Panel 3, November 17, 2011
Kate Seelye: Thank you all so much for joining us for the third panel of the day. Today’s conference is exploring the implications of the Arab Spring for regional policies as well as for US policy in the region. We are trying to wrap our heads around what this Arab awakening means for the future. Earlier today we explored how the democratic process is unfolding in the emerging democracies of the region. We also looked at the US role in the region. This panel will explore the changing regional order arising from the revolutions taking place.
It almost goes without saying that the Arab uprisings have reconfigured the region’s formerly ossified political landscape in significant ways: inter-state relations, alliances and traditional alignments have been deeply shaken by the tide of events. A lot of uncertainty about the future – we will be exploring that today. We see an increasingly assertive Turkey. We see an Israel that many would argue looks increasingly isolated, and an Iran alarmed by events that perhaps pose a threat to its desire to be a regional hegemon. Even the GCC is taking new action, which is always a surprise.
We’ll be touching on the meanings of these and other developments with this excellent group of panelists. Their extended bios are in the program book so I’m just going to briefly introduce them.
Paul Salem is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. He works and publishes on the regional and international relations of the Middle East.
Jamal Khashoggi is leading a 24-hour, Saudi-backed news channel called Al-Arab and previously served as editor-in-chief of the leading reformist newspaper in Saudi Arabia, al-Watan. I believe he had the honor of being fired twice from there? He has flown in from Riyadh. He’s an old friend so we can make these jokes.
Abdelkhaleq Abdalla is a professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University and an expert on contemporary Arab and Gulf affairs. He is in from the UAE.
Mohsen Milani is professor of politics and chair of the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of South Florida and is currently writing a book about Iran’s regional policies.
Last but not least, Haim Malka is deputy director and senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His areas of expertise include the Arab-Israeli conflict, North Africa and political Islam.
Thank you all so much for joining us. We have limited time so let’s just get started. We’ll begin with you, Paul.
Paul Salem: Thank you, Kate. Thanks to the Middle East Institute for this impressive and large gathering on such an important topic.
To talk about the impact of the Arab Spring on the Middle East order and Middle East dynamics, one must start with the realization that there really was no regional order. It’s a very disordered region – there’s a Middle East disorder. It is one of the most disordered regions in the world. The Arab world was already divided between the so-called moderate and rejectionist states; the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict; a newer Arab-Iranian conflict and the Israeli-Iranian conflict; US occupation or armed presence in Iraq; US tension or conflict with Iran; and the ongoing war on terror. So this was not a region which was going nicely and now events are unsettling it. It was a region in search of an order but had not yet arrived at it.
It was a region, however, where there were spheres of influence, that’s certainly the case. Saudi Arabia, through the GCC, had a certain sphere of influence. It also projected power through its finances and media throughout the Arab world. Iran obviously had a strong ally in Syria and through Syria influence with Hezbollah and for a while Hamas, and after the removal of Saddam Hussein a lot of influence in Iraq. So certainly an Iranian sphere of influence. A huge US sphere of influence through its armed presence in Iraq and the Gulf and its alliances from North Africa through the Arabian Peninsula. Turkey was an emerging power, building soft power through trade, economics and diplomacy. So there was sort of a map of the relationships.
The impact of the Arab Spring is an ongoing dynamic. We might come to different conclusions six or twelve months from now. But some early observations.
One, the power shift that is being brought about by the Arab Spring is a power shift towards the people themselves. It’s a very significant power shift. On the face of it, the impact that has on external influence in the Middle East is negative, in the sense that there’s a net gain over regimes by the people and therefore a net loss by external powers. Somebody like President Mubarak, who was not very beholden to domestic politics, was more dependent on external support and hence more amenable to external influence. Somebody like Bashar al-Assad, who does not have tremendous domestic support, is more amenable to Iranian dependence and Iranian influence. So perhaps one effect of the Arab Spring is more Arab politics, more national political processes.
There has been no dramatic shift in the balance of power. There have been dramatic events but no dramatic shift in the balance of power. This is perhaps surprising. In past coups d’etat and revolutions there were immediate impacts on regional and international relations. The 1979 revolution in Iran, of course, shifted Iran from one alliance to another. The Free Officers coup in Egypt in 1952 quite quickly shifted Egypt from one camp to another. This has not happened; there has not been a dramatic change to relations and the balance of power yet in this period.
However, all the players definitely have been significantly affected. The US initially perhaps panicked, expecting that these revolutions would replay something like the Iranian revolution, that perhaps the fall of Mubarak would mean a very anti-American outcome. It turned out not to be the case. These revolutions focused on domestic issues, they did not focus on foreign policy issues. The governments that are coming or will be coming to power do not clearly carry a strong foreign policy shift and have a lot of interest at stake in economic and security cooperation. So the US initially expecting to possibly lose a lot has ended up not losing all that much. It lost a number of friends – Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Ben Ali and others – but it still maintains the same basic set of relationships, with perhaps some gain even in Libya.
Iran, to the reverse: initially very hopeful and optimistic that finally these revolutions would bring about change, that this would be change similar to the change they brought about in 1979, not realizing that the Arab revolutions were more like 2009 than 1979. So Iran initially hopeful but quickly quite disturbed and alarmed by what was going on.
Iran has lost enormous soft power and popularity in the last ten months for two clear reasons. One is that the Arab public that was protesting against their own dictators associated how the Iranians dealt with their own protestors in 2009 to what their own dictators did and put the Iranian regime in the image of a familiar dictatorship oppressing its youth and people. Second, Iranian support for the Assad regime in Syria while that regime killed and tortured and jailed tens of thousands was maybe the nail in the coffin of that popularity. Opinion polls put Iranian popularity before the last two years around 80 percent; recent polls put it around 15 percent.
Turkey initially stumbled in the Arab Spring. Turkey had the well-known policy of “zero problems” and it also had very significant economic investments and interests in some key countries, like Libya. The “zero problems” policy didn’t make any sense anymore when within the same country there was a government and a people taking different positions, but perhaps more importantly Turkey’s immediate business interests, in Libya and Syria for example, clashed with some of its political principles and it had to make a decision. After an initial stumbling I think the AKP has quickly tried to take the lead to get ahead of this movement. It has the credibility to do so, unlike Saudi Arabia or Iran or the US, because it has a political system which is recognized by many players in the Arab uprisings as possibly an example, possibly something that could be emulated. So it could try to play on that dynamic. The prime minister certainly has gone around touring the region to emphasize that.
Turkey has a particular influence in Syria and might have a particularly strong influence in Syria if things move forward. I’ll say a few words about that in a moment.
Israel perhaps from the beginning perceived itself to be a loser and indeed it was further isolated. It lost Iran in 1979, it lost Turkey a year or two before the Arab Spring. It lost President Mubarak, who was a particularly strong friend and ally, and by losing Mubarak it in effect loses King Abdullah of Jordan as well. He cannot stand alone. So Israel certainly finds itself further isolated than it was before, even though the Egyptian position is somewhere in the middle – keeping the peace treaty but no longer the warmth and close cooperation that existed under Mubarak.
