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Whither the Middle East: New Peace or More Conflict?

On September 23, four experts – Robin Wright, Daniel Kurtzer, Vali Nasr and Maha Yahya – explored the future trajectory of the Middle East on U.S.-Iran tensions, Lebanon’s struggle to rebuild politically and physically, new peace agreements between Gulf countries and Israel, the end game in Syria, the threat of ISIS and the possibility of an October surprise before the U.S. presidential election.

CIA political map ME 2016
Map of the Middle East

Robin Wright: We're going to begin with Ambassador Dan Kurtzer who has been one of America's most distinguished diplomats. He was the ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. His first posting was as a young Political Officer in Cairo. He was there in 1981 when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He has served both Democratic and Republican presidents. He has also served as part of the peace process team. Today, he is a distinguished professor at Princeton. His topic this morning is the Arab-Israeli peace process--what's next? What countries are next? What difference will the Abraham Accords make in either the peace process or changing the balance of power in the Middle East? And what about the Palestinians? Have they totally been left behind?

Dan Kurtzer: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict takes place in a region which is largely dysfunctional. It's a place where state failure, weakness of regimes, governance crises and endemic problems that seem impervious to solutions abound. Population growth leads to the possibility that young people can't get jobs, food insecurity, economic inequality and corruption.

The context in the Middle East is one of very serious challenges in which states on the periphery of the Arab world have begun to dominate. What happens in Turkey, Iran and Israel -- as opposed to what happens in the Arab world -- has become much more important. The rise of non-state actors has become far more important in many respects than the actions of state actors. 

One example: Since 1973, Israel has fought any number of wars with Arab actors, but not one of them has been primarily with an Arab state. Arab states have come into some of those wars, but they have been with the PLO, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The state system in the Middle East has ceased to play a very significant role. What that has meant for the Arab actors and Israel is a very shifting and elusive balance of power.

The UAE and Bahrain decisions were long in the making. They were born of frustration with [President] Obama's perceived courtship of Iran, concerns about the U.S. withdrawal from the region, and in the case of the UAE, the ability to pocket some immediate gains--first of all, suspending Israel's move toward annexing parts of the West Bank and likely receiving F-35s [fighter jets] from the United States. For Bahrain, the importance of having an American naval facility was important to their agenda, as well as the pressure that Bahrain remains under from across the Gulf in Iran.

In the case of both Bahrain and the Emirates, there was also a payoff to President Trump, an investment in the possibility of his being reelected but also with no serious downside should Joe Biden be elected. It's hard to oppose the idea of normalization between Israel and an Arab country. What this reflects is the change in the balance of power within the region. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt are largely aligned against Turkey and Qatar in a number of regional conflicts. We're beginning to see a bit of competition from Egypt and Jordan that are a bit jealous of the rise of the Gulf states and the importance attributed to Gulf state activities. 

The Palestinians are the outliers. They seem to be clueless. They clearly have been left out of all recent moves -- not just the Bahrain and Emirates decisions but also left out of the peace process by the Trump administration for the last three-and-a-half years. They have an ossified leadership. They have not had a serious election now for about 15 years. And they have no policy. When Palestinians are asked: "Why don't they come up with their own peace initiative?" The answer is: "How could we do so under occupation?" -- which suggests that there is an absence of policy planning within the Palestinian community. Unfortunately, they're not a factor in the current dynamics in the Arab-Israeli or larger Middle East context.

The event was co-hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The Arab Peace Initiative is also dying a slow death. No one has formally withdrawn from it, but an initiative that was quite interesting and profound back in 2002 and reiterated several times since by Arab [League] summits is now on the sidelines. The only thing on the table is a very seriously flawed American administration initiative which has gained no support anywhere in the world except in the state of Israel. 

For the Arab states that have either begun to normalize with Israel or are thinking about it, Israel is a powerful and valuable ally. It has a very strong military and a strong economy. It's willing to act. We know that there is such a thing called the Begin doctrine, in which Israel has acted at least twice [in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007] to prevent an Arab state from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability. It has said that it will act again, if necessary, to prevent that from happening. 

For Arab states, Israel is a kind of connecting tissue to Washington. A large part of Anwar Sadat's initiative to make peace with Israel back to the 1970s was to make peace with the United States. This idea of using Israel as a conduit to Washington remains prevalent in parts of the Arab world. 

What does this mean for the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli peace process? To the extent that there is any coherence in the Trump administration's approach, it rests on five pillars.

  • Number one: The willingness to do almost anything that Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, wants. This has been fueled by a team of ideological advisers to Trump who share many of Netanyahu's views about the Arab-Israeli peace process.  
  • Number two: The idea of cultivating the Saudis and other autocratic Arabs as reliable cash customers for the United States.  
  • Number three: Pressuring Iran in the hope of regime change.  
  • Number four: Promising to end military deployments. Promises which have not yet been kept.  
  • And five: On the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli issue, to dismantle longstanding U.S. policy. In other words, to break apart all of the pillars on which U.S. policy rested until now and to create something which they hoped would be a policy for the future, but which has very little possibility of standing up. 

Charlemagne told Pippin, his son, that it's smart to be lucky. And the administration has been smart to be lucky because the vision that Trump put out last January had no possibility of moving forward. But in the midst of Netanyahu's consideration of annexation, the Emirati ambassador in Washington, Ambassador [Yousef] al Otaiba, put out this idea that Israel could have either normalization or annexation. The administration was lucky enough and smart enough to grab on to that. We now have a process based largely on normalization without a prospect of a Palestinian-Israeli [peace] settlement. 

Will normalization replace the peace process as we know it? The answer is no. The Palestinian issue will never be resolved until there is a territorial component. Palestinians require self-determination in a state of their own living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security. Many have tried to develop options other than a two-state solution. There frankly is no alternative to a two-state solution. It's going to be hard to do -- harder every day with settlement activity -- but that's the only option out there for resolving the conflict. That means we may need to await a different leadership in the region, and we need to revive some basic fundamentals of American policy. 

