Opinion

Survey: Robust Arab support for tough US line on Iran

Many people in Arab states are frustrated by Iran’s active interference in their countries’ domestic affairs, according to an Arab News/YouGov survey.
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Updated 27 October 2020

Survey: Robust Arab support for tough US line on Iran

  • Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey finds support in many Arab countries for Trump’s Iran policy
  • Public opinion in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen strongly in favor of continuation of a tough US stance

DUBAI: Arabs want the US to maintain its tough stance on Iran, but are divided over what strategy Washington should employ, according to the Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey conducted ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The study found that Arabs were divided on what the next US president should do about Iran — but broadly supported a hard line.
According to Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council, the differences in opinion may have to do with the extent of Iran’s influence in each individual country.
“While confronting the Iranian regime is the main objective, some might see diplomacy and negotiations as the best options to pursue, while others may believe that imposing pressure on the regime is the most effective policy,” Rafizadeh told Arab News.

“But as the poll has shown, the overwhelming majority prefer taking a tougher stance towards the Tehran regime. Any astute observer can see that tensions in many Arab states have a trace back to Iran and its proxies.”
Respondents in Iraq and Yemen, which have intimate dealings with Iran, were strongly in favor of a tough line. Asked what strategy the next US president should take in future dealings with Iran, a large proportion — 49 percent in Saudi Arabia, 53 percent in Iraq and 54 percent in Yemen — favored maintaining strict sanctions and a war posture.
“Concerning (these countries), Iran has powerful militias, terror groups and proxies (there),” Rafizadeh said. “It is not surprising that many people in these Arab states are frustrated with Iran’s active interference in the domestic affairs of their nations, which has wreaked havoc on people’s lives in Iraq,Lebanon and Yemen. That’s why many protesters in Lebanon and Iraq recently chanted slogans against Iran.”

Many respondents also favor a continuation of strict sanctions and the drafting of a tougher nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic. “If you believe sanctions will bring a change to Iranian policies without a war in the Middle East, that’s the best option,” said Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Arabs choose sanctions over war. But another new war in the Middle East will inevitably drag Arab states into it, from Iraq, the Gulf states, Syria, Lebanon and potentially Jordan.”
Those who support sanctions hope economic pressure alone will be enough to alter Iran’s policy, agenda and priorities without recourse to armed conflict, Vatanka says.
“The idea that there will be a new big war between the US and Iran and that the Arab world can just sit on the sidelines and watch isn’t going to happen,” he said. “Iran has sympathizers who can come to its aid when Tehran requests it. It’s a mistake to assume Iran has no friends in the region.”
For the winner of the US presidential election, Rafizadeh says it is more urgent than ever to work in lockstep with the GCC countries. “The geopolitical sands have fundamentally shifted, and Iran has positioned itself squarely against American allies and the Gulf states,” he said.


READ: The methodology behind the Arab News/YouGov Pan-Arab Survey


“Strengthening relationships with Gulf states — both to act as a bulwark against the rising destructive tide of Iran, and to continue developing dependable, reliable security partners in the region — should be high on the presidential Iran policy agenda come January.
“Naively hoping Iran’s forces of instability can be contained with appeasement policies, as the previous US administration once did, simply isn’t an option for both future regional stability and protecting American interests in the Middle East.”

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As such, Rafizadeh said it was understandable that many in the region view the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency with some unease. “A reversion to any form of acceptance of the Iranian regime’s regional policy or sending ‘plane loads of cash’ to Tehran risks undermining peace in the Middle East,” he said. “Both presidential candidates must look to build on the good work of the Abraham Accords in fighting back against this narrative.”
For Vatanka, dialogue such as this could go a long way towards addressing the profound lack of political trust in the region. “The region is tired; it has gone through war, devastation, and money that could’ve been spent on job creation and schooling is being spent on arms,” he said.
“This cannot last forever, and if it does, the first people who will suffer are the people of the Middle East. And the whole world will suffer too. So you have to hope for the best and for a broader political dialogue among states of the Middle East going forward.”