Egypt is slightly reemerging as a soft power in the Arab world. Certainly the Egyptian example has become very popular in the Arab world. As a narrative, the Egyptian narrative of Tahrir Square is dominant. Whether Egypt and any new leadership in Egypt, as was mentioned this morning, can parlay that into more soft power and diplomatic and political influence in the region has yet to be seen, but already the activism of the Arab League – for which Egypt is partly responsible – indicates a resurgent Egypt.
Qatar is certainly a key player in the uprisings through Al Jazeera, which is responsible for a lot of the wave element – that something that happened in Tunisia arrived through media to Egypt and then from Tahrir Square was broadcast in very moving tones throughout the Arab world. Al Jazeera was a key player in that, and Qatari diplomacy now through the Arab League and invigorating the Arab League – after decades of ossification – is a very dynamic and interesting role.
Saudi Arabia, like everyone else, was certainly taken aback by the Arab Spring and had very serious concerns about its very nature. Other than losing friends like Mubarak and Ben Ali and others, popular demands for political participation and so on alarmed Saudi Arabia to a great degree and were brought home in a specific way in the case of Bahrain. Saudi Arabia and the GCC have reacted strongly there, in a sense consolidating the power of the GCC but still not resolving the question that with the Arab Spring and with history moving in this direction in the Arab world – and Saudi citizens are like Egyptian citizens and everybody else, subject to the same ideas – Saudi Arabia still seems to have not made a decision as to which side of history to be on. It just had a very firm response.
So everybody has been affected but no complete dramatic change yet.
Syria could be the game changer for this. Syria is the only major country where a change of regime might indeed bring about a complete change in regional and international alignments. That cannot be said for Tunisia or Egypt or even Yemen. The uprising in Syria, as we’ve all been following – yes, it’s limited, it’s perhaps not all the cities and all the population, but it’s very significant. It’s in over 200 towns, villages and areas. It’s persistent. It’s several million strong. It will not retreat or bend. The regime, at the same time, has hung tough. It has not collapsed like other regimes that have been challenged, perhaps partly because of the backing of the Alawi community, many of which see this as a make or break battle. So the regime is hanging tough but it is crippled. It is not able to prevail, it is unwilling to negotiate or perhaps, more dangerously, it is unable to negotiate. Any negotiation, as we were discussing on the Israeli-Palestinian track earlier, requires sacrifice and I don’t think the Syrian president is able to make sacrifices within his regime. His father may have been able to, I don’t think he is able to.
The economy in Syria is bad and getting worse but it is not on the brink of collapse. Syria is somewhat isolated economically but not completely. It is open to trade with Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and other countries. And the GCC and the Gulf.
Regional and western positions on Syria have changed dramatically from the early summer to the early fall, culminating recently in the expulsion of Syria from the Arab League, a controversial but very firm and very important move. I think that is a very serious turning point for the crisis in Syria and we will probably see repercussions in the weeks and months ahead.
The Syrian National Council or the Syrian opposition, which initially had trouble getting united and getting recognized, is finally gaining traction as the Syrian National Council. They might begin to gain recognition from the Arab League and other locations.
I think Syria is still sort of waiting or needs a Benghazi moment but I think the Arab League is setting the stage for such a moment and setting the diplomatic stage to take action if that takes place.
A post-Assad Syria would have a strong Sunni majority leadership in it. It will probably align its foreign policy closer to Turkey and maybe the GCC. It will maintain relations with Iran but it will most likely not be in a deep alliance or deep dependency or client relationship. Such a change in Damascus would be possibly the biggest blow to Iranian regional power since the challenge of the Iran-Iraq war and might indicate the end of an arc of ascendancy from 2003 to 2010 which Iran has been riding, with the removal of the Taliban and Saddam, high oil prices, Hezbollah does well in 2006. This might be the beginning of a new period.
A change in Damascus would also leave Hezbollah strategically very vulnerable. This strategic vulnerability could either end in another war between Israel and Hezbollah or the context of a post-Assad Syria could open up the possibility in a few years of Syrian-Israeli peace talks, which would be another way to deal not only with the Golan but with the issue of Hezbollah.
Finally, what could the new Middle East look like, with some of these transitions moving forward and perhaps with a post-Assad Syria? I think we would see first a more consolidated Arab bloc that now includes Syria but still excludes Iraq, with cooperation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the Arab League and the GCC. I think we will see and are already seeing larger institutional roles for the GCC, whether in its own region or reaching out to Jordan and Morocco, and a bigger role for the Arab League with a resurgent Egypt and supportive Gulf.
I think it will be a region with more limited influence for Iran. Iran might have to retrench to focusing on Iraq in the region but might lose Syria and Lebanon. But it will still be a region with an ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, with an ongoing Arab-Iranian conflict, with an ongoing Israeli-American-Iranian conflict. There will be continued strategic influence for the US, the deployments and the alliances. The US is still the main strategic provider in the region. Other emerging powers cannot provide that. But there will be bigger economic roles for the other emerging powers, including the EU, China, India and Russia.
The challenge remains to build a stable regional order. This would involve consolidating Arab relations not only by reintegrating Syria but reintegrating Iraq as well, even with its new government. Secondly, building on Arab-Turkish relations, which are very ripe to move forward on all levels – economic, political and strategic. Redouble efforts on the Israeli-Arab peace track – there could be an opportunity between Israel and Syria in a post-Assad Syria. And certainly keep trying on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Vis-à-vis Iran, contain and deter Iran however at the same time make clear that Iran has a place at the table of regional order as long as it moderates its policies and finds a way to deal with the nuclear issue.
In the Arab Spring, the Arab publics demanded human security, prosperity and good governance. I think for the region one can also hope for a secure region, a prosperous region, and one which is regionally better governed than through repeated military deployments and conflict. Thank you.
Jamal Khashoggi: Thank you very much. I’m supposed to speak about Saudi Arabia and its reaction to the Arab Spring. I could sum it up in two words and leave the floor to my colleagues by saying: monarchs don’t like revolutions. Either within the monarchy or in the neighborhood.
That is what happened to Saudi Arabia. It was shocked when events started happening. We were caught really off guard – not only us, many other countries, even America. President Obama had too much on his hands, the economic crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, and then the Arab Spring. The only ones who were really interested in the Arab Spring were the countries who wanted freedom, the people who were out on the streets.
For us in Saudi Arabia, our king was recovering from serious surgery. He was here in the States – he came back to Saudi Arabia right in the middle of the Arab Spring, right after Mubarak and [indiscernible]. Saudi Arabia also was cautious and had the question whether this Arab Spring can go as far as Saudi Arabia itself. We return to that glorious word we enjoy very much: stability.
