Iran’s advances create alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

Ian Black writes: The commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been working overtime recently, flaunting their achievements across the Middle East and flexing muscles as international negotiations over the country’s nuclear programme enter their critical and perhaps final phase.

On Wednesday it was the turn of Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC’s most senior officer. “The Islamic revolution is advancing with good speed, its example being the ever-increasing export of the revolution,” he declared. “Not only Palestine and Lebanon acknowledge the influential role of the Islamic Republic but so do the people of Iraq and Syria. They appreciate the nation of Iran.”

Last month a similarly boastful message was delivered by General Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s elite Quds force — and who is regularly photographed leading the fightback of Iraqi Shia miltias against the Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State (Isis) as well as against western and Arab-backed rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria. “Imperialists and Zionists have admitted defeat at the hands of the Islamic Republic and the resistance movement,” Suleimani said.

Iran’s advances are fuelling alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, where Tehran has been a strategic rival since the days of the Shah, and which now, it is said with dismay, in effect controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut and in the last month Sana’a in Yemen – which is uncomfortably close to home. [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia’s military exercise was a goodbye wave to America

Faisal Al Yafai writes: When one of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East holds the largest military exercise in its history, the region and allies would be wise to look beyond the explosions and manoeuvres at the political intent.

Last week’s “Abdullah Sword” military exercises in the north-east of Saudi Arabia brought together 130,000 troops, as well as military jets, helicopters and ships. With the notable exception of Qatar, all the GCC countries were there to observe the exercises, as well as the head of Pakistan’s army.

On the surface, the exercises were timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the accession of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But military movements of this order send messages. But to whom?

The obvious answer is Iran, Saudi’s great regional rival, or one of the three states that the Saudis are most concerned about – Syria, Iraq or Yemen. And it will not have escaped Tehran’s notice that the CSS-2 ballistic missiles that Riyadh paraded for the first time last week can easily reach any part of Iran.

Certainly, a message of strength was being telegraphed to the region. But there was also another one, over the heads of the region, to the United States: if you leave, the region can defend itself. [Continue reading…]


Time is right for Gulf states to rethink approach to Iraq

Hassan Hassan writes: For the Arab Gulf states, the war that began in 2003 was the herald of a new relationship with Iraq, a country that had long been ruled by a hostile regime, threatened its neighbours and had briefly subjugated one of them – Kuwait.

But 10 years after the US-led invasion, the picture in Baghdad looks extremely bleak from this side of the Gulf. An Iraq dominated by the pro-Iranian Shia is seen as just as threatening as an Iraq led by the Sunni Saddam Hussein.The mantra in the Gulf is that Baghdad has been handed over to the Iranians on a golden plate. Some even perceive Baghdad’s special relationship with Iran as part of a US grand strategy to pit the countries of the region against each other. Such self-defeating thinking is one reason why Baghdad has been drifting towards Tehran. It is time for the Gulf states to revisit their approach to Iraq.

Gulf states do not welcome the fact that Baghdad will probably always be dominated by Shia politicians. For them, the question is how to subdue Iraq, rather than how to work with it. They also tend to view Iraq’s relationship with Iran through a zero-sum mindset: Baghdad can either be an ally against Iran, or it can be an enemy.

Riyadh does not have meaningful diplomatic representation in Baghdad, despite repeated Iraqi attempts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at large. For example, at the beginning of trouble in Syria, Iraq supported almost all Gulf-led Arab resolutions against the Syrian regime; it began to show opposition after the Arab Summit in Baghdad in March of last year, to which few Gulf states sent high-level representation. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have not tried hard enough to resolve outstanding disputes with Iraq, involving borders and prisoners. The Arar border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Iraq is still closed, although Riyadh promised last year to open it for trade.

The key to better relationships is, counterintuitively, a stronger and more stable Iraq. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has long sought to weaken Iraq to ensure its own regional standing. Since the Iraq war, Riyadh’s policy has evolved into attempts to contain Baghdad and push it away from Tehran. [Continue reading…]


Obama administration plans to increase military support for autocratic Gulf rulers

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration plans to bolster the American military presence in the Persian Gulf after it withdraws the remaining troops from Iraq this year, according to officials and diplomats. That repositioning could include new combat forces in Kuwait able to respond to a collapse of security in Iraq or a military confrontation with Iran.

The plans, under discussion for months, gained new urgency after President Obama’s announcement this month that the last American soldiers would be brought home from Iraq by the end of December. Ending the eight-year war was a central pledge of his presidential campaign, but American military officers and diplomats, as well as officials of several countries in the region, worry that the withdrawal could leave instability or worse in its wake.

After unsuccessfully pressing both the Obama administration and the Iraqi government to permit as many as 20,000 American troops to remain in Iraq beyond 2011, the Pentagon is now drawing up an alternative.

In addition to negotiations over maintaining a ground combat presence in Kuwait, the United States is considering sending more naval warships through international waters in the region.

With an eye on the threat of a belligerent Iran, the administration is also seeking to expand military ties with the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. While the United States has close bilateral military relationships with each, the administration and the military are trying to foster a new “security architecture” for the Persian Gulf that would integrate air and naval patrols and missile defense.

The size of the standby American combat force to be based in Kuwait remains the subject of negotiations, with an answer expected in coming days. Officers at the Central Command headquarters here declined to discuss specifics of the proposals, but it was clear that successful deployment plans from past decades could be incorporated into plans for a post-Iraq footprint in the region.

For example, in the time between the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States Army kept at least a combat battalion — and sometimes a full combat brigade — in Kuwait year-round, along with an enormous arsenal ready to be unpacked should even more troops have been called to the region.

