The following is an unedited transcript of the seventy-sixth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on April 23, 2014, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, with Ford M. Fraker moderating and Thomas R. Mattair as the discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
FORD M. FRAKER, President, Middle East Policy Council; Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
So good morning, everyone. I think we’re going to start now. (Pause.) Again, good morning. My name is Ford Fraker, and I’m president of the Middle East Policy Council. And on behalf of the council I’d like to welcome all of you here to the council’s – and I have to get this number right – I think it’s 76th conference on Capitol Hill. We’re delighted to have you here, and we’re also very pleased to welcome the viewers in Europe and the Middle East who are watching live streaming on their computers. We have an exciting program this morning and I’m eager to get to it, but first would like to say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council.
The council’s objective is to be an important voice in the Middle East policy debates here in Washington. And we do this by trying to present the various issues in a fair and balanced manner, and we’re looking to reach out to decision-makers, influencers, the media, and students, as well as future influencers, decision-makers and media people.
The council has three principal activities, and I just want to cover them briefly. The first is, we produce a quarterly journal called Middle East Policy, and this is the most widely cited and quoted reference on Capitol Hill for Middle East policy issues. We know it’s read at the highest levels of government, in the White House, Departments of State, Departments of Defense, the agency, et cetera, and on Capitol Hill. And if you’re not a subscriber to Middle East Policy, I would urge you all to go online and become subscribers.
The second thing we do are these conferences. We do four conferences a year, and we try and reach out to congressmen, senators, their staffers, the media, people like yourselves, et cetera, as part of this effort to be relevant and, as I said, an important voice in Middle East policy debates. And thirdly, we have an educational outreach program where we provide course content to high school and college teachers teaching Middle East courses.
And finally, I would point you to our website, which is full of good information on the Middle East and where a number of the articles that appear in Middle East Policy are also published.
So with that, let’s begin today, and our topic is: U.S. commitments to Gulf Arab states; are they adequate enough? We have an excellent panel today, experts with deep knowledge and understanding of the region, and in the case of two individuals, Mike Gfoeller and Mark Kimmitt, two people who have very strong on-the-ground operational experience in the region, and two individuals that I’ve had the privilege of working with personally when I was ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
So the way this will work is that each panelist will stand up and speak for about 15 minutes. At the end of this there’ll be questions from all of you. I’ll be the moderator for the day. My colleague Tom Mattair, who’s the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council, will organize the questions and answers.
So with that, I’d like to call the first speaker, who will be Colin Kahl, and I’ll briefly introduce Colin. I would urge all of you to look at the back of the programs, because everyone’s in-depth detailed bio is there for you to read. But Colin is the associate professor at Georgetown University. He’s a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for A New American Security. He’s the former deputy chief of mission – sorry, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. So if I could ask Colin to come up – thank you.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
And could I ask – as we go along, if you have questions, would you write them down and pass them up to the front so that we don’t do that process at the very end of the meeting? Thank you.
COLIN KAHL, Associate Professor, Georgetown University; Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program, Center for a New American Security; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East
So my remarks, or at least the outline of them, are written on my iPad, so don’t think I’m checking my email or Twitter account while I – (laughter) – I mean, I may do that, too, but mostly I’ll be referencing my remarks.
Well, thank you for inviting me to speak to you all. Thanks to you all for showing up. I know that there’s a lot of competing events on these types of topics, and so I think we all appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedules to be with us.
I thought that I would focus my remarks on Gulf anxieties as it relates to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but specifically focus on Gulf anxieties as it relates to U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran, which is very much a hot topic.
Well, let me take a step back and say that I think that there are some deep structural sources of anxiety that have created some tensions in the relationship between the United States and our closest partners in the Gulf, and let me just highlight a few of them. I think that there is a widespread perception in the Gulf region that the United States is simply politically exhausted with the – with the Middle East as a whole, and with the Gulf in particular, after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think they see the U.S. drawdown from Iraq, they see the imminent drawdown from Afghanistan, and they wonder when the United States will start to draw down its 35,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and others who are, you know, every day on mission in the Gulf region.
I think they also looked at the domestic political conversation that we had when it looked like President Obama might strike Syria’s chemical weapons facilities and other military targets back in August and saw how much political reluctance there was on Capitol Hill to authorize such a strike, and among the American public in general. I spoke with a number of offices in both the House and Senate who were saying that the calls were coming in a-thousand-to-three against taking even very limited military action.
So I think that there’s just a general sense in the Gulf that the United States is politically exhausted and is on the precipice of perhaps a military drawdown from the Gulf region as it exits Afghanistan, and that it’s unwilling to deploy military force and has limited appetite for military force in this part of the world. And the Syria piece of that is obviously quite important.
I think there may also be some broader sense that the United States is in relative economic decline. I say relative because the U.S. economy is in much better shape than it was a few years ago, and I think the Obama administration gets a lot of credit for that. But there’s a general sense that other nations are rising fast and furious, especially countries in Asia that have increasingly close relationships with Middle Eastern states; China and India come to mind, but other important countries like Turkey would fall in that category.
I think more particularly, they look at the United States in the context of all of the debates about the sequester and long-term budget issues and see that in the aftermath of more than a decade of war and the economic crisis, the United States is in a period of fiscal overstretch and that’s likely also to put – place burdens on the U.S. defense budget over the next decade or two, and that will have implications for the U.S. security commitment in the region.
And then last but not least, they see talk of, you know, North American energy independence. And while we’re – it’s a global market, so the U.S. economy will be just as dependent and vulnerable to price shocks that emanate from conflicts and crises in the Middle East even if we didn’t import a single drop of oil from that part of the world – we don’t actually import very much from there currently – nevertheless, I think there’s a notion that psychologically, the perception of energy independence in the United States in coming years might create a distance between the United States and the Gulf.
So I think all of these are kind of deeply structural sources of anxiety, but I think there are also some particularly acute policy disagreements, and I would focus on two – well, I’ll mention two and focus on one. The first is, obviously a lot of the conservative monarchies in the Gulf, and I would say in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had a lot of disagreements with how the United States reacted to the Arab Spring at the outset. They were very concerned about the U.S. dumping Mubarak about a week and a half into the uprising there. They were equally concerned about what they saw as overeager engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi won the presidential election there.
I think, by the way, that the Obama administration’s policies on both Mubarak and Morsi were completely justifiable, but from the perception of the Gulf states, this was a sea change. It spoke to whether the United States could be counted on as a reliable ally in the event that their own regimes faced crisis, and it also suggested that the United States may be willing to engage populist Sunni Islamist groups which the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Kuwaitis and others see as quite threatening to their domestic legitimacy and, potentially, their political stability.
So there’s a lot of concerns with that, and that is really manifested in disagreements over Egypt, principally, but also Bahrain, where there has been significant disagreements on pushing reform. But among the most acute policy differences has been the U.S. approach towards Iran, and that – and that policy disagreement has probably become more profound since the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president last summer.
Let me – so let me highlight a number of anxieties that I think that the Gulf states have about U.S.-Iran policy. And by the way, I’m going to use the term Gulf states, but as you all know, the GCC states are not a unified bloc. They don’t have a unified vision of the region. They don’t have a unified geopolitical orientation. I think you can broadly map them across a kind of hawk-dove continuum. I would put the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Bahrainis clearly in the hawk camp; I would put the Qataris and the Omanis more in the dove camp, and they tend to have a more accommodationist policy towards Iran, and then I would put Kuwait somewhere in the middle, although trending toward the Saudi and Emirati side of the equation.
So really, I’m talking about the hawkish Gulf states and their concerns about U.S. policy towards Iran. The more hawkish Gulf states are worried, I think, that in the aftermath of the Geneva agreement struck between the United states and its P-5 plus one allies and partners and Iran last November, which began to be implemented this January, that in the aftermath of the Joint Plan of Action on the nuclear front, that there will be a final nuclear deal sometime in the next year or so that will be a bad deal.
And by “bad,” I think they mean that it will leave Iran with too much latent nuclear capability. The Joint Plan of Action recognizes that at the end of the day, there is likely to be a limited Iranian enrichment program, even in the context of a comprehensive nuclear accord that leaves the Iranians with a latent capability that, in the future, could manifest itself in a uranium pathway, potentially to nuclear weapons.
That said, there is no – in my view, there is no alternative to that. The Iranians have invested at least $100 billion in their nuclear program. They’ve invested even more of the regime’s domestic legitimacy. There is not an Iran expert on planet Earth – not one – that believes that Iran would completely abandon its enrichment program. They would risk a war and more crippling sanctions with – from the United States to defend what they see as their inalienable rights on this issue. So I think the Obama administration’s policy on this is completely realistic and pragmatic, but it’s – has spooked the Gulfies a bit on this issue.
I think they’re also worried that the – that a comprehensive nuclear deal will basically break Iran’s international economic isolation. After all, if Iran is going to make concessions that roll back its nuclear program, it’s only going to do that in response to a set of incentives that deconstructs, at least, a significant portion of the financial and energy sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
And so I think they worry about a rise in Iranian power and a latent nuclear capability still lingering there in the background. I also think that they worry about the fact that U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran are just that: They are nuclear negotiations that have kind of hermetically sealed off Iran’s other behavior in the region. And this – for years, the more hawkish Gulf states have, you know, been at least as worried about Iran’s support for militancy and terrorism and domestic subversion, especially in countries with either significant Shi’ite minority populations, or in the case of Bahrain, a Shi’ite majority population, and these anxieties have become even more acute in the aftermath of the Arab Spring as all these regimes have seen how fragile and brittle some of the governments in the region have turned out to be.
So they – you know, for a long time, the Gulf states were actually worried that the United States might strike a grand bargain with Iran, and now they’re worried, actually, that it would trade – you know, they would deal with both regional issues and nuclear issues together, and now I think their fear is, in some ways, the opposite, that the United States is only focused on the nuclear issue and not focused on these destabilizing activities.
I think they also fear that if the United States strikes a deal that resolves our two most vital interests as it relates to Iran – the threat of them becoming a nuclear-armed state in the near term and the threat of a direct military confrontation over their nuclear program in the near term – which is what a comprehensive deal would accomplish – those two things – that it will reduce the urgency of U.S. interests in the Gulf region, and, in the context of a clear desire by the Obama administration to pivot or rebalance to Asia, in the context of Russia’s resurgence as a security challenge in Europe and the demands that that might pull – that this might incentivize the United States to get out of the way and to draw down some of its forces from the Gulf and shift them either to Asia or potentially even to Europe.
And so, in essence, the United States will leave Iran’s destabilizing activities intact, and yet, reduce its presence or not be as concerned with Iran’s activities in the aftermath of a deal. And so, effectively, a deal could ratify Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in this part of the world. That is what I think is the – is the – is the ultimate challenge.
Let me say two things, though. The alternative is what? I mean, I would ask my friends in the Gulf, the alternative is what? The alternative is the collapse of diplomacy? Well, if there’s a collapse of diplomacy – especially if it’s a collapse of diplomacy that is seen to emerge from the fact that the United States has taken an intransigent and an unreasonable position, Iran will be able to play the victim and break out of sanctions anyway.
If there is the collapse of diplomacy on the nuclear front, their nuclear program will be unconstrained. So if you think a latent nuclear capability is bad, wait until Iran emerges as an actual nuclear-armed state, and your anxieties will be much higher. And if a nuclear-armed Iran doesn’t emerge because either Israel or the United States takes preventive military action, well, the Gulf states are also really worried about that, because they understand that neither Israel nor the United States is going to go all the way to Tehran and change the regime, and so, in essence, a military conflict in that part of the world would stir up a hornet’s nest with all sorts of collateral effects directly on Gulf security.
So as bad as they – as bad as they feel about the current Obama policy towards Iran, it’s like that old adage, right? It’s the worst thing, except for every other thing. Every other thing for them is worse for their interests as it relates to the Iranian nuclear issue, which brings me to my concluding point, which is, that argument needs to be made more effectively, that we don’t live in a perfect world, and we don’t live in a world where our interests and our views are identical to those of our partners in the Gulf.
But broadly, our pursuit of our interests is not incompatible with the security interests of our partners in the Gulf. I think that President Obama, at the U.N. General Assembly, and Secretary Hagel at the Manama Dialogue outlined the fact that we – the United States will continue to have enduring interests in the Middle East that, frankly, are almost all about the Gulf – defending partners against external aggression, countering violent extremists and terrorist networks that threaten the United States and our allies, countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ensuring the free flow of energy resources.
Well, if that’s not about the Gulf, I don’t know what is. And nothing about striking a deal or not striking a deal with Iran will change that fundamental equation. So I think that more can be communicated in that context, and one concrete suggestion would be, I think, to elevate and institutionalize the level of strategic dialogue. You may notice that two, three times a year, a very senior Israeli delegation comes to the United States; the national security adviser of Israel sits down with the national security adviser of the United States, and they have their entire teams there, and they have one or two days of intensive discussions on every issue that we agree on and disagree on in the Middle East. And I think that we need to do more of that kind of institutionalized, high-level strategic dialogue directly between the White House and the Saudis, the Emiratis and some others to – if – at least to identify those places where we can agree and work forward together and those places where we can agree to disagree but not let it rupture the strategic partnership.
