Connect with us

Middle East

The Political Isolation of Lebanese Sunnis

Published

on

The delicate fabric that is the Lebanon polity, only recently rewoven after decades of civil war, is once again on the verge of unraveling.

Recent events—between the ascendance of Shiite groups through the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri to the current Syrian civil war—have caught one of the most prominent sectarian groups, the Sunnis, unprepared. How this has come about is a convoluted tale of jockeying for power between rival politicians and ethnicities.

Sunni Enfeeblement

It is ironic that Lebanon’s Sunni population, long ascendant in that region and identified with the governing powers since the days of the Umayyads (c. 661 C.E.) and through the Ottoman period (ending in 1918), has virtually been bereft of communal autonomy. Sunnis became junior partners in ruling Lebanon with the Christian Maronite population after independence in 1943. But the rise to power of Hafiz al-Assad and his Alawite relations in neighboring Syria in 1970 brought marginalization of the Sunni majority there, which quickly spilled over to affect Lebanese Sunnis as well. The eviction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (secular though largely Sunni in religious background) from Lebanon in 1982 then left them vulnerable to the emerging Shiite power block as well as to resurging Maronites.

Shiites made their forceful entry into the Lebanese political system in the name of resisting Israeli occupation. They built up their forces in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley and have managed to keep the national army outside their areas of influence. But the Jewish state has not been the only target of their violence and machinations. Shiite and Druze militiamen eliminated the rival Sunni al-Murabitun militia in 1985. Then in 1989, the outspoken Sunni grand mufti Hassan Khalid was assassinated. However, this was neither the first—nor would it be the last—political murder to roil the Sunni community.

Beginning with the assassination in 1951 of Riad as-Sulh, a prominent Sunni politician and cofounder of independent Lebanon, Sunnis searched for leadership outside the territorial boundaries of the fledging state. The appointment of Rafiq Hariri as prime minister in 1992 got their hopes up for making it back to the center stage of Lebanese politics. Hariri came into office with strong Saudi backing and French blessing and was determined to resurrect the 1943 Maronite-Sunni “gentlemen’s agreement” for governing Lebanon. His rise to power coincided with the political mobilization of Shiites into two major groups with the Amal movement implementing the schemes of the Syrian regime while Hezbollah submitted itself to the dictates of Iran’s supreme leader.

Hariri presumed he could integrate the Shiite community in his accommodationist project for Lebanon. While he managed to win the trust of many Maronites, his success in collaborating with Amal depended on maintaining a working relationship with a hard-to-please regime in Damascus. Moreover, his ability to enlist the cooperation of Hezbollah proved futile because the latter had an opposing vision for Lebanon. In 2005, Hariri paid with his life for promoting a project that, if successful, would have undermined Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and blunted Iranian determination to become a greater regional player. Hariri’s assassination amounted to a political coup, removing Lebanon from the camp of Arab moderate states and advancing the interests of the Syrian-Iranian axis.

The March 14 Coalition’s Unfulfilled Promise

Hariri’s assassination ignited the Cedar Revolution which, in turn, inspired the formation of the March 14 Coalition that drew from the mostly Sunni Muslim Future Trend party, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, Maronite Christian Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (LF), and the largely Maronite Phalangists associated with the Gemayel family. Shortly afterward, the Syrian army exited Lebanon. In June of that year, the coalition won a majority of seats in the parliament and Fuad Seniora formed a new cabinet that promised to prosecute Hariri’s assassins. Its efforts seemed to bear fruit when in March 2006 the United Nations Security Council issued resolution 1664 to form a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to investigate the assassination.

The July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah altered the balance of power between the March 14 Coalition on the one hand and Hezbollah and its allies on the other. Despite heavy losses and a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, Hezbollah portrayed the outcome of the war as a divine victory and accused Seniora’s government of colluding with the United States and Israel to destroy a patriotic Lebanese party. By November, Hezbollah and Amal had withdrawn their ministers from the central government to protest its stand on the special tribunal, triggering a wave of protests against it. A state of paralysis persisted until May 2008 when Hezbollah stormed predominantly Sunni west Beirut and disbanded the ragtag and poorly-led Future Trend militia. This incident convinced Jumblatt that the power of arms had become more important than the ballot box in ruling Lebanon. This also got Christians within the March 14 Coalition thinking about the significance of their role in the alliance. Their doubts increased when President Michel Suleiman designated Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad as prime minister in 2009. The new prime minister immediately decided that he needed to be on the good side of the neighboring Syrian regime to have a smooth stay in office and appealed to Saudi King Abdullah to arrange for him to visit Damascus and meet with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The joint visit to Beirut of King Abdullah and President Assad in July 2010 “to defuse tensions about [STL’s] impending indictment of Hezbollah members,”[1] highlighted both Syria’s resurgent role in Lebanon and an overall regional preference for stability over justice. The final act of the 2005 coup that began with the Hariri assassination took place in January 2011 when Syria’s Lebanese allies pulled their ministers out of Hariri’s cabinet and forced its dissolution. The March 14 Coalition has failed to govern Lebanon and the Future Trend had demonstrated its inability to lead.

The Limitations of the Future Trend

The Future Trend party suffered from two fatal shortcomings. First, its total dependence on Riyadh for political direction limited its options because the Saudi royals chose not to pursue an aggressive Lebanon policy. Since Hariri’s assassination, which created a vacuum in Sunni leadership, the Saudis have come to believe in the need for a plurality of leadership within the Sunni community.[2] This may be the reason why they quietly welcomed the appointment of Najib Miqati, a Sunni politician with somewhat pro-Syrian credentials, to the office of prime minister after the collapse of Saad Hariri’s cabinet.[3] The second fatal flaw was Hariri’s political inexperience, exacerbated by his apparent lack of self-assurance and poor speech delivery; his inability to properly read his inaugural parliamentary speech when he became prime minister invited the ridicule and laughter of other members of parliament and elicited public dismay.

The leaders of the Future Trend are not oblivious to its limitations and realize that the party must behave in a conciliatory manner toward other sects because its Saudi patron keeps it on a short leash. When a Saudi newspaper mocked Maronite patriarch Bishara al-Rahi for visiting Damascus, Lebanese Maronites responded by hanging a banner portraying King Abdullah on a playing card holding a blood-dripping sword.[4] Had the banner been hung in a different country, the Saudi response would probably have been extreme, but an exception was made in the case of Lebanon. Second Saudi deputy prime minister Prince Muqrin assured Lebanese officials that Riyadh “will not take any measures against Lebanese citizens working in the Kingdom … [and] we have no intentions to withdraw deposits from Lebanese banks, whether by the cabinet or investors.”[5]

