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A Lone Wolf in Afrin

Timur Akhmetov

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The International Reaction to Turkey’s Military Campaign in Afrin

Despite numerous efforts by the Turkish government to explain its concerns over the threats PYD/PKK represent for Turkish national security, Ankara’s western partners and international players showed little support for the military operation in Afrin. On January 25, US President Donald Trump’s homeland security adviser Tom Bossert stated that Washington would prefer Turkey to abstain from direct intrusion in Syria and instead focus on “long-term strategic goals” like ending Syria’s war. The major U.S. concern, allegedly, was that deeper Turkish involvement against Kurdish-controlled elements would spoil the power balance and risk major escalation with the participation of U.S. troops.

On January 28, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, when asked about the Alliance’s official position on the “Olive Branch” operation, responded by saying that even though Turkey has a right to self defence, it is important to pursue national security objectives in a proportionate and measured way, implying that military actions may contribute to the destabilization of Western-led efforts in Syria.

On January 29, UN General Secretary Spokesman Stephane Dujarric suggested that the Turkish military operation had led to losses among local civilians in Afrin, directly challenging Turkish official statements, particularly the claims of the Turkish General Staff about the absence of civilian casualties, despite the reports that the operation is complicated by instances when PYD fighters are spotted in civil clothes.

In early February, officials from the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), while acknowledging Turkey’s right to protect its borders, criticized a large-scale crackdown by the Turkish state authorities on anti-war campaigners and dissenters who demanded a quick end to the Turkish army’s military involvement in a foreign country. Western officials underlined that security concerns should not lead to disproportionate restrictions on fundamental freedoms, abuse of the state’s imperfect anti-terrorism laws, and detainment of people on charges of terrorist propaganda due to social media posts.

In late February, French officials, in several separate initiatives, called on the Turkish government to respect UN Security Council resolution 2401 on the Syrian ceasefire, spare civilian lives in Afrin and ensure the supply of humanitarian aid to the region. On February 26, in a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Emmanuel Macron stressed that the ceasefire covered all Syrian territory, including Afrin, and must be put into effect everywhere and by everyone without delay, implying that the PYD shouldn’t be targeted by Turkish forces.

On a regional level as well, the Turkish military operation was received negatively. On January 21, an official statement by Egypt’s foreign ministry described the operation as a serious threat to Syria’s national sovereignty, while Turkish efforts were said to hamper plans to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis and combat terrorism.

Another regional actor, Iraq, whose principal position has been historically important in Turkey’s fight against the PKK insurgency in the Qandil Mountains along the northern border regions of Iraq, linked the operation in Afrin with its own efforts to solve the problem of Turkey’s military presence in Iraq. On February 20, Baghdad issued a statement where it once again called upon Turkey to evict its Turkish base and compromise with the country, whose claims have been backed multiple times by the Arab league. Less critical voices were also heard from the Gulf monarchies, except for Qatar, which Turkey has been supporting since the diplomatic crisis broke out last year.

The regional allies of the Syrian government, Iran and Russia, stated that Turkish security concerns can be understood, though the sides must exert self-restraint and avoid turning the Afrin canton into another source of instability. On February 19, Iranian minister of foreign affairs Javad Zarif stated that even though Tehran understands the threats Ankara is facing, Turkey should seek other ways to solve security issues, because intrusion into a neighboring country will not provide a tangible solution. The Russian official position emphasized the provocative actions of the US government in Syria, characterized by its building a military presence using Kurdish elements in the SDF, which ultimately provoked Turkey to undertake extreme measures against the PYD elements in Afrin.

Domestic Politics in Turkey and the Olive Branch Operation

From the very beginning of the Olive Branch operation, the Turkish government adopted a hardline approach toward its critics. By the end of January, the Turkish government had ordered the arrest of more than 300 people on allegations of spreading terrorist propaganda over social media. Anti-war campaigners and civil society groups faced outright defamation from high-level officials.

The heavy-handed approach of the Turkish officials was not limited to efforts to silence anti-war critics. On February 15, Turkish former Chief of the Staff Ilker Basbug made a statement that the military campaign should not be turned into “material for domestic politics,” suggesting that both the ruling party and opposition should avoid using security matters for political gains, especially to rally the support of the population before the season of critical national elections. The general’s comments were criticized by Turkish President Erdogan.

Meanwhile, major political parties expressed their support for the military campaign in Afrin. Considerable support has also registered among broader layers of Turkish society. According to the MAK polling and survey firm, the level of public support for the operations in late January was stood at 85%.

