Munich 2024: Protecting Elections in the Age of AI
WATCH
Scroll to the top

Podcast: Is the US misjudging the Middle East’s power shifts? Vali Nasr's view

A soldier on a beach in the Middle East.  Is the US Misjudging the Middle East’s Power Shifts?

TRANSCRIPT: Is the US misjudging the Middle East’s power shifts? Vali Nasr's view

Vali Nasr:

Clearly President Biden cannot afford to stay in the Middle East. We have too many other things domestically and with China to be focused on the Middle East. But in order to leave the Middle East, the United States has to find ways to reduce tensions in the Middle East.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello, and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast. Here you'll find extended versions of the interviews for my show on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today, a look at the changing geopolitics of the Middle East. Iran, Israel and Turkey are becoming increasingly important players as the Biden Administration hopes to shift US focus to Asia, and specifically to China.

Can the new administration succeed in getting out of the so-called Middle East quagmire, and at what cost? My guest today, Vali Nasr. He's Professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a foremost expert on the region. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, he declared, "The Arab moment has passed." I'll ask him what that means and how it impacts the future of the Middle East. Let's get to it.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, places clients' needs first by providing responsive, relevant, and customized solutions. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more.

Ian Bremmer:

Professor Vali Nasr, great to be with you, sir. Thanks for joining.

Vali Nasr:

Thank you. It's good to be with you.

Ian Bremmer:

So you wrote recently in Foreign Policy that the Arab moment has passed, but what did you mean by it?

Vali Nasr:

Well, I meant that the Arabs are not really deciding the geostrategy of the region. They're not the strongest players right now. After the US invasion of Iraq and the events of the Arab Spring, the bigger players like Iraq, Syria, Egypt lost their footing. They've collapsed.

The smaller players like Saudi Arabia and UAE are not capable of carrying a significant military diplomatic weight in the region. Saudi Arabia could not even bend Qatar's will or finish off the war in Yemen. So they are heavily reliant on the United States in order to stay in the game, but the way in which we used to look at the Arabs as being the center of gravity of the region, deciding the power balance in the region, and then everybody else was around them is no longer the case.

They're actually subject to other people's as rivalries and Israel, Turkey, and Iran each are trying to eat up parts of it. So we're in a different game, and I have a feeling that the thinking in Washington and in the West generally is still stuck in a period where the Arabs were the center of the Middle East.

Ian Bremmer:

Certainly historically, the United States has been pretty comfortable with an Arab-heavy Middle East in the sense that for the last few decades anyway, the US relations have been reasonably strong. Do you think that this new period geopolitically is going to be considerably more destabilizing as a consequence?

Vali Nasr:

Yes, it could be because you actually have a massive Arab territory that is up for grabs, and the Arabs themselves are not capable of laying claim to it. So look at Syria. The Saudis, UAE, Qatar pretty much packed up. The countries that matter in Syria are Israel, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Even in Libya, it's not increasingly becoming Turkey versus Russia. So the suggestion is that the Arabs themselves cannot actually protect the territories that are broken up, and these outsiders are engaged in a scramble for Arab lands.

So that scramble is going to create more and more instability. We're seeing Israel and Iran going at it in Syria. Daily, sometimes weekly bombings by Israelis over Iranian possessions. We're seeing Iran and Turkey getting into loggerheads in the Caucuses, in Syria, now most recently in Iraq, and we're seeing Israel and Turkey also not on the best of terms when it comes to division of power in the Mediterranean. So, if this rivalry goes unchecked while the United States thinks it's all about Iran, we're going to end up seeing instability in places that we don't expect.

Ian Bremmer:

Does the United States think it's all about Iran, or does the United States increasingly just think it's not all about the Middle East?

Vali Nasr:

Well, the United States is thinking it's not all about the Middle East. In fact, now this is the third president in a row who basically says, "We are overspending on the Middle East, diplomatically, financially, militarily. Our attention should be in China." President Obama had a strategy which was you cut a nuclear deal with Iran, which was the most likely reason we would have stayed in the Middle East with another war. In order to pivot to Asia, clearly, President Biden cannot afford to stay in the Middle East.

We have too many other things domestically and with China to be focused on the Middle East. But in order to leave the Middle East, the United States has to find ways to reduce tensions in the Middle East, and there are two ways of doing it. Either you say, "We're going to get out of the way and let the Iranians, Turks, and Israelis sort it out, doesn't matter what's going to happen," or that you have to try to find a way to reduce this degree of competition.

I mean, if I were to think about historically, Middle East is a moment before the Conference of Vienna, and you have to arrive at some kind of a balance of power politics between these four components here.

