The general elections in the Lebanon were held on May 6 last. They had originally been scheduled for 2013 but,due to the repeated failure of Parliament to elect a new President from April 23, 2014 to October 31, 2016 because no candidate had succeeded in obtaining the required two-thirds majority, the Parliamentary term had been extended at first until 2017 and then until 2018.
A new electoral law had been adopted in 2017, providing a proportional representation system for the first time in the history of the country.
The maximum proportional representation system in elections coincides with the maximum destabilization of a country.
Finally, Michel Aoun was elected President on October 31, 2016 at the 46th electoral session of the Lebanese Parliament, breaking a 29-month deadlock.
Aoun is a Maronite Christian, as provided for by the Lebanese Constitution, and he was Head of the Armed Forces as early as 1984. From 1988 to mid-October 1990 he served also as Prime Minister appointed by the then departing Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, whose controversial decision led to the paradoxical situation of having two rival Lebanese governments contending for power, one by Aoun and the other by Selim Hoss, apparently pro-Western and self-appointed Prime Minister.
The Lebanese Constitution lays down, inter alia, that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Head of government an Islamic Sunni and the President of Parliament a Shi’ite.
The Lebanese Constitution, however, does not define – as happens also in other Middle East countries – traditional political groups, but sectarian parties of religious origin and affiliation.
Until Aoun’s election, two coalitions competed in the country. The first one was the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, a politician close to Saudi Arabia floundering in a very severe financial and political crisis – a political alliance currently established, together with the Christians of Samir Geagea, by the group of Sami Gemayel, the Head of the Maronite Phalanx, and by Walid Jumblatt, the historical leader of the Druses.
From the very beginning the whole “March 14 Alliance” was closely linked to Saudi interests.
It is worth recalling, however, that the Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, with a 150% share of the GDP, a total net indebtedness of 79 billion US dollars and an increase in the debt / GDP ratio which, according to the International Monetary Fund, could reach a 180% share in three years.
In a forthcoming Conference to be held in Paris, the Lebanese government will ask for foreign investment targeted to infrastructure equal to at least 16 billion US dollars, while banks do not provide liquidity to anyone.
As evidenced by the growth of grassroots parties, infrastructure and local public services, as well as urban management issues, are the true weak point of the Lebanese State.
70% of the Lebanese public spending goes to wages and salaries and to debt servicing, in particular, while as much as 10% goes on subsidies to the electricity and energy bills of the poorest population.
Hence there is no room for any government to reduce the Lebanese public spending significantly.
Therefore there is always a very close link between the dysfunctionality of political systems and State’s indebtedness and, finally, between the rigidity of electoral representation and the impossibility of controlling the connection between debt and GDP.
This should be studied to further clarify the “Italian case”.
The March 8 Alliance, however, was established by Hezbollah – the Shiite Party founded in 1982 by Imam Khomeini “as if it were the apple of his eye”, as well as by Nabih Berri’ Shi’ite movement of Amal (Hope) and, finally, by Michel Aoun’s Maronite Christian Party.
According to what is currently maintained in the Lebanon, the agreement between the two major factions envisages the “green light” of the March 8 Alliance for the future premiership of Saad Hariri, one of the leaders of the other coalition.
However, who is Michel Aoun? First and foremost, the military commander of the 8th Brigade of the Lebanese Armed Forces who succeeded in stopping the offensive of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt who, at that time, was leading the pro-Syrian militia.
As already stated, in the years following his appointment as Head of government, Aoun clashed especially with both the Shi’ite and Druse groups and the Maronite militia of Samir Geagea’s “Phalanx”.
As was also the case in Northern Ireland and Spain, with the Basque movement, the political revolution easily gives way to illegal activities.
In 1989, after the signing of the inter-Lebanese peace agreement -a sectarian pact, named Taif Accord because it was made in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which put an end to the Lebanese civil war-the new President Hrawi dismissed Michel Aoun and ordered him to leave the presidential Palace. He refused to dismiss and barricaded himself in the Palace to prepare for his defense, thus refusing to give up the power.
Not very long after the attacks on the presidential Palace Aoun was asked to leave the Lebanon and later went into exile in France. For the former Head of the Lebanese Armed Forces the exile was inevitable after the victory of the Syrian forces that entered the Lebanon to stabilize the “province” of Beirut.
It was a period in which Aoun established very close relations with the French intelligence services and, above all, with the Israeli ones.
During those years the Lebanon became a full Syrian protectorate.
Nevertheless Aoun came back to the political scene and to the Lebanon in 2004, when the UN voted Resolution No. 1559, which obliged all the Syrian Armed Forces to leave Syria.
Aoun ended 15 years of exile when he returned to the Lebanon on May 7, 2015 – eleven days after the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the Lebanon following the assassination of Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The huge demonstrations following the assassination of Hariri, guarantor of the Lebanese reconstruction -although with the Saudi money – after the massive destruction caused by the civil war, forced the Syrians to leave the country.
It was from that moment that Aoun, who had long secretly and later overtly returned to the Lebanon, quickly began to approach and come closer to his long-standing enemies, the Shi’ites of Hezbollah and Amal.
Amal, the old movement of Nabih Berri, had fought against Hezbollah for control over South Beirut in the “Lebanese civil war” and, however, had been founded by Musa al-Sadr, the Imam who established the belonging of the Alawites – hence the elite currently ruling Syria – to the Shi’ite Islam and was most likely killed, upon Gaddafi’s order, in Rome in 1978.
As can be easily seen, the Lebanese politics has always been a game of shadows and paradoxes.
In 2008, however, Aounhad failed in his first presidential project, while reestablishing relations with his old Maronite enemy, Samir Geagea, who in 2016, withdrew from the presidential election and made his votes converge on Aoun.
Nevertheless Aoun could anticipate the real presidential victory only when Saad Hariri, weakened by the financial crisis of his company operating in Saudi Arabia and pressed by the French Embassy for other very urgent financial problems, gave him his support – certainly in return for a future Premiership, thus abandoning the Christian candidate of his coalition, Suleiman Frangiehjr.
Aoun, however, is old since he is aged 82. He is supposed to pave the way for his son-in-law and current Foreign Minister, Gebrain Bassil.
Moreover, the two coalitions – both heirs of the civil war – are ever less voted by young people and by all those who want to lay the ghost of the Lebanese political and military factionalism. There are many of them.
Not surprisingly, in the latest elections the two coalitions even joined forces to defeat the new civic and environmental movement known as Beirut Madinati (“Beirut My City”) which, however, unexpectedly won one of Beirut’s three electoral districts.
Beirut Madinatiis a movement which emerged after the 2015-16Lebanese protests as a reaction to power and water shortages, streets filled with trash and dizzying urban infrastructure. Nothing destroys political representation as disaster in basic public services.
Nothing supported Hezbollah more than its supply of sectarian welfare, which replaces a State that no longer has the money nor the rules – stupidly “liberalized” – to help the poor in hospitals, schools and at work.
The rules of privatization will destroy political representation also in the West.
As can be easily imagined, however, the core of the Lebanese political system is currently the intelligence service network.
Also as a military leader, Aoun is still at the centre of the Lebanese intelligence system.
He is the guarantor and the mitigator of both the demands of the Shi’ite alliances, including Hezbollah -Aoun’s ally since 2005 and traditional point of reference for Syria and, above all, for Iran – and of the multifarious, but powerful world of Sunni militias.
The Sunnis are a politically growing area no longer tolerating the defeats of the “jihadist brothers” in Syria and Iraq, nor the perceived dominance of Hezbollah and Amal.
The Lebanon, however, has four intelligence agencies: the “Intelligence Section of the Interior Security Forces” (IS-ISF); the “General Directorate of General Security” (GDGS); the “Military Intelligence Directorate” (MID) and the “State Security Directorate” (SSD).
The IS-ISF deals with counterterrorism, anti-drugs and criminal investigations; the GDGS works on visas and passports, censorship, port and airport checks, as well as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.
Conversely, the MID operates in the field of military espionage, the protection of Armed Forces’ sites and facilities, as well as the prevention of political upheavals.
Finally, the SSD protects public offices and important personalities.
General Antoine Suleyman Mansour has recently replaced his peer Camille Daher as Head of the MID.
Mansour was born in the Beqaa Valley and followed counterterrorism courses in the USA, in France, but above all in Syria.
The Beqaa Valley is the axis of Hezbollah’s economic and strategic power.
It is in that region, which is essential also for Israel’s defense, that the “Party of God” organizes its drug trafficking and where its main very secret arms caches are located.
The “Shi’ite pathway” stretching from Iraq to Teheran up to South Beirut – as currently imagined – is vital for the very survival of Hezbollah, but also for the Iranian power system.
It is the most evident threat to the Israeli system, especially if we relate it to the Iranian operations in the Gaza Strip and in the Territories.
Moreover, General Daher also dealt – directly with Saudi Arabia – a supply of brand new French weapons paid by Saudi Arabia and worth three billion US dollars. Nonetheless the negotiations failed and the weapons were later bought by Saudi Arabia for its armed forces.
It is easy to understand what this meant for the Lebanese internal political equilibrium.
It is said that General Daher bears the brunt of his affinity with General Kahwahj, former Chief of Staff in Beirut and, above all, Aoun’ sworn enemy and internal rival.
General Karaa, the first Head of the SSD and Abdou Fattou, responsible for the confidential funds of the Service, were replaced by Tony Saliba and Wafiq Jizzini, respectively. In 2008 General Karaa had investigated into Hezbollah’s advanced and confidential communication network, which is very powerful and secret, while Abbas Ibrahim, who leads the GSDS, is explicitly supported by the “Party of God” and hence has remained at his place.
Ibrahim has also held the recent and complex negotiations between the Daesh-Isis, Al Nusra and Hezbollah for the transfer – hence the recent increase in the Lebanese sectarian violence – of Sunni terrorists to Syria, under the direct protection of Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence Service.
Hence what is the current electoral system in the Lebanon? In June 2017 the various religious and political forces reached an agreement on electoral procedures.
The agreement led to a proportional representation system, wanted above all by the Maronite world, and, in particular, by Aoun’s movement, namely the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as by its Shi’ite allies.
Considering the 6.2 million inhabitants of the Lebanon, Muslims account for 54%, of whom 27% are Sunni and 27% Shi’ite, with the latter growing significantly. Christians account for 40.5%, of whom 21% are Maronite, 8% areGreek Orthodox, 5% are Greek Catholics, 6.5% are other types of Christians, while the Druses are 5.6%.
As could be easily predicted, currently Hezbollah is the real winner of the latest Lebanese elections.
Together with Amal, united in a joint list called Al Amal wal Wafa (“Hope and Loyalty”), the two Shi’ite Parties, along with other friendly lists, won 13 and 15 seats respectively.
Beforehand, the two pro-Iranian Parties, with a very long history of violent struggle between each other, had 13 seats each in the Lebanese Parliament, which has a total of 128 seats.
As many as 7,000 clearly documented infringements of the electoral procedures were checked, with a voter turnout lower than 50%. Hence many operations of tampering with people’s will were recorded, whatever this means in the Lebanon.
Aoun’s movement rose from 18 to 22 seats while, at least this time, Geagea’s group–Hezbollah’s traditional Maronite opponent and Aoun’s current ally -rose from 8 to 14 seats.
Also the Azm Party of former Prime Minister Najib Mikatirose from one to four seats.
The Azm Party was founded by Mikati, the well-known Premier of the March 8 Alliance, with the support of Hezbollah, Aoun and their local allies.
The Syrian National Socialist Party and Tashnag, the political group of reference for the Lebanese Armenian community, obtained two and three seats, respectively.
However, Kollouna Watani(“We are All National”) – a recently-established political group -got no seats.
Saad Hariri’s Party, which seems to be no longer close to its Saudi friends’ heart, fell from 33 to 21 seats only. Moreover, in Beirut, in the traditional strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the Shi’ites won.
The Druse Party of Walid Jumblatt, namely the Progressive Socialist Party, lost two seats falling from 11 to 9.
Here demography rather than militant politics matters – as well as the great Lebanese migration of the middle class to Europe and the United States.
The Kataeb Party, the old Maronite Phalanx of Sami Gemayel, fell from five to three seats.
Marada, Frangieh’s old movement, kept its three seats.
Certainly the prorogation of Parliamentary terms of office began with the outbreak of riots in 1975 – except for the extraordinary appointment of 40 MPs elected in 1991. Hence the Parliamentary Assembly elected in 1975 lasted in office precisely until 1991.
The Parliament just dissolved had been elected in 2009, for four years only, but its term was extended four times in a row.
Furthermore, the election of President Suleiman on May 25, 2008 had been made possible only by the inter-Lebanese Dialogue held in Doha on May 21, 2008, shortly after the (military) show of strength by Hezbollah in West Beirut, right in the Sunni area of the capital city.
Therefore the elections of June 2009 directly followed President Michel Suleiman’s rise to power.
Four years later, the elections already scheduled for June 7, 2013, were postponed again.
The Parliament continuously renewed its term of office until 2014, then until June 2017 and again until 2018. A failed link between the Presidency and local representation.
Moreover, at military level, since that moment Hezbollah has been a unit integrated with the rest of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Hence the Syrian army, the “Party of God” and the Al QudsIranian brigades have become actors on the operational front as early as the fall of Aleppo, on December 22, 2016, while a real Iranian military protectorate on the Lebanon has been created by the presence of said three forces along the axis stretching from Northern Syria to Southern Lebanon, through the Golan Heights.
Later, after the clear support of the “Party of God” to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the cleavage, i.e. the final “break” between Sunnis and Shi’ites, widened, even in the Lebanon alone.
Therefore, after the end of the “Caliphate”, Saudi Arabia and its allies have no elements on which to manipulate the balance of power and forces in the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.
All this happens while Saad Hariri, together with the Saudi “enemies” that are still in the broad March 8 Alliance, are agreeing with Hezbollah to form a “national unity” government. Hariri, who is floundering in a financial crisis, needs this government to get back on track.
As an old South American parliamentarian used to say, politics “es muy lucrativa pero muy peligrosa”
With specific reference to Hariri, this is the sense of his defacto “being held hostage” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as from November 2017.
This is the internal and external sphere of power relations in the Lebanese political system.
The rationale of the new electoral system provided for by Law No. 44 of June 17, 2017 is to project internally the external equilibria which ensure unity and funding to the Lebanese State.
With a view to avoiding further chaos, after Michel Aoun’s election, all the electoral districts and constituencies were designed to preserve and stabilize the traditional religious-sectarian electorate.
In fact, electoral law No. 44/2017 divides the country into fifteen major electoral constituencies, further divided into 26 cazas, namely minor electoral districts, thus putting together the classic proportional representation system with a mechanism defined by the specific “preferential voting”.
This means that each voter shall vote for one of the competing lists and shall be entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate of the same list he/she has chosen.
This voting system selects candidates only within the caza, the first and smallest electoral district.
The vote, however, is valid only if the preferential votes are cast in all fifteen regional constituencies – with the electoral quotient determined by the number of voters in a given constituency divided by the number of seats already allocated for that constituency.
The preferential voting, however, defines the ranking – hence the winner at caza level.
In other words – as is also the case with Western Europe -this happens to create a sort of electoral elite as against the mass of irrelevant representatives.
Therefore the Lebanese system creates a hidden electoral bonus, but only for the best known candidates.
Nonetheless the real issue is another one: the division is currently within the March 14 Alliance, with the Sunni, Druse and Christian side opposing the Syrian designs on the Lebanon, as against the March 8 Alliance that is increasingly linked to the Syrian regime and its external supporters.
Hence the local paradoxes of a now clear geopolitical framework: Samir Geagea’s “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea are hostile to the Syrian-Iranian axis and close to Saudi Arabia, but are allied with the Free Democratic Movement of Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil, who have instead signed a written contract with Hezbollah.
Therefore, in the Lebanon, there is a political system reaffirming and maintaining the destabilization of the country indefinitely. It brings back memories.
Algeria’s political impasse: What is next?
Seven months after a wave of protests began in Algeria; people are still pilling onto the streets of the Algerian capital “Algiers” and other cities nationwide every Friday, reiterating their main demands: the departure of the regime and its symbols and the application of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution stating that the constituent power belongs to the people.
The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm and
worldwide admiration since tens of thousands of Algerians first took,
peacefully, to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on
Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday revolting against former
opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country for decades.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, ceding power after 20 years of rule and abandoning his re-election bid. The protesters pressured the authorities, again, to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for April.
Despite the postponement of the election, the public anger continued to mount. Thus, Army chief Gaid Salah emerged as the key powerbroker positioning himself in favor of El Hirak “Popular movement”. He publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets.
Gaid Salah responded favorably to protesters’ demands, launching a sweeping anti-graft campaign targeting high-ranked officials that have served the Bouteflika government as well as influential tycoons and businessman.
Two Prime Ministers, namely; Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, the deposed President’s brother Said Bouteflika, tens of ministers, leading industrialists, tycoons, key businessmen, Governors, and two former Intelligence chiefs, have been remanded in custody for accusations ranging from money laundering, embezzlement, misuse of public money to using officials posts to influence industrial and commercial contracts and granting undue privileges, affiliation to suspicious parties that plot to destabilize the country, plotting against the army, and instigating the opposition to call for a transitional phase before holding any election.
Bouteflika’s resignation puts Abdelkader Bensalah, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker Head of State for 90 days until elections are held. However, elections (scheduled for July 4th) have been postponed for a second time and protesters are demanding his departure.
For his part, Bensalah, and in a bid to calm them, set a Panel of Dialogue and Mediation, composed of political actors, the civil society, the representatives of the trade union organizations and many citizens, with the aim to mediate between public authorities and people and hold a “serious and responsible” dialogue to reach a national consensus which would help resolve the political crisis in Algeria, through the organization of a fair and transparent presidential election, as soon as possible.”
However, the Panel itself is facing rejection by protesters who are taking into the streets denouncing its formation, saying it does not represent them along other claims, such as the departure of Bensalah, a former head of the upper house of parliament, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who are regarded by them as part of the old guard.
Despite all these arrangements, Algeria is still at an impasse, with two camps facing each other in seemingly irreconcilable positions.
To resolve this stalemate, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Deputy Minister of National Defence, Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army (ANP), launched, last week, a call, saying that it would be “appropriate” to convene the electorate on the 15th of September, and that the elections could be held within the deadlines set by law.
In my previous speech, “I have spoken about the priority to seriously launch the preparation of the presidential elections within the coming weeks, and today, based on our missions, prerogatives and our compliance with the Constitution and the laws of the Republic as well, I confirm that we regard as appropriate to summon the Electorate on September 15th and the elections can be held within the deadlines provided for by the law. Reasonable and acceptable deadlines which respond to the insistent demand of the people,” said Lieutenant General.
Theoretically, if the head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, summons the electorate on September 15, 2019, as desired by the head of the army, the presidential election should take place before the end of the current year (mid-December). The Organic Law No. 12-01 2012 (Electoral Code) provides in article 25 that “Subject to the other provisions of this organic law, the electorate shall be convened by presidential decree within three (3) months preceding the date of the elections “.
As a response, Algerian street has expressed its rejection of elections in the current political conditions. According to demonstrators, no election should take place as long as Bouteflika-era officials remain in positions of power.
For their parts, the opposition parties and civil society groups have also demanded the resignation of the government which constitutes “a popular demand”, voicing rejection of the holding of the elections.
The people are determined to pursue the hirak until the establishment of a state of institutions, widening gap between them and the power constrained, for lack of serious candidates, to cancel the vote twice.
According to observers, these presidential elections are unachievable for the moment because the approach advocated by Ahmed Gaid Salah ” requires the revision of some texts of the electoral law to adapt to the requirements of the current situation, and not a total and profound revision that would affect all texts, as claimed by the demonstrators. The partial amendment means the holding of elections basing on the same mode of organization. This is likely to trigger the street again as the popular movement with its magnitude unparalleled in the contemporary history of the country will, likely, sabotage the preparations for this election. The political climate also does not allow the organization of such an election with the absence of total trust between voters and the political class.
However, it is imperative to go quickly to a presidential election provided that it is transparent, where the mediation initiatives of the Panel or other organizations, can lead to a consensual platform far from the occult practices of the past which saw the majority of the population sulking the ballot boxes, reflecting the state-citizen divorce, noting that an independent election monitoring commission and the departure of the Bedoui government are two prerequisites for a transparent presidential election.
This necessarily implies the cleaning up of the electoral file, the creation of an independent election supervision body where neither the executive (the government – especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Walis) nor the deputies/senators and representatives of the current APCs denounced by Al Hirak, will be stakeholders.
Only a democratically elected legitimate president, elected on the basis of a transparent agenda, pledging to include the legitimate demands of Al Hirak including a new balance of power and the moralization of management (fight against corruption and embezzlement), can amend the constitution and carry out the profound political and economic reforms to bring Algeria to the new world and make it an emerging country: a pivotal country regionally and internationally.
Economically, it is imperative to quickly resolve the political crisis before the end of 2019 or at most the first quarter of 2020, to avoid towards a cessation of payments at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, and prevent Algeria the depletion of its foreign exchange reserves which would culminated in the economic, social, political insecurity.
From our partner Tehran Times
New intrigue over nuclear deal
The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) demonstrated unprecedented foreign policy activity in August as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, China, Japan, and Malaysia in the second half of the month, and Russia – in early September.
Tehran’s genuinely belligerent spirit is due to the situation in which it found itself in connection with the US sanctions. The United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) in May 2018. On August 7, 2018, Washington slapped the first package of restrictive measures on Iran that hit the Iranian car-manufacturing industry, as well as its trade in gold and other precious metals. In November the same year, the United States imposed sanctions on the Iranian energy sector and disconnected Iran from the international interbank system SWIFT. True, from November to May 2019, the White House provided benefits for the purchase of Iranian oil to eight countries (China, India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, Greece, Italy). But this period is over.
In April 2018, Iran exported about 2.5 million barrels per day (b/p/d). In July 2019 this figure dropped to 100 – 120 (taking into account condensate and light oil) thousand b / d, that is, decreasing by 25 times. Accordingly, oil revenues, which make up a significant part of the Iranian budget, have plummetted (according to various sources, from 25 to 40%). As a result, the socio-economic situation in Iran is deteriorating as prospects for settling the crisis appear dim and illusory as long as the problem of sanctions persists.
Undoubtedly, Tehran has consistently been trying to find a way out of the confrontation with the United States. The parties involved are playing it tough, with the game being fraught with unpredictable consequences. A lot is at stake, first of all, security in the Middle East and maybe, all over the world.
The current intrigue is about whether Iran and the US are ready to strike a compromise in their mutual claims. Where is the “red line” they are unable to go over? It has to be underscored that neither Tehran nor Washington plan to sort out the conflict by war.
Iran’s claims to the US are numerous. The main thing for now is that the United States ought to lift anti-Iranian sanctions and return to the JCPOA.
The United States too has a list of requirements for Iran, which boil down to five main ones:
1. Transformation, breaking the nuclear deal (JCPOA) in order to block the possibility of creating nuclear weapons by Iran, including by introducing an open-end validity period for the document.
2. A ban on the creation of ballistic missiles in Iran.
3. Setting a limit on Iran’s military policy in the Middle East, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
4. No more support for terrorist organizations, primarily Hezbollah and Hamas.
5. Human rights in Iran.
The latter requirement is clearly optional, is purely propagandistic, so, in all likelihood, it will not be on the agenda of a possible Iranian-American dialogue – be it in absentia, directly or with the help of intermediaries.
Now about the players, who run this complicated, at times confusing and even contradictory game.
Naturally, the role of Russia and China, as the authors of the JCPOA, is decisive. But Russia, under the current conditions, is restricted in its capacioty to exert any practical influence on Iran and / or the United States apart from devising proposals, recommendations and evaluating the process of solving the JCPO problem.
For China, the “Iranian-American problem” is a tool in the fight against the United States on the globally extensive fronts of the US-Chinese trade war. Beijing’s policy towards Tehran will largely depend on the results of this war. Improvement of Sino-US relations would mean a cooling toward Iran and vice versa.
What is essential given the situation is the position of Scandinavian countries, which are home to a large number of Iranian emigrants. What is also important is that Scandinavia has traditionally good economic ties with Iran. A large role in the settlement of Iranian problem belongs to Japan. Perhaps, it is these considerations that determined the August visits of the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, which covered these countries. It was vitally important for the head of the Iranian diplomacy to win support or, in any case, explain to the leaders of these states the Iranian views on resolving the “Iranian-American problem”, particularly now that the political games are approaching their peak.
Considering all this, it should be recognized that at present, the future of the JCPOA and Iran is determined by three players – Iran proper, the United States and the European Union. Significantly, the European Union from the very beginning opposed the anti-Iranian policy of US President Trump, spoke against America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and came up against the imposition of sanctions. At the same time, the EU, while insisting on maintaining the JCPOA and lifting (easing) sanctions, like the United States, will not accept Iran’s missile program, its Middle East policy, Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, or problems with human rights in Iran.
Tactically, however, there are tangible differences between the positions of Brussels and Washington. The EU is not ready to solve all Iranian problems at once and is trying to create conditions for the resumption of the negotiating process, primarily between Iran and the United States, without pressure on Iran, without sanctions.
The EU has launched INSTEX, a tool for supporting trade settlements with Iran. And even though it is ineffective, but the Europeans (unlike the Iranians) hope that everything will work out well.
At present, of the three EU countries participating in the 2015 nuclear deal (Germany, France, Great Britain) France is taking the lead to settle the Iranian issue. It is clear that Britain will leave the EU at the end of October 2019, although it will continue to cooperate with the European Union on all foreign policy issues, including Iran. German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a symbol of Germany and an authoritative but unofficial EU leader – will soon resign. Given the conditions, French President Emmanuel Macron – young, active, persistent, with ambitions akin to General Charles de Gaulle, has a chance to become Europe’s political heavyweight No. 1.
In fact, President Macron has become a mediator between Iran and the United States. The agenda of the recent G7 summit in the French city of Biarritz (August 24 – 26) included relations with the IRI but no one had expected any surprises in this area. Suddenly, on August 25, at the initiative of President Macron, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Biarritz. The head of Iranian diplomacy held talks with several leaders, and even planned a meeting with the US president. However, Trump did not receive Zarif.
Nevertheless, at a press conference that took place on the last day of the summit, Trump answered a question on Iran in a much friendlier manner than one might expect. “If the circumstances are right, I would surely agree to this [a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. VS.] ”In addition, Trump described Rouhani as “an excellent negotiator,”and the Iranians as “nice people,” and expressed confidence that“Iran can become a great power, but they should not have nuclear weapons.”
The very next day, on August 26, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “If only I knew that visits by and meetings with a certain person could help my country and solve the problems of my people, I would go for it” – apparently, there is a hint at possible negotiations with President Trump.
Would they be possible – such negotiations? Observers and political analysts are at odds about it. Some argue that such an option is unlikely. Others say why not. After all, Trump met with Kim Jong-un – the dictator of North Korea. It was Trump’s press conference and the reaction to his speech by Rouhani that prompted rumors that the presidential summit could be held in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which goes into session on September 17.
Of course, it is difficult to make any predictions to this effect, since it is more than challenging, particularly for Iranians, to set the distance that they and the Americans must cover to meet each other halfway, forgetting about their mutual phobias.
Despite all his so-called unpredictability, which analysts endlessly talk about, Trump is constantly resorting to the professional tactics of a hardcore businessman by offering his counterparties excessive requirements or largely unrealistic or unacceptable conditions and thereby drags them into negotiations during which he makes some concessions.
The Iranians find it harder. While the need for compromise in a dialogue with the United States to lift or at least ease sanctions is beyond doubt, the Iranian authorities can not lose face. Any compromise should look like a victory. This is what causes difficulty. Both President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in their foreign policy efforts have to constantly look back on their domestic audience, first of all, on their political opponents from the radicals who abhor either the JCPOA or any negotiations with the West, more so with the United States.
It was no accident then that almost immediately after Foreign Minister Zarif’s talks at the G-7 summit, he reiterated that no meetings with US officials would be possible unless Washington returned to the JCPOA, while President Rouhani confirmed that lifting the sanctions was the main condition for negotiations.
To harmonize all the requirements of Iran and the United States is practically impossible as Tehran (at least, officially) will never agree to curtail its missile program and drastically change its policy in the Middle East (although a gradual process of reducing military activity there is possible, given that the Middle East policy is not very popular inside the country either).
And President Trump is not ready for an instantaneous lifting of sanctions, especially now that the 2020 presidential race is right round the corner.
Given the situation, it is clear that the two parties are to work out something in-between, a kind of intermediate, temporary solution. At the same time, official Iranian-American negotiations, perhaps at the highest level, remain issue number one.
French President Emmanuel Macron is doing his best to assist with solving the Iranian problems. A settlement plan he has devised received the approval of European diplomats a few days ago. Although no details of the plan were released in the media, unconfirmed reports say it provides for the lifting of sanctions for some buyers of Iranian oil and gives Iran an opportunity to export about 700 thousand barrels of oil per day. This is more than two to three times its current volume. In addition, it is planned to provide Iran with a credit worth about $ 15 billion so that it could use hard currency to circumvent the US sanctions imposed on it. In response, Tehran is expected to get ready for negotiations and return to the meticulous implementation of the JCPOA.
In accordance with the plan, Iran undertakes to find a way to reduce tensions in the Persian Gulf amid the recent spate of tanker seizures and to begin well-structured negotiations on missiles, regional issues and on what will happen after 2025, when the current agreement expires.
In this regard, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that it is not yet clear whether the US will refrain from sanctions on additional exports of Iranian oil. However, there have been no signals from the White House that the American president could block this initiative. Referring to France’s plan to save the deal, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi made it clear that the US had shown flexibility. Of course, the deputy foreign minister could not but add that this is the result of Iran’s maximum resistance in the face of maximum pressure from the US. For Iran this is all but a new victory.
Considering these far from clear circumstances, there is one factor that could ruin the positive tendency that manifested itself at the beginning of September. This factor has to do with Iran’s steps to cut its nuclear deal commitments.
The fact is that September 5 marks the end of the second sixty-day period of Tehran’s gradual withdrawal from implementing certain requirements under the nuclear agreement.
In this regard, the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif has presented an ultimatum to the European Union: “If Europe does not take the required steps till Thursday (September 5), then, according to the decision of May 7, Iran will notify them of the launch of the third stage of withdrawal from the JCPOA. As stated by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi, “the third step is fully developed and is ready for implementation. It is tougher than the first and second ones and was designed to achieve a balance between the rights and obligations of Iran under the JCPOA.”
On September 2, Iranian Foreign Minister representative Abbas Araghchi and a group of economists flew to Paris to discuss Emmanuel Macron’s plan and at the same time to clarify the details of the third step of the IRI towards an exit from the JCPOA.
Iranian diplomats say that if the diplomatic efforts of Iran and the EU achieve a result, Tehran will abandon the third step.
At present, the political and diplomatic situation around Iran is centered on the French plan. There are still many questions to answer but the main ones are two. First, will it be in the interests of Iran (that is, will Tehran accept it)? Second, will the US hinder the implementation of this plan? French diplomacy has worked with both sides. Moscow has expressed support for this initiative.
There is hope for the approval of the plan. For President Trump a further aggravation of the situation involving Iran in the run-up to the 2020 presidential race is undesirable, to say the least. After all, nobody knows what the ongoing escalation of the conflict will lead to. What is clear is that this escalation will become worse in case the French plan falls through.
For Iran, the export of oil and a 15-billion loan are more than important. All Tehran has to do in return is to abandon the process of reducing its obligations under the JCPOA. The other points of the plan can well be under long and tedious discussion with the European Union – up to the presidential election in the United States. And then, there is a chance that Trump will lose and the Democrats will win.
From our partner International Affairs
Netanyahu wants another meeting with Putin
An escalation of the Arab-Israeli confrontation was reported in late August following a terrorist attack that took place in a holiday resort popular among Israelis. A homemade bomb killed one person and left several others injured.
On the night of August 25, the Israeli Air Force carried out air strikes against three countries at the same time: in Iraq, it struck at the positions of the Badr Organization, in Lebanon – at the Hezbollah information center, and in Syria – at the headquarters of an al-Quds unit that is part of the special-task forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Gaza came under attack as well. “A country that allows its territory to be used for attacks on Israel will face the consequences,”- Benjamin Netanyahu said, demonstrating political inflexibility to the voters ahead of the second parliamentary elections this year that are scheduled for September 17. In confirmation of his words, the Prime Minister warned the military to be prepared for any turn of the events.
The countries that suffered in the attacks filed a protest. Lebanese President Michel Asun described the strike as a declaration of war, while Prime Minister Saad Hariri asked the US Secretary of State and the French presidential advisor to “intervene to prevent a military escalation.” However, in a telephone conversation with Netanyahu US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo de facto supported Israel’s actions which, he said, serve to protect Israel against external threats.
In its statement the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern over this yet another instance of the escalation of tension in the region and the possibility of a “large-scale armed conflict” with unpredictable consequences. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called on Israel and Lebanon to demonstrate restraint.
Iran’s military-political activity in Syria, which is strongly opposed by its adversaries – the USA, Israel, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, is turning them into potential allies to counter the so-called “Iranian threat” thereby initiating what recently seemed totally unbelievable – the rapprochement between Jerusalem and Riyadh and Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.
Israel boasts the status of “a major US ally outside NATO,” which is something the incumbent American president, unlike his predecessor, keeps repeating whenever possible. It is necessary to recall that in December 2017, Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem (including the eastern part of the city) as the capital of Israel, and in March this year he pronounced the Golan Heights part of the Jewish state. The political proximity of the allies makes many in the Arab world talk about joint military operations of the United States and Israel in the region, in particular against Shiite groups in Iraq. And about cooperation in Kurdistan. According to a number of Iranian and Arab media sources, Israeli instructors, along with American ones, are training Kurdish peshmerga, forming a buffer between Iran and Syria.
As for Syria, it has been in a state of war with Israel since the proclamation of the state of Israel, and this state of war has been on for years, interrupted by an occasional armistice. Diplomatic relations were not established. Considering all this, Israel is not only bombing, as it claims, Iranian military facilities in Syria, but from the very beginning of the civil war, the Israelis, have been supplying fuel, medical equipment, and food to the Syrian population as humanitarian aid.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Syrian authorities assisted Moscow in securing the repatriation of the remains of an Israeli soldier who went missing in Lebanon 37 years ago. However, the Syrian Information Minister, Imad Sarah, tried to disavow the Russian Ministry’s statement, suggesting that the special operation had been carried out by Mossad and the “terrorist groups.” This is no wonder: Damascus has to respect the feelings of its Iranian allies.
In general, the configuration of relations in the region is gradually changing. Even though in 2015 Russian troops came close to the Israeli borders, this did not worsen bilateral relations: the next year, after celebrating the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and Israel, Netanyahu told reporters that Russia had turned from an adversary into a friend.
However, this relationship can not be described as absolutely cloudless. In a recent interview with The National Interest, “a high-ranking Israeli Defense Forces officer” said that his country’s leadership “has no illusions about Moscow,” because in Syria Russia is closely cooperating with forces that Israel considers a major threat to its security – that is, Iran and its allies. On the other hand, the Russian-Iranian agreements carry advantages for the Jewish state: Moscow, in a friendly gesture towards Jerusalem, has persuaded Iran to move the units under its control more than a hundred kilometers away from the Golan Heights; it has organized a patrol by the UN peacekeepers of the Syrian territory adjacent to the Golan Heights; and it helped to preserve Jewish shrines and burials in Aleppo.
The Russian-Israeli ties even survived the incident involving a spy plane in the fall of 2018, in which 15 Russian servicemen were killed. The Russian Ministry of Defense rightfully accused the Israeli military command of “criminal negligence” and “ingratitude”.
Despite the complexity of relations with the US and Israel, the need to coordinate their actions “on the ground” led to a meeting of the Russian Security Council Secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, with his American and Israeli counterparts. During talks in Jerusalem this June, the Israeli Prime Minister strongly assured the Russian side that there was no danger for Russian troops in Syria from the Israeli military. And that means a lot.
Simultaneously, the deployment of Russian S-300 air defense systems to Syria, and especially the acquisition by Turkey of even more effective S-400s, has introduced new adjustments to the alignment of forces in the region. Israeli sources of Breaking Defense believe that these missiles will instill “new order” in the Syrian airspace: far from being friendly to Jerusalem, Ankara will now be able to control most of it.
In early September, Netanyahu spoke about the need “to organize a new trilateral meeting of the US, Russia and Israel in Jerusalem with a view to discuss how to get Iran out of Syria.” But, as it turned out, the prime minister took a hasty decision. According to Israeli media, the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv said that the Russian Foreign Ministry “does not see any point” in holding a three-party summit, as Russia “expects Israel and the US to fulfill the earlier agreements.” For Israel, it means acting on its commitments to establish “full coordination” with the Russian side regarding attacks on Syrian territory. AlthoughMoscow respects Israel’s right to ensure its security, it considers its preventive strikes (incidentally, prohibited by Article 51 UN Charter) a destabilizing factor not only in Syria, but throughout the region.
Netanyahu got the message without showing any alarm: he was quick to announce an early meeting with Vladimir Putin, the 13th since the start of the Russian military operation in Syria and the third this year.
Apparently, the election PR campaign will not be the key purpose of his visit to Russia (the Russian president enjoys support among a significant section of Israeli voters). The two parties will also discuss better coordination of actions in the Syrian campaign, and will touch upon issues involving Iran and Turkey. Also, everyone understands that the Russian Air Forces contingent deployed in Syria cannot, under any circumstances, come under Israeli air strikes — this is the “red line” for Russian-Israeli relations. The consequences of such a hypothetical incident are fairly predictable. In addition, there is a possibility that the Israeli leader will again try to offer himself as an intermediary in Russian-American relations. But this is secondary in relation to the regional problems. From our partner International Affairs
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