West Asia Round Up: September, 2019
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Abstract
The Persian Gulf Crisis

The Middle East continued to worry the world especially in the wake of drone attacks on the two Saudi oil facilities that reduced the Saudi oil output by almost half. It displayed the vulnerability of crucial Saudi assets and the vital installations, as well as the limitations of the American shield and the latest arms and equipment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Although Houthis claimed responsibility, the Americans and the regional allies were quick to blame the Iranians which the latter obviously rejected. Both sides began to rearm, with the Americans deciding to deploy more arms, military personnel and experts.

Despite sabre rattling, good sense prevailed on the Iranian President Rouhani and the United States President Trump, with the public wanting to avoid any war or military confrontation. Even a possibility of a talks ensued in accordance with the French proposal that was broadly acceptable to the two sides, especially on the side-lines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The meeting did not take place since the Iranians insisted on lifting the sanctions and wanted the meeting in P5+1 (namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) format while the Americans insisted on unconditional talks. Reportedly, in view of fresh sanctions, Rouhani refused to take a call from President Trump and accused Trump of derailing the possibility of the dialogue.

Meanwhile, after Trump’s declaration that Iranians knew where to reach him and that he did not want war. Even Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) preferred dialogue over all-out conflict that would be disastrous for the region. During his UNGA, Rouhani came out with a call for a ‘Coalition of Hope’ (Hormuz Peace Endeavour) inviting all the regional countries to work together for collective security and calling the Americans as the outsiders. The Parliament Speaker Ali Larjani, welcomed MBS’s preference for dialogue and talks and said Iran was ready for it. In an interview to Al Jazeera, he said “An Iranian-Saudi dialogue could solve many of the region’s security and political problems”. He further added that Saudi Arabia did not have depend on external friends like US, and Iran was ready for talks without any preconditions”.

Yemen

Iraqi President Mahdi visited Riyadh and after his discussions with MBS stated that no power in the Middle East possesses weapons that can deliver a fatal blow to the adversary and that chaos and destruction will hit the region in its entirety. He further added that it was imperative to resolve the long running conflict in Yemen as a prelude to achieving peace in the region. Iran also asked Houthi rebels to accept any ceasefire agreement that is offered by Saudi Arabia. Saudis were also hopeful of early resolution of the Yemen conflict. Meanwhile, KSA and UAE decided to join the US led Alliance to secure waterways and energy routes in the Middle East to ensure international maritime security. The alliance included US, Australia, UK and Bahrain.

India-Iran

Meanwhile on the side-lines of UNGA, Prime Minister Modi met Iranian President Rouhani and discussed bilateral and regional issues, and possibly, tried to assuage Iranian concerns about India almost stopping import of oil from Iran due to severity of the US sanctions. External Affair Minister S. Jaishankar, who also meet his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, claimed that the Iranians understood and appreciated Indian position even if the Iranian Ambassador Ali Chegani in Delhi, made some unsavoury remarks with regard to bilateral issues.

China-Iran

While defying the US in the wake of on-going trade war, China continued to deepen its ties with Iran on strategic, economic, military and geo-political levels. During the meeting between Javad Zarif and Wang Yi in late August, it was decided to upgrade the ties further. Consequently, China will invest US$ 280 billion on Iranian oil, gas and petrochemicals industries. In addition it will invest $120 billion in Iranian infrastructure. More importantly, China announced it will station 5000 security officers to safeguard large Chinese projects, meaning thereby a closer military engagement and strategic support to the Iranian establishment.

Israel

The third successive elections failed to produce a clear majority (61) for any party when PM Netanyahu’s Likud (32) came a close second to Benny Gatz’s Blue & White Party (33). The Arab Party extened outside support to Gantz. However, President Rivlin, for the sake of stability and continuity, invited Netanyahu to form the government. The task is indeed difficult and possibly the hastily stitched up coalitions may not last even if the opposing politicians bury their differences. Netanyahu has lost significantly in the popular support. His friend President Trump did not make any contacts or called him, leaving it as an internal matter and stating that “Our relationship is with Israel”.

Syria Drawdown

While President Putin declared that end of conflict was imminent, and development of war ravaged country should begin. President Erdogan of Turkey, miffed by US ambivalence, reiterated that he was ready to launch cross border land and air operations into Syria East of Euphrates River in order to push back the US backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militias whom Turkey regards as insurgents and terrorists. Turkey wants to create a safe zone for the return of the two million Syrian refugees out of the 3.6 million it hosts. In view of Trump’s policy to drawdown from theatres of war, it was very likely that it will allow Turkey the leeway it wants.

Key Developments
Saudi Oil Facilities Attacked

On 14 September 2019, the Houthis launched drone attacks on Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia. The Abqaiq processing facility is the world’s largest crude oil stabilisation plant processing up to seven million barrels per day while the Khurais oil field produces one million barrels per day. The attack disrupted supply of 5 million barrel per day, i.e. nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s total output. The US along with Saudi Arabia has suggested that the attack was launched from Iran. The US President Donald Trump, however, negated the possibility of an open conflict with Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

Israel Political Deadlock

Israel underwent its second national election of 2019 on 17 September 2019. On 9 April 2019, the national election was held after Likud led right-wing coalition gained majority. However, on 30 May 2019, the Israeli Parliament Knesset voted to dissolve itself after Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdrew support from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud led pro-right coalition. In the September 2019 election, Netanyahu’s Likud party secured 32 seats and his toughest competitor, Benny Gantz’s party, Kahol Lavan secured 33 seats. The Arab parties coalition, Joint List, secured the third-highest number of seats at 13. Besides, Shas party, Yisrael Beiteinu, United Torah Judaism, Yamina, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union secured 9, 8, 7, 7, 6 and 5 seats respectively.

The ruling party or coalition in Israel requires 61 seats in the 120 member Knesset. However, the two largest parties have failed to form a winning majority and negotiations with potential alliance partners are presently at a stalemate. Likud’s discussions with Avigdor Lieberman could not succeed and in Kahol Lavan’s discussions with the Arab coalition, several members of the Arab coalition refused to endorse Benny Gantz. Likud and Kahol Lavan also had discussions to form a national unity government but a solution could not be reached. Israel is presently undergoing through a political deadlock and the future outcome is uncertain. Moreover, Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career is facing its biggest threat from the indictment procedures against charges of corruption; Netanyahu’s failure to form a government will waive the immunity enjoyed by sitting Prime Minister from criminal proceedings.

Iran Admitted to Holding Talks with Taliban

Iranian Foreign Ministry, on 17 September 2019, acknowledged it has been holding talks with the Taliban representatives, since December 2018 with approval from the Afghan government. The announcement came after the US-Taliban peace talks collapsed over differences with regard to timeline of US withdrawal and the Taliban’s security guarantees. The Iranian Foreign Ministry mentioned that the Iranian government held discussions with a Taliban delegation recently.

Iran and the Taliban have traditionally been at loggerheads largely due to Taliban’s rigid sectarian and religious ideology. During Taliban’s political control in Afghanistan, Iran had supported, funded and trained Shiite groups. However, in recent years there have been reports of increasing coordination with Taliban as Iran sees itself as a crucial player in Afghanistan’s political future. The US has alleged that Iran is supplying Taliban with resources and arms which Iran has denied.

Syria Grants General Amnesty

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, on 15 September 2019, granted general amnesty to prisoners for all crimes committed before 14 September 2019. The presidential pardon changed death sentences with life imprisonments and changed life sentences with hard labour to 20-year long sentence with hard labour. Moreover, prisoners suffering from terminal diseases such as cancer would be freed. At the same time, military deserters were offered general amnesty if they surrender within three months for those living within the state and six months for those living outside the state. The decision to grant general amnesty is aimed at reaching a political rapprochement within the state.

Trilateral Summit in Ankara

On 16 September 2019, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for trilateral summit in the Turkish capital, Ankara. The three leaders talked about the attacks on Saudi Arabia and expressed concerns over the security situation in Yemen. The meeting is seen as a follow-up of the Astana Peace Process to stabilise the political situation and end the war in Syria. The meeting was aimed at reaching a political consensus over pre-emptive security measures in Syria as well as other parts of the region.

Iran Seizes Smuggling Ship

Iran, on 16 September 2019, announced that Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had seized a vessel smuggling diesel near the Greater Tunb Island. After the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and re-imposition of sanctions including that on Iranian oil supplies, Iranian oil has become cheaper and susceptible to smuggling. Therefore, US sanctions have resulted in a black market that supplies Iranian oil through land and sea routes. Iran, earlier in the month, had captured another vessel smuggling fuel in the Persian Gulf region, detaining 15 Filipino crew members.

(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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