West Asia Roundup: May 2024
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

India and Iran signed a Chabahar port management contract for a ten-year period which had been agreed to during PM Modi’s visit in 2016 but took time to formalize. This will ensure India’s access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. US indicated that the companies engaging in the project could be subject to secondary sanctions, however, New Delhi hopes that it will be able to convince Washington of its broader import as was done earlier when US appreciated the significance of Chabahar port.

Iran lost its President Raisi and Foreign Minister Abdollahian in a helicopter crash when they were returning after inaugurating a hydro project in collaboration with Azerbaijan where President Aliyev was also present. All the regional countries expressed solidarity with Iran.

Iran and UAE held their JCM indicating the ongoing cooperation despite US sanctions. During 2023 Iran imported $20.8 bn exported $6.6 bn with UAE as its biggest import destination.

Israel-Hamas war continued with more Palestinian casualties as IDF pushed beyond Rafah border and tensions with Egypt also escalated as their Peace deal came under stress and Egypt joined South Africa at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case of genocide against Israel. ICJ also ordered Israel to stop Rafah operations. Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal court (ICC) also processed for warrant of arrests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders. This also brought condemnation from Israelis as well as Americans who are themselves not members of ICC but the Germans, who have been supporting Israel all along, stated that they will execute the warrants, if issued. Pressure was mounted on Hamas and Israel to agree to a ceasefire deal which was being worked out by Egypt, Qatar and the US. Doha even threatened that Hamas political leadership will have to relocate if they did not agree. Although Hamas agreed Netanyahu declined. His war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant also gave warnings to Netanyahu to clearly outline the ‘day after plan and strategy by June 8. Turkey also stopped all trade with Israel.

As USA vetoed a UNSC resolution for full membership of UN for Palestine, Spain, Ireland and Norway recognised State of Palestine taking the tally to 146 countries. Israel reacted strongly and recalled Ambassadors while warning of consequences. Latin American countries are also in the forefront as Colombia and Brazil cut off ties. Belgian PM called for economic sanctions against Israel.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) postponed his visit to Japan reportedly due to the ill health of King Salman.

President Erdogan of Türkiye’s visit to Greece is expected to reduce tensions between the two NATO members.

China hosted the 20th anniversary of China Arab States Cooperation Forum (CACSF) meet with the presence of leaders from UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia as well as foreign ministers of other member countries. Three joint statements – the Beijing Declaration, the CASCF execution plan for 2024-2026, and a China-Arab states joint statement on the Palestinian issue – underscored the mutual intent to perpetuate their friendship, deepen cooperation, and fortify political trust for the future. Bilateral trade between the two sides has witnessed remarkable growth, escalating from $36.7 billion in 2004 to $431.4 billion in 2022. The theme of the conference was Working Toward a China-Arab Community with a Shared Future.


At the UNGA India voted for the UNGA resolution for the UNSC to reconsider full membership of Palestine. Prime Minister Modi, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar expressed their deep condolences to the Iranian leadership and people in their hour of grief.Vice President Dhankhar attended the funeral of President Raisi and also met the interim Iranian President .
Libyan Dy Minister of Oil visited India to discuss bilateral relations and urged Indian oil majors to return to Libya.

India -Iran Deal on Chahbahar Port

On 17 May, India signed a 10-year deal to develop Iran’s Chabahar Port during a visit by India’s Shipping Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, aiming to boost trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia by bypassing Pakistan. The US hinted at sanctions, but India downplayed tensions. Chabahar is crucial for India's regional connectivity, and enhancing trade routes is vital for its manufacturing industry. Chabahar also counters China’s influence via Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. While US sanctions previously impacted India’s dealings with Iran, India aims to protect its strategic interests despite potential US sanctions.

Iranian President and Foreign Minister Killed in Plane Crash

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian died in a helicopter crash in East Azerbaijan province on 21 May. The crash, which killed six others, occurred in foggy conditions. Iranians mourned at a farewell procession in Tabriz, with funeral ceremonies planned in multiple cities. The investigation focussed on weather conditions and technical issues, not sabotage. Questions arise about the age and suitability of the helicopter, given Iran's challenges in obtaining new aircraft due to international sanctions. The crash prompts scrutiny of why the flight proceeded in adverse weather.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei confirmed Mohammad Mokhber as interim president after Ebrahim Raisi's death. Mokhber, previously the first vice president, is appointed per the constitution. He must collaborate to elect a new president within 50 days. Ali Bagheri Kani, the lead nuclear negotiator, was appointed as acting foreign minister.

Israel-Hamas Conflict

Hamas, on 27 May, launched rockets at Tel Aviv, triggering sirens for the first time in months. The Israeli military reported eight rockets from Rafah, Gaza, with several intercepted. Hamas' Qassam Brigades claimed the attack, citing "Zionist massacres against civilians." Despite claims of control in Rafah, the rocket attack questions Israeli military assertions. Israeli forces have destroyed "over 50 terror targets" across Gaza and raided a weapons depot in Jabalia. Analyst Akiva Eldar suggests the attack might strengthen Prime Minister Netanyahu’s justification for continued military operations in Rafah.

Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, on 29 May stated that the war on the Gaza Strip is expected to last another seven months to dismantle Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). This comes as Israel faces global isolation and even criticism from close allies over the high civilian death toll. Hanegbi justified operations in Rafah, calling it a "smuggling kingdom" since 2007 after Hamas began governing the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces now control the Philadelphi Corridor. Egypt, worried about the peace treaty, criticized Israel's actions. The offensive has killed dozens, caused a humanitarian crisis, and led to widespread hunger. Despite international pressure, Israel continues its operations, with recent attacks killing numerous civilians and destroying essential services in Gaza.

Divisions have erupted within Israel's war cabinet over Gaza's post-war plans. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant opposes Israeli control or governance of Gaza. Prime Minister Netanyahu aims to defeat Hamas before discussing Gaza's future. Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid criticizes the government's lack of control and collapsing relations with the US.

Egyptian Soldier Killed in Exchange of Fire with IDF

The exchange of fire between Israeli and Egyptian forces killed one Egyptian soldier on 27 May. Egyptian authorities are investigating the death of a security team member in a shooting near the Rafah border. Israel's military is also probing reports of an exchange of fire between Israeli and Egyptian personnel. Israel seized control of the Rafah border crossing from the Palestinian side in May amid its offensive in Gaza, drawing international criticism, including from Egypt. This has raised security concerns for Egypt, a key partner with Israel since their 1979 peace treaty. The situation in Rafah, crowded with refugees from Gaza, has escalated tensions. Recent Israeli bombings in Rafah and other areas have killed 205 Palestinians, including many women and children, leading to renewed calls for a ceasefire.

Attack in Syria

A car explosion in Damascus's Mezze district on 25 May killed one person. The Mezze neighbourhood recently saw an Israeli Strike on the Iranian consulate, killing seven, including two Iranian generals and a Hezbollah member, escalating regional tensions. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights identified the explosion victim as a Syrian army officer with close ties to Iran. Hours later, an Israeli drone targeted a car and truck near Qusayr, killing two Hezbollah fighters. Israel has conducted numerous air raids in Syria since 2011, increasing since the conflict with Gaza began.

ICJ and ICC case against Israel

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 24 May ordered Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah and withdraw from Gaza, citing immense risk to the Palestinian population. South Africa brought the case, accusing Israel of genocide. The ICJ's president, Nawaf Salam, emphasized the disastrous humanitarian situation and the need for UN observers. Despite the ruling, Israel's Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Israel would continue its operations. Palestinian Authority welcomed the decision. The ICJ's rulings are binding but have no enforcement mechanism. This marks the third such order this year amid the ongoing conflict that began with Hamas's attack on Israel on October 7.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan on 20 May applied for arrest warrants against top Israeli and Hamas leaders for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant are accused of using starvation as a method of warfare against Palestinians, while Hamas leaders are accused of overseeing attacks on Israeli communities. The move marks the first time the ICC has sought to indict leaders of a US ally. Israel and Hamas have rejected the accusations, with Hamas calling them unfair and Israel condemning them as anti-Semitic. The US backed Israel, while South Africa has supported the ICC's move. Arrest warrants, if issued, could limit the accused's travel, but the ICC lacks enforcement power.

Colombia and Brazil Cut off Ties with Israel.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro on 1 May announced plans to sever diplomatic ties with Israel over its Gaza war, labelled by experts as potentially genocidal. Petro, part of Latin America's progressive "pink tide," criticized Israel's actions since the conflict's onset. He previously clashed with Israeli officials, accusing them of using Nazi-like language and committing genocide. Colombia sought to join an ICJ case against Israel for genocide, prioritizing Palestinian protection. Colombian president on 23 May ordered the opening of an embassy in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, as announced by Foreign Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo. In October, Israel halted security exports to Colombia after Petro's comments comparing Israeli actions to Nazi rhetoric. Bolivia broke relations with Israel at the end of October 2023, while several other countries in Latin America, including Chile and Honduras, have recalled their ambassadors.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on 29 May, withdrew his country’s ambassador to Israel. Lula, a frequent critic of Israel's offensive, compared it to the Holocaust, leading to a reprimand from Israel. Ambassador Frederico Meyer was reassigned to Geneva. Lula faced domestic criticism but received support from Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who also severed ties with Israel. Brazil and Colombia back South Africa’s complaint to the ICJ alleging Israel’s actions breach the Genocide Convention.

Spain, Norway, and Ireland Recognise Palestinian State

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on 28 May declared the establishment of a Palestinian state as "the only route to peace" in the Middle East. Spain, alongside Norway and Ireland, formally recognized Palestine. Sanchez emphasized historical justice and the necessity of a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Norway's Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide called the recognition a milestone, while Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris highlighted it as a signal for peace. Israel condemned these actions, recalling its ambassadors from the three countries. Palestine is now recognized by 144 nations, with other EU members and countries like the UK and Australia considering similar steps.

UN General Assembly Backs Palestine’s Full Membership

The UN General Assembly on 10 May endorsed Palestine's bid for full UN membership, urging the Security Council to reconsider. The resolution garnered 143 votes in favour, with the US and Israel among the nine against. While not granting full membership, it acknowledges Palestine's eligibility. Palestinian leaders see it as a step toward global recognition. Israel's UN ambassador condemned it, accusing the UN of embracing a "terror state." The vote reflects global divisions, with some supporting Palestine and others influenced by US pressure.

Israel Closes Al Jazeera News Channel

Israel's cabinet on 6 May voted to close Al Jazeera's operations in the country, seizing its equipment and banning its broadcasts, citing a law allowing it to shutter foreign media seen as security threats. The move follows a month after the law's passing and coincides with sensitive Israel-Hamas negotiations. Al Jazeera condemned the shutdown, calling it a "criminal act" violating press freedom. Equipment seized includes cameras and servers, restricting Al Jazeera's reporting in Israel and occupied territories. Israel's action is seen as an attempt to silence critical coverage amid ongoing conflicts.

The Arab League Calls for a Peacekeeping Force in Palestinian Territories

The Arab League heads of state and government, meeting in Bahrain on 16 May, called for a UN peacekeeping force in Palestinian territory amid ongoing Israeli assaults in Gaza until a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is implemented. They urged an immediate end to the violence, blaming Israel for obstructing ceasefires. President El-Sisi of Egypt criticized military solutions. The League reiterates support for a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. They called for all Palestinian factions to unite under the PLO. The League condemned attacks on ships by Yemen's Houthis, expressing commitment to ensuring Red Sea navigation.

The US Congress Expands the Definition of Anti-Semitism

The US House of Representatives on 1 May passed a bill expanding the definition of anti-Semitism based on the IHRA's guidelines. Critics fear it could suppress campus protests against Israel. The IHRA's definition includes targeting Israel as anti-Semitic but allows criticism similar to that of any other country. Civil liberties groups, like the ACLU, argue that existing laws already protect against anti-Semitism and that the bill could stifle free speech. Some representatives, including Democrat Jerry Nadler and Republican Thomas Massie, raised concerns about the bill's broad scope and lack of clarity on specific language.

