The below transcript is from the first panel of MEI's 72nd Annual Conference, held on November 8, 2018 at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington, D.C.

Panel Summary

With escalating risks of confrontation in the Middle East between adversaries, many questions remain as to how U.S. foreign policy can effectively promote security and stability in the region. How is this administration anticipated to address issues such as proxy involvement in Middle East conflicts while maintaining relations with key allies? What have been the implications of pulling out of the JCPOA on U.S. legitimacy in the region? How are regional actors expected to react to these new strategies?


  • Derek Chollet
    Executive vice president and senior advisor for security and defense policy, German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • Ambassador (ret.) Jeffrey Feltman
    Visiting fellow, foreign policy program, The Brookings Institution

  • Kenneth Pollack
    Resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute

  • Robin Wright
    Distinguished scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars; correspondent, New Yorker

  • Courtney Kube, moderator
    National security and military reporter, NBC News




Courtney Kube: [00:00:00] Thank you so much Paul I really appreciate this and I'm I'm really honored to be up here. For starters I'm honored to be at the conference. And then with such a distinguished panel right now and I had a whole set of questions because I'm a chronic nerdy over preparer and I've changed a lot of them based on the speech that we just heard. We're so lucky that we have literally the most up to date view from the administration from David Hale just now. So I'd like to start by introducing a panel here. You know them all of course so I'll give a very quick intro. Ken Pollack at the end here is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute where he works on Middle Eastern political military affairs focusing on Iran Iraq and the Gulf countries. He's held several positions at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution something that several of our panelists actually have in common here is the Brookings Institution. He served twice as the National Security Council first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs and then as director for Persian Gulf Affairs. And he also did some time as a Persian Gulf analyst at the CIA which we will get into your CIA time. Derek Chollet is executive vice president and senior advisor for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He was the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs advising Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel. And he served as senior director for strategic planning on national security staff under President Obama and as principal deputy director of Sec. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's policy planning staff that is a long title. I know right, I've never had a title as long as some of these. And as a member of the Obama-Biden presidential transition team. At the far end then we have retired Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. Ambassador Feltman joined the Brookings Institution in June of this year as a visiting fellow in foreign policy. He did over 26 years in the Foreign Service focusing largely on Middle East and North Africa including a tour as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs and before joining Brookings. He served as the undersecretary general for political affairs at the United Nations where he chaired the UN's Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force. Robin Wright, who I'm pleased to not call her a recovering journalist yet served four years as the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post where she reported from over 140 countries in the Middle East Europe Africa Asia and Latin America. She's now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center at USI P, U.S. Institute of Peace and she's been a fellow at Brookings Institution Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Yale and Duke and she's currently a contributing writer for The New Yorker. Welcome all.

Courtney Kube: [00:02:52] So I'd like to start with what we just heard. I mean this this is this panel is supposed to focus on a couple of things the U.S. the U.S. position on these many proxy wars that are going on in the region right now in the Middle East. How the U.S. is maintaining relations with some key allies in the wake of many of these proxy wars these conflicts the implementations of JCPOA and the reimplementation of these new sanctions just several days ago and then how this is all having an impact on diplomatic relations with the U.S.. So I'd like to start with what we just heard from David Hale where he was talking about the U.S. goals in Syria. One of the ones that we've been hearing more and more from the administration is this goal of pushing Iran and its proxies out of Syria. If we could start there you know I'd like to go in a broad sense. What do you each see as the the Iran's goal in Syria and then the U.S. ability to counter that goal? We could, I guess we'll start you'll be on the hot seat first Ken.

Kenneth Pollack: [00:03:57] Sure. Thanks very much Courtney. Thank all of you. Great to be on this panel with some very old friends. Briefly because I obviously want to talk about this and a lot of different issues. A lot of us talked about Iran's goals in Syria are to maintain the Assad regime in power or the Alawi control of Syria and maintain its own position in Syria. I think that that's a new goal. Going Into this I think they were much more concerned about the Assad regime the Alawis. I think that because of the position they've taken they now see that as in and of itself an asset to Iran. I don't think that they're going to easily relinquish it. Is it possible that the United States could accomplish the different goals that Undersecretary Hale laid out? Sure absolutely. They are perfectly reasonable goals. They are the kinds of things that we've done in other places. But, and of course it's the Middle East, there are nothing but big buts, it's going to be very difficult. And in particular what I see out there as the potential clash between what we've consistently heard from this president, which is that he's not interested in Syria. He wants Syria to be Putin's problem as he reportedly has said many times. With this desire to do things like drive Iran out of Syria. You want to drive Iran out of Syria, that is a big deal that is going to require a much bigger commitment from the United States than we've seen so far. And I don't yet see the Trump administration being willing to make that kind of commitment. Obviously there's a tremendous amount more than I could say about this but I'm going to cede my time to to my colleagues on the panel.

Courtney Kube: [00:05:30] A bigger U.S. commitment militarily financially everything?

Kenneth Pollack: [00:05:35] Yes.

Courtney Kube: [00:05:35] Derek?

Derek Chollet: [00:05:35] Well I agree–well first thanks for having me. It's great to be with my fellow panelists all old friends. I agree with what Ken has said about Iran's goals. I think that's that those are pretty clear and they're fairly transparent about that. And I also agree with the fundamental dissonance we see coming out of the current administration about how to approach addressing what are what Iran schools are. Because you know on the one hand we hear we hear policies coming out or rhetoric coming out of the administration that sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders, right? We got to get out of the Middle East. You know this is a huge mistake, it was a trillion dollar sinkhole. But Also a lot of rhetoric that sounds a lot like Dick Cheney. And how one can reconcile these two perspectives I think is the big challenge because, Courtney you were just in Syria in the last few weeks so you saw this up close, but from where I sit I see aU.S. military in a Pentagon that is is willing to stay in Syria wants to stay in Syria, is fighting rearguard actions within the bureaucracy for a president whose instinct is probably to get out of Syria. But they're also not really willing or very enthusiastic about taking on the challenges at the Pentagon of really pushing back against Iran. They want to stay. They want to maintain a presence but they're very concerned about escalation. They're very concerned about managing risk, so the kinds of policies that I think many in the region many of our partners in the region the Israelis and the Gulf partners in particular were thinking they were gonna be seeing coming out of the United States a year ago, a more aggressive effort to push back against Iran militarily on the ground, We're just not seeing that.

Robin Wright: [00:07:24] Do you want to go next?

Courtney Kube: [00:07:31] Either one, either way–whoever...

Ambassador Feltman: [00:07:33] Robin, go ahead.

