Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council
Senior Resident Scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute
Associate Fellow, Chatham House
Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Columnist, "The Fact Checker," Washington Post
Panelists address Iran's influence in Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf and offer ideas on how to counter Tehran's efforts.
This is Session I of The Future of the Middle East symposium. This event is made possible by the generous support of the Hauser Foundation.
COOK: So this is what this is like. I’ve been looking at this for—(laughter)—great.
Good morning. Welcome to the Hauser Symposium. I’m Steven Cook. I’m just going—I’m here to welcome you again this morning, to point out once again for those of you who were unable to join us last night that there’s been some changes in the program with changes in the world situation. General Votel and a number of his staff won’t be here, although after the president’s tweet at 6:15 this morning maybe they wish they were back here. In any event, we’re looking forward to an extraordinarily rich discussion about the Middle East and the Central region today.
Just a reminder to please silence your cellphones. And, with that I’ll hand it over to Glenn Kessler, who’s going to moderate our first session on “The Iran Fault Line.” Thanks so much.
KESSLER: Welcome to the first session of today’s Council on Foreign Relations Symposium on the Future of the Middle East. This session is called “The Iran Fault Line.” I’m Glenn Kessler with The Washington Post, and I will be presiding over this discussion.
Fifteen years after the United States invaded Iraq, the pieces of the Mideast chessboard are often not moved by the United States but by the ascendant Islamic Republic of Iran. No matter where you look, Iran is there. The regime backs Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, stokes the war on Yemen, and is a key backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Lebanese Shia militia on occasion threatens Israel with its missiles, but the conflict in Syria also increasingly runs the risk of turning into a regional war that pits Israel versus Iran.
Now, some Obama administration officials had quietly voiced a hope that the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would encourage Iran to be a less aggressive player in the region, but instead there is increasing evidence that Iran has used the money it gained from the relief of sanctions to further its regional ambitions. We have here a distinguished panel to discuss Iran’s influence in Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf, and offer ideas on how to counter Tehran’s efforts.
I’d like to start by asking each of you for a brief overview of where we stand today. And to frame the discussion, I have a simple question: What does Iran want in the region? And how are states in the region responding to Iran? Let’s start with Ray.
TAKEYH: Oh, thank you. (Laughter.) Thanks.
What does Iran want in the region? I think, like most sort of ideological entities, Iran’s foreign policy is motivated by a combination of practical interests and ideological aspirations. And as it seeks to project this power in the different places in the Middle East, some of that imperial surge makes sense, some of it doesn’t.
I think what the Iranians are doing in Iraq makes a lot of sense. It’s a country that’s next door. They have had a tense relationship over the years. There is close balance of commerce and religious pilgrimage and so forth.
I think what is happening in Levant makes less strategic sense, to have sort of a Mediterranean outpost. But when you’re an ideological state, you kind of try to fill the vacuums as you find them. This is sort of similar to the Soviet policy’s expansion in Africa of the 1970s. It satisfied a certain imperial itch, but it didn’t really make strategic sense.
And now, increasingly, what is taking place is the country is suffering from imperial overstretch. The country’s—the regime’s policy, certainly toward a Syrian civil war but elsewhere, is deeply unpopular at home. It is draining resources that it can ill-afford, and is becoming—what was supposed to be a means of rejuvenating the regime’s legitimacy is actually beginning to tarnish, if not undermine it altogether.
How are the regional states responding to this policy? Others can speak about this more authoritatively than I can. With a measure of incoherence and improvisation, which is not unusual. And increasingly, you’re beginning to see the region being polarized along sectarian lines, which deepens the conflicts and the civil strife throughout the region.
The contest for power between contending blocs in the Middle East is neither new nor surprising. That’s been the history of the region that continually divides against itself. But these divisions today I think are going to last longer for a number of reasons.
Number one, they tend to be more ideologically—more sectarian-based as opposed to ideological.
Number two, external mediation and powers who would tranquilize these disputes are not entirely interested in doing so. The Arab Cold War ended because of the Americans picking sides and so forth.
So I don’t know how this ends, to answer the question how does this end, but I think it’s probably a very prolonged and protracted conflict that will drain the resources of the region from its more compelling challenges, I think.
KESSLER: Well, that’s—so, Karen, drill a little deeper down into the Gulf states. How—
YOUNG: Sure. And I think when we talk about how the Sunni Arab states react to Iran or see Iran’s—or perceive threat of Iran in the region, there really is a variance among these states.
So, you know, on three that have more, I would say, friendly relations, of course, Oman—there are good trade ties between Oman and Iran. There was, of course, the Omani effort in the JCPOA negotiations. And there’s meant to be a new pipeline between Oman and Iran. So, you know, there’s an interest, certainly, there to maintain good relations, and certainly not to have a regional confrontation with Iran.
The same could be said in some ways for the Kuwaitis and certainly for the Qataris, who share, you know, a massive gas field with Iran. Because of the embargo of Qatar, they’ve been pushed to have stronger trade ties. But this is mostly tomatoes and cucumbers; it’s not really major things other than foodstuffs. But at the same time, it plays into the quartet—the Saudis, the Bahrainis, the Emiratis, and the Egyptians—efforts to kind of sideline and corner Qatar this way.
