Interview with Mehrzad Boroujerdi

25 June 2014, İstanbul

Dr. Mehrzad Boroujerdi is the founder and director of the Middle Eastern Studies program at Syracuse University as well as an associate professor of political science in the university. He is the editor of the Modern Intellectual and Political History of the Middle East book series and book review editor for the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

He served on the executive boards of the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis and the International Society for Iranian Studies. Boroujerdi is the author of numerous books and articles on Iranian society and politics, including Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism (1996).

Selma Bardakcı: What were some of the foremost sources of authoritarianism in the Middle East prior to the Arab Spring? Why did it persist for so long?

Mehrzad Boroujerdi: I think there were a number of factors that were responsible for the longevity of authoritarianism in the region: the fact that you had a lot of military-type regimes and militaries as we know are not necessarily democratic institutions, even if they defend democracy they are not a democratic institution themselves. But unfortunately we had some of the worst cases of military rulers in this region, from Qaddafi to Saddam and Alawite so I think that's one factor. The second one is that we had a lot of authoritarian regimes that were beneficial in one way or the other to Western powers and therefore no effort was spent on trying to get rid of them, as these regimes were doing what the West really wanted them to do. I think the third factor has to do with the fragile nature of civil society, and how weak civil society was in many of these countries, that brought around this persistence of authoritarian regimes. Unfortunately, I think the other factor, maybe a fourth one, is the fact that even in places where you do not have military type regimes, you had monarchies that are not necessarily responsive to popular demands. So we have ended up either with military-type regimes or monarchical-type regimes that are not necessarily democratic. So I think that has been a big problem in the political sphere. There is another reason for why so many authoritarian regimes have persisted and that is, of course, oil enabled these states to have this steady source of revenue and in a way make the state independent from the citizen. And the state therefore would adopt politics of patronage to push forward its agenda, and when you're dealing with poor masses, the politics of patronage can of course come handy as they get some benefits for remaining loyal to the state. So at a broad level, I think these are part of the explanations for why authoritarianism lasted as long as it did or still persists in the region.

Selma Bardakcı:
What changed with the Arab Spring? What anti-authoritarian factors or mechanisms emerged?

Mehrzad Boroujerdi: I think what has happened in the Arab Spring is that, in many of these countries, we are now looking at a situation where the citizenry has become much more conscious of its rights, has become much more politically savvy, either because of things happening domestically - such as rising levels of literacy, education, urbanization, having young populations - and also as a result of external factors – exposure to the outside world thanks to the internet and social media has made people much more conscious of what goes on in other regions of the world - and I think these factors have joined hands and have created a more sophisticated citizenry. But the problem of the Arab Spring was that the military or these authoritarian regimes that used to rule, they did not recognize what was happening. They wanted to insist on ruling just like the old days and this mismatch between a citizenry that has changed and regimes that refuse to change I think is really what was responsible as the background for the Arab Spring. So we see behavior on the part of people in the Arab world that, even if this Arab Spring doesn't quite succeed at the end of the day, I think something has fundamentally changed - the fact that people now have a sense that they can bring about change, that they can put an end to these authoritarian rules. Of course, the big challenge is one of not how you just get rid of the bad guys, but exactly what kind of system do you build in its place. Here is I think where the Arab Spring has suffered the most: that they did not quite have a clear idea of what type of system they wanted to accomplish once the dictator was gone and so it has become a trial-and error-period, where you are experimenting with things in hope of finding the magical formula. So some countries seem to have done better like Tunisia in getting there. Some countries have failed miserably in getting their act together like Libya. And, of course, in between you have a country like Egypt that has gone through a revolution and then a counter-revolution within a time span of three years. So I think the most important factor is the psychological one of being able to bring about change.

On the negative column one should also be mindful of the chaos and the anarchy that has come about in some of these places. So imagine in a place like Syria, one wonders after Syria will people say, 'look we'd much rather live under authoritarian rule rather than have to experience a bloody civil war like what we are going through right now'? So I think that the Arab Spring - At the end of the day, one has to look at its contributions, as well as its weaknesses, in finding where we are.

Selma Bardakcı: Regarding Egypt, Syria and Libya, is it fair to say that there has been a resurgence of authoritarianism? What might have caused this?

