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 eyes the Saudi alliance

Two years ago the Muslim anti-terrorism military alliance, set up by Saudi Arabia, was established. At the time it took the Muslim world by surprise, and some regarded it as a passing comedy of errors. Saudi Arabia setting up an anti-terrorism alliance sounded like a good joke, taking into consideration Saudi’s history in terrorism. Tehran wasted no time in criticizing the initiative: Rouhani managed to position Tehran as a fighter against terrorism in its over-publicized fight against ISIS while successfully hiding the fact that Tehran supports terrorist organizations so it only made sense to slam Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s biggest regional rival. Yet, as ludicrous as this initiative may seem, the alliance has not only survived, it has even expanded. Today it currently counts 41 members and recently the former Pakistani Chief General, Raheel Sharif, received approval to head the alliance.

In the tribune they enumerate three good reasons for this alliance:

  • Coordination by Muslim countries is key to combat Islamists extremists and terrorists who have hideouts, bases, training grounds etc…in these countries.
  • Since some of the members of this initiative have supported Islamist terrorists in the past, this venture will force them to disengage from terrorist organizations who have been proven to be unreliable and volatile.
  • A Muslim alliance against Islamist terrorism is a great platform to improve the image of Islam which was hijacked by Muslim extremists, an image which is defined by religious violence.

And then, Sharif called Tehran to join the alliance. Suddenly, Tehran found itself in a classic CATCH 22 situation: if it joined the alliance, Tehran would be forced to put aside its enmity for Saudi Arabia, and worst, it will have to give up on supporting Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. But if it didn’t join the alliance, it would be designated as the only country in the region to not join what seems to be a worthy cause: eliminating, or at least seriously weakening Islamist terrorism.

The upside of such an alliance would be monumental for the region and possibly for the world. If Tehran does join the alliance, this might be the beginning of the end of the regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia which would bury the chances of a regional or even a world war. Furthermore, by joining the alliance, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both supporters of terrorist organizations who are fighting each other in the proxy wars between both countries, will effectively be forced to stop funding terrorism.

But even more important, if Iran does join the alliance, it will take out the wind out of Trump’s threats to confront Iran: the US could not initiate a war against Iran if it’s allied with Saudi Arabia and if Tehran is seen by the world as a champion against terrorism.

So, it makes a lot of sense for Tehran to join the alliance. Unfortunately, the regime in Tehran did not survive until now through common sense and teaming up with Saudi Arabia, after years of bad-mouthing Riyadh, would feel like “drinking from the poisoned chalice” (Khomeini’s take on the peace treaty with Iraq) all over again.

No, Tehran will probably never join hands with Riyadh because doing so would seriously weaken its identity to its people and to its allies.

 

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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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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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The nuclear deal and the fall of Aleppo

When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the West looked worriedly on but did basically nothing. Oh yes, President Barak Obama did force Bashar al-Assad to desist from using chemical weapons but, on the whole, the war zones were empty of any Western influence. Assad warned the Western powers to stay out of the war while rolling out the red carpet for Tehran to take over the dirty business of a war which had ceased to be an internal “civil” war and now included Tehran’s own agenda in the area, namely supporting Assad, a Shiite-Alawite, in an effort to Export the Islamic Revolution to Syria. Tehran was only too happy to pour in Hezbollah, IRGC and Shiite militant troops while joining Assad’s warning to the West to stay clear of the region. For three years, the war trudged on with no clear winners and many losers.

In 2014, ISIS began its rampage, claiming to set up an Islamic state which would span from Syria to Iraq and inadvertently, the issue of the West’s support to ISIS in its infancy became the perfect cover-up: Tehran and Assad were killing terrorists who were backed by the Western powers and their proxies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Every horrifying act of terrorism by ISIS only strengthened this narrative even though the West had stopped supporting ISIS long before it began its rampage in 2014. But Assad and Tehran weren’t only fighting ISIS – in fact, most of the war efforts were focused on eliminating any form of opposition against Assad. These efforts took a heavy toll on the Syrian civilian population and led to a massive wave of Syrians fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe but the West still remained politely out of the war.

Meanwhile, the West was trying to clinch the nuclear deal which would, supposedly, keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. But the issue of the nuclear program seemed secondary to most of the EU representatives who eagerly awaited the cash in on the huge potential of the soon-to-be-opened Iranian economy. As the negotiations on the nuclear deal dragged on, the situation in Syria became worst for all sides and still, the West kept its distance, this time out of fear of endangering the nuclear deal. So while suited diplomats from all over the world haggled over the percentages of Uranium enrichment in fancy board rooms in Europe, Syrian men, women and children kept on suffering and getting killed.

