Anne Patterson / Mara Rudman / Sanam Vakil / F. Gregory Gause, III
The following is a transcript of the 101th in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The event took place on July 17, 2020, via Zoom with Council Vice-Chair Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley moderating, Council President Richard J. Schmierer contributing and Council Executive Director Thomas R. Mattair serving as discussant.
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY, Vice Chairperson, Middle East Policy Council; Former U.S. Ambassador, Malta
As we prepare for the next term of presidential leadership in January 2021, whether of President Trump or President Biden, we already have a track record to consider and a body of work to review. What might change as a new administration addresses the challenges brought on by civil war in Libya, the humanitarian disaster in Yemen or the threat of annexation of occupied territory? What difference in our stance toward Iran, if any, should we expect? We are fortunate today to have with us a panel of experienced policy makers and subject-matter experts. They will lead us in an examination of the fundamentals that will likely underpin the U.S. approach to the Middle East going forward, regardless of administration.
ANNE PATTERSON, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Former Ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan
I think whoever wins the U.S. election will confront a more confused and violent situation in the Middle East than we’ve seen in years. Libya now bears similarity to Syria as a civil war, with lots of outside intervention. Lebanon is melting down. Jordan is under pressure. There have been some curious explosions in Iran recently, with strategic consequences. Since we’re very fortunate to have, I would say, the country’s most preeminent expert on the Gulf with us today, Dr. Gause, I’ll leave that part of the world to him.
But the questions are: What should the United States do about it, and what are U.S. interests in the region now? First, I thought I’d start with some of the trends that any incoming administration would have to focus on. The first, I think, is the Turks, back in the region with a vengeance. I was personally a little surprised that Turkish troops could actually turn back General [Khalifa] Haftar in Libya, who had gotten support from Egypt, the UAE and Russia. I thought that would probably put him over the top, but the Turks now have troops in Qatar, they’ve played a preeminent role in Syria and they are aggressively asserting their claims on energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. So the Turkish presence is something any administration is going to have to deal with.
The second is renewed Russian influence in the region. Of course, this goes back to Russia’s absolutely ruthless support of Bashar al-Assad with air power. But there’s no question that Russian “success in Syria has improved its standing with Arabs and has made them a major, and perhaps permanent, diplomatic and military presence in Libya. Any new administration is going to have to deal with the Russians, and not just in Libya and Syria.
The third important trend, I think, is going to be economic strife, particularly in countries that were already on the brink. Remittances, not just from the Gulf but also from Europe, because of Covid, are supposed to fall by over 20 percent. In Lebanon, a country that’s been surprisingly resilient in recent years, remittances account for 12.5 percent of GDP. In Egypt, the figure is 8.8 percent of GDP. Egypt, a country that has had considerable economic success in recent years — and a very major gas find — is now facing the double threat of a drop in tourism revenues and remittances.
Maybe here is a good place to talk a little more about Egypt, which is still the most populous and important Arab state, but one which has watched its diplomatic and cultural strength falter considerably in recent years. So, quite apart from economic challenges, Egypt is now facing two major strategic ones: what to do about Libya, and what to do about the Ethiopian dam. First, on Libya, I read an anonymous analysis a couple of days ago that basically said the Egyptians can’t do much to support Haftar to combat the Turks because of their short supply lines and the configuration of their force.
That sounded about right to me. We’ve seen the shortcomings of the Egyptian army against an insurgency in the Sinai, where the Israelis had to bail them out. But it’s certainly true that the Egyptians have legitimate security interests in Libya; when Qadhafi fell, weapons flowed out to the Sinai, as well as to every other armed actor in the region. I suspect they will proceed cautiously, but you can see a scenario easily in which Turkish and Egyptian troops would come into direct conflict.
The second strategic challenge for Egypt is Ethiopia’s filling of what’s called the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will reduce the flow into the Nile. This will aggravate Egypt’s already climate-change-induced reduction in arable land. And fertility rates in Egypt are going up, after a recent decline, which will put even more pressure on agriculture. The Obama administration and the Trump administration, from what I can tell, have worked to resolve this issue between the Ethiopians, the Sudanese and the Egyptians without much success. I don’t know the current status of the negotiations, or what the Ethiopians are doing on actually filling the dam right now. That’s a subject of some speculation. But I do know that this is a life or death issue for Egypt, and a lot more important than a bunch of Turkish troops in Libya. I don’t know what they can do about it, except to pursue diplomatic solutions. But even when I was in Egypt, there were hints of military action if the Ethiopians should proceed with the dam.
On the domestic side, much has been written about Egypt’s crackdown on activists and journalists, and now doctors. Still, I think the main long-term threat to President al-Sisi would come from his colleagues in the military who either want a crack at the top or who are worried that what he is doing would undermine the prestige of the military. But at least in the short run, I don’t think Egypt will be on the list of those crisis countries that any new administration would have to deal with early on. However, I think the long-term trends are hugely challenging.
Any American administration’s going to have to confront the profound fatigue with the region. A lot’s been written about this; historically our interests have been in the free flow of oil and gas and the protection of Israel, but those have faded. The Israelis can take care of themselves. The free flow of oil and gas didn’t fade as much as people thought when American senators and President Trump had to get on the phone and talk the Saudis down from their oil-price war with the Russians. The United States still has interests, of course, in alleviating human suffering and in counterterrorism — which, I want to stress, is still an important objective. We’re really only one attack away from the war on terror coming back with a vengeance.
Any American administration is going to have to decide what to do about presence, the big bases in the Gulf where most of our people are — Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. But U.S. troops are also in Syria, and Iraq, and Jordan, and in the MFO [Multinational Force and Observers]. There’s been a lot of talk about reductions, but as far as I can tell they haven’t been substantial, and we even put troops into Saudi Arabia — now withdrawn — after the Abqaiq attacks [on Saudi Aramco]. The National Defense Strategy called for taking more risks in the Middle East, but no one really knows what that means. Still, I think with the jaw-dropping U.S. deficits and lots of pressure for domestic spending, there are going to be huge attempts to constrain the defense budget. So economic priorities are going to coincide with fatigue to encourage, I think, a more rapid U.S. drawdown.
A corollary to this is arms sales, which I suspect a Biden administration would look at with more skepticism. I think this will include both arms that countries pay for themselves and those that the U.S. taxpayer provides, like in Egypt. All of these are valid tools in the American playbook, but they need to absolutely increase partner capacity and interoperability and not just give countries what they want to get their hands on. I think a Democratic administration is going to take a hard look at both arms sales and security assistance throughout the region.
Let me speculate about President Biden. His views on the House of Saud are well-known. He articulated those in a debate, somewhat to my surprise. But I think you can go to Dan Benaim’s article about Saudi Arabia and see where a Biden administration would come out on Saudi Arabia. There’s going to be a lot more emphasis on human rights. I think throughout the region they’ll be more interested in labor rights, women’s rights — historically important Democratic priorities — and will put far more emphasis on ending the war in Yemen.
Vice President Biden has also said he’d reenter the Iran nuclear agreement. I think the real issue there is, under what terms? The Iranians are out of compliance with the agreement now, and it only has five or 10 years to run, depending on how you look at it. How would they reenter or renegotiate? I think you can go to an article by Jake Sullivan and Dan Benaim that suggests they are proposing a broadscale dialogue on the Middle East, mostly between Iran and the Gulf, but not exclusively. It would be complicated, but I think people who are in the international community could handle this.
