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Will Iran be able to counteract US sanctions?

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American sanctions and how to confront them

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) today, as in the past 40 years of its existence, is in the global spotlight as the focus of major political and economic developments.

As you know, on May 8, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and the resumption of the sanctions regime against Iran.

On August 7, the United States introduced the first anti-Iranian sanctions package that envisages restrictions on the purchase of Iranian cars, gold and metals. The sanctions also affected Iranian companies specializing in aluminum, graphite, coal, and steel, as well as those manufacturing computer programs for industrial enterprises.

On November 4, the United States will launch a second package that will deal a blow to the Iranian energy sector, in the first place, to the oil and gas industry and related industries, and will affect major transactions, that is, the IRI’s banking system.

Undoubtedly, this is a major attack on the Iranian economy. If we recall the period from 2011 to 2016, back then such international sanctions nearly threw it into an abyss in just a few months. However, today the situation is somewhat different. The anti-Iranian sanctions announced by Trump have lost their international status.

Unlike in those days, when due to Tehran’s “nuclear” persistence the entire world rose against it, today Trump’s anti-Iran initiative is not supported by anyone. The White House administration counts only on the financial and economic pressure on the disobedient and the obstinate who do not want to join the campaign against the IRI.

And these turned out to be quite a few. As they met in Vienna in July, the five participants in the nuclear deal with Iran (Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany) agreed to protect the five countries’companies from the impact of US sanctions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the parties had also agreed to establish methods of maintaining trade relations with Iran which “would not depend on the whims of the United States.”

On August 7, immediately after the introduction of American sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the European Union adopted the so-called ‘blocking’ regulation which invalidates American sanctions against Iran on its territory, bans European companies from observing them and prohibits the implementation of any foreign court rulings adopted on the basis of these sanctions.

The coming into force of this regulation also allows all European organizations to claim compensation in court for damage inflicted as a result of implementation of these sanctions from persons responsible for this (referring to US authorities).

In late August, the EU began to discuss the possibility of creating an independent payment system, which would protect the European business from US sanctions against Iran. The project may involve central banks of France and Germany.

Moreover, at the end of August, the European Commission (EC) approved financial assistance to Iran to the amount of 50 million euros to solve the “key economic and social problems” of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The first tranche amounted to 18 million euros, which will be channeled “for projects in support of sustainable economic and social development in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” with 8 million euros allocated to Iranian private companies. Measures to support the Iranian private sector include assistance to Iranian small and medium-sized businesses, development of production and marketing chains, and technical assistance to the Iranian Trade Promotion Organization. Though small, the sums are important.

The EU will support Iran as long as the country is committed to “full and effective” compliance with the “nuclear deal”, which stipulates the lifting of sanctions, the executive body of the European Union specifies.

Despite measures to support Iran, the desire to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the EU’s protests against anti-Iranian sanctions, large European and transnational companies do not really believe in the European Union being able to counteract the United States. Experts say that judging by the experience of the past, when the European Union put up resistance after unilateral actions by the White House, these not quite effective “threats” are about all the “resistance” Europe can mount, since the Iranian market, despite all its attractiveness, can not be compared with the American one. Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, former advisor to the US Secretary of State, said: “Foreign companies are already experiencing difficulty doing business with Iran, and if all these difficulties  – non-transparent rules, corruption, poor management, etc. – become aggravated further by the risk of being cut off from the US market and the US financial system, then no reasoning from  European politicians will work.”

Right now, three months before the Americans introduce the main portion of sanctions, many large companies are leaving the IRI. In the oil sector – this is the French oil and gas giant Total. [1]

Fully aware of the situation, the Iranian leadership relies on cooperation with small and medium-sized foreign enterprises which are not so connected with the United States. Goliam Reza Ansari, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs, said recently: “There are 23 million small and medium-sized businesses in Europe, and they could assist us in bypassing US sanctions.” We must use the potential of European enterprises to meet our economic needs in times of trouble. We are planning to create a working group of experts to promote such enterprises throughout the country. ”

Many countries back Tehran’s anti-sanctions measures. They are prepared to buy oil from Iran, to invest in projects, to provide know-how and technology. First of all, in the oil and gas sector.

The Chinese economic analyst Kingji Su sayvili said that the Iranian economy is able to overcome US sanctions with minimal difficulties, since these measures are not supported by the international community. The Chinese expert emphasized that after the arrival of sanctions many major economies, including European countries, China and Russia, retained or even strengthened economic relations with Iran.

Indeed, the director of the Department of International Cooperation of China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation (CPCIF) said that China will continue to import Iranian oil, despite US sanctions. He underscored that the Chinese market and many other Asian markets strongly depend on Iranian oil. According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the number one buyer of Iranian oil – China, which acquires about a quarter of its oil supplies, is unlikely to cut down on its purchases.

In turn, Investment Director of the Iranian National Petrochemical Company (NPC) Hossein Alimorad said that the amount of Chinese investments in the Iranian oil and petrochemical industry had not changed after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal. As Mr. Alimorad announced recently, the NPC has reached an agreement with a consortium of companies from China and the Philippines regarding a $ 7 billion investment in the petrochemical industry in Iran.

Moreover, Mohammad Mostafavi, Director of Investment of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), said that China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) together with the Iranian Petropars can take over from Total, which has 50.1% of the stake in the joint project for the development of the 11th phase of the South Pars gas field, if the French company leaves Iran.

