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Saturday, January 25, 2020

Iran crisis test drives fundaments of Trump’s foreign policy



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

At the core of US president Donald J. Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran lies the belief that Iran can be forced to negotiate terms for the lifting of harsh US economic sanctions even if it has no confidence in US intentions and adherence to agreements.

The Trump administration’s belief, despite the conviction of much of the international community that maximum pressure has failed and risks provoking a devastating all-out war in the Middle East, says much about the president’s transactional approach towards foreign policy that rests on the assumption that bluster, intimidation and the brute wielding of power can protect US interests and impose US will.

Richard Goldberg, an Iran-hawk who this month resigned as the official on the president’s national security council responsible for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction, signalled in an op-ed in The New York Times, entitled “Trump Has an Iran Strategy. This Is It,” that Mr. Trump attributes no importance to deep-seated Iranian concerns that he is gunning for regime change in Tehran and that building trust is not needed to resolve the Iran crisis.

“The Iranian regime doesn’t need to trust America or Mr. Trump to strike a deal; it just needs to act as a rational actor to avoid collapse,” said Mr. Goldberg, who backed by former national security advisor John Bolton, served for a year in the White House.

Mr. Goldberg appeared to ignore the fact that the US withdrawal 20 months ago from a 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program sparked doubts not only in Iran but across the globe about the value of a US signature on any agreement.

He also appeared oblivious to the fact that Iranian suspicions were reinforced by alllegations that his salary, while at the White House, was paid by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hardline Washington-based think tanks that is believed to have close ties to Israel and the United Arab Emirates. So did anecdotes about how his hardline views provoked clashes with other administration officials.

In his op-ed, Mr. Goldberg suggested that any new agreement with Iran could be ratified by the US Senate.

The Trump administration and Mr. Goldberg’s misreading of what it would take to steer the United States and Iran off a road of more than 40 years of deep-seated mutual distrust and animosity and towards the turning of a new page in their relationship was evident in indirect responses to the former national security council official’s assertions.

”Even if one day we negotiate with the US, the talks will not be with Trump, won’t be strategic (no normalization of ties) and will be done only by conservatives not reformists. We need to see changes in the (US) Congress; whether Democrats will pursue a fair policy by which Iran is not under pressure over its missile program,” said a regime insider.

The Trump administration has demanded among other things that Iran curb its ballistic missile program, a core element of the Islamic republic’s defense strategy given that its armed forces lack a credible air force and navy.

Hardliners, who rather than moderates have proven in other Middle Eastern conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to be the ones capable of cutting deals, are expected to win next month’s parliamentary elections in Iran. The likelihood of hardline advances was enhanced by the fact that scores of moderates have been barred from running for office.

Iranian reformists argue that the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps demonstrates the risk of an Iranian strategy that is pre-empted on eternal hostility towards the United States.

Mr. Goldberg offered a rare indication that the Trump administration recognizes Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation that, based on the assumption that neither the United States nor Iran wants an all-out war, aims to bring the two countries to the brink of an armed conflict in the belief that this would break the logjam and force a return to the negotiating table on terms acceptable to Iran.

Noting that Mr. Trump had failed in the past nine months to respond to multiple Iranian provocations, including the downing of a US drone and attacks on tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and on key Saudi oil facilities, Mr. Goldberg asserted that Mr. Trump “recognized those traps for what they were and exercised strategic patience.”

Mr. Trump’s patience ended in December when he responded to the death of an American contractor in an attack by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and the militias’ siege of the US embassy in Baghdad by first authorizing air strikes against militias bases in Iraq and Syria and then the killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani.

Mr. Goldberg would likely describe the president’s decision not to respond to a subsequent Iranian retaliatory attack on housing facilities for US military personnel in Iraq as a renewed act of strategic patience.

Mr. Trump’s strategic patience is bolstered by his retention of options to further increase maximum pressure on Iran. “Many wrongly believe the United States has already reached full ‘maximum pressure on Iran,” Mr. Goldberg said.

