Iran, Syria, Israel and the Coming Years for the Middle East: Five Minutes with Elliott Abrams

Former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams talks with Gideon Hanft of the Georgetown Journal about Iranian nuclear proliferation, the situation in Syria, and the relationship between Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States.

[GJIA]:  The Atlantic recently put together a panel of experts which put the odds of an "Iran War" in the next year at 48 percent.  Do you think this is an accurate assessment?

[EA]: I think the odds of a strike are greater than 48 percent.  Of course using a specific number like that is silly, so let's just say the odds are in my view considerably greater than 50-50. But I repeat, those are the odds of a strike; I would not use the word "war" with its implications of years of conflict and tens of thousands of soldiers. As to timing, I believe any American strike would come in 2013 or in 2014, while an Israeli strike would come before the end of summer 2012.

[GJIA]: Some have suggested there is a fundamental disconnect between the American position and the Israeli position on Iranian enrichment. The President has stressed he will not accept nuclear weapons, while Prime Minister Netanyahu has stressed that he cannot allow Iran nuclear weapons capability. Do you believe that this disconnect exists, and is there a situation where Israel or the US should accept limited Iranian enrichment under the current regime?

[EA]: A disconnect does seem to exist on how close to the development of a nuclear weapon we should permit Iran to get. As to permitting enrichment inside Iran, I think they have for now forfeited their rights under the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] by violating it, and should not be permitted any enrichment until they have reestablished a record of compliance with the treaty. Perhaps someday that would happen, but the record of this regime is of cheating and of secret activities. Any enrichment that is permitted would be a natural cover for more illicit activities.

[GJIA]: Moving to Syria, on your blog Pressure Points you condemned the Obama administration and suggested the United States help train and equip opposition forces. However, some have said that arming the opposition risks creating an ethnic civil war between Sunnis and Alawites, who remain loyal to the government. How can the United States take measures against the Assad regime without risking the sort of sectarian conflicts that we saw in Iraq?

[EA]: This argument strikes me as incredible. There is a war under way in Syria, between the Assad regime and the vast majority of citizens. The central issue is who will win: Assad, whose victory will mean more killing and more years or decades of murderous repression, of support for Hizballah, and of alliance with Iran, or the opposition, whose victory will bring that vicious and regime to an end and give Syria a chance of moving toward democracy. This reminds me very much of the Balkans conflicts in the Clinton years, when many people argued we should not arm or support the Kosovars in the face of Serbian attacks lest the violence increase.  They were being killed by the Serbs and our non-involvement meant simply that the Serbs would win and more Kosovars would die. In the end, we understood that and acted. If you want to stoke civil war in Syria, let the violence of an Alawite regime against Sunnis continue on and on, with more and more deaths.

[GJIA]: We have seen Hamas move away from Syria during the revolution, and some have suggested that if the Assad government falls Hezbollah will be massively weakened. Can Iran continue to exert regional influence if Assad falls from power?

[EA]:  If and when Assad falls, Iran will have been struck a gigantic blow.  Its regional influence stems in part from the sense of them as a rising power, and the loss of Assad would blunt or even reverse that.  It would deny them a means to resupply Hezbollah, a border with Israel through Hezbollah, access to the Mediterranean, and their only Arab ally. If you add to that a strike against their nuclear program, Iran's regional influence will have been greatly reduced.

[GJIA]: The AIPAC conference was notable also for the lack of discussion of the Palestinians. The Palestinian push for statehood at the UN has floundered and there is little impetus for negotiations. How long can this absence of a “peace process” continue?  Does Israel need to be seen negotiating with the Palestinians in the eyes of the world?

[EA] It is clear that this issue is no longer center stage-- at least for now.  It certainly helps Israel a bit to be seen as negotiating or at least open to negotiations, although the benefits don't last very long. I think what most governments want most is the absence of violence and some sense of progress.  That does not necessarily require a formal "peace process," with fancy meetings at high levels. But I do think Israel should be thinking carefully now about what it wants, and if formal negotiations are impossible, it should consider the alternatives. One is a significant improvement in Palestinian life and an increase in self-rule in the West Bank, something that has moved forward under [Prime Minister] Netanyahu but could go much further. Another is to reconsider unilateral moves there, such as [Former Prime Ministers] Sharon and Olmert were pretty clearly thinking about. Olmert after all ran and won in 2006 on a platform of pulling back toward the fence, consolidating the major blocks, and setting Israel's borders.

[GJIA] As a final question, current polls suggest both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a strong chance of reelection. If both men win, are we likely to see a weakening of the American-Israeli alliance over the next years?

[EA] Yes, within limits.  The alliance is very deep, in the American population and as a result in Congress. But there is a poor relationship between these two leaders, and I believe Obama's second term would be worse than his first in tension between the US and Israel. Relations have always had ups and downs, and they would likely recover fast under his successor. But if he is re-elected, I think US-Israel relations are in for four tough years.

This interview was conducted by Gideon Hanft, an undergraduate at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and an editor for the Georgetown Journal’s online content.

Elliott Abrams served as Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy from 2005 until 2009. Prior to this he worked in the National Security Council's Near East and North African Affairs in the Bush administration, and he worked as an Assistant Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration. He is currently a Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he teaches at Georgetown University.