Avi Shlaim is a fellow of St. Antony’s College and a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford. He was born in Baghdad on October 31, 1945, and grew up in Israel, where he did national service in 1964-66. He read history at Cambridge University in Britain, and has remained in that country ever since, holding dual Israeli and British citizenship. Professor Shlaim is the author of numerous books, most notably The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, and is a regular contributor to The Guardian, the leading liberal British broadsheet. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
I wonder if we can look briefly at ongoing events in and affecting the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Israel and America. First of all, how would you advise President Bush to extract himself from the current calamity in Iraq?
My advice to President Bush would be to be honest. Either he plans to hand over power to the Iraqis on June 30 or he doesn’t. The Americans are playing games and are pretending that there will be a handover, but the Iraqi provisional government have chosen a president, and Paul Bremer tried to veto their choice. The Iraqis need to know where they stand: Either they are going to be given sovereignty and appoint their own leaders, or they are going to be dictated to by the Americans. It would be unwise for the Americans to treat Iraqis as pawns in the game, because the interim government would cease to have legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people if all the orders came from Washington.
Iran and Syria are also on the Bush Administration neocons’ list for intervention. Do you think the ongoing debacle in Iraq has effectively ruled out military action against these two nations?
The neocons had an ambitious agenda for the Middle East, and they were going to bring about regime change in Iraq as the first step in implementing a broader agenda. They wanted to turn Iraq into a model for the rest of the Arab world and the Middle East in general. The next targets were Syria and Iran, and after the initial successes during the war in Iraq, there were moves toward the regime in Damascus. American officials said that Syria was helping the remnants of the Saddam regime by smuggling weapons into Iraq and helping Iraqis to escape and find refuge in Syria. No evidence was produced to implicate Syria, so the rhetoric has died down. America is embroiled in a quagmire in Iraq, and it is in no position to invade or attack Syria, even if it wanted to. Iran is a bit more complicated. Iran is of course, one of the original members of the “axis of evil,” alongside Iraq and North Korea; and Iran also poses a long-term threat to Israel–particularly if it acquires nuclear weapons.
So the neoconservatives, who care deeply about Israel’s security, wanted to eliminate the Iranian threat to Israel. There was again talk of attacking Iran, and there was some loose talk about wiping out Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear installations; but now this talk is not heard anymore, because America is embroiled in Iraq without an easy way out. What has emerged recently is that Iran manipulated the neocons into attacking Iraq in order to get rid of this very awkward neighbor, Saddam Hussein. There were some revelations a few weeks ago where Ahmad Chalabi’s intelligence chief was in fact an Iranian agent to pass on misinformation and disinformation to the neocons that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. So Iran manipulated America through Chalabi and his aides; and now it is the Iranians who have had the last laugh because America toppled Saddam and inadvertently prepared the ground for a Shia rise to power. America destroyed a secular Sunni regime, which is going to be replaced by a Shia regime that is going to be much more friendly and acceptable to Iran. If true, this is one of the greatest intelligence coups of modern times.