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The Saudi Arabian issue

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The 32-year old Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who  is the heir to Saudi Arabia’s throne, wants at first “to eradicate the roots of Islamic extremism” as soon as possible. This means that from now on the confrontation between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia will be downplayed from infra-Islamic clash of civilization to a normal and natural standard of regional warfare.

 The openings made by Muhammad bin Salman – designated as Crown Prince by his father after many years – such as allowing women to drive are very clear signs that the al-Saud Kingdom does no longer want to be a fundamentalist island in the Middle East nor a silent partner of the United States or of other countries.

 This implies the end of Sunni-Shiite clash of civilizations and the fact that Saudi Arabia agrees to set aside its traditional role as leader of an all-out struggle with the “Ali Sect” led by Iran.

 Let us not be misled by the first reactions to the Saudi official statements.

 The war against Qatar is primarily a fight against the “Muslim Brotherhoods” and the clash with a natural gas power, namely Qatar, against a necessarily oil power, namely Saudi Arabia.

 Other economic cycles, other buyers, other geostrategic and military development lines between Al Thani’s Qatari Emirate and the al-Saud Kingdom.

  Hence, from now on, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid a radical and global war throughout the Middle East to destabilize it and thus conquer the old and modern hegemony of Islam within the Greater Middle East.

 No longer pan-Islamic dreams of glory, but the protection of the Saudi Kingdom’s national interest.

 Hence there are two winners in the current fight: the first is Israel and hence the countries, excluding the United States, which want to reformulate their friendly presence throughout the old Fertile Crescent.

 It is also worth noting that Prince al-Walid, arrested by Muhammad bin Salman, was a fierce enemy of the current US President.

 It should be recalled that the United States led by President Donald  J. Trump yielded to the “Sunni NATO” project, namely the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, led by the Pakistani General Raheel Sharif.

 The “Sunni NATO”  headquarters are located in Riyadh, which still implies a hard line obviously against Iran and  India, as well as support to the fight against the Afghan Taliban.

 And if the “Sunni NATO” were the project of a strategic and economic internationalization of petromonarchies, thus isolating Iran in a future ever less profitable oil market?

 After the six Saudi Kings, from 1932 onward, Muhammad Bin Salman has inherited de facto power in the Kingdom by his father, Prince Nayef, thus replacing his half-brother who, however, is still a member of the clan holding true power in the Saudi family, the “Sudairy Seven”.

 The current strong man of the Saudi regime, namely the Crown Prince, was raised to the rank of second in the line of succession, in the first half of 2015. In fact, he has become an important personality on the world scene when ten years ago he destabilized – probably permanently – the al-Qaeda network in the Saudi Kingdom and last year decided  – together with his 55-year old cousin, Mohammed Bin Nayef – to exert the utmost pressure on the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a network of Shiites linked to Iran.

 For the al-Saud Kingdom, closing the doors to Iran in its area of ​​influence means to ensure a peaceful internationalization outside the regional Islamic universe, as well as to ensure the Kingdom’s permanent social and religious stability.

 Hence the war between the Shi’a Iranian Republic and the Wahhabi and Sunni Kingdom is bound to keep the Greater Middle East a hot spot and try to control the routes in the Persian Gulf, while the perimeters of the new Middle East global security are redefined outside Syria and the Lebanon.

 A system that the emerging power, namely the Russian Federation, will keep out of the US control lines, while Russia will further expand to Libya, the Lebanon and obviously to the rest of the Maghreb region, not to mention the Horn of Africa and Egypt.

 This is a new redesign of the Western balance of powers towards the Russian and Chinese ones – a new system emerging in the new external, but now essential peripheral areas of the Greater Middle East.

 Nevertheless there is an essential symbolic and political factor which should not be forgotten in the Shakespearean Royal Palace of Riyadh.

In fact, it is today that, after many years, Prince Muhammad bin Salman directly inherits the throne from his Father –  also thanks to a legal-political institution established by King Salman in 2017, namely the “Allegiance Council”, designed to make the process of succession in the Saudi Kingdom smoother and more orderly.

