The Fertile Crescent After ISIS – Between Russia, Iran, and Israel
(Shmuel Bar, March 13, 2019)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Dr. Shmuel Bar served for thirty years in the Israeli government, first in the IDF Intelligence and then in the analytic and operational positions in the Israeli Office of the Prime Minister.
Since the mid 1980s, he has specialized in the ideology and operational codes of Islamic fundamentalist movements and particularly the Jihadi movement that later evolved into al-Qaeda.
He is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Warrant for Terror: The Fatwas of Radical Islam and the Duty to Jihad. He holds a Ph.D. in History of the Middle East from Tel-Aviv University.
From 2003 and June 2013, Dr. Bar served as Senior Research Fellow and then Director of Studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel and on the steering team of the annual “Herzliya Conference”.
In addition to being an Adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, he is also a Senior Research Fellow at International Institute for Non-Proliferation Studies, has been (2007) Distinguished Koret Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has lectured at various academic institutions on issues relating to Israeli national security.
Dr. Bar has headed over 25 research projects – many of them for US government agencies – and published over 40 books, monographs and articles in professional journals on issues relating to the Middle East, including strategic issues in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, deterrence (both nuclear and vis-à-vis terrorist threats), radical Islamic ideology, Iran, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians.He heads “Shmuel Bar- Research and Consultancy Ltd.” and is also Senior Research Fellow at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research at the Technion University in Haifa. Dr. Bar is also founder and CEO of IntuView Ltd – an Israeli based software company in the area of natural language processing.
He previously spoke at Westminster on the subject of: The Demise of the Arab State, Re-Tribalization, and the Emergence of “Jihadistans” in the Next Five Years.
Robert R. Reilly:
Dr. Shmuel Bar served for thirty years in the Israeli government; first in the IDF intelligence and then in the analytic and operational positions in the Israeli Office of the Prime Minister.
Since the mid-1980s, he specialized in the ideology and operational codes of Islamic fundamentalist movements and particularly the jihadi movement that later evolved into Al Qaeda.
He’s now the Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute. He’s the author of Warrant for Terror: the Fatwas of Radical Islam and the Duty to Jihad. I would say Warrant for Terror came out how many years ago, Shmuel? Okay, say the book came out about eight years ago. Believe me, it is an evergreen. So, go on to Amazon and get Warrant for Terror. It’s a short, powerful piece of analysis of what fatwas say on this subject.
Shmuel holds a PhD in history of the Middle East from Tel Aviv University. He’s been a research fellow, director of studies at a number of institutions, including Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Aside from Warrant for Terror, Shmuel has published more than forty books, monographs, articles, and professional journals and issues relating to the Middle East and all the attendant topics.
Tonight, he’s going to speak to us about, “The Fertile Crescent After ISIS – Between Russia, Iran, and Israel.” Welcome, Shmuel.
So, you’ll forgive me for not having PowerPoint. It distracts me. What I’d like to sort of do is to start with a sort of tour de raison of where we stand and let’s just say now we are at the beginning of 2019 and we are seeing the civil war in Syria winding up as a civil war and entering into a new stage and this I think is important to understand.
People are saying oh, well, yeah, Bashar al-Assad won. No, Bashar al-Assad did not win. Russia won. Iran won. Turkey so-so. The Syrian people lost. But this is not – to paraphrase Churchill, it’s not the end, it’s not the beginning of the end, maybe it’s the end of the beginning.
Because if we start from Syria and we look at the map, Syria will not really be a country again because the Syrian military alone cannot really completely hold all of the territories which are dominated by Sunnis who have lost so many people.
We are talking about a country of over 20 million, which about half the country has become refugees either external or internal refugees. Their homes have been destroyed and many, many of them find that when if they do come back from their status as refugees, their homes have been appropriated and given to Iraqi, Afghan, and other Shiites who have been imported by the Iranians and by the Syrian regime in order to ethnically cleanse the area.
At the same time, the whole Kurdish issue is still waiting and I’ll touch on that because the Kurdish issue is highly relevant to the United States. I think there should be some sort of statute of limitations on how many times you can abandon a certain ally: twice, three times, okay, but there has to be a limit. There has to be a limit.
And I say this as a person who used to train the Kurds, I like them, you know, some of my Kurdish friends say you are an honorary Kurd, you know.
But what we see now is that we are setting the stage for a new situation of on one hand the reemergence of the new Sunni uprising. You could call it ISIS 2.0. You could call it Al Qaeda 3.0.
It doesn’t matter because there’s no way whatsoever after all of this happened that the majority, which is still Sunni in Syria, is just going to lie down and say ok, you know, you won. Blood vengeance is very, very central to Arab culture and you can see this. It will take decades, if ever, for it to wear off.
However, who actually is calling the shots? What is going on? And I want to try to see. Syria is not Syria. In other words, we tend to look at places in the Middle East according to the country’s formal borders because that’s what we see on the maps at Foggy Bottom.
And I remind people that in World War II, I’ve seen maps of World War II from the American command in Europe where the maps there were these borders but they were very, very light. The real map was showing fronts. There was a front. There was an area where there was a theater of operations and Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, what people like to call the Fertile Crescent, this is a theater of operations.
And in this theater of operations we have the Russians. The Russians want something which they call ‘useful Syria’. Useful Syria means we want Tartus. We want Latakia. We want boots on the ground but not too many boots on the ground because we have a trauma of Afghanistan.
And we want to enjoy the economic benefits of having saved Bashar al-Assad. But more than anything what we wanted – we, the Russians, Putin – to collect cards for the big card game he wanted to hold with President Trump.
And he was collecting cards and he says: I’ve got Syria. You care about that. I’ve got Iran and their nuclear program. You care about that. I am trying to cozy up to the Saudis and they’re your allies. I am dabbling a little bit in Libya but you also have cards.
You have your opposition to what I’m doing in Ukraine. You have co-opted countries, which should be part of my near abroad into NATO; Estonia, et cetera. And of course, I have disagreements with you over your missile defense in the former Warsaw Pact. So let’s sit down and see. I put my cards on the table. You put your cards on the table.
So, when we’re talking about Russia, we have to understand these are Russia’s interests. That doesn’t mean that Russia is committed to Bashar al-Assad as Bashar al-Assad and Syrians know that and Iranians know that.
Moreover, Russia has absolutely no interest that Iran feel itself to be the landlord over Syria. The Russians want Iran to understand: we are the landlords, you are the tenants, which is why the Russians really like the idea that Israel is attacking Iran every day and they are telling the Iranians no, we’re not going to do anything about it.
When the Russians first entered Syria, Bogie Ya’alon was our Minister of Defense and he immediately went to Moscow. And Bogie is well known for putting his foot in his mouth and saying things that he doesn’t think about before but this time he said it right.
He sat down there with I think it was with Lavrov and someone else and he said, you know, when I was a young officer, you forced us to shoot down twelve Russian pilots over Sinai because they were flying for the Egyptians. I wouldn’t want to have to do that again.
And his Russian counterpart, the Minister of Defense, said, by no means, we will make sure that that won’t have to happen. In other words, there was this understanding. There is this understanding, which means that the players in the Syrian theater, Iran, which is trying to get closer and closer to the Israeli border, which is trying to leverage their presence in Syria in order to improve the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and has a vested interest in keeping Bashar al Assad in power. There is no other. There is nobody else except for Bashar al Assad. There’s no other Assad around, you know, who they can pass it on to, something like that.
But at the same time, the Syrian theater cannot be separated from the Iraqi theater because Iraq today is, for all intents and purposes, an Iranian satrap. The Iranians have appointed people. The Iraqi government is totally subjugated to Iran. However, the Iraqi government realizes that if they present a face of totally being under the Iranian control, then they lose America because there’s a limit to how long you can give them an exemption to evading sanctions [on Iran]. The dynamics of Iran there is trying to get the Iraqi government to pass a law to expel the American forces but to leave the Iranian forces.
I find it very difficult that this administration will see America’s forces kicked out of Iraq and will continue to give the Iraqi government [an] exemption from sanctions and will continue to fund the Iraqi Army, which means that Iran may be in a situation of, you know, the dog that’s trying to catch its own tail and when it catches its own tail, what does it do with it? You know, so, Iran will be in this situation because, at that point, without U.S. support for the Iraqi Army, the Iranians in their economic situation certainly cannot replace America as the main supporter of the Iraqi military. And then, the Sunni uprising in Iraq will, of course, there will be a surge of the Sunni uprising in Iraq.
As the economy of the Iranian regime tanks, you are going to see more and more Sunni uprisings and a return – as I said, it doesn’t have to be ISIS, it can be ISIS 2.0, 3.0, etc.
Now, let’s just move a little bit back to Syria. Turkey is aware that all things equal by the year 2030, 2040, the Kurds will be a majority in Turkey. They’re having more babies. The Turks are having fewer babies. That’s the way it works. So, they have an interest in ethnic cleansing the Kurdish area in northern Syria. That is their goal.
They have approached the United Nations and the EU, and this is what we call in Hebrew chutzpah. They have asked for European funding to settle the Syrian refugees, the Syrian Arab refugees in Turkey, in the Kurdish area in order to ethnically cleanse the Kurdish area. Obviously, the goal is to push the Kurds out. Were the Kurds pushed out, where would they go? They would go to Europe. In other words, we can expect another wave of refugees, but this time Kurdish refugees in Europe. So this is the game.
So they have asked for a buffer zone and I’m somewhat puzzled by the administration’s responses to this, ‘Oh, yeah, a buffer zone. That’s a good idea. Let’s talk about a buffer zone,’ without even understanding what exactly the Turk’s mean by a buffer zone. But fortunately, Putin came to the rescue and Putin said, ‘No buffer zone’. So even if your government might make a big mistake and think that Erdogan’s idea is good, Putin won’t accept it. So the Turks cannot have everything they want.
