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The Exclusive Economic Zone between Libya and Turkey

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The Memorandum of Understanding for maritime cooperation between Turkey and Libya of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj was definitively voted by the Turkish Parliament on December 5 last.

The President of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, also officially stated that the Turkish-Libyan MoU is fully consistent with the letter of the Skhirat Agreements of 2015 and 2017, which regulate the relations between Libya and Cyrenaica.

 This statement is not useless because, as we shall see, Egypt also challenges the political way in which the Turkish-Libyan MoU was reached and its legitimacy and compliance with the international agreements that define the establishment and functions of Libya’s Government of National Accord led by al-Sarraj.

Besides economic issues – which will be later analyzed in detail- the collaboration between Turkey and Libya envisages also the possibility of a direct commitment of the Turkish Armed Forces “at the simple request” of the Libyan government.

As early as Gaddafi’s time, Turkey was already present with its companies and investment to the tune of over 26 million US dollars, mainly in the real estate sector.

As can be easily imagined, the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime diminished the Turkish interest in Libya, but the bilateral relations between Libya and Turkey continued, also with the contract awarded to a Turkish company to extend Tripoli’s coastal road and with many building reconstructions, always decided by al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).

At military level, Turkey has so far supported Tripoli (and not only the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of al-Sarraj’s government) with drones, intelligence Service instructors and artillery.

Ateconomic level, however, the two Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), namely the Turkish EEZ and the Libyan one border each other and hence President Erdogan spoke of joint oil exploration and joint maritime control actions between Tripoli’s Libya and Turkey.

  This means – quite overtly – to eliminate Greece, Greek Cyprus, Egypt (which supports General Haftar of Cyrenaica) and, finally, Israel from Central and Eastern Mediterranean.

 Not to mention Italy, which would be banned from a large part of the shipping lines and also of the oil and submarine connections between Sicily and the Libyan coast.

 For much less, Craxi’s government and the then Finance Minister, Franco Reviglio, ordered the military secret Service, SISMI- led by the extraordinary Admiral Martini – to keep the Tunisian crisis developments under control and to put Ben Ali, as leader of Tunisia, against the candidate of the French intelligence Services that disdainfully refused any support. Nevertheless, Italy won.

Currently, however, Italy no longer has politicians with the same guts as in the past.

 Obviously, Turkey is not particularly interested in the specific survival of al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), but it intends to use these agreements as a binding precedent for the whole of Libya, whoever rules in Tripoli or in Benghazi.

To what extent can al-Sarraj resist a military advance by General Khalifa Haftar?

Certainly not so much, especially because the forces of Wagner’s Russian contractors operate – with advanced weapons and methods -together with the Benghazi Army.

 Without an international intervention in his favour – which, however, would even further split Libya in two -al-Sarraj is not bound to last long.

Apart from Turkey, however, Tripoli has no friends capable of evaluating what Machiavelli called the “effective reality of things”.

Wagner’s Russian contractors are about 1,000 and they currently operate in Eastern and Western Libya, in the area controlled only by General Haftar’s forces. This will certainly lead to a new escalation of the conflict and to its polarization. The more or less foolish Westerners will side with al-Sarraj and Tripoli, while all the others (Turkey, i.e. NATO second army, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar, which is reconnecting to Saudi Arabia) will side with General Haftar, with a view to reconquering the first oil depot in Africa and the port of almost immediate access to the EU.

 The Berlin Conference on Libya is scheduled for 2020. There is daily talk by European Foreign Ministers about a “peaceful solution” and the ideas of the EU countries that still operate in Libya are non-existent, except for the business as usual approach and the simplistic and purely electoral refusal to get caught up and bogged down in the Libyan chaos.

 If this were to happen, however, some European countries should quell social and – in some cases – economic tensions capable of making all their governments collapse.

 Years of silly pacifism and of soldiers on “peace-keeping” missions,operating as Red Cross nurses,have left their mark. Currently Germany is militarily non-existent and France is doing just a little better. As far as Italy is concerned, better not to talk about it.

Hence, if the United Nations’ lethargy and the European stupidity persist – and there is no reason to think otherwise -General Haftar is bound to win.

However, who could be the real tough nut to crack against General Haftar, in his triumphant march westwards and towards  Tripolitania?

 Certainly not the GNA’s official militias or the other local “brigades” in favour of al-Sarraj, but now only Misrata’s militias. They defend al-Sarraj, but they also hold him in their hands.

 Misrata’s militias are led by the current deputy of al-Sarraj, Ahmed Maitig, and all the militias and brigades survive with their illicit trade and trafficking. In fact, the illegal migration flows from Libya leave from the beaches of Misrata and Gasr Garabulli, with people traffickers who pay their fee to Misrata’s ones, while the other 300 militias have devoted themselves to various illegal activities: oil smuggling, kidnappings, money laundering and the most traditional robberies.

