JULY 10–14, 2019

Middle East: The Spiraling Crisis

                                                      moderator
Cameron Abadi
Deputy Editor
Foreign Policy
Steven A. Cook, PhDSenior Fellow for
Middle Eastern Studies
Council on Foreign Relations
Sanam Vakil, PhDSenior Consulting Research Fellow
Middle East and North Africa Program
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

In a dynamic discussion, a distinguished panel of Middle East experts described the current US stance toward Syria and Yemen and explored the impact of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and impose sanctions on the country. The panel also debated the implications of changing political realities in the Middle East as new alliances emerge between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). “The post-WW2 order imposed by the West on the Middle East is changing,” the panel concluded, “The region is destabilized, and it is not clear what US interests and goals are in the region.”

Changing US Attitudes Toward the Middle East

Dr. Cook led off the discussion with the view that the bipartisan US consensus on the Middle East has broken down, leading to a polarization in US politics vis-à-vis the Middle East. In prior years, there was agreement that the US should support its allies, no matter what their character. The agreed policy sought to contain Iran and pursue peace between Palestine and Israel.  Today, it is possible to divide the Middle East between “Republican Party countries” and “Democratic Party causes,” Dr. Cook observed.

He contends that Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have Republican support. They may have human rights issues, but they are seen as allies in holding the line against Muslim extremists. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, for example, was supported by President Trump. The United Arab Emirates are small but influential and are strong opponents against Iran and Muslim extremists. These factors align with Republican Party concerns and have gained their support, Dr. Cook said.

Democrats, on the other hand, tend to identify with the Iran nuclear deal—a major Obama Administration achievement—and with the Palestinians’ desire for a homeland, Dr. Cook contends. The issues that increasingly animate Democrats include human rights, international justice, and distrust of military intervention. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal also flew in the face of Democratic ideals. Some Democrats have become ambivalent about the so-called special relationship with Israel, no longer seeing Israel as heroic. These more divergent views between Democrats and Republicans have  undermined the former bipartisan support for Israel and contributed to a polarization in US attitudes toward the Middle East, Dr. Cook opined.

Challenging Iran

Dr. Vakil reminded the Forum that, a year ago, President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on the grounds that he wanted a stronger, better agreement. Criticizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for its limited scope and scale, Mr. Trump has called for a deal that would impose longer-lasting, more stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, while limiting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and stemming its interference in neighboring countries. Based on the effective Obama Administration use of sanctions, which brought Iran to the negotiations in 2013, the Trump strategy has been to apply maximum pressure, including sanctions to contain Iran’s regional behavior such as support for Hezbollah in Yemen and for Syrian forces.

The Trump administration’s strategy is to force Iran to the negotiations table by encircling the country with US allies and doubling down on sanctions. But this has been a grave misreading of Iran’s world view, Dr. Vakil observed. Iran is refusing to negotiate until sanctions are removed, and shifts in Iranian politics also complicate the scenario. Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, is a pragmatist, a centrist, and a reformer, who was involved in negotiating the Iran Nuclear deal. His focus is on employment, economic development, and integrating Iran’s economy within the international system. But he has been marginalized and forced to work with more conservative elements, as anti-US resistance and nationalism gain strength in response to US sanctions. The next elections may see changes, according to Dr. Vakil.

Dr. Cook concurred, noting that President Trump’s expectation that, once the sanctions have had enough effect, he will be able to meet with the Ayatollah and find a resolution, as he did in North Korea. But this will not happen, Dr. Cook predicted. The Islamic Revolution is anti-US and the Ayatollah, who has not left Iran since 1990, cannot resolve relations with Mr. Trump.

US allies also have grave concerns over the American position. President of France Emmanuel Macron underscored the importance of saving the JCPOA, saying, "Unfortunately, there are always extremists who prevent other countries' efforts for reaching peace, and the United States' announcement about intensification of sanctions against Iran is in the same vein.”

The Gulf Countries and Israel

There is an emerging constellation of power in the Middle East as Israel and the Gulf Countries create alliances and extend relations, Dr. Cook reported. Remarks by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa who said that Israel is “part of the heritage of the Middle East” and that Jews have “a place amongst us,” reinforced Israel’s confidence in its position. This consolidation forms a balance against the spreading Iranian influence in the region.

“Despite the fact that the Gulf States are politically well-supported by President Trump and are recipients of US aid, they remain insecure. Why is this?” Mr. Abadi asked.

The US does not understand the insecurity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) concerning support from the US, Dr. Vakil responded. The trend during the Obama administration was reduced commitment to the region. There was hope that the Trump Administration would restore the relationship. There were some positive signs, for example, the GCC was in favor of the US withdrawal from the Iran Agreement. However, there is still anxiety about the US leaving the region as the Trump Administration calls for “burden sharing,” the fact that the US is no longer dependent on GCC oil, and in the face of 22 bills currently in Congress criticizing Saudi Arabia. The region does not trust President Trump is to be consistent.

“Why shouldn’t the US withdraw from the Middle East? What’s wrong with Mr. Trump’s US-first perspective? Mr. Abadi queried.

The post-WWII order in the Middle East is coming apart, Dr. Cook commented, “and it is not clear what US interests are.” He acknowledged that President Trump is asking some important questions that haven’t been previously considered, such as, “Why are we engaging in these activities in the Middle East, and why are we doing them this way? What US interest is served by getting involved in Yemen or by a Persian Gulf presence?”

The perception is that the US is no longer interested in the Middle East. For example, despite the fact that Persian Gulf oil is essential to major US trading partners, Mr. Trump proposes that our trading allies should take care of themselves. When Saudi Arabia took military action against Yemen, the US made no objection. Meanwhile, the US sells armaments to all its Middle East allies, which contributes to instability in the region and erodes confidence in the US role in the region.

Syria

The US is abdicating from any responsibility in the Middle East and the balance of power is shifting to Russia. The US position is that it is not worth the toll on US resources and power to participate in another country’s Civil War. The apparent withdrawal of US interest in the Middle East is dangerous, Dr. Vakil stressed. Meanwhile, this continues to be a hot conflict zone, with security risks arising from numerous conflicts.

Syria, for example, has declared that it has won the war, and US troops are withdrawing. However, the war is not really over. The region is balanced in a precarious  stability with Syria being decentralized and compartmentalized, so that Israelis, Iranians, Turks, and Russians have their own regions. But the terrorists are merely resting. And the potential for conflict continues.

Turkey

The old US-Turkey relationship is over, Dr. Cook pointed out. One of Turkey’s goal in the Syrian conflict is to avoid the development of a Kurdish State at the top of Syria, and the US is not willing to get involved in this dispute. However, the US has been allied with and supporting Kurdish fighters opposing Syria. This alliance is perceived by Turks as US support for “Kurdish terrorists.”

The US Department of Defense recently blocked Turkish purchases of the F-35, the most advanced American fighter aircraft, for which Turkish companies produce more than 900 pieces of aircraft parts. The move came as Turkey continues to strengthen ties with Russia, purchasing the sophisticated Russian S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system and sending members of its armed forces to Russia for training. “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities," a White House statement said, referring to the S-400 air defense system as a means for Russia to probe US capabilities.

Conclusion

The fundamental issues confronting the Middle East are a lack of stable and trusted governance structures, corruption, and unemployment, Dr. Vakil and Dr. Cook agreed, and no one is addressing these issues.

Mike Kiely (UPS) and Sen. David Givens (KY) and found the Forum very informative. Insights from corporate participants bring different viewpoints to the conversation.

Discussion

John Burchett, Google: It seems that Russia is stirring up a lot of the turmoil; for example, Russian support kept the Syrian conflict embroiled and led to a mass migration of Syrian immigrants into the UK, contributing to Brexit, and Russia has been destabilizing Turkey and US relations. Are these Putin’s intentional destabilizing strategies?

Dr. Cook: Mr. Putin took advantage of the Syrian conflict to demonstrate that Russia can be relied on to maintain support of its allies – such as Syria’s Assad, in contrast to the US, which did not support its Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak, when he was deposed. Destabilization is the Russian strategy for the region with an objective to build a crescent of Russian influence surrounding Europe.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen, NM: What is currently happening with other countries in the region such as Iraq and Kuwait, and with ISIS?

Dr. Vakil: There have been positive developments in Iraq since the end of the 2003 war. Iraq has had a working political system and pursues coalition-building among parties who are in- or out- of power, leaders now must prove prove accountability, and the region’s social services have been improved. However, sectarianism is not an accurate lens through which to assess Iraq. Shi’a militias, mobilized during the war, have been institutionalized in state structures, and these militias are a ticking time bomb, and ISIS could re-emerge. In addition, Iraq has become Iran’s ATM, with half a million barrels of oil from both countries being blended and shipped from Iraq, circumventing the sanctions on Iran.

Kuwait is a US ally, with a strong US presence. It is a conservative state with a Sunni Muslim majority and has the most open political system among the Gulf monarchies; however, Kuwait also shares the vulnerability faced by other GCC countries about the future of US commitment to the region and, therefore, has taken a more positive stance toward Russia and is hedging its bets with other countries, such as Turkey.

Dr. Cook: The region has seen a normalization of terrorism. ISIS has been hurt, but ISIS 3.0 will emerge, as its presence in Yemen indicates.

Tom Finneran, Moderator: The Iran Deal was not ratified by the US Congress. Was this a blunder by the Obama Administration, or would the deal have been quashed if brought to the Senate?

Dr. Vakil: President Obama knew that he could not get the Iran Deal through a Republican-controlled Congress. President Trump, with more support in the Senate, could make the  decision to withdraw from the pact and impose sanctions. The expectation was that sanctions would provoke protests and force Iran to the negotiation table.

Instead, sanctions provoked an escalatory cycle with Iran. The Administration’s proposed new Iran deal would impose longer-lasting, more stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, in addition to limiting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and forcing it to stem its interference in neighboring countries. In contrast, Mr. Trump also stresses that the US is averse to conflict and open to negotiation. But in the face of draconian measures, some observers fear these actions could trigger open conflict amid a buildup of US military forces in the Persian Gulf region. The hope was to have a JCPOA 2.0, but the rest of the world is not vested in this option.

Sen. Larry Taylor, TX: Isn’t the problem really that we are trying to work with an untrustworthy regime in Iran?

