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Peace Deal in the Middle East and addressing the Iranian factor

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Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

On August of 13th 2020, the world applauded a wonderful initiative of the United States of America, Israel, and UAE to bring stability in the region by signing what is now called  Abraham Accord which made UAE be the third country after Egypt and Jordan to normalize the relationship with Israel. The peace process didn’t just stop with Abraham accord, the United States of America initiated another peace agreement on 11th September 2020 which put Bahrain and Israel on a peace table with the signing of what they officially called Abraham Accords: Declaration of peace, cooperation, and constructive diplomatic and friendly relations.  Now the question arises is Abraham peace accord enough to stabilize or bring peace in the middle east with rising of Iranian insecurity?

The process of peace is nothing new in the middle east, especially with the Israelis. This is not the first time that Israel and Arab nations had signed a peace agreement or went for peace in the region. The Arab – Israel peace process can be traced back to the year of 1948 when Folke Bernadotte was sent by the United Nations to break a truce between the Arabs and the Israeli, however, the proposal didn’t turn out to be a great success among the Jewish citizens, as according to the plan Palestine was supposed to become a union between the Jewish and the Arabs, the plan leads to a huge outcry among the Israeli population and this anger leads to the assassination of Folke Bernadotte by an Israeli underground group Stern Gang. The Folke Bernadotte plan was a just a proposal, Israel and neighboring Arabs (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon) in 1949 signed an Armistice agreement which kind of put a temporary cessation to the hostility between the parties however it was a temporary arrangement between the groups till they come up with a proper peace process. However, the peace and ceasefire didn’t last long as both Arabs and Israeli’s went for a bloody war in 1967 which put both the parties in a deadlock and to break the deadlock another attempt was made by the American Secretary of State William Rogers whose plan was later known as the Roger plan however this plan was also not a great success in the middle east. Despite all animosity between the Arabs and Israelis, they both were able to come up in peace term maybe not unitedly but with individual agreements and it started with Egypt and Israel extending their friendship hands by signing the famous Camp David Accord of 1978 under the US president Jimmy Carter which make Egypt be the first country with Arab identity to sign a peace with Israelis which put an end to a thirty-one year of hostility between the two, this memorable agreement sets up a mark for the Arab world as Jordan in 1994 followed the same path to end the hostility and signed what was known as the Treaty of Peace between the State of Israel and The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and this peace has a lot to do with the infamous 1993 Oslo Accords which put the Israelis and the PLOs on the peace table. Despite small border issues so far it is almost forty Years now that Israel and neighboring Arabs had fought against each other. This shows history can be put back and new relations can be created, however, the difficulty arises when your enemy is insecure about your presence and also lacks a proper ally in the region for survival.

Iran factor

In the current geopolitical scenario, it is very hard to deny the importance of Iran in bringing an overall peace in the region. As Iran controls many strategic locations or rather can be called as major chokepoints one of the examples is the Strait of Hormuz, the strait that controls world’s most important oil transit route which almost allows world 20 % of the oil ship transit and secondly due to its insecurity and Ayatollahs dream of becoming the leader in the middle east has made their presence in the majority of the conflicts by using its proxies and thirdly the insecurity between the Israel and Iran due to the nuclear arsenal is another important issue to address.

Due to Israel’s strategic position, Iran finds it tough to attack Israel directly however, for long now Iran is having been providing weapons, arms, and money to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah who in turns with their proxy war troubles Israel. The creation of Hezbollah itself was an example of how Iran wanted to trouble Israel. Hezbollah is notorious for attacking many Israeli places one of the examples is the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Not only this Hezbollah is believed to have a huge arsenal of rockets which they use against Israelis from the Lebanese border and interestingly all these weapons were provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran as per the report provided by Missile Threat, CSIS Missile Defence Project. Hezbollah also holds near about 7000- 8000 107 mm Katyush rockets and Iran is the primary supplier of this Soviet-era rockets to the Hezbollah. To destabilize Israel Iran as Matthew Levitt in his policy Analysis Hezbollah Finance he mentioned that Iran provides at least $100 million a year to Hezbollah and with time the amount is increasing.

Hezbollah and Iran also massively supports the Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas and Iran ties can be dated back to 1992 when during a conference in Tehran, Iranian decided to support Hamas with finance and in the same year, the relation between the two became stronger as Israel deported as many as hundreds of Palestinians to Marj Al- Zahour Lebanon. Out of those few deportees belong to the Hamas faction and this gave an advantage to Iranian to train this faction and run a proxy against the Israeli’s.  It was estimated that Hezbollah receives an addition of $22 million form the Iranian intelligence to support Palestinian terror organizations. As Hamas is getting dried up due to the peace between Israelis and the Arabs with Egypt destroying the smuggling tunnels and Qatar providing conditional financial support Hamas continuous relies upon Iranian money and Iran as Iran also getting dried up due to Sanctions and continuous rise of Iranian insecurity in the region it is right time to create a truce and put a fulltime hold on the Hamas and Hezbollah issue as well set middle east for temporary peace.

Is truce possible between the two?

Unlike Arabs, Iran and Israel did have a great friendship in the 1950s when David Ben Gurion under his Periphery doctrine decided to bring Iran on a friendship table however everything changed after the Iranian revolution of 1979 when Ayatollah declared USA as “The Great Satan” and Israel the “Little Satan” and till date no proper efforts have been put to normalize the Israel and Iran relationship and with continuous rise of insecurity between the two because of their nuclear arsenal and Ayatollah’s continuous fear from Israel ” it is hard to say that any diplomatic relations will be establishing in the near future however the only possibility of making or at least appeal for the truce is through soft power and people to people connection as already the common citizens of Iran are demanding a change in the regime as world saw during the latest 2020 Iranian protest so Israel can actually tap this opportunity and through common citizens and cultural exchange they can actually come on common ground for a larger peace as recently a group of Jerusalem artist opened first unofficial Iranian ‘Embassy of Culture’.

Conclusion

Well with the rising tension in the middle east because of Iran, the peace initiative of US, Israel, UAE, and Bahrain cannot be overlooked, however, it is not the Arabs anymore who threaten Israel’s existence in the region rather it is the Ayatollah’s Iran that threatens the existence and peace in the region and for a larger peace it should have been Iran on the peace table as Iran not just only has an animosity and conflict with the Arabs it does have a conflict and insecurity with  Israel and to destabilize Israel, Iran is funding, training and promoting anti-Israeli forces like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

With Israel and Arabs moving towards peace by forgetting their past it is high time that both Israel and Iran should also do the same. As of now due to Iranian insecurity, Iran is sponsoring a lot of proxies in the region and by extending the hand of peace Israel can put an end to the conflict of the middle east as Israel did with Jordan and Egypt.  Iran should also agree to put back its past and come for a peace dialogue so that an overall peace can be secure in the region for further development.

Author is a Postgraduate in International Studies from Christ (Deemed to be University). His research Interest includes South Asia, Middle East, Security, and Terrorism.

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Middle East

The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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