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The “ceasefire” in Syria

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The previous two Syrian “ceasefires” of February and September last were substantial failures. Mediated by too diverging interests, they were bogged down in a zero-sum game among the irregularities committed by all the groups involved.

At strategic and geopolitical levels, many sources still speak of a “tripartite” option for Syria’s future, which could be based precisely on the three agreements of December 30, 2016.

One of them is between the Syrian government and the jihadist “rebels”; then there is a list of mechanisms to monitor the agreement and finally the Astana agreement ends with a letter of intent between the parties so as to begin – after the “ceasefire” – the negotiations which will lead to the end of the conflict.

The agreement signed in the Kazakh capital comes after Assad’ Syrian Arab Army maintaining and sometimes expanding its recent positions, while the jihadists have lost control of half of Aleppo, by also losing the suburbs of Damascus and some large areas in the Idlib province.

The first and most evident political goals are that the Russian Federation wants to capitalize on its new role as Middle East power broker, graciously presented to it by the foolishness of the United States and its European allies, and that Assad also aims at keeping and strengthening his recent positions to soon achieve peace and, above all, the unity of his country.

The maps of the Syrian Chiefs of Staff show that, after this truce, the Syrian attacks will go deep into the centre of the areas still in the hands of the various rebel groups and Daesh, starting from the Mediterranean coast and the border areas between Syria and the Lebanon.

Turkey, which has signed the “ceasefire” along with Russia and Iran, wants to limit the great damage caused to it by the conflict, with the masses of refugees – as many as 2 million people – who are already in Turkey with the other Syrian populations.

Those who would come after Assad’s regime conquering Idlib – as is likely.

Obviously, Turkey hopes that its new role in Syria will be noticed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and that hence the Kurdish issue will not materialize in a State built by the YPG between Syria and Iraq, which can lap the Turkish Kurdish areas to its border.

On the other hand, an autonomous and independent Kurdistan in Northern Syria could become a sort of geopolitical buffer that would enable Russia, Iran and other powers to have a right of way in the great Middle East region, which would certainly change all the games we have so far experienced in that area and in the Mediterranean.

An essay of the ”Russian National Institute for Research on Global Security” works on the assumption that there is a US primary interest in a great “Sunnistan” at the core of future Syria and Western Iraq.

With a corresponding “Shiite State” in Southern Syria.

It is still the old attempt to extend the pipeline going from Qatar up to Turkey’s Mediterranean border, without touching the Iranian-Shiite areas.

It is the old ethnic federalism, detrimentally experienced for the Balkans, which still inspires the US “line” in the region.

A model derived from the analyses – far more refined than we may think – developed at the time by Samuel Huntington.

Russian, Syria and Turkey do not want this – albeit up to a certain extent.

Russia does not want to military ruin itself for a united Syria; Turkey does not want insecure borders in Northern Syria, while Iran only wants to cover its area of influence to the border with Syria.

If the Syrian war became too long or too expensive, or strategically useless, the Three Powers of Astana’s last “ceasefire” may also accept “federalism” in the region of Bashar al-Assad’s current regime.

Federalism, however, designed by them – certainly not from the United States, which would not even have a proxy State to do the dirty work.

At that juncture, the United States could resort to the strategy of “bloody borders” – as the US analyst Ralph Peters called them – to reshape the local strategic potentials according to its interest.

And hence manage its competitors’ resources with a “long war”.

The confidential documents quoted by our sources speculate that – according to US plans – Bashar may be replaced by a “less polarizing” Alawite presidential candidate and that Iran – given the new and scarcely friendly Trump’s Presidency in the offing – may want to immediately solve the Syrian issue, by gaining control of its border areas and its ethno-religious enclaves.

It is worth recalling, however, that currently at least 70% of the Syrian people want Bashar al-Assad’s regime and only 30%, including Kurds, show they like other options.

Let us revert to the “ceasefire” of December 30, 2016, to be mostly considered a sort of Putin’s personal initiative.

If it holds for the month of formal validity, Turkey and Russia will sponsor the peace talks between Bashar al-Assad’s government and the seven major Syrian jihad organizations, except for Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front – that is Al Qaeda – which have already signed the “ceasefire” in Astana, the Kazakh capital.

The signatory organizations are relevant, even militarily.

