Middle East update: May 9 2018


This is very much a developing story, but the Israeli military says that Iranian forces in Syria launched some 20 rockets at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights on Wednesday night. There have been no reports of casualties (the Israelis say that their Iron Dome system intercepted several of the rockets) but this does seem to have been an intentional attack rather than spillover from something happening inside Syria. It comes after multiple Israeli airstrikes on facilities in Syria that have killed several Iranian personnel and would be Iran’s first direct attack against Israel if it actually is the Iranians who fired these rockets. There’s no particular reason to take Israel’s word for it. As I write, the Israelis appear already to have retaliated, with Syrian state media reporting that they’ve fired a barrage of artillery at Syrian military positions around Damascus. That’s at least how things are being reported at this point. It wouldn’t be the most shocking thing ever if we were to learn that the Israelis fired first.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that 15 people were killed in Tuesday’s (presumed) Israeli missile strike on a Syrian military facility near Kiswah, south of Damascus. Eight of them were Iranians. Pro-Syrian forces, however, are saying there were no casualties. Iran typically downplays its casualties in Syria for domestic reasons and has of late really been downplaying casualties it’s suffered in Israeli strikes, perhaps so as to limit public pressure to retaliate.

At least one person was killed on Wednesday in what may have been a car bombing in Damascus. Syrian state media is only reporting that there was a “terrorist explosion” of some kind.

The Syrian Democratic Forces on Wednesday said that the United States set up a new military base for its personnel in Manbij several months ago, when Turkey began threatening to attack the town. The base houses US and French forces who have been working with the SDF. Its presence is surely intended as a deterrent to any Turkish attack.


Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired at least two missiles at Riyadh on Wednesday. Saudi officials say they intercepted one while another missed its target, and there have been no reports of casualties or major damage.

The International Organization for Migration says that Saudi authorities have deported 17,000 Yemeni refugees back to Yemen so far this year and appear to be planning to deport thousands more. As many as 700,000 Yemenis have entered Saudi Arabia to flee Yemen’s civil war, and Saudi Arabia’s intervention in it. It is both illegal, under international law, and immoral, for obvious reasons, to deport refugees back into a war zone–particularly when you’re one of the parties responsible for making it a war zone in the first place. But the Saudis aren’t party to international treaties governing the treatment of refugees, and if they felt any kind of moral sentiment about Yemen they probably wouldn’t be double tapping funeral homes while trying to starve millions of Yemenis to death.


Iraqi state media reported on Wednesday that Iraqi authorities were able to lure five ISIS commanders back into Iraq from Syria and then arrest them. So that’s nice.


Al-Monitor’s Joe Macaron has a good piece over there checking the emerging narrative that Hezbollah was the big winner of Sunday’s election. Hezbollah should be pretty happy about the outcome, but Lebanese politics are still too much in flux, both because of the election’s fallout and because of the ripple effect of the 2016 cross-alliance deal that saw Saad al-Hariri and Michel Aoun become political BFFs so they could hand each other the posts of prime minister and president, respectively. That deal broke up Lebanon’s old political alliance structure and it’s still unclear how things will realign themselves.


Benjamin Netanyahu looks like he’s getting a political boost from his pal Donald Trump’s violation of the Iran nuclear deal. A poll conducted after Trump’s Tuesday announcement put Likud at 35 seats if Israel were to hold an election today, easily the party’s best showing in any poll this year and an increase of five seats over its current situation. Israel isn’t holding an election today, of course, but polling like this might convince Netanyahu to call for an early vote.


Ah, OK. Good thing we have an international agreement in place preventing Iran from seeking a nu–oh, right, my bad. Well, at least the Trump administration surely had a strong response to such a reckless stateme-

These people are going to kill us all. I’m joking, but not completely. I mean, there’s a huge international treaty governing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Saudis are party to it. Iran too, by the way. Does anybody in the Trump administration know that this treaty exists, or care that it does? Why are they consistently like this?


Reactions are coming in to Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal. Ther Atlantic Council’s Aaron Stein is not a fan:

The Islamic Republic of Iran made a political decision to forego work on nuclear weapons and agreed to extraordinary and unprecedented inspections to verify the non-diversion of fissile material for military use. In return, the United States eased sanctions on Iran and recognized its right to enrichment, but within the strict and verifiable limits the JCPOA imposes for 25 years on the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. This simple concession allowed the United States to realize its national security interests, without the use of force, and with the consent of its allies and major competitors alike. And it did so in a way that achieved its main objective: placing verifiable restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Or, at least until shortly before 2 pm yesterday.


Yesterday afternoon, the United States unilaterally decided to no longer abide by the agreement. Trump also demanded a more comprehensive agreement that limits Iran’s missile production, among other things. Iran may be amenable to capping the range of its missiles, but there is a problem with the emphasis on “nuclear capable.” The term is meaningless.


