The recent unrest in Yemen is not a new phenomenon it has deep roots in its history. Initially, it was divided into North and South Yemen both these parts got unified in 1990. Yemen since its inception has faced small scale conflicts among the Sunni and Shia. Yemen is one of the poorest countries of Middle East having lowest GDP in the region. If we go deep into the history one easily identify the causes of division and fault lines of the brewing conflict since the independence of Yemen. It is one of the artificially created states by the colonial powers in order to indirectly rule them by giving legitimacy to tribesmen who have no experience of ruling a country. The incompetence of tribal lords promoted weak and self-serving ruling elite that deepens the roots of conflict in Yemen. In the same manner, a role of external powers cannot be overlooked as they try to take advantage of fragile government to achieve their ulterior motives rather than resolving their domestic issues.
Yemen has a history of sectarian issues since its independence due to the Sunni-Shia rift. But the situation got worst in 2011 especially after the Arab Spring when locals mainly Shia community starts to protest against the Sunni government. The instigation sparked in the country, as a result, of the oppressive rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and low economic indicators that further aggravated the domestic issues within Yemen. Yemen is mostly dependent on foreign assistance for its economy. Saudi Arabia is backing and providing financial assistance along with international donor agencies. Moreover, the sectarian divide within a country is another major cause of conflict. The power rivalry between the Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony has complicated the situation by creating division in Yemen. The Sunni government supports Saudi Arabia whereas Shia Mehdi’s are covertly backed by Iran.
Yemen is strategically significant as Bab-ul-Mandab is located here in Arabian Peninsula that is a vital route for transport of oil to the rest of the world. It has close ties with Saudi Arabia as they are helping them to cope with the poor economy. Similarly, GCC countries are also facilitating them to stand on their feet. In the same manner, Iran is providing aid but it is often criticized for promoting ethnic rivalry to challenge the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia in Middle Eastern region. Yemen predominantly remains under the influence of Saudi Arabia because of ideological affinity with Wahabi school of thought of ruling elite. Similarly, one cannot ignore the significance of Yemen for Saudi Government since Saudi Arabia will have more room to maneuver in Arabian Peninsula to counter the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is well aware of the Iranian role in the region. The regional rivalry between these two states is not something new it is deeply rooted in their historical legacy of their relations with each other.
Rationale of study
Yemen is ethnically divided between Sunni and Shia since the independence. Furthermore, this ethnic rivalry is exploited by two major players Saudi Arabia and Iran to increase their area of the influence in the region. According to the experts, the card of ethnicity is played in case of Yemen. The internal situation of Yemen was gotten worse after the Arab Spring in addition, to suppression of minorities including the Shia community under the Ali Abdullah Saleh government in the center. As he himself belongs from the Sunni community and has a soft corner for Saudi government and American influence in their country. At the same time, one cannot undermine the role of Iran in the region and their growing influence in the internal politics of the Middle Eastern region. The main aim of this paper is to analyze the repercussions of the unrest in Yemen on the whole region in terms of its security and stability is concerned. It can be assessed in three contexts that are domestic, regional and international context. In order to critically evaluate the present situation of Yemen, one cannot do it without taking all aspects into account including the domestic, regional and global level of analysis to understand its implications for the security of Middle East in coming few years.
One cannot neglect the role of external powers as far as Yemen is concerned because the role of US is an open secret as they have close ties with the Saudi Arabia as its regional ally. Many experts of Middle Eastern affairs are of the view that the US has apprehensions regarding the increasing influence of the Iran in the region particularly ousting the Sunni government in Yemen by supporting Zaydi’s Shia militias in Yemen. Since Iran also have aspirations to become a regional hegemon by challenging both Saudi Arabia and their allies in the region. On the other hand, GCC countries also are significant in determining the future of Yemen in changing regional dynamics in the context of Iran-US nuclear deal which is considered to be the victory of Iran on the diplomatic front in a global arena.
