The month of May continued to prove that Nigeria is the most dangerous nation for Christians—where more Christians have been killed last year than all around the Muslim world combined.
In one instance, Boko Haram Muslim militants stormed the home of a Pentecostal pastor and secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, and opened fire on him, instantly murdering him.
Separately, other Boko Haram gunmen killed 14 Christians, including the cousin and two nephews of the Rev. Moses Thliza, head of a Christian organization dedicated to preventing AIDS and caring for AIDS patients and orphans: Said Thliza: “My cousin, Bulus [Paul] Buba, was dragged out at gunpoint from his house by the Boko Haram members. They collected his car keys, demanded money and asked him three times to renounce his Christian faith, and three times he declined to do so [prompting them to execute him]. The attackers met three guards on duty, killed two of them by cutting their necks with knives, and then proceeded to take the third guard, Amtagu Samiyu, at gunpoint to lead them to where the keys of the deputy governor’s house is.”
As for some Christians observing a wake two kilometers away, Boko Haram Muslims asked to know what was going on there, and when they learned that people were saying prayers for an elderly Christian woman who had died, they charged in and shot into the crowd. “The attackers went there and shot indiscriminately at the worshippers, killing eight Christians—two women and six elderly men,” said Thliza. “In all, we buried 14 Christians. Some were injured and taken to the hospital.”
Despite all this, when the Nigerian government tried militarily to confront and neutralize Boko Haram, the Obama administration criticized it, warning it not to violate the “human rights” of the Islamic terrorists.
Categorized by theme, the rest of May’s roundup of Muslim persecution of Christians around the world includes (but is not limited to) the following accounts, listed by theme and in country alphabetical order, not necessarily according to severity:
Bosnia: The Serbian Orthodox church of Saint Sava in Sarajevo, where Muslims make up approximately half of the population, was “desecrated” and six of its windows panes broken. The unidentified vandals wrote “Allah” in dark paint twice on the church wall. A month earlier, unidentified persons tried to set the church on fire.
Central African Republic: According to the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, since an Islamic rebel leader proclaimed himself president, the situation for Christians, has “deeply worsened.” The organization warns against “the evil intentions for the programmed and planned desecration and destruction of religious Christian buildings, and in particular the Catholic and Protestant churches…. All over the country the Catholic Church has paid a high price.” Several dioceses have been seriously damaged and plundered, and priests and nuns attacked (more information below, under “Dhimmitude.”)
Egypt: Two Coptic Christian churches were attacked, one in Alexandria, the other in Upper Egypt. St. Mary in Alexandria was attacked by Molotov cocktails and bricks, causing the gate to burn and the stained glass windows to shatter. One-thousand Christians tried to defend the church against 20,000 Muslims screaming “Allahu Akbar” [“Allah is Greater”]. One Copt was killed and several injured. In the village of Menbal in Upper Egypt, after “Muslim youths” harassed Christian girls—including hurling bags of urine at them—and Coptic men came to their rescue, another Muslim mob stormed the village church of Prince Tadros el-Mashreki. They hurled stones and broke everything inside the church, including doors and windows. The mob then went along the streets looting and destroying all Coptic-owned businesses and pharmacies and torching cars. Any Copt met by the mob in the street was beaten.
Iran: Because it refused to stop using the national Persian language during its services—which makes the Gospel intelligible to all Iranian Muslims, some of whom converted—the Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran was raided by security services during a prayer meeting; its pastor taken to an unknown location, and the church was searched and its books, documents and equipment seized. Security agents posted a sign stating that the church was now closed. One local source said, “They constantly threaten the church leaders and their families with imprisonment, unexplained accidents, kidnapping and even with execution. We cannot go on like this.” A number of its members have already been killed and its activities greatly restricted over the last few years.
Libya: The Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Benghazi was bombed. In the words of the Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, “They put a bomb at the entrance of the corridor leading to the courtyard where there is the door of the church. The church, therefore, was not touched directly, but the attack is not a positive sign. The Church in Libya is suffering. In Benghazi the Coptic Church was hit, its chaplain was killed and now the Catholic Church. As I reported on other occasions, in Cyrenaica different religious women’s institutes have been forced to close their doors, in Tobruk, Derna, Beida, Barce, as well as in Benghazi. The nuns who were forced to leave, served the population with generosity.”
Syria: A violent explosion destroyed the church and convent of the Capuchin Franciscan Friars in Deir Ezzor. According to Fr. Haddad of the region, “It was the only church in Deir Ezzor [that] so far still remained almost untouched.” It is not clear how it was destroyed, but some say a car bomb was placed next to the church. Fr. Haddad lamented that, as in other regions, “there are no more Christians” left in Ezzor, due to “all this hate and desecration.”
Tanzania: During a service to mark its official opening, a new church in a predominantly Christian suburb was bombed, killing at least five people and wounding some 60. According to a local source, “This was… a well-planned attack. Even before it, the threat was given and we still have many threats. Pray for us, and that God will overcome all these in Jesus’ name.” He added that, “radical camps in the country were teaching young Muslims that Christians must be killed or live as second-class citizens,” or dhimmis. Among those arrested, four were Saudi Arabian nationals. The bombing follows the slaying of two church leaders in February, and the shooting in the face of a third on Christmas Day. In October, several church buildings were torched and vandalized.
Apostasy, Blasphemy, Proselytism
Egypt: Twenty-four-year-old Demiana Ebeid Abdelnour, a social studies teacher, was fired and arrested for comparing the late Coptic Pope Shenouda to Islam’s prophet Muhammad, “as well as putting her hand on her neck or her stomach every time she mentioned [Islam’s prophet] Muhammad,” which was interpreted by some students under 10-years-old as disgust. She would be the last Coptic Christian victim to be arrested or imprisoned in a “defamation of Islam” spree that began under now ousted President Morsi. One Coptic activist wondered, “Why is defamation of religion a one-way street, only for the benefit of the Muslims, while Christianity is defamed every day?” He added that Sheikh Abu Islam, who tore and burned the Holy Bible, has not been detained.
Iran: Vahid Hakkani, a Christian prisoner in Shiraz, is suffering from internal digestive bleeding. Although doctors have diagnosed his condition as critical, and have recommended urgent surgery, prison officials have not allowed his transfer to any hospital. Earlier, Hakkani and other Christians were gathered for worship in a house-church when they were arrested “for participating in house-church services, evangelizing and promoting Christianity, having contact with foreign Christian ministries, propagating against the regime and disturbing national security.”
Kashmir: Two Christians accused of carrying out “acts of proselytism,” for distributing pamphlets and publications with biblical passages to some young Muslims, were savagely beaten by a mob, and later arrested by police, “who rescued them from a secure lynching.” Separately, the “United Jihad Council” said that Christian missionaries in Kashmir are “highly reprehensible” and have a “hidden agenda [to] exploit the poor and the needy, offering them economic aid to convert them to Christianity,” adding that “Islam is the religion of peace and harmony, and that protects minorities. However, anti-Islam activities [evangelization] cannot be tolerated.” The United Jihad Council accordingly calls on all Christian missionaries “immediately to leave the valley of Kashmir,” warning, “If not, they will suffer the consequences.”
Kazakhstan: Despite the nation’s president recently boasting that, “Kazakhstan is an example to the world of equal rights and freedoms for all citizens” and that, “religious freedom is fully secured” in the country, the Barnabas Fund states that the government “has instructed people to report any individuals who speak about their faith with others in public to the police,” as “talking about one’s faith with others constitutes missionary activity, which requires personal registration… Compulsory prior censorship of all printed and imported religious literature is another way in which the state controls Christian activity. Confiscation of religious books appears to be increasing, with Christians amongst those most likely to be targeted.”
Morocco: A fatwa by the government’s top Islam authority, partially based on the teachings of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, calls for the execution of those Muslims who leave Islam, causing many Christian converts to live in fear. Lamented one Christian: “The fatwa showed us that our country is still living in the old centuries—no freedom, no democracy. Unfortunately, we feel that we aren’t protected. We can be arrested or now even killed any time and everywhere. The majority of the Christian Moroccan leaders have the same feeling. We are more followed now by the secret police than before. Only the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ gives us courage and peace.”
