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Jerusalem Format: Searching for a Solution to the Crisis in the Middle East

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On July 20, Jerusalem hosted a summit meeting for the national security advisers of Israel, the US, and Russia that was unusual both in terms of composition and thematic content. Intensive negotiations held in bilateral and trilateral formats, including meetings with Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, focused on a wide range of regional security issues, as well as other issues non-related to the Middle East. While the situation is only exacerbating, and there are practically no stable channels for bilateral negotiations on different vectors or they are being used occasionally, the participants of the negotiators touched upon the issues of civil conflicts in Ukraine and Venezuela, combined with an increasing wave of problems that aggravate Russia-the US relations.

However, no matter how varied the range of issues was, the Middle East content prevailed. Namely, Iran’s policy and its role in the region, especially in the Syrian conflict. It was Netanyahu who proposed to hold such consultations, and this fact predetermined the focus on Iran, that has always been considered in Israel as an “existential threat”. Fears of this kind only intensified as Iran, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and during the war in Syria since 2011, consistently increased its military-strategic positions and political influence along Baghdad — Damascus — Beirut vector.

The anti-Iranian Middle East policy of Trump’s Administration has strengthened Israel’s determination to defend its interests by force. A certain division of roles between the two countries has been observed. Israel exerts constant military pressure on Iran with airstrikes at its facilities in Syria, the United States increasing financial and economic sanctions. A new situation emerged and is now perceived as a potential flashpoint for a direct clash between Israel and Iran on the Syrian territory, which would put Russia, having long-standing partnerships with both countries, in an extremely delicate position.

On the eve of the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem, various speculations about the upcoming “backstage deal” were widely spread in Russian and foreign media. The United States and Israel would allegedly propose Russia to put pressure on Iran in order to curtail the Iranian military presence (regular military units, divisions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as Iranian-controlled Lebanese Hezbollahs and the so-called “people’s militia”). In response, the United States will be ready to recognize the legitimacy of Assad, lift the sanctions from the Syrian regime, and contribute to the economic recovery of Syria.

Of course, any objectively thinking expert would consider such predictions far-fetched and rather superficial. While there is a need for a meaningful conversation on the whole range of issues for the future of Syria in the context of the strategic interests of Russia, Israel, and the United States; and as the tension has been growing, this need is getting more and more urgent. Before giving any assessment, it is important to trace which new trends in the Middle East policy of the United States and Israel served as the ground for the summit in Jerusalem and how they affect the interests of Russia in the region.

From Obama to Trump: Middle East U-Turns

During the presidency of Obama the US strategic line in the Middle East as a whole did not go beyond the traditional framework of previous administrations being committed to Israel’s security, maintaining allied relations with Saudi Arabia, and deterring Iran. At the same time, the peculiarities of Obama’s administration have revealed in exactly these three key areas.

As Netanyahu’s policy on the Palestinian issue was shifting more and more to the right-radical side, which deprived the Palestinians of practical opportunities to have their own statehood, serious irritants gradually accumulated in relations between the US and Israel. The President and his Secretary of State J. Kerry reaffirmed the internationally recognized solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of coexistence of the two states and publicly criticized the expansion of settlement construction in the West Bank. Since 2011, after the collapse of the seemingly unshakable Arab regimes the US policy in the Gulf region has been shaped on a more pragmatic basis, on the principle of a “moving equilibrium.” This implied some kind of balancing between Iran (the regional aspect of its policy did not come to the fore) and Saudi Arabia (the threats from Iran, as the Americans stated at that point, should not be exaggerated). All this caused strong discontent both in Riyadh and in Tel Aviv. The signing of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program (JCPOA) was perceived in these capitals as a violation of allied obligations and served as an impetus for the rapprochement of Israel and Saudi Arabia on the anti-Iranian basis.

Assessing the zigzags of the US policy with the change of administration, it can be stated that the difficulties with its formation are connected with the clash of two contradictory realities: on the one hand, Trump’s obsessive desire to become “anti-Obama” in the Middle East (and not only), and on the other, the inability to make this without infringing the US national interests and the normal functioning of all departments involved in foreign policy activities — the Department of State, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and special services. This was especially evident in the internal struggle that Trump had to deal with while conducting a steep drift towards Israel and Saudi Arabia with a simultaneous shift in policy towards Iran.

