Transcript: Face to Face with Jon Alterman

Bob Schieffer: And welcome now to Face to Face, our midweek web show which is put together by the folks who bring you "Face the Nation" on television. Today, Jon Alterman, scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Jon you are just back from Russia and from the gulf, but I think the first thing we need to talk about is Egypt. What do you make of what's going on there?

Jon Alterman: I don't think anybody is working off a script. I don't think anybody's had a script in Egypt for a long time. I think the real question for the military, which has tried to stop the consequences of Democratic elections which have largely seemed to favor the Muslim Brotherhood, the question is can you ever get that toothpaste back in the tube? One the Muslim Brotherhood has a legal political party, once people organize, once the Salafis, the very orthodox Muslims, are out, once the liberals are playing in the game, can you ever go back to having dead politics in the country? In this world of social media and everything else? I think the military is going to have a very hard time preserving its legitimacy. I think ultimately it's going to have to make a deal with precisely the Democratic politicians that they're trying to shove aside. Partly for political reasons, partly for economic ones.

Schieffer: The health of Mubarak of course is sort of hanging over all of this. nobody seems to know if he's dead or alive or exactly. But do these huge demonstrations we're seeing, does that really have anything to do with him?

Alterman: I don't think it has to do with him. The only possible angle it would have to do with him, there are some people who say you know he's not sick at all, this is just a way to get him out of the country. This is a way to get him from serving his time because he was given a life sentence. But I think the reality is the way Mubarak plays into this is he created the very, very brittle system, the absence of institutions which could be facilitating a transition in Egypt. And that's really where he plays. He's not playing actively. I don't think he's so much a symbol of the future as he is a symbol of a lot of things that were wrong with the past. People really agree on that.

Schieffer: So where does this go? These huge throngs gathering in the square there. You look at it on television and it's hard to figure out even what it's about.

Alterman: I don't think they know, Bob. Of course the demonstrations were largest when they were around a very simple idea - Mubarak must go. And once you try to put that onto a positive agenda, I think a lot of the consensus broke apart. My guess is over the coming months the military is going to have to reach out to all the different parties in Egypt. Partly because it can't have these large protests. I think it can't put down the large protests, that was something they were very concerned about doing, it would challenge their legitimacy. To get the economy back, to get investors back, to get the IMF and other international institutions to give them money there has to be some sort of political process. So I think they want to influence it, but they're going to have to make all the political deals. Quite frankly the military has not shown itself to be a very skillful political wheeler dealer. But I think we're very much in the middle of this game. There are no games that are over right now.

Schieffer: The old question - why is it important to us?

Alterman: Well it's hugely important because we have so much military equipment that goes through. We have a lot of intelligence cooperation with Egypt. Egypt, being on the right side in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been incredibly important to both the Israeli security and to both the U.S. regional security. And there's a way in which Egypt is the center of gravity for the whole Arab world. When I was in the gulf a week ago, the number of people who talked about Egypt, the number of people who were alarmed that the Muslim Brotherhood may be able to have a lock on power in Egypt and would never give it up and that would change the whole politics of the region, in their view, I think is important. So if you care about the middle east, and because of our energy use and the energy use of our allies, we're going to care about the middle east for a long time, you have to care about Egypt.

Schieffer: And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? I know that causes the hair on some people's back to rise up, just the name, Muslim Brotherhood. What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

Alterman: Well the Muslim Brotherhood is a social and political organization. It was actually founded, modeled on the YMCA idea in 1928. But it is in some ways a Leninist party. It's very structured, you have to do certain things to move up. It believes that religion should have a role in the way politics work in Egypt. It has a very clear hierarchy and there are a lot of people in Egypt, not just Christians but a lot of secular Egyptians who say there's no place for a hierarchical authoritarian institution in a country that's democratizing. What's the role of people who don't agree with it? Who's going to protect their rights? So I think there are a lot of Egyptians who say, I don't have a problem with religion in politics, but I have a problem with them defining religion in politics. I have them defining it for us. The Muslim Brotherhood had a period of supporting violence. There are a number of people like Ayman Al Zawahiri who at one time were active with the Brotherhood and went toward greater violence. He's now the head of al Qaeda. But I think that most people as they look at the Brotherhood think that this is a political organization which is not violent, although it certainly has given birth to people that have embraced violence.

Schieffer: Let's shift a little bit. You are just back from Russia. The president had this meeting down in Mexico with Putin. What's your take on all this?