These conditions contributed to the consolidation of the information environment in Turkey. The trend was further reinforced by the Turkish government’s efforts to tame critical media over the period before the start of the operation). Lack of security and guarantees against arbitrary arrests of journalists, both Turkish and foreign, also contributed to the lack of discussion on the necessity of the military campaign and critical self-reflection on the part of government officials in regards to the anti-PKK fight in previous years.

International Coverage and Comments on the Olive Branch Operation

From the official statements of Western, regional and local players, we can assume that there are several issues that cause criticism of the Turkish military operation in Syrian Afrin. A major problem for the Turkish government is proving the legitimacy of its military invasion of a foreign country. The Turkish government justified the move by invoking the UN Charter provisions that give states certain rights to such acts in cases when national security is under threat and other means of diplomacy fail to solve the issue.

The problems with the justification of the military campaign partly stem from the fact that the Turkish government has not been cooperating with the Syrian government, a legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the UN, to resolve the PKK issue. A further problem was presented in statements declaring that the Syrian PYD is not a terrorist organization and does not present a threat to Turkish security. These claims are supported by the fact that the Turkish government has been in contact with the PYD on several occasions, most famously during the Shah Euphrates Operations in February 2015. Another point supporting the thesis against Ankara’s justification of the military campaign deals with the cooperation between the PYD-affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States of America, a major ally of the Turkish government in security matters and the fight against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq.

Further criticism of the military operations revolves around claims that the move is directed either against the Kurdish population of Afrin or the civilian population of the canton. This thesis is supported by claims that the Turkish government uses paramilitary groups, whose background may be traced to the moderate Islamist Syrian movement. The fact that Free Syrian Army groups are not affiliated with the Turkish government via a legal framework prompted many critics to say that the military campaign could lead to war crimes in Afrin.

Finally, a considerable number of comments critical of the Turkish military operation touch upon the Turkish government’s utilization of the move for domestic political interests. The narrative of a Turkish struggle against Western-supported terrorists in Syria suits the plans of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party to consolidate the electorate around nationalist slogans and the idea of a strong ruler at the helm of Turkey.

The Constraints of Turkish diplomacy

Official Turkish diplomatic efforts since the operations began have been directed at the clarification of Turkey’s concerns to the country’s allies and partners in Syria. The meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on February 16 should be seen in the context of these efforts. The meeting is considered a part of the initiatives to clarify Turkish objectives in Afrin, influence public opinion in the West, and resolve the PKK/PYD issue through diplomatic means. Contacts between Turkey, Russia and Iran have also been serving to mitigate concerns over the military operation in Afrin on the official level. On the local level, the Turkish government approached foreign representatives to explain Ankara’s official position with regards to the PKK in Syria and the security concerns the Turkish government has in light of the military build-up in northern Syria.

On the level of public diplomacy, governmental efforts to clarify the official position and bring the Turkish narrative to the broader international community seem to have failed. The primary reason behind this misfortune is domestic politics, where the Turkish government, through its own actions, contributes to the main theses of the critics of the Olive Branch operation in Afrin. Of particular importance in this context is the use of Ottoman and Islamic narratives in the Turkish media. In the absence of Western journalists in Turkey, and with wide-spread biases around the world, such messages reinforced negative coverage of the military operation. Moreover, the arrests of Kurdish activists and harassment of Kurdish politicians contributed to the narrative that the operation is directed not at the PKK elements in Afrin, but at the Kurdish population per se. In a number of statements, Turkish officials resorted to anti-Western whataboutism without providing objective clarification on the military and defensive necessity of the operation.

The Practical dimension of the Mishandled Diplomatic Efforts

It is important to emphasize that the informational environment and coverage of the military operation in the world is tightly linked to Turkey’s efforts to support counter-terrorism and its own political interests in Syria. Failed attempts to withstand the negative reactions from its regional and global partners may negatively impact Turkey’s ongoing fight with the PKK. First of all, a failure to present the Olive Branch as an operation against the PKK, and not the Kurdish population of northern Syria, contributed to the narrative of the PKK’s sympathizers and large support network in Europe, from which the terrorist organization manages to send financial aid to its headquarters in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, thus influencing its activity against Turkish state. Moreover, as the example of Germany shows, failure to provide a credible narrative for the anti-terrorist operation in Afrin may force the European government to listen to the vocal pro-Kurdish community and impose restrictions on the Turkish government, especially with regards to arms exports.