Saudi Arabia: A Christian Lebanese man, accused of helping a Saudi women convert to Christianity, was sentenced to six years in prison and 300 lashes. Even so, the father of the woman claims the punishment is not sufficient. The daughter was also sentenced to six years and 300 lashes, causing her to flee, reportedly to Sweden, where authorities are trying to find her and extradite her back to the Arabian peninsula. Another man, a Saudi national who reportedly forged a travel document to help the woman flee, was sentenced to two years in jail and 200 lashes.
[General Abuse of Non-Muslims as Third-Class “Citizens,” or Dhimmis]
Central African Republic: Christians are being terrorized, killed, and plundered by Islamic militants, who seized control of the country in March, even as international media and government ignore the crisis. In what one pastor is calling “a reign of terror,” Muslims are tying up, beating and forcing Christians to pay money to save their lives. Many have been killed or wounded. The Barnabas Fund states that “rebels have a hit list of pastors and other Christian workers, and that places of worship are being attacked. Christian property is being looted. In one incident towards the end of last month, Seleka [Islamic] troops seized all the collection money given at a gathering of church leaders. Many Christians have fled their homes to the countryside and are too fearful to return. More than 200,000 people are internally displaced, while 49,000 refugees have been registered in neighbouring countries.” On 10 May, Human Rights Watch released a report citing “grave violations” committed by the Seleka rebels against civilians, including pillage, summary executions, rape and torture. One pastor of a besieged church was shot dead when he went out holding a Bible aloft as a sign of peace.
Egypt: Mohamed Abu Samra, secretary-general of the Islamic Jihad Party, asserted that “it is permissible to kill some Christians today,” justifying it by adding “Those who came out with weapons, their blood is allowed for us [to spill], as a fighter is not considered dhimmi.” In Islamic law, a dhimmi is a non-Muslim who is permitted to exist provided he pays monetary tribute and lives as a submissive, lowly subject, according to Koran 9:29. Those Coptic Christian activists who vocally called for the removal of former Islamist president Morsi were not doing that, thereby becoming fair game for killing.
Indonesia: After an earlier Christmas Eve attack, during which members of Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church were pelted with rotten eggs, dung and plastic bags full of urine, as the pastor was attempting to leave the scene with his wife, Abdul Aziz, the leader of the mob who had earlier threatened to kill him, moved to attack him. Because the pastor stopped the Muslim agitator’s blow with his hand to protect his wife and himself, he is now facing assault charges. Islamic law, based on the “Conditions of Omar,” forbids Christians from raising their hands to Muslims, even in self-defense. The church has been meeting outside and in homes since its building was sealed off by authorities to appease Islamists in 2010—despite its having met all conditions for a building permit, as well as a Supreme Court ruling that a permit should be granted.
Pakistan: Over the course of five days, a Muslim mob tortured Javaid Anjum, a Christian teenaged student to death, because he dared drink water from the tap of an Islamic seminary while on a long journey to visit his grandfather. When Muslims discovered he was Christian, they forced him into the seminary, where they tried to force him to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam. When he refused, for five days, Muslim seminary students electrocuted him, broke his arm, and pulled out his fingernails. The electric shocks caused his kidneys to fail and he eventually died.
About this Series
Because the persecution of Christians in the Islamic world is on its way to reaching pandemic proportions, “Muslim Persecution of Christians” was developed to collate some—by no means all—of the instances of persecution that surface each month. It serves two purposes:
1) To document that which the mainstream media does not: the habitual, if not chronic, Muslim persecution of Christians.
2) To show that such persecution is not “random,” but systematic and interrelated—that it is rooted in a worldview inspired by Sharia.
