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Soleimani in Iraq

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The current presence of Qassem Alì Soleimani, leader of the Al QudsForce of the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” in Iraq is strategically significant.

 Certainly, according to the Iranian press, Soleimani was the sole responsible for the destruction of the so-called “Caliphate” of Al Baghdadi, whohas recently been eliminated by the US Special Forces, upon probable Turkish pressure.

 It is not entirely false: the various Shiite forces from Iran and Iraq have made about 3,000 military operations against Al Baghdadi’s network.

  Soleimani also remains the strategic holder of the Lebanese stability – if we can say so – even with the robust presence of Hezbollah in Saad Hariri’s Lebanese government that resigned on October 29 last, in spite of the pressure from a great Christian friend of Iran and Syria, namely Michel Aoun. President of the Lebanon and, as Maronite, certainly not disliked in Iran and Syria.

 The idea that the government of Saad Hariri – a friend of the naive West and of the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, but in fact in the hands of Hezbollah and Amal, two Lebanese Shiite and Iranian movements – could survive the economic crisis that persists even after the 11 million US dollars lent by the Sunni monarchies and the USA, and after the Shiite riots in Beirut and in the South of the country, was completely unfounded.

 If the Lebanon collapses, Iran shall strengthen Iraq, and vice versa. It is obvious if we study the political structures of both countries and their role for Israel and the USA.

 In Syria, however, the Russian Federation – and not Iran – has won, but it is equally true that the Shiite Republic, also thanks to Qassem Soleimani, is currently able to fight well in Syria, thus maintaining such a level of hostility as to minimize the possibility of retaliation against Iranian forces both in Syria and at home.

 Iran has now stably penetrated the informal and official Syrian defence structures and its goal is both to support Hezbollah and the Shiite forces that will replace it, for an attack southwards, namely against Israel, and the definitive exclusion of US forces or US allies from the whole region of the Syria-Iraq axis.

Nevertheless the trump card that counts for the internationalization of the Syrian crisis is still in Russian hands only.

Furthermore, the territorial and operational limitation of the Russian forces in Syria, above all on the Golan Heights, is a further strategic aim of Iran in Syria and Jordan, as well as obviously in Iraq.

 Qassem Alì Soleimani, however – often associated to Rahbar, the Supreme Leader Alì Khamenei, in the iconography of the Iranian regime – is considered the military leader closest to the ideas and opinions of Rahbar himself.

He has always been a myth for the Iranian public because he has quickly risen to the top ranks, among Iran’s 13 Major Generals, starting from a humble job as mason in Kirman, Southern Iran, and he is currently the only senior officer of the Armed Forces who speaks directly with the Supreme Leader.

Jointly with some of the most powerful representatives of the Sunni regimes in the Emirates and in the Saudi Kingdom, Soleimani and the Rahbar are organizing a new policy of negotiations with Saudi Arabia and with the whole Sunni world of  Egypt and Jordan.

Currently the Al Quds Force led by Soleimani is organizing alone – with at least 12 commercial jet planes never entered into any register – import-export operations in its favour and in favour of the Iranian regime, while millions of Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, Azerbaijani and Bahraini refugees in Iran have quickly obtained – through the Al Quds Force – citizenship in the Republic founded by Ayatollah Khomeini.

 An Iranian passport is always ready -through Soleimani’s Force – also for many Lebanese, Pakistani (20% of the Pakistani inhabitants are Shiite) and Bahraini citizens.

These are the future strengths of Iran’s destabilization, which uses the Shiite minorities, but not only them.

 Soleimani also manages a network of special envoys of the Shiite Republic of Iran throughout the Middle East that report directly to him who then transfers data directly to the Supreme Leader’s Office.

Currently Soleimani’s parallel and military diplomacy is the real axis of the Iranian power projection in the Greater Middle East and reaches as far as India and the West.

As Ayatollah Yatani said about a month ago: “Nowadays, thanks to General Soleimani, we directly control four Arab capitals, namely Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a”.

 This is not entirely true, but certainly Soleimani’s network is effective and credible, at least to back the business that supports the Al Quds Brigade  and hence also its political operations of infiltration and control of the local political systems.

 Certainly Qassem Soleimani’s power is not as relevant as the Iranian propaganda suggests, but it is however true that, in Iraq, the role played by the General and his Al Quds Force is really important and decisive.

 Iraq has a border of 1,559 kilometres with Iran and the great country that was Saddam Hussein’s absolute dominion has always hosted a vast Shiite majority, the second in the world after Iran and India. It is also the majority in the country.

 In fact, it has just been reported that General Qassem Alì Soleimani has reached Iraq by helicopter and has settled in Baghdad, taking direct control of the Shiite armed forces and their autonomous security services.

 Certainly, the most important sign to define this Iranian decision was the attack on the Iranian Consulate in Karbala, the Shiite holy city. The attack launched on November 3 last caused the death of three people.

The demonstrators carried the Iraqi flags and cried out “Karbala is free, Iran out, out!” – one of the many signs of growing intolerance, not only by Sunnis, towards Iran’s strong interference in Iraqi politics and economy.

On November 11 last, Al-Sistani, the Great Shiite Iraqi Ayatollah, gave the Iraqi government a two-week deadline to find out which  “undisciplined elements” – as the Iraqi government of Adel Abdul Al Mahdi euphemistically called them- had used snipers to shoot some demonstrators.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi declared three days of mourning for the victims of the demonstrations in Karbala and elsewhere.

The toll was terrible. At least 110 Iraqi citizens were killed in the demonstrations; over 6,000 were injured in demonstrations in Baghdad, Karbala and the South of the country. The death toll includes at least six elements of government security forces.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo ,asked the Iraqi Prime Minister for maximum repression of demonstrations, which, however, are becoming increasingly “harsh”.

 Abdul Al Mahdi immediately announced his 13-point plan for reforms, with economic subsidies and free housing for poor people, while a special session of the Iraqi Parliament opened on October 8, with meetings between the government and the Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Mohammed Al Haboulsi, and between them and the tribal leaders.

 On the same day, the Head of the State Grain Buying Agency in Baghdad, Naeem Al Maksousi, was removed and immediately replaced by Mahdi Elwan.

 Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had arrived in Baghdad as early as October 7 to negotiate with the Iraqi government and curb the protests, which are potentially destructive both for the Russian equilibria in Syria and for the sensitive relationship that the Russian Federation has with Iran, between Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

 If Iraq becomes viable for all the destabilization operations that currently pass through the Greater Middle East, the Russian successes in Syria, the stability of Assad’s regime in Syria, the penetration of the Sunni jihad from Afghanistan into Iran, and finally the destabilization of Jordan, will become not only possible, but likely.

In this case it is not only a matter of “bread riots”, as those described by Manzoni in his book The Betrothed, but of a political equilibrium between Iraqi ethnic groups, tribes and international relations, which today is inevitably breaking.

 However, as mentioned above, on October 30 last a helicopter transported Qassem Alì Soleimani from Baghdad airport to the fortified Green Zone around the Iraqi capital.

In a meeting called by him in the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Soleimani also discussed the issue of the protests mounting in the capital city and, above all, in the Shiite Southern Iraq.

 Soleimani is now the de facto Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq, especially with reference to the actions taken to keep the protest under control.

 “We in Iran know how to control these situations. They also happened in Iran and we quickly put them under control”. According to many sources, he reportedly said so to the Iraqi political leaders.

Hence a real Iranian coup d’état took place in Iraq, because of or with the pretext of the often bloody riots that occurred particularly in the last fortnight.

 But there is also another weakness that has emerged for Iran in a  traditionally friendly country like Iraq.

 Soleimani and his Brigade were not able to organize Hezbollah and its  network in the Lebanon, especially to prevent Saad Hariri – a Lebanese President who is a friend of Iran, but connected to the Saudi banks that hold him in their hands – from resigning together with all his government, including the various, and often powerful, Ministers chosen by Hezbollah itself.

 Hariri’s resignation has also made a future technocratic solution for the Lebanese government more likely – a solution that would certainly diminish the grip of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, always trained by the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”a Lebanese movement that was the “right eye” of Imam Khomeini.

 If Iran loses also Iraq, its area of influence will be so much reduced as to allow a possible penetration of its own territory.

However, despite the presence of Soleimani, the Iraqi Prime Minister intends to leave power.

 Therefore, while a “friendly” government for Iran resigns in the Lebanon, another “friendly” government in Iraq is floundering in a structural crisis. This is the rationale underlying Soleimani’s presence in the Iraqi capital.

It should be noted that on the border between Iran and Iraq, on both sides of the line, the Kurds live and they are a real human shield against massive military penetration from Iran into Iraq.

Sunni and Shiite Arab-Iranian tribes are also straddling the border line, and all the parties involved on the border between the two countries – both with a Shiite majority – have vast reserves of oil at their disposal, which they control almost entirely on their own.

 Not to mention the various rivers of the region and, above all, the Shatt-el-Arab.

Let us see, however, who Qassem Alì Soleimani really controls in Iraq.

 Firstly, there is the Asaib al-Haq network, as well as the Popular   Mobilization Forces (PMF) and finally what remains of the old Al Badr Brigades.

Asaib al-Haq, the “League of the Righteous”, also known as the Khazali Network, heavily operated also during the last war in Syria.

 In the Iraqi war, after Saddam Hussein’s fall, it was responsible for at least 6,000 attacks against the US and coalition forces.

At the time, the “Widowers’ House”, where the Sunni jihadist “martyrs” – also those who hit Italy’s military in Nassiriya – passed at the end of their journey towards death, was placed in Syria.

 It was from there that a young Sunni “martyr”, of Moroccan origin, who initially worked in a halal butcher shop on the Catalan coast moved to the Mosque of Viale Jenner, in Milan, and finally to Syria, to hit Italy’s soldiers in Camp Mittica, Nassiriya.

 We were informed of it by the Spanish Guardia Civilthat – as always happens in these cases – had received some DNA found on the body of the “martyr” who killed our soldiers.

Asaib al-Haq, that is also an Iraqi political party, is under direct orders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, in any case, is institutionally part of the old network of the Popular Mobilization Forces.

 It is estimated that the militants and operatives of the Asaib network and of the Popular Mobilization Forces are currently worth about 15,000 elements, all well-trained, both in Iraq and Iran.

Asaib was born as a splinter group of the old Army of the Mahdi, led and founded by Muqtada al-Sadr (and exactly in the old “rationalist” Sadr City, ferocious clashes between the “rebels” and the Iraqi police forces have taken place very recently).

 The working style of the militia group among the population – that is to provide aid to poor people through a “religious welfare”, the same policy of Hezbollah in the Lebanon – is, however, a significant cost for Iran.

 Hezbollah in the Lebanon, however, is supported by a system of private funding from rich local Shiites; companies, also Sunni ones, that operate in the areas or with Iranian customers; income from investment and from the usual private donations.

Between 1983 and 1989 Iran has given directly to Hezbollah as many as 450 million US dollars.

Currently – and, however, this does not include operational military support and training for Hezbollah men and women in the Lebanon – there is talk of at least 650 million US dollars a year, from Iran directly to the Southern district of Beirut, where the operational centre of the Lebanese and Shiite “Party of God” is located.

 Hezbollah also gets money from the often powerful Shiite minorities outside the Middle East, such as those in West Africa, in the USA and also in the very important area of the “tripartite border” between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

As shown by international agencies’ data, there are also operations that demonstrate how and to what extent  the business network of the “Party of God” also deals – for significant amounts – with the illegal trafficking of tobacco and, often, with international drug trafficking.

Currently news about Iran’s financial commitment in Iraq tells us of at least 16 billion US dollars to train, support and organize Shiite militias in Iraq.

Moreover the expansion of the Shiite militias in these areas is recent and will follow Soleimani’s presence in Iraq, like Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

 The Popular Mobilisation Forces are currently a complex organization born in 2014 to fight against  the so-called Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.

 In September 2019, upon order of the Shiite Iraqi leader, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis,the network of the Shiite PMF separated from the rest of the Iraqi Armed Forces. This Iran’s political choice stems from a series of air bombings that the PMF bases have suffered in Iraq over the last three months.

 The Shiite network has accused Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied the charge.

 But there is no guarantee that this Shiite network is now also opposed to many of the sectarian forces operating on Iraqi soil, between Sunnis and Kurds.

However, the great Shiite military alliance, under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, was born in 2014 from a fatwa of the Great Ayatollah al Sistani that indicated to the young Iraqis the duty to “be part of the security forces” to save the country from the danger of the so-called Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.

 Despite various decrees enacted by the Iraqi government, both by Nouri al Maliki and the current President, the structure of the Popular Mobilisation Forces has not given their weapons to the Iraqi army and the PMF have never subjected their chain of command to the Iraqi hierarchy of the Armed Forces.

 Recently, the Shiite network in Iraq has increased from the 4,500 armed militants, who had been identified in 2011, to well over 81,000 ones, with a significant increase that has occurred only over the last six months.

 The network of the Popular Mobilisation Forces is also useful for Iran to create a second front – more difficult to control – of missile launch against Israel, operated solely from the Iraqi territory. 

 Also the Hashd al Shaabi movement in the Lebanon was born in 2014, like the new PMF. It is a movement connected – from the very beginning -to the Iraqi brigades of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, as well as to the Badr Brigade and the new Asaib al-Haq network, always linked to the presence of the Brigades of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and hence to Soleimani’s Al Quds Brigade.

Now this network, under Qassem Alì Soleimani’s direct control, currently counts at least 130,000 armed militants.

 In other words, Iran is replacing its proxies in Iraq and the Lebanon with a view to avoiding the enemy penetration and staking – with new organizational and military models – a very heavy claim to regimes, between the Lebanon and Iraq, which are obviously at the end of their pathway.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

The new relationship between Israel and Bahrain

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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President Donald J. Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyanisigns sign the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The issue of the new relationship between Israel and Bahrain, following the agreement already signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is particularly interesting. It marks a realignment of the Sunni world with the Jewish State, clearly against Iran, and hence indirectly with the West.

 Israel, however, does not always think strategically like its Western allies. This is positive.

 The oil leverage between the Arab East and the Euro-American West is currently changing (although the EU has not yet realized it) given the rise of the U.S. oil power.

Nevertheless, there is a change also in what we could define as the military “protection level” between the Sunni Arab world and the Western defence system, between NATO and the U.S. or Atlantic Alliance specific agreements with Sunni Arab countries. Europe is obviously out of the game.

The primary aims pursued are the following: as to the Arabs, fully playing the Western card with regard to the Russian Federation and, in some ways, also to China; as to Westerners, the game No. 1 is to take back the Sunni world after the jihadist crisis and then to create a new market of crude oil prices just now that the U.S. shale oil is changing the whole price system. Ultimately, however, the United States wants to avoid Russia and China strategically “taking” the Sunni world.

 The Sunni world knows it can never do without the West to seriously oppose Iran and its proxies. It also needs the U.S. and the EU technologies to make the “energy transition” from oil and gas to renewables. It finally needs weapons and technologies, but probably also direct military aid from the United States and NATO – and, in the future, also from the Jewish State.

 Iran is an existential threat also to them. In the Middle East the areas of influence and contact between Iran and the Sunni world are such that they cannot be regulated by some kind of peace treaty. Yemen is a case in point. Every move in the Gulf is a zero-sum game.

 Now, however, we need to take a step back. The “Abraham Accord” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAEs) and then Bahrain is based on future “normal relations” between the Jewish State and the UAEs.

 An agreement drafted in mid-August 2020, but long prepared by the Intelligence Services and subsequently by both parties’ diplomacies, and also by some European Intelligence Services.

 These “normal relations” imply usual business relations, direct flights, tourism, scientific exchanges and full diplomatic recognition.

 It is obvious, however, that the Emirates will not send an Ambassador to Jerusalem.

 It is not envisaged in the agreements, but there is, however, a specific exchange of information between the Intelligence Services, as has long happened also between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

 Again according to the Emirates -but the text is anyway clear in this regard – the Israeli-UAE agreement immediately stops any Israeli attempt of West Bank annexation, but it also envisages a renewal of the negotiations between the PNA and the Jewish State to “put an end to the conflict”.

Vaste programme, as De Gaulle would have said. The core of the issue is that now the Palestinians of the PNA – a badly conceived entity resulting from the end of the Cold War – are no longer of any use to anyone.

 Neither to the Soviet Union, which does no longer exist and no longer needs cumulative training camps for European terrorists or possibly pressure systems for their Arab allies, nor to the European left (and to the EU, although it is not aware of it) that knew nothing about foreign policy, but only wanted Israel’s “reduction”. Least of all to China, which does notknow what to do with them, nor even to the jihadist galaxy, which has scarcely used the old Palestinian guerrilla network.

Currently the prominent role played by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and also in the West Bank – a movement deriving from the Muslim Brotherhood, which explicitly accepts the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in its statutes and which, however, is notoriously now fully supported by Iran, with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – is a role that is certainly not interesting for the Gulf Sunni countries.

 Probably it is interesting only for Qatar and Turkey, which have much to do with the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, I do not think that Turkey and Qatar want to go all the way in this strategic game, with the risk of antagonizing Saudi Arabia and most of the Emirates.

However, no one wants to bear the high costs for managing the PNA any longer. They are strategically useless and most likely even dangerous.

 Israel and the UAEs already tried to normalise their relations years ago. In 2015, the Jewish State opened a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, in relation to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Later there were sports meetings and Israel had also been envisaged as a guest in the 2020 World EXPO, now postponed to October 2021, unless otherwise decided due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 The real sign that the agreement with the Emirates was very important for Israel was the decision taken by Netanyahu to postpone the annexation of the West Bank indefinitely.

 The Palestinians immediately recalled their Ambassador to the Emirates.

Israel cares little about the PNA, the relic of a Cold War that no longer has strategic significance, except for the pro-Iranian role played by Hamas and by a part of Fatah, the old political group of Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is therefore interested only in the West Bank and, in full agreement with Egypt, in the anti-jihadist control of the Gaza Strip and Sinai.

Obviously, neither Saudi Arabia, nor the Emirates, nor Bahrain, nor other States in the Sunni area (even though Bahrain has a Shiite majority, but a Sunni ruling class), and even less Israel want to be associated with a corrupt and totally inefficient political class such as the PNA’s, which is now the glove within which the Iranian hand is extended – and Iran is the only power interested and willing to take the two political areas of the old PNA by the hand.

As mentioned above, the “Abraham Accord” has been accepted also by Bahrain and then by Jordan, which has an old peace treaty in place with Israel dating back to 1994, but burdened by the subsequent severe crisis of 2015-2016 with Israel, at the time of the annexation of East Jerusalem and hence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Al-Aqsa means “the farthest”, a reference to the distance of Islam’s third holiest shrine from Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia).

The agreement has also been accepted by Egypt, which sees the jihadist tension in Sinai resolved, in perspective, with the Jewish State’s more direct and explicit collaboration. Finally, the “Abraham Accord” has been publicly praised by Oman, now that the new King,Hatham bin Tariq, wants to keep on modernizing the Kingdom of Oman and Muscat in the wake of the late Sultan Qaboos – whose Guards wore Scottish kilts and played bagpipes – and with greater strategic independence from the other Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

 Who is against the Accord? Obviously Iran, which sees a strategic correlation between Israel and the Sunni world looming large, with the very severe closure of the Emirates’ area to Iran – an area where it could have played the card of influence operations against Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Also Qatar is against it. The country is also militarily tied to Turkey and it is the financial and political base of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is disliked by all the other Gulf Sunni States and, in some ways, is in a process of reconciliation even with the Iranian-Syrian and Lebanese Shiites.

Obviously also Turkey is against the agreement, not for the acceptance of the Jewish State in the framework of inter-Arab relations – a State with which Turkey has had diplomatic relations since 1949, although it has never recognised the UN Partition Plan from which the independence of the Jewish State itself originated.

Turkey has a cold attitude towards the “Abraham Accord” particularly because it will be isolated in the Emirates and in the Gulf area, since it is loosely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, and has a project of Central Asian expansion that will not enable it to maintain the status quo currently favourable to it in the Gulf, nor – in perspective – the good relations with Qatar.

As stated above, Bahrain- and, if all goes well, it will be the turn of Sudan, Oman and Morocco – is accepting and, indeed, has already accepted the Abraham Accord.

 Morocco has already had Jewish Ministers in its governments, and the private affairs secretary of King Hassan II was an Italian, from Ferrara, who had also been the only one to show solidarity with him when the young Giorgio Bassani was expelled from high school due to infamous “racial laws” of 1938.

 King Hamad has already allowed Israeli leaders to participate – in the future – in a regional meeting on Gulf security, the Manama Security Dialogue 2020, scheduled in the capital of the Kingdom for December 4-6.

 Netanyahu already met the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman in 2018.

 Why does Bahrain officially recognize Israel under the “Abraham Accord”?

First and foremost because the Jewish State is a brilliant success story.

 Because of its technology, its stability, its military strength, even its excellent intelligence, Israel allures many countries in the Arab world and in other world regions. Sultan bin Khalifa has always openly expressed his esteem for the Jewish State.

In 2018 Bahrain’s Foreign Minister twitted a message in favour of Israel in its war against the underground channels created by Hezbollah. Later he explicitly expressed his appreciation when he saw that also Australia had recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State.

  The Sultan of Bahrain has openly put strong pressure on the Gulf Security Council for it to designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”.

Here we are not talking about traditional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, but about a geopolitical and strategic choice: to make the Emirates and the whole Gulf a peaceful area, so as to start – as soon as possible – the energy and economic transition that will decide the future of the oil States in the region.

 The war freezes positions. It is expensive and does not allow the great economic transition that all the Gulf ruling classes, with the sole exception of Iran, intend to begin as soon as possible.

Obviously Iran does not play its cards so much on oil as on natural gas, which is not envisaged by the OPEC system.

It should also be recalled that Bahrain also hosted the White House’s Peace to Prosperity Workshopin 2019. On that occasion as many as seven Israeli journalists were welcomed to the Kingdom.

 It should also be noted that Bahrain is closely connected to Saudi Arabia with specific reference to the economy and the selection of the ruling class.

Bahrain has a majority of Shiite population, with a Sunni royal House and a Sunni ruling class. Hence, more than for other Gulf countries, Iran, which is in front of its shores, is an existential threat.

The link between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is increasingly strong, especially after 2018, when the small coastal kingdom had to repress – often harshly – the “Arab Springs” which, indeed, had many connections with Iran.

 The greatest mistake recently made by Westerners in the Middle East, the “Arab Spring”, after the Sykes-Picot Treaty, when France lost some of its power because the translator was Luis Massignon, with his very refined Arabic that the desert raiders did not understand, while the interpreter for Great Britain was Lawrence of Arabia, who was used to the Arab streets and plebs.

What about Palestine? On September 3 last, almost simultaneously with the announcement of the “Abraham Accord” by Donald J. Trump at the White House, a videoconference was held between the Lebanon and Palestine, with the participation of Abu Mazen and all the Palestinian factions. It should also be noted that the videoconference had been organised by both Fatah and Hamas- a unique rather than a rare case.

 Ismail Haniyeh, the Chief of Hamas Political Bureau, was in Beirut, together with Ziad Nadalia, the Secretary General of Islamic Jihad, and all the leaders of the factions that are not allowed to operate within the Palestinian National Authority’s territories.

 Mohammed Barakeh, former member of the Israeli Parliament, was in Ramallah.

 For everyone, the strategic key to interpreting the “Abraham Accord” was the breaking of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Saudi Arabian initiative of 2002, then reaffirmed in 2007 and again in 2017 by all Arab League Summits.

 This “initiative” concerns, in nuce, Israel’s withdrawal from all occupied territories, as well as a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees on the basis of UN Resolution No.194, and the establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

What were the videoconference results? The clear and obvious perception of the isolation of the PNA, which no one now wants to maintain at full cost any longer, considering that it is a “strategic relic” of the past; the agreement between Hamas and Fatah, a unique rather than a rare case; the inevitable opening of the PNA’s territories to the declared enemies of the Abraham Accord, i.e. Qatar, which will try to reach a strategic and military correlation between Libya-Tripoli and the Gaza Strip, as well as for the West Bank and then Turkey, with its Muslim Brothers, who are those who founded Hamas. But above all it will be a deal for Iran, which already supports the Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions, obviously against Israel and waiting for Hezbollah to make again operations beyond the Litani River.

Hence “people’s struggle”, in the PLO and PNA jargon, but there is no reference to “armed struggle” in the final document of the videoconference, as well as the request for a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders, and then the evident verification of the declining consensus for the Palestinian cause among the Sunni Arab States of the Gulf, from which a further restriction of economic aid to the PNA will result.

Nevertheless, the real danger, which should regard also Israel, is the PNA’s full implosion, which could cause global military, migration and economic phenomena.

 What about the Russian Federation? It must go back being essential in the Middle East. The “Abraham Accord” brokered and mediated by the United States and by some European intelligence services can put an end to the comparative and strategic advantage of Russia’s victory in Syria and the very careful management of military and intelligence relations with Israel.

 Not to mention the refined Russian containment of the Iranian pressure in Syria – one of the real goals of the Russian presence in Bashar el Assad’s republic.

 What cards could Russia play in the new Middle East that is currently being defined? Many cards.

As early as 2018, Russia has started to meet the Islamic Jihad again, while Abu Mazen also met Russian leaders in 2019 to create a new “format” of peace between Israel and the PNA mediated by the Russian Federation alone.

 Then there is the Lebanese card – Russia’s presence is increasingly visible in the Lebanon due to an obvious spillover from Syria.

Hence Russia’s number one game in the new Middle East is to maintain close relations with all the regional, State and non-State actors, so as to get to be the only supreme arbiter (also towards Israel) of the future and now inevitable Middle East peace.

What about China? It does not view the Abraham Accord favourably, considering that for China it is tantamount to an actual withdrawal from the Middle East by the United States –  and therefore an increase in the costs for the strategic control of the region – but also to the return of many important Sunni countries within a U.S. economic orbit, just when China was seducing Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

 The “Abraham Accord” closes the Gulf’s doors to many countries that wanted to enter the region.

China, however, will put on a good face and make the best of a bad situation, by supporting an actual friendly country, Israel, and maintaining the usual excellent relations with the Sunni world, in the hope of soon replacing the United States as the political-military reference point for the region.

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Middle East

Will They or Won’t They? Saudi Recognition of Israel is the $64,000 Question

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Will the Saudis formalize relations with Israel or will they not? That is the 64,000-dollar question.

The odds are that Saudi Arabia is not about to formalize relations with Israel. But the kingdom, its image tarnished by multiple missteps, is seeking to ensure that it is not perceived as the odd man out as smaller Gulf states establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Bahrain’s announcement that it would follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates was as much a Bahraini move as it was a Saudi signal that it is not opposed to normalization with Israel.

Largely dependent on the kingdom since Saudi troops helped squash mass anti-government protests in 2011, Bahrain, a majority Shia Muslim nation, would not have agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without Saudi consent.

The Bahraini move followed several other Saudi gestures intended to signal the kingdom’s endorsement of Arab normalization of Israel even if it was not going to lead the pack.

The gestures included the opening of Saudi air space to Israeli commercial flights, and publication of a Saudi think tank report praising Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stewardship in modernizing the kingdom’s religious education system and encouraging the religious establishment to replace“extremist narratives” in school textbooks with “a moderate interpretation of Islamic rhetoric.”