In Libya, however, oil is still the business of the future, considering that it still has oil reserves to the tune of 48.4 billion barrels, which still make Libya rank first among African oil countries.

Furthermore, the militias of Zintan – the second largest Libyan militant organization in size – are those that killed Gaddafi, thanks to the French weapons launched against them in the Gebel Nafusa Mountain region.

Those militias – later defeated by “Lybia Dawn”in 2014, in a war for economic dominance over the Tripolitanian trade and trafficking -have reconnected to General Haftar.

Moreover, the United States with its African Command still has a support base for intelligence and special operations in Benghazi.

Currently, however, the US African continental command is moving away from all Libyan areas and is now present only on the Eastern and Southern borders of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

General Haftar has a force of about 2,500 soldiers, former members of Gaddafi’s regular Forces and of Saiqa, Gaddafi’ special forces.

Besides Misrata’s troops, the forces siding with al-Sarraj include the Rada Special Force, 1,500 soldiers having mainly police tasks and, finally, the Nawasi Brigade, i.e. 700 “radical”Islamists – just to use the silly Western terminology.

Also militias from Chad (1,000 soldiers) and from Darfur (500) side with General Haftar.

 Maitig, the Head of Misrata’s militia, has recently visited France, with a view to repairing relations between France, an open supporter of General Haftar, and Tripoli’s GNA.

Obviously, at the time, Italy was asleep.

 Italy is the country that has no longer had a foreign policy for several years.

 At the NATO Summit held in London late November Italy was excluded from the meeting on Libya.

  Obviously, Prime Minister Conte maintains that this is not important, but he is clearly lying.

 After Brexit, Italy remains an inevitable point of reference for the EU transatlantic dialogue.

However, nowadays, explaining such a simple concept to Italian politicians is already a problem.

Nevertheless, the economic rather than political Memorandum of Understanding,signed between Turkey and Libya on November 28, 2019, is a Turkish longa manus in Libya that will be very hard to limit.

Certainly, Italy’s current awkward geopolitics will adapt masochistically to support also its opponents, as has happened so far in Libya and in other parts of the world.

 It is also very likely that Turkey may create a blackmail market for illegal immigration also in Libya, as it has already done at the Syrian-Turkish border,as well as to block the “Balkan route” of irregular migrants to the Austrian and German borders.

As many of the most authoritative analysts maintain, General Haftar’s “conquest of Tripoli” could trigger a new great Libyan conflict and certainly not quell the current one.

Let us analyze the current situation of the Italian agreements with one or the other Libyan government.

 On March 12, 2019 an agreement was signed between Federpesca and the Libyan Investment Authority of Benghazi, with a view to enabling a fixed number of Italian fishing vessels, all based in Mazara del Vallo, to fish in all Libyan waters.

 The agreement became operational on July 15, 2019, but it was considered illegal by the government of al-Sarraj, who thinks thatthe agreement between Federpesca and the Tobruk government agency is contrary to the Skhirat agreements and the subsequent UN rules on the Libyan issue. It thinks so in line with Article 8 of the Skhirat Treaty and Agreements.

 Libya, however, believes that the Gulf of Sirte, as a “traditional bay”, is under its full sovereignty – a claim so far opposed by the United States, Italy and all the other EU Member States. The strategic significance of this dispute is clear and needs no particular elaboration.

In 2005, Libya proclaimed a 62-mile fishing protection zone from the closing line of the Gulf of Sirte, which is below the midline with Italy and, hence, does not lend itself to any claims or disputes.

 In 2009 – hence still under Gaddafi’s regime -Libya further proclaimed an EEZ enabling the Libyan State to fully use all the EEZ natural resources, including fish.

The size of this Libyan EEZ, however, was not defined, thus leaving the formal law to customs and possible bilateral agreements with neighbouring States.

Conversely, Turkey had not yet a real EEZ, except for the one delimited autonomously with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

  In principle, however, the Libyan EEZ has a size of 200 miles like all the others and, hence, there is the need for a specific agreement with Italy – for fisheries and for all the other matters.

 In 2018, Libya also defined its Search and Rescue area (SAR).

  Malta has a very large SAR area, which overlaps – in two large areas – with the Italian one and borders directly on the Libyan SAR area, right on the closing line of the Gulf of Sirte.

It should be recalled that Libya has never ratified the UN  Convention on the Law of the Sea and hence refers only to customary law on the matter.

Nevertheless,the recent agreement between al-Sarraj and Turkey is a game-changer.

 Following the establishment of the new Turkish-Libyan EEZ zone, Egypt has resorted to Article 8 of the Skhirat Agreement, which lays down that “the Libyan government or the Cabinet, not the Prime Minister, has the power and authority to sign international agreements”.

