Kourosh Ziabari – Iran Review: The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) is referred to as the richest terrorist organization in the world. In 2015, it earned $2.4 billion through oil exports and illegal taxation and extortion from the desperate people living under its harrowing rule. Defeating the ISIS terrorists militarily appears to be a daunting task, and people hesitate to call the annihilation of ISIS an easily-reachable and plausible target, at least for the time being when the international community is divided on whom to support and whom to fight in Syria, and the influential actors pursue apparently conflicting interests.
The latest estimates by the U.S. intelligence community put the number of ISIS recruits at 25,000, indicating a serious decline from the preceding months. However, the global fervor for collaboration with Daesh has not subsided, and individuals from different countries still find it tempting to fly to Syria and Iraq and fight for a cause they believe would give them meaning and adventure.
A distinguished Arab-American journalist and author tells Iran Review that ISIS is the product of decades of economic stagnation, mismanagement, lack of educational opportunities and absence of democratic representation in the Arab world countries.
“ISIS came out of the Arab world; it was born in Iraq and Syria essentially… So, this is a predominantly Arab phenomenon reflecting problems across the Arab world and these problems are so diverse and so extensive and so difficult to solve now that I fear that we’re going to continue to suffer this kind of situation for a long time to come, because you’re talking about issues like, for instance, 25 million young people in the Arab countries who are not schooled, who should be in primary and secondary school,” said Rami G. Khouri in an exclusive interview with Iran Review. “… So, those 25 million people are going to be easy-picking for any kind of radical group or criminal group or socially deviant group.”
Mr. Khouri believes the rise of ISIS is a wake-up call about the growth of a set of alarming problems and deficiencies across the Arab world including environmental, historical, political and social issues: “Almost every dimension of life in many, many Arab countries has real problems and the result is what we see today: migration, illegal refugees, terrorism, Islamic State, etc., and some countries have been in active warfare for four, five years non-stop. So, there’s a real problem in the Arab world and we see it everywhere.”
Rami Khouri was born on October 22, 1948 in New York City to a Palestinian Christian family. He has lived in Jordan and Lebanon and was the first director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. From 2003 to 2006, he was the executive editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper. He is the recipient of a prestigious Nieman Journalism Fellowship from the Harvard University in the academic year 2001-200. Mr. Khouri has received his MSc degree in mass communications from the Syracuse University. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ Middle East Initiative and a member of the Brookings Institution Task Force on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.
In this in-depth interview with Iran Review, Mr. Khouri shared his insights with us on the sixth year of war in Syria, the international community’s failure to achieve a peaceful solution to the crisis and the dynamics of the growth of ISIS militancy. He also provided some thoughts on Iran’s troubled relations with its Arab neighbors.
Q: The deadly crisis in Syria has entered its sixth year and after so much political capital has been exhausted and apparently fruitless diplomatic initiatives and even military options that have proved futile, the future is unpromising for the Syrian people. Why has this conflict endured for so long and the international community been surprisingly unable to find a decisive solution to bring it to a closure?
A: Well, I think the easy answer is that the international community has not found an answer because the international community is waging war in Syria. The striking thing about Syria is that there are so many people fighting militarily. It started with the people in Syria fighting against the regime and then it expanded to Islamists, Jihadists and others came in – the Kurds and others, and then you had the regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Hezbollah and then you have the global powers including the U.S., Britain, Russia, etc. So, everybody who can possibly think of governments, non-governmental powers, militias, regional powers, local citizen groups, everybody is fighting in Syria and therefore it’s virtually impossible to actually get a resolution of the conflict very easily because there are so many conflicting interests and there are huge powers, not just the U.S. and Russia but Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – these are big regional powers with a lot of muscle, a lot of money, a lot of fighting capabilities that they’re pouring into Syria and therefore it’s going to probably go on for some time.
