, revolution is a word that is owned by the regime. It's a word that for the young people represents the past, not the future. It doesn't represent promise; it represents repression and intolerance.
So, despite the fact that you have seen a massive uprising in Iran in the summer of 2009, the scale of which in sheer numbers was larger than those in the Arab world, I haven't heard anyone use the word “revolution” within Iran. Maybe that's ultimately what they want, but they don't use that word. That's been one of the key distinctions in the dynamics between the Iranian and the Arab opposition movements. None of the Arab opposition movements, whether in Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia or Bahrain, had leadership, but they all had or have a common goal: to bring down their respective regime.
In Iran, the opposition has precisely the opposite dynamic. There is a symbolic leadership of the opposition; opposition candidates Karroubi and Mousavi are currently under house arrest. But the Iranian opposition hasn't come to a consensus about what it's trying to achieve. The older generation, people like Mousavi and Karroubi, who were participants in the revolution and regime insiders for much of their adult lives, certainly don't want to undo the Islamic Republic: They want to reform it. The younger generation would like to see much more profound change.
Going back to your original question, Tom, I would argue that Iran reached its peak in terms of its regional influence and soft power in the summer of 2006, when three things were happening: Israel was bombing Lebanon, Iraq was in a state of utter carnage, and — partially as a result of these two factors — oil prices had soared to $140 a barrel. Iran's stock in the Middle East and the Arab world rises when people feel most angered and alienated and outraged over U.S. and Israeli policies.
We now have uprisings in the region that are indigenous; they're not being fueled by outsiders. America has reduced its footprint in the Middle East. And, as you said, people in the Arab world have seen how Iran treats its own citizens. When I look at opinion polls, Iran's stock has dropped like Enron's over the last four or five years. They've really hit bottom, whereas Turkey has been Apple, to use the Dow Jones comparison.
DR. MATTAIR: Would you talk a bit more about Turkey's potential relations with the GCC states? Can it be a security partner? Can it collaborate with them and with Egypt in promoting an Arab-Israeli peace?
DR. TAŞPINAR: For Turkey to promote Arab-Israeli peace, it has to find its own peace with Israel. The fact that Turkey's relations with Israel are now at a low point takes away from the leverage that Turkey once had on the question of Middle East peace.
On the question of Turkey-GCC or Turkey-Egypt cooperation, I think we're likely to see it increase in the future. There are a lot of short-term capital flows coming to Turkey from the GCC. Turkey has been one of the beneficiaries of high oil prices due to short-term capital flows, which finance Turkey's extremely high current-account deficit. So it is important for Turkey to have good economic relations with the Gulf.
As Turkey's relations with Iran become more jeopardized in the future, I think it's only normal that Turkey will have stronger cooperation in the containment of Iran. This is definitely what the Saudis want Turkey to do. Each time a Turkish leader visits Saudi Arabia, there need to be reassurances that Turkey supports Saudi Arabia and the Sunni bloc in the region. The Saudis want to be sure that Turkey is in the Sunni bloc and is not a country that doesn't think about sectarianism. They want it understood that there is a Shiite ascendency in the region. But Turkey plays alone and pays lip service to this in terms of pragmatic realpolitik. There is also a concern that Iran may be playing the Kurdish card against Turkey. Iran has its own Kurdish problem, of course, but let's not forget that half of the Kurds in the Middle East are in Turkey. We're talking about 20-25 million Kurds in the region, the largest nation without a state, and half of them are in Turkey. It's a much bigger problem for Turkey than it is for Iran. And if Iran perceives Turkey playing a negative role in Syria, as it is, I think Tehran would not have second thoughts about supporting the PKK or creating mischief in Turkey regarding the Kurds. This is another reason Turkey may try to pursue a stronger deterrence and containment strategy against Iran by supporting the GCC and Saudi Arabia.
On the question of Egypt, I think there are definitely better relations now between Egypt and Turkey compared to the Mubarak era. Turkey was one of the first countries to call for an end to the Mubarak regime. When Erdogan saw that the regime was about to go down, he showed no hesitation to support the new forces for change in Egypt. Mubarak saw Erdogan as an Islamist, and he had big problems with the Muslim Brotherhood. In that sense, Turkey's relations with the Muslim Brotherhood were a big problem for the old regime in Egypt. Now Turkey wants to have good relations with both the political parties and the military in Egypt. I think Turkey's trying to figure out which direction Egypt is going, as is the rest of the world. But the future of Egyptian-Turkish relations will be much better than the past.
