Iran’s Fars News Agency asked me some good questions. Parts of the interview were included in this article, but parts were also cut, as one might expect. I am publishing here the full text, which I hope will find its way into print also in Iran:
Q: What is your opinion about Iran’s plan to resolve the Syria tension?
A: As I understand Iran’s “plan,” it involves 1) a ceasefire, 2) formation of a national unity government, 3) a rewritten constitution and 4) national elections. This is an outline many can accept, even if some might quarrel with the order.
But “the devil is in the details” we say in English:
1) How does the ceasefire come about? Who monitors and enforces it? What sanctions are there against those who violate it? What if some armed groups refuse to participate in it?
2) Who participates in the national unity government? Does Bashar al Assad step aside or remain as president? How is the security of opposition people participating in a national unity government ensured?
3) Who rewrites the constitution? Within what guidelines? How is a new constitution approved?
4) Who calls elections? Who supervises them? Who ensures a safe and secure environment for the campaign as well as the elections? Who counts the votes?
I suspect there will be many more differences over these questions than over the four-point “plan.”
Q: The UK recently announced that the conflict in Syria will not be resolved unless Russia and Iran use their influence on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to help reach a political solution. What do these signals mean?
A: I’m not sure what the UK meant. It is certainly the consensus in Europe and the US that there is no political solution in Syria if Bashar al Assad insists on staying in power. His opposition won’t stop fighting as long as he is there. Iranian and Russian support enables him to remain. I see no sign that either Moscow or Tehran is prepared to risk losing their influence in a post-Assad Syria, which will surely resent the enormous support they have provided him.
Q: What are Turkey’s roles in Syria and the region? Do you confirm its policy in the Middle East?
A: Turkey has four main interests in Syria: it wants Bashar al Assad gone, it wants Kurds in Iraq and Syria to stop supporting the Kurdish rebellion in Turkey, it wants defeat of the Islamic State, and it wants Syrian refugees to return to Syria. The proposed “safe zone” in northern Syria and the Turkish attacks on the Kurds and Islamic State aim to achieve all four objectives, though success is still a long way off.
Q: We know that Turkey had zero foreign policy sometime and it had gains some achievements but today it has taken distance from that. What were and are their problems?
A: As noted above, it has problems with Bashar al Assad, with the Kurds, with the Islamic State and with refugees.
Q: Why is the west silent on Turkey’s support for Daesh?
A: The West has longed implored Turkey to close its border to Daesh fighters and supplies. They have tightened up a lot since ISIS attacked inside Turkey.
It is a figment of Tehran’s imagination that the West is silent. Or maybe a creation of Iran’s propagandists. One of the things most resented in the West is Iran’s implication that the West is not really opposed to Daesh. Nonsense is the polite word we use for that allegation.
Q: Has the US-led coalition succeeded against Daesh?
A: No, but it has had some successes, taking back about one-quarter of the territory Daesh once controlled, depriving it of some of its revenue and killing quite a few of its commanders.
That one-quarter is mostly Kurdish-populated territory. Taking back Sunni-populated territory, especially in Iraq, is proving far more difficult.
Q: How can Muslim countries across the region led by Iran stand against Daesh?
A: The Sunni Muslim countries of the region don’t want to be led by Iran. They are fighting Daesh, but as part of a Western-led Coalition. Iran is also fighting Daesh, but coordination is difficult so long as Iran fails to distinguish between Daesh and more moderate Syrian fighters. From the Western and I think Arab perspectives, it looks like Iran is fighting to defend Assad for sectarian reasons more than it is fighting Daesh.
Q: Let’s go to Iraq. How do you evaluate the ongoing Iran/ Iraq relation? What about the future?
A: Iran has supported Iraq’s response to Daesh quickly and effectively, fearing Daesh success in Iraq would mean trouble sooner or later also for Iran.
But it has used the opportunity in particular to support Shia militias (Hashd, Popular Mobilization Units). That is a mistake, because it exacerbates sectarian tensions in Iraq and increases the likelihood of a breakup of the Iraqi state that Tehran says it does not want.
It seems to me that a strong but non-threatening and unified Iraq is what Iran should be aiming for. I don’t see it doing that at present. Instead the IRGC is pursuing a less wise policy of arming and otherwise supporting sectarian forces that will make keeping the Iraqi state together very difficult.
Q: What is your opinion about latest Russia military developments and build up in some parts of Europe and the Arctic? I do not mean Ukraine at all.
A: The Russians have legitimate interests in the Arctic. But past experience suggests they will try to bite off more than they can chew. They are already overextended in Ukraine and the Middle East. Putin has strong domestic political support, but he lacks the money and military capacity to sustain his aggressive foreign policy.
Q: And thank you for your participating. Could you please explain about Iran/West relations after the deal?
A: I don’t see Iran/West relations much changed, except for the prospect of much greater trade and investment, especially between Europe and Iran, once sanctions are lifted. But Iranian authorities have reiterated their hostility to the United States, which always gets a lot of coverage here.
