Political Developments - June 2018

1) President Trump withdraws the US from the Iran nuclear agreement: On 8 May, President Donald Trump finally withdrew the US from the nuclear agreement that his predecessor, along with other world powers, had signed with Iran in January 2016. Iran had then agreed to end its nuclear weapons programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions on oil sales, trade and financial transactions that had crippled its economy and had made it a pariah in regional and world affairs.

Throughout the election campaign, Trump had criticised the deal, but had indicated he would abide by it, ensuring Iran’s compliance through tough scrutiny. In office, his comments became increasingly harsh, finally reaching the sharpest level of vituperation during his withdrawal announcement when he described it as “one-sided”, “horrible”, “defective” and above all “rotting” and “decayed”.

Trump’s speech castigated Iran for the usual crimes he has held the country responsible earlier – leading state sponsor of terror, exporter of dangerous missiles and fomenter of conflicts. However, most of his criticisms of the agreement itself are without foundation, such as Iran being allowed to continue enriching uranium, collecting billions of dollars in cash, continuing to pursue nuclear weapons due to inadequate inspections mechanisms, and being on the verge of a nuclear breakout in a short period.

Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement evoked widespread criticism. The leaders of the UK, France and Germany expressed “regret and concern” at the president’s action and reiterated their “continuing commitment” to the deal. The European leaders also urged the US to “avoid taking action which will obstruct its full implementation by all other parties”, signalling their disquiet over the re-imposition of sanctions.

Former president Barack Obama called the step “misguided” and risking US credibility. Commentator Trita Parsi has described the withdrawal as “one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage”. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani described the Trump announcement as “psychological warfare” and said Iran remained committed to the deal, but was ready to resume uranium enrichment if its interests were no longer served by the agreement.

Trump’s increasingly bellicose position on Iran and the agreement is the result of his close affiliation with Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, backed by the rightwing sections of the Israel lobby in Washington and the hard right pro-Israel donors to his campaign, all of them reflected in the set of hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, he has placed around him. US commentators have also noted that Trump seems to harbour an intense desire to overturn every aspect of the Obama legacy, impelled by his “petulant envy” of Obama.

Trump’s withdrawal appears to be based on the conviction that his tough posture, including threat of further sanctions and military action, had forced the North Korean leader to come to the negotiating table, and hence he can achieve a “better deal” with Iran.

Trump also seems motivated by the old American dream of seeking regime-change in Iran. He hopes that the new sanctions will add to popular anger which could lead to widespread demonstrations, causing the government to collapse. The other idea is that Iran might now be encouraged to revive its weapons programme, giving the US and Israel the excuse to mount pre-emptive military action that would bring the Islamic government down.

Both expectations are unrealistic. More stringent sanctions are likely to make the Iranians more united and nationalistic and rally around their government. Similarly, military attacks will not yield the results the US wants: Iran had endured eight years of war with Iraq in the 1980s, before it ended in stalemate.

Again, the US’s own record in regard to military interventions, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, should remind us that none of them delivered the results the US desired; in all instances, the principal beneficiaries were jihadi groups who pose a far greater threat to US interests.

But, it is this seeking of quick-fix military solutions that has made West Asia so dangerous. Netanyahu is rejoicing in the US rejection of the Iran agreement, and, confident of US support, has become even more aggressive vis-à-vis the Iranian presence in Syria. Saudi Arabia has also welcomed the US decision, though it will be the first target if a regional conflagration breaks out.

Immediately after the Trump announcement, tensions flared up. On 10 May, Israel attacked 70 Iranian military targets inside Syria, in retaliation for the 20 rockets that it said had been fired by the Quds Force, the overseas arm of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, on its military positions in the Golan Heights. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the UK-based group that has been monitoring the fighting in Syria, said that the Israelis had earlier attacked Baath, a town in the demilitarised zone, which led to these tit-for-tat attacks.

Israel said it had “hit almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria”. Targets had included intelligence, logistics, and munitions storage facilities, as also some Syrian military targets. Syrian sources said it destroyed a large part of the missile barrage. Russia said that half of the Israeli missiles had been shot down.

While the EU leaders called for restraint on all sides, the White House had no doubt that Iran was responsible for the “provocative rocket attacks”; it added that the “Iranian regime’s actions pose a severe threat to international peace and stability”, using the UN formulation that can trigger military action.

