Christian Le Miere: An exercise in deterrence

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By Christian Le Miere, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

Although the Shangri-La Dialogue will hold much of the Institute’s – and international – attention over the coming week, the IISS will remain active on other issues.

Yesterday, the IISS’ Bahrain office held the NATO Gulf Strategic Dialogue, bringing together a range of practitioners and academics, and in just under a week the Geo-Economics and Strategy Programme will run a seminar on Oil, Gas and Maritime Security.

The timing of these two sessions is not entirely coincidental. Just last week, the US Navy wrapped up its second annual two-week International Mine Counter-Measures Exercise (IMCMEX). Involving participants from 41 different countries, the exercises are essentially a form of deterrent diplomacy.

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The future of oil

The increase in US oil and natural gas production could have a dramatic effect on world energy markets, according to Dr Pierre Noel, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Senior Fellow for Economic and Energy Security at IISS–Asia.

Dr Noel appeared on CNN yesterday to discuss the future of the global oil market, the effect of sanctions against Iran, and new figures released by the International Energy Agency indicating increased oil and gas production in the United States.

‘US unconventional liquid supply is growing by a million barrels a day each year, which has the potential to revive the growth of non-OPEC supplies,’ he explained. The effect on future oil prices however is unclear, and ‘depends on the supply–demand balance, and it is very difficult to know what’s ahead of us’, he said.

‘Demand is growing rapidly in emerging economies: China, India but also Southeast Asia – so you may actually need this rise in unconventional supply, especially if other parts of the supply picture disappoint.’ US and EU sanctions against Iran, for example, might also make this unconventional supply a necessity.

Dr Noel discussed the effect the sanctions might have on the Iranian presidential elections in June. He explained that the latest round of sanctions were ‘working’ – meaning that the situation was getting harder for the Iranian population – but that this would not necessarily mean the public would choose a leader more open to engaging with the West. ‘The risk that I see politically is that a larger and larger share of the population will actually reward a politician tempted by a hardening of the Iranian position, rather than a softening,’ he said.

He also discussed the security impact that a hard-line Iranian position would have on the region,  explaining that Iran’s neighbours were worried about the connection between Iran and the crisis in Syria. ‘I think the governments in this part of the world see the future as a very risky one geopolitically,’ he added.

Watch the video.

For more on this topic, watch the IISS’s May 15 panel discussion on the future of the Middle East oil environment, and read the IISS Strategic Comment on the United States’ falling need for foreign oil.


Iran’s Syria policy hurts its regional popularity

Syria

By Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme and Islam Al Tayeb, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

These days, there are not many things that Arabs agree on. In fact, it may be fair to say they agree to disagree more often than not when it comes to regional policy. But Iran, once the darling of the Arab Street, is finding both popular and government opinion turning against it. And at the heart of the matter lies official Iranian attitude towards sectarianism and the Syrian uprising.

For years, Iran, and especially Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, enjoyed the unwavering support of the Arab general public, especially following the 2006 war in Lebanon. Many perceived Iran as the outspoken guardian of the Muslim world; a country that had the guts to oppose compromise in the Arab-Israeli peace process and support Hizbullah in its struggle against Israel. But this is no longer the case, and Iran knows it.

So the Iranian regime is trying to regain some positive influence. It’s partly why Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was in Amman, Jordan, recently to meet Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and King Abdullah II. Jordan’s government welcomed the opportunity to discuss Syria with their Iranian counterparts. But the response was different in Parliament: Bassam al-Manaseer, chairman of the Arab and Foreign Relations Committee of the Jordanian Parliament, called the visit ‘unwelcomed’ and expressed his concerns over ‘suspicious’ Iranian activities in the region.

Read the full article in the Atlantic


Rafsanjani, the accidental reformist

Rafsanjani with Khomenei and Khamenei in background

By Mona Moussavi, Editorial assistant

This year’s Iranian presidential election race got a lot more interesting last Saturday when former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani registered his candidacy just minutes before the deadline.

The move transforms the race to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cannot stand in June’s poll after serving two full terms. Rafsanjani has a turbulent relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. And despite being a conservative, he is attractive to reformers as a relative moderate in contemporary Iran.

Attention is now on Khamenei to see how he responds. The more than 600 candidates who have registered to run must all be vetted by the Guardian Council. Khamenei holds sway over the council, which comprises six clergymen directly appointed by the supreme leader, and six jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary (himself appointed by the supreme leader).

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Bridging the Gulf: Kuwait and a GCC Union

Kuwait towers

By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

In February of last year, Ahmed al-Saadoun, Kuwait’s speaker of the parliament at the time dismissed the idea of a Gulf Union. In an interview with Al Arabiya, he stated that Kuwait, with its open political system, could not withstand a union with the more authoritarian Gulf states. However, since then Kuwait has undergone yet another chapter of political turmoil accompanied with harsh government reaction to public criticism of the state. Due to these developments, the government in Kuwait may be looking more favorably at the prospects of a Gulf union. The signing of a Gulf Security Agreement at the Bahrain GCC Summit in December may signal that, in the face of growing domestic upheaval, Kuwait is willing to restrict its public sphere, enter a union with other GCC states and coordinate more on security.

The GCC Security Agreement was first proposed in 1994. At the time Kuwait resisted it because it considered some of its articles to be in conflict with its constitution. The agreement was shelved for almost two decades and an amended version was reintroduced at the end of last year. Though Kuwait’s government reassured the public that the amended version is no longer in conflict with the constitution, the swift signing of the agreement along with the secrecy surrounding its provisions stirred a heated debate in Kuwait, with some warning that the country is falling in line with the rest of the Gulf on issues of internal security and domestic politics.

Read the full article in Al Arabiya


Israeli air strikes add to fog of Syrian war

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By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

Israel’s recent air strikes on Syria were intended as a warning to both Syria and Iran, and to stop weapons falling into Hizbullah’s hands – but they have increased the likelihood of a regional conflict.

Last week, the Israeli air force struck two targets inside Syrian territory. The first seems to have been a shipment of surface-to-surface missiles destined for the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah (the Fateh-110 is more accurate than anything Hizbullah is known to currently possess, and with a 300-kilometre range has much of Israel within its reach). The second was a major research centre and important storage facility near Damascus, which is administered by units of the elite Republican Guard. Israel had already struck this installation – the Centre of Scientific Studies and Research in Jamraya – in January, allegedly destroying shipments of anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hizbullah.

These strikes add to an already complex political and military landscape in Syria. The Assad regime has deployed its full arsenal of conventional capabilities against the Syrian rebels – and may have even used chemical weapons on a small scale. The rebels are consolidating their hold over much of Syria, but remain too ill-equipped and poorly organised to win the struggle on the battlefield.

The rise of Islamist and jihadi factions has further complicated the picture: better organised and funded, they often spearhead rebel attacks on key regime facilities across the country. They may eventually seize some of the regime’s advanced weaponry.

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Egypt exits non-proliferation meeting

Palais des Nations UN Photo
By Jenny Nielsen, Research Analyst, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Egypt has walked out of talks on the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) this week, over the slow progress on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (MEWMDFZ).

The unprecedented move presents a serious headache for the non-proliferation regime. Announcing his delegation’s withdrawal from the Preparatory Committee to the 2015 NPT Review Conference (2013 NPT PrepCom) on Monday, Egyptian Ambassador Hisham Badr warned that despite being a strong supporter of the NPT regime, Cairo was dissatisfied with the international community’s ‘lack of seriousness’ in establishing an MEWMDFZ and ‘very concerned about the ramification of the non-fulfilment of commitments on the credibility and sustainability of the NPT regime’.

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Tunisia’s wilting Jasmine revolution

The Place de Revolution, Tunis.

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor

‘Sorry ladies and gentlemen,’ the sharply dressed young man at the table behind me deadpans in French, as his female companion’s wild gesturing sweeps a bottle of wine onto the floor, ‘but we were talking about Rachid Ghannouchi.’ By bitterly invoking the name of the Islamist Ennahda party leader in a half-empty restaurant in downtown Tunis, my fellow diner neatly encapsulates the problems afflicting his country.

More than two years since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution chased autocratic president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali from power, tourists are staying away as Tunisia experiences a dangerous power struggle between secularists and the religious.

Despite the appearance of relative normality, the country is still recovering from the gunning down in early February of left-wing opposition leader Chokri Belaid, the first political assassination since Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956. Time magazine may have recently voted liberal President Moncef Marzouki as one of the planet’s 100 most influential individuals – he’s in at no. 67 – but at a home he faces a vote of no confidence in parliament. The powerful trade union confederation, the UGTT, is at loggerheads with the Ennahda-led coalition government over the drafting of the new constitution.

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Kuwait’s opposition finds a focus

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The Emir of Kuwait, Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah

By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

The trial of outspoken political activist Musallam al-Barrak seems to be galvanising Kuwait’s fragmented opposition – at least for the time being. Thousands of Kuwaitis took to the streets in protest on 15 April, after Barrak was sentenced by a lower court to a five-year jail term on charges of ‘offending the emir’. The Court of Appeal’s decision to release him on bail last Monday defused some of the tension that had built up as court proceedings were live-tweeted and otherwise disseminated over social media, but with his appeal due to resume on 13 May it remains a potential rallying point.

Barrak’s supporters say the charges against him violate the principle of free speech. They relate to comments he made at a demonstration last October that: ‘We will not allow you, your highness, to take this country into the abyss of autocracy.’ While Kuwait has one of the Middle East’s more open and democratic political systems, its constitution holds that the emir is ‘immune and inviolable’, and Barrak’s remark was said to contravene this.

The protest took place during a deepening political crisis in Kuwait, soon after the dissolution of the opposition-dominated parliament only eight months into its term. Four days later the emir announced an emergency decree amending the country’s electoral law; by reducing the number of votes per person from four to one he ended an arrangement that had benefitted Islamist, tribal and other opposition groups. Barrak’s ‘we will not allow you’ soon became the refrain of opposition rallies that followed the announcement of the emergency decree.

With the Kuwaiti government’s continued crackdown on the opposition, other political activists are facing similar charges of offending the emir. However, Barrak is a particularly popular and high-profile figure. A former MP who draws much of his support from powerful tribal constituencies, he won a seat in parliament in the February 2012 elections with 30,000 votes – a Kuwaiti first.

After his sentencing on 15 April, security forces made several unsuccessful attempts to take him into custody. A raid on his house prompted large protests, to which police responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

Such opposition solidarity comes after a period of disunity and difficulties in mobilising mass rallies of last year’s magnitude. Kuwait’s opposition consists of a remarkably diverse array of groups, bringing together liberals, civil-society groups, and trade and student unions with tribal, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and Salafist groups. In March, Barrak spearheaded an effort to bring the opposition under one umbrella, namely the Etilaf al-Mu’aratha (the Opposition Coalition), but this alliance quickly ran into criticism as those around it called it either too radical or too weak.

Today in Kuwait the prime minister is appointed by the emir, who in turn appoints the cabinet, and one reform the Etilaf has demanded is that the parliamentary majority should have the right to form the government. One member of the former opposition majority in parliament, Al-Saifi Mubarak Al-Saifi, has said that around 17 members of that bloc found this call for elected government too drastic. By contrast, another opposition member and former MP, Obaid al-Wasmi, has criticised the Etilaf for being too ‘soft’ in its demands.

Salafis have also established their own group, the Coordination Committee of the Popular Movement, which opposes calls for elected government as well as unlicensed demonstrations.

Such divisions seem to be forgotten as the opposition rallies around al-Barrak. His case is a reminder of how government heavy-handedness can unite Kuwait’s usually disparate opposition factions. In late 2010, for example, an attack by security forces on Kuwaitis gathering in an MP’s diwaniya (traditional salon) was the catalyst for a popular mass movement that eventually forced the resignation of Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed in November 2011.

On Thursday, the government delayed another move that was uniting the opposition against it. It put on hold its proposal to introduce strict new media laws after criticism not only from rights groups, but also from some government supporters. The ‘halting’ of the law demonstrates the opposition’s ability to get results when it unites against draconian government moves.


Bushehr quake revives nuclear safety fears

Bushehr nuclear reactor Photo Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran

Bushehr nuclear reactor. Photo: Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran

By Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation, IISS-Middle East

Gulf leaders have long been concerned that a serious accident at the Iranian nuclear power plant at Bushehr could expose their citizens to radiation. Bushehr’s location in an area of high seismic activity adds to public anxiety over the reactor’s safety. And on Tuesday, nerves were rattled when a magnitude 6.3 earthquake centred less than 100 kilometres from Bushehr killed at least 37 people, injured hundreds and destroyed homes. The quake was felt across the Gulf in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain.

Officials tried to reassure observers. ‘The earthquake in no way affected the normal situation at the reactor,’ the Russian company that built the Bushehr reactor, Atomstroyexport, told news agency RIA Novosti. ‘Personnel continue to work in the normal regime and radiation levels are fully within the norm.’ Mahmoud Jafari, a project manager at the plant, insisted to Iranian state media that the quake ‘didn’t create any complications’.

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