Category: Alejandra Padin

Striking a middle course

As tensions heighten between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the future of American relationships in the Gulf hangs in the balance. On Tuesday, the Hudson Institute hosted a panel entitled, “Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Trump Administration: Stability or Upheaval?” Speakers Mohammed Khalid Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, Fatimah S. Baeshen of the Arabia Foundation, and Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute warned against Qatar’s behavior but suggested America steer a middle course: court Qatari support in the fight against ISIS, but validate GCC concerns. The panel was moderated by Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith.

Since the former Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani was succeeded by his son Tamim bin Hamad al Thani in 2013, the new Qatari leader has gone to great lengths to put the small Arab country of approximately 300,000 citizens on the map. Part of this effort has involved reckless political adventurism by which the Qatari government simultaneously aids Iran and Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups in Syria, or hosts firebrand religious clerics on state-run news network Al Jazeera.

“I think Qatar will go down in history as the friend and enemy of everybody at the same time,” remarked Alyahya.

According to Pregent, Qatar appeases Americans with the Al Udeid air base in order to distract from its other activities. The Qatari government had expected a Clinton administration to continue the legacy of Obama-era leniency. Instead, the world was greeted by the election of zealously anti-terrorist, anti-Iran Donald Trump.

Until now, Qatar’s political game has been largely risk-free due to the country’s small citizen population and high GDP per capita, both of which prevent the formation of any significant opposition party. Instead, observed Alyahya, the effects of Qatar meddling and finance – including a recent ransom payment of up to $1 billion to an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Iranian security officials and regional Shia militias in Iraq – are borne by Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The GCC blockade is apparently an attempt to impose consequences for Qatar’s habit of playing all sides.

The United States has several means at its disposal to curb Qatar’s behavior. Together with the GCC blockade and its soft power, the United States could exert pressure on the small Arab nation to cease its support for Islamist terrorist organizations. Ideally, the US would offer incentives for Qatar to prosecute US-designated terrorists to the same degree that they currently prosecute UN-designated ones. Yet the Qatari Al Udeid air base is critical, and the United States has short-term objectives such as defeating ISIS that will require Qatari support. As Qatar opens to Iran, the United States and Qatar are headed for an impasse. This will affect American capabilities in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile United States-Saudi Arabia relations are warming considerably under President Trump, after frosty relations in the Obama years. Saudi Arabia is a close and valued ally against ISIS, along with Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Moreover, the Kingdom – which announced the King’s son Mohammed bin Salman as the new Crown Prince just last month – appears to be entering a period of relative liberality. In the last five years alone, explained Baeshen, there has been considerable improvement in freedom of speech. This phenomenon is manifest in political satire on social media sites such as Twitter, which is not, and has never been, blocked in the Kingdom.

As the rift between Qatar and the rest of the GCC countries widens, the United States will have to maintain a cautious balancing act between exerting pressure on Doha and courting its cooperation in the fight against ISIS. At the very least, thawing relations with Saudi Arabia present a note of hope.

