On the Issues Episode 22: Jonathan Cristol
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Jonathan Cristol, fellow of the World Policy Institute in New York City and a senior fellow at Bard College Center for Civic Engagement. Dr. Cristol is a noted expert in Middle Eastern policies and international security. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode. So, many things are happening in the Middle East today. Some time, specifically the last few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the humanitarian dimension of the various crisis. But if we were to leave this aside, the interesting development today is between Israel and the Arab world. Again, notwithstanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as such, things have happened. And I believe that Iran is the main culprit quote-unquote behind, is changing attitudes of the Arab states, specifically the Gulf states, towards Israel. What is your reading on this? How do you read that development?
Jonathan Cristol: Well, I think that it is a generally positive development. It’s a fortunate byproduct of Iranian expansionism in the region. And I think that particularly in the Gulf, which have never really cared too much about the Palestinians in general anyway, it is a very convenient and probably necessary excuse or reason for them to develop intelligence relationships with Israel, security relationships with Israel, because Israel isn’t and hasn’t been for really I think quite some time, their primary security concern. I think it’s a byproduct of the Iran deal primarily, which I supported at the time and support to this day. But I do think that the deal itself did result in a relatively more aggressive Iran in the region, because I think that some of the critique—
ABM: You say more aggressive because of the deal?
JC: I think that some of the conservative criticisms of the deal were correct, I just reached a different conclusion about the deal itself than some of the critics. I think that the Obama administration was, as long as Iran did not develop nuclear weapons, was willing to let it get away with more than it might otherwise would have. Now that’s a very tough call, and I think I would have made that decision too. So, I’m not saying that it shouldn’t have done it. But I do think that it freed—it was a much better deal for Iran to be less isolated and a non-nuclear power, than to be a nuclear power that was completely isolated. And I think that it certainly didn’t create new desires and new—it didn’t change what Iran wanted. But I think that they could push out in Syria and Yemen and other places without too much fear, at least under the Obama administration, that they would face any sort of crippling consequences.
ABM: Yeah, this is right. But when we talk about the Iran deal, it is true that the Obama administration was a little bit more easy on Iran on other issues for example, that Iran insisted not to incorporate into the deal, [such as] their development of long-range missiles, ballistic missiles. But the problem is that even though in my view, and see if you share the same view, in my view even though the Iran deal prevented Iran today from moving forward in development of a nuclear weapon, I don’t think they have given up the idea at all. That is, this is a respite for them. As one Iranian told me, he said, you know, we have a long history of 4,000 years continuing history. So what is ten years going to do? Ten years is going to pass, and we’re going to do whatever we want to do afterward. But you are right in suggesting the fact that the sanctions have mostly been lifted, freed Iran, and allowed Iran to strengthen itself economically to say the least. And in so doing, it has more cash available to continue to support its various extremist groups, just about everywhere.
JC: And I think that the 10-year period you mentioned is exactly right. I mean, this is another, again, a critique of the deal that I think was as accurate as well, that really what this did was buy 10 years and kick the problem down the road. I’ve read the deal a couple of times, the whole JCP [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. I have written about it a lot and it seems pretty—I’m not a physicist. I think that you really have to be a nuclear physicist, an expert in sanctions, and an expert in international politics to really put your head around it. And I don’t want to pretend to be any sort of physicist, but it does strike me that after about 10, maybe 12 years, they could do it if they wanted to. I am very lucky personally to not have any real responsibility for a nation or people, because I think it was a very tough call. I think it made sense for Obama to—I think kicking the problem a decade down and hoping that the political situation changes in that time to make it so that Iran would not develop a nuclear weapon was probably the best we were going to get. But I do think there are very smart people who were against it, and I understand why they might have been against it.
