U.S. Involvement in the Middle East

Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Don Pollard

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Bernard A. Haykel

Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

Ariane M. Tabatabai

Associate Political Scientist, RAND Corporation; Adjunct Senior Research Scholar, Columbia University

Trudy S. Rubin

Foreign Affairs Columnist, Philadelphia Enquirer

RUBIN: All right, if everyone will take their seats we can get started.

We couldn’t be at a more opportune time to talk about U.S. involvement in the Middle East. As you all know, it’s a time of intense flux. Both President Obama and President Trump thought that they could pivot to Asia, but the Middle East has dragged them back again. And just this week, we had talk of war with Iran, then no talk of war, and today tweets of obliteration of Iran if any Americans or American interests are attacked. So the Middle East is right in our focus.

And we’re going to talk today about whether we should stay, must we stay, what should we be doing there, and for what reasons. We’re going to talk about the Iran crisis, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and the Bahrain conference is going on.

And we have a terrific panel to discuss all of this. To my left is Steve Cook, who is the Enrico Mattei senior fellow for the Middle East and African Studies at the Council and an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy.

I think you all have bios, so I won’t go through the whole—the bios, but I’ll mention that he’s the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, The Struggle for Egypt, and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Developments in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.

To his left is Ariane Tabatabai, who is an associate political scientist at RAND and also a research scholar at Columbia University and a key expert on Iran, coauthor of Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations With Russia and China.

And to her left is Bernard Haykel, a distinguished scholar in Saudi Arabia, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. And he’s the director of the Institute for Transregional Studies of the Contemporary Middle East. And he is the author of Revival and Reform in Islam and coeditor of Saudi Arabia in Transition, and an authority on Islamist political movements.

So in order to get started, I think we should focus first on Iran since that is very heavily in the news. And I want to ask Ariane a few questions, and maybe you can talk a little bit about the answers.

President Trump campaigned on no more Middle East wars, then he threatened on, then he reneged. And just in the last couple of days, he’s been tweeting again that any attack on anything American could lead to obliteration.

So can you talk a little about whether you think the U.S. is headed for war with Iran? And more to the point, since you know the internal dynamics of Iran, what does Iran want? Are more negotiations possible at a time when the U.S. pulled out from the nuclear accord with Iran? And also, is regime change likely, which is what some staff, key advisers to the president have publicly called for?

TABATABAI: Thank you so much. And thanks for having me and getting me started with some softballs here. (Laughter.)

The president has laid out at least one objective that is crystal clear and that’s that he would like to see Iran change its behavior. And Secretary Pompeo has laid out what that would look like in a twelve-point plan which includes Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic missiles program, support for terrorism in the region, and regional interventions. So needless to say, it’s essentially all of Iranian foreign and security policy.

And that’s challenging. You can’t really get to that point without first either engaging in in-depth negotiations that would go beyond what we’ve had in the past. I’m thinking specifically about the 2012 to 2015 nuclear negotiations. It took three years, essentially, and even longer if we could the years of sanctions and sort of coercion and compellance that ultimately led to the—to the nuclear deal, and that was only focused on one issue. Now, we’re adding to that very complex matter ballistic missiles, support for terrorism, and regional interventions.

The second way in which we could get that change of behavior—and I think there are certain individuals within the administration who would like to pursue that path—and that’s the collapse of the regime, whether that would be induced by the United States or if it would happen sort of organically in the country as a result of deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.

So I want to talk a little bit about both of those options and what they look like. And they may start to answer some of your questions.

So let’s talk a little bit about negotiations. I think you need a number of things in order to be able to get Iran to the negotiating table. And that was done pretty successfully in the previous administration. The ingredients, in my view, that were used and that were very effective in bringing Iran to the table were, one, building a multilateral mechanism that would allow for the United States to pressure Iran effectively, but also to signal that if it came to the—to the negotiating table, it would be reintegrating their national community.

The second thing was a management of expectations. There was an understanding in the administration that you would not be getting sort of a summit between Iran’s supreme leader and President Obama or even Iran’s president and President Obama.

The third thing was very clear signaling about what was on the table, what the issues were, what the objectives were, and how the administration was planning on getting there.

And finally, there was an understanding that timing was everything, that you would not get these negotiations overnight, that Iran would not be stopping its nuclear program overnight, and there was an understanding of the framework within which negotiations could actually take place. I think a lot of those ingredients are missing today.

Let’s start with the signaling. The signaling, the messaging that has been coming out of the White House has been very confusing. So if you’re sitting in Iran and you’re listening to what’s going on here, one day, as we were noting at the beginning, you’re getting messages about, you know, Iran can be—can be thriving, even under the current leadership. I think the president said so, essentially, in so many words. The next day, there is messages about, you know, we will be—we’re not scared to essentially engage in a war. The next, again, we’re talking about negotiations. There’s a back-and-forth. And depending on who in the administration is talking, different parts of this sort of narrative are emphasized. So it is confusing I think for us watching this in Washington, let alone if you’re sitting in Tehran and trying to figure out what is happening here.

The second thing is that we don’t have that multilateral mechanism we once had. And I’m sure we’ll get to the Gulf partners in a—in a bit. But at least with Europe, which has been a pillar of any kind of engagement over the past twenty years with Iran, we just don’t have that buy-in from the Europeans anymore. The Europeans wanted to stick to the nuclear deal and build on it, the United States clearly did not, and today I think there is a divergence of opinions about the best way forward, although I would emphasize that I think the objectives are shared by both sides of the—of the Atlantic. I think both the Europeans and the United States have the same set of objectives in terms of making sure that Iran’s nuclear program is contained, that it does not lead to a nuclear weapon, that Iran does not continue increasing the range of its ballistic missiles, and stop some of its activities in the region, including support for terrorism and intervention.

