Big things are shaping up in the Middle East as the Biden administration appears to be rethinking its get-tough policy on Saudi Arabia, even as it continues to hold out hope for a revived nuclear deal with Iran. Meanwhile, Russia looks poised to shut down a key humanitarian aid corridor in Syria, while the West may have a new opportunity for maintaining pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Joining us to discuss these developments and more is Joel Rayburn, a retired army colonel visiting fellow at Hoover who served in senior positions at the National Security Council and the State Department during the Trump administration.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Cole Bunzel: Welcome today is May 24th, 2022, and you are listening to the Caravan Podcast, a venture of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on the Middle East and the Islamic World at the Hoover Institution, the working group publishes research and commentary on the Middle East with questions for us policy. And you can find our work at www.hoover.org/caravan.
I'm Cole Bunzel, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and member of the working group. Today I'm very pleased to be joined, and in studio no less, by my colleague, Joel Rayburn, who is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a fellow at the New America Foundation as well. Joel is a former diplomat and army officer.
His recent posts include, among other things, senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon at the National Security Council, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs at the State Department, and from July 2018 to January 2021, US Special Envoy for Syria. Joel, thanks very much for doing this podcast with me today.
Joel Rayburn: Very glad to be with you.
Cole Bunzel: In person, which is a first for this podcast.
Joel Rayburn: Oh really?
Cole Bunzel: Hopefully, the first but not the last. Joel, I'd like to touch on a range of issues pertaining to us policy in the Middle East and your expertise, including the ongoing negotiations for a revived nuclear deal with Iran, where those are going and the Biden administration's apparent climbed down from its tough rhetoric on Saudi Arabia.
But I thought we'd start with a subject that is near and dear to your heart as well as your mind. That is of course the matter of Syria and what is happening there today. You have a new essay out with Hoover coauthored with Nawaf Obaid, which is titled Trouble For Putin's Arab Client: Bashar Al-Assad's Inevitable Reckoning. In the piece you write that, and I quote here, "The Western allies have a new opportunity," when it comes to Syria policy.
The opportunity you say is afforded by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I wanted to ask, first of all, what is it that you're proposing here? What is the opportunity for the West with regard to Syria?
Joel Rayburn: On this issue, what Nawaf and I wanted to highlight was that there's been a slow developing set of investigations and prosecutions in Europe in particular of members of the Assad regime for atrocities, for war crimes, for crimes against humanity and so on. A lot of those cases are starting to come to fruition more than 10 years into the conflict.
It's taken a long time to develop, but there were two cases in Germany that we highlighted. One that already resulted in a conviction and another one, which is ongoing, and the case is very strong against the defendant, who is a medical doctor, who in a Josef Mengele type of way assisted with the torture of prisoners in an Assad detention center.
What we wanted to highlight is that these are the tip of the iceberg. You're going to see coming in Germany and France in a place like the Netherlands, national prosecutions, so prosecutions of French and German nationals, or I'm sorry, prosecutions of perpetrators who committed crimes against French and German nationals.
Cole Bunzel: I see.
Joel Rayburn: But you're also going to see, I think, some assertions of universal jurisdiction from some of the courts that assert universal jurisdiction on things like crimes against humanity. These are going to really obstruct the inclination of some countries, some actors, to push for normalization of relations with the Assad regime, which the Russians have been trying to promote for some years now.
It's going to make it very difficult. It's going to impose a political cost on proposals like that. It could create a material risk for businesses or countries that are thinking about normalizing, not just political relations, but economic relations with Damascus. Because if you start to get judgments, if you start to get criminal convictions, you're likely also to get civil judgments associated with the same evidence against the Assad regime.
Then you could very well have courts that could rule, and certainly, I think, there would be lawsuits to try to make this happen where courts might say that non-Syrian businesses or governments that are going to do contracts or investments in Damascus, that some of their assets would be vulnerable to civil judgments against the Assad regime. In the same way, for example, that there have been cases in some courts against banks that had depositors who were facilitating terrorist activities like by Hezbollah and/or Hamas and so on.