German company ADL recently signed an agreement on cooperation in the oil refining sector with the Iranian oil company Sepahan (SOC). The goal is to share technical know-how and knowledge to improve the quality of products, including industrial oils and lubricants. ADL will begin to implement this ambitious plan in cooperation with its Swiss and Austrian partners.

South Korea (ROK) said in mid-August that Seoul will provide financial support to companies affected by new sanctions against Iran, and will look into the possibility of doing business in alternative markets so as to minimize losses to the local economy. It is clear that South Korea, having bought 147 million barrels of oil from Iran in 2017, is more than interested in expanding oil business with it.

Undoubtedly, international support for Iran as it tries to battle Trump’s sanctions is of great value. However, perhaps no less important are the internal economic measures that Tehran is taking to repel, or at least soften the blow to the key sector of its economy – the oil and gas extraction and processing industries.

Oil import substitution

Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran are stepping up measures to ensure import substitution. Thus, the Iranian Oil Ministry has banned the import of 84 types of equipment for the oil industry on the grounds that such equipment can be produced domestically.

Among the equipment and products prohibited for importation are wellhead equipment, desalination facilities, anticorrosive substances, sulfur recovery catalysts, wellhead control panels, and others.

Can the Iranians solve the problem of import substitution in the oil industry, while ensuring the necessary modernization of the entire oil and gas sector?

New sanctions against Iran have created severe challenges for Iran’s oil and gas production and its petrochemical industry.

However, it should be noted that the IRI, which was under American sanctions ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been developing its own production of oil and gas equipment. This kind of work was particularly intensive the period from 2010 to 2016, when anti-Iranian sanctions were the toughest.

The head of the Iranian oil company in southern regions Hamid Bovard said in 2013 that Iranian enterprises were producing oil and gas equipment and developing prototypes for launching into production of about seven thousand items. Mr. Howard expressed confidence that such oil and gas equipment as gas pumps, turbines, ball valves and compressors will be key to the restoration of Iran’s oil industry. By that time, eight hundred projects had been launched, with investments reaching about $ 15.5 billion. All of them aim to increase the recovery rate of crude oil and oil extraction.

Today, amid the increasing pressure from the Trump administration on Iran, measures to counteract sanctions are intensifying. According to Director of the Petrochemical Company Jam Said Shirdel, the company’s specialists, in cooperation with other Iranian companies, have developed and produced 1,000 types of products and equipment for petrochemicals which were previously purchased abroad. He added that in the next two years the company will produce 20,000 types of petrochemical products.

According to Reza Khayyamyan, head of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers of Iranian Oil Companies, the Iranian producers can provide technical services and produce 80% of advanced oil equipment for the development of oil extraction and processing projects. Mr. Hayamyan said this industry employs more than 50 Iranian companies. New contracts worth more than $ 6 billion will soon be signed with local oil extraction and refining companies.

Mr. Hayamyan made it clear that import substitution of oil and gas equipment is on the list of priorities of the Ministry of Oil, which is planning to roll out 14,000 major parts.

As we see, Iran is set on mobilizing its own resources. For one, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said recently that the Iranian private sector plays an important role in counteracting the economic war, which was launched against Iran by the Trump administration.

Mohammad Hosseini, member of the Board of Trustees of the National Development Fund of Iran (NDF), said that Fund will allocate 12% of financial resources to counter US sanctions against Iran.

However, it is too early to talk about a profound modernization of the entire oil and gas complex on the basis of state-of-the-art technologies. As it happens, the most advanced technologies, know-how, innovations in the oil and gas and petrochemical industry, which mark dramatic breakthroughs in this industry and its overall renovation, are concentrated and receive special protection in the laboratories of just a few of the largest oil and gas companies, which, alas, are not ready to share these technologies with Iran.

Economy and politics under sanctions

In general, the economic situation in Iran before Trump announced anti-Iranian sanctions regime was not in its best condition. But in connection with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action there were hopes and faith in a better future.

Now the situation has become worse because of sanctions. The rial rate has fallen, which provoked a rush for buying dollars. This further accelerated the collapse of the Iranian rial. Compared to January, when one dollar on the black market sold for 43 thousand rials, at the end of August it trade for 107 thousand. The official rate for this period decreased from about 36 thousand to 42 thousand.

In the meantime, the opposition is seizing on every opportunity to put the blame for the current situation on President Hassan Rouhani and his liberal reform Cabinet.

In late July, opposition MPs used their constitutional right to summon the president for making a report on the effectiveness of his activities. They gave President Rouhani a month to prepare the answers to their questions and explain to them why the government had done nothing to put an end of the smuggling of goods that damages production, what caused the fall of the Iranian rial, and what triggered economic recession and rising unemployment.

On August 25  President Rouhani addressed the Majlis. In particular, he said: “We are not afraid of America or economic problems. We will overcome all difficulties <…>. You can talk about unemployment, foreign currency, recession and smuggling. I think that the problem is people’s views on the future <…>. People are not afraid of the US, they are afraid of our differences. If they see that we are united, they will believe that the problems will be solved,” the president said. At the same time, he acknowledged that part of the country’s population “had lost faith in the future of the IRI and doubts its power”.

The president’s report did not satisfy Deputies of the Mejlis, who expressed their discontent with the work of Rouhani and his government. In addition to that, the MPs struck a blow to the government’s makeup by securing the dismissal of the Minister of Economy and Finance Masoud Karbasian, Minister of Labor, Social Welfare and Cooperative Affairs Ali Rabiyyi. Dismissed earlier was the head of the Central Bank, Valiollah Seif. Abdolnasser Hemmati was appointed instead.