Washington doesn’t care much about that but wants Iran to stop threatening Israel’s existence and subverting Gulf neighbors through a highly sectarian policy of supporting Shia forces (sometimes political, sometimes military), especially in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon and Kuwait. Iran and the US share an interest in defeating Daesh, but active cooperation on that requires that Iran stop subversion of American friends and allies in the region. As we know only too well, subversion breeds resentment, not influence.
Kuwait University Professor Abdullah al Shayji published Sunday his latest Gulf News commentary criticizing the Iran nuclear deal. I’ve written him this note in response:
I certainly understand your concern about Iranian subversion and terrorism in Bahrain and Kuwait. Your police and prosecution have done well to identify perpetrators of the latest incident and bring them to court quickly for what I trust will be a fair trial.
But I find your position on the nuclear deal ill-founded. Let me innumerate the reasons why, in response to points you make in this piece:
1. You can hardly say it was done behind your backs. We’ve all known about these negotiations for more than two years, and the basic parameters of the deal were made public in April. I don’t know what diplomatic exchanges there were prior to that, but I’d be willing to bet they happened.
2. Your concern about Iran being only 6 to 12 months from a nuclear weapon 15 years from now ignores the fact that Iran was closer than that (3 months according to the Americans) before the April interim agreement. It makes no sense to be more concerned about something that might happen 15 years from now rather than something that had already happened, and is now being reversed.
3. I would join you in hoping the Administration will calm Gulf jitters, but I would also suggest that the Gulf states need to cooperate more in order to counter Iran militarily in the region and through vigorous law enforcement at home. The failure of the GCC to get serious about integrating its capabilities and collaborating seriously, especially in Syria, is a source of considerable disappointment in Washington.
4. You suggest that Gulf jitters could lead to a nuclear arms race. Rapid Iranian progress on nuclear technology over the last decade and more did not, so it is hard to understand how a roll-back of their program and a 15-year freeze on many of its efforts should. Iran was severely punished with sanctions for its nuclear ambitions. I doubt any Gulf state would want to run a comparable risk, especially now that Iran is losing much of what it had gained.
5. The lifting of sanctions is a necessary part of the agreement, but I agree with you that it will provide Tehran with ample resources to make more trouble in the region. That was going to happen anyway, as the multilateral sanctions were slowly decaying and would likely have evaporated if an agreement had not been reached.
President Obama has made it clear he is not relying on moderation of Iranian behavior on non-nuclear issues and is prepared to counter them when and where he can. Those in the Gulf concerned about Iranian behavior might worry more about how to do that more effectively and less about their past disappointments. Some specific proposals are in order.
On Wednesday, the Conflict Management Program at SAIS and MEI hosted a talk entitled After the Deal: A Veteran Journalist’s View from Tehran. Speakers included Roy Gutman, McClatchy Middle East bureau chief, and Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief for Al-Hayat. Daniel Serwer of both SAIS and MEI moderated. Both speakers emphasized the dynamics that caused regional players to be wary of Iran.
Early last Spring, Gutman traveled to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
In Israel, he observed that the major national security concern wasn’t the Iranian nuclear program, but rather Iran’s conventional threat through the buildup of Hezbollah forces. Israelis were disappointed that the US was leaving a security vacuum in Syria for Iran to fill. The Israeli position on the Iran deal is difficult to understand; Israeli politicians oppose it, but Israel’s foreign policy elite considers Iranian conventional forces a larger threat.
Jordanian officials also worried about regional chaos and Iranian influence. They were baffled by the half-hearted US response to Assad, as well as its airstrike-only response to ISIS.
Egypt is preoccupied by terrorism and the upheaval in Libya, but Egyptian officials are also concerned about Iran’s growing influence and US inaction.
Officials in every government (aside from Turkey’s) spoke of collusion between Turkey and extremists. The Turks think the Iranians know that the US is not a determined counterpart. They believe the US is appeasing Iran.
Gutman then traveled to Tehran to gauge the mood there. Iran has come in from the cold after 36 years, but Tehran resents the last 36 years of US policy. Change in Iran won’t happen fast. Khamenei has said that Iran’s policy towards the “arrogant” US government won’t change and that Iran will keep supporting its regional allies.
Israel views Hezbollah’s buildup as a direct threat, but Iranian officials told Gutman that the Tehran holds the trigger on Hezbollah’s weapons and won’t pull it unless Israel threatens Lebanon or Iran. However, a former Iranian diplomat admitted that Iran has no vital interest in Lebanon or the Palestinians. Iran also appears to have no vital interest in Yemen, but likes seeing Saudi Arabia embroiled in an unwinnable war. Iran is unalterably opposed to the breakup of Iraq into three states.
