Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
From left: Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Nikos Christodoulides of Cyprus, Nikos Dendias of Greece, Gabi Ashkenazi of Israel, and advisor to the President of the UAE Anwar Gargash in Paphos, Cyprus on April 16, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 18 April 2021

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
  • Foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus, UAE met in Paphos on Friday
  • ‘Greater Mediterranean region emerging based on new partnerships, initiatives,’ expert tells Arab News

ATHENS: Common interests are bringing together regional coalitions of like-minded countries in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean — favoring stability, combating extremism and respecting international law — in bilateral and multilateral formats.

The latest examples of this diplomatic activism are the meeting of the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the UAE that took place on Friday; and the forthcoming visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos to Saudi Arabia.

The four-way talks in the Cypriot city of Paphos marked the first time that the UAE had participated in one of the multilateral forums that have been created in the eastern Mediterranean since 2010.

In Riyadh, Dendias and Panagiotopoulos will sign a Status of Forces Agreement that will pave the way for the development of a Patriot-2 antimissile battery in Saudi Arabia in order to help the Kingdom in its fight against the Houthi militia in neighboring Yemen.

“The evolving web of regional cooperation is creating a new narrative, one that is cracking the glass ceiling of the prevailing, restrictive narrative of our neighborhood as a region of turmoil, conflict and crisis,” said Nikos Christodoulides, Cypriot foreign minister and host of the Paphos meeting.

The four-way talks will benefit from the recent normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE, and could offer an opportunity for the latter to join other regional efforts.

“A partnership that comprises both Israel and the UAE is very important for regional stability,” said Dendias. “We also welcome other regional initiatives undertaken with the aim of regional peace, such as the AlUla Accord, as well as the Saudi initiative that aims at bringing peace to the conflict in Yemen.”

Spyridon N. Litsas, professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia in Greece, and at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, told Arab News: “The meeting of Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel in Paphos signals two main facts. Firstly, the UAE and Israel seem able and willing to jointly contribute to the stabilization of the region. Secondly, smart diplomatic deterrence is taking a more definitive shape, and is oriented toward countering Turkish revisionism in the region.”

Ankara’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, and its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, have raised regional concerns.

“Alliances are formed either to balance the threat of an aggressor, or to balance the power of a revisionist actor,” Litsas said.

“Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel prove that alliances can also be formed on the basis of a smart approach toward Αnkara’s atavism. Turkey produces more revisionism than neighboring states can tolerate.”

The visit of Greece’s foreign and defense ministers to Riyadh has been long in the making, having been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Athens wants to enhance its defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as it has done with the UAE.

Saudi F-15 fighter aircraft were stationed in Greece’s Souda Bay airbase last summer, and the two countries have engaged in political consultations at the highest level.

Athens aims to advance its role in linking the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. “A Greater Mediterranean region is emerging based on new partnerships and initiatives linking the Gulf with Mediterranean states,” Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus, told Arab News.

“Greece is in the middle of this important development that’s based on common interests and viewpoints, which include viewing Turkey as an increasingly unpredictable actor and Iran as a potentially serious, even existential threat.”

In February, “Athens established the Philia (Friendship) Forum, comprising Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Tziampiris.

“Greece is coming, without any doubt, closer to several Gulf countries aiming to contribute to regional stability.”


IAEA report says samples from Iran's Natanz plant showed 63% uranium enrichment level

IAEA report says samples from Iran's Natanz plant showed 63% uranium enrichment level
Updated 6 min 34 sec ago

IAEA report says samples from Iran's Natanz plant showed 63% uranium enrichment level

IAEA report says samples from Iran's Natanz plant showed 63% uranium enrichment level

Reuters: A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency says samples taken from Natanz showed 63% uranium enrichment


Iranian president slams new election criteria

Iranian president slams new election criteria
Updated 11 May 2021

Iranian president slams new election criteria

Iranian president slams new election criteria
  • Rouhani: Age restrictions ‘too narrow’
  • Critics say comments are charade to conjure mirage of democracy

LONDON: Iran’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani has slammed the country’s electoral criteria as “too narrow” ahead of June elections.

But dissidents and critics say his comments are a charade designed to give legitimacy to an autocratic regime and conjure a mirage of democracy in the country.

Rouhani, who is set to relinquish his position before the election, said Iran’s 12-member Guardian Council had “no legal authority” to impose new criteria excluding candidates aged younger than 40 and older than 75. 

He urged the Interior Ministry, which oversees electoral registrations, to bypass the council’s new age controls.

Their most noticeable effect will be the prevention of Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, minister of communications and information technology, from standing for president. 

Critics have long said the Guardian Council has the power to block candidates based on other criteria, including simple disapproval by the country’s religious leadership.

