The State of Affairs Across the Middle East, With Steven A. Cook

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 at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss what's happening across the Middle East as 2021 comes to a close.

December 21, 2021 — 38:24 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, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss what's happening across the Middle East as 2021 comes to a close.

 

Books Mentioned in the Podcast 

 

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

 

Events Mentioned 

 

A Conversation with Jake Sullivan,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 17, 2021 

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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, a Middle East update. With me, to discuss what is happening across the Middle East as 2021 comes to a close, 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.

Jim Lindsay:

Steven, thank you for joining me.

Steven Cook:

It's a great pleasure to be with you, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Steven, I want to discuss individual countries and issues. But I'd like to begin by getting your region-wide assessment. Joe Biden took office last January, looking to make China the focus of US foreign policy. The implicit, if not explicit, message in focusing on the challenge coming from Beijing was that the United States had been giving too much attention to the Middle East. Has the region been cooperating over the past year with this desire on the part of the Biden administration to rebalance toward Asia?

Steven Cook:

Well, the region cooperating with the Biden administration's desire to de-emphasize the Middle East, it's an uneven record. And I think that when the administration first took office, Secretary Antony Blinken, I think, was pretty explicit when he said that they would like to de-emphasize the region. Since then, a number of things have happened where they backtracked a bit. Senior officials have said, "Well, we're not de-emphasizing the region, but we want to get back to basics in the region. We want to be in the region in a smarter way." I think that the record really is somewhat uneven. Just to give two very brief examples: President Biden has wanted to avoid getting involved in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But in May, if The President Inbox listeners remember, there was an 11 day conflict between Israel and factions in the Gaza Strip, notably Hamas. This required the United States to get involved in order to bring about a cease fire. It also required the President to make a number of phone calls to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, someone who he had studiously avoided during his first five months in office because of Egypt's terrible human rights record. Second example: the President basically made it clear that he would deal with the Saudi king, King Salman, but would not deal with his son, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for a variety of issues; notably the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and in the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. But the United States does and still needs Saudi Arabia. And with the price of gasoline spiking in late 2021, the United States not only went to MBS but to other major oil producers in the region, and said, "Please, please, please pump more oil so that we can bring gas prices down in the United States, especially during the holiday period." Because Americans believe that they should always have relatively cheap gas. So it's hard, it's hard to de-emphasize the region when there are these important issues that present themselves.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay. So the Middle East still matters. And why don't we drill down on some of those specific issues, Steven? I propose that we'll begin in the Persian Gulf and work our way westward. Obviously, as 2021 is coming to an end, one of the big stories is that the Biden administration has not succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Iranians to bring Iran back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Indeed, news stories argue that the talks are on the brinks of collapse. The Iranians have been enriching uranium to at least 60%, for which there is no civilian need. So bring us up-to-date on where things stand and where things are likely to go in 2022?

Steven Cook:

Well, I think, as the President's National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, said very recently at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, that getting back into the JCPOA is not as easy as they had hoped it would be. The Iranians, particularly under a new hard-line president, are very tough customers at the negotiating table. They're still making mischief throughout the region. And the United States is not going to modify its own position as the Iranians continue to enrich uranium. I think that the idea that we were going to get back into this agreement was misguided. I think it's a kind of Rube Goldberg type of contraption that was okay while we were in it, but then the Trump administration breached the agreement and it's much, much harder to get back in. I think 2022 will likely see a continued effort to negotiate and continue to fail to get back into the JCPOA. What the administration's next move is, they've been very, very cagey about it. There were reports that Sullivan himself had been briefed on military options. Those news reports struck me as negotiating in public with the Iranians. But my own sense is, is that we're going to have to settle for the Iranians to be, as they say, a screwdriver away from the development of a nuclear weapon. And we're going to have to settle for deterring them.

Jim Lindsay:

This is what political scientists like to call latent nuclear capability, or just-in-time nuclear capability. You suggest that we will learn to live with it. Obviously, the Israelis feel very differently about the matter and have argued that we can't live with an Iran that is just a screwdriver away from having nuclear weapons, that suggest using military force. It's debatable how effective military force will be. Again, you've familiar with the terminology or how we would have to mow the lawn. The idea is you would have to continually bomb because the Iranians could rebuild their facilities. So how do you assess the idea of going with a military option?

