Today’s Martin Luther King message is from a college classmate, George Stavis. It comes in both prose and musical versions, as he is not only admirably literate but also a superb banjo player (Jack Bowers, another college classmate accompanies on piano). George delivered this short sermon in both versions at Yom Kippur last year, but its relevance today is clear:
If there is one thing we know around here, it’s that we are a storytelling people. Or more accurately, that we have a storytelling rabbi. Why do we tell stories? Because we are asked to consider the lessons of the past in order to inform our lives now. And in great measure, this is the way of our people, from Exodus to the present.
So the rabbi has asked me, for this Yom Kippur, to reflect on our story and my story. But in telling my story at this Yom Kippur, I’ll talk about one of our revered prophets from the past, and I’ll add two prophets from our time, whom I believe will be revered in the future.
I’ll call my prophets Peter, Martin and Isaiah. Peter and Martin are, we shall say, new age, and Isaiah is old school.
Peter is my first prophet. That would be Pete Seeger. Who thinks Pete Seeger is a prophet? Well, the Harvard Crimson remembered Pete in an article titled “Pete Seeger: a Prophet in His Own Land.” And I saw Pete Seeger for the first time when I was about 8, when he was blacklisted and he played at a dinner party honoring a 90-year old progressive. I guess it was baked in at that point: banjo and politics. Pete, in his prophetic vision, taught that the world should be one in peace and freedom, and that the music of the people – the folk music – could help to show the way.
One of his records I listened to was called “With Voices Together We Sing.” He sang, in the Hammer Song, “it’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.” And his crowning achievement was his revision of an old, old gospel song and adapting it to the civil rights movement. His message was We Shall Overcome, which became the final words of Lyndon Johnson’s speech in presenting the Voting Rights Act to Congress. So I was raised with a vision of the power of song, the power of music, to bring people together in a progressive, admittedly optimistic, world of harmony. What has this to do with Yom Kippur? Stay with me.
No surprise that my second prophet, Martin, is Martin Luther King. Who vouches for his prophetic bona fides? A 1999 poll of 137 leading scholars of American public address found that the “I Have a Dream” speech was the most important speech of the 20th century. Notably, King referred to Isaiah in the Dream Speech when he said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low … and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” And why is King my second prophet? My late father Morton Stavis, who was raised orthodox and became socialist, secular, and Zionist, was deeply involved with the Civil Rights movement in the 50’s, 60’s and for the rest of his life. He was Dr. King’s lawyer, and while in high school, I met King twice, once at my home. I registered voters in Birmingham, Alabama in the winter of 1964/65.
Two months later, on March 7, 1965, State troopers and local police in Selma, Alabama brutally beat unarmed marchers protesting the murder, by a trooper, of a peaceful demonstrator a few weeks earlier. This became known as Bloody Sunday, and it created the overwhelming push for Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, presented on March 16, 1965, 9 days later. Additional marches were organized, and my younger brother was there. And on March 6th of this year, my two brothers and I went to Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, where my father was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Voting Rights Museum. And in the way of things, my father’s work – very much together with that of my mother – was the family work. We constantly reflected on the need to seek justice, and how, in the words of Amos, also quoted by King, we could work to “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
And so we come to today, Yom Kippur. And we will soon read Isaiah, who tells us about fasting. And why do we read him today, 2,700 years after his words were uttered? Because his words speak to us, as they have throughout history, and have met the test of time. And Isaiah describes the failures of both the ancient and modern Yom Kippur fast – that is, we fast, sit through hours of services, and then, we go for it: lox, bagels, melons, the works. Some kind of fast! But not the right fast, says Isaiah. The right fast is:
- to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;
- to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved;
- to share your bread with the hungry;
- to take the homeless poor into your home.
Great stuff for our liberal congregation of today. And, I think, a link to my own prophets, Peter and Martin.
If we mean to follow Isaiah, we have our work cut out for us. What indeed is the right fast? We are not going to repair the world today, but perhaps we can address a piece of it. Where to start? The injustices of our day – the income inequality, the disastrous relationship between police and minority communities, the 14 million people who pass through or are in jail each year, the refugees fleeing from destruction in Syria, the starvation and disease in much of the world – are as prevalent today as in the ancient world, and the wealthy – that is, us – are satisfied. Isaiah says “not good enough” to forego food for a day and pat ourselves on the back.
