Elevating Political Discourse Almost Impossible in Dangerous Middle East

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin speaks to The Washington Center

by Anthony Moretti

It’s a region of the world that has vexed one president after another. Barbara Slavin expects the Middle East to be as challenging for Donald Trump as it has been for his predecessors.

Slavin is the acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. She described the dangers in that country and within those around it when she spoke to students at The Washington Center’s Inauguration ‘17 seminar on Thursday.

“Engagement with Iran” almost certainly will continue when Trump becomes president, Slavin said, despite the harsh rhetoric then candidate Trump used during his presidential campaign. That engagement is one reason Slavin doesn’t believe the nuclear deal with Iran will be killed “at least for a while,” she added.

Slavin noted that her greatest concern about the deal is that Congressional Republicans will use Iran’s deplorable human rights record to push for sanctions against the government. If enacted, and if they mirror ones done away with when Iran agreed to the nuclear deal, then Iran could pull out of the agreement.

Slavin said she doesn’t see Trump having any interest in pushing Iran on its human rights record. Likewise, she doubts leaders in Russia, Turkey or Egypt — all led by so-called strongmen — will be admonished about this issue by the new president. She challenged the students to be that voice, as she responded to a question from Jennifer Givens, a student at the University of San Diego.

“Your generation has to continue to see people first,” Slavin said, instead of judging them as acceptable or not based on their religion, sexual orientation or other demographic marker.

“We can’t give up on the region,” she continued’ “because if we don’t go there, then it comes to us.”

A humanitarian crisis is the most common way it comes to us. Slavin noted that the U.S. accepted 12,000 Syrian refugees last year, a number far below countries such as Germany, which she said took in almost one million Syrians, and Canada, which took in about 60,000. It remains unclear how many refugees Trump will allow into the country.

Trump’s affinity for Russian president Vladimir Putin — “a tough SOB,” in Slavin’s words — means the two men will agree that the Syrian civil war won’t end until ISIS is defeated. The crisis there is far more complex, she said, arguing that no peace is possible until Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is “pushed to the sidelines” and gives up power.

Slavin also has little optimism that any significant peace deal between Israel and Palestine will happen in the immediate future. Trump “will hug the Israeli government,” Slavin said. His position could lead to Israel being emboldened to take more land for settlements, a move that would further inflame tensions in the Middle East, Slavin stated.

Slavin reminded students that even though governments might argue about issues people-to-people initiatives should continue. She spoke about The Basketball Embassy, located in San Antonio, which brings together people from various places around the world to learn about the game.

A group of Iranians is scheduled to come to the U.S. later this year to take part in the program. But if the new administration opts to slam the door on Muslims entering the country, no matter for what purpose, then the participation of the Iranians would be impossible.

Slavin’s facial and body expressions spoke for her: That would be a shame.

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