Interviews (23)

Iran remains under intense pressure from the United States, supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration would clearly like to force Iran back into international isolation. Regional powers are also pushing back against what they see as growing Iranian influence among its neighbors. How is Iran negotiating these trends? What countermeasures can it employ?

There is nothing new under the sun here. From the first days of the Islamic Revolution, the country began its adjustment to the difficult conditions of international isolation – something it’s only recently been able to start coming out of. But hardly all countries see Iran as part of an “axis of evil” – the European Union’s stance is different from that of the US and its axis of Middle East allies.

The best Iranian countermeasures to the new US diplomatic and economic offensive are simply to continue to abide by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif uses the word “restraint” quite often in interviews, and one gets a definite sense that the Iranian establishment is wary of being provoked into rash action.

It’s not even clear to what extent the Trump administration is playing an “Art of the Deal” game with noisy threats to withdraw from the agreement. Trump talked in his campaign a lot about US money wasted on recent wars, the cost of NATO, etc. – the expense of empire. A hot conflict with Iran would not be cheap. Of course, that’s assuming there’s some reasoning behind Trump’s actions…

In any case, as of now Trump has only passed the buck on the JCPOA to congress by requesting them to review the agreement. They may well stick to it – surely there is an awareness in Washington, despite the rhetoric, of the damage a unilateral US withdrawal would inflict on its own reputation and international security. If congress balks, Trump can still say he fought it, but lawmakers wouldn’t go along.

But there are and will continue to be new attempts to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, and new provocations. In this kind of game, Iran will continue its displays of “insubordination” to the will of the hegemon while taking care not to go too far.

Of course, if the US continues to use its influence and economic might to block the economic integration promised by the JCPOA – perhaps the deal’s primary incentive from an Iranian perspective – there is a danger that the Iranians will decide it’s not worth it. The tactic of signing an agreement but then stalling its implementation is also not new. It’s worth noting that the Iranian side was complaining about this during Obama’s tenure; it’s not something that cropped up with Trump.

How do you view the continuing hysteria surrounding Iran? Is “hysteria” an overstatement? What can be done to stop the escalation of the Sunni-Shia clashes?

You mean hysteria in the West? I don’t think we are hysterical about Iran here in Russia. I don’t know what can be done about Western hysteria. It’s a very old tradition. Somehow they’ve gone from the “Omar Hayyam Society” in Victorian England to the “Axis of Evil.” Although I think anti-Russian hysteria in some countries may soon outdo anti-Iranian hysteria – that might be a kind of solution to the problem: just replace it with somebody else. 

Perceptions of Iran in many of the Gulf states also seem to verge on paranoia at times. There are historical divisions. Russia has great potential as mediator but much of depends on Russia being seen as objective and not too

What are Iran's national interests internationally? What are its foreign policy goals – both stated and unstated? In other words, where does it want to go? Where does it see itself in the medium term? 

All players in the region (and some outside of it) are striving for influence, and Iran is no exception. But we should not underestimate the degree to which the perception of threat drives Iranian actions. Its goals are to ensure stability on its boarders, to avoid open conflict with the West, at the same time preserving and strengthening its defense capability. The more the perceived danger nearby, the more instability, the more urgent Iran’s need to have a strong influence outside of its borders – in Iraq and Syria, for instance.

But Iran also wants a better dialogue with the West – something that started to happen, but is now uncertain. Iran has become good at maintaining its “resistance economy” – some of my friends in Tehran laughed when I told them several years ago about sanctions imposed on Russia: “Oh, try dealing with it for thirty some years!” they said. But Iran wants and needs to build a better economy, and increasing ties with the West is part of this. Still, the Iranians will be loathe to engage in a dialogue that they feel is one-sided. From their perspective, there have been too many years – decades – of this.

You asked about foreign policy, but many domestic issues are closely connected with foreign policy, so I should talk at least a little about that as well. The economic and social burden of massive numbers of refugees from neighboring failed states – or states forced into failure – is one example that comes to mind. There is also the ethnic policy inside of Iran. Many of the tensions of minority groups in Iran – Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, Turkmen and others – depend on the situation with those same groups just across the border in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – all bordering on Iran with ethnic populations spilling into Iran. In recent years, the central government in Tehran has taken steps to improve the living conditions of minorities in the country and to address their complaints, but the success of these measures is also dependent on outside factors.

It is reported that Iran was heavily involved in defusing the recent incident between Arab Iraqis and Kurds around Kirkuk. If you remember, they were on the verge of an armed conflict. Some will say: again Iran is meddling. But how could Iran not be considered a stakeholder? There are seven to eight million Kurds living in Iran.

It would seem that Iran really does view Russia as an ally. The two countries have achieved significant successes in Syria. How permanent is this alliance? How is it backed up by contracts, treaties, etc.?