They also involved a sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca – the world’s largest mosque that surrounds the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, that highlighted Prophet Mohammed’s friendly relations with Jews.

Mr. al-Sudais noted that the prophet had “performed ablution from a polytheistic water bottle and died while his shield was mortgaged to a Jew,” forged a peace agreement with Jewish inhabitants of the Khaybar region, and dealt so well with a Jewish neighbor that he eventually converted to Islam. 

The imam’s comments, a day before US President Donald J. Trump was believed to have failed to persuade King Salman to follow the UAE’s example, were widely seen as part of an effort to prepare Saudi public opinion for eventual recognition of Israel.

Criticism on social media of the comments constituted one indication that public opinion in Gulf states is divided.

Expression of Emirati dissent was restricted to Emirati exiles given that the UAE does not tolerate expression of dissenting views.

However, small scale protests erupted in Bahrain, another country that curtails freedom of expression and assembly. Bahraini political and civil society associations, including the Bahrain Bar Association, issued a statement rejecting the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.

“What results from normalization will not enjoy popular backing, in line with what generations of Bahrainis have been brought up on in terms of adherence to the Palestinian cause,” the statement said.

Bahrain has long been home to a Jewish community and was the first and, so far, only Arab state to appoint a Jew as its ambassador to the United States.

The criticism echoes recent polls in various Gulf states that suggest that Palestine remains a major public foreign policy concern.

Polling by David Pollock of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that Palestine ranked second to Iran.

Earlier polls by James Zogby, a Washington-based pollster with a track record that goes back more than a decade, showed Palestine ranking in 2018 as the foremost foreign policy issue followed by Iran in Emirati and Saudi public opinion.

The same year’s Arab Opinion Index suggested that 80 percent of Saudis see Palestine as an Arab rather than a purely Palestinian issue.

Mr. Pollock said in an interview that with regard to Palestine, Saudi officials “believe that they have to be a little cautious. They want to move bit by bit in the direction of normalizing at least the existence of Israel or the discussion of Israel, the possibility of peace, but they don’t think that the public is ready for the full embrace or anything like that.”

Gulf scholar Giorgio Cafiero noted in a tweet that “Israel formalizing relations (with) unelected Arab (governments) is not the same as Israel making ‘peace’ (with) Arab people. Look at, for example, what Egypt’s citizenry thinks of Israel. Iran and Turkey will capitalize on this reality as more US-friendly Arab [governments] sign accords [with] Israel.”

This year’s Arab Opinion Index suggest that in Kuwait, the one country that has not engaged with Israel publicly, Turkey—the Muslim country that has taken a lead in supporting the Palestinians—ranked highest in public esteem compared to China, Russia, and Iran.

A rift in a UAE-backed Muslim group created to counter Qatari support of political Islam and promote a state-controlled version of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler serves as a further indication that Palestine remains an emotive public issue.

In Mr. Al-Sudais’ case, analysts suggest that the criticism is as much about Palestine as it is a signal that religious leaders who become subservient to the whims of government may be losing credibility.

Mr. Al-Sudais’ sermon contrasted starkly with past talks in which he described Jews as “killers of prophets and the scum of the earth” as well as “monkeys and pigs” and defended Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran as a war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The criticism coupled with indications earlier this year that Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment was not happy with Prince Mohammed’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic may be one reason why Saudi Arabia is gesturing rather than formalizing already existing relations with Israel.

Authorities reportedly arrested in March Sheikh Abdullah al-Saad, an Islamic scholar, after he posted online an audio clip criticizing the government for banning Friday prayers. Mr. al-Saad argued that worshippers should be able to ask God for mercy.

An imam in Mecca was fired shortly after he expressed concern about the spread of the coronavirus in Saudi prisons.

Scholars Genevieve Abdo and Nourhan Elnahla reported that the kingdom’s Council of Senior Clerics had initially drafted a fatwa, or religious opinion, describing the closing of mosques as a violation of Islamic principles. They said that government pressure had persuaded the council not to issue the opinion.

Concern among the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious scholars that the ruling Al-Saud family may break the power-sharing agreement with the clergy, concluded at the birth of the kingdom, predates the rise of King Salman and Prince Mohammed.

Indeed, the clerics’ concern stretches back to the reign of King Abdullah and has focused on attitudes expressed both by senior members of the ruling family who have since been sidelined or detained by Prince Mohammed and princes that continue to wield influence.

The scholars feared that the ruling family contemplated separating state and religion. This is a concern that has likely been reinforced since Prince Mohammed whipped the kingdom’s religious establishment into submission and downplayed religion by emphasizing nationalism.

Ultra-conservative Saudi religious scholars are also certain to have taken note of post-revolt Sudan’s recent decision to legally remove religion from the realm of the state.

