Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman spoke on December 18 with Clifford D. May, founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), about the recent British election and the implications for the Middle East.
According to May, the landslide victory of Boris Johnson (and the defeat of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who famously embraced Hamas and Hezbollah) should reinforce the coalescing political leadership in the West that recognizes the threat posed by "various regimes, movements, organizations and ideologies that I would characterize as jihadist or Islamist."
May highlighted the threat posed by the Islamist regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has played an increasingly destabilizing role in the Middle East, particularly Syria and Libya. But Turkey is a "wicked problem ... nobody knows quite what to do about it" for two reasons.
First, it is a member of NATO and has a long "tradition and history ... [as] the secular and pro-Western country in the Middle East," making policymakers reluctant to wash their hands of it. Second, it is engaged in a "substantial rapprochement" with Russia, and there is a fear that challenging Erdoğan could "throw Turkey even more into the arms of Putin."
May admits that his own think tank -- no stranger to offering bold policy prescriptions where others dare not tread -- is "struggling" with the question of "what can be done" about Turkey. "But we should at least -- one thing we're trying to do is just reveal how bad Erdogan is in terms of freedom and freedom of the press, in terms of all the things that he's doing meddling in the region."
The U.S. and other Western governments have also wavered in confronting the oil and gas-rich Arab gulf state of Qatar, whose support for such Islamist groups as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and "flirtation ... [with] the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey" resulted in its ejection from the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As with Turkey, part of the reluctance to confront Qatar stems from its longstanding partnership with the U.S., notably housing Al Udeid Air Base. It also spends enormous sums of money "influence buying" in U.S. think tanks, universities, and other institutions.
The ambitions of Iran's Islamist regime are the most troublesome, according to May:
The Islamic state obviously is committed to a jihad against the West. But the Islamic Republic of Iran is no less committed to that. ... The Islamic Republic means and is in the process of taking over Iraq and Syria, they pretty much have. Lebanon is ruled by Hezbollah which is absolutely their proxy. They're supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as to a somewhat lesser extent Hamas. They're supporting Houthi rebels and Yemen. It's pretty clear what they intend to do in the region.
In contrast to Qatar, where no credible opposition appears to exist, and Turkey, where it has been largely intimidated into submission, Iran is seething with dissent:
The Iranian people by and large ... are as fed up with Islamist and theocratic government as any people in the world are. I think you can see that from the protests that recently broke out, demonstrations in more than a hundred cities, at least a thousand people we believe to have been murdered by the regime. People are fed up with it with what they've experienced since 1979.
May credits Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with cultivating an image of Iranian moderation in the West. The veteran diplomat is "forkable" in that "you can go to a restaurant in Vienna and he'll know which fork to use," May explained, "but he also believes in a jihad against the West."
While there are those, such as Trump and Johnson, who "recognize this threat and want to frustrate it," he noted, "there are others, and I'm sorry to say including President Obama, who said 'No, I think that the Saudis and the Iranians just need to share the Middle East,' and he didn't seem to be terribly worried about the Israeli position within that. Or the Jordanian position by the way."
Saudi Arabia, according to May, has two choices – either work out a "modus vivendi" with Iran, or "look at Israel with a very different eye." He's hopeful that the latter course of action is where the Saudis are headed:
They recognize that unlike the United States, the Israelis have nowhere to go. And the Israelis are the only nation in the Middle East that has both the will and the determination and the military capabilities to confront, to face, to deter the Islamic Republic of Iran. So, very quietly, there have been extensive relations between the Saudis and the Israelis, on the intelligence level, on the military level.
May concluded by quoting the summation of an Israeli contact: "They're certainly attracted to us, the Saudis, but it's more like a mistress than a wife. They'd rather not be seen in public with us – [except at] small, out of the way restaurants to have a drink."