BY JANAE MARTIN
BOLOGNA — Dr. Sanam Vakil was a research fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, where she worked on the Iran Project from 2004 to 2006. She also served as a consultant to the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Division. In addition to earning her Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, Dr. Vakil has authored the books “Through the Looking Glass: An Analysis of US-Iranian Relations” and “Action and Reaction: Women and Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” She has also written many monographs, book reviews, working papers, and articles that focus on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. Currently, Dr. Vakil is a visiting scholar in Middle East Studies at SAIS Bologna, where she teaches a course called “Twin Pillars of the Gulf: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Their Gulf Neighbors.” In light of the recent meeting between the UK prime minister and the Iranian president (the first since 1979), Dr. Vakil talked with The SAIS Observer about how Iran’s role in containing ISIS affects its relationship with the West and with its fellow countries of the Gulf.
ISIS – You hesitated to call it the IS because that term lends it some legitimacy. Can ISIS emerge as a state? What is its long-term threat in the region?
I don’t think ISIS can develop a sustainable state, and I don’t agree that it is a state yet. Just because you call yourself a state and you have money, it doesn’t make you a state. You have to have a willing and supportive population. Of course, we have a history where countries are created based on conquest and violence, but in 2014, I would hope that that is not a sustainable model for state-building. So I’m pessimistic, or optimistic that ISIS is [not] going to be durable.
ISIS represents not just a radical Middle Eastern ideology. It’s rejectionist of all the state models in the region, and I think that’s what makes it so threatening. Coupled, of course, with its violence. But getting rid of ISIS requires something beyond the United States coming in and bombing, beyond physically removing ISIS from the Middle East. The concept of ISIS means that there needs to be larger scale political change in the Middle East.
You mentioned that this isn’t so much a state that has popular support, that it’s mostly violence and aggression. It’s just interesting that this one group out of all the groups in the Middle East that have come up rather radical and militant has actually been successful in standing their ground against countries that have militaries, that have a longer history of dealing with these types of groups. What makes ISIS so unique?
They’re unique because they’ve taken advantage of a political void, of a vacuum of power, and, growing initially in Syria when there was a civil war, they were able to rally transnational support, not just regional or Syrian support.
They gathered support from across the world to challenge the political establishment in Syria. Then, getting traction from that, they moved into Iraq.
Of course, it’s surprising that the Middle East has not been able to repel ISIS. I think they didn’t see it coming. ISIS has grown because there hasn’t been a unified regional response to the crisis in Syria, to sectarian politics in Iraq, and it’s a reflection on competing spheres of influence.
With Iran and Saudi Arabia?
With Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example. Also, smaller private individuals who thought that ISIS was going to push out Bashar al-Assad. In absence of a strong state government in both of those countries, it’s been underestimated; it’s been allowed to grow; and it’s been helped along by regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, then funded by individuals and in some cases institutions. And this is where we are today.
Iran did try to take advantage of the power vacuum that was left in Iraq. Why did they not have the influence to repel ISIS in Iraq?
I think that Iran dropped the ball in Iraq, definitely. They are very much embarrassed by what has taken place because this was their sphere of influence. This is where they had a foothold. Nouri al-Maliki was their guy, but they were very busy focusing on internal politics, focusing on the nuclear negotiations. That doesn’t mean that they can’t multi-task, but they also underestimated ISIS.
Iran has been trying to leverage its Iraq policy and its Syria policy because they support Bashar al-Assad, and they support the idea of a democratic government in Iraq. A democracy for Iranians means one person, one vote. If there’s a Shia majority in Iraq, that means there’s going to be a Shia democracy in Iraq.
But it doesn’t mean that they haven’t been frustrated with the politics in Iraq. That’s why the Iranians helped push out Nouri al-Maliki and supported Abadi, the new prime minister, and have tried to encourage the inclusion of the Sunni into the political establishment. They realize that sectarian politics is what has exacerbated political tensions in Iran and allowed for ISIS to take advantage, particularly in the north, particularly in Sunni-dominated areas.