The last point I would say is that I think that we need to find a better common agenda. I think that the Obama administration has been playing a lot of defense on the – in terms of the anxieties of the Gulf states – that is, trying to assure them that, hey, we’re not really leaving, and yes, we still are with you, even if you don’t like everything we’re doing. I think there needs to be a more positive agenda. What is the positive stability agenda in Egypt? OK, maybe we don’t agree on the democratic transition of Muslim Brotherhood portions, but we should agree on the economic stabilization portion, right? So what’s the common agenda there? What’s the common agenda to coordinate our activities on Syria, if you’re not happy with the fact that we’re not going to majorly militarily intervene in the Syria conflict? What’s the common agenda there?
And frankly, even in the aftermath of a deal with Iran, if it emerges, on the nuclear issue, what’s our common agenda vis-à-vis Iran? Should the P-5 plus one context – one idea that’s floating around, for example, is that the P-5 plus one should survive a nuclear deal with Iran and should actually transition to a P-5 plus one plus GCC conversation with Iran on broader regional issues. It’s an interesting idea; I think we should talk about that.
So there may – and I think that more efforts should be made to move forward on the regional security architecture in the Gulf. Secretary Hagel announced at Manama that there would be a defense ministerial within six months. We’re probably not going to hit a defense ministerial within six months, but I think the plan is to have one this year. I think it’s great to have those engagements at the highest level. I’ve already said that. But I think that there’s a lot more that can be done to strengthen integrative air and missile defense and maritime security and critical infrastructure protection, and frankly, a lot of it is our own bureaucratic challenges here, which we can talk about, if you’re interested, in the question and answer.
So I think that there’s a lot of things that we can do to assuage or to tamp down Gulf anxieties. And if we do that, then I anticipate that the United States will have a strong partnership with the Gulf states for many years to come. Thanks a lot. (Applause.)
AMB. FRAKER: Thanks, Colin. Our next speaker is Michael Gfoeller. Mike’s an adviser to the Chertoff Group, former head, Middle East North Africa Affairs, international government relations for Exxon-Mobil and former deputy chief of mission and charges d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. As I said earlier, I had the pleasure of working with Mike, who was my deputy chief of mission when I was ambassador in Riyadh. We worked on a number of very important programs, one of which brought us in close contact with Mark Kimmitt. And what I’ve said about both these individuals is, not only do you want to have both of them on your team, you actually want them fighting in your corner.
So with that, Mike Gfoeller.
MICHAEL GFOELLER, Adviser, Chertoff Group; Former head, Middle East & North African Affairs, International Government Relations, ExxonMobil; Former Deputy Chief of Mission & Chargé d'Affaires, U.S. Embassy, Riyadh
Ambassador Fraker, thanks for that very kind introduction. And I’d like to thank Dr. Kahl for some really interesting remarks. I agree with much of his analysis. I’m going to try and take that analysis a bit further in some ways, and I’d like to focus on what I hear from my Saudi interlocutors and my interlocutors in other Gulf countries when I travel in the region. I lived there for most of the last 10 years, up until about a year ago, and I’ve been back around 10 times since then. So I have some idea, to the extent that a Westerner can really figure these things out, about what current thinking is in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf on these big security issues.
So starting with Iran like Dr. Kahl did, I – when I talk to my Saudi friends, away from the press – with all due respect to the press here – in private, what I pick up from – what I describe as the intelligentsia – the foreign policy thinking class in Saudi Arabia is a sense that Saudi and U.S. policy on Iran have diverged fundamentally. The Saudis have largely dismissed the P-5 plus one negotiations as a diplomatic exercise that will do nothing to really limit, at the end of the day, Iran’s inevitable progress toward the status of a nuclear weapons state. That’s certainly how they look at it in private.
And so what they’re attempting to do right now is ask themselves, to what extent will they be able to rely on their traditional alliance with the United States in a Gulf security environment in which Iran, sometime in the near to medium term, becomes a nuclear weapons state? So they’re looking at alternatives, in other words, to the traditional alliance (with ?) the United States. Not that they wish to abandon that alliance or relationship, but they need to supplement it. They need to reinforce it by developing other relationships. Hence, as it was explained to me at any rate, the importance of Crown Prince Salman’s recent trips to Pakistan, India and even Japan – these are designed to show outside powers, including the United States, that the Saudis have other options in terms of alliances with great powers.
In particular, with regard to Pakistan, what the Saudis are doing is developing further, I think, a military and a security relationship which is decades old. Many people don’t know this, but, you know, the second largest foreign embassy in the Saudi capital of Riyadh is the embassy of Pakistan, and the Saudi embassy is the largest embassy in Islamabad, so the relationship there is often not on the front pages of the newspapers, but it’s extremely robust.
After Salman’s visit, there was a lot of discussion in the press and privately a well about intensified defense cooperation. The Saudis are talking about buying fighter aircraft tanks, troop transports and this sort of thing from the Pakistanis and, you know, stepping up military exercises and military cooperation across the board. So I think it’s safe to assume that the Saudi strategic thinkers are looking at Pakistan playing a major role in Saudi Arabia’s regional security strategy going forward.
I think Salman’s visit to China was equally important. The coverage of that visit focused, of course, on economic cooperation, which is huge. China is rapidly becoming the Kingdom’s premiere customer for energy exports. But there is a military relationship which goes back at least as far as Saudi Arabia’s purchase of “East Wind” ballistic missiles in the 1980s, and from time-to-time, of course, reports have surfaced that these discussions are continuing, so I think this – you know, in parallel with the economic relationship between Beijing and Riyadh, we’re going to see an increasingly important military relationship as well.
The Kingdom is, I hate to say, drifting away from the U.S. And this drift is powered largely by really serious policy differences over Syria and Iran. The most frequently discussed topic, at least with visitors like me in Riyadh these days, is Syria. There is a profound sense of disappointment, not to say anger, over what the Saudis view as a missed opportunity to deal with the Assad regime in August of 2013, when the United States came very close to launching a military operation – a bombing campaign and then opted to pivot toward a deal, initially with Russia, on chemical weapons disposal instead.
This deal was widely welcomed in the West, but in the Gulf, it seemed as a major missed opportunity, which was followed by a revival of Bashar al-Assad’s military fortunes. Saudis now think – at least my contacts believe that the likelihood of Assad actually achieving something that might be reasonably described as victory in the Syrian civil war is growing. Nobody thinks he’ll be able to retake all of pre-civil-war Syria, but there’s an increasing likelihood he’ll take Aleppo. And if he can take Aleppo and hold everything from Aleppo to Damascus, then he can hang onto a very serious rump Syria, if you will – a section of Syrian territory with the bulk of the population and most of the economic potential.
And there were concerns in the Gulf about what Assad would do after such a limited victory. Would he attempt to take revenge against countries in the region that have backed the opposition against him? Some people think he would, and so there – you know, are real concerns there. Another concern, of course, is the large number of Saudi young men who have gone to wage jihad against the Assad regime and who are now coming back to the Kingdom. Many people see this as a repeat of what happened 20 years ago when Saudi veterans of the Jihad in Afghanistan came home, and we had the al-Qaida intifada, which I had the pleasure of living through in Riyadh from 2004 to 2008. That was a very serious threat to the dynasty – more serious, I think, than is commonly recognized outside the Kingdom because of the limited press coverage of those events.
So the Saudis have enforced tough new laws against Saudi jihadists returning from Syria. Minimum prison sentences of 20 years – longer if the individual in question had military experience. So there is obviously a concern that Saudi enlisted people and officers might, for religious convictions, go to Syria and use their military expertise there.
The Syria issue has also caused major changes in the power lineup inside the dynasty. Recently, Prince Bandar, who was a fixture of Saudi foreign policy for decades and ambassador to this country for 22 years was recently relieved of all of his official duties, and the word in Riyadh was this was because of disappointment at the highest level with the results of his leadership of Saudi policy in Syria.
The Saudi commitment to Syria is an issue, and the commitment to stay involved in the civil war, in the long term, I think is best illustrated by the fact that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the very formidable Saudi minister of interior, who led the dynasty’s counterinsurgency campaign against al-Qaida 10 years ago, is now in charge of the Syria dossier. Just like Ambassador Fraker, I know Prince Mohammad fairly well, and I must say, if anybody knows how to fight al-Qaida, he does, and he is widely given credit for the recent royal decrees which declared both branches of al-Qaida in Syria – Jabhat al-Nusra and – (inaudible) – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant terrorist organization, along with the Muslim Brotherhood. So we’re seeing a real intensification of the counterterrorism campaign and the counter – at this point – Islamist campaign in Saudi Arabia. And this is both happening within the kingdom and in the immediate region, in particular in Syria.
One of the honest things I’m hearing – and I say this as a guy who’s only spent the last 40 years studying the Middle East. I guess I had nothing else better to do, but for the last 40 years I’ve been obsessed with the Middle East and its politics, and I never thought I would live to see the day when influential Saudi thinkers would make positive comments to me about Israel and its foreign policy, but the perception in Riyadh that Tehran – particularly if Iran succeeds in becoming a nuclear weapons state – poses the greatest threat to the kingdom’s future security is causing many of my friends in Saudi Arabia to comment that there’s an awful lot in common between the Israeli strategic position on the one hand and that of Saudi Arabia, at least insofar as the Iranian threat is concerned. I never thought I would hear that.
And there are numerous rumors in the press and in policy-making circles of unpublicized contacts between the kingdom and the UAE on the one hand, and Israel on the other. This is really unprecedented in my experience. I just draw attention to it because I think it’s an indication of how much the political dialogue in the region is changing. The Saudi declaration of war last month against the Muslim Brotherhood in a royal decree which banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is of fundamental importance for the political environment in the kingdom and in the Gulf, but it also creates, I think, a political access around which a much stronger relationship between Riyadh and Cairo will grow.
The Saudis, as Dr. Kahl mentioned, were disappointed with the U.S. attitude towards Egypt in the early days of the Arab Spring. And I might add to his very true statement that they were very disappointed with the reduction in U.S. military assistance following the change of government in Egypt on June 30th last year. So at this point the Saudis have declared that whatever reductions the United States makes in military assistance to Egypt they will make up. And what I’ve heard in private was that they are prepared to spend up to $10 billion financing Egyptian weapons purchases from non-U.S. sources, primarily from Russia. And the Russians are exploiting this opportunity. There’s a Russian military delegation in Cairo today, and today’s Israeli Times reports that they’re discussing, inter alia, the sale of MI-35 helicopters and MIG-35 fighter aircraft.
The previous discussion was about the MIG-29. And not to get into military details here, but the MIG-29 is a very formidable aircraft. I had some experience with them in my Cold War days. And it’s the rough equivalent of the F-16, as you all know. The MIG-35 is the latest generation of Russian fighter aircraft and has never been sold outside Russia. So at this point, if that sale takes place it will really – I think mark the return of Russian-Egypt relations to the highest level they’ve been at since President Sadat expelled Soviet advisors from Egypt back in ’72.
And what’s interesting is that this restoration of Russian-Egypt relations is largely being financed by the Wahhabi monarchy. Again, after 40 years of studying the Middle East I thought I’d live a long time before I saw that, but it’s actually taking place as we sit here. I think we’re looking at the possible emergence of an anti-Brotherhood alliance between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, certainly Bahrain and perhaps Jordan as well. That’s a new block in the region that I think will be important going forward.
Have I run over my time yet?
AMB. FRAKER: No, no. You’ve got a few more minutes.
AMB. GFOELLER: OK.
AMB. FRAKER: I’ll jerk you down when it’s finished.
AMB. GFOELLER: Thank you, sir. OK. I think that’s extremely important. I was recently in Amman and was struck by the intensity of the Saudi-Jordanian relationship. I mean, it is kind of counterintuitive that the Kingdom of Jordan, with 6 million people, would be able to have endured three years of Arab Spring unrest on its borders and the arrival of what may be as many as a million refugees from Syria without suffering serious political instability.
I think one of the reasons they’ve been able to handle it, aside from very good governance on the part of the king of – Jordanian King Abdullah, is a massive Saudi lifeline that’s been coming their way financially in security terms. When you talk to people in Riyadh about it, they see Amman and Manama as part of the kingdom’s outer circle of defense. So defending the stability of Jordan and Bahrain is seen as integral to defending the security and instability of the peninsula. And I think the perception of U.S. withdrawal from the region that Dr. Kahl very astutely mentioned is driving this. The Saudis think that to a certain extent they have to step into Uncle Sam’s shoes, which are a bit too large for them but they’re trying to do it anyway.
A final couple of points on Saudi dynastic politics. There have been some really big events recently. King Abdullah is widely, you know, supported, extraordinarily popular, even loved, I think you can say, by his population, but people are of course quite aware that he can no longer stand for long periods of time. He can only walk with a cane. He suffered serious health problems in recent years going through a couple of major surgeries. So the anticipation is that his reign, which began in 2005, may not last much longer.
And so the Allegiance Commission – which is the remarkable name for the committee of 35 senior Saudi princes that select the king and the crown prince from among their membership normally – this commission recently, for the first time, designated not the crown prince but the crown prince in waiting, and that is Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who is the half-brother of the king and the youngest son of King Abdulaziz, who is still active in politics. He’s really a youngster by Saudi standards. He’s in his mid-60s, and therefore could conceivably serve as king for 20 years.
