The stakes in the Middle East couldn’t be higher.
Suspicion that the United States’ intent is to change the regime in Tehran rather than its officially stated goal of forcing Iran to curb its ballistic missile program and support for militias in Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen was heightened with this week’s decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.
It was the first time that the United States labelled a branch of a foreign government as a terrorist entity, particularly one that effects millions of Iranian citizens who get conscripted into the military and for whom the IRGC is an option.
“Today’s unprecedented move to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization demonstrates our commitment to maximize pressure on the Iranian regime until it ceases using terrorism as tool of statecraft,” tweeted Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton..
The designation effectively blocks Mr. Trump’s potential successor from possibly returning to the 2015 international accord that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, complicates any diplomatic effort to resolve differences, and changes the rules of engagement in theatres like Syria where US and Iranian forces operate in close proximity to one another.
“Through this, some US allies are seeking to ensure a US-Iran war or to, at a minimum, trap them in a permanent state of enmity,” said Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, referring to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The designation was likely to embolden advocates in Washington, Saudi Arabia and Israel of a more aggressive covert war against Iran that would seek to stoke unrest among the Islamic republic’s ethnic minorities, including Baloch, Kurds and Iranians of Arab descent.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel were quick to applaud the US move. Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, on the eve of a hard-fought election, claimed credit for the suggestion to designate the IRGC. The official Saudi news agency asserted that the decision translates the Kingdom’s repeated demands to the international community of the necessity of confronting terrorism supported by Iran.”
The risk of an accident or unplanned incident spiralling out of control and leading to military confrontation has also been heightened by Iran’s response, declaring the US military in the greater Middle East a terrorist entity.
The US move and the Iranian response potentially put US military personnel in the Gulf as well as elsewhere in the region in harm’s way.
The designation also ruled out potential tacit US-Iranian cooperation on the ground as occurred in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State and in Afghanistan. That cooperation inevitably involved the IRGC.
Beyond geopolitical and military risks, the designation increases economic pressure on Iran because the IRGC is not only an army but also a commercial conglomerate with vast interests in construction, engineering and manufacturing.
It remained however unclear to what degree the sanctions would affect the IRGC, which, already heavily sanctioned, does much of its business in cash and through front companies.
US policy, even before the IRGC designation, had already raised the spectre of a nuclear race in the Middle East. The designation increases the chances that Iran will walk away from the nuclear agreement.
Saudi Arabia has however already been putting in place the building blocks for its own nuclear program in anticipation of Iran abandoning the agreement and returning to its full-fledged, pre-2015 enrichment project.
The IRGC goes to the heart of the Iranian regime. It was formed to protect the regime immediately after the 1979 revolution at a time that Iran’s new rulers had reason to distrust the military of the toppled shah.
Some of the shah’s top military and security commanders discussed crushing the revolution at a dinner on new year’s eve 1978, some six weeks before the shah’s regime fell. It was the shah’s refusal to endorse their plan that foiled it. The shah feared that large-scale bloodshed would dim the chances of his exiled son ever returning to Iran as shah.
The IRGC has since developed into a key pillar of Iran’s defense strategy which seeks to counter perceived covert operations by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel by supporting proxies across the Middle East.
It is a strategy that has proven both effective and costly, Iran’s failure to address fears that the strategy is an effort to export its revolutions and topple the region’s conservative regimes, particularly in the Gulf, has raised the cost.
To be sure, the Iranian revolution constituted a serious threat to autocratic rulers. It was a popular revolt like those more than 30 years later in the Arab world. The Iranian revolt, however, toppled not only an icon of US power in the Middle East and a monarch, it also created an alternative form of Islamic governance that included a degree of popular sovereignty.
The revolution unleashed a vicious cycle that saw Gulf states fund the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s in which up to one million people died; Saudi Arabia wage a four-decade long US$100 billion campaign to globally propagate ultra-conservative, anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of Islam; repeated attempts to stoke ethnic tensions among Iran’s disgruntled minorities, and Iranian counter measures including support for proxies across the Middle East and violent attacks against Americans, Israelis, Jews and regime opponents in various parts of the world.
“Given that the IRGC is already sanctioned by the US Treasury, this step is both gratuitous and provocative. It will also put countries such as Iraq and Lebanon in even more difficult situations as they have no alternative but to deal with the IRGC. It will strengthen calls by pro-Iran groups in Iraq to expel US troops,” said Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Washington’s Atlantic Council
Testing the waters: Russia explores reconfiguring Gulf security
Russia hopes to blow new life into a proposal for a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf, with the tacit approval of the Biden administration.