The efforts to find a negotiated solution which started in Geneva two or three years ago are not moving very well because there really isn’t an opening now for a negotiated, peaceful resolution of the many different conflicts that are going on inside Syria. So, I think it’s going to stay like this for some time, unfortunately, and we’ll have to see possibly one side to actually defeat the other; possibly everybody will get exhausted and possibly we’ll have the external powers, which is mainly a composition of the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – those are the five critical ones, who may realize that this conflict is not helping anybody and is just destroying Syria and hurting the regional and global powers and they might together push for some kind of a resolution or at least a permanent ceasefire or something, but I’ve never heard anybody anywhere in the world give me a realistic scenario of how the fighting stops in Syria.
Q: Right! In one of your recent articles you compared the ongoing conflict in Syria to the fighting that erupted between 1915 and 1925 in the region when the foreign powers clashed over territory and resources in the mandatory Syria. What’s the strategic importance of Syria? And what’s at stake for the regional powers that makes them unable to strike a compromise over the future of Syria?
A: I think what’s at stake are both some practical strategic issues and also a lot of political honor and prestige. At the practical level, you know, Syria is a critical partner for Hezbollah and Iran and what they call the “Resistance and Deterrence Front.” That tri-partite grouping is very strong and has been for many years and all three partners are determined to maintain it, not to let it break down, because if Syria reaches a point with the Assad government is defeated or overthrown, that would seriously hurt the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran strategic relationship and they would try to avoid it at all costs. So, these are some very practical issues there. Another one is that the Russians and many others around the world just don’t want to see the United States being the power that comes in and decides which leaders stay and which leaders go. So, that’s a practical, political reality about how powers exercise their authority and their influence and their capabilities in the Middle East by getting rid of leaders or sustaining leaders.
So the Russians, Iran and Hezbollah and some others – but those are three main ones – are working very hard to not allow Assad to be removed just because the U.S. says he should be removed. And then, you know, you have some important things for the Russians also; Syria is a critical foothold for them in the region. They don’t have a lot of close strategic relationships; they used to thirty years ago, but not so much now. Putin wants to increase Russia’s strategic relationships and political, economic relationships with people all over the Middle East whether through nuclear energy, through armaments, through technological exchanges or whatever, and Syria is a critical foothold for the Russians in that sense. So, they’ve already been improving relations with Iran, they’ve been talking to Saudi Arabia, they’ve been doing things with Egypt. So, the regional capabilities that Russia can develop in its political relationships and maybe even its strategic relationships depend a lot on it being able to come out of the Syrian situation looking good and to maintain a strategic foothold there. So, I think those are some of the issues that matter to a lot of people. You have the issue of the Kurds, which is important for the Kurds and also important for the Turks who want to avoid the emergence of independent or autonomous Kurdish region while the Kurds desperately want to achieve that. And then you have finally the question of the ability of Arab societies and countries to actually maintain the sovereign control of their territory and their resources. If Syria collapses, who knows what would happen, if it would stay as a country or if it would fragment? We just have no idea of what will happen. My guess is it would probably stay as one country but will become very decentralized. But you would have so many external actors playing a role inside Syria in a post-Assad Syria that would essentially be a country that has no real sovereignty because external influences would probably drive a lot of what happens inside the country. And so, there are many different dimensions to the importance of Syria to many different people.
Q: Well, at the beginning, when violence erupted in Syria in 2011, there were so many powerful people across the world, in the United States, Britain, France and elsewhere, who were all demanding that Assad should be removed from power because he was deemed a dictator killing his own people. At the same time, there are people, observers, commentators and even political leaders who believe that Syria would be fractured and become a destabilized country without President Assad, because he has been a unifying element in this country with so many ethnic, religious groups and a special cultural diversity. What’s your take on that?