But when we look at states like Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, there is, of course, a more vocal opposition to what they see as Iranian influence in the region and meddling into domestic politics of Arab states in general, not just the Gulf, particularly in Yemen. For the Bahrainis, this is an element of immediate regime stability. But I think if you spoke with most kind of Shia dissidents inside of Bahrain, they would consider themselves Bahrainis, not Iranians, right? So this is a bit of a tension as well.
In the UAE it’s perhaps most complicated because there have traditionally been very, very good economic ties between Iran and the UAE, and the UAE serves as a place of re-export for products to Iran. And this kind of plays out in domestic policies and divisions, of course, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The Saudi position, I think, is most difficult because the Saudis see Iran as a number one threat, though I don’t think that the Iranians see Saudi Arabia in the same way. Saudi Arabia is not such a direct threat to Iran. And Saudi Arabia, I think, is in some ways using Iran as a foil for, you know, here’s the possibility, here’s the threat—the external threat. Of course there is the real territorial threat of, you know, the missile launches coming from Yemen, which the technology and the equipment is Iranian. But the kind of ideological issues which you mentioned are much deeper. And, you know, we can go on about that, I think, a bit later. But the perception of, you know, what is the real risk of Iran in the region for Saudi Arabia sometimes has more to do with domestic politics than other things.
KESSLER: It’s fascinating.
Faysal, Syria, of course, is kind of ground zero at the moment here in many ways, with many actors demanding a piece of it. How do you see Iranian influence playing out in the endgame for Syria?
ITANI: So this has been a long-term historic project for the Iranians in the Levant, and it’s rooted originally in their religious links to the Shia in Lebanon and to their perception of Israel and the conflict with Israel. That’s where Hezbollah came from. That’s where this conflict, as far as the Iranians are concerned in Syria, came from. They saw an instability in Damascus and they calculated that, rightly I think, if there is a government in Damascus that’s hostile to Lebanese parties, the history has shown us that the don’t survive for very long. So—the parties, not the government. So they came in and they wanted to eliminate that uncertainty. Everything else that’s happened in terms of their embedding themselves in economic and political and security institutions, that happened as part of the effort to protect Assad, and therefore to protect Hezbollah. But that’s created new equities for the Iranians.
And one of those equities is they now have a new front line or line of defense, depending how you perceive the Iranian posture, along the border with Israel. They cannot do in Syria exactly what they did in Lebanon with Hezbollah for—not least because there are not very many Shia in Syria. So they’re operating in a slightly different environment. They have more direct military assets in terms of militias and things of that sort. And they have obviously a close partner in the regime, although a much weakened one. But they don’t have the same social fabric that they have in Lebanon, where they became a mighty cultural, and social, and political force.
KESSLER: Right. So do you—and what are the prospects for, like, Syria being the—like, essentially becoming a proxy war between Israel and Iran?
ITANI: There’s, as I understand it, two schools of thought in Israel about what to do about this problem. There’s the school of thought that tells you: Let’s hit them now, and degrade them, because the longer we wait the more difficult and costly this problem is going to become, and eventually there’ll be some sort of collision. And I think eventually there will be. And the other school of thought is: We can manage this problem strategically like we managed the problem with Hezbollah and—through deterrence, largely—periodic war and deterrence. Of course, the problem is for the Israelis that it took many decades to reach this formula with Hezbollah. And a lot of people died, and the Israelis also paid a high price.
Syria is a much more fluid environment than Lebanon is right now. And they really haven’t formed their own red lines vis-à-vis the Iranians. And we don’t even know what’s going to happen to that patch of territory in southern Syria that borders Israel. We don’t know who’s going to control it. It’s now under some sort of vague de-escalation zone that really is only there because the regime doesn’t have time to fight it yet. But eventually the war is going to go there. And I think that’s when the question—the answer to your question will be a little clearer.
KESSLER: Right. Thank you.
Nussaibah, it was almost—actually it was 15 years ago I actually wrote an article on the Front Page of The Washington Post which had a headline: U.S. Surprised by Strength of Shiites in Iraq. (Laughter.) Which—and it talked about how U.S. officials hadn’t really understood the Shiites were in Iraq. And they were worried that this would reach the rise of a, you know, Iranian-linked state that they hadn’t anticipated when they launched the invasion. So explain to us where things stand with Iraq 15 years after the war, and what Iran’s influence is going forward.
YOUNIS: Yeah. Well, I would certainly decouple those two things, just to start off with. I think that the strength of Iraq’s Shia population, just demographically. Does not necessarily mean that Iran had a strategic advantage in the country. What you saw prior to the American invasion was a long period of great animosity between Iran and Iraq. And so there was no reason why the Shia population in Iraq should have been predisposed towards receiving Iranian influence any more than they were to receiving U.S. influence. So to give you an idea of what Iran’s strategic objectives are in Iraq, I think there are three main objectives.
Number one is to ensure that Iraq is never again in a position to be able to seriously threaten the security of Iran. Iraq is a major neighboring power. It has tremendous resources. And in many ways the foundational narrative of the Islamic Republic in—of the Islamic State in Iran—shouldn’t call it the Islamic State. But the foundational narrative is built around the suffering and the extraordinary destruction caused by the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. It happened very soon after the Islamic Revolution, just as the revolutionary government was getting on its feet. It galvanized the population behind the new form of government. And it’s very deeply interwoven into the myths around the state and the survival of the state, in the face of the threat posed by Iraq, and the entire world supporting Iraq in that effort.
So number one, make sure that Iraq is never able to threaten Iran in the way that it has done previously. Number two, is to make sure that Iraq is not able to act as a staging post for international pressure. International pressure, but also for international military action against Iran. So of course, when the U.S. invasion happened in 2003, there was a great deal of anxiety, particularly because President Bush at the time was talking about the axis of evil and Iran being next. There was a great deal anxiety that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq would give the United States and its allies strategic depth in the region on the border with Iran and would make an attack on Iran much easier. And that anxiety has not gone away, certainly not with this president. So there’s—so the second objective is to make sure that Iraq is hostile to international powers, should they see to use Iraqi territory to attack Iran.
And the third objective is to reverse that. Is for the Iranians to be able to use Iraq as a point of strategic leverage in the region and internationally. So to be able to exercise sufficient political leverage and also military leverage in the country so that they are able to project power through Iraq into the region, and so that they have a pressure point that they can use in international politics. And I think they have achieved some substantial success in all three of these objectives. And the question is, how? And I think it’s instructive for the United States to really pay attention to how the Iranians have been able to succeed in these—in these three areas, because it’s not a question of resources.
We outspend the Iranians by an absolutely enormous margin. This is not a resource issue. It’s about aligning very clear strategic objectives with the resources that are then put behind them. And it’s a funny thing to say, because we often think about the Iranians in a very militarized way, but their success in Iraq is all about incredibly intensive and effective diplomacy. What they have done in the country over the last 15 years is they have systematically built deep-rooted relationships across the political spectrum, even with actors who are—have a natural predisposition to opposing them.
And they’ve developed a deep understanding of the drivers, of the motivators of these actors, of their weak points. And they have understood how to exercise leverage over all of these actors, so that when they need to help things politically in one direction or another they know how to stack up the cards in the Iraqi parliament, in the Iraqi military, through the political system, to achieve their objectives at an incredibly low cost. And I think our mismatch here in the U.S., in the West, the mismatch between the tremendous resources that we put in and the kind of incoherent and inconsistent political strategy that we then pursue alongside that. I think we have a couple of lessons to really learn from the Iranians there.
KESSLER: That’s interesting. Now, in the last year, the Saudi crown prince, MBS, had endeavored to try to improve relations with Iraq, in part, I assume, to counter this influence that you just outlined. How effective has that been?
YOUNIS: Yeah. So I think one of the things that’s really interesting about the Saudi rapprochement with Iraq is that the Obama administration begged the Saudis to reengage. You know, we’ve had a pretty long history now of the U.S. administration asking Saudi to take a lead in Gulf reengagement with Iraq. And for years and years, it’s fallen on deaf ears. The Saudis had absolutely no interest in engaging, especially during the Obama administration. And that was because during the Obama administration the Saudis really believed that the United States had given up on Iraq and had—and had decided that the Iranians were going to be allowed tremendous influence over that area, and that the Saudis alone wouldn’t be able to affect that balance of power.
So, for the Saudis, they said: Why should we engage in a country that’s already a patron of Iran? You want us to develop economic ties. We’re going to be strengthening an Iranian proxy. And you’re not going to support us, you’re not going to work with us to try and bring Iraq out of the pro-Iranian axis. And that changed when President Trump came to power. The Saudis saw—and this does not just apply to Iraq—but the Saudis saw an opportunity to push back against Iranian influence in the region. And Iraq was seen as a bright point at which maybe, if the Saudis pursued a positive relationship there, they felt they could count on this administration to help them push through that strategic advantage to create a somewhat more balanced set of relationships between Iraq and the regional powers.
So that opening, that confidence that the Saudis have had in the Trump administration’s willingness to push back on Iranian power, really enabled the opening up of relations between Saudi and Iraq. But just a note of caution: Although there are all these wonderful headlines about flights between Saudi and Iraq, and football matches, and the Saudis are buildings a lovely stadium, a lot of it is fluff. I mean, the Saudis have barely a presence in the country. They don’t really have relationships. They don’t have anything like the depth of understanding, of knowledge, of networks that the Iranians have. And it’s going to take them a very long time to be able to compete with the Iranians in Iraq. And the Saudis elsewhere in the region, I mean, have shown very little—very little in the way of ability—(laughs)—in achieving these kinds of—these kinds of intensive relationships. This is not their natural way of operating. It’s not something they’ve started doing yet in Iraq. So they have a very long way to go before they’re really effectively competing.
