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Iran: The hard fate of JCPOA

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US president Donald Trump published a new strategy on Iran. There were two major declarations. The first one related to inacceptability for the USA of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions (JCPOA) signed in 2015 on Iranian nuclear program. The second one related to sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that was included in the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.

First of all, we should remember that President Trump did not take the USA out of the JCPOA and did not denounce it. Once again, he simply did not confirm that Iran performed the “nuclear treaty” (which he did before), gave orders to learn if it is possible to amend its terms and conditions, as well as made a declaration that the American party may terminate it at any time. Though in this process he did not give details of the methods, mechanisms, ways and the instruments of this hypothetical denunciation. This is not a simple two party American-Iranian document, this is an international pact, approved and confirmed by the UN Security Council.

As a counterbalance to their boss, a group of National Security advisors to Trump declared that Iran conforms to the conditions agreed. This is a fully substantiated and logical declaration, has the main International watchdog of the IRI nuclear program, IAEA has confirmed 8 times that “Iran is strictly in line with its obligations under the JCPOA”. That is why Trump did not and does not have a formal way to terminate the agreement.
Another issue here is to change the requirements for Iran in this agreement. But this is also less probable because Iran categorically objects to it. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared that Tehran will never negotiate on the nuclear deal with the world powers already agreed.

In his turn, the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi confirmed that the terms of conditions of JCPOA cannot be reviewed, and the best way is to follow them.

Russia, China and the European Union also noted that the JCPOA does not need any additions or amendments. Russian Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov gave a smart remark on that: “There is an American proverb that our colleagues open use in such situations, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.”

JCPOA has been working fine for two and a half years. Former Under Secretary of State and chief negotiator from Washington, together with the other G6 intermediaries and Iran Wendy Sherman warned: “The reluctance of the president to accept the truth about the agreement with Iran, that it works and that it is clearly in the US National Security interests, will have serious consequences.”

We will add that not only for the USA, which will face political, image and moral challenges. All the participants of the nuclear talks with IRI (except USA) support JCPOA and speak for keeping it, criticizing Trump’s position.

Besides that, the fact that Iran went out from under the sanctions, it also became and interesting Target for the international business. Almost all EU countries, as well as Japan, South Korea, China, Southeast Asia are interested in developing economic relations with Iran and are actively against a new anti-Iranian campaign and new anti-Iranian sanctions.
JCPOA is an important historical document that, probably for the first time since 1945 when the nuclear era started, put the nuclear Ambitions of a particular country under control and made it fit the framework of international laws and IAEA requirements. This is a good example of global diplomacy effectiveness that created a precedent of true trust of other parties in the name of nuclear weapons nonproliferation. JCPOA can become a model for diplomatic settlement of regional and world crises.

It should be noted, that Great Britain, Germany, France underline the aspect of nuclear non-proliferation in this treaty and say that it really meets its target. They spoke in support of JCPOA and called to the USA not to take steps that could undermine it and thus undermine the non-proliferation regime for nuclear weapons.

Mass media say, that London, Paris and Berlin called Washington to think it over. French president Emmanuel macron disclosed his intentions to make a visit to Iran, while German foreign office head Sigmar Gabriel declared that White House policy pushes Europe back from the USA and, moreover, causes it to get closer to China and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Iran in early November where he will have talks with the IRI President Hassan Rouhani. Among the problems discussed there will inevitably be the question of is the JCPOA future. Moscow will once again express its support to this International document.

Destruction of JCPOA by the United States will undermine trust to America and, most negative, to all talks on nuclear problems of the “threshold” countries aspiring to get nuclear weapons, first of all, North Korea, and to further lead two nuclear non-proliferation regime falling.

This or that way, this will cause the USA to become an outlaw country that will not have any moral rights to call anyone to negotiations on new nuclear agreements.

Trump must have understood the consequences of his resolution to leave JCPOA and did not declare it irrevocably. In conditions of a very hard internal policy situation in the USA, he shifted the responsibility for it to the Congress. The Congressmen have 60 days to think over and take a bill on sanctions due to the refusal of the IRI President regarding the conditions of the nuclear agreement and another 10 days for the voting process. That means that the fate of JCPOA will be solved December 24th. There are little partyzans of IRI in the USA, but there are many opponents to Trump. Thus, we don’t know how the Congress will behave in those December days. This is a hard game, just as in American football.

Another version is that the reason for the the anti Iranian campaign initiation is the fact that President Trump is trying to provoke Iran to unilaterally leave JCPOA. For Trump that would be a perfect variant.

In its turn, Iran is also playing its own game, because there are many opponents to this agreement. Now the country sees a hard game between relatively liberal surrounding of President Rouhani and his political and economic opponents.

