Riyadh’s Diplomatic Overture Toward Tehran

While everyone’s attention was focused on the start of another round of nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the EU3+3, there have been signs of a diplomatic break in the bitter rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, May 13th, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said that he would welcome a visit from his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The invitation has spurred speculation that Saudi Arabia was softening its stance on Iran looking for ways to deescalate Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the region. Indeed, even US secretary of State John Kerry said he was delighted by the Saudis’ invitation. This turn of events begs two interrelated questions. First, why did the Saudis change their approach to dealing with Iran? And second, how much of a change are the Saudis willing to make?

The easy answer to the first question is that the Rouhani government has been able to charm the Saudis much in the same way it has charmed the rest of the international community. Shortly after his election Rouhani made it clear that he wanted better relations with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he already had a history of working with Saudi King Abdullah ibn Abdilazīz. Iran’s diplomatic efforts toward Saudi Arabia were also guided by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had established his credentials with Riyadh in the 1990s when he orchestrated an earlier rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis were initially skeptical, Rouhani and his representatives were able to convince them after several months of back-channel diplomacy.

Although this explanation is plausible, and there is little doubt that Riyadh feels more comfortable with Rouhani than they did with the man he replaced, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia go deeper than personalities. The Saudis still do not trust the conservative elite that make up the backbone of the Iranian regime regardless of who holds the presidency. Moreover, the recent tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia did not begin to with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. They began with invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Muhammad Khatami was still president. From that point on, Iranian-Saudi relations gradually deteriorated under the weight of regional events such as the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, and the Arab Spring. Ahmadinejad actually visited Riyadh in 2007.

At present, the regional environment is still not conducive to good Iranian-Saudi relations. Tehran and Riyadh continue to compete in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. In part this competition is driven by both state’s desire for status and leadership, but it is also a defensive struggle that neither side can afford to lose. Iran needs to maintain a network of regional influence as part of its deterrent strategy against the west and Israel. The Saudis fear encirclement, particularly since the start of the Arab Spring. They see Tehran consolidating its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and potentially extending it through the Shi’a populations to the south along the Arabian Peninsula.

What has changed is that the Saudi’s efforts to keep Iran isolated are failing. The United States has made it very clear that it is committed to following through on the nuclear negotiation process regardless of its Israeli and Saudi protests. Since the negotiations began, Iran has been host to a number of European trade delegations. While this has been happening, several long-standing rifts within the GCC have suddenly re-emerged. Both Qatar and Oman have long chaffed at Saudi domination within the organization and preferred maintaining proper diplomatic relations with Iran. Recently, tensions between Doha and Riyadh erupted when Qatar refused to cut ties with Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The spat grew so intense that Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors. The Saudi even accused Doha of conspiring with the late Muammar Gaddafi to assassinate King Abdullah and threatened to block Qatar’s land and sea borders. Not surprisingly, Doha responded by improving relations with Tehran. Oman, for its part, recently conducted joint naval maneuvers with Iran and signed a $1bn gas pipeline agreement with Tehran. Finally, the situation in Syria appears to have been reversed. With military help from Hezbollah and the Iranian government, Bashar al-Assad is on the offensive. He may not be able to ‘win’ the civil war but the momentum has swung back in the regime’s direction. To make matters worse for Riyadh, Iran recently brokered a deal between the opposition in Homs and the Assad regime, allowing rebel forces to withdrawal. It would seem that even the Saudi’s allies in Syria feel the need to engage Iran.

Conversely, if the Saudis had been convinced that they could trust Iran, it is hard to explain why Riyadh was complaining about US policy at virtually the same time they were extending the invitation to Tehran. Indeed, the Saudi “invitation” came during a press conference covering the visit of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, which was intended to deal with the growing rift between Riyadh and Washington. In a subsequent interview, Prince Saud al-Faisal complained about “super-powers” putting their own national interest ahead of the “sovereignty and independence of less powerful states.” While he did not name the United States outright, the target of his ire was obvious. It is also difficult to understand why Riyadh continued to press a union plan for the GCC. The Saudi proposal was mostly symbolic, but the apparent goal was to bolster the GCC as an anti-Iranian alliance.

