MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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D.S.M Special Report – The Middle East and North Africa (September 2019)

Claudiu Nebunu

I. Russia – common drills with Iran in the Gulf waters… Truth or propaganda? II. Bolton’s dismissal – Iran’s joy… Is Tehran’s judgment correct? III. Saudi Arabia – drone attack target… Is Iran going on the offensive? IV. Egypt – citizens are tearing apart the barrier of fear… Is this the beginning of the end for “the last pharaoh”?

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Russia – common drills with Iran in the Gulf waters… Truth or propaganda?

At the beginning of this month (Monday, September 2), Russian media reported, citing Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, that following a meeting of the latter and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Iran welcomed a Russian proposal to ensure security in the Persian Gulf and that the two countries intend to hold common naval drills in the area. On September 3, media reports indicated that Russia could also make oil delivery routes through Turkey and Syria available for Iran, especially because they would not be vulnerable to US sanctions.

The two countries’ initiative to cooperate in the region’s security came five days after US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper gave assurances, in a press statement held at the Pentagon, that an action mechanism of a coalition led by the US has already been convened in order to ensure commercial transit in the Gulf. The coalition will include the UK, Australia and Bahrein, with certain intelligence support from Israel.

It is plausible that Russia could use its relations with Iran to counteract the four decade-long US monopoly on security agreements in the Gulf. By itself, Iran does not have the capacity to face Washington, but Russia’s support could allow Tehran to pose a significant threat to the interests of the US and its allies in the region. A Russian-Iranian alliance in the Gulf would be built on the back of the successful campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al Assad against the armed rebellion which resulted from the 2011 Arab Spring.

Through its intervention in Syria, Moscow managed to re-establish its status as a key actor in the region, following a long hiatus in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. For Iran, the intervention in Syria demonstrate the capability to project its influence in the region made it so the forces supported by Tehran are more and more capable to be a direct threat for Israel.

Through an initiative to carry out common naval drills with Iran and, eventually, offer this country access to the technology to transport mineral oils via Syria and Turkey, Russia can reaffirm its opposition to the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. Like European countries and China, who are also parties in the 2015 nuclear agreement, Russia opposed its denunciation and the new sanctions from Washington. However, despite US sanctions, Russian companies continue to build and provide nuclear fuel for the civil nuclear plant in Bushehr.

But there is a long way from statements to actions… the interest the Iranian market generates for Russia, as well as other powers is certain… But it is most probably doubtful that Moscow could make a real commitment in the Gulf, both regarding its real capacity to project military power, as well as to its “close” but not really relations of conjecture with Iran and Turkey. Historically, this group of three countries has no past basis. But traditions seem to be disappearing in the Middle East… and Russia’s intervention in Syria was also unexpected!


II. Bolton’s dismissal – Iran’s joy… Is Tehran’s judgment correct?

On Tuesday, September 10, US President Donald Trump shocked the entire world by dismissing (how else but on Twitter…!) his national security advisor, John Bolton. Bolton was the key-architect of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. He was seen both by the US and Iran as an adept of radical solutions, being repeatedly accused of having endangered Washington’s chances to reach a new agreement with Iran and of increasing the chances for a war between the two countries.

Bolton’s exit offers a window of opportunity for the Iranian regime to de-tension the situations and communicate directly with Trump. Despite all this, at least for the moment, Tehran seems more interested in exploiting the new situation than creating a direct link with the US president. The Washington Administration repeatedly expressed Trump’s availability to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly, without “prior conditions”. Even after he blamed Tehran for the September 14 drone attacks on the oil installations in Saudi Arabi, Washington did not exclude the possibility for such a meeting.

Despite all this, Tehran clearly refused a meeting between Trump and Rouhani. The Iranian foreign minister said that following: “No such event is on our agenda, and it will not happen either. This meeting will not take place”. Tehran’s insistence to refuse dialogue with US indicates the fact that Bolton’s resignation is considered a victory and the belief that maintaining a firm position could convince the White House to nuance its stance on Iran. In another Twitter post, an advisor to President Rouhani, Hesameddin Ashena, stated that Bolton’s “marginalization and subsequent elimination is not an accident, but a decisive sign of the US’ maximum pressure strategy”.

Is the Iranian advisor right or is Trump’s strategy working? When it withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May 2018, the Trump Administration adopted a more aggressive, “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. This approach with several facets, which consists of complementary methods of diplomatic, economic and military pressure, proposes to push the Iranian regime to the negotiations table and force it to compromise on crucial problems, as well as its nuclear ambitions and missiles program.

Through this strategy, Washington wants to discourage Tehran’s eventual operations against the US and its allies, and to deprive it of the financial resources it needs to support/increase its influence in the Middle East.

The opponents of this “maximum pressure” campaign believe that not only failed to significantly limit the Iranian regime’s aggressive actions, but instead aggravated tensions throughout the Middle East. Critics say that this strategy did not end Tehran’s efforts to enrich uranium and also did not force the regime to limit its involvement in regional conflict such as those in Yemen and Syria. On the other hand, the strategy determined the Iranians to be more aggressive and use their proxy elements to extend their influence in the region. In consequence, the result would, in their opinion, be a US-Iran war more probable than ever.

Despite all this, the Washington Administration claims that the strategy is working, and some analysts seem to agree. They support the idea that Trump’s sanctions on Iran, especially on its oil export, have deprived the regime of substantial financial resources, which would have been used to strengthen Iranian influence in the region and attack the US’ interests. Following the “maximum pressure” strategy, according to its supporters, Tehran will not benefit from the advantage of time and will, in the end, have no other option but to negotiate.

It is true that this is too early for Trump’s detractors to announce the strategy’s failure, because any such strategy needs much more time in order to succeed. But what are the limits of what can be supported? Is Iran ready to end its regional operations, to give up the ambition to project regional influence and transform into a “normal” state? For the moment, the situation which challenged regional and world actors seem to support its belief that it can obtain more… Although only “one press of a button away”, on the background of an increased risk to break out, a direct confrontation is not wanted by either side… And Iran seems to be the first to understand this situation and is trying to profit…

III. Saudi Arabia – drone attack target… Is Iran going on the offensive?

At the middle of the month (September 14), the Houthi rebels in Yemen took responsibility for new drone attacks on two oil extraction and refining facilities (Hijra Khourais and Abqaiq) which belong to Saudi giant Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company). The attack caused fires to break out in the facilities, partially stopping production. The halt in production reduced oil export by about 5.7 million barrels/day, approximately 50% of the daily Saudi production volume, with immediate effects on the global market.

Trump Administration officials mentioned that the attacks were not carried out only with drones, suggesting that cruise missiles would have been involved and that Iran is the main instigator of the attacks, a scenario vehemently denied by Tehran.

After he deemed the attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure as “acts of war”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) and Abu Dhabi (UAE) on September 18, suggesting that Washington will directly act towards establishing a coalition that will discourage Iran’s actions. In the meantime, US President Donald Trump shifted between warmongering statements and offers of a potential commitment with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in the end deciding on a “middle way” of increasing sanctions, while also leaving the door open to negotiations.

Although some Saudi leaders initially accused Iranian involvement, they gave up the direct statements shortly, preferring ambiguity instead, which left many actors in the region questioning what could happen next. The Saudi Defence Ministry showed remains of the weapons used in the attacks, specifying that they could not have been carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen, taking into account the distance involved (approximately 700 km). Saudi Army spokesperson Turki al-Malki said that 18 drones and seven missiles were used in the attacks.

Starting with April 2019, Houthi rebels carried out tens of separate missile or drone attacks on objectives in Saudi Arabia, including airports, oil pipelines and other elements of the country’s oil infrastructure, in an attempt to determine an end to the actions of the Riyadh-led Arab Coalition in Yemen. Despite the fact that it has the third biggest military budget in the world, Saudi Arabia’s response was below expectations. Anti-missile systems purchased from the US (including Patriot systems) have not had a consistent reaction when faced with the Houthi attacks.

Since the beginning of Yemen War, Iran has continuously enhanced its support for Houthi rebels both in the quantity, and quality of the weapons systems they provided, probably also through a transfer of knowledge or experienced operators via the Revolutionary Guards. The attacks grew in complexity and coordination, and the drones/missiles can enter the Saudi air space and hit their targets with significant precision.

Although Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has promoted himself as a reformist and saviour of the kingdom’s future, his leadership has mostly been associated with a disastrous military stalemate in Yemen and the failure to stop the extension of Iran’s influence in the Middle East. The attacks on the oil facilities prove that the “red lines” in the region have modified, and Iran is known feeling encouraged to act. However, even if Tehran switched to the offensive, Iranian leaders were careful to avoid actions which could provoke a significant kinetical reaction both from regional and world powers, including the US.

The recent attacks have a bigger impact than previous actions, probably signalling the fact that Iranians believe they are prepared to increase tensions, while remaining confident that they control the dynamics of how things will escalate. Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Germany, mentioned that “every option is on the table” when asked about a military response from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis could avoid a direct attack on Iran, instead opting to carry out strikes on Iranian objectives in other parts of the region, including Syria.

Using proxy groups to attack the enemies of the regime is part of Iran’s usual strategy, but the increased operational rhythm of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia seems to be an escalation of the war in the shadows fought by Tehran and Riyadh. The current campaign could seek to increase the stakes for the Saudis and force the kingdom’s leadership to change its approach in Yemen.

At this moment, the Arab Coalition finds itself in an impasse: Houthi rebels are country northern and western Yemen, while the south and east, with the tacit agreement of the UAE, are seeking to secede. But Riyadh cannot allow this kind of a situation, as the strengthening of Houthi control over northern Yemen has direct implications on the kingdom’s security.

The attacks could also be a way through which Houthi rebels are trying to convince the international community to take a more active role in negotiating an end to the conflict in Yemen. If international oil markets face instability, the US, the UK and other powers have a major interest in eliminating the possibility of such attacks. Iran is aware that interference in the production and transport of mineral oils is a sure method to attract the attention of the international community, proven by attacks against the oil rigs in the Persian Gulf and the infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.

We must also take into account the moment when the escalation occurred. The Saudi Government is analysing the possibility to launch an initial public offering campaign for oil giant Aramco, within a privatization strategy destined to gather funds in the context of low oil prices, according to an interview MBS gave (September 19) for The Economist. Aramco is the world’s biggest oil company, with crude oil reserves of approximately 265 billion barrels, or 15% of the global oil deposits. If an initial public offering will be held, analysts estimate that Aramco could become the most valuable company listed on the stock market worldwide, with an estimated value of more than USD1,000 billion, according to The Economist. Selling Aramco shares could cover a part of the budget deficit currently registered by Saudi Arabia due to the decrease in the price of oil.

What chances does Iran’s strategy to challenge its regional rival has to succeed is difficult to predict at the moment… But the significant development is forcing the red lines… And, for the moment, it appears to work…


IV. Egypt – citizens are tearing apart the barrier of fear… Is this the beginning of the end for “the last pharaoh”?

On September 20, Egyptian citizens from several cities (Cairo, Suez, Alexandria, Mahalla, Mansoura) attended anti-government protests, requesting the resignation of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The demonstrators’ chants reflected those used in the Arab Spring protests (“The people want the regime to fall”, “Leave, Al-Sisi”); which led to the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Manifestations continued on Saturday in the city of Suez, and in low numbers in Cairo and Mahalla. The police and other Egyptian security forces intervened forcefully, arresting more than 350 individuals. Several people were wounded.

From where did this outburst come from? At the beginning of September, a former discontent military contractor, Mohamed Ali, who is self-exiled in Spain, began to publish videos critical to the regime, in which he offered complex details on acts of high-level corruption, including the generous spending of President al-Sisi and his family. The contractor worked with Egyptian troops for more than a decade and, thanks to this privileged status, many Egyptians consider that the statements he made in the videos are credible.

The government initially attempted to discredit Ali, presenting him as a sympathiser of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which is illegal in the present, which won several elections in post-revolutionary Egypt, but these efforts failed. Ali’s elements of political, business, personal backgrounds clearly show that he is not an Islamist. Another attempt to present the former contractor as an immoral womanizer has also failed. Even foreign Islamist media called him a hero and advised people to overlook his personal life.

On September 14, al-Sisi tried to counter Ali’s accusations during a speech he held at a National Youth Conference. The president seemed to more rather confirm than deny the allegations, according to which he ordered the construction of lavish presidential palaces: “yes, I have built presidential palaces and I will continue to do this”.

The videos gained millions of views. One week ago, Ali called on Egyptians to take to the streets and protest the regime. Somewhat surprisingly, hundreds in several cities, including Cairo, heeded his call. Later, Ali posted several new recordings, requesting Defence Minister Mohammed Zaki to arrest al-Sisi, and the army to take the side of the people. He also requested a march of one million people for next Friday.

Did Ali’s appeal had such a potential to mobilize? Since taking control in 2014 following a military coup, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has consolidated his powers, while suppressing nearly all political and social opposition. Al-Sisi put an equal sign between criticism of himself and betraying the regime, and arrested or intimidated thousands of journalists and activists to ensure that there is no credible alternative to his governance. The president’s motto is clear: any opposition, be it led by the Muslim Brotherhood – which al-Sisi classified as terrorist organization – or influenced by foreign entities is illegitimate.

Egyptians have been discontented with al-Sisi’s government for some time. The president efficiently impeded opinion polls from being carried out and published, so there is no way to exactly determine the support he has among citizens. According to revolutionaries who took to the streets to protect Mubarak in 2011, al-Sisi failed on all fronts. Especially as the liberties granted today are way fewer than those allowed by the Mubarak regime, while the economic situation took a turn for the worse.

Al-Sisi’s key economic projects – a new capital with an aquatic parc and a massive tower and the extension of the Suez Canal – have been considered by experts as pharaonic projects, which require immense spending to be completed, with no benefits for the country and Egyptians. At the same time, al-Sisi is perceived as having mismanaged the water crisis in relations with Ethiopia, did not grant any attention to failing infrastructure and acted against national interest, by ceding Saudi Arabia two isles in the Red Sea.

Currently, approximately a third of Egyptians are living in poverty. The growth in inflation and austerity measures, including a decrease in subventions, have made it harder for Egyptians to find jobs and ensure their food and medical treatment. Faced with poverty, an erroneous political approach, economic mess, al-Sisi’s persistent mentions of the “very poor” Egypt in his public speeches and Ali’s accusations on the large expenses made by the president, his family and close confidantes from the money of Egyptian taxpayers were all part of the spark which lit the public demonstrations of discontent.

Media obedient to the regime have reported the weekend’s events as low in scale and lacking significance, the same strategy used by the Mubarak regime in 2011. But the images of protests near the symbolic zone in Tahir Square and other parts of Cairo, as well as in a series of other cities, have gained the attention of both Egyptians and foreigners after they were shared in large numbers on social media.

Taking into account the specific context of Egyptian politics, the protests are significant, even if they cannot be compared with the ones from 2011. Protests have been effectively outlawed in Egypt in 2013, when security forces quelled the August manifestations with blood. Starting with summer 2013, more than 60,000 people have been arrested, most for illegal protesting.

Beyond the considerations regarding the scale and significance of last week’s protests, one thing is certain: the Egyptians have torn apart the barrier of fear!

Regardless of how the situation will evolve, these protests could signal the beginning of the end for the al-Sisi regime. The pressure might grow in the following days and weeks. It remains to be seen if the citizen’s discontent and aspirations will have reached the critical mass necessary to topple an authoritarian regime, which goes further than one single individual. And what role will the army play…

Translated by Ionut Preda