Posts Tagged ‘Persian Gulf’

Trump’s Gulf policies impulsive and dangerous: Iranian minister

November 30, 2017


ROME (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies in the Gulf are dangerous and misguided, Iran’s foreign minister said on Thursday, adding that pressure from Washington had only succeeded in strengthening Tehran’s resolve.

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Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Speaking at a conference in Rome, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Trump’s policies were “extremely dangerous, impulsive, not grounded in reality”.

He added: “The United States pressure has in fact created more solidarity inside Iran.”

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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on May 2, 2016. Reuters file photo

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Missiles and a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran. (photo credit:NAZANIN TABATABAEE YAZDI/ TIMA VIA REUTERS)


China and Pakistan agree to push forward economic corridor plan after dam deal scrapped

November 22, 2017

Analysts say disputes over individual projects won’t get in the way as officials sign long-term plan for US$57 billion scheme

By Liu Zhen
South China Morning Post

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 8:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 10:00pm

As China and Pakistan agreed on Tuesday to push ahead with their huge economic and infrastructure scheme, analysts said disputes over individual projects would not have a significant impact on its progress.

Officials from both sides were finalising a long-term plan to 2030 for the US$57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on Tuesday as they wrapped up a Joint Coordination Committee meeting in Islamabad.

The CPEC is a flagship project under Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to open up trade along land and sea corridors from Asia to Africa to Europe. China is hoping to export its infrastructure and industrial capacity and expand economic ties and influence with countries involved in the initiative.

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The two nations on Monday agreed to begin the first phase of developing special economic zones, the World Tribune Pakistan reported.

But Pakistan rejected China’s demand to use the yuan in the Gwadar Free Zone, saying this would compromise its “economic sovereignty”, the Express Tribune reported.

Last week, Pakistan pulled the plug on a US$14 billion deal to build the Diamer-Bhasha Dam – excluding it from the CPEC – saying China’s conditions for funding the project were unacceptable and went against its interests.

However analysts said these were not significant setbacks given the breadth of the CPEC plan, which will connect China’s landlocked far western Xinjiang region with Gwadar Port near the Persian Gulf via road, rail, air and pipe – as well as a series of industrial zones.

Beijing and Islamabad regard themselves as “iron brothers” sharing an “all-weather friendship”.

“No matter how good the Sino-Pakistan relationship is, it is unavoidable that differences will occur in a programme of this scope,” said Du Youkang, head of Pakistan research at Fudan University. “We are talking about dozens of billion-dollar major projects and hundreds of smaller projects.”

He added that Islamabad was generally supportive of the CPEC plan as the government wanted to boost development in the country, including infrastructure, jobs and living standards.

“Chinese and Pakistanis – and also Pakistanis among themselves – have different ideas about so many issues,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of discussion and consultation to reach agreement.”

The long-term plan follows an initial list released in 2014 of 33 infrastructure projects identified for the CPEC. Construction has already begun on 18 of those projects.

Of those on the initial list, 21 are energy-related, 16 involve power generation and transmission, eight are to do with the development of Gwadar Port, and four are transport projects.

The coordination committee has met twice a year to discuss the CPEC’s progress since it was set up in 2014. However it has been 11 months since its last meeting in Beijing in December.

On Monday at a strategic dialogue in Islamabad, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua agreed to positively promote the CPEC, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang.

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.

German spy chief warns against Russia’s military ambitions

November 17, 2017

Germany’s top spy, Bruno Kahl, has delivered a dramatic warning about Russia’s military ambitions in the European Union. But some analysts think that such alarmism only plays into the Kremlin’s hands.

Zapad exercises

The president of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND, has delivered his starkest warning yet about Russia’s growing power. Speaking at the Hanns Seidel political foundation in Munich on Monday, Bruno Kahl outlined Russia’s growing ambitions and questioned whether the European Union’s defense capabilities are adequate.

The headquarters of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, in Pullach in August 2013. (Stephan Jansen/DPA/AFP/Getty Images)

Kahl said the BND had observed “unsettling” modernization and troop distribution on the part of Russia’s army during the recent Zapad training exercises along the borders of the Baltic EU member countries. “In the entire military region in the west, but also in the south and the north, the scope of the armed forces has reached new heights,” he said.