They include Feilak al Sham, a jihadist organization sponsored by Turkey, with 19 detachments and 4,000 operational militants.

The second jihadist group is Ahrar al-Sham, or Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, with 80 hit squads and a potential of 16,000 jihadists active in all the strategic sites of the Syrian war: Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama, Daraa and Idlib.

The signatories to the “ceasefire” in Astana also include Jaish al-Islam, with as many as 64 hit squads and a total of 12,000 armed jihadists.

There is also the jihadist group of Tuwar al-Sham, with eight battalions totaling about 3,000 militants operating in Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia.

Another group that has signed the ceasefire is Jaish al-Mujahideen, with 13 operating centers and 9,000 active militants.

Then there is also Jaish Idlib, obviously operating mainly in the Idlib region, with three great battalions totaling 6,000 fighters.

Finally, in Astana there were also the plenipotentiaries of Jabhat al-Shamiya, a group with 5 battalions in Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus and an estimated force of 3,200 operational militants.

Hence if Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is really supported by its citizens, should think of some sort of territorial autonomies, Russia and even Turkey would recommend quiet local autonomism as opposed to US-style “federalism”.

A system in which also the small and large groups which have signed the ceasefire in Astana may reinvent themselves as local militias, while their old funders leave with their tail between their legs.

For the record, during negotiations Turkey asked to remove the Iranian and Hezbollah forces from the Syrian territory, that obviously denied to the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, that free favour to Turkey and, indirectly, to Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, Ahrar al-Sham, belongs to Al Qaeda – hence to the al-Nusra Front – and initially Turkey did not agree to include the group among the signatories to the Astana ceasefire.

Nevertheless it was precisely Saudi Arabia to directly oblige Ahrar al-Sham to adhere to the Astana Agreement.

The agreement envisages, inter alia, the stop of the Syrian Air Force’s raids against the Syrian “rebels” – air war actions which, where necessary, may be carried out only by Russia.

The signatory groups are required to leave their positions – indicated in the text of the Agreement – which allows to more easily identify and neutralize the Daesh and Al-Nusra Front emplacements.

The text of the Agreement includes a statement providing support by the powers present in Syria to a strong territorial unity of the Syrian government – so that Turkey will not have the Kurdish State, in which not even Russia is interested, and this will remain one of the many US broken promises in the region.

None of the signatories can try to gain more territory while the “ceasefire” is in force.

Finally none of the signatories has insisted on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.

Furthermore, all signatories shall permit the delivery of humanitarian aid throughout the part of Syria not controlled by the groups excluded from the “ceasefire”.

It is explicitly written in the text of the “ceasefire” agreement that all forces shall withdraw from Aleppo’s Castle Street.

Hence the Turkish attack on Kurds has only been postponed, with or without the naive support of the United States, which will certainly leave that glorious Indo-European tribe to its fate.

The jihadist groups, hit in their Saudi and Qatari “leadership”, will not be as dangerous as they are today.

Not even Saudi Arabia wants to die for Syria.

If Saudi Arabia and Qatar have some territorial or financial reason to cease support for the Syrian jihadists, they will slacken off and loosen their grip.

Russia has won across the board. It has wiped the United States out of the Middle East and it has put together two historical opponents, namely Turkey and Iran, into a credible geopolitical project.

Iran is another winner of the Astana Agreement.

Once ensured the security of its borders, it can fully play the new game of the gas pipelines it will operate after the end of the conflict.

The Iraqi army is already at the gates of Raqqa – the eradication of Daesh is only a matter of time.

In short, if the “ceasefire” holds, the whole Syrian and Middle East strategic scenario will change completely.

Also the Kurds are taking Raqqa, with the usual and effective harshness.

Assad’s Army has conquered the outskirts of Wadi Barada, previously held by the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

The remaining pockets in Homs and Aleppo will be reduced and later Assad’s Army will conquer the primary areas of the territory, currently held by Daesh.

If, as is likely, the truce works and the jihad that signed the Astana Agreement is reduced significantly, for Syria the fight will only be against Daesh, with the help of its strategic supporters.

In this case there will be no escape, no way out.

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

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days

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These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.

Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.

Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.

Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.

The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.

Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.

His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.

Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.

Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.

Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.

The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.

Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”

Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”

Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”

The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.

Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.

In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.

Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.

Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.

Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.

Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.

In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.

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Middle East

Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

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When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Middle East

Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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