A Conversation with Ambassador Chas Freeman – “An Interesting Moment”

Published: March 22, 2010

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Editor’s Note:

“Something new” and “significant” is how Ambassador Charles Freeman, Jr., described some of the recent developments in the Middle East affecting the United States and its relationships in the region. In our exclusive interview with Freeman, a distinguished career diplomat who served in America’s Foreign Service during Desert Storm as U.S.Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former President of the Middle East Policy Council, we asked about the critical issues including US-Saudi cooperation in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, high level U.S. officials’ visits to the Kingdom, relations with China including questions about its position on UN sanctions, American credibility in the region and the fallout in the Middle East from American-Israeli discord over continuing construction of settlements in occupied territories and the peace process impasse.

In reviewing the last of those items, the Obama Administration’s condemnation of continued settlement building, we were reminded of our previous exclusive interview with Ambassador Freeman in July 2009 when we talked about Saudi rejection of an American request for “reciprocal gestures” to earn an Israeli settlement freeze.  [“Gestures and Illusions: Assessing Obama’s Riyadh Visit – A Conversation with Amb. Chas Freeman“]  At the time he said, “None of the gestures that have been made, including the very important one of the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration of 2002 — the so-called Arab Peace Initiative — has resulted in any positive response from the Israelis. They have been content to pocket whatever has been offered and to do nothing in return.” He added, “The matter at issue is much less than Israel pulling settlements out of the Occupied Territories. The United States is now simply asking Israel to stop their expansion. While that would be a very useful first step in getting back into a dialogue or process that could lead to peace, in itself it doesn’t produce peace. It doesn’t undo the damage that Israel has done to the prospects for peace by building settlements all over the place.” Freeman noted, “The biggest point of delusion, if you will, on the American side is that somehow or other if Israel could be persuaded to stop doing the self-destructive things that it has been doing – among them settlement building — that this should evoke an Arab, particularly a Saudi, gesture intended to make it worth Israel’s while. This is simply not reasonable from the perspective of the Arabs.. ..I would say the Netanyahu government has not just zero credibility on this in the region and more broadly in the international community, but it has actually less than zero credibility. That’s because almost everybody believes it is acting insincerely and in a deceptive fashion. So in this context to ask the Arabs to do something for Israel just seems quite unrealistic.”

We are pleased to offer Ambassador Freeman’s insights and perspectives on these issues to you for your consideration and thank him for sharing them here.

The United States, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and Israel – “An Interesting Moment”

A Conversation with Ambassador Chas Freeman

SUSRIS: Thank you for your time and insights on developments in the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the current challenges in the Middle East. Let’s start with the approaches being taken by Washington and Riyadh in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. There have been a number of high level visits recently by American officials to Riyadh including Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates. Can you talk about the U.S. and Saudi Arabian approaches on the this issue?

Ambassador Charles Freeman: There is a disconnect, not so much a contradiction as a disconnect, between the Americans’ concern and the Saudis’ concern about Iran. The United States has been very much stimulated by and fed by Israeli apprehensions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, if it indeed has one, as I tend to think it does.

The Saudi concern is more about Iranian political inroads into the Arab East, the Mashriq, in particular its dominant political role in Iraq, its alliance with Syria, the ascendancy of its ally Hezbollah in Lebanese politics and the embrace of Iran by Hamas. The Saudis tend to see the nuclear weapons issue as yet another building block in Iranian prestige and potential influence throughout the region. All of this comes at a time when Baghdad has been flattened, Cairo is obsessed with its own domestic issues of succession and the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing strength, and Damascus is largely sidelined. Riyadh is the only significant Arab player on security issues in the Mashriq vis a vis Iran. So we start from somewhat different concerns, ours being military, theirs being political.

Meanwhile there is an interesting development with the American military expressing concern about the impact of the Israel-Palestine conflict on U.S. interests, that is similar to longstanding Saudi views. That conflict is the main force radicalizing politics in the region and the view coming forward from the military is that the Israel-Palestine issue harms U.S. interests and thus threatens the lives of our troops. This is close to the Saudi view that the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict offers a predatory power like Iran too many opportunities to extend its influence.

General Petraeus, the CENTCOM Commander, is now saying, in effect, that he sees the merits in what the Saudis and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, in particular, have been saying for a very long time. That is, the path to dealing effectively with challenges like those posed by Iran begins with a focus on resolving the Israel-Palestine issue. So that is something new and it is something that I think is quite significant.

