Thomas W. Lippman, Alex Vatanka, Thomas R. Mattair
The following is an edited transcript of the sixty-sixth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Friday, October 7, 2011, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Omar M. Kader moderating.
OMAR M. KADER, owner and founder, Pal-Tech Inc; chairman of the board, Middle East Policy Council
Today we will examine the question of what the Islamic Republic of Iran's objectives have been in the Gulf and in the Arab world, particularly since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, and even more particularly during the past year as the Arab Spring/Awakening has been unfolding. How have these objectives been based on Iran's calculations about American power and policy? How successful has Iran been in increasing its influence in the region? What does Iran stand to gain and lose as unrest sweeps through the region?
The Gulf Cooperation Council states have been concerned about Iranian capabilities, behavior and intentions for a long time, but it takes on an additional importance in light of the Arab Spring. This has certainly been the case in Egypt and Bahrain, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, possibly in Yemen, and now in Syria. How successful will the GCC states be in countering Iranian influence in the region? How important are the partnerships of the GCC states with the United States now? How does all this influence U.S. decisions about its response to specific uprisings around the Arab world, its diminished credibility in the Arab world, the utility of its diplomatic, economic, and military options with Iran, and even its Arab-Israeli policy? These are some of the questions our panelists will address.
THOMAS W. LIPPMAN, former reporter, editor and Middle East correspondent, The Washington Post
I'm going to focus particularly on this entire set of questions as viewed from Saudi Arabia. But keep in mind that, particularly in Saudi Arabia and now to a lesser extent also in Iran, there's a great deal we don't know about who is actually making the decisions and what is impelling them. I still do not know which person in Saudi Arabia actually went to the king and said, we have to go into Bahrain, and got the king to say yes. And, of course, you're in an environment where you don't have public events like this at which policies are discussed. Nobody's going to subpoena the defense minister to talk about this. To a certain extent, there are also internal conflicts in Iran that make it difficult to give definitive answers there. So keep in mind that there's a lot that we don't know. It's sort of like speculating about whose next in line to be king of Saudi Arabia. There are only a dozen people who know that answer, and they're not talking to me.
I came across three news items this week that I thought would be a good way of getting into this discussion. The first one was an official report by the Saudi Press Agency having to do with the latest round of unrest and disturbances in the Shiite area — the Eastern Province — of Saudi Arabia. Basically what the Saudi Press Agency, the official government news organ, reported was that the unrest had been incited by a foreign country. That foreign country was not named, but it was not Bolivia. That is typical of the Saudi reaction in which, rightly or wrongly, they see the malevolent hand of Iran behind a lot of the trouble all around them. You may recall that, without much evidence that I was ever able to discern — and I was even there at the time — they blamed the Iranians for the Houthi uprising in Yemen in which Saudi Arabia intervened for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me.
The reason that the Saudis have refused to do business with the Maliki government in Iraq is that they regard Maliki as a stooge of the Iranians, rightly or wrongly, and they openly backed Ayad Allawi in the Iraqi election; one of Allawi's last public appearances before the voting was in Riyadh. So the Saudis have done nothing to participate in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq as far as I know, or virtually nothing.
The second news item — not distributed or printed by the Saudis at all — was an Associated Press story that said, in the past week Iran has announced the deployment of ship-based missiles that can target shorelines from international waters; and its naval commander said that Islamic Republic warships could someday be cruising near America's Atlantic seaboard. I don't think it stirs much concern in Saudi Arabia that the Iranians would have, let's say, missile-carrying frigates off the coast of Massachusetts. The security of Martha's Vineyard is not a Saudi issue. What they're concerned about is Iran's ability to hit Saudi Arabia's most vulnerable targets: the oil installations and water-desalination plants, the lifeblood of the country, which are fat, immobile targets clustered along the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. Those facilities are very vulnerable to a missile strike from the sea.
Presumably, if there were such an attack, the U.S. Navy in the form of the Fifth Fleet would intervene to halt the perpetrators, but they could do a lot of damage in the meantime. That's one reason the Saudis are extremely reluctant to push any contest with Iran to the point of armed conflict. They understand that Iran's ability to do damage to them far exceeds their ability to do damage to Iran. Unlike Iran, the Saudis have no strategic interior into which they could retreat the way the Russians did in the face of Napoleon and Hitler. Away from the coast, there's no food or water. The coast is extremely vulnerable and subject to Iranian attack and sabotage; and the Saudis are very conscious of that.
The third item was not directly about Saudi Arabia. It was an op-ed piece distributed on The Wall Street Journal's website about what was going on in Bahrain. It contained a striking paragraph that said, "Bahrain is not just another fallen domino in the Arab Spring. Nor is it experiencing a surge of spontaneous resistance by its people against their rulers. Rather, Bahrain is the victim of a long cycle of intrigue and interference aimed at replacing the moderate and modernizing Khalifa regime with a theocracy under Tehran's thumb."
I don't know enough of the details of Bahraini history or its relations with Iran in the past to know if that is true. But I certainly know a lot of people in Riyadh who believe it. This was the reason that the Saudis felt they needed to intervene in Bahrain. There was a delegation of prominent members of the Saudi Consultative Assembly, the Majlis as-Shura, in Washington shortly after the deployment — we talked to them at the Middle East Institute — there was no doubt in their minds that Bahrain represented a red line of Iranian/Shia encroachment on territory that naturally was part of Saudi Arabia's sphere of influence. It could not be tolerated.
It may turn out in the long run, over the next 10 years, that the Saudi and UAE intervention in Bahrain will have a positive effect, in the sense that it may actually have stimulated the members of the GCC to do some serious long-term military planning and coordination. The GCC has never had any effective security role in the region, partly because the smaller states fear Saudi dominance; but under the new leadership of a Bahraini military officer, the GCC has shown signs of life on this front, which could turn out to be beneficial over time, depending on how they use it.
These Saudi attitudes about Iran are not entirely paranoia. There's good reason for the Saudis to fear Iranian intentions and actions. You can pick your point. You can pick the point after the Iranian revolution, when Khomeini began challenging the Saudi leadership in Islam; you can pick the point at which the Iranians were disrupting the Haj back in the 1980s; or you can pick the period in the seventh century, when you had armed conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims and between Arabs and Persians, the same conflict that's being played out in a different theater today. So the Saudis now seem to be concerned about a region-wide surge in the power of their historic rivals, the Shia. Those of you who've read Vali Nasr's book [The Shia Revival: How Conflicts in Islam Will Shape the Future, August 2006] will know more about this than I ever will. The Saudis see a Shia resurgence stoked by Iran in Bahrain, in Lebanon, in Iraq. They see the Iranians maneuvering for position all around them. These Saudi views are not necessarily shared by all their GCC partners, which have important economic ties in Iran.
I was in Riyadh in the fall of 2009, when King Abdullah made a very open and strong effort to patch things up and rebuild Saudi friendship with Syria. The king invited Bashar al-Asad to be the principal honored guest at the opening of his pet project, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. The king shortly thereafter went to Syria on a very well-publicized visit. He made sure that the editors of the Saudi newspapers went with him and put pictures of him and Bashar being buddies on the front page, and without any announcement the Saudis in effect took the Hariri assassination investigation off the table. That was a big sticking point in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Syria. The Saudis held Syria responsible for the assassination of Hariri in Beirut, but all of a sudden you didn't hear the Saudis talking about it. They were willing to overlook that in the interest of prying Syria away from its alliance with Iran. That was an important motivator for the king.
The Syrian response was to invite Ahmadinejad to Damascus for a highly visible love-in, in what amounted to a direct insult to King Abdullah. This was not a good idea, as the Saudis, probably more than any other state, have taken an extremely hard-line position now, saying that Bashar has to go.