Steven Cook:

Well, this is, again, a reason why the idea that the United States can de-emphasize the Middle East seemed something that people talked about in terms of political campaigns, but in reality doesn't work all that well. And the Israelis are quite concerned, for obvious reasons, that the Iranians would be a screwdriver turn away from developing a nuclear weapon. They don't themselves, do not have the capability to undertake the kind of continuous military operations that would be required in order to destroy Iran's program. And thus, they have consistently sought to alter first the Obama administration and now the Biden administration's efforts to negotiate an agreement with the Iranians. The Israelis have continued that in a different way than they did. There's a new prime minister in Israel, Naftali Bennett, whose position with regard to Iran is no different than those of the previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, but he's determined not to pick a public fight with the Biden administration over it. And in 2022 it's likely, given the realities of the Israeli capabilities ... which are extensive, but not extensive enough to really do damage in a sustained way to the Iranians ... you will continue to see the Israelis imploring the United States to think about what they call a plan B. And that plan B obviously requires American military action. I don't think that sustained military action against Iran is freight that the American political system can bear right now, given the array of problems in the inward looking way, where the country is right now. Besides, the Iranians are unlikely to sit back and take it. We know that they have capability around the region, should the United States undertake action against their nuclear program.

Jim Lindsay:

Just one last question, Steven, on Iran, and directly to this point. One of the concerns many experts have is that, with this latent capability, Iran essentially has a metaphorical shield, the threat of going nuclear so to speak, and that will embolden it to meddle in the region all the way to the Mediterranean. Are you sympathetic to that line of argument or do you think it's overstated?

Steven Cook:

No, I think that that is likely to be the case, except for the fact that it's not that the United States doesn't have any recourse in those circumstances. And I have written in the past that it struck me that the JCPOA was, in some sense, destabilizing to the region. Getting back into the JCPOA could be destabilizing to the region. So the reasonable approach is one of deterrence and containment. And that doesn't preclude talking to the Iranians, nor does it preclude the use of military action to ensure that the Iranians ... or mitigate whatever mischief that they want to make around the region. This is something that I think is well within our capability, without having to undertake continuous military operations against Iran, that will do the best that we can do given where the Iranians are. I think there's no way around it. The Trump administration's decision to breach the JCPOA encouraged the Iranians to step up their nuclear development, so that they're much closer to a nuclear weapon now. And we're confronted with this unfortunate reality. And I don't think the JCPOA is necessarily the answer to it.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay. Let's go across the Persian Gulf and talk about two countries close to the United States that are deeply affected by what's happening in Iran; and that would be Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Can you walk us through what significant developments you see happening in those two countries, particularly as it affects relations with the United States?

Steven Cook:

Well, first with Saudi Arabia. As I mentioned in our opening, the Saudis have demonstrated that they continue to be very important to the United States. And with high oil prices and high gas prices for American consumers, the administration has had to make an effort to smooth over relations that were ruffled early on in the administration, where the administration came out very strongly, said that the President won't deal with the Crown Prince, that there were some punitive measures taken against people around the Crown Prince, and that there was very public discussion of a reevaluation and realignment of the relationship where there would be no blank checks. Now, the United States does need Saudi Arabia on the energy front and there's been a softening in the tone. I think the Saudis are somewhat receptive to this. The question is, is the kind of leverage that the Saudis have now sustainable, should there be another setback in the global economic recovery because of the new Omicron variant of COVID and economy slow down and demand for oil and energy fall once again? You also do need the Saudis when it comes to getting regional partners on board for any potential new agreement with the Iranians, should it happen. And, of course, I'm not necessarily convinced that it will happen. But still, you would need the Saudis to get involved. Now, one interesting thing that's been going on, on that front, is that the Saudis have themselves been talking to the Iranians. The Iraqis, of all people, have brokered a number of rounds of talks between Saudi officials and Iranian officials. Now, the Saudis say not much has come of it, but the important thing is they keep scheduling new rounds of talks. I think that that's important.

Jim Lindsay:

So are they delaying or hedging?

Steven Cook:

I think that they are hedging. I think that the Saudis don't really have a lot of trust in the Iranians, but they're also wondering where we are. And that's not just a function of the Biden administration, that goes back to 2019, when, after a series of Iranian provocation from the Gulf, including the bombing of two oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, the United States didn't take any action against the Iranians. The Saudis have sought de-escalation to buy themselves some time to figure out how they can more directly deal with the Iranian challenge on their own. Which leads me to the Emiratis, who are quite vulnerable to the Iranians given the number of medium-range rockets and missiles that the Iranians possess and how close Dubai and Abu Dhabi are to Iran. And the Emiratis have sought to de-escalate with the Iranians as well, and have in fact gone much further than the Saudis. Had a number of delegations visit Tehran directly and recently have been in discussions with the Iranians about making investment in alternative energy in the Khuzestan Province of Iran. I don't think the Emiratis have suddenly fallen in love with the Iranians, but they seem to want to gain some leverage with the Iranians through the use of their vast financial resources. And that would be, I think, an opening gambit, is this potential alternative energy investment in Khuzestan.

Jim Lindsay:

There have also been signs, or the appearance of signs, that the Emiratis themselves may be hedging. There were reports that the Chinese were building a facility in the UAE that had military applications. And recently, the Emiratis have been indicating they may pull out of arrangements on the F-35 because they're finding American regulatory requirements two onerous. Is there something there Steven? Or is too much being made of rather minor irregularities or bumps in the road?

Steven Cook:

It depends on who you talk to. I think when it comes to the F-35, I think not long after the agreement was signed there was some buyer's remorse on the part of the Emiratis. It's a very expensive plane. And the United States almost immediately signaled that it has requirements for the Emiratis when it comes to acquiring and operating the F-35. And that has everything to do with the Chinese. The Emiratis think that the Chinese are an important relationship and would like to continue that relationship, particularly in the economics sphere. And as they look at the politics in the United States; political dysfunction, political polarization, they certainly are hedging with the Chinese. Now, they dispute the claim that the Chinese were building a naval port in the country. They say that the United States has become paranoid. But, of course, all work has stopped. I think they may have gotten caught with their hands in the cookie jar here and are backtracking. Because when they were presented with this, they said, "Oh, we think of the United States as our primary strategic partner." But I think that the hedging with the Chinese will continue. The F-35 may not end up as part of the Emirati inventory. And the Emiratis are going to be looking after, as they have long done, their own interests and their own interests first. And whether that is deepening the Abraham Accords, or reaching out to the Iranians, or establishing a renewed relationship with the Turks, that's what they're going to do.

Jim Lindsay:

One question on Saudi Arabia, Steven, before we move on. And that is: when the Biden team came into office last January, one of their first acts was to end US support for offensive military operations against Yemen. I've heard people argue that there was less than meets the eye to that decision. Perhaps you can give us your sense of what the administration actually did? But perhaps just a quick summary of where things stand in Yemen with the civil war. And also its attacks on installations in Saudi Arabia, where do you see that going in 2022?

Steven Cook:

Well, I think it's fairly clear that the Houthis, which is this militia which is the primary actor in the Yemen civil war against the internationally recognized government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, clearly has the upper hand in a conflict. And the Saudis, who initially expected that they would intervene in the middle of this civil war to protect their own interests and their own borders, would be in and out of there in a matter of months, has obviously been proven to be incorrect. The Saudis would like to get out. I think that that's part of their conversations with the Iranians. Their intervention has driven the Houthis closer to the Iranians than they had ever been before. With regard to the Biden administration, I think that the criticism is right. There was less there than met the eye in these announcements that they were halting offensive weapons. After all, some offensive weapons are also defensive weapons; depending on how you define the situation. And, of course, the Houthis have been pressing their advantage, as you allude to, and have been firing rockets and missiles at Saudi Arabia with some regularity. The Saudis aren't going to sit back and absorb those blows, and they're going to use their US supplied and maintained air force to conduct airstrikes on Houthi positions. The fact of the matter is, they're not very good at it. And, in the process, they have killed a lot of civilians. One of the big problems in Yemen ... a continuing one ... is a humanitarian one, where people are starving and there is a significant amount of COVID and other diseases. Where it's hard to manage those for a country where their ports are blockaded and humanitarian aid is blocked. That was one of the last acts of the Trump administration, was to declare the Houthis a terrorist organization, meaning that NGOs and other organizations can't work with them in order to get aid into the country.

Jim Lindsay:

Steven, let's move west and let's talk about Israel. You mentioned earlier on that Benjamin Netanyahu's record streak of being in office as prime minister came to an end. He's been replaced by Prime Minister Bennett. What has the change in government meant for the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

Steven Cook:

It hasn't meant much. Prime Minister Bennett, who was elected along with and became the prime minister thank to a coalition building effort that encompasses what seems like the entire political spectrum in Israel, with the exception of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, has views that are ... in fact, he himself, Bennett, has views that are to the right of former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But because the coalition spans this spectrum, there is an unarticulated, not written down, reinforcing mechanism that the government does nothing on the Palestinian front for fear of bringing down the government and the return of Netanyahu prime ministership. This is a coalition that was built on preventing Netanyahu from becoming the prime minister again. So as long as Bennett doesn't do anything on the Palestinian front, neither the left nor the right of his coalition are going to bolt and bring the government down because that would risk Netanyahu coming back. But practically speaking, you're going to see, as we have seen since he became the prime minister in mid 2021 ... you're going to continue to see, in 2022, the continuation of Israel's occupation and the continued building and thickening, as the Israelis would say, of settlements in the West Bank and in Jerusalem proper. There's really no change on that issue. And it's something that the Biden administration has demonstrated very, very little interest in, with the exception of trying to reestablish a consulate in east Jerusalem to service the Palestinians and be representative to the Palestinians. The Israeli government is resolutely opposed to that. And has been so opposed it seems like that is dead, not likely to be revived in '22.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let me draw you out on that, Steven, because there are two issues that I think are significant here. One is that the new Israeli government has an Israeli-Arab party as part of its coalition. So one question arises, why isn't it pushing for different or better treatment of Palestinians? The second thing is the continuation of the Abraham Accords. It was negotiated at the impetus, with the encouragement of the Trump administration. The logic was, in essence, to work from the outside in, that Israel would develop relations with Arab countries, they would put pressure on the Palestinians to come to the table. That seems not to have happened. How do we make sense of all of that?

Steven Cook:

Well, let me start with your first question about the party. And the coalition's called the Ra’am party, which is a party of Israeli Arabs or Palestinian citizens of Israel. And-

Jim Lindsay:

About a fifth of the population of Israel.

Steven Cook:

Right, a fifth of the population. And it is notable that it is a partner in this coalition. You have had outside support of Israeli coalitions from Arab parties, but never actually inside the coalition. I think, on the Palestinian issue itself, if Ra’am were to push for changes in the government it would face pressure from the right that's also within the government. So they actually check each other. And I think that Ra’am and its leadership have made the determination, that in order to improve living standards and the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel, often referred to as Israeli Arabs, that being within the coalition and being able to direct state resources to the Arab sector by dint of being in the coalition, gives them much greater leverage to be able to do that and develop the Arab sector within Israel. Which is underdeveloped, has, for years, not enjoyed the same kind of resources as Jewish Israelis.

Jim Lindsay:

And we had significant violence in 2021, particularly in the city of Lod. Correct?

Steven Cook:

Right. This is one of the things that I think had stunned Israeli Jews, is that they had told themselves that the Palestinian citizens of Israel were well integrated into Israeli society; they participated in politics, they participated in the economy. Yet, when there was violence that broke out between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and it lasted during the 11-day war, you had intercommunal violence in mixed cities, like the city of Lod, or Akko on the coast, and other places. And I think that this was stunning. And I think that the idea of bringing Ra’am into the coalition, and the idea that they can improve that sector, is one way in which Israeli Jews have come to believe that this is an important step. On your second question about the Abraham Accords, that was, I think, one of the theories behind the outside-in approach to making peace. It didn't start with the Abraham Accords, there had always often been ... and long been the idea that if Israel were to make peace with the Palestinians, it should make peace with the countries around it first. That would give the Israelis confidence to make peace with the Palestinians, and it would put pressure on the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table and negotiate in good faith as well. That really hasn't happened. When the Abraham Accords were signed in late 2020, my own view was these were a number of countries who were signing normalization agreements, establishing peaceful relations, opening MCs, for their own interests in having bilateral relations. The United Arab Emirates and Israel are two dynamic economies linking up in a variety of sectors, whether it's biotechnology, security, tourism, space. All of those things were good for both countries. Plus, they have common security concerns in the region, whether it's Iran or Turkey's influence around the region. That was really the impetus for it. The Emiratis made a stand and told the Israelis that they wouldn't do the Abraham Accords if there was to be annexation of territory to Israel on the West Bank. That, at least publicly, is off the table. But, of course, the current Israeli government continues to build settlements and look the other way at "illegal settlement outposts" that Israeli Jews are establishing in the West Bank. So the Abraham Accords are deepening, there are a lot of things that are going on, particularly between the Emirates and Israel. In Dubai there's going to be a Israeli, Emirati, American, and Indian joint scientific research center. Very, very positive. There's a warming of relations between Morocco and Israel. There are now direct flights between Bahrain and Israel, as well as between the UAE and Israel. Sudan, that relationship has been thrown into question because of course there was a coup d'état in Sudan in late 2021 and it's entirely unclear what's going to happen there. But the Abraham Accords are less about the Palestinian issue than more about countries seeing it in their interest to establish these normal relations.

