Tehran’s use of non-state “instruments of power”

During an Iranian workshop held in the Iranian museum of peace, titled “simulating the UN security council session with a look to North Korea”, reported by Iran Front Page News, Iranian foreign minister Zarif commented that in today’s world, absolute military power no longer serves as a decisive factor due to the existence of non-state actors which influence events and with which national interests can be secured. He also admitted that Iran itself uses such non-state actors by stating “other instruments of power are available to us”.  He added that such instruments serve in breaking “Western monopoly over international affairs”.

He went on to enumerate examples of such “non-state players”, influencing world strategic developments, and mentioned ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. Of course, he did not mention Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, which are non-state players and 100% proxies of Tehran.

In defiance of international norms, which prohibit the use of terrorism or malign activity in achieving political or other goals, with Zarif the illegitimate becomes legitimate. Radicalism and terrorism are just additional “non-state instruments of power” in achieving Tehran’s objectives. This is a rare admittance of the Iranian mode of thought. Instead of condemnation, he validated and justified.

Yet, the judiciary chief of Iran, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, objects to the use of terrorism, and protested the West’s lack of determination to eliminate terrorism. Once again, the Iranian representative conveniently “forgets” to mention organizations like Hezbollah (deployed in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), the Shiite militias (deployed in Syria and Iraq) and the numerous Shiite terror cells (deployed in the most of the Gulf states).

There is ample proof of Iran’s use of non-state and/or radical actors, in their attempts to influence events. Bahrain, which recently broke yet another Iranian-backed terror cell,  highlighted the Iranian operating of terror cells as an instrument of power. Tehran denies supporting such cells but then again, Tehran always denies. Tehran and Hezbollah meet and plot policy, thus underscoring the use of the Hezbollah as an instrument of influence. As reported in The Daily Mail, the recruiting and deployment of Iranian backed militias has served Iranian interests in Syria and now continue to serve in the creation of a safe Iranian corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, posing a threat to the global community.

To summarize – we should take Zarif’s words seriously. When he talks about the use of terrorist organizations and radical non-state instruments of power, like ISIS and Taliban, to influence the geo-strategic situation, it is not an academic debate. He is talking from experience. He just hypocritically emits the Iranian instruments of power like subversive terror cells, hired militias and other radical organizations.

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Another Iranian-backed terror cell in Bahrain

As reported in various news agencies, Bahrain recently announced that they busted a terror cell, which has clear links to Tehran. This is not the first time that a terror cell linked to Iran is uncovered in Bahrain.

According to the statement released by the Bahraini interior ministry, Bahrain uncovered a terror cell consisting of at least 10 people, seven of which have been arrested. It was also reported that 127 kilos of high-grade explosives, chemicals, automatic weapons, grenades, detonators and additional ammunition were seized. The terror unit was led by Hussein Ali Ahmed Dawood, who is believed to have found sanctuary in Iran. He is alleged to be the leader of the Ashtar Brigade, the terrorist wing of the Al Wafa Islamic movement, which claimed previous terrorist activity and bombings in Bahrain. According to the release, Dawood has already been sentenced to life imprisonment in three terrorism-related cases, in addition to a sentence of 15 years imprisonment in relations to another case, and he has clear links with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Already in March of this year it was reported that Bahrain arrested a terror cell linked to the IRGC, Hezbollah and Iraq Brigades. That cell plotted to assassinate senior government and community figures. According to a separate report by al-Arabiya, women played a role in these Iran-backed Bahrain terror groups.

There are a few lessons to be learnt here:

  • Tehran is still active in the terror cell operating business, and even in countries in its “back yard”.
  • Even after they are uncovered, Tehran is not ashamed to give safe sanctuary to these terror operatives.
  • Due to this long-term subversive activity in Bahrain, it is not surprising that Bahrain was one of the first to join the Saudi axis in the Gulf-Qatar crisis.
  • While women are scrutinized and even blocked from sports and being teachers (if they suffer infertility or facial hair, for instance), they are cleared for being terrorists.

