On the Issues Episode 51: Pierre Vimont
Pierre Vimont is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. His research focuses on the European Neighborhood Policy, transatlantic relations, and French foreign policy.
From March 2016 to January 2017, Vimont served as the special envoy for the French initiative for a Middle East Peace Conference. Previously, he had been nominated the personal envoy of the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, to lead preparations for the Valletta Conference between EU and African countries to tackle the causes of illegal migration and combat human smuggling and trafficking.
Prior to joining Carnegie, Vimont was the first executive secretary-general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), from December 2010 to March 2015. During his thirty-eight-year diplomatic career with the French foreign service, he served as ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2010, ambassador to the European Union from 1999 to 2002, and chief of staff to three former French foreign ministers. He holds the title, Ambassador of France, a dignity bestowed for life to only a few French career diplomats.
Vimont speaks French, English, and Spanish and is a knight of the French National Order of Merit. He holds a degree in law from Pantheon-Sorbonne University, and is a graduate of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and the National School of Administration (ENA).
Below is a full transcript of the podcast episode, lightly edited for clarity.
Alon Ben-Meir: That’s great. Well again, I want to thank you to begin with, really, for taking the time. So anyway, this is what I wanted to talk about, these four subjects, because your input is really, very unique and I’d love to hear it, about the Balkans and the prospect of accession of some of the Balkan states to the EU. Now given the situation today in the European Union, in the wake of Brexit and this, to extend the turmoil that has been caused. You don’t feel that the EU is ready right now to proceed expeditiously or faster in the process of accession of some of the Balkans countries?
Pierre Vimont: No, I think you’re right, I don’t think we’re ready for that. You remember that when the current president of the European Commission came in, Jean-Claude Juncker, he said that during his term of office, his five years of office, there will be no new enlargement. I don’t know what the next president of the European Commission will say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he would say something of the same kind, because we think— First of all on our current agenda, we have still many issues to deal with – the consolidation of the Eurozone, the whole migration issue, to think more about the future of the European Union, how to reorganize ourselves, the whole issue of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. So I think everyone agrees that those enlargement perspectives with regard to the West Balkans are still there. We want to allow this country to become a member of the European Union, but it’s a question of deadline, it’s a question of timing. And we think that if we go too quickly and would allow these countries or some of those that will be ready to come in too quickly, then we would have a lot of problems in our own current European Union. As you know in some of these European member states, there is a need for a referendum.
PV: Some of those can go through the Parliament. But in many of the European Union member states there is a need for a referendum, and the risk is that you could lose that referendum.
ABM: Would you say, Pierre, that that the enlargement of the EU was too fast to begin with, and as a result of that, the EU is experiencing some of the difficulties that they are experiencing today?
PV: With hindsight this is the general agreement, that maybe we have gone too fast or brought too many countries at the same time into the European Union. But if you look at it from where we were at the time, at the end of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Soviet Union, there was this urgency to bring all these countries aboard. And look at it from an economic perspective; this was a success. We managed in a very few years to bring back all these countries to the free market economy, to consolidate their economy and their political position. And that was really one of the major achievements of the European Union. So today to go back and to say ‘it was a mistake, we shouldn’t have allowed them in’, as I can hear not only in France but also in Germany, where there is a lot of concern and even complaints about the enlargement. I think this is to some extent in my opinion the wrong perception and wrong judgment. I think we were right in getting them in. I think we all made mistakes in keeping this sort of division between the West and the East of the European Union. We haven’t reached out from the West side, we haven’t reached out enough to the new East and Central European partners. And they on their side, Central and East European countries have remained somewhat aloof, far away, distant, being very critical, not bringing their own input into construction of the European project. I think this is where we need to work more together, to try to bridge the gap that is still there.
ABM: So, along with what you’ve said, in hindsight they felt ‘well, maybe we have moved too fast,’ but that nevertheless does influence today’s decision of the EU. Who else to allow access, that is, slowing the process. Wouldn’t you say it came as a result of the fact that some think it was enlarged too fast?
PV: Yeah. You have to make a distinction between those countries, namely the West Balkan countries to which we have committed ourselves. All the other members of the European Union have said, ‘you have a right and a vocation to become a member.’ And this was agreed. So the principle is there. They can become [members]. With the other new candidates for membership, namely Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, there for the time being we haven’t made a firm commitment. But in both cases, I think what we are saying is that we need more time, because first of all we need to put our own house in order. And I think that’s really the message we want, to bring you closer to us, and then one day to get you on board. But for the time being, we have our own problems and you must allow us some more time to put the house in order, and then we will come back to you. I think that’s really what we’re trying to push as the kind of narrative.
ABM: I want to mention a couple of countries, one is, we mentioned before is Serbia, the other one is Turkey, and Macedonia, to the extent to which the EU moved probably closer to Macedonia. Do you agree with that, in terms of accessibility?
PV: Macedonia certainly, if they manage to get a final agreement on the change of the name of the country.
ABM: Of the name, yeah, well.
PV: Because that was the real stumbling block.
ABM: So, I want to just ask you about Turkey. From my perspective, I don’t think Turkey has a slight chance of ever becoming a member. I’d like to hear your views on it.
PV: Now a difficult question, because Turkey has been there looming in the horizon.
ABM: For years.
PV: For many years. I think for the time being, what I would say is that more or less everyone is happy with the kind of status quo we have, [which] is that we still keep this commitment that one day Turkey could become a member, but for the time being it’s not possible. And Turkey on its side, it’s rather happy to have this commitment, this political commitment there, because I think it’s important for their own credibility. But they’re very happy with the current situation, because the whole process of accession, alignment, on the European legislation has reinforced the Turkish economy and has been very helpful for Erdogan in the last years to bring up the Turkish economy, the business sector, everything, to a level of strong competition with the outside world. So that has been rather useful. Now for the time being, because of the many contentious issues we have with Turkey, I don’t see any prospect, at least for the moment, of any accession. I think the only point President Erdogan would like to push forward is to improve the current situation of the Customs Union. He would like to improve the deal we’ve passed with Turkey about 15 years ago, and would like to have better provisions, improved arrangements with the Customs Union. This I think we should go along with, but at the moment the 28 member states have not been in agreement between themselves to start that negotiation, precisely because of the political situation in Turkey – the whole issue about human rights, about imprisonment, etc.
