16 January 2019

POLITICAL AND SECURITY FORECASTS-2019 (XII) - SAUDI ARABIA, IRAQ, IRAN, YEMEN

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Image source: Mediafax

Motto: “(…)in this world nothing can be said to be certain except for death and taxes.” (Benjamin Franklin)

I would add: …and a conflict in MENA…

Middle East (ME) and North Africa’s (NA) region remain a drum of dust connected through a fuse system ready to send the spark which could be generated by the regional leaders’ interests, or some global leaders as well.

Saudi Arabia makes great efforts to remake its international image s affected by Crown Prince’s actions. Iran will be focused on managing the american sanctions’ actions, as well as on upkeeping the internal cohesion. Yemen, the battlefield between the two regional rivals, will slowly step on the peaceful pathway they are hoping to reach, but which is still to far away from them.

Saudi Arabia- with or without MBS?

Saudi Arabia, and the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in particular, faced serious critics, on an international plan, after the dead of the Saudi resident journalist Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate from Istanbul, that pushed the Kingdom in one of the most serious crises they have ever met.

Some of the other actions that MBS did to lead this country in such a direction are: the failed blockade over Qatar, the home arrest of the Lebanese prime-minister, Saad al Hariri and the diplomatic scandal with Canada on respecting human’s rights, which ended with weakening the entire Saudi Royal House.

MBS’s decisions in foreign policy and the wrong estimations of their results not only that were totally distinct from Saudi Arabia’s traditional diplomacy tactic, but it actually led the country to political instability. At the moment, Saudi Arabia is in conflict with Turkey and its Sunni allies, including Qatar, as well as with Iran and its Shiite allies from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. On the other hand, after deciding to normalize the relations with Israel[1], MBS is about to lose the support of the other Arab communities, who are supporting the Palestinian cause. On an intern plan, although, from the very beginning of his political start, MBS won the popular support by adopting a series of economic and social reforms, in the actual circumstances he is liable to losing the support and the emergence of some radical forces, as some of the Saudis are starting to realize that their country was wrong on choosing its enemies and allies. Furthermore, tens of royal family’s members (princes, cousins) are trying to avoid enthroning MBS and they want to change the succession, but they also stated that they will not make a move while King Salman is still alive.

No one wants (excepts for Iran, maybe) Saudi Arabia to face instability and to be threatened by an internal collapse. Hence, the Royal Court should act immediately to solve this situation. Consequently, there are small chances for the King to turn against his own son. Between upkeeping the “status-quo” and MBS’s demotion from the current position, probably King Salman will choose to keep MBS in the actual position, but he will restrain his rights. Hence, will realize that his political ambition has some limits. Even if he will not be found guilty for murdering Khashoggi, he will have to assume a certain culpability and to distance himself from the external policy, in order to be focused on the internal social-economic reforms. With these restraints, Salman King would show the entire world that he is still supervising Saudi Arabia’s transformation and he will start to regain the international trust.

A first step towards this direction should be transparency in judging the suspects involved in Khashoggi’s murder. At the same time, MBS could be seen as a peacemaker on the international scene by supporting the end of the Yemen war.

Iraq- a glimmer of hope

Officially, the political crisis in Iraq ended with electing president Barham Saleh- Kurdish and the prime-minister Abdul Mahdi-Shia, half year after the elections. Mahdi was proposed by the main political Shiite rival blocs (one led by the clerical Moqtada al-Sadr, and the other one by the leader of the militias supported by Iran, Hadi al-Ameri). Abdul Mahdi’s denomination is the best solution to please all the Shiite groups, who were about to start an endless intra-Shiite conflict.

But the cooperation was a short one, because the competition between both political groups started again due to the proposal of government’s members (especially the home affairs and defence portfolios), which blocked the consolidation of the new cabinet. Both political blocs ambitions on having the parliamentary majority and the uncertainties regarding the format of the new government determined an increase of population’s tensions, in times when the Iraqi are more and more unpleased by the lack of basic services, the increased unemployment rate and the slow progress to reconstruct the country.

On the other hand, electing Barham Saleh as president increased the intra-Kurdish tensions. Presidency was strongly debated by the two main Kurdish parties (the Kurdistan Democratic Party/KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan/ PUK), which did not agree, as usual, on a common representative. Hence, Saleh’s election is raising some concerns about intra-Kurdish’s increased tensions.

The main challenges that the new prime-minister will face, besides forming the government, are country’s reconstruction after four years of war with the Islamic State militants/IS, taking down the ethnical and religious tensions and balancing the foreign relations between Iraq’s two major allies US and Iran, caught in a conflictual relation. Which are new prime-minister’s best cards? Given his previous activity and the experience gained while running some ministers, Mahdi can be seen as a quasi-technocrat. He seems to get along with both main Shiite political blocs, but as he is not part of any of them, he cannot be accused for favoring portfolios’ allocation in the new cabinet. Theoretically, this position makes him rather opened to saadrists pressure to allocate the best positions to some technocrats with practical expertise, which should be more capable of managing Iraq’s social and economic issues, than the experienced politicians and to regain population’s trust in leading the country. Mahdi showed, in early times, sympathy for the Sunni and has tied connections with important Sunni politicians, admitting their complain reasons and, probably, he is more appropriate than his predecessors in building bridges over the sectarian divisions and to create a really reconciliation between the Shiite and the Sunni.

Also, the new prime-minister is not adversarial to Kurdish’s region, supporting, in the past, Erbil’s demands to organize a referendum to passing Kirk under his jurisdiction. On the other hand, Abdul Mahdi is close to Washington, but also to Teheran. But the message sent by president Trump at the end of 2018, by refusing to met him in Bagdad and visit only the American base, it was quite clear, especially coming after the decision to withdraw from Syria. Still, it is important to bear in mind that a technocrat cabinet will not be a cure-all for Iraq’s issues. It needs more than a government to destroy the influence systems infiltrated in all central administration’s echelons.  

Iraq is facing a lot of problems, but power’s new arrangements can make 2019 be the start of a new beginning for the country.

Iran- between sanctions and reforms

Despite US’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement (JCPOA) and the instauration the American sanctions against Teheran in major fields like banks, energy, commerce, oil export, the political and economic efforts of JCPOA’s other signatories and Iran’s surprising calm are showing some optimism regarding the maintenance of the Treaty and the hope for Washington to reconsider their attitude.

The Europeans started to adopt a series of measures to combat sanctions’ effect, clearly reiterating that any JCPOA break will lead to re-imposing their own sanctions.

The messages Trump transmitted at the beginning of the year, through the poster he had in front of him, he send a clear message about the firmness of his decision to re-impose sanctions against Teheran. Trump’s Administration is looking to restrain Teheran’s regional position and its intervention in Syria-Yemen conflicts. These efforts will not change Iranian foreign policy’s direction, except for the fragmentation and the re-placement of the internal political scene.

Iran is facing, at the moment, bigger sanctions than it ever had, but the tolerance is still high. Even if the final result will be to force Teheran to renegotiate with Washington, there are small chances for this to happen in 2019.

In order to face the new restrictions, Teheran chose to give up some long-term economic reforms, focusing instead on remaking some strict structural deficiencies. The government will face some serious economic issues, like the increase of unemployed people, especially the young ones, the lack of food and medicines and, of course, inflation. But Teheran has a series of political and social methods to keep in check these phenomena. At the same time, there will be some behind the scene games between the reformists/ moderates and the conservatives, considering that in 2020 the parliamentary elections year.

There may be protests, but the Iranian security device is capable to face them, as long as the leaders of the ruling class will join forces to defence the system. On the other hand, the Iranian population is used to poorness, hence the pressure over the politicians for worsening the economic situation will be reduced.

The Iranian economy will get worse in 2019, but the authorities in Teheran will be capable to manage it and to prevent any major impact over politics. Iran will be focused on a prudent management and the protection of the currency reserve, trying, at the same time, to increase the indigenous investments in the public sector and to continue the fiscal reform. The adversarial political groups will try to take advantage on the economic issues, but as needed, they will also try to preserve the regime.

Hence, only a serious and long economic decline will lead to the fragmentation of the political and security devices cohesion and to a substantial change in Iran.

Yemen- on the long internal peace pathway

Yemen is still divided up between the pro-governmental forces who are controlling South and a good part of the center of the country, and the rebellious forces who are controlling capital San’a, North and part of the West of the country (where there is also the port-city Hodeida). Regional powers’ intervention (Saudi Arabia, Iran) which are in conflict could drag the country to a larger Sunni-Shiite division. At the same time, the fights and lack of food is continuing to lead to human loses, transforming Yemen in one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world.

Economy’s collapse after the war and, implicitly, the inflation led the population to poorness and starvation, the most affected category being the young one. The offensive started by the pro-governmental forces supported by Arab Coalition’s raids over Hodeida complicated even more the humanitarian situation, bringing the conflict back in the international attention.

UN’s efforts to mediate the negotiation of an agreement between both parts failed repeatedly. But, at the end of the year, for the second time since the war have started (2014) and for the first time in the last two years, the representatives of both camps agreed to meet in Sweden, under UN’s mediation, to negotiate a peace treaty.

It is difficult to speculate over the future year. But the rebels, as well as the pro-governmental forces expressed their availability to accept UN’s plan to mediate the end of the war, as the confrontations were quiet, yet interrupted by fights’ intensification.

The failure of the previous negotiation rounds seems to show that both parts are imposing some conditions which are not allowing the establishment of a common negotiation base. It is hard to comply with discussions’ framework, established through UN’s 2216 Resolution, because it asks for the unilateral disarmament of the Houthi rebels and their withdrawal from the conquered territories. 

Also, it does not show the battlefield dynamic of the conflict and it imposes conditions to the involved foreign actors, hence they could, at any time, break the treaty.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia will need some guarantees regarding the security of the southern border and the ballistic capabilities of Houthi’s rebels, as well as regarding rebels’ connections with Iran. In their turn, Houthi will want guarantees that they will not have to unilaterally disarm and the Arab Coalition will stop the support for the pro-governmental forces.

Probably, the negotiation process between the parts will take some months, but not longer. At the same time, it needs some great efforts to establish/implement some measures to increase the trust between both parts. An increased attention will be on the port city Hodeida, which has a critical infrastructure in delivering humanitarian help. UN’s emissary proposal, Martin Griffith, to put this port under UN’s control may be implemented, along with ensuring Saudi Arabia that it will not allow Iran to receive weaponry.

Hence, adopting comprehensive solutions for the conflict in Yemen takes time and faces a lost of obstacles, despite the fact that all the international attention is on Khashoggi’s dead. The increasing international pressures, including the US, to bring the peace efforts back, will probably have small results, given that the country is facing some confrontations which are coming from opposing different interests. These are the results of the Sunni-Shia conflict, the Jihadist and anti-Islamic conflict and the pro and anti-secessionist forces one.


[1] Some media reports are showing that during the meetings from the international tour, the Crown Prince promoted the so-called “trade of the century”, a term used for American president’s plan, Donald Trump, to make the Israeli-Palestinian peace. They did not announce any details of this plan yet (just that it will public in January 2019), but the media is suggesting that the US offered the Palestinian Authority a district from Jerusalem in exchange for East Jerusalem, in order to entrench the capital of the future Palestinian state.

 

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