The second panel at MEI's 69th Annual Conference featured Abdulkhaleq Abdulla (Emirates University), Jamal Khashoggi (Al Arab News Channel), Payam Mohseni (Harvard Belfer Center), Gönül Tol (Middle East Institute), and moderator Yochi Dreazen (Foreign Policy).
Yochi Dreazen: Thank you all for coming. Thank you to Middle East Institute for having me. Obviously on a beautiful sunny more a few things more fun than sitting in a conference room, so we’ll try to keep this as light and as lively as we can, given the somewhat serious topics we’ll be discussing, but again, thank you all for coming out. I wanted to introduce the panel who will be up here with me starting with the gentleman to my left. I’m going to get his last name right because I promised him I would, Jamal Khashoggi, because that name matters. He runs the Al Arab News Channel, which is a new 24-hour news channel, obviously ion Arabic language based out of Bahrain. He has a background in print journalism, including in places like Afghanistan where I spend quite a bit of time. He was the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Arab News, the leading English language newspaper in Saudi Arabia and is someone who both has an academic background and a journalistic background. It’s a pleasure to have him onstage with me.
To his left is Gönül Tol, who’s the Founding Director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkish Studies Program. She’s someone who has also taught, and currently teaches, at GW, and authors a weekly column making her another journalist, making me even happier that my dying profession has more of its representatives on this stage.
To her left is Payam Mohseni, who’s going to be talking a lot about Iran. He is someone who runs the Iran Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, also teaches at Harvard. He also travels frequently to Iran, which makes me extraordinarily jealous. My visa has been pending at the embassy in New York for 12 years. I send it birthday cards every year just to let it know I’m still thinking of it and have not forgotten. So my envy for him is rather considerable.
And to his left the final member of our panel is Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who’s the chairman with the Arab Council for Social Science and retired professor at Emirates University. He has taught at Georgetown with a Fulbright Scholar and as an academic who’s written widely on both Arab culture, the Arab Spring and other issues of the sort. So again, welcome to all of them and thanks again for all of you.
I thought I would just start with the big news event that’s coming up this weekend. As a journalist it’s kind of weighs on me. We’re trying to figure out different ways of covering it, which are the Peace Talks in Vienna. We can use Peace with air quotes and theory depending on your view, you can us talks with air quotes and theory depending on your view. There was a quote from John Kerry the last time, describing how all the stakeholders for those talks were at the table, except of course for the stakeholder which is the Syrian government and the stakeholder which is the Syrian opposition, but beyond that they were all there.
That said you can look at these talks I think from a positive view that you do have the Saudis and the Iranians at the same table, even if it’s tense, or you can take the slightly more pessimistic view that they’re at the same table generally lobbing insults at each other trying to sit in a way where they don’t have to make eye contact, almost playing telephone and not speaking to each other directly, and it’s a good prism I think and a good way to start the conversation and I wonder if I could just start by asking each of you to say do you take the positive view, the negative view, what might we expect from these talks and also what might it lead to in terms of Saudi/Iranian relations.
Jamal Khashoggi: Thank you very much for inviting me again here. I’m not a big enthusiast about Vienna talk. I think the Vienna talk are just our exercise to show that we are doing something about Syria. What is truly happening in Syria is happening in the ground. It is true as we heard from the previous panel that the Russian intervention into Syria put some dynamism into the activities of various parties who are involved in Syria, but that dynamism it is to move us from our accepting the status quo in Syria for the last four years into more worries about the possibility of a clash between the party involved in Syria. I see Vienna is to organize or to coordinate between the conflicting parties in Syria rather than finding a solution for Syria. It is just to avoid a confrontation, a larger confrontation between let’s say the States and the Russians or the Saudi and the Russians, rather than doing a solution for Syria itself? In principle if regional countries cooperated together they could have developed a solution not only for Syria, but for all the Middle East. It is very orthodox for somebody to say, “why don’t the Saudis and the Iranians sit together and work out your differences?” But it is (inaudible 05:05) he would walk in, he will tell us stories about how many initiative he did and how many messages he’s sent to the Saudis to start a dialogue with them, but while he’s saying that his forces are killing Syrians in Syria. And that’s what the Saudis see. The Saudi sees the Iranians violent military intervention in Syria that makes Saudi Arabia very much suspicious and not interested in talking with the Iranians because the Iranians are doing war, while they want to talk peace. So in principle that look very naïve to us to accept sitting and discussing to us the Saudis to sit and have a dialogue about peace in Syria while the war machine is its own. I want to draw a map of the major countries in the region that in principle should have walked together to an end to the crisis, throughout the region, not only Syria. How we can, if we understand where those countries stand we can understand their positions of today. I will divide those countries into two groups, a group that see priority to countering Arab Spring, counter revolution. They see Arab Spring as the danger for the region. And the countries who fall in that categories are Iran, by their support to Bashar Al Assad, because they refuse change, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia was there, hamdala, we are moving towards other group, the one who see more importance to stop the (inaudible 7:00) in the region and I think this group are the one who will begin to understand history better. I see Saudi Arabia now in a leading position in that group. Qatar and Turkey. But both groups they share a common interest in fighting terrorism, but they differ on how to begin. Some countries take a confused position, like United Arab Emirate. They are for fixing the situation in the Middle East. They’re in partnership with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but in the same time they want result in Yemen to fit with their agenda of countering a result of Arab Spring, for they want Yemen to be free from (inaudible 7:55), but not to fall in the hand of Islah Party, for example, which I think it inappropriate of any country to decide on behalf of the Yemeni people what to do in the future. So if we understand this map very well we can understand the position of all those countries who should be cooperating together, but in reality they are not. Thank you.
Gönül Tol: I’m also quite pessimistic about the talks in Vienna. The history of civil wars I think tells us that they don’t end easily. The warring parties they really have to feel that view that they have exhausted all other options and they have to think that they cannot defeat the other party militarily. And also I think the international actors involved in the conflict they have to be on the same page, and they’re not. Even from the Turkish perspective, for instance, Turkey and US are allies, they are on the same front, and yet even they are on the same page. They have different priorities so they have different visions and they even have different visions for a post-Assad Syria and that complicates things and makes a resolution more difficult. Before the elections, Turkish elections in June, I think the ruling, the ATAP signaled a changed in its Syria policy after having resisted since 2011. Finally Turkey said well, maybe Assad could play a role in a transition, and that was a big step for Turkey. And I think that was mostly dictated by the facts on the ground, but considering what happened on the most recent Turkish elections in November the ATAP captured almost 50% and now it has a stronger mandate.
