Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Ian Black

Nimr al-Nimr street, Tehran: signpost for troubled Iran-Saudi ties

Tehran’s diplomatic quarter, in the north of the capital, lies in the shadow of the Alborz mountains, their snow-capped peaks overlooking tree-lined avenues and elegant pre-revolutionary palaces.

Police posts guard foreign missions, though the building that used to be Saudi Arabia’s embassy is now damaged and empty.

Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi shared this link

“Iranians tend to see themselves as the descendants of an ancient civilisation and Saudis as upstarts – “unelected emirs and kings” enthroned by western imperialists.

Iranians have regional reach – most impressively in the form of the Revolutionary Guards; the Saudis have little more than cash.

Riyadh’s dependence on the US is a source of scorn. “It is not enough to have a chequebook,” quips Foad Izadi of Tehran University. “People who are associated with the Americans do not want to fight.”

Outside it stands a shiny new blue sign marking Nimr al-Nimr Street, in honour of the Saudi Shia cleric whose execution in January triggered a furious assault on the embassy and a profound crisis in the already troubled relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Tehran has a long tradition of politically-inspired street names.

Winston Churchill Avenue, near the British embassy, was renamed for the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Off Valiasr Street is Imad Moghniyeh Square, commemorating the Hezbollah commander killed by the Mossad or CIA.

Nearby is Khaled Islambouli street, remembering the Egyptian Islamist executed for assassinating Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The assault on the Saudi embassy (and consulate in Mashhad), was apparently orchestrated by the Basij, the volunteer force of the Iranian revolutionary guards. And it followed warnings from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader himself, of “divine vengeance” if Nimr was killed.

But when the Saudis hit back by severing their ties with Iran, the attack looked like an own goal because it diverted attention away from the execution – one of 47 on the same day.

Riyadh insisted the cleric was a violent extremist, while Nimr’s followers in the kingdom’s eastern province portrayed him as a “martyr” and peaceful activist representing a persecuted minority.

Saudis were outraged by what they saw as Tehran’s interference in their internal affairs, especially since Nimr was a Shia ayatollah. They were unimpressed by the detention of the embassy rioters and the dismissal of a deputy governor – or by condemnation from President Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, his foreign minister. Both had been under attack by hardliners for not doing enough to confront the Saudis.

And the timing was disastrous, coming just before “implementation day” following last summer’s nuclear agreement when international sanctions would finally be lifted. “It was the worst thing that could happen,” said one Tehran-based diplomat. Even Khamenei conceded later that it had damaged Iran and Islam.

It also felt like the last straw in a relationship had been rocky since the 1979 revolution and Saudi backing for Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war.

In recent years Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen have all been sources of contention and anxiety, along with Barack Obama’s tilt towards Iran and his efforts to tackle its nuclear programme. Overall, Tehran’s growing confidence is at Riyadh’s expense.

“The Saudis feel Iran is gaining and they are losing,” one senior Iranian adviser observed before the Nimr affair. “Iran is ascending and the Arab world is in limbo. Saudi Arabia is playing an angry, reactive violent game.”

The Saudis lambast Iran for their support for Bashar al-Assad and their Lebanese Shia ally Hezbollah. The Iranians blame Riyadh for backing jihadi groups and the Wahhabi ideology that in part inspires Isis.

National rivalry is overlaid with viciously sectarian language that exploits both Sunni-Shia animosity and Arab-Persian hostility. Each accuses the other of fomenting terrorism.

(The Sunni-Shia animosity was orchestrated after Iraq invasion of 2003 by the USA, Israel and Saudi Kingdom)

Iran ramped up its anti-Saudi rhetoric at the start of the Yemen war last year and turned up the volume after the 2015 hajj tragedy in Mecca – in which 460 Iranians were amongst at least 2200 pilgrims killed (including the former Iranian ambassador to Lebanon).

Iranians relish needling the Saudis: on social media King Salman is compared to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis “caliph.”

A spoof Iranian video shows a Saudi leading an army of sheep into battle while bragging about heroism and victory. Saudis reciprocate: clerics vilify Shias as “Rafida,” or Zoroastrians.

