The Middle East’s Reaction to the Invasion of Ukraine, With Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how countries throughout the Middle East are responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

May 10, 2022 — 30:53 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Steven A. Cook

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars

Show Notes

Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how countries throughout the Middle East are responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

 

Articles Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Steven Cook, “The Middle East Kumbaya Moment Won’t Last,” Foreign Policy, May 6, 2022

 

Books Mentioned

 

Steven Cook, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East (2019)

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is, The Middle East Reaction to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. With me to discuss how Middle Eastern countries are responding to the Russian invasion is Steven Cook. Steven is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council. His most recent book is "False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East". He also writes a column at foreignpolicy.com. Steven, thanks for coming back on The President's Inbox.

Steven Cook:

It's great to be back, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Steven, there are really two things I want to talk about in our conversation. One is how Middle Eastern countries are reacting to Ukraine, but I also want to get into some of the very interesting diplomacy that has been taking place within the region. But first let's talk about how the leading countries in the Middle East have reacted to the invasion. We're now two plus months since the invasion took place. I think it's safe to say initially, the United States was disappointed that many of its allies and partners in the Middle East didn't seem to rush behind Washington's leadership in condemning Moscow. Can you sort of bring us up to speed as to what has happened since then?

Steven Cook:

Thanks, Jim. I think that the United States remains disappointed at most of its primary partners in the region. With the exception of the Qataris who very early on, unequivocally condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel have really sought to walk a fine line between their relations with Moscow. In particular, when it comes to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, their economic ties to Russia through what's called OPEC+ and the strategic interest that countries like Israel and Turkey have in Syria, which requires them to have good ties with Moscow. So, all of these countries have, in ways said, "Well, we support a mediated solution to the conflict without coming out and directly condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine."

Jim Lindsay:

Steven, I get the broad point that these countries have ties, relationships, interest at stake with Moscow, but last I checked, they presumably had ties and interests at stake with the United States. And indeed, I would've thought, even bigger ties, interests, and stakes with the United States. So, maybe we should just sort of go country by country. Help me understand why it is for example, that the Israelis have not seemed to be forward leaning and condemning the invasion, particularly given the fact that the President of Ukraine is Jewish.

Steven Cook:

Yeah, it's a terrific question. But before I get into the ins and outs of the Israeli position, let me just say, I think that the expectation that Washington's partners would line up with the United States over this issue was not entirely accurate. I think it's a reflection of the fact that not everybody has caught up to the fact that the world really is changing and that the regional political order in which the United States led and these countries didn't have options, is really coming to an end, in fact, has come to an end and we're entering into a new era.

Steven Cook:

When it comes to Israel specifically, I think this is the case where two separate things are going on all at the same time. Yes, Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and there are historic Jewish ties to Ukraine as well as to Russia. But here the Israelis, there's been some pause among the Israeli public, given the history of Ukrainians and their collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust. I was in Israel in March, and I heard that more than once, that there was a tremendous amount of ambivalence because of what Ukrainians had done during World War II.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, not these Ukrainians.

Steven Cook:

Not these Ukrainians.

Jim Lindsay:

Grandparents or great grandparents of these Ukrainians.

Steven Cook:

Exactly. That there was a history of collaboration among Ukrainians at the time with Nazi Germany.

Jim Lindsay:

And there was, correct?

Steven Cook:

There absolutely was. This historical record is absolutely clear. That doesn't legitimize Russian President Vladimir Putin's charge that the Ukrainian government is filled with Nazis, that's of course absurd. At the same time, the Israelis have had to develop relations with Putin because he is the kingmaker in Syria. And in order for them to conduct their shadow war against the Iranians in Syria, they have needed Vladimir Putin to be solicitous towards their military activity and deconflict their Air Forces, Israeli Air Force from the Russian Air Force and Syrian Air Defense so that the Israelis can have their way with the Iranians. Something that Putin implicitly supports because he doesn't want the Iranians to rival Russia as kingmakers in Syria, so that's the Israeli position, it's been conflicted. Of course, when the Russian foreign minister makes claims that Adolf Hitler was Jewish and that Jews paid—was involved in financing the Holocaust to make a connection to the present day, Ukrainian leadership and Nazism.

Steven Cook:

This has an effect on Israel's relations with Russia. Allegedly, the Russian president has apologized for the foreign minister's remarks, but this has edged Israel somewhat closer to more open support for Ukraine in the conflict.

