It is a recognized reality that the Middle East is divided into two greater blocs, where Syria, Iraq & Hezbollah are spearheaded by Iran (often addressed as shia bloc) and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey & Qatar are spearheaded by Saudi Arabia (often addressed as sunni bloc). However, a new reality is trending.
The sunni bloc is increasingly experiencing fractures within itself because of the differences of views between two further sub-groupings within the bloc. One group, which is led by Saudi Arabia, includes United Arab Emirates, Bahrain & Egypt. This group opposes any kind of democracy. The other group, consisting of Turkey & Qatar, supports their own version of democracy.
On the otherside, while Pakistan is traditionally allied with Saudi Arabia, its need for national security and energy security has been pushing Pakistan into changing its foreign policy by moving away from ‘all-out influence’ of Saudi Arabia and taking a more lenient approach with regard to Iran. At the same time, Algeria seems to be moving away from the influence of Saudi Arabia in its attempt to establish regular relations with Iran. Furthermore, the rivalries within the region have been further fuelled by the interferences and interventions of the two military superpowers – the U.S. and Russia.
The traditional sunni bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Morocco and Turkey, are using the sunni brand in order to rally the sunnis around the world behind their back against their rival Iran. On the other side, Iran is playing the same game by using the card of shia-ism in pulling the shias around the world towards its cause of portraying Saudi Arabia an evil power.
Growing Iranian influence in the region
The Iranian influence in the region is growing and such an increasing trend is perceivable from a number of developments. First, Iran-backed Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been operating inside Syria and Iraq. Secondly, Iran was successful in establishing its influence substantially within the Lebanese social fabric and there is a strong presence of Hezbollah within Lebanon. Thirdly, the Iran-influenced government of Iraq consults with Iran about each and every matter, even on petty issues. Fourthly, a pro-Iranian regime, led by Bashar-al-Assad, is still holding onto power in war-torn Syria, Fifthly, Iran has been increasingly attaining a good control over the shia community within Bahrain which has a shia majority population under the sunni monarch. Sixth, Iran has backed the Houthis, an armed group in Yemen, to successfully capture Yemeni capital Sana, and also to hold onto it for a long while until now. Finally, the nuclear done deal among the six nuclear powers and Iran was a landmark political, diplomatic and economic achievement for Iran, creating the possibility for strengthening Iran’s regional influence against its major foe Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Morocco – all share many social, political and economic characteristics in common. The most notable common characteristic is, without any doubt, the fact that all of these countries are monarchies. Any other systems of governance that challenge the state’s ruling mechanisms are, at times, checked and balanced through cracking down on such voices that are raised against the monarchy and its governance system.
Egypt, under a dictatorship, has been maintaining good relationship and deep cooperation with Saudi Arabia, because there are many common interests between these two countries. Saudi Arabia prefers to keep the Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood largely ineffective by making sure that the government of Egypt is neutralizing the organization inside Egypt, from where the organization runs its regional campaigns.
Egypt’s current president, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, came to power by overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood backed president Mohammad Morsi. Besides keeping Muslim Brotherhood under check in the region, Saudi Arabia needs Egypt for overall balance of power in the region. Availing an ally like Egypt, which is a sunni populated regional military power, gives Saudi Arabia a boost against its regional foes, especially against Iran and Muslim Brotherhood.
Sub-grouping of Qatar & Turkey
The point of views regarding the practice of democracy collides between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatar, despite being a monarchy, supports a version of “so called” Islamic democracy in line with their own interpretation. Because of such a mindset, Qatar has been backing Muslim Brotherhood across the region. The Qatari policy makers, compared to those of Saudi Arabia, do have a lesser harsh approach towards Iran because of the same.
Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development Party, otherwise known as the AK Party, professes a “so called” Islamic democracy similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey, among all the regional sunni populated countries, has the least harsh approach towards Iran & the likes (developments centring Syria is an exception though).
There have been incidents of withdrawal of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s ambassadors from Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, including within Egypt. Saudi authority strongly opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and the organization is banned in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia & Egypt.
At the same time, it is true that while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain & Egypt have many differences with Qatar & Turkey regarding many aspects of foreign policy, their greater shared and common interests with regard to their rivalry with regional axis of Iran-Iraq-Assad-Hezbollah have been keeping them united.
Algeria moving away from Saudi Arabia towards Iran
Algeria seems to be moving away from the influence of Saudi Arabia in its attempt to establish regular relations with Iran. Algeria, whose influence is increasing across Africa, has been half-hearted regarding its relations with the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. There is a clear difference between Algeria and Saudi Arabia regarding their positions, both political and economic, on the Syrian issue. Algeria continues to recognize Bashar-al-Assad’s regime, while Saudi Arabia recently hosted the Syrian opposition conference. The crisis in Yemen further complicates matters, as Saudi Arabia, alongwith its Arab allies, is fighting the Houthis and forces loyal to deposed President Abdullah Saleh, while Algeria has proposed a diplomatic initiative and announced its willingness to host the Houthis and Abdullah Saleh loyalists.