So the ruling party might read the results as almost support for its, in my view, failing Syria policy. So I don’t think it will back down on its red lines, and those red lines really complicate, not just the situation and the conflict in Syria, but also its relations with its allies in Syria. So those red lines were Assad has to go, and it has to be the priority, and that is something I think that’s not really shared by the Americans. When they look at Syria they see the Islamic State as a bigger threat. On the other hand Turkey thinks that the Islamic State is just a symptom. The root cause is the Assad regime and without tackling that you cannot really do anything about the Islamic State. And the second red line, Turkish red line, is the Kurdish forces, Syrian Kurdish forces. I think from the get-go Turkey built its Syria policy on its fear of Kurdish irredentism. So it always tried to marginalize the PYD, which is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK. And I think that undermined American interest and also Turkish interest in Syria.
Turkey constantly put pressure on the Syrian opposition not to talk about granting rights to the Kurds so that was one of the reasons why the Syrian Kurds did not become part of the Syrian opposition. And I think if they could, I think we could have, the facts on the ground could have been different. So I don’t think Turkey is going to back down on its position of the PYD. It still considers that as a terrorist organization and as you all know the US has been working closely with the PYD.
In Kobani the US administration airdropped weapons to the PYD because it has become almost the ground force of anti-ISIS coalition. It’s doing a great job, it’s become the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State, and now the Russians are also in the picture, and they have been trying to engage the PYD and I think it was a few weeks when the PYD leader, Salih Muslim, was talking about opening an office an office in Moscow. And also there are reports, Turkish media reports, that Iranians are also trying to engage the PYD. So the PYD is there and everyone who is very concerned about the rise of the Islamic State want to engage the PYD, but Turkey’s trying to marginalize the PYD.
So on the one hand you have a US administration working very closely, coordinating its attacks with the PYD and considering providing weapons to the PYD. On the other hand you have a very close American ally, Turkey, that is bombing the PYD targets in northern Syria. And considering the breakdown of ceasefire between the PKK and Turkey domestically in July I think things are gonna get even more complicated, because Turkey has been bombing the PKK targets in northern Iraq and now the Turkish government’s biggest priority is that fight.
In November elections the ruling party received nationalist votes and that’s how it could be able to increase its votes nine points, so it has the nationalist votes and that nationalist constituency wants the government to keep fighting, to keep attacking the PKK, and I think that’s what the Turkish government will do, but that will in turn complicate Turkey’s strategy because it cannot keep fighting against the PKK domestically and engage the PYD in Syria. So I think there is a big problem here. Ether the anti-ISIS coalition has to find another ground force that can fight as effectively as the PYD has against the Islamic State and there are debates that while there is this new force, Syrian Democratic Forces, the majority of which by the way is the Kurds, but there’s a debate on working with the Arab Coalition, but almost everyone who follows Syria agrees that you cannot do this alone with the Arab opposition. So the Kurds have to be there and Turkey obviously is a very important country and it has to be part of the diplomatic efforts in Syria, but it does not see eye-to-eye on a very important issue with its Western allies. So I think all these things make the situation very complicated. So I am very pessimistic about the Vienna Talks.
Payam Mohseni: I’m also very pessimistic about …
… the Vienna Talks but I would say this is the most optimistic I have been, because I find it very positive that Iran has been included in the process and I think Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva Talks should have happened much earlier, but the reason I think it’s positive for Iran to be included in these talks is you know, for multiple reasons and it doesn’t all come back to the issue of Syria. Of course Syria’s the main subject of the talks, and of course very significant the conflict, and Iran’s role in Syria. Iran sees itself as a key winner in showing its operational capability and sustaining and preserving the Assad regime and sustaining Syria as part of Iran’s access of resistance or its larger regional alliance of states. that includes Hezbollah, Iraq, so Syria is a pivotal piece on the chessboard for Iran in geopolitical strategy.
But Syria also matter’s and Iran’s inclusion in the Geneva Talks also matters for Iranian domestic politics and for the future of Iranian politics as well, because following the recent nuclear negotiations and the agreement that has been reached Iran, the Rohani administration and the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif have basically sold the negations as a model for future, the future possibility of the way Iran will interact in the region, the way Iran will interact with the United States, so reaching a negotiated settlement in Syria that includes Iran will be very important as a mechanism and means by which Iran is moderated regionally and domestically.
And it’ll have implications for the future of US Iran engagement and the future of the greater US/Iran working relation together as well as an important piece to deescalate the really significant and important Cold War that is taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and without resolving the Syrian part of that piece the larger struggle for power does not look good. But of course it’s going to be very challenging and it’s going to be very challenging because for the Iranians basically the position is that Assad regime has to stay and that Syria has to be, and remain part of the acts of resistance and it really will not move away from that stance. And it will increase its efforts to preserve the Assad regime, if necessary, and if the talks don’t succeed.
And on the other side as well, the Saudi position, I think Saudi also has to realize that it’s important to talk with the Iranians to negotiate with the Iranians and try to settle its regional disagreements in a diplomatic manner. And over the past years, I mean, including the nuclear negations, Iran’s increased influence in region to region, from the Iranian perspective and from many perspectives Saudi has not succeeded in its policies of containing and constraining Iran regionally and by not reaching an agreement with Iran on its larger internal, larger struggles for power in the region Iran will only increase its confrontation with Saudi Arabia.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: I’m happy to be part of this panel conference. Thank you very much, Wendy. And I’m happy also to be back to Washington DC. It brings back wonderful memories. I did my master’s at American University, PhD at Georgetown, I did my Fulbright here, and I also met my wife here. So you would expect how much I love this city here. But I’m not very happy to be part of this pessimistic panel you just heard. And I like to go beyond the pessimistic narrative you just heard from the big regional power to the rising power called United Arab Emirates. I think that all the major powers in the region today are tired, bloodied, exhausted from all the tensions in the region, but I also see that no one in the region today is in the mood for regional cooperation, rather everybody still wants to continue this unhealthy confrontation.
