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The two turbans – what to expect from hard power in Iran

Luísa Monteiro

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The Islamic Republic of Iran has, undoubtedly, faced hard times and what came lately is no exception to that. The country, governed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (military, judiciary, broadcasting services) and President Hassan Rouhani, undergoes a period of suffocated economy, alert troops and pressured judiciary.

It has now become a boiling cauldron where national security, journalism, money and energy sources intersect and interfere with each other; unfortunately, there is no better spell than time to give it a chance to recover and a clear direction to follow.

The long-lasting flavour of biting the Uranium bullet

The multilateral discussion about Iran’s uranium enrichment program has been in vogue for over a decade. After suffering sanctions related to a supposedly pacific energy program since 2006, negotiations with F5+1 (France, United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China and Germany) were expected to reach a result on June 30th, after some previous agreements in Lausanne, on April 2nd. On a sad note, the conjoint signature of an official document does not seem to be possible for now, since some primordial and most sensitive points were still not discussed nor accorded.

It is true that Iran does not use its hard power to take countries into accepting its nuclear condition. Whether it could or not do so is still a mystery. In early February this year, Ayatollah Khamenei told economists and officials in Tabriz that the western sanctions will never come to an end, since the countries do not approve the Islamic revolution in the first place. Additionally, he said that if the embargoes were to be maintained, Iran could also follow this path and stop commercializing gas with the European nations, among others. In this point, hard and soft power strategies – or, at least, intentions – in Iran are not balanced, but mixed. President Rouhani’s negotiators try to diplomatically find a solution to the impasse, whereas the supreme leader accuses ‘the enemy’ of using sanctions to the hilt – for that reason, some even predict that there might be a rift between those two sides of the government, instead of the so called ‘smart power’, the ideal soft-hard power balance.

Despite of making its own threats, the country continues to face embargoes due to refusing the proposal of an international team interviewing its scientists as well as an ‘anywhere, anytime’ inspection in military sites by foreign experts. As a signatory of the NPT (1968), it could not develop nuclear activities that do not meet pacific ends; even so, the sort of the researches made in Iranian territory has been doubted since 2002. It is impossible to say and useless to speculate what is being produced there, however it must be taken into account that the technology used to generate nuclear energy for pacifistic purposes takes a lot of time and funding to convert into military one (costs are connected mainly to the uranium enrichment process and actually building a sophisticated weapon system; a reason why countries start off with a military nuclear programme to obtain the nuclear weapon in the first place and afterwards comes the pacifistic nuclear energy part of the story).

Iran is a great regional force in the Middle East and has a profound influence over its Arab neighbours, having trained various militias around the Arab World. It is also militarily well-equipped and prepared, counting on a strong Army and Navy, which makes the other countries very uncomfortable, especially those from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (this is not to say that they are not making Iran nervous with their close bond to the US). Tehran has ambitions of fully controlling the Strait of Hormuz, an important choke point from the Persian Gulf, that would not only enable the country economical control over the whole region, controlling the exports of energy reserves by sea routes, but also militarily one, by barring the American presence there. It also has great ambition towards its due part of the rich Caspian Sea, claiming 20% of it against the 12% already offered by its Caspian neighbours. In all of those cases, it seems right to say that having a nuke would be, in turn, a way of reassuring its power, but, more than meaning the rise of its hard power, a way of coercing and threatening the Gulf countries, the thought creating friction with their main Western ally, the US. In this equation, we cannot forget about the one regional force that has both, nuclear weapons and a very offensive foreign policy strategies: Israel.

Lately, the mounting tension among these nations resulted in the use of Saudi-led forces to control a group of rebels based in Yemen, allegedly supported by Iran. That shows the power of the forces in Saudi Arabia, but it also evidences a paramilitary campaign from Iran’s side that has been developed long ago and all its influence over the region – and it is not because of dialogue.

In addition to all of the above mentioned reasons and the fact that Iran is on the “wrong” side of the alliance axis in the Middle East, standing opposite to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US, help build arguments – veiled or not- for the continuous and gradual use of hard power towards Iran, through economic bans. On the other hand, it is still to be thought why such countries do not seem to worry so much about the non-signatory nations of the NPT, where the presence of nukes is concrete and not a secret. It is even more ironical if the affinities between those territories and the Western, principally the American leadership, are perceived.      