ABM: Yeah, I mean the setbacks, if you go back five, six years ago, he championed reforms and [they] were social, economic, certainly political. And then everything has been reversed, and now Turkey is experiencing also terrible economic problems on top of everything else. I mean, when I initially sounded categorical about, I don’t think there is any prospect—
ABM: Maintaining the so-called in something in the future is good, I agree with you 100 percent. Erdogan, I don’t believe that Erdogan is interested in EU membership, because he would have to restore all the reforms—human rights, freedom of press, I mean, he’s got 200 journalists in jail right now. So he’s not interested, and he’s also trying to push his Islamic agenda, which is totally inconsistent with the EU’s political and social culture. That’s not going to happen. I mean that’s why I feel.
PV: No, but you may be right that in the end there will never be a Turkish accession. But it seems to me that this may be linked to the whole overall evolution of the European Union as such, and that maybe the European Union will morph into something that will be somewhat different from what it is today. In other words, we may find ourselves as times go by and some countries are ready to go into enhanced integration, while others are not exactly on the same line, that we will start to see a more flexible Europe, with a first group of countries ready to go for more political, economic, even social integration, and others that will prefer to stay in a sort-of second circle, and maybe even in a third circle, I don’t know. And it is maybe there that you will see some kind of alignment of Turkey with maybe one of these two or three circles, and maybe all things will shape in a different way. It won’t be any more a question of whether you become a member of the whole European Union, or maybe you’ll become a member of only part of the European Union, and this may be the case for Turkey as it may be for other candidates. It may be the case also tomorrow for Ukraine or for Georgia, for many reasons. One of them we alluded to a few minutes ago, would be also the way Russia is looking at all these evolutions, and the need to take into account Russian concerns.
ABM: So going back, given that this is Russian concern, going back to Serbia. Now based on what I know, I think Russia is going to fight to resist or to prevent specifically Serbia of all the Balkans not to join the EU. Do you think— Of course there’s also the Serbia problem with Kosovo, which has not been settled down, and the EU would like to have that been settled before they seriously consider Serbia’s accession to the EU. This is one problem. And of course the other problem is Russia itself. Do you feel that at any point in time actually Serbia will have a reasonable prospect of accession, as long as Russia continues to oppose that?
PV: I think we have to face this dilemma more and more in the European Union. On one side, we shouldn’t be under any kind of Russian veto, and I think even Russia wouldn’t dare to say so publicly that they are against Serbia’s accession. But at the other side, we need to look at the geopolitical reality of Europe in a more realistic way than we have done before. I think one of the reasons why we have been facing this whole issue of the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia was precisely because the European Union went maybe to some extent too far or too quickly with the Association Agreement with Ukraine, and that we should have found ways of alleviating the concerns of the Russian leadership and explaining to them what we were doing, and maybe looking altogether with Russia and others about the kind of economic cooperation – even more so security cooperation – between all the different parts of the European continent to look at this from a regional perspective. Because one of the major concerns I guess of Russia with regard to the European Union is if we go on enlarging and having new member states moving in, we’ll show once more that the European model of economic assistance, of economic development, works much better than the Russian model. If you look at Poland and Ukraine before Polish accession to the European Union, Poland and Ukraine had more or less the same level of prosperity, the same level of GDP. Ten years after Polish accession, the difference is from 1 to 7. That’s the result of Polish accession to the European Union. This is the real challenge for Russia when it wants to convince Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Belarus to stay inside the influence zone of Russia.
ABM: But do you feel that? I mean my sense is that Putin, not Russia per se but Putin, because we don’t know who’s going to follow Putin, is trying to revive elements of the Soviet Union. That is, other than concerns over how fast Europeans [are] moving to Russian shores so to speak, that he not only he wants to stop that, but he wants to reinstate, reconstitute elements of the Soviet sphere of influence.
PV: It could be, it’s very difficult to say. I think his main purpose was to be seen and perceived once again as a major global power, not only in Europe but all over the Middle East and probably in other parts of the world. His most recent outreach to Venezuela for me is quite interesting, all the more so as I’m not so sure Russia has enough financial resources to take care of all those countries who are left behind, like Venezuela, Nicaragua, or others. But let’s put this aside. With regard to Europe as such, I agree with you that I think he still wants to keep some sphere of influence, zone of influence, around Russia with the fear that if he doesn’t do that, he would be progressively encircled by Europe and free market countries that he wants to push back as much as possible. So the risk there is that if we are not able to reach out to Putin and try to find some sort of common ground, the confrontation that we have witnessed in Ukraine and even recently in the Sea of Azov, this kind of confrontation will come out more and more. So we I think if we want to have a strong and imaginative and innovative diplomacy with regard to Russia, we have to take Russian concerns into consideration. Not to abide by it, this is not what I’m saying, but we shouldn’t be naive and think we can move forward without any problem. There is a problem with Russia, no doubt about it, and we need to face it and to try to find the right answer to that challenge, that is about how to alleviate Russian concerns.
ABM: I absolutely agree. Do you think, and I’m coming from a background of conflict resolution— In my mind right now as I see it, the recent development with the Russian seizure of a Ukrainian ship and all of that, shouldn’t that provide some opening along the lines of what you’re saying? Not only deal with this issue, but take it further and open an open-ended dialogue with Russia and perhaps France or Germany, the leading European Union [states], should begin that kind of process, especially given that you cannot rely on this president here to really take any significant—and he can’t. I mean, come January he’s going to be almost a lame duck, because he’s going to be constantly under pressure from Congress. But do you think that conflict currently now between the Ukraine and Russia might provide that opening that you just talked about?