And finally, I think, you know, the timing is a bit different here. The administration obviously is only two-and-a-half years in. But, you know, so time will tell if there is enough time for this administration to even get to that point. But I think some of the other key ingredients are missing.

RUBIN: This is extremely helpful. Let me just ask you then, given all of this, can you see any likelihood whatsoever that Iran would return to the table and talk about a new nuclear accord given that the United States is going solo and that the signaling is so confused and that the objective is unclear? It might be regime change, it might be a broad Middle East project, it might be, as the president was saying last week, only nuclear, the Gulf doesn’t matter because we don’t need energy, we have enough on our own. So under these circumstances, can you see any likelihood of a return to the table?

TABATABAI: I think it’s very difficult to gauge right now. But I think that prior to the events of the past two weeks, I had some sort of optimism that things were possible. You had seen Iranian leaders come out and lay out the groundwork for future negotiations. It may not happen in the next few weeks or even the next few months, but at some point. I do think that inevitably, unless there is a military conflict, Iran will have to negotiate about some of these items. The status quo is just not sustainable over the next ten years.

And the challenging thing is that right now, it’s Wednesday, on Monday President Trump announced new sanctions and among the people who were sanctioned were Iran’s supreme leader, key commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and there was an announcement or at least are reports that Iran’s foreign minister, who is the face of Western engagement, is also going to be sanctioned by the end of the week. So if you’re Iran and you’re looking at what’s happening here, what’s unfolding, you’re thinking, well, the highest levels of our regime are being targeted, no one in their right mind right now in the Iranian political system will come out and advocate for negotiations with the United States as it’s sanctioning the supreme leader. You would have to be suicidal to do that.

And if you’re someone like Zarif, who has been the face of engagement with the West, well, you’ve lost a lot of your political capital. Just look at any of the headlines in Iranian newspapers and magazines throughout the entire political spectrum from the past forty-eight hours and that signals exactly that. He’s been mocked. He’s been undermined. He’s been discredited as someone who has made concessions only to be humiliated by the United States. And so that plays right into the hands of those in Iran who have long advocated for not engaging with the—with the United States.

RUBIN: I have one more thing I want to ask you before we move to Saudi Arabia.

COOK: Ariane was saying about negotiation, I wanted to point out that Javad Zarif, the guy who does most of the negotiation, is not going to be able to negotiate if he’s under sanction.

But just one other point. Trudy, you mentioned that there was a sense that the messaging was confused. I’m not sure that it is confused. It strikes me that the president looks at Iran in a similar way that he looked at North Korea. He can fulminate against the Iranians, he can threaten, he can call names, all in an effort to meet the supreme leader at a fancy hotel in Europe so that they can fall in love. (Laughter.)

I think what the president doesn’t understand and the people around him haven’t been able to convince him of is the fact that the North Korean leadership has been seeking a presidential meeting for decades and decades and decades. No supreme leader in his right mind would want to meet the president of the United States, especially now. But in general, they can’t possibly do that. Is that—it seems to me, that’s—

TABATABAI: That’s exactly right.

COOK: It is. So, yeah, it’s not going to happen.

TABATABAI: I mean, it’s the exact opposite.

COOK: No falling in love in a European hotel. (Laughter.)

TABATABAI: No. And in fact, for the supreme leader—and that’s, I think, part of the thing that has been missing in the conversation and within the administration it seems—is that not only would they not want to do it now, they, I mean, they have built an entire regime based on anti-American slogans. So for the supreme leader to now come out and meet with President Trump, that would be a major, major concession and he just doesn’t want to do that.

And I think the administration sort of assumes that that would be a benefit, that would be a carrot, when really it’s very far from that.

RUBIN: Well, just following right on that, the bookend of that is that John Bolton, national security adviser, has openly declared his desire to see regime change and even appeared in a video in 2017 with the opposition group, the MEK opposition group, and said that they would be back in Tehran by 2019. And the MEK, Mojahedin-e Khalq—I can tell you from personal experience, you raise their name in Tehran and even liberals are disgusted with them because they fought with Saddam Hussein against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. And so this tells us a little bit about how much Bolton understands Iran.

But do you see any likelihood that maximum pressure could lead to regime change as Bolton apparently believes and perhaps Secretary of State Pompeo does?

TABATABAI: So six months left of 2019, so they could very well end up in Tehran in 2019. I highly doubt it, though. Look, it’s not just about the MEK, it’s more broadly that there are no viable alternatives today to the Iranian system. And, you know, you’ve been to Iran, I’ve been to Iran, you cannot walk around and find more than five people who like the regime. It’s not that people love the regime, it’s that they just don’t see any alternatives. So that’s number one.

Number two is that if you’re sitting in Iran right now and you’re looking around you in the region post Arab Spring, everything that has happened is discouraging you from going back to the 2009 sort of movements that so many people had high hopes that, you know, it would sort of lead to reform and change and so on and so forth.

You’re looking at Afghanistan all the way to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, things are not going wonderfully well in the region, right? So there are no alternatives in the region that are presented as success stories that Iranians can aspire to kind of trying to emulate and to model their own striving for change after. So I think the idea that, you know, we’re going to see some sort of regime change internally is very—is not grounded in reality.

Not to mention that I think the instruments we’re using to bring about said collapse of the regime is not going—is not producing the results that the administration would hope. Sanctions are hurting people and the administration has made that very clear. And I think that’s right. But people are looking at sanctions and saying, well, you know, we know that our government is responsible for a lot, but at the same time when you’re a cancer patient and you can’t find medication, when medical equipment is not coming into the country, when you can’t afford food because of sanctions, the blame is not going to go only toward the regime. It’s also—a lot of it is also going to come, to be directed toward the United States. And I think that is damaging in the long term for U.S. interests.