I think what you'll see a greater chilling effect against those who would pursue normalization policies. There's a bit of a train wreck coming between this accountability of vector, if you will, of prosecutions against the Assad regime and members of the associated with the Assad regime, with the vector of normalization policies. They're going to collide, and I don't think you're going to see an easy time for normalization.
The larger argument that Nawaf and I were making is this is something that the Western countries should embrace, especially as the United States and the European allies are looking for ways to raise costs for Vladimir Putin's foreign policy. This is an area where you could do it. You could make it impossible for Russia to continue to push for a normalization of Assad. You could impose greater costs for association with Assad, and now would be a good time to do that.
Cole Bunzel: When we see Bashar Al-Assad, I believe, in March, he visited the UAE. He met with Mohamed bin Zayed, I guess the now the ruler of the United Arab Emirates.
Joel Rayburn: Right.
Cole Bunzel: Is that coming from Russia, Russian pressure, or is that a policy independently pursued by the UAE and perhaps sympathized with by other regional actors?
Joel Rayburn: Well, the UAE inclination towards at least a pathway to normalization with the Assad government is not new. It's been something that the UAE has been talking about for at least four years, and that they activated in late 2018 when they reopened their embassy in Damascus, against our advice in the Trump administration.
Their explanation of it throughout has been that the Emirates see a lot of Iranian influence in Damascus, a lot of Russian influence in Damascus, but very little influence on the part of the Arab states in Damascus. What they're proposing is that maybe it's time for the Arab countries to return to Damascus so that they can compete for influence with the Assad regime to try to crowd out Iranian influence.
I've always thought that was a farfetched idea. I'm skeptical, to say the least. I also thought that there was an unspoken rationale for this Emirate policy, which is that in reality, the Emirates had been more concerned about the influence of Turkey and President Erdoğan in Syria, and they were willing to entertain the idea that the Assad regime, if it were stabilized, could be something of a buffer against Turkish influence in Syria.
Cole Bunzel: Things get complicated fast when it comes to understanding what's going on with the UAE and Syria. We know where you and Nawaf stand when it comes to the potential for normalization with Syria. I certainly know the way someone, we might call it the foreign policy left, how they feel about this. They would probably argue that the Assad regime has, for all intents and purposes, won the conflict to the extent that it controls about, what is it, two thirds of the country, something like that.
Joel Rayburn: The people throw these figures around. Yeah. But I think it's better to think of what percentage of Syria's prewar population, what portion of Syria's prewar population lives under Bashar Al-Assad's rule now?
Cole Bunzel: It hasn't been eliminated.
Joel Rayburn: Yes. It's under 10 million people out of a pre-war population of 23 million. Bashar side rules over a small minority of serious pre-war population. The military victory, if you can call it that, by the Assad regime and the Russians and the Iranians in Aleppo in 2016 was pyrrhic victory because it cost them so much.
There's really nothing left in the cupboard for the Assad regime in terms of military manpower. They're caught in a war that they can't close, and they'll never be able to close it. Assad really has no military path out of this conflict. He hasn't won anything.
Cole Bunzel: It's a frozen conflict, essentially.
Joel Rayburn: It's a frozen conflict. Although that's a little bit of a mislabel, because if you drill down to local areas, the country is extremely volatile, even in territories that the Assad regime supposedly reconquered, the control there is very thin, tenuous. It feels as though they're just hours away from a reignition of the war in those places. in the south is case in point, which is, it's just the Assad regime is sitting on a volcano there as they always have been, and the situation's know better.
Cole Bunzel: I tried to do my best to outline the perhaps progressive critique of the Trump administration's approach to the Syria problem. What I might say is your approach to Syria problem, but what about the Biden administration? Does it have an understandable Syria policy, or is it a collection of different I different things?
Joel Rayburn: Well, the Biden administration has the same policy goals, the same nominal policy goals, but they don't really have a comprehensive strategy for achieving those goals. What they do have is activities and plans to deal with some of the symptoms of the Syrian conflict, as opposed to resolving its causes, the drivers of the conflict.