Isaiah, Peter and Martin are the gadflies, as Socrates was called: they are annoying people who exhort us to live up to our dreams of a better world – and how we – not merely divine intervention – are responsible for making it so.
We are charged not only to contemplate prophetic words, but to live them: to harmonize our voices together with others; to demand justice; to recognize and cease our own oppressions, and to help and feed the poor. By living our words, so may we help to repair the world.
- Assessing the outcomes and implications of Taiwan’s January 2016 elections | Tuesday, January 19th | 10:30-12:00 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | With Tsai Ing-wen, leader and presidential candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), ahead in the polls against the Kuomintang (KMT) party candidate Eric Chu and People First Party (PFP) candidate James Soong, it appears Taiwan voters will elect a new ruling party on January 16. The Legislative Yuan elections are still up for grabs, and will dictate the degree of initiative a Tsai administration will have. Across the Taiwan Strait, Beijing has expressed its concerns, most notably through the November 2015 meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, on how it feels a DPP-led government should approach cross-Strait relations. The four-month transition period leading up to the May 20 inauguration will be a critical time for the new government to lay out its policy agenda and work to establish a platform for cross-Strait relations. On January 19, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAP) at Brookings and the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) will host Joseph Wu, Secretary General of the Democratic Progressive Party, for a keynote address on Taiwan’s election outcomes and implications going forward. Richard Bush, Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies and director of CEAP at Brookings, will provide an introduction, and Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser and director of the China Power Project at CSIS, will moderate a discussion after the address. Following the discussion, Wu will take audience questions. To register for this event, please email ChinaPower@csis.org.
- Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence and Partnerships | Wednesday, January 20th | 9:00-11:00 | Center for Strategic & International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Center for Strategic and International Studies was tasked by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 with conducting an independent assessment of the Asia-Pacific rebalance first announced by President Obama in 2011. Four years into the rebalance the Department of Defense should receive high marks for sustained attention to the Asia-Pacific, but challenges in the region are increasing. The United States will need to continue and in some cases accelerate investments in regional relationships, posture, operational concepts, and capabilities if it is to achieve the strategic goals of the rebalance. Please join us as we present the findings of this important report and host a discussion of the importance of this vital region to U.S. national security in particular and global peace and prosperity more broadly. This panel discussion features Mark F. Cancian, Senior Adviser of the International Security Program at CSIS, Michael J. Green, Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS, Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks, Director of the CSIS International Security Program, and Andrew Shearer, former Australian National Security Adviser. Dr. John J. Hamre, CSIS CEO, will make the introductory remarks. Zack Cooper, Fellow and Japan Chair at CSIS, and John Schaus, CSIS Fellow, will present their report findings.
- North Africa in Transition: The Struggle for Democracies and Institutions | Wednesday, January 20th | 2:00-3:00 | International Institute for Strategic Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The 2011 Arab uprisings began in North Africa and toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Libya, but the forces that wreaked this profound change also touched their fellow Maghreb states of Algeria and Morocco. North Africa in Transition, the latest IISS Adelphi book, examines how the politics, security and economies – which were largely stable for decades prior to 2011 – have changed in the four states. It asks why the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Libya did not spread to Algeria and Morocco; how the revolutionary states have fared since 2011; why Libya descended into a deadly civil war while the others did not; and whether the sitting governments in Algeria and Morocco have applied sustainable strategies to address the new political climate.Please join the IISS-US for a policy discussion and Q&A session about North Africa and its importance to Western interests, chaired by Executive Director Mark Fitzpatrick. This event is on the record and will be webcast live on the IISS website. Copies of the book are available for sale on our website or after the event. Speakers include the following: Ben Fishman served for four years on the US National Security Council, including as Director for North Africa and Jordan from 2012 to 2013. Haim Malka is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at CSIS, where he oversees the program’s work on the Maghreb. John Desrocher is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Egypt and Maghreb Affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State. Mark Fitzpatrick is the Executive Director of the IISS-US and the Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme.
- Congressman Hun Many: The Future of U.S.-Cambodia Relations | Wednesday, January 20th | 2:30-4:00 | U.S.-Korea Institute and John Hopkins SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The U.S.-Korea Institute and the Southeast Asia Studies program at Johns Hopkins SAIS present a discussion with Cambodian Congressman Hun Many. The youngest parliamentarian in the National Assembly of Cambodia, and son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Congressman Hun Many will be sharing his insights on Cambodia’s foreign policies and relations with the U.S., Korea, China and other regional players. Karl Jackson, professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS, will moderate the discussion.