Conflict in Syria and Impact on Lebanon

The Syrian war has given impetus to renewed Lebanese Sunni militancy, attracted direct Hezbollah involvement, caused Christians to reposition themselves politically, and has left the Future Trend bereft of allies and in a state of powerlessness. Many former supporters have shifted their allegiance to Sidon’s Salafist sheikh Ahmad Asir who has transitioned himself from being merely a fiery preacher into a fiercely anti-Hezbollah partisan. The frequent sit-ins he has organized to demand disarming Hezbollah appeal to most Lebanese Sunnis. Asir has called for the release of militant Sunni detainees suspected of affiliation with Islamic terrorist organizations, on whose behalf mainstream Sunni politicians had been hitherto reluctant to publicly advocate. Much to the chagrin of Lebanese Christians who extol the army as a virtuous and upright institution, Asir slammed its legal apparatus: “I say to the military law that we do not have faith in your investigations and the justice of your military tribunal.”[6] He made his remark to demand the release of some 480 Sunnis who had been in jail without trial since 2007 on suspicion of membership in the Fatah al-Islam militant group. He said government officials had told him they could not try them because of the unavailability of a courtroom big enough to hold all of them.[7] The founder of Lebanon’s Salafist movement, Dai al-Islam Shahhal, urged the Lebanese military establishment to rectify its path and “cease to act as an Iranian-Syrian tool of subjugating Sunnis, otherwise I would issue a jihadist fatwa against trespassers of our rights.”[8] When Asir and a group of his followers sought to spend a picnic day at Faraya ski resort in the Maronite heartland in Keserwan, locals cut off the road leading to the resort; a local dignitary told correspondents that “this visit is unwelcome, and blocking the road demonstrates our opposition to it.”[9]

As the Syrian civil war takes on a greater sectarian complexion with many Christian Syrians fearing for their safety, their Lebanese brethren’s sudden warming to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime has startled the Sunnis. They disapproved of Maronite patriarch Bishara Rahi’s urging of the international community “to refrain from making decisions aimed at changing the region’s regimes.”[10] Rahi even asserted that “Syria was closest to democracy in the Arab world.”[11] As if his statements were not enough, he broke a 70-year-long Maronite patriarchs’ boycott of travelling to Syria though the sect’s holiest religious places are located there. The patriarch’s landmark visit to Damascus underscored the extent of Lebanese Christian change of heart vis-à-vis the Assad regime.[12] Sunnis have found it difficult to come to terms with this shift, especially in view of Maronite vaunting of their heritage of fidelity to authenticity, fondness for democracy, and respect for the conscience of the human individual.[13]

The influx across the border of Syrian refugees has further complicated Lebanese politics. Whereas Sunnis have called for accommodating them, Maronite responses range from concern about their numbers and the duration of their stay to outright hostility. The Phalangist Party complained that the arrival of a large number of Syrian refugees to Lebanon had taxed the country’s meager resources and called for tightening border controls.[14] Another Maronite politician, Minister of Energy Jubran Bassil (son-in-law of the Free Patriotic Movement’s leader Michel Aoun) went to the extent of proposing shutting the border to prevent further refugee arrivals.[15] Even though the Lebanese government has—thanks to U.S. pressure—halted the deportation of the mostly Sunni Syrian refugees, it continues to pursue “a systematic policy of harassment to coerce as many of them as possible to return to their country.”[16] Christian- and Shiite-controlled security forces regularly stop Syrians at checkpoints and “physically abuse them in detention centers.”[17] Despite an official policy of dissociation from the Syrian crisis, the Lebanese government has done nothing to curb Hezbollah’s direct involvement in it and has been openly violating the sanctions regime against Damascus. The frequent burials of Hezbollah militants killed in obscure missions eventually compelled Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to allege that “party members had fought Syrian rebels … but they were acting as individuals and not under the party’s direction.”[18] Nasrallah’s deputy, Na’im Qassem, subsequently admitted that Hezbollah had armed and trained Shiite villagers in Syria in the Orontes River basin. He argued that these villagers were actually Lebanese nationals who had found themselves annexed to Syria as a result of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.[19] In this way, the ripple effects of Syria’s crisis have spilled across the border, drawing Lebanon’s Sunnis into an increasingly fraught situation.

Sunnis versus the Rest

Sunnis sense that there is a tacit agreement among other Lebanese sects against them. While the continuation and escalation of the Syrian insurgency has given hope of redemption to many Lebanese Sunnis, it has caused heightened anxiety among Christians and Shiites. It is not difficult to see an emerging grand alliance of historical minorities in Lebanon but one that differs markedly from past associations. The Sunni “awakening” in both Syria and Iraq has caused Christians in the March 14 Coalition to see eye to eye with the Shiites on the need to alter the rules of the country’s political game in stages, beginning with parliamentary elections.

The formation of inter-sectarian electoral tickets with Sunnis no longer appeals to Christians. The media outlets of Hezbollah and its allies have consistently complained that the multi-confessional electoral districts at governorate level had previously led to the election of Christian parliamentary deputies by Sunni voters. During the talks leading to the May 2008 Doha agreement, Michel Aoun insisted that the next parliamentary elections be held at the sub-governorate level as per the 1960 electoral law.[20] When the 2009 parliamentary elections did not give the March 8 Coalition a legislative majority, Aoun’s son-in-law, Jubran Bassil, demonized the 1960 electoral law as “an act of large scale robbery of Christian rights.”[21]

Phalange parliamentarian Sami Gemayel joined rival Aoun in speaking out against reintroducing an electoral law on the basis of multi-confessional lists: “We will no longer tolerate the marginalization and misrepresentation of Christians who prefer not to vote in districts with Muslim majority because they know their votes will not make a difference.”[22] In responding to criticism over his unexpected position on the parliamentary electoral law, Lebanese Forces’ Samir Geagea stated that his party was “playing a complicated political game over the parliamentary electoral law … The LF was misunderstood, and it was wronged at different instances over its position.”[23] The Lebanese Forces, too, could not distance itself from the changing mood of Lebanese Christians, dismayed by the proliferation of Middle Eastern jihadism in general and Lebanese Salafism in particular.[24]

Hezbollah and Michel Aoun Reform and Change Parliamentary Bloc rejected the Future Trend’s compromise hybrid electoral draft law and insisted on the adoption of the Orthodox Gathering Electoral Proposal.[25] Settling for a hybrid electoral draft law, which combined the winner-takes-all system and the proportional electoral system, would have denied the Future Trend and its allies in the March 14 Coalition a majority in the parliament. It fit well into Lebanon’s politics of accommodation and sectarian balance. This led Nabih Berri, the speaker of the House and leader of Amal Movement, to withdraw the hybrid proposal saying it had become a point of contention among rival groups.[26]

Conclusion

On March 22, 2013, Prime Minister Najib Miqati tendered the resignation of his government since he could no longer tolerate Sunni ridicule as being a Hezbollah stooge. Matters came to a head when Aoun barred him from extending the term for six months of the Sunni chief of the internal security forces, who had reached retirement age. It was at that point that Miqati decided that enough was enough. The arduous task of naming a new prime minister came up again less than two years after Miqati’s cabinet won the vote of confidence in parliament. Syria’s burgeoning conflict and Hezbollah’s desire to mitigate mounting Sunni-Shiite tensions drove them to make a tactical retreat and to name Tammam Salam as a politically innocuous Sunni prime minister. Salam, who hails from a previously prominent Sunni political Beiruti family, became a de facto member in the March 14 Coalition after Saad Hariri secured him a parliamentary seat in 2009.

Portrayed by the March 14 Coalition as heralding a comeback reversing Hezbollah’s political coup d’état that toppled Hariri’s cabinet in 2011, Salam’s designation to lead the republic’s seventy-third cabinet actually confirms Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon. In a country where politicians disagree on everything, the fact that Salam received the nomination of 124 of the parliament’s 128 deputies suggests a preference for maintaining the status quo. Contrary to Geagea’s boasting that Salam’s designation was 100 percent made in Lebanon, media reports indicate that Saudi Arabia played a decisive role in making it happen.[27] For their part, Lebanese Christians endorsed Salam’s candidacy with the understanding that he would work with them to adopt an electoral law that emancipates them from the hegemony of Sunni numbers at the election poll. Securing his approval, the Maronite patriarchate took the lead in demanding that the Ministry of Interior take measures to annul the 1960 electoral law. Sunni involvement in Lebanese politics had undergone a full cycle from a key role to a minor one.

