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  • Author: Dennis Ross
  • Publication Date: 01-2021
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: A reimagined approach to Iran nuclear talks could extend the country’s breakout time, preserve U.S. negotiating leverage, and strengthen American alliances in Europe and across the Middle East. In the first in a series of TRANSITION 2021 memos examining policy challenges across the Middle East, esteemed diplomat and policymaker Dennis Ross provides an innovative approach to reengaging Iran in nuclear diplomacy. His ideas have the potential to extend Iran’s breakout time, preserve U.S. negotiating leverage, and strengthen U.S. alliances in Europe and across the Middle East. Ross explains: “If regime change is not a realistic or advisable goal, the objective must be one of changing the Islamic Republic’s behavior. While this would be difficult, history shows that the regime will make tactical adjustments with strategic consequences when it considers the price of its policies to be too high.” In the coming weeks, TRANSITION 2021 memos by Washington Institute experts will address the broad array of issues facing the Biden-Harris administration in the Middle East. These range from thematic issues, such as the region’s strategic position in the context of Great Power competition and how to most effectively elevate human rights and democracy in Middle East policy, to more discrete topics, from Arab-Israel peace diplomacy to Red Sea security to challenges and opportunities in northwest Africa. Taken as a whole, this series of memos will present a comprehensive approach for advancing U.S. interests in security and peace in this vital but volatile region.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, Nuclear Power, Joe Biden
  • Political Geography: Europe, Iran, Middle East, Israel, Palestine, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Trita Parsi
  • Publication Date: 01-2021
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
  • Abstract: • Abandon dominance. For many of the United States’ security partners, even a dysfunctional Pax Americana is preferable to the compromises that a security architecture would inevitably entail. The preconditions for creating a successful security architecture can emerge only if the United States begins a military withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and credibly signals it no longer seeks to sustain hegemony. • Encourage regional dialogue, but let the region lead. The incoming Biden administration’s hint that it will seek an inclusive security dialogue in the Persian Gulf is a welcome first step toward shifting the burden of security to the regional states themselves. For such an effort to be successful, the United States should play a supporting role while urging regional states to take the lead. • Include other major powers. The regional dialogue should include the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and major Asian powers with a strong interest in stability in the Persian Gulf. Including them can help dilute Washington’s and Beijing’s roles while protecting the region from inter–Asian rivalries in the future.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, National Security, United Nations, Military Strategy, Hegemony, Military Affairs, Grand Strategy
  • Political Geography: United States, Iran, Persian Gulf
  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The surest way to counter Iran’s malign influence is to proactively focus on human rights issues that the new prime minister can actually affect, such as organizing free elections and preventing further violence against protestors. On February 1, a plurality of Iraqi parliamentary factions gave President Barham Salih the go-ahead to nominate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the new prime minister-designate. The mild-mannered Shia Islamist nominee will now attempt to form and ratify his cabinet in the next thirty days. As he does so, political blocs will probably rally behind him while limiting his mandate to organizing early elections next year, having struggled through a long and fractious process to replace resigned prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi. For the first time since the dramatic events of the past two months, Iraqis and U.S. policymakers alike can catch their breath and consider their medium-term options.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Elections, Domestic politics, Protests
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Enhancing deterrence and protecting Americans in Iraq and Syria requires a more formalized system for rationing out retaliatory strikes at the proper intensity, time, and place. When U.S. airstrikes targeted Kataib Hezbollah militia personnel and senior Iranian military figures on December 29 and January 3, they were releasing long-pent-up retaliation for a range of provocations by Iraqi militias. Yet while these powerful blows may have injected some caution into enemy calculations, such deterrence is likely to be a wasting asset. The most proximal trigger for the strikes—the killing of an American civilian contractor during Kataib Hezbollah’s December 27 rocket attack on the K-1 base in Kirkuk—was just one in a series of increasingly risky militia operations against U.S. facilities. Only good fortune has prevented more Americans from dying in attacks conducted since then, including January 8 (when Iranian ballistic missiles struck the U.S. portion of al-Asad Air Base, causing more than a hundred nonlethal traumatic brain injuries), January 26 (mortar strike on the dining hall at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad), January 31 (rockets fired at the U.S. site at Qayyarah West), February 10 (explosive device thrown at a U.S. logistical convoy south of Baghdad), and February 13 (rocket attack on U.S. site at Kirkuk). The United States has seemingly communicated to Tehran that it will strike Iraqi militias and Iranian targets if any Americans are killed, but this redline has opened up a dangerous gray zone in which Iran and its proxies are emboldened to continue their nonlethal attacks. Besides the fact that such high-risk attacks are destined to result in more American deaths at some point, they will also produce many more injuries if permitted to continue, as seen in the January 8 strike. More broadly, they will limit U.S. freedom of movement in Iraq and Syria, undermining the point of being there in the first place. This situation is unacceptable—the United States needs a way to deter such behavior even when attacks fall short of killing Americans. When faced with similar challenges in past decades, the U.S. military established reckoning systems that matched the punishment to the crime, with useful levels of predictability, proportionality, and accountability.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Assassination, No-Fly Zones
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Instead of focusing on Iran's missile retaliation or future threats, the Supreme Leader used his latest speech to extoll the virtues of public unity behind the regime’s revolutionary goals. On January 8, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered his first public speech since the U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani and the subsequent Iranian missile strike on Iraqi bases housing American forces. As part of an address that touched on regional solidarity against the United States and other notable subjects, he spent considerable time claiming that Soleimani symbolized the Iranian people’s continued commitment to the revolution. In doing so, he indicated that popular support for the regime remains a crucial objective for Iran’s leaders, perhaps more so than issuing or acting on further military threats.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Politics, Domestic politics, Qassem Soleimani, Assassination
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Even as their lack of transparency worsens the public health crisis, the Supreme Leader and other officials have systematically gutted any civil society elements capable of organizing substantial opposition to such policies. Iran’s ongoing coronavirus epidemic has left the people with less reason than ever to trust the information and directives issued by their leaders. Part 1 of this PolicyWatch discussed the clergy’s role in aggravating this problem, but the state’s mistakes and deceptions have been legion as well. They include scandalous discrepancies between official reports after a period of denial that the virus had entered the country; a health system that was unprepared to deal with such a disease promptly and properly; and official resistance to implementing internationally recommended precautionary measures, such as canceling flights from China and quarantining the center of the outbreak. These decisions have sown widespread confusion about facts and fictions related to the virus, the most effective medically proven ways to control it, and the degree to which it is spreading throughout the country. As a result, an already restive population has become increasingly panicked about the future and angry at the state. Yet can the coronavirus actually bring down the regime? The harsh reality is that the state has left little space for opposition to organize around health issues, or any issues for that matter. Instead, it has sought to confuse the people and redirect their anger toward external enemies, even as its own policies contribute to the crisis.
  • Topic: Security, Foreign Policy, Civil Society, Health, Public Health, Coronavirus
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The clergy’s ambitions for global Shia revolution made the city of Qom uniquely vulnerable to the disease, and their resistance to modern medical science weakened the state’s ability to combat its spread. On February 19, two days before the Iranian government officially announced the arrival of coronavirus, an infected businessman who had recently returned from China to Qom passed away. The location and timing of his death illustrate how the Shia holy city and the religious leaders and institutions who call it home have played an outsize role in the disease’s disproportionately rapid spread inside Iran compared to other countries. How did this situation come to pass, and what does it say about the current state of the clerical establishment, its relationship with the regime, and its alienation from large swaths of Iranian society? (Part 2 of this PolicyWatch discusses the regime's role in the outbreak and its resiliency to such crises.)
