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The military agreement between Syria and Iran

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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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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China-Iran Deal and its implication for the region

Ashish Dangwal

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From the past few years, the increasing partnership between China and Iran has raised major concerns among many countries. Sinking economy and the recent COVID crisis pushed Iran into the corner and China timely manifested itself as a perfect partner for Iran. The diplomatic ties between these two countries were established in 1971 and over the years China’s demand for energy and Iran’s isolation from the international community brings them together. The recent investment and security pact covered almost every sector from Telecom, banking, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. Though the secret details of the pact were leaked but soon rejected by Iranian officials.

In 2016, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Iran and then laid the structure of this deal. Soon after in 2019, China announced its plan to invest $ 400 billion. Iran’s economy is suffering greatly because of the U.S.A sanctions and needs a lifeline to revive their domestic market. Where one side, most of the companies from different nations pulled out their businesses from Iran, On the other hand, Chinese investment can play a significant role in Iran’s survival. This partnership between these two nations directly challenges U.S.A efforts to cut off Iran from the international market arena. China’s ever-growing aspirations to increase its involvement in the Middle East perfectly sync with the geostrategic location of Tehran. However, Iran’s ambition to become a regional power needs huge investment in its domestic market. That’s where both countries see themselves as an emerging partner. 

China-Iran Economic Relationship

As a growing economy, China dependence on Iran’s oil is quite reasonable. Though this relationship is not just based on the energy, but even on the many different aspects. After 2016, China and Iran were agreed to increase their trading relations to $600 billion in the upcoming 10 years. The agreement was concordant with One Belt, One Road framework. A total of 17 agreements were signed, including one which relates to the Iran nuclear programme. The Chinese will help connect Tehran with Mashhad via their high-speed rail technology.  After the sanctions levied by the USA and other western countrieson Iran, its dependence on China increased in recent years. The trading relationship is not only limit to purchase of crude oil but even China’s involvement inIran’s upstream and downstream production processes through major investments.From 2005, both countries signed seven upstream production agreement with each other. All these agreements involve the state-owned Chinese companies, which shows the significant presence of China in Iran.

China-Iran-Syria Nexus

In December 2019, Syrian president while giving an interview to a Chinese media expressed his willingness to join the BRI project and projected Syria as a perfect partner for the Chinese investment. Syria suffered a lot because of the decades of war and wanted to start the reconstruction activities in their country. Iran and China identified themselves as the ally of Syria and they even wanted to make a strategic nexus between these countries. For the reconstruction process, China is helping Syria from Port of Tripoli by setting up it as a logistic base for the reconstruction process. China wanted to link this port with Syria’s “Four sea strategy” and connect the BRI project to the eastern Mediterranean area. This whole economic bloc could challenge the American hegemony in the region. Iran and Syria are already strategic allies in this region and by adding China in this situation, it would promote the autocratic rule in the region to counter America.

The implication for the Region

Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran pushed many countries like India and Japan to cut off the trading ties with Tehran. This was seen as the major diplomatic blunder made by the U.S.A because of the one very simple reason that these countries could play a major role to find the middle ground for the talks between Iran and the west.As claimed by the reports, China will increase its partnership to build the ports too, getting a port in the Persian Gulf will provide the major boost to Chinese strategic plans. If China successfully expands its presence in Iran then it will lead to the major conflict between the U.S.A and China. Though China has already invested heavily on the Gwadar port, it will not hesitate to gain an upper hand in the Persian Gulf. From where Beijing can keep its eye on U.S.A movements in the region. India’s investment progress in Iran was slow and that’s the reason recently Iran started the railway track construction work on its own.

The growing instability in the region will further escalate, as the partnership will grow between these countries. China’s ambitions to expand its BRI projects and Syria’s “Four seas strategy” can become a foundation for future projects in the whole region. Syrian President Bashar Assad has promoted this four seas strategy since 2009 that would transform the Damascus into a major trading hub. Syria wanted to form an economic space between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that will shape a new bloc of nations in the region. This plan includes the four seas of the region from the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf, which makes easy for these nations from investment to transportation. 

The expanding partnership will lead to the architecture of a security structure between these three countries and will directly undermine the U.S.A presence in the region. The gradual consolidation of powers based on Anti-American and Anti-west sentiments can even form a proper security alliance where the inclusion of Turkey would be a possible scenario shortly. All these countries kind of having the same political regime one way or another, so for them it will be a great strategy to stop America’s presence from their domestic issues. If U.S.A wants to stop China’s involvement in the region, it needs to involve its key Asian partner, so that there will be some major power players in the region to maintain stability. 