All these events are happening at a time of some internal difficulty in Saudi Arabia. They're beginning to come to grips with an inevitable change in leadership, which could happen at any time. It's possible that the Saudis are going to have as many as four kings over the next five to ten years. There's also a lot of uncertainty now, given the death of the defense minister and the fact that the decision-making process has been impeded by uncertainties in the leadership.
With all that said, as I indicated, I think the Saudis don't want armed conflict. They certainly don't want unilateral strikes by us or, worse yet, by Israel, against the Iranians. They have certain mutual interests with the Iranians — their partnership in OPEC; keeping the Persian Gulf sea lanes open, because they're both dependent on the oil traffic; their common antipathy to the Taliban. This is more a managed rivalry than a hostile confrontation, in my opinion, and it's likely to stay that way for a while.
There are just two more points I want to touch on. It got a lot of attention when one of the WikiLeaks cables reported that the king had told General Jones, then President Obama's national security adviser, that if Iran definitively acquired or developed nuclear weapons, all the countries on the Arab side of the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, would feel compelled to do the same. Even if the king did in fact say that, I don't take it as a dispositive statement of Saudi policy. In my opinion — and I've spent much more time over the past five or six years than I really should have on this subject and written about it at length — the disincentives for the Saudis to acquire or develop nuclear weapons so far outweigh any potential gains that they're unlikely to do it.
This brings me to one last comment, on the Saudi view of the role of the United States in all these issues. I'm sure you've all heard that there have been some rough patches in the relationship this year. I got an earful in Riyadh a few months ago about how the United States had abandoned Mubarak and contributed to his humiliation. None of those complaints was accompanied by an explanation as to what the Saudis thought we could have done about it. I did not believe that we were going to send the 82nd Airborne to save Mubarak or drive the demonstrators out of Tahrir Square.
Nevertheless, the Saudis felt that we had shown unseemly haste in our abandonment of Mubarak. They resented Secretary Clinton's quite restrained criticism of the intervention in Bahrain. They have resisted our efforts to get them on board in Iraq. And, of course, they're about to get even angrier at the United States, because we're going to veto the Palestinian statehood resolution in the Security Council. Nevertheless, the Saudis understand that, even as their weapons purchases continue, the U.S. role in Saudi security is not going to change. There's no place else for them to go. No other country, and I include China, has the desire or the ability to play the Persian Gulf security role that the United States plays. The Saudis understand that. There's not going to be an open breach over this issue, any more than there was over the original recognition of Israel in 1948. That is something neither country wants, and there is no alternative to the American role.
However, the nature of that role and the nature of our commitments are quite ill-defined. We have no treaty relationship with Saudi Arabia. Those who talk about the creation of a kind of Persian Gulf or Arabian Gulf NATO to provide an American security umbrella over the Saudis should ask themselves what would happen if this administration or any administration went to the United States Senate seeking ratification of a binding nuclear defense commitment to Saudi Arabia. I don't believe that's likely to happen, so the nature of our commitment remains one in which we have certain obligations. CENTCOM is responsible; Fifth Fleet is there. The Saudis know that we won't permit long-term blockage of the Strait of Hormuz, and that relationship is not going to change at its core.
ALEX VATANKA, scholar, Middle East Institute; senior fellow, USAFSOS
The first point I want to make is for all of us to remember that what has happened in Bahrain since February has not created the so-called rivalry between Iran and the GCC. This is a rivalry that's been going on at least since 1979. I would argue you can go back before that to the time of the shah. Point number two: when we talk about Iran versus the GCC, along the lines that Tom just mentioned, we are really talking about Iran versus Saudi Arabia. Iran doesn't look at most of the GCC states as adversaries. Saudi Arabia is the exception because of its size and the complexities that have characterized its relations with Tehran.
One of the things I spend most of my time on is the debate inside the ranks of the Iranian regime when it comes to the issue of Arab states, particularly the GCC states. I don't hear one Iranian voice at all. I see differences of opinion. Some are actually quite critical regarding where they're likely to want to take the country. The division right now that is of most interest to those of us sitting in Washington and looking at the debate in Iran, is between the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They do not see eye to eye when it comes to the so-called Arab Spring.
The Iran-GCC rivalry goes back to the creation of the GCC in 1981, a result of the 1979 revolution in Iran. Today's heightened tension between Iran and the GCC states started in March 2003 with the fall of Saddam Hussein, and it specifically relates to Saudi Arabia's fear of Iran's domination of neighboring Iraq. If there's a period when we can characterize relations between Iran and the GCC states as pretty cordial, it was when President Mohammad Khatami, the reformist, was in charge of the executive branch, from 1997 to 2005. But even before Khatami left office in 2003, we see relations between Iran and the GCC states taking a turn for the worse.
When you think about the big picture, I see the fall of Saddam Hussein, the intensification of the Iranian nuclear program, and the arrival of Ahmadinejad in 2005, as having come together to intensify fears in the GCC states about what Iran wants to achieve through its regional policies. I would argue that Bahrain, where the situation continues to be pretty volatile, has brought some of these GCC fears to the fore and made them much more public.
But those fears have always been there. Now they're just much more publicly expressed as a result of the Bahraini situation. When I look at what the Iranians have actually done in terms of their foreign-policy behavior, I cannot point to a single thing that is a result of what happened in Bahrain. If there's one word I would use to describe Iranian behavior, given the stakes involved here — a Shia majority in Bahrain being allegedly repressed — I think the Iranian approach has been very "cautious." I think that's the opinion of most analysts in Iran who are not in the pocket of the regime and can express their views more or less freely. A lot of anger has been expressed towards Bahrain and, specifically, Saudi Arabia, but, as I said, no tangible action. Iran did nothing. The Iranian regime since 1979 has been proclaiming itself as a defender of all Shias, yet here is one of the four Shia-majority countries being "taken over" — to use a phrase that the Iranian regime would use — and Iran did literally nothing. It was Bahrain that broke diplomatic relations with Tehran, not Tehran that broke relations with Bahrain.
Let me quickly say something about what Iran's policy seems to be. Is it to intervene and topple the al-Khalifa, Bahrain's ruling family, or is it to mediate? If you listen to the discourse in Tehran and read the media and the official statements, I'm really not sure at all that Iran wants to intervene. It seems that they would like to see themselves play the role of mediator. This is very much in contrast to Tom's views about how the Saudis see the Iranian role.
The only aspect of Iran's policy that seems very disturbing, and is clearly aimed at incitement, is the media campaign. The Iranian state-owned media lets no opportunity go by without seeking to incite the Shia in Bahrain. The Iranian regime acts opportunistically. It hasn't created any opportunities for itself in Bahrain, but if the opportunities arise as a result of other people's actions, they would seek to fill the vacuum. Obviously, the best example here is what has happened since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and we've seen cases like this elsewhere, among the Palestinians and so forth.
If there's an opportunity, and the Shia of Bahrain are isolated as a result of the actions of the al-Khalifa family or its guarantor, Saudi Arabia, then the Iranians would try to capitalize on it, but without endangering their overall geopolitical position. As Tom said, they're not looking for armed conflict over Bahrain. The nearest thing the Iranian state actually did was to organize a bunch of Basiji Islamist militia members to create their own flotilla to go and support the Shia of Bahrain. It was then stopped by the IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guards Corps) navy before it entered international waters. The navy commander told these people, you're doing something illegal here; turn around and go home.
The point was to show that Iran cares and is going to get involved hands-on. Iran really didn't do anything because, as I said, Iran cares about its own geopolitical interests and the survival of the regime. It's not looking for a fight. Obviously, the elephant in the room here is the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which sits in Bahrain. It's not that Iran doesn't think it can win a war with Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, but that war means conflict with the United States. That is not something Iran seeks to start.