Ian Bremmer:

So I mean, look, we're not even two months into the Biden administration, so clearly it is early days. But from what you've seen so far, especially because actually some of the most significant departures from Trump have been on Biden's statements about for example, Saudi Arabia, for example, Iran, how do you assess early trajectory of this Biden administration on the Middle East?

Vali Nasr:

So I think they do want to reduce the importance of Middle East in terms of foreign policy priorities somewhere down below to number five, number six, but definitely not number one at times to speed. So the recalibration of policy with Saudi Arabia is a very powerful signal to the kingdom that you need to play ball with your adversaries in the region because we are not necessarily going to be bailing out every policy you want.

So we're going to treat you like every other country, no more special access to the Oval Office, and you need to finish the war in Yemen, and we're not going to keep funding or supporting the continuation of that war. So, that's almost telling the Arabs that you know need to get along with your adversaries. It's almost a repetition of what President Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic.

You got to find a way to coexist with Iran in your own region. With Turkey, the administration actually has not revealed its hand. It hasn't come up with the way in which it's going to deal with Turkey. Now Iran has become much more complicated. So in order to get Iran back into just the nuclear deal on terms that the United States seems to want, they're escalating pressure on Iran.

I think the Iranians were waiting for Biden, expecting that there's going to be a new policy. Now that they're coming to the conclusion that maximum pressure's not going away and their quick restoration of the deal is not there, they're starting to lash out and also become more aggressive on their nuclear program. Now, that always runs the risk that we're going to end up in an engagement in the region that we said we didn't want.

Ian Bremmer:

I want to get into the Iranian deal and the role that Iran is likely to play here. But first, let me go back to what you were saying about the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia, for example. I mean, you're right, Biden of course saying, "You're less of a priority. You guys have to get along." We've seen early steps. Looks like, for example, the Gulf Cooperation Council, there is more direct engagement between the Qataris and the Saudis, for example.

That seems like a reaction that is more favorable. Of course, the Abraham Accords under the Trump administration also creating a geopolitical alignment which is more favorable. Focusing just on that piece for a second, does it look like the approach that's being taken is going to bear fruit? Less US means you guys just have to figure this out better?

Vali Nasr:

I think leaving them to their own devices is not a good idea. So, I think the administration has to build on the things that you said. Now, some of this playing nice between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was trying to preempt the administration, but they really haven't resolved anything other than the Qataris agreed to drop some lawsuits against Saudi Arabia. They want to get through the World Cup.

In 2022, the Saudis tried to not have a conversation about Qatar with Washington, which they didn't want to have. So before the US could exert pressure, they already said, "Okay, we've really resolved things," but they haven't really resolved it. I mean, to put the GCC back together again, the US has to do a lot more than just relying on them, because what's happened is a truce. It's not really a peace deal between them. It's like a diplomatic ceasefire.

On the Abrahamic Accords, I think it's a very important milestone in the Middle East. We shouldn't downplay it. First of all, the one thing it says is that the most important Arab issue, which is the Palestinians, is not strategically important. It's still somehow strategically important in the mind of many people in Washington and London, but it looks like it doesn't matter to Israel, it doesn't matter to the Arabs.

There's not masses of people pouring in the streets protesting this. People are unhappy but are unhappy on Twitter, and it's not really rattled any Arab regimes, whether it's Morocco or Sudan or Saudi Arabia or UAE, Bahrain, none of them. But the reasoning for it partly has to do with the distrust of the US. I think the UAE and Bahrain and ultimately, Saudi Arabia are now really thinking that the United States is indeed leaving the region, and that they need strategic depth.

They've turned to Israel essentially to provide that strategic depth around the common, I would say, both anti-Iran and anti-Turkey Alliance. Now, the danger here for the United States is that our tail is tied to the participants in the Abrahamic Accords, much more so to Israel than it is to UAE and Saudi Arabia. But if the result of the Abraham Accord is that a powerful third axis has been created in the Middle East between Israel and these Arab countries, against Iran and Turkey, and if that creation of that axis actually gives Israel and the Arabs the confidence to stand up to those people, and if there is a conflict, they are going to draw us in.

So the fact of the Abraham Accord is good, but what use the Abraham Accord could be put to by Bibi Netanyahu or MBS or the other Arab rulers? We have to be careful with that because that basically can be dangerous for us. So the Accords is good, but not if it means a war with Iran or Turkey or something that's going to bring us back into Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, et cetera.

