Yemen’s who’s who – The road map of a conflict

Cutting across tribal, political and religious lines Yemen’s conflict is as protracted that it has been structurally  fluid in its ever-evolving alliances – which alliances, whether local or regional have at time, ran counterintuitive to parties’ interests.

Yemen is a complicated socio-political beast; to reduce the war to a single upset would be to ignore the plethora of agendas currently being played out within its borders. While Yemen’s future remains murky … and one might add, tentative at best, it will also determine much of the region’s future through the formation of a new geopolitical order.

Following is an exhaustive list of all main local and regional actors.

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THE HOUTHIS –

Born initially as a knee-jerk reaction to what was perceived (1990s) as an encroachment against North Yemen religious independence by the Muslim Brotherhood (a member of Al Islah and Yemen’s strongest opposition block to the ruling party: Al Motamar/General People’s Congress), the Houthis, organised under the leadership of first Hussein Badreddin Al Houthi, and then his son: Abdel Malek Al Houthi fought several war against Sana’a central government starting 2004.

Once a  small opposition movement, the Houthi movement has become a major player, both nationally and regionally by the weight of the alliances it managed to broker to support its ideology – a mixture of Islamic revivalism, nationalism and republicanism

The Houthis linked to Shia Islam has often been exploited to assert group members’ ‘natural’ ideological disposition towards Iran’s Islamic Republic. While the group has maintained strong links with Tehran at a time when it has been shunned by the international community, it serves to note that if in fact the movement falls under the ‘Shia’ label, Zaidism is profoundly unlike Shia Twelver Islam. 

In matters of law or fiqh, the Zaidis are  said to be actually closest to the Sunni Shafie school.

The Houthis emerged as a potent political force on the back of 2011 uprising. In the wake of President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s election (2012), its militiamen took up arms against the Muslim Brotherhood in North Yemen, slowly advancing towards the capital, Sana’a.

In 2014 following Hadi’s televised resignation and subsequent self-imposed exile to Aden, and then Saudi Arabia, the group assumed de facto control of the state institutions. Within months, the group joined into a loose coalition of tribes and political factions to oppose Saudi Arabia’s military aggression.

LOYALISTS TO LATE PRESIDENT ALI ABDULLAH SALEH

Yemen’s strongman rose to power in 1978 at a particularly turbulent time in Yemen’s political life. An adept politician and grand strategist, Saleh stayed on as Yemen’s president for three decades – the leader of the General People’s Congress aka Al Motamar.

His resignation did little by way of diluting his ambitions or that of his party’s members – at least those members within the GPC who remained loyal to his leadership as opposed to that of his successor and long-serving former Vice-President: Abdo Rabbo Mansour. 

An institution onto himself the Saleh’s name still commands great authority in Yemen across the board: tribes, military and political circles. Several of his family members now in exile, most notably Gen. Yehia Mohammed Saleh (nephew) and Gen. Ahmed Ali Saleh (eldest son and former Commander in Chief of the Republican Guards) have been considered natural heirs to the GPC’s political legacy.

In May 2015, Saleh and his loyalists openly allied with the Houthis against Saudi Arabia’s aggression. To this day much of the war efforts against the Kingdom has been overviewed by GPC Saleh loyalists – a reality often dismissed by both the media and state officials.

PRESIDENT ABDUL RABBO  MANSOUR HADI

Hailing from South Yemen, Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi rose to prominence in 1994 after he sided with President Saleh’s war efforts against the Southern Secessionist Movement. 

Yemen’s longest serving VP, Hadi was elected in a one-man election in 2012 for two-year term. His mandate provisioned for the ratification of a new constitution and Yemen’s transition into a fully fledged democratic state. 

Following an extension of his term in 2014 and fears that Hadi sought to consolidate his grip on power over his people’s calls for democratisation, the Houthis began their long march towards the capital.

Hadi resigned from power in 2014, to seek exile in Saudi Arabia where he now resides. Hadi is still recognised by the United Nations and the Saudi war coalition  as Yemen’s legitimate authority, despite his term having technically ended.

A member of the GPC and former Saleh’s loyalist, Hadi  broke rank in 2012 to form his own sub-faction.

In a bid to secure a base in Yemen proper, Hadi chose to align himself to the Southern Separatist Movement in Aden in 2015 in view of fighting off the Houthi-led Resistance movement. 

A recent breakdown in relation with separatists and antagonistic political views left Hadi without any real political authority or legitimacy.

AL ISLAH PARTY,  THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD AND AL AHMAR CLAN

Also called the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, Al Islah was President Saleh’s only ever tangible political opposition. Backed in large by Saudi Arabia, Al Islah remains as eclectic in its make-up as it is in the formulation of its political thought. An umbrella for several religious and tribal factions, Al Islah has often been compared to the palatable face of Yemen’s own brand of pan-Islamism. Al Islah accounts within its ranks members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as well-known radical Islamic with ties to Al Qaeda: Sheikh Abdel Majid Al Zindani for example.

The main face of Al Islah, Al Ahmar brothers are Yemen’s biggest contenders to power. The family is the head of the Hashid tribal confederation, the most powerful of Yemen’s two tribal confederations.  The other being the Bakil.  

Made strong by Saudi Arabia’s financial support over the decades Al Ahmar brothers have acted a buffer to Saleh’s otherwise uncontested hold over Yemen. If this tentative political ‘balance’ served Riyadh for great many years, the clan’s propensity to lean on Islamists for socio-political relevance proved in fact counter-productive. To some extent, if to put mildly, Al Islah has offered a convenient cover for members of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda in Yemen so that it could better offset President Saleh’s ability to rule over a united nation.

Today Al Islah is one of the strongest opponents of the Houthis, and some of Hadi’s most staunchest allies.

SOUTHERN SEPARATISTS/SECESSIONISTS and  THE SOUTHERN TRANSITIONAL COUNCIL

Formed in 2007 the Southern Secessionist Movement, also known as Al Harak, is a political movement and paramilitary organization which has actively and systematically called for the formation of a state independent from Sana’a. Held as political pariahs under Saleh’s rule, Yemen’s secessionists have looked onto Yemen’s Arab Spring as an invaluable political opportunity.

At present, its political branch, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is led by Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, is the de facto leadership in all provinces of the south.

Formed in 2017, the Southern Transitional Council is a secessionist movement focused on gaining independence for South Yemen. Comprising of 26 members, the STC includes five governors from Southern Yemen and two former government ministers. The STC emerged after Hadi fired Aden governor Aidarus al-Zoubaidi for alleged disloyalty in April 2017. 