Assuming the Saudis are reacting to a weakening of the anti-Iranian alliance instead of some new-found trust in the Iranian government, it is hard to be optimistic about the second question. Rather than fundamentally changing their policies toward Tehran, Riyadh is likely maneuvering for position. Opening talks with Iran now may yield some concessions. For example, there has been speculation that Iran promised to cooperate with the Saudis in solving the political stalemate in the Lebanese government. Talking also looks better than trying to force hardline policies like a GCC union, and failing. If nothing else, talking also allows Riyadh to bide its time. Although the Saudi’s position is on the wane now, it will likely improve in the not-too-distant future. First, the nuclear talks are hardly a sure thing, if they fail, the US will be back on side. Even if the talks succeed, no one expects them to yield the kind of “Grand Bargain” that would allow the US and Iran to reestablish their pre-revolutionary alliance. In short, the US will still need the Saudis one way or the other. Oman and Qatar will also come back, probably. Both states have had similar spats with Saudi Arabia in the past, but they have always managed to patch things up. There are important economic and military connections between them and the rest of the GCC. Moreover, if independence is what Oman and Qatar want, there is a limit to how far they can get from Saudi Arabia before they get too close to Iran. In fact, there are already reports that the crisis with Qatar has been defused.

The Saudis have played this game with Iran before. When Hashemi Rafsanjani took over the Iranian presidency in 1989 he too launched a charm offensive. The Saudis response was a ‘start-stop’ diplomatic strategy. They signaled a willingness to talk, pocketed whatever concessions the Iranians would make, such as opposing Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait, but gave little in return. Eventually the Saudis were ready for a real rapprochement, but it was not until 1997, eight years later.

Rouhani’s Cabinet

Guest post by James Devine:

Since Hassan Rouhani’s election, Iran watchers have been keenly anticipating his cabinet nominations. How this process plays out will likely yield valuable information about how Rouhani plans to deal with the polarized domestic political environment, what kinds of policies he hopes to purse, and how aggressive his conservative adversaries will be in their opposition.

On Iran’s political spectrum, his choices ranged from pragmatic conservative to moderate reformers. They all have plenty of experience, but none of them have had very high political profiles. The balance he is trying to strike should probably not be too surprising; he is trying to satisfy the Reformers and Greens who backed him after Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified from the elections, without waving any red flags in front of the conservative bulls in the Majlis (parliament) or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who have been making threatening noises about “seditionists” in the new government.

No one really expected him to pick high-profile reformers like former president Muhammad Khatami. Nevertheless, there was a possibility that he might reach across the aisle, so to speak, and pick a few more moderate conservatives as a gesture of good faith. It is still likely, though, that former long-time Foreign Minister, and Khamenei favourite, Ali Akbar Velayati will play an important role in Rouhani’s administration. It has been speculated he would take over as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, a position that would also make him Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear file.

The choice of Ali Jannati for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is particularly interesting. The ministry plays an important role in controlling the media and freedom of speech, and therefore sets the parameters for allowable discourse within the Republic. Jannati is considered close to Rafsanjani but he is the son of prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Council of Guardians. This type of delicate balancing is typical of Iran’s complex factional political system. The younger Jannati may lean toward the reformist side but he is still tied to the regime by his relationship with his father, whose name Rouhani likely hopes will provide him with some political cover.

Rouhani’s choices are also suggestive in terms of foreign policy. Mohammad Javad Zarif, his nomination for Foreign Minister, is American-educated and has experience dealing with the United Nations and the US government. He has a reputation for favoring dialogue with the US, and is a logical choice for Rouhani, who has made easing sanctions a key foreign policy goal. Similarly, including Mahmoud Vaezi in the cabinet makes sense. Vaezi was expected by some to have Zarif’s job, but landed as the Minister of Information and Communication Technologies. Vaezi is one of the more conservative members of Rouhani’s political team, and mistrusts the US. Nevertheless, he is a former Deputy Foreign Minister dating back to the Rafsanjani era and has experience with both the Europeans and the Americans. Perhaps most interesting, he also has wealth of experience with the Saudis, having played an important role in the rapprochement that was achieved between the two states in the late 1990s. Rouhani has made improving ties with Saudi Arabia another one of his goals.