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Are The U.S. And Its Partners Losing The Grip On Syria’s North East?

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The oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor located in Eastern Syria has witnessed another escalation between the local Arab populace and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Unexpectedly for the SDF and the U.S. military, the protesters have established control over a number of towns, and it seems they are willing to go further.

Sources close to the SDF initially reported that the protesters limited their demands by requesting a solution to a number of minor issues, but soon enough it became evident that it was not the case and the issue – and a major one – was the presence of SDF in the area. The demonstrators were quick to turn from chanting slogans to taking control of towns: in a single day they captured all of Shuhayl, Al-Hawayej, Diban and forced the SDF members to leave before blocking the roads.

The protests were sparked by a series of assassinations of influential leaders of Al-Aqidat and Al-Baqara tribes. Three Deir Ezzor sheikhs were killed in less than a week: Sheikh Suleiman Khalaf al-Kassar from Al-Aqidat was shot in Busayra village July 30. The next day Sheikh Suleiman Al-Weis who belonged to Al-Baqara was shot in the head by two gunmen on a motorcycle in Al-Dahla. Finally, Sheikh Muttshar al-Hamoud al-Hifl was shot in the outskirts of Al-Hawayej on Sunday, August 2. His relative Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl was also wounded in the incident but survived.

In a peculiar coincidence, a few weeks before the assassinations the tribal leaders were invited to a meeting with the SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi with the U.S. servicemen also present. The agenda reportedly included co-operation between the tribes and the SDF. It was reported that at least one of the victims, Muttshar al-Hifti, declined to participate and to engage with the Americans.

An insight into the details of these meetings can be gained through the reports about an oil deal allegedly struck by the SDF and a little known American oil developer Delta Crescent LLC. Delta Crescent was granted exclusive rights for production, refinement and export of the oil from Deir Ezzor fields potentially bringing the participants annual profit of hundreds of millions dollars, according to statements made by U.S. officials. The deal was met with harsh response from the Syrian government who labeled it a “deal between thieves”.

According to sources on the ground, the implication is that those who fell victim to the assassinations shared this view and opposed the deal. Their removal, however, has clearly failed to deliver the results intended by the masterminds behind their deaths, yet another time when the Kurds were thrown to the wolves by the U.S. who is accustomed to making their allies bear the consequences of the reckless pursuit of the American interests.

Meanwhile the SDF started to amass forces in the vicinity of the areas shaken by the unrest. The reinforcements sent from Al-Shadadi, Al-Sousa and Baghuz are gathering at the US military base near Al-Omar oil field. Moreover, two US Apache attack helicopters were spotted patrolling the area. These developments combined with lack of report on any negotiations between the protesters and the SDF leadership paint a grim picture, indicating that the SDF likely intends to use force to disperse the protests.

It is not the first time the SDF resorts to the use of force when faced with the discontent of the local populace in north-eastern Syria, although this approach had never brought the desired result. All areas affected by the protests have been subjected to dozens of raids of the SDF and the US special forces. Reports on these operations unfailingly mentioned arrests of ISIS terrorists. They failed to mention, however, what the Pentagon files under the category of “collateral damage” – deaths of civilians killed in the result of the actions of the US military and their allies.

The upheaval in Deir Ezzor is yet another evidence that the SDF, initially an independent movement, has degraded to a tool or a lever of American influence in Syria, and now finds itself fighting consequences instead of locating the root cause of the unrest – widespread corruption among the officials of the Kurdish administration and dramatic deterioration of the living conditions.

The regional turbulence created by Washington’s constantly shifting stance – or rather a lack of stance – on Syria has grown so strong it finally turned against the American interests. The latest escalation in Deir Ezzor should be considered nothing but a byproduct of this ill-designed policy and, perhaps, marks a beginning of the end of the US and SDF hegemony in Syria’s North East.

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The Looming Disaster of the Safer Oil Tanker Moored off the Coast of Yemen

Amb. Sahar Ghanem

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Amidst the raging conflict in Yemen, the challenge of the Safer Oil Tanker emerges as one of the most hazardous risks to the environment safety in the Red Sea as a result of the potential oil spillage in the Red Sea at any moment.

Following expressing deep alarm, the United Nations Security Council called on 29 June,2020, to immediately grant unconditional access for the United Nations technical experts to assess the tanker’s condition without overdue to prevent growing risk of possible rupture, explosion or even spillage.

