This Week’s Guest: Mohammed Alyahya
This week, the Biden administration officially began multilateral negotiations with Iran, in hopes of re-entering some form of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the so-called Iran nuclear deal.
The debate over the deal is one of the most contentious in contemporary American foreign policy, and reveals a genuine conflict of visions. Supporters of the deal, including prominent officials in the Biden administration, tend to view the Middle East as consumed by an eternal conflict between the Sunni states of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, and the Shiite allies led by Iran. Opponents of the deal tend to think that the central regional fault-line is not Shiite Iran vs. Sunni Saudi Arabia, but instead the American-led alliance structure—including Saudi Arabia and Israel—against Iran and its regional proxies.
That’s the view of this week’s podcast guest, Mohammed Alyahya, the editor of Al Arabiya’s English edition. He, who is based in Dubai and grew up in Saudi Arabia, explains the central paradigms at the heart of Middle East politics, and he outlines what the Biden administration should and shouldn’t do when confronting Iran and the threat it poses to America and the regional order.
You can read a full transcript of this podcast below. Musical selections are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
I want to understand the way that you think about the Middle East, the way you think about Saudi Arabia, the way you think about Iran, but I’d like to first introduce you to our listeners. Who are you?
I’m the editor in chief for Al Arabyia English and I work as a commentator for various newspapers. I’ve been in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times and some others. I was a fellow at the Gulf Research Center and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. And now I’m based in Dubai for Al Arabyia.
You’re based in Dubai, originally from Saudi Arabia. That’s where you grew up?
So as I read you on Twitter, as I read you in the press, as I read Al Arabiya, I want to try to understand the way that you see the Biden administration’s early actions in the Middle East, their early statements on the Middle East. If you had to summarize it, how do you think the Biden administration looks at the Middle East? What is the big conceptual strategy that they’re looking at? What are the most important cleavages? How are powers related to one another? How is it like the Obama administration? How is it like the Trump administration? Tell us your overview.
It’s too early to diagnose exactly what the policy blind spots and directions are for the Biden administration, but from the outside today—and I’m not privy to what discussions are going on inside the administration—it looks like they’re sticking by the Obama playbook. So it’s worth unpacking that.
For the Obama administration, I think they set out to lay the intellectual groundwork for regional policy by painting a situation where you have two regional drivers that have been at each other’s throats for 1,400 years. The Sunnis today in Saudi Arabia, and the protectors of the Shias in Iran, are vying for influence across the region and acting as drivers, so the United States can essentially step back and assume the role of a neutral mediating third party to an irrational struggle that they’ll never be able to fix anyways. But the reality in the region couldn’t be farther from that. So I think unpacking that problematic set of assumptions is important.
First of all, the region’s struggle is not one between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Iranians aren’t in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to reclaim influence from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is barely present today and Iraqis certainly not present, physically or militarily. The same can be said of Syria and certainly the same can be said of Lebanon where the Gulf has taken a largely hands-off approach.
I want to just unpack what you just said and restate it to make sure that I understand. The conception that you would have of the region if you listen to the way that Biden administration officials speak about it is that there is a titanic struggle between the two great powers of the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and if you want to understand the role of the United States you should see it as a neutral arbiter between these two regional powers. To which you respond, Mohammed, that the evidence does not support that case because when you look at the way that Iran is present in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, you can’t explain what Saudi Arabia has to do with any of that. So there has to be another justification for Iran to be in those places and you think that it’s because they are aggressing against an American-led order, which would suggest that the Americans are not a neutral arbiter, but something else.
Absolutely not. No, they are the main party to this conflict. And Iran is the other main party to this conflict. The Iranians killed 600 Americans by the Pentagon’s count in Iraq, not 600 Saudis. Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, along with the top brass of the entire government structure, chants, “Death to America,” and also, “Death to Israel,” but mainly, “Death to America.” I’ve never seen them chant “Death to Saudi Arabia.” The Iranians don’t hide this. They say it, they chant it, on a daily basis for 42 years since the Americans who worked at the U.S. embassy in Tehran were taken hostage. It was very clear what this Islamic Republic regime has defined itself as anti-imperialist, anti-Western regime that is hellbent on weakening the American alliance system and the American order, first in the region and then outside the region. So they’re not fighting America only in the region. They’re fighting the Americans outside the region as well.
