The new US administration and the future policy in Iran and the region


 It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you tonight. The topic that Saeed asked me  to talk about is American foreign policy in  the new Bush administration. Let me be very frank, I do not know what the foreign policy of the new Bush administration is going to be and I think  it is going to be very difficult to guess. I can give you some partially educated guesses and ideas about what may come.

 First of all you know that George Bush has almost no foreign policy experience whatsoever. I think he has been to Mexico and maybe once to Britain so he is very new in this area. The good news is that he has appointed a number of very experienced people in the foreign policy area. As an American I must say I am very proud that the two highest ranking people responsible fore foreign policy in the new administration are both black. I think that is an accomplishment for America right there to have two distinguished people who are general Powell and  Condeleezza Rice the national security adviser. They are both black Americans.

 I don’t want to give you too much false hope that suddenly somehow everything is going to change in America. You know the history of American foreign policy over many years. Sometimes it has been better from the point of view of the Middle East. Sometimes worse. But generally from the point of view of Middle Easterners, not very satisfactory. I do not expect major changes but I think we could have some interesting smaller changes. And who knows, smaller changes can even lead to some major changes.

First of all let us talk about the Republican Party. I think you also know that historically speaking the Republican Party has been less pro-Israeli than the Democratic Party. Notice I say less pro-Israeli rather than saying more pro- Arab. I would not want to call it that. But there is a very important reason for this. I think, remember first of all when we talk about American foreign policy there is no single American foreign policy.  Part of the complexity of American  policy is the many different elements that make this up. We have the president, we have the national security adviser, we have the secretary of state, we have the Pentagon. I would say that the CIA does not make policy at all, it  only advises on what is happening. We have the Pentagon, we have congress which is itself quite divided in its own particular views, we have various non-governmental organizations and lobbies, we have the Jewish lobby which is powerful, we have black lobbies, Asian lobbies, Mexican lobbies – slowly we are beginning to develop some Arab  lobbies. So it is a very complex picture, often resulting in chaos rather than clear cut policy that you can have where maybe one man makes all these decision. So it will not be clear and there will be no single policy. 

Secondly the Republicans tend to think a little more geo-strategically, geo- politically than the Democratic Party. This is a broad generalization, but generally true. In particular the Pentagon is less interested now in the role of Israel in the Middle East than it was ten years ago during the Cold War, when Israel was perceived perhaps as very important  you can call it unsinkable battle ship in the Mediterranean of America’s closest ally in the region, or all of these things. 

Today, with the end of the Cold War the importance of Israel strategically speaking, is much less. And the Pentagon itself is much more interested in the Persian Gulf, or the Arab   Gulf, depending on what you want to call it.  They are concerned with Saddam in particular, Iran less so but still looking at Iran. So for this purpose the Pentagon would like to see improved ties with the Arab Gulf states, which is both good news and bad news and we can talk about it. I would therefore put the Pentagon as one factor which perhaps places greater emphasis on the strategic importance of the Arab world itself.

When it comes to the Arab-Israeli problem  all of you  well know about the very powerful American-Jewish lobby (APEC) which continues to be powerful. It is  not only pro-Israeli, it tends to be conservative and pro-Likud. And even Yitzakh Rabin when he came to Washington six or eight years ago, sharply and public ally attacked the America-Israeli lobby for supporting Likud, while he, the Labour Prime Minister was in power. And he was very angry about this. So this is a continuous factor.

 We have in addition the very interesting prospect – I have not heard the news today but I assume that the news is that Ariel Sharon has won the election. Anyway  I think we all anticipate this development. In one sense we can say this will be very difficult because for sure we all know this will mean a much harder line policy.

 But let me just point  out to you an interesting phenomenon that we have. This is not the first time we have seen a very hardline policy from Israel in the past. We had the period of  Bibi Netanyahu. And interestingly enough, I would say that Bibi Netanyahu probably did more to help strengthen the Arab position in Washington than almost any other factor. This may seem very strange to you but Clinton could not stand Netanyahu because he was very pushy and was unresponsive to American suggestions about how to do things. And I think in the end  Yasser Arafat was much more welcome at the White House and seen as a much more flexible, reasonable figure than Netanyahu was.

