Interview with Ilan Berman
Nearly everyone I’ve spoken with recently is worried that the attack by Hamas on October 7 and its aftermath are world-changing events, not just for Israel and Jews, and for Gazans and Muslims, but for the entire planet. At a minimum, these events have led to international geopolitical realignments and domestic political shifts, but there’s also a palpable fear that they have dangerous, long-term repercussions for the Western liberal democratic world order. To shine light on what’s occurring, I interviewed Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, an expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Russian Federation, and the author of books such as Taking on Tehran: Strategies for Confronting the Islamic Republic and, most recently, Challenging Moscow’s Message: Russian Disinformation and the Western Response. As the son of Soviet Jewish refuseniks, Berman has never taken the democratic liberal world order for granted. Despite the grim events that have unfolded, speaking with him gave me hope. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation.—Moment Editor-in-Chief Nadine Epstein
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Western liberal democratic world order ushered in by World War II, and how it feels threatened now—more than ever in my lifetime. Do you think the status quo can withstand the aggressiveness of Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism, the influence of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East, and, of course, the war between Hamas and Israel? How does all of this all fit together in your mind?
Not neatly, but I’m glad you started with an easy question! It’s a truism of geopolitics that disorder somewhere breeds disorder elsewhere. We’ve seen the conflict between Russia and Ukraine remain uncontained for almost two years now, and it has become a fight for survival by the Ukrainians. For many governments, particularly in Europe, it’s become a proxy conflict against the bear at the door, the specter of Russian imperialism.
But what the West hasn’t managed to do yet is raise the cost of war to such an extent that the Russians reconsider their strategic calculations. When you have a situation like that, when the arbiters of world order, the sheriffs, if you will—and for a long time that’s been the traditional role of the United States—are preoccupied, it’s only a matter of time until disorder spreads. Because there are other players in the international system who understand that if they want to push the boundaries, this would be the time to do it.
The current war between Israel and Hamas, obviously a tragedy on many levels, is a horrific spillover of violence, but it bears noting that it’s violence that has been in large part orchestrated by Iran. Iran is one of those actors that are really pushing the boundaries of the Western liberal world order. China’s another. China under Xi Jinping has an increasingly adventurous, aggressive, confrontational foreign policy. It has reprioritized the retaking of Taiwan to be a key national security priority. If you’re Xi Jinping in Beijing and you’re looking at the degree to which the United States is having trouble managing existing world conflicts, your calculation is that if you’re going to move against Taiwan, now is probably a good time.
We’re in a very dangerous time not only because liberty is under threat, but because it’s increasingly under threat in different ways. We were confronting this Russian revanchist imperialism; now we’re confronting that and Islamic extremism, and we could be confronting Chinese imperialism shortly.
To me the invasion that occurred on October 7, the public relations war since then and the Israel-Hamas war are all victories for Iran. We’ve been talking about the dangers Iran poses for years, and here we are, this is how it is manifested. How does this all fit into Iran’s strategy?
That is a question that more people should be asking, because it’s very clear that the Iranians in this conflict are both the arsonists and the firefighters. With their weapons, money and training, they have created conditions in the Palestinian territories that have enabled aggression by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But why? It’s not just because they hate Israel, although they do, and it’s not just because they hate the United States, although they do. It’s because if you’re sitting in Tehran and you’re looking at the world, you have three main problems.
One is domestic. Two-thirds of the Iranian population—85 million people—are 36 or younger, which means that the ayatollahs, who came to power 44 years ago, have an uphill battle in terms of selling their ideology. And increasingly there’s a real sense that they’ve crossed the Rubicon—Iranians are discontented and there are persistent protests. These protests have persisted despite massive repression by the regime, including murder and mass imprisonment. The second layer of problems is regional, because over the last three years, as Israel has drawn closer to the countries of the Abraham Accords, Iran is increasingly isolated. This is not just a product of the Abraham Accords, but they have really locked in this shift, which dates back 15 years to when everybody in the gulf states and Israel was worried about an incipient Iranian nuclear program. Out of that security dialogue came cultural and economic ties that sidelined Iran in regional geopolitics. The Iranians see the Abraham Accords and Israel’s subsequent integration into the region as a zero-sum game—the stronger Israel is, the weaker the Iranians are, and vice versa.
The third layer is international isolation. This is driven by the Iranian nuclear program, which broke out into the open 20 years ago. Every U.S. administration since then has tried to curtail Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Some do it through engagement, some do it through isolation, but the goal is largely the same.
I’m always surprised by the firm grip that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) has on Iran, despite the waves of protests and the discontent of the Iranian people. What is it that makes the IRGC so difficult to get rid of?