In the same vein, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh was likely chosen as Petroleum Minister to help smooth relations with Riyadh. Zangeneh held the same post earlier under Mohammad Khatami when he was brought in to undo the damage caused by his abrasive predecessor, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh. Zangenah helped negotiate a land-mark price-bandwidth deal with the Saudis in 2000. He will be asked to perform the same trick twice since the outgoing minister, Rustam Qassemi was also considered somewhat heavy-handed.

Finally, another name worth noting is Mahmood Sariolghalam. Sariolghalam did not receive a cabinet nomination but was tapped to become Rouhani’s Foreign Affairs Advisor. Sariolghalam is close to Rafsanjani. Moreover, his foreign policy outlook is decidedly Western-oriented. While Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners around him believed that Iran’s future lay in the east, through building up regional influence and courting China, Sariolghalam sees the US and Europe as Iran’s natural partner. Choosing such an advisor is a significant indicator of Rouhani’s inclinations.

What all of this means in practice is still anyone’s guess. Not only will it be difficult to make any substantive changes in Iranian policy, he still has to get his cabinet selections through the conservative dominated Majlis. Khamenei has reportedly seen the list and did not object. This may mean that Rouhani’s nominations will get a smooth ride through parliament, though that is hard to imagine. The conservatives will likely want to send Rouhani a message right away. Khamenei may therefore be leaving the dirty work to the deputies in the Majlis and the critics in the conservative press. That way, he can remain above the political fray. He can try to present himself as a neutral arbiter among the factions, and if the public reacts negatively to conservative opposition, he can avoid direct blame.

Even if he wants to give Rouhani some space, the rest of the conservatives may not be willing to go along with the program. As the last few years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency demonstrated, the conservatives themselves can be an unruly bunch. They may lash out at Rouhani regardless of Khamenei’s wishes. Indeed, the election exposed the depth of the divisions within conservative ranks. It may take them a while to gather themselves and formulate a coordinated plan for dealing with Rouhani. After all, it took the conservatives nearly two years to figure out how to deal with Khatami when he was elected.

One way or another, the next few weeks will be telling.

President Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Policy

Another important guest post from James Devine, in which he considers the foreign policy implications of the Iranian presidential election:

Few people predicted a Rouhani victory in yesterday’s presidential elections, even after he received the support of former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. On the whole, Iran watchers were resigned to the election of a loyal conservative. But now that’s he’s won the election, what does Hassan Rouhani’s victory mean for Iranian foreign policy? Probably not enough of a change to suit Washington, or Tel Aviv, or Ottawa; however, we may see some subtle changes that are nevertheless important.

On the nuclear issue, Rouhani will not likely alter that much in substance. The roots of Iran’s nuclear program are deep. While Tehran does not appear to have made the final decision to build a bomb, it has been putting the building blocks in place for more than 20 years. Its neighborhood is no less dangerous than it has been in the past, and the program has strong institutional support in the security services and Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, the peaceful development of nuclear energy has become a popular symbol of Iranian national independence. More, Rouhani is himself is tied to the program. He was chair of the Supreme National Security Council in its early days and Iran’s main negotiator on the issue for a period while Khatami was in power.

It is also unlikely that Rouhani will be able to improve Iran’s relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Although relations with the Saudis and the GCC improved while his allies Khatami and Rafsanjani were in power, the region is today too polarized for him to follow in their footsteps. Iran will continue to back the Asad regime in Syria and Sunni-Shi’a conflict in Iraq is on the rise. Even without these problems, Shi’a unrest in the Gulf will ensure that tension between Iran and the Sunni monarchs remains high. It is possible that having Rouhani in office may facilitate relations with Egypt to a degree, but this would still likely be limited by popular opinion within Egypt. To those who wish to isolate Iran, this is good news, but these tensions feed the violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and complicate diplomatic efforts on these and other conflicts.

If there is any room for substantive improvement, it might be Afghanistan. Iran’s interests are less diametrically opposed to western interests in the country. Iran has history of conflict with the Taliban, and it cooperated with the US in 2001 when the Taliban were overthrown, and again when Hamid Karzai was installed in power. The main issue dividing them, rather, has been mistrust.

