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Saudi Prince Mohammed’s Achilles Heel: Misreading tea leaves in Washington

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Emboldened by perceived White House support, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have stepped up his risky, so far faltering effort to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The kingdom, despite Prime Minister Saad Hariri complicating Saudi efforts to curb the political and military power of Hezbollah, the country’s Shiite militia, by putting on hold his decision to resign, is signalling that it is looking beyond Lebanon to fulfil Prince Mohammed’s vow in May that the fight between the two rivals would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia

Speaking earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned that “any way you look at it, they (the Iranians) are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner. We are reacting to that aggression and saying, ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore.'”

Militant Iranian Arab nationalist exiles this week started broadcasting promos for an allegedly Saudi-funded satellite television station that would target Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan. It was the latest indication that Saudi Arabia was mulling an effort to undermine the government in Tehran by capitalizing on grievances among Iran’s ethnic minorities. Ahmad Mola Nissi, a 52-year old exile associated with the television, was mysteriously shot dead in The Hague earlier this month.

Pakistani militants in the province of Balochistan have reported a massive flow of Saudi funds in the last year to Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative groups while a Saudi thinktank believed to be supported by Prince Mohammed published a blueprint for support of the Baloch and called for “immediate counter measures” against Iran.

Prince Mohammed’s track record in confronting Iran more aggressively is at best mixed. The kingdom’s 2.5-year old intervention in Yemen has driven Iran and the Houthis closer together and raised the spectre of the rebels organizing themselves on Saudi Arabia’s border with Hezbollah as their model.

Saudi backing of Syrian rebels failed to turn the tables on President Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian ally, while the kingdom reversed its 13-year boycott of Iraq in a bid to counter Iranian influence through engagement with Baghdad.

In Lebanon, the odds are against Hezbollah bowing to pressure that it disarms and halt its military involvement beyond the country’s borders even if the group appeared to want to avert a crisis by announcing that it was withdrawing forces from Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah also denied that it was supplying weapons to the Houthis, including a ballistic missile fired at the airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh earlier this month.

“So far, the Iranians have effectively won in Lebanon, are winning in Syria and Iraq, and are bleeding the Saudis in Yemen… There is precious little evidence to suggest that the Saudis have learned from their earlier failures and are now able to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East,” said researcher and Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Spyer.

If Prince Salman’s apparent strategy and track records risks escalating regional tensions and raising questions about Saudi Arabia’s ability to successfully confront Iran, it also may be based on a misreading of the dynamics of US policymaking.

Prince Salman appears to believe that he can ignore signals from the State Department, Pentagon and members of Congress, who have been counselling greater caution, as long as he is backed by US President Donald J. Trump and Jared Kushner, a senior advisor and the president’s son-in-law. The Saudi crown prince appears to be reinforced in this belief by his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, with whom he coordinates closely.

The evolution of the US approach to the six-month old UAE-Saudi-led boycott of Qatar suggests a complexity of policy making in Washington that both princes have so far failed to take into account or effectively address.

Al-Monitor Washington correspondent Laura Rozen reported that UAE ambassador Youssef al-Otaiba in June called then-US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones in the middle of the night to give him advance notice of the boycott. “What are you guys doing? This is crazy,” Mr. Jones told the ambassador. To which Mr. Otaiba responded: “‘Have you spoken to the White House?'”

Despite Mr. Trump’s expressed support for the Saudi UAE position involving a refusal to negotiate or lift the boycott unless Qatar accepts demands that would compromise its ability to chart its own course, US policy administered by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ has pushed for a negotiated resolution – a position far closer to that of Qatar.

Speaking at conference in the UAE, Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers urged Gulf countries to broaden their outreach in Washington from one narrowly focused on Mr. Trump’s White House to other branches of government as well Democrats in Congress. “I made the point that lobbying efforts and Washington should not ignore the Democrats in Congress and that they may be coming back in one house or another in 2018,” Mr. Rogers told Al-Monitor.

The US House of Representatives last week, in an indication of the risk of relying exclusively on the White House, set the stage for a debate of US military support for Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated Yemen by overwhelmingly adopting a non-binding resolution that recognized that the aid was being provided without Congressional authorization. The resolution noted that Congress had exclusively authorized operations against jihadist militants in Yemen, not against domestic rebel groups like the Houthis.

The Saudi and UAE reading of the lay of the land in the US capital and singular reliance on the White House is somewhat surprising given that both Mr. Al-Otaiba and Mr. Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, have a track record as savvy Washington operators, and the fact that a host of public relations and lobby firms are paid hefty fees to advise the kingdom.

Widely viewed as one of the most well-connected and influential foreign diplomats in Washington, Mr. Al Otaiba has been ambassador to the United States for almost a decade. Educated in the US, Mr. Al-Jubeir served in the kingdom’s Washington embassy, and years later became ambassador to the US before being appointed foreign minister.

The Saudi and UAE focus on the White House is rooted in Prince Salman’s efforts, dating back to his initial rise in early 2015, two years before Mr. Trump came to office, to counter President Barak Obama’s policy of reducing US engagement in the Middle East.

“The United States must realise that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” Prince Mohammed told The Economist in early 2016. He suggested that the sooner the US re-engages the better. Reengagement meant to the Saudi leader, aggressive US support for the kingdom’s efforts to shape the Middle East and North Africa in its image.

Mr. Trump’s policy priorities in the region, including confronting Iran, fighting extremism, and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a bid to open the door to overt Israeli-Saudi cooperation, stroked with those of the crown prince. Those goals are shared in Washington beyond the White House, but many in the administration and Congress worry that Prince Mohammed’s way of achieving them may either backfire or be counterproductive.

In a sign of concern, the State Department this week cautioned Americans travelling to Saudi Arabia. In a statement, it warned “US citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Saudi Arabia due to continuing threats from terrorist groups and the threat of ballistic missile attacks on civilian targets by rebel forces in Yemen.”

Salman Al-Ansari, the head of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), advised Saudi Arabia, days after Mr. Trump was inaugurated, to reach out to different segments of American society in what he described as the kingdom’s real battle.

“One of Saudi Arabia’s glaring weak points is public diplomacy, especially with regards to communicating its economic and national security concerns to the American public. The Kingdom’s media efforts remain woefully behind where it needs to be… In an age where information is disseminated so rapidly, the Kingdom has no excuse but to reach out to the American people,” Mr. Al-Ansari said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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