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Covert wars: Iran and Saudi Arabia revisit their strategies

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Expressions of support by US President Donald J. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu have provided the grist for Iranian claims that anti-government protests were instigated by foreign powers. The largely baseless assertions offer nonetheless insight into the very different strategies adopted by Iran and Saudi Arabia in their vicious struggle for regional dominance.

There is little doubt that the protests were fuelled by widespread economic grievances with Iran’s detractors resembling not always helpful fans on the side lines. In fact, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis, was the one opponent of the Islamic republic that refrained from joining the fans publicly in a bid to deprive the regime in Tehran from using it as a scapegoat. That did not stop Iranian leaders from pointing a finger at the kingdom in ways that reflected the dynamics of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry.

Both Iranian and Saudi approaches to their rivalry are in flux. Protesters in Iran challenged the government’s heavy expenditure on propping up allies like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and funding proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen, not to mention proselytization campaigns in West Africa.

The protests are unlikely to change Iranian policy that the country’s leaders view as the crux of their defense strategy in covert wars with the United States and Saudi Arabia that have been ongoing since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the shah, a monarch and an icon of now waning US power in the region.

Nonetheless, Iranian leaders will have to take public grievances into account even if the protests peter out. Rather than toting its regional successes publicly, Iran going forward is likely to be more circumspect about its foreign involvements. While that will not change things on the ground, it may contribute over time to an environment more conducive to a lessening of tensions.

Despite the protests, Iran has little reason to change facts on the ground. With access to the world’s most advanced weapons systems severely restricted for decades because of sanctions and boycotts, some in response to provocative Iranian actions and policies, others part of regional power struggles, Iran has sought to fight its battles far from its borders. Many Iranians bought into the argument that the policy had largely shielded their country from instability and jihadism wracking the rest of the region.

Simultaneous Islamic State attacks last June on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, that killed 12 people were viewed as the exception that proved the rule. That perception has changed in a significant segment of the population as protesters demanded that funds allocated to Iran’s defense doctrine and enhancement of its regional influence be invested in improving their deteriorating living standards.

“Our military doctrine is…based on historical experience: During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein rained Soviet-made missiles on our cities, some of them carrying chemical components provided by the West. The world not only kept silent, but also no country would sell Iran weapons to enable us to at least deter the aggressor. We learned our lesson,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote in The New York Times weeks before the protests erupted.

Speaking this week at a Brookings Institution seminar in Washington, Iranian-American journalist Maziar Bahari described Iran’s doctrine as a more brutal and militarized version of the late Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion’s policy of the periphery that in the absence of relations with Israel’s neighbours sought to forge ties with the neighbours of the Jewish state’s neighbours.

Mr. Zarif represents the view of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s pragmatic government, a view shared by conservatives as part of a far greater ambition that they have no compunction about articulating.

In a column in the conservative Tehran Times entitled ‘What makes Iran stronger than Saudi Arabia?’, sociologist and journalist Mohammad Mazhari argued that “the Saudi regime has no comprehension that money cannot replace ideological values.” By contrast, Mr. Mazhari wrote, “there are common ties between Iran and Hezbollah, however the crux of those ties is not monetary. What drives Iran is not a superficial goal, it is working hard to restore the empire, but this time culturally, while Saudi Arabia and its alliances have no clear vision nor project in the Middle East save for keeping their thrones.”

Prince Mohammed vowed months before Mr. Zarif articulated Iran’s defense doctrine, that the fight with Iran would take place “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.” In doing so, the crown prince was playing on deep-seated Iranian fears rooted in a history of foreign intervention that stretches from ancient to modern times as well as highlighting the fundamentally different Saudi and Iranian strategies.

Since coming to power in 2015, Prince Mohammed has shifted the emphasis of Saudi strategy from long-term cultural and public diplomacy focused on promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian Shiite and revolutionary ideology, and passive reliance on the United States to defend the kingdom by containing Iran to a more assertive confrontation of the Islamic republic everywhere but in Iran itself.