“Back to the future” is how Maj. Gen. Karl R. Horst, Central Command’s chief of staff, described planning for a new posture in the Gulf. He said the command was focusing on smaller but highly capable deployments and training partnerships with regional militaries. “We are kind of thinking of going back to the way it was before we had a big ‘boots on the ground’ presence,” General Horst said. “I think it is healthy. I think it is efficient. I think it is practical.”

Mr. Obama and his senior national security advisers have sought to reassure allies and answer critics, including many Republicans, that the United States will not abandon its commitments in the Persian Gulf even as it winds down the war in Iraq and looks ahead to doing the same in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.


OPEC rulers pay their subjects $1 trillion to keep quiet

Bloomberg reports:

Saudi Arabia will spend $43 billion on its poorer citizens and religious institutions. Kuwaitis are getting free food for a year. Civil servants in Algeria received a 34 percent pay rise. Desert cities in the United Arab Emirates may soon enjoy uninterrupted electricity.

Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members are poised to earn an unprecedented $1 trillion this year, according to the U.S. Energy Department, as the group’s benchmark oil measure exceeded $100 a barrel for the longest period ever. They are promising to plow record amounts into public and social programs after pro-democracy movements overthrew rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and spread to Yemen and Syria.

Unlike past booms, when Abu Dhabi bought English soccer club Manchester City and Qatar acquired a stake in luxury carmaker Porsche SE, Gulf nations pledged $150 billion in additional spending this year on their citizens. They will need to keep U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil at more than $80 a barrel to afford their promises, according to Bank of America Corp.

“A sharp increase in spending to accommodate social pressures has averted potential disquiet over governance in most countries, though in the longer-term economic reforms will be needed to buoy private-sector growth and job creation,” Jean- Michel Saliba, a London-based economist at Bank of America, said in an e-mail Sept. 8. “Without the social spending, Gulf protests would possibly move the nations toward constitutional monarchy.”


Bahrain boils under the lid of repression

Anthony Shadid reports:

The battle began soon after sundown. And for the next six hours, in air heavy with heat and tear gas, phalanxes of police officers in helmets battled scores of youths in ski masks, as customers at a Costa Coffee not far away sat like spectators.

No one won in the clashes, which erupt almost every night in this Persian Gulf state. Five months after the start of a ferocious crackdown against a popular uprising — so sweeping it smacks of apartheidlike repression of Bahrain’s religious majority — many fear that no one can win.

“This is all cutting so deep,” said Abdulnabi Alekry, an activist whose car was stopped at one of the checkpoints of trash bins, wood and bricks the youth had fashioned during the clash in August. “The fabric here was never that strong, and now it is torn.”

In the revolts that have roiled the Middle East this year, toppling or endangering a half-dozen leaders, Bahrain, an island kingdom once best known for its pearls and banks, has emerged as the cornerstone of a counterrevolution to stanch demands for democracy. While the turmoil elsewhere has proved unpredictable — the ascent of Islamists in Egypt, the threat of civil war in Syria and the prospect of anarchy in Yemen — Bahrain suggests that the alternative, a failed uprising cauterized by searing repression, may prove no less dangerous.

The crackdown here has won a tactical and perhaps ephemeral victory through torture, arrests, job dismissals and the blunt tool of already institutionalized discrimination against the island’s Shiite Muslim majority. In its wake, sectarian tension has exploded, economic woes have deepened, American willingness to look the other way has cast Washington as hypocritical and a society that prides itself on its cosmopolitanism is colliding with its most primordial instincts. Taken together, the repression and warnings of radicalization may underline an emerging dictum of the Arab uprisings: violence begets violence.


Saudis try to shield fragile Arab thrones

The New York Times reports:

Saudi Arabia is flexing its financial and diplomatic might across the Middle East in a wide-ranging bid to contain the tide of change, shield fellow monarchs from popular discontent and avert the overthrow of any more leaders struggling to calm turbulent republics.

From Egypt, where the Saudis dispensed $4 billion in aid last week to shore up the ruling military council, to Yemen, where it is trying to ease out the president, to the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco, which it has invited to join a union of Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia is scrambling to forestall more radical change and block Iran’s influence.

The kingdom is aggressively emphasizing the relative stability of monarchies, part of an effort to avert any dramatic shift from the authoritarian model, which would generate uncomfortable questions about the glacial pace of political and social change at home.

Saudi Arabia’s proposal to include Jordan and Morocco in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council — which authorized the Saudis to send in troops to quell a largely Shiite Muslim rebellion in the Sunni Muslim monarchy of Bahrain — is intended to create a kind of “Club of Kings.” The idea is to signal Shiite Iran that the Sunni Arab monarchs will defend their interests, analysts said.

“We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this is happening,” Prince Waleed bin Talal al-Saud, a businessman and high-profile member of the habitually reticent royal family, told The New York Times’s editorial board, referring to the unrest. “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

The range of the Saudi intervention is extraordinary as the unrest pushes Riyadh’s hand to forge what some commentators, in Egypt and elsewhere, brand a “counterrevolution.” Some Saudi and foreign analysts find the term too sweeping for the steps the Saudis have actually taken, though it appears unparalleled in the region and beyond as the kingdom reaches out to ally with non-Arab Muslim states as well.


News roundup — May 12

Sunni monarchies close ranks

Reports that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is considering some form of membership for two non-Gulf states – Jordan and Morocco – confirm that the conservative Sunni monarchies of the Middle East are closing ranks against Iran, Shiite-led Iraq and the democratic wave sweeping the region.

