Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

Israel Will Have No Peace With Arabs Until Palestinians Get Statehood, U.N. Envoy Says

November 21, 2017
 NOVEMBER 21, 2017 09:06


Nickolay Mladenov also speaks about the rise and fall of ISIS.

Image result for Nickolay Mladenov, u.n., photos

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov speaks to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ 


Israel can’t build ties to the Arab world based on the common regional threats they face without also resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov told The Jerusalem Post.

“The Palestinian question” remains “a very emotional issue for the Arab public,” said Mladenov, who will be appearing at the Post’s Diplomatic Conference on December 6.

“I do not believe any Arab leader, whether a king or a president, can go to their own people without saying something on how the Palestinian question is being addressed,” Mladenov said.

He spoke with the Post last week, as Israel has increased its outreach to moderate Arab countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, which are banding together to oppose Iran.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has called for moderate Arab leaders to visit Jerusalem to form a coalition against Tehran with Israel.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot gave an interview to a Saudi newspaper, explaining that Israel was ready to share intelligence against Iran with moderate Arab countries, including theirs.

Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio on Sunday: “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually [we are] the party that is not ashamed.”

Mladenov said that Israel and the moderate Arab countries “have a clear common threat assessment,” but that this was not enough.

The former Bulgarian foreign minister, who has been in his current job for the last two years, arrived in Israel after spending time as the UN special representative in Iraq. His time there allowed him to understand how the consciousness of the Arab world has undergone a sea-change when it comes to the threat from radical groups such as ISIS.

“The realization in the region that they have to stand up for moderation and fight radicalism is something that happened very recently,” Mladenov said. If they had understood this earlier, “we might not have seen the collapse of states and the emergence of ISIS.”

Already in 2013 and 2014, it was clear to the UN in Iraq that ISIS would seize control, Mladenov recalled.

“We literally knew the date that Mosul would fall and this is the UN speaking. If we knew, others should have known far in advance of us,” he said, adding that the region’s interest back then to stand up to such a threat “was close to zero.”

Whole communities in Syria and Iraq collapsed because they were disenfranchised, marginalized and isolated from authorities, he said.

Mladenov recalled a 2013 protest about housing and health in Ramadi, Iraq, just before Christmas.

Instead of addressing these concerns, the government sent in troops and many people were shot.

“Within the next two to three months, the peaceful protest that had been in place was overtaken by ISIS, and the agenda changed completely,” Mladenov said.

“Within six months, Ramadi, Fallujah and the whole area was in the hands of ISIS.”

“Fifty years ago, the Middle East was threatened by war,” the UN special coordinator said. Now, the danger comes from “collapsing states and imploding societies” that are vulnerable to “outside interference and meddling and radical agendas,” he warned, saying this was the case in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen.

Initially, Middle Eastern leaders thought the threat was localized, assuming it was specific to the country in question, and would not impact them, Mladenov said.

Now they know the entire region is susceptible to the toxic mix of radicalism and the meddling of outside forces. There is a danger in allowing sections of a country to be ungoverned and thus fall prey to outsiders, he pointed out.

He also emphasized that the depth of the problem was underscored by the quick growth of ISIS and “the massive amount of territory it was able to take over very quickly with very few fighters.”

In addition, groups similar to ISIS appeared in other countries in the region, including in Sinai.

As a result, Arab leaders are now focused on strengthening the region’s ability to stand on its own, he said.

“This process is starting to happen, enabled by the Trump Administration. The policy that has come out of Washington, to focus on a partnership with the region to fight the threats to security, has helped put these issues to the forefront, which was not the case until now,” Mladenov said.

“The international community has to find ways to strengthen the legitimacy of governance instigations in the Middle East so that they do not fall prey to radical extremisms.”

The fall of ISIS in the Middle East, he said, increased the risk for Europe and other countries around the globe.

“The more you push ISIS out of territory it controls, that increases the risk of terror attacks outside of the territory it controls,” he said.

Fortunately, he said, “what we have seen in Europe is a growing sense of awareness of this threat – increased cooperation between European countries in intelligence sharing.” There has also been “increased cooperation between Europe, Israel and the US to address this threat.”

With regard to Israel’s northern border, Mladenov said that, “the presence of outside forces in Syria – be they state forces or nonestate forces like Hezbollah – is dangerous.”

“It is of paramount interest to restore the stability and the unity of Syria on the basis of a government that is freely elected by the people and that keeps the country together,” Mladenov said.

Reuters contributed to this report.


Saudi Game of Thrones Sends Chill Through Neighboring Markets

November 20, 2017

The Crown Prince’s crackdown has barely impacted Saudi assets, but has amplified troubles in Qatar and Bahrain

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Political upheaval in Saudi Arabia has sent shares, currencies and bonds in the Middle East lower—but not in the kingdom itself.

Riyadh’s internal crackdown and escalating tensions with Iran have barely impacted domestic markets, but have amplified troubles in smaller neighbors like Qatar and Bahrain.

Saudi Arabian markets have likely been cushioned by state-led buying, no disruption to the massive oil industry and hopes of financial reform. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s consolidation of power may add uncertainty, it could also further a program of economic reforms that includes the privatization of state assets and opening markets to foreign investors.

Reform-minded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending a meeting on Tuesday in Riyadh.Photo: fayez nureldine/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

On Monday, Standard & Poor’s held the kingdom’s credit ratings stable, saying “structural reforms could empower Saudi citizens and make Saudi Arabia more attractive to investors.”

Saudi Arabia’s resilience follows a 2017 global trend in which geopolitical concerns have failed to make a lasting impact on bigger markets, as investors avoid trying to price in major events.

Saudi markets are less likely to react to domestic political ructions than the kingdom’s neighbors, according to Emad Mostaque, co-chief investment officer of Capricorn Fund Managers, an emerging market-focused hedge fund.

Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia detained dozens of princes, government officials and businessmen as part of anticorruption efforts that marked an escalation in the crown prince’s effort to consolidate power as he spearheads far-reaching reforms.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for a missile fired by Yemeni rebels toward Riyadh’s airport, adding to tensions as the two vie for regional influence.