Having said that, Iran will likely continue to hedge its bets by backing every group in Afghanistan willing to accept its support, and Iranian security forces in Afghanistan will be hard to rein in, even if Tehran wants to. What is more, the Iranian government received a Taliban delegation only a week ago, suggesting it is moving even further way from the western position.

Where there likely will be a change is in the tone of Iranian foreign policy. The substance of Iranian foreign policy may be dictated by regional dynamics and the constraints of domestic politics, but the way that policy is carried out may change. Rouhani campaigned on his ability to avoid needless conflict, so it is unlikely that he will be calling for Israel’s destruction or denying the Holocaust. Just as importantly, we will likely see different faces in the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Each Iranian president has brought his own people into this ministry.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came into power, many professional diplomats were replaced by fellow ideological travelers and cronies. Few of them had much experience. Rouhani will probably lean heavily on former members of the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. It would not even be surprising to see former Foreign Minister and conservative presidential candidate, Ali-Akbar Velayati, return to his old post. He and Rouhani have worked together in the past, and Velayati is trusted by Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservative elite. Like Rouhani, Velayati was also critical of Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements. This type of change may seem trivial given the events unfolding in the region, but it is not. There is a difference between managing conflict carefully and pouring fuel on the fire.

We may also see is a little more coherence in Iranian foreign policy. Since the revolution, Iran has had a difficult time speaking with one voice. This will likely continue under Rouhani. Conservative opponents will remain in control of the Majlis, and Khamenei’s leadership style is to let his underlings compete amongst themselves and only intervene when necessary. However, if Velayati is on board the administration would bridge the divide to a degree and it would be harder for conservative opponents to criticize policy if it was associated with someone so close to Khamenei.

If Rouhani’s election will make any difference, it will also depend in part on how the west responds. If the west wants to take advantage of these subtle differences, there may be some modest gains to be had. It is also worth noting that foreign policy success strengthened Khatami’s domestic position early in his presidency. Working with Rouhani may, then, be one way for the west to strengthen the moderate current inside Iranian politics. However, if the west decides that modest gains are not enough, and pushes for fundamental policy change, it does not matter who the president is: only Khamenei can make those types of decisions.

Defining the Arab State

Issandr el-Amrani has a very angry response to Aaron David Miller’s piece on the post-Arab Spring decline of the Arab state. Though el-Amrani raises a couple of important points, the piece seems as full of misperceptions that he accuses Miller of.

El-Amrani’s underlying point—that the Arab states are not simply “tribes with flags”—is a strong one, and I think Miller undermines his own argument by falling back on that assertion. But contrary to what el-Amrani seems to indicate, Miller wasn’t arguing that the state has collapsed everywhere in the Arab world, much less so in the Middle East (where he notes Israel, Turkey, and Iran have remained coherent and strong). El-Amrani uses the examples of the UAE, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to prove his point. But apart from the fact that Miller explicitly put Saudi Arabia in the category of states “holding their own,” these examples underline Miller’s point that it’s about “basic coherence and governance.”

It’s not about feeling good about the Arab Spring, as el-Amrani dismisses Miller’s piece, but about questions of legitimacy and governance. That’s a legitimate concern to note, as different groups compete with each other, either violently or non-violently, to define the state and its basis for legitimacy, laws, and norms.

Indeed, Karl reMarks notes this in his own response to Miller, and which el-Amrani cites approvingly. He acknowledges that “the collapse of the state, in varying degrees in each of the three states [Egypt, Iraq, Syria], is an undisputable phenomenon.” reMarks’ critique is centered on the reasons for the failing nature of these states, and that’s certainly something to engage and debate.

Also contrary to what el-Amrani seems to assume, Miller wasn’t providing a normative take on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but more like a logistical take. Will these Arab states remain functioning as central authorities, with institutions capable of asserting that authority across all of society?

I share el-Amrani’s yawn with the language Miller uses in his piece, which is—as with his other ones—filled with clichés. I suspect this is because Miller simply writes too much, and for a non-specialist audience. It seems the easiest thing to do. But that’s a different motivation than the implicit orientalism that el-Amrani hints at.