However, they are looking for the opportunity to mount their offensive against the Kurds. The opportunity can only happen if the American forces leave, which is why Erdogan in his phone call, the famous phone call with President Trump, which I think it’s for the history books. Pompeo was in Israel the week before, and in Jordan, and in Saudi Arabia, and in all of theses places he said, ‘Our policy today is to remain in Syria until Iran is out,’ and everybody applauded him. And a few days later, Erdogan phoned and said to President Trump, ‘Hey, why are you in Syria? You’ve defeated ISIS.’ And the President says, ‘John, is that true? Have we defeated ISIS?’ He says, ‘Yeah, more or less, we’ve defeated ISIS.’ And he says, ‘Okay, we’re out.’
So what that has done to American credibility in the region is devastating. It’s just devastating because it’s three or four days after your Secretary of State came and committed himself to remaining in Syria.
So now, immediately after that of course there’s a reversal but the damage has been done and this, of course, means that the Turks say, at one point or another, the Americans will leave and when the Americans leave, we have to be ready to attack the Kurds, and when we attack the Kurds we know that the Russians aren’t going to bring in boots on the ground because the Russians have the psychological trauma of Afghanistan. The Iranians do not have the people to bring in. They can bring in Shiites, etc., but the Turks say, ‘We’re an army. We know how to deal with that.’ So we are going to see eventually this attack on the Kurds.
Now, back to Iraq and to Iran. Iran just celebrated their fortieth anniversary of the regime. Khamenei is ill. He could die tomorrow, he could die in another two years, another three years from now. He’s not terribly ill. Apparently, it’s prostate cancer that he was operated on. However, everybody is waiting for succession.
Now, the problem for Iran is that – you know, in Monty Python, you never expect the Spanish Inquisition. They didn’t expect Trump. The very fact that Trump was elected, they were surprised, but they were left speechless because all of the strategic planning was based on a succession regime of the Obama Administration. So it took them about a few months to realize that the Trump Administration is not the Obama Administration.
It was an interesting thing. You saw that in the way that they would try some provocations in the Gulf and then they backed down because they realized that the responses are going to be different than during the Obama Administration.
But the Iranian economy is just plummeting. It’s going down. I think that all of the economic experts in the world were very moderate in their assessments of the effect of the renewal of sanctions on the Iranian economy because any large company in the world in Europe and anywhere else, even in India or China, looks at the American economy and the American market, the Iranian market, no matter how much you put each in perspective, you know, your finger can block out the moon and the moon is bigger, you know, it doesn’t matter.
The American market is bigger and no large company, no significant company, that’s what they need, significant investment, is going to forfeit the American market for the Iranian market. And consequently, the effect on the Iranian economy is a spiral effect. Right? It’s just going down and down.
Now, they could help themselves by acceding to the European demands to take steps against money laundering and support of terrorism. However, all of that is in the hands of the IRGC. So the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard, is by no means willing to accede to what they see as capitulation to the European demands. The Europeans are looking for a war around this: okay, if the Iranians accept the FATF regulations, then we’ll be able to allow certain types of deals with them because they have agreed to these standards against money laundering and support of terrorism. They won’t. That’s one of the reasons Zarif had this spat with the IRGC and therefore, they will not be able to salvage anything from the economy.
Now, they’re looking at the fact that Khamenei could die tomorrow. But who could they appoint? There’s nobody left in the magazine, no bullet left in the magazine who’s an Ayatollah Ozmah or an Ayatollah not even a Hujjat al-Islam, who’s really somebody that you can say ‘oh, it’s natural that he’d be Supreme Leader.’
So the people that they have lined up all have problems. For example, Mojtaba is Khamenei’s son. So, wait a minute, are we going back to the Shah? You know, in other words this is a problem for them. Moreover, if you appoint Khamenei’s son, he gets his father’s legitimacy and the legitimacy of being Supreme Leader. Allah forbid, he may even think he’s Supreme Leader after the IRGC appoints him. And then, he may – and this is the assessment of the IRGC as far as I see it – he may then try to strike a deal with the reformists and to accede to some of the European demands and that would harm the IRGC economy, so they can’t appoint him.
Then, since they don’t have anybody in line, what’s most likely to happen if Khamenei dies is that the Iranian Constitution stipulates that after the Supreme Leader dies, you create a Leader Council based on the Expediency Council, the Guardian Council, and the IRGC. There’s nothing in the Iranian Constitution that says how long this council can rule. So actually, it can rule indefinitely.
We have seen in history many, many regimes which were based on one person, which turned into triumvirates and we all know what happens to triumvirates. Eventually, it’s two down and one is left. But that takes long. That takes some time. So what happens when a regime like the Iranian regime feels that it is under siege, it sees Sunni attacks in Baluchestan and in other places, it accuses the United States, Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia of these attacks, and their collective memory is that the great days of Iran when all of the people were united behind the regime were during the war against Iraq. So if we have a military conflict with a low insensitive conflict with any of these enemies, then we will unite the people behind us and that will minimize the chances that the economic situation will cause a public uprising.