Never in the history of the United States after the presidential election have senior posts at key management levels been filled so slowly and with great scandals. Trump broke all records for the number of layoffs and rearrangements of prominent figures in foreign policy; some of them (Tillerson, McMaster, Matthews, Cohen) expressed disagreement with the spontaneous decisions of the President regarding Iran in many cases. For the same reasons, the CIA has undergone personnel changes in the leadership, that, like in the case with IAEA, did not confirm the information Trump needed about Iran’s violation of the terms of the “nuclear dossier” agreement.

The withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, which was largely the sole decision of the President, caused a barrage of criticism from well-known American diplomats, politicians, and Middle Eastern experts. W. Burns, former US Under Secretary of State, one of the initiators of secret negotiations with Iran, noted: “But we don’t live in an ideal world. Diplomacy requires difficult compromises. And the nuclear deal achieved the best of the available alternatives… By failing to operate in good faith, the administration has weakened — not strengthened — our hand.” According to J. Allen, President of Brookings’s Center on the United States, Trump’s decision “would be a much more serious blow to American interests and to US global leadership than Trump’s previous treaty-related decisions.” T. Pickering, a prominent American diplomat who worked as ambassador to a number of leading world capitals, including Moscow, calls for a change of the political vector with regard to Iran and a reorientation of US foreign policy. His position included the following important points: “Withdrawing from the deal has left the U.S. isolated and weakened the international consensus on Iran, seriously damaging the transatlantic alliance, undercutting the U.S. position in the global financial system, and putting U.S. credibility on the line.”

The above estimates represent the quintessence of the reaction in the United States to a sharp turn in the US policy on Iran and, as a result, to a change in the nature of relations with Saudi Arabia. According to widespread opinion in the US Congress and in expert circles, with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh started playing a “dangerous game” in the region, making use of the “strategy of kowtowing” conducted by Trump, as the authoritative American political scientist M. Lynch put it. Such strategy deprives American diplomacy of the ability to restrain regional ambitions countering to the long-term interests of the United States.

The anti-Iranian strategy of Trump’s administration did not bring dividends and only added new dangerous elements to the conflict centers in Syria, Yemen, and the entire Gulf region.

International efforts, including Russia-the US cooperation, to resolve the Syrian conflict, in which Iran should and can play its positive role under certain conditions, are significantly complicated. The US Administration report on Syria submitted to the Congress contains the requirement of “the removal of all Iranian-led forces from Syria” as one of the three strategic goals along with “the defeat of ISIS” and “resolution of the Syrian crisis through a political solution in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254”. This requirement is in no way consistent with the continued illegitimate US military presence in eastern Syria, which allows to support alternative to Damascus local government structures, jeopardizing its territorial integrity.

The war in Yemen and the tensions around Iran spurred the arms race in the Gulf region. Over the past few years, military spending by countries in the GCC has grown by 6% hitting an all-time high of USD 100 billion. The widespread competition between the United States and major European suppliers for multibillion-dollar defense orders has weakened the possibility of external influence on regional players, getting more and more uncontrolled.

The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) project launched during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia (May 2017) with a clear anti-Iran focus turned out to be an inoperative tool due to suspicions about the intentions of the United States, that did not hide its opportunistic goals, and also because of the conflict interests among its members. A number of Arab states members of the “alliance” do not consider Iran a threat to security in the Middle East. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, none of the states in the region supports the policy towards confrontation with Iran, and even more so military actions. Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman advocate for maintaining dialog with Tehran and resolving the Gulf crisis through political means. Egypt and Jordan are also not enthusiastic in supporting the United States and Saudi Arabia, although they refrain from public criticism given the strong dependence on the financial investments.

One of the reasons for the failure of the US diplomacy is the attitude of the most states in the region towards Saudi Arabia, whose policy in the region is viewed as having “great-power” ambitions, unpredictable, and gravitating towards dominance. Trump’s opponents in the United States are also paying attention to this. Saudi Arabia’s boycott of Qatar and the unexpected support of this decision by the US President, contrary to the recommendations of the Department of State and the military, caused a deep split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. At the same time, the previous US administrations relied precisely on this military-political association as a regional instrument of pressure on Iran.

