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    The Aftershocks of the Saudi and American Debacle in Afghanistan

    Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have a complex relationship. Their ties date back to the 19th century when Afghanistan became the first Muslim country to recognize the second Saudi state of 1824 to 1891. In 1930, Ibn Saud recognized King Nadir Shah’s rule in Afghanistan, in 1932, the two countries signed their first friendship agreement, and in 1950, King Zahir Shah’s visit to Saudi Arabia was commemorated on a Saudi stamp.

    Ties over the following decades remained close. This was not so much because of Saudi geopolitical interests in Afghanistan, but rather how the country affected Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran and Pakistan, a major rival and an important ally of the kingdom respectively.

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    The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 marked the summit of Saudi influence. In coordination with Pakistan and the United States, the Saudis famously supported the mujahideen and also assisted many Afghan refugees. Throughout the 1980s, the kingdom exercised direct interference over various Islamist groups in Afghanistan and many Saudis traveled there to fight the Soviets.

    After the Soviet Union departed in 1989 and throughout the subsequent civil war in Afghanistan, the Saudis continued their role of manipulating Afghan politicians and factions, using their petrodollars and religious influence on behalf of the US, with mixed results. In 1993, all of the Afghan mujahideen factions signed a peace agreement in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but that failed to stop the conflict.

    Saudi Ties With the Taliban

    Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, some commentators have encouraged the Saudis to try to play the religious card again. In June, Muslim scholars from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia signed a “declaration of peace” in Mecca, which Arab News described as a “historic, landmark event on the path toward reconciliation between warring factions.” But the Taliban rejected the move — which, in any event, had no impact on peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government — as a theatrical attempt to steal the diplomatic limelight from Qatar using Islamic mercenaries.

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    Saudi influence over the Taliban began with funding hardline religious schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan where the movement started. It effectively ended in 1996 when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan. At the end of the 1990s, Saudi citizens were officially barred from giving money to any charity that was not state-approved, which meant Saudi public funding for the Taliban was largely cut off, except for a few individuals acting without the explicit knowledge of the government. A 2013 research paper by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs stated that Saudi “fundraisers for the Taliban … are believed to extensively exploit networks and use old mechanisms dating back to the times of Saudi cooperation with mujahedeen and Taliban functionaries.”

    When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to officially recognize their government; Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were the other two. This was not because the Saudis supported the Taliban regime, but rather because they were looking for a way to grease the wheels for an approach by Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence, to persuade the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden, the Saudi leader of al-Qaeda.

    The Saudis calculated that by recognizing the Taliban government, they could win influence as they had done in the past with other factions and warlords. But in 1998, when Prince Turki traveled to Afghanistan with a delegation of Muslim figures, the former Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, turned him down.

    The Saudi View of the Taliban

    The House of Saud now faces a disconcerting moment over Afghanistan, not least because like the former Afghan government, the royal family depends on the US for protection against external enemies and internal threats.

    In a report by Wikistrat about the implications of the Taliban takeover on Saudi Arabia, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, comments: “Questions are likely to be mounting in Riyadh about the sincerity and the reliability of US security guarantees which themselves have been a matter of considerable uncertainty since the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.” He adds that the “sudden abandonment of Afghan partners, spelled out clinically and coldly in [Joe] Biden’s televised address, may resonate strongly among US regional partners for whom President [Barack] Obama’s perceived abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 set in motion a questioning of US motivations that then continued into the Trump era.”

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    Neil Quilliam, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House, continues in the same Wikistrat report: “The Taliban leadership will likely begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority.” He adds that the “nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a cause for concern in Saudi Arabia. President Biden’s speech about the withdrawal, wherein he noted that remaining in Afghanistan no longer constitutes a vital interest, has also sent shockwaves through the Saudi leadership.”

    The Taliban may turn on Saudi Arabia in the media war. Transnational jihadist groups like al-Qaeda could also threaten the Saudis from Afghanistan again. But as Sami Hamdi explained in the Arab Digest podcast, there are reasons why Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might benefit from the situation in Afghanistan in terms of finding a renewed utility toward the US. A foreign diplomat in Riyadh, quoted by Reuters, predicted that the kingdom will take a pragmatic approach. “The Saudis have a historical relationship with Afghanistan and will eventually have to accept the Taliban [again] … They have no other option,” he said.

    In 2019, Jalaluddin Shinwari, the former Taliban deputy minister of justice, told the New York Times: “What [we] are saying to Americans is this: You have accepted Saudi Arabia, and we won’t do more than their basic code — retribution for murder, chop off the hand for robbing. If you have accepted Saudi, what’s wrong with us being another? The rest will be your priorities: aid, friendship, economic relations.”

    The US Would Never Pull Out of Saudi Arabia

    The Taliban can dream of a relationship with the US akin to that which the Saudis enjoy. Yet that relationship is completely different from whatever ties the US has with Afghanistan. The United States would never pull out of Saudi Arabia the way it did from Afghanistan, not only because of hydrocarbons — although with the Middle East still providing around 31% of world oil production and 16% of global natural gas supply, this remains an important factor. Nor is American support just about Israel’s security — although the US and its Western allies certainly wish to ensure this, and they are ready to work with any Arab regime, particularly Saudi Arabia, that is ready to officially recognize Israel on US terms.

    The main reason the US can never pull out of Saudi Arabia is because of the unthinkable consequences of losing Saudi control of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina to al-Qaeda or another jihadist movement. That is why US support for the Saudis remains solid despite misgivings on both sides.

