West Asia Roundup-October 2022


Iran continued to remain in the throes of protests and increased acts of defiance by the celebrities and common people alike pursuant to the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police for alleged inappropriate clothing. Threats and time lines to stop the protests were given by the authorities, terming these as externally induced and involving the rioting and deaths of policemen and protesters alike, but in vain. Various internal domestic problems like impact of pandemic, sanctions, unemployment and general societal distress and frustrations have combined to add fuel to fire and given further vent to the movement that is targeting the Islamic leadership including the Ayatollah asking them to go. Meanwhile, the attacks and killing of the pilgrims at the holy shrine of Shiraz accentuated the problem even more. More repression may lead to more dissent. Often the question is being asked whether this is the ‘Arab Spring’ moment for the Islamic Republic.

Iranian drones, used by Russia caused their own controversy between Kiev and Tehran even as Tehran maintains that these drones were provided before the war started.

Amidst most of the chaos in the region another rapprochement was the US brokered maritime demarcation and deal between arch enemies Lebanon and Israel as Beirut battles with its economic and political woes. Even the Hezbollah did not object to the deal as it would accrue economic benefits to the Lebanese people as the Lebanese government underplayed it not as normalisation of bilateral relations due to ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict. US remains the guarantor for the Deal that is being perceived as Biden Administration’s extension of the Abraham Accords.

Finally, the jinx was broken and Iraq had its new President who appointed Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as the Prime Minister.

PM Modi spoke to Amir of Qatar and tweeted ‘In his tweet message, the Prime Minister said – “Was happy to speak with HH Amir @Tamim Bin Hamad of Qatar. Thanked him for his gracious Diwali greetings, and conveyed best wishes for a successful @FIFAWorldCup in Qatar. We agreed to jointly celebrate 50 yrs of India-Qatar diplomatic relations in 2023.” The detention of Indian sailors in Qatar remained an issue.

India strongly condemned the terror attack at the Shah-e-Cherag shrine in Shiraz, Iran extending deep condolences to the families of the victims and the people of Iran underscoring that this heinous attack is another reminder that terrorism continues to pose one of the biggest and critical threat to international peace and security and the need of the hour is for countries of the world to unite and combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.

At the invitation of H.E. Sameh Hassan Shoukry, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, paid his first ever official visit to the Arab Republic of Egypt from 15-16 October 2022. While the entire gamut of bilateral and regional issues was discussed the two sides underlined that India and Egypt traditionally enjoy warm and friendly relations underpinned by historical and cultural linkages. Both countries are celebrating 75 years of establishment of diplomatic relations this year. Egypt has been invited as a ‘Guest Country’ during India’s Presidency of G-20 in 2022-23. They also held discussions on regional and global issues including COP 27 hosted by Egypt. Egypt bilateral trade touched a record high at US$ 7.26 billion during FY 2021-22. Indian investment in Egypt exceeds US$ 3.15 billion. Over 50 Indian companies are actively present in Egypt in a range of sectors like manufacturing, chemicals, energy, infrastructure, retail etc. (MEA press release) Recently however, a new agreement was signed in the private sector for nearly $ 8bn to develop cooperation in Hydrogen sector.

On his second visit, Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs V. Muraleedharan paid an official visit to the Sultanate of Oman on 03-04 October 2022 – interaction is part of the periodic exchange of high level visits to reinforce the shared commitment to ever-growing relationship between India and Oman.

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Protests in Iran

The protest in Iran has continued throughout October demanding social reforms; upliftment of the status of women and regime change. The protest began since mid-September after the death of 22 year old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini on 16 September by the Morality Police. The ill-treatment and death at the hands of Iranian authorities have raised questions about the status of women in Iranian society and day to day harassment stemming from regressive rules of public conduct.

The Iranian authorities in order to quell the protest have resorted to coercive measures; mass arrests of demonstrators and shootings. The security forces have also moved injured protestors from hospitals to detention facilities and declined to release the bodies to their families. In Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Balochistan province, demonstrators raised slogans calling for the death of the “dictator” implying Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Basij militia. The UN Human Rights Office have criticised Iranian government for the treatment of detained protestors and called for their early release as well as the bodies of the dead protestors.

In light of the nationwide protests, Iranian government blacklisted 12 European Union (EU) officials and eight organisations for reportedly inciting terrorism supporting terrorist groups, propagating violence that led to riots and violation of human rights. The sanctions could lead to ban on entry, visa and confiscation of any assets within Iran. Among the prominent groups facing sanction are the Friends of Free Iran; the International Committee in Search of Justice; Stop the Bomb as well as two informal groups in the European parliament.

Attack on holy shrine in Shiraz

On 26 October, three Islamic State (IS) operatives entered Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz and killed 15 people and injured 40 others. Shiraz is one of most visited cities in Iran for pilgrimage and tourism. The city was attacked earlier in April 2008 after bomb blast killed 14 people. The attack occurred during the ongoing protest in Iran.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in his public speeches attempted to link the protests with the shrine attack. Raisi noted that “the intention of the enemy is to disrupt the country’s progress, and then these riots pave the ground for terrorist acts”. Hossein Salami, the top commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced that “the fire revenge of people of Iran will finally catch up with them and punish them for their shameful deeds”.

IRGC Seizes Foreign Vessel

Iran’s IRGC on 31 October seized the crew and cargo of a foreign vessel transporting 11 million litres or 2.9 million gallons of smuggle fuel. Iranian authorities without disclosing the identity and nationality of the sailors have charged penalty up to 10 times the value of the captured cargo as well as jail sentences. IRGC has increased alert level to curb smuggling in Iran’s southern waters. In September, IRGC captured vessel carrying 757,000 litres or 200,000 gallons of fuel. Smuggling of oil from Iran is lucrative due to allocation of fuel subsidies and cheap currency.

Ukraine Foreign Minister held phone discussion with Iranian counterpart

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba held phone conversation with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on 29 October and appealed to Tehran to stop sending drones to Russia. Ukrainian officials and western allies have accused Iran of providing Shahed-136 attack drones utilised to destroy Ukrainian energy infrastructure causing power cuts in several cities. France, Germany and Britain wrote joint letter calling for a UN enquiry to the use of drones. The use of drones according to the European states breached the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran denied sending weapons to Russia and claimed that exchange of arms stopped during the war with Ukraine. The Iranian Foreign Minister also suggested to the European Union (EU) Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell that Iran is willing to participate in the investigation of drones used in Ukraine. Reportedly, on 28 October, Iranians living in Ukraine held protest in Kyiv against Iranian government for providing weapons to Russia.

Israel-Lebanon sign Historic Maritime Deal

Israel and Lebanon signed agreement brokered by the US on 27 October to agree on the maritime boundary for the first time. It has opened the possibility for both states to conduct offshore energy exploration in eastern Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon officially does not recognise Israel. President Michel Aoun signed a letter and submitted to the US officials at Naqoura border point in South Lebanon. Lebanon’s top negotiator Elias Bou Saab said that the deal that ended the long running maritime border dispute marked beginning of a new era. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the deal as political achievement stating that “it is not every day that an enemy state recognises the State of Israel, in a written agreement in front of the entire international community”. Lebanese President Aoun denied that the agreement is indication of normalisation of ties with the Jewish state calling the demarcation of the southern maritime border as technical work and does not have any political implications.

The agreement was brokered after months of indirect talks mediated by the US Envoy for Energy Affairs, Amos Hochstein. The US President Joe Biden said that the agreement will secure the interests of both states and offers a stage for a more stable and prosperous region. Israel began gas production at Karish, an offshore field ahead of the agreement. Reportedly, Qatar’s state-owned Qatar Energy has reached out to the Lebanese government to take control of 30 percent stake in offshore exploration block. Lebanese government also signed an agreement with France’s Total Energies to obtain majority control of the said block. The initial exploration licence was offered to total Energies, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek. In September, Novatek exited from the three part consortium.

