In this exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the head of Brookings Doha Center, Salman Shaikh, gives his take on the historic nuclear agreement concluded in Geneva last week between Iran and the P5+1 group of states. Shaikh criticized Western reactions to the deal, warning that the US must do more to reassure its Arab Gulf partners and friends.
The Brookings Doha chief also discussed the situation in Syria, saying that the much-delayed Geneva II peace conference scheduled for January 22 will likely have little effect in the short term.
Shaikh previously worked in the United Nations, where he served as special assistant to the Special Coordinator to the Middle East Peace Process, political advisor to the Secretary General’s Personal Representative for Lebanon during the 2006 war, and special assistant of the Middle East and Asia to the office of the Undersecretary General for Political Affairs.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your view of the Arab Gulf reaction to the Geneva deal?
Salman Shaikh: The reaction has been cautious; they’ve had to welcome it but they have a lot of questions. They also have a lot of concerns about the underlying trends with regards to the Iranian re-entry into the Arab world and the US positioning on this. It is, of course, a nuclear issue, but it is also broader for the Arab Gulf states.
Q: Do you think that countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar will begin thinking about developing a nuclear program of their own?
I’m sure they’re already thinking about it. Of course, the UAE has a model program in terms of developing nuclear energy. It’s been done to very high standards, and in many ways it represents a model for the development of peaceful nuclear energy. It crucially doesn’t include enriching uranium in the UAE, but buying it from countries like France and others. That is one part of it.
Let me stress this: there is genuine desire in this region for making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. What happens with the Iranians is actually very crucial, and if we’re not careful, we will start to have a proliferation of nuclear activities.
Q: On the nuclear deal in Geneva, you wrote that “the hard work has just begun.” Can you expand on this?
Well, of course, it hasn’t even begun. Now we understand that the deal that was signed in Geneva still awaits technical discussions involving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with regards to inspections and how the limited sanctions release will come about. Secondly, we will have a long way to go, well beyond the six months. This is just an initial first step. I suspect that there will be many steps—and maybe some steps back—as the world powers build confidence that the Iranian nuclear plan is peaceful, and as the Iranians accept that the world powers do want them to have the capacity for developing nuclear energy.
That’s one side, but there is a second leg, and that is regarding the intra-regional situation where there is a lot of work to be done. If you’re talking about a rebalancing of the region—a region which seems to be unbalanced right now—this will take a very long time. The regional powers do not, at this time, believe that Iran has peaceful intentions. This is what they see when they look around, especially with regards to Syria. They also saw how the US, with its intervention in Iraq, unbalanced the region.
Of course, the concern is: how do you make a new balance in this region? So far, the Iranian deal has only fed more fears, rather than providing comfort to regional powers, and this is something that the United States has to take very seriously. The other world powers have a lot to do to bring about a new balance, a better balance, as part of any transformation of the region. If you continue to see the type of competition that we’re seeing in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Iraq, this is likely to be a further blow to efforts to balance the region.
Q: Are there different interpretations of the factsheet of the Geneva Agreement? Do aspects of the deal remain uncertain?
Diplomats try to make whatever possible possible. In order to strike deals, they try to work with what they have. In this case, particularly on the issue of nuclear enrichment, we have a classic diplomatic fudge. It is something that both sides have opened up for different interpretations.
This is something that will not be resolved now; it’s been put off for the next six months and maybe much longer. This is one of the main reasons, as well as some disagreement over Arak [heavy water plant] and the construction of Arak. If the Iranians interpret this in a very loose way and continue to construct not just roads and other things, but the actual physical structure around Arak without injecting it with the nuclear material, I think that would probably be seen as a violation of the agreement by the other side, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear understanding over this.
Former Brookings Expert
I am sure these things will go on as we proceed. We have to be very careful that this Geneva deal doesn’t throw up the same arguments and ambiguities that we had with the first Geneva deal on Syria, where we never cleared up the issue of whether Assad should go or not. That has been open to different interpretations by Assad and his supporters, compared to the Americans and the Syrian opposition.
Q: In your view, following this deal with Iran, how is President Obama going to bridge the gap between the US and its regional allies?
The US has to engage in very high-level personal diplomacy, and I believe that it is correct that Obama has spoken to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and that Kerry is engaging in the regional plays. In many ways, Kerry’s plane should be kept constantly fuelled, and he should be flying around these capitals for the next few months if they want to make sure that the first step is a genuine first step and not the only step in this process.
