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Middle East

Resurrecting the Reneged Deal



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Standing tall as a key negotiator, the U.S. has parlayed most of the initial dialogues into historical successes. Whether it comes to sowing seeds of diplomacy with the European Union (EU) or leading efforts to strengthen frayed relations in the Middle East, there are only a few instances where the world power has fallen short in its agenda. What’s congruent in these failures, however, is the lack of flair, overconfidence, and rescinding of the promises made. These pitfalls have costed the U.S. more than the dividends gained. Whether it’s the untimely invasion of Afghanistan, interference in Iraq and Syria, or the economic revolt against the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. failed to capitalize on the gains once envisioned. The otherwise pristine record of the United States’ diplomatic successes, however, is tainted by the infamous rift with the Islamic Republic of Iran: once a valuable ally and now a staunch enemy. A passage of the resolution was missed a few years ago and now it’s more than essential to restore the sour relations. The time, however, stands short.

The Nuclear Deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a landmark accord signed in July 2015 between Iran and core regional and global powers including the United States. The democrat regime, then led by President Barak Obama, forged the deal along with other countries making up the lobby known as P5+1: five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Russia, France, UK, China, and the U.S.) and Germany. The deal negotiated a bargain of up to $100 billion in revenue through relaxation in sanctions imposed over Iran. In exchange, Iran committed to forgo its Nuclear Program to the point that if it were to direct efforts to generate nuclear weaponry, it would take at least a year to complete. This would allow the P5+1 ample time to respond. The restriction program under the JCPOA agreement mandated Iran to restrict its Uranium and Plutonium enrichment to a maximum limit of 3.67% whilst simultaneously dismantling its nuclear centrifuges. Moreover, the agreement urged Iran to allow the United Nations’ watchdog, known as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), unfettered access to its nuclear facilities; both declared and undeclared. This clause was intended to ensure that Iran was complying with the limits and restrictions dictated by the JCPOA agreement. With the representatives of the P5+1 making up the review teams of the IAEA inspections, the review allowed the parties to monitor and inspect Iran’s nuclear potential and safeguard against any violation.

The intention underlying the agreement was more urgent than many originally fathomed. What was initially perceived as collusion against Iran was a plan to reform the relations before it was too late. With Iran’s nuclear activity ramping up since 2003, it was only a matter of months before Iran achieved nuclear ammunition, had it intended to build one. Any effort or even a rumour of nuclear activation within Iran could reignite the havoc the world witnessed in the civil wars of Iraq and Syria. A nuclear expedition by Iran could birth a whole new spiral of crises laced with regional disparity. Starting with Israel, the Zionist state would have left very little discretion in its efforts to thump down the nuclear threat. Similar to how Israel has launched drone attacks over the years against the alleged nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, it would have most probably opted to decimate the facilities had Iran so much as insinuated inching towards nuclear nukes. Unlike Iraq and Syria, however, Iran would have retaliated with a far destructive power-play of tensile resistance. The possibility of the escalation alone could have tumulted the region to the brink of disaster.

Moreover, the proxy factions, arguably financed by the state of Iran, could have developed into a far graver threat had Iran ventured through to develop nuclear weaponry. Whether it comes to Hezbollah in Lebanon or Irani rebels in Syria, even an inkling of nuclear capability could have plunged the region into another bout of chaotic warfare, deadlier than the aftermath of the Arab spring. Lastly, with Iran sauntering towards nuclear arms, its regional rival i.e., the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, insinuated multiple times of developing nuclear weapons as a safeguard against the Iranian offensive. All in all, letting Iran sail through towards nuclear weaponry could have paved a gully towards catastrophe in the Middle East, potentially morphing the world into warfare similar to the World Wars.  These sinister possibilities made the agreement ever more urgent and significant.

Under the reformist vision of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Iran agreed to the deal after years of defiance and outright refusal of a dialogue. Not only Iran limited its Uranium enrichment to the set standards but it also took remedial steps in its nuclear facilities in Arak, Fordow, and Natanz to comply with the set agreement. The nuclear limits were claimed to be used for medical and industrial use whilst controlling the centrifuges from accumulating refined levels of Uranium and Plutonium. It is notable to observe that Iran never officially claimed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon in the first place. The eerie capabilities of refinement, however, implied a heavier truth than the words gave away.