PV: Let’s hope it could. I think the problem of the relationship between the European Union and Russia has been one of missed opportunities. In the beginning of 2000 and the years that followed, there was a window of opportunity to try to develop with Russia a whole new idea about what I would call the new architecture for the European continent from the point of view of security, of economic development, and prosperity. There was a real possibility to do that, and maybe Europe missed that point. Russia maybe also in its part—but Russia came up with some interesting, well interesting, their own proposals that are not acceptable to us. But rather than being dismissive as we were at the time, rather listen to them and try to see how we could work together, would have been much preferable to the position we took. We have to recreate that kind of opportunity with Russia in my opinion and start some sort of dialogue with them, taking into account the whole European region, and see how we could work together. I recognize it’s very difficult to do at the moment, because of the Ukrainian crisis, because of the sanctions we have taken with them. So how to re-initiate a dialogue with Russia? Real geopolitical dialogue may be difficult, but I think this is really what the Europeans should start thinking about.
ABM: Yeah, I mean because, Russia is going to be there, European Union’s going to be there. And I think given the tense situation right now, it’s possibly, as a matter of fact, it might be an opportunity to say well listen, these problems [are] going to fester. Let’s talk, let’s deal with it now and then take it into the next step, the next step. You see, as I see it, of course Putin feels emboldened by this president here.
PV: You’re right.
ABM: This is the problem. And right now, he doesn’t have the incentive to sit down actually and start serious negotiations with the EU. But in the final analysis, the sanctions are biting, the economy in Russia is not doing great at all. So he still might have that kind of incentive to still say, ‘let’s solve these problems.’ I don’t know. I mean, one country back channel of sort to begin that kind of process.
PV: Yeah. It could be, I still think if the Europeans could find the beginning of a solution on Ukraine, that would be very helpful. We have as all too often started a process in Ukraine and we just now have sit back and let the process go along without much result. We should bring back some momentum into that process and try to find ways of moving out of the kind of deadlock where we are at the moment.
ABM: Especially you might say given the position of Trump, who might find European intervention more palatable than he himself going against [Putin]. Would you say that?
PV: I guess we have to wait for, first of all for the next presidential election in Ukraine. But with a new Ukrainian president, whoever it will be, whether it will be Poroshenko being renewed or another one, we will have maybe there a bit new energy on which we could try to rebound and build a new stage for that dialogue and for this peace process there. And if we manage to do that, it could open the way for a sort of incremental process with Russia, where we could start really a new dialogue with them. It may sound once again very unrealistic at the moment, but for me it’s a sort of obligation, if we want.
ABM: I agree with you. It’s not unrealistic, I mean [it] really ought to be done. If there’s any implications that may be negative, it’s the fact that say, are we as the European Union negotiating from a position of weakness? Why should we take the initiative when in fact it was Russia that committed this transgression? And Russia ought to begin to improve the relationship first. But I think well, you are a diplomat you know better than anybody else, there’s so many different channels that you can go around about to begin some kind of dialogue. It doesn’t have to be formal to begin with.
PV: Absolutely. And the reality is that if we don’t do that all together, every European member states will go on its own, and they’re already doing that. They’re all visiting on a bilateral basis; they’re all visiting Moscow. And of course Putin is playing with that and creating divisions among the Europeans. So we better get a united position and try to bring this new dialogue again into motion.
ABM: Great. Well, now we solved the problem of the Ukraine, of Russia.
PV: We can go to the Middle East, easy.
ABM: No, I really appreciate your take on this very much so. I know you’ve been a veteran diplomat in the Middle East as well. You are all over, and you do amazing things. But as far as the Middle East goes, I just want to talk to you about the current few conflicts. Let me begin with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well, many people resigned now themselves to the fact that there will be no two-state solution, and the only possible, other outcome [is a] one-state solution, which in my view is totally unacceptable, will never be accepted by Israel. Or the other one is maintaining the status quo, which is explosive. It’s a question only of when. Let me begin with this premise. Do you a) agree with this premise, and take it from there.
PV: No, no I totally agree with you. I recognize as I think you do yourself that the two-state solution has more or less backtracked in recent years, and that’s the sort of gridlock where we are at the moment. It hasn’t helped, of course. So a lot of people are telling us time and again, the two-state solution has become totally unrealistic. Nobody trusts or believes in it anymore. So let’s put it aside and start thinking about something else. But what I have always found out discussing this whole peace process is, whatever other solution is being put on the table has at least as many problems as the two-state solution today. So why not stick to the two-state solution, even if I agree for the time being that there is not much prospect of this being delivered soon. But I think we should keep it as the final goal and try it from there to start, exactly as we were saying before, to start moving in that direction, with small steps if possible, and with a bit of political goodwill on both sides, which is I fear is what is missing the most at the moment.
ABM: My take on it, in addition to that, and you’re absolutely right, is that— And I’ve been singing the song, I feel I keep singing the same song, but because I still believe the tune of the song still resonates with me a lot more than anything else. And that is the current leadership in my view, be that Netanyahu [or] Abbas, are not and will not make the kind of concessions necessary to make peace. I begin with that point. The second thing, going to your point, is we need – and you remember we’re talking about a process of reconciliation, finally. Former Secretary of State Kerry, Dennis Ross, and many others who’ve involved with these negotiations were saying, we made a terrible mistake. We were sitting and negotiating and negotiating, but the street remained the same thing. The hatred, the animosity between the two sides did not change. And if we came up with a solution even, how will the two sides accept it, if the concession has to be so considerable that people are not ready to make that kind of concession, or the process of reconciliation so to speak was missing all along, which has to precede any serious peace talk. But the third point, I feel that the commitment to really reach an agreement was never there. I mean, I’m prepared to go back 15, 20 years even in Camp David. They came very close in 2008 and 9, they came very close, 2013 14. What happened? Why has [it] not been completed? I don’t think that commitment— I mean, do you agree? That’s really what I [want to] hear you your take on it. That is, if I am committed to do something 100 percent, you and I agree we’re going to have to cross the street no matter how horrible the traffic is, no matter how difficult it is, no matter how the weather is, we will find a way to cross the street. That kind of commitment to reach an agreement was never there in my view. Which, hence, no significant efforts were made to prepare the ground for the inevitable, which is, it’s got to be a solution. And as long as that commitment did not exist, means and avenues were never exhausted to reach an agreement.