The problem is who exactly are you going to go to war against? Well, to go to war against Israel is a bit tricky because Israel isn’t just going to sit there and take it and for some reason they believe that Israel is a nuclear power. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because our Commander of the Navy just some time ago gave an address and he said we need a submarine fleet for a second strike capability. You know, and the… You know, what’s that? And when Shimon Peres was President, he said if Iran attacks Israel with weapons of mass destruction, we will send Iran back to the Stone Age. How do you do that?
In any case, so, to take on Israel… to take on the United States… well, things can spiral into escalation. For example, in the past the Iranians took shots with missiles just close to American vessels. What happens if they miss and they hit an American vessel? Okay? Now, Hezbollah fired a missile against an Israeli boat, which by no means according to standard operating procedures in the Israeli Navy, they shouldn’t have hit the boat. It just happened to be that they fired at a time when the radar operator got up to light candles for Sabbath and it hit. Okay?
Imagine that a missile hits an American Navy boat in a show of force of the Iranians when they don’t even intend for it to escalate. I wouldn’t bet on that not evoking a very, very harsh American response. In other words, the potential for escalation here exists.
The other thing is what happens if they decide that the enemy that they want to take on is Saudi Arabia? They, I think, erroneously believe that Saudi Arabia has been weakened by the Khashoggi Affair. To a certain extent, yes, but it wears off. If you like, I can also analyze the Khashoggi Affair. I feel sorry for Jamal because he’s an old friend of mine but let’s be serious: the Middle East has seen about 800,000 people massacred by the Syrian regime. So to say that we are going to ostracize the Saudi regime for one person and welcome Bashar al Assad back into the family of nations I think is a bit hypocritical. Not to mention Putin, nobody is ostracizing him and he’s no less a butcher; Grozny, you know.
So they may think that they can take on the Saudis. Under such a situation I think they’re wrong because if it is perceived in the United States that Iran is trying to really hit an important American asset – and for this administration, as opposed to the previous administration, Saudi Arabia is perceived as a critical asset – I think that that could also bring about escalation.
Now, let’s get back to ISIS or the Sunnis. I think that we are in for at least a decade or two of the aftermath of the Syrian civil war because you have millions of refugees. And when you have a refugee situation of that scale, never in history have these refugees just gone home and just let bygones be bygones. It doesn’t happen. There’s never been repatriation of that size in history. It’s just physically impossible not to mention the Syrian regime isn’t making it easy. Not to mention, there isn’t going to be any reconstruction because without American support, there’s not going to be reconstruction, and Americans won’t give funding for reconstruction as long as the Iranians are there and the Iranians won’t leave.
So no reconstruction, no repatriation. And you will have people living in Europe and in other countries, the populations, which are getting more and more anti-refugee. They are becoming more extremist, etc. And a child who came at the age of five to Europe is going to grow up and at the age of fifteen people are going to be saying to him, you remember all the stories of your grandfather who was murdered by Bashar and your aunt and, etc., etc., etc. And look, Bashar is back in the family of nations. He’s welcomed. The French, and the British, and everybody are talking to him. In other words, they aided and abetted the murder of your family. You cannot go to Syria to kill Bashar, but you can take revenge against those who assisted him.
In other words, the natural course of the existence of a large community of refugees who have gone through what they have gone through and are preyed to easy recruitment by jihadis is something that is almost a chronical of a death foretold. And there’s a lot to be said about that. I think that we are in for a rocky road for the next ten, twenty years.
From the point of view of Israel, we, you know, the truth is that the Palestinian issue is a footnote and that’s what irks the Palestinians. They say, ‘We are supposed to be the most important subject,’ and the Arabs are saying, ‘No, we’ve got more important things on our minds.’
And I was at the State Department and, you know, we were discussing the deal of the century. I asked them why is the American public diplomacy in Arabic using the word safqa (صفقة), deal, for this? Safqa in Arabic has a connotation of not something honorable. It’s a deal. It’s concessions. It’s capitulation.
And I say why don’t you just call it the solha (صلح) of the century, the reconciliation? Solha – I mean think about it. You strike a deal that’s not good. You do a solha. Let’s say I killed your cousin. You killed my cousin. But we don’t want that to go on, so we get together. I give you 20 sheep and four camels, etc. We have a big party, we eat the sheep, we leave the camels, and we declare that everything is over, and that’s a solha. And that is very, very basic in Arab culture. So instead of trying to create an image of something, which is based on Arab culture, you use a terminology, which immediately evokes all sorts of negative perceptions.
But be that as it may, the deal of the century is not going to happen. In order to reach an agreement, both sides need to have strong, independent leaders who have the capability of taking their constituencies and making them make painful concessions. You don’t have that. You don’t have that, the Palestinian Authority certainly doesn’t have it, at the moment Israel doesn’t have it.
The truth is that seventy percent, a stable seventy percent, of the population of Israel when you ask them if there could be an agreement based on concessions and a Palestinian state, which will be demilitarized and won’t be a threat, etc., etc., seventy percent of the Israelis say yes, I’d be willing to make those concessions. However, out of the seventy percent somewhere around thirty, forty percent say I don’t believe this could happen. So the divide in Israel is between those who think it could happen and those who don’t think it could happen not between those who want a compromise and those who don’t or are hardline and don’t want to compromise. But it’s just not going to happen.
