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The power struggle within Saudi Arabia

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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In the current vision of the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi national anti-corruption Commission “Nazaha” has worked very well. The anti-corruption Nazaha is a complex organization, with a large set of international and local rules, always explicitly referring to the UN – and anyway international – best practice.

It will not be so easy to define Mohammed bin Salman’s fight against corruption as an “ideological operation” or, even worse, “primitive”.

The issue of corruption has been at the core of the Saudi political debate for years.

As early as 2013, the Riyadh Economic Forum had placed the issue of public and private corruption at the centre of Saudi government actions, while the Commission was established officially with King Abdullah’s Executive Order No. A/65 of March 2011.

A wide mandate having strong political impact, designed since its inception – even before the current Crown  Prince – to be the main tool for the King’s control over his vast and chaotic ruling class, regardless of their being blue-blooded or not.

So far the Saudi Nazaha, similar to many other anti-graft agencies operating throughout the Sunni Arab world, has collected data on over 2,000 sensitive cases and imposed penalties in 94% of initial reports.

Certainly Prince Muhammad bin Salman is using Nazaha’s power to eliminate his political enemies, but this is quite obvious in a struggle for absolute power following Machiavellian (and Quranic) rules whereby the property of subjects, in particular, must be rescued.

“Nevertheless, a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst  he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women “(The Prince, Chapter XVII).

The Quran reads as follows: “Devour not your wealth among yourselves vainly, nor present it to the judges that you may devour a part of the wealth of other men sinfully and knowingly” (Al-Baqarah, Surah “The Cow,” verse 188).

Furthermore, Muhammad’s doctrine on corruption contains many other Quranic and Sunnah verses, which there is no point in quoting here.

The Islamic legal tradition, however, is very strict: in fact, a hadith of the Prophet simply condemns bribery – both those who grant and those who receive bribes, along with the intermediary – all placed by the Prophet on an equal footing.

The granting of illegal assets to favour and facilitate a subsequent transaction, however, is an offense to divine law, not just to corporate law, in the meaning that we Westerners attribute to the concept of “civil law”.

Hence the doctrinal basis on which the Saudi anti-corruption Commission relies is theologically wide and sufficiently complex.

Nevertheless, with a view to understanding the political logic of the Saudi anti-corruption Commission, we must at first see who and how has been hit by the Saudi penalties imposed by the Nazaha in Riyadh, upon Saudi royal orders.

As many as 512 Saudi citizens have been hit – for various reasons – by the anti-corruption sweep of Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Commission.

Moreover 1,286 private and corporate current accounts have been frozen so far.

It should also be noted that many Saudi people targeted by this anti-corruption probe – which is more rational to define as a bloodless coup – are part of the three branches forming the Riyadh Intelligence Services.

Firstly, as is well-known, there is the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), the Mukhabarat al-A’amah, whose old leader Khalid Bin Alì al-Humaidan has been put aside.

The other intelligence services, namely the internal security police and, above all, the Mabahit, responsible for counter-espionage and internal and political security, have also been decapitated by the current graft crackdown of the Heir to the Throne.

In particular, Prince Muhammad bin Salman wants to capitalize on the current honeymoon with Trump Presidency, as well as avoid the coup that was probably looming large for Salman and his son Mohammed.

He also wants to acquire absolute hegemony over the Sunni world against the Iranian Shiite operations  which will be tolerated at best in Central Asia, but never in the Persian Gulf.

If the Saudi King had abdicated in favour of his son Mohammed – as he had long been planning to do – he would soon have put aside Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the Interior Minister and direct heir to the Saudi Kingdom in the traditional line of  succession.

In fact, on June 21, 2017 Bin Nayef was replaced by Muhammad bin Salman.

Let us better analyse, however, the list of the main people accused of corruption: as already noted, there is Muhammad al-Walid bin Talal, together with the President of the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MEBC), namely  Walid Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, who had avoided to sell his  broadcasters to the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman.