 And furthermore even the American Jewish community which is divided – we are not even talking about a single Jewish community because there are conservatives and liberals on these issues. Some are Labour, some are not Labour some are Likud. Half the Israeli community also dislike Netanyahu and distrust him. So they also tended to sympathise more with the more liberal, peaceful line. Maybe some Arabs will say there is no difference and an Israeli is an Israeli. I think that is an exaggeration although I appreciate why Palestinians feel frustrated that nothing really improves with either Likud or Labour.

But anyway with Sharon coming in this places the American administration in a very difficult position because I am sure, maybe 80 percent sure anyway, that Sharon is going to prove to be very difficult to deal with. He will not help the American peace process at all. So let us watch and see what happens. But I think it is possible that we will see a greater gulf opening up between the administration of  Sharon and those involved in the peace process. We will see. I am afraid I have a very negative impression myself which  could lead to a very ugly next few years coming up. In sha Allah it will not lead to war  – nobody knows – and Washington is very uncomfortable. They will never admit it publicly  but privately they are very uncomfortable.

 Now my personal view, you know I have worked in government for a long time but I have been away for 13 years and I am now one of the leading critics of American foreign policy towards the  Middle East. I  suspect that the failure of the peace process for many years under the  Clinton administration, probably means that this Bush presidency for the beginning at least, will be much less involved and will have less direct relationship with either  the Arabs or the Israelis at the  beginning of the process.


That may be good, it may not be good. We will have to see. But there is no doubt I think that Clinton worked very hard towards the end of his administration but the problem was he was too eager for a settlement, too eager for a Nobel  Prize, too eager just to have a major accomplishment that he quick at the end to blame Arafat and hoped that this would push him into a quick settlement. I think this was a major strategic mistake. I suspect Bush will not make this mistake for a while because he will watch, sit back and watch.


Now also I think Washington may be forced to recognize the rights and interests of other parties in the world in influencing the peace process. The two parties I have particularly in mind are the  European Union, perhaps as individual states the US or France, but the European Union as a whole, and the UN. Washington has preferred a monopoly over the peace process as you all know for the last 10 – 15 years but it is harder to maintain that monopoly, simply because there has been no major success now in the peace process that they can point to as the fruits of monopolization so I  suspect we may see a bigger European voice and bigger UN voice. Washington will be uncomfortable with that but I  suspect that will be the reality.

Let us talk about the gulf since that is the purpose of this organization here. Frankly speaking ten years after the   Gulf war I think we would have to say that  American policy  in the very short term was successful in that it expelled Saddam from Kuwait and dealt a very savage blow to  Saddam’s military power and infrastructure, isolated Saddam put him under various inspection regimes to prevent him from creating particular nuclear weapons.

But that was a smaller goal.  The greater goal, as we all know, was the overthrow of Saddam and that has been a spectacular  failure. It has not happened, in my view it probably will not happen. My personal view, I would also have to say, I think Saddam is the worse  ruler in the history of the modern Middle East and I think the Arabs, the Arab people deserve better this. But I know that there are many people who are emotionally sympathetic. They know he is a very  nasty man inside Iraq but they also say that at least he stands up, he has pull, he is the hero, the batal who is standing up to America and  Israel. And therefore they derive satisfaction, especially  Palestinians who are deeply, oppressed, suppressed, angry, bitter, hopeless and when some man on horseback comes like Saddam then he raises their hopes and I understand why, especially Palestinians feel this way.

And my own personal view is that the Arab people deserve much  better than to have this brutal tyrant. If you say there are other brutal tyrants in the area than I will say none as bad as Saddam but  America has a double standard on this because of our friends. We do not have friends who are nearly as brutal as Saddam but we have friends who are  very rough and who also ignore human rights and democracy in this period. Saddam is the worst but I accept that we do have a double standard. I am  afraid that most countries and leaderships have double standards, one towards their friends and another towards their opponents and enemies.

