The crisis in Yemen could well turn extremely tragic. Making overall predictions is difficult because how the situation develops will depend on how certain players behave, and we aren’t privy to their intentions. I do think, however, that the Saudis and their coalition partners have made a mistake with aerial bombardments. It’s simply inconceivable that such a destructive approach — particularly in an already impoverished country — could provide any resolution.

The Houthis’ objectives seem clear enough: They want to get their share of the distribution of power and resources and are not at all, in my opinion, trying to establish full control over the whole country. I think they understand that simply won’t happen. It looks as if they are using military force to secure strong starting positions for the inevitable subsequent negotiations — in order to get their piece of the pie. But do they understand that the assault on the southern part of the country, where they are perceived as outsiders, involves great dangers for them? Here they also seem to have made a mistake, miscalculated. They shouldn’t have meddled in Aden and the southern provinces. They are doing it under the pretext of striking at the Islamist radicals, at Al-Qaeda, based in the south; but the reality is that they will end up pushing the local population toward Al-Qaeda as a powerful force able to resist the onslaught of the Houthis. There was no point in the advance. They should have been satisfied dominating the northern part of the country, having expelled their longtime enemies, the Salafis. Then they could have dictated their own terms during negotiations with a better chance of achieving their political and economic demands.

Yet if we look at the opposing coalition, it’s not remotely clear what it wants. To destroy the huge portion of the population that supports the Houthis? That’s impossible. What, will they just keep on killing people without end? Do they want to completely destroy the infrastructure of the country? It’s incomprehensible what this could do for them. Do they want to force the Houthis to surrender? To lay down their arms? To say: Let Hadi return; let him imprison, hang or shoot us instigators while everyone else can live long and happy lives? What is it they want? Do they want to deploy ground forces to force the Houthis back to where they’ve always lived, to the north, and to secure some strategic spots in which to place people connected to Hadi’s administration? But it doesn’t seem as if anybody is preparing for a ground war — which would be a bloodbath. So the goals of these people simply aren’t wholly evident. Even if foreign boots were committed on the ground, it’s quite likely that Yemeni Shia and Sunni would unite against the outsiders. That’s already happened, in the 1960s, when Egypt supported the revolution of 1962 and sent forces into Yemen. Over the course of a few years, Egypt lost almost 26,000 lives — losses much greater than those of the USSR in Afghanistan — even though Yemen is a small country and the Egyptians did not have a large contingent. Today the very same story can be repeated anywhere. The coalition is quite aware of this, and no one is burning with desire to fight in the mountains of Yemen — especially when it’s not even clear whom to fight. But even if we assume the coalition forces could break the Houthis and push them back North: Who, then, would take their place?

Incidentally, I told my Egyptian friends: “You’ve taken your place under the Saudis’ banner. You want to defeat the Shia. You are afraid they might supposedly gain control of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and interfere with maritime traffic through the channel. That is unlikely: They’ve never set themselves such a goal and couldn’t if they tried. It’s another impossibility. They are well aware that they would run into big trouble. But still, let’s say you disperse them. Who will come to power? The very people you consider your enemies: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic bloc Al-Islah[a1]  (the same Brotherhood), or even Al-Qaeda or related groups. In other words, a Salafi alliance will rise up and govern the country; you’ll get a country ruled by your enemies. You’re thinking that Iran is calling the shots in Yemen now, or afraid it will in the future. But what you’ll get instead is those you consider your enemies in power. It’s obvious that the fruit of your labors will be much worse for you.” This military, interventionist approach, recalling the Libya playbook of internal conflict resolution, is another dead-end in a fragmented and heterogeneous country like Yemen, with one possible outcome being the division of the country. I do not rule out the partition of Yemen, with the most likely split between North and South; although even further fragmentation is possible. Perhaps this is what the enemies of Yemen want. A worst-case scenario would involve a bid for Hadhramaut to secede, a region with historical ties to Saudi Arabia and one which is drawn to it: There are tribes continually crisscrossing the border with a vested interest in keeping it open. It’s not impossible that the tribal and trade elite in this region would like to place Hadhramaut under Saudi control. If utter mayhem ensues, Al-Qaeda could proclaim a state there. People are afraid to fight them, so they don’t strike Al-Qaeda but strike the Houthis.