There was a lot of this mythology in the Obama administration, which I hope is not shared in the Biden administration, that we don’t have any problem with Iran or problems with the Sunnis. You had these Shia groups in the region that don’t constitute a threat to the homeland in the United States, et cetera, et cetera. Although, 600 Americans are being killed at the hands of Qassem Suleimani’s forces as a direct aggression against the United States when it was engaged in the war there in Iraq. And the same can be said about the IRGC’s (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) activities abroad and also across the region.
You know, if you remember when Qassem Suleimani was assassinated by the U.S. government and you had certain policy makers that were close to that Obama doctrine calling him a foreign official. That is very laughable. He’s not a foreign official. He is a combatant that was on the ground scouting out locations from which to attack U.S. servicemen, because that’s all he knows how to do. He doesn’t know how to do any clerical work, official work, because he’s never done it. The only type of work that he’s done is killing Americans and killing people that he decides, along with the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, are a threat to the Islamic Revolution regime. So I think this is a very big misconception.
One official in the Biden administration today explained, in a piece days before being appointed as an envoy to Iran, the impetus for U.S. support for the Yemen War during the Obama administration. He said that this is a way to support Saudi Arabia in light of our reaching out to Iran more. This is a mistake. This is something that the Saudis really wanted to do, and we allowed them to do this, to prosecute this horrible war just to balance things out after giving Iran the nuclear deal. That’s a very interesting way to look at things.
First of all, why is the Iran deal so beneficial to Iran that you have to counterbalance it by giving something so harmful to the Saudis? It just tells you a lot about the way of thinking. And nowhere in the article was there any mention of the strategic threats to global energy, to global commerce, of having an IRGC base in [the] Bab al-Mandab [Strait]. We saw what happened for a few days after the Suez Canal was shut. Hundreds of tankers, if not even more than that, going all the way around the horn of Africa and goods were late in delivery. A good percent of the world’s trade passes through the Suez Canal, pretty much anything that isn’t going to a port in the Red Sea, which is a minuscule part of international trade, has to pass over Bab al-Mandab. We’ve also seen how the Revolutionary Guards use the Farsi Islands and other outposts that are near the Strait of Hormuz to threaten international trade.
So the fact is that you can see policymakers talking about Iran without mentioning the strategic points I’ve mentioned. You know, there’s a big mismatch between that and what drives Iranian policy. Iran puts Yemen in its cross hairs for several reasons, but chief among them is the importance of that strategic port. It wants to be able to threaten international trade at will, threaten the French, German and other European Naval convoys that pass through those waters to protect international trade from Somali pirates. This is something that the Iranians have been set on and it drives their actions to this day.
Mohammed, that’s another way to come back to your core contention. If one thinks about the reason why it would be a strategic value for Iran to choke off that point of transit, one has to ask who suffers from that naval action. And Saudi Arabia is not the main party that suffers. In fact, it’s the West, it’s America, it’s the global commerce that suffers. And so when you try to inhabit the point of view of the Iranians and think about who they think the main adversary is, that’s another point of evidence that it’s not Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is only an adversary to the Iranians in so far as it is an ally to the United States, and Iranian officials keep reiterating this. They say, “we have no problems with Saudi Arabia. The problem is that it’s way too close to what we deem as the Great Satan, America.”
I think that’s why they’re in Yemen as well. For Saudi Arabia, there is another national-security concern there as well. You have a country to the south of your border that you don’t want to slip into a complete state collapse and chaos. That would be a security nightmare.
Iranian officials have said, time and again, that they don’t have a fundamental problem with Saudi Arabia. They see Saudi Arabia as a problem in so far as it is an ally United States. Should Saudi Arabia decide to split from the United States and stop being an “agent” of this evil vessel of imperialism, then they’d be buddies with Iran. That’s not a problem.
This is the way that Iranians view the conflict. The Saudis on the other hand view the Iranian expansion across the region, and especially in Yemen, that’s a good example, as a threat to their own national security. The state’s failure in Yemen and a total collapse of state institutions means that there is chaos in a country that has the second largest number of small arms per capita behind the United States. That represents a potential grave danger to the stability south of Saudi Arabia, and indeed all of Saudi Arabia.
And also there is pride in Yemen. After the Saudis essentially eliminated the al-Qaeda presence in Saudi Arabia towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s and throughout the first half of the decade after that, what we saw was that there was a massive exodus of these fighters from several Arab countries to Yemen.
The leaders of al-Qaeda during that time, the chairman and the CEO of al-Qaeda were sitting in Tehran and in close contact with al-Qaeda. Allowing Iran control of a country that already has very active al-Qaeda cells while they’re harboring the leaders of al-Qaeda in Tehran, and they want to take the control of that whole area in addition to the Strait of Hormuz, that’s a real problem, but the way that it’s spoken about by members of the Obama administration and some of their allies paints it in a very different way.
So why do you think they think that? In other words, if you were to try to explain to our listeners why the misapprehension of the region persists in the Biden administration, as you see it, what would you say?
That’s a good question. There could be a resentment of America’s role in the region over the past years. I’m sure that, and this is among people who are more level-headed and centrist, in Syria there was nervousness. There was a view that America’s invasion of Iraq was a deeply misguided one and a poorly prosecuted one. And that’s true. Reasonable people would disagree with that. But that should have meant that intervening in Syria is the way to fix it, not the way to repeat it. And what I mean by that is that empowering Iran in Iraq and in Syria happened as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the way it was bungled. Allowing Iran to spread into Syria in the same way and ally with Bashar al-Assad and aide and abet his campaign of ethnic cleansing there, the massacre of 500,000 Arabs in that country and around that country, is a result of empowering Iran. So it’s just bad policy, I think.
One could understand the strategic concept of the Biden administration as a kind of reaction, too, as a way to atone for the sins of Iraq.
That could be part of it, but also I think, speaking to some people that are intellectually close to the crowd that’s very supportive of the JCPOA, that admires Iran, there is real admiration of Iran and the charm of its foreign minister, and the idea that they got the short end of the stick as a result of the estrangement of the Iranian government for the last 42 years and that a new page should be turned, and that a strong Iran in the region is normal—we should not fight what’s normal here. The only problem is you’ve got a bunch of other countries that say no, stop. It’s not normal at all.
Iraq is a failed state by all standards that’s almost as rich as Saudi Arabia, a huge oil-producing country that has an educated population and every opportunity to be as vibrant and prosperous as any Gulf country. And we have Lebanon, which is a country that in the 50s and 60s was on par with the best and most impressive of European capitals. It’s now run like an Iranian satrapy, like a province of Iran, wholly controlled by Hasan Nasrallah, who is the head of their local militia in Lebanon. And Yemen, which has already been struggling, is now being controlled by Iran. So it’s stronger. And a strong Iran is not something that the region wants.
You know, I think if you look at people on that side of politics there is an idea, an antiquated idea, that a lot of Arabs don’t like the United States and they don’t like us. Let’s just leave them alone and walk away. We understand why they don’t like us. We screwed up in Iraq. Let’s just leave them be. The reality of this matter is that young people in the region have changed. Young people don’t want Iran. Young people in the area are chanting against Iran. Young Shias in Lebanon are chanting against Hizballah. Syrians are chanting against Putin and Assad and primarily, of course, against the Iranian militias and Shia militias from Pakistan and Afghanistan that are run by Iran. Widespread, vehement, anti-American sentiment that observers of the Middle East could see when pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism were in their heydays, from the 50s up until the 80s and 90s, doesn’t exist today.
