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The military agreement between Syria and Iran

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On July 8 last, Iranian Chief-of-Staff Mohammad Baqeri and Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abdullah Ayub signed an agreement in Damascus – defined as “comprehensive” – to strengthen military cooperation between the two countries.

As they both said, this agreement strengthens military cooperation between Iran and Syria, especially in relation to the expected increase in U.S. pressure on the region. Furthermore, Iran will strengthen the Syrian air defence systems, in particular, as well as improve the training of troops and the armament currently available to the Syrian military.

 On July 1, Erdogan, Putin and Hassan Rouhani had met – by videoconference – within the so-called “Astana format” to regulate their relations within Syrian territory and to plan a future peace treaty with Syria, with the exclusion of the United States and other Western countries.

 Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister has said: “We will not allow Iran to establish military presence in Syria”. It is an entirely natural choice, but we donot believe that – in a perspective of limited military confrontation between Israel and Iran – the United States would provide more than symbolic help to the Jewish State.

 An important strategic fact is that this new agreement pushes the traditional relationship between Syria and Russia aside, both defensively and technologically and politically.

 Russia has already made its Pantsir and S-300 missiles operational on Syrian territory, but rumours are rife within the Syrian Armed Forces that these weapon systems have not deliberately been able to hit Israeli weapons and air raids in Jerusalem.

 The issue is clear: Russia does not activate its S-300 missiles because it has no intention of hitting the Jewish State. Obviously, however, this is certainly not in the plans of Syria, which regards the air threat from Israel as an existential danger for the Syrian State. Iran’s role will be to hit Israel from Syrian territory or to penetrate the Israeli region with its own special forces.

 Certainly the sign of partial disengagement by Assad’ Syria from the Russian Federation is significant, although it does not appear to be decisive, considering that both Russia and Iran keep on supporting Syria.

Nevertheless, it is an attempt at strategic “substitution” that could have long-term effects.

 Furthermore, some Russian analysts note that -also in the hot phases of the war between Assad and the West-supported “rebels” -the presence of the Iranian troops was scarce, while many Shiite volunteers from various areas, Pasdaran and many military advisors were sent from Iran to Syria.

 The Iranian presence in the Syrian war has never been massive but, certainly, it is still very important.

 Iran, in particular, has funded and trained the pro-Assad armed groups, but currently the Syrian President needs to stop – certainly without Russian qualms – the Israeli air attacks, which often hit areas where also the Iranian military operate.

Certainly the Israeli operations in Syria have also caused significant damage to Iran’s nuclear networks and systems.

 A fire in Natanz, at the beginning of July, as well as the explosion west of Tehran a few days ago, and the further explosions in Garmdareh and Qods. On June 26, 2020, there was a fire in a missile factory in Khojr, and another one in Shiraz, in addition to the explosion in a medical clinic on June 30, with 19 victims, as well as a great fire on July 3, again in Shiraz, and finally a fire and an explosion in Ahwaz.

 Such a rational and well-scheduled sequence shows that these incidents, often trivialized by the Iranian government and its propaganda, are anything but random.

 Obviously, however, they are important sites for the Iranian nuclear project: for example, the explosion of July 1 hit the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Centre (ICAC) in the Natanz area.

However, all the Iranian nuclear experts and technicians, also those within the Tehran project, assume a delay in the implementation of the entire project by at least one or two years.

Nevertheless, let us see the dates and strategic significance of Iran’s nuclear power: in May 2019 Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would unilaterally but progressively withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)signed by Iran in 2015 together with the P5+1, i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union.

It should be recalled that the United States had walked out of the JCPOA a year earlier, in May 2018.

 The “maximum possible pressure”, i.e. the maximum tightening of sanctions, announced by the United States at the time of its withdrawal from the Vienna Agreement, led to some demonstrations in November, harshly repressed by the Iranian regime, which left as many as 180 dead on the ground.

It is likely, however, that by permanently and systematically breaking the Vienna Agreement of 2015, Iran wants to show signs not of constructing the nuclear bomb, but rather of putting pressure on the international community to lift sanctions.

Butter first, then guns – just to quote an old joke.

 Where could Iran launch its nuclear bomb? On Israel, which it certainly wants to “erase from the map”, but with the very serious danger of a nuclear counter-operation by Israel against the most important economic and military sites and the most populous Iranian cities?

 On Iraq, which has already a Shiite majority, currently well controlled by the Iranian Intelligence Services?

 Or on Saudi Arabia? Every abstractly possible choice has many more side effects than positive and rational evaluations. But Iranian decision-makers are not fools or minus habens.

If, however, Iran reduces its JCPOA compliance every two months – as it seems to do today – it will have as many as three opportunities, from now until the next U.S. elections in November, to “harden” its nuclear system.

This will certainly have a significant effect on the U.S. political and electoral debate. This, too, will be a well-organized effect, rationally chosen by the Ayatollahs.

 Obviously, President Trump shall strengthen the U.S. military system in the Middle East and this will certainly displease a large part of his voters. Iran will implement its basically non-conventional (but not yet nuclear) strategy, which will consist of attacks on tankers in the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf; of “heavy” operations by the Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq; of a probable operation in the Shiite area of Afghanistan, capable of shattering the very tenuous agreement between the United States and the Taliban of February, 2020; of a strengthening of the presence of the Houthi Shiite “rebels” or, finally, of another probable Iranian operation in the Lebanon and, precisely, this agreement between Iran and Syria.

Iran’s initial criterion is that of “strategic patience”.

This in no way implies the exclusion of nuclear armament, but concerns the use of its conventional forces, while nuclear weapons will be launched on the aggressor or on Israel, only in case of an extreme existential danger for the State.

 On the other hand, the Iranian “strategic patience” has a further purpose: to separate the EU from the United States and create an economic corridor between Iran and some European countries.

So far the EU has not shown to be able to react autonomously to the U.S. policy towards Iran: two years have elapsed and hence, with the aforementioned speech, Rouhani has adopted a “tougher” strategy.

Therefore, the Iranian President has announced that Iran will continue to move away from the JCPOA provisions until the other signatories to the 2015 Vienna Agreement ensure Iran free access to the world financial system and the free sale of Iranian oil.

 In other words, any “hardening” of the Ayatollah regime on the nuclear issue will be followed by a possible ad hoc opening by Iran to European markets.

 If the EU agrees on this project, from then on Iran will stop its withdrawal from the JCPOA, otherwise its leaving the Vienna Agreement will continue at the usual pace.

So far, however, the United States has further strengthened its system of sanctions, while the EU has threatened to initiate the JCPOA dispute settlement system.

 Iran’s final walking out of the Vienna Agreement has therefore materialized again, but both the United States and the EU – which has the same foreign policy as an ant nest – should realize that the non-nuclear and nuclear threat from Iran is terribly serious and could negatively affect the primary interests of both Western regions.

There is above all the blackmail to Israel, which is also terribly serious, even if Iran were to imagine a “Samson-style” nuclear strategy, i.e. its elimination together with the enemy.

Moreover, the Jewish State rightly considers the EU a den of anti-Semites that does no foreign policy (by now, not even its Member States), while the United States conceives and develops its foreign policy, be it good or bad, only for the time horizon of a mid-term election.

 Israel instead has a very stable military and strategic policy, but it inevitably needs equally stable allies.

 It is no coincidence, in fact, that over the last two months Iran has strengthened not only the project for leaving the JCPOA, but also its various conventional military operations or those of its proxies in the Greater Middle East: just think about the capture of the British oil tanker about a year ago, as well as the two tankers seized – probably by the Pasdaran – in the Gulf of Oman in June 2019, and the many similar operations carried out by the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran’s idea is to make Europeans feel above all the “weight” of being in agreement with the United States as to the sanctions against Iran, as well as hit the supply lines of the European countries – coincidentally of the closest ones to the United States’ positions, such as Great Britain – to make them understand that Iran can significantly harm them without resorting to a conventional or nuclear war.

 The Iranian decision-makers ’”policy line” is basically still the one established by Ayatollah Khamenei, shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, which defines two basic criteria: Iran will continue to implement the Vienna Agreement, although at a very slower pace, but – on the other hand – Iran is ready for a possible definitive withdrawal from the JCPOA.

 This is exactly the best definition of “strategic patience”.

Moreover, President Trump’ strategic position is non-existent: what will the United States do if Iran leaves the JCPOA definitively? Will it impose other sanctions in addition to the current ones? It is even hard to imagine them.

What would the EU do in the event of a crisis – even only conventional–stopping the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf?

What would be the possibilities of serious and effective political pressure on Iran to stop its conventional operations, which could safely reach even the Eastern Mediterranean region?

 As to Iran’s “bimonthly” breaking of the JCPOA, the Iranian leaders have exceeded the limit set by the Vienna Agreement on the production of heavy water. They have also removed all limits to research for centrifuges – in fact, those destroyed in Natanz were of the latest model -and they have finally started again to enrich uranium at the Fordow facility. Indeed, everything seems to have been put in place by Iran to calibrate – slowly but surely –  the pressure on the United States and on the inept EU leaders, while it should also be recalled that, due to its geological characteristics, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant is very hard to wipe out with a targeted attack.

 What are the Iranian strategic prospects during the progressive restriction of the JCPOA’s validity? Missile attacks on Saudi Arabian territory, as has already happened?

 If the United States were to lift sanctions, Iran would demonstrate it can defeat the “great Satan” and Iran’s demands, especially to the EU, would increase. They would concern relations between the United States and Israel.

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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Middle East

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)

From our partner RIAC

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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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