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Israel, Hamas Terror and Power Over Death

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“I believe is the one great word against metaphysical fear.”-Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (1918)

Though misunderstood by Israel, there is no more compelling form of Jihadist[1] power than power over death. The perilous result of such Israeli misunderstanding is that the nation’s counter-insurgent strategies could remain detached from what is most important: Israel’s core struggle against diverse Palestinian foes is not about calculable material losses or body counts. It is about achieving creative victories of “mind over mind,” not “mind over matter.”[2]

                For Israel, complex problems concerning anti-terrorist operations are always about more than comparative weapon systems. Arrow and Iron Dome are manifestly efficient elements of Israel’s indispensable defense, but they deal narrowly with transient technological remedies. Looking ahead, as analysts must in any meaningful scientific inquiry, there will need to be more capably dedicated attention to root causes. Here, in the ritually adversarial Middle East, this suggests enhanced Israeli wariness about the Palestinian side’s faith based policies.

               Inter alia, this will mean a more comprehensive and intensive focus in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv on variable enemy searches for “martyrdom” and immortality. Conceptually, it will require a deeply intellectual look at Oswald Spengler’s thoughtful affirmations of “I believe,” primal declarations offered in a pleading response to humankind’s overriding “metaphysical fear.” In essence, to succeed longer-term against intermittent Palestinian insurgencies and wars, Israeli planners will need to pay greater attention to palpable enemy hopes for “power over death.”

               There is more. Israel’s basic counter-terrorism policies ought never be too centered on military tactics, military hardware or prospective “victory.” More correctly, these policies should be focused on enduring and potentially existential considerations. For Israel, all national strategic policy should flow purposefully from a broadly antecedent knowledge of science[3] and of human leadership preference orderings.[4]          

              In the end, all arguments to allow Israel to “finally defeat” Hamas via an “unleashed” IDF miss a much wider point. Also missing the point was the dissembling counsel of former US President Donald J. Trump and his breathtakingly vapid son-in-law. To wit, Jared Kushner, main architect of the Abraham Accords,[5] affirmed imperiously that Trump’s agreement exposed unceasing conflict with Hamas as “nothing more than a real-estate dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”

     Hardly.

               There is more. Soon, Israel’s Ministry of Defense and IDF could learn more from Oswald Spengler and Sigmund Freud[6] than from Carl von Clausewitz[7] and Yehoshafat Harkabi.[8] This is not to suggest that Palestinian fighters in Gaza are necessarily or even singularly motivated by any all-consuming religious faith in “martyrdom,” but rather that the raison d’etre of their recurrent insurgent violence is partially determined by rigid zero-sum calculations. Assuredly, the secular political search for Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination[9] (statehood)[10] does represent a conspicuous incentive for Hamas and its allies, but this loudly-proclaimed incentive is also less primal.

                In vital national security matters, there exist variously convergent and divergent elements of law. On the one hand, prima facie, those far-flung jihadist insurgents who would seek to justify their attacks on Israeli civilians in the name of “martyrdom” are defilers of international law. Always, lawful insurgents, even those operating with some seemingly defensible “just cause,” must satisfy longstanding jurisprudential limits on permissible targets and permissible levels of violence.

               Even if the Palestinian side can be granted a “just cause” for their protracted insurgency against Israel, it can never be lawful for Hamas or allied forces to hurl rockets at Israel’s noncombatant populations. In such cases, unlike the reciprocal and retaliatory armed force used by Israel, there is plain and incontestable evidence of “criminal intent” or mens rea.

               Though appearances and manipulations can readily suggest otherwise, Israeli policies that are intended to thwart Jihadist terrorist indiscriminacy are generally supportive of international law. For Israel, unlike Hamas, there are no gratuitous attacks on civilians, For Israel, there is no mens rea.

                Israel remains under widespread criticism for presumed “disproportionality” in its use of force contra Hamas. But this criticism ignores the authoritatively legal content requirement of “proportionality.”[11] Under all applicable codified and customary law, this authentic requirement has absolutely nothing to do with equivalent force. Rather, it defines a particular and verifiable standard of “military necessity.”[12]

               Under always-binding rules, an insurgent force (here Hamas) is prohibited from placing its active military assets among noncombatant populations[13] (this war crime is known specifically as “perfidy”), while a counter-insurgent military force (here IDF) must be constrained by what is presumptively “necessary” to achieve operational success. For Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, there are no corresponding proportionality obligations to use equal or less violence than the Palestinian side, but only to take all needed steps to ensure that Israel’s use of force remain humanely bounded by “necessity.”

               Under authoritative international law, which is always a part of a state’s domestic law, even “sacred” rights of insurgency must exclude any deliberate targeting of civilians and/or force intended to inflict gratuitous suffering. Empty political witticisms aside, no insurgent force ever has a right to employ “any means necessary.” Shallow revolutionary slogans may prove politically useful in mobilizing popular support against Israel, but they still have no tangible jurisprudential content.

                In law, any insurgency that intentionally blurs the lines between combatant and non-combatant populations is impermissible. Irrespective of any apparent “just cause,” it is still “terrorism”[14] when insurgents murder noncombatants, whether by guns, bombs, knives or automobiles. In these recognizable matters, there can be  no proper legal exceptions[15] and no legal defense arguments based on presumably reciprocal wrongs.