Dr. Vakil: Iran was fully in compliance with the JCPOA, until the US withdrew from the pact. Monitoring and verification was extremely detailed. It did require advance notice to inspect a non-designated site, but all designated sites were under constant surveillance. However, Mr. Obama may have oversold the deal. The current regime is built on resistance to the US. It will take time for Iran to evolve, but it is on the precipice of change. The younger population is very pro-western and they are pushing for economic integration. The actions by President Trump bought the regime more time to consolidate power and solidified Irani resistance to the US; people who were looking for rapprochement with the US are now angry with the US due to its actions.

Sen. David Givens, KY: What is the day-to-day economic reality in Iran under the sanctions?

Dr. Vakil: The Iranian economy is in deep recession; its currency lost 70% of its value and inflation is at 50%. Youth unemployment is high, many professionals and many companies have left. Iran is shut off from international banking, and prices have escalated. There is no humanitarian channel for food and medicine –these are blocked by the Trump Administration’s sanctions. The Administration hoped sanctions would provoke the middle class to protest. But this is not a realistic scenario in a repressive security state like Iran.

Speaker Biographies

Cameron Abadi

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. He previously worked at the New Republic and Foreign Affairs and as a correspondent in Germany and Iran. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and Der Spiegel.

Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. Cook is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East; The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's gold medal in 2012; and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.

Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. He has also published widely in international affairs journals, opinion magazines, and newspapers, and he is a frequent commentator on radio and television. His work can be found on his blog, From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Prior to joining CFR, Cook was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution (2001–2002) and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1995–1996).

Cook holds a BA in international studies from Vassar College, an MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and both an MA and a PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Arabic and Turkish and reads French.

Sanam Vakil

Sanam Vakil is a senior research fellow in the Middle East North Africa Programme, where she heads the Future Dynamics in the Gulf project and the Iran Forum.

Sanam’s research focuses regional security, Gulf geopolitics and on future trends in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy.

She follows wider Middle Eastern issues as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, associated with the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

She is also the James Anderson professorial lecturer in the Middle East Studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS Europe) in Bologna, Italy.

Before these appointments, Sanam was an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at SAIS Washington. She served as a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations also providing research analysis to the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa department.

Sanam is the author of Action and Reaction: Women and Politics in Iran (Bloomsbury 2013). She publishes analysis and comments for a variety of media and academic outlets.

Sanam received her BA in political science and history from Barnard College, Columbia University and her MA/PhD in international relations and international economics from Johns Hopkins University.

 “The post-WW2 order imposed by the West on the Middle East is changing,” the panel concluded, “The region is destabilized, and it is not clear what US interests and goals are in the region.”

The bipartisan US consensus on the Middle East has broken down.

More divergent views between Democrats and Republicans have  undermined the former bipartisan support for Israel and contributed to a polarization in US attitudes toward the Middle East.

Factions within the Trump Administration have different visions of the Iran end game, and this lack of clarity could lead to a military conflict.

Remarks by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa who said that Israel is “part of the heritage of the Middle East” and that Jews have “a place amongst us,” reinforced Israel’s confidence in its position.

The region does not trust President Trump is to be consistent.

The US is abdicating from any responsibility in the Middle East and the balance of power is shifting to Russia.

The region is balanced in a precarious  stability but the terrorists are merely resting. And the potential for conflict continues.

Shi’a militias, mobilized during the war, have been institutionalized in state structures, and these militias are a ticking time bomb, and ISIS could re-emerge.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen (NM)

Tom Finneran (Moderator)

US sanctions provoked an escalatory cycle with Iran, and some observers fear these actions could trigger open conflict amid a buildup of US military forces in the Persian Gulf region.

Sen. Larry Taylor (TX)

The actions by President Trump bought the regime more time to consolidate power and solidified Irani resistance to the US. What is needed is a regional security plan.

Cameron Abadi

Steven A. Cook

Sanam Vakil

CONTACT

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Tel: 914-693-1818

Copyright © 2019 Senate Presidents' Forum. All rights reserved.

JULY 10–14, 2019

Middle East: The Spiraling Crisis

moderator
Cameron Abadi
Deputy Editor
Foreign Policy
                            Steven A. Cook, PhDSenior Fellow for
Middle Eastern Studies
Council on Foreign Relations
Sanam Vakil, PhDSenior Consulting Research Fellow
Middle East and North Africa Program
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

In a dynamic discussion, a distinguished panel of Middle East experts described the current US stance toward Syria and Yemen and explored the impact of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and impose sanctions on the country. The panel also debated the implications of changing political realities in the Middle East as new alliances emerge between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). “The post-WW2 order imposed by the West on the Middle East is changing,” the panel concluded, “The region is destabilized, and it is not clear what US interests and goals are in the region.”

 “The post-WW2 order imposed by the West on the Middle East is changing,” the panel concluded, “The region is destabilized, and it is not clear what US interests and goals are in the region.”

Changing US Attitudes Toward the Middle East

Dr. Cook led off the discussion with the view that the bipartisan US consensus on the Middle East has broken down, leading to a polarization in US politics vis-à-vis the Middle East. In prior years, there was agreement that the US should support its allies, no matter what their character. The agreed policy sought to contain Iran and pursue peace between Palestine and Israel.  Today, it is possible to divide the Middle East between “Republican Party countries” and “Democratic Party causes,” Dr. Cook observed.

The bipartisan US consensus on the Middle East has broken down.

He contends that Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have Republican support. They may have human rights issues, but they are seen as allies in holding the line against Muslim extremists. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, for example, was supported by President Trump. The United Arab Emirates are small but influential and are strong opponents against Iran and Muslim extremists. These factors align with Republican Party concerns and have gained their support, Dr. Cook said.

Democrats, on the other hand, tend to identify with the Iran nuclear deal—a major Obama Administration achievement—and with the Palestinians’ desire for a homeland, Dr. Cook contends. The issues that increasingly animate Democrats include human rights, international justice, and distrust of military intervention. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal also flew in the face of Democratic ideals. Some Democrats have become ambivalent about the so-called special relationship with Israel, no longer seeing Israel as heroic. These more divergent views between Democrats and Republicans have  undermined the former bipartisan support for Israel and contributed to a polarization in US attitudes toward the Middle East, Dr. Cook opined.

More divergent views between Democrats and Republicans have  undermined the former bipartisan support for Israel and contributed to a polarization in US attitudes toward the Middle East.

Challenging Iran

Dr. Vakil reminded the Forum that, a year ago, President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on the grounds that he wanted a stronger, better agreement. Criticizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for its limited scope and scale, Mr. Trump has called for a deal that would impose longer-lasting, more stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, while limiting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and stemming its interference in neighboring countries. Based on the effective Obama Administration use of sanctions, which brought Iran to the negotiations in 2013, the Trump strategy has been to apply maximum pressure, including sanctions to contain Iran’s regional behavior such as support for Hezbollah in Yemen and for Syrian forces.

The Trump administration’s strategy is to force Iran to the negotiations table by encircling the country with US allies and doubling down on sanctions. But this has been a grave misreading of Iran’s world view, Dr. Vakil observed. Iran is refusing to negotiate until sanctions are removed, and shifts in Iranian politics also complicate the scenario. Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, is a pragmatist, a centrist, and a reformer, who was involved in negotiating the Iran Nuclear deal. His focus is on employment, economic development, and integrating Iran’s economy within the international system. But he has been marginalized and forced to work with more conservative elements, as anti-US resistance and nationalism gain strength in response to US sanctions. The next elections may see changes, according to Dr. Vakil.

Dr. Cook concurred, noting that President Trump’s expectation that, once the sanctions have had enough effect, he will be able to meet with the Ayatollah and find a resolution, as he did in North Korea. But this will not happen, Dr. Cook predicted. The Islamic Revolution is anti-US and the Ayatollah, who has not left Iran since 1990, cannot resolve relations with Mr. Trump.

US allies also have grave concerns over the American position. President of France Emmanuel Macron underscored the importance of saving the JCPOA, saying, "Unfortunately, there are always extremists who prevent other countries' efforts for reaching peace, and the United States' announcement about intensification of sanctions against Iran is in the same vein.”

The Gulf Countries and Israel

There is an emerging constellation of power in the Middle East as Israel and the Gulf Countries create alliances and extend relations, Dr. Cook reported. Remarks by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa who said that Israel is “part of the heritage of the Middle East” and that Jews have “a place amongst us,” reinforced Israel’s confidence in its position. This consolidation forms a balance against the spreading Iranian influence in the region.

Remarks by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa who said that Israel is “part of the heritage of the Middle East” and that Jews have “a place amongst us,” reinforced Israel’s confidence in its position.

“Despite the fact that the Gulf States are politically well-supported by President Trump and are recipients of US aid, they remain insecure. Why is this?” Mr. Abadi asked.

The US does not understand the insecurity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) concerning support from the US, Dr. Vakil responded. The trend during the Obama administration was reduced commitment to the region. There was hope that the Trump Administration would restore the relationship. There were some positive signs, for example, the GCC was in favor of the US withdrawal from the Iran Agreement. However, there is still anxiety about the US leaving the region as the Trump Administration calls for “burden sharing,” the fact that the US is no longer dependent on GCC oil, and in the face of 22 bills currently in Congress criticizing Saudi Arabia. The region does not trust President Trump is to be consistent.

The region does not trust President Trump is to be consistent.

“Why shouldn’t the US withdraw from the Middle East? What’s wrong with Mr. Trump’s US-first perspective? Mr. Abadi queried.

The post-WWII order in the Middle East is coming apart, Dr. Cook commented, “and it is not clear what US interests are.” He acknowledged that President Trump is asking some important questions that haven’t been previously considered, such as, “Why are we engaging in these activities in the Middle East, and why are we doing them this way? What US interest is served by getting involved in Yemen or by a Persian Gulf presence?”

The perception is that the US is no longer interested in the Middle East. For example, despite the fact that Persian Gulf oil is essential to major US trading partners, Mr. Trump proposes that our trading allies should take care of themselves. When Saudi Arabia took military action against Yemen, the US made no objection. Meanwhile, the US sells armaments to all its Middle East allies, which contributes to instability in the region and erodes confidence in the US role in the region.

Syria

The US is abdicating from any responsibility in the Middle East and the balance of power is shifting to Russia. The US position is that it is not worth the toll on US resources and power to participate in another country’s Civil War. The apparent withdrawal of US interest in the Middle East is dangerous, Dr. Vakil stressed. Meanwhile, this continues to be a hot conflict zone, with security risks arising from numerous conflicts.

The US is abdicating from any responsibility in the Middle East and the balance of power is shifting to Russia.