PV: No, I would agree with you. I would start from maybe a different point, but I come to the same conclusion. My point is that both sides have, after awhile, felt very comfortable with the status quo, be it the Israeli side with this idea that we have this occupying power status with which we can take a lot of from, which we can take a lot of benefits, extending settlements and creating a de facto situation, a fait accompli as we say in France, which is very comfortable for us. At some point there was maybe some security problem, but we have faced it, we have overcome that, and we control the situation. And on the other side, I sense that to some extent the Palestinian Authority is rather comfortable with the current status quo also, because they have this ruling over a very small part of the territory, Ramallah and a few other parts. They considered itself as a de facto state which has a status of observer in the U.N., can play with it. And because of all the divisions inside and the different factions inside the Palestinian Authority, rather than trying to overcome and finding some unity, they preferred to stay there. So I don’t feel that is there is any eagerness on either side to move away from the present situation.
ABM: But the question is, is it sustainable?
ABM: That’s my concern. That is, there are currently, there’s no motivation, certainly not in Israel; and among the Palestinians, the division you talked about is absolutely valid. Not [between] just Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but within the Palestinian Authority, and within Hamas. You have groupings and sub-groupings and they have never reached a consensus. And I think that was the plight of the Palestinian people. There was really never a unity of purpose. Let’s get together, let’s— And then of course they fell so terribly behind, by instead of focusing on building the foundations of statehood, they were occupied by trying to push Israel out. And that’s still the case to a great extent, especially say in Gaza and elsewhere. So they have been playing into the Israeli hands all of these years, and never changed their narrative, never changed their approach. But the current situation cannot be sustained once—Abbas is going to go in one form or another. Netanyahu is going to go. There is no visible, strong Israeli leader that can come to the fore and say let’s solve— In fact, all the Israeli opposition parties never even talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore. So you are so right in suggesting the status quo, they’re happy with the current situation, but I think it is explosive. At one point or another it’s going to explode because it’s not sustainable. Do you agree with that?
PV: I would agree, but I’m quite struck and somewhat interested by the kind of narrative I detect in what the current U.S. administration is trying to do, this so-called peace plan of the century that’s going to come out. Because what I can gather, what I have gathered so far from bits and pieces we hear about that plan, is that there is a sort of gamble on the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis who will not be interested anymore in this pursuit for this political goal of two states, or a Palestinian state, but will be much more interested in the relative situation of economic prosperity, and looking for better living. And therefore, these people will be ready, the next generation will be ready to leave aside the prospect of a full-fledged Palestinian state in favor of economic prosperity, which I think is at the heart of what Jared Kushner and Mr. Greenblatt are looking for. Can this work? I doubt it personally, and I think you will doubt it also.
ABM: I agree with you.
PV: But I think it’s interesting that they’re trying that way, because it’s maybe another way of looking at the whole issue. I personally think that the Palestinian cause has become too much of a political goal that you just can’t let aside.
ABM: I absolutely agree with you. I think economic development can be used only as a means by which to eventually get to the ultimate agreement, a two-state solution of sort, but it cannot be in and of itself the ultimate objective. National movement, historically speaking, you can correct me on that I’m sure, the Palestinian national movement never subsided and died only because they have now attained a better economic condition. Yeah, they like that, but they don’t give up the hope and the dream of having independence. I mean, when I go to the West Bank. I hear this time and again and again and again, we may be making a living, but our hope and expectation is somewhere along the line. And they understand Abbas is pretty much useless; Netanyahu is hardcore, waiting for him to either leave or [be] indicted or go to prison hopefully, as some of his predecessors. And that’s the problem with the Israelis. I think it’s a sad, sad commentary on both Israelis and the Palestinians to get to this point, that [they are] thinking they are sitting on something that can be held onto and sustained, when in fact it doesn’t really have strong legs to stand on in the long term.
PV: No, I agree. And I think we should be careful. We diplomats tend to live in a bubble and think that the situation can go on. But when you go on the ground and watch what’s going on—I’m not even talking about Gaza, because Gaza is—
ABM: Is awful.
PV: Is awful. But [in] the West Bank there is a lot of frustration. Resignation, trafficking of all sorts is taking place, which means that for me this place is very unstable and risks an explosion at all moments.
ABM: I think so.
PV: And this sort of ongoing hubris on the Israeli side, that through security they control everything and that no bad surprise can occur, seems to me a bit shortsighted.
ABM: Very, very, very shortsighted, especially given the conditions in the Middle East altogether, which—the situation in Lebanon with Hezbollah, the situation in Iran, which take me now—Let’s go to Syria, take a ride to Syria. Syria created a completely new dimension to various conflicts. I mean, I think there is some kind of connection of sorts obviously between all of these conflicts, and the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could eventually impact on the Israeli-Iranian relationship, so to speak. But let’s go back, your take on Syria is very important. What is your take, given that now people talk about coming very close to the ending of the civil war? There’s a question still, the city of Idlib is still pending. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know that Russia is entrenched to the hilt. Iran does not want to leave. Israel has locked horns with Iran as far as Syria goes, and on and on. Where do you go with this?
PV: I’m not sure I know myself where we’re going. I would say two things on the military side of the problem. It’s true that we are witnessing a new stage in the conflict, where Syria supported by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah has gained ground and is moving in towards an increased control of the whole Syrian territory. But I would put immediately a caveat there, is that I’m quite struck by the fact that in large, in many parts of the country where the Syrian National Army has managed to get in, with the support of Russia and others and is regaining control, there is still fighting going on.
