With the 2018 World Cup in Russia behind it, the soccer world’s focus shifts to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. Politics and the Gulf’s internecine political and legal battles have already shaped debate about FIFA’s controversial awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Qatar. The battles highlight not only the sport’s dominance in the Middle East by autocratic leaders but also the incestuous relationship between politics and sports that is at the root of multiple scandals that have rocked the sports world for much of this decade and compromised good governance in international sports.
Three men symbolize the importance of soccer to Gulf autocrats who see the sport as a way to project their countries in a positive light on the international stage, harness its popular appeal in their cultural and public diplomacy campaigns, and leverage it as a pillar of their efforts to garner soft power: Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his nemeses, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi sports czar, Turki al-Sheikh, one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s closest associates.
To be sure, tension between Qatar and its Gulf detractors was spilling onto the soccer pitch long before the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt took their opposition to Qatari policies to a new level with the imposition in June 2017 of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. Since then, debate about the Qatari World Cup has been further politicized with the Gulf crisis driving efforts to deprive Qatar of economic and soft power benefits it derives from its hosting of the tournament, if not of the right to host the mega-sports event.
The UAE-Saudi efforts took on added significance as Qatar and its detractors settled in for the long haul. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will likely face difficult choices if the Gulf crisis persists when the World Cup, the first such mega-tournament to be held in the Middle East, kicks off in Doha in late 2022.
The choice would involve potential political risk. It would be between maintaining the boycott that has cut off all air, sea and land links between Qatar and its detractors at the expense of fans in a soccer-crazy part of the world in which little evokes the deep-seated emotions associated with religion and football or effectively breaching the embargo to evade political backlash and ensure that supporters have access to a sports milestone in the region’s history. The starkness of the boycotting states’ dilemma would be magnified if any one of them were to qualify for the Qatar World Cup and would be enhanced if they were to play the host country or, for example, Iran.
The issue of ability to attend is magnified by expectations that the demography of fans attending the World Cup in Qatar may very well be a different from that at past tournaments. Qatar is likely to attract a far greater number of fans from the Middle East as well as Africa and Asia. The Asian Football Confederation’s Competition Committee has already urged governments to exempt football teams from travel bans and would almost certainly do the same for fans.
As a result, the UAE-Saudi effort to undermine the Qatar World Cup is about more than seeking to deliver a body blow to Qatar. It is also about avoiding being further tied up into knots in an anti-Qatari campaign that has so far failed to break the Gulf state’s resolve, force it to concede, and garner international support. The campaign is multi-pronged and doesn’t shy away from violating laws as is evident in Saudi bootlegging to deprive beIN, the sports franchise of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network, of the fruits of acquired rights to broadcast World Cup tournaments and European competitions at the risk of being penalized and/or taken to court by the likes of FIFA and the English Premier League. Saudi media reports that the government has launched an anti-piracy campaign, confiscating more than 4,000 illegal receivers that hacked beIN failed to put an end to the bootlegging.
Signalling the political importance that men like the crown princes and Sheikh Tamim attribute to sports, a former top UAE security official, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, suggested that the only way to resolve the Gulf crisis would be for Qatar to surrender its World Cup hosting rights. “If the World Cup leaves Qatar, Qatar’s crisis will be over … because the crisis is created to get away from it,” Mr. Khalfan said.
Mr. Khalfan spoke at a time that leaked documents from the email account of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington and a close associate of the country’s crown prince, revealed a UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency by manipulating the value of bonds and derivatives. If successfully executed, the plan would have allowed Qatar’s distractors to argue that the Gulf state’s financial problems called into question its ability to organize the World Cup.
Serving national interests
Mr. Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the kingdom’s General Sport Authority, makes no bones about harnessing sports to serve the kingdom’s interests. With a career in security rather than sports, he was unequivocal in his assertion on the eve of Saudi Arabia’s debut in the 2018 World Cup in Russia that he made decisions based on what he deemed “Saudi Arabia’s best interest,” reaffirming the inextricable relationship between sports and politics.
Barely 24 hours before the World Cup’s opening match, Saudi Arabia made good on Mr. Al-Sheikh’s assertion that the kingdom’s international sports policy would be driven by former US President George W. Bush’s post 9/11 principle of “you are either with us or against us.”
With Morocco’s bid for the 2026 World Cup in mind, Mr. Al-Sheikh had warned that “to be in the grey area is no longer acceptable to us. There are those who were mistaken in their direction … If you want support, it’ll be in Riyadh. What you’re doing is a waste of time…,” Mr. Al-Sheikh said. Mr. Al-Sheikh was referring to Morocco’s refusal to join the anti-Qatari campaign. Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”
Mr. Al-Sheikh was manoeuvring at the same time to ensure that the kingdom has greater say in international soccer governance, including issues such as the fate of the Qatari World Cup and a push to extend international isolation of Iran to the realm of sports. To do so, Saudi Arabia backed a proposal to speed up the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, which is scheduled to kick off in 2026, by making it already applicable to the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia hopes that the expansion would significantly complicate Qatari preparations for the event. Implementing the expansion in 2022 would strengthen UAE and Saudi efforts to petition FIFA to force Qatar to agree to co-hosting of the World Cup by other Gulf states, a proposal that was incorporated in the UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency.
In an indication of things to come, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in early 2018 thwarted a UAE-Saudi attempt to get Asian tournament matches that were scheduled to be hosted by Qatar moved to a neutral venue. The AFC warned the two countries that they would be penalized if they failed to play in Doha or host Qatari teams.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s moves were part of a two-pronged Saudi-UAE effort. Global tech investor Softbank, which counts Saudi Arabia and the UAE among its largest investors, is believed to be behind a $25 billion proposal embraced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino to revamp the FIFA Club World Cup and launch of a Global Nations League tournament. If approved, the proposal would give Saudi Arabia a significant voice in global soccer governance.
Complimenting the Saudi FIFA bid is an effort to expand the kingdom’s influence in the 47-nation AFC, the largest of the world soccer body’s constituent regional elements. To do so, Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully tried to create a new regional bloc, the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), a potential violation of FIFA and AFC rules. The federation would have been made up of members of both the AFC and the Amman-based West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups all Middle Eastern nations except for Israel and is headed by Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a prominent advocate of soccer governance reform.
The initiative fell apart when the Asian members of SWAFF walked out in October 2018 in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing could also jeopardize Saudi efforts to gain control of the AFC with the Al-Sheikh-backed candidacy of Saudi Football Federation chief Adel Ezzat, who resigned in August 2018 to run for the office..
Benefits outstrip reputational risk
Mr. Al-Sheikh and his boss, Prince Mohammed, share with the crown prince’s UAE counterpart and namesake, a belief that the public diplomacy and soft power fruits of harnessing sports outstrip reputational risks. Simon Pearce, Abu Dhabi’s director of strategic communications and a director of Manchester City, the British club bought by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed’s brother but controlled by the de facto Emirati ruler’s men, said as much in leaked emails to Mr. Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington.
The emails discussed the UAE’s registration of a new soccer club, New York City Football Club, as the United States’ Major League Soccer newest franchise. Mr. Pearce argued that Abu Dhabi’s interests in the US political environment are best served by associating New York City FC with City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi government’s soccer investment vehicle, rather than the government itself to evade criticism stemming from the Emirates’ criminalization of homosexuality, its less than stellar record on women’s rights and its refusal to formally recognize Israel despite maintaining close security and commercial relations with the Jewish state.
The UAE’s sports-related investments, guided by the crown prince, much like the acquisition of important Qatari sports stakes on the behest of Sheikh Tamim also give Gulf states political leverage and create additional commercial opportunity. The investments constitute the flip side of large amounts of Gulf money being channelled to influential think tanks, particularly in Washington. In a series of notes in 2012, Mr. Pearce advised Prince Mohammed, a man obsessed with perceived threats posed by any form of political Islam and a driving force in the campaign against Qatar, to tempt than British prime minister David Cameron to counter what he described as Islamist infiltration of the BBC’s Arabic service in exchange for lucrative arms and oil deals.
To illustrate the UAE and Qatar’s sway in European soccer, Nicholas McGeehan, an independent researcher and former Human Rights Watch executive focussed on the region, looked at recent bookies odds for the Champions League. Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City was the favourite followed by Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain. Third up was Bayern Munich, whose shirts are sponsored by Qatar, fourth was Barcelona, which recently ended a seven-year sponsorship deal with Qatar, and fifth Real Madrid that sold the naming rights to its new stadium to Abu Dhabi.
Saudi and UAE public relations efforts to generate public pressure for a deprival of Qatari hosting rights were at times mired in controversy. The launch in May of the Foundation for Sports Integrity by Jamie Fuller, a prominent Australian campaigner for a clean-up of global soccer governance, backfired amid allegations of Saudi and UAE financial backing and Mr. Fuller’s refusal to disclose his source of funding.
Saudi and UAE media together with UK tabloid The Sun heralded the launch in a poche London hotel that involved a reiteration of assertions of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful World Cup bid. Media like Abu Dhabi’s The National and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya projected the launch as pressure on FIFA to deprive Qatar of its hosting rights. “It is no secret that football’s governing body is rotten to the core. (FIFA) will rightly come under renewed pressure to strip Qatar of the competition and carry out an internal investigation in the wake of the most recent allegations. The millions of fans eagerly anticipating 2022’s festival of football deserve better,” The National said. Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al Awsat newspaper reported that a June 2018 FIFA Congress would hold a re-vote of the Qatari hosting. The Congress didn’t.
Qatar remains vulnerable
Despite so far successfully having defeated efforts to deprive it of its hosting rights, Qatar remains vulnerable when it comes to the integrity of its winning bid. The bid’s integrity and Sheikh Tamim’s emphasis on sports as a pillar of Qatari soft power is at stake in legal proceedings in New York and Zurich involving corruption in FIFA and potential wrongdoing in the awarding of past World Cups. Qatar has suffered reputational damage as a result of the question marks even if the Gulf crisis has allowed it to enhance its image as an underdog being bullied by the big boys on the block.
To Qatar’s credit, it has introduced reforms of its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system that could become a model for the region. In doing so, it cemented the 2022 World Cup as one of the few mega-events with a real potential of leaving a legacy of change. Qatar started laying the foundations for that change by early on becoming the first and only Gulf state to engage with its critics, international human rights groups and trade unions.
Even so, Qatar initially suffered reputational damage on the labour front because it was relatively slow in embracing and implementing the reforms. Qatar’s handling of the Gulf crisis suggests that it has learnt from the failure of its initial response to criticism of its winning 2022 bid when it acted like an ostrich that puts its head in the sand, hoping that the storm will pass only to find that by the time it rears its head the wound has festered, and it has lost strategic advantage.
The integrity issue remains Qatar’s weak point. For activist critics of the awarding of hosting rights to Qatar, there are two questions. One is, who do they want to get in bed with? Qatar’s detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia hardly have stellar human and labour rights records. If anything, their records are worse than that of Qatar, which admittedly does not glow.
The second question critics have to ask themselves is how best to leverage the World Cup, irrespective of whether the Qatari bid was compromised or not. On the assumption that it may have been compromised, the question is less how to exact retribution for a wrong doing that was common practice in global football governance. Leveraging should focus on how to achieve a fundamental reform of global sports governance that has yet to emerge eight years into a crisis that was in part sparked by the Qatar World Cup. This goes to the heart of the fact that untouched in efforts to address the governance crisis is the corrupting, ungoverned, and incestuous relationship between sports and politics.
Siamese twins: sports and politics
The future of the Qatar World Cup and the Gulf crisis speaks to the pervasiveness of politics in sports. The World Cup is political by definition. Retaining Qatar’s hosting rights or depriving the Gulf state of the right to host the tournament is ultimately a choice with political consequences. As long as the crisis continues, retaining rights is a testimony to Qatar’s resilience, deprival would be a victory for its detractors.
As a result, the real yardstick in the debate about the Qatari World Cup should be how the sport and the integrity of the sport benefit most. And even then, politics is never far from what the outcome of that debate is. Obviously, instinctively, the optics of no retribution raises the question of how that benefits integrity. The answer is that the potential legacy of social and economic change that is already evident with the Qatar World Cup is more important than the feel-good effect of having done the right thing with retribution or the notion of setting an example. Add to that the fact that in current circumstances, a withdrawal of hosting rights would likely be interpreted as a victory of one side over the other, further divide the Arab and Muslim world, and enhance a sense among many Muslims of being on the defensive and under attack.
The silver lining in the Gulf crisis may be the fact that it has showed up the fiction of a separation of sports and politics. FIFA, the AFC, and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), seeking to police the ban on a mixing of sports and politics, have discovered that it amounts to banging their heads against a wall. Despite their attempts to halt politics from subverting Asian tournaments, domestic and regional politics seeped into the game via different avenues.
As a result, FIFA and its regional confederations have been tying themselves up in knots. In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events at the outset of the Gulf crisis, FIFA president Infantino rejected involving the group in the dispute by saying that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics.” Yet, on the same day that he made his statement, Mr. Infantino waded into the crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors. In FIFA’s decision, politics trumped professionalism, no pun intended.
Similarly, the AFC was less principled in its stand towards matches pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against one another. Iranian club Traktor Sazi was forced in February to play its home match against Al Ahli of Jeddah in Oman. It wasn’t clear why the AFC did not uphold the principle it imposed on Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the case of Iran. “Saudi teams have been able to select host stadiums and cities, and Saudi teams will host two Iranian football representatives in the UAE and Kuwait. In return, Iranian football representatives should be able to use their own rights to choose neutral venues,” said Mohammad Reza Saket, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Football Federation in a letter to the AFC.
Soccer governance bodies have long struggled to maintain the fiction of a separation in a trade-off that gave regulators greater autonomy and created the breeding ground for widespread corruption while allowing governments and politicians to manipulate the sport to their advantage as long as they were not too blatant about it. The limits of that deal are currently being defined in the Middle East, a region wracked by conflict where virtually everything is politicized.
Inside the Beltway: Iran hardliners vs Iran hardliners
Alarm bells went off last September in Washington’s corridors of power when John Bolton’s national security council asked the Pentagon for options for military strikes against Iran.
The council’s request was in response to three missiles fired by an Iranian-backed militia that landed in an empty lot close to the US embassy in Baghdad and the firing of rockets by unidentified militants close to the US consulate in the Iraqi port city of Basra.
“We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor,” Mr. Bolton said at the time.
Commenting on the council’s request, a former US official noted that “people were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”
Then US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, like Mr. Bolton an Iran hawk, worried that military strikes would embroil the United States in a larger conflagration with Iran.
The request, moreover, seemed to call into question US President Donald J. Trump’s promise to America’s European allies that he would rein in Mr. Bolton who has a long track record of advocating military action against Iran.
Months before joining the Trump administration in the spring of 2018, Mr. Bolton 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 the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan and the Baloch who populate the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Baluchistan province.
Frustrated by the Trump administration’s failure to respond to his suggestions, Mr. Bolton published the memo in December 2017.
Almost to the day two years after the publication and two months before the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Mr. Bolton asserted in a policy speech in Cairo, that the United States had “joined the Iranian people in calling for freedom and accountability… America’s economic sanctions against the (Iranian) regime are the strongest in history, and will keep getting tougher until Iran starts behaving like a normal country.” Mr Bolton was referring to harsh US sanctions imposed in 2018 by Mr. Trump after withdrawing the United States from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr. Bolton’s plan stroked with Saudi thinking about the possibility of attempting to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities. The thinking was made public in a November 2017 study by the International Institute for Iranian Studies, formerly known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, a Saudi government-backed think tank.
The study argued that Chabahar, the Indian-backed Iranian deep-sea port at the top of the Arabian Sea, posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.” Pakistani militants claimed in 2017 that Saudi Arabia had stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite fighters.
Mr. Bolton’s memo followed an article he wrote in The New York Times in 2015 headlined ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’ at the time that President Barak Obama was negotiating the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr. Bolton argued in the op-ed that diplomacy would never prevent the Islamic republic from acquiring nuclear weapons. “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed,” Mr. Bolton wrote.
The memo was written at about the same time that Mr. Bolton told a gathering of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq that “the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran” and that “before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran.”
While Mr. Bolton has remained outspoken even if he has been careful in his wording as national security advisor, other past advocates of military action against Iran have taken a step back.
Mike Pompeo has since becoming secretary of state hued far closer to the Trump administration’s official position that it is pursuing behavioural rather than regime change in Iran. But as a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Pompeo suggested in 2014 launching “2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity.”
While the Trump administration has largely explained its hard line towards Iran as an effort to halt the country’s missile development, roll back its regional influence, and ensure that the Islamic Republic will never be able to develop a nuclear weapon, Mr. Bolton has suggested that it was also driven by alleged Iranian non-compliance with the nuclear accord.
“Report: Iran’s secret nuclear archive ‘provides substantial evidence that Iran’s declarations to IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency) are incomplete & deliberately false.’ The President was right to end horrible Iran deal. Pressure on Iran to abandon nuclear ambitions will increase,” Mr. Bolton tweeted this month, endorsing a report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
Based on Iranian documents obtained by Israel, the report identified an allegedly undeclared Iranian nuclear site. “Documentation seized in January 2018 by Israel from the Iranian ‘Nuclear Archive’ revealed key elements of Iran’s past nuclear weaponization program and the Amad program more broadly, aimed at development and production of nuclear weapons. The material extracted from the archives shows that the Amad program had the intention to build five nuclear warhead systems for missile delivery,” the report said.
Similarly, Mr. Bolton this month told Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu on a visit to Jerusalem that “we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons. The United States and Israel are strategically committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.”
Mr. Bolton’s assertion contrasted starkly with then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ assessment in his 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community that “we do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
Mr. Bolton’s hardline position within the Trump administration could be cemented if Iran were to decide that upholding the nuclear agreement no longer served its interest. Anti-agreement momentum in Iran has been fuelled by the European Union’s seeming inability or unwillingness to create a financial system that would evade US sanctions and facilitate trade with Europe.
Mr. Bolton’s hard line has also been bolstered by the imposition of European Union sanctions on Iran’s ministry of intelligence and two individuals on charges of plotting to kill leaders of an Iranian Arab separatist movement in Denmark and the Netherlands.
An Iranian abrogation of the nuclear agreement would likely lead to a reshuffle of the Iranian cabinet and the appointment of hardliners that would in turn bolster Mr. Bolton’s argument that the Iran issue has to be resolved before the United States can militarily truly disengage from the Middle East and South Asia.
Hardliners like Mr. Bolton may have one more development going for them: Disillusionment in Iran with the government of President Hassan Rouhani is mounting.
The disappointment is being fuelled not only by the failure of the nuclear accord to drive economic growth and the government’s mis-management of the economy and inability to take on nepotism, vested interests such as the Revolutionary Guards and the growing income gap accentuated by the elite’s public display of ostentatious wealth, but also the fact that Mr. Rouhani appears to have lost interest in reform and implementing change.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Rouhani´s second term has been extremely ignorant (about the demands) of the twenty-four million people who make up Iranian civil society. Most of the reformists believe that he no longer wants to interact (with the reform movement). All that concerns him is to emerge from the remaining two years (of his second term) undamaged, and thus maintain his privileged spot in the pyramid of power,” said Abdullah Naseri, a prominent reformist and adviser to the former president Mohammad Khatami. Mr. Naseri was referring to the 24 million people who voted for Mr. Rouhani.
A reformist himself, Mr. Khatami warned that “if the nezam (establishment) insists on its mistakes… (and) reform fails, the society will move toward overthrowing the system.”
The roots of Mr. Bolton’s thinking lie in a policy paper entitled US Defense Planning Guidance that has been in place since 1992. The paper stipulates that US policy is designed “to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources under consolidated control be sufficient to generate global power.” The paper goes a long way in explaining why the US and Saudi Arabia potentially would be interested in destabilizing Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.
Iran scholar Shireen Hunter suggests that squashing Iran’s ambition of being a regional and global player may be one reason why senior Trump administration officials, including Mr. Bolton, Mr. Pompeo and Rudolph Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, alongside the Saudis support the Mujahedin e-Khalq even if its domestic support base is in question.
“The MEK was willing to support Saddam Hussein and cede Iran’s (oil-rich) Khuzestan province to Iraq. There is no reason to think that it won’t similarly follow U.S. bidding,” Ms. Hunter said referring to the Mujahedeen’s support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Mr. Bolton appeared to be fortifying what amounted to the most hard-line approach towards Iran in an administration that was already determined to bring Iran to its knees by elevating Charles M. Kupperman, a long-time associate and former Reagan administration official, to deputy national security adviser.
Mr. Kupperman, a former Boeing and Lockheed Martin executive, previously served on the board for the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think tank advocating for a hawkish Iran policy founded by Frank Gaffney, a former US government official who is widely viewed as an Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist.
Similarly, Mr. Trump, reportedly on Mr. Bolton’s advice, hired this month Richard Goldberg as the national security council’s director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction.
As a staffer for former Senator Mark Kirk, Mr. Goldberg helped write legislation that served as the basis for the Obama administration’s sanctions regime on Tehran prior to the nuclear deal. He went on to work for the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates a hard line towards Iran.