I mentioned that the GCC states are not seen in Iran as one entity, and I think that's an important point to bear in mind. The Iranians do fear the Saudis. They don't necessarily fear the Omanis, the Kuwaitis and others. This rivalry with Saudi Arabia, as we all know, has been going on for 32 years. We've seen this in the '80s with Saudi support for Saddam Hussein and its bankrolling of the Baathists in the Iran-Iraq War. We saw Saudi-Iranian rivalry most intensely in Afghanistan in the 1990s, with the Iranians backing the Northern Alliance and the Saudis backing the Taliban. And we've seen it in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Iranians will tell you — if you ask them what they are doing in Iraq — that it's a proxy war against Saudi Arabia. The domination of Iraq by Saudi Arabia is seen in Tehran as an existential threat. Tom alluded to the Persian-Arab divide and the Shia-Sunni schism. This has been going on for a long time. And there's no doubt that, if you listen to what they say, they delegitimize each other to the greatest extent possible.
I was taken aback by Prince Bandar's visit to Pakistan recently, where he talked about creating a Sunni alliance against the Shias. If the Iranian-Saudi rivalry rises to the level of talking about religious war, I think the United States has to look beyond what that means for U.S. policy outside the Persian Gulf region. Bahrain is a country of a million and a half if we include the expats. Think about the implications of Saudi-sponsored sectarian warfare in a place like Pakistan, a country of some 170 million, where an estimated 20-30 percent are Shia. We see daily attacks on Shias in Pakistan, by the way, which the Iranians blame on Saudi Arabia. Again, everything changes massively if we go down that path, and that's the danger the United States is very much aware of. That is why the United States has come out and said that cooler heads should prevail in this tangle that Iran and Saudi Arabia find themselves in. I firmly believe that the Iranians, despite everything that's going on with Saudi Arabia, would still rather have Saudi Arabia remain neutral. For them the main fight isn't between Iran and Saudi Arabia; it's between Iran and the West and Israel.
The fear seems to be that the GCC states could become a platform for military invasion in the future policy of containing Iran. Iran seeks to prevent this, and I think that explains why Iran is so cautious when it deals with Bahrain. It still hangs on to the hope that they can perhaps, at the very least, keep the GCC states neutral. If they become another platform, the isolation that Iran is already under becomes even worse.
As I said earlier, we see major differences of opinion in Tehran between the so-called ideologues and the pragmatists. I was taken back by suggestions in certain circles in the Iranian media about how Saudi Arabia, to this day, is seeking to use the services of former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, in the 1990s overhauled relations with Saudi Arabia. They're trying to go back to someone like Rafsanjani or Khatami, thinking that if you look beyond Ahmadinejad, there are still people in Tehran that you might be able to deal with. There's recognition in Iran that the Saudis absolutely are not looking for war, but for ways to bridge the gap with the Iranians, looking for the right Iranians to deal with.
Elsewhere, I have to say, the GCC states continue to be divided as far as Iran's reading of the situation is concerned. I thought it was quite telling to see the Omanis play such a crucial role in the recent release of the two U.S. hikers. I don't think Saudi Arabia would have been trusted by the Iranians to play that kind of role. This shows again that the GCC states are very much refraining from being led by Saudi Arabia. They're playing their own cards.
I have looked hard for one GCC policy toward Iran. I cannot find it. I think the only moment in the last year when I saw the GCC states genuinely come together was the intervention in Bahrain and the actions of the peninsula force. That was the only time I saw Oman and Qatar be led effectively by Saudi Arabia. But soon after that, when the situation in Bahrain was contained and defused somewhat and the al-Khalifas appeared to be safe, the GCC states again went their separate ways. We also saw the Iranians were able to reach out to the Kuwaitis on a bilateral basis, effectively making the Kuwaitis forget about the Saudi pressure to stay away from Iran. The only GCC country that has in recent years become more aligned, I would say, with Saudi policy towards Iran is the UAE. I would specifically point to Abu Dhabi as becoming harsher in its tone against Iran. But elsewhere I see GCC disunity, and that disunity serves only Iran.
There's also no one view in Iran on the GCC states. Policy differences have always existed, but they are becoming more pronounced because of the infighting. Going back to the 2009 elections in Iran, Mir-Hossein Mousavi specifically came out and talked about how Ahmadinejad had failed in his foreign-policy endeavors and that Iran was becoming more isolated as a result. But the green opposition movement for various reasons is on the sidelines. They're not a factor at the moment, certainly not in shaping policy. Does that mean the Iranian state now has a more united approach to foreign policy? Not if you listen to President Ahmadinejad and the speeches given by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader is far more ideological, playing the Bahraini Shia card much more readily than Ahmadinejad. President Ahmadinejad in his UN speech didn't mention Palestine once, yet within days, at the Islamic-awakening conference in Tehran led by the supreme leader, he talked about nothing but Palestine.
Khamenei's people, early in the year, were very upset about how Esfandiar Mashaei, the right-hand man of Ahmadinejad, invited King Abdullah of Jordan to Tehran. The Khamenei faction in Tehran read the invitation as a signal that Iran was willing to change its ways and reach out to the Jordanians. For those in Washington who try to figure out what the Iranian reading on Jordan is, the Iranians look at Jordan as a country that's totally aligned with the United States. Ahmadinejad, as a populist, is trying to find a way to bridge the gap with some of the Sunni anti-Iran Arab states, including Jordan. Khamenei doesn't want that. This is part of this fight that's going on. When the foreign minister of Iran, Salehi, who was appointed by Ahmadinejad, got into trouble for simply meeting the Bahraini foreign minister at the United Nations, it tells you something about how sensitive this issue has become in Tehran. There is massive infighting going on between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, and it's moved from just being related to domestic politics to the realm of foreign policy.
How does this impact policy? That's impossible to know unless you're part of the inner core or have sources that are. But one thing is very clear. Iranian officials right now do not see eye to eye. The supreme leader and the executive branch are not looking even at, say, the Arab Spring in the same way.
Let me wrap up with three concluding remarks. Iran will continue to act opportunistically. I think what's happening in Bahrain, above all, will depend on how the Sunni states, Saudi Arabia specifically, play their cards in Bahrain. I think we might see a situation where Iran will benefit again because the Sunni-majority Arab states will play the sectarian card, presenting all the grievances of their own Shia populations as those of Iranian agents. That will benefit Iran because it effectively pushes those Arab Shias, whether in Bahrain or the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, into the arms of the Iranians. Iran will be there to take advantage of that opportunity if it arises, but it's up to the governments in Riyadh and elsewhere to decide whether they're going to play that card.
Number two, based on my travels in the region, I don't see a lot of Gulf Arabs or Arabs in general looking at the Islamic Republic of Iran as a model. When I hear Bahraini officials talk about Ayatollah Khamenei as the person that these Shia protesters look up to, I'm very skeptical. I think it's much more about Shia socioeconomic grievances in Bahrain, and I don't think it serves the government of Bahrain well in the long term to pretend that there is an Iranian hand behind what is happening. I don't see the evidence, although I see why it's convenient to point to the Iranians, and I think the Iranians will act opportunistically.
Finally, the GCC states, as far as Tehran is concerned, are best kept neutral. Iran will be cautious. Iran will do everything it can not to play the sectarian card, but be vocal in its language against Sunnis. Iran will do all these things in the hope that it can keep the GCC states disunited and neutral, but its policies are ineffective, and that goes back to the fact that there are divisions in Tehran.
The Iranians might think this means nothing; that inciting Shias in Bahrain is okay. This is not tantamount to a hands-on policy, but that's not the reading on the other side of the Gulf. I'm not sure if it's because they're amateurs or if they think they can get away having it both ways — one side saying that they are for what they refer to as popular uprisings, while at the same time saying to the governments in these Arab states that they're not inciting anybody to topple these regimes. I don't think they can get away with it. That's what I mean when I say that their policy is ineffective. They have to make up their minds what it is they want long-term vis-à-vis the GCC states, and they have to develop a much more consistent policy approach.
Here in Washington we hear talk about the Iranian system as if it's another Soviet Union, very capable and powerful. I don't see it. I certainly don't see one strategic blueprint that Iran implements in dealing with its neighbors, certainly not the GCC states.