While the Sunnis have clearly failed to anticipate the specter of a grand Christian-Shiite alliance, the essence of Lebanon’s politics is unlikely to change. Still, Beirut’s current sectarian lineup on political issues may eventually give way to another lineup with different actors on vital economic resources. A new flashpoint is already looming on the horizon over the discovery of vast natural gas resources off the Lebanese coast.

Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

[1] The Daily Star (Beirut), Aug. 2, 2010.
[2] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Oct. 18, 2012.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Al-Anwar (Beirut), Feb. 19, 2013.
[5] Naharnet (Beirut), Mar. 10, 2013.
[6] An-Nahar (Beirut), Feb. 24, 2013.
[7] Sawt Beirut International (Beirut), Feb. 23, 2013.
[8] An-Nahar, Mar. 2, 2013.
[9] Saidaonline (Sidon), Jan. 24, 2013.
[10] El-Nashra (Beirut), Sept. 5, 2011.
[11] Ibid.
[12] An-Nahar, Feb. 9, 2013.
[13] See Bulus Na’man, “The Maronite Way of Life: Constants and Variables of Living,” Haliyyat, 39 (1985), pp. 11-28.
[14] An-Nahar, Mar. 11, 2013.
[15] Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (Beirut), Feb. 7, 2013.
[16] BBC Arabic (London), Jan. 25, 2013.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Oct. 5, 2012.
[19] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), Mar. 12, 2013.
[20] Beirut Observer (Beirut), Oct. 2, 2012.
[21] Al-Rai (Kuwait City), Mar. 2013.
[22] Naharnet, Jan. 14, 2013.
[23] Ibid., Mar. 9, 2013.
[24] El-Nashra, Mar. 18, 2013.
[25] As-Safir (Beirut), Mar. 12, 2013.
[26] The Daily Star, Feb. 28, 2013.
[27] Al-Qabas (Kuwait City), Apr. 6, 2013.

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

Caught in geopolitical crossfire: Al-Azhar struggles to balance politics and tradition

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

When Pope Francis I visited Egypt in 2017 to stimulate inter-faith dialogue he walked into a religious and geopolitical minefield at the heart of which was Al-Azhar, one of the world’s oldest and foremost seats of Islamic learning. The pope’s visit took on added significance with Al-Azhar standing accused of promoting the kind of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that potentially creates an environment conducive to breeding extremism.

The pope’s visit came as Al-Azhar, long a preserve of Egyptian government and ultra-conservative Saudi religious influence, had become a battleground for broader regional struggles to harness Islam in support of autocracy.

At the same time, Al-Azhar was struggling to compete with institutions of Islamic learning in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan as well at prestigious Western universities.

The battleground’s lay of the land has changed in recent years with the United Arab Emirates as a new entrant, a sharper Saudi focus on the kind of ultra-conservatism it seeks to promote, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts since 2015 to impose control and force Al-Azhar to revise its allegedly conservative and antiquated curriculum that critics charge informs extremism.

Ordained by God

Addressing a peace conference at Al-Azhar, the pope urged his audience to “say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”

In doing so, the pope was shining a spotlight on multiple complex battles for the soul of Islam as well as the survival of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa. These battles include Saudi efforts to distance ultra-conservatism from its more militant, jihadist offshoots; resistance to reform by ultra-conservatives who no longer are dependent on support of the kingdom; and differences between Saudi Arabia and some of its closest Arab allies, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, in their approaches towards ultra-conservatism and opposition to extremism.

Mr. Al-Sisi, referring to assertions that Al-Azhar’s curriculum creates a potential breeding ground for extremism, charged at the outset of his campaign that “it is impossible that this kind of thinking drive the entire world to become a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction to the extent that we antagonize the whole world. It’s unconceivable that 1.5 billion Muslims will kill the whole 7 billion in the world so that they alone can rule.”

Mr. Al-Sisi, often prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandisement, threatened the university’s scholars in 2015 that he would complain to God if they failed to act on his demand for reform. “Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.,” Mr. Al-Sisi said.

Speaking months later to a German Egyptian community, Mr. Al-Sisi, an observant Muslim who in a 2006 paper argued that democracy cannot be understood without a grasp of the concept of the caliphate, asserted that “God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, he made me like this so I could see and understand the true state of affairs. It’s a blessing from God.”

Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault on Al-Azhar was sparked by multiple factors: the Islamic State’s extreme violence; pressure by the United Arab Emirates that more recently joined the fray of those seeking to shape Islam in their mould, and the experiences of Egyptian intelligence officers with militants.

Hatred and bloodshed are backed up by curricula…that are approved by Islamic scholars, the ones that wear turbans… When I interrogated the extremists and talked to the Azhari scholars, I reached the conclusion that extremism comes primarily from the ancient books of Islamic jurisprudence which we’ve turned into sacred texts. These texts could have been forgotten long ago had it not been for those wearing the turbans,” said former Egyptian intelligence officer and lawyer Ahmad Abdou Maher, a strident critic of Al-Azhar.

Islam al-Bahiri, another Al-Azhar critic, who was jailed for his views and later pardoned by Mr. Al-Sisi charged that “Al-Azhar is part of the problem, not the solution. It cannot reform itself because if it does reform itself it would lose all authority. Al-Azhar is fighting for its own survival and not for the religion itself… They want you to follow religion as they understand it.”

Ironically, Mr. Al-Sisi has himself to blame for Al-Azhar’s ability to fend off the president’s effort. In attempting to not only tighten state control of Al-Azhar, Mr. Al-Sisi overreached by trying to fundamentally alter its power structure.

Legislation introduced in parliament would have limited the tenure of the grand imam, create a committee that could investigate the imam if he were accused of misconduct, broadened the base that elects the imam, included laymen in the Body of Senior Scholars that supervises Al-Azhar, and added presidential appointees to the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s overreach enabled Al-Azhar, in a rare example of successful opposition to his policies, to mobilize its supporters in and outside of parliament and defeat the legislation. It also allowed Al-Azhar to reject out of hand of Mr. Al-Sisi’s demand that it rewrites the rules governing divorce to make it more difficult for husbands to walk away.

The proposed legislation nonetheless sent a message that was heard loud and clear in Al-Azhar. In response to Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault, the leadership of Al-Azhar has sought to curb anti-pluralistic and intolerant statements by some members the faculty, set up an online monitoring centre to track militant statements on social media, and paid lip service to the need to alter religious discourse. It has, however, stopped short of developing a roadmap for reform of the institution and its curriculum.

Differences of opinion between ultra-conservatives among the Al-Azhar faculty and those more willing to accommodate demands for reform surface regularly.

Soaad Saleh, an Islamic law scholar and former head of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee, last year publicly criticized a ruling by grand mufti Shawki Allam that exempted Egypt’s national team from fasting during Ramadan in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup.

Ms. Saleh argued that only those travelling for reasons that please God such as earning money to feed the family, study or to spread the word of God were exempted from fasting. Soccer did not fall in that category, the scholar said.

