Abraham Accords: Promise-Potential; Risk-Reality

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As Indonesia, Somalia, Niger, and Mauritania may be next to join the Abraham Accords, what interests unify these countries on Accord agreement? What will be the impact of Saudi Arabia’s alignment with Iran? What are the balance of power dynamics for the Iran-concerned Accord countries of Israel, Bahrain, UAE? What binds signatories to the Accords as regional political pressures mount? 

Discussants will assess the impact of the normalization of relationships they have evolved in the two and a half years since Accords were negotiated. Cultural shifts are already reported after two years of active Accords with Hebrew frequently spoken on the streets of Dubai. Trade has flourished. Flights and overflights are routine. But the United States’ role has shifted for a variety of reasons. Is America’s leadership critical to salutary Accord developments? 


  • David P. Goldman, President, Macrostrategy LLC
  • Hon. Brian Hook, Founder, Latitude, LLC
  • Prof. Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies & Director of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, Princeton University
  • Moderator: Prof. Jamil Jaffer, Adjunct Professor, NSI Founder, and Director, National Security Law & Policy Program, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University


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As always, the Federalist Society takes no position on particular legal or public policy issues; all expressions of opinion are those of the speaker.

Event Transcript



Jack Capizzi:  Welcome to today's Federalist Society virtual event. This afternoon, March 27, 2023, we are discussing the Abraham Accords: Promise-Potential Risk-Reality. My name is Jack Capizzi, and I'm an assistant director of practice groups at The Federalist Society. As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the experts on today's call.


Today, our panel includes Brian Hook, the vice chairman of Cerberus Global Investments LLC. He is a former U.S. special representative for Iran and senior policy advisor to the secretary of state. We are also joined by Professor Bernard Haykel, a professor of near eastern studies and director of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East at Princeton University. And David P. Goldman, president of Macrostrategy and a senior writer at Law and Liberty. He's also a Washington fellow at the Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life and writes the Spengler column for the Asia Times online and the blog at PJ Media.


Finally, today, our moderator is Professor Jamil Jaffer who is an adjunct professor and the National Security Institute, founder and director of the National Security Law and Policy Program at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. He's also a member of our national security practice group executive committee.


If you do have a question at any point in today's program, please type it into the Q&A feature at the bottom of your screen and we will handle your questions as we can towards the end of today's program. With that, thank you all for being with us. Jamil, the floor is yours.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Awesome. Jack, thanks to you and the international and national security law practice group at The Federalist Society for hosting what's obviously a highly topical conversation about the Abraham Accords, the potential, and the opportunities that it presents. So Brian, I'd love to start with you. You were involved in the negotiation of these accords. Talk to us about what the accords are. Just set the table for the audience. What are the accords? How do we get to them and what is the economic and political opportunity the accords present to us?


Hon. Brian Hook:  Jamil, the Abraham Accords came about almost as a byproduct of a couple of other strategies we were working on in the administration. We were working on a new vision for Middle East peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We presented the economic and political dimensions of that plan. The Palestinians were not willing to come to the table at the time. We also had a very strong counter Iran strategy in the region and these things came together to create a common platform for, I think, the Arabs and the Israelis to start looking at where they have common interests. And the first country to express that interest was the United Arab Emirates with Sheikh Mohammed, and I think he saw a lot of opportunity to normalize with Israel.


And after that normalization was achieved, Bahrain followed shortly thereafter. Then we had Sudan and then we had Morocco. So we had two peace agreements in the Middle East and then two in North Africa -- four peace agreements in the space of five months. And I think all of the countries who joined the Abraham Accords -- Israel and the other four Arab nations -- have enjoyed enormous benefits that I think are very plain and visible to other countries in Africa, the Middle East, and in Asia. I think what is required though is to have in place a strategy to increase the odds that you're going to get more signatories to the Abraham Accords. I think for as long as we have a strategy that is not, I would say, effective dealing with Iran's nuclear threats, its sectarian proxies in the region.


This is I think the principal driver of instability and today's Middle East continues to be the revolutionary and expansionist regime in Iran. And we were able to bring together the Israelis, the Emirates, Bahrain, onto a common platform of shared security and common interests to deal with this threat. But what came out of that were even greater benefits which I think Sheikh Mohammed saw clearly around increased trade, people to people ties, energy cooperation, banking, aviation ties. It's been a very warm peace, and I'm hopeful that with the right policy in place, that there are more countries that will be joining the Abraham Accords.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  That's great, Brian. So Professor Haykel, who might be up next to join the Abraham Accords and what are the possibilities for an expansion of the accords going forward here either in the near term or over the next couple of years during the current administration in your mind?


Prof. Bernard Haykel:  So first let me thank you for inviting me, and it's nice to see some friends like Brian on the call. Really the big country that would make a huge difference would be Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia were to normalize with Israel, then I think you would see Kuwait and a number of all the other DCC countries join. So the question is, would Saudi Arabia do it or not? And I think that the official Saudi position is not unless and until the Palestinians are given some state that -- kind of as a face-saving solution for the Palestinians that would then make it possible for the Saudis to sign on. Couple things though.