               Tu quoque, an already-discredited legal position, stipulates that because the “other side” is guilty of similar, equivalent or allegedly greater kinds of criminality, “our side” is evidently free of legal wrongdoing. In law, significantly, an argument for tu quoque is inherently invalid, prima facie, especially after the landmark judgments handed down at the Nuremberg (Germany) and Far East (Japan) post-World War II ad hoc criminal tribunals.[16]

                For both IDF and Palestinian insurgent forces, the right to armed force[17] can never supplant the peremptory rules of humanitarian international law. Such primary or jus cogens rules (norms that permit “no derogation”[18]) are correctly referenced as either the law of armed conflict orthe law of war. Attentiveness to this basic law must remain an integral part of any civilized nation’s counter-terrorism operations. Historically and conceptually, this law has its doctrinal roots in the Hebrew Bible, the Law of Athens, and Roman Law (most notably Emperor Justinian’s Institutes).

               There is more. During the latest Gaza war, diversionary legal manipulations persist. Endlessly, it seems, supporters of Palestinian terror-violence against noncombatants still insist that “the ends justify the means.” Leaving aside the ordinary ethical standards by which any such argument must be clarified as indecent and incorrect, even the most noble ends can neverjustify inhumane means.

               It’s not really complicated. For more than two thousand years, core legal principles have specified that intentional violence against the innocent isprohibited. Always.

               Clichés do not make law. In relevant jurisprudence, one person’s terrorist can never be another’s “freedom-fighter.” Although it is certainly true that particular insurgencies can sometimes be judged lawful or law-enforcing (consider for example the American revolutionaries of the 18th century), even presumptively allowable resorts to force must conform to the settled laws of war. In law, every use of force must be judged not only in reference to its announced cause, but also to its adopted means.

               Always, these are discrete or separate judgments.

               By definition, whenever an insurgent group resorts to manifestly unjust or indiscriminate means, its actions constitute terrorism. Even if adversarial Palestinian claims of a hostile “occupation” were widely accepted to be reasonable, any corollary claims of entitlement to indiscriminate means would remain patently false and morally disfiguring.

                It’s not really complicated. International law cannot be invented and reinvented according to particular situations. It maintains very specific and determinable form and content. It cannot be defined and redefined by insurgent groups or insurgent patrons. This is especially the case when insurgent violence intentionally targets a designated victim state’s fragile and most vulnerable civilian populations. In those cases, ipso facto, insurgent violenceis terror-violence.

               There is more. National liberation movements that fail to meet the test of just means can never be protected as lawful or legitimate. Even if “compelling law” were somehow to accept the factually questionable argument that terror groups had fulfilled the broadly accepted criteria of “national liberation,” (e.g., Iran-supported Hamas), they would still not satisfy the equally germane legal standards of discrimination, proportionality, and military necessity. These standards are expressly applied to insurgent or sub-state armed forces by the common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and by the two 1977 Protocols to these key Conventions.

               Indisputably, all war and insurgency is governed by common standards of “humanity.”[19] These overarching criteria are binding upon all combatants by virtue of a still more comprehensive customary and conventional international law, including Article 1 of the Preamble to the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907. This foundational rule called the “Martens Clause” makes all persons responsible for upholding the “laws of humanity” and the associated “dictates of public conscience.”

                Under compulsory international law, terrorist crimes mandate universal cooperation in both apprehension and punishment. As punishers of “grave breaches” under international law,[20] all states are expected to search out and prosecute or extradite individual terrorists. In no conceivable circumstances, and whatever the presumed expectations of religious faith, are states permitted to regard terrorist “martyrs” as legitimate “freedom fighters.” In principle, this is also true for Israel, which was formed according to the inherently Jewish principles of Natural Law.

               In law, rights can never stem from wrongs.[21] Even if certain populations continue to insist on treating the most recalcitrant jihadist insurgents as “martyrs,” such treatment can have no exculpatory or mitigating effect on attendant terrorist crimes. Despite any alleged justness of cause, and this includes frequently-cited adversarial references to “sovereignty” and “self-determination,” nothing in international law can ever justify the deliberate targeting of non-combatant Israeli populations. In this connection there are notable ironies. During the extant Gaza War, such targeting has killed and injured not only Palestinians working in Israel, but also Thai agricultural laborers whose only interest is supporting their indigent families back home.

               In essence, Israel’s jihadist foes are in perpetual search for the preeminent form of power on planet earth. This means power over death. Accordingly, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv’s counter-terrorism policy-makers ought never lose sight of this power and its primal place in determining certain enemy decisional calculi. In the end, power over death could even trump every other more tangible form of power, including those forms that are based upon aircraft carriers, missiles or technologically advanced weapon systems. The true cause of this expectation lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

               Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead would argue that in all world politics, any deeply felt promise of immortality must be of utterly “transcendent importance.”[22]

               This signifies, among other things, that the primary Israeli orientation to wage battle in counter-terrorism must always focus on “mind over mind,” not just “mind over matter.” Whenever enemies assign an absolute primacy to the words “I believe,” it should immediately become an “automatic” signal to Jerusalem that the best Israeli response must be undertaken at a recognizably intellectual level.[23] Though intangible and not easily understood by ordinary politicians or planners, an enemy search for power over death can prove decisively all-important and plainly unresponsive to ordinary threats of military harm.

               What next? To blithely dismiss such a distressingly complex reality will be tempting for Israel, but that dismissal could prove catastrophic.[24] When a determined enemy is driven by presumptively existential notions of “I believe,” the Israeli arsenal of plausible counter-measures must be rendered correspondingly flexible. This analytic imperative would become even more obvious should that enemy become endowed (directly or indirectly) with nuclear or other weapons of mass-destruction.[25]

               Though such ominous endowment is presently implausible, it is by no means inconceivable. In this regard, in the longer term, strategic policy planners must bear in mind that acts of nuclear terrorism need not require authentic nuclear weapons, and could involve “only” conventional rocket attacks on Israel’s Dimona reactor.[26] In the final analysis, Israel’s deterrence posture will have to function as a seamless web,[27] allowing decision-makers to choose from an already-available range of purposeful policy options.

               Any such fateful choice could concern insurgent foes who seek not “merely’ sovereignty and self-determination,[28] but “power over death.”


[1] For scholarly discussion of Jihad, see Andrew G. Bostom, ed., THE LEGACY OF JIHAD: ISLAMIC HOLY WAR AND THE FATE OF NON-MUSLIMS (New York: Prometheus Books, 2005, 759 pp.). In the Middle East, where theological doctrine divides into the dar al-Islam (world of Islam) and the dar al-harb (world of war), acts of terror against unbelievers have generally been accepted as expressions of sacredness. In turn, individual sacrifice derives, in large part, from a very conspicuously hoped-for power over death. By adopting atavistic practice, the Jihadist terrorist expects to realize an otherwise unattainable immortality. For Hamas, which most openly seeks secular power as a new sovereign state of Palestine, certain obligatory aspects of sacrificial terror must never be overlooked. These aspects, underscoring the two-sided nature of terror/sacrifice – that is, the sacrifice of “The Unbeliever” (or “Apostate”) and reciprocal sacrifice of “The Martyr” – is codified within the Charter of Hamas, as a “religious” problem.” For authoritative details of the Hamas Charter, see:  Louis René Beres: https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/jil/vol39/iss3/2/

[2] In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically, in his aptly titled Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought…It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century Jewish contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics, Spinoza considers the human mind or the “intellectual attributes,” and – drawing additionally from René Descartes – defines an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

[3] “Science,” says philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis (1958), “by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual – is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…. the latter is not possible without the former….” But where exactly is there sufficient evidence of “imagination” in Israel’s counter-terrorist strategies?

[4]This brings to mind relevant considerations of human rationality and irrationality. More precisely, a state or insurgent-group actor is determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values collective survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of preferences. An insurgent force such as Hamas might not always display such a “helpful” preference ordering.

[5]These agreements concern Arab states with which Israel has never actually been “at war.”

[6]See Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion; Totem and Taboo; and Moses and Monotheism. At the end of Chapter VI in The Future of an Illusion, where he has been discussing the “psychical origin of religious ideas,” Freud concludes as follows: “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world, and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe, and an after-life; but it is very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be. And it would be more remarkable still if our wretched, ignorant, and downtrodden ancestors had succeeded in solving all these difficult riddles of the universe.”

[7]To a point, the author of On War is correct in assigning permanent strategic primacy to the “political object,” but this assignment also needs a further broadening to include Oswald Spengler’s “metaphysical fear.”

[8] See Yehoshafat Harkabi, The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Politics (Chappaqua, New York: Rossel Books, 1983), p. 132.

[9] See Louis René Beres, “Self-Determination, International Law and Survival on Planet Earth,” ARIZONA JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW, Vol. 11, No. 1., 1994, pp. 1-26. See also: Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (The Principle of Equal Rights and Self-Determination of Peoples), G.A. Res. 2625, U.N. GAOR, 25th Sess., and Supp. No. 28 at 121, U.N. Doc. A/8028 (1970), reprinted in 9 I.L.M. 1292; Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, G.A. Res. 1514, U.N. GAOR, 15th Sess., Supp. No. 16, at 66, U.N. Doc. A/4684 (1960); Principles Which Should Guide Members in Determining Whether or Not an Obligation Exists to Transmit the Information Called for Under Article 73e of the Charter, G.A. Res. 1541, U.N. GAOR, 15th Sess., Supp. No. 16, at 29, U.N. Doc. A/4684 (1960).

[10]Some Israeli supporters of Palestinian statehood argue that its prospective harms to Israel could be reduced or eliminated by ensuring that Arab state’s immediate “demilitarization.” For informed legal reasoning against this argument, see: Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, Winter 1998, pp. 347-363; and Louis René Beres and Ambassador Shoval, “On Demilitarizing a Palestinian `Entity’ and the Golan Heights: An International Law Perspective,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vo. 28., No.5., November 1995, pp. 959-972.

[11]The law of armed conflict is largely concerned with the principle of proportionality, which has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch. These Torah rules are likely related to the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728- expression 1686 BCE) – the first written evidence of penalizing wrongdoing with exact retaliation. In matters concerning personal injury, the code prescribes an eye for an eye (# 196), breaking bone for bone (#197), and extracting tooth for tooth (#199). Among the ancient Hebrews, we must speak not of the Lex Talionis, but of several. The Lex Talionis appears in only three passages of the Torah. In their sequence of probable antiquity, they are as follows: Exodus 21: 22-25; Deuteronomy 19: 19-21; and Leviticus 24: 17-21. All have similarities to various other Near Eastern legal codes. These three passages address specific concerns: hurting a pregnant woman, perjury, and guarding Yahweh’s altar against defilement. See Marvin Henberg, Retribution: Evil for Evil in Ethics, Law and Literature, 59-186 (1990). In contemporary international law, the principle of proportionality can be found in the traditional view that a state offended by another state’s use of force, if the offending state refuses to make amends, “is then entitled to take `proportionate’ reprisals.” See Ingrid Detter De Lupis, The Law of War, 75 (1987). Evidence for the rule of proportionality can also be found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) at Art. 4. Similarly, the American Convention on Human Rights allows at Art. 27(1) such derogations “in time of war, public danger or other emergency which threaten the independence or security of a party” on “condition of proportionality.” In essence, the military principle of proportionality requires that the amount of destruction permitted must be proportionate to the importance of the objective. In contrast, the political principle of proportionality states “a war cannot be just unless the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensure from the war is less than the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensue if the war is not fought.” See Douglas P. Lackey, THE ETHICS OF WAR A ND PEACE, 40 (1989).

