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Regional players manoeuvre to reengineer the Israeli Palestinian landscape

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A possible ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, is proving to be much more than an effort to end escalating violence that threatens to spark yet another Middle Eastern war.

United Arab Emirates-backed Egyptian and United Nations efforts to mediate an agreement, with the two countries’ nemesis, Qatar, in the background, are about not only preventing months-long weekly protests along the line that divides Gaza and Israel and repeated rocket and kite-mounted incendiary device attacks on Israel that provoke Israeli military strikes in response from spinning out of control.

They constitute yet another round in an Israeli-supported effort to politically, economically and militarily weaken Hamas and pave the road for a possible return to Palestine of Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief Mohmmed Dahlan as a future successor to ailing Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Ironically, Israeli discussions with representatives of Qatar that has long supported Gaza constitute recognition of the utility of Qatar’s long-standing relations with Islamists and militants that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain cited as the reason for their 15-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state.

Israel and Egypt have agreed that Qatar would pay the salaries of tens of thousands of government employees in Gaza. Mr. Abbas has refused to pay the salaries as part of an Israeli-UAE-Saudi-backed effort to undermine Hamas’ control of Gaza and give the Palestine Authority a key role in its administration. In response to a request by Mr. Abbas, Israel, moreover, reduced electricity supplies, leaving Gazans with only 3-4 hours of power a day.

Qatar has also been negotiating the return by Hamas of two Israeli nationals held captive as well as the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014 in Gaza.

Mr. Abbas’ economic warfare was the latest tightening of the noose in a more than a decade-long Israeli-Egyptian effort to strangle Gaza economically. Included in the moves to negotiate a long-term Israeli-Hamas ceasefire are proposals for significant steps to ease the blockade.

In a statement on Facebook, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel’s goal was to “remove the Hamas terror group from power, or force it to change its approach, i.e., recognize Israel’s right to exist and accept the principle of rebuilding in exchange for demilitarization.”

Mr Lieberman said he wanted to achieve that by “creating conditions in which the average resident of Gaza will take steps to replace the Hamas regime with a more pragmatic government” rather than through military force.

Ironically, involving Qatar in the efforts to prevent Gaza from escalating out of hand gives it a foot in the door as the UAE seeks to put a Palestinian leader in place more attuned to Emirati and Saudi willingness to accommodate the Trump administration’s controversial efforts to negotiate an overall Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Speaking in a series of interviews, Qatari Ambassador to the Palestinian territories Mohammed al-Emadi, insisted that “it is very difficult to fund the reconstruction of Gaza in an event of yet another destructive war.” He said he had “discussed a maximum of five- to 10-year cease-fire with Hamas.”

Mr. Abbas, like Hamas has rejected US mediation following President Donald J. Trump’s recognition earlier this year of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Mr. Trump startled Israelis and Palestinians this week by saying that Israel would pay a “higher price” for his recognition of Jerusalem and that Palestinians would “get something very good” in return  “because it’s their turn next.” Mr. Trump gave no indication of what he meant.

The effort to negotiate a lasting ceasefire is the latest round in a so far failed UAE-Egyptian effort to return Mr. Dahlan to Palestine as part of a reconciliation between Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement. Mr. Dahlan frequently does UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s bidding.

US President George W. Bush described Mr. Dahlan during an internecine Palestinian power struggle in 2007 as “our boy.” Mr. Dahlan is believed to have close ties to Mr. Lieberman.

Hamas has since late March backed weekly mass protests by Gazans demanding the right to return to homes in Israel proper that they lost with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and in the 1967 Middle East war in an effort to force an end to the economic stranglehold. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said this week that “thanks to these marches and resistance” an end to Israel’s decade-long blockade of Gaza was “around the corner.”

Some 170 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and 18,000 others wounded in Israel’s hard-handed response to the protests designed to prevent protesters from breeching the fence that divides Gaza from Israel.

Ironically, Mr. Abbas may prove to be the loser as Israel and Hamas inch towards a ceasefire arrangement that could ultimately give Mr. Dahlan a role in administering the Gaza Strip.

Gaza has become a de facto state as it comprises a set area with a central body that governs the population, has an army and conducts foreign policy. So, in a way, countries have to be pragmatic and negotiate with Hamas. Israel’s main interest is security—a period of complete calm in Gaza—and it is willing to do what is necessary to achieve this,” said Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council.

