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The Middle East & The Gulf States

Stabalizing Iraq and Syria

After years of war, it appears that Iraq and Syria are gradually stabilizing. The government forces supported by the US and Russia respectively are restoring their control over the two countries, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost virtually all of its territory. Yet, this may just be an ephemeral peace. The social and economic foundations of the two states remain shaky at best, and many issues are still unsettled; notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the future of the Kurds. Without a comprehensive action to solve such questions, peace in Iraq and Syria will not be achieved on a solid basis.

I’m your host Kasim, welcome to another KJ Vid. In this video we will discuss the future of Iraq and Syria. Just before we begin, we would like to invite you to our Patreon account where you can get the full reports and other perks for our content. Supporting us on Patreon helps to keep our channel independent and create more videos.

Iraq and Syria in chaos

Iraq has been ravaged by conflict with practically no interruption since the US invasion in 2003. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime destabilized the country and resulted in a long insurgency against the occupying American forces. Progress in state-building was slow and limited in scope. The US ultimately withdrew its troops from the country in 2011 by a decision of then-President Barack Obama; but Iraq was still too weak to ensure the authority of the central government over all of the territory. In the same year, the Arab Spring broke out all over the Middle East. In Syria, it rapidly degenerated into a violent civil war opposing the loyalists to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels; a broad term indicating various armed groups of different affiliation, ranging from those who favoured Western-like democracy and jihadist groups.

Things got more complicated in 2014 with the rise of a Sunni extremist group that would later become known as Islamic State. Exploiting the chaos that reigned in Syria due to the civil war and the power vacuum caused by the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, it took control of large swathes of lands in the northern parts of the two countries. In particular, it seized important facilities such as oil fields and dams in Iraq and it even threatened Baghdad. This prompted the US to organize a multinational coalition to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the terrorist group by deploying special forces and by conducting air strikes. Soon, they also started operating in Syria, where the conflict was about to turn into a major international matter involving various foreign powers that supported the government or the rebels to pursue their own interest.

Russia intervened actively since 2015 to sustain Bashar al-Assad, its main ally in the area. Western powers assisted the rebels and bombed facilities to punish the loyalists for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians. Turkey, who opposed the al-Assad government, became directly involved in 2016 with the main objective of preventing the formation of some kind of Kurdish territorial entity. As a matter of fact, the Kurds had rapidly proved to be an effective combat force in fighting the IS, and received support from the American-led coalition. This allowed them to take control over a large strip of territory at the border with Turkey, who feared the area would become independent or at least a rear base for Kurdish fighters operating against its territory. As such, it conducted several military operations to secure the lands along its borders and expel Kurdish forces. Iran also took part to the war by sending weapons and troops in support of al-Assad on the basis of the common Shia faith and of converging geopolitical interest. To counter its growing influence, Israel also carried out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian outposts.

Now, it seems that the two intertwined conflicts are about to end. In Syria the government is slowly restoring its authority and the Islamic State has lost almost all of the territory it controlled there and in Iraq. Yet, many issues remain unresolved, notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the Kurdish question.

Sunni Arabs: excluded from power

Sunni Arabs belong to the largest of the two main branches of Islam, the other being the Shias. But even though they are a majority in the Ummah as a whole, their situation in Iraq and Syria is particular.

For what concerns the former, Sunnis are indeed a minority. Most Iraqis are Shias, which also means that they are politically closer Iran, the main centre of Shiism. Yet, Sunnism had its glorious days in the country. During the Middle Ages, Baghdad was the heart of the mighty Abbasid Caliphate, from which today’s Islamic State took many symbols. More recently, Sunni Arabs formed the ruling elite in Iraq during the years of Saddam’s rule. His Ba’athist regime was dominated by Sunnis, which meant that in Iraq a minority was ruling over the majority. But the situation was reversed after Saddam was overthrown following the US invasion in 2003. Since Sunnis had formed the backbone of Saddam’s dictatorship, they were removed from their posts and largely excluded from power to the benefit of the Shias. At that point, the Sunni Arab community became the main pool of recruitment for the anti-American insurgency and then for the Islamic State. The situation has improved since then, but properly integrating Sunnis in Iraqi political life remains a central matter to stabilize the country.

The situation of Sunnis in Syria is the opposite and resembles that of Iraq under Saddam, albeit inverted. Sunni Arabs form the majority of Syria’s population, but the governing elite belongs to the Alawite movement, which is a sect of Shia Islam. This generated much resentment among Sunnis, who felt politically emarginated. As a result, many of them joined the ranks of the rebels when the uprising started in 2011. Now, the government seems close to prevailing, but it will have to establish a more inclusive form of governance to ensure peace in the long term.

The Kurds: a stateless people

In the case of the Kurds, the problem is slightly different. Here, it is not about a religious divide, but rather an ethnic and linguistic one. The Kurds are mostly Sunni and speak their own separate language, and as a single people they count around 40 million individuals. They live in a region located at the crossroad of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Yet, their demands for an independent state have systematically been frustrated, and today they remain a stateless nation with little prospects of getting their own independent country.