The Biden administration is prioritizing humanitarian assistance, but without dealing with the cause of the humanitarian crisis, which is the Assad regime's continuing war against a big swath of the Syrian people, and dealing with counter-terrorism, prosecuting a counter-terrorism campaign, without addressing the political driver of the terrorism in Syria, which is the conflict between Assad and large swaths of Syrian society.
I think we're in a period right now where no one really has a strategy for bringing the war to a close, including Assad himself, including the Russians. That means that the risk of an escalation, the risk of an outbreak of a broader conflict is there really every hour of the day.
Cole Bunzel: You mentioned the issue of humanitarian assistance. One thing I wanted to ask you about, and you were explaining this to me in much detail yesterday when we were talking, is this issue of the Bab al-Hawa humanitarian corridor. It's a border crossing in Northern Syria between Turkey and Syria.
It's maintained with a UN mandate with the approval of the UN Security Council, and that mandate expires, I believe, in early July. Russia, as I was reading today, one of its spokesman says that they're threatening to veto this mandate, then essentially you would have a suspension of UN aid from Turkey into Syria that helps, what, some 3 million people survive. What is Russia doing here? What is the story of this humanitarian corridor?
Joel Rayburn: What Russia has been trying to do over the past several years, and they've used the limited term of this mandate, the fact that the mandate comes up for debate every six months or 12 months at the most, means every six or 12 months, the Russians try to water down, weaken, reduce the scope of the cross-border assistance that the UN is providing in order to create a deference to the sovereignty of Assad's government, and to try to pressure the UN to run humanitarian assistance, basically through Assad.
So that humanitarian assistant will go to Damascus and be coordinated with Assad's regime to then go out to places beyond the Assad regime's control. Cross line assistance is what they call it. Of course, a large chunk of that... There has been a lot, a sizable amount, of UN assistance that's been going through the Assad regime and the Assad regime directs it to their loyalists and they skim off the top of it. They resell it.
Then it's essentially a portion of it amounts to a subsidy of the Assad regime. The Russians and Assad would like to see more and more of the UN assistance running essentially through Assad himself so that he can skim and use it as a subsidy. Eventually, they would like to, if they can do it without incurring a big political cost, to just shut down the cross border assistance altogether and have any assistance that the UN or the humanitarian aid community wants to do, have to go through Assad himself.
They've been approaching that by degrees. There used to be a lot more border crossings that the UN was authorized to work across, including from Jordan into Syria. Those the Russians have deleted those one by one. We're down to just the one, Bab al-Hawa. In the bigger context, the bigger strategic context for the Russians, this is leverage that they can wield against the same powers that are opposing them, opposing their invasion of Ukraine. They'll try to get some mileage and leverage out of it.
I would be surprised if the Russians allow this to roll over with no changes. I would be surprised if they allow it to roll over without demanding some huge price for letting it be renewed.
Cole Bunzel: If it isn't renewed, if we don't meet the demands of what Russia, whatever they may be, for continuing this mandate in July. What would the repercussions be in practice? Does that mean people leaving, going into Turkey and to Europe, that's one of the threats?
Joel Rayburn: You could have that. The people who are dependent on this aid, you could have a disruption of deliveries, especially to some of these internally displaced person camps, where the conditions are absolutely horrible. They're really severe conditions. You could have people who then have no choice but to try to go somewhere else, across the border into Turkey and so on.
This is why for a long time, I personally thought and argued for coming up with a viable plan B. So, if in an instant, the UN suddenly lost its mandate to do cross-border assistance, what could be put in its place?
I thought a consortium of national aid among the Turks, the United States, Germany, Great Britain and other donors should be organized and the infrastructure prepared so that this consortium could fill the gap immediately if the UN had to stop. But those preparations, as far as I know, have not matured to the degree that they would need to rush in and fill the gap if there's a disruption after early July.
Cole Bunzel: When you see the UN ambassador, the US's ambassador the UN talking up the importance of this border crossing and how Russia really has to agree to a continuance. What's your view? Is this-
Joel Rayburn: Well, I'm really glad for the US ambassador to the UN's attention to the problem. That's the first thing I'd say. I think it's really to Ambassador Greenfield's credit, but I would not advise that negotiating strategy with the Russians, which is in other words is to say, and we've been through one round of this already with the Biden administration, which is to say ahead of the debate to say, this is a vital thing.
It's vital to our interests and international interests for this cross-border assistance to continue through the UN to continue, and there's no alternative. All you've done there is you have now allowed the Russians to raise their price significantly for selling their acquiescence. You want to buy their acquiescence to roll over the UN mandate. Now, you don't do that by saying, "This is really important, and there's no alternative to it." You're basically saying you're willing to pay a lot as opposed to coming up with a...
Cole Bunzel: An alternative.
Joel Rayburn: Yeah, a BATNA, a best alternative to a negotiated agreement, in negotiation doctrine. I think there should have been a BATNA last year. There should have been a BATNA during the Trump administration, and there should be a BATNA now.
I suspect you'd be more likely for the Russians to let the mandate be renewed if you had a viable alternative that meant that if the Russians vetoed, they would then pay the political price for it, with Turkey, with the international community, but they wouldn't get any material change. The assistance would still go.
In fact, the Russians would lose their leverage for arguing for more aid to go through Damascus. If I were advising the US negotiators and the European negotiators, I would advise a different negotiation approach.
Cole Bunzel: Well, speaking of negotiations, I want to move on to the issue of Iran from Syria to one of Syria's enablers. As many of those listening will be well aware, the Biden administration has been adamant about returning to the JCPOA, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, which the Obama administration negotiated in 2015 and the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018.
Reentry into the JCPOA was for the Biden administration, a key plank of its Middle East policy, but it hasn't been so easy getting back into it. I guess my first question for you here, before we get into the merits and demerits and the details, if you want to go there of this revised or revived, potentially revived nuclear deal, is why has it been so hard for the Biden administration to get there? Why would Iran drag its feet if this deal is such a good deal for both parties, in theory?
Joel Rayburn: Well, the Biden administration has not been tightly enforcing the US sanctions against Iran's oil transactions. The Iranian regime has been able to sell, according to some reports, upwards of a million barrels a day in orders to China and some other places without the recipients being sanctioned, without the sanctions being enforced.
There's already been a de facto lifting of the sanctions pressure. The Iranians are now generating oil revenues without a deal, then their interest in entering into a deal is much... They're much more comfortable. They were never going to enter into a deal on us terms unless they were under a lot of pressure, made to feel really uncomfortable, which was the point of the Trump administration reimposing those sanctions in the first place was to get the Iranians to a different deal on us terms. It was a mistake, I think, it was an error by the Biden administration to...
Cole Bunzel: Why did our brilliant negotiators cease enforcing these sanctions?
Joel Rayburn: I suspect that it was meant to be a gesture of goodwill. I suspect that there was a de facto understanding that if the Iranians came back to the table to, as long as the Iranians were at the table, negotiating-
Cole Bunzel: In the other room.
Joel Rayburn: Well, wherever they were, wherever the table was, as long as they were at the table, negotiating for a renewal or reentry into this deal, that the sanctions would not be enforced, at least not tightly. Again, as I said, to relieve the pressure and then expect the Iranians to do what the United States wants them to do, I think is wrongheaded.
Cole Bunzel: One reason would be for the Iranians dragging their feet is that the pressure has already been relieved.
Joel Rayburn: They're already getting what they need. They're already selling hundreds of thousands or million barrels of oil a day. Why do they need to go back into a deal? How much more would they get? They would get their cash unfrozen. I've seen some estimates that it's around $90 billion, who knows for sure, that would be liquid if it were UN frozen, they get that.
