Robin Wright

Robin Wright is a United States Institute for Peace Senior Fellow-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar. A journalist, she is the author of several books including, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.

Robin Wright is a United States Institute for Peace Senior Fellow-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar. A journalist, she is the author of several books including, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.


Why is Iran important to the United States?

Iran is one of the world’s major Islamic powers. It actually introduced Islam as a modern political idiom. It is one of the three defining revolutions of the modern era. Strategically, it bridges three of the world’s most volatile regions: the Middle East, the Asian Sub-Continent, and the caucuses in central Asia. And it also faces the oil lanes through the Persian Gulf. There are few countries in the world that have as much geostrategic importance as Iran. Economically, it is one of the world’s top oil producers and it has one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves. There is no country in the world that can afford to ignore Iran, even those who don’t have direct relations or even import its oil, in part because so many other countries rely on its resources. And in the Islamic world it is the defining force when it comes to Shiite Islam and also some of the extremist groups in the region have ties to and have aided and abetted by Iran.

What is Iran’s strategic value?

Iran has such strategic value because of its resources and location. It actually has leverage over some of the world’s major powers, such as China, which is growing its industrial base and therefore needs energy resources. And, as a result, China hasn’t been willing to go along with some of the western powers when it comes to punitive action against Iran because there is such an economic link. The same thing is true, to a certain degree, with Russia. Iran also borders all those regions where it has influence.
There is something called the Shiite Crescent, which is a group of countries that radiates out of Tehran into Iraq, into what had been the Shiite ruling party, or Alewite ruling party, in Syria and into Lebanon, where the Shiites are the largest power and where Hezbollah is the largest militia in the region. And so Iran has enormous influence way beyond its borders.

What about Iran’s political power and strength in the region?

In 1979, Iran’s revolution redefined politics in the region. It introduced Islam not only as an idiom of political opposition, but as a viable idiom of governance. This has never been tried in the fourteen centuries of Islam. And that led to the birth of political Islam and the wave of experiments among different kinds of Islamist groups – be they extremists or, in some cases, moderate. But Islam suddenly became an alternative to the dictatorships or autocratic rule throughout the region.

What is Washington’s current policy towards Iran?

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has gone from being one of the two pillars of U.S. policy in the region to its largest nemesis, and that’s for a variety of reasons; originally for its support of extremism, for its takeover of the American embassy which lasted 444 days, its ties on an ongoing basis to some of the rogue regimes and extremist movements in the region, and, of course, its threatening language towards Israel. Iran has provided Hezbollah, HAMAS and the Islamic Jihad, according to the U.S. government, with large sums of money and large arsenals with which it has challenged Israel. And so, both because of other U.S. interests in the region and because of U.S. allies who rely on Iranian oil, there is the great question of, “What does Washington do about Tehran?”And in more than three decades the U.S. has never come up with something that will either bridge the diplomatic chasm or heal relations.

What would you suggest U.S. policy should be towards Iran?

The challenge for the United States plays out on a lot of different issues. One is extremism and three decades of Iran’s support for extremist groups. The second is the controversial nuclear program; what exactly is Iran trying to do? The third is over energy resources and the undeniable fact that Iran is not a player that can be totally isolated, like North Korea can. And so, there is not one single policy beyond solving these issues that will really work. There is a military option on the table to deal with Iran’s suspected nuclear program. But that is not going to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, because if it has a program, if it is nearing a nuclear capability, than it has enough knowledge to proceed after a military operation, and you can’t bomb knowledge. And so at the end of the day, there has to be some kind of broader policy that deals with all the issues that the United States has with Iran, not just the nuclear program.

Is it clear whether Iran is developing civilian or military nuclear capabilities?

