Coronavirus will not de-escalate all of the Middle East's tensions on its own

At a recent online policy roundtable meeting, current and former political leaders discussed ways to solve the region's geopolitical dilemmas

UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash speaks during a press conference in Sudan's capital Khartoum on January 14, 2020. Gargash arrived in Sudan for a two-day visit. / AFP / ASHRAF SHAZLY
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Last week, during an online policy roundtable meeting of the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, made several remarkable comments.

With respect to the likelihood of Iran resorting to military escalation in the Gulf to send a message to the United States and deflect attention away from impending domestic unrest, Dr Gargash said: “I think we need to really concentrate on de-escalation.” He advocated managing foreign policy constructively and pragmatically, focusing on “internal priorities [that] are not necessarily political, but have a political impact”.

A US military vehicle patrols the oil fields in the town of Qahtaniyah in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province near the Turkish border, on May 8, 2020. / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN

Dr Gargash declined to issue warnings or accusations targeting Tehran. Instead, he insisted on a message of de-escalation between Washington and Arab capitals on one side and Tehran on the other. The regional and international implications of these pronouncements are interesting.

The policy meeting was themed Stability Redefined and was also attended by Prince Turki Al Faisal, the former Saudi Arabian intelligence chief; General David Petraeus, former commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Andrei Fedorov, Russia's former deputy foreign minister.

moderated the panel, as founder and executive chair of the Beirut Institute. The interesting and illuminating discussion tackled US-Chinese relations, the implications of US-Iranian escalation, the Russian position on Syria and Iran and the economic and labour reforms necessary for the post-Covid-19 era.

But first, it was necessary to get up to speed on recent developments.

Germany’s decision to ban Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese militant group, from its soil have caught not just the group's leadership off guard, but also the Lebanese government that is under its yoke and acts as its technocratic front. Washington, which influenced the German decision, has moved quickly to persuade other European countries to adopt similar measures.

epa08393101 Policemen guard the scene in front of the islamic Al Irschad association in Berlin, Germany, 30 April 2020. German Minister of Interior, Construction and Homeland Horst Seehofer banned the Hezbollah in Germany. Police raided several locations German wide.  EPA/CLEMENS BILAN

On Iran directly, US President Donald Trump's administration this week moved on two important levels. First, Mr Trump vetoed the Congress’s Iran War Powers resolution. With that the White House has formally rejected any restriction on the president's powers to launch military action against Iran, characterising Congress’s resolution as "very insulting".

Mr Trump further noted that the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani has not led to Iranian escalation against the US. This is remarkable because the mood in Tehran suggests that its retaliation is simply delayed, not shelved.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash insisted on a message of de-escalation between Washington and Tehran

Second, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged to use every tool at America’s disposal to enforce the UN Security Council's arms embargo on Tehran and to stop it from procuring more weapons. And regardless of whether Washington succeeds at the Security Council or is thwarted by a Russian or Chinese veto, US sanctions could still dissuade any third party from selling arms to Iran.

Despite this, the Trump administration has extended sanctions waivers for Iraq to import gas and electricity from Iran, announced by Mr Pompeo as he welcomed the formation of a new government in Iraq under Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.

At the Beirut Summit policy circle, Gen Petraeus said there is no question that Iran has been the source of provocation. “Regardless of the pandemic," he said, "Iran's long-term objective is unchanged. It is hegemony over the Shia crescent and the Lebanonisation of Iraq and Syria." But he was also of the view that no matter how hard Iran tried to impose its model in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, “They're in a very, very difficult situation as they are being crushed by economic sanctions, their economy is in free fall, the currency's devalued, unemployment is vastly higher, they've mismanaged every aspect of the economy [including water] and now they have completely mismanaged the response to the pandemic”.

In light of all of this, Gen Petraeus continued: “I don't think that they want to provoke war with the United States…they know that the United States has improved its defence [and] surrounded them [with] Patriots and other air and ballistic missile defences."

An Iranian street vendor wearing a protective mask amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, sits by her display of goods on a street of the capital Tehran, on May 09, 2020. / AFP / ATTA KENARE

Concerning the chances for diplomacy, Gen Petraeus said they are dim between now and the US election in November, but said: “I've actually suggested some modest outreach to try to reduce the tension, but it would not be something very significant and then after the election we'll see whether or not there is the possibility of some kind of initiative”.

Prince Turki said the whole world, not just the Gulf, was responsible for meeting “this challenge of Iranian extra-territorial ambitions and trying to throw on others what it should be dealing with in its own turf”. He added: “I think  [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been on the wrong side of history in supporting Bashar Al Assad,” noting that Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN have brought Syria to the situation it is in today.

For his part, Mr Fedorov said that all countries will be weaker, less stable and more preoccupied with their internal problems in a way that will impact their foreign policies. Concerning the standoff between the US and China, he said: “I'm absolutely sure that the US will come out [of the coronavirus pandemic] much stronger than China” and would build a coalition against China with little chance for a common language between them.

Mr Fedorov predicted serious turmoil in Iran and Afghanistan next month, saying his sources in Iran indicate the country is entering the last stage of partial stability, as the economic situation is rapidly deteriorating and the citizens are increasingly restless. This, he said, could push the Iranian leadership to conclude the only way out of a domestic crisis is to manufacture an external one, with the United States, possibly as early as late May or June.

Mr Fedorov also poured cold water on reports that Mr Putin wants to get rid of Mr Al Assad. Concerning the political process in Syria, he said that the Russian point of view is that the only solution in Syria is to help the Assad regime take control of the entire country, including by doubling Russian military assistance, especially in Idlib. He said that “Iran is taking more and more control over Syria, and Russia is not capable” of tackling this except by helping Mr Assad take control over all the country.

Returning to Dr Gargash’s comments repeating the need for de-escalation in the region, he said nations must be allowed to focus on the hurricane caused by the coronavirus pandemic and rethink development models. He pointed out that labour market imbalances have emerged as a key issue, despite it being premature to restructure them now. “I would say that the [Middle East], like all regions in the world, is going to be financially and politically weaker. I think we will be wise to think about our development models about de-escalation and to try some problem solving”.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute