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Turkish shadow boxing reflects growing rivalry with Iran

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Turkey is leveraging its successful backing of Azerbaijan’s recent war against Armenia to counter Iran in the Caucasus and gradually challenge Russia in Central Asia, the heart of what Moscow considers its backyard.

The Turkish moves have elicited different responses from Russia and Iran, two countries Turkey views as both partners and rivals.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been careful not to jeopardize his newly found status as a Russian recognized-player in the southern Caucasus.

By contrast, Mr. Erdogan seems determined to provoke Iran with statements and postings by-his state-run broadcaster that potentially call into question the territorial integrity of the Islamic republic.

In doing so, Mr. Erdogan is fueling Iran’s deepest fears. Iran, not without reason, has long believed that the United States and Saudi Arabia are bent on instigating ethnic unrest in a bid to force Tehran to alter policies, if not topple the Iranian regime.

“Turkey’s sick president took steps to break up Iran. Erdogan is single-handedly implementing the West’s dirty policy in the region,” said Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.

Mr. Erdogan adopted his provocative posture as he moved to exploit new geopolitical transportation opportunities created by the Russian-brokered deal that sealed Azerbaijan’s defeat of Armenia in the recent Caucasus war.

The deal opens a corridor that links Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan, an Azeri enclave in Armenia that straddles the border with Turkey. The opening boosts Turkish efforts to expand transportation tie-ups with the Caucasus, Central Asia, and China’s infrastructure-driven One Belt One Road Initiative that seek to bind Eurasia to the People’s Republic.

Turkish transportation minister Adil Karaismailoglu was quick to announce that his office was about to complete a study for the construction of a railway through the corridor as part of US$5.7 billion project to link Turkish, Azeri and Georgian transportation nodes and ports.

Turkey this month dispatched its first China-bound freight train that travelled on the newly opened rail line from the northeastern Turkish city of Kars to the Azeri capital of Baku via Tbilisi in Georgia and then across Kazakhstan to Xi’an Province.

The Caucasus ceasefire deal includes no security provisions for the use of the corridor by Armenia even though Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have suggested that a railway linking Armenia to Iran was a possibility.

Turkey’s advantage in Nakhichevan reinforces the significance of last week’s opening of a 220-kilometer long railway linking Khaf in northeastern Iran to Herat in western Afghanistan.

Iran and Afghanistan are discussing with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan extension of the rail link to China.

Mr. Erdogan’s verbal toying with a break-up of Iran as a nation state, like the railway competition, is one facet of Turkish and Iranian efforts to carve out their individual places in an emerging rebalanced world order.

In doing so, Turkey and Iran are exploiting a vacuum created by reduced US engagement, China’s economic-driven approach to geopolitics, and challenges across the former Soviet Union to Russian hegemony in a swath of land that stretches from Afghanistan via the Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean into North Africa.

Mr. Erdogan’s provocative playing with words and images that were certain to raise Iranian eyebrows came as he was taking steps to improve relations with Iran’s archrivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, that were certain to curry favor with incoming US President-elect Joe Biden.

The Turkish president appointed Ufuk Ulutas, a 40 year-old Hebrew-speaking think tanker who studied the Middle East at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as his first ambassador to Israel in two years.

The appointment was announced as the United States imposed long-anticipated sanctions on its NATO ally over Turkey’s procurement and testing of  Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

Turkey has also diverged from positions shared with Iran by significantly toning down its harsh criticism of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states.

“Every country has the right to create ties with any country it wants,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in response to Morocco becoming the latest Arab country to formally recognize the Jewish state.

Earlier, Mr. Cavusoglu, in the first face-to-face meeting between senior Saudi and Turkish officials since the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, met with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, on the sidelines of an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference in the African state of Niger.

“A strong Turkey-Saudi partnership benefits not only our countries but the whole region,” Mr. Cavusoglu tweeted after the meeting.

The meeting came days after Saudi King Salman telephoned Mr. Erdogan on the eve of last month’s virtual summit hosted by the kingdom of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the world’s largest economies.

Mr. Erdogan sparked the most recent spat with Iran when he recited a nationalist poem by Azeri poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzadeh during a military parade while on a visit to Azerbaijan. The poem depicts as artificial the border along the Aras River that divides Azerbaijan from ethnic Azeri provinces of Iran. It suggests that Azeris on both sides of the river will one day unite again.

State-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service this week published a map on Instagram depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran. Iran has blamed Saudi Arabia for intermittent attacks by nationalist groups that it says are backed by the kingdom.

The publication came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran. Mr. Chaab had been lured to Istanbul in October from his exile in Sweden.

Turkish intelligence officers and police have detained 11 men, all Turkish citizens, who have been arraigned on charges that include “using weapons… to deprive an individual of their liberty through deceit,” a Turkish official said.

ASMLA aims to gain independence for Iranian Arabs who have long complained of discrimination and neglect.

Iran blames ASMLA for a 2018 attack on a Revolutionary Guard military parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz that killed 25 people and wounded more than 50 others.

Iranian and Turkish officials have largely sought to downplay the significance of the incidents.

“Based on my past knowledge of Mr Erdogan, it is very unlikely that he had any intention of insulting our territorial integrity. He always recites poetry in his speeches,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Mr. Rouhani may have helped to squash for now an escalating spat but statement by protesters outside the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, carried by the semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments are.

“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you at the night of the coup, you would have had a fate similar to that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ the protesters said, addressing Mr. Erdogan directly.

The protesters were referring to the failed military coup against Mr. Erdogan in 2016 and the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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