ABM: Well, several reasons in my view is one, the deal did not require Iran to dismantle or destroy its nuclear equipment. For example, two-thirds of the centrifuges were basically stored and became, just idle-ized them rather than destroyed them. Some of the facilities are just basically idle-ized, again, not destroyed. So, if they decide to restart, resume, research and development of a nuclear weapon, they have still the same facilities by and large almost intact. That is one of the I think big problems that I have with the deal, that we did not insist on eliminating, destroying that kind of technology, albeit they can still—they acquired it once, they can acquire it again. It takes a little more time.
JC: The other thing though that makes me a bit more—I’m not particularly optimistic in general, but I think one reason that Iran came to the table aside from sanctions was that the U.S. presence on both sides of them had decreased so much. And I think that if we look, it’s hard to judge 10 or 12 years ahead.
JC: So I think that there were two things that brought them to the table. There was the sanctions, and I think there was the perceived need from the significantly reduced U.S. troop presence on both of their borders also played a role. And so I think it made it easier for them to postpone at the very least the development of a nuclear weapon by a decade. And I suspect that Obama’s thinking was again, that this sort of politics of it would change. But I agree. I mean again, it was a temporary solution, but I at the time, and now still, I think probably the temporary was the best.
ABM: Yeah. But you mentioned reduction in troop deployments. From what I know, as a matter of fact, there are forces in Oman are pretty much the same, haven’t changed, the power that we have, with the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain is pretty much the same. But yes, there were some reductions and that was it. I think it was more symbolic than anything. And nobody talked about it openly and publicly; the Iranian got the message. That’s my understanding, but that was probably not the main motivation. But I think what you said initially is absolutely correct. Getting rid of the sanctions allows them now to focus on economic development, and allows them now to continue with their ambition to become the region’s hegemon, through without money they cannot do as much. And specifically because of their involvement in Iraq. I think Iran’s involvement in Iraq assumes priority. That is, if they wanted to consolidate their position in Iraq, wanted to consolidate their position in Syria, and continue their control over this crescent from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, they have the [unclear] good for them, timed it for them, to get rid of the pressure, to get rid of the sanctions, and they can focus on consolidating their hegemony in this crescent to begin with. And now they have an opportunity to further expand it and go to Yemen, and support other groups, other extremist groups. So I think it’s a strategic decision on their part, that it’s working.
JC: Yeah, no I think it has worked out very well for Iran. And I think that Saudi missteps have also worked out well for Iran particularly recently. I do think that they are—I think in Iraq it was an opportunity that they could not pass up, and I think in Iraq they will be the ultimate political victor. And in Yemen, I don’t think that’s the case because I think Yemen is a bit more of a war of choice for Iran and more of a war of necessity for Saudi Arabia. I think that the Saudis would, they fought for nine years at least to prevent an Egyptian and Soviet presence in Yemen, and that was less dangerous to them than an Iranian presence there. And so I think Saudi Arabia will fight to the last man. Of course it’s easier for them because it’s not their own people, but they’ll fight to the last of at least someone else’s men in a way Iran won’t.
ABM: I agree. I think Saudi Arabia is committed not to allow an Iranian presence in the entire Arabian Peninsula. That is just out of the question. And incidentally, this is also one of the reasons they are very upset with Qatar. Not as much as because Qatar is supporting various extremist groups – and we know they’ve been giving money to ISIS, they’ve been, certainly Muslim Brotherhood, certainly Hamas. Many, many groups. But primarily it’s because also Qatar is allowing foreign troops on its soil, other than American. American is a given, for granted. But to have Turkish troops, for Saudi Arabia that’s a no-no, because Erdogan is very competitive. He wants to have a say in Middle Eastern affairs, and establishing a little base, albeit small, in Qatar for him is a major achievement that runs totally contrary to the Saudi perceived interest in the area.
JC: And unfortunately for them, they have overplayed what I think was a fairly weak hand in the first place, and they may have resulted in an long time increased Turkish presence and closer relationship with Iran on the part of Qatar. So I think that the Saudis have not been as deft at handling their neighbors and Iran as they might otherwise have been. Maybe that’s to do with leadership changes in Saudi Arabia, but I’m not sure. It’s been a bit confusing to me as to how they have missed this, but it also could be the fault of the United States. I am always very hesitant to say everything revolves around the United States and that everything—but we see a Bloomberg report recently that the Emirati foreign minister said as much, that it was a result of Trump’s trip that they decided that they would coordinate an effort against Qatar. And so I think that there is probably some blame to be placed at the hand of the United States for what these states saw as a perceived green light, just like the perceived green light Saddam Hussein had in the 90s. So it’s—
ABM: Interestingly, this whole turn of events produces a new dynamic between Israel and the Arab world, so to speak, and I think that played very well into the hands of Netanyahu. As Netanyahu has always been talking about, we have peace, if we’re going to have peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it will have to be in the context of a regional peace. And what Iran, [unclear], other than the threat that Iran has posed and continues to support, is there was that opportunity. And I think the Saudis, the Israelis, and the other Gulf states are looking, there is now an opportunity to cooperate. And like you said, the Palestinian problem is not something that they are losing sleep over.
JC: No, nor have they ever really.
ABM: And as far as they’re concerned, Israel in fact is the power first in the forefront that can in fact oppose or stop Iran in its track, even before the United States can do anything about it. I mean, that’s what I’m told. For them, Israel is the power today in the region, second to none, that the Iranians will not try to cross. The Iranians will be very hesitant to try to intimidate the Israelis in a serious way, other than empty rhetoric as we hear time and again. But they will not take any significant steps to intimidate the Israelis. Where Israel feels really threatened, I think any perceived threat by the Israelis coming from Iran, they will not stand still. I don’t believe they will restrain themselves because any anything—if they tolerate that, it could have major negative repercussions.
JC: Yeah, I don’t worry as much about direct confrontation between Iran and Israel.
ABM: No, no, I agree. I don’t think this is in the offing.
JC: No, and Iran is as aware as anyone of the CSIS studies and other war games scenarios of conflict between Iran and Israel which is much, as physically smaller a state as Israel is, is a much more devastating conflict for Iran than Israel. And it’s not really survivable for Iran and is survivable for Israel. So I don’t think that they would do that. But of course they tried to undermine the Arab governments by their support for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the appeal to anti-Israel sentiment on the Arab street. And maybe one other—very little positive comes out of Syria, but of course the Syrian conflict has at least driven a temporary wedge between Hamas and Iran. So there does seem like there is in all of this mess, there is some alignment that could result in a wider pre—
ABM: I mean between.
JC: Between the Arab states, between the Gulf Arab States and Israel.
ABM: And Israel, yeah.
JC: I’m a little bit—it would make sense, but of course so much of the Middle East doesn’t make sense. Not everything that makes sense follows through. And I’m not sure about Netanyahu’s willingness to make whatever concessions he would need to make, even if they are minimal. But the other X-Factor, my other concern would be Mohammed bin-Salman, who people think of I think as being a potentially great reformer. They see him as a young reformer, so that. But when I see someone who is particularly young coming into power, I think that that is not necessarily a sign of liberalization or reform, sometimes it’s the exact opposite.
ABM: I agree with you. I mean he is only 30 years old. I think he’s 30.
JC: 30 or 31.
ABM: 31. He has had limited experience in—I mean his father appointed him to the Defense Minister. I don’t know how much he knows about military and defense.
ABM: I mean say, unlike say the new French president, who’s 39. He had been in government, has had some experience, is older—nine years makes a difference. But I am not, and I agree with you. I’m not so comfortable necessarily. I don’t wish the king to go anytime soon, but—
JC: Everyone dies, that’s the thing. And if this doesn’t happen—
ABM: Everyone dies. And even in five years, in ten years, he’s still very young. But the thing is, since when have we worried about who is running these countries? That’s the problem. I mean they’ve been running these countries in their own way, in their own system, in their own culture, with their own view of the world. And I think this is of course one of the reasons they’re attached to the United States. That is, they make mistakes, but the room for major mistakes on a regional and strategic base, they don’t make these types of mistakes.
