Gilles Kepel: Iran cannot afford its regional policy anymore

Gilles Kepel, the famous French political analyst and Middle East expert, says he could have written his last book on the region. “I think I gave almost everything I had,” Kepel told L’Orient-Le Jour during a recent visit to Lebanon to attend the 2018 Beirut Francophone Book Fair. “Getting Out of Chaos: Crises in the Mediterranean and the Middle East”, published by Gallimard Editions in Paris, offers a strong, detailed account of the radicalization of political Islam over the past 40 years. The book is written in catchy prose that bring the reader into defining historical and contemporary moments. At times, Kepel’s political bias is noticeable enough in the text to perhaps stimulate debate. L’Orient-Le Jour sat down with him for a conversation about important issues facing the Middle East, both in the past and today.

Gilles Kepel à Beyrouth, à l'occasion du salon du livre francophone, en novembre 2018. Crédit photo AS

1979 is generally considered the pivotal year in the region that explains much of the evolution of the past 40 years. You, however, chose to start your book in 1973. Why?

1979 is when the crisis erupts in the power struggle between Shiites and Sunnis on the islamisation of politics. But that could not have happened if the foundations had not been laid in 1973. It is the Yom Kippur, or Ramadan war, that will allow Saudi Arabia to become the dominant power in the region, as well as marginalize Arab nationalisms because of the oil price explosion after the 1973 shock.

At the time, Saudi Arabia not only holds the financial keys, but will spread Salafism as an element of political and social control. In 1979, the Iranian revolution appeared to challenge Saudi domination and create a competition for hegemony over the Muslim world. This was the start of the dynamics in which the region is still locked today.

In 1973, the Arab-Israeli conflict was shaping the Middle East with, in the background, the great divide between East and West. Today, it it the Sunni-Shiite conflict that is structuring the region,  with of course the internal divisions within the two blocs, as well as the return of Russia as master of the game – although Moscow remains a colossus with clay feet.

Starting from the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood is competing with Salafist movements within political Islam. You explain in your book that the former were very comfortable with Shia Islamism, unlike the latter. How has the rise of Salafist groups fostered tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the region?

We can see it in the Yemeni conflict between Iran backed Houthis, and Sunnis backed by Saudis and Emiratis. The Houthis are Zaïdis, which is a “soft version” of Shia Islam. The Zaïdis and Shafiites (one of the four Sunni schools) used to pray in the same mosques. Until Muqbil al-Wadii, a former Zaïdite who converted to Salafism and petrodollars, started massive proselytizing among the young Zaïdites, telling them: "Your parents are infidels.” It is the propagation of this anti-Shia thought that has created the Houthi movement, who then went to seek support from Iran.

Sunni-Shiite tensions were much weaker when the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the political Islam scene. Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr (an Iraqi grand ayatollah who founded the Islamic Daawa movement) is read by the Muslim Brotherhood just as much as Sayyid Qotb (radical thinker of the Brotherhood). Even today, the Brothers are considered more moderate vis-à-vis the Shiites. During a conversation I had with in Paris, Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs) spoke very highly of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, it is clear that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar are much more in favor of a modus vivendi with Iran than are the Saudis and Emiratis. I must, however, nuance all this because during my last long interview with Youssef al-Qaradawi (the influential thinker in the Muslim Brotherhood), he used very violent rhetoric talking about the uprising in Bahrain because, according to him, it was the work of Shiites and Iranians.

How did Islamist, followed by jihadi, Sunni and Shiite schools of thought influence each other since 1973? And what is the responsibility of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the rise of these movements?

They have each taken an interpretation of Sunnism and Shiism that has led to overbidding. The Lebanese experience is an experience of Sunni-Shiite cohabitation until after the civil war.

"Muslims" meant Sunnis and Shiites. Today in Lebanon, the cleavage in terms of political control is there – It is no longer between Christians and Muslims.

You consider that Salafism leads to jihadism. How do you explain then that there are millions of Salafists and "only" tens of thousands of jihadists?

Of course there are millions of Salafists who are not jihadists, but the Salafists practice a fundamental cultural break, a sort of cleavage that makes the jihadists feed on this ideology to say: "We have nothing to do with the others. One can kill X or Y because they are ‘kuffar’ (infidels).” The Salafists do not differ from the jihadists intellectually, but they are in an attitude of submission to the waliy al-amr. It's the prince who decides in the end.