DR. MATTAIR: We have a question from someone watching the live streaming before we go to the floor. It pertains to the leading role that Qatar has been playing in galvanizing opposition to Qadhafi and to what the Asad regime is doing. He asks, How do Israel, Iran and Turkey view Qatar's ascendance?
DR. MALLEY: If you look at regional actors, two have been able to reinvent their diplomacy: Turkey and Qatar. They've not been hobbled by some of the constraints others have. Some have hunkered down, fearful of what these changes meant. Others have championed uprisings, but done it very selectively: We'll back you in Syria, but we won't back you in Bahrain; or we won't back you in Syria, but we'll back you in Egypt. So whether it's Iran or the United States, the West or Al-Jazeera, some Middle East actors have been constrained by this sort of hypocrisy or double standard about where they would champion uprisings and where they wouldn't.
Others have been quite welcoming of the change, but at the same time leery about what democratic processes could yield. The West is now opening up to the Muslim Brotherhood, but they're fearful about what will happen if the Salafis gain too much. Finally, of course, for the West, particularly for the United States, is their posture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which exposes them to at least a sense that there's a double standard. They may support popular aspirations everywhere except when it comes to the question of Palestine.
The two countries that seem to have been much more agile and skillful in navigating a profoundly changed landscape are Turkey and Qatar, for different but similar reasons. Both of them had built their reputation on being able to talk to everyone; they had relations with different parties when the uprisings came. They had relations with the West but also with Islamists, with Hamas but also with Israel. They were in a better position to play a skillful role.
Where I think the challenge is going to come is this: in adapting to the new situation, they have broken quite dramatically with a pillar of their own diplomacy. They had been playing a mediating role, on good terms but not perfect terms, with everyone. Qatar has a U.S. base, it has Al-Jazeera, it has relations with Hamas, and it had contacts with Israel. That's quite a feat. As for Turkey, we just went through the list about how it manages really to balance between very competing and sometimes apparently contradictory priorities.
Now that they're taking a much more forceful stance — in the case of Turkey, when it comes to Syria, in the case of Qatar, when it comes to Syria but also when it came to Libya, where Qatar was at the forefront, including through military involvement. This was quite a dramatic change for a regime that beforehand was all about soft power, bringing Hezbollah and the March 14 together in Lebanon. By taking sides, they expose themselves. Ömer just spoke about the question of the Kurds. I think this is not just something that Iran is going to exploit; Syria has already reopened its channels, from what I understand, with the PKK and PKK affiliate or partner in Syria. I think that's going to be a big headache for Turkey.
I can't imagine that somebody at some point is not going to try to have Qatar pay the price for its meddling in other people's affairs — a small country, a country that has been able also to do it because it's basically a state without a population. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which has to worry about what supporting democracy movements abroad means for an uprising potentially in their own country, Qatar doesn't at this point have to worry about an uprising by the very few Qataris who exist. They have that luxury. But I suspect that at some point, someone, somewhere, who feels that Qatar has boxed way above its weight is going to try to teach it a lesson. So I think that both Turkey and Qatar have managed quite well, but they've accumulated resentments that didn't exist in the past.
DR. MATTAIR: Who might want to teach Qatar a lesson?
MR. SADJADPOUR: To use a basketball analogy, I'd say Qatar is like a midget playing in the NBA. What Dubai is to regional economics, Qatar is trying to be to regional politics — the power broker and the main hub.
With regard to the relationship with Iran, I was looking at Google Maps to figure out the best way to get to the region, and it was amazing to note the size of Qatar vis-à-vis Iran. It's like Puerto Rico to the United States, only even smaller.
But, given Iran's increasing isolation, Qatar is becoming a very important political and economic hub for Iran. Because of the international sanctions against Iran's domestic airline, it's very difficult for Iran Air to acquire spare parts. So Qatar Airways is going to begin flying domestic routes within Iran. This is like Dominican Airlines becoming a major carrier within the United States. This country that, for Iranians 30 years ago, was a forgotten desert backwater is now the preferred airline for many, many Iranians.
But I would agree with Rob that many countries are now anticipating, and would welcome, Qatar's comeuppance. Which countries? Other Gulf states that are not particularly enthused about what they're doing with Al-Jazeera. If Hosni Mubarak somehow had his way, I think he would love to see Qatar have its comeuppance; Saudi Arabia as well. At some point, they will have to come down to earth.
DR. MATTAIR: Qatar did support the Saudi-UAE intervention in Bahrain. And I think the Saudis have been quietly supporting Qatar's role in Libya and Syria.
