Worlds Apart

Meir Javedanfar: America abandoning the Iran deal was, ‘a wrong move’

The American policy in Iraq was never a smashing success but, apparently, there’s still a lot of room to make it worse. The secretary of state’s recent visit to the region – all in the name of curtailing Iranian influence – was full of bold proclamations and quiet reversals. What does the Trump policy in Iraq ultimately come down to? To discuss this, Oksana is joined by Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to worlds apart. The American policy in Iraq was never a smashing success but apparently there's still a lot of room to make it worse. The Secretary of State's recent visit to the region - all in the name of curtailing the Iranian influence, was full of bold proclamations and quiet reversals. What does the Trump policy in Iraq ultimately come down to? Well to discuss that I'm now joined by Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian–Israeli Middle East analyst and lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Now my initial idea was to discuss with you this latest bout of American diplomacy in the Middle East. But I think we need to start one week earlier with a speech that Mike Pompeo delivered at a conference in Houston in which he said that Russia invaded Ukraine to get access to oil fields and that Iran is pretty much doing the same in its own region. Now on Russia Ukraine is patently wrong. Whatever motivates Moscow policy on the Ukraine it's not oil but what about Iran? Is Tehran really after energy?

Meir Javedanfar: No it's not a question of energy. I think it's much more about influence and Iran wants to increase its strategic and geopolitical reach in the region. This is something that every country wants to do and the Iranians want to strengthen their muscle and strengthen their reach and strengthen their influence and to use it in their paths as part of a balance of power game against the United States against Israel and against the Saudis. And at the same time I think the Iranians want to increase their leverage in the region as means of as part of a power play within Iran. Because there are parts of the Iranian political establishment who want to focus more inward. Iran has many domestic problems. But there are others who want to focus outwards. And this again Iran's Middle East strategy is part of the power play within domestic Iranian politics.

OB: And as you pointed out many countries do that, both on regional and sometimes global level and yet in his speech secretary Pompeo said without a hint of irony, that there could not be more of a contrast about how America uses its energy sources and how the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran use their. And by the way he said their not theirs, but on substance do you think he's right?

MJ: Oksana you know Iran is a very is a very rich country in terms of gas and oil resources. America is now one of the world leaders in shale oil. Look at the standard of living. Of course America is much richer because of other reasons - a bigger country with access to two oceans. Huge country. But at the same time there are many people in Iran who are very angry that the Iranian rulers, the regime has not used the oil magnitude to build a diversified economy. There

whereas after 40 years of revolution it's a little bit embarrassing for some Iranians that the biggest export that the country has is oil. When we take into consideration there are many many thousands, or tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands if not millions of well-educated Iranians at home and abroad.

OB: Well but I'm sure you know that many Americans are also pretty unhappy with how the government allocates their resources. I think the question is different. The question is that the Americans have always mixed politics and trade. Especially trade in hydrocarbons that's the basis for their alliance with the Saudis that's what they do in Europe with low being against the Russian gas pipelines. Even if political calculations go into the Iranian energy sales aren't they dwarfed by the American practice?

MJ: Iran is at war with the US but look at the end of the day it's different. You know for America… America until now has not had its own oil resources. So yes oil has played a very big part in its foreign policy abroad. In its power projection abroad. In Russia you don't have that problem. Russia is an energy-rich country so in America it has been part of the goal for its foreign policy adventures abroad, we see it. Not always but in Iraq certainly played a part. And for Iran the question of oil is how it uses it at home. How money is distributed inside Iran. There are many people who are very unhappy with the way it's distributed.

OB: Now you say for Iran it's all about the domestic use and yet Pompeo particularly singled out the Iranian gas and electricity sales to Iraq as an example of that malicious influence. And yet just a few days later his own State Department on the recommendations of the Pentagon issued a waiver from the sanctions to allow Iraq to buy electricity from Iran. Isn't it just a little bit inconsistent?

MJ: Not inconsistent. They try to use their own leverage and in one hand the Americans are very much trying to isolate Iran in the region. On the other hand they realized that there's only so much they can push them the Iraqis get 40 percent of their electricity from Iranian gas. You will not find many countries, not even one country in the world, who's willing to cut off 40% of its electricity. That's not going to happen. So that creates a problem for Pompeo, the problem for the US government. The Iranian regime is very much responsible for its very aggressive attitude towards America and Israel. But at the same time America to walk out of the Iran deal was a wrong move. It has left America isolated so now they're a little bit nervous. That because the Europeans don't support them, because the Russians and the Chinese don't support them. You know their reach is limited. And they can't push Iraq too much because the Iraqis rely on Iran for gas and electricity.

