Trump will meet with Putin this week in Helsinki. But despite talk of a “grand bargain” that enlists Russia in helping the US-Israel-Saudi-UAE front against Iran, don’t expect it to happen, says professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and syndicated columnist Rami Khouri in this Real News Network interview.
Jerri-Lynn here: I found the discussion of the Yemen catastrophe particularly informative– especially the reminder that this policy didn’t start on Trump’s watch.
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is about to meet U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki, but that is not the only high-profile encounter on Putin’s calendar. This week, Putin hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow. The meeting came just as the New Yorker magazine reported that Israel has joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE to encourage Trump to strike a grand bargain with Putin over Syria. Under the reported proposal, the U.S. would lift sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine in exchange for Russian help expelling Iranian forces from Syria. As he left Moscow, Netanyahu said he has no problem with the Assad regime in Syria and is not seeking its removal. But yet Israeli strikes on Syria continue. This week, Israeli forces fired on the Syrian army inside Syria after it said a drone approached Israeli airspace.
Joining me is Rami Khouri, syndicated columnist, professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and non-resident senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. Welcome, Rami. Let’s start with your assessment of what is at play here. Assuming that these reports are true, what is Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia trying to convince Trump to do when it comes to making a deal with Putin, and how that would impact both Syria and Iran’s presence there?
RAMI KHOURI: Well, thank you for having me. This is a reflection of really the four major trends that are shaping the Middle East, that have been manifesting themselves in recent years. The U.S. gradually reducing its footprint and involvement in the area, especially getting out of Syria soon; the Russians filling that vacuum, playing a much bigger role and being the major broker now in the region; the Iranians continuing to expand their strategic relationships with many people, all over the Arab world, primarily; and the Emiratis and Saudis trying to join the big leagues and play hardball all over the region, making war on Yemen and laying siege to Qatar, trying to overthrow the Syrian regime, and now trying to join forces with Trump and his group to do their bidding against Iran. So these things are all now coming together at this moment.
AARON MATE: One follow up. When you say the U.S. is reducing its footprint in the Middle East, how so? I mean, one could look at Trump’s policies in the Middle East right now and say the exact opposite.
RAMI KHOURI: Well, it’s clear the U.S. is gradually pulling out of Iraq. And there’s not much left, there’s still some presence, but not much. They want to get out of Syria. He said they want to get out. They have around 2200 troops or so, probably more, because there’s always more than the government admits. But they clearly said, Trump has said they want to get out of Syria. And they want to also try to avoid the problems that happened when Obama got out of Iraq too quickly and left a bit of a vacuum. But generally speaking, the U.S. is not interested in what’s going on in the Middle East other than to support Israel, make sure the oil is flowing, and sell lots of arms to Arab governments who really can’t do very much with them, unfortunately. And that’s basically what it’s-. And fighting terrorism, fighting ISIS. And that battle has pretty much succeeded, only remnants of that left.
In terms of-. The Americans are not major diplomatic players anymore. When people want something done in the Middle East they think of the Russians first, and they then think of the Americans, and they try to play them off against each other if they can. So that’s what I mean. They’re not leaving the Middle East, but they’re having a smaller military, direct military presence. They’re using more drones, for instance, instead of armies on the ground. And they’re also not the major broker anymore that they used to be.
AARON MATE: OK, right. But in terms of what their priorities are in the Middle East, is not another one also trying to destabilize and possibly overthrow the government in Iran? And on this front, can Putin-. Say Putin wanted to, could Putin help them in this goal, as seems to be the intent of Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow this week. And this, this report in The New Yorker saying that Trump came under pressure to strike a deal with Putin for exactly that purpose, of removing Iran from Syria.
RAMI KHOURI: Well, this is the perception that dominates the American media, which is very much shaped by what the Israelis want people to believe. The reality is that the Russians are in the midst of negotiating, you know, maybe $15 billion worth of oil and gas investments in Iran to compensate for some of the people who are leaving Iran because of the American sanctions the the Iranians, and the Russians have been dealing with nuclear issues for some time.
And also, Iran is a major regional player, as is Turkey. Two non-Arab powers who are very powerful in the region, and use their militaries in different places, especially Syria. And Russia is on good terms with both of them. And therefore the, the Russians are not going to tame Iran or sell out Iran or drop Iran or contain Iran just because Netanyahu or Trump or somebody else wants this for their own purposes. The Russians are far more sophisticated than any Americans are, for instance, clearly, and probably more sophisticated than Netanyahu. They are patient. They’re like the Iranians and the Turks are kind of patient, they cultivate long term relations. They develop their strengths, they take advantage of other people’s weaknesses.
So they’re going to negotiate, for sure. Trump, I mean, Putin wants nothing more than to sit with Trump and negotiate, because he’s certain he’s going to get a better deal than Trump is going to. The Russians are gaining strategic advantage and regional connections all the time, and this will accelerate now. The question is what exactly will they negotiate on. I doubt Ukraine is going to have any role in this right now. They’re talking about Syria, basically; they’re basically talking about southern Syria, northern Syria, and eastern Syria where the U.S. has a small base and some troops at a place called Tanf, which is right on the Iraqi-Syrian border. And they’re going to talk about those issues.
