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The Killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh – Is Peace in Yemen Possible?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Based on remarks at a 19 December 2017 NUS Middle East Institute seminar

The Middle East being the Middle East, everything is interrelated. What happens in the region impacts Yemen and what happens in Yemen impacts the region. The crisis in Yemen, like many conflicts in the Middle East, did not originate with the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but inevitably get sucked into it.

Yemen was a Saudi problem long before it took on the mantle of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war and it may be the conflict that is most important and most sensitive for the kingdom. It also may be the proxy war that comes to haunt Saudi Arabia the most. Beyond cross-border tribal relationships, Yemen, a devastated country where recovery and reconstruction is certain to be a slow process, is likely to have a next generation that will be deeply resentful of Saudi Arabia with all the political and security implications that go with that.

More immediately, two recent factors stick out that potentially have significant geopolitical consequences. First, the recent meeting between the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, with leaders of Yemen’s Islamist Islah party in the wake of the killing of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The presence of Mohammed bin Salman at the meeting was far less remarkable than that of Mohammed bin Zayed and it is not clear what it means. It is Mohammed bin Zayed rather than Mohammed bin Salman who is truly uncomfortable with any expression of political Islam and certainly with any link to the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah remains an Islamist party even if it announced in 2013 that it had cut its ties to the Brotherhood.

The question is whether Mohammed bin Zayed, who for the almost three years of the Yemen war opposed Saudi cooperation with Islah, sees an alliance with the party as an opportunistic one-off move or whether it signals a shift in policy that could be repeated elsewhere in the Middle East. If so, that would have consequences for the dispute with Qatar and there is no sign of that. In fact, Saudi Arabia signalled days after the meeting that there was likely to be no quick end to the dispute with Qatar by declaring its closed border crossing with the Gulf state permanently shut. Similarly, recent satellite pictures show that the UAE air force is gearing up for greater military engagement against Islamists in Libya. As a result, the significance of the meeting is likely to be limited to Yemen.

Nonetheless, the way the meeting was arranged is significant and tells a story that goes far beyond Yemen. The crown princes sent a private plane to Istanbul to pick up the Islah party representatives from an Islamic summit called to discuss US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was a summit the two men decided not to attend and at which they were represented by lower officials. The message was: Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not their priority and their opposition to Mr. Trump’s move was skin deep. Their priority was the war in Yemen and the larger regional battle with Iran for dominance of the region.

In some ways, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s risky strategy has already backfired. It has given the Brotherhood, violently suppressed in Egypt, outlawed in much of the Gulf and marginalized elsewhere in the region, a new lease on life. Mr. Trump’s decision offered the Brotherhood an issue to rally around in an Arab world intimidated and cowed by the violence, repression, insurgencies and civil wars that have characterized it since the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

With a long history of opposition to a US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Brotherhood has emerged in the front lines of many of the protests against the president’s recognition of Jerusalem. Muslim Brothers organized the biggest popular protest in Jordan in a decade and demanded the closure of the Israeli embassy in Amman. Beyond leading demonstrations in Kuwait, Brother members of parliament called on the government to review its ties with Washington and disinvest from the United States.

Mr. Trump’s move has also strengthened Brotherhood offshoots like Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Confronted with protests against its inability to break a crippling, economic stranglehold by Egypt, Israel and the Palestine Authority that starved the Strip of electricity and forced government workers to go unpaid for months, Hamas was forced by the UAE and Egypt to enter into a reconciliation agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud’s Abbas’ Al Fatah movement and entertain an independent governance position for powerful but controversial, Abu Dhabi-backed former Palestinian security chieftain Mohammed Dahlan.

The second factor are Houth ballistic missile strikes, including the firing in November of a projectile at the international airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh, subsequent claims and denials of a Houthi missile fired towards the UAE, the December 2017 targeting of the Al Yamama palace of the Saudi royal court as King Salman and Prince Mohammed were chairing a meeting of the kingdom’s leaders, and the Houthi threat of further attacks. A Saudi military spokesman said the kingdom had intercepted 83 ballistic missiles since the Yemen war started almost three years ago.

There is little doubt that the Saudi-UAE intervention in Yemen has fortified ties between the Houthis and Iran. Yet the recent theatrical display of Houthi missile parts and other weaponry that was made possible by Saudi Arabia and the UAE left their provenance in doubt. There was no smoking gun that established beyond doubt that Iran could be held responsible for the missile strikes. The missiles and other items could well have originated in Iran, they could also have come from elsewhere. Whether supplied by Iran or not, United Nations monitors reported to the Security Council that remnants of ballistic missiles launched into Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels appeared to have been designed and produced by Iran.

Iran insisted that it had not supplied the missiles, but said it would continue to support the Houthis and other “resistance forces” in the region. “Victory in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen will continue as long as the resistance coalition defends its achievements. And as long as necessary, we will have a presence in these countries… We must assist these countries and establish a barrier against the American influence,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former foreign minister.

Mr. Velayati’s remarks appeared to contradict Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s denial that Iran had a military presence in Yemen and was assisting the Houthis. So did an earlier admission by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari that Iran was providing the Houthis with “advisory military assistance,” the phrase the Islamic republic used for its support of militias in Syria and Iraq.

Evidence of Iranian military support for the Houthis has been mounting. The Australian government released in January pictures of anti-armour weapons that were seized off the Yemeni coast and had been manufactured in Iran. A report in late 2016 by Conflict Armament Research concluded that a weapons pipeline extended from Iran to Yemen as well as Somalia that involved “transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from Iranian stockpiles.”

The Houthis, a fiercely independent actor have, irrespective of the degree of Iranian support, repeatedly demonstrated, however, that they do not take orders from Tehran and at times ignore its advice. Iran opposed the Houthi move on the Yemeni capital of Sana’a to no avail and was against a Houthi advance in the south. The Houthis could well against Iran’s will throw another monkey wrench into the fragile Middle East mix if they continue to target Saudi and/or Emirati cities. The attacks would ultimately elicit a harsh response. The question is who would respond and what would the target be.

The answer seems at first glance obvious. It would be a Saudi and/or UAE response and the target would be the Houthis in Yemen. The deployment of a new, American-trained and supplied Saudi National Guard helicopter unit to the kingdom’s border with Yemen suggests an escalation of the Saudi-UAE campaign. The Pentagon said 36 AH-64E Apaches, 36 AH-6i Little Birds, and 72 Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawks bought from the US at a cost of $25 billion would be used to protect Saudi Arabia’s borders and oil infrastructure. The deployment constitutes the first expansion of the Guard’s mission beyond protecting the ruling Al Saudi family, guarding oil facilities, and providing security for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina since Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a son of former King Abdullah, was relieved of his command of the Guard in November and detained by Prince Mohammed on corruption charges alongside other princes, senior officials and prominent businessmen.

The retaliatory target could, however, also be Iran and the response could be one in which the United States participates. The implications of such an escalation could be massive. “An Iranian missile fired at Riyadh sheds light on an important bottom line dynamic in the region: the Saudis have a far superior air force, defence system and navy than the Iranians. They have a better equipped military intelligence apparatus and far superior munitions… (Iran) has been wreaking havoc in the Middle East on its own terms and drawing on its own strengths. It must realise that such recklessness could cause its regional adversaries to draw on their competitive advantages,” said Middle East analyst Mohammed Alyahya.

A broader regional military altercation would occur at a moment that emotions are raw in the wake of Mr. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem and because protesters are already on the streets of various Middle Eastern cities. A strike against Iran involving the United States could turn fury about Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision against Arab leaders who would be seen to be cooperating with the United States and willing to sacrifice Palestinian rights to work with Israel. Soccer fans in Algiers who were protesting against the decision recently provoked Saudi Arabia’s ire by carrying placards depicting Mr. Trump and Saudi King Salman as two sides of the same coin. While the protests in recent week were primarily directed against the United States and Israel, they often had an undertone of criticism of Arab regimes that were seen to be meek in their response to Mr. Trump’s decision or in cahoots with the United States.

Ironically, differences among Arab leaders about how to respond to Trump’s Jerusalem decision may have temporarily prevented the Saudi Crown Prince from adding Palestine to a string of failed foreign policy moves aimed at escalating the kingdom’s proxy war with Iran. Prince Mohammed’s devastating intervention in Yemen, botched effort to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign, and hamstrung boycott of Qatar have backfired and only strengthened the Islamic republic’s regional influence.

Inadvertently, Palestinian President Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah did Prince Mohammed a favour when they reportedly rejected pressure by the prince not to participate in the summit of Islamic countries in Istanbul. Mr. Abbas may have further shielded the Saudi leader when his refusal to further accept the United States as a mediator was adopted by the summit.

The two leaders’ stand, coupled with the summit’s rejection of Trump’s move, make it more difficult for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to endorse any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does not recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. The problem is that the Saudi and UAE crown princes run the risk of misreading or underestimating public anger and frustration in significant parts of the Arab and Muslim world.

The Saudi crown prince responded to the two leaders’ defiance by briefly arresting billionaire Jordanian Palestinians businessman Sabih al-Masri, who also has Saudi citizenship. “The Saudi detention of Masri was a crude but brutal political message to…King Abdullah and…President Mahmoud Abbas on how to behave on the Jerusalem issue and regional alignments. Riyadh wanted to signal to the Jordanian and Palestinian leaderships that it could swiftly cripple their economies and trigger existential crises in which banks would suffer terminal runs, the governments would fail to pay their employees, and the economies would sputter to a halt,” said Middle East scholar and analyst Rami G. Khouri.

Disagreement in the Arab world over how to respond to Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision and Mr. Abbas’ defiance has taken on even larger significance with the battle over a United Nations General Assembly vote on the issue. Mr. Abbas instructed his diplomatic representatives to ensure the passing of a resolution that condemns the US move despite a US threat to cut off aid to countries that vote in favour and at the risk of the Trump administration deciding to close the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington.

How Saudi Arabia and the UAE vote could impact relations with the United States and the degree to which they are sensitive to criticism of their conduct of the Yemen war, if they vote in favour of the resolution and Mr. Trump acts on his threat. In another indication of Saudi and UAE priorities, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Ben Ahmed hinted at the Gulf states abstaining in the UN vote in a move that likely would contradict public opinion, Mr. Ben Ahmed, referring to Iran, tweeted that “it’s not helpful to pick a fight with the USA over side issues while we together fight the clear and present danger of The Theo-Fascist Islamic republic.”

Saudi, UAE and Bahraini willingness to break with a long-standing consensus in the Arab and Muslim world would have likely been strengthened with the publication of Mr. Trump’s national security strategy that, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, prioritizes combating “jihadist terrorists;” preventing the domination of “any power hostile to the United States,” an apparent reference to Iran and Iranian-backed proxies; and ensuring “a stable global energy market.”

The link between Israeli-Palestinian peace making and Iran, and by extension Yemen, is, moreover, likely to become undeniable when Mr. Trump next month must decide whether to uphold the 2015 international agreement with Iran that put severe restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Under US law, Mr. Trump has to certify Iranian compliance every three months. In October, Mr. Trump refused to do so. He threatened to pull out of the agreement if Congress failed to address the accord’s perceived shortcomings within 60 days. Congress has refrained from acting on Mr. Trump’s demand that Congress ensure that Iranian compliance involves accepting restrictions on its ballistic missile program that is primarily designed to counter perceived US and Israeli threats, and support of regional proxies. A study by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) concluded that to counter challenges posed by regional insurgencies, failing states and extremism, Iran was likely to expand its weapons acquisition program to include surface- and air-to-air missiles, advanced fighter aircraft, tanks, advanced mines, and anti-ship cruise missiles.

Concern that proxies that fought in Syria could turn their attention to Yemen was enhanced by Ali-Reza Tavasol, a founder of the 20,000 man-strong Fatemiyoun Division, an Iranian-led Afghan Shiite militia group. “Our war is an ideological war and does not recognize geography and borders. Anywhere oppressed people need help, we will be present there and assist them,” Mr. Tavasol said. Mr, Tavasol’s statement echoed earlier remarks by Ismail Ghani, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who asserted that Fatemiyoun fighters did “not recognize borders to defend Islamic values.” Afghan officials alleged that some Fatemiyoun fighters has already been dispatched to Yemen.

At the end of the day, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is being fought on the back of the Yemenis who are paying a horrendous price. That is unlikely to change as long as Saudi Arabia sees its struggle with Iran as an existential battle. And to be fair to the Saudis, they have good reason to perceive Iran as an existential threat. Not because Iran engages in asymmetric warfare by using proxies, supporting groups like the Houthis or propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But because post 1979-Iran, even if t were to only sit back and do nothing, poses an existential threat in much the same way that the popular Arab revolts of 2011 posed an existential threat. Iran experienced, alongside Russia, the 20th’s century only true revolution in which a regime and a political system was overthrown. It was a revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of the United States. It was a revolution that introduced an Islamic system of governance that has whatever limited degree of popular sovereignty. That is the threat, it constitutes an alternative to an absolute monarchy that claims religious legitimacy and is seeking to ensure its survival.

And if that were not enough, Iran is one of three Middle Eastern nations, that, irrespective of what state of disrepair they may be in, have the building blocks to be regional powers. The other two are Turkey and Egypt. They have large populations, huge domestic markets, battle-hardened militaries, an industrial base, highly educated populations, geography and a deep sense of identity rooted in empire and/or thousands of years of history. Saudi Arabia has money and Mecca.

If Saudi Arabia and the UAE learnt a lesson during the era of US President Barak Obama, it is that nothing is permanent and that countries need to assert themselves. Yemen is an expression of that lesson. Mr. Trump has given the kingdom and the emirates the umbrella they needed. Saudi regional power is to a large extent dependent on an Iran that is hampered by US-led efforts to contain it. Again, to be fair, the UAE has been better than the Saudis at exploiting the opportunity.

Saudi Arabia has so far ended up with mud in its face. The war in Yemen is backfiring and threatens to create even bigger challenges in the longer term. In a toughening of US criticism of the kingdom’s conduct of the war, Mr. Trump’s nominee for the post of the State Department’s legal counsel, Jennifer Newstead, suggested that Saudi Arabia could be violating U.S. and international law by restricting the flow of humanitarian aid in Yemen. British international development secretary Penny Mordaunt issued a similar warning.  A determination that the kingdom is in violation would, amid widespread international criticism of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen sparked by Saudi military action, put at risk US support for the intervention, involving US assistance in mid-air refuelling of Saudi and Emirati fighter planes, the provision of precision-guided munitions, and the sharing of intelligence.

