Chapter 28. “The Current Situation in the Middle East is a Good Illustration of Results from the US Export of Democracy” (2006)

April 15, 2024

Gennady Evstafiev: Given your great experience in the Middle East, we would be very interested in your opinion of the prospects for settling the Middle Eastern conflict in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. Do you believe that international mediators working on a settlement can still act as intermediaries?

Evgeny Primakov: I think that we should remain cautiously optimistic and, as paradoxical as it may sound, recent events have made it possible to be more hopeful. What I am thinking of is the following. During their operation in Lebanon, the Israelis realized that they would not be able to solve their problems militarily. Their goal is to designate their borders unilaterally and unconditionally, wall them and secure their international recognition. 

Security Index Journal. №1 (81), Spring 2007.
Source: PIR Center (№1-81.pdf)

However, this war in Lebanon backfired, just as they failed after Hamas had come to power (a failure even after the formation of the current, formally independent government). And after recent events in Lebanon the trend in the Israeli society towards searching a way out of the current situation has strengthened. Moreover, from the Israeli point of view the situation could deteriorate further, given more and more perplexing Iranian factor. Many in Israel fear that Iran will actively support its enemies, and this could even lead to a nuclear confrontation.

At the same time, the Democratic majority in the US Congress, in my view, will not block the Middle East peace process. Now George W. Bush (2001-present) will have to find something to counterbalance his defeat in Iraq, since the US authority in the Arab world has fallen sharply since the events in Lebanon. I cannot exclude the possibility that in the final years of his presidency George Bush like Bill Clinton (1993-2001) before him will want his place in history to be marked by at least some success, even if it is only partial and preliminary, in finding a solution to the Middle East problem. In saying this, I do not insist that this scenario will indeed come true but just that it is not unlikely.

The Palestinians, too, understand that they need to come to an agreement. The creation of a new government and some of the changes that Hamas is undergoing are indications of this. I recently spoke with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and several other members of the politburo. What immediately leapt out at me was that they said they wanted to establish a Palestinian State within the June 4, 1967, borders, i.e., those that existed before the Six Day War (1967). And I said: “Add to this, next to Israel. That would be a step towards recognition; after all, sooner or later you will have to recognize Israel”. They agreed with this but found themselves in a difficult position. To think that Hamas would recognize Israel now, without securing any stability and without going through certain stages towards this goal, would be naive. In that case they would lose support. Thus, you see, I do not exclude the possibility that some movement towards a solution may occur.

Gennady Evstafiev: How did the 2006 War in Lebanon impact the situation in the region? Do not you expect the domestic political situation in that country to be further escalated? Do you share the view that as a result of this war Israel has lost its military advantage over the Arabs that it enjoyed for the past several decades? Do the Israelis desire revenge?

Evgeny Primakov: I believe that Lebanon’s domestic political situation is becoming increasingly strained. But it is noteworthy that Israel was unable to achieve its aim during the war. Consider the following: Israel began with the bombardment of the entire territory of Lebanon and only then started its ground operation in the south. It is unlikely that this bombing was aimed at making Hezbollah surrender, since Hezbollah is not located throughout Lebanon. I presume this was done to wake up the forces within Lebanon so that they would act more forcefully against Hezbollah, since its actions were leading to the country’s destruction. Basically, this is what happened in 1982, when the Israelis relied on a domestic Lebanese power that spoke out against the military presence of Palestinians in Lebanon. This time this tactic did not succeed but similar attempts will continue – they are continuing already.

As for the point of view that the Israelis lost their military advantage over the Arabs in the wake of the past war, I do not agree. The military advantage was not lost, but Israel understands more and more clearly that it is no longer capable of occupying Arab countries. You see, they have a military advantage just as the United States had a military advantage over Iraq – it is ridiculous to argue that it did not. The advantage was quite clear during the military operation, but as for what to do next in order to maintain control during the occupation is an enormous problem the solution to which does not depend on military advantage. And Israel is beginning to realize this.

Gennady Evstafiev: Is it possible that the Hezbollah phenomenon and its leader Hassan Nasrallah could become very attractive for other Arab countries that are involved in the conflict with Israel?

Evgeny Primakov: Which countries are we really talking about? Of all Arab countries, only Syria is involved in the conflict with Israel. Now there is a rapprochement between Syria and Iran, and from the Syrian point of view this is only natural. Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current President of Syria, once told me that he would do everything he could not to remain alone against Israel. Therefore, they need a reliable backyard, and they want Iran to be this backyard.