Iranian officials don’t think the deal is perfect, but still see it as a win-win for both sides. They view themselves as MENA’s most powerful and stable state. They are glad that US has accepted them as a regional player and negotiating partner.
After the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Iran filled the vacuum. The Iraqi Army collapsed on Iran’s watch. Iran does not acknowledge its responsibility for this and ascribes the rise of ISIS to others. They also believe that foreign forces fought in Deraa and refused to acknowledge Assad’s role in fomenting terrorism by releasing terrorists from prison. Iranian officials also stated that all sectors of Lebanese society back Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria. Iran needs a reality check.
Iran opposes the creation of a safe zone/no-fly zone in Iraq and has threatened to send basijis into Syria if this happens. Iranians don’t understand the scope of Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe or Iran’s role in it. There are too many disagreements between the US and Iran to form a regional security agreement now. The US needs a policy for Syria; if we don’t have a policy, others will fill the vacuum. The US also needs an official version of what happened in Syria to counter the Iranian invented view of history.
Karam noted that the Arab response to the deal is less monolithic than Israel’s, but the GCC and Israel view Iran’s regional behavior similarly. The UAE, Oman, and Turkey quickly welcomed the deal because they have good trade relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar were more cautious. The Saudis don’t view the deal as US abandonment, but they fear increased Iranian regional meddling. Arab public opinion has shifted drastically since 2008, when 80% of Arabs viewed Iran positively. Now only 12% do. The Arab street is suspicious of the deal. The US explained the deal to Arab governments, but not to their people. The Arab street wonders whether the money Iran will gain from sanctions relief will go to funding Iranian students, or to Qassem Suleimani and more chlorine gas, barrel bombs, and Hezbollah fighters for Assad. Assad is a costly budget item for Iran. When will Iran realize that Assad can’t win? Nevertheless, Hezbollah keeps getting more involved in Syria.
Karam stated that the Gulf countries obtain commitments from the US at talks like Camp David, but then nothing gets done. The US is four years behind on Syria and needs an official policy.
Serwer noted in conclusion that the regional issues would be far worse if Iran had, or were about to get, nuclear weapons.
Al-Monitor and Johns Hopkins SAIS teamed up last week for a full-day conference on “The United States, Russia and the Middle East”. The afternoon session had a panel on the Syrian regional crisis, which moderator David Sanger of The New York Times described as not the typical panel in Washington, with everyone getting along.
Josh Landis, Director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, said the US is now mostly concerned with the al-Qaeda presence in Syria and the refugee problem affecting Syria’s neighboring countries. Inside Syria there are no good guys. The military cannot be a substitute for Assad. The idea that the military and Ba’th Party can stay in power if Assad is removed is fictional. These institutions are expressions of Assad. If there is no plan to remove Assad then the civil war inside Syria is going to continue. The only two alternatives for Syria would be either to partition the country or to allow Russia to support Assad with arms in order to regain control of the country. Neither option is good for the rebels. Read more
Yesterday was Gulf day. I spent part of the morning reading Christopher Davidson, who thinks the Gulf monarchies are headed for collapse due to internal challenges, their need for Western support, Iran’s growing power and their own disunity. Then I turned to Greg Gause, who attributes their resilience to the oil-greased coalitions and external networks they have created to support their rule. He predicts their survival.
At lunch I ambled across the way to CSIS’s new mansion to hear Abdullah al Shayji, chair of political science at Kuwait University and unofficial Gulf spokeperson, who was much exorcised over America’s response to Iran’s “charm offensive,” which he said could not have come at a worse time. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was already at odds with the US. The Gulf was not warned or consulted about the phone call between Iranian President Rouhani and President Obama. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to occupy the UN Security Council seat it fought hard to get was a signal of displeasure. The divergences between the GCC and the US range across the Middle East: Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine, in addition to Iran.
On top of this, US oil and gas production is increasing. China is now a bigger oil importer than the US and gets a lot more of its supplies from the Gulf. Washington is increasingly seen as dysfunctional because of its partisan bickering. Its budget problems seem insoluble. American credibility is declining. The Gulf views the US as unreliable. Read more
Those who follow Egypt these days are discombobulated. Its military-backed government is forging ahead to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from existence, never mind political participation. It wants to make all Islamist parties illegal. The Brotherhood is uncompromising. Former revolutionaries are touting what looked like a coup as “popular impeachment.” Secular democrats who don’t buy that are under increasing pressure.
The frequent answer to these developments is to cut off American military aid, sending a signal to the Egyptian military that the US will not tolerate its excesses and to the broader Islamic world that Washington is not willing to sacrifice democracy on the alter of security. Many of my friends in Washington believe we should have done this long ago, though they fail to put forward a serious plan for what happens next.
The latest call for an aid cut-off is more nuanced, long-term and sophisticated. Shadi Hamid and Peter Mandaville recognize that unilateral US action in the absence of a broader political and diplomatic strategy will not work. They argue instead that the US should prioritize democracy rather than security: Read more