JC: Well, they’ve been constrained in that by their relationship with the United States. But now the United States is not necessarily the greatest—there are ripples in, how do I say this. The predictability of the United States and the uncertainty factor of the current administration and the lack of senior officials to deal with this in the United States now, I think does make the potential for maybe not quite disaster, but it does change things a bit.
ABM: I think you’re right. I mean there’s—
JC: As we’ve seen already.
ABM: Yeah, there is the more perception than reality because especially defense, and issues related to national security here, and our alliances throughout the Middle East remain pretty much solid, even under the Trump administration. And that is why, because you have a national security advisor and you have a defense secretary who’ve been on the field, they understand what’s going on there, they understand who the players are, what is the interest. And they are holding the line. And I think the fact that he relies on them, on both of them in particular, it’s very important, their experience. So I don’t see any deterioration as far as United States’ commitment in terms of security to its allies in the Middle East. But you’re right in suggesting there’s the perception that the United States is unpredictable at this point. Nobody knows what Trump is going to do the next day. But in this area I think of security, I don’t think there’s going to be significant change. That’s how I’m reading it so far.
JC: No, I agree with that. But there, I would add a little bit though. Well first, I think we’ve seen in this situation in the Gulf that that’s exactly right so far, that Mattis and others have been able to push back in a way that actually the Saudis didn’t understand. I think the Saudis didn’t understand our system and thought it was a little bit more like their own system, and that if Trump was behind them, that they would be able to roll over Qatar and force an agreement very quickly. And I don’t think that they understood that even someone like Trump, who might like to be a strong man, is going to face pushback, that he isn’t going to be able to overcome or that he isn’t going to want to be able to overcome. And so I think that has been a constraining factor. And I’m very sure that you’re right, and that there won’t be any major changes to our alliances and to our security partnerships, but I don’t have the same level of certainty about that as I would have if anyone else were president, be it from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders. So I think that there is—
ABM: Don’t mention Ted Cruz please. [laughs]
JC: I think that there’s an element of uncertainty that wasn’t there before. And so I think the likelihood of any sort of major disruption is very low, but I think it’s much higher than it has been in the past.
ABM: Let’s look at the whole region today. Now we have the ongoing Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq itself, and proxy war between the two in Yemen, to a great extent it’s still in Syria. That is ongoing, and I think you agree with me that this is not something that’s going to end anytime soon.
ABM: That is going to continue. Then you have the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been going on for some time now, seven decades. And then you have of course the situation with Iran. And then you have the conflict in Afghanistan, which is still going on. So you have all these multiple conflicts occurring, happening and evolving in the same time. When I look at it from a crisis management, when I look at it in terms of conflict resolution, I try to find some positive elements, how can we capitalize—this crisis can create this possibility that did not exist, had there not been a crisis. But this is the reality now in the Middle East, and let’s look at it and what we see. One thing that came out of it is the Saudis, the Gulf states, realize that Israel is not the enemy, that the real enemy is Iran, hence the closeness. Also I think the Palestinians are feeling the closeness between the Gulf states and Israel. That may impact on their position that they cannot hold on to that extreme position forever. They’re going to have to modify that, they’re going to have to think in terms of serious concessions, because they’re not going to get the automatic backing of the Arab world. Will that create a new opening for example between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if say even with the current Israeli government, from your perspective?
JC: I mean, I am reasonably skeptical about a resolution in the Israeli Palestinian conflict that isn’t imposed in some way. I’m actually not necessarily against a light imposition on the Palestinians particularly. I think one thing that the Palestinians, some of the positive aspects of the Palestinian Authority work against it in this context. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and other places where they exert total control over the media, one thing that we’ve seen, at least over the last six months or so, the Emirati state media in Arabic has basically stopped any sort of anti-Israel or anti-Semitic reporting or commentary. They can do that, and they can prepare their people in a loose kind of way, an indirect way, for the possibility of peace with Israel. The Palestinian Authority is more open. And first of all, they haven’t shown a strong desire to do that, but it will be much harder for them to do it even if they wanted to do it.
