Political Developments - September 2018

1. President Trump reinstates Iran sanctions: On 6 August, Trump announced the first set of sanctions: there are to be no dollar transactions with Iran, nor can there be imports of Iranian coal, iron, steel, graphite or software used in industrial processes or imports of motor vehicles made in Iran, the country’s largest export item after oil. These sanctions will be followed by more onerous restrictions from 5 November which will target Iran’s oil exports and financial and banking transactions.

These sanctions do not just apply to US companies; they include “secondary sanctions” that restrict companies from all other countries from doing business with Iran for then they will be subject to sanctions and prevented from doing business with the US. These secondary sanctions are uniquely applicable to Iran -- the US has not imposed such sanctions either on North Korea or Cuba, both of which have been subject to long-standing and severe US sanctions.

Later in August, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of a regime change effected by the US in Iran, the State Department announced the setting up of an ‘Iran Action Group’ which, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said would be responsible for “directing, reviewing and coordinating” all aspects of the Department’s Iran-related activity. The head of the group, Brian Hook, said that the announcement on the anniversary of the CIA-led coup that removed the democratic government of Mohammed Mosaddegh in August 1953 was “pure coincidence”.

Few have accepted this bland explanation. Hook himself has said that the group’s activities will focus on the “twelve demands” on Iran that Pompeo had set out in May, soon after President Donald Trump had announced US withdrawal from the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran. These demands are wide-ranging and include: give details of all previous nuclear weapons research, end all uranium enrichment and missiles testing, withdraw forces from all foreign countries, end support to “terrorist” groups, and release all foreign nationals jailed on spurious charges.

Following the experience relating to North Korea, commentators now believe that Trump is perhaps just interested in a “photogenic” summit with the Iranian president to display to his constituency his ability to drag the Iranians to fresh negotiations, an effort that is likely to be of the same limited value as the summit he had with Kim il-Un in Singapore.

There is no evidence that Iran is prepared to oblige the US president. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has described talks with the US as “useless”, while Iran’s hardliners have made even more aggressive remarks: General Qassem Suleimani of the Al Quds Force has threatened that the war started by the US will “destroy all that you possess”. President Hassan Rouhani has expressed readiness for dialogue but has demanded that the US end its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement; he has also added some fresh demands, such as US compensation for its “interventions” in Iran “from 1953 until now”.

The sanctions have certainly aggravated economic conditions in Iran. According to some sources, 33 percent of Iran’s population lives below the poverty line. Living conditions have become more onerous with the decline in the value of the national currency, the Rial: each 10 percent increase in the value of foreign currencies boosts inflation by 2 percent; given that the dollar has appreciated 200 percent in the last four months, inflation is estimated at 40 percent in this period.  Due to these conditions, there have been widespread and angry demonstrations in many parts of Iran since December last year.

On 30 August, in an interview with Bloomberg, Trump said the Iranian regime may collapse because of his administration’s policies, including leaving the international nuclear agreement with Tehran. “When I came into here, it was a question of when would they take over the Middle East. Now it’s a question of will they survive. It’s a big difference in one and a half years.” In an interview to Persia Digest on 27 August, Paul Pillar, Georgetown University Professor, has said: “Trump, under increasing domestic political and legal pressure, might come to see a military conflict [with Iran] as a useful distraction and a means for rallying support for his presidency.”

2. The US’ Iran sanctions impact Iraqi politics: A day after Trump reinstated sanctions on Iran, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made a convoluted statement: he rejected the idea of sanctions in principle, recalled the onerous sanctions imposed on Iraq after its occupation of Kuwait in 1990, and then said that Iraq “will abide by them to protect the interests of our people”.

These remarks led to a storm in Iraq. The prime minister was sharply criticised by the country’s president, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, his own Da’awa party, and a wide range of Shia political parties and militia. The latter recalled Iran’s sacrifices in the war on Daesh and viewed the sanctions as a “a flagrant violation of international law”.