Ms. Saleh earlier asserted that Muslims who conquered non-Muslims were entitled to sex slaves. “If we [Egyptians] fought Israel and won, we have the right to enslave and enjoy sexually the Israeli women that we would capture in the war,” Ms. Saleh said.

Ms. Saleh remains a member of the Al-Azhar faculty. So is Masmooa Abo Taleb, a former dean of men’s Islamic studies who argued several years ago that Al-Azhar had endorsed the principle that Muslims who intentionally miss Friday prayer could be killed.

Combatting extremism

Al-Azhar nevertheless asserts that it has reviewed its curriculum and was working with the education ministry to revise school textbooks. It rejects suggestions that the revisions are primarily cosmetic.

“We have done a number of corrective as well as preventive measures to respond to this urgent call about reforming Islamic religious discourse. We have revisited a number of religious fatwas that were authored in the past; fatwas that unfortunately have given rise to a number of wrong behaviours,” said Ibrahim al-Najm, a senior scholar at Dar al-Iftar, the Al-Azhar unit responsible for legal interpretations.”

Mr. Al Najm pointed to a revision of a fatwa that authorized female genital mutilation as well as Al-Azhar Facebook pages with millions of followers that refute jihadist teaching such as those of the Islamic State. A recent online textbook says in the introduction: “We present this scientific content to our sons and daughters and ask God that he bless them with tolerance and moderate thought … and for them to show the right picture of Islam to people.”

Yet, scholars of the university struggle when confronted with an Al-Azhar secondary school textbook, a 2016 reprint of a book first written hundreds of years ago that employs the same arguments used by jihadists. The book defines jihad exclusively as an armed struggle rather than the struggle to improve oneself and contains a disputed saying of the Prophet according to which God had commanded Mohammed to fight the whole world until all have converted to Islam.

Scholars argued that such texts were part of history lessons that teach Islamic law, including the rules of engagement in war in times past. They assert that students are taught that interpretations of the law in historic texts may have been valid when the books were written but are not applicable to the modern-day world.

They further stress that the concept of jihad an-nafs, the struggle for improvement of oneself, was taught extensively in classes on ethics and morals. Al-Azhar has nonetheless advised faculty that they should not allow students to read old texts without supervision. Panels have been created to review books to ensure that they do not advocate extremist positions.

Al-Azhar’s critics charge that it is plagued by the same literalism and puritanical adherence to historic texts that radicals thrive on and that feeds intolerance and discrimination. Al-Azhar has lent credibility to those charges through various positions that it adopted. Those include, for example, demanding closing down a TV show that advocated the purge of canonical texts that promote violence against and hatred of non-Muslims and the suspension of a professor for promoting atheism by using books authored by liberals.

Al-Azhar’s huge library that provides teaching materials is a target too. It contains volumes of interpretations of the Qur’an and the sayings of the prophet written over the centuries, some of which preach militant attitudes such as a ban on Muslims congratulating Christians on their holidays, a Muslim’s duty to fight infidels, the imposition of the death penalty on those who abandon Islam, and harsh punishments for homosexuals.

The blurring of the lines

Complicating the effort to reform Islam is a dichotomy shared by both Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi. Both accept the notion of a nation state and see themselves as guardians of Islamic Orthodoxy, witness the crackdowns for example on LGBT, as well as Mr. Al-Sisi’s failure to make good on his promise to counter discrimination of Egypt’s Coptic minority and widespread bigotry among the Muslim majority.

Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi also both embrace the civilizational concept of the ummah, the community of the faithful that knows no borders. Their efforts to counter extremism are moreover not fundamentally rooted in values that embrace tolerance and pluralism despite the adoption of the lingo but as defenders of Muslim conservatism against extremism and jihadism, trends they deem to be heretical.

In a study written in 2006 at the US War College, Mr. Al-Sisi, a deeply religious man whose wife and daughter are veiled, pushed the notion that democracy in the Middle East needed to be informed by the ‘concept of El Kalafa,’ the earliest period of Islam that was guided by the Prophet Muhammad and the Four Righteous Caliphs who succeeded him. “The Kalafa, involving obedience to a ruler who consults his subjects, needed to be the goal of any government in the Middle East and North Africa,” Mr. Al-Sisi wrote.

Resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s calls for fundamental reform is nonetheless deeply engrained. It has been boosted by a history of fending off attempts to undermine its independence, a deeply embedded animosity towards government interference and its definition of itself as the protector of Islamic tradition.

It has also been undergirded by decades of Saudi influence that was long abetted by Mr. Al-Sisi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and Mr. Al-Sisi’s high-handed approach.

The resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s campaign is further informed by the fact that although still revered, Al-Azhar no longer holds a near monopoly on Islamic learning. Beyond the competition from Saudi, Jordanian and Turkish institutions, Al-Azhar is also challenged by Islamic studies at European and North American institutes such as Leiden University, Oxford University, London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) the University of Chicago and McGill University.

Yet, those institutions too are not immune to producing ultra-conservatives. Take for example, Farhat Naseem Hashmi, a charismatic, 60-year old Pakistani Islamic scholar and cultural entrepreneur who graduated from the University of Glasgow. Ms. Hashmi has become a powerful ultra-conservative force among Pakistan’s upper middle class. Or Malaysian students in the Egypt, UK and elsewhere who were introduced to political Islam by Muslim Brotherhood activists at their universities.

Muhammed Azam of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Institute of Islamic Studies notes that the Malaysian government no longer funds students that want to go to Al-Azhar. “If they go (to Al-Azhar), it is self-funded,” Mr. Azam said. He noted further that Saudi Arabia had stepped in to offer hundreds of scholarships at institutions in the kingdom. “Because of the financial constraints, people to go to whatever country has got sponsorship,” Mr. Azzam said.

At the same time, Mr. Azzam said more Malaysians were heading to Jordan. “There is a shift. Malay parents now send their kids to Jordan to further their studies either in Islamic studies or Sharia or one specific subject matter or banking and finance… They have a different curriculum. They have the Islamic and the secular curriculum and that has given a different result for the graduates who come back,” he said.

A grinding, long drawn out battle

The upshot of all of this is that the struggle for Al-Azhar is likely to be grinding and drawn out rather than swift and decisive. It is a political, geopolitical and religious battle in which Mr. Al-Sisi, backed by his Gulf allies sees religious reform as one key to countering perceived security threats and extremism.

His nemesis, a Sorbonne-educated imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque, Ahmed El- Tayeb, pays lip service to the notion of reform but insists that textual fidelity is a sign of piety, expertise and righteousness, not obscurantism. Reform in Mr. El-Tayeb’s view cannot entail abandoning unambiguous Koranic texts or authentic sayings of the Prophet or hadiths.

Mr. Al-Sisi appears to also have learnt a lesson from his failed effort to bend Al-Azhar to his will. His religious endowments ministry has laid the groundwork for male and female imams to be trained at a newly-inaugurated International Awqaf Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than Al-Azhar. The ministry has drafted the curriculum to include not only religious subjects but also politics, psychology and sociology.

Built on an area of 11,000 square meters, the academy boasts a high-tech infrastructure with foreign language and computer labs.  Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Sheikh, the Saudi Islamic affairs minister, attended the inauguration and promised that the Saudi Institute of Imams and Preachers would work closely with the academy. Select Al-Azhar faculty have been invited to teach at the academy. Training courses last six months.