But most important of all, the use of terror cells, just as the use of proxy military organizations such as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, exemplifies Tehran’s aspirations to “export the revolution” to other countries through non-state proxies.

 

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Tehran and Ankara vs. Kurdistan

 

Tehran has a pattern of behavior. While they stress that it does not “interfere” in internal issues of other national entities, it meddles, intrudes, destabilizes and sometimes even acts militarily, directly or via proxy groups, using different justifications.

Take Lebanon as an example. While Hezbollah denies Tehran’s meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs, stating “only the Lebanese nation can make decisions about their country’s fate”,  Hezbollah, Iran’s undisputed proxy, has become the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon, while remaining a potent guerrilla force, under the pretext of “concern for Lebanon”.

While uttering slogans of “allowing nations to make their own decision about their fate”, Tehran has now embarked on blocking the Kurdish referendum on independence in Iraq on September 25th. For this, it has aligned with Ankara, which also vehemently hates the Kurdistan Regional Governments (KRG). For this cause, among others, the chief of staff of Iranian armed forces, general Bagheri, visited Ankara recently for three full days. As reported in the Daily Sabah, both Tehran and Ankara rule out KRG independence. If that’s not interference in other country’s affairs, then what is?

This time Tehran justifies its involvement in resisting the partition of Iraq and preserving Iraqi territorial integrity. Of course they know what is best for Iraq, and for the preservation of stability. They just forget one thing – the will of the people living in Iraq is affected by decisions made in Tehran. Despite the fact that the Kurdish forces played an active military role in the defense of northern Iraq against ISIS, they still don’t seem to be worthy of self-determination.

As the Economist expands, it is quite clear that Iranian resistance to Kurdish independence in Iraq derives from fears of a spill over and cross-border spread of separatist sentiment, which could lead to instability in Iran. With an eight million strong Kurdish population in Iran, and many other oppressed minority groups, self-rule trends could easily lead to Iranian disintegration. It is clear that if minority groups of Iran had their own will, most of them would most probably cut away from the Iranian regime. In other words, Tehran’s “concern” has nothing to do with Iraqi stability and well-being, but its own regime survival..

If we may borrow James McNabney’s phrase, in a different context, we can only advise the Kurdish people, as he writes in the New York Times: beware of self-serving masters in government.

 

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Tehran continues to meddle

Over the recent period, several reports have voiced public accusations against Iran for spy and sabotage activity. The lack of fear and unexpected openness is the big surprise.

It was recently released that the UAE convicted an Iranian national for spying for Iran and sentenced him to ten years imprisonment. Reza Mohammad Hussein Mozafar was found guilty of spying, aiding Tehran’s nuclear program and fraud to smuggle equipment and devices on behalf of Iran. The Abu Dhabi federal appeals court also found him guilty of harming the relations between the UAE and the USA, due to the fact that some of the devices were imported from the US for transfer to Iran, in violation of the UN sanctions.

The Gulf News documents additional cases. In April a person was found guilty of violating international sanctions against Iran, when attempting to smuggle devices which could be used in the Iranian nuclear program. In a separate case, two men were charged with espionage for the Iranian intelligence, and their hearing has been postponed to August 27. They were also charged with spreading false information. In an additional case, an Emirati was charged with espionage on behalf of Iranian intelligence, and his case was also postponed to August 27.

Only recently we wrote a separate piece on the Kuwait “Terror Row” titled Kuwait turns staunchly anti-Tehran, relating to the fact that Kuwait expelled Iranian diplomats and closed Iranian offices due to an operative secret Iranian linked terror unit. It’s also been revealed that Iran has devised new clandestine routes and methods for smuggling arms and financial support to the Houthis in Yemen. According to the report, cash and drugs are used in order to fund the rebel activity.

On Tajik state television, officials of the government and former activists accused Iran of instigating civil war in the country, including political assassinations and sabotage activity. This would seem to be the first time that Tajikistan openly accuses Iran of financing and directing political killings in its jurisdiction. It is a known fact that such an accusation would not be aired on Tajik state television without the consent of the leadership to release this information.