After the US decision, Israel has called on Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-aligned Gulf Arab states to help take on their mutual foe, Iran. Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman called on Sunni Gulf Arab states to join President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Iran.

Lieberman said: "Who supported Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran? Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. So I think it's time for those moderate countries to 'come out of the closet' and start talking openly. Just like there's an axis of evil, it's time for the Middle East to also have an axis of moderate countries."

Mike Pompeo’s proposals: On 22 May, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking at the Heritage Foundation, said that the US would seek a new nuclear agreement with Iran which would ensure that Iran never makes nuclear weapons in future. He added that Iran’s nuclear aspirations cannot be separated from the overall security picture, and set out the following conditions Iran should meet:

1. Iran must declare to the IAEA a full account of the prior military dimensions of its nuclear program, and permanently and verifiably abandon such work in perpetuity.
2. Iran must stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing. This includes closing its heavy water reactor.
3. Iran must also provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country.
4. Iran must end its proliferation of ballistic missiles and halt further launching or development of nuclear-capable missile systems.
5. Iran must release all U.S. citizens, as well as citizens of our partners and allies, each of them detained on spurious charges.
6. Iran must end support to Middle East terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hizbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
7. Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias.
8. Iran must also end its military support for the Houthi militia and work towards a peaceful political settlement in Yemen.
9. Iran must withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria.
10. Iran, too, must end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and the region, and cease harbouring senior al-Qaeda leaders.
11. Iran, too, must end the IRG Quds Force’s support for terrorists and militant partners around the world.
12. Iran must end its threatening behaviour against its neighbours – many of whom are U.S. allies. This certainly includes its threats to destroy Israel, and its firing of missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It also includes threats to international shipping and and destructive cyberattacks.

The outlook for West Asia is grim. While every effort will be made by world powers to keep the deal going, it is quite likely that fear of US sanctions will discourage purchase of Iranian oil, trade and investment. The European Union, allied with Russia and China, will have to make a major effort to salvage the agreement by ensuring their companies do business with Iran.

India faces the same challenges. It has crucial energy and strategic ties with Iran that impinge on its wider regional interests. This will be a good occasion to convey clearly to the US administration that its unilateralism is no longer acceptable in the emerging world order, particularly since its actions are disruptive and do not respect international rules.

This latest US folly should encourage India, China, Russia and a more energised European Union to pool their resources to promote security in West Asia and realise the nascent new order. This will be Trump’s best contribution to world affairs.

Revival of sanctions

Uncertainties relating to the re-imposition of US sanctions have already emerged. On 30 May, Iran’s oil minister Bejan Zanganeh gave French energy giant Total 60 days to win a sanctions waiver from Washington or it would lose its stake in a multi-billion-dollar gas project.

Total was the only western firm to finalise an investment deal in Iran’s energy sector following the 2015 nuclear deal. It signed the agreement last July to become the lead partner in a $4.8 billion (4.1 billion euro) project to develop the South Pars 11 gas field, alongside the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Iran’s Petropars.

But after Washington quit the deal and pledged to fully reimpose sanctions by November, Total has said it will be impossible to continue unless it gets a specific waiver from Washington. If the French firm fails to win an exemption, CNPC is expected to replace Total in this project.

The only other deal was a $742 million (600 million euro) deal with Russian state-owned firm Zarubezhneft to boost production at two oil fields in the western province of Ilam.

The European Commission on 18 May launched a trade defence law in response to US economic sanctions against Iran in an effort to keep the nuclear accord with Tehran alive. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters in Sofia that EU leaders had decided to activate the so-called “blocking statute”, which bans European companies from complying with the U.S. sanctions against Iran.
The blocking statute would forbid EU companies, under threat of punishment, to cancel business ties with Iran because of the U.S. sanctions. To do that, the EU will need to update the law to include Donald Trump’s sanctions, a process that could take up to two months, depending on how fast the European Parliament and Council vote on the update. EU countries need to approve the text by a qualified majority, meaning sceptics like Germany alone would not be able to veto the law.