So when King Abdullah passes away, or when King – Crown Prince Salman passes away, because you really can’t tell which will happen first, Prince Muqrin will become crown prince, and thereby I think will – he is an extraordinarily competent leader, governor of two Saudi provinces, Hail and Mecca. He’s got a military background, served as head of Saudi external intelligence. He’s got wide experience dealing with American officials. He is a pretty good pair of hands to leave the dynasty in and he could conceivably rule for 15 to 20 years.
AMB. FRAKER: And he speaks English.
AMB. GFOELLER: And he speaks fluent English, yes – the first of them all who can talk to U.S. officials without an interpreter.
So I think what this dynastic shift indicates is that Abdullah, despite his poor health, is still capable of putting his stamp on the big decisions the dynasty takes, even down to the last days. I think it indicates that – I think it also opens the way for Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the minister of interior, to enter the royal succession at some point, probably after Muqrin has become king. And if this were to happen, it would mean that we here in Washington would have really reasonable interlocutors to deal with in Riyadh at the highest level for the foreseeable future. And I have more to say but I probably ran out the clock.
AMB. FRAKER: You have.
AMB. GFOELLER: Thank you very much. (Applause.)
AMB. FRAKER: Thank you, Mike.
Next is Mark Katz. Mark is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University; former Soviet affairs analyst, U.S. Department of State; and former visiting scholar, Middle East Policy Council.
MARK N. KATZ, Professor of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University; Former Soviet Affairs Analyst, U.S. Department of State; Former Visiting Scholar, Middle East Policy Council
Thank you very much. It’s good to be here. And I see that I’m the backward one. I used – (chuckles) – printed notes instead of – instead of an iPad or something like that. I don’t know how to operate one of those.
Anyway, it’s a great pleasure to be here. And if I had to title my presentation I’d call it “the Gulf between the U.S. and the Gulf.” The U.S. has security cooperation agreements with all six GCC countries. The U.S. signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1951; a Facilities Access Agreement with Oman in 1980, which has been renewed four times; Defense Cooperation Agreements with Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar in 1991, in the wake of the first Gulf War. It also has a Bilateral Defense Pact with the United Arab Emirates, signed in 1994. In 2001, the U.S. designated Bahrain as a major non-NATO ally.
Now, precisely what these commitments entail, though, is difficult to tell since the texts of most of these agreements are classified. The 1951 Saudi-U.S. Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement is publicly available, and it pertains mainly to U.S. arms sales to the kingdom as well as military training for those arms. Press accounts of the other agreements suggest that they mainly concern U.S. access to military facilities in these countries, as well as prepositioning of U.S. military equipment in them. They do not appear to contain an explicit mutual defense commitment such as that contained in Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty.
But while the nature of the U.S. commitment to the security of the Arab Gulf States has never been explicit, what all it involved and didn’t involve, in my view, has been implicit. The U.S. undertook to protect the Gulf monarchies against external aggression, not so much though against internal opposition. And this was because this was to be dealt with by each of the Gulf States themselves or by Saudi Arabia in case one of the smaller states could not do it on its own.
And while it’s impossible to prove causation for why something did not happen in international relations, some combination of the U.S. commitment to defend the Gulf from external aggression, combined with the strength of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, appear to have played a significant factor in protecting the Gulf States from the Soviet Union and its radical allies during the Cold War, and from Iran after its 1979 revolution.
Indeed, U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf States, among others, played an instrumental role in thwarting Soviet efforts to pacify Afghanistan in the 1980s, Gorbachev’s decision to withdraw from that country and, arguably, in the demise of the Soviet empire. In the one dramatic case when deterrence did not work – the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – the U.S.-led coalition of many countries, including others in the Gulf, moved quickly to expel Saddam’s forces and restore the Kuwaiti monarchy.
Further, the importance of the American commitment to the security of the Gulf appeared quite clear in the past. With the Gulf countries possessing about 40 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and with America and its Western allies so highly dependent on oil imports, the Western interest in cooperative governments in control of these countries – especially when hostile governments had come to power in other oil-rich nations including Iran, Iraq and Libya – this was obvious. Similarly, Western dependence on their oil served the interests of the rich but highly vulnerable Gulf States by providing America and the West with a strong incentive to protect them.
But things have changed in more recent years. While all of the Gulf States have cooperated with the U.S. in the war on terror, or whatever we’re calling it these days, some of them have also had disagreements with the U.S., and also with one another. Saudi Arabia did not support the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq that began in 2003, but both Kuwait and Qatar played important roles in supporting it. Despite having opposed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, among others, is concerned that the U.S. withdrawal from that country has allowed Iran the opportunity to gain influence there that it would not have had if the U.S. had not intervened in the first place.
With the onset of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has disagreed both with the U.S. and with Qatar on policy toward Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though, have both bitterly – been bitterly disappointed in the Obama administration’s unwillingness to support the Syrian opposition’s efforts to overthrow the Assad regime and thus eliminate an Iranian ally in the region. Further, the Obama administration’s efforts to achieve rapprochement with Iran is seen as highly misguided by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, except for Oman, which has actually helped facilitate the effort.
Larger trends are also at work that serve to raise questions about the U.S. commitment in the Gulf. One, as we’ve heard earlier, is the shale revolution in North America, lessening the dependence of America and potentially some of its allies on oil from the Gulf. Another is the growth in domestic demand for oil in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States that, if projections about this are accurate, will lead to sharply reduced oil exports from the region.
Together, these trends give rise to the perception that the Gulf is simply not as vital for the West economically as it once was. Further, the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and unwillingness to get involved in Syria, combined with its pivot toward Asia in response to a rising China, and more recently the focus on the crisis over Ukraine all signal that Washington is not as focused on the Gulf as it has been in the past.
Finally, while the Gulf countries, except for Bahrain, largely avoided the tumult of the Arab Spring, the combination of growing youthful populations, lack of economic opportunities for them, aging leaders and unclear succession plans in some of them could give rise to the sort of chronic unrest in other Gulf States that Bahrain has been experiencing over the past three years. And if this does occur and it cannot be contained by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, it is doubtful that the U.S. will be willing or able to protect them from their internal opponents.
So what all does this mean for the future of the American commitment to Gulf security? Now, this is something that can’t be foretold with any certainty but I’d like to offer some observations on this question.
First, while the U.S. may no longer see the Gulf as being as vitally important as it once did, it still does see it as important, and we shouldn’t forget that. And the U.S. is likely to remain willing and able to defend the Gulf against external threats. Gulf States, then, should not succumb to fears that an improved U.S.-Iranian relationship means Washington would be willing to countenance an Iranian threat to the Gulf.
Indeed, hostile Iranian behavior toward the Gulf would lead to the collapse of Iranian-American rapprochement just as interventions by the Soviets and their allies in the third world in the 1970s led to the end of the Nixon-era Soviet-American détente, which also had focused on the nuclear issue. By contrast, an improved Iranian-American relationship could instead provide Tehran with greater incentive to behave with restraint toward the Gulf.
If the U.S. is unlikely to be willing or able to defend Gulf States against internal threats, then the Gulf States would do well to make sure either that these do not arise or that they can be contained internally through economic and political reform efforts that engage their citizens, co-opt their moderate opponents, marginalize their jihadist ones, and elicit American and Western support.
While it’s understandable and even desirable for the Gulf States to look for allies other than the U.S., they need to be aware of the limits to the utility of doing so. Countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan may be willing but not necessarily able to play this role. These are poor countries. They could serve as supplements to but not substitutes for American security assistance.
Farther afield, Europe is simply not willing to substitute for the U.S. in the Gulf. And even if Russia and China were willing, it’s doubtful that they have the capacity to do this effectively. Further, the price they would want the Gulf to pay for their services, whether in terms of concessionary petroleum pricing, access to Gulf markets, investment commitments from the Gulf and general deference, would not be cheap. Further – I think this is also highly important – it’s highly doubtful that either Russia or China would be willing to forego their close, ongoing relations with either Israel or Iran for the sake of the Gulf.
American and Western leaders need to keep firmly in mind that even if the Gulf is going to be less important to them as a petroleum supplier, it matters a great deal whether there are governments there that are friendly or unfriendly, for even if the West buys less of their petroleum, China, India and others in Asia will continue to do so, and the West is much better off if actors in the Gulf continue to be willing to invest in and trade with the West, or whether they do this more with Asia.
Finally, it matters very much whether the government of the country containing Islam’s two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, is willing to cooperate with America and the West or is hostile to them. A hostile post-Saudi Arabia could contribute to a Muslim world becoming far more hostile to the West than ever before. Whether we never buy a single drop of oil from them again, this is something that America and the West do not wish to see come about, and it should be worth it to them to spend the time and attention necessary to make sure that it doesn’t come about.
In the end, the U.S.-Gulf security relationship depends far less on what is written in those secret or even not-so-secret agreements and how American and Gulf leaders perceive their interests vis-à-vis each other going forward. While it may be tempting to give in to isolationism on one side or to self-defeating pessimism on the other, it is in troubled times in particular that clarity of thinking about this relationship is needed on both sides. Thank you. (Applause.)
AMB. FRAKER: Thank you, Mark.
Finally, we have Mark Kimmitt. Mark is a Middle East security and defense advisor; brigadier general, U.S. Army, retired; former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs; former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. Mark.
MARK T. KIMMIT, Middle East Security and Defense Adviser Brigadier General, U.S. Army (retired); Former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East
Ford, Tom, like the other participants here, thanks very much for putting this together today. And I can normally sense when a crowd is ready to start asking questions, so I’ll try to get through these comments quite briefly. I particularly appreciate the last briefing because I think to a great extent it demonstrates – although the talk was somewhat diplomatic – about how severe the crisis is between the Gulf allies and their perception of American willingness to stay within the Gulf and also the American willingness to uphold what they believe are long-standing commitments.
In 2010, before Jim Mattis took over as the CENTCOM commander, he brought together a small group of us to talk about what he was going to be experiencing as the next CENTCOM commander. And he asked our views. My view was simple: His major job was going to be to convince the Middle East allies in general, and the Gulf Arabs in particular, that America is a reliable ally. Up to that point, they’d seen a change in administration. They’d seen a significant change in our policy towards the Middle East. And to many, that was disturbing. To most of the countries in the Gulf, it was alarming.
And I think it’s always important to remember that, despite what some would say – despite the current politics – America still has vital national interests in the Middle East. This is a transactional relationship. This is a beneficial relationship for both sides. We have this standard, as not only Dr. Kahl said earlier, but President Obama reiterated at the UNGA speech, we want to protect our friends. We want to defend our allies. We want to deter our enemies. We want to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We want to fight terrorism forward. We want to maintain access to strategic materials in the region.
Those are our vital national interests. And the concerns that the Gulf Arabs have is that while we have those as vital national interests, we’re unwilling to take the steps necessary to defend and to uphold those national interests in that relationship that we’ve had for so many years. And quite frankly, I take Dr. Kahl’s point about political exhaustion, but political exhaustion cannot be seen as an excuse for doing nothing. We saw that at the Munich Conference in 1939. And we saw the consequences of political exhaustion, which led us into the greatest war that this country has ever fought.
You know, we can put great stock in the press releases that continue to re-emphasize the basing of American troops, ships, aircraft in the region, the 35,000 troops that are there every day that are conducting strategic and security cooperation activities with the allies. I personally am not worried about the capability that we have on the ground. I worry about our willingness to use it.
I think that it’s not only been demonstrated since 2009 when the Mubarak regime was overturned. We saw that more recently in Syria. And we’re seeing it today in Ukraine – the unwillingness of the American government, and this administration in particular, to go through the effort that to use those American forces in a way –whether it’s a pre-emptive deployment, whether it’s strategic communications, whether its security cooperation – I think, to the Gulf allies, is of great concern.
Now, I don’t necessarily – and I’m not up here to blame President Obama or his administration. But I think just as we are now re-examining Lyndon Johnson’s legacy of 50 years ago, I think 50 years from now the same will be done of President Obama. President Johnson despised the war that John Kennedy had brought him into in Vietnam because President Johnson’s agenda was the great society – Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. He wanted to focus on domestic policy issues, not foreign policy issues.
That is often lost because some of the greatest foreign policy successes of the 20th century emerged after the Johnson administration. Some were mentioned here today – the vacuum that was created when the Egyptians expelled the Soviets in ’72 from Egypt was filled by the United States. And those two long-standing enemies – Egypt and Israel – at least had a referee between them. And that became the United States. And we now see what – the benefit that has been over the past decades. Madrid, Oslo – some of the greatest agreements during that time were done by very aggressive and assertive foreign policy.
Didn’t necessarily take American troops; didn’t necessarily take American economics, American trade. But it did take an American commitment. And what I’m concerned about is that this president may be so concerned by his domestic legacy – whether it’s shaded as rebuild America, nation-building at home, political exhaustion, war-weariness. I think our Gulf allies are starting to worry about an America and how far America will go to defend those interests that Mark Katz and Dr. Kahl so laid out.
And why is that? It is not beyond the ken of this president to do foreign policy right. In many ways, if you take a look at the decisions he made leading up the West Point speech in 2009 which led to the Afghan surge, that was a classic example of great foreign policy. Foreign policy remains the province of the executive branch, not the legislative branch. He made the decision, he did the analysis, he went out and made the decision and then took it upon himself to convince the American people that that is the right answer to the question. He understood he had to convince the American people of the rightness of his action.
Since then, what has happened? Personally, I view the problem that the four national security leaders that we have in this country – President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry – all came from the legislative branch of the government. They are ones who have listened for years and years, have kept their ears to the ground and have listened to polls, because that’s how one gets re-elected. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, to truly lead you can’t keep your ear to the ground.
It is an unnatural position that the British people will not accept to try to lead from the front with your ear to the ground. And my personal view is that’s what’s happened too frequently and too often in the foreign policy. And the effect is being seen most specifically inside the Gulf. So overall the record of this administration and its support for the Middle East is in pretty bad shape. And it’s not simply my job to stand up here and complain about it but, perhaps, to offer some prescription.
Now, as Ford knows, I spent as much time in the Middle East as anyone in this room. I spend most of my time there now doing business. And quite frankly, doing foreign policy in the Middle East and doing business in the Middle East isn’t that much different. It is a unique area of the world to work in and there are some rules on how to do it right. The first rule is you’ve got to show up. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to have the patience, persistence and the presence with your Gulf allies to convince them that you’re really serious about making the commitments and honoring those commitments.
I remember in 2004 as an officer working in Central Command an unnamed ambassador in the region, who is not sitting next to me right here – (laughter) – said he really admired the way that CENTCOM engaged in the Middle East. He said: You have a general officer in this country once a month talking to the leadership, engaging the leadership, working with the leadership. He says, I’ve been in this job now for three years and I have yet to see an assistant secretary of state or higher come to this country. And that was indicative and very, very telling for me about foreign policy, particularly in that region. You’ve got to show up.
Decisions aren’t necessarily made at the NSC. Decisions aren’t necessarily made inside the White House Situation Room. They may be made, but they’ve got to be honored and they’ve got to be upheld by engagement inside the region. Ambassadors are great. They’re there every day. But they need the support of their assistant secretaries, their deputy assistant secretaries and key leaders so that when that country understands when the vice president shows up or the president shows up that America is putting the most important person they have in that region and that that truly is an indicator that we’re there to make a difference.
The second thing is, if one takes – the second point I would make is if one takes a look at the record over the past few years, there’s not a lot of reason for the Gulf Arabs and the Gulf allies to be happy. I mean, let’s just go down the countries and I think we can all ponder where we are now versus where we were simply a decade or two decades ago. Palestine, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen – in every one of those countries they have seen basically a retrenchment and reversal in terms of their internal situation.
And what they get in response from the United States, aside from Yemen, is little more than rhetorical sport. You can’t just show up, you’ve got to be committed. You’ve got to put not only boots on the ground; you’ve got to put bankers on the ground. And you’ve got to put aid emissaries on the ground as well. And my personal view is that we’re not doing that enough to the satisfaction of the Gulf Arabs and the Gulf allies, which is why they remain concerned about if we, in fact, are truly committed to the strategic arrangement that we have set up and Dr. Katz articulated, for so many years. I agree that strategic dialogue in Washington, D.C. four times a year is an element of that, but it certainly has to be more than that.
The third thing is I think that we’ve got to get out of the business of painting everything as you have two options – doing nothing and bringing in the 82nd Airborne Division. That’s what we’ve done in Syria. We’ve said we’ll do nothing, which is a policy, or we’ll go full-stroke by parachuting in America’s Airborne Division. Policy nuances are important. Policy differences are important. But there have got to be policy options that thread that needle between doing nothing and doing too much.
I think we see that right now in Syria where nothing is happening. Our do-nothing policy is getting us what we expected. It is creating a petri dish of more al-Qaida fighters every day. And while I am glad to see that the administration is pushing more towards providing the vetted rebels with more capacity in the forms of anti-tank weapons and perhaps even MANPADS, one wonders if it’s not too little too late.
So let me finish up at that point because I think many of the issues that I was going to bring up have already been brought up and we can save them, perhaps, for questions and answers. But I simply think that we’ve got to remember that we have a mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves and the Gulf region. It is in our vital national interest for the United States to stay occupied, to stay engaged and stay committed to the region.
The region doesn’t believe our commitment. They don’t believe our rhetoric. And I think it’s – will remain the job of this and future administrations to try to reverse those mistakes that have been made over the last couple of administrations, one of which I participated in as well. So I’ll leave everything else for the question and answer period. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. (Applause.)
AMB. FRAKER: Thank you, Mark. One of the advantages of being a moderator at one of these conferences is that I get to listen to what everybody’s had to say and then make a few – a few comments. So I’m going to exercise that privilege at the moment.
A lot of the discussion this morning has been about military commitments in the region. And I wanted to make a few comments about the U.S. military commitment to Saudi Arabia. When I arrived as Ambassador in 2007, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where the U.S. government has two separate military training missions, each one run by a U.S. general – one to train the national guard the other to train the ministry of defense.
With the help of my very capable DCM Mike Gfoeller and Mark Kimmitt, we also stood up a third military training mission in Saudi Arabia so that by the time I left in 2009 I had five U.S. generals in country under my authority, a thousand U.S. soldiers carrying out training capabilities, in a country where the U.S. government has no formal military presence. So that’s one comment.
And the other was when Mark Kimmitt talked about showing up being a critical part of being successful in the Middle East, whether you’re doing politics or business – and I know in talking to both Mike and Mark earlier they’ve made trips to the region almost every month. And I know in my own case over the last five years, I’ve made over 50 trips, so that works out to about once a month being in the region. I think we all draw the line at being out there in July and August – (laughter) – but nobody else is out there in July and August either.
The other thing I would comment about is the nature of U.S. engagement in the region. And this is a comment, again, that Mark made about everyone measuring U.S. commitment to the region over the last few years on the basis of how many boots are on the ground in the region. And that’s not traditionally the measure. The measure really is how much behind the scenes ongoing diplomatic engagement and involvement there is.
And John Kerry made this point in Davos when he was being challenged about the U.S. retreating from the region. He made this point specifically. He said: Don’t measure it on the – on the basis of boots on the ground. We’re back pre-invasion of Iraq to a – to an engagement that is a lot more diplomatic, a lot more – a lot more private, very much behind the scenes, which is traditionally how we’ve been engaged in the Middle East. And our engagement at that level is as intense, if not more intense these days, than ever before.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to Tom to take the questions.
THOMAS MATTAIR: Well, I do have two questions of my own before I come to these. As we said in our last conference, when we travel to the region we hear a lot of concern about how American policy in the region –
Q: Excuse me, is your microphone on?
DR. MATTAIR: OK. So the first question really deals with something every speaker mentioned, which is the concern in these states that the United States is not a reliable partner, in part because it’s making foreign policy mistakes in the region that impact them – the mistake of invading Iraq, the instability that ensued and ensues today, the unwillingness to intervene in Syria. So – and the list goes on.
But I would ask, what would the panelists have us do differently that would alleviate some of these Gulf concerns? What specific steps should we be taking in Egypt and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan? And then I’ll come to the question of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear issue.
AMB. GFOELLER: Well, again – am I audible? I hope so. When I travel to the region and talk to my friends, in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular, and they voice their frustrations with the nuclear negotiation process with Iran, what they home in on as the first issue is a complaint about the lack of consultation. So they’ll say, look, you’ve basically been conducting this negotiation with very little – almost no input from us. And yet, we are going to be the front line facing what we think will one day be a nuclear Iran.
They also point out that our positions have changed dramatically over time in the negotiation with Iran from a very clear position six, seven years ago regarding the impossibility of Iran having any enrichment infrastructure to a position today, judging by what appears in the press regarding these very closely held negotiations, which seems to indicate a willingness for Iran to end up with – in possession of a very large uranium enrichment infrastructure – 10(,000), 20,000 centrifuges, who knows what the ultimate number will be? But it’ll be a big number.
And so I think as these red lines slip by each other, perhaps we forget about the previous ones. But you know, for Saudi princes who’ve been monitoring this closely for decades, they have long memories and they remember that today’s red line is not 2005’s red line. And so there is this sense, you know, given the political culture of the region, which is based on continual consultation and consensus building, that when we don’t consult with them on an issue of vital importance to them it’s because we don’t take their national security seriously and our commitment to their security is not a serious one. So I think that is one of the first things we might remedy.
GEN. KIMMITT: So if we’re going to focus on the specific issue that worried the Gulf Arabs every day, which is that of Iran, and we accept Dr. Kahl’s view that instead of the negotiation principles that had us demanding that Iran gives up its enrichment capability to now accepting a limited enrichment capability, which does have a finite breakout period, I would not believe as a Gulf Arab that the United States was serious under that regime unless two things.
Number one, they expressly adopted a containment policy since obviously an elimination policy has been foregone. And the second, a mutual defense treaty that suggests, like we do in NATO, an attack on one would be an attack on all, that the use of a nuclear weapon by the Iranians would be tantamount to an attack on the United States and we would use appropriate methods to respond to that.
Without that – and I know it’s radical and I know it’s probably unattainable in this political environment – my view would be that the Gulf Arabs would not take us seriously at an end of the nuclear negotiations that leaves Iran with any resident and remaining enrichment capability with a finite breakout period to take that to a nuclear weapon.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I should – that was my second question, because Dr. Kahl has written about that, so would you like to talk about the additional commitments the United States should make if – in particular if our negotiations don’t succeed and Iran does develop capabilities that are – that are of concern?
DR. KAHL: Well, first I’d just like to correct the record on a couple of things that were just said that are just wrong. One is that the – the notion that the United States would accept a deal that would leave Iran with tens of thousands of centrifuges is crazy talk. There’s no way that the Obama administration would accept a deal that leaves Iran with tens of thousands of centrifuges. The question becomes whether leaving Iran with, say, 2(,000) to 6,000 centrifuges, which would leave them with a breakout cushion of six to 12 months – is that acceptable or not? And the question has to be acceptable compared to what?
So let’s imagine compared to zero, which is the preference of some. Well, Iran installed 3,000 centrifuges each year in 2007 and 2008, the end of the Bush administration, when they were demanding zero enrichment. Getting them down to zero centrifuges doesn’t dismantle their program; it adds 12 to 18 months to the breakout timeline. So let’s – I mean, Mark Kimmitt talked about avoiding these straw-man arguments of it’s either all or nothing, right? We should avoid the mythology that dismantling Iran’s enrichment capabilities ends their latent capability. It will not. The U.S. intelligence community, since at least 2007, has publicly testified that they have the – all the knowledge and technological and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons if they want to do that. You could raze every installation to the ground, you could destroy every centrifuge; they would still have that capability. It’s only a question of how much cushion and time you build in.
Now, there can be a legitimate debate about whether six to 12 months versus 18 to 24 months is worth fighting a war with Iran. And we can have that debate. But let’s avoid these mythological alternatives.
The other thing is we had a zero-enrichment policy the entire Bush administration and the first half of the Obama administration, and do you know what we got? Nineteen thousand Iranian centrifuges, all right? The Bush administration had an opportunity in 2003 to 2005 to capitalize on the initial success in Iraq to accept a very small Iranian enrichment program, and they weren’t willing to do it. And the consequence is we have a very large Iranian enrichment program. So thank you for that.
So I’m just – I’m a little frustrated by this notion that if only the right people were in charge with big ideas that were – have already been tried, we would have solved this issue, which brings me, actually, to a little bit of frustration I sometimes have with our friends in the Gulf. When I travel to the region, repeatedly – I took 80 trips to the region in three years as the DASD for the Middle East – I heard the following arguments from Gulf friends as it relates to Iran: You can’t engage Iran; that’s naïve; they take 80 years to weave a carpet; they will string these talks along until they have a nuclear bomb; they will sucker you; you will have accepted a bad deal, and we will pay the consequences, so no diplomacy and engagement with Iran; don’t do that. This was before this – then they would say, don’t sanction Iran either, though, because that’ll hurt our economies because we trade with Iran, and so don’t do that; don’t sanction Iran, and don’t start a war with Iran either because if you start a war with Iran, it will just stir up the hornet’s nest, and that’ll blow back on Gulf security.
And so then you would ask, well, then what do you want us to do? Fix it. Fix the problem. OK, so look, I think that there’s a lot to be made about more strategic dialogue, but at the end of the day, the president of the United States, whoever that is, has to defend American interests and American vital interests in the best way that he or she can.
I think this president’s doing a much better job in this part of the world, in the – in the Gulf, than others would think so. After all, this is a president who regularly engages in military force in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and has put in place not just – not just kept in place tens of thousands of troops in the Persian Gulf, but also put in place all the capabilities necessary for any contingency with Iran. And those were decision that went to the highest level of the – on the president’s desk, and he signed those orders to put those troops in the field so that when he said all options are on the table as it relates with Iran, the options were actually on the table, all right?
So I just think that part of this is, look, the Gulf states are not happy that the United States didn’t intervene in Syria. They’re not. But I think the solution therefore is not for us to send in the 82nd Airborne; it’s to do basically what it looks like we’re doing, which is to increase our support to the moderate at – according to press reports, through operations in Jordan, to coordinate better with the Saudis, the Qataris and others and to capitalize on the transition from Bandar to MBN in Saudi Arabia to focus on some of the foreign fighter blowback and jihadi challenges, and then we’re going to have to agree to disagree on whether the United States is going to go all in on Syria.