Young people are much more in tune with other young people in other parts of the world. What they reject is this antiquated, archaic, theocratic ideology that they’re spoon-fed, controlled by groups like the Revolutionary Guards. It doesn’t work. The reason it worked in the past is because you had an economic carrot next to the ideology. The pan-Arabism of Nasser and pro-Soviet, anti-Western imperialism—it was very easy for you to cross the lines and become Islamists. They are meant to go back to being leftists, anti-imperialist activists. Today, people don’t speak in those terms anymore.
I think people in the White House have a very antiquated idea of what young people want in the region, what they stand for, what they will accept and what they won’t accept. And I think there’s a deep, deep misunderstanding of where they see themselves in the world.
If you look at videos of Iran, they are beautiful. The videos of young Arab Shias carrying upside down images of Khamenei and Qassem Suleimani. These aren’t necessarily unreligious Shias, but if you look at their ages half of them clearly were born after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They’re out in the streets not burning American flags, they were there burning Iranian flags and carrying images of Qassem Suleimani and Khamenei. So to answer your question, I think the reason for this type of policy malpractice is because there’s a whole set of assumptions under there that are problematic in one way or another, and I think that means that this policy of appeasing Iran is not going to work in the long term.
I think the models that are being accepted now are focusing on economic diversification, focusing on opening up to the international world, opening up to the West or sending young people by the hundreds of thousands to go study in universities all over Europe and the United States, that’s what’s going to work best going forward, and that’s why governments in the Gulf are acting that way. They’re getting zero credit for it anywhere in the United States these days, or in Europe, or elsewhere, but I mean, when is the last time Saudi Arabia has gotten credit for something that it’s done? But it tells you how the leadership of Gulf countries view their own people. I think they’re much more in tune with what their people want than a government like Iran’s. The policy of just leaving Iran be, of appeasing it, of treating it as if it is a reflection of people’s wishes and aspirations in the region is going to fail just as much as the heavy-handed tactics of the Iranian government.
Mohammad, you were speaking about the situation in Lebanon and in Syria and in other places where there is a heavily felt Iranian presence, if not outright controlled by Iran. So how could it get worse? It already seems to be that Iran’s control there is near total. If the Americans were to conclude some version of the nuclear deal and cement their own role, as the American see it, as kind of neutral arbiters who will refuse to intervene, then what do these places stand to lose? What could happen?
It could certainly get much worse, in that Hizballah is cash-strapped and Iran’s militia network in the region is cash-strapped. After three, four years of pressure these administrators need U.S. dollars to survive and they get those U.S. dollars through either illicit trade or as handouts from the Revolutionary Guard, and what we’re seeing today is that they’re in dire need of the support that they once had in the past. So it could get much worse if there are more facilitations of cash payments to Iran through the Biden administration. I think there’s a frozen amount in Iraq that’s set to go back to Iran soon and some payments that are stuck in South Korea that are also being repatriated to Iran. The more we see of that the better news it is for the militias that are backed by Iran, the better news it is for them.
We have to remember, for militias in Iraq and for militias in Syria that are part of the Revolutionary Guard structure, they had a horrible last four years, not only because of the financial constraints put on them by the previous administration, but also because of the morale that they lost as a result of the elimination of Qassem Suleimani and [Abu Mahdi] al-Muhandis. If you like you can see that as taking the chairman and the CEO of a company out at the same time. If that happens on the same day, and the mid-level manager isn’t getting a salary, you’ve got a problem. That problem is good for everyone in the region except for Iran and its Shia militias. So reversing these problems that Iran has is going to come at the expense of other people. It’s going to come at the expense of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. And contrary to what many people in the U.S. think, it’s not going to come at the expense of Saudi Arabia as much as it’s going to come at the expense of these other countries.
You’ve been explaining to our listeners why you need to understand the domestic politics and see the region the way that the regional actors do instead of trying to impose your own framework onto the region.