The nuclear deal was finally signed in June 2015 and within four months, the red carpet was once again rolled out by Assad (and Tehran) to Moscow, Tehran’s newest and most powerful ally. Russian planes began bombing Syrian rebels while claiming, as before, that it was there for one reason and one reason only: eradicating terrorists. Moscow’s entry to the war was the beginning of the end for the Syrian rebels. It wasn’t only the issue of the Russian air force, it was the fact that such a superpower openly entered the war while the Western powers maintained their distance, demoralizing the Syrian rebels. All this was done while Assad, Tehran and Moscow continued to hypocritically warn the West to stay out of Syria.

Since day one, Tehran has claimed that the only solution to the war in Syria would be a political one and not a military one while at the same time, Tehran and Moscow have invested in the war in Syria tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the millions of refugees. This glaring discrepancy was once again ignored under the grand goal of eradicating terrorists and the West, once again, sat on the sidelines. As pictures, videos and information regarding the dire situation of the Syrian population leaked out to the world, the pressure on the West to take a stand increased but, once again, nothing. The danger of an escalation which might lead the West to fight against Russia was left the West frozen in indecision.

And then, the siege on Aleppo began and suddenly, the inaction of the West became more unbearable. Most of the troops involved in the siege of Aleppo were not even Assad’s: they were Shiite militants and Hezbollah troops which Tehran had organized. The city was split into two distinct areas: the Western part was pro-Assad while the Eastern part was anti-Assad. As the noose around the rebels tightened, the Russian planes kept on bombing. The war of conflicting narratives sounded like two distinctive echo chambers: One narrative spoke about “liberating Aleppo from the terrorists” while the other narrative spoke about “conquering Aleppo by Tehran and Moscow”. As the siege on Aleppo became more critical, the accusations from the West increased but apart from words, the West didn’t do a thing for fear of “rocking the boat” and being accused of supporting terrorists.

And then, Aleppo fell, or was “liberated”, depending on your point of view and this time, the war of words reached a much higher level. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, slammed Tehran and Moscow for having “no shame” in fighting Assad’s war and victimizing millions of Syrians in the process while the Russian ambassador to the UN pointed out that the US wasn’t “Mother Theresa” and was far from being a neutral “player” in the war. What he should have done is tell Power that Moscow and Tehran are not alone in having no shame and that the US should take responsibility over the fact that it shamelessly abandoned the Syrian people to a fate in the hands of Moscow and Tehran. History might not forgive the Iranians and the Russians for what they did in Syria but it won’t forgive the West either for what it didn’t do there either or as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

 

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Extended US sanctions do not breach nuclear deal

The US decision to extend its non-nuclear sanctions on Iran for another 10 years has elicited a lot of responses from Tehran. The common denominator of all the responses is that such sanctions breach the nuclear deal, implicating the US on trying to derail the deal. Even President Hassan Rouhani joined in on the cacophony of rants claiming that the US is “the enemy” and that these sanctions will lead to “harsh reactions” from Tehran. What Rouhani and the mullahs in Tehran prefer to not mention is that these sanctions are focused only on US entities and do not affect the economic relations between Iran and the rest of the world. “But, it’s still a breach of the deal, then isn’t it?” you say. Well, here’s where it all gets tricky since the status between Tehran and Washington is still stuck where it has been since 1979. In fact, the ink had barely dried on the nuclear deal when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decided to ban 227 US brands from the Iranian market while at the same time, forbidding the chief negotiators, FM Javad Zarif in particular, from negotiating anything with the US that wasn’t nuclear in nature and explaining why chants of “Death to America” while burning the US flag was justified.

Now some would quickly claim that even though the sanctions are not nuclear-related, they infringe on the “spirit” of the nuclear deal. They are 100% correct.

The “spirit” of the deal can be found in the mutual goal of Iran and Western countries to look to the future for peaceful relations instead of looking back to find all the reasons why Iran was isolated by the West in the first place. But from day one, such a spirit never really existed in Tehran. Tehran has always claimed that it would gladly sign the nuclear deal with the P5+1 but such a deal would not normalize in any way relations with the US.

In fact, that spirit, which President Barack Obama tried so hard to sell to the American public was cut down before it even had a chance to develop. Khamenei made sure that Tehran’s negotiating team did all it could to keep the nuclear deal focused only on nuclear issues. The P5+1, specially the US, tried to repeatedly introduce other issues such as missile tests, sponsoring terrorist organizations, supplying arms to the Bashar al-Assad in Syria and to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, harassing US navy ships in international waters etc… to no avail. The message from Tehran was clear: this was a nuclear deal and as such the only issues which would be relevant to the deal would be nuclear issues. As such, the renewed sanctions do not breach the deal itself.

So when Obama claimed that Tehran’s repeated long-range missile tests broke the spirit of the deal, Tehran loudly pointed out that such a spirit doesn’t exist. But this didn’t stop some Iranian leaders to pick up on Obama’s “spirit” of the deal to try to pressure the US to lift all sanctions which might impede the normalization of Iran’s economy.

Many people are wondering what will happen to the nuclear deal once Donald Trump takes over. One thing is certain, if there ever had been a “spirit” of the deal, it lived only in Obama’s administration and it will certainly die out under Trump.

The bottom line is this: Trump might lead the US out of the deal or he might even add a few more sanctions just to make a point. Such a move would not necessarily force any of the other co-signees of the deal to drop the deal but it would place Tehran and Washington back to where they were before the deal was signed – deep in the paranoid mentality that has been the bread and butter of relations between these two countries since 1979.

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Exporting the Revolution is simply Shiite Colonialism

Tehran is rightly deemed the “King of the Meddle East” for its continuous efforts to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors. It has done so in Lebanon, in Syria and in Iraq to great success, turning these countries into vassal states and has attempted to do the same in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Nigeria, Argentina and a host of Muslim countries.

The main force of Tehran’s meddlesome nature can be found in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s call to “Export the Revolution” to any and all countries in which people are “oppressed”.. More specifically, Tehran is focusing its efforts to export the revolution to countries in which Shiites are oppressed or countries with extreme anti-American sentiment. This ideal was meant to be the answer to the “colonial hegemony” of the West since the Islamic Revolution was seen by Khomeini as a successful challenge to Western rule. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has created his own adaptation of Khomeini’s “export the revolution” strategy by calling for a “Global Islamic Awakening” and a “New Islamic Civilization” which is meant to take over from the “colonial”, “imperialistic”, “arrogant” and “oppressive” rule of the West, and specifically, the domination of the “Great Satan”, the USA.

But ironically, “exporting the revolution” is turning out to be simply another form of colonialism. While the Europeans pursued colonialism in order to profit from their colonies, Tehran is “exporting the revolution” in order to expand its influence in order to create a Global Islamic Awakening which is definitely Shiite in nature. While the Europeans ruled their colonies with their armies, Tehran rules its vassal states such as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria through a mixture of local militants and its own military forces. While the Europeans oppressed the natives of their colonies, Tehran is introducing its oppressive Islamic rule through local Shiite leaders.

The potential for exporting the revolution is enormous and the stakes are incredibly high: although Shiites make up only 15% of all Muslims in the world, most Muslim countries are satisfied to live their lives in peace within their borders. The call to “export the revolution”, a Shiite Islamic revolution, is a call to enhance the power of Tehran and each country that “imports” the revolution is bound to support Tehran in its expansionist vision.

At the forefront of these efforts are Hezbollah and the elite Quds forces of the IRGC and the strategy is actually quite simple: identify and empower local Shiite militants to overthrow legitimate governments or, as in the case of Syria, empower Bashar al-Assad, a Shiite-Alawite to suppress non-Shiite militants. Hezbollah is a key factor in this strategy since it allows Tehran to deploy military might without involving directly its own army. Now, Tehran is upping the ante by empowering Shiite militants independent of Hezbollah in its wars in Syria and in Iraq. In Syria, Shiite militants are at the forefront of Assad’s civil war – in fact, it’s estimated that most of the military personnel taking part in the siege of Aleppo are Shiite militants. These militants are accused of fighting as fiercely as ISIS and although they are made up of recruits from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, they are all 100% loyal to Tehran and to Tehran alone.

In Iraq, the presence of Iranian police and Shiite militants is growing daily as more Shiites are substituting the yearly Hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia with a yearly pilgrimage to Arab’een in Iraq. This shift in importance of destinations for pilgrimages follows the breakdown in efforts to allow Shiite worshippers from Iran to go to Mecca due to the strained relations between Tehran and Riyadh. Since Iraq is predominantly Shiite, the whole issue of Shiite militants in Iraq isn’t ruffling to many feathers but some Iraqis, just as some Lebanese and many Syrians view Tehran’s efforts as a foreign interference meant to take over the country.

But Tehran isn’t content to deal only with Shiite militants and is open to working with any other militants who are willing to cooperate. In this manner, strange partnerships evolve such as the growing relations between Tehran and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, Afghan security forces have lodged a formal complaint against Tehran for supporting the Taliban financially and militarily. As one Taliban leader was quoted: “The movement is trying to benefit from all legitimate means to reach a regional agreement as part of the war against the American invasion”.

So while Tehran speaks of “exporting the revolution” as part of its war against European colonialism, it is in fact simply trading a capitalistic-oriented form of foreign rule for a religious-oriented from of rule. Sure, there are differences but in the end, the results are similar: the local populations are ruled by foreign powers.

 

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