SUSRIS: Are you referring to Mark Perry’s report on FP.com last week that discussed the American military’s heightened concern about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being a major source of radicalism in the region and possibly contributing to the loss of American military personnel?

Freeman: There was also General Petraeus’ testimony on the Hill. Those statements are among the arguments Prince Saud and others in Saudi Arabia have been making for years and they have now found official acknowledgement, if not perhaps full endorsement, in the United States. That is new.

No one who has seriously looked at the difficulties that the U.S. confronts in the Arab and Muslim worlds does not understand the connection to this central issue of injustice and humiliation of Muslims at the hands of a Western sponsored country in the region.

SUSRIS: A day after his recent meeting with Saudi leaders Secretary Gates mentioned in public that the discussion included the possibility of Riyadh’s aid to get China onboard UN sanctions against Iran. The Saudis disputed his account. What is your impression of the state of play among the U.S., Saudi Arabia and China in dealing with Iran? What can we expect to see develop as a result of these consultations and the respective interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?

Freeman: I’m not holding my breath for much of a result. Again there are very different perspectives. In the case of the denial, I fear that that as all so often is the case, American visitors to Riyadh may not have correctly parsed what the Saudis had to say. They may have come away having heard what they wanted to hear rather than the very nuanced statements that the Saudis typically make. The Saudis are exquisitely polite — to a fault — and by and large not prone to blunt disagreement with visitors. I suspect there may have been some honest confusion, for which there is ample precedent, for the different accounts as to what happened.

With respect to China, from the Saudi perspective, there are a number of relevant factors. First, there has apparently been a request for the Saudis to displace Iran as a supplier of oil to the Chinese. That is, that they make up, or offer to make up, to the Chinese oil supplies that they would lose as a result of joining an international effort to isolate Iran and cut it off from international trade through sanctions.

The first problem with that proposition is the OPEC context. Saudi Arabia would be in a very difficult position if it were to unilaterally assert it could displace the market of another OPEC member without concern for the overall quota. In fact Saudi Arabia has been vigorously attempting to persuade other countries to return to compliance with the quotas. For the Saudis themselves to suddenly set aside the whole OPEC context and act unilaterally would be difficult and would also be out of character.

The second issue is the notion that sanctions could bring about a major policy change in Iran – sufficient to derail nuclear ambitions. That is highly questionable. Certainly the Chinese don’t believe that it could. The Saudis believe if sanctions could be effective that would take a very long time. In the meantime Iran would continue the inroads that it has been making with Arab peopleS around Saudi Arabia, including other countries on the Arabian Peninsula. So from the Saudi perspective a slow roll approach to Iran represented by sanctions isn’t going to accomplish much and isn’t responsive to the problem. That is why Prince Saud Al Faisal continually refers to the need to address the Israel-Palestine issue as the one area where you could get an immediate sea change in the political basis for dealing with Iran.

China for its part, one must recall, has a long history of being subject to sanctions, and not just any sanctions. They were UN sponsored, U.S. enforced. They were global and comprehensive. They were directed at regime change in China and they were part of the containment strategy that was intended to hold China down. It didn’t produce regime change. It did produce a hardening, not a softening of Chinese policy. Ironically it wasn’t until those sanctions were removed that China began to change in positive ways and to become part of the Western originated world order, which it now is.

So the Chinese have a view of sanctions, based on their own experience, which is very negative. They also don’t like the philosophy that sanctions represent: a coercive diplomacy, by very large powers, in this case the United States, against smaller and weaker powers, that is Iran. Again, their own experience with coercive diplomacy at our hands probably informs this view. But they don’t relish the prospect of a world order where the strong bully the weak, as they see it, through sanctions or by any other means.

There is also the general question of Chinese policy in the Middle East, which has several elements. One of them is to develop stable trading relationships that provide a reliable flow of energy to China’s growing economy. Iran is very much a part of that with about 15% of China’s oil imports coming from Iran at present. Why in the broader sense would China see it in its interest to agree to narrow the sources of supply by excluding any country from those willing to export oil to it? So there is that rather selfish but understandable national interest as well.

Finally, there is the Chinese policy in the Middle East of avoiding involvement in other people’s fights and in not taking sides. China has good relations with Israel and it has good relations with the Arab countries. It has good relations with Iran and it doesn’t want to get into the middle of battles – in which its stake is not clear – where the possible fallout, the consequences for China, could be rather large.