The perks of being a military wall

As a country of regional importance, Iran seems to be the only nation geographically present and militarily might enough to fight the ISIS spreading – it counts on a huge reservoir of manpower (according to the CIA factbook, 1,4 million people reach military significant age annually and, according to the Iran Intelligence website, 520,000 people are in active duty, being, by far, the most significant number in the region), masters the use of drones and counts on missiles, too – an arsenal that tends to increase, once Russia opted for lifting its 5-year ban and proceed with the sales of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.

Also, the Persian nation has an old and close liaison with the militias in Iraq and Syria, in addition to Hezbollah and other groups. Its main influence can be noticed in the training of the soldiers, the financing of weapons and staff. Even though it is the ideal nation to recur to – either for its experience in fighting ISIS on the ground level, or for being the one which is aiding military efforts against it – the Western coalition against ISIS, led by the United States, resists Iran`s joining in the effort of mitigating the actions of the jihadists.  

It is clear that the ISIS threat to the Arab world tends to bring historical foes closer, as it may happen to Iran and Iraq due to the Iranian help during the Iraqi occupation – commander and national figure Qassim Soleimani, from the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was a resource offered by Iran to direct the Shiite militias against the extremists. This is not the first time Iran uses its military power in Iraq, though. The Iran-Iraq war, that was long, albeit not beneficial for any of the parts involved, was a major example of how both of these countries were able to use their hard power on each other for eight years. The United States that, at the time, was politically and financially involved in the conflict, now assumes a more discrete role with air strikes and assistance to the local Iraqi Army, partly because of its unhealed wounds from the war in Iraq (ended in 2011), partly because of its own internal conflicts at the Congress.

Say it all or not at all

War and firepower are not the only issues that currently worry Iran. Since ten months ago, when the Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, his wife and a photographer were arrested under the charges of betrayal and spying, the world turns its eyes with antipathy to Ayatollah Kahmeini’s judiciary. Both of the ladies were set free after paying a fee, but the Iran-based Washington Post reporter was kept in prison and, since May 25th, is being judged in a court that could only be attended by himself, the judge, the prosecutor and an attorney who he could not choose, in a room reserved for the prosecution of political crimes.

The media worldwide speaks of strong governmental presence in the charges pressed, and the need for such a case is also put into question. Double citizenship of Rezaian is not recognized either, which makes it impossible for the diplomatic service of America to interfere. If convicted, the journalist can face up to six years in prison. But we are still to follow how the community is going to claim his rights – if at all.

Finally, what can be said about Iran is that it is a country that has been through hard probations since 1979 with the fall of Reza Pahlevi. The latest elections, though, show a moment in which the republican government is more open to dialogue and, therefore, can be expected to soothe some of its positions, yet it must count on gradual and homeopathic changes once it is also administrated by the ‘divine’, religious power, that tends to be stricter because of its doctrines. Therefore, Tehran still has a way to go when it comes to choosing its weapons in order to achieve an objective. Maybe this is the time for it to start boosting its willingness to dialogue and its impressive influence with a wiser, more goal-oriented mindset.

Luísa Monteiro is a bachelor in Social Communication and is currently taking a Master's degree in Communication and Politics at PUC São Paulo. Her researches are closely linked to the studies of internet as a democratic agora and her latest academic production correlates the (offline) social movements and their exposure on the net.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s multiple goals in Khashoggi case

Payman Yazdani

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Disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul created a wave of reactions against Saudi young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s suppressive policies.

Despite early denials, worldwide reactions finally forced the Saudi rulers to acknowledge the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman policies in the country’s consulate.

Among all international bodies, countries and political figures nobody reacted to Khashooggi’s death as strong as Turkish President Erdogan did.

Along with the Turkish police investigations the countries officials particularly President Erdogan have been revealing details of the murder gradually. Rejecting the Riyadh’s proposed bribe and despite the Saudi ruler’s acknowledgment, Turkey has called the Riyadh’s explanation incomplete and Turkish President has vowed to uncover the truth behind Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing.

Although Turkish President has called the Saudi journalist as “a friend”, other reasons can be imagined behind President Erdogan’s determination to follow the issue so seriously.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been competing for influence in Middle East for years and have had lots of conflicts and tensions over the developments in Egypt which resulted in removal of Turkish backed Morsi from power by Saudi backed al-Sisi, Qatar crisis, Saudi role in 2016 failed coup in Turkey and Saudi destructive role in Syria and Iraq and Riyadh’s financial and political support to separatist Kurdish groups which Turkey considers them as a threat to its national security.

Turkey considers Mohammad bin Salman behind all Riyadh’s regional and anti-Turkey policies. The tensions between the two countries heightened so that Saudi Crown prince referred to Turkey as part of a regional “triangle of evil” along with Iran and Qatar.

