August 04, 2018

IMRAN KHAN’S PAKISTAN



Sunday, 05 August 2018 | Ashok Behuria | in Agenda

The cricketer-turned politician’s charisma has finally worked in Pakistan. What remains to be seen is how he will address the outstanding issues with India. Will he, as a favourite of the Army, make it understand the value of giving peace a chance? Or will he just toe the line?

Imran Khan sprung a surprise in the 14th General Elections in Pakistan held on July 25 this year. After 22 years in wilderness, he finally managed to make his charisma work in electoral politics. A man of many parts — ace cricketer, philanthropist, rabble-rouser, eternal optimist with a colourful life — Imran is due to take over the reins of the new Government in Islamabad soon. The election results proved many Pakistan watchers in India wrong. As much as they were guided by opinion polls to argue that Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was closing the gap with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), they hardly believed that the apparent shift in Imran’s favour would turn into a distinct wave.

The results must have equally surprised the string-pullers in Pindi, euphemistically called the deep state. Right since the days of the Azadi/Tsunami march, which led to the Islamabad dharna during August-December 2014, Imran had himself spilled the beans publicly regarding his links with the military by referring to the “umpire” who, he expected, would raise the finger in his favour and perhaps, push the elected Government out of office.

Ever since, he was rated by media at home and abroad as the Army’s prop in Pakistan politics.

The Tsunami finally struck!

The Tsunami Imran expected in the 2014 long march has finally inundated Pakistan, with his party securing 116 wins out of the 272 directly contested seats. This is extraordinary given the fact that his party had secured only 28 seats in 2013 with 76.8 lakh votes — a distant second to PML-N, which had secured 126 seats with 1.48 crore votes. The tables have turned this time. Imran’s party has improved its performance dramatically over the last elections in 2013. It has secured 1.68 crore popular votes — almost 119 per cent rise in gross terms. In percentage terms, his party’s vote share has risen from 16.92 per cent to 31.8 per cent. In comparison, the PML-N’s aggregate votes fell by about 13.3 per cent and its vote share fell from 32.77 to 24.39 per cent. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which was in power during 2008-2013, continued with its declining appeal, even if it managed to secure 43 seats with less number of aggregate votes (6,901,675 now vs 6,911,218 in 2013) and falling percentage of vote share (15.23 to 13 per cent). In the elections, this time, the voter turnout was 51.7 per cent compared to 55.2 per cent in 2013.

The PTI’s success can be measured from the following. It is all set to form an absolute majority Government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) for the second time in succession; it is likely to do everything possible to form a Government in Punjab even if it has won a few seats less than the PML-N (122 to 127); it is trying to be a part of the ruling alliance in Balochistan, and it has now a respectable presence in the Sindh legislature, it should be proud of.

Dhandli (Rigging) or not?

Most leaders in Pakistan are bad losers. They hardly accept defeat with grace and ascribe their defeat to machinations by invisible hands. Five mainstream political parties including the PML-N, PPP, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Awami National Party (ANP) and others have rejected the results, citing cases of rigging and fraud, even if they expressed their desire to attend Parliament. Some of the external observers, including the former Election Commissioner of India, have given a clean chit as far the conduct of elections was concerned. Some others criticised the participation of religious radical groups and non-provision of security to some of the parties that failed to run an equal campaign despite the fact that threat from non-state actors loomed in the horizon. The suicide blasts during the campaign, that snuffed out the lives of two candidates and many of their followers, indicated this. On the face of it, however, the Army’s role in the elections looks exaggerated. At best, it seems that there was an anti-incumbency wave taking shape and the Army helped it to its destination.

However, analysts from Pakistan would indicate that following the Panama leaks, the enthusiasm and doggedness with which Nawaz Sharif’s case of disproportionate assets was handled by the military-judiciary-bureaucracy could not hide the fact that there was a constellation of forces in the power corridors to fix the Sharifs. The establishment’s distaste for the Sharifs was reciprocated by the unguarded outbursts of the PML-N leaders, who disparagingly called the Army “khalai makhlooq” (invisible creatures/aliens) and “state above the state”. That did not help matters for the PML-N. The final conviction and imprisonment of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz during the last lap of the election campaign might have cost the party dearly, given the fact that they were the star campaigners and pulled massive crowds in their rallies.

Use of religious radicals

The other tactic seemingly adopted by the ‘unseen hands’ was to encourage the PML-N dissidents and radical religious elements to contest the elections to eat into the conservative constituency represented by the Sharifs. The election symbol, jeep, was very much in the news for having been chosen mostly by the dissidents. The Barelvi Maulana, Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) fielded candidates all over Pakistan as did Lashkar founder Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML) under the banner of Allahu Akbar Tehreek (AAT). The results show the jeep failed to run; the MML could only secure about 1.72 lakh votes, while the TLP was a surprise package and seemed to gather the support of disparate Barelvi groups around it. It polled 4.2 per cent of the total votes, an impressive total of 22.3 lakh votes all over Pakistan. Together with the MMA’s show of about 4.8 per cent (25.4 lakh votes), the religious forces accounted for about 9 per cent or more of the votes this time round.

In the elections, the soft-radicalisation of the Pakistani society was quite clear. The radical religious elements were seen to be injecting a strong anti-blasphemy ethic into the Pakistani body politic. The TLP campaigned openly against the Sharifs for having sent Mumtaz Qadri — the cold-blooded assassin of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer — to the gallows, while in reality, it was the security forces who played a critical role in his trial, conviction, and execution. Imran’s party was also seen issuing appeals to the people not to vote for the PML-N — “the killers of ashiq-e-Rasool (beloved of the Prophet) Mumtaz Qadri”. Even a seasoned PML-N leader like Ahsan Iqbal had to swear in the name of Quran that he was also ashiq-e-Rasool and would never defend a blasphemer!

The competitive radicalism at work in Pakistan has forced various groups to show their love for Prophet as militantly as possible as a mark of their commitment to Islam. The trend, quite visible in the campaign, is likely to continue.

Undoing of the Sharifs

The script from the fauj (Army), if at all it was there, was perhaps being choreographed patiently for a long time. Nawaz’s inept handling of the demand for Panama investigations must have given a fillip to his detractors, and finally, it proved to be his undoing. Once it went out of Parliament and entered the judiciary, the khakis must have found it easier to fix him. His histrionics and impassioned rants against the Army, soon after his conviction and disqualification for not being sadiq and ameen (honest and righteous), might have amused the audience, but failed to alter their views about him as a dishonest and power-mongering politician. Ironically, the demand for revision of the very provisions in the Constitution — which went against him during the earlier PPP Government — was rejected by him. As a political conservative, he had thought that the concerned clauses in the Article 62 were ornamental and his opposition to their revision would help sustain his pro-Islam image.

That the case against him was more political than moral and ethical was forgotten in the cacophony that was brilliantly orchestrated and was in full display in the social as well as the mainstream media. The concerted campaign launched against the Sharifs in the electronic media as an utterly corrupt, self-serving and venal lot must also have done serious damage to their image and appeal.