First, it's clear that whether it was the Emirates or the Saudis now, they have relations with the Israelis when it comes to intelligence and defense. And so it's not like they're -- they have a gun to their head to normalize immediately. Second, I think in all the cases that Brian mentioned, these countries extracted something not from Israel but from the United States. So in the case of Morocco, it was recognition for the western Sahara. In the case of Sudan, it was removal of sanctions and lots of money and so on. So I think the Saudis will want to extract something from the United States to normalize and they've made it pretty clear what it is they want. They want help with their nuclear program. Not nuclear military program but rather with their -- they want to build energy -- nuclear energy to free up more oil for export. And the second is they want some sort of security guarantee that's iron clad -- NATO like. And I don't see either of those things happening under the current administration. So it's unlikely that we're going to see Saudi move in that direction and it's really the principle and most important candidate to join.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Well, that makes a lot of sense. So David, what impact if any in your mind does the recent announcement of a Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran [inaudible 7:37] have on the potential for Saudi Arabia to jump in? Obviously, Bahrain joined the accords early on. That suggests something about the Saudi willingness to let a country that they have a lot of influence over and Bahrain join up but as Professor Haykel lays out, they have put in place these requests or preconditions including the Palestinian state, including a 123 Agreement, and we should talk, Brian, about what that might mean because of the gold standard for uranium enrichment. We'll come back to that in a second. But also there's this question about security guarantees. So there are a lot of reasons why the Saudi deal might not happen but then you've got this new thing with this alleged Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran agreement. What impact might it have, David?


David P. Goldman:  It certainly doesn't exclude better relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel. On the contrary, I think that the Saudi decision to enter into this deal with the Chinese and the Iranians reflects their desire to diversify their securities support after our ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan and let's say our frustration with Ukraine. We certainly made claims about how we would reduce the Russian economy, treat Putin as a war criminal, which we don't seem to carry through on. From the Saudi standpoint, the more help they can get, the better.


So from their standpoint, China clearly does not want a war in the Persian Gulf. Were there -- God forbid -- to be a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China economically would be the biggest loser because China is the biggest importer. China has the ability to exercise influence in Iran. It certainly has a dominating role in providing exports through Iran's economy. This was an experiment for the Chinese. They've never tried anything like this before. I don't think they know how much sway they really have in Iran. Neither does Saudi Arabia, but they're willing to try it because of their diminished confidence in the United States. Plus, important to keep in mind the Chinese are offering the Saudis an enormous package of goodies like artificial-intelligence-guided solar power. They're building a city for a million people which Huawei is constructing. It'll be the first entirely solar powered city so that's important for them too.


But since they're diversifying their security relationships, why not include Israel as well? In a sense, the more the merrier. So it's not exclusive. They're important also is the role of Turkey. China was critical in bailing out the Turkish economy which nearly collapsed under hyperinflation a couple of years ago. It's improved enormously partly because of substantial Chinese trade credits and an enormous flood of Chinese imports to Turkey. But remember Turkey is also the major source of sanctions evading exports to Russia. They're an intermediary in that sense between China and Russia. So although Israel's prospects there are not necessarily diminished, America's ability to buy the process is certainly diminished, I think largely because of errors and perceived weakness on the part of the Biden administration.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. Well, what about that, Professor Haykel? I mean, do you think that there is an opportunity here as the Saudis look at a diversification of their security interests? Obviously, that's concerning for the United States because a diversification means something of a relationship with China or more of a relationship with China. They obviously already have this burgeoning economic relationship that David pointed to. Is there an opportunity to include that diversification? Israel would -- assuming that some of these preconditions that you laid out are met and if so, what does that look like? And is that a near term possibility or is it likely a years down the road possibility? Putting aside this administration's own challenges with what they've been doing in the region and in particular with our longtime allies in Saudi Arabia.


Prof. Bernard Haykel:  Yes. So I just came back from Saudi Arabia a few days ago, and I discussed this with the leadership there. So I don't see -- I don't think the United States ought to be terribly exercised about this diversification policy with China. I see the China deal as a Hail Mary by the Saudis. So Saudi Arabia is at the moment interested principally in building and developing its economy. And if you go there, you'll see it is a massive construction site with cranes -- it looks a lot like what Beijing looked like in 2003 or 2004. They need peace and stability, and they don't need rockets and missiles and drones falling on their cities and on their facilities.


So they're quite desperate to get the Iranians to stop either attacking them directly as they did in September 2019 on their processing facilities in the eastern province -- the oil facilities -- or getting their proxies to attack them like they constantly do from Yemen. So they want to somehow find a way to get Iran to stop. And they think, well, maybe the Chinese have leverage. Let's test and see -- let's prove or disprove what China can do for us. I don't think it's for love of China. They certainly have no illusions about Iran and that Iran has repeatedly in the past always broken any agreement it has made with the Saudis. So it's just a wait and see attitude.


Now, I think one unintended consequence of this deal is that if the Israelis say were to attack Iran now, the Saudis can tell the Iranians, you know, we have a deal. You're not to attack us just because the Israelis attacked you. Because that's always been understood in the past and the Iranians have made it very clear that if either the United States or Israel were to attack Iran, the first thing the Iranians would attack would be not just Saudi oil installations or Emirate oil installations but also desalination plants which would really devastate these countries because almost all their water supply comes from desalination. So I think they've now decoupled -- let's say theoretically decoupled themselves from a potential counterattack -- Iranian counterattack -- should the Israelis attack them. I think again, this is just in the field of theory rather than practice because I suspect the Iranians would attack them. But they're trying desperately to build their country and to get this country that thrives and feeds off instability which is Tehran and its regime to be contained in some way. They just don't know what more they can do other -- or what else they could do other than bring the Chinese on board.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Interesting. Interesting. So -- yeah. Please jump in.


David P. Goldman:  Professor Haykel's point is extremely important. The relationship with the Israelis and the Chinese are two very different things for the Saudis. Whether Chinese economic pressure on Iran would be adequate to keep that regime from acting in an adventurous way is something we don't know. The Saudis certainly don't know, and it is in that sense a Hail Mary, but it's a free option so there's no reason for the Saudis not to try it. The Israelis on the other hand do have a capability and have spent a great deal of time planning for a prospective attack in Iran. I think it's extremely unlikely that under any circumstances China would take military action against Iran no matter what it did but we can certainly imagine circumstances where Israel would do so. So that represents a very different kind of relationship for the Israelis which is in a sense orthogonal to what they're doing with the Chinese so one doesn't prejudice the other.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Right. No doubt that's right. So Brian, one of the points that Professor Haykel made earlier was this idea that Saudi is really trying to develop its economy. We've heard about the city they're building in NEOM. We've heard about THE LINE -- this huge building they're building. So there's a lot of -- for Mohammed bin Salman putting aside obviously the horrific killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Mohammed Salman has tried to do a lot of moderation -- women driving and the like -- that's his -- to build up Saudi as a place for tourism, a place for economic development. And one of these pieces of effort as Professor Haykel points out is the need for them to diversify their resource base in order to enable them to export more oil to build both solar but also nuclear capabilities. And that turns on at some level the United States sharing our nuclear capability with them -- the civilian nuclear capability through a so-called 123 Agreement.


But of course we've gone through this before. We've worked on it with the Emirates. We've held them to the gold standard of no enrichment -- no domestic enrichment of uranium. We'll supply it to them. We'll give them nuclear technology in exchange. But of course all of that went away when the Obama administration cut the nuclear deal with Iran where they permitted Iran to have a domestic enrichment capability. Now, how can we possibly go back to -- do we need to go back to the gold standard -- no domestic enrichment -- and if so given that the Iran nuclear deal is dead, how do we work that out with Saudis? And if there was to be a follow on deal with Iran in some sort of a [inaudible 17:37] scenario, can we imagine us changing that decision that we made to move away from that gold standard construct?


Hon. Brian Hook:  Yeah. What Jamil describes is accurate. In the Bush administration, we negotiated an agreement with the Emirates that enabled peaceful nuclear power without enrichment. I believe that program is now in its 12th year. And the Emirates believe -- we also believe -- that this is a model for the region.


When I was working at the UN Security Council a number of years ago, one of the sanctions resolutions that we passed has an annex authored by the Russians that offers Russia to handle Iran's nuclear enrichment. And I think the Russians and the Chinese were hoping that the Iranians would take the deal, but they didn't, and we've had a multilateral sanctions regime which was in place. Obama then took it down. We then came into office recognizing I think the intrinsic infirmities of the Iran Nuclear Deal. It's a modest and temporary political commitment regarding Iran's nuclear program negotiated by a person who's been out of office for 10 years.


So we decided to take the approach of any agreement with Iran which is still the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism -- any nuclear agreement with this regime has to take enrichment off the table for them. So when we put together our strategy for Iran after leaving -- after President Trump left the Iran deal -- we made clear that there can't be any enrichment. And the problem that the presence of the Iran Nuclear Deal creates for the region is anytime you go to a country in the region that happens to be an adversary of Iran because Iran has put that country in the crosshairs of its expansionist ambitions -- when you go to that country and suggest a 123 Agreement like we did with the Emirates, the answer is we'll take the same deal you gave the Iranians. And we are in no position to argue them out of that. For as long as we allow Iran to enrich, we should expect countries to insist if they want to go down the road of a nuclear program, they're going to demand enrichment.


So the UN Security Council many years ago put in place a standard of no enrichment for Iran and they continue to play cat and mouse with the UN nuclear watchdog. They have a perfect history of playing games with the IAEA, hiding its clandestine sites, concealing programs that are clearly designed to become a nuclear weapon state. If we're going to be serious about our diplomacy, we have to restore the standard of no enrichment. My view on this to those who say, well, that's too hard, you do need to put in place the kind of pressure that is going to cause the regime to make a choice between stability and a peaceful nuclear program that doesn't have enrichment. I don't believe -- it's sort of like in chess. You don't surrender your king to protect your queen. This regime wants to stay in power. They would also like to have a nuclear capability but you need to make them make a choice. Our maximum pressure campaign unfortunately only had about one year in place, but during that period of unilateral sanctions, we achieved historic levels of pressure that were not even approximated by multilateral sanctions done by the UN. So there's an enormous opportunity I think there to put a lid on Iran's nuclear program that does not involve the existing Iran Nuclear Deal.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Well, let's talk about that. So David, there was obviously an opportunity earlier in this administration with the protests in Iran about Mahsa Amini and the rising up of Iranian women and young women and older women and men supporting them that seemed to provide a very unique opportunity to reimpose a significant amount of sanctions a la the maximum pressure campaign that Brian helped organize under the Trump administration that might have pushed the Iranian regime into needing to accept a deal because their stability was at stake. And yet the Biden administration professed support for the women and said that we're there with you, we're backing you, but didn't really do anything effective to really support them. Was that a missed opportunity in your mind? And if so, could you envision in another scenario a future president taking advantage of a scenario like that to really pressurize the regime to come back to the table and do a deal that might not involve nuclear enrichment?


David P. Goldman:  I think it was a missed opportunity, but I'm not sure that opportunity will return. Part of the problem we have in the region is that our inability to unite friends much less not so much friends in a sanctions regime against Russia has made our overall sanctions effort much less effective than it has. Once you create alternative currency, shipping, insurance, finance arrangements which allow effectively an uninterrupted flow of exports to Russia through a large variety of intermediaries in the case of the Turks for example though we've complained about it the Turks have a $50 billion current account deficit and $25 billion of that shows up as errors and omissions. In other words, the Turks say, "$25 billion just came over the tracks and we don't know where that is but it's somehow in our foreign exchange reserves."


Now, I would suspect that a substantial amount of that reflects Chinese or other goods sold by the Turks to Russia without proper documentation. So once the whole region has organized itself for sanctions evasion, the Biden administration by bundling that has made it much more difficult to use that weapon in the future. So I think the most credible thing that we have is the possibility of a military strike conducted either by the Israelis or the Israelis and others including us. And it comes down to that, unfortunately. So yes. The opportunity was there but I'm not sure that it would be so easy to revive it at this point.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. Professor Haykel, I want to bring us back to this question of the Abraham Accords. A lot of people have raised some concerns that given the current political situation in Israel -- we saw now it looks like the general strike has been called off at least temporarily as Prime Minister Netanyahu has pulled down the votes on the judicial reform bill at least temporarily. So we may have avoided what could've been a very tough political situation for the current administration. But this had led to concerns expressed by the Emirates about the accords and the like, and of course it raises questions about whether the accords can be expanded in the near future. Do you share those concerns about the viability of the accords given the domestic situation in Israel or is that simply overplayed and one that's going to largely be resolved at some point here in the near future?


Prof. Bernard Haykel:  Look, the countries of the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia do have a population that the leadership is answerable to. So it really does depend on what happens. So if you have some egregious act of violence against Palestinians like we saw -- actually not too long ago, we saw the looting and burning or rioting in a town and the calling for the destruction of that town in the West Bank. That just doesn't make for a good copy. It embarrasses the leadership of those countries. Are they going to extract themselves from the Abraham Accords? No. These are authoritarian countries. Once they make a decision to enter an agreement, they're likely to stick with it.


In the case of Saudi Arabia, I think there's one additional factor for why they have not entered into the Abraham Accords and are unlikely to do so anytime soon. So unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a revolution internally, socially, economically, politically even. The political consolidation of power, the stripping of power from the religious establishment from other members of the royal family, and so on. So when you have all these balls up in the air like you do with MBS right now in Saudi Arabia, to add the Israel factor -- normalization with Israel -- it's just one more ball that's not really necessary not least because you already have a relationship on the things that really matter which is security, intelligence, and you've given them over flight. So there's no urgency to have to deal with this issue while you have so many other things going on domestically.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Well, Brian, what about that? I mean, you guys managed to get the Emirates, the Bahrain government, and then these countries in North Africa to come around on these issues even though in a lot of ways, particularly for the Emirates, as Professor Haykel says, like with the Saudis, they had long had a significant amount of cooperation between the Emirates and the Israelis behind closed doors. And in a lot of ways, the Abraham Accords were a recognition and embodiment -- a public embodiment of that. Why can't we achieve something similar in Saudi Arabia? Is Professor Haykel right that the number of balls that MBS has in the air -- adding in the Israel ball just doesn't help? Or does it actually take something off the table and say, we're going to solve this problem. We're going to put it off to the side and we're going to deal with these other ones that are right in front of us -- our domestic issues. Let's take that off the table and actually create economic opportunity to follow on this existing security cooperation that's already going on the way the Emirates did?


Hon. Brian Hook:  I share Professor Haykel's assessment. Saudi does enjoy some current benefits from the bilateral relationship with Israel around security and intel. You're going to have to have an administration in place and it's only the United States that brokers these agreements. There isn't any other country that can broker these. Unfortunately, during the Obama administration you had a secretary of state who was holding the region back. He was holding back the kinds of agreements that we were able to broker between the Arabs and the Israelis because they insisted that the Palestinians go first. But when we came into office and started just getting around the region and we visited every country repeatedly, we heard enormous fatigue with the Palestinian leadership. And there were a number of folks who felt like, why should the Palestinian leadership get a veto over our economic and cultural objectives?


And we did put out a peace plan. President Abbas refused to come to the table. Sheikh Mohammed decided to come to the same table and as a consequence, has I think achieved a lot of really solid tangible benefits for his country. But for as long as there isn't any trust -- let's just say that there's a country on the table that is interested in doing something like this whether it's full normalization or just the path to normalization -- that country has to be able to trust the United States and Israel needs to trust the United States. And right now this administration tends to personalize its policy and Israel and Saudi, the leaders of both countries, are not very popular in the Biden administration. And as a consequence by personalizing foreign policy and by elevating ideology over shared interests, there's just nothing happening. There's an enormous neglect of the region that creates a vacuum that China and Russia and others are more than happy to fill.


What's troubling for me is that we were able to do four peace agreements in five months. Then you had two years -- over two years of nothing and the next agreement that's been brokered is by the Chinese with the Iranians and the Saudis. I think as Professor Haykel was saying earlier, this Iran Saudi thing is skin deep and nothing more. But it is still a major -- it's the first diplomatic win that China has had in the Middle East and it's not a positive thing. Obviously, the United States -- over the last 20 plus years, there's an enormous amount of fatigue with the Middle East which I certainly understand. I worked for Bush 41, 43, and for President Trump. I've seen the odyssey of American foreign policy in the Middle East. I think President Trump and his team did a good job of finding the right balance after the pendulum had swung from one extreme of overextension to the other extreme of retrenchment. And I think we found a pretty good middle and it's a policy that I think certainly the results speak for themselves. We had an enormously successful four years in the Middle East. I was disappointed the Biden administration did not pick up on that. It was an easy opportunity for them. I think they're slowly coming around to it, but it may be too late.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. No. I think that makes a lot of sense and by the way for the audience, folks, we're going to be coming to you here in just a few minutes for your questions. I see there's already a couple in there. Please put any other questions you have in the Q&A chat box and we'll come around to those questions here shortly.


But David, Brian brought up a point about credibility and credibility in the region but also credibility globally. And you raised the point earlier about our ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan -- that disastrous moment but it's more than that. It's more than just Afghanistan. It's our failure to enforce the redline under the Obama administration, it's us throwing the Kurds under the bus in the Trump administration, it's our failure to support Israel over a number of years, and our weak-kneed approach to Ukraine and Russia frankly, and our unclear policy on Taiwan. It doesn't appear that today our allies really believe that we're going to be there for them when they need us, and our foes don't seem particularly afraid of us. They seem to see us as something of a paper tiger. How much of that, David, plays into this question about whether another nation or multiple nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, comes into the Abraham Accords? And how much of that plays into this search, as you described it, for other opportunities by historic allies like Saudi Arabia when it comes to this Iran -- Chinese-brokered Iran deal?


David P. Goldman:  I think it's even worse than a lack of credibility. I think the Saudis have a legitimate fear of being sandbagged by the administration. What exactly does Saudi Arabia get from a formal accord with Israel that they don't get now? They can get all the desalination technology they want and so forth. They can buy that. What they get is some kind of stated or unstated assurance that in an extreme case, Israel would intervene militarily against Iran. And that's what they need. The United States has a de facto veto over an Israeli military operation against Iran. It's not probably as simple as turning off the computers remotely on F-35s which I think the Israelis probably have fixed, but Israel as an American ally is dependent on the United States for its military technology and could only go so far.


So as long as the American administration is perceived as being soft on Iran and wedded to the idea of including Iran in regional security architecture which has been a longstanding view of democratic administrations going back 20 years, then the Saudis cannot be sure that what they're buying from Israel is what they really want. So I think yes, the credibility factor is a huge one. That brings China in, and it makes the Saudis more prone to try to get the Turks on their side. Turkey is an extremely important actor and the fact that Turkey has repaired relations with the gulf states as well as to some extent with Israel is also an important factor because Turkey was at least a potential source of destabilization for both regimes. They sided with Qatar against Saudi Arabia. Credibility is important but active malice on the part of Washington is a factor in the background that makes it very hard for the Saudis to go that extra mile and formalize an agreement with Israel because they can't be sure they would get out of it what they really want.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. Professor Haykel, David has raised the Turks now a couple of times, and I think it's an important player. I mean, this is a NATO ally, nominally, that has played a bad actor over and over and over again in the region, played us off against the Russians, been this path for diversion as David lays out on numerous occasions. We know it but they're in the tent. How do we deal with this problem of Turkey? And what if anything does the role that Turkey is playing have to do with any expansion of the Abraham Accords? Is there any chance that the Turks will come into the accords or is that just a pipe dream?


Prof. Bernard Haykel:  No. I don't think the Turks are involved or can be involved anyway in the Abraham Accords. Let me tell you a story. So the Turks under Erdogan basically had this sultanistic -- they wanted to recreate an Ottoman empire with Erdogan as the leader of the Muslim world. So the way they decided to do this was to essentially patronize and subsidize the Muslim Brotherhood which is an international Islamist organization using mostly Qatari money actually but allowing them to base themselves in Istanbul, to have TV stations, asylum, and the works. Then they decided in their hubris -- that is in Erdogan's hubris -- that they would use the tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi to sideline MBS to decide on the succession within Saudi Arabia which is something that MBS will never forget and never forgive Erdogan for.


Eventually, the Turks were brought to their knees because economically they collapsed and now, he's begging the Saudis for money and they've just given him $5 billion for the treasury to help with the earthquake relief and so on. So essentially, he's been disciplined and chastened by his multiple failures and one of the consequences of the rehabilitation of relations with the Saudis is that he's kicked out almost all the Muslim Brothers out of Turkey. He's abandoned this Islamist internationalist policy, and the Saudis don't trust him, but they have him on a leash and the leash is the amount of dollars that they keep sending his way. I see Turkey as an opportunistic power that takes advantage of the Ukraine war to play this kind of spoiler or to pretend it's an intermediary but they don't have enough weight to carry out a plan or a vision for the region. In any case, they don't have a vision at this moment. They're too busy with their own problems.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. Brian, I want to come to you before we go to the audience for questions. I see there's already three in there and if folks want to put more in, they should go ahead and do that. But Brian, on this question of Turkey -- you and I served together in the Bush administration. You had served in the prior Bush administration, but you also served in the Trump administration more recently. And there, there was something of -- I hate to use the term, but I will -- a bromance between the president and President Erdogan. There was something of a better working relationship. The Kurds -- our longtime allies who fought and helped us win the war against or at least succeed effectively in the war against ISIS were pushed aside in favor of Turkey. Should we be concerned as Professor Haykel lays out about this situation with Turkey and is Professor Haykel right that Erdogan has now seen the error of his ways at least when it comes to our longtime allies in the Middle East, the Saudis, and his reliance on them as something that we can be heartened by. At the same time of course he's taking a lot of cues from the Chinese and taking a lot of money from the Chinese. How much should that be a concern for us as well?


Hon. Brian Hook:  I agree a hundred --


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Not to mention S-300s from the Russians.


Hon. Brian Hook:  Yeah. I agree completely with Professor Haykel's assessment of Turkey and Erdogan. He has not been able to achieve his objectives for regional dominance and a restoration of the empire. He's gone about it I think rather clumsily. And then now with the earthquakes and the horrible loss of life and the corruption that probably did not help with building codes and buildings that could withstand earthquakes in Turkey. He's facing enormous domestic headwinds. I think he has his plate full domestically and whenever you're in a situation like that, it's very hard to project power beyond your borders. He certainly has the ambition. Luckily for me when I was in office I could turn everything over to Jim Jeffries and to others who were working the Turkey file. I was in some meetings with Erdogan. I think I came out of it concluding that we should always have the channel open. We should expect very little, and we should be very skeptical. We should be very on our guard but there may be opportunities where we can -- because there happens to be some sort of shared interest -- that we can work on it together. That's where I net out on Turkey.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. So I did promise the audience we'd go to questions, and I see there's a question from Steve Bradbury who we all served together with -- terrific leader in the justice department. Steve asks, do we think that Saudi Arabia might be reluctant to sign a public agreement with Israel because they fear that doing so could cause Iran to get more hostile towards Saudi Arabia. David, what do you make of that construct?


David P. Goldman:  I think the Saudis are hardheaded realpolitikers as opposed to ideologues in this and I don't think that's their principal concern. The regime is looking for survival so they'll bribe the Turks, they'll cozy up to the Chinese, they'll bargain with the Americans, and they'll see what they can get out of the Israelis. That's my impression, but I think Professor Haykel probably is better positioned to describe the Saudi attitudes than I am. So let me pass it on to him.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. Bernard, what do you think?


Prof. Bernard Haykel:  Yeah. I agree fully with David. The Saudis are pragmatic, nonideological. If there is an ideology there, it's nationalism which is a new thing in Saudi Arabia. They've given up on the two grand ideologies, in fact not just given up but are actually actively hostile against the two grand ideologies that animated most of the second half of the 20th century in the Middle East. Namely, Arab nationalism which means that all the Arabs should be united and fighting the imperialists and the colonialists. And they've given up on Islamism completely. They don't fund any Islamists anywhere in the world domestically or internationally. So this is the direct opposite of Iran which still thrives on an anti-imperialist register and rhetoric and America is an evil empire, blah blah blah.


That's not what Saudi does, and I think this is a tremendously important thing because it means that at the heart of the Muslim world, you have a power that's no longer interested in Islam as a political ideology and is no longer interested in fighting the west or arguing against the west in the name of third world revolutionary stuff. They've just given up on all this nonsense which has harmed the people of the Middle East, all peoples. Look at Syria. Look at Libya. Look at Algeria. Look at all these countries that have touted this rubbish for decades. The Saudis are not interested.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. Brian.


Hon. Brian Hook:  Yeah. And I would just add to that that as Professor Haykel was going through various -- listing various countries, that there is a perfect correlation between Iranian interference and high misery when you go around these countries. And then where you have the lowest degree of Iranian interference, you usually will find a lot of prosperity, a desire to be at peace with their neighbors, and a government that invests in its people and in their future. And the Iranian regime, which is the last revolutionary regime on earth, continues to rob its own people blind and invests so much of the country's natural wealth and economic wealth into a Shia revolution and they have not surrendered that constitutional mandate of theirs. I know the Iranian people are looking forward to that day when they have a more representative government that invests in its people in the same way that they see countries across the Persian Gulf investing in their people. But until that time comes, it's going to be quite tricky.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Well, let's talk about that, Brian, because I really -- I do want to go to the audience questions as well -- but there's a point that you make here that I really want to focus in on which is, there does seem to be this disconnect between the Iranian revolutionary regime itself which oppresses its own people, spreads chaos throughout the region, tries to spin up issues around the region through its support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and the like. We just saw the Iranian backed militia attacks of American forces in Syria which have happened 78 times since 2021, an almost tripling or doubling of the number of attacks that were already rampant under the prior administration.


But there is a disconnect between that Iran, the IRGC Ayatollah Iran, and the Iranian people who clearly don't like this regime, don't like their policy, don't like what's being done to them and to their women and their mothers, their daughters. How can -- the U.S. has stayed away from regime change talk and yet the reality is that we don't want that regime in place. Our allies in the region don't want that regime in place. The Iranian people don't appear to want that regime in place. Why is it so hard for us to simply say regime change brought by the Iranian people is what is necessary and we will provide the kind of support it takes to democracy forces and the like in the region. Why can't we get through that point and why can't Congress get on board with a program that looks like that and provide money and support both overtly and covertly to an effort like that, Brian?


Hon. Brian Hook:  Well, I think we've had enough bitter experience with regime change to be out of that business in the Middle East. And so the way I look at it is the future of Iran will be decided by the Iranian people. It shouldn't be decided by any governments outside of Iran. Every country on the path to a representative government -- it's typically nonlinear. It took us here in America quite some period of time to sort ourselves out. But I do think you do have this agreement probably between a lot of the Arab youth and then the Iranian Persian youth. Two thirds of the Iranian people were born after the revolution. And in a similar way when the young men and women in Saudi are so ready for the kind of reforms that King Salman and the crown prince have brought into existence. I think there's a similar desire in Iran. This regime is holding back its own people. It's been that way for 41, 42 years. There could come an inflection point when there is the question of whether there should be another supreme leader. That will be a very natural inflection point and given the political unrest and the economic -- the bad economic model that this regime uses, there could be an opportunity there for a more representative government.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Look, Brian, I get that, but I do want to follow up here which is there's no doubt that the change has to come from the Iranian people. But just like with our revolution which you referenced, we needed the support of partners like the French. The Iranian people need to know they have the support of major players in the region like the United States. And it's one thing to say the words like this administration admittedly did, unlike I would note the Obama administration which threw the green revolution under the bus, but they were just words. Why can't the United States get itself around the idea that if we really want the Iranian people to take this back with their own hands, it requires support and money and backing from the United States or our allies in the region? Why is this so difficult? It seems obvious and yet we seem to be -- well, we want the Iranian people to do it. We'll stay out. And I get your point about regime change. You're right. It's been a sordid history and yet if we want the Iranian people to take matters into their own hands, they can't do it without some backing from the allies, can they?


David P. Goldman:  Now, if I may --


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. David, please.


David P. Goldman:  One of the difficulties we have is that the Iranian economy is roughly the size of say the city of Chengdu compared to its neighbor China. And since we are now at loggerheads with the Chinese on a number of issues and relations have deteriorated considerably, it seems little prospect for improvement. Were we to declare ourselves for regime change in Iran, we'd give the Chinese and in a much more minor way the Russians an opportunity to move in economically. It's a rounding error for the Chinese to put a great deal more money, goods, and so forth into Iran. So whether we actually have the power in the region to do it -- I'm not going to comment on how good the CIA is at covert operations in Farsi language these days. I've got no idea. It's not my purview. But we do have competitors in the area and whether -- I think is something that's worth considerable reflection.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Fair. Well, let me go back unless Professor Haykel, you want to jump in here. Yeah. Jump in here, please.


Prof. Bernard Haykel:  Yeah. I just want to make one small point. The single most effective investment the Saudis have ever made when it has come to Iran was a TV station in London called Iran International. Nothing  has damaged Iran -- the regime that is -- more than that one station. And that's in any -- that's the key ask by the way in this -- in the secret codicil of the agreement, one of the key asks of the Iranians is that that station be shut down.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. And by the way, the United States has run operations like that for decades overtly. No reason I think we couldn't do more on that front. But let me turn back to the audience questions. So we've got two questions from Oyez Mohammad and they're related and Brian, I'll send these to you because I think these are going to be a challenge. I'm not sure we can get there. But Oyez wants to know whether we foresee a day when Iran might join the accords given the developments of peace between -- this potential peace -- this potential surfacy people between Saudi and Iran and Oyez also asked whether the Shah in exile has any chance to come back to Iran if the Ayatollah falls. And Brian, you can decide not to take these questions if you don't want to. It's totally fine but --


Hon. Brian Hook:  I think this is a perfect question for Professor Haykel.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  There you go. Bernard, you want to jump in here?


Prof. Bernard Haykel:  I really am not an Iran expert, so I have to plead the fifth here on the Shah's son or -- I really don't know enough about Iran domestically. I can tell you about Yemen and Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world but not Iran.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. Well, I'll weigh in David unless you want to jump in here.


David P. Goldman:  I'm happy just to say I was -- I'm happy to say just one or two things. One, no. There will be no Abraham Accords with the current regime. How the Iranian people feel about it -- I don't know if anybody has done any sort of internal polling on the mood inside the country. One of the things that I pointed out when I was the Iran envoy was you've got this pretty distinguished history of tolerance going back to Cyrus the Great and the Jews, and so the Iranian regime doesn't like to allow the Iranian people to go visit Cyrus the Great's tomb on his birthday. So I think that's a better model for the Iranian people, something that's just more tolerant. It is part of Persian history and it's certainly there for the taking. It just won't be for this regime. On the question of succession, I don't think we have to reach that question. I think we have our plate full enough with the current regime.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. And I think you're exactly right on the Abraham Accords. And having grown up in a largely Persian Jewish neighborhood in L.A. with the shah's picture up in a lot of houses, I think there's probably a limited chance of that regime coming back even though there is certainly support in the diaspora here in the U.S. for that. I just can't see that as a realistic outcome. It was interesting for me growing up in a Persian Jewish neighborhood being a Shia Muslim it was -- you can't make this stuff up, but it was -- everyone thought I was Persian. And in fact I was like look I can speak Gujarati if you'd like.


So I got one more question from the audience before -- I think we're getting close to running out of time. But we've got Daniel Ogden (sp) who wants to know how concerned we are about China's recent strategic movements in the Middle East and in particular, obviously, we've been talking about the Saudi and Iran peace. But I want to know -- China has been doing this around the globe. It's not just the Middle East. We just saw Honduras pull their recognition from Taiwan. Now it's in our backyard. We've seen the Iranians active in Latin America. We've seen the Russians engaged there obviously Cuba, Venezuela. How concerned should we be that China is making inroads in places where we've spent a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of blood and treasure—the Middle East—and places where we've long thought of as our space—Latin America? How concerned should we be? I'll start with you, Professor Haykel.


Prof. Bernard Haykel:  Okay. So I think that the Chinese are basically, again, opportunists. They see the U.S. sort of retreating or not filling a certain role and then they take advantage of it. I don't think there's any deep love or affection for the Chinese anywhere in the Arab world. There's also very -- there's not much understanding culturally or sympathy across that divide. I mean, I'll give you an example. The single most difficult negotiation that Saudi Arabia has ever have -- national oil companies ever had to undertake was the one to build a refinery in China. It took over 20 years and it was nearly impossible to do.


I mean, there's a real problem of trust -- a deep, deep problem of trust and you have to remember that the elites and most of the educated people certainly in Arabia, Saudi, the GCC and so on -- many of them are educated. Most of them are educated in America. Most of them love America. Many of them have homes in America. Many of their children were born in the United States. So that's something that's been decades in the making. It cannot be just upended because the Chinese have shown up. It just won't -- that won't happen. And I remind you also that if you take the example of the PIF which is the public investment fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. So half of it is invested in the country to build and diversify the economy. But the single largest chunk after that, at least 20 percent if not more, is in the United States. They don't invest in China. They invest here. And for obvious reasons.




Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  So David, you want to jump in here?


David P. Goldman:  The Chinese are their own worst enemies. They're obnoxious, corrupt, domineering, and nobody likes them. Nonetheless, China's exports to the global south are now larger than their combined exports to Europe and the United States. And they've more or less doubled in the past three years. So China is running around the world providing digital telecommunication infrastructure, physical infrastructure, and worming its way into the heart of developing economies and making them dependent on them.


We already discussed how important Chinese technology is for Saudi Arabia. We have no offering for 5G telecommunications. The United Arab Emirates was asked to kick Huawei out of its 5G program because it wanted to buy F-35s, and it said we'll buy rafales instead. And it gave up the F-35 program because it wanted to work with Huawei. So China's soft power, despite all of the obnoxious things China is doing, has enormous impact and it's growing. This is a bullet in the frog kind of situation. There's no splitting moment associated with it -- Honduras withdrawing its recognition of Taiwan is a punctuation point. Lula saying, before his planned trip to China which was postponed, "We're not afraid of the big bad wolf in the north." We're going to do business with China. Arnous, the prime minister of Syria, has his forthcoming trip to China. The Indonesian prime minister's trip to China, the Thai elections which almost certainly will bring back a more Chinese sympathetic party to power in May.


There is a tectonic shift going on but it's happening in slow motion so it's easy to miss. I am profoundly concerned because I see in the numbers an accumulation of soft power which expresses itself in their success with Saudi Arabia for example, which is a new thing, unwelcome to us. Maybe not the end of the world but not something we would've desired. And if this trend continues, I think we'll see a great many more of these.


Prof. Jamil Jaffer:  Yeah. Well, David, thank you for your comments. Professor Haykel, Brian, thank you guys all for being part of this -- really appreciate it. And folks, please keep an eye out for The Federalist Society international and national law practice groups additional events going forward. Have a great afternoon, everybody. Thanks again to the panel.