Thus, the political situation in Iran is no longer stable being marred by visible signs of a schism within the ruling elite. However, it would be premature to suggest a crisis of the Iranian regime. The American sanctions have jeopardized the positions of only President Rouhani and his team, which was ready for a dialogue with the West. The growing political weakness of President Rouhani and his government has given a chance to his hardline opponents to strengthen their positions and exert a significant influence on the policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran at home and abroad.

For now, removal of Rouhani is not on the agenda. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, fearing an internal political explosion, is supporting the president. However, given the situation and increasing pressure from the opposition, Rouhani’s policies (both domestic and foreign) may change, though not in the direction of reforms and liberalization.

Whether Tehran will agree to new talks with Washington, to compromises on nuclear missile programs is difficult to predict. For today, it is 100% no. This would mean a ‘political death’ for Rouhani and for the supreme leader Khamenei as well. What will happen next is difficult to say. Much will depend on the ability to retain the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and, most importantly, on the ability of all opponents of Trump’s anti-Iran sanctions to confront them financially and economically.

However, Ayatollah Khamenei is rather pessimistic about this. He said on August 29 that Iran should give up hopes that Europe will save a nuclear deal. In addition, he added two important things. First, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is not a goal, but a means, and Iran, if it finds that the Plan has ceased to meet Iranian interests, will reject it. And the second: Iran has no intention of negotiating a new agreement with the US at any level because of the “obscenity” of such talks.

Indeed, there are no conditions and no incentives for Iran entering new talks on nuclear missile issues,

Even in case of the worst of scenarios, if the IRI economy faces serious problems, the most radical groups concentrating around the political opponents of Rouhani may come to power in Tehran. These forces will not even consider the issue of negotiations with the US. The Islamic Republic of Iran will yet again become a “besieged fortress”, but this is unlikely to affect foreign policy ambitions, especially in the region. On the contrary, they will grow under the leadership of anti-Western politicians and IRGC, forming a foundation for the military and political instability in the region.

  •  [1] Total is getting ready to leave Iran before November 4. The company is developing the South Pars gas field. Total has already invested in it app. 50 million dollars. The French make it no secret that they do not want to anger Washington. The $ 2 billion project is under threat, but these losses are nothing in comparison with the fines that could be imposed on the violators of sanctions by the US Treasury, and other consequences. The most serious threat is the “cut-off” from the US financial system. For many large companies, this threat is even worse than billions in fines. For example, over 90% of all financial transactions at Total pass through US banks.
  • [2] Wellhead equipment is a set of equipment designed for tying casing strings, sealing the wellhead (annular space, internal tubing cavity, well production diversion) during drilling, well workover and well operation mode regulation.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

The Case For Israel- Book Review

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The Case For Israel by Alan Dershowitz, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.2003

In his book, ‘The Case For Israel’, Professor Alan Dershowitz, sets out a “proactive defence for Israel” (p.1) and he does so in a manner that addresses the core and more fundamental premise that, Israel and its citizens have the right to exist in peace and security. With this focus, Professor Alan, sets out the narrative in the form of 32 key accusations against the state of Israel, which he then sets out to answer/defend. Interpreting facts and drawing conclusions as only a lawyer can, Alan does not hesitate to draw parallels with American Colonists seeking separation from the state of England, when he refers to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Having worked on this book from the year of 1967, with the first publication in 2003, the defence is unarguably exhaustive and honed with great skill and there is no dearth of historical references being used to state his case. All this assumes even greater importance when one acknowledges the growing Anti-Semitic sentiments in present day Europe and even the United States of America(Leff). Truly and unfortunately, not much seems to have changed since the inception of this book in 1967 and now, as far as the need to justify the existence of the state of Israel is concerned.

It may be said that the chief strength of this book lies in the fact that it rejects extremist claims of both sides, i.e. the Palestinians and the Israelis, just as the Peel Commission did in 1937 and most of the world does today. Professor Dershowitz in a sense carries forward the premise as acknowledged by the UN (and the Peel Commission) that both the Palestinians and the Jews had valid but irreconcilable claims with partition being the most realistic solution given the “two intense nationalisms” (p.65).

 In order to buttress his advocacy for a two state solution (which to him is the premise of the book), he points to the emergence of several Islamic states through a process of partition. Consequently, Alan Dershowitz, repeatedly drives home the point that, the Palestinians repeatedly rejected the Two State Solution, with not just Yasser Arafat’s’ contrarian’ (p.72) comments to Arab leaders at Stockholm after the Oslo Declaration(U.S Govt Office of the Historian) but also the failed Clinton driven initiative at Camp David (2001)where Yasser Arafat walked away without even making a counter proposal given his rejection of the proposed plan. Undeniably, as cited by Alan Dershowitz, and voiced by Prince Bandar, in his interview to the New Yorker Magazine, when he said (off the record)that Arafat’s refusal was “a tragic mistake- a crime really”(Walsh). Arafat’s refusal and consequent escalation in terror attacks even though ultimately engineered to win Palestinians world sympathy, were none the less, acts of terror.

In Alan’s words the world including the UN seemed to reward Palestinians for their acts of terror. According to AD, Israel on the other hand has repeatedly been subjected to double standards when it comes to judging its response to acts of terror at the hands of Palestinians.  He is utterly convincing in this regard when he points out that while Israeli soldiers are governed by a rigid code of conduct, Palestinians, eschew any such binding and routinely employing children, young adults and even women for committing acts of terror.

It would do us well to understand at this point that in the background of Alan’s defence for the state of Israel, is the recurring theme that the Jews of the First Aliyah of 1882 had legitimately and continuously bought land (mostly un arable) from absentee landlords (Arabs), often at exorbitant prices. In addition, AD also posits the premise that the problem of Arab refugees is a deliberate act emanating from actions of Arab Rulers and a factor perpetuated by the Palestinians as they kept demanding that the 4 million Palestinians should be allowed to return to from where they fled. Clearly, in the not so distant past there was an exchange of population which took place when 850,000 ‘Arab Jews’ living in Arab countries landed up becoming refugees while correspondingly, the 1948 war waged by Arab rulers against Israel saw Arabs migrate outwards from what is now Israel. What is pertinent in this regard is the fact that the ‘Arab Jews’ were attempted to be absorbed by present day Israel, the Arab leaders were not interested in absorbing these Arab refugees, choosing to mostly let them fester in camps instead of integrating them in to their more homogenous population.

In a sense, as pointed by AD, Arabs are more interested in denying the right of existence to Israel than they are in the formation of the State of Palestine. In fact, the words of Bey Abdul-Hati, a prominent Palestinian leader as addressed to the Peel Commission in 1937 “There is no such country ……Palestine is a term Zionists invented ……” (p.7), underscore the fact that Palestinians, historically, always, wanted to be a part of Syria. If this had not been so, and if nothing else, the most generous terms of settlement as offered by Barak in 2001as a part of the Clinton initiative. would have settled matters once and for all.  A corollary to this is Alan’s admission that even Israel faltered when it did not implement the Alon Plan(ATLANTA JEWISH TIMES) which would have given the population centres of the West Bank to the Arabs, while retaining some unpopulated strategic areas.

A possible criticism of this book certainly lies in the fact that, Professor Alan has unilaterally chosen the (possible) accusations and his defence is one without adjudication of any sort. Hence, in such a situation, it is the reader who must sit in judgment and   decide for himself/herself as to the merits and the validity of the evidence presented on behalf of the defendant- The State of Israel. Again, given the fact that Palestinians choose not to acknowledge or care for historical facts, we should not ‘crucify’ Israel even when historical and other facts (as cited in the book) speak in its favour. Given that we live in a less than perfect world, this “Jew Among Nations” (p.222), needs to be given its due as the only democracy and least theocratic state in the Middle East and should be judged by a yardstick that is not too different from the one used for its comparable ‘peer’ nations like, France England, USA and Canada when it comes to issues like morality and ethics. What better proof can there be, of democracy in Israel, given Joint Arab List’s splendid performance in the recent Israeli elections.

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Russia and Syria: Nuances in Allied Relations

Aleksandr Aksenenok

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The foreign policy strategy of any state includes a certain set of means and ways to ensure the practical achievement of its goals. Searching for allies or temporary partners that will help serve a specific purpose has always been an essential part of this strategy. In the past, the belief was that this was primarily the concern of “smaller” states interested in forging an alliance with a strong patron. However, the sharp imbalance that has emerged in international relations in the decades since the collapse of the USSR has shown that large states that are engaged in global politics are just as interested in building various types of alliances and partnership as “smaller” states. Sometimes even more so. Recent diplomatic practice has demonstrated that keeping such relations on an even keel demands that the parties delicately balance their understanding of the limits to their mutual concessions and constantly check that they are “on the same page.” The latter is done to preserve confidence in rapidly changing circumstances that are often beyond their control and, most importantly, to ensure they do not present each other with an impossible choice, which is something that happened between the United States and Turkey within NATO, and quite recently in the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

Metamorphoses of U.S. politics from Clinton to Trump demonstrate how the benefits from allied relations may transform into a tarnished image. Having failed to adapt to a world in which it has lost its global dominance, the United States under Obama and particularly under Trump chose to neglect traditional diplomacy, which involves finding ways to align the possibly diverging interests of allies. In regard to Europe, this policy was encapsulated in the withdrawal from multilateral trade partnership agreements, the use of NATO to exert pressure on allies, the introduction of sanctions, and the employment of other methods of gaining unilateral economic and political advantages.

The Middle East is even more indicative in this respect. Within a very short period of time, U.S. foreign policy in the region has oscillated between extremes. America’s allies in the Gulf were alarmed when Obama, looking to be “on the right side of history,” rapidly withdrew support for Mubarak when the protests in Egypt broke out (in February 2011) and when the United States effectively gave in to Iran in the struggle for influence in Iraq. Trump’s demonstrative turn towards Saudi Arabia, coupled with the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and the subsequent policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran, negatively affected U.S.–EU relations, caused a split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and failed to allay their concerns regarding the reliability of the United States as an ally. Finally, the concessions to Israel, which no U.S. President had dared make before (no matter how their Middle East policies zigged and zagged), added new wrinkles to the issue. As a result, the Trump administration approaches the 2020 presidential elections with an unprecedented burden of problems in its relations with its North Atlantic allies, in an almost complete isolation owing to its illegal actions in the UN Security Council concerning the lifting of the Iranian sanctions, and having generally lost its moral and political prestige.

In the same period of time following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had failed to fit into the architecture of pan-European security and was faced with a choice: given NATO’s territorial expansion and the ineffectiveness of such collective mechanisms as the CIS and OSCE, what policy should it pursue moving forward? Does Russia see its future self as an independent centre of power with a free hand? Or does it want to be an influential actor within new alliances and integration unions? The answers to these questions are more or less clear today.

