Thursday, February 20, 2014

Saudi Arabia: time for terrorists' containment

Dr. Leila Nicolas
As the Lebanese politicians reached an agreement to form a new government after months of deadlock, many see it as a sign that Saudi Arabia has realized the importance of re- engineering its previous regional policies; to constructively engage in the counter terrorism strategies.
In 2007, Many American think tanks started to talk about major changes in the American strategies of the "war on terror", especially after their failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving the two countries to instability and becoming safe havens for terrorists.
It was, then, that the American administration started to think of a new approach to counter "Islamic extremism"; using containment rather than confrontation. It was believed that the best way to contain these Islamic radicals is by using "moderate" Islamic groups which may contain, control and defeat them in the end. The problem was the spread of these radical groups all over the world, so it was necessary to implement an "aggregation" strategy, which means driving the terrorists to gather in one geographical area -the Arab world.
The chance came with the Arab developments after Tunisian uprising, the West sought the alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood as the best way to implement this counter terrorism strategy empowering the Turkish model of "modern and moderate" views for Islam with good ties with Israel and the West.
As the "aggregation" phase was accomplished and the terrorists gathered mainly in Syria and Libya; the so called "moderate" Islamic groups - the Muslim brotherhood - couldn't achieve their part of the deal. The MB were brought down in most of the "Arab Spring" countries, and were militarily defeated in Syria. This raised major European concerns as the extremists have been fighting in Syria and are tending to go back to their homelands threatening to becoming a time bomb.
All these developments, raise the major question: who will handle the second part of the counter terrorism project?
As the region reached this point, the Iranians tried to convince the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change his Syrian strategy, promise to collaborate with the Syrian president Bashar el Assad in fighting terrorism, and then rule the Islam - Sunni world under the umbrella of this "international job"- fighting terrorism. The problem is that Erdogan is unable to do this retreat despite the promising rewards, as he had burned all the bridges with the Syrian government and he feels that his retreat may finish his political future.
Respectively, Saudi Arabia had two alternatives: either to accept the job and rule the Islam world in partnership with Iran, or to refuse and continue challenging the American Administration and this may lead to major changes in the political structures of the kingdom, or to the fragmentation of Saudi Arabia. It seems that the Saudis took the rational decision; to contribute in terrorists' containment, in order to be prepared to the second phase: engagement in the international war against terror which will come after the Russian- American Middle Eastern agreements.
Hence, it seems that manifestation of Saudi- Iranian detente will appear through national settlements in Lebanon, Yemen, and maybe Bahrain.
 As for Lebanon, the Saudi - backed future movement will start to confront the radical groups in its regions. The movement has double interest in this new policy of terrorists' confrontation: to get rid of radical groups as they are threatening its influence in the Sunni regions, and to portray themselves as the "moderate Sunnis", where Lebanon suffered a lot when they were excluded from government.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Iran's old friends... are they expired?.

Dr. Leila Nicolas
The river of optimism which flowed all over the international sphere regarding reaching a nuclear agreement between Iran and the sextet, and the efforts of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and the Iranian foreign minister Muhammad Javad Zarif to cut with former president Ahmadinejad radical policies have become of a great concern to some of Iranian allies and proxies who wanted the Iranian Republic to continue its high- pitched speeches towards Israel and the west.
The reasons behind these concerns are many; some refer to the analogy -made by many western analysts- between Rouhani and the former Soviet president Gorbachev, who initiated the perestroika in the Soviet Union, and which was one of the factors that led to the collapse of Union. Some others refer these concerns to Zarif's speeches about condemning holocaust, and his call for "all foreign forces to withdraw from Syria", which some pointed out that it means Hezbollah fighters too.
Many others may refer to the Iranian policies towards the so called "Arab Spring", where the Iranians praised the domination of Muslim Brotherhood- who tried to settle a theocratic dictatorship in the Arab states that witnessed revolutionary changes- calling it the "Islamic awakening". This weird Iranian policy can be analyzed in two different scenarios:

A - that the Iranians had felt that the deal between Western powers and Muslim brotherhood , aimed at containing Iran as a rising regional power, and establishing a regional balance and deterrence between the large Shiite state and another regional Sunni empire, So they preferred to face it by containment rather than confrontation; trying to diminish the tense of sectarian Sunni - Shiite divide, and welcoming the extensive role of Muslim Brotherhood. So far it was good for the Iranians, but once the developments in the region reached the limit of threatening Iranian national security; trying to bring down Syrian regime, the Iranians gave unlimited support to the Syrian regime and decided to topple the MB rebels in Syria militarily.