Iran claims its nuclear program is simply for peaceful nuclear energy. And the truth is that Iran actually needs nuclear energy; according to estimates today, it will run out of oil for export because of its own growing domestic needs by about 2025. That’s not far away, and any developing country to move across that threshold needs a basket of different energy resources. And Iran points out; the U.S. approved, during the Ford administration, plans for twenty-two nuclear reactors. And Iran, more than three decades later, is still only working on its first nuclear reactor. There are lots of questions about what Iran might be doing on a nuclear weapons program. But most of the information since 2003 is based on deduction: that it’s developing a facility to enrich uranium, a process that can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy and as fuel for a nuclear weapon, at an underground facility that it kept secret and that’s buried deep in the mountains outside the religious center of Qom. Why, if it’s really just for peaceful nuclear energy? And there are lots of questions like that. Iran denies all of them, but it has also denied access to some of its leading scientists. And it has also not cooperated about answering questions about what it was doing before 2003. And as a result, the world’s major powers, the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, have come together to try and get Iran to fess up. “If you’re not developing a nuclear weapon, prove it.” And Iran has been unwilling to do that.

If the United States or Israel attacked, what would Iran’s reaction be?

Iran has a lot of options if either the United States or Israel attacks; but many of them are not conventional responses. It can turn to its proxies, its allies in the region, to take action; whether it is against Israel or against American targets and interests in the region. The United States still has troops, for example, in Afghanistan. Iran has allies in Afghanistan. So those are the things that are in some ways more ominous for U.S. interests, because there are so many different options in so many different parts of the world, some of them well beyond the Middle East, which basically put the United States on notice around the world.

Why does Israel look at Iran as an existential threat?

One of the great ironies of the situation today is that Iran and Israel, for decades, were the two pillars of U.S. policy in the region. Iran provided oil, during the Shah’s era, to Israel. But since the 1979 revolution and the emergence of a militant brand of Islam, Israel has felt threatened; both in physical terms and by the kind of rhetoric that challenges Israel’s right to exist. And of course the Iranians, instead of providing resources to Israel, have provided resources – for decades now – to Israel’s enemies or those who are challenging HAMAS, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

How do Israeli threats against Iran impact U.S. policy towards Iran and Egypt?

The Obama administration, in the spring of 2012, took a different position for the first time; it committed to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. This came as a result of pressure from the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu. And so the United States is now vested in questions of Israel’s right to exist and what Israel believes is an existential threat to its existence.

What would be the global and regional implications of a nuclear Iran?

Iran is unlikely to use a nuclear weapon, anytime in the near future, against anyone else. It is probably developing it as a deterrent. But the mere fact that it has a weapon also gives it a power to threaten others, or to appear a threat, and to use its nuclear capability as a pressure point to say, “This is what we want to happen in the region,” and for others to go along with it because Iran is a nuclear power. So it changes the political dynamics, the strategic dynamics, and the security challenges across the Middle East and basically well beyond Middle East borders.

Would the United States stand for a nuclear Iran? Can and should the U.S. do anything about it?

The United States has the option of using military force against Iran because of its suspected nuclear program. But the real question is: Is that more than a delaying tactic? Does it backfire on the United States and Israel by getting Iran more interested in developing not just one weapon, but many because it has become a target? This would in effect justify, to many in Iran, developing a nuclear capability. There is actually a difference between developing a nuclear capability and developing a weapon itself, and this could be the gray area that makes it very difficult for anyone to decide what exactly to do about Iran. If it develops a nuclear capability, what is often called the “Japan model,” it would be harder for the outside world to act even though that would represent a significant danger. It would be a much more clear-cut case if Iran developed a nuclear weapon and carried out its first nuclear test to declare, effectively, that it is one of the world’s nuclear powers.

If there was a confrontation that took place with Israel and Iran and maybe the U.S., who would win that conventional war?

In a conventional military confrontation, the United States would clearly be able to beat Iran. It could destroy targets. The U.S. military has unprecedented capabilities, but that’s in a conventional sense. And that, in the end, would not necessarily mean that it could destroy Iran’s nuclear capability or its nuclear program. It would still have the scientists, it would still have the knowledge, and it could still proceed on a nuclear weapon.
So in a conventional conflict, the real danger is: Then what do you do? Let’s say you destroy certain facilities, maybe even all of them. But as we discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can achieve your military objectives. Then you face the even bigger questions of what to do politically afterwards. And is the real goal not just destroying Iran’s nuclear program, but is there a political agenda to engage in some sort of regime change? Or to create circumstances that the people of Iran might exploit to bring about regime change?

How would a clandestine war work, and who would win?

