West Asia Roundup: September 2022


Iran has been rattling on account of international sanctions, lack in progress on JCPOA Nuclear deal due to shifting goal posts, economic down turn even as it may have got some respite due to the Russia-Ukraine war in the context of accentuating energy crisis especially in Europe. But Tehran’s domestic scene remains charged and volatile in the aftermath of the death of a young Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police which held and allegedly tortured her due to inappropriate attire. Death to Dictator and public shearing of hair and burning of Hijab became symbols of resistance, identity and independence of women folk even as the Iranian society and even the leadership remain divided on the issue. The Government tried to pass it off the protests as the western devil’s plot and design to destabilize the country. But deep rooted problems from economy to freedom have compounded the situation much more and could be a watershed moment in the Iranian polity and society. Tehran even launched some preemptive strikes on Kurdish Iraqis accusing them of supporting protests.

Iran and Albania broke off diplomatic relations as Tehran was accused of cyber attacks on its security establishment. US imposed some more sanctions.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was appointed as the Prime Minister which is another step in his rise to be the King in due course as greater powers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia devolve upon him as a de facto ruler.

Egypt and Qatar ties have warmed up even more after the blockade was lifted at the Al Ula summit with MBS’s initiative. Doha is making significant investments in Egypt; hence the visit of President Abdel Fateh el Sisi to Doha acquired greater salience. Qatari Emir in his UN address like several other Arab leaders reiterated support for the Palestinian cause.

Israeli PM Yair Lapid and Turkish President met in New York and agreed to exchange Ambassadors as well as discussed cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean as Ankara offers transit to likely gas pipelines and flows from Israel to Europe. This was the first highest level exchange since 2008.

PM Yair Lapid during his UNGA address spoke of the two state solution to the Palestinian problem as the Israeli Defence Forces continued to pound targets in Palestine and Syria.

At the 77thUNGA, President Erdogan once again raked up the Kashmir issue “India and Pakistan, after having established their sovereignty and independence 75 years ago, they still haven’t established peace and solidarity between one another. This is much unfortunate. We hope and pray that a fair and permanent peace and prosperity will be established in Kashmir” was considered milder after his meeting with PM Modi at Samarkand. India discarded the comments that it does not take into cognisance such statements by irrelevant parties.

India seems to have changed its approach adopting tit for tat policy that was evident during EAM Dr Jaishankar’s meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA when he tweeted ‘”Met FM @MevlutCavusoglu of Turkiye on side-lines of #UNGA. Wide ranging conversation that covered the Ukraine conflict, food security, G20 processes, global order, NAM and Cyprus’. Cyprus has been hanging fire since 1974 Turkish invasion.

Dr Jaishankar among scores of his meetings also met the Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush and “appreciated her perspectives on the evolving situation in Libya.” The situation in Libya continues to be volatile.

I2U2 continues to focus on project delivery and closer engagement. I2U2 (India-Israel-UAE-USA) Sherpas met on the sidelines of UN General Assembly in New York on 20 September. The group expressed its commitment to deepening the economic partnership among the four countries. They took stock of the projects identified under I2U2: (i) setting up of food parks in India and (ii) hybrid Renewable Energy/battery storage project in Dwarka, Gujarat.

PM Modi met Iranian President Raisi on the side-lines of the SCO Summit (Sept 16) in Samarkand. Iran has just joined the SCO as full member. Apart from bilateral, regional, global and status of JCPOA negotiations, the two leaders reviewed the progress in the development of the Shahid Behesti terminal, Chabahar Port and underscored the importance of bilateral cooperation in the field of regional connectivity. Iran is hoping to resume its oil and gas supplies to India in the same manner that she is buying it from Russia. PM invited President Raisi to visit India.

EAM Dr Jaishankar visited Saudi Arabia from August 10-12, to co-chair the inaugural Ministerial Meeting of the Committee on Political, Security, Social and Cultural Cooperation (PSSC), established under the framework of the India-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council, with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, HH Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. The two Ministers undertook a comprehensive review of the entire bilateral relationship and discussed the progress under the four Joint Working Groups of the PSSC Committee, namely i) Political & Consular; ii) Legal & Security; iii) Social & Cultural and iv) Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation. The meetings of these Groups and Senior Officials (at Secretary level) have been held over the past few months. Both sides also discussed regional and international issues of mutual interest including their cooperation at the UN, G20 and GCC. He also called on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman apart from meeting Secretary General of GCC among others.

The 14th India-UAE Joint Commission Meeting (JCM) was co-chaired by External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar and Foreign Minister of UAE H.H. Sheikh Abdulla bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi on 01 September 2022. Both Ministers expressed happiness at the entry into force of the landmark Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) on 01 May 2022 and organization of various activities and events for the effective implementation of the Agreement. Both Ministers reiterated commitment to achieving the goal of USD 100 billion of bilateral trade in the next five years. They also positively assessed the investment partnership between both countries and the growth of UAE investments in India in diverse sectorsin accordance with the Vision Statement made by Pm Modi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in February, 2022.

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Protest in Iran demanding Gender Justice

The death of a 22 year old Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini on 16 September after her arrest in Tehran by the infamous Morality Police has ignited number of protest throughout the Islamic Republic. Amini during her detention collapsed and fell into coma for three days. Amini’s family has claimed that she faced brutal punishment leading to the death. Iranian authorities in order to deflect criticism have claimed that she suffered from pre-existing conditions. The death has raised questions on Iran’s rigid laws over women’s public conduct including their clothing. Consequently, in response to the death, protest began on Amini’s hometown, Saqqez in Kurdistan province which spread throughout the country.

Iranian government has responded by imposing internet restrictions banning social media and clamping down on protests leading to around 100 deaths. Iran has blamed the US and Israel for igniting the protests calling it a conspiracy.

New US sanctions on Iran

The Joe Biden administration on 9 September imposed restrictions on Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security after reports of cyber-attack in Albania targeting police computer systems. On 29 September, the US launched another round of sanctions promising to impose financial penalties on a regular basis and severely curbing Iranian oil and petro-chemical exports. The new sanctions have targeted ‘front companies’ involved in sale of Iranian petroleum and petro-chemical exports based in India, China, Hong Kong and the UAE. The sanctions entail freezing the assets of these sanctions in the US and prohibitions on the US citizens to carry out business. The US has linked the new sanctions to the failure of JCPOA talks due to continued differences over fundamental issues. Iran has continued to accelerate the nuclear programme including uranium enrichment. Iran at the same time has restarted talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over probe into man-made nuclear particles discovered at nuclear sites. Iran has denied the presence of nuclear particles claiming it as false information spread by Israel.

Iranian strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iranian forces on 28 September carried out missile and drone strikes at bases of a left wing armed opposition group called the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan or KDPI. The Iranian attacks in Koya located 60 km east of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan led to 13 deaths. The military action has been undertaken in the context of domestic protests following Mahsa Amini’s death. Iranian government has blamed the Iranian-Kurdish separatists of involvement in protests. IRGC has claimed that the operation will continue until threats are thwarted and terrorist group bases are destroyed.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appointed as Prime Minister

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) has been appointed as the new Prime Minister after cabinet reshuffles ordered by King Salman. The Crown Prince is already the de-facto leader of the state who earlier held portfolios such as Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister. In terms of the current cabinet reshuffle, MBS’ younger brother, Khalid bin Salman was named as Defence Minister. Moreover, according to royal decree, the positions of Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan and Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih were reaffirmed. The appointment of MBS as Prime Minister indicates the slow transition of power in the kingdom.

Parliamentary Election in Kuwait

On 20 September, election for the National Assembly was held in Kuwait. Earlier, on 2 August 2022, Kuwaiti Crown Prince Meshal al-Ahmad dissolved the parliament after months of in-fighting between the National Assembly and the government under Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al Sabah. The parliament also passed non-confidence votes on Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers. The fresh election has led to defeat of several “pro-government” politicians. The Islamic Constitutional Movement affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Shiite bloc has managed to increase its share in the 50 seat assembly. Notably, 305 candidates participated in election as independents since political parties are banned from contesting polls. In terms of female participation, 22 women participated in the election and only two secured victory.

