Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

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

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Middle East Matters This Week: Iran’s Negotiations, Syria’s Friends, and Egypt’s Elections

by Robert M. Danin
April 19, 2012

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili pose for media before their meeting in Istanbul on April 14, 2012 (Tolga Adanali/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Saturday authorizing the deployment of a thirty-person monitoring mission to oversee the Syrian ceasefire. By the time the first observers arrived in Syria on Monday, violence had flared up in recent flashpoint towns, including Homs and Hama. Clashes also broke out near the Turkish border. In light of the continued violence, France convened a Friends of Syria meeting today in Paris that fourteen foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Clinton, attended. The Friends group issued an urgent call to Syrian president Assad to implement the Annan plan. Meanwhile, the Syrian foreign ministry announced today that it had reached agreement with the UN on the terms of a cease-fire monitoring mission. The Syrians announced that the agreement “aims to facilitate the task of the observers within the framework of Syrian sovereignty.” The UNSC meets today for a briefing by Kofi Annan’s deputy Jean-Marie Guehenno to discuss the possibility of deploying a larger monitoring mission, perhaps numbering three hundred observers.

Egypt. The presidential election commission reaffirmed on Tuesday its disqualification of ten presidential candidates, just weeks before the vote is set to begin on May 23. The three front-runners ejected are Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat al-Shater, former spy chief and vice president Omar Suleiman, and the Salafist candidate Hazem Abu Ismail. Shater reacted to the news by accusing the ruling military council of fraud and of not being serious about transferring power. He then announced that the Muslim Brotherhood would take to Tahrir Square on Friday to protest. Out of the thirteen remaining candidates, the leading candidates left include former foreign minister and Arab League head Amr Moussa, Freedom and Justice Party leader Mohamed el-Morsi, and former Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Iran. Iran and P5+1 negotiators agreed to meet again on May 23 in Baghdad following ten hours of talks on Saturday in Istanbul. While the talks did not produce anything concrete, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, called them “constructive and useful.” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the meeting on Sunday for giving Iran a “freebie” by allowing it to buy time and continue enriching uranium for another five weeks without limitations. President Obama responded to Netanyahu’s Sunday criticism, dismissing the notion that Iran has been given a pass, emphasizing that “they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.” Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak expressed doubts on Tuesday about the talks with Iran, and said that the ongoing talks do not mean that Iran is exempt from an Israeli military strike.

Quotes of the Week

  • “There are many reasons which have contributed to the weakening of the Palestinian Authority, but its dissolution is out of the question.” – Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam on Monday
  • “I regret that Russia continues to lock itself into a vision that isolates it more and more, not just from the Arab world but also from the international community.” – French foreign minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday ahead of talks in Paris with foreign ministers supporting tougher action against Bashar al-Assad
  • “We are at a crucial turning point… Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan’s plan in accordance with the Security Council direction, with the help of monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered.” – U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Jordan. The Lower House of Jordan’s parliament voted on Monday to amend a new election law forbidding political parties based on a religious, ethnic, or sectarian basis. The measure appears to disqualify the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political branch, from running in upcoming parliamentary elections. The new election law is being touted as a key piece of the Jordanian government’s effort to introduce political reform, though it has been met thus far with mixed reactions, with the IAF talking of boycotting the elections.

Bahrain. Hundreds of protesters clashed with security forces in Manama on Thursday in the run-up to this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix. Security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at the protesters, who heckled the race and called for the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a jailed activist who has been on a hunger strike for more than two months. Bahraini police briefly had detained two international human rights officials–Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, and Nadim Houry, the organization’s deputy director for the Middle East—for observing protests in which scores more were arrested. Protesters have vowed to hold daily demonstrations all week in a rebuke to Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, generally seen as a regime reformer and the race’s main backer. Two members of Force India’s Formula One team left Bahrain after a Molotov cocktail was thrown near their car in a traffic jam caused by an anti-regime protest on Wednesday. The Grand Prix was cancelled last year because of the unrest.

Israel-Palestine. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Tuesday with a Palestinian Authority delegation comprised of negotiator Saeb Erekat and intelligence chief Majed Faraj. Netanyahu accepted a long-anticipated letter the Palestinians delivered from PA president Mahmoud Abbas. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had been expected to join the group, but bowed out in solidarity with more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners who began a hunger strike protesting conditions in Israeli jails. The letter, watered down from previous drafts leaked publicly, specified Palestinian grievances and demanded an Israeli settlement construction halt. Netanyahu promised a written response within two weeks. In an extraordinary move, the two sides issued a joint statement expressing their hope that the exchange of letters would help them find a way to advance peace. No other countries were involved in the effort to bring the two sides together.

UAE. The GCC foreign ministers met in Doha on Tuesday to discuss Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinajed’s visit last week to the disputed Gulf island of Abu Musa. The GCC condemned the visit as “provocative” and urged Iran to end its occupation of Abu Musa and two other small nearby islands–Greater Tunb and Lower Tunb. Iran seized control of the three small islands, valued for their strategic proximity to the Strait of Hormuz and potential oil reserves, in 1971 when British forces withdrew and the UAE was in the process of uniting and declaring its independence. Iran responded to the GCC condemnation menacingly, with ground forces commander General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan declaring Thursday that “If these disturbances are not solved through diplomacy, the military forces are ready to show the power of Iran to the offender. Iran will strongly defend its right.”

Libya. Libya’s interim prime minister, Abdel Rahim al-Kib, plans to reshuffle his cabinet following warnings by the National Transition Council on Monday that it was ready to cast a no-confidence vote against al-Kib and his cabinet. The interim government has been criticized for failing to reactivate the army, to integrate the militias, and to combat corruption. A program to reward people who had fought against Qaddafi last year was shut down on April 7 after it was discovered that money was being handed to people who had not fought in the uprising or who were pretending to be fighters who were now dead.

This Week in History

This week marks the ninety-second anniversary of the Conference of San Remo, the international meeting convened to determine the fate of the former territories of the Ottoman Turkish Empire following World War I. The prime ministers of Great Britain, France, and Italy and representatives of Japan, Greece, and Belgium attended the conference. Held from April 19-26, 1920, the attendees approved the final framework of a peace treaty with Turkey, later signed in August of that year. The conference also created two “A” mandates out of the former Ottoman province of Syria. The northern portion, consisting of present-day Syria and Lebanon, was placed under French mandatory authority. The southern part, named Palestine, and the province of Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, were mandated to Great Britain. To many in the Middle East today, this approach created the foundation for much of the dysfunctional politics in these areas over the enduring near century.

Statistic of the Week

According to a poll conducted by Egypt’s Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Omar Suleiman’s disqualification from the presidential race will likely benefit Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa. Of the voters who had been inclined to vote for Suleiman, 40.4 percent listed Shafiq as their second choice and 27.4 percent listed Moussa. The disqualification of Hazam Abu Ismail is likely to most benefit Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, as 29.9 percent of Ismail supporters listed Fotouh as their second choice, and 25 percent listed Khairat al-Shater, who has also been disqualified. The first round of voting is scheduled to begin May 23.


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