Jim Lindsay:

Just a quick question about internal Israeli domestic politics, Steven, there are a large number of Russian emigres living in Israel, children of those emigres, to what extent is that factored into these calculations? And to what extent is Israel's tempered support for Ukraine a factor in Israeli domestic politics?

Steven Cook:

This is another important issue. There are large numbers of Russians and a smaller number of Ukrainian Jews in Israel and Russian Jews who started coming in large numbers in the early 1990s have political weight. And so, there is some pro-Putin sentiment among this population. Again, this contributes to the fine line that the Israeli prime minister has had to walk in this conflict between the strategic needs of the country, the historical weight of the Holocaust and constituencies that are, you know, have—Russia is the motherland. This is something that he's had to contend with. He's been much, much more careful in approaching the crisis in Ukraine than for example, his foreign minister, Yair Lapid, who's been more openly supportive of the Ukrainians, if not openly critical of the Russians as the invasion has unfolded.

Jim Lindsay:

Let's head east and let's talk about Riyadh. I think it's well known that President Biden turned to Riyadh turned, to King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and asked them to open up the oil taps to drive down the price of oil, to both deal with inflation and the consequences of Russian oil coming off the market, and as I understand, it got a full-throated no. Walk me through what's going on there.

Steven Cook:

Well, there's a couple things that are happening with Saudi Arabia, and let's go back to President Biden's run for the White House in which, at the moment that foreign policy came up and the issue of Saudi Arabia came up, he declared that Saudi Arabia was beyond the pale and that the leadership was a bunch of killers and he vowed to hold them accountable. Once he was elected and took the oath of office, he did make it clear to the king that there was going to be a different kind of relationship under the Biden administration. He also said that he would not talk to the Crown Prince, essentially making him persona non grata in the United States and put a hold on weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia so it could be reviewed. Those weapons were destined to Saudi Arabia and the concern was that they would be used in Yemen. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015. Yemen was having a civil war and it has become a quagmire for producing a very serious humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

Steven Cook:

And early on in his tenure, the United States also removed Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia, which was, from the Saudi perspective, particularly provocative given the fact that the Houthis, who the Saudis are battling in Yemen, have been firing missiles at Saudi population centers with some regularity. Let's start with that context. And then you have the gradual run up of prices in oil and price of gallon of gasoline at the pump starting last summer, the summer of 2021. Then of course, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, you had this significant spike in the price of a barrel of oil in March, it reached $125 a barrel. Just today, the average price of gasoline in the United States is $4.37 a gallon. People are really feeling the pinch. So the president has dispatched any number of emissaries to Riyadh and said, "Can you help us out here? You are the swing state. We've got problems. And this Russian invasion is having a major impact on the United States."

Steven Cook:

In which, as you point out, the Saudis have essentially said no. They said a couple things. They said publicly that the oil market is actually stable and that to pump more oil would destabilize it. Keep in mind that Saudi Arabia and Russia are partners in something called OPEC+. This is the OPEC members plus additional members.

Jim Lindsay:

Because Russia is not a member of OPEC.

Steven Cook:

Russia is not a member of OPEC, but it is a critical member of OPEC+. And the Saudis have said, "We're not going to politicize OPEC and just pump oil because the United States wants us to, to make up for a Russian oil that is off the market." Also, keep in mind that the Saudis and Russians benefit from high oil markets. The Saudi growth rates in the first quarter on high oil prices was almost 10% of growth rate of GDP.

Jim Lindsay:

That works only as long as oil prices stay high and history suggested oil prices can be cyclical and you can end up going from very high oil prices to very low oil prices in part because high oil prices can induce an economic recession.

Steven Cook:

Indeed the high oil prices of the mid and late 1970s induced an oil glut in the mid 1980s, where I remember when I first started to drive in the mid to late 1980s, I could fill up my Toyota for $6. It is indeed cyclical. But of course, for the moment, Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman are enjoying these phenomenal economic growth rates of fattening treasury. And of course, Mohammed bin Salman has huge plans to reform and rebuild Saudi Arabia, that costs a lot of money. Because they don't trust the United States, because they feel like the United States broke its commitment to help ensure Saudi's security, the Saudis don't feel much inclined to help President Biden.

Jim Lindsay:

When did the United States break that trust, Steven?