Ian Bremmer:

Now, the US policy towards Saudi Arabia, the orientation in the early days has been overwhelmingly on the human rights side. How do you feel about the prioritization of human rights and that lens for US foreign policy in this administration?

Vali Nasr:

Well, I think it's important because if you're going to go after Iran, you're going to go after Russia, you're going to go after China with Uyghurs, et cetera, you have to at least have a modicum of credibility. This had become a credibility issue for the United States internationally. It wasn't just about the Middle East. So, the US had to right that.

I mean, these are parts of the convoluted foreign policy of the Trump era, that they were really hard on Hong Kong with the Chinese, but then would give a pass to an ally on a very egregious thing. So, I think partly it's about putting American foreign policy on an even keel. It is also essentially, a deterrence measure. In other words, you're sending a signal not to do anything like this again, that if you want to be an ally of the United States, you have to act in ways that are not exactly similar to those countries that we're viewing as adversaries.

Thirdly, I think it is to downgrade the relationship, not in a negative way, but I think because the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States had become abnormal for our foreign policy, that they could simply bypass the entire State Department, Pentagon, the institutions that they dealt with, and just go to the president's son-in-law. So, I think the United States is basically pushing that down. In other words, you're not special. You're a leader of a country. We treat you as leader of a country, and we're not going to treat you as above and beyond anybody else.

So, I think they're putting Saudi Arabia back in a box where it was. I do think that the criticism of the administration is a bit overboard, largely because people are really pushing for regime change in Saudi Arabia. An opinion piece in New York Times said that it's time for us to push for a new Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia.

Ian Bremmer:

To be clear, they're not saying the end of King Salman, they're saying MBS should be replaced as Crown Prince.

Vali Nasr:

Right, but that essentially is a de facto regime change because now we know that he's currently running the country for all practical purposes. In fact, that's what the CIA report said. He didn't say that all major decisions are taken by King Salman, and therefore, in our estimation, he's responsible. They said all major decisions are taken by MBS. That's why we think he's responsible.

At the same time, his fingerprints are on Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, strategic policy, economic policy. So essentially, if you're going to use the Khashoggi affair to undo MBS, it's sort of a regime change. So I think that's pushing too far. I mean, the United States cannot engage in that, in that brazen way without consequences, and nor do we know what will follow if we actually pushed for something like that.

So we haven't pushed for regime change of that kind in the Arab world not since Saddam Hussein, in effect, even with Assad, the US is not pushing, in that sense that there's absolutely no engagement on Syria so long as while Assad is there.

Ian Bremmer:

Well, I got to push back on that.

Vali Nasr:

Sure.

Ian Bremmer:

Because I mean, look, with Assad, Obama said, "Assad must go." That's actual regime change, and when you talk about Egypt and the Arab Spring, I mean, the United States was fully in favor of Mubarak being pushed out, Morsi being pushed in. I mean, here, we're not talking about removing the Saudi royal family.

I mean, I just want to make sure, I mean, Americans, when they think about regime change, they usually talk about Belarus, is it Lukashenko or is it democracy? I mean, Saudi Arabia, you've got a few people in the Washington, New York beltway that are basically saying, "Instead of MBS, give it to a different prince." I'm not saying it doesn't matter, but I just want to create some context.

Vali Nasr:

No, fair enough. But you see with Assad, at the beginning with Gaddafi, with Mubarak, we came into basically support what was a demand of the population on the streets. So, that's not the case here. This is much more essentially holding a leader accountable for actions that are violations of international norms, but at the level that is more than a punishment.

In other words, pushing literally for him to an extent that you know, would put Saudi Arabia in a position to change the line of succession. As I said, it is a de facto regime change, because he is running the place in a serious way. That bar is too high for American foreign policy area. But the key question is to what extent does the United States use this moment to end the war in Yemen, to maybe push the Saudis for better engagement with Qatar, ultimately better engagement with Turkey and better engagement with Iran?

Because the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also not normal. It will suck us in. I mean, if they don't have even a minimal relationship of open embassies, and a relationship that we had with the Soviet Union, in other words, you could still talk to each other even if you are enemies, there is too much risk of a conflict that will bring us back to the region.

So again, if we want to go focus on China, we got to push the Saudis aside from the nuclear deal to find ways to at least communicate with the Iranians, think about joint security and get out of this near war mode that they're in.

Ian Bremmer:

So we have to avoid, as you say, taking too much of a foot back on Israel and the Gulf states, because they have the potential to draw the Americans back in. Then you've got Turkey, you've got Russia, and of course you have Iran. I want to end with Iran, but Turkey and Russia, how aligned do you see them in terms of their orientation as outsiders whose countries at home are not doing so well right now?

Both strong men leaders, dealing with economic challenges that are real. One, a NATO ally, at least nominally, though frequently a lot of people raising questions of that. The other principle adversary of the United States, talk a little bit about that.

Vali Nasr:

So they both have now ambitions in the Middle East that they didn't have in an earlier era, for different reasons. I think for Erdogan, that idea of reasserting the Ottoman claims to the Arab lands is part of his whole view of himself and the way he wants the Turks to see him, and also ending the Ataturk legacy. I mean, the Ataturk legacy is not in his mind only opening the door to Islam again or changing state policies.

It's partly also the way Ataturk saw Turkey as purely a Western country, which didn't want to have anything to do with its former colonies and territories. So I think in a way, by reshaping the Middle East policy, Caucasian policy, Mediterranean policy, Erdogan is also putting his own imprint on the way that country has a self-perception. The Russians have different agenda. It partly has to do with Islamic extremism.

Partly it's opportunistic, but also that's part of the Russian perceptions of grandeur. Now, the dilemma is, I think for the United States, is that these two at times see eye-to-eye by giving them S 400 missiles or on trying to win them away from NATO. Or in the Caucuses, they even came somehow together that yes, the Turks are going to push for the Azerbaijani victory, but then the Russians are going to sit in the middle.

But in Libya, for instance, the Libyan War is now becoming between the Russians supporting Haftar Khalifa and the former client of UAE and Egypt and the Turks supporting the government in Tripoli, and now their talk of both sides, even sending airplanes in, helicopters in. So this is actually a major confrontation between them. And in Syria too, I mean, the position of Turkey is farther away from Russia and Iran than one would assume.

But the danger here is that Turkey has become quite unpredictable. It's become a major disruptor. It's basically lashing out of all directions, and it's difficult for Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United States, even Russia, to think what is Erdogan's next step. So, I think managing that, or at least being cognizant of how important that is important to the United States, and that's one of the issues that we have to think about. It's not about Iran anymore.

Iran is a big player in the Middle East, but there are two other gorillas, and we actually don't have a handle on where Turkey is going in the Middle East. If it comes to a blow either with Israel, with Iran, with Russia in one of these, what does it mean for NATO? Let's say if Libya, Russia, and Turkey come to blows, what does that mean? I think we now do have a Turkish problem, which is a very bizarre country, which is part of NATO but is also acting like in Middle East power broker now.

Ian Bremmer:

No, I mean, what the interesting backdrop here is, of course, it's both the most geopolitically fraught region of the world, it's economically certainly really challenged by all of the momentum towards climate change, and at the same time, the two most powerful countries in the world really don't see themselves as having a long-term strategic stake.

Vali Nasr:

Absolutely. Although the Chinese are expanding westward along this line of Eurasian corridor that we still don't know exactly where the end is, they do have a deep partnership with Pakistan now, financial. They are apparently negotiating a strategic partnership with Iran.

I think the longer we don't get into JCPOA, the more the Iranians begin to lose hope in any kind of economic relationship with Europe and the US, and are going to take that deal seriously. So recently, again, in the past week, Iran's former head of Iran's parliament who is deputed by the supreme leader to manage the negotiations for the strategic partnership with China is in Beijing to actually take it to the next level.

There is talk of Turkey also being interested in some kind of a financial relationship with Beijing. It has reduced its criticism of the Chinese crackdown on the Uyghurs. It sees itself as being able to lean on China. So how the Chinese might play this in the next five to 10 years is important. I mean, we always think of China as just a Pacific power, but end of the day, for them, West Asia does matter, particularly also as they're escalating with India. That suggests that they're looking westward in a much more serious way.

Ian Bremmer:

But compared to the influence you're discussing of Russia, of Turkey, of Iran, I mean, the United States and China are not as central or strategic to the way you are thinking about the Middle East right now.

Vali Nasr:

Absolutely. I mean, the Chinese benefit for many of these countries right now is mostly psychological and financial, but the Chinese are not getting their hands dirty in the geostrategic realm.

Ian Bremmer:

So I want to end with Iran, because of course, to the extent that the Biden administration is really expending Headspace in the Middle East right now, it certainly appears to be a desire to remake what was one of the landmark foreign policy agreements, breakthroughs, whether you like it or you don't like it, of the Obama administration, as you say, the JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal.

Now, I look at Iran right now and I see a country that is under massive economic stress that would certainly have all sorts of incentives to get back into the old deal as it was. I've seen lots of statements from Tony Blinken, Secretary of State, and others that appear to be pretty aligned with that. So tell me why that won't happen.