I think that’s pretty clear, but I think there are other questions about what any administration would do with the Israelis and Palestinians. There’s been a lot of talk about a reassessment of our policy toward Israel by Democratic progressives. I guess I’d be skeptical that any administration is going to have to decide what to do about the two-state solution. Quite apart, in my view, is not only what to do about the lack of a Palestinian partner, but about the economics of this. Any peace plan is going to require a huge amount of money. And the conventional wisdom has always been, if you could get to that point, Congress would write a blank check. I just don’t see that happening anymore. Any peace process, to be successful, is going to require a lot of financial support.
A couple of positive notes: I hope any administration would continue to support Tunisia. It has some problems right now, but it’s been a remarkable success story. I also think, and there have been articles written on this recently, that maybe the policy in Syria is working. Maybe there’s an opportunity now, with the impact of the Caesar sanctions, to really move Assad toward some kind of political deal. If you’re skeptical, I understand, after all these years. And then there are the issues of the huge displaced-persons camps. We desperately need to up our diplomatic game. Our embassies are closed and understaffed and evacuated because of Covid. And we’ve never gotten over our risk aversion from Benghazi. But we’ve got to get people out into these regions.
Finally, I want to say a note of caution about the transition, which I suspect, if Vice President Biden wins, could be very rocky indeed. They’re always rocky, but if you’re in the Middle East and you know the United States is distracted, are there gains you want to lock in while the Trump administration is still in power and deny the Biden administration a fait accompli? You can think through some unpleasant scenarios connected with that.
MARA RUDMAN, Executive Vice President for Policy, Center for American Progress; Former Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; Former Assistant Administrator for the Middle East, USAID
Anne, you laid out very helpful framing for me to step into here. I want to talk particularly about where the United States is and may be going on Israeli-Arab, specifically Israeli-Palestinian, issues and challenges. I agree in part, and disagree in part, with Anne’s layout of some of those issues. I believe very strongly that the United States has a strong interest in working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in being seen to be doing so. This is for a variety of reasons and has continued over time, even as politics around the world, between and among the actors and the United States, may have shifted some on this in various directions. But to me, the United States still has a strong interest in more sustainable regional security and stability, points that Anne made. I continue to believe that working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually key to being able to get to that sustainable regional security and stability. I also think there are links to the U.S. ability to help to form more lasting regional, economic and security-cooperation structures.
I think that Sanam, who is talking after me, may further emphasize that, particularly in how we most effectively come together to deal with the ongoing threats from Iran in the next administration — I don’t think it's going to happen in this one — to get to a different Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] with respect to Iran. I’m going to leave that to my colleague, Sanam, to talk more about, but I think working on the Israeli-Palestinian effort in a more constructive way than has been the case for some time could help significantly in these other regional issues.
I also strongly believe that the longstanding ties to Israel by the United States continue to be critical. To me, it’s important to note that that’s premised not only on Israel’s role as a key security ally in a volatile region; it’s also historically based because of our shared democratic values. I think the second part is the most vulnerable now. That may be part of the question of how those interests are now being reevaluated by some. But I would, again, put them in the category of that’s why it’s so important to think in new, creative ways going forward about the opportunities to resolve this longstanding conflict.
The U.S. approach that this administration has embraced — unilateral annexation — goes in exactly the opposite direction, to my mind. It helps to solidify a one-state reality. It limits U.S. opportunities to construct some of the viable regional structures that I think are so important. It results in constraining our options with respect to Iran and other challenges in the region, and it certainly further dims the political horizon for a sustainable two-state solution. I fully appreciate the very open questions about how attainable that two-state solution is at this point.
It is also clear to me that the current contours of a one-state reality are not in the interests of any of the parties on the ground, certainly not to the United States and to the other opportunities for us in the region that I laid out. It stands in the way of that. I would want to focus on how we can do better going forward. And let me just be clear, I think that’s a low threshold right now, given how we have done on some of these issues for a considerable period of time. But I would look at four basic ways that the United States, going forward, could improve on and increase the opportunities to get to some sort of resolution between Israelis and Palestinians that serves our interests and theirs much better.
I’ll step through the four briefly and then come back and go into a bit more detail. I think the first is to focus on context and politics for everyone involved in the region, for the players, and being mindful of that in the United States. Second, America leads best by helping to keep our eyes on the horizon, laying out a clear political vision, working with the parties to do so and helping to ply the path for reaching it. Third, I think progress is most likely when we can, in doing so, get the parties to engage directly with one another.
Finally, appreciating Anne’s point about the challenge overall of the economic situation and on being able to get support politically for the kind of massive assistance that might be necessary should the conflict be resolved, I also think it’s important to keep in mind that U.S. assistance on the path to getting there is critical. It is a very important tool, used effectively. I do not believe the efforts to deploy that coercively are likely to be helpful with either party.
So, first, focusing on context and politics, I think there are tremendous opportunities for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front if we correctly account for the geopolitical surroundings and look critically at Israeli and Palestinian politics. Let me give an example. When we look at the security interests and concerns that Israel has in the region and really think about how they would benefit or how they would be harmed going forward by the annexation of the Jordan Valley — obviously part of the current plan of President Trump, the Kushner plan — annexing the Jordan Valley is within the 30 percent laid out in that plan and certainly a very open question right now within Israel about whether that will proceed.
Going forward with annexation would leave a number of Israeli settlements, regardless of views on their legality, requiring far more Israeli security, military work, efforts and cooperation. It would be deeply destabilizing to Jordan, the key player on the security front for the region, whose relationship with Israel in that respect is very important. And it would have a significantly more destabilizing effect in multiple ways in the rest of the region. So, looking at Israel’s security interests and being able to have conversations with Israelis in the terms that are important to them, but being able to show why and how the ways they might proceed are contrary to those interests, is a key factor.
It’s as important to recognize, in my experience, how significant security is for Palestinians. What I have heard repeatedly from most of the Palestinians I know is the necessity of having a secure future for themselves and their children, to be able to carry out the basic aspects of daily life and to do so in a way that is safe and stable, and more open than it is at this point. Water is another key issue. Anne referenced this in the context of Egypt and Ethiopia, but throughout the region it’s both a scarce resource and one for which there have been very effective efforts to work together regionally on desalinization and other issues. And so there are opportunities for more understanding about where all the parties are and to figure out ways forward based on what has worked successfully in the past.
I’d also reference, of course, the security and economic architectures regionally that are quite important to a number of players, particularly in the context of dealing with Iran, but also more generally. Being able to look at how working towards resolution of this issue can also help in further strengthening regional security, and economic architectures, is a real opportunity for the United States. And how doing so is for America, by both creating a vision or helping to understand where the parties are, then working with them on what that vision might be, and looking at how we get there.
We certainly need Israelis and Palestinians to agree on what is necessary to sustain peace going forward. Generally, they have done better when there are various players focused on understanding their needs and being able to help to move things forward in that respect. And as I said, that’s by assessing the politics of all involved and understanding what the United States gets out of it. I think we can do a much better job of articulating why things are in our interest, and why continued investment and engagement to move forward, with an ear towards where the parties are and where we think they can get to, is crucial.
This also goes to the fact that progress is most likely when the parties engage directly with one another. They are very far from being able to do that right now, but one thing we have seen with certainty is that attempts to impose solutions by the United States, or others, are generally counterproductive. The flipside is when the parties come together on their own, and the United States comes in to support, and may be quietly in the background helping them along the way to get to those first engagements. The Oslo talks in Norway are one example of that; President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, and the Camp David agreement that followed, is another example.
We need to find what it will take to be able to help the parties get to a place where they can actually engage productively with one another because any sustainable solution is going to depend upon that. And I would say, at this point, that we should be open to solutions taking many different forms. I continue to believe that the best approach would be getting to a Palestinian and Israeli state but, again, the underlying import is getting to what Palestinians and Israelis can agree upon and getting them to the place where they can actually be engaging to define those terms.
