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Interview Transcript with Rodger Shanahan

Published 22 Aug 2015
Novan Sachrudi

Tuesday 18th August 2015

NOVAN SACHRUDI: We’re joined here with Rodger Shanahan at the Glover Cottages who’s speaking tonight about the security situation and dynamics in the Middle East today and about the resulting military operations by the U.S., their Gulf allies and Australia. Rodger, we’re involved in a large U.S. led coalition in Iraq to “degrade and destroy” I.S., to use Obama’s words. While they’re clearly not destroyed, they don’t seem to be degraded in any significant sense either. Do you see Australia expanding its commitments and military capacity in Iraq or the Middle East more broadly in, say, Syria?

RODGER SHANAHAN: Probably to the first part of the question, you need to understand the word ‘degrade’ is a military operational term. So degrade means a long-term mission and we’re only a year into the mission with relatively limited offensive resources. Islamic State doesn’t have the same freedom of movement that they used to have, so in some aspects they have been degraded. Probably not as quickly as people may have envisaged but that’s the nature of the campaign plan that the U.S. has. Perhaps the U.S. campaign plan is realistic, but media and other commentator’s views of it are unrealistic.

I would never have used the word ‘destroy’ because it’s virtually impossible to destroy an organisation – it will splinter, it will become something else but it won’t get destroyed. For those reasons alone I don’t think you’ll see any expanded military commitments from Australia in the region. They might change as the mission changes. The force structure changes because you can’t be static all the time but I think we’ll be limited to what we have at the moment.

NS: For the anti-I.S. coalition, what outcomes need to be seen before we can claim any semblance of a mission accomplished and are they deliverable?

RS: Yes but probably not in the timeframes that people outside of the military may think are achievable. You could insert Western forces into Iraq and roll-up Islamic State relatively quickly – that’s certainly not the point. It has to be done by the Iraqis and the Iraqis have to reassert sovereignty – that is going to be a slow process. People probably didn’t realise the degree to which the Iraqi military had lost capability and it needs to rebuild. That takes quite some time and that’s the nature of this mission. It’s peculiar to this mission and I think it’s the appropriate use of forces.

NS: I’d like to ask you about Iran and move on from the Islamic State, as interesting as the topic is. Iran is a major player in the regions conflicts. How do you see the new nuclear deal factoring into their actions and interests? How does it affect the security dynamics of the Middle East?

RS: Second part first; I think we’ve already seen how it’s factored in. The U.S. is all about this doctrine of responsibility where regional states need to take more responsibility for security issues in the region, and that may achieve some kind of balancing act. The U.S. will always be the security guarantors especially for the Gulf states who feel most exposed. But you can see in places like Yemen certainly and in Bahrain before that, the Gulf states in particular are taking more of a lead and being more aggressive against what they see as Iranian encroachments. What will it do to Iranian views of the region? Iran always wants to exert influence with how it sees itself in the region. But we always have to understand that the rivers of gold are not always necessarily going to flow because Iran has significant internal domestic economic issues that it needs to deal with and that’s going to take up a large proportion of the additional funds that will flow in. We also have to understand that throughout the sanctions Iran has still been able to fund those groups that it sees as central to expanding its influence. So they’ve always been able to fund them, they’ve always been able to find the appropriate money for them, that’s not going to change in the short term.

NS: Setting aside the positives and negatives of the deal, and the fact that its detractors see it as emboldening Iran, it is certainly a factor that Iran has a track record of non compliance and concealment with regards to their nuclear activities. While the nuclear deal is set to implement a wide inspections and monitoring regime, do you think they’ll stick to their end of the bargain?

RS: I think they’ll stick to the agreement as signed. It’s in their best interest to do so. President Rouhani has always seen things in terms of national power and economic power is part of national power. Some of the harshest sanctions that were imposed on Iran were unilateral sanctions by the U.S. on the financial flows which can be snapped back theoretically at short notice. So Iran should be and would be cognisant of not wanting to go back to some of the bad old days. Understanding the expectations of the population has now been raised with the signing of this agreement and they wouldn’t want to go back, and I don’t think it’s in their best interest to go back. There is really nothing to be gained from trying to circumvent what are pretty rigorous inspection regimes – for what purpose? A lot of the harshest monitoring arrangements are going to cease after a decade, so if Iranian’s think long term, they would think “what’s to be gained in doing stuff in the next 10 years when we can do it at year 11?” There is everything to be gained, nothing to be lost.

NS: And just briefly on a final note Rodger, unfortunately a large portion of the Middle East region is in a deep, long and protracted state of conflict, which some say may threaten the Sykes-Picot lines as we know it. Is a redrawn map of the Middle East with new states or autonomous regions, such as a viable Kurdistan, the price for stability?

RS: I don’t think so. I think the Sykes-Picot borders delineate sovereignty and they’ve been much more robust than we may have given them credit for, even in the Middle East. The issue of Kurdistan is an interesting one. The Iraqi Kurds are trying to assert as much, or even more autonomy particularly after they took Kirkuk, but they’ve always had a degree of brinkmanship because they’ve got no natural outlet to the sea for instance. Much of the oil reserves of Iraq are in the South, and the North’s, to the best of my understanding, are degrading over time. So while it may be aspirational I don’t think they’re in a position to unilaterally declare autonomy or independence and I don’t think they would. They can gain more from this kind of halfway house than they could by claiming independence and they wouldn’t get the wrath of the Syrians, Turks or Iranians against them, so I don’t think they’d want to push the beast currently.

NS: Thanks for talking to us tonight Roger and I’m very much looking forward to your address.

RS: Okay, my pleasure.

Dr Rodger Shanahan is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute of International Policy and a visiting fellow at the National Security College, ANU. He is also a part-time member on the Refugee Review Tribunal. A former army officer with extensive service in the Parachute Battalion Group (PBG), he served with the UN in South Lebanon and Syria, with the PBG in East Timor in 1999, as the military liaison officer in Beirut during the 2006 war and in Afghanistan. He has also served in the Australian embassies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Dr Shanahan has MAs in International Relations and Middle East and Central Asian Studies from the ANU, and a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Sydney.

Novan Sachrudi: Novan is a recent graduate of the University of New South Wales, completing his Bachelor of Arts with Honours in International Relations. His research interests are Middle Eastern politics, the War on Terror, US foreign policy, Asia-Pacific defense and security, and political philosophy and theory.