A degeneration into complete chaos is not beyond the realm of possibilities — something along the lines of the current situation in Libya, with roving tribes, gangs and fighters killing each other, plundering and destroying. At that point it will be senseless to talk about restoring the country. This is not Libya; it is a comparatively large country with about 26 million people and a large, inaccessible, mountainous territory. It is filled with a whole lot of weapons. It is situated at a strategic trading crossroads. The situation is very alarming. And the only road to a settlement is peace talks, peace talks with the participation of the Houthis. But apparently Saudi Arabia does not want the Houthis to participate, although at some point early on the Saudis themselves proposed such negotiations. To sum up, I fear that for now there is little reason for optimism.

The commentary was taken on the 3rd of April, 2015
by the IMESClub President Maria Dubovikova

Published in Commentaries


We will start by re-establishing relations on a consular level or with a charge d'affaires. <...> They will be restored in a progressive manner. <...> We do not believe that our interests are served by cutting off relations with Syria. <...> We will not have an ambassador there, but Tunisia will open a consulate or put in place a charge d'affaires, and a Syria ambassador is welcome to Tunisia, if Syria wishes so. 

– Taieb Baccouche, Tunisia's Foreign Minister


The situation in Yarmouk is an affront to the humanity of all of us, a source of universal shame.<...> Yarmouk is a test, a challenge for the international community. We must not fail. The credibility of the international system itself is at stake

– Chris Gunness, U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesman 

We won't get to a political transition without slowly giving and taking. 

– Randa Kassis, President of the Movement for a Pluralistic Society  

We'll see what the government delegation comes up with, including on the humanitarian front, but I am not hopeful for anything special. It'll be more of a continuation of dialogue at best.

– Anonymous Syrian opposition representative



Medical supplies need to be here yesterday. The situation is difficult.<...> We need to save the lives that can be saved.

– Marie-Claire Feghali, a spokeswoman for the ICRC

For the wounded, their chances of survival depend on action within hours, not days.

– Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC's operations in the Near and Middle East

All air, land and sea routes must be opened without delay for at least 24 hours to enable help to reach people cut off after more than a week of intense air strikes and fierce ground fighting nationwide.

– The ICRC statement

There is little point in putting an embargo on the whole country. It doesn’t make sense to punish everybody else for the behavior of one party that has been the aggressor in this situation.

– Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s representative to the UN 

We still stand by our position on dialogue and we demand its continuation despite everything that has happened, on the basis of respect and acknowledging the other. <...> We have no conditions except a halt to the aggression and sitting on the dialogue table within a specific time period <...> and any international or regional parties that have no aggressive positions towards the Yemeni people can oversee the dialogue.

– Saleh Ali al-Sammad, senior political figure of the Houthi movement.

We got to this position because the Houthis, over and over again, violated cease-fires, took military action, took action by force instead of engaging in a genuine way in political talks. <...> The only way out of this crisis is through a return to genuine political talks on an equal basis, and not using force.

– Peter Wilson, Britain's deputy U.N. ambassador

Throughout the Yemeni national dialogue, which lasted a year during which I served as a rapporteur on the military committee, the Houthis tried to convince us in the south that we were victims of injustice within the framework of unification. Yet now they come to us as belligerent occupiers.

General Nasser Al-Tawil, spokesman for the Retired Servicemen’s Front in Aden



A better deal would roll back Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure, and require Iran to stop its aggression in the region, its terror worldwide and its calls and actions to annihilate the state of Israel. That’s a better deal. It’s achievable.

– Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister

Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world's major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?

– Barak Obama, United States President 

Iran needs cash and will not agree to hold back as part of an OPEC [oil] supply–reduction deal. <...> While a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program will open up the country's energy sector for investment and eventually lead not only to a restoration of the 1 million barrels of daily output lost since sanctions were tightened against Tehran, but will also lead to a longer-term rise in both oil and gas output. 

