Romana Rubeo and Ramzy Baroud
On 4 February 2021, representatives from the Palestinian movement Hamas visited Moscow to inform the Russian government of the latest developments in unity talks between the Islamic resistance movement and its Palestinian counterparts, especially Fatah.
This was not the first time that Hamas’s officials had travelled to Moscow on similar missions. In fact, Moscow continues to represent an important political breathing space for Hamas, which has been isolated by Israel’s western benefactors. Involved in imposing this isolation are also several Arab governments that, undoubtedly, have done little to break the Israeli siege on Gaza.
The Russia-Hamas closeness is already paying dividends. On 17 February, shipments of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, made their way into Gaza via Israel, a testament to that growing rapport, and how it is being leveraged for the Palestinian benefit. While Russia alone cannot effect a complete paradigm shift in the case of Palestine, Hamas feels that a Russian alternative to the blind and conditional American support for Israel is possible, if not urgent.
Recently, we interviewed Dr Daud Abdullah, author of Engaging the World: The Making of Hamas’s Foreign Policy, and Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, which published Abdullah’s book.
By Ali Fathollah-Nejad
On 4 January, a day after the one-year anniversary of the US assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iran took two steps as a show of force, against the fallouts from the US ‘maximum pressure’ policy of then-outgoing US president, Donald Trump. First, Iran resumed uranium enrichment to 20 per cent, hugely exceeding the 3.67 per cent level allowed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal), and notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors are monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme, of its decision. Second, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. Both actions, on the same day, were shows of force, with different rationales and intentions, but both part of an Iran counter-pressure strategy in the face of immense US-led pressure.
Iran's decision to enrich uranium to a level of 20 per cent (thus dramatically reducing the break-out time for developing a nuclear bomb, since 20 per cent enrichment constitutes nine-tenths of the enrichment work required to reach weapons-grade enrichment of about 90 per cent) represents the partial implementation of a law passed by the conservative-controlled parliament and quickly ratified by the hardline-dominated Guardian Council. The law demanded that the government of President Hassan Rouhani substantially boosts various components of the nuclear programme in order to force the USA to concede, in future negotiations, on the onerous sanctions it has imposed on Iran. On the same day, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted how Iran officially views this step: reducing its nuclear commitment as a legal response to the USA violating its JCPOA commitments, and its assurance that boosting its nuclear capacity was reversible once Washington recommits to its JCPOA obligations, and lifts re-imposed sanctions.
‘Our remedial action conforms fully with Para 36 of [the] JCPOA, after years of non-compliance by several other JCPOA participants,’ Zarif tweeted. ‘Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.’
Rouhani’s administration had, at least publicly, opposed the bill about boosting the nuclear programme, arguing that it would undermine prospects for renewed diplomacy after Joe Biden became US president on 20 January. It therefore passed a by-law to delay the implementation of the legislation. In fact, there are two layers – one primary, the other secondary – underlying Tehran’s decision to boost enrichment to 20 per cent.
First, despite factional infighting in Iran’s politics, it is important to note that Iran’s ‘maximum resistance’ strategy in response to the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is a product of cross-factional elite deliberations, and largely continues to be so. This strategy is centred on the core idea of resisting US pressure with counter-pressure (also referred to as ‘counter-containment’) by fortifying Iran’s deterrence strategy. This is to be achieved through a gradual (and reversible) reduction of Iran’s JCPOA commitments, and by its resistance to US policies in regional conflicts (such as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen), with concomitant shows of force and/or nuisances (such as the seizure of oil tankers since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and displays of Iran’s ballistic missile and drone capabilities), thus signalling Tehran’s readiness for war. This calculation is also based on the assessment that Washington lacks the appetite for another large-scale Middle East war, while Iran regards war with the SA as too risky and possibly jeopardising stability amid massive domestic public dissatisfaction with the regime.