[12]The principle of military necessity is defined most authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life and physical resources may be applied.” ADAM ROBERTS & RICHARD GUELFF, DOCUMENTS ON THE LAWS OF WAR 10 (3rd ed. 2000) (quoting U.S. DEP’T OF THE NAVY ET AL., THE COMMANDER’S HANDBOOK ON THE LAW OF NAVAL OPERATIONS, NWP 1-14M, 6.2.6.4.2, (July 2007)). The term “military necessity” is found, inter alia, in the 1946 Judgment of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg: Extracts on Crimes Against International Law, in ADAM ROBERTS & RICHARD GUELFF, DOCUMENTS ON THE LAWS OF WAR 155 (1989). 

[13]Codified criteria for distinguishing between combatant and noncombatant populations were introduced for the first time under international law at the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War art. 3, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3516, 75 U.N.T.S. 287 [hereinafter Geneva Convention IV].  

[14] Under international law, terrorist movements are always Hostes humani generis, or “Common enemies of mankind.” See: Research in International Law: Draft Convention on Jurisdiction with Respect to Crime, 29 AM J. INT’L L. (Supp 1935) 435, 566 (quoting King v. Marsh (1615), 3 Bulstr. 27, 81 Eng. Rep 23 (1615) (“a pirate est Hostes humani generis”)).

[15] For a discussion of authoritative criteria to distinguish permissible insurgencies from impermissible ones, see: Louis René Beres, “The Legal Meaning of Terrorism for the Military Commander,” CONNECTICUT JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 11., No. 1., Fall 1995, pp. 1-27.

[16] Also worth pointing out here is that the criminal responsibility of leaders under international law is not limited to direct personal action or to official position.  On the peertinent principle of command responsibility, or respondeat superior, see:  In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1 (1945); The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb), 12 LAW REPORTS OF TRIALS OF WAR CRIMINALS 1 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp., 1949); see Parks, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY FOR WAR CRIMES, 62 MIL.L. REV. 1 (1973); O’Brien, THE LAW OF WAR, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY AND VIETNAM, 60 GEO. L.J.  605 (1972); U S DEPT OF THE ARMY, ARMY SUBJECT SCHEDULE No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907), 10 (1970).  The direct individual responsibility of leaders is also unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the act of state defense.  See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS, Aug. 8, 1945, 59 Stat.  1544, E.A.S.  No.472, 82 U.N.T.S.  279, art.

[17] This right must always be understood in terms of the continuously decentralized system of international law bequeathed at Westphalia in 1648. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[18] According to Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: “…a peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M.  679 (1969).

[19]Underlying these common standards is a unifying concept of human “oneness.”  The history of western philosophy and jurisprudence contains many illustrious examples of such welcome cosmopolitanism. Most notable are Voltaire and Goethe. We need only recall Voltaire’s biting satire in the early chapters of Candide and Goethe’s oft-repeated comment linking the contrived hatreds of belligerent nationalism to declining stages of human civilization. We may also note Samuel Johnson’s famously expressed conviction that patriotism “is the last refuge of a scoundrel;” William Lloyd Garrison’s observation that “We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government…. Our country is the world, our countryman is all mankind;” and Thorsten Veblen (“The patriotic spirit is at cross-purposes with modern life.”) Of course, there are similar sentiments discoverable in Nietzsche’s Human, all too Human and in Fichte’s Die Grundzűge des gegenwartigen Zeitalters.” Finally, let the reader recall Santayana’s coalescing remark in Reason and Society: “A man’s feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.” The ultimate point of all these cosmopolitan remarks is that narrow-minded patriotism is inevitably “unpatriotic,” at least in the sense that it is not in the genuine long-term interests of citizens or subjects.

[20].The term “Grave Breaches” applies to certain serious infractions of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Protocol I of 1977. The actions defined, as “Grave Breaches” in the four Conventions must be performed willfully or intentionally, and against the different groups of “protected person” identified by each Convention. The High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions are under obligation “to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed,” a grave breach of the Convention. As defined at Art. 147 of Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (6 U.S.T. 3516, signed on Aug. 12 1949, at Geneva), Grave Breaches  “shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the present Convention:  willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power, or willfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly. Reference to Grave Breaches can also be found in the INTERIM REPORT OF THE COMMISSION OF EXPERTS, UNITED NATIONS DOCUMENT, S/25274, and January 2, 1993, at Sec. 3., Art. 47.

[21] Ex injuria jus non oritur.

[22] See Whitehead’s Religion in the Making (1926).

[23] In prophetic words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire (The New Spirit and the Poets, 1917): “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”

[24] This brings to mind the closing query of Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Aeschylus: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatreds, the destruction”?

[25] For earlier looks at the expected consequences of specifically nuclear attacks, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986). 

[26]Hamas fired rockets at Dimona back in 2014. Earlier, Saddam Hussein launched Scud-B rockets toward Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.  For an early and informed consideration of reactor attack effects, see:  Bennett Ramberg, Destruction of Nuclear Energy Facilities in War (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1980); and Bennett Ramberg, “Attacks on Nuclear Reactors: The Implications of Israel’s Strike on Osiraq,” Political Science Quarterly, Winter 1982-83; pp. 653 – 669. More recently, see: Bennett Ramberg, “Should Israel Close Dimona? The Radiological Consequences of a Military Strike on Israel’s Plutonium-Production Reactor,”Arms Control Today,May 2008, pp. 6-13.