Mehrzad Boroujerdi: Certainly, I think in a place like Egypt - yes we have the resurgence of authoritarianism. Mr. Sisi is trying to present himself as a new Gamal abd al-Nasser, but the last year since the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood has been quite bloody: you know a thousand people have been killed, 16 thousand have been imprisoned so far, we get this ridiculous court sentences of trying to execute 500 people for killing one soldier - which is absurd by legal standards. And Sisi is now trying to ride a wave of popular discontent with the Muslim Brotherhood and present himself as Egypt's savior, rescuer, hero. But I don't think this will succeed in the long term, because the personnel, the philosophy that he is pursuing, is very much what it was under Mubarak. You don't really see a major change there, so I don't necessarily expect anything like these authoritarian politics can continue. There is, of course, a chance now that the more radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood will decide to join more militant groups and pick up arms against the government, but I think the Muslim Brotherhood itself as an organization has become too mainstream to really try to change once again radically and become a revolutionary party. Libya is a place where it's hard to imagine the emergence of yet another authoritarian ruler right now. What might be more likely in the future of Libya is not an authoritarian leader, but rather parallel governments set up by various tribal ethnic groups, each one of which controls one piece of territory, one part of the country. And this becomes sort of a no-man's-land where you don't know who is in charge. And of course, it would be detrimental to most Libyan citizens, because the country's resources are going to be plundered as the fighting takes place. What was the third case?

Selma Bardakcı: What makes the situation in Syria different from that of the other Arab Spring countries?

Mehrzad Boroujerdi: So as we saw in the Arab Spring, a few of the uprisings were relatively peaceful right - the ones in Tunisia and Egypt - but in some places like Yemen, like Libya, like Syria, things turned violent, and Syria has proven to be the most violent of them all. What started in Syria as a revolution against an authoritarian regime has now been turned, has been transformed into a full-fledged civil war. This is no longer a revolution, this is a civil war, and therefore I think the theoretical lens we need to look at Syria is no longer one of revolution but the dynamics of a civil war. And what has ended up in Syria is a number of different constituencies that have a lot of things against one another. You have the Alawite community that is very closely affiliated with the Assad regime, and these people feel that if they let go of Assad there will be retribution against them and they will be massacred, so they have decided to stick out their necks and support Assad. Meanwhile, the majority Sunni population feels that this many years of rule - more than four decades of rule - by the Alawite Assad regime is too much, and that they should put an end to this thing. However, unfortunately, I think what has happened is that, as the country became radicalized and violent, basically the groups that have emerged to take the lead in Syria have proven to be these Salafist groups that there is no way one could expect them to establish anything like a democratic system. If that were to happen, I would say quite the opposite would happen, meaning we would have very harsh, perhaps even harsher than Taliban rule, in a place like Syria or places dominated by ISIS or al-Nusra front. So unfortunately one of the casualties of the Syrian conflict has been that the moderate forces were sidelined, marginalized, and instead these radical types who have no problem killing have emerged as the trend-setters. They call the shots, so the poor Syrian people are really caught between a rock and a hard place. If you stick with Assad, there is going to be punishment and more authoritarian rule and, if these guys come to power, they are going to insist on an imposition of very strict Shari'a law that is going to make life difficult for average citizens. So that's why I am quite pessimistic, frankly, about the future of Syria. I think if the outside world doesn't do anything substantial about the present equation of power in Syria, this thing will continue for some years to come, maybe another decade or so. And Syria becoming a destabilized country means trouble for the rest of the region, because it becomes a fertile ground for all sorts of extremist elements who will come to Syria trying to undergo education in military warfare, and then they go back to their countries, cause problems there. So you know, Syria is the biggest human tragedy of our time right now, and I'm afraid things will get much worse before they get any better.

Selma Bardakcı: What was U.S. government policy towards the Arab world throughout the Arab Spring? Did it take a case-by case or more general approach or principles? How do you see U.S. foreign policy in this perspective?

Mehrzad Boroujerdi: I look at it this way: the US right now in the unipolar world that we have is a single power, meaning that the US prefers the status quo. It does not want anyone to rock the boat. So that's why when we look back, for example, at the case of the Egyptian revolution, the US government did not want the revolution to really succeed. Indeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State was basically telling the opposition to talk, compromise with the Mubarak regime. Only when the handwriting was one the wall, it became clear that Mubarak will fall, that the U.S. changed its position. You see, from the U.S. perspective, Egypt is just too important. It's the most important Arab country, so I think that the U.S. feels that, whoever is in power in Egypt, you have to deal with, whether it's the Muslim Brotherhood, whether it's Sisi or whatever. And we saw the US continue to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood and now deals with Sisi, and the relationship continues because the US is worried about a number of things – the peace treaty with Israel, US is worried about Egypt with 80 million people becoming unstable and then this instability can escalate and spread throughout the rest of the region. So the policy is hold Egypt together and if it means a strongman, that's what we do. That's why you saw the US dance around the problem and not call it a military coup because of that concern. In other places, too, we saw that the US in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan was not willing to take the lead role. Remember Obama is very much against this foreign entanglement, he does not want to send soldiers to conflict, so even though in a case like Libya the country that took the lead was France and not the United States. US was willing to support, but play a secondary role rather than the active role in the actual overthrow of Qaddafi. Tunisia wasn't that significant of a concern in the Arab world to the Americans so if Ben Ali goes and someone else comes and things remain relatively stable like they are, ok fine. The US concern now is that they are worried about a spillover effect of this sectarian warfare and the violence and terrorism into neighboring countries. You see, you do not want to have countries such as Jordan, Lebanon destabilized as a result of the Syrian conflict, you do not want the ISIS on the borders of Israel, you do not want another war between Hezbollah and Israel. So the US government I think is trying its best to keep the situation the same and prevent it from getting worse, but it is not doing anything serious to alleviate the conditions that exist right now.

Look, Obama has two years left and I think his thinking is that, he does not want to go down in history as yet another American president that became involved in the Middle East and then the Middle East basically stole the show and he has to spend the rest of his time in office dealing with Middle East problems rather than, let's say, dealing with Asia, economic issues and so forth. So that's why I think you don't see the US, for example, playing an active role when it comes to Syrian conflict.

Selma Bardakcı: So you don't expect any big change in this understanding?

Mehrzad Boroujerdi: Look, these guys are too cautious to want to reorder the pieces, you know. They do not have the ambitions of the Bush administration about a Greater Middle East, making it democratic etc. Obama does not want to go there.We know that Iranian's initial impression of the Arab Spring as that it was an Islamic Awakening, right? Do you think views have changed? How do Iranians view the Arab Spring now? As you know, the Iranians from the beginning did not refer to this thing as the Arab Spring. Their nickname for it was Islamic Awakening, because again, they do not want to emphasize the Arab-ness nor do they want to encourage a spring, right? Because the demands of the Arab Spring were very much similar to the Green Movement of Iran in 2009, saying things about democracy, etc., so it's hard for the Iranian government to be repressing domestically the Green Movement and being advocates for Arab Spring

But in most places where the Arab Spring took place - with one exception, that exception being Syria - Iran was in favor of the Arab Spring revolutions. Because Iran did not have good ties with Egypt - they considered Mubarak as being in the American camp, so they would not shed any tears about seeing Mr. Mubarak fall. For Iran, Tunisia wasn't that significant anyhow. Iran was very much concerned with Bahrain next door because of the Shiite population, but the one country where Iran basically was very adamant about crushing the opposition was Syria, where Iran sent troops to help Assad fight the opposition, sending Revolutionary Guards and bringing his warlord (?) from the other side to help answer them. So I think when it comes to the Arab spring, they have this mixed position of, on the one hand, liking to see pro-western governments toppled, but on the other hand, not wanting this thing to lead, for example, the empowerment of forces that can be critical of Iran. So if you have the empowerment of groups that are again radicals or groups that are very much pro-Sunni world - or pro-Western even - Iran of course does not want to see those come into power. So I think that's the Iranian point. Now, Iran is in a difficult position because it's involvement in Syria can become a liability. It surely can tip the scale in favor of Assad, so Iranian support is important. You know, they are much more sophisticated - they have the technology, the know-how for riot control, fighting this asymmetrical warfare, they are much better on those things than the Assad regime. So they can try to preserve the Assad regime for some time to come. On the other hand, Iran has to be worried that its intimate involvement in the Syrian conflict also will alienate the rest of the Sunni world. So Iran will be accused of acting in a sectarian fashion by supporting the Alawites in Syria and that will not be good for Iran in the long term if these anti-Iranian position feelings take hold.

Selma Bardakcı: There are some developments in the US-Iranian efforts towards rapprochement and Iran's rivalry with Saudi Arabica so when we are thinking of these developments what do you think Iran's short and long-term aims in the region are?

Mehrzad Boroujerdi: So my view being that Iran definitely wants better relations with the United States and that's really what motivates them to come to the table regarding the nuclear issue, because the sanctions have hurt Iran very badly, very, very badly, so they know you cannot be feeding a population of over 70 million people with all these economic sanctions in place, and the price for everything for lifting of the sanctions is a deal with the United States so I think Iran is interested in doing that.By the way, I should say that I think it's not just Iran that wants a deal. I think the US also needs a deal because – look, Obama does not have too many foreign policy successes, right, and actually if he manages to strike a deal with Iran, this will be the major accomplishment of the Obama administration in the field of foreign policy. During his 8 years in office, there is nothing that Obama can be proud of - Iraq and Afghanistan have been disasters, he couldn't do much about Ukraine, Libya is in chaos - so preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state and actually striking a nuclear deal can be a big plus for Obama, too. So that's why I think both sides right now have a vested incentive right now to try to make a deal on the nuclear issue, which is good I think, a very good development for the region because, frankly, despite all the animosity, Iran and the US share a lot of things in common. Neither one of them wants to see these Salafis come to power in a place like Syria, right, they are both against al-Qaeda, neither one of them wants to see a place like Lebanon once again become destabilized, so it will be advantageous - and neither one of them wants to see the Iraqi government collapse, so all of these are areas that constitute a common denominator between Iran and the United States when it comes to this issue. And for the Iranians I think, at the end of the day, they recognize that the solution to all their problems has to come with a deal with the US – that's the most important actor that they're dealing with. As far as regional players are concerned, I think the Iranians want to maintain good ties with places like Turkey. They don't want any tension really in that relationship, because they have too many other problems right now to concentrate on, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. So they don't want any tension in their relationships with Turkey, so they can concentrate on the other front.