Iranian media was equally harsh: a writer noted that acceptance of sanctions would inflict “hunger, poverty, sickness and deprivation” on ordinary Iraqis. He was referring to the Iran-Iraq annual trade of $ 12 billion, Iraq’s dependence on Iran for food, gas supply for 20 percent of its electricity, and the fact that nearly 30 percent of the Tigris’ water originates in Iran. Iran also cancelled a proposed visit by Abadi to Tehran in mid-August.

While some regional Arab commentators welcomed Abadi’s position and criticised the “rabid campaign” against him, others saw him as the “most prominent victim” of US sanctions and his posture as “muddled and compromising”.

On 14 August, Abadi tried to regain some lost ground when his spokesman clarified that Iraq would only abide by those sanctions that related to dollar-related transactions with Iran. There are reports that an Iraqi delegation will visit Washington to seek waivers from the sanctions due to Iraq’s dependence on economic ties with Iran.

Government formation in Iraq: The announcement of US sanctions has come when Iraq’s political alliances are jostling to form a government after the May elections. The manual re-count of votes declared on 9 August has shown hardly any change in the results announced earlier.  Thus, though the Sairoon coalition led by Muqtada al Sadr continues to lead the pack, it has only 54 seats in the 329-member house that needs 165 seats for a majority. It is followed by the pro-Iran ‘Al Fatah’ coalition with 48 seats, Abadi’s ‘Al Nasr’ coalition with 42 seats, and former prime minister Nouri al Maliki’s ‘State of Law’ alliance with 25 seats.

Since the elections, both Iran and the US have been attempting to influence government-formation: while Iran would like to retain its predominant influence in Baghdad, particularly through its sectarian affiliates, the US is seeking to undermine this link and secure a government that is closer to Washington and the neighbouring Gulf states.

The sanctions announcement has highlighted Iraq’s sharp sectarian and political divisions. The US is supporting Abadi’s prime ministership in the new government, set up in association with the Sadr-led alliance, which explains Abadi’s half-hearted acceptance of the sanctions announcement.  The negative response to his statement and the strong pro-Iran positions of several groups, such as those of Al Fatah and Nouri al Maliki, also reflect their electoral calculus, commencing with neutralising Abadi’s ambitions. This has led Abadi to hurriedly moderate his stance, though observers believe this might not improve his fortunes.

Now, a new factor has entered the political scenario. Since early July, there have been widespread demonstrations in the south of Iraq against corruption, unemployment, poverty and poor services, particularly water and electricity supply. Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani reflected this popular anger when on 27 July his senior representative read out his statement in Karbala in which he severely criticised the current crop of the country’s politicians and called for a new government of experts that would battle corruption and introduce extensive reforms. He also described Iraq’s next leader as “strong, firm and brave”, qualities that have hardly been apparent in the country’s politicians.

Though the impact of Sistani’s remarks is unclear, his remarks are being viewed as a firm criticism of Abadi’s administration. A likely beneficiary could be the Sadr-led coalition that has been espousing the platform of reform. Sadr has been projecting himself as an Arab nationalist and has built up links with Saudi Arabia. But, he has been careful not to alienate Iran and has also been in discussions with the pro-Iran ‘Al Nasr’, that is largely made up of the Iran-backed ‘Hashed al Shaab’ (Peoples Mobilisation Front) that was in the vanguard of the fight against Daesh.

On 19 August, the nucleus of an alliance led by Moqtada al-Sadr, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Vice President Ayad al-Allawi, and cleric Ammar al-Hakim respectively was announced. This alliance has so far fallen short of mustering the 165 votes needed to claim the right to form the next Iraqi government.

The final agreement to produce the largest parliamentary bloc will most likely be a package deal involving an agreement among the bloc's components over nominees for the three key positions of president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker. Iraqi politicians are still far from reaching that final agreement.

However, the divisions among the Iraqi Shia parties have thrust the Kurdish parties into the kingmaker's role. A delegation of the Sadr-led alliance was in the Kurdistan region on 27 August for negotiations over forming a coalition with the two leading Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

On Aug. 20, President Masoud Barzani said that Kurdish parties prioritize "real partnership" with Baghdad. Before casting their votes with the Sadr-led alliance, however, the two leading Kurdish parties will seek a clear understanding of the next government's policies, especially as they pertain to contested issues between Baghdad and Arbil: the future of Kirkuk and other disputed territories, the status of the Peshmerga, border control, and the Kurdistan regional government's share of the Iraqi budget.

Whatever the shape of the new government in Iraq, US sanctions have affirmed that Iran’s influence in the country is likely to remain undiminished. As if to confirm this, on 31 August, Reuters reported that Iran has given ballistic missiles to “Shi’ite proxies” in Iraq and is “developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes”. The report said that, according to three Iranian, Iraqi and western sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months.

According to the report, the Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km, putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq. The report noted that Iran is well-entrenched in these areas. However, some commentators have found this report baseless; both Iranian and Iraqi official sources have rejected the contentions.

3. Yemen: On 1 September, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said it accepted that an air attack last month that killed dozens of people, including children traveling on a bus, was unjustified, and pledged to hold accountable anyone who contributed to the error. The alliance fighting the Houthi group in Yemen had said at the time that the 9 August air strikes at a market in Saada province had targeted missile launchers used to attack southern Saudi Arabia a day earlier and had accused the Houthis of using children as human shields.

The Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), an investigative body set up by the coalition, now said that the strikes had been based on intelligence indicating the bus was carrying Houthi leaders, a legitimate military target, but delays in executing the strike and receiving a no-strike order would be further investigated.

The coalition later announced that it accepted those findings and pledged to hold accountable anyone who was proven to have made a mistake. The coalition said it would coordinate with the Yemeni government to compensate victims and would continue reviewing the rules of engagement to prevent the repeat of such incidents.

UN report on human rights abuses: However, just before the coalition accepted that its 9 August bombing had been unjustified, the coalition in Yemen rejected a UN report which said some of its attacks may amount to war crimes. The report contained many inaccuracies, a coalition statement carried by the Saudi state news agency said.

In the document, UN human rights experts said they believed war crimes may have been committed by all parties. They accused Yemeni government forces, the coalition backing them, and the rebel Houthi movement of making little effort to minimise civilian casualties. They pointed to attacks on residential areas in which thousands of people had died. The warring parties are also accused of arbitrary detentions, torture, enforced disappearances and recruiting children.

The Group of Experts noted that coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian casualties, and that they have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and medical facilities. The experts said they "have reasonable grounds to believe that individuals in the government of Yemen and the coalition may have conducted attacks in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution that may amount to war crimes".

They added that the naval and air restrictions imposed by the coalition on rebel-held areas to halt alleged weapons smuggling may also constitute a violation of the proportionality rule of international humanitarian law, while the effective closure of Sanaa airport may violate the principle of protection for the sick and wounded.

The experts also expressed concern at the situation in the southern city of Taiz, where the Houthis have been besieging a government-held area for three years. The report said civilians, including women and children, have been hit by shelling and sniper attacks by the Houthis and other parties while in their homes, fetching water at local wells, or on their way to purchase food or seek medical attention.
The Houthis are accused of indiscriminately using "weapons with wide area effect" in Taiz and other urban settings, which would constitute a war crime. The experts also found evidence of widespread arbitrary detention throughout the country by all parties, and ill-treatment and torture of some facilities.

Victims and witnesses also described to the experts "persistent and pervasive aggressive behaviour", including sexual violence perpetrated by a pro-government force known as the Security Belt and UAE personnel, according to the report. The experts said they also received information indicating all parties had conscripted or enlisted children - some as young as eight years old - and used them to participate actively in hostilities.

In its response, the coalition said it had co-operated in an "open and transparent manner" with the UN group since they began working in December 2017. It added that "false allegations" have been made against it based on "misleading reports by some non-governmental organisations". These include claims that it had targeted civilians, restricted humanitarian aid and carried out arbitrary detentions. The statement also expressed "surprise for the report's disregard of the great humanitarian role played by the coalition states in Yemen, and the huge humanitarian assistance it has provided in order to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people".

