The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan assesses Iran’s involvement in the Israeli-Hamas war.
HH: Last hour, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. This hour, Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic. Welcome back, Robert, Happy New Year to the author of Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, great to have you.
RK: Great to be here, Hugh, Happy New Year to you as well.
HH: One of the most provocative pieces on the Gaza war that I have read, and I’ve said this to the audience earlier, is your piece today in The Atlantic. I just want to quote one line for the audience. “The mullahs in Tehran hold more sway in Gaza today than does the tired Brezhnevite regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Gaza constitutes the western edge of Iran’s veritable new empire, cartographically akin to an ancient Persian one that now stretches all the way to western Afghanistan where Kabul holds no sway, and which is under Iranian economic domination.” You really see Israel’s battle for Gaza as an opening shot in what might be a prolonged confrontation with Iran, Robert Kaplan.
RK: Yes, I do. It’s interesting. In western Afghanistan now, Hugh, the Iranian currency is what circulates. The Iranians provide all the electricity for the electric grid. All the trade is with Iran. In Gaza, thought it’s less organic than with Hezbollah with truer Shiite Muslims, the Gazan Palestinians are Sunni Muslims. Still, it is, Iran has greater influence. Think of this. Tehran has greater influence in Gaza, Tehran, you know, hundreds of miles away, than Egypt which controlled the territory from 1949-1967. So by attacking Gaza in the way they did in the methodical and yet surprising way they did, Israel in effect has launched an opening shot at the Iranian empire, which is an empire in the sense, because it holds great sway from the Mediterranean right through to central Afghanistan.
HH: Robert Kaplan, one of the most interesting things about your piece today is, and it gave me the most amount of hope I’ve had in a long time watching this, is that of course, the Iranian empire’s hollow at its core. It’s hated, the mullahs are hated by a lot of their people. Does the Israeli assault in Gaza increase or decrease the likelihood of revolution within the Iranian regime in your view?
RK: I don’t think so that much. Gaza appeals to a policy elite in Iran. What really directs domestic politics within Iran is the state of the economy. And the oil price has gone down from the high $140 dollars a barrel to around the lowest around $37 dollars per barrel. And Iran is terribly mismanaged, it’s highly corrupt. The mullah regime in Iran rests on a very narrow power base. So we have the irony of a very pivotally important Persian empire that has more influence in many Arab countries even though they’re Shiite Persians, and yet is hated at its core inside Iran itself. Inside Iran itself, the mullahs regime is seen as having destroyed the middle class, as having destroyed the Iranian currency. So the Middle East hangs on a pivot, so to speak. That’s why I say towards the end of the piece that is as fanciful as this may seem, sometime in the next decade or so, it’s not out of the question that Iran would have better relations with Israel than many countries in the Arab world, because say you’re a Martian, Hugh, and you landed suddenly inside Iran and traveled around the country, and then you landed suddenly in Egypt and traveled around the country. You would think that Iranians were more pro-American and less anti-Israel than Egyptians are.
HH: Sure, sure. And yet one is, the latter is our ally and the former is our enemy right now.
RK: Exactly. That’s the irony.
HH: Well now, let me ask you in terms of Hamas, though. One of my e-mailers who knew you were coming on sent in a quote via Twitter. “I read Imperial Grunts. Who are the…question for Kaplan…who are the toughest thugs you’ve seen? And how do the Hamas fighters measure up to Fatah in a fight,” and I might add, vis-à-vis Israel as well?
RK: They’re very tough fighters, because they’re fighting for what they believe in. As I said in the piece, Israel, the Israeli Security Services and military have gained their reputation over the decades for fighting Arab state armies very brilliantly. But Arab state armies were never very good, because Arabs never believed in their states to begin with. But when Arabs fight at the sub-state level, for Hezbollah, for Hamas, the Shiite Mahdi army in southern Iraq, they’re fighting for things that they believe in, that have more reality to them than the artificiality of the Arab state. And therefore…and that’s a much tougher adversary for Israel to deal with. And Israel still hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with it. They’re obviously doing better in Gaza than they did with Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon.