It’s certain that the outcome of these negotiations are going to see a strengthened Russian presence and diplomatic capabilities inside Syria, and some new form of relationships with Iran, and continuing close consultations with the Israelis, which has been one of the great developments of the last couple of years. And Netanyahu has gone to Moscow, I think, eight or nine times in the last year and a half or so. And so these the relationships that Russia has developed with Iran, with Israel, with Turkey, and of course with the Syrian government, are profoundly important for Russia. And, and we’re going to see this continuing in the Helsinki summit.
AARON MATE: And in terms of what drives this underlying animus toward Iran on the part of all these different players. The concern expressed by Israel is that Iranian forces present, inside Syria present a threat to Israel, even though it’s been Israeli forces that have been bombing Syria, you know, dozens of times over the past years. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are also working overtime to curb Iran’s role in the region. What drives the hostility towards Iran on the part of these players?
RAMI KHOURI: I think several different factors over time. One of them is they they all need to have a major external threat that they can use to rally support and to maybe take away attention from some of the more important issues they face at home and in terms of their foreign policies. The Iranians are a very dynamic, sometimes aggressive, power. The Iranians have taken actions all across the Middle East since the Iranian revolution of ’79, which has given them huge strategic linkages and connections all across the Arab world. And the Israelis don’t like this and the Arab conservative Gulf states don’t like it. They think that this is part of an Iranian hegemonic plan to dominate the region.
The Israelis in particular complain about Iranian rhetoric that they want to eliminate Israel, or you know, annihilate it, which is, which is total nonsense in terms of any Iranian thinking they would never do that. But you know, they’re using rhetoric which is very strong, and the Israelis and the Americans in some cases are responding, taking this literally when it shouldn’t be taken literally. But there is a battle, a political battle, going on between Iran and the conservative Arab countries, and between Iran and Israel. And of course, Israel and the conservative Arabs, the Saudis, Emiratis, and others spend half their waking days making attacks, insults and rhetorical attacks and threats, and trying to create coalitions to fight Iran.
So there’s a battle. There’s a political battle going on here. And the way to resolve this is to have a serious mediation by a serious external power, which doesn’t-. That power, external power, doesn’t really exist right now. The Obama administration with the nuclear negotiations that took place were a great example of how do you deal with Iran? You recognize their legitimate needs and rights, and you tell them about what they’re doing that you don’t like, which you think is illegal or unethical, and you negotiate and you come up with an agreement, which is what happened. The Iranians are very rational, very careful negotiators. The Iranians from their perspective feel, and I think rightly so, that they’ve often been attacked and threatened by people in the region like Iraq, like Israelis, like others, while they haven’t directly aggressively attacked other people. Now, that’s a debatable question, because Iran has links with Hezbollah, and Hezbollah and Israel have fought wars.
But the point is there’s a war. There’s a political war going on. And neither Israel nor Iran nor the Arab Gulf states are innocent bystanders. The American Israeli press, and the Saudi Emirati increasingly, make it look like they’re all angels and the Iranians are the bullies on the block that have to be controlled. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t buy that propaganda. So I think we have to be careful about accepting the accusations that are made against Iran. Some of them are probably correct and need to be addressed. Most of them are exaggerated, slightly hysterical. And the fact is that the best way to deal with Iran, or with any country, is to engage it in a negotiation based on international law, recognizing that both sides in a negotiation have reasonable issues that they want to discuss, and behavior that they must change if they’re going to be accepted as peaceful partners.
So I would not take very seriously this idea that the Gulf Arabs and the Israelis and the Americans are together going to create a great new front that is going to push back Iran. They’ve been trying to do this since 1979, and they haven’t-. And Iran has only grown stronger in its regional strategic relations around the Middle East. It’s only grown stronger in its international relations, for instance now with China and with Russia, and with many Europeans. Iran has only grown stronger in the face of nonstop Israeli, American, Saudi, and other Arab rhetorical attacks and threats against it. So I think people should wake up at some point and realize, you know, what works and what doesn’t work.
The difficulty is if you use the American press as your navigation tool to understand what’s going on in the Middle East, you’re going to just go around in circles and then get dizzy and then fall off the ship and sink, because the American is woefully imbalanced, unaccurate, unfair, and incomplete. And biased, for the large part. With some exceptions. But for the large part the American press is not what you want to be using as your navigation tool to understand the Middle East.
AARON MATE: Your caveat about exceptions will lead me to take the opportunity to mention The Real News. I do think we count among those exceptions. But let me put a point to you.
RAMI KHOURI: Yes, I agree.
AARON MATE: When you mention the Obama administration as an example of sort of forward thinking when it comes to engaging with Iran, and it did that with the nuclear deal, to me, while that’s true, it also illustrates the extreme constraints on what’s possible inside the U.S. policy spectrum. Because as we know from Trita Parsi’s book Losing an Enemy, the Obama administration only chose to make that deal with Iran after it concluded that it couldn’t collapse its economy through sanctions fast enough. And even after making that deal, and this speaks to the role of the Saudis, even after making that deal with Iran and possibly engaging with it to placate the Saudis, as we know now from reporting since, the Obama administration made a deliberate decision to then support the Saudi attack on Yemen as a way to sort of compensate Saudi Arabia for its positive engagement with Iran.
RAMI KHOURI: Yes. And that’s a sign of incoherence in the American foreign policy process in relation to the, to the whole Middle East. What the Americans and British have done in assisting the Saudis and Emiratis in carrying out this really cruel, criminal war on Yemen is atrocious, and it’s a war crime. But the world doesn’t care.
See, one of the lessons of the last four or five or six years in Syria, and in Yemen, and in Gaza, I would mention, with the Israeli attacks on Gaza, one of the lessons is most of the world doesn’t care about war crimes, international law, the humanitarian rules of law. You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t use chemical weapons against your own people or the enemy. And as long as you don’t carry out many genocides against, like Islamic State did against the Yazidis, where you try to wipe out a whole people; or what happened with the Rohingyas in Burma. So if you don’t do those things, you can do anything else you want. You can kill hundreds of thousands. You can displace millions, as has happened in Syria and Yemen, and on a smaller scale in Gaza. The Israelis injured 13000 Palestinians in Gaza who were more or less peacefully demonstrating on the borders in May and June. Thirteen thousand were injured, and 140, I think, Palestinians were killed by the Israelis. And the world doesn’t particularly care about this.
So this is one of the lessons, I think, that is so depressing for people in the Middle East, looking at developments in the Middle East; that people can use brute force as much as they want. The other side of that, though, is that military force is almost never going to achieve your political aims. The Americans learned this in Vietnam. They’re learning it in Afghanistan. They’re learning it in Syria. The Arabs who supported the rebels in Syria are learning this. The Israelis have been trying to wipe out the Palestinian resistance movements for 50, 60 years, and they’re not able to do it.
So militarism unbridled is only going to create massive suffering, and increase the resistance against the person using the military action. So Obama supporting the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen is a sign, really, of incoherence on the part of the United States, and its continued willingness to use military force, directly or indirectly, as the primary instrument of its engagement in the broader Middle East. And this is a lesson that the Americans still haven’t learned. People like the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, they’re a little bit more subtle than this. They use military force when they need to, but they also use diplomacy, they use soft power, they use economic-. They use energy policy, economic policy, and many other, other things. So watching the Russians work the Middle East now is really one of the most fascinating examples of, you know, international relations theory being put into practice. And you’re going to see it in a few days in Helsinki, when Putin and Trump meet and come up with another, some kind of deal.
The last point on this, and the particular issue of, of southern Syria. The Israelis want the Iranians to be away from the border, from the Syrian-Israeli border. And they are, they wanted Iran totally out of Syria, but that’s not going to happen. The Russians have told them we’ll push them away from the border, and we’ll see what happens. The Iranians have been in Syria since since 1979, since 1980. The Syrian-Iranian strategic alliance has been very, very close for for a long time. And it’s not going to end suddenly because Netanyahu suddenly decides he controls the sovereignty of Syria. Russia and Israel do not control the sovereign decisions of Syria. Israel and Russia have issues they need to deal with, but they can’t dictate to Syria or to Iran what to do.
And this is really one of the things that the Israelis are having trouble getting used to, both with Hezbollah and with Iran, now with the Russians, maybe in the future with other people, is that the Israelis no longer have this overwhelming military dominance that will allow them to do anything they want in the region. They’ve been able to do that against the traditional Arab countries that they fought wars with; the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, for many years. But the equation is changing. Hezbollah, Iran, Russia represent new, different foes with different capabilities. And the Israelis are still figuring out how to adjust to this. The answer, of course, is a negotiated peace agreement where everybody lives in peace. That’s not easy to do. But I still say if the South Africans did it, the Northern Irish did it, in Burma they did it, in Colombia they’re trying to do it. You can solve these tough conflicts with tougher diplomacy.
AARON MATE: Right. But- and going back to my earlier question about what drives the animus towards Iran, I think you just hit on it right there, in terms of because Israel no longer has a monopoly on force, especially because of the proxies that Iran supports, that drives Israel’s strong determination to undermine Iran at every turn that it can, certainly joined by the neocons in Washington towards that goal.
But we’re going to wrap there for Part 1, and in Part 2 we’re going to pick up this discussion in terms of, when it comes to Israel joining with Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration and the UAE, how that dynamic, that alliance, impacts the Palestinians, and what outside powers are trying to impose on Palestinians right now. My guest is Rami Khouri, syndicated columnist, professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.