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  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 07-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Middle East Research Institute (MERI)
  • Abstract: In the last decade, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has seen many moments of crisis – budget cuts, Daesh’s assault on Erbil, the halving of oil prices (twice!) and armed conflict with the Iraqi government over Kirkuk. Today’s situation feels different and arguably worse than these episodes: there’s COVID, a deep oil recession in Baghdad and Kurdistan, intensifying tensions with Turkey and Iran, and an unpleasant undercurrent of resentment against the Kurds among many of the MPs in the Baghdad parliament. What makes this moment uniquely dangerous, however, is the near-breakdown of cooperation between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Iraq’s Kurds have shown that they can weather any storm when they pull together as a people. The KRI’s international partners tend to support the Iraqi Kurds more effectively when the two parties work in harmony, but often back away when they cannot identify a cohesive counterparty to deal with in the KRI. International memories of the intra-Kurdish civil war in the 1990s undermined the Kurdish cause in Iraq in the 2000s, when the Kurds’ greatest opportunity for self-governance lay before them. Looking forward, it is clear that the futures of Iraq and the KRI are linked. If Baghdad’s economy and currency collapses, so does Kurdistan’s. If the Kurdish people starve, the blame will fall on Baghdad. If the Islamic State returns, it will emerge first in the strip of disputed territories between federal Iraq and the KRI. The success of U.S. policy in Iraq is the success of both the fifteen provinces of federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, not one or the other. The U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue will continue in the late summer, hopefully including a visit of the Iraqi leadership to Washington DC. This presents an opportunity to re-energize the role of the U.S. and international partners in the issues facing the KRI. It is important to stress the importance of a multilateral mission to support intra-KRI cohesion and Baghdad-KRI relations because America does not have all the answers on Kurdistan, nor does it tend to focus enough attention there. U.S. power and leadership are most effective when combined with the perceptive insights and good instincts of many other partners on Kurdistan, such as the French, British, and Canadians, to name just a few. There is an argument that the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement should either have a specific working group or committee on KRI issues (or on decentralization more generally), or a cross-cutting mechanism that ensures the KRI is worked into each of the security, political, economic and energy working groups. The list of topics that require persistent attention is quite long. Most important, the KDP and PUK need to be led towards a de-escalation that will allow the region to speak with one cohesive voice in Baghdad and with international partners. This is a foundational issue that affects all the other issues the KRI faces. An adversarial relationship between the two parties undermines everything that is attempted in the KRI and is deeply off-putting for international partners and potential investors. It can result in armed standoffs, affecting key industries like LPG trucking, or in security crises such as the Zina Warte armed confrontation between KDP and PUK Peshmerga in mid-March 2020. Almost nothing – from oil and gas investment to counter-terrorism to fighting COVID to negotiations with Baghdad – works as well as it should due to the KDP-PUK schism. It would be magical thinking to imagine that the two parties can easily reconcile. Even so, the U.S. and its various partners should prioritize efforts to get the powerful leaders in the same room to hammer out a minimal level of cooperation and start a dialogue, however stilted or tense at the outset. The U.S. and other internationals also need to help Baghdad and the KRI complete the promising steps that have been taken on political, security and economic cooperation. The Kurds worked well with former premier Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government in Baghdad, and they have overcome their initial caution towards a change in Baghdad to support the new Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi, another old friend. For the Kurds, however, the relationship will be almost solely judged on what it delivers in terms of budget support. Having watched six Iraqi prime ministers negotiate and renegotiate budget deals with the Kurds every year for over a decade, the U.S. is intimately familiar with every possible configuration of give and take – more so than the Iraqi and Kurdish leaders themselves. What has always been clear is that politics trump economics in such discussions: typically, the solution is political and the numbers and formulas get fudged to fit the required compromise. This is why, for the remainder of 2020, Kurdistan will probably keep selling its oil and gathering customs revenue while Baghdad will provide a reduced top-up to the Kurdish exchequer each month, which is basically what has been happening for the last two years. A lot of discussion tends to end up right back where the parties began. This pattern of recurrent budget crises is not sustainable for two reasons. First, the annual showdown complicates an already fraught budgeting process and Iraqi MPs are becoming more hostile to the KRI economy every time the cycle is undertaken. Second, the KDP and PUK are increasingly fighting over the revenue-sharing mechanism, with Sulaymaniyah seeking more direct transfers from Baghdad or other guarantees of a fair share. The U.S. and its international partners need to back a multi-year arrangement that has buy-in at the highest levels: the Iraqi Prime Minister, speaking for a sizable bloc in Iraq’s body politic, and key leaders within the KDP and PUK. This is yet another reason why the two parties must be able to sit down together at the highest political levels. The sweet spot for a Baghdad-KRI budget deal would seem to be about $800mn per month, requiring the KDP and PUK to agree on a no-blame, non-politicized and permanent reduction of KRI obligations (salaries, social services and allowances) by about 30%. The U.S. and other internationals need to put strong and well-intentioned pressure on the KRI to appoint an empowered and dedicated Minister of Natural Resources to salvage investor confidence in the energy sector, which will serve as