ABM: Well because they’ve been enslaved, as I was talking, writing today, enslaved to their own rhetoric.
ABM: They’ve been singing this song for so long, they don’t want to change that narrative so easily, especially when they see the prospect of getting significant concessions from the Netanyahu government is not there. But you mention impose. I personally do not believe that any power today, be that, which is really the United States you can talk about, and maybe the EU to some extent. Russia and China are not going to impose solutions on Israeli and the Palestinians, nor can really the EU for that matter. So you’re talking about only one power, which is the United States. Will the United States in fact be at any point willing – not able maybe, but willing – to impose solutions that Israelis are not willing to accept?
JC: Impose might be the wrong word. What I really mean by impose is not, I don’t mean that anyone would come and say, this is what it’s going to be, you should do it. What I do mean more of is, something like the Gulf states or someone going to Abbas, saying, look we need you to do this. There is going to be some sort of financial reward if you do, be as a society or personally. And if you don’t, there’s going to be some sort of penalty. That’s more of what I mean by imposition. A tough persuasion. Not a—
ABM: Not through coercion. Through incentive, and then there’s no question. I think the EU, I’ve been dealing with the EU as well as the United States coming to this. They’re talking more about incentives and more incentives, and linking certain concessions to specific gains, instead of talking about a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace. So they came to the realization that you’ve got to take steps, small steps, build on these small steps. But now that the Arab world is open and willing to pretty much—it is no longer secret that Saudi Arabia is dealing with Israel, the Qataris are dealing with Israel, that Abu Dhabi is dealing with Israel. Israeli businessmen are going with Israeli passports, and they are admitted without any questions asked. So I think these incremental steps that the United States in a position to persuade, cajole, maybe slight, a little pressure that that might adv- —and I mean that’s what I believe is going to be needed. And the EU in that regard can play a role, given that they’re the largest contributor to the Palestinians in terms financially, given their bilateral relation with Israel. Even though it’s not exactly a love affair, but it’s a matter of convenience between Israelis and the EU because of trade and everything else that’s going on, and also military sharing, intelligence-sharing, and security concerns. So I’m always looking at this dynamic is changing. I’m trying to figure out what else is there to do to engender from this.
JC: You know, the other aspect of the Iran thing is, the Iran thing is what’s pushing the Gulf States and Israel together. Also I think it makes it a little bit trickier for the Palestinians, who know probably better than anyone that the Gulf states have not been great supporters of theirs, but do know that they have, I guess depending on where you are politically among Palestinians, but do know that Iran has been much more supportive than the Gulf and so there’s a connection to Iran that they don’t have with the Gulf states. And so I do think that they would separate themselves from Iran very quickly if need be. But the Iran situation pushes both parties in different directions. I don’t think that, it’s a different relationship that they have.
ABM: Yeah. Let me switch a little bit to, just in the context of this Sunni-Shiite conflict, where it’s going to go. Just only in the context of ISIS’ defeat in Mosul, and let us say now Iraq would be freer from ISIS. That doesn’t mean of course the end of ISIS as we know it, but freer from actually having lost territories, territories been gained and all of that. And then the big issue that looms high as I see it is the continuing conflict within Iraq itself, between the Sunni and the Shiite, not from the outside. And here is where you have Iran and Saudi Arabia pretty much also waging that proxy war in Iraq itself. Now however that ISIS is out, the Sunnis, the Kurds have already made a decision. In fact, they’re going to have a referendum soon about independence. And regardless of the referendum, you can count on the fact that the Kurds in Iraq are out of the equation. They will never submit again to any central government, that’s not going to happen.
ABM: I mean, I was told this plain and simple, we’re not going to do that. And my feeling is the referendum will pass, and they will be declaring independence. It’s only a question of when at this point. I was told many times, we’re waiting to see what’s going to be with ISIS. And now they can see the end of ISIS there, that’s the reason why they planned this referendum. Then, what is going to be the plight of the Sunnis who have suffered so much, specifically under the Maliki government? What is his solution? You know, I’ve been trying to, in the search for a solution, speaking to various Arab, you know, ambassadors from Iraq, other people who know what is going to happen, because I don’t see an end to the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq itself unless there is a probably a much more regional settlement between the two sects in Islam. What do you see, how do you see that?
JC: One of many great quotes in George Kennan’s American Diplomacy is when he says something like, the map of the world is not, should not, and cannot be a fixed and static thing. And I was very sympathetic to the Biden plan and separation of Iraq into three states. I was always a little bit, I understand the kind of general psychic resistance on planet Earth to those sort of arrangements, but I’ve never been quite sure why that should be off the table. For the Kurds it’s certainly not off the table, and I don’t think that there is a particular end in sight between the Sunnis and Shias in the south. And I’m also not someone who sees this as part of some sort of thousand-year-old conflict, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real conflict today. It’s I think a post ‘79 type of conflict, but it’s still real and it still can’t be, it can’t be—
ABM: I think it is fed by historical—
JC: Right, but it didn’t exist in the way it exists now, but the history of it and the situation makes it a very intractable sort of problem. But an intractable problem doesn’t mean it has no solution either. I think that there will have to be some, even if it is not three separate states, that there are other sort of systems like the UAE, which isn’t separated in the same way. But you can have autonomous regions that reasonably function together, even if they have very different characteristics within them. I think that those sort of situations are what should really be explored. Now in the immediate term and on a day-to-day basis, that doesn’t really help anybody. But, I’m not sure that there is a great answer for the short-term day-to-day.
ABM: No, but I do agree with you. I mean we’ve been saying, I think there is probably no real, no other solution unless the Sunnis in Iraq get some form of autonomous rule. It just won’t happen. But as you well know, there are dry, three provinces. Not much there.
JC: That was the next thing I was going to—
ABM: Yeah, and they need to sort of work out some kind of a solution to get some revenue from oil. Be that some from the Kurds, some from the South, yeah.
JC: And one of the problems with that is that the Kurds, one of the reasons for the Kurds pushing independence now is that they have Kirkuk, which isn’t part of their three provinces that they’re designated in terms of the autonomous region, and they want more than the 18 percent of oil revenue that they get under the current agreement. And so if they declare independence, they’ll get all of that oil revenue. So they want more, and then the Sunnis would have as you say a dry area. But all of those things can’t happen at once. So I do think there would have to be some sort of arrangement that really is in everyone’s interest in terms of stability and investment, that does divert income into that region until there is stability, until there is peace enough that they could do what other states have done that don’t have oil, or like Dubai, which many people don’t realize developed the way it did because they didn’t have the oil wealth that Abu Dhabi did, or to make plans for a post-, the states that have made plans for a post-oil future like Bahrain, and like Oman is doing now with tourist development and states that are looking to what happens next. So Iraq, the Sunni part over time could skip the oil part and kind of look for other ways.
ABM: Well, it’s not going to be easy.
JC: No, it’s very long term.
ABM: Because I mean to start with, they do need revenue.
ABM: Where are they going to get it? They may get some support from the outside world, but they need serious revenue. And from a psychological, practical perspective, this is their land and they have a legitimate right to claim a part of their own revenue coming from oil. And my understanding from the Kurds, actually the Kurds don’t mind to contribute.
JC: No, no.
ABM: They want to contribute in terms of providing revenue to the Sunnis from their own oil production, because they would like to see an end to the conflict between the Sunni and the Shiite, which is affecting them in one form or another.
JC: It’s not an unreasonable proposition to basically trade money for stability.
ABM: Yeah. And that’s what the Kurds are thinking in terms of this. We will give some, but they are waiting to see now things start to settle as far as Mosul is concerned. Finishing the cleanup of the area to see they will declare independence, I’m sure it’s a question of when. And they will be looking for ways and means to stabilize the surrounding, and because also they are now impacted by what’s going on in Turkey, with the Kurds in Turkey, and they are also impacted by what’s going on with the Kurds in Syria itself. And they’re now going to have to start to navigate their position in connection with these three areas, not to speak of the Kurds in Iran.
JC: And they will also want to make sure that a Sunni area does not become closely tied to Turkey, and does not become a hotbed of extremism. So they certainly have an interest in helping to stabilize those.
ABM: Oh yeah, yeah. Now, I think I agree with you. I mean, they all have one thing in mind, and that is Turkey. All of these countries in the region, including Israel mind you, although there is no connection as far as Sunni-Shiite is concerned, but they all do not want Turkey to be in the middle of their own affairs.
JC: Which is understandable. I wouldn’t want Turkey in the middle of my own affairs either.
ABM: So what they’re doing, they’re doing everything they can. And that’s, I mention this because that starts with the Kurds themselves. The Kurds are, as you well know there was no relationship between the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, it was very acrimonious for a long, long time. But then Erdogan came to the conclusion there’s really not much he can do with the Kurds in Iraq. And they started trade and now they have basically a good relationship. But he’s still fearful about how that might translate once this Syrian conflict is settled. Because the Kurds in Syria already declared, already established their autonomous rule. They are not waiting for settlement, this is what we’re going to do. So we have now to watch I think in the future, how Turkey’s going to maneuver in the region and the extent to which Erdogan wants to assert himself. And so far, he’s been successful in a very limited way. But I think what we’ll probably be witnessing is the unfolding of this rivalry now, is going to be between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran for regional hegemony.
JC: I think that that’s exactly right. But I think that Turkey will end up being a state that is always kind of poking at both of those sides. I think that it’s Iran and Saudi Arabia that is really the axis of regional, it’s not exactly a cold war, it’s a hot, lukewarm war in the region, and Turkey is kind of always going to be annoying both sides to some degree, and always trying to wedge its way in. But I think that ultimately it will not be as much of a player in that region as it would like to be, and as much as Iran or the GCC.
ABM: I think you’re right. I think what’s going to make a difference also is a change of government. That is, once Erdogan departs the political scene.
JC: Or Planet Earth. Because those two things might happen simultaneously at some point in the distant future.
ABM: When will Turkey continue with this current path. And that’s going to depend on the new government in Turkey. I mean, he too is not going to last forever. So we’re going to have to see, but I think we should be in tune to Turkey trying to assert itself in various ways, but it’s going to be stopped and—
JC: And that’s also an interesting one for the United States, because in many ways I think we have a much better relationship with most of the Arab states, certainly with Israel, than we do with Turkey. But Turkey is actually the only one of those which we are treaty bound to defend, and which is a formal defense ally. And that makes I think things very, very difficult for us.
ABM: This is difficult also because the United States unfortunately, not just President Trump, but Obama throughout this period, knowing how disruptive, destructive Erdogan is, and his policies and his purge in his own country, systematically chipping away from Turkish democracy that he himself promoted during his first and second terms, which is ironic. And now he’s becoming more and more Islamist, he abandoned the idea because he chose to, becoming a member of the EU, that’s not going to happen. But the United States, exactly because of what you said, unfortunately is letting him get away with quote-unquote murder. And that is a problem. That is a problem, because he’s encouraged, he’s basically holding the West hostage because of where we, because of the geostrategic role that Turkey can play both in Europe as well as in the Middle East.
JC: And what’s particularly unfortunate about it is that Turkey is well-placed in general to actually bring all these sides together. If you had a different Turkish government, it actually could bridge the sides and play a very constructive role in the region instead of just someone needling everyone.
ABM: Exactly. And finally, here is a country that started with zero problems with neighbors. I keep saying the same song, now he’s got a problem with every neighbor.
JC: Yeah, right.
ABM: All right. Thank you, this is terrific.