New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 10 Jan 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

British Muslim Charities Are Paying 'Islamic Penalty': New Age Islam’s Selection From World Press, 11 January 2016

New Age Islam Edit Bureau

11 Jan 2016

British Muslim charities are paying 'Islamic penalty'

By Muhammad Abdul Bari

Afghanistan and the Taliban need Pakistan for peace

By Barnett Rubin

How Zionism Helped Create Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

By Nu'man Abd al-Wahid

With Friends Like Saudi Arabia, US Doesn't Need Enemies Like Iran

By Farsnews

Assad reveals his latest weapon of war

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Syrian refugee children transform Iraqi prison with art

By Mohammed Jamjoom

Will Pathankot derail Indo-Pak dialogue?

By Mahmood Hasan

The everlasting Saudi-Iran debacle

By Abdillah Toha

Iran has trouble letting go off sectarianism

By Mohammed Baharoon

Houthi excesses in Yemen are unacceptable

By Khaleej Times



British Muslim charities are paying 'Islamic penalty'

Muhammad Abdul Bari

10 Jan 2016

The fact that Britain is the most charitable developed nation in the world and Muslims are "its top charity givers" has been well established for some time. Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged this reality in his Ramadan 2014 message, "Here in Britain, Muslims are our biggest donors - they give more to charity than any other faith group."

The impulse of charity giving is embedded in human nature. For many Muslims the prime mover is the teachings of their religion to help out fellow human beings in distress or in need, irrespective of their background. This has contributed to the emergence of a strong Muslim charity sector that has employed thousands of dedicated professionals. Many new charities have appeared in recent years and are attracting young talented university students and graduates as volunteers. Some are known for their highly entrepreneurial and specialised works.

But in recent years, the new menace that is haunting Muslim charities is the fear of their bank account closure. The first that came to be widely known was HSBC's notification to a few charities that their accounts would be closed in just two months time as they were outside the bank's "risk appetite".

This irreversible decision came without any previous notice and as a shock to the affected charities. HSBC's failure to provide any warnings or appropriate evidence for its actions has been a real worry.

Risk appetite

Since then, a few other banks such as Barclays and Co-operative Bank have followed suit. Early in 2015 HSBC closed the Muslim Aid account.

Recently, they have closed down the account of Islamic Relief, the largest UK Muslim charity. On last 15 December, the Co-operative Bank informed Friends of Al-Aqsa that it would close their bank account. No reasons have been provided, apart from mentioning the same "risk appetite" issue. The Co-op has refused to engage in any negotiations, and have called this "a business decision".

Bigger charities like Islamic relief and Muslim Aid use multiple bank accounts; for them the main issue is a serious reputational damage. But smaller charities do not have the luxury of doing this, so closure of their main account becomes a survival issue for them.

For a community which is going through disproportionate scrutiny from successive government's counter-productive Prevent agenda, bank closures of its charities without proper explanation is an additional worry. When an organisation like the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) that has been supporting Palestinian rights for decades found that their account with Cooperative Bank was also closed last July, naturally it raised the spectre of fear among many.

Bank closures undermine the great work done by Muslim charities abroad and in our own shore such as in recent and past floods. Many feel that the rhetoric of "extremism" and "protecting British values" vis-a-vis Muslims is creating a climate where Muslims NGOs are seen as a fair game. One is not sure whether this selective bank closure affecting only Muslim charities is because of the political climate of judging the community through a prism of security.

Reliable partners

Of course it is understood that there would be greater scrutiny of charities' finances prompted by international money laundering concerns and tougher UK counter-terrorism laws. But in a rights-based society and renowned for its principle of innocence until proven guilty, if a community is made to feel out of place this does not bode well for Britain.

Muslim charity sector has been the jewel in the Muslim community's crown in serving humanity in recent decades; without a way out this may one day be reduced to insignificance.

Almost all charities in Britain are now regulated by Charity Commission (CC); so charities are duty-bound to maintain due diligence while transferring money directly to the recipients or through reliable partners acceptable to the CC.

Access to banking facilities is vital for transparency and good governance and fear that fundraising and aid work in Muslim communities could otherwise collapse or even be driven underground.

The confidence of Muslim charities on British banks is obviously at an all time low. The community is deeply worried about this development. Although banks are denying their motives are religious, many believe this is the penalty of bearing any "Islamic" name in current political climate.

David Anderson, the UK's reviewer of terrorism legislation, called for dialogue between policy makers and NGOs on the issue of bank closures. It is time the government steps in to assure that Muslim charities are not victimised for political reasons.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant.


Afghanistan and the Taliban need Pakistan for peace

By Barnett Rubin

10 Jan 2016

In the latest attempt to find a solution to the nearly 38-year-old war in Afghanistan, diplomats from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China will meet in Islamabad on January 11. This format, called the "two plus two" or the "quad", evolved from an effort started by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani soon after his inauguration in September 2014.

Ghani seems to have based his effort on the following hypotheses:

Fighters have joined the insurgency in Afghanistan for many reasons, such as anger over the US-led intervention, civilian casualties, detentions and torture, abuse by local power holders, or to protect lucrative criminal activities, but the main driver of the conflict is Pakistan's use of these groups to pressure Afghanistan.

Pakistan, specifically the military, intends to keep pressuring Afghanistan to counter Kabul's perceived alignment with India and the longstanding bilateral issues between the two countries. These mainly concern the status of the boundary between the two countries, which Afghanistan calls the "Durand Line" and has never officially recognised.

Disputes over the border are linked to Afghan and Pashtun nationalist movements in both countries that have challenged the legitimacy of the incorporation of Pashtun territories into Pakistan.

Political solution

Pakistan supports the Taliban by providing a secure safe haven for their leadership, logistics, training, recruitment, and fundraising. Pakistan's nuclear and conventional forces have deterred kinetic action against these safe havens. The country's strategic importance to China, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, precludes international sanctions against Pakistan. Therefore only a political solution is possible.

At a press conference on December 31, 2015, Ghani said, "It is obvious that there are groups of Taliban, not a unified movement." If so, direct engagement with the Pakistan-based so-called "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", formerly led by the late Mullah Muhammad Omar and now by Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, will only magnify the importance of that group.

Since the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, at least one group has split from the Taliban, but Pakistan, sometimes to the dismay of Kabul, has supported Mansur's efforts to consolidate power. If the Taliban are a collection of groups, then the Taliban political office in Doha with which the US has engaged in talks, could not be an effective interlocutor.

Therefore as a first step Afghanistan must offer to build trust with Pakistan, as Ghani tried to do starting with his November 2014 visit to Pakistan. Economic cooperation such as the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) pipeline will reinforce such confidence building measures and provide incentives to reach agreement.

The rise of China's economy and its leadership's decision to "look west" has led China to break with its passivity in this region. In order to complete the hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure that China intends to build across Central and South Asia, it requires a predictable environment, including peace and security in Afghanistan.

China's interests

This trend has moved China's interests in the region toward closer alignment with those of Afghanistan and the US. At least some of Pakistan’s use of Islamist militants now threatens China's interests, while China's investments offer Pakistan a significant payoff if it modifies its policy of protecting the Taliban safe haven. Hence inclusion of China in the process is essential to move Pakistan in the right direction and keep it on board.

The US remains the dominant foreign power for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the increasing alignment of US and China's interests and the development of US-China cooperation on Afghan issues reduces Pakistan's ability to play one against the other. US-China cooperation may also turn into a durable partnership that will be needed to monitor and implement any agreement.

Therefore these four powers must reach agreement on the framework for negotiation. Whether or not various Taliban groups accept that internationally agreed framework will constitute the working definition of those who "choose peace or terrorism", in Ghani's words.

Those who refuse this framework should be dealt with militarily in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. That would include international extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL.

Especially after the bloody summer and fall of 2015, Afghan public opinion will not accept negotiations as long as this level of violence continues. While Pakistan has argued that a ceasefire or the equivalent must emerge from the talks, Ghani insists that some confidence building measures must lead very quickly to a reduction in violence. For that he is relying more on Pakistan's leverage over the Taliban than on agreement with them.

Talks with Taliban

Who would represent the Taliban in such talks? The Taliban leadership has stated for years that the Doha office is the address for talks. The Taliban sought an office in a Gulf country so it could operate more independently of Pakistan and represent the real positions of what they portray as a politically centralised, though operationally decentralised, movement.

At the July 5 meeting in Murree, however, the Taliban side consisted of two representatives of mujahidin networks from Eastern Afghanistan dating back to the 1980s that joined the Taliban later (the Haqqanis and Harakat-Mansur) and one individual working more or less directly for the ISI (Mullah Abbas).

If negotiations are to lead to an actual settlement with most of the insurgents, future meetings will have to include representatives who can deliver results on the ground.

If the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan does speak for a significant portion of the fighters, it may be necessary to include the political office, which has so far rejected the framework proposed by the Afghan government and demanded more talks with the US and the lifting of sanctions before negotiating with the Afghan government.

If Pakistan's ability or willingness either to deliver or suppress the Taliban is less than the Afghan government believes or hopes, Afghanistan may have to engage more with the Taliban rather than with Pakistan, and Pakistan will have to agree to loosen its control of the process.

Thus far it has insisted that all meetings, including both Murree and this Monday's diplomatic meeting, take place in Pakistan.

And if Pakistan will not or cannot take the necessary measures to disarm the Taliban as part of the implementation of an agreement, not only Afghanistan, but also the US and China will have to reconsider how to gain its compliance.

The main subject of discussion in Islamabad is likely to be where and when to hold the next meeting, who should be invited, and how to place the chairs around the table. That is necessary.

But a clearer consensus within the quad on the issues discussed here will be needed to actually attain the objective.

Barnett Rubin is a leading expert on Afghanistan and South Asia.


How Zionism Helped Create Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

By Nu'man Abd al-Wahid

Sunday, 10 January 2016

TEHRAN (FNA)- The covert alliance between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Zionist entity of Israel should be no surprise to any student of British imperialism.

The problem is the study of British imperialism has very few students. Indeed, one can peruse any undergraduate or post-graduate British university prospectus and rarely find a module in a Politics degree on the British Empire let alone a dedicated degree or Masters degree. Of course if the European led imperialist carnage in the four years between 1914 – 1918 tickles your cerebral cells then it’s not too difficult to find an appropriate institution to teach this subject, but if you would like to delve into how and why the British Empire waged war on mankind for almost four hundred years you’re practically on your own in this endeavour. One must admit, that from the British establishment’s perspective, this is a formidable and remarkable achievement.

In late 2014, according to the American journal, “Foreign Affairs”, the Saudi petroleum Minister, Ali al-Naimi is reported to have said “His Majesty King Abdullah has always been a model for good relations between Saudi Arabia and other states and the Jewish state is no exception.” Recently, Abdullah’s successor, King Salman expressed similar concerns to those of Israel’s to the growing agreement between the United States and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme. This led some to report that Israel and KSA presented a “united front” in their opposition to the nuclear deal. This was not the first time the Zionists and Saudis have found themselves in the same corner in dealing with a perceived common foe. In North Yemen in the 1960’s, the Saudis were financing a British imperialist led mercenary army campaign against revolutionary republicans who had assumed authority after overthrowing the authoritarian, Imam. Gamal Abdul-Nasser’s Egypt militarily backed the republicans, while the British induced the Saudis to finance and arm the remaining remnants of the Imam’s supporters. Furthermore, the British organised the Israelis to drop arms for the British proxies in North Yemen, 14 times. The British, in effect, militarily but covertly, brought the Zionists and Saudis together in 1960’s North Yemen against their common foe.

However, one must go back to the 1920’s to fully appreciate the origins of this informal and indirect alliance between Saudi Arabia and the Zionist entity. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire by British imperialism in World War One, left three distinct authorities in the Arabian peninsula: Sharif of Hijaz: Hussain bin Ali of Hijaz (in the west), Ibn Rashid of Ha’il (in the north) and Emir Ibn Saud of Najd (in the east) and his religiously fanatical followers, the Wahhabis.

Ibn Saud had entered the war early in January 1915 on the side of the British, but was quickly defeated and his British handler, William Shakespear was killed by the Ottoman Empire’s ally Ibn Rashid. This defeat greatly hampered Ibn Saud’s utility to the Empire and left him militarily hamstrung for a year.[1] The Sharif contributed the most to the Ottoman Empire’s defeat by switching allegiances and leading the so-called ‘Arab Revolt’ in June 1916 which removed the Turkish presence from Arabia. He was convinced to totally alter his position because the British had strongly led him to believe, via correspondence with Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, that a unified Arab country from Gaza to the Persian Gulf will be established with the defeat of the Turks. The letters exchanged between Sharif Hussain and Henry McMahon are known as the McMahon-Hussain Correspondence.

Understandably, the Sharif as soon as the war ended wanted to hold the British to their war time promises, or what he perceived to be their war time promises, as expressed in the aforementioned correspondence. The British, on the other hand, wanted the Sharif to accept the Empire’s new reality which was a division of the Arab world between them and the French (Sykes-Picot agreement) and the implementation of the Balfour Declaration, which guaranteed ‘a national for the Jewish people’ in Palestine by colonisation with European Jews. This new reality was contained in the British written, Anglo-Hijaz Treaty, which the Sharif was profoundly averse to signing.[2] After all, the revolt of 1916 against the Turks was dubbed the ‘Arab Revolt’ not the ‘Hijazi Revolt’.

Actually, the Sharif let it be known that he will never sell out Palestine to the Empire’s Balfour Declaration; he will never acquiescence to the establishment of Zionism in Palestine or accept the new random borders drawn across Arabia by British and French imperialists. For their part the British began referring to him as an ‘obstructionist’, a ‘nuisance’ and of having a ‘recalcitrant’ attitude.

The British let it be known to the Sharif that they were prepared to take drastic measures to bring about his approval of the new reality regardless of the service that he had rendered them during the War. After the Cairo Conference in March 1921, where the new Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill met with all the British operatives in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence (i.e. of Arabia) was dispatched to meet the Sharif to bribe and bully him to accept Britain’s Zionist colonial project in Palestine. Initially, Lawrence and the Empire offered 80,000 rupees.[3] The Sharif rejected it outright. Lawrence then offered him an annual payment of £100,000.[4] The Sharif refused to compromise and sell Palestine to British Zionism.

When financial bribery failed to persuade the Sharif, Lawrence threatened him with an Ibn Saud takeover. Lawrence claimed that “politically and militarily, the survival of Hijaz as a viable independent Hashemite kingdom was wholly dependent on the political will of Britain, who had the means to protect and maintain his rule in the region.” [5] In between negotiating with the Sharif, Lawrence made the time to visit other leaders in the Arabian peninsula and informed them that they if they don’t tow the British line and avoid entering into an alliance with the Sharif, the Empire will unleash Ibn Saud and his Wahhabis who after all is at Britain’s ‘beck and call’.[6]

Simultaneously, after the Conference, Churchill travelled to Jerusalem and met with the Sharif’s son, Abdullah, who had been made the ruler, “Emir”, of a new territory called “Transjordan.” Churchill informed Abdullah that he should persuade “his father to accept the Palestine mandate and sign a treaty to such effect,” if not “the British would unleash Ibn Saud against Hijaz.”[7] In the meantime the British were planning to unleash Ibn Saud on the ruler of Ha’il, Ibn Rashid.

Ibn Rashid had rejected all overtures from the British Empire made to him via Ibn Saud, to be another of its puppets.[8] More so, Ibn Rashid expanded his territory north to the new mandated Palestinian border as well as to the borders of Iraq in the summer of 1920. The British became concerned that an alliance maybe brewing between Ibn Rashid who controlled the northern part of the peninsula and the Sharif who controlled the western part. More so, the Empire wanted the land routes between the Palestinian ports on the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf under the rule of a friendly party. At the Cairo Conference, Churchill agreed with an imperial officer, Sir Percy Cox that “Ibn Saud should be ‘given the opportunity to occupy Hail.’”[9] By the end of 1920, the British were showering Ibn Saud with “a monthly ‘grant’ of £10,000 in gold, on top of his monthly subsidy. He also received abundant arms supplies, totalling more than 10,000 rifles, in addition to the critical siege and four field guns” with British-Indian instructors.[10] Finally, in September 1921, the British unleashed Ibn Saud on Ha’il which officially surrendered in November 1921. It was after this victory the British bestowed a new title on Ibn Saud. He was no longer to be “Emir of Najd and Chief of its Tribes” but “Sultan of Najd and its Dependencies”. Ha’il had dissolved into a dependency of the Empire’s Sultan of Najd.

If the Empire thought that the Sharif, with Ibn Saud now on his border and armed to the teeth by the British, would finally become more amenable to the division of Arabia and the British Zionist colonial project in Palestine they were short lived. A new round of talks between Abdulla’s son, acting on behalf of his father in Transjordan and the Empire resulted in a draft treaty accepting Zionism. When it was delivered to the Sharif with an accompanying letter from his son requesting that he “accept reality”, he didn’t even bother to read the treaty and instead composed a draft treaty himself rejecting the new divisions of Arabia as well as the Balfour Declaration and sent it to London to be ratified![11]

Ever since 1919 the British had gradually decreased Hussain’s subsidy to the extent that by the early 1920’s they had suspended it, while at the same time continued subsidising Ibn Saud right through the early 1920’s.[12] After a further three rounds of negotiations in Amman and London, it dawned on the Empire that Hussain will never relinquish Palestine to Great Britain’s Zionist project or accept the new divisions in Arab lands.[13]In March 1923, the British informed Ibn Saud that it will cease his subsidy but not without awarding him an advance ‘grant’ of £50,000 upfront, which amounted to a year’s subsidy.[14]

In March 1924, a year after the British awarded the ‘grant’ to Ibn Saud, the Empire announced that it had terminated all discussions with Sharif Hussain to reach an agreement.[15] Within weeks the forces of Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi followers began to administer what the British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon called the “final kick” to Sharif Hussain and attacked Hijazi territory.[16] By September 1924, Ibn Saud had overrun the summer capital of Sharif Hussain, Ta’if. The Empire then wrote to Sharif’s sons, who had been awarded kingdoms in Iraq and Transjordan not to provide any assistance to their besieged father or in diplomatic terms they were informed “to give no countenance to interference in the Hedjaz”.[17] In Ta’if, Ibn Saud’s Wahhabis committed their customary massacres, slaughtering women and children as well as going into mosques and killing traditional Islamic scholars.[18] They captured the holiest place in Islam, Mecca, in mid-October 1924. Sharif Hussain was forced to abdicate and went to exile to the Hijazi port of Akaba. He was replaced as monarch by his son Ali who made Jeddah his governmental base. As Ibn Saud moved to lay siege to the rest of Hijaz, the British found the time to begin incorporating the northern Hijazi port of Akaba into Transjordan. Fearing that Sharif Hussain may use Akaba as a base to rally Arabs against the Empire’s Ibn Saud, the Empire let it be known that in no uncertain terms that he must leave Akaba or Ibn Saud will attack the port. For his part, Sharif Hussain responded that he had, “never acknowledged the mandates on Arab countries and still protest against the British Government which has made Palestine a national home for the Jews.”[19]

Sharif Hussain was forced out of Akaba, a port he had liberated from the Ottoman Empire during the ‘Arab Revolt’, on the 18th June 1925 on HMS Cornflower.

Ibn Saud had begun his siege of Jeddah in January 1925 and the city finally surrendered in December 1925 bringing to an end over 1000 years of rule by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s descendants. The British officially recognised Ibn Saud as the new King of Hijaz in February 1926 with other European powers following suit within weeks. The new unified Wahhabi state was rebranded by the Empire in 1932 as the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” (KSA). A certain George Rendel, an officer working at the Middle East desk at the Foreign Office in London, claimed credit for the new name.

On the propaganda level, the British served the Wahhabi takeover of Hijaz on three fronts. Firstly, they portrayed and argued that Ibn Saud’s invasion of Hijaz was motivated by religious fanaticism rather than by British imperialism’s geo-political considerations.[20] This deception is propounded to this day, most recently in Adam Curtis’s acclaimed BBC “Bitter Lake” documentary, whereby he states that the “fierce intolerant vision of wahhabism” drove the “beduins” to create Saudi Arabia.[21] Secondly, the British portrayed Ibn Saud’s Wahhabi fanatics as a benign and misunderstood force who only wanted to bring Islam back to its purest form.[22] To this day, these Islamist jihadis are portrayed in the most benign manner when their armed insurrections is supported by Britain and the West such as 1980’s Afghanistan or in today’s Syria, where they are referred to in the western media as “moderate rebels.” Thirdly, British historians portray Ibn Saud as an independent force and not as a British instrument used to horn away anyone perceived to be surplus to imperial requirements. For example, Professor Eugene Rogan’s recent study on the history on Arabs claims that “Ibn Saud had no interest in fighting” the Ottoman Empire. This is far from accurate as Ibn Saud joined the war in 1915. He further disingenuously claims that Ibn Saud was only interested in advancing “his own objectives” which fortuitously always dovetailed with those of the British Empire.[23]

In conclusion, one of the most overlooked aspects of the Balfour Declaration is the British Empire’s commitment to “use their best endeavours to facilitate” the creation of “a national home for the Jewish people”. Obviously, many nations in the world today were created by the Empire but what makes Saudi Arabia’s borders distinctive is that its northern and north-eastern borders are the product of the Empire facilitating the creation of Israel. At the very least the dissolution of the two Arab sheikhdoms of Ha’il and Hijaz by Ibn Saud’s Wahhabis is based in their leaders’ rejection to facilitate the British Empire’s Zionist project in Palestine.

Therefore, it is very clear that the British Empire’s drive to impose Zionism in Palestine is embedded in the geographical DNA of contemporary Saudi Arabia. There is further irony in the fact that the two holiest sites in Islam are today governed by the Saudi clan and Wahhabi teachings because the Empire was laying the foundations for Zionism in Palestine in the 1920s. Contemporaneously, it is no surprise that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are keen in militarily intervening on the side of “moderate rebels” i.e. jihadis, in the current war on Syria, a country which covertly and overtly rejects the Zionist colonisation of Palestine.

As the United States, the ‘successor’ to the British Empire in defending western interests in the Middle East, is perceived to be growing more hesitant in engaging militarily in the Middle East, there is an inevitability that the two nations rooted in the Empire’s Balfour Declaration, Israel and Saudi Arabia, would develop a more overt alliance to defend their common interests.


With Friends Like Saudi Arabia, US Doesn't Need Enemies Like Iran

By Farsnews

Sunday, 10 January 2016

TEHRAN (FNA)- Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shia cleric last week, almost certainly designed to provoke a response from Iran, indicates a growing desperation among the Saudis to demonize Tehran, as the House of Saud's grip on both its own people and the region comes under threat, historian Saeed Khan suggests.

The simmering conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran exploded into a dangerous back-and-forth game of one-upmanship last week, after Riyadh decided to go ahead with the execution of prominent Shiite cleric and vocal political activist Nimr al-Nimr, Sputnik reported.

Riyadh's move sparked outrage among Shiites around the world, especially in Iran, where Shia Islam predominates. The explosion of anger resulted in protesters in Tehran storming the Saudi Embassy, leading Riyadh to sever all diplomatic ties with Iran, and Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Sudan and Djibouti soon following suit, recalling their ambassadors. The diplomatic row escalated despite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's attempts to calm the situation by vowing that the Embassy attackers would be found and prosecuted.

Late last week, Tehran accused Riyadh of further escalating the conflict, following reports that the Iranian Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa (presently being bombed by a Saudi-led coalition looking to restore its puppet government) had been struck by Saudi Air Force planes, resulting in damage to the compound and the injury of an embassy guard.

Commenting on the situation in a recent article for the US business publication Quartz, Saeed Khan, a historian and lecturer at Michigan's Wayne State University, suggests that Riyadh's decision to execute al-Nimr was a deliberate strategy, one intended to provoke Tehran militarily, and based on the Saudis' growing desperation at home and abroad.

"Each act of incitement," Khan writes, "including Saudi Arabia's allegedly deliberate targeting of the Iranian Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, is further indication of Riyadh's desperation to demonize Tehran in the court of world opinion." Unfortunately for the Saudis, this "is an exercise in futility, and one that casts doubt over the kingdom's own stability and sensibility. The United States' longtime ally is losing its iron-fisted grip over both its people and the region."

However, the historian warns, this loss of control, "coupled with Saudi Arabia's staggering arsenal and unprincipled ruling ideology, makes the kingdom incredibly dangerous – arguably more so than infamous Axis of Evil member Iran."

"Saudi Arabia contends that its provocations of Iran are a principled and urgent rejoinder to a dangerous sectarian rival. But the reality is that the kingdom seeks to distract the international community from its own significant internal weaknesses."

Economic Troubles

These, according to Khan, include the fact that Saudi Arabia "is in dire economic straits. In 2015, it ran a budget deficit approaching $100 billion, and is on track for an $80 billion shortfall this year. Riyadh's decision to boost oil production to enervate competitors like Iran and shale oil producers has driven the price of crude oil down sharply, wrecking its own financial profile" in the process.

Recalling the collapse of global oil prices over the last year, the historian emphasizes that "for a country with an oil sector that comprises 75% of its budget revenues, this loss of income has a serious impact. The kingdom has announced unprecedented austerity measures, including a value-added tax, and has raised the price of gas in the country by 50%."

Iran Nuclear Deal Hits Riyadh Where It Hurts

As for Saudi Arabia's conflict with Iran, its regional geopolitical and potential economic rival, it didn't come out of the blue, Khan recalls.

"During the precarious negotiations of the P5+1 nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia told anyone who would listen that Iran was unreliable, untrustworthy, and inherently bellicose. Much to Riyadh's chagrin, however, Iran has complied with major provisions of the agreement, as with its recent shipment of 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium to Russia."

Moreover, last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency's investigation of Iran's nuclear program concluded that Iran has never acted to develop nuclear bombs, expediting the lifting of sanctions on Tehran.

At the same time, Khan notes, "while Saudi Arabia persists in its campaign to paint Iran as an aggressive, expansionist regional force, the kingdom has increased its own military expenditure considerably: $11 billion in ships, $1.3 billion in bombs and munitions last year," most of the latter purchased to stock up on stocks exhausted by its war in neighboring Yemen.

"Riyadh's defense budget is in fact five times that of Iran, and the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council as a whole maintains a 10:1 ratio of military expenditure over its Persian counterpart. The accumulation of such a large arsenal in a tinderbox locale raises serious questions about who, exactly, is the main destabilizing force in the region."

Monarchy in Crisis?

At home, Khan points out, the stability of the House of Saud's authoritarian monarchy is in danger, as King Salman struggles "to incorporate a next generation of Saudi royalty: The King's nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, is the crown prince and presumptive heir to the throne. But it is Salman's own son, Mohammed, deputy crown prince and the world's youngest defense minister at age 30, who is the country's eminence grise and successor to his father's title."

With Mohammed bin Salman's impulsiveness and inexperience leading to the failure of Saudi policy in Yemen, the historian notes, "Western allies and regional acolytes alike nervously consider whether Saudi Arabia will be vulnerable to more campaigns of folly or even a palace coup, depending on who next ascends the leadership hierarchy."

Regional Prestige Erodes, While Trust From Washington Fades

For many years, Khan recalls, "the House of Saud has enjoyed and exploited its moniker of Guardian of Holy Sites," a "status [which] has tamped down criticism by many who fear being denied entry to Mecca for the annual religious obligation of the Hajj." Nonetheless, in recent years, cracks in Riyadh's regional status have nonetheless begun to show.

"Increasingly, dissenters have argued that Saudi Arabia has become a liability to Islam. The 'Vegasization' of Mecca, with its tall, garish buildings and luxury hotels dwarfing the Grand Mosque; the demolition of historically and religiously important sites in the city; and the debacle surrounding yet another stampede during the Hajj have all caused many Muslims to question whether staying silent on Saudi misfeasance is worth the consequences."

Ultimately, "without the presumption of legitimacy from the Muslim world, the credibility of the Saudi regime stands on shifting sands."

In the final analysis, Khan suggests, "the kingdom's not-so-subtle implosion has important ramifications for the region. Interestingly, it may have even overplayed its hand with the Obama Administration. In response to the execution of Sheikh Al-Nimr and the ensuing diplomatic downward spiral, the White House has called for both sides to exercise restraint – an interestingly neutral tack when dealing with America's professed central strategic ally and another it does not have diplomatic relations with."

Commenting on this assessment, with perhaps just a hint more optimism than is really warranted, the historian concludes that perhaps now, "after 36 years [following Iran's Islamic Revolution], Washington is no longer interested in placing all of its regional strategic eggs in one basket, especially when stronger, more stable alternatives are readily available."

Ultimately, "the erosion of reliability and judgment by the House of Saud exposes it as a royal family either unwilling or unable to put its house in order. And in one of the world's most volatile regions, that is the most provocative act of all," Khan concludes.


Assad reveals his latest weapon of war

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Syria’s President Assad is not engaged in a conventional war. He is not using armed forces against other armed forces. He is not even engaged in a conventional civil war: using armed forces against rebels and militants, and any potential rebels and militants such as young men from the ‘wrong areas’ or the ‘wrong ethnic/religious background’. No, Assad is engaged in total war. He is directing his military and intelligence apparatus, and that of his Russian and Iranian allies, towards all people living in rebel areas. And his goal is to beat these people into submission. Or destroy them altogether.

In a normal conventional war, or a normal civil war, one is fighting with all one’s resources against the opposing military actors, but one understands that the key to victory is getting the larger civilian population on board with your war aims. This is what the Western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq failed to do. We assumed, wrongly, that the civilians would automatically be on our side. We were wrong. President Assad, on the other hand, entertains no illusions that the majority of Sunni civilians in Syria would ever back him continuing in power in the country. I believe many of these very people would rather live in the hell that is ISIS, than live in the even worse hell that is Assad’s Syria. And the rest do the best they can to leave Syria altogether – hence the huge refugee inflow into neighbouring countries and into Europe.

Assad’s commitment to killing

Once we understand that Assad is engaged in total war with large swathes of the civilian population in Syria, we understand why he used such tactics in the past as chemical attacks, and cluster and barrel bombs. These are all weapons banned under international treaties because of the destructive effects they have especially against civilians, and also because they have a huge psychological effect on any survivors. And that was exactly the point – Assad was not trying to win people over to his war goals. He was trying to beat them into submission. He needs these people to forfeit – to accept that the only way they’ll get peace is if he remains in power. To believe that he cannot be defeated, and that they are only heaping hell on themselves by continuing the rebellion.

This approach has failed. The conflict has lasted over 5 years now. And the more brutal the attacks, the more heinous the violations of human rights and international treaties, the more resolute the Syrian opposition have become. When you show that much commitment to killing your people, those people don’t trust you to keep them safe if they lay down their weapons – who would have thought it?

And thus, Assad has little reason left to exercise any restraint. He does not want to do anything too brazen so as to not embarrass Russia and Iran, so we shouldn’t expect any escalation on the chemical weapon use. But there are other, better ways to obliterate civilian populations, and sap their will and capacity to fight you: for example, starvation.

This is exactly what is happening right now in the town of Madaya. The rebel town is completely surrounded by Assad forces and Hezbollah, and they are not allowing any aid even to the civilians, they’ve imposed a complete trade blockade so the town residents cannot acquire any food, and they are not allowing anyone to leave, either. The few that do manage to leave can only do so by paying bribes to the besiegers to be guided through the minefields that have been installed around the town. And the only outcome the government forces will accept is complete surrender – not just of the rebel fighters, but of everyone. The logic of starvation is undeniable too: while bombing may kill a few family members, it inevitably radicalizes the others who will seek revenge and drive even non-fighters to join ranks with the rebels. Starvation, on the other hand, kills everyone at once. Any while starving, people will lack the energy to fight.

This situation has been going on in Madaya for nearly six months. Assad must be judging the result as promising. And with the new upper hand the Assad forces have gained on the ground since Russia joined the war, expect these tactics to be deployed against many other rebel towns. And still we in the West have no strategic or even tactical response to the atrocities that the Assad regime is heaping on Syria’s people.

Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim


Syrian refugee children transform Iraqi prison with art

By Mohammed Jamjoom

10 Jan 2016

Akre, Iraq - For Hanan, who's more familiar with conflict than anyone her age should ever be, it's the chance to create beauty that helps the most. As she daubs red paint onto a green background, the 13-year-old Syrian refugee living in a camp in northern Iraq is thankful that, in her imagination at the very least, peace will one day bloom as vividly as the flowers she's painting.

"I wanted to be part of this project," Hanan tells me, "so I would forget the past and forget the war. I wanted to draw with my friends."

Hanan is one of about a dozen other child refugees from Syria participating in the Castle Art Project. Through donated supplies from the Rise Foundation, a local NGO, the kids get a unique outlet - once a week, they get to put aside the stark realities of refugee life and dive into a world of colour and whimsy.

Akre Camp, where the children now reside, is the site of a former prison. Today, the kids aren't just painting over the bars, they're also transforming the drab and depressing walls that surround them into a vibrant canvas.

Hanan, who drew and painted even when she was in Syria, explains that when she and her family first fled from the fighting, art no longer provided an escape.

As she continues to paint her portion of this mural, Hanan tells me this has helped tremendously and made her feel much better.

"Before this, we were only thinking about the war when we were in Syria," she says. "We were drawing tanks and blood. We were drawing ISIL fighters killing people with knives."

Indeed, when this project first began, most of the artwork produced by the children here mirrored that sentiment.

Walking around the camp, you can still see some of the older murals - full of sadness at having left Syria, and permeated with fear of a future filled with uncertainty.

In one striking painting, a child sits sad and alone, with the words "We miss our homes" written above him in Arabic.

In another, a dove is depicted, as it tries desperately to fly through the bars of the prison that Syria has become.

Kawther Ahmad, the project's coordinator and also a refugee from Syria, says volunteers here decided early on they had to do something to help these children process the trauma they'd faced.

She says the first sketches the children did were full of death. They were "all about the war," Ahmed explains, "the bombs, the schools coming down, the buildings coming down.

"We try to change their mind to encourage them to think about beautiful things, happy things," so that the children would start drawing "more hopeful, more beautiful" scenes. It's a form of therapy, she assures me, that is working.

Nowadays, the children are imparting far happier impressions. Recent murals are full of more optimistic motifs and messages. One of the largest reads, "Love Wins".

But Ahmad, like the other volunteers here, is worried about how much longer the project can exist - as of late, raising funds has become harder, and she insists the children desperately need this outlet.

Today, despite the rain and cold, the children are still enjoying themselves. As they complete painting a big, bright sun rising over the mountains, they laugh and play.

A setting that used to be reminiscent of only dark days is now getting brighter all the time.


Will Pathankot derail Indo-Pak dialogue?

Mahmood Hasan

January 11, 2016

No one had expected that the Modi-Sharif Lahore dialogue on December 25, 2015 would be challenged so soon. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, after returning from Pakistan, had actually warned the Lok Sabha about “spoilers”, when she said, “We want to ensure that we are not provoked by saboteurs who want to stop the dialogue process”. Evidently the militant attack at the airbase in Pathankot, Punjab on January 2, which left six militants and seven Indian soldiers dead, was designed to scuttle the Indo-Pak peace process.

The Indian media has persistently accused Pakistan for the attack on the airbase, as they reported that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) was responsible for the assault. The Indian government has handed over some evidence and clues collected from the militants to Pakistan for investigation.

However, the Pakistani media reported that the United Jihad Council (UJC) rejected the Indian claim that the Pathankot attack was carried out by JeM - a banned outfit. Shaikh Jameelur Rehman, Secretary General of UJC said, “The attackers are a squad of mujahideens drawn from different member outfits of our alliance”. UJC brings together over a dozen groups struggling to overthrow the Indian rule in Kashmir.  “All attackers are local Kashmiris based in India-held Jammu and Kashmir. And they have been facilitated by local Hindu, Sikh and Muslim officers”, Rehman said. He said the attackers were referred to as the “National Highway Squad”.

Media plays a crucial role in moulding public opinion, which in turn plays a significant role in determining whether leaders should pursue a policy or abandon it. Mutual recriminations by the media of the two countries have made the situation murky. Public opinion in India has turned against Pakistan after the Pathankot attack, while Pakistan feels wrongly accused.

The Indian media also came out with scathing attacks on the way Indian armed forces handled the operation. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar admitted to some “gaps” in the security at Pathankot while a bitter political debate is also going on in India on whether India should have any discussion with Pakistan at all.

The Indian media, including bloggers, that argue for the termination of talks with Pakistan asserts that this is important as Pakistan sends terrorists to harm and destabilise India. In fact, some argue that India should also carry out actions to destabilise Pakistan. What is at stake for Delhi that it has to engage Pakistan at a dialogue?

The rational elements say that the India - Pakistan confrontation is wasteful and has hindered progress in South Asia. Indian PM Narendra Modi's Lahore initiative must not go to waste because of terrorist attacks and India should try to strengthen their ties with Pakistan and work out a peace deal. They argue that talks can go ahead despite incidents of terrorism. Only meaningful dialogue with Pakistan can eliminate terrorism.

In a statement on January 2, the Pakistan Foreign Office “condemned” the Pathankot incident and stated that it remained “committed to partner with India to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism”. On January 5, Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif called Modi to express his grief and sorrow over the Pathankot incident. Expressing his anguish, Modi emphasised the need for Pakistan to take “firm and immediate” actions against the terrorists. Sharif promised “prompt and decisive” action against the perpetrators and has ordered a probe into the attack.

Welcoming Sharif's call to Modi, Indian officials said that they would wait and watch Pakistan's response before going ahead with the Foreign Secretary level talks scheduled for January 15, 2016.  The ball is now in Pakistan's court, they said.

The Pathankot seize has raised the old question of whether Nawaz Sharif is in control of Pakistan's army.

It is generally believed that Pakistan's powerful military has its own agenda when it comes to dealing with India and Afghanistan, which may be at variance with the political leadership. This may be partly true, but it would be naive to think that Nawaz Sharif is not in control of Pakistan's power structure – which encompasses the military, the bureaucracy, civil society, religious establishments, opposition political parties, political ideology and strategic interests. Nawaz Sharif cannot be unaware of the deeds or misdeeds of any of its organs, including the army.

Unlike Sharif, Modi is free to take any initiative that he feels necessary in India's national interest. However, there are political risks for the Prime Minister if such initiatives fail, particularly when public opinion is hostile.

Cross-border terrorism, from Pakistan to India, is a by-product of the conflict over Kashmir. Since a direct war is not possible, Pakistan had earlier resorted to proxy war tactics, supporting mujahideens to “liberate” Kashmir from India. India considers these mujahideens terrorists who have repeatedly attacked different targets in India.

The “Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue” agreed at Islamabad between Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz deals with two core issues – for Pakistan, it is the issue of Kashmir, while for India, it is the issue of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. Clearly, after the Pathankot episode, India would only want to discuss about cross-border terrorism with Pakistan while it is unlikely that Pakistan would put the Kashmir issue on the backburner. 

The intractable issue of Kashmir could actually be called the root cause of the Indo-Pak hostility. Kashmir has become a 'romantic' issue for both Pakistan and India; the narratives of the two countries over Kashmir is so deeply entrenched, it appears there is practically very little chance for relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours to normalise.

Further, the recent developments in the Gulf region and Afghanistan could substantially harden both Indian and Pakistani perceptions regarding each other and may undermine the dialogue. The next SAARC Summit scheduled in Pakistan in September 2016 may then become a casualty of Indo-Pak confrontation.

If the Foreign Secretary level talks are held within the next few days, there is a chance that the dialogue will continue. If not, the situation would be playing into the hands of the militants. Modi and Sharif have to think outside the box to carry forward the dialogue.

Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary.


The everlasting Saudi-Iran debacle

Abdillah Toha

January 09 2016

Animosity between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran is nothing new. Interrupted by one or two scenes of reconciliation, the relationship between the two countries since the successful Islamic revolution in Iran led by Ayatollah Khomeini has developed from bad to worse.

Saudis have always seen Iran as a potential and actual source of revolution in the Middle East. They find this particularly worrying because of the recent uprises of people against their authoritarian rulers in some Middle Eastern countries, known as the Arab Spring. Iran’s open support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the suppressed majority of Bahrainis, as well as its alleged covert military assistance to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, further hardens the attitude of the Saudis toward it.

More than 3 million Saudis, mainly in the eastern province of the country, are followers of Shia who demand an end to discrimination and to the absolute power of the monarch. Led by their revered leader Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, the Saudi Shiite opposition recently held demonstrations and revolts that were suppressed with gun shots and led to the arrest of Al-Nimr.

When Iran allegedly embarked on the production of nuclear arsenals and the containment policy by the West in the form of economic sanctions did not seem to ease tension in the region, the US initiated a change of attitude in the hope that the new regime in Iran, that is generally considered moderate by the West, would see efforts to ease tensions in the region work better.

This, however, created big disappointment on the part of the Saudis who feel that they are being abandoned by the US. As the nuclear agreement was later signed and easing of sanctions follows, Saudi Arabia’s disappointment toward America is turning into more aggressive policy in the region as they no longer trust the US’ policing of the region. Thus, the attack and bombing of Yemen were conducted with the pretext of reinstalling the legitimate ruler and restoring democracy in Yemen, which is ironic and laughable as the Saudi system of government is far from democratic.

In the meantime, the failure of Saudi, Qatar, American and Turkish financial and military support to the Syrian opposition groups to overthrow Al-Assad on the one hand, and the speedy advancement of the Russian coalition with Iran, Hezbollah and Al-Assad troops in rooting out Islamic State (IS) strongholds in Syria on the other hand, have multiplied Saudi Arabia’s frustration with the seemingly unending debacles on its side.

A new strategy will have to be introduced to put Iran on the defensive. First, an informal alliance with the arc enemy of Arabs, Israel, is unavoidable. This would involve exchanging intelligence and possibly joint attack and defense missions in future military confrontation with Iran. This suits the well-known Arab saying, “aduwwu ‘aduwwik shahibuk” (the enemy of your enemy is your friend).

Second, the Saudi regime initiated a military coalition of “Muslim” nations, inviting 30 countries to join in what they call a fight against terrorism. The coalition ended up being a Sunni-Wahabi coalition as countries like Iran and Iraq were not invited and its whole purpose was to isolate Iran.

Indonesia was invited but declined for obvious constitutional and foreign policy reasons.

Third, to show the Shiite population of Saudi that the Kingdom is in charge and no attempt to rebel against the authorities will be tolerated, the government decided to sentence the outspoken Al-Nimr to death and execute him.

The execution, condemned around the world, was also designed to provoke an irrational and violent response from Iran, which the Saudis hoped would jeopardize Iran’s recent rapprochement with the West.

Apart from the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian reaction has so far been limited to words of condemnation.

The rising tension seems to be under control and Iran has not reacted foolishly.

The first casualty will probably be the planned UN-led conference in Vienna to negotiate a political settlement between the warring parties in Syria, which is not wholeheartedly supported by Saudi Arabia anyway.

US President Barack Obama, nearing the end of his term, will likely be uninterested in adding a last-minute entanglement to his legacy and IS may take advantage of the major powers’ attention being temporarily shifted toward the Saudi-Iran conflict.

The young prince Muhammad bin Salman, the King’s son and the second Crown Prince, who effectively holds the real power in Saudi Arabia, may have miscalculated. The uproar about the execution of Al-Nimr may temporarily divert attention from the numerous problems faced by the Kingdom including the war in Yemen, a budget deficit and an oil-price fall, but it certainly will not be taken lightly by the 3 million supporters of the Sheikh. New revolts may be in the making with unknown repercussions.

Within the palace itself voices of other princes, critical and dissatisfied with the 30-year-old prince who is in charge of defense, oil and the economy, continue to cast a shadow on the throne held by the sickly King.

The ability of America to continually increase the production of shale oil and lower production costs for exports and domestic reserves has substantially reduced the strategic importance of Saudi oil.

Thus, the US, whose people are increasingly critical of the many violations of human rights in Saudi Arabia, is no longer a reliable partner or protector for the kingdom. Whether all this is a sign of a looming end to the Al-Saud dynasty, time will tell.

For Indonesia, the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict to a certain extent has had a bad influence on radicals here that might endanger our unity as a nation. The Saudi regime is spending billions of dollars to promote their brand of conservative Wahhabism here and elsewhere that could drag us into taking sides in the conflict, which has nothing to do with our national interests. To ensure that our nation remains safe from foreign meddling and sectarian rifts, the Indonesian government should not take this development lightly.

We should instead strive to offer our assistance, if requested, to ease the tension in conflict areas in the Middle East between the two Muslim countries without necessarily involving ourselves in the religious aspect of the conflict. Although Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, it is doubtful that our offer of mediation will be seriously welcomed as the Arab world has always regarded Indonesia’s non-Arabic-speaking Muslims as second-rate Muslims.

As I finish this article, a report has just come in on the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Yemen by Saudi air power. It seems the Saudis have taken revenge for the attack earlier by students on their embassy in Tehran.

This is a dangerous development in the conflict and should not be allowed by to develop further.

Open war between Saudi Arabia and Iran could drag major powers into opposing sides and, God forbid, lead to a third world war with unimaginable consequences.

Abdillah Toha is a columnist and former member of the Foreign Commission of the Indonesian House of Representatives. - See more at:


Iran has trouble letting go off sectarianism

Mohammed Baharoon

January 11, 2016

Tehran's divisive agenda is leading to tensions in the region and beyond.

The rapid turn down of events after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of 47 convicts on terrorism charges was not surprising. The so called "mass execution" of 45 Saudi citizens, and an Egyptian and a Canadian raised international concern, and the attention of human rights campaigners. However, links between the principal focus of media attention to the execution and subsequent regional relations requires further thought. It was perhaps inevitable that Iran focused on one particular execution, the Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimr, but this also poses questions regarding the geopolitical future of Gulf relations with the regime. The names of the other 46 were rarely mentioned. Indeed, very few media outlets indicated that among those executed was Al Qaeda leader in Saudi, Faris Al Zahrani. The other 46 executed, including three other Shias, attracted little attention; but the execution of Al Nimr trumped all others.

Iran has been agitating on the issue of Al Nimr for more than a year. Immediately after a Saudi Specialized Criminal Court (a non-sharia court) sentenced Al Nimr in October 15th 2014, the head of Iran's armed forces warned Saudi Arabia that it would "pay dearly" if the execution were to be carried out. The various threats by Iranian officials and clerics, against the Saudi court's decision, continued during the entire process of legal appeal and turned the verdict against Al Nimr into a political issue. It is therefore unsurprising that once the news of his execution on Saturday, January 2, was made public, a ferment of criticism started in Iran and continued across the region; from Iraq's foreign minister calling it a crime, to Hezbollah's leader in Lebanon and all the way to Yemen's embattled Houthis.

Iranian reactions to the verdict is revealing. The official position, expressed by both Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hussein Ansari and President Hassan Rouhani, both described the court verdict, and appeal process, as "a big crime".

However, the discourse of the religious elite in Iran is even more interesting. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei threatened Saudi leaders with a "divine revenge". Ahmed Khatami, a leading member of the Assembly of Experts, described the sentence as a "heinous crime" that would ignite a "holy movement against the Saudi regime." Another member of the Assembly of Experts, Hijat Al Islam Mohammad Taqi Vaezi, also said that this "crime will be the last of Al Saud's criminal activities." Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani insisted that the court sentence "will pave the way for the [Al Saud] regime's fall." Hassan Subhani Niya, a member of Iran Islamic Consultative Assembly, reiterated that Saudi will pay a high price. Qassem Jaafari, a member of Iran's Parliament, said that the execution "will bring God's wrath". The list goes on.

The subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad by angry mobs came after Iran's supreme leader threatened Saudi Arabia that it would face "quick consequences" for executing Nimr Al Nimr. Though President Rouhani and his minister of foreign affairs were quick to criticize the attack as "wrong and against the law", the zealous mobs would possibly be less attentive to the rule of international law than that of divine revenge. Saudi's reaction, though considered excessive by some, should be seen in the light of the threats before and after the execution as well the actual attacks. Thus Iran's sectarian treatment of an essentially national security and human rights issue seems deliberately intended to inflame future tension rather than cooperation in the Gulf.

Invoking God is not new to Iranian rhetoric. The US is still, albeit mutedly, the Great Satan. Portraying Saudi Arabia as the enemy of God, rather than an alleged abuser of capital punishment, arguably therefore serves Iranian interests that are not conducive to any improvement in regional relations; indeed quite the opposite Tactically, Iran avoids the sticky subject of human rights violations. But strategically, it seems to be trying to create a discourse than will galvanize all Shia communities across Arab world. While 44 of those executed were Al Qaeda affiliated, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson referred only to the Shia when he accused Saudi of "supporting terrorists and executing those who fight terrorism". He was clearly talking only about the Shias among the executed.

Iran has always accused Arab countries of pursuing sectarian policies against their Shia minorities. However, only Iran benefits from this perception of sectarian division. Nimr Al Nimr, who called for the secession of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, was more important to Iran than any of the other 46 who were executed because of his political and sectarian symbolism. Iran's influence in the region depends on maintaining and supporting Shia dissidents in Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi and Bahrain. Accordingly, in Iran there seems to have been real concern that Al Nimr's execution may have sent other Shia dissidents a worrying message that Iran cannot completely protect them. This makes invoking 'divine wrath 'over Nimr's execution part of galvanizing Iran's Shia support base, particularly in places where Iran's hegemonic reach is weakest. Nimr was not an Iranian citizen, he was a Saudi and Iran has little argument to make when it comes to human rights violations. Therefore, religion and sectarianism are the only cards in play.

Nimr, regardless of what we think of the judicial process that led to his execution, was convicted for a serious crime that is subject to capital punishment in many countries including Iran. But Iran's religious agitation over the execution reveals the extent to which Shia religious discourse continues to shape political decision making in the Islamic Republic. Iran's threats to Saudi Arabia warrant much closer consideration of its ability to become a partner in regional security once the international nuclear deal is implemented.

- Mohammed Baharoon is the Vice President of b'huth, a public policy research centre in Dubai.


Houthi excesses in Yemen are unacceptable

By Khaleej Times

January 11, 2016

Regional countries, as well as Western powers, should make it clear to Tehran that its plans for regional hegemony will not be tolerated.

Rights violations continue unabated in Yemen and the Houthi rebels are getting away with it. Disappearances of political opponents have become common in the country. This is unacceptable under international law and such acts of the Iranian-backed militia could be a sign of their desperation - and the fact that international public opinion is turning against them.

The London-based Human Rights Watch accused the Yemeni rebels of arbitrarily detaining dozens of opponents in the capital Sanaa. There are also reports of excesses being committed against detainees, which is widely seen as sectarian victimisation.

Since taking over Sanaa the Houthis have made every effort to extend their reach, and in their pursuit of power, have gone on a rampage. With troops loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Al Saleh and the Iranian establishment at their beck and call, the Houthis have made life miserable for their countrymen.

That is why a Saudi Arabia-led coalition had to launch a military campaign against the rebels, as the Houthis advanced on the southern city of Aden. This move threatened the international navigational route and the Houthis could have done Iran's bidding by controlling the Bab Al Mandeb strait. The war-mongering even derailed the United Nations-sponsored peace talks and led to the collapse of a ceasefire.

The way out for Yemen is to flush out the rebels and let a political process take root, which should comprise indigenous elements.

Foreign meddling in Yemen has led to instability and ruined its infrastructure. Regional countries, as well as Western powers, should make it clear to Tehran that its plans for regional hegemony will not be tolerated. This should come before the next round of UN-led talks due later this month in Geneva.

The Houthis should see the writing on the wall and would be best advised to take the negotiated road to peace.


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