- Top Priorities for Africa in 2016 | Wednesday, January 20th | 3:00-4:30 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | 2016 will be a crucial year for African countries as they seek to respond to shifting dynamics in the global economy. Mitigating the adverse effects of China’s economic slowdown, tumbling commodity prices, and the U.S. interest rate rise in 2015 on the region will demand serious policy reform and investment in African economies—so will maintaining the continent’s trade competitiveness, given the rise of mega-regional trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Domestic issues including stagnating industrialization and job creation, rapid urbanization, and governance and security threats could undermine the continent’s upward-trending development trajectory; however, if managed prudently with timely action from African policymakers in 2016, the continent could equally recover from external and internal shocks, accelerate regional growth, and further expand the benefits of growth to the more than one billion people living throughout Africa. On January 20, the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings will host a panel of leading Africa experts on the most pressing challenges facing the continent in 2016. The panel will be moderated by Mark Goldberg, editor of U.N. Dispatch, and will include Ambassador Hassana Alidou of Niger, as well as Brookings experts Joshua Meltzer, Witney Schneidman, Eyerusalem Siba, and Amadou Sy who will offer their expertise on these important issues and provide recommendations to national governments, regional organizations, multilateral institutions and civil society on how to contend with these priorities in the year ahead. The event follows the release of the new Foresight Africa report, a collection of issue briefs, viewpoints, and infographics on the major issues for Africa in 2016. Join the conversation on Twitter using #ForesightAfrica.
- The ISIS Threat to U.S. National Security: Policy Choices | Thursday, January 21st | 9:00-11:30 | Middle East Policy Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Middle East Policy Council invites you and your colleagues to our 83rd Capitol Hill Conference. Live streaming of this event will begin at approximately 9:00am Thursday, January 21st and conclude at 11:30. A questions and answers session will be held at the end of the proceedings. Speakers include William F. Wechsler, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Mark Katz, professor at George Mason University, Charles Lister, Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute, and Audrey Kurth Cronin, Director of the International Security Program at George Mason University. Richard Schmierer, former ambassador to Oman, will moderate the discussion.
- Turkey in 2016: Domestic Politics, EU Relations and Beyond | Thursday, January 21st | 3:00-4:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Since the November 2015 elections in Turkey, questions have arisen surrounding the future of domestic politics and the country’s relationships with the West. The government has had difficulties managing burgeoning and increasingly more complex political, security and economic challenges. This panel will look at the year ahead and discuss these issues with a wider perspective on domestic politics, foreign policy and relations with the European Union. How will a new AK Party government confront its domestic and foreign policy problems – ranging from the Kurdish question to Syria and Russia – and pursue relations with the EU and the West in general? What is the current EU perspective on relations with Turkey? What other major issues are at stake? Henri Barkey, Director of the Wilson will moderate this talk. Bulent Aras, Senior Fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center, Michelle Egan, professor at American University, Fuat Keyman, Director of the Istanbul Policy Center, and Amberin Zaman, columnist at Al Monitor are the speakers for this event.
On Wednesday, the Atlantic Council hosted a conversation with former Secretary of Defense Hagel. He detailed the policy issues and challenges that arose during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, discussed his relationship with the Obama Administration, and provided advice to US policymakers going forward. Fred Kempe, President and CEO, Atlantic Council, interviewed the Secretary and moderated the discussion.
Kempe began with some background about Hagel’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. He was the first Secretary of Defense in decades to face shrinking budgets at a time of increased demand for US military force. Sequester began on his third day in office. He also faced the Russian invasion of Crimea, the fight against ISIS, a difficult US-Egypt relationship, and the Iran negotiations.
Kempe asked Secretary Hagel to provide his thoughts on Iran’s capture and subsequent release of US sailors this week. Secretary Hagel said he doesn’t have the intelligence information he once had, but that the US is pleased with the sailors’ release. There will be an investigation of what happened and why. He strongly supported the nuclear negotiations with Iran. This incident put the deal in jeopardy, especially since the removal of sanctions commences this weekend. If the Iranians hadn’t released the sailors, they would have put sanctions relief in jeopardy.
