Elliott Abrams to Majalla: Time for a New U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Elliott Abrams to Majalla: Time for a New U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Former Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor: Democratic-led Congress Unlikely to Make Drastic Changes in Policy Toward Iran or Saudi Arabia

Diplomat, author, and political scientist Elliott Abrams held influential foreign policy positions in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. For the Reagan White House, he served asAssistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs. At the Bush Administration’s National Security Council, he held the positions of Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations as well as Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs. Abrahams now serves as Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

In his Majalla interview, Abrams offered a first take on the implication of last week’s Congressional midterm elections, assessed the meaning of new steps toward Arab-Israeli rapprochement, and conveyed hope for a positive result from the intensifying U.S. sanctions on Iran.

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Prospects for foreign policy continuity despite a shift in Congress

Q: Now that the Democrats have won back a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, what political effects do you foresee?

A:The first question is whether the Democrats' control of the House is going to have a significant impact on any part of American foreign policy. One way of looking at that is institutionally. That is, the Democrats are going to have lots of investigations of the president and will try to make his life more difficult. They’ll even be talking about impeachment — though not do it, I think. In that situation, with Democratic control of the House and the Democrats attacking the president, does he say, ok, I cannot do any more domestic policy action for two years, so I’ll simply do foreign policy actions? Or does the White House draw in on itself and get concerned mostly with investigations and politics and lawyers and prosecutors, in which case foreign policy power will seep away toward the Defense Department and State Department? I don’t know the answers to that — but it’s important to watch, because sometimes in situations like this, the White House does more on foreign policy, and sometimes it does less. 

Q: Democratic voices in Congress have also been critical of the President’s policies in the Middle East. How will they seek to change them?

A:On the central Mideast questions, the differences between the two parties are unlikely to be very great right now. On Iran, if President Obama had thought he had the votes to get the JCPOA through Congress, he’d have sent it to Congress, and he didn’t. So there’ll be no turnaround on this or significant Democratic assault on Trump’s Iran policy. Sanctions will continue and grow. The new Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel of New York, is quite anti-Iran. On U.S.-Saudi relations, there will probably be some efforts to interfere with U.S.-Saudi military relations.  I don’t think, however, that they’ll have the votes. Obviously they don’t in the Senate, which is Republican. I don’t think they’ll have the votes in the House either, because they’re going to have a majority of about twenty-five votes out of 435, and some of those Democrats will say this is not a good idea. So I think you’ll have a lot of hearings, and I think Administration figures should realize they’re going to be spending more time testifying. But I don’t think they’ll be able to cut off arms sales. Meanwhile, support for Israel is very strong in the leadership of both parties, so the change from Paul Ryan to NancyiPelosi will have no effect there.

Q: It was widely observed during the run-up to the midterms that some of the Democratic candidates ran on a platform to the left of their party’s traditional mainstream. How did they fare, and what are the implications?

A:Even though some of those people have been elected, they’re new and have no seniority. They chair nothing. They lost a few races that they thought they were going to win. And now everyone’s attention is turning to 2020 — and I think Democrats realize that their only path to beating the president is through the center, not the left. Presidential elections are actually 50 separate -state elections, because what you’re going for is the electoral votes of the state. And while it’s true that some leftists were elected in congressional districts, none were elected statewide, and some of them who hoped would be elected, failed. So, looking at 2020, you don’t want to present that face to the American people.

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New signs of Arab-Israeli rapprochement

Q: ——-Turning to our region, observers were riveted by Omani government footage of an official visit by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet to Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Muscat. What are your takeaways from this news?

A: There’s been a growing relationship between Israel and a number of states in the Arab world. What is new is the willingness of some Arab governments to make these meetings or visits public. And the key example here of course is Oman, where the Prime Minister of Israel visits and Omani TV shows it to the people of Oman, and there are tweets and photos immediately of the Sultan with the Prime Minister of Israel. You’ve had previous visits of Israeli officials to Arab capitals. Now you’re seeing Israeli ministers going. That’s a very healthy thing, because these countries are neighbors that have a lot to offer each other — politically, economically, and militarily — and they have a common enemy, which is Iran. 

Q: What further steps toward a warming between Israel and the Gulf do you foresee, and what would you like to see?

A:One thing for example is what Oman did. In other cases, like the UAE, an Israeli minister visits. I remember a few years ago, Abdullah bin Zayed visited Ramallah. And it was a very big deal because Arab foreign ministers were very rarely going to Ramallah, which is a mistake: It’s bad for Palestinians, bad for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and bad for Arabs not to have a better understanding of the West Bank.

Q: Other Arab leaders have taken steps in the realm of interfaith relations. Looking specifically at the Saudi experience, what lessons can be drawn?

A:I recall the prominent participation of the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in a two-day interfaith conference at the UN in 2008 — perhaps a precursor to his creation of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious Dialogue. He met with and invited representatives of a dozen religions: Buddhists and Hindus and Jews and Catholics and Protestants. I think it’s always useful for Saudi leaders to counteract the accusation of anti-Semitism in the way that the Muslim World League is now counteracting that accusation. So when a Saudi religious leader or a Saudi official meets with religious representatives — priests and rabbis and representatives of other religions — it changes the image of the kingdom for people who still think very negatively about it. And I would give you the example of Mohammed al-Issa and the Muslim World League, who has made it clear that he’s against religious bigotry of all kinds and has been willing to meet with people of many religions and deliver a message of tolerance. And I think that’s actually been very helpful to Saudi Arabia, and such meetings on the part of members of the royal family, like King Abdullah, I think also are a real contribution.