DR. TAŞPINAR: I think what you just mentioned was key, because the country most likely to be bothered by Qatar would be Saudi Arabia. The fact that Saudi Arabia saw that Qatar was on board in Bahrain made things easier for them to digest. It's very hard to punish a country that, as Rob formulated, has no population and enormous natural-gas resources. So I don't see how you can destabilize Qatar. Qatar will continue to play this role. Al-Jazeera has just opened a new bureau in Istanbul. They will now broadcast in Turkish. Their influence — their soft power, so to speak — will only grow in this region, where media information is becoming increasingly important and there will be more room for political debate.
I'm not pessimistic about the future of Qatar, though I agree that it has been punching way above its weight. Turkey used to punch below its weight, but it's now reached its proper weight. A lot of people are envious of Qatar's role, and some of them are angry, but I don't see how they can punish it, given the structural situation on the ground.
Q & A
Q: Dr. Malley, where do you see Palestinians and Israelis going, ultimately, from here? The two-state solution is almost dead. Do you see one state, a binational state, and what would it look like?
My question to Mr. Sadjadpour is this: There is a lack of recognition of Khomeini or the Islamic Revolution. The United States destabilized their democratic government in 1953, and secular people like you tried to change the government while sipping whiskey in the Sheraton hotel and conspiring with CIA agents. It didn't work. Finally the Islamists, who faced the bullets, brought down the government. My question is: Is it really the fault of Ahmadinejad or the supreme leader, or is it a populist thing? And do you think, if Mr. Mousavi and the secularists came to power, they would give up the nuclear program? Is it a nationalist issue or a regime issue?
DR. MALLEY: Israelis and Palestinians have been living with the one-state reality from the beginning. If reality follows its course, it won't be a one-state solution. It might be a one-state outcome for some time, perhaps with greater degrees of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, more self-government by the Palestinians, but that won't be a solution.
On the other hand, I'm not one who believes that you could have a binational, one-state solution, because I don't think the Israeli Jews are going to accept it. For there to be a solution, both sides are going to have to accept it. I think we're at the ending stage of one paradigm. What's happening on the ground today makes the emergence of the kind of Palestinian state that people would want to see harder. But I don't see a one-state solution appearing.
What this means for all of us is, we have to rethink in a very different and more challenging way what the future could look like. You have different actors now that have to be taken into account: the Islamists on the Palestinian side; the diaspora, which seems to be trying to revive itself; Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are also expressing themselves much more vocally and trying to make connections with Palestinians elsewhere; and the religious right and the settler community in Israel. I think we're going to have to find ways of bringing them to the table and then of thinking of solutions that meet their aspirations as well.
I still think that ultimately a Palestinian state will emerge. But I think we're going to have to think of it very differently, think of different solutions, and forget about the mantra that I myself had been propagating for many years: We know what the solution looks like. If after 20 years of knowing what the solution looks like, the solution isn't there, you've got to start wondering whether there's a problem with the solution you think everyone likes.
Maybe it means bringing different actors to the table, understanding that they have concerns that have not been addressed by the Clinton parameters or at Taba or by the Geneva Accords. I don't have an answer. I just know that the answers of the past didn't work; the Arab world is changing on top of everything else. I think the time has come for everyone to take a step back, rather than rushing yet again into whatever is happening today or the other day in Amman and saying, let's revive these talks that nobody believes in, simply for the sake of doing something. Take a step back, take a hard look and try to ask questions about why it hasn't succeeded, and what needs to change in terms of who's at the table and what the discussions are about.
MR. SADJADPOUR: I would disagree with your assessment about Mousavi. He is by no means a secularist; he was a very loyal lieutenant of Ayatollah Khomeini and showed himself very committed to the Islamic Revolution. (And as an aside I was not drinking whiskey back in 1979; I was two years old.) There has never been an open and free debate in Iran about the merits of the nuclear program. It's unclear to me that, if such a debate happened in a more representative Iran, people would want to continue on the current nuclear path. On an economic level, the nuclear program makes no sense. We were talking earlier about Qatar. The gas field that has propelled Qatar into its tremendous global prominence is shared with Iran, which hasn't managed to develop it one bit because of economic sanctions. Instead they've lost tens of billions of dollars as a result of outside pressure and sanctions over this nuclear program.
Let me give you some numbers about the nuclear program. For Iran to import low-enriched uranium (LEU), it would cost about a tenth of the cost of enriching it at home. It would be the equivalent of saying, we want our population to drive Honda Civics, but instead of importing them from Japan for $10,000 each, we insist on making them at home for $100,000. If you posed this to your population, they would say, that doesn't make any economic sense. If this is merely an energy program for economic reasons, there's no argument for it.