But what will happen is Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, will die. And when he dies, he has made sure that there is absolutely nobody to succeed him because that is what Arab despots do. I mean if you appoint somebody to be your successor, he may be in a hurry to become your successor and you don’t want that.
So the result is going to be that the Palestinian Authority will devolve into something which sort of reminds anybody who studied Chinese history, you know the period of the warlords, where every single local warlord will have his own area and Israel will be in a position where in order to either make peace or deter an enemy you have to have some semblance of authority and control. To deter multiple enemies, in other words every single warlord, is going to be very, very difficult. In other words, the military burden on Israel in such a situation in the West Bank and Gaza is going to be difficult.
Now, meanwhile, let’s not forget something else. Iran has proxies in Gaza. Iran would love for Israel to get involved in a war against the Palestinians because they think that would help Iran recruit, mobilize support in the Arab world. They always believe that.
So they will try to get their proxies to fire rockets against Israel, hoping that maybe one of those rockets will hit something strategic and when I say something strategic, you have to understand: a kindergarten is strategic. A missile or a rocket which hits an empty field? Nothing happened. It hits a kindergarten? Everything happened. And it’s all a matter of the wind or if the children were in the kindergarten at the time and if the air raid alarm went off. You know, that sort of thing.
So they will try that. Until the elections there’s no way whatsoever that a Prime Minister who is under pressure of the rightwing will be able not to respond militarily with force under such circumstances. I don’t believe the Iranians will try to get Hezbollah to attack because Hezbollah is much, much too important for them. They wouldn’t want to risk Hezbollah and the asset of Hezbollah for that.
Let’s just step back a bit. So if we Iraq under the Iranian thumb with an economy, which isn’t going to improve and which will at one point have to make a decision, which it won’t be able to make because it’s not independent to make its decisions. Which means that at one point or another the crises of American forces in Iraq are going to happen and then the U.S. is going to have to decide. Do we ignore the demand of the Iraqi government to get out or do we decide no, we are staying in. Where are we staying in? With the Kurds, which is going to be a game changer.
But once Iraqis go down that road, then they are going down the road of economic destruction because this will incur sanctions on Iraq, and it will be very difficult I think under the circumstances with this current administration to get such a slap in the face and say, that’s okay, here take money. I just don’t see it happening.
Iran is going to deteriorate the economy. It’s going to deteriorate more and more. One of the things they’re going to try to do is to try to frighten the West by saying, okay, we’re going back to our nuclear program. They’re going to demand that the sanctions give them back their enriched uranium. We’re going back to our nuclear program.
Again, I think that they are not understanding the situation correctly because the room of the maneuver of the Europeans alone to go back to the Iranians to say, ‘Don’t do that. We will give you this or this.’ The room of maneuver of is very, very limited because what the Iranians don’t understand is, they don’t understand what a democratic country or a democratic economy is. When they come to the Europeans they say, ‘You promised us. We agreed with you, so why aren’t you telling Totale to invest in Iran?’ ‘No, we can’t tell Totale to invest in Iran. We can’t order a French or a British company to do something.’ And they don’t understand that.
So the possibility or eruption or escalation is high. All put together, we can look a bit further if we want to look a bit further how at what point will Russia want to capitalize on its gains in the region, whether the United States will be willing to play cards with Putin.
A lot will depend, Putin is afraid that he is losing a very important card. One of the most important cards is that the Iranians have a missile program, which is basically based on their cooperation with North Korea. And the Russians and the Chinese are very much against the American-North Korean dialogue because if the U.S. reaches an agreement with North Korea and part of that agreement is to curtail the North Korean support of Iran, then Putin loses a very important card and it also means that the Chinese lose a card, which is we can restrain North Korea. If America can restrain North Korea alone, you don’t need the Chinese to do it, so the Chinese lose a card.
The other card that they’re going to lose and the Russians are afraid of losing is the Venezuelan card because if and when the regime in Venezuela falls, then the U.S. can have an oil rich – with a lot of American investment and there are a lot of Texan investors waiting there to go in – and to invest in Venezuela, which means that this will definitely affect the oil market and the energy market, which has an enormous, drastic effect on Russia and Russia is paranoid.
We also have to understand. You know there is one phrase, idiom, in American English, which cannot be translated into Russian, cannot be translated into Arabic, cannot be translated into Farsi. Anybody know what it is? Shit happens. Because shit does not happen. There is a conspiracy of shit. Somebody made it happen intentionally in order to harm us. And therefore, the Russians will look at this. They say here, the game plan of the Americans in Venezuela in the energy market is to make Europe less dependent on Russian energy and to destroy the Russian economy.
So they are in a hurry to play cards with Trump. What they didn’t take into account is your new Russiagate, which I don’t know, I, you know, looking as a foreigner, looking just as a historian, it sort of reminds me of McCarthyism. You know? I’m waiting for somebody to get up and ask Trump are you or have you ever been a member of the American Communist Party?
