Week of July 16

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized Saudi Arabia’s control over Islam’s most sacred mosques in Mecca and Medina. He condemned Saudi Arabia’s handling of the 2015 stampede in Mecca where between 800 and 2,400 people died after two groups of worshipers collided. Among the dead included countless Iranians, which led to a falling out between the two rivals in 2016. Saudi Arabia, subsequently, prohibited Iranians from fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam by barring them from participating in the 2016 haj. Khamenei declared that the site “belongs to all Muslims,” and breached the “inalienable right of the pilgrims” to “security.” Following the stampede, Ayatollah Khamenei officially rejected Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of the holy sites. As of March 2017, Saudi Arabia had invited Iranian Muslims to travel to Mecca once again.

Saudi Arabia’s renowned Oxford Aviation Academy announced on Wednesday that it will be training its first class of women pilots. The elite academy has received countless applications from hundreds of women hoping to start lessons in September at a new location in Dammam. The academy is part of a $300 million project that includes a school for aircraft maintenance and an international center for flight simulators at the airport. This is seen as a part of young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping reforms to transform and diversify the economy. It comes after the lifting of the decades-long ban on women driving. “People used to travel abroad (to study aviation), which was difficult for women more than men,” said applicant Dalal Yashar, who aspires to work as a civil pilot. “We are no longer living in the era were women were allowed (to work) in limited arenas. All avenues are now opened for women. If you have the appetite, you have the ability.” 

On Wednesday, the Lebanese parliament announced that it will be reviewing legislation to legalize medicinal marijuana, according to its speaker, as authorities seek ways to revitalize the country’s struggling economy. With public debt at 150% of GDP, the third highest rate in the world, Lebanon charged consulting firm McKinsey & Company with setting out a vision to spark economic growth. McKinsey’s proposal, submitted this month to President Michel Aoun, included a recommendation to legalize and regulate the production and sale of marijuana. Lebanese lawmakers may soon take action, speaker Nabih Berri told the US ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth Richard. “Lebanon’s parliament is preparing to study and adopt the necessary laws to legalize the growth and consumption of hash for medicinal purposes, like a number of European countries and some US states,” said Berri. Currently, consuming, growing and selling marijuana are all illegal in Lebanon, but in the eastern Bekaa Valley, long marginalized by the central government, its widespread production has become a multi-million-dollar industry.

On Thursday, Israel’s parliament passed a controversial bill that recognizes Israel as the official national homeland of the Jewish people and asserts that “the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” With 62 lawmakers voting in favor of the legislation and 55 opposing it, the law was passed after extensive debate on various clauses throughout the legislation. It includes phrases such as, “the state sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” Another clause declares that a “united Jerusalem” is the capital of Israel and that Hebrew is the country’s official language, demoting Arabic, spoken by 20% of the population, from an official language to one of “special” standing. In response, Arab MKs tore up the bill in protest and were removed from the proceedings. Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, pulled out a black flag and waved it during his speech, warning of the implications of the law. “This is an evil law,” he told lawmakers, adding that “a black flag hovers over it.” He later said in a statement, “Today, I will have to tell my children, along with all the children of Palestinian Arab towns … that the state has declared that it does not want us here. It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.” Several American Jewish organizations also expressed their disapproval of the law. The American Jewish Committee, a group representing the Jewish Diaspora, said it was “deeply disappointed,” adding that the law “puts at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic, while the president of J Street, a Washington liberal pro-Israel group, said the bill’s purpose is “to send a message to the Arab community, the LGBT community and other minorities in Israel, that they are not and never will be equal citizens.”

On Sunday evening, President Trump unleashed an especially blustering warning, via an all-caps tweet to the Iranian regime, that any threats to the United States would be met with unspecified dire consequences. The rant signified an escalation in the ongoing rhetorical wars between representatives of the two countries.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to President Trump’s all-caps Twitter threat with a tweet of his own a few hours later, writing in his typical derisive tone, “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED: The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago. And Iranians have heard them —albeit more civilized ones—for 40 yrs. We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!” Members of the Trump administration have stepped up their anti-regime game in recent weeks in response to Iran’s defiant attitude.  The United States quit the 2015 nuclear agreement that curtailed the country’s weapons development program in June and the administration has stated it intends to re-enact sanctions which will limit Iran’s ability to sell its oil, a commodity upon which its economy is dependent. Secretary of State Pompeo compared the Iranian regime to the mafia in a speech on Sunday and said that “the goal of our efforts is to one day see Iranians in Iran enjoying the same quality of life that Iranians in America enjoy.”

On Sunday, General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for defending and promoting U.S. interests in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, expressed reservations about America possibly working with Russia in Syria to help Syrian refugees return to their war-torn nation. The proposal emerged from the recent summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Given Russia’s continuing support for the Assad regime, Votel said he would prefer to see confidence-building measures from Russia before the U.S. possibly entered into such an arrangement. Votel stressed he has not received any guidance from the White House about the Helsinki talks and had only seen press reports about the proposed joint plan to return Syrian refugees. Cooperation between the two militaries to help return the Syrian refugees is not possible under current law. Since 2014, the U.S. military has been prohibited from cooperating with their Russian counterparts in any capacity after Congress passed legislation prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. ABC News reported that “Few details have emerged from U.S. officials about what the two presidents discussed in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki. Instead, Russian officials have made vague references to “verbal agreements” made by the two leaders to deal with hot-button issues around the world, including Syria.”

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