Point B: do people want to have a nuclear bomb? As we saw, there's a conventional wisdom that there's a correlation between popular support and nuclear weaponry in places like India and Pakistan and elsewhere. I would argue that Iran is a society that experienced one of the bloodiest wars of the second half of the twentieth century, with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. So I know a lot of Islamists and Third World anti-imperialists throughout the world are cheerleading Iran's nuclear ambitions, but few inside Iran, which suffered 500,000 casualties as a result of the war with Saddam, romanticize the prospect of further militarization and conflict. My experience always was that people really weren't paying attention to the nuclear program. They didn't wake up in the morning thinking about enriched uranium. They had other day-to-day concerns that were far greater.
I think there is broad recognition — even among reformists like Mousavi and Karroubi — that Iran as a nation will never be able to achieve its enormous potential as long as it retains this death-to-America culture of 1979. That may have been appropriate at the time, but there is widespread recognition now that it isn't paying the bills in 2012 and that, in order for Iran to achieve its enormous potential in terms of human capital and natural resources, it needs to move on and make amends with the United States.
I think there is a recognition that, in order to do that, it would need to either change some of its regional policies — its hostility toward Israel and its support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah — or modify somewhat its nuclear program. But David Frum, President Bush's former speechwriter, once said something I thought was very accurate. Talking about the context of domestic American politics, he said that a country can enrich uranium, and it can call for Israel's demise, but it can't do both at the same time. I think that eventually, if Iran wants to re-emerge from isolation, it will have to choose to modify one, if not both, of those policies.
Q: How do you see the Arab Spring impacting Israeli public opinion, especially among the Mizrahi, the Arab Jewish population and its Iranian population?
Second, the head of the Mossad recently made a very interesting statement concerning Iran, which seemed to suggest that Israel could not stop Iran's nuclear program and should pursue a containment policy. Could you and the other speakers comment on any shifts that may be taking place in Israel's view of the Iranian challenge?
DR. MALLEY: The Israeli “spring” was sort of the first mass movement in Israel that was unrelated to either the Palestinians or the Arab world. In that sense, it was something new. I've heard some Israelis say that they were inspired by what they'd seen in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. Beyond that, I really don't see much of a connection. As we know, as soon as Israel faced a foreign challenge — in this case the terrorist attacks in Eilat, but it could have been something else — attention very quickly shifted to those issues. I don't want to comment too much about domestic Israeli affairs, because I'm not sure exactly where things stand today, but I wouldn't draw too much of a connection. The Arab Spring hasn't given rise to solidarity between Israelis and Arabs on that front.
A lot of former officials — the head of the Mossad and others and the chief of staff — have been very leery about military intervention against Iran. I think the current ones have been relatively mute. The defense minister is the one who is being quite aggressive in his statements that something needs to be done to take out the nuclear program. I don't know how likely it is, but I think it's far more likely today than it was six months ago. It's not more likely than not, but it's more likely than it ever was in my mind for the combination of reasons, some of which I listed earlier, having to do with two of the major constraints that were weighing on Israeli decision makers — the fear of American opposition and the logistical difficulty of having to circumvent Iraqi airspace. Both of those have been, if not completely neutralized, very much attenuated. I can't imagine a U.S. president facing reelection wanting to be in the position of stopping Israel from taking action when Israel is saying that it's an existential threat. So I think the dynamics here are very different.
As I said earlier, the withdrawal from Iraq means that Iraqi air space is no longer controlled by the United States. There are other reasons as well, as I mentioned. One of the fears is what it will do to the price of oil. But we're already seeing that Western countries are trying to take steps to mitigate the effect on the cost of oil of an embargo on Iranian oil. Some of those measures could also help in the event of a strike.
The last big constraint is the fear of Iranian retaliation, whether through Hezbollah or Hamas or others. That threat is by no means neutralized, but Hamas now wants to get closer to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, to be more legitimate and more accepted. Hezbollah is preoccupied with what's happening in Syria. The Arab world as a whole, as I said, is absorbed by what's happening internally, and the Gulf countries are more concerned about Iran's possible role in their domestic affairs. All of this presents an environment that is more favorable to an Israeli strike than it's ever been before.
You have to add to this the conviction of many Israeli decision makers that Iran is close to the point of no return in having an invulnerable nuclear program — more deeply buried in the mountains, more spread out and more protected.