[27]See, by this author and former Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval, at West Point, Pentagon: https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/

[28]On this choice, ancient philosophy can be helpful. More precisely, Plato’s theory, offered in the fourth century B.C.E, seeks to explain all political choice in terms of epiphenomena, an unstable realm of half-truths and distorted perceptions.  In contrast to the uniformly stable realm of immaterial Forms, a realm from which all genuine knowledge must be derived, the political arena is dominated by myriad contradictions of the reflected world, contradictions that inevitably fail to account for “metaphysical fear.”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Middle East

The Middle East Rush to Bury Hatchets: Is it sustainable?

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How sustainable is Middle Eastern détente? That is the $64,000 question. The answer is probably not.

It’s not for lack of trying. Gulf states and Egypt have ended their debilitating 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar. The UAE has moved at lightning speed to establish formal ties with Israel and repair relations with Iran and Turkey. Saudi Arabia is moving in the same direction, albeit in a more plodding manner. Meanwhile, Turkey is also seeking to repair its long-strained relations with Egypt and Israel.

Recently, Saudi Arabia granted visas to three Iranian diplomats to represent the Islamic Republic at the Jeddah-based, 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In 2016, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after its embassy in Tehran was attacked in protest against the execution of Saudi Shia activist and cleric Nimr al. Nimr. The recent granting of visas is expected to be followed by visits by officials to the two countries’ shuttered embassies.

Despite this, Ali Shihabi, an analyst with close ties to the Saudi leadership, said: “I understand that no real progress has been made, so there’s no need to read too much into this. It was a goodwill Saudi gesture, particularly since the OIC is a multilateral organisation and they will (be) accredited to OIC, not Saudi.”

To be sure, Middle Eastern states need a dialling down of tensions to be able to focus on reform, diversification, and growth of their economies. To achieve that, they need to project an environment of regional stability conducive to domestic and foreign investment.

Lack of confidence

An equally, if not more critical driver, is uncertainty and fear about the United States’ future commitment to Middle East security, with no obvious replacement for the region’s long-standing guarantor. The uncertainty is compounded by a fundamentally unchanged regional insistence on the need for a foreign security underwriter. The Gulf states lack confidence in their own capabilities and fear that a strong military could threaten the survival of dynastic regimes, giving countries like Turkey and Iran a strategic advantage.

“Those regimes do not necessarily want very robust and very capable armies and militaries that become centres of power,” said Middle East scholar Yasmine Farouk.

If history is any indicator, Gulf uncertainty about US intentions may be exaggerated. A review of the last 50 years suggests that the Middle East has been there before, and nothing much has changed.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan brings to mind the American withdrawal from Vietnam, after which South-east Asia and the Middle East fretted about the possibility of the United States walking away from its commitments. Similarly, the toppling in 1979 of the Shah of Iran, an icon of regional US power, caused heartburn in autocratic Gulf regimes – much like the popular Arab revolts in 2011, which toppled US allies such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as Washington kept its distance.

To be sure, that was then, and this is now.

When America was defeated in Vietnam, and the Shah was overthrown, the Cold War had long settled in as a fact of life, unlike today’s US-China rivalry, which has yet to find its moorings and guardrails.

In some ways, what has changed is positive. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China sought to weaken and undermine US allies in the Middle East and supplant it as the dominant regional power. Today, they seek cooperation and share the goal of lowering tensions and introducing some degree of stability. The competition is economic, focussing on technology, arms sales, oil, and investment. There is little interest – if any – in Beijing and Moscow to go much beyond that.

Like the United States, neither China nor Russia wants to see a nuclear arms race in the region. ‘”The only player who can be effective and bring about progress in the Vienna debates is the only player we do not hear his position on the Iranian issue, and that is China… China’s influence on Iran’s policy is probably the biggest influence a foreign power has over Iran. At no point in history did China (have the opportunity to) make such a contribution to world stability as it has today in Vienna,” said Efraim Levy, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. He was referring to talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

Détente in the Middle East would be fortified in an environment where the United States and China find common ground in their regional approaches. “There is considerable divergence between Chinese and US approaches to the Gulf, but the interests of the two powers are largely compatible. Both want a stable region that supports their strategic and economic concerns. Given their deep cooperation with the Gulf monarchies and China’s influence in Iran, there is an opening for Washington and Beijing to coordinate their policies in working toward a less turbulent Gulf region,” said China-Gulf scholar Jonathan Fulton, writing in Middle East Policy.

Academic and former Lebanese culture minister and United Nations negotiator Ghassan Salameh argues that “America cannot leave the Middle East only because it concentrates on China… Paradoxically…you need to be in the Middle East if you want to concentrate on China as a strategic rival, because if you look at where oil and gas is going, it’s going East.”

Inevitable arms race

Nevertheless, Beijing’s efforts to moderate Iran’s tougher negotiating stance since hardline President Ebrahim Raisi took office have not stopped it from enabling a ballistic arms race in the Middle East, in what Chinese scholars have described as a calibrated effort to maintain a regional balance of power. Iran has rejected US, Saudi, and Israeli demands to expand talks in Vienna to include ballistic missiles. US intelligence believes that recent satellite images show Saudi Arabia manufacturing ballistic missiles at a site constructed with the help of China.

Saudi officials said the Kingdom had built the manufacturing facility with the assistance of the Chinese military’s missile branch, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. China has insisted that “cooperation in the field of military trade” did not violate international law or involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” The United States has long refused to sell ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia.

Iran described the test-firing of 16 ballistic missiles of different classes during a military exercise in late December as a message to Israel. It was a response to Israeli threats to strike at Iranian nuclear facilities if the Vienna talks fail or produce a result that Israel deems sufficiently unsatisfactory to justify unilateral action. “Sixteen missiles aimed and annihilated the chosen target. In this exercise, part of the hundreds of Iranian missiles capable of destroying a country that dared to attack Iran were deployed,” said armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri.