HH: Robert Kaplan, I remember going back to one of your books before 9/11, Eastward To Tartary, that you spent time in Jordan and Syria rolling around in those countries and talking to people. In the years since that book, through the 9/11 experience, et cetera, have the Arab masses, the people who are at the bottom of that pyramid, become more resigned or more radical vis-à-vis the rest of the world?
RK: I think they’ve become both, actually. I think they’ve become more radicalized in terms of their hatred for Israel, or hatred for Americans. But they’ve also become more resigned, because their regimes are hard to overthrow. Now each regime is a different story. It’s a very nuanced story in Jordan, where people don’t necessarily hate the regime, because the Hashemite dynasty has real legitimacy. I think there’s real hatred and dislike of the regime in Egypt. I think Egypt is the real uncovered story of this new cycle of the next news cycle. You know, you have an 80 year old president, Hosni Mubarak, who’s been in power since 1981, who excites no, who inspires nothing, who as I write in the piece, is very Brezhnev, Chernenko-like. He’s like a dying communist dictator. And there’s no legitimacy to that regime whatsoever. So there’s a lot of disgust among working class Sunni Arabs. And yet at the same time, they channel that disgust not towards hatred of their regimes so much as hatred towards us.
HH: Now in terms of where does the solution come, Jeffrey Goldberg sort of laughed at how I’m always looking for a solution here. I wonder if it isn’t, when we get past Bush derangement syndrome, when he’s been gone for a while, if it won’t become possible to look at Iraq and say you know what? Generally speaking, we have to have democratic competition among multi-party societies to ever alleviate the Arab…they used to call Turkey the sick man of Asia, but the sick region of the world is the Middle East. Is there hope in that? Is there hope in the Iraqi multi-party…
RK: Yeah, I think it’s reasonable. It’s reasonable to assume that Iraq will evolve into a very imperfect, corrupt but functioning democracy where there’ll always be big problems that the media can write pages and pages about, but which nevertheless bumbles along and ultimately gains more legitimacy than many of these Arab dictatorships do, and thus becomes a focal point for some sort of reformation in the Middle East.
HH: Now Robert Kaplan, last time we talked, it was about the Mumbai terrorist attacks. You had just come back from India and were talking about the Pakistan instability, and now we’re talking about Hamas and Israel going at each other. I think the next four to ten years, the years of Obama, are among the most perilous anyone’s ever imagined. Do you think he has it…
RK: Yes, I agree with that.
HH: Does he have a team that you have confidence in, General Jones, et cetera?
RK: Because for a number of reasons, India-Pakistani relations are more tense than they’ve ever been since both sides became nuclear powers. Iran is increasingly an imperial power in the Middle East, yet the Iranian regime is very unpopular within its own country. The years of Obama will probably see a transition in Egypt. We don’t know how that will go. The years of Obama will see either the stabilization and the legitimization of the regime in Syria under Bashar al Assad, or the opposite. So there are a lot of things that are going to happen in the greater Middle East that are going to occur just chronologically speaking during the years of Obama, four to eight.
HH: Do you think he has a good team around him for those years?
RK: I think he does. I think he’s picked a far more centrist team in national security than his campaign rhetoric would have indicated. General James Jones, who is a very innovative supreme allied commander of Europe, who was Commandant of the Marine Corps, may well have been picked for the same job had John McCain been elected. We have the continuation of Robert Gates, and whatever people think about Hillary, she represents the centrist instincts of the Democratic Party. So I think…and Admiral Dennis Blair, who was combatant commander of PACOM out in the Pacific as the National Intelligence Chief, these are all very centrist people.
HH: Robert Kaplan, author of Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, a must read in this era, thanks for the piece in The Atlantic today. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com. We’ll check back with you soon.
End of interview.