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Posts Tagged ‘American foreign policy’

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

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The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an article by me on Thursday, August 13, 2015.  I wrote the article in English, and “Shargh” translated it into Farsi.  I am posting here the English text that I sent to them:

There is general agreement that the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) will have momentous implications.  There is general disagreement, however, on just what those implications are.  Several see it as having very positive implications.  These include the Obama and Rouhani administrations, China, as well as most Western and other governments.  Others see it as having very negative implications.  These include conservative politicians in both America and Iran as well as the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states (except Oman, which favors the agreement).

And then there is Russia.  Russia supports the agreement and worked toward its achievement.  But Moscow is nervous about what it means for Russia.  Moscow foresees that as economic sanctions against Iran are lifted, much more Iranian oil and gas will come onto the world market.  This will have the effect of lowering petroleum prices—something petroleum importers welcome, but other petroleum exporters like Russia do not.  Moscow is also nervous about the prospects of Iranian relations with the West improving at a time when Russian relations with it are poor and may well grow worse.

At the same time, Moscow sees that Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (except Oman) are also nervous about the prospect of improved Iranian-American relations.  Riyadh sees the hand of Iran opposing the Kingdom in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen.  Riyadh fears that the Obama Administration’s agreeing to the nuclear accord will lead to such improved Iranian-American ties that Washington will leave Saudi Arabia and the GCC to face Iran all alone.

This fear, of course, is unrealistic.  Neither Washington nor Tehran sees the nuclear accord as leading to a full-fledged Iranian-American alliance.  But the reaction of both Moscow and Riyadh to the prospect of improved Iranian-American ties has been to improve Saudi-Russian ties.  And so we have recently seen more contact between Saudi and Russian officials to talk about joint cooperation in various fields.  Moscow especially hopes that Saudi annoyance with America will lead to Riyadh buying weapons, nuclear reactors, and more from Russia.

By itself, increased Saudi-Russian cooperation is not necessarily a bad thing.  Increased trade between them really does not threaten anyone else.  Further, not just Saudi Arabia and Russia, but also Iran and America have a common interest in preventing ISIS from seizing power in Syria and anywhere else.  Indeed, it may take cooperation on the part of all four countries—and others still—to prevent this.  Improved Saudi-Russian ties may be as important as improved Iranian-American ties for bringing this about.

The idea, though, that even somewhat improved Iranian-American relations is going to lead to significantly improved Saudi-Russian relations is far-fetched.  For no matter how unhappy Riyadh is about the prospect (whether realistic or not) of improved Iranian-American relations, the Saudis are hardly likely to expect much support against Iran from a country, such as Russia, that has much closer ties to Tehran than America has or is likely to have any time soon.  For Riyadh, then, the primary utility of being seen to move closer to Russia may be to awaken fears in Washington that it had better “do something for Riyadh” so as not to “lose Saudi Arabia” to Moscow.

Moscow, of course, does want improved relations with Riyadh, and will gladly sell to Riyadh arms or whatever else it is willing to buy from Russia.  On the other hand, Russia does not want to give up anything it now has or hopes to acquire in terms of relations with Iran in order to improve ties with Saudi Arabia.  Moscow wants to have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and the GCC on the one hand and Iran on the other, even if they do not get along with each other.  Moscow does not want to have to choose between the two sides, and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so.

What all of this means is that the Iranian nuclear accord is not likely to lead to any dramatic changes in alliance patterns.  Iranian-American relations will hopefully improve, but the U.S. will remain allied to Saudi Arabia and the GCC (as well as Israel).  Moscow’s ties to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states (and also to Israel) may improve, but Russia is likely to remain more closely linked to Tehran as well as Damascus (as long as Assad remains in power there).

Yet despite whatever benefits might result from the Iranian nuclear accord, the Gulf region will remain tense so long as Saudi-Iranian relations remain confrontational.  And they will remain confrontational so long as they are on opposite sides in the region’s ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.  Indeed, if these conflicts persist or grow worse, the region could see an all-consuming Shi’a-Sunni war—similar, perhaps, to the Catholic-Protestant wars that plagued Europe a few centuries ago.