– Chris Weafer, the founding partner of Macro Advisory

If the (final) agreement is signed in June, Russia will be the loser. Now, Iran will be more inclined toward the West. For Russia, that’s a problem.

–  Alexey Malashenko, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center 

Moscow looks at its role in the Iran talks not so much in its own terms but in how it can play into issues of more central interest to itself. <...> The West is forced to recognize Moscow's status as a global power; Iran can feel it has been a good ally; and other current or potential Russian allies can be reassured.

– Mark Galeotti, Professor of global affairs at New York University


Tweets of the week

Published in Weeks-in-Quotes
Friday, 03 April 2015 12:20

The Nude Realities behind the Nuke Talks

The Nuke talks between the P5+1 and Iran had continued to inspire a settlement when the “self-imposed” deadline seemed insignificant. After all it was an arbitrary choice only to give time to another congressional decision regarding whether to impose and implement any additional sanctions against Iran or completely or partially lift the existing ones. Moving beyond the 31st of March only showed how committed both sides have been to the cause, and showed that even though opinions differ, the objectives of both parties are the same. In fact when a tentative settlement was announced on April 2nd, the compromise between Iran and the P5+1 further inspired hope for the June 30 meeting.


The Meaning of the “Significant Progress” is not an April’s Fool

No tricking and no wasting time on the way were desired. Iran and the P5+1 continued to be hard-liners at the beginning. They did not seem to give in or give up. However, even though the talks were still far from reaching a final result, according to the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as of April 1st there was already “significant progress”.

In Lausanne all aspects of the Iranian nuke program was scrutinized. The P5+1 on behalf of the world community they represent wanted to make sure  the scope of uranium enrichment Iran would be allowed to conduct, where stockpiles of enriched uranium should be stored, proposed limits on Iran's nuclear research and development. Iran demands the right to free research and development into advanced nuclear centrifuges after an initial 10-year period covered by the potential agreement expires.

Dismantlement of sanctions is linked to the concessions Iran is willing to make, in terms of time, enrichment and the centrifuge capacity as well as the transparency of the operation locations and operations in its nuke program. Although sure about the words of its opponents, Zarif still wants to see some action to save Iran from the painful economic sanctions. Especially the real smart ones like the ban on the “swift operations”, which cripples Iran’s foreign trade and pushes both Iran and its trade partners to engage in illicit operations to by- pass this difficulty, must be the first ones to be lifted. The P5+1 promises to determine the timing and conditions for the removal of sanctions, with the condition that if Iran fails to comply with the agreement sanctions are to be reemployed without any prior notification.

What More Does Iran Need to Do to Ensure the World?

It has long been the Iran against the West when it came to ensuring the world that Iran’s nuke program does not constitute any threat to its immediate neighborhood and to the world. It has civilian objectives and was launched to reduce Iran’s its own dependence on fossil fuels in terms of energy. In a country, where there is a rich capacity to employ advanced technology, nuclear energy can be used in other areas like nuclear medicine, and promises Iran to be a regional “health hub” within a decade or two.

All sides after the he April 1st meeting of Lausanne agreed that they are only a short distance away from the finishing line. Nobody nullifies the truth that it was a shoulder to shoulder advancement to the target. They all point out that a robust deal must be reached before they conclude talks. The agreement if reached needs to be verifiable too. The P5+1, the two among them being closer to the Iranian position is sure about solidness of the promises it is likely to give. It is Iran and its conducts, intentions, operations and rhetoric they are not so very sure about. 

A White House spokesman clearly verbalized on April 1st, what is expected of Iran immediately before the P5+1 gives the right signals to their respective governments to lift the Iranian sanctions one way or another. He said “the time has come for Iran to make some decisions." Setting parameters for the issues of concern to finalize the nuke talks in June still remains easier said than done. Russia and China have always seemed to be the most supportive of Iran. However, the US, Germany, France and Great Britain had seemed to have few more deep doubts, until on April 2nd when after a sleepless night both sides reached a comprehensive agreement: Iran will close some of the centrifuges in Fardow to reduce its nuke enrichment and sanctions will be gradually lifted to return the favor.