GCC secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani made the announcement Tuesday after a summit of the six-member group affirmed support for Saudi and United Arab Emirates military intervention against predominantly Shiite pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain.

Zayani did not make clear whether Morocco and Jordan would be offered a second-tier membership in the GCC, which groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.

Foreign ministers from Jordan and Morocco will meet with GCC foreign ministers to “complete required procedures”, Zayani told reporters.

Founded in 1981 in the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 revolution and in the midst of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the GCC encourages economic and especially military cooperation among its members, which all border the Persian Gulf. In territorial terms, it would make more sense to offer membership to Iraq or Yemen than to Jordan or faraway Morocco.

However, the wave of popular unrest that has swept the region since January – and toppled once durable pro-Western authoritarian non- monarchies in Tunisia and Egypt – has spread anxiety among conservative Sunni monarchies already unsettled by the Shiite replacement of a Sunni regime in Iraq and by Iran’s slow but steady nuclear advancement. (IPS)

Syria shells major city as crackdown spreads

The Syrian military intensified a methodical, ferocious march across the country’s most restive locales on Wednesday, shelling the country’s third-largest city from tanks, forcing hundreds to flee and detaining hundreds more in what has emerged as one of the most brutal waves of repression since the Arab Spring began.

Homs, in central Syria near the Lebanese border, has become the latest target of the crackdown, which has already besieged and silenced, for now, the cities of Dara’a, in the fertile but drought-stricken southern steppe, and Baniyas, on the Mediterranean coast. Dozens of tanks occupied Homs, as black-clad security forces, soldiers and militiamen in plain clothes filtered through the industrial city of 1.5 million people. At least 19 people were killed there Wednesday, human rights groups said.

The crackdown in some neighborhoods alternated with the relative calm in the center of a city that is home to a Sunni Muslim majority and a Christian minority.

“We see the smoke rising in the sky after we hear the shells explode,” said Abu Haydar, a resident reached by telephone. “The sky was pretty quickly covered in smoke.”

In public statements and interviews, the government has acknowledged the crackdown, describing the military’s targets as militant Islamists and saboteurs. It said nearly 100 soldiers and members of the security forces had been killed, and American officials say that some protesters have indeed taken up arms.

In Washington, two Obama administration officials said that the United States still did not see a clear or organized opposition or another leader in Syria who could serve to unite the foes of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. (New York Times)

What will a post-Assad Syria look like?

Joshua Landis writes: I am a pessimist about Syria’s future because the regime will dig in its heels and fight to the end. The Syrian opposition has successfully established a culture of resistance that is widespread in Syria and will not be eliminated. Even if demonstrations can be shut down for the time being, the opposition will not be defeated. Syria’s youth, long apolitical and appathetic, is now politicized, mobilized, and passionate. All the same, the opposition remains divided and leaderless, which presents great dangers for a post-Assad Syria.

It is hard to see any soft landing for the regime or the people. It is also hard to see how the regime will be brought down short of economic collapse and its inability to pay wages, which would lead to wider social defections and a possible splitting of the military, as happened in Lebanon and Libya. If the military splits, both sides would have ample firepower to do real damage. Large sections of Syria could fall out of state control. Regions not divided by sect could remain fairly quite and stable for a time if there is a unified political leadership to step into the vacuum. Otherwise competing parties will develop militias as happened in Iraq and Lebanon.

No foreign power will feel compelled to step in to protect the people or stop the fighting because no one will be responsible for “losing Syria.” Syria is a political orphan today.

The army has split in Syria once before. This happened in Feb 1954 at the end of Adib Shishakli’s rule. The army divided along geographic lines. The divisions in the North went with the opposition centered on the People’s Party based in Homs and Aleppo. The South stood by Shishakli. Fortunately, General Shishakli decided to leave the country and flew off to Saudi Arabia, helped by the US. He had a change of mind in mid air but the US prevented his return. Washington convinced Lebanon to refuse his jet landing rights. After a brief spell in Arabia, Shishakli migrated to Brazil, where a relative of a Druze man, for whose death Shishakli was responsible, assassinated him.

Syria’s great weakness is it lack of unity. This is why the Assad household has been able to rule for so long. Hafiz al-Assad was able to bring stability to Syria after 20 years of coups and political chaos by reverting to the use of traditional loyalties. He ended Syria’s period as a banana republic by placing his brother in charge of protecting the presidency and using tribal and sectarian loyalties to coup-proof the regime. Alawite faithful were carefully recruited to all the sensitive security positions in the Mukhabarat and military. The Sunni elite was grateful for the stability and was further brought in through the crafty use of graft and patronage. Rami Makhlouf is corrupt, but he is also the fixer for the Sunni merchant class. The way he brought the Sham Holding Company in to the circle of regime loyalists was a classic use of privilege and muscle to glue the elite families of Syria to the regime. They have made millions my accepting an offer that they could not refuse.

The Syrian opposition has always been divided between Arab nationalists, Islamist currents, liberals, and all those who disprove of the regime but are too conservative to take part in active opposition. Then there are the sectarian communities and the Kurds, class divisions, and the urban-rural split, not to mention the traditional rivalry between Damascus and Aleppo. The reason that the Assads have been so successful for so long is largely due to the inability of Syrians to unite around a common platform and national identity. The oppositions lack of unity does not augur well for a post Assad future, especially as the death toll mounts and the desire for revenge grows. (Syria Comment)

Yemeni forces kill 18 and wound hundreds as unrest escalates

Yemeni forces have opened fire on demonstrators in three major cities, killing at least 18 and wounding hundreds in one of the fiercest bouts of violence witnessed in nearly three months of popular unrest aimed at toppling President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The clashes between a defected faction of Yemen’s army and the republican guard, have raised fears that Yemen may be reaching a critical juncture as public fury continues to mount at the president’s refusal to step down.