The academy competes with the just opened Al-Azhar International Academy that in contrast to the government’s academy focuses exclusively on religious subjects. The Al-Azhar initiative builds on the institution’s international outreach in recent years that was designed to combat extremism and project Al-Azhar as independent and separate from the Egyptian government.

Parallel to the inauguration of the government academy, Mr. Al-Sisi, in an effort to curtail Al-Azhar’s activity decreed that senior officials including Mr. El-Tayeb would need to seek prior approval from the president or the prime minister before travelling abroad.

As part of his effort to micro-manage every aspect of Egyptian life and frustrated at Al-Azhar’s refusal to bow to his demands, Mr. Al-Sisi, moreover, ignoring Al-Azhar objections, instructed his religious affairs ministry to write standardized sermons for all mosque preachers.

While resisting Mr. Al-Sisi’s attempts to interfere in what Al-Azhar sees as its independence and theological prerogatives, it has been careful not to challenge the state’s authority on non-religious issues. This was evident in Al-Azhar’s acquiescence in the arrest in 2015 of some 100 Uyghurs, many of them students at Al-Azhar, who at China’s request were deported to the People’s Republic.

Convoluted geopolitics

The pope’s interlocutors at Al-Azhar meanwhile tell the story of the institution’s convoluted geopolitics.

They included former Egyptian grand mufti Ali Gomaa, an advocate of a Saudi-propagated depoliticized form of Islam that pledges absolute obedience to the ruler, an opponent of popular sovereignty, and a symbol of the tension involved in adhering to both Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism that serves the interests of the Saudi state, and being loyal to the government of his own country.

A prominent backer of Mr. Al-Sisi’s grab for power, Mr. Gomaa frequently espouses views that reflect traditional Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism rather than the form projected by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In an interview with MBC, a Saudi-owned media conglomerate, Mr. Gomaa asserted in 2015 that women did not have the strength to become heart surgeons, serve in the military, or engage in sports likes soccer, body building, wrestling and weightlifting. A year later, Mr. Gomaa issued a fatwa declaring writer Sherif El-Shobashy an infidel for urging others to respect a woman’s choice on whether or not to wear the veil.

Prince Mohammed has since 2015 significantly enhanced women’s professional and sporting opportunities although he has not specifically spoken about the sectors and disciplines Mr. Gomaa singled out.

Pope Francis’ interlocutors in Cairo also included Mr. El-Tayeb, the imam of the Grand Mosque. A prominent Islamic legal scholar, who opposes ultra-conservatism and rejected a nomination for Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize, recalls Mr. El-Tayeb effusively thanking the kingdom during panels in recent years for its numerous donations to Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar scholars, the legal scholar said, compete “frantically” for sabbaticals in the kingdom that could last anywhere from one to 20 years, paid substantially better, and raised a scholar’s status.

“Many of my friends and family praise Abdul Wahab in their writing,” the scholar said referring to Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century religious leader whose puritan interpretation of Islam became the basis for the power sharing agreement between the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family and its religious establishment. “They shrug their shoulders when I ask them privately if they are serious… When I asked El-Tayeb why Al-Azhar was not seeing changes and avoidance of dogma, he said: ‘my hands are tied.’

To illustrate Saudi inroads, the scholar recalled being present when several years ago Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, a former grand mufti and predecessor of Mr. El-Tayeb as imam of the Al-Azhar mosque, was interviewed about Saudi funding. “What’s wrong with that?” the scholar recalls Mr. Tantawy as saying. Irritated by the question, he pulled a check for US$100,000 from a drawer and slapped it against his forehead. “Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), they are our brothers,” the scholar quoted Mr. Tantawy, who was widely seen as a liberal reformer despite misogynist and anti-Semitic remarks attributed to him, as saying.

Separating the wheat from the chafe at Al-Azhar is complicated by the fact that leaders of the institution although wary of Salafi influence have long sought to neutralize ultra-conservatives by appeasing rather than confronting them head on.

The Al-Azhar scholars believed they could find common ground on the grounds that they and the ultra-conservatives each had something the other wanted. Beyond gaining influence in a hollowed institution, ultra-conservatives wanted to benefit from its credibility while Al-Azhar hoped to capture some of the ultra-conservatives’ popularity on Muslim streets. That popularity would help justify Al-Azhar’s long-standing support for Egyptian and Arab autocracy.

Absolute obedience

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of King Salman and his powerful son, Prince Mohammed, has, at least in the greater Middle East including Al-Azhar, largely focused on the promotion of a specific strand of Salafism, Madkhalism.

Led by octogenarian Saudi Salafi leader, Sheikh Rabi Ibn Hadi Umair al-Madkhali, a former dean of the study of the Prophet Mohammed’s deeds and sayings at the Islamic University of Medina, Madkhalists seek to marginalize more political Salafists critical of Saudi Arabia by projecting themselves as preachers of the authentic message in a world of false prophets and moral decay.

They propagate absolute obedience to the ruler and abstention from politics, the reason why toppled Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi tolerated them during his rule and why they constitute a significant segment of both Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) as well as forces under the command of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli.

Madkhalists often are a divisive force in Muslim communities. They frequently blacklist and seek to isolate or repress those they accuse of deviating from the true faith. Mr. Al-Madkhali and his followers position Saudi Arabi as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

The promotion of Madkhalism falls on fertile ground in Al-Azhar. It was part of what prompted conservative Al-Azhar clerics to call on Egyptians not to join the 2011 mass protests on the grounds that Islam commands Muslims to obey their ruler even if he is unjust because it could lead to civil strife.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born Qatari-based scholar with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, unsuccessfully sought to counter Al-Azhar’s call by developing an alternative strand of legal thought that he described as fiqh al-thawra or jurisprudence of the revolution.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi argued that protests were legitimate if they sought to achieve a legitimate end such as implementation of Islamic law, the release of wrongly incarcerated prisoners, stopping military trials of civilians or ensuring access to basic goods.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi’s argument failed to gain currency among the Al-Azhar establishment. Moreover, more critical thinking like that of Mr. Al-Qaradawi barely survived, if at all, in private study circles organized by more liberal and activist scholars associated with Al-Azhar because of the risks involved in Mr. Al-Sisi’s tightly controlled Egypt.

A new kid on the block

If Saudi money was a persuasive factor in shaping Al-Azhar’s politics and to some degree its teaching, the kingdom has more recently met its financial match. Ironically, the challenge comes from one its closest allies, the United Arab Emirates, which promotes an equally quietist, statist interpretation of Islam but opposes the kind of ultra-conservatism traditionally embraced by Saudi Arabia. The UAE has scored initial significant successes even if its attempts to persuade Al-Azhar to open a branch in the Emirates have so far gone unheeded.

Mr. Al-Sisi demonstrated his backing of the UAE approach by not only acquiescing in the participation of Messrs. Gomaa and El-Tayeb but also sending his religious affairs advisor, Usama al-Azhari, to attend a UAE and Russian-backed conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2016 that condemned ultra-conservatism as deviant and excluded it from its definition of Sunni Muslim Islam.

The UAE scored a further significant success with the first ever papal visit to the Emirates in February by Francis during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Mr. Al-Tayeb.

The pope, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledged the UAE’s greater influence, when in a public address, he thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Mr. Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration. “Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al-Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist with close ties to key players in Al-Azhar and the UAE.