OB: And one of the reasons they can't push Iraq too much is because I think at this current moment there is simply no alternative to the Iranian electricity. Remember last year there was a temporary halt in electricity exports which sparked violent protests on the streets of Basra with mob raging through the city and attacking the symbols of the Iraqi political power. I mean, whether the Trump administration likes it or not aren't the Iranian energy supplies crucial to the America's own objective of keeping Iraq relatively safe and preventing it from imploding once again?

MJ: That's correct. Oksana, I can't argue with that.

OB: But look I just don't get what's the point of such demands when they clearly could not be accommodated without risking another outbreak of violence and when you have to get them back just a few days later.

MJ: Look Trump is going to run for elections in 2020. He needs to show results. Walking out of the Iran deal has been a major part of his foreign policy. He sees it as an achievement. So when the Americans got to vote in 2020 they'll want to say ‘okay what did you do with this? Did you get Iran to return to the negotiation table?’. And for him to say ‘yes I did’ he needs to have Iran so isolated that they do come back. But as long as Iran is dealing with countries such as Iraq it makes it more difficult in terms of perception. It makes it more difficult for him to say that “I'm isolating Iran”, that the Iranians are going to come back to the negotiation table. This is a very flawed design when you have something that has flawed design if it's an aircraft that from the beginning it was a flawed design you're going meet problems sooner or later. And America walking out of the Iran deal was a flawed strategy and this is one of the consequences.

OB: Now the Iranians have long been pretty skillful in turning the American failure to their own advantage do you think they will do it once again this time around with Iraq?

MJ: We have to take a broader view you're focusing too much in my opinion on Iraq I think the bigger issue for Iran is what's happening inside its own borders. Of course people don't like what Trump is doing to them. But from what I can see people in Iran are very very worried about the issue of corruption. You know tomorrow is the Persian New Year. First of all happy New Year to all your Iranian audience, and anybody who supports, who celebrates Nowruz. You know people are having problems buying food or buying all the stuff for Nowruz a confectionary. And there's some people in Tehran who are driving Bugatti and Porsche. This really angers people. I think for Iranians that's more important. And this is likely to be the Achilles heel as much as Iraq. Iran success in Iraq is notable and Iran can use it to turn it against the Americans but that won't be enough. The Iranian rulers need to put their own house in order and what's happening inside Iran I think it's creating more enemies for Iran's rulers than Trump ever could.

OB: Well the reason I'm focusing on that is because this program is primarily about foreign policy rather than domestic affairs of any particular country. And let's admit I think the issue of wealth inequality is perhaps even more pressing in the United States otherwise they wouldn't have elected Donald Trump I guess.

MJ: Not as much Oksana. In the United States at least you have a you have a judiciary that's independent.

OB: But we are not comparing these two political systems. We are talking about how they exercise power on the international stage and it looks to me that the Americans despite all their power are doing it in a very inconsistent and the kind of way that truly defies the logic. You said that the logic was flawed, but I'm struggling to see analogic of making a bold statement and walking it back quietly just a couple of days later. I mean that to me at least seems to be undermining the credibility of one of the most, if not the most powerful country on this planet.

MJ: Oksana, does the Trump administration have much credibility to begin with? I don't think it does. But look the Americans have a strong economy they use it as leverage. They use sanctions in order to get what they want, just as Russia uses its strong Armed Forces as leverage to get what it wants. Every country tries to use the area where they have a competitive advantage over their rivals or over the side that they're facing to get what they want. And for the Americans it's now the economy and you know in terms of Iraq look at the end of the day I don't think Iraq is going to be the make-or-break when it comes to Iran ever returning to the negotiation table just as Trump wants them. I think it's a question of Trump. If Trump is reelected and Iran has to face another four years of Trump then I think that could bring back the Iranians reluctantly. But then again I don't know how they could trust the Americans after they walked out of the nuclear deal. But Iraq is to be honest it's a sideshow. I think Syria is much more important in terms of America and Israel facing of Iran.

OB: The issue of energy was not the only news item to come out of this trip. Pompeo also hinted that the United States may designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization. If that were to happen it would be the first time Washington designated a unit of another government’s military as a terrorist group. Is that also an empty threat or do you think it may actually materialize?

