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The Persian Lion Still Roars

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Why does Iran still harbor such distrust and animosity towards the United States? This question is a key factor for understanding the continuous failures of negotiations, even after the concluded nuclear accord.

Much of Iran’s bitterness and mistrust towards the United States can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq War. Iranians refer to the war as the “Imposed War” because Iranians believe the United States orchestrated and funded Iraq’s war efforts against Iran (Riedel, 2013). In July 1988, a U.S. Navy ship shot down Iran Air flight 655 killing all 290 people aboard. Iran still marks the anniversary of the incident, alleging the U.S. intentionally destroyed the civilian aircraft. Since the U.S. military maneuvers near Abu Musa Island in 1994, the Iranian government is suspicious of any U.S. military presence in the region. This was further compounded by rhetoric such as President Bush’s declaration of Iran as part of the Axis of Evil and Senator McCain’s call for the U.S. to support regime change in Iran. Cyber-attacks like the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear facilities further increased animosity and suspicion of U.S. policies and goals.

Understanding the Iranian mindset requires an insight into the foundation of their national identity and national security interests. Shia Islam and nationalism are inextricable elements of Iranian culture. Neglecting this knowledge will lead to more exclusionary policies devoid of the cultural aspects that make negotiations more palatable to Iranians. There are two distinct facets of Iranian culture that form the foundation of all relations: Iranian nationalism and Shiite particularism. According to Bar (2004), Iranians have a strong self-image dating back to an ancient civilization. Persian pride pervades every cultural, political, and economic facet in Iranian affairs. Iranian national identity is birthed from a lineage of Persian history, mythology, kings, and a massive empire. Conversely, this self-image drives their discrimination against Arabs and other non-Farsi groups. A successful policy must address the Persian and Iranian nationalism factors. Ignoring the cultural aspect will likely be seen as more exploitation of Iran’s affairs and so-called rightful hegemonic influence in the region.

Iran’s Security Interests

The first security strategy is regime survival. The foundation of the Islamic Republic is the concept of velayat-e fagih, which is rule of the jurist. The Supreme Leader exercises complete governing authority under the guardianship of velayat-e fagih. The constitution was later amended to give the Leader extrajudicial powers to correct any “flaw” in the judiciary. He enjoys the full support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which refer to him as “Imam” or Source of Enlightenment. The IRGC are the protectors of the revolution and view themselves as the continuity and security of the regime’s ideals.

The second national security interest is defending the country against all adversaries. Initially, this meant defense against military threats from other nation-states but has since evolved to include soft power as well. The Supreme Leader, the IRGC, and the Basij continue emphasizing Iran’s efforts in the soft war supposedly being waged by the West against them. The soft war entails all aspects of soft power against Iran’s Islamic and cultural values.

The third national security interest is expanding Iran’s regional influence. More specifically, this includes all efforts to export Iran’s Shia ideology throughout the region, support Shia uprisings, and become the Shia authority in the region. Davis, Martini, and Alireza further assert, “This involves increasing military support for its allies in the region, especially Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and, increasingly, Iraq. Iran sees not only Israel but also Sunni Arab states (such as Egypt) and Turkey and Pakistan as geopolitical rivals” (2011).

Considering the Iranian perspective is not just tallying up prior injustices, identifying the cultural and geopolitical causes of conflict provide insight into the state’s mindset. Hunter writes, “Indeed, both sides have become prisoners of the past; both have a long list of grievances. To be limited by the past in analysis, perceptions and policy flexibility is a natural human trait, but in today’s circumstances it would be self-indulgent and self-defeating.” Parasility adds, “After three decades of mutual hostility and infrequent direct diplomatic contacts, differences in political culture and diplomatic style, disproportionate involvement of intermediaries and message carriers, and sometimes confusing and mixed signals from those presumed to be speaking for those in authority, such clarity cannot be assumed.” The recently concluded deal does not, of course, eliminate these concerns or these complex relationships. In fact, engagement with Iran doesn’t only make the nuclear fear not go away, it may make the problem in some ways more daunting and challenging.

Complex Problem

The most significant continued concern is Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Additionally, other problems include: Iran’s support for terrorist groups; the regime’s hostility towards Israel; the expansion of Shia theology throughout the region; Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz; Iran’s proliferation of instability through proxy groups; and the theological contention between the Qom and Najaf Howza. Iran’s strategic objectives clash with U.S. goals for the region. Robb and Wald (2012) write, “Tehran’s strategic objectives to expand its influence, export revolution and undercut the Middle East peace process have threatened longstanding U.S. efforts to maintain a regional balance of power, defend key allies and support Arab-Israeli peace”. Moreover, Iran’s strategic objectives adversely affect other nations.

Israel

Israel views Iran as the biggest threat to their national security. Israel contends that Iran is will never try to build a peaceful nuclear program but rather that Iran is enriching uranium to build nuclear weapons to use specifically against the Jewish homeland. On October 1, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In his remarks, Netanyahu (2013) stated, “Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself.” Israel does not consent to any negotiations that allow Iran to pursue a nuclear program, regardless of the enrichment levels. Israel does not accept containment. This is why Israel still does not accept or consider the new deal as a positive step or one to secure a new kind of Iran for the future.

Turkey

Turkey supports Iran’s pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program and has occasionally acted as a mediator to support Tehran’s efforts. Despite Turkey’s assistance, Iran and Turkey are regional rivals with diametrically opposed worldviews. According to Barkey, “Turkey is a constitutionally secular state where the military is the self-appointed guardian of secularism. Iran is a theocracy in which Islamic law rules and clerics play decisive roles, including control over the military.” (2012). Like its neighbors, Turkey opposes any Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon, which Turkey views as a destabilizing, regional factor.

The Gulf States

Iran maintains strained relationships with its regional neighbors. The Gulf States or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), collectively oppose the prospect of a nuclear Iran building a nuclear weapon. The GCC warns that a nuclear Iran would threaten the stability of the region well into the Persian Gulf. This would also change the balance of power by enhancing Iran’s persistent efforts to export its ideology and influence the internal affairs of Gulf Coast states. Some of the most notable examples are the violent, Iranian-supported Shia protests occurring in Bahrain and Yemen and the continued dispute over the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs (Fulton & Farrar-Wellman, 2011).

Russian and Chinese Interests in Iran

Russia and China have a unique and somewhat symbiotic relationship with Iran. The Iranian government has been steadily increasing exports to both countries despite international sanctions. Russia and China openly state their opposition to any Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons, but also believed in alternative approaches beyond punitive and extreme sanctions. Both countries have conceded to international sanctions against Iran but also violate the sanctions when it is opportunistic for them both. Russia and Iran continue to bolster the Iranian government through military arms shipments, dual-use technology, oil purchases, and financial transactions. Iran is a strategic partner for them both and serves to limit Western influences in the region in a way that benefits both Chinese and Russian geopolitical interests.

No Easy Fix

Iran’s new accord could and hopefully will signal a new engagement that builds new channels of trust and interaction with rivals, both regional and global. Even if this most optimal outcome does occur, however, the national, cultural, historical, and geopolitical tensions that caused issues to begin with will not completely disappear. Iran not having a nuclear weapon will of course be good news to Europe, the United States, and Israel, just to name a few. But that will by no means stop Iran from pursuing its long-held belief in being an important global player and unquestioned regional hegemon. As the saying goes, the game has only just begun!

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Middle East

Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?

Mohammed Nosseir

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“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.  

Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.

A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.

The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!

In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.  

That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.

In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.

“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.  

President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.

Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.

Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.

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Middle East

Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Middle East

Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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