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.
Netanyahu-Pompeo secret meeting with MBS: A clear message to Joe Biden and Iran
Israeli media reported on Monday, November 24, 2020, that Netanyahu had secretly traveled to Saudi Arabia on Sunday to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. According to some media reports, the meeting took place in the city of Neom on the Red Sea coast, and was attended by Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence and security service, but Benny Gantz, the Minister of Defense, and Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli Foreign Minister, They were not during this trip. Although some claim that Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman have met before, this secret trip is very important in this sensitive situation. That means less than two months before the end of the Trump administration, the US move could have far-reaching implications for Middle East countries, regional security policies and the future of their relations with Israel.
On the other hand, the Donald Trump administration has helped mediate an Israel’s peace agreement with neighboring Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain. The normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as one of the most important Muslim countries in the Middle East, has always been on the agenda of the administration of US President Donald Trump and he hopes to lead Saudi Arabia and Israel to an agreement. About two months ago, the UAE and Bahrain signed a joint statement in Washington on a commitment to peace called the “Ibrahim Agreement” with Israel. The agreement has been described as a turning point in the official relations between the Arab states and Israel in recent decades. Following the announcement of the agreement, Mohammed bin Salman welcomed Saudi Arabia’s efforts to improve Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but stressed that his country wanted a permanent solution to the Palestinian question.Therefore, in this text, by examining the reasons for this secret trip, the possible consequences for the future security of the Middle East region as well as regional coalitions towards Iran have been explained.
The normalization of Arab countries’ relations with Israel has been largely due to their shared concerns about Iran. However, the interesting thing about this secret trip is that the Saudi authorities deny it. This means that Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin FarhanAl-Saud tweeted: “I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by @SecPompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi”.However, Saudi Arabia does not talk about this trip for various reasons, which could include the following: 1) Saudi Arabia is the cradle of the Islamic world and is not yet internally ready to establish open relations with Israel. However, Saudi Arabia is the most important country in the Arab world, and the normalization of relations with Israel will allow other Arab countries in the region to follow the path of other countries to establish relations with Israel. 2) Saudi Arabia stated in the Arab League that it does not allow direct flights to Israel and does not even allow Israeli planes to cross the skies of Riyadh, and if it does so and establishes a relationship with Israel, its credibility will be reduced. Saudi Arabia has said in the past that it will only recognize Israel if the Palestinians achieve an independent state. Israelis also usually travel to Saudi Arabia with a special permit or with foreign passports, most of whom are Muslims, a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Send a clear message to Joe Biden’s government
After the Trump administration came to power in 2016, the Israeli and Saudi sides were very happy. This means that the foreign policy of the Obama administration (2008-2016) in the Middle East was not very satisfactory for Saudi Arabia and Israel. That is why the actions of the Trump administration, and especially the efforts of Jared Kushner and Pompeo to improve relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries, have improved their regional situation. For Examples can mentioned US-Saudi military agreements and the withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, maximum pressure on Iran, the Century Deal Plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and normalization Israel’s relations with Arab countries such as the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. However, with the end of the Trump administration’s presidency in less than two months, concerns have grown for Joe Biden as the next US president for Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.
Therefore, one of the main points of this trip is to send a clear message to the Biden administration to show that Israel and Saudi Arabia are in the same direction on regional issues, especially confronting Iran, and that the Biden administration must continue the path of the Trump administration. Although it should be noted that Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party has warmed over the past half century, it is imperative that any government that wants to rule in the United States must pay special attention to Israel’s interests and security. Perhaps one of the levers of pressure on the US government is the powerful Zionist lobbies in the United States, which play a special role in US security strategy and foreign policy. Thus, the secret meeting between Mohammed bin Salman, Netanyahu and Pompeo means that Saudi Arabia considers the US presence in the Middle East necessary and to maintain security in the region.
Maintaining a regional coalition against Iran
Another reason for this trip is the issue of Iran. This means that during the four years of the Trump administration, the toughest measures were taken against Iran, which was acceptable to Saudi Arabia and Israel. These include the unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018, maximum pressure on Iran and further economic sanctions, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, the formation of a regional coalition against Iran, and attacks on Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq. Israel considers Iran its greatest enemy, and Saudi Arabia, which cut ties with Iran four years ago, sees the Islamic Republic as a serious rival and threat.
But in his remarks, Biden said a return to a nuclear deal with Iran had raised concerns in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Arabia and Israel have openly sent a message to Biden that Riyadh and Tel Aviv will continue the Trump-formed coalition against Iran, and that Biden must follow Trump’s lead, keep up the pressure on Iran, and respond to Iran’s regional presence, ballistic missiles, nuclear deal, and tensions in regional crises such as Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Israel, in order to maintain their security, want the United States to be present in the region and, as the leader of the region, to be able to reduce the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Therefore, the main demand of Saudi Arabia and Israel from the Biden government is that Iran must abide by all its obligations.