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Health, Religion, Shia, Coronavirus
  • Political Geography: China, Iran, Middle East, Global Focus, United States of America
  • Author: Ali Alfoneh
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Given the IRGC’s recent restructuring, the Qods Force will likely see more continuity than change under Qaani, though his bureaucratic background is a far cry from Soleimani’s brand of charismatic, risky leadership. On January 3, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani as chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force, just hours after his predecessor, Qasem Soleimani, was killed by a U.S. drone strike. The new commander’s background and military activities are not nearly as well known as Soleimani’s, so taking a closer look at them can help determine whether and how the IRGC’s main extraterritorial branch might change under his leadership.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Qassem Soleimani, Assassination
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: A week after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei played coy, remarking, “I have no judgment on the American election...[Both parties have been] naughty toward us.” Of course, his true reaction was far more complex. On one hand, he saw in the president-elect—who had spoken much of disentangling U.S. forces from the Middle East—a prospect of decreased military pressure on his country. On the other, he heard Trump’s raw vitriol directed at Iran’s leadership and the nuclear deal crafted by President Obama. The eventual U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA demonstrated that the new president could back up his talk with punishing action. In this close analysis of statements by Khamenei and other Iranian leaders, former seminarian Mehdi Khalaji lays out the regime’s current views on President Trump and the United States. He shows that even after the American assassination of Qods Force chief Qasem Soleimani, Iranian leaders could be open to negotiating with Washington if they believe the regime’s existence depends on it.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Politics, Elections, Donald Trump
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Farzin Nadimi
  • Publication Date: 04-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: In an April 22 tweet, President Trump spoke of instructing the U.S. Navy to destroy any Iranian gunboats that "harass our ships at sea." Aside from whether it departed from existing U.S. rules of engagement, the statement highlighted a persistent reality: the military threat posed by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. Months before the coronavirus pandemic seized the world's attention, these forces were already reasserting themselves through bold actions against U.S., Saudi, and wider Gulf interests. In this impressively detailed Policy Focus -- an updated version of his 2008 volume -- military expert Farzin Nadimi offers historical context and specifics on Iran's naval activities in the Gulf. The study, which includes maps, tables, and other graphics, covers everything from submarines to sea mines, while also distinguishing between the roles of the revolutionary navy (IRGCN) and the conventional one (IRIN). Most important, it offers a sober take on Iran's capabilities and intentions during a perilously unstable time.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Strategy, Navy
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, Persian Gulf, United States of America
  • Author: Danny Citrinowicz
  • Publication Date: 09-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Given past developments, the UAE’s and Israel’s recent announcement of normalization in exchange for shelving annexation plans should come as no great surprise, even if the timing was unexpected. There remains, however, frequently understated differences between one aspect of this relationship often assumed to be a common denominator: Jerusalem’s and Abu Dhabi’s perspectives on Iran. Understanding and accommodating these differences will be critical issue for a lasting relationship between the two countries, with the Israeli government in particular needing to acknowledge the differences as well as similarities between the two sides. It is no secret that Israel and the UAE see Iran as a common enemy; both countries have worked together covertly for years to prevent Iranian hegemony in the Gulf and Middle East at large. Since the beginning of their unofficial relationship several decades ago, the two countries have improved their intelligence-sharing and military relations, strengthened their diplomatic ties behind the scenes, and worked to improve their readiness for Iranian threats across the board. President Trump’s recent decisions to withdraw troops from parts of the Middle East region and the world at large have further catalyzed development of Israel-UAE relations in anticipation of weakened direct support from the United States.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, Gulf Nations