He also said the Kremlin was aiming to take a leading role on the European continent again. “Part of that is weakening the EU and pushing the US back and especially driving a wedge between the two,” Kahl said. “To say it clearly: Instead of a partner for European security we have in Russia a potential danger. The world political actor Russia is back — and it will be an uncomfortable neighbor.”

Bruno Kahl BND Chief


Bruno Kahl says Russia is going to be an “uncomfortable neighbor”

Drastic warnings

Kahl’s speech is being read as an unusual intervention by a figure who rarely makes his analyses public. The BND chief said it was imperative that German and European secret services work closely with their US counterparts.

“As president of the BND, I should say that the cooperation with the American intelligence agencies is an essential part of our power,” Kahl said, before pointing out that the United States is the only nation with troops stationed on the world’s three most critical geopolitical fronts: Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf and East Asia.

The question that NATO and the international community at large needs to ask, Kahl said, is “whether their own defense and arms capabilities are sufficient.”

The United States has “10 aircraft carriers that can be sent to international conflict zones in the shortest time,” Kahl said. The US also has about 34,000 soldiers stationed in Germany, which “shows how tight the security bond between Berlin and Washington still is,” he added. “It is only with the US that Europe will manage in the next few years to provide a credible counterweight to Russia on Europe’s eastern flank.”

Sebastian Schulte, the Germany correspondent for military magazine Jane’s Defence Weekly, said Kahl’s comments were “realistic, pragmatic, and echo the analysis of other observers.”

“We are not talking enough about Russia’s behavior towards the West, Europe and the Eastern European countries in particular, in the mainstream public sphere,” Schulte said. “There is a low-intensity shooting war going on between Russia-backed forces and Ukraine, and the lack of public analysis that goes beyond the mere reporting of events is astounding.”

Vladimir Putin observes the Zapad exercisesVladimir Putin is looking to drive a wedge between the EU and the US, Kahl says

‘Alarmist terms’

Mark Galeotti, senior researcher and head of the Centre for European Security at the Institute of International Relations Prague, believes that some of Kahl’s observations could be true but said the overall argument was “framed in alarmist terms.”

“Is it clear that Russia is much more assertive and aggressive and is it trying to essentially neutralize Europe? Yes, that’s accurate,” Galeotti said. “But I must admit I was surprised at the emphasis on the military dimension and the implication that Russia is a direct military threat, because that’s inaccurate.”

Galeotti pointed out that although the Kremlin is boosting its armed forces, Russia still likely has a long way to go before it catches up to NATO. “At least half the Russian military is still not properly modernized,” he said. “And, what’s more, if you look at European NATO countries, without thinking of the US and Canada, they have more ground troops than Russia has.” Galeotti also pointed out that Russia has reduced its defense budget by 7 percent in the past year, and that the vast country is operating with an economy smaller than Germany’s.

In Galeotti’s analysis, Russia can realistically mobilize about 50,000 troops at any one time. “This is not the Soviet Red Army,” he said. “This is not a force that could crash into Western Europe and take on NATO and expect to win.”

Galeotti said there was an irony to such statements by figures of authority like Kahl. “When I talk to people I know in the Russian military, there is a degree of exasperation about how the West is alarmist about Russian intent and capacity,” he said. “But there is also a degree of satisfaction, because the more Russia is played up as this great power with these phenomenal capabilities, that makes Russia more powerful. This kind of talk plays into Moscow’s hands.”

Egypt tries to avoid a fight as allies escalate against Iran

November 16, 2017

The Associated Press


CAIRO (AP) — Egypt faces high expectations from Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf Arab benefactors that it will have their back as tensions rise with their rival Iran, including throwing the weight of its military — the largest standing Arab army — into the crisis if needed.

But Egypt clearly has no desire to be dragged into a military conflict or to see the tensions spiral into another Saudi-Iran proxy battle like the many that are already tearing up the Middle East.

Its reluctance could lead to frictions between Cairo and Riyadh.

Egypt’s leadership has been striking a balancing act, giving nods of support to its Gulf allies while trying to defuse their escalations against Iran.

Last week, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi proclaimed that any threat to Gulf security “is a threat to our own national security,” warning Iran to stop meddling. But he also said the region “has enough instability and challenges as it is” and doesn’t need a crisis with Iran or Hezbollah, and he called for dialogue to resolve tensions.

Other Egyptian officials sharpened their rhetoric against non-Arab, Shiite Iran, but have not embraced the sectarian or ethnic slant used by their Sunni-led Gulf friends.