Syria, for example, has declared that it has won the war, and US troops are withdrawing. However, the war is not really over. The region is balanced in a precarious  stability with Syria being decentralized and compartmentalized, so that Israelis, Iranians, Turks, and Russians have their own regions. But the terrorists are merely resting. And the potential for conflict continues.

The region is balanced in a precarious  stability but the terrorists are merely resting. And the potential for conflict continues.

Turkey

The old US-Turkey relationship is over, Dr. Cook pointed out. One of Turkey’s goal in the Syrian conflict is to avoid the development of a Kurdish State at the top of Syria, and the US is not willing to get involved in this dispute. However, the US has been allied with and supporting Kurdish fighters opposing Syria. This alliance is perceived by Turks as US support for “Kurdish terrorists.”

The US Department of Defense recently blocked Turkish purchases of the F-35, the most advanced American fighter aircraft, for which Turkish companies produce more than 900 pieces of aircraft parts. The move came as Turkey continues to strengthen ties with Russia, purchasing the sophisticated Russian S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system and sending members of its armed forces to Russia for training. “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities," a White House statement said, referring to the S-400 air defense system as a means for Russia to probe US capabilities.

Conclusion

The fundamental issues confronting the Middle East are a lack of stable and trusted governance structures, corruption, and unemployment, Dr. Vakil and Dr. Cook agreed, and no one is addressing these issues.

Mike Kiely (UPS) and Sen. David Givens (KY) and found the Forum very informative. Insights from corporate participants bring different viewpoints to the conversation.

Discussion

John Burchett, Google: It seems that Russia is stirring up a lot of the turmoil; for example, Russian support kept the Syrian conflict embroiled and led to a mass migration of Syrian immigrants into the UK, contributing to Brexit, and Russia has been destabilizing Turkey and US relations. Are these Putin’s intentional destabilizing strategies?

Dr. Cook: Mr. Putin took advantage of the Syrian conflict to demonstrate that Russia can be relied on to maintain support of its allies – such as Syria’s Assad, in contrast to the US, which did not support its Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak, when he was deposed. Destabilization is the Russian strategy for the region with an objective to build a crescent of Russian influence surrounding Europe.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen, NM: What is currently happening with other countries in the region such as Iraq and Kuwait, and with ISIS?

Dr. Vakil: There have been positive developments in Iraq since the end of the 2003 war. Iraq has had a working political system and pursues coalition-building among parties who are in- or out- of power, leaders now must prove prove accountability, and the region’s social services have been improved. However, sectarianism is not an accurate lens through which to assess Iraq. Shi’a militias, mobilized during the war, have been institutionalized in state structures, and these militias are a ticking time bomb, and ISIS could re-emerge. In addition, Iraq has become Iran’s ATM, with half a million barrels of oil from both countries being blended and shipped from Iraq, circumventing the sanctions on Iran.

Shi’a militias, mobilized during the war, have been institutionalized in state structures, and these militias are a ticking time bomb, and ISIS could re-emerge.

Kuwait is a US ally, with a strong US presence. It is a conservative state with a Sunni Muslim majority and has the most open political system among the Gulf monarchies; however, Kuwait also shares the vulnerability faced by other GCC countries about the future of US commitment to the region and, therefore, has taken a more positive stance toward Russia and is hedging its bets with other countries, such as Turkey.

Dr. Cook: The region has seen a normalization of terrorism. ISIS has been hurt, but ISIS 3.0 will emerge, as its presence in Yemen indicates.

Tom Finneran, Moderator: The Iran Deal was not ratified by the US Congress. Was this a blunder by the Obama Administration, or would the deal have been quashed if brought to the Senate?

Dr. Vakil: President Obama knew that he could not get the Iran Deal through a Republican-controlled Congress. President Trump, with more support in the Senate, could make the  decision to withdraw from the pact and impose sanctions. The expectation was that sanctions would provoke protests and force Iran to the negotiation table.

Instead, sanctions provoked an escalatory cycle with Iran. The Administration’s proposed new Iran deal would impose longer-lasting, more stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, in addition to limiting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and forcing it to stem its interference in neighboring countries. In contrast, Mr. Trump also stresses that the US is averse to conflict and open to negotiation. But in the face of draconian measures, some observers fear these actions could trigger open conflict amid a buildup of US military forces in the Persian Gulf region. The hope was to have a JCPOA 2.0, but the rest of the world is not vested in this option.

US sanctions provoked an escalatory cycle with Iran, and some observers fear these actions could trigger open conflict amid a buildup of US military forces in the Persian Gulf region.

Sen. Larry Taylor, TX: Isn’t the problem really that we are trying to work with an untrustworthy regime in Iran?

Dr. Vakil: Iran was fully in compliance with the JCPOA, until the US withdrew from the pact. Monitoring and verification was extremely detailed. It did require advance notice to inspect a non-designated site, but all designated sites were under constant surveillance. However, Mr. Obama may have oversold the deal. The current regime is built on resistance to the US. It will take time for Iran to evolve, but it is on the precipice of change. The younger population is very pro-western and they are pushing for economic integration. The actions by President Trump bought the regime more time to consolidate power and solidified Irani resistance to the US; people who were looking for rapprochement with the US are now angry with the US due to its actions.

The actions by President Trump bought the regime more time to consolidate power and solidified Irani resistance to the US. What is needed is a regional security plan.