a signpost for the KRI’s future non-oil investors. A quick win for Baghdad-KDP-PUK cooperation may be possible in the realm of counter-terrorism. The Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, the KDP-led Counterterrorism Department (CTD) and the PUK-led Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) are three highly professional services that work closely with the international Coalition against Daesh. They have worked together before and can work in the disputed areas with relative ease now. The creation of joint counter-terrorism coordination centers should initially focus on these elite units and their related intelligence arms, not necessarily the “big military” units like the Iraqi Army, Federal Police and Peshmerga. One important symbol for Baghdad-KRI cooperation could be an investment in the deployment, for short periods, of some Iraqi Air Force F-16 aircraft to the airports in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. These fighter-bombers were notoriously viewed as a stick that Baghdad might use against the Kurds, but today the F-16 fleet and its American technicians are struggling to stay in service as Iran-backed militias surround their operating base at Balad. Perhaps an out-of-the-box idea might be to cycle a fragment of the F-16 fleet through the safe operating environments of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, as the Italian Air Force did with a small complement of Eurofighters during the war against Daesh. The common thread in all these options is a desire to “go big” in the Baghdad-KDP-PUK relationship, and for international players to encourage and support new thinking. The Kurdistan Region is currently cycling downwards, with less stability and less attractiveness as an investment environment, largely because Kurdish leaders are allowing themselves to be divided by personality politics. The U.S. intervention in Iraq in 1991 helped to free the Iraqi Kurds and the intervention in 2003 saw the U.S. ask those same Kurds to rejoin Iraq on the basis of U.S. guarantees. It is time to begin to make good on those guarantees. U.S. intervention transformed Iraq from a dictatorship to a democracy (imperfect, like all democracies), but an equally great transformation would be to help create an Iraqi state at peace with all of its components, first and foremost its Kurdish population. That moment can and should start in earnest now.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, International Cooperation, Governance, Peace, Mediation
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Kurdistan
  • Author: Jadranka Polovic
  • Publication Date: 08-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Institute for Development and International Relations (IRMO)
  • Abstract: The Middle East as one of the most heterogeneous and politically conflicting regions in the world and has long been at the center of international interest. Faced with sectarian wars and comprehensive social crises for decades the Middle East, due to its geostrategic importance and especially the imperative of controlling the region’s vast energy resources, has once again become a battle ground for major powers whose interests affect the concentration of participants in the region. The competition between global powers and growing influence of Russia and China, who undermine the US power and European Union’s influence and also undermine established alliances in the Middle East, undoubtedly require a rethinking of Western strategies for the region. A series of geopolitical challenges, especially after September 11 attacks against the United States, as a result of military interventions and civil wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria) and uprisings (Arab Spring) and thus the collapsed regional order, confronted the international community with the changing nature of security threats, as well as with the new balance of power of regional and international actors in the Middle East. Among the many aspects of the Middle East conflicts, the fundamental issue of regional security today is the Sunni-Shiite conflict, which has since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 directly defined the approaches and policies of great powers and significantly changed regional dynamics. In this context, Iran’s role is particularly significant. Namely, over the last two decades, Iran has consolidated its goals in the Persian Gulf and strategically expanded its influence to other countries in the Middle East, primarily Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The growing influence of Shiite Iran, and its close relations with Shiite communities in the region with which it forms a strategic coalition, have become a key geopolitical challenge for the international community.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Energy Policy, International Cooperation, Natural Resources, Hegemony
  • Political Geography: Russia, China, Europe, Iran, Middle East, Asia, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Fatiha Dazi-Heni
  • Publication Date: 11-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: Following Israel’s signing of the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, many questions arise as to the impact that the Accords will have on the different GCC countries. This paper seeks to outline the historical context surrounding the accords and provide an analysis of the way the different GCC countries have so far approached this new “normalization” of relations with Israel.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, International Cooperation, Regional Cooperation, Peace
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Daniel F. Runde, Earl Anthony Wayne
  • Publication Date: 02-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: A precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would endanger many of the social, political, economic, and health gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan over nearly 20 years. Afghanistan has a myriad of problems, including corruption, violence, and poverty, but these challenges often overshadow improvements in mortality rates, media and cellular access, tax collection, and women and girls’ education and political freedoms, among others. To prevent these gains from dissipating, the international community should encourage the Afghan government to meet certain governance benchmarks and continue on its path to self-reliance. The United States and its international allies should also consider a gradual withdrawal of troops, funding for the Afghan security forces, and economic assistance, based on a timeline that reflects facts on the ground and progress on peace negotiations.