It is essential to look deep into the internal dynamics of the Yemen before going for regional and international factors responsible for the turmoil in the country. (Bookings, 2015) Every country has unique domestic issues that they had to deal it. Yemen can be called as least developed states within the Middle East. It is dependent on Saudi Arabia and foreign assistance for running the economy. Another aspect that can be considered as a root cause of domestic rivalry is a divide between Sunni and Shia that has affected the peace of the country. Moreover, the weak government of Yemen is unable to eradicate the differences between two groups to bring stability in the country. The conflict in Yemen was ignited with start of Arab Spring within the Middle East along the prevailing conditions within the Yemen most of the people living there are not satisfied the ruling elite of the country. The lack of leadership at domestic is another reason for masses that led to violence in the country. The ruling elite is not doing enough to address the issues of people rather than protecting their regime interests. The lack of unity is also a major factor for the disorder as they divided into Sunni and Shia which is exploited by the regional players for serving their interests.
Reasons for unrest
Sunni versus Shia
The major cause of conflict in case of Yemen is a Sunni and Shia divide that has created many problems. Firstly, it has created internal division within the country which is manipulated by different interest groups in the Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, when a nation is not united at the domestic level then one cannot have coherent policies at the national level. The lack of uniform policy at national level makes the country internally weak and fragile. Yemen due to its divisions within is suffering from the setbacks in framing national coalitions to deal with their issues at home.
Moreover, the past legacy of both Yemen North and South has a dominant role as both represent each sect which is Sunni and Shia. After the unification in 1990, this problem remains there as there was no substantial effort was done by the ruling elite of the country to resolve this contentious concern inside Yemen. The internal division further got complicated when central government detaches itself from the masses who were not satisfied with the government. The failure of a government to address the grievances of masses has played a major role in further cleavage in Yemen. The people at the national level are fighting for their basic rights including food and shelter unsuitable economic conditions and heavy dependence on the foreign aid for running the country. Furthermore, the growing differences between Sunni and Shia community considered being the core problem of Yemen. Many experts believe that it is a cause of rift among the ruling elite locals are usually use as a tool to serve their purpose most of them don’t give much thought to the so-called divide between Sunni and Shia. One cannot completely negate this analysis of experts because masses are usually exploited in the name of religion by ruling elite.
Role of Al-Qaida of Arabian Peninsula
Al-Qaida of Arabian Peninsula is another major threat that is posing a serious threat to the peace of Yemen. The role of Al-Qaeda is vital in terms security of the region is concerned because the growing influence is posing a threat to its internal security. Consequently, the unrest in Yemen is becoming a breeding ground for terrorists that can have dangerous consequences for its internal security. In addition, if they tend to get a stronghold in Yemen it can further disrupt the existing security situation in the Middle Eastern region. Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula is the offshoot of Afghani Al-Qaeda which is active and has a capability to even take over Yemen under weak government control in the country (Neubauer, 2015).
The role of AQAP cannot be underestimated provided current security situation in the Middle East. One of the key factors that they can exploit to serve their interest is of Sunni- Shia conflict within the Yemen. The proponents of Wahabi school of thought that is closer to Sunni ideology if the Sunni of Yemen started joining this organization it can adversely impact the security of the Middle East. Many experts consider AQAP as a potential threat to the not only for Yemen but also for the Arabian Peninsula in coming few years. They are against foreign intervention of the western countries especially the role of the US in the Middle East due to ideological differences and suspicious of the external powers involvement in the region. The current scenario in the Middle East is depicting an uncertainty in terms of peace and stability in the region due to the presence of Isis and their increasing violent activities.
Grievances of people
Another factor that is not addressed by the ruling elite of Yemen is grievances of local people since they are deprived of basic necessities and famine like situation due to ongoing tug of war between Houthis and Mehdi’s of Yemen. Most of the people living in the country are living under the poverty line which is alarming for international donor agencies of human relief. Yemen is not self-sufficient in terms of food to meet the needs of its population mostly relying on other neighboring countries for fulfilling needs of local population. Moreover, illiteracy is one of major reason behind the back forwardness of the Yemen. The masses, in general, are not enlightened about their potential abilities and rights being the citizen of the Yemen. It is one of poorest countries in the oil-rich region of Middle East and relatively weak internally. Despite the efforts of regional countries and international organizations, it is struggling with a shortage of food and chaos in the Yemen. The internal insecurity is widening mainly people are not happy with their government. The malfunctioning of government can be seen in its leadership that is incompetent to handle the internal situation on their own and often exploited in hands of external and regional powers.
On the other hand, due to the ongoing war between two groups in a country, most of the people are forced to leave their home to other countries. They are living in refugees camps and facing an uncertain future for them and their young generation. According to the Experts of Middle East, it is very difficult to bring stability in Yemen in coming few years. The intense fighting between government forces and rebels will not let any force to bring peace in the country by bringing both parties to the negotiation table to resolve it in an effective way.