With that, I come to USAID. Our assistance around the world continues to be a critical tool of foreign policy and of the ability to help move people where we want them to go. While it is often not politically easy to move foreign assistance forward here in the United States, providing assistance is something that helps the United States as much as it helps the people that we are providing the assistance to. I think that’s an important frame to have, having pulled back significantly on assistance to Palestinians over the last several years. When I was running those programs, we were providing between $300 and $400 million a year in economic aid, and another $100 million or so for security cooperation, coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.
The numbers have trickled to almost nothing, and we, of course, are not writing any assistance at this point to UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East], which ran to about $300 million a year, and other UN organizations. They are left to have Qatar and others fill in the gaps when dealing with the very significant Palestinian refugee population around the region, particularly in Gaza, as well as in the West Bank. So we, the United States, lose out when we zero ourselves out of the equation on assistance. That also applies to security assistance from Israel.
I would go back to my initial points about the importance of Israel as an ally in the region. I continue to believe that fundamentally that is something that would not change, regardless of who was present in the United States. The security assistance we give to Israel supports our interests as much as it supports Israel’s interests in the region and helps to reinforce the relationship that we have with Israel. Just as providing assistance to the Palestinians at appropriate levels to help them deal with issues that are critical for Palestinians on the ground would further enhance Americans’ ability to have the leverage we need with the players, as well as with international actors who right now are stepping in to fill the gap that the United States has left by our absence on the assistance front.
I believe strongly that others cannot do some of these things as effectively as the United States can. In addition to that, we cede ground. Anne mentioned Russia’s increasing role in the region. We’re also seeing China in various respects coming into play. When the United States takes away a key tool — that we have to be able to be an active player — we hurt ourselves as much, if not more, than we hurt the parties.
SANAM VAKIL, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House; James Anderson Professorial Lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies, John Hopkins SAIS in Bologna, Italy
I’m going to focus my comments on the foreign-policy challenge from Iran, which will undoubtably be very important for either outcome on November 3. I think the issue of Iran is not just a concern for the United States at this point. The wider European policy-making community and the greater Middle East are also very concerned about U.S. foreign policy towards the Islamic Republic. All eyes will continue to be on November 3 for some sort of clarity on the U.S. position vis-à-vis Iran, and how it is going to impact the region.
We know that, for two years now, the Trump administration has been very directly pursuing maximum pressure against the Islamic Republic, having withdrawn from the JCPOA on May 18, 2018. The stated objectives of that policy were twofold: to reduce Iran’s regional influence and to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. Here we are in July 2020, and neither of those outcomes have come to fruition. I would like to speak to you as to why I think that hasn’t happened. In principle, I’m going to speak to some mistaken assumptions, perhaps made by the current administration, that are preventing them from achieving an opportunity for negotiations with Tehran that could potentially lead to an altered Iranian engagement in the region.
But thinking through some of these issues is really important for a Biden administration, as well as a Trump administration; maximum pressure, I would argue, is really not working. In fact, what we have borne witness to over the past two years is Iran’s maximum-resistance strategy, which has dramatically altered Iran’s domestic political climate. Also, as part of Iran’s maximum-resistance strategy, it has sought to transfer pressure and instability to the region, to spread the pain and obtain leverage through the sanctions.
Let me talk through my thinking on this, much of which is informed from a research project we conducted at Chatham House last year. It was an interview-based research study that drew upon the views of analysts and policy makers in 10 countries — the signatories of the Iran nuclear agreement — but also on analysis from Israeli, Emirati, Iranian and Saudi researchers and policy makers.
The conclusions of the paper suggest that Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign, which was designed to achieve concessions from Iran in the nuclear area with regard to the ballistic-missile program and also with regard to the region, were a bit of an overstretch, for a number of reasons. Among the main reasons are some of the mistaken assumptions that the administration and many policy makers in the Middle East make when they look at the Islamic Republic. I think it’s important to look at domestic decision making inside Iran as one of those areas where these assumptions are often wrong.
First of all, people assume that politics don’t matter in Iran. I would argue that they do. They matter because this isn’t a monolithic system. You have contending factions with contending visions. They might be united as members of the political establishment in seeking stability and security for the Islamic Republic, but they have different visions as to how to achieve that end. If you go back to the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he was much more confrontational and inflammatory. There was very heated rhetoric. During that period, Iran moved away from the more conciliatory approach of the previous administration of Mohammad Khatami and became confrontational with its nuclear program, and much more supportive of its regional alliances, including the one with Hezbollah, which engaged in the 2006 war, for example, during that period.
Politics also matter in the [Hassan] Rouhani administration, which has had overwhelming public support. And this is another area where oftentimes in the United States you hear that the voting in Iran is restricted and monitored. Yes, candidates are vetted, but people do vote, and seeing the preferences of the population is also quite interesting. And seeing the growing apathy that has developed inside Iran as the United States has engaged in maximum pressure and imposed sanctions writ large throughout the Iranian economy, we witnessed in the February elections this year the lowest voter participation in decades. That’s bad; it signals that people are disengaging, and the outcome of disengagement generally leads to conservative and hardline candidates winning elections in Iran.
This is important because we are slowly witnessing the gradual empowerment of conservative groups within the elected bodies of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s parliament currently has a conservative majority, though it is not, again, monolithic. They differ among themselves. But this shift suggests and perhaps foreshadows that Iran’s May or June 2021 presidential elections might take a similar turn. The outcome of that election could bring a more hardline or conservative leader to the presidency.
With that sort of conservative monopoly of elected and unelected bodies inside Iran, there might be consensus, and that could be good for the United States. But it could lead to a more confrontational regional policy vis-à-vis the United States. More important in the domestic environment, that kind of consensus allows for conservatives to dominate the political narrative within the state and prepare for the succession of the supreme leader that is on the horizon. This is something Iran watchers have been waiting for; a conservative monopoly would not usher in a moderate or alternative candidate.
Another assumption here about the Iranian domestic scene also reveals a misunderstanding of the Islamic Republic: the assumption that sanctions and the strangling of the Iranian economy would alter Iran’s decision making. I think this is reductive. Analysists have pointed to the last effort of multilateral sanctions, from 2011 to 2012, when Iran was constrained in its ability to export oil, as the way to move Iran to negotiate with the United States. In my study, the majority of the respondents suggested otherwise, that Iran doesn’t make decisions based solely on its GDP or its oil exports. They’re important — I’m not trying to underplay the economic impact of sanctions — but the Iranian shift was seen when the American position shifted towards Iran on the possibility of having a domestic indigenous enrichment program. And that compromise was mentioned overwhelmingly as having driven Iran’s willingness to come back to the negotiating table.
We’ve seen Islamic Republic leaders from across the political spectrum be very unified on what the conditionality for their return to negotiations is: the removal of sanctions — maybe not all of the sanctions but a face-saving solution and off-ramp for a return to the negotiating table. This would provide some sort of justification to contending voices within the political elite that they would not be at the negotiating table from a position of complete weakness and humiliation.
Additionally, there’s been a lot of speculation that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse, that it’s weakening. What we have also seen over this two-year period of maximum pressure — and it isn’t new to this period, but I think it’s important to stress — that the state in Iran is not afraid to use violence to protect the security and stability of the state. We have seen the government be very violent and suppress protests and demonstrations repeatedly. And at the same time, the state is also trying to show that it is resilient, and its resilience is giving political leaders a bit of confidence.
I’m specifically focusing on the economic prism here. Iran’s supreme leader has very much advocated for, as part of maximum resistance, a strategy to build a resistance economy that is domestically oriented and diversified. What we have witnessed now is, of course, the economy under extreme pressure and in a huge recession. Inflation is back over 40 percent. Unemployment is rising. And it’s ordinary Iranians that are very much feeling the pressure of these policies. But the state, at the same time, has adapted, has diversified, is no longer reliant predominantly on oil and gas exports, and in fact has become a services and manufacturing-oriented economy.