The Turkish-Libyan bilateral Memorandum also establishes 18.6 nautical miles of a continental shelf and a border line of the Exclusive Economic Zone between Libya and Turkey.

Before this agreement between Turkey and Libya, Greek Cyprus had reached agreementswith the Lebanon and Egypt, for the delimitation of maritime areas that are currently of primary interest for oil and gas extraction.

 Greece, however, points out that – with this EEZ redesign -Libya recovers as many as 39,000 square kilometers of the EEZ, which were previously held by Greece.

 Greece, in fact, wanted to exploit the problematic conditions in Libya to have an EEZ four times the size of the Lebanon.

After this MoU between Libya and Turkey, however, the Greek islands could no longer enjoy a continental shelf and an Exclusive Economic Zone within the Athens area.

Hence, from a maritime viewpoint, Greece is separated from Crete, Rhodes, Kastellorizo and all the other Greek islands of the Eastern Mediterranean.

 Egypt is not particularly damaged by the Libyan-Turkish MoU. Indeed, it can be used by Egypt as a precedent for the forthcoming redesign of the Egyptian EEZ towards the Greek Sea and the South-Eastern Greek islands.

Nevertheless Al-Sisi, who is not a naive leader, stated he would  give up his EEZ rights over the Greek Sea and Greek Cyprus obviously in exchange for international support from Greece and, indirectly, from Italy.

At the beginning of December 2019, President Erdogan stated he would never stop his marine exploration for discovering oil and gas in front of Cyprus and, above all, in front of the Cypriot EEZ in Turkish Cyprus, the Turkish ethnicState which declared its  independence in 1983 and had been established after the 1974 Turkish invasion.

 Turkey has not declared the criteria followed to delimit the Turkish-Libyan waters defined by the bilateral MoU.

As is well-known, al-Sarraj’s Libya delimited its EEZ and SAR in a vast area which, when Gaddafi declared it in 1986, caused him the first US bombing.

So far Turkey has taken mere response measures to counter the activism of Cyprus, which had already defined its EEZ with Egypt (in 2003), with the Lebanon (in 2007) and with Israel in 2010.

 The price of the new Libyan-Turkish EEZ is paid not only by Greece, but also by Cyprus, since the new bilateral EEZ, which faces Cyrenaica’s coast and the territorial waters of Rhodes and Karpathos, stretches from the promontory west of Antalya to the stretch of Libyan coast going from the Cyrenaic border with Egypt up to Derna.

As already seen, also the island of Kastellorizo is inside the new EEZ.

Against this background, the Italian government has decided to follow the geopolitics based on the famous saying of SaintPhilip Neri, “state buoni se potete”, thus favouring the right of Cyprus, but hoping in a more “constructive” Turkish attitude – albeit we do not understand on what basis.

 The opposite is true. The Turkish attitude is the really constructive one, while Italy’s foreign policy – if any – is pure flatus vocis.

 The Italian Navy, however, sent the frigate “Federico Martinengo” in an operation for patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean region.

 Certainly, the Turkish presence in the Libyan territorial waters presupposes a possible transformation of the Libyam internal conflict, considering that the new EEZ implies the sending  “of all the Turkish troops that will be requested by Tripoli”, at the request of al-Sarraj’s government.

 There is also the possibility – barely perceived in international documents – of a presence of Israeli intelligence Service troops and operators during the actions of General Haftar’s GNA against Tripoli.

Furthermore, General Haftar did not even apologize to Italy for the drone – a Reaper of the 32ndflight formation of the Italian Air Force – shot down by its troops on November 20, 2019 near Tarhouna, while he immediately apologized to the United States for the shooting down of the MQ9 Reaper a few kilometers from Tripoli.

 This is what happens when you are irrelevant and you count for nothing.

Hence we are witnessing Turkey’s entry into the Libyan military field. Turkey supports al-Serraj and the Islamism of Muslim Brotherhood that keeps him in power – the Islamism that the foolish Westerners call “moderate”.

We will also witness the extreme escalation of the clash between Tripoli and General Haftar, also thanks to the possible Turkish maritime operations in Cyrenaica, as well as the immediate and absolute expulsion of Italy and its interests from Libya and the  repositioning of the United States, and probably of Israel, in an agreement – that we imagine to be wider than the Libyan system alone – with Turkey, Russia, Egypt and, probably, Saudi Arabia, the States supportingGeneral Haftar’s forces and Abdullah al-Thani’s corresponding government.

What about Italy? Nothing, of course.

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. “

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days

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These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.

Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.

Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.

Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.

The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.

Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.

His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.

Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.

Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.

Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.

The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.

Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”

Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”

Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”

The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.

Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.

In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.

Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.

Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.

Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.

Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.

In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.

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Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

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When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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