    *[This article was originally published by Arab Digest, a partner organization of Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    For Saudi Arabia, Iran Looms, Israel Beckons and the Taliban Cause Goosebumps

    Prince Khalid bin Salman may not have planned it that way, but the timing of his trip to Moscow last week and message to Washington resounded loud and clear. By not postponing the visit, the Saudi deputy defense minister signaled that he was trying to hedge his kingdom’s bets by signing a defense cooperation agreement with Russia. This took place just as the United States fumbled to evacuate thousands of people from Afghanistan after that country was captured by Taliban militants.

    Saudi Arabia would have wanted to be seen as hedging its bets with or without the US debacle. The kingdom realizes that Russia will exploit opportunities created by the fiasco in Afghanistan but is neither willing nor capable of replacing the US as the Gulf’s security guarantor.

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    Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia likely wants to capitalize on jitters in the US as Washington tries to get a grip on what went wrong and come to terms with the fact that Afghanistan will once again be governed by the Taliban. In 2001, the US ousted the ultraconservative militants from power because they harbored al-Qaeda terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan.

    Al-Qaeda, alongside various other militant groups, still has a presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban insist that no one will be allowed to operate cross-border or plan and/or launch attacks on other countries from Afghan soil.

    Jitters in the Gulf

    Yet the willingness to exploit US discomfort may also signal jitters in Saudi Arabia. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions for Riyadh. First, is the US still reliable when it comes to the defense of the kingdom and the Arabian Peninsula? Second, does the US move undermine confidence in Washington’s ability to negotiate a potential revival of the Iranian nuclear deal if and when talks start again? Third, could Afghanistan become a battlefield in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite both sides seeking to dial down tensions?

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    Neil Quilliam, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House, argues that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has increased its influence among the Taliban at the expense of the Saudis, who backed away from the group in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The kingdom and the Taliban’s paths further diverged with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman liberalizing the once-shared ultra-conservative social mores while Afghanistan appears set to reintroduce them.

    “The Taliban leadership will likely begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority. At the same time, the Saudi leadership will be keen to align policy with the US and its Western partners and will follow their lead in establishing diplomatic relations with the new Afghan government and providing aid to the country’s population,” Quilliam predicted.

    His analysis assumes that reduced Saudi interaction and closer Iranian ties with the Taliban mean that the group’s inclinations would lean more toward Tehran than Riyadh.

    In a similar vein, some analysts have noted that Saudi Arabia was absent among the Gulf states that helped the US and European countries with evacuations from Afghanistan. Instead, it sent its deputy defense minister to Moscow.

    Others suggested that Saudi Arabia chose to remain on the sidelines and hedge its bets, given its history with the Taliban. Until 2001, Saudi Arabia was a major influence among Afghan jihadists, whom it funded during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. It was also one of three countries to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan when it first gained power in 1996. Fifteen of the 19 perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals. By then, Saudi influence had already waned, as was evident in the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden before the attacks took place. 

    If proven correct, Quilliam’s prediction would amount to a break with the Taliban record of not operating beyond Afghanistan’s borders except in Pakistan, even though it tolerates al-Qaeda militants and others on territory it controls. Moreover, despite being strange bedfellows, the need to accommodate one another is unlikely to persuade the Taliban to do Iran’s bidding. “Iran has tried to increase its influence within the group by getting closer to certain factions, but it is still suspicious of the Taliban as a whole,” said Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

    Iran and Israel

    Moreover, the Taliban may want to steer clear of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. This is particularly if those who believe that US unreliability, as demonstrated in Afghanistan, leaves Saudi Arabia no choice but to escalate the war in Yemen and confront Iran more forcefully get their way.

    “We should take a lesson from the events in Afghanistan, and especially from the mistakes [that were made there], regarding Yemen. This is the time to crush the Houthis without considering the international forces,” said Saudi columnist Safouq al-Shammari, echoing other commentators in Saudi media. “Giving Israel a free hand regarding the Iranian nuclear issue has become a reasonable [option] … It seems like [Israel’s] extremist [former prime minister] Netanyahu, was right to avoid coordinating with the [Biden] administration, which he considered weak and failing.”

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    Shammari’s notions fit into Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to replace the religious core of Saudi identity with hyper-nationalism. They also stroke with thinking among more conservative Israeli analysts and retired military officers. In Shammari’s vein, retired Major General Gershon Hacohen of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) walked away from the US debacle in Afghanistan, warning that “for all its overwhelming material and technological superiority, the IDF stands no chance of defeating Israel’s Islamist enemies unless its soldiers are driven by a relentless belief in the national cause.”

    By the same token, Major General Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser and head of military intelligence research, argued that the US withdrawal would drive home to the Gulf states the proposition that an “open relationship with Israel is vitally important for their ability to defend themselves.” He added that Israel could not replace the US as the region’s security guarantor, “but together with Israel these countries will be able to build a regional scheme that will make it easier for them to contend with various threats.”

    By implication, Amidror was urging the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which last year established diplomatic relations with Israel, to forge closer security cooperation with the Jewish state. He suggested that Saudi Arabia may, in the wake of the events in Afghanistan, be more inclined to build formal ties with Israel. Yet while there is little doubt that Mohammed bin Salman would like to have an open relationship with Israel, it is equally possible that the victory of religious militants in Afghanistan will reinforce Saudi hesitancy to cross the Rubicon at the risk of sparking widespread criticism in the Muslim world.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Securing the Flow of Aid in Yemen

    As the war in Yemen splinters, the distribution of humanitarian assistance becomes increasingly difficult. The situation throughout northern Yemen — territory under the control of Houthi rebels — is wrapped into the conflict over restricted access to Hodeida seaport under UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015) and very limited access to Sanaa International Airport by humanitarian agencies.