Earlier, Mr. Bolton hired Matthew C. Freedman, who in March 2018, together with Messrs. Kupperman and Bolton registered the Institute for a Secure America as a non-profit organization on the day that Mr. Trump announced Mr. Bolton’s appointment as national security advisor.
A long-standing Bolton associate and one-time member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, Mr. Freedman worked in the 1980s and 1990s as a foreign lobbyist with Paul Manafort, who managed Mr. Trump’s election campaign for several months and was last year convicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the campaign and Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Messrs. Bolton, Kupperman and Freedman also established in 2015 the Foundation for American Security and Freedom to campaign against the Iran nuclear deal.
David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who wrote a definitive history of the National Security Council described Mr. Bolton as a man “who has never crossed a bridge he hasn’t burned behind him, who is surrounding himself with what appears to be a second-tier group of advisers who have spent a disproportionate amount of time on the swamp side of things — as consultants or working on his extreme political projects.”
Said journalist and political commentator Mehdi Hasan: “You underestimate John Bolton at your peril… In 2003, Bolton got the war he wanted with Iraq. As an influential, high-profile, hawkish member of the Bush administration, Bolton put pressure on intelligence analysts, threatened international officials, and told barefaced lies about weapons of mass destruction. He has never regretted his support for the illegal and catastrophic invasion of Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Now, he wants a war with Iran.”
Syria’s Kurds: The new frontline in confronting Iran and Turkey
US President Donald J. Trump’s threat to devastate Turkey’s economy if Turkish troops attack Syrian Kurds allied with the United States in the wake of the announced withdrawal of American forces potentially serves his broader goal of letting regional forces fight for common goals like countering Iranian influence in Syria.
Mr. Trump’s threat coupled with a call on Turkey to create a 26-kilometre buffer zone to protect Turkey from a perceived Kurdish threat was designed to pre-empt a Turkish strike against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara asserts is part of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish group that has waged a low-intensity war in predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades.
Like Turkey, the United States and Europe have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Turkey has been marshalling forces for an attack on the YPG since Mr. Trump’s announced withdrawal of US forces. It would be the third offensive against Syrian Kurds in recent years.
In a sign of strained relations with Saudi Arabia, Turkish media with close ties to the government have been reporting long before the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that Saudi Arabia is funding the YPG. There is no independent confirmation of the Turkish allegations.
Yeni Safak reported in 2017, days after the Gulf crisis erupted pitting a Saudi-UAE-Egyptian alliance against Qatar, which is supported by Turkey, that US, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian officials had met with the PKK as well as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey says is the Syrian political wing of the PKK, to discuss the future of Syrian oil once the Islamic State had been defeated.
Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency reported last May that Saudi and YPG officials had met to discuss cooperation. Saudi Arabia promised to pay Kurdish fighters that joined an Arab-backed force US$ 200 a month, Anadolu said. Saudi Arabia allegedly sent aid to the YPG on trucks that travelled through Iraq to enter Syria.
In August last year, Saudi Arabia announced that it had transferred US$ 100 million to the United States that was earmarked for agriculture, education, roadworks, rubble removal and water service in areas of north-eastern Syria that are controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces of which the YPG is a significant part.
Saudi Arabia said the payment, announced on the day that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the kingdom, was intended to fund stabilization of areas liberated from control by the Islamic State.
Turkish media, however, insisted that the funds would flow to the YPG.
“The delivery of $100 million is considered as the latest move by Saudi Arabia in support of the partnership between the U.S. and YPG. Using the fight against Daesh as a pretext, the U.S. has been cooperating with the YPG in Syria and providing arms support to the group. After Daesh was cleared from the region with the help of the U.S., the YPG tightened its grip on Syrian soil taking advantage of the power vacuum in the war-torn country,” Daily Sabah said referring to the Islamic State by one of its Arabic acronyms.
Saudi Arabia has refrained from including the YPG and the PKK on its extensive list of terrorist organizations even though then foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir described in 2017 the Turkish organization as a “terror group.”
This week’s Trump threat and his earlier vow to stand by the Kurds despite the troop withdrawal gives Saudi Arabia and other Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt political cover to support the Kurds as a force against Iran’s presence in Syria.
It also allows the kingdom and the UAE to attempt to thwart Turkish attempts to increase its regional influence. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have insisted that Turkey must withdraw its troops from Qatar as one of the conditions for the lifting of the 18-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state.
The UAE, determined to squash any expression of political Islam, has long led the autocratic Arab charge against Turkey because of its opposition to the 2013 military coup in Egypt that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and the country’s first and only democratically elected president; Turkey’s close relations with Iran and Turkish support for Qatar and Islamist forces in Libya.
Saudi Arabia the UAE and Egypt support General Khalifa Haftar, who commands anti-Islamist forces in eastern Libya while Turkey alongside Qatar and Sudan supports the Islamists.
Libyan and Saudi media reported that authorities had repeatedly intercepted Turkish arms shipments destined for Islamists, including one this month and another last month. Turkey has denied the allegations.
“Simply put, as Qatar has become the go-to financier of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical offshoot groups around the globe, Turkey has become their armorer,” said Turkey scholar Michael Rubin.
Ironically, the fact that various Arab states, including the UAE and Bahrain, recently reopened their embassies in Damascus with tacit Saudi approval after having supported forces aligned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for much of the civil war, like Mr. Trump’s threat to devastate the Turkish economy, makes Gulf support for the Kurds more feasible.
Seemingly left in the cold by the US president’s announced withdrawal of American forces, the YPG has sought to forge relations with the Assad regime. In response, Syria has massed troops near the town of Manbij, expected to be the flashpoint of a Turkish offensive.
Commenting on last year’s two-month long Turkish campaign that removed Kurdish forces from the Syrian town of Afrin and Turkish efforts since to stabilize the region, Gulf scholar Giorgio Cafiero noted that “for the UAE, Afrin represents a frontline in the struggle against Turkish expansionism with respect to the Arab world.”
The same could be said from a Saudi and UAE perspective for Manbij not only with regard to Turkey but also Iran’s presence in Syria. Frontlines and tactics may be shifting, US and Gulf geopolitical goals have not.
‘Gadkari effect’ on growing Iran-India relations
If the ‘Newton Effect’ in physics has an equivalent in international diplomacy, we can describe what is happening to India-Iran relations as the ‘Gadkari Effect’.
Like in the case of the 18th century English scientist Isaac Newton’s optical property of physics, the minister in the Indian government Nitin Gadkari – arguably, by far the best performing colleague of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – has created a series of concentric, alternating rings centered at the point of contact between the Indian and Iranian economies.
‘Gadkari’s rings’ around the Chabahar Port in the remote province of Sistan-Baluchistan in southeastern Iran are phenomenally transforming the India-Iran relationship.
The first definitive signs of this appeared in December when the quiet, intense discussions between New Delhi and Tehran under Gadkari’s watch resulted in the agreement over a new payment mechanism that dispenses with the use of American dollar in India-Iran economic transactions.
Prime facie, it was a riposte to the use of sanctions (‘weaponization of dollar’) as a foreign policy tool to interfere in Iran’s oil trade with third countries such as India. (See my blog India sequesters Iran ties from US predatory strike.)
However, the 3-day visit to Delhi by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on January 7-9 highlighted that the application of the payment mechanism to the Indian-Iranian cooperation over Chabahar Port holds seamless potential to energize the economic partnership between the two countries across the board. In a historical sense, an opportunity is at hand to make the partnership, which has been ‘oil-centric’, a multi-vector ‘win-win’ relationship.
The meeting between Gadkari and Zarif in Delhi on Tuesday signaled that the two sides have a ‘big picture’ in mind. Thus, the opening of a branch of Bank Pasargad in Mumbai is a timely step. Pasargad is a major Iranian private bank offering retail, commercial and investment banking services, which provides services such as letters of credit, treasury, currency exchange, corporate loans syndication, financial advisory and electronic banking. (It is ranked 257th in the Banker magazine’s “1000 banks in the world”.)
Bank Pasargad is establishing presence in India just when the Chabahar Port has been ‘operationalized’ and a first shipment from Brazil carrying 72458 tons of corn cargo berthed at the port terminal on December 30.
More importantly, the discussions between Gadkari and Zarif have covered proposals for a barter system in India-Iran trade. Iran needs steel, particularly rail steel and locomotive engines “in large quantities, and they are ready to supply urea,” Gadkari told the media.
