Kirsten Fontenrose is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. A graduate of the Harvard Business School, in 2018 she served as senior director for the Gulf at the National Security Council, leading the development of US policy toward the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Yemen, Egypt, and Jordan. Prior to that, she served for years at the Defense Department, with her work always focusing on the Middle East. She is well-known to decision-makers in the Arab Gulf and closely watches Iran’s actions, whether inside Iran or beyond its borders.
In an interview to Asharq Al-Awsat, Fontenrose stressed the United States’ commitment to its Gulf partners and addressed Iran’s threats to the region and Washington’s policy in countering them. She warned that if Iran attempted to attack American forces in Iraq “one more time”, then it will be met with a “very strong” retaliation, meaning the Iraqi Hezbollah will be “wiped off the map” and Iranian Revolutionary Guards naval bases will be targeted. Below is the interview:
Does the United States, specifically President Donald Trump’s administration, still consider the Arab Gulf countries partners and allies?
Of course, we have seen how the US withdrew from long conflicts, such as the one in northeastern Syria. The forces were pulled out because they were needed elsewhere and because we are living during a time of major rivalries. For years, we used to perceive terrorism as the real danger, but not anymore. The US therefore, needed to reposition itself. In fact, what we would like to know is whether some Gulf countries were still committed with us or not, because all of our pullouts were linked to Gulf security. We have seen how some Gulf countries are seeking to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia and are establishing relations with China and assessing ties with Huawei.
Bahrain, for example, listened to our advice in early 2018 when we told them that 5G and Huawei were Chinese means for gathering intelligence, under commercial guises. Bahrain realized that. China, however, is threatening American security, so what side of the equation is more committed to the relationship? Everyone claimed that the US pulled out of northeastern Syria because President Trump will not allow rockets to rain down on our army in Iraq, but the truth is, we believe that Gulf states must be more committed with us.
But the Gulf is important for American national security…
We can discuss this. Gulf countries are our partners and we trust them. We want the partnership to continue. At one point, these countries were the only ones providing oil in the world. They were then necessary for American national security. I am not saying they are not important now, but the relationship leans less towards economy and more towards partnership. We want these countries to be our partners in fighting terrorism and extremism and in stabilizing the economic markets. There are many things we want them to be partners with us in. We share with them their vision of the global system. It doesn’t matter that they have a different system of rule or religions, but we are looking at where the world is headed. We need them as partners, and they need us. We have drawn in Europe and Japan into this circle, and sometimes India. It is a partnership over common interests, more so than the fact that the Gulf is important geo-strategically for US national security.
Khamenei ordered the rehabilitation of houses on islands belonging to the United Arab Emirates and occupied by Iran. The Revolutionary Guards even spoke of building residential compounds and two airports. How do you interpret this? Should the Gulf countries prepare for more hostile acts?
Yes, I believe so. They should definitely be prepared because Iran has no intention of backing down since it has declared goals, which is forcing the US out of the region. This means pressuring Gulf countries to sever relations with Washington, meaning Iran wants to have its presence felt anywhere it can.
In Iraq, it pledged to allow the formation of an Iraqi government because it wants international attention away from it and its hands are a bit tied after the attack on American forces in Iraq. It is therefore looking beyond Iraq, for example, the Arabian Sea. Let’s go to the Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb and Abu Moussa islands. It is trying to do a lot. It wants to demonstrate that with Khamenei in quarantine – because several officials have contracted the coronavirus – that it is not weak or that nothing can distract it from its expansionist goals.
Some Iranian officials are trying to rally the people, claiming that dangers are constantly lurking around them. They take advantage of that to threaten America and Sunni regimes. This is why the Iranian regime tries to keep these threats alive. If the situation calms down, then it will be difficult to rally the people around it. They keep on making threats to enemies to provoke reactions to later claim: “See, they are threatening us. They want to topple us and so, we must remain united.”
