Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Middle East Matters This Week: Escalating U.S.-Iranian Tensions in the Gulf

by Robert M. Danin Friday, December 30, 2011

Iranian military personnel participate in the Velayat-90 war game in an unknown location near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran on December 30, 2011 (Hamed Jafarnejad/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Iran. Tensions escalated amid verbal sparring between Iran and the United States this week. Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned on Tuesday that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz if the West moved forward with sanctions on its crude imports. Such a move by Iran could significantly affect world oil markets, as some 40 percent of all sea-borne petroleum is shipped through the strait. In response to the Iranian threat, the United States announced on Wednesday that the Fifth Fleet would not allow any disruption to shipping in the strait. Iran promptly pushed back, claiming that the United States was not in a position to tell Tehran “what to do in the Strait of Hormuz.” Today, Iran announced that on Saturday morning “the Iranian navy will test several of its long-range missiles in the Persian Gulf.” Read more »

Guest Post: Behind Recent GCC Calls for Unity

by Guest Blogger for Robert M. Danin Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Saudi Arabia's king Abdullah welcomes Sultan Qaboos bin Saiid of Oman in Riyadh on December 19, 2011. Leaders of the Gulf Arab states arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit (Courtesy Reuters).

This post is written by my colleague, Kelley Calkins, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. Here she offers her assessment of recent GCC calls for unity following this week’s annual GCC summit.

Speaking to his Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counterparts at the annual GCC summit in Riyadh on Monday, Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah suggested to the group that they “move from a phase of cooperation to a phase of union within a single entity.” This call was echoed by the other GCC leaders yesterday in the final communique issued at the conclusion of the summit, which also included a directive for Syria to accept the Arab League peace plan. Such grandiose calls for unity and collective decision-making are unusual given the GCC’s lackluster history of organizational cohesiveness and action. It is the dramatically changing regional context, however, that explains this newfound call to action. Read more »

Snapshot from Jerusalem

by Robert M. Danin Monday, December 19, 2011

The Dome of the Rock is seen during sunset in Jerusalem's Old City on January 12, 2011 (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters).

Jerusalem– After a brief visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, it is clear that Israelis and Palestinians are gazing past one another, focused largely on their own internal developments and on broader regional issues. Both share a sense that the plate tectonics of the region are shifting, and both are trying to figure out how best to navigate through this changing environment.

The euphoria I sensed among Palestinians the last time I visited several months ago, brought about by Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to attain statehood recognition in New York, was burst by the Israel-Hamas deal in which Corporal Shalit was exchanged for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners. Hamas delivered; Abbas hasn’t.  Read more »

Middle East Matters This Week: Iraq Withdrawal While Russia Gets Tough

by Robert M. Danin Friday, December 16, 2011


Soldiers at Fort Bragg take pictures as President Obama speaks during his visit to North Carolina on December 14, 2011. The visit is seen as a symbolic end to the war in Iraq (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Iraq. This week marks the end of the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq. Baghdad is also making news for taking on an increased role in attempting to negotiate an Arab-led solution to the conflict in Syria. On Thursday, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki said that he had informed the Arab League that he will send a delegation to Syria in order to pursue an Iraqi-led initiative to end the unrest. Maliki has warned that should Assad fall, a civil war may break out. Iraq has so far abstained from the Arab League votes suspending and imposing sanctions upon Syria. In late September, Malaki said that he believed “Syria will be able to overcome its crisis through reforms” in a rejection of U.S. calls for Assad to step down. Read more »

Middle East Matters: The Ten Most Significant Developments of 2011

by Robert M. Danin Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on February 11, 2011 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Here it is: the first annual “Middle East Matters” year-end roundup listing the ten most significant Middle East developments of the year. As 2011 was such a tumultuous year in the region, almost any one of these items could have been deemed the most significant development in a “normal” year. So identifying significant developments is relatively easy. The hard part is winnowing down the events to just ten. Consistent with the blog’s theme of focusing on the interplay between U.S. foreign policy and the region, these were the items that were most significant from a U.S. foreign policy perspective. So in roughly chronological order are MEM’s top ten developments of 2011: Read more »

Middle East Matters This Week: Syria Stonewalls and Iran Accuses

by Robert M. Danin Friday, December 9, 2011

Anti-government protesters pray next to the bodies of people who were among the Sunni Muslims killed on Wednesday, in Hula near Homs November 2, 2011. Syrian activists said on Wednesday that security forces shot dead at least 11 villagers at a roadblock near Homs (Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. Events in Syria continue to take center stage. While Syrian president Bashar al-Assad proclaimed in a lengthy interview with Barbara Walters (my thoughts on what Bashar revealed in the interview can be found here) that only “crazy leaders” kill their own people, dozens of bodies were dumped into the city square in Homs. At least thirty people were killed in Homs on Monday alone (some estimates are much higher), and estimates put more than sixty people killed this week nationwide. The Syrian National Council also claims that Homs has been encircled by Syrian forces. Read more »

Assad’s Revelations

by Robert M. Danin Thursday, December 8, 2011

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is pictured during an interview with Russian television in Damascus October 30, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters).

While President Bashar al-Assad’s circumlocutions were frustrating in his lengthy ABC interview last night, his exchange with Barbara Walters provided a window into the man and the way he deals with allegations of Syria’s misdeeds.

I twice had the opportunity–if that is the right word–to meet Bashar al-Assad in Damascus—once in 2003 when I accompanied then Secretary of State Powell to meet the Syrian leader, and a second time in 2004 when I was the White House member of an interagency team that went to present the dictator evidence of his misdeeds.

Then, the United States had five major sets of concerns about Syria’s behavior: its support for terrorist organizations, its brutal occupation of Lebanon, its facilitation of foreign fighters into Iraq to kill Americans, its opposition to peace, and its abysmal human rights record. Read more »

The Rogue Sons

by Robert M. Danin Tuesday, December 6, 2011

French president Jacques Chirac and Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and head of the Gaddafi Foundation, are seen before the start of their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 8, 2004 (John Schults/Courtesy Reuters).

Bashar al-Assad, Gamal Mubarak, and Seif al-Islam share a number of things in common. For starters, all were groomed by their fathers to succeed them in ruling Syria, Egypt, and Libya respectively. Second, all were heralded as reformers, men who would help propel their countries, economically and politically, into the twenty-first century. Third, when protests hit their countries, each of them advocated a ruthless and violent response to the unrest. In Syria’s case, since Assad was already in power, he has been able to continue the brutal policies of his father. In Egypt’s case, Gamal’s recommendation to forcibly quell unrest did not win over the military, though he now languishes in prison facing charges of inciting police forces and organizing thugs to attack and kill Tahrir Square protesters in late January and early February. In Libya, Seif’s bloody approach earned him an International Criminal Court indictment for crimes against humanity, including murder, bombing, and shooting protesters in February.

Interestingly, each of them lived and either worked or studied in Britain. Bashar moved to London in 1992 and trained there at the Western Eye Hospital. The urbane Gamal worked as an investment banker in Bank of America’s London investment office. And Seif received a doctorate from the London School of Economics (who authored his dissertation is a subject currently under investigation). Read more »

Middle East Matters This Week: Egyptian Elections and New Arab League Activism

by Robert M. Danin Friday, December 2, 2011

An electoral worker carries a ballot box at a center for vote counting during the second day of parliamentary elections in Alexandria, November 29, 2011 (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Egypt. The Middle East’s biggest news item this week was the first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections held on Monday and Tuesday. Following a tumultuous, violence-filled run-up to the ballot, the first two days of voting in the key locations of Cairo and Alexandria produced an extremely high turnout and were remarkably calm. While much of the country has yet to vote in a series of ten more voting days that extend through January, Islamist parties so far have dominated. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took 40 percent of the first round vote, as expected. But the surprise was the large turnout for the ultraconservative Salafists’ party, which appears poised to secure at least 20 percent of the vote. It is unclear how the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will interact in parliament, and also to be seen is how the military will react to all this. Read more »

Is Saudi Arabia Next?

by Robert M. Danin Thursday, December 1, 2011

Protesters chant slogans and hold posters of prisoners during a protest in Qatif on March 9, 2011. The banner reads: "Peacefully, Peacefully," (Courtesy Reuters).

Recent demonstrations and violence in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province that left four people dead and nine others wounded raise the question: Is Saudi Arabia the next country that will encounter the wave of popular unrest sweeping the Arab world?

Already the Arab uprisings’ effects have been felt in Saudi Arabia. In February and March, soon after Mubarak’s overthrow in Egypt, Saudi Facebook activists began calling for a revolution and declared a “Day of Rage” for March 11, emulating the youth activists in Egypt and Tunisia. However, the “Day of Rage” fizzled out, and demonstrations were held only in the Eastern Province, home to Saudi’s restive Shia minority.

Since then, things have been relatively quiet, at least until recently. One reason is that unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya, which are technically republics, Saudi Arabia is a monarchy run by the Al Saud family. So far, the Arab monarchies have been better suited to absorb discontent. In many of the region’s monarchies, while the king maintains ultimate control, power is more diffuse and thus the top leaders are able to deflect some criticism. Monarchies have so far proven to have greater legitimacy in the eyes of their countrymen than have the faux-republics. That doesn’t mean that they are immune to unrest, as we have seen in Jordan and Bahrain, the latter though is anomalous in that a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority. But they are better positioned to manage it. Read more »