THOMAS MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
Iran has been on a course toward increasing isolation from the GCC states, and the prospects for improvement were not very good even before the Arab Spring. The GCC states don't see everything identically, but I think their shared concerns and objectives are a little closer than Alex thinks they are. They have been concerned about increasing Iranian influence in Iraq following our invasion because it elevated the Shia Arabs and marginalized the Sunni Arabs. It unleashed a civil war, which could have spread into their own countries. They are, as Tom said, suspicious of Shia leaders like al-Maliki and al-Sadr, and they will support Sunni leaders who they think can contain Iranian influence. This includes Ayad Allawi, who is actually a Shia but attracts a lot of Sunni support. Essential political compromises have not been made in Iraq between the Kurds and the Arabs, and between Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. And there are new problems developing between Iraq and Kuwait, for example, over Kuwait's building of a port. There are new problems developing between Iraq and Bahrain, for example, with al-Maliki calling for the Khalifa family to step down. This also concerns other GCC states.
GCC leaders are distressed that we ignored their advice about going into Iraq. I have heard that in Saudi Arabia; I've heard it in the UAE; others have heard it in Qatar. These countries are going to resent the United States even more than they do now if we leave disorder and Iranian influence behind, as it seems we are going to do.
These GCC states have also been concerned about Iran's increasing influence in Syria and Lebanon and Palestine; its perceived influence with the Shia Arab communities in the GCC states; its alleged intervention in Yemen in 2009; its obvious influence in Afghanistan; its conventional military forces and potential nuclear weapons. As to influence with Shia populations in the GCC states, this year Kuwait arrested several Shia who were allegedly working with Iranian agents to photograph American military bases, and they were sentenced recently.
GCC states have had a series of generally unsuccessful diplomatic contacts with Iran, even though on occasion Iran has been invited to come over and talk; Qatar invited them to a GCC summit a few years ago. But the GCC states don't have a lot of hope for improvement as long as Ahmadinejad is in the government. We've heard that they could get along with Rafsanjani, they could work with Khatami, but not Ahmadinejad.
The GCC states have criticized U.S. and Israeli military threats against Iran. They criticize economic sanctions. They criticize our diplomatic strategy regarding Iran's nuclear programs. But they're ambivalent about all these tactics. They're uncertain about what the alternatives are, and they are concerned, as Tom said, about military action against Iran. Not only does Saudi Arabia have infrastructure that would be vulnerable, but Qatar has the liquefied-natural-gas trains, and Abu Dhabi has infrastructure. They support sanctions and diplomacy up to a point. And Qatar even voted in favor of two UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. But they are concerned about the military option.
So containing or defending against Iran can rest in part upon what the GCC states continue to see as their essential defense relations with the United States. They have defense cooperation agreements with us; they purchase our military technology. This remains the case, even though they are distressed about our policy and see China and India as more important oil customers and rising world powers. There is concern among some defense analysts in the West that these states may ask China and India to undertake some of the defense responsibilities that the United States has been carrying out. China, however, does not want to do that. It's not capable of doing that; it likes to be a free rider. And India, I think, would rather cooperate with the U.S. military than replace it.
GCC leaders also argue that persuading Iran to forgo nuclear weapons means addressing Israeli, Pakistani and Indian nuclear weapons. They argue that the Middle East should be a nuclear-weapons-free zone, which means Israeli nuclear disarmament.
GCC leaders are concerned to varying degrees that Iran poses a serious offensive conventional military threat, and they all take note of Iran's regular military exercises in and around the Gulf. UAE officials, in particular, regularly put a spotlight on Iran's occupation and militarization of Abu Musa and the Tunbs, which are three small islands lying along the strategic shipping lanes to the west of the Strait of Hormuz. They have the support of the other GCC states in their claim to those islands; Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia just mentioned that issue in a piece he wrote last week.
These states recognize that deniable, covert, asymmetric aggression is more likely than attributable, overt, conventional offensive action by Iran unless Iran is responding to an attack. They all note that they have vulnerabilities. Mohammad bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi's crown prince and deputy supreme commander of their armed forces, has noted that the UAE would be a target of Iranian retaliation.
Of the six, Oman may have a little less concern than some of the others. It knows that Iran is a major country in the neighborhood and is going to be there forever. There is a certain amount of cooperation. They jointly patrol the Strait of Hormuz. And even though Oman does provide military facilities to the United States, it tries to maintain good relations with Iran. It uses those good relations to serve as a mediator when no one else can, as they did during the Clinton administration, when they carried messages for Clinton and Gore. And as a UC Berkeley alumnus, I have to thank Oman for helping the three Berkeley hikers get out of Iran.
I think that proposals to eventually include Iran in a Gulf security structure are very impractical. When Iran argues that the United States is the problem in the Gulf and says that they can protect the Gulf countries and calls upon them to break their defense cooperation agreements with the United States, those arguments are not falling on fertile ground.
The GCC states think that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is a means of reducing Iranian influence in the region and Iran's ability to challenge their governments. This is an argument that even President Obama has made, so he understands it. Efforts by Saudi Arabia's king, Qatar's emir and other GCC leaders to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict were not supported by the Bush administration. These leaders are disappointed that the Obama administration is so timid in its Arab-Israeli policy, particularly when Obama and other officials have said that solving this conflict is a vital national security interest of the United States. The GCC leaders support Palestine's admission to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia and Qatar reportedly helped the Palestinian Authority write its draft proposal for admission to the United Nations. Khamenei has recently said he opposes Palestine's admission to the United Nations, although in the past he's been open to the idea of a two-state solution. He hinted very, very strongly at that in Iran's grand-bargain proposal of 2003, but he now evidently thinks this would not be good for Iran, and I agree with him. It would diminish their influence.
GCC states are constructing their own policies to contain Iran, including the purchase of F-15 fighter jets, Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot anti-missile systems. They are even considering nuclear options. But there's more. They've tried to forge Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. They've tried to improve relations between Hezbollah and its rivals in Lebanon. They've tried to engineer a thaw with Syria. They've even tried to mediate between the Taliban and the Kabul government; and they've tried to establish better relations with Russia and China, hoping that they will pressure Iran, independently of U.S. policy.
The "Arab Awakening" has changed the landscape somewhat, and I'd like to use three cases — Egypt, Bahrain and Syria — to talk about what it means. The Iranian regime encouraged the opposition in Egypt, claiming that it was an Islamic awakening inspired by the model of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iranian government. It claimed that Iran would benefit no matter what happened. If the opposition forces won, it would show how fragile autocratic Arab governments are; if the regime survived, it would show how brutal Arab regimes are. No matter what happened, they argued that they would benefit.
But Iranian encouragement to the opposition was not consequential. It's not what galvanized and motivated the opposition. Iran's claim about the inspiration it had provided was wrong. Its ability to benefit is limited, and it appears to me that Iran was not a major factor in the thinking of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and others as they calculated what to do about Egypt. Mubarak was toppled, and Egypt began to conduct what seemed like a more independent foreign policy. Iranian warships transited the Suez Canal. The new foreign minister indicated he was more open to diplomatic ties with Iran. The Egyptians pushed Hamas and Fatah to reconcile, saying they would lift the blockade of Gaza in order to motivate Hamas. They said they'd reconsider natural-gas deals with Israel. But Egypt is a Sunni Arab state, and it sees itself having a leadership role in the region. This means it cannot be too close to Iran.
Indeed, the new Egyptian foreign minister said that the Gulf was a red line that Iran could not cross, meaning that he expressed solidarity with the GCC states. Egypt will also maintain its peace treaty with Israel, even though relations will be colder than under Mubarak and Omar Suleiman. The Egyptian military will play a very important role, and it will continue to value its relationship with the United States military. That will limit how close it can be to Iran. Even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood said it was open to better relations with Iran. But they are Sunni Arab Islamists who have reservations about Shia Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood is dividing into factions, old and young, liberal and conservative. And, certainly, the young and the liberal see Turkey as their model, not Iran. Turkey can also play a more important role in Arab-Israeli affairs now than Iran can, and the Arab street can see that.