Jim Lindsay:

Any signs the Saudis might sign up to the Abraham Accords? Or is that a bridge too far, Steven?

Steven Cook:

It remains a bridge too far. I think the Saudi leadership acknowledges that Israel is an important actor in the region, but there's no indication that they're willing to take the step. They clearly have gone as far as they can go. Israeli airliners now traverse Saudi airspace on the way to Manama or Dubai or Abu Dhabi. There are obviously ongoing non-public contacts between the two governments. But for the Saudis, change, with regard to the Israeli position on the Palestinians and some real genuine progress on that front, is going to have to be made before there's normalization between those two countries.

Jim Lindsay:

Let's shift gears and talk about a country you have spent a good portion of your professional life writing about, and that's Egypt. What's happening there?

Steven Cook:

Um al-Dunya, mother of the world. The Egypt story is, I think there's really two important things that's going on with Egypt right now. First, is the human rights situation continues to be terrible. The Egyptians made a very big deal about lifting the state of emergency. Of course, analysts and activists and other observers were very, very skeptical. And they had reason to be, because basically the Egyptians did away with the state of emergency but incorporated, into their laws, functions that were part of the state of emergency. And, of course, none of this deterred the Egyptian courts from handing down really long sentences to activists who've been languishing in jail for quite some time, who have been in pretrial detention for years. And then there have been a spate of decisions on the part of the Egyptian judiciary handing down long sentences in Egypt's notoriously horrible prison systems. So that's one thing. The other thing that's going on in Egypt is that, after a number of years of strategic hibernation, the Egyptians are back. They are engaged in regional diplomacy. The Egyptian Foreign Minister was at a meeting of GCC states before the official GCC meetings recently, in December, began. And this is to establish a mechanism where the Egyptians can be officially part of this conversation. The Egyptians have linked up with the Jordanians and the Iraqis to push an agenda in the region. It's sort of like a return of the old Arab capitals, in order to advance their agendas. So Egyptians are actually feeling pretty confident in their strategic position. It helps that Turkey is relatively weak and has been basically chasing the Egyptians around the Mediterranean, seeking a better relations between the two countries; which were wrecked in 2013 when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in Egypt through a coup d'état and the Turks gave refuge to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. So Egypt, continues its human rights situation continues to deteriorate. I'm not sure there's a bottom there. But Egyptian officials feel very confident about their position in the region, and quite frankly feel confident about their relationship with the United States.

Jim Lindsay:

How so?

Steven Cook:

Well, again, President Biden, who was determined to avoid President Sisi and said that the era of blank checks for dictators like Sisi were over, had two conversations with the Egyptian President, praised the Egyptian President's efforts to secure a cease fire between Israel and Hamas in May. And then, despite tremendous congressional pressure to dock the Egyptians 300 million of their $1.3 billion of military aid, the administration chose actually to just withhold $130 million. And something that they had telegraphed to the Egyptians so the Egyptians were not terribly unhappy about it. And, of course, there's a mechanism in which Egyptians would continue to have access to that $130 million, it hasn't completely gone away. So they see their situation to be in relatively good shape with regard to the United States, particularly in contrast to the rhetoric coming out of then candidate Joe Biden and the early go in, in this administration, where there was a lot of emphasis on values and values-based foreign policy.

Jim Lindsay:

Let's shift north, Steven, and talk about Syria. Which, for a number of years over the last decade, dominated the headlines because of the horrific civil war there. The civil war has basically been pushed to the fringes because the government of Bashar al-Assad has won. Can you walk us through what's happening there? Any progress? Any positive points to point to?