For Saudi Arabia there is a desire to be part of the emerging Chinese network of relations, to have a stable relationship with it and to retain and develop China as a major market for downstream oil industry activities. China, along with India, is the market of the future, where major growth in energy consumption is likely in coming decades. Even if the Saudis felt they could exert pressure on China they would be very disinclined to do so, especially to achieve something they have their own doubts can be achieved by sanctions.

SUSRIS: If tougher sanctions are not put in place or prove not effective in altering Tehran’s behavior that raises the issue of a preemptive military strike against Iran, either by the United States or by Israel, which some believe may act without American approval. What are your views about a military response?

Freeman: The premise there is that the United States is powerless to influence or control the actions of a country, in this case Israel, that it heavily subsidizes and whose weapons mostly come from it rather than from within their own production capabilities. So we start off by saying the United States is powerless in this case.

It isn’t a very appealing argument for sanctions that the alternative is a strike by Israel on Iran. To begin with it’s not very credible. I don’t think others would find that Israel would act in such a way because the only motivation to do so would be to draw in the United States. They would hope to provoke Iran into doing something against the United States that would require the United States to attack Iran.

An Israeli attack on Iran, or even worse an American attack, would have dire consequences for many U.S. interests. They are so dire the Chinese would have to believe that we were completely insane to seriously contemplate them and they don’t believe we’re insane. What are the consequences? Let me outline just some of them.

First, Iran would almost certainly act against the smaller Gulf states in the region, perhaps attempting to overthrow the governments of Qatar – where the U.S. has use of an airbase from which we control the airwars in both Iraq and Afghanistan; and Bahrain where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is headquartered.

They would probably act on the ground through proxies in Iraq and possibly Kuwait as has been suggested. They certainly have the capacity to carry out major disruptions in the UAE if it supported, or was complicit in any way in a U.S. attack on them. Similarly they could do grave damage in Oman.

It is very likely, under these circumstances, that we would lose the use of those air and naval bases thereby greatly impeding if not rendering impossible the ability to conduct operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there is the question of whether the Saudis would continue to permit U.S. overflight of the Kingdom in connection with a U.S. war on Iran. That would make them complicit and would justify Iranian countermeasures against them. Nobody in the region wants this.

Just look at the military logistical issues involved. If you couldn’t get to Iraq over Saudi Arabia and through the smaller Gulf emirates you would be supporting US forces either through Turkey – which is not likely to be supportive in this context either – or from Diego Garcia, which given the distance involved is essentially impossible. You are looking at a replay of the retreat of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand. This time it would be 50,000 American troops and extracting forces from Iraq would be a very nasty task in the midst of combat with Iran.

In Afghanistan the air war and other military operations depend on, respectively, aerial refueling support staged out of the Gulf and ON truck transport through Pakistan, which comes in through Pakistani ports. If the U.S. attacked Iran the Pakistani public would be outraged. The government in Islamabad, given its association with us, might not survive. Even if it did survive we’d be hard pressed to continue supplying our forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan.

Without the support from the Gulf airbases we would be dependent on a route across Russia, and what would the Russian attitude be toward a unilateral attack on Iran? Would they take the opportunity to advance their interests in the broader Islamic world at our expense? These are just a few of many of the downsides of a military operation against Iran.

SUSRIS: You suggested that Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon would be viewed by Riyadh as one more building block in Iranian influence and prestige in the region. If Tehran cannot be prevented from becoming a nuclear weapon state what would Saudi Arabia’s reaction be in your opinion?

Freeman: Saudi Arabia has lived for over four decades with an Israeli nuclear arsenal. In many ways it’s far more menacing to Arabs than the arsenal the Iranians might eventually develop. I believe Iran probably does have a weapons program, because everything they are doing seems to me to parallel steps taken by David Ben Gurion and other Israeli leaders at a comparable stage in their clandestine program. The Iranians probably read the Israeli playbook. I give a lot of credence to the Israeli judgment that Iran has a nuclear program. The Israelis see that in Iran’s reenactment of Israel’s own evasion of non-proliferation controls.

So I believe Iran is in the process of developing nuclear weapons. I am very pessimistic that it can be prevented from doing so and I think the Saudis and others will have to learn to live with that as they have done in the case of the Israeli nuclear arsenal. There is no doubt that THIS will make life less secure for the Saudis. They could, in the circumstance where Iran gets a nuclear weapon, turn to Pakistan for a nuclear umbrella either in the form of a commitment or in the form of a nuclear garrison on Saudi soil. It would replicate U.S. nuclear deployments in South Korea and Germany during the Cold War.