Mr. Goldberg pointed to sanctions targeting Iranian state shipping lines that are set to take effect in June, the administration’s recent identification of Iran’s financial sector as a “primary jurisdiction of money-laundering concern,” this month’s imposition of sanctions on its construction, mining and manufacturing sectors, and Europe’s triggering of the nuclear accord’s dispute mechanism that could lead to the return of United Nations-mandated sanctions.

Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Trump’s belief that imminent economic collapse and international political isolation could prompt Iranian leaders to suddenly place a call to the White House turns Mr. Trump’s handling of the Iran crisis into a litmus test of the president’s approach to foreign relations.

There is little in the torturous history of relations between the United States and the Islamic republic that suggests that pressure will persuade Iran, convinced that Washington is gunning for the fall of the regime, to gamble on an unconditional return to the negotiating table.

Nor does North Korea’s failure to succumb to US pressure even if Mr. Trump, in contrast to his remarks about Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, professed his love for Kim Jong-un.

Mr. Trump’s policy towards Iran, rather than reinforcing Gulf confidence in the United States’ reliability as a guarantor of regional security, has sparked a wait-and-see attitude and nagging doubts about US reliability.

If anything, risky US and Iranian strategies are likely to prove that the crisis can only be defused if both sides garner an understanding of the others’ objectives and some degree of confidence that both parties would remain committed to any agreement they conclude.

So far, US and Iranian policies amount to a dialogue of the deaf that is likely to perpetuate the risk of hostility getting out of hand and incentivize regional players to think about alternative  arrangements that ultimately could weaken US influence and reduce tensions with Iran by including it, despite US policy, in a more multilateral security architecture.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Monday, January 20, 2020

China and India place risky bets on Muslim acquiescence to anti-Muslim policies



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Last month’s Islamic summit in Malaysia failed to challenge with a bang Saudi influence in the Islamic world and Muslim silence about repression of adherents to the faith in countries like China and India. Yet, it has produced ripples that spotlight the risks and fragility of opportunistic acquiescence.

“Despite failing to achieve its immediate objective, the Kuala Lumpur summit has galvanized a stronger response by the OIC and the Gulf Arab states on issues affecting Muslims in India and, to a lesser extent, China,’ said Hasan AlHasan, a scholar who focuses on Gulf-South Asia relations, referring by its initials to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates successfully pressured Muslim countries like Pakistan and Indonesia to boycott the Kuala Lumpur gathering because it was organized beyond the auspices of the Saudi-dominated, Riyadh-based OIC, the usual organizer of Islamic summits.

The Gulf states also feared that the gathering, called to draw attention to the plight of persecuted Muslim minorities, threatened to embarrass Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others who have endorsed the brutal repression of Turkic Muslims in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang and remained silent about mounting discrimination of the world’s largest Muslim minority in India so as not to jeopardize economic relations.

The Gulf states were also worried that expressions of concern about the plight of Chinese Muslims would spotlight their adoption of aspects of China’s developing Orwellian surveillance state that has been most comprehensive in the crackdown in Xinjiang.

More fundamentally, the Kuala Lumpur summit, supported by countries like Turkey, Iran and Qatar as well as Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, highlighted the struggle for leadership of the Islamic world as well as Malaysia’s strained ties with key Gulf states.

Breaches in Saudi and UAE-led efforts to prevent the plight of their co-religionists from disrupting relations with India and China are however emerging and could be widened by a suggestion by India’s top military commander that Kashmiris be interned in ‘de-radicalization camps’ after Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew Kashmir’s status as the country’s only Muslim state and imposed harsh security measures.

General Bipin Rawat’s suggestion raised the spectre of India emulating China’s system of re-education camps in Xinjiang in which at least one million Turkic Muslims are believed to have been incarcerated in an effort to get them to accept that President Xi Jinping’s thoughts supersede precepts of Islam.

