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Interview with Associate Fellow Jon Alterman, CSIS Middle East Program Director

Thank you so much Dr Alterman for agreeing to speak to us about some of the current issues in the Middle East. Let’s start with one of the headline issues, namely that of the Islamic State. Do you think that the rise of this organisation in the Middle East means the end of the traditional nation-states and colonial era borders, or is it a temporary phenomenon that will be defeated by military means or replaced with more traditional structures?

Jon Alterman: I certainly don’t think it means the end of the traditional state in the Middle East. States in the Middle East have tremendous power, which they retain; they have much more power than anybody around them. The Islamic State represents a new challenge in two ways. One is that in areas where the state never had strong control, it’s an increasing challenge for states not only to establish control but also to deliver services everywhere within their borders. The Islamic State clearly is seeking to substitute for the state, and where the state hasn’t performed very well, it’s a lower bar to perform as well as the state. The other challenge that the Islamic State presents is through recruiting thousands and thousands of people from around the world. What does it mean when people in your country are networked with international radicals who network with others inside your country? It seems to me that another important phenomenon is going on here: a number of the ‘bad guys’ are meeting each other. While I don’t think it represents that the state system has gone, I think it does represent an enduring set of challenges to states that are going to be with us for quite some time.

Now let’s talk about Iran, in particular the future agreement on its nuclear programme. Do you think that this will be a game changer in the region, that of a ‘new alignment’ between the US and Iran, one which Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries seem to be very much afraid of?

Jon Alterman: What Saudi Arabia and Israel and the other Gulf countries are afraid of is not so much a US-Iranian alliance but that the United States is going to consider the nuclear problem as having ended, and decide that Iran is no longer a problem in the region. I actually don’t think we’re going to have a comprehensive deal. We’re likely to have a partial deal that’s going to require ongoing negotiations and debates about what is appropriate, what is allowed, and what the agreement means. It doesn’t mean the problem of Iran goes away, but it puts the problem of Iran into a constructive track, because it allows creating more incentives for cooperating, and raises the costs of defiance. From an Iranian perspective, the advantage of the nuclear programme is that it is the gift that keeps on giving. The fact that people continually fear an Iranian nuclear weapon means that the world wants to continue to talk to the Iranians, and Iranians have something to give up. The benefits that Iran gets from having a programme are probably 90% of what they’d get from having an actual bomb with 10% of the actual costs. And if they were to have a bomb, they would bear many more costs, and it would actually be a detriment to their security. On the other hand, they think that if they totally concede that would harm their security. So my reading of the Iranians is that they want to keep this in the realm of negotiation. The Americans agree to keep it in the realm of negotiation, and where that leaves us is in the unsatisfying place where the problem doesn’t get solved. But I also don’t think the problem is going to burst out of control.

Israel may also fear that, being the only nuclear power in the region, it will be put under pressure to give up its nuclear weapons.

Jon Alterman: But Israel also benefits from the fact that the Gulf States suddenly have much more in common with Israel than they ever had before, and Israel feels less isolated in the region. It’s a political issue in Israel, and some of the political parties benefit from keeping the threat front and centre. There’s a strange disparity in Israel that the politicians are much more preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear programme than the professionals and the bureaucracy. The professionals and the bureaucracy are partly persuaded by some of the safeguards coming out of this agreement, and partly assuaged by their analysis of Iranian behaviour. They don’t think they’re on the cusp of total chaos.

Precisely in Israel, do you think that the majority of the Israeli population will continue to be content with the status quo with the Palestinians (and we know that the Iranian argument was very much used to delay any negotiations with the Palestinians), or will it eventually realise that it’s in its interest to see a Palestinian state emerge?

Jon Alterman: I think where the centre of Israel is on the idea is that they don’t have a problem with a Palestinian state, but they have a problem with a Palestinian state now. The problem is the Israeli minimum requirements for a Palestinian state continue to increase at the same time as what the Palestinian Authority is willing to give also increases. So they don’t converge very much. My reading of Israeli opinion is they think the problem with ‘land for peace’ is that they give up land but don’t get peace. And that the fundamental challenge in this conflict is that each side thinks it will make concessions, and will continue to have to fight for its survival after an agreement, therefore the agreement’s not worth it. I’m not sure what immediately would change that, but it seems to me that’s one of the necessary things to change, and when it does, you’ll have the ingredients for an agreement. But the idea of making concessions only so that you can continue to fight for your existence from a weaker position is not attractive to anybody.

Now when we look back at the Arab Spring and see the consequences today, what do you think are the most significant ones? The return to an authoritarian system in Egypt, or the chaos in Libya and Yemen, or the progress of democratisation in Tunisia?

Jon Alterman: I think they all represent harbingers of potential futures for the region. One of the interesting things about the Arab Spring was the connectivity of politics in the region: the extent to which things happening in one place find their echoes elsewhere. If Tunisia is very successful, that will send a message; if Egyptian authoritarianism proves successful, that will send a message, although I’m not sure it will be. I was just talking to a prominent Libyan politician last night, who told me he thought that Libya was perhaps on the brink of some sort of settlement between the tribes. But clearly if Libya spins even more out of control, that has its own impact. I think it’s probably too early to see which of those three tracks has the most influence but it seems to me that those three tracks represent the fundamental choices for the region: is it a return to authoritarianism, is it a descent into chaos, or is it some sort of inclusive governance, where parties not only agree to win, but parties agree to lose, because they think they might win further into the future? It’s much too early to say if any of these will have any success, and it’s much too early to say what the longer term trajectories of any of these experiments will be.

Do you think the Sunni-Shia divide has become a more decisive factor than in the past, as we see the proxy wars between Iran and Gulf countries in Syria and Iraq and Yemen?

Jon Alterman: I continue to think the Sunni-Shia tensions are a manifestation of Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and if Saudi-Iranian relations were to improve then Sunni-Shia tensions would decrease. This isn’t because the Saudi leadership is fond of the Shia, but because they see sectarianism defensively, as a way to block insurrection both within their own borders and also nearby. If they don’t feel the need to block that from happening, the amount of tension will decline. I think that the Iranians, as they feel surrounded, see a utility in reminding their neighbours that they can affect things beyond their borders as well. Their investment in the Houthis for example is not strategic for Iran in any territorial way; it’s strategic for Iran to remind that at a relatively low cost, they can affect the national security considerations of their neighbours.

Even now, the Iranians seem to be the last defence for Baghdad against the Islamic State.

Jon Alterman: The whole situation in Iraq is harder to read. But certainly when Haider al-Abadi, the Prime Minister, was at CSIS a month ago , he was about as critical as he could have been of the Iranian role in Iraq, and argued subtly but clearly for the need for greater Iraqi sovereignty. 

Now as a final question, because we are a training institution, how do you assess the needs of the Arab world in terms of executive education, capacity building, and training of future elites?

Jon Alterman: I’ve been doing executive education in the Arab world for about 10 years, and I find people transformed by the experience and enthusiastic about it. The single thing that I find most surprising is they haven’t had a lot of experience working in teams. The idea of a working in non-hierarchical units seems foreign to them. But when they have an opportunity to do it, they feel incredibly empowered by it and get very excited. So I think there clearly is a need to create stronger governmental and non-governmental institutions in the region. There’s an element of helping people see the power of behaving differently in groups, of thinking differently, of valuing the complementarity of ideas instead of people all following the same idea, and not being threatened by different ideas. That’s very powerful and helps people perform better. It also helps people anticipate new challenges and ultimately makes people much more enthusiastic about what they’re spending their days doing. That’s a thing to which I’m delighted to contribute.