In addition, a senior Afghan officials have accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for providing safe haven for Taliban leaders and militants, while the elite Quds Force, which conducts covert operations, meets with the Taliban often and advises them. The head of Farah’s provincial council, Jamila Amini, stated “Iran’s interference is direct, it is engaged in encouraging youth to join the insurgency”. Afghan officials in the western provinces bordering with Iran are increasingly vocal about Iran’s interference. The conclusion is that Iran’s support for the Taliban has mushroomed and Iran is now seen as a major backer of the Afghan Taliban.

The astounding fact of all these cases is the fact that countries and officials voice their condemnation of Iran openly. Even countries which have never done this before. With so many accusations, it’s time to accept the simple truth: Tehran is a serial meddler in the region.

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Tehran, King of the Meddle East

It would seem that Tehran’s audacity has gone up a notch. If in the past Iran hid its support of terror organizations and its meddling in the region with slogans like “advisory function only”, currently it has no problem openly bragging about these roles.

In Iran News Update, both the commander of IRGC Quds force, Qassem Suleimani, and president Rouhani, are quoted acknowledging Iran’s meddling in Iraq and Syria, and their support of Hezbollah. The Iranian PressTV also reported the words of Syrian Defense Minister praising Iran and the Hezbollah for their contribution to the military success.

On Iraq and Syria, Suleimani is quoted claiming the following: “the IRGC’s sole Sukho fighter jet squadron was placed at Iraq’s disposal instantly. Thousands of tons of weapons were given to them by [Iran]..Iran’s defense ministry was making weapons for Iraq round the clock and sending them..The Lebanese Hezbollah played a major role in the victories of Iraq and Syria..I kiss the hands of Hassan Nassrallah”.

Rouhani is quoted stating: “We supported the people of Iraq and Syria…who provides the salary and weapons of these people? All the weapons Iraq needed. It is the same about Syria. The government’s economic branch is providing the money…a major effort was carried out [during my first term]”. Rouhani also took pride in the mass production of arms during his term in office.

Brigadier General of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, also commenting on these issues, bragged the use of Hezbollah and the transformation of Iran into a regional power with global influence including in the Eastern Mediterranean. They describe their open support for Hezbollah, despite the fact that the Hezbollah is recognized as a terrorist organization. They seem to have the lost the need for concealment.

Something is cultivating this “swaggering attitude”. Perhaps it is to be connected to the victories over ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the perceived weakness of the US in this context. As reported in Fars news, they see a zero sum game here – the liberation of territories = the failure of the US. Despite the fact that the US is involved in some of the fighting, they still see any grab of territory from the hands of ISIS as an Iranian alliance victory. No doubt the Russian involvement has also endowed them with confidence and a feeling of legitimacy.

While in the past Tehran claimed “advisory roles” only, denying support of radical groups, and playing the Rouhani moderate peace-seeking line, the West was over-eager to buy in to this sweet talk. When Tehran feels that it is released from its limitations and can now admit its actions openly, the Western former “advocates and believers” are exposed naked.

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Tehran’s Duality on Terrorism & Democracy

With the recent twin terror attacks in Iran, hitting at the parliament and the mausoleum, Iran revealed a new rhetoric on terrorism, which is reserved only for them.

When President Trump condemned the twin attacks, extended condolences yet suggested that Iran shares some of the blame for the terror attacks, by stating “those who sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”, Iran responded with a vengeance.  Foreign Minister Zarif in a tweet rejected the notion entirely while terming Trumps’ words “repugnant”. As reported in firstpost, Zarif continued to give his own explanation for the attack rationalizing that the attackers targeted the “seat of democracy”.

For decades the Iranian regime has preached that Europe and the Western world are to blame for the terrorist attacks perpetrated against them. Even in the face of the most recent London attack, the supreme leader related to the events claiming that Europe has brought the Islamic state terrorism on itself through its intervention in the Middle East. In his tweet (June 5) he stated “this is the inferno they set up and has now backfired on them”. Why is it legitimate to analyze thus in the European context, yet repugnant in the Iranian context?

Furthermore, to interpret the attacks in Iran as targeting “the seat of democracy”, is bordering on delusional science fiction. Iran is a Democtatorship. It is a country which holds presidential elections but which allows a non-elected body to disqualify candidates in advance if they do not represent the values of the Islamic Revolution. It is a country which has publicly elected officials in government and in parliament but they are subordinate to the unelected regime, and specially the unelected Supreme Leader and his military backing, the IRGC. It is a country in which opposition leaders who tried to bring about change are under house arrest without trial. Whether Zarif likes it or not, Iran is a ruled by a theocracy, a “deep state” of power that is unelected but chosen by the regime itself.

To twist things even further, the supreme leader recently dismissed any chance of reconciliation with the US due to the fact that the US is the cause of instability in the ME and founded upon terror and cruelty – never mind the fact that the West and most Arab states claim that it is Tehran which is the cause of instability in the Middle East now.

 

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Towards Presidential Elections in Iran – Evaluating Rouhani’s chances

 

Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Iran on May 19. Although most of the power is centralized in the hands of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, the presidential elections do have meaning, mainly as an outlet for the people to express their will and wishful direction.

In the previous elections held in 2013, President Rouhani was elected in a landslide victory on a wave of hope for change and reform. At the time of his election, many adopted the slogan “victory of moderation over extremism” and termed him the “reformist backed cleric”. Others described him as the “moderate candidate“. But everyone overlooked the fact that all candidates went through pre-screening, which meant that he was endorsed and approved by the Supreme Leader in advance, which cannot distance him too far from the extreme views of the Supreme Leader. The so-called gap between moderates and extremists, embodied by Rouhani and Khamenei, was clearly exaggerated and over-credited.

And now, speculations are on the rise regarding Rouhani’s chances for re-election.

Some points go in his favor. He did succeed, as promised, to ink the nuclear deal with the powers and, in the process, he managed to prevent an economic catastrophe. Although he has the image of a moderate, he is tolerated by Khamenei, and thus has brought internal stability. There is also a lack of any charismatic alternative since the threat of an Ahmadinejad comeback is enough to unite all Khamenei, reformists and clerics around Rouhani.

But, there are many reasons for Rouhani to go down as the first Iranian incumbent president not to be re-elected. Contrary to his promises, the economy has not picked up. The nuclear deal has not brought benefits to the people, but more to the IRGC and hardliners. Dissatisfaction is prominent throughout Iran and in many ways his pledges to bring about improvement in freedom and liberty of the individual are left in ashes. Whether it be a result of inability or ill-will, it does not matter to the average Iranian who’s hopes have been dashed. The leaders of the opposition Mousavi and Karroubi still remain under house arrest, concerts cancelled, sports-contesters barred from participating due to headscarf issues, people arbitrarily arrested and human rights in general in a dreary situation. All broken promises.

The two sides of the speculation regarding Rouhani’s chances are presented well in two al-monitor articles: al-monitor-Iran President and al-monitor-five reasons five more years.

At least this time the Iranians go to the presidential elections with less deception and more realism. Taking into account that Rouhani is not such a moderate and a reformer as perceived, noting the narrowing gap between “moderates” and “extremists” in Iran, and bearing an awakening skepticism regarding the archaic terminology and misconceptions in relation to Iran.  The article termed “who really won Iran’s elections” in the Atlantic, states it well quoting Karim Sadjadpour “The nomenclature we use to describe Iranian politicians—such as reformists, moderates, and hardliners—is sometimes misleading and must be understood in the context of Iranian politics”.  At least this time the Iranians can go to elections with less deception and with a more realistic awareness of the options.

Assad Becomes Weak Link Between Moscow and Tehran

President Donald Trump focused on the theme of strengthening US cooperation with Russia during his presidential campaign, and President Vladimir Putin seemed quite agreeable. The reasons for such cooperation spread from containing nuclear threats, through blotting out the Islamic State and solving the Ukrainian issue, to preserving world stability. But one of the most central issues at stake is deeply connected to the Syrian quagmire and Iranian hegemony.