The Iranians would also argue that they actually have been the first responders. While the United States was discounting ISIS, the Iranians sent in advisors, have sent in, supposedly, members of its Quds Force because they realize that they do have interests.
The relationship with Saudi Arabia — up until now, it’s been a Cold War between the countries. Now they have a vested interest in uniting against this shared threat?
I can venture a guess that there is going to be some degree of pragmatism that has to center specifically on Syria. They have to come up with a policy, a united front toward Syria. I don’t know if that means that the Iranians are going to support a discreet exit for Bashar al-Assad or if there is going to be more pluralistic government that includes some role for the Syrian opposition (although I don’t see that happening either), but Syria is the locus of reconciliation.
They must come up with some solution for Syria. Otherwise, they can’t have a long-standing reconciliation between them.
It seems like that would require them to also reconcile on their other disputed spheres of influence?
Well, they’ve already helped broker [a] peace agreement in Yemen, which has been on and off for the past three years since 2011. This is important because it provides some representation for the Houthi Shia minority within the political establishment, and that would remove their military threat to stability in Yemen. The Houthis are supposedly backed by the Iranians, and the Saudi Arabians back the traditional government. So this sort of accord, if it’s durable, is maybe a first example of what’s going to come in other countries.
The UK talks with Iran are significant because it seems to demonstrate that the Western powers are willing to play ball with Iran. Is Iran in a different place than it was in terms of resisting a leader who is too close to the West?
Leadership matters, and the leader himself very much matters. Rouhani and his election signifies a change for Iranian politics. It’s not something unheard of because we have in the past Iranian president Khatami try to demonstrate a more moderate tone to the West and build bridges and improve relations. But Rouhani is another example of that. He was elected with the promise of a nuclear deal, removal of sanctions, better relations with the West, better economic life for Iranians, and other issues. It’s very much tied to Rouhani and what Rouhani wants to accomplish for Iran.
But the ultimate decision-maker is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is notoriously suspicious of the West, very much because of his involvement in the revolution. He doesn’t want to have influence reminiscent of pre-revolutionary Iran. Even if we see a nuclear deal between Iran and the countries of the P5+1, it doesn’t mean that there’s going to be this whole-scale rapprochement between Iran and Washington.
It’s different in regard to Europe. Iran definitely has historical tensions with European countries, specifically with the British whom they blame for a whole host of reasons. I think that if there is a signing of a nuclear deal, commercial relations with Great Britain and other European countries will resume immediately. Iranians are just not as suspicious of the Europeans.
Due to the American shale oil boom, the U.S. is projected to become less reliant on Middle Eastern oil, which gives them less incentive to become the stabilizers of the region. This might be something Great Britain might be looking at in the long-term.
I think all of the E.U. — they recently announced that should a nuclear deal take place with Iran, Iran would be a great source of gas for the E.U. because they’re overly dependent on Russia, and they are very much looking to diversify. This is definitely in the cards.
There are many pipelines in the works, but there is a pipeline that would go from Iran to Turkey, and then out. There are some that are already in place that could be used, and there are others that Iran would like to build in order to have a direct connection.
How will this affect relations between Iran and Israel?
From the Israeli perspective, if you’re sitting in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, you’re thinking who are some of the funders of Hamas, our biggest threat. All, or some, of the signs point to Iran, and this sort of adds fodder to Netanyahu’s claims that Iran is the most menacing country.
I’m of a belief that Netanyahu has successfully used the threat of Iran to deflect from Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and he’s created or helped fuel domestic fears of Iran within Israel because Iran is anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, because of its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, Islamic jihad groups that are notoriously against Israel. So he makes these very small links. And instead of just pointing to Hamas or Hezbollah, he’s going for the supporters of these groups that threaten Israel.
ISIS doesn’t threaten Israel. They’re not coming toward Israel… yet. Very astutely they’re not coming toward Israel. Israel would be the best military force to get rid of ISIS.