Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

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

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Egypt’s Election Turmoil, Saudi Succession Challenges, Failed Iranian Nuclear Talks, and Syria’s Deadly Stalemate

by Robert M. Danin
June 21, 2012

Protesters chant slogans against the military council at Tahrir Square in Cairo on June 20, 2012 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters). Protesters chant slogans against the military council at Tahrir Square in Cairo on June 20, 2012 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Egypt. Egyptian election officials announced yesterday that they were postponing the announcement of the country’s presidential runoff, plunging the country into further uncertainty. Official results of the presidential election will not be released until Sunday, purportedly to evaluate allegations of electoral abuse and voter fraud. The election commission had been expected to confirm a winner today, and, based on a public vote count, to have named Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood. The unexpected delay intensified tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s military rulers previously appointed under ousted president Mubarak. After the Supreme Court’s dissolution of parliament last week, SCAF reimposed martial law in a Sunday announcement. The military rulers issued an interim charter severely limiting the new president’s power and seizing significant control over the writing of a new constitution. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton responded to the military’s “soft coup,” stating, “We think that it is imperative that the military fulfill its promise to the Egyptian people to turn power over to the legitimate winner.” Her statement reiterated the United States’ commitment to “free, fair, and legitimate” elections in Egypt, and a recognition that the emergence of a stable, democratic state in Egypt “is not about one election, one time.” Adding to the pervading uncertainty, conflicting news reports over Mubarak’s health dominated the airwaves.  Following claims that Mubarak was “clinically dead” after suffering from a stroke, Yousri Abdel Razeq, a lawyer for Mr. Mubarak, denied the reports and said that the former president had been transferred from prison to a hospital due to a blood clot. Mr. Abdel Raziq characterized the reports of Mubarak’s death as “media mania” and “fictional.”

Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, died on Saturday at the age of seventy-nine. Nayef had been designated next in line to succeed King Abdullah. The eighty-eight year-old Abdullah has now survived two of his designated successors. On Monday, King Abdullah named seventy-six year-old Saudi defense minister prince Salman bin Adbdulaziz “crown prince and deputy prime minister,” thus making him the new heir apparent.

Iran. The third round of international talks on Iran’s nuclear program held in Moscow ended without encouragement on Tuesday evening. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced that after five sessions of talks between Iran and the six powers of the P5+1—Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany—the differences remained so significant that negotiators could not even commit to another meeting. Instead, Ashton said, the two sides agreed to hold experts-level talks on July 3 in Istanbul. The United States will move forward on July 1 to tighten further its economic sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, Iran announced today that it has defused a “massive” cyberattack on its nuclear facilities. Iranian intelligence minister Heidar Moslehi said on state-run TV: “Based on obtained information, the U.S. and the Zionist regime along with the MI6 planned an operation to launch a massive cyber attack against Iran’s facilities following the meeting between Iran and the P5+1 in Moscow,” but that the plan was foiled by Iranian measures.

Syria. In the first Syrian air force defection since the uprisings began, Colonel Hassan Merei al-Hamade piloted his Mig-21 fighter jet into Jordan this morning and landed at the Mafraq military base in Jordan. Jordan immediately agreed to the pilot’s request for political asylum. Syria denounced the pilot as a “traitor to his country” and demanded the return of the aircraft. The defection follows last weekend’s decision by Norwegian major general Robert Mood, head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, to suspend the UN observer mission. Mood said the escalating violence in Syria made it impossible for monitors to carry out their work. Following a briefing before the UN Security Council in New York on Tuesday, Mood told reporters: “We need to see a change if the activity of the mission in the current situation and under the current mandate is to be meaningful” and added that he hoped the mission could soon monitor at least some areas of Syria. Meanwhile, violence in Syria continued unabated with Syrian forces bombarding Homs throughout the week, forcing the Syria Red Crescent today to halt its evacuation of trapped citizens. Homs-based activist Abu Bilal reported: “The Red Crescent has so far been unable to enter the besieged neighborhoods in order to evacuate the wounded, because of the shelling.” See my blog from Tuesday for an on-the-ground perspective on life in Homs. Also today, Russia confirmed for the first time that a cargo ship carrying attack helicopters was forced to turn back before making their delivery in Syria. This prompted an immediate Arab League call on Russia to halt its arms supplies to Syria.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Syria. Today’s New York Times reports that CIA officers are operating covertly in southern Turkey to aid Syrian oppositionists. According to the Times report, CIA officers have been in Turkey for several weeks working to keep weapons funneled into Syria for rebel fighters by Syria’s neighbors out of the hands of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The officers are apparently also helping Syrian opposition allies in deciding where the weapons should be sent. Spokesmen for the White House, State Department, and CIA refused to comment on the matter.

G-20 Summit. President Obama met with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday in a closed two-hour talk on the margins of the G-20 summit. The two leaders agreed that Syrians should choose their own next government and pledged cooperation although the two leaders were markedly frosty in their media appearance before reporters after the meeting. Obama said that he and Putin “agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war and the kind of horrific events that we’ve seen over the last several weeks.” Putin echoed the remarks, saying,  “We’ve been able to find many commonalities” on Syria. On Tuesday, Obama met with Turkish prime minister Erdogan also on the fringes of the G-20 summit. According to a White House statement, “They discussed the importance of moving toward a political transition in Syria that ends bloodshed and brings about a government that reflects the will of the Syrian people.” The statement went on to announce that “They also discussed the situation in Iraq, and agreed on their support for its unity. They reviewed the need to enhance counterterrorism cooperation.”

Quotes of the Week

  • “We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future.” – joint statement from bilateral meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin on Monday
  • “I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel.” – Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak said today
  • “There is no reason or excuse to have doubt regarding the peaceful aims of Iran’s nuclear program.” – Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili during talks earlier this week

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Gaza. In its first set of open attacks against Israel in approximately a year, Hamas launched over one hundred rockets into Israel from Gaza over the course of three days this week, prompting strong Israeli retaliatory strikes. A tense ceasefire now seems to be holding in southern Israel and Gaza today. Nine Palestinians were reported to have died during the exchange of rocket fire. One Israeli was killed in a cross-border firing on Monday.

Jordan. Jordan announced the end to its open border policy for Syrians, tightening the screening process for Syrian refugees. Under the new screening system, Syrian males with residency permits from other countries will not be allowed into Jordan. The Interior Ministry estimates some 125,000 Syrians have entered Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian crisis.

Yemen. A Yemeni air raid reportedly against al-Qaeda strongholds in the south of Yemen killed a Red Cross worker yesterday. Hussein Saleh was killed as he worked toward the release of a kidnapped colleague.

This Week in History

This week marks the fifty-first anniversary of Kuwait’s independence from Britain. Britain first asserted influence over Kuwait, a previously autonomous state under Ottoman suzerainty, with the Anglo-Kuwait Treaty in 1899. That agreement gave Britain extensive control over Kuwait foreign policy in exchange for military protection and an annual subsidy. After the start of World War I, Britain formally declared Kuwait an independent principality under British protectorate. With the discovery of oil in 1938, Kuwait remained a valuable British asset. By early 1961, the British had withdrawn their special court system, which handled the cases of foreigners residing in Kuwait, and the Kuwaiti government began to exercise legal jurisdiction under new laws drawn up by an Egyptian jurist. On June 19, 1961, Kuwait became fully independent following an exchange of notes with the United Kingdom between ruler Sheikh Abdullah III and Sir William Luce. Kuwait officially became the 111th member state of the United Nations on14 May, 1963, and is a long-standing member of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Statistic of the Week

A recent Pew poll reports that President Obama’s approval rating continues to drop in the Muslim world. In the countries polled–Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey, and Pakistan–confidence in Obama has dropped from 33 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2012. The approval rating in his international policies has dipped even more dramatically, from 34 percent to 15 percent.

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