Kuwait’s democratic institutions are fairly active as compared to other Gulf States. The political stability in the country is dependent on cooperation between the government and parliament. In case of stalemates, the Emir often resorts to cabinet reshuffles and dissolution of the parliament.

Egyptian President’s Visit to Doha

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Qatar on 13 and 14 September and met with Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Earlier in June, Qatari Emir had visited Egypt indicating sign of warming ties. Egypt had joined Saudi Arabia to impose economic blockade on Qatar in 2017 for their alleged support towards terrorist groups and close ties with Iran. Domestically within Egypt, Qatar had backed the Muslim Brotherhood led government that ruled the state briefly between 2012 and 2013. Doha was critical of the military coup led by El-Sisi that banned Muslim Brotherhood and led to mass arrests and deaths of its supporters. Qatar based news channel, Al Qaeda has been highly critical of Egyptian government’s harsh treatment of civil society members, human rights activists, opposition figures etc. and number of its journalists have been languishing in Egyptian jails for years.

The recent bonhomie has occurred after Saudi Arabia lifted the blockade in 2021. In the background of Russia-Ukraine war, Qatar has helped Egypt to overcome the food crisis and in March 2022, it pledged to invest around US$ 5 billion. Qatar Energy also announced agreement with ExxonMobil to acquire 40 percent stake in gas exploration block in Mediterranean Sea. During the current visit, both states signed three MOUs including close cooperation between their respective sovereign wealth funds.

Israeli airstrikes in Syria

Israeli forces on 6 September carried out airstrike on Aleppo Airport damaging the runway and putting it out of service. IDF had earlier attacked the airport on 31 August partially damaging the facility. The Israeli raids destroyed the warehouses belonging to Iran backed fighters. Syrian Transport Ministry after the 6 September attack was forced to divert all flights from Aleppo to the international airport in Damascus.

Israel has carried out number of attacks in areas under the control of Bashar Al Assad government. Israel has refused to divulge details about these operations. It however acknowledged that strikes have been conducted against Iran allied fighters including Hezbollah.

Israeli Raids in West Bank

Israeli forces have carried out number of military raids in occupied West Bank in September 2022. On 6 September, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) blew up an apartment in Jenin belonging to the family of Raed Hazem, responsible for killing three Israelis in April 2022. In Nablus, two Palestinians were killed on 24 and 25 September. Israeli forces also shot dead one Palestinian and 16 others. Israeli forces on 28 September killed four Palestinians and injured 44 others during a military raid on a refugee camp in Jenin. Reportedly, three out of the four casualties were members of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

The death of a seven year old Palestinian child on 29 September has re-ignited public uproar about the treatment by Israeli forces towards Palestinians. The Palestinian boy, Rayan Suleiman was chased by Israeli soldiers while walking home from school. Suleiman during the chase suffered from cardiac arrest leading to his death. The European Union (EU) expressed shock over the death and the US State Department called for investigation. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has ruled out use of violence arguing that only one officer went to Suleiman’s house after spotting children throwing stones. Palestinians came out in large numbers throughout West Bank condemning Israel’s military tactics. There were also reports of confrontation between Israeli forces and Palestinians in Tequa.

Turkey and Israeli leaders meeting since 2008

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid held discussions with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 20 September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. It was the first high level meeting since 2008. The relationship had nosedived after 2008-2009 Israel Gaza war and 2010 attack by Israeli forces on Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid towards Gaza. President Erdogan has regularly utilized the subject of Palestinian suffering to increase his domestic and regional legitimacy. Turkey also had been vocal in condemning Israeli actions in West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Turkey eventually agreed to restore full diplomatic relations with Israel in August 2022. During the meeting in New York, both leaders discussed about energy cooperation, intelligence sharing and Russia-Ukraine war. Israel also appointed Irit Lillian as the new Ambassador to Turkey on 20 September 2022.