It is surviving by becoming more dependent on regional trade. This is a really important point when thinking about reducing Iran’s regional influence. Iran is now more than ever reliant on trade with Iraq, with Afghanistan, with all of its neighbors. And it’s looking to draw down its own national defense fund, the development fund, and looking for alternative strategies to stay afloat. So, within this domestic climate there’s a lot of misreading of how adaptable and flexible the Iranian state actually is.
A second point would be to look at the assumption that the United States can really go it alone vis-à-vis Iran. What was really important the last time around in getting to the negotiating table was a multilateral approach that saw Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany all come together collectively in a negotiating process that became the Iran nuclear agreement, or JCPOA. But over the past two years, the Trump administration’s transactional bullying — and I’m quoting European policy makers here — has very much frustrated European allies, who share a lot of concerns with Washington about Iran’s regional influence and ballistic-missile program.
But they can’t address these topics because Europe is principally concerned about saving the Iran nuclear agreement above all right now. It is caught in the middle, unable to provide economic-sanctions relief, unable to save the deal and frustrated because all of the negotiating efforts — the Macron plan that was pursued last year, an effort to bring President Rouhani and President Trump together — also failed to come to fruition. Instead, Iran has reacted by breaching incrementally different parts of the nuclear agreement, such that the deal today is very fragile, in tatters, if you will.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has passed a resolution condemning Iran for even blocking access to inspectors. I think the European approach still is to try and protect the JCPOA from the Trump administration’s efforts to hollow out the agreement before the November elections. This is going to continue to play out in the months ahead, as there is a growing contest over extending Iran’s arms embargo that is meant to expire in October, with the Trump administration threatening to snap back sanctions and destroy the deal if the remaining signatories don’t agree to a formal or informal extension of the arms embargo. This unilateral approach is another huge challenge.
Finally, looking at the region itself, there is, I think, a mistaken assumption that regional partners and allies of the United States are feeling more secure because of maximum pressure. This insecurity and anxiety from U.S. allies has been very evident to me, as we saw after last summer’s attacks on tankers throughout the Persian Gulf and the September 14, 2019, attacks on Abqaiq no meaningful U.S. response at the time. I’ve heard from Gulf policy makers that – I mean, of course, quite quiet — the withdrawal from the JCPOA is not even an issue because it suggests that perhaps future negotiations with a U.S. administration cannot be guaranteed either.
This just heightens the anxieties of regional partners that had hoped the United States would continue to maintain and protect its security relationships and commitment to these states. At the same time, President Trump has dangled the prospect repeatedly of a deal with Iran. And this fuels competition further. The administration hasn’t been able to solve the Qatar crisis, and at the same time, we’ve seen the United Arab Emirates move closer to Iran in reaction to the events of last summer.
Now, of course, we have January 3 as a different sort of inflection point: when the United States killed Qassem Soleimani. General McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, even said that some semblance of rough deterrence has been established vis-à-vis Iran. But I think the key point that he made in that statement was: for now. Even Tehran is in a sort of waiting game, waiting until they get to November before making any escalative ploys.
We also haven’t seen a reduced Iranian footprint in the region, and this is also part of a mistaken analysis. We’ve seen kinetic action and reaction over the past year, but Iran’s relationships with proxy groups and nonstate actors are not solely train-and-equip or command-and-control relationships. The way Iran engages is multifaceted and multi-actored, and it operates at a diplomatic level with multiple parties that are not solely sectarian. It operates on an economic level, not just through the IRGC, but also with private-sector engagement. Be it in Iraq, be it in Syria or beyond, it also operates through the use of its soft power simultaneously.
And then, of course, you have military relationships that are not solely IRGC. There’s intelligence, there are security relationships. I’m not saying it will be impossible to manage Iran’s role in the region, but it’s important to understand its contours, the depths of those relationships, which often are decades old — and familial-based and personal. Just rolling back the military footprint isn’t necessarily going to reduce Iran’s presence in the region or its regional ambitions.
Looking at the economic ties today, and that Iran is more reliant on regional trade than ever, suggests that, even if you roll back the train-and-equip and command-and-control nature of some of those ties, Iran’s economic engagement in these economies is going to make Iran even more secure. So this is going to be even more of a challenge.
Where does that leave prospects for a Biden or a Trump administration? It’s hard to see the Trump administration altering course, but I’m hopeful that perhaps a back channel post-election could be set up. I think that that would be the best way to try to rebuild some trust and establish the contours of what a new negotiation could look like. But I’m not very optimistic that the administration is going to prioritize and invest in those kinds of negotiations. They’re going to be long, and they are, frankly, going to be painful. Future negotiations are also going to require greater collaboration with U.S. allies and partners, and, of course, a greater Russian and Chinese presence in the Middle East.
For a Biden administration, there are some opportunities. As Ambassador Patterson mentioned, there are indications that there could be a reentry/renegotiation of the JCPOA. I think that’s a really important opportunity to capitalize on. Perhaps using the current fragility of the JCPOA to renegotiate is a good opportunity, and one that could be embraced by Iran, because Tehran also had frustrations with the deal and the economic delivery, access to SWIFT [the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Communication] and investment. So there are opportunities perhaps.
The dispute-resolution mechanism is a framework that could be used for all parties to come back together and renegotiate the U.S. entry, making it conditional for perhaps extensions to the sunsets and maybe the inclusion of Iran’s long-range ballistic-missile program. But regional issues will require a wider negotiation and a framework that will need discipline and commitment, not just from the United States but also Europe and the Security Council permanent members as well, and multilateral and bilateral processes involving many actors in the region. I’m not sure that the next administration, even a Biden one, will have the discipline and commitment to invest in that process. I hope so.
Ultimately, having Iran be a partisan issue is a problem. Now that I have been abroad for an extended period, I think the partisan nature of U.S. policy towards Iran and also to the Arab Gulf does a disservice to American interests in the region and ultimately fosters greater insecurity around the Middle East. This insecurity is being exploited, not just by Russia and China, but through the creation of new ideological blocs and new power competition in the Middle East.
You see tenuous alliances between Turkey and Qatar, and you might throw Iran in there on some issues, and against other countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. How that plays out is going to be quite dangerous for the region. And it’s not going to benefit U.S. security interests ultimately.
F. GREGORY GAUSE III, Head of the Department of International Affairs, and Professor, the Bush School of Government & Public Service, Texas A&M University
I’m in the unenviable position of the last person on a panel where everything that’s worth saying has already been said. But, of course, it hasn’t been said by me, so I’ll soldier on.
When I think of American policy, it’s really affected by two things: what is happening in the region and happening here at home. And I want to lay out, in telegraphic form, three things I see in the region that are going to affect now the next American administration has to deal with it, and then three changes that are happening inside the United States itself — in terms of the perceptions of the Middle East, of the chattering class and our governing class — that are going to affect how American policy gets formed.
The three things happening in the region that I think are going to be really central to how any American administration has to confront it are, first and most important, the long-term weakening and collapse of state authority. In some countries, this has been a decades-long process: in Lebanon, Yemen, in Iraq. In some places, it was more sudden as a result of the Arab Spring: Syria, Libya. But these political vacuums that have been created by the collapse of authority in the region are, I think, the fundamental reality of regional geopolitics.
They invite intervention both by regional powers — like Iran, Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi — and international powers like the Russians and us. They also promote radicalization. Civil wars encourage the more radical side. They allow jihadist groups to have areas in which they can operate. This, I think, is the long-term issue in the region. And it’s going to take decades to reconstruct political authority. The problem for the United States is that we don’t have any idea about how to help people do that. We’re very good at state destroying, but we’re not very good at state building.
