The below transcript is from the third panel of MEI's 72nd Annual Conference, held on November 8, 2018 at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington, D.C.
Relationships within and outside of the Middle East are in flux, and these changes have given rise to new centers of power. Reduced U.S. engagement and the Trump Administration’s emphasis on a short-term, transactional approach to the region has opened the door for competing influences. China’s increased diplomacy with Gulf countries, Iran, and Egypt, expanded military presence, and robust trade deals with and development packages to Middle Eastern countries indicate a more active Chinese approach to the region. Meanwhile, Russia seeks to build on its newly restored engagement in the region to reinforce its “great power” ambitions and ensure a seat at the Middle East decision-making table.
Visiting research fellow, Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, University of California, Irvine
Advisor to the director, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies
Associate political scientist, RAND Corporation
Director of Turkish Studies, MEI
Suzanne Kianpour, moderator
Foreign affairs correspondent, BBC
Amb. Gerald Feierstein: [00:00:00] We've heard we've already heard a lot today about one of the most important issues one of the most important developments in the middle in the Middle East in recent years. And that is the question of declining U.S. presence and engagement and influence in the region. And what is happening at the same time the growth of engagement by new actors both from within and outside the region. We have organized a great panel today to discuss these developments and provide some thoughts on what we can expect in the future as well as what we're experiencing in the present. To moderate I'm delighted to introduce Suzanne Kianpour. Suzanne is an Emmy nominated foreign affairs correspondent for the BBC. She's currently covering foreign policy and national security issues and leads the Washington side of the BBC investigation into Russia's role in U.S. politics which we know is a hoax. Please please join me in welcoming Suzanne who will introduce her fellow panelists. Suzanne?
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:01:24] Good afternoon everyone. I hope you enjoyed your lunch. If you are feeling a bit a post lunch comatose Don't worry we're going to snap you right out of that because we have a star studded panel that's going to be very lively and pretty much I'm going to explain views of and roles of various countries in the Middle East from China Russia the Gulf countries Iran Turkey. Mr. Paul Salem who is clearly outnumbered. Lucky him. He is the president of MEI. He is the president of MEI and focuses on issues of political change transition and conflict as well as well as regional and international relations in the Middle East. We have Arian Tabatabai. Who I know from our days in Vienna and Geneva covering the Iran nuclear talks which now seems like a lifetime ago. She is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation and she also is the author of the book triple axis which looks at Iran China and Russia and their kind of alliance growing alliance. We also have Elena Suponina who is advisor to the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. She holds a PhD rom Russian Friendship University in Moscow. And we have Gonul Tol director of Turkish Studies at MEI. And we have Christina Lin who is Visiting Research Fellow Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of California Irvine. She also has a ton of US government experience working on China security issues. So buckle up it's going gonna be a fun one. So, OK. So I have, well I have lots of questions but I'm a journalist so if I didn't have lots of questions that would be concerning. But I want to start with Paul. You recently traveled to Egypt and so from the Arab perspective I'd like to hear from you. What does the combined so-called collapse of the Arab order, the relative withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East and the empowerment of Iran in the region mean for new power structures there especially as China Russia and Turkey angle for more influence.
Paul Salem: [00:04:09] Thank you. Yeah I would say that the rise of new powers in the Middle East is the result of the collapse of the Arab order and it's the result of a vacuum in the region. So they're very much connected. Between World War 2 and 1990, there was an Arab order of sorts. It was part of the Cold War, it was after the post-World War Two structure and it survived. It was authoritarian, and it had a lot of problems but it was also one in which the regional powers Turkey and Israel and Iran until 1979 were looking westward, were not were not engaged in the region and the Arab states were robust survived a lot of, a lot of stresses. This order broke down in three stages one was in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and shattered sort of one of the tenets of the Arab order and that was the first time that the U.S. moved large amounts of troops into the region. Second was the U.S. led invasion of Iraq itself in 2003 which dismantled the Iraqi state and greatly empowered Iran in Iraq which is still the case today. And the third was the uprisings of 2011 which shattered a number of states including Syria Libya and Yemen which became vacuums which were filled either by Iran or Russia or a combination of players. So there's a dynamic to the collapse of the Arab order and indeed we are now at a stage where there really isn't an Arab order. There is no structure to it and attempts to create sub-orders like in the GCC survived for a while but even recently that broke down. So there really is a very clear vacuum in the Arab world today has no common political vision. It has no common economic project it has no agreement on cultural issues like the role of religion political Islam and all of that. And it has widely different foreign policies some countries aligned with Iran some with the U.S. some with Russia and so on. Also I think it's important to track during this period the effects of the global order's impacts in the Middle East that during the Cold War both the US and the Soviet Union supported states and they had you know, their clients. But that reinforced a state system, it was authoritarian and had a lot of problems. When the Cold War ended, previously Soviet clients suddenly were pretty weak because they'd lost their patron and in fact the countries that collapsed into civil war used to be previously Soviet clients so they became very very vulnerable. But interestingly also former U.S. clients became vulnerable because they were no longer that important to the U.S. because there was no Cold War. So when President Mubarak is in trouble does it cause much of a stir in Washington or Ben Ali or even Bahrain and so on. So the end of the Cold War removed the global support for the state system as it were and contributed in a sense to the fragility that we see today. The neighbors of the of the Arab countries, two of them decidedly pivoted back towards the Middle East whereas most of the 20th century both Iran and Turkey were looking westward 1979 Iran pivoted to make the Arab world one of its main areas of interest and investment. And that remains the case. And Turkey also with the AKP although it was reaching out to Europe for a long time but also saw itself not as turning away from its Islamic past but as going back to it and becoming a leader. Israel remained I would say largely disengaged in that sense. But we had two big neighbors who suddenly were becoming very interested. In the global arena, it's interesting that when the Soviet Union effectively disappeared was when the U.S. became over engaged in the Middle East it's no coincidence that as the Soviet Union was collapsing the U.S. felt comfortable in the first Gulf War to deploy half a million troops fear in not having to fear that there would be a reaction from the other side and I think that led to engagement on in a sense a kind of hubris which we saw again in the Iraq war. Look why not occupy Iraq since there's nobody around to stop the US, and that caused a period of of destructive over engagement or over deployment after the collapse of the Soviet Union the US could have had the option of trying to inherit and manage a stable regional order. But particularly after 9/11 I think it became overambitious and destabilized an order which effectively it could have managed and helped create the conditions that we have today. And certainly the US since the second half of the Bush administration is trying has been trying to retrench and that's the case with President Obama. That was the case with the end of the Bush administration and certainly President Obama and President Trump all have an interest in reducing America's footprint not withdrawing but recalibrating to maybe what it was several or a couple of decades ago. The problem with that, which is an attempt to become what it used to be which would be an offshore balancer that we just stay beyond the horizon and we have our allies and they they maintain our interests there. The problem that requires two things firstly requires states and in many of these areas we don't have states and you can't balance Hezbollah against ISIS. Again that doesn't, that's not a balance of power. And secondly there isn't a balance between the states. Iran has become too omnipresent too ambitious and the a lot of the Arab Sunni states too paranoid and Iranians are paranoid as well. So there isn't a balance currently to stand back and say I'll just you know stay beyond the horizon. So it's a currently very unstable system not amenable to power balancing at this point a factor that related to Russian politics but also an opportunity in the region is the case of Syria that obviously Syria was an opportunity but it was important that it happened at a time when President Putin was wishing and able to bring Russia back as a global player and find a place to do that. Had Syria happened in the 1990s we would not have seen a Russian intervention but it happened in the 2010s when President Putin in Russia was willing willing to act. So you have a more engaged Russia than we did two decades ago. In terms you look at China the shift there really between the U.S. and others is that in past decades most energy from the region went west. Now most energy from the region goes east and hence China obviously is a rising economic partner for many of the particularly the Gulf countries and it's building its One Belt One Road which is a large investment into the infrastructure of Asia and trying to link the Middle East to Asia whereas the Middle East since the 19th century was linked economically to Europe and the West. But it's important to say that whereas China yes has a base in the Red Sea and a few you know investments here and there on the security level it's been happy to have the U.S. protect its oil supplies in the Gulf and not have to do that spending itself. So I don't see China today as a geo security or geopolitical player. It leaves it to the US it stands behind Russia and some of its diplomatic things but really is in the still very much in the background that might change in a couple of decades. I'll stop there.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:12:06] So we're going to have Christina follow up on your point about China and its growing role. But first we want to go to Turkey. Gonul, you're our resident Turkey expert. And in light of the Jamal Khashoggi case and the ongoing Syria conflict Turkey has found itself in an interesting dynamic when it comes to shaping its regional calculations. How has the U.S. Turkey relationship factored into Turkey's focus on ties with Russia and Iran. And also I mean what what is the state of U.S. Turkey ties at the moment I mean we see headlines that it's strained but is that really the case or is that playing politics and if you could kind of give us some insight on that.
Gonul Tol: [00:12:53] Well I I'll start with Turkey Russia relations. I think that partnership particularly the Turkish Russian partnership in Syria it was born out of necessity after the Arab uprisings Turkey found itself itself marginalized in the region and unable to project power and teaming up with Russia in Syria provided a seat at the table for Turkey. So I think the real question here is in this new regional order or disorder that Paul just mentioned and where traditional power centers like Egypt Iraq and Syria. They're not there anymore. And where American engagement in the region has become very transactional and groups like the Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood which was used by Turkey to enhance its influence in the region they are suppressed in the region. So within this context is I think the real question here is is Turkey, can Turkey be a pivotal state that can determine the fate of the region. And I think that's a very important question. I think the short answer to that question is No. Before the Arab uprisings, Turkey was better placed to play a leadership role in the region and play a role a constructive role in the resolution of regional conflicts. For several reasons I mean domestically I think Turkey was in a much better place than it is at the moment despite its flaws. Turkish democracy was was doing okay. Turkey was talking to its own Kurds instead of fighting them. President Erdogan had launched two Kurdish openings in an effort to address Kurdish grievances and Turkish economy was was doing fine. Many thought that that military tutelage was finally over and that the military had been brought under control off of civilian rule. And Erdogan kept winning the elections. And no one really questioned the legitimacy of elections. And despite the troubling signs that he was trying to monopolize power there was still there was opposition and a few media outlets that were critical off of him and compared to other countries in the Arab world, Turkey still at the time looked like a Muslim democracy and it was inspiring to many in the Arab world. For the Arab Islamists for instance I think the, Erdogan's AKP represented an Islamist–it was inspiring because an Islamist rooted party came to power through electoral means without having to abandon its conservative agenda that was inspiring to them. And the AKP represented a form of Islamism that was compatible with democracy in a country that carried out the most radical secularization program in the Muslim world. For Arab liberals, the AKP represented a third way between secular authoritarianism and radical Islamism. So the AKP was was an inspiring model. And to the peoples of the region, Turkey was a country it was a Muslim country. The head of the wife of the president was wearing the hijab and yet it was a country that was trying to become an EU member and a NATO member. So that was inspiring to the peoples of the region so Turkey pitched itself as the leader of the Muslim world before the Arab uprisings. And it used cultural economic and diplomatic