There are two things which govern Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the Arab Spring, besides monarchies don’t like revolutions. It is stability – if you listen to a Saudi Arabian official giving a political speech, the word stability will be used very often. We say even [in Arabic], the blessing of stability. So stability is a cornerstone in the Saudi political mindset. The other governing law in non-intervention. Saudi Arabia believes in non-intervention. It doesn’t want to intervene in other countries so other countries do not intervene in our own affairs. If we all recall in 1982 when Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, massacred thousands of people in Hama, there was hardly a mention of Hama incidents in the Saudi Arabian papers, not to mention television. That’s non-intervention. That policy was followed truly by Saudi Arabia until the Arab Spring happened.
So we absorbed the shock and had to react. Everybody is saying that we are all different, that only the countries who are going through the Arab Spring – the Arab League is being transformed. We are listening to speeches, resolutions, meetings coming from the Arab League yesterday and two weeks ago which are unprecedented and unorthodox for the Arab League. Even the Arab League is changing, and so does Saudi Arabia.
It is realist. It realizes that those matters are very serious and people want their freedom. It became pragmatic and it realized that it is becoming the [indiscernible] stability while there is so much change around us. We become a player. We are becoming a stability – we can reach out and help other countries. We can reach out and propose a solution for Yemen, we can reach out and help our Egyptian friends by financing the deficit in the Egyptian economy, because we do care so much about Egypt even though – I will be open about it – the Saudi officials liked Mubarak but they love Egypt more. Mubarak is gone but Egypt is still there so Saudi is continuing to support Egypt.
I will try to explain how Saudi Arabia took different ways in handling various countries, like Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Syria. Each country was handled differently by Saudi Arabia and that could explain the position of Saudi Arabia to the Arab Spring.
When it comes to Egypt, they liked Mubarak but they liked Egypt more. So Saudi Arabia had no problem [indiscernible] went to Cairo after the revolution three or four times, he had no problem bringing with him one time $4 billion, another $2 billion. It is because we believe Egypt must be stable. Egypt is a cornerstone in the Arab order so it has to be there. Saudi Arabia became pragmatic, forgot all about Mubarak and moved on with the new system and regime in Egypt.
What is more difficult is something we have to anticipate: how Saudi Arabia will have a relationship with a Muslim Brotherhood prime minister. That is something for us to see. I wrote an article about it last week and I said we must forget the unfortunate incidents we had with the Ikhwan, with the Brotherhood, after the Gulf War and move on to the future. I’m sure we can find more commonality between us in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood. You might be surprised – why would I say that? Saudi Arabia does not like the Brotherhood. Or some would say Saudis don’t like the Brotherhood because even though we are the founder of political Islam, we don’t like modern political Islam. It is confusing. But I think Saudi Arabia again is pragmatic and will develop a position.
Bahrain is very difficult. Why did Saudi Arabia take a very firm position, send an army to Bahrain? Because Bahrain is Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is Bahrain. It was seen as an Iranian intervention in Bahrain. If the Iranians get their way – maybe some of our Bahraini friends here will disagree with me and say it was a reform movement – okay, it was a reform movement but it was perceived in Saudi Arabia as a pro-Iran reform movement and if that reform movement succeeds it will bring the Iranians into our “Cuba” – just like bringing the Soviets in the 1960s into Cuba, across the shore from Florida. That’s how it was perceived in Saudi Arabia. It might be wrong but the perception is what matters.
So Saudi Arabia sent an army to Bahrain, but at the same time they did not send an army to Yemen – we only sent an initiative, the GCC initiative. Why? Because there’s no way Saudi Arabia will send an army to Yemen – it’s suicidal. Even in the 1930s when King Faisal made his way into Yemen and was about to capture Sana’a, he was ordered by his father to come back. We don’t want Yemen. So no way Saudi Arabia will send an army to Yemen. But at the same time, it is very reluctant to go farther than the GCC initiative. Is Ali Abdullah Saleh outmaneuvering us? I think he is. He is very smart and outmaneuvering us. Saudi Arabia is applying a containment policy for Yemen, to let it run its course. Ali Abdullah Saleh will run out of tricks and then change will happen in Yemen. From what I hear from Saudi officials, they know that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s days are numbered and he will be out but they do not want a direct intervention.
That again explains the position toward Syria. We want change in Syria but at the same time we are all buying time – not only the Saudi Arabians but the Turks, the Americans, everybody buying time and hoping some kind of miracle will happen in Syria because nobody wants to send an army into Syria. It’s very difficult and worrisome to do something as adventurous as sending an army to Syria. I can imagine a meeting where the intelligence officers from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey meeting somewhere and discussing possibilities. You can hear them probably screaming and disagreeing with each other because really it is very difficult, what to do with Syria.
I will go back to Bahrain, another reason for Saudi Arabia’s serious intervention in Bahrain is constitutional monarchy. I think Saudi Arabia is trying its best to delay that inevitable reality from happening. Not only us, probably even our brothers in UAE and Qatar – they do not like this move toward constitutional monarchy to take place, even though it’s inevitable. But while we are waiting for Bahrain last night, now we have a crisis in Kuwait. There is a growing opposition which is probably pushing for a constitutional monarchy. The best is to delay it, for some Saudi strategist, but I think it’s a lost case. It will happen. It will start in Bahrain, it will move to Kuwait or vice versa. Countries who are not totally politically mature or advanced like Saudi Arabia and UAE and Qatar, they still have a long way to go before they reach the maturity of constitutional monarchy.
I want to go back to Egypt and talk about Saudi money to the Salafists. I wasn’t going to speak about that but when I heard Esraa and others speaking about it, I don’t think there is Saudi official money going to the Salafis because, again, Saudi Arabia do not like to see a Salafi prime minister ruling Egypt. It’s not a good idea. But there might be non-official Saudi money. We already have problems with our own Salafists who have political aspirations. Those local Salafists see a certain responsibility, that they have to reach out and help their other Salafists. So there might be some money coming from Saudi but not official money.
But I don’t think anyone should worry about that. The Salafists, in a democratic scene, they will run out of ideas and they will lose. Their momentum will be diffused because they cannot bring solutions to modern-day economic problems, social problems. They will run out of ideas quickly. The Ikhwan will prevail because they are more modern, they can improvise and bring out ideas. So really Salafists are just a passing phenomenon, in Egypt or anywhere else.
I will stop here. Thank you.
Abdelkhaleq Abdalla: Since time is tight I’m going to go right into the conclusion and skip the introduction of my presentation. The way I see the new balance of power in the region, I see two trends. One is that the major powers have lost a great deal and they are at least one inch shorter than they were at the beginning of 2011. The second trend is that the smaller states have been the biggest beneficiaries of this, states like Qatar, UAE. The smaller states are probably one inch taller than they were at the beginning of 2011. Trust my calculations, I made the calculations. It’s one taller, one shorter. Let me say one word about the first trend and then elaborate a little bit about the second trend.