I think that the tipping point for Israel is when they believe that Iran's nuclear program is one that they will no longer be able to affect, not one that has reached the point of producing a nuclear weapon. All this combined makes me worry more today than I have in the past about the possibility of a strike, which I still think could have disastrous consequences. But some Israeli decision makers are closer to believing that it's the only feasible option and one that is less costly than they believed in the past.
MR. SADJADPOUR: I would parse the statement of the head of the Mossad. He didn't say that Israel now advocates a containment approach. He said that a nuclear-armed Iran doesn't pose an existential threat to Israel, which is a somewhat different statement. I don't think you will ever hear Israeli or American officials utter the word “containment.” The reason they don't do it — even though I'm sure there are people working in dark rooms in the Pentagon preparing a containment approach — is that, if they mention the word containment, they fear they will send a green light to Iranian officials that the United States and Israel are now going to acquiesce and give up the idea that Iran can be prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
My assessment of the likelihood of a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran goes up and down with the stock market; it fluctuates. If you had talked to me two weeks ago, I would have said the likelihood was much higher than three months ago because Iran was doing a lot of things that seemed quite provocative. It's not that Iran has ceased doing those things, but my sense is that the likelihood is somewhat decreased at the moment.
The sanctions against Iran's central bank, which have helped cause the currency crisis within Iran, are beginning to have an effect that the Israelis and the U.S. government perhaps didn't fully anticipate. The Iranian government is arguably more isolated and under more pressure than they've been since Khomeini famously decided to drink from the poisoned chalice in 1988.
So at least over the next three to four months, I think the U.S. and Israeli governments are going to see how these central-bank sanctions play out. They haven't even really been implemented, but the European Union announced yesterday an embargo on Iranian oil. That's about 20 percent of Iran's export market. I think Japan and South Korea, two other big importers of Iranian oil, are likely to follow suit. It's unlikely that China will make up the difference. So this, combined with the downward-spiraling currency, has given people here the sense that there's still time for diplomacy, if only coercive diplomacy.
DR. MALLEY: I can't imagine that there's an Israeli prime minister today, or ever, who will want to accept, on his watch, Iran's acquiring a nuclear weapon, whereas in the United States, I agree with Karim, maybe people are thinking about it. In Israel, the Israeli prime minister who will, on his watch, see Iran acquire a nuclear weapon has not yet been born. I don't think we're close to a containment vision in Israel.
On the other point, I hate to disagree with Karim, particularly when it comes to Iran, but I agree with what Karim was saying earlier. I don't see that the central-bank sanctions or any of this will make a warlike scenario less likely. If anything, I'd argue they make them more likely. I've learned from you over the years that Khamenei's basic principle is that you don't give in to pressure. Perhaps, as you say, there are cases where you have to swallow poison, but, in general you don't give into pressure.
In fact, from the case of Libya, the lesson they learned is that the only way to prevent the West from trying to interfere in our domestic affairs is by acquiring a weapon. I think the more they feel strangled, the more they feel under pressure, the more we're going after their economic lifeline, the more likely they are to take some action that is viewed as provocative, and the more likely it is that they're going to accelerate their nuclear program, if they can. We can talk about it more, but I don't see this as forestalling or convincing the Iranian leadership that now is the time to compromise and give up on the nuclear program.
Q: The Arab Spring is having an effect on Israel's internal dynamic and its various communities, and that would tend to somewhat empower the Arab-Israeli community, because they have connections, not only with the Arab world but with Iran and so on. I wonder if you've seen any slight change; these are communities that generally have felt disadvantaged.
DR. MALLEY: I don't think that the links between them and their communities back home are particularly strong. The one reaction we are seeing from Israelis of many stripes at this point, as part of this hunker-down mentality, is a rash of legislation that is quite troubling when it comes to the rights of Palestinians or to even free speech and democracy. It is not so much people reaching out to Arabs — they're rising up and we're part of them — but that they are the enemy. An Israeli official the other day said: Our Arab-Israeli population — the non-Jewish Arab-Israelis — are much closer to Hamas and Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood than they are to us. Are they a fifth column? It's almost a natural reaction, albeit a troubling one. Many Israeli Jews are now looking at the world around them and seeing threats, and their reaction is not only to hunker down but to pass legislation which is illiberal, in essence. We've had our own secretary of state, on a rare occasion, criticize Israel for the legislation that it's been passing.