So I think the Saudis would not be unconcerned but they have already been living in the shadow of a nuclear-armed enemy. They know how to cope with this.

SUSRIS: Let’s talk about America’s standing in the region. The positive reaction to President Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world seems to have disappeared, largely as a result of America’s failure to energize the peace process primarily through achieving a settlement freeze in the Occupied Territories. Israel’s announcement of more construction in East Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s visit led to American condemnation of Israel over the settlements and a straining of that relationship, characterized by Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. as at the lowest point in 35 years. How are these developments likely to be viewed by America’s Arab allies?

Freeman: The current confrontation with the Netanyahu government over settlements comes in the context that hopes raised in the Obama Cairo speech have long since evaporated and the United States has no credibility to speak of on this issue. It’s too early to say whether the Administration is in fact serious about pressing for a two-state solution. Let’s not be misled. This is not about the timing of an announcement by the Shas Party component in the Netanyahu Cabinet. It’s not about — at least from an American perspective, as opposed to a perspective of Israeli voters — whether Netanyahu controls his Cabinet effectively. It’s about whether the process of annexing Arab land and colonizing it – in areas that under international law do not belong to Israel and where such activities are expressly forbidden – is going to continue. Ultimately it’s about whether the two-state solution, which is almost impossible to imagine now, becomes completely impossible to imagine because it has become physically impossible to implement. That’s what it’s about.

Most people in the region understand this very well. Perhaps it raises some hope of a willingness on the part of the Obama Administration to speak out against settlement building. I would note the Quartet has appeared to have done the same in its Moscow meeting and has demanded a freeze on settlements in Jerusalem. However, it does not do more than raise a glimmer of hope. It does not restore credibility. That can only come when there is actual progress. At this point nobody wants a peace process; they want peace. They’re not going to be swayed or assuaged, nor will they be persuaded that the United States is serious until there are results. The prospects at this point are very uncertain to say the least.

President Obama’s speech at Cairo demonstrated conclusively that he understands the centrality of the Israel-Palestine dispute to the difficulties we have in dealing with the Arab world and the Islamic world more generally. That is, it is that dispute which radicalizes Muslim populations throughout the world, but particularly in the Arab core of Islam. It is that dispute which makes it difficult, as General Petraeus has just said, for governments to cooperate with the United States or for populations in the Arab world to support such cooperation. Finally there is the radicalization and antipathy to the United States that ultimately generates a threat to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, throughout the theater of operations that General Petraeus commands.

The President clearly understands this and General Petraeus cannot be saying anything that Mr. Obama did not understand long before. There can be no doubt about his understanding and his sincerity but at this point there is virtually no confidence in his ability to deliver.

As I have said, I believe Israel’s concerns about Iran are real. I don’t for a minute question the sincerity of those concerns and I don’t think they are without basis. I don’t happen to believe they are as grave as the Israelis think but still they are serious concerns. Yet to a great extent the Iran issue has been used by Israel as a diplomatic diversion to take attention away from its activities closer to home and focus the United States on a threat that’s relatively far away and still conjectural. That attempt at diversion of attention has been dealt quite a blow by the ineptitude of the Netanyahu government. He has insulted the Vice President of the United States and provoked a confrontation with the United States on the issue of settlements and peace with the Palestinians.

SUSRIS: What final observations on developments would like to share with SUSRIS readers?

Freeman: I would say that the challenges we have been discussing are taking new directions. For the first time we have open discussion of what has long been discussed only “off-mic,” namely the damage the Israeli pursuit of settlements and disregard for international law does to our own national security interests in the region. For the first time we have an Administration that has been willing to join with others in condemning Israeli colonization of Arab lands. For the first time we have recognition that Jerusalem has not been legally annexed by Israel and is not different from other occupied territories — according to the Quartet’s Moscow declaration to which I referred.

Perhaps the Israelis, who are smart people, will be put in a position where they can calculate rationally that it’s not in their interest to complete the colonization of Palestinian lands at Palestinian expense. Otherwise, if there’s no consequence to their doing so they will, of course, go ahead and do it. The question then is whether the international community and the United States are finally prepared to impose consequences. I don’t know the answer to that. But it is an interesting moment.

SUSRIS: Thank you Ambassador Freeman for sharing your perspectives on these important questions with us today.

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