DR. MATTAIR: You wanted to respond?
GEN. KIMMITT: Yeah, I just want to make a couple of points. First of all, on the issue of all or nothing with regards to the centrifuges, that’s the Obama position in the negotiations, as expressed by Bill Burns as recently as September of last year when he stood up and said, we have three conditions for the negotiations: one, elimination of the highly enriched uranium centrifuges; number two, reduction in their HEU stock out of the country; number three, the elimination of a second source plutonium program through Arak.
So I’m not arguing that point; I’m just saying that the administration has now, number one, seemed to have changed their own position; number two, I’m not advocating for a zero base; what I am advocating is that if we can’t get that – and it certainly seems like we’re not going to get that – then we ought to open our minds up to the notion of containment, which this administration has said we’re not going to consider. And number three, I always know that the arguments sort of go down to the lowest common denominator when we get back to the “blame Bush for everything” argument. So I’ll just leave it at that.
DR. MATTAIR: But Dr. Kahl, again, you have written about what the United States ought to do, to deter, to defend, to contain, if Iran does in fact move toward a nuclear weapon. And so my question would be what should we do? What have you advocated? And how likely is it that the administration would take your prescriptions?
DR. KAHL: You know, I think in part the contain versus noncontainment – I think we’re going to end up containing Iran no matter what the outcome is. I mean, that’s the – at the end of – we – first of all, we’ve been containing Iran since the revolution. We had a dual containment policy while Saddam Hussein was alive. We now have a single containment policy. In a world where there’s a nuclear deal, Iran will still be a powerful country with – engaged in a lot of destabilizing activities, sitting astride the Strait of Hormuz, where 20 percent of the world’s oil flows, and we will be containing, conventionally and through the use of irregular operations, Iran’s ambitions in the region.
In a world where diplomacy fails and there is a military confrontation, we will also have to contain Iran. Why? Because a military strike on Iran’s programs, whether it’s either Israel or the United States, sets their program back a few years, less than a diplomatic deal in most regards, and would require containment on the back end to prevent Iran from reconstituting its program, just like it wasn’t the 1991 war with Saddam that ended his WMD program, nor the 2003 war that overthrew his regime; it was the 10 years of sanctions and no-fly zones and intrusive inspections, that is, containment of Saddam in the intervening period that ended his program. The same type of containment architecture would be required for Iran.
And if, heaven forbid, they acquire a nuclear weapon despite our prevention efforts, then yeah, we should be planning for that too. And one of the things that I advocated for inside the administration was not to rule anything out, but actually to – I mean, my personal view is we should plan for the things we don’t want to happen, not just the things that we want to happen.
Now, I understand, by the way – I mean, I take Mark’s point that, you know, maybe we should be thinking about that and planning for that, but can you imagine what the Gulf reaction would have been to a Washington Post headline that said “Obama administration has secret plan to plan for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran”? It would have fed all the anxieties that all the speakers are talking about today. So I understand why the president ruled that out of bounds.
But I just think this, are we going to do containment or not – we’re going to contain Iran, one way or another, and it would be easier to contain an Iran in the aftermath of a diplomatic deal than it would be in the aftermath of either a military confrontation with them or the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.
GEN. KIMMITT: And for that, I agree with Dr. Kahl completely. It just differs with the current policy of this administration.
DR. MATTAIR: Mark Katz?
DR. KATZ: Right, I just want to – do we really assume that Iran would be more irrational than anyone else that was – why would a – even a nuclear Iran behave differently than other nuclear powers? And I’ve been to Iran a couple of times and maintain dialogue with Iranian scholars, and they think of this, you know, very, very differently. You know, after you first talk about it – (inaudible) – of course, they spend their first hour denying that they want nuclear weapons, but then they talk about how, well, if they did have nuclear weapons, what would they actually do with them? And it doesn’t seem to be – in other words, they live in a fairly bad neighborhood. They – our withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan is not just causing problems for the Gulf; it causes problems for them that they’re faced with instability on their borders.
They are worried about Pakistan. And I think for most Iranians I know is that what mystifies them is that you worry about the potential of a nuclear Iran, but you’re not worried about the reality of a nuclear Pakistan, a far more unstable country?
And so I think that what they’ve also noticed is that countries that possess nuclear weapons are dealt with rather more respectfully by the United States than countries without nuclear weapons. And so in other words, they see these in highly defensive terms. And the idea that they would actually use them, that they would actually use them to attack or threaten the Gulf states – is this – is this realistic at all? They know what would – is it – what would happen. In other words, they can use them and just get away with it? I don’t think so, and I don’t think they think so either.
So I think that it’s – and this is, I think, one of the important reasons for pursuing this dialogue with the Iranians. In fact, they are looking for a way to break out of their isolation, that it’s not simply the U.S. and its allies that they have a problem with; they’re also frightened of radical Islamism in the region; they’re also nervous about a rising China; they don’t like Russia believe me – they don’t like Russia at all – and that essentially, they have a tremendous number of security challenges. The only country with any potential for helping them out is the United States. And so I think that this is – that they are in fact trying to reach out to us.
And also, I think just one – say one thing. Traveling abroad has taught me something, and that is that international relations for other countries is mainly about a competition with one another for influence here in Washington, D.C., that this is in fact what their international relations are about. Now, I remember how before the Iranian revolution, when the U.S. had good relations with Israel, with the Gulf states and with Iran, and how this was uncomfortable for all three parties, and that many in the Gulf don’t want to see that happen again. But I just think that it’s better than the alternative, that surely an Iran that has a stake in continued good relations with the U.S. also has a stake in not damaging them, in other words, that there are real consequences for damaging them.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, we have – Mark wants to respond, and then I’m going to go to some really good questions from the audience.
GEN. KIMMITT: I just want to make one comment. I agree with you completely, Dr. Katz, that the Iranians would never have an intention to use the nuclear weapons militarily. But one of the reasons, as Dr. Kahl brought out, we have such a great relationship in the Gulf is our presence, and I acknowledge that. I would like to see us do more with it, but – neither here nor there. But we do have presence, and as long as we have presence, we have influence.
It is different when Tehran shows up in Manama and says, why don’t we be friendly neighbors, if they are conventional weapon – they only have conventional weapons. When Manama can look out and see the Fifth Fleet in the ports, they can look at Iran and say, go away; we know you have hegemonic aspirations in the reason, but we’ve got the Americans here. It is another thing when the Iranians show up as a nuclear power and say, we should have peace among our friends; we should have peace among our brothers, and in fact, the irritant in this region is simply the Americans, so as a sign of brotherly aspirations, why don’t you just ask the Americans to leave; this would be – and let’s just declare this an American-free zone so we as fellow Muslims can work together and work out our differences.
It’s hard to believe that there would be a difference in the reaction of any country’s leadership if it’s conventionally armed Iran versus a nuclear-armed Iran. And what I worry about most is their ability to wrap their nuclear capability into a diplomatic policy of nuclear coercion in the Gulf.
DR. MATTAIR: And so do the Gulf Arabs.
GEN. KIMMITT: And so do the Gulf Arabs.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, so here are some questions. A few people are really asking about the Obama visit, the Obama meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the meaning of that and the outcome of that. Will our strategic dialogue and strategic cooperation will be greater now? Was it a successful meeting? I notice – I think, Mark, you’re the one that mentioned the fact that there are anti-tank – American-made anti-tank weapons in Syria now that just appeared in the last week or so. Is that an outcome of the meeting?
So how good was the meeting, from the Gulf Arab point of view? Mike?
AMB. FRAKER: So I’m sure Mike and I will have various – or varying views of this. I know I heard from individuals who were at the meetings about the meeting. All of these people have a stake in the meeting. So the reports back at that level were that it was an effective meeting; it went some way to resetting the levels of confidence and belief in the – in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. I know on the Saudi side, there was a great effort to try and build this particular meeting as a meeting between the king and the president where they would talk about the future of the relationship. One individual described it that he hoped it would be a Roosevelt-Abdulaziz moment as an attempt to reset the relationship.
And on that basis, the focus was not supposed to be on the nitty-gritty details of what was happening in Iran and what was happening in Syria, but more a general restatement of U.S. commitments in the region. I’m told that our U.S. president looked at the king and said, Your Majesty, like every single president since Roosevelt, I am here to categorically state our unwavering commitment to the defense and security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Now, these are statements we’ve all heard over the years, but it’s important when these statements are made eyeball to eyeball in Riyadh.
For people who were expecting breakthrough moments on some of the big issues like Iran and Syria, that clearly did not happen. I’m told that there was no discussion about Egypt. So I think by any measure, it was a sort of moderate success in terms of re-establishing the belief one another has in the relationship but still leaves a lot of question marks and gaps over actually on the ground what’s going to happen moving forward on the issues.
I think for sure the replacement of Bandar with MBN being responsible for the Syria portfolio, because of the level of confidence and belief that everybody on the U.S. side has in Muhammad bin Nayef’s capabilities, that will make for much closer cooperation on the Syria effort, and I think we’re beginning to see that.
AMB. GFOELLER: I would agree with what Ambassador Fraker said. I’m hearing similar things. My friends are basically telling me that there was a clear restatement of the position of either side. There wasn’t a whole lot of movement toward closing some of the gaps, particularly on big issues like Iran, but there was another issue that did come up, and it’s a symbolic issue, but also a substantive one, and that is that the king, whose reign may not last much longer, unfortunately, given his state of health, took the opportunity to introduce the president to the future lineup in terms of people who hold power at the top of the Saudi state structure. So Crown Prince Salman was there, and so, very significantly, was Prince Muqrin, who was declared the crown prince in waiting just a few days after the meeting. So in a way, it’s not quite a passing of the torch, but something like that, with King Abdullah showing the U.S. side, these are the people who are going to be running things and speaking with you after I’m gone.
AMB. FRAKER: On that point, I sat with Prince Muqrin last week and had the chance to ask him how he thought the meeting had gone with the president, and he looked at me and wryly smiled and said, well, we did have the opportunity to clarify a number of important issues. (Laughter.) And that’s all he said.
DR. MATTAIR: Colin, have you heard anything?
DR. KAHL: Nothing that diverges from that. I mean, I think – look, I think Mark made a good point earlier that it’s important to be there, and I think “be there” is about relationships. And so I think to the degree to which the president and the king could look each other in the eye and say they’re – you know, the relationship is strong even if we disagree on a host of issues, that’s what you need to do. I mean, I think we shouldn’t sugarcoat our differences, that we should have open, frank conversations, but we also shouldn’t obscure the fact that the areas where we have common interests and an incentive to cooperate outweigh those where we have disagreements.
And if, at the bottom – if at rock – I mean, I think that they’re moving closer together on Egypt, frankly, because I think the Obama administration is walking itself back on some of the Egypt stuff. I think that there is a common agenda to be had on economic stabilization in Egypt. And you know, I didn’t hear that it was a topic between Obama and the king either, but nevertheless, moving forward, this is – there should be more ability to work on Egypt.
And I mean, on Syria, I think you’re already seeing a – not a closing of the gap, but a narrowing of the gap, in part because the Saudis also recognize in the – in moving from Bandar to MBN that their policy in Syria hasn’t been perfect either and there are a lot of blowback risks to some of the ways in which Saudi has pursued its interests in Syria that they’re going to have to start to reckon with as these foreign fighters and jihadists come back to Syria – I mean come back to the kingdom.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, there were a number of questions about Bandar and Muhammad bin Nayef, and I think they’ve been addressed.
There’s another question here about the importance of intelligence cooperation. Could the panelists address the relationship we have with them in sharing intelligence and how it’s being put into effect in places like Syria and Afghanistan and what more we could do in those areas and if it’s going to become a more important part of the relationship as defense budgets are cut in the future?
AMB. FRAKER: So just an initial comment on that, as a result of my time as ambassador and working on these issues in Saudi Arabia. My friends at the Ministry of Interior will make comments to me like, you know, don’t worry about all this noise up here at the senior level on these political issues; down here, where we operate day to day in counterterrorism and intelligence exchanges, we are rock solid and even getting stronger. And I think that summarizes what the – what the relationship is in terms of intelligence exchanges. It got to the point that in 2008, Michael Hayden, the head of the CIA at that point, stood up and publicly stated that the intelligence relationship and the intelligence-sharing relationship with Saudi Arabia was the best relationship the United States had anywhere in the world, and we’d surpassed the relationship with the U.K. in terms of the exchange of raw data.
And that’s a pretty – that’s a pretty strong statement. And if anything, that relationship has gotten stronger, certainly within Saudi.
GEN. KIMMITT: Yeah, I think you can generalize that to the entire region. Whether in uniform, civilian clothes in the government or as a civilian now working in the region, the one complaint I’ve never heard is one about intelligence sharing, at least from the Americans providing intelligence to the region. I think we would prefer to get much more back from the regional actors, but America has been quite good about intelligence-sharing programs with these countries.