However, I do not believe that this makes an independent Syrian policy or its participation in the Middle East peace process impossible. Once again, I would like to refer to my recent trip to Damascus where I was able to meet with Bashar al-Assad and to spend quite a bit of time discussing this issue. After this meeting I was left with the impression that he understands that they need to find a solution, a way out of the situation, but he cannot give up the Golan Heights, I am certain of that.

Gennady Evstafiev: In the late 1990s you put forward the idea of a Russia-India-China triangle to counter the unipolarity promoted by the United States. Do you continue to adhere to this view, and to what extend is it a viable idea today and in the future?

Evgeny Primakov: I did not talk about countering unipolarity. One could say that the idea of multipolarity was proposed to counter unipolarity. But that is an obvious trend – the world is becoming multipolar. Today no one doubts that China is a world power. No one doubts that Europe, having been freed of the need of the US nuclear umbrella, is no longer the obedient alliance member it used to be and is now the United States’ economic equal. I think that no one doubts that Russia will not be submissive to the will of the United States. And about India or Latin America?

Multipolarity is a fact; but as for geometrical figures, they are needed to maintain the stability of this multipolar world. A new multipolar world should not allow for a recurrence of the events that occurred before World War II (WWII) (1939-1945). In the past, multipolarity led to coalitions – one group of states against another. Today’s multipolar world, given the globalization, the internationalization of production, and the transnationalization of entrepreneurial activity, cannot repeat the past structure by default. At the same time, some geometrical figures are needed that, I would like to emphasize, do not result in military blocs but, on the contrary, stabilize the situation by strengthening the ties between the various sides of this figure – through political and economic cooperation, military consultations, and so on.

Gennady Evstafiev: You know Iraq well. Are you worried by the trend towards the increasing, gradual disintegration of the country, in part through its federalization? We have noticed that you do not insist that the US troops leave Iraq as soon as possible. Is this a reflection of your concern that Iraq may disintegrate? How will the defeat of the Republicans in recent mid-term Congressional elections affect Bush’s politics in Iraq?

Evgeny Primakov: Yes, I am worried by the trend towards the disintegration of Iraq, in part through its federalization. As a young journalist I had an opportunity to meet repeatedly with Mullah Mustafa al-Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish National Liberation Movement in northern Iraq over the course of four years. And I asked him point-blank if he wanted to establish an independent Kurdish state. The prerequisites for such a state appear to exist: there is a densely populated area inhabited by Kurds (of whom there are about 25 million), albeit divided by several state borders. But the father of the present Kurdish leader[2] told me: “I want to obtain real autonomy, real influence over politics in Baghdad. That is my goal, because if Kurds leave Iraq and I proclaim an independent state, then they will put a dagger at my neck: Iraq, Iran, and Turkey as well”. He was right.

Of late, the idea of Kurdish self-determination, the creation of their own state has been gaining ground. But let’s examine the Turkish reaction. Turkey is concentrating its troops on its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and has not ruled out the possibility that if an independent Kurdish state is established, the Turks might strike at it. Separatism has raised its head not only in the North, where, for all practical purposes, an independent though undeclared Kurdish state already exists, but also in the Shi’ite South. Shi’ite autonomy, it seems to me, would play in the hands of radical rightist forces in Iran. In addition, there is also talk about the creation of an Islamic Sunni state with its capital in Baghdad. All of this is a very good illustration of the results of the US export of democracy.

And what will be the implications of the outcomes of the most recent elections to the US Congress for Iraq? The Democrats were able to get the majority in the US Congress by making use of the Iraqi factor – they used public frustration with what is happening in Iraq in their own interests. However, I do not think that we should overestimate this factor. Why? Because the Democratic Party did not come out with a program of its own on Iraq, it did not demand the immediate withdrawal of troops, or even come up with a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq. I believe that the US policy will naturally be affected, but to believe that it will change radically the way it did on Vietnam when the United States was defeated and left the country – that will not happen. 

And as for the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld[3] by Robert Gates[4]… I remember Robert Gates well from the times when George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) had him convey to me the news that it was not necessary for me to stay on in Washington, although before that during the war in the Persian Gulf I had been asked to stay in order to discuss possible ways to address the issue apart from the military operation against Iraq. Robert Gates produced a good impression on me when he came to Moscow as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), back then I was the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

Gennady Evstafiev: The Iranian nuclear crisis was the hottest topic in world politics throughout 2006. How strong is the likelihood that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, in your opinion? Will Iran become a second Iraq?