It is important to note that both the southern-eastern provinces of Hadramawt and Al Mahra have rejected calls to join the STC as they themselves ambition to stand independently from both Sana’a and Aden.

AL-QAEDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA – AQAP

The militant Islamist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in January 2009 through a union of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda. Jihadist antecedents in the region date to the early 1990s, when thousands of mujahadeen returned to Yemen after fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Analysts rate the Yemen-based group as the most lethal Al Qaeda franchise, carrying out a domestic insurgency while maintaining its sights on Western targets. The group’s threats have disrupted operations in dozens of U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and it has inspired or directed attacks in the United States and Europe.

In the late 1980s, the Saleh regime fostered jihad in what was then North Yemen by repatriating thousands of Yemeni nationals who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Saleh dispatched these mujahadeen to fight the Soviet-backed Marxist government of South Yemen in a successful bid for unification, and subsequently, to crush southern secessionists.

The returning Yemenis were joined by other Arab veterans of the Afghan war, foremost among them Osama bin Laden, who advocated a central role for Yemen in global jihad. A corps of jihadists who had trained under bin Laden in Afghanistan formed the militant group Islamic Jihad in Yemen (1990–94), one of several AQAP predecessors. Other such groups include the Army of Aden Abyan (1994–98) and Al Qaeda in Yemen, or AQY (1998–2003).

SAUDI ARABIA’S WAR COALITION

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, also called the Arab coalition was launched in late March 2015 in response to calls from President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi for military support against the Houthis. Composed of 9 countries from the Middle East and Africa, the coalition has been accused of war crimes for its targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructures.

Saudi Arabia has long argued Iran’s influence in Yemen and the UN Resolution 2216 to frame its military campaign as both politically legitimate and legally sound.

Arguably Saudi Arabia’s frontal campaign against what it perceives as a threat to both its national interests and its regional rationale has served to feed the fires of dissent within the region – de facto accelerating the formation of a pan-Arab ‘Resistance Block’.

NOTE – Yemen has become increasingly fractured since President Hadi was ousted from the capital and went into exile. The country is torn between ascendant Houthis, remnants of the former government, AQAP, and a secession movement in the south, and none are capable of controlling the entire country. A transition plan backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States has faltered. Foreign embassies have been closed in the capital. Internal divisions, splintering national agendas  and foreign intervention have created further instability for AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia to exploit.

On building bridges and new geopolitical friendships – Why closer ties with Iran should not to be discounted

By Catherine Shakdam. The views expressed are those of the author.

If ever the world needed a foe upon which to cast its ills …

Iran has been labelled a villain and a foe without so much as an opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of those its revolution most offended.

And while many may still despair over Iran’s attachment to religious rule – its refusal to abide by our western political ethos: that any real democratic improvement requires a clear separation of the State and Church, Iran could prove a more reliable partner in the region, than those allies we are currently forced to put on notice.

However determined our western capitals, Washington in the lead, have been to absolve Saudi Arabia from the sins it recently committed, few more shocking  than the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it is evident that a Rubicon has been crossed, and thus pause is needed in our evaluation of geopolitics, and those dynamics we held as evident.

Iran needs not be perfect to resume its place within the international community, especially since by virtue of its geography and its political gravitational pull it has become a regional superpower. Iran is old, older than most countries in the region and its core stability could prove welcome respite in a region plagued by tribalism, ethnocentrism, sectarianism, and religious radicalism.

More to the point, Iran has proven too capable of withstanding both political adversity and crippling economic sanctions for any of us to still believe that more of the same would crack the proverbial nut.

And if an enemy cannot be made to kneel, we may as well consider making him a friend for his strength may add to our own, and ours to his,  instead of reducing both of our reach.

If Iran may feel a world away in that it still appears our appointed nemesis on the basis of its brash rhetoric and resistance to our calls for normalisation, it would be a disservice to our ambitions to imagine the Islamic Republic much different than we are in its aspiration to maintain sovereignty, its hunger for territorial integrity, and its determination to achieve socio-economic advancement through education and technological ingenuity.

There is most definitely a bridge waiting to be built.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “There was never a bad peace or a good war.”

Maybe we ought to distance ourselves from the belief that world politics is a zero-sum game, in which the rise of any one power necessarily takes away from our own. We should learn to recognise opportunities for mutual growth in those areas in which we see eye to eye.

The trick lies in our ability to expand our circle so that we end up including ‘them’ into what we previously considered to be exclusively ‘us’, and in the process gain an ally with vested interests in our future successes.

Education and most particularly what education has meant for Iran’s social fabric, could prove a tentatively alluring sector should we wish to move Iran away from the tumult of hardcore politics, and in doing so build a bridge towards peace.

For all the ills our western capitals have burdened Iran’s Islamic Republic with, it has outperformed most of its contemporaries in the field of education.

After the 1979 Revolution education was included in the high priority list of the government, focusing on programs like adult literacy, the construction of new schools, and expansion of public colleges and other higher education institutes. As of result Iran’s literacy rate reached 94.6% by 2001 across all age groups.

As of September 2015, 93% of the Iranian adult population is  literate, without any gender discrepancy or disparity. Iran sits firmly in the liberal seat as far as access to education goes.

By 2007, Iran had a student to workforce population ratio of 10.2%, one of the highest ratios in the world.

In a recent interview with Ardeshir Zahedi, made available to NCF before its publication, the former Iranian diplomat points to Iran’s educational prowess to demonstrate how decidedly proactive Iran has been towards not only equality of opportunity, but access to the workplace as far as gender equality is concerned.

He notes: “Today Iran is different than it was 40 years ago …

Today 4o million [Iranians] (out of a total 83 million population) have studied in universities and they are the leaders of the future … two third of which are women … I’m proud to say this, this is my country.”

A former man of the Shah, Mr Zahedi cannot be accused of favouritism to Iran’s Islamic Republic.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Iran is not at war with its female population; it does not operate on the belief that women should play a passive role in society.

And while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif admitted his nation’s many failures and mishaps as far as  human rights and freedom in general are concerned, the republic sits on strong foundations.

In 40 years women have managed not only to reach out to the highest degree of education but they have driven the narrative in the workplace, affirming themselves in leading positions across all sectors of industry, and diplomacy.

Surely we must recognise that for a system of governance to favour education above all else, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and faith, there must ground for reconciliation, or at least dialogue.