KESSLER: Thank you. You know, it’s hard sometimes to discern what the Trump administration’s strategy is in the region. You just indicated that there was an opening created by President Trump’s relationship with the Saudis and his anti-Iran animus. What would be the impact in the region of, A—well, first of all, it seems pretty clear the United States is going to pull out of the Iranian nuclear agreement when it comes up for renewal. And, you know, the new National Security Advisor John Bolton, he’s not been shy about advocating a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. So what would be the impact of those moves by the United States on the region?
I’ll turn it to Ray first.
TAKEYH: Sure. First of all, I’m not sure. I mean, I should say, I don’t know if the United States will abrogate the JCPOA. I just don’t know. Certainly, I think the tea leaves are as you suggest they are. And there are a lot of discussions back and forth between the administration and the Europeans about how much the Europeans are willing to offer in terms of meeting the president’s benchmarks, which I think he set up in January when his last renewal of the waivers was up. So, I mean, I don’t know how far those conversations will go.
In terms of—the theme of the day in much of Washington—and it’s been the theme of the day for a while—is to push back on Iran in the region. Pushing back on Iran in the region is costly. It essentially means draining Iranian power in the Syrian civil war, which another way of saying, prolonging the Syrian civil war. It means aiding and enabling the Saudi efforts in Yemen. It means being more of a material player, as was suggested, in Iraq in exchange for lessening of Iranian presence. So it was more of a bargain with the Iraqi political actors.
So in essence, means the United States becomes a participant in the ongoing cold war in the region. It takes sides. That’s what pushing back on Iran means. If you’re not prepared for that, then you should dispense with the slogan. And too many people talk about we’re going to push back on Iran, well, we’re not going to do that. Pushing back on Iran also means, in some ways, abrogating the JCPOA, because it essentially complicates Iran’s domestic economic situation, polarizes its politics, and undermines the incumbent government. That’s what pushing back on Iran means, and much more.
I can understand some people saying, we don’t want to do that. Well, then give up on the slogan. But if the slogan will have content, it’s a very aggressive policy, not that similar to the one that United States employed against other regional—aspiring regional hegemons, whether it’s Nassar’s Egypt or what have—or Iraq’s—Saddam’s Iraq. But it essentially means mobilizing the resources of the region against the Iranians, suborning all the relevant question to diminishing Iranian power, and seeking to undermine the Iranian regime at home. That’s what it means.
KESSLER: So, and if the U.S. did actually attack those facilities? What would—
KESSLER: Attack the nuclear facilities? I mean, it may not be in the cards at the moment, but you never really know with this administration. What would be the—does that actually—I mean, what—how would the region respond to that? And what would be the fallout from that?
TAKEYH: Well, I will say, that’s a hypothetical that’s way down the line, because it presupposes quite a few things. It presupposes abrogation of the JCPOA, which may actually happen. It—and it also presupposes that Iranian reaction will be to acceleration of their nuclear activities, which I’m actually skeptical of, in a sense that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are still rather embryonic and don’t require military assault immediately. I suspect what the Europeans are going to be telling the Iranians is essentially maintain the confines of the JCPOA. There is a provision in the JCPOA, and I forget where, which essentially says if one party is not adhering to it, the other parties can continue adhering to it within their own conditions. So Iranians may adhere to aspects of it, but not others. So I’m not quite sure if the absence of JCPOA means immediacy of military action.
KESSLER: OK. Excellent. So we are now at the point for Q&A from the audience. So at this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand—this is important, so we get you on camera—and state your name and affiliation. And please limit yourself to one question. And let’s keep it concise so as many people as possible can ask questions.
Q: Ron Tiersky from Amherst College.
This is a question about domestic politics in two countries. If there’s something new going on, it is MBS and what he’s—what he’s trying to do in Saudi Arabia. If there is—you know, if there is one leader who used to make Ayatollah Khamenei look like he’s a young man and modernizer it was the Saudi king. Now we have MBS. The question is, so far, is there much influence and interest among Iranians for what is going on in Saudi Arabia?
KESSLER: Karen, do you want to take that?
YOUNG: I can’t speak to domestic politics in Iran, but I would say that, you know, across the region governments have the same challenge, which is job creation, which is—with the exception of Yemen—really stuck in sort of a middle-income trap. You know, I made a point last night that, you know, the Middle East for all of its problems, and all of its corruption and really poor governance, has made tremendous progress on a lot of socioeconomic indicators over the last 20-30 years. And now they’re in a position where there is a need for a new governance model. And the Arab Spring has taught us that and threatened governments severely. And so the Saudis, in particular, know this. They’re under a lot of pressure. MBS says very clearly, I’m in a big hurry to reform this economy and create growth for this demographic, which is a very, very young population. And Iran is quite similar. People want to be able to work, and basic, basic things, right?
