Qatar stuck in the middle

Bahrain, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia decided to severe ties with Qatar. This sudden development was seen as one of the results of President Trump’s visit to Riyadh. The cut in ties was not just verbal, it had specific implications in the sanctioning of individuals, ejection of diplomats, closing down of transportation lines and limitations enforced in the use of airspace.

As reported by AP, Saudi Arabia linked the decision mainly to counter-terrorism efforts, due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region”. They were referring to Qatar’s connections and support of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahrar al-Sham (linked to al-Qaida), the Islamic State affiliates, Hamas and various militants from Syria to the Sinai Peninsula. Yet, it is quite clear that not terrorism is the main cause, but Qatar’s ties to Iran. Qatar is paying the price for becoming an additional “proxy Iranian state”, serving the Islamic revolution export aspirations of Iran.

The Washington Post highlighted Qatar’s ties to Iran and Islamist groups, detailing the intricate ties between Qatar and Iran-backed Shiite militant groups, situated in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere. The Arab News termed the Qatar-Iran cooperation “Qatar’s deal with the devil”.

Tehran responded to the events in three ways:

First, by rushing material support (airlifts of livestock, fruits and vegetables) and  moral support (official visits with strong verbal messages from Rouhani) to Qatar. Thus Iran demonstrated loyalty to its allies.

Second, Iran further exploited the situation by embracing Qatar, linking up with Ankara and Brotherhood allies, and thus driving a wedge between the Gulf States and expanding the anti-Saudi coalition. Observing Iran’s gains from this whole affair, some declared Iran the real winner in the Qatar crisis. UAE and Bahrain seemed to get so concerned about the Iranian exploitation of the situation, that they warned against Iranian involvement and cautioned Qatar to distance itself from Iran.

The third step was Iranian hypocrisy at its best: They released a double handed “carrot and stick” policy. While Zarif called on the parties to avoid tension and solve problems through dialogue and offered support after the latest terrorist attack in Mecca, the supreme leader and his close entourage continued their ongoing verbal attacks against Saudi Arabia by accusing the Saudi-American alliance for the whole affair. Hamid Aboutalebi tweeted “what is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance” (referring to President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia of course). Some phrased the inevitable conclusion that Iran is behind the Qatar crisis in the region.

Qatar may turn out to be the first battle zone between Saudi Arabia and Iran which isn’t fought through proxies and if that happens, it will be a battle zone which could easily expand to the rest of the Middle East and perhaps even to the world. Remember that WW1 began through the assassination of one man in Serbia.

 

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Khamenei orchestrating a shadow government?

Since the decisive victory of Rouhani was announced in the recent presidential elections in Iran, the idea of establishing a “shadow government” has been floated. Reported first as Saeed Jalili’s idea, exposed in fararu, a site defining itself as “dedicated to protecting and promoting the national interests of Iran”, it was then picked up by the Western media, and taken seriously. Foreign Affairs attributes credibility to this “fear”, and further warns that such a shadow government will perhaps channel the hardliners efforts more effectively against Rouhani. They subtitled their article “Rouhani battles the shadow government”.

The alleged “battle” of perception is that the hardliners, who resisted Rouhani, and who were represented in the elections by the cleric Raisi, intend to continue their opposition. Of course, there is no proof yet of such a “shadow government” but there are some worrying signs and most of these signs point towards Khamenei: It’s no secret that Khamenei supported Raisi in the election but his post-election behavior is worrying to say the least. Khamenei didn’t even bother to congratulate Rouhani following the elections but he did make a point to congratulate Raisi personally for his participation in the elections. Furthermore, Khamenei has since openly criticized Rouhani in his speeches on a variety of issues including gender equality, the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, the relations with the West/US, the nuclear deal, the house arrests of the 2009 opposition leaders etc…

Without Khamenei, a “shadow government” of any kind would be a meaningless fantasy but Khamenei’s open attacks against Rouhani are creating an atmosphere which undermines Rouhani by pitting him against the Supreme Leader. Khamenei wanted Raisi to beat Rouhani but the Iranian people chose Rouhani instead and this fact surely hurts Khamenei, since it is a sign of weakness in his eyes. Rouhani’s election by the people pits Khamenei against the Iranian people as well and pits democracy against the theocratic dictatorship of the regime.

Rouhani, as all previous Iranian presidents was a shadow to Khamenei in his first term but his re-election against Khamenei’s will has put Khamenei in the shadows this time. As long as Khamenei continues to criticize Rouhani and support hardliners, the notion of a “shadow government” will not dissipate and will remain as an ominous threat of a coup d’etat which could land Rouhani under house arrest or worst.

 

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Tehran’s cynical reaction to terror attacks

The terrorist attacks in Tehran shocked the world but probably shocked the regime in Tehran much more. Apart from the horror of the terrorist attacks, it is illuminating to see how the regime in Tehran reacted to these attacks.

