Tehran defiant in face of sanctions

North Korea and Iran are often compared to each other, and for good reason. One of their similarities is the display of aggressiveness and defiance of current norms. Even though Iran does not spread nuclear threats, like North Korea, it does breed a special kind of action-reaction syndrome.

In response to the renewed sanctions enacted by the US congress against Iran, announced by the US department of the treasury, Tehran didn’t try to address the reasons of the sanctions. The regime in Tehran could have tried to make the case that the sanctions are unfounded but instead, it poured more fuel on the already raging bonfire. As reported in Newsweek, the responses were mainly a threat that it could be enriching Uranium to 20% (there’s a 5% cap in the nuclear deal) within five days, chants of “death to America” in the parliament and an increase in the military budget by 800 million dollars – 260 million intended for the ballistic missile program, 300 million to the IRGC Quds force and an additional 240 million for other military projects.

As reported in The New York Times, the bill goes further and calls upon the Rouhani government to prepare a strategic plan to confront the threats, malicious, hegemonic and divisive activities of America in the region. It also seeks to impose sanctions on the entire US administration and all CIA personnel. The NYTimes adds: “Iran’s armed forces, controlled by hard-liners, have been responding to American pressures with more, not fewer, missile tests — just as North Korea has”.

The problem is that Iran and the US play a bitter game of action and reaction. The new sanctions come from a different context. Not nuclear. Alongside the US sanctions are a list of defiant behaviors deriving from Iran, which led to US reactions. Tehran bragged of killing Americans, stating “America has suffered more losses from us than we have suffered from them”. Tehran continued to arrest and imprison dual Iranian-American nationals, leading to the necessity of a US Iran travel warning, cautioning any travel to Iran due to this risk. Tehran attempted and continues to attempt to infiltrate US universities, showing the way for the call on the federal authorities to investigate Iran’s subversive activity in American institutions. This all parallel to “muscular signals” directed by Iran against the USridiculing US demands, ruling out inspections of its military sites, continued engagement in dangerous navy altercations and conducting provocative rocket for satellite launches breaching UN resolutions.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the renewed sanctions focus on “Iranian malign activity”, despite certifying nuclear compliance. Action leads to reaction, leading again to further reaction.

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Tehran continues to meddle

Over the recent period, several reports have voiced public accusations against Iran for spy and sabotage activity. The lack of fear and unexpected openness is the big surprise.

It was recently released that the UAE convicted an Iranian national for spying for Iran and sentenced him to ten years imprisonment. Reza Mohammad Hussein Mozafar was found guilty of spying, aiding Tehran’s nuclear program and fraud to smuggle equipment and devices on behalf of Iran. The Abu Dhabi federal appeals court also found him guilty of harming the relations between the UAE and the USA, due to the fact that some of the devices were imported from the US for transfer to Iran, in violation of the UN sanctions.

The Gulf News documents additional cases. In April a person was found guilty of violating international sanctions against Iran, when attempting to smuggle devices which could be used in the Iranian nuclear program. In a separate case, two men were charged with espionage for the Iranian intelligence, and their hearing has been postponed to August 27. They were also charged with spreading false information. In an additional case, an Emirati was charged with espionage on behalf of Iranian intelligence, and his case was also postponed to August 27.

Only recently we wrote a separate piece on the Kuwait “Terror Row” titled Kuwait turns staunchly anti-Tehran, relating to the fact that Kuwait expelled Iranian diplomats and closed Iranian offices due to an operative secret Iranian linked terror unit. It’s also been revealed that Iran has devised new clandestine routes and methods for smuggling arms and financial support to the Houthis in Yemen. According to the report, cash and drugs are used in order to fund the rebel activity.

On Tajik state television, officials of the government and former activists accused Iran of instigating civil war in the country, including political assassinations and sabotage activity. This would seem to be the first time that Tajikistan openly accuses Iran of financing and directing political killings in its jurisdiction. It is a known fact that such an accusation would not be aired on Tajik state television without the consent of the leadership to release this information.

In addition, a senior Afghan officials have accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for providing safe haven for Taliban leaders and militants, while the elite Quds Force, which conducts covert operations, meets with the Taliban often and advises them. The head of Farah’s provincial council, Jamila Amini, stated “Iran’s interference is direct, it is engaged in encouraging youth to join the insurgency”. Afghan officials in the western provinces bordering with Iran are increasingly vocal about Iran’s interference. The conclusion is that Iran’s support for the Taliban has mushroomed and Iran is now seen as a major backer of the Afghan Taliban.

The astounding fact of all these cases is the fact that countries and officials voice their condemnation of Iran openly. Even countries which have never done this before. With so many accusations, it’s time to accept the simple truth: Tehran is a serial meddler in the region.

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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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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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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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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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