One of them is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as well as politicians in the surrounding of Rouhani opponents at the recent election, Ebrahim Raisi and radical clerics. A special attention should be paid to IRGC, that is an organization that has not only military, but also economic power. By the way, in the period of hard sanctions, the structures of IRGC managed to find ways to pass over the limits gaining considerable funds from their activity. It’s natural that IRGC was not interested in lifting sanctions.

There is a political game on, and it is very active. Certainly, JCPOA, the IRI nuclear program which is the object of Iranian national pride, is in the center of this fight.

Antique Iranian activity of trump is playing for opponents of Hassan Rouhani who built his presidential career on conclusion of this nuclear agreement and lifting sanctions imposed on Iran. He managed to reach positive economic results, in his new year address to the nation on March this year he said: “The Iranian people, having taken the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions, reached the results we wished, the sanctions chains are broken… The sanctions in the sphere of banking, currency and financial operations, petrol and petrochemistry, insurance and transports – all these “nuclear sanctions” are lifted which created perfect conditions for economic activity of our people.” “I am certain, said president Rouhani, is that our joint effort inside the country and constructive interaction with the world will help our economy to grow and blossom.”

This is so. In 2013 the GDP fell 6% per annum, while in 2016 the Iranian economy grew about 4-6%. The fight on inflation was also successful causing it to fall from the unofficial 40% to around 10%.

JCPOA took Iran from the isolation. In two years Tehran was visited by dozens of state leaders and governments, while the amount of trade and economic delegations can be hardly counted at all. There was information on dozens of transactions for billions of dollars.
This August, when presenting a new cabinet to Majlis, President Rouhani declared that one of the external political priorities of the new government will be keeping the agreement on the nuclear program and its protection from the USA acts. “The most important task of the foreign minister is, first of all, to maintain JCPOA and not too loud USA and our opponents succeed,” Mr. Rouhani said. “Protecting JCPOA means to fight Iranian enemies,” the Iranian President said.

JCPOA destruction or yet even an attempt to do it by the White House will significantly strengthen president Rouhani’s opponents’ position which can eventually lead to serious consequences, up to forceful transition of the executive power from the incumbent president to his opponents. In this scenario, it’s possible that Iran will terminate JCPOA and IAEA will be removed from control over the nuclear activity of Iran which will once again make the IRI nuclear program active and reanimate its military component.
Such a scenario will cause a strong reaction of the USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia which is fraught with yet another possible military conflict in the Middle East.
Another danger is Trump’s resolution to include IRGC In the list of terrorist organization, putting it in line with Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

This caused immediate Tehran reaction. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran would retaliate very hard without giving any more further detail.
IRGC Chief commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari, in his turn, made a transparent hint that the Corps would include the US Army into the list of terrorist organizations and make it it’s target like ISIS all over the world, and first of all in the Middle East, to counteract Trump’s allegations in his address. General Jafari persistently recommended USA to leave the Middle East and stay at a distance of at least 2000 km from Iran (the operating range of Iranian medium-range ballistic missiles). There is information that Iranian missiles were retargeted to the objects related to the American Army located in the Middle East.

Thus, the “cold war” between USA and Iran up for almost 40 years is moving step by step into a critical phase thanks to efforts of President Trump’s Administration. Now it is not only Iran and a threat, but there’s a risk that it will spread onto the Middle East currently on fire, as well as the non-proliferation regime for nuclear weapons.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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When Mr. Xi comes to town

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photo: Xinhua/Liu Weibing

Pomp and circumstance are important.

So are multiple agreements to be signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week, his first venture beyond East and Central Asia in three years.

No doubt, Mr. Xi’s reception will be on par with the welcoming of Donald J. Trump when he headed to Saudi Arabia in 2017 on his first overseas trip as US president. At the same time, it will contrast starkly with the more downbeat response to Joe Biden’s hat-in-hand pilgrimage to the kingdom in July.

Mr. Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s timing is perfect.

The visit allows Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia in the lead, to further diversify their foreign relationships and hedge their bets as the world moves from a unipolar to a bipolar, if not multipolar, order.

In addition, Mr. Xi’s visit boosts the positioning of Mr. Bin Salman and his kingdom as undisputed leaders of the Muslim world.

Like when Mr. Trump was in town five years ago, Mr. Bin Salman has ensured that Mr. Xi’s visit will involve bilateral talks and multilateral gatherings with Gulf and Arab leaders.

Even though Mr. Xi and Gulf leaders project the Chinese president’s visit as a milestone rather than the latest of regular high-level gatherings, neither seeks to fundamentally alter the region’s security architecture with the United States as its guarantor.