tools to enhance its soft power and its influence and in the region it tried to mediate in regional affairs in regional conflicts and tried to mediate between Iran and the West. And despite the problems I think Turkey had working relationship with the Western world and that was one of the reasons why Turkey, Turkish model was appealing. President Obama for instance on his first state visit to a Muslim country, he called Turkey U.S. partnership as a model partnership and Turkey still had the working relationship with with the European Union. So I think that's why Turkey could at the time play a leadership role. But today Turkey is in a completely different place both domestically and regionally and in its relationship with the Western world. Compared to other places I would say that Turkish democracy is still in a better place. There are opposition parties there is at least a facade of democracy but in many ways Erdogan's drive for authoritarianism I think it puts him in the same league with other regional autocrats. He reverted back to the security oriented approach to the Kurdish question. The fighting resumed between the Kurdish militants and the Turkish state. And Erdogan has become a very nationalistic leader using nationalistic rhetoric vigorously. He monopolized power. Turkish economy today is struggling. Turkey U.S. relations went through the worst periods of st–in its history last year. For Ankara its NATO partner is arming an organization that is considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey. And in Europe, everyone in Europe agrees that Turkey has no future in Europe. So in this sort–this is this is the context and that's why Turkey decided to team up with Russia because Turkey is very much frustrated with with the US and is very much marginalized in the region. So partnering with Russia provides an opening to play that role. And going back to your question about Turkey U.S. relationship again last year was a very difficult year. But if you look at the history of Turkey U.S. relationship there were always problems starting from the 1960s. There were there was an arms embargo when Turkey invaded Cyprus. And even on through Erdogan, we had the 2001 crisis between the two countries went to Turkey refused to allow American troops to use Incirlik airbase against Iraq. So there were many problems. But what was different then was there was always a constituency in Washington or in Ankara promoting closer ties. So traditionally it was either Turkish military or center right parties in Turkey. And now both of these institutions they are not there. Anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism is very strong. Turkish military has grown very anti-American and the leading centre right party which is the ruling AKP has been riding that anti-Western anti-American ride wave. So I think and I think in Washington too, military to military partnership has been very important in Turkey U.S. ties historically and even at the Pentagon. There are those and CENTCOM for instance is the main architect of the partnership between US and the YPG and Turkey considers that as a terrorist organization. So even within the Pentagon that has historically promoted closer ties to Turkey. There are doubts now. So I think that has become a structural problem despite the contextual problems that can be overcome. I think there are now structural problems in Turkey U.S. ties.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:21:12] And now instead Russia is stepping in. So Elena can you kind of based on your expertise sort of shed help us shed some light on the priorities that, you know Russia's foreign policy–what's Russia's foreign policy priority in the Middle East. How does Turkey factor into that especially when it comes to Syria? And you know that Russia and Germany and France just recently met in Turkey for a summit on Syria. And is that an alternative to the Astana process to end the conflict and what does that kind of cooperation that sort of those optics what does that mean for Russia's ambitions to reassert itself globally and especially what does that mean for U.S. Russia relations.
Elena Suponina: [00:22:00] Thank you, Suzanne. I agree with Paul that the Middle East is in a state of constant change some might call it turmoil which at least will keep us employed for the seeable future. By the will of God, Russia's return to the region just occurred at the same time with this period of unrest. In my opinion it's too early to assess is it good or not, but for sure some regional players have benefited from it. And for sure Russian involvement starting from the Autumn from the end of September 2015 shifted the balance of power in Syria. One of our priprities, it's counter terrorism. At the same time I strongly agree with the French political analyst colonel French Goya Syrian in his article The Red Storm that Russia so far has not paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for this. During three years, Russia lost one hundred twelve troops in Syria by official reports. Half of them were lost in two plane accidents one in March this year near Khmeimim base and one in September this year. Also the same area. The number of private contractors lost is not certain due to poor reporting. But one thing is certain, these losses are far less than what the Soviet Union suffered in Afghanistan. In [the] first three years of Afghan campaign Soviet Union lost around five thousand soldiers and totally during 10 years of Afghan campaign, we lost about 15000 soldiers. And U.S. during the first three years in Iraq a campaign lost nearby two thousand three hundred soldiers and totally I think more than 4000. So the price it's not so heavy but now it's time to do something more in the political area. Until the end as Mr. Ramzy from the UN mentioned today before, until the end of this year the constitutional committee about the Syria reforms must be created and Russia is working hard to do this. And also maybe we're going to speak later about Russian efforts in humanitarian area. I mean the reconstruction and the problem of Syrian refugees.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:25:18] Well the estimated, I believe the estimated cost is over two hundred billion that it's going to take to rebuild Syria.
Elena Suponina: [00:25:25] Two hundred billions. According, this is according to World Bank. But according to some other reports it's more than 400 billions.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:25:37] That's a lot of money unfortunately. So Paul didn't–we'll get back to that.
Elena Suponina: [00:25:48] But we can sure.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:25:53] Don't look at me, I just I'm just the messenger here. So we'll get back to Russia's role and what that would mean for rebuilding Syria. But Paul doesn't agree that China's much of a player in the Middle East yet he thinks that they're still in the background–
Paul Salem: [00:26:08] –Not in the security area–
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:26:10] In the security... Christina, could you kind of help us because China, China's role in the Middle East isn't something that's as discussed as Russia's role in the Middle East and Iran's role in the Middle East. What really is China's role in the Middle East right now and how is it growing and what is China's interest in the region. What's driving it what are the like what are the challenges that it would face in protecting those interests that is driving it to have an interest in the Middle East.
