West Asia Review – July 2019
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The US-Iran spat continued despite some signs of a thaw and a possible dialogue since both sides continued with sabre rattling and mutual recriminations. Meanwhile the mutual detention of the cargo ships by Iran and the UK in the Gulf and despatch of the US naval assets there attested to the fragility of the situation. A meeting in Vienna was held of the remaining stakeholders of the JCPOA agreement to try and salvage the deal. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited US and met Trump’s confidante Senator Rand Paul, apparently an authorised emissary of Trump. France, Japan, EU, Qatar, Iraq and Oman are the others trying to diffuse the situation. One of the most important of these has been the UAE’s stance and efforts in easing out tensions with Iran. Apart from taking a rational approach by not accusing Iran directly for the Tanker attacks it has kept the window open.

The Iran-UAE security meeting on July 30 in Tehran to address littoral security concerns is a case in point. Meanwhile the US Congress in a bi- partisan vote passed the legislation that would require Trump to seek the Congressional approval before waging a war with Iran. Iran on its part has made certain overtures without being seen as blinking first which include signing of its intent not to pursue nuclear weapons and even ready to discuss its missile programme. However, on his return and after his interviews to influential US media outlets Zarif – the sole credible interlocutor was also put on sanctions list since US felt that Iranian point of view was gaining traction.

On July 22, the Iranian media reported that Intelligence agencies had busted a CIA spy ring and consequently a major rejig among key security officials including restructuring of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) follows. After 16 years, US also positioned 16000 troops in Saudi Arabia and beefed up the other Middle Eastern bases supposedly to protect its and its allies’ assets. Trump also urged the nations in the region and outside to deploy their naval forces - a coalition of the willing “to protect their own vital interests in the region”. Consequently, today the narrow gulf has a surfeit of untenable naval presence.

India also deployed two naval ships to ensure unhampered passage of its ships and crude. Ironically the crew of all detained ships by UK and Iran were Indians – a collateral risk even though given its good relations with both countries, the crew have either been released or provided consular access. Iran may have been miffed with India’s quieter diplomacy and stoppage of crude imports. Conversely, US officials overtly appreciated India’s compliance with US sanctions and offered to provide for the reduced crude imports from Iran, even acknowledging lower budget allocation for Chabahar. Some may argue otherwise but logically it is about economy and oil. Anyways, both US and Iran appeared ready for a dialogue with a face saving since for now no one is able to afford a conflagration. But enough chance for peace is also not on the immediate horizon.

In other developments after spate of drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi issued a decree on July 1 asking all militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) allied to IRGC or Shiite to subjugate themselves to the Iraqi state and after 31st July they will be treated as outlaws. However, few believe that it is quite unlikely.

At the Astana meet the Syrian government and Opposition agreed to a peace proposal supported by Russia and Iran in Idlib.

Bahrain witnessed large protests after the two Shiite Muslim activists were executed on terrorism related charges. Bahrain has Sunni rulers with almost 70 percent Shia population.

Other Key Developments
Israel plans to build new settlements for Jewish settlers - and surprisingly, Palestinians

The Israeli government on 31 July 2019 has approved the construction of 6,000 homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. These settlements are located in Area C that comprises 60 percent of the total territory within West Bank. It lies under the complete municipal and security control of the Israeli military administration. The construction of settlements in the West Bank is regarded as illegal according to the international law and Palestinians perceive these settlements as one of the major impediment to the peace process.

Earlier on 22 July 2019, the Israeli army destroyed 16 residential buildings with around 100 apartments in the outskirts of East Jerusalem, in the village of Sur Baher which comes under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The demolition occurred after the Israeli Supreme Court passed judgement in favour of the Israeli Army arguing that the houses pose a threat to the separation wall. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in response on 26 July 2019 declared cessation of all agreements and security cooperation with Israel.