And the second point is that even if they sit down like gentlemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the others, I think the region has gone way beyond their control. The forces on the ground have a logic of their own, have developed a dynamic of their own, way beyond any control from regional power or global power. That’s where the action is. It’s not in Tehran, it’s not in Ankara, it’s not in Riad, it’s not in Cairo, it’s not even in Moscow or Washington. They have created forced, created non State actors, created monsters, small and big ones and they unleashed them and these are the monsters that have gone out of control and they are the ones who are creating fact on the ground and shaping the destiny of this very troubled region called the Arab World, called the Middle East, larger or smaller Middle East.
So one has to focus on these little and big monsters and see what these guys are doing and they’re just playing havoc, extremism, sectarianism of all kinds that we have never seen in recent memory. And I don’t think that there is any way on Earth that could predict what is the big next event, what is the next big event for 2016. That’s the real challenge. The real challenge is that there is absolutely no one has a clue what is going to be the next big surprise. In the last five years we have seen the Arab Spring out of blue, nobody expected it, we saw the rise of ISIS, nobody expected that, we were dragged as GCC into a Yemen conflict and all of a sudden the Russian has moved in, in big way and huge, you know, the percussion for Syria and for the region and for everybody else, and I wish somebody in this audience, somebody in the hundreds of think tanks in Washington and all over the world, just tell s what is the next big thing?
They spend billions of dollars on these think tanks. They spend billions of dollars in assessments, CIAs and DIAs of the world, etcetera, and nobody has a clue, what would be the next big thing? And I think that’s where the focus is. It’s not the regional cooperation which is not going to happen anytime soon. It’s really a region that is out of control because of all this confusion and because of people and regional powers are tired and it’s probably up to the, not the old regional powers, but maybe it’s up to the new rising powers, such as UAE. That’s probably where we should be looking for how the shape of the region is in the years to come.
Yochi Dreazen: Thank you all. Abdulkhaleq, I’d like to dig in for a second at something you just said which I found very interesting. The CIA and DIA, we all I think look at their budgets and wonder, my god, what do they spend their money on when they seem to not see Russia moving into Crimea, they seem to not see Russia moving further and further into Ukraine, not the rise of ISIS, but one of the points that had been sort of conventional wisdom for quite some time was Al Qaeda still wanted to hit outside of whatever borders of countries it was operating in, but the Islamic State less so, that it was focused on holding the territory it had as compared to operating outside its borders. Now obviously we saw the downing of the Russian plane over Sinai, further threats from ISIS to carry out attacks in Russia, the bombings yesterday in Beirut. When you talk about other monsters, big monsters, little monsters, ISIS certainly appears to be the big monster. What are the little monsters you’re referring to?
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: Well, leave the convention wisdom aside always, okay? They don’t adapt to a thing. In Syria alone there is 1,500 different militias, armed militias, armed Jihadis, 1,500 war lords and it’s very confusing. These are the little monsters that you have to contend with and they are not going to come to Geneva or Vienna or the table okay? Go to Libya and how many armed forces do you have there? There’s at least 1,600 different armed militias in Libya alone. Do you know how many armed militias, Shiite militias in Iraq? There are tens of them. And you go around the region and there are so much non State actors armed to the teeth, okay? With massive capabilities way beyond the capabilities of Syria or Iraq or any of the states in the region. These are the big and the little monsters that are really shaping the very region, the breakup of the states, the confusion, the acts of violence that we sometimes see coming to our doors, or the thousands of refugees that are going to, so there are big monsters, like Assad and etcetera, etcetera, and ISIS and (inaudible 26:17) but there are so many small ones that are completely, totally have been unleashed and there’s no way to get them back on leash again.
Yochi Dreazen: Payam, I’d like to ask you something from a piece you wrote that the headline alone probably would make many Saudis, many Israelis terrified. The piece you wrote talked about ISIS as a chance to work with Iran and this was part of the quote, just the opening, “ISIS presents us with a unique opportunity to reset the Middle East equation to actively transform regional relations, to abate the Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia and forge a new working relationship with Iran.” How do you do the last point of forging a new relationship with Iran with out by definition further alienating Saudis, the Israelis, the Amaradis, Kuwaitis, Qataris and on and on?
Payam Mohseni: Well, I think that’s why the whole, the Saudi, sorry, the Syrian conflict and the Syrian negotiations are quite key because it would really require all the states of the region and the international community to come together and to agree on, not only an outcome, a negotiated outcome and political solution for the future of the Syrian regime and the future of the reform in the Syrian regime but in parallel to that on opposing extremism and terrorism, and ISIS being the most significant of the terrorist groups that I think regional states and countries such as the United States agree on that pose a challenge to many countries.
And I think the implicit and sometimes explicit Iranian position is that we first work on stabilizing Syria which requires opposing ISIS and terrorist groups, and then going and unreforming Syria the regime, so that’s where the tension lies. The tension lies in the sequencing, because for Iran and Assad it’s first opposing ISIS, it’s first opposing the opposition groups, some of which they consider to be terrorist, whereas I think for Saudi and for the United States or many other countries it’s first thinking of the political solution for Syria and the way the regime should be changed before we really are able to work on the ISIS, on the ISIS case. But I mean, ISIS is very important I think in terms of allowing for them and that’s the potential that I was trying to highlight, and allowing for a regional coalition to oppose ISIS because in many ways ISIS ideology, and what ISIS stands for could be seen as a greater threat to Saudi Arabia than Iran.