Prince Mohammed’s approach is a power play based primarily on chequebook diplomacy, pressure tactics, and projection of the kingdom as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities. It is an approach that is void of any ideology or worldview beyond the need to counter Iran and support autocratic or authoritarian rule in a bid to ensure the survival of his family’s rule.

Prince Mohammed’s approach has so far produced mixed results at best. His effort to force a political crisis in Lebanon by pressuring Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign backfired. King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the crown prince’s demand that they not attend an Islamic summit in Istanbul convened last month to condemn Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The prince’s one military adventure, intervention in Yemen, has produced a quagmire, severely tarnished the kingdom’s image, and even provoked criticism from one of his greatest fans, Mr. Trump. Egypt has adopted an independent foreign policy that is at times at odds with positions adopted by Saudi Arabia despite being financially dependent on the kingdom.

Hanging in the balance is the question whether Prince Mohammed’s declaration last year that he wants to return the kingdom to a yet undefined moderate form of Islam means that he will introduce an ideological element to his strategy that would replace the increasingly problematic propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism.

It’s a tall order in a country whose religious establishment and culture is steeped in ultra-conservatism despite support for more relaxed religious and social codes among a significant segment of a predominantly young population.

A successful redefinition of Islam would not only significantly enhance confidence in Prince Mohammed’s ability to change the nature of Saudi society and economy but also strengthen the kingdom in its struggle with Iran that despite being fought as a zero-sum game can only be resolved with an agreement that recognizes both Saudi Arabia and Iran as key regional players.

Economics rather than Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia and hostility towards the United States and Israel is at the crux of anti-government protests in Iran. Nevertheless, the protests are likely to force Iranian leaders to repackage their foreign involvements at a time that Prince Mohammed is seeking to revamp his kingdom as part of an economic and political survival strategy. In the longer term, that could unintentionally create building blocks for the lowering of tensions in a dispute that has wracked havoc across the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

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Middle East

The Triggering and Deterring Factors of the Recent Protests in Iran

Ramin Jabbarli

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Starting from Thursday, Dec. 28. 2017, the widespread protests continued for a week in Iran. Based on the official reports, at least 21 protesters have been killed in across the country. Officials also have confirmed the death of arrestees in the prisons. The occurrence of the protests for many Iranians was unexpected. For the first time after Islamic Revolution of Iran, in 1979, the protesters have questioned the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic in Iran by burning the posters of the supreme leader and chanting the anti-regime slogans. Now, both reformists and conservatives consider the protests as a threat to the regime. Although in the starting point of demonstrations, in the city of Mashhad, the protesters’ slogans against Rouhani had articulated the economic grievance, then the protests turned to anti-regime protests in consecutive days. The recent events in Iran and the dynamics of the protests in Iran show that causes of the protests cannot be diminished to merely the economic factors.

The Triggering Grievances 

In order to understand the dynamics of protests sociologists like M. Hechter, S. Pfaff, and P. Underwood emphasize the importance of distinguishing between structural and incidental grievances. Structural grievances came from a group’s disadvantaged position in a social structure like oppressed ethnic groups, women’s position in a patriarchal society, and etc. Whereas incidental grievances arise from a wholly unanticipated or unexpected situation that puts groups at risk. While structural grievances are essential factors, these are incidental ones that push people to take collective and coordinated action like protest and demonstration. Being unexpected or unanticipated is a key in this issue because people may react differently to an event If that will happen gradually.

In the case of Iran, the people for a long time, have suffered from structural grievances such as inflation, environmental crisis, ethnic and gender discrimination, corruption, increasing unemployment rate, restricted social and political freedom, the monopoly of power, and etc.  In the terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians experienced high inflation and the sanctions against Iran have intensified some of the problems. However, the pattern of protests in Iranian shows that the protests always follow an incidental grievance. In 2006, Azerbaijanis in Iran took street as Iran Newspaper, an official organ of Iran unexpectedly published a racist cartoon. Three years later in 2009, people took street after unexpectedly winning of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a president. In 2011, the mass protest did not occur until the parliament’s unexpected rejection of an emergency bill on August 17, 2011, to raise the water level of Lake Urmia. The people did protest without being exposed to the incidental grievances while they were aware of the problems. Knowing that all the incidental grievances did not end up with protests, implies that these kinds of grievances are a necessary but not sufficient condition to protest. So, this requires taking into account other factors such as organization, political opportunity, and identity.

