From conflict to dialogue: The shifting relationship between the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Iran

November 15, 2021 1:29:00
Kaltura Video

Will the U.S. and Iran find common ground on the JCPOA, and if so, how? What can we expect of the Saudi-Iranian de-escalation efforts? How do domestic politics in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Iran play a role in making (or not making) a deal? How does the apparent American reduction of force in the Gulf play into regional states’ calculations? November, 2021.


0:00:00.0 Speaker 1: This Gulf International Forum, a leading think tank in Washington DC that focuses on issues in and around the Gulf, and we're very happy to be able to do this with Dania Thafer, who's the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum. She's gonna lead the conversation today. I'll just start with a couple of quick logistical issues. For those of you who are in the room, after the panel presentation, you'll be able to ask questions just by raising your hand and your voice; for those of you who are watching us online, if you are interested in asking questions, please just use the Q&A function. I'll be seated in the first row and I'll be able to read your questions aloud for the panel. So with that let's welcome our friends from Gulf International Forum, we look forward to great conversation.


0:00:51.0 Dania Thafer: Thank you. As he mentioned, I'm Dania Thafer, the Executive Director at Gulf international Forum, and on behalf of the forum, I would like to thank Dr. John Ciorciari and Zuzana Wiseley with your university, for co-sponsoring this event with us, I hope you find it intellectually stimulating. It's a pleasure to have you all here and join us or we join you for a panel discussion titled From conflict to dialogue: The shifting relationship between the US, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. We have an excellent panel lined up for you today with four speakers with very diverse background. In the Gulf region, the states are realizing that the marginal gains of conflict is diminishing, and have moved more towards de-escalation, and the capitalists has changed as we have witnessed three major events in the region.

0:02:02.6 DT: The first is the Al-Ula agreement, which brought de escalation within the GCC states, and the blockade that was there previously really has tipped the balance within the GCC towards having more de-escalation with Iran, which three of the states have cautiously amicable relations with the country, which is different than we've seen in the previous years. President Trump's departure from the White House was also a big factor. As many of you might be aware that president Trump had a very pro Saudi Arabia view with the Gulf region, and that also has changed the incentive structure for dialogue in the region, and of course, as everyone is aware, covid has caused economic havoc for not only nations in the Gulf region, but worldwide, and so states are focusing more inward and have less incentive for conflict in the region.

0:03:22.4 DT: So at this point we have the Saudis and Iranians involved in direct talks in Baghdad, and as for the JCPOA, although its sixth round of talks ended in June of this year, there will be a resumption of talks about the JCPOA between Iran, the US and other major countries at the end of this month, actually around Thanksgiving. And there have been reports about the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, we've seen many reports with cautious optimism. We've seen scholars actually have cautious pessimism, I guess, if you will.

0:04:15.4 DT: And I think we'll have a diverse set of views here to present to you about what will be the outcome of these discussions. And in light of these issues we'll ask key questions to our panelists, will the US and Iran find a common ground on the JCPOA, if so, how? How can we expect... What can we expect of the Saudi-Iranian deescalation efforts, and how do domestic politics in Saudi Arabia and the US, and Iran play a role or not play a role in making a deal? 

0:04:57.2 DT: Without further ado, I will go ahead and commence the panel. Each speaker will speak about eight to 10 minutes, and then we'll go into the Q&A, so please prepare your questions, and I will introduce each speaker as it's their turn to speak, and we're gonna begin with Ambassador John Limbert. Ambassador John Limbert is a retired foreign service officer and academic. He is a retired professor of Middle East studies at the US Naval academy. During a 34-year diplomatic career, he served mostly in the Middle East and Islamic Africa, including two tours in Iraq, was ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and served as a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Iranian affairs. Beginning in 1964, he worked in Iran as a university and high school teacher, and he notes that that was the hardest part of his career.


0:06:03.4 John Limbert: Not the university, the high school. University was a piece of cake.

0:06:09.6 DT: And later served at the US embassy in Tehran, where he was held hostage in 1979-1981. He has authored numerous books and articles on the Middle East, Ambassador Limbert, Welcome.

0:06:27.4 JL: Thank you very much. I'm going to stand to speak, if that's okay. Thank you, Dania. Let me join you in thanking our hosts from the Ford Center and from the Diplomacy Center. Just a personal note, I do not like the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is in the interest of full disclosure. It's not a place I would choose to live, it's not a system I would like to live under, and I would like to see our Iranian friends and some of my Iranian family live under something that... A system that treats them better, doesn't put dissidents journalists, bloggers, filmmakers, lawyers, women activists and others, doesn't put them in jail for expressing their opinion. That's my opinion, but also for the last 40 some years, I have advocated for a different relationship with the Islamic... Between the US and the Islamic Republic, one that... How can I say? Better serve our interests than the current and old policy, traditional policy of yelling, insulting, and threatening each other.

0:08:05.2 JL: I would say that policy has earned us, has earned me, no particular friends. Among Americans, I'm often called The Manchurian candidate, I was brainwashed, I was supposedly brainwashed as a prisoner. My Iranian friends, some of them use a more direct word, I won't translate it, but it ends with a suffix "kesh", and so I think maybe people know what that mean... May understand what that means. I had the honor of serving the United States in both Iran and Saudi Arabia in the late '70s.

0:08:54.6 JL: And of course, much of our policy, much of what we did in Saudi Arabia was arms sales. That's what we were about. And if we were going to sell expensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and if we're gonna make money for US arms exporters and create well-paying jobs, contract jobs for retired American military. We had to do one thing, we had to make the Saudis scared of someone, 'cause if you're scared of someone, you buy weapons. And in 1978, 79, we wanted them to be scared of the Soviet Union, and the CIA in those days told us that the Soviet Union was running out of oil and would be very soon looking to seize new sources of supply from you know where. We also convinced the Saudis, or the Saudi became convinced, I don't know how much we needed to do it, but thanks to some clever map-making that they were surrounded and threatened by Marxist and Marxist-leaning countries such as of Ethiopia, South Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and so forth. Now, that was 40 years ago, more than 40 years ago. Today, not much has changed. We, the same people who are selling arms need to convince the Saudis that today Iran is the great threat, not the Soviet Union, but Iran, Iran so they can sell their weapon... So they can sell those same weapons that require endless technical support and spare parts from American contractors.

0:11:04.4 JL: In this view, they have made the Iranians a "malign" presence. It's a favorite word, beloved of the American military, and exploit Saudi, anti-Shia, and anti-Persian sentiment. Of course, the Iranians have not helped their own cause, for example the attacks in Mecca back in the 1980s, the riots in Mecca back in 1980, and the attacks on Saudi diplomatic establishments in Tehran and other Iranian cities.

0:11:45.8 JL: Now, here's my question for you. As Americans, we should ask ourselves, does fostering this enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, does it serve our interest, what interest is served by our doing that? What interest was served, for example, by Saudi intervention with US-made weapons in Yemen? Seems a reasonable question, and looking at Iran and the US, here's another question for you. What has been accomplished by that 40 years of shouting, threatening, and insulting between us and the Iranians? Well, I would put it to you. Not a lot. We've been on it 40 years ago, we got on the road to nowhere, I was part of that building that road, I guess, in Tehran, and we're still there, and so far, attempts to get off that road to change things have been frustrated on both sides really by domestic politics, distrust, suspicion, and just plain bad luck.

