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James Corbett, Inside World Football

Friday, April 29, 2011

Israel puts itself in a corner by jumping the gun on Palestinian reconciliation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas center to choose between Israel and Hamas.(Illustration by Ahmed Estaitia)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas center to choose between Israel and Hamas.(Illustration by Ahmed Estaitia) 


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick this week to reject Palestinian reconciliation and warn that Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas would have to choose between Israel and Hamas. In doing so, Mr. Netanyahu was banking with good reason on the Obama administration backing his refusal to deal with Hamas, denounced by both the United States and Israel as a terrorist organization. 

At first glance, Mr. Netanyahu’s immediate instinctive response is hardly surprising or unreasonable. Israel has long been able to rely on the support of the United States and Europe in its position toward Hamas. A closer look at the changing world Israel lives in begs however the question whether Mr. Netanyahu would not have served Israel’s interests better by holding his horses and packaging Israel’s refusal in a way that would have put the ball back in the Palestinian court.

Mr. Netanyahu certainly had sufficient time to consider his options. He may have been surprised by the timing of the reconciliation but hardly by its terms that have been on the table throughout the torturous negotiations between the rival factions. 

It took mass anti-government protests that have already changed the political map of the Middle East and North Africa and toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt–a key pillar of Israeli policy–to persuade Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas to bury their differences and agree on the formation of an interim national unity government and integration of their separate security forces. 

Neither Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas nor Hamas leaders Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh were in a position to further ignore public demands to end their debilitating feud. 

Palestinian leaders have so far not been confronted by the kind of protests that toppled the Egyptian and Tunisian Presidents and have turned Syria, Libya and Yemen into battlegrounds in which embattled leaders are fighting for their survival. But recent opinion polls show that the popularity of Mr. Abbas and Mr. Haniyeh competes with those of troubled leaders elsewhere in the region. The Jerusalem Media and Communications Center reports that only 17.9 percent of Palestinian back Mr. Abbas and a mere 11.4 percent Mr. Haniyeh.

The Egyptian-mediated reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas lays out a transition toward Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections in a year from now. A lot can happen in that year that could work in Israel’s favor. Mr. Netanyahu has little to gain by slamming the door shut on day one at a time that whoever he deals with in the Arab world will be more attentive to public opinion than almost ever before and in which growing international criticism of Israeli policies that was beginning to hit home before the anti-government protests erupted in December is certain to rebound.

Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu’s categorical refusal to deal with any entity that incorporates Hamas is hardly likely to sway Palestinian public opinion that has no hope that his government will engage in serious peace negotiations with whoever leads the Palestinians.

The reconciliation agreement raises more questions than it provides answers. For one, it remains unclear who will emerge as Fatah’s presidential candidate. Mr. Abbas has repeatedly said that he will not run for another term, but could change his mind as he has done in the past. 

Hamas for its part has put some of its credibility on the line by agreeing to bury the hatchet. It is under pressure to repeat its electoral success in 2006. A return to armed struggle and positioning itself as a major obstacle to peace is unlikely to earn it brownie points. 

While Hamas will certainly not want Palestinians to return to the negotiating table prior to the elections, it will seek ways to show that it is a more effective Palestinian representative in contacts with Israel. One way for it to do so would be to finally engineer the release of Israeli soldier Gilat Shalit, who it has been holding for the past five years, in exchange for a large number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

By holding his horses and leaving his options open, Mr. Netanyahu would have curried favor with his international critics and subtly played to an Arab world where Palestine may be on the backburner in the fight to topple authoritarian leaders but bounces immediately back as evidenced in the cases of Egypt and Tunisia once a new leadership, even if it is only an interim one, comes to office. 

That is all the more likely to be the case if the Egyptian mediation of the Fatah-Hamas agreement constitutes the first step of Arab recognition of a Palestinian state. Latin American nations were last year the first to buy into Mr. Abbas’ strategy of turning up the pressure on Israel by achieving international endorsement of Palestinian independence. Arab recognition would almost certainly be followed by United Nations endorsement against the wishes of the United States and Israel.

A degree of restraint would also have put Israel a position in which it would have benefitted from issues Palestinians are certain to confront as they try to make the reconciliation work. Palestinians concede privately that a series of recent incidents, including the killing of a Jewish family in the Israeli settlement of Itamar, a bomb explosion in Jerusalem and the murder of an Israeli by a Palestinian policeman signal Mr. Abbas’s problems in maintaining control. 