If successful, the initiative would help stabilise the region, cement regional efforts to reduce tensions, and potentially prevent war-wracked Yemen from emerging as an Afghanistan on the southern border of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden and at the mouth of the Red Sea.
For now, Vitaly Naumkin, a prominent scholar, academic advisor of the foreign and justice ministries, and head of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, is testing the waters, according to Newsweek, which first reported the move.
Last week, he invited former officials, scholars, and journalists from feuding Middle Eastern nations to a closed-door meeting in Moscow to discuss the region’s multiple disputes and conflicts and ways of preventing them from spinning out of control.
Mr. Naumkin, who is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, co-authored the plan first put forward in 2004. The Russian foreign ministry published a fine-tuned version in 2019.
Russia appears to have timed the revival of its proposal to begin creating a framework to deal with Houthi rebels, seemingly gaining the upper hand against Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s seven-year-long devastating war.
The Iranian-backed rebels appear to be closer to capturing the oil and gas-rich province of Marib after two years of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war. The conquest would pave the way for a Houthi takeover of neighbouring Shabwa, another energy-rich region. It would put the rebels in control of all northern Yemen.
The military advances would significantly enhance the Houthi negotiating position in talks to end the war. They also raise the spectre of splitting Yemen into the north controlled by the Houthis and the south dependent on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“The battle for Marib could be a final stand for the possibility of a unified Yemen,” said Yemeni writer and human rights activist Nabil Hetari.
A self-declared independent North Yemen would potentially resemble an Afghanistan sitting on one of the world’s critical chokepoints for the flow of oil and gas. North Yemen would be governed by a nationalist Islamist group that presides over one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, struggles to win international recognition, restore public services, and stabilise a war-ravaged economy while an Al-Qaeda franchise operates in the south.
The Russian initiative also appears geared to take advantage of efforts by Middle Eastern rivals Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran to reduce regional tensions, get a grip on their differences, and ensure that they do not spin out of control.
Russia seems to be exploiting what some describe as paused and others as stalled talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran mediated by Iraq. Iraqi officials insisted that the talks are on hold until a new Iraqi government has been formed following last month’s elections. The discussions focused at least partially on forging agreement on ways to end the Yemen war.
Mr. Naumkin suggested that the Russian initiative offers an opportunity to carve the Middle East out as a region of cooperation as well as competition with the United States in contrast to southeastern Europe and Ukraine, where US-Russian tension is on the rise.
In the Middle East, Russia and the United States “have one common threat, the threat of war. Neither the United States nor Russia is interested in having this war,” Mr. Naumkin told Newsweek.
A State Department spokesperson would not rule out cooperation. “We remain prepared to cooperate with Russia in areas in which the two sides have common interests while opposing Russian policies that go against US interests,” the spokesperson said.
The Russian proposal calls for integrating the US defense umbrella in the Gulf into a collective security structure that would include Russia, China, Europe, and India alongside the United States. The structure would include, not exclude Iran, and would have to extend to Israel and Turkey.
UAE efforts to return Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab, if not the international fold, although not driven by the Russian initiative, would facilitate it if all other things were equal.
Inspired by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the proposal suggests that the new architecture would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.
Russia sees the architecture as enabling the creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolving conflicts across the region and promoting mutual security guarantees.
The plan would further involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British, and French forces and bases in various Gulf states and elsewhere in the Middle East.
It calls for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions.”
In Mr. Naumkin’s reading, Middle Eastern rivals “are fed up with what’s going on” and “afraid of possible war.” Negotiations are their only remaining option.
That seems to drive men like UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, his Saudi counterpart Mohammed bin Salman, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi to reach out to one another in a recent flurry of activity.
“These are talks between autocrats keen to protect their own grip on power and boost their economies: not peace in our time, only within our borders,” cautioned The Economist.
Abraham’s peace agreements and the Chinese and Russian coordination towards JCPOA
The Egyptian researcher, as a well-known expert in the Middle East region on Chinese Political Affairs, called for an international interview with the well-known (Bloomberg International News Agency), which is published on Friday, November 26, 2021, regarding (the role of China and Russia in the developments of the Iranian nuclear file within the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”), and its relationship with the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement”, sponsored by Washington to confront the Chinese influence, and its impact on the overall upcoming interactions.
Considering that my mentioned interview with “Bloomberg News Agency” was going done as well with the current permanent official representatives of China and Russia in the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”, namely: the Chinese Ambassador “Wang Qun”, as (the current permanent Chinese envoy to “IAEA”), and Russian Ambassador “Mikhail Ulyanov”, as (the Russian permanent envoy to “IAEA”
But, despite the mentioned interview was being shortened to a very large extent on the “Bloomberg News Agency Website”, due to the available limited space that has been permitted. So, the Egyptian researcher, as an expert in Chinese Politics has decided to present to all those interested around the world this comprehensive analytical file on the Iranian nuclear issue, from my own perspective and experience to understand the Chinese side in the first place and their direct thinking towards the mechanisms of response towards the (American policy of encirclement / scaling/ restriction/ containment against China). Whatever those names or terminologies are, they are all pouring into American tactical plans and strategies against China.
Therefore, it has become imperative for all my fellows and researchers around the world who are concerned with the matter, and with the current international interactions, to try to understand and analyze these new data and developments, and bring them into the heart of the current “international equation” and the (policy of American-Russian-Chinese polarization), and then, all of us should try, as well-known international academics and scholars in our regions, to convey the point of view of all its parties. Concerning the impact of these new interactions on the future of the Middle East region and the other places and areas, and the most dangerous to me is that: “The extent of the impact of peace agreements or Israeli normalization with the Arab Gulf states on the future of Sino-American competition and influence in the Middle East”, which is leading to a comprehensive analysis, regarding:
“The impact of the policy of American alliances directed against Beijing, especially the “New AUKUS Defense Nuclear Agreement”, and before that the “Quad Quartet Agreement” or what is known as “Asian NATO” on the developments of the Iranian nuclear file, within the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”
Here, we find that China’s support for Tehran is one of the most important current global problems, especially in the face of US policies and the constant pressure on Beijing. And through my careful reading of the scene in the region, especially in light of these new changes and the reassessment of international relations on new foundations, and the United States of America’s “politics of alliances” to put pressure on the Chinese side in its areas of influence, especially Washington’s signing of the new “Aukus Defense and Security Agreements” with Australia Britain, and the Quad Quartet Agreement with Japan, India, and Australia. In addition to my meticulous follow-up of all secret American moves and their attempt to include (Australia and Japan) in the membership of the “Nato Military Alliance”, despite this violation of the “NATO constitution” of itself, given their extreme distance from the two shores of the Atlantic and North Atlantic as one of the basic conditions for “NATO’S membership”. Then the provocative American attempt to open a (permanent branch of the NATO’S military office in the “Indo-Pacific” region – in the American sense – which includes the Indian and Pacific regions), with the aim of restricting Chinese influence in its regional and Asian areas of influence themselves.
From here, the Egyptian researcher reached a number of profound changes in the entire global scene, represented in:
China’s intensification of its support for Tehran in confronting the United States of America in alliance with Russia to unify their decisions within the corridors of the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”, especially after the summit of the American challenge to China in its regional and border surroundings, with the signing of the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement of a nuclear nature, in violation of the terms of membership of the International Agency for atomic energy in the first place”, and for Beijing to resort to an official complaint to the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” against the United States of America, alleging a violation and Washington’s violation of the foundations of its membership in the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” by sponsoring the AUKUS nuclear agreement, and the completion of the Australian nuclear submarine deal. This represents a nuclear threat to China, near its neighboring areas of influence in (the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the Pacific Ocean region).
Hence, the new connection came to my mind as an expert in the Chinese political file for many years, with profound changes in the mechanism of making and directing political decisions within Beijing after (AUKUS Defense Alliance sponsored by the United States of America and directed directly to China), then studying and analyzing the extent of its impact on the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA”, and even more dangerous to me is raising the following serious inquiry, on:
(Can the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” verify the Chinese complaint against the United States of America for its sponsorship of a nuclear agreement of “Aukus” and the nuclear submarine deal, and pass its decision to impose sanctions on the USA itself)?
In my personal opinion, there are many changes that have occurred in the global scene as a whole, and the division of the whole world and its adoption of the policy of international alliances and polarization, including certainly China and its ally Russia, which is trying to respond to the network of American alliances to surround it with the work of new counter alliances, especially after the “New AUKUS Defense Agreement”. The Chinese side is also supporting building a network of new regional alliances related to the Middle East, throughout forming an alliance, which includes: (Turkish-Iranian-Pakistani) parties, as an attempt by China to pressure the “State of India” by threatening its interests in the region, and thus forcing it not to cooperate and withdraw from the the “Quad Quartet Agreement”, which is sponsored by Washington to contain China, which is also called, as an “Asian NATO”.
Therefore, China has already started planning to respond to “the policy of American alliances against it in Asia in the heart of the Middle East”, by following China’s policy of alliances and polarization of the actors in the region and hostile to Washington, especially in the Middle East, and the Chinese attempt to attract Turkey in particular. Specifically, given its only membership in the Middle East in the (NATO’S Military Alliance), which is an opportunity for Beijing to form an alliance of countries close to the same American spheres of influence, as Washington does. Therefore, an alliance of Chinese banks, known as the “Consortiums”, expressing its willingness to lend Turkey three billion dollars, in order to finance several stalled projects in Istanbul, which can be considered analytically as (the largest financial support provided by China to the Turkish side in the modern history).
Accordingly, we can present this new analysis on the impact of the policy of American and Chinese alliances on the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency “IAEA” in the Iranian nuclear file, or the extent of its ability to exert pressures on the United States of America and its sponsorship of the Aukus nuclear defense agreement, or to impose sanctions on it, according to the official request submitted by the China.
Here, we can analyze that the Sino-Iranian strategic cooperation agreement for 25 years, which was concluded in March 2021, and China’s use of Iran’s card in its growing conflict with the United States of America, represents a challenge and a future problem for many countries in the region. Whatever the outcome of future developments and facts in the course of the intertwined relations between China and the United States and Iran in the future, this basically supports the reality of (the foundations of the inauguration of an era in which the United States of America does not have the keys to the main control over the Middle East, with the entry of major and pivotal players such as China and Russia). Therefore, the (multi-polarity) that China advocates is gaining tangible and realistic dimensions, and may develop to a degree that may increase the intensity of the regional competition between the two superpowers, which may exacerbate the instability that the Middle East is constantly witnessing.
With the growing international role and influence of China and Russia in many files, whichever is (China sharing with Russia the desire to break the American hegemony over the shipping lines in the Middle East), and its most prominent indicators are (China’s pursuit of a military base in Djibouti, and its interest in conducting international shipping operations through waterways).
China is proceeding here, according to long-term plans to challenge the US military hegemony in the region. In addition to the Chinese ambition to maximize its role in ensuring security related to the safety of its trade, products and investments with all countries of the world within the framework of the “Chinese Belt and Road Initiative”, with China’s attempt to build new military bases both in the Arab Gulf and the United Arab Emirates to challenge the American influence as it has been circulated since a period in the Middle East, or China’s pursuit of a presence in the Arabian Sea and others, which means the importance of the Middle East in the strategy of the Cold War between the two parties.
It is worth noting here that recent regional variables may lead to some changes, the most important of which are the “Abraham agreements for political normalization between Israel and the Gulf states, which are signed between several Arab countries with Israel, as they may have strengthened Washington’s position in the region in the face of China”, as an opposing force against the USA. Here, the United States seeks to follow (politics of mobilization and bringing together its partners to confront hostile parties, such as Iran), and then Washington benefits from the political normalization agreements with Israel to consolidate its position and ease the burden of maintaining security against the conflicting partners in the region, especially between the Arabs and Israel.
But, the United States of America, through its current administration of President “Joe Biden” and during the period of the two previous administrations, has sent turbulent signals about (its inability to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East). Former President “Obama” hesitated at the time to intervene in Syria, and was succeeded by President “Donald Trump” that has suddenly withdrawn and reduced the American presence from it, which raised the fears and suspicions of the leading elites in the region, especially the Arab Gulf, regarding the American commitment (to ensure the security of maritime navigation and the protection of waterways in the region).
In light of this current situation and growing doubts about the American position, especially the “Joe Biden administration’s focus on the human rights situation in the various countries of the region”, and the American administration’s invitation to the Iraqi side alone from all the countries of the region to participate in the conference of democratic countries in the world, and the current accusations by the administration of “Joe Biden” to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the events of September 11, 2001, and demanding of huge amounts of compensations from the Saudi side. So, most of the countries in the region turned towards the other two superpowers, namely: (Russia and China), by activating the official visits with them at the highest levels, and establishing partnership rules in various fields, with Russia’s desire and ambitions to restore its former global power during the Soviet era, and Russia intensified its military presence in Syria and Libya, as well as the interdependence of the Russian economy with many countries in the Middle East, such as: Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia (through the OPEC Plus system), and then Russia succeeded in restoring its bilateral relations with the countries of the region, and to highlight itself as a neutral mediator in the region’s conflicts. Also, China’s assistance to President “Bashar Al-Assad” against all of the Western pressures, that enabled him to continue and achieve several goals.
The most important point for the countries of the Middle East region was that the “emergence superpowers of China and Russia in the region are peaceful and respect for the national sovereignty, and seek to maintain the status quo, compared to the USA”. In addition to the increasing interest of some countries in the region in the Russian weapons, besides, the desire of both Russia and China to push “Turkey”, as the most important member of the “NATO alliance” in the Middle East region, to play a pivotal role against the interests of the United States and the NATO’s military alliance itself.
UAE and the opportunity for an India-Pakistan “sporting war”
The Dubai Cricket Council chief, Abdul Rahman Falaknaz recently said that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was willing to host a bilateral India-Pakistan cricket series, provided both countries agreed. Said Falaknaz:
‘The best thing would be to get India-Pakistan matches here. When Sharjah used to host India and Pakistan all those years ago, it was like a war. But it was a good war, it was a sporting war and it was fantastic’
UAE along with Oman had hosted the recent ICC (International Cricket Council) Men’s T20 World cup (won by Australia). The second half of the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 2021 was also played in UAE (both the World cup and the second half of the IPL had to be shifted from India, because of the Covid19 pandemic). One of the most exciting matches in the Men’s T20 World Cup was the India-Pakistan clash on October 26, 2021 played at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. In spite of political relations between both countries being strained, the match was played in a cordial atmosphere. Pakistan one the contest by 10 wickets, and it was for the first time that it had beaten India in a World Cup match.
While scores and statistics relating to the match will remain only on paper, the image of Indian Captain Virat Kohli hugging Pakistani batsman Mohammad Rizwan after the match, in a wonderful display of sportsmanship, will be etched in the minds not just of cricket fans, but countless Indians and Pakistanis who yearn for normalisation of ties between both countries. The Indian captain did draw criticism on social media from trolls, but his gesture was also lauded by many cricketing fans in India.
India and Pakistan have not played any bilateral series, since 2013 ever since bilateral tensions have risen but have been playing each other in international tournaments. Significantly, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Sharjah was an important cricketing venue, which was witness to many gripping ODI cricket contests between India and Pakistan. After match fixing controversies in 2000, India stopped playing in Sharjah and as a result for some time, UAE’s importance as a cricketing venue declined significantly.
Ever since 2009 Abu Dhabi and Dubai have emerged as important cricketing centres, since Pakistan has been playing most of its home series (Tests and One Day Internationals) in UAE (after a terrorist attack on a Sri Lankan team bus in 2009, most countries have been reluctant to play cricket in Pakistan, though Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and West Indies have visited Pakistan)
Possibility of a cricket series in UAE
While it is always tough to hazard a guess with regard to India-Pakistan relations, there have been some positive developments in recent weeks; the re-opening of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor after 20 months, and Pakistan’s decision to allow a consignment of 50,000 tonnes of wheat and life saving drugs from India for Afghanistan, to transit through its territory (the Pakistan government stated that it had made this exception, because this consignment was for humanitarian purposes). While there have been calls to revive people to people and trade linkages between both countries, especially between both Punjabs, playing a cricket series either in India and Pakistan seems unlikely at least in the imminent future.
The UAE as a neutral venue, for a bilateral series, has a number of advantages, which include not just the fact, that it is home to a large South Asian expat population (a large percentage of which consists of cricket enthusiasts), but also that matches would be played in a more relaxed atmosphere, with lesser pressure on players from both countries. UAE, an economic hub which has become increasingly cosmopolitan in recent years, has also been trying to promote local cricket and generate interest in the game amongst locals (other GCC countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia have also been trying to do the same, but UAE possesses a number of advantages vis-à-vis these countries). Hosting an India-Pakistan series will benefit the country immensely. Apart from this, if the UAE is able to convince both countries to play a cricketing series, it will also enhance not its diplomatic stock (it would be pertinent to point out, that UAE is supposed to have been one of the countries which played a part in the ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan — across the Line of Control/LOC earlier this year).
In conclusion, the revival of cricketing ties between India and Pakistan is no mean task, but it would be easier on a neutral territory like UAE, which also has a substantial South Asian expat population interested in cricket. Not only will hosting a bilateral series between India and Pakistan, help the UAE in achieving its objective of emerging as an important cricketing hub for South Asia, and enhance the country’s soft power considerably, but it will also be a big achievement in diplomatic terms. Soft power, including cricket has been one of the important components in the links between UAE and South Asia in the past, it remains to be seen if in the future, the role of soft power, via cricket, becomes more crucial in linkages between UAE-South Asia.
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