Nonetheless, MSCI’s index for Saudi stocks has fallen just 0.3% in the last month. But the MSCI’s index of stocks listed in the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman—is down 4.9%.

There has been a small selloff in Saudi government debt, but yields on the country’s dollar-denominated bonds maturing in 2021 have risen less sharply than their equivalents in Bahrain and Oman. In addition, bets that the riyal’s long-standing peg to the dollar will break barely shifted upward, as they often do when the country or its economy is under pressure.

In comparison, three-year forward rates for the Bahraini dinar have climbed, suggesting investors believe its peg to the dollar may break and the currency depreciate.

Saudi Arabia’s troubles are heightening some of its neighbors’s. Qatar has been isolated by other countries in the region, who accuse it of backing extremist groups, something it denies. Bahrain’s economy is particularly vulnerable to low oil prices, given relatively small foreign exchange reserves and high debt.

Elsewhere, Lebanese markets have been hard-hit by political turmoil, with the country acting as a staging ground for Iranian and Saudi foreign policies.

Yields on Lebanese government bonds, maturing in 2019, touched a high of 8% earlier in November, up from 5.1% at the end of October.

One explanation for the comparative resilience of Saudi Arabian markets touted by investors is interventions by state institutions and funds.

Simon Kitchen, head of macro-strategy at Cairo-based EFG Hermes, said anecdotal evidence and precedent suggest government money has supported buying from local mutual funds.

“The pattern of trading activity does seem as if there’s an orchestration of buying,” said Tarek Fadlallah, Middle East chief executive at Nomura Asset Management.

The Saudi government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The political upheaval shows no sign of affecting Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, which is responsible for the vast majority of its revenues.

“Saudi tanker shipments appear to have continued as normal and policy makers who favor a modest restriction of supply remain in place,” said Mark Haefele, global chief investment officer at UBS Wealth Management.

Supply cuts by some of the world’s largest oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, have supported the price of crude in 2017.

As reform-minded  Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power, some investors expect a boost to the local economy and more foreign investment in local assets.

According to  Riyadh -based Al Rajhi Capital, only around 4.2% of Saudi -listed shares are owned by foreign-based investors.

“A deepening of financial markets, increased trade openness, improved business environment and improved labor force skills are likely to provide a supply-side boost to potential growth,” said  Jean-Michel Saliba, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, in a recent note.

In general, geopolitical shifts have failed to make a lasting impact on larger markets in 2017.

For instance, South Korean stocks have hit multiple highs, even as tension has ramped up between the U.S. and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

Investors say they struggle to price all-or-nothing risks and fear missing out on opportunities. That is the same for Saudi Arabia and a risk like conflict with Iran.

“This is a conflict financial markets have a hard time understanding, let alone discounting,” said Christopher Wood, equity strategist at CLSA.

— Nikhil Lohade contributed to this article.

Write to Mike Bird at

Why Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals

November 18, 2017
  • 18 November 2017
Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. REUTERS/EPA

Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads. They have long been rivals, but it’s all recently got a lot more tense. Here’s why.

How come Saudi Arabia and Iran don’t get along?

Saudi Arabia and Iran – two powerful neighbours – are locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance.

The decades-old feud between them is exacerbated by religious differences. They each follow one of the two main sects in Islam – Iran is largely Shia Muslim, while Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power.

Map showing Sunni distribution in Middle East

This religious schism is reflected in the wider map of the Middle East, where other countries have Sunni or Shia majorities, some of whom look towards Iran or Saudi Arabia for support or guidance.

Historically Saudi Arabia, a monarchy and home to the birthplace of Islam, saw itself as the leader of the Muslim world. However this was challenged in 1979 by the Islamic revolution in Iran which created a new type of state in the region – a kind of theocracy – that had an explicit goal of exporting this model beyond its own borders.

Map showing Shia distribution in Middle East

In the past 15 years in particular, the differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been sharpened by a series of events.

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who had been a major Iranian adversary. This removed a crucial military counter-weight to Iranian influence in Iraq, which has been rising since then.


Fast-forward to 2011 and uprisings across the Arab world caused political instability throughout the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia exploited these upheavals to expand their influence, notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, further heightening mutual suspicions.

Iran’s critics say it is intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region, and achieve control of a land corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean.

How have things suddenly got worse?

The strategic rivalry is heating up because Iran is in many ways winning the regional struggle.

In Syria, Iranian (and Russian) support for President Bashar al-Assad has largely routed rebel group groups backed by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to contain rising Iranian influence and the militaristic adventurism of the kingdom’s young and impulsive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the country’s de facto ruler – is exacerbating regional tensions.

Five things about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

He is waging a war against rebels in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour, Yemen, in part to stem perceived Iranian influence there, but after nearly three years this is proving a costly gamble.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, many observers believe the Saudis put pressure on the prime minister to resign in order to destabilise a country where Iran’s ally, Shia militia group Hezbollah, leads a politically powerful bloc and controls a huge, heavily armed fighting force.

There are also external forces at play. Saudi Arabia has been emboldened by support from the Trump administration while Israel, which sees Iran as a mortal threat, is in a sense “backing” the Saudi effort to contain Iran.

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (left), Salman bin Adbulaziz (centre) and Donald Trump put their hands on an illuminated globe, Riyadh (21/05/17)

The Jewish state is fearful of the encroachment of pro-Iranian fighters in Syria ever closer to its border. EPA photo

Israel and Saudi Arabia were the two countries most resolutely opposed to the 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme, insisting that it did not go far enough to roll back any chance of Iran obtaining the bomb.

Who are their regional allies?

Broadly speaking the strategic map of the Middle East reflects the Shia-Sunni divide.

Map showing who supports whom

In the pro-Saudi camp are the other major Sunni actors in the Gulf – the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and Jordan.

In the Iranian camp is Syria’s government, which has been strongly backed by Iran, and where pro-Iranian Shia militia groups, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, have played a prominent role in fighting predominantly Sunni rebel groups.