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, Israel, United Arab Emirates
  • Author: Katherine Bauer, Kevin Mathieson
  • Publication Date: 07-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Tehran is pressing Seoul regarding the billions in Iranian oil revenues held by South Korean banks, creating an opportunity to expand the U.S. humanitarian trade mechanism. On July 21, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to lodge a complaint over Tehran’s heightened rhetoric regarding access to funds frozen in South Korea. The week before, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson had accused Seoul of having a “master-servant relationship” with Washington, while the governor of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) had previously threatened legal action to access the funds, which Tehran says it plans to use for humanitarian purchases. Although the U.S. government authorized use of the funds for such purposes in February, South Korean banks appear hesitant to move forward without additional U.S. assurances—a reluctance compounded by the $86 million fine that U.S. regulators levied on the Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK) in April for failing to identify large-scale Iranian money laundering. With COVID-19 cases on the rise again in the Islamic Republic, Washington should work with Seoul to ensure that trade for medicine, equipment, and other humanitarian items moves forward—albeit with strict oversight.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Government, Trade
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, Asia, South Korea, United States of America
  • Author: Kevjin Lim
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Beijing has steadily become Tehran’s economic ventilator, diplomatic prop, and military enabler, and the Iranians need this backstop now more than ever. When the coronavirus spun out of control in Wuhan this January, Iran ignored the example of many other countries and continued to maintain direct flights and open borders with China. Even after President Hassan Rouhani’s government suspended all such flights on January 31, Mahan Air—a company affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—kept flying between Tehran and four first-tier Chinese cities, leading many to allege that the airline was instrumental in introducing or at least exacerbating Iran’s raging epidemic. Whatever the truth behind these allegations, Mahan’s policy is symptomatic of a larger geopolitical reality: Tehran has become profoundly, disproportionately, and perhaps irretrievably dependent on Beijing, despite its own revolutionary opposition to reliance on foreign powers. Where diplomatic and economic sanctions have fallen short, the pandemic has succeeded in isolating the Islamic Republic like never before, compelling it to keep its borders to China open. COVID-19 has also dispelled the notion that Iran’s heavily-sanctioned “resistance economy” still suffices to keep the country solvent. The government has conceded that staying afloat would be impossible if it curtailed cross-border trade, shut down industries, and quarantined entire cities. The crisis is so severe that Iran’s Central Bank has for the first time in decades requested billions of U.S. dollars in assistance from the IMF. Indeed, according to Deputy Health Minister Reza Malekzadeh, whenever his colleagues questioned why China flights continue, bilateral economic relations were among the reasons given. Two days after the government’s ban on such flights, Chinese ambassador Chang Hua tweeted that Mahan CEO Hamid Arabnejad wanted to continue cooperating with Beijing. Neither man specified exactly what this meant, but the implied message to Tehran was clear given China’s resentment of travel bans. Meanwhile, the Iranian Students News Agency, Tabnak, and other domestic media criticized Mahan for prioritizing profit margins over public health.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Bilateral Relations, Sanctions, Geopolitics, Economy, COVID-19
  • Political Geography: China, Iran, Middle East, Asia
  • Author: Rami Jameel
  • Publication Date: 12-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Jamestown Foundation
  • Abstract: On October 9, the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) signed the “Sinjar Agreement” to normalize the situation in the war-torn district of Sinjar in northern Iraq. The agreement stated that only Iraqi federal forces should operate in Sinjar and all other armed groups must leave the town. It also gave the KRG a say on establishing a new local government, including appointing a new mayor, and planning and running reconstruction efforts in Sinjar, including related budgetary matters (Rudaw, October 10).