A: Well, you have a lot of Syrians, a lot of people in the Arab region and Turkey and other places and a lot of people around the world who are saying that they want Assad to step down and want to have a transition to something in Syria that’s more democratic or more inclusive. So, there are a lot of people including many Syrians who want to get rid of Assad because of the way that that family has run the country. The fact is that Syria has already disintegrated under Assad. So, the unity that was there before was pretty much enforced in an authoritarian system like you had in Iraq, like you have in Egypt today, like you have in many Arab countries where top-heavy autocratic governments basically maintain stability without any real citizen involvement in running the country. Now, people put up with that for decades in Syria because their lives were improving, there was a sense of hope for the future, education, medical care, employment; there was a lot of really good things happening in Syria in the 60s, 70s and 80s under this autocratic regime as happened in many Arab countries, but it got to the point five or seven years ago when people in Syria and other Arab countries just wouldn’t put up with this kind of dictatorial regimes anymore. And also the problem was that the ruling elite became a crony capitalist elite where there was massive amounts of money shared among small groups of people around the ruling family and this is the same in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and everywhere where there were uprisings and you had the same situation. So, clearly many Syrians want to get rid of Assad, but he’s there; he’s not leaving. He’s strong militarily; he has tremendous support from his external allies and whatever the world says about wanting to get rid of him, he’s not leaving; he’s there. So, how long he can stay, we don’t know. It’s possible that he can stay another ten years or it’s possible that he’ll make a deal or maybe he’ll be killed. We don’t know! There is no way to predict the future but I wouldn’t see Assad or the Assad family as the stable alternative to the current chaos. The current chaos has happened under the rule of the Assad family with the rebellion that emerged, with the foreign armies that are fighting, with many external factors, the Jihadists and the Islamic State. So, it’s not only the fault of Assad that Syria today is fragmented and violent and you have 8 or 10 million Syrians who are displaced and refugees. It’s not only the fault of Assad; it’s the fault of many people including Assad that we have reached this situation. So, I think …
Q: Sorry to interrupt, but do you rule out that he has got his own popular base within the country and is loved by so many Syrians even now that turbulence has engulfed the nation?
A: Oh, no, he has a base! Yes. There was a strong base for this regime, for the government and the ruling Ba’ath party in the 70s and 80s. You had a lot of popular support because people’s lives really improved and I lived through that. I was living in Jordan, in Lebanon. I visited Syria and I lived there briefly in the early 80s and there was definitely improvement in many aspects of people’s lives back in the 80s and maybe into the 90s, but this improvement gave way to this crony capitalist concentration of wealth among small number of people with a very autocratic regime. And this happened all over the Arab world. Syria is not unique. So, yes, he has a base; there are probably several million Syrians and we see that today they’re fighting to keep him in power. There are people who benefit from the regime; there are people who think that the Assad-type rule, the Ba’athist rule, is the best thing for the country. There’s no doubt about that. The question is “are they a minority?” or “are they a majority?” We can’t really tell. There’s no mechanism like a poll or election that can honestly tell us whether he has the support of 30 percent, 60 percent or 80 percent of Syrians. We don’t know! But clearly a lot of Syrians – I think probably a small majority – have been agitating to change the nature of the system. It’s possible that he might step down and just stay in retirement like what Ali Abdullah Saleh did in Yemen. He doesn’t have to be killed or sent to exile; you know, this is something to be negotiated. If there is a negotiation for him to leave power, there are many options that people can think of. He does have support, but I don’t think it’s a majority support now. What has happened in Syria under his rule has been so catastrophic that I think clearly a majority of Syrians desperately want the fighting to end and then try to get back to some kind of normal life.
Q: But at the moment, even the United States, which was an adamant opponent of Assad has dropped its precondition that he should step down and actually steer clear of politics so that a national transition can take place. I think they are not demanding this now.
A: That’s right. As a transitional process, the Americans basically realized that he’s not going to step down just because they told him to and he hasn’t lost his legitimacy just because John Kerry says he’s lost his legitimacy. So, the Americans are saying, well, he can be there as president if there is a unity government that is technocratic, that represents all Syrians as a democratic transitional process and then at the end of this transition, the Americans and others who opposed him would expect him to step down somehow, but none of this is agreed upon; they’re just ideas that people have. The Geneva communiqué that frames that whole transitional process is very vague and the Americans, the Russians, the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition all interpret it in different ways. So, there just isn’t any clarity about what his role is going to be and he might stay; it’s possible. You know, you’ve had leaders in the world who changed radically when they realized that their country was falling apart. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, F. W. de Klerk in South Africa, the leaders of Northern Ireland; these people made drastic changes in their countries when they realized that they had to change and therefore things evolve without the leaders necessarily having to leave office. And it’s possible that something like that might happen in Syria. There is no evidence of it now but you can never rule out people changing their views in the future.
