In this week's Monday Briefing, MEI experts Daniel Serwer, Alex Vatanka, and Paul Salem provide analysis on recent and upcoming events including the recent Chilcot Report, European trade delegations visit to Iran, and France's push to end the Lebanon stalemate.
Will Chilcot Report Impact U.S. Policy on Syria?
Daniel Serwer, MEI Scholar
The report of the British government's Chilcot "Inquiry" on the Iraq war is reverberating less in the United States than one might expect, given its indictment of former Prime Minister Tony Blair for blindly following former President George W. Bush's path to war. But the main thrusts of the report are already well-accepted in the United States. It has been clear for years that the war was not a last resort and the intelligence it was based on was wrong. Blair wasn't the only one fooled. But unlike him, few in the United States still think the invasion of Iraq was a good idea or had good results.
The United States is also preoccupied with other matters: its presidential electoral campaign; the fight against the Islamic State; and now the controversy over police killings. If the Chilcot report has any impact in Washington, it will be in directions readers already prefer. The Obama administration may see it as added justification for not intervening in Syria. Some hawkish Republicans, possibly including Donald Trump, will see it as justification for bombing the Islamic State and other extremists with fewer restrictions. It could also incite him to another outburst of praise for Saddam Hussein. Hillary Clinton will stay mum, as she voted for the Iraq war and doesn't need any more attention drawn to what she now regards as a mistake.
The main ingredients of decision-making on Syria lie in directions other than the Chilcot report. President Barack Obama is focused on degrading and destroying the Islamic State without attacking the Syrian government or worrying much about how Syria will be governed in the aftermath. Clinton would like to clear safe areas for opposition governance and refugee returns, but it is unclear how she would get the Russians to buy in. Trump, who has repeatedly expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin, would likely seek more cooperation from Russia, even if it meant keeping dictator Bashar al-Assad in power indefinitely.
European Trade Delegations visit Iran, Deals Needed
Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow
A year after the nuclear deal was signed and the lifting of international sanctions, senior European delegations continue to visit Iran with the aim of signing major economic deals. The Bulgarian prime minister is the latest head of government in Tehran and a 150-strong Italian business delegation is also due to arrive this week. For President Hassan Rouhani, such visits are important on a domestic political level as it upholds the post-deal economic optimism that is increasingly under question.
Rouhani’s critics are determined to paint him as an aloof elitist whose economic engagements with the world are flashy, but have yet to produce any tangible benefit for the Iranian economy. Rouhani’s certain bid for reelection in 2017 is, therefore, under attack by hardliners at home. It is true that the many dozens of economic agreements the Rouhani government has signed over the last year have yet to jolt the Iranian economy.
But Iran’s slower-than-expected re-integration into the world economy has as much to do with structural obstacles inside Iran as it is a consequence of the legacy of international sanctions. It is for sure disingenuous to pretend that the unwillingness of global banks to facilitate deals with Iran—as they still fear Washington will find new reasons to penalize any bank that works with Tehran—is not a major inhibiting factor. But, as Rouhani’s top economic advisor Massoud Nili put it, there are “multiple problems,” including “restructuring the banking system [in Iran],” that need to be implemented before foreign investors can be confident in committing to major projects. It was always a mistaken belief that the nuclear deal alone was going to be a quick fix for Iran’s multitude of economic challenges. Rouhani and his team need to repeat this message. Nevertheless, the hardliners will continue to accuse them of ducking responsibility for having shortchanged the Iranian people in the July 2015 nuclear deal.
France to Push for End to Lebanon Stalemate
Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is visiting Lebanon on Monday and Tuesday this week to push for a resolution over Lebanon’s vacant presidency. The visit will also touch on issues of energy and security. The presidency has been vacant since President Michel Suleiman’s term ended in May 2014. Parliament will hold its 42nd ‘attempt’ to elect a president this Wednesday with no expectation of a positive result. Ayrault said that he has spoken with his Iranian, Saudi and Russian counterparts to urge cooperation over the issue, but France has little influence and few expect the visit will impact the log-jammed process.
On energy, the French have an interest in Lebanon’s offshore gas reserves. That process had also been log-jammed for the past three years. But parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, and foreign minister, Gebran Bassil—nephew of General Michel Aoun—reached agreement to move toward a long delayed gas exploration tender. There are major American, Russian, Italian and other firms that have shown interest. The French are eager for French energy giant, Total, to get a piece of the action as well. It is possible that the Berri-Aoun rapprochement over the gas issue might presage an eventual rapprochement over other issues, such as agreement on a new election law and the holding of parliamentary elections, as well as Aoun’s bid for the presidency.
On security, the French have an interest in ensuring Syrian refugees stay in Lebanon and don’t make their way to Europe. They are also concerned that European terrorists fighting in Syria don’t use Lebanon as a transit point to return to Europe. These concerns necessitate cooperation with Lebanese social and security ministries. The French were poised to be the main partner of the Lebanese army through the $3 billion dollar Saudi grant that had been announced in 2013, but with the deal being cancelled earlier this year, the French lost whatever leverage they might have gained over the Lebanese military. France, once the mandate power over Syria and Lebanon, finds itself with dwindling influence in both.