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Trump wants a new deal with Iran to earn him the Nobel Peace Prize – Middle East scholar

With lots of flashpoints flaring up around the Middle East, there’s always fear that tension today could mean war tomorrow. We talk about this with Joost Hiltermann, MENA program director at the International Crisis Group.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Joost Hiltermann, great to have you on our programme today. Welcome. We’ve lots to talk about. So, let's start with this mess around Iran. After lots of hostilities that were coming from the United States towards the Iran deal on Iran we're now hearing thatthe Americans say: “By the way, we're ready to negotiate without preconditions”. And at this point Iran's leader is saying: “Well, this is just a play on words”. Do you think it's too late? Do you think there will be talks? 

Joost Hiltermann: I'm not going to make predictions in this case because U.S. policy seems to change from day to day. It’s very hard to predict what will happen next. But there’re two things: one is that the U.S. policy is really unclear and we should keep that in mind as we go forward. And I think the Iranian leadership is also very much aware of that, and they are probably, I imagine, hesitant to stake any kind of future on the fact that they cannot predict what the United States will do next. Secondly, there is a real difference within the American administration about how to deal with not only Iran but the world. And that difference is most starkly evident in different approaches of President Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton. President Trump is someone who is more of an isolationist mindset. He does not want to see the use of American troops outside the United States unless absolutely necessary. He was against the Iraq intervention, not at the time but afterward of course. And he has already said that U.S. troops should leave Syria. He has no interest in starting a war with Iran that would involve the deployment of American forces. John Bolton, on the other hand, is someone who is intent on regime change, even though he's trying not to use those words when he talks about Iran. By whatever means, of course he would like regime change to happen internally inside Iran, not with American military force. But when you follow that kind of strategy, it's very difficult to imagine that American troops would not have to be involved. 

SS: But with this nuclear deal thing, this is just standard Trump, isn't it? First confrontation, then you start negotiations. I understand what you're saying about the differences within the White House, but at the end of the day he does what he wants to do. The same happened with North Korea, right? 

JH: Yes. So, I think for Trump, what is important is that he's seen as a dealmaker, even though it's not clear he has ever made any deals in his life? 

SS:But he did: NAFTA, Japan...

JH: OK. So, it was a couple of deals, sort of run-of-the-mill deals... 

SS: ...in the middle of the China trade deal... 

JH: Well, we'll see what happens to that. Maybe it will be a deal but I'm not sure. And the deal of the century on Israel-Palestine, which is not a deal but a plan... we'll have to see what comes out of it. It keeps being postponed. But when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, which was a real deal, what he seems to want is, first of all, to undo the legacy of his predecessor. And, secondly, to be on the world stage, making a deal that would earn him the Nobel Peace Prize or whatever. And to be seen as a dealmaker where he can bring peace. Now if the Iranian leadership will fall for that trap, like what they've seen what happened with North Korea, there is no deal with North Korea. There's just treading water. So, you know, I'd be very skeptical that the Iranian leadership would go for this. 

SS:But can they convince their own people? Because while Trump denounced that deal, that was already negotiated, he wants another one to replace it, like he said. Can the Iranian leadership persuade their own people that Trump is not going to stand them up this time? 

JH: No. Nobody can do that. Because once you have broken one deal why would you not break the next one? And again, President Trump doesn't have a record of sticking to deals anyway, making deals and sticking by them. So, I would just say, the Iranian leadership is probably trying to wait out the situation. First of all, they're waiting to see whether John Bolton will stay in his position because in the end that is President Trump's decision. And secondly, they'll try to see what happens on the American elections. Now, if push comes to shove and they have to take a decision before that, then it becomes interesting. Because then they may, and we'll see what happens when the Japanese Prime Minister goes to Iran. If they agree to talk. 

SS:Another thing is that Trump's scuttling of this nuclear deal actually boosted its opponents because a lot of hardliners are against this compromise thing. So what I'm thinking right now is that maybe they will even overpower Rouhani and proceed the nuclear programme. 

JH: Well, this is definitely what they have threatened. And of course the reasoning behind it is that in order to come to a better deal, that the United States say they want from the Iranian side, you have to raise the stakes. And that means you have to restart your nuclear programme because then you have more on the table as assets in any kind of negotiation. So, that is a very dangerous proposition because, of course, then the other side - the United States, Israel, others - will say: “Well, then we need to attack Iran in order to prevent it from gaining a nuclear weapon”. 

SS:What do you make of these 900 American troops and this whole contingent in the Persian Gulf? I mean, is this just like psychological warfare, or can 900 soldiers actually do something? Or maybe a psychological warfare can turn into a real war? 

JH: Yeah. So, this is exactly it. Of course if you want to put pressure, and the United States talk about exercising maximum pressure on Iran, and it's been showing it's doing that through sanctions and through military projection. If you want, if that's your strategy, then of course doing this kind of thing will add to the pressure. But the end result may be either of two things. That's exactly it. Either the Iranians decide that enough is enough, and they come to the table, or there is some kind of spark. And before it, you're in a dangerous escalatory cycle and a real war. And that's brinkmanship. Can the Americans contain it? I'm not sure. Can the Iranians contain it? I'm not sure.

SS: So, another unclear message was regarding Iran because the State Department has said so many times that Iran's threat is in Syria and it's to be contained. And now we're hearing Iran can do whatever they want in Syria frankly. That's a quote. What is this? What are they trying to do? What do you make of it? 

JH: We are trying to find an answer to this question as well. The policy making in the United States is a total mess. This administration is inconsistent. Repeatedly Mr. Pompeo, the Secretary of State, has been overridden, for example in Libya most recently, openly, blatantly and without any real logic behind it, other than that President Trump decided that certain things had to be done in a certain way, without really having good information about it in the first place. The Syria policy reflects that as well. So, I was in northern Syria not so not so long ago, in March, and speaking with the leadership of the YPG the Kurdish group. And when the decision by President Trump came in December to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, it was suddenly, it was a big panic. Because “what will they do to us? Right ?” - the Kurds were thinking, they were not expecting this. This policy-making is totally, you know, on the fly. 

SS: We're going to come to Kurds.But before that, in Syria, the Syrian government is advancing and is actually about to take the last rebel-held stronghold, and that's fine with the Russians but not so much with the Turks. And not the Russian-Turkish agreement has actually given some sort of stability in the country, but this latest offensive. Do you think it will actually destroy the consensus? 

JH: Well, it could, of course. Whether it will - it’s different, I don't know. But I try not to make predictions in my line of business because I usually get it wrong. But the the current offensive seems to be a limited one until now. And it's also a way of putting pressure effects on Turkey in order to do something about the problem of al-Qaida and its local offshoot in Syria which was the original deal in Sochi. And Turkey has not been able to deliver on it because I don't think anybody can deliver on it. It was in a way an impossible agreement. There is a real problem in Idlib, as these are not just rebels against the government of Bashar al-Assad, but these are the most hardline of hardline people among the rebels. The leftovers who are the most brutal and who are not particularly able or willing to make a deal with anyone, certainly not with the regime. So, Turkey can do what it wants and it has observation points of some military inside Idlib but cannot really deliver the surrender of this group or a deal. It's almost impossible. So, in the end a military offensive is maybe the way to deal with it, but of course for Turkey this is a huge problem because there’s the prospect that a million, two million, who knows how many people will flee toward Turkey including a number of these jihadists. And that is something that Turkey cannot countenance. 

SS:But if President Assad is actually able to take that stronghold, do you think his victory in Idlib would actually end the war? Could this be it?

JH: The war is already coming to an end in some ways. But Idlib certainly would be a turning point, there is no question about it. There is still the northeast, which is not a rebel-held, but held by the Kurdish forces who have had a prior agreement with the regime. But clearly there are also significant differences. But the war is essentially coming to an end. The original driver of the conflict, which was the protests by people locally in Daraa and other places throughout Syria against the regime, - that's over. That war, that conflict, that confrontation which turned into a war has been lost. And Idlib is the last stronghold of the leftovers of this confrontation. But many people in Syria who oppose Bashar al-Assad don't support the rebels in Idlib. 

SS: This war in Syria has been so long and complicated and bloody. Billions of factions fighting each other. And I figure it was very much like in Lebanon. Do you think like a post-war Lebanon scenario could work in Syria where you have power sharing, you have autonomies or this won't fly with Assad? 

JH: Definitely, with Assad it won't fly. He has a sense that he has won with some justification, so why would he give in anything to his enemies who have lost? In Lebanon the situation is quite different. It was a civil war going on with no winners or losers. In Syria the situation is not like that. Of course, power sharing would be much better and a political transition - something that the Americans and the Europeans are still calling for. But realistically, I don't see that. There may be some form of political process. Russia certainly is calling for that. But there is no real pressure for it. And in the end Assad is just going to say: “No”. And who is going to force him? 

SS:We get the sense that ISIS has been defeated in Syria and in Iraq. But yet there are at least a thousand extremists are believed to have crossed the Iraqi border. And we saw the video of the jihadi leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and he appeared in a video, we believe, could be the Iraqi Anbar province.So, is it too early to celebrate the defeat of the ISIS? 

JH: It's not only about the leadership. So, wherever Baghdadi is today never mind. But he probably is somewhere in the desert in Syria or in Iraq, very likely in Iraq. That is not the only problem. Of course, that is a problem because as long as he's the leader he can try to reorganise and to re-mobilise his supporters, and to have a media department, and to do all the things that an organised leadership can do, even if they're on the run and hiding out in the desert. But there's another problem. Again, I was in northern Syria in March. We do work both in Syria and in Iraq. And it's very clear that there are also at a local level a number of ISIS activists, quite active and operational, not highly organised but, all the same, able to carry out attacks, assassinations of local leaders and making the roads unsafe throughout Deir ez-Zor province, and in Kirkuk Province, and elsewhere. It's an endemic problem that is actually predates ISIS and will continue either in new ISIS leadership, or in other forms. 

SS:So, when I look back at this whole ISIS war, ISIS in Iraq has partially reason because of the grievances of the Sunni Iraqis under the Shia-dominated government. What does Baghdad need to do to ensure that Sunnis won't rebel again? 

JH: The answer is very simple and very hard. The simple answer is that they need to rebuild the Sunni areas of Iraq: Mosul, Fallujah and other cities that were utterly destroyed in the fight against ISIS. And they need to have some kind of process of reconciliation within these communities and at a national level as well. And that is not happening because for a number of reasons. One is the following: the Shia Islamists in power in Baghdad are deadly afraid that the Sunnis will come back like under the former regime of Saddam Hussein, or now under ISIS, or some other form. It's a very instinctive fear from having been under the boot of the former regime for so long. So they are very afraid of that.Secondly, they have no love for these people, and they think that by keeping them weak and divided, they can take care of the problem. But of course, these are exactly the conditions that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. So, this could easily come back. And the third problem is the corruption which is really the biggest threat in Iraq today other than the confrontation between the United States and Iran. And the corruption is making it impossible for Baghdad to spend money wisely in Sunni areas for reconstruction. So it's not happening. 

SS:So this whole Sweden proposed international tribunal for ISIS fighters. What do you make of it? Do you think it's workable? 

JH: Well, we've seen tribunals before. They tend to take a lot of time. They're necessary by the way. I do support them but they take a lot of time. I support them if they're independent. We saw the Iraq tribunal took a lot of time but also it wasn't truly independent. And then you have the notion of victors’ justice. The problem in Iraq today is the total absence of due process in the prosecution of the members of ISIS and the suspected members of ISIS including family members. And this is a real problem. People are being summarily executed after a court hearing where no evidence that makes any sense is presented, where you have no contestation. So, in that sense the tribunal is necessary. But whether you can actually organise a tribunal in Iraq today that is a huge question. 

SS: We come to turn to Kurds now because Kurds obviously in this whole defeating the ISIS operation did, probably, the most of the bloodiest hardest work. And now what do we have? We have one of the Syrian cantons that is overrun by the Turks, the other one is actually under threat. In Iraq, the Kurdish back for independence was denounced. Are the Kurds going to benefit at all out of this victory? 

JH: You see, the Kurds have a very long-standing aim 200 years old of having an independent state, which, they think, was denied them after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. But they've been split over four countries. But in each country they have fought their struggle. When the Arab uprisings happened in 2011, the Kurds saw an opportunity because of the vacuum that was created. And then when ISIS appeared on the scene in Syria and then in Iraq, they saw an additional opportunity by fighting on the side of the United States and the Western countries, fighting ISIS to use that military support as a way to build up their case politically and diplomatically for independence. But the problem is that for the United States and others they wanted to fight ISIS and they needed the Kurds to help them. But the United States don't support Kurdish independence. So, this is why the YPG in Syria and the KRG the Kurdish regional government in Iraq have been left basically twisting in the wind when the United States say: “Well, thank you for helping us defeat ISIS but we're not supporting you in your quest to become independent. So, goodbye”. Not goodbye, but not that support the Kurds wanted, and in fact serious setbacks in the case of the Iraqi Kurds when they lost control over the disputed territories including the Kirkuk oilfield. 