Accordingly, whatever the anecdote of persecution, it typically fits under a specific theme, including hatred for churches and other Christian symbols; sexual abuse of Christian women; forced conversions to Islam; apostasy and blasphemy laws that criminalize and punish with death those who “offend” Islam; theft and plunder in lieu of jizya (financial tribute expected from non-Muslims); overall expectations for Christians to behave like dhimmis, or second-class, “tolerated” citizens; and simple violence and murder. Sometimes it is a combination.
Because these accounts of persecution span different ethnicities, languages, and locales—from Morocco in the West, to India in the East, and throughout the West wherever there are Muslims—it should be clear that one thing alone binds them: Islam—whether the strict application of Islamic Sharia law, or the supremacist culture born of it.
Saudi sports diplomacy: A mirror image of the kingdom’s already challenged policies
Saudi sports diplomacy is proving to be a mirror image of the kingdom’s challenged domestic, regional and foreign policies.
Overlorded by sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, Saudi sports diplomacy, like the kingdom’s broader policies, has produced at best mixed results, suggesting that financial muscle coupled with varying degrees of coercion does not guarantee success.
Mr. Al-Sheikh, a 37-year old brash and often blunt former honorary president of Saudi soccer club Al Taawoun based in Buraidah, a stronghold of religious ultra-conservatism, and a former bodyguard of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, is together with Saud al-Qahtani among the king-in-waiting’s closest associates.
Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s wealthiest investors, acknowledged Mr. Al-Sheikh’s ranking in the Saudi hierarchy when he made a donation of more than a half-million dollars to Saudi soccer club Al Hilal FC weeks after having been released from detention.
Prince al-Waleed was one of the more recalcitrant detainees among the scores of members of the ruling family, prominent businessmen and senior officials who were detained a year ago in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel as part of Prince Mohammed’s power and asset grab.
Prince Al-Waleed said on Twitter at the time that he was “responding to the invitation of my brother Turki al-Sheikh.”
Mr. Al-Qahtani, who was recently fired as Prince Mohammed’s menacing information czar in connection with the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was banned this week from travelling outside the kingdom. Mr. Al-Sheikh has not been linked to the Khashoggi murder.
Nevertheless, his sports diplomacy, exhibiting some of the brashness that has characterized Prince Mohammed as well as Mr Al-Qahtani’s approach, has largely failed to achieve its goals. If anything, it appears to have contributed to the kingdom’s growing list of setbacks.
Those goals included establishing Saudi Arabia as a powerhouse in regional and global soccer governance; countering Qatari sports diplomacy crowned by its hosting of the 2022 World Cup; projecting the kingdom in a more favourable light by hosting international sporting events; becoming a powerhouse in soccer-crazy Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation; and using the competition for the 2026 World Cup hosting rights to bully Morocco into supporting the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led boycott of Qatar.
To be sure, with the exception of a cancelled tennis exhibition match in Jeddah between stars Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, most scheduled sporting events, including this season’s opening Formula E race in December and the Italian Supercoppa between Juventus and AC Milan in January, are going ahead as planned despite a six-week old crisis sparked by the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.
Yet, if last month’s friendly soccer match in Jeddah between Brazil and Argentina and this month’s World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) Crown Jewel showpiece are anything to go by, major sporting events are doing little to polish the kingdom’s image tarnished not only by the Khashoggi killing but also the war in Yemen that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. The sports events have so far failed to push Mr. Khashoggi and Yemen out of the headlines of major independent media.
Mainstream media coverage of Saudi sports has, moreover, focussed primarily on Saudi sports diplomacy’s struggle to make its mark internationally. One focus been the fact that Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer body FIFA, has run into opposition from the group’s European affiliate, UEFA, to his plan to endorse a US$25 billion plan for a new club tournament funded by the Saudi and UAE-backed Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
If adopted, the plan would enhance Saudi and Emirati influence in global soccer governance to the potential detriment of Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia and the UAE spearhead a 17-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar designed to force it to surrender its right to chart an independent course rather than align its policies with those of its Gulf brothers.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to engineer a situation in which Qatar is either deprived of its hosting rights or forced to share them with other states in the region, a possibility Mr. Infantino has said he was exploring.