Mubarak's fall was undesirable for Saudi Arabia and other GCC states. It set a precedent they don't want to see repeated. Mubarak had been a partner in regional affairs, and the U.S. call for a transition to democracy, followed by its call for Mubarak to step down, is another reason for these GCC states to question our reliability as a strategic partner. Mubarak had been our strategic partner. Certainly, Saudi Arabia's king was angry about the U.S. shift. And they're concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood. They're supporting the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. They're concerned about post-Mubarak circumstances in Egypt. There are economic problems that any government would have a great deal of difficulty solving, and no one can be sure what kinds of political forces will emerge and take over.
There's even talk about including Egypt in the GCC, which could take a lot of time to manifest itself. I wouldn't expect it very quickly, but it seems to indicate a desire to bolster themselves against Iran, to compete with Turkey for influence in Egypt and to see if another revolution in Egypt can be averted. It's been argued that Qatar might not have been as supportive of Mubarak or as concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood as Saudi Arabia. Al-Jazeera's coverage has been cited as an indication that Qatar was not completely in sync with Saudi Arabia. As I reflect on that coverage, it didn't start immediately, indicating that Qatar might have been ambivalent or reluctant to pressure Mubarak. When it did start, Al-Jazeera covered both sides, including, for example, protesters burning down the headquarters of the National Democratic Party. It was a huge story that they could not ignore. If there was a difference, it may be that Qatar saw the writing on the wall for Mubarak before Saudi Arabia and some of the other countries did. Another observation I'd make is that they did not allow Iran to use its soft power in the Arab street and present itself as a champion of the Egyptian protesters without pointing out that Iran had crushed its own green movement just two years earlier and that it was crushing protests in several Iranian cities at that very moment.
As for the ripple effect of Tunisia and Egypt and other countries like Yemen and Libya into the GCC states, their wealth insulates them. They also provide better governance than Libya, Yemen and Egypt. When protests came to Bahrain — in part because the largely Shia majority was inspired by what had occurred in Tunisia and Egypt — and even when Oman experienced some disturbances in Sohar, the other GCC states moved to address that. The wealthier states provided economic support to Bahrain and Oman. The Saudi national guard and the UAE police moved to protect Bahrain's infrastructure so that Bahrain's military and police could deal with the protesters.
In this case, as both Tom and Alex have said, Iran was a major factor in their thinking. They were not going to allow Iran to establish a beachhead of influence such as they had already established in Iraq. In part, the Saudis didn't want to see this protest inspire the Shia in the Eastern Province, and other GCC states with Shia minorities felt the same way. But their own Shia populations were a minor consideration compared to dealing with Bahrain itself. That's not to say that Iran was involved in Bahrain at the beginning, and Defense Secretary Gates said at the time he didn't see any evidence of their starting it.
We probably won't know with certainty for quite a few years; the nature of covert operations is that they are not overt. But Iran would have seen a victory by the Shia and the extremist Islamists among them as an opportunity they could exploit, and the GCC intervention was meant to remove that opportunity. Critics have said that the GCC intervention created a sectarian conflict, but there was already a sectarian character to this protest and the problems in Bahrain before the intervention. Opposition demands were growing every time the regime offered any dialogue or reform. Even before the intervention, opposition leaders said, we're going to march on the neighborhood where the royal family lives. You would expect the Bahrain royal family to do something about that.
There is a sectarian character that continues. Al-Maliki, in Iraq, who is a Shia, is looking at the Bahrain situation and calling for the Sunni monarchy to step down. Here again, I agree with Alex. For the moment, it looks as if Iran is a power that has not been able to help the Shia of Bahrain despite all its rhetoric and posturing. But it's probably more important to consider the opportunities that will present themselves to Iran and even Iraq and the setbacks that the GCC may experience if Bahrain does not introduce real reform now. It has stabilized the situation, and if it's going to introduce reform, it should be now. This is what the Obama administration has been trying to argue. If they don't, Iran may take opportunities to exploit the situation, perhaps not even in Bahrain, perhaps in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. We don't know if Iran had anything to do with what happened in the Eastern Province this week or not. Maybe they didn't, but if I were a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, I would see opportunities now.
By the way, Sultan Qaboos of Oman has introduced real reform, and that's something that Bahrainis should emulate. So for those who have argued that Saudi Arabia has been leading a GCC counterrevolution to oppose popular movements, I would say, yes, they've been trying to defend their own domestic stability and their own form of government, but they've also been making geopolitical calculations about how to defend their allies and how to contain and push back Iranian influence. If they were strictly counterrevolutionary, they wouldn't have been willing to abandon Yemen's Saleh or Libya's Qadhafi or Syria's Asad.
This takes us to Syria. When unrest came to Syria and the Alawite regime of the al-Asad family — and the Alawites are an offshoot of the Shia — Iran did not criticize the regime. Evidently they supported them, reportedly helping them monitor social-media platforms and providing some arms and economic assistance and some foot soldiers from the Basij and even the Revolutionary Guard Quds Force. This has been argued by some GCC states and by the United States. In fact, we've imposed sanctions on Iran for this.
Why did Iran support Asad? Syria has been a partner in supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, thereby helping Iran extend its influence into the Levant. This is probably its biggest achievement in the last couple of decades. Losing Syria would be a huge setback for Iran and Hezbollah. It would disrupt the Shia crescent. The GCC states were ambivalent at first. They've been trying to wean Syria away from Iran for several years, and in Saudi Arabia, for example, they were reasonably satisfied and hopeful about that process in January 2010. The United States has also been trying to wean Syria away from Iran. There was some GCC reluctance to throw Asad under the bus quickly. Syria even expressed understanding for the GCC intervention in Bahrain, which was appreciated by the GCC and was viewed with a lot of dismay in Iran. Even when the Obama administration accused the Revolutionary Guard of being involved in brutalizing protesters in Syria, the GCC still seemed to hope Asad could be a reformer. When the subject of Syria came up at a GCC summit, they decided to delay decisions in order to give Asad more time. But in August, the repression was so great that they called for an immediate end to violence, and for Syria's leaders to "resort to wisdom."
In part, this was an acknowledgment of the sentiment in their own street; Sunni Arabs resented what the Alawites were doing to the Sunnis in Syria. In part, it reflected a calculation that they couldn't wean Asad away from Iran if he survived. For others, it represented a calculation that Asad can't survive, period, and that they need to deal with other actors. There's a sectarian dimension there: Al-Maliki received an official Syrian delegation during the summer and called on the protesters not to sabotage the state. He was favoring the Alawite regime because he owes his power to Iran. It has now emerged that in late 2005 and early 2006, when Iraq was forming the new government and the Shias had won but couldn't decide on a prime minister, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard's Quds force went into the Green Zone in Baghdad and negotiated among the Shia coalition parties to make sure al-Maliki won. He owes his position to them, and Iran prevailed on Syria to support him as well. I think al-Maliki initially wanted to support Asad for those reasons, but now Iran — at least Ahmadinejad — has called on Asad to stop the violence, try to talk to the opposition and introduce reform. If Asad falls, they lose their bridge to Lebanon, and they don't look very good in the Arab street if they're supporting Asad and this kind of oppression. That has led their partner Iraq also to start criticizing Syria.
In conclusion, I think the GCC states — particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE — are playing a more assertive role in the region, in part to defend their own achievements, but in part on behalf of people in places like Syria, and in part to limit the influence of both Iran and al-Qaeda. It helps that none of the uprisings have been motivated by Iran's or al-Qaeda's ideology. Both have been discredited. So even if the new governments in the region don't look like GCC governments, I think they're going to have more in common with the GCC than they do with Iran.