0:13:03.8 JL: Now, I look forward to hearing your ideas. I used to ask my students when I was part of the Naval Academy, that was their final exam question, "Why are relations so bad, why have relations with Iran and the US been so bad for so long, and how do you fix it?" And they would come to me, this was like an open-book question, and they'd come... That was the final exam, and they'd come to me and they'd say... Afterwards, they'd say, "Professor, what's the answer?" I would say, "Damned if I know." But they came up with some pretty good stuff. They came up with some pretty good stuff.

0:13:39.6 JL: So one final point, and I leave you with this and then I look forward to the discussion. What happens, what happens when two parties don't talk to each other for a long time? What's the result? Each sees the other as both simultaneously superhuman and subhuman. The superhuman is capable of doing anything, building a nuclear bomb tomorrow, overturning a regime with the push of a button, and undermining a system, doing all sorts of things, and the superhuman you fear. The subhuman is constrained by no moral considerations, not only are they capable of doing anything, they will do anything. So the superhuman you fear, the subhuman you despise.

0:14:38.3 JL: And there, I'm afraid in a nutshell, is where we have been for the past 40 years with... Where we and the Iranians have been for the past 40 years, and we risk a continuation of that situation because this view will justify the most extreme measures against the other side if that other side is both superhuman and subhuman. Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing your ideas in the discussion, and hearing your ideas for the answer to my final exam question. Thank you.


0:15:21.3 DT: Thank you for those remarks. We're moving forward with our next speaker, which is Dr. Hesham Alghannam. Dr. Hesham Alghannam is a senior advisor and program director of the International Studies Program with the Gulf Research Center, Cambridge, and a Saudi political scientist. He is a former Fulbright Fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he received his master's degree in International Policy Studies. He also holds a PhD from the University of Exeter. He worked at major research centers in the Middle East on issues such as conducting fieldwork in conflict zones, ballistic missiles, the political economy of the GCC, social movements, the Arab upheavals, political Islam, and many more issues.

0:16:18.7 DT: Dr. Alghannam is a regular speaker at international media outlets, think tanks, and research centers. He authored and contributed to various research studies, projects on the DCC and the Arab world, and today he will be addressing whether conflict resolution is possible between Saudi and Iran, and he will also discuss the possible confidence building measures between the two parties. Welcome, Dr. Alghannam.

0:16:46.9 Hesham Alghannam: Oh, thank you for having me. Very glad to be here. This is a mic, yes? This here, 'cause my voice is very low. So I promise I will try to abide by my time limit, and I will start from where the ambassador ended, and I agree that all parties in the region, not only the Saudi and Iranians, need to talk to each other, and I have to say that I see myself as a believer in conflict resolution between the Kingdom in Iran and an advocate also for dialogue between the two states. Launching a common ground between the two states I think is important to [0:17:24.4] ____ them.

0:17:27.3 HA: And I'm not neutral on this subject, I've always been a firm supporter of corrective security arrangement, that includes the Gulf and Iran, despite the current security conditions we have in the region right now. I always thought that there were many signs to be optimistic, cautiously optimistic, about the future of the conflict between the two main powers of the region. It was a hope at many times that these states will able to manage the contradictions and expectations among them in a peaceful and a constructive way. So it's starting with this positive note. Currently Saudi and Iran, I think, I believe that they need to seriously de-escalate, and this wasn't the case in the past, in the real past, I'm saying. This is a qualitative difference than what we had before.

0:18:19.3 HA: And after all, competition is fine. It's expected and natural for two hegemons in the region, the Kingdom in Iran, that they will compete in their sphere of influence, but pragmatism should prevail at the end and both states should find a way to deal with each other. Add to this bright picture the withdrawal or the perception of the withdrawal of the US from the region. These signs were increasing, and many states in the region were following a more pragmatic line. They were seeking to take their fate into their own hands, which may be...

0:19:00.7 HA: I think many felt that this would eventually translate into a more peaceful region and a much quieter gulf, especially that these changes also produced a more moderate rhetoric between many states of the region, actually most of the states of the region, with exception of maybe a single state. And on a personal level, I was engaged in several track two sessions during the last few years, so these sessions included both academics from Iran and the Kingdom, and from the gulf, and these sessions, I have to say, were very beneficial.

0:19:38.0 HA: And the way that we rarely hear the clichés we usually hear repeated in the media or many times in diplomatic circles and unfortunately, even within the walls of think tanks, and for me, it was really nice to engage in these talks. We avoided the exaggerations of certain issue, or maybe even camouflaging certain issues on both sides of the aisle, which defies the whole purpose of these meetings, and I think it's always crucial for such back channels, discussions, and intellectual gatherings in general to focus on following a pragmatic approach if we want to find a solution. And there was what I call, in academic terms, a build-up of literature and the placement of a discussion and a much-needed security framework, because if there is no security and no stability, there will be no function in nation states, no economy, no societies. It's very unfortunate, but it's a political/security problem and a dilemma that needs a security solution, among many other things.

0:20:45.6 HA: And I think that these back-channels were also necessary, and the debates that we had with our fellow Iranians, it was a necessary step before any official engagement, and also, it produced this alteration of the hostile public rhetoric between the two states to a more moderate one. This is, I think, a prerequisite for any constructive dialogue in the future. However, and having said all of these nice things, we also must acknowledge that we have what I call a major fundamental challenging facing us related to the structure of the region and the regimes itself. This is not the European Union by any means and it will be difficult to break the current stalemate that we have, one the region is stuck in. We have serious structural problems and fundamentals that governs the relationship between states and the region, not only Saudi and Iran, which in my view blocks and makes any peaceful progress in the region extremely difficult and hard.

0:21:49.6 HA: So on one hand, we have the Islamic Republic, a revolutionary regime, not very revolutionary when it comes to certain parts of the region such as Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq, actually, it's counter-revolution and anti-revolution, but in any case, it's a regime since its existence, and since it came to power, declares and seeks that one of its main goals is to change the status quo that dominated the region, a status quo supported by Western powers, Americans and Europeans, since the creation of the nation state in the region and for decades. And on the other hand, we have these conservative minorities and Emirates, maybe not very conservative lately in their foreign policy, which is a good thing, maybe I will come to this later, but this makes that the perception in the region that hard power would remain the most effective way to shape the region in the foreseeable future.

0:22:48.3 HA: The conflict in the region was never about trust alone, right? It revolves around aggression capabilities and violence that respect no borders and no nation state, I think this threat more now than when the nuclear deal was struck in 2015. The Saudis and the GCC states operates within this jungle. I am not suggesting here that these states are with no mistakes, no, I am not saying this. I'm saying that these states, even when they try to send a reasonable signal or show their willingness to compromise in order to reach a deal or solve a problem, it gets translated as a sign of weakness by adversaries, which complicates issue and the region more. We're seeing this currently with this current talks with Iran. Having said all this, I do believe that there are political bias in continuing dialogue and not destroying it. These joint interests in my view are present now in a way that did not exist in the past, with all these obstacles that we have, and from the Saudis and the Gulf side, serious dialogue with Iran, I think, is a sincere attempt, it will establish the Gulf and the Saudis as a constructive regional player, and international region support for the kingdom also, security becomes more likely with this shift in approach.