The Difference between the Nude Reality and the Nuke Reality

Beyond the technical details, which will always remain in the core of the negotiation process as the nuke reality, there are three nude realities also expected of Iran:

  • Stop the threats against Israel in, rhetoric and preferably recognize the Israeli state in due time;
  • Stop adding fuel to fire by arming and assisting armed Shiite militia to continue the sectarian warfare in the region. Stopping proxy wars is essential to reinstitute the peace and stability in the Middle East. 
  • Even though its engagement in the proxy war against the Sunni extremism in Iraq and Syria seem acceptable and helpful by all now, Iran’s direct verbal and physical threat against the Gulf States like the Saudi Kingdom, Bahrain and the Emirates are not.

Zarif made it clear that Iran has few doubts as well about the real intentions of the P5+1 by saying on April 1st, that "the progress and success of the talks depends on the political will of the other party,” Iran and its chief negotiator are fully aware of the fact that it is not only the nuke activity of Iran, which is negotiated on the table. In fact they also know what the P5+1 is absolutely sure of what is further expected of Iran.

Despite the interim agreement reached on April 2nd, for Iran the P5+1 and the entire UN community that stands behind it still needs to respond to the following inquiry:

  • When there are a half a dozen nuclear nations in the Middle East, including the Taliban-nested Pakistan why should Iran be suspected of going nuke for military purposes? If Pakistan is taken as an honest broker, why should not be Iran?
  • Does Iran seem like a suicidal nation to take the risk of its own as well when making of a nuclear military strike against a neighboring country in the Middle East?

If the P5+1  cannot bring genuine responses to such simple questions then Zarif’s point about who holds the political will and who does not for an ultimate settlement should be highly regarded.

Conclusion: The Truth and its Consequence

The most important truth at this historical juncture is that there is a solid interim agreement between Iran and its P5+1counterpart as of the beginning of April 2015. This agreement is going to be the guiding light for the upcoming negotiations towards the end of June.

There is also a reality at this point that no matter what the west is not likely to use the military option against Iran after the April 2nd interim agreement.  Furthermore after coming so far, even if a deal is not completed by June deadlines will be disregarded to ensure to keep the communication channels open. 

Neither of the truth and reality mentioned above can deny another truth that Iran is not the only country in the Middle East, which holds the nuke power. But it remains to be the only one suspected of having the potential to use of it for military purposes. The conservatives in the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf nations and Israel do not want to accept Iran as an honest broker. On the other hand the hard-liners in Iran are also extremely wary of a final deal, if reached and do not pay much attention to how much sanctions harm the Iranian economy. The perception of danger seems stronger than the danger itself. This is another nude rather than the nuke reality. Therefore, in the process Iran would continue to acknowledge the world is that its nuclear program has purely peaceful purposes, mostly power generation, and it continues to demand the U.S., EU, and UN to lift sanctions swiftly, even if it is done in a gradual manner.

In the process, negotiations are likely to produce ultimately fruitful consequences if:

  • Iran stops threatening Israel, possibly recognize it, and stop assisting militia against the Gulf countries.
  • It continues to engage struggle against the Sunni extremism in Syria and Iraq, without making further claims in the Iraqi territory and the Iraqi economy.

There is also the naked truth that the P5+1 on behalf of the UN community under no condition would remove sanctions. The rule for reemploying them if Tehran fails comply with the deal is also set.

There is probably going to be another strongly emphasized reality or the demand of Iran from the P5+1 and the UN community, which has not been openly discussed in public, and that is unless the Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries were also reprimanded for supporting Sunni extremism, it would be impossible to stop proxy wars and reinstitute peace and stability in the Middle East. 

Published in Tribune

The escalation of the crisis in Yemen was predictable and inevitable - as long as the inevitability of the outbreak of violence was obvious long before the current historical moment.

The complexities of Yemen, from local cultural differences, to the bigger problems of terrorism, in the backyard of Saudi Arabia, combined with its important strategic location for world trade, all factor in the country’s volatile situation and potential to erupt and fall into complete collapse.