Twitter: @CalineMalek


Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

Updated 29 min 49 sec ago

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

  • He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”

ISTANBUL: Mujdat Gezen’s half-century career as an acclaimed Turkish writer and actor has included awards, a stint as a UN goodwill ambassador and a taste of prison after a 1980 putsch.
Now aged 77, the wry-witted comedian and poet with an easy smile and a bad back risks returning to jail on charges of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”
“I am even banned from appearing in crossword puzzles,” Gezen quipped.
Gezen landed in court with fellow comedian Metin Akpinar, 79, over comments the pair made during a television show they starred in on opposition Halk TV in 2018.
In the broadcast, Gezen told Erdogan to “know your place.”
“Look Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you cannot test our patriotism. Know your place,” Gezen said on air.
His parter Akpinar went one step further, saying that “if we don’t become a (democracy)... the leader might end up getting strung up by his legs or poisoned in the cellar.”
These are risky comments to make in a country still reeling from a sweeping crackdown Erdogan unleashed after surviving a failed coup in 2016.
Their trial is coming with Erdogan rattled by a burst of student protests that hint at Turks’ impatience with his commanding rule as prime minister and president since 2003.
Prosecutors want to put the two veteran celebrities behind bars for up to four years and eight months. The verdict is expected on Monday.

Jailed over book
Thousands of Turks, from a former Miss Turkey to school children, have been prosecuted for insulting Erdogan on social media and television.
Bristling at the jokes and comments, Erdogan warned in 2018 that his critics “will pay the price.”
“The next day,” Gezen told AFP in an interview by telephone, “police turned up and I was summoned to give a statement to prosecutors.”
The knock on the door reminded Gezen of how he ended up being dragged before the courts after spending 20 days in jail when a military junta overthrew Turkey’s civilian government at the height of the Cold War in 1980.
Gezen’s book about Nazim Hikmet — perhaps Turkey’s most famous 20th century poet, who happened to be a communist who died in exile in Moscow in 1963 — was taken off the shelves after that coup.
“I was chained up while being taken from prison to court with a gang of 50 criminals, including murderers and smugglers,” he recalled.
He was freed by the court in 1980, and may yet be acquitted on Monday.
Still, Gezen is uncomfortable with the similarities, and with Turkey’s trajectory under Erdogan.
“There is a record number of journalists in jail — we have never seen this in the history of the republic. That’s what upsets me,” he said.

Irritable dictator
An author of more than 50 books and founder of his own art center in Istanbul, Gezen says he has “either criticized or parodied politicians to their faces” for decades without going to jail.
His popularity and resolve earned him a role in 2007 as a goodwill ambassador for the UNICEF children’s relief fund.
But he fears that Turkey’s tradition of outspoken artists — “art is by its nature oppositional,” he remarked — is wilting under Erdogan.
“We now have self-censorship. But what is even more painful to me is that (some artists) prefer to be apolitical,” he said.
“The president has said how he expects artists to behave. But it cannot be the president of a country who decides these things. It’s the artists who must decide.”
To be on the safe side, Gezen’s lawyers now read his books before publication to avoid legal problems.
“It is risky in Turkey,” he observed.
Many of the opposition media outlets that once flourished have been either closed or taken over by government allies, leaving independent voices with even fewer options.
But he remains doggedly optimistic, calling democracy in Turkey something tangible but just out of reach, like the shore for a stranded boat.
“And then someone up on the mast will cry: Land ahoy!“


Houthis take 500 families hostage in Marib battle

Updated 28 February 2021

Houthis take 500 families hostage in Marib battle

  • Iran-backed terror militia using trapped families ‘as human shield’
  • Militants recently stormed several displacement camps in Serwah, west of Marib, blocking people’s escape to safer areas

AL-MUKALLA: Hundreds of Yemeni families trapped inside their camps in Marib province by Iran-backed Houthis are being used as a human shield against government forces, a Yemen government unit has claimed.