 Born on August 31, 1985, the heir to the throne Prince Mohammed is now 37 and has already been the youngest Defence Minister in the world.

 Even today, however – considering the strong autonomy of Mohammed Bin Salman –  the dynastic institution founded in 2007 seems to be not yet fully operational.

 Mohammed Bin Salman replaced his cousin in June 2017, as part of a major transformation of the political and strategic system inside the Saudi Royal Family.

 The whole network of high-profile “corrupt people” or “traitors” arrested in an anti-corruption sweep by the future Saudi King, is made up of 49 senior officers, Princes and Ministers – a police operation devastating the entire old system of political, financial and strategic equilibria that characterized the old pact of “petrodollar laundering”, which marked the union between the United States and Saudi Arabia when Henry Kissinger negotiated the whole operation, in perfect secrecy, at the end of the “Yom Kippur War” .

  The choice of Muhammad as heir to the throne, upon King Salman’s proposal, was accepted by 31 out of the 34 members of the Allegiance Council.

 Hence the policy line is now clear: the Kingdom wants to govern two parallel evolutionary lines: the exit from the oil-dependent economy, which Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has envisaged in his Vision 2030 program, and the creation of regional hegemony outside oil dependence from the United States, which is now autonomous from the Middle East oil thanks to its shale oil.

 In its already known project, the basis for Saudi Arabia’s  future hegemony regards the acceptance of two new factors: the US future energy autonomy with its “oil and shale gas” and hence Saudi Arabia’s exit from a guaranteed military and economic balance with the United States, as well as the historic collapse of oil barrel prices – oil which, according to the Saudi leaders, must be entirely left to  Shiite poverty and hence to Iran.

 Hence the “Vision 2030” program wants to reduce the Saudi dependence on oil and obviously the dependence of the national economy on the public sector.

 Moreover, the issue lies in making the Royal Family preserve its ability to distribute selective, but important resources to the most politically important walks of Saudi population – on a case-by case basis – to support the regime.

There is no more money for luxuries. The Saudi government’s money must be spent to preserve people’s support that is currently no longer guaranteed.

 In fact, without panem et circenses, it is hard to imagine – in the future – a reasonable stability of the Saudi Royal Family. And panem et circenses will be ever less a burden on US accounts.

  The future dollar equilibria and the end of the Euro as a global currency, as well as the end of the use of  petrodollars by Russia and China, make us think that the new ruling class in Saudi Arabia will be ever less pro-USA and ever more multilateral.

 And it is the Royal Family as such – not in the variety of its many groups – who shall bear responsibility for funds to  masses and for public charity that shall increasingly bear the costs of “liberalization”, of low wages and of the deprivation of union, political and clan protections.

 In fact, if Saudi Arabia does not plan its future “public charity” it will end up like the largely liberalized Lebanon or like the States that, after the crisis in the grain and food commodity market of 2008-2010, had to face the riots that –  manipulated by others – later turned into the “Arab Springs”.

 In this case the probable solution of the future King Mohammed will be greater democratization of choices to replace a reduction in income.

 A “European” solution.

 The Saudi “Vision 2030” project also implies liberalization specifically aimed at creating jobs and opportunities for companies in the service sector and in the tourist and entertainment business, in particular.

 But who are the “purged” of the new Saudi regime?

  They are 49 people, eleven Princes, four Ministers of the new regime that Muhammad Bin Salman – the first heir designated by his father, King Salman, to rule Saudi Arabia –  has agreed to put aside forever.

 There are clear signs of what will happen shortly.

 In this context, it is worth recalling the very important role played by the marginalization of Al Waleed bin Talal in the new Saudi financial and political context.

 Forbes reported he has a personal fortune of over 17 billion US dollars.

The investment of Prince Al Walid, the elder son of King Abdullah Abdulaziz and of Riad El Sohl, the Lebanese Prime Minister in the 1950s, are spread in the main Western areas: Twitter, Lyft, Eurodisney, Twentieth Century Fox, a tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is the highest in the world and was supposed to open in 2019.