Negative coverage of Turkish actions in Afrin may hinder Ankara’s efforts to gain a stable foothold in the region as well. With a narrative that the Turkish operation is part of an occupation by Islamists or an Ottoman-inspired Turkish voluntarist government may harm Turkish plans to build legitimate self-governance in the Kurdish-majority area in Afrin. A failure to gain credibility and trust among Kurdish civilians may prompt Turkey to tighten its grip on the territory, a step that would definitely raise concerns among Turkish partners in the Astana process and players in the region that have been allergic to Turkish ambitions in recent years.

Olive Branch revealed an ongoing trend in Turkey’s isolation from its Western partners. The trend is further reinforced by the prevalence of anti-Turkish narratives in the Western media. The speculations and narrative, however, are supported by the actions and badly managed PR campaign of the Turkish government. The resulting effect negatively impacts not only Turkey’s relations with Europe and the US, but also the Turkish image in the region, especially among the Arab countries, where the media has been directed by political regimes opposing Turkish activism in the Middle East. A lack of critical debates in Turkey has been a contributing factor to the shift in Turkish foreign policy from diplomatic to military means for resolving national security issues.

First published in our partner RIAC

Timur Akhmetov is a Turkey-based Russian researcher and freelance journalist specializing in Turkish-Russian relations. He is a Turkey expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and has previously interned at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara.

Middle East

Is Iran Testing Trump With Little Attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci

The sound of an explosion echoed through the Green Zone on Sunday night around 9:00 p.m., a reminder that this most secure part of the Iraqi capital is not, in fact, all that safe. The projectile appears to have been aimed at the United States embassy and, after the blast, embassy sirens went off, accompanied by repeated warnings blaring on loudspeakers instructing everyone to take immediate cover.

Within the hour the missile was reported to have been fired from the Amana bridge in Baghdad, missing its likely intended target and landing in an empty field near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with no casualties reported.

But for a brief and highly fraught moment alarms were going off in Washington, as well, where the much-publicized threat of Iranian “proxy” attacks on U.S. interests and personnel, and the American response positioning bombers and aircraft carriers, have conjured the specter of a new Middle Eastern war. One breaking news service breathlessly reported National Security Adviser John Bolton “just seen arriving at the White House amid rocket attack possibly aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.”

President Trump, meanwhile, tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” It is not clear if he was responding to the rocket, a Katyusha that might have been fired by any number of players in Iraq, or to threatening rhetoric by some Iranian officials, or both.

In any case, non-essential American personnel at the embassy had already been ordered to depart days earlier, many moving to posts in nearby countries to continue their work, and the U.S. embassy was already expecting a possible attack.

Our team of researchers for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) landed in Baghdad on May 14, 2019, the day before the U.S. State Department issued the security alert to the “non-essentials” in Baghdad and Erbil, recommending they “depart Iraq by commercial transportation as soon as possible, avoid U.S. facilities within Iraq, monitor local media for updates, review personal security plans, remain aware of surroundings.”

An earlier security alert on May 12 advised all U.S. citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq and the requirement to remain vigilant. It recommended not traveling to Iraq, avoiding places known as U.S. citizen gathering points, keeping a low profile and, once again, being aware of your surroundings.

For those of use who have been visiting Iraq since 2006, this seems at once familiar and strange. Is the threat greater now than it was when the U.S. embassy was housed in Saddam’s former palace, and frequently underwent mortar fire? In those days none of the 5,000 embassy personnel were ordered home.

Despite President Trump saying he does not want war, does this action signal that something more than just mortar fire is about to come?

A former senior diplomat who served in Iraq following the 2003 invasion warned that if the U.S. or Israel had decided to launch air strikes on Iran, emptying the embassy might be a smart move.  Iran could strike back at a close and convenient target—the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—and its ballistic missiles would be much more dangerous and difficult to withstand than mortars or Katyushas.

According to a senior official in the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) the rocket Sunday night was launched by the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah. If it came on Iranian orders, the lone, ineffectual projectile may have been intended as a pin-prick provocation testing reactions without triggering full-fledged war. Other recent incidents—a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline; minor explosions on Saudi and other oil tankers—could fall into the same category.

Iraq, liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, has come under increasing Iranian influence ever since, and the Iran-backed militias played a key role fighting the so-called Islamic State after the national army virtually imploded in 2014. They have since become a major element in the Iraqi defense apparatus, even though some 5,000 U.S. military personnel are on the ground training and working with other elements of the Iraqi military.

The threat inside Iraq to U.S. personnel was revealed in part to Iraqi leaders during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surprise visit here on May 7.

The secretary is reported to have told Iraqi officials that U.S. intelligence detected that Iranian-backed militias moving missiles near bases housing American forces. Reuters reported that, according to a senior Iraqi official privy to the substance of the talks, Pompeo asked the Iraqi government to rein in the Shiite militias. Pompeo also expressed U.S. concern about these militias’ increased presence and influence in Iraq and warned that the U.S. would use force to tackle the security threats if necessary, without first consulting Baghdad.

Iraq’s pro-Iranian military factions have long been a concern for U.S. personnel deployed in the region. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a radical Shiite militia in Iraq has, for example, long been cooperating with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a group that was just declared by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

The newly appointed IRGC leader, Hossein Salami, replied that his people are proud to be called terrorists by President Trump while also threatening the U.S. and Israel.

The Iraqi militia, Nujaba, also was added by the U.S. State Department to the U.S. list of global terrorist organizations on March 7 this year and its leader Akram Kaabi was sanctioned.

Nujaba has been demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq for quite some time. On May 12, Nujaba’s leaders proclaimed, “Confrontation with the United States will only stop once it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity,” while also stating that Iraqi resistance factions are ready to target U.S. interests in Iraq.

The Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, which our source says was behind the Sunday night rocket attack, warned in February 2018 that it might engage in armed confrontation with US forces in Iraq at any moment. According to one Iraqi source, the Kataib Hezbollah is one of the militias that recently placed missiles near U.S. military bases.

The New York Times reported the the U.S. government was picking up an increase in conversations between the Revolutionary Guards and foreign militias discussing attacks on American troops and diplomats in Iraq.

The New York Times also reported that American officials cited intelligence from aerial photographs of fully assembled missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf as cause for the U.S. administration to escalate its warnings about a threat from Iran. This created concerns that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at United States naval ships or American commercial ships.

An Iraqi source confirmed on May 18 that ExxonMobil was evacuating its personnel of 30 to 50 employees from Basra, Iraq, and that the Bahrain embassy had also evacuated its employees from both Iraq and Iran. And U.S. embassies disseminated a warning from the Federal Aviation Agency that U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Persian Gulf risk being misidentified and by implication shot down amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

A potential conflict much larger than Iranian-backed Shia militias throwing mortar fire at the now fortress-like U.S. Embassy appears to be brewing amid credible intelligence coupled with heated anti-American rhetoric.

Yet, security threats to U.S. personnel serving in Iraq are nothing out of the ordinary and date back to the 2003 U.S. invasion. At the height of its activities, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had thousands of personnel, including contractors. They regularly suffered all sorts of threats from IED attacks when they ventured out on the road, RPG fire when they used helicopters, snipers when they were out in public view and intermittent but regular mortar fire that rained down on the temporary trailers that served as housing near the old Saddam palace where they worked. One mortar penetrated a window to the bathroom of the Deputy U.S. Ambassador’s office, situated inside the palace, destroying the brick wall around the window. It was later bricked up completely. The walkway from the trailers to the palace was mortared so often and so hard that it was nicknamed “death alley” by embassy personnel serving there.

While embassy personnel received danger and hardship pay, none were ordered home during those years, and danger was considered a part of the assignment. IED’s and mortars occasionally killed embassy personnel, but that did not stop the mission.

At present, the U.S. Embassy Baghdad is housed in a complex on a closed street that only badged officials can enter. The grounds are heavily walled walled and difficult to enter and inside, the buildings appear strongly built to withstand assault.

In Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which also fell under the non-essential personnel evacuation order, a restaurant nearby was attacked by a car bomb in 2015, killing three non-Americans. But, while less robustly built, the consulate also is behind a concrete walled-off security space.

U.S. Embassy diplomatic personnel posted in both Baghdad and Erbil infrequently leave their fortresses and when they do travel around Iraq, their security requirements require using armored cars, wearing bullet proof vests and flack helmets and traveling with armed security guards, sometimes with chase and lead cars in a convoy.

Likewise, U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil are not family postings—diplomatic personnel serve for one or two years, leaving their family members behind.

The new embassy building, not far from the old one, was planned during the time of frequent attacks and was undoubtedly built to withstand mortar storms. Long and short-range ballistic missiles however constitute a whole different threat and it’s not publicly known if the new embassy has bomb-hardened resistant bunkers to protect embassy personnel.