Sen. David Givens, KY: What is the day-to-day economic reality in Iran under the sanctions?

Dr. Vakil: The Iranian economy is in deep recession; its currency lost 70% of its value and inflation is at 50%. Youth unemployment is high, many professionals and many companies have left. Iran is shut off from international banking, and prices have escalated. There is no humanitarian channel for food and medicine –these are blocked by the Trump Administration’s sanctions. The Administration hoped sanctions would provoke the middle class to protest. But this is not a realistic scenario in a repressive security state like Iran.

Speaker Biographies

Cameron Abadi

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. He previously worked at the New Republic and Foreign Affairs and as a correspondent in Germany and Iran. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and Der Spiegel.

Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. Cook is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East; The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's gold medal in 2012; and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.

Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. He has also published widely in international affairs journals, opinion magazines, and newspapers, and he is a frequent commentator on radio and television. His work can be found on his blog, From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Prior to joining CFR, Cook was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution (2001–2002) and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1995–1996).

Cook holds a BA in international studies from Vassar College, an MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and both an MA and a PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Arabic and Turkish and reads French.

Sanam Vakil

Sanam Vakil is a senior research fellow in the Middle East North Africa Programme, where she heads the Future Dynamics in the Gulf project and the Iran Forum.

Sanam’s research focuses regional security, Gulf geopolitics and on future trends in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy.

She follows wider Middle Eastern issues as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, associated with the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

She is also the James Anderson professorial lecturer in the Middle East Studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS Europe) in Bologna, Italy.

Before these appointments, Sanam was an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at SAIS Washington. She served as a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations also providing research analysis to the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa department.

Sanam is the author of Action and Reaction: Women and Politics in Iran (Bloomsbury 2013). She publishes analysis and comments for a variety of media and academic outlets.

Sanam received her BA in political science and history from Barnard College, Columbia University and her MA/PhD in international relations and international economics from Johns Hopkins University.

JULY 10–14, 2019

Middle East: The Spiraling Crisis

moderator
Cameron Abadi
Deputy Editor
Foreign Policy
                            Steven A. Cook, PhDSenior Fellow for
Middle Eastern Studies
Council on Foreign Relations
Sanam Vakil, PhDSenior Consulting Research Fellow
Middle East and North Africa Program
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

In a dynamic discussion, a distinguished panel of Middle East experts described the current US stance toward Syria and Yemen and explored the impact of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and impose sanctions on the country. The panel also debated the implications of changing political realities in the Middle East as new alliances emerge between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). “The post-WW2 order imposed by the West on the Middle East is changing,” the panel concluded, “The region is destabilized, and it is not clear what US interests and goals are in the region.”

 “The post-WW2 order imposed by the West on the Middle East is changing,” the panel concluded, “The region is destabilized, and it is not clear what US interests and goals are in the region.”

Changing US Attitudes Toward the Middle East

Dr. Cook led off the discussion with the view that the bipartisan US consensus on the Middle East has broken down, leading to a polarization in US politics vis-à-vis the Middle East. In prior years, there was agreement that the US should support its allies, no matter what their character. The agreed policy sought to contain Iran and pursue peace between Palestine and Israel.  Today, it is possible to divide the Middle East between “Republican Party countries” and “Democratic Party causes,” Dr. Cook observed.

The bipartisan US consensus on the Middle East has broken down.

He contends that Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have Republican support. They may have human rights issues, but they are seen as allies in holding the line against Muslim extremists. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, for example, was supported by President Trump. The United Arab Emirates are small but influential and are strong opponents against Iran and Muslim extremists. These factors align with Republican Party concerns and have gained their support, Dr. Cook said.

Democrats, on the other hand, tend to identify with the Iran nuclear deal—a major Obama Administration achievement—and with the Palestinians’ desire for a homeland, Dr. Cook contends. The issues that increasingly animate Democrats include human rights, international justice, and distrust of military intervention. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal also flew in the face of Democratic ideals. Some Democrats have become ambivalent about the so-called special relationship with Israel, no longer seeing Israel as heroic. These more divergent views between Democrats and Republicans have  undermined the former bipartisan support for Israel and contributed to a polarization in US attitudes toward the Middle East, Dr. Cook opined.

More divergent views between Democrats and Republicans have  undermined the former bipartisan support for Israel and contributed to a polarization in US attitudes toward the Middle East.

Challenging Iran

Dr. Vakil reminded the Forum that, a year ago, President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on the grounds that he wanted a stronger, better agreement. Criticizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for its limited scope and scale, Mr. Trump has called for a deal that would impose longer-lasting, more stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, while limiting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and stemming its interference in neighboring countries. Based on the effective Obama Administration use of sanctions, which brought Iran to the negotiations in 2013, the Trump strategy has been to apply maximum pressure, including sanctions to contain Iran’s regional behavior such as support for Hezbollah in Yemen and for Syrian forces.

The Trump administration’s strategy is to force Iran to the negotiations table by encircling the country with US allies and doubling down on sanctions. But this has been a grave misreading of Iran’s world view, Dr. Vakil observed. Iran is refusing to negotiate until sanctions are removed, and shifts in Iranian politics also complicate the scenario. Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, is a pragmatist, a centrist, and a reformer, who was involved in negotiating the Iran Nuclear deal. His focus is on employment, economic development, and integrating Iran’s economy within the international system. But he has been marginalized and forced to work with more conservative elements, as anti-US resistance and nationalism gain strength in response to US sanctions. The next elections may see changes, according to Dr. Vakil.

Dr. Cook concurred, noting that President Trump’s expectation that, once the sanctions have had enough effect, he will be able to meet with the Ayatollah and find a resolution, as he did in North Korea. But this will not happen, Dr. Cook predicted. The Islamic Revolution is anti-US and the Ayatollah, who has not left Iran since 1990, cannot resolve relations with Mr. Trump.

US allies also have grave concerns over the American position. President of France Emmanuel Macron underscored the importance of saving the JCPOA, saying, "Unfortunately, there are always extremists who prevent other countries' efforts for reaching peace, and the United States' announcement about intensification of sanctions against Iran is in the same vein.”

The Gulf Countries and Israel

There is an emerging constellation of power in the Middle East as Israel and the Gulf Countries create alliances and extend relations, Dr. Cook reported. Remarks by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa who said that Israel is “part of the heritage of the Middle East” and that Jews have “a place amongst us,” reinforced Israel’s confidence in its position. This consolidation forms a balance against the spreading Iranian influence in the region.

Remarks by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa who said that Israel is “part of the heritage of the Middle East” and that Jews have “a place amongst us,” reinforced Israel’s confidence in its position.

“Despite the fact that the Gulf States are politically well-supported by President Trump and are recipients of US aid, they remain insecure. Why is this?” Mr. Abadi asked.

The US does not understand the insecurity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) concerning support from the US, Dr. Vakil responded. The trend during the Obama administration was reduced commitment to the region. There was hope that the Trump Administration would restore the relationship. There were some positive signs, for example, the GCC was in favor of the US withdrawal from the Iran Agreement. However, there is still anxiety about the US leaving the region as the Trump Administration calls for “burden sharing,” the fact that the US is no longer dependent on GCC oil, and in the face of 22 bills currently in Congress criticizing Saudi Arabia. The region does not trust President Trump is to be consistent.

The region does not trust President Trump is to be consistent.

“Why shouldn’t the US withdraw from the Middle East? What’s wrong with Mr. Trump’s US-first perspective? Mr. Abadi queried.

The post-WWII order in the Middle East is coming apart, Dr. Cook commented, “and it is not clear what US interests are.” He acknowledged that President Trump is asking some important questions that haven’t been previously considered, such as, “Why are we engaging in these activities in the Middle East, and why are we doing them this way? What US interest is served by getting involved in Yemen or by a Persian Gulf presence?”

The perception is that the US is no longer interested in the Middle East. For example, despite the fact that Persian Gulf oil is essential to major US trading partners, Mr. Trump proposes that our trading allies should take care of themselves. When Saudi Arabia took military action against Yemen, the US made no objection. Meanwhile, the US sells armaments to all its Middle East allies, which contributes to instability in the region and erodes confidence in the US role in the region.

Syria

The US is abdicating from any responsibility in the Middle East and the balance of power is shifting to Russia. The US position is that it is not worth the toll on US resources and power to participate in another country’s Civil War. The apparent withdrawal of US interest in the Middle East is dangerous, Dr. Vakil stressed. Meanwhile, this continues to be a hot conflict zone, with security risks arising from numerous conflicts.

The US is abdicating from any responsibility in the Middle East and the balance of power is shifting to Russia.

Syria, for example, has declared that it has won the war, and US troops are withdrawing. However, the war is not really over. The region is balanced in a precarious  stability with Syria being decentralized and compartmentalized, so that Israelis, Iranians, Turks, and Russians have their own regions. But the terrorists are merely resting. And the potential for conflict continues.

The region is balanced in a precarious  stability but the terrorists are merely resting. And the potential for conflict continues.

Turkey

The old US-Turkey relationship is over, Dr. Cook pointed out. One of Turkey’s goal in the Syrian conflict is to avoid the development of a Kurdish State at the top of Syria, and the US is not willing to get involved in this dispute. However, the US has been allied with and supporting Kurdish fighters opposing Syria. This alliance is perceived by Turks as US support for “Kurdish terrorists.”

The US Department of Defense recently blocked Turkish purchases of the F-35, the most advanced American fighter aircraft, for which Turkish companies produce more than 900 pieces of aircraft parts. The move came as Turkey continues to strengthen ties with Russia, purchasing the sophisticated Russian S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system and sending members of its armed forces to Russia for training. “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities," a White House statement said, referring to the S-400 air defense system as a means for Russia to probe US capabilities.

Conclusion

The fundamental issues confronting the Middle East are a lack of stable and trusted governance structures, corruption, and unemployment, Dr. Vakil and Dr. Cook agreed, and no one is addressing these issues.

Mike Kiely (UPS) and Sen. David Givens (KY) and found the Forum very informative. Insights from corporate participants bring different viewpoints to the conversation.

Discussion

John Burchett, Google: It seems that Russia is stirring up a lot of the turmoil; for example, Russian support kept the Syrian conflict embroiled and led to a mass migration of Syrian immigrants into the UK, contributing to Brexit, and Russia has been destabilizing Turkey and US relations. Are these Putin’s intentional destabilizing strategies?