Mr. Infantino has also said he was looking into implementing an expansion of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams already in 2022 rather than only in 2026. An expansion of the Qatari World Cup would probably involve including others in the Gulf as hosts of the tournament. Qatari officials have all but ruled out sharing their hosting rights.
Another media focus has been alleged Saudi piracy aimed at undermining Qatar-owned BeIN Corp, the world’s biggest sports rights holder, including the rights to broadcast last summer’s Russia World Cup in the Arab world.
Mr. Al-Qahtani reportedly played a key role in the sudden emergence of BeoutQ, a bootleg operation beamed from Riyadh-based Arabsat that ripped live events from BeIN’s feed and broadcast the games without paying for rights. The Saudi government has denied any relationship to the pirate network.
The piracy has sparked international lawsuits, including international arbitration in which BeIN is seeking US1 billion in damages from Saudi Arabia. The company has also filed a case with the World Trade Organization.
FIFA has said it has taken steps to prepare for legal action in Saudi Arabia and is working alongside other sports rights owners that have been affected to protect their interests.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s effort to create with funds widely believed to have been provided by Prince Mohammed an international Saudi sports portfolio that would project the kingdom as a regional power broker collapsed with fans, players and club executives in Egypt furious at the Saudi officials buying influence and using it to benefit Saudi rather than Egyptian clubs.
“No one, no one at all — with all due respect to Turki or no Turki … will be allowed to interfere in the club’s affairs,” said Mahmoud el-Khatib, chairman of Egyptian club Al Ahli SC, one of the Middle East’s most popular clubs with an estimated 50 million fans. Mr. Al-Sheikh had unsuccessfully tried to use his recently acquired honorary chairmanship of Al Ahli to take control of the club.
Al Ahli’s rejection of his power grab persuaded Mr. Al-Sheikh to resign in May and instead bankroll Al Ahli rival Pyramid FC. He invested US$33 million to acquire three top Brazilian players and launch a sports channel dedicated to the team.
The club’s fans, like their Al Ahli counterparts, nonetheless, denounced Mr. Al-Sheikh and the kingdom and insulted the Saudi official’s mother in crass terms during a match in September. Mr. Al-Sheikh decided to abandon his Egyptian adventure after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ignored his request to intervene. “Strange attacks from everywhere, and a new story every day. Why the headache?” Mr Al-Sheikh said on Facebook.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s attempt to form a regional powerbase by creating a breakaway group of South Asian and Middle Eastern soccer federations beyond the confines of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) collapsed five months after the formation of the South-West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) when seven South Asian nations pulled out with immediate effect.
The collapse of SWAFF and Mr. Al-Sheikh’s withdrawal from Egypt were preceded by his backing of the US-Canadian-Mexican bid for the 2026 World Cup against Morocco after he failed to bully the North Africans into supporting the boycott of Qatar.
Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”
That was Mr. Al-Sheikh’s position six months ago. Today, men like Prince Mohammed and Messrs. Al-Sheikh and Al-Qahtani are seething. US President Donald J. Trump is proving to be an unreliable ally. Not only is he pressuring the kingdom to come up with a credible explanation for Mr. Khashoggis’ killing, Mr. Trump is also seemingly backtracking on his promise to bring Iran to its knees by imposing crippling economic sanctions.
Saudi distrust is fuelled by the fact that Mr. Trump first asked the kingdom to raise oil production to compensate for lower crude exports from Iran and then without informing it made a 180-degree turn by offering buyers generous waivers that keep Iranian crude in the market instead of drive exports from Riyadh’s arch-rival down to zero.
Seemingly cut from the same cloth as Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Sheikh, drew his pro-American definition of Saudi Arabia First from the crown prince’s focus on the United States. Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Sheikh and other senior Saudi officials may be considering whether putting the kingdom’s eggs primarily in one basket remains the best strategy.
Whatever the case, Mr. Al-Sheikh’s sweep through regional and global sports has left Saudi leaders with little to leverage in the kingdom’s bid to pick up the pieces and improve its image tarnished first and foremost by Mr. Khashoggi’s killing but also by the trail the sports czar has left behind.