Then, there is a proposal for a railway line connecting Chabahar with Iran’s grid leading northward to the border with Afghanistan. Zarif summed up the broad sweep of discussions this way:
“We had very good discussions on both Chabahar as well as other areas of cooperation between Iran and India. The two countries complement each other and we can cooperate in whole range of areas… We hope that in spite of the illegal US sanctions, Iran and India can cooperate further for the benefit of the people of the two countries and for the region.”
Paradoxically, the collaboration over Chabahar Port, which has been a “byproduct” of India-Pakistan tensions, is rapidly outgrowing the zero-sum and gaining habitation and a name in regional security. There are many ways of looking at why this is happening so.
Clearly, both India and Iran have turned the Chabahar project around to provide an anchor sheet for spurring trade and investment between the two countries. This approach holds big promises. There is great complementarity between the two economies.
Iran is the only country in the Middle East with a diversified economy and a huge market with a fairly developed industrial and technological base and agriculture and richly endowed in mineral resources. It is an oil rich country and the needs of Indian economy for energy, of course, are galloping.
Second, Chabahar Port can provide a gateway for India not only to Afghanistan and Central Asia but also to Russia and the European market. Logically, Chabahar should be linked to the proposed North-South Transportation Corridor that would significantly cut down shipping time and costs for the trade between India and Russia and Europe.
Thus, it falls in place that the Trump administration, which keeps an eagle’s eye on Iran’s external relations, has given a pass to the Indian investment in Chabahar. Prima facie, Chabahar Port can provide access for Afghanistan to the world market and that country’s stabilization is an American objective. But then, Chabahar can also provide a potential transportation route in future for American companies trading and investing in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
According to a Pentagon task force set up to study Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, that country is sitting on untapped rare minerals, including some highly strategic ones worth at least 1 trillion dollars. Indeed, President Trump has pointedly spoken about it to rationalize the US’ abiding business interests in Afghanistan. Now, from indications of late, conditions have dramatically improved for an Afghan settlement that provides for enduring US presence in that country.
We must carefully take note that Iran is in effect supplementing the efforts of Pakistan and the US to kickstart an intra-Afghan dialogue involving the representatives from Kabul and the Taliban.
Importantly, China has also adopted a similar supportive role. A high degree of regional consensus is forging that security and stability of Afghanistan should not be the stuff of geopolitical rivalries.
The bottom line is that Iran’s own integration into the international community, which the Trump administration is hindering, is inevitable at some point sooner than we believe.
The disclosure that behind the cloud cover of shrill rhetoric against Iran, Washington secretly made two overtures to Tehran recently to open talks shows that Trump himself is looking for a deal to get out of the cul-de-sac in which his Iran policies have landed him.
Washington cannot but take note of the constructive role that Tehran is playing on the Afghan situation. (Interestingly, Zarif and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative on Afghanistan who go back a long way, have paid overlapping visits to Delhi.)
There is an influential constituency of strategic analysts and opinion makers within the US already who recognize the geopolitical reality that American regional policy in the Middle East will forever remain on roller coaster unless and until Washington normalizes with Tehran. They acknowledge that at the end of the day, Iran is an authentic regional power whose rise cannot be stopped.
From such a perspective, what Zarif’s discussions in Delhi underscore is that while Iran is keeping its end of the bargain in the 2015 nuclear deal, it is incrementally defeating the US’ “containment strategy” by its variant of “ostpolitik”, focused principally on three friendly countries – Russia, China and India.
This is where much depends on the Indian ingenuity to create new webs of regional partnerships. There are tantalizing possibilities. Remember the 3-way Moscow-Baghdad-Delhi trilateral cooperation in the bygone Soviet era?
That is only one model of how the three big countries – Russia, India and Iran – can have common interest to create sinews of cooperation attuned to Eurasian integration. It is a rare convergence since there are no contradictions in the mutual interests of the three regional powers.
The Indian diplomacy must come out of its geopolitical reveries and begin working on the tangible and deliverable. That will make our foreign policy relevant to our country’s overall development. Gadkari has shown how geo-economics makes brilliant, purposive foreign policy. Equally, he followed up diligently what needed to be done to get Chabhar project going so that an entire architecture of cooperation can be built on it. Zarif’s extraordinary remarks testify to it. Even a hundred theatrical performances on the Madison Square Garden wouldn’t have achieved such spectacular results in a short period of time.
*Nitin Jairam Gadkari is an Indian politician and the current Minister for Road Transport & Highways, Shipping and Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation in the Government of India.
First published in our partner MNA
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