The Shia-dominated Iraqi government is also a close ally of Iran, though paradoxically it also retains a close relationship with Washington on whom it has depended for help in the struggle against so-called Islamic State.

How is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry being played out?

This is in many ways a regional equivalent of the Cold War, which pitted the US against the Soviet Union in a tense military standoff for many years.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are not directly fighting but they are engaged in a variety of proxy wars around the region.

Syria is an obvious example while in Yemen Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of supplying ballistic missiles fired at Saudi territory by the Shia Houthi rebel movement – an incident which heightened the war of words between the two countries.

Houthi rebels in Sanaa (file photo)
Yemen is one of a number of battlegrounds fuelling Iranian-Saudi tensions. Reuters photo

But having become bogged down in Yemen and essentially defeated in Syria, Saudi Arabia seems to have its eye on Lebanon as the next proxy battlefield.

Lebanon risks being tipped into Syria-like chaos but few analysts see Saudi interests prevailing there.

Conflict in Lebanon could so easily draw in Israel in opposition to Hezbollah and this could lead to a third Israel-Lebanon war far more devastating than any of the previous encounters.

Some cynics wonder if the Saudi crown prince’s game plan is to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah and deliver a heavy blow to the group this way!

Are we heading towards a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

So far Tehran and Riyadh have fought via proxies. Neither is really geared up for a direct war with the other but one successful rocket attack on the Saudi capital from Yemen could upset the apple cart.

Will Saudi Arabia go to war with Iran?

One obvious area where they could come into direct conflict is in the waters of the Gulf, where they face each other across a maritime border.

But here too fighting could risk a much broader conflict. For the US and other Western powers, freedom of navigation in the Gulf is essential and any conflict that sought to block the waterway – vital for international shipping and oil transportation – could easily draw in US naval and air forces.

Graphic showing military balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran

For a long time the US and its allies have seen Iran as a destabilising force in the Middle East. The Saudi leadership increasingly sees Iran as an existential threat and the crown prince seems willing to take whatever action he sees necessary, wherever he deems it necessary, to confront Tehran’s rising influence.

The danger is that Saudi Arabia’s new activism is fast making it a further source of volatility in the region.

U.S. Seeks to Bolster Saudi Arabia in Face of Expanding Iranian Threat

November 18, 2017

Trump administration exploring range of actions to stop Iran’s supply of sophisticated weapons to its Middle East allies, including Hezbollah

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is looking at ways to quickly strengthen Saudi Arabia’s missile defenses and disrupt the flow of advanced Iranian-made weapons across the Middle East as concerns grow over a destabilizing new crisis in the region.

U.S. officials said they have rushed to ease regional tensions after an eruption of unexpected developments, including Saudi Arabia’s internal political upheaval, the mysterious resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister while visiting Riyadh, and the launch by Tehran-backed rebels in Yemen of an Iranian-made missile that was shot down near the Saudi capital.

The Trump administration is pushing for a quick resolution to the political stalemate in Lebanon so the U.S. and Saudi Arabia can focus on what Washington sees as the most significant regional threat: Iran’s supply of sophisticated weapons to its Middle East allies, including Hezbollah.

A still image taken from a video distributed by Yemen’s pro-Houthi Al Masirah television station showing what it says was the Nov. 4 launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh’s airport. Photo: reuters tv/Reuters

“The state of uncertainty is not serving anyone but Hezbollah and its allies,” said a senior Trump administration official. “The longer it goes on, the worse it is for Saudi interests and U.S. interests and the interest of our friends.”

To address what it sees as the biggest danger from recent developments, the Trump administration is exploring new plans to help deter the Iranian threats. Top of the agenda is making sure Saudi Arabia has the ability to defend itself from any further missile attacks.

Last month, the Trump administration cleared the way for Saudi Arabia to buy a multibillion-dollar missile defense system. The approvals allow Saudi Arabia to purchase up to $15 billion in launchers, missiles, radar and technology to help counter the threat. U.S. officials said that deal could be accelerated as a result of the missile fired at Riyadh earlier this month, which Saudi Arabia blamed on Iran.

The U.S. is also considering new ways to disrupt the flow of Iranian-made missiles being deployed across the Middle East. The U.S. Navy has previously seized what it says are Iranian-made weapons bound for Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen, who are embroiled in a protracted fight with Saudi Arabia.

The most recent missile attack aimed at Riyadh elevated concerns about the spread of more advanced missiles to Iranian allies, U.S. officials said. A U.N. resolution linked to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement bars the transfer of arms, including missiles, to and from Iran. U.S. officials see more room to enforce that ban, which expires in 2020.

The U.S. military also could step up its efforts to seize weapons shipments going through the Persian Gulf and across the region, U.S. officials said. Additionally, it could mount an expanded public campaign to expose the weapons transfers and make the case that Iran is accelerating efforts to get more sophisticated weapons to its allies, the officials said.

Saudi Arabia choked off transportation access to Yemen after the latest missile launch, drawing protest from humanitarian-aid groups and some U.S. lawmakers who said Riyadh’s move would exacerbate cholera and famine in Yemen.

U.S. officials are also talking to allies about efforts to constrain Iran’s ballistic missile program, a move the Trump administration sought even before the latest launch. Administration officials say they hope to use this month’s thwarted attack on Riyadh as a catalyst for international support.

A poster in Beirut with the words ‘We are all with you’ depicts Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, left, who resigned earlier this month during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Photo: NABIL MOUNZER/EPA/Shutterstock

“It could be an impetus for taking some sort of collective action to try to constrain the Iranians in that regard,” the senior administration official said.

But U.S. officials are also concerned about the surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi ally who has blasted Iran and its ally Hezbollah for stoking regional tensions.

Mr. Hariri’s fate has created a frustrating complication for the Trump administration, which wants some clarity so it can galvanize support for new action against Iran.