In the past month, Saudi Arabia has twice accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of acts of war against it. A direct war between the two regional powerhouses still seems unlikely; but the heightened rhetoric raised fears that it wasn’t out of the question or that a new proxy fight could erupt in Lebanon.

Egyptian commentators have bluntly warned against getting mired into a military conflict initiated by the Saudis.

“Egypt’s real national duty is to tell our brothers … that we are with them to defend the security of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the entire region … But that does not mean that we get dragged by them into wars and conflicts that are essentially sectarian and benefit no one except the enemies of the (Arab) nation,” the editor of the newspaper Al-Shorouk, Imad Hussein, wrote this week.

Hussein, who is close to the government, made sure to praise Saudi Arabia’s regional role, its financial support for Egypt and its custodianship of Islam’s holiest shrines. He also avoided naming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the throne behind the kingdom’s more hawkish anti-Iran stance. He has driven aggressive regional policies, including military intervention in Yemen and the ostracizing of Qatar — a move that Egypt fell in line with.

Another prominent commentator, veteran opposition figure Mohammed Aboul-Ghar, counselled the government to stay out of any potential Saudi-Iran conflict, arguing that Egypt’s army was needed to fight an insurgency by Islamic militants and protect the porous borders.

“Coming close to that dangerous (Gulf) region is a horrifying prospect. It’s neither wise nor sound to even talk about that,” he wrote in Tuesday’s edition of the Cairo daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Saudi Arabia has bolstered el-Sissi with massive financial backing as the general-turned-president struggles to overhaul Egypt’s dilapidated economy. The kingdom is estimated to have given Egypt more than $10 billion in grants and soft loans since 2013 in addition to numerous free shipments of fuel worth tens of millions of dollars.

Still, Egypt has been willing to resist Saudi demands. In 2015, it came under heavy Saudi and Gulf pressure to send ground troops to fight alongside a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen.

Instead, Egypt restricted its involvement to deploying warships and aircraft on patrol and reconnaissance missions in the southern reaches of the Red Sea. Egypt has bad memories from its intervention Yemen’s civil war in the 1960s, when it backed republicans against a Saudi-backed monarchy in an ill-fated and costly military adventure.

Egypt has also stayed out of Riyadh’s campaign to oust President Bashar Assad, supported Russia’s military intervention there on Assad’s side and negotiated local cease-fires between the government and rebels.

Those differences angered Riyadh, prompting a temporary suspension of aid to Egypt earlier this year.

In the end, Saudi Arabia “did not get the foreign policy changes it wanted (from Egypt) in return for its generous support,” said Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The Saudis have learned to live with limited Egyptian involvement in Yemen,” he added.

The Saudis and Egypt have somewhat patched up the ill-feelings. Now Cairo wants to avoid a new falling-out over Iran.

Tension has been running high between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The kingdom charged that a missile fired by Yemeni rebels toward Riyadh this month could be considered “an act of war” by Iran, which it accused of providing the missile.

Things further heated up when Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, resigned in a pre-recorded message aired from Saudi Arabia, blaming Hezbollah. Riyadh swiftly criticized Hezbollah, saying its aggressions could be considered a “declaration of war.”

Still, Egypt seems determined to avert any slide toward armed conflict.

El-Sissi dispatched his foreign minister to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. In Riyadh, the minister met with the Saudi crown prince and, it appears, counselled backing off an escalation with Iran.

“The foreign minister was at pains to convey Egypt’s concern to see the region spared any tensions that would deepen the instability and polarization it’s already seeing,” the minister’s spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said of the Tuesday meeting.

Egypt’s track record under el-Sissi shows his reluctance toward military action unless its own territory is directly threatened or if the Gulf is subjected to a clear-cut aggression.

“Egypt adopts a deeply entrenched position against military solutions,” presidential spokesman Bassam Rady said in published comments this week.

Michael W. Hanna, a Mideast expert at the Century Foundation in New York, said Egypt does have concerns “about what the Iranians are doing in Syria and Yemen.”

“But Iran is not a high-level priority for Egypt. It does not worry about Iran the same way the Saudis do.”

Saudi Shakeup Gives the U.S. an Opening With Iran

November 11, 2017
This can go two ways: toward either war or a new understanding of the balance of Middle Eastern power.
By Amir Handjani And Alireza Nader
Bloomberg News
Hybrid warfare?