Three things to think about moving ahead.

  • Number one: If the United States wants to be serious about helping the parties reach a settlement, it will have to do what it has not done for the last 25 years and that is address the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians. That means leaning towards Israel on security and leaning towards the Palestinians on territory and governance. 
  • Number two: The United States would have to get serious with both sides about accountability and consequences for actions that contradict the peace process. We have a long history of holding the Palestinians accountable. We do not have a similar history of holding Israel accountable for such things, such as settlements.
  • And third: We need to think about refocusing our relationship with Israel to put it on a sounder footing. Right now, Israel remains a recipient of security assistance. Recently, I wrote an article together with Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice and deputy foreign minister in Israel, in which we suggested that Israel can be a cash customer for the United States. This would mean that Israel would have to make tough decisions with regard to where it invests its money. But the United States can also help assure Israel's security by building in agreements on access to defense technology and to R & D. In other words, to set our policy straight, not only on the peace process, with a more balanced and fair policy toward both Israel and the Palestinians -- but also putting our relationship with Israel on a sounder and much more mature footing. 

Wright: By my count, with 22 members of the Arab League as formal states, there are four countries that have peace deals with Israel. That leaves 18. There are a lot of rumors about the possibility of Sudan being the next. Are there some obvious ones?

Kurtzer: There are no obvious choices. Sudan probably has the most money being wagered on it. I think it's indicative of the problem--when a country that has been a state supporter of terrorism is now being wooed as a potential partner for Israel. Sudan may be next simply because they have a significant amount to gain. The UAE may pay some of its bills, and the United States takes it off the terrorism list. There are some rumors that Chad will be soon thereafter. I doubt that we're going to see an early decision by any of the other Gulf countries. And we've heard from North African countries, including Morocco, that they're unlikely to move without progress on the Palestinian issue.

Wright: I had not thought about Chad.

Kurtzer: I have my money on Chad. 

Wright: Now to Vali Nasr, one of the world's leading experts on Iran and the Gulf. He was born in Iran and his family fled either shortly before or after the 1979 revolution. Many of you have read Vali's bestselling books. He is a former dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he is still a professor. Vali has also consulted with both Democratic and Republican administrations. He served as senior adviser to U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke during the talks on Afghanistan. 

Vali is going to explore both the internal challenges in Iran amidst collapsing oil prices, a sporadic series of protest movements, a COVID pandemic that has gotten worse.  He's also going to explore all the big questions of Iran's tensions with the outside world, given the U.S. maximum pressure campaign that involved a whole new set of sanctions just this week on Ministry of Defense outlets and the threat to also sanction any company or any country that sells either conventional or unconventional arms to Iran. Top Pentagon officials that I've met with recently say that the one conflict they are most worried about anywhere in the world over the next six months is with Iran. We'll get back to the question of an October surprise.

Vali Nasr: The Trump administration has followed a very interesting experiment. First of all, claiming to the region and the world that he's going to solve the biggest problems once and for all -- the Arab-Israeli issue, the problem of Iran –as it simultaneously signaled that it's beginning to leave the region. President Trump made it very clear that he didn't want to have much to do with a military presence in the region.

We're seeing the United States leaving Afghanistan and talking to a mortal enemy, the Taliban, reaching an agreement to leave. We're seeing the American footprint shrink in Iraq, in Syria, even around the Gulf. With this Israel-UAE deal, the incentive in Washington was for Israel to backfill the U.S. departure. That has been a destabilizing process for the region. The idea of the United States leaving, if nothing else had changed, would already change too many things on the chessboard that would have been destabilizing to the region. 

But at the same time, the United States escalating the way it's doing with Iran is adding further fuel to the fire. We're at a moment where we're seeing the region become much more unstable. There's potential for an outright conflict with Iran. And yet the trend is towards less of a U.S. presence in the region. 

Regardless of what Washington says, in the region everybody understands that we don't have the stamina to stay. The fight that the president is picking with China, which is likely to continue, is going to demand a lot of American military, diplomatic and economic resources that cannot be dedicated to the Persian Gulf region or the Middle East. The American economy is not in a good place to keep pouring trillions of dollars into another major war in the region.

President Trump has delivered to Persian Gulf countries and other Arabs and Israel the idea that he's going to walk away from the nuclear deal, he's going to put the Iranians under pressure. They may be cheering for that. But his notion that America is going to stand behind its policy is not credible to the region. It's not credible to the Iranians either. That's why this policy is not effective because nobody really believes that it's a long-run policy. 

The United States is going to run out of breath pretty soon. In some ways it has with Iran. Iran has been put under the maximum amount of economic pressure. It cannot sell any oil. Its economy is in tatters. There are secondary sanctions against other countries. Doing business with Iran has really been bitten hard. The United States keeps ratcheting it up, but it has not got new negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal. It has not brought the regime down. The only thing it has done is harden, at least at the top of the Iranian regime, behind a "resistance" policy. The administration is hoping that the population will not buy into this, and they will not allow the political elite in Iran to follow this strategy. But for now, it hasn't worked.

Iran has gone through a lot of unrest. Unemployment is high. Inflation is high. The country's currency has collapsed. It has reached record lows vis-à-vis the dollar. The Iranian middle class cannot trade, cannot do business, cannot travel. The COVID pandemic is spreading in Iran. The Iranian foreign minister was saying on Monday at a session of the Council on Foreign Relations that Iran cannot import flu vaccines into Iran because they cannot do the financial transactions. 

The Iranian public is definitely dejected, but there is no mass revolution in Iran. If there was, it's not a recipe for stability in the region. If a country with 80 million people collapsed, it is not going to end up being a democracy overnight the way that the Bush administration imagined Iraq after Saddam [Hussein]. It is likely to be an Iraq to the power of 10. That's not a good recipe when the United States is on its way out the door. 