The policy of maximum US pressure on Iran through increasing the military presence of extra-regional powers in the Persian Gulf, the development of a “tanker war”, and the imposition of ever new sanctions created a potential threat of open conflict, given that both sides declare their unwillingness to bring the matter to a military clash and signal their readiness to negotiate. In general, it can be stated that steep turns and unpredictable decisions in Trump’s Middle East policy have increased the degree of tension in the region, created new obstacles to resolving multi-year conflicts and stabilizing the situation through multilateral cooperation mechanisms.

Israel’s Strategy in Syria and Russia’s Interests

After the change of Administration in the US, the “shadow war” of Israel in Syria underwent significant changes. While the US was increasing the sanctions, Israel began to escalate its pressure on Iran. With the outbreak of the civil war, Israel was only striking at convoys and arms depots of the Lebanese Hezbollah, later with the strengthening of Iran’s military infrastructure and the Shiite “people’s militia”, the number and the geography of objects significantly increased. Military bases, concentration of military force controlled by Iran, factories for production and assembly of missiles, and bases of unmanned offensive arms were subjected to air attacks. Thus, Israel made it clear that Iran’s military activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are under constant surveillance. In the changed situation around Iran, Israel’s military-political leadership considers it possible to eliminate the military threat on its part by combining constant force pressure and the use of diplomatic means. Russia is given a special place in the foreign policy in the hope of providing assistance on its part, taking into account the influence on Damascus and special relations with Iran. Supposedly, in the medium term, as the situation stabilizes, Russia will not need military cooperation with Iran in Syria that much. Issues of restoring the ruined economy and political influence on the Syrian leadership will come to the fore, which will strengthen elements of rivalry in Russia-Iran relations.

At the same time, adjustments were made to the military tactics. On Israel’s initiative, agreements were reached on improving the channel of military communication with Russia and on the fullest exchange of information in order to avoid unintentional clashes. Russia outlined its “red lines” and, judging by Netanyahu’s statements, during the trilateral summit in Jerusalem in June Russia’s warnings about the consequences of Israel’s military activity, including for the security of Russian personnel and military facilities, were perceived with serious understanding. Israel’s strikes in Syria are aimed primarily at the military infrastructure of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and their personnel. Contrary to previous years of “maximum secrecy” it is now officially announced every time with an indication of the objects struck. Thus, Israel ensures relatively “free hands”, seeks understanding of its motives on the part of the international community, and makes Damascus understand that close contact with Iranian strongholds should be avoided.

After the Syrian forces were moved to the southern Syria to the Israeli-Syrian demarcation line in the Golan Heights area (in July 2018), a local point of tension occurred that can be compared to the one in the northwest in Idlib or in the east – in the areas where the US military contingent is located. Russia, the USA, and Israel, with the participation of Jordan, agreed on creating a “security zone” 70–80 km inland from the border with Israel within the Syrian territory. These agreements provided for the withdrawal of all Iranian forces from these areas and their patrolling by the Russian military. Russia held consultations with Iran and Syria, whose consent on the administrative status of the territories bordering Israel was to be part of multilateral agreements on the south of Syria.

However, according to Israel’s and Western estimates, over the past year, pro-Iranian formations under various coverings have once again entrenched themselves in the immediate vicinity of the border with Israel. Hezbollah and Shiite militias patrol areas dressed as uniformed Syrian regime forces deploy former rebel fighters in the provinces of Sweida and Quneitra to patrol areas and provide intelligence directly to the Iran-backed paramilitary group. During the trilateral summit in Jerusalem, Netanyahu strongly urged that “Israel would not allow Iran, calling for our destruction, to establish a bridgehead on our borders.” Israel’s military leaders are seriously considering a scenario in which Iran, in the event of an extreme aggravation with the United States, could open a “second front” on the northern border of Israel taking advantage of the increased military potential of Hezbollah on its southern border.