Hagel described what he saw as a new world order developing now. We are witnessing the greatest diffusion of economic power in history combined with rapid demographic changes. The world order that the US and its allies built post-Word War II has done well; there has been no World War III or nuclear exchange. These alliances will become even more important in this century. As the world has progressed, more people have greater expectations regarding what their rights are.
The world is unpredictable. Leaders need to build margins into their planning. While the US is the most powerful nation on earth, we shouldn’t dictate or impose. Most Americans were born after World War II and expect an America that dominates in every way. But we’ve made big mistakes stemming from not paying attention to other cultures. American leadership is indispensable, but Americans must be humble about this. We can’t fix every problem, but countries do rely on American leadership to bring them together.
American leadership is essential for global stability. We should remain engaged, but not be afraid of other countries becoming successful. We need to adapt to the world’s shifting demographics without abandoning our values. We shouldn’t impose our specific brand of Western democracy on all countries. As Kissinger has said, we need to help countries develop their own democracies for their own contexts. The common threads of all democracies are dignity for all, freedom of initiative, and incentives for hard work and responsibility.
Kempe wanted Hagel to review his recent article in Foreign Policy in which he criticized the way he was treated by the Obama Administration. Hagel did not want to rehash everything he said in the article, but stated that all administrations try to dominate their cabinets. In this sense, the Obama Administration is no different from previous administrations, but each successive administration in recent years has tried to dominate more.
This is unhealthy because it undercuts governing. Governing is not the same as domination. Every institution requires the support of good people and those in charge need to trust these people and rely on them to govern with them. The two most important jobs in every administration are the National Security Advisor and the Chief of Staff because all decision making flows through them. The Secretary of Defense doesn’t make policy but is the implementer and operator of the policies that the President wants. When the President dominates those whom he/she is supposed to rely on it impedes his/her ability to govern. In addition, there were too many meetings with too many people in the room; this creates chaos because everyone wants to talk and show how smart they are. Every President faces challenges, uncontrollables, and unknowables.
Every President also has his/her own style. But it’s hard to bring in the best people if they think they will be overloaded with meetings, micromanaged and second-guessed.
Given the fact that sequester began on day three of Hagel’s tenure, Kempe wanted to know how much time he spent on budgets and if the military has enough funding to ensure American security. Hagel reminded the audience that sequester remains in effect, though cuts to military spending have been adjusted. The Pentagon requires the certainty of long-term budgets on the order of 20 years to plan the purchase of weapons systems. Sequester meant an immediate $50 billion of budget cuts, so Secretary Hagel commissioned a review to understand what was most important in the budget, both from Pentagon officials as well as from field commanders. Secretary Hagel originally though he would have to furlough his employees for 21 days, but managed to cut this down to 3-5 days. He had to halt maintenance and training for a few months.
That was followed by a 16-day government shutdown, which was irresponsible on the part of politicians. Hagel refused to comply with the shutdown, though some employees were absent for 16 days. It is terrible to damage the security of the US to make a political point. It hurt the Department of Defense. The employees ultimately got paid anyway by virtue of the unions.
Budgets took up a lot of his time. We are perilously close to not having enough funds to defend our national security interests. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have to testify in front of Congress to give their opinion on whether the current budget is sufficient to guarantee American national security interests; they are getting close to having to say no. We can do with fewer submarines, for instance, but that will come with a long-term price. Once we have two presidential candidates, they must be clear about what they think the US role in the world is and what our national security interests are. Read more
On January 13, the Libyan American Public Affairs Council in association with the Atlantic Council hosted the ‘Libyan Draft Constitution Analysis and Review Conference.’ The first session included conversations on religion and sharia and mechanisms for enforcement of fundamental rights in the most current draft of the constitution. The second session explored the potential relationship between the president, parliament, and the rest of government as stated in the constitution.
Mohamed Benruwin, one of the drafters of the new Libyan Constitution and professor at Texas A&M International University, Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, and Zaid Al-Ali, a professor at Princeton University, contributed to the first panel.
Benruwin kicked off the discussion, noting that Islam will be the official religion of the Libyan state and that sharia will be the source of legislation, as stated in Article 7. Benruwin described Libya’s dream: a state based on unity, openness, independence, and respect. He also listed a few challenges: constitutionmaking is a road that Libya has never embarked upon, the polarization of groups within Libya, and the difficult decision of choosing the delegates who would write the final constitutional draft. Benruwin’s goals are to ensure a checks and balances and to decentralize government in order to make the citizens more directly involved in political affairs. He aims to answer how the role of sharia will play out in the new Libyan state. He believes the supremacy of sharia has a much more complicated meaning than the negative connotation imposed by the Western definition.
Brown analyzed what exactly having Islam as the state religion and sharia would mean for Libya. Islam as the state religion symbolizes its importance in the region. The Libyan constitutional drafters are learning from the errors of the past and adjusting to include how sharia will be enforced, though what category of sharia would be enforced has been left out of the constitutional process thus far. Brown deconstructed a few articles of the constitutional draft to show how unique this particular document is. For instance, Article 106 provides a constitutional court where both political scientists and specialists in Islamic sharia could participate. Brown advised that Libyans will have to be wary of the political context, of who exactly will be in charge of these courts, and of who will implement sharia.
Ali, who devotes his time speaking with constitutional drafters, recommended improving the draft framework. He is concerned with rights, which would only be guaranteed by the state, not guaranteed absolutely. He also addressed the freedom of association clause, which gives the right to form civil society organizations that are both “transparent” and “independent.” Ali believes that organizations should not have to be transparent, especially if it involves family groups in the privacy of their homes. Under this constitutional draft, the state would have the right to shut down these organizations; Ali recommended this part be removed from the draft.
The second panel on the relationships of different governing bodies included Benruwin and Sanford Levinson, Harvard Law School professor. Levinson stated that separation of powers between two governing bodies creates two competitors to speak for the people. Libya would have to face the issues of pluralism and multiple political parties, which to Benruwin is a “recipe for disaster and instability.” He fears a presidential system in a nation where the people are deeply divided. How to get these people to trust each other and compromise is a huge task Libya has to take on.
Benruwin disagreed with Levinson, adamantly holding to his belief that the separation of powers is crucial to Libya’s success. To Benruwin, nations are all about compromises and full of people who disagree with one another. He wants the president and a parliament to check each other and for both to have enumerated powers. Levinson then mentioned the frequent use of the words “autonomy” and “independence” in this draft. He posed a question for the constitutional drafters: how much of these does one really want and how are these words defined? Answering these questions is necessary in order to create a successful Libyan state.
Fortune.com published this piece Wednesday under the headline “Here’s What the U.S. Can Do to Save Syria From Starvation,” but I was in Mannar, Sri Lanka without internet access until today:
Earlier this week, the international community celebrated as a UN convoy carrying food and medical supplies arrived in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya, where reliable reports and photographs of starving people emerged over past the few weeks. The Syrian government had besieged Madaya since July, since it’s a rebel-held town northeast of Damascus near the Lebanese border—an area President Bashar al Assad regards as vital to the “useful” part of Syria he seeks to control.
But Madaya isn’t alone, and it’s a small part of the problem. There are dozens of besieged towns in Syria. At least 4 million people in Syria are already dependent on humanitarian aid shipments, while another 4 million are still in need of them. The relatively fortunate are the more than 4 million who have fled the country—only a fraction of those who have any hope of making it to Europe. And a tiny fraction of that fraction constitutes the few thousand who might, after extensive screening by multiple intelligence and law enforcement agencies, make it to the United States, provided the Congress doesn’t block their requests for asylum.
No matter how big the headlines and how tragic the circumstances, Madaya is just a piece of the humanitarian problem in Syria, as are refugees trying to enter the United States. Dealing with Syria by providing humanitarian aid shipments and taking in a few thousand refugees is like trying to empty the Atlantic Ocean with a pail. Every bucketful may make you feel like you are doing something, but there is no way you are going to succeed.
The problem of Syria is above all a political problem inside of Syria. Bashar al Assad is a dictator. When his multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic people peacefully protested in 2011 for “dignity” and “freedom,” he responded with a violent army crackdown in order to preserve his own hold on power. This drove some Syrians to violent resistance, enabling him to frame his crackdown as a fight against terrorists.
The Assad regime has received ample support in the rebel fight from Iran and Russia, neither of which targets extremists. Both are more concerned with protecting Bashar al Assad from moderate rebels, as Tehran and Moscow stand to lose a vital toehold in Syria if Assad falls. Iran provides both its Revolutionary Guard Corps to train and lead Syrian security forces, as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters it controls. Russia has long provided arms and ammunition, but felt compelled to intervene with its own air forces this fall to prevent the fall of Latakia, the heartland of support for the Assad regime threatened by rebels.