Violence broke out in the capital when a throng of 2,000 protesters tore away from the main sit-in area at Sana’a University and surged en masse towards the cabinet building in downtown Sana’a with shouts of “God is great” and “Allah rid us of this tyrant”. (The Guardian)

Turkey’s Erdogan: Hamas is a political party, not a terrorist group

Hamas is not a terror organization, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview with U.S. television late Wednesday, saying he felt the recently penned Palestinian reconciliation agreement was an essential step toward Mideast peace.

Erdogan’s comments came one day after Hamas Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar said that while his organization would accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, it would never recognize Israel, as a result of the damage such a move would do to Palestinian refugees in the “diaspora.”

Senior Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have voiced opposition to Fatah’s new unity deal with Hamas, saying that a Palestinian government that included a terrorist group calling for Israel’s destruction could not be a partner for peace.

Speaking to Charlie Rose on Wednesday, however, the Turkish PM chimed in on the recently achieved unity agreement between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, indicating that he did not feel Hamas was an obstacle in achieving Mideast peace. (Haaretz)

Abbas determined to retain Fayyad as PM of Fatah-Hamas cabinet, report says

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has told Egyptian officials that incumbent Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is his only candidate to head the burgeoning Palestinian unity cabinet, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported on Thursday.

The report came after international donors were reportedly applying significant pressure on Abbas to retain Fayyad as prime minister, after earlier reports claimed the Palestinian prime minister would have to step down as a result of Fatah’s newly signed unity pact with former rivals Hamas. (Haaretz)

Nato air strikes hit Gaddafi compound in Tripoli again

Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli has been hit by Nato rockets again, a few hours after the veteran autocrat appeared in public for the first time in almost two weeks.

Gaddafi was shown on state television in a traditional brown robe addressing tribal leaders, whom he empowered to speak on behalf of a nation he has ruled with absolute power for almost 42 years.

The labyrinthine complex in the heart of the capital was struck at around 3am with five bombs and rockets that appeared to target military installations and bunkers.

A giant crater could be seen in the lawn in the middle of the complex, with one of the rockets having hit what appeared to be a bunker . Officials said six people were killed in the attack, including two Libyan reporters who had been interviewing supporters camped out at the scene.

“These locations were known to be command and control facilities engaged in co-ordinating attacks against civilian populations in Libya,” said a Nato official speaking from Brussels.

Libyan spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said the underground facility was not a bunker, but a sewage network. But following the strike, chanting Gaddafi supporters guarded a stairwell leading to the ruined site, having been told to let no reporters near it. Heat rose from a second smaller crater, where shattered reinforced concrete exposed a cavernous hole beneath. (The Guardian)

Libyan opposition invited to White House Friday

The Obama administration is stepping up its engagement with forces fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, inviting opposition leaders to meet with U.S. officials at the White House Friday, while stopping short of recognizing their council as Libya’s legitimate government.

The White House said Mahmoud Jibril, a representative of the Libyan Transitional National Council, would meet with senior administration officials, including National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, as well as members of Congress. But there were no plans for President Barack Obama to meet with Jibril and his delegation.

France and Italy are among the nations that recognize the Council as Libya’s legitimate government. But White House press secretary Jay Carney said today that while the U.S. would continue consulting and assisting the opposition, giving the Council political legitimacy would be “premature.”

Defence Secretary Robert Gates, speaking with Marines, said the U.S. is keeping a “wary eye” on the opposition, and lacks clarity about exactly who the opposition is and what actions they may take long-term.

Still, the U.S. has been boosting its support for the opposition over the past month, including Obama’s authorization of $25 million in non-lethal assistance to the revolutionaries. The first shipment of that aid — 10,000 meals ready to eat from Pentagon stocks — arrived in the liberated city of Benghazi this week. The U.S. has also supplied some $53 million in humanitarian aid.

In addition, the administration has begun working with Congress to free up a portion of the more than $30 billion in frozen Gaddafi regime assets in U.S. banks so it can be spent to help the Libyan people. Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, who met with Jibril this week, said yesterday he was drafting legislation at the request of the White House that would allow that to happen.

The revolutionaries have said they need up to $3 billion in the coming months for military salaries, food, medicine and other supplies in order to keep fighting Gaddafi’s forces. They also say no country has sent the arms that they desperately need. (Libya TV)

Move to expand the war on terrorism

Less than two weeks after U.S. special operations commandos killed Osama bin Laden, a resolution viewed as an expansion of the legal basis for the global war on terror is moving through Congress.

The House Armed Services Committee added language to the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization bill on Wednesday that would define the current war on al Qaeda to include the Taliban and affiliated armed groups, affirming the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s interpretation of the 2001 war resolution.

The committee began marking up the bill on Wednesday. It sets out the guidance for the U.S. defense budget.

The provision, known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, is key legislation used by lawyers for both President George W. Bush and President Obama as a legal basis for detaining terrorists without trial who are captured around the world. The legislation also was used to authorize U.S. drone strikes and special operations forces raids in countries where the United States is not formally at war.

Civil liberties groups have expressed worries that the new legislation, sponsored by Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and committee chairman, significantly expands the scope of the global war on terror. (Washington Times)

Taliban join the Twitter revolution

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they eschewed most modern technology, including television and music players.

But in the latest sign of the hardline movement’s rapprochement with at least some areas of the modern world, the Taliban have embraced microblogging.

Their Twitter feed, @alemarahweb, pumps out several messages each day, keeping 224 followers up to date with often highly exaggerated reports of strikes against the “infidel forces” and the “Karzai puppet regime”.

Most messages by the increasingly media-savvy movement are in Pashtu, with links to news stories on the elaborate and multilingual website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban’s shadow government likes to style itself. (The Guardian)


Bahrain regime promoting sectarian division

Marc Lynch writes:

While the American and international debate over Libya continues, the situation in Bahrain has just taken a sharp turn for the worse. A brutal crackdown on the protestors followed the controversial entry of security forces from Saudi Arabia and three other GCC states. Media access has been curtailed, with journalists finding it difficult to gain entry to the Kingdom (I was supposed to be in Bahrain right now myself, but elected not to try after several journalists let me know that they were being denied entry and several Embassies in Doha warned me off). The road to political compromise and meaningful reform now appears to be blocked, which places the long-term viability of the Bahraini regime in serious question.

The response of the Bahraini regime has implications far beyond the borders of the tiny island Kingdom — not only because along with Libya it has turned the hopeful Arab uprisings into something uglier, but because it is unleashing a regionwide resurgence of sectarian Sunni-Shi’a animosity. Regional actors have enthusiastically bought in to the sectarian framing, with Saudi Arabia fanning the flames of sectarian hostility in defense of the Bahraini regime and leading Shia figures rising to the defense of the protestors. The tenor of Sunni-Shi’a relations across the region is suddenly worse than at any time since the frightening days following the spread of the viral video of Sadrists celebrating the execution of Saddam Hussein.

The sectarian framing in Bahrain is a deliberate regime strategy, not an obvious “reality.” The Bahraini protest movement, which emerged out of years of online and offline activism and campaigns, explicitly rejected sectarianism and sought to emphasize instead calls for democratic reform and national unity. While a majority of the protestors were Shi’a, like the population of the Kingdom itself, they insisted firmly that they represented the discontent of both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and framed the events as part of the Arab uprisings seen from Tunisia to Libya. Their slogans were about democracy and human rights, not Shi’a particularism, and there is virtually no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that their efforts were inspired or led by Iran.

Mohammed Ayoob writes:

The real reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 was not defense against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes. Its main task was and continues to be coordination of internal security measures, including sharing of intelligence, aimed at controlling and suppressing the populations of member states in order to provide security to the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The establishment of the GCC was in large measure a reaction on the part of the Gulf monarchies to the Iranian revolution of 1979 in which people’s power toppled the strongest autocracy in the neighborhood. The Arab autocracies of the Gulf did not want to share the Shah’s fate.

That ensuring the security of autocratic regimes was the principal reason for the existence of GCC has become crystal clear with the military intervention by Saudi-led forces in Bahrain to put down the democracy movement and prevent the freedom contagion from spreading to other parts of the Gulf. It is true that the Saudis are apprehensive of the Shia majority coming to power in Bahrain because of the impact it could have on its own restive Shia minority in the oil-rich east of the country. Riyadh is also worried about the impact of a change in regime in Bahrain on the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region. (One can, however, argue that Saudi military intervention in Bahrain’s affairs will in fact redound to Iran’s benefit in the long run by further de-legitimizing the al-Khalifa rule in Bahrain).

But these are secondary explanations. The primary concern of the Arab autocracies in the Gulf is the suppression of democratic movements regardless of the sectarian character of the populations engaging in democratic struggles. They are worried that if any of the autocracies fall or even reach a substantial compromise with democratic movements it will have a domino effect in the entire Gulf region consigning all of them to the dustbin of history. The GCC was established as an instrument to protect and prolong autocratic rule on the Arabian littoral of the Gulf. Its military operation in Bahrain has clearly shown this true colors.


Smile sweetly and say peace for the cameras — and bring in the big guns

Tahiyya Lulu writes:

The international community is taking weeks to decide whether to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Meanwhile, in the eerie quiet of a Bahraini afternoon a deployment of 1,000 soldiers from the Saudi Arabia who are part of the Pensinsula Shield Force entered the country.

Bahrain TV proudly aired clips showing cheering Saudi soldiers in their tanks and armoured personnel carriers as they rolled across the 16-mile causeway between the two countries. Tellingly, a man at the parapet of a tank sits behind his machine gun waving a peace sign at the camera. This is a snapshot of the regime’s current strategy, smile sweetly and say peace for the cameras – and bring in the big guns.

While pro-government commentators allege Iranian support of the current uprising, US defence secretary Robert Gates, who visited Bahrain on March 12, said there is no evidence of interference from Tehran. Unsurprisingly though, the White House issued a statement on Monday saying it does not consider the entry of Saudi troops on to Bahraini land an invasion.

Since the beginning of this uprising – which calls for constitutional reform, an investigation into theft of public land worth billions of dollars, and an end to systematic discrimination, among other things – the regime has implemented a soft-talk big-stick strategy. Its security personnel killed two protesters, and the king appeared on national television to speak of his regret, promising an independent investigation to hold those responsible accountable. Two days later, government security personnel stormed the encampment of protesters at the now-famous Pearl roundabout, killing four more. Later the same day, the crown prince appeared on TV urging calm, while the Bahraini army opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing another two.

The government then said it was open to dialogue with protesters (who are understandably sceptical). Distrust of the government emerges from a history of state oppression and reneged promises much longer than this long month of protest in Bahrain.

Our mothers and fathers, teachers, lawyers, activists and unionists were among the people of Bahrain who expressed their social and political grievances and desires for change in 1954, 1965, 1972, 1994, and 2002. The response of the government has always been the same: unleashing violence against calls for meaningful change, exaggerating the superficial self-imposed changes which include little concession towards sharing of power, and turning to its powerful friends for backing.

Associated Press reports:

Frenzied clashes swept Bahrain Tuesday, a day after a Saudi-led military force entered the country to defend its Sunni monarchy from a Shiite-led protest movement. Hundreds of demonstrators were injured by shotgun blasts and clubs, a doctor said.

As the government’s crackdown intensified, the Bahraini king declared a three-month state of emergency Tuesday that gave his military chief wide authority to battle protesters demanding political reforms and equal rights for Shiites. One demonstrator was shot in the head and killed, and a Saudi official said one of his country’s soldiers was shot dead by a protester.

The force of more than 1,000 Saudi-led troops from several Gulf nations saw its first day of action to help prop up the U.S.-backed regime in Bahrain. Its intervention was the first major cross-border military action to challenge one of the revolts sweeping across the Arab world.

Not surprisingly, the claim by the Saudi official cited in the AP report turned out to be false.

Reuters reports:

A member of Bahrain’s security forces was killed on Tuesday in clashes with thousands of protesters, state television and the information ministry said, denying earlier reports that a Saudi policeman had also died.

“A member of the security forces passed away in Maameer this evening when he was deliberately run over by one of the rioters,” Bahrain’s Ministry of Information said.

And maybe the story will change yet again and we’ll learn that the vehicle involved was one of the security services’ own.

Yesterday, Amnesty accused the government of using excessive force:

Amnesty International has called on the Bahrain authorities to hold security forces accountable over the use of excessive force after police fired rubber bullets at close range at demonstrators in the capital Manama.

Hundreds of protesters are reported to have been injured over the weekend. On Friday, anti-government protesters sought to march to the royal palace in Riffa but were blocked by security forces and armed government supporters.

On Sunday, police used batons and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who sought to block Manama’s financial district and demonstrated at Bahrain University.

The disturbances were the first major violence since Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa ordered the military off the streets nearly three weeks ago.

“This further resort to excessive force by Bahrain’s security forces is alarming and unacceptable,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “The government must now rein in its forces. Those responsible for attacking peaceful protestors and using excessive force must be held to account.”

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Bahraini security forces and plainclothes officers are obstructing news coverage of ongoing political unrest by attacking journalists.


Saudis move troops into Bahrain to crush pro-democracy movement

CNN opts for the anodyne and official phrasing “Gulf Cooperation Council security forces,” but the troops who just marched into Bahrain are Saudis.

When US Defense Secretary Gates visited Bahrain on Friday, I assume King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifah gave the US advance warning that his Kingdom would shortly be under something resembling Saudi martial law — just to make sure Washington would voice no more than minimal objections to the latest effort to crush Bahrain’s strengthening democracy movement.

The New York Times reports:

The White House issued a statement on Sunday that said the United States strongly condemned violence that had occurred in Bahrain and Yemen, and added, “We urge the government of Bahrain to pursue a peaceful and meaningful dialogue with the opposition rather than resorting to the use of force.”

And as the Khalifa family and their Saudi overlords ignore this request, what will the White House do? Withdraw the US Fifth Fleet? Not likely!

The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights describes the Saudi military presence as “an overt occupation of the kingdom of Bahrain and a conspiracy against the unarmed people of Bahrain.” Even while the White House urges the Bahrain government to engage the opposition in dialogue, no doubt Washington will dismiss the suggestion that Bahrain is now under occupation.

Given that Bahrainis already face brutality from security services — the majority of whom are foreign — I don’t know whether they will find the Saudi presence any more intimidating.

To have an idea of what protesters have been up against in recent days, just watch this video showing an unarmed man being hit by tear gas cannisters shot at point blank range:

GCC and now Arab League support for a no-fly zone over Libya (which they most likely expect will not be imposed), has I suspect, less to do with any concern about the fate of Libya’s revolutionaries than it does in fostering a permissive climate in which the Gulf states’ autocratic rulers can offer each other mutual support in their own efforts to counter the political demands coming from their own subjects. Support for a NFZ provides these monarchies with an opportunity to posture as defenders of Arab freedom at the same time that they suppress Arab freedom. Likewise, by opposing Gaddafi, the Gulf rulers want to cast their dictatorships as benign in contrast to Gaddafi’s brutal rule.


Revolutionary fervor in the Gulf

Kristin Smith Diwan writes:

As the GCC foreign ministers huddled in a Bahraini capital seemingly under siege, it is clear that the predicted stability of the oil states is being put to the test. Most analysts believed the Gulf would be spared the wave of rebellion spreading across the Arab World due to their relative wealth and welfare provisions for their populace. Yet Bahrain’s pre-emptive promises of increased social spending and direct subsidies of $2,700 per family did not prevent robust protests this week. Analysts also suggested that monarchies are less prone to revolutionary fervor than the Arab faux republics; legitimacy is based on religion and paternalistic care of citizenry, not on the false promise of public sovereignty in the republics. Yet it is exactly that paternalistic authority that is being called into question by political activists across the Gulf.

In fact, the demands of Gulf activists, and increasingly Gulf publics, are broadly similar to those coming from Tunisia and Egypt: We want accountable governance, free of corruption. We want popular participation and to have our say on the issues that affect us. And we want to be free to speak our minds — to assemble online and off without fear of intimidation or arrest. In short, Gulf publics, and particularly Gulf youths, want to be full citizens.