The UAE’s increasing involvement in Al-Azhar is part of a broader strategy to counter political Islam in general and more specifically Qatari support for it. The Grozny conference was co-organised by the Tabah Foundation, the sponsor of the Senior Scholars Council, a group that aims to recapture Islamic discourse that many non-Salafis assert has been hijacked by Saudi largesse. The Council was also created to counter the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Mr. Al-Qaradawi.

There’s a big, wide world out there

Mr. Al-Sisi’s efforts to gain control or establish alternative structures and competing UAE and Saudi moves to influence what Al-Azhar advocates and teaches notwithstanding, it remains difficult to assess what happens in informal study groups. Those groups are often not only dependent on the inclinations of the group leader but also influenced by unease among segments of the student body with what many see as a politicization of the curriculum by a repressive regime and its autocratic backers that are hostile to them.

Islamist and Brotherhood soccer fans, many of whom studied at Al-Azhar, were the backbone of student protests against the Al-Sisi regime in the first 18 months after the 2013 military coup.

Unease among the student body is fuelled by the turning of Al-Azhar and other universities into fortresses and an awareness that students, and particularly ones enrolled in religious studies, are viewed by security forces as suspicious by definition, monitored and regularly stopped for checks.

“The majority of students at Akl Azhar are suspect. They lean towards extremism and are easily drafted into terrorist groups,” said an Egyptian security official. Foreign students wearing identifiable Islamic garb complain about regularly being stopped by police and finding it increasingly difficult to get their student visas extended.

A walk through the maze of alleyways around the Al-Azhar mosque that is home to numerous bookshops suggests that there is a market not only for mainstream texts but also works of more radical thinkers such as Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th century theologist and jurisconsult, whose thinking informs militants and jihadists and Sheikh Abdel-Hamid Kishk, a graduate of Al-Azhar known for his popular sermons, rejection of music, propagation of polygamy, and tirades against injustice and oppression.

Works of Sayyid Qutb, the influential Muslim Brother, whose writings are widely seen as having fathered modern-day jihadism, are sold under the table despite the government’s banning of the Brotherhood.

Caught in the crossfire

Caught in the crossfire of ambitious geopolitical players, Al-Azhar struggles to chart a course that will guarantee it a measure of independence while retaining its position as the guardian of Islamic tradition.

So far, Al-Azhar has been able to fend off attempts by Mr. Al-Sisi to assert control but has been less successful in curtailing the influence of Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that increasingly are pursuing separate agendas.

In addition, Al-Azhar is facing stiff competition from a newly established Egyptian government facility for the training of imams as well as institutions of Islamic learning elsewhere in the Muslim world and Islamic studies programs at Western universities.

Al-Azhar’s struggles are complicated by the driving underground of alternative voices as a result of an excessive clampdown in Egypt, unease among segments of the student body and faculty at perceived politicization of the university’s curriculum and the blurring of ideological lines that divide the protagonists.

They are also complicated by inconsistencies in Al-Azhar’s matching of words with deeds. The institution has taken numerous steps to counter extremism and bring its teachings into line with the requirements of a 21st century knowledge-driven society. Too often however, those measures appear to be superficial rather than structural.

The up-shot is that redefining Al-Azhar’s definition of itself and the way it translates that into its teachings and activities is likely to be a long-drawn-out struggle.

Continue Reading

Middle East

The tension between Iran and the United States

Giancarlo Elia Valori

Published

on

At the beginning of last summer, precisely on May 8, 2018, US President Donald J. Trump carried out one of his old projects, i.e. to explicitly walk out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom + Germany and the European Union on July 14, 2015.

 The IAEA inspectors spend 3,000 days a year, on average, checking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and so far they have not ascertained any particular Iranian infringement of the 2015 agreement.

 Immediately after the US action, the EU adopted a blocking statute, based on the fact that the USA had unilaterally stated that Iran had not publicly declared a previous nuclear programme, prior to the JCPOA.

  According to the 2015 Treaty, Iran had agreed to destroy its arsenal of medium-enriched uranium, as well as to eliminate 98% of its low-enriched uranium production, and to finally reduce the number of its gas centrifuges for the selection of isotopes by two thirds, for a period of 13 years starting from the signing of the agreement with the P5 + 1, namely the JCPOA.

 For the subsequent 15 years, in fact, Iran had committed to enrich its uranium by only 3.67% compared to the levels before the signing of the agreement, without building other centrifuges for the following 10 years as from the signing of the JCPOA, while the enriched uranium production had to be reduced to the activity of a single first-generation centrifuge.

 As previously mentioned, the EU put in place a blocking statute mainly to protect EU-based companies from the effects of US sanctions against Iran. In May 2019, however, IAEA established that Iran had basically complied with the JCPOA, except for some doubts about the number of centrifuges actually in operation.

 Immediately after the US withdrawal from the treaty, Iran reaffirmed its acceptance of the treaty of July 14, 2015, along with France, Germany and Great Britain, while the Russian Federation and China explicitly supported Iran, which stated that only the USA had unilaterally and illegally withdrawn from the agreement.

 According to President Trump, one of the political reasons for the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was the resulting strengthening of his positions during the negotiations with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, while the former US President, Barack Obama, said that the US withdrawal from the treaty of July 14, 2015 left the USA torn between two equally suicidal choices: a completely nuclearized Iran or the quick breaking out of another war in the Middle East.

 The only countries supporting President Trump, against the nuclear agreement with Iran, were Saudi Arabia, the traditional enemy of the Iranian Shiites, and obviously Israel.

 The US President also added that the USA would cooperate with the EU to “put pressure” on Iran, but the European Union implemented a project, called Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), to avoid the negative effects of US sanctions on European companies. INSTEX, officially announced on 31 January 2019, is led by Per Fischer -former Head of Financial Institutions at Commerz bank -as President, and includes Simon McDonald, permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs of Great Britain, Miguel Berger, Head of the economic office at the German Foreign Ministry, and Maurice Gourdault de Montaigne, Secretary General of the French Foreign Ministry (“and of Europe”, as the official formula states). The whole body does not include senior managers of the banking system and of commercial institutions.

A political organization that has political purposes vis-à-vis Iran and the USA, not a real starting point for continuing to do business in Iran.

 Hence for many countries, including Iran, INSTEX is more a political move to differentiate themselves – with difficulty – from the USA than an effective and operational system against the US sanctions on Iran.

 On April 29, Iran announced it had set up the Special Trade and Finance Institute (STFI) to monitor the INSTEX activities and thus favour Iran-EU trade even during the US sanction regime.

 The Iranian President of STFI is Ali Askar Nouri, former consultant of Iran Zamin Bank and the Institute also includes Hamid Ghanbari, former director of the Central Bank of Iran, Farshid Farrokh, manager of the Refah Bank, and finally some other managers coming from the Iranian banking system.

 Given the low political level of the Iranian STFI, it is likely that the Iranian government does not trust the INSTEX system at all as a way to really solve the trade relations between the EU and Iran.

 The European system also implies that the profit generated from the purchase of Iranian oil by companies having their headquarters in the EU must be transferred to the INSTEX “special-purpose vehicle”.

 Nevertheless, considering the general US restrictions on the sale of Iranian oil, in all likelihood the EU “special-purpose vehicle” will be increasingly linked to ever smaller Iranian funds and hence will not be in a position to collect enough liquidity to justify reasonable trade with Europe.

 Moreover, considering that the major buyers of Iranian oil belong to non-European States, it is equally unlikely that these countries, namely China, India, Korea and Japan, will accept to transfer their payments to INSTEX.