Yet, they play an important political role. The lands where they live include the oil-rich areas of northern Iraq. The Kurdistan’s Workers Party, or PKK, has been waging a decade-long insurgency against Turkey to obtain independency or at least autonomy for Kurdistan; but Ankara has always firmly opposed their demands without hesitating to use violence and there is no indication that things will change anytime soon. In Iraq, several tens of thousand Kurds were killed by Saddam’s regime during the ‘80s in what is known as Anfal genocide. Later on, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds became America’s most effective on-the-ground allies in the fight against the Islamic State. But this angered Turkey out of fear that Kurdish-controlled territory could turn into an independent state or a base for operations on Turkish soil. As such, Ankara dispatched its military several times to secure Kurdish areas along its borders. However, this has led to a clash with the US, in a moment when bilateral relations are already strained. Washington has been supporting the Kurds and needs to reward them somehow; but any concession implying autonomy would upset Ankara, who is also an important ally. At the same time, Turkey cannot defy the US because the political and possibly economic retaliation might be too harmful. This has resulted into a stalemate that remains unresolved.

As in the case of Sunni Arabs, solving the Kurdish question will be of central importance for ensuring a long-lasting peace in Iraq and Syria, but finding a common agreement is even more difficult in this case: it is not a mainly domestic matter, but a transnational one involving various stakeholders, which makes finding a solution an even more complex endeavour.

Conclusion: ensuring inclusivity

As we have seen, conflict resolution in Iraq and Syria demands to integrate both Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the social and political life of the two countries. This is essential for granting peace in the long term: if Sunnis are not adequately represented, the Islamic State or a similar organization may soon rise again; while the Kurds may take arms and start a large-scale insurgency that would be difficult to tackle. Unfortunately, actually doing so is not easy. Both groups have powerful enemies and are internally fragmented, and other players can exploit these divisions for their own interests. As a matter of fact, major powers like the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey all have their own interests in the area; which is another complicating factor. In addition, given the large number of tribes, parties, armed factions, ethnic groups that live in Iraq and Syria, finding an agreement that satisfies everyone is extremely difficult. But to prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups or a new violent phase of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and to ensure the stabilization of Iraq and Syria, a solution must be found in this sense.

That’s all for today guys, thanks for watching another KJ Vid. What are your views on CPEC, is it a good thing or bad thing for Pakistan? Is it likely to succeed or fail? We would love to hear your views in the comments below.

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The Ottoman Dynasty – Rise of Muslims Episode 6

Based entirely on the book by Ali Mahmood titled “Muslims” –

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The Ottoman dynasty governed the Muslims and built one of the largest empires the world has ever seen

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Israel’s Enigmatic relationship with India

India and Israel have been allies for much of recent history although the relations between these two countries have been low-profile and only started getting global attention in recent years. Besides having strong economic ties the two countries also share key strategic and military cooperation.

Surprisingly India-Israel relations were largely informal until 1991. Despite having some ties since the 1960s mainly owing to defence and intelligence cooperation, India did not formalise diplomatic relations due to having a pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian stance. However this gradually changed when they formally established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.[1]

History

India recognised Israel as early as 1950, but did not establish diplomatic ties until 1992. During the Suez crisis in 1956 the then Israeli foreign minister Moshe Sharett visited India as the Israeli army pushed into Egypt after Egyptian President Gamam Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal; while India played the role of mediator alongside the UK, the US and Yugoslavia.

During the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru sought arms from Israel, writing to Israeli PM Ben Gurion, and he responded, forming the foundations for defense cooperation between the two countries. This paved way for increased bilateral cooperation over the years as India sought more arms in their war with Pakistan in 1965 as well as in 1971.[2]

Throughout much of the 1970 and 1980s, India kept its distance from Israel publicly due to its support for the Palestinian cause. India was a founding member of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) that was supportive of anti-colonial struggles around the world which explains their support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).[3] India was astonishingly one of the first non-Arab states to recognise Palestinian independence. There were several geopolitical issues that shaped India’s standpoint during the 1970s and 80s. The seemingly antagonist position between India and Israel also involved India’s diplomatic strategy of trying to counter Pakistan’s influence in the Arab world as well as of safeguarding its oil supplies from the Gulf.

There were other major motives behind India’s anti-Israel stance. India has a large Muslim population and their antagonism towards Israel played a major role in delaying diplomatic relations, as politicians feared that they may lose Muslim votes in key regions if they were to formalise ties.[4] Also,  was the fact that thousands of Indian citizens worked in the Gulf, helping keep its foreign exchange reserves afloat.

Security cooperation

Even before establishing formal ties, India and Israel managed to collaborate in specific areas, with India’s main intelligence agency RAW (research and analysis wing) and Israel’s Mossad having signed a secret cooperation agreement in the areas of security, intelligence and military equipment.[5] The two top intelligence agencies established relationships since the 1960s. This was remarkable because throughout the 1970s and 80s their bilateral relations were sour. The situation started to shift in 1989 as three major developments sowed the seeds of change: first, the beginning of the era of coalition politics in India; second, the beginning of Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in Kashmir; and finally, break-up of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War coupled with the fall-out from the reversal of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.[6] Since the early 1990s, the growing insurgent activities in Kashmir sponsored by Pakistan heightened regional security environment of India and the then opposition party BJP kept pressurising the government to normalise relations with Israel. After the end of the Cold War, India, like many other countries had to make major changes to their foreign policy to accommodate the changing international milieu. It went towards economic liberalisation, opening its doors to other nations and subsequently formalised diplomatic relations with Israel. It was however kept low-profile due to India’s interests in the Middle East.

India gave a number of reasons to justify the 1992 opening of formal relations, which are as follows[7]:

  1. Israel’s criticality to what happens in West Asia and the Gulf, that is a part of India’s extended neighbourhood impacting its strategic space, energy supplies and the 6 million Indians living in the region.
  2. Sophisticated defence equipment , technology and systems from Israel; potential cooperation in security and defence including counter terrorism.
  3. Absence of any quid pro quo from the Arab states
  4. Agricultural prowess including related technologies of Israel.

More recently the economic rivalry between India and China plays a role in this context. The growing relations between China and Pakistan have raised insecurities, especially the fact that Pakistan are the largest recipient of Chinese arms. These issues gave India more reasons to build-up their own arms and as Israel are among the top arms manufacturers in the world with one of the best research and development facilities as well as a supposedly good counter-terrorism unit, there are more reasons to increase cooperation in the field of security and defence.

First Israeli PM visit to India[8]

Ariel Sharon was the first Israeli PM to visit India in 2003 and the bilateral relations between the two nations started gaining publicity. State visits from officials started to take place since the establishment of diplomatic relations. This laid the framework for further cooperation in various areas; Agreements on Cooperation in the field of Health Sciences and Medicine and on Cooperation in combating illicit trafficking and abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotic substances were signed in 2003. In the same year, more significant agreements were signed in the field of protection of the environment, and another on the exemption of Visa requirements of holders of diplomatic, official and service passports.

2005 saw a MoU on India-Israeli Research and Development Fund Initiative while in 2006 a major pact was signed in the field of agriculture cooperation.

 Bilateral trade

Bilateral trade progressed rapidly since 1992. From a base of USD 200 million in 1992 comprising primarily of diamonds, merchandise trade has diversified and the overall figure stood at an astonishing USD 5.19 billion in 2011. In 2016 the figure slumped to USD 4.16 billion in 2016 (excluding defence) with the balance of trade in Israel’s favour. Trade in diamonds constitutes over 53 percent of bilateral trade. After China and Hong Kong, India is Israel’s thirds largest trading partner in Asia. Currently the sectors forming the diversified bilateral trade include pharmaceuticals, agriculture, IT and telecom, and homeland security. India’s major exports to Israel include precious stones and metals, chemical products, textiles and textile articles, while major exports from Israel include precious stones and metals, chemicals and mineral products, base metals and machinery and transport equipment.

Cooperation between the two nations increased dramatically ever since the election of India’s new Hindu nationalist BJP government led by Narendra Modi in 2014. This was followed by a first ever visit by an Israeli defence minister in 2015. The current prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Modi of India met for the first time at a UN General Assembly in 2014 where they discussed economic, technological, and agricultural collaboration for the future, while Netanyahu expressed his concerns about a nuclear Iran and the spread of radical Islam throughout Middle East.[9] In 2017, Modi made a stand alone visit to Israel- the first ever by an Indian PM.

Just weeks before modi’s historic visit, Netanyahu’s cabined agreed on measures aimed at increasing Israel’s non-diamond exports to India by 25 percent while establishing a new 40 million USD joint innovation, research and development fund. In July this year Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed an agreement with India’s KSU in July 2018, to operate Israeli Taxibot semi-robotic vehicles at India’s New Delhi and Mumbai airports. Taxibot is connected to planes which taxi the airplanes from the airport’s jet bridge without the use of the airplane’s main engines.[10]

Israel in recent years have taken a strategic decision aimed at strengthening economic relations with China, Japan and India. Major Indian software companies including TCS, Infosys, Tech Mahindra and Wipro have began to penetrate the Israeli market. During PM Modi’s visit in July 2017, the first meeting of the newly established India-Israel CEOs Forum took place.[11]

Defence cooperation: military equipment and technology

Defence cooperation forms one of the strongest aspects of the bilateral relations

India is the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment, while Israel is India’s largest customer after Russia.[12]

Israel produces some of the most sophisticated, cutting edge weapons systems in the world and India have been major buyers for a while now. India buys weapons systems for their armed forces, including navy and air force.

Since the 1990s, India purchased UAVs, drones, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) radar systems, anti-tank missiles and many more weapons systems in deals worth billions of dollars. In 2007, the two nations signed a 2.5 billion DSD deal to develop an anti-aircraft weapons systems in India, and in 2009[13], Israel sold Barak 8 air defence systems to India for a staggering 1.1 billion USD. In 2011 Indian army bought more than 1000 units of Israeli X-95 assault rifle to use in counterinsurgency operation. In 2011 there were reports of a deal in which India were to purchase a large number of Israeli Spike anti-tank missiles, launchers, and related equipment worth nearly a billion dollars, from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems;[14]. Although the old contract with Rafael was cancelled, India has recently been on the verge of signing a 500 million USD deal with Israel to buy 4500 Spike missiles in a government-to-government purchase which could be finalised any moment.[15]

Israel also provides India with military technologies, and strategies for count-terrorism, including offering assistance following the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[16]

 Shifting Israel-Palestine stance

In 2015, India abstained from voting against Israel at the UN human rights commission signalling a shift in its Israel-Palestine policy. However in 2017 it voted for an Arab-sponsored resolution that rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel.

 Conclusion

Despite a recent setback taking place due to India having voted against the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the bilateral relations between the two nations have been growing stronger since the arrival of Modi making way for a new era of collaboration. In early 2018, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time ever to a commercial flight to Israel with the inauguration of an Air India route between New Delhi and Jerusalem.[17]

It seems today that the history of advocacy for the Palestinian cause is gradually diminishing as India is growing in alliance with Israel in more areas of cooperation and assistance. While India racks up more arms deals and equips its military with more sophisticated weapons systems and technology, it will be interesting to see further developments especially in the field of defence and security cooperation and find out what their main objectives are.

 [1] http://www.atimes.com/india-israel-relations-obscurity-certainty/

[2] https://www.livemint.com/Politics/k4CBHr4bIzoZ0O6OBOXw1M/India-Israel-ties-A-timeline.html ; https://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/abraham/india-israel.pdf

[3] http://www.rubincenter.org/meria/2004/12/pant.pdf

[4] Aafreedi, Navras (2012). “The Impact of Domestic Politics on India’s Attitudes towards Israel and Jews”. In Singh, Priya; Susmita, Bhattacharya. Perspectives on West Asia: The Evolving Geopolitical Discourses. Shipra Publications. pp. 171–183. ISBN 9788175416376.

[5] Pant, Harsh V. 2004a. ‘India–Israel Partnership: Convergence and Constraints’, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), vol. 8, no. 4

[6] https://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/abraham/india-israel.pdf

[7] https://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/abraham/india-israel.pdf

[8] https://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/abraham/india-israel.pdf

[9] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-india-israel-relations

[10] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-india-israel-relations

[11] https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Unclassified_Bilateral_briefb.pdf

[12] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-airshow-india-israel/israeli-defense-minister-lands-at-india-airshow-to-boost-arms-sales-idUSKBN0LM0WL20150218

[13] “IAI signs $2.5 billion deal with India – Israel Business, Ynetnews”. Ynetnews.com.

[14] https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-1000633160 ; https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/india-to-buy-israelis-spike-missile-for-1-b/article9749112.ece

[15] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-set-to-seal-500mn-deal-with-israel-to-buy-4-500-spike-missiles/story-wdT2IufrQ4ldybZFX76X5K.html

[16] Horovitz, David; Matthew Wagner (27 November 2008). “10 hostages reportedly freed from Mumbai Chabad House”. The Jerusalem Post.

[17] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-israel-airspace-riyadh-tel-aviv-flight-air-india-iran-flight-times-airlines-a8269891.html

Is Saudi pivoting towards Russia?

At a first glance, Saudi Arabia and Russia have not much in common in terms of foreign policy: the former is one of America’s closest allies, whereas the latter is its main geostrategic competitor along with China. But in the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, their bilateral relations are more multifaceted than it may seem; and recent events may drive them closer.

How the Muslims lost Spain – The Rise of Muslims Episode 3

Based entirely on the book by Ali Mahmood titled “Muslims” – Purchase using this link – https://www.kjvids.co.uk/product/muslims/

Welcome to Episode 3 of our Rise of Muslims Documentary based on a book called Muslims by Ali Mahmood.

In the first episode Ali talked about how the Prophet Muhammed led the Muslims to the conquest of Makkah and the reigns of the first four caliphs. In the second episode, Ali discussed the rise and fall of the Umayyad dynasty and the Abbasid dynasty. In this episode Ali discusses the rise and fall of Islamic Spain and Egypt.

At the start of the 8th century Roderick, the Visigoth king ruled Spain. His able general, Count Julian protected the kingdom, keeping the Muslims of North Africa at bay. When Julian left for Africa, he left his beautiful daughter, Florinda, under the protection of the king. Roderick was fired when he saw Florinda. He raped her, and she became pregnant. She confessed to her father who resolved to take revenge.

In Africa Julian met Tarik bin Ziyad and offered to take the Muslim troops into Spain. Tarik crossed over from Africa to Spain with an exploratory force of 7000 men, stopping midway at a rock which was named after him – the Rock of Tarik, Jebel Tarik (Gibraltar).
Having crossed, Tarik burned his boats to show his men that there was no going back, it was victory or death. The small Muslim army won complete and total victory over the much larger Spanish force, Spain was conquered and remained under Muslim rule for almost eight centuries.

Musa, the Umayyad governor of North Africa was green with envy when he heard of Tarik’s astounding victories. He rushed to Spain to share in the glory and the booty. He also struck Tarik and for a while had him arrested.

The Muslims spread over the fertile south and named their land Al-Andalus. Andalusia was a land of rivers and valleys, perfect for cultivation, to which the Arabs applied their techniques of agriculture and irrigation. These farms laid the foundation for the wealth of Andalusia. The Muslims governed mildly, justly and wisely. Low taxes and a high level of religious freedom kept the people content. It was a happy time.

The Rise and Fall of Muslims by Ali Mahmood – Episode 1

Based on the book by Ali Mahmood titled “Muslims” – Purchase using this link – https://www.kjvids.co.uk/product/muslims/

When the Prophet Muhammad left Mecca for Medina, he had less than a hundred followers. Within a century after he passed away, the Muslims had conquered all the territory from the Atlantic Ocean to China, and the empire of Islam led the world in science, education, medicine, culture, commerce. This empire dominated the world for a thousand years. The two empires that followed after the seventeenth century were, in comparison, short-lived—the British Empire lasted for two hundred years and its successor, the American Empire is in decline after only sixty years.

Between the seventh and the seventeenth centuries, Muslim power shifted from the Arabs to the Persians, the Turks and the Moguls. The capital of the Islamic empire moved from the sands of Mecca and Medina to Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba and Istanbul, as new dynasties replaced the old—the Umayyad, the Abbasid, the Fatimid—followed by Tamerlane, the world conqueror, and the three gunpowder empires—the Ottoman, the Safavid and the Mogul.

The golden centuries of the world of Islam flourished while the Dark Ages of Europe kept life, brutish and short. The great libraries of the caliphs in Cordoba and Baghdad ran to half a million books while the great European collections did not even reach a thousand volumes. The Canons of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) dominated medicine in Europe for five hundred years and Ibn Firnas demonstrated flight at the age of 76, a hundred years before Da Vinci drew his sketches, but never risked an actual attempt to fly. The thousand years of the Islamic Empire were a time of great achievement, great institutions, great cities and most of all great men.

When Saladin conquered Jerusalem and Balian, the Christian general reminded him of the cruelty and barbarism of the earlier Christian conquest. Saladin gently but firmly replied, ‘I am not of those men. I am Saladin’. He gave away all that came to him as ruler and died penniless without even the money for a decent burial. Suleiman the Magnificent before whom the world trembled, was the pre-eminent sovereign in both Asia and Europe.

This remarkable era is the legacy of The Prophet, and of those he inspired to pursue education, justice and merit. It was these values and attitudes that took the Muslims up; and it was the loss of these values and attitudes that, in the seventeenth century, brought the Muslims crashing down.

After one thousand years at the top, the Muslims spent two hundred years at the bottom; the former masters of the universe were deprived and humiliated by their new lords from the West. They became a people without hope.

Iran’s Toughest Sanctions

Why is the United States imposing the “toughest sanctions in history” on Iran?

In 2018 November the United States re-imposed full sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran following Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord back in May. The US has vowed to impose and maintain the “toughest sanctions in history” on Iran.

For its part, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has struck a defiant tone vowing to “break” the sanctions. But the reality is Iran is facing an economic siege which threatens to create instability with potentially far-reaching social and political consequences.

Realistically, there are three potential scenarios at this stage. First is that Iran hunkers down to manage the embargo by using innovative ways to evade some of the sanctions. The Iranians will be hoping to out-last Trump, whose first term expires in January 2021. However, this strategy falls apart if (as it looks increasingly likely) Trumps secures a second term in office.

The second scenario is that Iran caves in and agrees to negotiate a new deal on Trump’s terms. As Trump has repeatedly made clear the US is seeking a new deal which not only radically renegotiates the terms and conditions of the existing deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – but expands it to include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles programme and changes to its regional policy.

The third (and worst) scenario is that tensions do not remain at the sanctions or economic level, but that they escalate, leading to indirect and possibly even direct clashes between Iranian and American forces in the Middle East. In this scenario the provocative actions of Washington’s key allies, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, is crucial. Iran may strike these countries directly if it perceives an intolerable provocation or it comes to believe it can force an American retreat by striking at its allies.

But how did we get to this place in the first place?

History of Iran-US relations

Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, the United States and Iran were allies and Washington looked to Iran to maintain peace and stability in the Persian Gulf arena. But following the revolution the new revolutionary regime in Tehran found itself at odds with the US and relations rapidly deteriorated.

The climax came with the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by revolutionary students in November 1979 under the pretext that the embassy was a “den of espionage” and to that end it was actively working against the Iranian revolution.

The real reason relates to the US decision to grant entry to the former Shah of Iran whom the revolutionaries wanted extradited to stand trial in Tehran. There was a real fear back then that the US would attempt to reinstall its former ally by overthrowing the Iranian revolution.

This fear brought back memories of the August 1953 coup (orchestrated by the CIA and Britain’s MI6) which overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected government – led by the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaadegh – and reinstalled the Shah who had fled to Rome (Italy).

The August 1953 coup which overthrew Mossadegh was a pivotal moment in Iran’s modern history. Mossadegh was not only democratically elected but more importantly he was an icon of Iranian nationalism and was admired by nationalists across the region and beyond. It was Mossadegh’s decision to nationalise Iran’s oil industry – which had hitherto been in the clutches of the British “Anglo-Iranian Oil Company” (later renamed British Petroleum) – which had set him on a collision course with the Western powers led by Britain.

Mossadegh’s overthrow, followed by the instalment of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah, set the stage for the Iranian revolution 25 years later. It was based on this history – i.e. the US role in reinstalling the Shah and helping him to consolidate his rule for the next quarter of a century – that the Iranian revolutionaries staked out an oppositional stance vis-à-vis the United States.

Following the seizure of the US embassy in November 1979 bilateral relations were severed and the US began the long process of sanctioning virtually every aspect of the Iranian economy. The first sanctions targeted Iranian imports into the US. In addition, the US government froze $12 billion in Iranian assets. Hitherto these funds remain frozen and Iran not only seeks their return but also wants 40 years of interests to be taken into account as well.       

The next round of big sanctions came into effect 15 years later during the presidency of Bill Clinton. The latter sanctioned Iran’s oil industry by preventing US companies from investing in the Iranian oil and gas sector. A year later in 1996 the US congress went further by passing a law targeting foreign firms which invested more than $20 million a year in the Iranian energy sector.

This was the first time the US was using its clout to target non-US entities who did business with Iran. As such it was a significant escalation in America’s economic war against Iran and in hindsight it prepared the groundwork for today’s far-reaching sanctions regime.

The next round of sanctions was multilateral in nature in so far as they were prompted by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions targeting specific features of Iran’s nuclear programme, notably uranium enrichment. The UNSC imposed its first round of sanctions – mostly targeting the nuclear sector – in December 2006.

But the US imposed additional sanctions on top and used the opportunity created by international concerns over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme to widen and deepen its own sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic.

Indeed, in October 2007, the US directly sanctioned Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) by designating its expeditionary wing, known as the Qods (Jerusalem) force as a terrorist organisation.

Moreover, in June 2010, the US exploited the international climate following the UNSC’s imposition of the fourth round of sanctions on Iran, to further target Iran’s energy and banking sectors. Then in January 2012 Washington went a step further by sanctioning Iran’s central bank.

Following the signing of the landmark nuclear deal in July 2015, much of the complex web of unilateral and multilateral sanctions that had been imposed on Iran since December 2006 were gradually eased but never fully lifted. However, the US kept in place its non-nuclear related unilateral sanctions, including wide-ranging sanctions against the IRGC on account of its alleged support for “terrorism”.

By withdrawing from the nuclear deal, the US is not only seeking to reimpose full sanctions, but is in fact going a step further by pledging to reduce Iranian oil exports to “zero”. This is a massive provocation and if the US comes anywhere near to achieving its goal then a confrontation with Iran is guaranteed.

Do Iran and America talk directly?   

In view of this bitter 40-year history, viewers would be excused in thinking that Iran and the United States rarely (if ever) talk directly. Whilst it is true that the two powers broke off diplomatic relations in late 1979 and have had no direct diplomatic representation on each other’s soils, nevertheless direct talks and even deals have materialised intermittently.

The best early example was the “Iran Gate” scandal of 1986 when the US government illicitly sold arms to Iran (in violation of its own arms embargo on the Islamic Republic) so as to secure the release of US hostages in Lebanon. The scandal had an additional illicit layer as the funds from the deal were transferred to the “Contras” rebels in Nicaragua who were fighting the leftist Sandinista government led by Daniel Ortega.

More recently Iran and the US engaged in secret talks in Muscat (Oman) in 2013 on finding a way out of the impasse presented by Iran’s nuclear programme. These secret meetings soon gave way to direct bilateral meetings between Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his former US counterpart John Kerry.

It is also worth noting that Iranian and US envoys met directly in Baghdad in July 2007 to agree to a de-escalation in the Iraqi arena. At the time Iran was accused by the US of arming anti-American militants who were resisting the US-led occupation. Although this meeting didn’t produce a breakthrough, nevertheless it showed that even under the most adverse circumstances – when Iran and the US are fighting each other indirectly via proxies – they can still meet with a view to de-escalation.

Why talks are unlikely now

Donald Trump has called for direct talks with Iranian leaders, notably President Hassan Rouhani, on several occasions. On each occasion the Iranians have publicly rebuffed his outreach on the grounds that it is spurious and insincere.

Iran’s position is clear: namely that the current nuclear deal (JCPOA) is fit for purpose and consequently Iran will not be forced to renegotiate its terms and conditions. Moreover, the 12 list of demands issued by the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo back in May are effectively a call for surrender as compliance would mean Iran effectively giving up its independent foreign policy.

Amongst other demands, Pompeo wants Iran to fully withdraw from Syria, stop supporting Hezbollah and cease playing a role in the Yemen conflict. Clearly the Iranians will never agree to these terms and to that end Pompeo’s list of demands was an incitement to confrontation as opposed to a credible negotiating position.

Will Iran and the US go to war?

To many observers it is surprising that given the depth of hostility between Iran and the US, as reflected by the events of the past four decades, the two sides have not gone to war yet. It is worth noting that the two sides have clashed militarily but stopped short of declaring war.

The most intense clash occurred in April 1988 when in the course of one day – during Operation Praying Mantis – the US destroyed a quarter of the Iranian navy. This operation was part of a broader US effort to pressure Iran into accepting a ceasefire with Iraq in the long-running Iran-Iraq War.

The power differential between the US and Iranian militaries is one of the factors that military analysts cite to explain Iran’s reluctance to engage the US militarily. But Iran has come a long way since the late 1980s and the Iranian armed forces – in particular the IRGC – have developed a wide range of asymmetric capabilities and tactics which could be used to great effect against superior military powers.

Iran’s asymmetric capabilities – in addition to the Islamic Republic’s extensive reach and influence across the Middle East – makes the US reluctant to engage Iran militarily for fear of unintended consequences.

Nevertheless, despite both sides’ reluctance to go to war, a conflict could still break out either as a result of the cumulative effect of tensions or a mistake or misunderstanding which escalates suddenly and without warning.

The next two years are the most crucial yet in the 40-year standoff between Iran and America.               

 

Why is Israel cultivating ties with Oman?

In late October the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman, the sleepy Sultanate on the south-eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. Whilst the visit is consistent with Israel’s thawing relationship with a number of Arab countries, including Egypt and the Gulf states, nevertheless the visit to Muscat took observes by surprise.

That is mainly because Oman has been traditionally close to Iran, a deep-rooted relationship which tends to get stronger when Iran comes under severe pressure, as it is now with the re-imposition of tough and far-reaching US sanctions.

Therefore, by embracing Israel, Oman is risking its strong and fruitful ties to Iran, a political and strategic risk which Oman can ill afford in the long term.

The Geopolitics of Oman

Unlike some of her Gulf neighbours Oman has a long and proud history. Back in the 18th century the Sultanate of Oman successfully competed with Britain, Portugal and Iran for influence in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The country has been more or less independent since the middle of the 16th century.

From a political point of view, the country is distinctive by the fact that it was ruled for a long time by an Imamate system based on the al-Ibadiyyah school of Islam. A derivative of the original Khawarij tendency, the al-Ibadiyyah survives only in Oman and small pockets in North Africa, notably Algeria.

Oman’s Ibadi identity is central to the country’s geopolitical profile. It sets Oman firmly apart from her Gulf neighbours which to varying degrees, and at an official level, follow a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. It also sets it apart from Yemen and the Iranian Shia giant across the Gulf.

The Ibadi faith has also had a profound impact on Oman’s domestic politics and associated socio-economic and cultural institutions. In the popular imagination Oman is often characterised as a sleepy, benign and insular society. Regular travellers to Oman would likely attest to this description of the Sultanate.

Oman’s Foreign Policy

The guiding principles of Oman’s foreign policy was set down firmly in the 1970s. Up to that point and for much of the 20th century Oman was too consumed by internal division and strife to formulate and implement an effective foreign policy. This was a far cry from Oman’s role in previous centuries as a small empire on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula.

The turning point in the late 20th century came in the form of the so-called Dhofar rebellion (referencing the Omani province by that name) spearheaded by Marxist-Leninist rebels. The embattled Omani state finally managed to defeat this determined rebellion primarily with the help of British and more importantly Iranian military support (more on this later).

The most important point about the Dhofar conflict and its aftermath is that it forced the Omani ruling system to undertake deep and far-reaching structural and institutional reforms to elevate it to a level consistent with 20th century standards. For the first six decades of the 20th century Oman was essentially stuck in the past and barely functioning under the burden of obsolete institutions and associated policies.

The defeat of the rebellion in 1976 heralded the emergence of a unified and coherent Omani state which had both the confidence and the means to play an important role in its immediate external environment.

At that point Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said chose to adopt a balancing and mediatory role in regional and foreign policy. By all credible accounts, Sultan Qaboos is a wise and far-sighted leader who has expertly mobilised the resources of his small country to exert maximum influence in the regional environment, notably in relation to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the wider Gulf region and Iran.

Broadly speaking, there are three important strands to Oman’s foreign policy, namely its membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), relationship with Iran and enduring ties to the United Kingdom. To understand Muscat’s place in the world it is vital that we undertake an in-depth examination of these three important dimensions of Omani foreign policy.

Oman and GCC: a reluctant member?

Oman joined the GCC at its inception in 1981 and has been an active member of its various branches and committees since. But this active participation does not necessarily mean full acquiescence to the general thrust of GCC policies. As it is now widely known the GCC has been reduced to essentially a vehicle for the promotion of Saudi Arabia’s, and to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates’, positions and interests in the Persian Gulf region.

But Oman dissents from this Saudi-UAE driven agenda in three important respects. Foremost, Oman is opposed to Saudi’s hostile policy on Iran and does not want the GCC to be used as a forum to push this agenda.

Second, Oman is officially neutral in the spat between the GCC (plus Egypt) and Qatar. But privately Oman harbours sympathy for Doha’s position and supports its balancing role vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Just like Qatar, Oman has much to lose if Saudi Arabia achieves its goal of establishing primacy in the Gulf region.

Third, Oman is opposed to the Saudi-UAE led war on Yemen both on humanitarian and geopolitical grounds. Oman shares a border with Yemen and stands to be deeply affected if Yemen disintegrates altogether. In order to blunt the effectiveness of the Saudi-Yemeni led war, Oman has reportedly gone to the extent of facilitating arms transfers to the Ansarullah movement, also known as the Houthis.

Oman and Iran: A Special Relationship

As stated earlier, Iran intervened militarily in the early and mid-1970s to help Oman defeat the Marxist-Leninist rebellion in Dhofar. This intervention was made by the former Shah of Iran whose goal was to act as the policeman of the Persian Gulf at the behest of America.

The Shah was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian revolution but the Omani ruler, Sultan Qaboos, never forgot Iran’s decisive military intervention in the Dhofar conflict. The Sultan knew very well that absent that intervention Oman would have likely disintegrated as a cohesive state and he would have lost his crown.

For this reason, Oman continued to maintain warm ties with revolutionary Iran thus qualifying as the only regional state whose relations with Iran were not upset or altered as a result of the Iranian revolution.

Oman’s simultaneously good ties with Iran and the West has enabled it to play a mediating role, particularly between Iran and the United States. For instance, Oman hosted secret talks between Iran and the US in 2013 on Iran’s nuclear programme. These talks sowed the seeds which eventually bloomed into the landmark nuclear accord of 2015.

Oman’s deep links with Britain  

In the modern period British influence in Oman was consolidated by the Treaty of Seeb (1920) which formalised Oman’s partition into two distinct regions, a coastal state and an autonomous interior.

The British continued to maintain influence in the latter part of the 20th century as demonstrated by the UK military intervention in the Dhofar conflict. At that point the British army struck up an enduring partnership with its Omani counterpart. This is foremost embodied by the “Swift Sword” series of manoeuvres, with the latest held in October 2018.

The British influence over Oman’s armed forces is the clearest indicator that ultimately Oman looks to the West for safety, security and survival.

Oman’s ties with Israel

Whilst Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat caught observers by surprise, it is important to note that Oman has had important contacts with Israel for more than two decades. The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman in late 1994, setting off a diplomatic engagement which produced an “agreement” just over a year later.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s visit was preceded by Israeli officials’ visit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, leading the BBC to celebrate the “warming up” of Israeli-Arab ties after a “long deep freeze”.

Whilst the symbolism of Netanyahu’s visit to Muscat is important – in so far as it further erodes the taboo surrounding Israel in the Muslim world – in practical terms the Israeli Prime Minister was pursuing a narrow agenda during his eight-hour stop in the Omani capital. Most likely much of the content of his meeting with Sultan Qaboos revolved around Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

Israel is agitating for a full-frontal diplomatic, political, economic and potentially military assault on Iran. Israeli pressure played a decisive role in the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the landmark nuclear accord and by extension to re-impose harsh sanctions on Iran.

Beyond the US-led sanctions regime, Israel is trying to align more and more with Saudi Arabia with a view to creating a regional block against Iran. Oman stands in the way of that potential coalition.

Whilst Netanyahu cannot hope to turn Oman against Iran, but at minimum he aspires to enlist Oman’s help in thwarting Iran’s sanctions busting activities. As sanctions begin to bite Iran traditionally turns to friendly countries to help it evade certain sanctions or act as intermediaries with countries and entities who cannot afford to be seen to be doing direct business with the Islamic Republic.

Oman’s geographic position at the mouth of the Arabian Peninsula and the gateway to the Persian Gulf makes it critical to Iranian sanctions-busting activities, particularly in relation to the sale of oil and other petroleum products.

Conclusion: will Oman cave into Israeli pressure?

The Omani ruler and his inner circle probably view their outreach to Israel as part of their balancing and mediation role in the region. These are the guiding principles of Oman’s foreign policy. Based on these principles, Oman strives to be on good terms with all regional powers.

But the Omani leadership also places a premium on loyalty and longevity. Oman’s special relationship with Iran is nearly fifty years old and as stated earlier the Omani ruler continues to feel deeply indebted to Iran for that country’s decisive role in safeguarding Oman’s territorial integrity and sovereignty back in the 1970s.

Furthermore, the Omani ruler is known to take the long view, a feature cemented by his nearly 50-year rule. It is plausible that he thinks that eventually Iran and the United States are going to strike a “grand bargain” to begin the process of normalisation. In view of its established role as a mediator Oman hopes to play a big role in that reconciliation process.

In the final analysis, leaving Iran aside, there is no getting away from the symbolic importance of Netanyahu’s visit. The symbolism assumes even greater significance when set against the backdrop of Rabin’s visit to Muscat twenty-four years ago. On current trajectory Oman is on course to develop full-fledged ties with the Jewish state.  

Does America need Saudi Arabia?

America is pretty much less dependent on Saudi oil now, but why does it still need Saudi Arabia?

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