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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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Putin’s lifting of the Russian ban on transferring S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran raises important questions about Moscow’s expectations and even motivations concerning the achievement of a nuclear accord between Tehran and the P5 +1 (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia).

In 2007, Moscow and Tehran signed a contract whereby Iran would buy these air defense missiles from Russia.  Israel and the U.S. in particular objected to this sale for fear that Iranian possession of these missiles would enable Tehran to protect any nuclear weapons and delivery systems that it might be building against an Israeli or even an American attack.  Whether rightly or wrongly, they feared that if Iranian leaders thought that Russian air defense missiles could enable them to protect a nuclear weapons program (which Tehran vehemently denied it had), then Tehran would be more likely to embark on one.  Those in the West hoping to achieve a nuclear accord with Iran argued—just as the U.S. did when it was negotiating with Moscow in the initial strategic arms control negotiations in the early 1970’s—that Tehran’s foregoing defensive weapons that could protect a nuclear program would boost confidence in the West that Iran was serious about reaching a verifiable accord that would ensure it would not try to break out of such an agreement.

In September 2010, then President Medvedev canceled the sale of S-300s to Iran—even though Tehran had paid for them.  He may have been motivated to do so by the desire to encourage U.S. Senate ratification of the New START accord signed in April 2010.  He may also have seen denying Iran these weapons as a way to encourage Tehran to reach a nuclear accord with the P5 + 1.  Tehran, not surprisingly, was furious, and has sought the reinstatement of the contract ever since.

Just recently, important progress has been made toward the achievement of an Iranian nuclear accord.  While formally an agreement between Iran and all the P5 + 1 governments, the bulk of the negotiations have taken place between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.  A final agreement, though, has yet to be reached.  Grave doubts about Iranian intentions have been expressed both by Obama’s Republican opponents and by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.  They fear that Tehran does not intend to abide by a nuclear agreement, but to use it to lull the West into complacency while it builds the bomb.  Similarly, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and other Iranian conservatives have expressed fear that the agreement would demand too many concessions from Tehran while giving it too little in return.

Why, then, has Putin now decided to end the ban on the transfer of Russian S-300s to Iran?  If a final agreement had already been reached, this move might have made sense as part of the incentive package to Iran for agreeing to rigorous inspections and other restrictions ensuring its compliance with the accord.  But by lifting the ban when the achievement a final accord is still uncertain, Putin casts doubt not just on whether he thinks a final accord can be achieved, but also whether he actually wants it to be.

Why would Putin not want to see an Iranian nuclear accord achieved?  With the serious tensions that have arisen between Russia and the West over Ukraine and European security as a whole, Moscow may not want to see a rapprochement between Iran on the one hand and America and the West that a nuclear accord would lead to.  Even a reduction of the economic sanctions against Iran could lead to a swift rise in Iranian trade with the West as well as Western investment in Iran.  Iran could not only export petroleum to the West, but could serve as a conduit for Caspian Basin oil and gas to reach the world market without having to go through Russia.  Further, Tehran is not likely to forego any opportunity to earn money from the West out of deference to Russia.

Moscow, then, has reason to doubt whether the achievement of an Iranian nuclear accord would actually benefit Russia.  Moscow may not be in a position to halt an agreement if Iran on the one hand and the other P5 + 1 governments on the other were willing to sign one, since they might simply ignore Moscow’s objections and go forward with an agreement anyway.  Putin, though, may be positioning Moscow to benefit if such an agreement is not reached.  And by lifting the ban on S-300 exports to Iran, he may be increasing the likelihood that an Iranian nuclear accord is not reached.  This is because Iranian possession of S-300s will increase fears among those in the West who are skeptical anyway that Tehran intends to break out of a nuclear accord.

In making this move, Putin can be reasonably sure that Tehran will not suddenly forego receiving the S-300s after having demanded that Moscow deliver them for years now in order to reassure the West, much less Israel, about its intentions.  And if Iran does receive Russian S-300s, opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran on the part of Congressional Republicans, Israel, France, and perhaps others may grow so strong that the Obama Administration may no longer be able to continue pursuing one.

Perhaps Western governments can either persuade Moscow not to ship the S-300s to Iran or persuade Tehran not to accept them in the interests of achieving a nuclear accord.  Or failing both of these, perhaps the Obama Administration (along with France, Germany, and the UK in particular) can persuade Tehran to agree to measures offering reassurance about its nuclear intentions despite receiving Russian missiles.