 Moreover, considering the US regulations, even if the EU vehicle really worked, Iran could spend all the funds included in the EU mechanism only for medicines and- to a little extent – for food.

 Hence no mechanism to protect Iran-EU trade can be created unless agreements are also made with the USA.

 However, who is really hit by the US sanctions? Rather than the political and military actions of the Iranian government, what is really destroyed is Iran’s private economic sector.

 Currently the Iranian population is equal to 82 million inhabitants, with an economic ranking that places the Shiite Republic of Iran in the eighteenth position in the world.

 In the case of Iran, another reason for the economic crisis led by foreign countries is the devaluation of its national currency, namely the rial.

 The local government’s inflationary actions, the restriction of foreign currency assets and the related slowdown in growth, with an inflation rate at 13% and an unemployment rate at 12.3%, are drastic measures. This is official data from the Iranian government, which is apparently much more acceptable than real data.

 Furthermore, the Shiite regime has imposed restrictions for as many as 1,300 types of product, in addition to the escape from the dollar in transactions and the preferential use of the Euro in international trade.

 In the real exchange market, currently the rialis worth 90,000 as against the US dollar, while at the end of last year one dollar only was worth 42,840 rial. An induced Weimar-styleinflation, which is destabilizing for every social system.

 The Euro, however, is not a currency that has the characteristic of being a Lender of Last Resort, as Paolo Savona often says- hence its global use is inevitably very limited.

 Therefore the rial should still decrease by at least 10% in the exchange with the US dollar.

At official rates, bank interest is already at 24%. Hence, in these crisis contexts, the Euro is therefore not allocable, while the role of the Chinese renmimbi is growing, considering China’s vast purchases of Iranian oil – which will not last forever.

 If not to maintain a game of tensions with the USA, on the part of China, pending the trade war that inflames the two major players in global economy, namely the USA and China.

 Transfers abroad- to the EU in this specific case – cost the Iranian companies at least 20% of the total capital transferred.

 It should also be recalled that oil sales are worth only  40% of Iran’s total GDP, considering that the largest sector of the Iranian economy is services, which account for 51% of GDP, followed by tourism (12%), the real estate sector, and finally the mining sector (13%) and agriculture (still at 10%).

 What could be a possible solution? The greater economic correlation between Iran and China, considering that the commercial crisis between the United States and China is almost simultaneous to the crisis between Iran and the USA – and it has quite similar strategic potentials.

 Hence for the United States the effects will be the maximum pressure available against Iran, in addition to greater US military presence in the Middle East and the damage caused by the USA to the European allies still tied to the signing of the 2015 JCPOA.

  It is also impossible not to think about the inevitable negative reactions on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, already under pressure from various parts.

 Moreover, the bilateral relations between China and Iran are still growing significantly, at economic, political and strategical levels.

 Furthermore, China currently imports 11% of its oil from Iran, in addition to an investment of over 5 billion US dollars for the technological upgrading of the refining and transport of oil and gas.

 China has also invested in the urban transport system, particularly in the Tehran subway, as well as in regional motorways and in the Mehran Petrochemical Complex, in addition to a credit line of the Chinese State financial holding (CITIC) to the Iranian government, amounting to over 10 billion US dollars.

 The China Development Bank has also guaranteed additional 15 billion US dollars – up to a transfer of capital – between Iran and China, which, as stated by Hassan Rouhani, the current leader of the Iranian government, are expected to reach 600 billion US dollars.

  Currently Iran is China’ second trading partner, after the United Arab Emirates, and is also capable of permanently supplying the Shiite republic with advanced weapons.

  Therefore, it is a real “substitution of Iran’s imports” both from the EU and, obviously, from the USA, which enables China to create an economic and military outpost in the Persian Gulf, capable of opposing – in a short lapse of time-the US strategic presence in the region. Not to mention the EU countries’ military set-up and arrangement in the Middle East.

 Moreover, also the USA knows that, considering the asymmetric structure of Iran’s military forces, a clash with Iran could be very costly and even burdensome for the United States, which probably could barely penetrate the Gulf, while it is still believed that a direct North American action on Iranian soil is currently ever more difficult.

 Meanwhile, Iran is struggling to create new markets for its oil, in areas that cannot be integrated into the JCPOA and the US system.

 The target countries of Iran’s expansion are Brazil, China – as usual – but also India, which can be decisive today, considering that the Iranian production reached only 400,000 barrels per day last May, less than half of the sales in the previous month and even below the 2.5 million barrels per day of April 2018.

Everything started with an annual income from Iranian oil of approximately 50 billion US dollars.

  Currently, however, according to US experts, oil proceeds have fallen by at least 10 billion US dollars, after the US re-imposing full sanctions last November.

 The situation is still better for Iranian exports – also to Turkey – of petroleum by-products, such as urea, but above all for the sales of natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, biofuel, methanol, and even other non-oil energy products.

 Iran accepts payments either in currencies other than the dollar or with the old trade-in system, which is a traditional and widespread system in the oil world.

 However, let us revert to the bilateral political crisis between the USA and Iran.

 After the sanctions renewed by President Trump, Iran has started again to enrich uranium to 20% and has also announced it would update the Arak reactor, which was part of the Iranian military system and produced plutonium.

 Moreover, Iran claims that the Arak reactor is still subject to the JCPOA rules and that its productive activity will end soon.

 In Natanz, another important centre for the Iranian production of enriched uranium, the extraction of isotopes has increased significantly. As Iranian leaders themselves say, this extraction should be increased by 400% compared to the JCPOA rules.

 It should be recalled that the treaty of July 14, 2015 limits the production of uranium to 300 kilos of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which has a real content of active and useful uranium to the tune of 202.8 kilos.

 On a strictly military level, the USA has already sent to the Persian Gulf region a group of warships, including the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and four destroyers armed with missiles. Furthermore, some B-52 bombers have been deployed in the Al-Obeid US base, Qatar, in addition to over 120,000 soldiers, distributed in the various US facilities in the Middle East, although President Trump has said that the shipment of these troops is a fake news.

 Nevertheless, this shipment has recently been confirmed by the US Administration.

 However, on May 12 last, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the so-called Pasdaran, attacked four-seven large commercial ships in the port of Fujrairah, one of the great world hubs in oil maritime trade. Other data has not been provided to the press.

 Allegedly, they were vessels belonging to companies based in the United Arab Emirates.

 It is also likely that at least two of those ships were of Saudi nationality.

  Another attack of obscure Iranian origin occurred on May 19, when a Katjuscia rocket was fired against the US Embassy in Baghdad, but without causing victims.

 On May 14, however, Supreme Leader Ali Akhbar Khamenei said that “there would be no war against America”. At the same time, however, the Iranian Rahbar does not want to re-open the nuclear talks with the United States.

  Both because Khamenei does not want to give the impression of rapidly succumbing to the United States – and here the Shiite regime could even self-destruct – and because, in all likelihood, reopening negotiations would imply the end of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

 It should be noted that there is also the oil issue for the USA itself.

 Tension in the Gulf leads to a fast and significant increase in all OPEC crude oil prices while, even considering its higher extraction costs, the US oil is also capable of producing profit, in a context of quick and uncontrollable growth in the OPEC oil barrel prices.

The United States has now reached a production of at least 2.5 million barrels per day, which makes the USA attentive to any possible useful hedging on OPEC oil, with a view to exploiting any geopolitical crisis that – in the oil market – always has immediate consequences on the oil barrel price.

