Islam united in disunity

With the eruption of the Gulf-Qatar diplomatic crisis, the two distinct camps in the Muslim world have become more distinguished and clear.

On the one hand, the Saudi camp, along with Bahrain, UAE, Egypt and others. On the other side, Iran along with Qatar, Hezbollah, Hamas and other proxies. The global super powers have also taken sides. Russia works alongside Iran in the Syrian quagmire, and endows support to Iran and Hezbollah in international forums (like forcing the emittance of the name of Hezbollah from the recent UNIFIL mandate resolution). Although the US administration talks of bringing the sides together and reconciliation, at least among the GCC, Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his statements about Iran and his expressed support for the Qatar isolation seemed to clarify which side he prefers.

The dispute transcends a wide range of issues. Just to mention a few – Syria (Saudi Arabia supports insurgents seeking to topple the Assad regime, while Iran extends vast military and financial support to the regime), Yemen (Saudi Arabia backs exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, while Iran supports the Houthi rebels), Bahrain (Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the ruling Khalifa family which accuses Iran of stirring internal unrest), Hezbollah and Hamas (Iran supports both extensively, while Saudi Arabia demands a cessation of such support).

While both camps talk of “Muslim unity”, they both continue their proxy wars and harsh rhetoric against each other.

As reported in Newsweek recently, Iranian foreign minister Zarif recently stated “we are prepared to cooperate with Islamic countries on all issues that are important to the Islamic world”, he added “if the Saudi government is prepared to turn the page Iran is ready for that as well”, yet did not disclose how Iran was prepared to cease its activity or change its ways for this reconciliation. Rouhani was also quoted calling for unity, but most hypocritically rebuked “southern countries” for buying military weapons and launching armaments in the region, while totally ignoring Iran’s military build-up and proxies. De-facto Iran is saying, “accept us “as is” for reconciliation or leave us alone”. Those are the Iranian terms.

The Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir responded with the following: “the comments of the foreign minister are laughable, if Iran wants to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, it has to change its policies. It has to respect international law”.

Muslim unity? Don’t hold your breath. The divide between Muslim countries is much bigger that the uniters would like us to believe. And it’s not about the Sunni-Shiite divide – it’s about the nature of the uniters. If Tehran would want to unite the Islamic world while not trying to increase its own influence and export its revolution, the Muslim world could be united already. But as long as Tehran wants to be playing on the field and act as the referee, such ideals are too far-fetched.

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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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Khamenei’s New World Chaos

It would seem that two factors are influencing and re-shaping regional alliances. The first being the victories over ISIS (especially in Syria), and the second being the Qatar-Gulf crisis.

We are witnessing the creation of two distinct blocks. The first being the Saudi camp, including UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and others. It would be wrong to call it the “Sunni block”, as it is not entirely Sunni, but it can most probably be identified by the more “Western” alignment, as it has the support of the United States and other Western countries. The second block includes Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and a mix of proxy groups like the Hezbollah based in Lebanon, Houthis based in Yemen, the Hamas from Gaza, Shiite militants and others, has already been termed by the Gulf House as the “new axis of dissent”. They also cannot be identified by one Islamic religious school, or ethnic belonging, as they are a mix, but it is clear that the fighting forces are dominated by Shiite militants & proxies, and they are more aligned with Russia, at least in the fight in Syria. Despite different interests and ambitions, this opposition alliance is emerging as a clear block.

The Qatar-Gulf crisis was exploited wisely by Iran. By rushing to Qatar’s support, Iran drew Qatar closer into the “new axis of dissent” block. Qatar brings with it a rich financial resource. Turkey and Iran provide military might, willing aggression and an extended territory foundation.

The Saudi-UAE alliance did achieve a success in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, but that dwarfs in comparison to the territory gains by Iran. It is quite clear now that Syrian territory, liberated from ISIS, is becoming a stronghold for Iran and its allies. Shiite radicalism taking over from Sunni radicalism. As Andrew Taylor expects in Bloomberg “as Syria crumbles – only Iran is a sure winner“. Taylor continues and warns that “the Shiite crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean we have been talking about and fearing for decades is going to be formed in front of us”.

The problem surfacing from the new blocks is the lack of geo-strategic stability. The Saudi block may be more “nation-state” aligned, absent of a radical world dominating vision, but, as Kissinger wrote recently, they do lack a geo-strategic concept. They also lack determination. The problem with the “axis of dissent block”, is that they do have determination and they are leading to a clear future – not “new world order”, but “new world chaos”. The common factor at the moment in the axis of dissent block is the defeat of ISIS, but beyond that – all hell can break loose. The only prediction that seems to be correct is the appearance of a comparable entity to ISIS, or the creation of an Iranian radical empire.

Kissinger authored an article recently chaos and order in a changing world. If the vision of Iran domination in the Middle East comes true, we will fear the chaos and the order.

 

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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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Kuwait turns staunchly anti-Tehran

The camps are getting organized and consolidated. At first it was Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the Emirates that declared a boycott on Qatar, known today as the Qatar-Gulf crisis. By extension, they were also targeting Tehran. It became explicit when they issued their conditions for restoration of ties, and cutting back ties with Iran was one of the 13 sweeping demands to end the blockade. After all, they charged Qatar with two main accusations – its support of terror and its deep ties with Iran.

Historically, as reported in al-monitor, Kuwait tried to remain neutral and defuse tensions between the Gulf states and Tehran. Kuwait did not join the Saudi camp over tensions in Yemen, and despite the fact that Kuwait opposed the Assad regime it did allow the re-opening of the Syrian embassy in Kuwait. But, something snapped. Recently, Kuwait joined the band-wagon by expelling Iran’s ambassador, fourteen other Iranian diplomats and ordered the shutdown of Iran’s trade offices, cultural and military missions.

The “Daily Sabah” news outlet attributes the expelling to a “terror row“, referring to the “Abdali Case”, the Emirate’s supreme court conviction of an Iranian-linked terror cell. The terror cell had alleged ties to the IRGC and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist proxy, and were convicted of smuggling weapons from Iran. Yet, it is not limited to that affair. Kuwaiti’s parliamentary interior and defense committee MP Abdullah al-Maayouf was quoted stating “Iran must tend to its own domestic affairs instead of interfering in those of others”.

The Kuwaiti step is not insignificant. Firstly, it buries any hope of diffusion of tensions, as Kuwait, the beacon of such diffusion, joins the crowd. It reverses trends of reconciliation between Iran and Kuwait. It also has the potential of arousing unrest in Kuwait, as there are internal sectarian complications and wealthy Shiite families control Kuwaiti conglomerates. It may have political, energy and economic implications.

While some analysts warned that the Qatar-Gulf crisis could break up the six nation GCC, made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, UAE, it would seem that current developments are consolidating the GCC even more. Kuwait has chosen sides and that side is against Iran. The developments highlight the fact that Iran is losing its allies. It may enjoy military victory in Syria and Iraq, over ISIS, and increased control there, but it is losing ground in its home base.

 

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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 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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