Paris Peace Forum: A missed opportunity for the Middle East
Timed to coincide with the centennial of the World War I armistice, the Paris Peace Forum (PPF) launched by French president Emmanuel Macron adopted a welcome approach to the root causes of contemporary conflict, including climate change and the double-edged sword represented by new technologies.
The forum, which took place from November 11-13, showcased projects that spoke to the innovation and collaboration critical to improving lives and reducing tensions across the globe.
Conspicuous by their absence
Even though the summit saw 65 heads of state from all over the world come together to launch the event, precious few of those leaders came from the Middle East – even though the region could benefit as much as any other part of the world from this “Davos for democracy.” While this first peace summit represented a promising start, any future editions need to find a way to make inroads with citizens in the countries where they are needed most. Of course, this is a two-way street, with leaders in those countries needing to participate in and draw lessons from such gatherings.
The Middle East’s most notable representatives at the event were Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. Their presence was fitting: while so many of their neighbors jostle with each other to secure their own geopolitical ends, Qatar and Lebanon have faced down the instability surrounding them to protect themselves from dangerous regional currents. Unfortunately, the leaders who could have really used reminding of the importance of peace were absent from the stage.
An “island” of stability
Qatar, for its part, has been the subject of a regional blockade for the best part of 18 months. A coalition of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all severed ties with the country since June 2017 for its alleged “support for terrorism” but more realistically for its willingness to deal with Iran against a backdrop of acrimony between the two sides of the Gulf. The Saudis, for their part, have gone so far as planning to cut Qatar off from the mainland with a new canal.
Far from buckling, however, Qatar has proven remarkably resilient and stuck firmly to a strategy of de-escalation with both sides of the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Events since have rewarded that cool-headedness. Global markets nervous about the turbulence in Riyadh are now looking to Qatar as a regional investment driver instead. Ironically enough, none other than Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman praised the performance of the Qatari economy last month.
Delicate peace in Beirut
Lebanon has had greater difficulty insulating itself from the instability across its border with Syria, but Saad Hariri has nonetheless maintained a fragile domestic peace even after an apparent kidnapping and forced resignation (later rescinded) orchestrated by bin Salman in November of last year. Hariri was detained for two weeks and only released on the back of intense international pressure, apparently out of Saudi anger with the Lebanese premier for cooperating with his Shi’a Hezbollah rivals in Lebanon.
In Lebanon’s torturous system of confessional politics, however, difficult compromises are the nature of the game. Hariri and his Sunni-led political movement have no choice but to negotiate with Hezbollah’s Shi’a faction over the balance of political power on an ongoing basis to keep the country stable. Hariri’s resistance to Saudi demands for aggression has helped keep the peace between Lebanese Sunnis and Shi’a, preventing the sectarian fires that have torn Syria apart from jumping across the border.
External actors have key roles to play
Of course, none of the crises in the Middle East can be viewed in a vacuum. One key part of the program at the Paris Peace Forum summit – entitled Global Powers and the Middle East – focused on the responsibility of outside powers like the United States, Russia, China, Europe and India to find common ground and address the causes of Middle Eastern instability. Left unsaid: these same countries are often deeply involved in perpetuating these crises.
If American, European, or Russian leaders truly want to prevent conflicts in the Middle East, their first step should probably be a sort of Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” The arms trade is a notable case in point. The Middle East is responsible for 32% of global arms imports. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are three of the five largest customers; their primary suppliers are the US, UK, France, Italy, and Russia.
Rather than encourage stability, this supply of weapons has fed a volatile arms race. Much of that equipment has been used by the Saudi coalition’s intervention in Yemen, which has left eight million Yemenis are the brink of starvation and the country confronting the fastest growing cholera epidemic the world has ever seen. Russia has openly used the civil war in Syria as a venue for showing off its military hardware to potential customers worldwide, even as Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to massacre civilians.