0:24:13.8 HA: I am always asked if this shift in approach was tactical from the Saudi side. It could be, it could be tactical but I do not believe so for many good reasons. First of all, the Kingdom has massive internal demands, major restructuring of the economy, and new-generation demands. The Saudi Vision 2030 comes to mind. We have good governance, not only for the Saudis, for all states in the region is a must. It cannot be delayed, but for the Saudis, it's an urgent matter more than others because of the size of the economy, this is the biggest economy in the Middle East, and also because there is this understanding of the region that the security of the region lies in the hands of the main states of the region. It's not the US or any other external power, so these states needs to figure a way to deal with each other first and to defend themselves also without external support. It's also better for these states to have a smaller defense budget. If such dialogue succeeded, or at least in some of its goals, not necessary all of them, this will help a lot. Without going into much details any further, Saudi's security and economy and closing them in a file comes on top of the priorities, and going forward with the diversification of the economy, whatever it takes to achieve this, the kingdom will engage in. So de-escalation or de-complexion with Iran seems a very logical step in that context.

0:25:51.6 HA: And also, if I speak on the behalf of the Iranians, I would say the same goes for Iran if the Mullah regime was rational. Iran has its own strategic plan also called the 20-year National Vigil of the Islamic Republic, which has social, economic, and political goals, elements in this plan, and these plans will not go forward with no stable societies, no vibrant economies and no stability. So you cannot accomplish anything in a hostile region, and despite what we hear from some voices on both sides, actually, and I believe personally that fostering a political climate, conductive of exchange is also... It's not only a Gulf interest or a Saudi interest, but it's also an Iranian interest, because this competition is costly for everyone, especially for the Iranians and for the Iranian people. Additionally, if Iran, as it declares... The Iranians always declare that they want the US out of the region, the US will not be out of the region without a serious reduction in heat of the region that we have now, and also in case of any deal with the West, whether it's a nuclear deal or a more comprehensive deal, without going into technical details, it's better and it's very wise to have the Saudis on board, or at least neutral, as this will reduce the chances of tearing down any deal in the future and it will make it sustainable for the Iranians.

0:27:23.5 HA: And also, it's better... It's not only the Saudis in the region, we have the Turks and we have the Israelis, it's better to Iran to have at least a neutral Saudi, and face its competitors with other powers in the region. So these are important actors that... Even the Turks have currently a good working relation with the Iranians, but they have also their issues that they want to solve with the Iranians, so it's better to have the Gulf and the Saudis neutral in this competition. The unfortunate Yemeni crisis could be a good starting point. Allow me to say this, higher return, lower risk item, geostrategically I'm speaking for both. The kingdom wants to... And it's not a secret that the military engagement in Yemen, the Saudis seek to end it as soon as possible, and Riyadh also seek to find an acceptable resolution that will include the main parties and stakeholders in Yemen, including the Houthis, but there should be no doubt that there will be... There will be no grand deal in the region or a Saudi rush into a more serious Tehran talks with Iran without some sort of compromises from the Iranian side.

0:28:40.6 HA: Iran spends a billion, in addition to the skeleton of militias it finances in the rest of the region, and I'm not suggesting here by any means that Iran controls the Houthis, or the Houthis would accept whatever the mullahs mandate. No, I'm not suggesting that. What I'm saying is Iran would be able to support a ceasefire on Yemen, this will make the Houthis more inclined to engage in a political settlement with other parties in Yemen. In addition, and I always say this, the weapons that the Houthi is using against Yemenis first, not the Saudis, are not made in Yemen, they are not made in the caves of Sanaa or Sa'dah, they come from outside of Yemen.

0:29:18.8 DT: Yeah.

0:29:23.0 HA: Can I? I'll speak... But to reach this stage, several obstacles confront us. I think there is this Iranian belief that solving issues with the West or the US will translate, reflected immediately in their relations with the Saudis, and I think that this is a total fantasy, this is very problematic. I'm seeing Saudi as merely part of the Western bloc because it's basically not true, especially in these times that we live in, this has been very problematic in the past. The association that as a result of then Iran attacking crucial Saudi oil infrastructure, 7 million barrels go through the gate, thereby undermining not only the Saudi economic security, but also the global economy. There was no response to these attacks. Some people would consider targeting Abu Mahdi Muhandis and Qasem Soleimani as a response, but I differ. Also Iran for decades now use this association between the Kingdom and the West and attacking the political security of Saudi Arabia through targeting the legitimacy of governing Mecca and Medina.

0:30:31.3 HA: Iran also wants this re-establishment of diplomatic relations with no compromises, and this would not be acceptable from the Saudis by any means. We also had that problem of lack of assurance, unnecessary mechanisms associated with this assurance, the two states had some agreement in the past that were totally abandoned by the Iranians. It's great doubts from the Saudi sides, and the willingness of Iran engaging in any dialogue. The Saudis say that none of the practices of Iran has changed, Iran engaged... They want to talk for the sake of talking, and no one should deny that shift we witnessed in the last few months from this hostile rhetoric to inclusiveness at least on the rhetorical level from both states is beneficial, but it wouldn't be sufficient at all. Actions are needed to move beyond this point. And deconfliction will certainly take time, both sides realize that the only way to go is to reach a compromise and an agreement, both parties have good reason, and breaking this current pattern of maintaining this status quo and working on a functional deal is much needed. Peace in itself I think is necessary and urgent for both. Sorry...

0:31:53.1 DT: Yes, if you could please...

0:31:54.7 HA: I will conclude, I will conclude, I will leave the rest for Q&A. I think Iran... If the regime was rational, would be better off without internal upheavals caused by economic difficulties. The Gulf is also better off with a more peaceful gulf and improved relations would help everyone, and ending by a positive note, during the past few years, I was always very optimistic about the future of de-escalation in the region, unlike many probably, and I always thought that it was expected, natural, as I said, that states would compete, but both states, Saudi and Iran, if they want to put an end to their conflicts, and that they both can benefit from now, then this is the time to do it. I think we have an open window now and a golden opportunity, both states should seize this opportunity, if, if, if, if rational thinking was followed. Thank you.

0:33:01.3 DT: Thank you, Dr. Alghannam.


0:33:06.0 DT: So our next speaker is Negar Mortazavi. Negar is an Iranian-American journalist and a political analyst and host of the Iran Podcast. She's based in Washington DC. She has been covering Iranian affairs and US-Iran relations for over a decade, and a frequent media commentator on Iranian affairs. She has appeared on many media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, has interviewed many prominent political, social, cultural figures, including interestingly, Muhammad Ali, the boxing champion, and Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. Negar frequently speaks about Iranian affairs at universities and academic institutions such as MIT, Princeton, Johns Hopkins. She received many rewards and accolades, including being featured in Forbes Magazine, among the 30 most inspirational women. Negar obtained a master's from Brandeis University. She will be discussing how President Raisi and his government view relations with Riyadh and a deal with Washington. Negar? 

0:34:27.8 Negar Mortazavi: Thank you, thank you so much to the Diplomacy Institute and GIF for holding this excellent event, the team that made it happen, and to my esteemed co-panelists who are here, the audience and whoever is tuning in online. So I'll continue on what Ambassador Limbert, who I really look up to, he's one of the few people who understands both countries and this four-decade tension very well, and specifically talk about the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, the possibility of the revival of that, and then I'll talk about Iran-Saudi talks and elaborate a little more in continuation of what Alghannam was talking about. So the JCPOA as it currently stands, for those of you are following closely, the seventh round of talks is going to happen in Vienna soon, end of this month. There was what I considered a golden window of opportunity from when President Biden came into office in January until the Iranian moderate president went out of office, which was in August, and until Iranian election really in June, about six to eight months for the revival of the JCPOA, and it was one of the premises of the Biden campaign.