Assad’s violent crackdown has driven some Syrians toward the most effective fighters against the regime, who are often (not always) Islamist extremists, including some associated with the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. The breakdown of law and order has also opened the door to what the West refers to as “foreign fighters,” attracted to Syria by the radical Islamic State. Relatively moderate rebels, who dominate parts of Central and Northern Syria, get assistance from the United States. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar have provided military support to Assad’s opponents in a far less discriminating way, leading to charges that they support extremists.
President Obama has chosen to fight the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra—both of which threaten and commit harm to Americans—but not to attack the Assad regime, which on the whole does not present a direct risk to the U.S. Washington is providing upwards of $1 billion per year (a total of $4.5 billion since the war started) in humanitarian assistance, which does little to relieve the Syrians’ plight. The total UN-estimated requirement is $7.7 billion this year alone.
That is a lot of money. But it won’t buy peace in Syria, or even relief for all of the Syrians who need it. The UN is to convene talks aimed at reaching a political settlement Jan. 25 in Geneva. The recent dust-up over Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shia cleric and Iran’s trashing of the Saudi embassy will make the talks even more difficult than they would’ve already been. But the best relief for starving Syrians and the best way to prevent more refugees from fleeing their country is a political settlement that ends Assad’s dictatorship and begins a political transition. It will happen sooner or later. The objective should be to make it happen sooner and to try to guide the process away from extremist control, which is where things will end up if the fighting continues.
On Tuesday the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW) presented a panel discussion, ‘The Saudi-Iranian Confrontation: What Lies Ahead.’ The participants considered the implications of the Saudi Arabian execution of Nimr al-Nimr, the assault on the Saudi Embassy in Iran, and the Saudi government breaking diplomatic ties with Iran. Participants included David Ottaway, a former correspondent for The Washington Post and current senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Barbara Slavin, the acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, and Randa Slim, a non-resident senior fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute. Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar of AGSIW, moderated the panel.
Ibish began the discussion asking why Saudi Arabia took the initiative to carry out the execution of a significant Shia cleric. The three panel members agreed that this was intended to be a message of strength. Ottaway said that the Saudi government believed Nimr encouraged secession, striking a regime nerve. Slim added that the execution was a message to Iran that even someone of particular importance to Shia Islam could be killed because it was in Saudi Arabia’s best domestic interest.
The attack on the Saudi Embassy by Iranian protestors in Tehran exposed a split in President Rouhani’s regime. Slavin commented that the attack showed that the Rouhani government is not in control of all aspects of the Iranian government. Slim explained that Iran looked as if it had failed to protect Shiites in Saudi Arabia, so Iranians needed a power move to demonstrate their discontent. The Saudi response to the attack on the embassy was to break diplomatic and trade ties. Though the Saudis and Iranians escalated, the panelists agreed that direct violence against one another is not an objective of either regime. Proxy wars are certainly not out of the picture, though. Ottaway interpreted the cutting of diplomatic ties as the Saudi government taking a hard-hitting approach to anyone or any ideainternal or external, that threatens their power.
Resentment between the two nations remains strong. Ottaway, in particular, expressed concern about potential accidents that could intensify the current tension. Flying over disputed airspace, resources, and inflammatory comments could all push bilateral relations past the point of repair.
The discussion ended with the panelists pondering if there could be a potential agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or if another Cold War scenario is possible. Ottaway believes that if a hot button issue, such as the agreement on a Lebanese president by both Saudi Arabia and Iran is possible, then perhaps they could work out other issues. He added that the Syrian negotiations, with both Saudi Arabia and Iran working together for the same peacekeeping goal, could result in parallel talks between the two regimes. Slim suggested that as long as Iran has a problem with Saudi Arabia, then it will have a problem reaching out to the rest of the Sunni Arab world. Slavin said Iran is looking forward to trading with its Arab neighbors, so the Tehran is more open to repairing the damage.
A question pertaining to collateral damage to the region as a whole. Slim talked about how sectarian tensions will prevent the issues of better governance and citizens’ demands from getting the attention they merit. The panelists agreed the most damage will be done to human rights in the region, with the focus on sectarian conflict increasing. No external force has the power or will to make human rights the main issue on the regional agenda. As the conflict between Iranian and Saudi regimes escalates, regional security will continue to suffer. That’s what likely lies ahead.