Russia is steering its own course in relations with the West, acting in its own interests, yet not shutting the door on an equal dialogue designed to search for points of contact on the most conflict-ridden problems. At the same time, Russia has made efforts to build a sub-system of inter-country alliances to counterbalance the NATO–EU pairing. These efforts have led to multilateral diplomacy guided by the principle of “going as far the other party is prepared to go.” These efforts have resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the military–political arena, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance in the geopolitical arena, and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union in the trade and economic arena. Compared with western alliances that entail transferring part of one’s sovereignty to supra-national bodies, members of these unions are more free in their commitments, although they share Russia’s stance on the key issues of global politics.

Following a brief hiatus in the 1990s, Russia returned to the Middle East, no longer shackled by ideological clichés. The very paradigm of Russian–Arab relations had changed. They were no longer characterized by unilaterality and were developing over a wide spectrum. Pride of place was given to such foreign political landmarks as the achievement of national security in the face of new threats emanating from the chronic instability in the region, the support for Russian businesses, and the measures to counteract external intervention aimed at regime change for the sake of political expediency (in extreme cases, this would be done by force, but mostly it would be done by establishing networks based on coinciding interests). These were the landmarks that Russia used to guide itself post-2011, when the Middle East entered a protracted era of reconstruction. This pragmatic approach was largely responsible for preserving business partnership relations with Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, all of which experienced regime changes, as well as for building coherent relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where existing differences on conflict settlement do not get in the way of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy and coordinating policies on the global energy markets.

Russia gains certain benefits from its ability to maintain business partnership ties with all the regional and non-regional actors in the Middle Eastern conflicts, including Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Gaza. At the same time, it is clear that this situation and, in particular, the widespread concept of Moscow as an “impartial mediator” or “honest broker,” is with increasing frequency being used for unseemly purposes, such as shifting the responsibility for the actions or inactions of other parties in the region or outside it onto Moscow. In today’s new multi-layered conflicts, no single actor is capable of holding all the settlement threads in its hands.

Russia and Syria: Questions of War and Peace

Russia and Syria have gradually become allies since the civil war broke out in the Middle East state in 2011. The leaders of both countries have said as much, and it is taken as a given in the West and the other countries in the region.

At the same time, the complicated entanglements of relations both in and around Syria have prompted certain questions from our colleagues and institutional partners in the Damascus Center for Research and Studies. Most of them are quite logical and do indeed need to be discussed at the expert level to begin with.

Russia and Syria have a long history of cooperation in many areas, and the countries were particularly close during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, the outstanding statesman who enjoyed worldwide respect. A Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed back then, but it was more of a framework document that did not impose any specific international legal commitments on either party. These were relations of trust that withstood the test of the war with Israel in 1973 in the Golan Heights and the Civil War in Lebanon (1975–1989), where Syrian troops fought and Soviet military advisors participated indirectly. There were also disagreements on the situation in the Palestinian movement and the attitude to Yasser Arafat personally. Yet these differences were resolved through regular trust-based dialogue at the highest level and through close military-political consultations.

In the 1990s and the early 2000s when Russia, burdened by its domestic problems, “withdrew” from the Middle East, Russia–Syria relations were in decline. After being elected president, Bashar al-Assad steered a course for Europe, for Jacques Chirac’s France in particular, viewing it as a centre for containing the United States, which had accused Syria of supporting the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation [1]. Bashar Al-Assad’s first visit to Russia took place in 2005. The agreements achieved at the highest level covered a wide range of issues in military-technical and economic cooperation in the context of Syria fully settling its debt, and they gave a new impetus to developing bilateral relations in the changing geopolitical circumstances.

In 2011, the civil conflict in Syria transformed into an armed confrontation. Since then, Russia–Syria cooperation has been dominated by its military component. Russia directly intervened in the conflict at the request of President Bashar al-Assad, a fact that was accounted for by the intergovernmental agreements between the two countries, which, unlike the largely for-show agreements concluded with a number of Arab states in the past, set out specific commitments for both parties. The relations were thus given a new quality. All efforts were channelled into repelling the terrorist threat and saving Syria’s statehood. In the run-up to the decisive intervention of the Russian Aerospace Forces, most military experts around the world agreed that the “terrorist international” had made it as far as the suburbs of Damascus, and that regime change was imminent, even though Iranian units and Lebanese Hezbollah were fighting in Syria.

Five years later, the military and administrative infrastructure of Islamic State has been destroyed, the armed opposition is weakened, and the remaining pockets of resistance no longer posit a real threat to the al-Assad regime [2].

Back then, the objectives were clear and, naturally, there were no questions as to what the Syrian people expected from Russia. Why did Moscow and Damascus experience an upsurge of information attacks along the lines of “who needs whom more”? What are the reasons for the “uncertainties” and “doubts” that Syrian political analysts ponder in a friendly manner, wondering whether or not Russia intends “to give up on Syria and leave the regime to deal with the increasing pressure” from the United States? What changes have happened now that the active phase of the conflict has ceased?

The official statements from the Russian side leave no doubts as to its principled stance. Keeping air force and naval bases in the Mediterranean is a strategic move, meaning that Russia does not have any “withdrawal scenarios.” According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, materiel support for the Syrian operation does not exceed the funds budgeted for defence. It is flexible and generally tends to shrink as military action deescalates.