I think nearly all the major regional powers – and I include Turkey, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, even our friend here Saudi Arabia – are diminished because of the events of 2011. All of them are strategically weaker than they were just ten months ago. I think none of them are in the driver’s seat at the moment and hence there is a vacuum of power and of leadership. The major league is in shambles, so the minor league has taken over and I think it is time for them. That is trend number one.
Let me say something more about the minor league players and the prospect for them for playing a de facto diplomatic and political leadership role in the region. The net beneficiary of the shift in regional power and the vacuum of leadership in the region is the smaller states, particularly Qatar and the UAE. The power of the small states is in full display these days in the region. Most of that one inch lost from the major powers has been transferred to us, not to our friends here, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the rest.
This is true across the board, not just in the case of the smaller GCC power but even with regard to Tunisia, which is probably the youngest democracy in the world today, which stands one inch taller than its neighbor, Algeria. Even the perpetually weak and divided Lebanon today looks one inch taller next to the visibly shaken Syria.
But the real story is in the smaller Arab Gulf states, namely Qatar and the UAE, who are acting at the moment as the de facto diplomatic and political leaders in the region. The Arab Spring have by far benefited these small states and it gave them a golden opportunity to display their leadership role. They are full of confidence, they are reliable, they are resourceful. They take daring roles and they are becoming a leader now in mediating regional conflicts. They are very comfortable in the driver’s seat. This is the new story in the region.
I think the smaller states feel most comfortable working together. That’s where the GCC comes in. The GCC in 2011 is a stronger, more cohesive and more decisive than we have seen it for the past thirty years. Thirty years of investment in the GCC has paid off handsomely during the events of 2011. We have seen this throughout the region, especially in the case of Bahrain.
The Libyan experience was the turning point for the smaller states in the region. We saw how Qatar and the UAE stood shoulder to shoulder next to NATO. I think they took a risk and it was a daring risk, and this risk is paying off handsomely. This is the time for the smaller states to jump in and take the lead. It is time for the minor league rather than the major league to be in the driving seat.
Having said this, these smaller states do have security concerns of their own. Let me count two or three of these.
The most constant security concern for the smaller GCC states is of course Iran. Iran remains to UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait a difficult neighbor. I don’t want to say more than that, it’s a very difficult neighbor to deal with and it’s getting more difficult by the day.
A second concern for the smaller Gulf states is that the Gulf region is probably the most militarized region on earth today. Everybody is there and everybody is making the place as militarized as they can, starting with Iran, the United States, NATO and everybody else.
Third, the arms race is now at its highest since any time we can see. Usually arms races lead to conflict and war, in a region which already had three major wars already.
So in short, the smaller states, although they are more comfortable and confident, they still live in a very volatile and fragile neighborhood. On top of all this, the biggest worry is that trust in America – which is the ultimate guarantor – is receding, is eroding by the day. The thinking among the small Arab Gulf states is America is still a friend and ally but it is an ally that is in retreat and it’s a friend that is going through a mess back in Washington and at home. America in that sense, as we heard this morning, is reactive, is behind the event. America leaves Iraq with mission not accomplished. America is not doing good in Afghanistan. By my account, America today is not one inch but one whole foot shorter than it was at the beginning of 2011. Trust my calculation once again, I could go through this very comfortably during the question and answer period.
In short, what I see here is a shift in power, very significant and important – not dramatic but very significant change in power in the region. There is a power vacuum there and it is time for the smaller states like Qatar and the UAE to flex their muscles. And they are flexing their financial muscles, military muscles, diplomatic muscles, media muscles, etc. It is in full display all over the place. 2011 has been a bad year for the major powers, it’s been a good year for smaller powers. I expect more of the same for 2012. Thank you very much.
Mohsen Milani: Good afternoon. I am honored to be here. I would like to express my appreciation to the Middle East Institute and to Kate Seelye and her staff for their hospitality and for inviting me to come to this important conference. I would like to share with you my observations about Iran’s regional standing today, especially after the beginning of the Arab Spring in December 2010.
I have two precise questions and three tentative answers. My questions are, one, has Iran’s regional strategic situation overall improved since the start of the Arab Spring? My second questions is, what price has Iran paid for this regional standing and for its regional policies?
My tentative answers are three. I can assure you, after I share with you those three answers, you can start taking a nap or begin to look at your emails because the rest of my presentation is essentially a detailed explanation of those three major conclusions.
Number one, I think there is almost no dispute that Iran has become a formidable regional player in the Greater Middle East and even in Asia. But there is a great deal of disagreement about the nature of that power. I would submit to you that Iran has become a spoiler power – that is, Iran is insufficiently powerful to shape the landscape of the region but is sufficiently powerful to make it very costly for the major powers to achieve their goals in the region.
My second conclusion is that Iran’s overall strategic standing in the region has not fundamentally changed since the beginning of the Arab uprising, although Iran does face some serious fault lines here and there. In some areas Iran has lost but in other areas Iran has gained. On the neutral side there has been absolutely no impact on Iran’s position in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine. On the negative side, the greatest setback for Iran is in Syria. As a result of the Arab Spring, Iran’s Cold War with Saudi Arabia has intensified and its competition with Turkey has also intensified. On the positive side, as the US is about to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s positions are likely to improve. I believe the volatile situation in Bahrain and the situation in Egypt have created tremendous new opportunities for Iran to solidify its position.
My third conclusion, and it’s an unfortunate one, is that the price Iran has paid has been exuberantly high and Iran’s national interests have sometimes been profoundly undermined. Iran’s huge financial support for its regional policies have prevented the country from spending on the much-needed domestic projects. Iran’s confrontation with the US has resulted in crippling sanctions and lack of serious investments in Iran.
My bottom line, and after that please start taking your nap, is that Iran’s power has increased but that increase has not resulted in concrete gains for the Iranian people, nor are these gains necessarily serving Iran’s overall strategic interest.
Let me explain why I have reached these conclusions. Let me first make a few comments about Iran’s general regional policies, because without understanding that I think you’re going to have a tough time understanding my points about Iranian involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Iran’s policies are profoundly shaped by its strategic competition with the United States. Iranian policy is American-centric. Iran’s ultimate goal of course is to survive as a theocracy and to undermine US interests and find cracks in the American containment policy of Iran.
Another key point about Iranian policy is that Iran has been extremely careful and I think extremely successful in creating spheres of influence in the countries it deems important for its national interests. These spheres of influences have already been created in the Herat region of Afghanistan, in southern Iraq, in Lebanon and in Syria.
Finally, I think it is very important to know that Iran’s conventional military is in abysmal condition. What is not often recognized is that Iran has compensated for this weakness with its nuclear ambiguity policy, by developing advanced missiles and by developing – I believe – the most advanced asymmetrical strategies in the Middle East short of the state of Israel.
Now let me turn to the Arab Spring and what it has meant to Iran. Two footnotes. First, we also had our own Persian Spring in June 2009, when 3 million Iranians took to the streets of Tehran, peacefully asking, “Where is my vote?” The promising movement, known as the Green Movement, was crushed by the Islamic Republic but I can assure you it has not died and it will strike back one day.
