Regional Challenges and Opportunities: The View from Saudi Arabia and Israel

Speakers:
Anwar Eshki

Chairman, Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 

Dore Gold

President, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs 

Presider:
Elliott Abrams

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Description

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Anwar Eshki of Saudi Arabia and Ambassador Dore Gold of Israel met to discuss opportunities and challenges in the Middle East. Their speeches focused on the danger Iran posed to their countries, and they revealed that they had been in secret discussions for a year, and had now decided to go public about their talks.

Audio
Transcript

[*] ABRAMS: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm Elliott Abrams and I'll be presiding today.

Unfortunately, Ray Takeyh, my colleague here and co-presider, had to leave the country unexpectedly. So, I'm alone in doing this.

A brief introduction for our two speakers. The first speaker will be General Anwar Eshki who is chairman of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, which is a think tank in Jeddah. And he's also a member of the advisory board for the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies in Islamabad.

He had a career of 35 years in the Saudi armed forces, rising to the rank of major general, in a number of capacities during those 35 years. He was here from 1983 to 1985, here at the Saudi Embassy in Washington as an adviser to Prince Bandar who was ambassador then, and served as legal and strategic adviser to the Council of Ministers after that for 18 years.

Then Ambassador Gold will speak. Ambassador Dore Gold is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was part of the Israeli delegation at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, then Prime Minister Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser in 1996 to '97 and Israel's ambassador to the U.N., 1997 to 1999.

And we are getting him in his last few days...

GOLD: Hours.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: Hours of private life. He's about to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as director general.

So, I would ask General Eshki to...

ESHKI: Yeah.

ABRAMS: Lead off. Thank you very much.

ESHKI: Thank you. Can we sit here?

ABRAMS: You want to -- do you want to stand at the podium or sit here? It's up to you.

ESHKI: Oh, OK.

(SPEAKING IN ARABIC)

In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate, I am proud to be with you at this time. And my friends and colleagues advise me to talk in Arabic and read you the paper. This is -- I don't like it, but I have to do that now.

I know about this group before 35 years when I was here in United States. You know much about that.

I would like to talk about -- briefing about what...

ABRAMS: Go ahead and speak in Arabic.

ESHKI: Yeah?

ABRAMS: We are prepared.

ESHKI: OK.

I will talk today briefly on what is happening in the Middle East and on the developments in events. I will say first that the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies was established in 2002 to be an independent center whose concern would be to enrich decision-makers in the nongovernmental and governmental sectors with information from within the Kingdom and outside of it and with studies to achieve security and peace. 

In the last days of the Shah, I was on an official visit to Iran among students of the Saudi Command and Staff College. I found Iran to be progressing swiftly, but the aspirations of the Shah to occupy the Gulf led to his downfall. A book was released in those days exposing this plan, entitled Crash 79. Khomeini was supposed to be an alternative to the secularism of the Shah who, by dint of his Islamic disposition, was to help expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, but it was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that helped with the expulsion and downfall of the Soviet Union. And in order to protect national unity, Khomeini went ahead and held members of the American embassy as hostages. In 1982, he wanted to expel the United States from Lebanon so he blew up the embassy and Marines in Lebanon, following his decision to export the revolution, revive the Persian Empire, and expel the United States from the region. 

In 1982, I moved to Washington after completing my studies in California to work as an advisor to the Saudi ambassador. I visited the Iranian Islamic Center on Seven Locks [Road] in Potomac, MD, and I found Iranian papers and publications. I took one in which Khomeini said to confiscate all Arab and Islamic platforms, and indeed they took over the Islamic center on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington and then left it. 

In 1996, the Iranians cooperated with the Syrians to bomb the Khobar Towers, in which nineteen Americans we killed, to expel the United States from Saudi Arabia. Afterwards, terrorism took to targeting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the methods of conflict changed. After it was ideological it became economic and three blocs were formed—the American, the European, and the Asian—and it was decided that there would be a greater Middle East that includes Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan. 

Israel became isolated because it was not amenable to peace; Turkey awakened its dream to bring back its Ottoman glory; and Iran aspired to bring back its Persian glory, seize Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and overthrow Israel in order to enter the Mediterranean Sea and seize the most important straits, such as the Bab al-Mandeb, to facilitate its work. Iran’s system is essentially a mixture of democracy and theocracy. As such, all powers have been endowed in the hands of the Supreme Ruler. To reach its goals, it has employed [a policy of] destabilization in the Gulf and the Middle East and of building a nuclear bomb. As for Turkey, it is a secular democracy with an Islamic spirit, one that sought to reach its goals through culture and economic investment in Arab countries, and it has succeeded. 

When Iran wanted to reach the Bab al-Mandeb strait after it had penetrated into Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the Kingdom, along with the forces of the alliance, burst in to stop Iran, which has employed the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, for this mission. Thus, the Kingdom and the countries of the alliance embraced [Yemen’s] constitutional legitimacy as well as international legality in accordance with resolution 2216 issued by the United Nations Security Council—and everyone was surprised by this new Saudi policy. 