Over the past few years, as terrorist attacks spread around the globe (specially in Europe), Tehran stuck to two main themes: 1) Terrorist would never strike in Iran due to the efficiency of the IRGC and other security bodies and 2) the Western countries who were hit by terrorist attacks were “reaping what they had sown” (ie: the West had supported Sunni terrorist organizations in the past).

Suddenly, the tables had turned and the statements from Tehran followed three main themes: 1) trivialization, 2) accusation and 3) indignation.

Trivialization: following the attack, Khamenei made a speech in which he attempted to minimize its impact calling it a “firecracker” and calling the terrorist “too trivial to affect the nation’s will”. In this same speech, Khamenei didn’t even take the time to offer his condolences to the families of the victims nor wish the wounded well. Parliament leader Ali Larijani joined Khamenei’s sentiment by calling the attack a “minor incident”. 17 innocent Iranian civilians dead and 43 wounded represent a “minor incident” and a “firecracker”? Sounds a bit trivial by all standards.

Accusation: as could be expected, Tehran immediately began to accuse the US and Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism. At first, the accusations were vague: the US and Saudi Arabia were guilty of these attacks because of the American-Sunni alliance, because of the US and Saudi support of Sunni terrorism (specifically ISIS) in the past, because of the Saudi FM’s statement that “Iran must be punished for its interference in the region and its support for terrorist organizations” etc… But then, Tehran upped the rhetoric and claimed that it had definite “proof” the US and Saudi Arabia supported these terrorist attacks but somehow, up until now, none of these “proofs” was shared to the world. Khamenei went further and stated that “the US is itself terrorist, fosters terrorists…and has been originally founded upon terror and cruelty” and “thus, it is impossible to compromise with the US”…this sentence makes more sense if you exchange the word “US” with the word “Iran”…try exchanging the word US for Iran and see how this statement rings much truer.

Indignation: the White House issued a statement of condolences for the victims but added one sentence, “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”, which blew out some fuses in Tehran. Zarif called the statement repugnant and began slamming the US for supporting terrorism. Although Trump’s statement is definitely not politically correct, it does point out that Tehran’s open support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and other Shiite militias places Tehran within the targets of other terrorist organizations. But more than this, Trump’s statement only echoes statements from Tehran to Western countries who suffered terrorist attacks in the past: “you reap what you sow”.

There is nothing to be happy about the terrorist attack in Tehran. The blood of innocent victims of terrorist attacks is the same regardless of the country in which they were killed or wounded. But one thing is certain, Tehran was caught with its pants down and doesn’t know how to deal with this new situation. From a position in which it openly supports terrorism while claiming it is a champion against terrorism, Tehran found itself suddenly much weaker and much more vulnerable and instead of dealing with the base of the problem, the support of terrorism, it chose to cover up.

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Can the US-Sunni coalition last?

Amidst conflicting agendas and interests, it would seem that the anti-Iran Sunni coalition gelled during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and participation at the US-Arab-Muslim summit on May 21. The backbone of this coalition is made up of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt.

The official goal of the summit was to position the issue of counter-terrorism as a top priority, building on the “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism” (IMAFT) established by Saudi Arabia. In this context, Trump announced the establishment of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, co-chaired by the US, Saudi Arabia and the GCC.

But the hidden glue binding the Sunni coalition together is the shared concern about Iranian expansion and the joint fear of the Iranian threat. US secretary of Defense Mattis stated already in April that “everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran”. That was the clear feeling in the room on May 21. Trump, in his speech, detailed some of Iran’s negative behavior, from the support of terrorism, through instilling instability in the region by spreading destruction and chaos to initiating “destabilizing interventions” (specifically naming Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen). He attributed direct responsibility to Iran for the “unspeakable crimes” committed by the Assad regime in Syria. On the practical side Trump called for the isolation of Iran and “deny it funding of terrorism”.

There are a few significant conclusions to be drawn from this event. First, the Trump administration reversed and over-turned the Obama administration policy, siding with the Sunni camp while negating the “appeasing” policy of concessions and allowances towards Iran and its Shiite camp. Second, the US recognizes Saudi Arabia as the religious and political center in the Arab Gulf and Muslim world.

Granted that Saudi Arabia is certainly on board on the Iranian issue, it is still questionable whether the Saudis can be trusted as an ally in the counter-terrorism efforts, given that this country is known for its long term cultivation of extreme elements and “charity foundations” in support of terrorism. Can the US ignore Saudi history of terrorism support and current gross HR violations?

The billion dollar question is whether this coalition will hold together. One Washington Institute paper calls this coalition unsustainable and “unlikely to be affective” due to the conflicting agendas of the members. Among the “conflicting agendas” they designate the lack of consensus around Saudi Arabia, different approaches to extremism, variance in the form of Islam and lack of “shared values, threats and interests”. It may be true that there are conflicting agendas, certainly in relation to terrorism, but it would seem that on the Iran issue the feeling of threat unites them all.

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