To some extent, the occurrence of the current protests should be analyzed in the context of recent unexpected. Because these factors played essential roles in triggering the protests.  President Hasan Rouhani, in both terms, was elected because of his promises such as improving the economic situation and living standard, softening political climate and giving more social and political freedom and so on. He failed, even after nuclear agreement people did not feel a considerable improvement in their lives. His second term has started with moving to conservative side by having a dominantly conservative cabinet. Most recently his budget draft was the topic of hot discussion among Iranians. These were incidental ones which made the people ready to protest. Rouhani’s plan for increasing the fuel price, and cutting subsidies were unexpected plans from a president who had promised to improve living standard. These grievances were perceived as broken promises and along with sharp rising of food prices in the recent days formed a basis to interact with other factors, especially the perceived political opportunity.

The Perceived Political Opportunities

Participating in protests is an extremely costly action in an authoritarian state like Iran. There are some political situations which individuals may consider appropriate to participate in a contentious action. For instance, even in authoritarian states, as a result of political climate during presidential campaigns that candidates criticize each other people psychologically feel comfortable to express themselves. Another case could be when there are disputes among leaders and elites. People perceive these situations as opportunities for contentious actions. Sociologist Douglas McAdam calls these situations Perceived Political Political Opportunities. Indeed, in authoritarian states mostly these are not real political opportunities because follow brutal suppression by the state.

The pattern of protests in Iran reveals that a considerable number of protests happened after an election or coincided with disputes among leaders. The demonstrations after 2009 were held after election and South Azerbaijanis’ demonstrations in northwestern cities of Iran in 2011 are also a manifestation of this association. One of the significant factors which interacted with the grievances and finally has led to the protests is the critical political climate or the disputes among leaders. The current protests proceeded with two main disputes. On the one hand, the intensifying disputes among the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Larijani brothers, especially Saded Larijani, in the conservative wing of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Sadeq Larijani Head of Judiciary and appointed by the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. On the other hand, the increased pressures and accusations of the conservative wing on president Rouhani. Conservatives blame him for the nuclear agreement and not improving the living standard of the Iranians. These disputes finally have led to the protest in the city of Mashhad, where Rouhani’s rival in the recent election, Ebrahim Raisi, is from. But after Mashhad, the protests have been expanded to the other cities.  In fact, the incidental grievances together with the perceived political opportunities led to the protests across the country.

Organization: An Essential Deterring factor of the Protests

No doubt, suppression is one of important deterring factors in autocracies; however, it is not the only factor. Protest as a form of collective action requires a minimum organization to concert and coordinate the people. I use organization in the broadest sense, a way to lead people to a collective action, not necessary an institution or a party. There was no particular known physical organization such as fraction or party behind the protests. The protests had been organized essentially by using Telegram App. Telegram is a widely used app in Iran that based on Pavel Durov, the founder and CEO of Telegram, has approximately 25 million Iranian users. This was an Achilles heel for the recent protests because the protesters were primarily linked with the app, and blocking the app impaired the linkage among them.

The Iranian state blocked the access to Telegram and other social media apps to hinder the protests. As for me, the state had succeeded because the protesters were deprived of the required organizational mean to coordinate people. It seems that linkage or organizational problems could be solved by the support of the constituents of social movements that there is a real interaction with each other. An alternative might be the participation of non-Persian ethnicities’ social movement in the protests. However, chanting slogans in favor of Pahlavi dynasty and few anti-Arab racist slogans by a group of protesters have primed some non-Persian ethnic groups. The slogans recalled the ultra-nationalistic and racist programs of Pahlavi dynasty for the oppressed ethnic groups in Iran. This was a factor which impacted negatively the rate of the oppressed non-Persian ethnicities’ participation in the protests. In order to use the alternative organizational network and guarantee the participation of non-Persian ethnicities in any possible protest, their demands and the possible solutions should be addressed by political groups. Derived from Value Expectancy Theory, it is worthwhile to say that the oppressed ethnicities may join to protest if their goals are expected as a result of taking collective action. Currently, disregarding ethnic rights by major Persian political groups creates a barrier for interethnic collective action in Iran. The recent protests were also a manifestation of the barrier in Iran.