If we consider, as Christopher Hitchens so frequently, and one might add most eloquently argued, that social advancement rests on the liberation and empowerment of women, Iran is on par with our worldview. It would stand to reason therefore to facilitate such process by means of inclusion and exchange so that other areas of cooperation may be identified.

If Iran sits much at odds with our western capitals, the education sector represents too much of an opportunity to break new ground to be ignored. Friendships are built around common interests and values. In a speech in September 2018 the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, stressed that Britain needed to strengthen its support for a rules-based international order, saying there will be a price to pay for countries that do not share the UK’s values and frequently cross geopolitical red lines.

A case could be made here for a strong common denominator, especially in view of Iran’s shared red line, that represented by its abhorrence for ISIS’s brand of Islamic radicalism.

Catherine Shakdam is a contributor to NCF and a researcher at Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies

 

Iran: Juvenile death penalties and the drug epidemic: a means to tackle both?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently facing a drug epidemic within its population. It also continues the sentencing of juveniles with death penalties. The two issues are linked.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, spoke following the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council, of Iran’s practice of the executing of juvenile offenders, or individuals who were juveniles when the crime was committed. Iran executed five juveniles in 2017, more than any other country in the world. This is a major concern. It goes against both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, two treaties which the Islamic Republic of Iran has ratified.

There is a need for Iran to display compassion to those individuals that have committed these crimes. The behaviour of a child should not, regardless of their actions, be punished with the death penalty. The Next Century Foundation asks the Islamic Republic of Iran to remember the behaviour of the Prophet Mohammed and his willingness to show compassion to those that transgressed.

Iran has made efforts to curb the number of executions within the country. The suspension of the death penalty to around 5,000 inmates that were on death row is an encouraging sign and should be praised. This despite the fact that many within Iran believe that harsh criminal punishments are one of the few ways to curb the drug epidemic that Iran is currently suffering from.

Iran has a major drug problem. Levels of drug addiction are soaring and there is a serious need to control this epidemic. In 2017, there were 2.8 million people who were ‘regularly consuming drugs’. The vast majority of this drug use is opium. The real figures may well be larger as often people do not wish to admit to drug use. This is truly an epidemic and one that is damaging Iranian society.

This is a strain on the hospitals that are needed to aid victims of drug abuse. 25% of heroin users in Iran are now HIV/AIDS positive. The epidemic has also placed a major strain on the police and border control. Youth unemployment has caused many to turn to drug use, including those that have completed higher education. All addictions are tragedies, but excessive drugs use by the young and disenfranchised is a major concern.

90% of the world’s opium is produced in neighbouring Afghanistan. This is no coincidence. Since the resurgence of the Taliban, opium production in the country has skyrocketed, and this has caused major problems in Iran. 60% of drug traffic out of Afghanistan goes through Iran. Iran is the beginning of the smuggling journey to the rest of the world.

Therefore, we have two major problems that need addressing: juvenile executions and the drug epidemic. The Next Century Foundation requests that the international community offer its aid in helping to curb the drug epidemic in Iran. In response, as a sign of a willingness to co-operate, Iran could introduce further criminal justice system reforms. The international community can offer to improve border security in Iran along its Afghan border. IImproved security there will help lower the volume of drugs smuggled into the country and reduce the supply side of the drug economy that is damaging Iran.

Recognising there are many within Iran that believe strong punishments for drug offenders are a necessity to prevent skyrocketing drug abuse figures; the Next Century Foundation asks that Iran at least removes the death penalty for juveniles convicted of non-drug offences. This will show a willingness to work  to progress further towards international standards.

Netanyahu’s Folly . . . or a gamble that paid off?

On the 30th April, through live broadcast from Jerusalem, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an assertive presentation to the world accusing Iran of “brazenly lying” about their nuclear weapons ambitions. The presentation itself seemed amateur and the Prime Minister delivered it as if he were at school. But his intention was to make a serious point.

His point being that various Iranian leaders have falsely denied that they had ever been working on acquiring nuclear weapons with several citing the idea as “immoral”. Netanyahu’s PowerPoint presentation featuring diagrams, photographs and blueprints sought to demonstrate that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal) and that Iran, through what was known as Project Amad (1999-2003), had had the active goal of building a nuclear weapon.

The key allegation Netanyahu made in this presentation was that Project Amad, a supposedly merely scientific program, had been a covert nuclear weapons development project and that even after the closure of Project Amad, the work had secretly continued. He said that top-secret documents proved it. However, the Next Century Foundation does not find any real merit in Netanyahu’s further suggestion that the JCPOA allows Iran to continue their alleged nuclear weapons development unabated. Evidence to support the accusation that Project Amad was a covert nuclear weapons project is definitely compelling, but is nothing new to anyone in the international community. However, Netanyahu explicitly states throughout that Iran continues with its pursuit of its nuclear weapons ambitions. For these accusations he provides no real evidence. He simply opines that the retention of these documents, already known about since before the JCPOA, indicates that they are doing so and that their denial of the existence of prior nuclear weapon development efforts means they are liars.

The Presentation in Detail:

This presentation was built around alleged evidence from 55,000 pages and 183 CDs of “top secret” documentation that only a few Iranians and Israelis were supposedly aware of. Netanyahu does not specify how or when these documents were obtained but states that they were being kept in a top-secret, unassuming compound in Tehran. The acquisition of said documents was described by Netanyahu as a “great intelligence achievement”  by the Israeli intelligence services. The Iranians refute the claims made by Netanyahu and say that they would never keep official documents in the “dilapidated warehouse” Israeli intelligence allegedly acquired them from.

Project Amad ran for four years before closing in 2003. The documents obtained by Israeli intelligence seem to show, according to Netanyahu’s presentation, the active pursuit of nuclear weapons acquisition because Iran pursued the development of ballistic missiles with high power capability. However the development of a long range missile program does not necessarily mean an intention to have nuclear warheads. Several photographs, videos, blueprints and scans of documents were presented on different slides to enforce the message Netanyahu was pushing.

Rather more importantly Netanyahu did pull up one specific document that said the project was going to “design, produce and test … four nuclear warheads each with 10 kilotons of TNT yield for integration on a missile”. Israeli intelligence analysis of the documents determined that Project Amad had the ‘five key elements of a nuclear weapons programme’ including developing nuclear cores and preparing nuclear tests. To support the latter allegation, he provided scans of maps detailing five potential test locations in eastern Iran. Furthermore, he claims that despite Amad’s closure, the project continued in a devolved and both covert and overt way with the full knowledge of Iranian leaders and under the pretence that it was for scientific knowledge development. One cannot dismiss such evidence. The evidence was lacking in  quantity but it was supportive nonetheless. When taking this evidence into consideration, his point that Iran has lied could be considered compelling.

However, this evidence and knowledge has been in the public domain for many years. Concerns about Project Amad and nuclear weapons, deriving from official documents, are not ground-breaking in the slightest. It is of course concerning, but Netanyahu is essentially regurgitating old knowledge. This knowledge was reported on by international journalists at the time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ‘nuclear watchdog’ with whom Netanyahu said he would share these documents, had their own concerns over Iran and nuclear weapons. However, they were addressed at the time and in the years following. Yes, Iran did lie about the intentions and activities of Project Amad and subsequent nuclear ambitions. However the IAEA conducted their own investigation and by the time it came to signing the JCPOA in 2015, there was confidence that Iran were no longer pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. We knew this and the world knew this. Netanyahu is not offering us anything more.

Unlike the wealth of documentation supporting claims that Project Amad and its subsequent activities do show nuclear weapons development, Netanyahu failed to prove that Iran are still lying. He believes that holding such knowledge of nuclear development and “advanced work on weaponization” shows that Iran are continuing with their nuclear weapons ambitions. In his eyes the JCPOA nuclear deal “gives Iran a clear pass to an atomic arsenal” through allowing them to continue uranium enrichment and failing to address Project Amad and any other subsequent development of nuclear weapons. He does not provide anything substantive to support this.

Conclusions

Netanyahu delivered what he believed was a ‘ground-breaking’ presentation that addressed issues previously unaddressed or acknowledged. However, this was not the case. There has been an awareness of Iran’s nuclear activities by the international community and that this supposedly top-secret documentation has been known about and is nothing new. What Israel’s premier presented did indeed show a contradiction between the denials of nuclear weapons development by Iranian leadership and what was actually happening. Whilst the presentation may have raised legitimate concerns, it was no turning point.

It is important to be aware of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own perceptions of Iran and place this presentation in a wider geopolitical context. He refers to Iran as a “terrorist regime” and expresses his distrust and disdain for Iran’s leadership. The presentation concluded with his opinion on the JCPOA and his belief that President Trump would do “the right thing” and withdraw from the nuclear deal. Stating that he would share the gathered intelligence with other countries and the IAEA, he said that “the United States [could] vouch for its authenticity”. In the ten days that have followed the presentation, President Trump has withdrawn from the deal and tensions have heightened between Israel and Iran. It appears that Netanyahu’s big presentation was successful.

Nematollahi persecution in Iran: derision and violence solves nothing

Since 2005, tensions between the Iranian authorities and the largest Sufi sect in the country, the Nematollahi Gonobadi, have been rising. The Dervishes that make up the sect prescribe to a form of Shia Sufism. However, their beliefs differ from mainstream Iranian Islam, leading to declarations that the sect is ‘weakening Islam’ and that they are ‘political agitators’ becoming common. Now houses of worship are being destroyed, Gonobadis are being detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and their practices being suppressed. This harassment of the Gonobadis by the IRGC has resulted in sporadic outbreaks of violence by Gonobadis against the Iranian security services.

The most recent example was the Gonabadi Dervishes’ protest in Northern Tehran. The protest occurred in response to the arrest of one of their community leaders, Nematollah Riahi, and the lack of clarity regarding where he has been detained and what the charges against him are. Six men were reported dead in the aftermath of the protest: five members of the security services and one member of the Gonabadi sect. Government news organizations have portrayed the event as an aggressive mob attacking both civilians and police alike, whereas other media sources have argued protesters were heard declaring that they did not want violence but felt there was no other option following aggressive police interventions. Three hundred arrests have now been made. These arrests are not a new phenomenon. A number of Gonobadis have been arrested in Iran under ‘National Security’ laws, and multiple protests by the Gonobadis have taken place. There is, understandably, a sense within the Gonobadi community that they are being persecuted unfairly. The fact that the arrest of Nematollah Riahi is shrouded in mystery only entrenches this belief.

However, these violent outbreaks leading to the death of policemen will only escalate tensions. There is a desperate need now for communication between the Iranian authorities and the sect. The Dervish leader, Nour Ali Tabandeh, condemned the violence committed by the members of his sect and offered his condolences to the families of the security services killed at the protest. These calls for non-violence are vital and must be heeded by the sect if tensions between the Gonobadis and the Iranian authorities are to abate.

Unfortunately, the Government response to the attack has been hostile. Following the demonstration, a police spokesman, Saeed Montazer Al-Mehdi was quoted decrying the deaths of two of the Basij paramilitary force, an organisation loosely affiliated with the IRGC, at the hands of a ‘superstitious cult’. This sentiment was shared by government media, who referred to the event as an attack by a ‘Dervish Cult’. Using this kind of derogatory language about what after all is the largest Sufi sect in Iran will only further antagonise the community. Additionally, as long as the government maintains a narrative that is at odds with coverage from alternative media sources, fears within the Gonobadi sect that they cannot work with the Iranian authorities will be reinforced and the likelihood that they will continue to resort to violence will be greater. Dialogue, compromise, and transparency are now crucial in order to prevent further tragedy.

Political insecurity in Iran is currently a major issue. These Gonabadi demonstrations come on the heels of some of the largest economic and social protests Iran has ever seen back in December and January. A constant criticism leveled at the Sufi community is that they are political agitators and want to destabilise the Iranian government. These allegations have often triggered persecution and arrests. It would be easy during this time of political uncertainty to further suppress the Gonabadi community. However, to do so will have a lasting impact on Sufi relations in Iran. In order to maintain peace and prevent further tragedy, it is important to recognise a people’s desire for rights as just that, and open a dialogue, rather than belittle them as political agitators within a ‘superstitious cult’. Such dogmatic derision will simply further cyclical violence.

The Islamic Republic of Iran as a Regional Power in 2018 and Beyond

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 4 SR on the 12th of March 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mr President. The Next Century Foundation wishes to promote peace and security in the Middle East and calls on the regional powers to pursue these aims. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one such power that has the ability to drive regional change. Iran continues its pursuit of regional dominance in competition with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and this has an undoubted influence on the politics of the Middle East. Despite their rivalry and their precarious diplomatic relationship, the Next Century Foundation hopes and believes that the two powers can take progressive and peaceful steps towards reconciliation with one another. If they did so they could then actively work in cohesion to facilitate stability in surrounding nation states, such as the Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of Yemen where civil war is still ongoing, and the Kingdom of Bahrain where tensions remain acute.