Steven Cook:

Depends on who you are. The Assad regime, with the help of the Russians and the Iranians, have essentially established control over most of the country, with the exception of this part of this province called the Idlib. They have not moved against Idlib. There would be a tremendous fight on their hands and tremendous humanitarian disaster if they did. But, as you suggest, Bashar al-Assad has won the civil war. The outstanding questions are: what to do about Idlib? And how far will Arab states go in bringing Assad in from the cold? In late 2021, King Abdullah of Jordan called Assad, where they discussed a variety of security-related issues and tourism. Then in November 2021, the Emirati Foreign Minister showed up in Damascus and had a meeting with him.There is a lot of pressure building to rehabilitate Assad and bring him back in. In order to help the Lebanese, interestingly, there's going to be a situation in which the Israeli gas is going to be sent to Egypt, then was sent to Jordan, then through Syria, and then onto Lebanon of all kind of ... I thought I've seen it all in the Middle East. This is one that I did not anticipate and didn't think I'd ever see. But Assad, he's obviously not a player. He does have significant financial problems. But this outreach from King Abdullah and from the Emiratis, who have considerable financial resources, would suggest that Assad, in 2022, may come further in from the cold than he was in 2021. And interestingly, the Biden administration hasn't protested too much over this outreach. I think there may be the view that Assad has won. And the best way to relieve the suffering of Syrians, in places like Idlib and other places, is to come to terms with that reality. Of course, they haven't articulated that. But you can see, in the lack of protest over this outreach, that they may be going in that direction in 2022.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, one country, Steven, that has felt the consequences of the Syrian civil war is Turkey; a country you have spent a fair amount of time following, learning about, and writing about. And Turkey's been in the news in the last couple of months for the deterioration of its economy. Can you walk us through what's actually going on as President Erdoğan pursues economic policies that my economist friends, our economist colleagues, tells us are nuts?

Steven Cook:

I think that's the analytic term, it's nuts. The Turkish lira has been under pressure for at least a number of years and has lost significant amount of its value; just 50% in the last half a year alone. This has obviously impoverished Turks, made everything that Turkey imports much more expensive, has put pressure on Turkish companies that borrow money in dollars. All of this has had a tremendous impact on Turks. There are lines for bread in Turkey. If you made the minimum wage when the Justice and Development Party came to power in November 2002, and you made the minimum wage now, you're making less money than you did almost 20 years ago. This is extraordinary, especially since the Turkish economy was not in such bad shape to begin with. But President Erdoğan is under the impression that low interest rates, and continuing to keep interest rates low, will ultimately be better for the Turkish economy and be better for him politically. And that's really what's going on here, is that Erdoğan has suffered a number of political setbacks, dating back really to 2019, and has been unable to right the ship. His party lost the Istanbul mayoralty, which is huge. His party, and the predecessor party, have dominated politics in Istanbul since the mid 1990s. And-

Jim Lindsay:

Well, he was the mayor Istanbul, right?

Steven Cook:

He was the mayor of Istanbul in the mid 1990s. And he himself said that if the party lost Istanbul it meant that the Justice and Development Party was losing its footing in the entirety of Turkey. But they have not been able to arrest the relative slide in the Justice and Development Party's popularity. Of course, it remains the most popular party in the country, but it's still only about a third of Turks are registering support in the polls right now. And Erdoğan himself has experienced a slide in the polls. There's also some evidence that he is not well, physically. So there's a lot of questions in Turkey, coming out of 2021. The opposition believes that they can force early elections in 2022. But Erdoğan has dismissed this. He has also dismissed the idea of raising interest rates and vows to keep them lower, and vows that elections will be held on schedule in 2023 as he pursues efforts to break Turkey out of its regional isolation. And he's had some success. The Emiratis have recently agreed to invest, there's outreach to the Saudis. We'll see what happens in 2022, whether he can move the country and reintegrate the country back into the region and repair his relations both in the Middle East as well as in Europe. But as long as he pursues this low interest rate policy, Turks are going to suffer. And that is what is driving his polls right now. I think he's expecting there to be an export surge and that will save the middle class. Maybe that's the case. But right now, people who never before had trouble affording , at least during the Erdoğan era, had trouble affording the basics, bread, cooking oil, things like that, are standing on line, waiting for those, either at bakeries that are cheaper or they're going without. Which is extraordinary.