Since the 1979 revolution, or at least the takeover of the U.S. embassy, Iran and the U.S. have been engaged in an asymmetric, covert campaign against one and other. It’s played out in lots of different ways; whether it’s helping the extremist groups in the region who have engaged in suicide bombings against American targets or against Israel, whether it’s the kind of tensions that play out against navy ships in the Persian Gulf, whether it’s attacks on western interests in Argentina and supposedly in parts of South Asia and Asia. Iran has lots of means of engaging against the United States. And for most of the past three decades, Iran has won in the sense that it has achieved its military objectives; whether it is destroying a Marine compound, American embassies, or Israeli targets. One of the most interesting developments is the reported use by the United States of cyber viruses to go after Iran’s nuclear program, its military installations; which for the first time was a win for the United States in this covert campaign. It made Iran sit up and notice that the United States could play the game too and achieve some of its own objectives in delaying, stalling, and undoing the centrifuge program that is part of uranium enrichment. So both sides have long been engaging in an unconventional war against each other. Iran is winning most rounds, the United States is beginning to play back on its own.

Is a military strike or conflict inevitable?

There are two stark alternatives. One is a diplomatic solution that gets a compromise on Iran’s nuclear programs; so that it’s allowed to develop nuclear energy, but is prevented from developing a nuclear weapon. Iran has reached the point where that decision has to be made sometime in the not to distant future, because Iran also has a suspected weapons program. Whether it will actually lead to a weapon, no one knows yet. But if it does, and Iran gets closer, than the military option probably becomes more likely, even though it is not likely to destroy Iran’s long term nuclear potential.

How does the lack of communication and misinterpretation between the United States, Iran, and Israel factor in?

For thirty years, there have been attempts by both sides to reach out and engage in rapprochement. Unfortunately, it usually coincides with a time that the other side is ever more hostile to the other. We’ve never been on the same page at the same time. We’ve never been able to read each other very well. The longer that time passes, the deeper the suspicion, the inability to understand what the other one really wants, and the harder it is to find that diplomatic solution. The political dynamics inside of Iran have changed over the past thirty years. The majority of the population has been born since the revolution. They are also very aware of globalization and the changes that have happened elsewhere in the world, and the young very much want to be a part of it. They don’t like being a pariah. They are very tech savvy; they are engaged in the internet. Women today constitute over 60% of the university population in Iran; they have closed the gender gap in terms of education. They have women who have won Nobel peace prizes and film awards.

Why is Egypt important to the West and to the United States?

Of the twenty-two Arab countries, Egypt is by far the more important. In simple numbers it accounts for one quarter of the Arab world’s 350 million people. But it has also been the intellectual heart and soul of the Arab World. It is the trendsetter. It was the first one to make peace with Israel. And its experiment today in Islamic politics is creating a different kind of model. One that is starkly different to the Shiite theocracy in Iran but also different from the Sunni religious monarchy in Saudi Arabia. And so when it comes to defining the new order after the Arab uprisings, there’s no country more important in defining that new order than Egypt.

How has the Arab Spring impacted the relationship between the United States and Egypt?

The Arab uprisings transformed the role of the United States in Egypt, but also in the broader Arab world. The United States can no longer turn to one man in the shape of Hosni Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, or the other leaders of Egypt and determine whether it is peace with Israel or moves against extremism; what the two countries can do together. You have first of all a democratic process, which introduces lots of different players. You’ve also introduced Islam as a political form of government. And the United States for decades had actively tried to avoid dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties, and it has suddenly discovered that they’re the ones who will make the decisions. So the United States today is scrambling to develop a relationship and find means of working with groups which aren’t always as pro-American as previous Egyptian governments.

Is part of that policy forgiving Egyptian debt or reaching out to the IMF to get it to help Egypt?

The United States clearly has less political influence in Egypt, and in many other Arab countries, than it has had since the aftermath of World War II when the United States became a superpower. And so it is looking for other means of developing a relationship, particularly when it comes to economic issues. How do you create the jobs and deal with the unemployment issues that actually were the spark that enflamed the Middle East and lead to the uprisings? Whether it is working with the International Monetary Fund, forgiving debt, trying to help build, small or medium sized enterprises; the economic channel may ultimately be the most important in rebuilding or reestablishing relations with a whole different generation, a whole new group of political parties.