Thus, the initiative of Israel to organize a new format for Syria in Jerusalem was put forward at the time when the erroneous estimations could lead to an exchange of blows with the escalation into an armed confrontation of a regional scale. Moreover, on the eve of the parliamentary elections Israel does not want to be drawn into a war that has no winners, but they cannot afford inaction.

Jerusalem Format: Are there any Further Prospects?

Multilateral efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis create a system of peculiar concentric negotiating circles, that are so far loosely connected with each other. This is a negotiation track of various levels between Russia, Turkey and Iran (“Astana Format”), the mission of the UN Secretary-General Special Representative, the summit of Russia, France, Germany, Turkey (the possibility to continue meetings in this format was discussed at the meeting between Putin and Macron on August 19), the so-called “Small Group” of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Russia occupies a central place in this negotiation system, having working contacts with all the players on the “Syrian field”, unlike other participants.

Will the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem at the level of the Heads of the National Security Councils of Russia, the USA, and Israel become an effective channel to achieve proper understanding that would allow us to timely suppress the outbreaks of military tension and bring together a vision of the future? It is still difficult to fully estimate such an opportunity, although certain nuances provide the basis for reflection on further possible scenarios.

The statements of the participants following the results of the negotiations sounded optimistic, which gives reason to assume mutual interest and keep to this negotiation track not only as a “fire-fighting” tool. Nikolai Patrushev noted the “spirit of goodwill” and the coherence of opinions on most issues, however, “we have to conduct a dialog on how to implement this,» he said. Bolton, a well-known hardliner for Russia and Iran, also noted “We didn’t come with the expectation we were going to solve all the problems, or even most of them” during the negotiations, which he described as “historic.” The initiator of the summit, the Prime Minister of Israel commended the trilateral meeting designed for an internal audience on the eve of the parliamentary elections.

As for the content of negotiations, all participants reaffirmed their previous positions in public speeches, emphasizing the desire to move on the oncoming tracks. Russia’s approach to the problem of Iran’s military presence in Syria was stated earlier by President Putin: “The start of a more active phrase of the political process, foreign armed forces will be withdrawing from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Explaining the words of the President of the Russian Federation, A. Lavrentiev, the Special Envoy to Syria, emphasized that Moscow addressed its appeal to “everyone, including the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah and, of course, the Iranians.”

Taking into account the recurring aggravations between Israel and Iran, the Head of the Russian Security Council gave further explanations of Russia’s position in the sense that the withdrawal of Iran’s military units and allied forces should be considered in conjunction with the complete elimination of the foreign military presence in Syria. This is the ultimate goal in the settlement process, and it cannot be achieved in one step. The Russian side emphasized the need to reduce tensions through a conversation with Iran, rather than confrontation, and it was suggested that they take oncoming steps in order not to turn Syria into an arena of geopolitical confrontation. Russia shares Israel’s concerns about ensuring security, but proceeds from the assumption that other states of the region have their own national interests in this area. In response to a well-known set of accusations against Iran, Patrushev pointed out that it is unacceptable for Moscow to view Iran as the main threat to regional security, let alone equal it with ISIS.

The trilateral meeting in Jerusalem showed significant differences in the approaches of Russia and the US-Israel tandem towards the tactics regarding the role of Iran in Syria and the region as a whole. At the same time, judging by the final statements, the parties agreed that this new format could become a useful political asset for removing any misunderstanding in regards with each other’s intentions and plans. In this context, forthcoming trustful consultations at this level, as confirmed by the Israel’s Prime Minister, cannot be ruled out. There are also opportunities for Russian diplomacy to moderate the situation between Israel and Iran, while Israel could help mitigate irritants in relations between Russia and the United States on the whole range of issues of the Syrian settlement.

According to European estimates, Russia is still trying to maintain its balancing role between Israel and Iran while preserving effective working relations with its Iranian military ally on the ground. Apparently, this role of Russia has been tacitly accepted by partners, including Iran. And only de-escalation of tension can make it possible to find a formula that would satisfy Israel’s real security needs and allow Iran to outline acceptable limits for its influence in the region, including political and economic positions in Syria.

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Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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