Steven Cook:

Well, they are focusing on the current administration, but of course this goes back in history to other administrations. I mean, the Saudi complaints about the United States go back at least to the administration of George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq, which they believe brought Iranian influence into a major Arab country. Then you have the Obama administration unwilling to intervene in Syria, where the Iranians have been quite active, the ambivalence towards Yemen. Trump administration's non-response to a direct Iranian attack on Saudi territory in 2019. There is an accumulation of these types of things that have convinced the Saudis that the United States isn't committed to their security. And then of course, you get to early Biden administration, holding the Saudis accountable, removing the Patriots, and you have a real distancing between the two countries.

Jim Lindsay:

Can the rift, and it appears to be a very big rift between Washington and Riyadh, be stitched up or is the Biden administration better off moving another direction?

Steven Cook:

Well, if we are worried about oil prices, at least at the moment, Saudi Arabia is the only swing state. The only capable country of putting more oil on the market to alleviate the sticker shock that Americans are having. And of course, President Biden has kind of a short term time horizon here. There are upcoming midterm elections, and of course he's looking forward to 2024 and a possible reelection bid. More broadly and over a longer period of time, Saudi Arabia is going to be less important. Of course, the energy transition will be something that isn't smooth. The US Intelligence Community believes it won't really pick up until after 2030. So that you do have these kind of geopolitical moments where Saudi Arabia seems more important than ever before, but in the coming decades, should this energy transition actually take place, Saudi Arabia will be less important, then it is easier for the United States to go its separate way from the Gulf.

Jim Lindsay:

This is where we get criticism of the Biden administration from environmentalists and progressives who would argue oil prices are up, you should actually lean into it. You can speed up the green transition that in the end, that will make you less dependent upon the Saudis and others and it would actually help with the mitigation of climate change, which is not a distant problem; it's a here and now problem. But let's switch gears, Steven, and talk about Turkey. Now the Turks seem to be in a slightly different position than the Israelis and the Saudis and the Emiratis.

Steven Cook:

The Turks, in a kind of broad, abstract way, face the similar kind of problems and constraints that the Israelis have. They also need Vladimir Putin in Syria, because they are battling Kurdish separatists there. Kurdish fighting force called the People's Protection Units are allies of the United States in the fight against the Islamic state. But from the perspective of Turkey, is a terrorist organization, intimately linked to the Kurdistan workers party, which has been waging a terror campaign against Turkey since the mid 1980s.

Steven Cook:

The Turks have also needed Vladimir Putin's ascent when it has attacked these Kurdish fighting forces. Although in a variety of episodes, the Turks have demonstrated their military proficiency in these areas of Northern Syria that have forced the Russians to take a step back, but still there is this kind of strategic rationale for the Turks to be playing both a role that is supportive of Ukraine without breaking its relations with Vladimir Putin. The Turks have not sanctioned Russia, and you can still fly between Moscow and Istanbul. Now the Turks will make the argument that if they placed Russia under sanction, it would contribute to the collapse of the Turkish economy, which is already suffering from a major currency crisis and a variety of other problems.

Jim Lindsay:

Largely self-inflicted.

Steven Cook:

All of it's self-inflicted, and that the tourist season is a very significant one for Turkey. They look forward to welcoming Russian tourists to beautiful Istanbul and the Mediterranean beaches.

Jim Lindsay:

Assuming their credit cards work, which they probably won't.

Steven Cook:

Perhaps they will come in with cash, which I haven't looked, but I don't know which is worth more the ruble or the lira. The lira which has lost huge amount, at least half of its value this year alone, after a terrible year in 2021, in which it lost half of its value. At the same time though, President Erdogan has been outspoken in his support for Ukrainian independence and sovereignty, and Turkey has been supplying critical military equipment to Ukraine that has been deployed very successfully by Ukrainian forces. This is the TB2 Bayraktar drone, which the Russians have no answer for it. Now this isn't the first time that TB2s have been deployed. They were used by Turkish and Turkish-aligned forces in Libya to great effect. They've been used in Ethiopia to great effect. They were used to cut up Armenian forces in the brief fight between Armenian forces and Azeri forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The TB2 has become legendary and the Turks are sending them to Ukraine while at the same time, presenting itself as a credible mediator in the conflict.

Jim Lindsay:

Are the Turks sending the TB2s to Ukraine or selling them to Ukraine?

Steven Cook:

Let me just say they're selling them to Ukraine.

Jim Lindsay:

And the remarkable thing about the Turkish drones is that they're both very effective, but also relatively inexpensive compared to drones manufactured in the United States, in Israel, and other countries.