RUBIN: Well, let me turn to Bernard Haykel. Saudi Arabia and the crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, have pushed in the past very strongly for the United States to take the harshest possible position towards Iran. And in the past, there was talk of cutting off the head of the snake. Back just a few years ago, there was a push to draw the United States into bombing Iran either behind Israel or in front of Israel. At this point today, do you see Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince MBS as leading the United States astray on Iran, leading the United States in a direction that will not produce the results the White House thinks it will?

HAYKEL: Thank you again for inviting me. It’s always nice to be here at the—at the Council.

I just wanted to add a couple of things to what Ariane was saying.

RUBIN: Please do.

HAYKEL: I think the other reason for the regime’s durability in Iran is that Iran is a country with very strong nationalist feelings. So even if people hate the regime, they’re still not going to turn on their country.

And the second is that this is a regime, for all its faults—and there are many—actually has delivered to kind of the working class or the poorer elements of society, they’ve delivered reasonably good medical services, reasonably good infrastructure, and reasonably good educational services as well. So, you know, the regime does, you know, again, for all its faults and its warts, has delivered for its people. And I think that means that it has credit with its people.

RUBIN: An important point.

HAYKEL: Now, turning to Saudi Arabia—turning to Saudi Arabia, I don’t think that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia has that kind of influence on the White House. I think that he’s made his feelings very clear to the White House, which is that Iran is a country in which he is engaged, Saudi Arabia is engaged, is a zero-sum geopolitical struggle and that this is a country that, from its very beginning in 1979 with the revolution, has made no secret of its desire to topple and destroy the Saudi ruling dynasty.

So the Iranians, if you listen to them and what they say in Persian, they’re very clear. Their revolutionary slogan, is encapsulated in three mottos: One is “death to America,” the other is “death to Israel,” and the third is “death to the Al Saud,” which is the ruling family in Saudi Arabia.

And the Iranians have constantly found ways to irritate the Saudis, put pressure on the Saudis, most recently in the war in Yemen where they’re backing a rebel faction that is fighting the Saudi-led coalition. So I think the Saudis, like the Israelis, would love for the Americans to take a really strong swipe at the Iranians, to bomb maybe the nuclear infrastructure, perhaps, you know, wipe out the Iranian Navy. You know, both Saudi and Israel would like that. I don’t think that’s going to happen unless a major miscalculation takes place by either the Iranians or the Americans.

You can imagine the Iranians, for instance, attacking an aircraft carrier or really blocking the shipping of oil and gas out of the Strait of Hormuz. That would be the kind of provocation that might lead to an escalation and I think that would really be a disaster, certainly for Iran, but also for the region and for the United States.

RUBIN: You’ve met the crown prince.


RUBIN: And you have been in touch with him over a long period. What is your estimation of this man? He’s been described as reckless. He’s engaged in a war in Yemen that seems to be going nowhere and the United States has been pulled into involvement in that war. Do you see him as an ally that can be depended on? And if so, for what since both the president in his first foreign visit and Jared Kushner have made a major point of stressing their alliance with the kingdom and, in a way, with him? So could you tell us, what kind of an ally?

HAYKEL: Yeah. I think that one has to disentangle Saudi Arabia from this particular leader. I mean, there’s a strategic relationship that goes back to 1945 and that relationship is really centered on a couple of things. The first is that the Saudis are never to use oil as a political weapon, in other words to play around with production in order to create volatility in the markets for a political end. And the Saudis have not ever done that except once in 1973. So that is a very important element of the relationship.

I don’t think, for instance, that Iran or Iraq would have that kind of policy. They would, I think, if they controlled the kind of resources that the Saudis control, they would probably use oil for political ends.

The other is that Saudi Arabia was a strong and stalwart ally of the United States during the Cold War in the fight against communism and sort of leftist-socialist movements. In fact, the phenomenon of global jihadists is an unintended consequence of that alliance, both unintended by the United States and by the Saudis. So I think those two elements remain a very important aspect of the equation. So the Saudis remain reliable suppliers of oil and they also are allies now in the fight in fact against the global jihadis.

And I think Mohammad Bin Salman understands this very well. He’s not going to deviate. What makes him different, though, from previous Saudi rulers is that he’s trying to completely revamp the nature of the political and social and economic contract that undergirded the country. And he’s trying to basically move away from Islam as a particular interpretation of Islam as a source of legitimacy for the regime, turning instead to populism and nationalism. He wants to diversify the economy so that it becomes less dependent on oil. And then he wants to turn the country into a powerhouse, into a regional hegemon that can defend itself and project power and not always rely on the United States for that. And that makes him different.

So the question is, you know, those differences, are they good or bad for the United States? I think the move away from Islamism is a very good thing for the United States.

RUBIN: Do you really believe that Saudi Arabia is no longer a fount of support for Salafi hardline Islam as it has been in the past, both in funding Salafi movements and Salafi preachers around the world, and also funding Salafists in the war in Syria? Do you see real concrete signs that Saudi Arabia has moved away from that behavior?

HAYKEL: At a government and institutional level, yes. There are private individuals in Saudi Arabia, extremely wealthy individuals, they probably still are involved in the sponsorship of Salafism, both domestically and internationally. I think the government, though, is very much against that. We can see it from, for instance, the withdrawal of Saudi government from leases on mosques in places like Brussels and other European countries. In India, for instance, the embassy, which used to be the conduit for financing, is only interested in nonreligious projects. If you come to the Saudi embassy in Delhi and you say I want to build a mosque, you’re not going to get a hearing. So anecdotally, it seems to be the case.

RUBIN: I can’t talk about Saudi Arabia without raising, of course, the issue of Jamal Khashoggi. Congress is seized with this issue. The president continues to defend the crown prince. Do you believe that this issue should be ignored by the White House or pushed aside as the president has tried to do? And do you think that the level of repression used by the crown prince makes it less likely, more likely, feasible for him to do the things you say he wants to do? Or does it make it more likely that he will fail and Saudi Arabia’s future is really in question?

