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Containing Iran or destroying ISIS? CONFLICTING PRIORITIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST

We had a chance to discuss the recent issues on the Middle East with Steven A.Cook, who is a Hasib J Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. Cook shared his opinion regarding, Iran, ISIS, Egypt, Saudi-Israeli dialogue as well as Turkey.

Let's start with refreshing our memories... Was the recent Camp David summit a success or a failure?

I think it depends on the way in which you look at it. I think the Emiratis, the Qataris and the Saudi representatives who were there essentially and the two who were running the country walked away from the meeting, feeling a bit embittered about  America's commitment to the Gulf security. They want to see follow up. And that's something they have perceived as lacking in White House for as long as Obama has been the president. It seems to be meetings and speeches but not follow ups. So I think they were cautiously optimistic afterwards. The thing that concerns them at this point is not so much the Iranian nuclear program. I think they accepted the fact that the Iranians are going to have a capacity to enrich uranium that would be in all but name a nuclear threshold state. What they are concerned about is the sanctions relief and the amount of money that would be coming to Iran. The amount that immediately bandied about is 150 billion dollars. They simply do not believe the administration that says that money is going to go towards developing Iranian economy. Certainly part of it could go to developing Iranian economy but a bigger percentage of it will go to Iranian efforts around the Middle East.

 

So they think that the hardliners in Iran will prevail and control the money to consolidate their authority further?

I think that that's the general consensus among Washington's Gulf allies.

 

But the US administration expects a democratic transition to take place in Iran.

Certainly the White House is hoping that this sanction relief will lead to economic development. But the Gulf countries look at the Iranians in a negative way and they are not completely off. They are concerned that some percentage of this money will be used to continue to help the Assad regime, supporting Hezbollah, supporting the Shia militias in Iraq, Yemen and so on.

 

What about the issue of energy competition especially when Iran is integrated back into system?

The Iranians are part of the global oil market, whether there are sanctions or not. Because there their oil has been on the market. I think there is less concern on the part of the Gulf countries about the Iranians' being back in the market in a fuller way. I think the interesting story related to energy security is the fact that Saudis and the Emiratis and others do not want to cut production and that they are willing to accept deficit because they believe it might hurt the Iranians. Everybody talks as if this is about maintaining their market share which I think it is true but at the same time there is a geopolitical aspect to the agreement not to cut production.

 

Recently, secret talks have been revealed between the representatives of Saudi Arabia and Israel with regard to thwarting Iran? Can we talk about an Arab-Israeli lobby emerging in the US?

First of all I don’t think these contacts surprised anybody. I think the more surprising aspect of it was that the two primary interlocutors - Dore Gold and General Eshki who are private citizens- actually came here to the Council on Foreign Relations and made public their dialogue. The thing that makes this most interesting is that Mr. Gold is the incoming director general of foreign ministry. But I don’t think anybody was surprised by the fact that the Israelis and the Saudis have maintained a dialogue for a long period of time. Is there an Arab-Israeli lobby? I don't think that's necessarily a new thing. There is a confluence of interests between supporters of Israel and the Saudis and Gulfies who are opposed to the exercise of Iranian power in the region. There have been plenty of examples where pro-Israel groups have lobbied on behalf of the Egyptians; whether it is related to the aid or other issues. So it is not surprising. There is not going to be a formal lobby but I do think there is a confluence of interests on Iran that is driving this dialogue and driving the Israelis and the Saudis to a measure of cooperation. I don’t see it as gaining a charge beyond the Iranian issue. Remember, the Saudi clerics referred to Jews as the descendants of apes and pigs. It is clear that there is a common interest in thwarting Iranian ambitions. And that's what I think driving this relationship.

 

Regarding the issue of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, do you think it is about time for an independent Kurdistan? How does the US administration's approach to the idea?

It is certainly not up to me to put it mildly but I do think as the situation in Iraq deteriorates, the Kurds are going to come to the conclusion that there is really nothing left for them in Baghdad. There is constant bickering over federal resources. Clearly the Iraqi state is becoming irrelevant. The Kurds would like to have Baghdad be somewhat successful so that they can have a neighbor that's not the Islamic State. But I don’t think that's likely. So as a result, I think that the Kurds will ultimately go in that direction.

 

What about the military aspect of this process? Considering the stalled military operations in Mosul for example...

Well, I think that's one of the things that the Kurds are quite concerned about. They are concerned about having a very unstable border. And that's what -up to this point- has been holding them back. But they are also quite resentful of the fact that they feel they have been doing most of the fighting against the Islamic State and haven't been getting the credit, haven't been getting the weapons. I think this sounds further among the Kurds and Iraqi Arabs. I think that they are worried about the rise of Shiite militias. It strikes me though that next best option is independence, right where they are going to go. The military situation is difficult for them because the United States is committed to Baghdad as the primary policy. I disagree with that policy.

