Senior Advisor Jared Kushner listens while US President Donald Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport October 28, 2020, in Goodyear, Arizona. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Trump adviser Jared Kushner travels to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, France arrests police officers involved in the beating of a Black man, and Serbia backtracks on the expulsion of Montenegro’s ambassador.
We welcome your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kushner Heads to Riyadh and Doha as Iran Weighs Response
Jared Kushner, the senior advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump, is headed to the Middle East this week as tensions in the region have increased after the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by suspected Israeli agents.
It’s the second visit to the region by a member of the Trump administration since Joe Biden became President-elect. And like Mike Pompeo’s visit—which, according to Israeli media, included a trilateral meeting between the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel—what will be discussed behind closed doors is unknown.
Kushner is to meet with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as well as Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani. Kushner is reported to be eager to finalize more normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries before leaving office, and Saudi Arabia would represent the biggest prize.
More than a hit. Beyond the perceived threat of Iran restarting its nuclear weapons program, the assassination of Fakhrizadeh serves multiple purposes for those that would seek to keep the United States and Iran far away from the negotiating table.
The provocation puts pressure on President Hassan Rouhani to retaliate immediately, giving Iran’s enemies a chance to escalate in turn. It also gives further ammunition to hardliners, who say dealing diplomatically with the West is futile. And for President-elect Joe Biden, it creates a much more difficult negotiating environment with a country that—following Trump’s swift rejection of U.S. involvement in the 2015 nuclear deal—already had very little incentive to trust the word of the United States to begin with.
What can Biden do next? Writing in Foreign Affairs on Nov. 10, Trita Parsi recommended a novel approach to help Biden back out of the corner the Trump administration and Israel seem determined to put him in. “Instead of asking himself what degree of sanctions relief he is willing to fight for in Congress to revive the nuclear agreement,” Parsi writes, “he should ask himself what kind of relationship the United States would like to have with Iran in this century.” A bigger picture answer? Normalize ties with Iran.
Writing in Foreign Policy on Nov. 25, Benjamin H. Friedman and Stephen Wertheim propose an elegant solution: Do less. As part of an argument for removing U.S. troops from the region, the authors show why the U.S. stepping away from the region may not be as damaging as others predict. “Because the Middle East is experiencing a competition for influence among multiple midsized powers—Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel—no one state credibly threatens to dominate the region and its oil supply,” Friedman and Wertheim write. “The United States will obtain more security by doing less.”
On Monday, Nov. 30, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will receive a closed briefing on the Trump administration’s plans for a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates.
The countries of OPEC+ begin virtual meetings to discuss plans to increase oil output.
On Tuesday, Dec. 1, NATO foreign ministers gather virtually for a two-day meeting.
Italy assumes the rotating presidency of the G-20, taking over from Saudi Arabia.
World AIDS day is observed worldwide.
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, the United Nations General Assembly will discuss the question of Palestine following the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, observed on Sunday.
On Friday, Dec. 4, a Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) order banning Tiktok from operating in the United States is due to take effect.
On Saturday, Dec. 5, Kuwaitis go to the polls to elect 50 members to its National Assembly for four-year terms.
On Sunday, Dec. 6, Venezuela holds an election for its National Assembly; opposition parties plan to boycott the vote.
Romania holds legislative elections for both its Parliament and Senate.
Cameroon holds regional elections in an attempt to address demands for decentralization; critics argue it’s too little too late.
What We’re Following Today
French police charged. Four French police officers involved in the beating of Michel Zecler, a Black music producer, have been charged with racial abuse and intentional violence as France reels from street protests ignited by the video of Zecler’s beating and a draft security law that would have prevented its release. Under the draft law, currently awaiting Senate approval, recordings of police that would damage their “physical or psychological integrity” would be prohibited. Reacting to the assault, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned it as unacceptable. The images “shame us,” Macron wrote on Twitter.
Abiy declares victory. After declaring the three-week offensive against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front over following the capture of the Tigrayan capital Mekele, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has turned his sights on capturing Tigrayan officials who appear to have gone into hiding. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael, when asked by Reuters whether his group would continue fighting, was unequivocal in his reply. “Certainly. This is about defending our right to self-determination,” he said. The TPLF have a history of guerilla warfare, although those tactics may be less effective than in the past now that Eritrea—which borders Tigray—is allied with Abiy’s government.
