West Asia Review: December 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

As the Iranian regime retained the strategic patience avoiding escalation beyond the threshold over the calls for revenge for the killings of General Soleimani and most recently the noted nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizade, its Parliament ( majlis) did not hesitate to pass a law raising the enrichment level to nearly six times to 20% while asking suspension of IAEA inspections. While impatiently waiting for change of guard in US, this was possibly the counter pressure tactic on the parties to JCPOA (Nuclear agreement) especially Europeans and President elect Joe Biden so that the issue remains on the priority agenda. Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted to say that higher enrichment was permissible and is reversible if all parties adhere to their obligations. Even though the Biden Administration has indicated to return to the table and rejoin the JCPOA the terms and pre-conditions will determine whether there will be any traction especially as the Europeans have maintained that the unilateral US sanctions were the spoiler to any viable forward movement. Meanwhile, Israel and Saudi Arabia continued to be vocal against any relaxation to Tehran as Trump imposed more sanctions in his final weeks on Iran. Iranians continued to expect an escalation by outgoing Administration.

One has to grant that Trump Administration continued to build upon its successes in Middle East especially as it mediated in normalisation of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel after UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. Israeli PM Netanyahu lost the confidence of his coalition partners over the Budget and the 4th elections in two years have been called. Jared Kushner Senior Adviser and Son-in law of Trump and Kuwait Emir remained engaged and kept on ironing out differences with regard to lifting of Qatar’s blockade by the Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) which eventually happened on January 5 at the GCC Summit.

Iraq has been caught between Iran and US. Although Iranians denied the attacks on US Embassy in Baghdad Head of the Iraqi Sadrist movement Muqtada Al-Sadr's condemned the rocket attacks on diplomatic missions in Iraq and called on both the US and Iran to keep his country away from their conflict. Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the remarks regarding Iranian tensions with the US as "suspicious" and "harmful".

President Erdogan of Turkey in recent times shown interest in improving relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel. He said “The Palestine policy is our red line. However, "If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different. We would like to bring our ties to a better point." Israeli MFA seems to have appointed a group to vet the Turkish intent.

The Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad (ITI) train is expected to resume operations next year after the key requirements for the revival of the service have been completed, according to Adil Karaismailoglu, Turkey's minister of transport and infrastructure, as per media reports. The ITI framework was launched in 2009. Speaking at the 10th edition of the joint meetup of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) in Istanbul, Karaismailoglu said that the railway line project has been specifically designed to boost economic ties between Istanbul, Tehran and Islamabad. The rail route covers a total distance of 6,500 kilometres. It is spread at a length of 2,600 kilometres in Iran, 1,950 kilometres in Turkey and 1,990 kilometres in Pakistan.

In Yemen, a new Cabinet comprising 24 ministers, including some representing the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), was formed as a result of efforts by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik was reappointed. In the new Government, the STC and the current government will share power equally. It still has a major challenge from Houthis as on arrival at the Aden airport the cabinet faced a powerful blast.

On December 17, the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring witnessed still smouldering thirst for devolution of power in the region and better economic conditions and opportunities for development and employment.

India continued its outreach to the region. PM Modi spoke to Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim and Dr S Jaishankar , EAM visited Doha and had extensive discussions with his counterpart as well as called on the Emir and handed over a letter from PM inviting the Ruler of Qatar to visit India. The two Ministers discussed ways to strengthen the multifaceted bilateral relationship in areas such as energy, trade, investment, food processing, healthcare, education, culture, defence and security. EAM also held virtual consultations with his Omani counterpart and congratulated Oman on its 50th National Day while discussing the strategic and security partnership. 16th Round of Secretary level Foreign office consultations were held with Israel and comprehensively reviewed comprehensively reviewed the progress in ongoing cooperation, especially in the strategic fields of defence and security, counter-terrorism, cyber security, etc as also in other important areas of water and agriculture, science & technology, innovation and start-ups, energy, academic collaboration, furthering trade and mutual investments. 3rd India -Jordan foreign office consultations were held. MOS (EA) Shri V Muraleedharan visited Oman and also held virtual consultations with his Sudanese counterpart.

As a follow up to PM Modi’s discussions with Uzbek President, the first Trilateral Working Group Meeting between India, Iran and Uzbekistan on the joint use of Chabahar Port was held virtually on December 14. During the meeting, sides discussed joint use of Chabahar Port for trade and transit purposes and enhanced regional connectivity. All sides also noted the significant role played by Chabahar port for the region to deliver humanitarian assistance during the COVID pandemic. They also welcomed India’s proposal to hold "Chabahar Day” on the side-lines of the International Maritime Summit scheduled to be hosted by India in January 2021.

Chief of Army Staff General Naravane paid the first visit to UAE and Saudi Arabia which underscored the strategic cooperation in defence and security areas.More Details ….

Iranian Parliament introduces bill to increase enrichment levels

Iranian Parliament on 1 December passed bill to block UN inspections at the nuclear facilities and push the government to enhance the uranium enrichment levels up to 20 percent in case of lack of action by France, the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany to ease the sanctions. It also includes provision to commission new centrifuges at Natanz and Fordo nuclear sites. The bill called, “Strategic Action to Eliminate Sanction and Defend Iranian Nation's Interests” offered the European states three months to relax sanctions on Iran's key oil and gas sector and restore its access to the international banking system. The bill voted by 251 members in the 290 member Assembly was brought in the background of domestic outrage over the killing of the nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on 29 November. The bill was initially tabled in the parliament in August but it gained momentum after Fakhrizadeh’s death. The bill was subsequently approved by the Guardian Council. Notably, President Hasan Rouhani expressed his opposition to the bill calling it harmful to its diplomatic efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Parliament Dissolved in Israel

The Israeli parliament, Knesset was dissolved by 61-54 votes on 23 December paving way for fourth election in March 2021. Israel has witnessed two elections in April and September 2019. Both elections failed to produce majority government. The election for the current government was held on 2 March 2020 in which Likud under incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan under Benny Gantz secured 36 and 33 seats respectively. The two largest parties along with their allies however failed to cross the 61 seat majority mark in the 120 member Knesset. Eventually, Likud and Kahol Lavan in the background of the COVID-19 crisis decided to form a unity government. The Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz’s political platform was based on anti-corruption and he emerged as a credible political contender against Netanyahu. During Gantz’s short political career, he has managed to gather support from left wing and secular Jewish voters that traditionally vote for Labour or Meretz as well as right-wing voters opposed to Netanyahu. Gantz’s political compromise has been highly unpopular among his supporters and several senior party leaders from his party withdrew support for the new-Netanyahu led government. Netanyahu insisted on staying on as the Prime Minister for the first 18 months followed by Gantz taking over the top post. The deal was aimed to delay the corruption trial against Netanyahu.

The public discontent however continued to grow against Netanyahu government due to mismanagement of COVID-19 crisis and corruption charges and large scale protests in major cities such as Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem were reported. The normalisation agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan failed to quell the outrage against the Prime Minister. During this period, cabinet ministers belonging to Kahol Lavan on several occasions criticised the Likud leader. Gantz blamed Netanyahu for blocking the new budget eventually breaking the fragile alliance. Netanyahu is currently seeking to benefit for the swift vaccination policy prior to the coming election to improve his chances of winning the next term.

Israel on 2 December procured the German-made vessel, Saar- 6 Corvette. It is the most advanced naval vessel in its class. Israel is seeking to expand its naval capacity in light of the growing tensions with Iran and its allies. The enhanced capacity will help Israel to protect its energy assets in Eastern Mediterranean Sea and carry out missions in Red Sea and Persian Gulf region.

Thaw in Inter-GCC Tensions

The US President Donald Trump in the last month of his presidency has renewed attempts at reconciliation between the Saudi led coalition and Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan etc had imposed trade embargo on Qatar since mid 2017s. The Saudi led coalition demanded Qatar to cut off ties with Iran and its allies and shut down, Al Jazeera News Channel. Qatar however has managed to stay afloat. Among the regional actors, Kuwait has been actively mediate between the two neighbours.

In the background of Israel’s normalisation agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, the US is pressurising Qatar to establish ties with Israel and strengthen the US’ military foothold in the region. Qatar already enjoys extensive ties with Israel especially in the management of Gaza. On 4 December, Saudi Arabia announced that it is ready to reconcile with Qatar. Jared Kushner has played a key role in softening Saudi position. It is however unlikely that Qatar would give in to the Saudi Arabia’s terms. The UAE has welcomed the development and appreciated the efforts of Kuwait and the US to strengthen Gulf unity.

First Railway Link between Iran and Afghanistan Opens

The 140 kms railway line between eastern Iran and western Afghanistan was inaugurated on 10 December. The railway line would be extended by 85 kms to Herat. The project was launched in 2007. The project worth US$ 75 million was completely funded by the Iranian government as part of its development assistance to Afghanistan. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaking in the video conference noted that the government manage to complete the project despite the US sanctions. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani thanked Iran for the project and expressed hope that it would expand trade between both states.

Iran is seeking to project itself as regional transit hub connecting Afghanistan, Central Asia, West Asia and South Asia. It has rail links with Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Turkey.

Normalisation between Morocco and Israel

Morocco on 10 December announced its decision to establish ties with Israel. It became the fourth Arab state to normalise with the Jewish state. The US subsequently announced that it would conduct US$ 1 Billion arms deal with Morocco. Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner led a delegation from Israel to Morocco on 21 December on the first known direct flight since the two states.

The US also recognised the disputed Western Sahara region as part of Morocco and stated its intention to open a consulate in the territory. The incoming President Joe Biden would have to face the decision on accepting Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed region.

Besides Morocco, Bhutan established ties with Israel on 12 December after Israeli and Bhutanese ambassadors to India signed agreement in New Delhi. Bhutan’s diplomatic efforts are unrelated to the US initiative in West Asia. Bhutan relied on India for guidance on its foreign and defence policy until the friendship treaty was revised in 2007. Bhutan maintains diplomatic relations with around 53 countries. Israel expressed hope that it would create new avenues for cooperation between the two countries in water management, technology, human resource development, agricultural sciences etc.

Russia to Establish Naval Base in Sudan

Russia on 9 December has signed an agreement to establish a naval base in Sudan. The agreement allows Russian forces to simultaneously place up to four navy ships in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The duration of the agreement is 25 years and it could be automatically extended for 10-year periods if none of the parties objects to it. Russia stated that the naval base is not directed against any state, but would strengthen regional maritime security. Russia is seeking to restore its naval presence in crucial maritime zones including the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Sudan in exchange would receive weapons from Russia.

The US on 14 December imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Defence Industry Directorate (SSB), its chief Ismail Demir and three other employees over deployment of Russian made S-400 surface to air missile system. The US had earlier rejected Turkey’s request for the sale of F-35 fighter jets. Turkey asserted it would not revert the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles defence systems and called the US decision as unfair. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called the US move as manifestation of its arrogant attitude towards international law. Turkey is a crucial member of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and it has the second largest army within the alliance. Trump’s decision is likely to increase pressure on the Joe Biden administration.

Turkey proposed to form working group to assess the potential impact of the S-400s on NATO systems. The US had initially rejected the proposal. In late December, talks began over formation of a working group.

Lebanon Deadlock Continues

In Lebanon, the political deadlock over the cabinet selection process has continued in December. Since the October 2019 protest that led the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Harari, the country has been under political turmoil. The peoples demand for efficient technocratic government led to the appointment of Hasan Diab in December 2019 and Mustapha Adib in August 2020. Diab government resigned as a result of public outrage after 4 August Beirut Port blast. Mustapha Adib after his appointment failed to gather consensus over his cabinet selection. The cabinet portfolios in Lebanon are traditionally controlled by the political blocs. Hezbollah and Amal that controls the Finance Ministry were unwilling to give up control of the crucial portfolio. The political impasse over the cabinet selection process led to Adib’s resignation within one month.

Lebanon is currently the most indebted state in the world and its economic conditions and the rate in inequality has been further accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis and the Beirut blast. France, the former colonial power in this situation is leading the international efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the country. The funding channel would however been opened only after the appointment of a new government that is willing to undertake economic and social reform. In this context, Saad Harari has been reappointed as the Prime Minister in October 2020. Harari similar to Adib is facing difficulty in building consensus in the cabinet formation process. France and the international community are pressuring Harari to hasten the government formation process.

France and the UN on 2 December organised a video conference to explore measures to channel funding to Lebanon needed for rehabilitation and reconstruction of vital economic assets. During the December conference, fund has been created that would be managed by the World Bank, the U.N. and the European Union to provide support including food, healthcare, education and the reconstruction of the Port of Beirut. France has stressed that the bailout would be available only if the political blocs can reach political consensus over government formation and implement a roadmap for reforms.

On 10 December, Judge Fadi Sawwan, the prosecutor of the instigation charged former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Fenianos, both former ministers of public works with carelessness and negligence in Beirut blast.

Explosion in Southern Yemen

In Aden, shortly after the newly formed cabinet landed in the airport, a large explosion killed 25 and injured 110 people. The Abdrabbuh Hadi government blamed the Houthi movement of launching four ballistic missiles towards the airport. The cabinet members after being rescued from the airport were transferred to a palace which was attacked subsequently. One bomb laden drone was shot down near the palace. The Houthi movement is seeking to disrupt the fragile peace between the Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council.

On 18 December, the Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) announced a new power-sharing cabinet that would include STC members. Hadi government forces and STC are crucial allies for Saudi-UAE military coalition to contain the Houthi movement. However, infighting between the Hadi government and southern separatists has increased over the control of the southern region including the city of Aden. The STC had declared autonomy from Hadi government in April 2020 weakening the anti-Houthi bloc. Eventually, the Riyadh agreement has facilitated reconciliation among the political groups in the southern region. The new cabinet includes five ministers from Yemen’s biggest political blocs, including the STC and Islah party. Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik was reappointed as the head the new cabinet. Hadi has kept control over defence, interior, foreign affairs and finance ministries.

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