Tehran gains more leeway for meddling

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 24, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The lifting of nearly all the economic sanctions against Iran last week was celebrated worldwide as a victory of American and European diplomacy. A victory because Iran has accepted the need to downgrade its nuclear energy program and has pledged to no longer try to develop nuclear weapons.

From Washington to Paris and Moscow, political leaders are patting themselves on their backs as saviors of world peace for having gotten the Iranians to accept their demands and sign the agreement. But they left out of the document a crucial part of what causes most of the tensions in the Middle East: The insistent Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of several Arab countries. Americans admit this failure, but insist that they could not include it in the agreement because of Iran’s objections.

With the lifting of sanctions, it is estimated that Iran will now have access to $100 billion of its own money, which was frozen in bank accounts abroad for years. This will leave the country with more resources to continue its interference in the Arab world. From Iraq to Lebanon, Syria and even in Yemen, the fingers of the Iranians are everywhere, arming and providing economic and political support to the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias; to Hezbollah; to the government of the dictator Bashar Assad, and to Houthi rebels.

In Syria alone it is estimated that the Iranian government has injected billions of dollars in support of the Assad government, and up to 3,000 soldiers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are fighting there against the Syrian rebels.

In an article in the New York Times this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir insisted that the Kingdom and its Gulf allies will continue to resist Iranian expansion in the region and respond with force to acts of aggression from Tehran.

“The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution,” wrote Al-Jubeir. “The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. (…) It is clear why Iran wants Bashar Assad of Syria to remain in power: In its 2014 report on terrorism, the State Department wrote that Iran considers Syria ‘as a crucial causeway to the its weapons supply route to Hezbollah,’” he added.

The cynicism of the agreement with Iran was echoed by many Saudi analysts. “Khamenei (the religious leader of Iran) traded a bomb he did not have for a document that gives carte blanche to the Revolutionary Guard in the region and stripped the P5 + 1 of any influence over Iran,” Mohammed Alyahya told the British newspaper Guardian.

“Riyadh has decided not to allow Iran to posture itself as the protector of the Shiites in the Arab world as it has been doing since 1979,” wrote Emirati professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in Gulf News. “They (the Saudis) have had enough of Iran’s bullying, and genuinely feel they are being targeted by Tehran as much as by Daesh.”

And the Iranians themselves are now admitting that with the end of economic sanctions, the country will have more money available to help its allies in the region. An Iranian security official told the Reuters news agency that funding for the Revolutionary Guard and its international arm, the Quds Force, would increase.

“It is clear that our leaders will not hesitate to allocate more funds for the Revolutionary Guard when needed. More money (available) means more funds for the Guard,” another Iranian official told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia is seeing a new and decisive leadership in Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who took the throne in January 2015.

The military intervention in Yemen, led by the Saudis to contain the spread of the Houthi rebels, has lasted over 10 months and we show no sign of withdrawing from the conflict. Internally, reacting to the very low price of oil on the international market, our government increased the price of gasoline in December 2015 and, soon after, also increased the tariffs for electricity and water.

This new tough stance of the Saudis will not let the Iranians continue to present themselves to the world as innocents in the region. It is estimated that last year Iran executed a thousand people accused of various crimes. This is much more than the 150 that were executed in the Kingdom last year. From the outside, Iran may seem to be a more progressive country than Saudi Arabia, but behind the scenes it is the ayatollahs who hold power. And it is in Iran where government supporters still chant “Death to America! The United States is the Great Satan,” and not in Saudi Arabia.


Elias Khoury and NYU’s Abu Dhabi Institute

The Lebanese novelist and journalist Elias Khoury gave a talk on the art of the novel here in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday as the first event of the inaugural season of New York University Abu Dhabi Institute’s fall 2008 lecture series.

The NYU Abu Dhabi Institute is the research hub and community outreach arm of NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, which is scheduled to open in September 2010, according to Mariet Westermann, NYU’s vice chancellor for regional campus development. It is starting to hold lectures from this month to make its presence felt in Abu Dhabi and to interact with the local community.

Held in the posh Al Mamoura auditorium of the Aldar Properties building just off Muroor Road, Khoury’s talk was an intimate conversation with the faculty director of NYU Abu Dhabi Institute Philip Kennedy about how he writes and the problems he’s faced.

Kennedy’s long-winded introduction was felt by some to be excessively fawning and yawn inducing. But for myself and others who had never read anything by Khoury it was educational.

Born in 1948 in Beirut, Khoury travelled to Jordan in 1967 at the age of 19 and visited a Palestinian refugee camp which would leave a lasting impression upon the writer. His outrage at what he encountered pushed him to join the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and remain in Jordan until 1970 when Palestinian guerilla forces were crushed by King Hussein in the Black September offensive.

Fleeing to Paris, Khoury continued his studies there. Upon returning to Beirut he joined the PLO’s research center, working with leading Palestinian intellectuals such as Hisham Sharabi and the poet Mahmoud Darwish. When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Khoury took part in it and was seriously injured, temporarily losing his eyesight.

The Palestinian experience of being forced out of Palestine by Jewish settlers in the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 has been a major theme of many of Khoury’s novel especially Bab al Shams (Gate of the Sun) which he wrote in 1981. Translated into English in 2005, this book gained him critical acclaim in Britain and the US for its lyrical style and unconventional use of multiple viewpoints.

So intense is Khoury’s attachment to the Palestinian cause that even I doubted for a moment during the lecture whether he was in fact a Lebanese of Palestinian origin. A colleague of mine even asked the author after the lecture whether he was Palestinian and he said in a slightly offended voice: “I am not Palestinian by blood. Both of my parents were Lebanese, but I feel Palestinian in my heart.”

Another colleague of mine who also attended the lecture, and had just finished reading Bab al Shams in English, said it was a difficult book to read because of the shifting narratives. “But eventually it all came together and I could see how the different stories had something in common,” she said.

Khoury said that writing a new book was always difficult for him as he always feels like he needs to relearn how to write whenever he starts work on a new book. He also said that the truth can never be found in the recollection of an event by a single person, but rather in the varied recollections of many people.

NYU Abu Dhabi Institute’s Fall 2008 lecture series continues with a discussion of Stephen Hawking’s A Briefer History of Time by NYU Professor Glennys Farrar on November 12 at 6 pm (also at the Al Mamoura auditorium); a look at the results of the US elections on Nov. 16 at 6 pm with NYU’s Rogan Kersh, who is associate dean and professor and public policy, and Robert Shrum, political strategist, and finally Marina Warner discussing Edward Said on December 17 at 6 pm.

For a complete schedule of the lecture series, click here.

To read Elias Khoury’s appreciation of his friend and poet the late Mahmoud Darwish, that appeared in The National on Aug. 29, 2008, click here.

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