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to different Iranian opposition groups and to different Iranians in the diaspora. What strikes me is that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. To a man, to a woman, the Iranian protesters are very passionate and understand that the Islamic Republic is an unreformable construct that needs to go away. But what they can’t do is articulate what comes after. All these opposition groups are jockeying with each other for power. The result is a situation where the opposition is fragmented in a way that advantages the regime.
There’s a fair amount of confusion among people here in the United States about the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are Iranian proxies. How are they different?
Hezbollah is, to quote a friend, the “perfect proxy” in the sense that it was created by Iran. Hezbollah is a very authentic representation of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision for exportation of the revolution. Hamas isn’t that. Hamas isn’t even a Shiite group. Hamas is a Sunni group. The Iranian regime has proven itself to be very pragmatic in not only sponsoring Shiite groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Shiite militias in Iraq, but also Sunni groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, because they all serve a common goal.
That goal is the exportation of instability. And all of that traces back to Iranian strategic culture. We often forget about it, but right after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran fought a grueling, grinding eight-year war with Iraq. And what the Iranians discovered was that they were not a match for Iraq in conventional terms. Khomeini even called it “drinking from the poisoned chalice” when he had to sign a cease-fire. Ever since, the Iranians have been looking for asymmetric ways to advance their objectives, and they’ve settled on proxies, which are a good way of advancing Iran’s regional status and its geopolitical objectives without having to come into direct confrontation.
The U.S. government estimates that Iran sends up to $100 million every year to Hamas. Now, that’s not the sum total of Hamas’s money; they have inputs from elsewhere. But the money that Hamas has received from Iran has gone a long way in terms of increasing the lethality of their weaponry and their training capabilities. The Iranians have helped make Hamas a graver threat to the Jewish state. Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is different. It is smaller, less popular and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Some observers have said that during the last several administrations, the United States has been less visible in the Middle East than it had been for a long time. What has Russia done to fill this vacuum or perceived vacuum?
That’s an excellent question because even if it’s just perceived, the Russians have really done a good job in filling that space. And the Russian conversation about the Middle East begins, but doesn’t end, with Syria. The current level of Russian engagement in the Middle East dates back to September 2015, when the Russian military made the decision that the Assad regime, which was and remains a key proxy of the Kremlin, was in danger of falling to domestic opposition forces and the Islamic State. It needed to be bolstered, and that paved the way for the insertion of the Russian military. Fast-forward almost a decade, and Syria has become a springboard for Russia to re-engage in the Middle East more broadly. Russia is conducting military training and establishing military bases all over Africa, in particular in North Africa. It has ramped up its arms sales beyond Syria to the countries of the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s goal is the exportation of instability. And all of that traces back to Iranian strategy.
At that time, the Wagner Group, which was led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, was Russia’s premier paramilitary organization and operated very much as an appendage of Russian foreign policy. It had tremendous success in the Persian Gulf, but even more so in Africa, where it engaged with regional authoritarian regimes. It helped them fight against Islamist insurgents by augmenting their militaries with capabilities that allowed them to withstand challenges.
Is Putin as threatened by the new Middle East as Iran is?
The Russians see the growing calls for a cease-fire in Gaza and the fact that the gulf states are trying to recalibrate their positions as potential windows of opportunity to expand their influence. This is important because global public opinion has turned pretty decisively against the Kremlin, although less so than we think here in the West. If you’re an African or Middle Eastern leader, you care about the local impacts—you care about food shortages, you care about your population not coming out in the street and expressing their displeasure—which is why Russia has spent so much time engaging with these regimes. As the gulf state governments begin to rethink what they thought was a new era in Middle East politics, this is an opportunity for the Kremlin to expand its influence.
You recently wrote an article for The Middle East Quarterly about the rise of Islam inside Russia. It’s often said that the Slavic Russian elites are uncomfortable with their Muslim minority. And we recently saw a large mob storm the Dagestan airport looking for Jews. Is the rise of Islam in Russia reshaping the Kremlin’s policy toward Iran and toward the Middle East?
What you’re seeing in that attempted pogrom, which is really what it was, is the intersection of a couple of profound trends that have taken place in Russia. First is the growth and radicalization of Islam in Russia itself. Remember that during the seven-plus decades of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was formally atheist. When the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990s, there were millions upon millions of people, both in the territory of what became the Russian Federation but also on the periphery in Central Asia and parts of the Caucasus, who didn’t really have any idea about how Islam should be practiced beyond the way it was practiced at home by their parents and their grandparents.
This created a battleground for ideological influence. You saw the encroachment of radical groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat, and even more recently, groups such as the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and others, trying to shape Muslim minds. This was particularly pronounced in Chechnya and in Dagestan, where there are massive Muslim populations. (Eighty percent of Dagestan is Muslim.) So you have that new growth of not just Islam—Muslims are Russia’s fastest-growing minority and gaining a bigger voice in national politics—but of an extreme form of Islam.
Add to that the very sordid tradition of the pogroms and persecution of the Jews, and the Russian government is sitting atop a tinderbox. It’s a tinderbox that you’re seeing in the context of the Jews now, but it could become a bigger tinderbox later, because the centrally organized, very exclusionary, ultranationalist identity that Vladimir Putin has built for Russia doesn’t have any room in it for Muslims.Muslims don’t feel part of the Russian Federation.
To be clear, you’re saying that the Muslims in the Russian Federation can be a threat to Putin?
Absolutely. The empirical evidence for this exists in the fact that, when the Islamic State was at the height of its power eight years ago in the Middle East, the highest cumulative number of foreign fighters were from the countries of the Russian Federation and Central Asia. These were Muslims who radicalized and mobilized and traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State. Russian authorities were more than happy to let them go.
But that’s not where we are now. We are in a post-Islamic State period. Ukraine is a great example of this. In Ukraine, you have units of Muslims who are fighting for the Kremlin and you have units of Muslims who are fighting for Ukraine against the Kremlin. That tells you everything you need to know about how fractious identity politics can be in Russia.
Just as the Israel-Hamas war is a big win for Iran, it looks like it’s a big win for Putin. Are you worried that the Ukrainians are losing visibility and support around the world?
Absolutely. I think the Ukrainians are worried about this too. The Ukrainian leadership has been very savvy to link the two conflicts and to try to explain to Ukrainian citizens that what Vladimir Putin is doing to them is not so dissimilar to what Iran and Hamas are trying to do to Israel. Part of that is heartfelt for sure. They feel like they’re in a fight for their survival, very much the way Israelis do now. But part of it is also pragmatic, because they see the writing on the wall. They see that there is a push in American politics to decouple the two issues, and they know that support for Israel is stronger and more bipartisan than support for Ukraine, and they’re worried about being left behind.
The really interesting thing here is what’s happening in terms of Israeli perceptions. At the start of the Russian invasion and aggression against Ukraine, Israel was saying the right things. But a lot of us, myself included, thought that Israel could have been more forthright about supporting Ukraine against Russia. You heard all of these arguments about why they weren’t—because Russia was present in Syria and Israel had to worry about the northern front. Because there are over a million Israelis of Russian extraction and lots of familial and political ties. I understand all of those reasons. But pragmatically speaking, Israel was in a position to do more of substance for Ukraine earlier than it actually did. Now you’re seeing a belated awakening taking place in Israel where Israelis on social media and in the press are saying, “You know what? We were wrong. We now understand why it was important to support Ukraine, just as Ukraine is supporting us.” So that messaging about a common fight is morally very important. It’s pragmatic on the part of the Ukrainians, but it’s morally very important for Israelis.
Should the growing Putin-Xi relationship be worrisome to Israel?
It’s worrisome to Israel and it’s worrisome to the United States. There are two schools of thought in Washington. One school is that this is a strategic alliance, and the other school is that it’s a strategic alignment. There’s a big difference between the two. I tend to fall into the latter camp. I think it’s an alignment because it’s tactical, but it’s limited because, by any empirical metric, China’s a rising power and compared to it, Russia is a declining one economically, demographically, politically. And the leadership in Beijing may see that the things Vladimir Putin is doing are making their goals, such as reintegration of Taiwan, harder to achieve. At least for the moment, it’s clear that the ties between Moscow and Beijing are more durable than either’s ties to the United States. But over the longer term, the natural mode of these two countries is not alliance but competition over resources and territory.
Where Israel fits in this is very interesting because you’ve also seen an Israeli evolution in thinking about China. We all read Start-up Nation 14 years ago, an excellent book and the blueprint for how Israel convinced the world that it was this incubator for technology innovation and economic dynamism as a result of the unique features of its economy and its polity. The Israeli government also bought into Start-up Nation to the point where Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister then as now, threw the doors open to investment from abroad. China became a major stakeholder in Israel, in particular in its high-tech sector. Chinese investment is more modest in Israel now than it was four or five years ago because U.S. officials, from this administration and the last one, have been telling the Israelis in no uncertain terms, “There are risks. This isn’t just an economic partnership, this is a national security partnership. We’re worried about Chinese tech and about Chinese penetration into your infrastructure.” So Israel has drawn down the level of Chinese investment.
The way one economist in Israel explained it to me is, “Look, the Israeli high-tech sector is the lifeblood of our economy. The Israeli high-tech sector is leveraged on Taiwanese superconductor chips. And when, not if, China takes over Taiwan, if we’ve not positioned ourselves properly, they could be in a position to throttle our economy.” The Israelis are playing a very sophisticated chess game.
The current conflict has the potential to really change this. China has come out with a whole bunch of unconstructive statements that have raised the hackles of Israeli officials. It’s aligned itself with what it sees as the prevailing current in the Muslim world. For a whole host of reasons, I’m not sure that that will continue over time, but either way, I think we end up after this conflict with a much chillier relationship between Jerusalem and Beijing.
Let’s touch on Turkey briefly. Erdogan has come out in support of Hamas. What does he want and how does he fit into this puzzle of the Israel-Hamas war?
Interestingly, that massive pro-Palestine rally, at which he warned, very brazenly, about the possibility of what he called a crescent-Crusader clash raising the specter of holy war, came the day before the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s republic. He was sending a message to the Turks and to the Muslim world.
Here’s a guy who started out as an Islamist, when he was mayor of Istanbul. In the 1990s, he talked about the need to transform Turkey into an Islamic caliphate. He has over time adopted nationalist leanings. And he’s an interesting hybrid leader now. He’s not an Islamist in the way that we usually understand it, but his vision of Turkish greatness is all about carving out a unique identity. This makes him enormously problematic because he clearly sees antagonism with Israel as a political winner. He’s weaponized that to shore up his own support. But it’s also created a lot of problems for the United States because Turkey is a core member of NATO and its only Middle Eastern member. During the Cold War, Turkey was our southeastern flank—the early warning system for the alliance against Soviet encroachment. But we’re not sure if Turkey is on board with the new agenda that sees NATO expanding and creating a zone of stability further east into the Balkans, further south into North Africa and the Middle East. The problem is that every alliance is only as strong as its most reluctant member, and it’s been very clear in recent years that Turkey is NATO’s most reluctant member. Turkey has helped Iran bust sanctions.
This brings me back to the big picture. Are we on our way to a regional war in the Middle East?
I see a couple of things beginning to take shape that give me confidence that we’re going to stop short of that. One is the growing willingness of the West, in particular the United States, to put things that Iran values at risk. The deployment of carrier groups to the Eastern Mediterranean was not a signal to Hamas. It was a signal to Iran that the United States stands ready to dismantle Hezbollah if Iran—through Hezbollah—opens a northern front against Israel.
Iran values Hezbollah very much. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be skirmishes on the northern border. I think that has to do with deterrence. And so my counsel is always to double down on deterrence, let the Iranians know that they will lose substantially if they goad Hezbollah into action. Then there’s the more pragmatic issue of succession in Iran. The current supreme leader of Iran is aging and infirm, and he is concerned about his legacy. I’m not sure that in this current frame of mind he’s somebody who’s going to gamble it all on a potentially apocalyptic war in the Middle East. I hope that I’m correct.
The third point relates to the wider region. We have to understand that the Arab world, particularly the countries of the Persian Gulf, are watching what Israel does in Gaza closely. Hamas, remember, is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and one of the things that unifies Israel with these countries is a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is opposed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Kingdom of Morocco.
What all of these countries are doing is an interesting balancing act. The governments understand that things may actually rebound in their favor politically if the Muslim Brotherhood is weakened. They also understand that their streets are, in most cases, very pro-Palestinian. So they’re trying to thread that needle. Much depends on how Israel conducts its operation in Gaza. This will set the stage for whether or not the Abraham Accords can be resumed, whether or not normalization with Saudi Arabia gets back on track.
Do you see a world war on the horizon?
I don’t think so. But I do think that this moment politically is very clarifying, both because of the reactions that we’ve seen to the Israel-Hamas conflict, but also in the ripple effects that are visible in Western societies, for example on university campuses. The conflict has raised larger issues that we’re going to be grappling with for years. We are recognizing that we didn’t handle issues such as assimilation, integration and immigration as well as they should have been handled, and we took for granted what we shouldn’t have taken for granted. So there is an adjustment coming. I just don’t think that it’s going to be in the form of a military conflict.
So where do you see hope in the world right now?
Unquestionably, this is a dark time. I know you feel it and I feel it too. Unfortunately, conflicts like this are enormously costly. But one of their silver linings, if you could call it that, is that they create a clarity of intellectual thinking and a clarity of beliefs that, if nurtured properly, could strengthen our Western world order in the years to come.
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