Q: It’s been repeatedly asserted by the parties involved in the Syrian crisis that the future of this war-torn country should be decided by the Syrian people. What do you believe is the most practical and workable way of engaging all the Syrians including the refugees, internally displaced people and the citizens still living in the country in a process by which they can determine their fate democratically? Syria had a multi-candidate presidential election in 2014 and also the legislative polls were held just recently in April, but the U.S. and the European Union denounced the elections as rigged and unrepresentative, especially given that they took place amid the civil war. What do you think of these two elections and their outcome?
A: I don’t think these are genuinely credible elections. These are elections that were held under very unusual circumstances where most of the people in the country couldn’t vote and mostly people living in areas where the regime was in control could vote. So, I wouldn’t pay attention to these elections. I think you need to have some kind of process whereby all the people of Syria living everywhere in the country and the refugees outside somehow, when they come back or even in exile, should be able to participate in a process that leads to the shaping of a new government system. Obviously you’re going to have representatives of different groups of Syrians and you’ll end up with some kind of constituent assembly. We’ve seen this in places like Yemen and we’ve seen it in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to certain extent in the last five years where people tried from scratch to create a social contract or a constitution, and a political agreement on how to govern the country basically starting from zero after they got rid of the old regime.
Something like that will have to happen in Syria; you’ll almost certainly need to have some kind of internationally supervised referendum or election or plebiscite or something. I don’t know how it can be done logistically and also credibly in a way that you can say, “well, we have gauged the sentiments of the majority of the Syrians and this is what they say they want.” The Syrians are very able people and they will be able to come up with a mechanism that is both realistic and credible and legitimate. The difficulty now of course is you still have groups like Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front) who are trying to carve out their own sovereign entities inside Syria. So, those have to be dealt with. I don’t think it’s realistic that you can have a transitional process in Syria while you have Islamic State and you have Al-Nusra and some of the other hardline Islamist militant groups carrying out their activities, trying to overthrow the government. So, I can’t see a transitional process happening until the actual fighting stops and for the fighting to stop, you need to return Syria to a state of unified sovereignty where all the country is somehow under the control of those authorities who will include the Assad government and the opposition together, who together will try to reshape a new governance system. I don’t think it can happen in the present circumstances.
Q: Great! I will get to ISIS later on, but at the moment I have a question for you on the role of Israel in the Syrian crisis. The Israeli government had reportedly maintained neutrality in the Syrian conflict and said that it is not taking sides, but at the same time, there are indications that some rebels and insurgents wounded in the fighting with the government forces have been transferred to Israeli hospitals for treatment. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted for the first time in December last year that his forces operate in Syria and there have been airstrikes against the bases of Syrian government by the Israeli military. Does Israel really prefer ISIS over the government of Bashar al-Assad? Don’t they feel uncomfortable with the expansion and augmentation of ISIS?
A: You know, it’s very bizarre to see the Israeli government apparently helping al-Nusra and some of these groups with medical supplies and medical aid, and being involved in bombings, because you think that people like al-Nusra and ISIS would be far more dangerous to Israel than the Syrian government. The Syrian government of Assad has been very clear about maintaining the ceasefire on the Golan Heights, even though the Golan Heights is occupied by Israel. There hasn’t been any Syrian-Israeli fighting of any significance since the early 1970s on the head of disengagement agreement. What Syria has done is that it used Lebanon and some of the groups that it controls in Lebanon sometimes, including its ally Hezbollah [and also] Palestinian groups to engage with Israel and have little bouts of shooting here and there but nothing serious. So, the Syrian government has not been a threat to Israel at all in the last thirty years or forty years or so. So, I don’t know why the Israelis would want to destabilize Assad. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. What the Israelis have done clearly is that they occasionally will take action in Syria because they argue that maybe the Syrian government is helping Hezbollah and Hezbollah is a threat to Israel, because Hezbollah and Israel have had several wars. So, that kind of action is more understandable from the Israeli perspective. I don’t support it, of course; I’m against it. It’s a crime for Israel to go and attack Syria but they do it all the time because they’re criminal in so many of their activities in relation to the Arab world. But attacking arms’ movements to Hezbollah, for instance, is something the Israelis can argue is protecting Israel but, helping the Islamists in Syria and hurting the Syrian government doesn’t make sense to me at all. So, I just don’t know what in the world the Israelis are up to in Syria and I don’t think they know either.
