A Conversation with King Abdullah of Jordan

By Lally Weymouth
Sunday, June 22, 2008

During a turbulent week in the Middle East, King Abdullah of Jordan sat down with Newsweek-The Washington Post's Lally Weymouth in Petra last Thursday to talk about the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace, Iran's suspected nuclear program and the outlook for Jordan's war-torn neighbor, Iraq. Excerpts:

Q. Is [the] Annapolis [peace process] dead?

A. I'm actually very concerned since President Bush's visit to the region, to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. I think the peace process has lost credibility in people's minds in this area. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been in the region and is working very closely with the Israelis and the Palestinians to move the process forward. . . . We're all very pessimistic at this stage.

Do you view Iran as the number one threat in this region?

I think the lack of peace [between Israel and the Palestinians] is the major threat. I don't see the ability of creating a two-state solution beyond 2008, 2009. [And] I think this is really the last chance. If this fails, I think this is going to be the major threat for the Middle East: Are we going to go for another 60 years of "fortress Israel," or are we going to have a neighborhood where Israel is actually incorporated? That is our major challenge, and I am very concerned that the clock is ticking and that the door is closing on all of us.

But aren't you concerned that Iran is a threat both to your country and to other countries in the region?

Iran poses issues to certain countries, although I have noticed over the past month or so that the dynamics have changed quite dramatically, and for the first time I think maybe I can say that Iran is less of a threat. But if the peace process doesn't move forward, then I think that extremism will continue to advance over the moderate stands that a lot of countries take. We've reached a crossroads, and I'm not too sure what direction we're heading in.

Do you think that radicalism has triumphed over moderation in this region?

If we don't win on the peace process, if we don't have a two-state [Israeli-Palestinian] solution, then definitely there'll be more turmoil and more instability. And I think that it may send the wrong message to extremists -- that the only way to perpetuate their philosophy is through conflict. Now when it comes to Iran, I am quite supportive of what I see in Europe and the West -- people who want to engage. We're a country and a region that I think supports dialogue as opposed to conflict. Again, if there is conflict, with Iran in this particular case, I'm not too sure where this is going to lead us. I think you're playing with Pandora's box. And we've had enough crises in this part of the world.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas [also known as Abu Mazen] is reaching out to Hamas to form another unity government. What do you think of this?

Abu Mazen has, I think, some strict guidelines that he has given to Hamas. Now whether Hamas accepts them or not is another question, but there is dialogue going on. We'll just have to wait and see. We've gone through this process before where the groups have sat down around the table but failed to agree at the end of the day. We can only keep our fingers crossed.

Do you favor the formation of a [Palestinian] national unity government?

It depends what the aims are. The elected and official face of the Palestinians is the PNA [Palestinian National Assembly], so it depends on what Abu Mazen and Fatah [Abbas's party] or Hamas can agree upon.

How do you see things in Iraq today?

I am actually optimistic for the first time on Iraq. I think that Iraqi society is moving in the right direction. It's the first time that I have felt that Iraqis have, as much as they can, bound themselves together into a unity. They have worked together -- Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis -- for the betterment of Iraq in the last couple of months. Here's an opportunity for Arab countries to reach out, which we haven't done in the past, and extend a hand of friendship to the Iraqis and give them the support that they need to get to the next step. If we don't, I think that it will be a loss for the Iraqis and for the Arab moderates.

I think we have a window of several months to really start a new page with Iraq. Countries are starting to send their ambassadors to Iraq. We are looking at sending our ambassador back there. We had a very successful visit of [Iraqi] Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Jordan last week.

Inside Jordan, things are difficult now due to the price of food and other commodities.

I think it is [the same] all over the world. We will have a major problem with rising prices, food concerns for the next couple of years. We're looking at how we can keep supporting the middle class and the poverty sector to make sure they can actually get food on the table and then keep the deficit under control. Oil prices have just been such a shock. Summer has been easier but when you get to the winter, the issue of heating is going to be a major problem. We are pursuing alternative forms of energy. We're looking at nuclear energy.