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Peace picks July 24-28

  1. Bipartisan Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance Report Launch | Monday, July 24 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Live Webcast | On May 30, 2017, CSIS announced the formation of a Bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance. After meeting three times and going through several rounds of discussions, this task force has identified actionable recommendations that the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress can take to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of U.S. foreign assistance programs. Senator Todd Young (R-IN) will provide opening remarks, a panel of select task force members will discuss the findings, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) will provide closing remarks.
  2. Media Diplomacy: Challenging the Indo-Pak Narrative | Monday, July 24 | 3:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The dominant national narratives in India and Pakistan fuel tensions between the two nations. Journalists and social media users play a critical role in crafting hostile public opinions and inciting further animosity. Join the Atlantic Council for a conversation to discuss the influence of media on public perception in India and Pakistan. In a discussion introduced and moderated by Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, Senator Mushahid Hussain and Minister Manish Tewari will address the role of media in shaping debates emanating from India and Pakistan.
  3. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Trump Administration: Stability or Upheaval? | Tuesday, July 25 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here |  While tensions mount between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia finds itself embroiled in controversy over the royal succession: when King Salman named his son Mohammed Bin Salman crown prince in June, he displaced his elder cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is well respected at home and here in the United States. Meanwhile, conflict continues with Iran and its proxies in Syria and Yemen, and with Qatar closer to home. The Trump administration needs a stable Gulf region to sustain and advance American interests and those of its allies. What does the future hold for Saudi Arabia and the United States? What role should the Trump administration play with its regional partners in the GCC? Panelists include Mohammed Alyahya, Fatimah S. Baeshen, and Hudson Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent. Hudson Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the conversation.
  4. Venezuela on the Verge of Collapse: Economic, Social, and Political Challenges | Wednesday, July 26 | 11:45 am – 2:00 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Venezuela, a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia, is facing an economic crisis unseen outside of wartime. Chronic food and medicine shortages have plagued the country, and the crime rate has soared as people turn to black markets to secure common goods. Over the past four months, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to contest President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian regime. In opposition to the vote scheduled at the end of this month to secure Maduro’s grasp on power, millions of Venezuelans around the world participated in a symbolic July 16 referendum calling for new elections and opposing further changes to the country’s constitution. On Wednesday, panelists Gustavo CoronelDr. Rubén PerinaGabriela Febres-Cordero, and Dr. Boris Saavedra will discuss the political, social, and economic turmoil in Venezuela. Ambassador Jaime Daremblum, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Latin American Studies, will moderate.
  5. Hostilities in the Himalayas? Assessing the India-China Border Standoff | Thursday, July 27 | 10 am – 12 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | India and China are embroiled in a tense border standoff in a highly strategic area of the Himalayas known as Doklam in India and Donglong in China. India and its close ally Bhutan view this land as Bhutanese territory, while China claims it as its own. This event will assess the current dispute and place it in the broader context of India-China border tensions and bilateral relations, while also considering what the future may hold. Additionally, the event will discuss possible implications for Washington and its interests in Asia. The panel features Former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama RaoRobert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States; and Jeff M. Smith, director of Asian security programs at the American Foreign Policy Concil.
  6. The Ramifications of Rouhani’s Reelection | Friday, July 28 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | On Friday, the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland will host a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion in the aftermath of Hassan Rouhani’s re-election. The event will present new data gathered since the May presidential elections on Iranian attitudes toward domestic and international economic and political issues. In particular, the event will explore current Iranian attitudes toward Rouhani, the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration, regional crises and Iranian domestic policies. Panelists include Nadereh ChamlouEbrahim Mohseni, and Paul Pillar. Discussion will be moderated by Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
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The long game in Iraq

As the liberation of Mosul draws near, one question lurks on the horizon: what is the American day-after strategy in Iraq? In response, on Monday the Wilson Center convened a teleconference featuring Anthony J. Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State; Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant to the President; and Robert Malley, former Senior Adviser to the President for the Counter-ISIL Campaign. Panelists identified two major challenges going forward in Iraq: the specter of Sunni jihadism and Iranian expansionism.

Although ISIS’s territorial base is greatly diminished and will be dealt a severe blow with the liberation of Mosul, the fight is not over. The terrorist organization and self-proclaimed caliphate maintains a presence in outposts such as Al-Qaim in Iraq and Abu Kamal and Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Moreover, cautions Kahl, even if ISIS lost all its territory, the organization would remain.

“Not only are they going to be a virtual, global, transnational phenomenon, even once the physical caliphate is completely smashed, but they’re not going to completely disappear from Iraq and Syria either,” Kahl predicted. “They’re going to revert to what they were before, which is a cellular terrorist network and insurgency.”

Even if ISIS were defeated, the political and economic conditions that gave rise to it would persist, observed Blinken. This raises concerns that another Sunni jihadist group might take the place of ISIS following the liberation Mosul. The solution? Judicious foreign intervention, concluded Monday’s analysts.

