"I do not believe that war between Iran and the United States is at all likely'"
Azeri.Today's exclusive interview with Chas Freeman, prominent US diplomat, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, former president of the Council for Middle-Eastern policy, assistant US Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.
- What will happen in the Middle East under Trump? Will the alliances with key US allies in the region - Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey be revised?
- In comparison with the past, the United States is a much diminished factor in the dynamics of the Middle East. Events there are driven by regional rivalries, sectarian struggles, and local nationalisms far more than they are by external factors or interventions.
Moreover, the Trump administration is still taking shape; it has not established a coherent policy process or announced firm policies on any of the major issues now in play in the region. The new president seems much less interested in human rights and other ideological questions. He is also less familiar with the various struggles of the region than his predecessors. It is hard to know what course his administration will take.
That said, the new administration has come to power with a strong commitment to follow the lead of the right-wing in Israel on the issues of the long-term status of Jerusalem, Palestinian self-determination, and Iran. Its secretaries of state and defense and the immediate entourage of the new president all share a deep concern about the challenge posed by Iran to both Israel and the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration has, however, not moved to implement its leader's campaign pledges all at once. It has pulled back from its promise to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. It has not moved to nullify American adherence to the Iran nuclear accord. And it has not immediately found a way to cooperate with Russia in Syria despite the obvious fact that Russia has managed to make itself a central actor in the effort to defeat Islamist terrorism there.
President Trump has indicated a desire to be the one who finally achieves peace between Israelis and Palestinians but he has yet to indicate how he would accomplish this. He has said that he intends to crush the so-called Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. He has asked the U.S. military to draw up a plan to do this but has not yet received of considered their recommendations. He has been firm in his backing of Saudi Arabia against Iran, especially in Yemen, but has yet to formulate a policy for managing Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry.
- Middle East has turned into the area of chaos and the foothold for international terrorism. Why did this region become the center of instability and is there a hope for improvement of military and political situation in the coming years? Do you believe that remarkable changes will occur under Trump in ensuring peace and stability in the Middle East?
- The Middle East was radicalized by many factors. The starting point is to be found in Western imperialism and colonialism. This includes the British authorization of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the future state of Israel's settlement by European Jews fleeing persecution in the West, its incorporation of Arab Jews driven from their homes in reaction to the displacement of Palestinians by European Jewish settlers, its continuing expansion into Arab lands, its later in-gathering of Jews from Russia, America, and elsewhere, and Palestinian resistance to the now 50-year-old Israeli occupation of what was left of Palestine after the establishment of Israel. But radicalization has also been driven by ongoing Western interventions, which continue to this day. These include the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran, the 1956 Suez War, the 1958 U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, the 1967 and 1973 wars between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, the 1982 - 2000 Israeli occupation in Lebanon, the extended U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf after the 1990-91 war to liberate Kuwait, the 2003 U.S. removal of the Ba`athist regime in Baghdad, Israel's reinvasion of Lebanon in 2006, Israel's invasions of Gaza in 2008, 2012, and 2014, and Gulf Arab, Turkish, and U.S. efforts to engineer regime change in Syria from 2011 to date.
Other factors include the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 and the so-called "Arab Spring" of 2011. The destabilization of Iraq and Syria enabled the formation of the so-called Islamic Caliphate. Meanwhile, al Qaeda remains a potent transnational force. In the absence of hope for self-determination, there is a serious danger that Palestinians will turn to both of these globally active terrorist movements.
President Trump has pledged to end U.S. policies directed at violent regime change in foreign countries. But there is no indication that the aggressive American use of drone warfare against Islamist extremists will be moderated. Many believe that military approaches to countering extremism aid rather than starve the forces that feed it. President Trump has not addressed the question of what non-military might be made to counter the spread of Islamist terrorism.
- The United States has recently expanded sanctions on Iran over the missile tests. Trump said Iran was playing with fire and the deal with the Iranian authorities was 'terrible'. Some experts believe that the United States may launch war against Iran once 'IS' is terminated. What can you say about it? And what can be the implications of the US-Iran war for Azerbaijan, which neighbors Iran?
- Candidate Trump used widespread skepticism in the United States about the Iran nuclear deal to his electoral advantage. He remains critical of the agreement. But he has not moved to terminate or replace it. It would be difficult for him to do so because it is not a bilateral US-Iranian accord but one involving China, Russia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom that was endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.
It is hard to see how an attack on Iran would accomplish anything other than igniting sabotage and unconventional warfare by it and its sympathizers across a broad swath of the Middle East. As far as anyone can tell, Iran is adhering to the terms of the nuclear agreement it signed. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is conducting highly intrusive inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities, has not charged that Iran is in violation of the accord. There is no international support for a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran and much opposition.
The immediate issue is unilateral sanctions by the United States. These could give Tehran an excuse to repudiate the agreement. But Iran has too much invested in it to do that lightly. Moreover, it appears to enjoy the spectacle of division between the United States, its European allies, and China and Russia. Iran has many reasons to stick with the accord and few to deviate from it.
For all these reasons, I do not believe that war between Iran and the United States is at all likely, despite the harsh rhetoric from some on both sides. Largely as a result of failed U.S. policies like those in Iraq and Syria, Iran has become a power with influence that extends across much of the Middle East. That is what concerns Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others in the region. But there is no obvious answer to it, still less a military answer.
- What policies do you think the new administration will carry in relation to the South Caucasus, in particular to Azerbaijan? How will the relations between Washington and Baku develop?
The Trump administration has not addressed these issues. When it does, it will probably do so through the prism of US-Russian and US-Turkish relations. Both remain in an unsettled state, with the new administration professing a desire to work with both Moscow and Ankara but not having yet done so. US-Russian relations remain tense. U.S. relations with Turkey under President Ergoğan are also troubled. It is impossible at this point to answer your question with any assurance.
- What do you know about the Karabakh conflict? How do you see the resolution of the Karabakh conflict in the future?
- Years ago, I visited Baku and saw the misery of the refugee presence there. I wish I could give you a more encouraging answer. But, to be honest, this is not a conflict that looms large in the American psyche. It is of principal concern to Armenian-Americans, who, not surprisingly, favor their fellow Armenians. But the public at large in the United States is not convinced that, with all the other issues pressing on Washington, this conflict should be a significant subject of U.S. foreign policy attention.
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