The Syrian Civil War has become an international conflict in which many nations have had some level of involvement. The Republic of Turkey, the United States of America, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Russian Federation are all powers that have a presence in Syria. As a nation in such close proximity to the conflict, Iran has the potential to contribute significantly to the possibility of a peaceful future for Syria by working closely with other members of the international community, particularly their regional neighbours, in promoting security, stability and peace. It can lead in taking the steps towards peace. The Syrian Civil War has been a direct cause for the refugee crisis witnessed in Europe in which so many people have been rendered displaced.

Similarly, the civil war in Yemen persists with the human cost mounting. Thus far, 20 million people are estimated to be displaced and almost three quarters of the population are in need of aid. A conclusion and resolution to the conflict is paramount in Yemen for the sake of the people and regional stability.

In Bahrain too, Iranian involvement, though less belligerent, has an effect. Undoubtedly there would have been fuller participation in the 2014 national elections in Bahrain had Iran not encouraged prominent opposition leaders to back down on full participation. It is to be hoped that Iran will be more constructive when it comes to promoting full engagement by all communities in the forthcoming Bahrain national elections later this year.

Iran’s position on the global stage is incredibly important but their role in promoting a peaceful future for the Middle East is paramount. It is a role they must not shirk.

Trumping Middle East Policy

statue-of-liberty-267949_960_720The Next Century Foundation takes a look at the National Security Advisors and the Senior Foreign Policy team in the new U.S. administration, as well as the sort of Middle Eastern policy that might be pursued.

Rex Tillerson: Secretary of State

Rex Tillerson joined Exxon in 1975. One of the crowning jewels of his career was the acquisition of XTO Energy by ExxonMobil in 2009 for $31 billion. Michael Corkery of the Wall Street Journal wrote that “Tillerson’s legacy rides on the XTO Deal.”

We know more about Tillerson’s views on the Middle East than we do Kushners’. One dependable policy is less involvement in the whole region. He is critical of the U.S’ involvement in Libya, and although called the Iraq war “well-intended”, he also described it as unsuccessful. In this light, we can speculate that he wants to see less American intervention in the region. Through his role at Exxon, he had close ties with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, Tillerson, on behalf of ExxonMobil, signed a deal to develop oil fields in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The agreement defied Iraqi law, which forbids companies from dealing directly with Iraqi Kurdistan. Whether this will result in more robust support for the Kurds or not remains to be seen. However, it is important to note that his diplomatic interests as Secretary of State are different to that of his economic interests as CEO of Exxon.

One big policy issue currently is Iran, Russia’s major ally in West Asia. In the wake of Trump’s forceful rhetoric towards Iran, Tillerson might be expected to project a calmer voice. Indeed, Tilerson is described by the Kremlin as a solid and very professional man, he also enjoys a less antagonistic relationship with President Putin than many other officials. Secretary Tillerson is interested in expanding the American footprint in the world at large including Iran. For example, there are large Iranian oil reserves in which Tillerson’s former company has shown interest in, there are also many opportunities for American companies to sell products to Iran. However, the imposition of new sanctions against Iran following its ballistic missile tests, as well as strong bipartisan congressional opposition against warmer Iranian ties may push bilateral commercial consideration to the backburner.

James Mattis: Secretary of Defence (Gen Ret.)

James “Mad Dog” Mattis is the U.S. Secretary of Defence. While he is criticised for being too single minded, he also has an impressive CV. A U.S. Marine since 1969, he has an M.A. in International Security Affairs and is (in)famous for carrying around a copy of ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius throughout his deployments. He is noted for his intellectualism and study of history. Having served in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, his handling of his Marines is well noted. He made them complete cultural sensitivity training, and encouraged them to maintain good relationships with Iraqi civilians.

On the Middle East, Mattis has been much clearer in his views than both Tillerson or Kushner. He has reaffirmed the U.S. – Saudi strategic relationship and praised the friendship of regional allies. These allies and friends include: Jordan, the UAE and Egypt. He wants to work more closely with these countries; strengthening ties with their spy agencies and expanding naval exercises. On Israel, he supports the two-state solution, calling the current situation “unsustainable” and believes the settlement construction could theoretically lead to an apartheid-like situation in the West Bank. He believes the lack of a two-state solution upsets the Arab allies of America, which weakens US esteem amongst its Arab allies.

The biggest threat, according to Mattis, is Iran. “The Iranian regime, in [his] mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” He believes the nuclear halt is actually only a pause. He wants to increase the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf. He also considers ISIS an excuse for Iran to “continue its mischief”. A worry concerning Mattis’ hawkish Iranian rhetoric is that it risks undermining the very real threat of ISIS. While Iran is engaged in proxy wars in the region, the very existence of ISIS sustains the threat of Jihadist terrorism not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and the West.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster: National Security Advisor

Herbert Raymond McMaster is a serving three-star general. He is a graduate of the US Military Academy and holds a PhD in military history from the University of North Carolina. He is the author of the book “Dereliction of Duty”, which heavily criticised the U.S. military policy in Vietnam. He is best known for successfully leading the 2005 counterinsurgency operations in Tal Afar in Iraq, a city of 250,000, and commanding the 140-soldier Eagle Troop, part of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment during a 1991 tank battle. Both cases pioneered tactics that are studied by the U.S. military to this day; neither approach the political complexity of the role McMaster has been assigned to in the administration.

McMaster is a strategic thinker, he has a record of military achievement and is very widely respected among national security professionals from both the Democratic and Republican sides. On the topic of the Middle East, he refuses to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism”, believing that the U.S. should not play into the jihadist propaganda that suggest that this is a religious war. He replaces Michael T. Flynn who resigned after admitting that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about a phone call with a Russian diplomat. McMaster has a reputation for speaking his mind within military ranks, causing some to wonder if that is why he was not promoted more rapidly. How this translates into White House policy and politics remains to be seen. Rumours are circulating that unlike Chief Strategist Bannon, McMaster will not have walk-in privileges to the Oval Office.