On the contrary.

While eager to strengthen and expand relations with China, Gulf states see Mr. Xi’s visit as a vehicle to pressure the United States to spell out and formalize its security commitment to the region at a time when America has made China and the Indo-Pacific its main strategic concern and has not lived up to the region’s expectations.

Speaking three weeks before the Chinese leader’s visit, Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser of United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed, insisted that “our primary strategic security relationship remains unequivocally with the United States… Yet, it is vital that we find a way to ensure that we can rely on this relationship for decades to come through clear, codified, and unambivalent commitments.”

Mr. Xi has no problem with that. On the contrary, China is not interested and perhaps incapable of replacing the United States militarily in the Gulf. So while it may want the United States out of East Asia, the same need not be valid for the Middle East.

That allows Mr. Xi and his Saudi and Arab counterparts to focus on the nuts and bolts of their meetings.

High on Mr. Xi’s agenda is the export of its model of authoritarianism, involving one-person rule, a surveillance state, and the ringfencing of the Internet. It’s a model that appeals to men like Mr. Bin Salman and UAE and Egyptian presidents Mr. Bin Zayed and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

The appeal remains, even if Mr. Xi’s proposition has lost some of its shine as a result of his faltering zero-tolerance Covid-19 policy that has slowed economic growth, hindered the country’s private sector that is also hobbled by punitive state interventions, and sparked an anti-government protest that has forced the Chinese leader to abandon core elements of his effort to control the pandemic.

Moreover, Middle Eastern leaders will have noticed that China’s firewall failed to prevent Internet users from discovering that a majority of spectators at World Cup matches in Qatar were unmasked. Nor were Chinese censors able to prevent an avalanche of video clips of nationwide protests against strict Covid-19 rules from flooding the country’s tightly policed social media.

In addition, Gulf efforts to diversify their economies and reduce dependence on fossil fuel exports centre on a free-market economy and a private sector driven by innovation and creativity rather than the kind of state-controlled capitalism envisioned by Mr. Xi.

That has not prevented China from advancing its control and governance systems with investments and partnerships in Middle Eastern telecoms, corporate communication systems, cybersecurity, and smart cities in countries stretching from Morocco to the Gulf.

Chinese involvement runs the gamut from building 5G systems and data centres to providing cloud services and developing artificial intelligence systems.

Investments in technology and knowledge transfers enable Arab autocracies to enhance their surveillance capabilities and Internet control.

Furthermore, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have looked for inspiration in China’s restrictive cybersecurity legislation.

Days before Mr. Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, China’s foreign ministry released a report on ‘Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era’ that, according to Chinese media, misleadingly asserted that China “never seeks any geopolitical self-interest.”

China probably meant to say that it is not seeking to challenge the US position in the Gulf any time soon but intends to be the region’s major partner economically and in terms of technology, a focal point of US-Chinese rivalry.

Speaking last month at a regional security conference, senior Pentagon official Colin Kahl spelt out limits to Gulf-China technological Cooperation that the United States would seek to impose.

“If our closest allies and partners cooperate too deeply with China on the security side, it’ll create security risks for us. Getting into certain networks that create real cyber vulnerabilities and risks for us. Infrastructure that generates real intelligence risks for us, and networks that touch our military networks that create real risk for us, or a presence in certain countries that allow surveillance of our forces and what we’re doing in ways that presents a threat to us,” Mr. Kahl said.

Although Chinese 5G projects in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and elsewhere in the region have progressed despite US objections, Mr. Kahl left unaddressed whether they threatened to cross his threshold.

The Chinese foreign ministry report identified technology, agriculture, and investment as focal points of Chinese-Arab economic cooperation.

During his visit, Mr. Xi was likely to also angle for construction contracts for Mr. Bin Salman’s US$500 billion futuristic Red Sea city of Neom, as well as involvement in developing a Saudi defense and automotive industry.

For its part, Saudi Arabia will want to attract Chinese investment in its mining sector. Khalid Al Mudaifer, the kingdom’s deputy mining minister, said he is seeking US$170 billion by 2030.

In a bid to exploit strains in Saudi- and potentially UAE-US relations and uncertainty about America’s reliability as a security partner, the Chinese report asserted that “China has always believed that there is no such thing as a ‘power vacuum’ in the Middle East and that the people of the Middle East are the masters of the future and destiny of the region.”

Mr. Xi arrived in the kingdom as a US district court in Washington dismissed a lawsuit against Mr. Bin Salman and 20 others for the 2028 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The court based its decision on a finding by the US government that Mr. Bin Salman enjoyed sovereign immunity.