Moreover, with dissent repressed, it is difficult to gauge what public opinion in the kingdom is. Prince Mohammed has so far delivered long-overdue social changes but has yet to deliver on his economic reform plans. There is good reason to question the degree to which he will be able to deliver, not only because there are legitimate questions about his plans but also because of the way he has gone about implementing them. The recent arrests of scores prominent Saudis under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign and the financial settlements being negotiated for their release raises questions about what kind of checks and balances a new Saudi Arabia would offer and defy the principle of the rule of law.

No doubt, Prince Mohammed is an enormously popular figure. The problem is that he has created enormous expectations that have not been managed. Moreover, 40 years of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism rooted in a history of at least 200 years of ultra-conservative thought cannot be erased with the stroke of a pen. Prince Mohammed’s social changes are as popular as they are controversial. In a recent survey, young Saudis said they wanted change: they wanted to date women, they wanted to party, they wanted to drive fast cars, and, yes, they wanted good paying jobs. When asked whether they realized that those same rights would apply to their sisters, they pulled back. In a recent illustration of contradictory attitudes, a Saudi beauty queen withdrew from a Miss Arab World contest after being attacked and threatened online. Similarly, Saudis want jobs but are unprepared for a merit-driven labour market rather than one that offers cushy government jobs.

The long and short of all of this is that the war in Yemen cannot be seen independent of the convulsions of change that have enveloped the Middle East in a convoluted and often violent process with no end in sight. The wars in Syria and Iraq are dying down. Yet, without policies that ensure that all groups in society feel that they have a stake in society, the seeds for renewed conflict are being sown. The same is ultimately also true for Yemen. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Obama, he got it right when he told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Saudi Arabia will have to learn to share the Middle East with Iran.

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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Iran’s next parliamentary election hinges on economic problems, US sanctions effective

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It seems any faction focuses on solving the economic problems, has more chance for victory in the parliamentary elections.

The eleventh elections of the Islamic Parliament in Iran will be on Feb 21, 2020 across the country. Seyed Salaman Samani spokesman of Interior Ministry said in an interview that has published on the official website of the ministry.

About 4 months have remained to the elections, but the politicians and parties have started to organize their campaigns and planning for victory.

The current parliament was formed from 41 percent Reformers and Moderates, 29 percent Principlists, 28 percent Independents and 2 percent Minorities, according to the ISNA News Agency.

In Tehran, capital of the country, all seats were gained by the Reformers, but some important cities such as Mashhad as the second city in the country, the Principlists were decisive winners.

But the majority of people and political activists are serious dissatisfactions concerning the function of the parliament, even some experts have emphasized on the famous slogan that says: “Reformer, Principlist, the story is over.”

This situation has formed, while Iran`s Parliament has been under control between two parties in the past years. So, some experts seek up the third faction for improving the country’s position, but so far the third faction has had not a leader and specific structure.

Due to the Reformers supporting of President Hassan Rouhani in the last presidential elections and lack of his rhetoric realization, the position of the Reformers has weakened increasingly. For example, Rouhani said during the contests of the presidential elections about 2 years ago in Iran television that If Iranians reelect me, all sanctions even non-nuclear sanctions will be lifted. But now, the sanctions against Iran have increased and the economic situation of the people has hurt extremely.

But recently, many celebrities of Iran have regretted concerning supporting Rouhani like Ali Karimi the former football player and Reza Sadeghi the famous singer, they demonstrated their regret on social media. So, some suggested that the victory of Principlists in the elections is certain.

“The Principlists need not do anything; they are comfortably the winner of the next parliamentary elections.” Sadegh Zibakalam, an Iranian academic reformist said in an interview with Shargh Newspaper.

“We have no chance for parliamentary elections and next presidential elections unless a miracle happens,” he added.

The Iranian Principlists are closer to Iran`s supreme leader and guard corps than the Reformers. A political face in the right-wing like, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf with the slogans “New Parliament ” and “Neo-Principlism ” has recalled young people to receive their ability to provide the elections list. Ghalibaf launched his third presidential campaign for the Iranian presidency on April 15, 2017, but on May 15, 2017, Ghalibaf withdrew, but he supported Ebrahim Raisi who is the current chief of Iran`s judiciary.

Another face is the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. Some experts say Ahmadinezhad has a great plan for the next elections but so far he has not spoken about it. Recently he criticized toughly from the government of Rouhani and Iran’s Judiciary. Recently, some of his close activists arrested by Iran’s Judiciary, and they are in Evin Prison now. Some analyzers say Ahmadinezhad has high popularity, just as the people have welcomed warmly lately on his travels across the country.

JAMNA or “Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces” is another chance for Principlists in the next elections. JAMNA founded in late 2016 by ten figures from different spectrum of conservative factions, in the end, the party elected Ebrahim Raisi as a candidate for the presidential election but Raeisi defeated.

But Reformers are not hopeless, Mohammad Khatami as the leader of the Reformers, who served as the fifth President of Iran from 1997 to 2005 has said statements recently. He has wanted from the government to qualify the Reformers candidates for participation in the political event.

One of the Reformer’s big problems in the history of Iran `s elections has been the disqualification by the Guardian Council. According to Iran constitution, all candidates of parliamentary or presidential elections, as well as candidates for the Assembly of Experts, have to be qualified by the Guardian Council to run in the elections.

Some Reformers in reformist newspapers state that they will take part in the parliament elections on this condition the majority of Reformers’ candidates will be qualified by the Guardian Council.

Some analysts said the Iran parliament has not enough power in order to improve the country’s situation. Just as the parliament has approved the bill of “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime” by a 126 vote in last year, but the Guardian Council has disagreed with it and its fate shall determine by Expediency Discernment Council, while the government has frequently emphasized on the bill. The government believes the approving the bill will cause to reducing the bans about the economic transaction with the world.

Generally, Iran`s economic position is very critical currently, tough sanctions by Trump administration and the defeat of the nuclear deal (JCPOA) has caused that Iranians to be under serious problems. The stuff prices and inflation are at the highest level since Iran`s revolution in 1979. So, it seems any faction that focuses on solving the economic problems, has more chance for victory in the parliamentary elections. Also, the more important issue is the participation rate of people. If dissatisfactions about economic problems will be continued, hope and joy between people would reduce the rate of Participation in the next elections. Some experts say based on experiences in Iran, when the rate of participation in the elections is reduced, the Principlists has a more chance for the victory, because the gray spectrum that is not black or white, usually has a willing to the Reformers. the spectrum includes younger people even teenagers in the urban society.

Some political observers say the gray spectrum has not very willing to participate in the next elections. Some suggested that the future situation, especially in the economic field is very important to make the willingness about the gray spectrum to participate.

Analysts said the winner of the presidential elections 2 years later is the winner of the parliamentary elections on Feb 21, 2020. The majority of the next parliament will affect the political space across the country. This procedure in Iran has precedent. Like the victory of the Reformers in the last parliamentary elections that it caused the Rouhani victory about 2 years ago.

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Iran’s Dangerous Game in Iraq Could Lead to Deep Quagmire

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Citizens of Baghdad continue to fight against the current regime after over a month of protests reached a fever pitch with over 300 dead and thousands wounded. The social unrest that has shaken Iraq—though not the first time since the US overthrew Saddam Hussein—remains a tense and fragile situation that could be a turning point for the country.

The protests, as they have in the past, started over claims of corruption, graft, and government inefficiency that have left a large number of Iraqis unemployed, the country’s economy stagnant, and offer little hope of a better future. Entrenched political elites have also made it difficult to combat these problems at a root level, resisting any real anti-corruption efforts and even removing from power those that would pose a significant threat.

After days of rising unrest on the streets, the protests hit a bloody climax when militias deployed snipers to quell the demonstrations. All told, the anti-protest efforts resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries, as well as serious questions being asked. After it was revealed the snipers were deployed by Iran-backed groups, concerns have once again come to light about Iran’s dealings in Iraq, as well as what such meddling could mean in the long run.  

Pouring Gasoline on the Fire  

Violence at protests is nothing new in Iraq—violent protests in Basra in 2018 were dispersed when security forces opened fire on them—but this year’s clashes have tipped the scales. The shooting was initiated by Iran-backed militias that were supporting Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s regime. The groups placed snipers across the city, and assaulted protesters with gunfire, grenades, and tear gas, resulting in a total of over 300 dead and many injured.  

The protests—a response to growing inequality and a lack of hope for prospects—have been more persistent than in the past, and even government guarantees and assurance of plans to combat poverty have fallen on deaf ears. Iraqis have contended with an economy that has less than 50% labor force participation, and unemployment rates that have remained near 10% for years.   

Even so, the introduction of Iran into the equation adds a complex layer that could severely worsen an existing powder keg situation. Iranian influence in the country is nothing new, as it remains Iraq’s third-largest trade partner, and the political party Fata Alliance—known Iran loyalists—controls 48 seats in parliament. Moreover, Prime Minister Mahdi’s regime is largely backed by powerful Iran-supported armed militias and political alliances.  

The government has claimed that the groups acted without government approval, but the fact remains that Iran-backed gunmen violently quelled a protest that left over 100 Iraqis dead. That these groups retaliated so swiftly to keep their vested interest in power shows the depths of Iran’s influence, but also the dangers inherent in the game Tehran seems to be playing. Iran has relished the power that comes from being Iraq’s only real source of vital utilities including water, electricity, and energy. More broadly, Iraq is a crucial pivot point for both Iran and the US as the former attempts to bolster its reach in the region amid tensions with the White House.  

Until recently, Iran has had little care for how it entrenches its roots in Iraq. Tehran has been open about deepening Iraq’s reliance, and has not hesitated to flex its muscle to protect key allies in the fledgling democracy. Some of its tactics have even been emulated by the Iraqi government, which cut access to the internet at the height of the protests (a move that, ironically, worsened the very economic conditions being protested). However, this tightening grip has not been without repercussions in the public sphere. Iraqi citizens have long decried Tehran’s influence in their country, which they blame for a large portion of their problems and governmental quagmire.  

Indeed, protesters have a case to make that Iran’s influence has led to stagnation. The current Tehran-backed administration has already shown a lack of action in its one year in power, failing to meet any campaign promises of combatting corruption. Additionally, many powerful Iraqi factions have spoken out against Iran’s influence in the country. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest religious authority, has spoken out against Tehran, as has Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential leader of the largest coalition in parliament.  

No Good Outcomes 

Perhaps most crucially, continued interference in the Iraqi political process by Iran threatens the country’s already precarious stability. More than a decade after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power, Iraq’s political and socio-economic situation has remained concerning at the best of times. The current wave of unrest and protests are a direct result of years of corruption and mismanagement and have more momentum behind them than any in recent memory.  

Iran is now playing a dangerous game in attempting to maintain its power base in the country. As Iraqis take to the streets and protest both Iraq and its reliance on Iran, having the latter sponsor extra-governmental killings of hundreds of protestors as well as tighten its grip on the political process is a sure recipe for disaster. By continuing to harm the natural evolution of democracy, Iran threatens to keep Iraq stagnant, and make its own position more untenable. 

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Soleimani in Iraq

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The current presence of Qassem Alì Soleimani, leader of the Al QudsForce of the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” in Iraq is strategically significant.

 Certainly, according to the Iranian press, Soleimani was the sole responsible for the destruction of the so-called “Caliphate” of Al Baghdadi, whohas recently been eliminated by the US Special Forces, upon probable Turkish pressure.

 It is not entirely false: the various Shiite forces from Iran and Iraq have made about 3,000 military operations against Al Baghdadi’s network.

  Soleimani also remains the strategic holder of the Lebanese stability – if we can say so – even with the robust presence of Hezbollah in Saad Hariri’s Lebanese government that resigned on October 29 last, in spite of the pressure from a great Christian friend of Iran and Syria, namely Michel Aoun. President of the Lebanon and, as Maronite, certainly not disliked in Iran and Syria.

 The idea that the government of Saad Hariri – a friend of the naive West and of the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, but in fact in the hands of Hezbollah and Amal, two Lebanese Shiite and Iranian movements – could survive the economic crisis that persists even after the 11 million US dollars lent by the Sunni monarchies and the USA, and after the Shiite riots in Beirut and in the South of the country, was completely unfounded.

 If the Lebanon collapses, Iran shall strengthen Iraq, and vice versa. It is obvious if we study the political structures of both countries and their role for Israel and the USA.

 In Syria, however, the Russian Federation – and not Iran – has won, but it is equally true that the Shiite Republic, also thanks to Qassem Soleimani, is currently able to fight well in Syria, thus maintaining such a level of hostility as to minimize the possibility of retaliation against Iranian forces both in Syria and at home.

 Iran has now stably penetrated the informal and official Syrian defence structures and its goal is both to support Hezbollah and the Shiite forces that will replace it, for an attack southwards, namely against Israel, and the definitive exclusion of US forces or US allies from the whole region of the Syria-Iraq axis.

Nevertheless the trump card that counts for the internationalization of the Syrian crisis is still in Russian hands only.

Furthermore, the territorial and operational limitation of the Russian forces in Syria, above all on the Golan Heights, is a further strategic aim of Iran in Syria and Jordan, as well as obviously in Iraq.

 Qassem Alì Soleimani, however – often associated to Rahbar, the Supreme Leader Alì Khamenei, in the iconography of the Iranian regime – is considered the military leader closest to the ideas and opinions of Rahbar himself.

He has always been a myth for the Iranian public because he has quickly risen to the top ranks, among Iran’s 13 Major Generals, starting from a humble job as mason in Kirman, Southern Iran, and he is currently the only senior officer of the Armed Forces who speaks directly with the Supreme Leader.

Jointly with some of the most powerful representatives of the Sunni regimes in the Emirates and in the Saudi Kingdom, Soleimani and the Rahbar are organizing a new policy of negotiations with Saudi Arabia and with the whole Sunni world of  Egypt and Jordan.

Currently the Al Quds Force led by Soleimani is organizing alone – with at least 12 commercial jet planes never entered into any register – import-export operations in its favour and in favour of the Iranian regime, while millions of Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, Azerbaijani and Bahraini refugees in Iran have quickly obtained – through the Al Quds Force – citizenship in the Republic founded by Ayatollah Khomeini.

 An Iranian passport is always ready -through Soleimani’s Force – also for many Lebanese, Pakistani (20% of the Pakistani inhabitants are Shiite) and Bahraini citizens.

These are the future strengths of Iran’s destabilization, which uses the Shiite minorities, but not only them.

 Soleimani also manages a network of special envoys of the Shiite Republic of Iran throughout the Middle East that report directly to him who then transfers data directly to the Supreme Leader’s Office.

Currently Soleimani’s parallel and military diplomacy is the real axis of the Iranian power projection in the Greater Middle East and reaches as far as India and the West.

As Ayatollah Yatani said about a month ago: “Nowadays, thanks to General Soleimani, we directly control four Arab capitals, namely Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a”.