At the regional level, one assesses the regional dynamics by giving the example of two major players in the Middle East that is Iran and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between them is based on their historical legacy. Iran has a strong sense of nationalism that has prevented them from assimilating into the Arab identity. Whereas Saudi Arabia on the other hand, called them as advocates of the Arab unity that they are promoted at the regional level. (Roy, Rizvi, & Zaidi, 2015) But Iran always opposes any such attempts that would affect the nationalism as they called them as Persians, not Arabs due to the unique identity. Iran being part of Persian Empire glorifies them as Persians rather than associating them with the Arab nation. The distinct identities of Iran and Saudi Arabia are one of the reasons that have widened their differences with each other. The distrust is another factor that is not letting them forget their bitter experiences with each other. Iran is suspicious of Saudi intentions because of their close relations with the US. Iran since its revolution has contentious relations with the US they have apprehensions regarding their influence in the Middle East. The US also developed conflictual relations with supreme leader on the issue of backing Israel against Muslim countries.
Saudi Arabia being a major state and ally of US in the region due to its oil production and export to the rest of the world makes its distinct position in a global arena. Saudi Arabia has close ties with the US since the inception. Saudi Arabia has greater regional influence due to their stature within the region and outside the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has an international standing due to its closer ties with the almost all major states of the world. Despite being major state of Middle East they have an ideological rift between their regional rival Iran. They are in conflict with each other due to Sunni-Shia rivalry. According to the experts, it not just their religious rivalry instead it is political tactics to expand their areas of influence inside the region and beyond it. The analogy of Arab and Persian was used to increase the economic and political hegemony by both the parties. The differences between the Saudi’s with the Iranian government is based upon the potential capability of the Iran and Saudi Arabia to rule the Gulf region. Many experts are of the view that the major cause of conflict is misunderstanding between them.
At the global level, one cannot ignore the role of the US and its ally’s role in the Middle East. Historically, one cannot deny the US involvement in the region after the Second World War especially having strategic relations with Israel. The interest of US has increased after the discovery of oil in this part of the world. The energy security in the contemporary world is core national interest of the US and other western countries. (Swift, 2012) The growing dependence of industries of the world on hydrocarbons has enhanced the vitality of the oil-rich region which is known as the Middle East. One of the major turning points was 1979 revolution of Iran before that Shah of Iran has friendly relations with the US. Since the revolution, the relations of US were never smooth with Iran due to differences with the supreme leader of Iran who labeled the US as Great Satan. Whereas in Iraq although they installed pro-Hashemite government but when they were replaced by the Saddam Hussein of Baathist party the relations become strained due to his aggressive posture towards other Gulf states. Before that, Saddam Hussein used to have good relations with the US as they help them to build a strong Iraq.
Currently, the alliance of US with Saudi-led coalitions against rebels in Yemen has complicated the situation. As the US initially avoided getting into confrontation directly but recently they have started using their major power status to suppress the rebels inside the Yemen. The alliance of US with Saudi Arabia is an open secret but the overt participation of US forces has raised a number of questions about the future of conflict within the Yemen. Despite the claims of US to stay out of the Yemen crisis particularly after the invasion of 2003 in Iraq by other means has increased the apprehensions about their potential role in Yemen unrest. According to the analysts, the recent activities of the US are not welcome by Yemen and Iran. The backing of US for Saudi coalition’s air strikes has earned a bad name for the US across the globe due to the casualties of the civilians in Yemen. The alliance of US with Saudi Arabia can have negative repercussions as far as the stability of Yemen is concerned because by supporting Saudi against rebels can affect their relations with Iran. Iran is often blamed for supporting the rebel groups to counter the Saudi influence in the Middle East.
The role of UN is very minimal as it has failed to bring peace in the country. (Roy, Rizvi, & Zaydi, 2015) Although UN did pass a resolution for devising a way to stop the fighting within in Yemen but still no results are so far achieved. United Nations lacks the ability to solve the domestic issues of Yemen as it has no authority to intervene in the internal matters of any country. Similarly, UN is an inactive institution in terms of resolving issues particularly in Middle East region mainly because of interests of major players in the international arena. UN as an institution is weak for implementing its decisions at international level.
Why is it posing a serious threat to Middle East?
The Distrust of Regional players within the Middle East against the external powers can amplify the instability by deepening the misunderstanding making it more volatile in coming few years. If the regional countries are suspicious of the Western powers role in domestic issues of the region then any minor incident can initiate a major conflict that will further deteriorate the situation of the worn prone region. The external power is crucial for making the Middle East peaceful which can be attained by building the trust of the major players of the Arabian Peninsula for achieving relative stability. Moreover, the trust deficit between Iran and Saudi Arabia is another major concern for growing instability in the Middle East. There is a need that both states try to resolve their ideological differences by removing the misunderstanding for the greater goal that is to ensure peace of the Middle Eastern region for them. According to experts the distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be removed by developing a middle way or consent of leadership on both sides to let go their conflictual past for secure future for them rather than fighting with each other over regional hegemony.
The Spread of Extremism mainly after the proclamation of Daesh and growing of Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East will increase the terrorism and extremism. The militant elements are using the uncertain situation of the region for serving their purpose by making it brewing ground for more lethal conflicts in near future. Furthermore, the effective leadership is required to foresee their minor issues for ensuring peace in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia can play a significant role by not letting extremist element to take refuge in their areas in the name of Sunni-Shia divide for promoting violent activities in any of Middle Eastern country. But it is difficult to attain as the ideological rivalries are deeply rooted in their mindset. In order to change the mindset deliberate efforts are needed for the considerable period of time to change the perception of Iran and Saudi leadership mindset for saving their region from the terrorists. On the hand, both countries should not fund any group for advocating sectarian divide which is becoming a hurdle in a way of the Middle East. The mutual efforts by the Saudi and Iranian government are required for bringing prosperity of the whole region instead of working for narrow national interest.
Increase rivalry between Iran-Saudi Arabia
The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is deeply rooted but the recent involvement by both states in Yemen will increase their animosity to the larger extent. As we know both Iran and Saudi Arabia have aspirations of becoming regional hegemon particularly after a conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal with the US. Saudi Arabia has expressed their apprehensions with the US. Saudi Arabia is the ally of US in the Middle East criticized Iranian role in the regional politics as the nuclear deal will disturb the balance of power in the region. The Saudi government is of the view that this deal will bring instability in the region as Iran will try to reassert its power by supporting regional proxies, for example, Hamas and Hezbollah. Moreover, Iran, on the other hand, has its hesitation regarding the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East particularly promoting anti-Iran sentiment. In a case of Yemen, one would say both states have their interests as they want to increase their sphere of influence in the region. Iran is blamed for covertly supporting Zaydi’s Shia living inside the Yemen against the Sunni government of Ali Abdullah Sale in revolt the government.( Masood, 2016,) Similarly, it is an open secret Saudi Arabia has close ties with the ruling party of Yemen.
Firstly, the weak leadership is one of the major issues in a context of Yemen. It is the inability of local leadership which is causing unrest in Yemen. The ruling elite is not trying to resolve their issues internally which is complicated the situation in the country. The role of regional players is increasing in case of Yemen due to the links of ruling elites with the Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to experts on the Middle East, the current situation in Yemen is becoming worse due to incompetence on the part of the leadership of Yemen who are relying on regional players to resolve their internal issues. Yemen is largely dependent on aid and assistance provided by GCC and Saudi Arabia.
Secondly, the role of external powers mainly of US is dominant after the failure of peace talks between Saleh regime and Houthis rebels (Future Directions International, 2014). Initially, US forces avoided directly involving them in Yemen. But end up indulging them in direct confrontation by supporting Saudi-backed forces by assisting them in airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US has also used drone strikes to target rebels for supporting Saleh regime in Yemen. The growing involvement of US in internal politics has transformed the internal rift within Yemen into an international conflict. The role of UN is not significant because it has failed to get desired results to maintain peace within the Yemen.
Another major threat that Yemen is facing is the threat of terrorism in form of Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula (NATO Foundation Defence College, 2016,). The significance of the AQAP has increased inside Yemen due to ongoing rift between Saleh regime and Houthi rebels. The power vacuum has been created which is exploited by the Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula. The sympathies of masses for Al-Qaeda of Arabian Peninsula can further complicate the situation in Yemen consequently increased militancy in the country. The people are frustrated if they start joining terror organization it would disrupt the stability of Yemen in long run and security of the whole region.
One can say the unity within Yemen is required for bringing stability in the country and saving Middle East region in larger extent from future conflicts. There is a need for internal cohesion among the internal players that can only be achieved by building consensus between them. The ruling elite should take steps to address the grievances of the people by sharing power with other major groups that are significant in politics of Yemen. The Shia community should be taken on board by giving then their due share in internal dynamics of the country. They should be consulted while making important policy decisions of the country to ensure the stability of Yemen. Moreover, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia was ignited in case of Yemen that will increase their hostility with each other. According to experts, Iran and Saudi Arabia have aspirations of becoming regional hegemon especially after the normalization of the relation between Iran and US with the nuclear deal. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is also expressing their reservations regarding deal of Iran with the US. Saudi Arabia being the ally of US in the Middle East criticized Iran’s role in the regional politics. It will disturb the balance of power in the region as the nuclear deal will bring instability in the region. According to Saudi government Iran will try to increase its power by actively backing regional proxies in form of the Hamas and Hezbollah.
Furthermore, Iran has apprehensions about the role of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East particularly promoting anti-Iran sentiment in Middle East region. In a context of Yemen, one can say that Iran and Saudi Arabia have their interests as both wants to increase their area of influence in the region. Iran is often blamed for clandestinely supporting Zaydi’s Shia of the Yemen against the Sunni government of Ali Abdullah Sale. Similarly, it is an open secret Saudi Arabia has close ties with the ruling party of Yemen by supporting them through aid and military assistance. The growing role of two major rival states is increasing instability of Middle East on one hand and on the hand becoming a cause of unrest in a case of Yemen.
Yemen should become self-sufficient in order to stop the intervention of external and regional players in its internal politics. It can only be possible if the leadership take the responsibility rather than serving their interests they should solve their internal issues by mutual consent. The fighting among various groups will increase the instability of their country. There is the need to on part of ruling elite is to share their power for bringing internal cohesion with the groups who deprived of becoming major getting their due share in the context of domestic politics of Yemen. For instance, Shia community Zaydi’s which constitute majority at the domestic level within Yemen.
To conclude, one can say that role of leadership of Yemen should be pragmatic in order to resolve the internal issues by taking all stakeholders on board. Currently, the reliance of ruling elite on regional and international actors is causing more chaos. The leadership of Yemen should try to resolve their issues by building the consensus of domestic actors for bringing peace and stability in their country. The future of Yemen is largely dependent upon the decisions of the ruling elite who is running the country. The masses of Yemen want stability of their country which is disrupted by the involvement of regional and international players into the domestic politics of Yemen.
The role of leadership should be pragmatic for addressing domestic issues.
The consensus building is required for ensuring the stability of Yemen.
Yemen needs to become self-sufficient for resolving their issues themselves.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
The Russian bear in Lebanon
It turned out that the Biden-Putin summit on May 16 has established a wider effect than anyone would expect.
It exceeded by far political analysis, especially in Lebanon. The summit almost coincided with the Russian economic delegation’s visit to Beirut on the 18th of the same month and the announcement of its study results to initiate investments projects in Lebanon.
The results revealed the Russian delegation’s future plans in rebuilding the oil refineries in Zahrani and Tripoli and rehabilitating the latter’s port. Regardless of the projects, the Russian companies intend to deal with, if they are approved and encouraged by good signs changes can be relied upon. It means that Lebanon has taken an important leap in its economic policies by gradually moving towards the East.
Naturally, Lebanon’s orientation towards the East “if it happens” will not be absolute and definitive, but rather principled and partial. This is an important matter by itself. It is marked as a qualitative leap that may minimize the private companies’ monopolization of energy imports, which will be directly reflected, firstly, in electricity production in Lebanon, and secondly in facilitating the provision of petroleum products in Lebanon. Such projects became a necessity, in particular, after the collapse of the Lebanese lira against the American dollar.
Logically, changing the reality of the production of electricity will reveal immediate results. It will be reflected in the change in the rehabilitation of the economic infrastructure fields in Lebanon. It will also positively reflect in other vital areas, such as determining the prices of food commodities, which became outrageously high.
Accordingly, one of the most important reasons for the obscene rise in food prices is related to the high costs of transportation in the last month alone. It is almost above the purchasing power of the Lebanese. For example, the prices of vegetables and fruits, a non-imported commodity, which is not supervised by government support, remained within reasonable prices; however, once the diesel prices started rising, it directly affected the prices of the seasonal vegetables and fruits.
In addition, there are unseen accomplishments that will go with the entry of Russian companies, which is creating new job opportunities in Lebanon. Lately, it was reported that unemployment in Lebanon will reach 41.4% this year. It is a huge rate, which the Lebanese media, in general, use to provoke people against the current resigned government. However, it neglects to shed the light on the importance of the Russian investment in creating new job opportunities, which will affect all social groups, whether they were transporters, building workers, porters, cleaners, or university graduates.
The companies coming to Lebanon are directly supported by the Russian state. However, they are private companies, a fact that has its advantages. They are familiarized with dealing with other Western international companies. Russian companies have previously coordinated with French and Italian companies in Lebanon, through contracts concluded for the extraction of gas in Lebanese fields and in other fields outside Lebanon. Russian- European coordination process is also recognized in rebuilding Beirut’s harbor. A German company will rebuild the docks, while the French will rebuild the containers or depots, and the Russian companies will rebuild the wheat silos.
It seems that the process is closely related to the future of Lebanon and the future of the Chinese project, the New Silk Road, [One Road, and One Belt]. However, it is not clear yet whether the Russian companies will be investing in Tripoli’s refinery and in regenerating and expanding its port or it will be invested by the Chinese companies. If this achievement is accomplished, then Tripoli will restore its navigating glorious history. Tripoli was one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. Additionally, there is a need for the Russian and the Chinese to expand on the warm shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Secondly, the project will boost Tripoli and its surroundings from the current low economic situation to a prosperous economic one, if the real intentions are there. The results in Tripoli will be read as soon as the projects set foot in the city. Of course, this will establish another Sino-Russian victory in the world of economy and trade, if not in politics as well.
The entry of the Russians and the Chinese into the Lebanese field of commerce has international implications. It will come within international and global agreements or understanding. Nevertheless, it is a sign that the Americans are actually losing their grip on Lebanon. This entry will stop the imposition of a limited number of European-oriented Lebanese monopolizing companies, which have dominated the major Lebanese trade of oil and its products. Dominance is protected with the “illusion” of meaningless international resolution. It is true that the Americans are still maneuvering in several places; however, this is evident to the arbitrariness of decisions making in the U.S. today. It is the confusion resulting from ramifications of the “Sword of Jerusalem” operation in Palestine; it seems that they do not have a clear plan towards policies in the region, other than supporting “Israel”.
If the above is put into action, and the Russian companies start working within a guarantee agreement with the Lebanese state. This means a set of important issues on the international and regional levels. And it also means that the Americans would certainly prefer the Russians to any Chinese or Iranian economic direct cooperation in Lebanon.
Firstly, it is clear that in their meeting Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin reached a kind of consent to activate stability in the region. Two years ago, the Americans had a different plan. According to an established source, the Americans actually intended to strike internal stability in Lebanon and ignite another civil war round, before finalizing stability in Syria. This assertion tunes with David Hale’s, an American envoy to Lebanon, a declaration about the American anger over the $10 billion spent in Lebanon to change the political reality and overthrow Hezbollah from the government. Consequently, the American project is behind us now. Russia and China need to invest in the stability of Lebanon, in order to secure their investments in the process of rebuilding Syria.
Secondly, the Lebanese state guarantee, which the Russians require, is directly related to the lack of confidence in the Lebanese banking policies, which have lost their powers as a guarantor for investments after the role they played since November 17, 2019 till today. It proved the inefficiency of the financial policies of the Lebanese banks, which was based on the principle of usury since the nineties of the last century. In addition, a state guarantee will enable the Russian companies to surpass the American sanctions.
The state guarantee increases the value and importance of the Lebanese state as an entity in the region, and this can be understood from Macron’s statements after the explosion of Beirut port last August when he said that Lebanon’s role in the region as we know it must change.
Thirdly, if we consider the history of international unions in the world, including the European Union, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and others, they started as economic alliances before they end as political alliances. Therefore, at this historical stage and in order to work on the economic recovery of Lebanon, which needs more investments instead of falling under the burden of more debts. Lebanon needs to head East towards economic unity with Syria. In cooperating with two superpowers, Lebanon and Syria can form an economic bloc on the Mediterranean shores, a bloc that can get Lebanon out of the vortex of Western absurdity and expand its alliances and horizons to be a real economic and cultural forum where the East and the West can meet.
From our partner Tehran Times
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