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The significance of Iran’s presence in Syria

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At least since 2014 the presence of Iranian forces in the Syrian war has certainly ensured both political stability and military success on the ground for Assad’s regime. Some Syrian sources maintain that since December 2013 Iran’s engagement in the Syrian conflict has cost at least 6 billion US dollars a year, while other Western sources think the financial support provided has been twice as much.

With at least 3,200 soldiers and officers from the Revolutionary Guards and other Shiite semi-official organizations, composed mainly of Afghan and Pakistani militants, Iran is second only to the Russian Federation in terms of engagement in the Syrian war to support Assad.

Moreover, Hezbollah – the Lebanese militant Shiite faction – is present in Syria with at least 4,500 soldiers and officers, but there are other Shiite groups, such as the People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), the former “popular defence brigades”, operating in the Syrian region.

In all likelihood, it was Iran to persuade Russia to intervene in support of  Assad, but the logic of Russia’s presence in the Syrian war is much more complex than it may appear at first glance.

In fact, the Russian Federation has placed the war against Daesh-Isis at the centre of its presence in the Syrian region, thus creating a new network of relations with the whole Arab world, including the one previously connected to the United States.

Russia made it clear it was necessary to eradicate the most immediate and severe danger for all Sunni Arab States, namely jihad, and this has led to its establishing new and effective relations with all those States.

Furthermore, Russia’s presence is a sign conveyed to Westerners that Syria’s “cantonization” will never be accepted by the Assads’ Russian traditional ally because this would mean creating missile, terrorist, geoeconomic and naval positions that would directly undermine Russian interests in both the Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East, up to the Southern borders of the Federation.

Let us examine, however, the forces still operating in the Syrian war, including the smallest ones.

In addition to the friendly countries operating on the ground, support for Syria – including at military level – is provided by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Polisario Front, also in clear contrast with Morocco, which indirectly supports – also through Saudi Arabia – the forces of the Syrian Democratic Army that is armed and supported mainly by the United States.

Besides the aforementioned Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, on the ground there are also some Palestinian groups and some Iraqi forces supporting Syria, especially with regard to intelligence and military activities on the border between Syria and Iraq.

Diplomatic support to Assad-led Syria is provided by Oman, Bolivia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Armenia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Syrian Alawite regime is also backed militarily and economically by Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Vietnam and India.

Russia has also sent to Syria some Chechen and Dagestan battalions as combat forces.

However, the opponents of the Assad regime – and hence of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – include many groups of various origins, obviously all Sunni. Let us analyse them.

Jabhat al-Nusra, now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, is a network created by al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria in 2011 – which became known in January 2012, during the possible Syrian “Arab Spring” – which also operates in the Lebanon, as well as in Syria.

Since its inception said movement was supported by Qatar and Turkey.

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya is a coalition of jihadist groups  supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, as well as Kuwait and Qatar.

Therefore, if Syria remains a Shiite Iran’s ally, at geoeconomic and political levels the strategic risk for the Gulf Emirates and for Saudi Arabia itself may become very high, especially in a phase of oil and financial crisis such as the current one.

Iran’s control over the Greater Middle East and the Persian Gulf would block any geopolitical autonomy of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with evident repercussions on the management of their oil resources.

The groups opposing Assad’s regime also include Asala wal-Tamiya, a coalition supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Indeed, it was armed precisely by the United States and in the past it had operational links with Daesh-Isis.

Jabhat al-Shamiyah is an alliance of nineteen jihadist groups originating from the Muslim Brotherhood and this is exactly the reason why a Syrian ally like Egypt tacitly supports Assad’s Alawite regime.

Jaysh al-Muhjahiddin is a further alliance of various Sunni guerrilla groups, all trained in Qatar, which in December 2016 merged with two other jihadist groups and later joined Ahrar al-Sham.

Therefore tribal equilibria, strategic and operational advantages, as well as interests of the funding countries, are at the origin of this multiplying and merging of militant jihadist groups.

Ajnad al-Sham is a typically Salafi group, always operating closely with Ahrar al-Sham.

Jaysh al-Islam, identified as terrorist organization by Russia, Egypt, Iran and Syria, is the second main pole of the Saudi indirect presence in Syria.

On the contrary, the groups siding with the Syrian Baathist government include Quwat Muqatili al-Ashair, a tribal force in which there is also a Druze contingent.

The list of these groups also include Liwa al-Jabal, consisting of five units  originating from the Suwayda Governorate.

The pro-Assad forces count also Saraya al-Tuhid, the fully Druze force allied with Hezbollah, which was created in October 2016.

It is also worth recalling Labuat al-Jabal, the female Druze brigade created in July 2015.

Again in the Suwayda Governorate there is Qatib Jalamid Urman, patrolling mainly the border between Syria and Jordan. The Druzes operate also with Qatib Humat al-Diyar.

The Syrian Christians contribute to defend Assad’s regime with Asad al-Qarubim, a brigade created in 2013 after the attack on the Saidnaya Monastery.

There are other five Christian brigades, divided between Damascus, Homs and Quraytin, which were established to defend the Christian holy places in Syria and currently operate – together with Hezbollah and the Syrian Arab Army – throughout the Syrian national territory.

Conversely, Quwat al-Ghabab are the brigades created by the Greek-Orthodox communities and operate in Hama, Latakia and Tal Uthman.

The list of the groups siding with Assad’s regime also include Quwat Wad al-Sadiq, created in 2012 at the Sayyidah Zaynab Shiite Shrine near Damascus, which is connected with Hezbollah and composed of both Shiites and Druzes.