HAYKEL: So I think the heinous crime and murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which happened in a consulate in Istanbul, is the kind of behavior that responsible states should not engage in. So if the United States is going after Iran because it’s behaving in a way that’s incompatible with how nation states should behave—i.e., using nonstate actors in countries like Lebanon or Yemen or Iraq—the same standard should hold for Saudi Arabia and for all other countries, that states do not engage in certain forms of behavior unless they want to be deemed and designated rogue states and then face sanctions.

So President Putin of Russia, for instance, is famous for going after his dissidents all over Europe. The Americans have to tell the Saudis you do not want to be in the same basket, in the same camp with the Russians or other kind of rogue countries. So I don’t think that issue should be actually tabled. It should remain on the table and it should remain a very important element in the—in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Now, as far as repression is concerned, again, there’s no doubt that in bringing about the reforms that he wants to bring about, Mohammad Bin Salman, MBS, has been repressive and continues to be repressive. And to me, that is a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength. And it strikes me as unnecessary because it’s a regime that actually goes back several centuries, it doesn’t owe its existence to colonialism, it has great legitimacy domestically. So I’m not sure why repression is necessary. And in fact, it is likely to backfire.

RUBIN: Well, thank you so much. The word “Istanbul” was mentioned. This brings us back to Turkey.

COOK: I thought it was “repression.”

RUBIN: Well we’ve got a twofer. (Laughter.) When talking about the U.S. role in the Middle East—so, you know, we have talked about the two key actors that the U.S. is involved with, the Saudis and the Iranians—but Turkey has been a critical element in our Middle East policy and, in a broader sense, in our strategic policy, given that it’s a NATO member.

We’ve just seen an election in Istanbul, which was a strong reprimand to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And I want to ask you, how do you see Turkey in the U.S. strategic future? Is Turkey capable of being an ally? It’s buying a defensive weapon system, S-400, from the Russians, which creates future problems for NATO. Can we rely on Turkey? Should we rely on Turkey? What kind of a role will it play in the region going forward?

COOK: Thanks, Trudy. Those are great questions.

And just thank you all for spending some time here at the Council. I guess I’m the only home kid here. And it’s very, very nice. And I understand we have people from many, many faiths here, which is great for me because I could use all the help I could get.

And I think Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkey could use a lot of help as well. It’s hard to imagine, because only about ten years ago Turkey was still regarded as a strategic ally of the United States. And today, Turkey is a treaty ally by dint of its membership in the Atlantic alliance, but it is hardly a strategic partner of the United States.

As you mentioned, the Turks are buying an advanced air defense system from the Russians, which will lead to sanctions on a NATO ally. It will also force Turkey out of the F-35 program. For those of you who don’t know, the F-35 is the next-generation American fighter plane that Turkey was manufacturing components of and planned to buy a hundred of them.

But it’s not just the S-400 and the F-35. There are a long, long list of problems between Turkey and the United States. And I think it reflects the fact that Turkey and the United States have overlapping interests during the Cold War. It was that overarching security threat of the Soviet Union that bound the two countries together. Almost thirty years after the end of the Cold War, Turkey and the United States don’t share an overarching, strategic goal, a common threat, a project.

We had tried to come up with projects in which the two countries could work together on. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Turkey was supposed to be the country that was going to help with soft landings of the countries in Central Asia. That didn’t work out so well.

In the early to mid-1990s, Turkey, Israel, and the United States were going to cooperate together to provide security in the Eastern Mediterranean. That didn’t work out so well.

Then Turkey was going to be a critical partner in forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That didn’t work out so well.

And then finally, after the Arab uprisings, Turkey was supposed to be a model. But at the exact moment that everybody was talking about Turkey being a model for countries that were allegedly going to transition to democracy, Turkey itself was undergoing a wave of repression and it turned toward authoritarianism after a period of reform. So there was a whole host of issues in this kind of divergence between the two countries that have come to the fore. The S-400, of course. The United States’ work with a Syrian-Kurdish fighting force known as the YPG, which is part of a terrorist organization that has been fighting Turkey since 1984. The fact that a cleric named Fethullah Gülen is a permanent resident of the United States. For those of you paying attention, you might have heard President Erdoğan rail about Pennsylvania.

RUBIN: The man from Pennsylvania.

COOK: Pennsylvania—he doesn’t really have anything against the state of Pennsylvania, he has it against one person. (Laughter.) As a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, when I go to Turkey, I leave my Pennsylvania T-shirt home. (Laughter.)

RUBIN: Plus he has an estate in the Poconos, Fethullah Gülen.

COOK: He has an estate in the Poconos that Trudy has been to.

During the time that Iran was under U.N. sanction, the Turks played a critical role in helping Iran evade those sanctions. There are a long, long list of problems. The Turks are holding at least twenty Americans in custody on trumped-up charges. The most famous has been released, his name is Andrew Brunson, he was a pastor who had lived in the city of Izmir for almost thirty years. There are, as I said, significant, significant problems. So it’s hard to imagine Turkey as a strategic partner of the United States going forward.

It’s true that the Istanbul rerun election was a rebuke of President Erdoğan. His party’s candidate lost that election by eight-hundred-and-six-thousand votes. Now, mind you, this was a rerun election. In March, they had municipal elections and the opposition won all of Turkey’s biggest cities, including Istanbul by fourteen thousand votes. But President Erdoğan decided he didn’t like the outcome, so he forced a rerun of that election, which was held last Sunday. And to give you a sense of how much fraud there was in the first round, the opposition candidate won the first time only by fourteen thousand votes. This time, he won by eight-hundred-and-six-thousand votes. It’s certainly a rebuke of Erdoğan. But I don’t expect that this will change things radically in Turkey. There is not another election in Turkey for another four years, so a long time for Erdoğan to regain his footing and continue the transformation of Turkey that we’ve seen over the course of the last fifteen years.


There’s so much ground to cover and I want to leave a lot of time for questions, but there’s just a couple of other points, neither of them small.

I’m going to ask you about the Bahrain conference because you have been thinking about it. And anyone else chime in.

So very briefly, in case you’re not all aware, the conference was yesterday and is going on today in Bahrain—is supposedly about the first phase in the long-awaited peace plan that Jared Kushner has been preparing. This is supposed to be the economic phase. There’s a lot of loose talk about fifty billion dollars for development in the region. None of that money is committed. About half of it in theory is supposed to go to the Palestinians. Mind you, there’s no money, this is theory. And a large chunk of that would be loans.

The question at hand is, this conference hasn’t generated much interest, the Palestinians are boycotting it, there are no Israeli officials there. Does this conference tell us that the peace process is basically over and that there is an effort to think about how to provide some benefits for a long-term status quo with no talks and a continued Israeli presence, control, occupation in the West Bank, and control of Gaza? I mean, how do you see this conference? What does it signify?

COOK: Well, the peace process has been dead for a long time.

RUBIN: Right.

COOK: I think that should be clear to everybody. I’m not quite sure why this conference is happening, but let’s assume—let’s assume that there really is fifty billion dollars on the table. While that’s nothing to sneer at, let’s be clear how the Palestinians view this and why they’re not there, even if there was an actual fifty billion dollars on the table. From their perspective, and I think they’re quite right, their economic situation is a function of an occupation that is becoming an annexation of the West Bank and the permanent control of the Gaza Strip, which the Israelis have help from the Egyptians on.

So no matter what money is put towards the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, unless the Palestinians have some horizon, some hope that this process will end in addressing their desire, their national aspirations, there’s no reason for them to be there. And it’s really hard to argue with them.

Even if there were fifty billion dollars on the table, I think what the Trump administration vastly underestimates the fact that the idea of steadfastness under adverse conditions and resistance are critical components of Palestinian identity and they’re not going to take a buyout. They’re not going to take a buyout. There is something that is Palestine, it’s real, it’s real in their minds, they deserve it, there’s a historical injustice that needs to be addressed. And that the Trump administration has defunded USAID, withdrawn from the United Nations Relief Works Agency, moved the embassy to Jerusalem without extracting anything. Look, you can move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but extract something either from the Israeli government in return from it or demand something of someone for it rather than just feeding your domestic politics with it.

So there doesn’t seem to me to be a real strategic goal here other than the idea that the president said he was going to get the deal of the century, unlike his predecessors. There just doesn’t seem to be much of it.

But let me just add one more thing about this. This whole thing about Arab-Israeli conflict is based on a number of fantasies held by everybody. And I think what the problem in Washington is we are perennially behind the curve. Fantasy number one, of the right, that annexation can happen and no one will notice and no one will care. Fantasy number two, on the left, there can be a viable one-state solution to this conflict. Fantasy number three, everybody else, that the two-state solution is still alive. None of those things can actually happen. So it’s incumbent upon everybody to think about some other type of creative way to manage or resolve this conflict. There is no way any of those three things are going to happen going forward.

And we have fallen down on this because if you say in official circles in Washington the two-state solution is dead, people snap back at you and say, well, what’s your alternative? And if you were to say let’s all put our heads together and try to figure that out, we go back to the two-state solution. It’s just does not align with the reality of the situation on the ground, any of those options.

RUBIN: Well, I think that neatly sums up that the United States is in the region. So let me summarize before we go to questions. We have a situation where the hot-button issue of the moment and probably for some time to come is Iran where nobody wants a war, but we could be dragged towards conflict, and our goals are unclear.

We have a close alignment with Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia is in flux with a crown prince who is attempting big things, but nobody knows if he can achieve them. And in the meantime, the U.S. is somewhat dependent on the Saudis and is somewhat dragged into supporting a war in Yemen that is going no one knows where and is involved in this geopolitical conflict between Iran and the Saudis—so dragged-in objectives unclear.

And we have the issue that has obsessed presidents up until now for decades, which is, how to bring peace between Israel and the Arabs? And since Oslo, how to enact an Israeli-Palestinian peace? And it’s totally up in the air with very little link to reality.

So when we are talking about the U.S. role in the Middle East, we have a lot of question marks. And that brings us to you, the audience. So we will now have questions from you and you can ask to your heart’s content how to clarify some of these question marks.

And let me just say, please, no speeches, real questions welcomed. Identify yourself at the beginning. Thank you.

Yes, sir.

GANDHI: Homi Gandhi. I represent the Zoroastrian Associations of North America. I’m the president.

You talked about three issues. What about the issue of refugees, which is a burning issue in the Middle East? I’d like to ask the panelists, all of them, what do they think about it, and where do we go from here?

RUBIN: Who would like to start?

HAYKEL: I can begin if you like.

So the principal country that has produced the largest number of refugees in the last few years has been Syria. So you have about five (million) or six million who have left the country, you have another five (million) or six million internally displaced, meaning they’re refugees, but they’ve remained inside the country. And it looks unlikely that the Syrian regime, which appears to have won the civil war, to be willing to allow them back into the country. That is because most of the refugees, the vast, vast majority, are Sunni Muslims and the regime is a minority Shiite regime and it doesn’t want any of these Sunnis because the demographic balance has kind of shifted in favor of the regime and the communities that support it. So these refugees now are in Lebanon, are in Turkey, are in Jordan, and also many have come to Europe.

You also have another refugee problem from the southern rim of the Mediterranean, people who are coming from Sub-Saharan Africa mainly, through Libya and then trying to cross by boat into Europe.

