U.S.-Iran tensions. Lebanon’s political dysfunction and physical destruction. The Israeli-Gulf rapprochement and the sidelining of the Palestinians. The endgame in Syria’s brutal civil war. Oh, and the possibility of an “October surprise” that could upend the U.S. presidential race.
You have to give the Wilson Center credit for not short-changing its audience when it comes to covering hot-button topics in a single webcast.
Then again, when it comes to the Middle East, there is no shortage of issues to talk about.
“Whither the Middle East: New Peace or More Conflict” touched on many of them, as four noted experts — Robin Wright, Daniel Kurtzer, Vali Nasr and Maha Yahya — surveyed the region’s litany of problems and the Trump administration’s role in them.
Kurtzer — a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt who has served under both Democratic and Republican administrations — didn’t mince words when he kicked off the discussion by calling the Middle East “largely dysfunctional.”
“It’s a place where state failure, weakness of regimes, governance crises and endemic problems that seem impervious to solutions abound.”
He offered his bleak assessment when asked about the recent deal that established diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (followed by Bahrain). The UAE became only the third Arab state to recognize Israel since Egypt did so 40 years ago.
The Trump administration has touted the Abraham Accords as a historic breakthrough, although others point out that the deal simply brings to light the backchannel ties between Israel and the UAE that had long been an open secret (for more on that, watch the Global 360 webcast on Israel and the Gulf monarchies here).
“The UAE and Bahrain decisions were long in the making,” said Kurtzer, who’s now with Princeton University. “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.”
The veteran diplomat added: “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.”
It also reflects an even more fundamental shift in the region’s dynamics whereby Iran has become enemy #1 for Israel, the Gulf monarchies (with the exception of Qatar) and the Trump White House. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are no longer the galvanizing force they once were among Arab leaders, although their plight continues to resonate among the Arab public, which is why Saudi Arabia — the custodian of Islam’s two holy mosques — has to tread carefully when it comes to recognizing Israel.
But even for the Saudis, the Palestinians are no longer the cause célèbre they once were.
Kurtzer did not hold back in criticizing what he believes is the Palestinians’ self-inflicted irrelevance.
“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,” he charged.
Kurtzer’s invective toward the Palestinian leadership, however, does not mean he approves of Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly the president’s much-hyped Mideast peace plan, which focuses largely on economic development — not sovereignty — for the Palestinians (who view it as so blatantly pro-Israel that they’ve dismissed it altogether).
Kurtzer said there will be no solution to the conflict “until there is a territorial component” to peace talks — and that won’t happen until the U.S. addresses Israeli settlements and “the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians.”
None of that is likely to happen, though, under President Trump or Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kurtzer slammed Trump for, among other things, giving Netanyahu whatever he wants, “cultivating the Saudis and other autocratic Arabs as reliable cash customers” and “pressuring Iran in the hope of regime change.”
Iran, of course, has been at the heart of Trump’s Mideast agenda. In some ways, it’s even been the exception of that agenda, which largely rests on extricating the U.S. from the “endless wars” of the Middle East and prodding allies like the Saudis to stop relying on American military might (at least in the form of U.S. boots on the ground, not necessarily U.S. weaponry).
While Trump has moved to distance the U.S. from the region — alarming the Saudis and Emiratis — his administration has been laser-focused on using all the tools at its disposal, short of military intervention, to bring Iran to its knees.
“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,” said Vali Nasr, who most recently served as dean of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“But at the same time, the United States escalating the way it’s doing with Iran is adding further fuel to the fire,” added Nasr, who was born in Iran and whose family fled the country amid the 1979 Revolution.
The president’s maximum pressure campaign began in earnest with his withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord that his predecessor negotiated to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was ostensibly designed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to tackle issues not covered by the agreement, including Iran’s ballistic missiles and its malign activity in the region.
But the nuclear agreement was never intended to resolve every disagreement with Iran. Rather, it was meant to extend the breakout time for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon — which by all accounts it did — and then be used as a vehicle to address other disputes.
To that end, critics of Trump’s withdrawal argue that it was a thinly veiled attempt to force the type of regime change that hawkish members of the administration such as former national security John Bolton have long sought.