I would argue that ISIS is not a threat at all to Iran and Iranians don’t see it in that way. In many ways ISIS has been a blessing and potential for Iran because ISIS has allowed Iran to increase its leverage and increase its support for militias in Iraq and Syria to bolster the Assad regime even in terms of ideology, legitimacy, soft power, Iran has now claimed that look, we’re moderate political Islam, we’re a rational actor, this is the face of real terrorism and real Islamic extremism. So in many ways Iran benefits from a kind of constrained and weakened ISIS existing on different political objective levels. Working with Saudi, working with the United States and regional countries to take down an ISIS I think in that way Iran’s also signaling that we just, we’re not just caring about ourselves., but we’re willing to work on dismantling a network that could have potential negative ramifications for international terrorism, but also has a threat to the Saudi regime given that ISIS ideology, which is similar to Saudi ideology, is anti-Saudi monarchy, which could come to really hurt and haunt the Saudi government
Yochi Dreazen: There’s a thread in that I’d like to pull at for a moment. Obviously there’s sort of a criminology aspect to people who are not in Iran trying to decipher the comments of different Iranian leaders, especially when they seem to be at odds with each other. There was a fascinating interview with Rohani this morning in the Italian press, in advance of a meeting between him and the Pope which is itself really interesting. The first time an Iranian leader’s been in Europe in 16 years so just think about the way the world turns. You have an Iranian president sitting down with the Pope. In any event he talked about this could lead to normalized ties with the US. The Supreme Leader has basically said the opposite, the White House has said both, it has said, “maybe, not at the moment,” how do you decipher on the Iranian side comments that do appear to be somewhat directly at odds with each other?
Payam Mohseni: I think that the Supreme Leader’s position, so the Supreme Leader’s taking a very hard stance on no to US negotiations, no to future dialogue, no to future cooperation, but I think these are part of a concerted strategy to manage the relationship and to manage the way that the opening does happen. I don’t think that it’s a direct closing of the door to any type of real dialogue and the potential for working with the United States or other countries on regional issues and I think that why individuals such as the Iranian president Rohani can make those statements that could be taken to be at odds with the Supreme Leader, but we see the same, we saw the same type of relationship and dynamics over the nuclear negotiations themselves. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, set many red lines that the government did not listen to and eventually the Supreme Leader supported the final reached agreement, so I see the Supreme Leader’s position mostly as a position of a negotiated stance and bargaining and to prevent a quick and rapid deterioration, or from their perspective, a quick and rapid opening of ties with unnecessary ensuring and knowing what Iran will get in return, because for Iran the issue of US/Iran relationship for Iran in hardliners for the Supreme Leader it’s not just an issue of ideology of whether we should work with the United States or not, but it really comes back to geostrategic interests and reasons. I think that in the hardliner mindset ion Iran, Iran thinks that it gains a huge geostrategic advantage, and soft power advantage, by showing that it’s been opposed to the United States and that it stands up to the United States, because here you have a country in the developing world standing up in their narrative to the most powerful and strongest bully in the world, right? So this is kind of an underdog narrative that Iran because of taking this anti-US position is suddenly catapulted onto the global stage as an important power and actor to be reckoned with, right? So if Iran is gaining the strategic position of seeming more powerful or being more powerful as it is because of taking an anti-US stance it’s not willing to give that up quite easily. So within some hardliner mentalities there’s also this paranoia that the US wants to show that it’s working with Iran to quickly to undermine Iran’s sort power and strategic advantage and showing that we’re not working with the United States at all. So that’s kind of the part of the trick and part of the nuance and complexity of how US and Iran are really able to dance together. And I think that eventually if a working relationship is forged slowly over time, you may not necessarily see a change in Iranian rhetoric, that there could be a possibility of seeing the Islamic Republic continue to take anti-US positions in many areas, but they would work on areas where there are common grounds and shared interests.
Yochi Dreazen: Gönül, for awhile the Erdewan government had a stated policy of trying to have no enemies, that it would, not that there were people it didn’t like, but that it would try to talk to everyone. It would talk to the Iranians, it would talk to the Syrians, it would talk to the Americans, it would talk to the Americans, it would talk to the Israelis potentially as a mediator, is that finished for the break over Assad, Turkey moving much more into the camp of wanting him out, that policy of trying to maintain some type of relationship with all of its neighbors, is that gone?
Gönül Tol: Oh, that’s certainly gone. That was before the Arab uprisings and I think, to be fair, I think Ahmet Davutoglu strategy of zero problems with neighbors policy really worked well, until the Arab uprisings. With Syria, Turkey lifted visa requirements, they even held joint cabinet meetings. Turkish companies invested heavily in the Kurdistan regional government. In the 1990s Turkey even refused to refer to the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government, instead called it Northern Iraqi Regional Government. So from there to opening a consulate in Erbil 2009 that was a huge step and that was part of Ahmet Davutoglu strategy. With Iran, for instance, in 2010 Turkey voted against the sanctions against Iran at the United Nations and that alienated the US but Turkey wanted to engage Iran. So Turkey mediated in regional conflicts and I think did a great job, and trade and investment became part of that strategy, so as the Turkish companies kept investing in the region, in Iraq, in Iran, in Syria, in North Africa, Egypt, Libya, then conflict became less likely. So it was a success story in a way, but I think that all changed with the Syrian uprising.
For awhile the uprising started in March 2011 and Turkey refused to take a stand. Turkey refused to change its policy of engaging the Bashar Assad regime despite the mounting pressure on the government, because Turkey had invested heavily in the Syrian region and the Turkish government thought that it could have, it could use that leverage over Bashar Assad to push a change, and that did not happen, so within a few months the Turkish government had to change its stance and build its strategy on a huge miscalculation. So in August Ahmet Davutoglu went to President Erdogan and said Assad had six months, and of course that never happened but from then on I think Turkey’s serious strategy changed everything for Turkey, it changed its image. Before the Syrian uprising Turkey was a very popular country and I remember there was a time when even, and this was after the (37:33) incident where President Erdogan heavily criticized Israel.
People starting naming their children after Erdogan so he was that popular. (inaudible 37:43) were very popular in the region. So there was this new (inaudible) with the region and in a way Turkey reconnected with the region. But that all changed. So there are several public opinion polls conducted after the Syrian uprising that suggests people in the region think that Turkey wanted to play an effective role in Syria, but could not. But before that Turkey was seen as this regional superpower. It was a Muslim country and yet it had a Western identity. So there was an Islam rooted government but on the hand Turkish economy was growing and Turkey was trying to become (inaudible 39:27) member country so it was almost a model for the countries of the region, but with Syria I think Turkey pursued a very, a failed policy. For a long time Turkey did not really recalibrate its policy based on the facts on the ground, which made Turkey into a country that is not really capable of forcing change in the region, and Syria again, Syria has been the test case of Ahmet Davutoglu zero problems with neighbors policy. It worked wonderfully.
In 1999 the two countries almost went to war and in 2009 Erdogan and Bashar Assad was vacationing together in Antalya and so it was just, there was this huge transformation bilateral relations and Turkey thinking that it had invested heavily diplomatically, politically and economically it could really have leverage over Assad and it didn’t. So I think that really dealt a blow to Turkey’s regional image and posed a great challenge for Turkey’s regional policy, but not just regional policy, for Turkey’s domestic politics as well. So yes, after the Syrian uprising no one’s now talking about Turkey as a model country or Ahmet Davutoglu zero problems with neighbors policy. Many people now refer to that as zero neighbors without problems policy.
Yochi Dreazen: That’s a good phrase actually. I kind of like that one. I may write it down and shamelessly steal that for a future article. Jamal, there’s something you wrote that had an interesting quote just to read very briefly. You talk about Iran and Syria as a second dagger, one that will remain for centuries, waging one war after another with us, and then Iranians are negotiating to shape the future of Syria as if it was their own country, and I wonder two things, is that a feeling you think is widely shared both among the Saudi royal family, the Saudi leadership, Saudi populous? And if so, how do you find common ground anywhere with Iran?
Jamal Khashoggi: I think in Syria Saudi Arabia will continue and it will total reject any Iranian’s victory there. Bashar Assad victory is a Iran victory. Why is that? There is a Saudi reason and a Syrian reason. The Syrian reason that for Bashar to win, along with the Iranians and of course and the Russians, it means the win of the minority that will subject the majority to live under a dictatorship. The majority of the Syrians will refuse from now on the rule of that minority, and it is some problem to deal with in the future in how to build up the new Syria. And that is not the recipe for stability. That means a continuation of a strife and civil wars or confrontation between the minority and the majority, and Saudi Arabia does not want a neighborhood like that. So it means it is a strategic goal for Saudi Arabia to let the Syrian revolution succeed so peace will be restored to Syria again. The other reason, which is Saudi, most Saudis they believe, yeah, most Saudis, I would not say all, they believe there is Iranians (inaudible 42:15) plan for the region. We believe there is two steps in the region that still live in those Middle Ages concept of empire building, that you start from a small principality in (inaudible 42:33) and then you become powerful, you feel able enough to expand and move on and build a dynasty that will last for two, three hundred years and then somebody else will take over and while you are building your dynasty you just crush everybody in your way and you subject him to your will. This is old style of building countries. It is, now nobody does that, except Iran and ISIS. That’s why I would disagree with (inaudible 43:06). There’s no way Iran and ISIS will agree because they believe in empire building and they believe in this constant state of war between them. It is god given, it is their duty in the front of god to fight on behalf of god, both of them.
So that is why Saudi Arabia (inaudible 43:30) of course we accept Iran as a neighboring country with international border of Iran, but we will confuse, we’ll continue refusing Iran to be a power in Syria or in Yemen and in that article you refer to I was referring to that concept of useful Syria. That state if it is created it will be like Israel. It will have to be always living behind walls, it will be in a constant state of war with its neighbors because it is not acceptable to the Syrian people, just ask. Can you imagine a sectarian state in Syria and the reaction of the majority of the Syria people to it? So that state, that sectarian state also is not viable, it is not, it doesn’t have the reasons for success except again by force. That’s how Israel is surviving in the Middle East. It is surviving in the Middle East not by (inaudible 44:37) and negotiations, it is by its might, by its force. So will be Iran and Syria as I described it in my article. It has to live by force and subject whoever under its domination to the force. And another reason why this recipe is impossible. There will never be a pure sectarian state in Syria. Right now in the coastal area there are about a million and a half Sunnis there and maybe they will make more than half of the population in that sectarian state. Those Sunni Muslims they are also part of the revolution even though they are living today under Basher al-Assad. You take an organization like (inaudible 45:21), it is not only a military organization, it is a civil organization that administer areas that it liberated inside Syria and it also (inaudible 45:33) movement that it has links inside al-Assad territories. That’s why you hear of (inaudible) in areas that controlled by al-Assad because they discover (inaudible) who are allied to Harasham or to other resistant groups. So again, that’s another reason why the Iranian state could never survive in Syria, just a recipe for a continue of wars.
Yochi Dreazen: Payam, it’s very easy I think sitting in Washington for people to look at Iran and see it as this invincible force constantly rising, maneuvering pieces around the Middle East kind of like it’s a chessboard and that the US is always lagging behind and that again, is sort of narrative taking hold. At the same time you are seeing evidence of the kind of price Iran is paying, financially in terms of what it pays to support Assad, in terms of people, the number of generals who are being killed, even those that are being publicized so one would presume there are some who are not being publicized, and then the kind of attacks we saw yesterday on Beirut which are clearly an attempt to hit Hezbollah, but by extension to Iran. Is there a point at which you think the cost can be made high enough to Iran that one, its policies may change generally, but two, it looks for some type of common ground with the Gulf States, with Saudi Arabia.
Payam Mohseni: Thank you. Thank you for that question because that allows me to respond to some of Mr. Khashoggi’s remarks on Iran because it’s really the narrative of this expanding and imperialist empire building Iran is just not true. I mean, it’s just not false. And in order to understand Iran’s strategy you really need to understand how Iran approaches issues of national security and unlike countries such as Saud Arabia and the Gulf countries that spend billions of dollars on purchasing military equipment, on spending, on their security agencies and military agencies, several times more than Iran spends nationally. Iran chooses a very cheap, cost effective means and that’s to support guerilla works, guerilla groups across the region. And that also comes back to your question on Iran strategy and costs. Iran is taking a very cost effective approach. It’s supporting very small, very inexpensive types of groups that require minimal funding, minimum types of weapon requirements that are socially supported, that have grassroots capacity, so Iran in many way it’s undertaking its model from the Iran/Iraq war, it’s undertaking its own indigenous state building from the ground up and it’s supporting those groups that have the capacity and capability to do that and it’s developing strong sources of connection and linkage and leverage with these groups, which then play into Iran’s larger regional deterrence strategy, right? Iran doesn’t want to fight other countries or Israel, the United States. In its own borders it’s going to try to fight them externally in the region or it’s going to try to create deterrent capacity to make sure that if there’s going to be any type of aggression against Iran that states know that Iran has capacity of retaliating outside its borders.
So it’s a very smart, cost effective strategy and so that’s one reason why you see Iran having influence in the region. Two other reasons, two other reasons is that I think it’s a failure of past policy, both by Saudi Arabia and by the United States to isolate and contain Iran. If the goal is not to engage Iran, if the goal is not to integrate Iran into a larger recognized role, and security architecture in the region that it can have, you’re basically incentivizing, you’re giving incentives to Iran to act as a spoiler and destabilize in multiple conflict arenas, ‘cause the only way for Iran to win is to say, “look, I’m still here. I haven’t been defeated.” So the structural conditions are very conducive to Iranian victory. Iran just does not have to suffer defeat. If Iran doesn’t suffer defeat it’s a winner. So that’s why it seems that Iran’s power’s always expanding because it’s just not losing, not that it’s necessarily expanding into an empire.
The third reason why you see Iran’s expansion is because of US invasion of Iraq. It was nothing to do, it was not an Iranian plan. Iran did not convince the White House to attack Iraq. Iran was opposed to the war, but one of the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq was that moved Sadam Hussein who was kind of the main buffer of the Sunni Arab world against Iran and it shifted the power balance in the Persian Gulf security towards Iran and away from Saudi Arabia. So that’s another structural reason why Iran’s position has increased in the region, and I would say in addition to that and looking into the future as a longer term trend we see the collapse of the Arab state system, right? In the future you’re gonna have a weakening and severe deterioration of effective capacity of Arab states to govern. That chaos and vacuum of power that’s going to be produced will have course naturally be exploited and used by regional players, particularly non Arab neighbors, one of them being Iran and these are its neighbors, so that’s another long term structural reason why Iran would want to expand. And if there’s any country that is in a Medieval Mindset I mean, I would say it’s the Saudi Regime with its particular governance of no elections, women can’t drive, I mean, just looking at Iran despite all its, flaws it may have domestically, I mean, the way it has been able to incorporate Islam in popular elections and have electoral turnovers for the presidency, for the parliamentary, to educate and empower women is on any indicator not comparable to Saudi Arabia in many Gulf states.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: Can I…?
Yochi Dreazen: Let me go back to you. Let me go to Abdulkhaleq first.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: And of course in the spirit of solidarity with Jamal and the Gulf…
Payam Mohseni: Thank you.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: I have to say this. It’s a low cost Iran strategy, but at a huge cost for the Arab states, okay? Maybe it’s very low cost for you, but it’s a huge cost to the Arab Gulf states. Second is that Iran of course is a neighbor and we respect Iran as a society, a civilization, culture, people, etcetera, but Iran since 1979 has been a huge headache for the Gulf states and for the rest of the region. It’s a difficult neighbor, sometimes more difficult, sometimes less difficult, but always consistently a difficult neighbor throughout history, more so since 1979. But there is a few things that we need to just lay about how we see Iran of 1979, not Iran of history, but Iran since 1979. This Iran has three pillars that’s not gonna go away and it is exactly the kind of things that we watch for. Number one, pillar number one of Iran 1979, it’s a revolutionary Iran, it’s an anti-status quo Iran, it’s an Iran that supports and funds, etcetera, radio groups for its own because that’s part and parcel of the nature of Iran 1979. This is engrained in the very constitution of Iran, by the way, to support the oppressed, meaning mostly Shiites in the region, etcetera. So revolution in Iran’s not going to change and it is fundamentally a troubling Iran.
Second, Iran is also fundamentally by its very constitution, article number so-in-so, it’s a sectarian Iran. It has declared itself to be an Islamic, sectarian, Shiite, (inaudible 53:55), this is engrained so sectarianism Iran is a huge challenge to us, maybe not to the West, because it allows itself to interfere in our internal affairs. It seems minorities in the region and thinks it is responsible for these minorities. Sectarian Iran, revolutionary radical Iran, and third, Iran has always been, and it will always remain, it’s part of their mentality, culture, imperial Iran, to always wants to think big, think itself as a grand power. You know, it’s up to them, but that comes at a cost to us because it wants to act as a policeman of the Gulf, a policeman of the region, a big power of a sort, the political capital of the region. These are the Iran of the 1979, that is not going to change as a result of the (inaudible 54:52) Deal. This moderate Iran, this phantom, this fantasy about moderate Iran because of the Deal, is only a daydream for somebody in the White House, not gonna go down right, for the next five years, ten years, unless something different happens in Iran, unless the revolutionary guards or the Hamani or all these guys leave the driver’s seat and somebody else comes in their place Iran’s going to be these three Iran: Revolutionary Iran, Anti-status quo Iran, Sectarian Iran, Imperial Iran, and we are the first, the ones that are gonna have to deal with it and it’s gonna be massive to deal with Iran, and it’s not gonna change anything as a result of, you know, Zarif’s smile or Rohani’s moderate narrative that you guys hear probably here in Washington and somebody here in Washington’s promoting or marketing these days moderate Iran. It does not resonate well with us in the region.
Yochi Dreazen: There’s a lot in that to dig at. I will, however, turn to you to start digging. I’m going to ask two things and I’m going to really ask the second, first identify yourself please, by name, by affiliation. Secondly, and this is most important, keep the questions as short as possible. Don’t think of them as Facebook posts with a question mark at the end. Think of them like Tweets, short, concise, so that as many people in the room can ask questions as possible. And again, that’s important, time is of the essence so really please do keep the questions brief. Let me start over here on the right.
Ethan Field: Hi, Ethan Field, former Marine and current graduate student in DC. My question is to Mr. Mohseni. Former US Marine and American citizen Amir Hekmati has been imprisoned in Iran on basis charges for four years at this point. With desire for detente with Iran in mind how does the US move forward with the political imprisonment of many of our citizens in Iran? Thank you.
Payam Mohseni: Should I answer now?
Yochi Dreazen: Yes.
Payam Mohseni: So thank you for your question. Yes, the detainment and imprisonment of Iranian/Americans, on recently Lebanese/Iranians, is quite significant and just recently you’ve seen an upsurge in the detainments that have been happening. I would say that of course while very troubling, it’s part of a larger strategy, as I described earlier, of US/Iran engagement of one, Iran retaining and what it sees to have bargaining chips in a larger US/Iran dialogue that could take shape in the future, but it’s also a chance to send very importantly, a chilling effect domestically from the Supreme Leaders and the hardliners, the IRGC, to say, “be careful not to push for reform too quickly, be careful not to engage with the US and the Diaspora too quickly and too suddenly,” and that any type of (inaudible 58:03) or opening or any consequence that could follow the nuclear agreement has to be managed and has to be political acceptable for all factions, because one of the implications of the nuclear agreement which we didn’t, we’re not able to speak about today is what will Iran’s status be 10, 15 years from now? And part of that larger debate is the future evolution or potential to the future evolution of the Iran domestic political scene. Right? So those issues come back to the domestic struggles and domestic competition between different Iranian political factions and power holders in their larger struggles for the future evolution of the Islamic Republic.
Yochi Dreazen: In the interest of time I think I’ll bundle a few questions together once. So let’s start here with the first of those.
Havi Buzah: My name is Havi Buzah, I’m the Bureau Chief of Orion TV in Washington. Can I have two questions?
Yochi Dreazen: If they are short enough to combine them into one.
Havi Buzah: Okay, just start with Mr. Mohseni. I just wanted to talk about your point when you said that Iran and kind of you said that Saudi Arabia’s regime is the Middle Age, you know, Dark Ages regime. I want to talk about why don’t you mention the Iranian funding and support of Al Qaeda and even the sort of collaboration they have in Syria today? And obviously that’s when we talk about, you know, the fact that in Iran they (inaudible 59:33) women to that until today and then obviously the revolution in Iran. We don’t hear you talk about the people in Iran struggling. They execute Kurds on daily basis in Iran, the Sunnis are being oppressed in Iran. Why don’t you talk about these things? The second question is for Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. You’re very well known and very well respected in the Arab world as an expert. I want to ask you about the Mr. Zubeidi’s view comment, last comments about saying that Assad would only be toppled by, you know, (inaudible 1:00:08) negotiations, or by force. Why does the, you know, Mr. Zubeidi keeps on saying those things and how do you feel that Saudi Arabia’s government will be able to implement such a thing given right now Russia is actually intervening in Syria? Thank you so much.
Yochi Dreazen: Thanks. Let me just add one more question and then we’ll try to get those answered as a pair.
Abdullah: My name’s Abdullah (inaudible 1:00:30). I’m from George Mason University. My question to Mr. Jamal because the sense I get from your talk is that Saudi Arabia is a regional supporter of human rights and I’m honestly questioning this because I thought Saudi Arabia is the country that hosted Ben Ali of Tunisia once he fled, and Saudi Arabia is the country that pledges unlimited financial support to Sisi after he staged the coupe and also Saudi Arabia is the country that is trying to crack down on its own democratic forces as well as forces in Bahrain and Yemen and so on. So the sense to get like Saudi Arabia is a pro democracy in the region while Saudi Arabia itself is a country that counter democracy in many senses. I myself was a protester in Tahrir Square for 18 days and on and I would never at any second, any moment, had a thought that Saudi Arabia would be one day supporting democracy, a country that itself is not believing, yet it is demonizing democracy and democratic forces. I would never ever imagine that Saudi Arabia one day would be defending my own right as a citizen somewhere else. Saudi Arabia was never, at least fin my own assessment, was never a country that would support democracy so please, when we question the idea of democracy in Saudi Arabia that doesn’t like dictatorship in Syria, let’s first look at what Saudi Arabia is doing in its own country. Thank you.
Yochi Dreazen: Let me turn to you because in some ways there were two questions embedded in Saudi Arabia. Let me turn to you on the first one. Abdulkhaleq, please feel free to jump in as well.
Jamal Khashoggi: All right for (inaudible 1:02:08) the system that Bashar el-Assad must go by peace or by force that is Saudi Arabia showing its determination to put an end to Bashar regime and Iranian hegemony in Syria and in the region. Even though the Russian intervention in Syria we are determined to, out path did not change, and I began to see something like what we did in Afghanistan. While Saudi Arabia is negotiating with the world in Vienna it is stepping up aid and support to the Syrian peoples who are calling for democracy, and power sharing.
[inaudible audience interruption]
Yochi Dreazen: Let’s allow the (inaudible 1:03:01).
Jamal Khashoggi: I’m saying Saudi Arabia never promote or advocate democracy for others, but when you have people who are demanding democracy, who are fighting for their rights, we have to stand by them. So we should be proud of that, and you should be proud of this. We are siding with the Syrian people choice. We did not tell the Syrian people to go on the street and demand democracy, but the Syrian people are receiving that (inaudible 1:03:33) and most of the Syrian people they appreciate that from Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia is not the one who started the revolution in Syria, but we are standing by the revolution in Syria and we should be appreciative of that.
Yochi Dreazen: Abdulkhaleq, I think you wanted to jump in as well.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: Just very briefly. At the end of the day, whether it’s democracy or not democracy, it’s people’s choice, okay? And when Egypt decided to elect, in a very free election that they never had in all of their history, the first country to recognize (inaudible 1:04:04) government and Muslim Brotherhood were Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and the Gulf. And when Tunisians went into the poll and they elected their own government, the first country in the world to recognize them and extend the invitation for the leaders to come and visit UAE, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, were the Gulf States, okay? So this notion that Saudi Arabia’s not a democracy or the Gulf States is not democracy is nonsense. This is our own business, okay? But when the people of Egypt or the people of the region decide to go democracy so be it, because democracy’s a long process. It’s not gonna come overnight and we don’t know in 10 years, 20 years whether Egypt will be a democracy it’s never going to be a threat to the Gulf States who are going through their own process of change and political modernization, so I think this notion that the Arab Gulf States are not democratic and hence, anti-democracy are just doesn’t make sense, by the way.
Yochi Dreazen: I suspect we’ll be getting more questions on both Iran and Saudi Arabia. There’ll be other questions on Iran. I would like to move a little bit, again, we’ll start here and please try to keep it short.