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Middle East

Priorities of Cyber Diplomacy in the Islamic Republic of Iran

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Although in terms of diplomacy priorities, it is usually viewed as a strategy, but in terms of tools, cyber-related developments require the diplomacy system to take this field more than ever before.

The space for policy and cyber interaction or, more accurately, the “cyber policy” environment, is considered to be the latest and most important area of ​​interest among policy and international experts in the field of theoretical and practical arena, the neglect of which could be serious and inescapable damage forecasts to countries as the most important actors in the field of international relations.

Today, cyber policy and cyber security are discussed in the field of international relations and politics. Cyberspace is a real space in the new arena for influencing and, consequently, friendship, cooperation, competition, hostility and even war between nations and other actors. These cases show well that the Internet and cyber space have created a new field for politics, a space in which individuals, groups and governments are acting and policy makers.

The theoretical framework and the most important effects of cyberspace on politics and international relations are three main issues. The first issue is the presentation of a “conceptual order” to explain the relationship between cyberspace and politics. The second issue is identifying and believing in the widespread connection between cyberspace and politics. The third issue is the explanation of the route and the important issues in this connection. In addition to the three levels of humans, governments and the international system, cyberspace requires a different level. At this new level, the global level, the impact of cyberspace is emphasized by the emphasis on the separation between the social system and the natural environment. At the global level, it is emphasized that the Internet space and its widespread impact on the world of politics cannot be discussed with the old levels that emphasize the individual or state or international arena. Internet space is the space for acting on the same time with non-state actors such as terrorists and private companies in terms of economic, cultural, security and even military, so it should be emphasized on the global level that, while combining the other levels, there is a broad interconnection between All levels and dimensions create the ability to analyze other political space, therefore, in lateral pressure theory, there is an attempt to establish a relationship between the level of individual, state and international as the old levels and the level of global analysis.

Based on the experience of past decades, the Internet and cyberspace have affected the relations between countries, especially the United States and Iran. Therefore, cyber policy and cyber security in the present situation are considered by the international relations experts as the main issue along with the older issues of war, economics, women and the environment, and even consider it more important than other areas because the cyberspace covers all the domains and the old stuff. In the same vein, in the next government, the foreign policy apparatus is expected to pay more attention to cyberspace and advance revolutionary diplomacy in the form of cyber diplomacy.

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Salafi mission calls into question Saudi concept of moderation and policy in Yemen

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Plans to open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia raise questions about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salah’s concept of a moderate form of Islam.

The questions are prompted by the fact that Prince Mohammed has so far put little, if any, flesh on his skeletal vow last October to return his ultra-conservative kingdom to “moderate Islam.”

The crown prince has created expectations of more social liberalism with the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, a residual of Bedouin rather than Muslim tradition, as well the granting of female access to male sporting events; the legitimization of various forms of entertainment, including cinema, theatre and music; and the stripping away of the religious police’s right to carry out arrests.

While removing Saudi Arabia as the only Muslim country that didn’t permit women to drive or allow various recreational activities, Prince Mohammed has yet to conceptualize what a rollback of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism would mean in a nation whose public life remains steeped in a puritan interpretation of the faith. (The lifting on the ban of women entering stadiums leaves Iran as the only country that restricts female access to male sporting events.)

The disclosure of the plan for a Salafi mission suggests Prince Mohammed may only want to curb ultra-conservatism’s rough edges. It also calls into question Saudi policy in Yemen that is reminiscent of past failures.

Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s.

The plan harks back to the creation of an anti-Shiite Salafi mission near the Houthi stronghold of Saada that sparked a military confrontation in 2011 with the Yemeni government, one of several wars in the region. The centre was closed in 2014 as part of an agreement to end the fighting.

Prince Mohammed’s use of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam in his confrontation with the Houthis was also evident in the appointment as governor of Saada of Hadi Tirshan al-Wa’ili, a member of a tribe hostile to the Shiite sect, and a follower of Saudi-backed Islamic scholar Uthman Mujalli. Mr. Mujalli reportedly serves as an advisor to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled, kingdom-backed Yemeni president.

“Over the past forty years, the Saudi government has invested heavily in Salafi-Wahhabi-style madrasas and mosques in the northern areas, only to realise that this programme was jeopardised by the Zaydi revival movement. If the Houthis were to be defeated in their home province, it is likely that the Salafi-Wahhabi programme will be revived, and implemented more fiercely than in previous years,” said Yemen scholar Gabriele vom Bruck.

The disclosure of the Al-Mahrah plan coincided with a damning 79-page United Nations report that condemned Saudi, Iranian and United Arab Emirates interventions in Yemen. The report concluded that Saudi and UAE proxies threatened peace prospects and that a secession of South Yemen that includes Al Mahrah had become a distinct possibility.

The questions about Prince Mohammed’s concept of a moderate Islam go beyond Yemen. The arts, including cinema, remain subject to censorship that is informed by the kingdom’s long-standing ultra-conservative values. A soccer player and a singer are among those who face legal proceedings for un-Islamic forms of expressing themselves.

The government last year introduced physical education in girls’ schools and legalized women’s fitness clubs, but has yet to say whether restrictions on women competing in a variety of Olympic disciplines will be lifted.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, it has yet to indicate whether male guardianship, gender segregation, dress codes that force women to fully cover, and the obligatory closure of shops at prayer times will be abolished. Also, the government has still to declare a willingness to lift the ban on the practice of non-Muslim faiths or adherence to strands of Islam considered heretic by the ultra-conservatives.

The example of Yemen suggests that little has changed in Saudi Arabia’s four-decade-old, $100 billion global public diplomacy campaign that promoted Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to revolutionary Iranian ideology.

Yemen is but one extreme of the spectrum. The Saudi-funded and operated grand mosque in Brussels is the other. Saudi Arabia, responding to Belgian criticism of the mosque’s ultra-conservative management, last year appointed as its imam, Tamer Abou el Saod, a 57-year polyglot Luxemburg-based, Swedish consultant with a career in the food industry. Senior Saudi officials have moreover responded positively to a Belgian government initiative to prematurely terminate Saudi Arabia’s 99-year lease of the mosque so that it can take control of it.

In contrast to Yemen, where the use of ultra-conservatism is a deliberate choice, Prince Mohammed may feel constrained in his moderation quest in the kingdom by the fact that his ruling Al Saud family derives its legitimacy from its adherence to ultra-conservatism. In addition, the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment has repeatedly signalled that the views of at least some its members have not changed even if it has endorsed the crown prince’s policies.

Saudi Arabia last September suspended Saad al-Hijri, a prominent scholar in charge of fatwas in the province of Asir, for opposing the lifting of the ban on driving because women allegedly had only  half a brain that is reduced to a quarter when they go shopping. Sheikh Saad made his comment after the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, had approved the move.

By the same token, no public action was taken against Sheikh Salih al-Fawzan, a member of the council, who declared on his website that “If women are allowed to drive they will be able to go and come as they please day and night, and will easily have access to temptation, because as we know, women are weak and easily tempted.” A video clip of Sheikh Salih’s view was posted on YouTube in October. It was not clear when the scholar spoke or whether he had approved the posting.

A main thrust of Prince Mohammed’s drive to return to moderate Islam is the fight against extremism, involving among others the creation of a centre to oversee the interpretations of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings in a bid ensure that they do not justify violence.

There is indeed little doubt that the kingdom is serious about countering extremism. Opposing extremism, however, does not automatically equate to moderation or concepts of tolerance and pluralism. Prince Mohammed has yet to clarify if those concepts are part of his notion of moderation. His track record so far is at best a mixed one.

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