Sunnis in Iraq need assurances that their government—currently led by Shia prime minister Haider al-Abadi—will not persecute them. Iraqi Kurds need greater autonomy and a resolution of Arab-Kurdish territorial disputes over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The United States should support functional federalism and the decentralization of federal power to provincial governments, suggested Blinken, and should offer itself up as an “honest broker” in ongoing political disputes between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds.

Pacifying Sunni-Shia tensions will require curtailing Iranian influence in post-ISIS Iraq. “If Sunnis feel threatened by Iranian expansionism, we’ll get another ISIS,” warned Ambassador Jeffrey. Ultimately, argued Jeffrey, the United States must give the Iraqi government incentives to position itself as a neutral actor between the US and Iran, even as antagonism between the United States and Iraq simmers. The ambassador suggested that this neutrality should come as the price for American aid in rebuilding Iraq. Malley’s suggestion was less coercive: blunt the influence of Iran by pre-empting it with American aid.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration poses several complications for these plans. While Iraq desperately needs international dollars in order to rebuild its cities, President Trump proposes to slash the State Department and USAID budgets. While neutrality in US-Iranian relations is key to salvaging Iraq, the Trump administration may be tempted to force the country to take sides as antagonism grow more intense. In addition, noted Malley, Iraqi civilian casualties have increased under the Trump administration, which may inflame anti-American sentiment on the ground.

“When it comes to balancing Iran’s influence,” warned Kahl, “we have to play the long game. Hopefully the president takes heed.

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Peace picks July 17-21

  1. Mosul after ISIS: Whither U.S. Policy in Iraq | Monday, July 17 | 2:00 – 3:00 pm | Wilson Center Register Here | The liberation of Mosul from ISIS control is a major win for the Iraqi government, the United States, and the campaign to defeat the terrorist group – but a critically important question now looms: How can the U.S. ensure that military victory against ISIS doesn’t turn into political defeat in Iraq? Join the Wilson Center as former U.S. policy advisers Anthony J. BlinkenAmbassador James F. JeffreyColin Kahl, and Robert Malley address these and related questions in a teleconference.
  2. Cyber Risk Monday: The Darkening Web | Monday, July 17 | 3:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | No single invention of the last few decades has disrupted the nature of political conflict like the Internet, which is increasingly used as a weapon by actors eager to exploit or curtail global connectivity in order to further their interests. This Atlantic Council discussion celebrating the launch of Alexander Klimberg’s new book The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace brings together intelligence specialist Laura Galante, former Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute, Atlantic Council president and CEO Fred Kempe, and author Alexander Klimberg himself to discuss the chilling consequences the emergence of cyberspace as a new field of conflict has had on the global order. The discussion will be moderated by Tal Kopan.
  3. Seventh Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference | Tuesday, July 18 | 9:00 am | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | This full-day conference will provide opportunities for in-depth discussion and analysis of the future of the South China Sea disputes, and potential responses, amid policy shifts in Beijing, Manila, and Washington. Panels include “Renewing American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific” (9:00 am) featuring Sen. Cory Gardner“State of Play in the South China Sea Over the Past Year” (9:45 am), “Militarization, Counter-coercion, and Capacity Building” (1:45 pm), and “U.S. South China Sea Policy under the New Administration” (3:15 pm).
  4. Anticipating and Mitigating Future Iranian Military Capabilities | Tuesday, July 18 | 10:00 am | International Institute for Strategic Studies | Register Here | In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, Iran will soon be allowed to procure advanced military equipment from international suppliers. How Tehran decides to recapitalize its military could have a profound impact on the security and stability of the Gulf and wider Middle East. VADM (Retd) John ‘Fozzie’ Miller, Michael Eisenstadt, and Michael Elleman will discuss the weaponry Iran is likely to seek, how the acquisition of new capabilities will alter the security environment in the Gulf, and the steps the US and its allies in the region must take now to maximize regional security.
  5. Latin America Terror Trials | Tuesday, July 18 | 3:00 pm | Center for a Secure Free Society Register Here | In April 2017, Brazil successfully prosecuted the first case of Islamist terrorism in Latin America’s history when it sentenced eight ISIS sympathizers for terror-related charges. In Peru, the prosecution had less success in prosecuting an alleged Hezbollah operative accused of manipulating explosives in 2014. Meanwhile, Argentina is advancing several cases tied to the 1994 Iranian-backed bombing in Buenos Aires of the AMIA cultural center. Join Hon. Marcos Josegrei da Silva, Moisés Vega de la Cruz, and Ricardo Neeb for a policy discussion on how the U.S. Government and civil society could collaborate with Latin American nations to enact or strengthen laws before the next major Islamist terror attack strikes the region. (Part of the discussion will be in Spanish with continuous interpretation.)
  6. Recovery in Somalia: How Do We Sustain Gains Against al-Shabab? | Tuesday, July 18 | 10:30 – 11:00 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Somalia’s tenuous progress toward stability will only be sustained if the newly elected government steps up delivery of desperately-needed services to its citizens, offering a viable alternative to al-Shabab extremists. Yet six million Somalis are at risk of famine due to drought, and the looming drawdown of the regional peacekeeping force, AMISOM, threatens to derail the country’s fragile transition if the training of Somali forces is not expedited. Former Somali Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Abdirahman Yusuf Ali Aynte (Abdi Aynte) and U.S. Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg will discuss the challenges and potential solutions in a webcast conversation.
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Counterbalancing Iran