MR. LIPPMAN: Among the member states of the GCC, I think it's clear that to the Kuwaitis the greatest threat always is Iraq and not Iran. It was quite alarming this summer when a member of the Iraqi cabinet asserted that the Kuwaitis were stealing oil by drilling horizontally under the border. Last time I heard that was just before the Iraqis invaded in 1990. This could not have made people feel good in Kuwait.
I certainly agree with Alex's point about Iran's relative restraint. If you look at the incidents over the past couple of years in which Shia have been under stress for one reason or another — the Israeli attack on Hezbollah, the Shia in Bahrain, even the Shia in Iraq — the Iranians have said a lot, but they have not intervened, at least not overtly or in any way that you could counter.
Finally, I would say to Tom Mattair that one of the most surprising developments in this entire story about Bahrain and the Gulf was Qatar's endorsement of the Saudi deployment. That showed how much what happened in Bahrain had galvanized thinking on the Arab side of the Gulf. If I were running Qatar, I would regard the Saudi intervention to clean up a mess they didn't like in a small neighboring country as a dangerous precedent, especially given the traditional antipathy between the Qataris and the Saudis, which has been papered over but still exists. But the Qataris were completely on board with it, and I found that indicative of a new attitude within the GCC.
MR. VATANKA: Let me just tell you about a headline two days ago in Iranian Diplomacy, a website run by foreign-policy experts or former diplomats from the Khatami administration. It posted an article with the headline, "Iran Will Not Commit Suicide for Syria." The Iranian position on Syria is not as it was 10 years ago. I think Iraq, in many ways, has replaced Syria as Iran's chief ally in the Arab world. Syria was always going to be a springboard. Hezbollah's situation in Lebanon has consolidated quite a bit, and the removal of Syria, as an ally of Iran, will complicate the practical means Iran has at its disposal to keep Hezbollah armed. But the Iranians do not necessarily consider Syria a red line. As Tom pointed out, the Iranians were shocked and horrified when Syria supported the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. I also hinted at the divisions that I detect in Iran; and Ahmadinejad, as Tom pointed out rightly, has been far more critical of what's going on in Syria than Khamenei. He has been so critical that Hasan Nasrallah came out and pretty much said, you're not welcome back in Lebanon. Nasrallah has sided with Khamenei in that internal Iranian fight. Ahmadinejad is a populist, not an ideologue, like Khamenei. He refers to the Arab Spring as humanitarian uprisings. Khamenei refers to an Islamic awakening.
Q & A
Q: I was wondering if any of the panelists might be able to comment on Riyadh's motivation for the proposed GCC expansion to include Morocco and Jordan, and Iran's reaction.
MR. LIPPMAN: I don't think there's much mystery about Jordan's inclusion. It would bring a reputedly competent military force into an area that's conspicuously lacking in them in exchange for Gulf money. As for Morocco, I'm not sure that's a real prospect. Morocco is 1,400 miles away. That would be sort of the equivalent of bringing Albania into NATO. I know we did that, but was it really a good idea, and did it enhance our security?
MR. VATANKA: The Iranian reaction has been more or less mute, probably because they don't take it too seriously. They looked at it as a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the GCC states because of what happened in Bahrain and fears that Iran was emboldened, and that they needed to send a very clear signal that the GCC states, because of their massive demographic disadvantage vis-à-vis Iran, have sources of support. I don't think it was a coincidence that Morocco, a sizable country with an Atlantic Ocean coast, suddenly is being considered for membership in the GCC. Morocco broke off relations with Iran in 2008. The Iranians read that as the GCC states having provided "incentives," because Morocco had fears about the expansion of Shiism among Moroccans. I think it was much more of a geopolitical game. At least, that was the perception in Tehran. They saw the GCC states, and probably Saudi Arabia, as a key driver behind Morocco's decision.
Q: A question for Mr. Lippman: you said that, according to a WikiLeaks cable, the king told General Jones that if Iran develops a bomb, all of the Gulf countries will have to do so. What do you think the king's motivation was? You also said you didn't believe it was necessarily Saudi policy and did not know who told the king that the GCC should assist Bahrain. Third, the status-of-forces agreement with Iraq expires at the end of this year, and I can't imagine that there would be a single DOD person in Iraq without a status-of-forces agreement to protect them, as opposed to being under Iraqi law.
MR. LIPPMAN: In one of Anthony Cordesman's really detailed books about the security apparatus and the military in Saudi Arabia, he has a list of the national-security decision-making apparatus in Saudi Arabia. It has 23 names on it, including the minister of health. Beware people who present themselves to you as experts on decision making in Saudi Arabia. There is a National Security Council, as they call it, nominally headed by Prince Bandar. No one has any idea what Prince Bandar really does anymore. The person we are trying to identify was almost certainly not any active-duty member of the armed forces because the Al Saud have been rigorous throughout their regime in excluding the armed forces from political decision making. So I really don't know the answer, but of course it was a certain number of people. Was Khalid bin Sultan among them? I don't know.
On the nuclear question, the king's reported remarks were in the context of a rhetorical escalation by the king and others in an attempt to galvanize the United States about the Iranian nuclear program. The Saudis want us to do something about it.
DR. MATTAIR: I'm not sure that the king needed to be advised by anyone. I think he was perfectly capable of analyzing the situation and making a decision. I think he would value advice and consensus, but I'm not even sure that's a critically important question.
MR. VATANKA: As for the SOFA agreement, I can tell you that the Iranians are assuming that these American military personnel will remain in Iraq. They are reconciling themselves to that fact. They're happy to live with it. The last indication I saw on this that touched on the issue was that these American troops should not — and this is policy advocacy on the part of Tehran — be able to stay there and benefit from immunity, but should follow Iraqi law.
Q: To go back to the perspectives of the GCC countries individually, why is it that countries like Oman and Kuwait are apparently not concerned about Iran?
DR. MATTAIR: I don't know if I would say that Kuwait is not concerned about Iran. Kuwait is probably more concerned about Iraq, but Iran has a lot of influence in Iraq, and Kuwait has a Shia population. Kuwait from time to time alleges espionage and arrests and sentences people, and diplomats get expelled on both sides. So Kuwait has a concern. All of the GCC states have concerns about Iranian conventional capabilities, and there are scenarios in which these can be harmful to the GCC states. Iran's conventional capabilities interrupted oil traffic in the 1980s, hurting all those states, particularly Kuwait, which is why Reagan had convoys protecting them. If there's ever a military confrontation involving Israel and Iran, or the United States and Iran, and Iran retaliates, that hurts everybody, including Kuwait, including Oman. But again, with respect to Oman, they do want to maintain the best relations they can in order to serve as mediators. They are perhaps a little farther away from some of the conflict, unless there is an all-out war where the Straits of Hormuz are threatened.
MR. LIPPMAN: Unlike Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and especially Dubai have very large economic interests with Iran. There's very little commerce that I know of between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But you can sit in an outdoor restaurant on Dubai Creek and look across the water and see big buildings representing the Iranian banks, which can hardly do business anywhere in the world anymore, but there they are in Dubai. You go to Khasab in Oman, and somebody gets a phone call, suddenly 250 people take off for the Iranian coast because they can get their smuggling done. There are big economic interests on the Arab side of the Gulf.
Q: Alex highlighted 2003 as a reference point, but Iraq attacked Iran in 1981, and that was basically the basis for the creation of the GCC. Or maybe the Iraqi attack on Kuwait should have been highlighted. I'd like to hear your thoughts on that. But a question for Tom is this: on the economic side, the Saudi reaction in Bahrain is kind of puzzling because the per capita GDP of both Bahrain and Oman are higher than Saudi Arabia's, yet they're trying to help there and forgetting the mess in Yemen. How would you explain the $10 million to Bahrain and Oman?