The threat of the floating Oil Tanker, moored off the coast of Yemen, does not only impose challenges to the geopolitical and strategic importance of the Red Sea, but it rather represents a huge challenge that threatens the environment safety, leading to one of the largest environmental hazards in the world, after the unforgettable 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Siberia – Russia.

On 18 July 2019, the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator Mr. Mark Lowcock informed the UN Security Council of the growing threats of the deserted Safar Oil Tanker, warning of possible explosion or leakage of its loads [1.14 M barrels of crude oil]. In his briefing on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, he pointed out that such an incident would result to a disastrous crisis to the marine life in the Red Sea and maritime in the straits of Bab-Al Madeb and Suez Canal which are two significant water corridors to the world.

It is known that the Red Sea is home for some scarce invertebrates such as corals and 600 species of fish. Unless preventative measures are taken now and immediately to prevent oil spill or possible tanker explosion, we will concretely witness a disastrous incident leading to severe effect on the Red Sea marine environment, and on both biodiversity and livelihoods starting from Yemen and extending north to Suez Canal through Jobal strait and the Gulf of Suez and south through Bab-Al Madeb strait reaching even Hormoz strait through the Arabian sea.

Environment experts’ projections expect that 115 islands are vulnerable to the risk of oil pollution; 126,000 fishermen will lose their source of income, among them 76,000 fishmen are in Al Hodeidah governorate; 850 tons of fish stocks will be exposed to the danger of contamination and death in Yemen, in the Red Sea and in Bab Al-Mandam; more than 500 fish species are at high risk of disappearing; and 300 corals will certainly disappear as a result.

The problem emerged following the takeover of the Capital Sanaa on 21 September 2014, when Houthi militias implemented unilateral actions inter alia dissolving parliament and taking over Yemen’s government institutions, which have seriously escalated the situation, leading to illegitimate seizure of power “coup d’etat”, and eventually leading to current conflict in Yemen.

The floating storage and its connected offloading terminals have not been inspected or maintained since 2015 after Houthis militias took control of the area including port of Ras Isa to which the floating tanker is connected by terminals extending 9km off the coast of Yemen.

Yemen’s internationally-recognized government has warned in many letters of evident corrosion and lack of maintenance, creating the conditions for serious environmental disaster. The Yemeni government made an urgent call for the UN to send inspection team to scale the risks.

Unfortunately, the UN inspection team was denied access to the floating tanker by the Houthi militias many times. The UN inspection team is tasked with the mission to provide the necessary inspection and put recommendations for the needed maintenance and continuing to create obstacles will refrain the team from reaching the tanker and delivering the urgent inspection.

Lately, the Government of the Republic of Yemen repeated asserting the urgent emergency of the imminent catastrophe of the floating “Safer Oil Tanker”. The government confirmed that “given the critical nature of the aging floating tanker’s situation, on 27 May 2020 leaks have been reported in the tanker causing water leaked into the tanker’s operational machineries raising the possibilities of the tanker rupturing, sinking or even exploding.

Despite urgent fixing of leaking occurred, the deteriorating situation of the tanker threatens continuing eroding. As a result, on 15 July 2020, the UNSC held a session to debate latest urgent developments and called for urgent response to be taken by the Houthi militias as required by the inspection team. It is worth mentioning that the Houthis always show willingness to accept the inspection team just like the assurances made by the Houthis in August 2019 only to be withdrawn right before the inspection team was due to board the tanker.

The Yemeni government has always approved all relevant initiatives recommended by the UN to allow addressing the serious matter and proposing necessary urgent solutions to the Safer oil tanker, as part of the responsibility to the humanitarian and economic measures proposed by the office of the UN Special Envoy Mr. Martin Griffiths and as part of its responsibility to building and sustaining environment safety; however, the Houthi militias continue refusing to allow permissions to the UN inspection team to visit the oil tanker, noting that the situation of the Safer oil tanker is becoming extremely critical more than ever, causing increasing threats of possible oil spillage, tanker sinking and explosion at any moment.

In conclusion, the Safer Oil Tanker is a floating time-bomb and allowing inspection and maintains is the only possible means that will stop a serious catastrophe from happening. If incidents of explosion or even oil spill occur, that will lead to one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the Red Sea. Action must be taken immediately while we have in hand an opportunity to protect the environments and spare the lives of millions of people in Yemen and the region from a looming tragedy.

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