Juncker also said that leaders have decided “to allow the European Investment Bank to facilitate European companies’ investment in Iran.” This means that the investment bank could potentially issue loans for companies that might no longer be covered by European banks, which are expected to withdraw their operations from Iran out of fear of consequences for their business with the United States.
On 28 May, Indian External Affairs Minister, Mrs Sushma Swaraj said that India would keep trading with Iran and Venezuela despite the threat of fallout from US sanctions against the two countries, Swaraj said New Delhi did not believe in "reactionary" policies and would not be dictated to by other countries. "We don't make our foreign policy under pressure from other countries," she told a news conference. "We believe in UN sanctions but not in country-specific sanctions." Swaraj's comments came just before a meeting with her Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in New Delhi.

Bilateral trade between India and Iran amounted to $ 12.9 billion in 2016-17. India imported $ 10.5 billion worth of goods, mainly crude oil, and exported commodities worth $ 2.4 billion. India has other interests in Iran, in particular a commitment to build the port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman. Media reports have speculated India could revive a Rupee-Rial payment arrangement with Iran to shield exporters from the heat of US sanctions.

2) Iraq: election results leave a cloud of uncertainty: National elections in Iraq on 12 May were the fourth since the overthrow of the Saddam regime in 2003 and the first since the defeat of the Islamic State late last year. After fifteen years of war, insurgency and civil conflict in which nearly two million people were killed and the national physical and social fabric destroyed, these elections took place in a remarkably peaceful atmosphere.

The turnout was less than 45 percent out of 18 million eligible voters, reflecting a disenchantment with the failure of successive governments to provide security, governance and economic hope. But, the politicians made up for this lackadaisical mood with their robust enthusiasm. Seven thousand candidates, including over 2000 women, representing over 200 parties, competed for 329 seats in the House of Representatives. Before elections, about 150 parties set up 27 coalition groups or ‘alliances’.

The results were surprising: the Sairoon (“On-the-Move”) Alliance, headed by the cleric Muqtada Sadr, that included the Iraqi Communist Party, won 54 seats, the largest number among the alliances. It was followed by the pro-Iran Al Fatah (“Conquest”) alliance, largely made up of the Shia militia Hashad al Shaabi, headed by Hadi al Amiri, that got 47 seats; Al Nasr (“Victory”), led by incumbent prime minister Haidar Al Abadi that won 42 seats, and the State of Law alliance of former prime minister, Nouri al Maliki that got 25 seats.

In the Kurdish region, the two principal parties, Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), largely retained their numbers with 25 and 18 seats, respectively.

There are two noteworthy aspects of this election. First, while the coalitions were defined in sectarian or ethnic terms, many of them fielded candidates of mixed backgrounds and shaped their appeal on the basis of development programmes rather than denominational identity. Thus, a communist lady candidate Suhad al Khateeb won in the conservative holy city of Najaf, while Abadi’s alliance did well in Sunni-majority Mosul.

Second, voters were primarily concerned with domestic matters rather than the influence of foreign players. The two parties that are linked with Iran – Al Fatah and State of Law – got just 70 seats between them, while Muqtada Sadr, who has distanced himself from Iran, won the most seats. Thus, the election suggests the rejection of sect-based politics and the affirmation of the Shia as an integral part of the Arab “nation”, rather than the pro-Iran ‘fifth column’ they had been stigmatised as by some Arab leaders over the last decade or so, a view that has made the sectarian divide central to regional competitions.
With no alliance able to obtain decisive victory, the process of putting together a coalition that would give it at least 165 seats in the House has been going on over the last two weeks.

Muqtada Sadr has had a chequered career and is even now an enigma. He is the son of the distinguished Arab Shia cleric, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr who had vied for influence with the other senior Iranian-origin clerics in Iraq and was executed by Saddam Hussein. During the Saddam period and later the US occupation, Muqtada opted to stay and fight in Iraq, unlike other activists who sought refuge in Iran.
He fought the Americans and the jihadi forces with his “Mahdi Army”, but disbanded the latter in 2008 and has declared he will not revive it. The commentator Hussein Ibish has described him as “mercurial, hyperbolic and idealistic”. This was reflected in his public pronouncements from 2015 and now in his campaign when he attacked corruption, poor economic conditions and the absence of basic services.

Though some Americans still recall his militant anti-US image and are concerned about his rise, he cannot be easily pinned down: he has criticised Iran’s influence in Iraq and has projected himself as an Arab nationalist. He has engaged with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan from last year, and has not called for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. He has demanded that Bashar Assad step down, but is also close to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah.

