By Giorgio Cafiero
On 7 November, Haaretz reported that Saddam Haftar, the son of Khalifa Haftar, flew on a private French-made Dassault Falcon jet out of the United Arab Emirates and landed in Israel for a 90-minute visit before flying to Libya. The purpose was for Haftar and his son to pursue ‘military and diplomatic assistance from Israel’, according to the report.
With Libya’s elections scheduled for 24 December, this brief landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was part of Haftar’s electoral campaign. The eastern commander, who led the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) during Libya’s civil war, wants to differentiate himself from other Libyans seeking to become the country’s head of state.
‘It’s a way of distinguishing Haftar from the rest of the candidates and promising something that is supposed to have value in the eyes of the United States, but also in the eyes of other countries that embrace whatever the UAE – the main sponsor of Haftar – has been doing through its activism in the region, which means Egypt, France, Morocco, and you can go down the list,’ said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at Global Initiative, in an interview with The New Arab. ‘It’s a way of Haftar saying “If you support me becoming president, here’s one tangible thing that I can deliver for you and no one else can.”’
The relationship between Haftar and the Israelis is not a new partnership; it dates back to 1987. ‘Contacts between Libyans and Israelis have been underway for some time – probably through the Mossad and other organisations – and it is not surprising that they have intensified lately, given the proximity of the elections in Libya,’ explained Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.
What made Saddam Haftar’s brief visit to Tel Aviv significant was not the substance of the relationship between his father and Israel, but rather the decision to make it known to the whole world rather than concealing it.
Libya’s fractures and divisions
Politically speaking, eastern and western Libya have major differences that are relevant to any discussion of the North African country entering the Abraham Accords, the agreement brokered by the former US president, Donald Trump, between Israel and a number of Arab states. In Libya’s east, political Islam does not exist; n western Libya, political Islam might not necessarily be extremely popular, but it exists. Whereas eastern Libya is somewhat reflective of the UAE and Egypt’s political systems, the west has much more in common with Tunisia and Algeria, where the Palestinian cause is considered ‘sacred’, as Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune put it. Also, the Turkish influence in western Libya matters too, particularly considering Ankara’s efforts to position itself as a defender of the Palestinian struggle.
Within this context, Haftar being the head of state and deciding to bring the country into the Abraham Accords risks reigniting major tensions in Libya. ‘If you broach a topic like normalisation with Israel, you’re going to intensify what differentiates the eastern part of Libya from the western part,’ according to Harchaoui. The implications could be toxic from the standpoint of bringing Libyans together in a post-conflict era. ‘The western part of Libya is the most populous part, containing more than two-thirds of the population,’ said the Europe-based Libya expert. ‘When you look at that part of the population and you say, “I hereby declare normalisation with Israel”, you go [against] all the [UN-led] efforts…to try to avoid a partition of the nation, try to promote unification, reconciliation, and integration.’
US foreign policy implications
Like his predecessor, President Joe Biden and those in his administration believe that adding more Arab countries to the Abraham Accords must be a US foreign policy objective. A bipartisan consensus behind this stance exists among American lawmakers. Hence it is fair to conclude that Haftar promising to bring Libya into the Abraham Accords could help him a fair amount in Washington despite condemnations which the eastern commander has received from certain American officials over the years as well as lawsuits filed against him in US courts.
‘There are many decision-makers [in the USA] who don’t really care about the reality of Libya,’ according to Harchaoui. ‘They say, “If we could have a high-profile leader that embraces Israel, I don’t really care about the details of what happens on the ground. It’s still one step forward.” It’s basically the same reasoning that led Trump to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Like you disregard the consequences of the actual stability on the ground, and you say, “It’s a very nice victory from the point of view of acceptance of Israel, and I don’t care what happens on the ground.” You have a whole faction in Washington, DC that thinks in those terms.’
Indeed, among US officials there has been a total lack of concern for how the Abraham Accords have played out on the ground in the Arab region. In a Machiavellian manner, many policymakers in Washington believe in encouraging more Arab countries to normalise with Israel, regardless of the consequences. The fact that the transactional nature of Morocco entering the Abraham Accords in exchange for US recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara has revived decades-old tensions between Morocco and Algeria doesn’t matter much to Washington. The same can be said about the tensions which the Abraham Accords have heightened in Bahrain between the government and opposition groups, as well as how the Trump administration’s extortion of Sudan severely harmed the country’s fragile democratic transition.
Israel becoming more and more accepted in the Middle East and North Africa’s diplomatic fold is what matters to officials in Washington and Abu Dhabi. ‘You have this complacency that leads the Biden administration to support the UAE worldview,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘The UAE worldview, acceptance of Israel – all of these philosophies require you to ignore what goes on in the real world.’
Israeli stakes in Libya
Libya-Israel ties would not only serve the interests of Haftar. Benefits could go both ways. Israel has many interests in Libya, from the North African country’s ‘highly strategic geographical position to unlimited energy’, explained Dr Fasanotti. ‘In this chess game, we must not forget the consistent presence of Turkey in Tripolitania which, given the tense relations with Israel and other countries over the issue of offshore gas in the eastern Mediterranean, certainly plays a primary strategic role.’
In eastern Libya, which is the part of the country closest to Palestine, there is a security architecture and political order that suits Israeli interests. The absence of any Islamist political opposition or pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas groups in Libya’s east is satisfactory to Tel Aviv. It’s safe to bet that the Israelis would take steps to help this Egypt-like order survive over the years by strongly supporting Haftar if he becomes the next Libyan head of state. When asked if Haftar is the ‘Israeli horse in the [Libyan election] race’, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, replied, ‘Yes, he’s in the race and it’s a track that has been well run.’
By having his son land on Israeli soil, shake hands, and signal a determination to normalise with Israel, Haftar is giving Israel a vested interest in his becoming Libya’s leader. As Marco Carnelos, a former Italian diplomat, noted, considering Haftar’s health issues he may be looking to establish a family dynasty in Libya that could put his son at the helm down the line. Therefore, having Saddam Haftar land in Israel could be about making a powerful statement about how much Haftar would like to invest in a partnership with Israel for the long haul if he is to win the 24 December elections.
At stake for Tel Aviv are also ‘the prestige and this impression of momentum with more Arab centres of power that one by one decide to embrace Israel,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘If Israel could actually maintain that narrative of a persistent momentum in that direction of more acceptability, it’s a form of a win.’
Impact on the Arab region’s geopolitical order
Libya entering the Abraham Accords would further signal success on the part of Emirati activism in Africa following Sudan and Morocco’s normalisation with Israel last year in deals that the UAE helped push through, plus Tunisia’s 25 July 2021 autogolpe which constituted another win for Abu Dhabi. A Haftar-led Libya formalising relations with Tel Aviv would serve the interests of the UAE, USA and, obviously, Israel too. But not all states in the Maghreb would see Libya’s entry into the Abraham Accords as good news.
From the perspective of Algiers, the expansion of Emirati influence in North Africa and the trend to normalise with Israel both threaten Algeria’s national interests. A concern among officialdom in Algiers is that Emirati activism in North Africa, specifically Abu Dhabi’s efforts to bring countries in the Maghreb and Sahel into the Abraham Accords, is leaving Algeria in a weaker and more vulnerable position. For example, after Rabat normalised with Israel in exchange for Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the Algerian Prime Minister said that there was a ‘real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity’.
‘Algeria would see any normalisation of ties with Israel by Haftar as evidence of the general’s designs on its stability and a grave escalation on his part,’ Sami Hamdi, the Managing Director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, told The New Arab. Indeed, there would be a concern that with both Morocco and Libya locked into diplomatic agreements with Israel, such relations with Tel Aviv could be weaponised against Algeria down the line.
* Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
** This article was first published by The New Arab
By Ramzy Baroud
Suddenly, the idea put forth by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, late last year no longer seems so far-fetched or untenable after all. Following the hurried and chaotic US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, European countries now find themselves forced to consider the once-unthinkable: a gradual disengagement from US dominance.
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 Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Amin Naeni
The outcome of the 3 November US presidential election will reverberate far beyond the USA, especially in Iran, where it may influence the fortunes of rival political factions as well as the results of Iran’s own presidential elections next June.
The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has imposed unprecedented economic sanctions against Iran and severely undercut the credibility of the reformist camp. Massive popular disillusionment with so-called moderates made it easier for hardliners to win control over the Iranian parliament in February. Now, due to the reluctance of many Iranians to participate in future elections – out of disappointment at the failure of reformists to fulfil their promises of economic progress and political reform – hardliners are hoping to gain the presidency as well.
By Mahdi Ghodsi and Ali Fathollah-Nejad
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged Iran’s already ailing economy, but the country’s economic crisis is rooted in factors beyond the pandemic’s fallout. Since the United States’ 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – or Iran Nuclear Deal), it has become clear that Iran’s economic woes – especially its currency devaluation – are strongly correlated with key political and geopolitical events. The volatility in the exchange rate and Iran’s currency depreciation are signs of an unhealthy economy.