Congressional Dispatches: Interview with Dr. Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution

Congressional Dispatches
Interview with Dr. Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution

Conducted by AIC Outreach Coordinator Kayvan Vakili

With the debate over the nuclear deal raging in the US Congress, the AIC is pleased to offer original reporting on the issue in a series entitled, "Congressional Dispatches".

On August 5, 2015, Dr. Ken Pollack Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, testified at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Kayvan Vakili: In your testimony you said you are an “unenthusiastic supporter” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Can you expand on that?

Dr. Ken Pollack: Sure. I think that the deal will impose some meaningful constraints on the Iranian nuclear program for at least the first 10, arguably 15 years. I think it has some very important critical issues in terms of ultimately giving the United States control over whether sanctions get reimposed and what the inspectors can see; all these things are important to it. And I think that it does ultimately create enough disincentives in Iran that it seems unlikely that the Iranians will cheat in some meaningful way on the agreement. As a result, I look at the deal and I say that I think that US interests will be better served by having the deal than by not having the deal.

Vakili: Many critics refer to the release of frozen Iranian funds as a major concern for regional security. In your view, how do you think the Iranians will allocate these funds?

Dr. Pollack: I think it is a major concern, I also think it is unavoidable. My guess is that Iran will use most of the funds to help bolster the civilian economy, repair infrastructure, and create jobs. Part of that though I think will be to try to lock in a great deal of long term contracts with a whole variety of foreign countries, both because Iran needs those contracts and to ensure that sanctions are never reimposed because other countries will have too much at stake to have those deals cut off. I certainly do believe that at least some of those funds will find their ways into the pockets of Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies. I suspect that the Houthis will get their share as well— again, I think that’s unavoidable. I probably think that it will be a small amount of what they get, but nevertheless even a small amount goes a long way in many of these conflicts.

Vakili: When it comes to fighting Daesh [or ISIS], Iran is an ally of the US, but when it comes to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the US and Iran are at odds. How do you see the JCPOA increasing or decreasing tensions related to these situations?

Dr. Pollack: I think that the tension has little to do with the deal itself. I think the tension comes from the fact that the US has defined what it’s doing in the Middle East as being a fight against Daesh. And the problem is that Daesh is a symptom of the underlying problems, not the problem itself. The problems themselves are the civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. And the problem is that we’re trying to treat the symptom without treating the underlying malady; that’s not going to work. That’s what puts us at cross-purposes with all the other nations in the region and renders anything else we try to do ineffective. We learned this lesson both in Iran and Afghanistan; you can’t fight the symptom without treating the disease.

Vakili: The Gulf states to some extent have voiced support for the deal. Do you believe this is actually the case?

Dr. Pollack: No. What I’ve heard from them in private is that they are deeply frightened by the deal. Some of the Gulf countries believe this could be an American realignment toward Iran. I think that tends to be the less sophisticated ones. The more sophisticated are simply afraid that this will become as what they see a part of the Obama administration's overwhelming desire to simply leave the Middle East. So, what they fear is being left in the lurch to face an emboldened Iran.

Vakili: Going off the insecurities you just described that Gulf countries feel, what is the possibility of creating a regional security framework, that contains Arab nations, Turkey and Iran, in the Middle East to resolve longstanding differences?

Dr. Pollack: This idea gets floated from time to time. A kind of NATO for the Middle East. Nobody will use the term CENTO [the Central Treaty Organization that was disbanded in 1979], but that’s the real analogy out there. I suppose it’s a possibility, but it’s going to be difficult. The truth of the matter is all those countries have very different security issues. For instance, are the Turks concerned about Iran? Sure, but they are far more concerned about the Kurds and the Assad regime. Also, the Egyptians aren’t concerned about the Iranians. They’re concerned about the Brotherhood and Libya. The great strength of NATO was that all those countries had one major threat that they could all agree on. Once you start getting in these situations where you’ve got multiple countries and multiple primary threats, it’s very hard to keep an alliance structure together. It why I and a number of others have suggested using a Helsinki structure rather than a NATO structure.