Algeria not only refused to participate in the Saudi-led coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen and establish a joint Arab force, it also refused to participate in the new Islamic Alliance to combat terrorism, led by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s alleged support towards Morocco in its dispute with the Algerian-allied Polisario Front in the dispute over the Western Sahara only makes the relationship between Algeria and Saudi Arabia worse.
Pakistan’s balancing act
Pakistan’s relation too with Saudi Arabia is deteriorating amid Pakistan’s attempt to draw a balance between its relations with Saudi Arabia and its relations with Iran. While Pakistan is traditionally allied with Saudi Arabia, its need for national security and energy security has been pushing Pakistan into changing its foreign policy by moving away from ‘all-out influence’ of Saudi Arabia and taking a more lenient approach with regard to Iran.
Both Iran and Pakistan know well that China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of China’s initiative to revive the ancient Silk Route, has the potential to transform the economies of Pakistan and, if accommodated of, Iran, India and Afghanistan. CPEC is most likely to bring peace and prosperity not only in Pakistan’s conflict-torn Baluchistan, but also in the Pakistan’s neighbourhood – South Asia and Central Asia.
Pakistan is now concentrating on neutralizing all the insurgencies inside its territory and on shaping up a business friendly Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy is likely to become huge because of the Silk Route Economic Belt initiative led by China. Pakistan will soon, therefore, need huge supply of fuel-energy in order to fuel its economy; and Iran, after withdrawal of economic sanctions, is now able to supply the energy that Pakistan requires. From Pakistan’s recent moves, it seems Pakistan is too keen to import oil and gas from Iran in order to enjoy easily accessible energy-supply-destination as Iran is Pakistan’s next door neighbour.
Pakistan is already facing an unpleasant situation regarding Saudi-Iran rivalry, particularly in respect to Saudi led coalition’s war on Yemen’s Houthi militants. Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan for supporting the coalitions’ war through sending ground-troops to fight the Houthis in Yemen. Pakistan responded by asking Saudi Arabia to excuse it for not involving in any war that is, in reality, not a direct attack on Saudi’s sovereignty. But Pakistan assured Saudi Arabia that it would do anything and everything possible to counter any direct threat to Saudi sovereignty. In short, Pakistan denied Saudi’s request to send its own troops to fight a war side by side with Saudi Arabia. Through not involving in Saudi-Iran rivalry within Yemen, Pakistan is making sure that it avoids every possibility of antagonizing Iran.
The aforementioned changes in Pakistan’s relation with Middle Eastern countries show that Pakistan is seemingly moving away from the traditional ‘all-out influence’ of its decades old ally Saudi Arabia, and has been attempting to draw a balance between its relations with Saudi Arabia and its relations with Iran.
•Today, Middle East, especially the Western Asia, is the most conflict plagued region in the world. With the passing of time, the polarization within the region is only getting worse.
•The Middle East is of strategic importance to the world, particularly because of its supply of oil. Many analysts believe that the U.S.’s plan is to engineer a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to make accessibility of the region risky for Russia and China, both of which are trying to reshape the current global order that is led and dominated by the U.S. On the otherhand, many other analysts say that it is Russia, not the U.S., which wants to engineer such a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and then get the U.S. embroiled into it and drive up the cost of oil, benefitting Russia that is suffering from lower global oil price.
•While Pakistan previously had good relations with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and China, it had awful relations with Russia, India, former Soviet Union and Iran. However, shifts in its balance of foreign relations have been taking place. Pakistan seems to be moving away from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in its attempt to coming closer to China and Iran.
First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib
Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*
The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.
The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.
Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.
As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.
But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.
This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.
To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.
The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.
For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.
Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.
Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.
The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.
Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.
* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
From our partner RIAC
Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed
No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.
The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.
Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.
In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.
The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.
For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.
Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.
The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.
If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.
The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.
If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
What Does China-Iran Relations mean for United States?
What China wants in the Middle East
Although the recent China-Iran deal prompted extensive debates in international media, Iran is not the only country in the region to keep up a strategic partnership with China. The GCC states such as Saudi Arabia (since 2016) and the United Arab Emirates (since 2018) do as well. According to the China Global Investment Tracker, Beijing invested up to $62.55 billion in Saudi Arabia and the UAE between 2008 and 2019. (Julia Gurol & Jacopo Scita, 2020) Although due to the impacts of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy this new dimension of relationships looks more beneficial to Iran than to China, however, Beijing will now merge as one of the global powers to make sure the survival of the JCPOA presenting China with the opportunity to set the tone in the broader nuclear non-proliferation debates.