There is a lot of work for the Americans to do. There has been a loss of trust here by the regional partners. In this respect, so far, whatever change is possible isn’t being managed very well by the Obama administration, and I think that this is something that we have to admit. But on the other side, the Obama administration is quite clear that this nuclear issue has to be resolved peacefully and through negotiation. In that respect, they have to communicate how they’re doing it with their friends and allies. This is absolutely crucial. If you ignore your friends and allies, the situation, which is already unbalanced, will begin to tip over. Your friends and allies are going to take matters into their own hands, or they’re not going to trust what you’re saying. And that is only going to make the situation much worse, especially in the theater of conflict, whether that is Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen or anywhere else.
Let me also say that as an expert and scholar that monitors and lives in this region, I have been a little disturbed by what I have seen coming out of experts and scholars in the West. They are suddenly all talking about this great transformation which looks like the end of the Cold War, or the promise of when Nixon went to China. It is a misreading of the situation in this region. There cannot be this disconnect between the discussion in the West and the discussion in the region; it’s alarming if that continues. That has to be bridged, and there has to be much more understanding that it’s not a zero-sum where we have to move forward with the Iranians and ignore the protests and concerns of our natural friends and allies. They also have to remember that building trust with the Iranians will take a very long time. The Iranian regime has helped contribute to the killing of many Americans, as well as others in the region. On the Iranian side, there are many grievances with them as well. This will take a very long time.
Q: Were the leaks about backdoor communication between Iran and the US, including secret meetings in Oman, a surprise? Did these secret communications take place with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s knowledge, or even blessing?
Certainly, the back door helps. It showed in many ways how committed Obama was to the negotiation track, because he started this before Rouhani came along. And in that respect, many would say that he made the right bet, because then conditions became more favorable. Through this back door, I am sure there were elements within the Iranian delegation that had a direct line to Khamenei, which of course is where the real negotiation has to be: with Khamenei and with the security establishment in Iran. So I am certainly sure that this facilitated things. Let me say again that this doesn’t necessarily guarantee that everything will go well, especially given what has been going on elsewhere, particularly with regards to Syria. If the approach is just on the nuclear issue and ignores the actions of the Iranians in the region, then the deal will not work. It has to be both, and the back door seems to have focused on the Iranian nuclear issue, all the while the situation intensified in Syria with the use of chemical weapons.
Q: How do you think the conflict in Syria will develop in 2014, after Geneva II?
I think that the conflict will intensify. I am sorry to say that, but I know that if Geneva does happen it will be a part of a very long process which I don’t think will yield any instant results. There is some hope that world powers will take the momentum they may have gotten from the Iranian nuclear issue and answer this. I think this is one of the reasons that Geneva II has now been set.
On the ground, we are seeing the conflict take on a life of its own. The opposition elements are different. We also now have strong Islamist elements, which I am not sure you can just turn on and off. There is a lot of loose talk about these groups being just regional properties. I’m not sure about that. I think some of these groups have taken on a life of their own and it is largely due to the neglect of the international community that they have increasingly moved towards a stricter and more rigid interpretation of Islam. Then there is Al-Qaeda itself, which has already established control over large parts of territory in the north and the east of the country, including along the borders of Turkey and Iraq. That’s going to be difficult to dislodge.
Then, of course, the Assad regime is now being strongly supported by the most decisive foreign fighters, which are trained by Iran, coming from either Iraq or Iran and, of course, Hezbollah. I’ve even heard that Assad has been boasting recently that the situation is quite safe because of the support that he’s been getting from these foreign fighters. With these elements on the ground I, unfortunately, expect to see further intensification of the conflict, with a horrible impact on the humanitarian situation both inside and outside Syria. This will have a really damaging effect on Syria’s neighbors, not least Lebanon and Iraq.
Q: Do you think that it is possible that Tehran will abandon Assad in the future?
It’s not out of the question. It will not happen anytime soon. Tehran will have to weigh up what its gains would be in letting go of Assad. Of course, its goal would be to keep a foothold in Damascus and the ability to put its feet in the Mediterranean and to support Hezbollah. Those are Iran’s main strategic objectives when it comes to Syria, but if that is the case it will take a really long time, because in Assad they have found somebody who has shown a lot of capability and loyalty. We know that the Assad regime and Iran are very heavily intertwined in Syria itself; not just politically but in terms of security, business, etc. It will have to be quite a dramatic gain that they would seek while trying to maintain the core of their interests and the core of the regime.
This is an abridged version of the interview.
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