We're in a very bad spot in the region. The idea that the administration had of getting the Israelis to step up to support strategically the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as the United States is withdrawing is perhaps attractive to the UAE and Bahrain and perhaps Saudi Arabia. This military-intelligence relationship that they've had with Israel can be formalized. An Israeli strategic asset could be brought into the Persian Gulf to backfill for what the United States is not going to be doing. 

But I'm not sure that's a good thing for Israel. In the longer run, it will get into a whole new arena of conflict with Iran. It's also going to be destabilizing. We really have to test the proposition of what happens if the Iron Dome [defense system] is put around Abu Dhabi by Israel or if Israelis begin to provide security for the UAE.

The idea of giving F-35s to countries around the globe is just going to fuel an arms race. On one hand, we're saying we want the Iranians to negotiate to reduce their proxy footprint in the region and to reduce their missile ranges and numbers. On the other hand, we're arming their rivals 90 kilometers south of their border with sophisticated weaponry, which is only going to give incentive to the security forces in Iran to double down on their investments in conventional military countermeasures. 

There is a sense that the United States wants to leave this region to its own fate. It wants to say we did everything possible to weaken Iran, but we're not here for the long run. Even if we said we're here for the long run, the proposition is not very credible going forward. Yes, domestically, Iran is much more fragile. But I would not read too much into the claims that it's about to fall. Iranians, by virtue of the experience of the last 40 years, have learned how to suffer. We don't know where the breakpoint is, but in Iraq we found that there wasn't a breakpoint point until literally U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad. I wouldn't necessarily think that we're going to see 1979 repeated. That's reading back into history with a very different regime, a very different population and a very different circumstance. 

As much as the population is suffering, there is a nationalistic sense in Iran. We are seeing contradictory pictures. There are riots in the streets. There is a lot of unhappiness. There's a lot of criticism of President Hassan Rouhani and the government. But when [Quds Force Commander General Qassem] Soleimani was assassinated, the outpouring of public sentiment in Iran was unprecedented. It was far larger than the funeral for Khomeini. Who came out? Iranians are not a one-dimensional people, and U.S. pressure is bringing out very different, contradictory dimensions. 

But President Trump has succeeded in regime change of sorts in Iran. He has weakened the moderates and the reformists considerably. He has clearly weakened anybody in Iran who argued that Iran should gradually open to the West and look, not just to a nuclear deal, but look to business trade and eventual normalization. 

Far more hardline views on resistance to the United States have taken over. The Revolutionary Guards and Iranian intelligence believe that a lot of the demonstrations are orchestrated by outside agents; that the maximum pressure was a two-punch strategy; that you squeeze the Iranian public until they get unhappy, and then you set the fuse by actually having agents on the ground that would provoke things and put things on Youtube, on social media, etc. It's not true necessarily, but it's what they believe. 

In that kind of an environment, they're much harsher on dissent than would be expected. More and more powers are moving away from the civilian side of the Iranian government to the Revolutionary Guards. When and if the United States sits at the table with Iran, they're going to find out that they're dealing with much more hardline and tougher negotiators than the ones that they dealt with in 2013. 

The big question is whether there would be talks between the United States and Iran. President Trump is advertising that he'll have a deal with Iran two weeks after [his reelection], although his definition of a deal could be quite elastic -- anything from "agreeing to agree to agree to talks" could be construed by him as a deal to an actual deal. Then there's a question about what happens if there's a Biden administration and whether you can end up having a conversation again. The Democratic Party platform says that the United States is willing to go back to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. 

Going forward with Iran is going to be very difficult, largely because the United States has shown that it can leave the deal at any moment it wants and reimpose sanctions. I don't think the Iranians will come back to the table easily and come back into full compliance [because of the danger that] three years from now, four years from now, two years from now the United States again withdraws from the deal and reimposes the sanctions. Negotiating those kind of guarantees with the Iranians is going to be extremely tough.

Then trying to go beyond the JCPOA is going to be a very tough road. The more the United States talks to Iran -- and if the Biden administration is successful in dealing with Iran -- that will bring back Israel and the UAE and Saudi Arabia to the same angst they had about the Obama administration. They can't have it both ways. You can't talk to Iran and have a good deal and not have the United States move a little closer to Iran and reduce tensions with Iran. That's where the whole thing is stuck.

I see the possibility of talks largely because Iran is incentivized to revive the JCPOA. It never left. But I don't see that the region is going to be moving back to where it was in 2015. We're in a far worse spot with far less American ability to now shape the events in the region.

Wright: Now, to Maha Yayha. She is the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East program in Beirut, where she was present during the very traumatic explosion that ripped across Beirut in August. Maha formerly worked for the United Nations where she did seminal work on issues for the Arab Development Report, one of the first times that the region was evaluated from a neutral global perspective. She is going to tackle two of the biggest existential challenges in the Middle East. One is Lebanon, as a microcosm of the challenges that are faced by so many Arab states. It faces economic demise. Its monetary system is on the verge of collapse. Its political system, controlled by warlords ever since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990, is dysfunctional. And, of course, it has a militia that has emerged as one of the most powerful militias anywhere in the Middle East, but a powerful political player too. Having spent five years of my life in Lebanon during the civil war andthe Israeli invasion, I thought little Lebanon couldn't face anything worse. What is really striking is that it faces even deeper existential challenges today. She's also going to look at the Syrian civil war as we approached the 10-year anniversary of the Arab uprising that then led to one of the grizzliest wars in Middle East history. Is there any prospect of hope on either account?

Yahya: I like the word existential crisis. I think everywhere you turn in this region, there's an existential crisis somewhere. This is a region that is facing a far larger existential crisis as a region as a whole. It's in a much worse condition than it was in 2015.

However, there are places where some negotiations can happen. Lebanon and Syria, with Iran, are two potential openings that are below nuclear policy but that are just as fundamental for the stability of this region. The fact that Iran's malign activity across the region was not addressed as part of the JCPOA was one of the reasons why there was so much resistance to the JCPOA in the region. Some people saw it positively, but many people were very wary of the JCPOA at the time because they've not engaged with Iran's activities in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq, and elsewhere.

To look from 35,000 feet, this is a region that is post-Pax Americana setup, where pragmatism in foreign policy reigns supreme. There's a sort of Qatar-ization of foreign policy. Every country is doing what it thinks is best for it. Foreign policy changes from one place to the other.While the UAE has created an opening with the Syrian regime and has reopened its embassy, its positioning in Lebanon is quite different. You see the same players in different parts of the region having very different policy tools that they're using but also different partnerships that they're pushing forward, depending on the place they’re in.

Zooming into Lebanon, the place is in a catastrophic situation. And the worst is yet to come, unfortunately. The fact that I can say this after an explosion that literally blew up, damaged half the city, led to the displacement of 300,000 people who had to leave their homes, more than 6,500 people injured, more than 200 killed. Fast forward 40 days later, we still don't know what happened.

The Beirut explosion is in some ways Lebanon's own Chernobyl. It epitomizes the gross mismanagement and the corruption, the rot that lies at the heart of the governance system in this country, where you have sectarian power-sharing overlapping with a network of clientelistic and nepotistic relationships that have transformed state institutions into extensions of political-sectarian fiefdoms. Turn anywhere in the region and you find something similar but with a different flavor.

The place where Lebanon is today is that four out of its five key pillars are literally collapsing. The political system is very much in crisis. All political leaders have lost their legitimacy. We're now looking at a government formation that has been bottlenecked despite the crisis, despite the fact that the country is literally collapsing economically. It's now in a hyperinflation mode. The currency has lost 70 to 80 percent of its value. More than 50 percent of the population is below the poverty line now. We’re worried about famine, massive unemployment, businesses closing. And yet, government formation has been stuck for the past three weeks.

A French initiative put forward pushed the machine a little bit forward. But then it got stuck because the vested interests in Lebanon are not [just] about local vested interests but also connected to what Iran wants, what the French want, what the Turks want. For the French coming into Lebanon, it's partly because they don't want to see Lebanon collapse. This is their young creation; Lebanon turned 100 on September 1st.

But [France wanted] also to counter a growing Turkish influence. Turkey has historically, or at least over the past decade, been building up connections. Underneath, it's been displaying soft power. It's been building up connections with the Sunni community in Lebanon through cultural centers. It's giving citizenship to a lot of Lebanese. I think something like 17,000 Lebanese now have dual citizenship. A lot of the Sunni sheikhs here have connections to Istanbul one way or the other. Many of them have small apartments there. It's slowly been building up its leverage and its influence within that community, but it really has remained at the level of a more soft, cultural, some financial support, etc.

Lebanon’s economic collapse is creating a situation that is very open and very loose and that will allow a lot of new actors to enter into the scene and display different kinds of influence. Turkey is one of them. The Emirates until now has not really been very active [but] we're beginning to see it prepare for more action in Lebanon, for more involvement in the local political scene.

The question today is, what’s next? Where do we go from here? When it comes to Lebanon, quite frankly, if the government is not formed in the coming weeks, this situation is beyond catastrophic. There's no confidence. People are leaving by the hundreds, if not thousands. Whoever can leave is leaving.

The French-Hariri initiative happened [on September 22]. They put forward an initiative that could potentially resolve the bottleneck around government formation. Everyone's now waiting for the response from Hezbollah and Amal, who were the ones that had thrown a wrench into the government formation. This will tell us the extent to which Iran is interested in stabilizing the situation in Lebanon. My own reading is they are. The last thing they need is a situation where the country collapses completely. This is, after all, the backyard of Hezbollah, the jewel in the crown of Iranian activity outside of Iran. If that does not happen, this situation is going to get a lot more dire, and we could potentially see emerging conflicts down the road as the country opens up to more and more influence.

Already we're seeing a lot more security incidents across the country. Yesterday, there was a massive explosion in South Lebanon in an arms depot. We believe it's an arms depot belonging to Hezbollah. There was also an outbreak of shooting north of Beirut. We still don't know the details of this. And then there were a couple of other fires. It's the same scenario we're seeing in Iran where explosions are happening more frequently [and] fires are erupting more frequently. Yesterday, another fire erupted in a paint factory in south Beirut. Things are disintegrating on the ground and will get much worse if there isn't a government formation that will then unlock some humanitarian support, unlock a deal with the IMF [International Monetary Fund] that will allow at least some fiscal and economic support for Lebanon.

For Syria, we're looking at a continued status quo until the American elections because whoever ends up as the new president of the United States will determine to a great degree what happens in both Lebanon and Syria, partly as a result of U.S.-Iran tensions, but also what kind of political settlement is going to be put forward for Syria, which also will have a detrimental effect -- positive or negative -- for Lebanon. In Syria today, what we're looking at is the existing parties -- Turkey, Russia, Iran -- hunkering down, trying to maximize their gains on the ground and create a firewall around the territory that they are controlling. It's a situation that is quasi in limbo until the American elections.

The United States maximum pressure policy – used with Iran and Hezbollah -- is going to break Lebanon. The mantra of breaking Lebanon to rebuild it is completely false. Breaking Lebanon means that local militias -- the ones who are able to navigate in chaos -- will be the last people standing.

