Tehran takes in Hamas leaders expelled from Qatar

The ultimatum set by Saudi Arabia and its allies, giving Qatar 10 days to meet 13 demands, expired. It’s unlikely that Qatar will shut down Al Jazeera, one of the 13 stipulations, but they have responded favorably to at least one of the items on the list. One of the key demands is cutting ties with extremist organizations, among them Hamas.

As proof that Qatar felt the pressure and took the threat seriously, Qatar turned its back on Hamas and revealed an un-willingness to host Hamas operatives anymore. Once it became clear that Hamas is no longer welcome in Qatar, the leaders of Hamas began to look for a new home.

Hamas turned to Tehran which rushed to the occasion, overlooking the previous “offense” of Hamas supporting the Syrian rebellion in opposition to Iran, and offered safe sanctuary for the Hamas leaders in Lebanon, under the protection of the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder and member of the Hamas, confirmed that the Iranian-Hamas bond is as close and as strong as ever. Saleh al Arouri, one of the most wanted terrorists, after being expelled last month from Qatar, along with other senior Hamas operatives, has apparently found a safe haven in Dahieh, the stronghold of the Hezbollah in Beirut. Thus, one of the results of the isolation of Qatar is a strengthening of Iran’s ties with extremists and extremist organizations.

In the past Iran could afford to cool its relations with Hamas, due to the fact that it was flying high with many friends. Now they seem to need every friend they can get..

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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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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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Tehran increases its support for Assad

Tehran’s responses to the US attack in Syria give us an insight into the multi-level politics involved.

Together with Moscow, Tehran accused the US of crossing red lines and threatened that in the future they will respond to such attacks “with all means that we have”. They also referred to the American attack as an act of invasion. In addition, Rouhani accused the US of “abetting Syrian terrorists“. All to be expected but what Tehran and Moscow managed to ignore are the millions of Syrians who celebrated the US attack and aren’t “terrorists”.

Rouhani continues to maintain full support for Assad despite the accusations that Assad may be behind the chemical attack and immediately blamed “terrorist groups“. But Rouhani has to rethink his support for Assad.

Despite overwhelming evidence, including eye witness accounts, independent media reviews and analysis, Syrian victim reports, medical staff descriptions, intercepted US  intelligence communications, the testimony of former Brigadier General Zaher al-Sakat on the chemical arsenal, and despite common sense, Rouhani sided with Assad with whatever claim he puts forward.

But it’s not only about what Assad says or does. Tehran’s blind backing of Assad includes determining who is and who isn’t a terrorist. According to Assad and Tehran, all forces who oppose Assad are “terrorists” to be compared with ISIS and all the militias (including Hezbollah and Shiite militias) are not.

But in the eyes of many of the Syrian people who have suffered immeasurable atrocities at the hands of Assad and his allies, Assad is the real terrorist, and accordingly those who support him (Iran’s forces in Syria outnumber Assad’s) . The Syrian Network for Human Rights counts more than 206,000 civilian deaths in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war, among them 24,000 children, attributing 94% of the killings to the Syria-Iranian-Russian alliance. From this point of view, it becomes clear that it is Iran which invaded Syria (over 6 years ago) and it is Iran which continues to openly and covertly support terrorism.

It is the Syrian people, suffering under the oppression of Assad and Tehran who remain a testament to Tehran’s hypocritical involvement in Syria, an involvement which clearly supports Tehran’s aspirations to “export the Islamic revolution” to Syria as it was dictated by Khomeini himself in the Iranian constitution.

 

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Pendulum swings to Saudi Arabia

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has torn apart the Middle East. From the Saudi-Iranian points of view, it is a zero sum game, with stakes running high. Both sides are fighting proxy wars in different regions of influence and are gathering their forces and allies,.

With the election of Trump as President of the USA, speculations sky-rocketed regarding the possible changes in foreign policy, especially regarding Iran. The calls came from all sides: the “Obama” camp appealed to uphold the nuclear deal and continue the appeasement efforts with Iran. The “conservative” camp suggested a need for a stronger hand in the implementation and improved supervision. The “Trump” camp called for scrapping the deal entirely. And yet, most focused narrowly on the nuclear deal, sidestepping the bigger picture – the vision for the Middle East in general.

Mid-march perhaps brought signs of change in this balance of power. Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman visit to the White House was a definite “turning point” and Tehran began to “feel the heat”. Some detected what they called a “significant shift in relations, across all political, military, security and economic fields“s meeting was based on the high profile of the meetings and the friendliness displayed on both sides. This meeting was followed in Congress with a bi-partisan support for bills imposing mandatory sanctions on Iran under the observing eye of the Trump administration.

Obama gambled on Iran. He gambled on the Shiite side. He thought that a change in relations between the US and Iran would bring about improved relations with the entire Muslim world. He even believed that such a relationship would moderate Iran.

None of the expectations were fulfilled. It is actually quite hard to find any benefits derived from the swerve towards Iran. Even the apprehending of dual American Iranian nationals did not improve. For the release of American captives, he still had to pay hard cash and the payoffs only encouraged the Ayatollahs to grab more Americans. On the way, he had to overlook the continued Iranian support of terrorism, global subversion, ballistic missile violations, internal oppression and gross human rights violations.

Although the Saudis are definitely not “saints” in the field of human rights, at least they don’t arrest and hold American citizens’ hostage as political pawns and don’t surprise you with missile launches. They visit with friendly faces, do not trample the American flag and do not sponsor popular chanting of “death to America”. They do support a peace process in the Middle East, and aspire to stability.

So, if Trump is not seeking the Nobel prize (which he most probably won’t get even if he brings world peace), then it would seem that he is going in the right direction.

 

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Award winning activists in Europe – Isolated prisoners in Iran

The announcing of an EU delegation to Iran was received with mixed feelings among activists and politicians alike. While any sign of cooperation and communication may be a positive sign and a beacon for a new way in the ongoing global debate with and over Iran, the arrival of such delegation with no preconditions could have been used by the Iranian regime as a proof of approval from the European union; and thus neutralize the effect of sanctions and diplomatic moves taken to create change of Iranian policies (in military and human rights aspects). The cancellation of the Delegation by Iranian parliament announced just now confirms the worries that Iran will only cooperate with the west on its own conditions, and is not willing to change.

The delegation was cancelled over the request to meet two activists awarded a Sakharov prize for Human Rights and freedom by the EU just this Friday.  The Iranian parliament mentioned in its decline that they are, in fact, prisoners. But they are not criminals – Their activity was political and involved with supporting the opposition after the questionable elections of June 2009. Appreciated, award winning activists in the west are isolated prisoners in Iran – Let this fact be remembered in all future negotiations with Iran. 

Al Jazeera reported:

Iran has cancelled a European Parliament delegation visit to Tehran after the group asked to meet two jailed Iranian dissidents awarded a top EU rights prize, a parliament spokeswoman said.

The decision came after senior officials at the parliament, which on Friday awarded its Sakharov prize for human rights and freedom of thought to filmmaker Jafar Panahi andhuman rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, said they wanted the delegation to meet the two activists.

“After hearing the new conditions, the Iranians decided to cancel,” European Parliament spokeswoman Satu Helin told the Reuters news agency. The delegation was set to travel to Tehran from October 27 to November 2.

Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted an Iranian parliamentary official as saying the European delegation had stated as a “precondition” a visit with Sotoudeh and Panahi.