Hasana: My name is Hasana. I was born in Tehran. I have a Global Bridges for Humanity organization which promotes talk, not using guns and force. Now, I know that in this town for the past few years Iran bashing has been a game. So everybody from every other direction they come and either have the information or not information, they bash that country that changed the course of the whole world in 1979 showed that if you do not obey the others you can’t stand on your feet, it’s been 37 years. Now, what I like to ask my brothers and my sister up there at the panel, why are you so resistant to the group of people that they put their lives on line, they have succeeded in revolution, they pushed that country forward, knowledge, science, military, self-sufficient to a point that the whole world came to stop them, by say, “look, you’re going to make a bomb,” and Iran said, “we’re not going to make a bomb,” and finally they did agree to not make the bomb, that they were not going to make the bomb and the world agreed not to attack them because they could not attack them. So the question is this, when are you going to accept Iran as a good neighbor? What’s wrong with having a good neighbor? What’s wrong with having a very strong neighbor?
Yochi Dreazen: Let me cut you there because I feel like there will be people who will take issue with many parts of that question, but let me turn to you as well and then we will turn it back to the panel.
Chris Bowman: Chris Bowman from National Defense University. The subtitle of the panel is Challenges of Rebuilding Regional Stability and I suppose that implies that there was a time when it was stable. It’s not entirely clear to me when that was, but just for the sake of argument let’s say it was kind of the Cold War period. You know, that stability was maintained by a whole series of (inaudible 1:07:12) large monsters, you know, great humanitarians like Sadam Hussein, etcetera, is that really what we want to restore is there a different vision of that, and since we’re in Washington DC, what should the United States’ role be in that? Should we be more engaged, less engaged, how specifically? Thanks.
Yochi Dreazen: Thank you for those questions and Payam, let me start with your since there were a wave of Iran questions from different directions, actually, which is interesting.
Payam Mohseni: Right. On the first question I’d say that I’m not in any way saying that there are no problems in Iran, everything’s rosy, everything’s good, I’m just saying that the Iranian political system, despite all the flaws it has, it’s still much more participatory, it’s much more empowering of individuals, it’s much more politically, socially dynamic and diverse than the Saudi government, the Saudi regime, which has no elections, which has no mass mobilization, participation, parties, groups, any types of women’s empowerment issue, I’m just comparing those two, that Saudi Arabia does not have a viable political model of governance. That’s my only point. And the other question think what I would say is that I think that the nuclear negotiations are important, because of the opportunity they can give us. More so, I mean, just as important as the freeze and the challenge of nuclear proliferation. I think that the nuclear negotiations, the nuclear agreement that was reached, is just as important for the opportunity and the doors it can open for actually engaging in Iran and changing the status of Iran’s position in the region and for moderating Iran’s behavior. Of course that will be very tricky, very contingent on many different conflicts and struggles that are happening, and that’s kind of the difficulty and that’s what the larger trend that we’re gonna have to look at is, you know, how does the Iranian political system, Iran regional policy, domestic policy, evolved over the 10, 15 years, and on this issue US strategy and US actions will be very important.
Yochi Dreazen: Before I open the panel to the second question I do want to follow up on one point because it was an element of the first question that came in, she had raised the notion of Iranian ties or support for A Qaeda, which obviously is not, normally the narrative is Saudi ties or Gulf ties, if you could address that, but also more broadly, Iran is a group, a nation, excuse me, that funds proxies effectively, I agree with you, but Hezbollah you know, you mentioned that some of the militias are low cost, low influence. Hezbollah is better organized, better armed, better funded and more tactically proficient than almost any Arab army in the last 30 years so how do you square that? First, was there support that you’re aware of towards Al Qaeda? Secondarily, the powerful armies that Iran is supporting can those be brought back, put back on a leash, to use a phrase that was used earlier?
Payam Mohseni: I do not know about Iran/Al Qaeda ties, so I would not be able to speak on that. The only thing I would say is that unlike ISIS, from my knowledge of Al Qaeda, unlike ISIS Al Qaeda did not take a larger sectarian agenda. So that was one of the differences between Al Qaeda and ISIS in that ISIS never played the anti-Shiite card, so there may have been something, not in terms of support, but there may have been dialogue or contact on that area. On your second point of can Iran kind of use its leverage to manage these other groups? I would say yes. I think one of Iran’s capabilities and effectiveness, unlike Saudi Arabia or Gulf State support for different proxies or opposition groups is that Iran has much more stronger restraining and leash capabilities to manage and not say, order, but strategically to decide on what conflicts to engage in and where to stop things, the conflict.
Yochi Dreazen: Let me open it to the rest of the panel the I thought very smart question that came in from the other side, what should the US role be? What can the US hope to achieve, what could it achieve? Maybe we’ll start at the end, Abdulkhaleq?
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: What could the US hope to achieve?
Yochi Dreazen: What should the US role be? What should the US be doing now in the region they may not be doing to try to move it to a more stable place?
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla: Well, the US is very busy with the election, with the Trumps and with everything else so I don’t think there is much that they could do these days, as we heard from the first panel this morning. But no, I mean, there is the action and there is the inaction that the US could do, and in both ways in over the last 10 years whether it’s an action or inaction US has mismanaged the region. The action meaning 2003 when they went into Iran and into Iraq and see what they have left behind us. In Iraq there is completely sectarian divided and there’s gonna be perpetual instability for the next 5, 10 years to come and thanks to the US. So when you do something do it right. That’s first. The second is there is almost the American inaction in the region. There is plenty of it, especially during Obama and the most tragic one was the inaction in Syria and see what they have done in Syria. So you know, they left the situation that is in total chaos and full of human tragedy, so both your action and your inaction over the last 10 years has been disaster for the region, and if we go back all the way to the 1940, ’45, and your support of Israel and your, you know, other mistakes in the region starting from Afghanistan all the way, the record shows the US had never get it right.
Yochi Dreazen: There’s a danger to being the one person standing between hungry people and lunch so that will have to unfortunately be the last word. I hope you can join me, please, in thanking the panel for what I thought was a very interesting discussion.
End of panel discussion
Transcriber: Ruth Frank (505/440-9096)