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Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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First and foremost, it is worth analyzing what the lifting of sanctions on Iran really means for Iran and the West.

The announcement made on January 16 last by the Iranian Shi’ite government and the P5 + 1 regarding the lifting of sanctions means that the IAEA has acknowledged that Iran has complied with all the terms and conditions of the JCPOA Treaty on the elimination of nuclear weapons and the control of the nuclear power for civilian uses by the Shi’ite regime (yet there would be much to add in this regard).

It is a decision resulting more from the Western economic crisis than the real Iranian willingness to stop its military-civilian nuclear activities. Nevertheless the Western geoeconomic collapse is now so fast that every global strategic choice must be sadly subjected to the needs of the economic and political survival of our social systems.

The EU, US and UN sanctions have now been basically lifted, especially with regard to the financial, transport, logistics and energy sectors, while the US embargo on Iran is still in place.

In this connection, data and statistics are more important than usual: so far the Iranian companies removed from the sanctions list are 278 in the transport sector; 114 in the energy sector; 16 in the fields of engineering, construction and manufacturing; 20 in the trading sector; 53 in the activities related to the nuclear cycle and finally 111 in the financial and insurance sectors.

Moreover, further 600 individuals and small to medium size companies have been removed from the list of sanctions on Iran.

About half of these 600 natural and legal persons operate in the transport sector, a fundamental sector for a nation like Iran whose economy is linked to oil.

In particular the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, the National Iranian Tanker Company and their offices and affiliated companies.

In percentage terms, the lifting of sanctions has placed back on the scene 20% of Iranian energy companies, as well as 20% of its banks and insurance companies and only 9% of its companies working in the nuclear sector.

The remaining companies operate in the trading, engineering, construction, manufacturing and the import-export sectors.

Many of these companies, however, result to be still active in Iranian missile or anyway military activities. Several banks to which now sanctions are no longer applied still have ties with the covert networks of nuclear procurement, while other companies have been used as a cover for secret nuclear activities not declared to the IAEA.

It is worth recalling that, in accordance with the JCPOA agreement, Iran can still prevent the Vienna Agency’s visits and inspections to the sites having “military relevance” and, in any case, even the AIEA experts must be subjected to the Iranian government’s acceptance.

For the EU, however, the following transactions were excluded from the previous sanctions; the transfers of funds and the financial and banking exchanges and transfers between European and Iranian entities; the banking activities, with the possibility for the Iranian credit institutions to open branches in the EU region; insurance and reinsurance activities for the Iranian companies operating in Europe; the imports of oil, gas and petrochemical products from Iran; the EU investment in the Iranian mining sector; all the shipping and shipbuilding activities; the exports of gold, gems and coins, in which Iran is rich at least since the time of the Thousand and One Nights.

The United States have lifted their sanctions on Iran and on the non-US companies working with Iran, especially in the hydrocarbon sector, although a clear US government’s ban remains for US assets and individuals to still operate with the Iranian government.

However the sanctions list by sector is largely similar to the list we have already seen for the European Union.

Nevertheless the United Nations have retained the embargo on 36 natural and legal persons, while the sanctions regime remains in place for conventional weapons (lasting five years) and for the technologies regarding ballistic missiles (lasting eight years). Obviously also the restrictions on the nuclear-related technologies are maintained.

It is worth noting that, despite the P5 + 1 agreement, there are hundreds of Iranian natural and legal persons that have not been removed from the sanctions list.

They include 86 natural or legal persons for the United Nations, including the Bank Sepah; over 150 natural and legal persons for the European Union, including banks and oil trading companies, as well as over 160 for the United States.

Obviously many of these entities can be found in all the various lists.

So far we have provided the essential data to understand the issue. But what will be the geostrategic impact of the new interaction between Iran and the Western powers of the P5 + 1 agreement? As we all know, we are now faced with a situation of plummeting oil prices.

Certainly Iran plans to flood and invade the global markets with huge amounts of oil and gas but, in this case, the clash between the country of reference of the “Party of Ali” and the country of reference of Wahhabi and Sunni purism, namely Saudi Arabia, could be turned from peripheral tensions – managed by proxies, such as the Yemeni Houthi for Iran or the “moderate” jihadists in Syria – into a direct war between the two entities of Islam.

