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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ISIS, out. Hezbollah, in.

It is quite clear now that with every victory over ISIS, Tehran and it terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, are ready to fill the vacuum.

The fight against ISIS was exploited successfully by Tehran, for two objectives. The first – to establish an arc of influence, spreading from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The second – to consolidate and strengthen the “resistance axis”. Both objectives seem to have been achieved.

Several analysts have already declared Iran the winner in Syria (see for instance the Bloomberg article “as Syria crumbles only Iran is a sure winner“, and the paper issued by the Middle East Forum asserting “and the winner in Syria is Iran“). The same for Iraq. The NYTimes reckons that Iran dominates Iraq, and that “from day 1 Iran saw a chance to make a client state of Iraq and transform Iraq into a jumping off point to spread Iranian influence around the region, and in that contest Iran won and the US lost“. The commander of Iran’s Quds force, Kassem Suleimani himself, boasts that Iran now has the upper hand in the region. But it’s not really Tehran who is filling up the vacuum of ISIS, it’s Hezbollah since Hezbollah acts as a non-state proxy which is free to fight all of Tehran’s wars.

Ideological similarity leads to cooperation, as can be seen from historical and current cooperation between Tehran and al-Qaeda. It has already been exposed that Tehran has a long term secretive alliance with al-Qaeda. Recently, Somalia sent an urgent letter to the American ambassador, raising concern regarding cooperation between an al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab and Iran on the mining of uranium. According to the Somali warning, “global stability is at stake”. Apparently, the alliance is still at work.

Such cooperation or alliances should not come as a great surprise. Radical groups may be stark rivals, but with time, the common goal is a uniting factor. Tehran, al-Qaeda and ISIS are, ideologically, not so far from each other. They all support Islamic views of global domination, strong anti-Western inclinations and the goal of an idealized government based on Shariah law. They all engage in terror as a justified means. The strong alliance between Iran and Sunni elements (like Hamas, Turkey and Qatar) demonstrates the fact that the Shiite-Sunni schism can be overcome if the mutual goals exist. As al-Monitor claims  Tehran is focused on improving relations with Sunni actors in the Middle East. In their eyes, the end goal justifies the means.

And when that goal is to export the Islamic revolution, it’s Hezbollah which is on the front line. So, you can allow yourself some comfort in knowing that the monsters of ISIS are finally on the run but remember that the guys in Hezbollah are much closer to ISIS than you would hope for.

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Iran – between the US and Russia

Different forces are working in Syria in order to extricate ISIS. The “Syrian Military” are supported by Russia and Iran. The “Syrian Democratic Forces” are backed by the USA, and work together with a Kurd alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities. Although the US and Russia back different factions and hold divergent views on the political future of Syria, this could have served as an ideal opportunity for rare Russian-USA cooperation. After all, they are both fighting the same enemy. In addition, the US did fade its opposition to the Assad regime even cutting ties with Syrian rebel groups that fought to overthrow Assad.

As reported in Newsweek, Special Operations Commander of the US forces, General Raymond Thomas, revealed that the US has a less credible foothold in Syria, fearing that international law could prevent long-term American presence in Syria, due to the fact that American presence is deemed illegal by the Syrian government. He admitted candidly the fact that Russia calls the shots and the US presence depends on Russia’s good will.

Yet, while secretary of State Tillerson proclaims “the US is working with Russia to prevent a new war in Syria”, it would seem that Russia prefers other partners. Partners like Iran. The Newsweek article titled “Russia, not the US is calling the shots in the Middle East, with Iran and Iraq” speaks it out loud and clear. Recently, Russian deputy foreign minister Bogdanov met in Moscow with Iranian and Iraqi counterparts, to emphasize “the principled position of the three countries” on Syria.

Bogdanov even gave an explanation for the Russian choice, by linking geo-political issues. In relation to the new round of US sanctions against the US, he declared “I think that it does not add optimism regarding the possibility for us to coordinate our approaches towards a whole range of regional issues, including our relations with such an important partner as Iran”. In other words, Russia sees its relations with Iran as a pawn in its political maneuvering vis a vis the US. If the US enacts sanctions, well, there is always Iran.

Perhaps Russia should re-think its position on this. Russia and Iran may have the same agenda of upholding the Assad regime, but they have long term conflicting regional goals and ambitions. Some have referred to this weird alliance as “strange bedfellows” or “unholy alliance”. Russia will never be a party to the Shiite Muslim ideology and the revolution export that Iran pushes. Finally, Russia easily understands that by siding with Iran, it is distancing itself from the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia.

 

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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 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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Towards Presidential Elections in Iran – Evaluating Rouhani’s chances

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filling the vacuum vacated by ISIS

It would seem that the defeat of ISIS, at least in Syria and in Iraq, is coming near. Already  in October 2016 security analysts predicted the defeat of ISIS, as reported in express. Since then, the noose has been drawn closer and tighter.

In Mosul, reports (like aljazeera) are corroborating that neighborhoods held by ISIS are completely surrounded by anti-ISIS coalition forces.  According to theguardian, key Mosul sites have been seized from ISIS. cbsnews summarized “ISIS is cornered, desperate and leaving a trail of destruction in Mosul”.  Reports have surfaced regarding the leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, who has apparently abandoned Mosul and gone into hiding (see independent).

Losing Mosul has been projected to spell the end of ISIS’s ability to further control areas in Iraq. A bizarre coalition of Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Shia militias, Turkish forces, US airstrikes and others has brought about a change of tide.

The Syrian front is also nearing some kind of outcome. As reported on cbsnews, many areas in Syria are being liberated from ISIS strongholds. Although the battle still continues in Aleppo, it would seem that the Syrian army with the help of Russian military, have been able to re-conquer most of the city.

The Syrian front is no less complex than the Iraqi one. What began as a civil war around the legitimacy of the Assad regime has erupted into a full blown multi-state battle between ISIS and anti-ISIS coalitions. With Russia, Turkey, Iran, Afghan, Pakistani and other Shiite militias intertwined in the military efforts. As reported in bbc, it would seem that at least a quarter of ISIS territory has been already liberated.

With President Trump pledging to defeat ISIS and even signing an executive order to plan the defeat of ISIS in thirty days, it would seem that we are at a crucial stage.  It always takes the US some time to make the move, but once it does, history has shown us that that is a decisive moment. During the second world war, it took Pearl Harbor to draw the US into the war, three years into the bloody battles, but once that happened it was decisive.

So, it is time to start asking the question about the day after – who will fill the vacuum?

After WWII, we witnessed the ally forces splitting the territories amongst themselves, laying the foundation for decades long “Cold War” between the US (NATO) and Russia (Warsaw pact).

In Iraq, it is quite clear that Iran will maintain tremendous influence over any future political settlement, thus expanding the Shiite arc of influence way beyond the Persian Gulf.

What about Syria?

Assad is too weak and shattered to control anything. Russia, with all its might and power, will not camp down in Syria, thousands of miles away from homeland. Turkey may want to stay, but it would not seem to be feasible long term.

The real danger is an Iranian direct or proxy takeover, like it has done in Lebanon (with Hezbollah), in Yemen (with the Houthis) and in Iraq. Moreover – they have flooded the area with proxy fighters. Already the washingtonpost has warned that “thousands of Shiite militiamen” have led the charge in Syria, all loyal to Iran. These militias have bolstered Iran’s influence in Syria, alarming even officials in Assad’s government.  Philip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias is quoted stating “they are building a force on the ground that, long after the war, will stay there and wield a strong military and ideological influence over Syria for Iran.” Iran is there to stay. They will fill the vacuum, expanding Shiite influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, unless action is taken to avoid it.

Mistakes have been made in the past, like with the splitting of regions of influence following WWII. A bigger mistake would be to allow an entity like Iran to fill such a vacuum. It would seem that it is time for the powers to start planning the day after.

 

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Assad Becomes Weak Link Between Moscow and Tehran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zarif’s hypocrisy soars to new heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Who’s winning in the Middle East?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s the score for now:

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

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

 

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