Al-Ibrahim was also President of the United Press International (UPI) until the annus mirabilis of the old Saudi power, namely 2000 – the year of Bin Laden’s ambiguity.

However, we will revert to this issue at a later stage.

He also founded Al Arabiya, as an alternative to the Qatari Al-Jazeera, still in the hands of the “Muslim Brotherhood”.

It is worth noting that currently all coups start for and end in the media ownership or control.

The people arrested on November 4 last include also Mutaib bin Abdullah, former Minister of the Saudi National Guard.

He graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a lieutenant in 1974 and was former representative of the Ford Motors Co. He was at the helm of the Saudi military organizations.

The list of arrested people includes also Turki bin Abdullah al Saud, former Governor of Riyadh until 2015, who is charged with corruption in the  Riyadh Metro project still to be completed, for having taken advantage of his role and influence to award contracts to his own companies. He is the seventh son of King Abdullah and graduated in “strategic studies” at the University of Leeds, Great Britain. He was also a manager of the King Abdulaziz Foundation, as well as promoter and organizer of various transactions with British and US companies.

Another Prince arrested in the November “corruption crackdown” is Turki bin Nasser al Saud, a prince of the Royal Family and Head of the Saudi National Meteorology and Environment Service.

This agency also deals with environmental protection and pollution control.

This is an important sign: probably Nasser al Saud covered up the environmentally damaging affairs of some Saudi companies, but this is certainly not the reason why Nasser al Saud was arrested.

Rumours are rife about his business in the Lebanon, where he received funds from a local politician, Mohammed Safadi – and he is also reported of having been under scrutiny by the UK Serious Fraud Office as early as 2005.

Old stories about the Saudi Royal Family coming out again when it is more convenient for the new Crown Prince.

Also Fahd bin Abdullah Saud, former deputy-Defence Minister, was arrested.

He studied at the Naval Staff and Command College and was former Commander of the Saudi Navy. He has always played a leading role in the balance of power within the Kingdom and the al Saud Family, by deciding and managing many military and civilian careers.

Also King Fahd’s son, namely Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, was arrested on November 4 last. He is supposed to have been killed during the arrest, but the government denies the police shot him.

He lived mainly in Switzerland and travelled to Saudi Arabia only for official meetings.

Removed from his assignments as early as 2011, he was mainly a businessman: he was the long arm of the Saudi Oger, a real estate company.

Said company was initially owned by Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese leader assassinated in 2005, and went bankrupt on July 2017.

Oger Communications, however, keeps on supplying Internet, fixed and mobile telephone services in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Lebanon, Jordan and South Africa.

Today the power uses and is mainly focused on the Internet and mobile telephone services.

Al Fahd has a “confidential” portfolio of at least one billion dollars in the United States – as recently ascertained by the New York Supreme Court – and other real estate properties in Minneapolis, which have recently gone bankrupt.

He is (was) de facto owner of the already mentioned MEBC.

As already reported in other articles, the non-noble people arrested include Khaled Al Tuwajiri, Head of the Saudi Royal Court with King Abdullah.

In 2012 he had harshly criticized the “Westernization” process underway in Saudi Arabia. He was removed from his post at the Court, on which he had very strong influence, through the old King Abdullah and his son Miteb, the Minister of the National Guard.

Another detainee is Adel Fakeih, former mayor of Jeddah, and later Labour Minister, Health Minister and, since April 2015, Minister for Economy and Planning.

Besides his public service (although the watershed between these two worlds is somehow blurred in the Saudi Kingdom), he worked for the Al Marai Group, operating in the food, building and finance sectors, as well as President of the Aljazira Bank. Later he also worked for the Saudi Glass Company and as top manager of the Savola Group, a food company selling sugar, cooking oil, dairy and catering products in Africa, Saudi Arabia, the whole Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Incidentally, we will shortly witness large economic and political movements in Turkey, just as a result of the Saudi “bloodless coup”.

Fakeih was also in charge of the global and Middle East markets for the Saudi British Bank.