What is frightening, is that what we witness now, most likely, is just the beginning of what we should expect to come next - some kind of a prelude to the catastrophe. And Yemeni civil war is not the worst scenario.

Saudi Arabia’s reaction following recent developments inside Yemen was understandable.

To prevent the Iran-backed Houthis from gaining control over the country was a matter of strategic importance and of national interest to Saudi Arabia. To prevent the Iran-backed Houthis from gaining control over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait was a matter of strategic importance and interest for most regional and global powers.

Yemen was unlucky to become the battlefield of Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence.

To read the whole article:

Published in Tribune

The crisis in Yemen is entering a new, extremely dangerous stage and I will further list the reasons for that. A direct threat of an outbreak of the civil war has reappeared. The international peace settlement plan active in Yemen since 2011 the key goal of which was to avert the war, as it was considered, is failing now.

The condition of diarchy created both due to the logic of internal processes and to the artificial factors are the main causes of current aggravation of the situation. President Hadi’s sudden resignation on January 22, 2015, his firm refusal to revoke this decision in response to the demands of all the political forces and the UN special representative, and then his unexpected appearance in Aden (ex-capital of the South-Yemeni state) on February 21, 2015 and simultaneous revocation of his resignation – all this forms a background for the performance we witness. Diarchy supposes the polarization of forces, which in the Yemeni conditions means the confluence of a great ensemble of contradictions that have not been resolved three years since the implementation of the international plan – the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative. The issues of the destroyed nationhood, the conflict between the North and the South and finally the sectarian conflict between the Houthis and the Salafi, where Al-Qaeda plays an important role, supporting the Salafi side, are all put in the same pot. President Hadi’s belligerence is alarming, as he has at once started arming the tribes against the Houthis on the background of the ongoing that time dialogue of all the political parties of the country in Sana under the aegis of the Special UN Envoy Jamal Benomar.

Hadi’s move to Aden and his sudden revocation of resignation was followed by the unanimous recognition of his legitimacy both by the forces within the country and by the leading world and regional powers. Meanwhile, the negotiation process in Sana under the UN aegis was going on and was aimed at carrying a reform in order to mitigate the conflict in the upper government institutions. It should be mentioned, that after the declarations of resignation made by the President Hadi and the Prime Minister Bahah on the January 22, 2015, the Parliament in Sana has become the only legitimate institution. Why were the representatives of different Yemeni political forces not allowed to to work on restoration of the executive government in the country, that has been facing the deepest crisis in its history? Oddly enough, that, having rapidly recognized Hadi’s legitimacy in Aden, the international community has derailed the negotiations in Sana that undoubtedly had a true legitimate nature.

The difficult situation in Yemen has allowed Hadi to interpret the events after the fact (post factum) as a coup committed by the Ansar Allah movement after the signing of the “The Peace and National Partnership Agreement” on September 21, 2014. But if this act was a coup, why did Hadi himself preserved his President office till his voluntarily resignation on January 22, 2015? Why the UN Security Council has approved the signing of a new Agreement that put emphasis on the practical implementation of the decisions of the National Dialogue Conference that was finished on January 25, 2014 in Sana, and legitimized by the special UN Security Council resolution? This strange coup would not be such if Hadi and PM Bahah had not resigned themselves. These events have fairly increased Ansar Allah’s role to an unprecedented level in the crisis settlement process, but they did not serve as a prelude to the violent seizure of power, to be frank.

The discontent was caused by the very fact that during the implementation of the settlement plan elaborated by Saudi Arabia the former outsiders, as the Ansar Allah movement, have strengthened their positions, instead of the forces desired by the US and the Saudi Arabia. Once again, as years ago, during the Saad wars, they were accused of the ties with Iran.

The guided President Hadi, having arrived in Aden, did not even expect to receive the support of al-Hirak (the Southern Movement), as after the war 1994 (in which, by the way, was in command of the forces of the West) they have been declaring that de facto unification of Yemen is invalid, and so he has started at once to call the UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council to deploy troops in Yemen in order to begin war with the Houthis. He was not ready for this war, but does it mean that the scenario had already been ready?

