In his first major public speech as U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo outlined the new strategy towards Iran after the American withdrawal from the JCPOA-deal.
Much hyped beforehand, it turned out to be not so new, or to contain much novel strategic thinking on Iran. Tough new sanctions and harsh wording about the Iranian regime, should it not acquiesce to the new demands, couldn’t hide the fact that without solid support from Europeans (which is not forthcoming) and others, these new policy-options may not yield the results hoped for in Washington.
Second-tiered or indirect sanctions will have an impact; French energy-giant Total and Danish Maersk have for example stated they will leave Iran, fearing sanctions. But that may not hurt Iran per se, since others are prepared to step into the breach (such as Russia and China) and keep buying Iranian crude.
It’s obviously too early to assess the long-term implications of these U.S. moves, but there is a clear risk that it may hurt U.S. ties with Europe as much as it will hurt Iran.
As for the European signatories (France, the UK and Germany), continued negotiations with Iran will be on-going, trying to salvage the deal. Whether that will seriously alter anything remains to be seen as well, but it does give Iranian President Rouhani – who has stated his support for staying in the deal – a good chance of widening the already frayed U.S.-European relations. On the other hand, Rouhani’s domestic foes within the IRGC and the circles around supreme leader Khamenei (many who have been against the JCPOA-deal from the start), can point to the current crisis and accuse the present government of failing to deliver after agreeing to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions. True or not, the current crisis will add to Iran’s domestic problems, but it will not necessarily lead to a change of Iranian regional policies, despite Pompeo’s tough stance.
This week will see some serious conflagrations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three events are happening within the scope of a few days. Today (Monday) it’s the official move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, a move severely criticized by not only the Palestinians. Since the move was announced, demonstrations have been on-going by the Gaza-border, and Hamas has upped the ante with the goal of massing demonstrations this week. Maps have been distributed throughout Gaza pointing out the nearest points to reach the border and the closets Israeli towns and Kibbutzim should the border be breached. The aim is to destroy (by setting fire to) fields and houses on the Israeli side.
New and violent demonstrations aimed at breaching the Gaza-Israeli border could potentially lead to even more casualties. This fear is that this is going to take a turn for the worse starting Tuesday May 15 when the Palestinians commemorate Nakba-day, the “catastrophe” when Israel gained independence in 1948. This is also the start of Ramadan, which on many occasions has been used by various more radical elements to instigate violence.
At the same time, tensions between Iran and Israel have been lowered with neither Israel nor Iran interested in escalating. The long-term conflict remains however, with Iran (and especially the IRGC) trying to establish facts on the ground in Syria and Israel just as determined to prevent this.
Expectations are that demonstrations will occur both on the West Bank, in Jerusalem and, most critically, along the Gaza-border, and that those demonstrations will continue for several days. The IDF is expecting tensions on more than 20 points along the border with tens of thousands of Palestinians participating.
With Hamas determined to break into Israel and the Israelis just as determined to prevent this, this week can be expected to see more violence and, as a result, pushing any chances of a renewed peace-process further away than it already is.
In a recent report top Middle East journalist and expert Jonathan Speyer take a closer look on Turkey’s use of Syrian militias in its war with the Kurds and the combination of political and military muscle as the key to succeed in today’s fragmented Middle East.
In the article, Speyer argues that in order to wield influence and gain advantages in today’s Middle East, it’s paramount to combine those military and political forces in the field. “Political soldiering” is most vividly displayed by the Iranian IRGC, which is not loyal to the Iranian state as much as to the present regime and its overall strategic goals (watch the ongoing conflict between President Rouhani and the IRGC/Khamenei leadership).
The IRGC is important in this new way of conducting foreign policy, and its model is being used by other actors, such as Turkey. The big advantage of the IRGC-structure is that it can be used by Teheran in everything from assassinating Kurds in Europe, to conduct terror-attacks on Jewish targets across the globe (like in Buenos Aires and Burgos) and to create proxy-forces loyal to it to project power in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This political party-like militia has the advantage of informality and deniability compared to conventional forces and gives Teheran the chance of still being invited into the diplomatic salons.
The Turkish iteration into this way of doing business is called the SADAT Defence Consultancy and is headed by a former Brigadier General, Adnan Tanriverdi. He was expelled from the army in 1997 because of his Islamist leanings and his ties to Erdogan go back a long time. In 2016 he was appointed Chief Military Advisor to the President.
Other countries are using this model too: Russia used irregular “volunteers” to foment disturbances in Lugansk and Donetsk provinces in eastern Ukraine and military contractors connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Company, has played a key-role in Russian interference in Syria.
The SADAT consultancy’s own website is clear about the Islamist goals and the Company’s mission is explained as: “establish a Defensive Collaboration and Defensive Industrial Cooperation among Islamic Countries to help Islamic World take the place where it merits among Super Powers by providing Consultancy and Training Services.” And just to make things even clearer it goes on to call Western states “crusader” and “imperialist” countries.
After the failed coup-attempt in July 2016, Erdogan’s Islamist project took on a new and more aggressive stance with re-instating hundreds of officers dismissed or expelled for Islamist leanings. And SADAT was set up in order to facilitate training and equipping forces outside of the regular Turkish army to help expand Turkish aims in Syria. It’s noteworthy that those aims very often put Turkey on a collision-course with its NATO-allies.
In Syria, Turkey’s main creation is the so called Free Syrian Army, whose Sunni recruits have been trained and equipped by SADAT. And even though it’s the Syrian Kurds that has been the focus of FSA, allegations that SADAT is training militias to use on Turkish political opposition have surfaced from time to time.
Erdogan’s long-term project to destroy the secular republic of Kemal Ataturk and create an Islamic republic instead, is greatly helped by institutions such as SADAT, combining external power-projection with providing muscles to help Erdogan’s repressive politics at home.
In another sign that the regime is concerned over the use of ‘foreign’ social media outlets, the office of President Rouhani announced a few days ago that it will close the President’s official Telegram-account.
This came on the heels of a similar announcement from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that his office “would no longer use Telegram to “safeguard” Iran’s national security and “remove the monopoly of Telegram messenger”. He also urged his followers to use domestic apps instead of foreign ones.
Consequently, several official agencies and politicians said they would do the same.
What’s noteworthy in all this is the fact that Telegram is the most popular messenger app in Iran and used by half the population of 80 million.
This is, however, more than just another attempt by the regime to control social media. President Rouhani – who is under increasing pressure from the hardliners in the IRGC as well as the Supreme Leader – was against blocking Telegram, but had to concede when Khamenei stepped in and announced the ban. So this latest flare-up between Rouhani and the IRGC and the Supreme Leader, clearly shows that it’s the hard-liners that have the upper hand in the domestic power struggle and that Khamenei has sided with Rouhani’s political enemies.
Furthermore, the Iranian move came after Russia announced a ban of Telegram because the company refused to share its data with the Russian government. The same conditions were laid down by Teheran; all foreign messenger apps must have their servers inside Iran, or they would lose the right to operate in the country, a demand obviously unacceptable for the companies.
All this is of course another step in trying to strangle the opposition inside Iran. The events especially around New Year – with a multitude of protests around the country – haven’t completely died down and the regime does feel the pressure. Filtering and monitoring foreign messenger apps, if not outright controlling them, is part of this ongoing process of beating back any opposition to the regime.