Has politics taken over religion again?

In the Salafist world, yes. They do not do politics directly. In Egypt, the non-jihadist Salafists are very hostile to the Copts. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi relies on them because he broke the social networks of the Muslim Brotherhood in working class neighborhoods. Egypt is a country in which you had two power apparatus in parallel: the army, which dealt with diplomacy, foreign affairs and major works, and the Brothers who dealt with the social affairs. From the moment the Brothers were destroyed, with the strongest repression, there had to be a compensation of some sort, and it was the Salafists who recuperated this role.

Does the fact that Egypt is now financially dependent on Saudi Arabia make the control of Salafist movements easier for Sisi?

Yes of course. The toppling of Mohamed Morsi has been abundantly supported and funded by the Saudi bloc, the UAE and even Kuwait to eliminate the Brotherhood as competitors of the Saudi leadership in the Sunni world. Basically, in 2013 the Turkey-Qatar alliance, with Morsi in Egypt, with Tunisia, with parts of Libya, with Hamas and parts of the Syrian opposition which was at that time under Brotherhood’s influence, was starting to become a very big deal. The Brothers' dream of fighting the Saudis for Sunni leadership was nearing completion. That's when the Saudi axis intervened.

Competition in the Sunni world is still in full swing today. When Erdogan distilled information about the Khashoggi affair (referring to the Saudi journalist killed in his country's consulate in Istanbul), he addressed his MPs with the rabi’a sign, a rallying sign of the Muslim Brotherhood (in reference to the the Rabi’a square where the Muslim Brotherhood organized a sit-in in Cairo). The Khashoggi affair allowed Turkey to earn points against Saudi Arabia. I think this will lead to the end of the embargo against Qatar. It is also an important element in the fight for Sunni leadership between the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia.

Can the divisions within the Sunni axis and within the Shiite axis alleviate Sunni-Shiite tensions?

Today, everyone must find a compromise on Syria. US sanctions against Iran have already led to a 50 percent decline in Iranian exports, and sanctions will increased after November 5. Iran cannot afford, today, its regional policy anymore. It can no longer carry out a policy in Syria solely based on its own interest. Teheran considers Syria to be its axis of defense – It is from there that it can attack Israel. Paradoxically, for the Israelis, the success of Hezbollah means that if a missile comes from Lebanon they will retaliate by bombing Beirut and no longer take the risk of getting bogged down in south Lebanon. And the fact is that there are no more missiles coming from Lebanon. The Iranians and their allies can use Syria to launch their missiles, but when they do the Israelis bomb everything and put the Russians in a quandary.

Which shows the differences of interests between Russians and Iranians in Syria ...

The Russian agenda and the Iranian agenda are not quite the same in Syria. A sole military victory is out of the question for the Russians, it would force them to maintain troops and become stuck in Syria. Vladimir Putin was a KGB colonel in 1989 in Dresden and, as a result, he knows what the entanglement of the Red Army in Afghanistan means. He certainly does not want the same thing to happen again. He also knows that Syria is a massively Sunni country, o there has to be a compromise. As a result, the Iranians do not have full freedom of movement, although they remain very useful as they fight on the ground with Shia militias, including Hezbollah.

The interests of Moscow and Tehran also differ economically and energetically. Iran and Russia both export gas. That's why Russia is not too keen on seeing Iran's gas flooding the market. It is on this level that Russia gets closer to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Moscow has a pact with Riyadh to allow the oil barrel prices to remain high.

At the same time, the Russians have a GDP that is between that of Italy and Spain. They cannot ensure the reconstruction of the Levant, which in my opinion is the biggest issue ahead. The Russians think that the Chinese will pay, but the Chinese do not have much to do with Syria. For the Europeans, the reconstruction of Syria is a fundamental issue.

Despite insisting that they do not particularly care for Bashar al-Assad, the Russians have not done anything to push the regime to moderate its position. Don’t they want to? Or can’t they let go of the Syrian president?

The Russians need Assad for now, but later ... In Moscow, they did not speak to me warmly about him. But the Russians cannot let go of Assad until they have recovered the province of Idlib. And then there will be negotiations with the West on the fate of eastern Syria, where all oil resources are located.