Passing on the mantle to Shahbaz, who had delivered as the Chief Minister of Punjab (while Imran’s PTI Government in KPK had failed to keep its promises), did not help. Majority of the people had made up their mind; his party had to suffer. It is now virtually reduced to a party based in Punjab as much as the PPP has over the last two elections become a Sindh-based party. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to dismiss the party offhand as it has demonstrated its resilience and risen like a phoenix from its ashes in the past. The wafer-thin majority that Imran is likely to have in Parliament and his party’s minority status in the Upper House will offer the PML-N enough chance to spoil Imran’s party as he proceeds as Prime Minister Khan.

The Future

The trend of Pakistani politics suggests that Imran will be able to attract Independents and other smaller parties, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — known for its inclination to align with the winner — to cobble together an alliance and stake his claim to form the next Government. Imran deserves it, for he has won on five different seats across Pakistan. His party has fared well in almost all the provinces and its dent in urban Sindh, as also its penetration in the PML-N stronghold in north Punjab, was too conspicuous to be missed. It has managed to push the MQM to the second position in Karachi and outsmarted the MMA.

Riding the wave of electoral victory, Imran has already delivered a ‘victory speech’ outlining his Government’s priorities amid allegations by most of the major political parties

that the polls were rigged. He has assured that he would not resort to vendetta politics and would personally throw his weight behind investigations into the allegations. He has promised to improve relations with most of the countries regarded as important for Pakistan — the US, Afghanistan, China, and India.

The India Factor

The India factor was hard to miss in the elections, even if the manifestos of most of the major political parties mentioned India cursorily. Nawaz’s rumoured love for India was used by major electronic media channels to unleash a vulgar campaign against him on the eve of the elections. In his public appearances, Imran too alluded to Nawaz’s love for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The slogans from his followers were obvious: “Modi ka yaar gaddar, gaddar” (the friend of Modi is a traitor for Pakistan).

On the day preceding the elections, when the party campaigns officially stopped, some of the top media channels were busy cursing Nawaz for allegedly taking US$400 million (a total lie!) and allowing Modi’s emissary Naveen Jindal to come to Pakistan without visa! They also criticised him for his silence on perceived Indian interference in Balochistan and his lackadaisical approach to the Kashmir issue.

In this context, Imran’s opening message to India has been on expected lines. He has as many fans and admirers in India as critics and detractors. He regretted that the Indian media portrayed him almost as a Bollywood villain and expressed his desire to build bridges with India on the trade front, but only after the core issue of Kashmir is addressed by both countries sitting across the table.

Like many hardliners on India in Pakistan, he had a solution to offer to the Kashmir issue. The very same solution that has been parroted by successive Army chiefs since Musharraf: The implementation of the UN resolution. The resolutions in contention — the 47th resolution adopted on April 21, 1948, by the UN Security Council and the one passed by the UN Commission on India and Pakistan (UNCIP) on August 13, 1948, which clearly mentioned in its Part II A (1&2), withdrawal of all Pakistani forces, before the next part on ascertaining the wishes of the people could be taken up for consideration. Much water has flown down the Indus since then and Pakistan has forgotten that the resolution could not be implemented primarily because it did not honour the primary conditions mentioned in the resolutions.

Subsequent frameworks that have been evolved to undertake dialogue to resolve the issue (like the Musharraf formula during 2004-2007 and the backchannels) have been put in cold storage by the establishment, making it impossible for the civilian Governments to initiate any meaningful dialogue with India since 2008. Every time there has been an effort to restart the process, the spoilers from Pakistan get activated to strike (remember Mumbai, Pathankot, and Uri). How Imran addresses this issue remains to be seen. Will he, as a favourite of the Army now, make it understand the value of reining in the spoilers and giving peace a chance? Or will he flow with the current and toe the line?

From the Indian side, there is absolutely no reason to hope that any sensible policy-maker in New Delhi would like to take the process backward to a point of stalemate over Kashmir and start again. In case a mercurial leader of his kind runs afoul of the Army’s position, reinvents the wheel and restarts the dialogue, it would be fun to watch the political circus that would be run by the Army to either tame or oust him.

Meanwhile, those scripting Nawaz’s decimation must be happy that his nemesis has failed to win a clear majority. This would make him vulnerable to their manipulations, in case he chooses to trespass into areas regarded as their exclusive domain, namely those pertaining to foreign and security affairs. Imran would remember that Nawaz, a child of the military to begin with, fell out of favour once he decided to craft his own foreign policy, more so vis-à-vis India.

Imran has promised to take two steps for every step that India takes towards resolving all outstanding issues. PM Modi has already congratulated him on his success and made a sober beginning. Even then, it is not hard to predict that in the short term, Imran will tamely follow the deep state in his policies towards India. Or does the Kaptan have any ‘reverse swing’ up his sleeve?

The writer is Senior Fellow and Coordinator, South Asia Centre, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, India

https://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/agenda/cover-story/imran-khans-pakistan.html

Saudi Arabia Is in a Double Bind on Oil Prices

31 July 2018
Source: Chatam House

Saudi Arabia may have prevailed at the latest OPEC meeting, but its biggest challenge when it comes to balancing production and prices is domestic.

Jessica Obeid

Academy Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources Department (2017-18)

Saudi and foreign investors attend the kingdom's Global Competitiveness Forum in 2016 in Riyadh. Photo: Getty Images.

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At the OPEC meeting held in Vienna on 22 June, Saudi Arabia successfully pushed for an increase in oil production, despite opposition from Iran, Iraq and other smaller producers within the organization. But this victory may yet prove hollow, as the kingdom’s biggest challenge when it comes to balancing production and prices is domestic.

On the one hand, keeping oil prices low helps secure Saudi Arabia’s market share, satisfy the US and increase pressure on Iran. On the other, it is in its interests to keep potential revenues at a level that will maximize the value of its intended initial public offering (IPO) of a stake in Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, as well as boost the prospects of Vision 2030 – the wide-ranging economic diversification plan closely associated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The case for lower: allies, enemies and market share

Saudi Arabia is implementing critical domestic reforms at a time of severe political upheaval across the Middle East. It cannot afford to antagonize the US, much less a president who evidently does not behave like his predecessors in the White House. Donald Trump lashed out at OPEC in a number of tweets in the weeks prior to the Vienna meeting, when oil prices were above $74 a barrel; he knows what irks the US electorate, and clearly has an eye on prices at the pump in the run-up to November’s mid-term elections.

But this is not only about American drivers. Saudi Arabia shares the US’s interest in curbing Iran’s revenues from oil sales. 

Riyadh has been keen to tell the world that reinstating sanctions against Iran will not disrupt global energy supplies or impact fuel prices because it will step in and increase production to make up the shortfall. Its aim is to safeguard against its adversary retaining significant revenue from higher oil prices if, despite US sanctions, Iran remains able to export any oil at all, in order to intensify economic pressure that will, in the Saudi calculation, drive further domestic instability in Iran.

Moreover, there is the risk that higher oil prices would result in Saudi Arabia losing market share to clean-energy sources.

