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Iran since the nuclear deal with West

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Iran has been the target of anti-Islamic and Arab nations for quite some time, though their objectives vary considerably in content, but the nuclear deal with the Western powers has made its position relatively tension free as Israeli agenda of destabilizing the Islamic nation has ended in futility. Let us review the issue in prospective.

Issue: Targeting Iran’s economy and security

Today, imperialism threatens Islamic world, especially the oil rich West Asia, causing economic and security problems for each Muslim country in the region, including Saudi Arabia – a major Muslim ally of US in capitalism and anti-Islamic wars. Arab world has been made an enemy of Iran – a Shiite nation.

Sunni-Shiite divide, which is becoming wide and dangerous, is being exploited by anti-Islamic nations led by USA and Israel. Since Iraq has been destabilized by the NATO and allies, now Saudi kingdom seeks Iranian fall as well while Israel gladly supports the Arab sick mind.

In July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers – the US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany signed the historic nuclear deal seeking to bring peace to West Asia. The reason for the deal was to deny Iran any chance for making atomic bombs to make Israel, the regional nuke power, irrelevant.

Iranian economy and security has been the target of USA and its allies for a long time. Since Iran’s nuclear program became public in 2002, the UN, EU and several individual countries have imposed sanctions in an attempt to prevent it from developing military nuclear capability. Iran insists its nuclear activities are exclusively peaceful, but the world’s nuclear watchdog has been unable to verify this.

Sanctions and relief are a routine strategy of USA towards Iran. Iran and world powers agreed an interim deal in 2013 which saw it gain around $7bn in sanctions relief in return for curbing uranium enrichment and giving UN inspectors better access to its facilities. World powers also committed to facilitate Iran’s access to $4.2bn in restricted funds. Several rounds of sanctions in recent years have targeted Iran’s key energy and financial sectors, crippling its economy.

The US sanctions prohibit almost all trade with Iran, making some exceptions only for activity “intended to benefit the Iranian people”, including the export of medical and agricultural equipment, humanitarian assistance and trade in “informational” materials such as films. A ban on the supply of heavy weaponry and nuclear-related technology to Iran; A block on arms exports; an asset freeze on key individuals and companies, etc., Japan and South Korea have also imposed sanctions similar to those of the EU.

As well as more recent sanctions aimed at Iran’s financial, oil and petrochemical sectors, the US has imposed successive rounds of sanctions since the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis, citing what it says is Iran’s support for international terrorism, human rights violations and refusal to co-operate with the IAEA.

As a result of the EU embargo and the US sanctions targeting other major importers, Iran’s oil exports had fallen to 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) by May 2013, compared with an average 2.2 million bpd in 2011. In January 2013, Iran’s oil minister acknowledged for the first time that the fall in exports was costing the country between $4bn and $8bn (£2.5bn-£5bn) each month. Iran is believed to have suffered a loss of about $26bn (£16bn) in oil revenue in 2012 from a total of $95bn (£59m) in 2011.

The loss of oil revenue, which accounted for a half of government expenditure, and isolation from the international banking system, had caused Iran’s currency, the rial, to lose two-thirds of its value against the US dollar and caused inflation to rise to more than 40%, with prices of basic foodstuffs and fuel soaring. Iran wanted the UN sanctions suspended soon after any agreement is reached but sanctions stayed. .

Nuclear facility

Today, officially Israel alone has the nuclear facility and illegally obtained nukes in West Asia and obviously USA-Israel duo does not want any other nation in the region to go nuclear, threatening the military superiority of Israel. Iran’s legal effort to become a nuclear power to protect Muslim nations of the region is opposed by both USA and Israel. The White House says the nuclear deal with Iran aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

USA has not asked Israel to disarm itself so that the region is nuclear free. Israel does not say it wants peace in the region and hence doesn’t want to go denuclearized. Iran says it has the right to nuclear energy – and stresses that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.

