In a recent conversation I had with students, faculty, and alumni at New York University just before the start of my program “Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir” on November 3, I had the opportunity to answer some questions concerning the turmoil in the Middle East and America’s role in the world. The following is my take on some of these events and how they might further evolve over time; questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: What’s your take on the status at this point of the Iranian nuclear deal?
ABM: I remember when the deal was first sealed, I wrote a piece called “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly About the Iran Deal.” There were elements that are good in the deal, some were really bad, and some others I called ugly, in a sense that we didn’t know how the deal would eventually unfold. Although the deal may delay Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, say for the next 10 years, I believe that Iran is still committed to acquiring such weapons, under almost any circumstances.
Iran is not seeking such weapons in order to use them—not against Israel or against any other country. The Iranians feel they have legitimate national security concerns. With nuclear weapons Iran would inhibit any outside power from trying to effect regime change. It will be in a position to neutralize both Israel’s and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals, and prevent any enemy from attacking it. I can cite several other reasons, including its concern over instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its desire to consolidate its national identity as a superpower under the aegis of the Shiite Islamic regime. It has also ambitions to become the region’s hegemon. With nuclear weapons, it would be in a position to intimidate its neighbors and enjoy greater leverage to advance its own regional political agenda.
The ugly part of the deal, so to speak, is the fact that Iran is now legally permitted to enrich uranium, albeit at a lower grade and quantity, and can keep much of its nuclear facilities almost intact, including more than 10,000 centrifuges that are merely idle. In addition, unlike other nuclear facilities that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can inspect at will, Iran is permitted to deny access to some of its military facilities without prior knowledge. This suggests that should Iran decide to move toward acquiring nuclear weapons, it still has its nuclear plants and technology, including all the centrifuges, to do just that. Even though this could invite severe punitive actions by Western powers, Iran may well be in a position to bear such measures, as it will economically be strong enough to withstand the resumption of sanctions.
On the whole, however, I think delaying Iran’s nuclear weapon program potentially for 10 years was a good idea and still is. It is possible, as some in the West speculate, that the circumstances, globally speaking, could change and Iran may feel sufficiently secure and prosperous and decide not to seek nuclear weapons. That said, the West, Israel, and the Sunni Arab world ought to remain extremely vigilant and not trust Iran, who has the propensity to cheat. As I see it, Iran is committed to acquire nuclear weapons, and it is not likely to change given these reasons.
Q: Have you been in Israel lately? Are public attitudes any less anxious in Israel, now that there’s been some time with the deal in place?
ABM: Those Israelis who know the dynamics of the conflict and carefully assess the Iranian threat also know that Israel possesses potentially up to 200 nuclear warheads. It is believed that Israel has submarines armed with nuclear weapons roaming constantly in the Red, Mediterranean, and Arabian Seas, and Tehran is not oblivious to that. Iran knows that should they acquire such weapons, and should they decide to go mad and use it against Israel, they could inflict unimaginable destruction in Israel. However, Israel will still have a second-strike nuclear capability that could wipe Iran from the face of the earth. Israel made its position abundantly clear: when it comes to existential threats, it will take any steps necessary to ensure the survival of the state.
Q: To somebody who is not knowledgeable, it seems like Putin is trying to reestablish the USSR. Erdogan is trying to reestablish the Ottoman Empire, Iran seems to be trying to establish the Persian Empire, and China seems to be trying to make up for three centuries of insults. Are we standing aside to let these people play out against each other, or do we just not know what’s happening?
ABM: There’s no surprise about Russia’s ambition, or Turkey’s for that matter, or what Iran or China would like to do. However, Putin knows that he cannot and will not be able to restore the so-called glory of the Soviet Union, because the Eastern European map has changed so dramatically that there will be no return to the old days. That said, he certainly wants to maintain Russia’s role as a superpower that can influence events beyond its borders, and he is succeeding to some extent—Syria provide a good example. Turkey’s president Erdogan knows that he will not be able to restore the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire--that’s simply not going to happen. He is trying to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, but he has been rebuffed time and again.
And as I said, Khamenei wants Iran to become the region’s hegemon and he will keep at it, but that too remains in question. China, for obvious reasons, want to be the dominant power in its area by virtue of its size and power. What they all are trying to do is to consolidate their power to the extent possible. And when they see a vacuum that the US has created, be that in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe, you can count on the Chinese, Russians, and Iranians to try to fill in that gap.
Q: Do you think the US could have pursued different policies to arrest some of these developments?
In this regard, unfortunately, over the last 16 years the United States has created more than one vacuum. The Iraq War has, for all intents and purposes, dismantled the Middle East previous order. However chaotic it might have been, it is considerably more chaotic today and will remain so for years, I dare say even decades to come.
And what happened here is that you have a president [Obama] who, with the best of intentions, was in many ways naïve, in a sense that he thought that given the Iraq War and Afghanistan, the US should not engage in another conflict and get more American soldiers to die in another Middle Eastern conflict, in another Arab country.
It is not that we should get involved in every conflict in the Middle East or elsewhere; the question is and will always be, can the United States, as the global power, afford not to get involved in another conflict to ensure global security and the security of its allies? I believe the answer is quite clear. The United States cannot shirk that responsibility, whether we like it or not.
What I’m saying—take Syria for example—is that we should have done something there much earlier. When Assad crossed the so-called red line and used chemical weapons, we should have acted by bombing, for example, some of Assad’s air force facilities to maintain our credibility. By doing nothing, the US lost much of its credibility in the eyes of Assad himself, the Russians, the Chinese, and certainly Iran.
Even though we managed to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, our allies in the Middle East are worried. Do the Saudis have a reason to concern themselves with their national security today? Do the Israelis have similar concerns? Do other Gulf States, or do the Egyptians? These countries’ national security depends almost exclusively on America’s ability and willingness to come to their aid when it’s needed. We have created doubt. America cannot afford to create doubt in the minds of countries who depend on its commitment for their national security. That is the greatest concern I have, and that is going to follow us and be with us for a while.
Having said all that and some, whether you speak of Russia, China, or any other country, they are still nowhere near the United States in terms of influence and an ability to project itself. We have troops in a few dozen countries today; we have by far the largest concentration of military power in the Middle East than any other country in the world.
We have the assets, we know what it takes, but I believe in the last 7 or 8 years, there was a lack of will to use these assets, both hard and soft power. But America’s selective involvement and its choice of assets to be used will remain absolutely critical.