And so the positioning of Iran as the bogeyman in the region, right, and the source of all bad ideas—from extremism to, you know, an acute form of political Islam, which is essentially how the Saudis read that threat—creates an opportunity then for the Saudis and others, the Emiratis in particular, to say, oh, we’re going to have this alternative model of secular governance for the region. What they mean is authoritarian governance. But defining that and executing it is proving very, very challenging. But populations have been rather patient because the alternative, as they see very clearly in Syria and Yemen and in Libya, is civil war.
So we have a small window right now to try to create a different kind of economic development model. And the problem is, which I think Professor Anderson mentioned, is that the Middle East doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s in this global economy. And we don’t have the kind of models that existed in the ’70s or the ’80s in East Asia where you could have export-led growth and you could put people into manufacturing. Especially the oil exporters in the Middle East, they don’t have that option.
So there’s just kind of an impasse right now of, how do you restructure an economy, restructure a political economy, a political system that meets those kind of basic needs? And we’re not talking about calls for democratization. The Arab Spring was never about that, right? But calls for economic mobility, for inclusion, right?
So that, I think, is actually what’s shared between Iran and its neighbors and Saudi.
KESSLER: Thank you.
Q: Barney Rubin, Center on International Cooperation, New York University.
The panel was entitled Iran, the fault line, but it’s almost entirely about the Arab world and Iran’s relationship to the Arab world and Israel. And yet, Iran has other borders as well. And in particular, on Iran’s eastern border, the United States and Iran have had converging interests. And the current strategy of the Trump administration, the so-called South Asia strategy, de facto relies heavily on Iran as a transit zone for India to have access to Afghanistan in order to balance the influence of Pakistan. So do you consider it to be a mistake to evaluate Iran primarily as an enemy of the United States rather than to treat it as we treat other countries with which we have differences, such as China, Russia, and so on, as a country with whom we have conflicts of interest in some areas and conversions of interests in others?
TAKEYH: I’ll just say a couple of things about that to start it out. There are other Iranian relationships that are somewhat being ignored. There’s a very deepening strategic relationship with Russia that has transcended the normal tactical partnership that the countries have had. It is now the military relationship, it’s the strategic relationship, there’s a lot of strategic dialogues between the two countries, there are mil-to-mil cooperation. And I think that’s the relationship that’s going to be important for a while in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The paradigm that has often been suggested, and I think you alluded to it, whether you can have sort of a selective relationship with Iran—cooperate and compete, I think you said, at the same time—in places where there are convergence of some interests—Afghanistan has always been one of the things that people have proffered—somehow, there has always been convergence of interests between the two parties in Afghanistan and it has never led to strategic reconciliation.
In the 1980s, they were both opposed to Soviet presence, in the 1990s with the rise of extremism, Taliban and others, and that has never led to a larger strategic commonality or even a selective partnership that you talked about. I’m not sure why that is the case, but maybe because both countries tend to approach each other, the United States and Iran, through the prism of an ideological lens and they allow their competition to exceed the places where they may have common concerns and they can cooperate.
There have been selective cooperations from time to time, but they’ve been tactical and transitory and have not lasted long. So I’m not—I don’t see that in the cards, given the domestic politics of both countries today.
KESSLER: Thank you.
Let’s get someone in the—well, this lady here. We’ll move around and then we’ll get to the back in a minute.
Q: Arlene Getz, I’m with Reuters.
I did in fact want to ask about the Russia-Iran relationship.
TAKEYH: Right, right.
Q: How sustainable is it? What can we expect to see?
And last night, we spoke a lot about the loss of U.S. influence in the region. Is that going to be a vacuum which can be filled by Russia? Any longer-term perspective?
KESSLER: Ray, do you want to continue, or does someone else want to talk about the Iran-Russia relationship?
ITANI: I can only really speak about it in the context of Syria.
TAKEYH: Yeah, it’s a big topic.
ITANI: I know the Russians—fair enough—I know the Russians have been making inroads as well, kind of opportunistically, to the other Arab regimes. And part of what the Arab regimes have been doing well—I’ll just be brief about this point—over the past decade or two is they’ve realized, even the U.S. allies have realized that kind of total reliance on the United States is a bit problematic partly because the United States doesn’t want to be relied on as much as it wanted to before and partly because sometimes it comes with these kind of onerous conditions, I mean, that give them a hard time politically or economically or whatever.
So it’s great if you can keep that relationship and then have patrons, like—maybe lesser so, but at least to hedge—using the Chinese and the Russians who are kind of more transactional in their relationships and, let’s face it, lately better allies.
So in Syria, I think part of the discourse when we talk about policy options here about what we could do about Syria, one of the options that’s thrown around is we’ve got to kind of partition or wean Russia away from Iran. I guess that’s the language.
These are not identical actors—obviously, one is an Islamic republic, the other is Russia—but they have agreed very solidly on one thing: Bashar al-Assad needs to be president of Syria and he needs to control, at least ultimately, all the country and share it with no one. And there is—that’s a zero-sum—that’s a zero-sum goal.