Canada Sanctions Israeli Settlers

Canada, on 16 May, announced sanctions on four Israeli settlers in the West Bank amid a surge in settler violence against Palestinians during Israel's Gaza war. David Chai Chasdai, Yinon Levi, Zvi Bar Yosef, and Moshe Sharvit face sanctions for their involvement in violence against Palestinians. Western countries, including the US, are growing impatient with Israel's failure to address settler attacks. While the US sanctioned a few settlers in February, it has resisted broader measures. Settler attacks on Palestinians have risen, often unchecked by Israeli forces. Palestinians see settler violence and Israeli policies as part of a shared effort to displace them and expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Israeli violence in the occupied West Bank has claimed at least 502 Palestinian lives since October 7, with raids and settler attacks exacerbating tensions. Israeli policy, termed "apartheid" by Palestinians and rights groups, includes illegal settlements restricting Palestinian movement and land ownership.

France Prohibits Israeli Firms from the Defence Expo

France on 31 May banned Israeli companies from the Eurosatory arms and defence exhibition in Villepinte, near Paris, citing opposition to Israel's assault on Rafah in southern Gaza. The French Defence Ministry linked the decision to President Emmanuel Macron's call for Israel to cease operations in Rafah. Seventy-four Israeli firms were set to attend, with around ten exhibiting weapons. This follows Israel's bombing of a displaced persons camp in Rafah, which killed 45 people and drew international outrage. The International Court of Justice has ordered Israel to halt its attacks on Rafah, where the humanitarian crisis is worsening.

French Trial against Bashar Al Assad Regime Officials

France, on 21 May, initiated its first trial against officials from the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, with three top security officers tried in absentia for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Paris Criminal Court is hearing cases against Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, subject to international arrest warrants. They are accused of involvement in the deaths of Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, arrested in Damascus in 2013. The trial marks a significant step in addressing Syrian authorities' crimes, with more than half a million killed since the conflict erupted in 2011.

Violence in Sudan

In Sudan, in May, at least 134 people have died, and over 900 have been wounded, in el-Fasher, North Darfur, amid fierce fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF, originating from the Janjaweed militia, seeks control of el-Fasher, the last remaining regional capital not under their control. Ex-Darfur rebel leaders Minni Minnawi and Jibril Ibrahim have joined the SAF to repel the RSF. Sudan has been in conflict since April 2023, causing over 14,000 deaths and displacing nine million people. The United States on 15 May sanctioned two commanders of Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) amid escalating violence in North Darfur. According to the US Department of the Treasury, Ali Yagoub Gibril and Osman Mohamed Hamid Mohamed face sanctions for their roles in expanding conflicts. The RSF's actions, including encircling el-Fasher, have heightened tensions with the Sudanese Armed Forces. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the risk to over 800,000 civilians in el-Fasher. Rights groups accuse both the RSF and Sudanese Armed Forces of war crimes, with the RSF allegedly responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in West Darfur, mainly targeting the Masalit community in el-Geneina.

Turkey-Greece Bilateral Meeting

In a recent meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Ankara on 13 May, both leaders emphasized a positive agenda despite longstanding disagreements over maritime boundaries, energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean, flights over the Aegean Sea, and the division of Cyprus. While discussing Israel's Gaza war, they disagreed on the status of Hamas, with Erdogan supporting it as a "resistance movement." Tensions between Turkey and Greece have historic roots, with recent disputes over maritime rights and Cyprus. However, recent diplomatic efforts, including mutual assistance during earthquakes, have aimed at easing tensions.

Turkey Crushes Public Protests

Police in Istanbul dispersed May Day protesters attempting to reach Taksim Square, arresting 210 people. President Erdogan had banned rallies in the square, erecting tall metal barriers. Demonstrators clashed with police near city hall, demanding access to Taksim, a historic protest site. Turkey's top court ruled that the square's closure for protests violated citizens' rights in 2023. Main roads were closed, public transport halted, and landmarks were cordoned off. Opposition parties and unions urged access to Taksim for labour rallies, but Erdogan warned against provocation. Opposition leaders gathered, affirming workers' right to celebrate May Day at Taksim.

Kuwait's Emir Dissolves Parliament

Kuwait's emir Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved parliament on 11 May, assuming some of its duties amid corruption concerns. He suspended parts of the constitution for up to four years, citing challenges in governance. The move follows disputes between parliament and the cabinet, hindering reforms. Elections in April were the first under Sheikh Mishal, who took power last December. The failure to form a government led to the emir's intervention, aiming to "save the country" from turmoil.

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