 Chavosh Homavandi/AFP/Getty Images

The latest political earthquake in Saudi Arabia has led to much speculation over the future of the kingdom and the Gulf Arab states. But most analyses have ignored the far bigger issue looming over the region’s upheavals: Prospects for a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran are rapidly escalating.

Just as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was consolidating absolute power last weekend– cracking down on the last royal relatives, billionaire investors, Wahhabi clerics and rights advocates who posed a threat to his reign — the kingdom announced it was holding Iran responsible for a missile attack on Riyadh by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The group does have ties to Tehran, but Saudi claims remain unsubstantiated.

Meanwhile, a close Saudi ally, Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon, abruptly resigned his post while on a visit to Riyadh, citing fears of an Iranian attempt on his life. The Lebanese army and Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, deny any such plot. Lebanon is increasingly becoming a flashpoint in the cold war between Tehran and Riyadh.

If Saudi Arabia forces a showdown with Iran, the U.S. would find itself in the middle of it. Statements by President Donald Trump and his national security team point to a more aggressive U.S posture toward Tehran. This pushback includes de-certifying Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear pact despite overwhelming evidence of Iran’s compliance, as well as imposing sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hezbollah, and Iran’s ballistic missile program.

The Trump administration’s desire to isolate and pressure Iran reflects outdated thinking that does not take into account the shifting realities of today’s Middle East. The most likely outcome is it will inadvertently strengthen Iran’s hand in the region, much as President George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq did in 2003.

Iran is now, arguably, the most powerful regional actor in the Middle East. Tehran is a decisive player in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and its influence extends to Yemen and Afghanistan. Pushing back on Iranian power would mean confronting Iranian forces in countries where they are embedded with local militias or have been invited by host governments, as is the case in Iraq and Syria.

Furthermore, Iran is no longer a global pariah. It has a strong partnership with Russia in Syria and increasingly shared interest with Turkey on issues relating to Kurdish independence and strengthening the central government in Baghdad. Both Turkey and Iran back Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That quarrel has created openings for Iran to project itself as a stabilizing force in the Middle East to other major powers such as China and India.

With the Arab world and the Gulf Cooperation Council deeply divided, Washington’s attempts to isolate Iran run counter to European, Russian, and Chinese attempts to cajole Tehran to play a more constructive regional role, one befitting its status as a rising power.

U.S. attempts to undermine the nuclear deal will likely only draw other global actors to Iran’s side, especially as European countries could view Tehran as a more responsible partner in upholding commitments, in contrast to Washington’s new unpredictability.

Iran is also increasingly turning to Asia as a source of credit and commerce. China views Iran as a critical component of its One Belt One Road economic initiative, which seeks to connect Beijing to the Middle East and Europe. Japan, South Korea and India also see Tehran as an untapped market worthy of short-term risks in exchange for future economic gain. All are now buyers of Iranian crude and petrochemicals, and all are looking to make substantial investments in the Iranian economy.

U.S. sanctions against Iran are unlikely to reverse its influence in the Middle East. The Syrian government is heavily dependent on Iran while the Iraqi government views it as a partner in combatting Sunni Jihadism and Kurdish separatism. Sanctions will undoubtedly slow Iran’s economic growth, as they have for the past 40 years, but they will not fundamentally alter Iran’s ability to project influence.

It’s unlikely that the U.S. and Iran will stop antagonizing each other any time soon. But the Trump administration could treat Iran not as a rogue threat but as it would treat any major rival, such as Russia or China. Where suitable Washington could engage with Tehran. When otherwise necessary, it could make clear that it will not compromise on the security and stability of its allies.

Washington and Tehran need to come to an understanding so as not to further enflame the region. This would entail the Trump administration abandoning its attempts to undermine the nuclear agreement and calling for regime change in Iran. Continuing to demonize Iran for all the ills of the Middle East is counterproductive and will only lead to further escalation. This strategy was employed during the George W. Bush administration with disastrous consequences.

The Trump administration should re-establish high level contact that existed during the previous administration and broaden the scope of diplomatic engagement to include regional security issues. The should take place at the ministerial level, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. If nothing else, this would ease some tension and provide a pressure valve for airing grievances.

It can also resolve crises that may arise in the Persian Gulf, where both navies operate. In 2016, Iran’s capture of U.S. sailors was resolved peacefully because of the rapport established between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif. It is difficult to imagine in today’s contentious climate such an incident settled without a shot being fired. Diplomatic channels to deconflict between hostile countries are necessary.

