Daily Briefing: The Political Chess Match at Play in the Middle East. (May 23, 2019)

Islamic Republic of Iran Army soldiers marching in front of highest-ranking commanders of Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran during Sacred Defense Week parade. (Source: Wikipedia)
The U.S. Is Outplaying Iran in a Regional Chess Match:  Seth J. Frantzman, National Review, May 20, 2019 — In the first two weeks of May, U.S.–Iran tensions appeared to be careening toward war. In an escalating series of warnings, the U.S. asserted that an attack by Iran would be met with unrelenting force.

The US’s Middle East Strategy Might Be Fraying:  Jonathan Ariel, BESA, May 21, 2019 — Several weeks ago, Cairo discreetly notified Riyadh and Washington that it was suspending its participation in MESA (Middle East Strategic Alliance), the US-Saudi initiative to establish an Arab NATO to counter Iran.
The Rising Crisis Between the United States and Iran:  Amos Yadlin, INSS, Insight No. 1166, May 14, 2019 — May 2019 marks the end of a difficult year for Iran, which saw the United States withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the JCPOA, and the imposition of American sanctions.
Iran’s Aggressions the Focus Of ‘Emergency’ Arab Summit:   Simon Henderson, The Hill, May 21, 2019 — What’s the Collective Noun for A Group of Arab Leaders? A Summit.

 

On Topic Links

 Saudi Arabia, Iran Say They Don’t Want War, but Are Ready to Fight If Provoked:  Jared Malsin, WSJ, May 19, 2019 — Middle East tensions appeared to ease over the weekend after the Trump administration moved to de-escalate two weeks of crisis, while Saudi Arabia and Iran toned down their threatening rhetoric in an attempt to avoid military conflict.

Saudi Arabia And Gulf States Have Agreed to Deploy U.S. Forces to Deter Iran: Yasser Okbi/Maariv, Jerusalem Post, May 20, 2019 — Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have agreed to a request for a renewed deployment of US forces to deter Iran, the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported on Saturday.

Rumors of War: Responding to Iranian Pushback in the Gulf: Michael Eisenstadt and Farzin Nadimi, Washington Institute, May 17, 2019 — On May 12, four ships—two large Saudi crude oil tankers and smaller Emirati and Norwegian tankers—were damaged in what various international authorities described as acts of sabotage, with U.S. officials attributing them to Iran or its proxies.

Iran Has Amassed the Largest Ballistic Missile Force in the Middle East:  Zachary Keck, The National Interest, May 22, 2019 — Deterring regional adversaries from threatening Iran is the primary reason Tehran has amassed the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East.

THE U.S. IS OUTPLAYING IRAN IN A REGIONAL CHESS MATCH
Seth J. Frantzman
National Review, May 20, 2019
 
In the first two weeks of May, U.S.–Iran tensions appeared to be careening toward war. In an escalating series of warnings, the U.S. asserted that an attack by Iran would be met with unrelenting force. Iran eventually responded with its usual bluster about being prepared for a full confrontation with Washington. But on the ground the Middle East looks more like a chessboard, with Iran and its allies and proxies facing off against American allies. This state of affairs was brought into sharp relief when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels launched a drone attack on Saudi Arabia and a rocket fell near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
 
U.S. media have tended to focus on the role of national-security adviser John Bolton in crafting the administration’s policy — and whether America would actually go to war with Iran. Iranian media have also sought to decipher exactly what the Trump administration is up to. According to Iran’s Tasnim News, the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hossein Salami told a closed session of Parliament that the U.S. was involved in a “psychological war” with Iran, predicting the U.S. didn’t have enough forces to actually attack Iran yet.
 
In the complex game of wits being played between the Trump administration and the Iranian regime, it appears that the U.S. temporarily checked Iran’s usual behavior. Iran prefers bluster in rhetoric with a careful strategy of extending its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, knowing that any real battle with U.S. forces will result in Iranian defeat. Tehran can’t risk massive retaliation against its allies or the regime at home for fear that it will lead to instability and the destruction of all it has carefully built up in the last years. Iran is suffering from the effects of recent nationwide floods and from shortages due to sanctions, so it can’t afford a total war, and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon are in sensitive positions of power. In the past, Iran benefited from its opaque system of alliances and its ability to threaten western powers and attack U.S. forces with proxies, even seizing U.S. sailors, without fear of reprisal. It learned in the past that the U.S. preferred diplomacy, but the current administration appears to have put Tehran on notice.
 
The question is what can be learned from the escalating tensions. If Iran thinks Washington isn’t serious, or if it senses that domestic opposition to Washington’s saber-rattling is building, Iran may call America’s bluff. But if Iran thinks that Trump’s team really will retaliate, it will tread carefully in all the areas of the Middle East where U.S. allies and Iran’s proxies rub up against one another.
 
To understand the chessboard, we must look at the Middle East the way Iran does. Since the 1980s, Iran’s Islamic revolution has been increasing its influence in the region. This brought Iran into vicious conflict with Iraq in the 1980s, and for a while Iran saw few major geopolitical successes. However, the weakening of the Lebanese state and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 created opportunities for Iran to exploit local militia allies and gain power. It did this in Lebanon through Hezbollah, an armed terrorist organization that has seats in the Lebanese parliament. It also did this in Iraq through a plethora of militias, many of whose leaders had served alongside the IRGC in the 1980s. Today those Shiite militias are called the Popular Mobilization Forces and they are an official paramilitary force of the Iraqi government. They have threatened the U.S., and U.S. intelligence allegedly showed them positioning rockets near U.S. bases earlier this month.
 
In Yemen, meanwhile, Iran has worked closely with the Houthi rebels, who are being fought by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates and the government of Yemen. (That coalition is controversial; in April, Congress attempted to withdraw support for the Yemen war.) The Houthis have fired Iranian-designed ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia and used Iranian-made drones. Iran is also active in Syria, not only in support of the Syrian regime’s war against the now mostly defeated rebels, but also using bases to threaten Israel.
 
The U.S. sees Iran as inseparable from its cobweb of allied militia groups and proxies, many of which are supported by the IRGC. The U.S. designated the IRGC a terrorist organization in April and repeatedly has warned Iran that any attack by it or its proxies will be met with a response.
 
Iran now wants to assure its own people that war isn’t likely through media stories about how the Trump administration isn’t serious. This is in contrast to the usual Tehran bluster and threats, even historic harassment of ships in the Persian Gulf and harassment of U.S. forces in Iraq. Iran’s sudden quiet could, of course, be the calm before the storm, but it is more likely a reflection of the regime’s sudden confusion about U.S. policy. This is a good thing for American interests. Iran needs to be kept guessing about U.S. intentions. It needs to tell its proxies to stop threatening U.S. forces in Iraq, as the Defense Department says they have done as recently as March. The U.S. gained the upper hand in its recent escalation against Iran by playing Iran’s game of bluster and support for allies on the ground. If Washington wants to continue to keep Iran in check, it needs to keep up the pressure.

 

THE US’S MIDDLE EAST STRATEGY MIGHT BE FRAYING
Jonathan Ariel
BESA, May 21, 2019
 
Several weeks ago, Cairo discreetly notified Riyadh and Washington that it was suspending its participation in MESA (Middle East Strategic Alliance), the US-Saudi initiative to establish an Arab NATO to counter Iran. This means the idea of an Arab NATO has died in the very early stages of its gestation, since Egypt has by far the biggest, and one of the best equipped, armies in the Arab world – the only once with any capability of being an effective counterweight to Iran.
 
Although neither Cairo nor Riyadh nor Washington has officially confirmed the reports about this that have appeared in the Egyptian and western media, they provide an insight into current Egyptian thinking. The reports and commentaries in the Egyptian press are particularly illuminating, as they would never have seen the light of day without approval at the highest levels.
 
Articles published by various Egyptian columnists provide differing explanations as to why President Sisi has taken this decision. One is that Sisi wanted to make clear his displeasure with what he believes the American peace initiative will contain. While this may be a contributing factor, it is at most a marginal reason.
 
There are three more likely reasons why Sisi has chosen to bail out of MESA.
 
One is his lack of confidence in both Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) and President Trump. Various reports quote Egyptian sources as having doubts about Trump’s chances of being reelected. Concerns are being voiced that a new Democratic administration would scrap the project and return to the Obama era’s policy of appeasing Iran. Egypt is also uneasy about MBS, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, whom Sisi and his advisors seem to regard as a loose cannon. They are also put off by Trump’s unpredictability, a trait most Arab leaders abhor. Sisi and the Egyptian defense establishment regard both men as prone to unsound, even reckless decisions. Sisi mistrusts Trump, who talks like an adventurist interventionist but acts like an isolationist. The bottom line is that Sisi and the senior Egyptian leadership fear that remaining in MESA is more risk than reward for Egypt.
 
The second reason is that Egypt, unlike the Saudis and their UAE allies, does not regard Iran as an existential threat. The High Command sees no reason to risk totally alienating Tehran for a nebulous initiative whose fate is irretrievably linked to leaders of whom Egypt is wary. They fear that Trump and MBS might make rash decisions that could lead to war, in which case Egypt would end up paying the highest price.
 
Egypt regards Ethiopia and Sudan, which control the upper parts of the Nile, as its prime national security concerns. Both countries harbor ambitious plans to build large hydroelectric stations on their parts of the river. Egypt regards anything to do with the Nile as of vital national interest, which, given its dependence on the Nile and its annual seasonal flooding, is hardly surprising. Cairo has repeatedly made clear that any such construction done without its approval would be a casus belli. Egypt needs to ensure its army can project sufficient deterrence to prevent its having to fight a war to prevent either country from embarking on a unilateral dam construction on the Nile. Incurring major losses in an unplanned and unnecessary war with Iran does not serve this purpose. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
 

 

THE RISING CRISIS BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND IRAN
Amos Yadlin
INSS, Insight No. 1166, May 14, 2019
 
May 2019 marks the end of a difficult year for Iran, which saw the United States withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the JCPOA, and the imposition of American sanctions. The sanctions, which have hit primarily the oil and financial sectors, have inflicted severe damage on the Iranian economy. Furthermore, Iran’s attempt to entrench and build up an advanced military capability against Israel in Syria appears to have failed.
 
After a year in which Iran opted for “strategic patience,” in the hope that European nations would compensate for American sanctions and that President Donald Trump will stand little chance of reelection in 2020, the US administration has succeeded in ramping up the sanctions and applying pressure beyond Tehran’s expectations. Over the last month, Iran has experienced intensification of the US policy of “maximum pressure”: waivers that President Trump had granted China, India, Japan, and other countries, whereby these countries were able to import oil from Iran, were canceled; sanctions were imposed on the export of iron, steel, aluminum, and copper products from Iran; and in the nuclear realm, the United States revoked two waivers that had allowed Iran to abide by its JCPOA obligation to export excess enriched uranium and heavy water that it produces. The American designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization was meant to denigrate the Iranian economy and raise the stakes of doing business with shadowy elements of the Iranian economy, from potential fines to the threat of prison time. The regime in Iran has thus concluded that it must devise a new strategy – or at least, update its strategy – to one that is more proactive, albeit measured and cautious.
 
Iran now seeks to present a price tag for the US measures against it and has thus embarked on a response comprising action in three realms. Regarding the nuclear realm, Iran is trying to compel European nations to formulate and implement the promised mechanism to provide compensation for the sanctions. In the military realm, Iran seeks to exact a price from the United States (and Israel) with the goal of creating deterrence and preserving national pride. Finally, when it comes to energy supply, Iran has threatened Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that if it is unable to export oil, they too will be unable to do so.
 
The Nuclear Realm
 
Iran has three levels of action at hand in the nuclear realm (in ascending order of risk): a. undermining the JCPOA through minor breaches, inter alia by increasing the scope of uranium enrichment or boosting the level of enrichment; b. leaving the agreement and resuming broad nuclear activity, while installing tens of thousands of centrifuges in Natanz, renewing activity at the Arak reactor, and annulling Iran’s acceptance of the IAEA Additional Protocol; c. withdrawing from the NPT, which would clear the way to the development of a nuclear bomb.
 
As an initial step, Iran has opted for the limited move of not removing the enriched material above the 300 kg limit imposed by the JCPOA and is threatening a more significant breach in 60 days. Iran has not withdrawn from the agreement, because according to its calculations, overall the JCPOA remains beneficial for Iran’s nuclear and regional aspirations. To Tehran’s surprise, this limited move has not won European or Russian support and has even received some backlash, and thus demonstrates that nuclear escalation by Iran risks causing it to lose the diplomatic and political (as well as limited economic) support it enjoys from these countries in the face of United States policy.
 
The Military Realm
 
Likewise, in the military realm, Iran has a range of possible actions at its disposal: attacking American soldiers in Syria or Iraq, and launching low signature attacks via proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip against American interests or allies (including Israel). In the 1980s, Iran used Hezbollah to attack the US Marines and the US Embassy in Beirut, killing hundreds. In addition, the Pentagon has determined that Iran was responsible for the death of over 500 US troops in Iraq during the US occupation following the 2003 invasion, via its support and training of anti-American Shiite militias there.
 
Thus far, an intelligence alert was received regarding an attempt to attack US troops in Iraq, which explained the abrupt change in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s travel itinerary last week – from Germany to Iraq. Iran is also presumably preparing actions against Israel from Syria, Iraq, or perhaps even Lebanon. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

 

IRAN’S AGGRESSIONS THE FOCUS OF ‘EMERGENCY’ ARAB SUMMIT
Simon Henderson
The Hill, May 21, 2019
 
What’s the collective noun for a group of Arab leaders? A summit. What’s the distinguishing feature of an Arab summit? Cynics would say there isn’t one. It’s a long time since a notable decision was made at such a meeting.
 
But this time it might be different. King Salman of Saudi Arabia has called for a conference to be held in the holy city of Mecca on May 30 to discuss last week’s attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz and drone attacks on the kingdom’s main east-west domestic strategic pipeline.  Reporting on the official invitation sent to Arab leaders, the Saudi Press Agency linked the pipeline attacks to “terrorist Houthi militias [in Yemen], backed by Iran.”
 
Coming a few days after a United Arab Emirates (UAE) minister called for a “de-escalation” of the crisis, the announced plan for an emergency summit, specifically mentioning Iran, suggests the crisis may be warming up again. And lots can happen in the intervening few days. On Sunday, a lone rocket landed near the American embassy in Baghdad, apparently fired from a distant suburb. Was it a random attack by an armed group, or a signal from Tehran, using a proxy militia, to remind Uncle Sam of his vulnerabilities?
 
Actually, there are two summits being planned: one for members of the Arab League, whose definition of “Arab” stretches from Mauritania to the Comoros Islands. The other summit is for Gulf countries, a description that does not include Iran, of course, but this time doesn’t appear to involve Qatar, either. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have been isolating Doha, economically and diplomatically, since mid-2017 for a litany of reasons, many of which people have forgotten. A Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said Monday that the small, gas-rich state has not been invited to either summit.
 
There isn’t 100 percent certainty that the summit will happen. Arab summits typically happen once a year, usually in March. (This year it was held on April 1 in Tunisia, though there also was a joint summit with European leaders in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh in February.) Procedurally, any additional summit is an “emergency” meeting and takes place only if a member state submits a request for one and it is approved by two-thirds of the member states. (There are 22 members of the Arab League, although Syria is suspended. Also, there is a somewhat curious collection of observer states, which do not have voting rights — Brazil, Eritrea, India, Venezuela and Armenia.)
 
Given the prospect of the summit being a show-trial of Iran, however merited, some countries likely will seek the opportunity to absent themselves or send a lesser representative than their president or ruler. Several countries may not like Iran and its regional misbehavior but may prefer to avoid a confrontational or condemning stance. Invited or not, Qatar fits into this category, and perhaps Oman as well.
 
Lebanon has a particular problem, other than part of its government is pro-Iran Hezbollah: President Michel Aoun is a Christian and so cannot go to Mecca. The latest news is that Prime Minister Saad Hariri will attend instead, a dubious honor for him because of the experience of being forced to resign while visiting Riyadh in 2017 by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as MbS. (Hariri “unresigned” as soon as he got back to Lebanon.)
 
Given MbS’s centrality to the government of Saudi Arabia these days, it will be interesting to learn whether the summit is his idea or was concocted by courtiers of the aged king. The use of the phrase “aggressions and their consequences” in the initial announcement suggests MbS, who is notorious for his diplomatic pugnacity, was involved; the king is more benign. As it is, MbS likely will have to be the dominant figure in Mecca if he wants the summit to be a success, even if he has to also visually play the role of dutiful son. When King Salman spoke in Sharm el-Sheikh in February, he lost his place in his text and mispronounced words — embarrassing moments that were broadcast live across the Arab world.
 
Another side issue will be catering arrangements. The fasting month of Ramadan does not finish until early June, so the Mecca meetings may be scheduled for the hours of darkness. (During Ramadan, Muslims eat one meal just before dawn and one just after sunset, but none during daylight hours.) … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]