Christina Lin: [00:26:44] Yes, can you hear me? I concur with Paul that China right now is mainly [an] economic player in the Middle East right–not so much a security player. And so I see a lot of room for cooperation. I think in a way China is a blank canvas and an opportunity for Middle East countries to project their aspirations for a different type of great power relationship. Unlike the West that has no historical colonial baggage. It does not moralize for others to conform to the superiority of its ideology or its governance system through its non-interference principle. The Belt and Road initiative, the BRI is promising deeper Chinese engagement in the region at a time when the U.S. is relatively drawing down its presence. So in the face of rapidly changing security environment and the need to exit war economies, I think the Middle East offers a rare opportunity for a constructive framework between China and the West. And a sort of a laboratory to test and to foster the successful integration of emerging powers in management of post-conflict and transitional settings and give them a seat at the table in global governance as we increasingly enter a multipolar but also a multi partner world. And I think it's important for U.S. policymakers to keep to keep this in mind that multipolar multi partner doesn't always have to be zero sum. In terms of what are China's interests in the Middle East and what challenges it faces to protect those interests. In a nutshell China's foreign policy is driven by its domestic interests, its core interests. Firstly is sovereignty or territorial integrity. Secondly is continued economic development which undergirds number three the survival of the Communist Party and the Middle East supports these core interests in terms of energy sources market access to Europe and Africa. And it is also a Forward Fund for counter-terrorism. China imports more than half its crude from this region. The Middle East is also of course an emerging market for China but also is a hub unto you know by virtue of its geography a hub onto Europe and Africa markets and the presence of ISIS al-Qaida and Chinese Uyghur jihadists in Syria poses a threat to Chinese interests so the Middle East also becomes a forward front for China to counter terrorism as well as to counter separatism back in Xinjiang which is the westernmost province of China and Xinjiang is very strategic it is the bridgehead of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is one sixth the entire landmass of China and I think Western pundits don't really appreciate what she just means to China. And so the key key countries in the Middle East play important roles to support these core interests. For example on protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity in Xinjiang here Turkey and Syria pose challenges to that goal. Turkey's traditional sympathy and de facto support for Uyghurs and Xinjiang separatism for example Erdogan's AKP party has said that they support an independent East Turkistan. This is an issue for China. And also Syria providing a safe haven in Idlib for you know anti Chinese militants is also a concern for China. On the core interest of economic development and providing rising living standards for its citizens. Of course China needs energy and energy access and market access in the Middle East. So Egypt and Iran are key supply line corridors via the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, or here I have to say Arabian Gulf. And China needs stability in both countries for continued energy access. Given that over 95 percent of trade is still seaborne, Egypt's control of the Suez Canal is very important for China to access its largest export market which is the EU. Bilateral trade is over five hundred forty five billion dollars a year. And if something happens and the Suez Canal was closed, China would have to go around the entire continent of Africa which is I think an extra 6000 miles so this is you know going to add to shipping costs and shipping time. And then of course Iran is also a key node for the Belt and Road Initiative connecting Central Asia to West Asia and then Iran Iraq Saudi Arabia countries in the Middle East are major sources of energy for China. On the core interests of the Chinese Communist Party CCP legitimacy and survival. The CCP maintains legitimacy through continued providing continued rising living standards for its citizens and and its ability to protect its citizens and assets abroad. So as China is increasing its economic presence in the Middle East it will eventually like Paul assessed later on down the line, it may have comments read you know sort of more robust security posture to protect those interests. This is commonsense and organic development for all trading states whether it's Britain in the 19th century or the US in the 20th century or now China in the 21st century. China is now the largest trading country in the world. It overtook the US in 2013 and it's also now the largest importer of crude oil, it surpassed the US last year. So it's natural that the Communist Party would want to beef up its security posture to protect its interests and we see this in their naval naval base in Djibouti increasing naval presence and exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean. Also with the EU anti piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and U.N. peacekeeping operations. So this is sort of a snapshot of China's interests what's driving its interest in the Middle East and the challenges it faces.
[00:32:24] So Ariane's the perfect person to wrap all of this together given she just wrote this book that I mentioned before triple access access China Russia Iran and power politics. You argue that in your book you argue that the interactions between these three countries and their shared opposition to the west will shape the world stage for decades to come. The relationship between Iran and Russia has talked about a fair amount but not as much the relationship between Iran and China although Christina did a pretty good job of summing that up. Could you kind of give us some insight into that dynamic and how Iran sees itself in the region especially in light of the recent reimposition of sanctions. Because like Christina said I mean you know that they've been a key partner when it comes to oil. But then there is recently a report that right before the sanctions were to be reimposed, China pulled back on the kind of trade oil imports.