But if the measure of  our Iraqi policy is Saddam’s removal then clearly it is a spectacular failure. I wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Times just a week or ten days ago in which I said that George Bush now feels an great obligation to do what his father failed to do, namely to get rid of Saddam, but I feel, unfortunately that the moment has passed. I feel the new administration will not be able to remove Saddam. The tools necessary to remove Saddam are not there any more. They were there in 1991-92.  In 1995 maybe they were still there, in 1996 maybe. In the last two years we have watched these tools disappear for several reasons. First of all general unhappiness with American policy in the region, especially lately with the collapse of the peace process and the perception of American imbalance between the two sides.

Then we have the  whole question of sanctions. I think the sanctions have unquestionably weakened Saddam’s regime but not enough to truly threaten him and the price has come at the terrible cost of  the suffering of the Iraqi people themselves.

 Saddam has taken the sanctions and visited the cost of the sanctions on the people. He could have made it possible for more medicine and more food to come but his own very vicious policy is to visit the cost of the sanctions on the Iraqi people and it is a successful policy because now everyone is saying the Iraqi people are suffering terribly and they are. You all know this. They are suffering terribly, children have died and there has  not  been enough medicine. And you can say this is  Saddam’s  fault but you  have to  go back further and say yes  but that is because there are sanctions and this has happened.

 So there is international discomfort with the sanctions policy. Even many in America are uncomfortable with the suffering this has brought to the Iraqi people and they are saying ten years is enough. It is not working we have not removed  Saddam it is time for a change.

 Other states also want to see an end to these policies. The French, the  Russians – I have to be frank and  say I think the French position is not only because of the Iraqi people but because they would like to have a piece of the arms trade and oil and all of these things that are part of their thinking. It is the same with the  Russians. But that’s okay.

  I think the fact is the policy of sanctions is no longer valid or valuable and therefore whatever the motivation I think the time has come for an end. I myself would say, and I think the  Bush administration will go this way, is to try to at least to maybe lift the  worse part of the sanctions but to try to keep Saddam in the box, as the expression is in Washington. To limit his strategic power, his ability to make war on his  neighbours. He has already made two wars against his Arab neighbours with a huge death toll on both sides. In other words to keep Saddam as isolated as possible internationally to prevent his gaining further weapons and to try to prevent the emergence of nuclear weapons on his part.

 If we are talking about nuclear weapons there are two issues here. I do not want to get into it too deeply. I think there are two questions here.  One is whether a country has  nuclear weapons and the second question is what is the nature of the country that has the nuclear weapon. The UK does not lie awake at night worrying about American nuclear weapons. You don’t give this one single thought. Or we don’t sit in Washington worried about the fact that the French have nuclear  weapons. We do not give it one moment of thought. This is not because of the weapons but because of the nature of the government that posses them and the nature of the policies.

 So if you ask my why should Israel be nuclear or why  should Pakistan be nuclear and not Iraq, isn’t this a double  standard. It is double standard but who really wants Saddam to have nuclear weapons in the area. Maybe some people do because they think he will be able to intimidate Israel. But I think he would also intimidate all his other neighbours. We can debate that.

 So my feeling, and this just a guess, that Bush will try to strengthen the INC, will give greater rhetorical support for it, maybe much more public attention to the INC and maybe other groups and organizations of Iraqi exiles. But to actually start building an Iraqi Liberation Army in the north is no longer possible. That era in my view is gone. One simple reason is that Turkey  will not go along with this anymore because Turkey is so afraid of its own Kurdish question that they are not themselves willing to solve it. I would argue that Turkey could solve its Kurdish problem through much more generous, more open policies. That may be coming but it is not coming in the next year or two.

 Under these circumstances Ankara sees Iraq through the eyes of its own Kurdish problem. If they could solve the problem in Turkey then they would be able to look at Iraq in a much broader way. But for the time being I do not think that Turkey will allow a military force to be built and established in  northern Iraq. And I do not believe you can do it without Turkey. You must have a place you can fly into and the  Turks are involved. I don’t think it will happen there.

 We have no more support from our allies, not from France, the UK is already suggesting that they think that the business of overflights in the south should come to an end. Anger in the Arab world, anger with the sanctions questions.  This does not give Washington enough cards , enough strength to do what it claims it would like to do.