In a report seen by Arab News on Saturday, the internationally recognized government’s Executive Unit for IDP Camps said that militia fighters had besieged camps and planted land mines on main roads to stop families escaping and hinder advancing troops.

“Houthis have prevented 470 families from fleeing, using them as human shields. Until today, many families in the camps are still trapped by the Houthis,” the report said.

Militants recently stormed several displacement camps in Serwah, west of Marib, blocking people’s escape to safer areas. 

The government unit has appealed to the rebels to stop using displaced families as hostages and allow them to leave the camps.

“The Executive Unit for IDP Camps calls on the Houthis to respect international humanitarian law and stop targeting civilians and displaced persons, and to open safe corridors in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.”

The Houthis earlier this month renewed a bloody offensive on Marib, an oil-rich city and the government’s last bastion in the northern half of the country. For four weeks, the Houthis have faced stiff resistance from government forces backed by massive air and logistics support from the Arab coalition. 

Army commanders say that hundreds of Houthis have been killed, wounded or captured and their advance on Marib halted. 

Maj. Gen. Nasser Al-Thaybani, commander of the army’s Military Operation Authority, said that more than half the Houthi fighters sent to seize Marib have died or been wounded in the fighting, while army troops and allied tribesmen have pushed back all of the Houthi attacks on government-controlled areas. 

Yemeni government forces also suffered heavy casualties during fierce clashes.

Local officers and media said on Saturday that Brig. Gen. Abdul Ghani Sha’alan, commander of the Special Security Forces in Marib, was one of several government soldiers who died in fighting with the rebels near Balouq mountain in Serwah district, west of Marib city, on Friday. 

A local military officer, who declined to be named, told Arab News that Sha’alan was leading government troops pushing back a Houthi attack on the peak, which was claimed by government forces last week.

Several army commanders and tribal leaders have been killed since the beginning of the rebel offensive on Marib.

Yemen’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday criticized international rights groups over their failure to “name and shame” the Houthis for attacking residential areas after the densely populated city was targeted by 10 ballistic missiles in the previous 24 hours.

“Since the beginning of February, the province has come under the largest and fiercest Houthi attack in which the militia used all kinds of heavy weapons, including artillery, explosive-laden drones and ballistic missiles,” the ministry said in a statement. 

On Friday, Yemen’s Prime Minister, Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed, hailed military support from the Arab coalition to help tilt the war in the army’s favor, vowing to continue backing army troops and tribesmen until they push the Houthi out of areas under their control.


Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support

Updated 27 February 2021

Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support

  • Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel
  • Comments follow Friday’s attack on Syria-Iraq border compound by US jets

LONDON: US airstrikes in Syria demonstrate that Iran should expect retaliation for supporting militia groups that threaten American interests, President Joe Biden has warned.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” he said when asked about Friday morning’s strikes on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
The Pentagon said the attack was carried out by two US Air Force F-15E aircraft that fired seven missiles.

The pair destroyed nine buildings used by Iran-backed militias and heavily damaged two others in eastern Syria.
Officials said the strikes were not intended to destroy the groups, but to demonstrate that the US “will act firmly” to avoid greater regional escalations.
The airstrikes were “legal and appropriate” as they “took out facilities housing valuable capabilities used by the militia groups to attack US and allied forces in Iraq,” officials said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the leading Republican on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said the decision was “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Biden “used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel.”
She said the strikes were designed to deter future actions by Iran-backed militias following a rocket attack on Feb. 15 in Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member.
Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said the strikes resulted in “casualties,” but declined to comment on the details.
An Iraqi militia official with close links to Iran said one fighter was killed in the strike and several others wounded.
The group housed in the compound is known as Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades — an Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group sponsored by Iran.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons. It reported that 22 fighters from an Iraqi umbrella group of militias were killed.
Kataeb Hezbollah confirmed that one of its fighters was killed and warned that it had the right to retaliate.