Evgeny Primakov: Back to the times when you headed one of the SVR’s operational analysis directorates, we issued two public reports on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and determined the criteria for differentiating officially recognized nuclear powers from unofficial, threshold, and pre-threshold nuclear states[5]. At that time, we considered Iran to be one of the threshold states: if Iran were to take a political decision to build nuclear weapons it could make advances in this sphere in a number of years. But Iran currently avers that it has not made any political decision, that it has no desire to build nuclear weapons, that it is not violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and that it is ready to put all of its nuclear programs under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and conduct negotiations on all nuclear matters, including uranium enrichment. And it seems to me that to demand from them to give up uranium enrichment as a prerequisite for such negotiations is not right. Moreover, it is in violation with the NPT.I cannot agree that the Iranian nuclear crisis was the hottest topic in world politics in 2006. Yes, the situation has become extremely tense, I would say, nearly reaching the boiling point, but the crisis itself has not crossed the line beyond which you could say that it really is the gravest threat in 2006. Of course, the statements made by several Iranian leaders against the backdrop of which Iran’s nuclear program – peaceful nuclear program – is being implemented, draw attention, and raise concerns. We, of course, are not interested in and no state in the world is interested in Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Not a single state is interested in the proliferation of nuclear weapons other than, perhaps, North Korea. And even in that case, North Korea is already giving this up and is ready to conduct negotiations within the Six-Party Talks framework.

Evstafiev, Gennady M. (25.08.1938 – 19.02.2013)

Outstanding Soviet and Russian intelligence officer and diplomat, Lieutenant General of the Russian Foreign Service, former Senior Vice-President of PIR Center. He began his service in the 14th Department of the First Main Directorate of the KGB of the USSR, specializing in Asian countries – Pakistan, India, Japan. In 1981-1985, he worked as a special assistant to the UN Secretary General. In 1999-2000, he was a member of the Disarmament Commission under the UN Secretary General. From 1986 to 1991, Gennady M. Evstafiev was part of the leadership of the Soviet delegation at the negotiations on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) In Vienna. He worked for a long time in the system of the Foreign Intelligence Service. From 2000 to 2003, he was part of the Russian mission to NATO, where he dealt with counter-terrorism and WMD nonproliferation. After retiring in 2003, he was a Senior Advisor to PIR Center.

Primakov, Yevgeny M. (29.10.1929 – 26.06.2015)

Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Russia, RAS academician. One of Russia’s leading specialists on Asia, a major scholar in the sphere of international economics and international relations, with a particular focus on Russian foreign policy issues; the study of international conflict and crisis theory and practice; research on the processes of world civilizations and global problems; and the socioeconomic and political problems of developing countries. Born in 1929 in Kiev. Graduated from the Arabic division of the Moscow Institute of the Orient in 1953, and completed graduate studies at the Economic Department of Moscow State University in 1956. A Doctor of Economics, and a RAS Academician since 1979. In 1956-1962, he worked as a correspondent for Soviet state radio and television (Gosteleradio), as an associate editor, deputy editor-in-chief, and editor-in-chief of the Main Directorate for Radio Broadcasts to Foreign Countries. In 1966-1970, he was the Pravda correspondent in the Middle East and deputy editor for the Asia and Africa division. In 1970-1977, he served as deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In 1977-1985, he headed the Soviet Academy of Sciences Oriental Institute, and from 1979 he was also a professor at the Diplomatic Academy. In 1985-1989, he served as IMEMO director. In 1991-1996, he directed the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. In 1996-1998, he was Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs. From September 11, 1998, to May 12, 1999, he headed the Russian Government. Deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation of the III convocation (2000-2001).

[1] This chapter is based on the conversation between PIR Center Senior Advisor Gennady Evstafiev and Acad. Evgeny Primakov, President of the Russian Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Gennady Evstafiev’s interview with Acad. Evgeny Primakov took place on November 14, 2006. This interview was first published as: Евгений Примаков: «Сегодняшняя ситуация на Ближнем Востоке – очень хорошая иллюстрация того, к чему приводит американский экспорт демократии» // Индекс безопасности, 2007. № 1 (81). Том 13.
 С. 33-47. URL:№1-81.pdf

[2] This refers to Masoud Barzani, a leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) since 1979, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq from 2005 to 2017. – Editor’s Note.

[3] The US Secretary of Defense from 1975 to 1977 under the US president Gerald Ford (1974-1977), and then from 2001 to 2006 under the US president George W. Bush (2001-2009). – Editor’s Note.

[4] The US Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 under the US president George W. Bush (2001-2009). – Editor’s Note.

[5] See: «Новый вызов после «Холодной войны»: распространение оружия массового уничтожения». Открытый доклад СВР России 1993 г.; «Договор о нераспространении ядерного оружия. Проблемы продления». Открытый доклад СВР России 1995 г. // Служба внешней разведки Российской Федерации. Документы. URL:

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