This week's briefing on recent news and upcoming events in the region featuring Gerald Feierstein, Alex Vatanka, Eran Etzion, Gonul Tol, Amal Kandeel, Marvin G. Weinbaum, Michael Sexton and Eliza Campbell.
Middle East takes center stage at UNGA
Senior Vice President
Dramatic developments in the Middle East over the last few weeks are likely to be a focal point for world leaders as they assemble in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly. President Donald Trump is expected to use his opening speech at the General Assembly to attack Iran for its apparent role in the strike on the Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq. Whereas the talk just weeks ago had been about the possibility of a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York, Trump’s challenge as the General Assembly opens will be to rally the global community behind his hardline stance.
Rouhani will get his opportunity to respond the next day. But, as The New York Times has reported, sympathy for Iran has faded as it has made a series of increasingly provocative moves culminating in the Abqaiq attack in response to the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign. Perhaps in a gesture meant to ease international criticism of the Iranian regime, Tehran announced that it will release the UK oil tanker, Stena Impero, seized in July in retaliation for a British seizure of an Iranian tanker in the Mediterranean.
Absent from this year’s General Assembly opening session will be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently locked in a political crisis at home as the Israeli electorate returned a split decision in voting on Sept. 17. Netanyahu is fighting for his personal as well as his political life, as a failure to secure the prime minister’s seat will almost certainly lead to his trial on corruption charges and potentially a prison term.
Also absent from New York this year is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the Saudi delegation will be led by figurehead Foreign Minister Ibrahim Abdulaziz al-Assaf.
Another missed opportunity for Iran and the US
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif do not expect to meet with senior U.S. officials in New York this week. For that to happen, President Donald Trump has to first lift the sanctions on Iran, and that is an unlikely scenario. As a compromise, the French proposal of a $15 billion line of credit for Iran in return for its adherence to the 2015 nuclear deal might be revisited by world powers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. But even that is unlikely to lead to a one-to-one meeting between Trump and Rouhani.
However, the Iranians are not in New York to attack Trump but to cajole him. Zarif has already made that clear in his interviews given to the U.S. media. As at last year’s UN meeting, Zarif is speaking directly to Trump about his team “misinforming” him about the contradictions in his administration’s Iran policy. In his messaging to the American public, Zarif will cast the U.S. president as the unwitting accomplice in a U.S. policy that has zero chance of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. Zarif’s message is that the “B Team” — Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — are trying to dupe the U.S. into waging an unnecessary war against Iran.
This is a big charge, which makes it even more puzzling why the Iranians will not take the opportunity to make their case directly to the American president. Would a couple of hours alone in a room with Trump be such a dangerous idea? To understand this Iranian reticence, one has to consider the fierce struggle for power in Tehran. A Rouhani or Zarif meeting this week in New York will come back to haunt them at home. You will not hear it from either man, but the Iranian regime as a whole is still split on what to do with the United States. Rouhani’s opponents back home are praying for him to bungle it in New York. It is not a new fight though. It dates back to the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Regardless of the faults of the Trump’s administration’s Iran policy, and there are a good few, this week Rouhani and Zarif will once again miss an opportunity to act big and bold toward the United States. Fearing the consequences of a photo-op with Trump is intrinsically petty. Both men know it, but they too are captives of the Islamic Republic’s cutthroat rivalries where the American question has always been more about intra-regime politics than anything else.
A UNGA without Netanyahu
For the first time in a decade, the upcoming UN General Assembly (UNGA) will be held in the absence of the outgoing Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. His theatrical speeches, complete with stage props, hand gestures, and choreographed intonations, will be replaced by the inarticulate, transient foreign minister, Yisrael Katz. The world — which frankly has already stopped paying attention to Netanyahu’s annual performance in New York — will not be listening.
Beyond the speeches, Israel’s UNGA agenda will be dominated, as usual, by Iran. The U.S.-Iran-Saudi showdown, following the unprecedented attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, is of critical interest to Israel. In fact, the main stage may well be taken this year by Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, who is slated to present forensic evidence of Iran’s direct involvement in the attack on his country. Katz will stand shoulder to shoulder with al-Jubeir and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in calling out Iran’s “act of war.” A few weeks ago, in the heat of the Israeli election campaign, Katz let slip that “Israel is part of the Gulf maritime security initiative.” Though no formal approval has since been released, there is no doubt of the like-mindedness on Iran among the “B-3+1” — the trio that Iran’s foreign minister Zarif calls “the B-team” — comprising Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, along with Secretary Pompeo.
Meanwhile, kinetic skirmishes between Iran and Israel have become almost a daily occurrence, spreading from Syria to Lebanon and into Iraq. Though Israel refrains from taking direct responsibility for most of these incidents, it is abundantly clear to all actors who is behind the sticks of the F-16s, F-35s or the various drones reportedly involved.
If the security situation in the Gulf continues to deteriorate, Israel will seek to move the U.S.-led strategy up at least a few notches, from “maximum pressure” to “maximum damage.”