When watermelons imported from Iran were found to contain chemical pesticides they were nicknamed “Safavid watermelons” -a reference to the dynasty that built a powerful Persian nation-state and confronted the Ottomans from the 16th century.

In a new book studying this tangled relationship, the Iranian scholar Banafsheh Keynoush notes the growing prominence of intelligence personnel on both sides, which makes it even harder for them to deal sensibly with each other – despite good intentions at the top.

“Iranians at senior levels have anxiously made it clear to me that their intent is never to undermine Saudi Arabia irreparably, mindful that doing so could further fuel extremism,” she writes.

Last week the Saudis announced the arrests of 32 people in the Eastern province who were said to have been spying for Iran. “They are still throwing mud at each other,” observed the diplomat. “But they will have to find ways to climb down.”

Iran, noted Izadi, “already has too many enemies. The Saudis have a lot of money so picking a fight with them is not really in Iran’s national security interest.”

The likeliest candidate for backchannel diplomacy is Oman, the only Gulf state with close links to Iran – and which helped achieve a breakthrough in the nuclear talks. Qatar may also be able to mediate.

And last week’s Iranian elections have strengthened Rouhani and Zarif – who has spoken privately of the need to mend fences with Arab neighbours.

Mohammed Bin Salman, the powerful Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister, is capable of springing surprises. Agreement on oil production quotas at a time of plummeting prices is another urgent matter for both countries.

Russia and China are also anxious to narrow the gap so that Tehran and Riyadh can be kept at the same table for efforts to translate a fragile Syrian ceasefire into some kind of political settlement.

Yet given the fraught history of Iranian-Saudi ties it’s still a fair bet that the new sign on Nimr al-Nimr street won’t be coming down any time soon.

Note: Saudi Kingdom orchestrated this new wave of labelling Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by the Gulf Emirates and cancelling the $4 billion earmarked to Lebanon to strengthen the Lebanese army



A look at the writings of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – sentenced to 1,000 lashes 

Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed free speech in the autocratic kingdom. His blog, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum, was shut down after his arrest in 2012.

The lashing are sets of 50 lashes, and the next set is tomorrow.

Ian Black analyses extracts from his key published Arabic writings that show a man who risked his freedom to question some of the basic tenets of life in Saudi Arabia – especially the central role of religion

Saudi blogger faces next 50 lashes as Amnesty calls on UK government to act

Raif Badawi
Raif Badawi. Amnesty Photograph: Private/Amnesty

Reflecting on the role of the Muslim religious establishment on 12 August 2010, Badawi warned about the stifling of creativity:

As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics. I’m really worried that Arab thinkers will migrate in search of fresh air and to escape the sword of the religious authorities.

Badawi argued on 28 September 2010 in favour of “secularism [as] the most important refuge for citizens of a country.”

Urged by clerics not to attend “heretical” celebrations marking Saudi national day, he underlined the importance of separating religion from the state.

He does not attack the Saudi monarchy and even praises the liberal governor of Mecca, the intellectual and poet Khaled al-Faisal Al Saud.

Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone … Secularism … is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world.

Badawi linked Palestine, one of the touchstones of Arab solidarity, to the question of political Islam, attacking Hamas.

I’m not in support of the Israeli occupation of any Arab country, but at the same time I do not want to replace Israel by a religious state … whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernisation and hope. States based on religious ideology … have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life.

Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear. (Note that Israel is becoming a religious State too)

The only article of Badawi’s hitherto translated from Arabic into English denounces the demand of Muslims in New York that a mosque and community centre be built on the site of the World Trade Centre, where 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida.

It goes against the official Saudi position by linking the terrorist group to the kingdom – and accuses Muslims of intolerance.

What hurts me most as a citizen of the area which exported those terrorists … is the audacity of Muslims in New York that reaches the limits of insolence, not taking any regard of the thousands of victims who perished on that fateful day or their families.

What increases my pain is this [Islamist] chauvinist arrogance which claims that innocent blood, shed by barbarian, brutal minds under the slogan “Allahu Akbar”, means nothing compared to the act of building an Islamic mosque whose mission will be to … spawn new terrorists …

Suppose we put ourselves in the place of American citizens. Would we accept that a Christian or Jew assaults us in our own house and then build a church or synagogue in the same area of the attack? I doubt it. We reject the building of churches in Saudi Arabia, not having been assaulted by anyone.

Then what would you think if those who wanted to build a church are the same people who stormed the sanctity of our land? Finally, we should not hide that fact that Muslims in Saudi Arabia not only disrespect the beliefs of others, but also charge them with infidelity to the extent that they consider anyone who is not Muslim an infidel, and, within their own narrow definitions, they consider non-Hanbali [the Saudi school of Islam] Muslims as apostates.

How can we be such people and build … normal relations with six billion humans, four and a half billion of whom do not believe in Islam.

In the first weeks of the Egyptian revolution in February 2011, Badawi hailed the drama in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as an example to the whole Arab world. The Saudi government, by contrast, was horrified by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and delighted when Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood veteran elected to succeed him, was ousted.

It is a revolution, led by students and the marginalised, a revolution in every sense of the word … that is … a decisive turning point … not only in the history and geography of Egypt but everywhere that is governed by the Arab mentality of dictatorship and security. It is not yet clear whether is Egypt is about to change, but it is our hope that a new Egypt will emerge from the painful birth pangs its people are experiencing … after years of subservience and oppression.

In Sepember 2011 Badawi launched a witheringly sarcastic attack on Saudi clerics after a TV preacher called for astronomers to be punished on the grounds that they encouraged scepticism about sharia law.

Actually, this venerable preacher has drawn my attention to a truth that had been hidden from me and my dear readers – namely, the existence of the so-called Sharia astronomer.

What a wonderful appellation! In my humble experience and in the course of my not inconsiderable research into the universe, its origins and the stars, I have never once come across this term. I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes.

Indeed, I advise all other scholars the world over, of whatever discipline, to abandon their studies, laboratories, research centres, places of experimentation, universities, institutes etc. and head at once to the study groups of our magnificent preachers to learn from them all about modern medicine, engineering, chemistry, microbiology, geology, nuclear physics, the science of the atom, marine sciences, the science of explosives, pharmacology, anthropology etc. – alongside astronomy, of course.

God bless them! They have shown themselves to be the final authority with the decisive word in everything, which all mankind must accept, submit to and obey without hesitation or discussion.

In May 2012, shortly before his arrest, Badawi addressed the nature of liberalism.

For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means.

They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.

His final thought quoted Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

In another piece that month, Badawi invoked the Quran to support the importance of liberalism, the need to separate religion and state and implied that Islam itself has been distorted by the Saudi political establishment to promote illiberal and authoritarian ideals.

No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress. This is not a failing on the part of religion but rather that all religions represent a particular, precise spiritual relationship between the individual and the Creator. ..

However, positive law is an unavoidable human and social need because traffic regulations, employment law and the codes governing the administration of State can hardly be derived from religion.

Translations: Mona Mahmood, Amnesty International, Ian Black, Raya Jalabi and Gatestone Institute.

Declassified secret British government documents: On Israel preemptive war on Lebanon in 1982, and genocide of Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila

The UK National Archives released war material on Lebanon.  The most riveting document is a secret “UK Eyes Alpha” assessment by the Joint Intelligence Committee on June 22 1982.

Its insights remain valid, mutatis mutandis, to this day.

“Much of the Arab world sincerely believes that the United States administration had connived in, if not positively blessed, the Israeli invasion.

Many of the moderate Arab leaders, including the Jordanians, Saudis and Egyptians are dismayed that the United States has failed to use its leverage over Israel effectively to deter new aggression and to prevent occupation of more Arab land.

The perception that the United States has acquiesced in the Israeli action will be seen as evidence of double standards when the administration is condemning the use of force to settle disputes in other parts of the world.