Economically, China needs to import its energy mostly from the Middle East and it also maintains a huge interest in exporting. China, in Iran’s Pivot to the East policy, will become now one of few formal buyers of Iran’s oil boosting its footprint in the Iranian market. Under the umbrella of the One Belt, One Road project, China is steadily expanding its political influence and investment plans in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, which has occurred as a new theatre of U.S.-Iran power competition. Moreover, China is keen to stabilise the security environment that will help its infrastructure investments in the region. (Global Times, 2017) According to China’s estimations, the growth opportunities through the One Belt, One Road project will reduce tensions in the Middle East. (Xinhua, 2017) Therefore, China has proceeded to invest in Iran. The latest example was a 538 million USD railway deal. (South China Morning Post, 2017)
Iran’s Look East Policy
Iran’s policy of a “Pivot to the East” involves developing robust ties with the giants of the Asian continent, namely, China and Russia. (Micha’elTanchum, 2020) China and Iran have now signed an agreement, a roadmap for 25 years. While the Iranian government spokesperson said that there was no legal obligation to publish it (Patrick Wintour, 2021), we can assume that the agreement entails political-strategic, economic and cultural components for improving and promoting relations between China and Iran in the long run. The present agreement emphasises the effective participation of Iran in the Chinese one belt one road project with extensive projects in infrastructure, financial and banking fields. In terms of the political-strategic dimension (military, defence and security), China and Iran will set up close positions and cooperation promoting exchanges, and consultations on issues of mutual interest, including strengthening the defence infrastructure, countering terrorism and holding regular military manoeuvres. (Hossein Amir Abdollahian, 2021) China and Iran have emphasised economic ties, including cooperation in the fields of oil, industry and mining, and energy-related fields.
China was essential to striking a nuclear deal between Iran and the West. First, the Chinese were a real (if occasionally reluctant) partner in building pressure on Tehran. Beijing voted for six UN Security Council resolutions targeting Iran between 2006 and 2010 (The Arms Control Association, 2017), and China’s oil imports from Iran fell by more than 20 per cent in 2012-2013 when the United States was rising its crippling sanctions campaign. (Middle East Institute, 2016) As Iran’s most considerable oil customer, Chinese cooperation was crucial to the effort. China was then important to designing the JCPOA.
For almost three years, the destiny of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) hung in the balance (Guardian News, 2018). However, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, an international agreement between Iran and world powers endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231 seeking a “maximum pressure” strategy. (Hossein Mousavian, 2019) The maximum pressure strategy by the United States, if anything, sharpened Tehran’s wish to introduce Beijing as a reliable economic and political ally under the atmosphere of threats and sanctions. Thus, Iran’s policy of a Pivot to the East has achieved all the more credibility among Iranian officials after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA.
Thus, the relationship between the two countries is asymmetrical but highly pragmatic. Economic sanctions against Iran have driven the growth of China-Iran economic ties. Having been cut off from the West by sanctions, Iran has engaged in a Look East Policy. China is now Iran’s largest trade partner, its largest oil purchaser, and its largest foreign investor.
The US-Iran relations and Implications for China
A point of agreement between the United States and China is that both do not want a war in the region. China and Iran share the interests that they substantially oppose violent regime change policies. The existing U.S. sanctions and other bold moves will raise uncertainties to business and presumably postpone much of the economic engagements of China in Iran. But these policies may lead China and Iran to reduce imports and exports from each other and seek alternatives, but the policies imposed by Washington will not stop Sino-Iranian exchanges completely. Iran is not part of China’s immediate neighbourhood, but China is becoming an important part of the Iranian security calculations.
The Trump Administration’s chaotic foreign policy offered a buffet of opportunities to Beijing. Given the absence of ties between Tehran and Washington, China steps in opportunistically. The United States’ maximum pressure campaign on Iran, combined with a confrontational approach from Saudi Arabia and Israel vis-à-vis Iran and the growth of tensions in the Strait of Hormuz are endangering both the freedom of navigation, energy security and flow of oil supplies through the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, China seems quite reluctant to become bogged down in the regional tensions and attempts to avoid a military conflict. China’s reluctance to act as a security guarantor in the Persian Gulf indicates that Beijing does not want to pay any of the costs of possible military tensions in the Middle East and that its security strategy towards the Persian Gulf is not yet well-known. (Job B Alterman, 2013) Hence, Beijing seems unlikely to proclaim any peace initiatives for Iran and Persian Gulf security beyond broad calls for peace in the region, probably maintaining China’s existing policy of non-interference. (Camille Lons, Jonathan Fulton, Degang Sun, & Naser Al-Tamimi, 2019)
Although China would need to support cooperation with Iran on civil nuclear projects, China has been careful as Iran’s main partner in reconstructing nuclear facilities, not desiring to get ahead of the United States. Diplomatically, Beijing and Tehran stay together as long as Washington continues unilateral measures against them, although it’s unlikely that Tehran or Beijing use the alliance to confront Washington directly. Currently, with the Biden Administrations delay in recovering relations both with Iran and the failure to offer to substantially resolve the trade war with China, Beijing would be reluctant to help the United States to regain its footprint in the Middle East and certainly not dominance over the only country in the region with rich hydrocarbon resources in which Americans lack a foothold.
Iran-China relations is also linked to the fate of their respective relations with Washington and Iran’s upcoming election in 2021. Although China and Iran now share many strategic interests, in the long run, Iran’s wish to build up good relations with Western powers may affect its relationship with China. It remains yet unclear how far United States commercial and banking sectors will be willing to ease sanctions and engage with Iran. The United States can revisit Iran policy to avoid a major crisis with Iran and pave the way for a new round of negotiations with Iran. Otherwise, under the current conditions, we can expect Chinese players to create and widen influence and ties to keep up ties with Tehran without overly provoking Washington.
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