Moreover, Iran reluctantly allowed the IAEA teams to inspect its nuclear facilities and publish quarterly review reports. The unhindered access to the United Nations Security Council was frowned upon in the echelons of Iranian politics, particularly by the right-wing factions of the Iranian parliament. However, President Hassan Rouhani played a crucial role in persuading the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to decree the clauses of the deal for the sake of the welfare of the citizens of Iran living a destitute lifestyle due to the exacerbated sanctions imposed on Iran. The deal reaped sanctions relief for Iran both from the United States and the European Union. While many of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. remained in effect, primarily targeting Iran’s Ballistic Missile program and its alleged involvement in terror financing activities in the region, economic relief flowed through when the U.S. and EU unfroze the $100 billion worth of Iranian assets whilst simultaneously lifting trade embargoes off the oil and weaponry trade. The economic relief allowed a breathing room to Iran and a mark of prosperity to the reformist factions within Iran.

The diplomatic strike of president Rouhani, however, was short-lived as President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Nuclear Deal in 2018, leaving the remaining parties of the P5+1 in utter dismay and disappointment. Coupled with the exit from the JCPOA, the U.S. slammed excessive sanctions on Iran as an offensive to bring down the already dismal economy and rattle the state to the point of submission. The vision, however, backfired. Iran retaliated by boasting its nuclear enrichment from the agreed 3.67% to a whopping 20%. With 90% refinement necessary for a nuclear weapon, Iran hinted to attempt its development by building new centrifuges in the Fordow and Arak facilities. While the EU trend to bypass the U.S. banking system to facilitate Iranian transactions to keep the agreement afloat, the system failed to offer coverage to any ambit besides food and medicine: areas already exempted from the U.S. sanctions.

The situation deteriorated further when the U.S. attacks killed one of the most revered figures of the Iranian Military, Qassim Soleimani, in an airstrike in Iraq. Coupled with expanding sanctions imposed on countries trading with Iran including blacklisting Chinese oil companies dealing with Iran, the Iranian oil exports were brought back to zilch. Iran, in response, rebuked the EU for bowing down to the U.S. unilateralism. Iran played the last straw by impeding the IAEA inspections whilst continuing the refinement of Uranium in its facilities. This brought the world back to the fears that originally framed the need for the JCPOA agreement.

While President Biden was part of the Obama administration, which originally forged the JCPOA in 2016, the time and temperament have significantly shifted. President Biden repeatedly emphasized the importance of returning to the deal if Iran pulled back from the retaliations and violations from the agreement. The Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, clearly stated that “The ball is in their [Iran] court” i.e., if Iran returns to the standards set by the JCPOA, the U.S. would agree to join the deal again. Iran, however, has made it clear that it would only comply once the U.S. lifts the unfair sanctions imposed by the former president. President Rouhani stated: “America was first in breaking with the agreement and it should be the first to return to it”. With the dilemma looming the Nuclear Deal, the time is short. As the clock ticks, president Rouhani is inching towards his departure. Not long before President Rouhani leaves office in June 2021. President Hassan Rouhani would want to forge the deal before his exit since his political acumen was tainted when the U.S. pulled out of the deal and proved the far-right factions right, who even accused Rouhani of betrayal. Thus, the window of dialogue could purge president Rouhani from the failure attributed to his name.

On the other hand, the hard-liners in Iran are expected to ascend to the office in September. Unlike President Rouhani, however, the deal would be intercepted by the right-wing factions in power given their distaste for the U.S. especially after the violations and murders committed by the United States. President Biden could have a hard time negotiating a lucrative deal with the hard-liners as so implied by Mohammad Javed Zarif, Iranian Foreign Minister: “A lot of things can happen between now and September. So, it is advisable for the United States to move fast”. President Biden, however, faces excessive pressure from the echelons of the Republican Party to negotiate a broader agreement providing coverage over Iran’s ballistic missile program and terror financing along with the initial nuclear deal. However, with time running short, President Biden has to reach an agreement in the house fairly quickly and assume the role of a facilitator to reap the trust of Iran to return to the deal. Either a disagreement in the house or failure to bargain a deal by June 2021, the U.S. could potentially run into an impasse and might lose the opportunity to strike a deal indefinitely.

The author is an active current affairs writer primarily analyzing the global affairs and their political, economic and social consequences. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree from Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, Pakistan.

Middle East

After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians



The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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Middle East

IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking



IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?

The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Middle East

Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya



With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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