 This is not entirely true, but certainly Soleimani’s network is effective and credible, at least to back the business that supports the Al Quds Brigade  and hence also its political operations of infiltration and control of the local political systems.

 Certainly Qassem Soleimani’s power is not as relevant as the Iranian propaganda suggests, but it is however true that, in Iraq, the role played by the General and his Al Quds Force is really important and decisive.

 Iraq has a border of 1,559 kilometres with Iran and the great country that was Saddam Hussein’s absolute dominion has always hosted a vast Shiite majority, the second in the world after Iran and India. It is also the majority in the country.

 In fact, it has just been reported that General Qassem Alì Soleimani has reached Iraq by helicopter and has settled in Baghdad, taking direct control of the Shiite armed forces and their autonomous security services.

 Certainly, the most important sign to define this Iranian decision was the attack on the Iranian Consulate in Karbala, the Shiite holy city. The attack launched on November 3 last caused the death of three people.

The demonstrators carried the Iraqi flags and cried out “Karbala is free, Iran out, out!” – one of the many signs of growing intolerance, not only by Sunnis, towards Iran’s strong interference in Iraqi politics and economy.

On November 11 last, Al-Sistani, the Great Shiite Iraqi Ayatollah, gave the Iraqi government a two-week deadline to find out which  “undisciplined elements” – as the Iraqi government of Adel Abdul Al Mahdi euphemistically called them- had used snipers to shoot some demonstrators.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi declared three days of mourning for the victims of the demonstrations in Karbala and elsewhere.

The toll was terrible. At least 110 Iraqi citizens were killed in the demonstrations; over 6,000 were injured in demonstrations in Baghdad, Karbala and the South of the country. The death toll includes at least six elements of government security forces.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo ,asked the Iraqi Prime Minister for maximum repression of demonstrations, which, however, are becoming increasingly “harsh”.

 Abdul Al Mahdi immediately announced his 13-point plan for reforms, with economic subsidies and free housing for poor people, while a special session of the Iraqi Parliament opened on October 8, with meetings between the government and the Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Mohammed Al Haboulsi, and between them and the tribal leaders.

 On the same day, the Head of the State Grain Buying Agency in Baghdad, Naeem Al Maksousi, was removed and immediately replaced by Mahdi Elwan.

 Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had arrived in Baghdad as early as October 7 to negotiate with the Iraqi government and curb the protests, which are potentially destructive both for the Russian equilibria in Syria and for the sensitive relationship that the Russian Federation has with Iran, between Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

 If Iraq becomes viable for all the destabilization operations that currently pass through the Greater Middle East, the Russian successes in Syria, the stability of Assad’s regime in Syria, the penetration of the Sunni jihad from Afghanistan into Iran, and finally the destabilization of Jordan, will become not only possible, but likely.

In this case it is not only a matter of “bread riots”, as those described by Manzoni in his book The Betrothed, but of a political equilibrium between Iraqi ethnic groups, tribes and international relations, which today is inevitably breaking.

 However, as mentioned above, on October 30 last a helicopter transported Qassem Alì Soleimani from Baghdad airport to the fortified Green Zone around the Iraqi capital.

In a meeting called by him in the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Soleimani also discussed the issue of the protests mounting in the capital city and, above all, in the Shiite Southern Iraq.

 Soleimani is now the de facto Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq, especially with reference to the actions taken to keep the protest under control.

 “We in Iran know how to control these situations. They also happened in Iran and we quickly put them under control”. According to many sources, he reportedly said so to the Iraqi political leaders.

Hence a real Iranian coup d’état took place in Iraq, because of or with the pretext of the often bloody riots that occurred particularly in the last fortnight.

 But there is also another weakness that has emerged for Iran in a  traditionally friendly country like Iraq.

 Soleimani and his Brigade were not able to organize Hezbollah and its  network in the Lebanon, especially to prevent Saad Hariri – a Lebanese President who is a friend of Iran, but connected to the Saudi banks that hold him in their hands – from resigning together with all his government, including the various, and often powerful, Ministers chosen by Hezbollah itself.

 Hariri’s resignation has also made a future technocratic solution for the Lebanese government more likely – a solution that would certainly diminish the grip of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, always trained by the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”a Lebanese movement that was the “right eye” of Imam Khomeini.

 If Iran loses also Iraq, its area of influence will be so much reduced as to allow a possible penetration of its own territory.

However, despite the presence of Soleimani, the Iraqi Prime Minister intends to leave power.

 Therefore, while a “friendly” government for Iran resigns in the Lebanon, another “friendly” government in Iraq is floundering in a structural crisis. This is the rationale underlying Soleimani’s presence in the Iraqi capital.

It should be noted that on the border between Iran and Iraq, on both sides of the line, the Kurds live and they are a real human shield against massive military penetration from Iran into Iraq.

Sunni and Shiite Arab-Iranian tribes are also straddling the border line, and all the parties involved on the border between the two countries – both with a Shiite majority – have vast reserves of oil at their disposal, which they control almost entirely on their own.

 Not to mention the various rivers of the region and, above all, the Shatt-el-Arab.