Those problems could be magnified once Fatah and Hamas integrate their security forces.

The potential benefits of restraint and putting a more positive spin on Israeli policy without fundamentally altering it in a bid to at least dampen Arab public hostility towards Israel are further evident for example in the fact that Syrian opposition figures accuse Syrian forces of employing greater brutality in their suppression of protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad than Israel does in its repression of the Palestinians. The imam of the Al-Omari Mosque in Deraa, where the protests first erupted, is reported to have called on protesters to demonstrate their summud–steadfastness, the term Palestinians use to describe their resistance to Israel–when the Syrian military’s Fourth Division commanded by Mr. Al-Assad’s ruthless brother, Maher al-Assad entered the town earlier this week.

All in all, reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas if handled deftly by the two parties will inevitably strengthen Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood. Statehood is a train that has already left the station and is gaining speed on the back of the Arab world’s anti-government protests. 

Mr. Netanyahu would best serve Israel’s interests and complicate Hamas position by getting in front of the train rather than trailing it.

Iranian FA Denounces Saudi Efforts to Move Matches To Third Country

Iranian Football Federation (IFF) President Ali Kaffashian has denounced what he described as Saudi efforts to portray the Islamic republic as too unsafe to host Asian championship matches, according to the government-controlled Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA).

"We have given a reply to claims of Arab countries and sent letters to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in which we introduced Iran as the safest country to host the matches. AFC officials have confirmed our remarks. Unfortunately, Arab countries try to attribute their insecurity to Iran," Kaffashian said.

Kaffashian was responding to a letter to the AFC sent by the Saudi Football Federation expressing concern about the security of four Saudi teams scheduled to play Asian championship matches in Iran in May.

Soccer tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia first erupted in early March when Saudi immigration authorities demanded that Tehran’s Persepolis FC soccer team, Asia’s most popular club, be fingerprinted and iris scanned upon its arrival at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Al Ittihad. The Persepolis team refused what is standard procedure for all visitors to the kingdom, and was held at the airport for eight hours.

Abu Dhabi Women: To Play or Not to Play?

A decision by the organizers to include Abu Dhabi’s Amateur Women League in the second season of the United Arab Emirates’ soccer league competitions could see the amateur league’s majority of Emirati women players refusing to play because matches would be in the open air with male spectators.

The decision to include the amateur league intended to grow the league further on its successful debut season in which women teams played behind closed doors. Emirati women players predict that their refusal to play in front of a male audience will mean that they will be replaced by expatriates.

"The idea was to have a grassroots football league where expatriates and locals can participate together because…you have the first and second division and nothing else after that," The Gulf News quoted Eric Gottschalk, CEO of Mediapro Middle East - the ADFL's joint-organisers with Reem Investments –as telling XPRESS.

"In regards to the women's league, we talked to the [Abu Dhabi] Sports Council, to the Women's [Football] Committee here in Abu Dhabi and with Reem and Mediapro together, and then decided to host the Abu Dhabi Football League and add a women's competition because we were able to have the women play indoors.

"So we expected a lot of local women to participate and in order to get used to playing football, they requested that it would be better for them for the first season to be playing indoors. But if you look at the way football is played and the way the Sports Council is promoting women's football, the game has to be brought outside, just like it is played in the rest of the world, and also because we are trying to attract all participants in the UAE. We want to open it up, as it's a league for the UAE, not a league [only] for Abu Dhabi local women," Gottschalk said.

Shaikha Al Kaabi, the captain of Team Abu Dhabi which won the inaugural event, said the decision could backfire: "I don't believe it will be as much of a success as it has been this year. I'm expecting most of the participants will be expats, not UAE nationals. We can't play in front of men, so it helped playing in a closed area and also encouraged the girls to come and participate as well," she said.

In an apparent admission that the plan may not work, Gottschalk said the United Arab Emirates Football Association (UAEFA) could agree to have the competitive league played outdoors and a league just for the local women being played indoors.