Steven Cook:

That's exactly right. They're effective, they're inexpensive and importantly, the Turks can sell them. There aren't export constraints on them, for example, in the United States. One of the reasons, and I know you want to talk about this, one of the reasons why the Saudis have been interested in a rapprochement with the Turks is because they want to get their hands on these TB2 drones that they could use in Yemen, because of course the United States won't sell them US technology. And it would be, I think, beyond how far the Saudis have come in terms of under the table, normalization with Israel to actually purchase Israeli drones, which are also expensive.

Jim Lindsay:

You've invited me to segue, Steven, so I'm going to segue into this question about the very interesting diplomacy taking place within the region. As you suggested in your last remarks, Erdogan recently traveled to Riyadh to meet the king and the crown prince, Iranian and Saudi officials apparently are having conversations. Israel's president visited Ankara. I believe it was the first senior Israeli official to go to Turkey in 14 years, and even Bashar al-Assad got into the mix. He went to Dubai for Expo 2020, which is taking place in 2022 because of the pandemic. And you have an article about this in foreignpolicy.com called "The Middle East's Kumbaya Moment Won't Last," which I think telegraphs your overarching argument, but walk me through it.

Steven Cook:

I do love the headline writers at foreignpolicy.com. They always come up with something interesting.

Jim Lindsay:

So it wasn't your headline that you chose?

Steven Cook:

It wasn't, although I did use kumbaya in the piece so I'm partially guilty. Look, I think that it is a good thing that all of these countries are talking to each other, but I think it's a function of the fact that none of them have been able to impose their will on the other. The Saudis and the Iranians are at basically loggerheads and they're unable to achieve victory. The Emiratis had sought to counter the exercise of Turkish power around the region by supporting people like General Khalifa Haftar, the former Gaddafi general who's made a bid to become the leader of Libya by attacking the internationally recognized government in Tripoli or the Israelis have bandwagoned with Greece and Cyprus and Egypt to oppose Turkish power in the Eastern Mediterranean. None of this has led to actual victory. This to me seems as all the kind of talking, seems to me as competition by other means. The Emiratis seem to have determined that their vast financial power would be better employed in Turkey to gain some leverage with Erdogan, that they were unable to gain by supporting Haftar in Libya.

Jim Lindsay:

Can you just explain briefly, Steven, what is the fundamental beef that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have with Ankara?

Steven Cook:

It goes back to the coup d'etat in Egypt, in July 2013, which Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates helped to underwrite and refloated the Egyptian economy afterwards to give the new leader of Egypt, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, a boost. Erdogan and Turkish government were outraged by the coup for reasons having to do with Turkish politics. Egypt's military had overthrown an Islamist leader. In Turkey, there was an Islamist leader and a history of coups d'etat and Erdogan was very, very critical of this. He had been a supporter and patron of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and had welcomed the brothers to give them shelter there, from which they set up media operations to delegitimize the government.

Jim Lindsay:

So fundamentally, it comes down to this issue of support for the Muslim brotherhood, the Emiratis and the Saudis see it as a mortal threat and the Turks see a fellow Islamic party.

Steven Cook:

That's exactly right. Fast forward to 2017 when the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, and Egyptians laid a blockade on Qatar for a variety of reasons, including personal beefs among the leaders and Turkey immediately stepped in to support the Qataris, and even established a small military outpost in Qatar, which was sort of beyond the pale for the Saudis and the Emiratis. It went to their neurology about the Turks claiming that they are natural leaders of the region and natural leaders of the Muslim world. I think that the Egyptians and the Saudis in particular would argue on both accounts, that they are leaders of the region and leaders of the Muslim world.

Jim Lindsay:

So they're circling each other now, they're opening up new conversations, but I take it, you don't think these conversations are sincere, or they're not likely to sort of close the fundamental differences among these capitals.

Steven Cook:

They don't represent, from my perspective, they don't represent a strategic change. They are tactical maneuvers among countries that still distrust each other. That's particularly the case with the Turks and the Israelis and the Egyptians and the Turks and the Emiratis and the Saudis. But it's also has to do with the Gulf countries and Iran. The Emiratis have been to Iran, as you point out, the Iranians and the Saudis have been having rounds of talks recently. Iranian officials confirmed that fifth round of talks between those two governments. That is a way to deescalate so that those Gulf countries can live to fight another day and figure out how to manage the Iranian challenge at a time when they can't count on the United States, just looping back to our previous conversation. It doesn't strike me that this is about the kind of restoring brotherly relations as everyone said during his visit to Saudi Arabia.