Three recommendations of what can be done:

  • There needs to be some work with the French to stabilize Lebanon in the short term. This is a country that has one million refugees.
  • Another area would be an alignment of positions on Syria -- between the United States and other Gulf countries -- to make sure that after the American elections there is a serious discussion of what political settlement could end the conflict. I don't see Syria being reunited anytime soon, but at least some sort of a stabilization of the situation there.
  • Finally, Lebanon is a country that is in desperate need for financial support. So perhaps a humanitarian fund that is led by the U.S. and that allows at least people not to die of starvation and that allows some rebuilding. Until now, the only rebuilding is happening through the private sector. What was remarkable after the explosion was the complete absence of the state and the total presence of people--Lebanese helping each other, whether abroad or in the country.

Wright: Dan, you wrote a very interesting piece last week about the potential “October Surprise” during the U.S. election. Your direct quote was, “The most likely scenario involves an escalation with Iran, a country that has been at the top of the Trump enemy list, since assuming office.” Any kind of conflict between a major power and Iran, which has the largest military in the Middle East, would be very different because of the asymmetry. We have all the airpower in the world, but Iran has extraordinary depth when it comes to allies, proxies, and the kind of mess that they could create, diverting our attention from a military victory. It’s not going to be Iraq again. I'm interested in how you see this conflict. What could be the trigger? How does this play out?  A senior Pentagon official said, “We know that if we retaliated, whether it was for the assassination of an ambassador or the death of American troops in Iraq, that we could hit hard. We know the Iranians would strike back at us. The question is, do we have the tools, do we have the game plan, to counter Iran at its own game? Because Iran may redefine the nature of any kind of conflict.”

Kurtzer: When Steve Simon and I were talking about this article, all of the factors that you just mentioned came into play, including the fact that Trump has proved to be very risk-averse throughout his presidency. He’s got to know, and his advisors would have to tell him, that any escalation with Iran would not be a simple one-off, where you shoot a few missiles or you drop a few bombs and then go home and wait for a single response. On the other hand, there are at least three factors to bear in mind.

  • Number one: Trump has defined Iran, along with China, as the two biggest threats to international security and to American security. But he has now cleansed his administration of anyone who will argue against him. He has an administration that is now pretty solidly anti-Iran, to the point where one can imagine there is consideration of military options.
  • Number two: There are clearly other issues that are going to define the American election. Biden is trying to make COVID the issue. We now have the question of the Supreme Court [and] the economy. But the question is how desperate this president can become in mid-October, if the polls continue to show how poorly he is doing, particularly in the swing states.
  • Number three: The Israel factor. Today, the Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz is in Washington with apparently a shopping list that includes according to the Israeli press some very high-powered weaponry, including tankers for long-range refueling.

We know that Netanyahu, at least three times in the past, has tried to persuade his national security team to attack Iran. Nobody wants to start a war. But Israel may believe that Iran -- after the JCPOA has essentially been stalled -- has reached a point in its enrichment capability that it is closer to a breakout, and therefore, this Begin doctrine may kick in. There may be a push from the Israelis, who now have allies in the Gulf -- Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. They also have overflight rights over Saudi Arabia, solving some of their own military problems, and therefore may be much more inclined to push a Trump administration at a moment when the electoral prospects look dim.

Would I give this high odds? The answer is no, largely because of the risk-averse nature of this president. But I don't rule it out. And even if it doesn't take place in October, we may republish the article in December, should Trump lose, and call it the December surprise.

Wright: In terms of creating a ‘coalition of the willing’ like we did with Iraq, when most of the world would oppose a war between the United States and Iran, is it enough to have Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain as partners in a coalition? Again, I go back to this asymmetric issue. This is where Hezbollah is estimated is estimated to have 130,000 to 150,000 missiles that it could strike Israel. It has proxies -- dozens of branches of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq -- that could strike not only U.S. interests but perhaps even members of the Iraqi government who are pro-American. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were kind of down-and-dirty; we did it in a matter of weeks, ousting what were deemed to be powerful, well-armed entities.

I've had the impression that President Trump and his secretary of state may not always see eye-to-eye. Pompeo has talked openly as a member of Congress about regime change. We know when he was at the CIA that he wanted to look for nefarious activities by Iran, whereas Trump has repeatedly said he wants to engage. There was a close call at the United Nations last year where the French got very close to setting up a meeting [between Trump and Rouhani]. In the end, because Trump was not willing to deal with the issue of lifting sanctions, Rouhani locked himself in his [hotel] bedroom.

Kurtzer: The prospect of diplomatic engagement goes up exponentially if Trump wins re-election. He will be desperate to meet with the ayatollah or with the president of Iran in the same way he was desperate to meet with the leader of North Korea, believing that if only he could sit across the table, make a good friendship, he could cut a deal. He’s wrong on that, but he will be desperate to do so in a second term.

I don't see this happening as even a remote possibility between now and November 3. It would be so abhorrent to his base, including his national security team, that even this very unpredictable president would be unlikely to do so.

With regard to a larger coalition, several years ago I wrote two pieces for the Council on Foreign Relations on the prospect of renewed conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. I said in one of those reports that Israel might not be able to fight two wars, or on two fronts, if it opened up the front with Hezbollah and there was a front with Iran. I happened to be in Israel shortly afterwards, and a very senior military official said to me, “Well you don't understand our military. We can fight two wars simultaneously.”

Now, setting aside hubris, both on the part of the Israeli military and the American military, I don't think the prospect of Hezbollah's firing rockets at Israel would deter Netanyahu from taking action against Iran if the Israeli intelligence community makes a persuasive case that the breakout time for a serious run towards a nuclear weapon has gotten too short.

Going into the JCPOA in 2015, we were at a period of months before this breakout period would take place. The JCPOA lengthened that to about a year. We may be back now to a much shorter period, given that Iran has upped its enrichment since the United States pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018. I don't think it frankly matters to the United States and Israel whether or not there's a larger coalition. Again, the chances of an “October Surprise” are remote, but I don't think that's off the table because of the possibility of a tough war, should war ensue.