 If Washington is really serious about overthrowing Saddam then it would require intense concentration. It would require close co-ordination of policies with all of the  Gulf states, it means we should listen more to the Gulf states and not just tell them what we think. I think we are quick to lecture most of the Gulf rulers but it is not normal for Washington to be more concerned about Saddam and his  weapons than it is for the  Gulf states themselves who are his neighbours and his first victims.

 So this is a difficult position for the USA to be more worried about  Saddam than the people who live next to him. Kuwait has every reason to worry. I would not be at surprised if  Saddam tried to invade again or Qusay or someone, we don’t know.

 It would require America to change its Arab-Israeli policy to be seen as much more balanced and win more Palestinian and Arab support in general. I don’t think most Arab states are willing to lend Washington that kind of support and with high oil prices Washington (and of course not just Washington) will be very focused on the oil market which influences the industrial world. This is not the time to be arguing and quarrelling with the Gulf states about Saddam if there is a critical oil issue at stake as well. So for all these reasons I do not expect serious results. Bush may think he wants to do it. He  may try to do it but I do not think he will be able to do it.

 Finally on Iran. Iran, strangely enough, is one of the  most positive states in the region. I do not represent the mainstream Washington thought. But there are many people who think like I do. I think Iran has made dramatic strides towards democratization which I do not see frankly in the Arab world. This has all been in the last five years or more.

 I would love to see some of the Arab states trying to experiment with the ideas which Iran is talking about with more elections, greater emphasis on reform. We all know that this is a very messy process in Iran. It is slow it is dangerous its back and forth but it is very real and Washington has been unable to reject or ignore events in Iran in this  period.

 We have isolated ourselves through this policy on Iran. Iran has become isolated. Even speaking in terms of oil the natural thing would be to bring oil from Central Asia, gas from Turkmenistan, oil from Kazakstan down through the Gulf through Iran and then to Japan and China which are some of the major consumers of oil – not just the  west.

 But because of the isolation of Iran, the American’s can’t do business there. We have this strange suspension of the rules of geo-politics. There is this huge country which matters very much and by which every country is affected but we pretend it is not  there. So that policy is coming to an end de facto. It is just a fact. I am sure that Bush will probably make some effort to improve relations with Iran slowly. But I also think that the ball is in Iran’s court. It is more difficult for Iran to come to terms with Washington today  than it is for Washington to come to terms with Iran.

 So the process will be slow but I am more optimistic about this. I think Iran is more responsible in the Gulf. The Arabs may not love Iran, they have never loved Iran but an Iran that is partially  responsible and is becoming more responsible will be welcome. And my hope is that we will have an expansion of the GCC which ultimately will include all the states of the Gulf. I would not include Iraq under Saddam, that is my prejudice but I would not do it. I would try to bring at least maybe the Iranians in, in some way for some  security forum in the area because it is a reality. How can we talk about security in the region when one of the states that is a concern for security is involved?

 So in short to sum up I think  Bush  probably is more limited in his options than he realizes or would like to think. But there are some skilled  people, the Secretary of State Colin Powell is a very  intelligent man. He has been something of a hardliner in the past but that was the  Cold War, this is ten years later, I am sure he has learned something. Concolezza Rice also comes from the Cold  War period but she is a very intelligent woman and I think maybe more flexible than  Madeline Albright in her mentality.

 These people are not stupid. I am sure they have learned something – therefore we may have a more creative policy from Washington than we would guess from a  president who has so little experience.

 So in short don’t expect big changes but I am slightly optimistic that things are  going to improve but with the Arab-Israeli exception. It may be that we are in for two years that are very ugly until the level of pain of between the Arabs and the Israelis is re-established and both sides agree this cannot go on.

 Clinton if nothing else brought many of the issues to the table that had never been on the table before. In the end it collapsed. But it was the first time both sides have been totally frank about where they were going. They could not agree. But five years ago, no one was talking about Jerusalem. No one was talking about the return or the settlements in a serious way. Now these are  serious issues. Sharon will delay the process maybe dangerously.

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