Simultaneously, on the diplomatic front, Israel is acting to prevent any “freeze for freeze” mini-deal sponsored by French President Emmanuel Macron or other mediators. Katz will undoubtedly sound the alarm bells on such a “dangerous bad deal” from the UNGA podium.
The Palestinian issue will once again be marginalized, as Donald Trump and his peace plan await the formation of a new Israeli government.
Upon takeoff, Katz can gaze sadly at the UN building. He will — most likely — have seen it as a foreign minister for the last time. Iran, however, will doubtless be back at the top of the Israeli agenda at the next UNGA as well.
Erdogan pins his hopes on a meeting with Trump at UNGA
Director for Turkish Studies
The Turkey-U.S. relationship has been going through one of the most difficult periods in its history. Not only are there clashing interests and diverging policies, but something that has saved the partnership from the brink of collapse in the past is not there anymore. There are almost no constituencies on either side of the Atlantic that would push to mend ties. In Washington, the Congress, the defense establishment, and even many around President Donald Trump see Turkey as a country that has become increasingly problematic for U.S. national security interests. In Ankara, anti-Americanism has been at an all-time high across the board. Yet, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still hopeful. He has put all his eggs in President Trump’s basket and thinks it will pay off. He pinned his hopes on a meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), which the Turkish side has been pushing hard to arrange, to iron out differences.
Erdogan’s number one priority is to make sure the U.S. holds up its end of the safe zone deal reached between the two sides last month. Erdogan wants to use the zone to send back the millions of Syrian refugees Turkey is hosting. He will probably also use the opportunity to try to stave off sanctions passed by Congress to punish countries that make large purchases of Russian military hardware. Turkey purchased Russia’s S-400 missile system, prompting the U.S. to expel Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program. In an effort to appeal to Trump’s soft spot for Erdogan, Turkey’s president recently said his country was ready to purchase U.S.-made Patriots as well, although the U.S. has announced the Patriot deal was off the table.
To talk these issues through, Turkish diplomats have been working hard to arrange a meeting. Erdogan is not on the list of Trump’s official meetings with leaders at the UNGA. The plan is to host both leaders at a dinner organized by the Turkish-American Business Council at a fancy New York restaurant. But the American side seems less enthusiastic. Given the intractable nature of problems in Turkey-U.S. ties, the outcome of a meeting with Trump is unclear at best. At this point, even the prospect of a meeting is far from certain, paving the way for another round of crisis in Turkey-U.S. relations if Erdogan follows through on his promise of unilateral military action against northeastern Syria should the U.S. fail to act.
UN Summits Week puts a spotlight on climate change
Director, Climate Change, Environment, and Human Security program
This week heads of state and government are gathered in New York for the UN Summits Week, during which five key summits are taking place to urge action on major challenges that continue to undermine human security globally. In addition to the Climate Action Summit, which has kicked off the Summit Week today, also planned are the High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage, High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development, High-Level Review of the Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action (Samoa Pathway), and, underpinning them all, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit, which will be held tomorrow.
Climate action is a cornerstone of the UN’s agenda this year. The Climate Action Summit is an important precursor to international climate negotiations set under the 2015 Paris Agreement for 2020, when countries are expected to renew and raise their pledges for climate action, including on emissions reduction and on financing for climate-related adaptation in developing countries. Initially set to demonstrate and propel action plans to end increases in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and reach net zero emissions by mid century, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated when he announced the summit last year, the tone at the summit will be colored by the fresh findings of a new UN report released yesterday.
Prepared by leading global scientists from the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Sunday’s report shows a “glaring and growing gap” between climate action targets and reality. The report presents details of the current state of our planet’s climate, and trends in emissions of greenhouse gases and their concentrations in the atmosphere. According to the report, drivers and symptoms of planetary warming have accelerated, not abated, and global temperatures have risen to record levels over the last four years. The impacts are life-threatening, leading to greater risks to public health including through intensified heat waves, deeper air pollution, reduced agricultural yields, and food insecurity.
The scientists responsible for the WMO report are urging rapid and robust transformational action to curb global emissions and warming in order to avert the most disastrous consequences of irreversible climate system disturbances. Sunday’s report raises the bar even further after an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report approved in late 2018 stressed the need to aim for capping temperature increases at 1.5 degrees Celsius this century. Efforts to reduce emissions must be quadrupled for this target to be met. Yet the world is presently not on track to even cap the rise in temperature at 2 degrees Celsius. Emissions are not estimated to peak by 2020, let alone 2030. We are completely off track.
Despite the urgent need for much more comprehensive and serious climate action, alarm bells have been falling on deaf ears in some pivotal quarters of the globe.