Jim Lindsay:

What about the Abraham Accords? Obviously, touted by the Trump administration as a great step forward, you're seeing cooperation between the Israelis and the Emiratis. Several other countries have joined in as well, but the country that is still sitting on the sidelines in the Middle East on the Abraham Accords is Saudi Arabia. There's been some talk about behind the scenes, under the radar collaboration between Israelis and Saudis. Is it conceivable that we could see the Saudis formally recognize Israel?

Steven Cook:

Let me start out by answering your question by way of anecdote. In mid-March, I was in Dubai and upon leaving Dubai, I boarded an El Al aircraft, El Al being the Israeli Airline and took off from Dubai and traversed Saudi Arabian air space and landed in Tel Aviv.

Jim Lindsay:

I take it, it didn't use to be that way.

Steven Cook:

It definitely was not that way ever before. It's clear that Saudi Arabia is a kind of virtual signatory to the Abraham Accords. Many of the things that have happened, particularly people going back and forth between Israel and Bahrain and between Israel and the UAE could not happen without Saudi Arabia's ascent. And the fact that there is an Israeli military representative in the Bahraini capital, which is separated from Saudi Arabia by an 18-mile causeway could not really have happened without Saudi ascent, so that there is this kind of development of ties. But of course, the Saudis cannot, cannot, normalize relations with Israel as long as first, King Salman remains alive because he remains very much committed to the Palestinian cause. And even after he dies and Mohammed bin Salman becomes the king and Mohammed bin Salman has made it clear that he sees Israel as part of the region, it's going to be hard given the way in which the Saudi population views this issue.

Steven Cook:

But we can expect there to be more and more collaboration, whether it's in the security field or like I said, in these kind of under the radar screen as Saudi Arabia is a virtual member of the Abraham Accords. I will say this though, that when you have kind of a situation like we've had recently in Jerusalem where there's been violence on the Temple Mount, al-Haram al-Sharif where the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located, the holiest site in Judaism, the third holiest site in Islam and Israeli forces are compelled to enter the mosque, et cetera. It very much complicates this process of normalization.

Steven Cook:

Jerusalem is very, very important to all of these countries and it has made it very, very difficult for the Emiratis. The Emiratis were going to dispatch two aircraft to take part in the opening flyover in Israel's Independence Day, civilian aircraft, not military aircraft, and because of the violence on the Temple Mount, the al-Haram al-sharif, they had to cancel because it would've looked bad. So the Palestinian issue remains even though the Bahrainis, the Moroccans, and the Emiratis have overcome that and normalized their relations. It remains central to these relationships.

Jim Lindsay:

One country that has been notably absent from our conversation so far, Steven, even though it used to be central to everything that happened in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf is the United States. Should the Biden administration be looking at these conversations with interest, alarm, hope?

Steven Cook:

Well, I think that one of the things that's interesting to me about the conversations that are happening in the region is that they're happening almost despite the United States, and that when it comes to kind of a core group of American partners, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, which is a tiny country, but hosts the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet, for many, many years, the United States was trying to drive a consensus among those countries and now a consensus exists, but the United States is largely on the outside of it. And that has to do with Iran. It has to do with the question of human rights and the accumulation of Islamist political power in the region and the legacy of the Obama administration's policies during the Arab uprisings. And so that there is significant amount of mistrust. There was this extraordinary moment, I was in the Middle East in March, and it was kind of two extraordinary things happen.

Steven Cook:

One was my flight over Saudi Arabia on an Israeli aircraft, and the second was this summit that happened just that I was leaving, the Negev Summit. It had Arab foreign ministers, the American Secretary of State hosted by the Israeli foreign minister and the Israeli prime minister in a place called Sde Boker, which is the place where Israel's founder, David Ben-Gurion is laid to rest, and that they said that they were going to have annual meetings. Now, despite the fact that secretary Blinken was there, this was an opportunity for these governments to tell him how much they disagreed with American policy in the region.

Jim Lindsay:

I'm sure it was a fun meeting for the Secretary of State.

Steven Cook:

I was feeling bad for him, actually.

Jim Lindsay:

So is the United States going to reinsert itself in the Middle East, or is it going to continue to withdraw?