    In southern provinces, political rivalries present major obstacles to the coordination and delivery of aid. Another problem has been a failure by the international community to meet funding requests, often falling short by up to 50%. Where available, the more direct, government-driven humanitarian funding might prove to be a more effective approach, especially when it comes to long-term solutions.

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    Nearly seven years into the Yemeni conflict, no party is closer to a military victory, and the main tactic by all sides has been to dilute local authority to foment chaos. The current situation along southern provinces is clear evidence of these tactics — from Abyan to Mahra. Economic development remains stagnant, while infighting and turf wars obstruct operations by humanitarian agencies.

    In Aden, for example, UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are constrained by conflict over access to ports and collection of tariffs, checkpoints, corruption and fighting at the village level outside the province. Abyan is now divided into three spheres as a result of fighting among the Southern Transitional Council (STC), pro-Islah forces and elements loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The conflict in Shebwa has carved space for aid agencies from Turkey and Qatar working through al-Islah affiliates. Yet failure to stabilize these local environments has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, while some profit from the war economy.

    Stabilization of local environments, eliminating obstacles such as checkpoints and corruption have proved key to the effective delivery of aid and social cohesion. While political rivalries prolong conflict across Yemen, instances of political victory over rivals provide isolated models of stability.

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    In the case of the Soqotra archipelago off the coast of Yemen, the end of the political conflict between al-Islah affiliates and southern elements has led to an increase in the flow of aid, the absence of political strife and a gradual restart of economic activity. International organizations have had limited access to the island, but direct government assistance from coalition members has bolstered the pace of development.

    A Direct Model

    During the conflict, donors have failed to meet funding requests from humanitarian agencies. As demand has increased, donor contributions have dropped. It is estimated that over 3.5 million civilians have been displaced from their homes, while over 24 million “are in need of humanitarian assistance.” The funding gap has grown between 40% and 60% from 2019 to the present. The capture of humanitarian assistance by Houthis since 2019, amounting to an estimated $1.8 billion, has also created problems for UN agencies and NGOs when donors have lost confidence and perceive their contributions will end up funding the war.

    Direct funding of small projects — in the health sector or for economic actors — by donor governments could relieve political tension and contribute to local stability. The case of Soqotra again allows for potential modeling under current circumstances. Since 2015, as the armed conflict expanded, the Yemeni island in the Indian Ocean has received direct humanitarian assistance from the United Arab Emirates. Soon after cyclone Chapala struck Soqotra in 2015, the UAE delivered life-saving aid. It also supported the population after the Makunu cyclone in 2018.

    Over the past six years, the UAE has delivered over $110 million in assistance to the population on Soqotra and neighboring islands. The aid has reached areas of social and health services, transport and storage, fishing sector, construction, public education, energy and potable water.

    While millions have been displaced by the war on the mainland, rapid response assistance following Chapala and Makunu prevented the displacement of hundreds of families. With help from the UAE military, organizations such as the Abu Dhabi Development Fund (ADFD), the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation and the Emirates Red Crescent (ERC) helped build 161 residential units in Zayed City, 21 in Dafarh, 51 in Arshani, and other units in Zaheq and Dixam since the cyclones hit the islands. Assistance has also provided four power plants, a distribution network for more than 30 sites, installed solar-powered street lighting and established two solar power plants in Hadibo with a capacity of 2.2 megawatts and Qalansiya at 800 kilowatts.

    Direct aid from the UAE has also reached Soqotra’s health sector. By specifically targeting the needs of the local population, after natural disasters or ordinary health requirements, the assistance has fully equipped one emergency facility and two surgery rooms. It has also added 13 beds and an intensive-care unit (ICU) in line with international standards and expanded the Sheikh Khalifa Hospital. The facility’s bed capacity has increased to 42, including four at the ICU unit, and 16 CT scan machines have been installed.

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    Assistance for economic actors has also focused on the Fishing Cooperative Union and 27 fishermen’s associations, helped renovate a fish market and built a fish factory with a production capacity of 500 tons per month, employing 500 local people. Financial assistance has also reached farmers, converting over 31 hectares into farmland.

    Stability as a Model

    Civilian organizations continue to face challenges while delivering aid in remote areas of Yemen. Obstacles include funding gaps, import logistics and costs, and access to ports and roads. In the case of Soqotra, NGOs have been unable to respond to natural disasters and growing needs in the health and energy sectors.

    The end of the armed conflict may be further than expected at this time, but where possible, the extinguishing of political rivalries has produced wider access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Soqotra stands as a potential model, at the micro-level, in hands of a party within the government coalition prescribed by the Riyadh Agreement, a power-sharing deal for Yemen.

    As a legitimate party representing the southern people according to the Riyadh Agreement, the STC is a partner in Yemen’s internationally recognized government under President Hadi. The progress achieved in securing order and promoting social cohesion could provide a model for other areas throughout liberated provinces. An essential component of success remains direct access to sustainable funding from donors.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Can Saudi Arabia Balance Social and Economic Change?

    The World Bank issued a stark warning in its 2018 outlook for the Saudi economy: “The Kingdom likely faces a looming poverty problem.” The bank has since noted in its 2019 and 2020 outlooks that “while no official information is available on poverty, identifying and supporting low-income households is challenging.” Dependent on world oil prices, the curve of gross domestic product (GPD) per capita in Saudi Arabia was never a straight line upward. Instead, it ebbed and flowed.

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    In one example, Saudi GDP per capita dropped by almost half from a peak of $17,872 in 1981 to $8,685 in 2001, the year in which 15 Saudi middle-class nationals constituted the majority of jihadists who flew airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington. It was also the year in which many Saudis struggled to make ends meet amid depressed oil prices and then-King Abdullah’s efforts to introduce a measure of Saudi fiscal restraint. Many people held two to three jobs.