Despite many convergent interests, the Syrian issue strengthened the cooperation between Russia and Iran. Of course, the Tehran-Moscow alliance between Russia and Iran relied on various interests, among them weapons and arms sales, economic interests, defying the West, building new coalitions and power centers and it was only natural for them to team up on Syria. For Moscow, it meant supporting Iran, helping a historical ally and “proving” to the world that it is in control in the region.  For Tehran, it meant solidifying the “axis of resistance”, support Hezbollah and Shiite militants and finalizing the “export of the revolution” to Bashar al-Assad, who is a minority Alawite closely related to Shiism.

During the Barak Obama presidency, things went well for Moscow and Tehran: US influence in the region dwindled and Obama accepted Tehran’s demand to stay out of the war.  Then, two things happened. The peace talks in Syria went into high gear and Trump was elected.

The Tehran-Moscow relationship began to weaken. The first crack in the wall was Moscow’s suggestion that the US take part in the Syrian peace talks, a suggestion which raised a torrent of objections from Tehran and from Assad. Assad was told firmly by Moscow that he had no say in regards to who was invited to the peace talks, including Syrian rebel delegations as well as foreign powers. The crack widened when Moscow decided that Syria’s constitution should be revised in order to allow for democratic change in power. Moscow then diverged from its common strategy with Tehran when it suggested that Assad may not stay in power and should be replaced with Syrian business tycoon Firas Tlass. The schism demonstrated the fact that despite the honeymoon period, this was not a marriage of love.

The conflicting interests between Moscow and Tehran in Syrian context became obvious basically on whether to blindly support Bashar al-Assad or not. Fred Hof, a former US state department official who oversaw Syria policy, was quoted stating that “Russia is fully aware of the corruption and incompetence of the Assad regime…and knows that a stable Syria is unattainable with Assad at the helm”. With the Trump victory in the US, and the option of increased cooperation between the US and Russia, the cards were reshuffled again and the wedge between Tehran and Moscow widened: Trump is eager to strengthen Washington-Moscow ties and is equally eager to pressure Tehran  – a classic “two birds with one stone” strategy.

Syria is not the only thorn in the relationship between Tehran and Moscow: Moscow does not wholeheartedly support Hezbollah or other Shiite militants and remains worried at the potential militarization of Iran’s nuclear program by the regime.

Tehran is now stuck between a rock and a hard place: Angering Moscow would seriously weaken Tehran’s global standing but accepting Moscow’s dictate on Syria would anger the hardliners in the regime. Tehran will have to decide whether to place Moscow before Assad or not.

Zarif’s hypocrisy soars to new heights

Let’s face it – Iranian FM Zarif is a serial liar and a hypocrite way beyond the expected demagoguery of a slick politician. His easy demeanor and his charming smile are the perfect cover-up for an endless stream of lies over the past 4 years which include:

  • The nature of the regime: “a government which follows its people, not the other way around” – while it is obvious that Tehran’s government begins and ends with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who is not elected by the peopleof Iran.
  • Freedom of speech in Iran: “we do not jail people for their opinions” – the hundreds of political prisoners (activists, journalists, lawyers, oppositionists, minorities etc…)  in Iranian jails or graves are living (dead) proof that Zarif is lying.
  • The holocaust cartoon contest: “it’s an NGO that is not controlled by the Iranian government” – Zarif knows full well that in Iran, the regime controls every cultural aspect and has repeatedly shut down concerts or exhibitions which did not suit its agenda…if the regime did not support the contest, it would not exist.
  • Meddling: “for us, peace and non-interference in domestic affairs of other countries, their national sovereignty…are important” – Tehran is currently meddling in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, to name a few.
  • Military involvement in Syria: “Syria’s fate should be determined at the polls and not by weapons” and “Iran has no troops in Syria, but only advisor[s]. We do not have troops involved in fighting there” – but meanwhile, Tehran sent in tens of thousands of Hezbollah, Shiite militants and the IRGC soldiers to fight for Assad.
  • Military support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen: the accusations (that Tehran is supporting the Houthis militarily), according to Zarif are “completely baseless” – how does he explain the numerous intercepted Iranian arms shipments and the admissions of Iranian support by Houthi leaders themselves?
  • The Parchin ” nuclear clean-up”: “we said that the activities in that site are related to road construction” – the satellite pictures leave no room for doubt that there was a huge clean-up at Parchin which was probably used to test nuclear detonators.