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has passed through three phases. [The first is] the phase of its establishment, which King Abdul Aziz assumed responsibility for and King Faisal reinforced, during which loyalty was to the leader. The second phase was the phase of stabilization, which King Fahd led, during which he laid out the system of rule, transferred loyalty from the leader to the system, and substituted nationalism in the place of pastoralism. The third phase is the phase of moving forward, which is the current phase wherein the Kingdom is moving toward positive work in the region. It has formed an alliance—which represents the change in Saudi policy—and laid down a strategic goal for the Arab world, which is Arab national security, starting with Yemen and protecting the Gulf, eliminating conflicts, and calming down matters in the Middle East. In this period, during the reign of King Salman, it will transform more into a democracy with Islamic pillars. In this phase, it has rebuilt its strategic alliance with the United States of America as well as its alliance with France, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Turkey, with friends in China, Russia, and other countries. 

On future developments: The United States will not be the foremost country in the world in the coming days for China will challenge it with its known strategic project, the Silk Road. I have participated in numerous Chinese conferences in China and Turkey to investigate this since President Hu Jintao laid down its principles. They practice the same tried-and-true method of depending on culture and economy to exert their influence from Beijing through sixty-five countries that comprise Central Asia, Eurasia, and the Rimland that the United States is pursuing. 

In the Arabian Peninsula, there is a promising oil field in the Empty Quarter [Rub’ al-Khali] that will obligate the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Yemen to cooperate to protect it and its gains. This unity will be modeled—or rather, must be modeled—on the U.S. constitution that united America and granted it its democracy. As for the promising Ogaden [oil] field in Ethiopia, it will unite the Horn of Africa under Ethiopia’s leadership. And a bridge shall be built between the African continent and the Arabian Peninsula: The Al-Noor Bridge that shall connect the city of Al-Noor in Djibouti and the city of Al-Noor in Yemen. 

All this demands a number of things: 

  1. Achieving peace between Arabs and Israel.
  2. Changing the political system in Iran.
  3. Unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
  4. Achieving peace in Yemen and revitalizing the port of Aden because this will rebalance the demographics of employment in the Gulf.
  5. Establishing an Arab force with American and European blessing to protect the countries of the Gulf as well as the Arab countries and to safeguard stability.
  6. The speedy establishment of the foundations of democracy with Islamic principles in the Arab world.
  7. Working toward the creation of a greater Kurdistan in peaceful ways as this will weaken Iranian, Turkish, and Iraqi ambitions and would split up a third of each of these countries in favor of Kurdistan. 

I hope for success and peace in the Middle East. May the peace, mercy, and blessings of God be upon you.

(APPLAUSE)

ABRAMS: Thank you, General.

ESHKI: Thank you.

ABRAMS: Ambassador Gold?

GOLD: Well, first of all, I'd like to thank Elliott Abrams and the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting us today.

I also want to point out that I did not just come here alone from Israel. I have two very important colleagues with me, Brigadier General Dr. Shimon Shapira, the leading expert as far as I'm concerned in Israel on the subject of Hezbollah, and Dr. Colonel Jacques Neriah, who has for years served the Israeli government with his knowledge of the Middle East, and has made our discussions workable in many respects.

Our standing today on this stage does not mean that we have resolved all the differences that our countries have shared over the years. But we hope we'll be able to address them fully in the period ahead.

We have been meeting in our capacity as heads of two research institutes, one from Saudi Arabia and one from Israel. At the core of our discussions has been a powerful sense that whatever our past disagreements, today our two states are facing the same set of security challenges.

Our interests increasingly overlap. These security challenges that I'm speaking about primarily emanate from the same single source, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tehran has demonstrated extraordinary skill in the last number of years in fanning the flames of sectarian conflict in the Arab world and then in exploiting the resulting chaos or fouda which they themselves create in order to expand their control across the Middle East. They have launched what looks unmistakably as a war of expansionism.

Over the last six months, while the debate over the impending nuclear agreement between the P-5-plus-1 and Iran has transpired, this dimension of the Iranian challenge has become increasingly apparent to us in the Middle East.

And, by the way, the Iranian leadership doesn't even try and hide what they're doing. That famous statement that we all can quote when we write our op-eds and articles, that three Arab capitals have already fallen in Iran's hands, was not made up by some analyst sitting in Washington or London. It was a statement made by a member of the Iranian parliament, Alireza Zakani, who happens to be very close to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

General Eshki has presented in his remarks the main features of this new wave of expansionism in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, and in his sector of the Middle East. In Israel's sector of the Middle East, Iranian activism has recently acquired a new intensity in multiple ways.

To begin with, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, along with their Hezbollah allies, are seeking to open an entirely new front against Israel from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

Appearing on Fox News on April 13th, 2015, King Abdullah of Jordan acknowledged that Iranian forces are just beyond the Syrian-Jordanian border. It is no wonder that the infamous General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, declared not long ago that Iran can control events in Jordan the way it controls events in Lebanon and in Iraq. The Iranian Embassy in Amman denied the quote, but it is understood by us to be accurate.

