Inquiry & Analysis Series 1322
At This Stage, The Trump Administration Consents To Iran's Regional Expansion, Exchanges Messages Seeking An Understanding With Iran; Qatar Crisis, Escalation Of Conflict Between Iran And Its Axis And Saudi-Sunni Camp Are Outcome Of U.S.'s Incoherent Dual Policy
By: A. Savyon Yigal Carmon
Recently, there have been significant developments in the conflict/rivalry between, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni axis that it established, and on the other hand Iran and the resistance axis. These developments concern not only the forces in the region but also the U.S. and Russia. Both these camps are vying for support from the U.S., which at this stage is striving for understandings and negotiations with Iran and, according to Iranian sources, is already conducting secret contacts with it; this is happening as the U.S. is, for now, coming to terms with Iran's expansion in the region. These developments are impacting the reshaping of the Middle East as well as the power relations among the leading elements within it. The current Qatar crisis is a new manifestation of the generational geo-political Sunni-Shi'ite Saudi-Iranian struggle, and is the outcome of the policy of a U.S. administration in which two political camps are discernible. One is that of President Trump and his close advisors, who support Saudi Arabia and the Sunni axis, and the other is that of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who are showing sympathy for Qatar and acting to preserve the pro-Iran status quo of the Obama era.
This paper will review these developments and their ramifications:
Recent Developments In The Saudi Arabia-Iran Power Struggle
Since President Donald Trump took office, there have been several main developments:
- A Saudi initiative to form a bloc of Sunni states against Iran, under Saudi leadership, at the May 20-21 Riyadh summit, along with an unsuccessful attempt to enlist the U.S. for this move. This followed the years of the Obama administration's support for Iran and attempts to force Saudi Arabia into "balanced relations" with Shi'ite Iran, and to accept Iran's regional expansion as part of that country's "exporting" of its Islamic revolution.
- An Iranian diplomatic counter-move aimed at negotiating with the U.S. for the lifting of the remaining sanctions (concerning terrorism and human rights violations). It should be noted that it appears, from statements by Iranian officials, that secret negotiations are already underway between the Trump administration and Iran (see details below). There are also other indications of this. For example:
- On February 28, 2017, Majlis National Security Committee member Javad Karimi Qadousi revealed that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with four requests: that the U.S. administration not act to cancel the JCPOA; that the "U.S. State Department appoint a special representative for JCPOA affairs" and that former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry be named to this post because he had good and clear relations with the Iranian negotiating team; that a secret bilateral channel of Iran-U.S. communications be opened; and that a secret meeting be held in Istanbul.
- Mahmoud Nabavian, a former Majlis member from the ideological camp who was secretary of the special committee for examining the JCPOA and a member of the election headquarters of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, who ran against President Hassan Rohani in the May 2017 presidential election, revealed on May 29, 2017 that the U.S. had made the implementation of the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) and holding banking relations with Iran conditional upon handing over Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and many other generals to the U.S., and that Foreign Minister Zarif had even committed to doing so in his contacts with the Americans.
Nabavian's leak of this information is supported by the fact that several Iranian officials have recently expressed the view that the U.S. must back down from its demands relating to the IRGC. For example, the regime mouthpiece Kayhan newspaper explained in its June 28, 2017 editorial that "the West wants to send a message to the government and the people of Iran that 'if you want to benefit from a relationship with the world and not encounter new threats, you must distance yourselves from the IRGC.' The previous week, on June 20, 2017, it threatened that if the U.S. acted to have the IRGC designated a terrorist organization, and harmed its IRGC's economic capabilities with sanctions, the region would not be secure for either the U.S. or its allies: "The [June 18, 2017] IRCG missile attack [in Syria] sends an explicit message to America and its allies in Europe and the region that if the region is not safe for Iranian economic and commercial activity [i.e. by means of the IRGC], there will be no reason and no logic that the region should be safe for the clear enemies of Iran – the Westerners, the Arabs, and the Hebrews – and it is clear that this price of insecurity must be forced also on Iran's enemies."
Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezai, a former IRGC commander, clarified that America is facing a "demand that it agree to the IRGC's defending the honor of the Iranian people, and [therefore] it is not possible to level sanctions against it. It is not worthwhile for [the Americans] to choose it [as a target] in order to show its strength against it because the result will lead [the U.S.] to regret [doing so]." At the same time, Iranian officials stressed the IRGC's role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) as an additional reason why the U.S. must back down from its intentions against it.
- Asked on May 29, 2017 about Tillerson's conversation with Zarif, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi replied: "There is still no plan and decision on this, but you need to pay attention to the fact that diplomacy is very broad and that anything can happen one of these days."
- On June 25, 2017, Kayhan explained to the Rohani government that "the message of the IRGC missiles has been clearly received [by the West and therefore] there is no need for them [i.e. the Rohani government] to sit at the negotiating table [with the Americans] in fear and for them to worry about the lifting of the tension. The hope is that from now on they will rely on the might of the [Iranian] armed forces and will come to every negotiating table with increased strength."
- The early June 2017 joint Saudi-Gulf Arab move (together with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) and other Sunni countries to isolate Qatar. For why the Qatar crisis happened when it did, see below.
- A double Iranian military move, on land and with missiles, in the Syria and Iraq arenas:
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MEMRI Daily Brief No. 131
Defending And Attacking A Mythological Version Of Al-Jazeera Television
By: Alberto M. Fernandez
The 2017 Gulf crisis pitting Qatar against other Arab governments has unmasked a lot of bias and hypocrisy in many quarters. Those defending Qatar and those attacking it have glossed over actions and positions that hurt their case and often present a skewed or partial version of the truth. Not surprisingly, both Qatar's defenders and its critics have sought to aggressively promote their politicized and partial versions of the truth outside the Middle East. As I noted previously, Qatar should be squirming, but they are not the only ones.
Such hypocrisy is particularly in high relief when it comes to the pioneering Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which revolutionized television news in the Arabic language when it launched in 1996. I remember, as a young public diplomacy officer serving in the region, the dullness and uniformity of Arab broadcast television before Al-Jazeera changed the media landscape.
Those who want it shut down (the Saudis and their allies in the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) focus on the station's unabashed support for Islamists, its criticism of other Arab regimes, and its material support for terrorism.[ MEMRI has an extensive archive of material from Al-Jazeera stretching back many years illustrating Al-Jazeera's incendiary appeal, promotion of intolerance, and support for terrorism. We expect to issue additional reports providing fresh material unmasking the network's worldview soon.
While the Gulf crisis heated up, Al-Jazeera also won the support of a range of left-of-center Western media and politicians who seem to have only a vague understanding of what the station actually puts on in Arabic but see calls for its closure in purely press freedom terms.
Most notorious was a lazy New York Times editorial in support of the station which acknowledged that "critical reporting on Qatar or members of Qatar's royal family is not tolerated" but that otherwise "much of the rest of its reporting hews to international journalistic standards, provides a unique view on events in the Middle East, and serves as a vital news source for millions who live under antidemocratic rule." Meanwhile, The Guardian called the effort to shut down Al-Jazeera as "part of an assault on free speech to subvert the impact of old and new media in the Arab world." The Guardian at least acknowledged accusations of antisemitism and partisanship on the part of the Qatari state-funded broadcaster.
My personal views on Al-Jazeera are complicated, even though it is obvious that much of its content is deeply disturbing. The truth of Al-Jazeera is rather more than those who want to shut it down and those who defend it. It is BOTH a legitimate, historically important news operation and an open and constant exercise in Islamist agitprop. Fouad Ajami perfectly captured the tone and nuance of the station in 2011 when he noted that "day in and day out, Al-Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage."
I have a lot of history with Al-Jazeera and still have some scars from it. For more than 12 years, I appeared as a guest of the station, on various debate programs and on the news dozens of times. When I was in the State Department, I was the only U.S. government official reckless enough to appear more than once on the station's highly rated and controversial talk shows, matching my wit and working-level Arabic against some nasty (native-speaker-of-Arabic) opponents. Although there is no doubt about Al-Jazeera's anti-American and Islamist sub-text, which colors almost everything they put on the air, I was never censored or limited in my comments.
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Special Dispatch No. 6985
Arab Journalists: Trump's Speech In Saudi Arabia Was Damaging To U.S. Allies In The Region; The Arab World Should Be Open To Russia
The visit of U.S. President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia on May 20-22, 2017, the highlight of which was the summit attended by 50 Arab and Islamic countries, was widely covered in the Arab press. Articles published in the Arab newspapers that support the "moderate axis" in the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, generally praised President Trump for his decision to visit Saudi Arabia and for the speech he delivered during the summit, in which he focused on the fight against terror and on Iran. However, some of these articles also voiced criticism of Trump's policy in the region and of the conduct of Arab leaders.
For example, Nayla Tueni, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, which is associated with the March 14 Forces, wrote that President Trump's policy, as reflected in this speech, is damaging to U.S. allies in the region, because it treats them simply as a tool for the implementation of U.S. policy without granting them the necessary resources to do so. Trump thereby exposes them to criticism, says Tueni, and makes them a target of their rivals – Iran, the Syrian regime, and Hizbullah. She added that the Arab world should open up to other countries, chiefly Russia.
Marwan Al-Mu'asher, former Foreign Minister of Jordan, wrote in the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad that Trump focused on taking a security approach to dealing with terrorism, without relating to the economic and social problems that concern the Arab citizen, problems which are among the causes of terrorism. Al-Mu'asher directed harsh criticism at Arab leaders who rushed to embrace Trump despite his hostile positions towards Arabs and Islam, and to adopt his approach to the fight against terror. He warned that Trump's policy is likely to damage the region and called on Arab leaders to stop counting on the U.S. to solve their problems and start focusing on economic and social development in their countries.
The following are excerpts from the articles by Tueni and Al-Mu'asher.
President Trump speaking at the Arab-Islamic-U.S. Riyadh summit (image: Arabic.cnn.com, May 22, 2017)
Editor Of Lebanese Daily Al-Nahar: Urging The Arabs To Fight Terror On Their Own Is Not Enough
Nayla Tueni, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, wrote: "The speech of U.S. President Donald Trump at the Riyadh summit is of no use to any of the U.S. allies in the Middle East or to those who are suspected of allying themselves with [the U.S.] only because of their opposition to the policy of Iran, which is allied with the Syrian regime and other organizations and forces hostile to the [moderate Arab] regimes and to [regional] stability. Some will perceive in the speech support for the opposition to Iran, but in fact the speech is damaging to it, since it empties the movement of opposition [to Iran] of its genuine content and presents it… as executing the will of the West… These forces [that oppose Syria and Iran] may be surrounded and accused of collaborating [with the U.S.], and attacked with every possible weapon in an effort to silence them for good. It wouldn't be surprising if Hizbullah supporters in Lebanon, members of the Syrian regime, and those who enjoy material and military support from Iran now launch an organized political and media attack so as to reap some benefit from Trump's speech… and exert pressure on all just and sovereign discourse.
"Although the meetings in Riyadh dealt with the fight against terror and drying up its sources of funding, the most prominent part of the U.S. President's speech was his thrusting of the fight against terror upon the Arabs themselves, without really putting all the world's resources at their disposal in order to [enable them to] tackle this difficult task. The fight against terror, and the attempt to curb it as a first step towards wiping it out completely, if possible, require placing all the international experience, and all the intelligence capabilities of the superpowers, at the service of the grand plan. Proclamations and encouragement are not sufficient, since [charging the Arabs alone with this task] is in fact a call for Arabs to confront each other, and for them to go to war with their neighbors, which will drain their financial and human resources and benefit absolutely no one. In fact, it is likely to lead to the growth of new terror groups and organizations. On its own, the American "stick" is useless and is reminiscent of international struggles that triggered terror on many occasions. We should open up to other countries, of which Russia is likely to be the most prominent."
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