DR. MATTAIR: Saudi Arabia has a much larger population, and it has a relatively high per capita GDP, even though those two countries' are higher. I don't know why you characterize Saudi Arabia in quite this way. There's a large middle class. There are unemployed youth, of course, coming out of universities not being able to find jobs or housing. Saudi Arabia is not a country without problems, but when you look at something narrow like GDP per capita, you have to take into account what Saudi Arabia's larger population means and that it is harder to distribute wealth throughout such a large population. This is a country that is investing tens and tens of billions of dollars in the development of its economy and trying to provide education, housing and employment for its population, outside the oil and gas sector, building a diverse economy that can provide employment in knowledge-intensive industries. This is a government that's spending a lot of money for its economic development, and it has a lot of money to spend. Therefore, it can raise salaries. When Arab unrest comes, it can respond by spending more money for housing and employment and has money left over to help Bahrain and Oman — it's a $20 billion fund over 10 years. For Saudi Arabia, that's not an immense amount of money, but it's helpful to those two countries, because unrest in Oman had something to do with youthful unemployment. And Bahrain has to deal with economic advantage or disadvantage. Money will help address those problems.
MR. VATANKA: My understanding is that one of the underlying fears is that Saudi Arabia gets to dominate the entire GCC; and when you can play around as a way of balancing against Saudi Arabia, it helps. I agree that economics, particularly with Oman, is also a driving force. But I also want to highlight that we're talking about ruling families and officials in the GCC states that are not necessarily looking at Iran just in terms of pure politics. They deal with Iranians. Iranians live among them in quite substantial numbers. There are intermarriages. That makes it more nuanced in many ways.
Perhaps we should present the GCC's creation as a result of fears about Iraq, not Iran. In historical terms, I think you're right. It was Iraq's actions that brought the GCC states together. But I think what keeps it together today — and this is my big fear — is the sectarian issue. In that context, Iraq as a Shia-majority country and Iran as a Shia-majority country have become similar in many ways in the eyes of the GCC states.
Q: What about the soft-power conflict? Which of these countries are seen as supporting the Arab Spring in terms of socioeconomic justice, human rights and increased political rights, and which are seen as opposing it? If the GCC and Iran are in conflict, they're nevertheless both very anxious about democratic uprisings. America says a lot about supporting democracy, but we're very selective about which democratic uprisings we support. How do those new concerns play into the power contest for legitimacy?
MR. LIPPMAN: I believe that the House of Saud are, by a great majority, accepted as the legitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia. If you define a legitimate government as one that has the consent of the governed, as we did for ourselves, the House of Saud has that. They are known as the people who have spent more than 250 years trying to build a legitimate, unified Saudi state in the Arabian Peninsula. If you read all the petitions circulated by all the opposition over the past 10 or 15 years in Saudi Arabia, none of them call for outright replacement of the regime by another system. They call for modifications of the existing system, greater accountability, greater channels of communication and input into decision making in the government, but they do not call for a replacement. And we, of all countries, are not well-positioned to lecture states in the region about governance or responsive systems or collective behavior. Last week we assassinated one of our own citizens. Do you think the Saudis are not aware of the political paralysis brought on by our governmental system? All around them they see examples of so-called representative democracies that have not served the interests of their populations. They see government paralysis even in Kuwait because of the elected parliament. I think that we, who invaded Iraq and ritually support Israel no matter what, are not well-positioned to deliver these lectures.
DR. MATTAIR: I would add that other ruling families in the GCC are accepted as legitimate and considered to be providing good governance and good economic development by their own populations — Bahrain being an exception, obviously, for the Shia. Everybody is making geopolitical calculations about who they are and are not going to support. So nobody is seen as a consistent player in terms of what they support ideologically. We are trading off our ideological and strategic interests all the time, and those countries are as well.
As for Iran, I would say soft power has been a very deliberate strategy for gaining support in the Arab world, presenting itself as a champion of Palestinian rights, for example. Their behavior in 2009 has really complicated their ability to present themselves that way. The Arab street can see what they did to their own people in 2009. This may even have something to do with why Iran is criticizing the Asad regime; to be supporting it really makes them look bad in the Arab street, where their popularity has declined dramatically. That strategy is not a very good option for them anymore. I think they've played it out.
Q: Why do we use different standards for Iran than for the GCC, regarding its geopolitical calculations? And why doesn't Saudi Arabia, which doesn't want conflict or war with Iran, use Rafsanjani's influence to reconcile the perceived conflict between the two countries?
DR. MATTAIR: Iran has legitimate national-security interests. The late Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, said at one point in the 1990s that some of the Iranian conventional military acquisitions were understandable, given Iran's legitimate defensive needs. But when you're trying to understand Iran, go back to the revolution and the anti-American and the anti-Saudi rhetoric, the pejorative references to the states that hadn't formed the GCC yet, the seizure of islands to which Iran has a very, very tenuous historical and legal claim compared to the UAE's and its unwillingness to negotiate about it in a reasonable way.
There's some rhetoric and behavior that can't be ignored. It's a lot easier to evaluate Iran's capabilities and observe their behavior than to understand what their intentions are. It's possible that, if they're misinterpreted you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: you treat Iran in such a way that it's going to respond in a way that is viewed as threatening. But Iran, I think, has provided enough reasons in the last 32 years to cause concern on the other side of the Gulf about its intentions.
MR. VATANKA: I think Iran's own rhetoric is one of its greatest enemies. It doesn't seem to appreciate that when you are a small GCC state and have a country of 75 million people just across the water talking about the need to bring the Islamic awakening to your shores, the impact on the ruling families is very powerful. Iran doesn't seem to believe that its own rhetoric works. They need to figure out what it is they want. They're all over the place, and I think their rhetoric is one of the key issues.
As to Rafsanjani, I was referring to statements coming from Saudi Arabia as represented by anti-Ahmadinejad forces in Iran: that the Saudis can't wait for the day when Ahmadinejad is gone and they can have someone like Rafsanjani or Khatami to work with. Whether they will say it publicly in Saudi Arabia to visiting Americans or not, I don't know, but that was the suggestion. That totally makes sense; it's already happened within the last 20 years. Rafsanjani overhauled relations with Saudi Arabia. Reformists in Iran, if they ever come to power, will believe that Saudi Arabia should be one of the key foreign-policy objectives of any government in Tehran. It's a critical regional country, and what is going on right now between Iran and Saudi Arabia is absolutely detrimental to Iranian national interests. But, as I said, there are ideologues, and I think the sectarian card is a key issue. They play this opportunistic short-term game of inciting Saudi Arabia for their own domestic legitimacy. Obviously Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the key beneficiary of that approach.
DR. KADER: Alex, I'm going to read a question from Bahrain: Is Iran interested in establishing Shiite governments in the GCC in order to force the United States to be friendlier to Iran's interests, due to the U.S. economic interests in the region?
MR. VATANKA: I don't think the Iranians are that ambitious. At the very most, what the Iranians would like to see is for those GCC governments to become less hostile to them, or less cooperative with Iran's bigger adversaries, the West, the United States and so forth. The Iranians pick up news that, for instance, Saudi Arabia somehow might be willing to allow Israel to use its airspace to launch attacks, that sort of thing registers somewhere in Iran. They want to lessen their own isolation. Let's not underestimate the isolation that Iran is under. It doesn't match its perception of itself. When you listen to Ahmadinejad at the United Nations talking about Iran taking over world management from the United States, you wonder what sort of tool box he is looking into to come up with such a suggestion.
Q: I'd like to offer a comment on the creation of the GCC. Neither Iraq nor Iran had anything to do with it. It was in response to the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by a group of Muslim extremists who wanted to impose a very conservative version of Islam that King Abdul-Aziz was not in sympathy with, and he ultimately turned against them. It was the son of one of their leaders who led the takeover of the Mecca mosque. But the reason for the GCC's creation was that this man was arrested, and then released in Saudi Arabia. He then went to Kuwait, and Kuwaitis knew he was there, plotting against Saudi Arabia. But that didn't have anything to do with Kuwaiti security, so they didn't do anything about it. The GCC was created in the first instance to bring about coordination within the various security apparatuses of the six members.
