Iranian inconsistency in Geneva? No, just a recalculation.

Todays media question:

Q :How do you view the incosisitant attaitude of Rouhani? Does it mean that Rouhani is actually nothing different with Ahmadinejad?

Rouhani’s “inconsistent attitude” isn’t at all inconsistent, but rather a factor of domestic negotiation in Iran, regional relations and a product of diplomacy at Geneva.  To put it into context, internally Rouhani needs to have the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khameni and it is clear that he is undecided because he wants to make sure Iran keeps control of its nuclear cycle.  Iran does now seem willing to get around the table at Geneva, however, because international sanctions are biting hard domestically.  Under Rouhani, we have a situation where a new leadership is willing to talk and they are trying to solve their sanctions problem.  In that sense, Rouhani is different to Ahmadinejad; he is weighing up the problem differently and understanding the context Iran is operating differently.  This is very important, and why we have  a moderate success in Geneva – the US and Iran are now talking, which is fundamental to solving this problem.  This hasn’t happened in over 30 years. So fundamentally, Rouhani isn’t any less realpolitik than Ahmadinejad, but he is seeing the problem differently and acting to try and solve it in accordance with how he is viewing the situation.  
This is why we see Iran’s redlines, which are seeking to maintain a nuclear threshold.  Iran is not willing to abandon its nuclear programme entirely, but rather lower enrichment levels from 20% to around 4%.  This is not a complete abandonment, but rather an adjustment of speed and scope that keeps Iran a minimal level of threshold capability.  This would keep the region safer, but would not entirely diminish the threat of a nuclear region in the future.  Israel has the bomb, so maintaining this threshold capability is seen as important to Iranian security.  The Geneva talks do however demonstrate movement on the issue, a willingness to negotiate, and a climb down by Iran.
So what are the dangers here?  We need to move the talks forward as a nuclear Iran will make the region and the globe more unstable.  If Iran fully develops nuclear weapons (we don’t know when in the future as this is contested by intelligence agencies) then it will start a nuclear arms race that will get out of control.  Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey at the very least will want to develop domestic nuclear weapons systems.  This will shatter the NPT, which is a very dangerous precedent and undermines all the efforts that have been in place to create a WMD free zone. It would also make a mockery of all the international non-proliferation policies in place.  At the same time, there is talk by some that Israel would be more inclined to move to a pre-emptive strike doctrine, which could be a source of future nuclear war in the region.  I disagree with this analysis.  I think we would move towards a more likely situation of low-level conflict under a nuclear umbrella (which reflected how things played out in India and Pakistan in the 1999 Kargil Crisis) and the acceleration of a regional cold war.

Egyptian Democracy and US Foreign Policy

Secretary Kerry’s recent trip to the region has refreshed the internal debate in Washington DC — this is a debate which is as confused as it is confusing.  It is a rehash of the classic debate between democracy versus stability and security.   What’s clear is that, in Washington circles, the operating premise since the Arab Spring has been that — we are not going to return to a period of stability any time soon, and the idea that Egypt will transition to a democracy is problematic.  Moreover, the notion that Egypt will move towards a democracy in a linear fashion is, to all effective purposes, dead (it should be said that very few in Washington circles held this belief in the first place; we shouldn’t confuse hopes and beliefs).

The feeling in Washington is that we are going through transitional iterations, from SCAF, to the Muslim Brotherhood and now the Sisi period.  In this sense we have been witnessing transition”s” in Egypt that have taken the shape of revolutions, counter-revolutions and Coups.  Within such a context, the day to day operations of the US towards Egypt, is to help this current transition move towards a more democratic outcome.  That is to say, US policy officially and unofficially is to try and influence Egypt’s transitional move in a more democratic direction as other interests are secured.  But the talk is of a period of “transition (to somewhere unknown)”, and not a “democratic transition” overall.

In spite of Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly at the end of September, which clearly downgraded the importance of democracy promotion to a secondary interest, there is still talk of democracy promotion being one of many interests in the region.  Indeed, top US officials still argue that Secretary Kerry and his counter part Secretary Hegel continue to argue for democracy behind the scenes.  This is why the US is tying its hopes to the roadmap process, and felt the need to at least censure the Egyptian’s by cutting aid in early October.  But ultimately in the short-term, democracy promotion is seen as a means to greater security (a democratic peace), that is to be balanced with counter-terrorism cooperation more broadly, growing threats of terrorism in Sini (which is becoming more professionalised and better resourced as weapons move from Libya), interests in proliferation cooperation, and the maintenance of security cooperation with regards to the security of Israel.

So where are we now?  Ultimately, the US is facing an increasingly uphill set of challenges because of the chaining geopolitical and geo-strategic landscape of Egypt.

1) It is clear that issues of sequencing for Democracy have reared their head.

2) How to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist parties more generally has also become an issue complicated by Egyptian definitions of “counter-terrorism”.

3) Interventions from the Gulf states attempting to see the irradiation of the Muslim Brotherhood is also a new complication, along with the manner in which their economic support is delaying Egypt coming to terms with dealing with serious structural economic problems.  Indeed, Egypt now lives in a state of “just in time financing” that makes reserve adequacy measures meaningless … the economic crisis is coming, but predicting this is now something for soothsayers. Understanding how Egypt’s “muddle through economics” is going to play out is of immediate interest to all — is this going to be more like a Turkish or Pakistani transition.

4) It is clear that the Egyptian military does not have a holistic blueprint for the country, and the committee of 50 is not acting in the manner first envisaged. The military are seeing themselves as protectors of the Egyptian state, but they lack an overall strategic vision.  This in and of itself is an opening for the potential for democracy somewhere long down the road, but right now denies external partners a platform for negotiations.  The military is looking inwardly looking for security, stability and control, with a direction in mind.

5) Just as we are having trouble engaging from above, it is clear that we are having trouble engaging from below.  The Arab Spring has taught us valuable lessons about the nature of social mobilisation in the modern age, that as yet policy and its surrounding apparatus is having difficulty engaging with.  This tells us that we need a “deeper” level of engagement with these societies if we are to truly influence the debate about democracy and understand the hopes and desires of the Egyptian people.

6) There is clearly a need to get to grips with the causes of the 2011 revolution, including Egypt’s demographic troubles.  This speaks to a broader human security problem, where food and water security, economic security, political security etc. are dealt with and considered in this debate. The Egyptian military are going to look for “consensual politics” rather than “contesting politics”, which means that establishing these levels of human security is as much of interest to them as they should be to the US.  This is a point of cooperation, but the US needs to have its eye on democratic transitions if it is to support this route of action — in particular with regard to NGO laws that help provide a litmus test for the US and Egyptian commitments.

All in, there is no magic bullet to Egyptian Democracy, but what is clear is that the new debate in Washington is stuck around many of the same problems, and more, that it was before the Arab Spring.  What’s different is the growing instability in the region and the pace of change.  This tells us, that ultimately, maybe the tools and our thinking around this issue need to keep pace and be bolder.  We need a paradigm shift in how we engage the region that is fit for the 21st Century and not stuck around the policies of the past.

Media Q&A on US-MENA Relations and Kerry’s Tour

1. How would you define America’s current position in the Middle East?

At the heart of the US – Middle East relations is a security versus democracy problem.  This problem is caused by a “conflict of interests”. In the short to medium terms the US requires stability to secure the free flow of oil and gas into the world energy market, the movement and protection of military and commercial traffic through the Suez Canal, commercial business contracts, the security of regional allies such as Israel, and cooperation on military, intelligence, counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation issues.  At the same time, the virtues of promoting democracy in the region are at least at the rhetorical level well espoused.  Not only is promoting democracy seen as an extension of US values, but also as a contribution to a wider democratic peace that many believe will deliver greater international security, peace and prosperity.  Immediate security concerns draw the US towards requiring cooperation and stability, whilst promoting democracy creates direct confrontations, stymies cooperation and can create instability.  The conflict of interests problem stood as the fundamental problem faced by policymakers before the Arab Awakening, and this remains the case even as a much more fluid and complex policy-context has emerged.  It is little wonder, therefore, that the US  have ineffectively ebbed backwards and forwards in their democracy promotion strategies even as wide spread populist movements have generated new levels of instability that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean through the Arabian Sea. Given this context, the current US position is to act as a bystander in events and revert towards favouring its core strategic interests in the region.  President Obama made this clear in his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, and this was followed up by Susan Rice arguing that the administration wanted a less involved policy in the Middle East as it “pivots” to Asia.  Rice’s policy review, which was conducted almost exclusively by the White House, tells us that the current administration is putting a high value on restoring its relationships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel as it sees these countries as a fundamental part of its security strategy in the region.  The problem is that this may well be because the current administration is struggling to come to terms with the changing Middle East and the manner in which the geo-political and geo-strategic landscape is changing.  The current administration is trying to be pragmatic, but failing to really grasp how the region is changing.

2.And how effective do you think Kerry’s mideast trip will be?

Kerry’s trip around the Middle East will be effective at helping to provide some reassurance to allies, as the Secretary of State is effectively telling them that the United States wants to get back to business as usual, and will not push hard for political reforms in the region.  The trip is really about reassurance and damage control.  However, its long term effects will be minimal as events are outpacing policy.  This is often the case in foreign policy, but the way in which the Arab Spring is fundamentally chaining the region means that there are bound to be more crises rearing their heads.  This is at a time when this administration lacks a clear strategic vision and needs to think bigger, be bolder and get to grips with how the region is changing.


This is a busy week for the Middle East, with some important milestones.  We have already seen that Secretary Kerry is attempting to close the rift between Washington and Cairo, on the eve of the Morsi trial.  But hopefully there will be some movement on Syria on Tuesday, followed by movement on Iran on Wednesday.  Geneva is becoming a very busy place since the onset of the Arab Spring.  Thursday sees a continuation of Kerry’s tour, which by now it is clear should be called “the security and stability” tour.


Morsi faces judiciary
Islamists were planning huge protests at the scheduled start in Cairo of the trial of Egypt’s ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, on charges of inciting the murder of protesters. About 20,000 police officers and soldiers will stand guard.  — The trail has now been adjourned until January 2014.


Meeting on Syria 
US and Russian officials are to meet international special representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva, as part of efforts to prepare the way for a full Syria peace conference later in November.


Iran nuclear talks
Tehran and the six major powers return to Geneva for detailed negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme following last month’s discussions, which both sides called “positive”.


Kerry visits Maghreb 
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, is to visit Algeria and Morocco as part of a tour of the region, continuing a strategic dialogue with a focus on security and counterterrorism, economics and civil society.