The global pursuit of decarbonization is being driven not just by the imperative to act on climate change, but also in part by states’ efforts to hedge against supply disruptions and improve energy security in the face of unstable oil supplies and prices. Higher oil prices could lead to more serious and focused decarbonization efforts, potentially giving the edge to non-hydrocarbon alternatives and undermining the overall financial environment of the oil and gas industry.

The case for higher: the Saudi Aramco IPO and Vision 2030

The long-awaited sale of a portion of Saudi Aramco – closely linked to the overall success of Vision 2030, and emblematic of the opening up of the Saudi economy – has been billed as the world’s biggest IPO, with the ambition that the listing will put the value of the company overall at some $2 trillion.

But investors are concerned about factors such as the competitiveness of the eventual payout and the considerable uncertainty of investing in a declining core industry at a time when major oil firms are diversifying. They will need to see the prospect of sustained high oil prices in order to have confidence that there will be worthwhile returns on oil investments at least within the next decade.

International firms in non-oil sectors are also wary of investing in Saudi Arabia until they witness the reforms as set out in Vision 2030 kicking in and the barriers to private-sector participation removed.

According to the IMF, Saudi Arabia needs an oil price greater than $80 a barrel (and in the range $85–$87 for the current year) in order to balance its budget. As such, the economy has suffered as a result of lower oil prices since the latter part of 2014.

Pumping more oil and moving in on Iran’s market share may increase revenues and help to narrow the budget shortfall – forecast at 7.3 per cent of GDP in 2018, itself an improvement on the 8.9 per cent recorded in 2017 – and ease pressure on public spending. But this is a highly risky strategy.

Saudi Arabia has set itself an ambitious revenue target of $209 billion in the budget for 2018, as well as an expansionary spending target of $261 billion – a record high – in an effort to pull the economy out of the recession recorded in 2017. However, much will depend on whether foreign direct investment, which dropped to just $1.42 billion last year (from $7.45 billion in 2016) returns sooner rather than later.

If investor confidence doesn’t pick up, the kingdom will have to resort to its usual fix – using oil revenues to increase public spending – to boost the economy. This is exactly the vicious circle that Saudi Arabia is trying to break with the implementation of Vision 2030 and its diversification efforts specifically to reduce dependence on oil. 

Furthermore it may also find itself in the position of having to impose further taxes to allow additional public spending. But previous levies (such as ‘dependents taxes’ for expatriates, and VAT), together with cuts to subsidies, are already taking their toll, particularly on the private sector. In this context, the authorities must consider the likely impact of additional revenue-raising through taxes on Saudi Arabia’s ability to continue to attract workers from abroad to fill existing skills gaps, as well as on critical efforts to increase Saudi participation in the private sector over the longer term.

Saudi Arabia may have prevailed at the latest OPEC meeting, but its various domestic and external interests will not all be served equally well by what the agreed increase in production means for oil prices. Without a coherent long-term strategy that reconciles these interests, the kingdom risks falling short of its far-reaching ambitions.

The Peculiar Chronology of Persistent Nerve Agents

https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/persistent-nerve-agents/


By Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany ShohamAugust 3, 2018

An example of a Novichok nerve agent. Atom key: C dark grey, H light grey, N blue, P yellow, F light blue. Chemical formula C7H16FN2O2P. PM7 geometry-optimized structure. Image via Flickr CC

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 912, August 3, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A peculiar chronology can be spotted when examining the milestones marking the history of the development and use of persistent nerve agents around the world. Coincidentally or otherwise, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have all been mentioned in the context of nerve agents in recent years.

The category of chemical warfare agents known as nerve agents has two sub-categories: volatile (non-persistent) and persistent nerve agents. The first is typically represented by sarin, a toxicant that was used in the Tokyo subway sabotage (conducted by the Japanese movement Aum Shinrikyo in 1995), during the Iraq-Iran War (when it was used by the Iraqi army), and during the Syrian Civil War (when it was used by the Assad regime).

Persistent nerve agents typically consist of VX and the Novichok group. In the battlefield, persistent nerve agents have been used only once: in the 1980s, Cuba deployed VX against Angolan insurgents during the Angolan Civil War.

Much attention has thus been drawn towards the notorious Novichok poisonings that occurred not long ago in Britain. For the purpose of killing specific individuals, persistent nerve agents like Novichok are more effective than volatile agents in that they adhere to the victim (to simplify somewhat).

While VX has been studied abundantly in the scientific literature, Novichok agents are addressed very seldom.

The following is a VX and Novichok chronology over the past 63 years:

1955 – A prototype compound of VX was discovered to be extremely toxic towards humans while being tested as a pesticide by a commercial British company.

1961 –   Large-scale production of VX as a standardized chemical weapon (CW) commenced in the US.

1963 –   An analogue of VX was developed in the USSR as a CW. Designated VR (Russian VX), it represented the prototype of the Soviet army version of the most advanced nerve agents – the Novichok group.

The 1970s and 1980s – The Soviet army upgraded its Novichok agents. Eventually, four variants (of about 200 tested) were covertly weaponized by the USSR, presumably the Novichok-5, -7, -8 and -9. The first three are liquids, while the last was formed into a powder. Apparently, these variants are five to eight times more potent than VX, making them the most toxic molecules ever synthesized by man.

The 1990s and later – Several NATO countries synthesized and examined small amounts of Novichok agents so as to develop protective and testing equipment, as well as antidotes.

1995 –   A Novichok agent was used inside Russia to poison Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi, the head of the Russian Business Round Table, and his secretary, Zara Ismailova. This attack was apparently organized by Russia’s security services.

2016 –   Outside of NATO (and the USSR, where Novichok was created), only Iran was engaged with Novichok agents (overtly, at least), ostensibly on a scientific level alone. (See more on this below.)

2017 –   In February, VX was used by North Korea to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia.

2018 – On March 4, Novichok was used by Russia to poison Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in Salisbury, England. Although critically injured, they both recovered.

2018 – On June 30, a British couple fell ill from Novichok poisoning at a property in Amesbury, about eight miles north of Salisbury. The woman’s poisoning was apparently brought on when she sprayed perfume laced with the Novichok agent onto her wrists. The tainted perfume bottle was later recovered from the couple’s flat.

2018 –   On July 8, the Amesbury woman died. The man survived.

Iranian engagement with Novichok agents is curious in many respects: in terms of its timing, its uniqueness, its focus, and its meticulousness. According to a scientific paper published in 2016 by Iranian researchers, five Novichok agents – likely including at least some of the four weaponized by Russia – had been synthesized at the Iranian Defense Chemical Research Laboratory in Karaj. The syntheses were reportedly performed on a micro-scale in order to minimize exposure. The Iranian researchers thus succeeded in synthesizing and obtaining detailed mass spectral data on a series of unusual, top nerve agents, and those data have been added to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ Central Analytical Database.

The Iranian researchers explained their study as follows:

“For unambiguous identification of Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)‐related chemicals in environmental samples, the availability of mass spectra, interpretation skills and rapid microsynthesis of suspected chemicals are essential requirements. For the first time… spectra of a series of Novichok agents related to CWC were collected and investigated with the aim of enriching the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Central Analytical Database (OCAD), which may be used in OPCW verification activities, on/off site analysis, and toxic chemical destruction monitoring.”