But in terms of the oil revenues, they're already selling upwards of a million barrels a day. It's not like they're feeling as much pain as they were... During the latter months of the Trump administration, their oil exports were crunched down to under 400,000 barrels a day and at one point under 300,000 barrels a day. They were in a crisis. I don't think they're feeling that pressure now.
Cole Bunzel: We let them out of the crisis and we're negotiating a new JCPOA. It seems that the administration hasn't quite acknowledged that this is not going to be the same JCPOA that the 2015 one was, where we were supposed to have a "one year breakout time." That is a breakout time for building a nuclear weapon. Some of the details that I've seen coming out about the new deal, should it ever be reentered would, are quite generous to the Iranians to put it gently. Could you tell us a little bit about some of those?
Joel Rayburn: Well, I think there are a couple of... One of the fatal flaws and there are at least there are at least two and I think a third. The fatal flaw is in the original JCPOA. One of them is that it expires. The second one is that the Iranians were allowed to continue to enrich, albeit at a lower level, as opposed to having to surrender their enrichment capability, and then agree not to enrich.
The third one has to do with their regional activities, but more on that later. If the administration is just going to go back into the terms of the 2015 deal, well, some of those provisions have already expired so it's a weaker deal. For example, the UN arms embargo has already expired.
Cole Bunzel: Ballistic missile technology imports will expire in another year or so something like that.
Joel Rayburn: We're right up against deadlines in the original deal, and the Iranians still would enjoy... They would retain the ability to enrich uranium. You're sort of back in the same problem.
Cole Bunzel: One thing I've seen is that the advanced centrifuges that the Iranians have been building and using since the Trump administration left the deal would be allowed to remain in the country in "storage," which would seem to mean that the breakout time is vastly diminished since they could simply roll this advanced centrifuges features out of storage when those provisions expire.
Joel Rayburn: There's some reports that is what's on the table is that the Iranians would just hold the advanced centrifuges. They wouldn't have to surrender them. Then, yes, if there was a future US administration that wanted to leave the deal, terminate the deal, that the Iranians would then just have the ability to break the seals on wherever the advanced centrifuge is stored and fire up the enrichment, the accelerated enrichment. In other words, it would be a sword of Damocles hanging over a future US president who might want to not-
Cole Bunzel: Exit the deal.
Joel Rayburn: ... might want to exit the deal.
Cole Bunzel: So one thing, and I'm getting back to this issue of why the Iranians are dragging their feet. I have a hard time understanding or predicting rather what it is the Iranians are angling for here. Do you think that there will be a JCPOA, but the Iranians are just trying to ring every last possible concession out of us along the way? Or is this all a play act for the US to relieve all the pressure while they negotiate, but it's all feeder.
Joel Rayburn: Listen, it's hard to know without being in those negotiations. My impression of the Biden administration is that they remain very eager to try to get a deal of some kind, and that they would be... Well, they have been willing so far to make some concessions that you wouldn't expect, and they may be inclined to make some concessions that you wouldn't advise them to just in order to reenter the deal.
However, from the Iranian end of it, my own view has never been that the Iranians... For the Iranians, this was first and foremost about the nuclear capability. This instead was about having the leverage that would enable them to continue their aggression against the region around them and to try to consolidate hegemony in the Gulf region, in the Northern Middle East, against the Arab countries with impunity.
The extent that the US and European countries are willing to expand all their leverage over the Iranian regime, just for the nuclear issue, which is, I mean, it's an important issue, sure. But just for the nuclear issue, but excluding the Iranian's military expeditions into the Arab world in particular, then the nuclear file becomes a bit of a red herring.
You can wind up with an Iranian regime that is allowed to sell oil in an unlimited way, allowed to buy and sell weapons in an unlimited way, develop missiles while it's waging war against US allies in the Middle East.
Cole Bunzel: All they have to do to for the US international community to ignore all this aggression is to adhere to some watered down nuclear agreement that gradually expires.
Joel Rayburn: This was the problem expires. This was the problem with the JCPOA in the first place. This is why President Trump exited the deal. There's a lot of, I mean, there's been a lot of rhetoric that while asserting that President Trump was determined to exit the Iran deal because it was President Obama's deal or part of President Obama's diplomatic legacy.
