As political crisis turns into civil war, Yemen’s embattled president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has appealed for international help. Yemen’s northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia has been very nervous about both Bahrain and Yemen uprisings, unfolded since 2011. Regime in Riyadh unconvincingly warns it will “take necessary measures if needed” and currently the Saudis are reportedly grouping artillery and other heavy military equipment close to the border. Most observers agree, this move is a show off made for the domestic Saudi consumption, to prevent panic and demoralisation.
Almost constantly since its foundation in 1932, Saudi Arabia has been involved in Yemen politically, and sometimes militarily – far too often with negative consequences for Yemen. Is the increased Iranian influence in Yemen a game changer? Could this ultimately lead to a complete dissolution of Saudi Arabia as a state? Is (con-)federalisation of Saudi Arabia the best long term option?
Yemen has long been the odd man out in the Arabian peninsula: poor, populous and republican in a region dominated by extraordinarily wealthy but less populated monarchies. Even without the presence of al-Qaeda, it has generally been viewed warily by its neighbours.
Relations with Saudi Arabia have always been a central feature of Yemeni foreign policy, not merely because the kingdom is the dominant state in the peninsula and Yemen’s most important neighbour, but also because the Saudis’ perception of their security needs is that they should seek to influence Yemen as much as possible in order to prevent it from becoming a threat.
According to this view, Saudi interests are best served by keeping Yemen “on the wobble” (as one western diplomat put it) – though not so wobbly that regional stability is jeopardised. Before the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, this amounted to ensuring that both parts of the country focused their attentions on each other rather than on their non-Yemeni neighbours.
For that strategy to succeed, it was essential to maintain an equilibrium between both parts, so that neither became dominant. Thus Soviet support for the south was generally matched by Saudi support for the north, coupled with frequent meddling in the internal affairs of both parts. To some extent, the north exploited this policy to its own financial advantage, but even so there were drawbacks. Most importantly, it created dependence on the Saudis. Apart from official aid and unofficial aid (in the form of bribes to various tribal leaders), by the 1980s remittances from Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia had become the mainstay of the northern economy.
The Treaty of Taif, 1934
Just two years after establishing Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud fought a brief war with Yemen. Details of the conflict are not particularly relevant today but its result was the Treaty of Ta’if which for the first time formally demarcated part of the border between the two countries. This was the westernmost part of the border, adjacent to the Red Sea, and in the process several ethnically Yemeni areas became Saudi territory. However, because on kinship ties on both sides, and other factors such as animal herding, the border proved difficult to control.
Letters exchanged by Saudi and Yemeni leaders at the signing of the Ta’if treaty could be interpreted as allowing relatively unrestricted Yemeni entry into the kingdom. Naturally, Sana’a made a point of interpreting them in this way and regarded them as an integral part of the treaty.
By the time of the oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s, this had resulted in countless Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia. Northern Yemenis were allowed to enter the kingdom on terms which were easier than those for nationals of other countries (including the southern Yemen). They had no need for a Saudi sponsor, and were allowed to own businesses without the customary Saudi partner. In the view of Sana’a, these privileges were not merely a favour bestowed by the Saudis but amounted to a legal right.
Together with dependants, the number of Yemenis living in Saudi Arabia probably approached two million at its peak. Although in the short term their remittances brought tremendous benefits to north Yemen, the longer-term effects were more debatable. In the first place, the remittances tied north Yemen’s economy to Saudi Arabia – which meant it would suffer if political relations deteriorated. Meanwhile, the influx of cash into Yemen from expatriate workers caused inflation and huge disparities in wealth where the families who had no members working abroad were the first to suffer. Agriculture declined as able-bodied workers drifted away from the countryside, leaving villages populated largely by women and those males who were either too old or too young to work abroad. Gradually, the delicate system of mountain terraces began to fall into disrepair, leading to soil erosion and further agricultural decline.
