The Shia-Sunni rivalry is old and goes back centuries. Iran assumes itself to be the leader of the world Shias and the promotion of their interests is a foundation of the Islamic republic’s ideology.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two holiest mosques and is a bastion of Sunni Islam. Recently, the rivalry had taken an ugly turn. The Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr was among the 47 execution on January 2, 2016. Nimr’s execution had resulted in Shia protests in several countries of the region. He was a fierce critic of the Saudi rulers and had once even advocated the establishment of a separate Shia state in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia which had a large Shia population. Iran had quickly promised revenge for the execution and so did the Shia Houthis in Yemen. After the execution of Nimr protesters in Tehran responded by torching part of the Saudi Embassy. On January 3, 2016, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced Saudi Arabia was severing ties with Iran. Bahrain had also announced it will sever ties with Iran. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were close U.S. allies. Sudan and the UAE also joined in though the UAE’s action was limited to downgrading diplomatic relations.
What does this all mean?
These executions signal Saudi Arabia’s increasing anxiety over instability. The Saudi monarchy faced challenges from several directions, including economy. The Kingdom faced a high deficit of $98 billion in 2015 and also a drop in foreign exchange reserves from $728 billion to $640 billion.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are rivals for influence in the region and are engaged in a proxy war stretching across the region, they are increasingly competitive over the leadership of Islam itself. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran’s rivalry goes back centuries to the rivalry of Shia and Sunni Islam. In the contemporary period the Saudi Kingdom was an important Western ally and was supported by successive Western governments. Saudi Arabia had vast oil wealth and was a reliable customer of Western goods, including military equipment. The Saudi-Iran row is going to get worse very soon. How can the tension be reduced to avoid a real crisis in the making? Is a sectarian conflict going to get worse now? Who is to be blamed for the recent problems?
Yet it is a fact that Saudi Arabia is the source of most of the recent problems between the two sects…The latest round of provocations from the Saudis stems from the successful conclusion of talks to limit and monitor Iran’s development of its nuclear capacity. The melting of the pack ice between the West and Tehran, in which this agreement was the first and most crucial step, was taken badly in Riyadh, and the ratcheting up of tensions stems from that event. The pitiless war waged by a Saudi-led coalition against Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen is only its most brutal manifestation…. But the Saudis need to be made aware that if they are to survive, they must mend their ways. In particular, the bloody provocations initiated by King Salman since his enthronement one year ago must cease.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was also commanding an Arab coalition in Yemen against Houthi rebels supported by Iran. Nearly 6,000 people had been killed since the Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen in March 2015, about half of them civilians. Undoubtedly, the war was an ill-conceived adventure of the Saudis and the Gulf States. After all, their strategic partner and strong ally Pakistan did not join the coalition to the utter surprise and dismay of their Gulf Arab brothers. The war in Yemen has caused large destruction in the country and had had resulted in grave human rights violations, as per international watchdog agencies and the United Nations. Tragically, it has ravaged the poorest Arab country, even further.
Others blame Iran for the troubles and point out the Iranian fingerprints over many incidents of terrorism. For example, the Hezbollah had conducted an attack on the United States Air Force personnel in 1995 in which 19 Americans were killed. The Hezbollah group in Saudi Arabia was connected to the parent Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran supports the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In a policy brief Henderson “Saudi-Iranian Diplomatic Crisis Threatens U.S. Policy” Simon Henderson argued on January 4, 2016 that the US needed “to move quickly to prevent a full-scale diplomatic confrontation with military dimensions” US appeared to its Gulf allies of “indecision and unwillingness to confront Iran, as well as ineffectiveness”. In December 2015 Saudi Arabia had announced the formation of a grand coalition of Muslim states to fight the Islamic State (IS). The Saudi move “fits U.S. thinking that a Sunni Muslim force is the best way of confronting and ultimately destroying IS. With U.S. logistical and intelligence support”.
Saudi Arabia had been assisting fighters trying to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria. But now the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship was under “considerable strain and perhaps reconsideration, at least in Riyadh”. The US “must act swiftly to defuse the tension in the Gulf. Deterring Iranian troublemaking more openly and vigorously should reassure Saudi Arabia of Washington’s support — even if this support is sometimes mixed with criticism — against the Islamic State and the challenge represented by Iran”.