Second footnote: the Islamic Republic has developed its own narrative about the uprising. It calls it the Islamic awakening. As the Islamists are favorably positioned to become powerful players in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, I think Iran’s narrative is gaining popularity.
Back to my main point about Iran. In terms of Iran’s regional standing, I think in Afghanistan it has had no impact. Iran continues to have friendly relations with the Karzai government although there are serious tensions, which are essentially about what happens when the security agreement will be signed between the United States and Afghanistan. Iran has two concerns. First, Iran does not want to see permanent American bases in Afghanistan, and I think Iran is going to fail in this policy because this is almost a done deal. But secondly, and this is more important, Iran wants to have the same kind of assurance in those security agreements that existed between Iraq and the United States – that is, the US will not use Afghanistan as a launching pad to invade Iran. Iran continues to play an important role in the construction of Afghanistan. Iran has contributed so far more than $700 million and Afghanistan has become an important partner with Iran.
Also, Iran has developed good relations with the Northern Alliance, with the Shi’ite Hazaras and even with the Taliban. When the Americans leave Afghanistan it is likely that Iranian influence will increase there.
Let me turn to what I think has been the most important gain for Iran in the past thirty years. Syria is number two. I think the situation in Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein has been the single greatest strategic gift by the US to Iran. Why? It was under Saddam Hussein that Iraq posed the greatest security threat to Iran. Read moreover, Iraq was a counterweight against Iran in the Persian Gulf. Those two elements have now been eliminated. Iraq now has a Shi’a dominated country and is no longer a threat to Iran but a potential ally of Iran. This is one of the reasons why the Persian Gulf countries and other powers in the region are so concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq, and they often exaggerate this. I think the fact that Iraq did not vote for the suspension of Syria, the fact that Iraq is supporting the historic uprising of the people in Bahrain and in other parts of the Arab world, is an indication that Iraq is a potential ally of Iran.
I think Iran also has created a very formidable sphere of influence in the southern part of Iraq. Iran has developed a good relationship with the Maliki government, has excellent relations with the Kurds and has groomed Moqtada Sadr as a potential card to play in case of revival of sectarian warfare in Iraq.
All in all, once the American troops leave Iraq, I believe it is very likely we are going to witness an intensified competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that that competition can become quite bloody in the coming years.
Now let me focus on Lebanon and Syria. From the Iranian perspective, their sponsorship of Hezbollah has paid great dividends. That support started after the 1979 revolution. The symbiotic relationship between Hezbollah and Syria constitutes the pivotal pillar of Iran’s entire Levant strategy. Why? For a number of reasons. Number one, Iran’s relationship with Syria and Hezbollah have given Iran the kind of strategic depth that Iran had never had. Iran now is on Israel’s back door and has a strategic depth within the Arab world. Equally important – I would say even more important than that – is that Iran’s support for Hezbollah has given Iran incredible retaliatory capability against Israel and even against the United States.
I think the Arab Spring so far has had absolutely no impact on Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah, which is Iran’s most important asset outside of Iran. Hezbollah is of course concerned about what is happening in Syria but the Arab Spring has had no impact on the relationship.
The single greatest anxiety for both the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah is the situation in Syria. Although Iran has consistently supported every single uprising in the Arab world – from Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Bahrain – its opposition in Syria has been hypocritical and not defensible. The support has significantly undermined Iran’s soft power and has lowered Iran’s popularity in the Arab street. The fall of Assad would be a major setback for Iran and would seriously undermine its entire Levant strategy. Iran is of course well aware that Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel have been seeking to detach Syria from Iran for a long time, a strategy that started even before the beginning of the Arab Spring. After all, the Iran-Syria alliance is the longest and the most durable of any alliances in the Islamic world in the past fifty years.
The key for Iran is how Assad would fall and who would replace him. The hands of Assad have been bloodied by killing some 3,500 heroic Syrians. As far as I am concerned, he has lost the legitimacy to govern and he must go. Lively debates are going on in Iran about Iranian policy in Syria. Many analysts have questioned the wisdom of Iran’s unconditional support for Assad. My take is that Iran will continue to support Assad as long as its position in Lebanon is not negatively impacted. Iran’s Plan B is to follow the Egyptian model – that is, change the leader but do not change the foundation of political power in Syria. In other words, Iran’s second-best alternative would be Assadism without Assad. Iran knows that regardless of who governs in Damascus, that leader will need Hezbollah as a way to recapture the Golan Heights. This is what Tehran considers as its winning card.
Finally, let me make a couple of points about two other important countries for Iran: Bahrain and Egypt. The fall of Hosni Mubarak was another unearned victory for Iran. Iran had nothing to do with it but Iran is acting opportunistically to take advantage of it. Mubarak was the only Arab leader that did not have a diplomatic relationship with Iran. Now there is a pretty good chance that the new government, a democratic Egypt, will develop a good relationship with Iran.
Regarding Bahrain, it is very important for the audience here to understand that the people in Bahrain are uprising against their rulers not because they are Shi’ites – it’s because they are a large majority without any power. It’s the same reason why the heroic people of Egypt went against their leader. It is for the same reason that the heroic people of Iran had their uprising in 2009. Morality cannot be selective. We cannot support the democrats that we like and oppose the democrats that we don’t like. That is not morality, that is political opportunism. I believe that if we do not push the Bahraini government to reform its archaic and repressive system, the Shi’ites will have no chance, no option but to go to the hands of Iran. That is not going to be good for the region.
What is clear is that from Afghanistan to Lebanon to Syria, Iran has not been able to change the political landscape. But it is also clear that the United States and the West cannot and should not ignore Iran.
Let me finish my talk by telling you about the price Iran has paid. Iran’s anti-American postures have had devastating consequences for Iran. If you compare Iran’s overall socioeconomic performance in 1979 to Turkey and to the other Persian Gulf countries, and compare it to Iran’s socioeconomic standing today – 32 years after that revolution – you are going to see why there are so many people frustrated with the Islamic Republic. In terms of socioeconomic performance, Iran has not done well. The reason for this has to do with essentially oil and gas. Iran has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world and has the third-largest oil reserves, yet its level of oil production is below what it was in 1979 and Iran’s enormous natural gas reserves have remained unexploited – all because of the anti-Americanism of the Islamic Republic and Iran’s refusal to find a way to reach a rapprochement with the United States.
The last point I want to say is that Iran’s restless and highly educated and computer-savvy population is seeking meaningful reform. Unless such reforms are initiated, Iran’s foreign policy will continue to be based on fragile foundations and it will not be sustainable. Read moreover, unless Iran finds a way to reach some kind of agreement with the United States, its regional gains are likely to be squandered away in the coming years.
Haim Malka: Good afternoon. I want to thank the Middle East Institute and Kate Seelye for inviting me to participate on such a distinguished panel. I’ve learned a lot so far and it’s great to be here with you.
