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Attack in Iran raises spectre of a potentially far larger conflagration

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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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The 25-year China-Iran agreement

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On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.

In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:

  • China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
  • China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
  • The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
  • 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
  • China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
  • At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
  • Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
  • Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.

Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”

Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.

Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”

China’s objectives

Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.

The Iranian regime’s objectives

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.

Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.

Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.

Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.

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China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship

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China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.

The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.

Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.

Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”

During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.

China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.

China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.

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The analysis of developments in relations between Turkey and Israel

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The fear of Biden’s Administration, the concern over the Abraham Accords (see below), the positioning of the geopolitical status in the Middle East, and the safeguarding of interests in Israel are the main factors through which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to improve relations with Israel which, however, he connects to the Palestinians.

The statements made by Turkish President Erdoğan’s on developments in relations with Israel have confirmed media reports of his repeated attempts to reach an understanding on several controversial issues, as well as paving the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The statements made by President Erdoğan, as well as other Turkish officials, have stressed the connection between the change in Turkish-Israeli relations and Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian issue.

The “linking principle” connecting the two issues has been a key factor in Turkish foreign policy since the 1950s, and it operates in the range between words and deeds, which at times have also led to severe crises in the relations between the two countries.

At the time Turkey opposed the partition plan, but recognised Israel and maintained diplomatic relations with it. Relations were suspended after the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, when Turkey recalled its diplomatic representative from Tel Aviv, announcing he would not return there “until a just solution to the Palestinian issue was found in accordance with UN Resolutions”.

After rising to power, President Erdoğan has developed the aforementioned “linking principle”. Against the backdrop of Israel’s actions with the Palestinians, Turkey has increased its political and economic support for its Muslim brethren and caused crises.

President Erdoğan’s recent statements have been made against the backdrop of this policy: on the one hand, the Turkish President has expressed his country’s desire to improve relations with Israel and continue intelligence cooperation; on the other hand, he has maintained that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is “unacceptable”.

It is important to note that Turkey will not relinquish the “linking principle”, which differs from the principle of the new Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel. The so-called Abraham Accords, such as the recognition of the State of Israel by the United Arab Emirates in September last year: the third Arab country to formally recognise Israel, after Egypt and Jordan; the fourth one if we considers Mauritania’s “frozen” recognition.

The policy implemented by President Erdoğan is not only shaped by foreign relations, but is also a Turkish internal issue in which public opinion plays a key role. It seems that until elections are held in Turkey (scheduled for June 25, 2023), there will be no complete normalisation with Israel. The majority of the Turkish population supports the Palestinians and their rights, feels full solidarity for them and opposes the Israeli presence.

Moreover, President Erdoğan regards the Palestinian issue as an important factor in building a renewed Turkish Muslim national identity. These stances increase his popularity and strengthen people’s support for him and his party, as well as his authority and prestige in the Muslim world.

At the same time, however, this policy also has pragmatic implications: President Erdoğan is not severing ties with Israel, but merely creating actions that lead to symptoms of “diplomatic” crises.

Despite this wait-and-see attitude, economic ties between Turkey and Israel are flourishing. According to official data, in 2018 exports from Turkey to Israel were worth 6.5 billion dollars and imports 1.9 billion dollars (excluding diamond trade and tourism).

Following the crisis in relations and the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Turkey (May 2018), exports had fallen to 4 billion dollars in 2019 and imports to 1.7 billion dollars. Although declining, there are still deep economic ties.

Trade relations, however, are not the decisive factor in determining the nature of Turkey-Israel relations. There are four issues that are believed to have led Turkey to review its relations with Israel:

1. Turkey has welcome the new U.S. President, Joe Biden, with caution and fear that he will oppose Turkish activities in the region. The U.S. leader may also be very tough on security, armaments and minority rights in Turkey. Some believe that improved relations with Israel will calm down the situation with President Biden, and the U.S. Congress and the Zionist lobby will be able to contribute to this result. It is not known, however, whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be as good a mediator with Biden as he was with Donald Trump.

2. Turkey is seeking to remove the isolation imposed on it due to the distribution of marine economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean area, and is trying to bring Israel on its side to develop a joint stance and oppose such subdivisions. According to Israeli sources, Turkey has made Israel a generous offer to expand its area of control over the marine economic zones, in exchange for Turkey’ siding with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Israel has reacted cautiously, both because it much weighs President Erdoğan’s intentions and because it is actually interested in strengthening its relations with the above stated countries.

3. Turkey is worried about the Abraham Accords for normalisation with Israel, particularly the aforementioned one with the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey aims at limiting their influence and status as a further “undertaking” of Arab rivals. Turkey endeavours to dismantle a rising alliance between the Arab countries and Israel. After all, we wonder why Turkey is not instead trying to improve its ties with Arab countries to achieve the same goal. Could it still be because of history and traditional mutual dislike?

4. Turkey is trying to relieve the pressure on its activities in Israel and Palestine as a result of the possible improvement in relations with Israel. Turkey funds important projects in Jerusalem and Israel is trying to contain and restrain it. Conversely, an improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations could release the Israeli brake.

To date, no official Israeli response has been provided to Turkish statements. Israel’s media speak of suspicion and coldness in response to the Turkish rapprochement, with fears that President Erdoğan is preparing a ploy, a trick aimed not at improving his relations with Israel, but at sabotaging Israel’s relations and contacts with other countries.

However, leaks from senior Israeli officials indicate that their country has set conditions for restoring relations, which include ending Turkey’s ties with Hamas and transferring Turkish projects to Jerusalem through Israeli channels, as well as abstaining from voting against Israel in international organisations and adopting a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is not yet clear what the fate of Turkey-Israel relations will be in the coming months, with President Biden in the White House and after the Israeli elections held on March 23, 2021. It is important to note, however, that Turkey will not give up the “linking principle”, which differs from the new principle of Arab normalisation, based on the separation between the Palestinian issue and relations with Israel.

The Turkish “linking principle” is a real need for Turkey- hence the Palestinian leadership must work with Turkey to maximise common goals, especially with regard to Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza.

Not easy steps to make, but not impossible either.

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