“We and the Saudis agreed that it was unfortunate that…the real threat of active war against the Saudi capital was overshadowed by the prime minister’s resignation,” the senior administration official said.

Mr. Hariri, right, meeting in Riyadh on Thursday with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The newly resigned Lebanese prime minister has been invited to meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Saturday. Photo: rania sanjar/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Hariri issued his surprise resignation two weeks ago from Saudi Arabia, which has expressed growing concerns about Hezbollah’s expanding influence in Lebanon.

Lebanese leaders have urged Mr. Hariri to return to Beirut, where he must personally present his resignation to the president for it to take effect. U.S. officials wouldn’t discuss speculation that Saudi Arabia forced Mr. Hariri to resign.

Lebanese political leaders have said Mr. Hariri is effectively a captive in Saudi Arabia, and his decision to remain there has only fueled the perception that leaders in Riyadh forced him to step aside.

U.S. officials said they hope Mr. Hariri’s plans to accept an invitation from France to visit Paris on Saturday will silence questions about his ability to freely travel.

“We thought it might not be bad for him to go someplace like Paris in order to demonstrate that he had freedom of movement,” the senior administration official said.

U.S. officials, who said they got no heads-up about Saudi Arabia’s plans for an internal crackdown or pivotal meeting with Mr. Hariri, said they didn’t think the Saudis had thought through the full consequences of their actions, including the decision to order Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon as the crisis worsened. The U.S. relayed its displeasure to Saudi Arabia and the situation has calmed down slightly, an official said, expressing hope to see some clarity about Mr. Hariri’s next moves soon.

“The next couple of days will be telling,” a second U.S. official said.

At the same time, the U.S. has worked to coordinate moves with Israel in hopes of averting an immediate clash with Hezbollah. Members of the National Security Council recently flew to Israel for talks, U.S. officials said.

Israel has carried out scores of airstrikes in neighboring Syria since 2012 aimed at Hezbollah weapons depots and arms shipments. The most recent reported airstrike in Syria, which Israel hasn’t acknowledged, took place on Nov. 2—two days before Saudi Arabia launched its internal crackdown, Mr. Hariri resigned, and the Saudis shot down the missile near Riyadh.

Pragmatic Sunni Front Against Iran Is Gone — U.S. disengagement policy leaves the Middle East To Russia and Iran

November 17, 2017



 NOVEMBER 17, 2017 11:24

The long-drawn civil war has brought nothing but suffering to the Syrian people.

FOREIGN MINISTERS Sergei Lavrov (C) of Russia, Walid al-Muallem (L) of Syria and Mohammad Javad Zari

FOREIGN MINISTERS Sergei Lavrov (C) of Russia, Walid al-Muallem (L) of Syria and Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran attend a news conference in Moscow in April.. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have agreed that there is no military solution for the Syrian crisis.

America is adopting the disengagement policy of former president Barack Obama and abandoning the Middle East to Russia and to Iran.

This unlikely strategic coordination between the two great powers is the death knell of the revival of the grand anti-Iranian front of pragmatic Sunni states – Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt – which the American leader had so proudly announced during his visit to Riyadh last May. That front had never gotten off the ground, partly because of the break-up with Qatar and partly because of Egypt’s ambivalent attitude towards Iran now that Cairo has strengthened its ties with Moscow and is aligning its position on Syria with its new ally.

Saudi Arabia, understanding that no American intervention was forthcoming and finding itself very much alone, was instrumental in getting the Lebanese prime minister to resign, thus triggering a crisis in Lebanon as a wake-up call to get the media and world public opinion to recognize at last that Iranian terrorism is about to engulf Lebanon and is threatening not only the Gulf area but the whole Middle East.

The aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring had dashed hopes of greater democracy and ushered an outpouring of Sunni radical Islam, which brought down nation states such as Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen and is blocking a return to regional stability. In Syria, world powers and Arab states are playing a dangerous game.

The long-drawn civil war has brought nothing but suffering to the Syrian people.

The overall situation – humanitarian, social, political, and economic – is so dire that it will take years for the country to recover if this can ever happen. The Sunni majority will not readily accept to live again under an Alawi dictatorial regime; the Kurds will refuse to see the dismantlement of the de facto autonomy they have achieved by fighting Daesh in Northern Syria.

On the other hand, neither Assad nor Iran nor Russia want elections held under international supervision, which would hand over the country to the Sunni majority. This would lose no time in bringing to justice Assad and his allies for their war crimes and would speedily expel Iran, its Hezbollah proxies and the so-called popular Shia militias, which are in fact Iranian terrorist organizations.

Furthermore, the agreements allowing Russia to maintain a military presence in the Mediterranean could well be rescinded.

Taking these factors into account, there can be no overall settlement of the Syrian crisis, only limited interim agreements.

There are understandings regarding so-called de-escalation or safe zones where fighting would end and displaced civilians could return. They would be enforced by cooperation among Russia, Iran and Turkey, with the tacit agreement of the United States and the support of Egypt. Iran’s presence in Syria would thus be officially recognized.

Four zones have been agreed upon, but it has not stopped Assad’s army, assisted by Iran and Russia, from taking advantage of the weakness of rebel forces to encroach upon them. Their fate is unclear.

Iran is the undisputed winner of the situation. It is now solidly entrenched in the country and it’s hard to see who could dislodge it. It has significantly furthered its goal of advancing to the heart of the Middle East, with Russia and America looking on and doing nothing.

Its presence is making itself powerfully felt in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. It can move its loyal Shia militias through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon while providing the Houthi rebels in Yemen with sophisticated military equipment.

Saudi Arabia is increasingly uneasy at being surrounded from all sides, while Iran openly plots its downfall and that of its Emirates allies with the help of Shia minorities in the Gulf. Khomeini saw in the Saudi kingdom the main stumbling block to his aspirations to impose a Shia regime in the region, but was thwarted by the unified Sunni front then led by Egypt.

Khamenei, his successor, is still vigorously pursuing his objective with significant successes. By signing a nuclear deal behind the back of his most faithful allies, Obama effectively left the front in disarray while giving a free rein to Tehran.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, ostracized by the American president, turned to Russia and developed close military, political and economic links with Moscow, ultimately going along with its position regarding leaving Assad in place in Syria.

