West Asia Round Up-April 2021
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Iran and US continued to indirectly discuss full compliance and Washington’s lifting of sanctions and return to JCPOA (Iran Nuclear deal) at Vienna with the assistance and mediation of E3 (France, Germany, UK) + China and Russia. While both sides continued to stick to their positions, they sent positive signals that incremental progress is being made which has been affirmed by the three rounds of discussions held to break the impasse. As President Biden reiterated his commitment to JCPOA, Israeli establishment remained firmly against the deal. However, in a media interview, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that the US will not tolerate Iran's destabilizing activities in the Middle East at the expense of the ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

US also remained committed to ending of the Saudi war in Yemen to alleviate the human suffering despite the Houthis continuing to attack the Saudi targets and installations. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia called for ceasefire and to start negotiations with the Houthis while simultaneously extending a fig leaf to the Iranians to work together for creating peaceful conditions in the region. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman also discussed the situation in Yemen with US envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking.


It seemed to be a seasonal effort at some sort of rapprochement among various rivals like Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Turkey and Egypt as talks were held at various levels. It was reported that the Saudi and Iranian delegations had met in Baghdad brokered by Iraq even though officially none of them admitted to having met. Again, in a change of stance, Mohammed Bin Salman urged the Iranians to have a constructive approach at the ongoing Vienna talks for the sake of stability in the region.


Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Iraq, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait to discuss bilateral and regional issues and tweeted that “Indications of positive signs on horizon in both tracks.” In Oman he also met the spokesman of the Houthis and urged them to respect the ceasefire and return to negotiating table, called by the Saudis. Iranian foreign ministry said that FM Zarif had “once again stressed our country's view regarding the political solution being the only solution to the crisis of Yemen”.


FM Zarif came under fire when some three hour long confidential tapes made as records in the foreign ministry were leaked in which he claimed that Qassem Soliemani and IRGC carried out their missions overturning the foreign ministry or not keeping them in the loop. It also seemed to suggest that Foreign Minister was in no position to pursue diplomacy effectively due to this constraint. Zarif apologised for the remarks about "the military field rules" in Iran and that he had "scarified diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy." Still Supreme Leader Khamenei in an address praised the slain IRGC head Gen Soleimani and called Zarif’s remarks as a “Big Mistake” and claimed “Nowhere in the world the foreign policy is devised by the foreign ministry and that the diplomatic apparatus is only the “executor” of decisions made at the higher levels like Supreme National Security Council. In the US, John Kerry the then Secretary of State and US negotiator of JCPOA came under fire from US Congress for leaking information to the Iranians and his resignation was asked for a he was a “Traitor”. Meanwhile, moderate President Rouhani, whose second and final term will soon end, said the audio leak was timed so as to sow "discord" in Iran itself, just as the Vienna talks were "at the height of their success”. Also, Iran is slated to go for elections on June 18 when conservatives are expected to gain.

Saudi Arabia

Celebrating the fifth anniversary of the launch of the comprehensive modernization programme in Saudi Arabia, “Vision 2030”, MBS gave a detailed 90-minute TV interview in which he discussed the development plan and various other topics including its foreign relations and the changing dynamic. Saudi Arabia has enhanced its partnership with Moscow and Beijing pursuant to somewhat cooler attitude of Washington DC under Biden. Russians were happy to see this overt articulation and welcomed the Saudi approach when Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “Given our shared outlook, we are ready to expand our relations with Saudi Arabia, including the implementation of agreements reached during President Putin’s visit to Riyadh in October 2019”. Crown Prince had underscored the need for building global relations according to principles of equality, mutual respect, fair consideration of national interests, and non-interference in the internal affairs of each other’s country.


Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin was the first high level US dignitary to visit Tel Aviv in the wake of growing tensions between Iran and Israel pursuant to the upcoming JCPOA talks and clandestine attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities could derail the process. He reassured his host Benny Gantz that US will retain qualitative edge for Tel Aviv and that alliance with Israel was central to regional security as well as US interests. Gantz also confirmed that "Israel views the United States as a full partner across all operational theatres, not the least Iran, and we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel." PM Netanyahu has often said that Israel will not be bound by a renewed deal, which he describes as a temporary cap on Iranian nuclear capabilities that would pave the way to bomb-production in the longer-run.


In order to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians, US decided to renew cooperation with UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) and extended a financial assistance with $75 million in development aid, $10 million in conflict mitigation programmes and $150 million in humanitarian aid to UNRWA. This is in addition to the $15 million in humanitarian assistance to address the COVID-19 pandemic and food insecurity the US announced in March. State Department spokesman Ned Price stressed that the US “is committed to advancing prosperity, security, and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians in tangible ways in the immediate term, which is important in its own right, but also as a means to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution.” He further added that this closer collaboration and reinstatement of aid to UNRWA will also enable proper utilisation and ensure scrutiny. ‘All assistance will be provided consistent with US law. Economic assistance includes support for small and medium enterprises’ recovery from the effects of COVID-19; support for needy households to access basic human needs, such as food and clean water; and assistance for Palestinian civil society. A portion of this funding will support the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, as it continues to provide necessary and life-saving treatments to Palestinians,” according to the Department of State. However, Palestinian elections, slated to be held in May after 15 years, have been in jeopardy since Tel Aviv has not yet confirmed whether Palestinians in Jerusalem and West Bank will be allowed to vote. As such Netanyahu, after the 4th election in two years, has been struggling to form a government. Absence of a proper government in Israel itself became a convenient excuse not to permit Palestinian elections in the occupied territory according to various observers.


In view of the statement made by UAE Ambassador Otaiba to US that his country was mediating for ‘a healthy and functional relationship ‘between Delhi and Islamabad and that the reports of intelligence officials meeting in Abu Dhabi, it was normal to expect that Pak FM (Foreign Minister) Shah Mahmoud Qureshi and his Indian counterpart Dr S Jaishankar might meet during their separate but concurrent (April 18) bilateral visits to Abu Dhabi. However, although Pakistani Minister in his interviews mentioned that dialogue was desirable any meeting between the two was officially denied. They both adhered to bilateral relations with UAE predicated also on the welfare of their respective diaspora in the post pandemic scenario. Pak Foreign office said apart from discussing bilateral and regional developments “Pakistan and the UAE enjoy strong fraternal ties, rooted deep in common faith and shared history and values. High-level visits between the two countries have played a pivotal role in providing further impetus to strengthening bilateral cooperation and collaboration on a wide range of issues". Qureshi also visited Qatar, Iran and Turkey. Pakistan’s efforts and role in the Afghan imbroglio was discussed as US troops were expected to start a drawdown after two decades.


It was reported that Prince Hamza tried to foment a coup against his brother HM King Abdullah II. For quite some time he has been critical of corruption and inefficiency and lack of governance in the country and was working closely with some disgruntled tribal leaders. It was also surmised that the coup was being engineered at the behest of Saudi Arabia and /or Israel. While Prince Hamza was detained several other senior and prominent functionaries were arrested. However, eventually with the intervention of their uncle Prince Hassan bin Talal the matter was resolved with in the palace and the errant Prince repledged his loyalty to the King thereby averting a major crisis temporarily. King received extensive support from the Arab world and the West.

PM Modi in his greetings on the 100th anniversary of the Hashemite Kingdom praised the King and his leadership. The Prime Minister noted that India and Jordan were united in the belief that moderation and peaceful co-existence were essential for peace and prosperity. He stressed that the two sides would continue to walk side by side in their joint efforts for a greater future for all humanity.

Turkey and Armenian Genocide

In accordance with his convictions President Biden decided to recognise (24 April) the over century old Armenian genocide by the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. Even though President Biden and the US officials had informed Turkey about his intent of recognising the 106th anniversary of Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in its dying years, Turkey was not pleased. It maintained that none of the conditions prescribed in international law would qualify the 1915 events to be called genocide. It even threatened of a negative impact on bilateral relations and regional peace and stability.


In view of the second wave of the Covid-19 and more virulent Indian strains several countries in the region banned/ restricted entries of Indians except Qatar. Several others stopped their airline operations. However, most GCC countries have supplied oxygen tankers and other essential supplies to India on priority to help fight the Covid -19.

3rd India -Bahrain High Joint Commission meeting was held in New Delhi (April 6-8). EAM and Bahrain FM Dr Al Zayani co-chaired the meeting. Bahrain is also currently the GCC chair. Both sides agreed to further develop their cooperation in the areas of oil and gas, trade and investment, health, food security, defence, security, renewable energy, education, culture and digital technologies. Both sides also looked forward to celebrating golden jubilee of establishment of their diplomatic relations this year. External Affairs Minister reiterated the invitation to HRH the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Bahrain for visiting India at an early date.

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