Ilan Berman
Ilan Berman
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Pundicity: Informed Opinion and Review

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What Biden And Putin Didn't Discuss

June 21, 2021  •  The Hill

At his summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland last week, President Biden pressed his Russian counterpart on a number of critical issues. He stressed the importance of protecting U.S. infrastructure from Russian cyberattacks — and signaled that the White House was prepared to take retaliatory measures in response to continued Russian cyber-mischief. He emphasized his support for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S. broadcaster whose continued functioning and independence within Russia is now being threatened by the Kremlin. And he warned of "devastating consequences" for Russia if opposition critic Alexei Navalny, now languishing in a penal colony on questionable charges, ends up perishing behind bars. One thing that didn't make it onto the meeting agenda, however, was the question of disinformation — and Russia's ongoing efforts to promote "fake news" and divisive narratives within the United States. Yet that topic is a critical one, because recent years have seen the Kremlin erect a massive disinformation campaign aimed at the U.S. and other Western nations.

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A New Era For Iran's Ambitions In The Western Hemisphere

June 14, 2021  •  The National Interest

Two Iranian warships recently steamed around the southern tip of Africa into the Atlantic, most likely en route to Venezuela. The story is one that has largely been ignored by both the media and the White House, which has minimized the impending maritime lash-up by opining that "buying armament [from Iran] won't put food on the table for Venezuelans." Yet the expeditionary voyage represents an important strategic development, both for what it tells us about Iran's burgeoning blue-water naval capabilities and because it reflects Tehran's enduring focus on securing a strategic military foothold in the Western Hemisphere. To understand the broader context, it's necessary to appreciate the Islamic Republic's strategic outlook. Geopolitically, Iran's radical regime has long seen itself as the "center of the universe," a regional hegemon around which Middle Eastern politics by necessity need to revolve. Increasingly, however, Iran's ayatollahs are thinking bigger, and over the past decade (and especially since the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal with the West) have begun to see their country as a global player. The sine qua non of being a global power, however, is being able to project power globally, which is why the Iranian regime has for years sought to erect a blue water naval capability. It is also why Iranian officials have repeatedly intoned their commitment to establishing a naval presence in the Atlantic—and why they have taken concrete steps to do so.

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The Islamic State, and After

May 2021  •  Chapter in Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021)

At the end of March 2019, U.S.-backed opposition forces retook the last remnant of Syrian territory still under control of the Islamic State in eastern Syria, formally ending the terrorist group's short-lived experiment in statehood.1 The milestone was momentous. For the preceding half-de­cade, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, IS, or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh) had served as the near-singular focus of Western counterterrorism efforts, eclipsing prior threats (such as al-Qaeda) and overshadowing other longstanding extremist problems, such as Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah militia. The group, a later incarnation of the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda that had been active in the early 2000s, rose to prominence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq by capitalizing on the deepening sectarian divisions that plagued the country's tenuous political transition in order to accumulate influence and power.2 It also gradually became involved in the Syrian civil war, competing for prominence with the local al-Qaeda franchise there and, as a result, breaking away from the Bin Laden network and charting its own political and ideological trajectory. That arc culminated in June 2014, when the group's self-appointed emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, formally de­clared the creation of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.3 The group's accumulation of power was both rapid and dramatic. At the height of its influence in late 2014 and early 2015, the territory con­trolled by the Islamic State covered 81,000 square miles—a geographical expanse roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom.4 During this period, the terror group held sway over eight million civilians, a population on a par with that of Switzerland or Israel.5 It likewise generated an annual revenue of nearly $2 billion, making it the best funded terrorist group in recorded history.6 But ISIS was not built to last. Its extremist tactics and draconian application of sharia law progressively alienated potential adherents in territories under its control, while its persecution of minorities—most brutally Iraq's Yazidi minority—fomented an international humanitarian crisis. The result was the formation, in September of 2014, of a broad-based bloc designed to ensure the group's "enduring defeat" by targeting its financing and economic infrastructure, preventing the flow of foreign fighters, liberating territory from ISIS control, and countering the group's propagan­da.7 Over time, the Global Coalition, now numbering more than eighty nations, handed a decisive defeat to the world's most notorious terrorist threat. Or did it? In the 1990s, in the heady days that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Bill Clinton's nominee to oversee the U.S. intelligence community painted a surprisingly stark picture of the challenges facing America in the post-Cold War world. "We have slain a large dragon. But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes," Ambassador R. James Woolsey, a career diplomat who had served as an arms control negotiator with the Soviets, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at his 1993 confirmation hearing. "And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of."8 In much the same fashion, U.S. policymakers today are discovering that the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria has ushered in a new and more challenging stage in the "war on terror." In his January 2019 presentation to Congress of the U.S. intelligence community's assessment of "worldwide threats" confronting the United States, then-Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats laid out a changed and more complex terrorist threat landscape.9 It is a landscape defined by four distinct trends, which will cumulatively help shape the face of the global terrorist threat in the years ahead.

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Four Priorities For The Biden-Putin Summit

June 10, 2021  •  Newsweek

Next week, President Joe Biden will meet with Vladimir Putin in Geneva for his first head-of-state summit with the Russian leader. The June 16th meeting promises to be a high-stakes affair. Despite his earlier rhetoric, President Biden has signaled that he is eager to use the occasion to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship, which has become increasingly adversarial in recent years. But precisely how he might do that remains to be seen. The administration has already sent some rather pointed signals to the Kremlin regarding its political flexibility. It carefully calibrated its response to last year's massive SolarWinds hack in order to ensure a "proportionate" response, but has so far failed to respond meaningfully to last month's disruption of the Colonial pipeline. And, despite congressional protests, the White House rolled back sanctions on the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline as a confidence-building measure. In the process, it fanned fears that the mid-June meeting might result in a further diminution of America's global position, without receiving much from Moscow in return. Whether that happens, however, will largely depend on the stance Biden takes on four key issues.

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Foreign Actors Are Hacking America's Democracy

June 1, 2021  •  The National Interest

What does America's most notorious conspiracy theory have to do with foreign policy? Quite a lot, it turns out. In recent years, QAnon—a series of theories about the existence of an unaccountable "deep state" within the U.S. government—has garnered growing attention in U.S. politics, and concern from American law enforcement. Officials and experts alike now worry that the movement, while fringe, has contributed to significant radicalization on the part of some segments of the American electorate. Yet, while QAnon is a homegrown phenomenon, its ideas and narratives are being amplified by a host of foreign actors, according to a new study by The Soufan Center.

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Books by Ilan Berman

Cover of Iran's Deadly Ambition Cover of Implosion Cover of Winning the Long War Cover of Tehran Rising

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