And of course there has been no real U.S. pushback against Iran for its support for the Assad regime in Syria which is guilty of crimes against humanity — the kind of crimes that United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power has spent her career denouncing. Nor does the U.S. inflict any kind of cost on Iran for holding five Americans hostage, or for the rather hostile habit that Ayatollah Khameini and other Iranian leaders have of regularly chanting “Death to America.” Whenever Iran acts up, the U.S. looks the other way. This is particularly egregious given the fact that Iran has not actually received its sanctions relief yet. Soon — possibly in a matter of weeks — Iran will get access to over $100 billion in frozen oil assets. Until that happens all of the leverage is on the American side. Iran should be on its best behavior until it gets its payoff for signing the nuclear deal. But that’s not the way Tehran sees it. The Iranian regime knows that President Obama is so desperate to implement the JCPOA that Iran can get away with murder and not suffer any consequences. So that is precisely what Iran is doing. This is creating a very dangerous precedent for the future. The devastating loss of American credibility means that a future president, even if he or she is so inclined, will have a hard time restoring our deterrent power and convincing Iran not to secretly pursue its nuclear ambitions. It also means that the value of American security guarantees continues to erode, which helps to explain why allies such as Saudi Arabia are pushing back against the Iranian threat in their own crude fashion, e.g., by bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen and by executing a Shiite rabble rouser. In sum, it means that the Middle East (and indeed the rest of the world) will continue to become more dangerous and more hostile to American interests — hard as that may be to believe.
In reality both must be blamed for the troubles. Saudi Arabia is a medieval kingdom trampling human rights and Iran is a theocratic state also trampling human rights. The Shia government has persecuted Sunni Baluchis bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the decades the Islam regime in Iran has also persecuted the Kurds bordering Turkey. Iran has also supported Shia proxies in various places like Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Pakistan. In Pakistan it has supported the Shia Tehrani Nifas i Fiqah i Jafria (TNFJ) which has opposed Sunni majority interpretation of Islam. On the other hand, the Saudi rulers have supported the extremist Sunni entities fighting the Shia extremists. The proxy war has lasted for decades.
In sum, neither of the two are any models of good governance, rule of law, or upholders of human rights. Meanwhile, the US is seemingly reluctant to intervene despite calls for taking sides with the Saudi against the Iranian regime. It is best to engage with both to defuse tensions. The United States, along with Turkey and Pakistan, act quietly behind the scenes to defuse tension. It would be inappropriate for the Obama administration to come out openly against Iran or to even openly support the Saudis. A cautious approach is required. In sum, the proper role of the United States would be to stay neutral officially and to try facilitate a rapprochement between the two rivals through back channel diplomacy.
Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.
That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.
Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.
They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.
With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.
These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.
A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.
For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.
The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.
Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.
Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.
The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.
Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.
“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.
Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”
Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.
“No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”
The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”
Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.
So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.
Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.
The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.
Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.
“No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.
The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.
Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.
Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”
Growing Tensions on the Road to Persian Gulf Security
The 14 September 2019 drone attacks on oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia have dimmed hope for U.S. – Iranian discussions aimed to reduce tensions and potentially end the armed conflict in Yemen. Tensions have increased, and oil prices have risen. Certain hopes created by the initiatives of the French President during the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France and the forced departure of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor have lessened. In fact, the aim of the attacks may have been to lessen the possibility of Iran – U.S. discussions which might have taken place during the start of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later in September.
There is a good deal of speculation as to who fired the drones and from where. The Ansar Allah Movement (often called the Houthis) has taken credit, but some specialists doubt that they have the technical knowhow to send drones from Yemen to the targets in Saudi Arabia. Some speculate that the drones were sent from southern Iraq, possibly by Iranian-backed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces or by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Iraq. The Revolutionary Guards are nearly “a state within the state” and could take initiatives without orders from the Iranian President or the Foreign Minister. The Revolutionary Guards could have motivations to prevent fruitful U.S. – Iranian talks at the U.N. There is also speculation that the drone attacks could be linked to increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates concerning the future of south Yemen where the two countries support different factions.
Whatever the locations from which the drones were launched and whomever pulled the switch, the consequences are clear. At a time when governments were speaking of a possible path to reduce tensions a “No Exit” sign has been put up near the start of the road. The road leads to ever-greater tensions which may slip out of the control of governments. Thus, in addition to the French proposal at the G7, there was an earlier Russian government proposal.
On 23 July 2019, the Russian Government’s “Collective Security for the Persian Gulf Region” was presented in Moscow by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov. The Russian proposal for Collective Security for the Persian Gulf follows closely the procedures which led to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Bogdanov stressed multilateral ism as a mechanism for all involved in the assessment of situations, the decision-making process, and the implementation of decisions.
It is not clear how the Russian proposal for a Helsinki-type conference will progress. Russia does not play a leading role in the Middle East today as the USSR did in Europe in the 1970s. In the lead up to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, non-governmental organizations had played an active role in informal East-West discussions to see what issues were open to negotiations and on what issues progress might be made. There is a need for such non-governmental efforts today as the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East are growing ever-more tense.
Algeria’s political impasse: What is next?
Seven months after a wave of protests began in Algeria; people are still pilling onto the streets of the Algerian capital “Algiers” and other cities nationwide every Friday, reiterating their main demands: the departure of the regime and its symbols and the application of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution stating that the constituent power belongs to the people.
The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm and
worldwide admiration since tens of thousands of Algerians first took,
peacefully, to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on
Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday revolting against former
opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country for decades.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, ceding power after 20 years of rule and abandoning his re-election bid. The protesters pressured the authorities, again, to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for April.