Beyond ballistic missiles, a breakdown in the Vienna talks with Iran could also ignite a nuclear arms race. Already, Israel has begun to imagine a Middle East inhabited by a nuclear Iran. “Even if global powers manage to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, diplomacy may only delay the inevitable… Given how resilient the Islamic Republic has proven to be, it seems that the world may eventually have to tolerate an Iranian nuclear bomb, just as it has learned to live with the Indian and Pakistani arsenals,” said former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has left no doubt that the Kingdom would develop a nuclear weapons capability if Iran did the same. Media reports last year suggested that Saudi Arabia had constructed, with the help of China, a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium. Saudi Arabia denied the reports, but insisted that mining its uranium reserves was part of its economic diversification strategy. The Saudi energy ministry said it cooperated with China in unspecified aspects of uranium exploration.

Cooperation on nuclear energy was one of 14 agreements worth US$65 billion signed during Saudi King Salman’s 2017 visit to China. The nuclear-related deals involved a feasibility study to construct high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia,  cooperation in intellectual property, and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs to be built in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has signed similar agreements with France, the United States, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, and Argentina.

To advance its pre-pandemic goal of constructing 16 nuclear reactors by 2030, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah Atomic and Renewable Energy City, which is devoted to research and application of nuclear technology.

Concern about Saudi intentions has been fuelled by Riyadh’s hesitancy in agreeing to US safeguards that would require it  to sign the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), even though it has not ruled it out, among other things.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that it is unacceptable that nuclear-armed countries are preventing his nation from developing nuclear weapons.

The odds are stacked against avoiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. To do so would require agreement on a regional nuclear-free zone. For that to happen, Israel would have to acknowledge its possession of nuclear weapons, something it has refused to do.

While some Israelis have suggested that the reality of a nuclear Iran could persuade Israel to change course, there is no indication that the government is seriously considering doing so. A nuclear-free zone would also demand a restructuring of security arrangements in the Middle East to include a security pact that would include all parties, as well as an arms control regime. So far, that looks more like wishful thinking than anything parties would be willing to contemplate genuinely.

More likely, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Tukey will continue developing their domestic defence industries briskly. Moreover, any revival of the Iran nuclear accord would likely lift the ban on Iran’s acquisition of conventional weapons, which in turn would accelerate the arms race as the Islamic Republic rushes to modernise and upgrade its military capabilities, which harsh sanctions have long hampered.

Analysts and policymakers have so far focused on Gulf states’ efforts to diversify their sources for arms acquisition, but largely overlooked their endeavour to expand the number of countries with bases in the region. So far, that has been limited to French, British, and Turkish bases, and a Chinese facility in Djibouti.

In a potential setback, Sudan’s military chief, General Mohamed Othman al-Hussein, has said his country was reviewing an agreement to host a Russian naval base on its Red Sea coast. Meanwhile, various Gulf states are quietly looking at Asian countries like India, South Korea, and Japan to establish a more active presence in the region.

Some analysts suggest that a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran could alter the dynamic of a Middle East in which Israel has diplomatic relations with the Gulf and other Arab states. These analysts argue that Israel may see the détente as a threat to its emerging role as an anti-Iranian bulwark that would allow it to expand military and intelligence operations in countries from which it was either barred or limited in the deployment of its capabilities.

“While (former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu used the notion of ‘containing Iran’ as a primary justification for the Abraham Accords, the simultaneous warming of ties between Iran and Gulf states will ultimately dilute Israel’s role, undermining its argument that Iran is a rogue state and regional destabiliser,” said scholars Mahjoub Zweiri and Lakshmi Venugopal Menon.

Walking a tightrope

The UAE has sought to counter the potential threat of Iran disrupting the Emirates’ rapprochement with Israel by pledging that it would not allow the Jewish state to build security-related installations on its territory.

The Emirati pledge, in a suggestion that some elements of Middle East détente may be more sustainable than others, did not stop UAE air force commander General Ibrahim Nasser al-Alawi from visiting Israel, or the Emirati navy from participating in a joint naval exercise with Israeli, Bahraini, and US vessels.

Similarly, speaking at a conference in November 2021, Major General Amikam Norkin, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, suggested, in reference to the UAE and Bahrain, the possibility of cooperation in anti-drone and ballistic missile defence. Israel could “become a key player and asset for the countries that are under threat of Iranian drones, along with developing needed strategic depth in the continuing campaign against Iran,” Major-General Norkin said. He appeared to be proposing the deployment of Israeli detection systems in the Gulf that would also work against ballistic missiles.

Also, the UAE pledge did not disrupt UAE-Israeli cooperation to counter alleged Iranian hacking. ClearSky, a cybersecurity company, reported that a cyber group operated by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, had hacked the Emirates’ Etisalat telecommunications company, as well as companies in Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United States, and Britain.

Nevertheless, Emirati nationalists and surrogates for the government painted the UAE’s suspension of talks to acquire the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter jet, because of conditions the Biden Administration wants to impose on the sale as evidence of their country’s newly-gained clout and an assertion of sovereignty.

Buried under the bravado was the fact that close relations with Israel apparently did not exempt the UAE from a US-Israeli understanding to maintain the Jewish state’s qualitative military edge. The administration’s conditions reflected Israeli suggestions designed to prevent the sale from putting the Jewish state’s edge at risk.

At the same time, closer ties with Israel potentially complicate not only the UAE’s burgeoning improved relations with Iran but also its long-standing partnership with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom fears that the relationship could give the UAE an edge and a degree of greater independence from Saudi Arabia and enhance its ability to play one off against the other. 

Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully sought the cancellation of a UAE-brokered energy and water deal between Israel and Jordan, the largest cooperation agreement between the two countries since they signed a peace treaty in 1994, last November. Riyadh wanted to replace the deal with one that would include it while excluding Israel.