Wright: Vali, Iran is in this incredible moment of transition politically. The parliamentary elections were earlier this year and the hardliners won an overwhelming majority. They had their run-off election this month, delayed by COVID, which only made their numbers ever larger. The presidency is up for election in May. Iran, like the United States, has a two-term limit. There will be a whole new cast of characters for Iranians to choose from.

If the Trump administration is so anxious for a deal, or if Biden is elected and wants to go back to some form of diplomacy and possibly some variation of the original nuclear deal, can the current administration in Iran-- President Rouhani or Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif, who did most of the negotiation--pull it off? Could they convince the hardliners or the Iranian public to re-engage with the United States? On the election, who are the emerging names and what would their attitudes be on diplomacy with the United States.

Nasr: This idea of an “October Surprise” bears on everything. So many people are voting so early that an “October Surprise” will potentially be impacting a smaller number of Americans. But it's a real thing, and the Iranians are taking it very seriously. Some may be reading along the lines that it's not so much about the outcome of the American election as it is about how Bibi Netanyahu or Secretary Pompeo look at Iran post-November.

If [Netanyahu or Pompeo] think that both a new Trump administration and a new Biden administration may be willing to talk to Iran, then you want to do things to basically make that impossible. We've reached the point that some kind of a hot conflict is likely the best case. Trump may very well decide he wants to get the Nobel Prize and he wants to sit down and talk with the ayatollahs or the president, and the Biden administration may at least lower the temperature with Iran and go back into the nuclear deal. You have a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario here. Secretary Pompeo’s argument that U.S. ships may stop Iranian ships on high seas and board them is a step towards an act of war.

The Iranian reaction is unpredictable. One of the reasons the Iranians carried out the attack on Abqaiq [oil installation] in Saudi Arabia was deterrence. It was to showcase to the U.S. and Israel and others that they now have unpredictable weapons. The fact that they did an extremely precise attack -- going around American radar systems, Saudi radar systems-- was designed to say, “Don't think that this is 1987 or this is the way you see us. You're looking in the rear-view mirror. We're going to react this way. We're going to react in Lebanon in this manner. We're going to react with rockets. We could actually conduct this war very differently.”

The alliance now with the UAE and Israel comes into this. The first statement from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards after the UAE and Israel announced this [deal] was that Iran will hold the UAE responsible for any act that Israel carries out inside Iran. That's obviously a broad statement, but the signal is: “Okay you signed this. But now you're also a target in any kind of retaliation against Israel.”

Does this alliance serve as a break on Netanyahu, or on Israel, or is it complicating things, so that it gives Iran additional targets to hit? Hitting the UAE or Bahrain is now much easier than unleashing Hezbollah on Israel. And that's exactly why we're in a much more complicated, difficult place.

Now a war, an aggression against Iran, will serve the hardliners in Iran. I don't see a scenario in which the Iranians [public] would side with the United States, or especially side with Israel in a war--or that there won't be a rally-to-the-flag moment in Iran. That would change all the calculations about presidential elections [and] the calculation about talking [with the United States]. Already, the idea of talking [with the United States] is a very difficult proposition in the political system. The Iranian parliament now has its version of the Tea Party or QAnon that basically are having their day.

If there is no military confrontation, if the door to some kind of de-escalation is there, we will end up with a moderate, conservative Iranian president, not the most hardline figures-- like Saeed Jalili who was National Security Adviser [and] not [former President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's also throwing his hat in the ring--thinking that the economic pressure that the U.S. has brought on Iran has provided them with a second lease on life with populism. And not moderates -- outright moderates -- or reformers, although foreign minister Zarif remains extremely popular in Iran and people talk about him being a potential candidate. He said he's not running, but that's sort of dangling out there.

But there is a middle: [Mohammad Bagher] Qalibaf is the current speaker of parliament and was a former Revolutionary Guard commander and mayor of Tehran. And former Speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani. People of this type seem to be very viable candidates. They are not averse to engaging the West, but they are much more hardline on these sets of issues than the moderates would be.

Then there are technocrats who are pushing very hard to say that Iran’s problems now need not a political solution -- not moderates, reformists, or hardliners -- but needs professionals. A lot of people talk about the head of Iran’s central bank as a potential candidate, as a political technocrat who could take command of the economy and able to do what the Supreme Leader says-- fix the economy in a way that not susceptible to the United States. That is opening the door for a very different kind of an Iranian president.

But we're not going to have the formal application until March, so the mood of the country, the mood of the electorate, on where Iran is with the United States would be quite key.

Now, getting back [to diplomacy] with the United States and Iran, a lot of pre-talking has to happen. That could start right after the American election. It could start under Rouhani. The United States is not going to get the deal with Rohani, nor does it want to deal with Rouhani. But maybe it wants to create the momentum in that direction.

And then you have a new administration [in Iran in mid-2021]. It's not in a position of having to start from scratch with the United States but can claim that it's picking up on whatever positive momentum has been created.

Wright: The Supreme Leader talked just this week again about revenge for the death or assassination of General Soleimani. Is this hot air? Is this something you anticipate? Is this something that could be a trigger [for a conflict]?

Nasr: Partly, it's constituent management both in Iran and in the Arab world to say that they haven't forgotten. Partly, they are also reading the hot rhetoric about an “October Surprise.” And it's deterrence to say, "We're ready and will react."

Wright: Maha, there are two disintegrating societies in Lebanon and Syria, and yet there have been imaginative protests particularly by the young. The last time around, the Arab Spring brought down four governments where the heads of states had ruled for a total of more than 130 years. And yet it didn't lead to tangible change that created good systems. In some cases, as in Egypt, we saw a more autocratic leadership emerge under Former Field Marshal el Sisi. Are the younger generations in Lebanon channeling their protest into new political parties or entities that could affect elections--if Lebanon holds them? Is there a younger generation in Syria that will hold Assad to account in the aftermath of a war that has killed at least a half a million of its citizens?

Yahya: These are two different contexts. The civil society actors--the younger generation and the older generation--are operating in two very different theaters. Most of them are in Lebanon but are also coordinating with a large diaspora that's trying to provide whatever support it can in different ways.

There's been a lot of action since October 2019, when the protests erupted. A number of initiatives today by different groups are trying to come together and create an opposition front. They're trying to prepare for the parliamentary elections that will technically happen in two years. At least two to three new political parties have emerged. They're still very small. They're still very fragile. But there is real work happening in multiple ways. They're becoming more organized. There's the usual bickering internally: Who takes the lead? Against all odds, half of the capital -- having been blown up -- is catastrophic for many people. They lost family members. They lost friends. Yet there is still an attempt to continue to push on that front.

The challenge that they face in Lebanon is the sense that they've been abandoned by the international community--not in terms of material support. A lot today would say we do not want funding from anybody. The funding has to be from the Lebanese, for the Lebanese, in terms of political parties and actions.

Where they want support from the international community is in terms of helping to stabilize Lebanon in a region that's going up in flames. What we've seen over the past few weeks was a promising initiative. People saw a French-U.S. initiative to stabilize Lebanon, get a government in place that is able to negotiate and address the economic issues. As in Iran today, the big demand is for a government of independents who are experts in their own areas and can really hit the ground running.

Wright: Are these new actors, the new civil society, going to make a difference? Or is it just another round? We see what is commonly thought of as the Arab Spring 2.0, protests in Lebanon and Iraq and Algeria and Sudan. Both Sam Huntington and Alvin Toffler talked about the three waves of democracy. Is this the second wave in the Arab world? Is this generation going to make a difference?

Yahya: This generation can make a difference. But they need the space. I've seen kids on the streets since 2015 with the "You Stink" movements. They're tenacious. They're politically mature, far more mature than their parents' generation. They know what they want, and they're going after it. The demonstrations in Lebanon in 2019 showed that there is a large cross-section of the population, not just kids, but different generations who don't want to have anything to do with their [traditional] political and sectarian leadership.

Today, the protests happened within communities, not simply across communities. Today, people have a sense that there is a move on the streets that is horizontal and that crosses different groups, identities, everything. And then there are the vertical cleavages by a political class that is so reactionary that holds the levers of power. And that has brought the country to bring it to its knees, politically and economically.

How much leverage will these kids have, no matter how well organized they are, if they're operating in a situation where Turkey is playing its game, the UAE is playing its game? The country is open season for anybody who wants to enter Lebanon. For quite some time, there was a firewall around the country. That firewall is now disintegrating by the maximum pressure campaign applied by the United States.

What I was trying to get at, with the French initiative, is right at the point when the government was about to be announced, the U.S. sanctions came out against [Parliamentary Speaker Nabih] Berri's closest associates. The U.S. could have waited a week. Now everybody's retreated. There is a more hardline approach on government formation. The country will not be able to stand on its feet until elections.

The international community has an obligation to try and stabilize [Lebanon] because they're involved in the region. Creating a firewall around Lebanon is important, unless we want one more completely collapsed state, which has a million refugees.

In terms of humanitarian aid, the country's broke. There is a need for humanitarian aid. But what can we do? This opens the door for the kinds of serious reforms that are desperately needed [and] that would undermine the entire political class. Part of the reason why these reforms have not happened is because we're asking these people, Hezbollah included, to commit political suicide. We are asking them to cut off the areas that they've been using for their own political gain.

The Syrian situation is very different. A lot of the younger generation out on the streets in 2011, 2012, 2013 are now operating in exile. Those that remained in Syria or those that remained in opposition-held territories in Syria have been targeted or they've turned towards humanitarian support. The question then is to what extent can the diaspora outside Syria play a role? But again, there needs to be some sort of political stability [first]. You're talking about an opposition that doesn't have guns, operating in a theater where everybody has a gun under the table.

Wright: Even though all Syrians like to say “Yes, I’m a Syrian,” they all define what it is to be a Syrian differently. I wonder whether Bashar al Assad is going to face even greater challenges post-conflict than he did during the war as people hold him to account and they find it very difficult to rebuild Syria, even to where it was in a sorry state before the uprising.

Having covered the Middle East for so long, I've been struck by the fact that there is usually some kind of ideology, be it Nasserism in Egypt, or the Baathism of Syria and Iraq, the Islamism of ISIS and the various Islamist political factions. There's traditionally been something out there that has defined what is the most energetic or dynamic political force in the region. You don't find either an identifiable leader or an identifiable ideology in the region today. Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has tried to provide that, using the resources of his state and the powers invested largely in his father to create a vision of the region that is Saudi-centric. But I'm wondering, for each of you, your reflections on the state of leadership and ideas moving forward in the world's most volatile region.

Dan, you also have a question from the audience: “Please explain why the two-state solution is still viable, and why isn't a one-state solution the viable alternative as Peter Beinart has argued?” For Vali, a question from the audience: “What would the U.S. and others have to do to get Iran to significantly reduce its malign activities in the region?”

Kurtzer: I used to say that the region had moved from Nasser to Nasrallah, from a leader who was kind of secular pan-Arab nationalism, to a kind of pan-Islam kind of nationalism. We're now in a post-Nasrallah identity crisis in the region, where there are centripetal forces at work driving states in so many different directions against the backdrop, or on the ruins of all of these other failed states--in Libya and Yemen and Syria, potentially increasingly in Lebanon--so that everybody is off on their own, without a unifying principle, either Arab or Muslim.

You don't even have what King Abdullah of Jordan called some years ago the Shia crescent, because the Shia crescent is also fragmented from where he defined it. I don't know what the answer is in terms of a region-wide ideology or idea. It's kind of a role in search of a hero. That leads to the question, “Are there any heroes in the Middle East?” The answer is no. It's a region that's devoid of the kind of thoughtful, forward-looking leadership that can free its own people from whatever morass they're in and see beyond their own borders. It just doesn't exist.