  • Topic: International Cooperation, Military Strategy, State Building, Foreign Interference
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, Middle East
  • Author: Seth G. Jones, Nicholas Harrington, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.
  • Publication Date: 07-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: As tensions escalate between the United States and Iran in the Middle East, Russia is engaged in covert and overt cooperation with Iran in ways that undermine U.S. national security interests. This analysis of commercial satellite imagery at Tiyas Airbase in Syria indicates the scope and proximity of Russian and Iranian military ties. If Washington wants to contain Tehran and prevent further Iranian expansion, U.S. policymakers will need to increase pressure on Moscow to curb Tehran’s activities in countries like Syria.
  • Topic: Security, Diplomacy, Intelligence, International Cooperation
  • Political Geography: Russia, Europe, Iran, Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Ian Williams
  • Publication Date: 08-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: Tensions with Iran are once again increasing. The slow implosion of the nuclear accord, Iran’s harassment of cargo ships, and the downing of a U.S. unmanned aircraft have made plain the risk of conflict between Iran and the United States. The dispute should also draw attention to the questionable preparedness of the United States and its allies to fight a war with Iran on short notice and deal with that war’s blowback across the Middle East and Europe. Regional missile defense architectures are an important part of that preparedness. Iran has the largest and most diverse supply of ballistic missiles in the Middle East region, and Tehran has shown an ability and willingness to use them in combat operations.1 Iran is also learning to employ other kinds of aerial threats, such as long-range cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In a conflict with Iran, U.S. and allied forces would likely face a wide spectrum of air and missile threats. The biggest U.S. investment in Iran-centric missile defenses has been the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). EPAA is a phased buildup of U.S. missile defense assets in and around Europe to deter and, if necessary, limit damage from an Iranian missile attack on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Yet the EPAA architecture is heavily dependent on the nominal, unencumbered performance of a single radar deployed relatively close to Iran. This produces a single point of failure susceptible to malfunction or operator error. It also presents an Achilles’ heel that a determined or imaginative adversary could exploit. Iran certainly fits both descriptors. In 1958, strategist Albert Wohlstetter wrote that U.S. confidence in its nuclear second-strike ability was achieved only by “ignoring the full range of sensible enemy plans.”2 This same critical judgment should be applied to confidence in the EPAA as currently configured. Inasmuch as a sensible adversary such as Iran relies upon its missile forces to achieve its defense goals, it should be credited with the foresight to target single points of failure that would preclude the effective application of that missile force. Fortunately, there are practical steps that NATO and the United States can take to further adapt EPAA for greater resiliency. Upgrades to existing radars, the integration of allied radars into the missile defense mission, and the addition of air and space-based sensors would do much to improve EPAA’s capability and survivability, improving U.S. and NATO preparedness for an unexpected Middle East conflict.
  • Topic: Defense Policy, NATO, International Cooperation, Military Strategy, Missile Defense
  • Political Geography: Europe, Iran, North Atlantic, Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Nils Lukacs
  • Publication Date: 04-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: German Institute of Global and Area Studies
  • Abstract: Ten years ago, President Barack Obama’s unprecedented address to the Muslim world from Cairo was hailed as a landmark in US–Middle Eastern relations and described by contemporary observers as a historical break in US foreign policy in the region. Yet it soon became clear that the president’s vision for a “new beginning based on mutual interest and mutual respect” would face many practical constraints. Analysing the thematic and rhetorical development of Obama’s speeches during the formative period between summer 2008 and 2009, as well as the public and academic perception of and reaction to these moments, the paper examines the underlying interests and motivations for the president’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East. It argues that despite the low priority given to foreign policy issues during the economic crisis occurring at the time, the key pillars of Obama’s ambitious vision for the Middle East were rooted in pronounced US interests as well as the president’s personal convictions, rather than opportunistic calculations. It thus counters retrospective post-2011 criticism which argues that Obama’s words were never meant to be put into practice. The study contributes to the establishment of a solid empirical and conceptual base for further research on the United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East under the Obama administration.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, International Cooperation, Military Strategy
  • Political Geography: Africa, Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Marco Siddi, Marcin Kaczmarski
  • Publication Date: 11-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Finnish Institute of International Affairs
  • Abstract: Russia and China share a number of interests in the Middle East: limiting US power and maintaining good relations with all players in the region while remaining aloof from the key conflicts, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran and Israel. Russia’s position has been based on political support for particular states, arms sales and the provision of civilian nuclear energy technology. Moscow has boosted its role by intervening militarily in the Syrian civil war. China has been strengthening its political position in the region for the last decade and its presence is more substantial from a financial-economic perspective. The current Chinese and Russian regional posture further marginalises the influence of the EU in MENA. In the Middle East, the EU is already a weaker economic actor than China and a weaker military player than Russia. However, the EU can cooperate with Russia and China on upholding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme.
  • Topic: Energy Policy, International Cooperation, Nuclear Power, Military Intervention, Strategic Interests
  • Political Geography: Russia, China, Europe, Middle East, Asia
  • Author: Nancy Gallagher, Ebrahim Mohseni, Clay Ramsay
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM)
  • Abstract: The Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) has been conducting in- depth surveys of Iranian public opinion on nuclear policy, regional security, economics, domestic politics, and other topics since the summer of 2014. Each survey includes a combination of trend-line questions, some going as far back as 2006, and new questions written to assess and inform current policy debates. This report covers findings from three surveys fielded in May, August, and early October 2019 to evaluate how the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is affecting public opinion in Iran. The United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, and began re-imposing sanctions on Iran that the Obama administration had lifted under the terms of the 2015 agreement it had negotiated with Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. In the fall of 2018, it blacklisted hundreds of Iranian entities and threatened to impose secondary sanctions on anyone who did business with them. In spring of 2019, it tried to prevent Iran from getting any revenue from oil sales, its main export, by ending exemptions for key customers. In the summer of 2019, it tightened constraints on Iran’s access to the international financial system, including channels that had been used to pay for medicines and other humanitarian goods that were officially exempted from earlier sanctions. It also sanctioned Iran’s foreign minister, complicating his ability to interact with U.S. officials, experts, and media figures. The Trump administration’s stated objective is to keep imposing more sanctions until Iran acquiesces to a long list of U.S. demands articulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The original twelve points include the types of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that the government rejected during previous negotiations and that the Iranian public has consistently opposed. It also includes stopping development of nuclear-capable missiles, ending support for various groups throughout the Middle East, halting cyberattacks and other threatening activities, and releasing all U.S. and allied detainees. Pompeo subsequently added other demands related to civil liberties in Iran. The Iranian public enthusiastically supported the JCPOA when it was first signed, partly due to unrealistic expectations about how much and how quickly economic benefits would materialize. After the International Atomic Energy Agency certified in January 2016 that Iran had met all of its nuclear obligations and implementation of sanctions relief began, foreign companies were slow to ramp up permissible trade with Iran or to make major investments there before they knew how the next U.S. president would view the JCPOA. By the end of the Obama administration few Iranians said that they had seen any economic benefits from the deal and most lacked confidence that the other signatories would uphold their obligations. But a solid majority of Iranians (55%) still approved of the agreement.
  • Topic: Arms Control and Proliferation, Diplomacy, International Cooperation, Nuclear Weapons, Military Strategy, JCPOA
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Joshua Krasna
  • Publication Date: 02-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS)
  • Abstract: Arab countries are re-normalizing their relations with the Assad regime, seeking to balance the strong Iranian and Turkish influences in Syria and to achieve some degree of influence in a new Syrian political-strategic structure. This further cements a Russian-oriented strategic architecture in the region. In the long term, this could lead to tensions between conservative Arab states and Israel, if Israel targets the Syrian military and government in the campaign against Iran, or if Israel continues to promote diplomatic recognition of its Golan annexation.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, International Cooperation, Military Strategy, Governance, Normalization, Annexation
  • Political Geography: Europe, Iran, Turkey, Middle East, Israel, Asia, Syria