Council member Siamak Raphik defended the age criteria, saying the body is “the sole custodian of the eligibility of candidates.” 

Iran’s list of approved electoral candidates will be revealed on May 26 following an appeal period.

Before the last presidential election in 2017, 1,636 people registered to run, a massive increase compared with 686 in 2013. But after inspection by the Guardian Council, just six candidates were allowed to stand. 

And despite many women putting their names forward during elections, not a single one has ever been allowed to stand in Iran’s history.

This year’s election will take place amid widespread public disillusionment, a fourth wave of coronavirus and middle-class animosity, meaning low voter turnout is highly likely. The turnout in last year’s parliamentary election dropped to a record low of 42 percent.

Currently, more than 30 political figures have declared a campaign to run for president, including key members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Several major politicians have yet to announce their intentions, as they test support and seek final intelligence on whether they have sufficient approval. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said he wants the eventual president to be “young and pious.”


US Treasury Targets Hezbollah finance official and shadow bankers in Lebanon

US Treasury Targets Hezbollah finance official and shadow bankers in Lebanon
Updated 11 May 2021

US Treasury Targets Hezbollah finance official and shadow bankers in Lebanon

US Treasury Targets Hezbollah finance official and shadow bankers in Lebanon

The US Treasury Department on Tuesday imposed sanctions on seven Lebanese nationals it said were connected to the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah movement and its financial firm, Al-Qard al-Hassan (AQAH).

The Treasury in a statement said it had blacklisted Ibrahim Ali Daher, the chief of Hezbollah's Central Finance Unit, as a specially designated global terrorist alongside six people it accused of using the cover of personal accounts at Lebanese banks to evade sanctions targeting AQAH.

"Hezbollah continues to abuse the Lebanese financial sector and drain Lebanon’s financial resources at an already dire time," Andrea Gacki, director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in the statement.

The Treasury also blacklisted Ahmad Mohamad Yazbeck, Abbas Hassan Gharib, Wahid Mahmud Subayti, Mostafa Habib Harb, Ezzat Youssef Akar, and Hasan Chehadeh Othman in connection with Hezbollah and its financial firm.

The move freezes any US assets of those blacklisted and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. Those who engage in certain transactions with the designated individuals also risk being hit with secondary sanctions.


Iraq’s protest leaders forced into hiding by pro-Iran militia death threats

An Iraqi protester wearing the DC comic Joker character's mask poses for a picture during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad, November 23, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
An Iraqi protester wearing the DC comic Joker character's mask poses for a picture during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad, November 23, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 7 min 24 sec ago

Iraq’s protest leaders forced into hiding by pro-Iran militia death threats

An Iraqi protester wearing the DC comic Joker character's mask poses for a picture during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad, November 23, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
  • October 2019 marked the beginning of the biggest grassroots social movement in Iraq’s modern history 
  • Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and other pro-Iran militias crushed the protests through murder and intimidation

IRBIL/BOGOTA: Mustafa Makki Karim, 24, fled Baghdad for the relative safety of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region last year following a spate of death threats by pro-Iran groups for his role in the protest movement that erupted against government corruption and incompetence in October 2019.

During the unrest that followed, the young activist earned the moniker “Joker” for the clown mask he wore to hide his identity as he and his “Armored Division of Tahrir” defended their camp in Baghdad’s Victory Square.

“I left my life, my family, my friends, my future for my country and for the souls of the people we lost,” Karim told Arab News from the safety of his Irbil bedsit. He took a bullet in his leg and lost sight in one eye after Iraqi troops fired birdshot into the crowd.

Iraqi demonstrators wave national flags as they take part in an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad's Tahrir Square, on December 6, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

Now Karim and others like him have been forced into hiding — nursing injuries he sustained in clashes with security forces and militia thugs, fearful for those who chose to remain behind.

Their fears are hardly unfounded. On May 9, Ihab Al-Wazni, a coordinator of protests in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, was killed outside his home by men on motorbikes. A vocal opponent of corruption and Iran’s influence in Iraq, Al-Wazni was a key figure of the protest campaign.

October 2019 marked the beginning of the biggest grassroots social movement in Iraq’s modern history. Fed up with a corrupt ruling elite, seen as beholden to foreign powers, the young Iraqis who came of age following the fall of Saddam marched in their hundreds of thousands in cities across the country, demanding the overthrow of the post-2003 order.

Scenes of defiance played out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, with pitched battles between protesters and security forces on the adjoining bridges leading to the fortified Green Zone, where government officials and foreign diplomats watched with unease.

Around 600 people were killed as a result of their association with the protest movement — many on the streets during rallies, others targeted on their doorsteps away from the rallies.

According to Amnesty International, the global human rights monitor, hundreds of people were killed by live ammunition, military-grade teargas canisters and other weapons deemed inappropriate for civilian crowd control. Many soldiers and police officers were wounded by lumps of concrete and petrol bombs thrown by protesters.

“I started to protest to end this corrupt political class,” Karim told Arab News. “My life was totally changed by the protests. I was a university student. I celebrated graduation in Tahrir Square. I used to go from Tahrir to my university to do my exams and then go back to the demonstrations.”

An Iraqi demonstrator draped in his country's national flag stands next to burning tyres during ongoing anti-government protests in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, on February 12, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

The iconic clown mask, popularized by the 2019 US crime thriller “Joker” starring Joaquin Phoenix, has cropped up in protests across the world as a symbol of rebellion against indifferent and sneering elites.

Pro-Iran media outlets in Iraq even labeled the young protesters “joker gangs” and accused them of receiving support from the US to overthrow the Iraqi state. The reality of course was that key branches of the Iranian regime had unleashed their paramilitary proxies on the protesters to maintain their stranglehold over Iraq.

“I used to hide my identity. For a few months, no one knew I was the Joker. But my uncle told the militias about me. He was with Saraya Al-Salam,” Karim said, referring to the Mahdi Army, the erstwhile militia led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.

Demonstrations erupted in October 2019 in Iraq's capital Baghdad and across its Shiite-majority south, railing against government graft and a lack of jobs. (AFP/File Photo)

“Suddenly I was a wanted man at checkpoints and there is a court case against me by Asaib Ahl Al-Haq,” he added, alluding to an Iran-backed militia known to have deployed fighters to Syria in support of the Assad regime.

“The names and pictures of me, my brother, and my cousin were on the street. They were placed there by Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. Our house was attacked with bullets.”

IRAQ: AT A GLANCE

* 30 - Activists who have died since October 2019.

* 12.83% - Unemployment rate.

* 25.17% - Youth unemployment rate.

Source: Statista

Rather than back down, Karim removed his mask. “I took the decision to reveal my identity on TV. I told them who I am and what I do. I and others were on the front line to stop forces who wanted to break into Tahrir Square.”

After initial successes, including the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and having earned widespread international sympathy, the movement began to fragment.

Bereft of clear leadership, divided on strategy, and intimidated by heavy-handed policing and political assassinations, the final nail in the movement’s coffin was the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Ahmed Latif Taher, an Iraqi youth forced to flee to the Kurdistan region following pro-Iran militia threats for his role in the protest movement. (AN Photo/Kareem Botane)

On the first anniversary of the “Tishreen revolution” in October 2020, Karim and other activists still camped out in the square attempted to re-energize their dwindling movement. But their attempts to march on the Green Zone were foiled by security forces who retook Tahrir.

With the rebellion quashed by pro-Iran forces and an elite determined to hold onto power at any cost, those who had taken part and openly criticized the all-powerful militias now faced retribution.

As assassins picked off the protest leaders one by one, Karim knew he had to flee. Even his family were forced to move to a different city to avoid collective punishment.

“The militias have called for my death. There is no way I can go back to any Iraqi cities outside Kurdistan,” he said. “I don’t have any future here in Iraq. All militias are chasing me, specifically Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. They want to kill me.”

Mustafa Makki Karim, 24, fled Baghdad for the relative safety of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region last year following a spate of death threats by pro-Iran groups for his role in anti-government protests. Now in Irbil, he swipes through photos of himself in his Joker mask during more hopeful days in Tahrir Square. (AN Photo/Kareem Botane)

And the threats are very real. Thaer Karim Al-Tayeb from Al-Diwaniyah, a town just east of Iraq’s shrine city of Najaf, was mortally wounded by a car bomb for his role in the movement.

“His dream was to have a job with the ministry of oil and to get married to his girlfriend,” Al-Tayeb’s brother Malik told Arab News. “But the militias assassinated him with an explosive device that was put in his car on Dec. 14, 2019.

“He stayed in hospital for nine days before he died. We don’t know who targeted him. We don’t have evidence of who did this. I even met with the prime minister, the minister of interior and the governor of Diwaniyah and security commanders. There were no results. Only fake promises. Instead, I received threats.”

Justice for Al-Tayeb, it seemed, was simply out of reach. “After the death of my brother, a man with his face covered approached me on a motorbike,” said Malik. “He told me that I needed to stop pursuing the case of my brother’s death.”

Thaer Karim Al-Tayeb, from Al-Diwaniyah, a town just east of Iraq’s shrine city of Najaf, was mortally wounded by a car bomb on Dec. 14, 2019 for his role in the movement. His brother is still searching for justice. (AN Photo/Kareem Botane)

Few doubt an Iranian intelligence connection to the campaign of suppression and intimidation, which uses the tactics deployed by Tehran against protesters when they dare rebel.