Iran has been building a heavy-water nuclear facility near the town of Arak. Spent fuel from a heavy-water reactor contains plutonium suitable for a nuclear bomb. World powers had originally wanted Arak dismantled because of the proliferation risk. Under an interim nuclear deal agreed in November 2013, Iran agreed not to commission or fuel the reactor. Iran has agreed to redesign the reactor so it cannot produce any weapons-grade plutonium. All spent fuel will be sent out of the country as long as the modified reactor exists.

There are two uranium enrichment facilities in Iran – Natanz and Fordo – where uranium hexafluoride gas is fed into centrifuges to separate out the most fissile isotope U-235. Low-enriched uranium, which has a 3%-4% concentration of U-235, can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. But it can also be enriched to the 90% needed to produce nuclear weapons. In July 2015, Iran had almost 20,000 centrifuges. However, under this statement of intent Iran will reduce its installed enrichment centrifuges to 6,000, only 5,000 of which will be spinning.

Iran’s uranium stockpile will also be reduced by 98% to 300kg (660lbs) for 15 years. It must also keep its level of enrichment at 3.67%. By January 2016, Iran had drastically reduced the number of centrifuges installed at Natanz and Fordo, and shipped tonnes of low-enriched uranium to Russia. In addition, research and development will take place only at Natanz and be limited for eight years. No enrichment will be permitted at Fordo for 15 years

As per the deal, Iran has agreed not to engage in activities, including research and development, which could contribute to the development of a nuclear bomb. In December 2015, the IAEA’s board of governors voted to end its decade-long investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.

Deal

Now the Western powers and allies plus UN as international community are implementing the landmark nuclear deal in March last year between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers – the USA, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany.

Crippling economic sanctions on Iran have been lifted now that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has certified that it has restricted its sensitive nuclear activities.

The nuclear deal signed by Iran and western powers is not a peace treaty but just a mechanism to avoid unnecessary war envisaged by Neocons to appease Israel and provoke Arab world. The deal somehow ended a possible civilizational clash and clipped Israeli wings in West Asia, targeting Iran.

The US government has said that the world powers that negotiated the accord — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — made no secret arrangements. But the draft report said the joint commission also agreed to allow Iran to keep operating 19 radiation containment chambers larger than the accord set. These so-called “hot cells” are used for handling radioactive material but can be “misused for secret, mostly small-scale plutonium separation efforts,” said the report. Plutonium is another nuclear weapons fuel.

The deal allowed Iran to meet a 130-tonne limit on heavy water produced at its Arak facility by selling its excess stock on the open market. But with no buyer available, the joint commission helped Tehran meet the sanctions relief deadline by allowing it to send 50 tonnes of the material — which can be used in nuclear weapons production — to Oman, where it was stored under Iranian control

The 159-page accord is a study in unmet high expectations for change, as hard-liners in both Iran and the US Congress fight to undermine the deal to ensure as little political benefit as possible for the chief architect of the accord – Rouhani. It was Iran’s shriveling economy – Iranians voting their pocketbooks, as well as promises of greater social freedoms – that helped Rouhani win election in June 2013. He vowed to engineer a nuclear deal, and resurrect an economy hurt by mismanagement and sanctions.

Almost every powerful group had a say in the accord, which reflected a national, strategic decision to turn the page on the nuclear crisis even as concern remains over the world powers’ commitment. The establishment appeared as determined to implement the deal as it was to seeing the negotiations through – and largely for the same reason: to resuscitate the economy by removing sanctions, either as envisioned in the accord or by showing that Iran is not to blame for failure.

With the nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers in force, a chief question is what it means for Iran. The clash between competing visions of the country’s future has heightened since the deal which many believe it could rebalance domestic politics. It not only has boosted the profile of those who promoted it, but, more fundamentally, it has opened space for new debates in a domestic sphere that was dominated by the nuclear issue for more than a decade.