  It should also be noted that the Strait of Hormuz is twenty miles wide. It is technically impossible for Iran to control or block it all.

 Iran, however, can use strong cyberattacks against the oil networks of the neighbouring States that, in various ways, are also all linked to Saudi Arabia.

 Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have alternative pipelines that can easily bypass the Strait of Hormuz.

 Even in the case of an Iranian unconventional attack, Saudi Arabia can sell at least 6.5 million barrels per day and currently the USA is much less exposed to an oil shock like those of the 1970s, given that the American economy is less oil-dependent and particularly considering that the national production of American (and Canadian) oil and gas is such as to ensure an acceptable level of oil use, even without the North American purchases from OPEC countries.

 In 2019, however, China has agreed to keep on buying oil and gas at low prices in Iran, at a level ranging between 700,000 and 800,000 barrels per day.

 Iran has no interest in dealing with the United States, right now that a new presidential election cycle is starting.

  On June 8 last, Iran officially declared that it would break some other restrictions included in the JCPOA if the 2015 treaty continues not to provide the expected economic benefits to Iran.

 The remaining parties that adhered to the JCPOA have recommended Iran to comply – even unilaterally – with the agreement of July 14, 2015 – and these countries are China and the United Kingdom.

 The EU, however, will continue to carry out checks on Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, both in the collection of heavy water and in the production of enriched uranium, which is essential for building nuclear weapons.

 On a strictly economic level, Iran has abolished the oil subsidy regime for the population – a cost of 38 billion US dollars a year, equal to approximately 20% of GDP.

 As both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have noted, this is the first aspect to be kept in mind.

 Nevertheless, in a context like the sanction regime, it is impossible to maintain a policy of internal liberalizations.

 However, on a purely strategic level, what could all this mean, insofar as a permanent geoeconomic clash is emerging between Iran and the United States?

 For example a much harder and more continuous war in the Lebanon than we have already experienced.

 Or a clash with Israel involving Assad’ Syrian Army, the Hezbollah, some units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and even Hamasin the South.

 A long-term war capable of slowly consuming both the material and soldiers of the Jewish State and its  international support.

 Or a new war in Syria, between the Golan Heights and the areas close to Damascus, forcing Russia to play a military role in Assad’ Syria and creating a clash between Israel and Russia, again on Syria alone.

Or another possibility could be a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran, with airstrikes on the territory of the Shiite republic and the whole panoply of means available for non-conventional actions.

 Or finally a clash throughout the Middle East, with the possible presence of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s coordination of all Shiite forces inside and outside the opposing countries.

 It is from this viewpoint that we must evaluate the above mentioned strengthening of the US military structure throughout the Middle East.

 It should also be noted that the 120,000 US military to be deployed in the various US bases in the region are more or less the same – in number – as those that were used in the attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003.

 Meanwhile, the economic crisis is tightening on Iran: last March oil exports fell drastically up to reaching only 1.1 million barrels on average, while Taiwan, Greece and Italy stopped their imports and the major importers, namely  China and India, reduced their purchases from Iran by 39% and 47% respectively.

 The more the crisis deepens in Iran, the more likely the option of a regional war – probably triggered by Iran – becomes.

 The probable clash between Iran and the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia must be assessed in the framework of this very weak balance between a possible anti-Shiite war and a careful evaluation of the effects and results of a probable war against Iran and on how it will leave the Middle East.

Continue Reading

Middle East

The economic summit in Bahrain won’t be about Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Ksenia Svetlova

Published

on

In less than two weeks Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will present in Manama the first part of the long-awaited “deal of the century”, the peace initiative of president Donald Trump designed to find an ultimate solution for the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Iraq and Lebanon will not take part in the event, while Tehran had already accused the participants, mainly Saudi Arabia of “betrayal of the Palestinian struggle”. Following the massive pressure on Arab leaders and promises of significant economic development, the American administration was finally able to secure the participation of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, and probably Morocco. Israel didn’t receive an official invitation for this event yet. It is, however, clear that it will be invited, and some rumors imply that PM Netanyahu himself might come to Bahrain, a country with which Israel doesn’t have any diplomatic relations.

Yet, it seems that this odd event in Manama will resemble a wedding without the bride. The groom will be there, so are the loving parents who will provide the dowry and the guests, but the bride, i.e. the Palestinian autonomy had already declared that it will not send any official or unofficial delegation to the upcoming economic conference.

The relations between the White House and the Palestinian administration had gone sour since President’s Trump decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians are suspicious of Trump’s attempts to promote “a deal” that might not include a reference to a two-state solution. For the last two years, the sole connection between Washington and Ramallah has been maintained by the respective security agencies.  Recent remarks made by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel on Israeli territorial claims in Judea and Samaria and the hints of Israel’s annexation plans intensified Palestinian concerns towards the unveiling of the first part of “the deal”. Palestinian officials had harshly criticized the participation of Arab countries in Bahrain conference, expressing hope that they will send low-key representation, while the Jordanian Kind explained that he decided to send a delegation to the summit “to listen and remain knowledgeable of what is taking place”.

Yet, the most fascinating thing about the economic conference is that it’s not at all about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite its title. With only one year left prior to the US presidential elections and considering the political turmoil in Israel and the unwillingness of the Palestinian partner to engage in any plan presented by Trump’s administration, there is little hope in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington that the “deal of the Century” will accumulate in peaceful solution in the current century.

Why, then, the American administration is investing time and energy in the upcoming Bahrain summit? The answer is clear: mostly, to consolidate the alliance of the “moderate Arab states”.  Considering the recent dramatic events at the sea of Oman and the attack on two oil-tankers, it will not be far-fetched to imagine that the growing tensions in Iran will overshadow the official reason for the gathering. In the same fashion, the “anti-terror” conference in Warsaw that took place in February this year, was solely about Iran, while all other aspects of anti-terrorism activities were left behind. The deterioration of the situation in the Persian Gulf is crucial for the hosts and their allies – the Arab countries in the Gulf. Egypt and Jordan were required to be there because they are key American allies in the region who also maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. The plan that is envisaged by Kushner and Greenblatt will include economic benefits and development programs for both Amman and Cairo who are dealing with pressing economic hardships. Would they prefer to stay away from the conference that is being shunned by the Palestinians? Probably. Could these two countries, who receive significant economic help from the US say no to the invitation and not show up at the wedding of the century? Highly unlikely.

Ironically, some 52 years ago in Khartoum, it was the Arab league that had unanimously voted on the famous “three no’s” resolution in Khartoum, declining any possibility of dialogue with Israel. Today, when the Arab states are weakened by the “Arab spring” and preoccupied with growing tensions in the Persian Gulf while the focus has shifted from the Palestinian question elsewhere, they are more prone than ever to go along with practically any American plan, while the only ones who refuse to cooperate with Trump and obediently fulfil his orders are the Palestinians who will be absent from Manama gathering. The support of the Palestinian struggle and its importance in Arab politics had dwindled, while other regional affairs had moved center stage. Considering this dramatic change of circumstances, the odd wedding in Bahrain doesn’t seem so odd anymore. It can be seen as yet another step in American attempts to consolidate an Arab alliance against Iran. The Palestinian-Israel conflict that will keep simmering after the conference just as it did before has nothing to do with it.

Continue Reading

Latest

Trending

Copyright © 2019 Modern Diplomacy