“Until recently, Cairo insisted that Abbas re-assume control over Gaza, which Hamas would not accept, specifically the call for it to disarm. Now, Egypt understands that this is not realistic and is only demanding that Hamas prevent (the Islamic State’s affiliate) in the Sinai from smuggling in weaponry. The only party that is unhappy with this arrangement is Abbas. who has been left behind. But this is his problem,” Mr., Eiland added.

A Hamas-Israel ceasefire and the possible return of Mr. Dahlan are likely to be but the first steps in a UAE-Egyptian-Israeli backed strategy to engineer the emergence of a Palestinian leadership more amenable to negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a geo-political environment that favours Israel.

Whether Mr. Trump’s remark that Israel would have to pay a price for his recognition of Jerusalem was a shot from the hip or part of a broader strategy is hard to discern. The White House has since sought to roll back Mr. Trump’s remarks.

With the jury still out Israelis, Palestinians and their regional allies have nonetheless been put on alert as they manoeuvre to ensure their place in whatever emerges from efforts to reengineer the political landscape.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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The battle for Libya: The UAE calls the shots

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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This week’s inauguration of a new Red Sea Egyptian military base was pregnant with the symbolism of the rivalries shaping the future of the Middle East as well as north and east Africa.

The inauguration took on added significance as rebel Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, backed by United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, snubbed Russian president Vladimir Putin by refusing to agree to a ceasefire in the Libyan war.

Mr. Haftar’s refusal thwarted, at least temporarily, an effort by Mr. Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to structure the ceasefire so that it would align opposing Russian and Turkish interests, allow the two parties to cooperate in the exploitation of Libya’s energy resources, and protect a Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement creating an Exclusive Economic Zone that strengthens Russian-backed Turkish manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean.

The manoeuvres are designed to thwart a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli agreement to build a pipeline that would supply gas to Europe, reducing European dependence on Russian gas in the process.

Critics charge that the maritime agreement that would limit Greek-Cypriot Israeli access to hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, violates the Law of the Sea.

Warning that it would block European Union backing for any Libyan peace deal as long as the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement was in place, Greece was one of the countries Mr. Haftar visited in the days between his rejection of a ceasefire and a conference on Libya hosted by Germany that is scheduled to be held in Berlin on January 19.

Mr. Haftar’s rejection came as Turkish troops arrived in Libya to bolster forces of the internationally recognized government of prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj defending the capital Tripoli against an eight-month old assault by the field marshal’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) that is backed by Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Kremlin, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Prince Mohammed’s presence at the inauguration of the Egyptian naval base underlined the UAE’s influence in Egypt since it backed Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratic elected president and the Emirates’ determination to counter Islamist forces as well as Turkish influence in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

UAE and Egyptian backing of Mr. Haftar is not just about countering jihadist and non-jihadist Islamists as well as Turkey, but also Qatar, Turkey’s ally, which also supports the Libyan rebels.

The UAE-Turkish-Qatari proxy war in Libya is increasingly also coloured by Prince Mohammed and Mr. Al-Sisi’s opposition to efforts to resolve divisions among the Gulf states that spilled into the open with the declaration of a Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in 2017.

Saudi Arabia has hinted in recent months that it may be amenable to an easing of the boycott, a move that is believed to be opposed by the UAE as long as Qatar does not make significant concessions on issues like freewheeling broadcaster Al Jazeera and support for political Islam.

The new naval base’s location symbolizes Egypt’s conundrum that also poses a problem for the UAE at a time that Egypt is at odds with Ethiopia over the operation of a giant dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

Stepping up involvement in Libya risks Egypt becoming embroiled in two conflicts at the same time.

Egypt claims the dam puts a million Egyptian jobs, US$1.8 billion in economic output annually and electricity valued at US$300 million at risk.

The base is aimed at “securing the country’s southern coasts, protecting economic investments and natural resources and facing security threats in the Red Sea,” according to a spokesman for Mr. Al-Sisi.

The president has warned that Egypt would take all the necessary measures to protect its rights to the Nile waters.