Finally, el-Amrani inserts his own cliché as much as he criticizes Miller for doing so. Referencing Miller’s take on the Hamas-Fatah split and the sectarian divisions in Iraq, el-Amrani faults Miller for ignoring the Israeli occupation and the American invasion. Obviously both are relevant, and I seriously doubt Miller isn’t aware of these as constraining factors. (In fact, he references colonial interference as a contributing factor.) But neither was relevant to his particular point, which is that Palestine and Iraq are simply unable to get their internal houses in order so as to provide good governance to their people. Explaining why certainly requires an account of the Israeli and American presence, but that wasn’t the point of Miller’s piece.  Moreover, Miller puts Palestine and Iraq in the category of “pre-Arab Spring” countries with governance problems.

The underlying problem seems to be that Miller and el-Amrani are approaching the issue from two different angles. Miller doesn’t claim that states don’t exist in the Arab world, or even that they will collapse entirely tomorrow. He admits that borders are well entrenched, and that efforts to redraw them have been few in number, and failed completely. Rather, Miller defines the state as “effective” and “possessing the capacity to protect the wellbeing of all of its citizens.” Surely, with the violence being visited upon the citizens by the governments and other citizens, this is an obvious and legitimate argument to make.

El-Amrani seems to assume that Miller is making the opposite argument. He contends that Miller confuses “the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state.” But that line of thinking doesn’t appear in Miller’s argument. Nowhere does he say there is the absence of a state; at best, only Lebanon is listed as a “non-state,” but Miller doesn’t connect this to the Arab Spring but its own long-standing internal divisions and problems.

Perhaps El-Amrani disagrees with Miller’s proposals for stabilizing the Arab states, which include strengthening national institutions and broadening their legitimacy. After all, if the Arab state is already doing fine, then it requires something else to fix the problems currently roiling them.

Miller’s assumptions of the weak foundation of the Arab states—something that’s been a perennial concern throughout the literature on the Arab state—should be engaged on their merits. Otherwise, serious policy solutions can’t be debated.

Agents and Structures in the Middle East

Michael Doran argues that Chuck Hagel’s admiration for Dwight Eisenhower’s handling of the 1956 Suez Crisis is misplaced. This is, Doran continues, because Eisenhower’s smack-down of Britain, France, and Israel had worse consequences for the Middle East and American interests than a more forceful policy against Egyptian President Nasser might have.

He then extends the logic of this lesson to imply that today Hagel stands for harsher treatment of Israel, particularly for imposing on it to resolve the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. This connects to Jeffrey Goldberg’s own argument that “linkage” (that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the root of all problems in the region, and that solving it will end the threats to American interests there) seems to be an Obama Administration misconception.

I agree that linkage is the wrong assumption on which to approach the Middle East. It should be obvious by now that plenty of other problems—internal fights between communities within the Arab countries, inter-Arab and inter-Muslim rivalry and contests for regional leadership—that don’t rely on Israel to continue.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t connections between some problems in the region, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In their arguments, Doran and Goldberg represent one side of a perennial debate in Political Science—the agent-structure problem. They assume that the Arab states and Palestinians are independent agents, who choose to drag Israel into their problems, but who also have the choice to leave it out. By virtue of doing the former, then, the United States must—it follows—adopt the position that Israel doesn’t matter because it’s being utilized as a matter of choice for strategic or tactical reasons.

That Israel is used as such is certainly true: During the heyday of Arab authoritarianism, the conflict was used by the regimes to justify shifting the focus from domestic reform to fend off the Zionist threat, to clamp down on domestic dissent, to rationalize a bloated bureaucracy, including domestic security agencies, and as a stick with which to beat other Arab states.

But at the same time, larger structural forces have long been at play in the region that bring Israel into the equation even apart from conscious Arab decisions. One such structure is the network of inter-actor relationships in the region, including outside powers like the US, which conditions how actors act, sometimes pushing them into decisions.

The Middle East as a regional system means that Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states, Turkey, and Iran are all inter-connected through their regional politics. What happens in one area has ripple effects in the other. The lines that connect one actor to another criss-cross each other until it looks like a spider web of links.

This applies to American policy in the region, as well. Doran suggests that Eisenhower’s implicit protection of Nasser had dire consequences: it led to a deeper Soviet penetration of the region, and it enhanced Nasser’s regional and international standing.