However, according to a think tank report, the USA and its negotiating partners agreed “in secret” to allow Iran to evade some restrictions in last year’s landmark nuclear agreement in order to meet the deadline for it to start getting relief from economic sanctions. Among the exemptions outlined in the think tank’s report were two that allowed Iran to exceed the deal’s limits on how much low-enriched uranium (LEU) it can keep in its nuclear facilities, the report said. LEU can be purified into highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium.

Israel and Saudi Arabia found this attitude of USA unacceptable. One senior “knowledgeable” official, however, was cited by the report as saying that if the joint commission had not acted to create these exemptions, some of Iran’s nuclear facilities would not have been in compliance with the deal by Jan. 16, the deadline for the beginning of the lifting of sanctions. The US government has said that the world powers that negotiated the accord made no secret arrangements.

Real concessions?

The United States and its negotiating partners apparently agreed “in secret” to allow Iran to evade some restrictions in last year’s landmark nuclear agreement in order to meet the deadline for it to start getting relief from economic sanctions, according to a recent think tank report.

The exemptions were approved by the joint commission the deal created to oversee implementation of the accord. The commission is comprised of the United States and its negotiating partners — called the P5+1 — and Iran.

The report, which was released by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, is based on information provided by several officials of governments involved in the negotiations. The group’s president David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and co-author of the report, said the exemptions or loopholes are happening in secret, and it appears that they favor Iran.

The report ignited a chorus of Republican criticism, including from the campaign of presidential nominee Donald Trump. His campaign sought to link the findings to Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state when secret talks were held with Iran but had left office before formal negotiations began. “The deeply flawed nuclear deal Hillary Clinton secretly spearheaded with Iran looks worse and worse by the day,” said a statement issued by retired Army General Michael Flynn, a top Trump adviser. “It’s now clear President Obama gave away the store to secure a weak agreement that is full of loopholes.”

The Clinton campaign did not immediately comment on the report. The White House said it took “significant exception” to some of the report’s findings, saying that the easing of sanctions was always dependent upon Iran’s adherence to the agreement. “The implementation date was driven by the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify that Iran had completed the steps that they promised to take,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at a briefing. “That is what precipitated implementation day. Since then Iran has been in compliance with the agreement,” Earnest said.

Among the exemptions outlined in the think tank’s report were two that allowed Iran to exceed the deal’s limits on how much low-enriched uranium (LEU) it can keep in its nuclear facilities, the report said. LEU can be purified into highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium.

One senior “knowledgeable” official was cited by the report as saying that if the joint commission had not acted to create these exemptions, some of Iran’s nuclear facilities would not have been in compliance with the deal by Jan. 16, the deadline for the beginning of the lifting of sanctions.

Outcomes

The nuclear talks and agreement between Iran and Western powers have averted a possible deadly war situation that was being promoted by most anti-Islamic nations, particularly Israel that still seeks to attack all nuclear sites of Islamic power in West Asia. Also, the deal enabled to set the tone for a peaceful situation in a region which is torn with terror wars launched by the Pentagon led NATO terror organization supported by all colonialist powers led by Israel. While Israel sought to destabilize Iran, the latter warned Jewish terror nation of dreadful consequences for the Zionist regime, Israel and Zionism.

At the outset, the nuclear deal has not fundamentally changed Iran’s ties with the USA. American companies are still generally prohibited from trading with Iran because of other sanctions for human rights violations, support of terrorism, and ballistic missile programs.

The Obama government signed agreements with Iran including sale of Boeing to Tehran. Boeing was required to receive permission from the US Treasury before even negotiating with Iran Air. Republican lawmakers quickly criticized the Boeing sale agreement with Iran, arguing it could hurt US national security interests. On July 7, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a spending bill intended to block to the Boeing deal.

Having achieved the deal, joy erupted on the streets of Tehran a year ago, when Iran signed a landmark nuclear deal with six world powers hailed as a victory of diplomacy over war. As jubilant Iranians waved flags and heralded an easing of Iran’s isolation, President Hassan Rouhani promised that a page has turned in the history of Iran. The deal was marketed by both sides as a “win-win”: Iran would dismantle the most controversial aspects of its nuclear program – minimizing the chance of acquiring a nuclear weapon for at least a decade – in exchange for the lifting of sanctions that crippled its economy.

Expectations had been high in Iran, fanned by supporters of the deal, that its benefits would be palpable and immediate. Yet Iran has received back only a fraction of the $150 billion of its own funds that it expected, and financing new deals is a major issue because of the Western banks’ concerns. Iranians’ hopes for the benefits, however, have not yet dissipated.

However, things have not improved, there is no real tangible impact on people’s lives, but there is still a glimmer of hope for better things to come. One year later, the post deal situation does not suggest any great achievement. The deal has not ushered in a new significant era. Steady warnings from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about “infiltration” and “soft war” from the USA and the West reveals the deceptive nature of the deal with USA. USA and European banks also are proving reluctant to engage with Iran, fearful that non-nuclear US sanctions might bite, thereby depriving Iran of the full hoped-for benefits of the deal.

Iran has dramatically reduced the scale of its nuclear infrastructure – reconfiguring a heavy water nuclear reactor and a deeply buried uranium enrichment facility, for example – while keeping a limited capacity to produce fuel for nuclear energy. And non-nuclear sanctions have been lifted, partially ushering Iran back into the global economy.

Iran’s economy has slowly but measurably rebounded in the year since Tehran signed a historic nuclear deal with the world’s six major powers. Iran is still progressing as the region’s first power. Still, sanctions relief has already brought “significant benefit” to Iran, notes Vaez, such as oil production returning to pre-sanctions levels; a boost of trade with the EU by 22 percent; and $3.5 billion of a foreign direct investment in Iran in the first quarter of 2016 – breaking a decade-long record. Washington’s behavior has also been closely watched in Tehran.

Foreign trade

The nuclear deal, by lifting many of the sanctions, is reopening the doors to those foreign companies. Iran has hosted dozens of foreign delegations, many of whom had visited Iran even before the deal was signed. More than 140 economic delegations from 48 countries traveled to Iran between March and December 2015, according to Mir-Abutorab Badri, an official with the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran. Around half of them were from Europe and North America.

Sanctions relief also allowed Iran to export millions more barrels of oil monthly. In February, Iran exported its first shipment of oil to Europe since the deal was implemented. Oil exports to China, India, Japan, and South Korea increased 50% in March 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. By May 2016, oil exports had climbed to 2.3 million barrels per day, double the amount exported before sanctions relief.

Iran has made gains in the recovery of the oil market. Iran’s crude exports have soared after the lifting of UN sanctions. Exports have doubled and old customers in Asia and Europe are returning. The country’s market share of global crude exports has returned to pre-sanctions levels. However, lower oil prices have not done much to increase Iran’s capital to a booming level. Neither could oil earnings alone do this.

The relatively moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani is trying to nudge aside the conservative Revolutionary Guards in some areas to make way for what it hopes will be a “flood” of Western money from energy sales. While the deal lifted EU and UN sanctions on Iran’s banking and energy sector, most of the unilateral US sanctions relating to non-nuclear issues remain.

In January, Rouhani praised the nuclear deal for opening “new windows for engagement with the world.” Foreign governments and firms quickly began finalizing agreements once sanctions were lifted. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran on January 22, 2016 and signed 17 agreements. Two days later, Rouhani embarked on his first trip to Europe, where he inked deals worth $43 billion with French and Italian companies. In January, Iran also finalized a deal with European aircraft manufacturer Airbus to deliver more than 100 commercial jets to Iran. Even some US companies have explored trade deals with Iran. In June, U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing signed a preliminary $17.6 billion deal to sell Iran Air 80 aircraft between 2017 and 2025. General Electric has also reportedly scoped out opportunities in Iran’s oil and gas industry.

Iran turned to its North to broker one of the most surprising barter deals — the “goods-for-gas” deal between Iran and Turkmenistan, comprising a $-30 billion deal over ten years. The purpose was to supply energy to Iran’s north-eastern provinces that are far from its domestic gas fields. This saves Iran from diverting capital into major new pipeline projects

The nuclear deal has helped raise GDP, boost oil production, and expand trade. But as Rouhani prepares for a reelection bid in 2017, many Iranians expected to see more from the nuclear deal than they experienced in its first year.

Foreign companies are also still restricted from trading with more than 200 Iranian entities sanctioned by the United States for non-nuclear reasons. Despite enthusiasm for Iran’s economic potential, foreign companies still face serious risks that have not been alleviated by the nuclear deal. Corruption, lack of transparency, poor transportation infrastructure, and other issues with Iran’s business environment etc have deterred investors. Iran ranks 118th out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s 2016 ease of doing business index, and 136th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.

One year after the deal, lingering economic questions and pressure from hardliners still created challenges for Rouhani. Unemployment rose from 10.6% in March 2015 to 11% in March 2016. Some Iranian businessmen complained that foreign investment was primarily channeled to large state-run enterprises rather than small businesses in the private sector. According to the World Bank, Iran still needed to improve its business environment, reduce government influence in the economy, and reform its financial sector in order to see tangible benefits in job creation.

Religious leadership

Tensions within the Islamic Republic stem in no small part from its blend of popular sovereignty and religious authority. Theocratic forces seek to maintain the dominance of the supreme leader and other tutelary bodies, while republican forces advocate more clout for popularly-elected institutions. Each camp is further split between pragmatists who seek incremental political evolution and radicals who either resist any change or promote revolutionary transformation. The supreme leader – powerful but not omnipotent – maintains stability by accommodating both theocratic and republican trends.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had endorsed bilateral negotiations with the USA before Rouhani ran for office. He then supported the new president’s diplomatic push and kept his opponents at bay. But given the leader’s aversion to risk, his support was qualified and did not obviate Rouhani’s need for a coalition with other power centres.

Supreme Leader announced that the theme of the upcoming year would be “The Resistance Economy.” Focusing on domestic production, Khamenei argued, will be Iran’s best defense against sanctions. “With the Resistance Economy, it is possible to fight unemployment and recession and to curb inflation; it is possible to stand up to the enemies’ threats,” he said. Rouhani has insisted that his policies are not at odds with Khamenei’s vision for the economy—and public opinion polls support him. Citing remaining financial restrictions, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the USA of not fulfilling its pledges under the nuclear deal. “In Western countries and places which are under US influence, our banking transactions and the repatriation of our funds from their banks face problems … because banks fear the Americans,” he said in March.

Hardliners allege that Rouhani’s policies will make the Islamic Republic too economically dependent and open Iran to Western cultural influence. On Jan. 30, Iranian students protested outside the Iranian Oil Ministry against the new Iran Petroleum Contract (IPC), chanting that the contracts would lead to the “plundering of national wealth.”

Economy boost and challenges

After sanctions were lifted, the Islamic Republic aggressively ramped up oil and gas output. Oil production climbed from 2.9 million barrels per day in January to 3.8 million barrels per day in late May. Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh predicted that output could top 4 million barrels per day by March 2017.

Sanctions relief has led to higher oil production, restored access to billions of dollars of assets, and easier trade and financial transactions. The two most tangible changes have been the increase in oil exports–which have nearly doubled since sanctions were lifted on Jan. 16–and the dozens of foreign trade and investment deals Iran has negotiated. In June, Iran even reached a tentative $17.6 billion deal with Boeing, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, to purchase passenger planes. But one year after the deal, some international firms are still hesitant to do business in the Middle East’s second largest economy.

Foreign direct investment could total $8 billion by March 2017, according to Seyed Hossein Salimi of the Iranian National Committee of the International Chamber of Commerce. In 2015, foreign direct investment only reached around $2 billion.