Dr. Cook: Mr. Putin took advantage of the Syrian conflict to demonstrate that Russia can be relied on to maintain support of its allies – such as Syria’s Assad, in contrast to the US, which did not support its Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak, when he was deposed. Destabilization is the Russian strategy for the region with an objective to build a crescent of Russian influence surrounding Europe.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen, NM: What is currently happening with other countries in the region such as Iraq and Kuwait, and with ISIS?

Dr. Vakil: There have been positive developments in Iraq since the end of the 2003 war. Iraq has had a working political system and pursues coalition-building among parties who are in- or out- of power, leaders now must prove prove accountability, and the region’s social services have been improved. However, sectarianism is not an accurate lens through which to assess Iraq. Shi’a militias, mobilized during the war, have been institutionalized in state structures, and these militias are a ticking time bomb, and ISIS could re-emerge. In addition, Iraq has become Iran’s ATM, with half a million barrels of oil from both countries being blended and shipped from Iraq, circumventing the sanctions on Iran.

Shi’a militias, mobilized during the war, have been institutionalized in state structures, and these militias are a ticking time bomb, and ISIS could re-emerge.

Kuwait is a US ally, with a strong US presence. It is a conservative state with a Sunni Muslim majority and has the most open political system among the Gulf monarchies; however, Kuwait also shares the vulnerability faced by other GCC countries about the future of US commitment to the region and, therefore, has taken a more positive stance toward Russia and is hedging its bets with other countries, such as Turkey.

Dr. Cook: The region has seen a normalization of terrorism. ISIS has been hurt, but ISIS 3.0 will emerge, as its presence in Yemen indicates.

Tom Finneran, Moderator: The Iran Deal was not ratified by the US Congress. Was this a blunder by the Obama Administration, or would the deal have been quashed if brought to the Senate?

Dr. Vakil: President Obama knew that he could not get the Iran Deal through a Republican-controlled Congress. President Trump, with more support in the Senate, could make the  decision to withdraw from the pact and impose sanctions. The expectation was that sanctions would provoke protests and force Iran to the negotiation table.

Instead, sanctions provoked an escalatory cycle with Iran. The Administration’s proposed new Iran deal would impose longer-lasting, more stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work, in addition to limiting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and forcing it to stem its interference in neighboring countries. In contrast, Mr. Trump also stresses that the US is averse to conflict and open to negotiation. But in the face of draconian measures, some observers fear these actions could trigger open conflict amid a buildup of US military forces in the Persian Gulf region. The hope was to have a JCPOA 2.0, but the rest of the world is not vested in this option.

US sanctions provoked an escalatory cycle with Iran, and some observers fear these actions could trigger open conflict amid a buildup of US military forces in the Persian Gulf region.

Sen. Larry Taylor, TX: Isn’t the problem really that we are trying to work with an untrustworthy regime in Iran?

Dr. Vakil: Iran was fully in compliance with the JCPOA, until the US withdrew from the pact. Monitoring and verification was extremely detailed. It did require advance notice to inspect a non-designated site, but all designated sites were under constant surveillance. However, Mr. Obama may have oversold the deal. The current regime is built on resistance to the US. It will take time for Iran to evolve, but it is on the precipice of change. The younger population is very pro-western and they are pushing for economic integration. The actions by President Trump bought the regime more time to consolidate power and solidified Irani resistance to the US; people who were looking for rapprochement with the US are now angry with the US due to its actions.

The actions by President Trump bought the regime more time to consolidate power and solidified Irani resistance to the US. What is needed is a regional security plan.

Sen. David Givens, KY: What is the day-to-day economic reality in Iran under the sanctions?

Dr. Vakil: The Iranian economy is in deep recession; its currency lost 70% of its value and inflation is at 50%. Youth unemployment is high, many professionals and many companies have left. Iran is shut off from international banking, and prices have escalated. There is no humanitarian channel for food and medicine –these are blocked by the Trump Administration’s sanctions. The Administration hoped sanctions would provoke the middle class to protest. But this is not a realistic scenario in a repressive security state like Iran.

Speaker Biographies

Cameron Abadi

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. He previously worked at the New Republic and Foreign Affairs and as a correspondent in Germany and Iran. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and Der Spiegel.

Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. Cook is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East; The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's gold medal in 2012; and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.

Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. He has also published widely in international affairs journals, opinion magazines, and newspapers, and he is a frequent commentator on radio and television. His work can be found on his blog, From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Prior to joining CFR, Cook was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution (2001–2002) and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1995–1996).

Cook holds a BA in international studies from Vassar College, an MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and both an MA and a PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Arabic and Turkish and reads French.

Sanam Vakil

Sanam Vakil is a senior research fellow in the Middle East North Africa Programme, where she heads the Future Dynamics in the Gulf project and the Iran Forum.

Sanam’s research focuses regional security, Gulf geopolitics and on future trends in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy.

She follows wider Middle Eastern issues as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, associated with the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

She is also the James Anderson professorial lecturer in the Middle East Studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS Europe) in Bologna, Italy.

Before these appointments, Sanam was an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at SAIS Washington. She served as a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations also providing research analysis to the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa department.

Sanam is the author of Action and Reaction: Women and Politics in Iran (Bloomsbury 2013). She publishes analysis and comments for a variety of media and academic outlets.

Sanam received her BA in political science and history from Barnard College, Columbia University and her MA/PhD in international relations and international economics from Johns Hopkins University.