Israel, on 31 July 2019, while approving settlements, in a rare move, permitted 700 homes for Palestinians in Area C, however, it is not specific on whether it suggests new houses or permission for existing settlements. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has rejected any Israeli construction or any control over Palestinian construction in the Area C. Israel’s decision to promote new settlements is motivated by the upcoming election to be held on 17 September 2019 to consolidate the support of settler groups. Moreover, the concession to Palestinians can be seen in the light of Jared Kushner’s efforts to consolidate support from Arab states for the Deal of the Century peace initiative.

Gibraltar to Hormuz

On 4 July 2019, the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker, Grace I in the Strait of Gibraltar on the charges that Iran was breaching the European Union’s (EU) sanctions by supplying 2 million barrel of oil to a Syrian government-owned Banyas refinery.1 The vessel with a Panamanian flag originated from Iran which took the longer route by traversing around Africa instead of the more direct Suez Canal to avoid detection. A detachment of 30 men from Royal Marines intercepted the vessel off the coast of the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. The Captain and the Chief Officer of Grace along with two other crew members, four of them Indians, were arrested between 11 and 13 July 2019 under EU Resolution 36/ 2012.

Eventually, in tit-for-tat retaliation, on 19 July 2019, IRGC seized a British oil tanker, Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. It alleged that the British ship violated maritime rules after it collided with an Iranian fishing boat and switched off its transponders and ignored the warnings by IRGC. It was therefore navigated to Iranian waters and docked at Bandar Abbas port for investigation. Iran’s actions occurred after the court in Gibraltar decided to extend the detention of the Iranian vessel Grace I until 15 August 2019 denying Iran’s request for immediate release. Iran said that the tanker would undergo a legal procedure to determine if it had violated maritime rules.

Earlier on 10 July 2019, the UK reported that three IRGC vessels approached a British oil tanker, British Heritage, to divert the ship to Iranian territorial waters. The seize attempts allegedly failed after British warship, HMS Montrose intervened and issued warnings to the detractors.

Vienna Conference

On 28 July 2019, the representatives of the signatory partners of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) namely the United Kingdom (UK), France, Russia, China, Germany, European Union met with Iranian officials in Vienna to discuss on solutions to save the nuclear deal. Iran said that the meeting was constructive and all sides agreed to a lot of commitments. However, it would continue to tone down its commitment to the deal unless the remaining partners arrive at solutions to circumvent the US’ unilateral sanctions.

Iran-US developments

On 18 July 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered a deal to the US to ratify the additional protocol and accept permanently enhanced inspections of its nuclear sites in exchange for the permanent lifting of the sanctions. The US, however, sees the offer as disingenuous. On 31 July 2019, the US announced its decision to impose sanctions of the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The latest move is seen as the US’s indication to cut down all channels of communication. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo allegedly expressed his displeasure with Zarif holding meetings with the US and the international media in the UN’s Iran Representative Office in New York.

Attack on Idlib and Hama

On July 26, the civilian death toll in Idlib and Hama governorates has risen to more than 100. The latest air campaign conducted by the Syrian Arab Army and backed by the Russian military intends to destroy the last remaining rebel strongholds in the state. The Syrian Arab Army are using artillery and missiles to target bases and training camps of Hay’at al Tahrir Al-Sham, Turkestan Islamic Party, Jaysh Al-Izza. The strikes have been internationally condemned due to the heavy loss of civilian lives and the schools, hospitals, market places etc of the rebel hold towns and villages are systemically targeted.

Death of the Tunisian President

The President of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi has died at the age of 92 on 25 July 2019. Essebsi was appointed as the Prime Minister after dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime was ousted in January 2011. He played a key role in drafting the new democratic constitution that incorporated freedom of speech. He also pushed for conducting free elections. He co-brokered the watershed power-sharing agreement between Ennahda party and his own party, Nidaa Tounes movement and the Tunisian civil society won the Nobel Peace Prize partly due to his efforts. India’s Ministry of External Affairs expressed sorrow stating that Essebsi was a staunch defender of democratic values.

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