Robin Wright: [00:07:33] I'd make–looking at what Iran wants in Syria. I think the big. I've just been in the Golan Heights only where the big questions is does Iran want to Lebanonize Syria? In other words open a second front. Have enough missiles that can be fired under Iranian control or Hezbollah control. That is a second front. Or does it want to use Syria as a backstop to to Lebanon to deploy equipment there that can then be taken into Lebanon and make Lebanon just the one front and even the Israelis debate among themselves what the goals are. I actually think that when we that the Iranians are already preparing for the kind of next phase they're they're gaming what's happening in Syria we're all focused on the current war ending it and so forth. I think the Iranians are deploying their personnel that they're, they're for example, they've done this deal with the Russians that they'll pull out of 80 85 kilometers from the Israeli border. But that involves only fighters and it does involve military advisors and they've whether it's putting on Syrian uniforms or as I was told by an intelligence source even Israeli uniforms, that they're, they've figured out a cover. They're much more advanced in terms of thinking what plays out next. I think the Iranians will stay long term they're there, you know the idea that we'll ever get them out is just an illusion. The Russians I think will pare down to the point they have bases at Tartus and... Latakia, sorry. Yes. And that they'll they'll want their kind of kind of conventional forces they want to beef up what they had before and but they don't they don't want to stay long term this has become costly for them. So I think that's one front on the other on the issue of U.S. goals, I've covered Iran now since 1973 and I covered the Iran-Iraq war and what what I used to do all the time was to go into the supermarkets to figure out how desperate Iranians were during the war when meat was rationed fuel was rationed. Families couldn't get their kids to school because public transportation was lousy and even public transportation had fuel shortages and the shelves were bare you'd see you know some a few bags of rice or tea. But there was just the basic commodities were scarce. When I go back to Iran now they can't keep Porsches in stock. Now there will be waves there will be shortages. But you can get Pampers diapers and Oreo cookies. The smuggling network is very efficient. The idea that we are going to squeeze Iran economically anytime soon is an illusion. We'll get their oil sales down from two point three barrel million barrels a day which it was in September 2017 down to probably a million barrels a million barrels a day. But there are all kinds of schemes whether it's there is talk of the Russians buying discounted Iranian oil and there'll be a lot of discount offers. They'll be very lucrative. And the Russians then selling their oil to compensate for the shortage of Iranian oil on the global market and they'll use their discounted Iranian oil for their domestic uses and pocket the profits in the meantime. There are all kinds of things the Chinese waivers will allow countries to continue to buy Iranian oil that will have to go down every six months but probably never down to the point of zero.

Robin Wright: [00:11:01] The Iranians are gaming Trump whether it's two years or six years. And you know Persians have been around for 5000 years and they know how to do this stuff. So you know the idea that we can make our policy work. The danger is that Rouhani is a lame duck. There is the potential that he becomes another Khatami the president two two presidents ago who and who talked a great game bring down the wall of mistrust and so forth but in the end ended up being emasculated politically. And the danger is that Rouhani who staked his presidency his original campaign on both engaging with the outside world ending the nuclear crisis and opening up the country economically ending its pariah status will find it difficult. Now Iran has no incentive to cheat on the JCPOA right now. It needs the Europeans the Russians and the Chinese. They don't want all of them to join in U.S. sanctions. And so this is a serious situation. I'm not trying to under state it at all but there are there are a lot of alternatives. They still have five of the six world major powers behind them. And so you know I think there's a real disconnect. We saw one last point we saw demonstrations in January and February the U.S. talks as if they want regime regime "change" when the question is do they really want "regime" change. And there is a difference. One is you know changing behavior, potentially, of you know the leaders the other one is actually changing the whole system. The idea that they'll ever change the whole system is just hogwash.

Robin Wright: [00:12:51] Revolutions unravel. They have to either normalize but they have to adapt they can't create utopias and that's where Iran is vulnerable to its own ideology not to U.S. pressure. And so anyway I they may evoke some regime change. The danger is that it's the hardliners who emerge stronger out of this.

Ambassador Feltman: [00:13:15] It seems to me that the administration is serious about wanting to push back against the Iranian growing Iranian influence in the region. But they need to look at the background of how Iran was able to exert its power through the region. It seems to me that Iran does a very good job of playing in chaos. You look at the Lebanese civil war. You look at what happened in Iraq after 2003. You look at Syria. Iran has been able to exploit those opportunities to work in chaos in a way that countries like United States or European powers don't tend don't tend to be able to do because of the all the methods they have. So if you want us if you want to try to start dialing back Iranian influence stop giving them those opportunities. And right now I would say Yemen is one of those opportunities. The Saudi led coalition hyped the Iranian presence the Hezbollah like the behavior of the Houthis when the the coalition military campaign started. It was not entirely fictional but it was largely hype. But now the Iranian influence is greater in Yemen than than it was when this started. You look at the fight in the among the GCC countries it gives it gives Iran the ability to embrace Qatar in a different sort of way. So the first thing is simply stop giving them the opportunity to expand their influence by preventing these kind of foreign policy gifts that open the door for them.

Ambassador Feltman: [00:14:54] This is this is ancient history at this point but I'm always struck by the impression I had when I accompanied Ban Ki-moon then secretary general of United Nations to Tehran a few years ago where we had a meeting with Khamenei the supreme leader. And it was Ban Ki moon's meeting, I was I was his plus one, there was a great picture so you may have seen of this meeting but that had had me an Iranian aid Ban Ki-moon and Khamenei. And there there was a caption contest at the State Department. The caption–the caption–the winning caption was, seated left to right: see no evil speak no evil hear no evil and evil.

Ambassador Feltman: [00:15:38] But what struck me about this meeting was the monologue from Khamenei was entirely about the United States. Now here's the... He was hosting the Non-Aligned Movement, there were lots of international issues in which Iran was was involved the Syria war was it was was already well underway but he chose to use a three hour monologue to talk only about the United States. So I was struck first of all by the depth of the obsession with the United States. That's that's how he would use his meeting with with Ban Ki moon. But second I was struck by how wrong he was about the United States. Now there are a lot of very sophisticated Iranians people who've studied here and people who who study us now who would be able if they had the access the influence the credibility to be able to try to correct his impression. But it was completely fictional his his analysis of the United States what was going to happen to the United States what Iran was going to do. At the time I thought you know I've been in lots of meetings and lots of meetings in Washington where we talked about Iran and I'm sure that there were gaps in our knowledge about Iran. Gaps in our perceptions about about Iran about Iran. But I was assured at the time that at least whatever our gaps were our leader our president is not as ignorant about Iran as the supreme leader of Iran was about the United States. I hope that that's still the case. On Syria, the tools that the United States has for pushing back against the Iranian influence there would include reconstruction because I don't think that either the Russians or the Iranians want to be handed the full bill for the type of reconstruction that Syria needs. And there will be a move toward reconstruction whether whether we like what's happened or not. It's–this, this his will happen they'll be pressured they'll be refugees going back to be European countries saying this is the best way to get the mig–to get some of the migrants back back into their homeland. But to use reconstruction effectively as a lever, you have to have unity of donor countries. And it worries me because I'm not sure the United States will be able to promote the type of unified approach on reconstruction given the JCPOA, given the declaration that the European Union is an is an enemy. Anyways, thank you.