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As sanctions on Iran intensify, new opportunities

Q: The U.S. heightened sanctions on Iran considerably last week, targeting its oil exports and the banking sector. But it has also provided waivers to a number of countries that import Iranian oil. Are American proponents of a staunch sanctions regime satisfied at this stage?

A: These are very tough sanctions. There was an argument that they wouldn’t be tough enough unless they involve [blocking access to] the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). But they do, because the banks that have been named include the largest banks in Iran, such as the Central Bank of Iran, Saderat,and Melli.In other words, they will be cut off from SWIFT. The debate as to whether unilateral sanctions would work is over. The mistake we made was asking what if Merkel, Macron, and May don’t agree. It turns out it doesn’t matter what they think. What matters is the decisions of thousands of banks and companies whether to do business with Iran or the U.S. — and that’s an easy decision. They’ve already had an impact. The Iranian currency is in free fall, from 40,000 to the dollar to 140,000 — and oil sales have fallen by a million barrels a day. That means $70 million a day in oil sales that Iran is not getting. 

National Security Adviser John Bolton said in a speech in late October that we’re trying to hurt the Iranian economy, not the economy of friends and allies in other countries. If other countries need time to go to zero and they’re moving down, that’s a fair request. So the Administration is saying the trajectory is critical for now, and if they need more time they’ll give it to you. At the same time, they’re also saying that this is finite: These countries don’t have five years, they have six months. And we don’t want to get in a fight with Japan or India. Another way the sanctions are more effective even than they appear is that as Iran tries desperately to maintain oil sales, it’s going to have to give secret discounts — so they’re not going to get the global price. So I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact on the Iranian economy. We’ve also seen in the last couple of years, on social media and elsewhere, Iranian protestors asking, why, in the face of our own budget problems, are we giving hundreds of millions to Hezbollah to engage in acts of terrorism? So I think this brings a lot of pressure on the Iranian regime. 

Q: How do you think Tehran will respond?

A:First it may be that they wait, because people are saying to them, oh, it’s only Trump, and he’ll be gone in two years. I think it’s fine if they believe that. I don’t believe it. My guess is he’ll be reelected. But if it leads the Iranians to sit there and do nothing, that’s fine. I suppose some people, like Qasem Soleimani, want to strike back. Doing so will only hurt Iran. The recent terrorist plot they had in Denmark obviously offended the Danes, who are now  going through the EU to try and get additional sanctions. It’s the same thing in France. So I think the regime has a tough decision to make. Could they commit acts of terrorism, for example, against a U.S. embassy someplace? They could certainly try. But they have to then ask themselves, how would President Trump react, and he might act very forcefully. But I think it’s likely that they won’t do anything that escalates the conflict dramatically, such as trying to close the Bab El Mandeb or Strait of Hormuz. I think the tolerance for them is declining. Of course, I worry, will they ship more weapons to the Houthis? Will they try and get Hezbollah in a war with Israel? Will they engage in acts of terrorism against U.S. or European targets? And it’s possible. I think we have to acknowledge that. But I think many people in their system recognize that they are in a dangerous situation, and they should not be taking great risks. I would just add one other thing which — I mentioned this two-year window of the President’s first term. We all assume that sometime in the foreseeable future they’ll have a new Supreme Leader. That’s going to be a very dangerous moment for Iran, particularly if their economy is suffering as we think it will be, and — particularly if people like Soleimani make a grab for more power under a new Supreme Leader.

Q: How would you assess the likelihood that an Iran strapped for cash begins to adopt more moderate regional aspirations and policies — and what can other powers do to make that outcome more likely?

A: I don’t think the war in Yemen costs Iran a lot of money. They’re spending a lot of money on Hezbollah in Syria. I don’t think they’re spending a lot of money in Yemen, so there will be a temptation on their part to keep it up or maybe even increase it. The UN process for reaching a solution for negotiations in Yemen is I think a very good one. But whatever the Houthis want, it’s not going to succeed if Iran continues to inflame the situation. Some people talk about a grand bargain: Trump sits down with Rouhani the way he did with Kim Jong Un. I think that’s very unlikely. If you look at North Korea, they did sit down but nothing has been resolved: We want him to give up nuclear weapons and he doesn’t want to, so there can be no deal. 

What would the Iranians actually be willing to do? Would they truly give up their decades-long nuclear weapons program? Abandon terrorism as a tool of the Islamic Republic? I actually don’t think so, so I’m not optimistic about what could come of such meetings. 

Q: Do you have any reservations about current White House policies toward the region?

A: I think that Trump Mideast policy has been very successful. We’ve really begun to turn things around in only two years. But I have one criticism, which is that two years in from the elections of 2016, there’s no U.S. ambassador in Riyadh. The administration has been slow in appointing ambassadors to a lot of important capitals. Some people excuse this by saying that, well, we have email and secure telephones. But it’s not a substitute, and I think right now it would be very useful to have an American ambassador in Riyadh who, like the Saudi ambassador in DC, has lots of connections at home and could help improve relations. I hope the Administration will do that fast. 


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