It is unlikely that the U.S. could dissuade Iran from some of its most troublesome activities such as supporting Hezbollah or Hamas, but there is a middle ground in which the two sides can live with the existing realities on the ground. For example, the U.S. and Iran have a shared interest in preventing the reemergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Neither side wants the political uncertainty in Lebanon (now imminent because of Harriri’s resignation) to spiral out of control. Both Tehran and Washington want to strengthen the central government in Afghanistan.  Ultimately, both countries have a vested interest in seeing the sectarian violence that has engulfed the region come to an end.

U.S. policymakers should not assume they can reverse the trends of the last 15 years. The U.S. invasion of Iraq showed how poor planning and erroneous assumptions can backfire. At the time, the Bush administration wrongly predicted that liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein would unleash democratic movements across the region and diminish Iranian influence. Similarly, possibly faulty assumptions when it comes to Iran could pave the way for the permanent erosion of American power in an increasingly unpredictable Middle East.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tillerson heads back to deal with Gulf crisis — Meetings in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan

October 20, 2017


© AFP / by Francesco FONTEMAGGI | Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is not expecting a breakthrough in the stand-off between Qatar and Saudi Arabia as he travels to the region
WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States will again try to resolve a Gulf crisis that Washington has alternatively fueled or tried to soothe, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads back to the region.The top US diplomat did not himself hold out much hope of an immediate breakthrough in the stand-off between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but the trip may clarify the issues at stake.

“I do not have a lot of expectations for it being resolved anytime soon,” Tillerson admitted on Thursday, in an interview with the Bloomberg news agency.

“There seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage.”

Nevertheless, President Donald Trump’s chief envoy is to leave Washington this weekend for Saudi Arabia and from there head on to Qatar, to talk through a breakdown in ties.

Trump, having initially exacerbated the split by siding with Riyadh and denouncing Qatar for supporting terrorism at a “high level,” has predicted the conflict will be resolved.

Tillerson, a former chief executive of energy giant ExxonMobil, knows the region well, having dealt with its royal rulers while negotiating oil and gas deals.

But the latest diplomatic spat is a tricky one, pitching US allies against one another even as Washington is trying to coordinate opposition to Iran and to Islamist violence.

– Major air base –

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut diplomatic relations with Qatar in June, accusing it of supporting terrorism and cozying up to Iran.

The sides have been at an impasse since then, despite efforts by Kuwait — and a previous unsuccessful trip by Tillerson in July — to mediate the crisis.

The blockade has had an impact on Qatar’s gas-rich economy, and created a new rift in an already unstable Middle East, with Turkey siding with Qatar and Egypt with the Gulf.

Iran, Washington’s foe, only stands to benefit from a split in the otherwise pro-Western camp, and US military leaders are quietly concerned about the long-term effects.

Trump, after initially vocally support the effort to isolate Qatar despite its role as a military ally and host of a major US airbase, has not called for a negotiated resolution.

Tillerson says there has been little movement.

“It’s up to the leadership of the quartet when they want to engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear — they’re ready to engage,” he said.

“Our role is to try to ensure lines of communication are as open as we can help them be, that messages not be misunderstood,” he said.

“We’re ready to play any role we can to bring them together but at this point it really is now up to the leadership of those countries.”

Simon Henderson, a veteran of the region now at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, said the parties may humor US mediate but won’t want to lose face to each other.

“Tillerson will say: ‘Come on kids, grow up and wind down your absurd demands. And let’s work on a compromise on your basic differences’,” he said.

Riyadh’s demands of Qatar are not entirely clear, but it has demanded Qatar cool its ties with Iran, end militant financing and rein in Doha-based Arabic media like Al-Jazeera.

“I haven’t seen Qatar make any concession at all other than to say negotiation is the way out of this,” Henderson said.

“The problem is that people, mainly the Saudis and the Emiratis, don’t want to loose face. It needs America to step in, but to save face, they should try to make this a Gulf-mediated enterprise with American support.”

Kuwait has tried to serve at a mediator, with US support, but the parties have yet to sit down face-to-face.

After his visit to Riyadh and Doha, Tillerson is to fly on to New Delhi in order to build what he said in a speech this week could be a 100-year “strategic partnership” with India.

Tillerson will stop in Islamabad to try to sooth Pakistani fears about this Indian outreach, but also pressure the government to crack down harder on Islamist militant groups.

by Francesco FONTEMAGGI

Is There a Way To Get Tough on Iran Without Leaving The Nuclear Deal?