Savage killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate provided Erdogan with a golden opportunity to press international community and the US to push Saudi King to remove the young prince from power or at least to contain his destructive policies in the region especially regarding the Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

It also seems that President Erdogan is using the current situation to reduce domestic and international critiques of himself. Rejecting the US demand to release of Pastor Andrew Brunson accused of links to PKK terrorist group and the Gulenist movement by Turkish president resulted in the White House’s sanctions against Turkey which deteriorated the country’s economic situation.

Over the past couple of years, Erdogan has always been accused of limiting journalists’ rights and freedom of speech both domestically and internationally, by supporting the Saudi Journalist he can show himself as defender of journalist’s rights internationally.

First published in our partner MNA

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Middle East Instability to Overshadow Future Global Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts

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The Middle East fragile situation in which contradicting aspirations of states and non-states’ actors that are involved in shaping the regional balance of power would most likely overshadow the global nuclear nonproliferation efforts in the near future. Factors such as the United States withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal last May, and the polarization of Middle Eastern rivals-allies’ relations in recent years, also encompass lack of trust, weakening on norms and increased uncertainty in the region that ultimately undermines existing multilateral arms control arrangements.

Most of the public debate on the Middle East instability, so far, has been focusing on issues such as the implications of intensified subsequent U.S sanctions, or the reaction of the global markets, as well as ongoing polarization in international relations. While this debate is important, attempts to figure out how to best deal with this situation often ignores the context of the overall global efforts to reduce proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and their implication on global security stability. A regional stabilization would be more practical by emphasizing the link between the regional WMD challenges to the Treaty on The Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that already encompasses most of these challenges. Developments in Iran’s nuclear actions and the continuing stagnation in the Arab League’s demand to advance negotiation on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free-Zone (WMDFZ) are significant issues that have already taken a toll on the NPT and has already eroded the treaty member states obligations to it.

The above argument is also supported by a recent Russian official statement and by a draft resolution that the League of Arab States have submitted on the Middle East WMDFZ to the United Nations General Assembly. On September 28, 2018, the Russian News Agency published a statement by the Russian Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Vladimir Yermakov. According to Mr. Yermakov, the establishment of a WMDFZ in the region is not feasible today, but it is urgent to advance it since current stagnation would “undermine the foundations of the NPT.” The League of Arab States on their part, presented on October 11, 2018, a new draft resolution to the General Assembly, calling for the Secretary-General to take responsibility on convening a conference to establish a WMDFZ in the Middle East no later than June 2019. This draft resolution takes into consideration the limited time frame before the convening of the 2020 NPT review conference and the 2019 Preparatory committee to the conference.

So far, Five out of nine NPT review conferences that were held quinquennially since 1975 have failed to conclude with a final document, which symbolically shows a unified position and the commitment of the state parties to adhere to the treaty. Legally, the authority of review conferences is to clarify and interpret the treaty clauses, and not to amend them, to improve the treaty’s implementation. This conduct makes the review conference political in nature since adopted decisions are based on political consent and are not legally binding. This political nature has often brought different issues of major controversies, such as the nuclear weapons states’ obligations under the NPT to denuclearize or the Middle East WMDFZ, to overshadow other issues on the agenda, such as the emergence of new technologies, or suggestions to increase transparency that could affect the treaty’s implementation.

In order to strengthen the NPT review process and to promote a constructive dialog among the parties, the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference have decided to include a Preparatory Committee support mechanism to improve the function and the outcomes of their subsequent review conferences. Nevertheless, the attempts to utilize preparatory committees for this aim by ultimately formulate significant recommendations for discussion at the treaty review conferences have failed to meet expectations, so far. Manifested political gaps between the nuclear member states and the non-nuclear member states that frequently appeared in previous review conferences have reproduced to their preparatory committees. These political gaps have practically obstructed improvements and  mutual understandings between state parties on nuclear issues, which prevented the formulation of a consensus- based final document in the review conference of 2005 and 2015. This in turn, significantly undermine the strength of the NPT and makes preparatory committees merely a preamble for their consecutive review conferences’ dynamics.

The first sign for the possibility to maintain and improve global cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, in light of the Middle East tensions, would be given at the upcoming NPT review conference that is expected in April 2020. Positive outcomes of this conference would be achieved once a unified position (or at least the widest possible) of the state parties on their commitment to adhere to the NPT would be formulated and agreed upon in the final document of the conference. As the 2000 and 2010 review conferences showed, a unified position that is brought together with an adoption of some practical steps to promote the treaty goals (with an emphasis on the Middle East WMDFZ) could enhance the significance of the NPT to deal with future nuclear weapons challenges.