MJ: I don't know if it will materialize but I hope it does materialize. The Revolutionary Guard is extremely unpopular in Iran. The Revolutionary Guard is carrying a huge economic conglomerate which is very corrupt inside Iran. The Revolutionary Guard is endangering my life and life of my family, and my compatriots in Israel. The Revolutionary Guard is supporting the most brutal regime in this region which is President Bashar al-Assad. I think it's a very welcome move if Trump does that. I'd rather him sanctioning the Revolutionary Guard than fighting it. Yes of course it will have implications that the Revolutionary Guard will push back, but there's not much that they can do in Syria to be honest with you. Because in Syria thankfully for Israel and Saudi Arabia the country that has the upper hand is your country, it's Russia.

OB: And as you know Russia has a totally different take on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They managed to contribute to reading that country of the foreign terrorist forces, that many governments including by the way some speculated Israel, supported in that country. So I think you can understand that as much as you dislike them, it could have massive implications for global politics. Aren't you troubled by those implications?

MJ: Oksana you know in Syria there were 300,000 dead civilians. And you know of course there were some ISIS people and some extremist people. First of all Israel didn't help them - that's a myth. Second of all you know Mr. Bashar al-Assad, for years he was a transit point for jihadists who were going to Iraq to fight American forces. He was a big pile of those jihadists and now he's trying to portray himself as somebody who's fighting terrorism.

OB: With all due respect he's not trying to portray anything. That country was facing a major terrorist onslaught. And it's well documented for you to minimize and minimize the input of the Saudis, the Americans and - I'm sorry to say - the Israelis is a little bit analytically unfair, if I can put it mildly.

MJ: I think it's very sincere to say that Bashar al-Assad has killed more civilians in this region than any other any other leader in the past two decades…

OB: Seriously more than people who led the campaign against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya? You really think that the Syrian war trumps everything else that happened in that region including the Palestinian issue as well?

MJ: I'm not trying to minimize it but the fact remains that in terms of a leader killing his own people, in terms of a Muslim leader killing his own Muslim People, Bashar al-Assad has killed more than Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad has killed more than and Qaddafi and of course, Bashar Assad has killed more Muslims than they've been killed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. You can check those numbers. 

OB: Well I actually checked those numbers and I think my stats are very different from yours. We talked about potential ramifications of designating Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, and I think it's not only Iran that could be affected. Take Iraq for example - there are many Iran's supporters within the Iraqi parliament. It could also undermine its new and still fairly fragile government. And the Americans do you have something to lose I mean they maintain a residual force in Iraq around 5,000 troops do you think their security will be taken into consideration when the decision about the IRG status is being made?

MJ: Correct. It will but let's not forget Oksana that during the US invasion of Iraq Iranian, pro-Iranian forces and forces linked with Iran were responsible for the death of more than a thousand American soldiers. So this is something that the Americans are aware of and I think if they do go ahead and label the IRGs as a terrorist organization it will be the start of America settling scores with the IRGs for killing their soldiers in Iraq. And I think yes, the IRGs it's likely to take military action against. I mean it's a scenario to make took military action against US forces in Iraq and I think the Americans this time will undertake much more forceful measures.

OB: Now just days after Pompeo Middle East tour the Iraqi Defense Minister traveled to Damascus to discuss with his Iranian and Syrian counterparts the opposition to the USA's role in Syria. It looks like the American rhetoric is pushing the Iraqis into the Iranians hands does it not?

MJ: Look the Iraqis are in a very peaky position. They have to face between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, they have to be very careful how they play these superpowers. Of course no country likes to have foreign forces on their soil, I'm sure the Iraqis don't want American forces on their soil, but for now you know America was very crucial in terms of  their people. The popular militia forces which are trained by Iran and have close links to Iran many of them, they would not have been able to defeat ISIS. They tried to fight, they tried to invade Mosul on numerous occasions and despite massive numerical superiority they could not beat ISIS which was a smaller number until the US air force came about.

OB: Well you are also forgetting about the presence of the Russian air force on the ground but I will let it slide.

MJ: Russian air force in Syria has been crucial but in terms of Iraq there were the Americans. Russian air force has been crucial in fighting DAESH - very much so without a shadow of the doubt. But also Russian air force has been crucial in bombing opposition forces who had nothing to do with DAESH.

OB: Well who also subscribe to - a pretty radical and extremist agenda groups like Al-Nusra.

MJ: No not all of them. I'm sorry, no.

OB: Obviously not all of them. Not all people who were killed in Iraq by American forces were terrorists but they were killed nonetheless and you know that this is how war unfolds. I mean Israel knows that from its own experience.

MJ: Sure and so does Russia

OB: Absolutely and I'm not trying to pretend that Russia is on the song with a higher moral ground here that's the American position I think most of the time. Now let me bring you back to the Iranian-Iraqi diplomacy because I'm really interested in how it develops. That meeting that I mentioned in Damascus, came on the heels of what some described as a historic visit by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to Iraq, and I know that you wrote recently that trip raises important questions for Israel. What kind of questions?