October 19, 2017
 OCTOBER 19, 2017 15:30
There are important elements in the administration’s new policy that may reverse some of the negative aspects of the JCPOA, and set the stage for pushing back on Iran’s regional provocations.

Getting tough on Iran without leaving the nuclear deal

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump speaks about Iran and the nuclear accord at the White House on Friday. (photo credit:REUTERS)

On October 13, US President Donald Trump announced his decision not to certify the JCPOA, in contrast to his previous two decisions to certify the deal. Instead, he declared, the administration would work with Congress and US global and Middle East allies to address the flaws surrounding the deal, as well as other aspects of Iran’s behavior, widely perceived to be threatening and destabilizing. This position was reached following the administration’s policy review on Iran, underway over the past nine months, and outlines a new approach that began to emerge already with the statement in April 2017 by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – delivered the day after Trump certified the JCPOA for the first time – which sketched in broad strokes the direction of US policy on Iran.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the new policy is that it covers the entirety of Iran’s behavior that is viewed negatively by the US, beyond the nuclear program: Iran’s missile program, support for terror, and regional aspirations that threaten the national security interests of the US and its allies in the Middle East. In so doing, the administration has ended the approach of the Obama administration that sought to create a divide between the nuclear and regional manifestations of Iran’s conduct, claiming that the nuclear deal “was working,” and that it was never meant to address other issues. In contrast, the Trump administration has emphasized that the JCPOA did not achieve its objective of a non-nuclear Iran, and that the deal is only one component of overall US policy toward Iran. The message is that there is a connection between the different manifestations of Tehran’s nuclear and foreign policies, and that all must be dealt with in tandem in order to confront effectively the threats and regional challenges posed by Iran.

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Also of significance is that Trump signaled that the US administration will no longer refrain from pushing back against Iran’s aggressions and provocations for fear of Iran exiting the nuclear deal. In fact – in a somewhat surprising move – Trump included his own threat of leaving the deal. He stated that if in cooperation with Congress and US allies the administration cannot reach a satisfactory solution to the problems he delineated, he would cancel US participation in the deal. The specific context seems to direct the threat primarily to Congress and US allies in an effort to urge them to work with the administration to amend the deal. However, it is also clearly a message to Iran that the administration is no longer deterred by Iran’s threats of leaving the deal.

What are the main problems that Trump raised, and how will the administration attempt to fix them? The leading problems raised by the president have to do with the regime’s sponsorship of terrorism, continued regional aggression, and use of proxies, and the radical nature of the regime and its Supreme Leader. He mentioned Iran’s ballistic missile program, hostility to the US and Israel, and its threat to navigation in the Gulf. While the opening of Trump’s speech reviewed Iran’s deadly actions since 1979 and was unnecessarily detailed, this might have been aimed to underscore that Iran has targeted the US repeatedly, rendering dealing with Iran a clear US national security interest.

As for the nuclear deal, Trump warned that in a few years Iran will be able to “sprint” to nuclear weapons. What, he asked, is the purpose of a deal that at best only delays Iran’s nuclear plans? He noted multiple violations of the deal, although most points on his list were not violations per se, but rather problems with the deal. In addition to twice exceeding the limit on the stockpile of heavy water, he pointed out that Iran failed to meet US expectations with regard to research and development of advanced centrifuges. To be sure, the precise nature of Iran’s work on advanced centrifuges is an issue that independent analysts can only study from such official statements due to the problematic lack of transparency in IAEA reports since implementation of the deal, and the confidentiality that was granted to deliberations of the Joint Commission (that oversees the JCPOA). Trump also accused Iran of intimidating IAEA inspectors, and highlighted Iran’s repeated statements that it would refuse entry of IAEA inspectors into its military sites. Of particular note was Trump’s mention of suspicions regarding cooperation between Iran and North Korea; he said that he will instruct intelligence agencies to conduct a thorough analysis of these connections.

In dealing with these problems, Trump’s major constraint is lack of leverage to compel Iran to agree to a strengthened nuclear deal. The administration’s hands are tied given that it has partners to the JCPOA that are not on the same page, and that the biting sanctions that had pressured Iran to negotiate in the first place were lifted when implementation of the deal began. Clearly it will be difficult for the US to change matters directly related to the deal without the help of Congress and European allies, and Trump stated repeatedly that he will seek their cooperation.