On Wednesday, Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) paid a visit to the Middle East Institute to deliver a keynote address entitled “Challenges in U.S.-Iran Foreign Policy.” The senator’s speech highlighted the importance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East to counter Iranian influence.

Despite its flaws, the JCPOA has succeeded in its primary objectives: freezing Iran’s nuclear program, supporting global counter-proliferation efforts, and opening channels of communication to prevent the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iran. While decrying Iran’s abysmal human rights record and acknowledging that several members of Congress seek to undo the landmark agreement, Coons insisted that commitment to the JCPOA is the United States’ best bet to contain the Iranian nuclear threat and prevent direct conflict.

“We should only walk away,” countered the senator, “when there is clear cause to do so.”

Coons was adamant that “calls for regime change or war with Iran are reckless.” One needs look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya to see examples of failed U.S. initiatives in the region. Moreover, regime change raises the threat of a power vacuum and jihadi forces ready to fill it.

Conditioning US-Iran relations is a delicate project. Ultimately, concerns about the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East must inform the US stance on governments and organizations as diverse as Iraqi Kurdistan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In particular, the impending September 25 referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence presents a minefield for American rhetoric and policy: the referendum, if approved, would weaken the integrity of the Iraqi state and shift the country’s Sunni-Shia sectarian balance to a Shia majority, increasing Iran’s clout. Yet the argument for Iraqi Kurdish self-determination is compelling, and Kurds have been strong regional allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

Additionally, announced Coons, the GCC feud must be put to rest. It weakens the Middle East’s strongest anti-Iran bloc and American ability to counter Iranian sway.

The Senator pins hopes for the future of US-Iran relations on Senate Bill 722: the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017. The bill, which has stalled in the House of Representatives following a constitutional challenge, would impose non-nuclear sanctions on Russia and Iran to punish Iran for “unacceptable non-nuclear behavior,” including support for the Assad regime in Syria, threats to Israel, and antagonism towards U.S. allies in the Gulf. The senator also advises American diplomats to negotiate a successor agreement to the JCPOA, which will be critical as sunset clauses in the existing agreement go into effect.

Crucially, American officials must restrict their antagonism to the Iranian government—not the Iranian people. The May 19 Iranian presidential elections, which re-elected moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani, indicate that Iranians want a less repressive regime and a more open society. President Trump’s Muslim ban and inflammatory rhetoric do nothing to serve American interests—they only stoke anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people.