AMB. GFOELLER: Just to add, I mean, when I was working with Ambassador Fraker, the kingdom was without question the largest source of intelligence information we were – for us on al-Qaida issues. They don’t get much credit for that, of course. It’s not really publicly discussed. But the fact of the matters is that the information we received from them was of enormous value in targeting al-Qaida, both within the kingdom and regionally. It’s an incredibly vital portion of the relationship. And despite differences on Syria, I would only expect that to continue because it is a huge common interest that we have with the kingdom going forward.
DR. KAHL: Can I just say the one thing I would add is I think that’s particularly true in Yemen, where – I mean, where the – I mean, until recently, where the concern about the foreign fighter and al-Qaida element within Syria, I think, has risen up the ladder. But until recently, you know, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in many respects was seen as a more imminent and acute threat to the U.S. homeland than al-Qaida central in Pakistan, and the Saudis have been central in cooperating with us in providing intelligence in that domain.
And you know, look, I think that the Saudis see kind of three existential challenges in the region, OK? They see Iran and its activities. They see the Muslim Brotherhood as an entity, but also as a proxy for populist Sunni Islamist political organizations that could challenge the legitimacy of the monarchies. And then they see the al-Qaida problem. I think there’s no divergence on the al-Qaida problem, and I think that there’s a huge common interest between the United States and Saudi Arabia on the al-Qaida problem. It’s on the other two axes where we have more disagreement with how the Saudis see things.
DR. MATTAIR: Here’s a question that we might have asked earlier, and maybe Mark Katz could address – well, actually, maybe everybody could address this. I can recall being in Saudi Arabia a year or two ago, and one of the leaders said, we could work with Rafsanjani, and we could work with Khatami, and – but we can’t work with Ahmadinejad. Is there any feeling in these states that Rouhani is a different animal and that – and that there’s any potential for dealing with him more successfully?
AMB. FRAKER: Well, a number of people I talk to refer to Rouhani as a duplicitous snake – (laughter) – who, if you look into his background on the – and his career on the intelligence side and his boasts that – I think when he started negotiations with the IAEA on the enrichment discussions, there were, I don’t know, only a few centrifuges working, and when he’d finished the negotiations, there were 10 times that number working. So there’s enormous skepticism about his sincerity, and I think that clouds their ability to come to any sort of realistic judgment about whether or not he’s a reliable interlocutor.
DR. KAHL: One thing I would say on this is I think we have to be very cautious about talking about Iran as a unitary entity and whether the Saudis or anybody else can have relationships vis-à-vis Iran as a unitary entity. The reality is this: Iran is a complicated, factional political system. It’s not a democracy in the way that we think about it, but it is – it is – there’s a degree of elite competition and factional politics that matters to an incredible degree, and it matters very much who’s up and who’s down and who owns what portfolios and who – and who doesn’t.
And on the foreign policy issues, look, President Rouhani is the second most powerful person in the country, and Foreign Minister Zarif is the most powerful foreign minister Iran has had in a long time, but they own exactly one foreign policy issue at the moment, and that’s the nuclear file. Every other foreign policy issue, in the Middle East, at least, is owned by the IRGC Quds Force. And they’re not the same. Whatever one thinks of Rouhani – I mean, I don’t buy this snake, wolf in sheep’s clothing thing; I think he’s for real. He’s not a reformer, but he’s a for real pragmatist. But I know some people disagree. But whatever one thinks of him, the principlists and ultra-hardliners associated with elements of the IRGC, and especially the Quds Force, are a very different breed. And I think that the – many of the activities that Saudi Arabia is most concerned about in the region stem from that factional quadrant of the Iranian system.
And actually – this is actually one of the reasons why it’s not a good idea at the moment to fuse together the nuclear issue and the regional issues into one giant conversation, because that would be to bring in the IRGC into the conversation the United States is having with the more moderate camp with in Iran. Better to – and I think this picks up on something that Mark Katz mentioned, which is better to have – to try to seek agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue and pivot off of that to build momentum for the pragmatists and moderates within Iran’s own system so that you can generate – so that they own more of the files or have more leverage within their own system that we can then have conversations with and bring the Gulf states into those conversations as well.
I would not be surprised – look, think of all the things that are happening. The Saudis are engaging Israel, perhaps, behind the scenes. Well, who would have thought that? The Saudis are talking to the Chinese and the Russians, who are, by the way, closer to Iran and to Assad, suggesting that it’s not just their anger about our failure to get rid of Assad. The Saudis are making a whole bunch of realpolitik considerations. I think that as they move to try to tamp down the sectarian polarization and conflagration that is Syria that it would not surprise me that, you know, Rouhani visits the kingdom at some point and that there is a Rafsanjani-like rapprochement between the Saudis and the Iranians, not because they love each other, but because both sides may have an interest in de-escalation.
DR. KATZ: Could I just add one thing, and that is I agree completely that, you know, Iran is a highly, you know, variegated country, but even the IRGC, the Islamic Republican Guard Corps – (chuckles) – we have students at my university who are connected with this. Their families are involved in this. And they report that in fact, there is factionalization within it, that there was a tremendous degree of unhappiness with in the Revolutionary Guards with regard to Ahmadinejad. He was not their guy. He was a – he was – they regarded him as a complete screw-up, that they’re not necessarily the irrational revolutionary actors that they’re portrayed to be. They want to – what do they want, mainly? They want to stay in power. That’s what they want. And that entails a degree of pragmatism, it seems to me.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, there are – there are still a lot of questions here, and they touch on everything, so we’re jumping from topic to topic here. But here’s one thing we really haven’t discussed much. And Ambassador Fraker and I heard this in March. I think we expected to hear it when we were in the kingdom and other countries. I think we expected to hear about Syria. We expected to hear about Iran. We expected to hear about Egypt. But we didn’t expect to hear as much – but we didn’t expect to hear as much as we did about Iraq and the concern that these countries – not just Saudi Arabia, but Kuwait, the UAE – the concern that these countries have about the developments in Iraq, which is about to have parliamentary elections and which is engaged in a dispute with the Kurdish government about whether it can export oil through Turkey and which has continuing violence that is considered a threat by these – by these countries, particularly because the government is dominated by Shias who have a relationship with Iran.
So could any of the panelists talk about – explain that situation more fully or talk about what the United States could do to make that situation better?
GEN. KIMMITT: Well, I spend the majority of my time outside the U.S. inside of Iraq and stay very, very close to the Iraqi government. First of all, I think part of this is a perceptual problem. To suggest that the current Baghdad government is somehow aligned with Iran I think neglects the historical fact that they fought probably the bloodiest war in the two countries’ history against each other. Qom – the Qom school and the Najaf school of Shia Islam are very much at odds. I think we actually have an opportunity there with Maliki and a successor government, even if it is with Maliki, to not only improve the relationship considerably between the United States and Iraq, but also to improve the standing of Iraq within the GCC.
The fact is that without the United States taking a strong leadership role, Iraq will fall where Iraq wants to fall. I think we would all like to see it fall into the – into our, for lack of a better term, orbit, as opposed to an Iranian orbit. But with the failure of the SOFA negotiations in 2011, there is a significant sense within Iraq that America has abandoned them. Our military presence has gone from fairly robust to about 200 security assistance personnel who, for the most part, aren’t allowed to get out of the embassy. The amount of interface between the American embassy at other than the highest levels in normal Iraqi society is virtually nil. I would hope that not only throughout the election period, which is why I’m there – why I’m not there now until the elections are finished, I would like to see our ability to interface with the Iraqi society and actually pull them back into a stronger relationship would be something that I think would not only be helpful for the United States, but would be helpful for the region as well.
I’ve known for quite some time – I mean, I have been in other countries where they won’t refer to Maliki as the prime minister. They will refer to that Iranian up in Baghdad. And the fact remains that firewall, that informational and intellectual and diplomatic firewall between the GCC and Iraq, I think perpetuates this myth that somehow Iraq has fallen over to Iran, into their orbit, and now there is simply a vassal state of Tehran, which I don’t see to be the truth, and certainly nobody in Iraq would feel that way except the most hard-line of the Islamist parties in the country.
AMB. GFOELLER: Just to say a couple words along those lines, I talk to my friends in Riyadh – they still, of course, have no great affection for Prime Minister Maliki, whom I think until the passing of this king, that attitude will remain. It will probably change with the next king. Certainly I would think the king after that – I’m not sure how many years we’ll get out of King Salman, but God grant him life, of course. But I think the Saudi attitudes will change.
The kingdom isn’t a monolith any more than Iran is. There are great differences of opinion on these things at the level below the royal family. I’ve talked to many Saudi billionaires who’ve told me of their, you know, fervent desire to get involved – more involved in the Iraqi market, and I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand there on the part of the Saudi investor class to see that happen.
But the real shift I’ve seen happen in the last year or so is the Saudi realization that ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or Daeesh, as they call it in the region, is becoming more and more entrenched in al-Anbar province and in other Sunni regions of Iraq and is actually carrying out coordinated operations militarily and politically across the Syrian-Iraqi frontier. And you know, having just declared Daeesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, the two branches of al-Qaida active in Syria, terrorist organizations, and having just unleashed the full force of the Ministry of Interior, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef’s men, against them, I think the Saudis see what’s happening in al-Anbar and western and northern Iraq as a huge threat to them. They see Iraq as the perfect jumping-off place for al-Qaida to resume at some point its intifada, its insurgency in the kingdom.
They did succeed very handily, under Muhammad bin Nayef’s leadership, between 2004 and 2008 in pushing al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula out of the kingdom proper and into Yemen. But they’re under no illusions that the insurgency might begin again, and they see the radicalization of a good part of Iraq under the influence of Daeesh, ISIL, in particular as a real danger.
So I think this danger is an opportunity in the sense that perhaps under a future monarch, enhanced security cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia will become a real priority. They have a huge common threat from the growth of al-Qaida in western Iraq.
DR. MATTAIR: I didn’t hear everything. I was preoccupied for a second. But do they blame Maliki for – do they consider him responsible for al-Qaida’s continuance and resurgence there, since he hasn’t brought Sunnis into the government as it was expected?
AMB. GFOELLER: That’s a frequently heard complaint, but he reversed the political gains which he inherited, you know, after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. There’s a big compliant, actually, which people will tell you at every opportunity that the Iraqis did not do more to, you know, encourage the U.S. to maintain a follow-on force, and there’s the sense that, as General Kimmitt was saying, a vacuum was left behind when the last U.S. forces pulled out. So I’d say that – they would probably say that – they would definitely say that the combination of those two factors has opened the door to Daeesh by creating a political opportunity that they’ve seized.’
DR. MATTAIR: Colin, did you –
DR. KAHL: Yeah, so I – look, I think events in Iraq are concerning, and I think that the overall assessment by the analytical community – the nonpolitical assessment, I mean, the analytical judgment of the community in the United States – when we were talking about withdrawal options – because I was there during all these conversations – were that things in Iraq were not going to fall apart, that it would – you know, all else being equal, it would be better for us to have a small number of forces than not, but that things weren’t going to fall apart in the absence of U.S. forces, largely because the insurgency was beaten down, the population was exhausted, the political process was not great but better than the alternatives for most Sunni elites and that the Iraqi security forces had overwhelming military overmatch vis-à-vis what remained of the insurgency. So kind of things would be not great. I mean, Iraq wouldn’t be a vacation destination anytime soon, but they wouldn’t go off the rails.
I think two things after the withdrawal made things worse. I think partly Maliki is to blame. He had – he engaged in some behavior, especially in some overreaction, to what – to certain political threats from Sunni politicians in ways that radicalized certain elements of the Sunni population. But honestly, the biggest source of the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq is the black swan that is the Syrian civil war and insurgency, which has basically made the border between Syria and Iraq just one border of al-Qaida-inspired insurgency. So that was a black swan that the analytical community didn’t anticipate.
And so what is the Obama administration doing about it? My sense is actually they have a pretty – their approach is sensible, which is, they are ramping up the counterterrorism cooperation. Most of it is quiet. Most of it’s not done by the U.S. military, at least if you believe the media reports about this. And simultaneously, they’ve put a lot of pressure on Maliki to engage this – the tribes, especially in Anbar, to try to peel some of the support away from al-Qaida. And then they continue to push for broader political accommodation with the Sunni community – which, by the way, has been the U.S. position since 2003, and we weren’t able to convince the government in Baghdad to do it when we had 175,000 troops in the region. So the notion that if we had left 5,000 folks in uniform, that it would have magically political accommodation in Iraq, I think is a little fanciful. But we need to continue to push for it.
As it relates to the Gulf states, I completely agree that they – especially the Saudis and the Emiratis and others, they have a very acute interest in the AQI problem. But they also worry about Iranian influence in Baghdad. And here the – and this has I think been especially problematic as it relates to Saudi Arabia’s engagement. And, I mean, the implication is if you’re worried about Iranian influence in Baghdad, then exert your own influence in Baghdad. But the Saudis have refused to even stand up a permanent embassy. I remember getting in long arguments with senior Saudis saying, you know, why don’t you – stand up your embassy in Baghdad, exert some of your own influence if you’re worried about the vacuum filled by Tehran. And he was, like, well, we can’t do that; Maliki’s a puppet dangling at the end of Tehran’s strings. And I was, like: You have an embassy in Tehran! Right? Like, so it can’t be –
And it always boil down to the king hates Maliki, which is, I think, getting back to basically Mike’s point, which is King Abdullah takes personal relationships very, very seriously, and in this case, it’s irreparably damaged with Maliki because he believes Maliki made some commitments to him in the 2006 period that he didn’t live up to, and it’s just not going to be resolved until there is – there is a new king. But in the event that there is a new king, I actually do think that there is some possibility for different approach towards Iraq.