On another note, the Chinese report predicted that China and the Arab world would continue to support each other’s counterterrorism and deradicalisation policies.

In stressing counterterrorism and deradicalisation, the report suggested that Gulf silence, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, endorsement of Mr. Xi’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang, reflected a more complex balance of power in the Chinese-Gulf relationship.

In other words, Gulf acquiescence is more than simply wanting to ensure that the region stays on China’s right side or seeking to shield autocracy from criticism as the preferred political system in both parts of the world.

Because the crackdown targets Islam as a faith, not just Turkic Muslims as a minority, Gulf support offers China badly needed Muslim endorsement, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. In doing so, the support enhances Gulf leverage in relations with China.

At the same time, China’s framing of the crackdown as a fight against extremism, terrorism, and separatism legitmises the clampdown by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on any expression of political Islam.

For Mr. Gargash, the UAE diplomatic advisor, the Gulf’s ties to the United States and China fit neatly into a box. “Our trade relations increasingly look to the East, while our primary security and investment relations are in the West,” Mr. Gargash said.

The official did not mention increasingly close political ties to China, like in the case of Xinjiang or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that is where things potentially get messy.

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The Popular Uprisings and unfulfilled achievements

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From the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing in 1989 to the Arab Uprisings in 2011, to the demonstrations and anger in Iran that exceeded a month and a half after Iranian security killed Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman in Tehran in mid-October, which triggered protests that are the most dangerous, longest, most widespread, and threatening to the regime since the revolution in 1979. It claimed the lives of more than 400 demonstrators and protesters, according to an Iranian human rights organization – since 1,500 people were killed in 2019-2020.

The eruption of popular anger and the expansion of the area of angry protests led to the deterioration of living conditions and the dominance of the regime and its tools and reversed priorities, and led to a decline in the standard of living and a blockage of horizons for millions of young people. Improving the standard of living of citizens in the face of high rates of unemployment, inflation, high prices, and the collapse of the value of the riyal, which led to the loss of hope and the accumulation of popular frustration.

As we witnessed in the Arab Uprisings(a media term related to the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968 in response to the repression of the Soviet forces), I prefer to call them the uprisings of freedom, dignity, and a decent life. They did not, in their entirety and on their own, change the regimes from their roots, their old guard, and the deep state. Rather, it kept its pillars who returned to lead the scene and turn the clock back, as in Egypt and Tunisia, or to slide towards chaos and internal conflict, Libya and Yemen, or the militarization of the uprising and the summoning of foreign powers from inside and outside the region and the loss of sovereignty, as in Syria.

We witnessed the failure to bring about change in October 2019 in Lebanon, after tumultuous demonstrations that swept across its cities, under the slogan “All of them means all of them.” Despite the resignation of the Saad Hariri government, the economic and social conditions continued to collapse, the banking sector in Lebanon collapsed, the national currency (the Lebanese pound) lost 90% of its value, Lebanon approached the Venezuelan bankruptcy model, and the banks seized the deposits and accounts of Lebanese citizens (and age transfers), and some depositors deliberately stormed Banks by force of arms to recover their deposits and money withheld due to the arbitrary decisions of the Banque du Liban to withdraw money by dropper! So to live and to pay for treatment! This led to an increase in the number of Lebanese who are below the poverty line to 80 percent! Today, they have mercy on the days before the uprising or bypassing the “October Revolution” whose slogan is change for the worse, and they elected “change-making” deputies. The middle class has disappeared, and the phenomenon of mass brain drain has expanded with tickets without return!

Iraq also witnessed the October 2019 revolution. Protests swept the capital, Baghdad, and major cities and governorates of Iraq due to the deteriorating financial and economic conditions, high rates of unemployment and high prices, rampant corruption and Iran’s interference. The protesters demanded the dismissal of the Iraqi government and early elections, and later elections took place in October 2021, and only a president was elected and a new government formed. More than a year after the parliamentary elections, the parliament elected Kurdish President Abdul Latif Rashid, who commissioned Mohammed Shia al-Sudani last October to form a new government. This was after confrontations and the resignation of the largest al-Sadr bloc in the parliament, and the sit-in of his deputies in parliament and the divided system. What is remarkable, however, is the high death toll, which exceeded 750 dead and 17,000 wounded, and for the first time the protesters shouted, “Baghdad is free – free, and Iran is out, out!” Burning the Iranian flag and the Iranian consulate in Najaf, and pictures of Qassem Soleimani.