Besides their militia, Ansar Allah is supported by the loyal armed tribes in 12 provinces of the Northern Yemen, where in coordination with security forces Ansar Allah is trying to establish order in the conditions of power vacuum. Besides that, the ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh who has retained the post of the Chairman the Yemeni ruling party, of the General People’s Congress (in full concordance with the international settlement plan after the resignation) that has majority in the Parliament and the key positions in the Army and the Security Forces, also assists them. This strange and unlikely to exist for a long time alliance has been created due to a set of random circumstances, but it represents a political reality that should be taken into consideration.

President Hadi having returned to his duties has mainly external support, as it was mentioned before, and sets hopes upon the support from the rapid deployment forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council. But for what? And how it will influence Yemen?

Saudi Arabia has traditionally been playing an important role in many aspects and nobody intended to contest it in the economic sphere. In their declarations Ansar Allah always stated their allegiance to friendly relations with all the neighbors and mainly with Saudi Arabia. Without the financial aid from the Saudi Arabia Yemen would have faced much more difficulties during the revolution crisis settlement started in 2011 (and even before that). The cut of donor aid to Yemen by Saudi Arabia after the arrival of Ansar Allah in Sana in September 2014 has led to the dismissal of Bahah’s Head of the Cabinet and put the country on the verge of bankruptcy. But I think that Saudi Arabia saw an Iranian Trojan Horse in Ansar Allah, however without sufficient proof. Zaidiyyah community constituted 40% of North Yemen population and represented the basis of the Yemeny statehood since the 9th century. The last Zaidiyyah imam was overthrown by the revolution of 1962, but the Houthis are the partisans of the republic. They just advocated the protection of Zaidiyyah cultural legacy.

The main accusation against Ansar Allah is the adoption of the Constitutional Declaration of 6 February that dissolved the Parliament and put instead a chamber of deputes extended from 301 to 551 members. The doubts in legitimacy of this action has provoked a furious reaction, but mainly from its “ally” ex-President Saleh who would lose control over them. As a result a new formula approved by all the parties of the country was created under the aegis of the UN. But the practical implementation did not follow due to the sudden return of President Hadi.

Before the evening of March 25, 2015 the development of the situation was the following: on the North the coalition of Ansar Allah and ex-President Saleh was opposed by President Hadi, who do not have support in the South, by armed tribal militia and some fragments of the Army Corps.

Any scenario becomes extremely dangerous. But the most hazardous one is an armed conflict between the North and the South that throws Yemen back to the situation of the Civil war of 1994.

But at 11 PM on March 25, 2015 a full-scale military operation was launched following the decision of five member-states of Gulf Cooperation Council (with the exception of Oman). According to the unconfirmed sources Saudi Arabia intends to engage 100 aircrafts and 150 thousand soldiers. The strong Air force will be strengthened by dozens of jets of Gulf countries, Jordan, Morocco. During the last years Saudi Arabia has accumulated a colossal amount of modern weaponry exceeding the Indian volumes of purchases. But the evident military superiority will not solve the political problems.

If the main fault of the Houthis is that they represent the Zaidiyyah community that belongs to the Shia school of Islam, if the religious factor determines the hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and as the situation in Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries has already shown the examples of the possible consequences, then why not to call the Security Council to stop the invasion and sit down at the negotiating table?

Maybe they are guilty of condemning the role of the US and Israel played in the fates of the Arab countries?  Or maybe they are guilty of believing that the main responsibility for abolishing religious terrorism lays upon the Islamic states leaders and not on the US?

The armed conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia is a catastrophe not only for Yemen itself, but for the whole region.

It can lead not only to the radical changes in the Yemeni political map but also to a complete revision of the basic principles of the security system in the zone of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait that is a transit artery for almost a third of the world trade.

Published in Tribune


Maria Dubovikova: I would like to start our conversation with the question we ask all the IMESClub experts: How would you characterize this decade for the Middle East?

Irina Zviagelskaya: Decade? If you tell me at what time the countdown begins?.. 

M.D. From 2003!