Let us see, however, who Qassem Alì Soleimani really controls in Iraq.

 Firstly, there is the Asaib al-Haq network, as well as the Popular   Mobilization Forces (PMF) and finally what remains of the old Al Badr Brigades.

Asaib al-Haq, the “League of the Righteous”, also known as the Khazali Network, heavily operated also during the last war in Syria.

 In the Iraqi war, after Saddam Hussein’s fall, it was responsible for at least 6,000 attacks against the US and coalition forces.

At the time, the “Widowers’ House”, where the Sunni jihadist “martyrs” – also those who hit Italy’s military in Nassiriya – passed at the end of their journey towards death, was placed in Syria.

 It was from there that a young Sunni “martyr”, of Moroccan origin, who initially worked in a halal butcher shop on the Catalan coast moved to the Mosque of Viale Jenner, in Milan, and finally to Syria, to hit Italy’s soldiers in Camp Mittica, Nassiriya.

 We were informed of it by the Spanish Guardia Civilthat – as always happens in these cases – had received some DNA found on the body of the “martyr” who killed our soldiers.

Asaib al-Haq, that is also an Iraqi political party, is under direct orders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, in any case, is institutionally part of the old network of the Popular Mobilization Forces.

 It is estimated that the militants and operatives of the Asaib network and of the Popular Mobilization Forces are currently worth about 15,000 elements, all well-trained, both in Iraq and Iran.

Asaib was born as a splinter group of the old Army of the Mahdi, led and founded by Muqtada al-Sadr (and exactly in the old “rationalist” Sadr City, ferocious clashes between the “rebels” and the Iraqi police forces have taken place very recently).

 The working style of the militia group among the population – that is to provide aid to poor people through a “religious welfare”, the same policy of Hezbollah in the Lebanon – is, however, a significant cost for Iran.

 Hezbollah in the Lebanon, however, is supported by a system of private funding from rich local Shiites; companies, also Sunni ones, that operate in the areas or with Iranian customers; income from investment and from the usual private donations.

Between 1983 and 1989 Iran has given directly to Hezbollah as many as 450 million US dollars.

Currently – and, however, this does not include operational military support and training for Hezbollah men and women in the Lebanon – there is talk of at least 650 million US dollars a year, from Iran directly to the Southern district of Beirut, where the operational centre of the Lebanese and Shiite “Party of God” is located.

 Hezbollah also gets money from the often powerful Shiite minorities outside the Middle East, such as those in West Africa, in the USA and also in the very important area of the “tripartite border” between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

As shown by international agencies’ data, there are also operations that demonstrate how and to what extent  the business network of the “Party of God” also deals – for significant amounts – with the illegal trafficking of tobacco and, often, with international drug trafficking.

Currently news about Iran’s financial commitment in Iraq tells us of at least 16 billion US dollars to train, support and organize Shiite militias in Iraq.

Moreover the expansion of the Shiite militias in these areas is recent and will follow Soleimani’s presence in Iraq, like Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

 The Popular Mobilisation Forces are currently a complex organization born in 2014 to fight against  the so-called Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.

 In September 2019, upon order of the Shiite Iraqi leader, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis,the network of the Shiite PMF separated from the rest of the Iraqi Armed Forces. This Iran’s political choice stems from a series of air bombings that the PMF bases have suffered in Iraq over the last three months.

 The Shiite network has accused Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied the charge.

 But there is no guarantee that this Shiite network is now also opposed to many of the sectarian forces operating on Iraqi soil, between Sunnis and Kurds.

However, the great Shiite military alliance, under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, was born in 2014 from a fatwa of the Great Ayatollah al Sistani that indicated to the young Iraqis the duty to “be part of the security forces” to save the country from the danger of the so-called Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.

 Despite various decrees enacted by the Iraqi government, both by Nouri al Maliki and the current President, the structure of the Popular Mobilisation Forces has not given their weapons to the Iraqi army and the PMF have never subjected their chain of command to the Iraqi hierarchy of the Armed Forces.

 Recently, the Shiite network in Iraq has increased from the 4,500 armed militants, who had been identified in 2011, to well over 81,000 ones, with a significant increase that has occurred only over the last six months.

 The network of the Popular Mobilisation Forces is also useful for Iran to create a second front – more difficult to control – of missile launch against Israel, operated solely from the Iraqi territory. 

 Also the Hashd al Shaabi movement in the Lebanon was born in 2014, like the new PMF. It is a movement connected – from the very beginning -to the Iraqi brigades of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, as well as to the Badr Brigade and the new Asaib al-Haq network, always linked to the presence of the Brigades of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and hence to Soleimani’s Al Quds Brigade.

Now this network, under Qassem Alì Soleimani’s direct control, currently counts at least 130,000 armed militants.

 In other words, Iran is replacing its proxies in Iraq and the Lebanon with a view to avoiding the enemy penetration and staking – with new organizational and military models – a very heavy claim to regimes, between the Lebanon and Iraq, which are obviously at the end of their pathway.

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