But the thing is that I think that the administration’s ability to make concessions and play cards with Putin is now much more limited because of the atmosphere in the United States, which very strangely the previous administration was much more pro-Russian. I mean in my opinion Kerry was Lavrov’s useful idiot. But because of that even if there is an opportunity to reach an agreement with Russia, which could be beneficial to Russia but could also be beneficial to the United States, the administration can’t do it for public reasons, political reasons within the United States. What else? And you know like Forest Gump said, “and that’s what I have to say about that.” Any questions?
Thank you, Shmuel. That was fantastic. You were talking about the succession when Khamenei dies and you know it’s not going to be Moshtaba and I was listening to a lecture this morning, a presentation actually, which talked about the very same thing, and that speaker talked about the fact that because the IRGC, Quds Force and all, you know, the elite, controls so much, the economy, interests, maybe over 60% of the economy-
Yeah, at least.
And also have the guns as well, that even when Khamenei eventually knocks off, it won’t be some simple transition because all of these others will be still around and in power and they will still have their Swiss banks accounts and so forth. What do you think?
Well, obviously, all of the IRGC corporations are going to continue to enjoy their relative economic affluence, relative to the situation of Iran. However, the question is how you maintain a regime which is based on a concept of a rahbar-e enqelāb-e eslāmi, a Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, and at the same time you do not have anybody to appoint. It is sort of damned if you do, damned if you do not situation. The idea of a triumvirate, actually, even Rafsanjani at one point was raising that idea, and they talk about it a lot. When you think about it, let us not do anything is a much better option than let us make a decision that nobody can agree on.
Somebody was saying that Qasem Soleimani or Jafari could be – no, no way whatsoever. They are not in the cards. The thing is that the regime and the IRGC have totally destroyed the Shiite religious authority. All of the Ayatollahs, the ones who are not supporters of Vilayet-e Faqih, they have taken away their right to collect money on their own, and therefore when you hear about what is going on in Qom, you see that only those madrassahs which are affiliated with the alma mater of the IRGC are the ones which have great buildings, etc. And the others you can see that they do not have any money, so it means that they have actually emptied the coffers of potential successors.
They are going into a next stage of the [Islamic] Revolution. And think about it, how revolutions develop. There is something that I call the Robespierrian stage of the revolution. You have a revolution because it is supposed to achieve everything. It is going to bring you affluence and glory, etc. After a while, oops, it did not deliver. Now the question is why it did not deliver, so one part of the people is going to say it did not deliver because maybe we have got to tweak that revolution [with] a little bit of moderation, so this is where the reform is. This is where communism in one country came in. This is that sort of thing.
And then you have the other strand, which is we were not loyal enough to the revolution, we did not go all the way, and now we have to purge the revolution. This is Trotskyism. This is the Cultural Revolution in China. It is very natural that [in Iran’s Islamic] Revolution, the heads of the IRGC were the people who fought in the Iraq-Iran War, went through the revolution, and feel that yes, we just did not do enough, and now we have to purge ourselves of these reformists who are agents of the West, etc. And this actually, the fact that revolutions eat their own children is a well-known fact. And this could happen.
I am intrigued by that question and answer. Somebody has to orchestrate all of that. It does not happen on inertia, on its own internal energy. You are implying its de facto replacement for Khamenei. I am wondering if a monarchy can survive a monarch. Is the Revolutionary Guard really in charge?
Well, the Revolutionary Guard is very much in charge because if you look at the Daftar-e Rahbari, the Supreme Leader’s Office, everybody around all of the gatekeepers of Khamenei are members of the IRGC. Khamenei does not get any information from anybody except the IRGC. Now, the mechanism immediately after he dies is that you form this committee. And once you form the committee, it is a decision to appoint. In other words, you have to do something actively. When you have that situation and there are no good options, the default is not to do anything. If you have a number of potential successors, and each one of them has advantages and disadvantages, and you have different factions within the IRGC, the course of least resistance is actually not to take a decision, and to reach some sort of agreement on power sharing among the different factions of the IRGC. And I think that that is the more likely [scenario]. It is not that somebody has to orchestrate it because it is the default. The [First] Law of Thermodynamics [is] a body in motion hinges in motion, so I think that is the most likely situation.
Thank you. Can you speak a little bit more about the role of China, and how China is going to move, this changing situation in the Middle East, and also the situation in Venezuela? I think that is the unspoken player here.
Yeah. I was actually in China some time ago and I have some contacts there, and China is extremely interested today in the Middle East. However, as one very senior Chinese [official] said to me when we were talking about Iran, he said to me, you know, we Chinese invented the abacus, and you know we know how to do arithmetic, so we count Sunnis, and we count Shiites, [and] there are more Sunnis. I told them the story, a Lebanese story, of a person who gets to a roadblock, and he did not see the flag, so he does not know if it is a Sunni or a Shiite roadblock. And so they say to him, Sunni or Shiite? And so he is afraid, he does not know what to say, so he says Jew. And then they say Sunni Jew or Shiite Jew? And so I told them that, and then he says to me, we will not be Sunni Chinese or Shiite Chinese. But by no means are they going to be on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis. That is extremely important for them. As long as they can manage the balancing act, they will do it. And we are deep into the Sunni-Shiite conflict.