It’s difficult to imagine Assad and his government still existing without Russia and Iran. Whether or not that is a success depends on your perspective. Preventing a radical Islamic takeover of Syria is certainly a success. Liberating Palmyra is certainly a success – there was no participation in the battle from the Combined Joint Task Force of half a dozen Western countries, unfortunately. From a logistics point of view alone, cooperation in Syria is not simple. There are diplomatic and cultural nuances too: Russian missile launches from Iranian territory raised questions in the Iran Majles (parliament) – the Iranian constitution categorically prohibits foreign military bases on Iranian territory – this is the specter of Iran’s colonialized history, in which Russia – alongside Britain and America – played a not always positive role.

It will take more work to develop a true alliance – and the long, complicated history between Russian and Iran is an important factor. There were multiple wars, the Turkmanchai Treaty of the early nineteenth century, giving much of northern Iran to the Russian Empire. At the moment, the two countries have common interests, not only in Syria, but security issues in the Caucasus and Central Asia. For a long time now, Russia and Iran have been trying to boost trade, but economic ties are still not anywhere near their potential. Yes, some contracts have been signed, but not nearly as many as have been proposed. There are issues of trust, perhaps, but also pressure from outside.

The fact is that while we may both disagree with much of the United States’ foreign policy, the US holds the keys to the global economy, and access to US markets and financial systems is paramount. And most of the youth of Iran is enchanted with the West and particularly the United States – the pop culture. Although I should say that Russian high culture enjoys an excellent reputation in Iran – the writers, musicians and filmmakers. Iranian culture is also making more and more inroads into Russia. Even in Moscow, we now have an Iranian film festival, there are evenings of Iranian music and poetry. The Iranian Cultural Center here does an excellent job.

It makes little sense to me that we do not have stronger ties, and I hope the future will bring them.

Photo credit: Fotolia / Borna_Mir

IMESClub's Council Chairman, one of the greatest world experts on the Middle East was named this week as a mediator in the Syrian peace talks and advisor to Staffan de Mistura. 

We share the article by Reuters on the matter.


A Russian academic named this week as a mediator in the Syrian peace talks is an acclaimed expert on the Arab world with the trust of the Kremlin, a sign of the influence Moscow has won at the negotiating table after a five-month military campaign.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy on Syria, said he had appointed Russia's Vitaly Naumkin, 70, as a new consultant to support him in brokering peace talks in Geneva between the sides in Syria's civil war. De Mistura said he also wants to appoint an American, who has yet to be named.

The posts reflect the roles of the Cold War-era superpowers as co-sponsors of peace talks that began this week in Geneva, with Moscow a leading supporter of President Bashar al-Assad and Washington friendly with many of his enemies.

Naumkin's position is likely to ensure that Moscow retains its clout at peace talks, even as President Vladimir Putin has announced he is pulling out most of his forces after an intervention that tipped the balance of power Assad's way.

Reuters spoke to nine people who know Naumkin, and all described a talented and well-connected scholar who speaks fluent Arabic and has rich experience mediating in conflicts.

He has close working relationships with Russia's leaders, and describes himself as a protege of Yevgeny Primakov, a former Russian spy chief, foreign minister and prime minister who once served as an architect of Soviet policy in the Middle East and later as an informal mentor to President Vladimir Putin.

Naumkin did not reply to a Reuters request for an interview, but acquaintances said his views were likely to reflect Russia's policies.

"He has a political line, it's our good political line," said Alexei Malashenko, a long-standing Naumkin acquaintance and scholar in residence at the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank.



Another person who knows Naumkin, who gave an assessment of his role on condition of anonymity, described him as a talented academic who would defer to senior Russian officials on policy.

Several of the people who spoke to Reuters said Naumkin was in regular contact with Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's deputy foreign minister and presidential Middle East envoy.

De Mistura nevertheless said Naumkin's job would be to help the U.N. mediation team, not serve Russian interests: "He reports to me, not to his own mother country."

Born in the Ural Mountains, Naumkin studied Arabic language and history at Moscow State University, before serving for two years in the Soviet army teaching Arabic to military interpreters.

He gained a reputation as an outstanding simultaneous interpreter and was called on to translate at high-level meetings between Soviet officials and Arab leaders. It was in this role that he built up a rapport with Primakov, whom he met in Cairo in the 1960s.

Primakov later invited him to work as an academic at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, according to Naumkin's own account. Naumkin did pioneering research into Socotra, an island between Yemen and Somalia, and spent periods living in Yemen and Egypt.

"He knows the Middle East not by hearsay, not from inside an office, but he's lived within it," said Alexander Knyazev, a Kazakhstan-based analyst who has known Naumkin for years.

In the early 1990s, Naumkin facilitated back-channel negotiations between rival sides in a civil war in the mainly Muslim ex-Soviet state of Tajikistan.

Naumkin arrived in the Tajik capital at the height of the fighting together with Harold Saunders, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. Unsolicited, they offered their services as mediators to the Tajik leader.