The second thing that I think we have to realize about the region is that we’re seeing the modified return of great-power politics. I don’t want to exaggerate here. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and China remains very reluctant to get directly involved in the geopolitics of the region — I think because they’re smart. But the unique configuration of the post-Cold War world, where the United States was unchallenged in the region, and the unique incentives of the post-9/11 world, where the United States wanted to go in and do a lot of stuff, are basically over.
Third, we have to recognize the gradual decline in the centrality of the region’s oil to the global economy. I emphasize gradual, not immediate. Middle East oil is still extremely important in terms of global geopolitics. We saw that with the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. We see that with China perhaps creeping into some new strategic relationship with Iran. However, the long-term decline in the importance of the region’s oil is real, and it’s going to affect this issue of state capacity, because so much of state capacity in previous decades was built either directly or indirectly on oil revenues.
So, with the challenge of rebuilding political authority facing so much of the region, the decline in oil revenues is going to make the task that much harder.So the collapse of authority, the modified return of great-power politics and the gradual decline in the geopolitical centrality of the region’s oil is something that any American administration is going to have to think about.
How about the changes at home? Again, I’m going to identify three in a very telegraphic way. First, American policy in the Middle East, like American policy on so many things, is becoming increasingly partisan. During the Cold War and in the post-Cold War period — that golden age of American power in the region that I think we largely squandered — changes in administrations, even changes from Republican to Democratic and Democratic to Republican, didn’t change American policy in the Middle East that much. In fact, hardly changed it at all. There was something of a consensus on how American policy should work and what America wanted out of the Middle East.
I think that’s over, and I think we see that in three issues. I think we see it on Israel. It’s not that anyone in the American political system wants to abandon Israel or anything like that. But Republicans are much more comfortable with the Israeli right, and Democrats are much less comfortable with the Israeli right than they used to be. They’re much more comfortable criticizing Israeli policies that come from the right wing, which is dominant in Israeli politics now in a way that it has not been in previous periods in American-Israeli relations.
Second, Iran. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Republican Party has become a party of regime change in Iran. I just think that’s obvious. Whereas the Democratic Party wants to engage with Iran, not because they like the Iranians or because they support Iranian power in the region, but because they think engaging with Iran is the best way to contain some of the worst-case scenarios that could result from Iranian political developments.
Finally, and I think this has come out most clearly in the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia has become a much more partisan issue. For decades, the reality of U.S.-Saudi relations was that nobody liked the Saudis, but whoever was in the White House wanted to work with the Saudis. That’s Republicans and Democrats. I think the embrace of Saudi Arabia by the Trump administration, and particularly the embrace by the Trump administration of Mohammed bin Salman [MBS], is unique and has driven Democrats into a much more critical position on Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have misplayed their hand on all sorts of things — the Jamal Khashoggi killing, the Yemen war; we can go through those. But I think the partisan temperature on Saudi Arabia in American policy is higher than I’ve ever seen it. I think that will be reflected in a Biden administration. President Trump is both a symptom and a cause of this partisanship. He’s obviously a cause because of who he is, and the way he acts. That’s obvious. But he’s also a symptom. I think these trends were happening in American politics before the Trump administration, which has simply accelerated them.
The second American reality that’s going to affect our policy in the region is the increasing belief that the Middle East is just not that important. I think we have to recognize that that this is a product of a couple of things, like Iraq-Afghanistan fatigue. I think it’s a product of exaggerated arguments about American energy independence. Again, I see a long-term decline in the geopolitical centrality of Middle East oil, but there are a lot of people in the United States who argue that that’s not gradual, it doesn’t matter anymore. And so you see this argument that the Middle East is just not that important. Frankly, you see it from people who used to advocate for very intense American engagement in the region. I think this cuts across the partisan divide.
Third, and somewhat paradoxically given point two, is our inability to cut the cord on the Middle East. The last three elections were won by the candidate who was more dovish on the subject. Obama vs. McCain, we knew who was more dovish there. Obama vs. Romney, I still think President Obama was more dovish. Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump. Donald Trump was the one who said we’re fighting stupid wars and had to get out of the Middle East. So the last three elections were won by presidents who said that we had to reduce the American involvement in the Middle East, but they haven’t been able to do it.
Our involvement there is still substantial: more substantial than Russia’s, much more substantial than China’s. When I talk to my friends in the Gulf and they say, you’re abandoning us, I say, how many troops are there in Camp Arifjan in Kuwait? How many ships are in the Fifth Fleet home-ported in Bahrain? How many American airplanes are at the Udeid Air Base in Doha? We are still really involved in the Middle East. You can’t say that you want to get out of the Middle East, and then decide that you’re going to be involved in the Libyan civil war, as the Obama administration was. You can’t say you want to get out of the Middle East and then have a maximum-pressure policy on Iran, as the Trump administration did.
I think of this as the Michael Corleone syndrome. In The Godfather III, Michael Corleone said: “Just when I thought I was out, they keep dragging me back in.” I think Americans have to ask ourselves the question: If we’re so anxious to get out of the Middle East, and so many people in the United States say we should, why are we still there? That’s a question I don’t think many Americans — even Americans who have dealt with the region — have been willing to think about and confront.
Finally, you’ll notice that there’s one word I have not mentioned at all, and I haven’t heard mentioned by my other panelists, and that’s Covid. Every time I get an email saying: We’re going to have a webinar on the long-term effect of Covid on the Middle East, I immediately delete that message. Epidemiologists can’t figure out what Covid’s going to look like two months from now, so I have no idea what Covid’s going to look like in the Middle East two years from now.
But I will say that I think, in the short term, Covid just accelerates trends that I’ve mentioned in my three points about the region itself. It makes state building harder. It challenges states that we think are still functioning states. And it presents them a series of challenges that might weaken their state capacity and show them to be not very capable. It also, of course, accelerates the long-term decline in oil prices. Thus, I think Covid is not a driver but an accelerator of trends that were already existing in the region.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
We do have questions from the audience, which tend to be of a fairly specific nature. But the first thing I’d like to do is see if I can encourage some crosstalk among the panelists. We’ve discussed various U.S. goals and strategies that we have in the region. But I wonder how much agreement or disagreement there is among the panelists. For example, Anne talked about guaranteeing the free flow of oil out of the region. But Greg indicated that over the long term the importance of that oil is going to decline. Mara talked about protecting Israel, but I wonder are there other states in the region that the United States ought to be protecting.
We talked about advances that are being made in the region by Russia and Iran. There was a time when if you articulated American objectives in the region, one of the top ones was preventing any other adversary from dominating the region. How important is that now? How important is it to prevent Russia and Iran and maybe China from advancing in the region? What would the best strategies be? I’m not clear from Mara how a two-state solution as a strategy for obtaining our objectives helps build a regional-security architecture. I’d like a little more explanation there. And of course, Sanam talked very well about Iran, but what are the prospects for diplomatic engagement with Iran as a strategy for attaining our other objectives in the region, when we might have pushback from Israel and Saudi Arabia.
I know that’s a long question, but can we find out how much agreement and disagreement we have before we go to more specific audience questions? Greg wrote an article recently called, “Should We Stay or Should We Go?” Another way of putting that is, what should our level of engagement be in the region? Should we be disengaging? Anne said that fatigue will lead to a drawdown, but should it?