But I mean, my own experience inside the Trump administration was that the thing that really compelled President Trump to leave the deal was the Iranian military expansion into Yemen, into the Gulf region, into the Northern Middle East. When President Trump asked for nonmilitary options for countering this Iranian military aggression, he was told, "Well, you don't have any economic pressure tools because we've voluntarily given those up as part of the Iran deal." As Qasem Soleimani was waging war and against us and our allies in several countries and the Iranian regime was firing off ballistic missiles at our allies with the Europeans warning us not to sanction the Iranian regime, like the central bank and the national oil company and so on. In response to that, it became intolerable for President Trump, and that's really, that was the last straw after which he decided exit the deal.
Cole Bunzel: That's interesting. He realized, and the people around him realized that the nuclear issue can't really be separated from the regional adventurism issue, because economic sanctions are off the table once you have the JCPOA.
Joel Rayburn: If you recall that in 2017, we in the Trump administration, the president started using and Secretary Tillerson started using the language that, well, the Iranians may or may not be in compliance with the letter of the JCPOA, but they're in violation of the spirit of the JCPOA.
Cole Bunzel: It had a spirit?
Joel Rayburn: Well, I mean.
Cole Bunzel: The spirit was one of amity and trust, and no, that's not-
Joel Rayburn: I think every deal has a spirit, and for the Iranians to be firing off cruise missiles and ballistic missiles at Riyadh and the UAE/
Cole Bunzel: And arresting American citizens.
Joel Rayburn: And arresting American citizens and Qasem Soleimani flinging his troops against ours in Syria, and then rocketing our diplomatic presence in Iraq and so on, that was, that came to be intolerable at the same time that we weren't sanctioning the Iranian central revenues. It just, it got too much to... It was an incoherent approach.
The options that were presented to President Trump or, well, you can do nothing and just absorb this punishment from the Iranian regime and leave your allies to fend for themselves. Or you can have a military response. Well, what about the soft power responses? What about the non-military responses in the middle of that spectrum? No, sir. You're not allowed to use those because of the JCPOA.
Your most powerful non-war tools are behind JCPOA glass. You can't touch them, really. I mean, so those tools were taken out of the quiver, and it was just unsustainable. That's exactly what will happen again if the Biden administration reenters a deal, the Iranian regime, because its Supreme Leader Khamenei's national security policy to attack the region around him, to create a threat all the time against the region around him, the Iranian regime is going to continue to do that.
Then the Biden administration and the Europeans the going to find themselves in the same boat, and then they're going to... Someone's going to say, "Well, let's sanction them." Are we going to go to war with them? No, not as the first response. Well, let's sanction them. Then someone will say, "Well, we can't because they're on base. They're untouchable because of the JCPOA, and it won't be sustainable. The JCPOA will collapse of its own weight at that point.
Cole Bunzel: One of the things that we heard Biden administration officials saying at the beginning of the administration, including then secretary or not quite yet, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his Senate confirmation process, was that the JCPOA was going to be used as a "platform" for a longer and stronger deal that would also include the host of regional issues.
Regional issues has always struck me as a euphemism. I mean, we're talking about killing Americans, things like this. What do you make of this idea? One thing I've noticed that longer and stronger is you don't hear it anymore. It's gone.
Joel Rayburn: Well, look, I think the Biden administration and the Europeans are in a position now where all the leverage that they hold over the Iranian regime, they will expend to get back to a mutual return to the JCPOA. There will be no leverage left over to try to compel the Iranian regime to then agree to stop waging war or to stop prosecuting Supreme Leader Khamenei's policy of attacking the rest of the region.
All you'll be left with at that point is more Iranian regime extortion. The only leverage that the United States and the Europeans will have is to say, "Well, how much more can we pay you to please stop attacking our regional allies and threatening the existence of our Middle Eastern allies?" I think that'll be an uncomfortable position to be in.
