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Iran-Saudi conflict not a zero-sum game

Javad Heirannia

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Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the London Middle East Institute believes “This is a part of a new strategy to deepen the perception that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are actively fighting against terrorism and to signal to Europe (and the United States) that they are doing what they can to that end”.

Author of “Pycho-nationalism: Global thought and Iranian imaginations” It is as much a Public Relations stunt as a genuine effort to pursue an active foreign policy which has become symptomatic of recent Saudi and UAE efforts in the region and beyond”.

Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies and Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the London Middle East Institute, also adds that “it is not as if Al-Qaeda is not active in West Africa where it takes advantage of the lack of state sovereignty and enforcement of security.”

Here is the full text of the interview:

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pledged to financially back a five-nation coalition force in West Africa’s Sahel region. What are the reasons behind this support?

This is a part of a new strategy to deepen the perception that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are actively fighting against terrorism and to signal to Europe (and the United States) that they are doing what they can to that end. It is as much a Public Relations stunt as a genuine effort to pursue an active foreign policy which has become symptomatic of recent Saudi and UAE efforts in the region and beyond. And it is not as if Al-Qaeda is not active in West Africa where it takes advantage of the lack of state sovereignty and enforcement of security. So the effort is real and necessary, but the motives are slightly more sinister as always in contemporary politics.

Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

What is the strategic importance of the Sahel region for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi? And what are the two countries competing over in the region?

Too many to mention, but chief among them are strategic access and depth in three directions: In the north to the Arab countries littoral to the Mediterranean. Don’t forget that the UAE in particular has repeatedly used its airforce in Libya. And to the East, the Red Sea is an increasingly important geo-strategic theatre, not least because of the insecurity in Egypt and access to Yemen. This is the reason why China and Saudi Arabia are building military bases in Djibouti just on the other side of the coast of southern Yemen. From Djibouti, there is control of the Gulf of Aden which is a central nodal point in the global maritime trade. I don’t think that these particular efforts are Iran or Qatar specific. They stem from a larger shift in the foreign policy of the UAE and Saudi Arabia towards a rather more pro-active expansionary policy. Iran is a factor in this equation, but there are other driving forces, as indicated.

Right after that Saudi Arabia and the UAE joined G5 Sahel force summit in Paris and pledged their support, Qatar’s Emir visited the region to sign trade and economic deals. Can West Africa come to Qatar’s rescue and salvage the country under sanctions imposed by Saudi-led allies?

Neither the rift between Qatar and the other GCC countries, nor between Iran and Saudi Arabia is sustainable in the long term. This conflict between closely knit communities cannot be solved in a zero-sum mentality where the winner takes it all. Movements towards that end from all sides have created the humanitarian disasters in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, even Palestine. But it is true that at this stage the Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is intense and that it is playing itself out even in academic and the cultural realm of universities and think tanks. This is very regrettable, but an unfortunate fact. The only way to counter this trend is to re-accentuate the merits of cultural diplomacy even more. Iran needs to globalise its presence in that regard through its embassies as I have indicated in previous interviews. This is what Saudi Arabia is doing very well, and very effectively indeed.

First published in our partner Mehr News Agency

Ph.D Student of International relations in Islamic Azad niversity،Science and Research Branch (Iran) Visiting Fellow of the Persian Gulf Department in the Center for Middle East Studies

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Middle East

Battling it out at the UN: Potholes overshadow US-Iran confrontation

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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It’s easy to dismiss Iranian denunciations of the United States and its Middle Eastern allies as part of the Islamic republic’s long-standing rhetoric. The rhetoric makes it equally easy to understand American distrust.

But as President J. Trump and Hassan Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart, gear up for two days of diplomatic sabre rattling at the United Nations in advance of next month’s imposition of a second round of harsh US sanctions, both men risk fuelling a conflict that could escalate out of hand.

Both are scheduled to address the UN general assembly on Tuesday and Mr. Trump is slated to chair a meeting on Wednesday of the Security Council expected to focus on Iran.

Adding to the likely drama at the UN, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, snubbed Mr. Trump, by announcing the creation of a payment system that would allow oil companies and businesses to continue trading with Iran despite US sanctions.

The risk of escalation is enhanced by the fact that Messrs. Trump and Rouhani are sending mixed messages.

Mr. Trump’s administration insists that its confrontational approach is designed to alter Iranian behaviour and curb its policies, not topple its regime.

Yet, the administration stepped up its engagement with exile groups associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Saudi-backed organization that calls for the violent overthrow of the government in Tehran and enjoys support among current and former Western officials, as Messrs. Trump and Rouhani battle it out at the UN.

John Bolton, who has repeatedly advocated regime change before becoming Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, is scheduled to give a keynote address at the United Against Nuclear Iran’s (UANI) annual summit during the UN assembly. So is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another hardliner on Iran.

Mr. Pompeo and Mr, Bolton, who has spoken in the past at events related to the Mujahedeen, had so far since coming to office refrained from addressing gatherings associated with opposition groups.

The administration left that to Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, who last weekend told the Iran Uprising Summit organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a Washington-based group associated with the Mujahedeen and attended by the exile’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, that US. sanctions were causing economic pain and could lead to a “successful revolution” in Iran.

“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Mr. Giuliani, said speaking on the day of an attack on a military march in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz that killed 25 people and wounded at least 70 others.

Messrs. Bolton, Pompeo and Giuliani’s hardline stems from US suspicions rooted in anti-American and anti-Western attitudes that are grafted in the Islamic republic’s DNA and produced the 444-day occupation in 1979 of the US Embassy in Tehran. They are reinforced by the humiliation of a failed US military operation to rescue 66 Americans held hostages during the occupation.

Iranian rhetoric; bombastic threats against Israel; denial of the Holocaust, support for anti-American insurgents in Iraq, the brutal regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas in the Gaza Strip; propagation of religiously inspired republican government as an alternative to conservative monarchy in the Gulf; and degrees of duplicity regarding its nuclear program, reaffirm America’s suspicion.

Iran’s seemingly mirror image of the United States traces its roots further back to the 1953 US-supported overthrow of the nationalist government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his replacement by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi whom Washington staunchly supported till his fall in 1979.

Iranian concerns were reinforced by American backing of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf war, US support for Kurdish and Baloch insurgents, the broad spectrum of support of former and serving US officials for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, unequivocal Saudi signals of support for ethnic strife as a strategy to destabilize Iran, and Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program despite confirmation of its adherence to the accord.

Responses by the US and its Gulf allies as well as a series of statements by militant Iranian Arab groups, including the Ahvaz Resistance Movement, suspected of being responsible for this weekend’s attack, have only deepened Iranian distrust.

Those statements included one by the Arab Liberation Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz effusively praising Saudi Arabia on its national day that the kingdom celebrated a day after the attack.

Yadollah Javani, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the target of the attack, vowed revenge for what he termed years of conspiracies against the Iranian revolution by its enemies.

Mr. Javani was referring to past US attempts to destabilize Iran and a four-decade long global Saudi campaign that included backing of Iraq in the Gulf war during the 1980s and an estimated $100 billion investment in support of anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim groups.

All of this means that mounting hostility between the United States and Iran is muddied as much by fact as by perception – a combustible mix that is easily exploitable by parties on both sides of the divide seeking to raise the ante.

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Attack in Iran raises spectre of a potentially far larger conflagration

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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An attack on a military parade in the southern Iranian city of Ahwaz is likely to prompt Iranian retaliation against opposition groups at home and abroad. It also deepens Iranian fears that the United States. Saudi Arabia and others may seek to destabilize the country by instigating unrest among its ethnic minorities.

With competing claims of responsibility by the Islamic State and the Ahvaz National Resistance for the attack that killed 29 people and wounded 70 others in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which borders on Iraq and is home to Iran’s ethnic Arab community, it is hard to determine with certainty the affiliation of the four perpetrators, all of whom were killed in the incident.

Statements by Iranian officials, however, accusing the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, suggest that they see the Ahvaz group rather than the Islamic State as responsible for the incident, the worst since the Islamic State attacked the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in 2017.

Iran’s summoning, in the wake of the attack, of the ambassadors of Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark, countries from which Iranian opposition groups operate, comes at an awkward moment for Tehran.

It complicates Iranian efforts to ensure that European measures effectively neutralize potentially crippling US sanctions that are being imposed as a result of the US withdrawal in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

Ahvaz-related violence last year spilled on to the street of The Hague when unidentified gunmen killed Ahwazi activist Ahmad Mola Nissi. Mr. Nissi was shot dead days before he was scheduled to launch a Saudi-funded television station staffed with Saudi-trained personnel that would target Khuzestan, according to Ahvazi activists.

This week, a group of exile Iranian academics and political activists, led by The Hague-based social scientist Damon Golriz, announced the creation of a group that intends to campaign for a liberal democracy in Iran under the auspices of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted Shah of Iran who lives in the United States.

While Iran appears to be targeting exile groups in the wake of the Ahvaz attack, Iran itself has witnessed in recent years stepped up activity by various insurgent groups amid indications of Saudi support, leading to repeated clashes and interception of Kurdish, Baloch and other ethnic insurgents.

Last month, Azeri and Iranian Arab protests erupted in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned at the time in a primetime broadcast that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger at the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into “incendiary calls for regime change” by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

The People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), a controversial exiled opposition group that enjoys the support of serving and former Western officials, including some in the Trump administration, as well as prominent Saudis such as Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, who is believed to be close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has taken credit for a number of the protests in Khuzestan.

The incidents fit an emerging pattern, prompting suggestions that if a Gulf-backed group was responsible for this weekend’s attack, it may have been designed to provoke a more direct confrontation between Iran and the United States.

“If the terrorist attack in Ahvaz was part of a larger Saudi and UAE escalation in Iran, their goal is likely to goad Iran to retaliate and then use Tehran’s reaction to spark a larger war and force the US to enter since Riyadh and Abu Dhabi likely cannot take on Iran militarily alone… If so, the terrorist attack is as much about trapping Iran into war as it is to trap the US into a war of choice,” said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

Iran appears with its response to the Ahvaz attack to be saying that its fears of US and Saudi destabilization efforts are becoming reality. The Iranian view is not wholly unfounded.

Speaking in a private capacity on the same day as the attack in Ahvaz, US President Donald J. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, declared that US. sanctions were causing economic pain that could lead to a “successful revolution” in Iran.

“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Mr. Giuliani told an audience gathered in New York for an Iran Uprising Summit organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a Washington-based group associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.

Mr. Giuliani is together with John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, a long-standing supporter of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq that calls for the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime.

Mr. Bolton, last year before assuming office, drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan that envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition,” “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan and Baloch in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Balochistan province.

The Trump administration has officially shied away from formally endorsing the goal of toppling the regime in Tehran. Mr. Bolton, since becoming national security advisor, has insisted that US policy was to put “unprecedented pressure” on Iran to change its behaviour”, not its regime.

Messrs. Bolton and Giuliani’s inclination towards regime change is, however, shared by several US allies in the Middle East, and circumstantial evidence suggests that their views may be seeping into US policy moves without it being officially acknowledged.

Moreover, Saudi support for confrontation with Iran precedes Mr. Trump’s coming to office but has intensified since, in part as a result of King Salman’s ascendance to the Saudi throne in 2015 and the rise of his son, Prince Mohammed.

Already a decade ago, Saudi Arabia’s then King Abdullah urged the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.

Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that Khuzestan “is an Arab territory… Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925… It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.”

More recently, Prince Mohammed vowed that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent UAE scholar, who is believed to be close to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, played into Iranian assertions of Gulf involvement in this weekend’s attack by tweeting that it wasn’t a terrorist incident.

Mr. Abdulla suggested that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option” and that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase”.

A Saudi think tank, believed to be backed by Prince Mohammed last year called in a study for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran. Prince Mohammed vowed around the same time that “we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia has stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

The head of the US State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs, Steven Fagin, met in Washington in June with Mustafa Hijri, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), before assuming his new post as counsel general in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The KDPI has recently stepped up its attacks in Iranian Kurdistan, killing nine people weeks before Mr. Hijri’s meeting with Mr. Fagin. Other Kurdish groups have reported similar attacks. Several Iranian Kurdish groups are discussing ways to coordinate efforts to confront the Iranian regime.

Similarly, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last year appointed a seasoned covert operations officer as head of its Iran operations.

Said Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Khalid bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother: President “Trump makes clear that we will not approach Iran with the sort of appeasement policies that failed so miserably to halt Nazi Germany’s rise to power, or avert the costliest war ever waged.”

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Middle East

Turkey’s Great Game in Syria

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.

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With ISIS on the run in the desert of South Syria, Al Qaeda’s affiliated jihadists in Idlib brace for the final assault by the combined forces of the Syrian Army, the Russian air force and the Iranian proxies. The president of Turkey, who fancies that he could be the new Caliph himself, implores the United States to join in the quashing of Bashar Al-Assad “before he kills again.” While there are some common of interests between Washington and Ankara, the United States gains nothing by assisting Erdogan’s Syrian gambit, because the cure he would bring could be worse than the disease. On the other hand, the President’s call five months ago to pull out of Syria altogether would be risky.

Idlib, Home to some three million people, half of whom are the displaced people running away from Assad’s atrocities, has also been an uncertain sanctuary for former Salafist-jihadi fighters, who may number  30,000 according to the US military. The UN special envoy for Syria estimates there are around 10,000 al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Idlib, most of whom under the control of Hay’atTahrir al-Sham, (HTS), al-Qaeda’s latest rebranding, which hold nearly 60 percent of the city. The rest of Idlib is controlled by Turkey-backed militias. Turkey has a dog in this fight; the Western coalition does not.

Armies of four major players in the area vie for territory: Syria, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Ankara agreed to help create de-escalation zones and 12 observation posts to protect civilians during the Astana peace talks in January 2017.

The battle for Idlib has differing objectives for the four armies on the field.

For Syria, the Idlib offensive allows al-Assad to kill thousands of Sunni rebels with barrel bombs, Russian airstrikesand Iranian militias, all with an unforgettable exclamation point. Brutal, yes, but it’s a strategy that has worked in the area for 5,000 years.

For Russia, driving on Idlib will be the final blow against the rebels and the guarantee of Russia’s permanent military bases in Tartus and Latakia.

For Iran, conquering Idlib would remove the last major obstacle to the Shia land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran wants to extend its influence in the region and have uninterrupted access to Lebanon to boost Hezbollah’s power and its supply chain.

For Turkey and Erdogan, the Idlib strategy is complicated. It is estimated that an assault would drive more than 700,000 people toward the Turkish border. But Turkey, with more than 3 million refugees already and a spiraling financial crisis, won’t accept another humanitarian flood, according to Turkey’s foreign minister. Additionally, Turkey has been investing in northern Syria to extend its influence including in Idlib by providing humanitarian aid via NGO’s such as the IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation), opening schools, and sending teachers and imams to establish a favorable Turkish sphere of influence for long-term investment; therefore, Turkey fears to lose the ground it already controls.

Since January 2017 Erdogan anticipated that he could trust Russia and Iran and have a military presence in the region per the Astana agreement. According to Erdogan, Turkish military presence would thwart a Syrian offense against Idlib. He also wanted to extend Turkish control of northern Syria along the Turkish border, including the cities of al-Bab and Afrin, in an effort to block a Kurdish-controlled corridor along the same border. On both counts, Erdogan miscalculated.

Erdogan has been playing a dangerous game both at home and abroad. He closely but surely distanced Turkey from the West; particularly the U.S. Under his control, Turkey has become an authoritarian state, jailing thousands of people on false charges. Among the victims are hundreds of journalists, including several Western reporters and an American Christian pastor.

The fact is, Turkey no longer behaves as a U.S. ally. Under Erdogan, Turkey allowed more than 40,000 foreign fighters to pass through her borders to join Salafist Jihadi terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq from 2013 to 2016. Though Turkey may be an enemy of Assad, the Erdogan regime has been a silent partner with Russia and Iran.

Erdogan’s disdain for the United States also stems from a New York federal court case involving the Iranian embargo. Turkish Halkbank and gold trader Reza Zarrab, under the orders of Erdogan, helped Iran to circumvent the American embargo banning the sale of Iranian oil and transferring millions of dollars to Iran and its proxies. Turkey’s president likely thought the Trump Administration would kill the Zarrab case.

Realizing his ill-intended policies and demands were not being met by the Trump Administration, Erdogan decided to play the Russia card. Turkey, a NATO member nation, recently purchased Russian s-400 missile systems amid US protests and will install these weapons systems in 2019.

The U.S. should set its priorities in the region based on international and humanitarian values and to eradicate the conflict in the long run by promoting the protection of the civilians first. U.S. military assets in Syria should stay put for four reasons. First, to act as a deterrent to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and other atrocities. Second, to frustrate Turkish expansion and control of Syria’s northern border. Third, to control Iranian ambitions in the region. Fourth, to assist the local allies to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State 2.0.

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