This construction puts the Iranians’ research in a positive light – but the above chronology prompts several questions.

After an uneventful interval of 20 years (from 1996 to 2015), there appeared a strange cluster of events from 2016 onwards involving Iran, North Korea, and Russia. While this cluster might be a coincidence, it is nevertheless peculiar when viewing the chronology as a whole.

In the past two years in particular, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have been meaningfully involved with persistent nerve agents. Iran was ostensibly exploring Novichok agents for scientific purposes while possessing – for years – an arsenal of weaponized VX (plus additional CW, though it is a state party to the CWC). North Korea (a non-signatory state to the CWC) camouflaged its employment of VX to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia while possessing an arsenal similar to that of Iran. Russia camouflaged its use of Novichok to attempt to assassinate the Skripals in England while possessing, one might safely assume, a residual Novichok stock. Officially, that stock does not exist, as Russia has declared to the CWC that its CW inventory has been eliminated.

Notably, the very same Iranian modus operandi – publishing scientific work on prominent chemical warfare agents allegedly to support the CWC, and thereby strengthening Iran’s position as a CWC state party, while at the same time collecting those agents as a tentative part of a weapons stockpile – was applied in 2015 by the Iranian Defense Chemical Research Laboratory in Karaj with regard to VX. This modus operandi constitutes typical Iranian conduct, particularly with respect to weapons of mass destruction.

As for North Korea, its use of VX for political assassination is just the tip of the iceberg, as it has a large VX inventory weaponized for military use. A tiny amount taken from that inventory and smuggled into Malaysia, certainly with the blessing of Kim Jong-un, caused the death of his estranged half-brother. Kim Jong-un is expected to approve and oversee the elimination of his entire nuclear weapons arsenal, but he intends to keep his vast CW arsenal – VX included – as is.

Finally, the Russians – who invented the Novichok class and are the primary guardians of those most deadly of all nerve agents – managed to smuggle a small amount into England so as to assassinate Sergei Skripal and his daughter. They very nearly achieved that goal, but failed, thanks to the superb medical treatment the two victims received.

A further failure took place in that the residual Novichok agent remaining after the operation ended was not destroyed. It was left to bring about the unintended poisoning of another two people.

Inside Russia, it may be assumed that a portion of the country’s weaponized Novichok inventory was retained, safely and covertly, rather than being entirely eliminated, as Moscow claims. This could be the case whether or not Russia’s VX inventory has been completely eliminated.

The Novichok class appears to be superior to VX, and the peculiar chronology suggests that Novichok agents might be adopted and weaponized by Iran and North Korea.

View PDF

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham, a microbiologist and an expert on chemical and biological warfare in the Middle East, is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He is a former senior intelligence analyst in the IDF and the Israeli Defense Ministry.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

The Peculiar Chronology of Persistent Nerve Agents

https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/persistent-nerve-agents/


By Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany ShohamAugust 3, 2018

An example of a Novichok nerve agent. Atom key: C dark grey, H light grey, N blue, P yellow, F light blue. Chemical formula C7H16FN2O2P. PM7 geometry-optimized structure. Image via Flickr CC

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 912, August 3, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A peculiar chronology can be spotted when examining the milestones marking the history of the development and use of persistent nerve agents around the world. Coincidentally or otherwise, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have all been mentioned in the context of nerve agents in recent years.

The category of chemical warfare agents known as nerve agents has two sub-categories: volatile (non-persistent) and persistent nerve agents. The first is typically represented by sarin, a toxicant that was used in the Tokyo subway sabotage (conducted by the Japanese movement Aum Shinrikyo in 1995), during the Iraq-Iran War (when it was used by the Iraqi army), and during the Syrian Civil War (when it was used by the Assad regime).

Persistent nerve agents typically consist of VX and the Novichok group. In the battlefield, persistent nerve agents have been used only once: in the 1980s, Cuba deployed VX against Angolan insurgents during the Angolan Civil War.

Much attention has thus been drawn towards the notorious Novichok poisonings that occurred not long ago in Britain. For the purpose of killing specific individuals, persistent nerve agents like Novichok are more effective than volatile agents in that they adhere to the victim (to simplify somewhat).

While VX has been studied abundantly in the scientific literature, Novichok agents are addressed very seldom.

The following is a VX and Novichok chronology over the past 63 years:

1955 – A prototype compound of VX was discovered to be extremely toxic towards humans while being tested as a pesticide by a commercial British company.

1961 –   Large-scale production of VX as a standardized chemical weapon (CW) commenced in the US.

1963 –   An analogue of VX was developed in the USSR as a CW. Designated VR (Russian VX), it represented the prototype of the Soviet army version of the most advanced nerve agents – the Novichok group.

The 1970s and 1980s – The Soviet army upgraded its Novichok agents. Eventually, four variants (of about 200 tested) were covertly weaponized by the USSR, presumably the Novichok-5, -7, -8 and -9. The first three are liquids, while the last was formed into a powder. Apparently, these variants are five to eight times more potent than VX, making them the most toxic molecules ever synthesized by man.

The 1990s and later – Several NATO countries synthesized and examined small amounts of Novichok agents so as to develop protective and testing equipment, as well as antidotes.

1995 –   A Novichok agent was used inside Russia to poison Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi, the head of the Russian Business Round Table, and his secretary, Zara Ismailova. This attack was apparently organized by Russia’s security services.

2016 –   Outside of NATO (and the USSR, where Novichok was created), only Iran was engaged with Novichok agents (overtly, at least), ostensibly on a scientific level alone. (See more on this below.)

2017 –   In February, VX was used by North Korea to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia.

2018 – On March 4, Novichok was used by Russia to poison Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in Salisbury, England. Although critically injured, they both recovered.

2018 – On June 30, a British couple fell ill from Novichok poisoning at a property in Amesbury, about eight miles north of Salisbury. The woman’s poisoning was apparently brought on when she sprayed perfume laced with the Novichok agent onto her wrists. The tainted perfume bottle was later recovered from the couple’s flat.

2018 –   On July 8, the Amesbury woman died. The man survived.

Iranian engagement with Novichok agents is curious in many respects: in terms of its timing, its uniqueness, its focus, and its meticulousness. According to a scientific paper published in 2016 by Iranian researchers, five Novichok agents – likely including at least some of the four weaponized by Russia – had been synthesized at the Iranian Defense Chemical Research Laboratory in Karaj. The syntheses were reportedly performed on a micro-scale in order to minimize exposure. The Iranian researchers thus succeeded in synthesizing and obtaining detailed mass spectral data on a series of unusual, top nerve agents, and those data have been added to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ Central Analytical Database.

The Iranian researchers explained their study as follows:

“For unambiguous identification of Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)‐related chemicals in environmental samples, the availability of mass spectra, interpretation skills and rapid microsynthesis of suspected chemicals are essential requirements. For the first time… spectra of a series of Novichok agents related to CWC were collected and investigated with the aim of enriching the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Central Analytical Database (OCAD), which may be used in OPCW verification activities, on/off site analysis, and toxic chemical destruction monitoring.”