    “Prior to the Gulf War, we didn’t pay rent in student dormitories — now we do,” a Saudi student enrolled in Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Fahd Petroleum and Minerals University told this writer at the time. “In the past, it didn’t matter if you didn’t complete your studies in five years. Now you lose your scholarship if you don’t. Soon we’ll be asked to pay for tuition. Before the Gulf War, you had 10 job offers when you graduated. Now you’re lucky if you get one,” the student said referring to the US-led reversal of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

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    “There’s nothing to do here but sit around, watch television and smoke shisha,” added Abdulaziz, one of the student’s friends. “There’s nothing we can do to change things. That’s why we get married early, only to discover that it was a mistake.”

    Saudi GDP per capita has dropped again, although less dramatically, from $23,337 in the year that the World Bank warned about looming poverty to $20,110 in 2020. On a positive note, the bank reports that while “poverty information and access to survey data to measure welfare conditions have been limited,” Saudi Arabia has seen “gains in administrative capacity to identify and support low-income households.” It warned, however, that the middle class could be most exposed to the pains of austerity and fiscal restraint.

    A Different Saudi Arabia

    To be sure, the Saudi Arabia at the turn of the century is not the same kingdom as today. Saudis made up one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters in the Islamic State group that seized territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Despite this, Saudi citizens are unlikely to respond to a unilateral rewriting of a social contract that promised cradle-to-grave-welfare and potential economic hardship by drifting toward militancy and extremism at a time that a young crown prince has promised massive change and delivered some.

    Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has liberalized social mores, rolled back the influence of ultra-conservative clerics, created greater leisure and entertainment offerings, and enhanced women’s rights and professional opportunities. This forms part of his plan to wean Saudi Arabia off its dependency on oil exports and diversify the economy. He has simultaneously tightened the political aspect of the kingdom’s social contract involving the public’s absolute surrender of all political rights, including freedom of expression, media and assembly.

    In exchange, Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan promises, according to the World Bank, to protect citizens from the pain of economic change by “modernizing the social welfare system, redirecting price subsidies toward those in need, preparing and training those unable to find employment, and providing tailored care and support to the most vulnerable citizen.” In doing so, the government has sought to soften the impact of higher energy prices and the tripling of value-added tax and expatriate levy.

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    More than social protections, Vision 2030 is about creating jobs for Saudis in a country where unemployment was 11.7% in the first quarter of this year. In the last three years, the Saudi private sector reportedly created a third of the 1.2 million jobs the kingdom needs to generate by 2022 to meet its unemployment target. The country’s statistics agency said the first-quarter unemployment was Saudi Arabia’s lowest in nearly five years. But the decline was partly driven by people dropping out of the labor force rather than new job creation.

    Jobs for Saudis

    In May, Mohammed bin Salman asserted in a wide-ranging interview that “we have 200,000 to 250,000 people getting into the job market each year and public sector jobs are limited.” Taking tourism as an example, he said the development of the industry would create 3 million jobs, 1 million of which would be for Saudis who, over time, could replace expats who would initially fill two-thirds of the openings.

    “Once we create three million jobs, we can Saudize them in the future. There are also jobs in the industrial sector and so on,” Prince Mohammed said. He predicted at the same time that the percentage of foreigners in the kingdom could increase from a third of the population today to half in the next decade or two.

    Writing about the changing social contract in Saudi Arabia, Mira al-Hussein and Eman Alhussein cautioned that the government needs to manage rapid economic and social change, in part by providing clearer information to the public. The scholars identified issues involving rights of foreigners versus rights accorded children of mixed Saudi and non-Saudi marriages, the rollback of religion in public life and austerity measures as potential points of friction in the kingdom. “The ramifications of existing grievances and the increasing polarization within Gulf societies … as well as the extensive social engineering programs have pitted conservatives against liberals. Arab Gulf States’ ability to redefine their social contracts without turbulence will depend on their tactful avoidance of creating new grievances and on solving existing ones,” the authors wrote.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Joe Biden Faces a Dilemma Over Iran

    Everything old is new again, at least when it comes to US President Joe Biden’s deterrence credibility problem with Iran. This must seem like déjà vu to him, since he witnessed similar dynamics play out during an earlier stint at the White House.

    Several weeks ago came news that the FBI had foiled a brazen scheme by an Iranian intelligence network to kidnap an Iranian-born US citizen who is a prominent critic of the Islamic Republic.  The apparent plan was to abduct her from the streets of Brooklyn, spirit her to Venezuela via “maritime evacuation” using “military-style speedboats” and from there deliver her to Iran.  The plan was part of a broader scheme entailing the seizure of other individuals in Canada and the United Kingdom.

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    The elaborate operation, which the head of the FBI’s New York field office described as “not some far-fetched movie plot,” is a flagrant gesture on Iran’s part at a time when the Biden administration is seeking to diplomatically engage Tehran on nuclear proliferation issues. What stands out from this episode is how much Tehran is willing to extend US–Iranian hostility onto the American homeland and how little it seems to fear the prospect of retaliation.

    The Saudi Ambassador

    The thwarted abduction is reminiscent of an even more audacious scheme on US territory by Iranian agents a decade ago. In the fall of 2011, the FBI broke up an operation to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The plan was directed by the Quds Force, an elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that conducts clandestine operations beyond the country’s borders. The plot involved blowing up the Saudi diplomat at an upscale restaurant popular among Washington’s political elite, followed by the bombing of the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington and in Argentina. The high likelihood of mass casualties at the restaurant was dismissed by the operation’s US-based organizer as “no big deal.”

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    The plot organizer sought to outsource the bombings to the Los Zetas drug cartel in Mexico, which the FBI later described as having “access to military-grade weaponry and explosives, and has engaged in numerous acts of violence, including assassinations and murders.” As part of the deal with the cartel, the organizer promised to funnel tons of opium from the Middle East to Mexico. The plan unraveled when the organizer reached out to an individual he believed was a cartel member but who was actually an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

    Reporting on the foiled plot, the Washington Post commented that it resembled “an international cloak-and-dagger operation that reads like the plot of a Bond novel.” Robert Mueller, the FBI director at the time, noted that “Though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost.” James R. Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, cautioned that “some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime.”

    At the time, the Obama administration was looking to wind down the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as find a way to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Although then-Vice-President Biden described the botched assassination plot as “an outrage that violates one of the fundamental premises upon which nations deal with one another”, the White House did little beyond prosecuting the hapless Iranian organizer and imposing sanctions on several Quds Force officials.

    James Mattis on Obama’s Response

    The tepid response was particularly criticized by General James Mattis, the head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which directs military operations in the greater Middle East. He was dismayed that President Barack Obama kept the details of “the enormous savagery of the intended attack” from the American public and failed to respond forcefully to the provocation.

    Obama would eventually fire Mattis from his CENTCOM post, in part due to the latter’s frequent criticism of the president’s approach toward Iran. Once in civilian life, Mattis publicly lambasted Obama’s response to the attempted assassination. Speaking at a conference in 2013, he claimed the plot was the result of a decision “taken at the very highest levels in Tehran.” He further asserted that “We caught them in the act and yet we let them walk free,” and “They have been basically not held to account. … I don’t know why the attempt on [the Saudi ambassador] wasn’t dealt with more strongly.”

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    In his 2019 memoir, Mattis blamed the lax US reply on Obama’s keenness to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. He also elaborated on his earlier criticism, lamenting that “We treated an act of war as a law enforcement violation.” He added:

    “Had the bomb gone off, those in the restaurant and on the street would have been ripped apart, blood rushing down sewer drains. It would have been the worst attack on us since 9/11. I sensed that only Iran’s impression of America’s impotence could have led them to risk such an act within a couple of miles of the White House, Absent one fundamental mistake — the terrorists had engaged an undercover DEA agent in an attempt to smuggle the bomb — the Iranians would have pulled off this devastating attack. Had that bomb exploded, it would have changed history.”

    In the end, it was Obama’s successor who delivered the kind of reprisal Mattis thought necessary. In early January 2020, the Trump administration launched a drone strike that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, the long-time Quds Force commander, while he was on a secret visit to Baghdad. Hundreds of miles away on the very same night, a drone strike in Yemen targeted but missed Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior leader in the Quds Force. Washington had long accused Soleimani and Shahlai of being the key Iranian officials in putting the bomb plot into motion.

    Biden’s Conundrum

    Like Obama, President Biden now confronts a conundrum: how to shore up eroding US deterrence resolve vis-à-vis an increasing risk-acceptant Tehran while also keeping it in good enough humor to extract significant nuclear concessions. So far, he has eschewed Mattis’ advice about how to dissuade Iran from mounting further attacks on American soil.

    In contrast to his outrage a decade ago, Biden has opted to keep personally silent about the Brooklyn abduction plot while his administration treats it as a matter for law enforcement. It seems unlikely that the incoming Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, will find this response a cause for restraint.

    The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    How Dubai and Abu Dhabi See the World Cup

    With the Euros over, attention outside the UK is turning to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The focus in Britain, quite rightly, remains on the racist abuse directed at black members of the English football team and the extent to which the prime minister and the home secretary contribute to enabling a culture in which such abuse can flourish.

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    In the Gulf, the lucrative rights to World Cup packages are now being awarded. In Kuwait, ITL World has been appointed the sales agent. The company’s CEO, Siddeek Ahmed, could hardly contain his delight at being able to offer “fans a unique opportunity to purchase ticket-inclusive hospitality packages” for the World Cup. In addition to game tickets, the packages include flights, accommodation, transport and “leisure” programs. According to Arabian Business, the deals for the main venue, the 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium, will run from $14,350 to $74,200. That buys you all 10 matches hosted there, including the quarter-final, semi-final and final. If you are not short on cash, you can pick up a 40-seat suite at the stadium for just $2.6 million.

    In Dubai, Expat Sport Tourism DMCC won the rights, with its website urging football fans to be a part of history to see the first World Cup held in the Arab world. “From the pinnacle in high end corporate experiences to individual hospitality solutions for football fans, we can cater for all those wishing to be part of FIFA World Cup 2022” is how the firm put it.

    Not Everyone Is Happy

    With an estimated 1.5 million fans heading to Qatar next year, Dubai, with its well-established tourism and entertainment sectors, sees itself as ideally placed to cash in on the World Cup bonanza. Yet others in the United Arab Emirates are less welcoming.

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    Mohammed al-Hammadi is the president of the Emirates Journalists Association and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Alroeya, based in Abu Dhabi. Among the core values listed on the paper’s website are “apply best practice in line with the journalism codes” and “be an objective and trustworthy information tool.”

    Hammadi is a strong proponent of normalization. He spoke at a webinar in October 2020, after the UAE and Bahrain had announced their plan to normalize relations with Israel. The event was organized by a pro-Israeli think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Hammadi said he believed in both peace and advancing the rights of Palestinians, but people like him who “speak in favor of peace are stigmatized … and find themselves falling under attack.” He added that the word normalizing “has a very negative connotation in our region.”

    In June, he drew the ire of African journalists with a ham-fisted attempt to have them join a coordinated media attack on the World Cup in Qatar. They adopted a resolution denouncing efforts to “use Africa and its institutions as political football in order to settle scores in a political dispute.” The statement said:

    “While journalists in the East African region struggle to preserve their independence and freedom from rogue government and commercial interests that threaten the integrity of journalists, an outside actor is behind attempts to manipulate, divert and involve journalists in an issue completely outside the scope and powers of journalists and their unions.
    In the same way that journalists and their unions in East Africa are calling, confronting and protesting against governments for their interference in the work of journalists and the curtailment of their freedoms, all foreign powers that have a negative and false agenda must be condemned and publicly challenged as a matter of principle and consistency.”

    Twelve days later, the website Emirates Leaks, citing what it called “reliable sources,” alleged that Hammadi had attempted to pressure the heads of the journalism unions of Norway and Finland. According to the site, he wanted them to influence journalism unions in Asia and Africa to “coordinate attacks against Qatar and tarnish its image before hosting the World Cup.”

    His efforts occasioned a written question on June 23 in the European Parliament from Fulvio Martusciello. The Italian MEP accused the head of the Emirates Journalists Association of leading a smear campaign against Qatar: “Al Hammadi asked the Finnish and Norwegian Journalists Federations to exercise influence on journalists unions that he supports financially to engage in the Abu Dhabi campaign and offend Qatar. He also tried to offer them financial bribes and expensive gifts in return for achieving Abu Dhabi’s inflammatory goals.”

    So, while Dubai can barely contain its World Cup excitement, Abu Dhabi appears set to continue its anti-Qatar campaign. Imagine for a moment that the UAE was a football side and its two big stars had separate agendas and were playing only for themselves. That is not a winning formula and it’s something a good manager, like England’s Gareth Southgate, would quickly sort out.

    *[This article was originally published by Arab Digest, a partner organization of Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Personality and Ambition Fuel Saudi-UAE Divide

    Personality and the conflation of national interests with personal ambition are contributing to the widening gap between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was only a matter of time before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) would want to go out on his own and no longer be seen as the protégé of his erstwhile mentor and Emirati counterpart, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). By the same token, there was little doubt that the Saudi prince and future king would want to put to rest any suggestion that the UAE, rather than Saudi Arabia, called the shots in the Gulf and the Middle East.

    No doubt, MBS will not have forgotten revelations about Emirati attitudes toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s strategic vision of the relationship between the two countries. This was spelled out in emails by Yusuf al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington and a close associate of MBZ, which were leaked in 2017. The emails made clear that UAE leaders believed they could use Saudi Arabia — the Gulf’s behemoth — and Mohammed bin Salman as a vehicle to promote Emirati interests.

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    “Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around,” Otaiba wrote. In a separate email, the ambassador told a former US official that “I think in the long term we might be a good influence on KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], at least with certain people there.”

    A participant in a more recent meeting with Otaiba quoted the ambassador as referring to the Middle East as “the UAE region,” suggesting an enhanced Emirati regional influence. In a similar vein, former Dubai police chief Dhahi Khalfan, blowing his ultra-nationalist horn, tweeted in Arabic, “It’s not humanity’s survival of the strongest, it’s the survival of the smartest.”

    To be sure, Mohammed bin Zayed has been plotting the UAE’s positioning as a regional economic and geopolitical powerhouse for far longer than his Saudi counterpart. It is not for nothing that it earned the UAE the epitaph of “Little Sparta,” in the words of former US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

    Windows of Opportunity

    No doubt, smarts count for a lot. But, in the ultimate analysis, the two crown princes appear to be exploiting windows of opportunity that exist as long as their most powerful rivals, Turkey and Iran, fail to get their act together. The Saudis and Emiratis see the Turks and Iranians as threats to their regional power. Both Turkey and Iran have far larger, highly educated populations, huge domestic markets, battle-hardened militaries, significant natural resources and industrial bases.

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    In the meantime, separating the wheat from the chaff in the Gulf spat may be easier said than done. Bader al-Saif, a Gulf analyst, notes that differences among Arab states have emerged as a result of regime survival strategies that are driven by the need to gear up for a post-oil era. The emergence of a more competitive landscape need not be all negative. Saif warns, however, that “left unchecked … differences could snowball and negatively impact the neighborhood.

    Several factors complicate the management of these differences. For one, the Vision 2030 plan for weening Saudi Arabia off its dependence on the export of fossil fuel differs little from the perspective put forward by the UAE and Qatar, two countries that have a substantial head start.

    Saudi Arabia sought to declare an initial success in the expanded rivalry by revealing last week that the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airline industry body, had opened its regional headquarters in Riyadh. IATA denied that the Saudi office would have regional responsibility. The announcement came on the heels of the disclosure of Saudi plans to create a new airline to compete with Emirates and Qatar Airways.

    Further complicating the management of differences is the fact that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to compete for market share as they seek to maximize their oil export revenues in the short and medium term. This is particularly before oil demand potentially plateaus and then declines in the 2030s.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, economic diversification and social liberalization are tied up with the competing geopolitical ambitions of the two princes in positioning their countries as the regional leader. Otaiba signaled MBZ’s ambition in 2017 in an email exchange with Elliot Abram, a neoconservative former US official. “Jeez, the new hegemon! Emirati imperialism! Well, if the US won’t do it, someone has to hold things together for a while,” Abrams wrote to the ambassador, referring to the UAE’s growing regional role. “Yes, how dare we! In all honesty, there was not much of a choice. We stepped up only after your country chose to step down,” Otaiba replied.

    The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas

    Differences in the ideological and geopolitical thinking of the princes when it comes to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood reemerged recently. Differing Saudi and Emirati approaches were initially evident in 2015 when King Salman and his son began their reign in Saudi Arabia. This was a period when Mohammed bin Zayed, who views political Islam and the Brotherhood as an existential threat, had yet to forge close ties to the new Saudi leadership. At the time, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, barely a month after King Salman’s ascendancy, told an interviewer that “there is no problem between the kingdom” and the Brotherhood.

    Just a month later, the Muslim World League, a body established by Saudi Arabia in the 1960s to propagate religious ultra-conservatism and long dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, organized a conference in a building in Mecca that had not been used since the banning of the brothers. The Qataris, who have a history of close ties to the Brotherhood, were invited.

    After King Salman and his son came to power, Saudi Arabia adopted a harder approach toward Brotherhood-related groups as Mohammed bin Zayed gained influence in Saudi affairs. The Muslim League has since become Mohammed bin Salman’s main vehicle for promoting his call for religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are portraying themselves as icons of a socially moderate form of Islam that, nonetheless, endorses autocratic rule.

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    Last week, the kingdom signaled a potential change in its attitude toward Brotherhood-related groups with the broadcast of an interview with Khaled Meshaal, the Qatar-based head of the political arm of Hamas. The interview was aired on Al Arabiya, the Saudi state-controlled news channel. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls Gaza, maintains relations with Iran and is viewed as being part of a Brotherhood network. Meshaal called for a resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian movement.

    In 2014, Saudi Arabia designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. This was part of a dispute between Qatar, a supporter of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, which had all withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha. The Saudis were particularly upset by the close relations that Hamas had forged with Iran and Turkey, Riyadh’s main rivals for regional hegemony.

    A litmus test of the degree of change in Saudi Arabia’s attitude will be whether it releases scores of Hamas members. These members were arrested in 2019 as part of Saudi efforts to garner Palestinian support for then-US President Donald Trump’s controversial peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quoting the Arabic service of Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, Al-Monitor reported that Al Arabiya had refrained from broadcasting a segment of the interview in which Meshaal called for the release of the detainees.

    Despite Differences

    The Saudi–UAE rivalry and the ambitions of their leaders make it unlikely that Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed will look at structural ways of managing differences. This includes areas like greater regional economic integration through arrangements for trade and investment and an expanded customs union. The latter would make the region more attractive to foreign investors and improve the Gulf states’ bargaining power.

    In the absence of strengthening institutions, the bets are on the crown princes recognizing that, despite their differences, “it doesn’t make sense for either one of them to let go of the other.”

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    America’s Afghan War Is Over. But What About Iraq and Iran?

    At Bagram air base, Afghan scrap merchants are already picking through the graveyard of US military equipment that was until recently the headquarters of America’s 20-year occupation of their country. Afghan officials say the last US forces slipped away from Bagram in the dead of night, without notice or coordination. 

    The Taliban are rapidly expanding their control over hundreds of districts in Afghanistan, usually through negotiations between local elders, but also by force when troops loyal to the Kabul government refuse to give up their outposts and weapons. A few weeks ago, the Taliban controlled a quarter of the country. Now it’s a third. They are taking control of border posts and large swathes of territory in the north of the country. These include areas that were once strongholds of the Northern Alliance, a militia that prevented the Taliban from unifying the country under their rule in the late 1990s. 

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    People of goodwill all over the world hope for a peaceful future for the people of Afghanistan, but the only legitimate role the United States can play there now is to pay reparations, in whatever form, for the damage it has done and the pain and deaths it has caused. Speculation in the US political class and corporate media about how the US can keep bombing and killing Afghans from “over the horizon” should cease. The US and its corrupt puppet government lost this war. Now it’s up to the Afghans to forge their future. 

    Iraq

    So, what about America’s other endless crime scene: Iraq? The US corporate media only mention Iraq when our leaders suddenly decide that the over 150,000 bombs and missiles they have dropped on Iraq and Syria since 2001 were not enough, and dropping a few more on Iranian allies there will appease some hawks in Washington without starting a full-scale war with Iran.

    But for 40 million Iraqis, as for 40 million Afghans, America’s most stupidly chosen battlefield is their country, not just an occasional news story. They are living their entire lives under the enduring impacts of the neocons’ war of mass destruction.

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    Young Iraqis took to the streets in 2019 to protest 16 years of corrupt government by the former exiles to whom the United States handed over their country and its oil revenues. The protests were directed at the Iraqi government’s corruption and failure to provide jobs and basic services to its people, but also at the underlying, self-serving foreign influences of the US and Iran over every Iraqi government since the 2003 invasion.

    A new government was formed in May 2020, headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, previously the head of Iraq’s intelligence service and, before that, a journalist and editor for the Al-Monitor website. Kadhimi has initiated investigations into the embezzlement of $150 billion in Iraqi oil revenues by officials of previous governments, who were mostly former Western-based exiles like himself. He is now walking a fine line to try to save his country, after all it has been through, from becoming the front line in a new US war on Iran.

    Recent US airstrikes have targeted the Hashd al-Shaabi, known in English as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF, which is made up of mostly Iraqi Shia armed groups, was formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (IS). At the time, IS had seized territory spanning both Iraq and Syria, breaking the border between the two countries and declaring a caliphate. The PMF comprises about 130,000 troops in 40 or more different units. Most of them were recruited by pro-Iranian Iraqi political parties and groups. Now, the PMF is an integral part of Iraq’s armed forces and is credited with playing a critical role in the war against IS.

    Western media represent the PMF as militias that Iran can turn on and off as a weapon against the United States. But the PMF has its own interests and decision-making structures. When Iran has tried to calm tensions with the US, it has not always been able to control the PMF. General Haider al-Afghani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer in charge of coordinating with the PMF, recently requested a transfer out of Iraq. He complained that the PMF paid no attention to him.

    Ever since the US assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani and PMF commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020, the PMF has been determined to force the last remaining US occupation forces out of Iraq. After the killing, the Iraqi national assembly passed a resolution calling for US forces to leave Iraq. Following US airstrikes against PMF units in February 2021, Iraq and the US agreed in early April that American combat troops would soon depart. 

    But no date has been set, no detailed agreement has been signed, many Iraqis do not believe US forces will leave, nor do they trust the Kadhimi government to ensure their departure. As time has gone by without a formal agreement, some PMF forces have resisted calls for calm from their own government and Iran and stepped up attacks on US forces. 

    At the same time, the Vienna talks over the Iran nuclear agreement have raised fear among PMF commanders that Iran may sacrifice them as a bargaining chip in a renegotiated nuclear agreement with the United States. So, in the interest of survival, the commanders have become more independent of Iran and cultivated a closer relationship with Kadhimi. This was evidenced in Kadhimi’s attendance at a huge military parade in June to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the PMF’s founding. 

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    The next day, the US bombed PMF forces in Iraq and Syria, drawing public condemnation from Kadhimi and his cabinet as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. After conducting retaliatory strikes, the PMF declared a new ceasefire on June 29, apparently to give Kadhimi more time to finalize a withdrawal agreement. But six days later, some of them resumed rocket and drone attacks on US targets.

    Whereas Donald Trump only retaliated when rocket attacks in Iraq killed Americans, a senior US official has revealed that President Joe Biden has lowered the bar, threatening to respond with airstrikes even when Iraqi militia attacks do not cause US casualties. But US air strikes have only led to rising tensions and further escalations by Iraqi militia forces. If American forces respond with more or heavier airstrikes, the PMF and Iran’s allies throughout the region can respond with more widespread attacks on US bases. The further this escalates and the longer it takes to negotiate a genuine withdrawal agreement, the more pressure Kadhimi will get from the PMF and other sectors of Iraqi society to show US forces the door.

    The official rationale for the US presence and that of NATO training forces in Iraqi Kurdistan is that the Islamic State is still active. In January, a suicide bomber killed 32 people in Baghdad. The group still has a strong appeal to oppressed young people across the Arab and Muslim world. The failures, corruption and repression of successive post-2003 governments in Iraq have provided fertile soil.

    Iran

    But the United States clearly has another reason for keeping forces in Iraq, as a forward base in its simmering war on Iran. That is exactly what Kadhimi is trying to avoid by replacing US forces with the Danish-led NATO training mission in Iraqi Kurdistan. This mission is being expanded from 500 to at least 4,000 forces, made up of Danish, British and Turkish troops. 

    If Biden had quickly rejoined the nuclear agreement with Iran after taking office in January, tensions would be lower by now and the US troops in Iraq might well be home already. Instead, Biden obliviously swallowed the poison pill of Trump’s Iran policy by using “maximum pressure” as a form of “leverage,” escalating an endless game of chicken the United States cannot win — a tactic that Barack Obama began to wind down six years ago by signing the JCPOA.

    The US withdrawal from Iraq and the Iran nuclear deal are interconnected, two essential parts of a policy to improve US–Iranian relations and end Washington’s antagonistic and destabilizing interventionist role in the Middle East. The third element for a more stable and peaceful region is the diplomatic engagement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in which Kadhimi’s Iraq is playing a critical role as the principal mediator.    

    The fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known, is still uncertain. The sixth round of shuttle diplomacy in Vienna ended on June 20 and no date has been set for a seventh round yet. Biden’s commitment to rejoining the JCPOA seems shakier than ever. Ebrahim Raisi, the president-elect of Iran, has declared he will not let the Americans keep drawing out the negotiations. 

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    In an interview in June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken upped the ante by threatening to pull out of the talks altogether. He said that if Iran continued to spin more sophisticated centrifuges at higher and higher levels, it will become very difficult for the United States to return to the original deal, which was signed in 2015 under Obama. Asked whether or when the US might walk away from negotiations, he said, “I can’t put a date on it, [but] it’s getting closer.”

    What should really be “getting closer” is the US withdrawal of troops from Iraq. While Afghanistan is portrayed as the “longest war” the United States has fought, the US military has been bombing Iraq for most of the last 30 years. The fact that the US military is still conducting “defensive airstrikes” 18 years after the 2003 invasion and nearly 10 years since the official end of the war proves just how ineffective and disastrous this US intervention has been.

    Biden certainly seems to have learned the lesson in Afghanistan that the US can neither bomb its way to peace nor install puppet governments at will. When pilloried by the press about the Taliban gaining control as US troops withdraw, Biden said: “For those who have argued that we should stay just six more months or just one more year, I ask them to consider the lessons of recent history.” He added: “Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us, and the current security situation only confirms, that ‘just one more year’ of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for being there indefinitely. It’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”  

    The same lessons of history apply to Iraq. The US has already inflicted so much death and misery on the Iraqi people, destroyed so many of its beautiful cities and unleashed so much sectarian violence and IS fanaticism. Just like the shuttering of the massive Bagram base in Afghanistan, Biden should dismantle the remaining imperial bases in Iraq and bring the troops home.

    The Iraqi people have the same right to decide their own future as the people of Afghanistan. All the countries of the Middle East have the right and the responsibility to live in peace, without the threat of American bombs and missiles always hanging over their heads. 

    Let’s hope Biden has learned another history lesson: that the United States should stop invading and attacking other countries.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More