Q: On the rise of ISIS, you argued in one of your articles that the economic, political and social grievances of the Arab citizens across the region throughout the recent decades have compelled many of them to turn to violence and terrorism. Do you believe that the Arab citizens have been the driving force for the growth of Daesh militancy? There are reports of hundreds of European nationals joining ISIS in the recent months. I personally believe that Arabs make up only a small portion of ISIS recruits. Don’t you agree with that?
A: The truth is we don’t know. Neither you know nor I know exactly what is the percentage of fighters or people who go live with ISIS. ISIS is made of the majority of Arabs with a minority of international people, but we just don’t know. The interesting thing from the research I’ve done and other people have done is that there are so many different reasons why so many different people in many different countries like ISIS or support or join it. So, there isn’t just one reason; it’s not just lack of democracy or lack of economic opportunity or religious fervor or historical grievances. There isn’t one reason or two reasons that explain why ISIS attracts so many people. It doesn’t attract that many people. You’re probably talking about 50 or 60,000 people who have gone there and joined the Islamic State. That’s not a very big number. The Arab world has 380 million people and if you had Turkey and Iran, you’re talking about over half a billion people in the Middle East of whom less than a hundred thousand may have actually gone and joined ISIS. So, we don’t want to exaggerate the actual dimensions of the human capabilities of ISIS, but tens of thousands is a lot of people and if they go around blowing up things and attacking dams and power stations and chopping people’s heads off, it gets pretty serious. So, the real important issue to me is why conditions in so many countries around the Arab world in particular have become so difficult for so many people that these people would look at ISIS as something that gives them new hope for life. I think there’s a small minority of ISIS members who are genuinely devoted Muslims and who honestly feel that this is the Islamic society at its most pure form and it’s a just society and the Caliphate is being recreated and this is their chance as Muslims to do God’s work on earth. There’s probably a small number of people who really, really believe that. I think it’s a pretty small minority. I think the majority are motivated by fifty, sixty other reasons that I’ve identified in my research which are economic, social, political, historical, ideological and material; there are just many, many different reasons. So we should address those issues, those conditions in the Arab countries. Forget about the people who come from Belgium or Pakistan for the moment; they have their own issues.
I’m just looking at the Arab world. ISIS came out of the Arab world; it was born in Iraq and Syria essentially. It grew in Iraq and Syria. It set up the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria and its men mostly at the senior levels are Iraqis and Syrians. So, this is a predominantly Arab phenomenon reflecting problems across the Arab world and these problems are so diverse and so extensive and so difficult to solve now that I fear that we’re going to continue to suffer this kind of situation for a long time to come, because you’re talking about issues like, for instance, 25 million young people in the Arab countries who are not schooled, who should be in primary and secondary school. Twenty-five million who are not schooled! So, those 25 million people are going to be easy-picking for any kind of radical group or criminal group or socially deviant group. These poor kids are going to be desperate; they won’t have any chance of getting a good job; they will be poor and vulnerable all their lives, and how do you solve that? Twenty-five million kids who are not schooled! By the way, the other hundred million or so who are schooled are getting a mediocre education because international testing centers have shown that about 45 percent of people in primary and secondary schools in Arab countries are not learning how to read and write and do basic arithmetic. In other words, almost half the people in Arab schools are not learning anything useful and 25 million are out of school and there’re probably 10-12 million refugees now all around the Arab world let alone the Palestinian refugees from 1948.
So, you’re dealing with a really dysfunctional Arab region with tens of millions of human beings who are in desperate situations and that’s why they go and do things like joining ISIS because some of them think ISIS is going to make a better life for them, and others go and swim to Europe risking death and many of them die but, you know, the risk of dying for them is less frightening than the risk of, staying, living in their difficult situations across the Arab world. So, ISIS to me is really an important wake-up call about the problems and deficiencies and distortions all across the Arab world in so many fields. That’s what makes it so difficult; economic issues, environmental issues, political issues, social issues, educational issues, technology, history, etc. It just goes across the world. Almost every dimension of life in many, many Arab countries has real problems and the result is what we see today: migration, illegal refugees, terrorism, Islamic State, etc., and some countries have been in active warfare for four, five years non-stop. So, there’s a real problem in the Arab world and we see it everywhere. Syria is the worst example but it’s just more blatant and more extreme example of conditions that you can find in less extreme form in so many other Arab countries.
Q: You said that the human resources ISIS boasts and its capabilities should not be exaggerated. So with these checks in mind and after all these tumultuous years and the military options that have been tested and diplomatic engagements by the U.S., NATO, the Arab states in the region, Russia and Iran, the actors involved have been dismally unable to find a solution to root out ISIS from the region. Is it really possible to defeat them once and for all and make sure that they are not going to expand their dangerous caliphate and decimate people of different religions and faiths because of how they worship or what they think?
A: Well, first of all, I would say I don’t agree with you that a lot of people in the region and internationally have used all available means to try to defeat them; they haven’t used all available means. They’ve essentially bombed them from the air and tried to cut their financial sources a bit and there’s been some ground actions against them in Syria and Iraq and that’s about it. There hasn’t been an all-out campaign with ground forces, airpower and other means to destroy their base. I think they are easily defeated within some places like Ramadi and a couple of other cities in Iraq that have recently been liberated, that they can be defeated when you have airpower and ground forces working together. That hasn’t happened very much. So, I think yes, they can easily be defeated if people put their military and political mind to it. The problem is you can defeat them, you can destroy Raqqa and you get them out of Mosul, but the problems in the region that gave birth to ISIS and to al-Qaeda are still there. So, all you’re going to do is transform the way in which disconcerted, disfigured, discontented and desperate Arab men and women find outlets for their desperation and find new expressions for their fear. So, if ISIS is destroyed, I don’t know what will follow it, but something will follow it because people will find a way to express their fear and their concern; and these are, you know, existential concerns about, “Can they feed their children? Can they live another six months? Can they get water for their family?” These are very basic fears that drive the lives of tens of millions of people across the Arab world. ISIS can be defeated, yes, militarily but the driving forces that keep ISIS alive are much more difficult to defeat and that requires political reform – serious political and economic reform all across the region, and there’s no sign at all that any Arab country is willing to make that kind of serious economic, social and political reform. And that’s troubling to me. It means that probably we’re going to stay at this situation for a long time.
Q: There is a widely accepted assumption that George W. Bush’s military expedition in Iraq in 2003 was what paved the way for ISIS to emerge, grow up and become as powerful as it is today by captivating the alienated Iraqis and radicalizing those who were frustrated with the occupation of their country. Do you agree with the supposition or do you think it pertains to some historical and religious background?
A: I generally agree with blaming Bush and Blair for the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, which was a really criminal act and I think the war in Iraq created the conditions that allowed groups like ISIS to start working in Iraq when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi came in 2004 and started the anti-Shiite incitement and violence which led to great sectarian fighting and eventually led to the creation of the Islamic State, but the roots of the Islamic State go much further back because it’s part of al-Qaeda and other groups like that in the region. So, the Wahhabi, Salafi extremism has been building up in Arab countries and some other countries, I think, well before the Iraq War but the Iraq War was the moment that allowed these groups to form and create a base inside Iraq and from there to undertake their activities that have brought us to the point we are today.
Q: Then, based on your observations and your studies on the region, are you hopeful that the crisis emanating from Syria and Iraq and the atrocities of ISIS can be terminated through political, diplomatic, military and other means if the international community is committed and serious enough to deal with this stalemate?
