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Additional considerations on the Iranian nuclear issue

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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We all know that the Russian Federation has been one of the true resolver of the Iranian nuclear issue, also within the negotiations that led the P5+1 to define the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.

For Russia, the nuclear deal expands the economy, as well as the strategic rayonnement of an ally, namely Iran, which is necessary for Russia both in the Middle East and in the complex oil price system to resolve a question of life or death for it: the increase in crude oil prices. Not to mention that – in the new equilibrium resulting from the war in Syria – Russia supports the Shi’ite Republic insofar as the United States support Saudi Arabia and Turkey.It is worth recalling that it was the Lebanese Shi’ite Imam, Mussa Sadr – kidnapped in Rome, probably by Libyan agents – to decide the Syrian Alawites belonging to the Shi’ite universe.

Nevertheless, with caution and attention, Russia does not take part in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran – hoping, on the contrary, to witness “a decrease of tensions between the two countries” and supporting all measures which can restore some sort of relations between the two Islamic nations.

However, is Russia a true ally for Iran?

From the viewpoint of the current war in Syria, Russia militarily supports Bashar el Assad, who is a staunch ally of Iran. The problem, however, is that the Russian Federation has no strategic interest in increasing tensions in the Middle East, which could cause a “domino effect” that would be very dangerous for Russian interests, as well as for its military and intelligence apparatus. Especially for the linkage between Ukraine and the Russian-Alawite actions in Syria. The costs of actions in Syria may lead to a decrease of the Russian engagement in another key area, namely Ukraine, while this country is essential to protect and manage Russia’ s oil and gas system, which reaches up to its primary market, namely Europe.

Hence, if the Greater Middle East flares up, considering the Syrian crisis, the Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the gradual destabilization of the Shi’ite areas inside the Saudi Kingdom and the de facto closure of the sea routes south of Suez, then the overstretching of Russian military engagement would create severe economic and strategic problems that would be hard to solve for Russia. Conversely, the real keystone of the Russian system in the region could be Israel, placed at the centre of regional tensions, very efficient at militarily level, distant both from Iran and Saudi Arabia, and now alien to the US geopolitics in the region, as well as capable of managing a long war of attrition both with Shi’ites and Sunnis. And also capable of threatening fully credible retaliations.

We cannot make peace nor waging a war, throughout the Middle East, without creating a strategic correlation with Israel.The Palestinian movements of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and pre-Bashar Syria, knew this all too well.At the time, the solution was a long low-intensity war with the use of Palestinian terrorism against targets both in the Jewish State and, above all, in the territory of its traditional allies. Terrorism is a poor war which destroys the “enemy” peoples’ morale, but does not cause excessive damage to the military structures and facilities of the target country.

On the contrary, the case of ISIS/Daesh is different: a territorial jihad which is the background, – as hoped by Al Baghdadi – of the Sunni Islamic States after their destabilization and after the wiping out of the “takfiri” (apostate) rulers.Hence, in Syria, we are currently witnessing a real war along its borders because, after Al-Qaeda’s terrorism and the unsuccessful “Arab springs”, the region has no significant external strategic protection.

Not even Iran now wants a real war along its borders, since it has every interest in taking full advantage of the new economic and political climate emerged, especially with Europe, after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan.Therefore a “regional cold war” between Shi’ites and Sunnis in the Middle East is likely, once clarified to which sphere of influence Syria, or what will remain of it, belongs.However, how is the management of the P5+1 agreement with Iran progressing, which is the keystone of the whole Middle East current system?

At economic level, the Iranian government has set some productive sectors in which the Iranian-Russian trade will be enhanced.According to the plans of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, the funds given back to Iran and the increasing trade with the European Union, the United States, Russia and China will create the capital needed for the final economic takeoff of the country.

The productive sectors of Iranian-Russian trade regard the nuclear sector, armaments, natural gas and oil, of which a price correlation is envisaged between the Russian and the Iranian products.The geoeconomic tripartite relationship foreseen by Iran is the one with Russia, Iraq and Venezuela, while Russia proposes coordination with OPEC, as a whole, so as to proceed to an acceptable oil price increase per barrel.After signing the JCPOA, Russia and Iran have also decided to increase their economic exchanges from 1.5 billion US dollars in 2013 to 15 billion US dollars within the next five years.

This means that the Iranian ruling class is trying to rebalance and offset the economic opening to the West with an almost equivalent expansion of trade with Russia.Moreover, the Russian Federation is also planning to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in the nuclear sector, while it already supports the Iranian nuclear industry – and it will support it ever more in the future.

The “stance” of Ali Akbar Velayati, a close aide of Rahbar Khamenei for foreign policy, also defines that the future of the stabilization of the area stretching from Central Asia to the Maghreb region and the Middle East, through the Caucasus, will be permanently guaranteed only by a tripartite agreement between China, Russia and Iran.Europe is currently swinging between a useless and a ridiculous strategic stance and the United States have now made it clear to everyone that they are walking out of the Middle East – indeed, there is no effective alternative to this new geopolitical project.

The agreement envisaged by the Iranian leader is designed to eradicate the jihad, enlarge the area of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and to enable China to secure its great project of a new “Silk Road”, the so-called One Belt One Road which was announced by Xi Jinping in October 2013.Europe, which still delights in useless and expensive “peace operations”, which maintain and exacerbate conflicts rather than solving them, will have an Eastern border controlled by this Sino-Russian-Iranian axis.In this new area, the European Union will have no say in the matter, while – after the disasters made – the United States are walking out of the Middle East so as to focus on the project of a new “cold war” along the Euro-Russian border.