In Europe there is fierce opposition to Trump’s decision not to certify the deal, and it is questionable whether and to what degree Europe will be willing to cooperate with the US. It is noteworthy, however, that before the speech was delivered, some European leaders – including France’s Macron – signaled a new willingness to address issues outside the JCPOA, in particular Iran’s missile program and regional aggression. Trump hopes they will go along with new sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). There is currently no basis for expecting cooperation from Russia and China.

The administration is also pinning hopes on Congress. With decertification, decision making on the JCPOA moves to Congress, and this is where the Trump administration hopes to introduce changes. Tillerson has explained that the administration will not be asking Congress to move to sanctions at this stage, a step that could lead to the collapse of the deal. Rather, the hope is to pass new legislation that will amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). The White House would like to establish a series of benchmarks that would automatically restore sanctions if Iran crosses one of the red lines – or “trigger points”; these would likely relate to Iran’s missile program and the sunset clauses in the JCPOA.

The area where the administration can most easily move forward on its own relates to its approach to the Iranian regime, particularly the regime’s support for terror and other destabilizing regional activities. This explains the strong emphasis in Trump’s speech – and in the document released in parallel entitled “President Donald J. Trump’s New Strategy on Iran” – on the IRGC, and on the need to confront it squarely for its support of terror, fanning of sectarianism, and perpetuation of regional conflict. Trump announced that he was authorizing the Treasury Department to sanction the IRGC as an entity, and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents, and affiliates.

Overall, there are important elements in the administration’s new policy that have the potential to reverse some of the negative aspects of the JCPOA, and set the stage for pushing back on Iran’s regional provocations and aggression. Much will depend on the ability to cooperate with allies and with Congress in advancing these goals. Tillerson’s clarifications were important in explaining that contrary to much media analysis, Trump is not seeking to do away with the deal, at least in the short term, or to go to war. The stated aim is to strengthen the deal, and restore US deterrence vis-à-vis the Iranian regime and the IRGC. The outcome, however, is far from guaranteed. This is due to inherent constraints, and the fact that while the policy makes sense, it is nevertheless a huge undertaking for a very controversial administration, and this in turn can further weaken Trump’s hand.

The author is a senior research fellow at INSS and head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program. This article first appeared in INSS Insight.


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Analysis: Fighters in Inter-Arab Cold War Dig In For The Long Haul

October 11, 2017

The Jerusalem Post
OCTOBER 11, 2017 09:50

“This feud has not played out behind closed doors, it is being waged with the biggest public relations and propaganda efforts in the western media.”

Analysis: Fighters in inter-Arab ‘cold war’ dig in for the long haul

A general view taken on September 24, 2017 shows the Navy Special Forces off the coast of the Qatari capital, Doha. . (photo credit:KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

Four months after first flaring up, the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates shows no signs of abating.

Indeed, new issues of contention keep opening up in this cold war that started when the four allies imposed a trade and diplomatic embargo on Qatar, accusing it of destabilizing the region and supporting terrorism, including through incitement by its Al Jazeera satellite station. Saudi Arabia closed Qatar’s only land border, and Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE severed air links.

On June 23, Riyadh and its allies issued a 10-day ultimatum for ending the blockade that included 13 demands, among them closing Al Jazeera; scaling back ties with Tehran; and ending contact with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the pressure has not subdued Qatar and analysts believe the stalemate could continue for some time.

“The fact that it has gone on for so long shows the Saudis are not winning,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, a specialist on the Gulf at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies.

“Qatar has been able to stand on its hind legs and keep this from totally defeating it.” But, he added: “There’s a long way to go.”

Qatar’s staying power is attributed by analysts to factors including funding effective lobbying efforts in the West; Washington’s need to keep working relations with it on a sound footing due to its hosting a crucial US airbase; and the soundness of its economy, which is based largely on natural gas exports that are continuing.

However, notes Brandon Friedman, a scholar at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Doha might be vulnerable if Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to significantly escalate the crisis by pulling their holdings from Qatari banks.

In recent days, the conflict has expressed itself in a rivalry over who will become UNESCO’s next secretary-general with the field of candidates including Egypt’s Moushira Khattab, a former minister under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and Qatar’s Hamad Bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, a former minister of information and culture. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, though not members of the UNESCO board, are lobbying in favor of Khattab to prevent a Qatari victory.