We are witnessing the expansion of the protests in China, in its second week, in rejection of the strict measures of closure and strict quarantine to prevent the spread of the Corona virus, which has returned to spread violently in several Chinese cities, including the capital, Beijing, and major cities, Shanghai and Guangzhou, due to anger at the policy of the ruling Communist Party regime. To confrontations and clashes with the security forces and even demands for political reforms, and in the precedent of calling for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down.

But the question is: Why did those uprisings and protests fail to impose a fait accompli and succeed in achieving the change for which they arose and the masses who were moved by the hope of change gathered around them to thwart and return the countries against which they revolted, and even in a position more capable of dealing with the protests.

Scientific studies have proven that the chances of popular protests against non-democratic regimes succeeding are slim due to the policy of repression and the employment of censorship, eavesdropping, and monitoring devices, and thwarting the protesters’ ability to intimidate, infiltrate, and disperse. Totalitarian autocratic regimes also succeed in maintaining the cohesion of the ruling class, preventing its weakening. As in the case of China, with its experience in containing protests, it has resorted to easing strict lockdown and stone restrictions!

The studies also indicated that since the first decade of the twenty-first century, the pace of protests increased, but this was accompanied by a decline in their success rates, as in the Arab Uprisings. At the end of the first decade, the success rates of the uprisings declined to one in three. As for the beginning of the second millennium in the twenty-first century, the success rate declined to one in six uprisings. Because of the loss of leaders and the ability to change, and the ability of the regimes to confront them with hacking measures, spreading fake news, and arresting their leaders. China, also has advanced technological capabilities for monitoring and eavesdropping, and even exporting this technology to countries around the world.

The regimes that came to power through revolutions live for a long time and gain experience in dealing with challenges and threats such as the Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1991, the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the Iranian revolution of 1979.

In the end, as in the bloody protests of the Arab Uprisings, in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and China, none of the revolutions and popular uprisings, due to counter-revolutions, security measures and the iron fist, failed to achieve their hoped-for goals of improving and changing the difficult reality. The results remain either the survival of the status quo, or further deterioration of the living conditions of the frustrated citizens, which generates uprisings.

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Why Israel should support the establishment of the Middle Corridor

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The governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan earlier in the year signed a declaration on improving the transportation potential throughout the region.   Following that, the Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Georgian and Turkish foreign and transport ministries decided that there should be accelerated transport routes throughout the region, which will include the development of the Middle Corridor, a rail freight and ferry system that will link China with Europe.  

It starts in Southeast Asia and China, and runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before reaching southern and central Europe.   This will permit trains to travel from China to Europe within 20-25 days, thus helping to reconnect the former Silk Road.  As a former Israeli minister, I believe that Israel should be supportive of the establishment of the Middle Corridor, as it will help to strengthen the Abraham Accords if it is expanded to include Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region.

The entire Middle East region used to be connected by train under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.   There are a number of remnants of this wonderful train system in Israel, including the Ottoman train stations in Beersheba, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.    These Ottoman train stations are historic landmarks from a bygone era when train travel across the Middle East was possible. Ottoman-era trains used to travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem, Haifa and other areas of the former Ottoman Turkish Empire, such as Medina and Damascus.

However, since Israel was declared to be independent, there has been no train travel between Israel and the Arab world.    This was one of many causalities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.     Yet in the wake of the Abraham Accords, this all has the potential to change, as the Arab countries no longer view Israel to be the pariah that they once viewed it to be.   If anything, the Persian Gulf countries now view Israel to be a partner in the struggle against Iran, as do the Turkic republics like Azerbaijan, who greatly disdain how the mullahs are treating the Azerbaijani population in the Islamic Republic.   

Thus, if this Middle Corridor is built, we Israelis can try to connect onto it as well, as it will help to counter the mullahs in Tehran by creating a stronger connection between the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab world.   We can connect to it via Turkey by ferry, and then from there, have another set of trains going from Israel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and from there, to the United Arab Emirates.   In our times, this is within the realm of the possible.   

This will thus help to greatly expand trade between China, the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab countries.   Already, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan know that it is necessary to have a train that crosses from Israel to the Gulf states.  They are talking about it and thinking about it.  They are starting with trucks with containers that I arranged, where they bring containers from Abu Dhabi to Israel crossing from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Haifa.  They could continue from there to Turkey via ship and from there to Europe and anywhere else. 

That means that we can have a train traveling from Europe to Turkey and from there, ships can go to Haifa, and from Haifa to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and from there, to the Gulf states, and they can go back in the opposite direction.    I am in Bulgaria now to check how I can make it more relevant.  After that, a Saudi Arabian agreement with Israel can start with a new train, like what existed in the Ottoman times with the Hijaz Railway.   The people of Hijaz want to make it happen again. This is in the plan of the Abraham Accords Agreement and it will happen in the future.    

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