Did U.S. support enable Mubarak to stay on longer, and how did that support affect the way Egyptians view the United States?

History will look back on U.S. policy during the 20th century as facilitating the intransigence of autocrats and dictators throughout the Middle East. Relationships with Washington and aid from Washington were ways that the dictators stayed in power. Whether it was appearing to have position, using U.S. aid, it was the core of a relationship with a major power that enabled them, in many ways, to stay in power. And as a result, there are many in the region who believe the United States betrayed the people and that the United States didn’t do enough, until the very end, in facilitating transitions to democracy. That many American presidents’s had lofty words about democratic values and promoting freedom in the Middle East; but not in the ways it did whether it was in Eastern Europe, Latin America, or in Africa. And that was because of oil, economic interests, and even to a certain degree because of Israel. The United States was willing to allow the autocrats to stay in power far longer than the people wanted them.

Who is President Morsi; what is his background? How is the United States looking at him and the policies he is beginning to implement?

Just weeks before he ran for the presidency of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi was a virtual unknown in Egypt. He was a senior player in the Muslim Brotherhood, but he was not believed to be the front man, the primary or favorite candidate for the presidency. And he really was put forward at the last minute when the preferred candidate was found to be ineligible because he was a political prisoner. So he emerged from no place. He is a U.S. educated engineer, longstanding member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and originally not considered to be all the imaginative or charismatic. He was not a good campaigner; gave very tedious speeches.
But, in the first ten weeks of being in office, he took some very imaginative steps. He started to at least try to clean up the Sinai, which helped better relations with Israel, then very suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood government. The Muslim Brotherhood agreed to loans from the International Monetary Fund, even when more militant Islamist groups protested that this amounted to agreeing the usury, which is forbidden in Islam. He turned around and in Tehran, talked about how President Assad in Syria had to go; that his rule was no longer acceptable.
He agreed to go to the United Nations and meet with western leaders. He began to reach out to other parts of the world to expand Egypt’s contacts, its resources space, particularly with a country like China. So he took a lot of steps in terms of making Egypt an even bigger player in the world.

Explain the internal struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military in Egypt.

The most important internal political dynamic inside Egypt is probably between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. During the transition, the two were the defining players; the military initially taking over power from Hosni Mubarak, and the Brotherhood winning the largest number of seats in parliament and the presidency. How the two jockeyed for supremacy really was the story for the first two years after the Arab uprising. One of the most interesting developments was the way that President Morsi said to the military, “We need to take your top two players, the most visible and controversial names, and we need to retire these men.” And when you consider that at the same time, Turkey had eighty-four generals languishing in jail for allegedly plotting against the government as it tried to sort through the issue of the political power of an Islamist led government and the military; Egypt turned out to be the place where they found a very rapid, very peaceful solution. But this will still be one of the big power plays in the years to come, because the military still has so much influence still on foreign policy, still is a big player on domestic policy, and has vast economic interests.

What are the internal complications of Egypt?

Across the Middle East the most important political dynamic is the emergence of a political spectrum among Islamic parties themselves. There is no one stereotype. There are lots of different groups with lots of different views; lots of different goals are emerging. And after the military, the biggest challenge faced by the new president of Egypt is from Islamist groups that are more conservative; that want to take Egypt further back in time. The Muslim Brotherhood is comparatively realistic about being in the 21st century; about providing not only employment, but also encouraging relations with Western governments that send tourists and provide aid.
Whereas the emerging Salafis, arguably the single most important political phenomena of 2012, are challenging because they are ultra conservative and want to go back to the early generations of the Islamic world in the 7th century. They have in some ways the same ideologies as Al-Qaeda, even if they renounce violence. They want that purity restored from the early days of Islam.

What is and will be Egypt’s role in the Middle East?

Egypt is the most important political player in the Middle East because it has always been the political trendsetter. In defining a new order, it’s not just a question of what political parties are elected, but writing a constitution that defines what the rule of law will be, what the role of Islam will be, and what the protections are for minorities, for Christians, and for women. These are all the things that Egypt will probably influence more than any other country. And as this new order beings to take shape, Egypt will once again be the trendsetter that influences what happens to other countries in transition.