I think that this phenomenon is unlikely to go away. And it’s a function of certain structural features that have no easy solution. The first is you have a demographic boom or bubble or bulge in the Middle East and in Sub-Saharan Africa, so you have many, many people, and you also have regimes that are authoritarian and repressive and that economically don’t provide sufficient opportunities for their populations. So these are countries or regions, territories that are always going to export people and the place that they will want to go to are the places where you have either economic opportunity or political openness and freedom.

And so the Europeans, especially the Western Europeans, are at the receiving end of this—of these structural dynamics. And the structural dynamics appear to me to be getting worse because of climate change as well. So that’s pushing a lot of people out of rural areas into urban areas and then ultimately trying to seek a way out of the countries that they’re in. So the trend is a very negative one and it looks to be a secular trend, in other words a long-term trend.

RUBIN: Do either of you want to add something?

COOK: Just to add to Bernie’s negative trends, the fact that so many refugees are on the move and their destination is Europe is a principal reason why we’re seeing the kinds of politics that we’re seeing in Europe these days, which is quite frightening. They’re seeking refuge in places where there’s freedom and freedom of expression in places where they’ve generally been welcomed in the past, but it’s turning Europe into a place where you have resurgent white-wing fascist and neofascist and neo-Nazi parties that are on the rise. That should be deeply, deeply worrying to everybody. This is a very, very different world that we’re living in and this is one of the reasons.

RUBIN: And I would just add to that that the refugee situation, which could get much worse from the Middle East and I’ll mention why in a second, is very indicative of the fact that the United States is basically withdrawing from the region. You have—and that there is no power or concert of powers which can substitute and bring stability. And the perfect example of that is what is going on in the Idlib region of Syria where there are a couple-of-million people who are under siege, who have fled from other areas of Syria, and the regime and Bashar al-Assad’s Russian backer have not quite decided how to handle this. Because if the regime with Russian help goes in and tries to clean out Idlib, the last bastion of resistance to Assad, you could have a couple-of-million more refugees fleeing towards Turkey and maybe towards Europe because the agreement between the Turks and the Europeans could break down. Turkey doesn’t want more refugees. But on the other hand, Turkey, which was supposed to stabilize that area out of an agreement with Russia, has failed, it clearly can’t.

So we have Turkish inability, Russian uncertainty. We haven’t talked about Russia’s involvement in the region, but they’re back big time. Nobody is really capable at this moment of bringing stability, and so you could have another refugee flow, which none of the neighbors are capable of handling. Europe desperately doesn’t want, nor does Turkey want it. And I think that symbolizes where we are in the Middle East today.

Let me take one from the back. This gentleman—yes, sir.

HARRISON: Mark Harrison with United Methodist Church.

To Bernard real quick. There is a fourth solution. It’s a one-state solution and the one-state solution is Israel. That exists in Washington as well.

I just want to ask about the—

MEK, right?


Right now in Washington area, there’s this new group saying it represents the religious community of Iran. And they want us to sign onto statements saying that we support—faith groups in Washington or around the country—to support religious freedom in Iran. So I just want to know, what do you think? And I’m somewhat opposed to that. I don’t know what you know about it.

And what do you all think of the role or the role that Christian Zionists are playing in the country?

RUBIN: I think we have to limit it to one question.

TABATABAI: I don’t know anything about the initiative you’re talking about. But obviously, religious freedom is a huge issue in Iran. I happen to think that the solution to that is more internal than it is external. In other words, I think that the role that the United States can play right now is getting to be pretty limited considering all the things that are happening.

And I would actually just add that when you do have tensions with the outside world, the way the regime tends to respond is by crushing opposition internally and by tightening the grip of power internally. We’ve seen it time and again, when conflict has happened in the 1980s with Iraq, the end of the conflict was an excellent opportunity for the regime to essentially crush the opposition and make sure that it emerged from the—from the war as unchallenged. And you see it often with sanctions as well.

So the worst thing we can possibly do for religious minorities in the country is not giving them the room to breathe and not allowing the otherwise very dynamic civil society to actually do what it’s supposed to do and to kind of push boundaries domestically, whether that’s through conflict or crippling sanctions.

RUBIN: Somebody from the middle. Sir.

ISAAC: My name is Ephraim Isaac. I’m director of the Institute of Semitic Studies, which is an academic research institute. We publish a journal of ethical studies.

Some five years ago, a group of religious leaders went to the West Bank and Israel and put a question to the leaders. And I’ll put the same question to you. The question is, a one-state solution is dead, nobody will accept it, a two-state solution looks practical, but in the long run it may not work because then a conflict might develop; therefore, what about a two-state solution with federation, like in Belgium or in Switzerland? And the religious leaders liked the idea. In fact, a letter has been sent to Netanyahu and Kushner.

What do you think? Is there a possibility for such a thing as a two-state solution, but a federated? Economically, they’re integrated already. Military is the problem. The rest, they will be separated, education, religion, and so on and so forth. I don’t know if my question is clear.

COOK: It’s very clear. And my answer is no, I don’t think it’s possible. This is an issue that has been bandied about since at least the 1990s. Federation, confederation, including Jordan, there have been very, very few takers among Palestinians and Israelis for this. Palestinians want a Palestinian state; Israel wants to live in Israel. They don’t want to—they don’t want to share, they don’t want to change. Israelis are happy with the status quo as it is. It’s not hurting. I was just there, everybody in Israel’s view is, well, it could be worse, everything seems to be pretty good. And the Palestinians have minimal demands—minimal demands—for peace with Israel that the Israelis, for their own politics, can’t deliver and vice-versa.

So I don’t know how you get to a point of confederation or federation between these two peoples when they have very conflicting demands and are unable to envision what it would look like in any kind of political situation other than what the status quo is.

RUBIN: I would just add quickly to that. The issue of federation, confederation was very hot in the 1980s, which I remember because I was Middle East correspondent based in the region. And then, it was talk about a federation or confederation between the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan. And this issue has also come up again now.

And it fell apart because King Hussein, the father of the current king, was open to a federation, but “federation” has a specific meaning. It means there may be more than one part, but there is only one head, there is one head at the top who controls the military and the intelligence services and King Hussein wanted it to be him, whereas Arafat wanted two separate states which would come together in a confederation, which, as you know, is a different animal. It means you have two states who agree to give up some powers, but they can both have their own militaries and so forth.

It’s not going to happen with Jordan. Israel doesn’t want it. The Jordanians don’t want it. And the Palestinians would never take less than a state. So I’m afraid it’s a moot point, even though it sounds so good on paper or in discussion.

Yes, sir. You, yes.

AL-QAZWINI: —al-Qazwini, Islamic Educational Center of Orange County.

My question is, where do you see our relationship headed with Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government? There was a time where we chatted at a dinner table with him, our leaders, and then we wanted him gone, and then Russia showed up and we kind of backed off into obscurity. So where is that headed in the next few years?

RUBIN: Who wants to take that? Bernard?

HAYKEL: I can take it.

I think it really depends on who is leading in the United States. I would find it very difficult for President Trump or the people around him to admit him back into the community of nations, not least because the cues that the Trump administration is getting from Israel, from Saudi Arabia, and so on is that he’s still unacceptable.

A democratic administration, though, would be quite different. I think people like Nancy Pelosi, for instance, have visited him. They thought that he could be reasoned with. It’s hard not least because this is a man who is responsible for over five-hundred-thousand deaths, several-hundred-thousand, maybe another five-hundred-thousand disappeared, and then some eleven million displaced. So this is kind of World War II-level crime and it’s hard to imagine how such a regime or such a person can be reincorporated into the community of nations.

TABATABAI: I was just going to add that the conflict is still ongoing, right? We haven’t even really truly entered the phase of reconstruction. So it’s hard for me to see the U.S. reengaging the Assad regime while the conflict is still ongoing. Though, who knows? By the time the conflict is over, a number of regional countries may have normalized relations with Assad again. Some are indicating that they are willing to do that already. And so if the Assad regime begins to become more normalized over time, then it would, potentially by the end of the conflict, it would make it easier, I think, for the United States, for the next administration, or a second Trump term administration to kind of reengage the regime.

COOK: Let me just add very quickly that it’s the policy of the Trump administration to bring down the Assad regime. If you talk to officials in the Trump administration, they want to use this issue of reconstruction. They believe that—the supporters of Assad believe that the war is over and that life should be getting better and they’re determined to make life worse for these people in the hopes that they’ll rise up and someone will put, to be quite frank, a bullet in the back of Bashar al-Assad’s head. So there isn’t, within the Trump administration, a desire to sort of move closer to the Emirates, the Omanis, the Algerians, and a whole host of Arab countries, the Egyptians who have been supporting him all along, and reengage with the Assad regime.

I think also, as Bernie pointed out, the World War II-level scale of violence and killing I can’t imagine that even if John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi dined with Bashar al-Assad well-before the outbreak of war in Syria, this is a regime that is so deeply intertwined with Russia and Iran—and Iran, let’s underline that—that I can’t see any, despite what the Arab world might do, I just don’t see that the United States would reengage.

TABATABAI: A Tulsi Gabbard administration would, though.

COOK: A Tulsi—yes. I stand corrected. A Tulsi Gabbard administration would immediately. That would probably be the first thing that the Gabbard administration would do.

RUBIN: The lady in the back here.

JONES: —Jones from Union Theological Seminary.

And this is a question about Iran and it ties back to the previous conversation about Sub-Saharan Africa. But could you say, in terms of the internal pressures for change, something about the impact in Iran of climate change and of the demographics in terms of just how young the population of Iran is and what that signals going forward? Two pressures for change that we don’t often talk about in terms of the internal workings of the state.

TABATABAI: Both important questions. And going back to the question of migration and refugees and climate change, one of the things that Iran is going to grapple with over the next couple of decades, even sooner than that, is, one, water scarcity, which is already a huge issue in Iran; and second, there are parts of Iran that are going to be essentially uninhabitable over the next few decades.

So that all makes it a, you know, a very important challenge. And I think there is a growing understanding in Iran, especially within the younger generation, that this is something that they have to grapple with. The challenge being that for some strange reason the regime has decided that climate change and the environment is an issue that needs to be contained and it has become increasingly politicized.

So over the past few years, the regime has been arresting environmental activists. The head of the department of environment was essentially kicked out of the country after having experienced a lot of hardline pushback and criticism. And from what I understand, the reasons why they kicked him out were essentially bogus or made up to kind of get rid of him, all of it because these are people who are talking about how water is an important issue, climate change is an important issue.

And so the regime has not figured out how to deal with this, although people like Rouhani are acknowledging that they have to—they have to tackle it. So the challenge being that if the current politicization of this issue continues, then Iran is going to be—is not going to ahead of the curve when it comes to tackling an issue that is going to very much impact security over the next—the next few decades.

In terms of the youth, there is a lot to be—to be said. It’s not directly my area of expertise, but I think the general truism is that the post-revolution generation, the generation that grew up after the collapse of the shah, is fairly inclined toward the West, is fairly eager to see the country overcome the isolation that it’s experienced over the past few decades. And I think that is largely true.

I do think that it’s important to kind of, first of all, put that in context and recognize that there is a regime base within the youth as well. That’s number one.

And number two, I think, is that this is also a generation that lived through 2009a very successful crackdown on the protests, and that has since seen the Arab Spring and the aftermath of it. So although it is very eager, very dynamic, and very eager to kind of change the system to see reform, I think it’s very much stymied by regional issues, by economic issues, by the lack of opportunities, and so on and so forth.


HUSAIN: Thank you. Thank you for taking my question. I’m Sarwat Husain from CAIR Texas.