Alterman: I think there are two issues the U.S. is trying to work with the Russians. One is Iran and one is Syria. It's not clear to me that we actually strategically have that many differences with the Russians. I think they are worried about the same things we're worried about in Syria which is that al Qaeda has a foothold. You break into chaos, civil war, the jihadis come in from all over the middle east, they go out into Chechnya, they go out into the gulf. I think we all have the same worst case scenario for Syria. What some people say is that we disagree with the Russians on whether making a deal now makes things better or worse. The American conception is the longer this goes on, the more likely you have terrorism coming out of Syria. The Russian view being the faster you have a transition when nothing's ready, the more likely you have terrorism coming out of Syria. But there seem to be signs that we have been able to at least bridge some of the differences with the Russians on Syria. And with Iran, I don't think the Russians want a nuclear Iran. But again there's a question of pacing. There's a question of how tough we should be on sanctions. I think the Russians don't have identical views, but I hear a lot of frustration among Russians with Iranian government behavior. Where they differ is they think the U.S. strategy to get the Iranians to change their behavior isn't going to work.

Schieffer: Let me go back just to Syria for a minute. You know, every indication that the Russians are trying to funnel arms into Assad. Would they - are they trying to keep him in power? What exactly does their strategy seem to be?

Alterman: Again, I think they're trying to play, it seems to me, they're trying to play a longer game. That they don't want anything to happen really quickly. I think they don't want us to win. They don't want our friends to sort of run rampant. I think they would like some sort of brokered deal where they can protect their interests. They have a naval base in Tartus. They don't want to feel totally pushed out. they don't want to look like they're abandoning an ally, because they've had a long relationship with Syrians dating back to the Cold War. But are they willing to cut him loose? They seem to be willing to cut him loose but they don't want to be the ones to do the cutting. What they seem to be waiting for, in my judgment, is they're waiting for the situation to take care of itself and then they'll come in and they'll help try to impose some order on it. I think from a U.S. perspective there's an awful lot of blood between now and the situation taking care of itself. And the more blood you have the more likely you are to have just a lot of extremism and the problem gets harder to solve, not easier.

Schieffer: Let's talk about Iran a little bit. A lot of these leaks have come out and talked about this cyber-espionage we've been carrying out. Is Iran closer or not closer to building a nuclear weapon? What's your thought?

Alterman: I think they're probably getting slowly closer to having the ability to do it, to have a choice. How much closer they want to go beyond having an option, how long they want to preserve having an option, how that's all going to work, I think is a huge mystery. It seems to me there are three parties here who don't really understand precisely the actions of the other two. I don't think the Iranians understand either the Israelis or the United States. They've been cut off from us for a very long time. I don't think they understand our politics or our strategy. I don't think the Israelis really have a good sense of internal Iranian decision-making, and I don't think they have a great sense of the Obama administration. It's not a really clear, good relationship between the leaders there. I think they're a little uncertain what the United States would do if there were an Israeli attack. I think from the U.S. side, we don't really understand either the Iranians or the Israelis. A lot of speculation in the U.S. government what might the Israelis do under what circumstances, when, how much would we know in advance? And when you have three parties, possibly poised on the brink of war, and no one party understands the other two. It's a very dangerous situation to be in, that's the situation we're in right now.

Schieffer: what about the Israelis? A lot of people thought that sometime this summer they might actually launch an attack. Do you think we're closer to that or not as close as some people thought we were, say, six weeks ago?

Alterman: I think they might be, but what I see in Israeli public opinion is a lot more skepticism about an attack on Iran, a sense that Israel couldn't really deal with the ramifications, that it would create a problem with the U.S. relationship rather than help the U.S. relationship. I think what a lot of people see as well is that an Israeli attack couldn't take care of an Iranian nuclear program, it would have to necessarily involve the United States. So I think there's a lot of sort of circumspection about that now that wasn't there several months ago. It's still possible. I think that both the United States and Israel benefit in some ways from not having a clear sense of exactly what the Israeli trigger would be. You still of course also have the possibility that you have an accident in the Gulf, or something, there's an Iranian challenge or an Iranian test that gets an American response and suddenly you have a war on your hands, very, very quickly. The American war plan, as I understand it, relies on neutralizing Iranian capabilities before they leave port. Which would mean that you would have to have a huge immediate attack. You can't slowly ramp up. You have to go big early, and that again puts you on a hair trigger that if the trigger goes, you go big.

Schieffer: And what do you think the likelihood of that is?

Alterman: I think the likelihood of war sometime before January 1st is probably around 30 percent. There are people who say, wow only 30 percent, other people say, wow, 30 percent, that's real. It feels to me there are several things that could happen. I still wouldn't say it's a likelihood. But with the failure of the talks in Moscow I sense the Iranians don't really take any of this seriously. I sense both on the Israeli side and the American side that you can't talk about this forever. It makes you lose your credibility. I think we're probably in the 20 to 30 percent range.

Schieffer: Jon Alterman, some thoughts on a dangerous world. That's it for Face to Face, don't forget to join us Sunday on television for "Face the Nation." I'm Bob Schieffer.

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