Said banking network is supposed to have organized the coup against Salman and his son under the banner of  “return to traditions” and, possibly, by raising the old issue of social justice.

The “purged” people – almost as in an old Soviet palace coup – include Amr al-Dabbagh, President and founder of the Al Dabbagh Group, who graduated in management in California and is very active in the non-profit sector.

The Al Dabbagh Group controls 57 companies in the food, oil, automotive, real estate and packaging sectors.

In all likelihood, Mohammad bin Salman wants to hit precisely the old Saudi “global enterprises” in order to avoid an overlapping of financial and political power, with a highly enterprise-oriented elite.

Another detainee is Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al Assaf, former Saudi Finance Minister and State Minister of the Saudi Kingdom.

He was arrested on charges of purchasing land around the Great Mosque of Mecca, in view of its planned expansion, by taking advantage of his public role and influence.

Former Saudi Arabia’s representative to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and later vice-Governor of the Saudi Monetary Authority, Al Assaf is still member of the Board of Directors of Saudi ARAMCO – the “jewel of the crown” of the future privatization advocated by Prince Muhammad Bin Salman – and, before his arrest, also President of the Saudi Development Fund.

He had attended the recent G20 Summit in Hamburg, but it did not bring him luck.

Another detainee is Khalid Abdullah al-Mohem, who had studied electrical engineering in the United States and was later appointed General Manager of Saudia, the commercial airline of the Kingdom.

Manager of the well-known Saudi British Bank and of the above-mentioned Almarai, a large food and dairy company, he held countless assignments in the food, catering, telecommunications and cement sectors, as well in the HBSC, the Saudi Investment Bank, and in the airlines of the Kingdom.

The list of people arrested include also Saleh Abdullah Kamel, founder of the Dallah al Baraka Group, a multinational dealing with healthcare (private hospitals), financial investment, real estate, banks, transport and logistics.

President of the General Council of Islamic Banks and Financial Institutions, he also led the Arab Thought Foundation and the Saudi Chambers of Commerce.

Another too powerful tycoon to be tolerated by the new Heir to the Throne.

The Crown Prince no longer wants the Islamism naïvely defined as “radical”, but rather the pursuit of Saudi national interest.

Muhammad bin Salman’s “bloodless coup” has put an end to the geopolitical link between Saudi interest and global jihad.

From now on, the “holy war” will be regional or waged wherever the Saudi interest is focused, at least as to the  share of jihad funded by Saudi Arabia.

Another well-known personality arrested is Bakr bin Laden, the true “King of Jeddah” – as people call him – and also half-brother of the much more notorious Osama bin Laden.

It should be made very clear that this is not an “anti-terrorism” operation.

Bakr bin Laden currently works in Qatar for his family-run company operating in the traditional real estate sector, but he is still one of the primary economic links between the United States and the Saudi world.

The detainees include also Abdullah bin Sultan bin Mohammed al-Sultan, the founder of the already mentioned  Almarai.

A country and the education and training of its ruling class, in particular, may also be controlled through the distribution of food and its organization.

He was also Admiral of the Saudi Royal Navy.

Also Mohammad al-Tobaishi, former Head of Protocol at the Royal Court of Riyadh, was arrested.

Probably the United States should better analyse what this “bloodless coup” means for its new equilibria in the Middle East.

The former CEO of the “Saudi Telecom Company”, namely Saoud Al Dawish, was arrested.

He had already been convicted of bribery in 2012. This is another sign that the Crown Prince is catching in his net  both the economic leaders who are most interesting for him in the telecom, banking, real estate and retail sectors, and the old corrupt bribers already well-known to the Royal House and the Saudi people, with whom Muhammad bin Salman wants to recreate a charismatic bond.

It is certainly an advertising operation, albeit well-studied, regardless of the real faults of the arrested people.

Last but not least, we must also mention Nasser Al Tayar, President and CEO of the Al Tayar tourist Group.

With a view to targeting the relations between Saudi Arabia  and the rest of the world, also the management of tourist companies must be undermined.

Furthermore, until his arrest on November 4 last, Tayar was also President of the Arab Publisher House, “Medina Press”, but the Al Tayar Group operates also in the real estate, hoteling, aviation and food sectors.

Crown Prince’s current anti-graft sweep is focused on the food, real estate and telecommunication sectors. The aim is to hit and decapitate the primary sectors of economic and media consensus to rebuild a new network of relations in the Middle East and respond to the Shiite operations even with a military clash.

The primary goal of the West – firstly the United States and secondly the now irrelevant Europe – will be to avoid the clash, as well as mediate, defuse and use it for its own purposes.

I am not optimistic that it will pursue said goal.

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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Berlin Conference on Libya

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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What are the strategic, military and political differences between the war in Libya of  2011-2012 and the current conflict in post-Gaddafi Libya?

There are many differences. The first one is that the powers that started the clash between an ambiguous Cyrenaic “entity”, with strong jihadist connotations (it should be recalled that, also with Gaddafi, Cyrenaica was the greatest geographical area from which the jihadists of the Afghan and Central Asian wars originated) and the Tripolitan entity were, at the time, separate and almost all Western entities. Currently, those who command and rule on the ground in Libya are only formally subject to a droit de regard of other powers outside the Middle East or Asia.

Due to its sloth, the whole of Europe is about to disappear from the Maghreb region and, in the future, from Africa. Moreover, the latter would be the “complementary continent” of the Eurasian peninsula.

 The proxy war between Colonel Gaddafi who, in any case, acted proudly alone, except for a limited Chinese and East Slavic support, and the Jihadist friends of the West in Cyrenaica – where the tradition of specific Islamic radicalism (the Senussite brotherhood) was still strong – was the last operation of the unfortunate and foolish U.S. project of the “Arab Springs”, based on the techniques of “unorthodox, but non-violent and mass warfare” developed at the time by the Albert Einstein Foundation, an association promoted by Gene Sharp in 1983.

As a CIA Vice-Director said, the idea of the “Arab springs” was “to avoid any contact between the Arab crowds and Al Qaeda” and hence to make the Arab crowds turn against the jihad.

Needless to add anything else, History has already taught us its lesson.

Currently the great proxy war has turned into a great operation in which the major points of reference for the forces on the ground in Libya are not ahead, but are strategically following their forces of reference on the ground in Libya.

Because power relations count on the ground while, as Giacomo Leopardi taught us, the “belle fole” are ineffective and illusory.

In the Berlin Conference, General Haftar – the strong man of Cyrenaica’s Government – presents himself with a never fully completed and unsuccessful advance towards Tripoli, in spite of the fact that the UN-sponsored government of al-Sarraj had important defections from the qatibe group of Misrata and that the forces of former Colonel Gaddafi have now reached Tripoli suburbs, as well as in spite of the fact that the financial and operational support from  Egypt – especially now-from the Russian Federation, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia has never ceased.

Due to his poor health and to “keep” its troops under control, which could disperse exactly as those of al-Sarraj, General Haftar needs a symbolic, but also politically effective and quick victory against the people of Cyrenaica, once hated by the people of Tripolitania.

 King Idriss II, the last Libyan monarch before Gaddafi’s coup, organized by the Italian intelligence Services, boasted of “having never been to Tripoli”.

Hence Khalifa Haftar, the man who was harshly punished by Colonel Gaddafi himself for his clumsy operation in Chad – the long and decades-long Libyan operation in the South to repel the pro-French forces of Tombalbaye and Hissene Habrè – has not yet won and cannot fail to win in a short lapse of time. Otherwise he becomes irrelevant to its supporters and will lose his social and economic credibility, which is essential in this type of war.

However the Russian Federation, which has openly supported him and which still holds him in high esteem, does not want rash decisions and presses for an agreement with Turkey enabling Russia to act as a real mediator, since Westerners still talk about irrelevant issues with the representatives of al-Serraj, the man still surrounded in his palace on Tripoli’s port, at which h arrived – just appointed by the United Nations without any particular rational reason – by sea, because he knew that he would immediately be taken out or killed in Tripolitania’s airport of Mitiga.

Russia wants to exploit – in a short lapse of time – the strategic void that is on the ground and in Western decision-makers’ minds.

Therefore, it needs a quick agreement between the Libyan parties to exploit the central role played by Russia and hence dictate its own conditions to Italy, Germany, France and Turkey, with which there are other Russian outstanding issues, as well as with the other players in the Gulf, who still do not know how to make the most of the new tension on the ground between the United States and Iran, which could start operating again in Libya through Qatar and, possibly, with its own expeditionary force, organized by the new leadership of the Al Quds Force, full of Syrian Shiites and former collaborators of the Pasdaran Iranian forces in Syria.

Exactly the same as Turkey is doing, by sending – from the Northern Syrian areas currently acquired by Turkey –  the Syrian “Turkish” jihadists, who were created and trained by MIT, i.e. Erdogan’s intelligence Services, to support the “Muslim brother” al-Sarraj.

 In other words, it is the division and/or availability of the proxy players, the fighters on the Libyan ground, which determines the behaviour of their “great” points of reference, not vice versa.

 Furthermore, in the Russian Federation, the new political configuration of the country’s leadership is not irrelevant to Russia’s engagement in Libya.

With his new reform of the representative system and the Russian government, announced on January 16, President Putin wants to reassure himself of the possibility of appointing his future successor, without particular contracts and agreements with other Russian power groups and lobbies.

 The Russian power, which has long been firmly in Vladimir Putin’s hands, now finds itself more divided and less malleable in the hands of the current Kremlin’s nomenklatura.

The latter is changing its skin and is probably also using the street riots against President Putin to push for a new power struggle between Putin’s “heirs apparent”, thus forcing him to make unavoidable choices even in foreign policy.

In the future President Putin probably wants to concentrate on Europe and on the economic transformation of his country and he will be ever less interested in embarking on peripheral adventures than in his primary goal, which will be the internal economic and social reconstruction and the stability of his Near East.

Nevertheless the former Head of the Russian intelligence Services no longer has in his hands – smoothly and without discussion – his old “power elite”, whom he wants to radically reform, also with the pretext – or perhaps the real intention – of eradicating “corruption”.

Therefore even President Putin cannot play all his cards in the Berlin Conference.

France almost explicitly says it wants to extend the truce in Libya, waiting for better times, which will never come. It also wants small hegemony over the possible agreement between al-Sarraj and General Haftar.

 Even if there were an agreement, it would not be determined by France or Italy, but by the real forces on the ground, that is to say by the actual power of the local military organisations, all of which are almost in non-European hands.

 Even if there were an agreement, the fact of stating at first want you want shows the existence of suicidal ideation.

 What does France really want, whose intelligence services are at the origin of the first scenes of the insurgency, supported by a phantom section of the Parisian “association for human rights”, Libyan section – and which today, for the most part, is still behind General Haftar? Certainly, for obvious anti-ENI reasons.

 First of all, France wants – from General Haftar- the management of the oil reserves between the East, Sirte and the first part of Tripolitania in favour of France, as well as strategic control of the Libyan South for further exploration by Total, which should achieve the objective No.1 of the French presence in Libya since 2011, i.e. the taking of ENI and Italy’s total expulsion from the Maghreb region.

 Russia instead wants-at the very least – to reach the goal of a military base in Cyrenaica, which should change Russia’s whole strategic equation vis-à-vis the EU, although Europe is not yet aware of this.

  This is not fully incompatible with certain Italian interests, which could play Russia against France.

 Russia is not interested in those who control Libyan oil from the Eastern and central areas of the country, but in those who supply it to it better and at a lower price.

 Moreover, France wants to hegemonize the new “interposition force” that should be established by the United Nations.

 Here the Italian government’s ambiguities have been dangerous and sometimes funny.

 Firstly, there was the idea of entrusting everything to Europe, an organization that certainly has a “deep void” as Foreign Affairs Commissioner – albeit I am not referring to the current Commissioner Borrell – but neither does it have any credible political and military organization for out-of-area operations.

 Which EU structure should deal with the pacification of Libya?

 The political and military Group? The European Union Military Committee (EUMC), which “provides military advice to the CFSP” (the EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner) and is currently chaired by the Italian General Graziano?

 It is not suitable to command and control, but only to ask the EU Member States what they want to do with their individual Armed Forces.

Furthermore – just to use a metaphor – when there are always many of us at lunch, we must always know who pays.

The Italian idea of replicating Unifil II, the 20-year-old adverse possession of a large part of South Lebanon, which was not even able to stop Hezbollah’s “little war” of August 2006 against Israel is not a model, but just naivety.

Unifil is something different from an area ban or an Interposition Force. It is a political-military platform for the whole Middle East, where everyone talks to everyone, but sheltered from everyone, which could not be the case for a Force between al-Sarraj and Haftar.

 I also have the strong impression that, after the statements made by Italian Prime Minister Conte and Foreign Minister Di Maio regarding the fact that the Italian soldiers (Who? Those recalled from other African or Middle East positions, connected to Libya and no less important than it?) “will never be engaged, for any reason, in armed actions”, all the other EU Member States got a good laugh out of it.

 So what does Italy want to do with the Interposition Forces, whose Rules of Engagement are also inevitably drawn up by the United Nations, not by Italy?

  Probably, the idea is for it to be a sort of unarmed security guard for some international judges, who will verify without being able to notify the truce breaks. Hence it would be like the global export of the “Clean Hand Operation”, the judicial probe which is at the origin of Italy’s poor “Second Republic”, rather than the development of a smart Italian policy for the Maghreb region.

From the very beginning, Italy- intoxicated from its supposed Kantian ethicality, but still proud of its “Article 11” of the Constitution – has declared, as a country defeated in World War II, that it still wants to be so and to remain so sine die.

 The Armed Forces of any country are like the bank deposit of any foreign policy.

 If decisions are taken without the Forces’ cash that serves to put them into practice and, above all, to force the others to accept the geopolitical stare decisis, hence decisions or blank checks are issued.

Hence what does Italy want from Libya and from the next Berlin Conference?

 To be expelled from North Africa, which is essential for its energy and material-military security, as well as for civilian and military communications.

 Italy now plays the role of the geopolitical waiter, a role not far from some of the professions actually carried out by some of the current decision-makers until a few years ago.

Just to use again a metaphor, currently Italy prefers to pick up crumbs and concessions – which will not be there – from the African meal of others.

Moreover, in a context where – as is right -the following countries have been invited to the Berlin Conference: Algeria, which we have also lost; China, which is very interested in the Libyan reconstruction business; the African Union, which will represent above all the interests of the sub-Saharan countries; the Arab League, which will set great store by a stable pacification of the jihad with the rest of the African Muslim community, so as to take the jihad out of Westerners’ hands; the Republic of Congo, ready to play an important role for its internal energy and economic reconstruction needs; Egypt, which wants to take General Haftar out of the other Middle East players’ hands to use him as a force for redesigning Egypt’s Western security and against the expansion – through Turkey – of the Islamic Brotherhood, i.e. enemy No.1 of Al Sisi’s power; the United Arab Emirates, which want to obtain the maximum economic and political leverage from their new and unusual position in the Maghreb region, designed to exclude much of “Old Europe”.

 Saudi Arabia – also central to General Haftar – does not want to go against the United States and Israel, thus increasing its commitment to the Tobruk government that organizes Haftar’s policy, but it also wants to maintain a sound hegemony over the Maghreb region against Turkey (but without harming its good relations with Russia and the United States, still essential for its regional Wahhabi wars). Hence support to General Haftar, but wisely and with discretion.

What does Turkey want? Currently it strongly supports al-Sarraj, backed  also by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose primary point of reference is Qatar, an ambiguous correlator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with whom it has decisive economic relations. Erdogan wants a Tripolitania that has fallen into Turkey’s hands because Italy has not been able – or rather has not wanted – to support it militarily, possibly also with a real interposition force – not a newly-armed escort for the Maghreb “Clean Hand Operation”.

Turkey also wants strategic continuity between its very recent oil and gas agreements with Tripolitania – primarily maritime continuity, but which needs a very efficient land coverage.

 Even this redesign of the SAR and the Maritime Control Areas, which are by nature bilateral agreements, will see Italy excluded from the direct control of its ENI oil networks from central Libya to the Libyan coast. And this is no coincidence, considering that Tunisia – a possible Italian alternative to the restriction of ENI’s Libyan area – has not yet been invited to the Berlin Conference of January 19, 2020.

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Iran crisis: A high-stakes bet on who blinks first

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Two sets of US government cables suggest that Iran hawks in and outside the Trump administration appear to have the upper hand as European countries give hardliners a helping hand by attempting to force Iran to seek a diplomatic solution to a crisis that threatens to engulf the Middle East in yet another military conflict.

Disclosure of the cables advocating a military strike such as this month’s killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani coupled with the withdrawal of a US State Department olive branch that was intended to reassure Iran about the Trump administration’s intentions appear designed to persuade the Islamic republic to back away from its strategy of gradual escalation.

The strategy aims to engineer a situation in which a return to negotiations on the basis of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program is the only way to avoid an all-out war. The Trump administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and has since imposed ever harsher economic sanctions on Iran.

Hardliners in Washington believe Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests days after millions of Iranians came out to mourn Mr. Soleimani’s death in what Iranian leaders project as a rallying around the regime is a proof of concept of their approach.

The hard-liners’ strategy was spelled out in a series of unclassified memos sent by David Wurmser, a close associate of John Bolton, while Mr. Bolton was serving as national security advise to President Donald J. Trump. The memos projected a US military operation on the scale of the killing of a Mr. Soleimani as a way of destabilizing the government in Tehran.

Mr. Wurmser’s advice was in line with proposals for destabilizing Iran presented to the White House by Mr. Bolton in the months before his appointment. Mr. Bolton was fired by Mr. Trump in September of last year.

“Iran has always been careful to execute its ambitions and aggressive aims incrementally to avoid Western reactions which depart from the expected. In contrast, were unexpected, rule-changing actions taken against Iran, it would confuse the regime. It would need to scramble,” Mr. Wurmser wrote.

 Such a U.S. attack would “rattle the delicate internal balance of forces and the control over them upon which the regime depends for stability and survival… Iranians would both be impressed and potentially encouraged by a targeted attack on symbols of repression,” Mr. Wurmser added.

The leaking of Mr. Wurmser’s memos coincided with a cable from the State Department to US diplomatic missions worldwide that walked back an instruction earlier this month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to limit contacts with Iranian opposition and exile groups in a bid to reassure Iran that the Trump administration was not seeking regime change in Tehran.

The Pompeo cable seemed to be a first step at bridging the gulf of distrust between Washington and Tehran that makes a resolution of the two countries’ differences all but impossible. Iran has long been convinced that regime change is the main driver of US policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Pompeo’s instruction came on the heels of Mr. Trump’s decision not to respond to Iranian missile attacks on US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Mr. Soleimani.

With the government in Tehran on the backfoot as a result of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and renewed anti-government protests, leaders of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 nuclear accord, appear to be buying into the strategy of the Washington hardliners.

The Europeans, responding to Iran’s gradual withdrawal from its commitments under the accord as part of its strategy of gradual escalation, this week triggered its dispute resolution mechanism, that could put Iran’s actions on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and lead to a re-imposition of international sanctions.

British prime minister Boris Johnson further raised the stakes by telling the BBC that he would be willing to back an as yet non-existent proposal by Mr. Trump for a new agreement with Iran. “If we are going to get rid of it (the nuclear accord), then we need a replacement,” Mr. Johnson said.

The proof will be in the pudding whether the two-pronged stepping up of US and European pressure on Iran will be sufficient to engineer a breakthrough in efforts to avert escalating tension and a return to the negotiating table.

So far, Iran’s response suggests tensions may have to further escalate before parties, all of whom do not want an all-out war, pull back from the brink.

In a first, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, insisting that all foreign forces should leave the Middle East, warned, in response to the European move and statements, that British, French and German troops may be in danger.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Mr. Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting.

Said a Western diplomat, spelling out European thinking: “This allows us to buy time while making clear to Iran that they cannot continue on this path of non-compliance with no consequences.”

For now, it’s a high stakes poker bet on who blinks first.

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Assassination of Qassem Solemani: Strategic American Re-course

Sisir Devkota

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For Iran, international sympathy dissolved all very quickly. Ukrainian International Airlines 752 was downed by a surface to air missile; moments after it took off from Tehran. Such is the nature of modern news coverage; the crash did not find space until Tehran admitted a catastrophic mistake on its part. Victims from flight 752 had to wait until the next morning for attention after crash; President Trump made a stride towards de-escalation while the Canadian Prime Minister first declared that Iran was behind the blunder. Events swung dramatically, in a span of few days, sympathy turned into protests; Iranian people found their government more hostile than foreign forces. For years, the West has continuously manufactured a troublemaker tag for the regime; latest events have testified the “rogue-ness” of a nation that now stands at crossroads.

In its own words, an admission of “unforgivable mistake” was quickly judged as an act of de-escalating the US-Iran rift. Both Iran and the United States dusted it off very well, the Islamic regime claimed that revenge had been sought without killing a single soldier, whereas the US determined such events as Iran’s giving in gesture. For both countries, the fate of flight 752 came as a surprising sacrifice to help situational matters. Iran’s acceptance went well with other western nations; unlike how the Russians dealt with a similar tragedy, the regime can be looked upon as a lesser aggressor. If decades of experience of dealing with Khomeini successors did not warrant its intentions; it has now. Iran can be deemed as a satisfactorily peace-seeking nation. Rusting military expertise with a heightened sensitivity to claim a safe spot is a valid evidence. Adding to it, the unusual combination of hollow threats and the agility to escape a challenging situation, satisfactorily distinguishes Iran from a terrorist network. Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran has promised to punish the culprits in an attempt to save faces.

Months before his assassination, Qassem Solemani himself testified numerous escapes from Israeli air raids. In May 2019, the United States had officially ordered its equipped battleships to raid the Gulf, in order to scan Solemani’s whereabouts. The military leader was not killed in hesitation; his assassination plot lived on a wishful ambition that President Trump eventually delivered. Hence, the outpour of millions at his grave. Solemani was prized by his regime; his skills, leading to strategic warfare was exceptional. The fact that the United States finally got his blood, sent shockwaves into Iranian administration. It was exceptional but more so an intolerable truth to swallow.

Such was the euphoria leading to his death, more than his crimes being highlighted, global attention drifted to the legitimacy of killing a leader on a foreign soil. Circumstances arrested significant nations from taking sides; the standoff witnessed how divided the world really has become. Tensions between an uncharacteristic Trump administration and the untamed Iranian regime was well anticipated; the possibility of it happening anytime soon was not. For many decades, the American leadership had safely ignored Iranian adventures; Iran had successfully become a policy hallmark in the Middle East. Unlike other Middle Eastern regimes, Iran came across as thoughtful, rational and co-operative at times. That dynamics has now changed, Iran will no longer sleep peacefully over past trade-offs with the United States. Luckily, for President Trump, his Iran card has bolstered for good. The events that led to Solemani’s death has penetrated into Iran’s deeper problems, like its military capabilities. Next time when Iran speaks, the world will realize its shortness of breath. Next time when President Trump tweets, the world will take him seriously, more than ever.

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