Defiance and dissent

A burgeoning arms race and concerns that a failure by the United States, Europe, China, Russia, and Iran to agree in Vienna could significantly heighten regional tensions and provoke a military conflagration are just two of the powder kegs that could make Middle Eastern détente falter.

In a review of 2021, Middle East scholar Ross Harrison noted that wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen have created “security dilemmas and conflict traps that made the hurdles to getting to cooperation insuperable, even for actors who might be predisposed to cooperate… Transitioning from where Syria is today to a more stable, inclusive, and de-militarised country free of outside actors seems years, if not decades, away.” Mr. Harrison noted that two decades after ripping itself apart, Lebanon risked slipping back into civil war.

The years from 2011 to 2021 and the civil strife they witnessed were shaped by revolution and counterrevolution. Leaders of eight of the Arab League’s 22 member states – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan – were toppled by popular uprisings. Possible political change was reversed or stymied in most if not all of the initially successful revolts by counter-revolutions.

The counter-revolutions were often supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt after general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup in 2013 backed by the two Gulf states. While the bloody civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen were the most extreme consequence, there is no suggestion that détente in the coming decade would give the counter-revolution pause.

Add to that Palestine’s grey swan. Israel may believe that it has successfully pushed the resolution of the Palestinian problem to the margins with the help of the UAE and Bahrain. But the question is not whether but when Palestinian aspirations will come to haunt Israel and push themselves higher up the Arab and Muslim agenda.

The question is how Israel will deal with the facts that occupation is unsustainable, demographics are certain to threaten the Jewish character of the state, and civil unrest stretching beyond the West Bank into pre-1967 borders remain a constant possibility. How Israel responds to these issues is likely to influence Arab and Muslim public opinion. So far, public opinion has been one reason for Saudi Arabia and others not to follow the UAE in recognising Israel, even if the public expression of critical sentiments is severely curtailed, if not harshly repressed.

Nevertheless, the quest for detente has not prevented countries that do not have diplomatic relations from being more overt in their contacts with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held talks in Neom, his US$500 billion pet project for a futuristic city, with Mr Netanyahu when he was still prime minister despite the Kingdom’s refusal to recognise Israel.

Qatar, which already helps Israel fund public salaries and relief operations in the blockaded Gaza Strip, concluded a diamond trade agreement with the Jewish state. The deal enables Qatar to join a select group of countries authorised to trade in diamonds. In return, it will allow Israeli diamond merchants to travel to the Gulf state even though the two countries have no formal relations.

The deal took on added significance because of UAE acquiescence. The Emirates have cooperated with Israel on diamonds for several years, and long opposed Qatari attempts to join the exclusive gemstone club.

Meanwhile, differences in attitude towards popular revolts, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is widely held responsible for war crimes that cost half a million lives, lie just under the surface despite the lifting in January 2021 of a 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar. Doha has quietly asked members of the Brotherhood who live there to relocate, but has not further tweaked its support for Islamists.

A potential watershed could occur when the ageing Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar, passes on. Mr. Al-Qaradawi, 95, has been a major influence in shaping Qatari policies since the country’s independence in 1971, including the advocacy of greater rights for others that are not necessarily recognised at home. An autocracy, Qatar has supported the aspirations of protesters across the Middle East and North Africa and opposed the return of President Al-Assad to the Arab fold in the hope that it would encourage Russia to help roll back Iranian influence in the country. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 at a time that Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all funded groups opposed to the Syrian regime.

There is no indication that those hopes have any base in reality. Iranian ground forces in Syria, together with Hezbollah fighters and Foreign Legion-type units populated by Pakistani and Afghan Shiites, have ensured that the Russian intervention has so far been possible without inserting large numbers of regular troops. It has made the Russian intervention relatively risk-free and low cost.

For now, détente in the Middle East appears to have shifted rather than removed the battlefield on which regional rivalries play out. The UAE, widely seen as a leader in reducing tensions, has adopted a selective approach towards rapprochement.

The UAE’s diplomatic initiatives focused on Iran, Turkey, and Syria targets countries with which the risk of escalation outstrips the cost of reconciliation. Yet, plans by Emirati companies to invest in energy projects in Iran and Syria threaten to violate US sanctions. Detente has not persuaded the UAE to stop supporting insurgents in Yemen, surrogates in Libya, or supplying arms to Ethiopia in its war against Tigray.

Shaky ground

The long and short of it is that the rush to dial down tensions in the Middle East and North Africa rests on shaky ground. Except for Iran, which sees the frenzy of diplomatic and economic outreach as reaffirming its position as a major regional power, Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are driven by uncertainty and fear. Their moves are efforts to buy time to put their house in order and be prepared for a potential next round of differences not an attempt to craft a baseline standard for a shared vision of the region’s future.

The moves are also aimed at keeping the United States engaged, and an attempt at navigating the risky waters of big-power competition that is necessarily ad hoc and short-term and risks turbocharging a regional arms race with no underlying realistic long-term strategy. Saudi Arabia and the UAE see detente as a hedge to limit the fallout of a potential failure of the Vienna talks and a possible military confrontation between Iran and/or Israel and the United States.

Gulf hedging reflects a failure to recognise that perceptions of the US commitment rested on a misreading of the 1980 Carter Doctrine that successive US administrations opportunistically allowed to fester. The doctrine committed the US to defending the region against attack by an external power, read the Soviet Union. That threat fell by the wayside with the demise of the Soviet Union. In the minds of several Gulf states, post-revolutionary Iran replaced the Soviet Union as an existential threat. The perception was reinforced by mounting hostility between the US and the Islamic Republic; US, Israeli, and Gulf opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme; and Israel’s changing threat perception, which viewed Iran rather than the Palestinians and the Arabs as its foremost existential challenge.