This led to a rift with Saudi Arabia, which is hurting the Egyptian economy.

Sisi hosted several meetings with Sunni rebels and urged them to participate in the summit in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, where Russia, Turkey and Iran are drawing the future map of Syria.

Saudi Arabia had hoped in vain that Trump would revive the old Sunni front and even use force against Iran, as he had done in Afghanistan against Daesh and in Syria, when he ordered strikes against the Shayrat airfield used by the Syrian Army to launch chemical attacks on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Now America is going along with Russia and recognizes an Iranian presence in Syria, thus demonstrating once again that the lack of American resolve to be once again a significant factor in the region that could prevent a takeover by Iran and its allies.

It has also abandoned the Kurds, another faithful ally. Not only did it oppose the referendum for independence of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan established with its protection, it did not try to stop the Iraqi Army it had trained and equipped from attacking it with the help of Shia militias.

Thus, Iraq and the Kurds, two American allies it had equipped and trained who had fought together against Daesh, are now fighting each other, while Washington remains neutral and does not even try to conciliate them.

Riyadh knows only too well that it cannot confront Iran militarily, as its poor showing in Yemen has made clear. Yet it probably believes that, due to its strategic position in the heart of the Middle East and its prominent influence on fixing the price of oil in the world, it can bring the West to reevaluate its stand on Iran.

Didn’t the French president, on a tour of the Emirates, rush to see the crown prince to get a firsthand account of the resignation of Saad Hariri, which could have dangerous repercussions on the Middle East and even on Europe, heavily invested in the Gulf states? Then there is the risk of a new wave of refugees. The West, which has long refused to see the Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon and Iran’s intention to set up not only military outposts in the country but perhaps missile factories, can no longer ignore what is going on. There are reports of Shia militias already training in Hezbollah camps in the Beqaa Valley.

Israel is closely monitoring Iran’s activities in Syria and has repeatedly stated that it would not let a new terrorist front develop.

It has thwarted Hezbollah’s efforts at setting up a basis near the Golan Heights.

Following intense lobbying in Moscow and Washington, a memorandum has been signed by the two powers and Jordan to push back non-Syrian forces (Hezbollah, Iranians, Shia militias and Sunni rebels such a Fatah Elshams) 20 kilometers from southwest Syria, along the borders with Jordan and the Golan.

This is still too close for Israel’s safety.

Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two main targets of Iran, will go on fighting Iran’s aggression, each on its own way, hoping against hope that America will at last fulfill its obligations to its allies, before it is too late and a new cycle of violence begins.

The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.


Saudi-Iran dispute unlikely to take Israel to war: analysts

November 17, 2017


An Israeli soldier stands guard in a tank in the town of Metula along Israel's border with Lebanon on November 16, 2017

An Israeli soldier stands guard in a tank in the town of Metula along Israel’s border with Lebanon on November 16, 2017

A rare interview given by a top Israeli general to a Saudi-owned news site has raised speculation of joint military action against Iran and its allies, but analysts say it appears unlikely.

Though Saudi Arabia and Israel have no official diplomatic ties, they share a common enemy in Tehran, with both seeking to limit the Islamic republic’s expanding influence in the Middle East.

Tensions between the Saudis and Iran have intensified in recent weeks, with Riyadh-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepping down over what he called Iran’s grip on his country.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is dominant in Lebanon, is also a great enemy of Israel — with which it fought a war in 2006.

Hezbollah and Iran have accused Saudi Arabia of pressing Israel to launch attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia has also accused Iran of meddling in Yemen by supporting Huthi rebels against the Riyadh-backed government.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah is an arch-foe of Israel, with which it fought a war in 2006

Iranian-backed Hezbollah is an arch-foe of Israel, with which it fought a war in 2006

In this context, comments by Israel’s military chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot to Elaph, a British-based news website founded by a Saudi businessman, caused a stir on Thursday.

Eisenkot said Israel and Saudi were in “total agreement” that Iran was the greatest threat to the Middle East, adding that the Jewish state was “ready to exchange experience with the moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to face Iran.”

Eisenkot pointed out that while Saudi Arabia and Israel had no formal relations, the two states had never directly been to war.

– Quiet could shatter –

Speculation about a formal Israeli-Saudi alliance has been fuelled by the election of US President Donald Trump, a vociferous critic of Iran.

Eisenkot said Trump’s victory had created an opportunity for a “new international alliance in the region and a major strategic plan to stop the Iranian threat.”

The rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led to a more forthright Saudi foreign policy

The rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led to a more forthright Saudi foreign policy

The rise to power of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also led to a more forthright policy, as he looks to militarily confront what he sees as Iranian influence across the region, including in Yemen.

Trump’s first foreign trip took in Riyadh and Israel and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has reportedly formed a bond with Prince Mohammed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also spoken repeatedly and with pride about growing rapprochement with “moderate Arab states” without naming them, although he is assumed to be referring to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies.

Israel has been alarmed by Iran’s nuclear activities and the danger that Tehran, militarily engaged in Syria, will establish a new front near Israeli borders.

The Jewish state closely monitors the demarcation lines with Syria and Lebanon, beyond which Hezbollah is located.

An Israeli army vehicle drives along the border fence between Lebanon and Israel near the northern Israeli town of Metula on November 16, 2017

An Israeli army vehicle drives along the border fence between Lebanon and Israel near the northern Israeli town of Metula on November 16, 2017

On Thursday, from a vantage point near Metula, the northernmost Israeli town flanked by Lebanon on three sides, an Israeli tank’s cannon tracked to and fro.

“Hezbollah is here, we see it and its activities day and night,” Lieutenant Colonel Elad Efrati, who commands a battalion guarding the northernmost 25 kilometres of the frontier, told AFP.

“The relative quiet here is deceptive. On the other side Hezbollah and the Lebanese army are gathering information on our forces non-stop.”

“This relative quiet could shatter in an instant.”

– Spiral of events –

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday accused Riyadh of asking Israel to bomb Lebanon, calling it “shameful.”

But Eisenkot said Israel had no intention of “initiating” a conflict with Hezbollah.

Analysts agreed that while there was no Israeli willingness for a new war, in such a volatile region, events can quickly spiral out of control.

“For many years now Saudi Arabia and Israel have found themselves figuratively in the same trench versus Iran,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, of Israel’s Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

“But now that the conflict has been dialled up Israel is trying not to be pulled in. It needs to operate on its own terms.

“Israel will not be dragged into a war on behalf of Saudi Arabia.”

Writing in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, defence correspondent Amos Harel warned that in the complex dance of military and diplomatic brinksmanship, accidents can happen.

“Vigorous Saudi actions are fuelling tensions in an arena where Israel and Hezbollah are often only two mutual missteps away from war.”

Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs took a similar view.

“There is a combination of very disturbing factors,” he said. “We have Saudi impulsivity backed by an American president who is equally impulsive.”

Harel wrote that twice in the past Riyadh had counted on Israeli military action, first hoping it would hit Iran’s nuclear sites and then wanting intervention against the forces of Assad.

“Both times it was disappointed,” he said.


Iran says France’s ‘biased’ stance threatens regional stability

November 17, 2017

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France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attends a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

November 17, 2017

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran accused France of fuelling tension in the Middle East by taking a “biased” stance on Tehran’s regional policy, state TV reported on Friday.

“It seems that France has a biased view towards the ongoing crises and humanitarian catastrophes in the Middle East … this view fuels regional conflicts, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that France was worried about Iran’s involvement in the Middle East crisis and the country’s disputed ballistic missile program.

Iran has repeatedly rejected France’s call for talks on its missile program, saying it was defensive and unrelated to a nuclear agreement with world powers in 2015.

Paris suggested that new European Union sanctions against Iran may be discussed over its missile tests. But EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini seemed to dismiss that idea on Tuesday, keen to avoid risks to the hard-won deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear activity.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, editing by Larry King)


Israel May Demand Iran Leave Southern Syria, but Russia Sets the Rules of the Game

November 17, 2017

For Moscow, the presence of Iranian troops is legitimate – Assad himself invited them

Amos Harel Nov 17, 2017 8:13 AM

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Russian President Vladimir Putin greets his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad upon his arrival at the Kremlin in Moscow, October 21, 2015. AFP

A single brief statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday cleared up the strategic picture in southern Syria and the entire region. Three days after the signing of the agreement between Russia, the United States and Jordan about the cease-fire arrangements there, Lavrov disavowed the section of the accord that says foreign forces will be kept out of Syrian territory. Iran’s presence in Syria is legitimate, he said, and therefore Russia did not promise to compel the Iranians to withdraw their forces from the country.

This claim by Moscow, which also applies to the Russian forces there, rests on Iran and Russia having been invited into Syria by the Assad regime. This invitation by the Syrian sovereign ostensibly bestows legitimacy on the presence of these countries’ military forces in Syria, even with Russia conveniently ignoring the ongoing atrocities the Assad regime has been committing against its own citizens for the past six and a half years.

The only thing the Russians agreed to was a stipulation that the Iranians and the Shi’ite militias that answer to them would be kept five kilometers from the lines of contact with the rebels. For Israel, this means that the Iranians will be on the Golan Heights, just five to 10 kilometers from the border, depending on what areas are held by the rebels. This is the reason for Israel’s disappointment with the agreement, a feeling that has only intensified in the wake of Lavrov’s statement.

The Russian foreign minister’s statement contained another hidden message: Moscow will be the one that decides what happens in Syria. The total lack of an American response to Lavrov’s comments, so soon after State Department officials boasted at a press briefing about the section of the agreement regarding the withdrawal of foreign forces, proves yet again who’s really running the show in Syria.

The reason for Russian support of Iran, despite Russia’s generally close and positive ties with Israel, is simple: The Iranians, and especially their Hezbollah proxies, are providing the Russians and the Assad regime with the ground forces upon which the regime’s survival hinges. Keeping the current regime in power is mission number one for the Russians, because that way they can maintain all the advantages – an image of power, a Mediterranean seaport at Tartus, potential trade deals – inherent in an Assad victory. Russia does not intervene or protest when Israel reportedly bombs a Hezbollah weapons convoy in Syria (as long as the airstrike doesn’t harm Russian troops), but is has no reason to exert itself to meet all of Israel’s demands about keeping the Iranians out of Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Israel is not bound by the tripartite agreement, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman repeated his warning that Israel will not sit back and allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria nor let Syria become a forward position against Israel, adding, “Whoever hasn’t understood this yet would do well to understand it.”

What do the Israeli warnings refer to specifically? Brigadier General (res.) Assaf Orion, a senior scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank and former head of the IDF General Staff strategy department, says Iran has been waging war on Israel for some decades now via proxies. “But now, for the first time, the Iranians appear to be preparing to put in significant infrastructure in Syria – army bases, a seaport, weapons manufacturing plants, permanent military forces. When Israel says it won’t accept this, it is trying to dictate new rules of the game. More so than in the past, for Israel the northern front has become one long continuous front in which the border between Syria and Lebanon is completely blurred. We’ll have to ask ourselves: When exactly does the moment come when we respond?”

This week, Britain’s The Guardian offered a perceptive description of the Middle East mood. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s announcement of his resignation, under Saudi pressure, sparked tension throughout the region that links seemingly unrelated events. In fact, these various undercurrents have been moving for some time, and now they have risen to the surface.

The paper’s Middle East analyst, Martin Chulov, connects the dots between Hariri’s resignation, the Iraq-Iran takeover of Kirkuk on the Kurdistan border, the purges in Saudi Arabia, the famine afflicting millions due to Yemen’s civil war, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels firing a missile at the Riyadh airport. All of these things, he writes, are manifestations of a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is now reaching a peak all across the area between Beirut and Sanaa.