Ultra-conservative sentiment does not pose an imminent threat to Prince Mohammed’s iron grip rule of a country in which many welcomed social reforms that have lifted some of the debilitating restrictions on women, liberalized gender segregation, and the as yet unfulfilled promise of greater opportunity for a majority youthful population.

It does however suggest one reason why Prince Mohammed, who is believed to favor formal relations with Israel, may want to tread carefully on an issue that potentially continues to evoke passions.

An initial version of this story was first published by Inside Arabia

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Middle East

Arabs have abandoned Palestine longtime ago

Shahzada Rahim

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Bethlehem: part of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Photo: UN News/Reem Abaza

I don’t understand why the majority of Muslims have reacted so furiously on UAE’s recognition of the State of Israel. Those who are criticizing Arabs are illiterate common people, who even don’t have a slight background of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If we study deeply the nature of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the very conflict began as Arab-Israeli deadlock first, when the nationalist Arabs started the first War with Israel in 1948.

Similarly, the second war between Arabs and Israel began in 1969, when Israelis set Al-Aqsa Mosque on fire. Likewise, the third war began in 1973, which is often known as Yom-Kippur war in the history books and was the major development in the conflict. Unfortunately, the beginning of 1970s was the turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during which Arabs willfully abandoned the Palestinian cause for good.

A major turning point occurred when the Late President of Egypt Anwar Sadat visited Israeli Knesset and formally recognized the state of Israel. In response, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza strip back to Egypt, which were lost to Israel during the Yom-e-Kippur war. Perhaps, this was the very day, when the Arab leaders began reconsidering their foreign policy approach towards Israel.

Soon after the Egypt’s recognition of Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organization became a sandwich between the Baathist regime of Iraq and Syria. The major animosity between PLO and Arab petro-monarchies began during the second Gulf War, when the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat visited Iraq and supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Since then petro-monarchies began taking least interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Even the term Arab-Israeli conflict changed into Palestinian-Israeli conflict (please read late American President Jimmy Carter’s book “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid” to understand this analogical transformation).

Another major reason behind Arab Monarchies least interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is Iran. Because, soon after the revolution, the Iranian theocratic regime has taken major interest in the Palestinian issue with metaphorical yet psychological slogan “Death to America and Death to Israel”. The Iranian regime began exporting the revolution to other countries in the region such as Iraq and Lebanon in particular. What Khomeini said on the wake of revolution during his first speech “Islam has no borders”. The message was clear, from now onwards Iran will be the champion of Palestinian cause, which has indeed infuriated Sunni Arabs. (To understand this please read Edward Said’s famous book “Covering Islam”).

Similarly, with Imam Khomeini’s declaration of himself as Vilayat-e-faqi, the Saudi Royal family declared themselves as Huremain-e-Sharifeen, which means the Custodians of two holy mosques. According to Lebanese philosopher and Political scientist Fawaz A Gerges; it was the CIA’s Idea to counter Shiite Iran in the Greater Middle East. Basically, since the revolution in Iran, the Iranian theocratic regime has used Palestinian cause as genuine platform to expand its influence across the Muslim world. (Please read Fawaz A Gerges famous book “America and Political Islam”).

Similarly, with the Iranian establishment of Hezbollah (The party of God) in Lebanon for the Palestinian cause, the situation turned worse. The Arab monarchies declared Hezbollah as Iranian proxy tool to export revolution across the Middle East rather a group fighting for the Palestinian cause. (To understand this please read Professor Noam Chomsky’s famous book “The Fateful Triangle“). Consequently, with the strange assassination of former Lebanese president Rafic Hariri in 2005, the tensions further escalated because he was close ally of Arab monarchies. The Arab leaders blamed Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon for the murder of Rafic Harari. 

Another major reason behind the Arabs losing interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the political and ideological presence of Hamas in Gaza, which is an offshoot of banned Muslim Brotherhood. Ideologically, Muslim Brotherhood headquartered in Egypt is a pan-Islamist party, which since its formation is struggling to establish an Islamic Empire in the Arab world by overthrowing monarchies. In this respect, Hamas as an ideological offshoot of the banned Muslim Brotherhood is threat to Arab Monarchies and hence, a major excuse for Arabs to abandon Palestinian cause.

In contrast, the recent tremendous changes in the foreign policy orientation towards Israel across the Arab world indicates the beginning of new regional peace process. As a matter fact, Israel as a nation state is a living reality, which cannot be ignored and the continuing Arab confrontation with Israel is not in the best interest of Palestinians. The recent diplomatic step taken by United Arab Emirates to normalize relationship with the state of Israel is a positive step towards new regional peace and security architecture.

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