Gottschalk said the UAEFA had agreed to the roll out of an amateur league in all seven constituents of the UAE at the beginning of the second season in October. “So the next step would be to have a league in Fujairah and a league in Dubai. And this will hopefully have men and women. I don't think that we will have a women's league in Fujariah in the first season but we will offer it and then see what the feedback is," he said.

Fatah-Hamas ‘agreement’ returns Palestine to Arab center stage

Egypt’s success in bringing Fatah and Hamas together is one indication of which way the wind is blowing. (File photo)

Egypt’s success in bringing Fatah and Hamas together is one indication of which way the wind is blowing. (File photo)
An agreement to bury four-year-old differences between rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, has returned the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the center stage of an Arab world wracked by anti-government protests.

For much of the last four months, Palestine had receded to the backburner as protesters in a host of Arab countries—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Oman, Bahrain and Syria—demanded political and economic reform with no focus on longstanding and emotive foreign-policy issues like the Palestinian problem.

That could change as the United States and Europe face difficult choices following an agreement between Fatah and Hamas to bury their differences, which weakened Palestinian negotiators seeking to achieve peace with Israel. The two groups will form under the agreement an interim unity government in advance of legislative and presidential elections in the coming year and integrate their security forces.

The agreement, already rejected by Israel, could lead to a US and European refusal to deal with new government because of the presence of Hamas, which the United States has labelled a terrorist organization and which Europe has refused to deal with as long as it fails to endorse the principles on which the Middle East peace process has been based. The principles include recognition of Israel as a sovereign Jewish State.

In an initial response to the agreement, the White House reiterated that Hamas was a terrorist organization and a US national security spokesman suggested that the Obama administration would maintain its refusal to deal with Hamas.

“As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization, which targets civilians. To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist,” the spokesman said.

A prominent member of the US Congress, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtine, called in a statement for the cutting off of US funding for the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

“According to existing US law, such a hybrid government cannot be a recipient of US taxpayer funds because the law stipulates that the PA government must recognize the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist, among other things. Therefore, in order to implement existing law, the US must end assistance to the Palestinian Authority,” the statement by the Republican Congresswoman from Florida said.

The US has committed some $3.5 billion to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s and is the largest contributor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).

A refusal by the United States and/or Europe to deal with the authority following the agreement between Fatah and Hamas that was brokered by post-Mubarak Egypt would almost certainly provoke anger in the Arab world, where emotions are already enflamed by the wave of protests.

Palestine may not have figured prominently in the protests until now, but it never was far from the surface and returned as an important element in Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries that successfully toppled their authoritarian leaders earlier in 2011.

In many ways, the agreement is a product of the protests. Egyptian-sponsored efforts to achieve agreement prior to the protests had stalled. The eruption of protests on the West Bank in Gaza demanding an end to the dispute between the two factions and the leaking earlier this year of documents that showed that Mr. Abbas’s negotiators had made concessions to Israel without announcing them to the public left the Fatah leader with little choice.

His position of conceding to Israel while refusing to compromise with Hamas had become untenable.

It’s a weakness Hamas was willing to exploit in the conviction that it would win future elections in Gaza and also perform well in polls on the West Bank. By achieving Palestinian unity with the agreement, Hamas also hopes to compensate for the fallout of the crisis in Syria. The embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad is one of Hamas’ main backers and hosts the exile wing of the group headed by Khaled Meshal. The fall of Mr. Assad would be a major blow for Hamas.

Ironically, Hamas and the Obama administration have a common interest when it comes to Syria. Neither wants Mr. Assad to go. While Hamas does not want to lose its staunchest ally, the Obama administration has been careful in its sharp criticism of the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown to stop short of calling for Mr. Assad’s resignation.

US officials, uncertain of who might succeed Mr. Assad and concerned that Syria could disintegrate in escalating violence, appear to believe that they are better off with the devil they know than the one they don’t.

The country most worried about the consequences of the Fatah-Hamas agreement is likely to be Israel. A return of Palestine to a prominent position in Arab politics puts it on the spot, returns it as a focus of potential criticism and increases its disquiet of what change in the Arab world means for the peace process and Israeli Arab relations.

Egypt’s success in bringing Fatah and Hamas together is one indication of which way the wind is blowing. Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority is already heading rapidly south in the wake of the agreement.

Israel may find solace in a US and European refusal to deal with the new national unity government but could find itself back in the international firing line if it carries out its threats to sanction the Abbas government by restricting the freedom of movement of the president and other senior officials and refusing to transfer taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

A prisoner swap that would release Hamas operatives incarcerated by Fatah could become the real flashpoint in escalating Israeli-Palestinian tension with Israeli officials warning that it would be up to the military and security forces to counter any threat.

Yet another round of military hostilities between Israel and the Arabs is the last thing that anyone would want in the region, which is already a tinderbox. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin and his hawkish associates may translate their current –and predictable—political theater into a theater of war. Would that really be in anyone’s interest, especially now?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tunisian Bans Fans From Soccer Matches

Violent clashes during two recent Tunisian league matches has prompted the country’s soccer authority to ban fans from the rest of the season’s games.

The decision by the Tunisian Football Federation (TFF) came after militant fans stormed the pitch last Sunday during matches between Olympique Beja and AS Marsa  and Club Bizertiain against CS Sfaxien.

Referees declared a strike after the incidents to demand enhanced security. The strike forced the cancellation of two league matches on Wednesday. The referees are scheduled to discuss the situation with the TFF on Thursday.

The incidents confirmed the government’s worst fears which last month only reluctantly agreed to restarting the league competition. The competition was suspended in January to prevent the pitch from becoming a rallying point for protesters who forced Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali to resign after 23 years in power. Militant soccer fans played a key role in the toppling of Ben Ali as well as in protests in Egypt that led to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak.

The Tunisian federation said its ban on fans attending matches applied to the season’s 
remaining ten matches but not to African Champions League or Confederation Cup games.

The incidents had much in common with last month’s storming of the pitch in Cairo during an African championship match between Al Zamalek FC and Club African. Police were almost absent in both games giving militant fans for the first time in years control of the stadium. In Bizerte, fans damaged stadium facilities and television cameras to protest Sfaxien’s 3-0 lead in the first 20 minutes of the game.

In Cairo, the invasion was in protest against a referee decision that threatened to prevent Zamalek from advancing in the competition. The invasion followed a smaller incident in an earlier match in Tunis between Zamalek and Club African for which the Tunisian club was fined $10,000.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

US bets on EU and Turkey to add sting to planned sanctions on Syria

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his aides may face sanctions. (File photo)

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his aides may face sanctions. (File photo)
The Obama administration’s hopes that sanctions to be imposed on Syria as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his family will spark dissent within Syria’s political leadership as well as the armed forces whose senior ranks are part of the country’s economic elite. To achieve that, the administration is looking to the European Union and Turkey to ensure that the sanctions hit where it hurts most: the pockets of those on which Mr. Assad’s power rests.

The sanctions that are likely to target among others Mr. Al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad, the commander of the Syrian army’s elite fourth division who is widely seen as the second most powerful man in Syria, as well as the president’s business tycoon cousin, Rami Makhlouf, would freeze assets in the United States as well as ban US institutions and citizens from conducting business with people and entities placed on a US Treasury list. It would also ban those sanctioned from travelling to the United States.

The Obama administration has been working hard behind the scenes to enlist the EU and Turkey in its efforts to isolate Syria and its key officials because of their close economic ties to Damascus. This would ensure that the sanctions are not largely symbolic.

The administration also hopes that the sanctions will be at least tacitly endorsed by Gulf States to whom Mr. Assad has increasingly been looking for investment. The lack of US leverage on Syria is evident in the fact that earlier US sanctions, including the banning of transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria in 2006 and with four government-related research organizations accused of working on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have had little impact.

The administration’s efforts appear to be bearing fruit with the EU. EU foreign ministers are discussing travel bans and asset freezes of their own. EU members of the United Nations Security Council have also joined the United States in circulating a draft statement that would constitute a first step towards the Council making sanctions legally binding on al UN members.

The statement’s language would condemn the Syrian government’s use of violence against protesters, call for restraint and support calls for a UN investigation into the killing of demonstrators. UN sanctioning of Syria would follow the pattern of the imposition of a no-fly zone on Libya, which involved an initial statement followed by two successive Security Council resolutions.

UN-endorsed sanctions may be needed to bring Turkey, which has been forging close economic ties with Syria in recent years, on board. Turkish officials did not reject sanctioning Syria out of hand in recent meetings with US officials, including Leon Panetta, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The officials hope however that Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan of Turkey may be able to persuade Mr. Assad to press ahead with political and economic reform in a bid to avert the Syrian crisis from escalating into civil war.

That may be a long shot. Mr. Erdogan pressed Mr. Assad on the issue in a telephone call on Wednesday, a day after speaking to Mr. Obama by phone. Turkey fears that sanctions that would impose economic hardship or a deterioration of the crisis in Syria could prompt large numbers of Syrians to seek refuge on the Turkish side of the border in a repeat of the mass influx into Turkey of Iraqi Kurds in 1991 during the first Gulf War.

The US and Europe further run the risk that sanctions will prompt Mr. Assad’s closest associates as well as the military elite to close ranks because their economic interests are tied to the regime’s survival.

Military officers and their families as well as members of the president’s family built their empires on monopolies and import licenses granted to them by Mr. Assad and his father, President Hafez al-Assad, whom he succeeded a decade ago after the elder Mr. Assad’s death.

Mr. Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, controls significant segments of the oil, gas and tourism industries. A son of former defence minister Moustafa Tlass is a sugar tycoon while another owns a chain of hotels. They would almost certainly be deprived of those perks if Mr. Assad falls.

The US and Europe are also banking on the fact that a late March Assad family council on how to deal with the mushrooming crisis saw hardliners led by Maher al-Assad pitted against those favouring appeasement of the protesters. Differences surfaced with Mr. Al-Assad’s uncle Rifaat Assad, widely seen as responsible for the 1982 crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamas, and his son Ribal warning that Syria was heading toward civil war. Ribal has fuelled the fires by attempting to shift blame for Hama from his father to Mr. Tlass.

The planned sanctions would be in part designed to provoke dissent from within the military’s rank and file whose loyalty is being put to the test by the use of the military in the crackdown. Syrian bloggers report that family members of mid-level officers are urging their relatives to refuse to fire on unarmed civilians. It is these officers that the military’s top commanders would turn to should they conclude that the Assad regime has become a liability rather than an asset.

“The notion of targeted sanctions aimed at those who are responsible for perpetrating this violence can sharpen the choice for those people and can sharpen the choice for the regime… and make them understand that there are costs, specific costs, related to this action,” said Jack Sullivan, the head of the State Department’s policy planning section.

The question is whether the sanctions even if supported by the EU and other US allies will inflict sufficient pain to persuade those affected that a choice can no longer be avoided.

Bahrain Closes Shiite Soccer Clubs and Detains Players

Bahraini authorities have detained three players in the country’s national soccer team while six clubs have withdrawn from domestic leagues following widespread anti-government protests, according to Bahrain’s governing soccer body.

The Bahrain Football Association (BFA) announcement came as a pro-democracy group, Youth of Feb. 14 Revolution, launched a Facebook campaign urging Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone not to reschedule the Bahrain Grand Prix until "until basic human rights and freedoms are restored." Bahrain has until May 1 to decide if it wants to reschedule the auto race, which was called off March 13 because of the unrest.

The moves against the soccer players are part of a government crackdown on dissent following protests that have resulted in journalists, bloggers, doctors, lawyers and activists being detained. More than 150 athletes, coaches and referees also have been suspended since April 5 for their alleged involvement in protests against the country's minority Sunni Muslim rulers.

BFA Vice President Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, a member of the country’s royal family,  acknowledged that the three players had been detained but provided no further details. He said the clubs - two in the top division and four in the second - had withdrawn from the league, which resumed two weeks ago because of "pressure from Shiite political groups."

Al Khalifa said all could be fined for refusing to play and possibly face other sanctions, including relegation to a lower division. "Some of the clubs during the problems refrained from participating," Al Khalifa said. "We haven't suspended anyone. They are just not participating. There is a fine and punishment, of course."

A Bahraini human right group, however, said the clubs from mostly Shiite villages were suspended last week from the league for two years and fined $20,000. Along with soccer teams, the clubs sponsor a range of sports in their communities.

Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said clubs had stopped playing during the protests partly because they felt it was too dangerous and also in honour of protesters killed in the government’s brutal crackdown.

Al-Maskati said the government imposed the suspensions and fines as soon as the clubs announced that they would resume playing. "They could not work normally when protesters are killed in their villages. The authorities want to tell them that you are supporting the protests and this is the punishment. It's not fair. Just because you are a sportsman doesn't mean it's wrong to be political. Everyone in the world has ideas about something. Everyone has the right to get involved," Al-Maskati said.

Officials from three of the clubs - Al Malkiya, Al Ittihad and Sitra - confirmed the six had been fined for refusing to participate in the league and that the top two clubs, Al Malkiya and Al Shabab, were relegated and drew additional fines for refusing to take part in the GCC Club Championship.

Abu Dhabi Businessman Set to Acquire German Soccer Club

A 34-year old Abu Dhabi-based Jordanian businessman, Hasan Abdullah Ismaik, is acquiring financially troubled second division German soccer club TSV 1860 Munich, according to Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Mr. Ismaik’s €13 million acquisition of 49 percent of 1860 Munich would bring the club, burdened with a €14 million debt, back from the brink of bankruptcy.

If concluded, the acquisition would be the second takeover in a week by businessmen in the UAE. Dubai-based Royal Emirates Group bought Spanish La Liga club Getafe FC for an estimated €90 million.

Mr. Ismaik’s acquisition would be the first by a Gulf businessman of a club in Germany. Gulf investors have so far focused on teams in England and Spain. The proposed deal has yet to be approved by the German Football League.

Mr. Ismaik hopes to return 1860 Munich to Germany’s premier league, the Bundesliga, from which it was relegated in 2004 by investing €20 million. He is offering to pay €5 million of the club’s debt provided that creditors agree to waive some of the debt.

"We look forward to working together," Sueddeutsche Zeitung quoted Mr. Ismaik as saying.

German champions in 1966, 1860 Munich were the Bavarian capital’s main club until the late 1960s when Bayern Munich began to dominate the Bundesliga.

Mr. Ismaik is reported to have made his money in real estate and contracting for major Middle Eastern oil companies.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

War of words and expulsions notch Up Iranian-Gulf tensions

The hardening rhetoric towards Iran constitutes a bid to influence developments in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf.(File photo)

The hardening rhetoric towards Iran constitutes a bid to influence developments in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf.(File photo)
Bahrain’s expulsion of an Iranian diplomat coupled with rising Saudi concerns about the safety of the kingdom’s diplomats in Iran as well as soccer players scheduled to visit the Islamic republic in May threatens to sharply escalate tensions in the Gulf.

The expulsions alongside the soccer friction ratchet up the friction between Iran and the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—which groups Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alongside the kingdom— over alleged Iranian instigation of anti-government protests in Bahrain and plots to overthrow the governments of Bahrain and Kuwait. The tension is complicating Gulf relations with Iraq, which is emerging as a wildcard in the region.

The hardening rhetoric constitutes a bid to influence developments in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf. Kuwaiti parliamentarian Muhammad Hayif recently called on the GCC to liberate the UAE’s Tums and Abu Mussa islands in the Gulf that Iran has been occupying for years. Mr. Hayif also demanded that the Gulf States promote cessation of the predominantly Arab province of Khuzestan from Iran. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran was ostensibly to support greater freedom for Khuzestan.

Mr. Hayif’s remarks came in response to Iranian denunciations of the deployment of GCC troops in Bahrain following widespread protests on the island. The Iranian parliament warned the GCC that it was “playing with fire.” Conservative parliamentarian Ruhollah Hosseinian said Iran should take a tougher position against the Saudi-led military presence. “There must be no hesitation on the part of Iran for military preparation,” he said, “when the Saudi government has driven its troops into another country.”

A senior Gulf official, speaking to Al Hayat, retorted that the GCC is “ready to enter war with Iran and even with Iraq in defense of Bahrain. Every state of the Gulf Cooperation Council is a red line. All are the same and we are ready to enter war to defend ourselves,” the official said.

The flames of Iranian-Gulf tension were further fanned when Kuwait last month uncovered an alleged Iranian spy ring. Three members of the ring—two Iranians and a Kuwaiti—were condemned to death by a Kuwaiti court in late March. Kuwait went on to expel three Iranian diplomats. Iran in response told three Kuwaiti representatives to leave the Islamic republic. The Iranian diplomat expelled by Bahrain is believed to be linked to the Kuwaiti spy ring.

In a potential escalation of the diplomatic tit-for-tat, Saudi Arabia has threatened to withdraw its diplomats from Iran if the Islamic republic failed to accord them proper protection after demonstrators in Iranian cities protested in front of Saudi diplomatic missions against the GCC military presence in Bahrain.

Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer called on Iran to protect its diplomats. “We hope that these continuous violations will not lead us to take other positions,” Prince Turki was quoted by Al Watan as saying.

The flames spread this week beyond the realm of diplomacy with the Saudi Football Federation expressing concern in a letter to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) about the security of four Saudi teams scheduled to play Asian championship matches in Iran in May. Soccer tensions first erupted in early March when Saudi immigration authorities demanded that Tehran’s Persepolis FC soccer team, Asia’s most popular club, be fingerprinted and iris scanned upon its arrival at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Al Ittihad. The Persepolis team refused what is standard procedure for all visitors to the kingdom, and was held at the airport for eight hours.

Tension between the Gulf and Iran has been simmering since long before anti-government protests began sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in mid-December. Saudi Arabia believes that Iran has long been bent on countering its influence in the Muslim world and has charged that Iran was behind a Shiite revolt in northern Yemen that ended last year.

A plan by the GCC to end the crisis in Yemen and pave the way for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure briefly stalled this week over the opposition’s reluctance to agree to the terms of the plan, which would grant the Yemeni president and his family immunity from prosecution; in the event, the opposition agreed, but reluctantly.

Nevertheless, the arrest in Egypt of former President Hosni Mubarak as his former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, faces possible sentencing to death on charges that he was responsible for the death of protesters who ultimately in February forced the Egyptian leader from office has strengthened Yemeni resolve to see their leader brought to trial.

Further complicating issues is predominantly Shiite Iraq’s apparent siding with Iran in the escalating war of words. Gulf leaders worry that Iraq could emerge as an Iranian bridgehead on their side of the waterway after Iraqi political and religious leaders held rallies in support of their Bahrain brethren and against the GCC military intervention.

What started in early March as a soccer storm in a teacup has escalated into a mounting crisis that is spooking regional stock exchanges and contributing to oil price hikes. If not managed properly, Iranian attempts at exploiting tension in the Gulf and Gulf fears that Iran could destabilize the region risk backfiring with the cold war turning hot and erupting into open hostilities.

Soccer Becomes Latest Flashpoint in Saudi-Iranian Cold War

Soccer is becoming the latest flashpoint in an escalating cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is being fuelled by anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and assertions that Iran is meddling in the internal affairs of oil-rich Gulf states.

Saudi officials and media are calling on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to move Asian championship matches in Iran of four Saudi teams to a neutral third country after Iranian demonstrations in front of Saudi diplomatic missions in the Islamic republic against the kingdom’s dispatch of troops to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has denied Iranian claims that its troops were involved in the crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bahrain.

The Saudi Football Federation raised the kingdom’s security concerns in a letter to the AFC. At the same time, Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer called on Iran to protect its diplomats. “We hope that these continuous violations will not lead us to take other positions,” Prince Turki was quoted by Al Watan as saying.
Iran last month warned Saudi Arabia against cracking down on its own Shiite majority in its oil-rich Eastern Province, a 45-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. 

Similarly, months of protests in Yemen demanding the departure of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh potentially could spark unrest among Ismailis in Saudi Arabia’s south-western Jizan and Najran provinces. Saleh and Saudi Arabia have in the past accused Iran of supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen’s north.

The soccer tensions first erupted last month when Saudi immigration authorities demanded that Tehran’s Persepolis FC soccer team, Asia’s most popular club, be finger printed and iris scanned upon its arrival at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Al Iittihad. The Persepolis team refused what is standard procedure for all visitors to the kingdom and was held at the airport for eight hours.

The Persepolis incident sparked dismay in Tehran because of the kingdom’s refusal to acknowledge repeated Iranian demands that Saudi Arabia exempt Iranians from finger printing and iris scanning. In response, Iran threatened retaliation and Iranian legislator Seyed Hossein Naqavi, a member of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said Al Ittihad would be subjected to the same treatment at Tehran airport when it arrived for its return match against Persepolis.

"As regards the fingerprinting of Persepolis in the Jeddah airport, we will retaliate and fingerprint al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia. We believe the fingerprinting of Persepolis athletes is a disrespectful act and the move will not remain unanswered," Naqavi said.

What started as storm in a tea cup has however since escalated into a mounting crisis that has further spooked stock exchanges and contributed to oil price hikes. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

US and Europe prepare to back condemnation of Syria with deeds

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad shout pro-Assad slogans as they hold posters and pictures of him in Damascus on Saturday. (File Photo)

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad shout pro-Assad slogans as they hold posters and pictures of him in Damascus on Saturday. (File Photo)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s resolve to brutally crush mass protests demanding an end to his authoritarian regime is forcing the United States and Europe to back verbal condemnations with deeds. The Western powers reacted sharply on Monday to Mr. Assad’s decision to seal Syria’s borders with neighboring Jordan.

The Obama administration, in an initial response to the escalating violence in Syria, is reportedly drafting an executive order to freeze the assets of senior Syrian officials and bar them from engaging in business dealings with the United States. If adopted, the European Union will likely apply similar sanctions that would hit home harder because Syria has closer economic ties to Europe than to the United States.

The sanctions, designed to cripple the Syrian economy, also constitute a bid by Washington and Brussels to avert being drawn into a second military confrontation in the Middle East and North Africa in support of anti-government protesters. Allied forces last month imposed a United Nations Security Council-back no-fly zone in Libya and on Monday attacked Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Imposition of the sanctions is likely to buy the United States and Europe some time. The reports of the planned sanctions came a day after Human Rights Watch called for punitive measures against Syrian officials responsible “for the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and the arbitrary detention and torture of hundreds of protesters, as well as …an urgent briefing of the UN Security Council on the spiralling situation in the country,” including this weekend’s deaths.

“After Friday's carnage, it is no longer enough to condemn the violence,” a Human Rights Watch spokesman said.

The mounting death toll and Syria’s employment of its military makes it, however, a matter of time before the question arises whether Syrian civilians are not entitled to the same protection extended to Libyans by the Security Council. Government forces killed some 120 protesters last weekend.

Syrian military troops backed by tanks and civilian-clad security forces attacked on Monday the Syrian town of Deraa, where the protests first erupted five weeks ago, as well as the Douma district of the capital Damascus.

The attack raises the spectre of a repeat of the assault in 1982 ordered by Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, on the city of Hama that crushed the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Some 20,000 people reportedly died in that assault.

The attacks represent a significant escalation of the Syrian crisis with the deployment of the regular armed forces alongside the security services for the first time since the protests erupted. This is a risky strategy for Mr. Assad. The possibility of elements of the military turning against the president is greater as the violence against unarmed civilians escalates than from within the security forces whose future is far more dependent on the survival of his regime.

Mr. Assad has already seen cracks emerge in the country’s political and religious leadership with the resignations of two Syrian politicians and a state-appointed Muslim in protest against this weekend’s killings.

Quelling the popular revolt against his regime may prove to be more difficult for Mr. Assad than his father’s 1982 defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. In contrast to his father, Mr. Assad faces a popular revolt that has engulfed the whole country and cuts across ethnic and religious lines rather than one that is restricted to only one city and one group. While the media have been barred from access to areas under assault by the Syrian military, news of the attacks are reaching, unlike in the case of Hama, the outside world in a stream of amateur videos on the Internet.

The pictures are fuelling international condemnation as well as the calls for a US and European sanctions. They are likely to prompt calls for stronger actions as it becomes clears that sanctions are insufficient to convince Mr. Assad to halt the brutal crackdown any time soon.

The significance of Mr. Assad’s selection of Deraa, a socially and religiously conservative town, goes beyond the fact that it stands at the cradle of the most serious challenge to date to the president’s grip on power. It lends credence to the assertion of Mr. Assad’s regime that the protests constitute a foreign conspiracy involving armed Salafists, a puritanical Muslim group that wants to emulate Muslim practice as it was at the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

In doing so, Mr. Assad hopes to strengthen fears that his downfall would pave the way for an Islamist regime that would ignite ethnic and religious tensions in a country populated by mosaic of minorities. It is a strategy aimed not only at undermining domestic support for the protests but also at persuading the United States and Europe to think twice about increasing the pressure on Mr. Assad’s regime.