Overall, Iran’s economic outlook has improved since the deal. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts between 4% and 5.5% growth in 2016 – up from the 1.3% growth it had predicted for 2016 before the deal was signed. Iran has moved up from number 12 position among 14 Mid-East countries in Foreign Direct investment (FDI) and it is just behind Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, Iranian banks and foreign banks that are to play an anchor role in processing this FDI are not allowed to deal in US dollars — the global reserve currency

Natural gas production has also increased by 23 billion cubic meters in the past year, after Iran completed development projects in the South Pars field, the largest gas field in the world. European companies estimated that Iran – which holds the world’s second largest natural gas reserves, after Russia – could potentially supply Europe with up to 35 billion cubic meters of gas per year by 2030.

Low oil prices, however, have limited Iran’s revenue from these production increases. In January, oil prices fell below $30 a barrel for the first time in 12 years. Prices have rebounded slightly since then, reaching $46 a barrel in June 2016.

However, low prices have also pushed Iran to diversify its economy. Only around 25%of the state budget relies on oil revenues, compared to 60% in past years. In the last Iranian year, which ended on March 19, Iran had a non-oil trade surplus for the first time since the 1979 revolution.

Iran’s increasing oil output–despite low prices–has put it at odds with other oil producers. In February, Russia and OPEC members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Venezuela called for a production freeze to stabilize prices. Iran would only entertain the idea of a freeze after production reaches 4 million barrels per day, which was about its pre-sanctions output.

Even if prices increase, Iran may have trouble increasing its oil production beyond that target without significant foreign investment. The Islamic Republic plans to fund and implement oil and gas projects worth a lofty $185 billion by 2020 to boost its crude oil output and refining capabilities.

The Islamic Republic hopes to entice foreign oil companies by offering more favorable contract terms. On June 27, Zanganeh announced that Iran was finalizing the Iran Petroleum Contract (IPC). Unlike the “buy-back” contracts unpopular with foreign firms, the IPC allows companies to participate in all the stages of an oil or gas field’s lifecycle.

Domestically, the deal has yet to yield significant benefits for the average Iranian. Corruption, a lack of transparency, and other issues make Iran’s business environment challenging for investors. Foreign companies also risk incurring penalties from remaining US sanctions on Iran for terrorism and human rights violations. Unemployment increased slightly in 2016. Only 46% of Iranians believe the country’s economic situation is good as of March 2016, compared to 54% in May 2015. Hardliners question President Hassan Rouhani’s focus on foreign investment over domestic production.

Iran still has to overcome more US sanctions to resume trade with European nations. European and Asian conglomerates that would otherwise want to invest in the Iranian market do not know how to bypass many US sanctions which continue to extend to organizations and individuals having ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRG) which is aspiring to play a “bigger role” in the country’s economy, by some estimates, directly or indirectly control over 40% of Iran’s economy.

Since the 1979 Revolution, the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran have sought to lead Islamic world along with Saudi Arabia, dominate the West Asia region where Saudi Arabia is considered to be the leader. Since the Iran deal was signed by USA, peace has remained remarkably elusive as Iran considers the nuclear deal with western powers is an endorsement against Sunni nations while Saudi Arabia looks at it as promotion of Shiite nations by its ally USA. Not only Riyadh rejected Iran as an ally to pursue Islamic goals worldwide but treats as its enemy. So much so, today Saudi leadership considers Iran an enemy worse than Israel.

US officials, however, have insisted that Washington has complied with the nuclear deal. The Obama administration has reportedly sought to encourage Iran’s reintegration into global markets, hoping to solidify the deal and prevent it from unraveling under future administrations. On May 10, Secretary of State John Kerry told European businesses that they “should not use the USA as an excuse” for not doing business in Iran.

In the coming year, Rouhani may face even more pressure to prove that the deal has yielded the economic benefits that many Iranians anticipated. The IMF predicts that average inflation will drop from 15.1% in the 2015-2016 Iranian fiscal year to 11.5% in the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

Rouhani has courted foreign trade and investment, but Iran’s political factions have debated whether Iran should pursue greater foreign engagement at all. Others in the regime are more skeptical. Two thirds of Iranians surveyed in March supported greater economic engagement with the West, and reformists fared well in the spring 2016 parliamentary elections.

Saudi led GCC joins Israel against Iran

Israel and its cruel sponsors in the West believe occupational atrocities make history interesting. USA and Israel, as well as other colonialist nations are keen to retain their occupational posts held abroad. NATO terror wars in Afghanistan and Arab world have helped Israel prolong the occupational crimes in Palestine thus far, making its expansionist drives smooth as USA continues to back all crimes against humanity

Interestingly, Arab leaders now think anomalies make history interesting and thus they try to find a common non-vegetarian language. Saudi Arabs seems to be leading the anti-Islamic nations against Islamic faith. Interestingly, they also think they are doing the right thing. Maybe they hope all anti-Islamic nations become Islamic in due course. Millions of Muslims have been slaughtered by these anti-Islamic forces globally in their war on Islam and they relish the taste of Islamic blood.

Saudi for some mysterious reasons considers Iran its arch foe and opposes it and frames policies keeping in view Iran’s sidelining as its objective. Anti-Iranism has become too strong that Saudi government indeed treats Iran worse enemy than Israel and tries for a common platform to disgrace Iran. So much so anti-Islamic Israel emerges as Islamic Saudi’s strategic partner against Islamic Iran.

Funny Islamic leaders!

A simmer Sunni-Shiite cold war is on for quite some time and western world and Israel seeks to take full advantage of the clash of their common enemies in island. Arab world says that today Iran is posing a serious challenge to Saudi led Arab nations, as its proxy groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Sadrist militias in Iraq have taken the fight beyond the capacity of Iranian government forces. In Yemen and Bahrain, groups funded from Tehran have been armed, funded and trained to challenge the Arab governments.

True, unlike Israel or even Saudi Arabia, Iran does not seek wars and, knowing the intricacies of regional crises, being accelerated by the US intervention, always goes for diplomatic resolution of crises and succeeded n averting all war situations. Iran has not changed its position on Palestine nation as it continues to support the Palestinians and their struggle for sovereignty.

Iran will have a presidential poll in June 2017. With elections due next year, the pressure on Rouhani’s government is likely to increase if the next US president follows in the footsteps of his predecessor to continue to play the “sanctions game.” Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani’s competitors are concerned that he and his allies will parlay their foreign policy achievements into electoral victories.

Iranian success in the nuclear deal depends on many factors. Nothing unusual in the flowery language coming from Western capitals about a new era of relations with Iran has some reality and justification because Iran and USA have begun viewing each other not as prime enemies as they had done for years now especially after the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, even during prolonged talks, notwithstanding all negative rhetoric emanating from Israel and elsewhere against the deal and new alignments.

The deal obviously weakened Israeli position and hold over US strategic lots. Having been isolated internationally already on genocides in Gaza and its regular threats of terror attacks on Iran, Israel will not be able to keep ignoring such a broad international engagement.

Now Zionists in Israel and USA understand that it must cope with a process of Palestine statehood that has started rolling and won’t be easily stopped. It must now position itself differently after the repeatedly failed US mediation and ahead of the practical part of the French initiative, as the French distributed in June the tasks to different working groups.

The UN Quartet report on the obstacles ahead of a two-state solution and the main themes to be tackled should be published without further delay and used as a main tool of work for the French initiative.

Observation

The debate on whether or not Iran gained from the nuclear deal with western powers is inconclusive but one is clear: Iran hasn’t lost the spot by signing the deal with US led powers. The deal appeared to be the only option for the time being as Israel is pushing for a terror attack on Iran and sought the US approval. The president, Many Iranian strategists believe, has been duped into accepting the deal and his failure to boost economy even after a year is an clear proof of the “West’s treachery”.

Iran’s expectation of a big boom in economy through “economic recovery” after the lifting of UN sanctions has not been realized yet. Iranians, although upset by this, still believe this deal is by far the best way for Tehran to end global isolation, recapture lost markets, diversify its foreign relations and win “the ideological war” Iran’s enemies in the Gulf have waged against it.