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Shia Crescent

The multi-pronged Saudi move – involvement in wars in Syria and Yemen, political maneuvers in Lebanon, efforts to isolate Qatar, efforts to limit the influence of extremist Wahhabi clerics, the plans to build a colossal “city of the future,” the IPO of oil company Aramco, along with many other ambitious initiatives – is being overseen by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Assaf Orion believes the prince “has got too many balls in the air. It’s a systems overload that requires extraordinary command and control in tandem with long-term planning. I’m not sure the prince can sustain it without dropping any of the balls.”

To an outside observer, Saudi Arabia calls to mind what Churchill called Russia – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The series of moves set in motion by the crown prince, particularly the resignation that was forced upon Hariri, was met with some surprise in Israel, elsewhere in the region and in the West. Israeli military experts are also skeptical of the Saudis’ ability to advance their goals with their military capacity. Despite the purchase of billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry from the U.S. and other countries, the Saudis have performed poorly in combat in Yemen. And they have played a fairly minor part in the international coalition’s fight against ISIS. The Saudis’ big plans have to fully come up against hard reality, and when it does happen, the encounter is liable to be painful.

Gaza unstable

As far as security goes, a threat of escalation on the Gaza border hung over the country this week. The security assessment was that Islamic Jihad would try to stage a reprisal for the destruction of the attack tunnel in late October in which 12 operatives from Islamic Jihad and Hamas were killed. Here, the prime minister and defense minister warned of a severe response while simultaneously taking practical steps, including the deployment of Iron Dome missile defense systems in the center of the country. The decision to quickly deploy the missile defense batteries was dictated to the army at the cabinet meeting by Netanyahu. The cabinet ministers backed Netanyahu’s action, saying he was entitled to put wider safety margins in place when the situation could rapidly deteriorate.

Islamic Jihad in Gaza did not immediately respond to the killing of its men, apparently because of moves by Hamas and, according to Palestinian sources, by Egypt too, to restrain it. Shortly after the tunnel strike, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas began implementing their reconciliation agreement and PA police officers were stationed at the border crossings between Gaza and Israel for the first time in a decade.

But things have gotten more complicated since then. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is in no rush to transfer the money that he promised to Hamas to pay civil servants’ wages and to upgrade the electricity supply.


The reopening of the Rafah crossing, the main avenue of departure from Gaza, is also being held up due to disputes between the parties. Under these circumstances, Hamas has less motivation to rein in Islamic Jihad. Things could get even worse if the entire reconciliation process gets stuck and Hamas goes looking for someone to blame for Gazans’ disappointed hopes of an improvement in their harsh living conditions.

Saudi Arabia has its fingers in the pie here, too. Two weeks ago, at the height of the upheaval in the kingdom, Abbas was urgently summoned to Riyadh. After the visit, his spokesman said the two parties view the reconciliation agreement with Hamas “100 percent the same way.” Since then, the PA has sharpened its demand that Hamas completely cut off ties with Iran and that its military wing submit all of its weaponry to Ramallah’s authority. Abbas’s aggressive new posture, evidently inspired by Saudi prodding, is angering the Egyptians, who acted as the patrons of the reconciliation process.

Amos Harel
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Israel Sees Rising Threat From Iran After ISIS

November 16, 2017

Like Islamic State, Iran and Hezbollah call for Israel’s destruction—but they have greater military capability

JERUSALEM—While much of the world celebrates the impending defeat of Islamic State, Israeli officials look at Syria and see little reason for joy. To them, a lesser enemy is being supplanted by a far more dangerous one—Iran and its allies.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is consolidating control, and his forces—aided by Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah—are eliminating Islamic State’s final pockets in the country while inching closer to the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

“Every place we see ISIS evacuating, we see Iran taking hold,” warned Sharren Haskel, an Israeli lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. “We have been dealing with this threat of Iran through Hezbollah on our northern border [with Lebanon], and we would not want to see the same setup on our Syrian border.”

Like Islamic State, Iran and Hezbollah call for Israel’s destruction. But unlike Islamic State, they have the military capability to pursue that goal.

With the Israeli-Lebanese border largely quiet since the devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, Iran and its allies don’t disguise their desire to open a second front in Syria.

“Iran’s goal is clear: to establish regional hegemony in the Middle East and to surround Israel from all directions,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister, who heads a right-wing religious party allied with Likud and sits in the country’s security cabinet. “We’ve made it clear this is unacceptable and indeed, we will act to prevent it.”

To Israel, that’s a strategic challenge much more severe than anything Islamic State could do.

“ISIS, unlike Iran, doesn’t have an air force, missiles, sophistication and they are not supported by anyone, not by a superpower like Russia,” said Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amos Gilead, the head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy, an Israeli think tank, who served until earlier this year as director of policy and political-military affairs at the Israeli defense ministry.

More Middle East Crossroads

  • In Saudi Purge, Echoes of Putin and Xi November 6, 2017
  • Kurds Face Setbacks Across the Middle East November 2, 2017
  • As Wars Wind Down in Syria and Iraq, Jordan Sees Opportunity October 26, 2017
  • Mideast Conflicts Flare Up as ISIS Fades October 17, 2017

In fact, Islamic State militants who for years have controlled a small patch of land in an area where the Golan Heights meet Syria and Jordan have never troubled Israeli settlements just across the border fence.

Recognizing Israeli concerns about the Iranian threat, the U.S., Russia and Jordan have been negotiating de-escalation agreements between rebels and the regime in southern Syria that would prevent Iran and its militias from coming too close to Israeli positions on the Golan. It isn’t clear, however, to what extent Russia will be able to enforce those deals.

Israel, meanwhile, is threatening to act unilaterally if its so-called “red lines” are violated. It has already done so many times with airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in Syria—many of them targeting weapons shipments bound for the group in Lebanon.

Those “red lines” include the creation of permanent Iranian bases, airfields or naval facilities in Syria, the transfer of long-range precision missiles to Hezbollah or the establishment of plants to produce such missiles in Syria or Lebanon.