Where they part is, OK, on the nature of the kind of place Syria should be and on the relationship with Israel, but this is something further down the road from where we are right now. Right now where we are is the Russians want to play a kind of old-school game with Syria, that’s a peer-to-peer or state-to-state relationship. More accurately, they want their military assets to be protected, they want a presence on the ground, they want to use their own leverage in Syria to make things a bit difficult for us politically, internationally.
The Iranians have a much more ambitious game, which is they want the place to essentially be intertwined with their international networks—ideological, religious, political. Those things are not necessarily in absolute conflict, because I think the Russians have a lower threshold for what they would consider absolute success in Syria, whereas the Iranians are the ones who have a higher appetite for risk and are willing to go further. And I think the Russians played it more or less well, frankly speaking.
TAKEYH: I’ll just say one thing about this. The relationship between the two countries is unnatural, improbable, and real. (Laughter.) If you look back at the history of Iran, the history of Persia, it’s a history of the Iranian governments and Persian dynasties seeking to rebuff Russian encroachment and seeking to rely on Western powers to help them rebuff the Russian encroachment. That’s the history of the country.
And in all the discussions up to 1953, we have to say in 1946 the territorial integrity of Iran was maintained because the United States stepped in and insisted on removal of Soviet forces from the Azerbaijan province. Otherwise, the territorial Soviet Union might have been larger than it is today for the Russian Federation.
And they both, in their literature and narrative, they both have stereotypical and cultural derision of each other. The Russians always dismiss Iranians and say, well, give them nuclear technology, what are they going to do with it? And the Iranians have a very derogatory and denigrating view of Russians, they’re just drunk people, just down from trees. (Laughter.) So at every level, this relationship doesn’t work—at the historical level, at the cultural narrative level—but it is a—the tactical relationship has become, I think, strategically deepened. And that’s one of the, one would have, accomplishments of President Rouhani.
President Rouhani came in seeking to improve relations not with the United States, but with the Europeans and with the Russians. But the European relationship has improved somewhat, but it’s retarded by a variety of I guess what people will say now with their rules-based, legal, international order—whatever the hell that is. But the relationship with Russia is not thwarted by rules-based, liberal, international order.
YOUNIS: I’ll just add that, in general, the Russian policy towards the Middle East has a pretty limited set of strategic objectives. And the level of involvement and interest in Syria is really the exception and doesn’t characterize Russian involvement and interest in the Middle East more broadly. Just to—and I think headlines on this, on engagement between Middle Eastern leaders and Russia can be misleading.
So, for example, the Iraqi foreign minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, went to Russia in February to talk about buying a Russian missile defense system. And this just falls within a pattern that is very regularly used across a range of Middle Eastern states where they go on these trips to Moscow to talk about purchasing some Russian military equipment, and often it’s just a way of trying to demonstrate to the United States that they have options and to try and reduce the kind of conditionality that comes with purchasing weapon systems from the United States. And often, it’s just kind of a silly diplomatic exercise that just doesn’t have any real substance. There’s no way Iraq is going to purchase this particular system. It’s all a bit of theater.
The one exception to that, which is worth pointing out and it hasn’t really been covered, is the extent of Russian involvement in the Kurdistan—in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, particularly around the independence referendum.
So, I mean, kind of unnoticed by the world, Russia managed in this last year to insert itself right into the heart of the dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region. It purchased a controlling stake in the oil pipeline between Kirkuk and Turkey. It failed to vociferously denounce the independence referendum, like most international partners of Iraq did. It was seen by the Kurdistan region as tacit approval.
And then the day after federal Iraqi forces went up into Kirkuk to retake Kirkuk and other disputed territories, at that point Russia announced that it was purchasing five oil exploration blocks in the Kurdistan region. So there’s been a very uncharacteristic level of Russian investment in a politically sensitive area.
Russia has historically been very much opposed to secessionism and, you know, doesn’t tend to support independence movements of any kind. So this is—it’s unusual. It’s meant that now that—now Baghdad negotiating with Irbil over the future of Kirkuk’s oil involves Rosneft at the table. So in the space of a few months, this, you know, strategically important dispute that involves Ankara, involves the Kurds, involves Baghdad, that suddenly a Russian oil company has to be—has to be at the table because it controls the strategic assets at play.
KESSLER: And why is Russia doing this? What are—what are they trying to achieve here?
YOUNIS: Well, it’s unclear because it’s such a break from their traditional mode of operating. I mean, the Russians would say this is not a geopolitical issue, that we engage in high-risk, high-return areas, we felt that these assets were underpriced because of the uncertainty around the referendum, and so we felt we could make, in the long term, a high return. So that’s kind of how they would state it.
But, I mean, Rosneft does not act without explicit approval of the Russian government, particularly on such sensitive areas. And I think, you know, for them it’s a way at a very low cost of just picking up a bit of leverage, of buying themselves a seat at a table at which they weren’t previously included. And I think that that’s attractive to them. But it’s certainly a break.
YOUNG: May I add in something?