AMB. PATTERSON: On the Gulf bases, my guess is we’re not going to withdraw. It’s not just the free flow of oil, and I entirely agree with Greg that lots of Americans think we can just sort of blow this off, but we can’t. As we just saw, those bases are needed for lots of other things, certainly the war in Afghanistan. Also, though they are seen, certainly to the countries that host them, as a bulwark against Iran, which is why it’s so important to get the Iran issue settled — it drives a lot of other issues in the Gulf. And the other reason we have those bases is that our Gulf allies pay a lot of their own freight. That’s probably not the real touchstone of our overextension in the Gulf. So I’d be surprised if we drew them down precipitously. The DOD’s just come out with a rule that there might be dependence there, which might change the configuration. So, if I were a policy maker in the next administration, I’d start with Iran; I think it’s the key to settling a lot of the other issues in the region.
DR. MATTAIR: Greg, you’ve pointed out that we are still there in a big way, but should we be there? What’s your opinion on should we stay or should we go?
MR. GAUSE: For those who don’t recognize it, the title was, of course, a shoutout to The Clash. I think we should stay. There are still American interests in trying to prevent war in the oil patch. Unfortunately, in the past we have caused more disruption of oil flows than we have prevented. The Iraq War, obviously, but also our sanctions policies. But we’ve had, in the last three decades, two attacks by Middle East regional powers on major Middle East oil facilities: the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Iranian attack on Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia in September of 2019. I still think there’s a role for American military forces as a deterrent; one hopes that they don’t have to be used as actual defense. To me, the most surprising thing that’s happened in the Trump administration is the lack of reaction to the Iranian attack on Abqaiq. I would have reacted much more strongly to that.
I think our long-term goal should be to deal with people where the state is still functioning and try as best we can to promote the restoration of political authority in the places where political authority is now weakened and challenged. That means dealing with Iran, because they’ve got an address. I thought JCPOA was a good idea, and I would deal with Iran directly and go away from this chimera of a policy of regime change. I would also keep dealing with Saudi Arabia, which also has an address. In places where political authority has collapsed, I think we have to make hard choices.
One of them is to recognize that, unfortunately, the Assad regime is going to govern what’s left of Syria for a while. What we need to do is get our head around the fact that we’ve got to deal with that fact. We’ve got to decide who we want to back in Libya; anybody ruling is better than what’s going on now. And in Yemen, we have to get the Saudis to find an exit ramp, because nothing good is being done there. Yemen has always been a weak state, but right now it’s a weak state that’s also a humanitarian disaster. And that can’t remain contained within Yemen for long. It’s been contained within Yemen since 2012, and that’s amazing, but it can’t continue that way for long. That’s another reason we have to talk to Iran.
That’s where I would start if I were running the show.
MS. RUDMAN: I just want to say I support fully the layout that Greg just provided to us, and his earlier comments as well. On the state-building issue, I fully agree. It’s been one of my long-term frustrations in the time I’ve spent in government, figuring out why and how the United States is not better at it than we are. But I think that is one key thing going forward that we need to continue to work on. It serves U.S. interests to figure out what the right level of engagement is. But departing or withdrawing does not serve us. Just to be clear, by level of involvement I mean diplomatic as well as military and in ways that, again, fit what our needs are with an eye to what makes the region more stable and more secure.
Protecting Israel is not a zero-sum game. It doesn’t mean that supporting Israel takes away the opportunities, and the ability, and what we are in fact doing in supporting and securing a number of other countries in the region — again, where we see shared interest. So it is not an either/or.
With respect to the extent to which a two-state solution is even an open possibility, I think that remains a question. The ties for me to our security and economic interests in the region were probably best articulated, frankly, by UAE Ambassador [Yousef Al] Otaiba, in an opinion piece in Yediot Ahronot, where he talked, I thought extremely clearly, about the natural interests that bring together Israel, the Emiratis and the Saudis — many of which are tied to Iran, as well as to economic interests — and the difficulty of being able to proceed fully and in a sustainable way on those fronts if the ability to resolve issues with Palestinians is taken off the table. That was, of course, in the context of Israeli annexation moves.
But that, to me, is part of the broader issue. I fully appreciate the difficulty at this point, and what I would describe as a very slim opening to be able to get to two states right now. I believe we are in a one-state reality. I don’t think that’s a solution. And that’s where the key distinction is. It’s not a solution for Palestinians, for Israelis, for regional actors. What we need is to find a way to get Israelis and Palestinians to come together, discuss with one another, with whatever help from outside actors, to work towards what is workable for them. If that could be one state, terrific. The likelihood of agreement on that seems slim to me. But figuring out how we move forward, given what the facts are on the ground, is what is key.
MS. VAKIL: I think it’s important for the United States to stay. In the context of all of this regional competition that is very much heating up, leaving the region to fend for itself and play out some of the ideological divisions that we’re witnessing in Libya, in Yemen, that we saw in Syria, I don’t think is the responsible thing to do. And I’m not arguing that just because the United States was in Iraq, and they sort of broke it. They should fix it. But the United States has been the principal external actor in the region for decades now.
Its absence would be a huge destabilizer. Being there is an important reassurance for Gulf states that have become increasingly anxious by the uncertainty of the relationship with the United States. September 14 was a huge turning point. I share Greg’s assessment about September 14. I, too, was incredibly surprised that there was no action taken against Iran. I think even the Iranian establishment was surprised.
I think that was a big turning point for everybody in the region. And the lack of deterrence, or the deterrence two months later, or three months later, I don’t think set the record straight. Ultimately, what is needed — because it seems that we’re on the trajectory for a U.S. departure, just a question of when and in what capacity and over what period of time — is for the beginning of a regional security discussion. There are very few countries that can bring all of the parties together, and this is not just a U.S.-Iran discussion. That’s a huge part of the problem, but it’s also an Iran-Saudi and a Qatar-UAE-Iran problem.
There are so many dynamics that need to be addressed beyond the ongoing civil wars: the Yemen war, which, as Greg mentioned, is a humanitarian catastrophe; the Israeli-Palestinian issue that seems to be a sidebar now to the Iranian one; and Libya, which I think doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it needs to. What’s playing out there is a reflection of intra-Arab state competition, a clear ideological divide as to the role of Islamic political groups and parties within the Arab state system. These things need to be discussed.
There need to be clearly established lines on sovereignty and stability in the region. And an outside interlocutor is needed to do that. It can’t be, perhaps, the United States alone anymore. But forcing everybody to sit down together and not just look to the United States to balance or contain the Islamic Republic isn’t going to work anymore. It’s time to have some tough conversations about whether containment is truly effective as a policy. Maybe that containment has to be balanced with a bit of engagement in order to take a longer-term approach vis-à-vis Iran and the region. That is going to obviously require time, confidence-building measures and an investment in the next generations in the region because they’ve been bearing witness to all of this conflict for so long. But the sides have really hardened, so the United States should stay there and try to bring people together, if possible. But I’m dubious that that’s going to happen.
DR. MATTAIR: Here are some audience questions. We’ve been talking about Russian and Iranian advances, and whether China wants to advance or not. So here are a few questions. Why is it that we have done nothing about stories of Russian intelligence paying bounties to kill Americans in Afghanistan? That’s one. How are we going to react to what appears to be emerging agreement between China and Iran in areas of trade and military cooperation? Well, let’s start with them, and then I’ll have questions about Iran and Turkey following that. And, again, these questions are for anyone.
MR. GAUSE: So, I heard General McKenzie, our commander of CENTCOM, today on NPR say that he wasn’t yet convinced by the intelligence that there were actual bounties being paid. But to me, this is a great non-issue. The Russians are trying to make our life difficult in Afghanistan; they’re trying to make our life difficult everywhere. That seems to be one of Mr. Putin’s strategic goals in life, including within our own domestic politics. The Russians, in classic realpolitik, have decided to deal with the Taliban, whose fathers and uncles killed Russians and drove them out of Afghanistan when it was the Soviet Union. We shouldn’t be shocked when gambling is going on in the back room. And we shouldn’t be shocked that the Russians are dealing with us the way they feel we dealt with them back when we were the ones helping the people who were killing them in Afghanistan. The larger question is what should we do in Afghanistan? That’s something I don’t feel competent to discuss.
DR. MATTAIR: You said earlier that they’re not the Soviet Union, and that’s true, but they are in Syria, they are in Libya. Some of our partners are hedging and forming relations with them, so they’re making advances even with our partners and friends. Does that concern you?
MR. GAUSE: Not really. I think of Russia as a gas station with nuclear weapons. They don’t have a message that resonates with anybody, so people are going to deal with the Russians based on self-interest. And the Saudis and other oil producers have real interests in having a decent relationship with Russia. They have parallel interests but also, at times, competing interests. We’ve seen that this year, both the competing interests and the parallel interests. This is just part of the modified return to great-power politics. The Russians are going to play in the region, but they cannot provide the kind of military protection that the Soviet Union could plausibly provide to clients and allies in the Middle East. They don’t have a navy. I guess that their air force is getting better. I’m no specialist on this, but they’re not what they were, and I don’t see them as a huge threat. I see them as an irritant.
DR. MATTAIR: What about this Iran-China agreement? Sanam?
MS. VAKIL: This agreement has received a lot of attention in the press over the past few days, but it isn’t a new agreement. I’m not underplaying its importance, but Iran and China signed a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. Iran and China have had economic and diplomatic ties for decades now. The Chinese have been investing in the Iranian economy, albeit at a limited rate, also for decades. And China has a comprehensive strategic partnership with four other countries in the Middle East, and seven other strategic partnerships. So the Middle East is a critical nexus for its Belt and Road Initiative.
It'll be interesting to see how Covid impacts China’s ability to invest in the region. It’s pursuing pandemic diplomacy, but its fiscal capabilities are also going to be somewhat constrained. It’s perhaps going to invest more on its nearer abroad than in the Middle East. And this 25-year-old deal has been in the works for a few years now. I think it’s being politicized in both the international community and domestically inside Iran. It’s important because it shows Iran’s priority on maintaining trade ties with China. It doesn’t have very many other relatively strong relationships it can draw upon. But at the same time, I’m a bit dubious that China’s going to be able to invest $400 billion in the Iranian economy. Its own strategic investments for the Belt and Road Initiative, I believe the figures are $600 to $800 billion.
I can’t imagine that a country that has taken a relatively balanced approach to its engagement in the Middle East, and very much benefited from the U.S. military presence in the region, is going to suddenly take sides and double down on Iran, when it has important relationships across the Persian Gulf and with Egypt and Israel, and so on. I think we should be a bit more balanced about it and look at it through the prism of domestic politics within Iran and, of course, U.S.-China tensions.
MR. GAUSE: I can imagine people in Beijing are feeling a little bit like the person in a relationship who goes out on a couple of dates and then sees the engagement announcement in the newspaper being published without their permission. On the Iranian side, I think this is a fascinating Iranian trope. They’re always looking for that “disinterested” outside power to come in and protect them from the other powers that are rapacious and that are going after them, because the poor Iranians are always put upon and threatened.
It was about little bit more than a half a century ago that the United States was the power that the Iranians wanted to bring in because of the rapacious Brits and the Russians. I think the Chinese could look at the history of U.S.-Iranian relations to see that maybe the marriage they’re being pushed into by the Iranians might not be the happiest one in the world.
DR. MATTAIR: Someone in the audience is asking about the power balance in the region and what the United States can do in resolving conflicts, but particularly what do we do about our NATO ally Turkey, which this questioner believes is escalating conflicts in the region. Certainly, some of the Arab states are concerned about the way Turkey is advancing in the region. It has a base in Qatar. It’s intervening in Syria. It’s intervening in Libya. What’s our relationship with our NATO ally, and what’s the nature of their intervention in the Middle East?
MS. PATTERSON: They’ve been in the Middle East, of course, under the Ottomans, which is, of course, a huge issue in places like Egypt. What I saw when I was in Egypt — and this was under the military agreement, not under [Mohamed] Morsi — the Turks were commercially in Egypt in a big way. When [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi came in, I think they were glad to get rid of the Turks and give them their comeuppance. It wasn’t just on the Muslim Brotherhood. It strikes me as a similar relationship with Turkey. It’s hugely difficult and complex. But to say Turkey shouldn’t be involved in Syria, when they have the disaster on their doorstep, for whatever you might think of their relations with the Kurds, just isn’t realistic. Turkey is not going anywhere geographically. Yes, they perhaps were too aggressive for some, but we absolutely have to deal with Turkey. I know there’s been a lot written on this recently, but they are a legitimate player, in my view, in the Middle East, because of their historic and strategic interests there. To just wish them away is not going to work.
Libya also has the French and the Italians at each other’s throats. I would hope a new administration would try to get a better handle on the situation in Libya than I’ve seen so far, because it has lots of unfortunate implications.
DR. MATTAIR: Why are we witnessing explosions in Iran? Is this an evolution of Trump administration policy, or is this one of our regional partners taking matters into their own hands, or collaborating with us? How would this set up a new administration that might want to reengage in diplomacy with Iran? For whatever reason, the Iranian centrifuge program is being set back right now. Does anyone have any insight on what’s happening?
MS. VAKIL: I’m happy to offer my thoughts, but I’m not sure if I would call it insight, just speculation. It does seem that something is amiss. There have been one too many explosions and fires over the past few weeks. And I think that pattern is, of course, very concerning for Tehran. We’ve seen a number of media reports and anonymous quotes from officials in the United States and Israel and Europe suggesting two things. Effectively, what you intimated, that perhaps U.S. policy is indirectly supporting Israel’s more direct action to stall the Iranian nuclear program. From my vantage point, that looks like something that could be happening, along with maybe a more targeted cyberattack at the same time.
What I do see as part of the bigger picture is maybe members of the Trump administration, and also the Israeli government, seeing the next few months as a window of opportunity to really hollow out the JCPOA, while the president is still in office. Perhaps the calculation from Israeli security and intelligence officials is that there might be a new administration in Washington in November, and they’re very concerned about the calculations and suggestions that the Biden administration might renegotiate or reengage with Iran. So better to pursue this window of opportunity and hit Iran while it looks weak.
I think it’s also important to watch Iran’s reaction. They’re being very careful, very calibrated. You don’t see them reacting in the public sphere in a meaningful way, because they’re also weighing out their options strategically, and waiting also perhaps to find whatever evidence they can of a foreign hand in these sorts of explosions. If that is found, there is going to be pressure for them to respond. So I think this is going to play out rather carefully from Tehran’s side; their strategy is very much focused on November 3. I think there is consensus within the political establishment to try not to be drawn into anything that could tilt the balance away from negotiations should a Biden administration be elected.
DR. MATTAIR: Let’s go to Israeli-Palestinian issues so we are sure to have sufficient time for them. Someone from the audience asks: Can we expect a more balanced hand under President Biden? Palestinians always seems to get the short end, at least after Carter, in any agreement with Israel. I would add to that, what would a more balanced hand look like?
Another person from the audience is asking how the Biden policy would be different, pointing out that in the Democratic Party platform they are taking a stand against the BDS movement, and asking if that’s the right thing to do. And, of course, we have this looming annexation coming. At this stage in the game, when there are so many settlements in the West Bank, and annexation is on the table, and even many young Palestinians are talking about a one-state solution where they would fight for equality, what would a more balanced hand on the part of the Biden administration be?
MS. RUDMAN: Vice President Biden has made a number of comments on the record already that I think give some sense of what his perspective is and will be. He’s been fairly consistent on these issues over some period of time. I certainly have heard him come out strongly opposed to unilateral annexation and talking about the ways in which that takes options off the table and counters U.S. interests in a variety of ways. He's also been very clear about his concerns about the boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts, and where and how he believes they’re problematic. So I would expect that an administration he’s leading would follow those directives.
In terms of balance, again, what’s in the U.S. interest? It’s in our interest to maximize the ability for Palestinians and Israelis to get to a better place than they are now. Doing that requires being trusted by both parties. I would not agree with the premise of the questioner that, since Carter, the United States kind of picks a player. I think we look at what’s in our interest and what we can achieve. I think we need a fresh set of conversations, apart from where we think in the United States: a fresh set of conversations with the players on the ground about what they want, what they think is achievable, where they see the political risks and challenges. And then part of the job of the United States is working with them to set that horizon and then do as much as possible to mitigate the risks that leaders on both sides, and in the region more broadly, would be taking to move toward the end goal.
We certainly need to be seen as credible and engaged by all involved. In that context, I think this administration has been particularly bad about every way in which they’ve approached that; and I think President Trump’s peace plan is great evidence of that. It’s a bad approach, in that it sets out where everyone should go without hearing what anyone has to say. It’s a very unrealistic plan and way forward. It comes across, and I believe this administration comes across, as largely advocating having exchanges with one side and taking — as I had mentioned earlier — taking tools completely out of hands, tools that we possess, to be able to help how we are seen and what we can do with the parties involved.
I would expect that the new administration coming in would look to restore what the opportunities are for the United States going forward. Vice President Biden has talked about his commitment to restart assistance to the Palestinians, and to look for ways to reopen the PLO/PA office in Washington, to find those diplomatic tools and opportunities to the maximum extent possible, and to work, as we talked about with Iran, with our allies and our partners in Europe and in the region to come together to increase the set of options, as opposed to what we’ve had, which is a constant decrease of options and opportunities that serve U.S. interests, consistent with also serving the interests of those in the region.
MR. GAUSE: I tend to look at it within the context of the point I made at the outset about state failure and state weakening. I think it’s in America’s interest to avoid having more collapsed states and governance systems in the region. The policy of cutting back on aid to the Palestinians — and we’re not talking about huge amounts of money by American standards here — is short-sighted. What we don’t need is a complete collapse of authority in the West Bank. We already have the problem of the divided authority between Gaza and the West Bank. And what we have is an octogenarian leadership in the West Bank that is increasingly detached from its own population, with an Israeli government and an American government that are pushing it in ways that could accelerate the collapse of real governing authority there and lead to a complete reoccupation, a return to pre-Oslo. I don’t think it’s in America’s interest to have failed states and failed governing structures anywhere in the Middle East. The West Bank is a candidate for being one of those if we’re not careful.
DR. MATTAIR: A number of administrations have made good-faith efforts for decades but without much success. Moreover, a number of people in various administrations have said things such as, the expansion of these settlements is not going to prejudge the final outcome; it won’t prevent a fair peace agreement from being reached. But is that true? We can resume aid to the Palestinians, but what about the other tenet that we’ve held over the years: If we make certain that Israel is enjoying a qualitative military edge and feeling secure, they will make generous, necessary concessions and agreements. Has that worked? If it hasn’t, do we need to look at offering incentives and suggesting the reduction of aid if our suggestions are not taken up?
MS. RUDMAN: I would first reject the premise that it’s in the U.S. interest to provide Israel with a qualitative military edge as a concession for negotiations with the Palestinians. The U.S. relationship with Israel on security assistance goes to broader regional concerns, and the role that Israel can play in the region. So I don’t see that direct linkage. I would then take the conversation one step further to emphasize what I was intending to get at earlier, which is that using assistance as a cudgel as opposed to ways to build relationships has generally not worked for the United States.
I think this also goes to some of the points that Sanam was making about the use of sanctions. It is much easier for political movements, writ large, in the United States to talk about sanctioning or about the things that you can take away, and harder to organize or what you can offer as incentives for people to move towards what is in your interest. Diplomacy is the art of letting others have it your way, and those are some of the things that give us that ability. The assistance we provide to Israel on the security side, the commitment to their qualitative military edge, is important to them and important to us, and not specific, in my mind, to the Palestinians.
What we have done with the Palestinians on various assistance fronts over the years has contributed to security coordination, to improve Palestinian security forces in a major way, and to increase interaction in a positive way between Israelis and Palestinians. The major amount of assistance we’ve provided for health care, for water, for economic development similarly has helped the relationship and has made a difference for people on the ground. I think we could do much better, going back to Greg’s earlier state-building point, about how we both deliver that assistance and gain some of the direct connection from what we’re doing and for people’s perceptions on the ground.
Used correctly, it is a critical opportunity for us. And you made the point, Tom, about reaching all Palestinians and the challenge with Palestinian leadership currently, which I can understand. Part of our ways of being able to reach out more broadly is to engage the next generation and build a bench on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side, through the tools that we have — assistance and diplomacy — the incentives that we offer going forward.
DR. MATTAIR: People have mentioned Dan Benaim a couple of times; he’s written an article that indicates that there’s a debate on the Democratic side about whether we should reset or rethink our relations with Saudi Arabia. The “resetters” believe that the relationship has considerable strategic value, and that we should try to influence them to modify their behavior. The rethinkers don’t really think the relationship has that much value and want to ratchet it down to things like counterterrorism cooperation. Where do you think the Biden administration is going to come down on that issue?
MS. PATTERSON: If you read the article, it seems to me to lean strongly toward the resetters. For reasons that Greg mentioned, unfortunately, Saudi Arabia — and this, I think, has been a huge cost — has become caught up in the partisan debate. They made lots of mistakes, of course. But my own view is that the Biden administration and Vice President Biden himself, who has 50 years of experience in government, will put pressure on Saudi Arabia, particularly on the issues of human rights and female activists. But I sure don’t think they’re going to throw the baby out with the bathwater there.
MR. GAUSE: I agree with Anne. I think the fact that my fellow Delawarean Joe Biden is at the top of the ticket means that there’ll be less upheaval. But I think if it were a Sanders administration or a Democratic administration from a younger generation within the party, I think you’d see more of the rethinkers dominating. I think of all sorts of people — Senator Chris Murphy seems to me to be a rethinker, not a resetter. And he seems to be a leading Democratic voice on the relationship. I think that if you’re going to reset, the reset should concentrate mostly on Saudi behavior in the region. When we try to tell people how to run their domestic politics, it usually backfires on us. I can point to many examples, but Iraq I think is the most obvious one. What we need is Saudi behavior in the region that is a bit more pre-MBS. And we should encourage the elements of the MBS agenda domestically that are positive for Saudi Arabia’s becoming a state less reliant on oil, and better able to use its own domestic workforce. In that sense, MBS has moved to allow women to drive, which I think in the long run might be the most important thing he will do in Saudi Arabia. It’s an enormously important step toward getting women into the workforce.
But a lot of the actions on the foreign policy front have been fiascos. Some of them have been fiascos but unserious, like the clown show about the boycott of Qatar. Some of them have been geopolitically understandable but failures, like Yemen. What we have to do is get the Saudis on a path, as I said before, to an exit from Yemen, and to a common view with us about the need to sustain some amount of stability in countries where they’re not having civil wars, and to move to try to ameliorate the conflicts where political authority has weakened or collapsed.
I will point to one positive thing that I have seen in the MBS period in Saudi Arabia: a tentative willingness to reengage with Iraq, which I think is going to be absolutely necessary if Iraq is going to rebuild some kind of functioning central authority and in a way that doesn’t make it enormously dependent upon Iran.