On the specific question, I would suggest thinking in terms of a Venn diagram. In one circle you have the idea of Israel as a democracy. In another circle, you have the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. Both of those ideas have been compromised in what's called a basic law, which is an Israeli constitutional law. And the third circle, you have the idea of “What do you do with the territories occupied since 1967?” If you draw that Venn diagram properly, nothing works except the two-state solution.

If you have “Israel is a democracy” and “holding onto all the territories,” it does become one state, but there's no support within Israel or the Palestinian community for a one-state outcome. You've got a very small minority. If you have “the Jewish state of territory” connection, you end up with a situation in which Palestinians would not be given equal rights, which means you don't have a democracy. So, you're left with a two-state solution. Every effort to try to find an alternative to the two-state solution has failed. There is no alternative to giving Palestinians an independent state of whatever size and whatever governance capabilities, sitting alongside Israel and developing a bilateral relationship with a neighbor.

Wright: The Middle East, sadly, is a microcosm of the broader world when it comes to the fact that we don't have that kind of leadership or cohesion. Even the Western alliance seems to be fraying, whether it's challenges to NATO, the Brexit moves within European Union, Trump's criticism of America's traditionally closest allies. And we don't have the kind of democracy promotion, that sense that “There's the one idea that all humanity wants.” Even if they do, we don't have the momentum, the direction, the leadership on that issue. So, the problems of the Middle East may reflect something that is much bigger. Vali, you're up next to answer the broad question and the specific.

Nasr: On the broad question, two quick observations. One is that there's a very interesting generational change, particularly among the leadership of the Persian Gulf monarchies. MBS [Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia] and MBZ [Mohammad bin Zayed of the UAE] represent very different approaches to priorities for their nations. They are not beholden to the old pan-Arab, pan-Islamic kinds of visions. They want a modernization vision. I think a historic parallel to them is the shah in Iran as a Westernizing modernizing force. Now, whether that sticks, whether that becomes the mantra, it would be interesting to watch.

More broadly, the politics of the region are now much more understandable to the outside. Islam or Arabism, Iranian nationalism--they're all in the background now. This is a realpolitik region engaged in a great power rivalry. These are the kinds of conflicts we are familiar with. It will help us solve these problems if we don't try to shrug off responsibility by saying we don't understand. This looks like Europe before World War I, or it looks like a scramble for Africa. This is a very familiar scene.

On the issue of Iran's proxy activity, start by asking, “Why is Iran doing this?” The prevalent answer is that it has imperial ambitions. But that doesn't necessarily track with the way in which at least it is seen within Iran. A lot of this has to do with Iran's security doctrines. To Iran, the proxies are a weapons system. They are an answer to Israel's superior air force. And Hezbollah is basically the way in which the Soviets wanted to put missiles in Cuba. It's a way of Iranians believe if it wasn't for Hezbollah's threat to Israel, Israel would be flying over Iran every week, and there would be no reaction. Iran's conventional military is nothing to write home about.

The nuclear deal was not going to solve the regional issues but was a good first step. If it had stuck, moved forward, it would have opened the door to having a broader conversation in the region. It's not going be easy, but right now, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran and UAE, are not even talking to each other. Right now, we're talking about a war with Iran within six months. That's not an environment in which Iran would actually give this up. And then when you sit at the table and say, OK, they agreed to come and talk about Hezbollah, about the Houthis, about Qatar, Hezbollah in Iraq. What is it that they're going to get for doing that? Are we just asking for surrender, or is this a negotiation in which there's a give-and-take? That’s a very hard thing. That really goes to Iran's threat perceptions in the region. And that has to be solved incrementally.

Yahya: In the region, we’re like much of the world in a post-ideological situation. I look at the younger generation across the region and it's not pan-Arabism nor Islamism that’s really attracting them, despite what we see about ISIS and other fundamentalist movements. It's more about rights. It's more about sets of principles. It's more about what gets us the kinds of countries we want.

If you look at all the Arab Spring demonstrations, from Sudan to Tunisia to Yemen to Lebanon to everywhere, what people were demanding was fundamental freedoms, social justice, the right to have a say in the way they are governed. These kind of thoughts, if you want sets of principles, are still very much pervasive today. The issue is how do you get them? And how do you get there? This is where we get into the weeds--the breakdown of the kind of silos, the identity politics. Take Iraq, for example. The big challenges today are within the Shia community. It’s different groups of Shia parties that are against each other, the same in Lebanon and the same across the region. So, it's no longer about silos or about the religious or ethnic identities. It's become much broader.

Finally, in terms of leadership and vision, there isn't a Gamal Abdel Nasser, nor is there a [Mahatma] Gandhi in this region today--someone who can command that support from the broad spectrum. But I don't know that there is a demand for something like this anymore, or that it's even possible. We're operating in a very different world -- much more fragmented, multipolar.

Wright: One of the most striking things about the issues in the Middle East is that we also see them writ large in the 21st century worldwide. Because of technology and education, access to information and awareness, everyone around the world is now aware of their rights. And they want more, whether it's part of the political pie or the economy, or a sense of participation in the social structure. The problem is that there is very little sense of the responsibility that goes along with rights and the kind of compromises that people have to make. They don't want to give up what they think is their piece of pie to share with others. Everyone wants a little bit bigger piece of it, economic or political or whatever, to ensure that the next guy isn’t going to beat them, given the tensions in the past.

Kurtzer: I want to leave you with two thoughts: What would happen if Arab leaders met and the summit reaffirmed the Arab Peace Initiative to replace the Trump initiative, and affirmed support for the Arab Human Development reports to fill in deficits of freedom, education and women's empowerment? Leadership, changes, big ideas.


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