A strange strategic nonsense, probably useful to keep some grip on the geopolitical void that the European Union is today and to avoid the territorial, economic and military continuity that the Russian analysts, linked to the Eurasian project, are proposing to the now meaningless Europe.Moreover, in 1991, Iraq openly infringed the rules of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it had previously adhered.Khomeini, just risen to power, declared that nuclear energy was “satanic”, but then he had to change his mind.

In the lack of advanced conventional weapons, of well-trained forces and of an effective grip of the Shi’ite regime on much of the population, the only solution was nuclear weapons, which had been started by the Shah.

Meanwhile, pending the Implementation Day of January 16, 2016, as many as 593 individuals and companies connected to Iran’s project for uranium enrichment have been “pardoned” by both the United States and the European Union, including many Iranian transport companies, some banks, individual experts of nuclear technologies and many companies located outside the Shi’ite Republic.The reason for this is Iran’s compliance with the Agreement, parallel to the JCPOA, on the release of four prisoners held in its jails.Iran’s behaviour is what is defined as a “win-win” strategy in the mathematical game theory: you always win regardless of the game strategy.Hence, faced with Iran’s quick recovery of over 120 billion US dollars already frozen in foreign banks, each small-scale calculation shall be relinquished by the Shi’ite regime.

This means that Iran will be increasingly interested in putting an end to the Syrian game, after quickly annihilating Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate, which is the maximum strategic threat to Iran that would be blocked every channel with Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean, in particular.This is also the problem of China, which cannot complete its operation of “New Silk Road” to Europe without eliminating ISIS/Daesh.And it is also the problem of the Jewish State, which has no interest in having, almost along its borders, a territorial jihad which could also set fire to the Palestinian radicalism inside and outside Israel.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether and to what extent, in the coming months, the Shi’ite State will still need the Lebanese Hezbollah along the border with Israel or whether it will use them – as happens today – for its proxy wars to be managed without getting too much involved and soiling its hands.

It is easy to predict, for the “Party of God”, a future very similar to that of the North-American marines, and it is very likely for them to be present in Central Asia, in the predominantly Shi’ite areas of Saudi Arabia, in the Maghreb region and, in the future, even in Libya.However, at least 35% of the new funds recovered after the lifting of sanctions on Iran will serve to acquire new weapons, both Russian and Chinese one, as well as to allow the geopolitical shift of its nuclear threat from the territory of the Shi’ite Republic to that of a traditional ally, namely North Korea.

Yemen will host an Iranian nuclear power plant; after the current disaster, Syria will assign parts of its territory to Iran for its nuclear-conventional operations and nothing prevents Iraq from accepting the presence of Iran’s “forbidden” weapon systems on its territory.

Hence new weapons, instead of the old nuclear power, which does not allow a reasonable threshold for its use or for the credibility of a threat.The current strategic thinking is not interested in the old game, typical of the “cold war”, of the nuclear escalation which, as such, deters the opponent.The Iranian leaders’ current doctrine is to have useful weapons – a real deterrent, which can be used in the reality of regional clashes.It comes to mind the old Soviet strategy manual written by General Shaposhnikov, in which he defined the use of nuclear weapons in full continuity with conventional weapons. It was just a problem of tactical usefulness.

Therefore, after signing the JCPOA, Iran has chosen the credible and immediate threat instead of an old geopolitics of nuclear confrontation which becomes impossible through the gradual equalization of arsenals.Incidentally, if the nuclear threat becomes possible in continuity with a conventional clash, it will be good for the European and Italian decision-makers to rethink many of the clauses of the old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Italy signed in 1970 and still believes to be the “cornerstone” of its foreign policy.

The five-year conference of May 2015 on the review of the Treaty ended with no results, while in 1998 even Italy threatened to withdraw from the NPT if the legitimate nuclear powers did not guarantee our security and safety.It would be worth remembering that no one guarantees anybody’ security and safety: the Italian political theorist, Nicolò Machiavelli, used to remind us of the fact that “States’ own weapons” can make them safe, and he liked to repeat that States “cannot be maintained with words”.In addition, after signing the P5+1 non-proliferation agreement, Iran will become a legitimate regional power and thus an important mediator and broker of future regional conflicts.

And we must clarify how and to what extent we could later ensure the Israeli security and safety if a new August war, like the one which broke out between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Israeli armed forces in 2006, happened.If the Jewish State collapses, the whole jihad will unite. It will definitely win in the Arab States still considered “moderate” and it will dangerously get close to Europe, without any control or supervision, thus knocking on its doors.As it happened on September 11, 1683, when the Polish cavalry defeated the Ottomans in Kahlenberg, at the gates of Vienna.Today Sobieski’s Polish cavalry is no longer there.

Indeed, the ideology of multiculturalism, of “submission” – as the French writer Houellebecq called it in his novel – no longer allows the battle of ideas or the preparation of the real battle.Hence, without a reliable centre of gravity for us in the Middle East, breaking the jihad’s line of continuity and enabling the European Union to remain safe within its borders – because Islamist terrorism can turn into an open war – there will no security and safety in the European landmass or in the Mediterranean basin.

Therefore we can think of a new negotiation of the P5+1 “contact group” on Iran’s missile system, allowing limited conventional weapons. We can also think of freezing Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions and then relying on a strategic tripartite relationship between Russia, China and EU-NATO.A tripartite relationship which should rebalance the strategic potential of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Iraq, thus keeping the nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India under control.

As we have already said, the United States have focused on their action for regionalizing the Russian Federation, which is not in Europe’s interest. They will also operate in Central Asia to control the Chinese power projection.Neither Iran nor China are focused on a short-term perspective but, as happened before World War II, today the West seems to be inebriated with quick fixes to be sold to the media for purely cosmetic geopolitical reasons.Therefore, both in Italy and in the rest of Europe, we should think of a less naive policy, more sensitive to old and new threats, which are changing shape and position.

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 "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. 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 of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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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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