I.Z.: From 2003... Basically, it depends on what we are talking about. There is a number of problems, which, unfortunately, have remained unsolved, and have turned into a kind of Middle Eastern routine. I mean, first of all, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately this conflict has not undergone any major positive changes. And we still say that it is necessary for the Palestinians to make a deal with Israel, for Israel  - to be more attentive to the Arab Peace Initiative, and for the members of the "Quartet" - to be more active in this direction. But what happens... From time to time, as we know, the Israelis and the Palestinians gather and talk, and even now there are ongoing negotiations. But, unfortunately, the result is very negative, just as expected. And I fear that the conflict will continue for some time. 

As far as the overall situation in the Middle East is concerned, I believe that the changes are rather serious. First of all, they are connected with the change of regimes. These regimes were leaving for different reasons and on different occasions. In  2003, the U.S. and the allied forces invaded Iraq and the dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown, which, unfortunately, has not led to a complete stabilization of the situation in Iraq, but to the radical  change of  interconfessional ratio in the political system. And I must say that general Saddam Hussein’s leave has marked the beginning of the leave of other leaders who had spent a long time at their places, and to whom we have accustomed. If Saddam Hussein’s leave was due to the external factor, other leaders, as we know, began leaving under the influence of the internal factors. Although I do not rule out the external pressure, which also took place. The update of the political face of the Arab world is quite a significant result of this decade.


M.D.: The Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar are beginning to play one of the key roles in the Middle East now. Due to huge financial resources they have potential influence and ability to push certain initiatives that will be in their geopolitical interests. From your point of view, is their influence on the development of the Middle East positive or negative?

I.Z.: Well, I would not put the question this way, as, if you say that they have a certain influence, pursuing their own interests, then it means that there may be some tactical changes in their position, because the interests are also changing, as well as the idea of what is required in the very moment, and what will be required in the future. But I would like to focus on another issue. First of all, this concerns Qatar. Saudi Arabia has been playing a rather important role in the region for a long time. But Qatar would like to be perceived as a new powerful player, especially in the context of the Arab awakening. A country that has vast financial resources, was able to increase its influence not only using traditional methods, such as arms shipments, aid to the forces solving the problems important for Qatar, and the direct military actions, as it was in Libya, but also by the means of a huge media resource. It is an amazing thing. Because a small Qatar has managed to create such media resource, that puts it in line with the most advanced nations of the world. And I believe that this is an achievement. And I want to focus attention on this. The leverage is changing. And that is very important. Even a small country that we all considered quite a traditional state from a purely formal point of view, basing on its political system, is able to use such instruments. This very traditional state easily manipulates and uses modern methods to influence the minds.


M.D.: Let's go a bit back to the beginning of our interview. You have already mentioned the Arab-Israeli conflict. How has the current situation in the region influenced it? How much have the Arab Spring, the Syrian problem affected the opportunity to resolve the conflict?

I.Z.: There is an opinion, and it is essentially possible to agree with, that as a result of all those violent processes taking place in the Middle East and the Arab world, the Arab-Israeli and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, has faded into the insignificance. It is not insistent anymore. The world community has focused its attention entirely on other countries and processes. But while acknowledging the validity of this conclusion, I still believe that we cannot say that what is happening in the Arab world has just finally put an end to the possibility of a settlement. It was always something not too certain, and it did not change. I would not dramatize the situation too much in this case. It is bad in itself. But you can look at it in a different way. On the one hand, of course, in the current circumstances Israel is not particularly interested in returning the territories, in taking some steps, quite painful for the country, that are, moreover, difficult to explain to a large part of the Israeli population. But on the other hand, in the face of large-scale uncertainty that rules over the whole region, any kind of certainty in its relations with Palestine would be to its advantage. So I'm not sure that everything is lost. But I am not optimistic. I think that a lot of effort will be required to solve this problem.


M.D.: And how does the changes in the US policy, in the US attitude to the conflict, to Israel and current establishing of bridges with Iran, with the new president Rouhani, influence the process of conflict resolution?