MJ: Look in Israel it's our interest that the moderates in Iran have a stronger hand. Not a bit they like Israel - they don't like Israel, it's just because the moderates in Iran such as President Rouhani know that Iran faces one of this strongest and the most devastating drought it has ever faced. And Iran needs to look inside more than outside rather than challenging Israel. it needs to challenge its own problems so the question is will they? Will the trip to Iraq strengthen his hand domestically? And unfortunately, no. Because in Iran is the Revolutionary Guard and all the older regime affiliated organizations that have the stronger hand, they have much better access in Iraq, they have the Iraqi file, not the Iranian Foreign Minister. Unfortunately for Israel not because Rouhani likes Israel, but unfortunately for us those in Iran who want to focus internally are not going to increase their leverage as a result of this historic visit to Iraq. You know I have to tell you I'm Iranian as well as Israeli, I lived through the Iran-Iraq war for seven years we left Iran a year before it finished. Us to watch an Iranian president go to Iraq like that it's just for me it's incredible. But internally it's the side that wants to look internally and to reduce tensions with the outside world didn't come out stronger as a result of this Iraq visit and that's a disappointment for us in Israel.

OB: You said a moment ago that Israel has an interest in the moderate forces prevailing in Iran and to me that wasn't evident at all in Netanyahu's reaction to the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shortly resignation. I mean there was quite a bit of gloating on Netanyahu's part about Zarif departure. He almost took credit for that. Is Israel really interested in the moderates gaining an upper hand in Iran?

MJ: Now Israel doesn't want Iran back. Let's not forget that Israel was the only country supporting Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. We face in Israel Iranian regime denies the Holocaust it is called for the elimination of the State of Israel.

OB: Certain members of the Iranian regime deny Holocaust not all of them.

MJ: I will send you what I'll put it down when you put this on Facebook. I'll show you the text exact text from supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei who called the Holocaust “afsaaney”. “Afsaaney” in Persia means it's a myth. Just like you'd call the story of Cinderella “afsaaney”, so he's a Holocaust denier. But at the same time Netanyahu is a populist politician who only in my opinion wants to stay in power. Yes Iran is the enemy of the State of Israel and her people, but Netanyahu is very much guilty of using the Iran issue and abusing the Iran issue and exaggerating the Iranian threat for his own purposes. And I think what he did recently was… I'm against it as much as I disagree with Zarif, and I don't like him, yes Netanyahu wants to see the moderates out and I think this is very wrong and hopefully in the next elections in Israel we're going to push Netanyahu out of power. And going to have a much more sensible leadership in Israel towards all of our problems, not just Iran, towards Palestine and of course towards the question of Iran.

OB: You mentioned the upcoming elections in Israel and there is a speculation at least among foreign policy analysts, that one of the purposes of compares trip was to boost Netanyahu's electoral chances. Do you believe that that thought to be the case?

MJ: I really hope that's not why he's coming here I would resent any foreign politician be there from United States or from Mexico or from Madagascar coming here to boost the chances of a this party or the other. If he's here for that and I completely condemn it but I think he's here for other reasons. Look Trump and Netanyahu are kindred spirits. You know if Netanyahu wasn't the prime minister of the State of Israel he would make the perfect tea party congressman in the United States. I think they are kindred spirits, they look at things in a same way and where is Pompeo going to go? He’s not going to go to Europe because the Europeans resent him for what he did to Iran deal, so he goes to his audience which is Mr. Netanyahu and of course the Saudis who also backed America to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal for their own reasons.

OB: Now what I find very interesting is that while Trump's approval ratings are pretty high among the Israeli Jews, his standing with the American Jews and the American public at large is not that impressive. Do you think this association - a very close association with Trump - is going to serve Israel well in the longer term?

MJ: You know diaspora Jews are incredibly important to us. They are incredibly important to us. You know this country was created after many people here sacrificed their lives but it maintained its presence and existence not just because of a strong army, but because of a very strong diaspora relation. I challenge you to find 10 buildings in Israeli universities which were not donated by some diaspora Jew from the United States. We are incredibly indebted to them for their help and I think Netanyahu cozying up to Trump, has hurt our relationship with the diaspora. We see it and this is this is something that's of great concern and this is one of the reasons why I hope Netanyahu loses in the next elections, and why I hope Trump loses in the next US elections, because this is damaging our relationship with our brethren in the in the in the US Jewish community.