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Terrorism, Non State Actors, Kurds, Strategic Competition
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: George Tzogopoulos
  • Publication Date: 05-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)
  • Abstract: This essay by Dr. George Tzogopoulos, focuses on the multidimensional nature of Greek-Israeli relations. The understanding of the depth of these relations can explain why the two countries – along with Cyprus – are interested in coming closer. On the other hand, the effort of Israel and Turkey to normalize bilateral ties – already under way since 2016 – is a logical development that deserves attention. However, it is not related to the future evolution of Greek-Israeli collaboration. The evolution of Greek-Israeli relations in the last decade and trilateral Greece-Israel-Cyprus summits outline the common interest of the three countries to enrich their cooperation. Israel and Turkey have started since 2016 to normalize their relations. This is an ongoing process that has evolved in a period during which Greece, Israel and Cyprus charted a joint course in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel and Turkey are expected to find a modus vivendi by agreeing on some issues and disagreeing on others. A potential Turkish-Israeli collaboration against Iran in Syria might pave the way for new synergies between Israel and Turkey. This is a highly controversial and complicated matter that entails risks for Ankara.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, International Cooperation, Bilateral Relations
  • Political Geography: Europe, Iran, Turkey, Middle East, Israel, Greece, Syria
  • Author: Oula A. Alrifai
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Tehran and its proxies have been exerting hard and soft power in northeast Syria, combining military consolidation with economic, social, and religious outreach in order to cement their long-term influence. On September 30, Syria and Iraq reopened their main border crossing between al-Bukamal and al-Qaim, which had been formally closed for five years. The circumstances surrounding the event were telling—the ceremony was delayed by a couple weeks because of unclaimed foreign airstrikes on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targets in east Syria following the Iranian attack against Saudi oil facilities earlier that month. What exactly have the IRGC and its local proxies been doing in Deir al-Zour province? And what does this activity tell us about Iran’s wider plans there?
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Education, Military Strategy, Geopolitics, Conflict, Soft Power
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Bilal Wahab, Barbara A. Leaf
  • Publication Date: 09-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Even as Baghdad works to rein in militias that invite outside attacks, Washington needs to be patient with the country’s contradictions in the near term and give space for it to exert sovereignty in the long term. As President Trump met with Iraqi president Barham Salih today on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, they were no doubt buoyed by their governments’ mutual conclusion that the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq did not originate from Iraq. Initial concerns about that possibility were well founded—a previous attack on a major Saudi pipeline was carried out from Iraqi territory this May, and multiple Iraqi militia facilities have been struck since June, reportedly by Israel. Each of these developments was linked to Shia “special groups” with known ties to Iran. On July 1, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi ordered these and other militias to fold themselves under state authority, but so far he has been unable to impose order on them. The government has also failed to prevent them from threatening neighboring countries at Iran’s presumed behest—an especially dangerous lapse given that Iraqi authorities cannot protect the territory these militias hold from external retaliation. To keep other countries from turning Iraq into a proxy battleground, Baghdad needs to rein in the unruliest militias. This is a tall order because Tehran has spent fifteen years building them into a parallel force of its own. Given the willingness these “special groups” have shown when asked to attack U.S. troops, fight on the Assad regime’s behalf in Syria, or secure other Iranian interests, they risk implicating Iraq in Tehran’s regional confrontations with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and/or Israel.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Bilateral Relations, Non State Actors, Proxy War
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Patrick Clawson
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Rouhani has taken a remarkably austere fiscal approach ahead of the looming parliamentary election, but the country’s economic situation is still not sustainable over the long run. On December 8, following established procedures, President Hassan Rouhani visited parliament to present his budget for the Iranian year 2020/21, which begins in March. Notwithstanding the government’s rosy rhetoric, his spending proposals show the tough times the Islamic Republic is facing.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Oil, Sanctions, Budget, Elections, Economy
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Ellie Geranmayeh, Manuel Lafont Rapnouil
  • Publication Date: 06-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: European Council On Foreign Relations
  • Abstract: Secondary sanctions have become a critical challenge for Europe, due to the Trump administration’s maximalist policy on Iran and its aggressive economic statecraft. Europe’s vulnerabilities mostly result from asymmetric interdependence with the US economy, due to the size of US markets and the global role of the US dollar. In future, states will likely weaponise economic interdependence with the EU to target countries that are more important to the European economy than Iran, such as China and Russia. European countries should demonstrate that, despite their economic interdependence with the US, they control EU foreign policy. The EU and its member states should strengthen their sanctions policy, begin to build up their deterrence and resilience against secondary sanctions, and prepare to adopt asymmetric countermeasures against any country that harms European interests through secondary sanctions. They should also attempt to bolster the global role of the euro and lead a robust international dialogue on the role of sanctions.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Sanctions, European Union, Economy, Donald Trump
  • Political Geography: Russia, China, Europe, Iran, North America, United States of America