A: The short answer is yes, I think it can be defeated in the long-term, but it’s not the international community so much. It’s more really the Arab government systems. The real, biggest problem that gave rise to the desperation and the conditions in the region that allowed ISIS and al-Qaeda and others like them to be born, the real center of gravity of that, has been the Arab government systems; autocratic, uneven, letting huge numbers of people become poor, no participation, no accountability, no human rights. So, that’s the real problem! The real problem is that Arab governance with severe socio-economic disparities going back forty or fifty years. This really only started in the 1980s or so after the impact of huge oil price increases created massive distortions all across the region leading to corruption and crony capitalism and things like that. We didn’t have these problems in the 1950s and 1960s; this is a modern, recent problem. So, it’s the Arab governments and the Arab economic and political systems that need to radically change and the international community can play a role in that, of course. The role of the international community is that they have been, for the last fifty years, supporting these autocratic and dictatorial Arab governments, whether it’s the Western countries or the Eastern Bloc under the Russians and the Soviet Union formerly. They all supported all of these countries during the Cold War. So, there is a role that the international community has played and therefore has some responsibility for the bad situation that we experienced in the last forty years or so. But the change to eliminate ISIS and to prevent new forms of organizations like it from coming into being, that emphasis really is on the Arab governments and the Arab societies, the Arab private sector, Arab civil society and the people within the Arab world who are the primary focus of the need to change.
Q: Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have escalated dramatically. Do you agree that the continuation of clashes between Tehran and Riyadh will further destabilize the global oil markets, hinder the Syria peace talks and complicate the status quo in the region? From your point of view, will this Tehran-Riyadh feud spill over to the rest of the world and result in violence?
A: Well, I think there is a problem today between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I think it’s a political problem; I don’t think it’s a Shiite-Sunni clash as many people claim it is. There are problems between some Sunnis and some Shiites who are bombing each other’s mosques and doing ethnic cleansing but that’s a very, very recent phenomenon which only started after the Iraq War, as well, and that’s another thing we have to blame on Tony Blair and George Bush for creating the conditions in Iraq that allowed this sectarian violence to become more common. So, you do have serious problems between Iran and Saudi Arabia; there are political problems; there are geo-strategic issues; there are ideological issues. They’re not essentially religious issues in my view.
The problem, I think, is that the Iranians and the Saudis have had proxy confrontations in many Arab countries over the last ten, twelve years or so, and the Iranians have virtually done better than the Saudis. The Saudis are a little frightened, they’re little worried; they’re concerned about so many things changing in the region and they’re fearful that their traditional status and power and role is going to change to their detriment and therefore they seem to be blaming Iran for so many of the problems of the region and it’s not clear that those accusations are really justifiable. Clearly there are things that Iran is doing all around the region that Arab countries don’t like such as relations with Hezbollah or supporting the regime in Syria. These are normal strategic ties that countries have with other countries or with other groups just like the Saudis have them, the Egyptians have them and this is normal statecraft. The problem I think is that the Saudis aren’t very good at statecraft and they haven’t really been able to play the game regionally as well as the Iranians or some of the other countries did. The Turks did it very well for a while; now the Turks are not in such good shape. So, I think the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is a political rivalry that can be resolved quite easily when mature and sensible people sit down and discuss these things in a diplomatic forum and realize that the majority of their people don’t want this kind of confrontation to keep going because it only damages the region, it only damages other countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria or Palestine and maybe other places. And therefore, I think the likelihood is that at some point in the next year or two, sensible minds in Tehran and Riyadh with some serious external mediation will sit down and start talking about “what are their shared interests?”, “what are their points of disagreement?”, and “how can they solve the disagreements and minimize them and maximize their shared interests?” They have huge common interests in wanting to have stability in the oil market, increased revenues, development for everybody, a growing middle class, which leads to prosperity and stability. So, I don’t think that the Saudi-Iranian situation is a long-term threat. I think it’s a short-term problem and I think the new Saudi leadership has made it a little worse now but I think Iran will realize that it has to make some adjustments as well. The Iranian nuclear deal was a very powerful example of how the Iranian leadership and the American leadership and others can actually behave in a very mature way and I think that same approach that was used in the nuclear negotiations needs to be used in addressing Saudi-Iranian differences.
This interview was originally published on Iran Review.