General Rawat’s suggestion came on the back of an amended Indian citizenship law that made religion a criterion for refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh but excluded Muslims as well as a Supreme Court decision that was widely seen as favouring Hindus in a dispute over the site of a destroyed mosque in Ajodhya in Uttar Pradesh that Hindus believe was the birthplace of one of their most revered deities.

If implemented, General Rawat’s suggestion would make it more difficult for Muslim states to not only turn a blind eye to what is happening in India but also to the crackdown in China.

Acquiescent Muslim states are already under pressure from Pakistan that is seeking to extract a price for dropping its original support of the Kuala Lumpur summit by pushing the Islamic world to speak out about Kashmir, popular pressure in some Gulf states, and mounting anti-Chinese sentiment in various Central Asian nations.

Pakistan was awarded with the OIC criticizing the amended citizenship law and the court decision and agreeing to discuss Kashmir at a meeting in April although it was unclear at what level.

Similarly, the UAE appeared to be acknowledging Indonesia’s decision not to send vice president Ma’ruf Amin, a senior member of Nahdlatul Ulema, with 50 million followers the world’s largest Muslim organization, to Kuala Lumpur with pledges of US$23 billion in investments.

Efforts by a majority of Muslim states to ignore the plight of their co-religionists may however be built on ice that is melting beyond the OIC concession to discuss Kashmir.

Last month, Nahdlatul Ulema, as well as Muhammadiyah, with 30 million followers another major Indonesian Muslim organization, issued statements condemning the crackdown in Xinjiang.

At the same time, Muhyiddin Junaidi of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, the country’s top clerical body and one of a number of Muslim leaders invited by China to Xinjiang in a bid to convince them that reports of a crackdown were inaccurate, called on the government to more openly denounce Chinese policy.

Standing up for endangered and disenfranchised Muslim and non-Muslim minorities is a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulema, which has launched a global effort to promote a recontextualization of Islam as well as a humanitarian interpretation of the faith that emphasizes human rights.


Pressure to speak out about anti-Muslim policies in China and India could put steps by various Gulf and Central Asian nations to adopt aspects of the surveillance system adopted by China in the firing line.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been accused of deploying surveillance software to monitor the communications of regime critics in country and abroad as well as activists and journalists.

Central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where anti-Chinese sentiment is simmering, are about to test China’s Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced to score a person’s trustworthiness.

The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from millions of cameras in public places, social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.

China has already begun to make deployment of its intrusive surveillance systems a pre-condition for investment in Central Asia. In some cases, China appears willing to supply the infrastructure at no cost as part of a Smart City project developed by controversial telecom giant Huawei for initial roll-out in former Soviet states. 

Liu Jiaxing, head of Huawei’s representative office in Uzbekistan, disclosed China’s insistence on adopting its surveillance approach in an interview with an Uzbek news outlet. “Investors will only go where the situation is stable. In view of this, the implementation of the Safe City project is very important for Uzbekistan as it will help the country develop its investment potential,” Mr. Liu said. 

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The battle for Libya: The UAE calls the shots



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

This week’s inauguration of a new Red Sea Egyptian military base was pregnant with the symbolism of the rivalries shaping the future of the Middle East as well as north and east Africa.

The inauguration took on added significance as rebel Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, backed by United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, snubbed Russian president Vladimir Putin by refusing to agree to a ceasefire in the Libyan war.

Mr. Haftar’s refusal thwarted, at least temporarily, an effort by Mr. Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to structure the ceasefire so that it would align opposing Russian and Turkish interests, allow the two parties to cooperate in the exploitation of Libya’s energy resources, and protect a Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement creating an Exclusive Economic Zone that strengthens Russian-backed Turkish manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean.

The manoeuvres are designed to thwart a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli agreement to build a pipeline that would supply gas to Europe, reducing European dependence on Russian gas in the process.

Critics charge that the maritime agreement that would limit Greek-Cypriot Israeli access to hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, violates the Law of the Sea.

Warning that it would block European Union backing for any Libyan peace deal as long as the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement was in place, Greece was one of the countries Mr. Haftar visited in the days between his rejection of a ceasefire and a conference on Libya hosted by Germany that is scheduled to be held in Berlin on January 19.

Mr. Haftar’s rejection came as Turkish troops arrived in Libya to bolster forces of the internationally recognized government of prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj defending the capital Tripoli against an eight-month old assault by the field marshal’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) that is backed by Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Kremlin, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Prince Mohammed’s presence at the inauguration of the Egyptian naval base underlined the UAE’s influence in Egypt since it backed Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratic elected president and the Emirates’ determination to counter Islamist forces as well as Turkish influence in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

UAE and Egyptian backing of Mr. Haftar is not just about countering jihadist and non-jihadist Islamists as well as Turkey, but also Qatar, Turkey’s ally, which also supports the Libyan rebels.

The UAE-Turkish-Qatari proxy war in Libya is increasingly also coloured by Prince Mohammed and Mr. Al-Sisi’s opposition to efforts to resolve divisions among the Gulf states that spilled into the open with the declaration of a Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in 2017.

Saudi Arabia has hinted in recent months that it may be amenable to an easing of the boycott, a move that is believed to be opposed by the UAE as long as Qatar does not make significant concessions on issues like freewheeling broadcaster Al Jazeera and support for political Islam.

The new naval base’s location symbolizes Egypt’s conundrum that also poses a problem for the UAE at a time that Egypt is at odds with Ethiopia over the operation of a giant dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

Stepping up involvement in Libya risks Egypt becoming embroiled in two conflicts at the same time.


The base is aimed at "securing the country's southern coasts, protecting economic investments and natural resources and facing security threats in the Red Sea," according to a spokesman for Mr. Al-Sisi.


So far, Egypt is banking on mediation helping it avoiding being trapped between a rock and a hard place by achieving a ceasefire in Libya that would keep Egypt’s hands free to deal with Ethiopia were a conflict to erupt.

The question is whether Mr. Haftar, who without signing the ceasefire agreement reportedly told German officials that he would adhere to its terms, and the UAE are willing to play ball.

The proof will be in the pudding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes by insisting in advance of the Berlin talks that they ensure “that the weapons embargo is adhered to again.”

The United Nations has accused the UAE together with several other countries, including Turkey, of violating the UN embargo.

As a result, it may be the UAE rather than Mr. Haftar who has a decisive voice in Berlin.

Said North Africa expert Ben Fishman: “Until Abu Dhabi pulls back its drones, operators, and other crucial military support, the prospects for Libya’s stability will remain dim. Besides the fact that they provide the greatest advantage to Haftar’s forces, focusing on the Emiratis also makes sense because the other foreign players currently have reasons to de-escalate on their own.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Iran crisis: A high-stakes bet on who blinks first



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Two sets of US government cables suggest that Iran hawks in and outside the Trump administration appear to have the upper hand as European countries give hardliners a helping hand by attempting to force Iran to seek a diplomatic solution to a crisis that threatens to engulf the Middle East in yet another military conflict.

Disclosure of the cables advocating a military strike such as this month’s killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani coupled with the withdrawal of a US State Department olive branch that was intended to reassure Iran about the Trump administration’s intentions appear designed to persuade the Islamic republic to back away from its strategy of gradual escalation.

The strategy aims to engineer a situation in which a return to negotiations on the basis of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program is the only way to avoid an all-out war. 

The Trump administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and has since imposed ever harsher economic sanctions on Iran.

Hardliners in Washington believe Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests days after millions of Iranians came out to mourn Mr. Soleimani’s death in what Iranian leaders project as a rallying around the regime is a proof of concept of their approach.