Despite the relative success in the 2000 and 2010 conferences, failing to fulfill commitments on the agreed practical steps to promote the Middle East WMDFZ have raised frustration in the League of Arab States. Led by Egypt, the League of Arab States have been calling to promote a WMDFZ since 1974 (together with Iran), and with great extent since the ‘Resolution on The Middle East’ was adopted in the 1995 NPT review and extension conference – a resolution that in practice included the issue within the NPT framework. This issue was ultimately one of the main reasons for the failure of the NPT 2015 review conference due to a disagreement between the US and Egypt. The US-Egypt wrangled over the WMDFZ and accused each other on inflexibility, lack of interest and the use of this topic for political purposes. These direct accusations can only reflect on the overall undermining of the NPT in recent years. The same goes with the Iran Deal, where current inability to reach equilibrium that would suitable the interests of Iran and Russia on one side and the US and other moderate Sunni states on the other side (Israel is not member in the NPT) would eventually pervade to the 2020 review conference negotiations and negatively impact the conference’s outcomes.

Nevertheless, achieving a positive outcome in the 2020 review conference depends not only on what would happen during the conduct of the conference, in terms of dynamics and the convened parties’ will to compromise, but also on the states parties’ ability to cooperate and reach at least principle agreements in the current time frame – prior to the conference’s due date. All the more so, any gains achieved regardless of the NPT context are also likely to negatively impact the 2020 NPT review conference. The treaty’s framework is the most relevant to comprehensively deal with the most crucial aspects of WMD nonproliferation in the Middle East while bringing most of the parties involved together to the same table.

The existing alternatives to gain a progress in the Middle East security situation relays on the ground that the NPT provides. Such alternatives are ranged from convening a regional arms control and regional security conference, as the League of Arab states asserts, through a direct cooperation and involvement of the NPT depositories – Britain, Russia, and the US that could provide guarantees to mitigate regional tensions. Failing to provide a pragmatic prospect for regional negotiations prior to the 2020 review conference would not only deepen the current deadlock and increase instability and frustration but would also undermine the relevancy of the NPT when it is most needed to regulate nonproliferation.

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Mohammed bin Salman: For better or for worse?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Embattled Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could prove to be not only a cat with nine lives but also one that makes even stranger jumps.

King Salman’s announcement that Prince Mohammed was put in charge of reorganizing Saudi intelligence at the same time that the kingdom for the first time admitted that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed in its Istanbul consulate signalled that the crown prince’s wings were not being clipped, at least not immediately and not publicly.

With little prospect for a palace coup and a frail King Salman unlikely to assume for any lengthy period full control of the levers of power, Prince Mohammed, viewed by many as reckless and impulsive, could emerge from the Khashoggi crisis, that has severely tarnished the kingdom’s image and strained relations with the United States and Western powers, even more defiant rather than chastened by international condemnation of the journalist’s killing.

A pinned tweet by Saud Al-Qahtani, the close associate of Prince Mohammed who this weekend was among several fired senior official reads: “Some brothers blame me for what they view as harshness. But everything has its time, and talk these days requires such language.” That apparently was and could remain Prince Mohammed’s motto.

Said former CIA official, Middle East expert and novelist Graham E. Fuller in a bid to identify the logic of the madness: “As the geopolitics of the world changes—particularly with the emergence of new power centres like China, the return of Russia, the growing independence of Turkey, the resistance of Iran to US domination in the Gulf, the waywardness of Israel, and the greater role of India and many other smaller players—the emergence of a more aggressive and adventuristic Saudi Arabia is not surprising.”

Prince Mohammed’s domestic status and mettle is likely to be put to the test as the crisis unfolds with Turkey leaking further evidence of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi or officially publishing whatever proof it has.

Turkish leaks or officially announced evidence would likely cast further doubt on Saudi Arabia’s assertion that Mr. Khashoggi died in a brawl in the consulate and fuel US Congressional and European parliamentary calls for sanctions, possibly including an arms embargo, against the kingdom.

In a sharp rebuke, US President Donald J. Trump responded to Saudi Arabia’s widely criticized official version of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi by saying that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies.”.

