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Q&A: Middle East Faces a ‘Range of Options,’ Says Expert Gilbert Kahn, Ph.D.

Kean Political Science Professor Gilbert Kahn, Ph.D., teaches courses on American government and foreign policy, and has written and published research on anti-Semitism. 

Q. We recently witnessed a series of events involving the U.S. and Iran, including an Iranian attack that killed one American, a U.S. drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian general, and an Iranian attack on American military bases in Iraq. A Ukrainian passenger jet was also accidentally shot down by Iran. Are you surprised by this?

The Middle East has been in constant conflict for decades. Am I surprised by these events? It reminds one of a story told, that a tortoise and a scorpion wanted to cross a river in the Middle East. The scorpion asked the tortoise to take it across the river. After some persuasion, the tortoise decided it was a good deal because he could cross the river and would be fine, because the scorpion agreed it would not sting him. They reach the middle of the river and the scorpion stings the tortoise. The tortoise asks the scorpion, “Why did you do that? Now we will both go under.” The scorpion looked down and said, “This is the Middle East.” 

Things that happen there are unpredictable. The sequence of events we can explain once it happens, but predicting it does not work.

Q. How have the people in Iran reacted to these events?

Before the American was killed, there were anti-government demonstrations in the streets of Iran. These demonstrations were troubling to the Iranian regime. After the assassination of Soleimani, millions filled the streets protesting the attack by the U.S. Following that, the Iranian government shot down a civilian plane, and the people got angry because it took days before the government of Iran finally agreed it was a mistake. This led people back to protesting that the Iranian government take more responsibility. There is a very mixed situation.

Q. Who are the protestors?

Iran is not typical of the Middle East. It is not an Arab country, it’s a Muslim country. The population is significantly more educated, it has a middle class and a long history of being engaged in the West. Farsi is not Arabic. They have suffered economically for the year since the sanctions went back in. Now the threat of more sanctions upsets them.

Q. How has the U.S. relationship with Iran changed over the past 10 years?

Iran has possibly become the most sophisticated nation in the region in terms of military development. They were developing a rich program for nuclear technology. This caused concern for the Bush and Obama administrations. President Obama, along with our allies, entered a period of negotiations. The benefit of the agreement for Iran is the removal of economic sanctions if they comply and restrict most nuclear development for 10 years. 

Q. How would you characterize the U.S. foreign policy in that region?

There is a fundamental decision-making problem in Washington today. Historically, presidents have relied on the institutions of government, people with tremendous history of understanding problems and analyzing events. There is a certain flow, a process, a way of making decisions. But the U.S. relationship with North Korea over the past three years, for example, has been based on the president’s own instincts. Historically, we don’t make decisions that way, responding to things in an interpersonal way. 

Q. Do you see the U.S. resolving the situation with Iran anytime soon?

Everybody pulled back after Iran attacked the American bases. People are anxious. Do I think the U.S. and Iran can work things back to a more stable situation? There is a report that the Europeans want to threaten sanctions as well, and that will cause further unrest in Iran. It might bring the U.S., the Europeans and Iranians back to figure this out again. The optimistic side is a sense that this could evolve. The pessimistic side is there may be some kind of attack. There is a range of options in between. 

Q. Some people would ask, why is the United States involved in Iran and the Middle East?

The Trump administration has a policy the president articulated early on, and has in his campaign, that his goal was to withdraw U.S. forces from wherever they could possibly be. He’s failed in Afghanistan but he still talks about doing it. There’s a neo-isolationist orientation to much of what he wants. He believes his base has suggested they want out of U.S. involvement in the world. That’s absolutely counter to the role Republican and Democratic administrations have adopted since probably before WW2. Whether the U.S. will withdraw from the world, and there are people in this country that will support that, I don’t think that’s the direction things will move. I don’t think Congress wants that. But the president has used that slogan and tried to argue that. 

Q. Most people in the United States have not traveled to Iran. What should people know about that country?

Iran is different than many of the other Middle East countries. It potentially has a place in the world of nations in a more constructive manner, looking down the road. At the moment, it’s a lot of chaos and disruption. Iran is economically, culturally, intellectually and academically a much more sophisticated society.