Progress on the nuclear issue alone will not prevent this tragedy from occurring.  What is needed for doing this are regional conflict resolution efforts involving Iran, the P5 + 1, Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and all other governments and opposition movements involved.  The common threat from ISIS should be sufficient motive for everyone else to work together against it.  Just like the nuclear negotiations, these regional conflict talks will not be easy.  But if Iran and the P5 + 1 could succeed at something as complicated as the nuclear accord, I feel confident that they along with others could also succeed at regional conflict resolution too.

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I visited Paris March 4-10, 2015, to talk with people there about Russian policy toward Ukraine and related issues.  I was able to speak with highly knowledgeable French government officials, scholars, and journalists about this subject.  I will not cite the views of specific individuals here, but will give a general sense of the views I heard in Paris.

There was much praise for the degree to which Washington and Paris have collaborated on this matter (as opposed to previous instances—namely the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq—when they did not).  Indeed, there was a sense that the members of NATO and the EU have succeeded in working together in opposing Russian policy toward Ukraine, and that even the somewhat troublesome governments in Hungary and Greece will not pose an obstacle to this.

French observers, though, are unanimous in opposing the suggestions made by some American politicians and officials that the U.S. should provide arms to Ukraine in order to fight against Russian and Russian-backed forces on its territory.  Indeed, I was frequently asked whether these suggestions were actually serious.  They oppose such a move for several reasons, including:  1) Moscow’s ability to easily counter it with additional arms to the Russian separatists or deployment of its own forces; 2) the Ukrainian military’s weakness which casts doubt on its ability to make effective use of any arms that it might receive; and 3) the prospect that this could lead to an expanded conflict.

But just as my French interlocutors fear the impact of American over-involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, they also fear the impact of American under-involvement.  There is concern in Paris that the Obama Administration is not sufficiently engaged in this conflict due to its prioritization of other issues.  President Obama’s characterization of Russia as a regional threat is seen as an indicator that he may think that Russian policy in Ukraine is less America’s problem than it is Europe’s.

Some I spoke with in Paris see Europe as unable to deal with Russia on its own—partly because of the growing strength of Russian influence with business interests as well as with certain political parties.  The motives of those wishing to protect their business interests in Russia are straightforward:  they don’t want to suffer the damaging losses that further sanctions or open hostilities would lead to.  The views of pro-Putin politicians are more complex.  Many of these are motivated not so much by genuine support for—or even understanding—of Russian foreign policy, but by seeing Putin as an ally in their generally anti-American, anti-EU, and anti-German cluster of resentments.  Further, some of my interlocutors felt that in France, these views are not just limited to the far right or far left, but to many mainstream politicians as well.  When asked if there was anything Washington could do to change this, one observer responded with a flat, “Non!”

None of this, of course, makes it easier for Europe and America to respond effectively to Russia’s forward policy in Ukraine.  Some French observers expressed fear that Putin might make similar incursions into the Baltic states—especially Latvia, where there is a large, disgruntled Russian population living along the border with Russia.  This would be far more serious since the three Baltic states are members of NATO, which the other members are all bound to defend.   Some, though, believe that Putin will not pursue policies toward the Baltics similar to those he has pursued toward Ukraine due to the greater risks this would run.

Yet while specific proposals about how to deal with Putin were in short supply in Paris (just as they are in Washington), there was a general sense that although Putin is in an advantageous position to pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the short run, he faces many disadvantages in the long-run.  His rule in fragile and it is not in his interests to get Russia bogged down in numerous conflicts that could go on indefinitely.  Putin, they believe, is rational enough to recognize this.

The best that the West can do, then, is to avoid measures (such as arming Ukraine) that could lead to a broader conflict, but make it clear to Putin that further expansion is unacceptable and will have significant costs for Russia through, among other things, continued—or perhaps even increased—economic sanctions.  At the same time, Europe and America should encourage Kiev not to focus on regaining lost territory, but on reforming Ukraine economically and politically—a difficult task, but one that Putin’s behavior has made Ukrainians more willing than before to undertake.  If there is one silver lining that my French interlocutors see in all this, it is that the United States government—especially Secretary of State John Kerry—has been more willing to consult and confer with the French government about this crisis with Russia than over a decade ago about the one in Iraq.  Both Washington and Paris do better when they work together than when they are at cross purposes.

