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A Mohammedan Game of Thrones: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Fight for Regional Hegemony

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Authors: James J. Rooney, Jr. & Dr. Matthew Crosston*

The people in the United States didn’t think well of those living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There was a basic mistrust and a lack of kind words on both sides. But what you didn’t hear was anyone excitedly talking about wanting to completely annihilate the other side despite both having the capacity to do just that. Fast forward to 2018: to Saudi Arabia and Iran and a new regional Middle East version of Mutually Assured Destruction, where it takes on a whole new meaning. Both of these nations maintain terrible images of each and neither would probably shed a tear if the Earth suddenly opened up and swallowed the other. Forgive the propensity to reach hyperbole, but in truth this rivalry goes back 1,385 years when, just after the death of the prophet Mohammed in AD 632, there arose among the faithful a disagreement concerning the issue of succession. Mohammed drafted a Last Will & Testament and set up an ancient version of a Trust Fund for the kids’ college/ lifeneeds, but never said a word about succession. In hindsight we now know what colossally poor planning this was as it led to a split between two key factions that would come to be known as the Sunni (who favored a vote for succession) and the Shi’a (who favored keeping it in Mohammed’s bloodline). “The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be the first caliph.” (Shuster, 2017, 1) What followed was a swinging pendulum of tension with hundreds of years of both war and peace interspersed between the two sides. Today, it looks like they’re heading back to war in some form. But the real question is, are they heading back to war because of a 1,000+ year old religious grudge match? Many experts think not. Some say that the bad blood that has been forming between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not about religion, but something else: competing and hostile legitimizing myths. “With the aim of uniting peoples behind their leaders in distinction to ‘the other’, as it is so often the case, religion is misused as a dividing tool in order to enforce a political agenda.” (Reimann, 2016, 3) Not surprisingly, there are religious overtones embedded within these regional hegemonic politics pushing both sides continuously to greater episodes of dangerous tension.

The House of Al Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia, is composed of the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Emirate of Diriyah, which was known as the First Saudi state (1744–1818), and his brothers. The ruling faction of the family, however, is primarily led by the descendants of Ibn Saud, the modern founder of Saudi Arabia. The government of Iran is a modern Shia theocracy that was forged in part by the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, in 1979. Today, “Iran is considered a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house. The country’s 1979 constitution put into place a mixed system of government, in which the executive, parliament, and judiciary are overseen by several bodies dominated by the clergy. At the head of both the state and oversight institutions is a ranking cleric known as the rahbar, or leader, whose duties and authority are those usually equated with a head of state.” (Editorial Staff, 2017. 1) Ironically, many have argued that Iran has one of the most democratically structured Constitutions in the world, if not for these extra-constitutional religious oversight bodies that sit over all of the constitutional structures. Even putting the religious affiliations and religio-political structures aside, these two countries are as different as Persian night and Saudi day.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran view themselves through the legitimizing myth of being the purer form of Islam and true holder of Mohammed’s legacy. As if that wasn’t conflictual enough, to make matters worse, the Wahhabist theocratic leadership in Riyadh sees the government and family of Saud as secular barbarians that strategically use their Sunni Wahhabist religious connections as a hedge to maintain power. The royal family of Saudi Arabia, for its part, views the theocracy of Iran as a bastardized form of Islam led by illegitimate Imams that hold a potentially progressive nation hostage to outdated religious edicts that have no relevance in the modern Islamic world. Even more dismissively, the Saudi royal family sneer at how this ‘Iranian backwardness’ has led directly to decades of crippling American sanctions against the people. Of course, the theocracy in Iran sees the cozy relationship between the Saudis and Americans as proof of the infidel fall of the keepers of the Prophet’s two great cities, Mecca and Medina. The Saudis are in bed with the Great Satan.

These underlying myths that debate ancient religious legitimacy may be fueling the hatred and Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination found on both sides. But disturbingly, there is one more legitimizing myth that might actually rule over all the others and it’s tied to the massive political power and influence greased by black crude. Saudi Arabia comes in as number 2 in terms of the world’s known oil reserves. Iran sits at number 4. That oil, and the wealth and political power it translates to, is not lost on either side. Oil is easily the top revenue-producing commodity in both countries. While ups and downs in the global market can have serious consequences for both countries, it means more damage for Iran than Saudi Arabia. The royal Saudi family has wisely/secretly over the past half century stashed away over half a trillion dollars to uniformly smooth out the revenue curves that are innate to the natural resource market in a volatile global economy. Since Tehran has been the subject of severe sanctions, due to its association with Islamic extremism and terrorism, it simply has not been able to create the same safety net/golden pillow of economic protection. Consequently, Iran has not been able to capitalize on its vast reserves of oil, selling much of it on the black market for rock bottom prices to less-than-ideal market consumers. This disparity in oil wealth, the freedom of action within the world market, and the subsequent ability to wield enhanced political power in the region is the real legitimizing myth that acts as a true political hammer separating the two and concretizing their strife with one another.

Iran’s political and military expansion into Syria, and its alliance with Russia, is another facet of its hegemonic intentions and desire to unseat Saudi Arabia as the real regional power broker. Iran appears willing to become a client or “dependent” ally of Russia, much as Saudi Arabia has a similar arrangement with the United States. Obviously, this is a dangerous recipe: regional power pretenses, advanced weapons from larger global powers, divergent religious positions, and political gamesmanship operating in the middle of another country’s civil war. Both Russia and the United States have cautiously moved their respective chess pieces as events develop in Syria, but unfortunately this caution does not exhibit the press for peace: rather, the American-Russian chess game in Syria only seems to exacerbate the animosity between the Saudis and Iranians. The alleged chemical weapon attacks on rebel positions inside Damascus by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian forces, caused a direct but limited military response by Washington. American cruise missile attacks on Syrian chemical weapons plants, though marginally effective, nevertheless was a message to Russia and Iran that the U.S. would defend its interests in the region. Those interests are decidedly in favor of a Saudi regional hegemonic leadership. Thus, what we have are cross-competing and hostile legitimizing myths being created in real time about what the future role of each of these players is going to be, America supporting the Saudi myth and Russia supporting the Iranian one.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are going to remain deeply entrenched in hostile efforts for political and military dominance in the region. Though ancient religious strife seems like a convenient excuse for continued bad feelings between the two powers – and is focused on to a heavy extent by world media – modern strategic reasons are more dangerous and multi-layered. What we can recognize is an old fashion game of power politics in which both sides have aligned themselves with powerful and protective allies. This game is being made manifest in a critical region of the world where resources are converted to global wealth and power. The parties should remember that oil is combustible. Politics built on oil even more so. But politics built on oil, doused in religious fervor, and shaken vigorously by outside players with their own agendas is the most combustible of all. For the time being, this Mohammedan Game of Thrones seems to have a plotline that will be as deadly and bloody as its more famous Hollywood moniker.

*Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu. He is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at:  https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

James J. Rooney, Jr. is the Boeing Senior Manager of the Guidance, Navigation and Control Subsystem of the International Space Station in Houston, Texas. Prior to joining Boeing in 1997, he spent twenty-eight years in the United States Air Force as a Command Pilot and Program Director for Air Force Space Systems. He is now a doctoral candidate Strategic Intelligence in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University.

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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