But if I bring you into American domestic politics, and the way that a great many Americans think about the tradeoffs in the region, we too are suffering the consequences of perhaps overinvestment in Iraq. Americans do not have a great appetite to send resources to the Middle East and I think there’s now a bipartisan consensus among Democrats and Republicans in the United States that the main adversary of the United States is China. China is also quite interested in the Middle East, it has recently conducted a major deal with Iran that could potentially support additional terror financing. What role do you think that the Biden administration’s approach will have on China’s action in the region?
I see your point. I understand that people across the board in the United States don’t want to see America bogged down in never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. With that said, I think there’s still a responsibility to wind down this military presence in the region responsibly given the mistakes that were made in the past. Winding down America’s military interventions in the region is all good and well, something that should be done responsibly, but American involvement in the region shouldn’t be thrown away as a baby with the bathwater. That’s a problem. There’s economic involvement in the region, there’s educational involvement in the region. There’s cultural involvement in the region, there’s all sorts of involvement, and there are willing participants for that across the region. And that’s where I think it would be very wrong to conflate withdrawing from America’s never-ending wars in the region to appeasing Iran or to giving Iran the resources it needs to wage its own never-ending war in the region, because Iran has been at war perpetually for the last 42 years. It hasn’t resolved that war because it’s being rejected by the places it’s at war with.
And you know, just as Russia set up its first foothold in the Arab world since the collapse of the Soviet Union as a result of the disengagement and withdrawal of the Obama administration, China will find ways to explore that vacuum that was left by America. It doesn’t have to be a military vacuum, by the way. As we said, there are many avenues in which to engage with the region that are not military, but I think at some point in time actors in the region are going to start thinking about cooperation with China as an alternative to cooperation with the United States. A country like Saudi Arabia wouldn’t find doing this very easy and it’s not something I think that they can plan to do in the short term; the amount of integration with the United States in the Saudi Armed Forces and even in the rest of the country is huge. But I f there’s more consistency in the relationship with the smaller avenues of cooperation that also already exist with China today, that’s something that might grow I think.
If the Americans were to secure some kind of arrangement with the Iranians that allowed them to develop nuclear power to the extent that they were able to develop nuclear weapons, do you think other nations in the region would try to do the same?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think the Saudis have made it clear that they would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran acquires one. I think that’s fair to say.
One day the pandemic will end. It will be safe to easily travel again. When you next come to visit Washington, D.C. and you have a chance to speak with American officials and people in the think-tank community, what message do you have for them?
We have, in the Obama administration’s intervention in the region, a lot of lessons to learn, a lot of pitfalls to avoid and a lot of opportunities to replicate and recreate. Let’s not make policy without considering that time invested. And that the United States has allies that it can already bank on in the region. I mean, one of the problems and the main criticisms of the Obama policy for the region is that it alienated allies systematically and brought adversaries closer. The consequences of that were big. They were tragic. There’s no reason to repeat those mistakes.
We have not spoken about Israel yet in this conversation. I want to ask you about that. I want to ask you where you see distinctions or differences between your analysis of the region and how you think Israelis look at the same questions and the same security threats and what you make of Abraham Accords. Obviously, that is a relationship that has brought the Emiratis and others closer to Israel. The Saudis are not a part of the Abraham Accords, though one could imagine someday in the future that that could change.
Yeah, that could definitely change. I mean, the Saudis have been very clear how they would like to see a peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, and an independent Palestinian state. And they’ve said that they’re going to take the Palestinian side when it comes to engagement on this issue. But I think as soon as that happens we stand to see a very beneficial cooperation between all actors in the region without keeping anybody out. And there’s definitely intersections of interest on the national-security level between Israel and other Gulf States. It’d be foolish to say there isn’t. And these intersections are growing day by day, but they’ve always been dealt with in a certain way and intersections of interest, no matter how frequent or ubiquitous they are, are not alignments of interest.