Given the results of the presidential election and the tentative success of the JCPOA, the Trump administration would be foolish to sabotage relations with Iran.

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Peace picks July 10-14

  1. Zapad 17: Implications for NATO and the United States | Tuesday, July 11 | 9:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As NATO steps up its exercises in the Baltic Sea region, Russia is preparing to launch a major exercise in mid-September to test the readiness and capabilities of its air, sea, and ground forces in northeastern Europe. Zapad is a recurring exercise which has included forces from both Russia and Belarus, and serves as a high-profile training event close to NATO territory. Join the Atlantic Council and the Ministry of Defense of Estonia for a public discussion on the implications of Zapad 17.
  2. Challenges in U.S. Iran Policy | Wednesday, July 12 | 12:30 – 5:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Join the Middle East Institute for a conference to examine the outlines of U.S. policy toward Iran, addressing its overall goals, the strategies pursued, and metrics of success. Panels will include: “Assessing the Threat, Calibrating a Strategy” (1:30 – 2:45 pm), “Challenges in Syria and Iraq” (3:00 – 4:15 pm), and Challenges in Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan” (4:15 – 5:30 pm). Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and proponent of the U.S. – Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will give the keynote address.
  3. The War on ISIS: The Forgotten Need for Congressional Authorization | Wednesday, July 12 | 9:30 – 10:30 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | While there is a broad consensus for pursuing ISIS aggressively, the legal grounds upon which the president can expand the use of military force against ISIS are more tenuous. In recent years, the executive branch has justified its actions by pointing to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) – legislation signed into law days after the 9/11 attacks. Is Congress abdicating its authority to authorize wars to the executive branch? Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Jane Harman (director, president, and CEO of the Wilson Center) will comment.
  4. The July 15 Coup Attempt in Turkey: One Year On | Thursday, July 13 | 9:00 – 11:00 am | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | Last year’s failed coup attempt, carried out by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), took a considerable toll on the Turkish nation and created enormous domestic, regional, and international risks. Following the death of more than 200 Turkish civilians, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency that is still in effect. Ankara has requested the extradition of suspected mastermind Fethullah Gulen from the U.S., further complicating the already strained relationship between the two NATO allies. Join THO and a distinguished panel of experts including Ambassador James JeffreyMark HallCliff Stearns, and Mujeeb Khan for a look at the July 15 coup attempt one year later. Discussion will be moderated by Alexi-Noelle O’Brien Hosein.
  5. A New Nuclear Review for a New Age | Thursday, July 13 | 12:15 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The contemporary nuclear environment is very different from that which immediately followed the Cold War. A New Nuclear Review for a New Age, a recent study published by the National Institute for Public Policy, provides timely recommendations for how the United States must respond to the changes and adapt its nuclear posture to deter enemies, assure allies, and limit damage in the event deterrence fails. The Hudson Institute will host a discussion with the director of the study, Dr. Keith Payne, and contributing authors Dr. Matthew Kroenig and Rebeccah Heinrichs.
  6. Regime Change in Iran: From the 1953 Coup to the Trump Policy Review | Thursday, July 13 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Atlantic Council presents a panel discussion featuring Sanam Naraghi-AnderliniMalcolm Byrne, and Bruce Riedel on new US government documents released about the 1953 CIA-backed coup that deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The discussion will look at the ramifications of the coup for the Iranian people and US-Iran relations and analyze the impact of revived regime change rhetoric among some politicians and advisers seeking to influence the policies of the Trump administration toward Iran and the Middle East at large.​ Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, will be moderating.
  7. Post-ISIS Iraq and Syria: Avoiding Chaos | Friday, July 14 | 10:00 am – 12:30 pm | Middle East Policy Council | Register Here | Join the Middle East Policy Council for a conference featuring Ambassador James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University; Mr. Wa’el Alzayat, former Syria Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State; and Dr. Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute. Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer, former ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, will be moderating.
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