When he accepted, they went to the Tajik foreign minister's house and slaughtered a sheep to celebrate, according to Kamoludin Abdullaev, a Tajik researcher who was present.

Naumkin's role in the talks was to make sure the opposition's views were heard.

"He was very assertive. The ... negotiations ended successfully," said Mars Sariyev, a former Kyrgyz diplomat who took part on the talks.



Naumkin has already played a back-room role in Syria negotiations, coordinating two rounds of talks in Moscow, backed by the Russian foreign ministry, to try to unite some of Syria's disparate opposition.

Those talks produced no major breakthrough, though not through any fault of Naumkin's, according to Nikolai Sukhov, an Arabist scholar and former student of Naumkin.

People who know Naumkin said he would be unflagging in his efforts to broker a solution in Geneva, would be on good terms with both sides and would not let emotion or frustration get in the way, even if the talks falter.

Western diplomats say it may be useful to have Naumkin in the room at the talks. One said it would encourage the Syrian government delegation to stay at the table despite its reluctance to sit down with its opponents.

Another said it could also be reassuring to the opposition, since the Kremlin has leverage over Damascus: “If the hypothesis is that the Russians will be putting pressure on the regime, maybe it is good to have this guy there.”


(Additional reporting by Olga Dzubenko in BISHKEK, Jack Stubbs and Dmitry Solovyov in MOSCOW, Olzhas Auyezov in ALMATY and Tom Miles and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in GENEVA; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Peter Graff)

Although Riyadh and Ankara are independent players whose interests are not always aligned with those of Washington, they will most likely support the deal promoted by the United States and Russia.
Earlier this week, Russia and the United States agreed on a new ceasefire for Syria that would take effect Saturday. Valdai Club expert Irina Zvyagelskaya believes the deal can seriously change the situation on the ground.

“This agreement is the only option for Syria that can de-escalate the conflict or at least lay the groundwork for de-escalation,” Zvyagelskaya, senior fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, told Valdaiclub.comin a telephone interview Wednesday.

“The deal has demonstrated once again that Russia and the US have common political interests. Both Russia and the United States recognize that the Syrian conflict has no military solution and a political mechanism must be launched,” she pointed out.

“It is important that Moscow and Washington, as they are trying to broker a peace deal, can rely on a broad group of countries, which share their goals,” she said referring to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG).

Zvyagelskaya singled out several problems she believes will arise during the deal implementation. “First of all, it will be hard to establish who observes the deal and who does not,” she said. “It means that those parties to the conflict which are ready to cease fire must explicitly claim that,” the scholar pointed out.

Russia has played a significant role by persuading the Syrian government to start negotiating with those opposition forces, which are ready for peace, Zvyagelskaya said. “Now it is crucial that the United States uses its clout to mitigate the positions of the forces it supports,” she added.

Asked if other countries of the region, which are known to support opposition forces in Syria, could prevent implementation of the deal, the scholar said she did not expect Turkey or Saudi Arabia to disrupt the agreement. “Although Riyadh and Ankara are independent players whose interests are not always aligned with those of Washington, they will most likely support the deal promoted by the United States and Russia,” Zvyagelskaya said.
Initially published by Valdai Club
Many experts believe a new government can sanction and coordinate a new western military operation in Libya aimed at destroying ISIS. Mustapha Tlili, Founder and Director of the New York University Center for Dialogues: Islamic World-U.S.-The West, told what dangers such an operation could pose.
This week, Libya's internationally backed presidency council proposed a new unity cabinet aimed at ending severe divisions in the country engulfed in a civil war since 2014 and targeted by the ISIS terrorist group. Many experts believe a new government can sanction and coordinate a new western military operation in Libya aimed at destroying ISIS. Mustapha Tlili, Founder and Director of the New York University Center for Dialogues: Islamic World-U.S.-The West, told what dangers such an operation could pose.

“Right now, we have a very dangerous situation, as ISIS is gradually shifting its power and bases from Syria and Iraq,” Tlili said in a telephone interview. 

“There should be an intervention to put an end to this cancer, which is ISIS, but it cannot be done without taking into account the aftermath,” the scholar pointed out. 

First of all, any decision on a military operation must be authorized by the United Nations. “If it does not have the legitimacy of the Security Council, this would open the door to all the dire consequences that we have seen in interventions of this kind, particularly when the Bush administration decided to go without the approval of the Security Council to get rid of Saddam Hussein and when the West began to pursue its policy with regard to Syria and Bashar Assad,” Tlili said.

