Saudi King Salman on Wednesday has congratulated the Republican Donald Trump for winning the US presidency and said that Saudi Arabia government and its people offer their best wishes for the new US leader. The king also wished more progress for the US government and its people, and more ease for the new Trump administration to be able to achieve security and stability not only in the Middle East but all around the world.
At least 25 Saudi-paid mercenaries- including top leaders- died on Sunday, in Marib province, in unique military operations conducted over the past hours by the heroes of the army and popular forces. Top mercenary commander, Major Abdo Said Abdo al-Shawri was among the killed in the successful operation attack in Wadi al-Rabiah area in Serwah district. The other operation resulted in wounding senior mercenary Khalid al-Aqrha in al-Jaraf, located between al-Makhdarah area and Mass military camp, in the same province.
The King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid (KSRelief) on Friday distributed 30,000 food baskets to needy families in all governorates of Hodeidah in Yemen. The head of KSRelief and adviser at the royal court, Abdulllah Al-Rabeeah, said in a statement that the center is implementing many projects in coordination with the United Nations and the World Food Program for food emergency aid in 16 Yemeni governorates. KSRelief gives direct and indirect aid to those suffering from the present crises. Aid is either for relief and/or humanitarian purposes, and in such areas as education.
A military investigation found that officers were unprepared for the threat of Hamas attack tunnels during the 2014 Gaza war, despite prior knowledge by Israel’s political leadership, Army Radio reported on Tuesday. A number of tunnels were used by Hamas fighters to infiltrate Israel and carry out deadly attacks on troops during the Gaza Strip conflict in the summer of 2014. During that campaign, dubbed in Israel “Operation Protective Edge,” Israeli forces discovered and destroyed at least 34 tunnels, many of them leading into Israeli territory.
On September 20, Saudi Arabian authorities authorised air strikes against Houthis rebel positions in the Yemen’s capital Sana’a. Around a dozen bombs or missiles hit the Headquarters of the National Security Bureau -it is the first time since the beginning of the conflict- the defence ministry, a checkpoint in the capital’s north-western suburbs and two rebel military camps in the southeast district of Sanhan.
This attack comes as a response to a missile fired by the rebels on Monday evening. According to Saudi Arabia (SA), the Qaher-1 missile was aimed at SA’s King Khalid Air Base, 60 km north of the Yemeni border, in the city of Khamees Mushait. SA reports the missile was intercepted by the kingdom’s air defence before it could cause any damage to the base and neighbourhood, though Houthis-run Saba News Agency discloses the missile actually hit the target.
Regardless, SA immediately responds to the attack, causing at least one civilian death and some wounded, witnesses said. It is not the first time that the hostilities cause civilian deaths, proving once again the heavy criticism for high civilian death toll since the beginning of the Saudi Arabia-led air campaign.
Houthis and government forces have battled on-and-off since 2004 but it was in 2014 that a civil war eventually broke out. Indeed, in September 2014, Houthis -a rebel group known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) that adheres to the branch of Shia Islam called Zaidism- took control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, and forced President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Saudi-backed government to temporarily flee to Riyadh.
Security forces split in two groups, one supporting the international recognised government, the other backing rebels. The scenario was deeply worsen by the emergence of two other actors. On one hand, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which gained grip in the south and south-east region. On the other, a Yemen affiliate of the Islamic State, which was trying to overrun AQAP and claimed responsibility of some suicide bombings in Sana’a.
Conflict escalated in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and her allies launched a massive air campaign in Yemen in order to restore Hadi’s government. Since then, more than 6,600 people have been killed, while the number of displaced people has risen to 3 million.
To date, fighting has not stopped and the situation in Yemen is still unstable. The United Nations often report alarming data on civilian deaths, recently accusing Saudi Arabia-led coalition to be responsible of 2/3 of those and Houthis to be involved in mass civilian casualties due to the siege of the city of Taiz.
In addition, several foreign countries have taken part -though with different means- in the fighting. The international coalition includes SA, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal. United States, United Kingdom and France are supporting the coalition providing supplies, with the US also carrying air strikes targeting ISIS and AQAP positions in Yemen. On the other side, Iran has been accused of arming Houthis rebels, though the country has always denied it.
It should be added that the conflict in Yemen cannot be reduced to a civil war or a terrorist battlefield, but it is the result of several and conflicting dynamics involving multiple actors and opposite interests. Indeed, despite the civil war and the terrorist threat, Yemen is the theatre of the proxy war between the two major powers in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, thus dragging into the scene alliances and games of powers that escalate tensions and foster instability in the region.
Whoever thought that, after the signature of the nuclear deal and the lifting of the international sanctions, Iran would have become a docile and friendly country, well, probably made a wrong calculation. Indeed, in the last weeks, we’ve seen a strong and resolute nation, aimed to restore its position in the international area and to pursue its national interests, no matter what.
The spotlight is on the Islamic Republic in particular due to its recent ballistic missile tests, which have raised new fear and concern among Western countries and the Gulf monarchies. Last month, indeed, during a military large-scale drill –codenamed Eqtedar-e-Velayet-, the Islamic Revolutin Guards Corps (IRGC) tested two ballistic missiles class Qadr, the Qadr-H and the Qadr-F. Both the missiles were launched from the heights of East Alborz Mountains, northern Iran, hitting targets on the southeast coasts of the country. According to reports, missiles have a range of 1,700 km and 2,000 km respectively.
The international reaction wasn’t long in coming. On the one hand, the condemnation of the United States and Europe, which saw tests as a breach of UNSC resolution 2231; on the other, Russia stated that these tests do not violate the mandate of the document. Even Western powers failed to raise actions against Iran at the UN. It seems that Washington later withdrew its accusation, confirming that the tests do not represent a breach of the resolution.
According to the latter, indeed, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designated to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology…”. Questions arise whether these technologies could be able -as Israel affirms- to carry nuclear warheads. However, recent declarations from the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif state that the country does not have any missile capable of carrying this kind of warheads.
Several Iranian personalities have spoken about this topic. The Expediency Council (EC) Secretary Mohsen Rezaei stressed that the Iranian missile programme only has deterrent purposes and is aimed to exercise the country’s right to self-defence in case of an armed attack. According to the Secretary, it is easily understandable that disarm could not be an option for Iran: indeed, if the country gives up investments in defence, it would be subjected to attack and there are several enemies that could take advantage from this situation.
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the air forces of the IRGC, has even a stricter position. The Islamic Republic will continue to strengthen defensive and missile capabilities, which ensure Iran’s security and deter enemies from attacking the country. These enemies are also the ones, which have boosted the country’s defence power for more than 30 years; and US new sanctions just confirm this idea. Missile capabilities are a matter of national security and Iran clearly states that there is no room for negotiation or compromise over it. “No wise individual will negotiate over his country’s security” said the Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi.
It is clear that similar statements can raise concerns, especially among countries such as Israel and the Gulf monarchies. The first has been a target of Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini and the rhetoric of “wiping out” the Jewish country has recently come out several times. The Gulf countries do not support the economic and military growth of a country that not only aims to achieve regional hegemony but also backs and fosters several fundamentalist groups, drivers of instability in the region. Tensions are likely to arise in the coming months: it is to be seen how Arabic countries will react to an Iran not so prone to cooperation and aimed to achieve its national goals, the consequences on the relationship among these actors and the role that powers such as US and Russia could play in fostering or hampering these relations.
26 February 2016. An historical date for Iran that, for the first time after the end of the international sanctions, calls its citizens to the polls for a double vote, Parliament and Assembly of Experts. This vote is also a test for President Hassan Rouhani, who, since 2013, has been promoting political and social reforms, characterised by openness towards the West. The outcome of these elections, indeed, will show both to what extend the reformist line of the President is rooted in the society and which could be the future developments for the Republic.
The first vote will be cast for the Parliament, Majlis, consisting of 290 seats, 5 of them allocated to non-Muslim religious minorities. The Parliament is the legislative body, responsible for passing legislation, approving the annual budget and signing international treaties. To date, its majority, conservative and fundamentalist, has sharply contrasted Rouhani’s policies. It is clear how a different arrangement may influence the country’s future actions, as well as its posture in the international arena. “You have created a new atmosphere with your vote” tweeted president Rouhani after the elections.
The Assembly of Experts, instead, is composed of 88 members, exclusively Islamic scholars, serving eight-year terms. In fact, it is the most important body in the country, as it elects the Supreme Leader, the most powerful political and religious position. Considering the poor health condition for the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is very likely that the newly elected Assembly will select his successor.
Therefore, it is not just a nomination of candidates: it is a choice between two opposite political paths. The first is headed by president Rouhani and characterised by openness –especially economic openness- towards the West and by an attempt to promote a positive image of the country in the world. On the other hand, Ayatollah Khamenei, conservative and openly against the West, is the spokesman of a policy that aims to pursue a resistance economy and a political system based on the power of the Revolutionary Guards.
The results of the elections, which was attended by nearly 60% of the electorate (about 33 million Iranians), could have relevant consequences for the future of the Islamic Republic. Reformists won, controlling 96 seats in Parliament, while fundamentalists and independents won respectively 91 and 25 seats. However, two aspects should be pointed out. First, the concept of “reformism” should be seen through the lens of Iranian culture. Their reformism is far away from our reformism. It’s always about fundamentalism, though hidden behind a curtain of openness towards the West. Suffice to say that the real reformists have been disqualified from the list of eligible candidates in both the Parliament and the Assembly.