SS: I want to talk a little bit about what's going on in the region as a whole and the power balance because there's the rivalry between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. And they can't seem to agree on anything. They can't even agree on when Ramadan starts. And right now we're seeing that Saudi is gathering a bunch of summits seemingly successful in allying other states against Iran. Do you think that Saudi can really create an alliance against Iran in the region? 

JH: Well, they can create a rhetorical alliance against Iran in the region, but not a military one. Because the Saudis don't fight, they have trouble enough keeping duties out of Najran in southern Saudi Arabia. They have an Air Force of course. But even in Yemen they've not been able to deal a decisive blow against Houthi rebels. So, the only potent military force in the Gulf is the United Arab Emirates. They have a strong military and a very good air force, but it's a very small country. Egypt has a big military but doesn't want to get involved in fighting as part of this alliance. Pakistan outside the region doesn't want to get involved in this way except rhetorically. The Israelis are interested in some kind of alliance against Iran because it's the common enemy. At the same time the Israelis have their own agenda and their own way of doing things. And they know that they cannot rely on the Saudis to do any fighting. So what is actually happening is that all of them are looking at the United States to make the decisive move and to deploy also its own military force. But we've already discussed President Trump. And this is not what he is all about. This is contrary to what he believes, and so we are in a strange situation where everybody is making a lot of noise about military action against Iran but nobody in the part of that alliance actually wants to do it. There is no desire for it. So they hope that Iran makes a mistake. And then there's some kind of confrontation. And then the Iranians will be forced to come to the table begging for some kind of solution on American terms. But I think that is dreaming. That's a pipe dream. 

SS: They haven't made any mistakes yet. 

JH: They're very smart so far, but the pressure is rising, and so we have to see. 

SS: No one really understands this whole rhetoric of Iran is the threat to the entire world. I mean I have yet to see a Shiite terrorist. 

JH: No, no, no. I mean, there have been attacks, but  for the United States, to be fair to understand their argument as well, they don't like the fact that Iran is very strong inside Iraq, is also very strong inside Syria, is supporting the Houthi rebels. They see the Iranian footprint throughout the region. Certainly this is also the perception of Israel and of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is not about terrorism, that is about Iran presence in these countries and pushing an agenda that the United States clearly opposes. So it's the confrontation. But there are different ways of dealing with that. The Obama administration had one way. We can criticise and say that the nuclear deal wasn't sufficient. It wasn't sufficient but it was a first step. Now we're back to square one. We have to figure out are we going to confront them militarily or are we going to come to a deal that somehow is a better deal. But why would the Iranians sign on to a deal when they know that the United States may throw it out the next day? 

SS: Because you mentioned Yemen, it's been an ugly war and obviously it's a Saudi-Iran Cold War, that's very hot in Yemen. Saudis are fighting the Houthi rebels and all around the world we hear the calls to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia. And what we see right now is in France, for instance, 50 percent of the arm sales are going up. America and the U.K. are selling arms to the Saudi Arabia. I mean, the leaders of these countries will go overboard, except America, to underline the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. But then yet they would go and sell lucrative deals to Saudi Arabia, no matter what. 

JH: That's called hypocrisy. You know that is a real problem. And of course we,as a conflict prevention organisation, are making this strong points very strongly that it is unconscionable on the one hand to say: “there is a terrible conflict here and look at the humanitarian disaster with people starving and children dying of starvation and disease like cholera”, and at the same time to sell weapons to them. It's very cynical and hypocritical. In any case we need to come to a political solution to this conflict, and there was momentum building. And of course the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was a turning point, or it seemed to be, in the United States Congress at least, when suddenly the pressure mounted on the Trump administration to take a different approach. And it was, and it led to an agreement in Sweden that is still in the process of being implemented. But it's going very slowly. It's the only thing we've got at the moment. If that falls apart and we are again also in Yemen back to square one. And that would be terrible, because then the war will continue for a longer time with all the humanitarian consequences that we have seen. 

SS:Ok, Joost Hiltermann, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much. 

JH: My pleasure. 

SS: Have a nice rest of your stay in Moscow .

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