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Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

Updated 27 February 2021

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

  • In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s revolution, thousands of Ennahda supporters marched in Tunis
  • The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety and disillusionment with democracy

TUNIS: Tunisia’s biggest political party assembled an immense crowd of supporters in the capital on Saturday in a show of strength that could fuel a dispute between the president and the prime minister.
In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, tens of thousands of Ennahda supporters marched through central Tunis chanting “The people want to protect institutions!” and “The people want national unity!.”
The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, disillusionment with democracy and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the UGTT, the powerful main labor union, as debt repayments loom.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in a standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.
Banned before the revolution, it has been a member of most governing coalitions since then and, although its share of the vote has fallen in recent years, it still holds the most seats in parliament.
“Nationalists, Islamists, democrats and communists,” Ghannouchi told the crowd, “we were gathered together during the dictatorship ... and we must unite again.”
The most recent election, in 2019, delivered a fragmented parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.
When the government collapsed after only five months in office, Saied nominated Mechichi as prime minister.
But they soon fell out, and Mechichi turned for support to the two biggest parties — Ennahda and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia.
Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing Saied’s allies with those of Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia. The president has refused to swear four of them in, however.
Meanwhile, demonstrators protesting last month against inequality and police abuses focused most of their anger on Mechichi and Ennahda.
Ennahda billed Saturday’s march as “in support of democracy,” but it was widely seen as an effort to mobilize popular opposition to Saied — raising the spectre of competing protest movements.
“This is a strong message that all the people want dialogue and national unity,” Fethi Ayadi, a senior Ennahda official, told Reuters.
To add to the tensions, demands by foreign lenders for spending cuts, which could lead to unpopular reductions in state programs, are opposed by the UGTT.
Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($7.2 billion), including about $5 billion in foreign loans.
But Tunisia’s credit rating has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic began, and market concerns about its ability to raise funds are reflected in sharp price rises for Tunisian credit default swaps — insurance against default on its debt. ($1 = 2.7 Tunisian dinars)


Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

Updated 27 February 2021

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

  • It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks
  • Interim PM Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map

TRIPOLI: The Libyan parliament will discuss holding a vote of confidence on a new unified government for the divided country on March 8, its powerful speaker Aguila Saleh said.
Oil-rich Libya has been mired in chaos since dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in a popular uprising backed by a NATO air campaign a decade ago.
Its Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in Tripoli, while eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar supports a parallel administration based in the east.
“Parliament will convene to discuss a vote of confidence on the government on Monday, March 8, at 11 am in Sirte if the 5+5 Joint Military Commission guarantees the security of the meeting,” Saleh said in a statement late Friday, referring to a city halfway between east and west.
The military commission is a forum bringing together five representatives from each side.
“If that proves impossible, the session will be held in the temporary seat of parliament in Tobruk at the same date and time,” he said, adding that the military committee would need to advise the parliament in advance.
It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks.
Interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map.
He said he had submitted to Saleh a “vision” for a cabinet line-up that would help steer Libya to elections in December, and that the names of proposed ministers would be disclosed in parliament during the confidence vote.
Parliament has 21 days to vote on the line-up, according to the road map.
Dbeibah was selected early this month in a UN-sponsored inter-Libyan dialogue, the latest internationally backed bid to salvage the country from a decade of conflict and fragmented political fiefdoms.
Saleh said Friday that Dbeibah should choose “competent people with integrity, from across the country, in order to achieve (national) consensus” for his government.
“Everyone should be represented so that (Libya) can emerge from the tunnel,” Saleh said.
If approved, a new cabinet would replace the Tripoli-based GNA, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and the parallel administration in the east.
The premier will then face the giant task of unifying Libya’s proliferating institutions and leading the transition up to December 24 polls.