Cortni Kerr and Toby C. Jones write:

An uncertain calm has settled over the small island kingdom of Bahrain. The wave of peaceful pro-democracy protests from February 14-17 culminated in bloodshed, including the brutal murder of seven activists, some of whom were asleep in tents, by the armed forces. On orders from above, the army withdrew from the roundabout on the outskirts of the capital of Manama where the protests have been centered, and since shortly after the seven deaths it has observed calls for restraint. Thousands of jubilant protesters seized the moment to reoccupy the roundabout, the now infamous Pearl Circle. In commemoration of the dead, the demonstrators have renamed it Martyrs’ Circle.

The mood in the circle is buoyant, even carnivalesque. It is also dead serious, for the thousands of encamped demonstrators demand nothing short of fundamental change to the kingdom’s autocratic political order. The crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, has issued a bland call for healing and national dialogue. The country’s formal opposition may be tempted by the prospect of realizing at least some of its long-established demands for reform. But the wounds from the direct assault at dawn on February 17 are deep. Several prominent banners in Martyrs’ Circle display the pledge, “No dialogue with those who killed us in cold blood.” Chants echo: “We will sit here until the fall of the regime!” The fault lines that have long divided rulers and subjects in Bahrain have widened due to the carnage.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports:

The United States military undermined efforts to improve relations with Bahrain’s Shiite majority and understated abuses by the Sunni royal family, according to one present and one former American government adviser and a Bahraini human rights advocate.

As Bahrain’s leaders struggle to hold back a rising popular revolt against their absolute rule, Washington’s posture toward the Shiite majority, which is spearheading the opposition, could prove crucial to future relations with this strategically valuable Persian Gulf nation. The United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based here, helping ensure the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the gulf, and safeguarding American interests in this volatile region.

Over the years, the military, according to the advisers and the human rights advocate, believed that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his court were reform-minded leaders who could advance democracy and preserve stability. That narrative contrasts sharply with the experience of the Shiites, as documented by human rights groups and some of the military’s own advisers.

“The problem has been that we have been doing everything we can to cuddle up to the Khalifas and have been consciously ignoring at best the situation of Bahraini Shiites,” said Gwenyth Todd, a former political adviser to the Navy in Bahrain from 2004 to 2007 who was also an adviser on Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the Pentagon and the White House. “We could find ourselves in a very bad situation if the regime has to make major concessions to the Shia, unless we change our tone.”


NEWS & ANALYSIS: The Iranian threat

Saudi cannot be launchpad for Iran attack: report

A leading Saudi newspaper on Saturday ruled out any attempt by the United States to use the oil-rich Gulf kingdom as a launchpad for a possible war on Iran over Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme.

Two days before a visit to Saudi Arabia by US President George W. Bush, the pro-government daily Al-Riyadh said: “We refuse to be used to launch wars or tensions with Iran. [complete article]

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in secret Iraq talks with US

The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps slipped into the green zone of Baghdad last month to press Tehran’s hardline position over the terms of the current talks with American officials, it was claimed last week.

Iraqi government sources say that Major-General Mohammed Ali Jafari, 50, travelled secretly from Tehran. Jafari appears to have passed through checkpoints on his way into the fortified enclave that contains the American embassy and Iraqi ministries, even though he is on Washington’s “most wanted” list. [complete article]

Iran encounter grimly echoes ’02 war game

There is a reason American military officers express grim concern over the tactics used by Iranian sailors last weekend: a classified, $250 million war game in which small, agile speedboats swarmed a naval convoy to inflict devastating damage on more powerful warships.

In the days since the encounter with five Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz, American officers have acknowledged that they have been studying anew the lessons from a startling simulation conducted in August 2002. In that war game, the Blue Team navy, representing the United States, lost 16 major warships — an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels — when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats. [complete article]

Iran urges agency to settle atomic case

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the visiting chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Saturday that Iran’s nuclear case should be handled by the I.A.E.A. and not the United Nations Security Council, which has imposed two rounds of sanctions on Tehran. [complete article]

Israel stressed to Bush that Iran is a nuclear ‘threat': general

Iran poses a real nuclear threat and Israel made that point clear to US President George W. Bush during his visit this week, an Israeli defence official said Saturday. [complete article]


ANALYSIS: Pumping up the Iranian threat

Degrees of confidence on U.S.-Iran naval incident

The list of those who are less than fully confident in the Pentagon’s video/audio mashup of aggressive maneuvers by Iranian boats near American warships in the Strait of Hormuz now includes the Pentagon itself.

Unnamed Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that the threatening voice heard in the audio clip, which was released on Monday night with a disclaimer that it was recorded separately from the video images and merged with them later, is not directly traceable to the Iranian military.

That undercuts one of the most menacing elements from the Pentagon’s assertion that Iranian forces threatened the Navy ships: The voice on the radio saying, “I am coming to you. … You will explode after … minutes.” [complete article]

Captain Ahab and the Islamic whale

Filling a major void in the post-Cold War milieu, the “rogue” Iran plays a vital role for the US’s military-industrial complex that thrives on lucrative arms sales to the conservative oil sheikhs of the Persian Gulf, ostensibly threatened by the “hegemonic” and nuclear ambitious Iran.

But, whereas the capitalist logic of arms sales dictates heating up the furnace of Iran-bashing, on the other hand, certain geopolitical realities, eg, in Iraq and Afghanistan, spell out a diametrically different logic of action. This is reflected in the bilateral US-Iran dialogue on Iraq’s security; a fourth round of talks has been put on hold because of Bush’s trip and his stern anti-Iran agenda. This includes pressuring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)states such as the UAE to curtail their financial transactions with Iran, in tandem with US-led sanctions on the regime over its nuclear program.

While it remains to be seen if the UAE and other GCC states will appease the lame-duck president, who may be wishing a final grand adventure before he leaves office, what is already clear, and disturbing, is the White House’s persistent failure to impose even a modicum of pressure on Israel. Talking peace and acting war against Palestinians, Israel’s contradictory approach has augmented the US’s image problem in the Middle East. And, short of any major concession to the Palestinians, that approach is likely to receive a major boost from Washington now that Bush has set foot in Israel. [complete article]


NEWS & OPINION: Mismeasuring regional dynamics

Why U.S. strategy on Iran is crumbling

‘Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Gulf dignitaries in Bahrain last month. But in reality, everywhere you turn, from Qatar to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, you now see Iranian leaders shattering longstanding taboos by meeting cordially with their Arab counterparts.

The Gulf has moved away from American arguments for isolating Iran. American policymakers need to do the same.

The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are accommodating themselves to Iran’s growing weight in the region’s politics. They remain key parts of America’s security architecture in the region, hosting massive US military bases and underwriting the American economy in exchange for protection. But as Saudi analyst Khalid al-Dakheel argues, they are no longer content sitting passively beneath the US security umbrella and want to avoid being a pawn in the US-Iranian struggle for power. Flush with cash, they are not interested in a war that would mess up business. [complete article]

Yo, anyone who fears Iran

The smart people are getting out of Jerusalem next week. Traffic mayhem is assured as George Bush and his entourage, about 800 souls, guarded by thousands of Israeli police, are whisked about in a fleet of armoured vehicles, complete with a bespoke helicopter brought in to fly the president to Capernaum, in northern Israel, where Jesus chose his apostles.

What is less clear is what Mr Bush will bring his hosts apart from gridlock. The man who hoped his invasion of Iraq in 2003 was going to bring peace to Palestine and democracy to the Arabs has not exactly over-achieved. So the main aims of the tour he begins on January 8th are more limited: to give a nudge to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks he launched in Annapolis in November and to shore up America’s allies against Iran. [complete article]

Iran ‘could restore ties with U.S.’

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said relations with the US could be restored in the future.

In a speech to students, he said the time was not right to restore ties, but if it were ever in Iran’s interests he would endorse such a move. [complete article]

Hezbollah sets resolution terms

The Lebanese opposition group Hezbollah has said openly that it will not allow a president to be elected unless it gets a third of the cabinet seats.

This would give Hezbollah and its allies a veto over key decisions. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, blamed the US for obstructing a solution to Lebanon’s political crisis by opposing such a move. [complete article]


NEWS: Gulf states oppose military threats against Iran; Gates say danger persists

Gulf countries speak out against military option in Iran

Gulf countries, cautious about the nuclear standoff between the United States and Iran, signalled loudly at a regional security conference on Saturday their opposition to any military option against Tehran.

Washington, wrong-footed by its own National Intelligence Estimate in its accusations that Iran wanted nuclear weapons, has emphasised that no options have been ruled out in forcing it to end its nuclear enrichment programme. [complete article]

Gates sees Iran as still-serious threat

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Saturday that Iran is a grave threat to regional security even without nuclear weapons, and called on Tehran to account for American intelligence that describes its support for terrorism and instability around the world.

Just days after Iran claimed political victory after a new American intelligence assessment found that Tehran had frozen its nuclear weapons program, Mr. Gates said Iran could restart those efforts at any time and must come clean about its efforts to build a bomb.

In a speech to a conference on regional security here, Mr. Gates dismissed those who suggested that the United States had a double standard on nuclear arms in the Middle East and that a nuclear-armed Israel was the real danger. He said that, unlike Iran, Israel had never threatened to destroy a neighbor. [complete article]



Iran’s new Gulf friends

A curious event took place in the Gulf as the new National Intelligence Estimate appeared in Washington, undermining the Bush administration’s threats and angry rhetoric by revealing that Iran had suspended in nuclear weapons program back in 2003.

king-abdullah-with-president-ahmadinejad.jpgThe arch-demon of President Bush’s rhetoric, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, was sitting politely in a conference room with the Arab leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He was all sweetness and light and neighborly good manners, offering a regional security pact and a 12-point cooperation plan, including free trade and joint investments in oil and gas.

Ahmedinejad was so courteous that the GCC leaders hailed his “gestures of goodwill.” Qatar’s Prime Minister Skeikh Hamad al Thani, whose emirate hosted the summit, said, “If Iran was serious in its positive intentions, we can develop our relations for the sake of regional stability.” [complete article]

The new chapter and taking poison

There are good foundations for cooperative and friendly relations between the Gulf state and Iran; there are also good reasons to justify the conflicts and caution between the two sides of the Arab Gulf. The region is passing through a gray phase in which interests and goals are too intertwined. The only way to put friendship and cooperation ahead of conflict and caution is by direct dialogue. [complete article]

GCC to launch common market in January

Leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) yesterday announced their plan to launch a common market in January 2008 and a currency union by 2010 in addition to maintaining their currencies’ peg to the US dollar. [complete article]

See also, As Dubai heats up, is Israel frozen out? (The Forward).

Editor’s Comment — While some headlines in the US press are still pushing the old narrative (such as the LA Times’Report on Iran fuels Arab fears“), the image across the Middle East is somewhat different. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might not be universally popular, but President Bush is deluding himself if he thinks that Iran can now be isolated. Neither should the significance of Ahmadinejad’s overtures to the GCC be underestimated. The GCC (an acronym that will be unfamiliar to most Americans) might be made up of mostly small and autocratic states but this bloc also happens to be a financial superpower possessing more than double the available investment funds of China.