Middle East update: September 14 2017


At last count at least 60 people had been killed Thursday in a series of ISIS terror attacks in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. The strikes targeted two restaurants and a police checkpoint and were undoubtedly meant to send the message that ISIS isn’t as weak as you (or, more importantly, potential recruits) might think. That message might fall on deaf ears, at least within Iraq–a new poll finds that there’s been a sea change in how Sunni Arabs see Baghdad, with a majority saying that Iraq is heading in the right direction and over 70 percent approving of the job Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is doing.

The chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, visited Iraq a week or so ago and doesn’t seem to have gotten quite the reception he might have wanted. He met with Abadi and with Abadi’s predecessor, Iran’s Man in Baghdad Nouri al-Maliki, but he then headed off to Najaf and was conspicuously denied an audience with any of Iraq’s top religious leaders. He likewise couldn’t get a meeting with Muqtada al-Sadr. Shahroudi went back to Iran and pretended that he was just on a pilgrimage to save face, but there’s no doubt he was snubbed. As a dual Iranian and Iraqi citizen, Shahroudi is in the interesting position of being both a top contender to succeed Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and (if the Iranian religious establishment had its way) to succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as the top religious authority in Iraq. But clearly there’s some anger among the Iraqi religious establishment about Iran’s efforts to exert control over Iraq’s politics.

Now, let’s talk about Iraq’s pending civil war. Not the war with ISIS, which isn’t really a civil war and is almost over, but rather the war that may very well break out after the Kurds hold their independence referendum–the one just about everybody is telling them not to hold–on September 25. The Kurds want to achieve two aims with this vote: one, they want to strengthen their case for full autonomy from Baghdad by showing how much support there is for secession, and two, they want to use the results in places that are currently outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, like Kirkuk, to make the case for redrawing Iraqi Kurdistan’s boundaries.

The latter is likely to be the bigger flashpoint. In fact, it’s already become a flashpoint, as the Iraqi parliament voted on Wednesday to sack the governor of Kirkuk province, Najm al-Din Karim, for allowing the referendum vote to happen there. He’s already told Baghdad to get bent, arguing that the national legislature has no authority to can a provincial governor. Kirkuk is a vitally important city and province because, all together now, it’s got a lot of oil, and for that reason Baghdad can be expected to resist even including it in an Iraqi Kurdistan that is still formally part of Iraq. Casual threats are already being dropped about the two sides’ willingness to fight over Kirkuk’s disposition. If it votes to secede–and that seems likely, particularly given that the Kurds have been low-key ethnically cleansing the province for some time now (in their defense, kind of, Saddam Hussein’s government tried to ethnically cleanse Kirkuk of Kurds back in his day)–things are likely to get ugly.

Iraqi Kurdistan (and Kirkuk) circa 2012 (Wikimedia)

How ugly is anybody’s guess. But there are a couple of things that are worth noting here. First is that Ankara, probably the Kurdistan Regional Government’s number one foreign supporter, is adamantly opposed to the referendum. The Turks are very protective of Kirkuk, which they regard as a protectorate of sorts because of its large Turkmen population, and more importantly they are terrified at even the suggestion of an independent Kurdish state, even one run by Kurds with whom they get along quite well. So if something happens in Kirkuk after this referendum there’s no guarantee the Turks would intervene on the KRG’s behalf.

The other thing to note is that there are a lot of armed paramilitary groups roaming about Iraq right now, mostly Shiʿa militias, that are only partly, or not at all, under Baghdad’s control. A few of them are heavily influenced from Iran, which similarly gets white-knuckled at the prospect of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. So even if the Iraqi government decided not to escalate a situation in Kirkuk, there’s no guarantee one of these groups wouldn’t do it for them, and that would inevitably draw Baghdad in (it might even draw Turkey in, since the only things Ankara seems to hate as much as it hates the Kurds right now are these Shiʿa militias). The potential for this to escalate as far as civil war isn’t high, but it’s high enough to be of genuine concern.


A spokesman for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition said on Thursday that the Syrian Democratic Forces are not planning to enter Deir Ezzor city. And while this does make it less likely that they’ll have some kind of violent encounter with the Syria army, I have to ask: was anybody seriously contemplating sending the SDF into the city in the first place? It’s almost more troubling that they felt like they needed to say this than if they’d just said nothing.

A new round of Russia-Iran-Turkey peace talks got underway on Thursday in Astana, Kazakhstan. Russian negotiators said they’re close to an agreement on implementing four de-esalation zones in Syria. Three of those zones–one in the south, one in the Damascus suburbs, and one in central Syria near Homs and Hama–are already in various stages of implementation, but the fourth, which is supposed to encompass Idlib province, is a much harder nut to crack because of its size and the large rebel–particularly extremist rebel–presence there.