Legitimizing “entry” is another matter entirely, both from the point of view of legal documents concluded between Russia and Syria and on a broad international scale. And it is something that does not depend on Russia alone. Fundamentally, it should be in the interests of Damascus itself. That is, the two countries are effectively doomed to find a balance of power in the long term, both in a war that cannot last indefinitely, and during the post-war period. Our point here is clear: using political realism as a stepping stone, Russia and Syria need to properly balance common strategic goals and search for optimal ways to deal with possible tactical differences.

A Hierarchy of Priorities

It is noteworthy that, in his analytical article, my esteemed colleague Aqeel Mahfoud describes the current situation in Syria as a war with “no end in sight” and asks Russia such questions as: What is the “middle ground” between “‘high costs’ and ‘low returns’ … between ‘retreating’ from Syria and ‘continuing’ the course?” It is thus clear that certain “misunderstandings” have emerged, and in order to properly analyse the prospects, we need to jointly access the essence of the point in time we arrived at after five years of allied cooperation.

Our general assessments are essentially the same. The challenges and threats that Syria currently faces are economic, a destructive effect of the sanctions, and the U.S. “Caesar Act” in particular, with the coronavirus pandemic making the situation worse. The reality is that there are virtually no prerequisites for implementing major post-war reconstruction projects in Syria. Most Syrians are fighting for survival in the face of growing prices, food, power and fuel shortages and a destroyed living infrastructure. The Syrian government is mobilizing its limited financial resources to mitigate the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, focusing on supporting business activities and preserving the system of subsidies. At the same time, it is quite clear that resolving the problem of the economy’s uninterrupted functioning cannot be solved without urgent outside assistance. It is also obvious, however, that, unlike in the case of Lebanon, the sources of such assistance for Syria are very few.

The Russian government, in turn, is doing everything possible to provide real aid to the people of Syria (urgent deliveries of grain, pharmaceuticals and equipment in the form of grants or through contracts; reconstructing civil infrastructure facilities, communication lines; providing humanitarian aid, etc.). The government is encouraging Russian businesses to cooperate with Syrian companies more actively through public-private partnerships and by granting them most favoured nation status. It should be said, though, that the method of “giving commands” has little effect in the Russian economy compared with Soviet times. Russia expects the Syrian government to take further steps to set up both central and local governance systems that would ensure corruption is dealt with, offer preferences to foreign investors, make sure that laws are obeyed and that the “military economy” would give way to normal trade and economic relations as speedily as possible. President Bashar al-Assad’s address to the members of the newly formed government can be seen as a major step in this direction.

It should be noted in this connection that the article published by the Damascus Center for Research and Studies focuses on Russia, and most questions are addressed to Moscow as if it holds some kind of a “magic key” to resolving all the problems. At the same time, practical advice and friendly criticism are perceived as “pressure” and “interference.” As for the negative dynamics, what is Damascus’ attitude to the fact that after the active military phase was over, little changed aside from the strengthening of “psychological pressure” and tightening of the “economic noose” on Syria? And regarding the positive dynamics, what conclusions should the Syrians themselves draw concerning the balance of power and political steps that should be taken? These important aspects slid under the radar of our Syrian colleagues. We would like to understand what is meant by the phrase “returning to the ‘requirements’ of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 […] would bring us back to March 2011.”

Russia’s position on the issue of the Syrian settlement, President Vladimir Putin has said on numerous occasions, proceeds from the premise that a military solution is impossible. At the talks held with Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Geir Pedersen in Moscow on September 3 (which took place only a few days after the session of the Constitutional Committee’s Drafting Commission in Geneva), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Russia supports Pedersen’s efforts to help the Syrian people come to an agreement themselves on constitutional reform in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as a sovereign state and one of the guarantors of the Astana process. This stance has been approved by the “Astana Troika,” it is known to the Syrian leadership and does not prompt open objections.

Some Russian political analysts that are in the know expect Syria, and probably President Bashar al-Assad himself, to spearhead some major initiatives that will jumpstart the Geneva process – not as a return to the 2011 status quo, but as a means of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and bolstering the country’s statehood on the inclusive foundation of national accord. A flexible approach on the part of Damascus and a better understanding of its intentions would certainly help Russia, giving it more solid ground in its contacts with western and Arab partners. In the current reality, Syria can hardly be “rehabilitated” economically without coordinated international efforts. This is the kind of convergence of interests that would make it possible to bring together external aid and progress in the intra-Syrian dialogue into a single stabilization package.

Another important set of issues raised by our Damascus partners pertains to Russia being “an ally for Syria, Israel, Iran and Turkey” in the continuing conflict and to what the nature of Russia–U.S. contacts is.

It is no secret that the foreign political services of both countries have always maintained a working exchange of current information. This is particularly true of the current situation. My many years of experience in the diplomatic service (in Syria among other states) allow me to state confidently that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation regularly informs the Syrian leadership about its talks with its western and regional partners on issues that concern Syria. If there is any “uncertainty” within the Syrian public or the Syrian expert community about this fact, it might rather be explained by Russia being excessively guarded about sensitive information that concerns its relations with its allies, or by Russian media’s inability to demonstrate any kind of subtlety when it comes to foreign political steps in this area and properly explain Russia’s intentions to the world at large. Incidentally, Syria itself is far more guarded and “secretive” in its media coverage of its relations with Russia – and this coverage is often, quite frankly, far more tendentious.

Most Russian experts view Russia–Syria relations on the matters of war and peace as a relationship of “twins” connected by “kindred threads.” Their western colleagues share this point of view, indicating that the United States and Europe no longer tie compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with Assad’s “removal.” Instead, they adopted the concept of constitutional reform and democratic elections under the UN’s supervision. It is natural for allies in protracted and convoluted conflicts to have some misunderstandings. Aqeel Mahfoud notes that “the Syrian people understand […] that Russia does not approach the issue from a Syrian perspective.” The main thing is that if strategic “constants” are in place, which is undoubtedly the case, then periodical tactical differences should be resolved in a timely manner, on the basis on openness and trust.

At the level of government and opposition forces, the Syrian people should take into account the fact that Russia has its own global interests that do not always coincide with those of the Middle East. Russia–Syria relations cannot be equated with relations with influential regional actors, which are based on different considerations. But one thing brings them together: a common history, coinciding interests in regions outside Syria and mutually beneficial cooperation, including in the military area. It is thus wrong to posit an “either/or” question.

On the other hand, a realist assessment of the situation “on the ground” reveals that the existence of particular situational arrangements with Israel and Turkey is something that benefits Syria itself. Let us take, for example, agreements on southern Syria, in which Israel unofficially participated. It was these agreements that allowed Syria to regain control of its southern provinces, provided that it complied with the terms that did not breach its sovereign rights. Russian officials did not hide the fact that it meant withdrawing Iranian and pro-Iranian military units from the 80-kilometre security zone and using national reconciliation principles to form local authorities. Russia is entitled to expect Syria to comply with these conditions.

Or let us take the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on March 4, 2020, concerning Idlib and which were achieved as part of the implementation of the de-escalation zone agreement developed by the “Astana Troika” with Syria’s participation. This development makes it possible to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would not have been in the interests of Syria, Russia and Turkey. In no way does it change the attitude towards the Idlib problem as part of the principled approach to restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and the joint fight against terrorism.

As for U.S.–Syria relations, Russia is pursuing a realistic policy here aimed at preventing incidents that could result in an armed clash, and at the same time is searching for opportunities to interact in those areas where the interests of Russia and the United States may coincide without detriment to the “strategic constants” of Russia’s relations with its Syrian ally. Recently, tensions in northeast Syria, where the U.S. military presence is concentrated, have increased noticeably, which makes further developments less predictable. Consequently, the parties focus specifically on the “de-conflicting channel” and simultaneously draw “red lines” that should not be overstepped. Politically, Russia endeavours to promote understanding between Damascus and the Kurds on their constitutional status, which increases the chances of restoring Syria’s territorial integrity as part of the post-conflict settlement.

Memories of the Future

They say that “it is difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.” The issues outlined by our Syrian partners for the “strategic dialogue” are so broad that it is impossible to cover everything. In conclusion, I would like to make a few brief remarks.

The Syrian people are known to hold different views of the country’s situation and of Russia’s role in Syria’s affairs. Part of civil society is currently outside Syria, and they are by no means terrorists or Russophobes. Consequently, as it supports Bashar al-Assad, Russia emphasizes an intra-Syrian agreement on a model of Syria’s future state that would ensure the country against bloody civil wars. Clearly, there can be no return to 2011, and the Syrian people themselves should decide how to reform their state and society. During the protracted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, the United States was engaged in social engineering and state-building, but these tasks proved too much for them. Russia also had its own regrettable experience in Afghanistan, since every war has its own logic that sooner or later outweighs politics.

As the summer 2021 presidential elections approach, a feeling of hopelessness and anxious expectation is engulfing the international community and Syrians of various political persuasions. Numerous scenarios, largely pessimistic, are being developed – as far as the “Balkanization” of Syria or even a clash between the United States and Russia or between Russia and Turkey on Syrian soil.

There is thus only one thing we can say: if compromise solutions are found, the settlement of the Syrian conflict could serve as a precedent for the global community and a key to undoing other conflict knots. Alternatively, if the right conclusions are not drawn from the lessons of 2011, Syrian settlement may turn into a time bomb for Syria’s sustainable domestic development.

 [1]Kleib, Sami. The Destruction of Syria or the Departure of Assad? Moscow: Biblos Konsulting Publ., 2018. pp. 66–70.

 [2]Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.

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Iran- Turkey Partnership: A New Front in Libya

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There is strategic consensus among political elites currently ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey states. Despite of few turmoil, both states want to retain cordial relations that can lead towards the support of each other’s national sovereignty and stability.

Eight years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya continues to struggle to end its violent conflict and build state institutions. External actors have exacerbated Libya’s problems by funneling money and weapons to proxies that have put personal interests above Libyan people. Libya myriad armed militias led by general Haftar really hold and sway nominally backing two centers of political power in the east and west with parallel institutions. General Haftar is backed by NATO member states of France, Russia, Egypt, UAE and Saudi and on the other hand, Tripoli administration, the international recognized government, known as the government of national accord under the leadership of prime Minister fayaz AL Sarah is being backed by the United Nations, Turkey, Qatar and now Iran. The collaboration of Iran and Turkey in Libya is going to mark another hallmark in the historical relationships of two neighbor power.

From past to present, Iran and turkey have seen multiple strains in their relations. The history of relations between turkey and Iran can be dated back to the sixteenth century, when two competing imperial systems, the ottoman and the safavids, consolidated their rule ship over respective countries. Turkey and Iran were both imperial centers, and the modern states established in these two countries are considered to the successors to the ottoman and the safavid imperial rule that had dominated most parts of western Asia for centuries.

As the nearby an imperial system, territorial and political conflicts prevailed over the ottoman-safavid relations against interval periods of peace. The emergence of west oriented nation states in turkey and Iran in 1920, under the leadership of Kemal Turk and Raza Pehlevi facilitated further cooperation between two states.

By in the late 1970, when the Pehlevi monarchy was overthrown by the Islamic revolution, it was difficult to discern containing patterns of accord signed between political elites of both states. Parallel to the turkey’s “New” Middle East foreign policy started in the early 2000s, turkey – Iran relations have undergone through unprecedented periods of rapprochement. Ideological and security issues that dominated the relations between two neighbors have been gradually replaced by the pragmatic considerations on each side. Increasing volume of economic interaction, security and diplomatic cooperation on a number of issues and fulfillment of energy demand by turkey were the highlighted initiatives of that era. Ankara domestic exemption level of oil and gas had increased. To overcome this issue, turkey signed $23 billion agreement of worth oil for next 25 years. Overall, trade level between Iran and turkey increased by many time comparable to the past decade. The amount of trade increased from $1.2 billion to $4.3 billions between 2001 and 2010 and reached $10 billions in 2015.

The spread of Arab spring provided an other opportunity to both Iran and turkey to exploit the emerging New order in middle east. Both states attempted to launch their ideologies in the Arab states. Iran wanted to spread Muslim revolution although turkey wanted to spread democratic values to exert more influence in the Middle East.

Turkey’s role in the Iranian nuclear dossier has been often portrayed as that “facilitator “and bridge builder between Islamic Republic of Iran and the western camps of negotiations. Turkey has basically no interests in the Iran nuclear weapons but being a critical of international sanctions, turkey has always stressed the need of political solution of Iranian nuclear crisis. They don’t want to enter into the nuclear race with the Iran but support them to acquire nuclear weapons but for peaceful energy purposes under the guidance of NPT and IAEA.

Geographical proximity has always forced turkey to cooperate with Iran economically despite of divergence in political and ideological outlook. Common membership in regional organizations, however, provided a pragmatic bond of cooperation on issues of regional and neighbor countries. All the same, Turkey and Iran relations have been undergoing a deteriorating in the walk Syrian Civil War. Turkey supports the anti elements of president Bashar Al Assad’s who is the true state ally of Iran in the Middle East and provide safe path to support the Hezbollah in the Lebanon. Kurdish issue has also engaged the turkey who suspects of Syria and Iran of backing the Kurdistan worker party.

The Libya, a state situated in the north Africa region has become a new playing field for power and resource hunger states. After the overthrown of Qaddafi regime, multiple groups started to claim the legitimacy in the state. The authorities in the east led by the General Khalifa Haftar controls the most part of the state as it is claimed by his representatives since April 2020, he has been striving to control the capital. He has been supported by the Russia, Egypt, NATO member France, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while Tripoli government recognized by the United nations is backed by the Turkey, Qatar and now Islamic Republic of Iran. The entry of Saudi and other anti Iran allies has invited the Islamic Republic of Iran to sway and evaluate its involvement in this crisis.

Iran has announced his support for the Turkish-backed Libyan government of national accord based in Tripoli. Javed zarif visited Istanbul and during a press conference and stated“We seek to have a political solution to the Libyan crisis and end the Civil War. We support the legitimate government and we have common views with the Turkish side on way to end the crisis in Libya and Yemen.”

Moreover, Gvusoglu,The Foreign minister of turkey reiterated Turkey’s opposition to US sanctions on Iran. He further added “Iran’s stability and peace is important for us”

Sarya ansar, the Shia backed Iraqi militia, also operating in the Syria has entered the Libya to support Turkey. Security and defense cooperation agreements have been signed between Turkey and Iran and following the information of International revolution guard coast an affiliated ship has delivered the weapons to the militias in Libya.

Most of Libya’s vast territories and oil resources are much desired by the resource scarce Turkey. Further, Turkey under the leadership of President Erdogan wants to regain its old status and territories of ottoman empire. The formation of new Islamic block is being predicted which would be comprises of Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Pakistan Tunisia and Libya. Moreover, Turkey is striving to put more pressure on the Europe to award her a membership of European Union. The strategic position in the Persian Gulf, strait of harmuz and Ankara controls of the Bosporus strait are sole basis for energy cooperation between two neighbor powers. The support of Iran militias would provide strength to the Turkey in Libyan and will force the anti government elements to bow down head in front of government of national accord.

On the other hand, Iran has found an opportunity to spread Islamic revolution in sunni dominated state. It would help Iran to reorient the relations with Turkey. From the statements of foreign minister of Turkey, it is evident that they want more positive relations with Iran. Iran is the state who have second largest oil and gas reserves in Middle East. Turkey can provide a platform to raise the sanctions issues to Europe and United States of America. The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Kurdistan issues could be resolved by taking joint actions of both states and through this way stable political and economical relations would be achieved. The identical stance on Israel issue would strengthen the relations in positive way. Despite of political differences, both states have defended the stronger Bilateral cooperation

To cut the long story short, Iran-Turkey relations have seen ups and down phases in the history but they are much significant for each other’s stability in the region to fight with common enemy. No doubt that Turkey wants to achieve its high ambitions in the Middle as well as in North Africa to be a main player but right now, Iran needs more economic strength and Turkey could provide her this opportunity. This cooperation can facilitate the shattered economy of Iran in broader perspective. Libya is a new front providing the opportunity to both states to come more close.

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