Steven Cook:

I think we're going to see the continuation of a de-emphasis of the Middle East. Of course, we remain for the moment, committed to the idea of the free flow of oil resources from the region. There's the unbreakable bond with Israel, but over time, those things are less important. And if you look at the way three presidents in a row have really talked about foreign policy and America's role in the world, and they clearly believe that we were over invested in the Middle East over a period of decades, and that there are other more important regions of the world.

Steven Cook:

East Asia, clearly Europe, now that there is a war in Europe are important. And we sort of, our diplomatic skills in those areas in our atrophy, because there was so much emphasis on what was going on in the Middle East that now we've had to play, particularly in Asia, we've had to play some catch up. I think that the pivot, whatever you want to call it, the emphasis on other regions is real. We are going to slowly withdraw for that reason and because, you know, 20, 30 years, oil may not be as important to us. Israel is an advanced industrialized country.

Jim Lindsay:

Let me ask you a closing question, Steven, that requires you to peer into the future. Obviously, part of what's driving these conversations among the Israelis, the Emiratis, the Saudis, is the fear of Iran. And of course, the Biden administration came into office talking about reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, Iran nuclear deal, pick your favorite label for it, those negotiations, I'm told, are near the finish line. We may or may not get it. There's a bit of a hangup over whether or not the United States will exceed to Iranian demands that the IRGC be taken off the terror list. Where do you think things are going to go with the Iran nuclear deal and what does that mean for what you're seeing happening in the Middle East?

Steven Cook:

The negotiations seem to be stuck on this question of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Core, which is this kind of military outfit that is the primary tool of Iranian influence in malevolent activity around the region.

Jim Lindsay:

And they try to kill Americans.

Steven Cook:

And they try to kill Americans, and so the Iranians demand that the United States de-list the IRGC, which was listed by the Trump administration. There are a whole host of other sanctions on the IRGC, so that if it was lifted, there's a debate about how much it would really make a difference, but at least symbolically, it's important. And I think the president remains concerned about the politics of that and what that might do to relations with America's partners in the region.

Jim Lindsay:

We recently had the Senate pass a non-binding resolution, which was critical of the idea of delisting the IRGC, and I think 16 Democrats join on the resolution, so that was a message being sent to the White House.

Steven Cook:

Exactly. The president doesn't seem willing to make the step and so it's really stuck. But it's not just the JCPOA, the JCPOA is part of, I think, a broader account of America in the region and how our partners, the Saudis, Emiratis, Israelis, believe that the United States has been overly solicitous of the Iranians in these negotiations and taken a number of steps, whether it's the invasion of Iraq, the non-intervention in Syria, the ambivalence towards the Yemen conflict that have contributed to Iranian power and influence around the region. And they're deeply wary as a result of the United States, whether there is a JCPOA or not. Obviously, I think that they'd be happier without one, but.

Jim Lindsay:

What that means in Iran that keeps enriching uranium.

Steven Cook:

That's exactly right.

Jim Lindsay:

Which brings us closer to a nuclear-armed Iran, which none of the people in this conversation want to see happen.

Steven Cook:

I think what they would like to see is Iran contained, and that requires an American commitment to the region. I think there's a sense that the JCPOA was basically the ticket out of the region for the United States, and that's the problem.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Steven Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Steven, as always, it was a delight to chat.

Steven Cook:

My pleasure, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox in Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen and leave us a review, they help us get noticed and improve the show. The books and articles mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe also did double duty as our recording engineer. As always Zoe, thank you for your great work. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. Thank you, Margaret. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

 

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James M. Lindsay sits down with Michael R. Gordon, national security correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, to discuss the U.S. war against ISIS.    ...

James M. Lindsay sits down with Michael R. Gordon, national security correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, to discuss the U.S. war against ISIS.    ...

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Jami Miscik and Adam Segal, co-chair and director of the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on Cybersecurity, sit down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the fragmen...

Jami Miscik and Adam Segal, co-chair and director of the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on Cybersecurity, sit down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the fragmen...

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Top Stories on CFR

Iran

The death of Mahsa Amini has sparked large-scale protests in Iran. But President Raisi’s speech at the UN General Assembly signals that the regime is not likely to soften its stance toward the Iranian people nor toward the West.

Russia

Russia’s moves to mobilize thousands more troops and to annex more of Ukraine’s territory signal a new, potentially more dangerous phase of the war.

China

More than a million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in China’s Xinjiang region. The reeducation camps are just one part of the government’s crackdown on Uyghurs.