Most recently, the administration further tightened the noose on Tehran after an embarrassing defeat at the U.N. Security Council, which rejected Trump’s proposal to indefinitely extend an arms embargo on Iran. In response, the U.S. activated the snapback mechanism in the nuclear accord to reinstate international sanctions on Iran.
But the other JCPOA signatories dismissed Trump’s move, arguing that the U.S. cannot selectively impose parts of a deal it abandoned.
Regardless, Nasr argues that for all the pressure Trump has heaped on the Islamic republic — from crippling sanctions to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force — the mullahs in Tehran aren’t going anywhere, while the U.S. “is going to run out of breath pretty soon.”
“[Iran] 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,” Nasr said, noting that “Iranians, by virtue of the experience of the last 40 years, have learned how to suffer.”
In addition to empowering Iran’s hardliners, Nasr argues that Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord will make Iranians reluctant to return to the negotiating table even if Joe Biden becomes president because they won’t trust the U.S. to keep its word.
Yet there’s an even more immediate concern between now and Election Day: an “October surprise” attack on Iran.
Most experts discount the possibility of a wag-the-dog scenario because Trump has essentially built his presidency — and popularity — on getting America out of wars, not in them.
But Kurtzer argues that an October surprise is not out of the question for three reasons.
One, Trump’s advisors have consistently warned him that a conflict with Iran would not involve dropping a few bombs; it would be a long, drawn-out military campaign.
But Kurtzer points out that Trump “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.”
Two, the coronavirus pandemic, the battle for the Supreme Court and the economy have become the signature issues leading up to the election. If Trump’s poll numbers dip in critical swing states, Kurtzer muses whether the president would be “desperate” enough to launch an attack on a foreign adversary to divert attention from his handling of domestic issues.
Third, he cites the Israeli wildcard. “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 [nuclear] breakout,” which would compel the Israelis to act to prevent Iran from developing a bomb.
“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,” Kurtzer said.
Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, says a more likely scenario not only for Iran, but also for Syria and Lebanon, is continued inertia, which in some ways could be just as catastrophic as an open conflict.
That’s especially true in Lebanon, where Yahya predicts “the worst is yet to come.”
She called the massive Aug. 4 explosion of improperly stored ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut “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,” said Yahya, who was in Beirut at the time of the blast, which killed nearly 200 people and leveled parts of the capital.
Yet even in the face of a national disaster, economic collapse and violent upheaval, Lebanon’s squabbling political factions still have not come together to form a functioning government.
In the meantime, Yahya contends that “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.”
She argues that the U.S. should instead provide humanitarian relief to the Lebanese people and support the French-led effort to stabilize the country.
Yahya also says that given the inextricable link between Syria and Lebanon — which is home to the largest number of Syrian refugees per-capita than any other nation in the world — American involvement in shaping a post-war settlement in Syria will be essential to Lebanon’s fate.
“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 election.”
Yet Yahya and others who hope that a Biden presidency might mean a stronger U.S. presence in Syria could be sorely disappointed.
For one thing, some experts argue that Syria is not in America’s national security interests and therefore not worth American blood and treasure, a lesson Washington should have learned after the Iraq debacle.
And while Biden is more establishment than isolationist, he’s not an avid supporter of large-scale military interventions. It was Biden, after all, who tried to dissuade President Obama from sending a surge of troops to Afghanistan in 2009.
A Biden presidency would likely reverse some of Trump’s policies, such as repairing relations with allies like the European Union and cracking down on authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But Trump’s America First approach to the world isn’t going away any time soon.
The growing American backlash to globalization and the post-World War II multilateral system — which saw the United States as a guarantor of global peace — predates Trump. In fact, it helped propel him to office.
And it’s likely to stick around even if Trump doesn’t.
That means other world leaders will need to step up to the plate to address problems in their own backyards.
But Kurtzer — who was posted to Cairo in 1981 when visionary Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated — doesn’t see that happening in the Middle East. Rather, he sees a fragmented landscape where the only unifying principle is that everyone is out for themselves.
“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,” he said.
Journalist Robin Wright, who moderated the Woodrow Wilson discussion, sees this dog-eat-dog mentality as part of a larger trend. “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,” she said. “So, the problems of the Middle East may reflect something that is much bigger.”