After the elections, Sadr has conveyed his interest in forming a government that would represent all of Iraq’s diverse identities and interest groups. The agenda of this coalition is: freedom from foreign influence; bridging of national divisions and improving governance and services.

Sadr and former Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi announced on 22 May their agreement to set up a “strong technocratic government” and indicated that they would be pulling in various Sunni and Kurdish groups but seem to be averse to the Iran-affiliated Al Fatah and State of Law alliances.

This might not work. Iran, smarting under vicious American attacks and threats of regime change following US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement will make every effort to ensure that its influence in Iraq is not diminished. General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Al Quds Force, has been travelling across Iraq after the election to piece together a coalition made up of Al Fatah, State of Law and the various Kurdish parties, backed by the numerous small parties in various parts of the country.

Clearly referring to the Al Fatah alliance, the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese paper Al Akhbar has warned that excluding a major coalition from government “would undermine stability and could lead to violence” and recommends that the government include all the “main winners”. Sadr has also attempted to dispel notions that he is anti-Iran: he has met the Al Fatah leader, while his spokesman has said that their alliance has “steady ties” with Iran and “will not yield to the US will”.

The elections have begun a national reconciliation process in Iraq; we will know soon whether its deep fault-lines will be healed or further aggravated and made to bleed.

3) Yemen: fighting intensifies: Reports on 29 May said that forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition are closing in on Yemen’s Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah. Yemeni officials had said in early May that troops were advancing on Hodeidah province but did not plan to launch an assault on densely populated areas nearby. Coalition-backed troops have now reached al-Durayhmi, a rural area some 18 km from Hodeidah port. The military coalition had last year announced plans to move on Hodeidah, but backed off amid international pressure, with the United Nations warning that any attack on the country’s largest port would have a “catastrophic” impact.

The renewed push towards Hodeidah has come amid increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are locked in a three-year-old proxy war in Yemen that has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced three million and pushed the impoverished country to the verge of starvation. Riyadh says the Houthis are using the port to smuggle Iranian-made weapons, accusations denied by the group and Tehran.

Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi called on his followers and Yemeni tribesmen in a televised address on Sunday to head to Hodeidah to confront the “breach” along coastal areas.
Earlier, at an international security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said that the Houthi rebellion in Yemen was “softening” under military pressure from the coalition of Saudi, United Arab Emirates, U.S. and others there. But, he added, the need for a prolonged coalition presence in Yemen after the rebellion ends was very real. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Martin Griffiths, the new UN envoy to Yemen, would hasten a political compromise and end the three-year war.

4) The US re-locates its embassy to Jerusalem: Amidst country-wide celebrations in Israel, the US formally shifted its embassy to Jerusalem on 14 May. Trump had announced his decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem last year, officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The decision sparked protests among Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israel, however, views all of Jerusalem as its "eternal and undivided" capital. Trump's decision to move the embassy to the Middle Eastern city was seen by many as a show of support for Israel's control over the capital.

By 14 May, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip had been protesting for seven weeks as part of the “Great March of Return” campaign and in anticipation of the US’s relocation of its to Jerusalem. On May 14, the day the US opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli forces killed at least 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters gathered near the Gaza border.

In response, officials from the UAE, the Palestinian territories and Kuwait requested an emergency session at the UN Security Council, and UN human rights chief Zeid al-Hussein backed calls for inquiry over the deaths in Gaza.

Setting aside their differences, the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) collectively condemned Israel’s targeting of unarmed Palestinian protesters and the United States’ relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem, which sparked the latest round of violence. GCC members reiterated their condemnation during an emergency Arab League meeting on May 17 chaired by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

“We are meeting today in the backdrop of the recent developments in the occupied Palestinian territories, targeting Palestinian civilians by the occupation forces and the transfer of US embassy to Jerusalem,” said Jubeir.

He added: “The kingdom has already warned of the serious consequences of this unjustified step as it offends the feelings of Muslims around the world,” he said, adding that the kingdom would help the Palestinian people until they establish their own independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Washington Post reported on 16 May that Israel’s sharpshooters have been permitted to use lethal force against those “endangering” the barrier, Israeli military officials say. These officials also say that Israeli soldiers have been allowed to use live ammunition to shoot “instigators” among “rioters” on the de facto border. But human rights groups say that the orders given to soldiers are illegal. They accuse the Israeli military of not making enough effort to use other means of dispersing crowds.