I saw your statement to [the Israeli newspaper] Haaretz saying, "Everybody's going for nuclear programs."

I had said that before in the United States, [but] when I said it to Haaretz, it was breaking news -- Jordan is going nuclear.

People were thinking, if Iran goes nuclear, aren't other countries in the region going to follow suit?

This is what I said in answer to a question, "What happens if Iran goes nuclear?" I said, in our part of the world there's nuclear ambiguity. Nobody's too sure what Israel has, nobody's too sure what Iran is doing. I said even Jordan is thinking of looking at nuclear power. We would like to see ourselves as a prime example of how to be transparent. I think one of the main ways we are actually going to do it is through the private sector. That way nobody can have any concerns as to what Jordan is up to regarding nuclear energy.

The United States seems to be selling Saudi Arabia the components to manufacture nuclear power.

They've signed an agreement. Four years ago, President Bush actually encouraged us to pursue nuclear energy. The U.S. signed an agreement to this effect [with Saudi Arabia], but Jordan will be much quicker than other countries to get nuclear energy.

Reportedly, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are building nuclear reactors.

They don't have the crunch that we do, so for us, the pace will be much quicker. We'll probably be the first in our part of the world to actually go through the private sector to get nuclear energy.

I remember a couple of years ago, you warned against the danger posed by Iran to moderate Arab regimes. Aren't Iran and Syria the big winners today in this region?

If we look at what happened in Lebanon [last month when Hezbollah routed government-backed forces in street fighting to win major political concessions], I think the perception here is that that round was won by Iran and her proxies. We just have to be careful as to what happens in round two. Again, this is why I am so concerned about the peace process.

Why didn't anyone help the government of Lebanon?

I'm just as shocked and surprised as you. The sad part is we have to be very careful. The lack of a peace process affects America's credibility in this part of the world. If we don't really show some wins on the ground, American influence and prestige will be dramatically diminished.

It's hard to see how you do move forward with Hamas firing rockets at Israel every day. It's hard to see how an agreement will come out with the West Bank and Gaza divided between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

. . . Hamas always comes up as an issue. But we are only looking at half the equation. Everyone is quick to talk about how to isolate Hamas, but there is not enough discussion as to how to support Fatah. If the policy of the West is to isolate and pressure Hamas but we're not doing anything to alleviate the roadblocks, to try to get the kids back to school, try to create jobs, then how can you expect Fatah and Abu Mazen to be strengthened? There's a mission to make Hamas more isolated, but no attempt from what I see to strengthen Abu Mazen or make Fatah the winner on the street.

Wasn't the recent international agreement on Lebanon reached at Doha a big sellout by the international community of the Lebanese government? Didn't it basically give Hezbollah a veto over all government decisions?

I think Doha probably defused the situation from getting any worse. Doha did not fully resolve the problem in Lebanon.

You've always been so protective of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

I continue to be so.

But hasn't his government lost its power at Doha and on the ground to Hezbollah?

I actually think it's still part of the larger picture. The summer and fall will show whether Doha is something that was final and has given the Lebanese a fresh new start, or is it part of something else.

Is there any chance the Saudis might bring down the price of oil?

They say even if they increased the output of oil, that's not going to greatly affect oil prices. But the major problem is not just oil but basic commodities. We need sugar. Agriculture products are going to be the major concern on everybody's mind over the next couple of years.

So you're not in favor of military action against Iran?

I am not in favor of military action against Iran. I think you'd be playing with Pandora's box.

So you're willing to live with a nuclear Iran?

What do we mean by nuclear Iran? Some people are saying they have a nuclear weapons program, and some people are saying they don't. The latest American intelligence estimate released a couple of months ago was that their nuclear program has diminished or stopped. Now the British-Israeli view of that is not as positive as the American one, so I've been told.

The American view was that the military program was diminishing in 2003, but not that it had stopped.

I think that you need to engage with the Iranians. A military strike in Iran today will only solicit a reaction from Iran and Iranian proxies, and I don't think that we can live with any more conflicts in this part of the wor ld.

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