The hard-liners’ strategy was spelled out in a series of unclassified memos sent by David Wurmser, a close associate of John Bolton, while Mr. Bolton was serving as national security advise to President Donald J. Trump. The memos projected a US military operation on the scale of the killing of a Mr. Soleimani as a way of destabilizing the government in Tehran.

Mr. Wurmser’s advice was in line with proposals for destabilizing Iran presented to the White House by Mr. Bolton in the months before his appointment. Mr. Bolton was fired by Mr. Trump in September of last year.

“Iran has always been careful to execute its ambitions and aggressive aims incrementally to avoid Western reactions which depart from the expected. In contrast, were unexpected, rule-changing actions taken against Iran, it would confuse the regime. It would need to scramble,” Mr. Wurmser wrote.

Such a U.S. attack would “rattle the delicate internal balance of forces and the control over them upon which the regime depends for stability and survival… Iranians would both be impressed and potentially encouraged by a targeted attack on symbols of repression,” Mr. Wurmser added.

The leaking of Mr. Wurmser’s memos coincided with a cable from the State Department to US diplomatic missions worldwide that walked back an instruction earlier this month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to limit contacts with Iranian opposition and exile groups in a bid to reassure Iran that the Trump administration was not seeking regime change in Tehran.

The Pompeo cable seemed to be a first step at bridging the gulf of distrust between Washington and Tehran that makes a resolution of the two countries’ differences all but impossible. Iran has long been convinced that regime change is the main driver of US policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Pompeo’s instruction came on the heels of Mr. Trump’s decision not to respond to Iranian missile attacks on US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Mr. Soleimani.

With the government in Tehran on the backfoot as a result of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and renewed anti-government protests, leaders of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 nuclear accord, appear to be buying into the strategy of the Washington hardliners.

The Europeans, responding to Iran’s gradual withdrawal from its commitments under the accord as part of its strategy of gradual escalation, this week triggered its dispute resolution mechanism, that could put Iran’s actions on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and lead to a re-imposition of international sanctions.

British prime minister Boris Johnson further raised the stakes by telling the BBC that he would be willing to back an as yet non-existent proposal by Mr. Trump for a new agreement with Iran. “If we are going to get rid of it (the nuclear accord), then we need a replacement," Mr. Johnson said.

The proof will be in the pudding whether the two-pronged stepping up of US and European pressure on Iran will be sufficient to engineer a breakthrough in efforts to avert escalating tension and a return to the negotiating table.

So far, Iran’s response suggests tensions may have to further escalate before parties, all of whom do not want an all-out war, pull back from the brink.

In a first, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, insisting that all foreign forces should leave the Middle East, warned, in response to the European move and statements, that British, French and German troops may be in danger.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Mr. Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting.

Said a Western diplomat, spelling out European thinking: “This allows us to buy time while making clear to Iran that they cannot continue on this path of non-compliance with no consequences.”

For now, it’s a high stakes poker bet on who blinks first.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Reading tea leaves: US backs off support for regime change in Iran



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

An Iran hawk who advocated killing general Qassim Soleimani, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ordered his diplomats to limit contacts with militant Iranian exile and opposition groups that support either regime change or greater rights for ethnic groups like Kurds and Arabs.

Coming on the back of the Soleimani killing, Mr. Pompeo’s directive appears to put an end to the Trump administration’s hinting that it covertly supports insurgent efforts to at the very least destabilize the Iranian government if not topple it.

A litmus test of the directive by Mr. Pompeo, known to have a close relationship with Donald J. Trump, is likely to be whether the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, distances himself from the controversial National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an offshoot of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group that was taken off the US Treasury’s list of designated terrorists several years ago.

Mr. Giuliani is a frequent, well-paid speaker at gatherings of the group that has built a significant network among Western political elites. The council and the Mujahedeen openly call for regime change in Iran.

The Mujahedeen were moved with US assistance from their exile base in Iraq to a reportedly Saudi-funded secretive facility in Albania.

A New Jersey-based lobbying firm hired by the NCRI, Rosemont Associates, reported last year in its filing as a foreign agent frequent email and telephone contact on behalf of its client with the US embassy in the Albanian capital of Tirana as well as Brian Hook, the US Special Representative for Iran, and Gabriel Noronha, an aide to Mr. Hook.

In his directive, Mr. Pompeo said that “direct US government engagement with these groups could prove counterproductive to our policy goal of seeking a comprehensive deal with the Iranian regime that addresses its destabilizing behaviour.” 

The secretary went on to say that Iranian opposition groups “try to engage US officials regularly to gain at least the appearance of tacit support and enhance their visibility and clout.”

Mr. Pompeo’s cable, while keeping a potential negotiated deal with Iran on the table, does not stop other US government agencies from covertly supporting the various groups, that also include Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of al-Ahwaz (AMLA), the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI).

Iran, which has long believed that the United States, alongside Saudi Arabia and Israel, supported the Mujahedeen as well as ethnic militants that intermittently launch attacks inside Iran, is likely to take a wait-and see-attitude towards Mr. Pompeo’s directive that could be seen as a signal that the Trump administration is not seeking regime change.

The timing of the directive is significant. Iran responded to the killing of Mr. Soleimani with carefully calibrated missile attacks on US facilities in Iraq in a bid to create an environment in which backchanneling potentially could steer the United States and Iran back to the negotiating table.

While it was uncertain that one round of escalated tensions would do the trick, potential efforts were not helped by the death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, a key interlocutor who has repeatedly helped resolve US-Iranian problems and initiated contacts that ultimately led to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

In his directive, Mr. Pompeo, referring to Komala, acknowledged that “Iran’s regime appears to assess that the United States and/or Israel support this group of militant Kurds.”

Iranian perceptions were reinforced not only by calls for regime change by senior figures like Mr. Giuliani and Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of the kingdom’s intelligence service and ex-ambassador to Britain and the United States, but also the appointment in 2018 of Steven Fagin as counsel general in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Shortly before moving to Erbil, Mr. Fagin met In Washington as head of the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs, with Mustafa Hijri, leader of the KDPI as it  stepped up its attacks in Iranian Kurdistan.

Iranian perceptions were further informed by the appointment of John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s since departed national security advisor and like Mr. Giuliani a frequent speaker at NCRI events, who publicly advocates support of ethnic insurgencies in Iran in a bid to change the regime.

As Mr. Trump’s first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Pompeo named Michael D’Andrea, a hard-charging, chain-smoking covert operations officer, alternatively nicknamed the Dark Prince or Ayatollah Mike, whose track record includes overseeing the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, as head of the CIA’s Iran operations.

The appointment was followed by publication by a Riyadh-based think tank believed to be close to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of a study for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran. Prince Mohammed vowed around the same time that “we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia had stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

The New York Times reported this week that aides to Prince Mohammed had in the past discussed with private businessmen the assassination of Mr. Soleimani, an architect of Iran’s regional network of proxies, and other Iranians as well as ways of sabotaging the country’s economy.

Mr. Pompeo’s directive is unlikely to persuade Iran that Washington has had a change of heart. Indeed, it hasn’t. Mr. Trump maintains his campaign of maximum pressure and this week imposed additional sanctions on Iran.

Nonetheless, potentially taking regime change off the table facilitates backchanneling that aims at getting the two nations to talk again.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Ripples of 1MDB scandal likely to complicate Malaysian ties to key Gulf states



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Disclosures of taped phone calls between embattled former prime minister Najib Razak and a person believed to be United Arab Emirate crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed go a long way to explain Malaysian efforts to counter UAE and Saudi influence in the Muslim world.

The disclosures are the latest incident in what have been complex, if not strained relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia since prime minister Mahathir Mohamad returned to office 19 months ago on the back of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

The scandal involves the siphoning off of billions of dollars from the government investment fund for which Mr. Razak is standing trial.