The government of the U.S., the world’s second-largest coal producer and second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, supports greater expansion in coal production and in emissions generally. U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw the country from the Paris Agreement in which it had pledged to cut emission by 26-28% between 2005 and 2025. The U.S. is presently not on track to meet its climate targets that are critical for the successful implementation of a global mitigation agenda compatible with a rise in temperatures limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. U.S. President Trump, who was expected to skip today’s climate summit, “dropped by” for ten minutes this morning before departing for another event.
China, on the other hand, the world’s top coal producer and largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, is on track to meet its commitments and potentially have its emissions peak earlier than planned, before 2030. China is also expected to announce more ambitious emissions targets at today’s summit. Other countries expected to announce robust plans for emissions reductions include Germany and France.
The UN Climate Summit was preceded by the first-ever Youth Climate Summit last Saturday. Last week a global climate strike brought together millions of students to the streets across the world, demanding real climate action from politicians and corporations.
The UN Summit Week presents the world's countries, through their heads of state and government, with an important opportunity to push for the coalescence of much more ambitious commitments and serious demonstrable action, to place the world on the trajectory needed to achieve its vital human security goals, including climate action ones that are central to this global agenda.
Pakistan’s tricky balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran
Marvin G. Weinbaum
Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies
The Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing plant has put Pakistan in a place it never wanted to be: possibly forced to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The intensifying rivalry between these Gulf powers is challenging Pakistan’s efforts to maintain a roughly balanced foreign policy. Over four decades Islamabad governments have succeeded remarkably in navigating between the two countries, retaining close spiritual, economic, and military links with Saudi Arabia while holding to a normal, sometimes delicate relationship with neighboring Iran. Pakistan’s balancing act, if necessarily somewhat tilted toward Saudi Arabia, has been made possible because neither the Saudis nor the Iranians have insisted that ties to the other had to be severed as a condition of their friendship.
In a visit to Saudi Arabia on Sept. 19, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the strike on the oil facilities. In meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Khan proclaimed that Pakistan stands with the kingdom “in the event of a threat to its sanctity and security.” But conspicuously absent in the prime minister’s reported remarks was any reference to Iran, which Saudi Arabia accuses of launching the attack. In return for the Pakistani pledge, the Saudi king reiterated an also familiar refrain of solidarity with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.
Both countries’ assurances are less that meets the eye, however. Saudi Arabia has never pressured India on the Kashmir issue. For all that the kingdom values its bonds with Pakistan, it remains determined not to jeopardize its solid economic ties with India. For its part, Pakistan with its refusal in 2014 to participate militarily in the Saudi-led alliance in Yemen has demonstrated that it had no interest in a commitment that could, even if indirectly, put the country into conflict with Iran. Nor does Pakistan have any desire to become involved in the current standoff between the two Gulf countries.
But that said, last year an ever beholden Pakistan, faced with economic collapse, went begging to the Saudi crown prince for cash and came away with a critical $6 billion. Meanwhile, Islamabad feels pressed to distance itself from Iran by a Saudi-friendly American administration. An Afghanistan that fractures politically could find Pakistani and Iranian proxies pitted against one another. For the time being, Pakistan will no doubt try to continue with a foreign policy that balances Saudi Arabia and Iran, but likely with diminishing success.
US considers a second cyber attack on Iran
Michael Sexton and Eliza Campbell
Cyber Program, MEI
The Trump administration is reportedly considering launching another cyber attack against Iran to deter it from further aggression in the region. In June, the U.S. carried out a cyber attack on an Iranian paramilitary targeting database in retaliation for the downing of an American drone. Now, after the strike on the Saudi oil refinery at Abqaiq, a cyber attack is apparently the favored option to establish deterrence and avoid American entanglement in a protracted regional conflict.
Establishing deterrence through a cyber attack, however, would face serious obstacles.
Iranian leaders have declared their willingness to retaliate if attacked, and it is generally understood (including by the U.S. Defense Department) that a cyber attack can constitute an act of war. It is not clear how a cyber attack could be powerful enough to incentivize Iran to deescalate tensions without heightening its sense of vulnerability in relation to its neighbors.
The June cyber attack on Iran’s targeting database reportedly reduced its capacity to attack tankers in the Persian Gulf and did not escalate tensions substantially. However, it was also unambiguously a response to the attack on the U.S. drone, which Iran claimed responsibility for. Iran denies carrying out the attack on Abqaiq and public evidence of its responsibility remains limited. A retaliatory cyber attack on an Iranian drone command-and-control center (for example) would be viewed as unjustified and strategically damaging, likely raising the stakes for Iran to attack back.
Strategic analysts of cyber warfare are often skeptical of deterrence through cyberspace, especially deterrence by punishment. States often prefer cyber weapons because they are seen as less escalatory than physical attacks, but that preference applies to adversaries as well. After the U.S. and Israel attacked Iranian nuclear infrastructure with Stuxnet — an incredibly sophisticated operation that just as easily could have targeted Iran’s electric grid — Iran, utterly undeterred, established its own cyber offenses and has since attacked U.S. banks, the Sands Casino, and Saudi Aramco.
Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images