This construction puts the Iranians’ research in a positive light – but the above chronology prompts several questions.

After an uneventful interval of 20 years (from 1996 to 2015), there appeared a strange cluster of events from 2016 onwards involving Iran, North Korea, and Russia. While this cluster might be a coincidence, it is nevertheless peculiar when viewing the chronology as a whole.

In the past two years in particular, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have been meaningfully involved with persistent nerve agents. Iran was ostensibly exploring Novichok agents for scientific purposes while possessing – for years – an arsenal of weaponized VX (plus additional CW, though it is a state party to the CWC). North Korea (a non-signatory state to the CWC) camouflaged its employment of VX to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia while possessing an arsenal similar to that of Iran. Russia camouflaged its use of Novichok to attempt to assassinate the Skripals in England while possessing, one might safely assume, a residual Novichok stock. Officially, that stock does not exist, as Russia has declared to the CWC that its CW inventory has been eliminated.

Notably, the very same Iranian modus operandi – publishing scientific work on prominent chemical warfare agents allegedly to support the CWC, and thereby strengthening Iran’s position as a CWC state party, while at the same time collecting those agents as a tentative part of a weapons stockpile – was applied in 2015 by the Iranian Defense Chemical Research Laboratory in Karaj with regard to VX. This modus operandi constitutes typical Iranian conduct, particularly with respect to weapons of mass destruction.

As for North Korea, its use of VX for political assassination is just the tip of the iceberg, as it has a large VX inventory weaponized for military use. A tiny amount taken from that inventory and smuggled into Malaysia, certainly with the blessing of Kim Jong-un, caused the death of his estranged half-brother. Kim Jong-un is expected to approve and oversee the elimination of his entire nuclear weapons arsenal, but he intends to keep his vast CW arsenal – VX included – as is.

Finally, the Russians – who invented the Novichok class and are the primary guardians of those most deadly of all nerve agents – managed to smuggle a small amount into England so as to assassinate Sergei Skripal and his daughter. They very nearly achieved that goal, but failed, thanks to the superb medical treatment the two victims received.

A further failure took place in that the residual Novichok agent remaining after the operation ended was not destroyed. It was left to bring about the unintended poisoning of another two people.

Inside Russia, it may be assumed that a portion of the country’s weaponized Novichok inventory was retained, safely and covertly, rather than being entirely eliminated, as Moscow claims. This could be the case whether or not Russia’s VX inventory has been completely eliminated.

The Novichok class appears to be superior to VX, and the peculiar chronology suggests that Novichok agents might be adopted and weaponized by Iran and North Korea.

View PDF

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham, a microbiologist and an expert on chemical and biological warfare in the Middle East, is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He is a former senior intelligence analyst in the IDF and the Israeli Defense Ministry.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Dynamics of J&K: Lecture by Dr.Ashok Behuria to future strategic leaders of Indian Armed Forces

Dr Ashok Behuria, Senior Fellow at IDSA spoke on Dynamics of J&K to future strategic leaders of Indian Armed Forces attending Higher Defence Management Course at College of Defence Management, Secunderabad.

Dr Behuria spoke on the topic with authority based on extensive research on the subject. He enriched his talk with anecdotes to bring out the complexity of the issue. He spoke about the new generation of militants, complicacies due to external influences and vested interests of various agencies.

He pointed at the dominant role of the Pak Army and ISI in Pakistan's approach to Kashmir and Indo-Pak relations.

Dr. Ashok Behuria is a Fellow and Coordinator of the South Asia Centre at IDSA. He is a Ph.D in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is a recipient of the  prestigious K Subrahmanyam Award for excellence in strategic studies for his work on Pakistan in 2009.

August 01, 2018

WestAsia Digest : Ananta Center


 Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad
Adviser, West Asia & North Africa, Ananta Centre
Former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman & UAE
1st August 2018 | VOL 03 ISSUE 08 | MONTHLYH I G H L I G H T S• Political Developments 

• Oil-related Developments

I) Political Developments

1) Syria – government forces advance in the south: After the success of the government in retaking Aleppo, Homs, Palmyra and finally Ghouta, and securing its capital, the southern campaign began in mid-June as the Bashar Assad regime, already in control of 60 percent of the country, moved to take back the remaining parts from rebel hands.

The south, consisting the provinces of Quneitra, Daraa and Sweida, has more than one million residents of different denominations. The main rebel forces are from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is said to have about 20,000 fighters, though there is a sprinkling of extremist elements across the region. Over the last year, the south was relatively peaceful due to the de-escalation zone put in place by Russia, Jordan and the US, although rebel activity, including the supply of arms and training, was coordinated from a Military Operations Command (MOC) located in Jordan.

The attack was preceded by hectic diplomatic activity, when “rules” relating to the offensive were agreed to by the principal players and the government. The most important interactions were between Russia and Jordan, Israel and the US.

Jordan conveyed that it wanted the south cleared of rebels. It is already hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees and wants them to return home. Jordan is also keen that the Nasib post on its border with Syria is reopened so that it can obtain the $400 million it gets annually from customs duties and other taxes from cross-border traffic. In return, Jordan agreed to close the MOC, thus ending military and logistical support to rebels in Syria.

Russian diplomacy also successfully obtained Israel’s backing for the attack. It accepted the Israeli condition that the offensive be conducted only by Syrian government forces, with Iranian forces and militias backed by Iran not involved. Russia also seems to have accepted that Iranian and Hezbollah forces would be at least 70 km from the Israeli border.

The US' public and private postures were different. On June 14, the State Department said the US would take “firm and appropriate” measures if the Assad government violated the de-escalation zone. However, within a week, the rebel groups received an official US letter that clarified: “You should not base your decision (to fight) on an assumption or expectation of military intervention from our side.”

Given this diplomatic support, government forces, with solid Russian air and ground support, have had little difficulty in making rapid advances, amidst reports of fierce fighting and of large numbers of rebels accepting the government’s amnesty offer.

On July 16, the first convoy of Syrians displaced from Daraa reached the Idlib countryside in northern Syria: nine vehicles transported 430 people, including 213 men, 140 children and 77 women. Most of the displaced are militants from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their families, in addition to civilians and activists from the towns and cities of the southern Daraa province and Daraa city. The FSA factions had reached a cease-fire agreement with regime forces mediated by Russia on July 6 in the opposition-held areas in Daraa. Under the deal, FSA factions agreed to hand over their heavy weapons. Those opposing the agreement would go to Idlib in northern Syria.

Northern Syria: As the fighting continues in the south, northern Syria is also experiencing uncertainty. Having supported the Americans in the battle against Daesh, the Kurds now find the US anxious to maintain close ties with Turkey. Not only did it allow Turkey to take Afrin from the Kurds, it has also concluded a “road map” with the Turkish government to cleanse Manbij of Kurdish fighters, who are viewed by Turkey as affiliates of its own dissident Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and hence “terrorists.”

The other concern the Kurds have is that a new Arab force could be set up in their region, funded and mobilized by regional Arab states and backed by the US. Sensing another big power betrayal, the Kurds have rediscovered their Syrian identity and have begun an engagement with the Assad regime, commencing with a meeting with a high-powered government delegation in early June.

A prominent Syrian-Kurdish leader has even said that the Kurds would resist eviction from Manbij with the help of Syrian government forces. Noting the changes in the ground situation in favor of Assad and Russia, they are now calling for a negotiated settlement of all Syria-related matters.

However, at month-end US-Turkey ties took a nose-dive on an unrelated matter – the detention in Turkey of US pastor Andrew Brunson. In a July 26 tweet, President Donald Trump threatened “large sanctions” over the continued detention of the pastor. Trump wrote: “The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”

This is the harshest ultimatum to Turkey in recent memory and sent the Turkish lira falling sharply against the dollar. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a tweeted initial response was defiant: “No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception."

2) Palestine: On 9 July, a Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo in response to an Egyptian initiative to pursue reconciliation between the Palestinian factions – Fatah and Hamas – which have been estranged since 2007, with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas the Gaza strip. Egypt has made it clear to Hamas that, without reconciliation, it will close the Raffah crossing, the only lifeline for Gaza’s two million residents who live in an open-air prison.

On the same day, Israel announced the closure of the Kerem Shalom crossing through which goods are trucked into Gaza, affirming once again how much at Israel’s mercy the Gazans are.

Recent developments in Palestine are directly related to the US-initiated “peace plan” to address Israel-Palestine issues, described by President Trump as the “deal of the century” and more recently as the “ultimate deal”. This deal is being promoted by his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

The deal lost much of its credibility among Palestinians after Trump recognised the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and shifted the US embassy to Jerusalem in a high-profile ceremony on 14 May, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. While the ceremony was on, Israel soldiers killed 60 Palestinians and injured over 2000, as their “Great March of Return”, going on since 30 March, now reached its last day. All told, Israeli forces killed 135 marchers and injured 14,000 of them.

At the end of June, Kushner visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Israel to promote the “ultimate deal”. Since no details of the peace plan have been officially announced, regional media has been awash with speculation, possibly based on background briefings and/ or calculated leaks.

Most reports suggest that the Palestinian “state” will have limited sovereignty over some parts of the West Bank and all of the Gaza strip (subject to disarmament by Hamas), with Israel exercising security responsibility over the West Bank and the border crossings. In a fresh development, it now appears that Israel will retain the Old City of Jerusalem, but three to five suburbs will be given to the Palestinian “state”, which will have Abu Dis, a town east of Jerusalem, as its “capital”. This Palestinian state and Jordan will be joint custodians of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.

However, other reports have painted a very different picture of the scenario put together by Kushner and Netanyahu. It now seems that, rather than address peace-related matters, the focus will be on providing economic development and employment opportunities to the Palestinian community. Thus, Egypt’s Raffah area abutting Gaza there will have an airport, a seaport, a power plant and a desalination plant. Again, a major industrial free-zone will be set up in the Sinai, which will encourage economic upliftment in an under-developed area that is prone to extremist activity and will also provide employment to the Palestinians in Gaza.

This variation of the peace plan does not speak of a Palestinian “state”, however limited its sovereignty might be. It envisages instead that Gaza will revert to Egyptian control, while the West bank, minus the Israeli settlements, will be returned to Jordan.

The US has exerted considerable pressure on the Palestine Authority and even some regional leaders to back these ideas. Following Trump’s decision in March to deny $ 300 million in aid to the Palestine Authority (PA), Israel and Australia announced significant deductions in assistance to the PA, leading to severe cuts in salaries paid to government employees.

As of now, Kushner and his president have found no takers for their plans. The Arab leaders whom Kushner met saw no merit in what he proposed and, instead, re-affirmed the Arab peace plan calling for Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines and the setting up of a sovereign Palestinian state in the occupied territories, with East Jerusalem as its capital. They also rejected the idea that a plan could be imposed without the consent of the Palestinians themselves.

Arab commentators have noted that what Kushner was offering was not a peace plan, since Israel is just not interested in any plan that would put limits on Israel’s territorial aggrandisement. Hence, what Kushner has come up with is a “crisis management” effort that would provide economic incentives to the Palestinians as a substitute for a political settlement, thus ending Palestinian demands once and for all.  A Palestinian writer saw the Kushner initiative as a “declaration of war on the Palestinian people and their rights”.

The Kushner plan is clearly aimed at forcing the Palestinians to accept a deal that would improve their living conditions (made onerous by calculated Israeli and US actions) in return for giving up their national identity and legitimate aspirations. This fresh challenge has propelled a new sense of purpose among the Arab states to deny US machinations and has impelled the Palestinians to promote their unity and mobilise themselves for a fresh resistance.

3) West Asia after the Helsinki summit: In the run-up to the July 16 Helsinki summit that brought US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their first bilateral face-to-face dialogue, affirming Russian President Vladimir Putin’s central position in West Asian affairs, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign affairs adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, reached Moscow on July 9.

Netanyahu, on his third visit to Moscow this year, was reported to have offered his backing for Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in Damascus in return for the full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria. More immediately, he accepted the entry of Syrian government troops into the south, provided that non-Syrian troops were kept about 80 km from the Israeli border.

Velayati had a broader and more complex agenda. He needed expressions of robust Russian support for the Iranian economy, following the re-imposition of US sanctions. Velayati appears to have obtained the economic support he had wanted: he announced Russia would be investing $50 billion in Iran’s oil and gas sector, which was confirmed by Russian officials. He added that Mr Putin would be visiting Iran to take forward the Syrian peace process. The Russian energy minister has said Russia would accept “oil-for-goods” arrangements with Iran in terms of which Russian goods would be supplied in return for Iranian oil, which Russia would then sell in the international market.

After the summit, all parties can now say they gained something from Russian diplomacy. Israel got the 80-km Iran-free cordon sanitaire it wanted at its northern border. Besides promises of economic support that Iran had obtained earlier, at Helsinki, there was no mention of Iran’s eviction from Syria.

Putin has also agreed to work with western powers by merging the Russia-led Astana peace process (partnering with Iran and Turkey) with the peace initiative of the “small group” -- consisting of France, Britain, Germany, Jordan, the US and Saudi Arabia -- which French president Emmanuel Macron has been seeking for a year, though there is no firm indication that the US supports this proposal.

A new development relating to Syria was the agreement between the summiteers to address Syria’s humanitarian crisis, including the return of refugees from neighbouring countries, which would be a boon for European countries coping with the influx of refugees. Trump backed Putin unconditionally, saying: “If we can do something to help the people of Syria get back into some form of shelter and on a humanitarian basis ... I think that both of us would be very interested in doing that.”

Two days after Helsinki, Russia announced the establishment of the ‘Centre for the Reception, Allocation and Accommodation of Refugees’ which will “monitor the return of Syrian refugees to their places of permanent residence” and the delivery of humanitarian aid and construction material. According to Washington Post, Russia has already has sent formal proposals to Washington for joint U.S.-Russia efforts to fund reconstruction in Syria and facilitate the return home of millions of Syrian refugees.

The most interesting feature of Putin’s public remarks, made in the context of Israel’s security concerns about the occupied Golan Heights, was his recalling of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 338, which had been passed by the security council in October 1973 and had ended the Syria-Israel military confrontation.

Putin called for “full compliance” with this resolution, saying this would bring peace to the Golan Heights, promote peace between the two countries and provide security to Israel. He added that Mr Trump had paid “special attention” to this matter.

Some Israeli and Arab commentators see this reference merely as restricting Iran’s presence in Syria. This is a very narrow perspective. It would be useful to recall that the three-line Resolution 338 had pointedly called for the immediate and full implementation of the earlier UNSCR 242 and the initiation of negotiations between the Arab and Israeli sides to establish “a just and durable peace in the Middle East”.

Putin’s reference to resolutions from a bygone era makes sense only if we go beyond Syria and see it in the context of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Palestine and his conviction that Middle East security and long-term peace requires addressing the Palestinian issue effectively.

The timing of the reference is important. It is a pointed rebuff to the Trump-backed “ultimate deal” being promoted by his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, in tandem with Netanyahu (details above). Thus, by rejecting the Kushner plan, Putin has joined the Arab leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Jordan, whom Kushner had visited recently. They had then firmly conveyed to the US emissary that Palestinian rights were not negotiable and that they stood by the Arab peace initiative that called for Israel’s vacation of occupied territories and the setting up of a sovereign Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The passage by the Knesset on 19 July of the “Basic Law” that declares Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has clearly defined Israel as an “apartheid” state on ethnic and religious basis. It complements the Kushner plan in seeking to destroy Palestinian presence and identity in their own homeland. Amidst the divisions and conflicts across the Middle East, Arab leaders and people have remained united on the Palestinian issue. This unity will be severely tested in coming times.

4) Iran: July witnessed a war of words and sabre-rattling between the US and Iran. It began with the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani telling Iranian diplomats: "America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars. Do not play with the lion's tail or else you will regret it." President Trump responded on 22 July in capital letter tweets saying: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”

The Iranian foreign minister dismissed the president’s threats, but the head of the Al Qods militia, General Qassem Suleimani got into the act and said that President Trump would regret waging a war that would “destroy all that he owns.” “You may begin the war, but it will be us who will end it,” Soleimani said. He added that the Red Sea, a critical waterway linking the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean basin, was “no longer secure” with U.S. military assets stationed in the area.

His remarks came just one day after Saudi Arabia announced it was suspending oil shipments in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, because of what authorities said was a missile attack on two Saudi oil tankers by Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen (details below).

To further complicate matters, on 27 July, the Australian media network ABC quoted government officials as saying Donald Trump could be ready to order a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, perhaps as early as next month, and that Australia is poised to help identify possible targets. Australian defence facilities would likely play a role in identifying targets in Iran, as would British intelligence agencies.

But a senior security source emphasised there was a big difference between providing accurate intelligence and analysis on Iran's facilities and being part of a "kinetic" mission. "Developing a picture is very different to actually participating in a strike," the source said. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he had no reason to believe the US was preparing for a military confrontation.

However, Trump continues to baffle most observers: on 24 July, he said the United States was ready to make a "real deal" with Iran. "Iran is not the same country anymore, that I can say," Trump said and added: "We'll see what happens, but we're ready to make a real deal, not the deal that was done by the previous administration which was a disaster."

Commentator on Iran, Trita Parsi, fears that a shift from threats to diplomacy with Iran will be much harder as compared to the North Korea scenario and that Trump's “reckless threats could trap the United States in yet another war”. He notes in this context that Trump believes that pressure on Iran will push the latter toward negotiations and that US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia advocate conflict rather than diplomacy, while Trump’s principal advisers want regime change rather than an agreement.

Iran’s economic difficulties: A Washington Post report of 27 July has said that Iranian leaders are trying to contain a deepening economic crisis that is slashing the buying power of Iranians. On 25 July, President Hassan Rouhani replaced the head of the country’s central bank, who had come under harsh criticism for failing to stem a steep drop in Iran’s currency. The unofficial value of the Iranian rial has roughly halved since the start of the year, to 95,000 to the dollar. Trade in the official rate, unavailable to most Iranians, is a major source of corruption. Again, ninety members of parliament have signed a petition to impeach the economy minister.

Iranians say they are worried about being able to pay rent or buy food. Inflation is running at 12% and the price of imported items such as medicine is up markedly. Iran’s oil exports have dropped 8% in the past two months, and youth unemployment stands at around 30%.

BMI Research, a sister company of Fitch Ratings, predicts 1.8% economic growth in 2018, down from the 4.3% growth it projected before Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Obama-era deal that imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief.

On August 6, new U.S. sanctions will target Iranian purchases of US dollars, among other things, and on November 4, sanctions on Iranian oil and foreign financial institutions dealing with Iran’s central bank will come into effect.

5) Yemen: On 26 July, Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih said that, according to the official spokesman of the Alliance for the Support of Legitimacy in Yemen, two giant oil tankers belonging to the Saudi National Shipping Company, each carrying two million barrels of crude oil, was attacked by the Houthi militia in the Red Sea after crossing the Straits of Bab El-Mandeb. The attack resulted in minor damage to one of the two carriers. There were no casualties or spillage of crude oil into the sea which would have led to an environmental disaster.

Falih said that the Kingdom would temporarily and with immediate effect suspend all shipments of crude oil passing through the Bab El-Mandeb until navigation through the Strait is safe, stressing that the threats of the Houthi militias against the crude oil carriers affect the freedom of international trade and maritime navigation in the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb and the Red Sea. The Houthis said they had attacked a Saudi warship rather than oil tankers.

An estimated 4.8 million barrels of oil are shipped daily through Bab al Mandeb that connects the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea off the coast of Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea.

The halt of oil shipments could provoke an escalation of the conflict, with external powers intervening in a bid to assist Saudi Arabia and the UAE in defeating the Houthis and dealing a blow to Iran’s regional presence. Commentator Ellen R. Wald has pointed out: “The Red Sea is a very important shipping lane. If there is a major disruption, European powers, Egypt and the United States would all have reason to intervene. They have significant interests in protecting the freedom of the seas through the passageway. An international intervention against the Houthis may be just what Saudi Arabia wants.”

James Dorsey has noted that international criticism of the Saudi conduct of the war is mounting as a result of its devastating human cost. Voices in the US Congress, the British parliament and other Western assemblies as well as human rights groups calling for a halt of arms sales to Saudi Arabia are growing ever louder.

The armed services panels in the US House and Senate have released joint defence legislation that demands that the Pentagon tell Congress whether US or Arab coalition forces have violated federal law or Pentagon policy. Another provision restricts mid-air US refuelling of coalition aircraft if the UAE and Saudi Arabia fail to demonstrate efforts to support United Nations-backed peace talks, resolve the growing humanitarian crisis, and cut down on civilian deaths.

In response to criticism of the war in the US, the UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba has written to congressional leaders that the Saudi-led Arab force fighting in Yemen is giving the Iran-backed Houthi rebels “the greatest possible opportunity” for a peaceful withdrawal from the strategic port of Hodeidah. Otaiba also emphasized that the Saudi-led coalition had stockpiled enough food to feed 6 million Yemenis for a month if the port, which is the thoroughfare for three-quarters of humanitarian aid entering the country, is disabled.

The war has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis and left more than 22 million people –three-quarters of Yemen’s population – in need of humanitarian aid. At least eight million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, and one million are infected with cholera.

6) China offers financial support to West Asia: On 10 July, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged a package of $20 billion in loans and about $106 million in financial aid to West Asian nations, as part of what he called an “oil and gas plus” model to revive economic growth in the region. This is part of China’s heightened engagement with the region in recent years as Arab nations play an important role in Xi’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) for logistical connectivity linking China with Eurasia by land and the Indian Ocean littoral countries by sea.

Development was key to resolving many security problems in the Middle East, Xi told a gathering with representatives of 21 Arab nations in Beijing. “We should treat each other frankly, not fear differences, not avoid problems, and have ample discussion on each aspect of foreign policy and development strategy,” he said. He urged “relevant sides” to respect the international consensus in the Israel-Palestine dispute, and called for it to be handled in a just manner to avoid regional disruption.

China would offer aid worth 100 million yuan ($15 million) to Palestine to support economic development, besides providing a further 600 million yuan ($91 million) to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, he added. A consortium of banks from China and Arab nations, with a dedicated fund of $3 billion, will also be set up, he said. The loans will fund a plan of “economic reconstruction” and “industrial revival” that would include cooperation on oil and gas, nuclear and clean energy.

China, which has traditionally played little role in West Asian conflicts or diplomacy, despite its reliance on the region for energy supplies, has been trying to get more involved in resolving long-standing disputes. China says it sticks to a policy of “non-interference” when offering financial aid and deals to developing countries, which, coupled with development, can help resolve political, religious and cultural tension.

............................................................................................................
II) Oil-related Developments 

Oil prices/ revenues: Through the month, oil prices were affected by the burgeoning trade war between the US and China that might affect global oil demand, the US-Iran war of words, and the attack on the Saudi oil tanker in the Red Sea. At month-end, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude for September delivery rose 31 cents to settle at $69.61 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent for September added 61 cents to end the session at $74.54 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange.

The benchmark Brent oil price has averaged about $71.60 a barrel so far this year, up from $55 last year. Also, Gulf states are set to export more oil this year after global producers agreed last month to boost output, partly to compensate for anticipated losses in production by Iran, which faces US sanctions. This is a boon for state finances and external surpluses across the region, especially in Saudi Arabia, the top exporter. Saudi investment bank Jadwa forecasts Riyadh’s oil revenues at $154 billion this year, instead of the $131 billion which the government budgeted last December.

In the poll of 24 economists, the median prediction for Riyadh’s state budget deficit this year was 4.8 percent of gross domestic product, instead of the 7.8 percent they forecast in the last poll. A 4.8 percent deficit, while still unsustainable for Saudi Arabia in the long run, would be the smallest since 2014, when an oil price plunge began to pressure Riyadh’s finances. The latest poll predicts next year’s deficit at 4.5 percent of GDP, instead of 6.7 percent previously forecast.

Fiscal forecasts for the other five Gulf Cooperation Council states have also improved. The United Arab Emirates is now seen enjoying a state budget surplus of 0.1 percent of GDP this year instead of a 2.9 percent deficit; the forecast for 2019 has switched to a 1.4 percent surplus from a 2.2 percent deficit.

Similarly, current account surpluses for the four strongest GCC economies - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar - are expected to swell. Saudi Arabia is now seen running a surplus of 8.7 percent of GDP this year, up from the previous poll’s 3.3 percent - although it would remain smaller than the double-digit figures recorded before the oil price plunge.

However, the improvements look likely to have little impact in raising modest economic growth in the Gulf, the latest poll showed. Private sector companies are still struggling with government austerity steps such as tax rises and spending curbs, and because governments are expected to use much of their windfall oil revenues to cut deficits rather than stimulate growth.

The latest poll raises the median forecast for Saudi GDP growth this year to 1.8 percent from 1.5 percent, and to 2.5 percent from 2.4 percent for next year. Jadwa expects Saudi Arabia’s non-oil private sector to expand just 1.1 percent this year. Growth forecasts for the UAE are unchanged from the previous poll at 2.6 percent this year and 3.2 percent next.

Taliban: We’re ‘another name of the Afghan nation’

Taliban: We’re ‘another name of the Afghan nation’

Posted on: 27-06-2018

By Bill Roggio

In a recent statement that addressed comments by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the Taliban reiterated that it considers itself the sole representative of the Afghan people. This is at odds with the opinion of some analysts who advise the US government on policy with respect to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

The Taliban statement, which is dated June 23 and published at Voice of Jihad, addressed Stoltenberg’s comments that “the way to achieve that [peace] is not to leave Afghanistan. The way to achieve that is to stay in Afghanistan”.

During the Taliban’s response – which reiterated that all foreign forces must leave before negotiations can begin, a consistent Taliban position for more than a decade – the group said it views itself as the only representative of the Afghan people.

“Taliban is not some group but is another name of the Afghan nation,” it said while addressing the issue of whether the group can be defeated militarily.

While this may be seen by some to be a trivial issue, it is important as some who advise the US government on negotiations insist that the Taliban is not seeking to reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the name of the Taliban’s government) and is willing to enter negotiations with the Afghan government. For instance:

Whatever so-called Taliban figures may be saying in private – keep in mind the Taliban has consistently stated its representatives are not talking to US, NATO, and Afghan officials, and the US has been duped by Taliban impostors claiming to represent the group in the past – the Taliban has been very clear that it views itself as the only legitimate representative of the Afghan people. It has said so in the past.

The Taliban has also very publicly stated that it will not share power with an Afghan government that it views as an illegitimate puppet of the West. Note the Taliban said it won’t share power and “the Emirate” is “the true representative of our people” back in Jan. 2016 [emphasis added]:

The Islamic Emirate has not readily embraced this death and destruction for the sake of some silly ministerial posts or a share of the power. On the contrary they epitomize the nation’s hopes and aspirations for a just and peaceful government that will strive to build our beloved nation on the basis of Islamic law, social justice and national interests.

The people of Afghanistan readily sacrifice their sons to achieve this objective. And the Emirate – as the true representative of our people – will not end its peaceful and armed endeavors until we have achieved this hope of Afghanistan.

The US, NATO, and the Afghan government continue to be optimistic about the prospects for negotiations and peace with the Taliban and unilaterally extended their ceasefire, even as the Taliban relaunched its offensive after a three day pause. The Taliban continues to deny that it is in talks with Afghan government, and insists that all foreign troops must leave the country before any talks can begin. Additionally, the group refuses to denounce al Qaeda or any other foreign jihadist group that operate alongside it.

The US government cannot get Afghanistan right if it continues to fail to understand the Taliban and its goal, which is the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

The topic was first published in the FDD's Long War Journal. on 26 June 2018

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