“Militias and the countries that support them want to create chaos in the country,” said Ahmed Latif Taher, another Iraqi youth forced to flee to the Kurdistan region. “We know the government and the militias are the same.”

But fighting the pro-Iran militias head-on would prove disastrous, he told Arab News. Instead, he wants the international community to keep up the pressure on the Iranian regime so that it ceases its extraterritorial activities in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

“We don’t want to have an armed revolution in any way that will destroy the country. It will be another Syria here. We don’t want that,” Taher said. “They have enough weapons to exterminate the people. They would kill to stay in power. We need a UN intervention to pressure Iran to take its hands off the region.”

A 23-year-old unemployed Iraqi man, wearing face-paint modeled after DC comic book and film character “The Joker,” poses for a picture with a makeshift riot shield bearing text in Arabic reading “Tahrir Shield Division,” during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad in November 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

As Iraq grapples with a fresh COVID-19 wave, with an economy and infrastructure left shattered by decades of war and mismanagement, the grievances of the protesters remain unaddressed.

“I do not regret my participation in the demonstrations,” Karim said as he scrolled through photographs of his masked alter ego on his phone, decked out in body armor in Tahrir Square.

“There is more awareness among people in Iraq after the demonstrations. Day after day we win people over to our side. Even people who work for the militias.”


UK FM condemns Gaza rockets, not Israel

UK FM condemns Gaza rockets, not Israel
Updated 11 May 2021

UK FM condemns Gaza rockets, not Israel

UK FM condemns Gaza rockets, not Israel
  • Dozens of Palestinians killed, hundreds wounded in recent days
  • Failure to condemn Israel ‘unsurprising’ and ‘appalling,’ Palestine Solidarity Campaign tells Arab News

LONDON: The UK’s foreign secretary has been criticized for condemning rocket fire into Israel but not its subsequent bombing of Gaza, which has killed dozens of people — including children — or its injuring of hundreds of Palestinians in Jerusalem in the days prior.

Dominic Raab’s tweet — which was retweeted by Middle East and North Africa Minister James Cleverly — said the UK “condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and locations within Israel. The ongoing violence in Jerusalem and Gaza must stop. We need an immediate de-escalation on all sides, and end to targeting of civilian populations.”

Roua Naboulsi, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s media and communications officer, told Arab News that it is “unsurprising but nonetheless appalling” that Raab chose to condemn rocket fire from Gaza while “ignoring Israel’s systematic targeting and murder of civilians and children, its ongoing ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, and its body of laws and policies that discriminate against Palestinians and deny them their rights.”

She added: “Human Rights Watch recently concurred that these laws and policies amount to the crime of apartheid. Israel can only practice these crimes with the support and complicity of governments like the UK’s. It’s high time for this to change. The (UK) government must finally speak out against these crimes against humanity and hold Israel accountable.”

After days of violence in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Palestinian militants on Monday fired rockets toward Jerusalem and southern Israel, saying it was punishment for the violence endured by Palestinians in the city.

Amnesty International on Monday said Israel had used “repeated, unwarranted and excessive force” against “largely peaceful Palestinian protesters in recent days” in Jerusalem, resulting in 840 being injured.

Israeli police officers were seen firing tear gas and stun grenades, with several landing inside Al-Aqsa Mosque. Social media footage showed Israeli crowds celebrating as fires raged in the holy site. 

British opposition MPs condemned Israel’s bombardment. “Seeing footage of Israeli airstrikes kill men, women and children in Gaza, I send my solidarity, my love and my prayers to the Palestinian people,” tweeted Labour MP Zarah Sultana.

“These brutal attacks must be condemned and Israel’s illegal settlements, occupation, and siege must end.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told Arab News: “The international community needs to make all the parties to this conflict aware of their obligations. Primarily, Israel should never have been in the process of forcible evictions, the building of settlements and the heavy-handed, violent manner in which it dealt with protests and its aggression outside Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

He said: “Hamas sending rockets into Israel indiscriminately is wrong, the foreign secretary is right to condemn that, but what we know from painful past experience is that Israeli bombing of Gaza isn’t precise against those carrying out the rocketing. What we’ve seen in previous wars is Israel ‘mowing the lawn,’ where it ends up killing hundreds and thousands of Palestinians and destroying huge areas of the Gaza Strip.”

Doyle added: “It’s vital that the international community holds every party to account here. The failure to hold parties to account — especially Israel, which often gets a ‘green light’ for its actions in the past — has led us to the situation we’re in now.”