PV: They don’t get rid of those opposition armed groups. Even Daesh, ISIS, has not totally disappeared. It’s not any more the sort of structured organization that was in charge of a large part of Eastern Syria, but it’s still there, it’s still fighting. So what we are witnessing is maybe a situation where the high intensity conflict is slowly moving out of the picture, but something different may be appearing, which will still be a conflict, low intensity terrorist attacks, whatever. I’m not sure that we’re back to full-fledged military security and stability as Damascus may be expecting.
ABM: I agree 100 percent. Yeah.
PV: That’s one point. The second point is that maybe because of that military situation, I don’t see any political solution here. Not only because the opposition will go on fighting as long as they can, and because the political and economic reality in many parts of the country now is made of warlords a little bit everywhere, who are playing their own game. But also because in Damascus I don’t think that in any way Bashar al-Assad is ready to give up any of his power. And when we are all expecting, with the help of the U.N., that we’re going to be able to set up a constitutional committee that will draft a new constitution, I personally think that Bashar al-Assad doesn’t want any of this to happen, and that as far as one can see, neither Russia nor Iran have the necessary leverage to impose this upon him. If only they were willing to do so, which I’m not sure. So I unfortunately think that we may be facing the kind of situation we have now in Syria going on and on for a while. Which brings about the whole question of, what should the West do in those conditions, which is not easy.
ABM: So, along the lines of what you’re saying, really you have the internal combustion that is still going on and will continue to go on, the population is segmented, you have different groups – Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, and so forth – and they each have their own particular interest and want to guard it at all costs. And then you have external players like Russia, Iran, of course Saudi Arabia indirectly, the Israelis are there, the Americans are there; that’s another layer. So to satisfy all of these players, to find a solution that can meet and satisfy all these players, to me it is practically almost impossible. So do you agree that the dynamics inside Syria ought first to be changed before you can get all this, better than a dozen significant players inside and outside the country, to come up with some kind of consensus with which they can live? Do you see that happening?
PV: No, because first of all I very much agree with you that the internal dynamic is still very much there. And if you look for instance back at the unfortunate experience of Lebanon in the 70s and the 80s, it was the regional actors that at some point were able to come in. Saudi Arabia, if only to name one of these regional actors who at some point understood that time was ripe to step into Lebanon and to convince the different parties to stop fighting each other, because there was a lot of war fatigue between all of them at some point. I’m not sure we have reached that point yet in Syria. And secondly, unfortunately the main regional actors are fighting each other by proxy through Syria. So it seems to me that I don’t expect neither Russia nor the United States nor the U.N. nor the Western countries to be able to impose a solution, because they’re not part of that region and it never works when you come from outside. I think it’s for the actors in the region at the end of the day to be able to find a solution. And I think that at the moment, because they’re fighting at each other, we haven’t yet a solution there for the time being, unfortunately.
ABM: Yeah, definitely. I mean when you think in terms of political solutions in particular, or what sort of— We go always to these countries like cowboys with two guns ready to go. We have a system you ought to emulate. We have a democratic form of government. Just follow that, go to elections, and everything is going to be fine. Well, it was never fine anywhere in the Arab world so far. And it’s not going to be fine in Syria, specifically in Syria. So I mean it is sad, sad, sad, sad commentary, that nearly 600,000 people died, half the country is refugees or internally displaced.
PV: The only glimmer of hope or optimism I have with Syria is that under this fractured, under the surface of this fractured country today, it seems that at the local level there is something appearing of new local powers here or there that could be interesting to watch and to support to some extent. Of course, the risk is that if you support some of those local authorities that are emerging there, you go even further into fragmentation of the country. But maybe with the necessary degree of control and self control, you could start seeing or emerging a more decentralized Libya that could help—
ABM: You mean Syria.
PV: Syria, sorry. That could help set up a new type of government in due course.
ABM: Yeah, well, that’s going to take awhile.
PV: It takes a while.
ABM: That’s going to take a long while.
PV: It will be rather than the top-down approach, it would be a bottom-up.
ABM: Bottom-up. You’re going to need to need a bottom-up. I absolutely agree that is probably the only thing that will save Syria. But, this in my view is years ahead, is not going to happen any time soon. So I want to move to Yemen. That is another heart wrenching tragedy. I wrote so much about it, and every time I write about it I really, I want to cry. I really mean it. I feel, especially when it comes to kids, when you hear about a million kids infected by cholera. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands are dying from starvation. And then we, the United States, continue to support the Saudis, providing the ammunition they need and all of that, providing [them] with the killing machine. And recently I wrote a piece about, as a consequence of the killing and the dismemberment of Khashoggi, shouldn’t that provide us with some opening? Well, what’s going on now in the Senate, with the hearing, what happened, you know this better than anyone else.
[Note: at the time of recording, the Senate was debating a proposal condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the death of Jamal Khashoggi; it has since passed unanimously.]
To what extent do you feel, and given of course the madness of this president, who is so—I mean for him who cares, Khashoggi, no Khashoggi, we want to sell them arms, we want to buy this, and thank you Saudi Arabia. Can you imagine? I mean, I get the chills when I hear something like that. But given this situation here, and now the revelation as of yesterday, when the director of the CIA [briefed Congressional members about the situation]— What do you do to bring an end to this horrifying, horrifying war that no one is going to absolutely— I think at the end of the day, nobody is going to come victorious at all. That has to end somehow, and everybody going back to where they were before. That’s how I see it.
PV: No, I totally agree with your description of the situation there. If I take up your question about what can we do and how to move forward, I would take up the point you made about the humanitarian situation. At least let’s try to bring some positive moves with regard to the humanitarian situation. In other words, get from both sides an agreement that allows humanitarian assistance to get in, a free flow of humanitarian support, at least 4 to 6 months ahead to try to alleviate some of the difficulties the population is facing. Even that so far has been impossible to reach because both sides are so hooked on this idea that they’re not going to let any opening happen with their current infighting. This has made any humanitarian breakthrough impossible. So I think we should seize this opportunity of the Congress being maybe more aggressive in the next few months on this, but also putting pressure on some of the Western countries. My own country, Britain, which so far has been very supportive of the Saudi offensive and the Emirati offensive, to try to make them change their position. Personally, I expect more maybe from the Emiratis, who seem now to wobble.
ABM: You mean, talking specifically about Abu Dhabi. I mean, the United Arab Emirates?
PV: The Emirates, exactly, who seem to wobble a little bit. Now with their Yemen implication, I’m less convinced that on the Saudi side the crown prince is ready to be more flexible than he has been before. At least we have now this conversation starting in Stockholm. Let’s see how it goes. But if at least it could come out with one agreement on humanitarian assistance, that would be a first step, I think. One additional observation – the Europeans, at least the three Europeans who are part of the Iranian nuclear deal plus Italy, have as you know started a political dialogue with Iran, and one of the few issues on which they had perceived a little bit of flexibility from Iran was precisely Yemen.
PV: And I think we should try to make the best out of this. I don’t think, contrary to what I hear from my former colleagues in the State Department or other circles in Washington, that Iran is totally invested in supporting the Houthis against Saudi Arabia. I’m not so sure about that.
ABM: I agree with you.
PV: Of course they’re using that opportunity against Saudi Arabia.
ABM: Well of course, because they’re also, not profusely bleeding, but they don’t see an outcome where they can emerge really with any significant, durable gain. They don’t. That’s how I see it. I don’t think they see that. They see that this is a war, it’s consuming a lot of resources. They’re under tremendous pressure, there’s renewed sanctions and all of that, and then there’s of course the Iran deal. And so a solution to Yemen, I like your view on it. A solution to Yemen from the Iranian perspective, and perhaps this is the reason why they’re showing a little bit more flexibility about Yemen, is to try. Also if there is a solution there, it could open or pave the way, at least provide a small opening to dealing with a larger regional issue, particularly concerning the conflict between the United States, Israel, and Iran. Would you think that?
PV: It seems to me that the only solution to the current confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is growing by the day. I mean, they’re getting more and more aggressive, one against each other. It’s not to think about some sort of regional security pact, of course it would be great, but we’re too far away from this.
ABM: No, I’m talking about—
PV: Talking about small steps.
ABM: Saudi Arabia, yeah, Saudi Arabia and Iran, ending that war.
ABM: Could provide openings, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t think you can go over.
PV: But that’s my point. I think you’re absolutely right, is that by going by a step-by-step approach that we can start, it’s what we usually call confidence-building measures. And there’s a total lack of confidence at the moment. So it’s about restarting a process that will slowly build confidence again between all these different nations. And you have to start somewhere. Why not start with Yemen?
ABM: Also within that, exactly what you said starting with Yemen, but the first step is to begin with humanitarian steps, in order to alleviate the horrifying conditions that exist right now in Yemen. And I think both Iran and Saudi Arabia may be open to this, now that the crown prince is under this kind of pressure. If Congress is going to pass most likely a resolution, they have a veto-proof consensus now, that they may pass it today or tomorrow, that compels the president to stop supplying the kind of weapons the Saudis need. [Note: this was passed after recording, on December 13 in the Senate, 56-41.] That is going to also send a clear picture. But I feel very strongly, concurrently with that, I would have liked to see a delegation going immediately to Saudi Arabia and saying, ‘look, you have made a horrible mistake. This is not going to go away so easy. But try to show some signs of humanitarian signs and say we’re going to do this and this in Yemen, we’re going to…’ That is going to also improve their—
PV: I see your point.
ABM: Global, improve their position on the global stage because of Khashoggi. I mean, I see that the Khashoggi situation provided perhaps that opportunity. But are we going to capitalize on it, or from your perspective do you think the Europeans should do something, specifically the British and others, France?
PV: I think maybe the British would be the one who could do it. I’m still hesitant about the ability of the European Union as such, as an entity, to be a real global actor at the moment. It’s more individual member states which have a stake into the matter. Britain for instance, Germany to some extent, France, maybe one or two others. These are the ones who can maybe help broker a deal at some point. But Europe as such is too much divided, with some of the member states still very reluctant to be seen in any way opposing President Trump. So I sense that if you want to do something quickly in an urgent way, as a sort of a priority, it should be maybe one or another of the member states in Europe that could try that. Britain has been trying that, as you know right now at the moment in the U.N. Security Council. France has never been very active in Yemen, they sell arms to Saudi Arabia. At some point they have tried to be part of a small informal group of diplomats from different European countries and non-European countries who tried in the past to broker a peace deal between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, but it didn’t go very far. I’m more trustful to some extent of a country like Oman as the one who could come back into the game and play a useful role of honest broker, maybe because they have good relations with Iran. They can talk to Saudi Arabia and they may be the ones who could help bridge some sort of a go-between move between the different parties. Of course you have the U.N. also which is there, and the special envoy is someone who knows well the region and has been very effective in the past, so this could also help. I think the best contribution from the European side, coming back to what I was saying earlier, is their ability to talk directly to Tehran.
ABM: I think so. And I also think, I mean you’re talking about the United Nations. I mean there is full coordination between Britain and the United States in the Security Council. I’m not sure the Russians don’t have much say about the situation in Yemen. There is this kind of, and there is a resolution, but does really the United States need a U.N. resolution to deal with Saudi Arabia, or Britain for that matter? So, I think the focus should be now directly on the Saudis, and give the crown prince an opportunity to put a better face by stopping this horrible, by saying let’s begin a major humanitarian project to deal with that end of it. Don’t you think that would be?
PV: I think this is certainly what we should do and keep on doing. And I agree with you, with the relative weakness at the moment of the U.N. system. This I agree. Where I have my doubts is on the attitude of the crown prince in Saudi Arabia. It seems to me that out of the Khashoggi affair, he has come down to some extent by doubling down on his position, on being even stronger and firmer in his stance regarding Yemen, regarding Iran. And this is where I think we will need a lot of pressure to be able to do that.
ABM: Unless, that is, I agree with you, unless the United States acts, and I think now he’s also watching what the Senate is going to be doing. And if the resolution passes – and it will pass, based on the numbers that we are looking at – that means no supplies. So there is a leverage right now. So he maybe doubled down on, thinking I’m going to do this, this is my problem, my prerogative. He’s going to feel the pain sooner than later. And that is if the Senate sticks to its guns, and takes that kind of measure and sends a clear message to him, ‘Hey Mister, you’d better listen or else, there’ll be even worse consequences.’ Don’t you think that this potentially could happen?
PV: It’s true. It can work. It can work. But what are the levers of the Congress? It will be arms sale.
ABM: They have, yeah, they can prevent the president [Note: under the War Powers Act, which checks’ the president’s power to engage in armed conflict without the consent of Congress] from shipping any kind of ammunition, and actually they are – for example, they can stop the president from refueling these planes. The munitions they are using to kill people, they can stop that. So they can stop all of this. Basically, they can put a halt to the offensive the Saudis have been conducting for the last three, four years. The Senate can do that. And if it’s veto-proof, over 60 [votes], there isn’t much the president can do about it. They’ll have to adhere to it. [Note: This measure passed the Senate 56-41 on December 13] So we can only hope of course, which takes us to our easiest problem to solve, which is Iran. Are you OK with it?
PV: Cherry on top of the cake.
ABM: I know Iran is a—
PV: Iran is a big piece to swallow.
ABM: I feel—please correct me, because this is my take. There is of course the nuclear problem. There is the Israeli play and game position on this, which is I think way too exaggerated than what the Israelis claim. I don’t feel that Iran, even if it eventually acquires a nuclear weapon, is going to use it, knowing that it could be annihilated in return. I think this is all more of political posturing on the part of Israel. I think the deeper conflict is more like the Sunni-Shiite conflict today in the Middle East, and with Saudi Arabia and Iran trying to position themselves in a manner so that they will be the anchor of the region, representing the two brands of Islam. And the two countries that have a say on that specifically, is Iran and Saudi Arabia. And that is the backdrop as I see it, of some of what’s going on even in Syria. Needless to say in Syria there was also proxy war to a great extent between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And now there’s new sanctions on Iran, the economy is hurting, like you just said, the Europeans are dealing with Iran, trying to find out better ways—where is this all going to lead to?
PV: Easy question.
ABM: I thought I’d give you little hard time toward the end.
PV: I very much agree with your assessment. I have personally, for having lived in this region at some point, I’ve always been struck by – leaving Turkey aside – the confrontation between Saudi Arabia on one hand and Iran on the other hand was an obvious one that was there for all to see, and with – in my opinion, I may be wrong – real important assets on the Iranian side, a strong population, larger than Saudi Arabia.
ABM: Three times.
PV: High quality of education of their young people, which means great expertise in many issues, and a vibrant society which has survived and has remained very vibrant in spite of the regime.
ABM: Yeah, to a great extent it remains Western oriented.
PV: Yes, yes.
ABM: There’s no question about it, and you are so absolutely right. I mean, they are a proud people. Historically speaking, culturally speaking, the numbers talk. As far as they’re concerned, there are more Shiites in the Middle East than there are Sunnis [in the] Gulf or in Jordan, including Iraq and all of that, there’s still more Shiites in that region. So from their perspective, we are the power and we have inherent rights. So, I’m sorry to interrupt you.
PV: No, no, no, but you’re absolutely right. And furthermore, if you pretend to become one of the major regional powers and you look around you and you see that all your neighbors have the capacity, the nuclear military capacity, like India, Pakistan, and Israel on the other side, you just want to have the same leverage. And of course by doing that, you trigger Saudi Arabia’s reaction, which wants also its own nuclear military capacity. So this is the natural road to instability confrontation, and things are getting more and more dangerous as we move along. So the whole point is for me two-fold. One is, let’s stop talking all the time about regime change in Iran, because this is really what it’s all about from the U.S. side. We will never be able to start any sort of dialogue if the sort-of precondition is regime change, and it will go nowhere. This is why I think, whatever we may think about the nuclear deal with all its shortcomings, it was better to have this deal than not to have it.
ABM: Absolutely, absolutely.
PV: This was a first step towards something that could be helpful in the future. So I think at some point we have to go back to that, how can we convince the present US administration to go back to a more rational approach towards Iran. This I don’t know, and I’m not sure we can expect anything there for some time. So for the time being, we have to convince our American partners that by going on discussing, having this dialogue with Iran, we are moving in the right direction and that they better look at what we’re trying to do. We – the Europeans – Russia, China, and others, India, Japan, and that maybe they should slowly come back to a more rational and peaceful course with regard to Iran. That in my opinion would help, also maybe to support the moderates inside the regime and to be on that side of the political spectrum in Iran, comforting those who are looking for a progressive opening towards the west, so on and so forth. Now we have a major difference with—and this would be my second point. We have a major difference with the U.S. administration, [which] is that they just don’t believe in the kind of assessment we’re making about the Iranian regime. When we’re talking about a distinction between moderates and radicals, they tell us in strong words that we are naïve, that this is one united political regime and they’re playing with us this game of moderates against radical. But nothing of that kind exists in Iran, it’s one obsessed regime with aggressing the West and refusing any kind of compromise at the end of the day. Once again, I don’t want to be naïve. We know about some of those radical moves inside the regime, the terrorist attacks that we have been the victims of here and there, but in our opinion that should not prevent us from keeping on dialogue with Tehran, because that would be for the benefit of all.
