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SPYMKR-PCEMKR: The Possible Future of American-Iranian-Saudi Triangulation

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Dear Iran,

Forgive the presumptuousness of thinking a mere American Intelligence Studies professor is able to give a few lessons about innovative geostrategy to a foreign state, but sometimes it takes eyes on the outside, far away from the forest, to be able to see unique young saplings that have the potential to grow into great redwoods, even though they may currently be completely ignored.

I believe this is just such the case today when we look at the global position of Iran as it considers the many different paths and perspectives moving forward after the JCPOA. If I am being honest, so far the outlook appears less-than-rosy, as the same old-same old seems to be dominating. For the sake of the greatest future of Iran and a more peaceful global community, status quo orthodoxy should be discarded.

Sometimes it must seem utterly comedic trying to navigate the relationship waters with the West. Since the signing of the JCPOA there have been half a dozen accusations from EACH side protesting how the spirit if not the letter of the accord has been breached. America, for its part, seems to exhibit something akin to ‘signer’s remorse,’ more obsessed about finding areas to critique the Islamic Republic rather than emphasizing how to work successfully within this new and exciting dialogue. Iran, for its part, feels strain from all sides, inside and out: internally, the domestic authorities want to tightly manage and maximize the success to be gained out of the accord in a competent and non-chaotic way (without any major political change); externally, many different foreign sides not-so-secretly hope the accord becomes the actual undoing of the government, a facilitator of local unrest and creator of a new regime, exorcising for America at least the ghosts of 1979.

And thus, the frustrating banality of politics: over-determined to make the status quo immutable. American worries about not trusting Iran are as common and inane as Iranian worries about not trusting the United States. The JCPOA could and should be a spur for new thinking and new engagement. So far, on that note, it has been basically irrelevant. It is perhaps even understandable why that is so: Iran sees the greatest capitalization of the accord to be about increasing its economic stability and prosperity. It no doubt will do just that. But it could also do so much more. But that will require both sides, American and Iranian, to be willing to see the future in a more innovative geostrategic light and be less enslaved to the old orthodoxy where the two simply must remain adversaries. It does not have to be that way. In fact, if people on either side could take a moment to step back and breathe, then the INEVITABILITY of this transformation would be more apparent. Yes, I said ‘inevitability’ and meant it: a new day will come. The only real question is will the leaders in Washington and Tehran take advantage of it?

One of the biggest relationship elephants in terms of making such change between Iran and America is Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the ‘special’ relationship between the US and Saudi royal family now goes back decades. While both sides have always emphasized the strategic defense aspects of the relationship – how the Saudis have been a de facto ‘silent affirmer’ of American interests in the region, the Islamic partner Americans can work with – this has come with a steep cost: the political development of Saudi society, the evolution of its governmental system and emergence of civil liberties and citizen rights has been, to put it kindly, abysmally glacial. While many military figures would characterize this as a necessary evil to maintain a major power Islamic partner in the area, the true reality is that this moral turpitude is better explained by the economic energy dependence from which America has been unable to wean itself away and which the Saudis have brilliantly maintained and managed. Until now. And this is where the biggest opportunity sits hidden for Iran. America has finally managed to position itself to where it is at least realistic to see a near future where it is not overly dependent on foreign fossil fuels. This means the ‘special’ relationship with Saudi Arabia is inevitably going to undergo great change. Trust me. When the day comes that the United States no longer sees Saudi Arabia as an essential lynchpin in feeding the energy needs that power its global economic primacy, then the very next day will mark the rewriting of the Saudi-American relationship. Saudi Arabia seems to recognize this better than most: just observe some of its more self-injurious oil pricing decisions over the last several years and most recent declarations about the country’s need to push away from natural resource dependency and be more economically ‘diverse.’ So what will you do, Iran, when this comes to pass? Do you see this for the immense opportunity that it is or have you been ignoring it, determined to remain stuck in a status quo where America remains the so-called ‘Great Satan’ while you remain the hub of a supposed ‘axis of evil?’ Rightly or wrongly, the responsibility to create that new future with America rests on your shoulders. But will you take it?

As America moves off away from this foreign economic energy dependence, a political and diplomatic vacuum will emerge in the Islamic world. Who is going to fill it? Who will be the next great Islamic partner for America? Who can be? There are few true contenders. Honestly, there really have been only two: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Political relevance, military capability, economic potential, and cultural influence have always made you two the natural rivals for regional hegemony and American attention. One only need look at the situation in Yemen to understand how much this is true and dangerous when mismanaged. The unique economic relationship between Saudi Arabia and America in the post-Cold War basically shut you out, Iran, and your resentment over that fact (along with the endless sanctions) did not exactly encourage your best or most innovative behavior to enact change. That same reality has also powered an American blindness to certain disturbing behaviors from the Saudi side, whether that be reckless suppression domestically, clumsy maneuvers against civilian areas in Yemen, or the Faustian bribing of local radical extremists that basically meant the Kingdom de facto exported terrorism abroad in order to keep greater calm at home. But as I said, those days are the old orthodoxy. Maintaining it is egregiously short-sighted and a bit bull-headed. This is of course how most governments in the world tend to initially behave even when a new, better path appears before them. Oh how we rely on our status quo. Can you do differently, Iran, or are you just as much a slave to it as everyone else?

I am not naïve. I know that the only way an initiative from you, Iran, would be received more promisingly from the United States is if you worried just a little bit less about political change within your own borders. It is a disconcerting prospect, most assuredly. On the one hand, you have China as an example of how change can be embraced and fostered without tremendous political upheaval. While the United States criticizes that pace of change, that is just America being America. Sometimes it cannot get out of its own way. But on the other hand, you have what was once the Soviet Union, an example of what happens when change dictates to a state rather than the other way around. You probably surmise: if we cannot guarantee the Chinese path for ourselves, we cannot risk the Soviet one. It is a damnable conundrum, no doubt. But your great progress and positive change on the global stage can only come through such risks, by endeavoring to navigate through such conundrums and emerge on the other side. Your current path, where you think you can maximize the JCPOA while maintaining an adversarial relationship with the United States (and thus, consequently, guaranteeing American resistance to your very progress), is untenable. More importantly, it’s unnecessary. So here I sit, in the odd position of suggesting how two ‘enemies’ should actually look beyond their respective noses to see how much better off each will be as partners moving forward. Many assume that those of us within Intelligence Studies deal only in subterfuge, in deceit and deception. ‘Spymakers’ cannot be trusted, after all. But that is Hollywood hyperbole, where the real world suddenly thinks it is a mirror reflecting the fake world of Bond and Bourne. In truth, the best form of Intelligence Studies is simply gaining new insights from information and thus opening up new pathways to inflict LESS damage, not more. In the end, our mission is not to create chaos but curtail it. An American-Iranian partnership would be the best curtailing.

And so, Supreme Leader, if a ‘spymaker’ can be a peacemaker without contradiction or hypocrisy, then why can’t Iran be a partner to America? It can. It should. Seize the opportunity.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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