The United Nations is planning to increase its presence in southern Yemen to try to provide medical and food aid to places hit by famine and cholera.


Although it’s now buying its air defense armaments from Russia, Turkey says it’s still a “dependable member of the NATO alliance,” whatever that means. On a related note, and as expected, Ankara is pretending to be upset that some European leaders are talking about freezing Turkey’s European Union membership bid while also pretending to still be interested in joining the EU. Playing this game is good domestic politics for the Turkish government, because most Turks still want to join the EU and even many who don’t want to join the EU are easily revved up by the idea that Europeans are disrespecting them.


Sensing an opening, Benjamin Netanyahu has started lobbying hard for Donald Trump to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal. He’ll likely raise the issue when he meets with Trump during the UN General Assembly meeting later this month. Netanyahu remains at odds with his military establishment, which doesn’t love the nuclear deal but appreciates that it at least gives them a window of time in which they can stop idly daydreaming about bombing Iran and go back to bombing Lebanon and/or Gaza per usual.


The Saudi-led embargo against Qatar may be starting to bite a little. Moody’s believes the Qataris have had to draw more than $38 billion out of their reserves to cover losses in just the past two months. Qatar has a lot of money, but that’s an unsustainable pace. Foreign investment is down, Qatar’s stock market is down, and while the Qataris are taking steps to open up new trade channels to get around the blockade, things are likely to keep getting worse for some time to come.


The impending (eventual?) transfer of (formal) power to Mohammad bin Salman seems to be going smoothly:

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has launched a broad crackdown on dissent, targeting clerics, public critics and political rivals, as he moves to consolidate his newfound power amid a standoff with Qatar.

The campaign has led to the detention of up to 10 popular clerics – the biggest mass arrest of its kind in the kingdom’s recent history. It follows a failed recent attempt to end the three-month feud between Riyadh and its tiny neighbour, which has defied calls to sever links with the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, whom the oil-rich state and its allies in the Gulf view as subversive threats.

The clampdown also comes amid ongoing speculation that Prince Mohammed is positioning himself for an ascension to the throne, perhaps as early as the first half of next year. The claim has been strongly denied by the royal court. However, figures close to the seat of power insist that plans have been made for an accession – but on terms to be set by the incumbent monarch, King Salman, the crown prince’s father.

Mohammad bin Nayef, the former crown prince, is reportedly still under what amounts to house arrest, while other princes aren’t being allowed to travel outside the country. Sounds like a very healthy environment.


The State Department extended waivers on Iranian sanctions on Thursday in accordance with the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, but it seems like we’re approaching the end of the line for the deal itself. Trump is still badmouthing the agreement publicly–on Thursday he word saladed that “certainly at a minimum the spirit of the deal is atrociously kept” (as I’ve said many times, there is no “spirit of the deal”) and all but said he plans on decertifying Iranian compliance at his next opportunity, in October.

Opponents of the deal are circulating a memo pushing a “global financial embargo” against Iran that they describe as “a 21st century financial version of Kennedy’s Cuba quarantine.” This isn’t at the moment being picked up by anyone in the administration but it could serve as a blueprint for resetting the US-Iran relationship back to zero, as this crowd desperately wants, and while I would never want to imply that deal opponents have created their own echo chamber, you’ve seen variations of this idea being spun by the usual crowd of people: Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Eli Lake, John Bolton, etc. It’s killing the deal without technically killing it, since this new embargo would be ostensibly imposed for reasons other than Iran’s nuclear program, but part of the aim would be to force Iran to renegotiate the deal.

The embargo would reimpose some of the strongest sanctions that were lifted under the nuclear deal, the sanctions barring Iran from participating in the global financial system. They’re heavy-duty measures and they can be imposed unilaterally by the US, which is important because, well, none of the other countries that helped negotiate the nuclear deal seems to share Trump’s desire to tear it up. These would presumably be secondary sanctions, meaning they would apply to Iran and to entities doing business with Iran, forcing companies and countries to choose between doing business with the Iranians or doing business with the US.

I don’t think it’s worth climbing too far down this rabbit hole unless the administration decides to go this route, but it’s an exceedingly bad idea. China, Russia, and maybe even India are fair bets to tell Washington to go fuck itself, which could potentially have major economic ripples all over the world. Iran would be highly unlikely to agree to reopen the deal for new negotiations because, well, why should they? They’d have to assume that, even if they reached a new deal, Washington would just tear it up again in another year or so and come back demanding more concessions. There’s be no reason to believe otherwise. Which then leaves us back on the path to war with Iran, and that’s obviously what the anti-deal crowd wants because, if they really had any interest in renegotiating parts of the agreement, they’d want the US to scrupulously adhere to its current terms in order to build up enough good will with the Iranians that they might see value in more talks. But, as they constantly make clear, they want the opposite of that.

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