Middle East update: May 15 2018


There’s a little confusion about when Ramadan is going to begin this year. For a while now most outlets have been saying it will start on Wednesday (which means Tuesday night). But the final word from the people who decide these sorts of things in the Middle East now seems to be that Ramadan will begin Thursday (meaning Wednesday night). Since this is our last update until next week, let me say Ramadan Mubarak to those who are observing even if it’s a day or two premature.


At the close of another round of their wildly successful Syrian peace talks in Astana on Tuesday, Russia, Turkey, and Iran announced that they will meet again in Sochi in July for their next session. The reason for the venue change is unclear, but Syrian rebel leaders are already planning to boycott rather than go to Russia.


The Houthis say they fired another missile at Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, this time targeting the King Faisal military base in Jizan. There’s been no confirmation from the Saudis and there haven’t been any reports of a missile strike.


Patrick Wing sees a tough negotiation ahead between Muqtada al-Sadr’s party and the second-place Fatah party, made up mostly of the political arms of the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units:

Coming in second place was the Fatah list led by the Badr Organization and Haidi Amiri, which is made up of pro-Iran Hashd groups. It took five provinces including Basra and finished second in seven others such as Baghdad. Badr used to be the militia of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and has been in the government since 2005. The list proved to have a strong following amongst the families of Hashd members. Those fighters also built up a strong mythos in southern Iraq of average people who defended their country from the Islamic State. Sadr has continuously denounced many of the groups within Fatah for their abuses during the war, for their reliance upon Iran, and for being longtime rivals. Badr and Sadr’s old militia the Mahdi Army had running battles from Baghdad down to Basra for much of the U.S. occupation, and others like Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah were breakaway factions. Given that history it will add another level of difficulty to putting a new government together. At the same time, all of them since 2005 have included all parties, and Tehran will likely put a huge amount of pressure for all the Shiite lists to unite as they traditionally have.

Sadr has all but said he refuses to collaborate with Fatah in the next government, whatever form it may take, but Iran–which heavily backs Fatah–will be pushing in the opposite direction. Tehran has in the past suggested it would work to keep Sadr’s hands off of any Iraqi government, but that was before Sadr’s list came in first in a national election. Now it will be pretty hard to sideline him, at least not without thoroughly alienating his considerable base. In short, it should be fun times ahead in Iraqi politics. At Foreign Policy, Borzou Daragahi handicaps the potential prime ministers, with incumbent Haider al-Abadi probably the frontrunner despite his electoral struggles.


While Jordan once had it out for Bashar al-Assad, it gave up any hopes of Syrian regime change long ago, even before Russia intervened in 2015. At this point its only interests in Syria are maintaining the southern ceasefire and sealing the border against both additional refugees and paramilitary forces (ISIS in particular):

Jordan’s keenness on preserving the cease-fire in southern Syria takes top priority as a national security goal. The kingdom has made it clear that it has reached a saturation point with regard to hosting Syrian refugees, now numbering over 600,000. Furthermore, Jordan has insisted that its support for moderate rebels in southern Syria is not directed at the regime, but at preventing Islamic State fighters and pro-Iran militias from coming close to its borders.


More recently, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who was in Moscow on May 3, denied Russian accusations that military aid to the rebels was passing through Jordanian borders, or that attacks against Syrian targets were carried out from Jordanian bases. Forhis part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assured Safadi that Moscow remained committed to the de-escalation zone in southern Syria.


Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe”), the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians following the formation of the state of Israel, and conditions in Gaza were subdued compared with the day before–maybe because of all the funerals that took place. The death toll from Monday’s Gaza protest/IDF massacre still stands at 58, with more than 2700 people injured. That means that 107 people have been killed by Israeli forces at the Gaza fence line since this protest movement began on March 30. I’m not sure if that figure includes the two people the IDF killed on Tuesday. Gaza’s medical facilities, already denied necessary equipment and supplies, and even stable electricity, by the Israeli blockade, are struggling to keep up with the patient load.

Monday’s fighting shifted from Gaza to the UN Security Council on Tuesday, where the US blocked a proposed statement that would have called for an investigation into the Gaza violence. I know rank hypocrisy is a defining feature of US foreign policy, but after the number of times the US has browbeaten Russia for blocking independent investigations into alleged war crimes in Syria, blocking an investigation into Gaza really stands out. US Ambassador Nikki Haley then upheld the Trump administration’s strict “international disgrace” standard by walking out when the Palestinian representative began to speak. What a great way to show that the United States isn’t picking sides.

Al-Monitor’s Akiva Eldar interrogates Israel’s constant “self-defense” claims, most recently deployed to justify not only killing protesters in Gaza but also its frequent air and missile strikes on Syria:

Obviously, Iran did not deploy missile launchers throughout Syria out of any peaceful goals. However, where is the famous “red line’’ — those hostile military actions unacceptable by Israel? What turns a series of (allegedly Israeli) strikes in the sovereign territory of a neighboring state into “self-defense”? If, as Katz argued, offensives today can avert war tomorrow, a responsible (Israeli) government must also bomb the missiles deployed by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon. And what about the long-range missiles Iran can launch from the outskirts of Tehran at Israel’s nuclear facility near the town of Dimona?


If the name of the game is “self-defense,” then Iran, too, might have good reasons to attack Israel. It is no secret that had it not been for the strenuous objections by the heads of Israel’s defense agencies and late President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and his former Minister of Defense Ehud Barak would have probably bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities. At this point, we should also remember that the government of Israel — not of Iran — was the one that thwarted a conference planned in Helsinki for 2012 on a nuclear-free Middle East, supported by former US President Barack Obama. Not only that, according to foreign media reports, Israel is the only country in the Middle East equipped with dozens of nuclear bombs, and the only one consistently refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel is also a leading weapons exporter to murderous regimes in Africa and elsewhere. All, of course, for the sake of self-defense.


I interviewed a couple of sanctions experts on the likely impact of new US sanctions on Iran for LobeLog:

Even after Donald Trump decided to violate the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) by reimposing U.S. sanctions against Iran, he had a range of options. He could, for example, have started small by only reimposing a handful of sanctions. He could then gradually add more as a way to pressure Iran to return to the negotiating table for talks over modifying the JCPOA and negotiating additional agreements covering Iran’s missile program and its regional activities.


Instead, Trump opted for the more extreme approach of reimposing all pre-JCPOA U.S. sanctions—after a six-month delay to allow firms that already entered into business deals in Iran to wind those deals down. He has also left the door open to additional sanctions on top of those. “This was the most extreme option [Trump could have taken], short of military action,” Columbia University sanctions expert Richard Nephew recently told LobeLog. “The wind-down periods may seem generous, but they are within what President Obama said we would do if Iran cheated [on the nuclear deal]. So I don’t think this should be seen as anything less than a major step.”

The other expert I interviewed, energy analyst Sara Vakhshouri, sees European firms steering well clear of Iran now that the sanctions are back, even if European governments try to protect them from US sanctions and encourage them to keep doing business with Iran as a way to keep the nuclear deal alive. But the Europeans seem determined to try, anyway, and toward that end Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Brussels on Tuesday.

Whatever the Europeans told him, Zarif seemed pleased when his meetings ended, pronouncing efforts to salvage the accord to be “on the right track.” The EU is reportedly working off of a “nine point plan” for saving the deal by ensuring Iran’s continued energy exports and access to financial markets despite US actions. Russia, meanwhile, is taking a more direct approach: it’s considering a measure that would make it illegal for Russian companies to abide by US sanctions.

The Trump administration isn’t going to make it easy on the Europeans. On Tuesday it blacklisted Valiollah Seif, the governor of Iran’s central bank, as well as Iraq’s Bilad Bank, both accused of funneling money from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps throughout the Middle East (i.e., to Hezbollah). Targeting the head of Iran’s central bank is to some degree just a symbolic gesture–the worst case scenario is that Iran replaces him and the bank goes on about its business. But it’s a clear preliminary to sanctioning the central bank itself, which would cripple Iran’s banking system and almost instantly shut off all of its energy exports. That may be a bridge too far even for Trump, but the uncertainty created by sanctioning Seif–and the threat implied in doing so–could have a major impact all by itself.

Finally, here’s Iranian journalist Fariba Pajooh cutting through the geopolitics and explaining, based on her own experience dealing with the pre-nuclear deal sanctions regime, what Trump’s decision will actually mean for the Iranian people:

Although sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program did not directly target medicine or hospitals, they did restrict banking and trade, which limited financing for imports of medicine and led to limited medical supplies, making life difficult for patients.


In 2012, Fatemeh Hashemi, head of the Charity Foundation for Special Diseases, a non-government organization supporting six million patients in Iran, started to speak up about the shortage of medicine in Iran for several diseases such as hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. She even wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, calling on him to intervene for the health of Iranian patients who, she said, have had “their basic human rights” taken away because of the sanctions.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, French energy giant Total said that it will pull out of its contracts in Iran unless granted a waiver by the US government, citing its ties to US banks and its US shareholders. It joins a handful of other firms–Boeing, Airbus, Siemens–in preemptively announcing its plans to get the hell out of Iran to comply with US sanctions. Total was one of the few large European firms that had gone forward with major investments in Iran, and this decision cannot be seen as anything other than a huge blow to European efforts to keep the deal alive.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you’ve enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can follow this site (and like, share, etc. its content) on lots of social media outlets. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.