A question for Tom Lippman: What, in your view, do the Saudis want the United States to do about the Iranian nuclear program?
MR. LIPPMAN: It's the same thing they wanted us to do about the fall of the shah and the fall of Mubarak: something that will make those dreadful Iranians see the light and not do this. I have not heard anyone in Saudi Arabia or any of the Americans who have greater contact with the Saudi security and ruling establishment than I do, including military people, suggest what that might be. You'll hear talk about a naval blockade, but has anybody measured the Iranian shoreline lately?
DR. KADER: What's the real worry about the Iranian nuclear program? Listening to the Israelis, it's the beginning of the end of the world. Listening to you people, it's the beginning of a new chapter in a very interesting novel.
MR. LIPPMAN: In my opinion, this is one of the most critical gaps in American policy planning at the moment. This is a conversation that I believe the United States, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be having at the highest levels right now. If you accept the premise, which I do, that if Iran is really determined to acquire nuclear weapons, it will do so — if North Korea can do it, Iran can do it — you ought to be devising a strategy for responding on the day that Iran drops the veil. I am not aware that any such planning is under way, partly because the Israelis don't want us to do it, and they've said so. So I'm not particularly concerned about the immediate regional danger of proliferation, but I am concerned about the fact that there's no agreed-upon set of responses among the countries that should be most concerned about it.
MR. VATANKA: Whenever I'm in Dubai and I have a glass of water, I can't help but think about the Iranian nuclear program because of the proximity of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. I think the GCC states have a genuine concern here. I don't think the Iranian regime has done anything to reduce GCC fears about the security of the Bushehr plant. If the Iranians don't want a bomb, but just a civil nuclear program, they still have a lot of assurances to give to their neighbors. The GCC states, because of the location of the Bushehr plant, have a lot of reasons to be worried and to demand things from the Iranians.
One of the things that the GCC states could do is to consider a package of some sort, probably economic as opposed to security, that would be an incentive to at least part of the Iranian regime, at a time when the Iranian economy's going through massive pain. I would specifically refer to Ahmadinejad and the so-called green opposition. They're not in power, but they're still a player. I wonder what the GCC states have thought about in terms of making themselves attractive as partners that Iran would cooperate with. Instead, we go back to the issue of the Sunni-Shia divide, which I think is totally detrimental to the future of the entire region. Everybody will lose out. Look at some of the trade-flow statistics in the region among neighboring states. It's almost nonexistent. Iran's major trading partners are all in East Asia. It doesn't trade much with the Saudis. When you look at the European Union, you see how as a bloc they trade among themselves. It helps on the security side. You don't have that between Iran and the GCC states.
DR. MATTAIR: If an Iranian nuclear weapon is ever developed, Iran cannot use it without suffering really grievous retaliation. When you think about how to develop a policy for it, in April 2010 the United States issued a Nuclear Posture Review. You can read it as extending a nuclear umbrella over the GCC states: that Iranian nuclear aggression against a neighbor would be met by an American nuclear response. That's one thing that the GCC states don't have to worry about, in my view. But they do have to worry about pre-emptive action to thwart Iran's program. What's the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon going to elicit from Israel or the United States? They've talked about the damage that can be done to them in such a war. The other thing that they would be concerned about is the added weight that it would give Iran in the region. It's already the biggest country, with the biggest population. It is already wealthy in resources, even though it's isolated. It can already bring a lot of diplomatic pressure to bear on the smaller states.
The reason I've mentioned Abu Musa and the Tunbs several times is that I wrote a 500-page book about those islands. Iran will not negotiate; Iran will not allow the case to go to the International Court of Justice. And Abu Dhabi can't do anything about it. Iran is too big and too powerful for a smaller GCC state to have its day in court or even have its day around a negotiating table to discuss the history and the law in the case. With a nuclear weapon, Iran's power in the region would be much greater. One thing I've heard from GCC leaders is that, if Iran had a bomb, they'd be able to bring a lot of pressure on GCC states to enter into really advantageous investments in Iran's economy, and GCC states wouldn't have a lot of ability to say no. So I come back to the fact that it would make Iran an even more powerful neighbor than it already is in terms of diplomacy and economic power.
MR. VATANKA: On the islands dispute, it's important to remember that the Iranian regime cannot afford to give up territory to any neighboring state, for simple domestic political calculations, be it in the Persian Gulf or the Caspian Sea. That would be a huge political liability for them back in Tehran. The Qajars are still being damned for having lost those territories up in the north. If you removed Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and put in charge a secular government tomorrow, you would still have to deal with the issues of the islands and elsewhere. This is a country where basic nationalism still resonates massively. If I were a GCC government, I would not look for a game change just because the ruling elite in Tehran were replaced. I don't think they're going to become so powerful, demographically and politically, that they're going to be willing to go to war with Iran over those three islands. I think it's going to continue to be an issue. The question is, is this issue going to top everything else?
Q: My question concerns the idea that Iran might "lose Syria," should Asad fall. Given Iran's positions on Arab-Israeli issues, including its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and Syria's interest in survival, isn't it a lot more likely that Iran's influence will be somewhat diminished, and Saudi Arabia might have somewhat more influence in Syria?
MR. VATANKA: I tend to consider the Iranian regime as much more survivalist, if not pragmatic, than ideological. I already see the writing on the wall when it comes to Syria. I could see the Iranian regime reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria if that's the entity that's going to win out. Why shouldn't Iran be able to do that? They've already dealt with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other branches of the Sunni (sort of) Muslim Brotherhood. They've already reached out in a major way towards the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. There's nothing in their way in terms of ideology. It's just a question of geopolitical calculations. I see certain Iranian players, including Ahmadinejad, already being much more forthright and saying Asad is gone; it's a question of time. How do we salvage as much as we can?
DR. MATTAIR: I think Iran is losing in the region, not only because of its divisions at home and the way it handled its own election, but because it is about to lose a major strategic ally and won't have as much opportunity in Syria once the Saudis and the Turks increase their influence there. Iran is being foiled in Bahrain, and Turkey and the GCC states can play a bigger role in championing Palestinians than Iran can at this point. Their influence was declining before the Arab Awakening, and I think the way it is being played out is also not to their advantage. I think their own mistakes and the accident of the Arab Awakening might actually do more to diminish them than anything American foreign policy has done, whether diplomacy or economic sanctions or military threats.
MR. LIPPMAN: Consider the countries that we have been talking about this morning: Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and the United States. What those countries have in common is that none of us in this room knows who will be running any of those countries in five years, including our own, or what policies those leaders might pursue. To a certain extent, we're dealing with managing a difficult situation without knowing where we're going.
MR. VATANKA: I think for a majority of Iranians, if not a majority in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not an attractive political system. I would go as far as to say it has sort of bankrupted itself. If anyone had any doubt, you have only to go back to the protests in 2009 and the fact that the regime simply has the repressive tools at its disposal to keep itself in power. That should tell us quite a bit about how attractive it is to the neighboring states, including the Shia populations in the GCC states.
It comes down to how those Arab governments, particularly in places like Saudi Arabia, play their own political cards — whether they're going to be accommodating to some of the socioeconomic grievances that exist in their societies, or whether they're going to continue to portray what's going on as solely related to the Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian divide. If that's what they opt to do, we're going to continue to see grievances like this erupt periodically, as we've seen in the last 20 to 30 years.
A final point: The Iranian regime does not have a strategy for the Arab Spring. It takes unrest at face value. It looks at its interest and chooses its rhetoric and practical decisions accordingly. When you look at what Iran did in terms of Egypt versus what Iran has done with Syria and other Arab countries that have had unrest, it's obvious that there's no ideological vehicle that Iran refers to when it acts. It's an opportunistic system. Maybe all countries are, but I think it's important to underscore that and not make Iran into some sort of attractive ideological driver.