Some experts estimate that the excess of oil production in the world amounts to 9-12 million barrels per day and, as is well-known, this has been lasting for 16 months approximately.

The United States have endeavoured to reduce prices with a view to destabilizing the economy and hence the Russian power projection between Ukraine and Syria. Saudi Arabia wants the fall of crude oil price to prevent the rise of the US shale oil which, in fact, needs a minimum price of 50 US dollars per barrel to break even the extraction costs. The European Union is floundering in an economic crisis and can afford only a smaller amount of oil.

It is a perfect geopolitical storm: the greater the fall in prices, or their irrelevance compared to costs (which is the real problem), the greater the internal competition among producers.

The oil demand has been falling since mid-2014 and Europe is cutting demand substantially, while the United States extract ever more shale oil and China reduces its oil imports.

If OPEC had read only the manuals of liberal neoclassical economics, it would have reduced extraction so as to keep prices high.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia has decided to increase extraction not to keep prices high (Saudi Arabia reaches the breakeven point with a price of 100 US dollars per barrel), but only to retain its market share.

Hence the ground for the war between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be the destruction or the driving away from the market – with terrorist and jihadist actions – of their respective allies having an oil-dependent economy.

The other variable is the rapid recovery of the Chinese economy, which could make prices increase beyond such a limit as to avoid a direct or indirect war between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

Currently China’s imports have increased by approximately 8% as against last year, but China is a major customer for Iran, for obvious technical and geopolitical reasons, while Saudi Arabia still is the second largest oil exporter to China. The first is the Russian Federation.

Moreover President Xi Jinping has further improved the Sino-Saudi relations, thanks to the visit he has paid this month to the Middle East.

Obviously China does not want the destabilization of the Greater Middle East and it is distributing its cards among all players so as to be the final broker of the new regional balance.

Indeed, this is the reason why Russia is actively mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia so as to avoid both the confrontation and the expansion of the proxy wars which, in the Russian perspective, only benefit “NATO and the West.”

If the OPEC Islamic region set fire, what would happen to the Russian oil transport lines from Central Asia?

Furthermore, in view of the lifting of international sanctions, Iran has repeatedly stated that its oil will be managed on the market in such a way as to prevent further falls in oil prices.

Hence, as Iran has already maintained, it will produce “as much as the market can absorb”. But certainly it cannot help affecting the Saudi market area.

Nevertheless, there is a variable: the demographic and religious distribution of the Saudi population.

The Shi’ites living in Saudi Arabia are approximately eight million and are concentrated in the Eastern areas, where the headquarters of Saudi Aramco are located (in Dahran), as well as the largest oil field in the world, namely Ghawar, and the largest global terminal, namely Ras Tanura, in addition to the refinery of Abuqaiq, which is the largest one of the whole OPEC system.

The Shi’ites are the overwhelming majority of workers processing crude oil in the region and will be – or probably already are – “managed” by the Iranian brothers.

It is not hard to imagine what would happen if a Shi’ite uprising in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province destabilized the production of the first OPEC country and added the largest oil production in the world to the Shi’ite economic and decision-making system.

However, keeping prices low allows to dispose of stocks more quickly.

Hence if Saudi Arabia keeps prices low to expand its market share, which is of primary importance compared to profitability, it is likely it wants direct confrontation with Iran.

According to the analysts of many Western merchant banks, the scenario of a real war between Iran and Saudi Arabia could lead to an immediate price peak of 300 US dollars per barrel, before stabilizing at 100 US dollars, which is the profitability limit of Saudi Arabia’s production.

It is worth recalling that Iran has a profitability level higher than Saudi Arabia’s. And this is a significant factor to assess the duration – and hence the winner – of the confrontation.

In a conference held last year with the major oil extraction companies worldwide, Iran decided to change the crude oil commercial rules, by allowing the booking of reserves though maintaining the ownership of soil.

Iran will attract at least 30 billion US dollars of investment in its oil, with 25-year contracts for the foreign companies extracting in the new oil fields and some offsetting mechanisms for price fluctuations.

Despite sanctions, Iran is the second largest economy in the Middle East and the seventh in Asia as a whole. We can imagine what might happen after the lifting of sanctions.

It is a struggle for hegemony over oil, through which the world and Western economies are controlled and governed and – subject to the careful Russian mediation and China’s balanced policy between the parties – nothing prevents the worst from happening.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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