“It will undermine faith in United States ability and willingness to defend other moderate Arab states from Iranian as well as Israeli aggression. It has all but destroyed, for the time being, Arab faith in the willingness of the United States to use its leverage with Israel to obtain a solution to the Palestinian problem which takes account of Arab needs.”

Ian Black posted on Jan. 4, 2013 in The Guardian

It’s reasonable to describe journalism as the “first rough draft of history“.

And it’s always interesting, when secret government documents are released, to see how far that early version stands the test of time.  For example:

The Falklands conflict with Argentina dominated the headlines about British state papers declassified from 1982 – the traditional three decades after the event. But those dealing with that year’s Lebanon war provide some fascinating and still relevant insights.

The war began in a sense in London, where, on June 3, a Palestinian gunman shot the Israeli ambassador, Shlomo Argov. It was clear from the start that the hit team was not from the PLO but from the dissident Iraqi-backed outfit run by Abu NidalYasser Arafat‘s sworn enemy.

Israel‘s prime minister, Menachem Begin, egged on by his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, went to war against the PLO in Lebanon anyway. “Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal,” another Israeli minister said.

The documents generated at the time by British embassies, the foreign office and Downing Street provide evidence of continuity and change at a crucial moment.

Margaret Thatcher, fresh from her Falklands triumph, refused to talk to the PLO on the grounds that it had neither recognized Israel nor renounced terrorism.

But there was movement nevertheless: Thatcher received an Arab League ministerial delegation but allowed Douglas Hurd, a foreign office minister, to meet Farouq Qaddoumi, Arafat’s foreign minister. It was the first encounter of its kind and a landmark on the way to international recognition of an organization whose hard-fought claim to be the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinians must now be in doubt.

“A balance would thus be struck between the United Kingdom’s sympathy with the Arabs over the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon and the fact that the Israeli Ambassador in London, Mr Argov, had been attacked by a splinter group of the PLO,” the secret cabinet minutes recorded.

Britain’s Arab friends looked on in alarm as the crisis deepened, the documents show.

King Hussein of Jordan was terrified that Palestinians would be driven from Lebanon into his own security-conscious realm. Only those with Jordanian passports would be admitted and only after being “thoroughly screened to weed out undesirables.” Hussein warned Thatcher of an “unprecedented holocaust” and a “bloodbath.”

In Cairo, Hosni Mubarak, just a few months in office, was horrified at the idea that the PLO might set up a government-in-exile in Egypt.

The Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal lobbied Thatcher to use her influence with Ronald Reagan. But she declined a suggestion that she ask the US president to pressure the Israelis not to enter west Beirut –as they eventually did.

Then, as now, Washington was where things happened, and it was American envoys who tried to cobble together a ceasefire. There was also some discomfort.

“The Americans are concerned at the extent to which the Israelis have misled them at every stage of their Lebanese operation,” the British ambassador reported after meeting Alexander Haig, Reagan’s secretary of state. “There are continuing divisions within the administration but it looks increasingly likely that, as usual, the pro-Israeli faction will have its way.”

Brian Urquhart, a senior British UN official, had a “blazing row” with a US diplomat and demanded pressure on the Israelis to allow humanitarian access since “the Americans and the other Arabs were apparently not prepared to do anything in the face of what looked like mass murder of the Palestinians by the Israelis.”

Like many government documents these British papers confirm what was widely reported at the time about a conflict which has always attracted intense media attention.

Even in the post-WikiLeaks era, there is a frisson in reading confidential reports and reflections, some of them piercingly perceptive. Small indiscretions – about French arrogance, Israeli influence over the US, Arab frustration and British manoeuvring – add colour, nuance and understanding to enrich the historical record.

Note: Israel war that ended in entering the Capital Beirut left 20,000 killed (mostly civilians of Lebanese) and injured 60,000.

Israel perpetrated the genocide in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila for three days and two night (slaughtering 2,000 women, children and elder people), even with the promise of the USA that Palestinian civilians in the camps will be safe from Israeli aggression.




February 2023

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