New Government in Iraq

Iraqi parliament dominated by Iran-backed Coordination Framework alliance after one year since national election in October 2021 approved a new President, Prime Minister and cabinet. The political situation in Iraq remained in a state of flux due to the inability of the political parties to resolve their differences and approve a new government. The Sadrist bloc led by Muqtada Al-Sadr emerged as winner securing 73 seats in the 329 seat parliament. The Sadrist bloc attempted to deviate from the traditional norm of forming national consensus government with Shiite parties to appoint the Prime Minister, reserved for members of the Shiite community. The attempts by the Save the Homeland coalition under Sadrists; Kurdish Democratic Party and Sunni parties was repeatedly thwarted by Iran backed Coordination Framework composed of the Shiite parties including Fatah Alliance; Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and their Kurdish and Sunni allies.

The Sadrist members of parliament after failure to form government resigned in June. The supporters of the Sadrist movement in order to halt the Iran backed parties to form government stormed the parliament and government buildings in August. The Sadrists clashed with supporters of Iran backed parties leading to at least 30 deaths in the last week of August. The political situation remained volatile and eventually on 13 October, the Coordination Framework led parliament elected Abdul Latif Rashid as the new President who appointed Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. On 27 October, the government of Prime Minister Al-Sudani received the confidence of the parliament with a majority of 253 MPs voted to appoint 21 ministers. The political future of the oil rich Arab state continues to remain precarious further complicated by the influence of external actors especially Iran and the US.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

October has been a violent month in Palestine due to remarkable uptick in number of violent clashes. In fact, from January to October 2022, more than 80 Palestinians including fighters and civilians were killed and at least 20 of them were minors. Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinian teenagers on 7 October in West Bank. In East Jerusalem, Israeli soldier, Noa Lazar was killed by Palestinian fighters on 8 October. On 11 October, Palestinians belonging to the Lion’s Den group killed one moreIsraeli soldier in Shavei Shomron settlement in occupied West Bank. Israeli forces on 14 October killed three Palestinians, two belonging to the Jenin Brigade and one member of Fatah Alliance in separate incidents. On 25 October, Israeli forces killed six Palestinians and injured 21 others during raids near Nablus. Israeli forces on 28 Octobershot dead two Palestinians at a military checkpoint near Nablus. According to Israel Defence Forces (IDF), the clash started after the two individuals started shooting at security forces in Hawara checkpoint. Both live in Askar refugee camp outside Nablus and worked for the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s Civil Defence department. The PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh called the two men as martyrs and among the finest officers and ranks of the Civil Defence and “pioneers of national, organizational and societal work in the Askar refugee camp”. Shtayyeh called the act as organised and racist state terrorism.

On 30 September, a Palestinian individual, Mohammad al-Jaabari killed one 49 year old Israeli settler, Ronen Hanania and injured four others at a checkpoint near the Kiryat Arba settlement in Hebron raising tensions in the occupied territories. The Palestinian man was killed by Israeli security forces. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

In midst of conflict escalation and military crackdown in occupied territories, Israeli President Issac Herzog met with the US President Joe Biden. Both states avoided mentioning Palestine and the discussion largely focussed on security threat emanating from Iran especially, Iran’s coercive tactics to quell protests; advancement in nuclear programme; supply of lethal weapons to Russia used in killing citizens. The White House reportedly mentioned about the importance of taking steps to de-escalate the security situation in the West Bank.

Saudi Firms emerge as Second Largest Investor in Twitter

Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company (KHC) along with Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s private office will maintain their ownership of Twitter shares valued at US$ 1.89 billion after company takeover by tech billionaire Elon Musk. The Saudi firms jointly have emerged as the second largest investors in Twitter. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund owns 16.9 percent share in KHC founded by Bin Talal. The people in Saudi Arabia extensively use the social media platform and in fact it is the eighth largest state in terms of Twitter users.

Musk is seeking to restructure the revenue model by charging money for blue tick Twitter users. Moreover, since the takeover, the scale of hate speeches especially in the US has seen an uptick.