Strains in relations between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the kingdom’s closest ally, were on display last month when Mr. Mahathir convened in cooperation with Turkey, Iran and Qatar – countries with which the two conservative Gulf states are at odds -- an Islamic summit that did not involve the Saudi-controlled, Riyadh-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC groups 57 Muslim countries and is the usual convener of Islamic summits.

In line with the summit that called for Muslim nations to jointly confront problems Muslims face, Mr. Mahathir earlier this week, in contrast to the Gulf states, condemned the killing in Iraq of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani in a US drone strike as a violation of international law.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE called for restraint in the wake of the killing but few in the two states mourned the commander’s death.

Mr. Mahathir’s critical view of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, rooted partly in their alleged associations with the 1MDB scandal, was evident almost from the moment he assumed office.

Mr. Mahathir appointed as defense minister Mohamed Sabu, known for his critical views of Saudi Arabia.

Within a few months, Mr. Sabu closed the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), a Saudi-funded anti-terrorism centre established together with the Malaysian defense ministry.

Similarly, Mr. Mahathir re-appointed Seri Mohd Shukri as head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Mr. Shukri noted in one of his first statements that “we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, (and the) UAE.”

Mr. Shukri initially resigned in 2016 as the government’s anti-corruption czar because he had been pressured by Mr. Razak to drop his plans to indict the then prime minister.

Excerpts of tapes played by the MACC at a news conference this week suggested that Mr. Razak asked a person believed to be Prince Mohammed to assist in unidentified ways to resolve the scandal and as a “personal favour” help his stepson, Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, evade charges of money laundering.

The voice of the person Mr. Razak was speaking to on the tapes did not identify himself but was addressed by the prime minister as “Your Highness.” The MACC believes on the basis of the context of the conversations that the voice is that of Prince Mohammed.

In the recordings, Mr. Razak advises the person that “it is important to resolve this impasse with respect to 1MDB… so that we put closure as soon as possible because it’s embarrassing to both countries, embarrassing Malaysia and embarrassing the UAE as well as personalities close to you.”

The person rejects a request by Mr. Razak to discuss the issue in person but delegates an associate to talk to the prime minister.

He “has the full authority from me and I really, genuinely, want to find a solution…. It’s in our both interests, Mr. Prime Minister, to solve it,” the person said.

It’s not clear from the tapes whether the UAE actually stepped in a bid to help Mr. Razak and his stepson out of their predicaments.

Approaching the UAE for help made sense for Mr. Razak not only because of the country’s alleged links to the scandal but also because it has established itself as a financial and/or physical safe haven for politicians, businessmen and others while in office or positions of influence as well as those who have fallen into disgrace like former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and his former Thai colleagues Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.

A Pakistani court last month sentenced Mr. Musharraf to death on charges of treason. Mr. Musharraf lives in Dubai where he is receiving medical treatment.

Mr. Shinawatra, who was toppled in a military coup in 2006, fled into exile in Dubai after escaping Thailand to evade serving a prison term for a conflict of interest conviction.

Ms. Shinawatra, Mr. Shinawatra’s sister, followed him in 2017 after being removed in 2014 by another military intervention and having been charged with negligence while serving as prime minister.

Political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, whose views are often seen as reflecting UAE government thinking, anticipating a possible change in relations, disparaged Mr. Mahathir and his election victory at the time.

Mr. Abdulla focussed on Mr. Mahathir’s age as well as the fact that he had forged an alliance with his former deputy prime minister and rival Anwar Ibrahim, an Islamist believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, a bete noir of Prince Mohammed.

“Malaysia seems to lack wise men, leaders, statesmen and youth to elect a 92-year-old who suddenly turned against his own party and his own allies and made a suspicious deal with his own political opponent whom he previously imprisoned after fabricating the most heinous of charges against him. This is politics as a curse and democracy as wrath,” Mr. Abdulla said on Twitter, two days after the election.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture