When considering the direct connection between Iran and the Jewish State, we should never forget the issue of the border between the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon.
Nevertheless, while the Islamic Republic of Iran is increasingly interested in a periodic military confrontation with the United States – as it seems currently evident – it is so, also in this case, in an ever more indirect and unconventional way.
Obviously this regards also the Israeli engagement to defend the country against the missile attacks of Iran, the Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad.
The various types of overt military clash between Iran and Israel could be: a) a small-scale war on the Litani river border, but much more relevant than the one in 2006.
Or, b) a direct war between Israel and Iran, on the Syrian border and also an autonomous clash with Hezbollah on the Litani river – mainly a missile one – in connection with the movements of the Shiite forces on the Golan border.
Finally, c) a war could be possible on two borders between Israel and Iran: the Hezbollah, Iran and probably Syria would simultaneously fight a war against the Jewish State.
The trigger could be a US, and possibly even Israeli, bombing of an Iranian nuclear site or the continued interdiction of the sea transit of Iranian oil cargo ships or anyway of freighters carrying Iranian oil or natural gas.
In this context, decisive variables are the behaviour of Russia, which is now Syria’s master and has no interest in an Iranian-Israeli war, as well the behaviour of the United States itself, which could favour an action to support Israel but, probably, not long enough as it would be needed.
The US political cycle often does not coincide with the necessary length of strategic operations.
In this scenario there is still a possible danger for Israel, i.e. a Russia that seeks to mediate or prevent the deployment of all the military options at stake, including the Israeli one. There is still the probable limitedness of the US intervention, as well as the structural inefficiency of international organizations to mediate and achieve peace.
Hence, if- in the contrast within the US-Israeli-Iranian triangle, we head to a “long war”, an Israeli limited success will be more likely. Conversely, if all parties think of a “short war”, the Jewish State’s chances of success will rise. Finally, if the option is an asymmetrical war, for the time being the variables cannot be calculated.
Moreover, a strategic need for Israel is to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from spreading the attack into several hotbeds, with a view to weakening their own defence forces.
As is well-known, Hezbollah has about 100,000 missiles available from the Lebanon, but Iran has many more missiles, although only a few of them can reach the Israeli territory.
Hence, if Hezbollah does not want to destroy its logistical base on the Litani river and its hegemonic relationship with the current Lebanese government – as a result of the Israeli counterattack in the Lebanon – the Shiite group must think of another possible operation, i.e. the already implemented operation to train its proxies from Iraq and Syria, with Iran’s clear support, so as to create a significant attack force on the Golan Heights.
So far we have considered only the land warfare. In this three-country context, however, we must also think about the naval confrontation.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar have long been at odds to acquire hegemony in the Western Indian Ocean and hence in the Persian Gulf.
Here we also need to consider the Chinese maritime Silk Road, which is essential for the future equilibria, not just in the Middle East.
However, there is the “eastward direction” of the Indian Ocean (and the Gulf itself), which will become increasingly important in the future. This is the direction of the major powers using Middle East oil and gas, as well as the direction of Saudi and UAE economies’ diversification, and finally the direction of Iran’s exit from the sanction regime.
Competition between ports will increase, including between the approximately sixteen ports of the Persian Gulf, while Saudi Arabia is already focusing on the Red Sea ports and the Emirates can currently invest directly only in Saudi infrastructure.
We also need to consider the new and the old chokepoints: the Strait of Bab-el Mandeb, obviously, but also the Suez Canal.
Also the militarization of the Red Sea (an anti-Iranian variable in the aforementioned war regions) underlines an already noted trend: Turkey, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran are carving out a strategic niche in the region for their power projections.
The Emirates’ military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland are designed to ensure safe navigation in the Strait of Bab-El-Mandeb.
There is also the Saudi military base in Djibouti, parallel to the Chinese and the US base, an essential military control point for the whole Middle East. Finally, in 2017, Turkey obtained the temporary control of Suakin in Sudan.
Nevertheless, Iran’s Navy is currently the most present one throughout the Red Sea for “anti-piracy operations” – as it calls them.
The Sunni monarchies’ policy is therefore competition between ports.
Finally, India is increasingly connected to Oman and will soon build its own military base in Seychelles.
In the future Saudi Arabia will enter Sinai permanently, in continuity with its future bases in the Red Sea.
This will greatly change the Israeli Southern security dimension.
Conversely, the Emirates will increasingly head to the Mediterranean or to Cyprus, Libya, Spain and France.