So far, Egypt is banking on mediation helping it avoiding being trapped between a rock and a hard place by achieving a ceasefire in Libya that would keep Egypt’s hands free to deal with Ethiopia were a conflict to erupt.

The question is whether Mr. Haftar, who without signing the ceasefire agreement reportedly told German officials that he would adhere to its terms, and the UAE are willing to play ball.

The proof will be in the pudding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes by insisting in advance of the Berlin talks that they ensure “that the weapons embargo is adhered to again.”

The United Nations has accused the UAE together with several other countries, including Turkey, of violating the UN embargo.

As a result, it may be the UAE rather than Mr. Haftar who has a decisive voice in Berlin.

Said North Africa expert Ben Fishman: “Until Abu Dhabi pulls back its drones, operators, and other crucial military support, the prospects for Libya’s stability will remain dim. Besides the fact that they provide the greatest advantage to Haftar’s forces, focusing on the Emiratis also makes sense because the other foreign players currently have reasons to de-escalate on their own.”

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Berlin Conference on Libya

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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What are the strategic, military and political differences between the war in Libya of  2011-2012 and the current conflict in post-Gaddafi Libya?

There are many differences. The first one is that the powers that started the clash between an ambiguous Cyrenaic “entity”, with strong jihadist connotations (it should be recalled that, also with Gaddafi, Cyrenaica was the greatest geographical area from which the jihadists of the Afghan and Central Asian wars originated) and the Tripolitan entity were, at the time, separate and almost all Western entities. Currently, those who command and rule on the ground in Libya are only formally subject to a droit de regard of other powers outside the Middle East or Asia.

Due to its sloth, the whole of Europe is about to disappear from the Maghreb region and, in the future, from Africa. Moreover, the latter would be the “complementary continent” of the Eurasian peninsula.

 The proxy war between Colonel Gaddafi who, in any case, acted proudly alone, except for a limited Chinese and East Slavic support, and the Jihadist friends of the West in Cyrenaica – where the tradition of specific Islamic radicalism (the Senussite brotherhood) was still strong – was the last operation of the unfortunate and foolish U.S. project of the “Arab Springs”, based on the techniques of “unorthodox, but non-violent and mass warfare” developed at the time by the Albert Einstein Foundation, an association promoted by Gene Sharp in 1983.

As a CIA Vice-Director said, the idea of the “Arab springs” was “to avoid any contact between the Arab crowds and Al Qaeda” and hence to make the Arab crowds turn against the jihad.

Needless to add anything else, History has already taught us its lesson.

Currently the great proxy war has turned into a great operation in which the major points of reference for the forces on the ground in Libya are not ahead, but are strategically following their forces of reference on the ground in Libya.

Because power relations count on the ground while, as Giacomo Leopardi taught us, the “belle fole” are ineffective and illusory.

In the Berlin Conference, General Haftar – the strong man of Cyrenaica’s Government – presents himself with a never fully completed and unsuccessful advance towards Tripoli, in spite of the fact that the UN-sponsored government of al-Sarraj had important defections from the qatibe group of Misrata and that the forces of former Colonel Gaddafi have now reached Tripoli suburbs, as well as in spite of the fact that the financial and operational support from  Egypt – especially now-from the Russian Federation, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia has never ceased.

Due to his poor health and to “keep” its troops under control, which could disperse exactly as those of al-Sarraj, General Haftar needs a symbolic, but also politically effective and quick victory against the people of Cyrenaica, once hated by the people of Tripolitania.

 King Idriss II, the last Libyan monarch before Gaddafi’s coup, organized by the Italian intelligence Services, boasted of “having never been to Tripoli”.

Hence Khalifa Haftar, the man who was harshly punished by Colonel Gaddafi himself for his clumsy operation in Chad – the long and decades-long Libyan operation in the South to repel the pro-French forces of Tombalbaye and Hissene Habrè – has not yet won and cannot fail to win in a short lapse of time. Otherwise he becomes irrelevant to its supporters and will lose his social and economic credibility, which is essential in this type of war.

However the Russian Federation, which has openly supported him and which still holds him in high esteem, does not want rash decisions and presses for an agreement with Turkey enabling Russia to act as a real mediator, since Westerners still talk about irrelevant issues with the representatives of al-Serraj, the man still surrounded in his palace on Tripoli’s port, at which h arrived – just appointed by the United Nations without any particular rational reason – by sea, because he knew that he would immediately be taken out or killed in Tripolitania’s airport of Mitiga.