0:35:56.6 NM: But that window has been missed, the talks started late, around April, so about three or so months after the administration came in, and the talks have been going on indirectly, so they don't... The Iranian and the US side don't sit at the same table, they are actually at hotels across the street, which really slows the process, and they weren't able to reach a deal while the moderate administration was still in office in Tehran, and that includes the moderate President Hassan Rouhani and also the Javad Zarif team, the Iranian foreign policy minister who were involved in actually making the JCPOA, and on the US side, the team includes a group of diplomats and officials who were also involved in the Obama administration. So that would have been a really good time to negotiate or settle this return to the JCPOA, and it didn't happen, so right now we're at a juncture where there's a new administration in Tehran from the hardline camp of Iranian political structure, the president, Ibrahim Raisi, ultra-conservative, hardliner himself, the foreign policy team that he's setting, with a caveat that he's also using some seasoned diplomats who were involved in the JCPOA, but for example, the foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, also a hardliner himself.

0:37:23.6 NM: The prospects for the revival of the JCPOA are not clear, but I'm cautiously pessimistic when it comes to that. I'm usually an optimist, but in this case, I'm just cautiously pessimistic now, and that directly connects to talks between Tehran and Riyadh, US-Saudi, Iran-Saudi relations, and whatever happens between Tehran and Washington also will determine Tehran's, Iran's foreign policy direction, not only in the region, but also the shift to the east that has already started, and is more of the vision of this hardline team looking more towards Russia, who's been a strategic ally of Iran and also China for more trade if US sanctions continue, which would be the case if the revival of the JCPOA doesn't happen and a new deal isn't reached. Now, I'm not saying it can't happen. There might be a new deal, it could be a different deal, that JCPOA could be revived, and that's a whole other conversation for another day, but I'm just cautious about that.

0:38:39.0 NM: On Iran-Saudi talks, as we know, there are currently some engagement, there are some talks happening, there have been five rounds, if I'm not wrong. For a few years, there wasn't really... Although I think the Iranian side was interested in reaching out, even under the Rouhani administration. The Hope Initiative, the Hormuz Peace Initiative, was something they put out, they were publicly seeking, and I think there was more reluctance maybe on the Saudi side, but Hesham is more an expert on that, but I think there seems to be interest on both sides now and these talks are going on, and I see some prospects for an opening there, and interestingly, this hardline administration of Ebrahim Raisi might not...

0:39:29.4 NM: They don't look to the West as the Rouhani team did, and that could provide some space for regional openings. The Foreign Minister himself, Amir-Abdollahian is an expert in the Arab world, he was actually the person responsible for the Arab world, an Iranian Foreign Ministry for many years. He also has close ties with the so-called Axis of Resistance, meaning the various proxies and militia groups across the region. He had good relations with Qasem Soleimani, or close ties with Qasem Soleimani before he was assassinated, and he comes from that camp that has been critical of diplomacy and engagement with the West and is also more in control of what's going on in their region. So I think that would give him the benefit, and if the Raisi team empowers him to, to make some headway when it comes to talks with Riyadh.

0:40:32.8 NM: Also, of course, it's a two-way street, and it depends on how the Saudis want this to move forward, but I think with the US disengaging from the region and at least the Middle East becoming less of a priority for this administration and potentially even future US government, I think there's this understanding across the region in different extents, in Tehran for sure, and in some Gulf countries, that their issues should be resolved regionally and among these rivals, and to reduce conflict. I also think the Yemen war, the development of the Yemen war, has an impact on these calculations. The Saudis, when it started, they thought that they're gonna win this war in a few weeks, and that didn't happen. So I think it's just been a long and really catastrophic process, and also the Jamal Khashoggi killing, I think that had more of a public-opinion impact on the Saudi image across the West, and it again goes back to how did the bigger picture of the US disengaging from the region, the Biden administration pulling support for the Saudi forces in the Yemen war and all of that I think are bringing factors to the calculation of these regional players.

0:42:09.2 NM: So I see prospects for some openings in Iran-Saudi tensions, I hope there are some openings, and I think there are some prospects because of the combination of these issues that are happening, and I also think the lack of diplomacy would eventually mean more military tension and escalation, and as we were just discussing with Professor Cole, a stumbling even into an unwanted war. I know there's no appetite for an actual war in the United States, there's also no appetite for war in Iran between these two countries or even with the major powers across the region, but it's not necessarily something that you want, but something that could potentially happen. So the lack of diplomacy and the resolution of these tensions always means more potential for military tension and escalation, and that's just bad for everyone across the region. So I'll stop there. I'm happy to take questions more about Iran's domestic political shifts and also the JCPOA or any other questions that are coming up. Thank you.

0:43:30.7 DT: Thank you, Negar. And our last speaker, but certainly not least, is Professor David Des Roches. He's currently an Associate Professor of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic studies and the senior non-resident fellow with Help International Forum. Prior to this, he was the Defense Department Director responsible for policy concerning Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the UAE, and Yemen, and prior to this assignment, he has served in the office of the Secretary of Defense as a liaison to the Department of Homeland Security as a senior country director for Pakistan, as NATO Operations Director, and as Deputy Director for Peacekeeping. He graduated from the United States Military Academy and obtained advanced degrees in Arab politics from the University of London of Oriental and African Studies, in War Studies from King's College, London, and Strategic studies from the US Army War College. He also attended the Federal Executive Institute, the German Staff College's Higher Office seminar, the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and the US Army when the general staff comes.

0:44:58.1 David Des Roches: Faster, kuzi, faster.

0:45:00.1 DT: So he's very prepared for this presentation, and he will address how President Biden can balance US relations with both Riyadh, and having a deal with Tehran.

0:45:15.0 DR: Thank you, Dania, it's an honor to be here. I've never set foot outside of Detroit Airport in the State of Michigan before, but my wife is from Ann Arbor and tells me it's the greatest place in the world, and I'm inclined to believe with her. I asked her, "What could I say to win over the crowd?" She said, "Talk smack about Ohio State, and for God's sakes, hold in your gut."


0:45:34.2 DR: So, I'm gonna talk about some fundamentals of the US government, and the perspective I'm gonna give you as a seasoned bureaucrat, which I think I have a broad claim to be in, I actually worked deeply in arms sales, and I will stir up a little bit of controversy here with the group. Afterwards, you can ask me difficult, probing questions, and as always, if the questions... I will do my best to answer. If the question's too tough though, I will start crying. So my first point is talking about when campaign promises collide with the realities of governance, and I think the Biden administration finds itself in one of these. A significant proportion of people who voted for Joe Biden voted to stop the crazy. It wasn't so much a vote for Biden as it was a vote against Trump, and many of the policies that Donald Trump had, reversing them was seen as virtuous in and of itself. The problem is, the pledge to re-enter the JCPOA required the acquiescence of the Iranians and they don't have that. It is very rare for a candidate to do a full reversal on a campaign promise once he has exceeded office, although the realities generally are different.

0:46:42.7 DR: The most visible example I can come up with is President John F. Kennedy, who ran citing a missile gap between the United States and Russia, which he blamed the Eisenhower administration for. Once in office, when he was given access to the intelligence, he said, "Oh, never mind." The additional one that I believe every president from Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump ran for office pledging to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and up until Donald Trump, once they were in office, they said, "Oh, my gosh, this situation is more complicated than I thought it was." So I don't think Biden is in a position where he can reverse just yet until he fully plays out the JCPOA process. I think it's apparent to most people that we're certainly not gonna have a productive dialogue, but I think it has to go to the bitter end, both to convince people in his own base, as well as the European allies who really do resent the Trump withdrawal from the agreement.

