Connect with us

MIDDLE EAST

Untangling the Threads of Iran’s Nuclear Narrative

Published

on

Untangling the Threads of Iran’s Nuclear Narrative
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a televised video conference with an audience in the city of Tabriz commemorating the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Khamenei vowed that his country would ramp up development of its civilian nuclear energy program, as major world powers continued delicate talks in Vienna to revive Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal. Khamenei asserted that it had no interest in nuclear weapons. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

It’s been a busy few weeks for Iran-related headlines: domestic turmoil triggered by the death of a Kurdish woman while in custody for allegedly violating rules on wearing the hijab; negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal; and the release of an elderly former UNICEF official after more than six years.

All of which has Iran watchers wondering: Will these separate events weave a new narrative about Iran, its likely course, and US responses in the coming months?

Iranian society, led by women and girls, has converged in most of Iran’s major cities and towns to shout a new slogan: “Woman, Life, Liberty.” Unlike protests of the past that were staged mainly by educated elites against election irregularities, recent demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini appear to have tapped into a wider demographic and have more universal appeal. 

Young girls are mocking security forces, parading their veils on sticks, and showing a bravery and defiance unlike previous revolts against the cruelties of the Islamic Republic.  

Few are willing to speculate that this could be the end of Iran’s “revolution” and the beginning of real political change. The geriatric leaders in Tehran haven’t offered a word of empathy for the protesters, and the security forces they command have killed several dozen and imprisoned thousands.  

It’s equally impossible to predict how these protests will play out. The passion of protesters could fade, or the regime might offer concessions that would undercut momentum on the street. But it’s also conceivable that a deeper unraveling will occur, given the other stresses on Iran – from sanctions and international isolation to diminished opportunities for millions of young people.  

At the same time, Iran’s leaders face some hard choices regarding the nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). There has been a slow dance between the US and Iran, orchestrated by the other parties to the agreement and officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. The two sides have exchanged proposals and, as recently as August, some believed an agreement was within reach. 

Those hopes were dashed when Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the United Nations General Assembly in late September, accusing the West of nuclear hypocrisy.

Diplomats close to the negotiations now see Iran reintroducing issues that had been resolved – such as the timing of an IAEA safeguards investigation – perhaps acting to delay any decision until after the US midterm elections in November. The mood on the US side, especially among those who prefer an imperfect agreement to the uncertainties of no agreement, has darkened

Optimists might hope that these threads will come together to weave a new narrative for Iran’s leaders, such as compromising on the JCPOA to improve their image and credibility. Yet there’s little evidence from Iranian history that such logic will prevail. 

To the contrary, the most likely impact of the veil protests is to make the regime more rigid. The regime is always prone to the belief that foreign powers are causing Iran harm. Because Western countries, including the US, are doing what they can to support the protests, one can assume that any spillover to JCPOA will be negative, not positive.

The final event impacting US-Iran relations is the recent release of an Iranian-Americans held by the regime since 2015. Baquer Namazi, the 86-year-old former UNICEF official, has traveled to the United Arab Emirates for medical treatment. Iran had previously dismissed charges against him but hadn’t allowed him to leave the country.

His 51-year-old son, Siamik Namazi, had been given a temporary release from Evin Prison but was forced to return this week.

The US has acknowledged indirect talks with Iran over Baquer Namazi’s release, but details are scarce. It’s possible that he was released out of fear for his medical condition, not as part of a swap or negotiation.

In July, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order about unlawfully detained Americans, formalizing the diplomatic process for seeking release of US citizens wrongfully held. It permits more penalties for hostage holders and allows the US government to share more information with the families of detainees imprisoned by non-state actors or by governments.  

In other words, the US is keeping hostage release efforts separate from the give and take of other ongoing work, such as the JCPOA. So, while it’s understandable to think that there must be a master plan that brings all these discrete events together in Washington’s Iran policy, the truth is that the US government is trying to do the opposite.

In 1989, George H.W. Bush signaled to Iran that “goodwill begets goodwill,” the notion that progress in one arena would spill over to other issues in dispute. But coming on the heels of the Reagan administration’s Iran Contra scandal in the 1980s, which included a scheme to swap arms with Iran for hostages in Lebanon, Bush’s interconnected policy approach eventually fell flat.

Similarly, it’s best to think of this current moment as a messy mix of challenges, some bringing heightened attention to Iran’s human rights conditions, and others in the multifaceted security arena, from Iran’s ongoing nuclear activities to its activism across the region from Syria and Iraq to Yemen. While it’s tempting to weave a connected narrative on US-Iran relations, history is rarely so neat.

Ellen Laipson is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council.

Advertisement
Click to comment

MIDDLE EAST

Finding Syria’s Disappeared Requires More Than a New Institution

Published

on

Finding Syria’s Disappeared Requires More Than a New Institution
Refugees return to the war-torn city of Aleppo, Syria.Natalia Sancha (EL PAÍS)

Since the Syrian uprising erupted more than a decade ago, tens of thousands of Syrians have simply vanished. Protestors arrested at checkpoints, men and women taken from their homes, regime opponents bundled into cars in the middle of the day. Perhaps 100,000 people – maybe fewer, maybe many times more – have disappeared, with their families having only the dimmest idea of where they are or whether they are even alive.

For the Assad regime, forced disappearance has become a weapon of war and a powerful one at that, inspiring fear, uncertainty and, for the families left behind, years of questions.

In trying to solve it, the United Nations is now reaching for a new tool, a new institution that would coordinate the claims of Syrians inside and outside the country. At the moment, questions and claims about family members inside the country – mainly held by the Assad regime, but also by a variety of groups operating on Syria’s territory – are filed with a variety of NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Some of these claims emerge when family members claim asylum abroad, or when they are processed in refugee camps. Some are filed by family members who are citizens of Arab or European countries.

Because of the haphazard nature of the filings, and because the Assad regime isn’t sharing information about who is in its prisons, there is no way to be sure who is missing, nor to offer families information and support, nor even to assemble sufficient information to be able to demand the Assad regime allows access to places of detention.

Yet while the idea of a new mechanism has been percolating through international institutions for some time, and while the idea now has support at the highest levels, with the UN secretary-general releasing a report putting forward the idea in August, and the UN Human Rights Council adopting a resolution on the mechanism just last week, it is still an idea whose time has not arrived.

Not because it would not inch forward the process of finding answers for the disappeared, but because it would still put most of the power in the hands of the regime.

Any such institution would only work at the whim of the regime. And for the Syrian regime, disappearances are a weapon it will not easily give up.

Enforced disappearances are not an oversight of a state fighting a war; they are one of the regime’s most powerful weapons for silencing opposition and dissent. The regime is not the only group on Syrian territory accused of enforced disappearances, almost every group from the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham to the Syrian Democratic Forces to, of course, ISIS have been accused of it. But the overwhelming number of those who have vanished have done so on regime-controlled territory.

The reason disappearances are so valuable for pacifying the population is that vanishing someone – say the father of a family – doesn’t merely impact that person, but has an impact on the entire family, who are dependent on the regime for answers. Without any answers or a body to bury, the family cannot move on – they cannot sell property, for example, or access insurance payments.

That is not a weapon the regime will easily give up, and certainly not if it means essentially admitting to crimes that may be prosecutable. This is where the major flaw with the idea of any new mechanism for disappearances becomes apparent. Because actually making the mechanism work will, in fact, be up to the regime.

Even the UN acknowledges this, noting in its report that, “until the new mechanism gains the support of the [Syrian government], it would be subject to similar territorial and access limitations as OHCHR.” This is a reference to the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, a UN body that is meant to report on and monitor the situation for human rights within Syria, but that is in fact confined to Beirut.

Indeed, not only would the regime have to comply with the new mechanism for it to work, but it would need to agree with the “international mandate” that the UN imagines this new mechanism would have – something that even countries not engaged in a war might baulk at, claiming an infringement of national sovereignty, given that all those involved are citizens of Syria.

Worse, the Syrian regime would need to sign off on whoever would lead this mechanism. The UN report doesn’t take a position on who should lead it (“or co-lead”) but it is impossible to imagine that the regime would accept anything other than Syrian control or the control of an allied country. Which puts the mechanism in the circular situation of the regime leading a mechanism meant to investigate the crimes of the regime – crimes which, by the way, the regime says didn’t happen.

Indeed, we can already guess how the regime would handle this new mechanism, assuming it doesn’t ignore it altogether. The Syrian government does work with outside bodies, for example the Red Cross – and while it has allowed humanitarian aid into the country, and allowed international groups to operate, the regime deals with them in a heavily politicized way, closing borders on a whim or turning back convoys at checkpoints. That is exactly how the regime would handle any new mechanism.

It is unsurprising, after so many years of war, that the international community is seeking any mechanism for bringing about some progress on the Syria file. But a new mechanism is not the panacea. A new institution for Syria will not bring answers to the thousands of disappeared. But a new government in Syria might.

Syndication Bureau__________________

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Continue Reading

MIDDLE EAST

Empowering MENA’s Female Workforce

Published

on

Empowering MENA’s Female Workforce
According to a report by McKinsey, if women’s equality is advanced, it could add approximately $12 trillion to GDP by 2025 - KT file

In recent years, a seemingly endless stream of conferences, workshops, and studies have been conducted to answer a key question for countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Why do so few women in the region work?

Currently, just 19 percent of MENA’s labor force is female, the lowest worldwide. Despite plans and policies to address the gender gap in employment, women remain sidelined at work, which is hurting families and suppressing GDP growth across the region.

While the situation is not uniform in all Arab countries, the reasons that keep women out of the labor force are endemic.

It’s not that women aren’t eager to work outside the home, but legal discrimination, social norms, the burden of childcare, low wages, harassment, gender-related biases in hiring, and a dearth of safe transportation options are among the many barriers hindering employment ambitions.

And while none of this is new – strengthening female labor force participation has been a global development goal for decades – governments’ efforts to pursue labor market, education, and structural reforms continue to languish. 

Although the region’s women are better educated than ever, educational attainment has not translated into an increase in jobs. In fact, the unemployment rate among young women in Arab countries is 42.5 percent, nearly double that of young men (21.4 percent) and almost three times the global average of 14.9 percent.

In conflict-riddled countries like Yemen and Iraq, female labor force participation is the lowest in the region – 6 percent and 11 percent, respectively. But even in Jordan, a country not at war, only 13 percent of women work outside the home, according to the World Bank.

Jordan’s struggles to close this gap are illustrative. Already burdened with high unemployment – it hit 23 percent last year – the country has faced a confluence of negative economic trends, not to mention disruptions caused by COVID-19. And despite reforms to school curriculum, the education system continues to stereotype and sideline women, depicting them as inferior to men and limiting their role in society.

Given these failings, it’s not surprising that women are underrepresented in politics. There are just 15 women in the 130-member lower house of parliament – the minimum required under a gender quota system. In the cabinet, there are only two women, while 28 other ministerial positions are occupied by men.

In a patriarchal society, social norms are not easy to change. Challenging gender stereotypes and granting women equal rights often raises the ire of conservatives and Islamists, who see progress as an attack on Islamic values or linked to foreign agendas.

Sadly, these are not fringe ideas. A 2019 United Nations study found that in Jordan, weak legal protections and harmful views on gender conspire to keep women out of the labor force. These challenges were found at “every possible level directly and indirectly,” the report said, ranging from “what kind of work and what working hours are considered socially acceptable …to gender assigned roles that limit women’s role to child rearing and housekeeping.”

Three years later, little has changed. Jordan scored 46.9 out of 100 in the Women, Business, and the Law 2022 report, an index covering 190 countries that assesses the laws and regulations that impact women’s economic opportunities. Jordan’s score is lower than the regional average of 53 percent.

It’s inexplicable that women in Jordan, who can receive alimony payments, still need a spouse’s consent to work. It is even more frustrating that a male guardianship system intended to protect women imposes restrictions on their mobility, and even allows a male guardian to report women absent, subjecting them to arrest.

As consumer prices continue to rise, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for families to survive on one income. Many women want to work, but social conditioning has taught men that it’s a wife’s duty to do the household chores and to raise the children. A husband who shares responsibilities with his partner is viewed as doing his wife a favor. 

To be sure, the region has begun to bridge the gender divide with policies, laws, and well-meaning commitments to change. In Saudi Arabia, where the country is undergoing radical economic and social reforms, the rate of employment for women has risen dramatically to more than 30 percent. In other Gulf countries, like the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the figure is nearly 50 percent.

 Despite these gains, much work remains. Possible steps include protecting women from discrimination during pregnancy and while on maternity leave; establishing workplace nurseries; and penalizing employers that discriminate based on gender.

And yet, lasting improvements in women’s workforce participation – in Jordan and beyond – will require the implementation of laws that empower women in all aspects of life. Social norms and stereotyping must be challenged – in the media, at school, in the home. The women of MENA are not inferior to men; the kitchen is not our kingdom. We have so much more to offer than that.

Syndication Bureau_____________________

Suha Ma’ayeh is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.

Continue Reading

MIDDLE EAST

As Living Costs Surge, Syria’s Civil Servants Head for the Exits

Published

on

As Living Costs Surge, Syria’s Civil Servants Head for the Exits
Refugees return to the war-torn city of Aleppo, Syria. Natalia Sancha (EL PAÍS)

Since the start of the year, hundreds of Syrian civil servants have reportedly resigned from their jobs, angered over meager pay that is barely enough to cover the cost of their commute. 

Fearing that the trend could spread, the Syrian regime is using a carrot and stick approach to ensure that public institutions continue to function. In addition to promised salary increases and one-off bonuses, the government is enforcing multiple measures to make the resignation process difficult, and costly.

For now, these tactics appear to have staunched the flow of resignations. But until salaries are brought in line with Syria’s surging cost of living, the success is unlikely to last.

Government jobs in Syria were once highly sought after. They provided people with job security (being fired was almost unheard of), and promotions and salary increases were guaranteed. Most civil servants – such as teachers, doctors, and members of the armed forces – were rarely stressed, working only a few hours a day and having ample public holidays.

The main downside was the pay, equivalent to about $400 per month for most positions. Yet even this was enough to make ends meet.

None of these benefits exist now. The average monthly wage of a civil servant today is less than 100,000 Syrian pounds, or about $23. Put another way, civil servants’ salaries have lost nearly 80 percent of their value since the civil war began in 2011.

Economic and political forces are exacerbating these trends. The devaluation of the Syrian pound, unprecedented levels of inflation, lack of essential commodities, and the global implications of the war in Ukraine have significantly increased the cost of living in Syria and created an unprecedented gap between income and expenditure.

The average cost of living for a Syrian family of five exceeded 2.8 million Syrian pounds in March, more than 28-times the average government salary. Hence, it’s not surprising that many civil servants are trying to find something better, either at home or abroad. 

The Syrian regime doesn’t release reliable figures, so it’s difficult to know how many of Syria’s roughly 700,000 public sector workers have left their jobs. But media reports suggest that hundreds, if not thousands, of government employees in various governorates, including Sweida and Latakia, have quit since the beginning of the year. 

The number of workers whose resignation requests are still pending, or have already been rejected, is believed to be even higher

Over the last decade, tens of thousands of Syrian civil servants have abandoned their posts. According to an April 2021 report by the Danish Immigration Service, an estimated 138,000 cases involving workers leaving a public position without notice were filed with courts between 2011 and 2017. Of the 50,000 verdicts, 38,000 cases were decided in favor of the state and 12,000 in favor of the employee.

Punishments ranged from fines to being charged with terrorism; the Syrian government considers defection from a public sector position to be a political action or an anti-government activity, the report said. 

Punitive measures aren’t the regime’s only course of action. Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, who has conceded that salaries are significantly lower than living costs, raised public sector pay by 30 percent in December 2021. Since then, government officials have promised an additional 25 percent increase, though that raise has yet to be delivered.

The regime has also been providing one-off bonuses. Government employees received an additional 75,000 pounds in April, and another 100,000 pounds in August. The government has even increased the tax-free allowance, to 92,000 pounds from 50,000 pounds, meaning that most civil servants pay little to no income tax.  

 But these measures were too little, too late for many, and the resignations continued. In response, the regime issued a directive last month that ministries must be stricter when reviewing resignation requests, and an application can only be approved if the employee is no longer needed by their department. Even then, decisions to grant separation must be approved by the national intelligence agency. 

Given these added layers of bureaucracy, many employees’ resignation requests are being automatically rejected. Those that aren’t are subject to interrogation by security forces, a clear intimidation tactic designed to keep people in their jobs.

Only a handful of Syrians have successfully turned in their government-issued IDs in recent months. Many civil servants, especially those who have decided to remain in Syria, are likely hanging on out of fear.

But the deteriorating economic situation in Syria means that without stronger intervention, the gap between income and living expenses will continue to widen. The regime’s current policy of providing small salary increases and one-off bonuses is failing to improve morale, and public sector workers are unlikely to be satisfied until they are paid a livable wage.

Otherwise, there will come a time when civil servants have no choice but pursue work that covers more than the commute to the office.

Syndication Bureau_________________

Dr. Haid Haid is Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a senior consulting research fellow of the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Program. Previously, he was a program manager on Syria and Iraq at the Heinrich Böll Foundation Middle East Office in Beirut. He also worked as a senior community services protection assistant at UNHCR’s Damascus office. He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology, a postgraduate diploma in counseling, master’s degrees in social development and conflict resolution as well as a PhD in war studies. His main research interests include security, conflict, governance, non-state actors and preventing and countering violent extremism.

Continue Reading

MIDDLE EAST

Iraq is Heading for Civil War, Washington Must Not Take Advantage

Published

on

Iraq is Heading for Civil War, Washington Must Not Take Advantage
An Iraqi protester rests in front of a mural in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on November 8, 2019 as the Iraqi capital braces for another day of anti-government demonstrations. - Taking vibrant spray paint to Baghdad's grimy concrete walls, Iraqi artists protesting against the government -- many of them young and female -- are sketching out their vision for a brighter future. Their murals have transformed a monochrome tunnel leading into the main protest camp in Tahrir (Liberation) Square into a revolutionary art gallery. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Ten months after Iraq’s pro-Iran bloc was soundly defeated in Iraqi parliamentary elections, and less than a week after Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr announced his retirement from political life, a stalemate between Shia who oppose Tehran and those who support it seems to be leading the country toward civil war. Yet this is only half the story.

There’s a pattern that connects US policy on Iran and civil wars in the Middle East. Whenever Washington offers Arab countries up as prizes to Iran for the freezing of uranium enrichment, those same Arab countries – usually with significant Shia populations – plunge into conflict. This happened in Lebanon in 2008, in Iraq and Yemen in 2014, and is happening again in Iraq.

Previous civil wars in the Middle East were preceded by allegations in Washington that respecting Iranian interests in the region was key to peace. Today, those same arguments are being made by the same American leaders, only this time they occupy the White House.

In 2012, US forces had just withdrawn from Iraq. At the time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was serving as the national security advisor to then-Vice President Joe Biden. Blinken oversaw the Obama administration’s Iraq portfolio, making him the top White House official on Iraq. In a March 2012 speech, Blinken argued that “Iraq and Iran will inevitably be more intertwined than we, and many of its neighbors, would like.” While he acknowledged that the majority of its leaders were resistant to outside influence, including from Iran, crucially, he did not say the US would help them resist.

Tehran interpreted that statement as Washington green-lighting its dominance of Iraq. Coming amid a campaign by then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to purge Sunnis from power, it also coincided with the rise of ISIS and eventual takeover of the northwest in 2014. An inter-Iraqi war ensued, with America leading a global coalition against ISIS.

In both Iraq and Iran, the majority is Shiite, which has prompted Tehran to try to use Shiism to override the national divide, subdue Iraqis, and make them pledge allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But not so fast. Most Iraqi Shiites have proven to be patriotic, regardless of their religious affiliation, and as such have opposed Tehran’s dominance at home. These Iraqis expressed their sentiment when they roundly defeated Iranian incumbent lawmakers in parliamentary elections in October, leading the pro-Tehran parliamentary bloc to shrink to 15 members from 75.

Losing its majority, the pro-Iran coalition tried to torpedo election results but failed. It then hoped to kill a parliamentary quorum, but an anti-Iran majority formed, and in January, anti-Tehran Speaker Mohammad Al Halbousi was reelected.

Then, just when the anti-Iran majority was about to elect a president and designate a prime minister, the Iran bloc convinced the Iraqi Supreme Court to ignore democratic rules and declare that a supermajority of two-thirds was required for a quorum to elect a president and form a cabinet. In parliamentary systems, like in Britain and Israel, only a simple majority is required to govern. Supermajorities are for big decisions, such as constitutional amendments.

As Iraq’s stalemate persisted, the Iranian bloc caught another break with the clumsiness and inexperience of its opponents. Hoping to make a splash and force the hand of the Iran bloc, Al Sadr instructed his bloc of 73 lawmakers, the biggest in parliament, to resign. But instead of things shaking out Al Sadr’s way, the pro-Iran coalition anointed its losing candidates as replacements, obtaining a majority. Tehran’s allies then changed position – from insisting that anything short of a national unity cabinet would lead to civil war, to speeding up the process of electing a president and forming a cabinet regardless of minority blocs.

To stop Iran’s march toward absolute power in Iraq, Al Sadr was left with one tool: Taking to the streets. On Monday, he announced his “final withdrawal” from politics, which prompted deadly protests by supporters. But by using this card, Al Sadr inadvertently played Tehran’s game of having non-state actors rule using brute force, as in Lebanon and Yemen.

Unlike in Lebanon and Yemen, however, Iran’s partisans have no monopoly over the Shiites. A civil war in Iraq might not go Iran’s way and could even drag on, threatening Iraq and possibly shutting down its export of 4 million barrels of oil a day, thus shaking the global economy that is already starved of energy because of the Russian war in Ukraine.

But then, as a reward for Iran agreeing to the revival of a skewed nuclear deal, Washington might again offer Iraq as a prize to sweeten the pot for Tehran. One way America could do this is by starving Al Sadr’s militias and Iraq’s government forces of arms, while allowing Tehran’s militias to receive all the support they need to win the war.

Iraq is about to plunge into a civil war that could spill beyond its borders. Such a war will shake the region and the world economy. Washington is well advised to think of an unfolding Iraqi civil war as a threat to its national interests and global peace – not as a reward that can entice Iran into signing a nuclear deal.

Syndication Bureau___________________________

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Twitter: @hahussain

Continue Reading

MIDDLE EAST

Iraq is Heading for Civil War. Washington Must Not Take Advantage

Published

on

Iraq is Heading for Civil War. Washington Must Not Take Advantage
Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr carry portraits of him as they gather in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah - AFP/Asaad NIAZI

Ten months after Iraq’s pro-Iran bloc was soundly defeated in Iraqi parliamentary elections, and less than a week after Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr announced his retirement from political life, a stalemate between Shia who oppose Tehran and those who support it seems to be leading the country toward civil war. Yet this is only half the story.

There’s a pattern that connects US policy on Iran and civil wars in the Middle East. Whenever Washington offers Arab countries up as prizes to Iran for the freezing of uranium enrichment, those same Arab countries – usually with significant Shia populations – plunge into conflict. This happened in Lebanon in 2008, in Iraq and Yemen in 2014, and is happening again in Iraq.

Previous civil wars in the Middle East were preceded by allegations in Washington that respecting Iranian interests in the region was key to peace. Today, those same arguments are being made by the same American leaders, only this time they occupy the White House.

In 2012, US forces had just withdrawn from Iraq. At the time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was serving as the national security advisor to then-Vice President Joe Biden. Blinken oversaw the Obama administration’s Iraq portfolio, making him the top White House official on Iraq. In a March 2012 speech, Blinken argued that “Iraq and Iran will inevitably be more intertwined than we, and many of its neighbors, would like.” While he acknowledged that the majority of its leaders were resistant to outside influence, including from Iran, crucially, he did not say the US would help them resist.

Tehran interpreted that statement as Washington green-lighting its dominance of Iraq. Coming amid a campaign by then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to purge Sunnis from power, it also coincided with the rise of ISIS and eventual takeover of the northwest in 2014. An inter-Iraqi war ensued, with America leading a global coalition against ISIS.

In both Iraq and Iran, the majority is Shiite, which has prompted Tehran to try to use Shiism to override the national divide, subdue Iraqis, and make them pledge allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But not so fast. Most Iraqi Shiites have proven to be patriotic, regardless of their religious affiliation, and as such have opposed Tehran’s dominance at home. These Iraqis expressed their sentiment when they roundly defeated Iranian incumbent lawmakers in parliamentary elections in October, leading the pro-Tehran parliamentary bloc to shrink to 15 members from 75.

Losing its majority, the pro-Iran coalition tried to torpedo election results but failed. It then hoped to kill a parliamentary quorum, but an anti-Iran majority formed, and in January, anti-Tehran Speaker Mohammad Al Halbousi was reelected.

Then, just when the anti-Iran majority was about to elect a president and designate a prime minister, the Iran bloc convinced the Iraqi Supreme Court to ignore democratic rules and declare that a supermajority of two-thirds was required for a quorum to elect a president and form a cabinet. In parliamentary systems, like in Britain and Israel, only a simple majority is required to govern. Supermajorities are for big decisions, such as constitutional amendments.

As Iraq’s stalemate persisted, the Iranian bloc caught another break with the clumsiness and inexperience of its opponents. Hoping to make a splash and force the hand of the Iran bloc, Al Sadr instructed his bloc of 73 lawmakers, the biggest in parliament, to resign. But instead of things shaking out Al Sadr’s way, the pro-Iran coalition anointed its losing candidates as replacements, obtaining a majority. Tehran’s allies then changed position – from insisting that anything short of a national unity cabinet would lead to civil war, to speeding up the process of electing a president and forming a cabinet regardless of minority blocs.

To stop Iran’s march toward absolute power in Iraq, Al Sadr was left with one tool: Taking to the streets. On Monday, he announced his “final withdrawal” from politics, which prompted deadly protests by supporters. But by using this card, Al Sadr inadvertently played Tehran’s game of having non-state actors rule using brute force, as in Lebanon and Yemen. 

Unlike in Lebanon and Yemen, however, Iran’s partisans have no monopoly over the Shiites. A civil war in Iraq might not go Iran’s way and could even drag on, threatening Iraq and possibly shutting down its export of 4 million barrels of oil a day, thus shaking the global economy that is already starved of energy because of the Russian war in Ukraine.

But then, as a reward for Iran agreeing to the revival of a skewed nuclear deal, Washington might again offer Iraq as a prize to sweeten the pot for Tehran. One way America could do this is by starving Al Sadr’s militias and Iraq’s government forces of arms, while allowing Tehran’s militias to receive all the support they need to win the war.

Iraq is about to plunge into a civil war that could spill beyond its borders. Such a war will shake the region and the world economy. Washington is well advised to think of an unfolding Iraqi civil war as a threat to its national interests and global peace – not as a reward that can entice Iran into signing a nuclear deal.

Syndication Burea_______________

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Twitter: @hahussain

Continue Reading

MIDDLE EAST

As Israel-Russia Relations Sour, Middle East Braces for the Fallout

Published

on

As Israel-Russia Relations Sour, Middle East Braces for the Fallout
Jewish immigrants fleeing from war zones in Ukraine arrive at the Israeli immigration and absorption office at Ben Gurion Airport, March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Russian Jews have been emigrating to Israel in growing numbers. Angered over the invasion and fearful of persecution, some 20,500 of the estimated 165,000 Jews in Russia have left for Israel, and more are expected to follow.

The departures are part of a larger Russian exodus fueled by opposition to the war, but they are also a sign that tensions between Russia and Israel are mounting. How this relationship evolves will have political and security implications for Israel and the entire Middle East.

Currently, the leadership of Russia’s Jewish community appears divided on how to respond to Russia’s war in Ukraine. On the one hand, Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia, has called for peace and offered to mediate but also attended Russia’s Victory Day parade in May – a tacit nod to the Kremlin. On the other hand, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, fled the country after refusing to condone the conflict.

Russia’s Jews are more united in their historical memory. With strong ties to Ukraine (as well as Moldova and Belarus), Russian Jews suffered mightily during previous periods of unrest in the country, and for those who have left now, they feared that history could easily repeat.

While there is no overt state-directed antisemitism in Russia currently, several events have raised concern within the Russian Jewish community. In March, for example, after Russian-Jewish journalist Alexei Venediktov was fined for speaking Ukrainian on a radio show, the entrance to his home was vandalized with antisemitic symbols and a severed pig’s head.

Moscow has also threatened to shut down the local branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization founded in 1929 to facilitate Jewish immigration to Israel.

Even the invasion of Ukraine was legitimized using an antisemitic subtext. Russian propaganda claimed that war was necessary to “de-Nazify” the country, and it used as evidence the presence of the Azov battalion, a Ukrainian far-right militia with neo-Nazi roots that was involved in the siege of Mariupol.

And yet, the far-right in Ukraine was trounced in the country’s last election, while Ukraine’s elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is himself Jewish. When this was pointed out to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during an interview in May with an Italian news channel, his response – that Hitler had Jewish origins – caused outrage in Israel. “The lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews of antisemitism,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid said.

This episode marked a turning point in contemporary RussiaIsrael relations. Whereas the previous prime minister, Naftali Bennett, was restrained in his comments regarding the war, Lapid has been stridently critical. In April, after reports emerged of a massacre of civilians in Bucha, Lapid, who was then foreign minister, accused Russian forces of committing war crimes (Bennett, by contrast, said nothing). IsraelRussia ties deteriorated further after Lapid became prime minister in July.

Amid the heightened tensions, Israel faces new security challenges with regional implications. For instance, if Moscow moved to end a security arrangement that has given Israel relative freedom to attack Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria, it could sharpen the proxy war underway between Iran and Israel, which might in turn suck in other states in the region.

Russia also maintains a naval base in the Mediterranean and could use its assets to complicate Israeli plans to export gas to Europe.

Military flare-ups have already occurred. In May, Russia fired S-300 anti-aircraft missiles at an Israeli aircraft in Syria. In June, Russia threatened to refer Israel to the UN Security Council after Israel bombed the Damascus airport, which Israeli officials said was being used by Iranian arms smugglers. Then in July, Russia fired a “warning shot” at an Israeli F-16 fighter jet entering Syrian airspace.

RussiaIsrael relations are also influencing Israel’s domestic politics. As Israelis prepare to head to the polls in November for legislative elections, many are watching to see if Lapid’s tough stance vis-à-vis Russia will pay off at the ballot box. (Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, has even reportedly asked Russia not to interfere in the balloting, though the Israeli government has denied the report).

For his part, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees Lapid’s hawkish stance on Russia as an opportunity for his own political future. Netanyahu, who prides himself on his close ties to President Vladimir Putin, has accused Lapid of endangering Israel’s “measured, balanced, and responsible friendship” with Russia, and for creating a crisis that has endangered Israel’s national security.

The war in Ukraine has produced a broad geopolitical shift in the region – it’s no coincidence, after all, that when US President Joe Biden visited Israel in July, Putin was meeting with the presidents of Iran and Turkey in Tehran. But as Russian Jews vote with their feet and new alliances are formed amid the backdrop of war, the international community must remind Russia and Israel that their relationship has implications far beyond their own borders.

Syndication Bureau______________________

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.

Continue Reading

Other Articles

close