Russia wants to exploit – in a short lapse of time – the strategic void that is on the ground and in Western decision-makers’ minds.

Therefore, it needs a quick agreement between the Libyan parties to exploit the central role played by Russia and hence dictate its own conditions to Italy, Germany, France and Turkey, with which there are other Russian outstanding issues, as well as with the other players in the Gulf, who still do not know how to make the most of the new tension on the ground between the United States and Iran, which could start operating again in Libya through Qatar and, possibly, with its own expeditionary force, organized by the new leadership of the Al Quds Force, full of Syrian Shiites and former collaborators of the Pasdaran Iranian forces in Syria.

Exactly the same as Turkey is doing, by sending – from the Northern Syrian areas currently acquired by Turkey –  the Syrian “Turkish” jihadists, who were created and trained by MIT, i.e. Erdogan’s intelligence Services, to support the “Muslim brother” al-Sarraj.

 In other words, it is the division and/or availability of the proxy players, the fighters on the Libyan ground, which determines the behaviour of their “great” points of reference, not vice versa.

 Furthermore, in the Russian Federation, the new political configuration of the country’s leadership is not irrelevant to Russia’s engagement in Libya.

With his new reform of the representative system and the Russian government, announced on January 16, President Putin wants to reassure himself of the possibility of appointing his future successor, without particular contracts and agreements with other Russian power groups and lobbies.

 The Russian power, which has long been firmly in Vladimir Putin’s hands, now finds itself more divided and less malleable in the hands of the current Kremlin’s nomenklatura.

The latter is changing its skin and is probably also using the street riots against President Putin to push for a new power struggle between Putin’s “heirs apparent”, thus forcing him to make unavoidable choices even in foreign policy.

In the future President Putin probably wants to concentrate on Europe and on the economic transformation of his country and he will be ever less interested in embarking on peripheral adventures than in his primary goal, which will be the internal economic and social reconstruction and the stability of his Near East.

Nevertheless the former Head of the Russian intelligence Services no longer has in his hands – smoothly and without discussion – his old “power elite”, whom he wants to radically reform, also with the pretext – or perhaps the real intention – of eradicating “corruption”.

Therefore even President Putin cannot play all his cards in the Berlin Conference.

France almost explicitly says it wants to extend the truce in Libya, waiting for better times, which will never come. It also wants small hegemony over the possible agreement between al-Sarraj and General Haftar.

 Even if there were an agreement, it would not be determined by France or Italy, but by the real forces on the ground, that is to say by the actual power of the local military organisations, all of which are almost in non-European hands.

 Even if there were an agreement, the fact of stating at first want you want shows the existence of suicidal ideation.

 What does France really want, whose intelligence services are at the origin of the first scenes of the insurgency, supported by a phantom section of the Parisian “association for human rights”, Libyan section – and which today, for the most part, is still behind General Haftar? Certainly, for obvious anti-ENI reasons.

 First of all, France wants – from General Haftar- the management of the oil reserves between the East, Sirte and the first part of Tripolitania in favour of France, as well as strategic control of the Libyan South for further exploration by Total, which should achieve the objective No.1 of the French presence in Libya since 2011, i.e. the taking of ENI and Italy’s total expulsion from the Maghreb region.

 Russia instead wants-at the very least – to reach the goal of a military base in Cyrenaica, which should change Russia’s whole strategic equation vis-à-vis the EU, although Europe is not yet aware of this.

  This is not fully incompatible with certain Italian interests, which could play Russia against France.

 Russia is not interested in those who control Libyan oil from the Eastern and central areas of the country, but in those who supply it to it better and at a lower price.

 Moreover, France wants to hegemonize the new “interposition force” that should be established by the United Nations.

 Here the Italian government’s ambiguities have been dangerous and sometimes funny.

 Firstly, there was the idea of entrusting everything to Europe, an organization that certainly has a “deep void” as Foreign Affairs Commissioner – albeit I am not referring to the current Commissioner Borrell – but neither does it have any credible political and military organization for out-of-area operations.