Secondly, we should consider the electoral base. Reformists have gained ground in metropolitan areas, while fundamentalists obtained more consensus in rural districts, home for one third of the population. However, the eight major cities, where almost half of the Iranians lives, won only 57 of 290 seats in Parliament. Given that 52 of these seats will be allocated in a runoff in late April, it seems that games are still open.
So what next?
Perhaps greater openness, yes, but it doesn’t mean, as some people think (or hope), that Iran will turn into a Western democracy. It is likely, and desirable, a détente in the relations between Iran and the West. However, we should bear in mind that Iran is still a fundamentalist regime, based on Shari’a, which, to date, refuses to give voice to the real reformists, who advocate a significant change in the political, economic and social system. Reformism, indeed, does not mean democracy.
Moreover, it is hard to believe that fundamentalists will easily give up. As percentages show, their ideas are mainly rooted in the rural society, which can still significantly affected the final composition of the Parliament. More than this. If Teheran celebrated the outcome of the elections, the reaction in Qom, Iran’s Shiite heartland, was different. “People in the real Iran are the ones here, we respect and follow the path laid down by Ayatollah Khomeini and we must protect our values”, said a 23-year-old clerical worker.
Questions remain about the future of the country. Despite the victory of reformists, fundamentalist strands are still eradicated in both the political élite and the society. Inevitably, there will be a change: however, we should keep our feet on the ground. It remains to be seen, indeed, whether the path of reformism will actually shape an Iran closer to Western democracies, or whether the hard-line fundamentalism will find a way to regain the support lost, thus hampering the openness towards the West promoted by Rouhani in recent years.
The mainstream rhetoric in the Middle East tends to deliberately or unintentionally portray that the Russian have always posed an imminent threat to Israel’s security neglecting the significant role the Soviets played in the creation of the Jewish State. Without such support at the very beginning, Israel would not have been born.
Unsurprisingly, the recent military coordination between both countries regarding the on-going proxy war in Syria did not emerge out of nowhere and is not only based on common interests, but can be traced back to the history of the formation of Israel in which Russia played a vital, if often forgotten, role.
Many believed that the birth of Israel owed a lot to Stalin’s Russia. However, others argued that this was unlikely since the Stalinist period was the toughest era in the modern history of Russia due to the restrictive, intolerant and totalitarian policies that Stalin adopted. A number of discriminatory policies against Soviet Jews were carried out during the ‘Soviet Jewry’ period in the early 1950s, which led to a total embargo on Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe.
Taken into consideration the large number of Jewish officers who notably contributed in Soviet arms production during WWII, it would have been a gigantic advantage the fledgling state to increase its manpower both in number and experience.
Despite this, Stalin played an essential role in the formation of Israel particularly during the vote on the UN Partition Plan in 1947, where his Ambassador Andrei Gromyko deliver an unprecedented speech that addressed the horrible fate that Jews have undergone in Europe and their right to have their own state. Moreover, Stalin ordered his allies in the Eastern Communist States to support the establishment of Israel as the decisive bloc that provided the two thirds majority required to win the vote at the UN. Until the late 1940s, Stalin’s Russia supported Israel politically, militarily, and demographically.
Demographically, the USSR made a decisive contribution in increasing Israel’s manpower in which it was one-third of total inhabitants at that time. Stalin supported the Jewish Agency immigration operations, where almost 67% of Jewish immigrants who arrived in Palestine came from Eastern Europe. He also supported Israel politically at the UN through voting against resolution 194, which demanded immediate return of 700,000 Palestinian refugees forcefully expelled from their homeland and absolved Israel of responsibility and blamed Britain.
Militarily, Stalin permitted the Skoda factory to supply the struggling Israeli forces with heavier artillery during the 1948 War. By the early 1950s, Israel received military aid from Stalin’s Russia that exceeded its expectation without having to worry about its relationship with Western powers. Even David Ben-Gurion publicly announced that without the Soviet support at the very beginning, Israel would have never survived the full-scale attack of Arab armies.
However, the explicit objectives of the Soviets support to Israel remained ambiguous. So why did Joseph Stalin support Israel despite of his totalitarian policy? What was his strategy?
It was obvious that Stalin had two complicit strategic ends. Firstly, he aimed at supporting the creation of Israel in order to bring disorder and political unrest to the region and hence, seize the influence of the British Empire. Secondly, he believed that Israel would become a strong ally to the USSR particularly with its socialist ideology that it adopted in the first few years of its establishment.
In the 1950s, Golda Meir put Israel in a neutral position during the Cold War and refused to militarily participate alongside the US in the Korean War. However, Israel relation with Moscow begun to deteriorate because of a number of political events that provoked Stalin’s power, particularly the incident of 1953 Doctor’s Plot.
Israel-USSR relation encountered another drop following Stalin’s death in 1953, where his successors relatively turned against Israel through signing arm deals with Arab states such as the Egyptian-Czechoslovak deal in 1955. As late as 1980s, the USSR signed billion of dollars of arm deals with its Arab clients, which altered the balance of power in the region. As Ariel Sharon declared that Israel faced two sources of existential threats; the Arab military build-ups and the Soviet expansionist policy that supported the Arabs politically and militarily.
Following the dissolution of the USSR, Israeli-Russian relation was restored to the extent that both countries have been sharing common interests in the periphery of the Middle East. The recent bilateral efforts between both countries to avoid unintended conflicts of their airpower in Syria, explicitly demonstrate that Putin’s Russia is still committed to Israel’s security. Perhaps the recent targeted-killing strike of Samir Al-Kuntar in Syria portrays the close Israeli-Russian relation. But not as close as in late 1940s, where, without the Soviet support at the very beginning, Israel would not have seen the light.
The contrast between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been a sort of Cold War for years, is likely to turn into a “hot” conflict. The rivalry between the two Middle East big powers is everything but new. However, latest events –the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the continuous drop in oil price and the end of international sanctions against Iran- have added fuel to the fire, thus causing concern about the regional and global stability.
The reasons behind tensions
The religious factor. Saudi Arabia, almost entirely Muslim, has a Sunni-majority population (the real family professes the Wahhabi ideology, a minor stream of Sunni Islam). Shiites, around 15% of the population, are concentrated in the eastern province of Al-Sharqiyah. They push for autonomy and the monarchy accuses Iran to foster their aspiration. By contrast, the Islamic Republic represents Shia Muslims, who are more than 90% of Iranian population. Self-proclaimed as protectors respectively of Sunni and Shia communities, SA and Iran stand for opposite tradition and interests, which result in a real sectarian conflict.
The black gold. SA is one of the biggest producer of crude oil and in 2014 the country has significantly increased its production, resulting in a price collapse which was aimed to target not only Iranian market and Moscow’s revenue, but also to make it economically inconvenient for the USA the extraction of shale oil. However, Riyadh’s plans haven’t gone perfectly, with US and Russia still playing a leading role in the energy market. A considerable setback for Saudi Arabia, at a time when the lifting of international sanctions against Iran pushes one of SA biggest competitor back in the game.
The regional hegemony. SA has a significant geopolitical weight, due both to its strong participation in regional and global affairs, but also to its relationship with the Gulf countries and the US. This position has often turned into an attempt to impose its political and religious leadership in the region. This fact not only raises friction within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) –for example with Qatar- but also makes it almost impossible a peaceful coexistence with Iran. On the other hand, in fact, the Islamic Republic, after decades of international isolation, aims to establish its supremacy in the Middle East, where SA, along with Israel-a Jewish country, friend to the US- curbs its ambition.
It is hard to believe that some form of cooperation between Iran and SA is possible, especially after the killing of the Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, who encouraged Saudi Shiites to take side against the government and along with Iran. The execution of the leader is a clear message to the population, while the following break of diplomatic relations is a clear political signal. The consequences are not late to come: the UAE, Kuwait, Sudan, Qatar and Bahrain have already ceased the relations with the Islamic Republic.
Similarly, an open conflict is unlikely to happen. With a budget deficit of about $100 billion, it would be illogical for the Saudi monarchy to undertake an armed conflict. Iran has just been freed from those sanctions that have hampered country’s development, while it’s showing openness towards the US. Declaring war to SA could play against its own interest, inevitably involving other powers-USA, Russia, Israel- and adding new instability to the already volatile game of power in the region.
This condition of “cold war” is the most likely scenario, with peaks of tension between the Iranian and Saudi capitals, and “hot” clashes confined to peripheral theatres like Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, where Tehran and Riyadh support respectively Shia and Sunni groups.
Unfortunately, another actor plays a key role in this context: the Islamic State. ISIS is spreading among Sunni community, thus worrying Riyadh, which is trying to preserve its influence among Sunni population. On the other hand, Iran is fighting ISIS forces but only to a certain extent. Indeed, Iran could benefit from a conflict between ISIS and SA, as this could gradually weakens both the actors, thus leaving Iran free to confirm itself as regional leader. However, the serious risk is that this game gets out of control, considering the support that ISIS is still finding locally and globally.
It seems that the instability in Middle East is doomed to persist. Moreover, these tensions might break out in a series of conflicts at several levels, involving several actors and following multiple and different political agendas. Will there be a second Iraq, with a vacuum of power and foreign powers ready to step in or it will be one of the regional rival to take the lead? Or will the most feared actor win and the entire Middle East fall under the brutal force of jihadist terrorism?