Even at its best, the relationship between the Saudis and their Yemeni guest-workers was by no means harmonious: the Saudis, for their part, seem to have feared that Yemenis in the kingdom might foment opposition to the monarchy. Yemenis, in turn, also complained of ingratitude. It was their labour, they said, which had built Saudi Arabia – without adequate compensation. They had performed many of the jobs that Saudis were unwilling or too lazy to perform themselves. Many Yemenis complained of discrimination and harsh treatment in Saudi Arabia. Comparisons are sometimes drawn here with the British attitude towards Irish labourers. The late Fred Halliday, for instance, quoted one elderly Yemeni living in Britain as saying: “The Irish are like the Yemenis. They built London, just as the Yemenis built Saudi Arabia. No wonder the Saudis and the English get on so well – they don’t do any work.”
Yemen’s civil war, 1962-1970
A rebellion against the Iman’s rule in northern Yemen led to a protracted civil war. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia (along with Jordan) intervened in support of the royalist cause, equipping royalist tribes and hiring hundred of foreign mercenaries. Britain provided covert support and the Shah of Iran helped with financial support since the Imam, like today’s Houthis, was a Shia Muslim from the Zaidi sect.
Meanwhile, Nasser’s Egypt backed the republican side, sending 70,000 troops as well as chemical weapons (which were actually used). This proved a military debacle which has been described as Egypt’s Vietnam.
Saudi Arabia pulled out in 1965 and Egypt recalled its troops in 1967 in the wake of its defeat nearer home at the hands of Israel. The civil war ended with northern Yemen becoming a republic.
Yemeni unification, 1990
In 1990 northern Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic, ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh since 1978) and the southern Marxist-ruled People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen united to form a single state, the Republic of Yemen.
Although Yemen’s peninsular neighbours formally welcomed unification (since they were obliged to pay lip-service to Arab unity), in reality they greeted it with a mixture of coolness and consternation. For some of them, the fact that Yemen espoused democratisation along with unification made the changes doubly disturbing.
Yemen ‘s unification created a new state with a combined population of around 15 million citizens. Though population figures in the Arabian peninsula tend to be unreliable, Yemenis greatly outnumbered Kuwaitis, Omanis, Qataris, Bahrainis and Emiratis. They also equalled or possibly outnumbered Saudi citizens. Yemen’s comparatively large population, further enlarged by unification and coupled with a high birth rate, may not have been of much practical consequence at the time but it was one of the psychological factors lurking in the background.
For Gulf rulers, the political changes that accompanied Yemeni unification were no less disconcerting psychologically. In a region where states are generally run along the autocratic lines of a 19th-century family business, multi-party democracy tended to be perceived as no less revolutionary than the old Marxist regime in south Yemen.
Firstly, there were fears that democratisation in Yemen could create pressure for similar measures in Saudi Arabia and upset the stability of the monarchy. Secondly, there was the fear that Saudi opposition groups might look to Yemen for support, and that Sana’a, well aware of Saudi support for opposition groups in Yemen, might feel justified in providing it.
Saudi Arabia’s wary – even hostile – attitude towards Yemeni unification, coupled with Yemeni anxieties about the kingdom’s reaction, exacerbated relations during the early 1990s. At about the same time, three additional factors came into play. One was the discovery in Yemen, starting from the mid-1980s, of modest but useful quantities of oil and natural gas; the second was renewed interest in the border question and the third was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In combination these brought a rapid worsening of relations.
The Gulf War, 1990-91
Unification also came at a time when Saddam Hussein of Iraq, after the war with Iran, was adopting an increasingly belligerent stance towards Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; having fought Iran in part as their proxy, he was now seeking recompense. Yemen itself had long-standing relations with Iraq: the original connections were religious, but the two countries also had economic, military and political ties. There was a strong element of Iraqi-orientated Ba’athism in north Yemeni politics, and at an international level the country had tended to align itself with Iraq rather the Gulf states. President Saleh regularly used Iraqi military advisers and his Republican Guard was modelled on Saddam’s. Furthermore, Yemeni troops had fought alongside Iraqis in the war with Iran.
The formation of the Arab Co-operation Council in 1989, consisting of Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan, was seen by some as the birth of a new alliance which might one day challenge the GCC. There is also no doubt that Saddam supported and encouraged Yemeni unification – to the extent that some have claimed, in the light of the invasion of Kuwait a few months later, that he saw it as a building-block in his regional master-plan. Had the Arab Co-operation Council become a success and also developed into a military alliance, the Saudis would have had good reason to be alarmed. As it turned out, however, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (and the international response to it) forced Yemen’s relations with Saddam to be drastically scaled down – but not without causing enormous damage in the meantime.
Less than three months after unification, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait presented Yemen with a stark dilemma. It had long-standing links with Iraq; at the same time, it depended on remittances from Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Whatever Yemen decided to do, it was bound to suffer. Opting for what it saw as a middle course, Yemen simultaneously condemned the invasion of Kuwait and opposed Western military intervention, arguing instead for a regional – Arab – solution. In this it differed little from several other “neutral’’ Arab states, but as the only Arab member of the UN Security Council at the time, Yemen possibly felt it had a special responsibility on behalf of the Arab world. In any event, it was in a uniquely exposed position and its behaviour came under special scrutiny.
In the first Security Council vote imposing trade sanctions against Iraq, which was carried on August 6 by 13 votes to nil, Yemen abstained along with Cuba. In a second vote on August 25, allowing military enforcement of the blockade, the voting pattern was the same. Later, Yemen voted against the use of force to recapture Kuwait and its stance was interpreted in the West as evidence of secret support for Saddam, and by Saudi Arabia as nothing less than betrayal. Although Yemen declared that it would observe sanctions (but would not “impede international navigation” by challenging ships suspected of breaking them), Western diplomats questioned its sincerity.
A few days before the Security Council’s second vote, an Iraqi tanker, Ain Zalah, had begun to unload crude oil at the Aden refinery, though work apparently halted as soon as Yemen announced its decision to abide by sanctions. Two other Iraqi tankers, al-Fao and al-Qadissiyah, arrived empty in Aden after being refused entry to a Saudi port. A fourth, Baba Gurgur, took refuge in Aden after earlier failing to stop when US Navy frigates fired warning shots across its bows. Unnamed diplomatic sources cited by Associated Press also claimed that Iraq had flown 12 captured Kuwaiti fighter aircraft to Sana’a and that 36 Iraqi warplanes had been stationed in Ta’izz. Yemeni government ministers emphatically denied that there were any Iraqi warplanes or Iraqi forces in the country. About the same time, the British Consul-General in Aden, Douglas Gordon, was briefly arrested and then expelled from Yemen for taking photographs in the port area.
Mass expulsions from Saudi Arabia
The outcome was that Yemen got the worst of all worlds, suffering more from the war than any other non-combatant country: UN sanctions cut off its trade with Iraq and the US cut off its aid (declaring Yemen’s vote “the most expensive no in history”). Saudi Arabia ended all economic assistance to Yemen and deployed troops in the frontier zone. In addition, it announced that Yemenis working in the kingdom must find a Saudi sponsor or business partner or leave the country. Almost none of them found sponsors or partners before the deadline, and within a few weeks some 750,000 people were bundled over the border into Yemen, many of them leaving behind most of their possessions. Those who owned property in Saudi Arabia were obliged to dispose of it quickly, which in most cases seems to have meant selling it for a fraction of its real worth. Needless to say, the withdrawal of privileges for Yemenis was interpreted in Sana’a as a breach of the Ta’if treaty.
This amounted to double punishment of Yemen, for not only did the country suffer a sudden loss of remittances but also faced the problem of absorbing this huge influx of returnees. In the space of three months, Yemen experienced a 7% increase in its population and a 15% increase in its workforce, severely exacerbating unemployment. To begin to comprehend the upheaval this caused, in proportional terms one would have to imagine close to four million British expatriates suddenly arriving at Dover – jobless and largely homeless.
The luckier returnees drifted back to their cities and villages. In Sana’a, a year later, they could be seen every morning, sitting by the kerbside at major cross-roads, hoping someone would hire them for a day’s work. Most were still there by nightfall. For months, several hundred thousand camped out on the hot and humid Tihama plain. The Yemeni government, arguing that they should not be treated as refugees in their own country, provided little comfort – hoping that this would encourage them to disperse. It worked up to a point. The numbers dwindled gradually, aided by outbreaks of cholera which at one point were killing 50-60 children every week.
By no means all of these people had close connections with Yemen. Some had never previously lived in Yemen; one woman claimed to be a Saudi citizen married to a Yemeni; others, of distinctly un-Yemeni appearance, were probably of east African origin. There was little doubt that the Saudis had taken this opportunity to expel not only Yemenis but anyone else who had no passport and seemed to be a burden on the state: the blind, the infirm, beggars, plus a few thieves and drug addicts.
The result of the expulsions was a hardening of attitudes on both sides. In Saudi eyes, their actions were justified retribution for Yemeni ingratitude after decades of economic assistance at a level that no other state had come close to providing. If the Saudis hoped the expelled Yemenis would blame the Sana’a government for their plight, they were mistaken. On the streets, in the buses and cafes, there was vigorous support for Yemen’s Gulf stance, coupled with undisguised admiration for Saddam Hussein.
A further wave of mass expulsions came in 2013 when the Saudi authorities began a crackdown on undocumented migrant workers. Millions of foreigners living or working in the kingdom were ordered to regularise their legal status or leave the country. Once again, this included large numbers of Yemenis who were peremptorily herded across the border.
The oil factor
Yemeni oil had begun to come on stream shortly before unification; by 1989 the northern fields were producing 200,000 barrels a day and proven reserves at the time were estimated at four billion barrels. Although modest in comparison with its neighbours’ oil resources, this gave Yemen, for the first time in its history, an independent source of wealth. Economic independence in turn held out the prospect of greater political independence because it made remittances and aid from Saudi Arabia less important. Internally, oil provided a substantial new source of revenue for the central government and, since existing tax revenue was extremely low, this created an opportunity for Sana’a to increase its control over the whole country by using its funds to benefit the more wayward tribes, possibly making some of the shaykhs less susceptible to Saudi bribery.
It was generally assumed that most forms of opposition and political intrigue in Yemen at the time were funded by the Saudis. There was no documentary evidence for this but the stories were so widespread as to suggest they contained a good deal of truth. At the start of the 1990s, the Islah party (rather than the YSP) was considered the main recipient of Saudi largesse. Apart from the more straightforward forms of subsidy, the Saudis appear to have made frequent use of bribes to achieve specific ends – though not always successfully. During the 1991 constitutional referendum, the men of Sa’ada in the far north were allegedly bribed to abstain from voting but defied the Saudis by sending their wives to vote instead. Later, during the 1994 war, a northern shaykh told friends he had been bribed by the Saudis to support the southern cause. When asked why he had failed to keep his side of the bargain, he replied: “The Saudis gave me only a little money”.
Another important effect of oil was to increase pressure for a settlement of the largely undefined border with Saudi Arabia. The issue had been of little practical consequence until the mid-1980s when Yemen discovered its first oil close to the notional line. Shortly afterwards Saudi Arabia began to assert territorial claims in oil concession areas allocated by Yemen, apparently to discourage further exploration by foreign companies under Yemeni auspices. In 1991 Saudi forces reportedly chased out a party of French geologists working in the Hadramaut region. The following year, the Saudis sent warning letters to six oil companies operating in Yemen: British Petroleum, Atlantic Richfield, Hunt Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Elf Aquitaine and Petro-Canada all received the warnings, according to diplomats in Sana’a. Most of them appear to have ignored the threats, though BP halted drilling work on a well in the Antufash block in the Red Sea.
Although the disputed oil areas were hugely important to Yemen, the quantities involved were marginal in terms of the Saudis’ overall production. This suggested that Saudi Arabia was less interested in acquiring the oil for itself than in depriving Yemen of the benefit in order to limit its prospects for economic development and independence. Possibly the Saudis also feared that Yemen would use its oil wealth to acquire modern weapons, as had happened with Iraq. Although oil revenue was unlikely to be sufficient to allow Yemen to build up its armed forces in the way Saddam Hussein had done, it did mean that for the first time Yemen would have the hard currency to buy weapons on the open market, should it choose to do so. It is important, however, not to over-estimate the military threat that Yemen was able to pose. Its financial resources were modest and likely to remain so; northern and southern forces were not integrated into a single fighting unit; and the main functions of the armies were (a) to maintain internal control and (b) provide employment of sorts for large numbers of young men.
Nevertheless, the border question was of such crucial importance to Yemen’s future that it was reasonable to suppose Sana’a might be prepared to fight for it. There was also reason to suppose that in a border conflict Yemen would not necessarily be defeated, despite the Saudis’ superior weapons. The Yemenis were likely to be more highly motivated than the Saudis, and the Saudis would have had to maintain forces at the far edge of the Empty Quarter, whereas the Yemenis would have much shorter lines of communication. With the outbreak of war over Kuwait, Yemeni oil assumed even greater importance. Oil revenue became a vital replacement for the loss of remittances following the enforced return of Yemeni workers from Saudi Arabia; Yemen also began to consume its own oil rather than exporting it, because of the UN embargo on Iraqi oil. This, of course, added to concern over the border issue.
The border question
Yemen and Saudi Arabia shared one of the longest undefined borders in the world. Only a small part of the line had ever been agreed: a portion at the extreme north-western end stretching from a point just north of Midi on the Red Sea coast to Najran oasis. That was in 1934 under the Treaty of Ta’if, when, after a brief war, two ethnically Yemeni provinces, Asir and Najran, were ceded to the Saudis. The remaining eastern portion of the frontier – totally undefined – ran for almost 1,000 miles through mountains and desert, mostly unpopulated, on the fringes of the Empty Quarter. To the west, the maritime border in the Red Sea was also undefined, further hampering oil exploration.
Apart from the need for a settlement created by oil discoveries, there were a number of reasons why the border question came to the fore shortly after unification. From the Yemeni standpoint, unification made the mechanics of border talks more straightforward than previously because there would be only one Yemeni government negotiating with the Saudis instead of two. Meanwhile in 1992 the settlement of Yemen’s only other land border – with Oman – again tended to focus attention on the outstanding question of the Saudi border. Finally, the partial settlement of the border under the Treaty of Ta’if was due to lapse in 1992. Thus, by 1990 both parties were beginning to stake out their bargaining positions as a prelude to talks about renewal.
There were frequent Yemeni claims of Saudi troop movements in the frontier area. These usually coincided with periods of tension or new diplomatic moves on the border question. In October 1990, Saudi Arabia announced plans to construct a multi-billion dollar “military city” near Jizan at the north-western end of the border. This was to be one of a series in strategic areas, designed to house 50,000 officers and men with their families, and was described by Saudi officials as “a fortified bastion at our gates”. In 1991 a Yemeni border post at Baq’ah in north-west Yemen was reported to have been captured by Saudi troops, though Riyadh denied this. A bizarre diplomatic incident occurred in May 1992 when a Saudi weather forecast appeared to claim that the Kharakhayr region of Hadramaut belonged to the kingdom. As this was the birthplace of Vice-President al-Baid, it resulted in a stiff protest note from Sana’a. Further complicating the issue, about the same time, the Saudis were reported to be offering Saudi citizenship to some traditionally Yemeni border tribes in Shabwa, Hadramaut and al-Mahara provinces.
On the Yemeni side, the new unified constitution signalled a tough, uncompromising position when it stated in the opening sentence: “The Republic of Yemen is an independent sovereign state, an inviolable unit, no part of which may be relinquished.” The last phrase was an insertion which had not appeared in the previous YAR constitution. The Yemeni government also did little to discourage speculation that it hoped to recover the “lost provinces” ceded in 1934, though there is nothing to suggest that such rumblings were anything more than a negotiating ploy. Yemen’s declared aim was to extend the issue beyond the small area covered by the Ta’if treaty and to seek a comprehensive border settlement – which now appeared feasible for the first time as a result of unification.
Despite all the posturing, the border dispute was more than a mere quarrel between two neighbours; it was a genuinely difficult question involving complex and highly technical issues. Both sides had wildly divergent views as to where the border should lie – at some points on the basis of quite slender and conflicting evidence. One of the difficulties in resolving this was the number of different claims made over the years by both regimes or their predecessors. The other was agreeing on what criteria should be applied: the principle of self-determination was not applicable in unpopulated areas, and in most parts neither side had a history of local administration which might reinforce a claim. The respective claims were based on a number of lines on old maps: the Violet Line, the Hamza Line, the Riyadh Line, the Philby Line, etc., representing earlier claims which had been rejected by one side or the other. These lines not only diverged by up to 200 km in places, but also crossed, creating at one point a small triangle in the middle which appeared not to be claimed by either side.
A further, but related, issue was that the Saudis had long sought a land corridor southwards to the Arabian Sea (and thence to the Indian Ocean). Strategically, their oil exports were potentially vulnerable to a military blockade because tankers from Saudi ports had to pass through one of three narrow waterways, none of which the Saudis controlled directly: the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf, and the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab at each end of the Red Sea. A pipeline to the open sea in the south would thus provide extra security. This was not strictly part of the border dispute (since the corridor was a Saudi desire rather than a claim) though in practice the two issues tended to be linked.
Shortly before the south achieved independence in 1967 there had been strong suspicions, particularly within the National Liberation Front, that Britain and Saudi Arabia were plotting an east-west partition in the south, or possibly even to hand the eastern provinces of Hadramawt and al-Mahra to the Saudis. The idea originally seems to have been to reduce instability in the region caused by Britain’s withdrawal from the Aden naval base, though it would also have improved the kingdom’s strategic position. After southern independence, Saudi-sponsored subversion in the south appears to have been aimed at separating the eastern provinces from Aden and the west. Although these suspicions were not confirmed, they arose out of a meeting between King Faisal and Harold Wilson, the British prime minster, early in 1967. They were further fuelled by the fact that Britain handed the traditionally Yemeni Kuria Muria islands to Oman shortly before southern independence.
Subsequently, the Saudis proposed the corridor idea to both Oman and the PDRY – and both refused. In principle Yemen had no objection to a pipeline; the sticking point was that the Saudis, presumably for security reasons, had insisted on having full sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of it. For a time, one possibility was to locate the corridor between Yemen and Oman, but that option was closed in 1992 following agreement on the hitherto undefined border with Oman. It is conceivable that the corridor plan was one factor behind the Saudis’ encouragement of southern separatism in 1994. If the secession had succeeded, granting a corridor would have been the most obvious way to repay the Saudis for their support.
The poor state of Yemeni-Saudi relations resulting from the Gulf war made talks on the border issue impossible during 1990 and 1991. They started, after a decent interval, with a ministerial meeting in Geneva in July 1992 and continued spasmodically and somewhat half-heartedly, for almost two years. They were broken off on April 26, 1994, just as the political crisis in Yemen was turning to war. It was not until 2000 that the issue was finally settled by the Treaty of Jeddah.
North-south war, 1994
Shortly after unification tensions developed between the former leaders of north and south Yemen. Failure to integrate the armies of the two former states also contributed to the outbreak, in 1994, of a war between them. However, in the space of a few weeks, Saleh’s northern forces (with Islamist backing) defeated the southern fighters and reimposed unity by force.
The Saudis backed the losing side, providing them with weapons – some of which were still arriving as the war had ended. They later provided refuge for some of the key southern leaders who continued agitating against Saleh from inside the kingdom.
The end of the border dispute
Tensions between Yemen and Saudi Arabia continued in the aftermath of the north-south war. A series of border skirmishes culminated in 1995 with reports of a large military build-up by the Saudis at three points in the border area just as Saleh was leaving Yemen on a rare – and diplomatically important – tour of Europe.
Resolving the border issue was no easy task. Only a small part of the frontier, in the populated north-western corner, had ever been defined and by 1994 the Ta’if treaty which defined it had technically lapsed. The remaining 1,000 miles or so had never been agreed. Since this undefined section ran mostly through desert on the fringes of the Empty Quarter its precise location had little importance until the mid-1980s when Yemen discovered oil close to the notional line.
For a while, the Yemenis talked of submitting the question to international arbitration but in 2000 both sides surprisingly reached an agreement which was set out in the Treaty of Jeddah. One consequence of this, besides defining the border, was that Saudi Arabia agreed to stop supporting the southern separatists.
Despite the agreement, though, the border remained porous and difficult to police. At the western end in particular there was a good deal of unauthorised movement across it, including smuggling activity.
The Houthi rebellion
From 2004 onwards, the Yemeni government fought a series of wars aimed at crushing Zaidi rebels – popularly known as the Houthis – in the far north of the country, adjacent to the Saudi border.
The last of these campaigns under Saleh’s presidency, dubbed “Operation Scorched Earth” by the Yemeni government, began in August 2009 an ended with a ceasefire in February 2010. On that occasion Saudi Arabia also intervened militarily, bombing Houthi positions in Yemen in support of Saleh’s forces.
The Saudis were especially anxious to prevent the Houthi conflict overspilling into their southern provinces and came up with a drastic solution: to depopulate the kingdom’s border area. Thousands of people from some 400 villages were forcibly uprooted and transferred to makeshift camps.
The Saudis also seized this opportunity to tackled other border-related issues. In the first six months of 2009, more than 120,000 people were detained for trying to enter the kingdom illegally, according to a Border Guard report, and in one two-week period an astonishing total of 30,557 people were allegedly arrested for smuggling offences. The smuggling trade was said to include weapons, hashish, qat, “shamma” snuff and alcohol. A report in Okaz newspaper said:
“The villages on the border assist their Yemeni counterparts in smuggling, with Saudi homes and Yemeni homes sometimes separated by no more than a few metres.
“Smugglers and infiltrators use abandoned houses as hiding places before moving on to the main cities in the kingdom, and use donkeys at night, navigating their way along tracks that take them around checkpoints, and sometimes seeking the help of local shepherds to keep them aware of any police presence.”
The Houthi rebellion, though, was partly a result of Saudi missionary activities. A major factor leading up to the Houthi conflict was rivalry between the majority of Zaidi Shiites and a growing minority of men who had converted from Zaidism to the salafi or Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, according to Shelagh Weir, a veteran Yemen watcher.
Though ostensibly religious, this rivalry also had a social dimension, Weir told a conference in London. Converts included men who occupied the bottom of the traditional status hierarchy and bitterly resented their social disadvantage, as well as youths who resented the power of the older generation or were attracted by the charisma of salafi leaders and their obvious financial resources. “Certain sheikhs openly or tacitly supported salafism for personal or anti-Zaidi reasons or because of the subsidies they received from Saudi Arabia.”
“During the 1990s the growth of socially-divisive salafism within the heartlands of Zaidi Islam was encouraged and funded by officials and business interests in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“Salafis increasingly mocked or questioned the beliefs and rituals of the Zaidi majority, threatening them in mosques and accusing them of wanting the return of the imam [i.e. the end of the republican system] – though this was publicly denied by the Zaidi clerics.”
Inevitably, the aggressive salafi/Wahhabi proselytising triggered a response from the other side, with the Houthis seeking to defend Zaidi rights in the Saadah region.
Saudi Arabia’s successful campaign to eradicate al-Qaeda from the kingdom also had the effect of driving militants into Yemen and caused AQAP, the local branch of al-Qaeda, to focus its attention there. Since the Houthis and al-Qaeda are sworn enemies, that also exacerbated the problems in Yemen.
Given this historical background, it will be surprising if the Saudis do not become involved in the unfolding events in Yemen. What form this will take remains to be seen but the Saudis probably know Yemen well enough to avoid the folly of sending their own ground forces. They might engage in air strikes and, on past form, provide money and equipment. Even that would be dangerous though, because it would invite a response from Iran whose support for the Houthis has so far been verbal rather than tangible.
Also based on past form, the overall effect of any Saudi involvement is unlikely to be positive.
First published by Palestinian Pundit under title: ‘Yemen and Saudi Arabia – a historical review’.
Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’
On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.
Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.
As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.
The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year, to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.
In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.
Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.
In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.
In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.
The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.
The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.
Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.
In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.
The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.
The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.
Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.
Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.
It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.
Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.
In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.
It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.
According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.
The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.
Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.
According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
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