I was asked to assess Israel’s concerns and calculations given the changes unfolding in the region over the last eleven months. Obviously this is a challenging task because Israel’s assessments are not static, they are constantly evolving and are subject to intense debates within the government and also other people outside the government trying to influence the policy debate in Israel. It’s also more challenging because Kate told me that I only have ten minutes to explain all this but I’ll do my best here.
Obviously Israel was shocked and threatened by the uprisings that started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere. Israel had a strong stake in the old order, not because it enjoyed cooperating with autocrats but because the region before January 2011 allowed Israel to operate in a fairly well-defined and predictable strategic environment. It had strong military and political cooperation with its two neighbors, Egypt and Jordan; it had stability on the Syrian border; it enjoyed a strong deterrent against the Assad regime which even withstood an Israeli bombing against a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Israel’s use of force was relatively unconstrained – we saw that again in Syria but also in Gaza. And despite some policy differences with the United States, primarily over the Palestinian issue and policy toward Iran, Israel had confidence in a US-led security order in the Middle East.
Despite the initial shock that Israel felt and the fear that gripped many people in Israel and the government, so far the Israeli government has been able to navigate the regional changes with limited damage to its strategic interests. It has maintained the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It recently brokered a prisoner exchange agreement, helped by Egypt’s government, or the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. The UN bid for recognizing the Palestinian state has been stalled. Relations with Turkey are obviously not great but have been stabilized over the last couple of months. There hasn’t been a direct increase in terror attacks as a result of the uprisings and events of the last several months.
But while Israel has been able to manage these short-term challenges, its long-term prognosis looks extremely threatening and complex. It faces diplomatic isolation and a diplomatic offensive, primarily in Europe but in other parts of the world as well. It still faces a significant threat from rocket attacks in Gaza but also Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel. Obviously its primary security concern is the Iranian nuclear challenges. These are the long-term uncertainties and the combination of conventional and asymmetric threats which drive Israeli strategic calculations and policymaking, which seeks to preserve as much of the old order as possible while preparing for the new.
I want to mention and discuss the four key drivers of uncertainty, the four key actors that affect Israel’s strategic thinking and its strategic outlook, which contribute to this uncertainty.
First is Egypt. Obviously Egypt has been the pillar of Israel’s security strategy in the Middle East for the last thirty years. Let’s not forget that between 1948 and the signing of the Camp David agreement, Israel and Egypt fought five wars. That last war, in 1973, was extremely devastating. The scars to some degree are still felt in Israel. That peace treaty removed the main conventional military threat against Israel.
So far the SCAF is obviously still in control in Egypt and still cooperating closely with the Israeli government. They played a crucial role in the prisoner exchange deal. They have been arresting militants in the Sinai peninsula that are active in terrorist attacks against Israel and have been sabotaging the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel. But despite this ongoing cooperation the relations are precarious. There is a realization in Israel that Egypt is just at the beginning of a long power struggle between the military and popular political forces which will likely change Egypt in the future. There is a real fear that an antagonistic, nationalist or Islamic-led government could change the nature of Egyptian-Israeli military and political cooperation. There is a fear of a security vacuum in the Sinai that could open up another front on Israel’s southern border. There is a realization that a different kind of Egyptian government could also constrain Israel’s use of unilateral force in Gaza in particular.
Looking at that picture more broadly, there is a real question within Israeli military circles whether Israel needs to readapt its defense needs to fight a conventional war on its southern border in the future, which has real significant implications for Israel’s defense spending and planning.
Moving on to Syria, the Assad regime has provided stability and predictability on the border as well for the last four decades. There is a real debate going on in Israel now about the interest that Israel has in an Assad regime. Amos Gilad, a senior defense official, just a couple days ago argued that Israel does have an interest in maintaining the Assad regime. The question is, is it better from an Israeli perspective to live with a predictable Assad or to take the risk of the unknown, what could come in Assad’s wake? The other side of that debate asks whether it’s worth the risks of a different kind of regime in Syria in order to potentially break the strategic relationship between Syria and Iran.
So what are these risks that the Israelis are considering in terms of a different kind of regime in Syria? Obviously they are afraid of a Sunni militant or Islamic-led regime that could potentially change the nature of Israeli-Syrian relations. A regime that might not respect Israel’s deterrence in the same way that Assad’s regime has. A potentially weak state could also emerge in Syria. If you remember in the 1950s and 1960s, the Golan Heights and the Syrian border were the site of many cross-border attacks against Israel and many infiltrations. There is a fear in Israel that a weak central government in Syria could resume this state of affairs, where there is a number of cross-border operations against Israel. Obviously there is a fear that Syria could become the site of a proxy battle between external forces in the region.
Beyond Syria there is the question of Turkey, which has been very problematic for Israel. The Turkish-Israeli strategic relationship over the last several decades has been very important for Israel. It gave Israel strategic depth in the region and beyond. There is a real question obviously about the future of Turkey, whether Turkey is promoting Islamic political parties and movements in the Arab world – and Syria in particular. There are questions about how Turkish-Iranian relations will develop. There is a question of whether Turkey will actually seek to undermine Israeli interests more directly than they have in the past, as some Israelis may argue.
All these questions obviously contribute to the great uncertainty in Israeli policymaking circles. But the most important issue facing Israel and contributing to the uncertainty that Israel faces is the United States and US policy in the region. The Middle East region – Israel’s strategic environment – is becoming more complex precisely at a time when US leadership in the Middle East is perceived to be wavering and the US ability to manage these transitions is declining, as Dr. Abdalla also described. This outlook for the US position in the Middle East is deeply concerning for many Israelis and they question US strategic judgment in the region on a number of issues. They question whether the US is willing to exert the kind of pressure on Iran which is necessary to actually force a change in the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. They feel that US pressure to push out President Mubarak in January 2011 really jeopardized the regional balance of power and undermined the regional strategic order that the United States has helped promote. They fear that US influence is declining and that the United States is no longer able to shape and influence decisions and events and trends in the region. They see regional foes and allies of the United States much more willing to contradict US positions, to stake out more independent positions against the United States.
This is extremely significant because Israel and the United States are so closely linked both politically and militarily. A constrained United States weakens Israel’s deterrence and power projection and has significant ramifications for Israel’s long-term security.
So looking forward, the uncertainty that has developed in the region over the last several months makes it more difficult for Israeli policymakers to actually formulate strategies and policies. The Israelis see and believe that they have a limited ability to shape and influence their own strategic environment. They see a constant and wide-ranging series of threats which must be constantly managed over time. They are preparing for a long period of instability and uncertainty.
So where does that leave them? Many people would argue that Israel needs to come up with a proactive, bold initiative that would strengthen its relations in the region and more globally, that they need to meet these new regional dynamics with a new way of thinking and a new strategy. Some people in Israel have called for a stronger commitment to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to mitigate some of these challenges and called for Israel to strengthen its relationships with its Arab neighbors. I would agree that that would be the logical approach and probably the approach that would strengthen Israel over time, but I think there’s very little appetite both in Israel and within the Palestinian Authority and Hamas for the kind of serious negotiations that require compromises that could lead to an agreement.
I think rather than expecting these creative policies and a pro-active strategy, Israel’s approach now is to preserve as much of the status quo as possible by not taking any strategic decisions that could undermine Israeli security, as long as the regional map remains so uncertain. Thank you.
Questions and Answers
Kate Seelye: I want to thank our panelists for that extremely comprehensive overview of the region and the players’ reactions to these unprecedented events. We’ve covered just about every country. One country that has been conspicuously absent from this discussion is Libya and hopefully we’ll get into that in the Q&A but there’s a lot to chew on here: the ramifications of a post-Assad Syria, the impact of the loss of US influence on the region, the question of whether there is really an Islamic awakening as the Iranians claim, etc.
Question: Thank you all for being here. Shadiya Mansour [phonetic] from Tunisia, I’m currently a professor at William and Mary. I have two points for Mr. Jamal. You said “we don’t like Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and we don’t like the Salafists either because of political inspirations.” If I may ask you, what are they, these political inspirations? And if you can give any concrete examples that would be great. Number two, you mentioned also that the Salafists are not ready for constitutional monarchy because of a lack of experience, political institutions. What about Libya? They don’t have any political institutions, they don’t have experience and will start from scratch. However Saudi Arabia was there to help and a lot of support in Libya. Why this and not the other one?
Question: My name is John Massa from American University. I’d like to ask Dr. Abdulla a question about Iran. You stated that Iran may get its niche as a regional player, especially with the uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain. However, I’m a little skeptical for three reasons. One, Arabs don’t see Persians as equal; two, because Arabs are mostly Sunni and Iranians are Shi’ite; and three, because Iran is an authoritarian, theocratic regime. So wouldn’t Arabs be somewhat skeptical as to Iranian influence?
Jamal Khashoggi: When I said we don’t like the Brotherhood, I don’t mean we as in all the Saudis. I was referring to certain Saudi officials who publicly made the [indiscernible] about the Brotherhood at some time in the past. I’m sure probably they will revisit their position and reconsider that situation. The dislike is not to the Brotherhood or to the Salafis, it is to political Islam. There are suspicions among certain officials in Saudi Arabia toward political Islam. They blame political Islam for the likes of Al Qaeda. Here is something to argue about. I myself argued that in many articles and I think political Islam is a natural evolution or a natural reflection of the Muslim mindset throughout the Arab world and we should not worry about political Islam. Now we all have to deal with it. So it’s not about Saudi Arabia in general, it’s about certain Saudi officials who have these suspicions or reservations about political Islam.
The Salafis are not ready for constitutional monarchy – no, I was referring to Saudi Arabia not interested or ready or wanting constitutional monarchy. But the Salafis are not ready for anything regarding modern political answers. Again, I would repeat my belief that the Salafis will fizzle away. The only Salafis we have active are in Kuwait, some in Libya, but they are not in a prominent position in Libya. Some in Egypt. In Egypt they will be tested more because that’s where the true challenges are.
There is so much emphasis about them and I don’t think there should be. They will just fizzle away when the reality of things happens. I don’t think they will even become in charge of anything. Other political parties will rule them out, will challenge them.
Abdelkhaleq Abdalla: I think Iran has lost a great deal during these events of 2011. Its moral, political and strategic standing has diminished greatly. It can’t help Syria, its most important strategic ally – there is absolutely nothing Iran can do to stop the probable downfall of its most important ally, Bashar al-Assad. They could not do anything when the Saudis entered Bahrain, as important as Bahrain is to Iran, especially that they claim to be a Shi’ite power and they are responsible for Shi’ites everywhere on earth. If we suppose this was a Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain, it’s in trouble, just 120 kilometers away from Tehran – and they could not do anything and were resigned when they saw the Saudis enter in.
So by these standards, strategically speaking, Iran is shorter than it was before the events of 2011. But more than that, nobody in the Arab world during this whole Arab Spring is looking at Iran as a model – as a revolutionary model or as an Islamic state model. So on that account, even the most Islamist of the Islamists in the Arab world – the Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood, even the Salafis – they are not looking up to Iran. They are looking up to Turkey but not Iran. So in that case, if I am to come up with a list of the top losers and the top winners, Iran is on the top of the losers during the 2011 events.
Question: I’m [indiscernible], University of Kentucky. A comment and a question. Four countries – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – prior to the Arab Spring. After the Arab Spring, right now it’s only Turkey and Saudi Arabia standing. Iran has lost credit because of the hypocritical policy that they had – internally something, externally something else. Egypt lost Mubarak. So you only have Saudi Arabia and Turkey standing. Regarding the US position, regardless of whether the United States is shaping or is not involved in shaping policies or whatever is happening in the Middle East, the United States is gaining strategic importance in the Middle East. So I’m disagreeing with the fact that the United States is losing or becoming shorter. The United States is not only not losing its interests, it’s actually increasing advantages that the public diplomacy of the United States has been popularized much more.
What would you see, Jamal Khashoggi, regarding a Turkish increase of influence after the Arab Spring and the relationship that Turkey had with Israel which had made it much more popular among the Gulf countries and Islamic countries? What would be Saudi Arabia’s position regarding Turkish – or do you think there would be an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Turkey in shaping the future of the Middle East? Thank you.
Question: My name is Mara [indiscernible], I am a writer and Syrian political activist. My question is for Mr. Khashoggi. I’m wondering why Saudi Arabia as a leading Arab Islamic country in the region stays in the shadow regarding the Syrian revolution and leaves this very critical situation being controlled by three countries – I call them the Bermuda Triangle: Iran, Qatar and Turkey.
And Mr. Milani, do you believe it is in the interests of Iran to have an Assadist regime without Assad? Will that be in the interests of the free world to see this regime in Syria?
Question: My name is Bushra Araji [phonetic], I was previously a student of Professor Paul Salem at the AUB. You all talked about spheres of influence, mostly Iran, the GCC countries and Turkey. There is not enough media coverage of what’s happening on the ground even in the smaller GCC countries in terms of freedom movements or any prospect of that. If there is such a prospect of freedom movements in the GCC countries gaining more ground, how does that change the spheres of influence and your projections for the future of the area?
Jamal Khashoggi: From what I hear from Saudi officials, they like the relationship we have with Turkey. They see it as a model relationship. I even heard once a Saudi official saying: we wish Iran would intervene in the Arab world the same way Turkey does. When Erdogan comes to Saudi Arabia, half of the plane will be full of Turkish businessmen. We wish the Iranians would do the same thing and have that kind of relationship.
