‘The region is complex, angry, broken, and dysfunctional’

The ‘Magazine’ sits down with Washington-based public policy scholar Aaron David Miller for Part I of his assessment on the Middle East – a focus on Iran.

Aaron David Miller is the vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Aaron David Miller is the vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When I travel to Washington, I always try to find time to speak with Ambassador Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and a former US Middle East negotiator.
Miller has the ear of the administration, as an analyst with particular insight into the American perspective on the Middle East. His image and writings have become ubiquitous to the American public, as he is often seen in The New York Times, CNN, CBS, BBC, The Los Angeles Times and Al Jazeera, among many other media outlets.
Eavesdropping on one of our conversations will hopefully be informative and illuminating for readers.
Part I is about Iran and the greater Middle East; Part II will be about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and internal Israeli issues.
What is your overall assessment of the region?
The region is complex, angry, broken and dysfunctional.
There are no good solutions for any of the problems the US confronts in the Middle East or, for that matter, that Israel confronts.
The question is: Can the outcome be shaped in a way that would be advantageous and productive for US interests? The Israelis will have to make their own decisions based on their own needs and requirements, which many times coincide with American policy.
As the situation in the region gets more dangerous, the US has to figure out what is in its interests. There will be a reluctance on the part of the administration to confront its friends like Israel.
As for the Palestinian national movement, it is divided along the lines of Noah’s ark – two sets of patrons, and two constituencies.
In this kind of environment, with civil wars everywhere and the rise of Islamic State, it is very difficult to create functional, coherent and cohesive nation-states.
The US needs to be pretty sober about what it can achieve and who its friends are, even when those friends come with liabilities.
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said that since signing the interim agreement with Iran, the US negotiating position has been “eroded.” Do you agree?
No. The Joint Plan of Action was a response to a certain reality that neither the US, Iran, nor for that matter Israel, wanted to face. It was essentially a moment of truth if diplomacy won’t work. The default position is some kind of kinetic military action, and no one wants to face up to or be confronted with that reality.
It is not about a good agreement or a bad one; it is about an agreement or no agreement.
We [America] have long given up the hope of a realistic prospect of ending Iran’s capacity to produce a weapon.
We need to constrain, preempt, undermine and delay Iran. The Iranians have not given up the goal of a nuclear weapons capacity.
I don’t think our leverage has been reduced because I don’t think we – nor anyone in the international community, not even the Israelis – are prepared to push this process to the point where it breaks apart, leaving the default position… [pointed] towards confrontation, which would be either a preemptive strike by the Israelis, or a preventive strike of a much greater character by the US.
Whatever agreement is produced, let’s be clear. It should not make anyone, anywhere in the international community sleep easier at night, because they think they have somehow solved or prevented Iran’s acquisitive character.
If I were running Iran, if I were one of the mullahs, I would absolutely want to remain acquisitive – because I know the US wants me, and the regime, out… The Arab states are nothing more than tribes with flags.
[On the other hand,] I [Iran] am a real country, and I have regional aspirations. I had a real revolution, not like this so-called Arab Spring, which fundamentally changed Iranian society and its structure.
If I were the ayatollah, I would say there are only three real consequential countries in the region right now, the three non-Arab countries – Iran, Israel and Turkey, those are the ones to be feared.
All these roads lead to Iran keeping the possibility of a robust nuclear infrastructure alive and well. We gave up the ability to stop an Iranian bomb; the Iranians have not given up.
Do you believe the US made a negotiating mistake in the interim agreement, in allowing Iran to retain the right to enrich uranium in a final deal, and also in agreeing to a sunset deal where all Iranian obligations will expire?
You have to consider what the options were, and must realize this is not an end-state; there is no endgame in which you can reasonably expect Iran to give up its acquisitive capacity for a nuclear infrastructure. They have the capacity; they can, if they want breakout or sneak-out.
The reality is: The only way to stop Iran is to change the nature of the acquisitive regime. You basically have to eliminate the regime, but nobody I know believes this possible… Therefore, if these are in fact the emerging rules of the game, then your only choice is to buy time – which in fact is what everybody is doing on this and on every other issue in this region.
