Foreign Policy Blogs

A Year-End Discussion with Janice Stein

Janice Stein

Dr. Janice Gross Stein is the Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, where she is the Belzberg Professor of Conflict Management in the Department of Political Science. Dr. Stein is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. She was awarded the Molson Prize by the Canada Council for an outstanding contribution by a social scientist to public debate. Dr. Stein is an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has been awarded Honorary Doctorate of Laws by the University of Alberta, the University of Cape Breton, McMaster University, and Hebrew University. She sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) to discuss the most significant developments in the Middle East in 2013, part of FPA’s annual year-end discussions on the region.


What was the most significant development in the Middle East in 2013 and what are the highlights of your political forecast for the region in the year ahead?

The most significant development in the Middle East in 2013 was the tentative agreement between the United States and Iran. It’s a six-month agreement that froze the Iranian nuclear program and reduced in some small ways sanctions on Iran. If this process moves forward—and  there’s certainly huge uncertainty around it—but should this process succeed in going forward, it has the potential to de-escalate several conflicts in the region. It certainly will make a difference in the ongoing conflict in Syria; it will make a difference in Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria; and it will significantly reduce tensions between Israel and Iran. If the process moves forward, it is conceivable that it will reduce some of the tensions between the Shia and Sunnis in the region. This is only the first and the easiest step in the process. The next stages will be difficult, but this is the most significant development of the year. Now looking forward, 2014 will clearly be marked by whether the P5+1 will be able to continue this process;  if they fail, the conflict in Syria, the tensions between Iran and Israel will all deepen. So we’re in a very delicate moment in the region with potential for significant progress, or significant escalation; it’s one or the other.

If Canada’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East has gone through a transformation over the past five years, what are the key characteristics of this transformation?

I think what you’re hearing from our government is a much stronger support than what we’ve seen in the past for Israel as a democratic state in the Middle East. If you look at our pattern of voting in the United Nations, for example, there is far greater willingness on the part of this government to vote against one-sided resolutions that criticize Israel for its violation of rights, but do not criticize, for example, Hamas or the Palestinian Authority for their violations of rights.  That pattern is very different from the governments that preceded it. If you actually look, however, at the substantive position of this government on what a final settlement should look like, on a commitment to a two-state solution, on the importance of an independent Palestinian state, on boundaries that are secure for Israel but allow contiguous territories for the state of Palestine, there really is not much difference from previous Canadian administrations. Our Prime Minister is going to the region at the end of January 2014. He’ll be visiting Amman, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. And our aid to the Palestinian authority will continue.

What will be the objective of this upcoming visit to the region?

One purpose of this visit is to reaffirm Canada’s commitment to the security of Israel, which is an important part of Canada’s policy in the Middle East. Prime Minister Harper is more articulate and passionate about it, but prior governments had this commitment as well. Where he [Stephen Harper] differs from past Prime Ministers is his willingness to speak out forcefully against what he considers unbalanced and unfair criticism; that’s the critical difference. And I suspect our government will announce continuing Canadian support for the Palestine Authority and I’m sure he will reaffirm Canada’s commitment to a two-state solution. And in Jordan, our Prime Minister will consult with the Jordanian authorities on the crisis in Syria and Jordan’s absorption of a large number of Syrian refugees. Jordan is carrying an extraordinarily significant burden. As you know the Zaatari refugee camp is overburdened and unable to meet the needs of the refugees due to their large and growing numbers. The government of Canada has repeatedly provided aid to the government of Jordan to meet the needs of Syrian refugees. I’m sure the Prime Minister will continue to do this. We can always do more. The capacity of the governments in the region to meet all the needs of Syrian refugees, whether in Jordan, Turkey, or Lebanon, is not great. Syrian refugees are now exposed and vulnerable and they are also destabilizing some of the countries in which they are. I know that in 2012 and 2013 the refugees from Syria were a big concern of the government of Canada. The Canadian commitment has always been deep on these issues; unfortunately, people don’t always pay attention to the level of Canadian commitment. For example, our Foreign Minister [John Baird] has been to the region repeatedly over the last two years and we have an ongoing, very active assistance program to the government of Jordan that’s specifically focused on Syrian refugees. Now, could we do more? Of course, every government in the world could and should be doing more to help Syrian refugees wherever they are. Canada was one of the earliest to provide assistance to Jordan. It continues to do so and increases its assistance to Jordan every year.