This is how they function and we should expect more. We have also been very clear recently and Iran knows full well what America is thinking about now: If Iran attempts to attack American presence in Iraq one more time, the response will be very strong. It will not just target logistic positions as it did in the past, because that has proven ineffective in deterring Iran. If they try to mobilize their groups or strike American forces in Iraq, then America’s response will be much harsher. It could mean wiping the Iraqi Hezbollah off the map or attacking Revolutionary Guards naval bases. Escalation will definitely happen. I believe that Iran knows that America is considering these options and it does not want to risk it. That is why it is looking beyond Iraq and see where else it can pursue its provocations, while still avoiding escalation.
It wants to remain on the edge…
Exactly. Iranian officials believe that the whole world is preoccupied with the virus and will not notice its activities, even though they know that the international community is watching Iraq. They are therefore, moving outside of Iraq by targeting small areas beyond the border. They are waiting for a reaction. They think that if the world is watching and turned a blind eye, then it can go ahead with another operation. However, they recently realized that Washington will not allow that. The Iranians are standing in the way of our relations with Iraq and they want to drag it into a war for them. We will never allow that from now on. A strong strike is in store and the Iranians must realize that. It appears that they are.
How can the Gulf countries prepare for that?
There are two ways to get ready: First, they must make sure that the international community is watching, because Iran will not act if it knew it will be condemned internationally. One of the reasons why it has continued its attacks was because Europe did not take a strong stance against it. Gulf countries must make sure that Europe is closely watching developments, the US as well. Gulf countries must realize that the US will be by their side. Unfortunately, some Gulf countries have opened secret channels with Tehran in pursuit of their own interests. I do not like what is happening, because from an American perspective it seems that they want America to remain in the region to protect them as they receive attacks from Iran. Also, some Gulf countries have struck bilateral agreements with Iran to protect their interests, but it is essential that they reach non-aggression pacts with Iran.
Do you think Iran would respect a non-aggression pact?
Maybe they will. Last fall, Iran proposed a comprehensive agreement as the UN General Assembly drew near. The deal, however, was like Jared Kushner’s peace plan, no one wanted to read it.
It did have some good ideas. I read Iran’s plan as someone who adopts a hardline approach against it. I saw some positive things in it, but also saw Iran’s desire for America to leave the region so that it would emerge as the main player. The parts on non-aggression pacts are good ideas, but they were not groundbreaking. A non-aggression agreement had been struck in the past between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This was during the rule of Hashemi Rafsanjani?
Yes, this can be achieved as nothing is impossible. But we know that Iran has many goals in the Gulf. If it starts with a non-aggression agreement, then it would have achieved its goals. If it wants America out of the region, then it should start with deals with the Gulf, meaning America would no longer be needed in the region for protection.
But how can the Gulf trust Iran when it wants to impose its hegemony?
That’s true. There is no need for an alliance if the threat still stands. Moreover, how can it accept an alliance while the international community is watching and while American troops are there and the Fifth Fleet is deployed in Bahrain?
President Trump has ordered the US Navy to retaliate to any harassment by Revolutionary Guards boats.
All he did was voice out loud orders that the naval command implicitly knows. They always have the right to defend themselves in the Gulf. The president said nothing new. Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently signed a plan that says if Iran provoked us, we will respond immediately. This means that naval commanders do not need to turn to Washington for approval. The president’s statement was aimed at Iran.
Will naval commanders respond?
Yes, but the commanders are experienced and they will not be perturbed. If Iran continued in carrying out the same operations it is used to, to assert its presence, the commanders will not respond. Such operations are only significant to Iran.
Like the story of the elephant and the ant…
Exactly. We have seen in the past how the Revolutionary Guards planted mines around an oil tanker in the Gulf. If the commanders notice an Iranian vessel loaded with explosives, then they will definitely blow it up. If they see a speedboat racing towards a ship, they will definitely strike. But they will not respond to acts committed by an “ant”.
We noticed that Iran launched its first ever military satellite shortly after Trump made his threats. Does this mean that all American pressure has so far failed, meaning before the new policy you just mentioned?
No, I don’t believe the launch was a response to the president’s threats. A satellite cannot be launched within a week.
But it could have delayed a launch…
Yes, or Iran could have launched it without fanfare. I think it launched it so that we would know and for the world to know. It was a show of force…. They are definitely trying to build their capabilities to reach farther grounds, not America, of course. It was a warning that it harbors enmity towards our partners and allies.
What of the mullah regime in Iran that backs proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen? We have recently seen Germany blacklist Hezbollah.
The designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group is a result of Germany’s observation of the suffering of Lebanon and the Lebanese expatriates in Germany. US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell was on the verge of being appointed national security advisor after John Bolton’s resignation. He is a hawk and was insisting on a German stance. The Germans realized that he is an influential figure and not just a diplomatic envoy.
I also know that the Lebanese diaspora in the US is very influential. They are all highly educated, politically active and respected. This is why Washington is keen on Lebanon, even if it is a small country. True, there is Hezbollah and General Michel Aoun is president, but Lebanon is not in a good place and is close to becoming a failed state. The people are suffering and the Europeans, the Germans, specifically, have stated to sense that they cannot abandon the Lebanese people. I am very proud with the German position.
How can Lebanon be saved from Hezbollah?
Good question. I believe Lebanon needs an international work group. There is an elite, but no prominent actors. No one knows how to run a country. All of those who protested wanted change, but no one knows how to implement it. And Hezbollah is taking advantage of this. The international community must therefore, focus on helping Lebanon combat Hezbollah’s actions and back the role of civil political parties and hold elections. The Lebanese army must be trained to be capable of defending itself. The police must also be trained. Everyone wants to support Lebanon. People are now interested in Lebanon, but the White House is not looking at Lebanon. American officials are wrong when they say that “as long as Hezbollah is in control, then we will not talk to the Lebanese.”
Will the US allow the International Monetary Fund to offer loans to Lebanon?
Pressure will be exerted on Washington to save Lebanon and it will allow the loans. It will not allow the IMF to offer Iran any loan. In 2018, the White House was interested in Lebanon, but then the elections happened and Hezbollah emerged victorious, and so it turned its back on the country.
Back to the future of the mullah regime…
I am worried. We used to believe that the elderly mullahs will go in peace and a new era in Iran will emerge. I don’t think that will happen. The generation that will succeed Khamenei will be just like him or even more extreme. There is Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba. He is a hardliner and a close friend of the head of Iranian intelligence, Ali Shamkhani. They are the ones running everything.
Since Qassem Soleimani’s killing, Khamenei’s group has been confined in quarantine, but he is still in control. There is Mojtaba and Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, he is not as charismatic, but he is a logistic planner. There is also Zeinab, Soleimani’s daughter, who is used to attract people and appeal to the proxies and hardliners.
A struggle for power will ensue when Khamenei is gone. Some figures who are older and calmer than this circle have been marginalized. They believe that one of them should succeed Khamenei, but then there is his ambitious son, who will say that he holds the money and he was his father’s right-hand man. He will also say that the intelligence agency backs him. We will see a struggle for power, but they will keep it under wraps. I don’t think any of the older figures wants Mojtaba to come to power. I also don’t think that Mojtaba will allow others to marginalize him.
When Khamenei dies, they will keep everything secret until the struggle is sorted out. They will then announce his death and we wouldn’t have even known that he died.
Similar to what happened with Mullah Omar, the leader of Taliban, whose death was revealed two years after his passing…
Yes. We should applaud the Taliban for their feat, but I don’t think the Iranians will keep Khamenei’s death secret for two years.
After the satellite launch, General Amir Ali Haji Zada declared that Iran was now a major power…
Iran is no more a major power than North Korea. Being a rogue state does not make you a major power. Being under the watchful eye of the international group due to the problems you make does not make you a world power. Furthermore, if it were a world power, then its withdrawal from the global markets should have sparked a crisis. With all of the sanctions against Iran and its exclusion from all markets, no such crisis has taken place.
True, it does have a large army, but it is outdated. All revenues have gone to the Guards. All the military vehicles are old and broken. Moreover, they lack creativity. All they have exported is the revolution.
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