 Which EU structure should deal with the pacification of Libya?

 The political and military Group? The European Union Military Committee (EUMC), which “provides military advice to the CFSP” (the EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner) and is currently chaired by the Italian General Graziano?

 It is not suitable to command and control, but only to ask the EU Member States what they want to do with their individual Armed Forces.

Furthermore – just to use a metaphor – when there are always many of us at lunch, we must always know who pays.

The Italian idea of replicating Unifil II, the 20-year-old adverse possession of a large part of South Lebanon, which was not even able to stop Hezbollah’s “little war” of August 2006 against Israel is not a model, but just naivety.

Unifil is something different from an area ban or an Interposition Force. It is a political-military platform for the whole Middle East, where everyone talks to everyone, but sheltered from everyone, which could not be the case for a Force between al-Sarraj and Haftar.

 I also have the strong impression that, after the statements made by Italian Prime Minister Conte and Foreign Minister Di Maio regarding the fact that the Italian soldiers (Who? Those recalled from other African or Middle East positions, connected to Libya and no less important than it?) “will never be engaged, for any reason, in armed actions”, all the other EU Member States got a good laugh out of it.

 So what does Italy want to do with the Interposition Forces, whose Rules of Engagement are also inevitably drawn up by the United Nations, not by Italy?

  Probably, the idea is for it to be a sort of unarmed security guard for some international judges, who will verify without being able to notify the truce breaks. Hence it would be like the global export of the “Clean Hand Operation”, the judicial probe which is at the origin of Italy’s poor “Second Republic”, rather than the development of a smart Italian policy for the Maghreb region.

From the very beginning, Italy- intoxicated from its supposed Kantian ethicality, but still proud of its “Article 11” of the Constitution – has declared, as a country defeated in World War II, that it still wants to be so and to remain so sine die.

 The Armed Forces of any country are like the bank deposit of any foreign policy.

 If decisions are taken without the Forces’ cash that serves to put them into practice and, above all, to force the others to accept the geopolitical stare decisis, hence decisions or blank checks are issued.

Hence what does Italy want from Libya and from the next Berlin Conference?

 To be expelled from North Africa, which is essential for its energy and material-military security, as well as for civilian and military communications.

 Italy now plays the role of the geopolitical waiter, a role not far from some of the professions actually carried out by some of the current decision-makers until a few years ago.

Just to use again a metaphor, currently Italy prefers to pick up crumbs and concessions – which will not be there – from the African meal of others.

Moreover, in a context where – as is right -the following countries have been invited to the Berlin Conference: Algeria, which we have also lost; China, which is very interested in the Libyan reconstruction business; the African Union, which will represent above all the interests of the sub-Saharan countries; the Arab League, which will set great store by a stable pacification of the jihad with the rest of the African Muslim community, so as to take the jihad out of Westerners’ hands; the Republic of Congo, ready to play an important role for its internal energy and economic reconstruction needs; Egypt, which wants to take General Haftar out of the other Middle East players’ hands to use him as a force for redesigning Egypt’s Western security and against the expansion – through Turkey – of the Islamic Brotherhood, i.e. enemy No.1 of Al Sisi’s power; the United Arab Emirates, which want to obtain the maximum economic and political leverage from their new and unusual position in the Maghreb region, designed to exclude much of “Old Europe”.

 Saudi Arabia – also central to General Haftar – does not want to go against the United States and Israel, thus increasing its commitment to the Tobruk government that organizes Haftar’s policy, but it also wants to maintain a sound hegemony over the Maghreb region against Turkey (but without harming its good relations with Russia and the United States, still essential for its regional Wahhabi wars). Hence support to General Haftar, but wisely and with discretion.

What does Turkey want? Currently it strongly supports al-Sarraj, backed  also by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose primary point of reference is Qatar, an ambiguous correlator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with whom it has decisive economic relations. Erdogan wants a Tripolitania that has fallen into Turkey’s hands because Italy has not been able – or rather has not wanted – to support it militarily, possibly also with a real interposition force – not a newly-armed escort for the Maghreb “Clean Hand Operation”.

Turkey also wants strategic continuity between its very recent oil and gas agreements with Tripolitania – primarily maritime continuity, but which needs a very efficient land coverage.

