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Attack in Iran raises spectre of a potentially far larger conflagration

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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An attack on a military parade in the southern Iranian city of Ahwaz is likely to prompt Iranian retaliation against opposition groups at home and abroad. It also deepens Iranian fears that the United States. Saudi Arabia and others may seek to destabilize the country by instigating unrest among its ethnic minorities.

With competing claims of responsibility by the Islamic State and the Ahvaz National Resistance for the attack that killed 29 people and wounded 70 others in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which borders on Iraq and is home to Iran’s ethnic Arab community, it is hard to determine with certainty the affiliation of the four perpetrators, all of whom were killed in the incident.

Statements by Iranian officials, however, accusing the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, suggest that they see the Ahvaz group rather than the Islamic State as responsible for the incident, the worst since the Islamic State attacked the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in 2017.

Iran’s summoning, in the wake of the attack, of the ambassadors of Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark, countries from which Iranian opposition groups operate, comes at an awkward moment for Tehran.

It complicates Iranian efforts to ensure that European measures effectively neutralize potentially crippling US sanctions that are being imposed as a result of the US withdrawal in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

Ahvaz-related violence last year spilled on to the street of The Hague when unidentified gunmen killed Ahwazi activist Ahmad Mola Nissi. Mr. Nissi was shot dead days before he was scheduled to launch a Saudi-funded television station staffed with Saudi-trained personnel that would target Khuzestan, according to Ahvazi activists.

This week, a group of exile Iranian academics and political activists, led by The Hague-based social scientist Damon Golriz, announced the creation of a group that intends to campaign for a liberal democracy in Iran under the auspices of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted Shah of Iran who lives in the United States.

While Iran appears to be targeting exile groups in the wake of the Ahvaz attack, Iran itself has witnessed in recent years stepped up activity by various insurgent groups amid indications of Saudi support, leading to repeated clashes and interception of Kurdish, Baloch and other ethnic insurgents.

Last month, Azeri and Iranian Arab protests erupted in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned at the time in a primetime broadcast that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger at the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into “incendiary calls for regime change” by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

The People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), a controversial exiled opposition group that enjoys the support of serving and former Western officials, including some in the Trump administration, as well as prominent Saudis such as Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, who is believed to be close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has taken credit for a number of the protests in Khuzestan.

The incidents fit an emerging pattern, prompting suggestions that if a Gulf-backed group was responsible for this weekend’s attack, it may have been designed to provoke a more direct confrontation between Iran and the United States.

“If the terrorist attack in Ahvaz was part of a larger Saudi and UAE escalation in Iran, their goal is likely to goad Iran to retaliate and then use Tehran’s reaction to spark a larger war and force the US to enter since Riyadh and Abu Dhabi likely cannot take on Iran militarily alone… If so, the terrorist attack is as much about trapping Iran into war as it is to trap the US into a war of choice,” said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

Iran appears with its response to the Ahvaz attack to be saying that its fears of US and Saudi destabilization efforts are becoming reality. The Iranian view is not wholly unfounded.

Speaking in a private capacity on the same day as the attack in Ahvaz, US President Donald J. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, declared that US. sanctions were causing economic pain that could lead to a “successful revolution” in Iran.

“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Mr. Giuliani told an audience gathered in New York for an Iran Uprising Summit organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a Washington-based group associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.

Mr. Giuliani is together with John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, a long-standing supporter of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq that calls for the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime.

Mr. Bolton, last year before assuming office, drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan that envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition,” “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan and Baloch in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Balochistan province.

The Trump administration has officially shied away from formally endorsing the goal of toppling the regime in Tehran. Mr. Bolton, since becoming national security advisor, has insisted that US policy was to put “unprecedented pressure” on Iran to change its behaviour”, not its regime.

Messrs. Bolton and Giuliani’s inclination towards regime change is, however, shared by several US allies in the Middle East, and circumstantial evidence suggests that their views may be seeping into US policy moves without it being officially acknowledged.

Moreover, Saudi support for confrontation with Iran precedes Mr. Trump’s coming to office but has intensified since, in part as a result of King Salman’s ascendance to the Saudi throne in 2015 and the rise of his son, Prince Mohammed.

Already a decade ago, Saudi Arabia’s then King Abdullah urged the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.

Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that Khuzestan “is an Arab territory… Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925… It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.”

More recently, Prince Mohammed vowed that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent UAE scholar, who is believed to be close to Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, played into Iranian assertions of Gulf involvement in this weekend’s attack by tweeting that it wasn’t a terrorist incident.

Mr. Abdulla suggested that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option” and that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase”.

A Saudi think tank, believed to be backed by Prince Mohammed last year called in a study for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran. Prince Mohammed vowed around the same time that “we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia has stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

The head of the US State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs, Steven Fagin, met in Washington in June with Mustafa Hijri, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), before assuming his new post as counsel general in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The KDPI has recently stepped up its attacks in Iranian Kurdistan, killing nine people weeks before Mr. Hijri’s meeting with Mr. Fagin. Other Kurdish groups have reported similar attacks. Several Iranian Kurdish groups are discussing ways to coordinate efforts to confront the Iranian regime.

Similarly, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last year appointed a seasoned covert operations officer as head of its Iran operations.

Said Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Khalid bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother: President “Trump makes clear that we will not approach Iran with the sort of appeasement policies that failed so miserably to halt Nazi Germany’s rise to power, or avert the costliest war ever waged.”

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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Middle East

The fallacy of soccer’s magical bridge-building qualities

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Imagining himself as a peacemaker in a conflict-ridden part of the world, FIFA President Gianni Infantino sees a 2022 World Cup shared by Qatar with its Gulf detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as the magic wand that would turn bitter foes into brothers.

It may be a nice idea, but it is grounded in the fiction that soccer can play an independent role in bringing nations together or developing national identity.

The fiction is that soccer has the potential to be a driver of events, that it can spark or shape developments. It is also the fiction that sports in general and soccer in particular has the power to build bridges.

Mr. Infantino’s assertion that if foes play soccer, bridges are built is but the latest iteration of a long-standing myth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Soccer is an aggressive sport. It is about conquering the other half of a pitch. It evokes passions and allegiances that are tribal in nature and that more often than not divide rather than unite.

In conflict situations, soccer tends to provide an additional battlefield. Examples abound.

The 2022 World Cup; this year’s Qatari Asian Cup victory against the backdrop of the Gulf state’s rift with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt; the imprint the Palestinian-Israeli conflict puts on the two nations’ soccer; or the rise of racist, discriminatory attitudes among fans in Europe.

The Bad Blue Boys, hardcore fans of Dinamo Zagreb’s hardcore fans, light candles each May and lay wreaths at a monument to their comrades who were killed in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. They mark the anniversary of a riot during the 1990 match against Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, their club’s most controversial match, as the first clash in the wars that erupted a year later and sparked the collapse of former Yugoslavia.

Fact of the matter is that sports like ping pong in Richard Nixon’s 1972 rapprochement with China or the improvement of ties between North and South Korea in the most recent Summer Olympics served as a useful tool, not a driver of events.

Sports is a useful tool in an environment in which key political players seek to build bridges and narrow differences.

The impact of soccer in the absence of a conducive environment created by political not sports players, is at best temporary relief, a blip on an otherwise bleak landscape.

The proof is in the pudding. Legend has it that British and German soldiers played soccer in no-man’s lands on Christmas Day in 2014, only to return to fighting World War One for another four years. Millions died in the war.

Similarly, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites poured into the streets of Iraqi cities hugging each other in celebration of Iraq’s winning in 2007 of the Asia Cup at the height of the country’s sectarian violence only to return to killing each other a day later.

Soccer’s ability to shape or cement national identity is no different. In other words. football can be a rallying point for national identity but only if there is an environment that is conducive.

The problem is that soccer and the formation of national identity have one complicating trait in common: both often involve opposition to the other.

That is nowhere truer than in the Middle East and North Africa where soccer has played and plays an important role in identity formation since it was first introduced to the region in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Qatar has been in some ways the exception that proves the rule by plotting its sports strategy not only as a soft power tool or a pillar of public health policy but also as a component of national identity. That element has been strengthened by the rift in the Gulf and bolstered by this year’s Asian Cup victory.

Qatar’s efforts to strengthen its national identity benefits from the fact that the Gulf state no longer operates on the notion that Gulf states have to hang together. Today its hanging on its own in a conflict with three of its neighbours.

Soccer’s role in identity formation in the Middle East and North Africa was often because it was a battlefield, a battlefield for identity that was part of larger political struggles.

Clubs were often formed for that very reason. Attitudes towards the country’s monarchy in the early 20th century loomed large in the founding of Egypt’s Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, two of the Middle East and North Africa’s most storied clubs.

Clubs in Algeria were established as part of the anti-colonial struggle against the French. Ottoman and Iranian rulers used sports and soccer to foster national identity and take a first step towards incorporating youth in the development of a modern defense force.

Zionists saw sports and soccer as an important way of developing the New Jew, the muscular Jew. To Palestinians, it was a tool in their opposition to Zionist immigration. And finally, soccer was important in the shaping of ethnic or sub-national identities among Berbers, Kurds, East Bank Jordanians and Jordanian Palestinians.

In other words, soccer was inclusive in the sense of contributing to the formation of a collective identity. But it was also divisive because that identity was at the same time exclusionary and opposed to an other.

The long and short of this is that soccer is malleable. Its impact and fallout depend on forces beyond its control. Soccer is dependent on the environment shaped by political and social forces. It is a tool that is agnostic to purpose, not a driver or an independent actor.

Edited remarks at Brookings seminar in Doha: Lessons from the 2019 Asian Cup: Sports, Globalization, and Politics in the Arab World

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Syrian Coup de Grâce

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The Middle Eastern land has a diverse blend of history with conflicts and developments in knowledge. Where on one hand Baghdad was considered as the realm of knowledge on the other hand Constantinople was a symbol of power and domination. But now it seems that all has been shattered completely with conflicts.

The Middle Eastern landscape is facing its worst time ever: a phase of instability and misery. The oil ridden land is now becoming conflict ridden, from Euphrates to Persian Gulf; every inch seems to be blood stained nowadays.  The region became more like a chess board where kings are not kings but pawns and with each move someone is getting close to checkmate.

Starting from the spring which brought autumn in the Middle Eastern environment, now the curse is on Assyrian land where blood is being spilled, screams have took over the skies. The multi facet conflict has caused more than 400,000 deaths and 5 million seeking refuge abroad whereas 6 million displaced internally.

What began with a mere peaceful civil uprising, has now become a world stage with multiplayers on it. Tehran and Moscow are playing their own mantra by showing romance with Assad while Washington has its own way of gambling with kings in their hand. Involvement of catchy caliphate from 2014 is worsening the complexities of the Syrian saga. The deck is getting hot and becoming more and more mess, chemical strikes, tomahawk show, carpet bombing, stealth jets and many more, Syrian lands is now a market to sell the products exhibiting fine examples of military industrial complex. While to some, Syrian stage seems to be a mere regional proxy war, in reality it seems like a black hole taking whole region into its curse. One by one every inch of the country is turned into altar as the consequence of war. A country is now ripped into different territories with different claimants, but the question still remains as “Syria belongs to whom?”

The saga of Syrian dusk has its long roots in past and with each passing moment it is becoming a spiral of destruction. What is being witnessed in current scenario is just a glimpse of that spiral. It has already winded the region into it and if not resolve properly and maturely it can spread like a contagious disease that can take whole Middle East into its chakra.

With recent development in Iran nuclear deal which left whole world into shock; and house of Sauds forming strong bond with western power brokers and Israel, to counter Tehran (because kings of holy desert have so much engraved hatred towards shiaits, that they prefer to shake hands with Jews and establish an unholy alliance) is making matters worse. This all has the potential to push the region into further more sectarian rifts. With Syrian stage already set. The delicacy of the situation is not secluded from the palette of the world.

Despite the condemnations from across the globe, humanitarian watch remains blind and failed to address the issues in Syria leaving Syrians in long lasting agony and despair The symphony of pain and suffering continues in the Middle Eastern region while world watches like a vicious sadist, the region becomes a playground for major powers as ‘Uncle Sam” has their own interests in engaging, Kremlin have their own concerns same goes for every single actor who is party to the conflict.

The panacea to the Arabian pain is simple “a sincere determined approach” to the disease. Even if every party with draws from the conflict the situation can get worse due to the generated power vacuum and can make Syria a replica of Iraq. The Syrian grieve needs to be addressed through proper management skills, if not the curse is upon whole region.

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The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel  to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community.

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey’s flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.

Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.

The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.

As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.

Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.

It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.

The Turkish religious campaign takes a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s four decade long, USD 100 billion effort to globally propagate ultra-conservative Sunni Islam

Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.

Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.

Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.

Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.

While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.

The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.

The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded  Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.

The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.

“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.

The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.

Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..

Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.

“When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.

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