Middle East update: January 4 2018


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is apparently going to try some sleight of hand in an effort to disarm and cut the size of the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units:

Abadi’s plan envisages taking back the militias’ heavy weapons and cutting their strength by half, according to military and intelligence sources.


The army is already taking an inventory of PMF weaponry, such as the armored vehicles and tanks the government gave them to fight Islamic State.


Next, Abadi will order his military and police commanders to take back those heavy weapons under the pretext of repairing them. The defense ministry will then remove over-age or physically unfit fighters, two military sources said.

Abadi is in a tough position. America wants these militias gone because so many of them have ties to Iran. Additionally, having random heavily armed militias roaming the country is inherently destabilizing. On the other hand, were it not for the predominantly Shiʿa forces that eventually became the PMUs, ISIS likely would have swept all the way to Baghdad in 2014. Several PMU leaders are planning on fielding candidate slates in May’s election, and given their popularity at least some of them could easily become major political players, and they can be expected to resist government efforts at breaking up their militias. Also, the PMUs are armed, many heavily so. Abadi apparently thinks if he takes these steps gradually enough he can reduce the PMUs military strength without provoking a fight (political or actual). Of course, the cat kind of seems like it might be out of the bag now.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that at least 23 civilians were killed in Eastern Ghouta by Syrian government and Russian airstrikes on Wednesday night. Roughly 400,000 people remain besieged in this Damascus suburb.

Several Syrian opposition groups are urging United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura not to attend Russia’s “Syrian Congress” in Sochi later this month. For obvious reasons Russia isn’t well-positioned to try to portray itself as a neutral mediator, so those opposition groups are themselves planning to boycott the event and would prefer the UN not legitimize it either. Speaking of tough positions, de Mistura is in one here. Institutionally he’d be better off skipping Sochi since it’s Putin’s attempt to usurp the mediator role from the UN, but practically he’s in no position to piss Putin off when he’s got no chance of ever negotiating a political settlement to this civil war unless the Kremlin at some point leans on Bashar al-Assad to show some flexibility.

Russia, meanwhile, is denying the report I mentioned yesterday that seven of their aircraft were destroyed by rebel artillery on December 31 at Khmeimim airbase outside Latakia. I don’t know that it matters either way, but it is interesting that, if this actually did happen, no rebel faction has so far taken credit for what would at the very least be a major public relations triumph.


US prosecutors in New York have won a conviction against Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla on charges that he tried to circumvent US sanctions against Iran. Ankara, as always, is taking it all gracefully in stride:

“The U.S. court, in a process carried out by relying on so-called ‘evidence’, which is fake and open to political exploitation, … made an unprecedented interference in Turkey’s internal affairs,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said.

Turkish outrage over the verdict is meant for the Turkish domestic audience. Better to convince voters that this is an American plot against Turkey than to admit that there was some financial funny business going on a the highest levels of Turkish politics and finance.


Israeli forces once again struck targets in Gaza on Thursday in response to rocket fire into Israel. No casualties were reported.

Rocket fire from Gaza may be the least of Israel’s worries, because the long-brewing ISIS-Hamas fight may be on the verge of really kicking off:

The extremist Islamic State group’s branch in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has taken a simmering dispute with the Palestinian Hamas group based in nearby Gaza to new levels, releasing a 22-minute video in which it calls on its followers to attack the group and shows the execution of a man it said was a collaborator.


Analysts say the escalation has the potential to destabilize an already fragile security situation in Gaza, the Palestinian enclave that Hamas has controlled for the past decade.

Hamas’s move to to straight(er) with a Palestinian unity deal, and it’s general ineffectiveness, have left it vulnerable to precisely this sort of challenge. An ISIS-Hamas war risks destabilizing not only Gaza but also Sinai and the Israel-Egypt relationship. And as that piece notes, ISIS doesn’t even really have to engage Hamas directly to hurt it–they can just lob rockets into Israel and let the Israelis–who blame Hamas for all rocket fire from Gaza whether Hamas was directly responsible or not–do the work for them.

On the peace front, Donald Trump’s big Jerusalem move has really shaken some things loose, but not in a way that’s conducive to an accord. The Likud Party is close to basically adopting West Bank annexation as official policy, which would at least clarify the whole “apartheid” issue. Meanwhile, the possibility is growing that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will take his case to the United Nations and ask it to recognize Palestine as an independent state. So far, so good.


Three Egyptian police officers and at least one civilian were killed on Wednesday by ISIS militants in northern Sinai.


Economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani does a much better job here of explaining Iran’s economy than I’ve been able to do:

Many observers in the West have been quick to blame the recent unrest in Iran on high and rising poverty, which is in turn seen as a failure of the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the JCPOA), or the squandering of its windfall.  President Hassan Rouhani sold the nuclear deal to voters, who have elected him twice, as the only way he could improve their lives.  The unrest taking place in Iran’s smaller cities suggests that this promise is far from realized.  As I have written before, there is little doubt that the economy rebounded after JCPOA, but did poverty and the living standards of ordinary Iranians also improve with this economic recovery?


The only reliable source for answering this question is Iran’s Household Expenditure and Income Survey (HEIS), collected by the Statistical Center of Iran (SCI) every year since the 1960s.  It is available to researchers in unit record form since 1984, and the latest round for the 2016/17 (21 March 2016 to 20 March 2017) is available here (in Persian).  This round reports on living standards since the nuclear deal went into effect, in January 2016 (it had been signed on July 14, 2015, but did not really take effect for another 6 months).  We would expect the impact of the agreement, if any, on living standards to be visible in the data collected for this round, which begins after March 2016.

The upshot is that it’s not absolute poverty that seems to be motivating these protests, since that’s been on the decline (thanks in part to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose populism–in the form of cash transfers–actually did more to help Iran’s poor than I’ve been giving him credit for), but rather inequality and high unemployment. The more neoliberal Rouhani economic agenda, which included ending Ahmadinejad’s cash transfer program, has contributed to economic struggles in areas outside of Tehran, and the uneven distribution of benefits from the nuclear deal’s sanctions relief has also been disproportionately felt in Tehran as compared with the rest of the country. That inequality explains why Tehran has almost been an afterthought in these protests, which have been much stronger outside the capital.

As far as triggers are concerned, Trita Parsi suggests that Rouhani’s 2018 budget may have been distasteful enough to draw people out into the streets:

If the nuclear deal and the sabotaged sanctions-relief process created unmet expectations, it was the government’s proposed 2018 budget that left the population seething. The leaked budget proposed slashing subsidies on basic goods, including food and services for the poor, while increasing fuel prices by as much as 50 percent. But while poor people would have to face austerity, opaque religious institutions controlled by conservative political elements would be spared from austerity cuts, as would the IRGC.

Parsi also argues that the Trump administration’s efforts to prevent Iran from reaping the benefits of sanctions relief helped set the table for these protests by creating a pervasive sense of unmet economic expectations. This is something we’ve talked about at length over the past couple of days.

That helps explain why what seemed to begin as an anti-Rouhani movement turned quickly into an expression of anger at the entire Iranian system. It’s also consistent with the Ahmadinejad theory, since despite being a conservative he’s really outside the institutional elite at this point.

The demonstrations seem to be petering out over the past day or two, perhaps thanks in part to the government’s efforts to suppress social media. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the government respond–not immediately, which would legitimize the protests, but down the road a bit–with some new aid for lower class Iranians.

Meanwhile in the US, Eli Clifton notes a curious thing about many of the protesters’ biggest American cheerleaders:

As the protests across Iran reach the one-week point, Iran hawks are using their echo chamber to claim concern for the wellbeing of Iranian protesters and pushing the Trump administration and policymakers to publicly state their support of the burgeoning protest movement. But these same hawks have a long history of opposing diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program and instead threatening military strikes on Iran. This record belies their stated concern for Iran’s civilian population and raises serious questions about their motivations in embracing the protesters.

Weird. Almost like the Iranian people are just two-dimensional props as far as the hawks are concerned.

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