 Even this redesign of the SAR and the Maritime Control Areas, which are by nature bilateral agreements, will see Italy excluded from the direct control of its ENI oil networks from central Libya to the Libyan coast. And this is no coincidence, considering that Tunisia – a possible Italian alternative to the restriction of ENI’s Libyan area – has not yet been invited to the Berlin Conference of January 19, 2020.

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Iran crisis: A high-stakes bet on who blinks first

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Two sets of US government cables suggest that Iran hawks in and outside the Trump administration appear to have the upper hand as European countries give hardliners a helping hand by attempting to force Iran to seek a diplomatic solution to a crisis that threatens to engulf the Middle East in yet another military conflict.

Disclosure of the cables advocating a military strike such as this month’s killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani coupled with the withdrawal of a US State Department olive branch that was intended to reassure Iran about the Trump administration’s intentions appear designed to persuade the Islamic republic to back away from its strategy of gradual escalation.

The strategy aims to engineer a situation in which a return to negotiations on the basis of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program is the only way to avoid an all-out war. The Trump administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and has since imposed ever harsher economic sanctions on Iran.

Hardliners in Washington believe Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests days after millions of Iranians came out to mourn Mr. Soleimani’s death in what Iranian leaders project as a rallying around the regime is a proof of concept of their approach.

The hard-liners’ strategy was spelled out in a series of unclassified memos sent by David Wurmser, a close associate of John Bolton, while Mr. Bolton was serving as national security advise to President Donald J. Trump. The memos projected a US military operation on the scale of the killing of a Mr. Soleimani as a way of destabilizing the government in Tehran.

Mr. Wurmser’s advice was in line with proposals for destabilizing Iran presented to the White House by Mr. Bolton in the months before his appointment. Mr. Bolton was fired by Mr. Trump in September of last year.

“Iran has always been careful to execute its ambitions and aggressive aims incrementally to avoid Western reactions which depart from the expected. In contrast, were unexpected, rule-changing actions taken against Iran, it would confuse the regime. It would need to scramble,” Mr. Wurmser wrote.

 Such a U.S. attack would “rattle the delicate internal balance of forces and the control over them upon which the regime depends for stability and survival… Iranians would both be impressed and potentially encouraged by a targeted attack on symbols of repression,” Mr. Wurmser added.

The leaking of Mr. Wurmser’s memos coincided with a cable from the State Department to US diplomatic missions worldwide that walked back an instruction earlier this month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to limit contacts with Iranian opposition and exile groups in a bid to reassure Iran that the Trump administration was not seeking regime change in Tehran.

The Pompeo cable seemed to be a first step at bridging the gulf of distrust between Washington and Tehran that makes a resolution of the two countries’ differences all but impossible. Iran has long been convinced that regime change is the main driver of US policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Pompeo’s instruction came on the heels of Mr. Trump’s decision not to respond to Iranian missile attacks on US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Mr. Soleimani.

With the government in Tehran on the backfoot as a result of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and renewed anti-government protests, leaders of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 nuclear accord, appear to be buying into the strategy of the Washington hardliners.

The Europeans, responding to Iran’s gradual withdrawal from its commitments under the accord as part of its strategy of gradual escalation, this week triggered its dispute resolution mechanism, that could put Iran’s actions on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and lead to a re-imposition of international sanctions.

British prime minister Boris Johnson further raised the stakes by telling the BBC that he would be willing to back an as yet non-existent proposal by Mr. Trump for a new agreement with Iran. “If we are going to get rid of it (the nuclear accord), then we need a replacement,” Mr. Johnson said.

The proof will be in the pudding whether the two-pronged stepping up of US and European pressure on Iran will be sufficient to engineer a breakthrough in efforts to avert escalating tension and a return to the negotiating table.

So far, Iran’s response suggests tensions may have to further escalate before parties, all of whom do not want an all-out war, pull back from the brink.

In a first, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, insisting that all foreign forces should leave the Middle East, warned, in response to the European move and statements, that British, French and German troops may be in danger.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Mr. Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting.

Said a Western diplomat, spelling out European thinking: “This allows us to buy time while making clear to Iran that they cannot continue on this path of non-compliance with no consequences.”

For now, it’s a high stakes poker bet on who blinks first.

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