It is also worth recalling Liwa Muqtar al-Thiqfi, created in 2016 in memory of the ancient commander who attempted to avenge – against the Umayyads – the sacrifice of Imam Husseyn.

It operates on the Latakia front and is directly linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Unlike the other smaller brigades, it is a force of approximately 5,000 units.

Again in the Latakia area, there is Saraya al-Arin, a Shiite group founded in 2015, while Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is present in the ​​Sayda Zaynab region, the centre of the traditional Shiite presence in Syria.

The group Liwa al-Imam Zayn Abidin, created in 2013, operates in Deir el Zur, the place at the core of the clash between what remains of Daesh and the Syrian regime, which has just been liberated by the “tigers”, namely the special forces of the Syrian Arab Army.

On the contrary, Liwa al-Jalil, the Galilean brigade founded in 2015, is a secular, leftist, nationalistic, Arab and pro-Palestinian organization.

The Syrian-Palestinians also operate within Quwat al-Jalil, created in 2011, while the “Leopards of Homs” (Fuhud Homs),  a special operations regiment, operates in the desert areas around Homs and have also participated in the Syrian Arab Army’s actions in the Daraya region.

Also Liwa Qibar, established in 2013 and counting  4,000 units, is active in Homs.

It has also operated at Hama and al-Mansura.

Qatib al-Jabalui is an Alawite military structure operating in Homs, Dara, and in the Jazal areas.

Another of the many pro-Assad groups, namely Fuj Mughuyr al-Badiya, set up in 2015, has carried out its actions in the desert of Homs and Aleppo. It is connected to the Shaytat tribe that is active in Deir El Zur.

Also Liwa Asad al-Huseyn was created in 2015 and is mainly active in Latakia.

Liwa Dir al-Watan was founded in 2015 and designed with the specific aim of defending Damascus.

These are the main groups supporting Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, accounting for 50% of its forces.

This means that all the brigades listed here are worth 50% of the Syrian Arab Army.

Furthermore, in Syria, Hezbollah immediately divided into two groups: Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi, fighting mainly in the Tartus and Aleppo regions, and Quwat al-Ridha, operating in Damascus and in the neighbouring areas.

Both groups operate in close contact with Assad’s forces.

While Russia wages its war in Syria, Iran tightens the clamps on the Syrian forces.

In the Qalamun region there is also Quwat Dir al-Qalamun, namely people’s brigades trained by the Syrian Arab Army that control the Al-Hadath pipeline and participate in the clashes against jihadists between Aleppo and Nassiriya.

People’s brigades coordinated by the Syrian Air Force military intelligence operate also in Hama.

Finally, the Fifth Assault Corps is a counterinsurgency organization set up in 2012 within the Syrian Armed Forces with the fundamental support of Hezbollah and Iran.

It is present in nine Syrian provinces and supervises enlistments, as well as closely controlling Syria’s civil society.

Hence what does Iran want to obtain with its engagement in Syria?

Firstly, Iran obviously need to establish safe transit routes to logistically support Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

This is the real strategic danger for Israel, rather than the danger constituted by the Golan Heights, which have somehow already been made safe.

Secondly, an equally important Iranian goal is to closely monitor the Euphrates valley, which is rich in oil deposits that must not be acquired by the United States and its allies, still present north of the Euphrates.

With a view to accomplishing this strategic linkage, the Shiite Republic must transit through Iraq so as to reach Aleppo from Palmira.

Another Iranian route to penetrate the Syrian desert could start exactly from Deir El Zor and later expand into the Hasakah Province.

In fact, Iran has already sent over 3,000 Revolutionary Guards and People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), namely the Shiite paramilitary forces, to the area between Tanaf and Deir El Zor.

As to the other channel, considering that there are no significant Shiite, Druze or Alawite forces in the region, the Pasdaran are dealing directly with the Sunni tribes between Hasakah and Aleppo.

Russia, however, is backing the Iranian operations with its air forces.

Nevertheless Russia will not accept Iran’s gradual penetration of the Syrian State and military structures for a long period of time.

For the time being, precisely with a view to blocking Iran’s influence, the Russian Federation’s proposal has been to quickly establish a Fifth Division of the Syrian Arab Army.

This would obviously serve to absorb – under the Syrian command – the tribal and territorial forces that could soon become pawns of the Iranian game in the Syrian desert.

Nevertheless – as is locally customary, and considering that the ongoing war has even enhanced these traditions – the various militias that have so far agreed to enter the Fifth Division have maintained their chain of command and their tactical and strategic autonomy.

Hence, Assad, is about to accept – de facto if not de iure – the Iranian droit de regard enabling it to control his territory and his armed forces.

Therefore, in the absence of a rational US strategy in Syria and vis-à-vis Iran, Russia thinks that the best thing to do – at least for the time being – is to support Iran in Syria and Iraq so as to exploit its potential against the United States and keep the Turkish ambitions on Western Syria under control.

This happens while the Kurds are turning into a pro-Western militia to control Turkish operations in Syria – in tacit agreement with Russia.

 Moreover, the United States has already decided to defend the YPG Kurds (and, in the future, the PKK ones) only against the Turkish aims, while Iran and Russia will try to control all Syrian borders, including those with Turkey where US interposition forces are currently present.

Hence either the United States sends other troops to control Iran’s expansion within Syria – for the time being favoured by Russia – or the United States is bound to withdraw completely from the Syrian-Iraqi region.

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. “

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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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

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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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.

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