YOUNG: I agree with you when you say that on sort of that historic relationship of using the Russians as a bargaining chip in arms deals, but I am seeing a difference now, I think especially from the Gulf states, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, of a closer relationship based on economic ties, particularly through the oil industry as well, where those weapon sales are maybe taken more seriously now. And whether that equipment is functional and compatible with other things they buy is still a problem.
But you see Russia making inroads, and also the Gulf states, particularly Saudi and the UAE, making more of an effort to balance that partnership, as Faysal explained. It’s really because of a perception of lack of U.S. interest or diminishing U.S. interest in the region. But we’re seeing it especially in kind of the new kind of OPEC-plus-Russia dialogue as well.
Let’s see, in the back there, the gentleman with the—with the glasses. Yeah, here.
Q: Maziar Minovi, Goldman Sachs.
I just wanted to follow up on the issue of the JCPOA abrogation by the U.S. If that happens, you mentioned something about the Europeans playing along, and we know they’ve been negotiating. But if history repeats itself, most European banks and large corporations and the Japanese, afraid of secondary sanctions, will not engage in meaningful trade or investment. If that happens, how does Iranian domestic politics play into that? How long can Rouhani hold the fort? And if it does crumble, then what are the implications?
TAKEYH: Right. I think my guess—I mean, this is a, actually, far more complicated issue. It’s, how do you leave an agreement? There’s some in France, particularly the French, are trying to negotiate what they’re calling soft exit, that if you’re going to leave, if the United States is going to leave, leave softly. By that, it means do not reimpose the entirety of Annex II sanctions, Annex II of the JCPOA.
How the president, should he want to leave the agreement, how the executive order is crafted will determine the scope of Treasury’s activities. Some of those sanctions I think automatically come back in, particularly the CBI sanctions, I think, the Central Bank of Iran, and that’s the one that will retard the trade and commercial relationships that you’re talking about.
What the European governments can do is try to assure the companies that they will give them protection. But I agree with you, the European banks and others are going to say—no compliance officer will say, all right, that’s fine, let’s see what—let’s do that. So it will cause a retardation of commerce into Iran.
What does that mean for President Rouhani? Every Iranian election is about something. The 1997 election was about political reform. The 2005 election of President Ahmadinejad was about economic justice, not economic growth, economic justice. President Rouhani’s election was about an arms-control agreement that could lead to Iran’s integration with the global economy. And that claim, that is already under stress, would be invalidated. So in light of the January, late-December, January uprisings and the currency exchange, it’s a hollowed-out presidency as is.
But the larger implication is not President Rouhani’s presidency per se, it’s a discrediting of that political tendency. If the left was discredited with the collapse of the reform movement, the center will be discredited with the collapse of the combination of the economy and a thesis arms-control agreement would be pathways to Iran’s economic rejuvenation, an already problematic argument to begin with because the problems in Iran have less to do with external commerce than internal management and internal distribution of wealth. So this has a longer implication for the Islamic republic’s politics.
But today, I will say just briefly, Iranian politics, in my view, have moved beyond who comes next. Now the discussion is, what comes next? It’s no longer about President Khatami’s reform, President Ahmadinejad’s economic distribution of wealth, or President Rouhani’s concept of balancing the relationship with Europe, it’s about what is next. What kind of a political system comes next and how do you get there? So it’s much more existential, I think.
KESSLER: Thank you.
Yes, sir, with the bowtie. Yes.
Q: Yes. Howard Berkowitz, past chairman of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy.
I just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia and met with the crown prince, MBS. He made two statements and I’d like you to perhaps comment on them. One, that his country must diversify from a total—being totally dependent upon oil, it is not going to work in the future; and therefore, he’s paying a hundred percent of all expenses for any young Saudi who wants to go to college in the United States. He will not—he will not pay for them to go to Asia, he will not pay for them to go to Europe, only to the United States.
And secondly, the Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt are joining together against Iran. And they are now talking about asking Israel to join that coalition.
I’d like your comments on both of those.
YOUNG: Well, I mean, the Saudis have had an educational scholarship program in the U.S. for, you know, many, many years, and actually, numbers have been dropping for the last 10 years. So I’m glad to hear that, that’s good news.
On the second question and the kind of burgeoning ties with Israel, I actually—I think we have to go back to the question of how the Gulf states actually see the JCPOA and a potential confrontation with Iran. The official policies of all six of the GCC states is in support of the JCPOA. No foreign minister, no head of state has come out saying they hope that the U.S. pulls out and that the agreement ends. So as much as there is rhetoric that is hostile to Iran and Iran’s influence in the region, I don’t believe, despite the videogames of him, of Mohammad bin Salman, you know, invading Iran, that that is really in anybody’s interest and certainly not in the Saudi’s interest.
ITANI: And may I comment briefly, actually? I’m not going to comment on the first one, the first point about the education program.
The point of this coalition between Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—so we’ve been hearing these vague things since MBS really began to rise and got a high profile, especially amid the Trump administration because we hear some similar noises of rollback, as Ray described it.
