Iran’s Syria policy hurts its regional popularity


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

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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Syria’s chemical weapons menace

Soldiers from the California National Guard conduct training at the Arctic Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Site on JBER-Richardson. (U.S. Air Force photo/Percy G. Jones)

By Dina Esfandiary, Research Analyst and Project Coordinator, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme  

The international community was panic-stricken earlier this month when a spokesperson from Syria’s Foreign Ministry announced, ‘No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used… inside Syria. All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.’

This statement was notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it was the first time a Syrian official acknowledged what the world has long known - that Syria has stockpiled chemical weapons (CW). Secondly, because everyone’s worst fear – the possibility of their use – was not only mentioned but also confirmed, at least in reaction to a foreign intervention. Furthermore, besides the statement itself, Syria’s state of civil war inevitably leads to fears that the regime will lose control of its chemical weapon stockpiles. This scenario is all the more troubling given the alleged presence of al-Qaeda linked fighters in the country.  Read the rest of this entry »

Union of Gulf states ‘unlikely’

Despite Saudi Arabia’s push for it, a Gulf union was a ‘non-starter’ in the near future, Professor
F. Gregory Gause
said this week at the IISS-US. In a speech entitled ‘Prospects for a Gulf Cooperation Council Union’, Gause was doubtful that all Gulf states shared the Saudi king’s vision of a closer Arab world. Even a smaller union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was unlikely, Gause, the chair of political science at the University of Vermont, suggested.

Gause noted that the proposal for a Gulf Union and the invitation to extend GCC membership to Morocco and Jordan were personal initiatives of Saudi’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who saw the Arab Spring as both a domestic threat and as a regional risk because of the potential for Iranian influence.

Saudi Arabia was interested in preserving its leading status in the region and the king saw himself as ‘the last dam against the spread of Iranian influence in the Arab world’. Other GCC member states were more concerned with the ensuing loss of sovereignty concomitant with greater integration. These states did not see Iran as a geopolitical threat and were more concerned with their domestic political conditions following the Arab Spring.

Gause said that a GCC union would have been better received in early 2011, right after the Arab Spring, as the GCC states tended to put aside differences in the face of an external threat. However, when threat perceptions were low, there was a greater emphasis on sovereignty and less incentive for cooperation. This proposal for a GCC union was a ‘hiccup’ that was not indicative of a fundamental change in GCC relations, Gause claimed.

Gause also said a union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would be highly controversial, facing opposition from Bahraini Shi’a and the Iranians.

Expert: Arab Spring has resolved little

'Friday for defending the revolution' in Tahrir Sq, Cairo, Egypt. Photo by flickr user lokha

Despite democratic transformations in a few states, the problems that led to the Arab Spring largely remain unresolved, Dr Toby Dodge, IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for the Middle East, told an audience in Manama on 29 May 2012. In his talk, ‘Drivers of Instability: Reflections on the Arab Spring’, Dodge pointed to short- and medium-term factors such as rising food prices and demographic bulges, as well as the broader failed policies of Arab authoritarianism, as some of the causes of the Arab revolutions.

Yet unemployment remained high in the region more than one year after a street vendor in Tunisia set himself alight and a wave of protests began. Many of the youth who spearheaded the uprisings had not been integrated into post-revolutionary transitions.

Dodge said that several factors determined how each country fared during the uprisings. The outcome varied according to the state’s capacity to co-opt, repress or buy off protesters agitating for reform; the ruling elite’s cohesion; and the domestic opposition’s ability to sustain popular mobilisation.

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Egypt’s eventful presidential election

Salafi Islamists rally in Cairo's Tahrir square protesting the disqualification of Hazem Abu Ismail from Egypt's presidential race (Photo: Jonathan Rashad CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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

No one expected Egypt’s first ever free presidential election to be boring, but it has turned out to be much more eventful than anyone would have expected. A little more than a month before the first round, Egypt is in major political turmoil. The fate of the revolution and the trajectory of the country are far from certain.

Contrary to what it first announced, the Muslim Brotherhood will field a candidate for the presidency, Khairat al-Shater. The movement’s top strategist and a successful businessman, al-Shater has already launched his campaign, deploying the awesome political machine that has turned the Freedom and Justice Party into the country’s key political player. However, reneging on a major promise after a series of other reversals has made the Brotherhood the target of widespread secular criticism. Al-Shater has reportedly offered clerics an oversight role on legislation which has only deepened concerns about the Brotherhood’s real intentions.  Read the rest of this entry »

Behind the Chart of Conflict

2012 Chart of ConflictIn his attic study in Warsaw, the late, great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski used to have a ripped-out newspaper headline posted on a ceiling beam that read, slightly ungrammatically: ‘World is very big trouble.’ It’s a sentiment the IISS team often shares when preparing our annual Chart of Conflict – perhaps no more so than last year, when we had to map and list the unexpected events of the Arab Spring.

In this, our 2012 map of the world’s most dangerous countries, large swathes of Libya are emblazoned in red for the first time since the map was first published in 1998. Parts of Tunisia were still unsettled, and Syrian cities were already in revolt, when the chart went to press earlier this year, before the Assad regime’s horrendous onslaught on Homs and Idlib. There’s a timeline of the key events of the Arab uprisings, and graphs of regional socio-economic indicators.

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