Middle East update: May 12-13 2018

I’m posting this a little early in case the thunderstorm we’re about to get knocks out our power. There should be at least one more post tonight if the electric grid permits.


So this is kind of a big deal:

Moqtada al-Sadr was leading in Iraq’s parliamentary election with over half of the votes counted, the electoral commission said on Sunday, pointing to a surprise comeback for the powerful Shi’ite cleric who had been sidelined by Iran-backed rivals.


Shi’ite militia leader Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc, which is backed by Tehran, was in second place, according to the count of over 95 percent of the votes cast in 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.


Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared to be running third. Security and commission sources had earlier said he was leading the election, which was held on Saturday and is the first since the defeat of Islamic State militants inside the country.

The vote was marked by extremely low turnout, which seems to have dinged Abadi badly. For one thing, people who were motivated to vote seem to have been inclined toward a “throw the bums out” mentality. For another, turnout appears to have been most depressed among Sunni Arabs and Kurds–Abadi was depending on Sunni Arabs, grateful for his big victory over ISIS, to push him over the top. For yet another, Amiri and Sadr voters were just more committed.

Now, to be clear these results could change. Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, is one of the eight that haven’t yet been counted, and Abadi campaigned heavily there on the back of his ISIS-fighting record. Amiri, in particular, is unlikely to do very well in predominantly Sunni Nineveh.

But we can say a few things at this point. One is that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political career is over–he was expected to challenge Abadi and instead appears to be an afterthought. Another is that Sadr–the mercurial Sadr, who has gone from anti-US, Shiʿa fundamentalists militia leader to anti-Iran, anti-corruption populist who allies with Iraqi communists and meets with Saudi royals fairly regularly–may now be the dominant figure in Iraqi politics. Another another is that it’s going to be a fun 90 days as Iraqi politicians try to cobble together a governing coalition. Abadi is probably still a decent bet to return as PM–he gets along with Sadr and has been able to maintain cordiality with all the players in and around Iraq except for the Kurds. Sadr will exert considerable influence regardless of who serves as PM.

ISIS’s big plans to disrupt the vote with violence seem to have busted out, but that’s not to say there wasn’t violence. Forces from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan reportedly surrounded and fired upon the headquarters of the Gorran party in Sulaymaniyah. This came after the PUK claimed victory in Sulaymaniyah, a claim Gorran challenged amid accusations that voting machines were hacked and a demand for a manual recount. Kurdish turnout was especially low in Kirkuk, owing to disillusionment over the Kurdish “loss” of the city last October and to the decision by the Kurdistan Democratic Party to boycott the vote in that province and ask its supporters to do likewise. Whatever control the Kurds retained there will be in peril if its representation becomes predominantly Arab because Arab turnout was higher.


According to Al Jazeera (which, grain of salt and all that), the Yemeni government is now accusing the UAE of attempting to “colonize” Socotra:

The Saudis are now joining in, apparently. They’ve sent their own military contingent to the island to participate in “training exercises” with Emirati and Yemeni troops. Which could actually allow them to act as a buffer between the Emiratis and Yemenis and mediate a resolution to this Socotra dispute. Maybe.


With Gaza’s protests likely to crescendo early this week, between the US embassy opening in Jerusalem on Monday and the anniversary of the founding of Israel on Tuesday, the New York Times’ Declan Walsh reported from Gaza over the weekend:

A nervous frisson ran through the crowd as it pushed toward the fence between Gaza and Israel on Sunday evening, halting 75 feet from the wire.


I had traveled to Gaza from Cairo ahead of what are expected to be enormous demonstrations at the border fence this week. I wanted to first see the site of the protests on what I thought would be an uneventful evening.


It did not turn out that way.

Incidentally, and speaking of afterthoughts, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a short video over the weekend calling for jihad against the United States over the embassy move. So apparently he’s still alive.


The Washington Post’s Liz Sly attempts to cast the Qatar dispute in the context of historical Gulf rivalries:

These days, rivalries that once took the form of coup plots, battles and raids are playing out mostly through expensive lobbying in Washington, insults hurled on Twitter and a lot of electronic hacking.


But the kings, emirs and princes vying for preeminence in the current geopolitical order are the descendants of the same tribes that skirmished 150 years ago — al-Thanis in Qatar, al-Nahyans in the UAE, the house of Saud in Saudi Arabia and the Khalifas in Bahrain.


“This is not something new. The tribes of Arabia have always been fighting with one another, and this is the modern version,” said Mohammed Rwaili, who works with the Qatar Foundation in Doha. “There was rivalry between us in the past. It’s a historical thing.”

It’s facile to pretend that modern disputes are the product of 150 year old tribal hatreds, and it’s something we Westerners only seem do when talking about the Middle East and Africa. It is true that these ruling families have never particularly liked one another, but it’s also true that Qatar got along just fine with its neighbors under Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad, its emir from 1972 until his was toppled in a 1995 coup. Khalifa kept Qatar a reliable appendage of Saudi Arabia and everybody was fine with that. It’s only because Qatar has tried to assert itself independent of Riyadh over the past 30 years that these new tensions have arisen.


I wrote about Donald Trump’s Iran deal decision for Jacobin:

If we assume the worst — that European promises to Iran will ultimately prove empty or at least insufficient to motivate Iran to continue abiding by the deal — then we can expect that at some point Tehran will exit the nuclear accord. Under the accord, Iran agreed to be subject to the “Additional Protocol” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which grants the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expanded rights to inspect Iranian facilities to ensure Tehran is not working on a nuclear weapon. These inspections are important not just for monitoring Iran’s activity, but for undercutting the ability of hawks in the US to concoct stories about Iran’s nuclear program in an effort to foment conflict.


If Iran were to now reject the expanded inspections along with the rest of the deal, if it were to take the next step and kick IAEA inspectors out of the country, it would undoubtedly be taken as proof that the Iranians are racing to build a bomb. We saw this scenario play out two decades ago in Iraq, so we should be pretty familiar with where it ends. The absence of proof that Iran is not building a bomb will be taken in Washington as proof that it must be building a bomb. In Riyadh, it will be taken as a green light to pursue their own nuclear arsenal, a scenario about which the Trump administration apparently has no particular thoughts.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif began a tour of the rubble over the weekend, visiting Beijing ahead of stops in Moscow and Brussels. Zarif essentially wants to know what the rest of the world is prepared to do to keep Iran in the nuclear deal. The answer is: probably not much. China and Russia can keep trading with Iran, but chances are they’ll do that anyway and the Iranians know that. Neither Moscow nor Beijing wants to see Iran go crazy and build a nuclear bomb, mind you, but they don’t really seem prepared to follow Trump’s lead either. Europe, on the other hand, might not have a choice. John Bolton spent his Sunday morning on TV threatening to punish any European firm that tries to do business with Iran, and there’s only so much European governments can do to try to protect their companies from US sanctions. It’s hard to see any European firm risking penalties from the Trump administration just so they can cling to that precious Iranian market.

Meanwhile, Iranian workers are preparing themselves to feel the full impact of the new sanctions:

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