Vali Nasr:

I think the expectations the Iranians had was that the US basically, in the spirit of undoing... Trump says "anti-multilateralism," just like he went back to the Climate Accord, it would announce that it's coming inside JCPOA and then would demand full compliance and the Iranians would demand full compliance. So Iranians were looking for a quick way to go back to 2017, let's say, just before Maximum Pressure. But that didn't happen. Didn't happen because maybe there's domestic pressure on the administration.

Maybe the administration could not trust the Iranians would do this, but also the Trump years are also wasted years because some of the provisions of the deal will actually finish under President Biden's term in 2023. So the US' worry is that if we went back in to restore the deal and we left sanctions and went back to 2017, we basically will have no leverage to get Iranians engaged in further conversations about extending sunset, clauses, et cetera, even forget about regional issues and missile issues.

So Iranians maybe just happy with going back to the original deal and then not submit to any further conversations. So, they began to sit on Trump sanctions and basically saying, "You have to first submit to full compliance before we agree to even consider lifting these things." The Iranians basically don't have even domestic political room for that kind of surrender. In other words, you're not going to lift anything, and you're not going to go back in the deal until we blink first. Well, that's also what Trump told us.

I do think that the Iranians have come to the conclusion that the United States doesn't really take their nuclear program serious enough. It doesn't show urgency of going back in the deal and that in order to talk to the United States seriously, they probably need more leverage, which means they need more 20% enriched uranium.

Anyways, that has value. If six months from now, they have three times the amount of enriched uranium, we'll have to buy it from them, which is billions of dollars that they will earn at that point, and that they have to have something to really get US' attention for serious lifting of sanctions. They don't believe that they have that now.

So they've come to a resolution that JCPOA is not going to be restored anytime soon, but in the meantime, they are keeping the pressure on the United States of saying, "We're going to enrich more, hitting missiles into Iraq." So, the US basically now has to come up with a diplomatic strategy of how are you going to get back at least into direct conversations and stop the process where it is?

Ian Bremmer:

Which they've offered with the Europeans recently and I mean, the Iranians said no, but not yet. So it feels like both sides are inching towards this.

Vali Nasr:

Inching, but you see, again, it's a step. The reason the Iranians said no was after a letter the United States circulated saying it wanted the signatories to the deal to censure Iran for moving away from the terms. The Iranians thought that if the very first meeting is about censuring them, that will be humiliating. So especially because the United States is not in compliance at all, and I mean, I'm talking about terms of their politics.

The other issue that's very important, Ian, is really how sustainable is the economic pressure in Iran? This is a sensitive calibration because the US may over-read in that. The question is, can the Iranians survive another year? Can they survive another six months, during which time the size of their enriched uranium becomes a lot bigger? I would say yes.

I think in their psychology, the greatest pain was at the beginning. The massive shock of inflation, unemployment, hardship was already hit, which caused street riots and rattled the regime right after. But right now, they don't see this as regime threatening right away.

Ian Bremmer:

I'm getting the sense that if gun to your head, as they say, if you had to make a call, you think that the US and Iran will get back into the Iranian nuclear deal?

Vali Nasr:

I'm an optimist on this, Ian, because I think the overall logic for both sides is that they want the deal. The United States needs to go focus on China. The one issue that could get it into a war in the Middle East is Iran's nuclear program. Obama understood that. I think Biden understands that, and you can saber rattle, you can put pressure on them, but in the end, if you want to reduce tensions, it has to begin with the nuclear deal with Iran.

I think the Iranians, yes, they can survive this another six months, they can survive it maybe maximally a year, maybe more. But ultimately, they want these sanctions lifted. They've said that multiple times. Even the supreme leader said there's a priority to lifting of sanctions. Both sides have to deal with pride, with nationalism, and with their domestic constituencies. I think one of the things the US has to be very careful is that particularly what it says in public, it shouldn't corner Iranians.

If you want diplomacy to succeed, you have to leave a ladder for the opponent to be able to climb down from the tree. The idea publicly saying that we're going to censure them at JCPOA did not provide that ladder. So, I think that's where we have to get the mechanics right. But if we do it, I do think that there could be a resolution.

Ian Bremmer:

That's the final word, Vali Nasr. He knows a lot about the Middle East. Thanks for being with me today.

Vali Nasr:

Thank you for inviting me, Ian.

Ian Bremmer:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast. Like what you've heard? Come check us out at gzeromedia.com, and sign up for our newsletter, Signal.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, places clients' needs first by providing responsive, relevant, and customized solutions. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Previous Page

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter