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The Middle Eastern Metternichs of Riyadh

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Gaming the demise of the Saudi monarchy has been a flourishing industry on the think-tank circuit for the past dozen years. Not long ago I sat in private conclaves of US national security officials with a sprinkling of invited experts where the head-shaking, chin-pulling consensus held that the Saudi royal family would be gone in ten years.

A premise of the “realist” view that American policy in the region should shift towards Iran was that the Saudi monarchy would collapse and Sunni power along with it. All of us misunderestimated the Saudis.

Now the Saudis have emerged at the top of a Sunni coalition against Iran–limited for the moment to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, to be sure, but nonetheless the most impressive piece of diplomacy in the Sunni world since Nasser, and perhaps in modern times. That attributes a lot of importance to a coalition assembled for a minor matter in a small country, but it may be the start of something important: the self-assertion of the Sunni world in response to the collapse of American regional power, the threat of Sunni jihadist insurgencies, and the Shi’ite bid for regional hegemony.

The standard narrative held that the Saudi royal family would fracture after the death of King Abdullah, leaving a sclerotic and senile generation of princes to preside over the demise of a colonial relic. After the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, the smart money bet on the Islamists, with their fusion of religious fundamentalism and modern political techniques. “Given the awfulness of post-World War II Arab lands, where even the most benign regimes had sophisticated, torture-happy security services, Islamists who braved the wrath of rulers and trenchantly critiqued the moral breakdown of their societies were going to do well in a postsecular age. What is poorly understood in the West is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries. As counterintuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region,” wrote Reuel Marc Gerecht in 2012.

Writing premature obituaries for the Saudi monarchy wasn’t a Western monopoly. Late last year a well-regarded Chinese analyst told me, “Isn’t it ironic–we modern Chinese and you modern Americans are trying to prop up this medieval monstrosity!”

Compared to the White House foreign-policy camarilla–McBama and his Weird Sisters–the Saudis turn out to be Middle Eastern Metternichs. The 10-nation coalition that Riyadh assembled to counter Iranian intervention in Yemen has a broad mandate to contain Iran throughout the region. As Zvi Har’el comments in Ha’aretz: “On the diplomatic side, Saudi Arabia was able to get Sudan to break its traditional ties with Iran; Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Court for crimes against humanity, was received with great pomp and fanfare by King Salman, and at the end of his visit announced that his country was joining the coalition. He also ordered the expulsion of all the Iranian delegations from his country, handing Saudi Arabia another important asset in the balance of power against Iran. Qatar also joined the coalition despite being considered an Iranian ally. More importantly, Saudi Arabia and its allies gave themselves free license to operate in any other Arab country that chooses to join the Iranian sphere.”

More importantly, the Saudis have enlisted the help of two Sunni neighbors of Iran with armies far more powerful than the Tehran’s, Turkey and Pakistan. “Iran is trying to dominate the region,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told a press conference March 26. “Could this be allowed? This has begun annoying us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This is really not tolerable and Iran has to see this.” That is a drastic shift the position of Turkey, which in the past sought to balance relations with all of its neighbors. Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against the Saudi-backed government of Gen. Fatah al-Sisi also was a source of contention with Riyadh, not least because the Muslim Brothers want to overthrow and replace the Saudi monarchy. Pakistan, heavily dependent on Saudi aid, initially rejected Saudi requests for a troop presence on its border with Yemen but now has military assistance “under consideration.”

Turkey has over $320 billion in hard-currency debt, virtually all of it accumulated since 2008, and a currency that has lost 30% of its value against the dollar since mid-2014, leaving Turkish debtors with correspondingly higher debt service costs. A great deal of its foreign currency borrowing was conducted through banks, and most of the money came from the Saudis and other Gulf states. Turkey’s debt constraints have pushed its economy into near-recession, with manufacturing output down by more than 2% year-on-year. Erdogan’s political standing, which depended on easy credit and populist public spending, is in jeopardy. It seems likely that the Saudis have exercised the Erdogan option for which they paid a high premium over the past several years.

It isn’t only that the Saudis acted without the help of the United States, but that they acted in direct contravention of a prime American objective, namely to bring Iran into the regional security architecture as an important and responsible player. The US was led along, but not informed of the particulars of the operation.

“At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, General Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command, said he did not learn the Saudis were actually going attack Yemen until an hour before the operation was launched. Austin, whose theater includes Yemen, would normally expect to be given more than an hour’s heads-up before such a military operation. Another official with Centcom, who asked not to be named, told us Thursday evening that Austin had “indications” over the weekend that something might happen but got no final confirmation until Wednesday,” Eli Lake and Josh Rogin reported today in Bloomberg News.

This is the second time in a few months that the Saudis have taken the world by surprise. The first was last September, when they initiated a plunge in oil prices by declining to reduce production in the face of a surge in US oil output. That had killed two birds with one stone, namely competition from higher-cost US shale producers, and the Iranian government budget. No one saw that coming. For those of us who enjoy surprises, Riyadh has been a welcome source of them in recent months. We look forward to more.

Source: Middle East Forum

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History Repeats Itself

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Recently former Israeli Mossad Director Tamir Pardo said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to attack Iran in 2011.

Mr Pardo stressed that the order given to servicemen for the preparation of the attack was not a training exercise. Tel Aviv planned to launch an attack within 15 days, but this did not happen.

Well, what does it change?

This statement by the Israeli intelligence officer was not a historical scoop – a godsend for professional historians. Everybody remembers that by 2011 the situation around Iran, or rather its nuclear program, was very tense.

The nuclear talks, which by then had lasted for eight years in different formats, reached a dead end. In the period from 2006 to 2010, the UN Security Council adopted six resolutions condemning the Islamic Republic of Iran for its nuclear program uncontrolled by the IAEA and the reluctance to seek compromises in the negotiations.

Four of these documents of the Security Council included international economic sanctions against Iran. However, these sanctions were insufficient to bring Tehran back to reality.

In fact, at that time the windows of opportunity for a political solution to the Iranian nuclear problem were gradually shutting down. Israel and the United States began to really prepare for a military solution to the Iranian problem. At the same time, it should be noted that “military scenarios” were already on the tables of Israeli and American leaders. Israeli authoritative political analyst Ben Caspit, known for his relations with the country’s leadership, said in 2011 that at the initiative of the head of government, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel had significantly stepped up preparations for “striking at Iran.”

According to him, in this matter, the Prime Minister enjoyed the absolute support of Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The well-known Israeli political figure who was at the time the leader of the Kadima party, Shaul Mofaz, who were born in Iran, believed that Israel should single-handedly eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat.

On March 1, 2011, it was reported that US Air Force commander Norton Schwartz said that his subordinates had developed a plan for a military operation against Iran . According to the plan, three scenarios were being developed:

– A simultaneous strike against one or several major nuclear facilities

– Time (2-5 days) and scale restricted missile and aircraft strikes on critical facilities of nuclear infrastructure, missile units, air defence facilities, airfields, naval bases, main communication centers.

-The multiple-day large-scale aviation-missile operation with massive missile and bomb strikes aimed at completely destroying nuclear facilities and most of the military infrastructure of the Islamic Republic of Iran (the “Yugoslav scenario”).

At the same time, the US military was considering the possibility of using the heaviest non-nuclear munition – a new 13.5-ton bomb, capable of destroying underground enemy nuclear facilities with concrete walls up to 65 meters thick.

Apart from this, the US Air Force planned to provide its refueling aircraft for Israeli fighters sent to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure – if there would be such a need.

Indeed, back then experts in Jerusalem as well as in Washington were inspired by the military method of solving Iran’s nuclear problem. In fact, the military of the United States and Israel together and separately conducted exercises and training, practicing various options for military operations against Iran.

And, apparently, the ground military operation according to to the “Iraq scenario” was not considered due to its utopian nature in connection with the peculiarities of the international and regional situation of that time and Iran’s conditions. The only exception could be the landing operation to unblock the Strait of Hormuz (Tehran repeatedly warned and threatened about its blocking ) and further control over shipping in this region.

There were many plans. It is not without reason that in 2011 the world media and serious institutions in various countries repeatedly gave the allegedly exact date of the attack on Iran.

However, in 2011-2012, the European Union and then the United States imposed against Iran “hard-hitting” (according to Hillary Clinton) sanctions, which should have made the Iranian leadership think about the future. A comprehensive military strike was abolished, and a comprehensive financial and economic strike – sanctions against Tehran – were put in place. To a certain extent, the strike hit the target. The serious problems that started in the Iranian economy forced Tehran to make adjustments to its policy.

Hasan Rouhani was elected as Iranian President. He was perhaps the only Iranian politician who could negotiate with the international community on the Iranian nuclear program. President Rouhani brilliantly coped with the task, and became one of the authors of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The world and the Middle East took a breath – the war against Iran was irrelevant. Almost three years passed. Things changed in Washington. US President Donald Trump “blew up” the JCPOA.

So what comes next? The history repeats itself. Donald Trump, as on a time machine, threw the situation around Iran back to the very beginning of the second decade of 21st century. The situation with the Iranian nuclear program is returning to 2011-2012 years. That is, to the confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the one we have already spoken about. And now everything is repeated thanks to Trump.

That is why the possible military strikes against Iran worked out during the last tough confrontation with Iran were not mentioned in vain. Unfortunately, they can be carried out, perhaps not today or tomorrow, but after Tehran, quite rightly furious with President Trump’s policy and the collapse of the JCPOA will resume its nuclear program without any IAEA contracts and inspectors.

He will prepare his atomic bomb, which, of course, will bring the world to the troubled times of military confrontation in the region fraught with catastrophic consequences for the Middle East, and the whole world. It is possible that this was exactly what US President Donald Trump wanted.

The opinion of the author may not coincide with the position of editorial

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Iran at SCO: Role, achievements, and goals

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Nearly a month after the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), leaders from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met in Qingdao, China, to set the roadmap for the future.

In his speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping, the summit host, announced that the SCO members will uphold the authority and efficacy of WTO rules, strengthen an open, inclusive, transparent, non-discriminatory and rules-based multilateral trading regime, and oppose trade protectionism of any form. “We point out that economic globalization and regional integration are the compelling trend of our times,” Xi said.

“All parties will continue to work in line with the principle of mutual benefit to improve regional economic cooperation arrangements, enhance the Belt and Road cooperation and complementarity of our respective development strategies, deepen cooperation in business, investment, finance, connectivity and agriculture, advance trade and investment facilitation, and foster new prospects for integrated development of the region to deliver benefits to our people and add fresh impetus to global growth,” the Global Times quoted the Chinese president as saying.

Iran, JCPOA and SCO summit

One of the major issues on the summit’s agenda was the consensus that Russia, China, and India (which comprise three of the five BRICS countries) do not back sanctions against Iran announced by Trump and his secretary of state. The summitters also rejected U.S. unilateralism in global affairs in favor of a multilateral world order.

Iran, a current observer member of the SCO which has officially applied full membership, participated at the event on June 8-9 at the presidential level. Iran sought to achieve several goals in the summit. The country initially seeks saving the 2015 international nuclear deal by getting assurances from the remaining parties to the nuclear agreement. It wants its interests, which is removal of economic and financial sanctions under the agreement, are guaranteed otherwise it would resume nuclear activities at a higher speed. Developing regional and international economic cooperation as an independent and reliable partner and also expanding a comprehensive strategic partnership with China in the fields of energy and infrastructure, stand among the other major priorities of Iran for attending the summit.
President Hassan Rouhani, addressing the summit, stressed the significance of a non-political approach to energy security and legitimate international trade in both regional and global development, calling on the international community to stand up to abuse of energy.

“Without a doubt, economic, political and legal unilateralism undermine regional convergence. In this regard, the United States’ attempts to impose its own policies on others is a growing danger. A recent example of the United States’ unilateralism and indifference towards the opinions of the international community is its decisions to withdraw from the JCPOA. The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far lived up to all his commitments under the JCPOA and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has so far confirmed my country’s commitment to its obligations for 11 times,” he said. He added, “All signatories to the JCPOA have a responsibility regarding the commitments of removing sanctions under the JCPOA, and also based on Resolution 2231 of the UN Security Council and Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations are responsible to help full implementation of the JCOPA and prevent any move that poses an obstacle on implementation of the JCPOA.”

Welcoming efforts by Russia and China in maintaining the JCPOA, Rouhani announced that “Iran has given a limited opportunity to remaining signatories to the JCPOA so that they can give the necessary guarantee in action to help implement all the agreed conditions in the JCPOA and continue being a party to this agreement.”

“Definitely, the U.S. has monitored the reactions to its withdrawal from the JCPOA and considers the lack of response to its unilateral withdrawal as not being costly, which will have very bad consequences for the international community,” he underlined.

Rouhani’s participation at the event bore some economic fruit, ended with the signing of a cooperation document within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative with China. Included in the document was the agreement to use national currencies in bilateral investments and trade exchanges as well as developing technical and scientific cooperation between the two countries and cooperation between stock exchanges of the two countries.

In addition, concluding the summit, the SCO unanimously issued a statement urging a “full and efficient” implementation of the nuclear deal.

“The member SCO states deem it important to consistently implement the JCPOA on the Iranian nuclear program, and call for participants to strictly observe their obligations with a view to ensuring its full and efficient implementation and promoting peace and stability in the region and globally,” read a paragraph of the statement issued at the end of the summit.

It is worth noting that almost concurrent with the SCO summit in Qingdao, the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) met in Quebec, Canada. The G7 meeting ended in failure as leaders of Canada, France, Germany, and Britain clashed with President Trump over imposition of tariffs on import of steel and aluminum from Europe and Canada. Also one of the main contentions of the other six nations in the G7 group with Trump was their support for the JCPOA.

Cooperation with SCO members is Iran’s lever of power   

To have a better view about the achievements of the SCO summit, the Tehran Times conducted a phone interview with Davood Abbasi, an economic expert.

Abbasi said, “Besides China and Russia who are the major powers at United Nations Security Council, the SCO members include Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and India and Pakistan, among which India can be considered as a rising economic power in the world. Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia are the observer states. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are the dialogue partners.”

“One of the main goals of SCO 2018 was supporting China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project, as a giant economic project which can engage all the named SCO members,” he said.
He added, “The interesting point about this project is that China discusses a type of trade cooperation pattern totally different from the one used by the capitalist Westerners.”

In fact, the SCO seeks creation of a free trade zone, transition to a preferential trade regime, and facilitating trade between countries along the OBOR route in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf region.
Abbasi said, “All the countries in the region can benefit from the establish the OBOR project, accordingly.” In better words, he said, the project can spur all the member states to take part for joint economic benefits.

Answering a question on Iran’s participation and role in development of OBOR and the advantages of cooperating with SCO to persevere its national interests, Abbasi said, “I believe some factors, such as the simultaneity of the SCO 2018 with G7 summit and Russia’s tendency in trying other formats than G8, can highlight the positive and pivotal role of Iran in OBOR project for China, while such factors could increase Iran’s bargaining power in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well as the country’s capability in convincing EU members to preserve their economic relations with the country after withdrawal of U.S. from the JCPOA.”

“Iran can benefit from its participation in the regional agreement of the SCO as an alternative for replacing European countries in its economic relations with those from the region,” the economic expert highlighted.

“Under the present conditions, I guess that senior European officials are focusing more than before on continuing their oil purchases from Iran, of course, without encountering any difficulties in their relation with the U.S., specifically Trump. While, China preserved its purchase of 630,000 bpd of Iranian oil in 2017 and has announced its readiness to boost oil purchases from Iran. Besides, the value of Iran-China trade surpassed $37 billion in 2017, showing a 20-percent increase from the preceding year. Therefore, in case Europeans decide to decrease the purchasing volume, Iran has an alternative to replace them with eastern customers,” he said, “This improves Iran’s bargaining power.”

“More effectively than any political measure, Iran’s reinforcement of economic ties with regional countries and China can persuade Europeans to tighten their economic ties with Iran, while Europeans cannot ignore the economic benefits they can gain from developing ties with Iran,” he concluded.
Considering Iran’s relations with Russia and China, Abbasi said the three countries’ cooperation on reconstruction of the war-hit Syria and Iraq can additionally improve their trilateral cooperation.
“In better words, the three countries’ political cooperation is incrementally being converted into economic collaboration in the region to guarantee their economic benefits.”

However, the road to reach such warm ties through OBOR is not smooth.  India disagrees with the OBOR project, which cuts through the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir since it lays claim to that area.
“Here, China has the possibility to resolve the old row between India and China by defining economic benefits for both sides via implementation of the OBOR project. Regarding its firm economic ties with India and Pakistan, Iran can also have a positive impact on India-Pakistan relations as well as that between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Abbasi remarked.

“In fact, when some countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia sow unrest via spreading ideological and political disputes…, Iran is transmitting a direct message to regional countries, inviting them to peace and boosting economic cooperation to guarantee multilateral benefits of all parties,” Abbasi stated.

Asked about Iran’s membership in the SCO, he expressed content that “some negotiations have been held at the SCO summit to improve Iran’s situation in the SCO via accepting it as a permanent member,” predicting that Iran’s full membership in the regional bloc would be facilitated regarding the current circumstances.

First published at our partner Tehran Times

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Morocco may have lost the World Cup but could lead the way in protest

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Mounting anger and discontent is simmering across the Arab world much like it did in the walk-up to the 2011 popular revolts that toppled four autocratic leaders. Yet, this time round the anger does not always explode in mass street protests as it recently did in Jordan.

To be sure, fury at tax hikes in Jordan followed the classic pattern of sustained public protests. Protesters, in contrast to the calls for regime change that dominated the 2011 revolts, targeted the government’s austerity measures and efforts to broaden its revenue base.

The protesters forced the resignation of prime minister Hani Mulki and the repeal of proposals for tax hikes that were being imposed to comply with conditions of a $723 million International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Jordan.

Austerity measures in Egypt linked to a $12 billion IMF loan have also sparked protests in a country in which dissent is brutally repressed. Rare protests erupted last month after the government hiked Cairo’s metro fares by up to 250%.

Now, with economists and analysts waiting to see how Egyptians respond to this weekend’s austerity measures that include a 50 percent rise in gasoline prices, the third since Egypt floated its currency in 2016, and further hikes expected in July, Morocco may provide a more risk-free and effective model for future protest in one of the most repressive parts of the world.

An online boycott campaign fuelled by anger at increasing consumer prices that uses hashtags such as “let it curdle” and “let it rot” has spread like wildfire across Moroccan social media. A survey in late May by economic daily L’Economiste suggested that 57 percent of Moroccans were participating in the boycott of some of Morocco’s foremost oligopolies that have close ties to the government.

The boycott of the likes of French dairy giant Danone, mineral water company Oulmes, and the country’s leading fuel distributor, Afriquia SMDC, is proving effective and more difficult to counter. The boycott recently expanded to include the country’s fish markets.

The boycott has already halved Danone’s sales. The company said it would post a 150 million Moroccan dirham ($15.9m) loss for the first six months of this year, cut raw milk purchases by 30 percent and reduce its number of short-term job contracts.

Danone employees recently staged a sit-in that blamed both the boycott and the government for their predicament. Lahcen Daoudi, a Cabinet minister, resigned after participating in a sit-in organized by Danone workers.

The boycott has also impacted the performance of energy companies. Shares of Total Maroc, the only listed fuel distributor, fell by almost 10 percent since the boycott began in April.

The strength of the boycott that was launched on Facebook pages that have attracted some two million visitors lies in the fact that identifying who is driving it has been difficult because no individual or group has publicly claimed ownership.

The boycott’s effectiveness is enhanced by the selectiveness of its targets described by angry consumers on social media as “thieves” and “bloodsuckers.”

Anonymity and the virtual character of the protest, in what could become a model elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, has made it difficult for the government to crackdown on its organizers.

Yet, even if the government identified the boycott’s organizers, it would be unable to impose its will on choices that consumers make daily. The boycott also levels the playing field with even the poorest being able to impact the performance of economic giants.

In doing so, the boycott strategy counters region-wide frustration with the fact that protests have either failed to produce results or led in countries like Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Libya to mayhem, increased repression, and civil war.

“While boycotts solve some of the problems of protest movements,… they also create new challenges…. Diffuse structures…limit their ability to formulate clear demands, negotiate on the basis of these demands, respond to criticism of the movement and, eventually, end the boycott. Boycotts against domestic producers are likely to face criticism that they are hurting the economy and endangering the jobs of their compatriots working in the boycotted companies,” cautioned Max Gallien, a London School of Economics PhD candidate who studies the political economy of North Africa.

The Moroccan boycott grew out of months of daily protests in the country’s impoverished northern Rif region that the government tried to squash with a carrot-and-stick approach that involved the arrest of hundreds of people.

Underlying the boycott is a deep-seated resentment of the government’s incestuous relationship with business leading to its failure to ensure fair competition that many believe has eroded purchasing power among rural poor and the urban middle class alike.

Afriquia is part of the Akwa group owned by Aziz Akhannouch, a Moroccan billionaire ranked by Forbes, who also serves as agriculture minister, heads a political party and is one of the kingdom’s most powerful politicians. Oulmes is headed by Miriem Bensalah Chekroun, the former president of Morocco’s confederation of enterprises, CGEM.

“The goal of this boycott is to unite Moroccan people and speak with one voice against expensive prices, poverty, unemployment, injustice, corruption and despotism,” said one Facebook page that supports the boycott.

It is a message and a methodology that could well resonate across a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf.

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