Despite the postponement of the election, the public anger continued to mount. Thus, Army chief Gaid Salah emerged as the key powerbroker positioning himself in favor of El Hirak “Popular movement”. He publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets.
Gaid Salah responded favorably to protesters’ demands, launching a sweeping anti-graft campaign targeting high-ranked officials that have served the Bouteflika government as well as influential tycoons and businessman.
Two Prime Ministers, namely; Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, the deposed President’s brother Said Bouteflika, tens of ministers, leading industrialists, tycoons, key businessmen, Governors, and two former Intelligence chiefs, have been remanded in custody for accusations ranging from money laundering, embezzlement, misuse of public money to using officials posts to influence industrial and commercial contracts and granting undue privileges, affiliation to suspicious parties that plot to destabilize the country, plotting against the army, and instigating the opposition to call for a transitional phase before holding any election.
Bouteflika’s resignation puts Abdelkader Bensalah, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker Head of State for 90 days until elections are held. However, elections (scheduled for July 4th) have been postponed for a second time and protesters are demanding his departure.
For his part, Bensalah, and in a bid to calm them, set a Panel of Dialogue and Mediation, composed of political actors, the civil society, the representatives of the trade union organizations and many citizens, with the aim to mediate between public authorities and people and hold a “serious and responsible” dialogue to reach a national consensus which would help resolve the political crisis in Algeria, through the organization of a fair and transparent presidential election, as soon as possible.”
However, the Panel itself is facing rejection by protesters who are taking into the streets denouncing its formation, saying it does not represent them along other claims, such as the departure of Bensalah, a former head of the upper house of parliament, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who are regarded by them as part of the old guard.
Despite all these arrangements, Algeria is still at an impasse, with two camps facing each other in seemingly irreconcilable positions.
To resolve this stalemate, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Deputy Minister of National Defence, Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army (ANP), launched, last week, a call, saying that it would be “appropriate” to convene the electorate on the 15th of September, and that the elections could be held within the deadlines set by law.
In my previous speech, “I have spoken about the priority to seriously launch the preparation of the presidential elections within the coming weeks, and today, based on our missions, prerogatives and our compliance with the Constitution and the laws of the Republic as well, I confirm that we regard as appropriate to summon the Electorate on September 15th and the elections can be held within the deadlines provided for by the law. Reasonable and acceptable deadlines which respond to the insistent demand of the people,” said Lieutenant General.
Theoretically, if the head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, summons the electorate on September 15, 2019, as desired by the head of the army, the presidential election should take place before the end of the current year (mid-December). The Organic Law No. 12-01 2012 (Electoral Code) provides in article 25 that “Subject to the other provisions of this organic law, the electorate shall be convened by presidential decree within three (3) months preceding the date of the elections “.
As a response, Algerian street has expressed its rejection of elections in the current political conditions. According to demonstrators, no election should take place as long as Bouteflika-era officials remain in positions of power.
For their parts, the opposition parties and civil society groups have also demanded the resignation of the government which constitutes “a popular demand”, voicing rejection of the holding of the elections.
The people are determined to pursue the hirak until the establishment of a state of institutions, widening gap between them and the power constrained, for lack of serious candidates, to cancel the vote twice.
According to observers, these presidential elections are unachievable for the moment because the approach advocated by Ahmed Gaid Salah ” requires the revision of some texts of the electoral law to adapt to the requirements of the current situation, and not a total and profound revision that would affect all texts, as claimed by the demonstrators. The partial amendment means the holding of elections basing on the same mode of organization. This is likely to trigger the street again as the popular movement with its magnitude unparalleled in the contemporary history of the country will, likely, sabotage the preparations for this election. The political climate also does not allow the organization of such an election with the absence of total trust between voters and the political class.
However, it is imperative to go quickly to a presidential election provided that it is transparent, where the mediation initiatives of the Panel or other organizations, can lead to a consensual platform far from the occult practices of the past which saw the majority of the population sulking the ballot boxes, reflecting the state-citizen divorce, noting that an independent election monitoring commission and the departure of the Bedoui government are two prerequisites for a transparent presidential election.
This necessarily implies the cleaning up of the electoral file, the creation of an independent election supervision body where neither the executive (the government – especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Walis) nor the deputies/senators and representatives of the current APCs denounced by Al Hirak, will be stakeholders.
Only a democratically elected legitimate president, elected on the basis of a transparent agenda, pledging to include the legitimate demands of Al Hirak including a new balance of power and the moralization of management (fight against corruption and embezzlement), can amend the constitution and carry out the profound political and economic reforms to bring Algeria to the new world and make it an emerging country: a pivotal country regionally and internationally.
Economically, it is imperative to quickly resolve the political crisis before the end of 2019 or at most the first quarter of 2020, to avoid towards a cessation of payments at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, and prevent Algeria the depletion of its foreign exchange reserves which would culminated in the economic, social, political insecurity.
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