The situation for Iran’s moderate leadership is tricky. Not only does it have to deal with the still imposed US sanctions and mounting domestic pressure against the nuke-deal, but also the IRG, its own business interests and political hardliners in Iran.

Today, USA and Russia compete for arms sale in energy-cash rich West Asia. The West should recognize that any change in Iran will be gradual, best supported by implementing the nuclear accord, resuming trade, and diplomacy that balances Iranian and Arab interests in the Middle East. As its guardians try to quell the deal’s reverberations and preserve the balance of power, any attempt by Western countries to play politics within the Iranian system could well backfire. If world powers hope to progress on areas of concern and common interest, they must engage Iran as it is, not the Iran they wish to see.

The best option for Western states and Iran is to continue reversing the negative narratives from decades of suspicion and hostility by fully implementing the nuclear accord; creating discrete and non-politicized channels to address other issues of concern or common interest; and, eventually, pushing for regional security architecture that takes account of both Iranian and Arab interests. In the end, Iran and the West may not be able to agree on a range of issues, but trying to game the Iranian system will ensure that they will not.

Saudi Arabia needs to come to sense- earlier the better for it and Islam, though it might feel Islam should not have been born there so that their variety of capitalism and anti-Islamism can go on without any sense of shame or guilt. Because of Saudi attitude even ordinary Muslims, for their own reasons, are scared of criticizing anti-Islamism while badly suffering from Islamophobia.

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Middle East

Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.

Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.

“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.

According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.

Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.

Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.

Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal.  What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.

A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.

It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons

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Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.

The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.

The Defectors

The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.

The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.

One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.

There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.

The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.

Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.

Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid

The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.

Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.

Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.

Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.

One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.

Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.

Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.

Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.

The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.

Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.

The Al-Bustan Association

An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.

Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.

The Father of the Desert Hawks

One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.

An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.

Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.

The Old Guard and the Special Services

Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.

Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.

Elements of Matriarchy

Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.

Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.

On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.

On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.

The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators as well as social reforms in the kingdom introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the granting of women’s access to male sporting events and introduction of modern forms of entertainment.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly strokes with a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism. With few details of the plan known, it remains unclear what the curtailing entails.

It also remains unclear what effect it would have. A report published last month by the Royal Danish Defence College and three Pakistani think tanks concluded that madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan, a hotbed of militant religious education, were no longer dependent on foreign funding. It said that foreign funding accounted for a mere seven percent of the income of madrassas in the country.

Like with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, its too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms mean beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished image and preparing it for a beyond-oil, 21st century economic and social existence.

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union given that the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operated independently.

By doing so, Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project itself as distancing itself from its roots in ultra-conservatism that date back to an 18th century power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

The decision, Prince Mohammed’s initial social reforms, and plans to cut funding notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its confrontation with Iran where support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups is still the name of the game.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s and early this century.

Saudi militants reported in the last year that Saudi nationals of Baloch origin were funnelling large amounts of money into militant madrassas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan on the border with Iran. Saudi-funded ultraconservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate the region’s educational landscape.

The money flowed, although it was not clear whether the Saudi donors had tacit government approval, at a time that Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of seeking to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its multiple minorities, including the Baloch.

A militant Islamic scholar, who operates militant madrassas in the triangle where the borders of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, was last year named a globally designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was fundraising in the kingdom.

Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that in 1969 had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported that “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith.”

Saudi Arabia has worked hard in the last year to alter perceptions of its Islamic-inspired beliefs.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of the World Muslim League, the group that operates the Brussels mosque and has served for half a century as a key funding vehicle for ultra-conservatism insisted on a visited last year to the Belgian capital that Islam “cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Mr. Al-Issa, in a first in a country that long distributed copies of the Protocols of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract, last month, expressed last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates Nazi persecution of the Jews “great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Mr. Al-Issa’s comments no doubt also signalled ever closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both bitterly oppose Iran’s regional influence. Nonetheless, they constituted a radical rupture in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic scholars, often described Jews  as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”

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