Michael Pompeo: Director, Central Intelligence Agency

A former army officer and Kansas Congressman, Mike Pompeo was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, served in the Gulf War, and served three terms in congress. He won a fourth, but resigned to take up his current position. He opposes closing Guantanamo, criticises the closing of ‘black sites’, and is currently on a visit to Turkey.

Pompeo is fiercely critical of Islam. He has said that Muslim leaders who fail to denounce acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam are “potentially complicit” in the attacks. He has also spoken of a war between the Christian West and Islamic East, emphasising the need for the west to “destroy the threat of radical Islamic terrorism”, and remove the “dozens of groups that are founded on the central principle of the destruction of the West and the imposition of Sharia Law”. He is fundamentally grounded in his Christian faith and claims that “Jesus Christ is truly the only solution for [the] world. He is also a strong critic of the Iranian nuclear deal, and agrees with the argument that Iran is “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism”. Iran, in his opinion, is the most dangerous threat to Israel. His views on Russia are reasonably common, he believes the country is aggressively reasserting itself without doing much to combat ISIS, and accuses the Russians of “siding with rogue states” as well as participating in “unpunished affronts to U.S. interests.

Jared Kushner: Senior Advisor to the President

Jared Kushner comes from an Orthodox Jewish family. His paternal grandparents were holocaust survivors, and is married to the President’s daughter Ivanka. He took the reins of his father’s property empire after Charles Kushner was convicted for tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and witness tampering. Widely known to have been instrumental in the running of Trump’s online campaign, Kushner has been made Senior White House Advisor, and given the task of ‘brokering Middle East Peace’.

Little is known of Kushner’s views on the Middle East. Trump asserts that Kushner “knows the region, knows the people, knows the players”, but his role as a ‘peace broker’ is still shrouded in vagueness. One can speculate that he is sympathetic to the state of Israel considering that his family has donated over $300,000 to Friends of the Israeli Defence Force. The Kushner foundation has also donated around $40,000 to a well-established settlement of Bet El that is considered hard-line and ideological.

Of course, supporting charities in Israel does not mean that Kushner himself is supportive of settlement expansion, or of hard-line pro-Israel views. It does mean, however, that his actions, especially those concerning Israel and Palestine will be scrutinised both domestically and abroad.

Steve Bannon: Chief Strategist

Steve Bannon has appointed himself to the National Security Council. He is a fierce outspoken critic of Islam, calling it “the most radical” religion in the world and claims that the U.S. and the Western world are engaged in a “global existential war”. There are numerous editorials stating that many of his supporters in the developing ‘alt-right’ group are anti-Semitic, despite Bannon’s apparent strong support for Israel. By reorganizing the National Security Council and elevating Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist will now sit in on the top inter-agency group for discussing national security, some experts deem this to be controversial.

Conclusions

The Trump administration’s Middle Eastern Policy will be shaped not only by the President himself, but also by four of his key advisors. There are some conclusions we can make regarding the ME policy.

Israel: Stronger support as emphasised by the plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Whether this translates into support for all Israeli communities in the West Bank, or potentially U.S. approval of the largest settlements in Israel remains to be seen.

Iran: There are attempts to renegotiate the nuclear deal, but safeguarding Israel’s security is a priority. There is strong anti-Iranian rhetoric, and a desire to increase military presence, (most likely the U.S. Navy in the Gulf), but there is also pressure from congress not to reduce sanctions.

With so many countries actively engaged in the region and sponsoring proxies, it is no wonder that the new administration wants to detangle itself from the region, however, how this translates to effective foreign policy, considering Russia’s alliance with Iran remains to be seen. We are likely to see continued support for Jordan, Sisi’s government in Egypt, and possibly Turkey, as long as they continue the fight against ISIS. We might also see an emphasis on Saudi and Gulf allies to shoulder more responsibility for combating ISIS, and acting as a bulwark against Iranian ‘meddling’. One certainty is “uncertainty”.

By Edward Tebbutt

Sanctions and Iran- and now for the Oil Glut

Pipes_on_an_oil_tankerThe coming glut of Iranian oil hitting the market will drive the oil price down below the twelve year low it has already reached. Yesterday’s $3 price hike is already being corrected with a 3% price drop today. Chinese demand will remain low. The oil sanctions against Iran were lifted after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed on Saturday that Iran had met the requirements for curbing their nuclear weapons programme. Iran’s government has ordered a 500,000-barrel per day increase in the production of oil from 1.1 million per day, and will increase this by a further 500,000 in coming months. Iran also has somewhere approaching 50 million barrels of oil in storage that it is seeking to sell. As well as the lifting of oil sanctions, Iran will gain access to bank accounts that have been frozen since the Shah was overthrown in 1979 believed to total in the region of $100 billion.

However, things are not all rosy for Iran. Just one day after the IAEA confirmed that Iran had met its nuclear commitments, and Iran had returned US citizens it had been holding hostage, on Sunday the US leveled new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program test in December. The sanctions are limited to 11 Iranian-tied entities but they demonstrate a resolve to uphold the conditions of the agreement reached last summer. This may go someway towards placating Saudi Arabia and its allies, who fear the rise in power of Iran, and the conciliatory tone of the West towards their regional rival.

What Russia expects to gain and lose from the Iranian nuclear accord

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The July 14th agreement on Iran’s nuclear program with the P5+1 will prove fruitful for Russia in the immediate future. Sanctions-relief on Iran has provided Russia a greater opportunity to do business with the Islamic Republic. Russia has already signed lucrative deals with Iran in the past 12 months. In November 2014, Russia signed a multi-billion dollar agreement with Iran to build two nuclear reactors at the Bushehr nuclear power plant. In addition to constructing the facilities, Russia will sell nuclear fuel for the reactors.

The economic benefits of the relationship also cover areas of military cooperation. Russia has signed an agreement to sell and transfer Russian military equipment to Iran in the future. This includes the continued transfer of the controversial S-300 anti-missile defence system. Russia understands that Iran’s military is out-dated and is in urgent need of modern weapons, so taking advantage of the continued mistrust on military matters between the West and Iran means Russia will continue to have an advantage in this sector. Similarly, Russia has made headway in selling space technology, investing in oil and gas drilling, exporting pipeline construction and railway development in Iran.