And now, the latest addition to Zarif’s string of lies: “I do not see any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other”. Really? Let’s rewind to September 13th, to an article written by Zarif entitled ” Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism”, one of the most viciously anti-Saudi Arabia article ever written which exemplifies the regime’s attitude towards Saudi Arabia. The title of the article is anti-Saud to begin with since Wahabbism is a central theme to Saudi Arabia just as the Shiite Revolution is to Iran. But Zarif is not content to talk only about Wahabbism. In this article Zarif calls the Saudi rulers “callous and capricious rulers unfit to rule the sacred lands”, they hold “petty, malicious, and sectarian extremist” policies which “beget, foster, and spread terrorism”, they owe their allegiance to “serving their imperialist and Zionist patrons” and are responsible for “the most pernicious and abominable acts of atrocity in the history of nations and to infest them with extreme levels of hatred”. All of these vilifying statements appeared in only one article…other barbs by Zarif towards Saudi Arabia are easy to find – just google “Zarif Saudi Arabia”.

But Zarif’s lies are not only dependent on his own views. Zarif knows all too well that nothing in Iran happens without the consent of Khamenei. It is Khamenei who sets the tone and draws the red lines. He will decide whether policies between Iran and Saudi Arabia are hostile or not. So, what does Khamenei think of Saudi Arabia? Here are a few “gems”: The rulers of Saudi Arabia are “disgraced and misguided people who think their survival on the throne of oppression is dependent on defending the arrogant powers of the world, on alliances with Zionism and the US”, are “small and puny Satans who tremble for fear of jeopardizing the interests of the Great Satan (the United States)”, are “blasphemous and faithless”, are “heartless and murderous”, “unwise”, “backstabbers”, responsible for “continuous infanticide” and “genocide” etc…Does khamenei also think that there aren’t “any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other”? Definitely not.

And this is only rhetoric. We haven’t even reached the actual points of conflict.

How about the fact that Tehran and Riyadh are already fighting each other in two proxy wars? In Syria, where Tehran openly supports Assad while Riyadh covertly supports Syrian rebels and in Yemen, where Riyadh openly supports the Yemenite government while Tehran covertly supports the Houthi rebels. Yes, up until now, there are no cases in which Iranian troops are fighting Saudi troops but both sides prefer it this way knowing full well that an open frontal war will be devastating to both sides and could lead the world to a third world war.

And what about the endless meddling of Tehran in Saudi Arabia in the other Gulf states? Tehran openly and covertly supports local Shiite factions and militants in the Gulf states in efforts to overthrow the Sunni governments – this strategy is at the base of Tehran’s efforts to “Export the Revolution”. Whenever such local militants such Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia or Isa Qassim in Bahrain are busted for subversion, spying or terrorism, Tehran makes it a point to blast these countries for not adhering to human rights (a classic “pot calling the kettle black” situation). Bahrain is a particular sore point for both sides since Tehran continues to treat Bahrain as its “14th province” openly inciting the Shiite majority to overthrow the legitimate rulers. The Gulf States have united in denouncing Iran as an interference in internal affairs

And then there’s Hezbollah…Khamenei praised Hezbollah as “shining like the sun and are a source of honor for the Muslim world” with very good reason. In its efforts to “Export the Revolution”, Hezbollah plays a key role since it is not formally part of Iran and therefore can act as Iran’s proxy in numerous conflicts which Tehran wants to keep officially away from. Tehran has now added Shiite militias manned by Shiite extremists from the region to become another proxy military force in its conflicts. Riyadh, on the other hand, has succeeded in getting the support of the Arab League to denounce Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

But the animosity that Tehran holds for Riyadh is not limited to battle-fields. Just last week, Tehran tried to convince Kurdistan to oust the Saudi consul since it wasn’t sure to Tehran “what the Saudi Consulate is doing in Kurdistan?”. The response from the Kurds was to deem the call from Tehran an “irresponsible interference” and the Saudi consulate will remain.