It is not that this nuclear issue is idiosyncratic; you have to understand there are no solutions to any of these problems in the region.
If I would leave the leaders in the US and the West with one thought, it would be that there are no end-states or endgames which we will be comfortable with. There are no endgames to ultimately defeat Islamic State. There is no democratization process that is going to turn the Syrian or Iraqi “Humpty Dumpty” into functional democratic polities with respect for human rights, gender equality, transparency and accountability.
Was the US’s failure to support the Green Revolution a missed opportunity?
You are looking for ways to link our incompetence and lack of judgment to somehow fixing these solution-less problems. In only one area among Democratic and Republican administrations have we truly succeeded: Keeping America attack-free – the one and most important metric that is positive.
That is why, when people look at US President Barack Obama’s strategy on Syria and Iraq, they fundamentally miss the point. He is not interested in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again in Syria and Iraq. He is interested in doing everything possible to prevent another attack against the US, which means spending a lot of time occupying Islamic State, which means additional strikes against them.
I do not believe training Iraqi forces will defeat Islamic State. Islamic State is a response to the regional environment that is out of control and melting down; we don’t want to face up to that fact.
I refuse to shackle the US for its fair share of responsibility for the mess out there. We have not had any sense of strategy in the region since president George H.W. Bush.
This is a Republican failure and a Democratic failure; that’s why it will not change if a “D” or “R” wins in 2016.
We are stuck in a region; we cannot leave it, and we cannot transform it. Therefore, when you cannot extricate and you cannot transform, you do the only thing you can – transaction. You identify what your interests are, you don’t get involved in extraneous enterprises and you focus on what the core issues are to the US.
There are probably three American core issues: 1. Keeping America attack-free.
2. Continuing the North American energy revolution, which frees us from Arab hydrocarbons while weakening OPEC.
3. Preventing game-changers at all costs – and Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would be a game-changer.
Although the best we can do is put time on the clock, you can preempt, you can prevent, but you cannot stop Iran – yet you can buy time and delay.
There are no solutions, there is no end to defeat Islamic State or make Iran stop its nuclear program.
After 25 years of Iranian deception and obfuscation of its nuclear program, do you think it is possible to craft an agreement that Iran will respect, and can be enforced for years to come? Possible, but not likely. If I had to bet on the outcome next spring, I would say there will not be a comprehensive agreement unless some fundamental changes occur in the “mullahocracy.”
The president has indicated that he is offering Iran a return to the family of nations, if it will sign a final agreement. Yet how can America accept Iran as a member of the world community in good standing, while it remains a leading human rights abuser and one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terror?
That ain’t going to happen. A nuclear agreement is not going to fundamentally transform the Washington-Tehran relationship. There will be embassies and “happy talk” between the parties, but there are fundamental differences we have with Iran that are not going away.
The nuclear negotiations are an outcome agreement, not a solution. You need to differentiate between the two.
Outcomes are not transformative, they are transactional.
I have grown comfortable with uncertainty; the problem is governments are driven by politics, and are not comfortable with uncertainty. We [America] are managing as best as we can. We are not succeeding; that would be way to positive.
On balance, the US is doing the best it can based on the hand we have been dealt in the world today.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently tweeted that Israel has “no cure but to be annihilated,” along with nine key questions on “how Israel can be eliminated.” Do you believe Israel’s existential fear of a nuclear Iran is justified, or is the ayatollah’s bark worse than his bite?
I don’t live in Israel; I live in Chevy Chase, Maryland – and Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Rabin reminded me of this fact in the past. I understand I am not an Israeli, I am not sitting in downtown Tel Aviv. Our threat perceptions are different, so I won’t trivialize Israeli concerns or say Iran will never use its nukes. I don’t know.
I do know Israelis in the security establishment for a long time who don’t take Iran destroying Israel seriously, because it “infantilizes” Israel. If you impart to another nation [Iran] the capacity to destroy you, that is a very bad thing, because you then become the object victim.
Jews worry for a living because of their dark past, and their very turbulent present compels them to do so.
If I were an Israeli, would I worry about Iran? Yes, but I would be worried about Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, too.
The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network, a regional research analysis read by US congressmen, their foreign policy advisers, MKs, journalists and organizational leaders.