0:47:34.9 DR: My second point is that the American political argument about the JCPOA really is a theological argument. I don't mean that in the European Union sense, where theological means trivial or unimportant. By the way, it's interesting to note, when Americans think an argument's trivial or unimportant, we call it academic, but Europeans call it theological. That says something about our different countries and what we value. Folks who support the JCPOA, have the Socrates view of human nature, which is that man wants to do good, and if you give people something good and they see it, they will then seek to build on it. Opponents of the JCPOA have the John Calvin view, that man is inherently bad and needs to be scared into this. The thing about a theological argument is it's based on faith, it can't be proven or disproven. So advocates of both the Obama JCPOA and the Trump withdrawal say, "We were doing the right thing, we just didn't have enough time to make it stick. We didn't have enough time for the economic benefits of JCPOA to accrue. We didn't have enough time for maximum pressure to force these guys." I would argue that the criteria these sides have set up, both of them are unmeasurable, unverifiable, therefore, they are matters of faith, not policy, and it's a theological argument.

0:48:48.5 DR: My third point is, what makes this a theological argument is the paradox of sanctions. Sanctions, and this is in part us projecting our own system on others. In a corrupt authoritarian state, which is what Iran is, as Ambassador Limbert has told you. In a corrupt authoritarian state, the paradox of sanctions is that they give the corrupt authoritarian leadership a larger piece of a shrinking pie. So basically, relief of sanctions will take a long time to benefit people because, who's gonna invest their own money in a country, like in a cement plant in Iran, when the revolutionary guard can seize it, put you out of business and maybe put you in jail? The only investment we saw were state-guaranteed things. Peugeot, Airbus, Boeing. Paradoxically, if you increase sanctions under max pressure, the people who actually control the state don't care because they get more control over the state assets, they're able to acquire illicit commissions from skimming illicit oil sessions, things like that.

0:49:54.4 DR: My fourth point which just came out this afternoon, the Iranian official newspaper listed eight conditions for the resumption of the JCPOA. All eight of these conditions are unmeetable by any American politician who ever hopes for him or his party to hold power. One of them, for example, calls for the payment of reparations. The shah's money which was held in escrow from the revolution, that has been returned to Iran. So if there are to be any more payments, it will be from the US taxpayer. That's a nonstarter. That's a nonstarter, so I think that's not gonna happen.

0:50:28.2 DR: My fifth point is... And we have to agree that there is a visceral dislike between the United States and Iran. Visceral not cerebral, which is hard to quantify. Consider, we lost 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam. 58,000, okay? The current US Army dress shirt that you see Mark Milley wearing, the brown shirt that goes under the jacket at a press conference, that is made in Vietnam. I deployed to Afghanistan with a pistol holster that was made in Vietnam, that was issued to me by the US Army. We have had nowhere near that death toll in the hands of the Iranians, but because they're seen as, I don't know, perfidious or less honorable in large part because of this taking of hostages, which is seen as dishonest and underhanded, there is a much greater degree of enmity. It will take much longer for us to have this visceral reconciliation that we've had with Vietnam, where we lost 58,000 people. So that's that.

0:51:25.0 DR: Now, let me take disagreement with Ambassador Limbert, who is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever met in my life. And if you get that reference, you're old enough, you're old enough. First off, I would say that it is a fundamental mistake to project the American policy from the pre Cold War or the Cold War period into the post Cold War period. The calculus and the decisions were driven by completely different factors, and if you try to do that, I think that you are taking a very, very grave risk, and so I would disagree with you. We have to fight to keep people awake, and I realize that people have left the room.

0:52:01.9 JL: Fair enough. Fair enough.

0:52:03.2 DR: The second point is, and here, just as my experience... I was actually the spokesman for the agency that sells weapons. In the modern era, we do not push weapons on partners, the demand signal is greater, we actually deny far more than we sell. For example, we have never sold these following capabilities to Saudi Arabia. Electronic warfare, surface-to-surface missiles, armed drones, dedicated bombers, or naval mines. Recall when the Abraham Accords were announced, the press release was that the United Arab Emirates was going to buy electronic warfare aircraft, the Joint Strike Fighter which they had been asking for for years and... What was the third one? Armed drones. That was in the Trump administration, when the final notice of sale was made, the electronic warfare aircraft were not included, so folks ask for more than one. I realize that that's controversial and I realize that if you study at a modern American university, the idea that economic determinism is not the be-all, end-all is contrary to everything you've learned in a Western university. However, I will be willing to engage with that on questions. Thank you.

0:53:14.2 DT: Thank you. So now we'll proceed to the Q&A session. Please feel free to raise your hand and pose a question. Yes. Sorry, I don't know your name.

0:53:31.8 Juan Cole: That's alright, I'm Juan Cole. I teach History here at the University of Michigan. Hi, Dania.

0:53:36.5 DR: Hello, Juan.

0:53:40.1 JC: I have a question, which is a genuine question since I don't know the answer and I don't have enough data to answer it, but it seems to me that it's possible that the Asian rising powers may have something to say about Saudi Arabia and Iran, and maybe saying it behind the scenes because they're not as public with their diplomacy, so I just wonder... China has picked up Iran as a project and Iran has been pushed into China's arms by the US actions, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Iran are all closer and closer to Delhi everyday, and then Saudi Arabia is the largest source of petroleum for China. So behind the scenes, when the Americans aren't around, are the diplomats from the Modi government and the Xi government pressing Iran and Saudi Arabia to cut it out and make sure that the oil flows to India and China without the interruption, and they must have been really nervous about that cake.

0:54:58.6 DR: Yes.

0:55:00.3 JC: And I wonder if any of the panelists have some insight into this? 

0:55:07.9 DT: Who would like to respond? Dave? 

0:55:11.8 DR: Yeah, thank you. That's a great question. So, we generally think that the United States is chaotic, haphazard, and our adversaries have this master plan that they're executing with mathematical precision, but I think that that's not human nature, everybody else, when you're inside the factory seeing the sausage being made, it's ugly and bloody. So there is a powerful paradox in American talk towards Russia... Or I'm sorry, towards China. China, as you said, they get all their energy, they get a lot of their trade with the Gulf, who guarantees the stability of that trade? It's the United States. Do they want to pay for it? No, I think they view us as suckers 'cause we get almost no oil from that. So China wants to see our standing diminished, they want to see us take it in the shorts, but they don't wanna see things diminish to such a thing that there's war. So that's their challenge.

0:56:11.1 DR: Now, here's a paradox in American thinking. Occasionally, President Trump said this a few times, he referred to China as being free riders on the security and stability that American provides in the Gulf, and I've seen this problem as well with another country where we were doing a UN peacekeeping mission, we're saying, "Well, China benefits from the American presence." Okay, so what if China said, "We've got three aircraft carriers... As of next year, we'll have three aircraft carriers, we're gonna have one permanently based in the Gulf?" Everybody in the United States government would have a heart attack at that, so we haven't quite admitted to that, but I think they're trying to walk a fine line, they wanna see our influence diminish, they want to win the ideological war, which is technology-enhanced authoritarianism as an opposite to this, what they portray as messy, chaotic democracy which will just allow the dissidents in your country to overwhelm your rule, but I don't think they want a military confrontation, and I would note that a lot of offensive capabilities China has not sold. The Iranian missile arsenal is domestically produced, it's not sold.

0:57:21.0 JC: I would.

0:57:23.0 DT: You wanna assist? 

0:57:24.6 JC: Oh, quite. I've got... I believe I've got an answer to the question.

0:57:25.8 DT: Okay, go ahead.

0:57:26.5 JC: I think this is an important question, and as China is riding freely, or at least in the past, but not now with this here, with these holes in the US security emblem in the region, at a certain point they would step in, they should step in. Currently, the sanction on Iran could be beneficial for both, the Russians and the Chinese, but the Chinese, until now, they were not seeing any pressure, they try to... The whole thing seems irrelevant to them now, but not later on, things I think will change and will change radically, in the near future.

0:58:10.0 DT: Yes.

0:58:11.4 Matt Vespa: Yes, I'm Matt Vespa, I teach Political Science here and US politics. I wonder if we can add Israel to the equation, it's relations with the monarchies is obviously changing. I think there is a good chance there's gonna be some sort of a conflict between US and Israel over Iranian policy, so on a number of different levels, Israel may have some influence, and so I'm wondering what that adds to the discussion that we're having here.

0:58:47.2 DT: Go ahead, Negar.

0:58:47.9 NM: Thank you for the question. I agree with you. I think though when it comes to dealing with Iran, the Biden administration is trying to forge a different path, prior to Obama, the public pushback that the Obama administration got back then from Bibi Netanyahu, speaking against negotiations at US Congress, and very publicly pushing back. I think they're trying to avoid some of that by having more direct connections, there's an actual task force or... I'm blanking on the name, but established so they can have direct back and forth, so there are no surprises in the form of sabotage from the Israelis towards Iran, or at least that if it happens, it's not a surprise and that they coordinate. I'm not sure if Israel would be happy with the current government in any form of a deal with Iran, even though we saw back then, during the JCPOA, and this is not usually making it to the headlines, that the Israeli security and intelligence apparatus concluded that the JCPOA was in their security benefit 'cause it put a lid on Iran's nuclear program, and pulling out of the JCPOA just took the nuclear program to a different... Led the nuclear program to be developed to a different level.

1:00:14.8 NM: So I think it's an important factor in the whole equation, and when it comes to also the dealings of other countries or rivals in the region, I think US disengagement from the region is something that both Israel, and also in Tehran, the rivals are taking into account for Iran engaging with the Saudis and some of these other neighboring countries.

1:00:40.1 JL: May I comment briefly? 

1:00:42.1 DT: Of course.

1:00:44.0 JL: Thank you for your question. Dealing with questions like that, I have to put on my so-called Iran expert hat, and what I've discovered is, if you're gonna call yourself an Iran expert, it's actually very simple. You answer... Every question, you can either say, "I don't know," or, "It's very complicated," and that covers just about every... That covers just about everything, but this is actually quite interesting. When I worked... When I came out of retirement in 2009, 2010 and worked back in the administration on Iranian affairs, it was very different. It was incredibly hard to get either side off the dime, we started these nuclear negotiations early in the Obama administration. The Obama administration had said it was going to... It wanted to reach out, they had made offers.

1:01:39.2 JL: But one problem... I mean there were a lot of problems on the Iranian side, but on our side, one of the problems was the personality, I mean, they say in politics you should separate the person from the problem, but we couldn't separate the personality of President Ahmadinejad from what was going on, and his comments particularly about the Holocaust and his Holocaust-denial comments, his comments about Israel had made him toxic in Washington, and it didn't matter what he said, he might say something nonsense or he might be sensible, no one was listening to him, and that really got us stuck, that really got us stuck on that, the Iranians from their side of course had their own problems.

1:02:39.2 JL: I had an Israeli friend tell me something, and I didn't believe him at first. He said that the Israeli opposition, a lot of the opposition to... The hostility toward Iran was not about Iran, it was hostility... It was about Obama, and it was a cooperation between the Israeli right and the American right, the target of which was not Iran, but was the Obama administration, so they had this shared enemy, they had this shared enmity. I thought, "Oh, no, that's too conspiratorial. Not true." And then I thought about it and looked at some of the things that went on, and I think maybe there was something there, maybe there was something there, maybe it's worth looking at.

1:03:37.3 DT: Okay. Hesham, you wanted to say something? 

1:03:40.4 HA: Yeah. I just think that the Israeli factor is an important factor, but very briefly, two main points. First, normalization between some of the Gulf States and Arab Gulf States, and Israel I think is a reaction to the perception of the withdrawal of the US, the region, more than a response to Iran, this is one thing. The other thing, I don't think it's one-size-fits-all, it's case-specific and country-specific, so you cannot just... So for a certain Gulf country, what works for this state would not work for a state with a larger size geostrategically, and more weight economically. I think it's not the same equation. Different states would probably have different paths and tracks when it comes to normalization with Israel, especially if this comes with no benefits.

1:04:38.2 DT: Okay. So let's go on to the next question. I saw a few hands, if you could raise it again 'cause I don't...

1:04:49.1 DR: Just looking to the future a little bit, it appears, and I could be wrong, but oil will not be as important in 20 years. I really hope we pull away from that, and it does take away, and I understand the Saudi government wants to somewhat move away from oil as a main portion of their... And maybe this is not also a reason they're normalizing with Israel a little bit, seeing the way Israel is developed, as a non-oil state. For once, it really had a lot to lose in not moving forward with the Iranians, it seems like most of their income is derived from oil, even the move to the east, towards China, is oil-related, to provide energy, and if we move away from that, if the world does, what does Iran have left? And it would seem intuitive to me for them to try to become a member of the broader international community with the United States, and develop economically outside of oil for them to come to an agreement, and ask their opinion on that.

1:05:55.5 NM: I agree with you, but there's different camps and different schools of thoughts in Tehran, and as I said, the big... That's why I talked about that window of opportunity, the moderates in the Iranian political structure think like that. That we're shifting to the West, looking to the West, engagement with the West, with the US, which was historic, the JCPOA negotiations were historic. Some thought it was a miracle, nobody expected it to happen, in some extent, but the hardliners don't think like that, and the direct result, or one of the direct results of the maximum pressure policy of the US pulling out of a deal which it'd signed that Iran was complying to, in full compliance when the Trump administration left, was the empowering of the hardline faction in Iran.

1:06:40.6 NM: So it really weakened and marginalized the moderates, the hardliners took over the Iranian parliament the year before, then they took over the presidency, and meanwhile, in the meanwhile, there's also, of course, repression happening in the country, the civil societies really shrinked as a direct result also of the weakening of the economy in the shadow of sanctions, covid is a factor, Iran is the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East, it's just... These things are really hurting the economy, but that's just not the thinking of part of the political structure, that you just take however the US gives it to you, and at the end...

1:07:24.8 JL: Well, if the United States would... When you talked about the shah, the other gentlemen in the middle, for a moment, the US really hasn't taken full responsibility, you said they paid back some of the money that the shah had taken, I think that's...

1:07:39.6 DR: No, no, what they did was, there was money that the shah had given for purchase of US weapons that were held in escrow, and then when the revolution came, those funds were held in Escrow and accrued interest. Those were the pallets of cash that were given to the Iranian regime, after the conclusion of the JCPOA.

1:07:57.2 JL: Do the Iranians still have a big mistrust of the United States because...

1:08:04.9 DR: Oh hell yeah, oh hell yeah.

1:08:05.2 NM: Yeah. So I Was...

1:08:05.3 JL: How could the United States take full responsibility for that time period? It doesn't seem like we have... It was extremely repressed, I'm sure.

1:08:12.5 NM: No, so just pushing back on what David was saying, there's a long list of grievances... And I wanna pass it on to John after I finish. There's a long list of grievances on both sides, and I think the problem with this US-Iran four-decade tension is that each side only sees or projects the conflict from their viewpoint. They just air their own grievances, which are many on both sides, but without looking to the other side or putting themselves in the shoes of the other, and how they see this conflict.

1:08:41.5 NM: There's definitely a deep feeling of mistrust. Obviously Iran sees itself as the underdog in the region, part of Iran's regional policy is shaped because Iran sees itself as the underdog in this power projection from a super power, which is the US, but unless the list... And we don't have to go item-by-item on the list, but for every grievance the US brings up, the Iranians have something on their own side, and unless this conflict is seen as a two-sided thing, I just don't see a...

1:09:14.3 DR: Yeah. That's not a pushback, that's a concurrence. I'm saying every day between the United States and Iran is Festivus, and it starts with the airing of grievances, and then you have the feats of strength, every day is Festivus.

1:09:25.8 NM: On both sides? 

1:09:27.0 DR: Yeah, yeah.

1:09:29.8 JL: It's interesting what you mentioned about oil, got me thinking, and you know what you have is a possibility, you think about it, you could have a loosening of the so-called oil curse.

1:09:43.3 DR: Well, it's gonna happen either way.

1:09:44.9 JL: And that has been a particular disaster in this region because it's enabled the governments in the region to maintain authoritarian and corrupt systems, immune from world public opinion or outside pressure. If their oil doesn't have the same demand, then maybe that there is a relief on the horizon from that particular curse.

1:10:17.3 DR: It would seem less likely, an agreement between the two, the Saudi's and the Iranians, even more [1:10:21.1] ____.

1:10:25.8 DT: Okay, Hesham.

1:10:26.9 HA: As someone from the region, I would really like to disagree with you, but unfortunately I cannot, this is a...


1:10:33.7 HA: This is an existential threat, more than the religious wars between the states, foreign states.

1:10:43.3 DR: The diminishing imports of oil? 

1:10:43.5 HA: Yes. Yes, and the states in the region, and I'm disagreeing also with John when he says, actually, if there was no oil in the region, there would be no states, but states in the region now, I think oil was beneficial to the region, with oil, and with it's disadvantages.

1:11:03.3 NM: Exactly.

1:11:04.0 HA: But it was a blessing, and the only way to move forward is to try to break this rentier model in a very gradual way, this is my opinion, and states in the region now, it seems that they're realizing that global warming and climate change is not a joke, some of the states there thought that it was a joke, but now with the reduction of the carbon footprint in less than 10 years, and someone could correct me in the statistics, these states would lose at least 50% of their income. So this is not something light or should be taken lightly, it's more important, important than it was... Or should be the heart of Omar Al-Ali, for instance, the Sunni-Shia theological baton.

1:11:51.4 HA: So this is a serious challenge and could open an opportunity for all states in the region, and so I'm saying the only initiatives that you see now... And you could go hard on the Gulf states as much as you can, but the only initiatives that you see in the region is in the Gulf states, whether it's from the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Qataris, The Bahrainis, you're seeing at least attempts in trying to diversificate their economy, and also some sort of green initiatives, but you are not seeing this elsewhere in the region.

1:12:24.1 NM: If I could add to that. I think the GCC states are also trying to bring their... With regards to oil, be on the forefront of this climate change issue and make the argument that oil in the Gulf is less damaging to the environment and cheaper than oil in other places.

1:12:46.1 DR: That's true.

1:12:46.8 NM: So that's one of the primary arguments being placed. And then there is also the other hydrogen development, that's a new development in which they're trying to... And I'm not a tech person, but they're trying to develop hydrogen and they say it's less costly for the environment, and they're moving forward with this initiative as well. So I don't think that they're trying to move away from hydrocarbons, but they are trying to make the point that their fossil fuels and whatnot are more environmentally friendly than other places in the world. That's one.

1:13:27.4 NM: In reference to the rentier model, I would have to say that, of course, the equation is changing, and the model has actually shifted, there has been a decrease in rentierism in the Gulf states, and I do think that the rentier argument is diminishing as we're moving along. To a certain degree, in different Gulf states it's different, for example, in Bahrain, I think it would be different, there's a sense of rentierism for other GCC states supporting the country, that's a different form of rentierism, I guess, but in Saudi Arabia, it's definitely shifting. In Qatar and Kuwait, no, rentierism is very strong, so I think nuance is really important. And then the argument about authoritarianism in oil, I think that is very debatable. If you look across the Middle East, authoritarianism is doing quite well, and many countries don't have oil, and these are tribal societies, so there's a different way of thinking about authority than Western societies.

1:14:39.4 HA: I will not go... I will not engage in these debates, we could go for hours, quickly, last point on this. Is it beneficial for the Iranians? Yes, this is the only way to go forward, and compare the misery that we have now, the failed states, what could be done with better relations with Riyadh? Instead of this external huge burden financed in Iran, 'cause this... The skeleton of militias cost Iran dreams in the region, and the Iranian people are paying for keeping this skeleton active.

1:15:15.2 HA: And it's not only a few, if you open the doors with Riyadh, it doesn't open only the Saudi economy for you, which is the largest economy in the east. No, it gives the signal to the rest of the region, especially the other Gulf states, that Riyadh is heading into this direction, so we can all be open to Iran, and this would open the economies of the Gulf, all of them, the Gulf sections to Iran. So the benefits are enormous for Iran especially.

1:15:42.6 DT: Okay. So maybe we move on to the next question. That's okay? Does anyone else have any questions? 

1:15:52.0 S1: Will.

1:15:52.1 DT: I'm sorry? 

1:15:52.4 S1: Will.

1:15:52.4 DT: Will, okay, you know his name. Will.

1:15:54.5 S1: Yeah.

1:15:54.6 Will: Hi, I'm Will. I work in the New York School Policies Program. So I have two questions, if you don't mind. I guess the most important question is the role Turkey has played in the Middle East. Recently, Turkey has used mercenaries from Idlib province in Syria, SN82, deployed them in different proxy wars like Libya on behalf of the [1:16:19.5] ____ against Armenia and the ancillary forces, where you think the Turkish... It would go in line with that of the GCC or whether... And how you think it would impact Saudi and Iran politics? My second question was on the role of the United Arab Emirates Yemeni civil war, and the role in which the other transition of council has to play independent of the GCC Coalition in support of the government against GCC countries? 

1:16:51.5 DT: Who would you like to take a step? 

1:16:56.0 DR: I'll take both. Okay. I worked the Turkey desk as an intern in the office of the Secretary of Defense in 1984, and back then, there were very few... I was the only intern in the Pentagon, and the West Point uniform was white shirt, light gray, people would always address me in French 'cause they thought I was the French area attaché. In those days, prior to the rise of Erdoğan, whenever there was a meeting about Turkey, the general tone was, "How can we help out the Turks? What can we do to do this? These guys have so many challenges, we need to support the Turks." And there was a lot of innovative thinking, for example, there was body armor that... Now, this is prior to the establishment of strong exports, Gaddafi had bought body armor, and we realized, "Oh my God, man, we can't give him this body armor," but an export license had been granted, so the US government bought the body armor, and we gave it to the Turkish National Police, stuff like that.

1:17:44.7 DR: Nobody's being innovative, finding a way to do Erdoğan's Turkey favors like that. The country has changed fundamentally. The mercenaries is one of the least attractive assets of that, but Turkey, I think, it sees using Idlib mercenaries as a twofer because they eliminate a potential threat to their southern borders, and they're able to project power relatively cheaply, and that's just the new age of warfare. We've seen Russian use of mercenaries, we've seen Iranian use of mercenaries, and now we're seeing Turkish use of mercenaries, but regardless, even with the change complexion of Turkey under Erdoğan, the protection of Turkish sovereignty is a civil religion, and protecting the Turkish southern border from incursions, I think that there is a broad concurrence with the Turkish body of politic and the importance of that. So everything else is an added benefit, that's the prime driver.

1:18:37.3 DR: The second question is the role of the UAE in the Yemen Civil War and the STC. I don't know a whole lot about this, but I know something about it, and it appears that... And if you go on the C-Span website, the day after the war in Yemen started, I'm on there and I basically said, "Look, they're going from near, if they don't achieve all their goals within three weeks, they probably never will." So that was in 2015. As the war dragged on, it appeared that each country, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia diverged in their aim of what was achievable and what was beneficial. It appears to me... I do believe that if they thought it was achievable with the military means they were willing to bring to bear, to have a unified Yemen that was friendly to the GCC, that's what they would've done, but I think there was a tactical action, operational decision made by the UAE that those goals were not achievable, and so in effect, they diverged from their Saudi partners and accepted half a loaf under terms that were best for them. I don't think that was their war aim at the start. I think that that was something that they settled on as the war dragged on, and it proved to be unachievable with the military means they were going to build to bear. So I think to a certain extent, they called an audible at the line of scrimmage, but there are a lot of people who write more and better on this than me.

1:20:05.1 DT: Okay. Would anybody else like to make any last points? 

1:20:10.4 HA: Yes, please.

1:20:11.9 DT: Yes, go ahead.

1:20:13.6 HA: We did not speak a lot about Yemen. I think that the misery in Yemen resembles what happened in Syria. I'm not taking the blame from anyone and placing it on Iran. The interventions in the region, the way that it's a major part of the problem we have. It's not only Yemen, it's Iraq, it's Syria, it's within now, with the failed state in Lebanon, but it seems that this modus operandi that Iran operates in, it's not a nation state approach, it's an "umma" approach. They see interventions as acceptable in any place in the region, and at least the Saudis in their public announcements, are saying that all parties including the Houthis should engage in a political process, but this is not happening because of this intervention. And no one should expect that this escalation and violence would stop without some sort of compromise from all sides, but we are not pressuring the Saudis. And I do understand that, okay, you pressure one side but ignoring the other side would not bring the war into an end. And I have to comment on this competence building, if you allow me. A quick comment.

1:21:39.1 DT: Okay, just one second. Everyone after this has one minute to say their closing remarks, we'll start with Hesham for his closing remarks.

1:21:49.4 HA: And I still remain optimistic. I think the start with exchange effective relations is good between the states, and people-to-people, nations, we're seeing this improving, we're seeing the economies are opening within some states and Iran. These are all fine, and talking with each other than... Talking to each other directly is also good, and transforming the conflict resolution rather than trying to... Thinking that a magical solution would happen between states is something also useful, but this dialogue in confidence will not be enough to extensions and resolve conflict. I think this is a total fallacy. What would resolve conflict is that we see a reduction in aggression capabilities in the region and we see less intervention. We see some compromises from all sides. This is the only way, this region could survive and we can see hope because the current situation now, look at the Fertile Crescent, you will see all these different states, you see all this misery, and again to the point that if Iran thinks rationally, they would see that this is very costly financially at least, and a solution needs to be reached as soon as possible. Thank you.

1:23:20.2 DT: Thank you. Dr. Hesham. Negar.

1:23:24.5 NM: I just wanted to reiterate that Iran's regional policy and the part of the rivalry and the tensions and the proxies, the Axis of Resistance, as it's called, is from Tehran's viewpoint a response to the US. This great power presence across the region, which Iran obviously in a direct war can't win against, so they have set up these networks or alliances across the region, and Iran is not the only party who's intervening in the region, the Saudis, the UAE, the Emirates, and of course, the biggest intervention across the region of the United States. I think US disengaging from the region in the long-term would mean hopefully more cooperation and more resolution of the conflicts among the parties and the neighbors without this thumb on a scale when it comes to the different conflicts. And obviously Tehran, Washington resolving their political issues diplomatically would also have great impact on how the region moves forward, and the continuation or the reduction of these tensions also depends a lot on what happens in the nuclear negotiations.

1:24:46.2 DT: Thank you Negar. Dave.

1:24:47.8 DR: Yeah, thank you. I'm guardedly optimistic that there will be a rapprochement during the four years, some sorta diplomatic arrangement. I don't think it will be the JCPOA. I think the JCPOA is going to have to die in a way that demonstrates particularly the European partners, that the United States did everything they could to try to revive it, and then I think we'll move on to something else. I think the greater threat to the region is not nuclear weapons, but rather the Iranian missile arsenal, which is much harder to police. And I think that if we start to see a proliferation of missiles in the region, which is possible, I think that then perhaps this will come to. And then on the second question. This is an analytical question. Has Iran reached the natural limit of its expansion? The proxy warfare strategy is really only effective in countries that have a large Shia population and have a really dysfunctional government. Well, they pretty much reached all of those. So Bahrain is not going to go over to the side. So I think we may be at the limits of Iranian power, and when a country is like that, a revolutionary country stops expanding, generally it tends to look in itself. I'm a little bit more optimistic than I think people would expect me to be there.

1:26:06.8 DT: Thank you. Ambassador Limbert.

1:26:07.1 JL: I just wanted to thank and recognize Professor Cole for his great work in this field and really read his material, read his material, read his things, listen to him. Also, if I'm not wrong, you were my daughter's professor here.

1:26:24.0 JC: Oh, I was? 

1:26:25.1 JL: Many... A few years...

1:26:26.2 JC: It was an honor because I was...

1:26:28.1 JL: A few years ago here at Michigan. No, I'm glad that my colleague Dave here pointed out this persistence of grievances and the paradoxes involved. Given the history, why have we remained enemies for so long when look at what... With Vietnam and after, eventually with the Soviet Union, eventually even with Cuba, with China? And as I said, I don't have the answer, but this persistence of grievances is very tough and we've gotta get beyond it. I'll just end with a very quick story. Shortly after I left government service, I was invited to lunch at an Iranian diplomat's residence in New York City, part of the UN, who was part of the UN delegation, and of course, a very nice lunch, but I was treated to a recitation of grievances.

1:27:31.9 JL: And he said, "The trouble is the United States did this and the United States did that and the United States did something else." And I said to him, "Sir, if I were still with the government, which I'm not, I would need to refute you point by point, but I'm not with the government, so I will say only this. This exchange of grievances," what the Iranians call...

[foreign language]

1:27:55.5 JL: This exchange with... I said, "I see no point in it, it's like a couple stuck in a bad marriage. All they do is just keep beating on each other and bring up old grievances, and what is the point of it? We gotta be able to get beyond that." And he looked at me and he said, "You're right." He said, "You're right, there's not much point in it, but tell me one thing?" He said, "Why did the United States do this, and why did the United States do that?"


1:28:29.7 JL: My point is, folks, this is gonna be hard. This is gonna be hard. It's gonna take time, it's gonna take patience, it's gonna take forbearance, and there are gonna be a lot of setbacks, but I think your presence here tonight is good testimony, people are interested in these things, people are curious about these things. So I certainly thank you and praise you for that.

1:28:54.5 DT: Excellent. Well, thank you, everyone, for joining us today for a very timely and important issue, and one that we could probably revisit on many, many more panels. I've had many Iran panels and GCC panels so far, and thank you for co-sponsoring this event with us, and have a wonderful evening.