Also, any decision on a military operation must take into account the particular problems of the neighbouring countries, he added. “Tunisia, for instance, is the most exposed of Libya’s neighbours with regard to ISIS, because the border is not secured. So it is not clear if it can stop completely the infiltration of jihadists from Libya to Tunisia. Second, there are almost two million Libyan refugees in Tunisia. If NATO attacks Libya, more refugees will flee to Tunisia. We know now that the flow of refugees can be an occasion for jihadists coming under the guise of refugees to strike,” the scholar elaborated.
“In a few words, it is necessary to get rid of ISIS in Libya, because it is a very big potential danger to everyone: not only to the neighbouring countries, the West and even to Russia,” Tlili said. “But we now know that you can start something which seems to be logical, that is attacking some source of evil, but then you end up with more evil than what you started with. This is exactly what happened when NATO bombed Libya to get rid of Gaddafi,” the expert concluded.
Initially published by Valdai Club

Vice-President of IMESClub has shared his analysis on the Syrian crisis and the Russia's involvement in a fight with ISIS.

Discussion was held in arabic by Al Jazeera TV.موسكو-وواشنطن-وطهران-حدود-التنافس-والتنسيق-بسوريا 

Mustapha Tlili, novelist, Director of the UN information Center for 30 years and columnist for the New York Times carries an optimistic and confident outlook on Tunisia and its ability “to meet the challenges of democracy and modernity”.

However, he is more cautious about the development of the situation in other countries of the region (Syria and Lybia).  “We opened the Pandora's box”, says Mustapha Tlili.


S'agit-il vraiment de l'accord historique attendu par tous ?

Oui, s'il aboutit effectivement à un accord définitif le 30 juin. Il mettra fin à trente-cinq ans de relations conflictuelles entre Téhéran et Washington, réintégrant l'Iran dans le concert des nations et assurant le renoncement à l'arme nucléaire de ce dernier. Les protocoles de contrôle, pour éviter des tricheries de Téhéran, comme celles qui lui avaient permis de construire le site souterrain de Fordow, me semblent très sérieux, très précis. 

Le calendrier de la levée des sanctions fait-il question ?

Le texte est ambigu sur ce point, car il ne précise pas clairement quand elles seraient levées, hormis une mention du respect par l'Iran de ses engagements. En outre, il parle de  « sanctions », indéterminées, et non pas  « des sanctions » dans leur ensemble. Il s'agit de ce que les diplomates appellent des « ambiguïtés constructives », volontaires, qui permettent de ne pas bloquer la dynamique de l'accord, à charge ensuite d'être dissipées en juin. A noter au passage que les Etats-Unis maintiennent quoi qu'il arrive les sanctions qui ont été prises au nom de la lutte contre le terrorisme ou pour les droits de l'homme. Les rivalités demeurent. D'ailleurs, l'Iran ne renonce pas à sa politique d'influence au Moyen-Orient, notamment en Syrie ou au Liban. On est encore très loin du « grand bargain » que certains pronostiquent entre Washington et Téhéran ou d'un renversement d'alliances. Les Saoudiens n'ont d'ailleurs pas réagi de manière critique à l'annonce de l'accord. 


Les tenants d'une ligne dure peuvent-ils encore faire échouer les négociations ?

Ca leur sera difficile, même s'ils disposent toujours d'une capacité de nuisance. A Téhéran on entend à peine les adversaires du compromis et le ministre des Affaires étrangères, Javad Zarif, a reçu un accueil triomphal. Aux Etats-Unis, les républicains alliés aux faucons parmi les démocrates auront du mal à faire voter de nouvelles sanctions contre l'Iran à la majorité des deux tiers du Congrès nécessaire pour surmonter le veto présidentiel. Le gouvernement israélien n'a pas renoncé à faire échouer l'accord, mais ne dispose pas de beaucoup de leviers pour cela. 


Propos recueillis par Y. B., Les Echos

En savoir plus :

I would like to start our conversation with an interesting and important question - the future of political Islam. This topic has been discussed in our conversation with Mustafa Tlili. Examples of Tunisia and Egypt, where Islamists coming into power had a short time in office then faced a complete defeat, let us raise this question. Many experts beleive that political Islam is not able to gain a foothold in power for a long time and will inevitably give way to secular forces soon. Some experts think that after this failure, both in Egypt and Tunisia, the political Islam is on the brink of complete decomposition. What do you think of the future of political Islam in the Middle East?

 It’s a difficult question. It needs excursion into history to understand, firstly, what the political Islam is. Secondly we need an excursion into the history in order to understand why it has acquired such strength. It is difficult to answer unequivocally, what will happen to political Islam. A whole lecture is required.


But if not to take this question in a historical perspective, its formation, its development? What if to talk about the future of political Islam taking the Arab Spring as a starting point, which in turn was quite a unique phenomenon, given its absolutely secular slogans and then the subsequent arrival of the Islamists? And then these Islamists’ rule did not last long. At the current moment in history and in the foreseeable future, after this failure, in your opinion is  it also difficult to make predictions about the future of political Islam?