On the other hand, Russia is set to lose out on the gradual entrance of cheap Iranian oil and gas to the world energy market. The already low price of oil and gas has battered the Russian economy intensely, with prospects of cheap Iranian oil gushing the market significantly reducing the revenue of Russia’s main export to the world. An increase in natural gas exports from Iran to the region will put downward pressure on gas prices, reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. According to energy market analysts, it would take Iran approximately one year to increase its oil and gas production capacity. To prepare for this, Russia has taken a couple of measures to mitigate the consequence by signing a twenty-billion dollars barter arrangement, where Russia buys up Iranian oil in exchange for Russian goods and services. In effect, this would mean Russia could hoard surplus oil from the world energy market until prices rise.

Geopolitically, the nuclear accord is likely to empower Iran as a regional power, allowing it to execute its foreign policy with fewer constraints from the international community. Russia and Iran stand to gain from cooperating with each other on regional issues, like keeping Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power, whilst uniting in opposition to Saudi Arabia’s actions in the region. Russia has substantial concerns for Saudi Arabia’s support for Sunni radicalism in the region and its potential of entering Russia’s troubled Caucasus region. It would also be a symbolic sign of protest against Saudi Arabia’s effort to reduce global oil prices, which has undermined Russia’s economy.

Lastly, Russia’s further cooperation with Iran ensures that it will retain a foothold in the region, influencing Middle Eastern diplomacy from a non-western approach. In sum, Russia is set to gain from the nuclear accord, albeit with an impact on Russia’s energy market.

Russia’s Game in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt
Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt

For Russia, the Middle East has historically been a region of strategic and economic importance. Russia is seen as an alternative to the Western ideological framework, granting it a special status in the area. Apart from being a consistent alternate power, Russia’s objectives and policies in the Middle East have always changed depending on its relationship with the Western powers.

In March 2012 Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency as a different figure. Seemingly more anti-Western and disappointed by the failure of Obama’s RESET policy, the Libyan crisis of 2011 and the ongoing sanctions on Iran, he is more confrontational, unpredictable and assertive in his actions with the West. Interestingly enough, this was not the case under Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, which focused on fostering relations with the West and as a result took a more hands-off approach in the Middle East. The current U-turn originates in what Putin sees as covert Western involvement in the Arab Spring of 2011, reminiscent of the colour revolutions that were inspired by the West in post-Soviet republics. For Putin, these red flags suggest that Russia’s presence in the Middle East is necessary to protect vital spheres of influence and sustain Russia’s image as a great power. For this reason, the world faces a reinvigorated return of Russia in the Middle East, albeit a confused return.

To contextualize Russia’s aims, one needs to look no further than the paramount diplomatic issue facing the country. The current crisis in Ukraine consumes almost all of Moscow’s financial, military and political capital away from the Middle East, justifying the lost long-term objective in the region. Rather than envisaging a definitive goal for Russia’s interest in the area, the agenda seems to jump from crisis to crisis. Looking at Russia’s cooperation with the Middle East on an individual basis, a pattern of cautious engagement starts to appear.

Russia’s relations with the GCC countries is one that avoids politicization. Instead of condemning various monarchies on their human rights record and lack of democratic progress, Russia takes a pragmatic stance. It vehemently believes in non-interference in internal affairs and taking a position on these issues would be an unusual precedent. Establishing democracy in Qatar or Saudi Arabia is not important. In fact, this would almost certainly be disadvantageous to Russia.

In Riyadh, those on the upper echelons of power are loyal to the U.S.-Saudi alliance so the recent secretive deals between high-ranking Russian and Saudi officials seem out of place. Putin and the Deputy Crown Prince, a less pro-Washington figure in the Saudi leadership, met in St. Petersburg in June 2015, indicating King Salman’s change of policy with Russia. There are unconfirmed talks of investing in the construction of nuclear power plants, increasing arms sales, and negotiating oil prices. This is understandable, considering the fact that the current Saudi leadership is disillusioned with Obama’s policy in the Middle East, especially regarding Iran, and thus aims at cementing bilateral ties with the Russian leadership. The Saudi objective is to dissuade Putin from his unwavering support of Assad, whereas Putin’s is to reduce Saudi’s overwhelming influential oil production, in order to spike global oil prices. Although Russia takes advantage of its position as an alternative power when cracks appear between Arab countries and the U.S., the recent Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, puts Russia in an awkward position.

Russia’s key concern over Yemen is Saudi Arabia undermining the authority of the UN Security Council and bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen without prior authorization. Apart from lucrative trade deals and opportunism, Russia is keen on maintaining the international world order and makes enormous use of the UNSC for political leverage. In a sign of dissatisfaction, Russia abstained in a vote on UNSC Resolution 2216, a vote that Saudi Arabia heavily lobbied Russia for, which called for a withdrawal of Houthis from Sanaa. With the situation in Yemen rapidly deteriorating and the recent rise of ISIS fighters, Moscow’s concern for the Gulf area is uncommonly high. Comments from the Russian Foreign Ministry echo a need for all Yemeni political forces to start a “full-fledged national dialogue under the auspices of the UN”. The nature of the situation means that Russia is intent on keeping third-party players strictly outside the political resolution.

Concerning Iran, Russia plays a balancing act due to its cordial ties with Israel. Under Putin, the current relations with Tehran suggest a positive step towards reintegrating Iran into the international arena. This is demonstrated by Russia’s decision to lift the ban on a weapons trade deal with Iran after making progress on the P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear programme. The sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles goes back to 2010, but was temporarily halted due to intense lobbying by Israel and the West. Although Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, emphasizes the defensive nature of the deal, the missile system can be used to shoot down jets and other missiles, increasing Iran’s capacity to subdue a threat to its nuclear facilities. This is a concern for Israel, which has been the most vocal advocate against the Iran nuclear deal and has warned of sanctions relief as a chance for Iran to engage in ‘sanctions for arms’. Another factor that Russia has in mind when dealing with Shia Iran is that twenty percent of Russia’s population is Muslim, of which ninety percent are Sunni. Keeping a delicate balance of not frustrating one side too much is a long-standing talent that Russia holds.

In Tel Aviv, Russia’s relationship is more complex than the other Middle Eastern nations. This is partly due to the huge Russian émigré population. There are around one million Russian speakers in Israel, with direct economic and cultural ties to Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Russian ties range from military collaboration to oil supply contracts and visa-free agreements. In the scientific sphere, Russia has numerous nuclear, space and technological agreements that it does not have with other Middle Eastern countries. In fact, the countries are so closely linked that the Russian President and the Israeli Prime Minister have encrypted communication lines to guarantee no eavesdropping. With this in mind, Russia has a stronger cultural connection to Israel than it does to any other Middle Eastern country. Moscow is also hoping to establish a long-lasting friendship that will lessen Israel’s dependency on the United States. There is potential for this to happen, as Israel recently decided to cancel its drone sale to Ukraine in the midst of the crisis.

The situation with Assad differs greatly. The problem with Syria is that after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia neglected to support and continue the well-established links with the remaining pro-Russian political base. This was indicative during the leadership change from Hafez al-Assad to Bashar al-Assad in 2000, whereby now the Russian security services are hastily trying to revive those connections in order to cement Russia’s position in Syrian politics no matter the political outcome of the civil war. In terms of the Syrian war, Russia, along with Iran, continues to sell arms to Assad. Putin is intent on keeping Assad in power and sees no better alternative to him. A repeat of Libya, where a bloody power vacuum was created after the toppling of the regime, is a worst-case scenario for Russia, considering Syria’s proximity to its borders. Bearing in mind that there are 1,500-2000 Russian foreign fighters in Syria, of which 500 have declared allegiance to ISIS, the question of their potential return to Russia is of great seriousness. Russia’s priority in Syria is for stability in the area, in order to stem the draw for violent Jihadism, as well as allowing resources to be focused on more pressing issues, such as Ukraine. Russia takes an opportunistic stance with the war in Syria, whereby it advocates peace negotiations with all sides, whilst selling arms to Assad. It has capitalized on taking on the role of a peacekeeper. Some argue that the message sent from the Kremlin to the West is one that follows the line of ‘you need us for stability in the Middle East’, which serves as a warning against intensifying the situation in Ukraine. In fact, Russia has facilitated numerous forums, talks, and conferences between the Syrian leadership and the opposition.

In the hydrocarbon sphere, Russia’s policy remains the same. That is to maximize Russian revenue from natural resource extraction and deals. Although the region is a serious challenge to Russia’s dominance of the European energy market, Russia is intent on either minimizing Middle Eastern involvement, or if unable to do so, have a stake in Middle Eastern hydrocarbon enterprises in Europe. This has been demonstrated by the activity of Russian oil companies in Iraq. Lukoil continues to work in unstable provinces, regardless of the threat of terror. During the ISIS surge in the summer of 2014, BP and ExxonMobil evacuated their personnel, whereas the Russian plant had evacuation plans but continued to operate in the West Qurna Field. Russian arms producers have increased their revenues as well, with Iraq being one of the main importers of arms.

A key aim for Russia is avoiding international isolation, as is the current case with the U.S. and Europe. The Middle East provides space for this isolation to be offset, as seen in Russia’s increased agricultural trade with the region. This has mitigated the effects of the self-imposed food sanctions of August 2014 by replacing agricultural produce with imports from Iran, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. In return, Russia exports wheat, barley, and rye to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Except for agricultural produce, Russia is mostly known for its arms sales in the region. In 2013 Russian arms sales to Syria and Egypt totaled USD$1.5 billion. In a limited sense, Russian foreign policy in the Middle East can be described as Kalashnikov diplomacy. Its policy does not have a lot of capacity and lacks a long-term goal. Much of its policies are determined by the failure of policies by the West. Furthermore, the agenda lacks any clear objective in the region.

Looking at relations as a whole shows Russia’s willingness to work with anti-Western nations but its incapacity to fulfill its promises. Whether this is due to Russia not seeing the Middle East as a priority for its foreign policy or because of resource drainage in Ukraine, this predicament is here to stay. With this in mind, there is still a pattern that can be seen from Russia’s relationship with the Middle East. Firstly, Russia continues to reject military intervention by third-party players as a way to resolve internal political issues. Secondly, it supports the current borders and advocates for stability in the region. Finally, it continues to capitalize on the desire of Middle Eastern countries to have an alternative power to work with.

Russia has a relatively pragmatic and flexible foreign policy regarding the Middle East, where Russia is keen on working with countries willing to cooperate, whilst upholding ‘red lines’ on regime change. It has learned from the mistake of allowing the Libyan no-fly zone morph into a NATO campaign to overthrow the Gaddafi government. It is keen on maximizing its revenues from the region whilst providing stability to the area. However, Russia lacks a concrete plan in the Middle East and seems to be improvising policy as it goes. Although useful at times, it is unsustainable both for Russia’s aim of remaining a credible international power and for stability in the region.

Yemen Crisis continues to escalate

Earlier today (24th April), an Iranian flotilla bound for Yemen, suspected of carrying weapons for Houthi rebels, averted its course and turned back. According to U.S officials, Iranian cargo ships, accompanied by two Iranian warships, shifted course as a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt moved within 200 nautical miles of the flotilla. This move averted a potential confrontation between the Iranian and American warships. Following this incident which took place in the Gulf of Aden, officials claim it is still too soon to tell if a crisis has been averted.

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The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, raising fears that Yemen could become a new front in what some believe to be proxy war between Middle East powers. Yemen’s Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin accused Tehran of trying to break a naval blockade on his country, describing the war as an “Iranian plot implemented by the Houthi militia”.

President Obama said that Iran has been warned to not challenge the United Nations arms embargo on the Houthis. He went on to say, “What we’ve said to them is that if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that’s a problem.”

After four weeks of ruthless airstrikes, more than a 1,000 civilians have been killed with over 4,000 injured and 150,000 displaced in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has destroyed many of the Houthi rebels’ sites and weapons but with Iran’s support they seem to be surviving. The Saudis are nowhere near to restoring the Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi who was driven into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The US has been helping Saudi Arabia with intelligence and tactical advice and by deploying warships off the Yemeni coast. However with the numbers killed rising and no resolution in sight, they are now urging them to end the bombing. The Obama administration seems to have realised that the Saudis appear to have no credible strategy for achieving their political goals, or even managing their intervention.

Saudi Arabia’s much-publicised creation of a Sunni coalition to fight “the Iranian and Shiite threat” in the Middle East took two major blows when Pakistan and Turkey opted out of the coalition after having initially indicated that they would join. Riyadh worries that Iran is emerging as a legitimate player on the regional and global stage and Washington no longer perceived as a reliably anti-Iranian force thus potentially jeopardising its relationship with the Americans.

The United Nations had previously led a diplomatic initiative which made some progress, but was not given enough support and attention and the official leading the negotiations, Jamal Benomar, resigned. Finding a political solution will not be easy. For one, it will require Saudi Arabia to accept the Houthis as part of the governing power structure if there is any hope of bringing some stability to the country.