The Rouhani government, I think, also understands how the excesses, how the irresponsible language of the Ahmedinejad administration really hurt Iran, Iran's reputation internationally, so they are trying to sort of reverse the damage that was done by Ahmedinejad. So you see, the Rouhani administration doesn't say anything provocative, right, like Ahmedinejad used to say – nothing about Israel, nothing of that because I think they want to play more low-key. Iran wants to also reach out to some of the Arab states in the Gulf, so having good relations with the likes of Qatar, Kuwait, etc. is important to Iran because of that rivalry. So you know the main question now in terms of regional politics that may be a headache for Iran will, I think, be the relationship with Saudi Arabia because if Iran and the Saudis decide that they are going to have this war by proxies between Shiites and Sunnis everywhere, this can go on for some time. And it will be difficult for both countries in terms of repercussions, so it's really hard to say at this point what will happen to this particular rivalry, because Iran and Saudis find themselves at different, opposing sides on all sorts of issues – Iraq to Syria to OPEC and the like. So imagine a country like Iran, having been subjected to sanctions and therefore having lost the ability to export a lot of oil, wants to regain quickly regain its quota under the OPEC agreement to produce, to export oil, but many of these Arab states including Saudis do not want to give Iran that extra money, so they are going to try to restrict Iran's quota system. They will also try to challenge Iranian authority in places like Syria. You see, Saudis feel that Mr. Mubarak was in their column and they lost, that Saddam's Iraq was in their column and they lost, so the Saudis do not want to see more victories by the Iranians, and I think the Saudis will do their best to sort of frustrate Iran and increase the transaction cost for Iran in places like Syria so that Iran will not disrupt the Saudi plans for the region. And again, as you know, in some of the Wikileaks documents that came out, the Saudis were talking about telling the Americans, "Cut the head off the snake", the snake being Iran. So there is no love lost between Iran and Saudis in that regard, but much of the future of this Middle East region depends on the rivalry between those two powers.

Selma Bardakcı: You already mentioned the sectarian violence or sectarianism is rising, so can we say that regarding the increasingly visible Sunni-Shia division in the region, do you think Iran will be playing a more constructive role or more provocative as we understood from your comments but I would like to clarify it again.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi: I think the Iranians are realizing that this sectarian politics, this divide between Sunnis and Shiites, can work against their interests. Iran doesn't have the financial means to bankroll these groups like the Saudis do. The Rouhani administration cares much more about what happens in Iran domestically than necessarily in the region, so his top priority needs to be domestic rather than regional or whatever. And I think now, they have learned that the Saudis are not going to let the Iranians have an easy walk through the region, so this is a moment for the leadership to think hard. Now the question is this: if Iran reaches an agreement with the US, would that agreement help to further moderate Iran's position on other areas like Syria, or will Iran once it achieves the nuclear deal as a way of showing its independence try to play hardball and stand up to the West on other issues? I think that's the interesting question about the future of the Iranian foreign policy. I hope that they opt for the first one, that cooperation on the nuclear issue can lead to cooperation on Syria, cooperation on Iraq and other areas. And look, this is the Middle East, so alliances change. There is no permanent friend, there is no permanent enemy, just interests. So you know it might be a hard sell both in Iran and in Washington to say that now we have to cooperate with the country that we have been denouncing all these years, but then the two sides I think are sharp enough, smart enough, to realize that you don't want your common enemy to come to power in Iraq or Syria, whatever. So I think that's what the Iranians would try to do in the coming months or years about the crisis in the region. In some other areas, frankly the Iranians have been more restrained than expected: for example in Bahrain, they could have become much more active, but they did not play that role. Iraq is a different story, because Iraq is Iran's backyard. Iran cannot allow ISIS, for example, to take over Najaf. It will send fighters to confront those guys. It cannot allow this group to be on its borders because of all the worries there, so I think we are witnessing a really volatile situation. Necessities, needs can bring a state like Iran, US, Turkey, even Saudi Arabia, together fighting common enemies. None of these places would really like to see ISIS come to power and dominate places like Syria or Iraq, because this means trouble for you. So you can abandon old enmities in our positions and realize that, yes, in a new environment, if there are common interests, we can cooperate and hopefully once you cooperate in one area, it will lead to cooperation in another area.