Netanyahu also met with Mohammed bin Salman and Mike Pompeo after the media reported about two weeks ago that the Trump administration was planning a series of new sanctions against Iran in the final weeks of its work, in coordination with Israel and several Gulf Arab states. The reason for such a move is the increase in non-nuclear sanctions and the increasing pressure on Iran to make it harder for the Biden administration to return to the nuclear deal. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel are waiting for the next government in Iran. It is unlikely that the Biden government will consider the Iran issue as one of its priorities in the next year. Economic problems and the Corona crisis will be the most important issues for the Biden government.
Changing the security balance in the Middle East
Less than two months after the end of the Trump administration, some believe that there is a possibility of changing the regional balance. This means that there is a possibility of a limited military attack and covert operation by the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia against Iran and the government of Bashar al-Assad. A claim that may be different from reality. Although some see, the transfers of the B-53 bomber to the region as an important reason for this, Israel and Saudi Arabia themselves know that entering into a limited war with Iran could make things difficult for them. Saudi Arabia and Tel Aviv believe that with the advent of the Biden government and its multilateral policy on regional issues and the possible return to a nuclear deal with Iran, crises in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen may continue, with the threat of Iran and its influence. Security will change the region to the detriment of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Therefore, before the end of Trump’s presidency, they are trying to form a US-Israel-Saudi regional alliance to maintain the balance of power so that it can somehow intensify it during Biden. With Biden in office, the Middle East regional order appears to be moving toward security, and tensions between key regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Israel and Iran are spreading. Finally, Russia’s mediating role should be mentioned. As an important regional player, it has been able to maintain the balance of power between the countries of the region and has been recognized as an important winner in regional crises. Russia’s relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel are going well, which is why Riyadh and Tel Aviv want US support to counter Iran. Although Russia is also pursuing its own national interests, it will try to take advantage of the tensions between these actors and undermine the US unilateral presence.The trip is for reasons such as sending a clear message to the next US administration and Joe Biden to cooperate fully with Riyadh and Tel Aviv, and on the other hand, to continue to put maximum pressure on Iran and balance regional powers in favor of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Iranian nuclear problem again: The storm clouds are gathering
The nuclear problem of Iran is once again becoming the focus of global media attention, and there are several reasons for this.
First, US President-elect Joe Biden (although no official results of the November 3 vote have been announced yet), who generally rejects the foreign policy of the current President Donald Trump, said that he will make America’s return to the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, one of his administration’s main priorities. The announcement was certainly not lost on political scientists, analysts and journalists, who started actively discussing the new situation around the Iranian nuclear problem.
Second, this renewed interest in the future of the 2015 accord is also explained by the “persistence” of the Trump administration, which, 60 days now left before it will be moving out of the White House, is ramping up its traditional “maximum pressure” on Iran by introducing a new set of sanctions…
Third, this is the internal political struggle in Iran, now that President Hassan Rouhani – one of the main authors of the JCPOA – is due to step down when his second term in office expires in 2021.
Rouhani’s upcoming departure has been a boost to the conservative radicals predominant in the government, who are all set to step up their fight against the JCPOA. Indeed, their discontent was directed not so much at Washington, as at President Rouhani, who in their opinion, which has been gaining popularity at home, made a mistake by joining President Barack Obama in creating the JCPOA. This means that Rouhani’s successor may be less open to communication with the West, and, to a certain extent, unwilling to abide by the terms of the agreement.
Throughout Donald Trump’s four years in the White House, President Rouhani has been trying hard to keep the JCPOA alive and give diplomacy a chance even though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has increasingly warned against contacts with Washington, especially since President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear accord in 2018.
However, mindful of the Trump administration’s aggressive policy towards the Islamic Republic, exactly a year after the US pullout from the JCPOA, the Iranian leadership began to gradually scale back its commitments under the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, the “nuclear situation” in Iran now looks rather alarming and even dangerous.
In a confidential report circulated to member states on November 10, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that, as of November 2, Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium had reached 2,442.9 kilograms, which is 12 times the amount allowed under the JCPOA. Under the agreement, Iran is only allowed to produce up to 300kg of enriched uranium in a particular compound form (UF6), which is the equivalent of 202.8kg of uranium.
The IAEA added that Iran was continuing to enrich uranium to a purity of up to 4.5% – in violation of the 3.67% threshold agreed under the 2015 deal.
According to the UN nuclear watchdog’s latest quarterly report, Iran has completed the deployment of the first set of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at an underground facility in Natanz. Tehran had earlier informed the IAEA of its intention to transfer three cascades of advanced centrifuges to Natanz. The first cascade of IR-2m centrifuges, has already been installed and connected, but is not yet operational, since gaseous uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for the production of enriched uranium, is not yet supplied to the system. The Iranians are also installing a second cascade of more efficient IR-4 centrifuges. A third cascade of IR-6 centrifuges is now in the pipeline.
Moving underground equipment previously located on the surface, and using more advanced centrifuges than the first generation IR-1 units is a violation of Tehran’s obligations under the JCPOA.
The Natanz nuclear facility, located about 200 kilometers south of Tehran, is an advanced complex, consisting of two main facilities – the Experimental Plant, commissioned in 2003, and the Industrial Plant, commissioned in 2007. The latter consists of two underground reinforced concrete buildings, each divided into eight workshops. The plant is well protected against air strikes with an almost eight-meter-thick high-strength concrete roof, covered with a 22-meter layer of earth.
In late October, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi confirmed that Iran is also building an underground facility in Natanz to assemble centrifuges of a new generation, more productive and efficient. This is equally at variance with the terms of the JCPOA accord, which has suffered erosion and destabilization since the US withdrawal.
Just as Academician Alexey Arbatov very aptly noted in his article “Iranian Nuclear Perspective”: “There is no reason for such underground structures and, accordingly, for colossal additional costs if, as Tehran says, they are for peaceful nuclear energy generation. References to the threat of an Israeli air strike are equally unconvincing, since what we are talking about is ‘peaceful atom.’ Indeed, all other elements of the nuclear industry are not protected from an airstrike and can be destroyed if the enemy seeks to prevent the development of peaceful, rather than military, nuclear energy in Iran. History knows only two examples of similar underground nuclear power projects: an underground nuclear power plant (Atomgrad) built by the Soviet Union near Krasnoyarsk to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and a uranium enrichment complex, apparently being built in the mountains of North Korea. Both of a military nature, of course, meant to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials even during the war, despite air strikes.”
Judging by the latest IAEA report, the agency is also unsatisfied with Tehran’s explanations about the presence of nuclear materials at an undeclared facility in the village of Turkuzabad (about 20 km south of Tehran), where man-made uranium particles were found last year, and continues to consider the Iranian response “technically unreliable.”
In his November 13, 2020 report about the agency’s work to the UN General Assembly, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said that the IAEA continues to verify the non-proliferation of nuclear materials pledged by Iran in keeping with the terms of its Safeguards Agreement. In August, Grossi visited Tehran and met with President Rouhani and other senior Iranian officials. During the visit, the sides agreed to settle certain issues pertaining to the implementation of safeguards, including IAEA inspectors’ access to two facilities in Iran. Inspections have since been carried out at both locations and environmental samples taken by inspectors are being analyzed.
“I welcome the agreement between the agency and Iran, which I hope will reinforce cooperation and enhance mutual trust,” Rafael Grossi summed up.
Even though Iran is formally de jure involved in the nuclear deal, the hardline conservative majority in the country’s political elite opposed to the JCPOA has taken a new step towards Iran’s withdrawal from the NPT.
In a statement issued on November 11, 2020, Khojat-ol-eslam Mojtaba Zonnour, chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Mejlis (Iranian parliament), said that the MPs had approved (but not yet passed as law) a “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions.”
According to the “Plan,” upon its approval in parliament, the government shall suspend within the next two months any access by IAEA inspectors outside the provisions of the Additional Protocol. And also, if Iran’s banking relations with Europe and Iranian oil sales do not return to normal within three months after the adoption of the law, the government is to stop voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.
The Iranians insist that the level of cooperation that has in recent years been going on between Tehran and the IAEA in monitoring the country’s nuclear program was even higher than what is envisaged by the Additional Protocol, including their introduction of a special checkup regime for IAEA inspectors. Moreover, Tehran never misses a chance to remind that before the JCPOA, Europe was buying between 700,000 and one million barrels of Iranian oil a day, and that economic and banking relations were normal.
Mojtaba Zonnour emphasized that the United States walked out of the JCPOA in order to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, adding that the Europeans had failed to meet their obligations under the JCPOA and had been cheating Iran for several years. He also noted that in keeping with the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” the IAEA will only be allowed to monitor the implementation of the Safeguards Agreement and the NPT requirements.
Upon its approval by the Mejlis, the “Plan” envisions a radical refusal by Iran to comply with a number of key obligations under the JCPOA.
Thus, the Fordow nuclear fuel enrichment plant, redesigned in line with the JCPOA requirements into a research center, will again become a plant for the production of enriched uranium. The number of new IR-6 centrifuges there will be increased to 1,000 by the end of the Iranian calendar year (March 20, 2021) to turn out up to 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20% a year.
The Iranians are also going to expand their enrichment capacities and bring the production of uranium enriched to 5% up to at least 500 kg per month, compared to just 300 kg allowed by the JCPOA.
Within four months from the date of the Strategic Plan’s entry into force, Tehran intends to restore the 40 megawatt heavy water reactor in Arak to the level it operated at prior to the conclusion of the JCPOA accord, which had it redesigned so that it would not be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. In January 2016, the reactor core was dismantled.
As Mojtaba Zonnour quite frankly explained in his statement, “In the above-mentioned Plan, we determined the extent to which our nuclear activities would intensify and stated that we had abandoned the measures taken in accordance with the requirements of the JCPOA. For example, we decided to increase the level of uranium enrichment, increase the amount of uranium accumulation, bring the 40 megawatt heavy-water reactor in Arak to its pre-JCPOA state, install modern centrifuges, and the like. <…> The Plan singles out two very important points: one is that if, after we enact the law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions,” the Europeans change their behavior and resume their commitments under the JCPOA, of if the US wants to return to the JCPOA, the Iranian government will no longer have the authority to unilaterally suspend the implementation of this law. It will need permission from parliament – it is the Majlis that makes the final decision. ”
It is worth mentioning here that in its draft law the Mejlis provides for criminal responsibility for non-compliance by individuals and legal entities with the provisions of the law on the “Strategic Plan…” with violators facing punishment of up to 20 years behind bars.
Enactment of the law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” and its implementation by the government is tantamount to Iran’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Moreover, Mojtaba Zonnour said that the government could fast-track the adoption of the law on the “Plan,” as there is an administrative and legal opportunity for it to be formally considered by the parliamentary Commission on National Security and Foreign Policy within 10 days, and subsequently adopted by an open session of the Majlis.
This means that by the time US President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20, 2021, the “Plan” may have already been adopted. The Iranian authorities obviously had this date very much in mind when unveiling the “Plan” to the general public.
On the one hand, the draft law on the “Strategic Plan for Countering Anti-Iranian Sanctions” can be seen as an attempt by Tehran to “blackmail” the new US administration, as well as Britain and the European Union, in order to achieve the main goal of lifting the sanctions even by restoring in some form the JCPOA accord (or drawing up JCPO-2), but on Iranian terms. On the other – to get a bargaining chip for a future dialogue, possibly with the very same P5+1 group of world powers (Russia, US, Britain, France, China and Germany), but now a dialogue from a position of strength.
No wonder the already familiar Khojat-ol-eslam Zonnour said: “In fact, the nature of [US] arrogance is such that when they see you weak, they put more pressure on you, and if our position against the system of domination and arrogance is weak, this does not serve our interests. Consequently, the Iranian people have the right to respond to questions from a position of dignity and strength.”
As for Khojat-al-eslam Zonnour, he is a radical politician and the fiercest opponent of the JCPOA and a rapprochement with the West in parliament. The following statement tells it all: “Unfortunately, today some of our statesmen use expressions that are contrary to the dignity of the Iranian people, our authority and self-respect. The fact that in their tweets and comments our president and first vice president say that ‘God willing, the new US administration will return to the law and fulfill its obligations’ these are not correct or noble things to say. Such words encourage the enemy to defy its commitments, and when it doesn’t see our resolve and thinks we are passive and asking for a favor, it raises the bar and tries to score more points.
Mojtaba Zonnour’s activity can certainly be viewed as an example of a tough internal political struggle, but this way or another his views resonate with the overwhelming majority of members of the current parliament. And the issues of the JCPOA and general opposition to the United States and Europe were not invented by Zonnour alone.
Thus, we can state that the future of the JCPOA is now hanging in the balance as there are powerful forces in both Iran and the US opposed to nuclear deals between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world. There is still hope, however, that the economic crisis and the threat of social protests will eventually force Tehran to resume contacts with the United States and the other signatories to the JCPOA accord in order to work out conditions for lifting the sanctions.
In turn, as is evident from statements coming from US President-elect Joe Biden, his administration will be ready for a dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue, and here the positions of Russia, China, the European Union and the UK are no less important for resolving the newly emerged Iranian nuclear problem.
Just how this negotiation process will be carried out and on what conditions is hard to say now, but there is absolutely no doubt that it is going to be extremely difficult, dramatic, contradictory and protracted. The stakes are too high, it is too important for Iran, its neighbors, the entire Near and Middle East, as well as for preserving the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
From our partner International Affairs
World Powers Must Address the Nexus of Iran’s Terrorism and Diplomacy
On coming Friday, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat will stand trial in Belgium along with three co-conspirators in a terrorist plot. The prosecution is an opportunity to hold these four individuals accountable for activities that could have harmed hundreds of advocates for democracy in the Middle East. More than that, it is also an opportunity for Western powers to reconsider their overall approach to the regime that enables and actively promotes such terrorist plots.
The trial concerns the attempted bombing of an international gathering, organized annually near Paris by the coalition of Iranian opposition groups and personalities, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Collateral damage of the June 2018 plot could have easily included any number of the high-profile dignitaries who had traveled to the event from throughout Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Among these were many members of parliament from across Europe, former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, former PM and Foreign Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper and John Baird, former Foreign Ministers of France and Italy, Bernard Kouchner and Giulio Terzi, and President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
This list of potential victims stands alongside the French venue as a reason why it is especially important for Western governments to offer an assertive reaction to the terror plot. Ideally, that reaction could have happened very soon after the plot’s details were revealed, particularly after it was announced that the third counsellor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna had been arrested in connection with it. But the trial of that terrorist-diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, represents another opportunity for a unified Western coalition to send a strong message to his handlers in Tehran.
Make no mistake, those handlers were guiding Assadi through the entire process. An initial, months-long investigation into the terror plot led to an announcement from the French Government which stated unequivocally that the plot had been approved at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. This finding has been corroborated every step of the way by the two-year Belgian investigation. Throughout that time, Tehran has explicitly stood behind its agent, as by trying to obstruct his extradition after he was arrested in Germany, just outside the bounds of his Austrian diplomatic immunity.
Despite those efforts to help him escape accountability, an alternative account of the terror plot has gradually emerged which suggests that Assadi was acting as a rogue agent, without the knowledge or consent of his own government. This is nonsense, and it has been appropriately and repeatedly debunked by persons with knowledge of the case, as well as by persons with a solid understanding of how the Iranian regime operates in general.
“The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership,” wrote Jaak Raes, the head of Belgian state security services in recent communications with the media. “It was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative.”
It is not even clear why anyone would think otherwise, unless it is because the direct involvement of such a high-ranking diplomat doesn’t seem to be part of Iran’s usual modus operandi. This is a valid point, but the change in tactics should raise more questions about the perceived value of the target in 2018 than it does about who is ultimately responsible for setting that target. In fact, the Iranian regime’s attempted attack on the opposition gathering was predictable because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had personally acknowledged, that January, that the NCRI coalition was responsible for an ongoing, nationwide upsurge in unrest.
The January uprising inspired countless protests that carried the same anti-government message through the rest of the year, during which time Tehran became fixated on stamping out dissent both at home and abroad. That fixation called for more carefully managed terrorist activity than is usually channeled through the regime’s various terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah. In essence, the 2018 terror plot only brought the role of Assadi and other Iranian diplomats into the foreground, putting him in a leadership position whereas once he might have simply channeled the regime’s instructions, financial and logistical assistance into the hands of third-party militants.
Now that the curtain has been drawn back on the regime’s existing terrorist infrastructure, the international community must carefully consider how to assure that it is never activated in this or any other way again. It will not be sufficient to just secure conviction for the 2018 conspirators, although this is certainly a step in the right direction. Major world powers should amplify the message of that conviction so the Iranian regime will have no doubts about the consequence of other such terror plots being thwarted in the future.
Many of those who attended the 2018 gathering have recently outlined some of the ways in which this message might be conveyed. In a number of online conferences they used the opportunity to advocate for enhanced economic sanctions on regime authorities, further diplomatic isolation for the regime as a whole and the application of formal terrorist designation of entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Diplomatic isolation seems to be an especially contentious topic, especially when advocates raise the prospect of shuttering Iranian embassies and consulates altogether. But details of the Assadi case should receive a broader public airing next Friday and then it should become much easier for policymakers throughout the world to sign onto a foreign policy strategy that acknowledges the Islamic Republic is the furthest thing from an ordinary diplomatic partner.
Far from closing off a pathway for promoting moderation within the Iranian regime, embassy closures would actually limit the regime’s ability to convey terrorist extremism beyond its borders, sometimes even into the heart of Europe. In partnership with other assertive Western policies, this sort of diplomatic isolation can be expected to force the regime into a position where it must either fundamentally transform its behavior in order to survive or else focus exclusively on domestic affairs and risk overthrow by an increasingly restive population.
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