A well-designed warhead can fly on most anything. Iran’s nuclear warhead design was crude and designed for the first generation of Shahab-3’s nosecone. The JCPOA focused on the nuclear weapons part of “nuclear capable” missiles. Even if a more comprehensive agreement that imposes strict limitations on ballistic missiles were possible, it was far beyond what Tehran was willing to give up during the Obama administration. An agreement on ballistic missiles might be possible but will take years to negotiate and be exceedingly difficult to finalize. In the interim, the United States intends to reimpose extraterritorial sanctions to try and force other countries to act against their own self-defined national security interests and come around to America’s hawkish policy towards Iran. The United States may be able to force some countries to comply, but it will be weaker after doing so.

Likewise for the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung:

President Trump’s decision to violate and withdraw from the Iran anti-nuclear deal is one of the most dangerous foreign policy blunders in recent memory, setting the stage for a war that one analyst has noted could “make the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts look like a walk in the park.”


The decision to go back on a U.S. commitment to a deal that even U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have acknowledged was working is the ultimate unforced error, and the potential consequences could not be more dire. Donald Trump is crowing about keeping his promise to scuttle the deal, but this is one promise that should never have been made.

On the other hand, as expected Iranian hardliners seem to be almost giddy that Trump has handed them such a potent political weapons. Several celebrated by burning a small US flag in the Iranian assembly on Wednesday:

Iran’s hardliner in chief, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had some thoughts about Donald Trump:

“I say it on behalf of Iranian people, Mr Trump, you can’t do a damn thing,” said Khamenei, who wields ultimate power in Iran, a day after the US president broke with European allies over what he said was a “horrible, one-sided” agreement.


The Ayatollah said Trump’s statement on the 2015 landmark nuclear deal, also known as the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), contained “more than 10 lies”. He said: “He both threatened the system as well as the nation … The body of this man, Trump, will turn to ashes and become the food of the worms and ants, while the Islamic Republic continues to stand.”

Ayatollah Khamenei…welcome to Hashtag The Resistance

In fairness, anybody who’s ever actually looked at Donald Trump knows that his body will eventually morph into a gelatinous toxic blob of undigested McDonald’s grease, so Khamenei is pretty off base here. On a more serious note, Khamenei reiterated comments from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier this week to the effect that it’s now up to the Europeans to prove to Tehran that it still has something to gain by remaining in the nuclear accord.

Khamenei also had some kind words for US allies in the Persian Gulf on Wednesday:

Hey, listen up pal: Donald Trump may routinely humiliate US allies and he may frequently treat them as his slaves, but he’s not…uh, sorry I lost my train of thought.

What the hardliners do next could determine how quickly we move from the slow glide path to war to the lightning quick high speed train to war. While moderates and reformists are prepared to give Hassan Rouhani time to try to salvage the nuclear deal through negotiations with the European Union, Russia, and China, a lot of hardline politicians seem eager to kick Iran’s nuclear program back into high gear.

Enter Trump, who, after violating the deal and thereby leaving himself in a position where he should rightly just shut the fuck up, now says that he “would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program; I would advise them very strongly … If they do, there will be very severe consequences.” Notice that “nuclear program” is now standing in for “nuclear weapons program,” so in theory Trump is prepared to take us to war if Iran fires up a few thousand more uranium centrifuges for civilian energy purposes. You can expect to see a lot of that obfuscation over the coming weeks, as the regime change echo chamber does its best to confuse the US public about the nature of Iran’s nuclear activities.

As to the efficacy of the reimposed sanctions regime, Richard Nephew and Ilan Goldenberg write that because Trump went it alone and managed to alienate every other major international player in the process, the penalties are unlikely to hurt Iran nearly as much as they did the last time around:

This will certainly have negative economic impacts on Iran, given the relative benefits of doing business in the United States versus business in Iran. But without active participation and cooperation by the rest of the world, the United States will face a monumental enforcement and implementation burden with scant support. Smuggling and evasion will be a reality of the new sanctions landscape, and though the United States can sanction those who engage in such business practices, it will find the burdens of doing so are far more complicated in the absence of partners willing to shut down such networks on their own.


The loss of international enthusiasm will slow the buildup of pressure on Iran. One illustration makes this point starkly: In 2012, the European Union reduced purchases of Iranian oil from around 700,000 barrels per day to zero barrels per day in six months. This was not the result of U.S. sanctions, but rather an independent European decision, underway before related U.S. sanctions passed Congress. Had European companies instead waited for U.S. sanctions to hit, they would have only followed the pattern of others in Asia, reducing their purchases by 20 percent every 180 days. Taken over time, the work of six months in 2012 would have taken six years to accomplish. The bottom line is that without political support, the U.S. sanctions regime will be a fraction of what it was in 2012.

If they want to increase Washington’s isolation, the Iranians now have the option of filing a formal complaint with the nuclear deal’s Joint Commission, the body that was created to adjudicate disputes under the accord. The commission was intended to police Iranian behavior, but it can work to hear Iranian complaints about the behavior of one of the other deal participants. The complaint will trigger a vote on the commission that the US would presumably lose, since all the other parties to the deal want to maintain it. The vote is meaningless, since the commission has no power to enforce its rulings over the US government, but it could deepen the split this decision has opened between the US and Europe.

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