But there’s no evidence that this wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Nasser’s own regional ambitions would have led to a direct clash with Washington anyway, given the American preoccupation with the Cold War and the desire to see locals as allies or enemies. Egypt’s rivalry with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan would likely have pushed some states into the Soviet camp and some into the American camp for their own purposes anyway.

Moreover, when Ike pressed the British, French, and Israelis at Suez, he wasn’t just concerned with Egypt: he was driven by larger processes as well. He had other—which is not to say more important, but just competing—interests at the time of the Suez crisis. This included the expansion of the Cold War, and the Hungarian uprising and crisis that overlapped with the Suez war. Eisenhower was angry at his allies because he wasn’t consulted, but primarily because he was trying to manage American interests at the global level. His concern was that the attack on Egypt undermined his effort to castigate and push back against the Soviets for their invasion of Hungary at the same time.

And what was the alternative? To let the British, French, and Israelis undermine Nasser so that he was eventually replaced? Who would have replaced him? The evidence of foreign countries intervening to shape the politics of a state has, over the years, demonstrated time and again that it hardly works. Rather, it leads to breakdowns of traditional networks upon which the polity is built, suffering for the citizens, and regional instability, threatening other countries. If the Israeli experience in Lebanon isn’t the clearest example of this, I don’t know what else is.

Doran’s argument contains other misperceptions that can be attributed to emphasizing agents over structures. He contends that Eisenhower’s action put the final nail in the coffin of the British Empire. Maybe, but the end of empire was already there—at best, the empire would have dragged on a little longer. The structural conditions for its demise were already playing out. Opinion in Britain and in its possessions was turning against it, while resistance and national liberation movements were already mobilizing against British authority. The financial crisis London faced after World War Two and the loss of India had made the end inevitable. Nothing Ike would have done would have saved it, and it’s even arguable that prolonging the empire would have led to more suffering as Britain fought longer to keep its possessions.

Doran’s take on Ike provides an early representation of the American conundrum in how to deal with the Arab Awakening today. I buy the argument that Washington can contribute to the stabilization of Egypt without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But at the same time, it is clear that removing this festering conflict would undermine many of the arguments anti-Israel groups use to support their militant positions; would free up American attention and resources to help stabilize other countries; and more. It won’t end all the other conflicts—Saudi Arabia and Iran will still remain rivals, for example—but that’s not a reason not to push for a settlement.

(For the record, I’m not trying to resolve the agent-structure debate here. Just noting the difficulty in separating them under certain conditions.)

Too Soon to Predict American Defeat in or Retreat from the Middle East

In the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra considers the “inevitable retreat” of the US from the Middle East. Certainly the argument is important to debate, but the article itself contains too many assumptions and problematic comparisons.

Mishra is correct that there are similarities in current conditions to the beginning of the Iranian Revolution: there, too, the uprisings against the regime were composed of different groups—some Islamist, some not—alongside intra-group struggles for domination and a share in power.

It’s also true that the US has a long history of clumsy and ill-advised interventions in the Middle East. But that history has been there for a while, as has the dissatisfaction with it. The frustration, anger, and resentment that has been expressed lately has been expressed many, many times before; the only difference is that this time in some places the authoritarian governments that contained them are no longer around to do so.

Mishra also begins by assuming the Middle East and the Muslim world are interchangeable; they are not. Afghanistan, which Mishra compares to Egypt, is not part of the political, security, economic, and cultural structures of the Middle East, which have a totally different dynamic.

Afghanistan also has a long and separate history of dealing with foreign interventions, the experience of which is very different from the Middle East. At the time of the 2001 American attack on Afghanistan, observers were already noting the British and Russian/Soviet history in the region, predicting similar responses to a US presence. The specific attack referenced in Mishra’s piece is not something new or in any way unexpected, and occurred under very different conditions, expectations, and historical experiences than the embassy and consulate attacks in Egypt and Libya.

The article then claims that a “more meaningful analogy” to the US struggle against radical Islam in the Middle East is Vietnam in 1975, and the American withdrawal from Indochina more broadly. But this example, too, falls short of historical experience and contemporary conditions.

Mishra rightly points out that the US perceived the area to be on the frontline of the defense against Communism, and therefore worth involvement in. But the difference with the Middle East is that in the latter there is hard and tangible physical and other evidence that its presence is based on more than perception.