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I attended the “Arabian Gulf and Regional Challenges” conference that took place September 16-17, 2014, in Riyadh.  The conference was sponsored by the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Diplomatic Studies, and co-organized by the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.  I am not going to summarize all the presentations that were made (many are already available on the web), but highlight what I saw as the principal points being conveyed by the Saudi and other Gulf speakers.  These were:

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not the only threat that the region faces.  There are several others, including the threat from Iran, the actions of the Assad regime in Syria, Shi’a extremism in Iraq and elsewhere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the deteriorating situation in Yemen.  The importance of these last two was underlined in presentations by Dr. Saeb Erekat (Palestinian Chief Negotiator), and Jamal Al Salal (Yemeni Foreign Minister).

While the West focuses on Sunni extremists (such as ISIS), Shi’a extremism is also a major threat.  Shi’a extremists whom Saudi and Gulf speakers regard as especially threatening include the Shi’a militias in Iraq, elements within Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government, the Assad regime in Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Standing behind them all, Saudi and other Gulf speakers emphasized, is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Effectively battling ISIS requires an understanding of the root causes of its current strength.  This, in the view of the Saudi and other Gulf speakers, resulted from 1) the American-led invasion of Iraq; 2) the American withdrawal from Iraq; and 3) the failure of the Obama Administration to follow through on its declared intention of launching an attack on the Assad regime in Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons against its own people.  Since this last development in particular, Damascus has focused on targeting the more moderate Syrian opposition and not ISIS.  As American actions (or non-actions) are primarily responsible for allowing ISIS to grow strong, it is America that is primarily responsible for combating it.

Military means alone will not defeat ISIS and other jihadist movements.  Too many Sunnis have become convinced that ISIS is either their champion or is less worse than its Shi’a opponents.  They need to be persuaded that jihadism is not the right way to solve their problems.  America and the West cannot do this effectively.  This battle for Sunni hearts and minds must be undertaken by Sunnis themselves, including Muslim authorities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Iran cannot be considered a true partner in the battle against ISIS.  This is because although Tehran genuinely fears ISIS, it wants to combat it through strengthening the Assad regime in Syria and Shi’a forces in Iraq—whose aim is to suppress the Sunnis in general in these two countries.  Fear was expressed that the Obama Administration, through prioritizing negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, is overlooking the ongoing Iranian and Shi’a threat to Sunnis, and Sunni governments, in the region.  On the sidelines of the conference, there were Saudis and others from the Gulf who even expressed fear of the rise of an Iranian lobby in Washington.

The rise of ISIS and other regional challenges underlines the importance of pressing ahead with the “Gulf Union” project.  At this conference, the proposal was supported not just by Saudi speakers, but also by the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and Kuwait’s former Minister of Information Saad bin Tefla Al Ajmi.  It was emphasized that the Gulf Union would not involve the loss of sovereignty of the six projected members (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman), but would have a federal structure instead.  The Gulf Union, though, would establish common foreign and defense policies for the six members.

In addition to the above points which were made by Saudi and other Gulf speakers, there were several specific statements made during the conference that were noteworthy:

In the second session (on Gulf Security and the Impact of Regional Political Transformations), Prof. Mostafa Elwi of Egypt indicated that he saw Syria’s Assad regime as a partner in the coalition fighting ISIS.  This seems to be the position of the Egyptian government also, but is not that of the Saudi, UAE, or Kuwaiti governments.

In the sixth session (on Gulf Security and the Role of Rising Powers), Ambassador Rajiv Sikri made what I thought was an especially interesting proposal.  ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) sponsors a regional forum that includes ASEAN members, neighboring states, and external actors with an interest in the region.  Indeed, the ASEAN Regional Forum includes governments that are hostile to one another:  North Korea on the one hand and the U.S. and South Korea on the other.  Just as the ASEAN Regional Forum gives these governments an opportunity to talk to each other, a Gulf regional forum that included all states in the region as well as external actors active in it would provide an opportunity for discussions among Arab governments, Iran, and Israel.

Also in the sixth session, the Chinese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Li Chengwen, gave a speech—in Arabic—on Chinese policy toward the region.  In the Q&A session afterward, a Saudi female journalist was highly critical of China.  While China claims to be a rising power, she noted, it does not play much of a role in the region.  While China is also threatened by the rise of ISIS, China has just been a “free rider” while others act to combat it.  She also raised the question of the status of Muslims in China—an obvious reference to Beijing’s policy of suppressing Muslims in Xinjiang.

In the seventh session (on Future Perspectives), Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz of the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources gave a highly detailed speech challenging the increasingly popular view that the “shale revolution” in North America will reduce the economic and security importance of the Gulf to the West.  He questioned whether the shale revolution will really allow the U.S. to satisfy its own energy needs.  Even if it does, he argued, many other countries (including those allied to the U.S.) will remain dependent on Gulf oil, and that the ability of the Gulf to continue supplying oil to the world market will have a major impact on petroleum prices everywhere.  Gulf security, then, should remain a priority for American foreign policy even if the U.S. imports no oil itself from the region.

This conference was especially interesting due both to the high quality of the presentations and to the spirited Q&A sessions afterwards.  Especially noteworthy was the vigorous participation of women from the Gulf region in these Q&A sessions.  This, in my view, was a highly positive development in a region where there are all too many negative ones.

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The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an interview with me today.  The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article (of course) appeared in Farsi.  I am posting here the English-language interview:

Shargh:  You are one the rare expert that has seen Irano-amercian relation with an eye on their relations with other countries. In other world your analysis about Iran nuclear crisis always includes the elements of the importance of Russia, China? Visibly according to you Iranian position is subordinate to her relation with Eurasian powers, can we make such parallel with U.S. and Israel?

Katz:  I do not think that the Iranian position on the nuclear issue is subordinate to the Eurasian powers—or to anyone else!  If Iran’s position was subordinate to anyone, then it would either never have begun work in the nuclear realm or would have halted it long ago.  No nation, whether possessing nuclear weapons or not, wants another nation to acquire them.  Nations decide on their own whether it is in their interests to do so.  I think the same is true of Israel.  The U.S. really did not want it to acquire nuclear weapons, but it did so anyway.  But just as the possession of nuclear weapons did not prevent the Soviet Union from collapsing, the possession of nuclear weapons has not enabled Israel to resolve its relations with the Palestinians or other Muslims.

Shargh:  But after the victory of Hassan Rouhani, the language and the claimed aims are completely different from Ahmadinejad era. It is believed that this government is serious about solving blurred problem in nuclear crisis. What we can wait from the American side vis-à-vis this change?

Katz:  The Obama Administration in particular wants to come to an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, and so I believe that it would be willing to make concessions on the sanctions regime (which the Obama Administration did much to increase), especially with regard to Iranian access to the international banking system, petroleum sales, and trade generally.  We have already seen that Washington has acquiesced to Oman buying an enormous quantity of Iranian gas.

Shargh:  The victory of Hassan Rouhani showed that Iranian society is seeking peaceful solutions for the crisis. The election mechanism in Iran has convinced many experts in U.S and all over the world that these two countries have much more similarities in common, at least when we compare U.S. and its Arab allies in the region. Can we rely on this institutional similarity as well as the practice of election, elite alternation, some extent of rationality and Descartes mentality for saying that these similarities probably affect American decision-making process on Iran in positive term?

Katz:  Thoughtful American observers of the Middle East have long noted the irony in America’s adversary Iran being more democratic than America’s authoritarian Arab allies.  We saw a similar irony during the Cold War when America sided with authoritarian Pakistan against democratic India.  While there are politically powerful forces both in America and Iran that oppose improving relations with the other, I believe that President Rouhani’s popularity inside Iran provides the opportunity for those who support rapprochement in both countries to pursue it.

Shargh:  « Heroic Flexibility » is a rotation in Iranian foreign policy which was declared by supreme leader just before Rouhani’s trip to New York. It is believed that Iran has taken “go first” strategy. I’d like to know and ask you, HOW this new orientation is viewed in U.S. and among different political spectrum?

Katz:  The fact that the Supreme Leader himself has called for “heroic flexibility” is extraordinarily important, and is a strong sign that President Rouhani has his approval to seek improved Iranian-American relations.  Some in the U.S. recognize this, while others do not.  The present moment reminds me very much of the state of Chinese-American relations in the early 1970’s or Soviet-American relations in the mid-1980’s.  Just like now, there were those who then claimed that our adversaries’ call for improved relations was “a trick” meant to lull America into complacency while they prepared a surprise attack of some sort.  Fortunately, though, cooler heads prevailed in Washington and improved relations came about.  Both China and America have benefited from this ever since.   The Soviet Union, of course, fell apart, but this was not America’s doing.  Indeed, in his July 1991 speech in Kiev, President George HW Bush called for the Soviet Union to hold together and democratize.  The internal mess that the Soviet Union had become under communism, however, meant that it couldn’t be reformed.  While Russian-American relations have not always been good since then, they are much better than Soviet-American relations before Gorbachev.  I believe that improved Iranian-American relations would lead to long-term benefits for the U.S. and Iran as well.  Unlike the USSR but like China, Iran is not going to break up.

Shargh:  I come back to the region. The probable rapprochement between Tehran and Washington has made real concerns for Israel. Add to Israel, Arab countries across the region and Russia and certainly Saudi Arabia. What does it look like the new political configuration of Middle East after Irano-American reconciliation? Do U.S. allies will lose their geopolitical weight? Russia from her today’s stance will take which position?

Katz:  Israel and many Arab governments are fearful of improved Iranian-American relations.  They fear that America and Iran will become such good friends that America will not listen to them as much.  I believe, though, that improved Iranian-American relations would benefit both Israel and the Arab states.  The better Iran’s ties with the West, the more that Iran will have an interest in the peaceful resolution of its ties to the Arab world as well as the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.  Moscow does not welcome improved Iranian-American relations for fear of Iran becoming friendlier with the West at Russia’s expense.  I think, though, that Russia too would benefit from the reduced hostility in the region that improved Iranian-American ties could lead to.

Shargh:  If we put the regional dissatisfaction created from probable reconciliation alongside the « Shiite Crescent», the Sunnis in the region are not happy. US have what type of strategy for coping with these challenges?

Katz:  Much of the Sunni Arab fear of Shi’a Arabs is based on the belief that the latter are Iranian agents.  I think that an improved Iranian-American relationship could help defuse this fear through Tehran and Washington working together to resolve Sunni-Shi’a conflicts through both democratic and federal solutions in those countries most afflicted with Sunni-Shi’a tension, including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Shargh:  In US to what extent Israeli lobby and the hawks can make obstacle against “thaw” between Tehran and Washington? How much these obstacle could be serious?

Katz:  It is true that in America there are strong pro-Israeli as well as other hawkish groups that oppose a thaw between Tehran and Washington.  On the other hand, there are many supporters of Israel who see that improving Iranian-American relations would also benefit Israel.  The more progress that is made in improving Iranian-American relations, the more difficult it will be to block this process.

Shargh:  On nuclear crisis, US visibly was seeking to reinforce the sanctions regime for forcing Iran to change her behavior But the nonstop emphasis on the efficiency of the sanctions has become American strategy; It is not any more tactics. There is something illusion for understanding American foreign policy. According to you to what extent emphasizing on sanctions will jeopardize the opportunity of rapprochement? Lifting sanctions means “leaving with losing”?

Katz:  In my view, increasing sanctions on Iran now that both the Supreme Leader and President Rouhani have signaled a serious desire to improve relations would be counter-productive.  There are many in Washington, though, who will argue that it is the increased sanctions on Iran that has brought about Tehran’s “heroic flexibility,” and so sanctions should be further increased to bring about even greater Iranian flexibility.   In my view, though, this would be a miscalculation.   If those on the Iranian side who have taken the risk of calling for improved relations are treated poorly by the U.S., then those who oppose improving relations will become stronger in Tehran and the opportunity will be lost for years and years.

Shargh:  Iranian president in a conference insisted that Americans also have changed their accent. Visibly all things go well, according to you what’s the most important and unsolvable problem for passing this difficult period? Long history of hostilities or nuclear issue?

Katz:  There is indeed a long history of hostile relations between the U.S. and Iran in addition to their differences over the nuclear issue.  I think that making progress on the nuclear issue will actually be easier since this can be done by a relatively small number of people on both sides.  Overcoming the legacy of hostile relations, though, will require support from the political class as well as the public on both sides.  In my view, progress on the nuclear issue could help accomplish this more difficult task.

Shargh:  If the process of “thaw” begins normally in the framework of diplomatic attempts who is the biggest loser and winner of these new arrangements in Middle East?

Katz:  There are many who fear that they will lose by it—including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Russia.  In my view, though, all of these and more would benefit in the long-run from improved Iranian-American relations—even if they do not recognize this at present.

Shargh:  For the last question, Obama in his discourse in General Assembly defending “American Exceptionalism”, what does it mean for future of Middle East, we have to be afraid of emerging a new war?

Katz:  When he refers to “American exceptionalism,” President Obama is not claiming that America is better than others, but is referring to America’s role in helping free other nations from conquest by others (such as Imperial Germany in World War I, Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II, and  communist expansionism during the Cold War).   American generosity after World War II also helped many nations—including our former enemies—revive economically and politically.  President Obama also knows that America has committed many mistakes, such as supporting authoritarian regimes (including the Shah’s) during the Cold War because we were so very afraid of communism then.  What is exceptional about America, in my view, is that it is a country that both can learn from its mistakes and has the ability to rectify them.  But as President Obama would surely agree, other countries can also be exceptional in this way too.  If so, it is not war but peace that could emerge when exceptional leaders in exceptional nations work together.

The interview in Farsi is available here:  http://sharghdaily.ir/Modules/News/PrintVer.aspx?News_Id=22850&V_News_Id=&Src=Main

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I am posting here my contribution to a collection of articles just published by the Foreign Policy Research Centre (New Delhi) entitled, “Studies on Iran.” 

Ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran came into being in 1979, there has been much that Tehran and Washington have disagreed on.  Arguably the most important—and the most intense—disagreement between them has been with regard to the Iranian nuclear program.  Tehran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, and that it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.  Washington fears that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, and points to Tehran’s lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection program—as well as the “international community” more broadly—as justification for its concerns.  The U.S.—especially under the Obama Administration—has sought to increase economic sanctions against Iran not just to induce Tehran to verifiably reassure the international community that it will not acquire nuclear weapons, but also to raise the costs of Iran’s not doing so to the point that Tehran is eventually forced to capitulate on the nuclear issue.  Tehran has responded sometimes through openly defying American pressure and sometimes through indicating a willingness to cooperate with the international community on this issue but then not doing so.  Both responses only fuel American concerns, and so the cycle continues.

The Iranian-American disagreement over the Iranian nuclear issue, of course, is not simply a bilateral issue between Washington and Tehran.  Many other governments are also affected by and concerned about the Iranian nuclear issue, the American-led sanctions campaign against Iran, and their own relations with Iran more generally.  As a result, the international relations of the Iranian nuclear issue are complicated.

With the possible exceptions of Syria and North Korea, there are no other governments that want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.  But while some of them state this strongly (such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and the UK), others do so more quietly (Russia and China), while others still do not say much of anything even though they would very much prefer Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons (Pakistan in particular comes to mind).  Still, on the question of whether Iran should or should not acquire nuclear weapons, the overwhelming majority of governments agree (publicly or privately) with the U.S. that it should not.

As noted earlier, the Obama Administration in particular has sought to intensify international economic sanctions on Iran in order to force it to submit to international supervision over its nuclear activity.  Yet while most other governments do not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, not all of them are as enthusiastic about this approach as Washington is. The U.S. began imposing economic sanctions in 1979 and has been steadily tightening them ever since.  For the U.S. to impose additional economic sanctions on Iran, then, has little or no negative impact on the American economy since Iranian-American economic ties are already extremely limited.

Many other countries, though, have substantial trade ties with Iran.  Some governments—such as the U.K., France, and Germany—have been or may be willing to sacrifice them in the attempt to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  But while many other governments do not want Iran to obtain them either, they are not so happy about being asked to sacrifice their own trade interests for this cause.  Some have gone along with the increased sanctions that the U.S. and some European governments have called for more because they do not want their relations with the West to suffer—especially when the U.S. and EU threaten to impose penalties on those who do not comply with the sanctions regime.  By contrast, some of Iran’s neighbors—most notably the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Authority, and Turkey—have sought to profit from serving as conduits for Iranian trade even while claiming to adhere to the sanctions regime against it.  Others still—especially China and Russia—support some increased UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran as a means of currying favor with America and the West on the one hand, while on the other increasing their trade with Iran (a strategy which China has been far more successful at than Russia).

For many governments, the problem with complying with the increased sanctions against Iran that Washington in particular calls for is that doing so involves real economic sacrifices for their countries but will not necessarily succeed in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  For those governments most concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, their anticipation that even a severe economic sanctions regime against Iran will not prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons has led them to contemplate the use of military means.  Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel in particular sees the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as so threatening as to require the use of force to prevent it.  Various Saudi officials have indicated that they would not oppose—indeed, would actually facilitate—the use of force to halt the Iranian nuclear program.  President Obama has indicated that he has not ruled out anything (i.e., military means) to achieve this aim.

It is doubtful, though, that there are any other governments that would support the use of force to halt the Iranian nuclear program.  Their opposition, though, is likely to be highly differentiated.  Some oppose the use of force in general.  Others oppose its use without authorization from the UN Security Council (which would definitely not be forthcoming in this case).  Others—such as Russia—oppose any American or Western use of force which they see as aimed at expanding the Western sphere of influence at Moscow’s expense.  Still others fear being negatively affected by any ensuing Iranian-American conflict that might result.  There are some, though, that might publicly condemn the use of force against Iran while privately welcoming it—either because it damages the Iranian nuclear program, provides them with a pretext for ending their cooperation with the American-sponsored economic sanctions regime, or both.  There are even some (possibly China and Pakistan) which might welcome the prospect of a prolonged Iranian-American conflict as an opportunity for them to pursue aggressive aims of their own with less fear of being opposed by the U.S.

In their face-off over the Iranian nuclear issue, an important problem that both Washington and Tehran face is that each tends to overestimate the isolation of the other from the rest of the international community.  Washington should not mistake most governments’ opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as implying that they would support (even privately) military action to prevent this or will agree to indefinitely ratchet up sanctions at America’s behest which increasingly harm their own economic interests.  Similarly, Tehran should not mistake much of the world’s opposition to American military action that is not authorized by the UN Security Council as implying a willingness to do anything meaningful to defend Iran should it be attacked by the U.S. and/or Israel.  Tehran should also keep in mind that if it does actually acquire nuclear weapons, it is not just the U.S. and Israel that will react negatively.  Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is likely to be followed quickly by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt seeking to do so, and by these countries and several others turning more toward the U.S. to deter and contain Iran—even as many of them continue to actively trade with it.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons, then, will not necessarily increase Iranian security as Tehran might hope and expect.  On the other hand, American policy toward the Iranian nuclear issue is more likely to receive broader support if Washington aligns itself with the interests and concerns of others instead of attempting to force them into supporting a policy formulated by the U.S. and a just a few of its close allies that is insensitive to their interests.

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I spent almost two years from the latter part of 1979 to the latter part of 1981 writing my Ph.D. dissertation on Soviet military thinking about conflict in the Third World during the Brezhnev era. A revised version of the dissertation was published in 1982 as a book (my first!): The Third World in Soviet Military Thought.

Because this was a topic of great importance at the time, my book received a fair amount of attention when it first came out. After Gorbachev began the Soviet withdrawal from the Third World, however, the subject of this book became less important. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the Yeltsin-era retreat from engagement in the Third World, the book became largely irrelevant for understanding ongoing international relations.

Putin, of course, has pursued a more active foreign policy toward what used to be known as the Third World, but not really a more active military one. To my amazement, though, a paperback version of The Third World in Soviet Military Thought was published in June 2013. However, with a list price of $44.95, I don’t anticipate that there will be many who will buy and read it.

But I did. It seemed like a journey back to a distant time. The book focuses on subjects that were of importance to Soviet military thinkers then. Many of these—such as the categorization of wars in ideological terms (including wars between imperialism and socialism, civil wars between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, wars between bourgeois states, national liberation wars)—now appear quaint and irrelevant for understanding today’s (and perhaps even yesterday’s) world.

There was, however, one theme discussed back then by Soviet military thinkers that impressed me as being highly relevant for understanding certain conflicts now—especially the one in Syria. Some of the Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers were making a genuine effort to accurately understand the new types of conflict that were then occurring. One of these they termed: wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction. What they understood about these conflicts between a dictatorial regime and its opponents was that they were not conflicts between two parties, but among three. Here’s what I wrote in my book’s conclusion about the implications of their envisioning these conflicts in this way:

“In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction…[b]oth communists and non-communists united to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (dictatorship of the proletariat or republican democracy). The communists in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the non-communists fighting the dictatorship. However…the communists stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while the United States is supporting the dictatorship, the Soviet Union will support the communists, making them stronger compared to the non-communist opposition….When the dictatorship eventually falls, the communists are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from the USSR and its allies while the non-communists have received nothing…. Either of these could come to power, and so Soviet support of the communists increases the communists’ chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the non-communist opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the Soviets can take advantage of.” (pp. 129-30)

While re-reading what I had written over thirty years ago, it struck me that the same logic—with updated terms—could be used for understanding the current conflict in Syria: In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction, both radicals and moderates unite to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (radical Islamist rule or some form of democracy). The radicals in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the moderates fighting the dictatorship. However, the radicals stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while some external forces are supporting the dictatorship, others will support the radicals, making them stronger compared to the moderate opposition. When the dictatorship eventually falls, the radicals are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from their allies while the moderates have received nothing. Either of these could come to power, and so external support of the radicals increases their chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the moderate opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the radicals can take advantage of.

There are, of course, some important differences between the conflicts that Soviet military thinkers were describing back in the 1970s and Syria now. Back then, it was the U.S. supporting regimes of extreme reaction whereas now it is Russia and Iran who are doing so. Also back then, it was the Soviets and their allies who were supporting the radical opposition whereas now it is Sunnis outside Syria that are doing so. But both then and now, the U.S. did or is doing little or nothing to support the moderate opposition.

There are other similarities between then and now: the U.S. was and is reticent to support the moderates for fear that they may actually be radicals. External radical forces, by contrast, always seem able to distinguish between their allies and rivals within the internal opposition fighting against the dictatorship.

Studying what Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers had to say about conflicts between the people and a regime of extreme actions has lessons that both Washington and Moscow would do well to heed.

For Washington: If external support goes to the radical opposition but not to the moderate opposition, then the radical opposition will be in a stronger position to take power after the dictatorship falls.

For Moscow: Supporting regimes of extreme reaction is a losing proposition since (as Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers clearly understood) they are “doomed to failure.”

And for both: Moscow’s support for a regime doomed to failure and America’s unwillingness to support the moderate opposition in Syria only increases the likelihood that it is the radical opposition that will eventually prevail there.

Finally, I cannot help but note: since at least part of this 1982 book of mine does seem to be useful for understanding the present, surely it was prescient of my publisher to bring it out in paperback now!

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