B -The second explanation may be that the Iranians were part of the deal between the west and Muslim Brotherhood which aimed to control the entire MENA region, reduce the Saudi Wahhabi influence, opens the door for close cooperation and power sharing between Iran and MB. The Iranians, who had good ties with MB figures and organizations, such as Hamas and An-nahda, in addition to good relations with Turkey and Qatar, sought that may take advantage of a new coalition in the region that may exclude the radical Wahhabi influence and replace it with more pragmatic Sunni one. Iranian- Saudi tensions are at their peak, since the American occupation of Iraq, and the oust of Taliban in Afghanistan that lead to maximizing Iranian influence in the region.
What reinforces this explanation, is the Iranian backup to the ousted Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi, even after he was removed by a popular revolution in June 2013.This was so clear after the Iranian statements interfering in Egypt's internal affairs, expressing that Iran " was worried by the recent escalation in violence between Egypt's army and protesters supporting former Islamist President Mohamed Mursi".

 No observer can assert the validity of any of the aforementioned scenarios, and can know exactly the real Iranian intentions, or whether they are ready for serious concessions, one of them is getting rid of old proxies like Hamas for example.
Certainly, old Iranian proxies have a legitimate right to get worried, for any group who accepted to be a key card in the hands of great powers, will reach its expiry date one day.

In my opinion, the fears that Rouhani would be another Gorbachev are not realistic. The Islamic Republic of Iran is guided by the Supreme Leader Khamenei, that controls the whole system, adjusts firmly all the internal rivals, and decides the Strategic policies. So, anyone who dreams that Rouhani would one day revolt and lead major changes in the republic, had never understood the structure of the Iranian regime.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Iranian Foreign Policy: The Charm of a Smile

Dr. Leila Nicolas
Even most optimists couldn't predict that Iran will quickly be a welcomed guest at the international forums, that the Iranian foreign minister Muhammad Javad Zarif, hardly settles one week in Tehran, traveling from a European city to another, where he exchanges smiles and kind words with his European counterparts.

It seems that the Iranians were not interested in attending Geneva II conference held in Montreux, as they already knew that the negotiations will not lead to any solution or even the beginning of a solution. Weeks before the conference, it was clear - esp. after what had been leaked of the meetings between the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, and the opposition figures in Istanbul-that the conference is doomed to fail.
In a place that’s not very far from where the Geneva II conference is being held, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was the star of the World Economic Forum in Davos, completing his strategy of "charm offensive" aimed to invite western businessmen to invest in Iran as it has the potential to be in the top ten economies in the world in the next three decades, as he said.

Highly applauded by an audience who clearly wanted to hear this speech, Mr. Rouhani said "constructive engagement" was "one of the pillars" of the policy of his government, and pledged that his country has no intentions of possessing nuclear weapons. In addition to the President, the Iranian foreign minister Zarif had the chance to express his country's views about regional issues especially about the Syrian crisis.
Even in the Munich Security Conference, Zarif had the chance to meet John Kerry and Catherine Ashton, who described the meeting with Zarif  as “really interesting”.

In addition to the non-provocative Iranian speeches, Iran clings to many powerful key cards that can be used in increasing its regional influence. It also benefits from a strategic geographical position. The Iranians have influence over many powerful groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and primarily Afghanistan. The most prominent key card carried by the Iranian negotiators is the Afghani one. The good relationship and high influence of Iran on the Afghani president Hamid Karzai, gives them the ability to influence the pace of signing the security agreement between USA and Karzai, who stressed he will not sign before the presidential elections in April. Many believe that the key to signing the agreement is in Iranian hands, but Iran does not seem willing to give Washington free gains.

To sum it up, it seems that Iran is preparing grounds for bolstering political, economic cooperation with other countries, which can lead it to be a regional superpower especially in the wake that the Arab states are preoccupied by their internal problems, and this is what the Saudis are afraid of. Sure, the solution should be heading towards mutual respect, regional cooperation and legitimate competition.