 

Recently, Egypt took Hamas off the terror list. What is the significance of Egypt's maneuver? 

I don't think there is much significance in the fact that the Egyptian court said “They can’t call Hamas a terrorist organization” or that is the other way around.

 

Would France’s efforts in collaboration with the European diplomats and regional leaders contribute to the peace process?

I don't see a viable peace process. In fact, as the Defense Minister of Israel said today, he doesn’t see a peace between Palestinians and Israelis within his lifetime. So certainly there are interesting European maneuvers on the issue but I think the Hamas issue in Egypt doesn’t materially affect either Egypt's relations with Israel or the way the Egyptian government see the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and Hamas an offshoot of it.

 

So there is no change in that policy?

I don't think there will be a change in that policy at all. Then what was the reason behind Egypt's move? I think this has to do with the political struggles going on in Egypt itself.

 

Can we say that this is an attempt to balance the recent decision for the execution of Morsi?

Exactly, and also because of the competition between the judiciary, the presidency and the interior minister. There are these kinds of competitions and struggles going on in Egypt. That's primarily what I attribute to this.

 

Recently Egypt reopened its Rafah border, though to last for only three days.

Over the last few weeks, Sisi has been hammer over Egypt's human rights record. This is his way of releasing the pressure.

 

As many experts point out, the rise of ISIS led to dramatic changes in the threat calculations of many regional actors and even created strange bedfellows. But on the other hand, containing Iran's regional influence serves as another common objective for many, which complicates and contradicts reaching a concrete outcome in the fight against ISIS. Comparing these two goals -containing Iran or destroying ISIS- which one do you think weighs more?

It's a very good question and it's a question that I think the Gulf allies had a hard time dealing with. It depends on who you talk to. There is a general sense that Iran is a state in the international system and that's the way they view it. General understanding of how you deal with an aggressive Iranian state, and there are those military tools, alliances and so forth. Islamic State, it is different. It is an ideological system that's been waged within the Arab and Muslim worlds. The Islamic State has a very different worldview. It is a threat to the people's ways of life.

 

And it spreads...

 

Indeed... I think that they are concerned about they have been put in a position how to combat. Given the fact that when it comes to ISIS, the Iranians are potentially on the same side. What they worry about is, for example, actions of Shia militias in Iraq, who are quite obviously engaged in all kinds of human rights violations and massacres driving Sunni population in Iraq further towards ISIS. It is an incredibly difficult balancing act for the Gulf countries. Who do we fight by first and how do we do it! I've heard different things, I've heard "We know how to fight the Iranians but ISIS is immediate threat” or “You know ISIS is a different kind of threat but Iran is what really looms.”

 

Though we focus more on the election results, until recently, we have been discussing the possibility of a joint Saudi-Turkish-Qatari operation with support from Qatar. Do you think it is feasible or likely? Can that be a game changer in Syria? How would the US take such an operation?

Certainly, that coordination is having an impact on what was happening on the battlefield, the army of conquest which is a legitimate group or group of groups that the Saudis, the Turks, and the countries coordinating are backing, seem to be making some gains on the battlefield. So I think it does have a significant potential. I wonder though what the Turkish position will be with regard to this. More specifically what would Turkish policy be towards Syria as a new government comes? I think this is one of the big questions that people will have in mind. Will it be a status quo? Will the Turks continue to support the army of conquest with extremists coordinating with them? Will coalition partners put a break on them? It is unclear. My colleague Henri Barkey felt that given the fact that foreign policy is concentrated in the hands of President Erdoğan and there will not be any change. My sense is that if there is a coalition government with MHP and AKP, even with the kind of concentration of power in the hands of President Erdoğan, it would be hard to imagine that there wouldn't be a sort of change towards Syria given the way which the MHP views the Kurds and Syria.

 

Do you think the US signals a yellow light?

I think the US administration's default position has been to not get involved in Syria with allies to support. I don’t think there is even a light.

 

What are your reflections on the future of Turkish-Israel relations? You mentioned that any kind of rapprochement between Israel and Turkey is out of question. Why?

I don't see any impetus either in Israel or in Turkey for a rapprochement. The Israelis are very busy with domestic politics. Israeli government has given up on the AKP. There are no enthusiasts for a relationship between Israel and Turkey other than perhaps foreign policy professionals in the Foreign Ministry (which one?). Certainly there are robust business relations they have been continuing. That's been a good thing but in terms of improving political relations, I don't think Israelis are interested. They are too busy with their own domestic politics.

 

So is Turkey at the moment.

Exactly, that's why I don't foresee a significant change.

 

How about containing Iran's influence in the region?

I'm not convinced that those countries that are committed to containing Iran's influence in the region actually believe that the Turks are important. I think that the Gulf countries have serious questions about whether the Turkish government is genuinely interested in containing Iran's influence in the region or playing all sides, and I certainly don't think Israelis believe that the Turks can be an ally on that.

 

 
 

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