Ariane Tabatabai: [00:33:33] Thank you. So many news cycles ago on Sunday, the new sanctions against Iran went into effect. And a key driver behind that as laid out by Secretary Powell is to change Iran's regional behavior and to cut a long story short I'm very skeptical that those sanctions are going to be able to change Iran's regional ambitions. And the reason for it is pretty simple. Iran's objectives in the region are not that different from what has been laid out so far on the panel in describing the Gulf Arabs Turkey Russia and China. And Iran pursues these objectives which include changing the balance of power in the region to make it favorable to Iran power maximization and power projection. And at the end of the day security and the pursuit of regime and national interests as defined by the region by the regime not necessarily us here are the key drivers behind Iran's regional ambitions and the way the country has done that for a number of years now goes straight back to your question which is through the building of partnerships with various state and non-state actors and Russia and China of course are sort of the buckle of the belt here. For about the past 40 years Iran has become increasingly isolated and as a way to overcome this isolation it's formed his relationships with Russia and China, Christina did a really great job of sort of talking about how the Chinese interest plays into this. But the Iranian interests at the end of the day is to overcome the Western imposed isolation by making sure that it has political and economic and security partners. And so it has built not an alliance per say but a series of ad hoc areas of cooperation with both Russia and China. So to answer your question that the relationship is not fundamentally different between Iran and Russia on the one hand and Iran and China on the other. To break it down though I agree with both Paul and Christina that the economic factor is really the key driver here not so much the security or even the political considerations. On the economic front Iran needs a customer for its oil. Iran needs some sort of a fine trade partner. And China has provided exactly that for a number of years now. China needs cheap oil. It has built relationships in the region based on the need for energy. And Iran of course has cheap oil to sell and it has very few and has had very few customers since the imposition of their national sanctions after the collapse of the first round of nuclear talks in 2005. Then you have the one belt one road initiative the belt and road initiative where Iran of course is a fundamental player. And Iran has leveraged that to again increase its ties with China and to make it more difficult for the West to sanction it effectively and to do so in a way that actually properly isolates the country economically. There are growing ties politically and I think the perfect example you mentioned the nuclear talks in 2012 to 2015 the perfect place where we witnessed that relationship increasing between Iran and Iran and China excuse me was actually the nuclear talks where the Chinese, very eager to project an image of a responsible power, were forthcoming and often played a critical role in sort of getting the two sides the West and Iran to agree on on certain provisions which I think would have been a lot more difficult without Chinese help. And of course Iran has relied on China and the U.N. Security Council as one of its two key sort of partners to help undermine Western and U.S. efforts increasingly to isolate Iran. And finally even though again I agree with Paul that militarily China is not a big player here, there have been increased ties between Iran and China. You're seeing military drills between the two countries. There has been some efforts in counterterrorism and counter piracy and so you know depending on where the nuclear deal goes in the years to come whether or not Iran actually ends up emerging from the deal without the sanctions on its military–on its military sort of lifted then we might see even more cooperation in that in that area. The second group of partnerships that Iran has leveraged to advance its interests are very you know we talk about a lot are not non-state actors terrorist groups militias insurgents, and here too I would say that Iran's relationship with these players are largely shaped on Iran's need to overcome isolation to have certain alliances in the region which it has lost essentially1 since 40 years ago when it began to look to lose a number of its state allies. And they serve a number of objectives including deterrence you know having a group like Hezbollah sort of give you the strategic depth that you're lacking a fairly low cost for the country is something that they've been pursuing for for a number of years. So overall I would say that the balance of power is really what Iran has been has been seeking. And the Arab Spring Paul was mentioning the advent of the power vacuums in the region I think has really helped facilitate Iran's ability to project power and to forge and leverage these relationships to shape the regional order to its liking.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:39:25] So as you said Iran's need, its alliances are based on its need to overcome isolation and China does have good relations with Iran but also China seems to have this newfound kind of interdependence on the Gulf states of United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. I'm wondering if this is a question that pretty much all of you will hopefully have input on. But I want to start with Paul. Obviously UAE and Saudi are anti-Iran and if the U.S. and its Arab state allies are trying to pressure Iran to curb its activities in the region, should courting China away from Iran be a part of the calculation? And is there a appetite for that from China, Christina, given this sort of you know access between China Iran and Russia?
Paul Salem: [00:40:17] What I would say I mean in interaction with Chinese officials one thing they always bring up as to why they are not very diplomatically active in the Middle East and not wanting to get embroiled in Middle Eastern differences is because they need to get oil particularly from both sides and this means you know both from the Iranians and from the Gulf. And that's one reason unlike the Russians they can't afford to take sides. They don't want to take sides. And that's I think one reason that they hang back politically and diplomatically. Obviously the U.S. is trying to push China to not take Iranian oil the U.S. might have some leverage of the Gulf states don't have, negative leverage per say but within that triangulation of the U.S. Iran sanctions and the Gulf there is a play there in the sense that China needs oil it doesn't have to come from Iran. So if you know in the sanctions regime China is pushed to get less oil from Iran, Saudi Arabia could be relevant to make up some of that. So that's I think where it becomes relevant. The Gulf states like Saudi Arabia the UAE and Qatar and others are investing in China in terms of refineries and investments and so on. So that not only are they selling energy to China but they also want to build a presence. I don't know that you can call it leverage at this point but they are aware that the power center of the world is moving west to east but very slowly still.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:41:49] But will China eventually have to choose, Christina?
Christina Lin: [00:41:51] I don't think China has to has to choose. That's Why they have a non-interference principle. They want to you know sort of remain neutral and have good relation with all sides. And Iran like I said it's very important. It's an important node on the Belt and Road Initiative it's an energy exporter and also it's a–unintelligible–Persian Gulf and and the Caspian Sea. So I think because China doesn't like to choose sides they actually only has one treaty ally that's North Korea. You know so it just likes to maintain the non interference and sort of neutral stance in international politics. But here I think because because it doesn't really choose sides it could be an asset it could fill a diplomatic gap say between Saudi Arabia and Iran, like what it's doing now between India and Pakistan within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a sort of you know China Russia-led Eurasian bloc that includes China Russia India and Pakistan and poor Central Asian republics. And Iran an observer. So China is sort of floating US diplomatic trial balloon in terms of replacing Western efforts and political solutions or conflict mediation by just assisting or facilitating and providing a platform. So in terms of India Pakistan relationship if they know if they get in a conflict the BRI is going to come to a standstill. So it's in China's interest to help conflict management between India and Pakistan or between Iran and Saudi Arabia or between Iran and Israel. So in the SCO for example in August India and Pakistan conducted joint military exercise for the first time under SCO auspices. So maybe this is a first step and instructive for what could be done eventually and you know for the West and the Middle East. I don't I don't think that we can get China to choose sides but we can maybe leverage that to to assist in our our mediation efforts and conflict management.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:43:53] If so you've laid out kind of how China could be a positive force in the Middle East. Does, Paul, does I guess the rhetoric coming from the Trump administration towards China which has been bit testy and heated lately. Does that factor in to the how the Arab point of view is towards China and what role China could play in the Middle East. Or do they sort of, not get their direction from Trump, but at least pay attention to how he's viewing China. Does that factor into their decision making?
Paul Salem: [00:44:29] No I don't think so. I mean. What's more relevant to them is the sanctions on Iran and how that might affect their purchase of Iranian oil and enhance their sales. But the rhetoric against China that President Trump has had doesn't have anything to do with the Arab Gulf countries. It has to do with Iran and some trade issues between China and the U.S. directly. But I would like to sort of make a few comments about the rise of China and some of its impacts in the region which are sort of indirect. One is the reinforcement of what you could call a Chinese and Russian model that authoritarianism works. And I think this is driving a very a trend that was already negative in the Arab world and it was made also more negative by the rise of an illiberal president in the US and illiberal movements in Western Europe. That, after the Arab Spring the authoritarian counter movement has gained much momentum that authoritarianism could be could be the future and a full clamp down on everything is maybe the way to go. All opposition all media everything that is a very dangerous trend in the Middle East. Not only is it dangerous because in a sense it's bad in itself but it won't work in the Arab world as it maybe works for a while in China or in Russia I don't know. That's something to to to keep an eye on. A second issue where China could be useful or maybe isn't and this is you know could be an opportunity but we don't see much yet and this is in terms of reconstruction that the Middle East is going to be is burdened by four destroyed countries Yemen Syria Libya and Iraq in large swathes of it. And it requires hundreds of billions what the exact number is is almost irrelevant because you're only going to get a small fraction of it. And while China is spending sometimes through loans sometimes through direct investment on its one road one belt which is useful in itself because it builds trade and other forms of investment and economic growth and it's extremely important and it's a type of investment the West used to make after World War Two and is no longer making so it's very welcome. China does not currently have a direct humanitarian assistance reconstruction policy and the US is not willing to step up to do that for a number of reasons Europe doesn't have the money but China the rising wealthy power isn't putting that forward either. And I just highlight that as maybe an opportunity something that could be looked at.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:47:24] So on Iran and Russia and China, Elena, if the shared goal is to have a for at least for Russia if the if the goal is to reassert global power which in essence would have another goal of weakening the West. What kind of cooperation on an operational level is there between Iran and Russia if there is a there isn't Syria but is there outside of kind of that realm? In terms of the cooperation between Iran and Russia, and influence sort of.
Elena Suponina: [00:48:05] Who says that it is a goal to weaken the west?
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:48:08] Well, would it be–that's debatable I suppose. Is that part of it–?
Elena Suponina: [00:48:11] No it's not true. It's not Russian goal anyway. And the Russian aim in the region is to destabilize it and Russia is ready to play the role of mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran between Iran and Israel. Because we need the Middle East to be stabilized. Now I think many agree that Syria could use also a period of reconstruction and stability. The problem or only in political wish and political will. I will give you an example: up to this point Russia has led to de-mining of 19000 buildings and structures in Syria and more than 1000 and a half kilometers of road side bombs. However, when we proposed to our European colleagues to participate in this they claimed that the U.S. partners were strongly against it. As one American writer observed, it's only way to win in this game, it's not to play. This approach would be bad for Syria and its people in the region because there are only two options in my opinion two alternatives in this region. First to engage Syria and create stability by common common efforts. And the second option to allow Syria to go to more deep conflict. And this will lead to all regional conflicts and the cows will grow. Russia, it's clear that Russia made its choice. And it's quite clear I think, and in our opinion it's time now for others to make their policy more clear. That's it.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:50:28] So you mean the US.
Elena Suponina: [00:50:30] Well I mean others. Yes.
Christina Lin: [00:50:32] Can I add something to what she said?
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:50:38] Yeah, sure.
Christina Lin: [00:50:38] On China you know making a–contributing in reconstruction in the Middle East. Yes as an economic player not so much a security player but we can leverage is economic and financial wherewithal in this region. And you know help faster an economic ecosystem in the Middle East to promote regional stability by linking various trade and logistics happened. Israelis themselves have proposal this and see this as an opportunity. Former, I don't know if he's current, maybe former, transport minister he proposed that China establish an Israel Gulf economic corridor IGEC. So China promoting infrastructure projects linking Israel with Jordan and GCC countries which then would eventually lead to more formal ties between Gulf countries and Israel and eventually have positive spillover to jumpstart the Middle East peace process. Another project the Israeli, actually the Israeli minister of intelligence Katz proposed is building a Gaza island off the coast of Gaza, you know to relieve Gaza's isolation and also to protect Israel's security. So the Israelis propose building a Gaza island three miles off the coast. And hey proposed that Saudi Arabia and or the Chinese could build it will be linked to the coast with, by a bridge with a checkpoint staffed by international security forces. Either UN or NATO but of course prefer NATO and the island will have international legal status with international security forces. So the Israelis see actually China having a lot of positive impact in terms of reconstruction and financial aid in this region. And then they also said that they prefer Chinese companies to rebuild Syrian Golan Heights rather than Iran companies. And they also asked the Chinese after the Lebanon War in 2006 they asked Chinese and Asian peacekeepers to contribute troops to UNIFIL because they don't want Arab troops in Lebanon. And so actually the Chinese contribute 1000 troops to UNIFIL in 2006 at the request of the Israelis.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:52:38] So we're about to open up for questions make sure you think about that. But I have one last question about President Trump yesterday said that he's been forming a very strong opinion about the Jamal Khashoggi case and when speaking with Turkey and speaking with Saudi so the White House and Congress are also deciding what to do, what their response might be. If sanctions is decided on against Saudi Arabia, how big of a deal is that and what would that mean for how Turkey kind of handled this?
Paul Salem: [00:53:21] Well trying to read exactly what Trump is thinking on any one day of course is difficult but, my reading of how this crisis is is unraveling and the case of the killing of our friend Jamal Khashoggi who is a longtime participant at MEI panels just like this, he was on one of these panels a few years ago. What seems to be coming out is an American maybe and it's not clear if it's absolutely clear yet but sort of an acceptance of the narrative that this was some kind of rogue operation. The sanctions would be against these individuals. That seems to be where President Trump I would think wants to go. Now it might be that the Turks still have some more evidence that would even make that unsellable. Trump has made it clear that he doesn't really care about the Jamal Khashoggi affair itself that what's most important for him is the arms deals the economic investments the relationship with Saudi Arabia against. He's made that crystal clear. But he's also been made aware that this crisis given the media and things like that of that nature he has to react. What might make a bigger difference is the midterm elections and what happened in the House that the Congress was already shifting even before the midterms against Saudi Arabia over this issue and certainly with the shift of the House to the Democrats that will be more solidified and there will be much less sympathy with Saudi Arabia. Now what might that translate into. There was some discussion in the first panel about that, difficulty in passing arms deals pressure on Americans to pressure the Saudis to suspend the air campaign military operations in Yemen. I think what President Trump might try to get out of it is maybe a combination of things. One, concessions on oil prices and making sure that Saudi Arabia helps the US to keep oil prices down that it helps the US replace Iranian oil over the next six months. Those are very tangible things for the president. The US might also try to leverage this crisis with Saudi Arabia for easing up on Yemen which would be a domestic gain and maybe for patching up the relationships with cut that which the U.S. is still insisting they want a GCC that is sort of unified that's something Ambassador Hale emphasized this morning. So I think you know this will be is a major crisis in the relationship it will cause some changes and recalibration. It certainly won't end the relationship.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:56:09] If you have questions we have these microphones on either side. Go ahead.
Audience member: [00:56:15] My question is about the Uyghurs and I wanted to give Christina a chance to sort of clarify her position on the Uyghurs where even the State Department and human rights organizations have said millions have been put into reeducation camps and their children are taken away to these orphanages and lots of other horrible things. But the question is really to Gonul and to Ariane to see if the situation of the Uyghurs is effecting Turkish China relations or Iran China relations at all because of how large the situation is.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:56:48] So I'm going to take a couple. So we've got that. Go ahead.
Audience member: [00:56:50] So my question Is, to bring back to Russia. So we've seen at least about how Russian public opinion has strong reaction to Russia's foreign policy decisions near abroad. But I'm wondering if there is a strong Russian public opinion towards Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East if there is does it have any sort of noble effect on the way the Putin administration conducts its foreign policy Middle East. Thank you.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:57:22] Okay.
Audience member: [00:57:22] Thank you all for a very interesting panel. I'd like to broaden it just a little bit. Given the fact that Russia and China are not natural strategic allies. And they're both beginning to fight for not fight for but to work towards building cooperative relationships in the Middle East with the various countries it seems to me that there is going to be a time in which they begin to compete with each other for those relationships and particularly in the economic field. China has avoided this so far by sticking to the economic field Russia is in the political field much more. But I can see this as a potential for the future. And I'd like your comments on it.
Suzanne Kianpour: [00:58:00] OK. Thank you. So let's start with the Uyghurs in China.
Christina Lin: [00:58:07] Yes I read about the intern camps or what have you in Xinjiang and I would just say that if China–that has more to do with counter terrorism. I mean if we could work with China somehow to allay their fears about Uyghur militants having a safe haven in Syria or in Afghanistan to launch attacks on China. If we can allay their fears and they wouldn't overreact to have such strong measures in Xinjiang and have you know normal regular Uyghur people be caught in the crosshairs between Chinese authorities and Uyghur militants which is which is a shame. So if we can somehow work together with China to resolve to satisfy their fears then there are security threats as well as ours in Syria and Afghanistan. Then we can that we have positive spillover I think to improve the situation in Xinjiang. So I think that was the–.
Gonul Tol: [00:59:00] And I think, the second question was whether the Uyghur issue had an impact on Turkey Chinese relations. No. Turkish president the ruling party hasn't said anything on the Chinese brutal crackdown against Uyghurs and that is telling because Turkey is in desperate need of investments and Turkey sees China as an economic partner. The current Turkish ambassador to China is a businessman who is very close to President Erdogan. And Turkey is hoping to attract Chinese investment as part of the infrastructure Chinese infrastructure project. So that's why I think the Turkish leadership has been mute on on the issue and it hasn't really impacted bilateral ties.
Ariane Tabatabai: [00:59:51] Similarly in Iran China relations, you know this is a relationship that is based on interests not values. And so Iran can pay lip service to the oppressed people of the world and the region in every Friday prayer speech but at the end of the day it's been pretty silent on what's been going on in China as it has in the case of Russia for a few decades. And in fact the Iranians have seen it as sort of a way to get more cooperation with the Chinese by labeling a lot of internal issues as sort of counterterrorism. Right. It helps them sort of to have more common interests that they can pursue together.
Suzanne Kianpour: [01:00:33] So the next question I believe was about public opinion in Russia about Putin's President Putin's foreign policy in the Middle East.
Ariane Tabatabai: [01:00:43] Putin's policy about the Middle East it's quite popular now and especially oil prices are good. And there is a good impact on Russian budget, on salaries. But if you will ask people do we need our two bases, military bases to be kept in Syria they will say yes. And I recently I visited the Khmeimim base and it's very well organized and it's ofr hundreds a very good system, I like it.... But If you will ask people do they need the troops to stay for a long period in Syria, they will say no. We don't need to repeat Afghani experience in Syria. Not at all. Because of this we speak about the need to stabilize Syria, but by common efforts and about China and the other players we have a very good relationship with China and some of our priorities are common and Christina mentioned to the principle of territorial sovereignty of Syria. Russia also is concerned about this and we also had problem in Russia in this point of view and we think that it will not be united Syria, it will create more problems for its neighbors for Iraq for Turkey and others. Russia in my opinion succeeded in to create a balanced policy in the Middle East. It's not easy to maintain a good relationship with the Iranians and Israelis with the Turks and the Kurds. But we did it.
Suzanne Kianpour: [01:02:55] What are your thoughts on the gentlemen's comment that it's inevitable for Russia and China to end up competing with each other.
Elena Suponina: [01:03:07] Now it's a very good partnership between Russia and China. So we've don't think there are any difficulties in this. Not at all.
Christina Lin: [01:03:20] I think China and Russia use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization SCO as a template for confidence building and tension reduction so that they could talk and discuss maybe some underlying competitive issues. I mean not all countries aligned interests and so I see how it has actually been quite effective in management of you know relationship between disparate countries China Russia Central Asian republics and now India and Pakistan. So I mean it started as a form to delineate and you know borders after the Cold War with the new Asian central Asian republics and then once they have a cooperative template they started building on other issues whether it's economic or energy political diplomatic and now security with the SCO military exercises. So I think China and Russia are sort of beefing up SCO as a platform to manage these these competition these these underlying competition relationship.
Suzanne Kianpour: [01:04:18] So we're going to take the remaining questions that we have before we wrap. So we'll start on this side.
Audience member: [01:04:24] Hi I'm Marina Faisal an African-American journalist and the context of Abur, Ms. Lin if you would please comment, the financial commitment that would have to be made in an all ideal world in Afghanistan in terms of China's interests in Afghan Minerals and civilian projects have come under some question as to whether or not there would be substantial will on the Chinese part to commit financially financially with all the difficulties surrounding the various parties involved in the peacemaking process as well as other neighbors Pakistan India dynamic there. So to narrow that down would China be prepared to make long term commitment to Afghanistan in terms of its endeavours to exploit resources but in a fashion that would be long term enough that would commit in preserving Afghan culture. Some of that has to do with for example the Mes Aynak copper mine that China has a big interest in which sits on top of a Buddhist city that needs to be preserved and obviously getting involved on that level would be complicated with the legacy of Buddhism as opposed to the legacy of Islam in Afghanistan and now with the Taliban nearly coming to the peace talks, China has often been reluctant to get engaged on a level that would disturb those balances and the fresher legacy of Islam. And others for Miss. Suponina, [speaks Russian], so in recent peace talks the Taliban have apparently have accepted or there has been reports that the Taliban have accepted to come and sit down for peace negotiations in Moscow. That is something that the Afghan government has wished to lead. Could you please comment about the productivity of this process. What kind of productive role can Moscow play?
Suzanne Kianpour: [01:06:43] Thank you. So we'll have you and you two. Let's try and keep them short because we're running out of time.
Audience member: [01:06:48] My name is Sherry Arfazli I'm a Pakistan based analyst. My question is primarily for Christina regarding China's rising energy demands from the Middle East. You mentioned the importance of Suez and I think earlier Paul you also spoke about how China was quite happy with the U.S. protecting the sea lanes but as we now see the development of new ports including Duqm port in Oman, is China, how important will it be for China to project sea power in this region and what ramifications does that have for the U.S.–excuse me–and a great power competition in the region?
Suzanne Kianpour: [01:07:30] Thank you. Go ahead.
Audience member: [01:07:30] Dr. Lin, I don't like magical thinking and I assure you this concentration camps for Muslims is going to endure as long as the Xi regime endures. What's particularly interesting is it's number two weaker act, it is an anti-Muslim Act and the proof of that is about 15 percent of the people incarcerated are Kazakhs. Uyghurs and Uzbecks are mutually intelligible, they can talk to each other so it should be possible don't you think to energize the Central Asian republics to say you free our Muslim cousins out of those gulags right away or there's not going to be a single truck walking down the roads on one boat one road one belt initiative. I mean isn't that a geopolitical endeavor that we could manage to get on the good side of the Muslim world? You get to lock up Muslims in China or you get one belt one road.
Suzanne Kianpour: [01:08:33] Okay thank you. Let's start with, I think the Uyghur question is...
Christina Lin: [01:08:36] Oh, the last one first?
Suzanne Kianpour: [01:08:36] Yeah. Also the financial commitment to...
Christina Lin: [01:08:47] Well let me first with the Afghan the Afghan one. I don't have too much visibility on you know China preserving the culture and heritage in Afghanistan. But just broadly I know that you know China's interested in economic development the stability of long term economic development stability of Afghanistan because it's a neighbor it borders China. So I think China would be invested in stability economic development and in terms of preserving the cultural heritage. I don't know too much about that but I assume they will you know with the civilization dialogue in the U.N. so and the cultural people to people exchange I think they would. That would come later. And then Pakistan. Paul said China's interests–China is happy you know to rely on us naval power to maintain open sea lines of communication and you know they built they're building these ports or enlarging these ports mainly for container ships you know to facilitate trade or logistics. So I don't think that in the short to medium term the China's interested in projecting sea power. And then on the on the weaker question yes there's some pushback in Central Asia Asian countries and I don't have an answer for how they're going to resolve resolve this paradox or that this some Gordian knot in Xinjiang but I concur with the gentleman that you know they can push back and maybe U.S. can work with some Central Asian countries and and you know surrounding countries to push back on China. But it doesn't have to be one or the other, it doesn't have to mutually exclusive. We can work together on counterterrorism prong so that we could allay some of you know Chinese fears about this so that they don't overreact with these draconian measures. And then also work with you know allies in Central Asia and neighboring countries or you know Asian East Asian countries to push back a bit on the human rights prong as well.
Suzanne Kianpour: [01:10:56] OK let's uh, we are unfortunately out of time I'm sure we could stay here debating and discussing things all day. So let's have a round of applause for our panelists and thank you so much.
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