US Moves Against Iran Raise Risk of Conflict

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Javad Zarif © Gabriel Petrescu

The Gulf is inching closer to a confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

US President Donald Trump, in a step that could embolden Saudi Arabia to move ahead with plans to destabilize Iran, has instructed White House aides to give him the arguments for withholding certification in October that Iran has complied with the nuclear agreement. Trump, who has been long critical of the international accord that strictly limits the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and requires the president to certify Iranian compliance every three months, has reluctantly done so twice since entering office in January. At the same time, the president has twice imposed new US sanctions on Iran to penalize the country for its development of ballistic missiles. Iran argues that its missile program does not fall under the agreement.

Arguments that Iran has failed to comply with the agreement, which lifted crippling international sanctions and opened the door to the country’s return to the international fold, are likely to focus on allegations that the Islamic Republic has failed to comply with the spirit rather than the letter of the accord.

Trump’s decision to task hardline White House aides rather than the State Department signaled, according to Foreign Policy, the president’s mounting frustration with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s failure to provide him with the arguments he needed. Foreign Policy quoted Trump administration officials as saying that the president wanted options, but had yet to decide whether to decertify Iran later this year.

Critics of the 2015 nuclear agreement argue that it has enabled Iran to increase its capacity to strike Gulf Arab states with ballistic missiles and support proxies, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq and rebels in Yemen. Some critics argue that tearing up the agreement would not solve the problem, but that Iranian compliance with the agreement is not enough. These observers have yet to detail what Trump could do to use the accord to counter Iranian policies.

LobeLog reported that emails, allegedly stemming from a hacked email account of Yousef al-Otaiba, the high-profile Emirati ambassador to the US, suggested that the United Arab Emirates and a Washington-based Saudi lobbyist were supporting two US groups — headed by former Senator Joseph Lieberman and former Bush administration officials — that advocate a tougher US policy toward Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country would exhaust the agreement’s mechanisms to oppose any US move to undermine the accord, but warned that “Iran has other options available, including withdrawing from the deal.”

Irrespective of what President Trump decides, his move — much like his statements during a visit to Riyadh in May contributed to the eruption of the Gulf crisis and the Emirati-Saudi-led boycott of Qatar — could encourage Saudi Arabia to step up its longstanding existential battle with Iran. Lowering relations with Iran, with whom Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field, was one of the demands initially put forward by the Emirati-Saudi-led coalition against Doha. Kuwait, the lead mediator in the Qatar crisis and one of the Gulf states that has long balanced its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, expelled the Iranian ambassador and 14 other diplomats on July 20 for alleged links to a “spy and terror” cell.

THE SAUDI CROWN PRINCE

Saudi Arabia has felt emboldened by Trump’s hostility toward Iran as well as his focus on combating terrorism, even though the US administration appears to be wracked by policy differences between the president and some of his key aides.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who earlier this month cemented his position in a palace coup, has proved to be a brash 31-year-old, willing to take risks to establish the kingdom as the Middle East and North Africa’s dominant power. In the past year, Prince Mohammed has been laying the groundwork for an effort to destabilize Iran by fomenting unrest among the Islamic republic’s restless ethnic minorities. The plans have resonated with some quarters in the Trump administration, populated by officials known for their antipathy toward Tehran even if they differ in their attitudes toward the nuclear agreement.

A memo drafted by Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the UAE-backed, Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, that was recently circulated among Trump’s aides concluded: “Iran is susceptible to a strategy of coerced democratization because it lacks popular support and relies on fear to sustain its power. The very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse.”

The very fact that Trump is considering denying Iran certification in October — irrespective of what he decides — is likely to encourage Prince Mohammed to, at the very least, further fine tune his plan and ensure that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the building blocks in place. Against the backdrop of a history of failed US efforts to destabilize Iran, Prince Mohammed’s plan, if implemented, could have consequences that reverberate across Eurasia. “Destabilizing Iran would be like shaking up a kaleidoscope and hoping to get a Titian. It is far from clear that the outcome would be better than what we have now,” warned Michael Axworthy, a scholar and a former British Foreign Office official who worked on Iran.

BALUCHIS AS PROXIES

Using the Pakistani province of Baluchistan — already wracked by nationalist and militant Islamic strife — as a spring plank could, moreover, undermine Pakistani efforts to get a grip on at least some of the violent groups operating in the country and could rekindle sectarian strife. Baluchistan borders the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Militant groups believed to enjoy Saudi backing have long launched cross-border attacks, prompting Iranian counterattacks against the militants on Pakistani soil. Intelligence sources said that Pakistan had detained in early May a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps who was on a recruiting mission in Baluchistan.

At about the same time, the US Treasury designated the Saudi-backed Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab, a militant Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan origin, as a specially designated terrorist while he was on a fundraising tour of the Gulf. Abu Turab is a leader of Ahl-i-Hadith, a Saudi-supported, Pakistani Wahhabi group that operates a string of religious seminaries in Baluchistan along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

Abu Turab is also a board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV and heads the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities, whose secretary general, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, has also been designated by the Treasury. He serves on Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, a government-appointed advisory body of scholars and laymen established to assist in bringing laws in line with the Quran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

Militants in Pakistan and sources close to them have asserted in recent months that Saudi funds are pouring into religious seminaries in Baluchistan that are operated by often banned, virulently anti-Shia groups. “The ASWJ is a proscribed organisation, legally, but it still arranges rallies in the country and takes part in elections. We do not have any clear policy from the federal government on how to deal with them,” a senior Karachi police officer told Geo TV. The officer was referring to Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, one of the groups with a significant presence in Baluchistan that is believed to have received funding channeled through Saudi nationals of Baluchi origin. The officer was responding to a question about law enforcement’s lack of response to ASWJ’s recent creation of a new fundraising vehicle, Al-Nujoom Welfare Foundation.

On July 21, the Trump administration refused to pay Pakistan $300 million as a reimbursement for the cost of its fight against militant groups, some of which are believed to be supported by Pakistani intelligence. The Department of Defense said the funds were being withheld because Islamabad had failed to take “sufficient action” against the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based offshoot of the Afghan Taliban.

THE WIDER IMPACT

Instability in Iran as well as increased violence in Baluchistan would further complicate China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. China is already worried that the Gulf crisis could endanger its crucial energy imports from the region as well as Gulf investment in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is slated to fund some One Belt, One Road projects. Chinese nationals have repeatedly been targeted by militants in Baluchistan, a crown jewel of the Chinese project that includes the more than $50 billion investment in what has been dubbed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Earlier this year, Prince Mohammed appeared to set the stage for an effort to destabilize Iran by declaring that the fight between the two Middle Eastern powers would be fought in the Islamic Republic, not the kingdom. The prince did not specify what he had in mind, but a Saudi think tank, the Arabian Gulf Center for Iranian Studies (AGCIS) that is believed to have his backing, argued in a study in favor of Saudi support for a low-level Baluchi insurgency in Iran. “Saudis could persuade Pakistan to soften its opposition to any potential Saudi support for the Iranian Baluch … The Arab-Baluch alliance is deeply rooted in the history of the Gulf region and their opposition to Persian domination,” the study concluded.

Saudi Arabia further signaled its support for Iranian dissidents with the former intelligence chief and ambassador, Prince Turki al-Faisal, attending for the past two years rallies in Paris organized by the exiled Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a left-wing Iranian militant group that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime and traces its roots to resistance against the shah, who was toppled in the 1979 revolution. “Your legitimate struggle against the [Iranian] regime will achieve its goal, sooner or later. I, too, want the fall of the regime,” Prince Turki told one of the rallies.

Pointing to what he sees as the writing on the wall, former German Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor Joschka Fischer warned: “[T]he next chapter in the history of the Middle East will be determined by open, direct confrontation between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for regional predominance. So far, this long-smoldering conflict has been pursued under cover and mostly by proxies … Any direct military confrontation with Iran would, of course, set the region ablaze, greatly surpassing all previous Middle East wars.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Gabriel Petrescu / Shutterstock.com

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