Massacre in Nigeria. At least 110 people were killed in northeast Nigeria after attackers targeted a village in Borno state. Nigerian authorities have blamed Boko Haram for the attack, which took place on the same day Borno state held local elections. Edward Kallon, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Nigeria described the incident as “the most violent direct attack against innocent civilians this year.” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said that the country had been “wounded” by the killings.
Serbia and Montenegro tensions. Serbia has rescinded a decision to expel the Montenegrin ambassador Tarzan Milosevic after it had original called for his removal following a tit-for-tat exchange with Montenegro. Montenegro expelled the Serbian ambassador Vladimir Bozovic on Saturday for “interfering in Montenegro’s internal affairs.” In reversing the expulsion, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said she wanted to extend “the hand of cooperation and friendship” to Montenegro. Montenegro’s new Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic takes office this week.
Brexit talks back on. In-person negotiations resumed between British and European Union over the weekend following their brief halt after one of the EU negotiating team was diagnosed with COVID-19. Both sides have little more than a month to conclude an agreement on their future relationship before a Dec. 31 deadline. The Times of London reports that a call between British Prime Minister and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen would be the first indication that talks are moving forward, although Reuters reports that no such call has been scheduled.
Intra-Afghan talks. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is holding up an agreement on talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, even as the Taliban claim the two sides are close to resolving their issues. According to a report in the New York Times, among Ghani’s concerns is the omission of the country’s official name—the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—from guiding documents, which he argues undermines his government’s legitimacy.
Pigs flew in Taiwan’s parliament on Friday as opposition politicians adopted unorthodox methods to protest a deal that would allow U.S. pork imports that contain the additive ractopamine. Lawmakers threw various pig organs on the floor of parliament, and eventually at each other, as chaos descended and some members engaged in fistfights and shoving. The additive ractopamine is used by farmers to promote leanness in pigs, and is banned in the European Union and China. Taiwan’s president, Tsai-ing Wen, lifted the ban on ractopamine in September, and hopes to conclude a trade deal with the United States under a Biden administration.
That’s it for today.
For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to email@example.com.
Image credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP
“Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh.” Thus spoke Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, in a characteristically histrionic moment during his April 2018 presentation on Iran’s nuclear programme.
No one in the Middle East is now likely to forget the name of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear physicist, who was ambushed and killed by gunmen near Tehran late on Friday. Especially not the Iranians — any more than they will forget Qassem Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guard commander of Iran’s foreign legion, assassinated by a US missile strike at Baghdad airport in January.
Israel, rather than the US, is probably responsible for killing Fakhrizadeh, just as it is widely blamed or, depending on the viewpoint, credited with murdering four nuclear scientists on his staff in 2010-12. But those hits came before Iran reached an accord in 2015 with the US, then led by President Barack Obama, and five world powers to constrain its nuclear programme and allow international monitors to verify agreed limits.
Outgoing US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from this deal in 2018, reimposing sanctions he has continued to ratchet up to strangle Iran’s economy. Joe Biden, president-elect after defeating Mr Trump in this month’s elections and Mr Obama’s former vice-president, has said he intends to rejoin the 2015 nuclear compact, provided Iran returns to the set limits on uranium enrichment it has breached in response to the US pullout.
That goal, already complicated, has just been made a lot more difficult, which is surely the intention of Messrs Trump and Netanyahu, as well as their Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf led by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Before it gracelessly departs, the Trump team looks bent on a scorched earth policy in the Middle East to make the incoming Biden administration’s road back to diplomacy more difficult. Beyond imposing yet more sanctions, Mr Trump is reported recently to have sought advice on the feasibility of air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This month Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, brokered a surprise meeting in Saudi Arabia between Mr Netanyahu and Prince Mohammed. Ostensibly about detente and “normalisation” of relations, it was also about a united front not just against Tehran but Mr Biden’s Iran policy, setting off alarm bells across the region.
Until now, hostilities against Iran have remained in the realm of shadow war, hit squads and proxy conflicts between Sunni and Shia from Iraq to Lebanon and Syria to Yemen. But the Fakhrizadeh killing upped the ante. The hopeful assumption is there will not be a real war. But there will be a reckoning.
