Arab States Cut Diplomatic Ties with Iran

The flag of Iran
The flag of Iran (Blondinrikard Fröberg)

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Monday, escalating a standoff that the Saudis triggered on Saturday when they executed 47 prisoners.

Among the executed was Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric critical of the monarchy.

Outraged Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran later that day.

Saudi Arabia has given Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the country. Neighboring Bahrain, which has a majority Shia population but is ruled by a Sunni family, has followed suit and accused Iran of “increasing, flagrant and dangerous meddling” in the internal affairs of the Gulf states.

Sudan expelled its Iranian ambassador on Monday while the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassador to Tehran. Read more “Arab States Cut Diplomatic Ties with Iran”

Iran Invited to Syria Talks for First Time

Iran is due to attend talks about the Syrian war in Vienna, Austria for the first time this week, reflecting a growing realization on the part of Arab and Western states that the main ally of the Damascus regime can no longer be excluded from the peace process.

Opponents of the Syrian government, including most other Arab leaders and the United States, previously kept Iran from the table, saying its support for Bashar Assad’s dictatorship was only aggravating a civil war that is now in its fifth year.

Iran has sent expeditionary Revolutionary Guards units to Syria to help Assad. Its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, also fights on the side of the Syrian army. Iranian and Hezbollah troops are currently taking part in an effort to retake Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city.

The Arabs, on the other hand, have backed the largely Sunni opposition against Assad in an attempt to hasten his demise — which they would consider a victory in their struggle for regional hegemony with Shia Iran. Read more “Iran Invited to Syria Talks for First Time”

Russian Intervention Reveals Assad’s Wariness of Iran

Hassan Rouhani Vladimir Putin
Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Vladimir Putin of Russia speak on the sidelines of a summit in Astrakhan, September 29, 2014 (Presidency of Iran)

Syria’s Bashar Assad hasn’t only welcomed support from his patron Russia because it helps him fend off a stubborn insurrection; it also gives him more bargaining power vis-à-vis his other ally, Iran, which has grown increasingly controlling, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel.

The news magazine reports that Syria’s Alawite elite has become frustrated with the Iranians whom they see treating the country as a colony.

Beyond providing military support that has proved decisive in keeping anti-Assad rebels at bay, Iran has opened religious centers in the country that seek to convert both Alawites and Sunnis to “correct” Shia Islam. The government decreed one year ago that state-run religion institutions were to teach Shiite material.

Iranian emissaries have also been buying up buildings and land in Damascus, the capital, to resettle Shiites. Read more “Russian Intervention Reveals Assad’s Wariness of Iran”

Foreign Deployments Hint at Assad Survival Strategy

The involvement of Iranian and Russian troops in Syria’s civil war suggests that the country’s dictator, Bashar Assad, is hunkering down in the Alawite-populated west of the country.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that Russian troops had begun participating in Syrian military operations. The report came from Lebanese sources.

American officials said Russia recently sent two tank landing ships and additional cargo aircraft to what is its only Middle Eastern client state. It also deployed a small number of naval infantry forces.

The following day, Reuters reported that hundreds of Iranian troops had arrived in Syria as well to join the forces loyal to Assad.

Fighting side by side with Syria’s regular army forces are militants from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a group that is considered a terrorist organization in Israel and the West but is backed by Iran.

A source suggested to Reuters that the Iranian and Russian reinforcements could be deployed in the vicinity of Hama, where rebels remain active, and Idlib. Read more “Foreign Deployments Hint at Assad Survival Strategy”

After Iran Deal, America Must Reassure Arab Allies

Saud bin Faisal Al Saud Barack Obama
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, speaks with American president Barack Obama in New York, September 23, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)

After signing a landmark agreement with Iran in July that should prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons, the United States have little choice but to reassure their Arab allies that the deal will not leave them in the cold.

The Financial Times‘ Roula Khalaf laments that America has “fallen into the trap” of appeasing Iran’s rivals in the Middle East. It has resumed military aid to Egypt, despite the army’s coup against a democratically-elected if Islamist government there. It has lifted restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain, despite the Sunni regime’s crackdown on a Shia-led uprising in the small Persian Gulf state. And it has largely remained silent about Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen where the kingdom says it is battling Iranian proxies.

The United States have misgivings about the war, Khalaf reports. It is far from clear if Iran is indeed behind the northern Houthi rebellion that dislodged the friendly government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi earlier this year. And Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes are far from discriminate. Hundreds of civilians have perished in bombardments so far.

But appearing to oppose the Gulf campaign while trying to sell the Iran deal in Washington and in the Middle East would have left the Obama Administration open to charges that it was going soft on Iran and letting down its Arab allies.

Despite all these gestures, Khalaf argues that America’s Sunni allies remain critical. Read more “After Iran Deal, America Must Reassure Arab Allies”

Iran May Not Be the Middle East’s Hegemon — Yet

View of Tehran, Iran, March 26, 2009
View of Tehran, Iran, March 26, 2009 (Siavash Sam Anvari)

Iran may not be the Middle East’s hegemon today and its nuclear deal with world powers — which would lift sanctions in return for curbing its atomic program — may not make it much easier for the Islamic republic to attain such a status. But someone needs to tell the Iranians.

The libertarian Cato Institute’s Justin Logan makes a convincing case for why fears of Iranian hegemony are overblown.

Even before international sanctions took full effect, its economy comprised only about 11 percent of the Middle East’s total gross domestic product, he points out — against 22 percent for its main Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia.

“Iran’s share of the region’s military expenditures is similarly unimpressive at 9 percent.” Saudi Arabia, by contrast, accounts for almost 45 percent of the Middle East’s defense spending.

Iran’s military is also outdated, forcing it to rely on terrorist proxies, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, to project power outside its borders.

Logan is right to argue that Iran’s influence over other allies is often overstated.

Political tumult in the region has opened the door to Iranian meddling in places like Yemen but Tehran holds much less influence than is often argued and it no more “controls five capitals” than does the United States. Iran has little control over these volatile theaters and Tehran’s proxies buck Iran frequently.

The Houthis in Yemen may be Shia like Iran but Saudi claims of Iranian influence there are exaggerated. Iran did not engineer the Houthi uprising nor has it given the group significant support, even after it took over the capital, Sana’a, in February.

Similarly, Shia insurgents and politicians in Iraq are backed by Iran but not controlled by it.

Where Logan might be too sanguine, however, is in his dismissal of Iran becoming more powerful.

He argues that “even to suggest that Iran has a shot at dominating the region defies both history and logic.” Yet it has dominated the Middle East in the past and logic suggests it is in a stronger position than any other power in the region.

Robert D. Kaplan and Kamran Bokhari have argued that whereas Saudi Arabia is “built around the parched and deeply conservative upland of Najd which has always struggled to subdue the more cosmopolitan maritime peripheries like Hijaz,” Iran is a coherent geographical entity that “straddles the Middle East and Central Asia as well as the two energy producing regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.”

Rather than an artificial contrivance of a single family, Shiite Iran — with its relative geographic logic — is heir to Iranian states going back to antiquity, when Persia was the world’s first superpower. Iran encapsulates a rich and eclectic civilization. Even under the present regime, in Iran there is a semblance of a democratic foundation, while in Saudi Arabia there is an utter lack of any sense of democracy.

Regardless of whether the nuclear deal with Iran will strengthen the regime or foreshadow its downfall; regardless of Iran’s intentions, it has the capacity to become if not the region’s hegemon then certainly something close to it.

And Iran’s leaders know it.

In testimony to the United States Senate on Wednesday about the nuclear agreement, The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead argued that Iran “is the one country at the moment that appears to believe that it has both the capacity and the will to establish a hegemonic position in the region.”

If it succeeds, he warned, that would threaten the United States’ interest in a peaceful Middle East where no single power dominates and oil can flow freely from to economies in Asia and Europe.

But even if it fails, Iran’s mere attempt “could create such chaos and upheaval in the region that normal governance would break down and some oil-exporting countries could be paralyzed by international or civil conflict.”

Mead’s colleague, Adam Garfinkle, similarly argued last year that Iran’s hegemonic exertions had already “raised an existential threat to the Sunni Arab regimes” of the Middle East and “radicalized heretofore mostly latent sectarian cleavages in the region” — most notably the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS.

When the feeble Sunni Arab states proved feckless in responding, the radicalization process, with mischievous help from countries like Qatar as well as Turkey, created the monster that is ISIS. The point? It is not possible to extirpate ISIS unless we also address its source: Iranian power projection through Arab Shia militias (which, by the way, extends all the way to the Houtis in Yemen).

The point is that Iran doesn’t have to become a hegemon to set off a regional conflagration. It already has because its rivals are acting to prevent an Iranian hegemony — because, rightly or wrongly, they believe it’s a possibility.

World powers’ nuclear agreement with Iran, Mead warned on Friday, could strengthen Iran in this dynamic. It unfreezes Iranian assets overseas, allowing it to ramp up support for proxies like Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whom the Sunni powers are determined to defeat. The resumption of normal trade relations should make Iran richer over the long term. And the lifting of an arms embargo could see Iran modernize its armed forces with help from Russia.

These worries loom larger because Iran, under sanctions and suffering serious economic privation, has nevertheless been able to operate effectively in regional politics, scoring gains against Sunni adversaries that have seriously alarmed some of its neighbors. If an isolated and economically challenged Iran could achieve such results, one must ask what it can achieve under the more favorable conditions that will follow the implementation of the [nuclear agreement].

World Powers Reach Nuclear Agreement with Iran

American secretary of state John Kerry speaks with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, Austria, July 1
American secretary of state John Kerry speaks with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, Austria, July 1 (State Department)

Iran reached a landmark agreement with world powers on Tuesday that would see it emerge from more than a decade of isolation in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

Coming after two years of negotiations with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, the deal was hailed by American president Barack Obama — who has staked much of his legacy on successful diplomacy with Iran — as one that will prevent the Middle East’s largest Shia state from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“The deal is not built on trust,” he said in a televised statement delivered from the White House. “It’s built on verification.”

Under the agreement, United Nations inspectors would be allowed to enter any Iranian facility, including military sites, where they suspect undeclared activity might be going on. But in some cases, Iran could withhold permission to inspect facilities for up to three weeks.

Once the International Atomic Energy Agency verifies that Iran is scaling back its nuclear program — which it has always denied is designed to make weapons — world powers say they will start lifting economic sanctions that have pushed Iran’s oil-based economy into recession.

Russia already unblocked the sale of missile defense systems to Iran in April when a tentative agreement was reached in Switzerland.

On Tuesday, the country agreed to reduce its number of operating centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, by about two-thirds and eliminate the bulk of its existing uranium stockpile. Combined, the measures should extend the “breakout” period needed to build a bomb to one year.

Iran would also suspend the development of heavy water reactors for fifteen years and convert its underground enrichment facility at Fordow — which was only discovered by Western intelligence agencies in 2009 — into a nonmilitary site.

Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, said the agreement “opens a new chapter” in his country’s foreign relations. “Today is an end and a beginning,” he said. “It is the end of injustice to the Iranian nation and beginning of new cooperation in the world.”

The Financial Times‘s Roula Khalaf argues that the deal is the triumph for pragmatists in Iran. Rouhani, who was elected in 2013 to end the sanctions, promised Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, “a nuclear deal that he can live with, even if it may not correspond fully to the dictated red lines — and he has delivered.”

If he can find a more legitimate path to Iranian ambitions of grandeur, through closer diplomatic ties with Europe in particular and a détente with the United States, he might be able to show the leader that more responsible Iranian behavior, rather than confrontation with the Sunni Gulf states, can better legitimize the Islamic republic’s role as a regional power. That is when the Middle East might begin to look different.

American allies in the region are wary of a nuclear deal for that very reason. Any rapprochement with Iran following 35 years of hostility would make the United States less dependent on especially authoritarian Sunni Arab states that are engaged in a struggle for regional hegemony with the Shia republic.

Iran was able to expand its influence in neighboring Iraq after the United States toppled the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein there. Since last year, it has had troops in Iraq to fight the same Islamic State militants that are subject to American airstrikes.

The former American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, warned in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year that Iran’s presence in the country could aggravate sectarian tensions in the Middle East. “The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State,” he said.

Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies in the Persian Gulf worry that Obama will accept Iran’s strategic gains in not just Iraq but places like Lebanon and Yemen as well in order to secure a nuclear deal. In both countries, Iranian proxies have taken over. The Saudis launched airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen in March to arrest what they see as Iran’s imperial ambitions.

Critics of the deal also point out that the lifting of sanctions would enable Iran to expand its support for terrorist groups.

John Boehner, the Republican leader in America’s Congress, said, “Instead of making the world less dangerous, this ‘deal’ will only embolden Iran — the world’s largest sponsor of terror — by helping stabilize and legitimize its regime as it spreads even more violence and instability in the region.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, a journalist, writes in The Atlantic, “It is hard to imagine a scenario — at least in the short term — in which Hezbollah and other terror organizations on the Iranian payroll don’t see a windfall from the agreement.”

Yet the agreement might still be a “practical necessity,” according to Goldberg.

Does this deal significantly reduce the chance that Iran could, in the foreseeable future, continue its nefarious activities under the protection of a nuclear umbrella? If the answer to this question is yes, then a deal, in theory, is worth supporting.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime opponent of a deal, disagreed. “Far-reaching concessions have been made in all areas that were supposed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability,” he said.

Goldberg and Politico argue that Netanyahu might find a more sympathetic ally in Obama’s successor. The candidates for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination have all been critical and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has also sounded more hawkish on an Iran deal than her party leader. If Iran is found backpedaling or outright cheating on the agreement, a future American president could easily reimpose sanctions.

France Takes Hard Line with Iran, Deepens Ties with Arabs

Laurent Fabius
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius leaves the Elysée Palace in Paris, May 15, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

France is taking a hard line in nuclear talks with Iran at the same time that it is deepening ties with Arab states that are apprehensive about a deal, making it hard not to see a connection between the two.

Reuters reports that despite a long history of commercial and political ties with Iran that even saw Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei exiled near Paris in 1979, France has arguably been the most demanding among the six powers negotiating with the country.

The talks the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany are conducting with Iran were extended beyond a self-imposed Tuesday deadline this week in hopes of reaching an accord that could end decades of hostility between the world’s largest Shia state and the West.

The Middle East’s Sunni powers, which align with the European Union and the United States, are anxious that American president Barack Obama is too willing to do a deal. Read more “France Takes Hard Line with Iran, Deepens Ties with Arabs”

Russian S-300 Missile Sale Worries Iran’s Neighbors

Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Vladimir Putin of Russia speak on the sidelines of a summit in Astrakhan, September 29, 2014
Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Vladimir Putin of Russia speak on the sidelines of a summit in Astrakhan, September 29, 2014 (Presidency of Iran)

After world powers reached a preliminary agreement with Iran in April that is meant to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, Russia quickly unblocked the delivery of sophisticated S-300 missile defense systems to the country.

The weapons system could reduce the scope of Israeli and possibly Saudi attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Both states have expressed discontent with the nuclear talks which they feel do not go far enough to stop Iran’s program.

Russia originally suspended the delivery of the S-300s in 2010 in support of an international effort to force Iran to the negotiating table, despite it having already paid $167 out of $800 million for the systems.

In January, a Russian military official was quoted saying Iran could possibly get the even more advanced S-400 air defense system, suggesting that the decision to supply the S-300s was made before significant progress was made in the nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland three months later.

Russia’s decision to arm Iran is informed by at least two factors.

First is that it sees a China-Iran-Russia axis as a counterweight to the American-dominated NATO alliance. The need for such a counterweight has increased since the West imposed financial sanctions on Russia after it invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula for Ukraine last year.

The sanctions are the second reason for selling Iran the S-300s. They have conspired with low oil prices to push Russia’s economy into recession. Defense sales provide much-needed revenue. Iran is planning to spend up to $40 billion on modernizing its armed forces. Russia could find a lucrative new market in the Middle East. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu has already spoken hopefully of a “long-term and multifaceted” military relationship with the Islamic state.

The implications of the S-300 sale are profound. It raises the risk of an arms race in West Asia where Russia and the United States back opposing sides. Israeli, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states would see the lifting of sanctions as well as further Russian arms sales to Iran as a reason for bolstering their own defenses.

Moreover, the sale is damaging to Israeli-Russian relations. It was reported last year that Israel had plans to sell unmanned aerial vehicles to Ukraine, the former Soviet satellite state Russia invaded last year. Israel stepped back from arming Ukraine at the time, possibly to dissuade Russia from supplying the S-300s to Iran. Now that Russia has gone ahead with the Iran deal, Israel may no longer feel restrained to provide weapons to the Ukrainians.