Iran’s accumulated deterrence power can then be translated, the argument goes, into bargaining leverage in eventual talks with the USA. Despite some official rhetoric to the contrary, there is no alternative for Tehran to such talks as Iran’s vital interests lie in stability-threatening sanctions being eased. Iran may, in fact, be willing in future to offer more concessions that could be proportional to the amount of US pressure. But Iranians expect that pressure to ease as Biden’s administration drops the ‘maximum pressure’ doctrine. The objective of Tehran’s current stance is to achieve a return to the position Iran had held before the 2013-2015 JCPOA negotiations when its advanced nuclear programme had offered the international community the bad choice between a rock (an Iranian nuclear bomb) and a hard place (bombing Iran). That scenario had helped – along with the Obama administration dropping its ‘zero enrichment’ demand – extract concessions from the West. Above all, it realised important sanctions relief. This was precisely the Iranian strategy preceding the JCPOA negotiations.
The secondary, yet considerably less crucial, layer underlying Tehran’s decision to boost enrichment to 20 per cent is domestic politics. The Rouhani administration (headed by a ‘lame duck’ president whose two-term limit ends in August) is pitted against more hardline rivals (whose camp is in charge of the nuclear programme and currently dominates the national security discourse) who seek to torpedo the government’s ability meaningfully to enter into talks with the USA ahead of Iran’s June presidential election. Barring a Rouhani diplomatic success with Biden, with consequent economic benefits for Iran, the June election is expected to be won by a conservative or hardline candidate. Many among the hardline establishment want to reap those economic benefits themselves after the election.
However, the problem with this counter-containment/counter-pressure strategy is that alarmism alienates western powers, whose domestic anti-Iran forces will be emboldened to put pressure on western capitals not to appease or engage in rapprochement with an Islamic Republic that is seen as increasingly belligerent and confrontational. This can be seen in European reactions to Iran’s 20 per cent enrichment; European governments condemned the move as a ‘considerable departure’ from Iran’s JCPOA obligations, saying this threatened the deal’s survival.
The other 4 January show of force, the seizure of the South Korean tanker, has less to do with the official explanation that its confiscation was due to the vessel polluting Persian Gulf waters with chemicals, but is, rather, related to the freezing of an estimated $7 billion worth of Iranian assets in South Korean banks since 2019. The funds are for crude oil imports from Iran. Due to US extra-territorial sanctions prohibiting bank transfers – especially in US dollars – to Iran in particular, and US pressure in general, South Korea blocked these funds. The tanker incident happened just ahead of a scheduled 10 January visit to Tehran by a South Korean delegation. That delegation then included First Vice Foreign Minister Choi, who joined in order to hold talks about the release of the tanker. South Korea, one of Iran’s top oil importers, had dramatically reduced and even halted its oil imports as a result of the pressure of US sanctions, since Washington is an indispensable ally of Seoul. Iran’s move was intended to put pressure on South Korea to release the Iranian assets amid recent talks involving the three sides over the fate of the funds. It is doubtful that the seizure will lead to Seoul releasing the Iranian funds, since Washington’s stance will ultimately be decisive. One possibility would be, as contemplated by Tehran and Seoul, that part of the frozen Iranian funds will be used to pay for Iranian imports of COVID-19 vaccines and equipment from South Korea. South Korea subsequently asked Qatar, which has relatively close relations with Iran, for ‘maximum support’ to help release its tanker, which Doha agreed to do. However, Iran’s attempts have been futile thus far. In any case, this Iranian tanker seizure has important side-effects: it undermines the image of Iran as a reliable and stability-seeking Persian Gulf power in the eyes of East Asian powers that have become increasingly important purchasers of Iranian oil over the past decade.
* Dr Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre, and a former Iran expert of the Brookings Institution in Doha (BDC) and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
By Phyllis Bennis
When US president, Donald Trump, announced his latest threats against Iran on Rush Limbaugh’s show last week, it was unclear whether he or his steroids were talking. Even this president rarely uses language like, ‘If you f**k around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before’ in announcing foreign policy.
The possibility of an ‘October Surprise’ looms over every US presidential election. This year, twenty-some days from the election they’re likely to lose, with more than 215 000 people across the United States dead from the pandemic, the White House transformed into the latest coronavirus hot spot, the economy still in free-fall, and the commander-in-chief high on drugs, the Trump administration’s latest harsh new sanctions on Iran do not look surprising at all. The political use of the term October Surprise, after all, started with the Iran hostage crisis of 1980.
But this not-so-shocking surprise is actually incredibly dangerous and reckless for the future, and incredibly cruel and heartless – even sadistic – right now. The new economic sanctions will shut down the last eighteen Iranian banks still able to finance the import of desperately-needed humanitarian goods, including medicine desperately needed during the Covid-19 crisis, and even basic foodstuffs. Earlier US sanctions had already brought massive suffering to Iranians. At the beginning of April, as the pandemic was at its height, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy acknowledged that ‘U.S. sanctions are stopping medical equipment from being sent to Iran. As a result, innocent people are dying.’
The White House claims this latest escalation of its ‘maximum economic pressure’ sanctions campaign will force Iran to the negotiating table. But years of punishing the entire population of 80 million Iranians has shown that this is almost certain to fail to achieve stated US goals, and even if it succeeded, the human price paid in hunger, lack of medicine during a raging pandemic, and the death of children and other vulnerable people is simply far too high.
During an earlier sanctions campaign against Iran, Democratic congressperson Brad Sherman blithely noted that ‘critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.’ Sherman, who is now running to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had the audacity to compare Washington’s brutal sanctions against Iran to the global movement against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. In so doing, Sherman deliberately ignored a critical distinction: the vast majority of South Africans supported anti-apartheid organisations that called on the world to impose sanctions, accepting the consequences, and linking those external sanctions to their broader national strategy for liberation and freedom. In Iran, people and organisations fighting to broaden democratic rights are calling desperately for an end to sanctions – because the sanctions are killing them.
This newest punishment on Iranians will exacerbate the devastating impact of the broader sanctions regime the USA has imposed on Iran for years. While the State Department brags that it ‘continues to stand with the Iranian people’ and that ‘exceptions for humanitarian exports to Iran…remain in full force’, the reality is that existing economic sanctions, despite those exceptions, have destroyed Iran’s economy and the lives of most of the 80 million Iranians, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among them.
The latest escalations in broad US sanctions against Iran began with Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran Nuclear Deal. Despite virtually unanimous international and US intelligence agreement that the JCPOA was working (Iran was not building nuclear weapons), and UN inspectors remained on the ground in Iran, and despite UN sanctions being stopped, Trump made it clear that abandoning ‘Obama’s deal’ was top of his agenda. In May 2018 he pulled out of the deal and imposed a host of new crippling and unilateral sanctions against Iran.
Other signatories to the JCPOA – Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia, and the European Union – all opposed the US withdrawal, as did the UN Security Council, which had endorsed the deal and established a monitoring agency to guarantee its implementation. The biggest US demand that the UNSC had accepted was what became known as ‘snap-back’, by which any signatory could report an Iranian violation, and if confirmed by UN monitors, the UN sanctions that had been lifted would automatically be restored. With the USA having abandoned the deal, and US sanctions rapidly escalating, European countries made some efforts to protect Iran from the impact of the new sanctions, but largely failed. Iran eventually responded by taking some calibrated steps in nuclear power enrichment beyond what was permitted in the JCPOA.
In early August, Washington tried to convince the UNSC to extend some conventional arms’ restrictions on Iran that were set to expire. These restrictions had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and the rest of the UNSC (with the exception of USA-dependent Dominican Republic) unanimously refused. A week later, in an effort to escalate ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran even further, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he was invoking the ‘snap-back’ procedure, and demanded the restoration of UN sanctions against Iran. The rest of the Security Council (except the Dominican Republic) made it clear that since the USA had renounced the agreement, it no longer had standing to make such a demand. Pompeo’s response was that since the USA had originally signed the treaty, Washington still had all the rights of signatories, despite having officially withdrawn and thus ending all its obligations. He then simply announced that UN sanctions were back in force, though no other state agreed.
Then came the latest US sanctions. Along with new suffering for the Iranian people, the danger could quickly escalate if, for example, the USA decided to forcibly board and ‘inspect’ a ship that it might claim was carrying goods to or from Iran. If Iran were to resist, a serious military conflict could erupt. This threat of a deliberate US provocation, aimed at forcing Iran to respond militarily and giving hawks in Washington an excuse to use greater military force in time for pre-election boasting by Trump, could shape an incredibly dire and dangerous October surprise. Iran has not taken Washington’s bait, reacting instead to US provocations – including the assassination of powerful Iranian political and military leader General Qasem Soleimani in January – with significant caution. But Iran has its own elections scheduled in June, and there is growing pressure on the leadership for more decisive action.
Iran may also be holding back in anticipation of a change in the White House. Democratic Party presidential contender Joe Biden has not called for ending sanctions on Iran, but has made clear that he would: ‘offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy’, return to the JCPOA, end the Muslim ban on entry to the USA, and work to end the Yemen war. While his position is not nearly as strong as it needs to be to end the assault on ordinary Iranians’ lives, there is no question that it challenges some of the worst aspects of existing policy. This should not be surprising; the JCPOA represented the high point of Obama’s foreign policy achievements, and since Biden’s credibility is fundamentally bound up with Obama’s legacy, he needs to maintain the commitment to the JCPOA and the diplomacy-over-war framework that enabled it. It is public knowledge that pressure on Trump to impose new and ever-more-damaging sanctions on Iran come from Israel and the far-right Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Just a couple of weeks before the newest sanctions were announced, the FDD head co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for a ‘12th-round economic knockout’ in the form of a Trump move to ‘[b]lacklist the entire Iranian financial industry’.
So, beyond the expectation of a last-minute electoral bump (which is not a sure thing, given significant public opposition to wars in the Middle East), what is the US goal in provoking a military clash with Iran that could quickly escalate out of control?
In the Trump era, clear strategy is generally outside the realm of possibility. But immediate goals can sometimes be discerned. From the beginning, the Trump administration – mainly in the person of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – has focused on building a US-backed regional anti-Iran alliance with Israel and key Arab allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others. Much of that is underway, bolstered most recently by the USA-orchestrated agreements between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia. Those agreements, while leaving out any reference to ending Israel’s oppression, occupation and colonisation of Palestinians, are primarily aimed at increasing US arms sales to its Arab allies, and going public with the longstanding but formerly more-or-less hidden trade, commercial and security ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies.
Preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons certainly remains a longstanding US goal. Part of that is rooted in the US determination to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation in the world. However, much of it is based on a US commitment to Israel to maintain Tel Aviv’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region; it is Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant that houses the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons arsenal. On the other hand, US intelligence agencies have for years agreed that Iran did not have a nuclear bomb, was not building a nuclear bomb, and had not even decided it wanted to build a nuclear bomb. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear capacity and its ability to obtain nuclear components anywhere else were extremely limited, and UN nuclear inspectors were on the ground. That remains the case, but could change if US ‘maximum pressure’ continues to prevent Iran’s access to international trade, purchases of food and medicine, and so forth.
Maintaining Iran’s role as enemy makes it easier for the USA to justify ever-more-massive arms sales to repressive authoritarian kingdoms, and the ten-year $38 billion gift to the Israeli military. For the preposterously wealthy but strategically dependent Gulf states, the real fears of Iranian influence (on Shi’a populations in their countries, competition for oilfields and pipeline routes, etc.) are matched or even outstripped by the value of Iran-as-bogeyman to ensure continuing US strategic support and protection.
Reports have been floating around that Washington may close the giant US embassy in Baghdad, and pull out diplomatic and other non-military personnel. That may be in anticipation of a future Iranian response to continuing US escalation – perhaps something like a US military attack on the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces – that could lead to Iranian retaliation against US military forces in Iraq. With Israeli backing, a strike against Iranian interests by some combination of the UAE, Bahrain and/or Saudi Arabia, even without direct US participation, cannot be completely ruled out. Under such circumstances, it is not impossible that public pressure could lead the Iranian regime to make different and much more dangerous choices.
US escalations may not be over yet. There are several more weeks of October for new surprises.
* Phyllis Bennis is an advisory board member of the Afro-Middle East Centre. She is also a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the seventh edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
** This article was first published online by Common Dreams
By Ebrahim Deen
The rise of the Islamic State Group (IS) and resurgence of Iran is now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with likeminded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions which are looser and more issue specific in contemporary times, and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters such as youth unemployment will in the short to medium term force the regime to look inward in the struggle for its survival.
Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity, and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought. This took the form of partnerships with the British post World War I until the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, and with the U.S post World War II up to today. The Kingdom’s vast oil resources –it is currently the largest oil producer and possesses the largest amount of reserves– enabled it to gain influence and acquire strategic partner status with the U.S during the Cold War.
Domestic matters will force the regime to look inward in the struggle for its survival
Its aversion to communism and ability to cultivate coalitions with other Gulf States aided in this regard. The kingdom, in contemporary times, is now an aspiring regional hegemon; it has largely ensured its territorial integrity, possesses large cash reserves and military hardware, and as will be observed below, is willing to act financially and militarily to fulfil its national interests.
Although foreign policy and national interests in the Kingdom are an elite driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses a disproportional influence in shaping the state’s path. Noteworthy is the observation that domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.
Regarded by western commentators as a ‘reformer’, foreign policy under Abdullah sought to diversify bilateral Saudi relations. Visits to China, Russia, India, and Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 were noteworthy in this regard. These were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the U.S’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The Kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state sponsored discrimination.
The Kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran
Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the Kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It thus supported Saddam during the eight year long Iraq-Iran war, and was opposed to the 2003 invasion. The Kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.
However, the Kingdom still maintained warm relations with the U.S, and would confer with it before adopting decisions, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam enabled the Iranian regime to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the U.S’s then opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed after the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings.
Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the Kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the U.S’s role in enabling this. Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies and Egypt, during the latter end of Mubarak’s term, largely followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in responding to regional issues. The Kingdom thus felt that the U.S, which had been a close Mubarak ally, had betrayed him, and would adopt a similar position were the regime in Saudi Arabia threatened. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia views the Brotherhood as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior Brotherhood figures refused to support its role during the 1990-91 Gulf War.
Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013. This was especially true since the Assad regime had at the time been accused of using chemical weapons, flouting one of the Obama administration’s ‘red lines’. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase support to proxy groups such as Hezbollah. The Kingdom is of the perception that Iran seeks regional hegemony, and that its rise will blunt Saudi Arabia’s relatively strong regional influence. This is especially true since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf States including Qatar and the UAE, is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hezbollah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of holding elections.
The Kingdom sought to reverse the successes gained by participatory Islamists in countries such as Egypt
The Kingdom was especially angered for not being informed about the initial U.S-Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future U.S support, believing that in a situation where the regime is threatened the U.S will not offer its full support and prefer to instead call for negotiations and compromise.
Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive foreign policy. First it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over 700 billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and provided funding to withstand protests. The funding was used to quell protests through increases in public sector spending, especially in Jordan where they allowed the Abdullah II regime to stave off the need for subsidy removal.
The Kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Al Khalifa regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command with a proposed hundred thousand strong deployable force. Agreements on a shared GCC police force and the opening of a centre (the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies) to promote GCC security coordination were also signed.
Second, the Kingdom sought to reverse the successes gained by participatory Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through financing remnants to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, together with the UAE and Kuwait, the Mursi regime was overthrown and replaced by a former military head Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party, and Saudi-Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining participatory Islamists (the Justice and Construction party, Libya Dawn forces in Libya, and Ennahdha in Tunisia).
This culminated in the March 2014 decision declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation adopted by Gulf states, and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. It is noteworthy that even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran through removing an ally. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition sought to distinguish between participatory Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groupings such as Jaish Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Shaam, supporting the latter.
Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. These have resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole wasn’t viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE –Sisi and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (crown prince of Abu Dhabi) were requested not to attend Abdullah’s funeral. Moreover, the Kingdom has severely reduced its aid to Egypt, providing long term loans and fuel grants instead. Since November 2016 it has even halted oil shipments to Cairo as a result of Egypt’s opposition to a UNSC resolution criticising the Iranian supported Syrian regime, and because it believes that Cairo had become increasingly dependent on its largess and was failing to restart its economy.
Key in influencing these decisions has been the Iranian nuclear deal and rise of the Islamic state group (IS). The Kingdom views these as greater threats than participatory Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence. This is particularly true since the Assad regime has consolidated its control in Syria, and with Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s supported candidate, became Lebanese president.
IS, on the other hand, has been active in the country, claiming bombings on Mosques frequented by Shia and Special Forces, and its leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime. In May 2015 for example, the group undertook attacks on Shia sites of worship in Katif and Damam killing around twenty nine people, while an attack on a Mosque in Asir in August that year killed fifteen Saudi security personnel.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward participatory Islamists.
Moreover, the group has been critical of the Kingdom’s leadership of the Sunni world, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime as a result of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance. It is noteworthy that some within the Saudi clerical establishment are partially sympathetic to IS’s ideology, that Saudi citizens have been involved in the financing of militant groups in Syria, and that they comprise a sizable portion of IS’s international recruits.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward participatory Islamists. Ennahdha’s Rached Ghannouchi, the Jordanian Brotherhood’s Hamam Saeed, and Hamas’s Khaled Mishaal had all visited the kingdom in 2015. Further, it has re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party and financed and armed it in its attempt to reassert influence in Yemen.
The kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm Syrian opposition in Syria, while in December 2016 it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic, even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troups fighting IS.
In addition, in January 2016 the Kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an attempt in foreign policy terms to both stall the improving relations between the Islamic Republic and the west, and to ensure that Gulf allies followed suit.
Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s re-prioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were a part of a ten member coalition which the Kingdom headed, and were without initial U.S endorsement.
The Yemeni Islah party (Yemen’s main participatory Islamist faction) has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground troupe component, consisting of around 50000 forces has since been implemented. Thus far the effort has had some successes, the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south. However Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many Northern regions. Moreover, it is unlikely that these will be dislodged easily as Houthi influence in Yemen is largely a result of disillusionment with Yemeni politics and opposition to Saudi meddling in the country; the Houthis have strong institutional bases and grassroot support in Northern provinces such as Sada.
It is noteworthy that Salman’s renewed relations with participatory Islamists constitutes tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Erdogan and the previous Emir of Qatar (Hamed bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision is more a result of the kingdom’s belief that the group has been weakened and now poses no real threat to the regime. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these participatory Islamists possess some influence regionally and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS.
US-Saudi relations have however largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.
The regime’s lingering long-term fears of participatory Islamists can be observed in its treatment of Sisi’s Egypt. Despite Salman’s dislike for Sisi –it is reliably reported that Sisi sought to ensure that Salman was bypassed and power transferred to Muqrin after Abdullah’s death, even endorsing the use of Egyptian forces if necessary. Although Sisi has been dismissive of Gulf regimes and their willingness to fund the coup, the Kingdom still maintains relations with Sisi and has not sought to engage closely with the Muslim Brotherhood. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to that of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action such as what occurred in Yemen.
Further, US-Saudi relations have however largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession. The administration was likely given little warning about the then impending Saudi intervention in Yemen in March 2015 and was likewise not informed about Nimr’s execution. The US had however retroactively supported the Yemen intervention, providing logistical and armament support to Saudi coalition forces, and securing a United Nations Security Council resolution (2216) endorsing the intervention.
However, during Obama’s term, this was informed more by the US’s need to placate the Kingdom in light of the Iranian nuclear deal. President Trump seems to signal a change, reinforcing support to Saudi forces in Yemen, and vowing to implement tougher measures against Iran. Further, the administration’s proposed ban on citizens travelling to the country does not include Saudi Arabia, but encompasses Iranians. although these moves can be seen as a convergence, US and Saudi regional interests still deviate, especially in light of Trump’s intent to provide priority to East Asia, specifically China, and his stance on shrinking the US’s military.
Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and re-prioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and especially Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen ceasefires throughout 2016 had largely failed, and a political solution is currently not on the horizon. In Syria, the only reason the December 2016 ceasefire has largely held is because Saudi Arabia had been sidelined ,while Turkey, a fellow regional heavyweight with a direct presence on the ground, is a guarantor together with Russia. Political talks to negotiate a transitional agreement are however proving more difficult, owing to the Assad regime’s strengthened position and increased demands from Iran.
Yemen ceasefires throughout 2016 had largely failed, and a political solution is currently not on the horizon.
This will ensure that the Kingdom continues its support to rebel groups, especially if Hezbollah and Shia militia groups are permitted to continue operating in the country. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which is increasingly resembling a regional Cold War. Already in Yemen for example, since the Saudi intervention, over eighty percent of the population is now in need of humanitarian assistance, up from sixty per cent prior to the intervention; fifteen million people don’t have access to healthcare and twenty-one million don’t access to clean water, up fifty-two percent from before the intervention; and ten governorates are on the verge of experiencing famine.
Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. Balancing is more informed by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE for example is more fearful of domestic participatory Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, wherein the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has blamed it for much of the country’s problems, refusing to finance and arm it and preferring to make use of Emirati troupes and private contractors instead.
Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. Dubai and Oman have important economic ties with the Islamic republic, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars/North Dome GAS field. All three of these refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with the Islamic republic while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, and thus offered to play a mediating role between Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite the Erdogan regime’s continued opposition to the Islamic republic’s interests in Syria.
Second, the drop in oil and Liquefied Natural Gas prices will impede the Kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. 2015 saw the oil price drop by over thirty-five per cent from its 2014 level, and this trend has to date continued in 2016 despite the strong Saudi-Iranian tensions. The Kingdom, which relies on oil income for between seventy-seven and eighty-eight per cent of government revenue has thus been forced to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic social programmes. This has caused its reserves to drop from around 735 billion dollars in 2014 to around 623 billion by the end of 2015, and the budget deficit for 2016 stood at seventy-nine billion, ensuring that the kingdom will need to make use of more of its reserves.
The drop in oil and Liquefied Natural Gas prices will impede the Kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states.
Levies on petrol and gas have increased by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent respectively and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value added tax with income tax soon to follow by 2018. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the Kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime in Egypt.
Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the 15-24 year old group stands at over thirty per cent and around two-thirds of the country is aged under thirty.
Opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest
The 2016 budget allocated around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services, however much more will need to be implemented, including finding employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. It is argued that this is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammed (thirty-one) and the relatively young Mohammed bin Nayef (fifty-seven) as deputy crown prince and crown prince respectively. The Kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes. David Hurst thus argues that the other fourty-five executed with Nimr in January 2016 was a sign aimed at domestic dissenters. Most of these comprised Al-Qaida linked militants, some of whom had been on death row since 2004. Executing them at this juncture when levies and taxes are increasing is meant to illustrate that rebellion against the monarch would not be tolerated.
Things however can change quickly. The region is currently in flux, the chances for miscalculations are abound, especially in terms of further regional upheaval. The increasing regional interference of Russia is worrisome in this regard, especially as the country moves to fill the gap in Egypt and more overtly supports Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince was not unanimously endorsed by the allegiance council. This may pose problems, especially were the king to suddenly be unable to govern. Mohammed bin Salman, who currently acts as a de-facto prime minister and is largely in charge of the countries defence policy, is viewed as lacking the capacity and credentials for such a high office by some within the royal family. His appointment was seen as risky and informed more by his proximity to his father than his ability to govern.
Furthermore, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is seen by most in the royal family as legitimate, does not fully agree with some of the policies adopted by the deputy Crown Prince, especially those concerning Yemen, and may thus act to freeze him out of political office once he ascends to the helm. This would most likely lead to a rethink in Saudi foreign policy and the means best suited for its achievement. However for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.
* Ebrahim Deen is a senior researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre.
* This article was first published by Open Democracy on 20 February 2017.