QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FOR THE WEEKLY GULAN MAGAZINE
Struan Stevenson interview
- What has changed in international relations since Mr. Biden’s Administration assumed power, given that his Administration has reiterated its commitments to multilateralism? And do you see an emerging Biden Doctrine with regard to foreign affairs?
Initially, the international community and in particular the EU, heaved a sigh of relief when Joe Biden won the US presidential elections. They perceived the Biden administration as a ‘breath of fresh air’ following the roller-coaster years of President Trump. The chaos in Afghanistan and the escalation of Covid 19 cases in America has led to a sharp revision of those opinions. Many are now questioning President Biden’s ability and judgement and believe his rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan was a grave error that will provide the Islamic jihadis with a base from which they will, once again, mount terror attacks on neighboring countries and on the West.
- What is your overall evaluation of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy regarding the Middle East?
Following the Americans’ disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, international observers must be shaking their heads in bewilderment at the floundering attempts by the US and EU to restore the moribund nuclear deal with Iran. Surely the West has learned a harsh lesson in foreign policy failure after the chaotic, deadly scenes in Kabul? Surely, they do not wish to repeat that failure with the restoration of the Iranian nuclear deal. President Biden’s determination to restore the JCPOA would be a big mistake. It would strengthen the resolve and repression of the Iranian regime, who are already bolstered by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. Biden’s Middle East policy is a shambles and needs to be comprehensively revised.
- As you know there is an enormous trust deficit between the US and Iran, but it seems like Mr. Biden’s administration is willing if not saying determined to resume negotiations with Iran, so what are the prerequisites for taking confidence building measures between these two rival countries, at least for revitalizing the nuclear deal?
The nuclear deal was a grave error from day one. It forbade inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from inspecting any sites controlled by the military inside Iran. Virtually all the theocratic regime’s secret nuclear program was being developed in military sites, so the deal was fatally flawed. Page after page of the JCPOA read like a telephone directory, listing names of Iranian companies and individuals from whom all sanctions were to be lifted, including business and industries like banking, insurance, metals, aviation, shipping, arms and general trade markets, even covering the re-opening of Iran’s right to sell carpets and caviar to the West. Ludicrously, Obama’s deal even ordered the West to end its “exclusion of Iranian citizens from higher education coursework related to careers in nuclear science, nuclear engineering or the energy sector.” In other words, Western universities would be encouraged to train Iranians in advanced nuclear technology to ensure that they were properly equipped to build a nuclear bomb! Donald Trump denounced the deal even before he became president and withdrew America from the JCPOA unilaterally in May 2018. Trump was 100% right on the JCPOA and Biden is 100% wrong if he tries to restore it in any shape or form.
- How do you characterize the European Union’s policy towards this region? And in your opinion what could and should this Union have done differently about the challenges and dilemmas of this region?
The EU has lamely followed President Biden’s attempt to restore the JCPOA. During the Trump administration the EU repeatedly tried to reassure the Iranian regime that they were striving to resurrect the nuclear deal, despite Trump’s tough ‘maximum pressure campaign’ of sanctions. The EU and its then top diplomat Federica Mogherini, went into meltdown at the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, repeatedly assuring the mullahs that they supported the deal and were doing everything possible to navigate their way around Trump’s US sanctions. Mogherini visited Tehran, wore the headscarf in simpering acquiescence to the mullahs’ misogyny and even posed for selfies with turbaned members of the Iranian parliament. When Mogherini was replaced by Josep Borrell, the socialist former foreign minister of Spain, things got even worse. Borrell’s first visit in his new role as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security was to Tehran, where he pledged to restore the nuclear deal. When an accredited Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was arrested and charged with terrorist offences in Europe, Borrell said nothing. When Assadi was sentenced to 20 years jail for handing a fully primed bomb to his co-conspirators and instructing them to detonate it at a mass Iranian opposition rally in Paris, attended by leading international US and EU political figures, including myself, Borrell again said nothing.
