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Geopolitics

Growing tensions between Washington and Tehran appeared to reach a head last week, following suspected attacks against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday 13th June, the blame for which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has placed squarely with Iran.

The suspected attacks come amidst rising geopolitical tensions as the US seeks to strangle Iranian oil exports in a bid to pressurise Iran to desist from uranium enrichment and curb Tehran’s regional ambitions across the Middle East. Iran, for its part appears to be playing with fire, aiming to foment instability in global oil markets in order to pressurise Trump to ease the sanctions crippling the Iranian economy at risk of provoking a wider conflagration.

This latest crisis comes after President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme in May 2018, a move followed by the Administration’s designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a proscribed terrorist organisation this April. In response to Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, Tehran stands accused of sponsoring a series of attacks against tankers near the Emirati port of Fujairah last month, creating a situation which may be likened to that of a tinderbox awaiting a spark.

Despite ominous comparisons to the 2003 Iraq War amidst bellicose rhetoric from both sides, the hard fact remains that a violent conflagration would almost certainly serve neither sides’ strategic interests. In recognition of this, recent statements from both Trump and Rouhani shy away from the prospect of open hostilities. Whether conflict can be averted though fundamentally hinges on whether both leaders can resist pressure from hardliners in Washington and Tehran as well as each side avoiding dangerous misperceptions of the others’ intentions which could inadvertently drag the US and Iran into unwanted confrontation.

Washington’s Dilemma

America’s posture towards the Iran has been extensively criticised as being wildly inconsistent, with Washington blowing hot and cold towards Tehran. Despite President Trump’s decision to tear up the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, arguably a knee jerk response driven by his pressing need to undo any legacy of the Obama Administration, the executive has vacillated between aggressive posturing and appeasement. One might argue Trump is seeking to repeat his successful rapprochement with North Korea in 2017, taking a carrot-and-stick approach to bring Tehran to the negotiating table on his terms.

But Iran is not North Korea. Tehran is a formidable foe with a large, highly motivated military, difficult terrain and no shortage of allies on the international stage. Given the immense military, political and economic strains the ‘forever wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed on the US with little to show for the effort, it is highly unlikely Washington desires a rinse and repeat against a far more implacable foe.

This is not to mention the profound ramifications even a limited conflict would have on global markets, with conservative estimates suggesting oil prices could shoot to $250 per barrel in such an event, as well as the increased geopolitical instability across the region such a showdown would likely precipitate.

Though Trump may not want war, the hawkish advisors he’s surrounded himself with have less reservations. In the White House Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as National Security Advisor John Bolton have adopted a ‘maximum pressure’ strategy towards Iran centred on a sanctions regime aimed to bring Iranian oil revenues ‘to zero’. Both individuals have a long history of supporting regime change in the Middle East, with Bolton in particular playing a key role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Simultaneously, both see a hardline on Iran as crucial to discredit the Democrats, who argue Obama’s olive branch to Tehran was paying dividends, in the run-up to the 2020 elections.

Tehran’s Dilemma

For Iran, of course, outright confrontation would likely be disastrous, and Tehran knows it. This, however, does not remove the immense internal and external pressures driving the regime towards open conflict.

On one level, the Iranian economy is clearly buckling under the weight of sanctions, especially after Trump announced the suspension of sanction exemptions to major importers of Iranian oil, such as China, India and Japan in April. Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia has increased its oil output to sell to former buyers of Iranian oil, thus increasing resentment against Tehran’s major regional rival. Subjected to such pressures, it is perhaps no surprise that Iran has opted its confrontational stance, judging that it has nothing to lose when economic warfare is as damaging to Iran as actual warfare.

In fact, Iran’s latest actions in the Persian Gulf – if it was indeed Tehran that carried out the attacks, are highly calculated, seeking to demonstrate the vulnerability of one of the world’s most important strategic choke points to Iranian pressure. Moreover, the regime may seek to drive a wedge between the US and its allies, pressurising the Europeans and Japanese to encourage Washington to ease sanctions.

Tehran, however, is playing a dangerous game. Much as in Washington, hardliners aligned with the IRGC seek to bolster their appeal ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, pressurising previously moderate politicians such as President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif who agreed to unilaterally stand by the JCPOA despite Trump’s withdrawal to demonstrate their anti-American credentials for domestic purposes. This suggests that Iran is at a crossroads, raising fears of a fundamental power shift from the moderates to the hardliners in Tehran – a power shift that may just tip the ongoing proxy conflict towards open confrontation.

The idea that America and Iran are set on a collision course is a fallacy. Open conflict in the Persian Gulf can be averted – whether it is or not depends whether prudence or hot headedness prevails – both in Washington and Tehran.

-Written by William Marshall for Pegasus Strategic Advisory Ltd.

 

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Economy, Geopolitics

The European Parliament elections which wrapped up on 26 May are not the end all be all when it comes to the European Union, but the election results show voting populations and member states are politically fragmented.  Balancing 28-member state interests means that the transnational political body does not always have a unified position on complex geopolitical issues. 

 

With this said, the Union still has an important role in the international community and many European actors want to have an impact on the issues of the day.  So, this piece will analyse what role the European Union and key member states are playing in growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and how effective it is in achieving its goals.

 

Background

 

The United States has played a pivotal role in ramping up international tensions between the two regional powers.  President Trump’s administration has cozied up to Saudi Arabia and taken an antagonistic stance towards Iran to the delight of their Saudi allies. 

 

Most recently, the White House accused Iran of sabotaging four tankers off the coast of the UAE.  Two of the ships were Saudi, but no hard evidence has been produced to link Iran to the damage.  US national security adviser John Bolton repeated these claims without evidence on 30 May in Abu Dhabi, adding an accusation that Iran is responsible for a recent failed attack on Saudi Arabia’s port city, Yanbu.

 

Trump’s decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear non-proliferation agreement between Iran and the world’s nuclear powers, also plays a large role in the current situation, and it placed the European Union in an awkward position.

 

European Union’s Growing Role

 

After the United States decided to renege on the Iran deal, many anticipated the European Union to play a balancing role to the hard-American stance on Iran.  European leaders have repeatedly expressed their commitment to the deal and have taken a more neutral stance to Iran-Saudi tensions.

 

The ascendance of a hawkish American policy toward Iran has placed the European Union in a difficult position, one in which Europe is often playing the role of contradicting US policy, despite their supposed alliance with the Americans.  Europe’s position is much less extreme, and it has been accused of being drowned out by the forceful words of the Americans.

 

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated in early May that the EU had been bullied by America, and the Europeans had failed to speak forcefully against the US for breaking the nuclear deal and slapping more sanctions on Iran.  Several days before Zarif’s statement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and the UK released a joint statement reading, “we… take note with regret and concern of the decision by the United States not to extend waivers with regards to trade in oil with Iran. We also note with concern the decision by the United States not to fully renew waivers for nuclear non-proliferation projects in the framework of the JCPoA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).”

 

Iran and Zarif were disappointed that all the EU was offering was “regret and concern” instead of more forcefully rejecting the United States’ breaking of the deal.  In response, Iran made several ultimatums and said they would stop abiding by several commitments due to the United States’ re-imposition of sanctions.

 

The EU issued a similar statement expressing concern about Iran’s commitment to the nuclear deal and rejecting any ultimatums made by Iran.

 

With Saudi Arabia and the United States on one side and Iran on the other, both sides are attempting to make the European Union choose a side.  But Europe has so far tried to remain neutral, a position made more difficult as the positions harden.

 

War in Iran?

 

President Trump, flanked by hawkish advisers, has made a variety of statements hinting at war with Iran in the hopes of effecting regime change.  Saudi Arabia has likewise issued hard words to this end, signifying a unified American-Saudi front.

 

So far, the European Union has rejected any notion of a threat from Iran and British Major General Chris Ghika broke from the American line that Iran is a danger and said, “no, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”

 

Ghika’s words are particularly notable as he is the deputy commander of an American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.

 

American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once again failed to curry favour for a more confrontational stance from the EU toward Iran during a mid-May meeting in Brussels.  Instead, Mogherini urged Pompeo to take a cautious approach to Iran, “we are living in crucial delicate moments where the most responsible attitude to take and should be is maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on the military side.”

 

An all-out war in Iran or any intervention to facilitate regime change does not have the support of the European Union, and for now, it appears that the United States has failed to generate support for such actions at home or abroad.  But, the European Union’s more neutral stance on the Saudi Arabian-Iranian tensions will always face challenges as long as the United States strongly supports the Saudi Arabian stance.

 

Without taking a forceful position in support of Iran or against the United States and Saudi Arabia, the European Union runs the risk of being side lined in favour of more aggressive actors.  The European Union’s ‘neutral’ stance is also compromised by continued arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, a development left unchecked that undermines Europe’s commitment to peaceful resolutions and conflict prevention.

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Economy, Geopolitics

President Donald Trump announced plans to end exemptions from sanctions for countries purchasing oil from Iran.  The sudden announcement will have broad impacts on the world economy and international relations, some more hidden than others.

 

The White House’s staunch opposition to Iran comes as no surprise considering Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are both notoriously hawkish towards Iran.  This latest move shows that the White House is showing no sign of rapprochement with Iran and will continue their antagonistic stance which has further hardened recently.

 

Early in April, President Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist group.  Iran responded in turn by declaring the United States military is a terrorist organization.

 

The end to exemptions from sanctions is an attempt from the United States to drive Iranian oil exports to zero.  Iran is already feeling the pressure from previous sanctions and an end to its oil exports would be disastrous.  The IMF has reported that Iran is tumbling into an economic recession, and the most recent numbers show inflation at 40 percent and a forecasted 6 percent reduction in the Iranian economy in the upcoming year.

 

But more than just affecting America’s bilateral relations with Iran and Iran’s economy, the announcement threatens sanctions to valuable trade partners and economic powers such as India, China, South Korea, and Turkey.  It also has far-reaching implications on Middle Eastern politics.

 

Turkey

 

Turkey could be particularly hard hit by this decision as President Erdoğan has increasingly pivoted toward Iran as a trade partner as tensions have soured with Saudi Arabia and other regional partners.

 

An economic downturn now would come at a particularly inopportune time for Erdoğan considering his party AKP’s unexpected defeats during recent local elections.  Voters in Istanbul and Ankara both voted for opposition party CHP to take over the mayoral office in a stark rebuke to Erdogan, former mayor of Istanbul.  Turkish voters have been animated by economic disparity in the country, so the ruling political elites are vulnerable in the event of an oil crash.

 

Next to Iraq, Turkey is one of the countries with the greatest reliance on Iranian oil, despite ratcheting down oil imports from Turkey over the last two years in expectation of America’s hardened stance toward Iran.  However, Turkey’s foreign ministry announced that their trade ministry would be working with Iran to circumvent any new American sanctions to keep up oil trade between the two partners.

 

Simultaneously, the Turkish foreign ministry is working to convince the White House that the sanctions are bad for business.  But Turkey and the United States seem to be growing apart as Turkey continues to work with Iran and increases its ties to Russia.

 

Iraq

 

Iran is Iraq’s most important regional trade partner, and Iraq is heavily reliant on Iran for oil amongst other energy sources. 

 

Iraq’s Prime Minister Abdul Mehdi made a statement on the tensions between America and Iran and said, “we are going to deploy all our efforts to ease and calm down the situation.  It is not in the interest of any of the parties engaged.”

 

The United States still has around 5,000 active duty troops in Iraq despite factions within the Iraqi government asking for the American troops to leave.  President Trump has stated his policy on American troops is to keep them in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran.

 

But the Iraqi government may be pushed into a corner if America continues its hard line stance on one of its most valuable partners, Iran.  Harming Iran could cripple Iraq’s economy, and it has already begun to look for other great powers outside of the US.

 

Russia and Iraq held high-level bilateral meetings at a two-day conference and came to 16 agreements.  One of the highlights of the meeting was Russian-Iraqi trade in oil and gas.  Russian energy giant Lukoil is heavily investing in the Iraqi economy, and Lukoil’s president met with Prime Minister Abdul Mehdi in late March.

 

Both Iraq and Russia committed to deepening ties between the two states during the meetings, and developments in their relationship indicate that Iraq is turning away from America into the hands of Russia as a direct result of America’s anti-Iran stance.

 

Oil Prices

 

Outside of foreign relations, the latest anti-Iran move is expected to cost Americans at the gasoline pump.  If prices hike significantly during the summer months, the Trump administration may face the brunt of anti-motorist sentiment.

 

Americans are particularly sensitive about their gas prices, and President Trump often appears to be very sensitive to his supporter’s perception of him.  If his Fox News allies turn on him due to rising gas prices then he could decide to change course on a whim.

 

President Trump has indicated that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will pick up production to cover for the loss of Iranian oil to the global market.  However, neither state has committed to a plan to pick up their production.

 

Unfortunately, American foreign policy is quite unpredictable in the age of Trump, however, his foreign policy confidants have been steadfast in their opposition to Iran.  If one was taking bets, you would expect the Trump administration to remain firm in their position toward Iran despite potential backlash from the public.
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Geopolitics

Algerians have taken to the street since March 1 to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year reign of the country, and through mass political action, they have secured his eventual departure from the presidential office.  But many protestors are demanding more, and in a post-Bouteflika Algeria, the political battle to restructure the country has already begun.

 

First some background, President Bouteflika announced he would stand for a fifth term as president, and on March 1 Algerians began taking to the street en masse with estimates of over 1 million people protesting the President’s decision.  Bouteflika has been ill since 2006, and he has had several long hospital visits in Paris due to poor health.  After suffering a stroke in 2013, he has not spoken in public for seven years.

 

After ten days of protests and unrest, Bouteflika announced he would not be seeking a fifth term, and he postponed the presidential elections until April 18.  A clear half-measure to appease protestors, many Algerians are still upset with the current government and argue the president is trying to extend his reign as long as possible.

 

Deeper Demands

 

While Bouteflika announced he will not seek another presidential term, protestors and oppositional forces are demanding more than simply a passing of the torch.

 

Algeria has a long history of political revolution and struggle, but Bouteflika survived the Arab Spring, and he has been relatively unaffected by local protest until the outbreak of the latest nationwide gatherings.  The Algerian president has been able to successfully quell reform movements in the past, and many believe his postponement of the presidential election is attempted manoeuvre to keep the opposition down.

 

Human Rights Watch has criticized Bouteflika’s post-Arab Spring reforms as a mechanism to stifle political opposition rather than allowing citizens more access to democracy and a safer public forum.

 

The continuing protests in the face of Bouteflika’s concession point to the population being upset at more than the president’s long service in office.  Bouteflika’s declining health likely means he is not pulling the strings, but rather political structures backing him have been able to dictate the country’s policy.

 

Opposition political parties have been hosting talks with key oppositional forces including human rights lawyers and former prime ministers.  Some protest movements and opposition forces are seeking constitutional reform that would attempt to fix many of the loopholes the current government has used to repress popular movements.

 

Government Options

 

However, Bouteflika’s political allies will not hand over control without pushback. But, the range of options declines as the government waits longer to act whilst protest numbers swell.  Bouteflika-aligned parties could decide that resignation would be the best course of action, or a transition led by an independent organization seeking small constitutional reform is also an option.

 

The worst option for the country and the region would be for the party to reinstate Bouteflika as the presidential candidate.  This would be done with the idea to justify military intervention to quell the subsequent unrest.  However, there have been no signs that the government or any parties have the political power to carry out such a plan considering the impressive number of Algerians on the street.

 

Likely, those in power will seek a more technocratic solution to the mass protests, offering small concessions to opposition forces.  Bouteflika appointed a close political ally, Noureddine Bedoui, and he has proposed a “technocratic interim government.”  Bedoui has said this interim government will give a stronger voice to the large number of young people in the country, but he and the government have not yet released a new date for elections to take place.

 

These concessions are unlikely to convince many protestors considering they come from a friend of Bouteflika.

 

Regional and Global Implications

 

After the Arab Spring, many leaders in the region have been wary of popular uprisings boiling over into neighbouring states.  The Sudanese people are currently locked in a political struggle with their repressive government, but these political movements have yet to inspire struggles elsewhere.

 

Largely this is due to the political situation in Algeria, and its unique position in having a weak, long-serving head of government.

 

The current protests have thrown various deals into question and many countries are unsure of what to expect next.  Bouteflika was influential in returning Algeria to the international stage, and he focused on building strong relations with other developing countries while also playing both sides and remaining on good terms with Europe and America.  Bouteflika built close relations with China and Brazil, and he opened up the country to oil and gas exportation.

 

Algeria’s business and foreign allies will be watching developments in the country with a close eye, and if the situation becomes too unstable it could wreak havoc on the economy.  The next government will have to focus on securing the safety of political opposition, so the Algerian people can begin building a more inclusive and economically viable future.  Both a leadership vacuum and ignoring the will of the people would doom Algeria to a similar fate as other unfortunate neighbours.

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Geopolitics

Two competing diplomatic meetings were held on February 14, clearly drawing the lines for different strategies in the Middle East. 

Many analysts classified the United States-led conference as anti-Iran, and the event divided the United States from its European allies.  Turkey and Iran attended Russia’s Sochi summit on the future of the Syrian war, and in many ways, it was a direct response to America’s tough stance on Iran.

Unfortunately for the United States, not all of its allies were on board with the messaging of the meeting with many European nations sending low-level diplomats.  The one noticeable big European name in attendance was the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Pressuring European nations to reject the 2015 Iran nuclear deal seemed to be on the top of the agenda for the Americans.  At the meeting in Warsaw and later in the week at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Mike Pence called on European leaders to follow America’s lead and pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal.  But, this hard line on Iran did not go down well with European allies, and leaders from the European Union and crucial member states Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all reiterated their commitment to a diplomatic solution with Iran.

While the White House failed to convince the Europeans to join their bloc, the conference did clearly outline once again who is on America’s side.  Israel and Saudi Arabia are the biggest players pushing for a tougher stance on Iran.  Saudi Arabia leads a group of Gulf states pushing for an anti-Iran foreign policy strategy and is in conflict with Iran on a myriad of foreign policy issues including Qatar, Syria, and Yemen.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the biggest players at the Warsaw conference, however, his appearance and communication on the event will have done little to convince European allies to join their anti-Iran alliance.  Netanyahu tweeted a statement referencing “the common interest of war with Iran”.  The tweet was later deleted and “war with” was replaced by “combating” in order to tone down their messaging.

Despite the gaffe, Netanyahu did seek further rapprochement at the Warsaw meeting with other countries within the anti-Iran bloc.  Netanyahu met with Oman’s foreign minister, but both Israel and Oman have said formal ties between the two countries are yet to be formally established.

Sochi Conference

Russia’s conference in Sochi featured a much different and more united tone than could be found in Warsaw.  Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the same day America called on its allies to join forces to put sanctions on Iran.

The three nations’ primary concern was the Syrian conflict.  All three countries have troops involved in the war and support holding peace talks to end the bloody conflict.  However, the meeting did highlight some of the differences the three countries have in terms of strategy.

Turkey backs a rebel group while Russia and Iran have been supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Turkey also supports a more cautious approach compared to the other two conference attendees in large part because a large offensive could deepen the refugee crisis spilling into Turkey.

While the United States is divided with its allies over Iran, Russia and Turkey have taken the opportunity to deepen cooperation with Iran in attempt to have more say over the end of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East as a whole.  American President Donald Trump’s commitment to remove American troops from the region will cause some problems for participants in the conflict, but it assures other actors a bigger seat at the table.

Future

The Middle East’s near geopolitical future is currently divided on the issue of Iran.  Saudi Arabia’s Gulf state coalition has firm backing from the United States, however, America’s isolation from its western allies is becoming more clearly defined.  The United States will have to stomach strained ties with European nations who have taken a firm stance on the Iran nuclear deal.

On the other hand, Russia and Turkey are enjoying increased relations with Iran, a country isolated from many potential regional partners.  A Russia-Turkey-Iran coalition stands to gain influence in the Middle East if America’s partnerships begin to crumble.

In the wake of the duelling conferences, Iranian President Rouhani made overtures to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf counterparts.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in multiple proxy wars, but Iran has been appealing to Saudi Arabia to lessen their alliance with America and turn toward Iran for cooperation in the region.

Iran’s overtures have mostly fallen on deaf ears, and Saudi Arabia has given little indication that they are receptive to such ideas, and Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue as enemies.  However, with America’s foreign policy strategies frequently changing on a whim, Middle East alliances could reshape quickly if the wrong moves are made.

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Geopolitics

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a whirlwind, week-long diplomatic tour of seven Middle Eastern countries to offer reassurances to the region after President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

Pompeo visited Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman in that order.

Unsurprisingly, Pompeo covered more than just Syria and America’s sudden foreign policy shift, and he took on a broad range of issues.  In this article, we will analyse the most important topics discussed and what potential ramifications they have on regional diplomacy.


Syria and the Islamic State

First, Pompeo had to manoeuvre around President Trump’s Syria withdrawal announcement and the President’s praise to American troops in Iraq for the “near elimination of the ISIS territorial caliphate in Iraq and in Syria.”

At his first stop in Jordan, Pompeo said, “the most significant threats to the region are Daesh and the Islamic revolution.” 

But, several days after Pompeo returned to the United States, Vice President Mike Pence remarked, “the caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.”

Pompeo faced an uphill battle in clarifying Trump’s statements and positions, and the mixed messaging diminishes the word of the Secretary of State.  Pompeo’s mission was to assuage Middle East allies and convince them that the United States will scale back their presence in Syria slower than first anticipated.

However, the sudden nature of Trump’s withdrawal announcement and Pompeo’s subsequent tour will do little to change the reality that the region will have to make preparations for a multitude of potential and abrupt policy changes from the United States.

Iran

Pompeo did make one issue loud and clear during his diplomatic visits: Iran is a shared enemy of America and its Middle Eastern allies.  Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have both previously advocated for regime change in Iran, and they represent America’s newly reinvigorated hawkish approach to the Shia state.

Amongst other political uncertainties and America’s new approach to Syria, the heads of state on Pompeo’s tour likely were happy to hear consistent and strong messaging on Iran.

In Cairo, Pompeo had particularly strong words for Iran as he said the United States and its allies will “expel every last Iranian boot from Syria.”

This was an attempt to offer some reassurance on the United States’ commitment to Syria, but it also made clear that Pompeo and the White House will continue to focus on the perceived threat from Iran.  The White House’s vendetta against Iran comes as no surprise considering President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the reintroduction of harsh sanctions against Iran.

Qatari Blockade and Saudi Arabia

Pompeo also used the Iran talking point to pivot toward Qatar’s conflict with its neighbours.  The Qatari state is currently locked in a diplomatic battle with and being blockaded by a Saudi-led coalition who accuses Qatar of collaborating with Iran.

In the Qatari capital, the Secretary of State put a case forward for working in a united front against the threat from Iran.  Pompeo argued that the blockade on Qatar aided Iran, but the United States has been an unsuccessful mediator between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition.

In Pompeo’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he spoke with Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman for nearly an hour.  Pompeo said he spoke with MBS about the wars in Yemen and Syria, the Qatari blockade, and the Jamal Khashoggi case.

Similar to previous Trump foreign policy with the Saudis, Pompeo emphasised the relationship between the two states before launching into any criticism of the Saudi state for its actions.  Saudi Arabia remains an important ally to the Trump White House on their shared goal of containing Iran, and this agreement seems to take importance over other issues.

Pompeo and the State Department have not been able to effectively convince the Saudis to end their blockade with Qatar.  But based on the talking points of Pompeo’s visit, ending the blockade will be a continued desire of the White House in its attempts to further damage Iran.

Pompeo also reiterated that there has been no change in the White House’s stance on the Khashoggi case despite the United States Congress adopting a more hard line view.


Conclusions

Overall, Pompeo’s Middle East trip was an attempt to steady tumultuous relationships and provide reassurances to allies.

In terms of the American withdrawal of troops from Syria, Pompeo’s visit did little to offer any concrete reassurances on the White House’s opinion on the matter of Syria and the Islamic State.  Conflicting statements from the White House and the State Department leaves America’s Middle Eastern allies in a similarly confused position as many analysts.  In this respect, preparing for multiple, uncertain scenarios is a wise and necessary move.

One clear takeaway is that the Trump White House wants to continue to work with Saudi Arabia and other regional partners to control Iran.  This is not a new foreign policy position for the United States, however, President’s Trump’s fervour in containing Iran seems to extend further than many previous presidents.

The Qatari blockade is no closer to being lifted, but the United States does seem keen to restore economic certainty to Qatar.  However, Pompeo reiterated the importance of the Saudi-American ‘friendship’, so Saudi Arabia still takes precedence over Qatar.

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Geopolitics

The United Arab Emirates pardoned British Ph.D. student Matthew Hedges on November 26th after holding him in prison on spy charges.  The UAE accused the British academic of being a member of the MI6 due to his network of connections within the country, however, they bowed to international pressure to justify their allegations and instead released Hedges.

While the case may be over for Hedges, who returned to his wife in England, the UAE still faces further ramifications and trade between the two countries may be more tenuous than before.

The UAE faced an international campaign from Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, and were feeling pressure from British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. 

The Emirates attempted to save face by holding press conferences detailing their suspicions and alleged Hedges took advantage of their country’s openness to academics.  The UAE also provided short video clips of Hedges including one where he admits to having the nonexistent rank of captain in MI6.

The public nature of the Emirate’s actions indicates a potential shift in relations between the two countries.

The UAE is a strong British trade and regional partner and according to the UK Office for National Statistics is Britain’s 23rd leading imports partner (£4.8 billion) and 13th leading exports partner (£9.8 billion). They also buy £250 million worth of British-made weapons every year.

But, the UAE, guided by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, have strayed from their long-standing British partnership in favour of more hard power responses to regional politics.

While the UK and UAE have largely agreed on regional politics in recent years, under Prime Minister Theresa May, the UAE has started to become a more difficult partner.

The Yemeni Civil War and the Qatari blockade are two examples of the Emirates’ switch from international cooperation with the UK to a more active hard power force.  In both of these cases, the UAE is following Saudi Arabia’s lead.

In Yemen, the UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting with the Yemeni government against Houthi rebels.  The Saudi coalition has been accused of war crimes and targeting civilians in the drawn-out war.

The Saudi and Emirati are equipped with American and British weapons, so while the countries are not directly involved in the conflict, many have accused the Western leaders of being complicit in an increasingly bloody war.

Crown Prince Zayed has also teamed up with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to isolate Qatar through a blockade.

Saudi Arabia and its allies are upset with Qatar’s alignment with Iran, and the Saudi-led coalition issued Qatar with 13 demands before the blockade would be lifted.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ramped up their language against Qatar since the blockade.  Both have threatened to dump nuclear waste near Qatar, and Saudi Arabia has said they are planning to dig a ditch and build a canal in order to make Qatar a completely isolated island.

Here again, the UK government is in opposition to the actions of the UAE, and the government supports Kuwaiti-led mediation appeals.

Coupled with other recent international incidents, Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem empowered by American President Donald Trump’s aversion to condemning human rights abuses and other transgressions by the two countries. 

So, May’s government and the United Kingdom have to carefully balance themselves between the emboldened actions of their Middle Eastern trade and political partners and the resulting international condemnation due to the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s actions.

The case of Matthew Hedges may have been a test to see how far the Emirates can go without risking the trade partnership with the United Kingdom.  Eventually, the UAE caved and released the British national, but the saga highlights growing tensions, and it perhaps gives the United Kingdom further fuel to decrease ties with the Emirates.

However, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are keenly aware of the political situation in the UK.   An uncertain exit from the European Union and a potentially weakened trading position with their European partners does not leave May’s government much room to make demands out of the Emirates.

Furthermore, the current political situation in the United States seems to indicate that decreased Gulf Region trade with Britain could shift into American hands.

While Emirati-British relations may be momentarily strained, one would expect trade deals and political alliances to remain similarly organized in the near future.  But if domestic politics shift in the UK, US or other regions, then British business with the UAE might see significant change.

In the bigger picture, the academic’s case may end up being a mere blip in the strong relations between two trade partners.

However, regional analysts will be keeping a keen eye on the UAE’s international diplomacy as the case threw light on a diplomatic relationship that could see change in the coming years.

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Geopolitics

After acquittals in Bahrain’s highest criminal court, an appeals court sentenced three senior opposition leaders to life in prison.

Al-Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman, Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali al-Aswad were sentenced on November 4.  The trio was charged with hostile acts and “communicating with Qatari officials… to overthrow constitutional order,” according to a statement from the public prosecutor.

Al-Wefaq is one of Bahrain’s largest political parties, and in 2010 parliamentary elections they received 64% of the popular vote.  However, the party only received 18 of 40 seats in the lower house, and they have now been banned for competing in parliamentary elections later this month.

Despite election popularity, the party is considered an opposition party because Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy with the monarchy enjoying concentrated power.  King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appoints the government, and Bahrain has had the same prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, since 1971.  Al Khalifa is the current longest-serving prime minister in the world.

After the 2010 parliamentary elections, Al-Wefaq has been struggling in its opposition role.  In 2016, Bahrain’s courts ordered the group to be dissolved, suspended the group’s activities and froze their assets.

Al-Wefaq is so precariously positioned in Bahraini politics because not only are they the government’s opposition, but they are the Shia opposition to the Sunni monarchy.  Religious differences have been a driver for disagreements between the two factions.  Sunni allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have come to Bahrain’s aid in stamping out the country’s Shia opposition, including a 2011 uprising.

The allegation of an Al-Wefaq conspiracy with Qatar comes at a tense time between Qatar and its regional neighbours.  Friction between Qatar and its neighbours boils down an issue similar to Bahrain and its Shia opposition.

Qatar has a Shia majority like many neighbouring countries, but Saudi Arabia and other regional powers are upset with Qatar pivoting toward an alliance with Iran.  When the Saudi-led consortium of states issued the blockade against Qatar they listed 13 demands for Qatar to abide by, prominently including curbing ties with Iran.

Bahrain joined in on the Qatari blockade and is now turning their ire once again to Doha through the accusations against their opposition leaders.  Qatar has denied participating in collusion with Al-Wefaq and the foreign ministry condemned the allegation that Qatar was meddling in Bahraini internal politics.

In the 13 demands, the blockading countries also required Qatar to cease meddling in internal politics of other states.

Linking Al-Wefaq to Qatar is a calculated move on behalf of Bahrain, and it delegitimizes two opponents at once.  If proven to be true, Qatar would be violating several of the conditions to end the blockade, and Al-Wefaq would be conspiring with an unfriendly state.

This development also comes before parliamentary elections in late November.  Bahrain has gone further than banning opposition parties as they are now neutralizing their leadership through the judicial process.

The United States and the United Kingdom have publicly denounced Bahrain for its electoral repression, but the state has been emboldened by the Qatari blockade.

Unhindered by international condemnation, the Bahraini regime has sentenced other opposition activists to jail sentences ranging from three to 10 years.  Along with the sentencing for opposition leaders, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have declared the actions of Bahrain are unjust.

Bahrain has Western international opinion against them, however, their regional allies will not come out against the move.  In October, Bahrain supported Saudi Arabia after the Jamal Khashoggi case became an international story.  Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will remain close through thick and thin.

In terms of Western allies, Bahrain has complicated ties to the United States.  America expressed concern about Bahrain’s upcoming elections, but it is unimaginable that the White House will interfere considering the ties between the countries.

Bahrain expelled American Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski after he visited with Al-Wefaq leaders in 2014.  The Bahraini government accused Malinowski of operating counter to diplomatic norms, and the diplomat argued Bahrain was attempting to suppress a dialogue.

But, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis seems more magnanimous in his approach to Bahrain and the region.  Mattis gave a policy speech in Bahrain in late October, during which he condemned both the Khashoggi killing and the “hysterical” global reaction.

Defense Secretary Mattis is a staunch opponent of Iran, and President Trump has expressed support for the Saudi regime.  Some American senators may express concern about Bahraini elections and Saudi Arabian transgressions, but that concern is unlikely to be shared by the White House.

In the short term, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are benefitting from a cozy relationship with the United States, and opposition leaders are struggling.  But, they run the risk of enraging a large segment of the American and international community who may take up positions against Trump for posterity’s sake. 

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Geopolitics

In a victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Jordan and Israel both reopened border crossings with war-torn Syria.  The recent developments are indicative of Assad’s reasserted control in southern Syria.

Assad was able to secure control of the area in large part due to Russia airstrikes that drove out rebel forces. Rebel forces seized control of the two border crossings in 2015 and cut off important trade and peacekeeping routes.

On October 15, Jordan reopened the Nasib border, a vital trade artery that opens Syria up to regional export trade through Jordan.  Along with Syria, the Jordanian and Lebanese economies will also benefit through increased employment and trade.

Lebanon will see massive economic benefits from the border reopening as Syria is the country’s only usable land connection.  Lebanon’s only other land border is with Israel, but the two countries have no formal ties.  Lebanon’s Minister of Economy and Trade Raed Khoury has previously said that Lebanon’s exports fell by 35% since the Syrian conflict began.

Jordan had previously supported rebels opposed to Assad’s regime, but now that the tide is turning in favour of Assad, Jordan looks to be changing their opinion on the conflict. 

The Syrian border with Turkey remains closed, so the connection with Jordan allows both Syria and Lebanon to re-enter trade with various regional partners land-based trade.

From trade to peacekeeping, Israel reopened the Quneitra crossing in Golan Heights, a point primarily used by United Nations peacekeeping observers.  Russia recaptured the area from rebel forces in July, and Russian forces intend to stay to collaborate with UN forces.

The border is not a formal border between Israel and Syria, and no trade is conducted between the two countries.  However, it does offer the international community a further window into the war-ravaged region.

The border developments are a significant win for the Assad regime, and the reopened borders will bring economic benefits and increased legitimacy.  Many of the surrounding Arabic countries have boycotted Syria since 2011, but now the country has a gateway to reconnection with key neighbours.

Iraq has also expressed interest in reopening their border with Syria and reintegrating the country into the regional community.  The Iraqi foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari even floated the idea of readmitting Syria to the Arab League.

Syria was ousted from the Arab League when the civil war broke out and Assad used repressive and inhumane tactics to control the population.  However, some countries seem to be changing their tune, and economic interests may now supersede disgust at Assad’s previous indiscretions.

Assad will use the increased relations with surrounding countries as evidence of his eventual return to power over the whole country, but in terms of border control, he still has a way to go.

Syria’s relationship with Turkey is still icy, and the nine border points with their neighbor are still closed. Two border crossings are controlled by Turkish allied rebels, and two separate points are controlled by American-backed Kurdish rebels.

Of particular note in recent months has been tensions in one of the last strongholds of the Assad resistance, Syria’s Idlib province. A buffer zone was arranged and rebel groups were to leave by October 15 in order to avoid a Syrian offensive on a region housing hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians.  However, the rebels have yet to leave, and Assad insists his country will act to oust what he views as radical groups.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently stated his military will maintain a presence in Idlib for humanitarian purposes, likely in order to prevent another large influx of refugees into Turkey.

While Assad has made progress in some regions of Syria, he still is far off seizing control of the entire country.  Multiple international actors and rebel groups are still at play in the region, and it will not become simple any time soon.

Furthermore, Assad has to contend with international condemnation for his use of chemical weapons in his fight against rebel forces.  A recent BBC report found 106 chemical weapons attacks have occurred in Syria since Assad pledged to destroy the country’ stockpile in 2013.

When the dust settles on the Syrian conflict, international organizations like the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN will not take accusations of chemical warfare lightly.  Assad’s regime will face another battle once the war is over, and this one on an international diplomatic stage.

But, the reopening of borders and rhetoric from Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq indicate that Syria is regaining important regional partners in the country’s bid to reintegrate economically and politically with their neighbors.  Economic interests in the region may give Assad the necessary momentum to maintain power in the fragile country.

And, with the movement of people and commerce through the Jordanian border, there has been an indication that the Syrian people just want to return to a version of regular life.  Assad and his neighbors are trying to mend broken ties and reinstate some version of normal in a country and region ravaged by civil war and atrocity
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Geopolitics

The Arab Spring promised a democratic shift in the Middle East region, and many commentators bought into the passion seen in the eyes of many hopeful protestors.  Egyptian protestors began demonstrating in January 2011 and successfully ousted then President Hosni Mubarak from office.  However, hopeful Egyptians have seen democratic desires dashed, and the populace now lives under the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a man all too similar to Mubarak.

On 8 September, the world received further confirmation of the democracy movement’s failure in Egypt.  A court upheld death sentences for 75 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, including some journalists, for their role in August 2013 protests.

The Muslim Brotherhood was banned under Mubarak, but Sisi has gone further by classifying the controversial religious and political movement as a terrorist group, a decision which has pushed some members to become more radical.  The Muslim Brotherhood was on a high after Mubarak’s ousting as the first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi came from their newly formed political party.

But, after mass demonstrations against the government within a year of the election, Sisi carried out a military coup and has ruled with an iron fist since becoming the president in 2014.  The court’s ruling on Brotherhood protesters reiterates Sisi’s commitment to stifling political opposition.

The August 2013 protests ended bloody with Human Rights Watch estimating Egyptian security forces killed 817 people for their sit-in protest against Sisi’s coup.   75 deaths will be added to that list after the court affirmed the death penalty for the 75 people allegedly behind the sit-in protest.

The crackdown on the Brotherhood is a calculated move by Sisi, and one with potential international ramifications.  The United States had previously withheld military assistance money to Egypt, but the Trump administration has released upward of $1 billion in military aid to the Egyptian military since July.  The White House has expressed concern about the country’s human rights record, but it sees Egypt as a valuable security partner in the region.

Despite the 8 September ruling, America has doubled down its support for the Egyptian military.  On the same weekend as the announcement of the court’s ruling, a visiting U.S. commander observed joint military drills and said “Egypt is one of our most vital partners in the region.”

Unsurprisingly, America is more concerned with regional security and stability than the democratic freedoms of the average Egyptian.

On the other hand, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, condemned the mass sentencing.  Other human rights groups have also pointed to the hypocrisy of 75 people being sentenced to death for their role in the protest while no police or security forces have been held accountable for the 817-death toll.

While many in the international human rights community are staunchly against the Egyptian regime, military dollars continue to flow into the country and legitimize Sisi’s rule. Along with the United States, Russia continues to expand their military cooperation with Sisi, and Russia has declared the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.  China has also further expanded economic cooperation with Egypt in recent months.

Legitimacy from foreign governments has strengthened Sisi’s position in Egypt and will likely overpower condemnation from the international community in the short-term.  With this legitimacy, Sisi is consolidating power and limiting freedom to protect his regime from popular uprisings.

The Egyptian president has signed multiple bills into law to limit Egyptian’s free speech on the internet.  According to the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression in Cairo, hundreds of websites have been blocked within the last year, and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers can be put under supervision.  Most of the laws and monitoring are under the guise of counterterrorism, but they also function as a control measure on dissent against Sisi’s rule.

With an inactive international community and support from the world’s biggest international players, the largest threat to Sisi’s regime is clearly from within.  And, it is a threat now stifled by draconian laws put in place by a regime wary of the popular discontent which they in part used to ascend to power.

The fate of Egypt and Sisi’s regime largely lies in the economic situation of the country.  At the end of Mubarak’s reign, he began to relax stringent economic policy, but the 2008 financial crisis dampened economic growth and led the Egyptian people to call for a new era in Egyptian politics.

Unfortunately for the Egyptian people, Sisi may have learned from Mubarak’s mistakes, but he still has to balance his authoritarian control with some meaningful economic growth.  His path to economic stability now requires diversification from oil and decreasing the country’s high level of unemployment and poverty.

If Sisi fails to do so, he will likely use the full force of the repressive tools at his disposal and perhaps force Egypt into a similar position it has found itself in years past.

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