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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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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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 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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Persian Gulf On the Brink

For the past two years, Rouhani has kept on hammering his four “commandments”, which, taken together, are meant to change the perception/brand of Iran from a religious, extremist, aggressive, subversive and isolated country to a country everyone (well, nearly everyone) would want to be friends with:

  • Thou shall not build nukes: The long-awaited JCPOA seems to justify this commandment and Tehran is now pushing for a global banning of nukes in the hope of denuking Israel – Critics will note that the JCPOA is not “water-tight” that it does not effectively bar Tehran from building nukes in the future.
  • Thou shall fight against terrorism: Redefining terrorism, terror-bashing and fighting ISIS in Iraq and in Syria are posed as “proof” of Rouhani’s WAVE initiative to fight terrorism and extremism – Critics would counter that Tehran continues to support terrorist militia such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas etc…and continues to support local Shiite militia in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia etc..
  • Thou shall lead Iran out of isolation: The nuclear deal, the numerous trade delegations and the popularity of Rouhani/Zarif in the West are all bridges meant to legitimize Iran – Critics would point out that the nuclear deal is far from being implemented and that any breach of the deal, from either side, will place pressure on all of Tehran’s new partners.
  • Thou shall not meddle in thy neighbors’ affairs: The repeated calls for Islamic unity are meant to turn this commandment into a fact although the truthfulness of this call and its practicalities remain questionable – Critics will say that Tehran is still dutifully trying to “export the revolution” by infiltrating governments through pro-Shiite/Tehran groups.

Rouhani may have been able to successfully sell his new brand of Iran to its proxies/allies (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq), to the NAM countries it represents, to the EU and even to the US, but some of its neighbors, specifically Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and now, Yemen, are not buying in. Instead, they are breaking diplomatic ties and getting ready for more proxy wars or even the possibility of a direct war with Tehran.

 

Tehran-Riyadh Rivalry


Tehran and Riyadh have been regional enemies since the Islamic revolution. Tehran, keen on “exporting the revolution“, wants to oust the ruling monarchy in Saudi Arabia in favor of an pro-Shiite Islamic government. The Saudis look on Tehran as the meddling neighborhood extremist which has to be brought to order.

The rhetoric between Tehran and Riyadh, which has always been fiery in the past is reaching explosive levels: The last incident to spark some fiery rhetoric is Tehran’s politicizing of the pilgrim tragedy in Mina, Saudi Arabia. Tehran is not only accusing Saudi Arabia of mismanagement, it is hitting home in many different ways that the tragedy a) was pre-planned by the Saudis to kill Iranian pilgrims, b) proves that Saudi Arabia is incapable of managing the Hajj and c) is worthy enough to spark a war. Whether Tehran really believes that the tragedy was not an accident or whether it is ready to begin an out-and-out war with Riyadh is questionable but the message is clear: Tehran feels strong enough to butt heads openly with Riyadh.

The Saudis have been on edge since the beginning of the nuclear negotiations have retaliated with their own fiery rhetoric ranging from threatening to enter the civil war in Syria, accusing Tehran of trying to arm the Houthi rebels in Yemen, purchasing its own nuclear weapons and more.

 

Choosing Sides

Tehran’s neighbors have always been subject to its meddling on political and military levels. In some countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq), Tehran has succeeded in becoming the de facto leaders the countries while in others (Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan), it is still striving to do so.

Tehran’s methods of subversion focus mainly on identifying and supporting defiant, and predominantly pro-Shiite, factions in neighboring countries. These factions or militias receive money, weapons and training by Tehran or its proxies (mostly Hezbollah) in the hope of overthrowing the local government. In the case of Yemen, they actually succeeded in doing so for a while until the Saudis began an open war against the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels.

The targets of Tehran’s meddling and subversive nature have to take sides and it is no surprise that Yemen, Bahrain and the UAE have chosen Riyadh over Tehran, recalling diplomats from Iran.

Kuwait hasn’t severed diplomatic relations yet but has also been targeted by Tehran’s meddling and is currently in the process of a trial of 26-man Iranian-backed terror cell this month.

Even Lebanon, which has long been under Tehran’s rule is accusing Tehran of medlding in its presidential elections, an accusation that was, of course, dismissed by officials in Iran.

Tehran, riding high on its new-found popularity with Russia, China and the EU is testing the limits of its power in the region. Its new friends are attracted to the huge potential economy a sanction-free Iran will represent but its neighbors are less interested in the potential economic boom with Iran. Instead, they are worried that Tehran’s regional and global aspirations, guided by the will to “export the revolution”, will mean an increase in  meddling in their governments’ businesses. The nuclear deal, which was supposed to bring peace to the region has only “deepened” the existing “battle lines”.