Jim Lindsay:

I'm not sure how an export surge is going to work in the midst of supply chain disruptions around the world, where things like ships and containers to move things are in short supply. But not my area of expertise, I won't pursue it.

Steven Cook:

I'll say this about Erdoğan, is that he has some very specific ideas about things. He's not well educated in these areas. He's not well educated at all. He's a very shrewd politician, but not well educated. So it is entirely possible, and I think some of the reporting in the News media would suggest that he has more of a grasp and more of a grand plan than he really does. It strikes me that he's up a tree on low interest rates. And if you were to reverse course right now, it would demonstrate that the Sultan doesn't have clothes. I think the people around him are trying to make the case that a cheap lira will drive Turkey's exports. But as you point out, there's a lot of reasons to believe that that won't be the case.

Jim Lindsay:

I'm curious, Steven, when we look at Turkey, what is the current temperature of US-Turkish relations? For the last couple of years, been a lot of animosity between the two countries. You've written about the sort of lack of, let's say, passion in the relationship. That, as you look at it, Erdoğan defines Turkey's interest differently. There's a pursuit of the S-400 deal, which caused a great deal of heartburn in Washington. And in the Pentagon, talk that potentially Turkey might leave or shouldn't be in NATO. What's the status of US-Turkish relations?

Steven Cook:

The relationship is not good. The United States has applied sanctions on Turkey for its acquisition and deployment of the S-400. And there is a sense in Washington that the Turks are not necessarily interested in having this strategic relationship that they once had with the United States, that as long as President Erdoğan insists on keeping the S-400 it's going to be difficult to repair the relationship. As some analysts believe it should be. And the Biden administration has not come off of its position, that the resolution to the S-400 is for Turkey to give up the S-400. Unlike President Obama during his first term, and unlike President Trump during his only term, the personal relationship between President Biden and President Erdoğan is not a good one. It's cool, to be diplomatic about it. And when President Erdoğan traveled to New York for the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2021, President Biden did not make time for President Erdoğan. Although, he did make time for him at the G20. But still, the relationship remains cool, somewhat distant. It works at an institutional level, there are state department and defense department delegations in constant contact and discussions with the Turks over a variety of issues. But the idea that Turkey and the United States share this special strategic bond, I think the reality is much, much different. Now, as far as Turkey's membership in NATO, that's up to Turkey whether it wants to remain in NATO. There's no mechanism for other members to get rid of Turkey. Could be isolated within NATO, but there's no mechanism to kick Turkey out of NATO.

Jim Lindsay:

Steven, we're coming to the end of our time and we haven't even begun to talk about North Africa. And I will note that your title at the Council is Middle East and African studies. So I least want to give you 60 seconds, if you just want to jump in with some quick observations about Libya, or Tunisia, or Morocco, or Algeria?

Steven Cook:

Very quickly, on Tunisia, the one country that was supposed to be the success of the Arab Spring, there was a palace coup in 2021. And the President essentially dissolved parliament, dismissed the government. There doesn't seem to be a lot of pressure on him to reverse course, although Tunisian activist would say that that pressure is building for him to reverse course. But that transition to a more democratic system seems to have come to a halt. Libya is supposed to have presidential elections at the very end of 2021. There are 100 candidates in that election, including Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. And Lieutenant General Khalifa Haftar, who was Gadaffi's general who has led a charge from the east to take over the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. People were very hopeful about Libya at one point in 2021, and now people are fearing the worst. And then in Morocco, which an old Arabic teacher would tell me was on the very edge of the Arab world. But very, very interesting development. In September elections, the Islamist party of Justice and Development, which had had 125 seats in the Moroccan parliament, was wiped out, leaving with only 13 seats. Which is important. And if you look across the region, there have been some setbacks among Islamist parties. And it'll be interesting to see what happens in 2022, how they regroup and how they seek to advance their agenda, whether it's direct pressure or electoral defeats like in Morocco.

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 at CFR. Steven, thank you for that comprehensive tour of the Middle East; from Iran in the east, all the way to Morocco in the west.

Steven Cook:

Thanks for having me, Jim. Happy holidays.

Jim Lindsay:

Be holidays to you as well, Steven, and a happy 2022. Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, 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 on 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 did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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