The second thing is that they have their New Silk Road thing. The Chinese by no means want to project military power – I mean in Djibouti, they have something there, but military or naval power into the Middle East. It is too expensive. They have seen how much it costs America. They have seen how much it costs Russia. And they say we have an enormous deficit. We have a very non-transparent, opaque economy so nobody really knows how [large the deficit is, but] we have enough problems.
One of the things that the Chinese I met said to me [was, and] they were irritated, [is] we Chinese are an Asian power. We do what has to be done in Asia. America is supposed to take care of the Middle East. Why is America not staying in the Middle East? Ameria is supposed to make sure that the Middle East is stable so that we can buy oil from the Middle East. Why is America not doing its job?
Now, when you hear that from senior people, then you get the feeling [that] the last thing they want to do is to pay the price of being the sponsors of stability in the Middle East. However, [will they] sell arms to the Saudis? Yes. [Will they] sell to the Iranians? Yes. [Will they] get involved with the Egyptians? Yes. All of that, yes, but as long as it is a business relationship and not something so-called philanthropy like the old Soviet Union used to do to pour in money just to be a superpower. I think that they are still far away from that. I am not saying that will never happen, but in the current situation, they are still hoping that America will get back to doing its job of making sure that China can get oil from the Middle East.
What about Yemen?
The civil war in Yemen during the 1960s [involved] Egypt, and Jordan, and everybody was there. And by the way, the number of people killed during that civil war was quite impressive. What is happening now? It is interesting that here what you see is the Saudis’ responsibility for what is happening. Let us not forget that it started with the Iranians.
The Iranians see Yemen as a low-cost way of flanking the Saudis. You have the Houthis, you give them missiles, you allow them to attack places which are in the heartland of Saudi Arabia so that of course you can threaten Saudi Arabia. They have a vested interest in the further deterioration of relations between Saudi Arabia and the West, and therefore the longer they stay in Yemen and keep involved in keeping the war alive, except for if the Saudis just get up and go and give them as a prize.
Their preference is for Saudi Arabia to get out, and they get Yemen, and they get Bab-el-Mandeb, which means they decide who goes through Bab-el-Mandeb, something which will bring up a new phase, which is the Egyptians and Americans [will get involved]. I am not quite sure that everybody will agree to that. But barring that and since that is not going to happen, they prefer the war continues as a low intensity war because it is damaging the Saudi image in the West, which they have an interest in. Yemen per se is not a very important component in the power balance in the Middle East. It can go on and on, and it is not going to be decisive of anything. It is not like Syria or Iraq.
Robert R. Reilly:
How does Egypt see its interests in the landscape you have just laid out, not just Yemen but I mean the rest of it?
Egypt has a problem. On the one hand, Sisi is not exactly the epitome of democracy, right, and therefore he has a problem with this idea that you oust a dictator. Why should you oust a dictator? On the other hand, and in addition, his enemy is the Muslim Brotherhood, which means Turkey, Qatar, etc., so he has some empathy for any regime that says that it is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, Sisi cannot support what is actually a massacre in Syria, so he would like somebody else to be the pioneer or the front country in reaching some sort of a new situation with Syria. He is not going to be the one to come up and say, oh, let us reconcile with Assad or something like that. His relations with the United States are extremely important. His relations with Israel are extremely important for him.
However, he does want very close relations with Russia and with China, so I think he is in a situation of a sort of balancing act where he wants to enjoy everything. He wants to enjoy good relations with Russia, with China, with the United States and with Israel, not to antagonize the Iranians, not to antagonize the Syrians, not to get the Qataris to provoke the Muslim Brotherhood. But he is on the defensive. The economy of Egypt is in terrible shape. I do not see Egypt playing a significant role under those circumstances. They are too constrained by all of their needs to balance.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I could just ask one more question regarding the political ramifications and significance of the failure of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in their actions against Qatar, and Turkey coming to the rescue, etc., [could you comment on that]?
Maybe we should say something about Saudi hubris. My company actually did a project for Muhammad bin Salman when he came out with his Vision 2030. A month before that I get an email and then a call on Skype from somebody in Salman’s diwan, and they wanted to do canvassing of social media to see how popular Muhammad bin Salman was among the youth because he was coming out with [an ambitious plan], so we did that and found that he was very popular. They were calling him the amir of the youth, very popular. We found that there were some princes who were equally popular, but when we checked, it turned out that all of the princes who came near the popularity of Muhammad bin Salman were all owners of football clubs or managers of football clubs, so that does not count. They are popular because of the football.
What was interesting and we also found in the social media that we were talking about over a year ago [is] that the most important thing that people are talking about [is] why women cannot drive. And the reasoning went as follows: Saudis are sitting at home, they are unemployed, living off subsidies, but the subsidies are not enough to get drivers, Pakistani drivers, for the women, but the women cannot go out alone. The men have become slaves to their women, driving them everywhere. Okay?