 He sold a yacht to Donald Trump, whom he hates, but has still significant investment in Apple, News Corp., as well as the ownership of the Savoy Hotel in London and the MBC satellite TV network. Other purged officials are the Head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, Amr al Dabbagh, as well as Ibrahim Assaf, the former Minister of Finance, and finally Bakr Bin Laden, the Head of the Binladen Group, a well-known real estate and investment group.

 Other purged officials include another former Saudi  Minister of Finance, Adel Fakieh, a reformer from day one, as well as Khaled al Tuwajiri, a manager of the Saudi traditional economic sector.

 They are all accused of having embezzled public funds to transfer them to their private accounts.

 A source of enrichment and “visible consumption” of the al-Saud extended family, as Veblen would have said.

 Now the family is no longer a single one and the Saudi  government will have a less corporatist and, above all, less personalist logic.

This Saudi “cleansing” operation marks the end of the old link between Arab internationalization and Sunni jihadist terrorism. Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms also marks the Saudi Kingdom’s closure to the flows of the market-world, while there is the re-emergence of the clash between Shiites and Sunnis in a new Middle East, where Saudi Arabia has already established a new relationship with Russia and Israel and decided to effectively follow Xi Jinping’s model, which involves a change of the regime through a fight  against “corruption”.

 It was one of the world’s economic leaders, namely al-Walid Bin Talal, to agree to support Gaddafi before his end in 2011, while the shadows were already casting over the Libyan leader.

 In fact, al-Walid ibn Talal attempted to sell one of its A340 Airbus for 120 million US dollars through a Jordanian broker, Daad Sharaf, who was very close to Gaddafi.

 Daad Sharaf also had to receive a 6.5 million Us dollar “brokerage” fee, but Prince Al Waleed sold to others the airplane probably already used to carry the Lockerbie attacker back to Libya.

 A network in which business mixed dangerously with the Saudi geopolitical operations – at a time when, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia supported the vague “fight against terrorism” and, on the other, fomented it.

 There is no need to recall here the long and very significant story of the relationship between the old Chief of the intelligence services, Turki al-Faisal, a very strong representative of the “Sudairy Seven” and of the network that led part of the Saudi establishment to play the crazy, but not senseless card of al-Qaeda.

 Furthermore, for al-Walid there are also charges – already known in the global financial circles – of corruption, bribery, embezzlement and insider trading.

 The strong reaction of the Royal Family currently in power against the part of al-Saud members who participated in the crazy rush of the “high” oil price phase – when everything was possible, both gains and illegality, as well as economic growth and frauds – is a very effective way to win support from the Saudi people, fed up with the idle rentier or “opulent ruling class” attitudes of some members of the Royal Family.

  Probably the end of the cycle between Sunni jihad and growth of the Kingdom will be the point in which the Greater Middle East will be redesigned: a de facto alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, both united by the Shiite danger, between the Golan Heights for Israel and South Yemen for Saudi Arabia; a new alliance between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia; China’s entry in the region; the new US positioning and obviously the often ridiculous irrelevance of the European Union.

 The system of the future King Muhammad – after the strange death of Prince Mansur Bin Muqrin in the region of Asir, Saudi Arabia, the husband of a daughter of old King Fahd and later Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, as well as son of Muqrin al-Abdulaziz, who had been Crown Prince from January to April 2015 – will be a political balance in which keeping the country united and preserving the link between the Royal House and the Saudi people will be the beacon of the monarchy.

 No longer a predatory ruling class, also in relation to the West, but an elite who wants the Kingdom’s political expansion, as well as its economic transformation and hence the end of the oil-dependent economy – a regime that wants to play all its strategic cards, well aware that a King (the United States) is leaving and another King (the Russian Federation) is entering the scene in the region.

 And also aware that Israel is now a well-acquired fact in the Middle East.

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 Arabia and Iran want to be friends again

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Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.

Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.

Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.

When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar.  Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.

Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.

Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.

Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.

Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.

Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.

While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.

But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.

Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.

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Middle East

Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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