The US has close and longstanding security, economic, and strategic ties with several states in the Middle East that it didn’t have in Indochina. It also has publicly committed itself many times to the defense of some of these states (particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia)—and has demonstrated this commitment with force of arms.

One might argue that the US has faced similar moments of “withdrawal” from the region before. But close examination reveals that these were really only in response to short-term and contained violence (Lebanon in 1983) or about tactical redeployment to elsewhere in the region (Saudi Arabia some years after the 1991 Gulf War). When it did have hundreds of thousands of troops in the region (1990-1991), it was deeply committed to maintaining them there for a very short period of time with a limited war aim; after that, most of the thousands of troops that remained were moved elsewhere in the region not as a retreat but a tactical and strategic redeployment in some cases, and due to a lack of need in others.

The one example of a large-scale American military commitment to the Middle East that might rival Vietnam was the occupation of Iraq. At the time, many did argue that Washington’s ill-advised invasion was opening the door to Iranian influence, at the expense of American influence. The American withdrawal of forces from there is comparable, but it was also on Washington’s policy agenda before the outbreak of the Arab Awakening, and it was not conditioned upon a larger removal of American presence from the region—as the Vietnam example was.

More broadly, Mishra’s argument that retreat is inevitable is not supported by the contemporary relationships the US has with regional actors. It remains very close to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel.

In fact, according to Mishra’s implication, the US has only really “lost” Egypt at the moment, and even that deserves qualification since we are still at the beginning of a transition. There is no way to know whether America’s military aid to the Egyptian military and Cairo’s need for aid and money from international organizations and creditors won’t act as a vehicle for a continued American role, however different, in the future of the country.

As has been pointed out several times already, the “mob assaults” against the US have been just that: small groups of people who haven’t been able to sustain any real momentum, rallied by individuals engaged in their own intra-communal struggles or the work of violent groups committed to attacking the US regardless of how the population as a whole feels. These are disconnected from the larger structural conclusions Mishra is pointing to.

Certainly, the moment has arrived at which the US has lost its ability to control events there. And there is no reason to think the demonstrations and what they represent will end any time soon. This is a period of adjustment for the Middle East and for outside powers involved in it.

Mishra’s argument rests, in the end, on a historical comparative case for a “compelling” American “strategic retreat” from the Middle East. But because these comparisons are incomplete or too different, this recommendation, too, falls short of careful consideration. One could argue that the exact opposite of Mishra’s recommendation is necessary—that the US can help transitions in the region to some form of democracy, peaceful coexistence and shared tolerance, healthier economies, and so on.

This doesn’t require the kind of intervention and sinister influence the author implies is the only option for the US, but it does require some careful consideration of available options and ideas, not to rushed judgment about the inevitable future. The conclusion might be the same as Mishra’s, but there should be some time devoted to such a discussion first.

Kissinger, Arab-Israeli Peace, and US National Interests

I was intrigued by something Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said to King Faisal (Saudi Arabia) just after the 1973 war:

Your Majesty, it doesn’t work that way in the United States. Our best argument is not to say that we’re anti-Israeli or pro-Arab, but that we want peace in the Middle East and that we’re pursuing the interests of the United States. If we try to put it on the basis of the merits of the Arab-Israeli dispute, there will always be more people defending Israel than the Arab side. So we have to put it in terms of American national interests.**

Now whether Kissinger meant this or whether it was just a line he thought the king would like, I don’t know. But in either case, I had not thought of this before, the idea that framing the peace process in terms of US interests might give the United States a way of meeting some/many Arab demands without upsetting the pro-Israel majority in the United States. Thus, US support for  Israeli withdrawal is not pro-Arab; it is framed as in the US own interest.

The question is was that a prudent effort to square competing demands or a fundamental US mistake that prevented the United States from more directly challenging Israeli positions that hurt the drive for peace. I lean toward the former (as I demonstrate with President Carter and Palestine policy in a forthcoming article), but it is a good debate in which to engage.

**  Edward R. F. Sheehan, “How Kissinger Did It: Step by Step in the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, no. 22 (Spring 1976), pp. 3-70 at p. 21.