My question is, don’t we see any problem where we are being so selective about supporting some of the governments, some of the regimes that are suppressive and the others that are not? Saudi Arabia, we are sending them billions of dollars of arms sales and then we are against the others. So why can’t we play an even hand? Do we ever speak up, not playing an even hand?

HAYKEL: I mean, you know, maybe you can clarify, but outside of Turkey and the region, and leaving aside Israel, there are no democratic regimes, they’re all repressive.

HUSAIN: Right, but we’re supporting some of them—Saudi Arabia.

HAYKEL: Yes, we are supporting some of them, absolutely.

HAYKEL: And that’s longstanding policy that has to do with American interests.

HUSAIN: Well, it’s the interests that plays the game, it’s not whether they’re repressive or not.

COOK: Well, that’s exactly right. You could summarize our support for certain authoritarians in our opposition to other authoritarians as some of them are our bastards who support our interests, they share our interests. So why for thirty years did the United States provide billions of dollars of aid to Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt? Well, Hosni Mubarak kept the Suez Canal open, maintained the peace with Israel, and kept the heel of his boot on the Islamists. Those are all in the interests of the United States.

Now, we may talk about our values and freedom and liberty, but one of the things that have outraged people in the Middle East is, the difference between those principals and ideals in which we like to live by here or that we aspire to here in the United States and our conduct in the world. But this is—it’s not something new. It’s something that has gone on for a very, very long time.

I commend to you an article that is just rich in this area. It’s a 1979 article by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was Ronald Reagan’s permanent representative to the U.N. It was called Dictatorships and Double Standards, in which she essentially laid out the intellectual reasons for supporting certain authoritarians versus others and ended on the and I think this is one that she was wrong about—is that authoritarians who tended to share American interests were more susceptible to reform. That’s not the case. She was wrong about that. But I think that she laid out the case why we should support authoritarians who share our goals and interests. And that continues to rule American foreign policy.

RUBIN: But I think one should add here, Congress, the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, has passed legislation calling for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, not a new arms sale, not to go forward. And I think it’s a very legitimate question to ask, given the status of the Yemen war, the unease in Congress, and the lack of any new authorization for participating in wars since 9/11. Is it a wise idea to have a major new arms sale to Saudi Arabia? And is it a wise idea to sell nuclear technology?

And I’m curious, I’d like to start with Bernie and run through the panel on what your thinking is.

HAYKEL: So this issue about selling weapons and then telling the state that we are selling weapons to how and when they can use the weaponry, I mean, that’s something that’s very much in the news, in Europe in particular where Germany, for instance, stands very strongly about how its equipment can or cannot be used.

You know, the United States is the principal exporter of weapons in the world. These are—these are the most lucrative markets are in the Middle East. You know, the determination has to be made by the president, but also by Congress. There are a lot of jobs that are involved in this in the United States.

RUBIN: But in this case, the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, is opposed.

HAYKEL: Yeah. And the Saudis will probably, if this becomes a persistent pattern, look for other suppliers, mainly either Russia or China, which would really completely upturn the relationship that it has had with the United States over many decades.

Now, in terms of nuclear technology, so the United States did sell nuclear technology to the UAE and made the UAE sign an agreement—I think it’s called the 123 Agreement—where the UAE would basically not enrich domestically and then also send out any used nuclear materials, fissile materials, back out of the country. So those are the kinds of agreements where, you know, you can guarantee that the technology is being used only for power generation and not for anything else. I don’t see a problem with that kind of agreement.

TABATABAI: Can I jump in on the nuclear front as well? I think, in terms of providing the Saudis with nuclear technology, better us than the Russians for a number of reasons, including nuclear safety and security. We just have a better track record with these things than they do. And precisely because of the UAE model, currently it seems like the administration is pushing for the Saudis to comply with the additional protocol to the IAEA safeguards agreement, which would mean a lot of monitoring, a lot more than you would have otherwise. And if we can actually put these steps forward and enforce them, then it’s a lot better to be involved in the nuclear Saudi program—in the Saudi nuclear program than stay out of it and let them actually go unchecked and do whatever they want and you can end up with the case like the Iranian case, right, where until we were there we had a much stronger sort of idea of what was going on, and then when you withdraw that’s when countries tend to kind of go all-in and pursue their own—the capabilities that they want.


COOK: One second on this. First, Trudy, with respect, I don’t think it’s as it is bipartisan, but it’s not as if a majority of the Republicans in the Senate joined with their Democratic colleagues.

COOK: It’s maybe even in single digits joined who with their Democratic colleagues to block the weapons sale.

All that being said, there’s a lot of activity and anger in Congress about the Yemen war. I happen to think it has much more to do with unfinished business related to September 11 than anything else. But you can’t legislate the end of a war, especially when I think Yemen has been misunderstood.

There was a civil war. One of the parties of the civil war and these Houthis. It’s not a tribe, it’s a group of people, follower of a man, who are among the worst people in the world, have adopted and used the Iranian revolutionary creed, but it is “death to America, death to Israel.” Did they add “curse the Jews?”

HAYKEL: “Curse the Jews.”

COOK: “Curse the Jews, death to Saudi Arabia, and victory for Islam.” Their interest is to continue to fight. They have drawn Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is stuck. The Saudis—that’s not to exonerate the Saudis. They don’t know how to use the weaponry we’ve sold them. They have a communications strategy that is not worthy of one. When you hit a bus of schoolchildren, you cannot for three weeks continue to say it was a legitimate target.

There’s a whole—but there’s a whole host of things that I think that Congress is outraged about that is not going to change the situation on the ground. And the situation on the ground has to do with Iran, it has to do with the Houthis, it has to do with Saudi Arabia, and it has to do with the very fact—coming back to what this session is about—the perception of all of those parties that the United States is leaving the region and doesn’t care very much about this conflict.

OK, thank you.

RUBIN: On that note, I’m afraid our time is up. And thank you very much. And I thank the panel very much. (Applause.)

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