Whether U.S. embassy non-essential personnel will return to post anytime soon remains to be seen, and given the dangers such personnel have faced in the past and the fortress in which they currently serve, why they were really ordered home is also still an unanswered question. With ships coming to the region and troops readying for potential travel, serious troubles may well be on the horizon.

While the saber rattling on both sides continues, Baghdad has also made clear that it doesn’t want to become the battlefield.

Author’s note: first published in the Daily Beast

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Middle East

Iran vs. US: Bracing for war?

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On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and imposed tough unilateral sanctions on Tehran. Exactly a year later, this move looks dangerously fraught with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences for the Middle East.

Britain, France and Germany, as participants and co-sponsors of the JCPOA, strongly criticized Trump’s anti-Iranian policy and, with Russian and Chinese support, they established, registered and set in motion, albeit in a test mode, the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) – a special-purpose vehicle (SPV) to facilitate non-dollar trade with Iran.

Tehran took its time hoping for European support. However, on April 22, 2019, Trump ended waivers that Washington had earlier granted China, India, South Korea, Turkey, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Taiwan that allowed these countries to import Iranian oil. A complete ban on the purchase of Iranian crude came into force on May 2, 2019. The United States’ ultimate goal is to stop all Iranian crude exports. Whether this is actually possible is not clear. What is clear, however, is that the US is ramping up economic pressure on Tehran.

Meanwhile, Europe will hardly be able to resist Washington’s sanctions against Iran, which are almost as hard-hitting as the ones that were in effect between 2012 and 2016 when the Iranian economy was going through hard times. Still, the EU’s foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini recently went on record saying that “we will continue to support [JCPOA] as much as we can with all our instruments and all our political will.”

Just how much will the EU really has to resist US pressure is a big question though.

Iran found itself in a real fix with President Hassan Rouhani saying that the situation the country is in today is no different from what it experienced during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

“During the war, we had no problems with our banks, oil sales, imports and exports. There were only sanctions for the purchase of arms,” he noted.

Hassan Rouhani emphasized the US sanctions’ strong impact on the country, and called for a concerted effort by all to minimize their effect.

“The enemies’ sanctions against our banking sector also affect our oil, petrochemicals, steel and agricultural exports, impair the work of Iranian seaports, shipyards and sea carriers. Our shipping companies have been blacklisted by the US Treasury,” Rouhani added.

He said that Iran would not bow to US pressure and will be looking for a way out of this situation.

What can Iran do?

First, it could exit the nuclear deal. Not immediately, like the US did, but gradually, refusing to fulfill the specific terms of the accord. Iran is already doing this now.

On May 8, President Rouhani announced that Iran would no longer observe two key commitments under the JCPOA accord, namely to sell to Russia and the US uranium enriched to 3.76 percent at volumes exceeding the storage allowed in Iran (over 300 kilograms). By the time the JCPOA was signed in 2015, the Islamic Republic had accumulated 10,357 kilos of such low-grade uranium, and 410.4 kilos of uranium enriched to 20 percent. To date, Iran has destroyed its entire stock of 20-percent-enriched uranium and has shipped surplus low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and the United States. According to the JCPOA, Tehran was allowed to enrich limited quantities of uranium for scientific purposes and sell any enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram limit on international markets in return for natural uranium. Now Iran will start stocking up on low-enriched uranium again. 

Neither will Tehran consider itself committed to the caps agreed under the deal on the mandatory sale of excess heavy water used in the production of military-grade plutonium. Iran has a working facility to produce heavy water, which is not covered by the JCPOA. However, it can store no more than 130 tons of heavy water. Tehran has already exported 32 tons to the US and 38 tons to Russia. Now it will start storing heavy water again.

President Rouhani gave the other signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal 60 days to make good on their promises to protect Iran’s oil and banking sectors. The Iranian move is certainly not directed at Washington but, rather, at Brussels in order to make it more actively and effectively resist US sanctions or see Iran resume higher levels of uranium enrichment, potentially all the way to bomb-making capability.  

He added that if the EU fails to address Iran’s concerns, Tehran will suspend the implementation of two more commitments under the JCPOA.

If its demands are not met, Tehran will no longer be bound by its commitment to enrich uranium up to 3.76 percent. Ali-Akbar Salehi, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in January that the country had already taken the necessary steps to resume enrichment in larger volumes and with a higher level of enrichment.

Tehran will also reject help from the 5+1 group of initiators of the JCPOA (Russia, US, Britain, France, China and Germany) in the reconstruction of the heavy water reactor in the city of Arak.

The R-1 heavy water reactor was designed to produce up to 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium a year, which is enough to build two plutonium nuclear weapons. The terms of the JCPOA accord require redesigning the reactor in such a way as to make it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. To oversee the process, they set up a working group of representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the Atomic Energy Authority of China and the US Department of Energy. In 2017, a UK representative moved in to fill the void left by the departing US representative. According to an official Iranian report issued in April 2018, the country had already completed a “conceptual reconstruction of the reactor.”  Still, the reconstruction process is slow and can easily be reversed. At least for now.

If, however, the EU comes across, then, according to Hassan Rouhani, Iran will honor its commitments under the JCPOA deal. “If [the five JCPOA co-signatories] could protect our main interests in oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one [and will resume our commitments],” Rouhani said.

The question is whether the European Union can fully activate INSTEX and  ensure continued oil exports and imports. Many people doubt this.

According to analysts, by demanding that Europeans “bring down to zero” their purchases of Iranian oil, the United States threatened to slap sanctions on European companies paying for Iranian oil. Shortly afterwards, almost all European banks refused to finance Iranian crude imports. The EU thus inadvertently joined the US sanctions, even though it continued to stick to the terms of the JCPA accord.

At the same time, European companies were all too happy to go ahead with the implementation of the part of the agreement that had not yet been banned, selling unauthorized goods to Iran. Tehran then complained that the deal allowed Europeans to make money inside Iran while preventing Iranians from selling their oil in the EU – a violation of the fundamental provision of the nuclear accord.

Tehran’s threat to walk out of the 2015 nuclear deal is sending a clear signal to the dithering Europeans to resume Iranian oil imports or see Tehran restarting nuclear production.

However, preoccupied by more pressing problems, the Europeans have other things to worry about. Moreover, no one is looking for a showdown with the EU’s main ally, the United States. According to Russian Oriental affairs expert Nikolai Kozhanov, Europeans consider the issue of circumventing US sanctions as an important part of their search for a mechanism of counter-sanctions in similar situations with more important economic partners, such as China or Russia.

Therefore, Iran is likely to press ahead with suspending its obligations under the JCPOA, which include the activation and acceleration of R&D in the field of improving centrifuges and building more of them in the future. Tehran could also hold up the implementation of the Protocol Additional to the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Signed in 2003, the Protocol gives the UN nuclear watchdog greater access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and provides for surprise inspections. Iran has not yet ratified this document, even though it fulfilled its requirements until 2006 and has done so since 2016.

Of course, Iran will go about additional suspensions very carefully (if it will at all), mindful of their possible consequences, because it would hate to see Europe turning its back on it and siding with Washington, adding its own sanctions to the American ones, thus essentially making them international.

Ever since the US’ exit from the JCPOA, Iran has issued a flurry of serious warnings that it might end its participation in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the IAEA. On April 28, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on record saying that Tehran was mulling an exit from the NPT as a response to US sanctions. He added that Tehran “has many options” of response. “Exit from the NPT is one such option,” Zarif noted.

This was only a rhetorical threat, however, meant to prod the European Union towards closer cooperation with Iran as a means of countering US sanctions. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Iran would withdraw either from the NPT or the IAEA, because this could make it an absolute outcast and the butt of scathing criticism worldwide.  

Second, to demonstrate strength and willingness to resist and safeguard the country’s interests. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei never tires of emphasizing the need for a tough policy of “resistance,” based on:

  • an active and effective search for ways to circumvent crippling economic sanctions;
  • strengthening the armed forces with an emphasis on the development of a missile program;
  • active promotion of Iranian interests in the region.

The “resistance” policy is primarily built around the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which brings together the country’s military, intelligence, police, political, ideological, as well as financial and economic structures. The IRGC is actually an all-embracing mega holding, led directly by the Supreme Leader and members of his inner circle. The Revolutionary Guards, who have proved highly efficient in countering sanctions,  modernizing the armed forces and promoting Iranian activities in the region, are all Tehran actually needs to implement a strict “resistance” policy.

With the situation developing as it is, Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent decision to replace the IRGC commander, General Mohammed Ali Jafari, who led the Corps for more than 11 years, with Brigadier General Hossein Salami looks pretty natural. The IRGC’s former deputy commander, General Salami is ideologically closer to Khamenei and is known for his radical statements. Ayatollah Khamenei also replaced about 60 officers both in the IRGC central office and local administrations with relatively young, ambitious, ideologically tested and competent officers. They are tasked with turning the IRGC into an indispensable and all-embracing institution that dominates the entire gamut of Iranian life: from ensuring internal and external security all the way to economic activity and cyberwarfare.

According to Mehdi Khalaji, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ayatollah Khamenei is strengthening the IRGC, which he sees as the cornerstone of the country’s triad of advanced missile technology, a nuclear program and asymmetric military capabilities to ensure reliable defense against any potential aggression by anyone.

Tehran’s decision to strengthen the IRGC was certainly prompted by President Trump’s statement on April 8, which branded the Corps as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Until recently, President Rouhani sought to keep the IRGC in check and limit its impact on many aspects of the country’s life. In fact, Trump’s recent statement played right into the hands of diehard radicals within the IRGC and in Iran as a whole.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council responded to President Trump’s statement by putting on the list of terrorist organizations the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East and Central Asia. Simultaneously, the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces said that the Iranian military was ready to use any means at its disposal against US troops in the region who are now likewise designated by Tehran as terrorists. This is putting Americans in peril all across the Middle East region, primarily in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf – wherever Iranian and US military might cross their paths.

Washington’s latest anti-Iranian move seriously exacerbated the already very strained relations between the two countries.

Third. To ramp up anti-American propaganda and warlike rhetoric in order to demonstrate Iran’s strength to the United States and its readiness to defend its interests even with the use of military force.

Increasingly frustrated with the situation around the JCPOA and doubting the EU’s ability to resist the US pressure on Iran, Tehran has been rolling back its participation in the nuclear deal, which is dangerously fraught with a new nuclear crisis and heightened tensions with the United States.

Meanwhile, an escalation is already happening. The United States is sending a battery of Patriot air defense missiles and an amphibious warship, USS Arlington, to CENTCOM’s operational responsibility zone. The Arlington will join a naval strike carrier group led by the world’s largest warship, the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (5,680 crew, 90 combat aircraft and helicopters on board) and a tactical group of B-52 strategic bombers.

Moreover, an updated plan that has just been presented by the Acting US Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, envisions the dispatch of up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran steps up the development of nuclear weapons, or attacks the US military. However, the plan does not provide for a ground operation against Iran, which would require a lot more troops.

Iran has promised serious response to any use of force by the United States, with the IRGC commander, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, warning that “if America takes a step against us, then we will strike a blow to the head.” He believes, however, that the United States will not risk using its aircraft carriers against Iran, and added that since Iran’s defense capabilities are adequate and sufficient, US aircraft carriers are quite vulnerable.

Military experts know better of course, but when it comes to politics, chances of resolving the current crisis between Iran and the United States look pretty slim. In fact, the conflict may be beneficial to both President Trump and the IRGC.

Trump could use the standoff as a chance to show the opposition Democrats how tough he is with Iran, which is equally loathed by his supporters and many of his opponents alike.

Meanwhile, a US military buildup close to the Iranian borders would play right into the hands of local hardliners who have always been up in arms against any negotiations concerning the Iranian nuclear program and the nuclear deal itself.

With the situation favoring the opponents of President Rouhani, the IRGC is ruling out any possibility of negotiations with the US. The head of the IRGC’s political bureau, Yadolla Javani, said that “there will be no negotiations with the Americans,” in a remark that could also be aimed at politicians inside Iran who would like to maintain a dialogue with the US no matter what.

Still, according to unconfirmed reports, the Iranians are negotiating behind closed doors with American representatives in Oman, which is a traditional meeting place for both.

The IRGC needs tensions running high because this is turning it into the country’s foremost institution.

What is also clear is a dangerous psychological war now raging between Washington and Tehran. Just where things may go from now is hard to tell, but it still looks like the sides will not come to blows after all. The Iranian-American brinkmanship with concentrations of troops and military hardware in the region is fraught with unpredictable accidents that can force the parties to go overboard. Hopefully, things will not go beyond bellicose rhetoric.

“There will be no war, the Iranian people have chosen the path of resistance to America, and this resistance will force it to retreat,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, emphasizing, however, that this resistance is not military in nature. Neither side wants a military showdown.

Tehran and Washington realize full well that if the situation comes down to a military flare-up, then this, regardless of the real scale of the fighting, would spell disaster for the entire Middle East with equally dire consequences for the rest of the world.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

A survey of Arab youth highlights gaps between policies and aspirations

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Results of a recent annual survey of Arab youth concerns about their future suggest that Arab autocracies have yet to deliver expected public services and goods, explain autocratic efforts to promote nationalism, and indicate that jobs and social freedoms are more important than political rights.

The survey provides insights that should inform autocrats’ quest for social and economic reform. It also suggests, together with the intermittent eruption of anti-government protests in different parts of the Arab world, that Western and Middle Eastern interests would be better served by more nuanced US and European approaches towards the region’s regimes.

Western governments have so far uncritically supported social and economic reform efforts rather than more forcefully sought to ensure that they would bear fruit and have been lax in pressuring regimes to at least curb excesses of political repression.

Critics charge that the survey by Dubai-based public relations firm asda’a bcw focussed on the 18-24 age group was flawed because it gave a greater weighting to views in smaller Gulf states as opposed to the region’s more populous countries such as Egypt, used small samples of up to 300 people, and did not include Qatar, Syria and Sudan.

The results constitute a mixed bag for Arab autocrats and suggest that squaring the circle between the requirements of reform and youth expectations is easier said than done and could prove to be regimes’ Achilles’ heel.

A majority of youth, weened on decades of reliance on government for jobs and social services, say governments that are unilaterally rewriting social contracts and rolling back aspects of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, have so far failed to deliver.

Even more problematic, youth expect governments to be the provider at a time that reform requires streamlining of bureaucracies, reduced state control, and stimulation of the private sector.

A whopping 78 percent of those surveyed said it was the government’s responsibility to provide jobs. An equal number expected energy to be subsidized, 65 percent complained that governments were not doing enough to support young families while 60 percent expected government to supply housing.

By the same token, 78 percent expressed concern about the quality of education on offer, including 70 percent of those in the Gulf. Yet, 80 percent of those in the Gulf said local education systems prepared them for jobs of the future as opposed to a regional total of 49 percent that felt education was lagging. Nonetheless, only 38 percent of those surveyed in the Gulf said they would opt for a local higher education.

There appeared to be a similar gap between the foreign and regional policies of governments and youth aspirations.

Assertive policies, particularly by Gulf states, that have fuelled regional conflicts, including wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the Saudi Iranian rivalry and the two-year-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar run counter to a desire among a majority of those surveyed to see an end to the disputes. In favour of Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini rulers, 67% of young Arabs see Iran as an enemy.

The survey also suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contrary to common wisdom, is an issue that resonates. With 79 percent of those surveyed saying they are concerned about the dispute, the question arises whether the Gulf’s rapprochement with Israel and support for US president Donald J. Trump’s peace plan that is widely believed to disadvantage the Palestinians enjoys popular support.

The suggestion that Gulf policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be wholeheartedly supported is bolstered by the fact that the number of people surveyed this year that viewed the United States as an enemy rose to 59 percent compared to 32 percent five years ago.

Similarly, Arab leaders’ reliance on religion as a regime legitimizer and efforts to steer Islam in the direction of apolitical quietism are proving to be a double-edged sword and one probable reason why men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman have sought to reduce the role of the religious establishment by promoting hyper-nationalism.

Some two thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role, up from 50% four years ago. Seventy-nine percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed while half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back.

Publication of the survey coincided with the release by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of its 2019 report. The report designated Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s “worst violators” of religious freedoms, highlighting discrimination of Shia Muslims and Christians.

“Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior positions in the government and military,” the 234-page report said.

Leaders of the United Arab Emirates, accused by human rights groups of systematic violations, are likely to see a silver lining in the survey and a reconfirmation of their policy of economic and relative social liberalism coupled with absolute political control.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed named the UAE as their preferred country as opposed to less than 22 percent opting for Canada, the United States, Turkey or Britain.

In a white paper accompanying the survey, Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, concluded that the survey showed that “the demands and dreams of young Arabs are neither radical nor revolutionary” and that they were unlikely to “to fall for the false utopias or ‘charismatic’ leaders their parents fell for.”

In the words of Jihad Azour, the International Monetary Fund’s top Middle East person, “what is needed is a new social contract between MENA (Middle East and North Africa) governments and citizens that ensures accountability, transparency and a commitment to the principle that no one is left behind… The latest youth survey makes clear that we have a long way to go,” Mr. Azour said in his contribution to the white paper.

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