The current situation is also a result of the US’ failure to couple its security presence with policies to address the issues faced by the region’s population – education, income distribution, public health, climate change, and basic rights. The frenzy to reduce tension offers the United States a second chance to broaden its security and stability outreach to address issues that concern broad swaths of Middle Eastern populations and have forced themselves onto the agenda in recent years.

Is the US getting it right?

Summing up the US policy dilemma in the Middle East in the words of the English punk band, The Clash – “if I stay there will be trouble, if I go there will be double” – Middle East scholar Jon Alterman suggested that the United States’ failure to ensure that the Gulf States had realistic expectations and did not misread the Carter Doctrine encouraged them to act more aggressively and take bigger risks in the false belief that Washington would have their backs.

The misperceptions persuaded the Gulf states to misread the Carter Doctrine as a guarantee that the United States would ensure the survival of their regimes and protect them against Iran unconditionally. Multiple US actions, or lack thereof, put paid to this interpretation, rattled the Gulf states, and persuaded them to become reckless at times.

The US’ refusal in 2011 to prevent the toppling of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; secret negotiations that led to the 2015 international Iranian nuclear agreement; President Barack Obama’s notion of a Middle East that Saudi Arabia and Iran would share as hegemons; and the failure of the US to respond in 2019 to Iranian attacks on shipping in the UAE and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, were among the markers that were laid down. President Donald Trump’s description of the 2019 strike against Abqaiq’s oil facilities as “an attack on Saudi Arabia and (not) an attack on us” constituted a wake-up call.

Many analysts suggest that the Biden administration’s refusal to spell out an unambiguous Middle East policy has had a positive effect. It produced the rush to dial down regional tensions. “From an administration standpoint, this is a sign that US strategy is actually working,” Mr. Alterman said.

That may be true in the short term. However, the United States will have to spell out an unambiguous, clearly articulated policy that outlines what commitments it envisions sooner rather than later. A clear policy could help Middle Eastern rivals manage their differences and focus on economic cooperation and trade. While the debate over US policy continues to rage in Washington, common ground is starting to emerge between proponents of the current US military posture and advocates of a withdrawal from the region.

In the words of Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow with the Arab Gulf States in Washington (AGSIW) think tank, this common ground involves a “rethink (of) the distribution of (US) assets to make them more effective  and, where appropriate, smaller, leaner and more flexible, while at the same time recognising that long-term deployments of US forces in the Gulf region remain essential to the interests of the United States, and those of its regional and global partners, and for regional security and stability.”

Placing a bet

Mitigating in favour of détente in the Middle East is the fact that it was not just uncertainty about the US commitment that prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to adopt a more conciliatory approach. The fact of the matter is that assertiveness, with few exceptions, such as the 2013 coup in Egypt, backfired. The UAE was forced to recognise that its ability to project military power beyond its borders was limited.

A cost-benefit analysis produced a clear verdict. Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent the UAE, are trapped in a disastrous war in Yemen that has dragged on for almost seven years. Syria’s Mr. Al-Assad has the upper hand in a decade-long brutal civil war. Iran is encountering headwinds in Iraq, but remains a force there. The same is true for its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Moreover, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon have demonstrated Iran’s ability to achieve its objectives militarily rather than diplomatically with the help of non-state actors, despite international isolation and harsh US sanctions.

There is also a question mark over the sustainability of efforts to reduce tensions, since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the weaker parties in negotiations with Iran. Perceptions of US unreliability and suspicions that Washington may turn its back on the Middle East further weaken their position. This is compounded by the fact that Saudi and Emirati officials fundamentally do not believe that real accommodation with Iran is possible, “There’s a keen sense in the Gulf that the Iran problem never goes away. It’s not about the Islamic Republic; it’s about Iran,” Mr. Alterman said.

Furthermore, dialogue has yet to produce more than a temporary lull at best, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “This pattern of dialogue has been underway for two years, or we’ve been leading up to it for two years. And yet it has not created anything meaningful in terms of outcome,” said Iran scholar Sanim Vakil. “The underlying and fundamental tensions between Iran and the Gulf Arab states, and that between Iran and its external actors in the region, remain unresolved.”

The Saudi and UAE strategy amounts to a bet that detente, against the backdrop of sustained social unrest in Iran driven by economic hardship, will spark a policy change in Tehran. They are also hoping that Iran will accept that regime survival cannot be ensured via stepped-up security and repression x exclusively.

“What we’re hoping for is regime moderation…where we’re dealing with Iran as another state that we can deal with, and through which they can benefit from.  So, if they need leverage, they can get leverage, but it doesn’t have to be through the military aspects… That’s the type of change that has not been explored a lot,” said Mohammed Baharoon, Director-General of b’huth, a public policy research centre..

Conclusion

Efforts by Middle Eastern rivals to dial down tensions and manage rather than resolve conflicts are fragile at best. Moreover, they raise the question of what the end goal is. For now, that appears to be primarily an endeavour to buy time, put their own houses in order, diversify their economies, and ensure that they remain competitive in the 21st century.

The sustainability of détente in the Middle East will ultimately depend on support from the United States and other major powers, including China, Russia, Europe, India, Japan, and South Korea. It will also be contingent on economic cooperation and trade, raising the cost of a return to conflict to the point that it outstrips the benefits of confrontation.

Author’s note: A version of this article was published by the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore

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Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran

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 Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.

An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.

By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.

US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.

The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.

No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.

To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.

That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.

The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.

“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.

US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.

However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.

Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.

Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.

Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.

Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.

“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.

For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.

Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.

By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.

It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.

Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.

Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.

Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.

Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.

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Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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