Courtney Kube: [00:18:25] So I'd like to stand on Iran for just one more round of questions and ask you each to kind of go in on your your areas of expertise so Ken, you know Jeff was just talking about gaps in intelligence that the U.S. might have with Iran. Can you speak to that? Do you think–where do you think the U.S. in–and I know I realize you've been out of government for some time–but where do you think the U.S. intelligence position is right now. with respect to Iran? Does the U.S. have a good a good picture. Is U.S. in a good position to be in this position with Iran of, adversarial position.

Courtney Kube: [00:18:58] Derek if you could talk a little bit about the military piece of it how can if at all can the U.S. military and I guess allies pressure Iranian militarily if at all? Robin, I mean we understand definitely see your position that it it's that the idea that the U.S. can pressure Iran economically is, you don't think that that's the case. So how do you see the U.S. position how can the U.S. pressure Iran if at all? What's the most effective way and then Jeff if you could talk a little bit more is as one of the few maybe only American officials who's met with the ayatollah since he became the supreme leader how do you what do you see as the best way for the U.S. to pressure Iran. What is the best U.S. policy that would be effective and potentially successful against Iran starting with Ken.

Kenneth Pollack: [00:19:51] Sure so sticking with the Intel piece. There's no question that the U.S. intelligence with regard to Iran has improved over the years but it hasn't improved greatly in the area where we need it because it's always the most difficult area of all which is what is the leadership thinking at any given moment. We have much greater ability to track Iranian military forces. We have a greater ability to have a general sense of what is going on in terms of the large scale economic activity in Iran. All of that has improved over the years. The problem is Jeff was alluding to this before with his story about Khamenei, what is in the mind of Ali Khamenei? What Is he going to do? Robin made I think a very powerful argument that the sanctions the new sanctions are unlikely to change Iranian behavior that will be a critical intelligence question for the U.S. intelligence community, is are the Iranians moving? Are they feeling the pressure from the sanctions in such a way that is likely to cause them to change their behavior? That's question number one for them and that will be huge and that will be very difficult because of course that speaks to a whole variety of sub questions. What information are they getting about the state of their people, how unhappy are the people actually? Do they care if they're being told that the people actually are impoverished and unhappy and by care what I mean is not–I think that at some level of course they care. The issue is really do they care enough to change their policy or is there feeling that well the people may be unhappy but we don't want to change our policy for any number of reasons. These are absolutely critical intelligence questions and they are it's exceptionally difficult to answer. There's also a set of questions that flow from well what if the Iranians really are hurting? Right, because It may be that the administration is right in certain ways we may do a lot of damage to the Iranians through the sanctions we may hurt their economy their economy is in tough shape because of their own mismanagement over the years added to that some of our own activities. But the sanctions may hurt them badly if that's the case the intelligence community is going to have to be in a position to tell the administration the Iranians are hurting they are contemplating a change in their behavior. But then the question becomes, what's that change? We Know that President Trump is hoping that the change is going to be I'll be glad sit down with you. I will agree to a new nuclear deal that will be better than the Obama administration got which I think is about all that really matters. So far as he's concerned. That may not be right. It may be that they decide you know what we really are hurting we don't like this pressure. We're not just going to sit here and try to take it. We're going to find a way to do something that do something may not be negotiate. It may be pushback. And especially given the state of Iranian internal politics. How they read what happened with the JCPOA I actually suspect it's far more likely that if the Iranians do decide to change their behavior as a result of the sanctions their first move is not going to be to sit down with Donald Trump. It's going to be to find ways to put pressure on us. Right. And the way that we've seen them try to put pressure on us in the past are ways that we don't like: terrorist actions, support for various proxies and insurgent groups across the Middle East, attacking our allies, cyber attacks. I–...unintelligable...–I know that the intelligence community is going to have to be in a position to answer all of those questions prepare the administration what you never know from the intel side. I'm still keeping my intel hat on not my policymakers on. Because when I was at the NSC I always listened to the intel community no matter what they said. But, is whether the NSC, whether the president whether the administration is actually going to listen because if they come in and say Mr. President we think that the policy is working in the sense that it is forcing the Iranians to think about change but we don't think that they're going to sit at the table with you. We think they're gonna turn up the heat on you, right. You've got to get them to recognize that and to start moving to take action with enough time to actually do something about it. That may be the hardest thing of all for the intelligence community to convince this administration of.

Ambassador Feltman: [00:24:15] So on the, from the military perspective. One of the one of the probably underappreciated components of the previous administration's policies that led to the JCPOA was the military pressure track. So it wasn't just economic pressure wasn't just a willingness to talk diplomatically was also building up military pressure. And that came in four kind of components: posture, procurement, partners, and planning. And when I when I see what the U.S. military's currently doing in the region despite all the talk of disruption and a U.S. return to the region after withdrawal during the Obama years, there's actually a remarkable degree of continuity along all tracks. But actually the thing–all each one has gotten a little harder. So think about the U.S. military posture. It has not changed fundamentally in the last four or five years in the region. It's still around 50,000 troops. You know it's it's–we still have our bases. If anything that's gotten the posture's gone down a bit because we have a rotating some capability out of the region. We have not had a carrier battle group in the Gulf since March of last, of–earlier this year. And I think that's the longest it's been in what 20 years that we haven't had a carrier presence in the Gulf. During my time in government we spent a lot of time working with the Joint Staff and CENTCOM to ensure we always had a carrier presence in the Gulf as we were trying to also meet other needs around the world. Also the Pentagon is working hard on on implementing the guides of the National Defense Strategy which is all focused on the return of great power competition which is playing out in the Middle East, as David Hale mentioned, but it's fundamentally not about the Middle East and the threat from Russia and China rotating capability out of the region to address those threats. So you've got presence which on the one hand has been fairly you know, no major shifts but it's trending downward despite sort of a perception that now the U.S. is is there and really ready to go. On procurement, again despite all the talk of of you know big weapons sales particularly to Gulf countries. We haven't seen much of that in this administration much of most of it is taking credit for things that happened before and that that the prospect of large weapons sales in the future I think is really really hard to see and particularly even harder after the events of the election here where I think when the Congress comes back there is going to be a lot of discussion about what to do about the pending arms sales and I don't see a big political appetite here in Washington to push very hard on that. And that was a big component of the Obama administration's strategy to build military pressure when you have some of the biggest arms sales in American history to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and a big arms deal arms deals with Israel that was a lot about building pressure and building their capacity to deal with an Iranian threat... Uh, Partners. So I give you credit for trying to continue the effort to build a greater cohesion and muscle tissue between the United States and our GCC partners in particular. And to me there's a logical progression and it's a positive one from you know the security cooperation forum to the which was in 2013, 2014 to the U.S. GCC defense ministerial to the camp David process to this MESA idea which was proposed in September I think prior to the the the the murder in Istanbul. And so I think they were originally planning to have a meeting in January. I'm not sure that's going to happen but I do give them credit for trying to move in that direction. I just think it's going to get really it's really hard given the state of the U.S. Saudi relationship and given the ongoing dispute with Qatar. And then finally planning. I'm not sure because we're not privy to classified planning but there is a tremendous amount of effort that needs to go into planning military planning to ensure that all options are on the table should they be necessary to deal with the Iranian nuclear program. In the Obama administration, we called that "set the theater", to ensure that we had capability and plans in place to execute on any options should the president so order. And that's not something that just happens naturally, there's, that comes with a lot of hard decisions of of–resource decisions inside the Pentagon. We have not heard a lot about that recently. And my guess would be just given the overall trend of how we're moving some of our military forces in–globally is that we are not as prepared today to execute on military options as we would have been three or four years ago. Now you could argue we've had the JCPOA so there's less of a need. But if we are in a post JCPOA world and if if and I agree with Robin and Ken in their assessment of the Iranians, if we are assuming that we are not going to be engaged in a diplomatic negotiation with the Iranians anytime soon if ever under this administration then the question of plans has to be back on the table and something that we're talking about.