Second, we are also witnessing a new determination of Tehran to significantly -- significantly -- upgrade the level of armaments destined for Hezbollah. Iran is pouring large amounts of these arms into selective combat zones in the Middle East.

The qualitative upgrade of these weapons is reflective of a huge leap forward the Iranian defense industries have taken in recent years but hasn't been paid attention to. Thus, Hezbollah rocket forces, which are substantial in Lebanon, are being given new precision-guided capabilities which will allow them to have a far more devastating impact on Israel should there be newer -- a new round of warfare between the two sides. This same precision-guided rocketry has been introduced already by the Iranians in the battlefield of Iraq.

Iran also seeks to equip Hezbollah with state-of-the-art Russian military equipment taken from the Syrian inventory, like the SA-22 anti-aircraft system and the Yakhont, a shore-to-ship missile -- it's a shore-to-ship advanced cruise missile -- that can be used against the Israeli Navy or against the Israeli gas platforms in the Mediterranean Sea.

Since the end of Operation Protective Edge, Iran has been working to restore its relations with Hamas that were damaged in the last number of years in the Gaza Strip.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly called for the arming of Hamas cells in the West Bank so they can strike at Israel. What did he say? "The West Bank should be armed like Gaza."

The scale of the current Iranian effort across the region led the former editor in chief of Asharq al-Awsat, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, to write recently in that newspaper, quote, "Iran is currently in an offensive state, the likes of which we have not seen in modern history."

Yet we have a nuclear negotiation under way. Israelis and their Sunni Arab partners have already commented on the impending nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that was reached in Lausanne, Switzerland. Israelis and their Arab neighbors have said that the nuclear deal as currently configured will leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and make it into a nuclear weapons threshold state.

But today we're raising another question. We're not just going to speak yet again about centrifuges and yet again about the aspects of the Iranian nuclear program.

What about Iran's regional activism that I just gave you at the -- a very short taste of? How is that linked to nuclear diplomacy?

Clearly an Iranian deal that removes sanctions and feeds an unreformed Iranian leadership with over a hundred billion dollars is extremely dangerous. It is dangerous to Israel, and it is dangerous to Saudi Arabia.

But there's another link between the two subjects. What does all this regional aggression tell us about Iran? What it tells us is -- or what it demonstrates is how Tehran seeks to become the hegemonial power in the Middle East.

But if that is the true goal of Iranian policy, then what are the chances that Tehran will adhere to a new nuclear agreement and will not choose to break out and rush to an atomic bomb? What are the chances that Iran won't replicate the North Korean model?

In my view, if they truly want to be a hegemonial power in the Middle East, the chances that they won't rush to a nuclear bomb are virtually nil.

Speaking about the dangers of the region also require me to perhaps ponder for a moment and share with you a reflection that there may be a silver lining amidst the concerns we all have. The silver lining is that perhaps countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia in the future can cooperate.

You know, in the 1990s, in the sort of high point of the Oslo years, it was oftentimes written that Israel and the Arab states have to replicate what the -- what happened in Europe after World War II, that they should create economic interdependence, and by so doing -- by so doing, they would set the stage for a much greater peace in the future.

I remember 1994, 1995, there were huge economic conferences, Casablanca, Morocco. But the reaction to those conferences in the Arab world were not, oh, now we'll embrace Israel. Actually, they stimulated a certain amount of fear of what would be Israel's role in the region.

I have always believed that the success of the European Economic Union to work together was not just based on a coal and steel community and selling Peugeots to people who produce Volkswagens. The reason why countries that were former adversaries drew together was because they faced a common challenge, a common threat. And of course under American leadership, NATO was formed, and the Franco-German border changed forever.

It's possible, it's still very early and maybe this is me looking too far into the future. That is, we face the challenges that both our countries face in the Red Sea, in the Mediterranean, in the areas surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. We will also learn to cooperate and we'll learn to solve the hard diplomatic problems that, up until now, we haven't managed to resolve.

And that's why I said there's a silver lining amidst all of the difficulties one can easy point out if you're an Israeli or you're a Saudi or you come from any of the Middle Eastern countries.

So, let me say this is just a -- a first step of two research institutes. We don't represent governments. But I hope that in the future, this first step leads to a great deal more.

And may I say personally, General Eshki, working with you over the last year has been a great honor and a great pleasure, and I hope we learn how to follow this up.

Thank you, Elliott.

ABRAMS: Thank you, thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

Thanks very much. Ambassador Gold is going from here to Dulles to catch a flight to Europe and be home before Shabbat, so we will -- we were not going to have a Q&A session. We apologize to those of the press who were hoping for that.

But I wanted to thank you for being here today, and ask you to join me in thanking General Eshki and Ambassador Gold for being with us.

(APPLAUSE)

Thank you.

GOLD: OK?

ESHKI: OK, thank you very much.

END

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