A prominent Saudi commentator and close associate of Prince Mohammed, Turki Aldakhil, warned in advance of the Saudi admission that the kingdom would respond to Western sanctions by cosying up to Russia and China. No doubt that could happen if Saudi Arabia is forced to seeks alternative to shield itself against possible sanctions.

That, however, does not mean that Prince Mohammed could not be brazen in his effort to engineer a situation in which the Trump administration would have no choice but to fully reengage with the kingdom.

Despite pundits’ suggestion that Mr. Trump’s Saudi Arabia-anchored Middle East strategy that appears focussed on isolating Iran, crippling it economically with harsh sanctions, and potentially forcing a change of regime is in jeopardy because of the damage Prince Mohammed’s international reputation has suffered, Iran could prove to be the crown prince’s window of opportunity.

“The problem is that under MBS, Saudi Arabia has become an unreliable strategic partner whose every move seems to help rather than hinder Iran. Yemen intervention is both a humanitarian disaster and a low cost/high gain opportunity for Iran,” tweeted former US Middle East negotiator Martin Indyk, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Mr. “Trump needed to make clear he wouldn’t validate or protect him from Congressional reaction unless he took responsibility. It’s too late for that now. Therefore I fear he will neither step up or grow up, the crisis will deepen and Iran will continue to reap the windfall,” Mr. Indyk said in another tweet.

If that was likely an unintended consequence of Prince Mohammed’s overly assertive policy and crude and ill-fated attempts to put his stamp on the Middle East prior to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, it may since in a twisted manner serve his purpose.

To the degree that Prince Mohammed has had a thought-out grand strategy since his ascendancy in 2015, it was to ensure US support and Washington’s reengagement in what he saw as a common interest: projection of Saudi power at the expense of Iran.

Speaking to The Economist in 2016, Prince Mohammed spelled out his vision of the global balance of power and where he believed Saudi interests lie. “The United States must realise that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” the prince said.

In an indication that he was determined to ensure US re-engagement in the Middle East, Prince Mohammed added: “We did not put enough efforts in order to get our point across. We believe that this will change in the future.”

Beyond the shared US-Saudi goal of clipping Iran’s wings, Prince Mohammed catered to Mr. Trump’s priority of garnering economic advantage for the United States and creating jobs. Mr. Trump’s assertion that he wants to safeguard US$450 billion in deals with Saudi Arabia as he contemplates possible punishment for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi is based on the crown prince’s dangling of opportunity.

“When President Trump became president, we’ve changed our armament strategy again for the next 10 years to put more than 60 percent with the United States of America. That’s why we’ve created the $400 billion in opportunities, armaments and investment opportunities, and other trade opportunities. So this is a good achievement for President Trump, for Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said days after Mr. Khashoggi disappeared.

The crown prince drove the point home by transferring US$100 million to the US, making good on a long standing promise to support efforts to stabilize Syria, at the very moment that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week landed in Riyadh in a bid to defuse the Khashoggi crisis.

A potential effort by Prince Mohammed to engineer a situation in which stepped-up tensions with Iran supersede the fallout of the Khashoggi crisis, particularly in the US, could be fuelled by changing attitudes and tactics in Iran itself.

The shift is being driven by Iran’s need to evade blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog. Meeting the group’s demands for enhanced legislation and implementation is a pre-requisite for ensuring continued European support for circumventing crippling US sanctions.

In recognition of that, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dropped his objection to adoption of the FATF-conform legislation.

If that were not worrisome enough for Prince Mohammed, potential Iranian efforts to engage if not with the Trump administration with those segments of the US political elite that are opposed to the president could move the crown prince to significantly raise the stakes, try to thwart Iranian efforts, and put the Khashoggi crisis behind him.

Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of parliament’s influential national security and foreign policy commission, signalled the potential shift in Iranian policy by suggesting that “there is a new diplomatic atmosphere for de-escalation with America. There is room for adopting the diplomacy of talk and lobbying by Iran with the current which opposes Trump… The diplomatic channel with America should not be closed because America is not just about Trump.”

Should he opt, to escalate Middle Eastern tensions, Prince Mohammed could aggravate the war in Yemen, viewed by Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration as a proxy war with Iran, or seek to provoke Iran by attempting to stir unrest among its multiple ethnic minorities.

To succeed, Prince Mohammed would have to ensure that Iran takes the bait. So far, Iran has sat back, gloating as the crown prince and the kingdom are increasingly cornered by the Khashoggi crisis, not wanting to jeopardize its potential outreach to Mr. Trump’s opponents as well as Europe.

That could change if Prince Mohammed decides to act on his vow in 2017 that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

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