 Well, I would say that it is still very difficult to give an answer. Firstly, because there is no clear definition of what the political Islam is. The arrival into power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia has shown the two things: on the one hand, that the people wanted a change and rejected the autocratic regimes that did not give them the freedom and security, that they could not withstand the omnipotence of the elites, unemployment, corruption etc. any longer. On the other hand, political vacuum has been created, and it turned out that the most organised political force was Muslim Brotherhood that had carried out much work with the population in the social field and had a good position. As a result, the Islamists have won the elections, both in Egypt and in Tunisia. But in the future, indeed, they have failed as they did not have any adequate program, because all their slogans were designed to overthrow the existing regimes, there were no constructive, positive action programs: how to withdraw their countries out of the crisis, how to proved people with work. And so they have not existed for long. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, this failure of relatively moderate political Islamists led to a dramatic rise of the radical Islamists, who took advantage of the situation and have considerably strengthened their positions in many areas. Today they spread their influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya and in several African countries. And there is no understanding how the other events in the region of the Middle East will develop. The fact to be admitted is that the radical methods of struggle, barbaric, savage cruelty, are quite effective. The young people who are in a state of frustration, who were disappointed, because of being jobless with no perspectives, with no chances to live a decent life, more and more of them join these radical Islamists because they do not see another way. After all, all they want is to have everything they want here and now, as soon as possible.

All phenomena have a dialectical side. I think that the Muslim Brotherhood suffered a big blow, and it is unlikely that they will resurrect as a phoenix, at least in Egypt. But many of their supporters and fans now join the ranks of radical Islamists.

I would like to stress once again the fact that political Islam should be correctly identified - what do we mean by this term. Because those theocratic regimes that exist in the Gulf States may fall under the definition of political Islam too. And they do a lot to put the struggle, which is now underway, in the mainstream of the Shiite and Sunni Islam etc. I would not jump to conclusions that political Islam disappears or is weakened. It is transforming, taking new forms. I think that now we see the strengthening of radical Islam against the background of the moderate Islam weakening. 

 The future of political Islam depends on how the rulers will be able to solve the problems of social development. First of all:  to get rid of the terrible poverty, to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, to deal with unemployment, corruption, etc. Anyway, in my opinion, we witness now if not a victorious march of radical Islam, then something like that. Boko Haram militants have sworn allegiance to ISIS. In Libya ISIS rebels are quite successful, having manifested themselves through the execution of the 22 Copts. And more and more Islamist movements swear allegiance to the Caliphate led by Caliph Ibrahim. So I think that these processes are far from being completed. We see them in the dynamics. What will the outcome of this process be depends, firstly, on foreign intervention, which always determines a lot. And secondly, it depends on how successful the Assad’s Syrian Army actions against militants of ISIS will be and how successfully the Iraqis will be able to press the ISIS. In any case, now even the US, who actually provoked the rise of these radicals, begins to realize that it’s impossible to defeat this terrible evil without cooperation with the Iraqi and Syrian authorities.


Despite the bombardments of the coalition forces the ISIS still augments its influence, which has already expanded beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria and even the Middle Eastern region as in case with Boko Haram in Africa, and according to some sources the ISIS is already entering Afghanistan. The efficiency of the measures taken by the coalition is debated.  What do you think that the international community should undertake in order to stop and abolish ISIS? What should be revised in the current approach to this problem resolution? And what are the prospects of the struggle against the Islamic state in the current situation?

We should be ready for the new victories of ISIS and new complications, tensions, new conflicts. Why? The support of these radicals among the Muslim youth that does not want to wait is increasing. And despite its cruelty ISIS is considered efficient. The main thing attractive for the new recruits is the injustice of current conditions. Aspiration for justice is natural. The willingness to see this justice during one’s life makes many young people enter the ranks of these fighters. They believe that in such a way they will be able to deracinate the root of evil of the injustice. 

New turmoil should be expected.

I always say that the Americans are interested in the instability in the Middle East. The do not depend on the Middle Eastern oil anymore. These conflicts allow them to control their allies – Europe and Asia as they depend on this oil much more.

The shortsighted position of Europe that depends much on these resources and moreover supplies many new recruits to these Islamist groups is unclear. In fact, by such position it sets fire in its own home. During the execution of the Copts the leader of this gang pointed his knife in the direction of Rome по тексту что-то другое было  and said: “Wait for us”. The Europeans do not make proper conclusions from the latest terrorist acts.

They have focused all their efforts to cut Ukraine form Russia. This is a very shortsighted policy. And while it goes on there will be no progress in fight against ISIS. The so-called coalition with the US in head is active for a year and nothing has changed. The Iraqi are even unable to take Tikrit. They say they need help from coalition. Additional forces are required.

The international efforts should be combined. Not only in the military sphere but also the fight against this ideology, education measures for this Muslim youth, cutting the funding channels. But it is virtually impossible in the conditions of international tensions and ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The understanding that the international efforts should be united to fight this cancer tumor is coming to the Middle East. The efforts are fruitful only if the international community is united.

This was the same in the Syrian case. A big war – the US bombardments, was averted then. We have agreed on the chemical weapons destruction with the Americans. And now we are on the verge of a new turn of tension.

For example the Saudi already voice their intentions to get the nuclear weapons as they are not content with the US agreements with Iran. Egypt is considering nuclear programs. Turkey as well. That will be the result. The situation is difficult and explosive.

However our Western partners believe that they will manage to avert new terrorist acts – that is not the case. Western Europe is unable to elaborate an adequate program to integrate 30 millions of Muslims. They do not have an understanding of how to pacify their own Muslims, not speaking about the efforts to suppress radical Islamists in the Middle East. If they do not change their approach – the situation will not change and will severely deteriorate. I do not share the optimism that the bombardments will help to stop ISIS and vanquish them. I think that further everything will be worse and more complicated.

In the conditions of crisis with the West Russia has declared its turn to the East now. And the first step was an important strengthening of relations with Egypt. Moreover, Russia was among the first countries to declare support for Egypt after the execution of Copts. And that provoked some assumptions in the international community that Russia may even join the international coalition.


How Russia is important for the Middle East now? And is there possibility of its joining the international coalition?

Russia is a great power. And it has such potential that nothing can be done without it. All the more it concerns the Middle East, where we have rather strong positions. It is not only regarding the Syrian crisis. It is also about Turkey. Though there are some differences with Turkey on the Syrian crisis, the cooperation between our countries is increasing and Russian-Turkish cooperation is strengthening in all the spheres. There is also an intensive cooperation with Egypt. There is an active exchange of delegations. Many of them are not covered in media. We exchange information. There is an ongoing military cooperation. And all this will continue. Russia is awaited in Iraq. The Iraqi warmly recall their cooperation with Moscow in all the spheres, and mainly in the weaponry.

There is the same for Libya. I was an Ambassador there. Two Libyans from opposition have come saying that all the parties of the Libyan conflict, including the Islamists believe that Russian participation is essential to preserve a united Libya. They do not trust others. Even the Islamists! The Italian Prime Minister has recently arrived here and besides the discussion of the Ukrainian crisis he asked to help with Libya as the crisis there is the direct threat for the Italians. And this is really so. They are not so far away: the Libyan shore is close enough to Sicily. How to resolve the Libyan crisis? Only with the participation of Moscow.

The Eastern turn does exist and it will go on. The second meeting with Syrian opposition and representatives of the Syrian government will take place in April. Russia does much effort to achieve a real settlement. Russia sticks to a position that no conflict can be resolved from the position of force in the 21st century. Everybody should make agreements. This position is becoming increasingly attractive for the Arab capitals. Everybody is positive towards Russia.

And there are more and more examples. We have wonderful relations with Sudan, there are traditionally admirable relations with Algeria. In the Persian Gulf they also say that Russia is a trusted partner. And I believe that it will be soon reflected in the figures of trade and economic cooperation. But it requires some time.

 The main idea is that there are so many issues today that they should be resolved exclusively by the political means and only on the basis of collective cooperation and efforts. There are some elements of understanding now. There were some attempts before to resolve the Syrian crisis by the “Friends of Syria”. There were constant meetings. And now Kerry says that this problem cannot be resolved without the dialogue with the government of Assad. And the CIA director says, “You take out Assad and what will happen? The thugs will come?” The signs of understanding are visible. But they are just the first ones.

As far as joining the international coalition is concerned – we have already voiced our position that we condemn this format. We believe that the struggle with ISIS should be complex. And it should be multifunctional: not only the military one by supplying arms, but by cutting the financial influxes, serious educational measures for the youth, not to make it susceptible to the blandishment of these wild preachers that say that one should live as in the 7th century. It is essential to cope with this evil. But as currently the West is focused on arguing with Russia over the Ukrainian issues, we are unable to speak about any real political, efficient cooperation now. It is an incorrect choice of priories.

The Europeans should understand that taking into consideration their problems with migration policy and successful recruitment of Europeans by the ISIS, they are able to resolve them only in cooperation with Russia. We coexist more than a millennium: the Christians of the Eastern and Western Churches. Of course we have misunderstandings. But we coexist perfectly. We have created our own system. But we should fight the extremism together. And the particular attention should be paid to the system of education so that it does not produce partisans of barbaric extremists.


Maria Dubovikova: Tunisia has become the first democracy in the Middle East, first of all due to the fact that its society is far more liberalized than any other country of the Middle East. Tunisia has once more confirmed that policy of “putting the cart before the horse” is useless, that obtrusion of democratic institutions doesn’t lead to the establishment of liberal democracy, and that to establish one, the society itself should be liberalized, which will automatically lead to the establishment of democratic rule. So can we say that Tunisian success becomes possible thanks to its historically strong ties with France? And in this case why didn’t the Arab Spring touch Morocco, which also has strong ties with France and a society that is more liberalized compared to the other countries of the MENA? Or, if Tunisia was and is the most liberalized country of the Middle East, why did the Islamists win the first elections after the fall of Ben Ali?


Mustapha Tlili: Tunisia and Morocco are different in many ways. First, they are different in terms of their size and population. On the one hand, you have about 30 million people in Morocco and approximately 10-11 million in Tunisia. Second, Tunisia is far more urbanized – you could even say far more advanced – than Morocco. Morocco remains a more rural country. Tunisia is up to 85% urban. That’s a big difference. If you look at the map of Tunisia, you’ll see that the concentration of the population is along the coast. And that concentration of the population along the coast orients its outlook towards the north, rather then towards the east or the west. When Tunisians think about their daily lives, of how to improve them, they don’t think east or west. They think north because Sardinia (Italy) is 20 minutes away by plane; Rome is 40 minutes. You can take a morning flight, do whatever you have to do in Rome, and come back in the afternoon. Paris is practically the same distance. The flight takes less then two hours. You can go there in the morning and come back in the afternoon. The whole length of Southern France and Southern Italy is so close – that has a huge impact. Also, the middle class in Tunisia is much stronger than the middle class in Morocco. Tunisia is more successful in terms of GDP, of buying power, of the level of comfort of middle class living. They invest in lasting things – houses and other property – connected with stability. If you are raised with these things, you are not going to burn down your own things or your brother’s – you are rising up because you want to change the structure. In Morocco, the population cannot even rise up because of the overwhelming power of the Monarchy and the tools of oppression the Monarchy has at its disposal. In Tunisia, when the break-down happened, it was a real revolution intended to stop the corrupt regime and the power it exercised through the police. The revolution was also connected with middle class ideology and demographics – hundreds of thousands of youth that were very well educated, with university diplomas, but jobless. If you look at the slogans of the revolution, they are dignity, employment, and freedom of expression. You’ll find them to be almost the same slogans of the Prague Spring – they were calling for freedom, for freedom of expression, for the end of dictatorship, and so on and so forth. In Morocco you didn’t have this. You had only a few demonstrations…


MD:  Shut down by the government.


MT:  Yes. These are differences that are very important and which we have to keep in mind. Also, the Islamists got into the picture later – they were not initially part of the revolution. The dictator fled the country on January 14, 2011. The following day «Project Syndicate» asked me to write a piece on the event. It appeared on January 20. By that time, most of the analysts expected the Islamists to come. But the Islamists were nowhere to be found. I started my piece this way. And this is a fact. Twenty years after The New York Times featured the fall of Bourguiba, the front-page article announced the flight of Ben Ali with a big picture. Look up that photo: it was a photo of a huge demonstration on January 14, the day Ben Ali fled the country. There is a sea of men and women. I looked at the photo trying to find a single woman with a headscarf or hijab, trying to find a single man with a beard. I started my column precisely with this observation. There is no way you can look at this image and find the Islamists present. If you look at the slogans that prevailed during these demonstrations, there was not a single call for the application of sharia. The protesters demands were – without exception – the typical demands of a middle class country for more freedoms. What happened, as history will show, is that Islamists were pushed by some powers to take advantage of the situation and to start making their presence known. And that is what happened in Tunisia. Suddenly, some of them who had been in exile, like Ghanushi, began showing their heads. And they had a lot of money. They were inundating the country with money to show their power. For instance, they bought a huge modern building to serve as their headquarters. Then they stated spreading their network across the country through local offices they established all over the place. They also started doing charity work in the country knowing very well there would be elections in few months. Spending huge amounts of money – and there are many indications that this money came from Qatar – the Islamists started preparing for elections. And given the sympathy that the Islamists had gained when they were in prison and in exile, and given the fact that secular forces (leftists, liberals, etc.) were not united and were fighting each other for power, the results of the elections were disastrous. The Islamists won over 80% of the vote. It had been agreed before the elections that the winning force would form the government. Despite their victory, the fact is, the Islamists were late to the party. The same is true for Egypt. If you go back to the history of that period (which already seems far away), the Islamists were not even thinking about presenting candidates for election. They said they were not thinking of running for the presidency. But then they changed their mind.


MD: Yes, as they could not imagine themselves coming into power after the years of oppression!


MT: Yes! And it should be said that when the Islamists came to power in Tunisia, instead of focusing on the demands of the revolution (jobs, dignity, freedom), they thought they had a mandate to change the identity of the country…. to impose sharia, to roll back the rights of women, to Islamize the country as if the country was not Muslim enough. And when Tunisians realized these objectives, they said no.


MD: I read, if I’m not mistaken, an article on the basis of your interview, given in February of this year to the Tunisian website. There you have said that there is an end of political Islam in Tunisia.


MT: Not only in Tunisia, but all over the Middle East.


MD: But what about ISIS? It’s not just Islamism, it’s extremism, and what’s more, it is an Islamic political extremism. I think it’s a new phenomenon we’ve never faced before in modern history. Are you taking into account the Salafists in Egypt who are much more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood and still remain popular enough and have their electorate, or taking into account that there are many people who share the Islamist ideas, who even join the ranks of ISIS pushed by their faith? Can we really talk about the end of political Islam? Or maybe this is true for the current moment of history for some countries, and then the Islamists will return to power? Do you think that it is an absolute end with no possibility of recovery?


MT: Well, if we’re going to talk about the Muslim Brotherhood, we should look deep in its history. The movement's ideologue, Saïd al-Qotb, had spent one year in the United States and was overwhelmed by all the expressions of modernity, shocked by the decadence of the lifestyle and so on. And so he came back with a reaffirmed conviction that Muslim societies, which were lagging behind, could not in any way reach the West, nor improve their conditions within the Western model because the Western model was decadent – and therefore there should be an Islamic solution. He came up with the slogan: Islam is the solution. In the minds of al- Qotb and his successors, we should go back to the Islamic tradition, to the past. We have to renew the things that we have lost, we have to revive the ways of the Prophet, the ways of the caliphs, and the ways of those who the caliphs governed to solve today’s problems. Sometimes they got the chance to act openly; sometimes they were oppressed. But the Muslim Brotherhood persisted in Egypt through several different experiments in nation-building: first, the Pan-Arabism of Nasser, which failed, then pan-socialism. (This was also during Nasser’s time; what started as a Pan-Arabism evolved into the propaganda of Arab socialism under the influence of the Soviet Union and following Egypt’s problems with the U.S. due to the Israel issue.) That also failed. Then came Sadat, and a new period of authoritarian nationalism, which continued through Sadat’s rule and most of Mubarak’s rule. In the background, there was always a possibility of an “Islamic solution,” but until the revolution, the Islamists never had the chance to prove that their solution worked. And this is why they were elected by a majority in Egypt: because the people believed that since all the previous solutions had failed, these guys must have the answer. We know the result – in Egypt as well as in Tunisia. The Islamists were given a chance to rule for three years and they were a total failure. This is why I say the movement is over – because they had a chance to make an impact –


MD: But the chance is lost.


MT: It is for today. Take communism! It had its time. The industrial revolution saddled the labor class with numerous problems. Then came Marx with a beautiful theory, Engels to transform this theory into action, then Lenin and so forth. For all of them, communism was a solution. Seventy-five years later, it collapsed. It could not satisfy people’s demands and aspirations. The propaganda claimed, «We are better than the West», but the reality was different. Now having seen and lived in a consumer society, Russians are not going back to communism. Communism had its chance, but it failed.

Similarly, political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood won’t come back. That’s why there is a crisis within the MB. There is a big crisis within Ennahda in Tunisia, too, because they know that they have failed. They have to review and revise their ideology and rid it of ideas like the establishment of sharia. Perhaps they should think of themselves as a Muslim party in the same way Christian democrats in Europe are inspired by Christian principles, but do not try to create a system of governance based in Christian authority. As long as the Islamists continue trying to create a system of governance according to Islam (such as sharia), as long as they stay as they are, they have no chance of being part of the political system and the society.


MD: Ok! But if the Islamist ideas are no longer attractive to these societies – taking into account the dramatic catastrophe that is going in Iraq and Syria – why do they still appear to be attractive for Europeans, who are fleeing the countries they are living in and joining ISIS? Why, as this kind of Islamism loses its influence in the Middle East, is it at the same time gaining supporters and partisans in Western societies?


MT: The reason for this is a failure of European countries in integrating Muslim immigrants. If you look at those who are joining the ranks of ISIS, they are marginalized youth. Many have been in prison or were drugs addicts. This is what I love about sociology – you are going to the roots of social problems. It’s clear if you look at the biographies of those who have joined ISIS that there has been a failure of immigration policy and failure of integration of Muslim immigrants into European societies. The reason why the ideology is attractive is because the youth who are rejected, who are marginalized, find in the preaching of those extremists who approach them something they can identify themselves with while seeking revenge against the West. If you look at the videos they produce and analyze the language of these videos, they are all about revenge. Take another symbol– the robe their prisoners wear. Those orange clothes are meant to remind you of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where the Americans tortured their prisoners.


MD: Lakhdar Brahimi accused the West of contributing to the creation of ISIS. Do you agree with him?


MT: No. The West produced horrors that remained in the imagination of these young people, who saw these images on TV. And when you are living in a marginalized society, or society group, growing up with the images of torture of Muslim co-religionists in Syria and Iraq, then you are growing up with the feeling that you should take revenge. And in that sense, the West has contributed, but not – at least in my perspective – by allowing or helping ISIS to be formed. We have to be very careful. But in the sense of the 2003 Iraq war having influence on the formation of ISIS – yes, he is absolutely right. If you look at the composition of ISIS, at who the soldiers are…


MD: The ex-Saddam soldiers!


MT: Yes! And the U.S.’s big mistake in the early years of the occupation was the disbandment of the Iraqi army, which created an army of unhappy people dreaming of revenge.


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