GEN. KIMMITT: Could I just pivot off one point that Colin made, which I think is important?
Again, it’s no surprise. I spent most my time with the Iraqi military and the Iraqi MOI and the Iraqi special operations forces. And I think what’s underappreciated in the current reports is the degradation of the Iraqi readiness since the American troops have departed in 2011. And I do believe a small element of those American trainers and advisers would have made a significant amount of difference.
When this problem happened in Fallujah and Ramadi – luckily, in Ramadi, Sattar and his tribe fell – made the choice between the central government and al-Qaida, and said, we want to stick with the central government, the lesser of two evils. That was not the case with the Dulaimi tribes and some of the others in Fallujah. As a result, the counterterrorism campaign that was referred to earlier started off with the MOI, and the MOI cut and run. Then they sent in the Iraqi – the Iraqi army, which was virtually incapable of taking on the threat.
So what is being done now by General Badawi (ph) and his Iraqi special forces, which is equivalent to our JSOC, roughly about 1,200 guys, is they’re the ones that are at the point of the spear, and they’re taking tremendous casualties because the readiness levels – as we joke, the Iraqi Army is the greatest checkpoint through the Middle East; you can’t go through a checkpoint without being checked out by them. But in terms of the their military capabilities, they closed the best maya (ph) training facility, so they don’t do regular operational training. Their vehicle have not been repaired in a number of years. All these elements that a good train-and-assist program, which would have been provided, not by 5,000 and 10,000 fighters but by 5,000 and 10,000 trainers and advisers, I think would have us in a very different place in terms of the al-Qaida insurgency that we’re seeing out in the west right now.
Dr. Kahl is correct, we are providing some support. We’re providing Hellfire missiles. We’re providing drones. We’re providing sort of all those things that are absolutely unnecessary in the type of fighting that we’re seeing in Fallujah. What we need there and what could’ve had there were American captains and majors that – at that first time that company commander for the first time in his career got into a fight in the middle of a street corner, he could turn to him, a young American captain that’s been doing this for the last 10 years, and he could say, don’t worry, it’s going to be OK, you’re going to take some casualties, but you’ve got to move to that next house. We don’t have that. Because we don’t have a SOFA with Iraq, we don’t have American troops on the ground that could provide that kind of support.
As a result – the net result is al-Qaida is getting stronger in Iraq. The Iraqi security forces have not stood up to the fight. As a result of that, Maliki has embraced himself around the Iraqi special forces, and you can’t go in Baghdad without seeing of him surrounded by his – by those strong military people. And quite frankly, the sense among the Iraqi military is, you know, we needed the support from you; where are you guys? It’s great we get a couple of Hellfires and we get a couple of bombs, but that’s not really what we need in the street-to-street fighting.
I think you will see in the coming days another offensive that will be put on by Maliki and his people. He wanted to time this closer to the elections so that win or lose, it wouldn’t affect the elections. But they do have a real problem with al-Qaida. They do have a problem with the insurgent Sunnis who have made a choice between the central government and the al-Qaida, and they made a dreadful choice of going with al-Qaida because they weren’t getting what they needed out of the United States and what they needed out of the central government.
I think this is going to be a problem that persists long beyond the elections. It’s going to be a problem that persists long beyond the current fight. Effectively and essentially, al-Qaida has set up a sanctuary and safe haven in Western Anbar that is going to take some time for any force, whether it’s an assisted force with the Iraqis themselves, to clear up. And that is fed by this petri dish in Syria that is creating fighters at an astronomical rate that can be put into that area.
AMB. FRAKER: One – just one final comment on that, something that we heard in the last month, which is, it’s important, again, the whole theme of showing up – the rhetoric on the ground has become more and more worrying between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. And we understand that for the first time, Maliki has publicly accused the Saudis of sending terrorists, jihadists into Iraq.
GEN. KIMMITT: And Qataris.
AMB. FRAKER: And Qataris.
GEN. KIMMITT: I was at the conference when he did that.
AMB. FRAKER: But what that – what that means for the Saudis is they think, well, if he’s accusing us of that, you know, how long is it going to be before a suicide bomber from Iraq shows up in Riyadh and blows himself up? And you hear that discussion more and more now. So when the Saudis look north to Iraq, they’re increasingly alarmed about what they see.
DR. MATTAIR: We have one or two more questions here, but if you have a question that you want to ask, please get ready to go to the mic, and, you know, we invite you to do that.
There are a few more questions here, Mike, that ask you to elaborate on Saudi Arabia’s regional alliances and the importance of them in light of their concerns about the United States. So can you elaborate on Saudi-Jordanian relations, Saudi-Pakistani relations? And then I’ll ask a question about Israel.
AMB. GFOELLER: Sure. Start with Jordan. As I might have mentioned during my remarks, I – the Saudis tend to view Amman and they tend to view Manama as outposts in their outer line of defense. So for them, the internal security or Jordan is really tantamount to the internal security of the kingdom.
There is a historical competition between the Hashemites and the al-Saud dynasties, of course, because the Hashemites were the traditional rulers of Jeddah and the Hejaz until forced off by King Abdulaziz, the father of the current king. But the fact of the matter is that the Jordanian monarchy would not have managed to survive three years of Arab Spring, three years of revolution and civil war in Syria without massive Saudi financial assistance. One hears is various estimates of how much money is involved – multiple billions of dollars per year. The kingdom has a $750 billion reserve fund now generated by oil profits the last five, six years, so they can afford to keep doing this indefinitely.
There is also a very close quiet military relationship, quite a few Saudi officers – (inaudible) – in the coffee shops in Amman all there on vacation, and quite a few Jordanians being trained in the kingdom. So this relationship is very strong. And I think from the Saudi point of view, the survival of the Jordanian monarchy is a key national security imperative.
Of course, without revealing things that shouldn’t be revealed in a public meeting, it works both ways. Jordan is a two-way door for the Saudis. It’s a way into Syria. It’s a way to give – gain information on what happens in Syria. It’s a way to attempt to influence things in Syria. And there’s been a lot of traffic through that door.
Egypt. The Saudis viewed the Morsi government, the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo as a strategic disaster. They see the Brotherhood as a standing threat to the monarchy per se. They focus on the Brotherhood’s ideology, which rejects the idea of traditional Arab monarchy in favor of a more theocratic notion of governance. They, you know, see themselves as the guardians of a particular tradition, particular tradition rooted really in traditions that go back before Islam as well. Saudi monarchy is very much sui generis. They feel much more comfortable dealing with a situation in Cairo now in which General Sisi is waging a full war against the Brotherhood.
The Saudis had a very ambiguous relationship with the Brotherhood for decades. The brother of Sayyid Qutb, Muhammad Qutb, founded the faculty of Islamic studies at the University of Jeddah in 1967 after he fled Nasser’s, you know, executioners. I mean, this was a very close relationship, and much of the Saudi religious elite was educated by people who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. So when we see the Saudi government declaring the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization and unleashing the minister of interior on it, this is a fundamental change. This is really something that’s very risky from the point of view the stability and internal coherence of the Saudi state, Saudi society. I know many prominent Saudis who were enthusiastic members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and now all of a sudden they have to abandon much of the organization and much of their beliefs. This is very serious business.
And I think what we’re seeing is an Egyptian-Saudi alliance which is being transformed at its very nature from a practical, pragmatic alliance based on a financial support for Egypt, local cooperation on issues like the peace process, to really that’s rooted – one that’s rooted around a new axis opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, both in the peninsula and in Egypt.
And other people have mentioned this today: The fact of the matter is that part of this new relationship boils down to a Saudi willingness to provide billions of dollars in direct financial support for Egyptian weapons purchases from Moscow. There is a military delegation in Cairo today talking about MiG-35s, Mi-35 helicopters, a variety of other gear. One hears various estimates for the amount of stuff that could be involved, but they range between 2 (billion dollars) and $10 billion.
And it’s clear that the Saudis are willing to fund this because of what they see as a reluctance on the part of the United States, a reduced willingness on the part of Washington to supply Egypt with what it needs to conduct what is, at the end of the day, the most extensive Egyptian conventional military campaign in the Sinai since the ’73 war. I mean, Egypt’s engaged in a real war against al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula.
The Saudis at least tend to view the fight against the Brotherhood and the fight against al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula as two sides of the same coin. Obviously, that’s not a point of view that’s shared over here, but this is how they see it. And it’s a view that’s dictating their action.
So I think this is part of the new strategic reality, an unusual alliance developing to a certain extent sub rosa between the king of Saudi Arabia, General Sisi – perhaps almost certainly soon President Sisi – and President Putin. Again, I’ve been following the Middle East for decades now, and I didn’t think I was going to see this, certainly not after 1972.
Bahrain is another key alliance for the Saudis. Having recently spent a few days on the island, it’s – one can see the impacts of the so-called GCC intervention, which is really a Saudi military intervention. I was there on March 14th, which is the anniversary in Manama. City was in a very interesting condition. I mean, I was expecting massive demonstrations. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to land, actually. I arrived in Manama on March 14th, maybe not the best piece of travel planning I’ve ever done. But the city was completely quiet – very tense quiet, big police presence. Still, not a single tire was burned. When I ventured out into the Shiite villages around Manama, it was clear that, you know, the insurgency there was going to go on for a long time – tons of al-Khalifa graffiti evident everywhere, many signs – when one stopped to talk to people, strong sentiments against the monarchy.
But there’s a general sense in Bahrain that, with Saudi and Emirati support, they passed some sort of corner, and they are at least in the short to medium term in charge. One sees an enormous number of really huge – I mean, 20-stories – portraits of King Hamad, who used to be rather a tiring fellow, adorning the city. The message is very clear to the population: The al-Khalifa are in charge, and we’re not going anywhere.
So I think that, again, is a sign of how seriously the Saudis take this. If they were to – the Saudi view basically is that if they were to lose the al-Khalifa dynasty on Bahrain, the security and stability of the Eastern Province would be in question, and they’re not going to permit that. So at least as long as the al-Saud are in power in Riyadh, I think we’ll see Saudi forces – which are still in Bahrain, by the way – remaining there.
DR. KATZ: I just want to raise the question of just how far it is that Russia and Saudi Arabia actually are going to cooperate, that certainly, there has been a lot of discussion, and apparently, it’s quite serious about Saudis funding arms purchases from Russia. But the Saudi-Russian relationship is not good, is not good at all.
Certainly – in fact, essentially, in Russia, they have a tendency to view Saudi Arabia the same way that – how Americans view Iran – nothing good can come from these people, that the Russian elite blames Saudi Arabia for any and all Muslim opposition activity in their country, that they see Saudi Arabia as the mastermind of the Arab Spring, that they believe Saudi Arabia intends to spread this opposition activity from the Middle East into Russia itself and that – it’s simply very difficult. They are on opposite sides in Syria. The Saudis are very unhappy about the Russian relationship with Iran. I think that there is just a limit and that if Saudi Arabia really is going to, you know, fund these purchases, it’s going to want some concession from Moscow, and Moscow is not want – going to want to give it.
Let’s face it: The Saudis are doing this essentially to teach the Americans a lesson or to get the Americans to say, no, no, don’t do that, we’re going to resume arms transfers to Egypt – and it seems to be happening, actually, in today’s Washington Post with the Apache helicopters. But I very much question how far any degree of cooperation can go between Saudi Arabia and Russia given how much Vladimir Putin mistrusts the Saudis as well as the Qataris.
DR. KAHL: So much was made a few months ago when a number of senior Saudi princes intimated that there might be a significant strategic rupture between the United States and Saudi and that Saudi would pivot to alternative strategic allies. And this was around the time, too, where the Saudis turned down the seat on the U.N. Security Council, the rotational seat. And so this was I would say kind of the height of the fear that there was going to be this extreme rupture between the United States and the kingdom.
But, you know, I – so I think Mike is completely right about –
DR. KATZ: (Inaudible.)
DR. KAHL: No – no – you’re right too, but Mike was right first – about – you know, Saudi Arabia – I think you need to distinguish between two sets of allies. There are countries in the region that Saudi Arabia perceives it needs to prop up because instability there could threaten the kingdom in some way. Jordan fits in that category, Bahrain fits in that category, and Egypt fits in that category. There’s also some talk of having Jordan and Morocco and maybe even Egypt become part of the GCC in a way in which they would provide ground troops and other things. So there is a way in which they can protect the kingdom. And it’s really a – very much a – creating a defensive buffer against the threats that are – that Saudi Arabia (poses ?) in the region.
When Saudi princes were suggesting that the Saudis could go elsewhere for strategic relationships, they weren’t talking about those types of relationships; they were talking about the types of things that Mark intimated at, which is – which is the Russians, the Chinese and the Pakistanis. The problem is, is that a Saudi pivot away from the United States is a pivot to nowhere, right?
The Russians and the Chinese cannot provide the military hardware that we can. Their systems don’t interoperate with us. If they chose China and Russia over the United States and that actually produced a rupture, most of Saudi Arabia’s conventional military would cease to work within two or three weeks of American contractors being pulled out. So it’s not about rupturing; it’s about hedging. It’s about sending signals to Washington and hedging one’s bets, but it’s not about a rupture.
And the Pakistanis can’t – and I should say, by the way, and – as much as the Saudis have complaints about U.S. policy, China’s policy and Russia’s policy is worse in every way that they care about as it relates to Iran and Syria; perhaps Egypt is slightly different. So China and Russia, those aren’t significant alternatives to the United States.
Pakistan’s interesting because there is such a deep a long-standing relationship between the Saudi and Pakistani militaries and also because the Saudis helped bankroll the Pakistani nuclear program, which has raised rumors for years that the Saudis like to feed that if Iran gets too close to a bomb or gets a bomb, that Pakistan would provide nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. Here is – first of all, nobody knows the reality. Partly the Saudis put these rumors into the bloodstream to put pressure on us to deal seriously with the Iranian nuclear issue because they basically threatened that if they go nuclear, we’ll go nuclear the next day.
Nobody knows whether that would actually happen. But I will tell you this in general: Pakistan cannot supplant the United States as the primary security guarantor of the kingdom. They can’t do it conventionally. Pakistan does not have power projection capabilities. They can’t defend the Gulf. They can’t defend – I mean, they can defend the kingdom conventionally, maybe, but that’s not the threat that the kingdom faces from countries like Iran; it’s about subversion and terrorism and threats to critical infrastructure. None of those problems the Pakistanis can really help with.
And the Pakistanis can’t dominate escalation below the nuclear level with the Iranians. So what good is the Pakistani security guarantee relative to what the United States can provide? It’s not a heck of a lot of good. And even in a world in which the Iranians get nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s ability – Pakistan’s never extended a nuclear umbrella over anybody. And Pakistan’s number one, number two and number three strategic challenges are India, India and India. Raise your hand if you believe that Pakistan would like every single crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the rest of time to become a nuclear crisis that Pakistan has to deal with. I’m waiting for hands to raise. All right? This is a bad arrangement.
I have no doubts that in a world in which the Saudis are really upset about an Iran deal or the collapse of an Iran deal that leads to a nuclear-armed Iran, they would be really upset with United States, and they will likely look for other alternatives. But all the alternatives are worse.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. I asked if there was anyone in the audience who wants to ask a question, and we continued on with the discussion. So maybe possibly Mr. Ambassador, or – you have – or Tom?
Q: Question over here.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. Can you – can you come to the mic so we can hear you?
AMB. FRAKER: Yeah. If you could tell us who you are as well.
Q: Dave Ottaway from the Wilson Center, former Washington Post correspondent (in here ?).
I wanted you to – (inaudible) – you to explore more of this rift between Qatar and Riyadh and what’s happening to the GCC as a result of their feud over the Muslim Brotherhood. Is this a passing cloud, or is the GCC do you think really in trouble in terms of cohesion?
AMB. FRAKER: So I’ll start off; I’m sure other people will weigh in. But I was living in the Emirates in the ’70s when the GCC was basically put together, and all of us living down were highly skeptical that this was ever going to be a functioning and effective political entity. We all thought it would be fine as long as everything worked out for everybody who was a member, but the minute there were problems, you know, it was highly likely that it would cease to be anything close to an effective unit.
You know, since, you know, the last 30 or 40 years, there have been many efforts to bolster the GC as a workable entity. Certainly from the U.S. standpoint we’d be much happier selling one missile defense unit to one entity down there rather than having to sell seven or eight different ones. But you’re never going to get away from the old historical tribal rivalries that exist down there. And there are long-standing ones between the Saudis and Qataris, enormous annoyance on the part of the Saudis over Qatari actions in a number of areas. I’ve seen – I’ve seen films of meetings between the emir of Qatar, the king of Saudi Arabia and the emir of Kuwait where the body language alone was enough to tell you that this wasn’t a working functioning group. So I’ve sort of grown up being relatively skeptical about the GCC as an effective entity to begin with, so the fact that there’s a falling out between Saudi, Qatar and Bahrain doesn’t surprise me all that much.
DR. MATTAIR: Podium was blocking my view, but I’d like to invite the Arab League ambassador to the United States to ask a question or make a comment.
Q: OK, thank you very much, Ambassador, for arranging this conference. This is very important and timely also. But I wonder that no one really has mentioned Israel in the whole issues that we have been discussing. I thought that as far as Arab League or the Gulf countries are concerned, Israel was successfully – or was successful in making us believe that really, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the threat to the Arab world anymore, and especially to the GCC, but the main threat now is really Iran nuclear program. And for this reason, we have been buying (in ?) actually the last year or this year more than $78 billion of weapons, maybe for the first time in the history of the relationship between the United States and the Gulf countries. And so I thought that you would really have some part of your discussion on Israel, at least, because it’s very important; its impact is very important in the region. Thank you.
AMB. FRAKER: So thank you for raising that. I know that Israel was a topic that Tom wanted to get to, and he – and he mentioned that. This is obviously the right time to get to (it ?).
DR. MATTAIR: Yes. And Mike talked about conversations are evidently taking place. So how far can that go between Saudi Arabia and Israel when the Palestinian issue is not resolved? Have they successfully turned the Gulf attention away from that, or is it still vitally important?
AMB. GFOELLER: I think the Palestinian issue is still extremely important inside Saudi Arabia, for the royal family and for its constituents. You know, the kingdom is not an absolute monarchy. It rules by consensus. When a new king is proclaimed, he doesn’t become king until enough people have carried out the bayah or the allegiance ceremony. And (I remember ?) when King Abdullah became king in 2005, this took weeks. He had to travel all over the kingdom and receive formal pledges of loyalty from working people in the various provinces. It’s not a joke. I remember at one point the vice president of the United States, the king of Spain and the prince of Wales were all kept waiting; they all wanted to congratulate King Abdullah, then-Crown Prince Abdullah, on his accession to the throne, and the – they didn’t realize that it hadn’t happened yet. He wouldn’t be king until a critical mass was reached and enough followers had pledged loyalty. So, you know, as long as the Palestinian issue is important to the rank-and-file population of the kingdom, it’ll be important to the royal family because it’s not something they can afford to ignore.
I think the Saudi strategists do see more common ground with Israel as Iran becomes more powerful and more of a threat potentially to both of their interests. And therefore, a certainly amount of pragmatic conversation sub rosa is probably taking place. I don’t know this to be the case, but there is no smoke without fire, and there are enough rumors to suggest this is happening. But the fact of the matter is that, you know, there are limits to any such rapprochement, and those limits are set by the existence – the existence of the Palestinian problem.
DR. KAHL: Can I – can I – can I just add one thing on that?
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
DR. KAHL: Look, I think there is no question that the Israeli-Palestinian issue in particular continues to resonate to some degree. But one gets the sense that when the Saudis talk about it these days, their heart really isn’t in it and that it’s not the fundamental geopolitical fault line in the region anymore. I would argue it hasn’t been since the 1991 Gulf War, that the big – that the geopolitical fault line that’s mattered most for actual regional patterns of behavior and alignment has been more the kind of defenders of the status quo, or the so-called “moderate camp,” of which the United States, Israel and the conservative Gulf monarchies are a part, against the “resistance axis,” which is Iran and Syria and Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist militants – Hamas, Pidge (ph) and others.
I think since the Arab Spring – well, really since the Iraqi civil war, but now with the Arab Spring and then the Syrian civil war, that divide between the resistance camp and moderate camp is increasingly sectarian in its nature, as the Sunni-Shia polarization has swept across the region, and the – and the residual Arab-Israeli tensions are less of a barrier to quiet cooperation potentially between some of the Gulf states and Israel.
That said, I think one of the most potent arguments that the United States has made to Israel for years, which was dismissed, was that an – that an agreement with the Palestinians would pave the way for security and intelligence cooperation at a different level with the Gulf states against your common foe of Iran. The Israelis dismissed that for years; they don’t dismiss it anymore. In fact, some of the most powerful arguments for reaching a Palestinian agreement and linking it to the Iran threat inside Israel’s own establishment comes from the possibilities of being able to forge a counter-Iran coalition with Arab states if you get beyond the Palestinian issue. Now, I don’t think you are going to get beyond the Palestinian issue, but it is at least a live argument.
The last point I would make is this is not the only fault line that matters in the – in the region, and that I think we shouldn’t discount the fact that within the Sunni camp, there is a fundamental fault line principally between, again, the conservative and more hawkish monarchies led by the Saudis, and the Qataris and the Turks, who are much more comfortable with having relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood and other popular Islamist movements and who very much bent in that direction in the aftermath of the fall of Mubarak. And the Saudis have never forgiven the Qataris for that. I think that they thought that a change in emir might be an opportunity for that shift, and apparently, the Qataris didn’t go far enough. And obviously, they have disagreements in Syria now as well. So I think both the Iran-Saudi axis and, within the Sunni community, the kind of Saudi-Qatar-Turkey axis are more important fault lines than the Arab-Israeli fault line is currently to the geopolitics to the region.
Q: (Off mic) –
DR. MATTAIR: There is – yes, Tom.
Q: I’m so famous, everybody knows who – no, seriously, I’m Tom Lippman from the Middle East Institute. I was one of David’s predecessors as a regional correspondent out there.
Saudi Arabia’s official stated position on the Iranian nuclear program is that Iran is – has every right to develop a commercial nuclear energy program under the terms of the NPT. And if I remember correctly, the intervention that the Saudi representative developed – delivered at President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit here – and I think it was 2011; I don’t remember exactly when it was – stated that position at great length and did not specifically preclude the idea that Iran could have its own enrichment program. So from that, I would conclude one of the two things: Either the Saudis don’t really espouse the policy that they have articulated in public, or they want us to take a harder line than they do on this subject. Or is there a third possibility? Which of those is it?
DR. KAHL: So the answer is that to my knowledge, they haven’t had an explicit statement on the issues like the right to enrichment and whether a civil-nuclear program actually requires a domestic enrichment program, is – you know, that can be finessed. There are some people say yes, most people would say no. And so, you know, I don’t know about that.
I think in reality, though, the Saudis have not given a lot of deep thought into exactly – strategically exactly how much Iranian nuclear capability to too much. They just think the Obama administration is going to settle for a bad deal. And so they just have this general notion. It’s actually not quite detailed. Like, I don’t think you’re going to hear from a lot of Saudi officials: Well, if they have 1,500 centrifuges, that’s OK, as long as they’re IR-1s and they’re only at Natanz. But if they have 15,000 centrifuges, and they have IR-2ms, and they’re at – you know, and 3,000 of them are at Fordo, then that’s bad. The Israelis would have that conversation with Americans. The Saudis would not have that level of conversation with the Americans.
And it’s principally because I think Israeli and Saudi concerns about Obama’s Iran policy are actually a little bit different. The Israelis very much worry about the details of that nuclear deal and that equation because it’s the existential threat in their minds. The Saudis care about Iran’s nuclear ambitions but only in the context of Iran’s broader hegemonic ambitions, in their view, for the region. And what they worry almost as much about is that we will leave Iran not just with a latent nuclear capability but with the sanctions lifted, the Iranian economy will go up, Iranian oil will come back on the market, and Iran will be legitimized in the eyes of the – of the region and can resume its march towards regional hegemony and subversion of Bahrain, subversion of the kingdom, its activities elsewhere in the region. They fear that part of the equation nearly as much, maybe more.
AMB. FRAKER: So just – sorry; just to put that into sort of simpler words: In a conversation with, you know a senior member in the Gulf, they said, look, you know, of course, we would like to see Iran nuclear-free. But frankly, you know, if they get it, we’ll get it. What we’re more concerned about is the point you make. It is the continuing spread of Iranian influence in the region. It’s their interference in local governments. It’s the sense that Iran is going to encircle the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, et cetera, et cetera. So just to emphasize your point.
DR. MATTAIR: And that we’re not – that our policies are not effectively preventing Iran from extending its influence that way.
Well, we’re getting a lot of – a lot of signals to vacate the room because there’s another group that wants to come. But we have one final comment from Mark Kimmit.
GEN. KIMMITT: Yeah, I just wanted to finish up that comment on Iraq, and it actually is appropriate given the last comment from Ambassador Fraker about this supposed Iranian-Iraq-Syrian-Lebanon axis. For all the criticisms of Prime Minister Maliki, I think people need to understand and give him a bit of credit for the fact that the easiest proof of his alignment with Iran would be for him to unleash the militias – Jaish al-Haq (ph), Jaish al-Mahdi, the IRGC, the Sadrists – to fight the Sunni scourge that is going on, this al-Qaida scourge that is going on in al-Anbar. And it’s a compliment and, quite frankly, a credit to Prime Minister Maliki that he’s retained the monopoly on the use of force inside of Iraq and not, as we’ve seen so many other times in Iraq, allowed the militias to take control of this fight because if you had a situation where the Shia militias were unleashed against the Sunni militias inside of Iraq, you truly would have that devastating civil war that would make things far, far worse than they currently are.
DR. MATTAIR: We would like to thank the panelists and the audience.
AMB. FRAKER: Thank you very much. (Applause.)