West Asia Round-up - November 2019
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Efforts are underway to de-escalate tensions between Iran on the one side and the US and Saudi Arabia on the other. Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi had met Secretary Pompeo in Washington and second time carried the message to his Iranian counterpart Jawad Zarif as Iran decided to cross the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Nuclear Deal prescribed thresholds on enrichment. Zarif emphasized the necessity for reducing tensions in the Arabian Gulf while reiterating their proposed plan for dialogue called “Hormuz Peace Endeavour”.

Meanwhile, protests and demonstrations continued in Iran against the regime and hiked up prices of oil and essential commodities. US continued to criticize the Iranian regime and voiced support to the protesters. Iran has announced next elections to be held in February in the hope that protests on the streets will subside. Meanwhile, in a Joint Statement Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden agreed to join and be shareholders in the Instrument for Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) as they attached the utmost importance to the preservation of JCPOA with Iran while urging it to return to full implementation of the provisions of the Agreement.

On November 27-28, China hosted the first Middle East Security Forum in Beijing, with the participation of over 200 high level representatives from leading think tanks and opinion makers from 30 countries, who deliberated on the need for China to take a more robust initiative in the region. There was also great appreciation for China’s consistent support to the Palestinian cause and possible role especially in the resolution of the many hotspots in the region since China has good relations with all countries in the Middle East. They even urged and envisaged Chinese leadership to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia as US was losing its edge in the region. There was call for greater Chinese economic and security engagement as well as broad support was voiced for the Belt and Road Initiative. The leaders of the delegations had an exclusive discussion with the Foreign minister Wang Yi.

Iraq continues to be in the throes of demonstrations and protests since October 1 when people began to protest against rampant government corruption, underdevelopment, price rise, poor services and undue Iranian influence and intervention in Iraq. Over 300 people have died. The Iranian consulate in Najaf has been attacked twice. Although Prime Minister Mahdi has also resigned but no sign of abatement in protests. Meanwhile to add fuel to fire a New York times report accused Iran of moving short range ballistics missiles to Iraq taking advantage of unstable situation there and a Pentagon official Joh Rood reportedly claimed that Iran could carry out aggressive actions.

PM Modi reiterated India’s continued support for the Palestinian cause on the International Day of Solidarity clearly articulating India’s stand and position. He also hoped for an early resumption of dialogue between Palestine and Israel.

US yet again created a confusion in the region by changing its policy on illegal settlements in the occupied areas in West Bank, making them virtually legal and unbridled. The Gaza continues to suffer with more extremist attacks and counter attacks by Israeli forces. No immediate solution or the US announced “Deal of the Century” is likely in near future as no party was able to form a government in Israel despite best efforts of President Rivlin. Third election is most likely as political uncertainty ensues that is further compounded by arraignment of PM Netanyahu in the corruption cases.

India’s Support for Palestine

On 13 November 2019, India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador K Nagaraj Naidu stressed on India’s firm support for 5.5 million Palestinian refugees and India’s financial aid to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been increased from US$ 1.25 million in 2016 to US$ 5 million in 2018 and 2019. India has pledged to contribute US$ 5 million in 2020. On 19 November 2019, India voted in favour of the resolution in solidarity with the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination in United Nations General assembly (UNGA). In terms of votes, 165 states voted in favour of the resolution and five states namely Israel, the US, Nauru, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands did not support the resolution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ahead of the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people on 29 November 2019, expressed his solidarity with the Palestinian cause, in which he stated, “On the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, I reiterate India's strong support for the Palestinian cause. I also express our solidarity with the Palestinian people in their efforts to establish a sovereign, independent, viable and United State of Palestine co-existing peacefully with Israel. We hope for an early resumption of the dialogue between Palestine and Israel for moving towards a comprehensive and negotiated resolution. Our enhanced project assistance and capacity building initiatives will continue to contribute to Palestinian-nation-building”.

Israeli Strikes in Gaza

Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on 12 November 2019 conducted an airstrike killing Palestinian Islamic Jihad Baha Abu al-Ata, his wife Asma Abu al-Ata and four others in Shajaiyah in Gaza. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 45 people have been injured in the airstrikes. The IDF called it a pre-emptive strike accusing Al-Ata of preparing terror operations inside Israel. Meanwhile, two Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders were also killed in Damascus during this period.

The Islamic Jihad leader Khaled al-Batsh vowed to take revenge against Israeli actions and more than 150 rockets were launched inside Israeli territory injuring 17 Israelis. Israel in response conducted airstrikes killing 34 Palestinians. Israel during the air attacks targeted Hamas assets. On 14 November 2019, Israel and Hamas agreed to a truce to avoid further escalation.

The US changes Policy on Israeli Settlements in the West Bank

On 18 November 2019, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US does not consider the Israeli settlements in the West Bank as violation of international law. Pompeo highlighted that the US policy on settlements has been inconsistent. He stressed that dwelling on legal positions did not enable peace and judicial recognition based on international law would not solve the problem and emphasized the political solution between Israelis and Palestinians. The recent US decision is likely to further enable Israeli entrenchment in Palestinian territories.

From the Israeli perspective, the US decision is likely to benefit the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is expected to contest in the third election in March 2020 after both Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan failed to form a majority government.

Developments in Iraq

Iraq has been undergoing demonstrations that began with public anger against the poor economic condition, poverty, unemployment, corruption, poor quality of services and escalated to demand complete political overhaul based on ethno-sectarian apportionment. The demonstrations beginning in the first week of October has killed more than 400 protestors. While the primary anguish of the protestors was directed towards the government, the public anger was re-directed towards the Iranian influence that emboldens Iraq’s corrupt political structure. The protestors called for boycotting Iranian goods and Iranian consulates in Karbala and Najaf were attacked and torched on 4 November and 27 November 2019 respectively.

On 30 November 2019, the incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi submitted his resignation to the parliament amidst the demonstrations. Prior to Prime Minister Mahdi’s announcement, prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani pushed the parliament to withdraw their support for the Mahdi government and the parliament on 1 December 2019 accepted Mahdi’s resignation.

Iran Protests

On 15 November 2019, Iranians came to the streets to protest against the government’s decision to raise the petrol price by over 50 percent. The Supreme Council of Economic Coordination under President Hassan Rouhani, Chief of Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani agreed on the rollback over petrol subsidies in order to set up funds to assist the poorest section of the society. Accordingly, the new rules besides raising the price of petrol to US$ 0.13 per litre has restricted petrol consumption for personal vehicles at 60 litres per month and the price has been raised to US$ 0.26 per litre for additional supply. On a comparative level, the price of petrol continues to remain cheaper, however, due to the crippling sanctions imposed by the US, the average income and the purchasing power of Iranians have reduced. The petrol price hike has served as a trigger to express the multitude of political and economic hardships such as inflation in prices, unemployment, poverty etc. and demonstrations quickly escalated to demand regime change.

The Iranian regime’s response has been heavy-handed, claiming the protest to be an international conspiracy and according to Amnesty International, around 208 people have been killed which Iran has denied presently.

Protests in Lebanon

Protests in Lebanon that began on 17 October 2019 has continued in the month of November 2019 with protestors opposing the new tax measures on gasoline, online phone calls and tobacco. The protestors stressed on ending government corruption and penalizing the corrupt officials, reforming the sectarian political system, fair taxation and financial system and formation of an independent technocratic government for problem-solving etc. The protests that began in Beirut spread throughout the state in cities such as Tripoli, Tyre, Zouk, Jal el Dib, Saida, Nabatieh, Sour, Zahle, Bekaa, Khaldeh etc.

The government in response lifted the proposed tax on WhatsApp calls and the government released a new budget without implementing any new taxes. The protests however continued and on 29 October 2019, the 13th day of the protest, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation. The protests also witnessed clashes between anti-government demonstrators and Hezbollah and Amal supporters. The protestors in November has continued to express their dissatisfaction over the government measures and public resentment has continued to loom large within Lebanon.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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