Israeli officials aren’t just worried about Syria.

The endgame of Syria’s war has also prompted the Palestinian Sunni Muslim movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, to renew links with Shiite Iran. Those ties had been weakened by Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions.

The way Israeli officials see it, the defeat of Islamic State has left their country essentially surrounded, with Iranian proxies or allies active on three of its five borders.

“One of the great tragedies of the international coalition against ISIS was to bring Iran de facto, Russia, Assad and the United States on the same side in a situation which ultimately benefited Assad and the Iranians,” said Michael Oren, deputy minister in the Israeli prime minister’s office and a former ambassador to Washington. “We have to grapple with the consequences of this, unintentional or not.”

These new challenges emerge at what seems like a golden period in Israel’s history. The civil wars and insurgencies that ravaged Israel’s foes after the Arab Spring in 2011 proved a major boon for the country’s security and drew international attention away from Israel’s own conflict with the Palestinians.

The Syrian war, by destroying the Syrian army and eliminating most of its chemical-weapons capability, removed the main conventional military threat on Israel’s borders. The spike of sectarian rivalry between Iran and the Saudi-led Sunni camp, meanwhile, brought Israel closer than ever to Saudi Arabia and some of its allied Gulf monarchies.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi summed it up like this: “The Arab Spring was supposed to be a democratic movement. But it ended up to have a spring for Israel and chaos in the Arab region.”

Indeed, while the rest of the Middle East is reeling, Israel’s economy is booming and its cities are safer from attacks than they have been in decades.

“Israel’s position in the world is better than at any time in our national existence,” Mr. Oren said. However, he cautioned, this doesn’t mean the country can lull itself into complacency.

“Hezbollah has at least 130,000 rockets and is capable of hitting every city in Israel, including Eilat. We have to operate on the assumption that Hezbollah and Iran are building up these capabilities not just to have them, but someday to use them. They are saving them all for us.”

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at

How the Middle East could go the way of the Balkans

November 15, 2017


Maria Dubovikova | 

The current status of the Middle East is similar to that of the Balkans in the years before the World War I. Are we going to witness a Balkanization of the region — geopolitical fragmentation caused by other countries’ foreign policies? And what are the chances of an Iranian-Arab war or a Shiite-Sunni conflict that could lead to the redrawing of the Middle East map?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said a ballistic missile fired at Riyadh this month from Houthi militia-held territory in Yemen was supplied by Iran, and described it as “direct military aggression” and an “act of war.” The accusation was repeated by the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in his resignation statement: “Iran controls the region and the decision-making in both Syria and Iraq. I want to tell Iran and its followers that it will lose in its interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” He specifically blamed Iran for interference in the affairs of Lebanon.

Saudi rhetoric aimed at Iran has escalated in the past few weeks, and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir accused Tehran of being behind all evil acts in the region. “The Iranian terror continues to terrorize the innocent, kill children and violate international law, and every day it is clear that the Houthi militias are a terrorist tool to destroy Yemen,” he said. “The Kingdom reserves the right to respond to Iran at the right place and time.” Last week Saudi Arabia called on the UN to take measures against Iran to hold Tehran accountable for its conduct.


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Events are moving fast. They could lead to a military confrontation, including the intensification of proxy wars, and a deepening of the Shiite-Sunni divide. The danger persists as long as the two superpowers, Russia and the US, stand on opposing sides of the spectrum on many regional issues, especially Iran. Recent comments from the Oval Office make it clear that the latest events have full US approval and conform with its expectations and policies.

The Iranian ballistic missile program is a key factor in Arab strategies and alliances. Many countries in the Middle East started heading east and west to purchase air defense missiles, such as the Russian S-300 and S-400 and the American Patriot and THAAD systems. Arab countries also started to think of producing their own military equipment by having offset projects with weapons manufacturers in China, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, France, the UK, Germany, Brazil and the former Yugoslavia.

Saudi Arabia is also concerned about the influence of Iran in Lebanon through its proxy, Hezbollah, even more so since Riyadh believes Hezbollah operatives fired the most recent missile launched at the Kingdom from Yemen. “The Lebanese must all know these risks and work to fix matters before they reach the point of no return,”  said the Saudi Minister for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan.

Russia is keeping a close eye on the growing threat of military action against Iran — not a direct conflict, which is unlikely, but an extension of existing proxy wars.

Maria Dubovikova

This war of words may lead to a military clash in the Gulf or in Lebanon, further escalation in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where Iran has a strong presence, and further proxy wars, unless the Americans take direct action against Iranian troops in Syria and Iraq. And that would lead to a dramatic escalation of tensions between regional and international powers already competing for influence in the Middle East.

Iran is a direct threat to the stability of the region, and US President Donald Trump has listed it as a major global threat. Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, as well its activities in support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, pose a threat to the interests of the Arab world.

Action may be taken, including the military option, against the Iranian presence in the Levant. Escalation in Lebanon, the worst-case scenario, may result in a military conflict that would explode the region and drastically affect global stability because the players involved are so numerous and the stakes so high.

Nevertheless, the concerned sides understand that direct conflict would be a zero-sum game, and has to be avoided. The way to do so is by conducting proxy wars, but the cost of such wars on global stability and human life would also, inevitably, be too high.

Russia closely follows developments in the region because it has become directly involved. For Moscow, regional processes are critical. Historically, stability in Russia depends a lot on the climate in the region, and the Middle East is again one of its national interests. It has succeeded in building normal ties with all the players in the region, even those that are rivals with one other. Having good ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia has been proposing itself as a potential mediator in the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, although the offer has not yet been taken up. Russia is worried about the possibility of escalation of already existing proxy wars and the emergence of new ones, especially in Lebanon.

In commenting on the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia has used diplomatic rhetoric, calculating all the possible risks and scenarios. A war in Lebanon would mean a drastic deterioration in regional stability, especially in Syria. The region needs stability, and political and diplomatic solutions for its disputes.

• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme