A spike in oil prices as a result of a temporary halt in shipments through the strategic Bab el Mandeb strait may be short-lived, but the impact on Yemen’s three-year-old forgotten war is likely to put the devastating conflict on the front burner.
The halt following a Saudi assertion that Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen had attacked two Saudi oil tankers traversing the waterway drives home the threat the conflict poses to a chokepoint in international trade and the flow of Gulf oil to world markets. The Houthis said they had attacked a Saudi warship rather than oil tankers.
An estimated 4.8 million barrels of oil are shipped daily through Bab al Mandeb that connects the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea off the coast of Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea.
The halt of oil shipments could provoke an escalation of the conflict with external powers intervening in a bid to assist Saudi Arabia and the UAE in defeating the Houthis and dealing a blow to Iran’s regional presence.
By the same token, the halt potentially offers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates an opportunity to focus international attention on resolving a civil war aggravated and turned into a regional conflict by the two Gulf states’ military intervention in March 2015.
Rather than proving to be a swift campaign that would have subdued the Houthis, the intervention has turned into a quagmire and a public relations fiasco for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
International criticism of their conduct of the war is mounting as a result of its devastating human cost. Voices in the US Congress, the British parliament and other Western legislatures as well as human rights groups calling for a halt of arms sales to Saudi Arabia are growing ever louder.
The armed services panels in the US House and Senate released earlier this week joint defense legislation that demands that the Pentagon tell Congress whether US or Arab coalition forces violated federal law or Pentagon policy. Another provision restricts mid-air US refuelling of coalition aircraft if the UAE and Saudi Arabia fail to demonstrate efforts to support United Nations-backed peace talks, resolve the growing humanitarian crisis, and cut down on civilian deaths.
The war has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis and left more than 22 million people –three-quarters of Yemen’s population – in need of humanitarian aid. At least 8 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, and 1 million are infected with cholera.
In a most immediate response to the halt, the United States and Britain, eager to benefit from increased arms sales, are likely to step up their support of the Saudi-UAE effort in the Yemen war.
Viewed from Washington as well as Riyadh, the war is one more front in US efforts to force Iran to halt its support of Middle Eastern proxies.
Since the war began, the US and the UK have sold more than $12bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia alone – including some of the warplanes and the payloads they drop.
The US military, moreover, provides mid-air refuelling for Saudi and UAE aircraft, and both British and US personnel assist the Saudis as they target their strikes.
The US, Britain and other powers could look at expanding operations of an anti-piracy alliance in the region created in 2008 in response to Somali piracy. The alliance includes warships patrolling regional waters from all five United Nations Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – as well as other European and Latin American nations, Australia, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Thailand.
The potential for a breakthrough in peace efforts increases when the halt to oil shipments is coupled with a Saudi-UAE threat to besiege the strategic port of Hodeida that could jeopardize the crucial for the flow of humanitarian supplies potentially creates an opportunity for more forceful efforts to bring the Yemen war to an end.
In a letter to US congressional leaders, UAE ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba said in June that the Saudi-led Arab force fighting in Yemen is giving the Iran-backed Houthi rebels “the greatest possible opportunity” for a peaceful withdrawal from Hodeida.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths last week put forward a proposal that would avert a fight for Hodeida that has yet to be accepted by all parties.
The plan reportedly calls for a phased Houthi withdrawal from Hodeida and two other nearby ports, a gradual pullback of UAE forces, UN assistance in staffing the port with Yemenis who would also govern the city of 60,000, and the revival of stalled peace talks.
The possibility of the halt to oil shipments propelling efforts to end the war is enhanced by the fact that the Saudi move has ramifications that go beyond energy security.
The Middle East’s multiple conflicts, including the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the dispute between Qatar and a Saudi-UAE-led alliance that has imposed a 14-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state has spilled across the Horn of Africa with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and China competing for influence by gaining control of ports and establishing military bases.
The UAE’s strong military and commercial presence in the region is one reason why Chinese President Xi Jinping recent stopped in the Emirates for three days on his way to a tour of Africa.
China likely would favour capitalizing on the Saudi halt to propel peace efforts while the Trump administration more probably will lean towards military intervention that confronts Iran.
Said scholar and author Ellen R. Wald: “The Red Sea is a very important shipping lane. If there is a major disruption European powers, Egypt and the United States would all have reason to intervene. They have significant interests in protecting the freedom of the seas through the passageway. An international intervention against the Houthis may be just what Saudi Arabia wants.”
Rojavan crisis: A big threat to women’s rights future
A war crime: The murder of Hevrin Khalaf is a slap in the face for those who believed in the Rojava dream.
On October 12, the Kurdish human rights activist was ambushed, tortured and shot dead on the road to the city of Qamishli. According to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the 35-year-old women was “taken out of her car during a Turkish-backed attack and executed by Turkish-backed mercenary factions” and the killing shows that“the Turkish invasion does not differentiate between a soldier, a civilian or a politician.”
The spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) — which groups Syrian rebel factions — said they had not made it as far as the highway known as the M4.“I confirm to you that our forces have not reached the M4,” Youssef Hammoud said to Reuters, denying their responsability for the ambush.
What we certainly know is that the Ahrar al-Sharqiya group entered Syria from Turkey and took control over the area of the M4 highwaywhere other murders took place. Founded in 2016 by some members — including Iraqi commander Abu Maria Al-Qahtani — of the Al-Nusra Front, re-branded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and described as the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the group was originally active in the province of Deir ez-Zor but temporarily managed to seize the territory between Mambij and Qamishli.
The rebels managed to do so due to the vacuum caused by US’ troops withdrawal from northern Syria, that president Donald Trump had announced on October 7.
On September 24, in a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had declared his intention to create a “safe zone” in the border area. His goal was to establish a huge peace corridor in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees that, despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, would surely put the local minorities at risk of genocide. Trump’s betrayal — as Kurdish people describe it — might be a gift to a deep-rooted process of ethnic cleansing or, at the very least, it would lead to a new exodus.
Future Syria party: an attempt to multi-ethnic democracy
Hevrin Khalaf was the secretarygeneral of the Future Syria Party (FSP), a political group born with the aim of overcoming the sectarian divisions that have ravaged Syria during the civil war and unify Arab, Kurdish and Syrian Christiancommunities.
The FSP was established after the capture of Raqqa from the Islamic State and it was created as an ideological partner to the SDF — the Syrian Democratic Forces. Its aim was to build a democratic state that represented all components of Syrian society and to replace Bashar al-Assad’s regime withmulti-ethnic democracy.
Nobody except the Kurds wants the project of a “Kurdistan state” to succeed: they are, in fact, still split up among four countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — , where they have been sufferingbrutal harassment and repression for the past 100 years.
Taking advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war, in January 2014 they managed to carve out a self-controlled area ruled by the PYD — the Democratic Union Party — , which is now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) or Rojava.
Rojava’s territorial expansionhas alarmed Turkey, which firmly opposes the PYD and regards it as an alleged extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), currently listed as a terroristic group.
The Kurdish-Turkish conflict progressively worsened and in June 2017 tensions flared up on the border with the Afrin Canton — one of the self-governed Rojavan cantons — unitil it became part of the Turkish occupation.
On October 5, Khalaf made some declarations and expressed her concern about Turkey’s imminent intention to invade Rojava again, which would cause in her opinion a potential demographic earthquake.
“During the time (ISIS) held power near the border, Turkey didn’t view it as a threat for its people. But now that there is democratic constitution in northeastern Syria, they threat us with occupation,” Khalaf said referring to the Rojava region.
Women’s rights in peril:
Syrian Women’s Council recently condemned Khalaf’s murder — alongside with the aggressions against unarmed civilians — and called for international action: “We at the Council of Women in Northern and Eastern Syria condemn and denounce this cowardly act against the martyr Hevrin Khalaf.”
Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government has long been accused of limiting women’s rights and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s views on feminism go exactly in that direction. Co-founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) he has combined liberal economic policies with religious conservatism. Although he denies to lead an Islamic party, he has often stated that the AKPhad become a role model for all Muslim countries.
Women’s freedom in Turkey has often collided with the above-mentioned Islamic agenda. On March 8 2019, riot police intervened to block Turkish feminists’ march in central Istanbul, when they were celebrating International Women’s Day. The police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, as they were accused of chanting and whistling during the call to prayer.
Although they said that those acts were not aimed at the mosque,“They disrepected the Azan (call to prayer) by slogans, booing and whistling,”Erdoğan claimed.
During his administration the AKP leader made numerous controversial comments: on various occasions he advocated for increasing population in Turkey and called on Turkish women to give birth at least to three children.
On November 24 2014, he attended a summit in Istanbul on justice for women where hebasically declared that women are not equal to men and addressed them exclusively as mothers.
“Our religion (Islam) has defined a position for women: motherhood”he claimed to the audience, sparking furious debates in the media. “The fact that a woman is attached to her professional life should not prevent her from being a mother”he added, emphasizing that work should not represent an “obstacle” to maternity.
He went even further calling women without children “incomplete” and made his position about family planning very clear: contraception was not for Muslim families and birth control was described as a form of “treason”.
In line with these ideas, in 2012 Health Minister Recep Akdag put forward an anti-abortion law plan so that the procedure could belegally restricted or banned, prompting fury among women’s activists.
In terms of gender-based violence, things are not better: according to the Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), in the last six years there has been an increase in the reported case of violence against women. The number of women murdered by a partner or relative is constantly growing as Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu (“We Will Stop Femicide” Platform)reports and its General Secretary Gülsüm Kav is struggling to ask for better protection by the law.
Rojavan utopia: Jin, Jîyan, Azadî
“Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” a Kurdish slogan reads: Women, Life, Freedom.
It does not come as a surprise that the revolution in Rojava— where women arelegally considered equal to men — sounds like a dangerous threat to honor-shame societies. In this regard, de-facto autonomous region — which name literally means “the land where the sun sets” — is a one and only model in the whole Middle East area.
RojavanConstitution, in fact, is characterized by the implementation of direct democracy and confederalism and it “ (…) does not accept the concept of state nationalism, military and religious.”
Inspired by the beliefs of American anarchist Murray Bookchin it stresses the importance of “social ecology”, as a fundamental aspect of the revolution: in this regard, the exploitation of natural resources is comparable to the domination of men over women.
Thisutopian political system is established by the so-called Charter of the Social Contract, which promotes — along with ecology and gender equality — self-determination, secularism, cooperative economy and multi-ethnic coexistence.
The emancipation of women is seen as such a key point that one of Rojava’s governing ideologies is the “Science of Women” — or Jineology.
Based on PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s statement“A country can’t be free unless the women are free,” this innovative concept represents a step forward for the women’s liberation movement and it stands in opposition to the sexist paradigm which reflects the subject-object dichotomy “men act, women are.”
The social experiment is the brave response to centuries of oppressive tradition, such as underage marriage, poligamy and patriarchal mentality: these massive changes regard social, cultural and political structures are bright example of authentic modern feminism.
Although the region’s autonomy is not officially recognized by any international state, the PYD entertained some foreign relations; Hevrin Khalaf was often referred to as “Rojavan Minister of Foreign Affairs” and she was very appreciated for her diplomatic skills.
Women and jihad
Gender equality is behind Rojavan political, social and military upheaval.
In Syria, the armed wing of the PYD is thePeople’s Protection Units (YPG) along with the all-female militia called Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
YPJ combatants have subverted traditional gender roles and stereotypes, fighting sexism and promoting female emancipation; jineology, in fact, is a multi-disciplinary philosophy which permeates every aspect of society, including the military sphere.
Furthermore, in Kurdish community centres they stress the importance of self-defence,in order to practically teach women how to stand against patriarchy-induced abusesand help victims of domestic violence.
Kurdish fighters — now world-wide famous — have proved that women can be effective soldiers just as much as their male counterparts. The advocacy of women’s rights, in fact, was severely put in danger during ISIL occupation, which represented the greatest possible form of female subjugation.
The armed forces of YPJ played a central role in the liberation process and they stood up against terrorism in very many ways.
Kobanê was the city that involvedthe largestfemale participation: the area, in fact, soon became symbol of the revolution, especially with regard to patriarchal traditions. Some of the fighters were married at a young ageor their husbands were much older than them, they served as nothing more than bodies used for sex and considered just as a vehicle for making children.
“I wanted women to have agency and will, and to build a free identity for themselves”commander Meryem Kobanê said in an interview. The women of the YPJ “has tasted freedom” and the more they were oppressed the more they developed a strong warrior spirit, to the point that they shared the frontlines with their male comrades.
It seems hard to understand, but while ISIL militants treat women as inferior beings, they also fear them on battlefields. According to jihadist doctrine, in fact, those who die in the name of Allah will be rewarded with 72 virgins, but they will not be admitted to heaven if they are killed by a woman.
Female emancipation in Middle Eastern countries clashes with this contrasting and misogynistic concept also; therefore, jihad represented a crucial chance to women’s liberation.
“Isis would like to reduce women to slaves and body parts. We show them they’re wrong. We can do anything.” Asya Abdullah — Movement for a Democratic Society’s coalition co-chair — said to the The Independent in the middle of the civil war in 2017.
Women’s rights future in Syria:
Kurdish fighters seeked vengeance for those victimized by the Islamic State, but women’s oppression still represents an ongoing problem in Syria.
On International Women’s Day, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)documented the deaths of at least 27,464 females from March 2011 until March 2019at the hands of the main perpetrator parties to the civil war; 11.402 of them were children.
The rate of gender-based violence increased during the years of the conflict, especially in rural territories andin rebel-held areas, where women were particularly targeted, becoming victims of war rape and honor killings. Syrian security forces have been accused of torturing female inmates that — according to human rights lawyerAnwar al-Bunni — were often imprisoned without charges.
Although the condition of women in Syria has improved in many fields, there still is a lot to do in terms of gender equality and experts rate the country badly concerning human rights agenda.
For instance, Syrian Constitution — which is partially based on Sharia laws — does not recognize women as active subjects in marriage contracts, which have to be signed by the groom and the male guardian of the bride, but not by the bride herself.
Hevrin Khalaf was the voice for these women also and her death is now a symbol of the world’s hypocrisy, which is turning its back on her people once again. Today’s crisis is frustrating the efforts ofRojavan revolutionaries and it represents the umpteenth threat to Middle Eastern women’s rights future.
If Rojava’s dream dies, it will be a slap in the face for many of us, but Kurdish activists has long proved the world that turning the other cheek would never be an option.
The Formation of the Political Elite in Modern Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Factors
Three major events transformed Iraq and the Middle East: the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988 and the Gulf War of 1991, the latter of which led to a change in the domestic policy of President of Iraq Saddam Hussein and thus brought about new dynamics in the relations between the Iraqi government and the country’s ethnoreligious groups (mainly the Shiites and the Kurds). Iraq was under an embargo imposed by the United Nations at the time, which limited access to resource distribution for a part of the elite and, combined with the government’s practices that marginalized a part of the population, led many to flee the country, strengthening the opposition forces in exile. The United States used both economic and military tools to exert pressure on Baghdad. The U.S. military tactics destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and undermined the stable operation of government agencies in the country.
The U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 allowed the American side to exert multifactor influence on the formation of a new elite. Even the technical implementation of the voting process, not to mention the principles of the new Constitution, were dependent on the United States. But the United States had directed the political process in Iraq even before the country adopted its new Constitution in 2005 by creating two key bodies: the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). On June 9, 2004, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1546 that endorsed “a sovereign Interim Government of Iraq” and a “timetable for Iraq’s political transition to democratic government.” 
The 2005 election urged forward by the United States established a new political elite that received international recognition but limited legitimacy at home. Since the election was held in a very difficult environment and was boycotted by a large share of the Sunni population, just how representative it exactly was has been called into question.
Following its own logic in relations with Iraq and being embedded in the regional context, Iran decided to use the levers already at its disposal to influence the Iraqi political process and shape a favourable political elite in the country. In fact, this process began long before the U.S. invasion, because movements opposing Saddam Hussein had already been formed and their leaders often lived in Iran. Despite the fact that most religious and political movements in Iraq can trace their origins back to the 1950s or 1960s, as the Islamic Dawa Party, which has become the most formidable opponent of the Iraqi authorities, actually developed during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. The leaders of Dawa, who were in exile, mostly lived in Iran.
Starting in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, the exiled opposition was increasingly influenced and dominated by Kurdish ethnocentric and Shia faith-based political forces. Opposition figures that aspired to keep the vision of Iraqi nationalism homogenous and centralized increasingly gave way to political forces driven by an ethnoreligious agenda . Depending on the political situation, Iran continued to lend limited support to various Kurdish forces opposing the central authorities in Iraq.
After 2003, Shia political forces sought to form coalitions, a key example of which was the alliance between the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded in 1982 and had engaged in close cooperation with the United States even before 2003. The key constituency for SCIRI was Iraqis of Iranian origin and the Marsh Arabs that migrated to Iran at times of crisis. Baghdad has always seen these population groups as untrustworthy . SCIRI was headed by representatives of the country’s religious elite – the well-known Hakim family of Shia religious scholars. Support from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani consolidated the position of Dawa and SCIRI in post-Saddam Iraq.
After the United States occupied Iraq, the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the influential Sadr family called his supporters to take up arms against the occupants. His followers formed the Mahdi Army that killed hundreds of American soldiers. The Sadrist Movement attained considerable influence in parliament and represented Shia communities from south and central Iraq, the Marsh Arabs and the Baghdad district of Sadr City (named after Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who opposed the regime and suffered at its hands) . The Sadrists’ military wing retained considerable influence over the state security system.
Despite having some political clout and a few ministerial posts, the Sunnis found themselves marginalized in the new situation and did not have influence over the decision-making process in Baghdad as the case for, for example, the Nujaifi clan from Mosul. The main forces opposing the United States and the central government in Baghdad were the Naqshbandi Army (which had ties to the former Ba’ath Party) and Al Qaeda in Iraq . Attempts to inject Sunni groups (the Sahwa or the Al-Iraqiya movements, which also included Sunnis) into the political elite were generally unsuccessful.
The ongoing marginalization of the Sunni population by the Nouri al-Maliki government and the radicalization of society, compounded by falling oil prices and the war in Syria, led to the establishment of an alliance of various groups in 2014. That alliance became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS (a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia). The new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who assumed the post in 2014 and represented the Dawa Party, decided not only to fight ISIS, but also to carry out some reforms. His efforts were greatly facilitated by the positions of Tehran and Washington, which have tacitly supported Abadi’s initiatives to form a technocratic government to fight corruption since 2016.
By jeopardizing the patron-client relationship and the distribution of wealth enjoyed by the old Iraqi establishment, al-Abadi fell into disfavour with many, including members of his former party Dawa. As a result, many wanted to oust him from the post of Prime Minister. But Iran and the United States put pressure on their partners within Iraq to prevent that from happening. This led to a reconfiguration of political forces in 2018 that nevertheless preserved the same elite.
The training of new security forces in Iraq by American experts, including in U.S. training camps effectively amounted to training various militias or groups linked with militants from the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army. For them, collaboration with the United States was a matter of pragmatism, since everyone realized that Washington would play a defining role in the future federative Iraq. At the same time, the Shiites, who had become the dominant group in Iraq, were looking to the Iranian model of governance.
The formation of the new political elite in Iraq and the country’s security forces was thus directly dependent on the presence of U.S. occupation forces, the policies of Iran and Iran’s ties with movements opposing Saddam Hussein. The dominant Shia political groups proved to be very diverse and heterogenous, with different political interests and a strong radical influence.
The 2018 Election Results in Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Trace
Stopping ISIS was the main objective for the Iraqi Army. But achieving a national conciliation between the political forces proved to be a key condition for the country where Sunni interests were deeply embedded in the power structure. The “Kurdish issue” also popped up on the agenda. The independence referendum held by the Kurds in territories controlled by Erbil in September 2017 put Baghdad and Prime Minister al-Abadi personally in an awkward position before the 2018 election and lent strength to their political opponents.
Similar to the fight against ISIS, the United States and Iran sided with the central government. This led Baghdad to carry out a military operation to restore sovereignty and even regain control over the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. This loss for Kurds – meaning a failure of the referendum – revealed a rift between the two major forces of Iraqi Kurdistan: the Barzani and Talabani clans (the latter was experiencing division itself after the death of former President of Iraq Jalal Talabani). However, this heralded a new stage in the consolidation of power of the central government and even a rise in nationalist sentiment.
A critical event that happened even before the 2018 election was the split within the State of Law Coalition and the Dawa Party, which had been in power since the U.S. invasion of 2003. Most of the seats in parliament were won by the Saairun coalition (also known as Marching Towards Reform), giving it the upper hand in forming the government. The coalition was headed by the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is an extremely influential religious figure. However, this did not prevent his movement from using a nationalist and anti-corruption agenda as a platform. However, the Fatah Alliance (sometimes translated as the Conquest Alliance), a coalition that had been accused of ties with Iran on numerous occasions, finished a close second to the Sadrists, winning almost as many seats in parliament. The Fatah Alliance is believed to have been supported by the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. However, none of the abovementioned parties won a majority in parliament. It was clear that even the most prominent players would have to negotiate a compromise with each other, as well as with less influential forces.
It was more than three months before the new parliament met in early September 2018. The political process stalled as thousands of people took to the streets for rallies and demonstrations, with the biggest protests taking place in Basra. The political forces eventually had to find common ground and start forming a government. Again, it was the intervention of Marja Ali al-Sistani that became the catalyst for agreement.
The first step that signalled the redistribution of power was the election of Chairman of the Council of Representatives (Parliament) of Iraq. On September 15, 2018, the 37-year-old member of parliament from the province of Anbar and member of the Al-Hal (“Solution”) party Mohamed al-Halbousi was elected by a majority (with 167 votes) as the Speaker of the national parliament. Hassan Karim from Saairun took the post of First Deputy Speaker. He garnered an even larger majority than the speaker, receiving 210 votes. On the whole, al-Halbousi can be considered a compromise figure both for Iran and the United States. His first visit, however, was to Kuwait, which hosted the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq early that year. This suggests that the new speaker is counting on the support of the Gulf monarchies and intends to focus on reconstructing the country after the war.
The next step was the election of the president and prime minister. The presidential post had been traditionally held by a representative of one of the largest Kurdish political forces, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Despite the presence of several other candidates on the list, the most likely was former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, considered to be pro-American. Salih was not running as a single candidate for Kurds, as had been the practice since 2003. The very return of Salih to the PUK (he had quit the Union just before the election to form his own party) and the support he received as a presidential candidate were predictable.
But the Iraq Kurds could not agree on a single candidate for president, which, again, exposed a division among the elites. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (Barzani clan, Erbil) nominated Fuad Hussein, the former President of Kurdistan Region. Evidently, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah reached a last-minute agreement on the distribution of power at the federal and regional levels. Barham Salih ultimately became President, and Fuad Hussein became Minister of Finance.
The Prime Minister and his cabinet are a key junction in the power architecture of Iraq, and it was this point that became the focus of struggle. All parties had to trade concessions and search for compromise. A way out of the deadlock was ultimately found, and the solution was not in favour of Prime Minister al-Abadi. Several days before the election it was clear that the pendulum had swung in favour of former Minister of Oil and Vice President of Iraq Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
The country continued to be run based on the quota principle of Muhasasa Ta’ifia, with a member of the Kurdish community as president, a Sunnite as a parliament speaker and a Shiite as prime minister. In reality, the system that had been established remains essential for Iraq. External forces, both in Iran and the United States, continue to work with Shiite political and military groups. They remain an organized force and are viewed as the basis for security and statehood, just as they were before the 2018 elections.
