Following the announcement of Saudi Arabia's "Vision 2030" Economic Plan by Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman on April 25, King Salman announced a reshuffling of the government. The reshuffling was clearly orchestrated by the Deputy Crown Prince and reflects his agenda. This shuffle probably is not the last word even in the near term; the changes in the government strengthen the political position of Mohammad bin Salman, because the new ministers owe him their posts, and through them he will strengthen his hold on the levers of government, especially in the economic sphere. His next step may be to move to neutralize Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, the minister in charge of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) and a close ally of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. He could do this by absorbing SANG into the Ministry of Defense.
Such a step would probably not sit well with many of the members of the royal family; however, if Mohammad bin Salman takes such a step, it will only be with the consent of his father, King Salman, and none would actively oppose him. Such a step would have significant ripple effects; international influence in Saudi Arabia has focused for decades on acquiring sectorial influence in the various centers of power of the Kingdom – the different factions of the royal family, the business sector, the army, the SANG etc. The continuing concentration of power in the hands of Mohammad bin Salman will reduce the political relevance of many of these assets of international players and they will be obliged to restructure their connections and sources of information on the politics and economic decision making of the Kingdom.
Farther down the road -- in our assessment not in the short term -- King Salman may appoint his son to the position of Prime Minister – a title that he presently holds himself. Such a promotion would pave the way for Mohammad bin Salman to depose the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Nayef, to be appointed as the next Crown Prince and to succeed his father. A possibility exists -- though in our assessment it is not likely in the near future -- that the King will even abdicate and pass the reins of the Kingdom to his son after he has been duly appointed as Crown Prince. These scenarios will be a disappointment to policy-shapers in Washington who prefer -- or at least feel more comfortable with Mohammad bin Nayef. This too will call for a significant shift in the international disposition towards the Saudi regime; development of channels of influence with Mohammad bin Salman and his confidantes, adapting to a new and unfamiliar paradigm of decision-making in the Kingdom and coping with Mohammad bin Salman's not-typically-Saudi regional policies towards Iran and other threats.
Mohammad bin Salman's "Vision 2030" is totally identified with his leadership. If it succeeds, he will harvest the praise; on the other hand, many in the Saudi elite will latch on to any sign of failure of his policies in order to block his ambitions. However, none of them will actively attempt to disrupt Mohammad bin Salman's plans; such a power struggle could precipitate the end of the rule of the al-Saud family and the very existence of the Saudi state, and they are aware that either they "hang together or they hang separately". The risks to the regime from the economic reform process, however, do not necessarily come from proactive efforts to disrupt it. Mohammad bin Salman's social-political agenda to broaden the power base of the regime to include the young and educated -- and to a great extent relatively secular or moderate -- will certainly be seen by the Wahhabi clerics and the tribal social conservatives as geared towards reducing their control over the populace and hence their weight in the elite. Another serious risk is that the economic plan entails reducing the Saudi welfare state. The economic and social fallout of weaning the Saudis off entitlements will be exploited by domestic opposition elements and by Iran.
Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 7, 2015. (Image source: U.S. State Department)
The changes in the Saudi Oil Ministry reflect Mohammad bin Salman's strategic policy of using Saudi oil to minimize Iran's economic and political profits from the lifting of sanctions, even at the expense of Saudi profit from its oil. This policy has broad support in the Saudi elite, with the possible exception of some of the government oil bureaucracy and the oil-related business community. But the latter do not have the power to derail the regime's priorities in this regard. Therefore, we are likely to see a continuation of the Saudi policy of high production, willingness to offer attractive deals in order to undercut Iranian overtures to existing Saudi markets, and a high level of sensitivity to any threats to the oil industry. The chances of Iranian retaliation for the Saudi economic warfare are high. These could take the shape of cyber-attacks on installations inside Saudi Arabia, or terrorist attacks (including rocket attacks) against pipelines, refineries and other installations, and even attacks - without taking responsibility -- on Saudi oil shipping inside the Persian Gulf or -- more likely further away from the theater. Such attacks may normally be seen as providing Iran plausible deniability from the point of view of international law, but they will be attributed to Iran by the Saudi regime, that will see itself as obliged to react. Therefore, in the current state of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and assuming that the chances of rapprochement are slim, the chances of actual limited military conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain.
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The Islamic State has come under increasing military pressure in both Iraq and Syria in recent weeks, and it is likely to lose territory. Yet this will not make Iraq more united or stable, nor will it bring the civil war in Syria any closer to an end. Iran's influence in Iraq will grow, while the Sunnis will see the US as Iran's enabler. The Islamic State will try to respond to its losses by launching major terror attacks in the West. The Islamic State lacks the manpower to defend all the Iraqi and Syrian territory it has occupied since 2014. Consequently, its strategy consists first and foremost of defending strategically or symbolically important assets, primarily al-Raqqah, Fallujah and Mosul, as well as key supply routes. In addition, it is compensating for its defeats by carrying out lethal terror attacks in Syria and Iraq in order to demonstrate that while these regimes can, with foreign backing, regain territory, they cannot defend their citizens.
The military successes against the Islamic State will entail a number of long-range problematic political implications: exacerbation of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq and in the region in general, strengthening Iranian influence on the back of American military power, increased animosity towards the US, and widening the gap between the Baghdad government and the Kurds. The Islamic State will eventually be pushed out of Fallujah, thanks to the American support. Once the Islamic State is pushed out of Fallujah and perhaps out of Mosul, Shiite militias will move in to exact their revenge. Fallujah will again be a fertile ground for Sunni radicalism and a new Sunni insurgency in the area is almost inevitable; the Sunni populace will probably rebel again under some successor of the Islamic State and Fallujah will have to be "liberated" again. Furthermore, the American airstrikes in support of the Shiite ground offensive will strengthen the image of the US as enabler of the Iranian takeover of Iraq and as responsible for Shiite atrocities. Atrocities committed in Fallujah by the Shiite militias under American auspices will give pause to the plans for initiating an offensive on Mosul.
The Iraqi political system which the Americans constructed is on the verge of final collapse. The stalemate over the election of a new cabinet and "popular" demonstrations staged by Muqtada al-Sadr are indicative of the inherent failure of the Iraqi political system. While al-Sadr had proven that he can paralyze the government and the Parliament, he cannot become the solution. He has helped to demolish an already dysfunctional political system, but his sources of political influence draw on the very factors that made that system dysfunctional: sectarianism, a politicized military, use of "popular" violence to challenge democratic procedures, involvement of religious authorities in the democratic process, involvement of external actors (particularly Iran) and the implicit threat of armed militias. Since the current crisis derives from the power struggle within the Shiite community, it will hinge to a great degree on Iran. It may escalate to a Shiite civil war, and such a scenario would probably draw Iran to intervene directly, or to encourage a Shiite military commander to stage a coup and establish military rule, then pledge his allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. We assess that the US, under the current administration, would probably acquiesce to "Pax Iranica" in Iraq, but the more influence any settlement would accord Iran, the more it would be unacceptable to the Gulf States, and they would use their influence with the Sunnis and the Kurds to block it, inter alia, by increasing support of radical Sunni groups in the country.
The cause of Kurdish independence is gaining momentum; all the Kurdish factions seem to be dedicated to holding a referendum on Kurdish independence before the elections in the US in order to create a fait accompli for the next administration. The issue of independence, however, is linked to the demand of the new PUK-Gorran alliance for parliamentary elections and for the inclusion of mixed Arab-Kurdish areas that the Peshmerga seized from the Islamic State in those elections and in the independence referendum. (Foremost of these areas are the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, the provinces of Nineveh, Diyala, and Salah ad-Din and the regional capital of Mosul that is still in the hands of the Islamic State). If the Kurdish Region succeeds in annexing these areas, it will also signify a watershed event in the process of the breakup of Iraq.
Turkey and Iran will both oppose these plans and the current US administration will not lend its support to a move that, in essence, proves the failure of its Iraq policy and signals the breakup of Iraq. Specifically, the prize of Kirkuk for the Kurdish state would be prodigious; the Baghdad government has halted the export of oil produced by its oil company in Kirkuk to Turkey in retaliation for the KRG's independent oil exports. If Kirkuk Province joins the Kurdish Region, the KRG would presumably be able to take control of Kirkuk's oil and resume its export to Turkey or -- if the PUK-Gorran alliance comes to power in the KRG -- to opt for the Iranian offer of export through Iran to the Persian Gulf.
Turkey views the Raqqa offensive in Syria with great concern. The American connection with the Kurdish YPG, which is viewed in Ankara as an extension of the PKK, is seen as yet another indication of the US inching towards support of an independent Kurdistan -- the chronic nightmare of Turkey. Furthermore, if the Islamic State is pushed out of al-Raqqa and surrounding areas by the YPG, these areas will come under the control of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava). Even before such a scenario emerges, the Islamic State's priority of defending its regional capital, Raqqa will probably bring it to redeploy its forces now deployed in the Jarablus-Azaz Corridor, the stretch of land along the Syrian-Turkish border which separates the eastern Kurdish territory from the western enclave around the town of Afrin, north of Aleppo. The withdrawal of Islamic State forces from this corridor would tempt the YPG to launch an offensive westward from Jarablus in order to link up with the Afrin enclave. Such a prize would be a far greater achievement for the YPG than the capture of the non-Kurdish Raqqa area, and it would probably prefer it. If the YPG indeed takes such a step, it is likely to precipitate Turkish intervention, turning Turkey -- a NATO member -- into an active participant in the Syrian civil war against a party that is allied with both the US and Russia.
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In Iran, Despite the hopes of the moderate camp, the hardliner 90-year-old Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was elected (May 24) as head of the Assembly of Experts, after having gained 55 of 88 votes. This nomination does not bode well for President Rouhani's future, should he insist on implementing deeper liberalizing reforms.
More than anything else, Ayatollah Jannati's election highlights the Supreme leader's grip on power. Ayatollah Khamenei did his best to help Jannati's election by delivering his directives to some members of the Assembly. The electoral process within the Assembly showed what was not evident during the parliamentary elections held in February, namely that even a formal preeminence of moderates does not and cannot influence the decision making of the Iranian regime, and that Khamenei pulls the strings despite seemingly democratic procedures. The Assembly of Experts is rather formal and ceremonial body, unlike the Majles, however its role might become crucial at some circumstances, should the Assembly be summoned to nominate the following leader in the event of Khamenei's death.
Ahmad Jannati, is important by virtue of what he epitomizes as a symbol rather than by his current political capacity, which won't persist long, given his age. He has been serving as secretary of the Guardian Council since 1992, and in this capacity was instrumental in consolidating Khamenei's power and, in all elections, was responsible for weeding out "undesirable" candidates to the Majles and Assembly of Experts. After having won the chairmanship of the Assembly, Jannati delivered a speech demanding total loyalty to Khamenei, which can be considered as targeting the moderates. Jannati is not alone with this mindset: his respective first and second deputies are hardliners: Mohammad Kermani and Mahmoud Shahroudi. The latter served for many years as the head of the judiciary, is close to Khamenei and is mentioned as a potential successor to Khamenei. This casting of the Assembly of Experts highlights that Khamenei is preparing to guarantee his ideological legacy and the ideological continuity of the regime after his death.
The election of Jannati was even more conspicuous in the light of the corresponding withdrawal of the chief candidate of the moderates, who they had hoped would serve as an ally within the regime -- former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani decided to withdraw from the electoral competition under pressure by the hardliners, including attacks on his children, his daughter, Faezah and his son, Mehdi.
On May 28, Ali Larijani was elected as the speaker of the Majles for the third term. Larijani is considered a hardliner; for over 30 years, he has been a confidant of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His brother Sadeq Larijani is chief of the judiciary, and his other brothers have played important roles in diplomacy and government affairs. A veteran of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Larijani is also the son of Grand Ayatollah Hashem Amoli and son-in-law to prominent Islamic ideologue Morteza Motahhari. The moderate conservative politician Ali Motahhari is his brother-in-law. Given this multifaceted background, he has been able to establish strong, longstanding ties with both the military and the clergy, and with different factions in the Majles, with the exception of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became Larijani's nemesis. During Ahmadinejad's second term, Larijani openly confronted him.
By contrast, Larijani is considered close to President Hassan Rouhani. During the nuclear negotiations, Larijani contained anti-Rouhani moves in the legislature and got the Majles to ratify the agreement. However, it must be clear that he did this not because he is Rouhani's ally, but because he was ordered to carry out this mission by the Supreme Leader. Hence, Larijani will remain supportive of Rouhani, but only on the condition that the latter complies with the wishes of the Supreme Leader. If Larijani decides to stand for office, he may leverage his position in the Majles and his status with the Supreme Leader to whittle away at Rouhani's popularity.
In the meantime, the Majles will be more supportive of Rouhani. Out of the 80 Majles members who opposed the nuclear agreement, fewer than a dozen remain. None of them is high profile, and their low numbers prevent them from establishing a bloc of their own, as they did in the previous parliament. Instead, they will have to operate within a "Principlists" bloc that is dominated by more moderate "Principlist" figures. This means that the remaining hardliners will be less likely to stage the theatrics that were so successful in challenging the government during the last Majles, particularly through their repeated summoning of various ministers to answer questions; and the impeachment of the minister of science, technology and higher education. Their absence will lead to a calmer parliamentary environment, more focused on addressing the serious economic issues Iran faces such as unemployment, reform of the banking sector, and the steep economic slowdown. This notwithstanding, one should bear in mind that the above scenario is confined to the functioning of the Majles vis-à-vis Rouhani, whereas the real chances of success of his program depend on other foci of power.
Dr. Shmuel Bar is a senior research fellow at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Studies at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, and a veteran of Israel's intelligence community.