ABM: There’s no doubt. I think the whole effort, in which country at least in recent decades, where we attempted regime change was [not] successful. In Iran itself, go back to 1953; we actually forced the regime change and [it] came back to haunt us in 1979. I mean, any regime change, I think the Obama approach to Iran was much more practical by far. First of all, he openly said we are not looking for regime change. He moved to get the Iran deal done. And the whole idea was that you have that deal, exactly what you said, and from that moment on, you move and build on it. I mean, certainly Iran has a security concern. Forget even Israel, or forget Saudi Arabia, they have security concerns from the other side. They have to deal with Pakistan, they have Afghanistan, they have all of these countries, and there’s no stability there. So they are basically surrounded with countries who are either hostile, or at best certainly not friendly in any which way. So they have security concerns, and I think what you said is absolutely necessary. It’s a pipe dream to think that you’re going to get a regime change in Iran. They seem to be holding to power very strongly. We don’t sense, I don’t know if you sense any internal threat to the regime. I don’t, no matter who we look at and we talk, they don’t sense any impending.
PV: This is a country, a nation with a very strong nationalistic streak, because of their long historical legacy of Russian interference, British interference, U.S.-CIA with the Mossadegh government. So this has been kept very much alive in their memory. When I was posted in that country many years ago, memories of Mosaddegh were coming back all the time; they were talking to me all the time about this. So I think there is, it seems to me to be a little bit of a pipe dream to think that this regime will fall easily just by putting on it economic sanctions.
ABM: I mean, the regime is not exactly ignoring the public consensus. They are paying a lot of attention to how the public is reacting. And as a matter of fact, because of what the United States has done under this administration, the public is angry at America—not at the regime, because they feel the regime is fulfilling its obligation. It’s been doing the right thing. They agreed to the agreement and the United States came in and revoked the whole thing. And that’s why I don’t see any disturbances within Iran itself, because they more they see more eye-to-eye with the regime than they have seen before, so exactly [the] opposite of what Trump is trying to achieve. He thinks that the economic sanctions are going to cause tremendous domestic dislocation, economic dislocation. It does to some extent. But don’t you feel that the Iranians are not – even though they may be suffering more economically – they’re not prepared to take it against the regime?
PV: I agree with you. Even if I would say social unrest has been increasing in Iran in recent months, even in recent years. But interestingly enough, the regime is very much aware of that. Five years ago, you wouldn’t have heard in Iran the kind of statements you get from the Supreme Leader or from the President Rouhani, saying that they understand the social uneasiness and they want to do something about it. And I think it’s interesting to hear those statements, which for me are rather new in the Iranian context, which shows that they are aware that something needs to be done—
ABM: Something needs to be done, yeah.
PV: To alleviate some of those social concerns. How far can they go amidst all these new sanctions regime, we’ll have to see. But contrary to the previous sanction regime where we were all united, I mean the international community, here you are in a situation where as far as possible, most of [the] Iranian partners are trying to see how they can find a way through, in spite of the U.S. sanctions.
ABM: Yeah, and they feel encouraged. I mean they feel that. I mean, that’s why probably it is not as widespread. But I think you’re absolutely right. These demonstrations were not geared against the regime per se. We want regime change, no such thing. It’s, we want better conditions. Don’t you—I mean, that was a sentiment. Nobody was saying ‘regime is this, there is corruption, there is this, there is that.’ They’re mostly talking about their own economic, mostly economic conditions, yeah. But as far as Iran’s nuclear ambition, so far they have adhered, continue to adhere to the Iran deal. That’s what we understand. The European community has been saying they have been adhering, nothing has changed, and if I take, not a wild guess but thinking the way the Iranians are thinking, I don’t think they have any plan necessarily to withdraw from the deal at this point or any time in the near future, because what would that do? That would be very much to their disadvantage, where now they can play Europe versus the United States. They are still dealing with Russia, they’re dealing with China, they’re still buying their oil. China is not concerned with that. So they have no real motivation to withdraw from the deal. And they have patience. They’ve had 4,000 years of continuing historic existence; for them 10 years, 15 years from now is a very short period of time.
PV: No you’re right, I agree with you. Their interest for the moment is for a certainly, the current situation is US being isolated. Many of the Iranian economic partners [are] trying to find ways to circumvent sanctions, so on and so forth. Whereas if they decided to just get out of the nuclear deal, then I guess the whole international community would have to set up new sanctions that would have a universal dimension, and that would be much more difficult for them. So I think the point at the moment is certainly for them in this kind of very difficult domestic balance of power between the different elements of the regime. This is more or less the tipping point of that balance. But one has to be cautious, because you see that still inside the regime, the radical faction seems to be going on with its terrorist attack against opposition in Europe. We have seen plans for terrorist attacks of that sort, and that is not very good of course because it forces the Europeans to start looking again at the possibility at least of personal sanctions against some people of the regime. So there is a risk there of this current attitude from the European side to slowly crumble in, as we face continuing attacks from the radical part of the regime against the Western world.
ABM: Yeah, but, I suppose, I mean, I take it that Western diplomats are actually, should be conveying this message – that is, you want us to stick to the sanctions, to stick to the deal. You better watch what you’re doing. I mean, I suppose these messages [are] being conveyed to the—
PV: Absolutely, they have been conveyed.
ABM: To the Iranians.
PV: Now we have to watch and observe very closely what will be the outcome.
ABM: And then finally, I think one point [is] that they may stick to the deal still for a while. I think they see what’s happening here in the United States. Like myself and many others hope that Trump is not going to be reelected. Or if he—hopefully he won’t last to 2020 anyway, and that the political dynamic is going to change if there’s a new president. I think they have enough patience to wait and see what’s going to happen here in the United States. And on that note—
PV: Optimistic of note, you would say.
ABM: I can’t thank you enough for taking so much time; I took a lot of time, like more than an hour and a half. Again so much, thank you so much.
PV: Thank you Alon, it was a pleasure to host both of you.