Saudi Arabia appreciates the relationship with Turkey. Let’s not speak about alliance, but there are all kinds of cooperation between both countries and others, particularly on the issue of Syria. It is required for them to work and cooperate with them openly or secretly about – there have got to be some secret matters about Syria, intelligence work together. But [indiscernible]. Besides, many of the Turkish officials know Saudi Arabia – the president of Turkey lived in Saudi Arabia for six years when he was working for the Islamic Development Bank. So they are friends to Saudi Arabia. Erdogan himself has many personal relationships with Saudis. So Turkey is not seen as a threat. Some Arab writers would talk about the Turkish threat and the Iranian threat but it is not that at all. It’s a very positive relationship we have with Turkey.
Is Saudi Arabia in the shadows when it comes to Syria? No, it is not. Whatever the Qataris are doing, they must be doing it in consultation with the big brother, with Saudi Arabia. Saudi is very much in the picture. Okay, at the beginning of the crisis, Saudi Arabia was reluctant, but when the killing continued, the pictures continued to come out of Syria, then there was a very wrong telephone call between Bashar and the Saudi HRH which got Saudis very angry. That shifted completely the position of Saudi Arabia and made it very much for the regime change. That is the Saudi position right now, it is for regime change. But like other countries, we don’t know how to do it. I’m sure that is not only Saudi Arabia. Every country, including Turkey, France, they want regime change but just how to do that?
Mohsen Milani: Five years from now or ten years from now, if we have this meeting again, you’re going to see that the Turkish model that everybody is talking about is not going to be replicated anywhere in the Arab world. Turkey is a very unique case and I think there is a great deal of exaggeration about the attractiveness of it in the Arab world. There might be attractiveness but they are not ready for that kind of model in the Arab world, nor is the Arab world ready for the Iranian model. We are trying to get rid of that model ourselves in Iran. So don’t worry about that part of it.
A second point I want to make. It is very important for this audience to know that there are more Shi’a in the Persian Gulf than there are Sunnis – by far more Shi’a. Yes, there are divisions between Persians and Arabs but these are not important divisions.
Finally, regarding whether the world will accept Assadism without Assad. Of course the West would prefer a system that is completely different than what it is today. But the reality is that without some degree of support from the existing system, without some degree of keeping the system intact, Syria could enter into a major civil war as dangerous as what we saw in Iraq. I think people who keep talking about replacing Assad should also think about the next day, what’s going to happen after Assad is overthrown. We made that mistake back in 1979 when we said we want to get rid of the Shah and we believed anything would be better. Well, we have to revise that. We made the same mistake in Iraq. We thought once we get rid of Saddam, everything is going to be good.
Therefore I think the world might have no choice but to accept some sort of Assadism without Assad. But that’s too early to judge.
Kate Seelye: Paul or Abdelkhaleq, do you want to comment on the Arab view of the Turkish model?
Paul Salem: Of course one shouldn’t exaggerate it as a model, as if it’s a fully elaborated thing. Certainly in Tunisia and Egypt, both An-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties are seeing the Turkish example of having a multi-party democracy. In Turkey it is a secular state, in Egypt and Tunisia they are calling it a civil state, with a large role for a party with Islamic roots as long as it becomes more pragmatic, more globalized in its policies and more responsible and responsive and democratic. That combination of things is certainly being paid attention to in Tunisia and Egypt. If they succeed, as was mentioned in the panel this morning, I think that will have demonstration effects elsewhere.
I think the challenge for Tunisia and Egypt – particularly Egypt – is simply the challenges of the political life of Egypt and more important the economic challenges that any Egyptian government is going to face. No matter what political model is put in place in Egypt, no government is going to solve Egypt’s economic problems in the next five years. So they’re going to have to be dealing with a pretty serious backlash.
But I do think in this initial phase the Turkish example is powerful and will be tried, without exaggerating it too much.
On the issue that Bushra asked about, the GCC and political change, I think it raises a broad issue. Since 1970 in effect there has been, one might say, consensus among Arab governments in a way about governance. After the Arab cold war of the 1950s and 1960s, between the socialist-Arab nationalist model and the conservative-monarchical model, which led to wars in Yemen and conflicts and coups d’etat in many countries – after the 1967 war, after the death of Nasser, we went into effectively a number of decades where there was no real disagreement among the rulers or the systems. We are now beginning to enter a period – if some of these democracies succeed there will be fundamental contradictions of political systems and parties and leaderships. If Tunisia and Egypt make it, a contradiction between that and Saudi Arabia and the way it’s taking things.
So right now we see a kind of honeymoon period but we might enter a more critical phase. The GCC itself, made up of six countries – four of those have politics: Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Qatar and UAE don’t really have politics, their populations are so tiny. In all of the four there have been major rumblings – Kuwait just yesterday had a huge set of events. Saudi Arabia has had many stresses and strains, Oman as well, and Bahrain obviously. So the GCC is not at all immune to political change even though they have massive economic resources to buy time.
Question: My name is Albert [indiscernible], a consultant. I have a very simple question. As I was listening to your wide-ranging review of the region, I was struck by the fact that no one at any point during the day has mentioned Algeria. I wondered if anyone on the panel had a comment on the influence of the Arab awakening on Algeria.
Paul Salem: There are major countries which might still be impacted. Algeria is obviously one of them, Morocco is another and Saudi Arabia is a third. These are three big countries in terms of their population. Algeria certainly had similar conditions to Tunisia and Egypt except that it had a lot of energy resources also to buy time and a recent history of civil war. I do think, as my colleague Abdelkhaleq described in a previous conference, that we’re in the first five minutes of the Arab Spring. There is still a lot to come. What’s happened in the last ten months is a sea change in the way people think. Between changing how they think to getting organized and doing things in different countries, the years ahead will tell us. But Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – big countries that are not on the right side of history.
Kate Seelye: We still haven’t talked about Libya. Does anybody want to speculate about expectations for Libya?
Jamal Khashoggi: I would speculate about Algeria first. I think the Algerian population is still recovering from what they call [in Arabic], the ten dark years where they suffered a civil war and about 100,000 people died. Massacred from all sides, the army and the militants, they were all killing each other and butchering villagers. The Algerians haven’t recovered from that. There are reasons for revolution in Algeria as much as in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya: corrupt regime, the military is not only in control of the government but the economy. It is a very feudal system in Algeria where senior military officials and their relatives divide the country the same way the family of Ben Ali was dividing Tunisia to its own interests. But it is that decade of civil war they’ve just come out from a few years ago. It is probably in the back of their mind and they fear those incidents could happen again if they start demanding for their freedom.
Let’s remember that in 1988 Algeria witnessed the first phase of the Arab Spring. If it was broadcast on CNN or Al Jazeera we would see the same pictures we saw coming from Egypt and Syria in 1988. There were young people in Algeria demanding freedom, equality, and they had a brief course of democracy which lasted until January 1991. Then the military came in and cancelled the elections and that opened the gates to hell, to that civil war they had in Algeria.
Kate Seelye: I hope you all remain for our final panel of the day. Please join me in thanking this excellent group of panelists.