The UN human rights experts will present their report to the UN Human Rights Council in September.

Separately, on 31 August, several media reports said that the top commander in the Houthi ranks, Abdul-Khaliq al-Houthi, the brother of the Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and a number of militants were killed after an air strike by the Arab Coalition in the Bajil district in Hodeidah. The reports added that al-Houthi, who is the sixth most wanted man on the Arab Coalition’s list, was trailed in the past few days and targeted before dawn on Friday, 31 August.

4. Syria: On 24 August, Iran said that it had agreed to an agreement to deepen military cooperation with Syria, reaffirming its intention to remain in the country despite moves by the U.S. and its allies to contain Tehran’s military reach.

Iran and Syria reached the deal following meetings earlier between their defence ministers and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The report offered no further details. Syrian state-linked media said the two sides reaffirmed the need the develop long-term cooperation but made no mention of a new deal.

The move to further cement the partnership comes as the Trump administration and Israel have made strong calls for Iran to withdraw completely from Syria. Reducing Iran’s presence and influence in West Asia has been a central goal of US foreign policy. Trump wants to prevent Iran developing ballistic missiles and expanding a military footprint that could threaten Israel or other U.S. allies in the region.

The US is also attempting to pull Russia into its confrontation with Iran in Syria. On 22 August, national security adviser John Bolton said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had told the United States that an Iranian presence in Syria is not in line with Russian interests and that he would be content to see all Iran-linked forces go home. Bolton made these remarks at the end of a three-day visit to Israel.

His claims, however, do not reflect recent statements by Russian officials, who have said that Iran is playing a constructive role in Syria.  On 22 August, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: “In contrast to the United States and its coalition, we and the other guarantor countries, Turkey and Iran, are promoting stabilization and normalization in that country with deeds, rather than words.” Anatoly Viktorov, Russia’s Ambassador to Israel, said in July that Iran’s withdrawal from Syria would be “unrealistic” because Tehran is “playing an important role in our common efforts toward extermination of terrorists in Syria.”

Saudi financial support for US in Syria: On 22 August, Saudi Arabia announced that it would contribute $100 million in aid to US-backed coalition efforts in Syria, following attempts by the Trump administration to push Arab allies to play a greater role in the war. The sum appeared to fall short of U.S. requests for Arab money and troops earlier this year but represented a step forward in Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia said the funds would be used to help stabilize areas liberated from the Islamic State in north-eastern Syria.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington DC said: “This substantial contribution will play a critical role in the Coalition’s efforts to revitalize communities, such as Raqqa, that have been devastated by ISIS terrorists.” The statement added: “The funds will focus on projects to restore livelihoods and essential services in the areas of health, agriculture, electricity, water, education, transportation (key roads and bridges), and rubble removal.”

The Trump administration is also seeking greater contributions for Syria from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. They have both agreed to send troops to Afghanistan, but so far have resisted U.S. calls for their involvement in Syria.

5. Saudi Arabia: A disagreement that erupted between Saudi Arabia and Canada in early August has left policymakers and commentators stunned at the kingdom's response.

After Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland issued a tweet on 2 August criticizing the detention of two Saudi human rights activists, the Saudi foreign office said: “The Canadian position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is in contravention of the most basic international norms and all the charters governing relations between States.” Further, it issued a warning: “Any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgment of our right to interfere in the Canadian domestic affairs.”

Riyadh then recalled its ambassador from Ottawa, stopped all direct flights to the country, withdrew scholarships from several thousand Saudi youths studying there, directed Saudi citizens visiting Canada for medical care to leave, and barred any new trade deals. Till end-August, no sign of reconciliation had materialized, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on 23 August that "Canada will continue to stand up strongly for human rights."

West Asia commentator Robin Wright points out that this crisis “underscores the volatility—and potentially even the fragility—of the Saudi government under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman”, whom she describes as “increasingly autocratic”. Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi says that the Crown Prince “has already become more authoritarian than any of the previous six kings who have ruled since 1953”.


September 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.