Far more serious is the burgeoning dispute surrounding Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 soccer World Cup.

“This is a huge flagship issue for Qatar. The Saudis and their allies would like nothing better than to take it away,” said Teitelbaum.

The Saudis and their allies have started a lobbying campaign against the Cup being held in Doha, which is expected to focus on allegations of corruption in Qatar’s bidding for the venue. It is also expected to highlight alleged Qatari human rights abuses against workers on the project.

A senior Emirati security official, Lt.-Gen. Dhahi Khalfan of Dubai, tweeted recently that the Gulf crisis will end if Doha gives up on hosting the World Cup.

Meanwhile, a study carried out by the management consultant firm Cornerstone Global made available to the BBC cast doubt on Qatar’s ability to host the competition due to “increased political risk” stemming, in part, from the blockade.

Qatari officials perceive a Saudi hand behind the study, but the founder of Cornerstone Global, Ghanem Nuseibeh, denied that the report was funded by any of the countries mounting the blockade.

Qatari officials, meanwhile, say there is “no risk” that the event will be canceled.

In Friedman’s view, “both sides seem to be settling in for the long haul” in terms of their conflict, but he dismisses the idea that it is interminable, saying there is a possible scenario that could alleviate it in the future, namely “a geopolitical situation that would remind them that they need each other.”

This, he said, could take the form of a confrontation between Iran and the Arab Gulf states.

According to Friedman, one of the reasons the enmity between Qatar and the four allies is persisting is that neither side wants to incur the blow to its honor from backing down. “Honor and shame is something we have to be mindful of, especially with the royal families of the Gulf,” he said. “This feud has not played out behind closed doors, it is being waged with the biggest public relations and propaganda efforts in the western media. This makes it harder for either side to find a face-saving formula.”


War of Words Escalates Between Iran, U.S.

October 8, 2017


 OCTOBER 8, 2017 12:20

“If America’s new law for sanctions is passed, this country will have to move their regional bases outside the 2,000 km range of Iran’s missiles,” warns Revolutionary Guards Corps chief.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani fires back at US President Donald Trump on Iran nuclear deal, October 7, 2017. (Reuters)

“As we’ve announced in the past, if America’s new law for sanctions is passed, this country will have to move their regional bases outside the 2,000 km range of Iran’s missiles,” Guards’ commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said, according to state media.

Jafari also said that additional sanctions would end the chances for future dialog with the United States, according to state media, and issued a stark warning to American troops.

“If the news is correct about the stupidity of the American government in considering the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, then the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world particularly in the Middle East,” Jafari said.

The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are Iran’s most powerful internal and external security force. The Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign espionage and paramilitary wing, and individuals and entities associated with the IRGC are on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations, but the organization as a whole is not.

Iran sees the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State as an existential threat to the Islamic Republic where the majority of the population are Shi’ites.

On June 7, Islamic State claimed an attack on Tehran’s parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, killing 18 people. The Guards fired missiles at Islamic State bases in Syria on June 18 in response.

Guards commanders have framed their military involvement in Iraq and Syria, where they are fighting to support the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as a fight against Islamic State.

Dozens of members of the Guards, including senior commanders, have been killed in Syria and Iraq.


The website for state TV reported Jafari as adding that the United States was mistaken if it thought it could pressure Iran into negotiating on regional issues.

Jafari also said that Tehran would ramp up its defense capabilities, including its missile program, if the US undermined a nuclear deal between Iran and Western powers.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to limit its disputed nuclear program in return for the easing of economic sanctions.

However, Trump is expected to announce soon that he will decertify the deal, a senior administration official has said, in a step that potentially could cause the accord to unravel.

“The Americans should know that the Trump government’s stupid behavior with the nuclear deal will be used by the Islamic Republic as an opportunity to move ahead with its missile, regional and conventional defense program,” Jafari said, according to state media.

The prospect of Washington backtracking on the deal has worried some of the US allies that helped negotiate it, especially as the world grapples with another nuclear crisis in the shape of North Korea.

If Trump does not certify that Iran is in compliance, the U.S. Congress will have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions waived under the deal. U.N. inspectors have verified Iranian compliance with the terms.

The Guards navy was also carrying out a military exercise on Sunday in the Gulf, an area of tension with the US navy in recent months.More than 110 vessels were involved in the exercise, including some that have rocket and missile capabilities, a state media report quoted a Guards commander as saying.