Fakhrizadeh, sometimes compared to Robert Oppenheimer, father of the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945, is believed by western intelligence agencies to have led Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon until it was halted in 2003. Tehran denies intent to build a bomb but has been determined to master the complete nuclear cycle that would enable it to do so.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and exit from a deal that had successfully eliminated Tehran’s former nuclear fuel hoard, has led Iran to recreate a stockpile of enriched uranium. It is now 12 times the size of the accord’s ceiling and of higher than allowed purity. While this is not close to weapons-grade uranium, Mr Trump has pushed Iran closer to it, and Mr Netanyahu has urged the US not to return to previous arrangements that controlled production.
Those who resist Iran’s growing power in the Middle East are jubilant about the Fakhrizadeh death. But Iranian physics cannot be killed, nor can the growing conviction among Iranians that America — the Great Satan in the Islamic Republic’s narrative — cannot be trusted since it reneges on international deals. This is a political gift to hardliners.
The Biden administration must navigate a minefield. It is not just the nuclear deal that Mr Obama secured in 2015. The incoming president must also find a way to deal with Soleimani’s legacy of paramilitary militias — armed with missiles — who have forged a Shia Iranian corridor from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.
Yet how is a bankrupt Iran to deal with the region’s constellation of failing states without seeking terms not just with its neighbours but the world? Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen all face economic contractions vastly greater than the ravage inflicted by Covid-19. Iran, and Persia before it, has a reputation for strategic patience. It will now be tested.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently flew to Saudi Arabia on an unprecedented visit. Although the full details of the visit are disputed, the high-level trip showcased how rapidly Israeli ties with several Gulf countries are improving. The same week saw the first commercial flight from Fly Dubai land at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, and saw a delegation from Bahrain in the country to discuss coexistence and religious freedom. This is part of an emerging alliance between Israel and the Gulf that increasingly includes partnerships that span from Greece to India, as like-minded countries unite against similar threats or shared strategic needs.
The ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became public this summer as part of a wider Abraham Accords pushed by the Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in the Middle East in the third week of November cementing these ties, and the Netanyahu meeting in Saudi Arabia was linked to Pompeo's trip. However, what is unique in the developments is how much warmth there is between these countries, amid discussions of how they share similar strategic interests. These interests include opposition to Iran's aggression and concerns over Turkey's ties to groups like Hamas, whose leaders Ankara hosted twice this year.
It is no surprise that the same month that saw the high-profile meetings with Israel's new Gulf friends also saw Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Syria plant an improvised explosive device on the Golan Heights on November 17. Days later, the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen also used drones, and then missiles, to attack Saudi Arabia.
The Iran front is one issue that brings Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together. It is also a threat that concerns the UAE and Bahrain. However, Iran is not the only issue. Turkey's support for Qatar and its links to Hamas, as well as Ankara's role in the Libya conflict, have set off alarm bells from Jerusalem to Abu Dhabi to Cairo. The same week Netanyahu went to Saudi Arabia, a joint training took place in Egypt with Bahrain, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE. Dubbed "Sword of the Arabs," the joint training's intent was to help participating countries coordinate more closely. Importantly, there was no U.S.-backed umbrella behind this the way annual joint training exercises such as Eager Lion or Iron Union in the UAE have a large American presence. The message was clear: The UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan will act alone to defend themselves.
White House Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony
Click to expand
The reason these countries are working more closely is because the U.S. has signaled it is drawing down forces from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps wrapping up the war on terror that 700 U.S. forces have waged in Somalia, as well. That means that U.S. allies must do more on their own. Toward this end, Greece and the UAE have also done joint training with F-16s, and both the UAE and Greece have worked more closely with Israel. Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Jordan all signed on this year to an East Mediterranean Gas Forum. Israel and India are strategic partners, and India's external affairs announced one of his first major foreign visits in months would be to Bahrain and the UAE. He discussed growing cooperation with these two states, which are the same states that signed the Abraham Accords.
Together, this arc of transnational partnerships from Greece to India is part of an alliance that includes economic ties and geostrategic discussions about common interests and security, as well as the need for stabilization in the face of terror and extremist threats. Israel is a hub for these relationships, along with the UAE. It looks to also be a corridor that will grow amid the pandemic, as countries realize they need closer regional ties in this uncertain world.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a senior analyst of Middle East affairs for The Jerusalem Post and author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019). Twitter: @sfrantzman.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.
Start your unlimited Newsweek trial