On 14 May, about 1,360 Palestinians were shot over the course of about eight hours, the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said. All the dead were shot on the Palestinian side of the fence, and the border fence, though damaged, was never breached. No Israeli soldiers were reported injured. Total deaths in the seven-week demonstrations were 112.

5) Libya prepares for elections: The leaders of Libya’s principal political groups met in Paris on 29 May with the aim of reconciling their differences, affirming the unity of their fractured country, and giving their desperate people the prospect of peace after seven years of bloodshed and destruction. At the meeting the leaders accepted UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame's commitment to holding national elections later this year, by agreeing to hold elections on 10 December.

The Libyan leaders face daunting challenges. In US Senate testimony last year, the distinguished commentator Frederic Wehrey described the “displacement and destruction” in Libya, the “collapsed authority” and the failure of governance. He had spoken of the desperate need for a stable government.

This seems a remote prospect. The Libyan Political Agreement, signed under UN auspices in December 2015, had aimed to set up a single national authority under a Presidency Council and an advisory body, the High Council of State. However, the country still has three governments: The Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli and headed by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, which is recognized by the international community; in the east is the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, headed by speaker Aguila Saleh; while the third is the National Salvation Government, also based in Tripoli, which has the support of Islamists. To complicate matters, in April, Khalid Al-Mishri from the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected the head of the HCS.

However, the “strongman” in the country is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a colonel in the Gaddafi forces who, after a failed coup against Gaddafi in 1993, had lived in exile in the US and Egypt. He re-emerged in May 2014 to lead “Operation Dignity” and, after the capture of Benghazi three years later, Haftar’s forces took all major towns in the east, except Derna. The HOR has made him commander-in-chief of the self-styled Libyan National Army.

Backed by Egypt, the UAE and Russia, Haftar has indicated his interest in uniting Libya under his leadership, much to the chagrin of the other civilian authorities, who view him as the “new Gaddafi.”
On April 5, Haftar suffered a stroke and underwent two weeks of treatment in Paris, leading to widespread speculation that the illness could be fatal. But he confounded his enemies with a return to Libya late last month and his announcement on May 8 that his forces had begun a siege of Derna. Once the city falls, Haftar will be even more powerful.

On the eve of the Paris conference, Libya’s fractious leaders had already begun playing political games. It was reported in March that Haftar had rejected the idea — said to have been proposed by those representing Al-Sarraj — of “overthrowing” Saleh and shifting the HOR government from Tobruk to Benghazi.

This month, it was reported that Al-Sarraj was seeking Haftar’s backing for his government. The same report also said that Al-Sarraj was discussing a deal with Saleh to elbow out Haftar.

Meanwhile, a new gadfly has entered Libyan politics in the shape of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. His party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya, announced in March that he would run in the presidential elections this year.

Perhaps other political figures may have thought this to be a credible challenge as, on May 20, seven top Gaddafi associates were enticed to Tripoli from exile in Cairo and apprehended by a militia known as the Special Deterrence Force.

The political scenario in Libya in coming months will remain very contentious.


June 4, 2018

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About the Author

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmed

Former Ambassador of India to Saudia Arabia, Oman and UAE, monitors developments in the West Asian region.  

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1974. Early in his career, he was posted in a number of West Asian countries such as Kuwait, Iraq and Yemen and later, between 1987 and 1990, he was Consul General in Jeddah. He also held positions in the Indian missions in New York, London and Pretoria. He served as Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2000-03; 2010-11); Oman (2003-04), and the UAE (2007-10). He was also Additional Secretary for International Cooperation in the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in 2004-06. In July 2011, the Saudi Government conferred on him the King Abdul Aziz Medal First Class for his contribution to the promotion of Indo – Saudi relations. After retirement from the Foreign Service in 2011, he worked in the corporate sector in Dubai for three years. He is now a full-time academic and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University. He has published three books: Reform in the Arab World: External Influences and Regional Debates (2005), Children of Abraham at War: the Clash of Messianic Militarisms (2010), and The Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions after the Arab Spring (2013). He writes and lectures frequently on Political Islam, the politics and economics of West Asia and the Indian Ocean and energy security issues.