West Asia Round Up - September 2021
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Afghanistan and emergence of Taliban on the centre stage remained a key concern and priority for the international community and major actors and which was equally reflected in the West Asian leaders’ interventions at the UNGA apart from their own regional and bilateral challenges.

In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli PM Naftali Bennett claimed that Tehran had in recent years taken “a major leap forward” in its nuclear production capacity and ability to enrich weapons-grade uranium. “Iran’s nuclear weapon programme is at a critical point; all red lines have been crossed”. Iran on its part asked Tel Aviv to stop clandestine attacks on its nuclear facilities.

While US said that the window for Iran to return to JCPOA negotiations was fast closing the French officials asked Iran to return to talks with world powers over its 2015 nuclear deal to avoid a diplomatic escalation that could jeopardize the negotiations. The official also said Iran could not set new conditions before returning to the talks in Vienna as the terms on the table were clear.

Meanwhile, Tehran demanded US to unfreeze $10 bn for it to meet its exigencies as a goodwill gesture. Iranian officials said nuclear agreement “is no longer at the top of the regime’s priorities,” explaining that the Supreme National Security Council will determine the composition of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team. However, it is expected that the teams will return to negotiating table sooner that later.

According to the Director-General of Iran's Trade Promotion Organisation (TPO)'s Office of Arabian and African Countries, Farzad Piltan, the Islamic Republic's five Arab trade partners are Iraq with about $5.3 billion worth of exports, followed by the UAE with about $3.7 billion, Oman with exports worth $244 million, followed by Kuwait and Qatar. Piltan said China was Iran's top export destination.

Iran also joined SCO as a full member

As the Jordan’s King Abdullah II in nearly a decade had his first telephone call with President Assad, mediated by Iraqi PM, Jordan fully reopened its main border crossing with Syria on Wednesday in a boost for the struggling economies of both countries. The move follows a push by Arab states to rehabilitate Syria, which they have shunned during its decade-long civil war. UAE was one of the first to re-establish ties with Damascus.

Sudan had a failed coup

Foreign Minister of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Prince Faisal bin Farhan al Saud visited India and met his counterpart Dr S Jaishankar as well as called on PM. This is the first ministerial visit from Saudi Arabia to India since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both Ministers discussed all issues related to their bilateral relationship and regional and international issues of mutual interest. They reviewed the implementation of the Strategic Partnership Council Agreement signed between the two sides during the visit of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia in October 2019. They expressed satisfaction at the meetings held under the Agreement and progress achieved. Both sides discussed further steps to strengthen their partnership in trade, investment, energy, defence, security, culture, consular issues, health care and human resources.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a telephone conversation with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi H.H. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on September 3. Both leaders discussed regional issues of common concern. They agreed that there is no place for terrorism and extremism in the world and stressed the importance of international community standing together against such forces. PM conveyed his best wishes for the Expo 2020 starting October 1 in Dubai in which Indian Pavilion and presence will be remarkable. Later, United Arab Emirates and India have commenced their discussions on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which was announced during the visit of (Sept 27) of Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of State for Foreign Trade, who met India’s Minister of Commerce and Industry; Minister of Civil Aviation; Minister of Electronics and Information Technology; and Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of Finance, where the potential for deepening ties in trade, investment, technology and aviation were discussed.

More details:
Interventions by West Asian Leaders during Annual General Debate at UN General Assembly

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during his speech at UN General Assembly mentioned that the foreign policy priorities of the Kingdom are peace, security, stability, supporting dialogue and peaceful solutions. The state is keen to set up conditions for development and achieve the aspirations of people for a better future in the region. Saudi Arabia insisted that it would remain the top international donor contributing US$ 800 million to poorer states to combat COVID-19 crisis. The King mentioned the importance of keeping the region free of weapons of mass destruction by supporting international efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear weaponization programme. He brought up the subject of extremism and expressed its commitment to thwart religion-based violence. On Yemen, he blamed the Houthis for rejecting the peace initiatives offered by the UN to peacefully resolve the conflict.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani speaking at the UN General Assembly urged the international community to engage with the Taliban. He stated that boycotting Taliban would only lead to polarisation and reactions. According to him, there is urgent need for support to the Afghan people during this critical juncture and separate between humanitarian aid and political differences. He mentioned that it is Qatar’s humanitarian duty to evacuate thousands of people from Afghanistan and push for preserving tangible gains. His speech did not touch upon the conditions of women under Taliban rule.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khalifa Shaheen Al-Marar called for ending armed conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Libya. He opined for respecting the sovereignty of Arab states and reaching comprehensive political solutions under the ambit of the UN that remains the only way to end crises in the region. The Foreign Minister insisted that the UAE would utilise its relationship with Israel to stimulate economic growth and advance prosperity and stability for the people in the region. The UAE stressed that the normalisation would eventually benefit the Palestinians who have denounced the agreement. The UAE with regard to Iran stated that any future agreement between the Islamic Republic and world powers on the nuclear programme should involve the states in the region.

Yemen’s internationally recognised government under Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was represented by Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak at the UN General Assembly. He expressed support for the UN led peace process and pointed to Iran’s backing for the Houthis as part of the problem. With regard to COVID-19 crisis, Mubarak pressed on the need for more vaccines arguing that roughly 1 million doses it received is insufficient to vaccinate even the most vulnerable portions of the population.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaking at the UN called the US presence in the West Asian region as lack of rationality and detrimental to oppressed people from Palestine, Syria, Yemen to Afghanistan as well as the US taxpayers. The US sanctions according to Raisi is a new way of war with the nations of the world and a crime against humanity especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Raisi noted that despite sanctions, Tehran Research Reactor has succeeded in producing radiopharmaceuticals for treating cancer patients and developed its own COVID-19 vaccines. Raisi reminded the danger of terrorism and identified the root causes such as identity and economy. He called Israel as the organiser of the biggest state terrorism and suggested holding referendum with participation of all Palestinians of all religions and ethnicities including Muslims, Christians and Jews. Raisi assured that nuclear weapons have no place in its defence and deterrence policy suggesting that production and stockpiling of atomic weapons are forbidden in Iran by religious decree.

Syrian Foreign Affairs Minister Fayssal Mekdad during his speech on 27 September reaffirmed the state’s commitment to combat terrorism and restoring security and stability. He mentioned that the state is safe for the refugees to return and all relevant institutions are working towards that goal. He blamed the western states for their hypocritical attitude of pretending to care about the Syrians while extracting benefit from their suffering. He called for stopping cross border aid mechanism from Turkey. Mekdad argued that the US and Turkey while occupying its territories are looting its natural resources.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his speech talked about a more just world for both Turks and Muslims living in the US. He stressed on the possibility of a fairer world to accomplish its goal through cooperation, solidarity and humanity. With regard to Afghanistan, he pointed towards the failure and indifference of the US and asked who would pay the price for their irresponsible behaviour. Erdogan mentioned that his government is ready to engage with Afghanistan if Taliban is willing to form an inclusive government.

Erdogan’s speech at the UN raised eyebrows in India after he mentioned Turkey’s stance to solve the ongoing problem in Kashmir for 74 years through dialogue between parties and within the framework of relevant UN resolutions.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet during his first speech at the UN General Assembly called Israel as a lighthouse in a stormy sea and a beacon of democracy that is diverse by design, innovative by nature and eager to contribute to the world. He identified the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and polarisation as the biggest threat to Israel as well as rest of the world that has weakened public trust in institutions. He elaborated Israel’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 crisis. He mentioned that the state is surrounded by Hezbollah, Shiite militias, Islamic Jihad and Hamas that are backed and funded by Iran. He called by global efforts to halt Iran’s plans to dominate the region through its proxies. He recalled the role of the current Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in killing around 5000 political activists in 1988. Bennett expressed concerns over Iran’s progress in developing its nuclear R&D, production capacity and uranium enrichment levels.

Israeli Prime Minister reiterated that his government would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and hinted that it would do whatever is necessary to halt the nuclear programme. Bennet pushed US President Joe Biden to harden stance against Iran’s nuclear programme and its regional policy.

Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra during his speech called for holding referendum on self-determination for the disputed Western Sahara region. He assured support for the rights of the Sahrawi people and urged the UN to assume their legal responsibilities and guarantee their inalienable rights.

Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi during his speech tried to dispel fear about the political developments in the North African state. President Kais Saied in July 2021 suspended the parliament and consolidated political control. Jerandi argued that the state is facing deeply rooted political polarisation, corruption, socio-economic and health crisis which forced the President to take measures. He argued that the chronic problems facing the state has weakened the democratic process, state institutions and judicial system. The Foreign Minister assured that Saied’s efforts would put the state back on the right path towards democracy. In case of Libya, Tunisia suggested that it is willing to provide support to complete the political track and meet their political and electoral obligations.

Developments in Yemen

In South Yemen, protests erupted in Aden and Hadramawt governorates in mid-September over deteriorating living conditions, widespread poverty and power cuts. The protest turned violent following which security forces fired live ammunition towards protestors killing two in Aden and one died in Mukalla. There were several instances of stone pelting, road blockades and arson by protestors in Khour Maksour, Crater and Sheikh Othman districts.

The street protests have been supported by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) that has called for bigger demonstrations against Abdrabbuh Hadi government. The power-sharing deal between Hadi government and STC brokered by Saudi Arabia has reached a fragile state in the current period.

In northern Yemen, Houthi forces has re-launched offensive in Al Bayda governorate and succeeded in taking key strategic sites in Bayhan district in neighbouring Shabwah governorate. Houthi forces succeeded in claiming control over Ain, Bayhan, Usaylan districts in the Shabwah governorate. In Marib governorate, clashes were reported by Houthis and Hadi government’s forces.

Syrian Conflict

In North West Syria, the Islamist group Ansar Abu Bakr Al Saddiq Brigade attacked a Turkish armoured vehicle using IED on the Bennsh Idlib road killing three Turkish soldiers. At the same time, Russian warplanes conducted airstrikes against Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) locations in Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo and Hama. In separate attacks, HTS killed Syrian and Russian soldiers. On 14 September, three Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) fighters were killed in drone strike.

Israel Palestine Conflict

On 6 September, six Palestinian prisoners including one former leader of Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and five Islamic Jihad members escaped from Israel’s Gilboa prison. The escape was seen as a major security and intelligence failure. The prisoners dug a hole in the floor of their bathroom leading to a hollow space underneath the prison and reached the outer wall. According to Shin Bet, the prisoners were picked up in a car. The jail-break was seen as a major embarrassment for the Israeli security establishment.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called it a grave incident requiring an across-the-board effort by the security forces. Israeli security forces by 19 September had captured all six prisoners. The last two prisoners were arrested from Jenin. Palestinians in Jenin clashed with Israeli troops and threw stones and explosives at the troops. In other parts of West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians took out marches in support of the prisoners.

Notably, after the first two prisoners were arrested on 11 September, at least one rocket was launched towards Israel which was intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system. Israeli fighter jets conducted retaliatory strikes on Hamas positions in Gaza. There was no reported loss of lives.

Israeli Embassy opens in Bahrain

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Manama on 30 September to inaugurate its embassy. Incidentally, Bahraini air carrier Gulf Air flight made its maiden flight to Israel the same day. Foreign Minister Lapid met with King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa to discuss avenues to further deepen the relations. Bahrain along with the UAE, Sudan and Morocco normalised relations with Israel in 2020. Bahrain considers Iran as an existential threat and engagement with Israel including in the sphere of security could help the Gulf state to ward off Iran’s overtures.

School teachers protest in Iran

School teachers in Iran protested throughout the state in the first week of September demanding better working conditions, better salaries and government action to stop high rates of inflation. Teachers are demanding implementation of a new law for ranking teachers based on their qualifications that would reciprocate in their salary scales. The law has already been passed by the parliament’s education committee. The approval process of the law has been slow likely because it could create a new financial obligation for the Iranian government.

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