In Idlib, Erdogan earned points and showed his willingness to keep Turkey in Syria in the long run. In 1938, France, in a weak military posture, had to yield the Sanjak of Alexandretta to Atatürk. Are Afrine, al-Bab and Jarablus – Syrian regions now dominated by the Turks – destined to be "sanjakised"? This is a question worth asking.

In the name of Neo-Ottomanism?

I interviewed Ahmet Davutoglu (former Turkish Prime Minister and architect of AKP’s Turkish diplomacy) at length six months ago. It was very clear that he did not share Erdogan's position at all. The difference between the two comes from the fact that a Neo-Ottomanist Brotherhood has been replaced by a Neo-Atatürkism daubed in green with an obsession to fight Kurdish irredentism.

You speak less of the responsibility of authoritarian regimes in the radicalization of political Islam. How has the Syrian regime contributed to the spread of this phenomenon?

Hafez al-Assad had an uncompromising attitude with the Muslim Brotherhood. His son, faced with a huge demographic explosion and the fact that the Ba'ath’s entire social services network collapsed, ended up doing the same as the others. Meaning, he let the Salafists deal with social issues rather than the Brothers who were hostile towards him.

When the uprising began, the Salafist networks turned the other way, and as of October 2011, most of the people who had been arrested were put back in the wild so that they would make the opposition implode. The Algerian generals had used the same strategy in the 1990s under the guidance of the same Russian godfathers. The AIG (Armed Islamic Group in Algeria) prevented – through its monstrosity – the Algerian population from relating to the revolt and, in fine, favored the maintenance in power of the generals. In the same way, Daesh (or the Islamic State) appeared to be such a monster that the Assad regime found a lot of support, especially abroad.

Your book’s purpose is to understand the crises of the past 40 years. What are the keys, according to you, to get the Middle East out of chaos?

As a place of maximum belligerence, Syria seems exhausted to me because everyone is rather trying to get the maximum benefit of the post-war structure.

So it seems to me that one of the keys is the Levant itself, since that is where all the crises have focused. If the Syrian and Iraqi issues can be resolved, if we can restore an area of prosperity in the Levant, we will certainly have made much progress. As long as the myriad of forces in the region thought they could win the war in Syria, there was no way out. But there is today the hope that forms of political compromise will be built.

Can the protagonists come out of a win-lose logic?

We have reached a point of no return with the paroxysm of the Syrian crisis, which, it seems to me, means that the various actors do not necessarily have the means to carry out a hardline policy.

You often criticize some of your colleagues for denying community and religious factors in their analysis of the region. Don’t you take the risk, by making the radicalization of Islam the main vector of the current chaos, to go to the opposite extreme?

I do not think so, no. I am extremely sensitive to social and political issues. The religious is important only when it becomes a language that allows a number of actors to position themselves. What mattered to me was to understand how the dialectic of the oil barrel and the Quran was constructed during these 40 years, but I think it cannot work anymore. The downward trend of oil barrels makes this impossible. And moreover, Saudi Arabia, whatever one might think of its current leaders, is fundamentally changing. A number of Saudis no longer hide their atheism. I have rarely met so many atheists who admitted they were one than in Saudi Arabia.

Then why not talk about this phenomenon, the rise of atheism, in your book?

Because I think it is not yet a political factor, but it is present in some circles of decision. It's very difficult to measure because people still have a hard time talking about it publicly and openly.

The changes are happening, but I'm very cautious. When I wrote my book Jihad (published in 2000), I based my assumptions on a real phenomenon – that the jihadists had lost the battle in Algeria, in Egypt and Bosnia. But I did not expect Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current leader or al-Qaeda) and Osama Bin Laden to have a similar reading of the situation, and that's how they would design a second-generation jihadist model. Then the third generation arrived with Daesh.

Is this third generation still expanding?

In organizational terms, the third generation is in crisis. It is still convinced by this ideology, but the business model no longer works. However, this does not prevent the possibility of a fourth generation. When I started the book, I could hardly put an end to the third generation. We can now consider that the fall of Raqqa is its symbolic end. They are still present, but they have lost their momentum.

(The original French version of this article was published in L'Orient-Le Jour on November the 3rd).

1979 is generally considered the pivotal year in the region that explains much of the evolution of the past 40 years. You, however, chose to start your book in 1973. Why? 1979 is when the crisis erupts in the power struggle between Shiites and Sunnis on the islamisation of politics. But that could not have happened if the foundations had not been laid in 1973. It is the Yom Kippur, or Ramadan...