Cole Bunzel: How much wealthier can we make you?
Joel Rayburn: How much more can we give you to try to purchase your ceasefire?
Cole Bunzel: Well, that probably makes our allies very uncomfortable. That segues us into the next topic that I wanted to touch on here and that is the issue of Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration coming into office, it seemed to me like they had two major planks of their foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East, and these are actually set out in the Democratic party platform of 2000.
One was to re-enter the nuclear deal, and the other was to isolate and shame Saudi Arabia, and particularly the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who goes by the initials MBS in policy wonk circles. The justification for putting distance between the US and the Saudis, I think part of it had to do with Trump administration being very cozy with the Saudis.
But it also of course, had to do with the fact that MBS was implicated in the murder of a Turkish journalist, an activist, Jamal Khashoggi, in October 2018 in Istanbul. The US intelligence community assigned responsibility to the Saudi crown prince for that killing, and so the Biden administration was intent on punishing MBS. There was all this talk about "recalibrating the relationship."
But recently I've noticed that the Biden administration seems to be walking a lot of this back. The most recent reports I've seen say that President Biden is actually planning to have a meeting with MBS in possibly the next month. So what do you make of this walk back or this climb down? Is that the right way to look at it?
Joel Rayburn: Well, I think what's happened is that the Biden administration's had to confront the reality of the Saudi Arabia is too big a state. It's too big a player. It's too big an ally, not in the formal sense, but it's too big a partner and too important a partner in the United States for the United States to allow to just walk away from the relationship. It's also a very institutionalized relationship.
It's been many decades now. The US government and the Saudi government are institutionally plugged in with one another in a very deep way. The Saudi, let's say, administrative class is very much... They're American educated. There are more than 300,000 Saudis who were born in the United States. They're essentially children of Saudis that were in the United States as students.
The United States is the only country for which the Saudi government allows its own citizens to hold dual citizenship. It's somewhere between three and 400,000 Saudis. I mean, so there's a really deep US-Saudi relationship that goes beyond a single person, or it goes beyond personality conflicts between the leaders of the day.
It's an institutional relationship that comes from shared interests, maybe to some extent more and more actually these days, maybe a little bit shared values, but certainly shared interests. It would be reckless for US interests just to walk away from that or to downgrade it. I think also a great power that needs allies, that works through allies, that has allies, I think you have to, you warn your enemies in public and you admonish your allies in private.
Cole Bunzel: Exactly.
Joel Rayburn: It really has to be the statesmanship principle that you follow. I think in recent, in the last couple of decades, sometimes in the United States, we get that backwards and it's to our detriment. I think here and with the Saudi situation, we're coming to, there's a more pragmatic approach that's emerging from Washington.
Cole Bunzel: I think that's, in my opinion, in your opinion, a good thing, and Biden probably will meet with MBS.
Joel Rayburn: Again, I'm not saying that the United States should have a valueless foreign policy. I mean, that's not who the United States is or has ever been. If you have a valueless foreign policy, then why be the United States? You may as well be Ceaușescu's Romania. So I'm not saying that.
Part of the United States promoting its interest is promoting his values around the world. But we also have geopolitical facts and we do have enemies and adversaries in the world, in this world that we, that we have to confront. We should not turn away willing allies, allies who are invested in lining up with us against our shared adversaries.
Cole Bunzel: Saudis and the UAE and other of our Gulf allies, of course, their main concern is Iran and Iranian expansionism. Do you think that the Biden administration is coming around to that view, or are they still intent on erecting what I think President Obama once called a realignment where there would be a equipoise between the Saudis and the Iranians?
Joel Rayburn: It looks to me like there's still a little bit too much hangover of that very unfortunate view of the Middle East by President Obama. I mean, he famously described to Jeffrey Goldberg that the Saudis and the Israelis just sort of needed to learn to share the region.
Cole Bunzel: Saudis and the Iranians.
Joel Rayburn: No. That the Saudis and the Israelis needed to learn to share the region-
Cole Bunzel: Excuse me.