Canada expressed deep sense of skepticism over the interim agreement in Geneva between Iran and the six global powers known as P5 + 1. What, in your opinion, would it take for Canada to join other world powers to support negotiations with Iran and take a step further and re-establish diplomatic ties with Tehran?  

I think you’re correct in characterizing the government of Canada’s position as one of deep skepticism about this agreement; the Canadian government has a wait-and-see attitude, with an emphasis on evaluating whether the government of Iran is serious about reducing its nuclear program. The government of Canada is looking for actions that verify that the government of Iran will reduce some of its capacities and shut down the plant in Arak, which provides a potential second route to weaponization.  In other words, what this government is looking for is verifiable actions from the government of Iran in reducing its current level of nuclear activities.  The current agreement does not require the government of Iran to do that. So the moment of decision will come as the agreement expires in six months:  Either this process moves forward and Iran will have to take some of these actions in exchange for reduction in sanctions, or this process will break apart. The government of Canada will wait at least until  that stage to see whether there are concrete, verifiable actions that the government of Iran is indeed willing to take to roll back some of its enrichment capabilities. There are multiple measures to verify a change in direction. There are underground facilities that need to be opened to verifiable and surprise inspections; there are what I call behavioral measures that the government of Iran can take to show that it’s changing course.

In light of easing of tensions in U.S.-Iranian relations in the region, continued violence in Syria and Iraq and subsequent sectarian instability in Lebanon, could Israel move toward redefining its regional strategic imperatives, and in the process, place a greater significance on the Palestinian issue?

There are many pieces in this puzzle. You are quite right that the conflicts in the Middle East are connected one to the other; they are not separate. So what happens inside Syria, what happens between Hezbollah and Syria, has an impact on what happens between Israel and the Palestinians and on what happens between Iran and Israel and the United States. If you’re asking me if I see over the next six months a breakthrough in the Israeli and Palestinian talks that are going on now, I think that is unlikely. These talks have a deadline, which is almost coterminous with the next phase for the Iran and P5+1 process. These two processes will come to a critical stage at almost the same time; they are interlinked. I think before the kind of strategic redefinition that you’re talking about, there would have to be additional progress on the relationship between Iran and the United States so that it’s clear which direction that relationship is moving; it’s not clear yet, as I think everybody agrees, so the next six months are crucial. I think we are in for a long difficult process. It’s hard to see yet a breakthrough between Israel and Palestine.

Does President Rouhani’s real challenge start with the implementation of his domestic reforms? What dynamics could be awaiting him should he decide to execute on his promised social and political reforms?

I think President Rouhani’s tasks are daunting. Lifting some of the sanctions and bringing economic relief is key, but it’s only the first step in a process of  structural reform, and that’s where the President will run into very stiff opposition. Iran is a complex society. There are many important economic players, some of them inside the government, who control significant parts of the Iranian economy. If Rouhani tries to remove some of the advantages that key institutional players inside Iran have in the economy, he will encounter very stiff opposition. It’s inconceivable to me, frankly, that should the President move either on the nuclear file, or on the issue of economic reforms, that we will not see a confrontation with more hardline elements in the regime who would oppose him because of their entrenched economic interests. Much will depend on what Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, decides to do as those forces of confrontation begin to grow, but even the Supreme Leader cannot prevent what I think will be an intense clash inside Iran, if President Rouhani moves further on his reform agenda.

In certain policy and defense circles in the United States there are talks of a strategic reduction of U.S. footprint in the region. To what key factors would you attribute the apparent reduction of U.S. footprint in the Middle East?

Let me answer this question by saying that I think there is a reduction of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East in a very specific way, which is a willingness of the United States to commit ground forces in the region. The greater unwillingness to do so is the result of the expenditure of blood and treasure, as Americans would say, in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failure to produce even minimal results in either society. As you mentioned Iraq has a growing level of violence, and there are not many who are optimistic that once the United States withdraws from Afghanistan that the Afghan national forces will be able to provide meaningful security for the population.

So you don’t see this reduction as being an overall strategic move?

No, I don’t. If you actually look at U.S. naval capability, its aerial capability, ranging from drones to strategic capabilities, the United States is by far the strongest power in the region. I know these comments are different from what you hear in the United States, but take a  look at the processes which  are significant in the region; the process with Iran is really heavily a U.S.-driven process, although it’s P5+1, it is really a one-one and that ‘one’ is the United States. Also, the ongoing process between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is almost exclusively driven by the United States; neither Israel nor the Palestine Authority seems extraordinarily committed to it or excited about it. Therefore, I think the analysis that the United States has withdrawn from the region is highly over-exaggerated and probably wrong.

Is it too soon to suggest that post-Morsi Egypt is moving toward political stability? What could be the implications of removing the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s political scene?

I think it is too soon to suggest that Egypt is moving toward stability. The incidents of violence in Egypt, which are ongoing everyday now, mark a significant departure from what existed before in Egypt’s contemporary history. The Egyptian constitution, in a process led by fifty Egyptians, was written relatively quickly; it did not involve extensive consultation and processes similar to those we’ve seen in other societies. There will be a referendum on the constitution followed by elections, but what we have now in place is a government led by the military with considerable popular support that nevertheless has taken repressive actions against the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the implications of removing the Brotherhood from the country’s political scene, my perspective is that societies flourish when they make space for the diversity of views that are reflective of their societies. The Brotherhood is one of Egypt’s oldest institutions, which certainly reflects the political perspective of a significant portion of Egypt’s population and should be able to participate in the political process as long as it respects the rules of democracy.  Although Morsi made series of strategic errors during the short time in which he was in power, the current suffocation of the Brotherhood has created a much larger structural problem.  It’s very difficult to convince somebody who is a supporter of the Brotherhood that they should engage in democratic politics because they’ve seen the processes over the last year; and it’s unclear to them why they should trust the political process. What we’re seeing is an ongoing, serious political crisis of legitimacy, which only very enlightened leaders can solve and even then it will take a considerable amount of time. I think any expectation of political stability in the near term in Egypt is unrealistic.

In May of this year the Munk School of Global Affairs launched the Global Dialogue on Iran Program, an unprecedented effort by a Western academic institution that opened a wide-ranging dialogue on Iran and its political future. Can you tell us, going forward, what the Program’s future plans are?

The Global Dialogue on the future of Iran has been very encouraging. The Program is designed to create safe and secure space for Iranians to debate the future of their own country in an environment where their identities are protected. I believe we’ve succeeded far beyond anybody’s expectation. We now have over a million Iranians who are crowd sourcing information about the Rouhani Meter, and engaging in vigorous debates about what the President is doing, what their understanding of the President’s efforts are, whether he has fulfilled his commitments. This level of engagement tells us that when the opportunity is provided, Iranians can have a rich civic debate about the future of their country.

We are certainly committed to continuing the Rouhani Meter for his first year and we are in constant conversations with Iranians about what would be most useful. The fundamental bedrock commitment that the Munk School made is that this is a conversation by Iranians with Iranians about the future of Iran. We are enabling a platform for Iranians to do this, but this is by Iranians for Iranians. A key success has been the dynamic debate that the Program has managed to generate despite the digital censorship inside Iran, a success that has been very encouraging.