Robin Wright: [00:29:21] Don't get me wrong, Iran is suffering. The value of the currency is a third of what it was a year ago. So, and it was sanctions at the end of the day that got the Iranians to the table in 2013. So that is clearly one way of squeezing them. It's just how it's the timetable you know everything you have to game something and you had Rouhani at the beginning of his administration having campaigned on something, Obama interested in kind of changing in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in the chaos that spread across the region kind of taking that nuclear component off off the table. One of the questions I think Ken mentioned was the issue of the Supreme Leader's mind. And I had breakfast with him once when he was president and he was the first Iranian revolutionary figure to come to New York for the U.N. eight years after the revolution. It was 1987 and he was sent. He was you know the presidency then was not an executive presidency the prime minister was the most powerful figure but he was dispatched basically in the context of Iran Contra. You know the escalating toward the end and the dead very deadly end of the Iran-Iraq war to try to repair relations with the outside world. Iran was beginning its period of re-engagement with the world after eight years of saying neither east nor west. And he came with a mission to say you know we want we want to end the war we we want to engage with everybody. And there were about a dozen of us who were invited to have breakfast with him in New York. And it was very striking. You know we had been told all of us that this was the big deal announcement this was you know this was the reason he'd come first time since the ouster of the monarchy and about that time the U.S. sunk the Iran Ajr which was a ship in the Gulf that had been offloading mines during the tanker war. And we sank the ship killed 22 Iranian soldiers and had to rescue the rest of them. And of course the Supreme Leader looked at this and felt that this was deliberate to humiliate him. And of course it isn't. But this is where conspiracy theories, the Middle East, a vulnerable paranoid revolution that he really believed that this was the U.S. showing what it really intended. And he has never recovered from that. You cannot trust the United States. It has influenced his thinking and his perspective on all negotiations ever since. And I think that's really important to understand, things that we don't even remember or back then much less today. And so this is a this was a man who assumed the supreme leadership as having been a weak president and he was put there at a time that the revolution was again trying to evolve from the Islamic Republic of Iran instead of going first and foremost Islamic was trying to become more of a republic. But Khamenei didn't have a his own power base so very dangerous lesson for the future for when you try to put a weak man in power where do they go to they go to the military security forces to build up a power base. And that's what he did and so he has for a guy who's a mediocre mind to put it mildly. Very limited experience with the outside world not Western educated that you know that he is now disproportionately powerful. He's been in that office now for almost 30 years three times to the Ayatollah Khomeini's was. And it's really important understanding how this process plays out now. I was very struck after the announcement of sanctions this week that one of the things President Rouhani said was we don't rule out sanctions. And that's what he also said to me in September when I saw him at the United Nations. He said in September it's easier for us to go back six months than it is to go back six years. And this week little understood little covered was his statement that we don't rule out negotiations but you have to go back to the terms you have already committed to that the United Nations has endorsed unanimously. And then we'll talk. So this has not been ruled out the Iranians in some place in some ways have taken the higher ground on this in saying that they're they're willing to engage, but you know under certain conditions. Now one last point and that is that when it comes to what else can we do to pressure. I think again one of the unrepoted–little reported stories this week is the fact that Iranians have announced there was another massive cyber attack, far more effective than Stuxnet was. We've now–this will be the third that we know of cyber attack. And it it penetrated their information systems and information in Iran is the synonym for intelligence. So I think there are that the covert campaign in many ways may be far more interesting dynamic and imaginative than the kind of perfunctory sanctions that we all spend a lot of time talking about.

Courtney Kube: [00:35:18] Jeff, you met with Ayatollah twenty five years later. I'm curious what you–your impressions on him.

Ambassador Feltman: [00:35:24] Certainly I think that Robin gave the background to the obsession that I that I witnessed in the meeting that I had the meeting I attended when he met with Ban Ki moon on the margins of the Non-Aligned Summit in Tehran several years ago. But it wasn't as I said it was not only the obsession it was just how wrong his analysis was about about the United States was based on ideology it was based on paranoia. It was it was. Facts didn't penetrate what he thought. I was in Europe a few a few months ago and met with a met with–a on the margins of a conference–with a high level Iranian official not the foreign minister a high level running official. This was this was after the Singapore summit and after the withdrawal from the JCPOA and this Iranian official asked me whether I thought they could pull off a Kim Jong Un whether they could pull off a Singapore like like breakthrough with with President Trump. It was interesting that he asked that my response I think was probably wrong. What I said was would be far more difficult because in the case of North Korea you had Seoul cheerleading you had Seoul preparing it whereas in the case with Iran you would have the Emirates Saudi Arabia Israel others pushing against it so that you wouldn't have the reinforcement that you had in the case of North Korea. But it was soon after that that the President Trump indicated he would be willing. So it showed the limits to my own analysis. Robin you and I were both in the same meeting that you thankfully asked to ask President Rouhani if we could talk more on the record about this. There was a, in addition to that to the meeting that Robin had privately with President Rouhani, there was a meeting in New York on the marge of the General Assembly with President Rouhani and you know a few 24 two dozen Americans of various backgrounds. It was supposed to be off the record and Robin pushed and said can't we put this on the record. David Sanger covered a lot of it in the New York Times article the following day because Rouhani agreed to Robbins rather persistent push for being on the record. But Rouhani, at the beginning, talked about how there was no roadblock that couldn't be superseded. There was–when things get really bad is when the experts start talking and that I found intriguing because it was different from what he said about how they could he couldn't talk to Trump or they couldn't talk to Trump until they went back to where the U.S. had diverged from the path in which they were walking. But he'd left the door open for expert level discussions I thought was interesting.

Courtney Kube: [00:38:16] So before we open up for questions I just want to bring up one more topic on the idea of proxy wars. Of course that's Yemen and I'm asking a very broad sense. We'll start with you Jeff since you've been had the longest time to think about your answer so far. A very broad question here. You know Secretary Mattis, Secretary Pompeo, have just said that they think that hostilities need to end in Yemen. Do you believe that the U.S. has the ability to pressure Saudi Arabia and UAE into ending the conflict in Yemen and what is next what happens next after the after the shooting stops.

Ambassador Feltman: [00:38:56] I think U.S. does have the pressure and I think that, to quote a Brookings colleague Bruce Riedel who talks about how quickly the Saudi air force would be grounded if U.S. technical support spare parts refueling went in. It can happen very very quickly. It's much different than longer term arms sales which wouldn't have the immediate impact of spare parts technical assistance and so forth. I mean the Yemen war is incredibly incredibly frustrating. You know it's as as Jerry Feierstein who was the US ambassador to Yemen knows very well with great reluctance the Houthis participated in the national dialogue process of 2013 early 2014. They signed on to the agreements held a national dialogue process that was a give and take compromise that was very very complicated 400 and some participants all the major political and regional groups of Yemen participated. And then the Houthis used a a fuel subsidy demonstration a few months later to overthrow the results and take over the country. So it's kind of frustrating to look and say well I mean I understand politically why it's difficult for so many people to say the war should just stop because the reasons behind the war haven't been addressed. If the Houthis did violate an agreement that was codified in the Security Council resolution blessed internationally and just took over the country. But the problem is that all of the stated goals of the military conflict or that you could say the demands that were in the Security Council resolution 22.16 that was adopted under Chapter 7 authority haven't been met and are harder to meet now than they were. And so at some point if you're in a hole stop digging. And as I said Iranian influence is greater now Hezbollah's role is greater now the Houthi's military sophistication is higher. They have better weaponry. Everything is worse than it was. And that's not even talking about the absolute humanitarian calamity catastrophe that's shameful. This war just needs to stop and the US has the power and I would say that as awful as it is to contemplate doing some kind of transactional deal over the Khashoggi deal, over the Khashoggi murder it's unacceptable what happened to someone that many people in this room knew. Still, it's an–it provides the leverage for the US to say we need to preserve the overall Saudi relationship–which the U.S. does–we need to somehow get past this. We can't pick who the Saudi crown prince is or isn't but that Yemen war has got to stop.

Courtney Kube: [00:41:37] Robin?

Robin Wright: [00:41:37] Well I agree that Jamal's death certainly created a dynamic that allows for a kind of unspoken arrangement that pressures the Saudis by putting its weapons sales or just visibility of the issue and some of their human rights abuses on the table. My sense is in this Twitter verse universe that–there needed to be much more momentum to make that happen. That we're already seeing the rehabilitation campaign for Mohammed bin Salman the King yesterday went with his son across the country to effectively endorse him. To say he's my boy and not going to be any changes. And the idea that he will pay a price. Now he may be weakened, some portfolio taken away from him, or whatever, but the thing that is so striking is that over the past week since Secretary Mattis first rolled out the idea of having talks by the end of November with a sense of urgency that the Saudis have doubled their airstrikes and this is an in-your-face reaction. And I don't think it's just gaming for leverage or territory. But I think it's a statement: we make the decisions. And It's playing tough so that even if they under for some reasons do end up at the negotiating table that we're not likely to see a process that leads someplace. That's the sad part. So I think there is a way to get negotiations going. I'm not sure there is the will to do it. And I think there are–one of the things–this is a by the way largely a Pentagon initiative to push this was a it was Mattis who rolled it out Manama. Then again gave the time frame in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the statement that Pompeo issued I am told was drafted at DOD that this is something he's pushing and I don't think reflects the will, the new energy, within the administration to end the Yemen war. I do think there is a recognition in the Pentagon that look we're the ones who are vulnerable because we're the ones we're refueling 20 percent of the Yemeni plan–or the Saudi planes. Were the ones who are providing the bombs that are killing civilians and providing the intelligence that tells them where they're going and the Saudis are ignoring it, that the Pentagon is not really happy about the way the Saudis have implemented or have used and abused the equipment and information that we have given them. I also think the Pentagon is very aware that the president of Yemen is ill. He spent much of the last two months at the Cleveland Clinic. He has serious heart problems and one even though he has been in exile since I think 20–15, 20–anyway, for a number of years in Riyadh that I think he's gone back you know made these brief trips but the government doesn't control its own capital.

Robin Wright: [00:45:00] The problem is if he dies his vice president is from the Islah Party. The president is the Saudi man. The vice president isn't. And so what you could do is see a complicated scenario where there's military chaos already and then there is this rivalry over just which government is Saudi Arabia actually trying to put back in control. And that's you see a political process that unravels and makes diplomacy even harder. So I think that's something that there is an awareness that there is this confluence of factors and then you throw in Jamal's death and that has given more focus. But again I'm not convinced that it's going to lead anyplace. It needs–the U.S. is talking about the U.N. Martin Griffiths the special envoy taking the lead on this and the fact is we're actually deferring to him unless the United States takes a lead and pounds the table and says we're using our leverage to defer to the U.N. and yet another special envoy that like poor Staffan de Mistura who deals with Syria. It's not going to go any place you know and will drag on for years. And so again it's a great idea wonderful that we're seeing attention but will it lead anyplace. I am yet to be convinced.

Courtney Kube: [00:46:14] I'd be curious, Derek, do you agree that the Saudi strikes these recent ones specifically this bombardment of Hodeidah where there's this horrible humanitarian crisis, do you see that as more of a strategic than tactical move by the Saudis right now? Do you agree with that?

Ambassador Feltman: [00:46:27] Do I see it as more strategic?

Courtney Kube: [00:46:28] Mhm, than tactical?

Ambassador Feltman: [00:46:28] No. But I, I... I mean look I agree with everything really Jeff and Robin has said that we, a: we've got leverage. It's–there is clearly debate playing out as Robin has said within this administration about how to use this leverage and whatever is motivating the Pentagon they're clearly the ones leading this increasing volume of criticism. Now there's a question again about how how widely shared is that within the administration. There's absolutely a rehabilitation of MBS campaign underway that is getting some traction. However as I said earlier with Congress coming back and the new configure of Congress that's going to be harder and in many ways MBS, he was lucky that our Congress was out of session during this time so there wasn't hearings on Capitol Hill there wasn't this kind of drumbeat of analysis and criticism.

[00:47:25] But I think that's the–it seems to be we're going to use, the U.S. will use leverage in–regarding Yemen either administration is going to get out ahead of it or the Congress is going to force him to do it is my sense. Now, what does that leverage actually mean. I mean one thing I've learned in dealing with the Middle East and trying to use U.S. military tools to create leverage is I'm humbled by the limits of our leverage often. I mean we've played a lot around with the military assistance to Egypt trying to influence the calculations in Cairo and that had limited success. So you know there is the kind of on one end of the spectrum there's the the credit Bruce with this, the Riedel plan right. We just we just shut it down and cut everything off. I don't know if that's realistic. I don't think the Pentagon would push for that but that's that's an option. But it kind of everything short of that it gets harder. I mean obviously not not helping them with resupply cutting off the PGMs. That's one thing but what else we can put on the table and this gets to the schizophrenia within administration at the same time they're trying to say that they're going to have a robust approach to Iran and they're going to create this MESA. You know how they can reconcile the increased leverage and regarding Yemen and how much they want to make the Yemen war be privileged over these other goals that they have I think is going to be the one very difficult set of choices they're going to have in the coming months. And then finally, again going back to Robin it does feel like that there's a lack of despite all the military discussion there's a lack of a diplomatic push here and it is unclear to me other than just supporting the U.N. envoy and we should support the U.N. envoy but making that your big play diplomatically to bring this to an end–it's not clear who in the administration would even play this role right. I don't, I mean Pompeo is not–I don't see him doing this. Maybe David's going to step up and do it. We don't even have an assistant secretary for NEA right now, so how they actually can if there even is a decision to use the leverage how they execute it I think is a is an open question.

Kenneth Pollack: [00:49:34] Let me be the skunk at the garden party. Could we force the Saudis to end their conventional military intervention in Yemen. Yeah we probably could. I think Bruce is right about that. That's about it. And let's be very clear that will not end the Yemeni civil war. The Yemeni civil war was burning before the Saudis intervened and before the Iranians intervened. And I think Jeff is right. I've always felt this way the Saudis greatly exaggerated the Iranian threat but it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy exactly as he said they are there. That war will keep going because of its own internal dynamics. We've seen any number of civil wars before and we know how they end, right? Withdrawing external intervention sometimes is a necessary precondition but it is never sufficient to end a civil war. And oftentimes it's actually counterproductive. Oftentimes you actually need foreign intervention to end a civil war. If we force the Saudis to remove or to end their conventional intervention it will not remove the Iranians from Yemen nor will it remove the now very real who the military threat to Riyadh. And this is something again that you can blame the Saudis you can say well it never would've happened if you guys hadn't intervened. That's probably a fair statement. But that is irrelevant. We cannot change the past. And now the Saudis do have a very real Houthi threat to Saudi Arabia. Lobbing Missiles at Riyadh is no small thing. We would not be terribly happy if someone were lobbing missiles at Washington DC. Even If they were missing it would be a very big problem. And let's also understand that none of this is likely to affect the humanitarian situation. My wife used to work for one of the big aid organization one of the big aid NGOs, Mercy Corps, and she and I used to fight all the time in our kitchen over Syria where she kept saying how do we feed more Syrians. My response was always the same: end the Syrian civil war. Because until you do that you are not going to deal with the humanitarian problems there. And the humanitarian problems and the civil war in Yemen is much bigger than simply the Saudi conventional military intervention. Briefly civil wars mostly civil wars that we have in the world certainly all the ones we have in the Middle East today are about state failure and security vacuums. Until you fill the security vacuum forge a new power sharing arrangement that is workable and that then allows the different parties to start building a state, you will not end the civil war. We've seen this over and over and over again and so it's all well and good for us to blame the Saudis for the tragedy in Yemen. It's all well and good for us to say well maybe we should try to push the Saudis to pull back. That is not a solution to the Yemeni civil war it's not even clear that that's the start of a solution to the Yemeni civil war. There's a good argument to be made out there my friend Mike Knights makes it. Which is the vast majority of civil wars that have ended and ended quickly ended with the military victory of one side. You want to limit civilian casualties in a civil war, the best way to do it is to have one side win and win fast. Right now the government the Saudi backed coalition has the upper hand. You really want to end the civilian casualties in Yemen? The smart thing might be exactly as my friend Mike Knights argues back them to the hilt. That maybe the fastest way to do this. That may also be entirely unpalatable. But we need to recognize civil wars have dynamics of their own and just causing one group that we happen to be unhappy with at the moment to pull back isn't going to end the civil war. And when the full costs the fewer full humanitarian death count is taken of the Yemeni civil war my guess is that we're going to look at it and say this is because of how long the war burned not because of who was involved. That's typically what civil wars are about. That is typically how the death count is measured.

Courtney Kube: [00:54:17] So I just have to press you on that for one minute. So you agree that the way to end the conflict in Yemen right now is to actually is to double down on it militarily? Do you think the world should–a larger...

Kenneth Pollack: [00:54:33] Sure, I actually have a slightly different position I think than I was articulating there. I actually do believe that civil wars can be brought to negotiating conclusions but they require foreign intervention. The foreign intervention has to be with the right strategy with the right force level. What I'd like to see us do is actually back the Saudis and the Emirates to take Hodeidah and then force them to then sit down with the Houthis and make a decent deal. Let me very quickly Courtney, what we know about how you bring a negotiated settlement to a civil war is you first need a stalemate in which neither side or no side believes it can win a military victory. But every side believes that it can lay down its arms without repercussion. Then you need a power sharing arrangement among all of the parties in which each party has political weight and economic benefits commensurate with its demographics. Right. And then finally you need some kind of an institution that will make sure that that conditions one and two hold firm for 10 to 20 years. Typically that's an external peacekeeping force although it can sometimes be something else–if you've got a Nelson Mandela handy, he can do that job or she could do that job. I don't see that in Yemen but as a result you're probably looking for that extra peacekeeping force. That's how we have brought–you know the way that the scholars measure it–40 percent of all the civil wars since 1991 have been ended in exactly that fashion. But you've got to be willing to do that. Right. And that probably would mean convincing the Houthis that they cannot win. Right. Which we can probably do if we back the Saudis and Emirates more but then it will also require us to pull them back. And so you're not going to get to win the military victory right. You're going to have to sit down you're going have to make a reasonable set of concessions to the Houthis.

Courtney Kube: [00:56:26] I want to take a few minutes and open up to questions from the audience. I think there's a couple of microphones here. Sir?

Audience member: Tom Frank: [00:56:37] Hi. Tom Frank. Arab Weekly. How do you think the election results on Tuesday will affectU.S. Middle East policy?

Courtney Kube: [00:56:50] Anyone? Anyone want to take It?

Derek Chollet: [00:56:51] I mean just–look, the election was not about foreign policy foreign policy was–even those former colleagues of many of ours many of us in the room who ran for office who were foreign policy experts weren't even being asked about foreign policy right. So that's there's no mandate one way or another. That said I think just given the configuration of of the new Congress when it comes into session particularly in the house with the Democrats you're going to see much greater scrutiny of the administration's policies across the board in the Middle East. Certainly there'll be it'll be interesting to see how this plays out. I mean there'll be an effort I think among Democrats to keep the embers of the JCPOA alive in some way in whatever way they can. And it'll be an interesting dynamic one can see when European colleagues for example come to Washington and do their customary meetings with folks in the administration but then also go to the capital hill and now they're gonna be sitting down with the Democratic speaker of the House and a Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and they're gonna be talking about things like the JCPOA in Iran and there is gonna be a lot more agreement than there would have been six months ago and then of course how the administration handles that one can already kind of write the tweet that's going to pop out once you see the picture of Nancy Pelosi with the German foreign minister talking about the JCPOA. But as we were talking earlier on Yemen, it certainly got a much higher scrutiny on U.S. arms sales. Therefore I don't see Congress having much appetite for passing through any of those. So just in general just a lot more questions being raised which I think suggests that you're going to see an administration that's going to be more kind of besieged on you know its policies. Lots of hard questions about how what the plan is how these policies are going to work. So I think for Middle Eastern partners looking looking in from the outside it's going to probably seem more confusing than it's already been to this point.

Robin Wright: [00:58:49] So David Hale's speech was really noteworthy because it left out one subject that was the constant theme of MEI conferences for decades and that's the Arab-Israeli peace process which President Trump came to office saying well it's really not as difficult to solve as anybody says. And Jared Kushner's plan has been going to be unveiled you know you know for a long long time. And of course now they say well right up until you know Khashoggi's death it was already to be and the reality is it's further away from reality whether it's unveiled or not because of what the president has done over the last year in Jerusalem cutting off aid to the Palestinians and shutting down the diplomatic mission here. And somebody if they have Palestinian contacts should tell them their mission which still flags still has the flags waving has not ended their Washington Post subscription and the post is piling up on the front steps of the embassy. So you know this is where I think that's the one initiative that they had you know that they want MBS for. You know when you think of the goals that was the one they were going to do down and dirty and kind of say done. And I think that's not going to happen during this first term or the term of the Trump administration.

Audience member: [01:00:23] My question is I have to qualify it saying that I'm no fan of Iran and Iran certainly has a an abysmal human rights record. But why do we give the Saudis such a pass? I mean if we're talking about U.S. security the Sau–regionally the Saudis are not you know keeping security and keeping the region secure. If we're talking about them funding and giving resources to al-Qaida and to ISIS I mean they're behind that. And it's interesting Mr. Pollack that you refer to Iran as you know a terrorist or you know in terms of using the word terrorism whereas it was the Saudis that you know chopped up and possibly burned in acid you know Mr. Khashoggi who's a U.S. resident alien–I mean a permanent resident. So constantly we give Saudi Arabia this this pass that we don't give to Iran and many people say that Iran are more natural allies to the United States if we if we worked it than Saudi Arabia would be so I don't understand why in terms of U.S. interests why Saudi Arabia is deemed such a good friend and not Iran.

Courtney Kube: [01:01:30] And we heard that from David Hale as well, so that was something I wrote down from his speech was he talked about Iran's human rights record but didn't talk about other places in the region and even Turkey. You know I mean as long as we're talking about Khashoggi. Anyone to address that?

Kenneth Pollack: [01:01:43] First to be clear what I said was that Iran engages in acts of terrorism which I think is a true statement. It's not say that countries don't it's simply to say that the Iranians do. Now let me come to your question. First about the Iranians. As someone who has championed every single American effort at rapprochement with Iran, the problem we have goes back to the points that both Jeff and Robin made before. The problem that we've had and we've made sincere efforts to rebuild relations with the Iranians is the Iranians don't want it. And whether that's no one but Ali Khamenei he is the person in charge. I actually do believe that Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif absolutely would like a rapprochement with the United States. I think that they did so. I actually was very much in favor of the Obama administration's effort to use the JCPOA and let's understand the JCPOA was only supposed to be part of a wider effort to have a better relationship with Iran. I felt that was exactly right. When I was in the NSC President Clinton tried the exact same thing. I was his Persian Gulf director at the time. I thought this was exactly the right thing. I did everything I could. What we found every time was that even though in every occasion there were Iranians who wanted the exact same thing, the leadership didn't and the leadership kept defining us as their enemy and kept acting as if we were their enemy deliberately trying to harm our interests. And so what we can say yes in theory Iran would be a great ally for the United States. It was and I'm going to be careful here under the Shah. The problem is the Iranian leadership doesn't see it the same way. I am hopeful going back to Robin's point about regime change or regime change, right, my hope is that at some point in time we will have a new leadership in Tehran within this regime in a different regime but that will want a better relationship with us. I think nothing would be more beneficial to us. And then finally with regard to the Saudis the difference there is that the Saudis do define us as their great ally and their great protector and have always done so. And while there is no question that that has been a problematic relationship for many many years the Saudis have also acted to advance our interests just as we have acted to advance theirs. I can remember Derek was with me in government in the 90s when we would come to the Saudis with all kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with the Middle East and we would say to the Saudis we need your help. And the Saudis were there. The Saudis funded the KEDO deal right the light water reactors for North Korea. The Saudis had no interest in that. It was simply that we asked them to do so. Now they had interests in doing so. There's no question about that. They had interest in our relationship but that's the first part. That is why we have a relationship with them because we do have shared interests and they do lots of things for us. But the truth in your question is that administration after administration has consistently looked the other way at the misdeeds not just of the Saudis but of any number of our allies in the Middle East and frankly beyond it. And you know what I hoped that we had learned in 2011 was that that doesn't pay off in the long run. That in the long run these governments especially many of our allies in the Middle East they desperately need to change and if they don't they are going to be swept away by revolutions and when they are we are going to pay the price for having looked the other way at all of their misdeeds toward their own people.

Robin Wright: [01:05:37] Can I add something very quickly? Among those countries that we are giving a total pass is Egypt. And you know it's human rights violations, what it's doing and being held to account by nobody. On the point of hoping for leadership change in Iran, let me just point out that the Supreme Leader is only a year older than Nancy Pelosi.

Audience member: [01:06:03] Perhaps, you know I like I like Mr. Pollack's assessment regarding civil wars. As we see in Syria, one side won. But coming back to Syria the US is looking for leverage, we have the carrots there. There could be some cards that we can play another card that he didn't address is the Arab minority in Iran. Thank you.

Robin Wright: [01:06:32] I'll take the minority in Iran. Look the striking thing about Iran and I meant to make it make this point much earlier is that we're looking for whether it's regime change or regime change in a country where there's no visible opposition. The MEK the Mujahadeen-e Khalq is based in Europe and it is able to pay a lot of prominent American and European Canadian officials to come to its annual conferences in Paris. But in terms of having an impact inside the country it's almost zero and there there are Arab protests in the Arab part of Iran. I mean this is a place that if you go down to parliament any given day there is some protest whether it's 50, 100, 350 people over–they haven't been paid in three months or there's been a price hike in electricity or they're not getting electricity or something that this is a very engaged population. Even when there is a crackdown people continue to get out there. Iran is 51 percent Persian. But there are a lot of ethnic minorities the Baloch in the southeast have been the most active when it comes to challenging physically the regime within a certain kind of geographic part of Iran. The place bubbles. But in terms of a viable opposition to to challenge the regime itself it's not there yet. Yes, over economic issues in part of the country, over gender issues the women have gotten out with their jobs but things have changed. There is a certain–I hate to say the word flexible but there's a kind of organic dimension to this revolution. The women drive their cars now their hijab has fallen off. They walk their dogs their hijab has fallen off. There's a parkour area special built up area that the government put in and girls at night go there long hair flowing they don't have anything on or they've got a baseball cap. You know it's just a very kind of different environment. So there are there are a few outlets but in terms of capitalizing on the Arabs the Baloch the Azeris or any of the different components there is not something inside the country. But Iranians are also very good at griping. They gripe during the monarchy. They gripe whoever is in power over economic conditions. And so the big challenge for the U.S. intelligence community is actually deciphering. Is this something that's really going to do to produce changes or force the regime to change or is this something that's part of the Persian fa–you know the kind of Persian society?

Kenneth Pollack: [01:09:18] I'll pick up the Syria piece because I think it is a great question. Is it possible that we've got–that the carrots alone will work. It's possible. I think that's exactly what Jeff was alluding to earlier. I'm a little bit skeptical right. The issue that we have in Syria right now is that we're kind of in between two models of how civil wars end. As you rightly pointed out the model that seems to be working is the victory right. The Syrians, that is the Assad regime the Iranians the Russians very much have the upper hand. They are looking to culminate their victory and we're trying very hard to stave that off and force them into some kind of a power sharing arrangement by holding onto a certain amount of territory and holding out the prospect of reconstruction aid. Could that work? Maybe. Maybe if we had Jeff in there to actually handle the diplomacy but that's going to be really really tricky because it means you know shifting from one model the the victory of one side to that more negotiated solution and historically you don't get to that negotiated solution unless you've got much more military pressure which is what I was referring to when Courtney asked the original question. Right unless we're going to threaten the Assad regime unless we can threaten its control over the vast majority of Syria's population they don't have much of an incentive. And while again I think it's possible what I fear is that we get ourselves into an a Lebanon situation which of course Jeff had to live through as ambassador there where we and many other countries are providing lots of assistance and we're trying as hard as we can to condition it but because one side has more or less won it and is in control they more or less kind of take the money and only pay lip service to the conditions that we impose. That to me would be the real risk of going down that path.

Courtney Kube: [01:11:11] I've only got one more minute so I'm going to ask maybe if each of you want to ask your questions and then we can try and take it both at the same time.

Audience member: [01:11:21] Um.. sorry, thank you. I'm with Voice of America Turkish my question will be on Turkey. So many questions but I'll stick to Iran and Saudi Arabia. So Turkey is one of the countries that was able to get a waiver from the recent Iranian sanctions but President Erdogan vows to defy those sanctions in the future so there is also this case of the Turkish bank Halkbank and the U.S. Treasury might be imposing a fine on the Turkish bank. So also bearing in mind the recent fallout from the Saudi journalists Khashoggi's murder on Turkish soil. How do you think this whole thing will play out for Turkey? Thanks.

Audience member: [01:12:00] Fortunately I also want to talk about Turkey and because we haven't talked about Turkey so far. But there is a serious potential of conflict between the United States and Turkey on the Kurds in Syria. We've been trying to cooperate with them on the one hand but there's all kinds of signs of conflict east of the Euphrates that we're headed for conflict if we're going to defend our Arab and Kurdish allies there. What is your assessment, any of you on where we're going in our policy towards Turkey and dealing with what's going to happen east of the Euphrates?

Courtney Kube: [01:12:44] And it's confusing now of course because the U.S. has just begun these joint patrols with the Turks in Manbij. But then at the same time the Turks have now struck after the SDF and halted their fight against ISIS. And I would also be curious on the Halkbank issue if any of you have feelings about their–it seems like there might be some momentum for Attila the deputy general manager of Halkbank who's in jail right now for 32 or 36 months. And it seems like there might be some sort of a deal to send him back to Turkey despite his being convicted of sanctions evasion with Iran. Anyone? That's a lot of things that we just laid out there on Turkey right now. So, if anyone you would like to address it.

[01:13:31] I think you know the question of where we like where we're going with Turkey. I think it's going to be–kind of muddle through. Right. Erdogan's been having a good few weeks. The way he's been he's been using the Khashoggi affair to you know kind of he's been in the driver's seat on a lot of this. He's been at least if we believe what's in the news in the last few days he's got some other cards yet to play on that. Right. That he's been holding. And so we'll have to kind of see how that that plays out. But it's just hard for me to imagine given the confluence of of issues where the U.S. and Turkey have fundamental disagreements whether it's related to Iran whether it's related to Europe whether it's related to what's happening inside of Turkey whether it's related to Syria that there's going to be there's prospect for for anything much better than muddle through. I think that the tensions between the Turks and the Kurds is something we've been dealing with for years now and we've seen flare ups of this now and again and at times it was in the last year or so, it got it looked very very dire in terms of the tension between the two sides. And we seem to sort of make our way through it. So I don't have great optimism that it's going to get much better anytime soon. And because I don't think the prospects of the situation inside Turkey under Erdogan are going improve much and given the other interest we have at play there'll be a determination to ensure doesn't get much worse. But I think we have to be prepared for the fact that it will.

Courtney Kube: [01:15:05] And now the U.S. and Turkey are engaged in this back and forth of negotiations which has been fascinating with the release of Pastor Brunson and now with this talk about Halkbank and Attila. So I think we're about out of time. I'm so sorry we couldn't get all the questions. I just want to thank this panel I know that you guys are probably accustomed to hearing from experts and geniuses all the time at these kinds of events. But I just I'm I'm really honored to have been part of something where there are literally decades of experience and expertise on the Middle East on the region and that we were able to get so much insight from them today. So thank you to all of our panelists. Thank you.

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