The list of verbal, diplomatic and military attacks by Iran and its proxies on Saudi Arabia and its proxies goes on and on and is beyond the scope of this article. The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has always been simmering under the Sunni-Shiite divide but has boiled over due to the wars in Syria and in Yemen and due to the nuclear deal which has visibly strengthened Tehran’s diplomatic and military power in the region. In this context, Zarif’s claim that he does not “see any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other” means that he is a liar or psycho-schematically blind. Such statements should be thrown in to the large bucket of calls by Iran to unite Islam to confront the West when, in fact, Tehran really wants to unite Shiite Islam and “Export the Revolution” to other Muslim countries.

If Tehran really wishes to have a good relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, it should understand one simple guide-line; “practice what you preach”. You should not call Saudi Arabia “baby killers” for the casualties in Yemen if you are “killing babies” in Syria. You should not accuse Saudi Arabia of not giving local Shiites their rights to stand up to the government while Sunnis are being oppressed in Iran. You should not blame Saudi Arabia of meddling and interfering while being the biggest meddler in the region. You should not accuse Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism while you support terrorist organizations. You should not criticize Saudi Arabia for verbally slamming you while you issue such vile rhetoric at the Saudi rulers. You should not claim that Saudi Arabia is increasing the Muslim divide while you are constantly trying to export your Shiite Revolution to other Muslim countries.

 

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Who’s winning in the Middle East?

Looking at what is going on in the Middle East, it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate between the leaders who are pulling the strings and those whose strings are being pulled. Some might say that it doesn’t matter since the end result is the same and others might claim that there is a symbiotic relationship between the players and the played in which the roles are fluidly changing all the time.

The players in the region can be lumped into 6 distinct groups:

  • The active superpowers: countries who view the countries in the region as bases for proxy wars in their never-ending power struggles against each other – namely Russia and the USA.
  • The regional enemies: countries in the region which are leading “alliances” of other countries in the region – namely Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • The regional followers: countries who are following the lead of the regional enemies – these include Lebanon, Iraq and Syria supporting Iran and the Gulf/Arab states supporting Saudi Arabia.
  • The war zones: countries in the region which are ravaged by regional, civil and/or proxy wars – namely, Syria, Yemen and Israel/Palestine.
  • The leading fence-sitters: countries who are looking to increase their influence in the region mainly for economic purposes – namely China and the EU.
  • The opportunistic supporters: countries in the world willing to ally themselves to the regional enemies for economic, political, sectarian and/or religious purposes – Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Malaysia, Argentina, Cuba etc…

Let’s start with the active superpowers. It’s quite obvious that that Moscow has the upper hand over the US in the region for now: the retreat from Iraq and the nuclear deal with Iran, both led by President Obama, have antagonized regional allies and have definitely weakened Washington’s influence in the region while Moscow, under President Putin, on the other hand, has definitely stepped up its game to fill the vacuum. But this balance of power will soon lose its stability as President-elect Trump will take office. While Obama focused his efforts on changing the status quo of allies in the Middle East by forging the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump will most probably try to return to the US’s historical allies, Saudi Arabia. But for now at least, the balance of power is definitely in Moscow’s court.