Joel Rayburn: ... with the Iranian regime, which, from the perspective of Riyadh and the Israelis, sounds a bit nonsensical. I've had associates in those countries who've described that as being told that a potential murder victim is being told that you have to work things out with your would-be murderer. There's still a little too much of that, I think, and not just in the Biden administration, but in US foreign policy circles in Congress as well. It's not realistic in this kind of world that we live in.
Cole Bunzel: How much of the intended rapprochement with the Saudis do you think has to do with the war in Ukraine and the rise and the spike in oil prices? We've seen reports about the US officials calling up and trying to ask the Saudis to increase oil output, which is of course difficult for them in the first place, because they have an institutional arrangement with what is called OPEC Plus. They can't just break that unless they want to alienate their allies an OPEC Plus. But what do you make of the oil issue and Ukraine angle?
Joel Rayburn: Well, I think you're right. Certainly, I mean, the United States and the EU found themselves suddenly needing to have alternatives to Russian energy, and then suddenly Saudi Arabia, it's importance emerges again. It comes to the forefront again.
I think my understanding of the Saudi perspective though is that the entreaties from the United States and from Europeans to increase oil production, that the Saudis wanted to see that request made part of a broader energy strategy, and that would take into account market factors like what the futures market for oil, which is based on, to a great degree, on spare capacity in the out years. The spare capacity in the out years overwhelmingly is in Saudi Arabia. So if the Saudis begin to use this spare capacity now, what will that do to the future's market? What will that do to the price of oil deliveries in the future?
It could create an inadvertent spike, so I think there's some technical explanations there. I don't think... There's been a sort of a simplistic narrative saying, "Well, there's personality conflict between Saudi leadership and US leadership, and therefore, the Saudi leadership decided to rebuff the US request," sort of an act of pestilence.
I don't think that's how these things happen. I don't think how this that's how this particular situation played out. I think it's much more about having a comprehensive approach to the energy markets. I don't think it can be reduced to a personality conflicts.
Cole Bunzel: That's an interesting perspective we don't hear very much about. Last question for you, Joel, and this just has to do with the nature of the US-Saudi relationship. We're often told that we're at a low point in the history of this relationship, and I know you were recently in Saudi Arabia meeting with some Saudi officials.
Back in March, Karen Elliott house wrote this in the Wall Street Journal, "In the 40 years, I have been visiting this country," Saudi Arabia, "never has anger at the US been so visceral or so widespread." I'm curious to see how that observation fits in with your own recent experience. Do you think that, because you're emphasizing institutional relationships that are deep, years in the making, do you think that's overstatement?
Joel Rayburn: Well, not really, because I think, sure, there's deep frustration amongst the Saudis with the United States, but then, but there's also an acknowledgement on the Saudi side about but we're stuck with each other. Washington's very frustrated with Saudi Arabia right now, Saudi Arabia's very frustrated with Washington right now, but we're stuck with each other.
Since we're stuck with each other, why don't we start talking about how to resolve our frustrations as opposed to a divorce, so to speak? And I think there's broad acknowledgement, at least this is my experience. There's broad acknowledgement amongst Saudis that the idea that the Saudis are going to trade their strategic relationship with the United States for a strategic relationship with China, just is a nonstarter.
There's just no possibility, no chance of that. The institutional relationships are too strong, and the Chinese can't do for Saudi Arabia what the United States has done will do. There's just the United States is irreplaceable to the Saudis, and in my own opinion is the Saudis are irreplaceable to the United States.
Cole Bunzel: So 40 year, low point, I mean?
Joel Rayburn: It may be. Well, that may be, but however, these things wax and wane. As long as we are indispensable to one another, then I have every hope that the ship will right itself.
Cole Bunzel: Well on that cheerful note, Joel Rayburn, thank you for this conversation, for coming on the Caravan Podcast. You could find Joel on Twitter @Joel_Rayburn. Please subscribe to the podcast and stay tuned for the next episode and discussion.
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