Hence, as can easily be guessed, the Sunni maritime powers’ closure to Iran’s “long-arm” operations will be almost complete.
At terrestrial level, there is already the “Arab alliance” against Iran, a project of President Trump’s Administration and of Israel.
The problem is 2020, precisely the year in which the United Nations will put an end to the embargo against Iran, in keeping with Resolution No. 2231.
Furthermore, the “alliance” also proposes to Israel the Arab Peace Initiative, the old regulatory framework of 2002, which is anyway already overtaken by events.
According to The Economist, Saudi Arabia would even buy 100 billion of defence equipment from Israel.
In short, Israel’s remote defence area is not 100% sure, but anyway reliable, at least until the first signs of a clash.
We still wonder, however, how could a conflict between Iran and the USA develop.
Probably Iran would directly hit the US military structures, without anyway hitting Saudi Arabia and the other US allies in the region.
Moreover, as already stated by a Pasdaran leader, if the USA sent troops to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Iran would hit the US cargo ships with missiles or “new top secret weapons”.
In all likelihood, there would also be sabotage operations against Saudi Arabia and the Emirates – very similar to those recently occurred in the Gulf- so as to prevent the US and Israeli friendly powers from immediately entering the conflict between Iran and the United States (as well as Israel).
Furthermore, considering that Saudi Arabia has always carefully hit the Iranian oil and gas export routes, for years there will be attacks on Saudi and Emirates’ freighters by the Houthi insurgency in Yemen and by other Shiite minorities armed by Iran.
Iran will have no qualms about using its missile sector to drive away the military troops arriving in the Gulf and to harshly hit the US bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The war between Iran and the United States will be fought on Israeli territory alone.
In this case, Iran could use both Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Southern Israel.
The Syrian military organizations that are now trained by the Pasdaran in Syria itself will also be involved.
The same holds true for the Shiite networks -again armed by Iran – already operating in Iraq.
For the United States, the area of confrontation with Iran could go from the Euphrates area to its base in Tanf, on the border between Iraq, Syria and Jordan.
Another Iranian target is the US military bases in Iraq.
From Iraq, Iran’s direct point of contact with the United States is the Gulf of Oman.
From the Gulf of Oman to Yemen there is the above mentioned Houthi insurgency. Hence we can see that Iran has a continuity between land and sea that other countries in the region have not.
We also need to consider Iran’s recently reactivated enrichment of uranium.
According to some analysts of the RAND Corporation, if it were relevant for the manufacturing of a new series of nuclear weapons – as cannot certainly be ruled out – the chances of a war between the USA and Iran (and hence Israel) would rise by approximately 35%.
Furthermore, if we witnessed a military clash between the United States, Israel and Iran, the oil barrel price should reach approximately 150 US dollars, but there could also be a share of US oil and natural gas entering again the global market, which would significantly lower the oil barrel price.
This is unlikely, at least until the next presidential election in 2020.
Moreover, scientists believe that – considering the current 4.5% rate of uranium enrichment – the nuclear risk of bombing Iran is such that there is no danger of radiation outside the borders.
What about Russia?
For Russia Iran is a major bulwark to stop and curb the US power in the Middle East and to influence – from the United States – the world cycle of oil and gas prices, thus indirectly determining Russia’s economy cycles.
Russia, however, wants to avoid confrontation with the USA in the Middle East.
Another factor to consider are the sales of the very efficient Russian S-400 anti-missile system, which is already in the Turkish arsenals and will soon be in the Qatari ones.
Moreover,Russia wants the EU to implement the INSTEX system that can make the European companies avoid the US sanction regime against Iran.
Russia also wants a powerful, autonomous and secular Syrian regime.
It also wants any possible de-escalation between Iran and Israel.
This is the system of forces in the field, with all the related variables.
After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians
The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.
The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.
“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”
Scandal of Al Hol’s children
Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.
“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”
Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021.
Blockades and bombardment
The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.
“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.
In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.
Living in fear
In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.
At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.
Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.
Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.
The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”
Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants
The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.
“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”
IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking
A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?
The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.
Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.
When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.
Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible. Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.
Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.
The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.
It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.
“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.
I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.
Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.
Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya
With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday.
Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December.
They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year.
At the crossroads
“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš. “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.”
He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.
Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation.
Foreign fighter threat
The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline.
“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.
“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.”
Young voters eager
The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results.
He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country.
So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women. Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots.
“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš.
He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.
“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned. “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”
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