Instead of helping their local allies arm themselves to the teeth, these outside powers should push Middle Eastern governments to change their damaging patterns of behavior and undertake the kinds of social reforms that are instrumental in easing tensions. Otherwise, systemic inequality and unaccountable leadership will continue to lay the groundwork for conflicts and crises. That might enrich weapons manufacturers, but it will do nothing to achieve the goals pursued in Paris this week.
The sanctions of a split
The tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States against Iran have aggravated conflict between Washington and its close allies. The European Union, the United Kingdom, France and Germany have expressed regret over measures taken by American President Donald Trump and signaled the need to protect their companies. Simultaneously, eight countries have received a six-month “sanctions delay” from the United States, which produced a further negative effect on the balance of strength and set the scene for a further escalation of tension.
The United States announced the resumption of anti-Iranian sanctions, which ban the purchase of Iranian oil and oil products, on November 5. The US Treasury Department pointed out that they were the “toughest” in history: “These are the toughest U.S. sanctions ever imposed on Iran, and will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as the energy, shipping and shipbuilding, and financial sectors. The United States is engaged in a campaign of maximum financial pressure on the Iranian regime and intends to enforce aggressively these sanctions that have come back into effect.”
“The unprecedented financial pressure exerted by the US Treasury Department on Iran should make it clear to the Iranian regime that it will face ever-increasing financial isolation and economic stagnation until it radically changes its destabilizing behavior. From now on, the maximum pressure exerted by the United States will only increase,” – emphasizes US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin. Washington makes it no secret that the ultimate goal of the sanctions is to reduce oil exports from Iran “to zero.”
Over 700 individuals and legal entities have been put on the sanctions list, including the Iranian national air company Iran Air, more than 65 aircraft it owns, and several dozen ships of the merchant fleet. The sanctions prohibit the purchase of Iranian oil and are directed against port operators, shipping and shipbuilding companies, the financial sector, – primarily tanker insurance companies, – and also restrict operations with Iran’s banks and Central Bank.
Fines will be imposed on anyone who trades oil with Iran and works with its banking system. Secondary sanctions (fines and shutout from the dollar system) may be imposed on companies of third countries. The US also demanded that Iran should be cut off from the SWIFT international payment system. According to reports, on November 5 SWIFT suspended access of some Iranian banks to its system, but without reference to the US sanctions.
This step followed President Trump’s announcement in May this year about Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action on the Iranian nuclear program. Adopted in 2015 with the participation of Iran, the USA, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, the document envisages easing sanctions against Tehran in exchange for its measures to wrap up its nuclear program under the control of the IAEA. The US president dubbed it “the worst deal ever,” saying that it does nothing to stop Iran from pursing its nuclear and missile programs. After Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the other participants expressed their commitment to this document.
Two days before the sanctions package was put into effect, US President Donald Trump made it clear that the United States was ready to conclude a new agreement with Iran on more stringent conditions. “Our objective is to force the regime into a clear choice: either abandon its destructive behavior, or continue down the path toward economic disaster”, – the US president said on November 3: “The sanctions will target revenues the Iranian regime uses to fund its nuclear program, development and proliferation of ballistic missiles, fuel regional conflict, support terrorism and enrich its leaders”. At the same time, according to Donald Trump, “the United States remains open to reaching a new, more comprehensive deal with Iran that forever blocks its path to a nuclear weapon, addresses the entire range of its malign actions, and is worthy of the Iranian people. Until then, our historic sanctions will remain in full force”.
Having introduced “unprecedentedly tough” sanctions against Tehran, Donald Trump, as part of his business approach to international affairs, left substantial “windows of opportunity” for the subsequent bargaining on a wider range of issues of the international agenda. The USA made an exception for eight states. China, India, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey and South Korea were allowed to buy Iranian oil temporarily. According to the London-based Financial Times, these countries will be able to import a limited amount of Iranian oil over the next six months.
Simultaneously, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that more than 20 countries have already cut down on oil exports from Iran, reducing purchases by more than 1 million barrels per day. Independent sources indicate that average daily oil production in Iran fell from 3.8 million barrels in May to 3.3 million barrels in early October. This is quite a lot: because of the reduction, Iran loses about 1 billion dollars a month.