Q: It's my impression that the Israelis are infinitely more alarmed by developments in Turkey than any of you have indicated thus far. Secondly, Turkey has a much more capable military establishment — larger, better equipped, better trained, better led than anything in Iran. The Iranians know that. And the Turks are not at all enthusiastic about the arrival of a nuclear weapon in Iran. If Iran ends up with a nuclear weapon, the Turks will demand a nuclear capability themselves as a deterrent. What does this mean for the future? Are the Israelis, in their myopic obsession with Iran, focusing on the wrong entity? Are we going to see the Israelis and Iranians take a different approach in the future? By the way, the Israelis have been very active in Kurdistan, much to the chagrin of the Turks. And one could expect to see the PKK receive all sorts of interesting support and aid under different circumstances.
DR. TAŞPINAR: Should Israel obsess less about Iran and more about Turkey? Why? Turkey is a NATO member and recently decided to host the radar. This actually calmed fears in Washington about the so-called Islamic turn in Turkey. Turkey's willingness to cooperate with the United States in Libya and Syria actually calmed the American government to a large degree, I think.
There has been a change in the narrative about Turkey in Israel. There is worry about Turkey, but there is also the worry that Israel is isolated in the region, that it has lost Egypt, has lost Turkey. Well, if there's one country that actually can be easily be brought back into relations with Israel, it's Turkey. Turkey is demanding an apology and compensation. I think the next Israeli government will seriously consider that, or the next Turkish government may consider ways to put things back on track with Israel. I'm not that alarmed about the situation in Turkey, and I'm not that alarmed about Turkey's own willingness to pursue a nuclear weapon. And I don't see Israel worrying that much about a nuclear Turkey.
By the way, in Turkey the discussion about Iran and its nuclear weapon does not center on threat perception. There's no threat perception in Turkey vis-à-vis Iran. Turkey does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but if Iran one day becomes a nuclear country, containment and deterrence will work, according to Turkish officials. There's no reason to panic at this point. In many ways, Turkey also feels that Article V protects Turkey with NATO's nuclear umbrella. And Turkey, before going for its own nuclear weapon, would consider the alternatives of stronger cooperation with NATO and with the United States.
DR. MATTAIR: I was interested earlier in the question of how much Israel wants to invest in maintaining its relations with Egypt and Jordan and repairing relations with other countries, and whether it would put a new paradigm on the table for solving the Palestinian problem. Specifically with respect to Jordan, are they concerned enough about the survivability of King Abdullah II to think about dealing on the Palestinian issue, or would they not find his fall to be that disadvantageous to them? There's something Rob said that adds a little more to this, namely that they actually find some of the disarray in the Arab world to be advantageous in terms of their ability to take action against Iran. How do they calculate what King Abdullah II's survival means to them in terms of turmoil in their own neighborhood or the freedom of maneuver they may have toward Iran?
DR. MALLEY: There are always some in Israel who hang on to the notion of Jordan as Palestine, but I think it's a very minority view. It's not a view that you find in Israeli officialdom. Even someone like the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was quick to tamp down and denounce any speculation that this was the view among his party, which is what some people had suspected. So I think the Jordanians are nervous about it. I don't really feel that. I think what Israelis believe is that Jordan has to play a bigger role in whatever outcome emerges. They envision some federation between Jordan and the future Palestinian state, which in their view would allow them to maybe give up less territory and have a better deal. I think this is illusory thinking, rather than thinking, if the regime falls, we'll have this great opportunity.
I think they're worried about what will happen to King Abdullah. I don't think that they see his fall as a plus. You'll always find some who have a different view, but I think for the most part the mainstream officials and political analysts in Israel would view it as a dangerous outcome, if the regime were to fall. However, I don't think they believe — nor do I, frankly — that the real problem King Abdullah faces today is the Israeli-Palestinian one, and that therefore if they were to address the Palestinian problem, somehow they could forestall whatever instability may befall the kingdom. Actually, I'm not sure that the Jordanian regime itself doesn't understand that. I think when they try to host Israelis and Palestinians, somehow they think that this is going to help them in their own domestic problems. I don't see the relationship at all.
There are problems in Jordan, deep problems having to do with corruption and the whole makeup of the country. I'm not predicting that there'll be instability tomorrow, but there are structural problems. Resolving the Palestine issue would be a great thing to do, but I don't think that's what's going to make or break the Hashemite Kingdom. They're going to have to deal with their own problems. Hopefully, they'll do it relatively quickly; because otherwise, trouble is brewing. I don't think that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what's going to make a difference. As I said earlier, I don't think we're anywhere near resolving the conflict because so much will have to happen before we come to that day.
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