From Deniability to Discipline. Valdai Club Experts Discuss the Situation in the Middle East
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On Tuesday, January 14, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion, titled “US-Iran: The Limits of Escalation”. In addition to Iranian issues, the experts discussed in detail the situation in Libya. As a result of recent events, these two countries are now in the focus of Middle East experts.

The previous day it became known that the commander of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, who had arrived in Moscow to negotiate a ceasefire with Fayez al-Sarraj, chairman of the Government of National Accord (GNA), left, refusing to sign the agreement. Some media outlets considered this as a “failure” of the negotiations, which were organized with the mediation of Russia and Turkey. Academician Vitaly Naumkin, scientific director at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, did not agree with the assessment.

According to him, a difficult negotiation process is still going on: each side wants to come with strong positions to the Berlin conference, scheduled for January 19. Haftar achieved significant military success in confronting the GNA government, and al-Sarraj humiliated Haftar, saying that he would not sit at the negotiating table with him. However, the dialogue continues through the use of proxy talks: both sides of the Libyan conflict willingly accept the mediation of Russia and Turkey.

The important role of these countries was once again emphasised by the negotiations on the intra-Libyan settlement. According to Naumkin, this is also confirmed by the results of the recent meeting between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel in Moscow. “This is a new situation for us,” said the academician. “It shows that Germany needs us not only because of gas, but also with respect to political and regional issues.”

As for the Libyan issue, Germany has shown itself to be the leader of the EU, Naumkin said. If Rome and Paris cannot agree among themselves and support the opposite sides, Berlin acts as an impartial broker – and appreciates that Moscow plays a similar role. “We have abandoned the image of Russia as an unconditional supporter of Haftar,” the scholar emphasised. Its record for impartial (peace) brokering is impeccable. We are reconciling the irreconcilable. ”

Returning to the main topic of the discussion, experts focused on how the exchange of military strikes in early January will affect the dynamics of the US-Iranian confrontation and the situation in the Middle East as a whole. According to Naumkin, Iran is winning so far, at least in the moral sense. “If earlier in the Middle East they were afraid of Iran, now they sympathize with them, like with all the victims of major powers,” he said. Iran has shown itself to be a country that is capable of producing high precision weapons, but at the same time “treats human lives humanely and does not want to kill anyone.”

A characteristic feature of the current stage of the confrontation between the two countries is its hybrid form. As already mentioned, Iran’s attacks on American military bases did not cause a major war, contrary to expectations: not least because they were planned so as not to harm the US personnel. In one way or another, both countries continue to pursue their goals: in the case of Tehran, this is regional dominance and ousting the United States from the Middle East, in the case of Washington – the transformation of Iran into a state subject to American rules, as it was before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Maxim Suchkov, Senior Research Fellow at the MGIMO Centre for International Processes Analysis and Editor of Al-Monitor, spoke about how the US is achieving its goal. According to him, representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties demonstrate two different approaches. The Barack Obama administration believed that it makes no sense to expel Iran from Iraq and Lebanon, where its positions are traditionally strong, but instead create a system of disincentives for the population and leadership of these countries, so that Iran’s presence could be perceived as undesirable. As for Iran itself,  according to the logic of the previous administration, the reformist wing there should have been strengthened, squeezing the conservatives. President Trump takes a different approach which can be described as following: demonization, pressure, discipline. The regime change policy for the Trump administration is one way to change behaviour, not the goal, the expert noted. It is important for America that the regimes accept the conditions that it sets. Recently, Iran began to “push” the United States in a number of positions, and in order to climb several steps at once on the escalation ladder, the United States decided to assassinate Soleimani.


The two states will continue their respective courses of action, but with a lesser degree of publicity, Suchkov believes. Closer to the US presidential election – in late summer or the beginning of autumn – tension can be expected to increase. This is part of Tehran’s game, which seeks to strengthen its position to conclude a deal with Trump: the next such moment will appear only in 2024. Judging by the public reaction of the Iranian authorities, they are ready for this “deal” in one form or another. The United States, in turn, announced its readiness for negotiations without preconditions: in the public discourse, it is already said that Iran is moving from deniability to discipline, the expert noted.