Look, the thing is—and this isn’t—I promise, this isn’t only because this is what I work on—I don’t think you can have a meaningful conversation about what to do about Iran regionally if you don’t talk about Syria. Because as far as I’m concerned, Iraq is—I mean, they’re at a great advantage there and Syria is a kind of fulcrum.
And if we talk about Syria, where does it stand? The Jordanians want to revive trade relations with Assad regime and normalize the situation in the south. The Israelis don’t want to go into war in Syria to change the balance of power. Egypt backs Assad and was sending him weapons and munitions in the last few years of the war. And Mohammad bin Salman himself has been on record saying that essentially this northern tier of the Middle East—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, presumably—has been lost to the Iranians and now we have to do what we can with what’s left.
I just don’t see it. And I don’t even see it in Washington because there’s so many different schools of thought within the same administration about this. And the president, at the end of the day, doesn’t have those instincts.
But in the region, I think what they’re saying is they want the Israelis and Americans to do it and that they will participate and support the effort, if it happens. But I don’t see them doing anything.
KESSLER: Do you see—is there—does the president—we have to—he tweets. He’s often tweeting that the—that the states in the region have to really step up and do more, the U.S. is not going to be doing it anymore. And in effect, today he actually said—he indicated that the region should be thanking the United States for helping eliminate ISIS.
So is it realistic to assume that states such as Saudi Arabia would actually be part of a rebuilding effort in Syria, if the conflict ever ends there?
ITANI: No, there’s—don’t get me wrong, there’s a great deal of hostility between the Saudi regime and Bashar al-Assad, mostly because of the Iranian connection. So, no, I don’t see them going and making nice with Bashar al-Assad; I see them as just saying, OK, we’re done with this place.
But I would point out that that’s an interesting parallel between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. That’s exactly the same message that the Obama administration projected about take care of your own stuff, guys, and either take care of the Iranians or reach an accommodation with them. That’s why I don’t see much movement.
KESSLER: OK. OK.
Right there, yes.
Q: Thank you. Karl Meyer, an independent writer.
Would you discuss how the various minorities fit into the equation? I’m thinking of the substantial Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. Are their rights being respected? And in Iran, you’ve got Christians, Baha’i and Jews, how are they doing?
KESSLER: Who wants to take that?
TAKEYH: Well, I can speak on behalf of Christians, Baha’is, and Jews. (Laughter.) Not well. And there’s a difference between them.
I would differentiate the Baha’i community from the Christian and Jewish communities because they constitute the people of the book. There is a sort of a prophet’s recognition of his predecessors, so there’s a measure of acceptability of that religious tradition. The Baha’is are a whole different thing. They are viewed as within the boundaries of heresy and as also the fact that there is, at least in the early stages of the Islamic republic, there was a suspicion of Baha’is, not just because of their religious differentiation, but because the shah’s government had relied greatly on sort of the Baha’i population for various posts. So there was an added suspicion there. But the persecution and the religious persecution is, of course, ongoing, and Baha’i is much worse.
The Christian community and Jewish community have diminished, many have left. Those who have remained are older and so less concerned for the—for the regime in that sense.
KESSLER: All right. We have time for one more question.
Yes, the woman up in the back there.
Q: I wanted to just ask about what’s going on with Qatar, their support of Hamas, and the realignment of Saudi with our interests. Why do you think—what do you think is going on in Qatar and why do you think we aren’t doing more about it?
KESSLER: Karen, do you want to—
YOUNG: You mean what do we think is going on in Qatar in terms of support for terrorism? Is that your question?
Q: And how it affects the region’s players.
YOUNG: So this is obviously a very contentious issue within the GCC right now. The organization is essentially paralyzed because of the ostracism of the government of Qatar. But at the same time, we’ve seen very strong new agreements between the United States and Qatar on combating terrorist financing and making new lists of individuals resident in the country who are no longer welcome. So from a U.S. policy perspective, the Qataris are complying and are making changes that both the neighbors and the U.S. government see as necessary. However, from the Saudi and Emirati and Bahrainian, I suppose Egyptian perspective, this is not yet sufficient.
So the dispute is ongoing and there is, I think, some renewed pressure from the Trump administration, from President Trump himself, who apparently called King Salman and said wrap it up in three weeks. But the Saudi position and, I think, more fervently the Emirati position is that this is not a priority, we will keep things the way they are, we have kind of bigger issues in the region to deal with, Qatar is literally isolated, may become an island, and let it stay that way.
So it’s—I think with the postponement of the Camp David summit, it’s very clear that the Gulf states, they want this to be an internal issue, that they want to resolve it at a time and place of their choosing.
And, you know, for the Qataris, they’re, you know, they’re moving on in their own direction as well. The embargo has had some economic side effects, but largely the economy has been resilient. So I think we are at probably a prolonged stalemate for now.
KESSLER: All right. Thank you very—thank you very much.
I invite—we’ve run out of time—I invite everyone to join the coffee reception outside. The second session will begin promptly at 10 a.m. and will focus on Afghanistan. And as was noted, the closing session with General Joseph Votel has been canceled. Thank you. (Applause.)