As to the regional enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s quite obvious that, much like its big brother ally, Moscow, Tehran has the upper hand for now. With a nuclear deal which brought Iran out of its pariah status, with new found friends and allies, with trade delegations flying into Tehran to cash in on its market and with Bashar al-Assad on his way to winning the “civil” war in Syria, Tehran is definitely on a roll. Sure, nothing is perfect: Tehran has antagonized many, if not most, of the Arab countries, is watching on the sidelines as the Houthi rebels in Yemen are being crushed and worst of all, is still suffering from a weak economy. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, lost the warm support of the US, watched as the Syrian rebels it supported were defeated, is suffering from an all-time low in its economy and seems threatened by the possibility that Iran might one day build a nuclear bomb which will be aimed at Riyadh.

But the regional enemies would probably not be so adamant to fight out their fight in the war zones were it not for the regional followers which support them. In the case of Iran, Lebanon is a satellite state while Iraq and Syria are on their way to becoming satellite states as well. These are states which are content to follow in order to maintain strategic alliances. They might send a few troops to a war zone but they are mostly there for moral, economic and political support. Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran rhetoric would fall flat were it not for the support of the Arab League and the express support of many other Arab countries but these supporters are not yet ready to place their own soldiers in danger yet.

The war zones, specifically, Israel, Syria and Yemen, are where the conflicts surface beyond diplomatic tiffs or hate-filled and hate-inducing rhetoric. These are the areas where the agendas of the active superpowers and the regional enemies clash and explode and where people suffer the most: soldiers and civilians get hurt and killed, civilians live in fear or become refugees and life, on the whole, is on pause for most of the civilians. The leaders in these zones are playing for the visions they have of the countries that they lead and for their own political lives. In all three zones, foreign intervention from the active superpowers and the regional enemies is a basic part of the wars: Iran, for example, supports the Assad in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US, on the other hand, support the rebels in Syria, Israel and the Yemenite government. It’s all a big game in which civilians are used as collateral and winning is much more important than peace.

The fence-sitters embody the biggest question marks in the outcome of the conflicts in the region. China and the EU, for example, are trying to maintain alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Russia and with the US. They don’t want to take sides because taking a side might mean a lost opportunity. They want to profit from the situation. The EU will be selling passenger planes to Iran while China will supply Tehran with fighter jets. Money is the main impetus here and there is always a lot of money to be made from conflicts. For now, they are content to watch the active superpowers and the regional enemies fight it out without taking any side 100%. Oh sure, they feel bad about the victims of the war zones but not bad enough to really do something about it. But the fence-sitters are extremely important due to the potential of their loyalty – imagine if China were to openly ally itself with Iran – but it is exactly this potential which makes them more powerful. The active superpowers and the regional enemies are doing all they can to woo the fence-sitters to their sides but for now, the fence-sitters are doing what they do best: sit on the fence and gain power. For now, they are neither winning nor losing the game and retain their power by simply playing both sides.

And finally, there are the opportunistic supporters. Some are close by such as Turkey or India but some are much further away such as in Latin America. These countries are in the game for one of two reasons: making money or weakening a mutual enemy. Most of these supporters are not really interested in the conflicts in the war zones nor are they seriously worried about the outcome of these wars. They might have been lumped in with the regional followers or the leading fence-sitters but their level of involvement is so varied that it would not do justice to the other groups. They might choose one side or they might choose not to choose. They win if the regional enemy or the active superpower that they are supporting wins. Simple.

So here’s the score for now:

  • Active superpowers: Russia beats US with a wide margin but everyone is waiting for Trump.
  • The regional enemies: Iran beats Saudi Arabia with a wide margin but the game certainly isn’t over yet.
  • The regional followers: One would think that the regional followers of Iran are winning but since two out of three are ravaged by war, winning doesn’t have too many benefits.
  • The war zones: The government forces in Syria and in Yemen seem to be winning while Israel still has the upper hand.
  • The leading fence-sitters and the opportunistic supporters: All countries which are making money or increasing their powers are winning regardless of the outcomes in the war-zones.

And then, there are the ultimate losers – the victims in the war zones and the citizens of the regional rivals whose economies are being extinguished by the costs of war. They are the ultimate pawns for the game played by the active superpowers and the regional enemies. They cannot win unless one side gives up and they can only hope that their side will win.

 

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