Given that the above exemptions from the sanctions list are temporary, the United States will likely resume political and economic bargaining with the eight countries in spring, with a view to preserve a favorable regime for these countries. In the first place, it concerns China. President Donald Trump will try to use the “Iranian factor” in order to achieve maximum concessions on trade and economic issues from Beijing. Among other things, he will probably make an attempt to force the Chinese side to reconsider joint energy projects with Russia. In the meantime, China’s response to the US decision to resume the anti-Iranian sanctions has been markedly restrained. A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry has called on Washington to respect China’s trade rights and expressed “regret” that the United States relaunched sanctions against Iran.
A much more resolute response came from the European Union – whose trade and economic interests are affected by anti-Iranian sanctions first. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, as well as the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement in which they promised to protect their companies from restrictive US measures. “Our goal is to protect the subjects of the European economy that have legal commercial ties with Iran,” the document states.
In the meantime, the European Union is confronted with the problem of creating a specific structure that would allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran without risking falling under Washington’s sanctions. Brussels reported in October that a new mechanism of payment for Iranian oil exports should be legally ready by November 4, and would go into operation in early 2019. However, according to The Financial Times, by the time the current sanctions were introduced, the Europeans did not have even a legal foundation for the defense mechanism and had not come to agreement on the location of the corresponding “special purpose structure” (SPV). “Now we are actively discussing where the SPV will be located, who will participate in it, and are launching the process of registering it. Time is short, and given the complexity and sensitivity of this issue in the light of its geopolitical consequences, we see very rapid and effective progress,” – said a representative of the French Finance Ministry.
For Europeans, sensitivity of this issue lies in their unwillingness to come under tough Washington’s sanctions themselves – especially in the context of deepening trade and economic differences between the US and the EU. “The US authorities are demonstrating that they will act aggressively towards violators of sanctions, which boosts the effect,” warns partner of law firm Morrison & Foerster and former director of the Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury John Smith. “When the United States threatens to punish violators and does it in practice, examples of punished companies force others to think seriously,” he said in an interview published by the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal.
Without waiting for the sanctions regime to come into effect, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stated that Tehran would be able to overcome it. “America wants to bring down Iran’s oil sales, but we will continue to sell oil to break through the sanctions,” he said.
Tehran could not but point out the fact that the resumption of the US sanctions package against Iran coincided with the anniversary of the capture of the US embassy during the Islamic revolution in Tehran in 1979. Addressing his compatriots, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The goal of American sanctions is to cripple and restrain the Iranian economy, but the result we obtained in reality was the country’s striving for self-sufficiency.” “The main objective of the United States in all this is to regain the supremacy it had in the period of tyranny. But this will not happen,” Ayatollah Khamenei said.
Meanwhile, Tehran does not attach any fundamental significance to the exclusion of eight states from the sanctions regime. “The Islamic Republic could sell its oil even if these eight countries were not excluded, we would still sell our oil,” said Hassan Rouhani in this regard.
The anti-Iranian sanctions imposed by Washington have not yet had a direct impact on Russia. The sanctions list published by the US Treasury contains only the Russian “daughter” of the Iranian Bank Melli – the Mir Business Bank, registered in Moscow (MB Bank). Its shareholder is Bank Melli Iran, which, according to the United States, provides multi-billion financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). “Bank Melli enabled the IRGC and its related parties to transfer funds both inside and outside Iran,” the statement of the US Treasury said. JSC Mir Business Bank was registered in Moscow in 2002. Bank Melli Iran is its sole shareholder.
According to reports, the Trump administration has decided not to pursue the Russian direction in its pressure on Iran ahead of a new meeting of the presidents of Russia and the United States due to take place at the end of this year. The meeting could be held on November 11 in Paris, at events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, or — more likely — at the G-20 summit in Argentina in late November – early December this year. However, regardless of the outcome of this meeting, Russia should bear it in mind that its trade and economic ties with Iran, and in a broader context – relations with OPEC – will become the target of a new round of global games of the US administration.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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