The women meanwhile want to go to football games because they are watching football on TV because they do not have anything to do, so they are watching football on TV, they want to go to football [games]. Why can’t women go to football games? This was the discourse in Saudi Arabia.
We discovered that the percentage of Wahhabi sounding discourse in Saudi Arabia among the youth [was only 5 percent], and we are talking about somewhere around 5 million posts a day. Saudi Arabia is the largest provider of social media in the Middle East. 40 percent of the social media in the Middle East comes from Saudi Arabia. And we discovered that the percentage of Wahhabi sounding posts of people was only about 5 percent among the youth. I mean because it is mostly youth, right? However, the percentage of jihadi-Salafi [posts] is about 12 to 15 percent. In other words, when a young Saudi goes Islamist, he does not become establishment, he does not become Wahhabi, he goes all the way to the jihadist Salafi.
The other thing was that those who were supporting the war in Yemen, most of them were the jihadi Salafis. In other words, the people who are the main opposition to Muhammad bin Salman ideologically are the only ones supporting his war in Yemen, and this is a serious problem for him.
Now, when I said Saudi hubris, let us think about it. You have a young, very rash Crown Prince. He is going to become king. He is going to become king for a long, long time because he is young. He is a friend of Jared Kushner. In other words, he says I have the support of the Americans. I came and gave Trump what he wanted, to come to Saudi Arabia to our conference. I brought all of the Muslims there, so Trump could say radical Islam and Islamic terrorism, and all of the Muslims would clap their hands. Trump wanted to say Obama would have died to be in that situation, [but] I did it.
And so, Muhammad bin Salman, I remember this, came to Washington, he phoned from the plane that he was coming to Washington, he wants to meet the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, and the administration gave him everything because the administration wanted him to be your man. And then, he says I have such a good standing in the United States, I can do anything. I do not think that he even had to give the order to kill Jamal [Khashoggi]. I think that all he had to say was who will rid me of this [turbulent] priest? And I think this is what happened.
And I think that the Saudi intelligence service – the Saudis have no external intelligence service. They do not have a Mossad or a CIA or an Mi6. They only have an internal intelligence service. When you have an internal intelligence service in a country like that, you take somebody off the street, you bring him in to the interrogation room, either you let him out or you do not let him out, [if] you kill him, you get rid of the body. Nobody knows. They are used to that. And then you take people who are used to that, who know that you have to get rid of this [turbulent] priest, and okay, where is he in Turkey? No problem, we go to [the] Turkey consulate, we bring him in, we kill him, we get rid of the body because that is what we do in Saudi Arabia all the time. It is a custom, okay?
Now, because they do not have tradecraft, when a serious intelligence service decides to take out somebody – look, I am not a vegetarian. I think that sometimes there are people that you have to kill. I mean seriously, but when you do it, you want to make sure that you cover your tracks, you want to make sure that nobody knows.
A serious intelligence service says okay, what do we do? We do something called contingencies, courses of action. Okay, what can happen if we bring him in? Did somebody see him? Are there cameras? Is there a possibility of microphones within the embassy? How do we know? How do we do? In other words, you do this sort of planning, but they are an internal security service, they do not know how to do that. And Muhammad bin Salman said in any case, I will talk to Jared, he will say everything is okay. That is hubris, and they are paying for hubris, but having said that, Muhammad bin Salman is no worse than all of the rest of the despots in the Middle East. He is no worse than Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani and Jafari, and Bashar al Assad, certainly, he is no worse than Bashar al Assad. No, so I think the attitude towards him is a little bit exaggerated because you have to see him in a context of the Middle East.
How about an alternative scenario perhaps for Jamal Khashoggi, that that was actually an attempt by rival princes to stage essentially a coup against MBS who would be blamed because they made sure that there would be enough evidence that would point to MBS?
I think that you have been speaking with Middle Eastern people too much, that is conspiracy theory. Shit does not happen. I [will] tell you something. The princes in Saudi Arabia without even knowing the quote, realized that either we hang together, or we hang separately. It was Benjamin Franklin, right? You see how I know my American history? And they say yes, he has taken away some of our Rolls-Royces, he has taken away tens of millions of our dollars, but he left us tens of millions of dollars. However, he who troubles his own house inherits the wind. And they know that to stage a coup in Saudi Arabia against the Crown Prince when the king is still alive and this is his son, means that you are putting into question the very essence of the regime. And under the circumstances in the Middle East today, you are playing into the hands of the Iranians and the others.
I think that none of the real rivals of Muhammad bin Salman have an interest in the fall of the Saudi regime because when the Saudi regime falls, Saudi Arabia just disintegrates into a number of different areas, and they lose everything, so I do not think anybody would dare do that. Einstein said regarding Ockham’s razor everything must be made as simply as possible and never simpler than possible. And he also said that when you have to determine whether something is because of malice or stupidity, you choose stupidity because it is more common in the universe, so I think what happened there was a lot of stupidity, it was hubris, and I think that stupidity and hubris are such common attributes of human beings that we should not be surprised.
Robert R. Reilly:
Great, thank you.