U.S.–Iran Relations under Donald Trump and Challenges for Iraq’s Political Elite
Iraq has traditionally been influenced by the dynamics of U.S.–Iran relations. The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 reduced friction between the United States and Iran, strengthened pragmatic groups within the Islamic Republic, and created relatively favourable conditions for stabilization both in the region and in the Iraqi domestic political process. By the end of 2017, Baghdad had regained control of key cities and settlements largely thanks to the efforts of the al-Abadi government to coordinate the assistance of the two opponents and most important players in the region (the United States and Iran) in the fight against ISIS. However, with the defeat of ISIS and the removal of the topic from the global agenda, the United States and Iran no longer had any grounds for further “silent” engagement, so it ceased.
A new round of confrontation began following the arrival of the Donald Trump administration in 2018 and the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, which put Iraq in an uncomfortable position. The U.S. sanctions against Iran that followed Trump’s decision caused serious damage to the country’s economy and endangered any agreements between Tehran and third countries due to the extraterritorial nature of the sanctions. For example, under the threat of sanctions, the French concern Total withdrew from the largest project to develop the South Pars oil and gas field by selling its stake to the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
Large-scale U.S. sanctions against Iran could cause serious damage to Iraq due to the interdependence of the economies of these neighbouring countries. Iraqi representatives have held regular meetings with members of the U.S. administration, stressing the need for the country to cooperate with Iran. Baghdad has been able to secure several deferrals, and Washington has exempted Iraq from the sanctions regime (for 90 days each time).
Iran continues to be a vital source of electricity for Iraq. However, even though there is a need to replace Iranian oil on the world market – and Washington is working on this task – there is an increasing role for Iraqi oil in it. If the American side decides to stick to its policies, then it can also impose sanctions against Iraq, which will lead to increased risks and instability.
Constant pressure on Tehran did not lead to a revision of the “Iran deal,” which is what President Trump initially wanted. In such circumstances, Iran could have set about escalating regional affairs. In this case, it had the tools to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East and, of course, in Iraq. For a long time, Major General and Commander of the Quds Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran, Qasem Soleimani, was considered the key coordinator of Iranian actions in Iraq. He is credited with many of the achievements of Iranian politics in Iraq, including the agreement on the results of the elections and nullifying the results of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.
Iran demonstrated particular care and accuracy in establishing its influence on the Iraqi political process after the Iraqi elections in 2018. During their visits to Iraq in 2019, both Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani held meetings with almost all political leaders and public figures over the course of several days. Unlike the Iranian side, U.S. representatives usually arrived with unplanned visits. On one such occasion, Donald Trump personally flew to Iraq to visit an American base, where he met with soldiers. The trip did not include meetings with any leaders of the variegated Iraqi political spectrum.
Iraq’s foreign policy as a whole became more balanced after the formation of the new government, where Mohamed Ali Alhakim stood at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Iraq prefers to have several points of reference to help it pursue its course. For example, while visiting Moscow, Alhakim outlined Iraq’s principled position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, a policy which runs counter to the U.S. agenda in the region. At the same time, Baghdad has its own interests, namely, to ensure security on the Syria–Iraq border. In addition to cooperating with the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Iraq interacts with Iran, Russia and Syria within the framework of the Baghdad information and coordination centre. At the regional level, Iraq seeks to become a platform for dialogue between various regional and global actors .
Since 2003, the United States and Iran have gained serious influence on the formation of the Iraqi elite. The new Iraqi elite, as well as its individual parts, has been influenced by the policies of Iran and the United States and the dynamics of their relations. Many politicians who came to power in Iraq after 2003 were previously in opposition and lived in exile. Part of this future elite has made a choice in favour of the West, while a much larger part has chosen Iran. After the 2018 elections in Iraq, the processes of distributing power and determining the degree of influence of external players continued.
It became increasingly clear that the elements of Iraqi politics that had become traditional since 2003 had been preserved. The political forces that had established themselves at that time and the external players supporting them – the United States and Iran – continue to perpetuate this system. At the same time, there are calls within the country to eliminate the influence of external players in determining the country’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. This, of course, creates opportunities for other countries to pursue their interests, such as the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Russia, but also makes them adjust their policies regarding the United States and Iran, which have a traditional presence in Iraq.
The unintended symbiosis between Iran and the United States in Iraq, brought about by the similarity of their interests in this country, is gradually being lost as the fight against ISIS fades into the background. Notwithstanding the fact that the 2018 elections and the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran created a new configuration of forces, Iraq remains dependent on these external players, and its political elite continues to be based on the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system, approved by the country in 2003. Despite the demand for change that exists in Iraqi society, the current political elite, even though it may sacrifice individual political representatives, will retain its position without any fundamental changes.
1. Sapronova М. А. The Constitution of Iraq in the Past and in the Present. Moscow: Middle East Institute, 2005, p. 84.
2. Hashemi N., Postel D. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 117.
3. Minyazhetdinov I. K. The Balkanization of Iraq: The Factors of Reproduction and the Spread of Political Violence // Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century (Middle East and North Africa). Moscow: Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2015, p. 263.
6. Sapronova M.A. Op. Cit, p. 88.
From our partner RIAC
Iran, CPEC and regional connectivity
Ever since taking over as President, Donald Trump’s approach towards Iran has been excessively rash and lacked nuance. US withdrawal from JCPOA (Joint Comprehension for Plan of Action) imposition of sanctions and brash statements by Trump have heightened tensions between both countries. Allies of the US, including EU member states (especially Germany and France) expressed their disapproval of Trump’s Iran policy on numerous occasions.
In August 2019, during the G7 Summit at Biarritz (France) it seemed, that Trump may change his approach towards Iran. The US President expressed his openness to engaging with Iran and dubbed it as a country of immense potential. After the attack on Saudi Oil facilities, there has been a visible shift in the approach of Germany, France and UK towards Iran. All three countries blamed Iran for the attacks. In a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) these three countries issued a statement condemning the attack. They also held Iran squarely responsible for the attack. Said the joint statement, issued by three countries:
‘It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack,’
Why China is giving importance to Iran
The fact, that Tehran is rich in natural resources, and its geographical location which makes it important in the context of connectivity in South Asia and Central Asia (especially in the context of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC).
This is one of the main reasons for Beijing seeking to strengthen ties in spite of US withdrawal from JCPOA and imposition of sanctions by the Trump administration. The importance of Iran in China’s strategic goals is reiterated from the fact, that it is part of the ‘home affairs region’.
In January 2016 (months after the JCPOA was signed), Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran. During his visit, it was decided, that China and Iran would expand their bilateral trade to 600 Billion USD over a period of 10 years. Iran also welcomed, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
According to the joint statement, ‘The Iranian side welcomes “the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative introduced by China’. As Iran-US ties have gone downhill under Donald Trump, Beijing has continued to strengthen ties with Tehran.
Both sides also a document which outlined the strategic vision for a period of 25 years.
In September 2019, China made a commitment of 400 Billion USD during Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif’s visit to China. While China will invest $280bn USD in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemicals sectors, 120 Billion USD would be invested in Iran’s infrastructure.
China’s State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of the country’s “big three” producers, holds an 80% stake in Phase 11 of the supergiant South Pars gas field ( CNPC stepped in after France’s Total withdrew in 2018 after the imposition of sanctions by the US). So far China has been slow in the development of Phase 11, but it is likely to accelerate the pace of the project. Similarly, Beijing has assured Iran, that it will increase production from the West Karoun Oil fields (from 5% to 25% by 2021)
China is financing some important infrastructural projects in Iran. This includes, the electrification of theTehran-Masshad railway line (a contract between both countries was signed in 2017, and the cost of this project is estimated at 1.5Billion USD). The other key project, where China will be involved is the Qom-Isfahan high-speed train line, and to extend this upgraded network up to the north-west through Tabriz (which is the starting point of the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline). Tabriz is also home to a number of energy projects. This project is especially important in the context of China’s connectivity goals, as it will connect Urumqi (Xinjiang) to Tehran, Central Asia and Europe.
At a recent meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which has 10 member states (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyz Republic) reviewed studies pertaining to a number of important projects pertaining to Iran, including the Iran-Turkey-Pakistan economic corridor (such a corridor will help in facilitation of hard and soft infrastructure).
Islamabad with has had an unpredictable relationship with Tehran has also begun to warm up. In February 2019, after the killing of 27 revolutionary guards, Chief, of Revolutionary Guards Major General Mohammad Ali Jafar issued a stern warning to Pakistan:
“Why do Pakistan‘s army and security body … give refuge to these anti-revolutionary groups? Pakistan will no doubt pay a high price,”
In 2017, after the killing of 10 Border guards, head of the Iranian armed forces, Major-General Mohammad Baqeri, had warned Pakistan, that it should take action against the Jaishal Adl group lest it will be forced to strike the terror camps in Pakistan.
A visit to Iran by Pakistan Army Chief, Qamar JavedBajwa in November 2017 (it was the first visit by a Pakistan army chief to Iran in 2 decades). During his visit, Bajwa met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, Defense Minister Amir Hatami, apart from senior military officials.
Some high level exchanges in 2018, also sought to mend ties and address misgivings between both countries.
In spite of bilateral tensions, Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif while speaking at a prominent Islamabad based think tank Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad invited Pakistan to join the Chabahar Project. The Iranian Foreign Minister also made the point, that Tehran was exploring participation in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In May 2019, Iran had mooted the idea of connecting Chabahar Port with Gwadar.
Interestingly, India has taken over operations of part of the 1stphase of Chabahar in 2018. A statement, issued by the Ministry of Shipping stated:
The Government of India took over the operations of a part of Shahid Beheshti Port, Chabahar, in Iranduring the Chabahar Trilateral Agreement meeting held there on December 24, 2018,”
Initially Chabahar was perceived as a counter to Gwadar Port (Baluchistan). Both ports are 70 kilometres apart. New Delhi had invested in Chabahar with a view to get access to Afghanistan and Central Asia (Pakistan for long has refused to grant India transit rights to Afghanistan).
Ever since the removal of exemptions from US, Tehran and New Delhi ties have been witness to some differences. Iran has complained of New Delhi toeing US line, and failing to stand up to Washington unlike Beijing. Senior Iranian diplomats have complained on numerous occasions, about the slow progress on Chabahar Port, and the trilateral connectivity. The Iranian Foreign Minister’s proposal to connect Chabahar with Gwadar, needs to be viewed in this context.
More recently, Iranian Foreign Minister made a similar point echoing these views. He also said that Tehran would have expected India to be more ‘resilient’.
Indian PM Modi did however, meet Iranian President on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2019
While New Delhi-Iran ties have witnessed a slight deterioration. Iran-Pakistan ties have witnessed an upswing. In his first speech, after his party’s triumph Khan had said that he would seek to improve ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. In his first telephonic conversation with Rouhani, Khan stated that he wanted to build special trade relations with Iran.
In his first few months after taking over, Khan due to economic constraints, focused more on Saudi Arabia (Riyadh promised 6 Billion USD in assistance)
In recent months, Imran Khan has sought to play peacemaker between Iran and Saudi Arabia, after the attack on a Saudi Oil facility. Imran Khan visited both Riyadh and Tehran in October 2019. Khan also stated, that he was entrusted with this responsibility by US President Donald Trump.
Significantly, Iran praised Imran Khan for his efforts in trying to bring about peace in the Middle East. At a joint press conference, the Iranian President said:
“I told Prime Minster Imran [Khan] we welcome any gesture by Pakistan for peace in the region and appreciate his visit to our country,”
Pakistan Army Chief Qamar JavedBajwa also visited Tehran in November 2019, and sought to strengthen defence ties between both countries. Apart from meeting with the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri and Army Commander Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi the Pakistan Army Chief also met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
There have also been some interesting developments in the context of Iran-Pakistan relations in the context of connectivity and economic relations. Another interesting development is Pakistan’s recent idea of getting Iran on board the CPEC project.
He also stated, that CPEC needed to be projected, as a potential connector between China and Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it
Islamabad’s decision to invite Iran to join CPEC, clearly reiterates Iran’s crucial location. It remains to be seen, how the Tehran-Islamabad-New Delhi trilateral will work out in the near future.
Need to look beyond a zero-sum approach
While it is easy to look at connectivity from a zero-sum perspective, a change in Pakistan’s approach and statesmanship from the Indian side, could pave the way for a fresh approach towards connectivity. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran can join hands. Such connectivity need not be under the rubric of CPEC, but could be driven by Pakistan providing land access to India to Afghanistan and Central Asia. At the inaugural function of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor, the need for re-examining bilateral ties, as well as regional connectivity was alluded to. Former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh had also spoken of trilateral cooperation between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Said Manmohan Singh:
“I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live”
In conclusion, Tehran may be facing domestic challenges, but it is crucial not just in the strategic context, but also connectivity in South Asia. It also remains to be seen, whether India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran can set aside their differences, and can work towards an inclusive ‘New Silk Road’.
Rojavan crisis: A big threat to women’s rights future
A war crime: The murder of Hevrin Khalaf is a slap in the face for those who believed in the...
The hi-tech war between China and the United States
The new directive of the Central Office of the Communist Party of China (CPC), issued on December 8, 2019, ordered...
ADB’s Transport Investments in Pacific Projected at Over $1 Billion for 2017–2020
The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) transport investments in the Pacific, comprised of 15 projects, is expected to reach over $1...
Hong Kong: No more China’s disheartened capitalism, please
Hong Kong’s unrest started in June 2019. It was triggered by the plans to allow extradition to mainland China. Critics...
The growing power of tourism
International tourist arrivals grew by a further 4% between January and September of 2019, the latest issue of the UNWTO...
More Companies and Government Ambition Required to Meet the “Net Zero” Challenge
Four years after the Paris Climate Agreement, tangible action from governments is falling short of trajectories needed to restrict global...
You, 16-year-old with the sad eyes
I think of you all the time, with love, with respect, with admiration. Why am I so sad? I lost...
Middle East3 days ago
Turkey’s presence in Syria
Middle East2 days ago
Iran, CPEC and regional connectivity
Europe2 days ago
Crossroads or a dead end: Do Germany and Europe face a triumph of indecision?
Middle East2 days ago
Algerian people shouted: No to corruption and mismanagement
South Asia3 days ago
The Torn Red Carpet: Welcome to Nepal in 2020
Energy2 days ago
Diverse notions of Energy Security in a Multi-polar World
Newsdesk3 days ago
Bangladesh Needs Climate Smart Investments for Higher Agricultural Growth
Newsdesk3 days ago
Cleaning Up Indonesia’s Urban Solid Waste