I.Z.: The U.S. attempts to enter into a real dialogue with Rouhani respond primarily to American interests. And I'm not sure if it leads to deterioration in US-Israeli relations. Of course, Israel can perceive it rather negatively. But it seems to me that, however, this will not have any effect on Israel. It all depends on what will be the outcome of these negotiations. At the same time, there is a slight possibility that Iran will completely renounce its nuclear program. I do not believe in it, there are too many objects that will obviously continue to work. So, since there is uncertainty, the desire of Israel to consider Iran as an existential threat will remain. Even if the United States conduct negotiations with Iran, this threat will persist, because Israel is looking at Iran from its own point of view. There is a red line for Israel about which it is constantly talking. Actually this red line was first mentioned in the General Assembly by Netanyahu. Israel will consider the possibility of its own unilateral action. Clearly this shows the desire to chill the US willingness to establish a dialogue with Iran. We'll see what happens. In general, while there are changes, some things in the Middle East remain constant. I am not sure whether it is fortunate or not. And in particular, I am not sure that the arrival of a new president can radically change Iranian policy in the region and make it give up the nuclear program.


M.D. From your point of view, will the Syrian civil war play a positive or a negative role in the relations between Russia and the United States, particularly in regard to all the Middle East problems?

I.Z.: I have always been thinking that, unfortunately, Syria has recently become a rather sharp issue dividing Russia and the United States due to a number of circumstances. And this is a dangerous trend. In the end, it's clear that our relations with the U.S. are very important as any relations between two great powers, influencing the development of world. It causes real anxiety when such a question as Syrian, which, despite its significance is still not ranked first in the United States and Russia priorities, becomes a bone of contention, and contributes to the deterioration of relations not only in the Middle East, but also beyond its boundaries. I consider positive what happened as a result of the initiative to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons. And not only because our diplomacy has shown its professionalism in this case. I think that the main positive part is just the fact that it was a compromise situation. That both the U.S. and Russia were able to find common ground on this issue, were able to feel how important this question is for the future joint steps for a political settlement of the situation. In this case, it's clear that the destruction of chemical weapons does not affect the civil war and the opposition parties per se. But this reveals a very important point. The fact is that in current situation Assad becomes a partner in certain activities and negotiations. In these circumstances it is not possible to ignore him. Anyway, his willingness to destroy weapons and to participate in this process enhances his legitimacy. Therefore, in my opinion, all the useless suggestions that “he should go away first, and then we'll talk”, become irrelevant. There are various ways to treat Al Assad. But the fact remains certain. The agreement on the national reconciliation will be impossible without his participation. He may not personally take part in negotiations, but it will still involve people that are part of his entourage, who are from his government. In my opinion this is the starting point. The opposition requirements are unrealistic. But this just affirms that the US and Russia should act together. Although I believe their ability to influence the rivals is still limited, however, given the United States and its allies, and given the position of Russia, we can hope that eventually, maybe not now, we will still be able to induce the parties to sit down at the negotiating table.


M.D. Do you think Geneva-2 will eventually take place? Chances that it won’t take place are still rather strong. And if it never takes place, what are the consequences of such a failure for states, both regional and extra-regional, in particular, such as the U.S., Russia, say, France?

I.Z.: Well, I can say that, of course, there is very little hope that it will be held in the near future. And this is connected, first of all, as we all know, with a very fragmented opposition. Various organizations within the opposition hold different opinions, always the hard ones. The director of our institute Vitaly Naumkin even said that it is better not to try to create a single delegation of the opposition, but to let them form three or four delegations, and make each put its own signature. This option is also theoretically possible. It is extremely difficult to imagine how they can be gathered under one roof, though some attempts have already been made. Lets suppose, that despite all the efforts the Geneva-2 will not take place. I think it will bode ill. Firstly, it will show an absolute weakness of the international community. Its inability to solve such problem as a termination of a bloody conflict, civil war in a relatively small Middle Eastern country. Secondly, I believe, it will show a very low level of interaction between the global and regional international actors, which is also a very negative factor. And basically, I think, if no political decisions are taken, no one knows for how long people will continue to suffer and die in Syria. We must do everything to stop this process.

Published in Interviews
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