But if indeed Putin is seeking to prevent the achievement of a nuclear accord between the P5 + 1 and Iran and the rapprochement between Tehran and the West that this would lead to, ending the Russian embargo on selling S-300s to Tehran may prove to be a highly effective means of doing so.

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Quick Comment on Crimea

The disposition of Crimea has an odd history.  At some point after the Bolshevik Revolution, it was assigned to the Russian Federation, but in 1954 Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine.  The majority of Crimea’s population, though, is Russian.  And ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russians there and in Russia itself have called for its return to Russia.  Ideally, the question of whether Crimea should belong to Ukraine or Russia, or be independent, should be decided by an internationally-monitored referendum.  What Putin has done is highly provocative, but it also has support on the ground.  The question now is whether he’ll go after other parts of eastern Ukraine where there are large Russian populations but where they are not a majority (Crimea is the only place in Ukraine where they are).  Obama’s reaction so far has been underwhelming.  On the other hand, I’m not sure what he can do.  

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I am posting here my lecture notes for a presentation I gave at the Kennan Institute/Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, on Monday, October 7, 2013:

Why has Moscow backed the Assad regime in Syria so strongly?

More than anything else, this appears to be the result of Russian President Putin’s conviction that this is the right thing to do—both in foreign policy terms and in Russian domestic political terms.

Putin has devoted considerable energy into reasserting Russia’s role as a great power, which declined markedly under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

One way in which Putin has sought to do this is through restoring Moscow’s ties with its Cold War era allies in the Middle East.  But these have either been not especially interested (i.e., Algeria), or have fallen from power—Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.  Bashar al-Assad is Moscow’s last remaining Arab ally.  If he falls, then, Moscow will have no allies there.

And as the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin has noted, “Russia’s stance on Syria is based, above all, on its leader’s largely traditional view of the global order.”  Keeping Assad in power is Moscow’s way of ensuring that it maintains some influence in the Middle East.

Further, Moscow anticipates that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria that will be anti-Russian as well as anti-Western.  Moscow, then, sees the West as having an interest in seeing that this does not happen—even if not all Western leaders recognize this.

And this concern about the rise of Sunni radicals in Syria feeds into Moscow’s concern about their possible rise in the Muslim regions of Russia as well as Central Asia.  Some might argue that local grievances on the part of Russian and Central Asian Muslims may account more for the rise of radicalism among them, and that outside jihadist forces don’t need the Assad regime in Syria to fall in order to help them.  But this is not how the Putin administration sees things.

There are other factors encouraging Russian support for the Assad regime:

–The Obama Administration’s clear unwillingness to become militarily involved in Syria or provide much support to the opposition has given a greater degree of freedom for Moscow to support Assad, and can be seen in Moscow as an indication that Washington too fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria.

–President Obama’s threat of a military strike at Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents in August 2013 was a departure from this pattern.  But Obama’s seeking Congressional authorization, Congress’s obvious unwillingness to grant it, and Obama’s quick acceptance of the Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control all showed Moscow (and many others) that Obama still does not want to intervene.

–There is also the Israeli factor.  Despite the Assad regime’s hostility toward Israel, alliance with Iran, and support for Hezbollah, Moscow understands that Israel also fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to a far more hostile regime in Damascus.  Moscow sees Israel as an ally in urging restraint on Washington.

–Further, despite Turkish and Arab public hostility toward Russian support for Assad, Moscow’s ties with Turkey and most Arab governments have not suffered notably.  Russian-Turkish trade booming; Putin and Erdogan seem to have agreed to disagree on Syria.

–The new military government in Egypt has soured on the Syrian opposition, and so this is not something that divides it from Moscow.

–While Moscow frequently cites what happened to the Gaddafi regime in Libya as reason for not allowing a Security Council resolution authorizing any use of force or even economic sanctions against Syria, Moscow gets along with the new government in Libya as well as anyone else has—notwithstanding the recent attack on the Russian embassy there.

–And, of course, Moscow and the Shi’a-led government in Iraq (with which Russian economic ties have grown) are basically on the same side in Syria.

Indeed, Moscow’s policy toward Syria has not appreciably damaged Russian relations with most Middle Eastern governments—with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Moscow sees these two as supporters of radical Sunni elements in Syria, elsewhere in the Arab world, Central Asia, and inside Russia itself.  (For their part, these two see Russia as allying with their Shi’a opponents in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.)  Their actions—or perhaps more accurately, Moscow’s interpretation of their actions—have only served to intensify Moscow’s desire to prevent the violent downfall of the Assad regime at the hands of Sunni radical forces.

There are, however, limits on what Russia can accomplish:

Moscow clearly wants to prevent a Western intervention in Syria as occurred in Libya.  And this goal appears likely to be met—not because of Russian ability to prevent it but because of the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to undertake it.

But while the West is unlikely to act to bring down the Assad regime, the war there is continuing with no end in sight.

Moscow’s preferred outcome to this conflict is similar to that which former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad achieved in 1982, the Algerian military achieved in the 1990’s, or what Putin and the Kadyrov clan accomplished in Chechnya:  the defeat of the Islamist opposition and the restoration of state security service control.

Yet even without Western intervention or major support for the opposition, this outcome appears highly unlikely to be achieved in Syria now.  The Assad regime may not be ousted, but the war is likely to continue on indefinitely despite Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government.  Moscow, then, is stuck in something of a quagmire.

Further, Russia is not in a strong position to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict.  It may be that nobody else is either.  But if a settlement to the conflict is to occur, it will probably require heavy involvement on the part of the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Should such an effort succeed, the influence of what are now the Assad regime’s adversaries will probably increase in Syria while that of its current supporters—including Russia—will probably decrease.

The possibility of an Iranian-American rapprochement could also complicate Russia’s Syria policy.  If such a rapprochement occurs, one element of it might well be Tehran reducing or even ending its support for Assad.  If this occurs, Moscow could find itself either virtually alone in supporting Assad, or playing little role in an Iranian-American agreement concerning Syria.

If, on the other hand, Iranian-American relations remain hostile and Iranian support for Assad continues, Moscow may not be in a position to effectively pressure Assad into making any concessions for resolving the conflict if he thinks that he can survive with the support of Iran and Hezbollah.

Thus, while Russia can help the Assad regime avoid being overthrown, it is not in a strong position to end the war either through helping Assad crush his enemies or providing the requisite incentives and disincentives for a successful conflict resolution effort.

Finally, if radical Islamist forces grow stronger inside the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus and Volga regions of Russia, and/or in Central Asia, then the fate of Assad—whether it is win, lose, or draw—will be of less concern for the Kremlin than dealing with what will be far more urgent matters.

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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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Far from being on the verge of collapse as many in the West and the Arab World had hoped, it now appears that the Assad regime in Syria has gained the upper hand against its internal opponents.  With Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shi’a movement Hezbollah all strongly backing Assad while the opposition is only receiving mainly light arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, perhaps this was inevitable.  The European Union allowed its arms embargo on Syria to lapse and could now aid the Syrian opposition, but it seems unlikely that any European government will do so unless the U.S. takes the lead.

So far, though, the Obama Administration has refused to provide the Syrian opposition with anything but non-lethal support.  Considering that the Assad regime is a brutal dictatorship based on Syria’s Alawite minority which has long oppressed the majority of the population, is virulently anti-Israeli and anti-Western, and is a close ally of Iran’s, it would seem that actively supporting the Syrian opposition’s efforts to bring about the downfall of the regime would be in the interests of America, its allies, the majority of Syrians, and humanity in general.  Why, then, has Obama not done so?

It may be that President Obama’s approach toward Syria is guided by a cautious logic that includes the following elements:  First, Obama wishes to avoid the possibility of getting the U.S. mired in a long, inconclusive, and costly military conflict in Syria such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama, after all, did not withdraw American forces from Iraq and arrange for their withdrawal by the end of 2014 from Afghanistan just to send them into a similar situation in Syria.

Second, while the Assad regime is indeed truly awful, it is not clear that its downfall will lead to the rise of anything better.  Indeed, Sunni radicals appear to be playing an increasingly dominant role within the fractured Syrian opposition.  The Obama Administration understandably wants to avoid undertaking any action that leads to the replacement of the Assad dictatorship with a radical Sunni one.

Third, while it is unfortunate that Russia is backing Assad so strongly, the Obama Administration has good reasons to avoid offending Moscow over Syria.  With the souring of Pakistani-American relations as well as continued instability inside Pakistan, the U.S. is highly dependent on cooperation from Russia in order to safely extract American troops and equipment from Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network.  Further, the Obama Administration still hopes to persuade Moscow to more fully join in Western-sponsored efforts to induce Iran to halt its worrisome nuclear efforts.  Russian-American differences over Syria are simply not as important as the need for Russian-American cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, as well as the need for Russian-American cooperation more generally.

Yet while it is a cautious logic such as the one outlined here that may underlie Obama’s unwillingness to get the U.S. involved in Syria, it is also possible that his decision-making is informed by a more Machiavellian logic which includes considerations such as:

First, even if the Assad regime is now doing better vis-à-vis its opponents than previously, it is probably not going to be able to vanquish them completely.  Continued support from Moscow and Tehran to Damascus will not only increase Sunni Arab and Muslim hostility toward Russia and Iran, but also be a continuous drain on the resources of these two American adversaries.  It is better for the U.S. that Russian and Iranian resources be expended in Syria, and not America’s.

Second, while there may have been past instances in which the Shi’a fundamentalist Iranian government and the Sunni radical Al Qaeda (or its affiliates) have cooperated against the U.S. in the past, in Syria they are on opposite sides.  Iran has sent both men and materiel in support of the Assad regime.  The Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front is one of the most effective groups fighting against Assad.  America and its allies benefit from the fact that Iran and the Al Nusra Front are at cross purposes in Syria.  This conflict between them also increases the prospects that Iran and Al Qaeda-linked groups will be in conflict elsewhere.

Third, the broader Sunni-Shi’a division over Syria has already yielded some important positive results.  Sunni Arab public opinion, which once lauded the Lebanese Shi’a movement Hezbollah for opposing Israel, now reviles it for supporting Assad.  The Arab League (consisting mainly of predominantly Sunni-led governments) has recently condemned Hezbollah for supporting Assad.  Similarly, Iran has dramatically cut back its funding for the predominantly Sunni Palestinian opposition movement, Hamas, because of the latter’s support for the Syrian opposition.  Both of these developments benefit America and its allies.

Finally, the shale revolution in North America means that the U.S. will become much less dependent on petroleum supplies from the Middle East.  To the extent that the U.S. and Canada can export their non-traditional petroleum resources or America’s allies in Europe and elsewhere develop their own, then they too will be less dependent on the Middle East.  There will, thus, simply be less need for the U.S. to concern itself as much with events in this turbulent region in the future than there was during the past several decades.  In fact, if turbulence in the Middle East leads to higher petroleum prices, this will hasten the development of more expensive North American petroleum resources that the previous availability of relatively cheap-to-produce Middle Eastern oil has done much to prevent.

What is interesting about the cautious and the Machiavellian foreign policy logics vis-à-vis Syria outlined here is that they are by no means mutually exclusive—especially regarding the question of American intervention or greater involvement.  While the cautious logic seeks to avoid the problems that could arise from greater American involvement in Syria, the Machiavellian one seeks to exploit the problems that Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda  are experiencing (or are likely to) as a result of their involvement there.

Could it be, then, that the Obama Administration is pursuing both the cautious and the Machiavellian logics toward Syria simultaneously?  Is Obama’s avowal of a cautious foreign policy toward Syria merely a cover for the pursuit of a more Machiavellian one that he does not want to acknowledge publicly?

This seems highly unlikely.  Obama’s aversion to intervention appears to be something deep-rooted.  The problems resulting from America’s involvement in Vietnam taught him at a young age that military intervention is highly problematic.  Iraq and Afghanistan only served to confirm this view.  And while Obama did countenance American participation in the multilateral intervention in Libya in 2011, the limits he placed on American involvement at the time showed just how uncomfortable he was with this operation.  Further, the messiness of the post-Qaddafi Libyan political scene may have only raised doubts in his mind about whether any better outcome would occur in Syria if America took steps to bring down the Assad regime there.

Obama, then, probably believes in the efficacy of the cautious foreign policy logic vis-à-vis Syria, and is highly likely to continue pursuing it.  His doing so, however increases the risk that the minority Alawite dictatorship remains in power in much (if not all) of Syria and wreaks brutal retaliation upon the Sunni majority; the Sunni majority blames America and the West for not helping them when they could have, and so falls increasingly under the sway of radical groups linked to Al Qaeda; and Sunni-Shi’ite conflict intensifies in and spreads to other countries of the region.

If this is what Obama’s pursuit of a cautious foreign policy logic toward Syria leads to, then the next American president may have to pursue the Machiavellian logic of playing on differences among America’s adversaries in the region while working to end American and Western dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum not because he or she wants to, but because these will be the best of the bad options remaining for American foreign policy in this region.

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