Borrell even sent his deputy, Enrique Mora, to Tehran to attend the inauguration as president on 5th August of Ebrahim Raisi, the so-called ‘Butcher of Tehran’, notorious for his involvement in the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners. The inauguration ceremony took place less than a week after a British and a Romanian national were killed in an Iranian drone strike on an Israel-operated oil tanker in the Arabian sea, after which Borrell again made no comment. The EU’s repeated attempts at appeasement of this repressive regime are a waste of time and a failure.
- Do you see any prospect for a Sustained, Strategic U.S.-Iraq Partnership after the Joint Statement on the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue?
I am deeply concerned that following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden may also withdraw totally from Iraq. We witnessed the rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq in 2014, when the apparently well-armed and trained Iraqi military, armed and trained by the US, simply abandoned their weapons and fled in the face of a relatively small force of ISIS militants, who then captured around 40% of Iraqi territory. The similar collapse of the US-trained and armed Afghan military will have emboldened the jihadis to try again in Iraq, if the Americans withdraw. President Macron of France has pledged that French troops will remain in Iraq even if the US pull out, but that would not be enough. The US must not allow Iraq to be the next Afghanistan. They must remain.
- Undeniably the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most intractable in the Middle East, and all efforts and initiatives to resolve it have resulted in failure and frustration, so how do you foresee the future of this conflict?
The Iranian regime believes that the development of a nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles capable of targeting Tel Aviv, will be the only way for them to secure their hegemony over the Middle East. They will stop at nothing to develop a nuclear weapon in their efforts to dominate the zone. They have already almost taken over neighboring Iraq and Tehran currently finances and arms Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, Bashir al-Assad in Syria and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Islamic fundamentalist extremists, both Shi’ite and Sunni, although deadly enemies, now regard Tehran as the epicentre of their campaign to create an international Caliphate and to destroy Israel. The Israelis, as a nuclear power, will never allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and the situation therefore remains critical. Regime change in Iran would be the first major step in restoring peace, stability and normality in the Middle East and would provide a window of opportunity for diplomacy over the Israeli-Palestine conflict to work.
- It has been more than one year since the normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab countries, so how transformative have these accords been and do you believe they will be sustainable?
These accords demonstrate how diplomacy, given a chance, can work and are sustainable for the long-term if the aggressive and expansionist threat of the Iranian regime is removed.
- How do you evaluate Mr. Biden's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the subsequent rapid and dramatic deterioration of the security situation in that country?
The Taliban takeover has intensified overlapping humanitarian crises in Afghanistan. Food prices are skyrocketing. Banks are shut, depriving the Afghan people of access to cash. Salaries for public-sector employees are not being paid, as confusion and political paralysis grip the country. And all of this has taken place as the Covid 19 pandemic rages across Afghanistan. When the Taliban seized control, the international aid that drove a large portion of the Afghan economy was shut off. The World Bank has frozen its aid to Afghanistan, citing its concerns over the country’s development prospects, especially for women, under Taliban rule. The US withdrawal has been an unmitigated disaster, creating a safe-haven for jihadi terrorists and an enormous refugee and humanitarian crisis. None of this needed to happen.
- With the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, some U.S. defense officials voiced concern that the country will allow Al Qaeda to rebuild and regroup, so what worries you most in this regard?
ISIS have already shown their contempt for the Taliban takeover and control of Afghanistan by their horrific suicide and bomb attack on Kabul Airport, killing hundreds, including 13 American soldiers. The Taliban victory has clearly emboldened jihadi terrorist groups worldwide and will certainly encourage a resurgence of Al Qaeda.
- Some have characterized the US war in Afghanistan as unwinnable, but can we safely say that Afghan war is over, or the US will be forced to re-engage one way or another in that country?
There is one remaining province in Afghanistan where the Taliban have, so far, failed to take control. The remote region of Panjshir province is now the main focus of a guerilla war against the Taliban, led by the son of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud who managed to hold Soviet forces at bay even when they occupied Kabul and controlled most of the country. His son, Ahmad Massoud, has vowed to fight the Taliban and this may escalate into a wider conflict that could spark a civil war and draw the Americans back in, perhaps under a future US president.