Week of May 13
On Monday, the United States concluded that four oil tankers damaged off the coast of UAE last week were attacked by explosive charges deployed by “Iran or its proxies.” The ships included two Saudi vessels, as well as one Norwegian and one Emirati ship. Later in the week, a report by Norwegian insurers pointed specifically to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (which the U.S. recently designated as a terrorist organization) as the likely facilitators of the attack. The incident was likely a result of rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran, as the U.S. has escalated its efforts to restrict Iran’s export of oil by increasing American military presence in the Persian Gulf. In response, the Iranians have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which about a fifth of the world passes) and interrupt the oil exports of its neighbors. The ships were anchored close to the strait, and the attack is potentially indicative of future military conflict in the Gulf between the U.S. and Iran.
Also on Monday, the Al Boureqa Center in Yemen shared their efforts to aid women and girls in the country torn apart by civil war. The war has made women and girls the breadwinners of their families as Yemeni men have lost their jobs and even their lives. Many women were taught from a young age to remain in the home, making this their first opportunity to join the workforce. The Al Boureqa Center, founded by the International Rescue Committee, is stepping in to empower these women by offering classes throughout Yemen to provide women with employable skills. The center also provides counseling for the “gender-based issues and abuse” that has showed a marked increase since the fighting in Yemen began. The center is “already shifting gender dynamics in the community.”
On the same day, UNESCO launched a survey to address the challenges and needs of memory institutions in the Arab world. A part of the broader Memory of the World program and a project on the preservation of historical documents in the region, the survey will help UNESCO fund and support institutions that document the history and memory of cultures and countries across the Middle East. UNESCO’s goal in this initiative is to protect “the Arab region’s history, identity, and knowledge through the preservation of documentary heritage,” which currently are at risk of being lost due to neglect, natural decay, outdated technology inadequate housing, or deliberate destruction.
Fears surrounding Iran continued into Wednesday, as the U.S. State Department ordered its non-emergency employees to leave Iraq due to an increased threat of “terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict,” as well as a decreasing ability to “provide routine and emergency services to US citizens in Iraq.” The travel advisory specifically affected employees of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and those working in the U.S. consulate in Erbil in northern Iraq. The increased threat level was mainly a result of intelligence that National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed the U.S. received indicating Iran was planning attacks on U.S. citizens in the Middle East.
Despite the week’s news, President Trump insisted on Wednesday that he had no desire to go to war with Iran. Many of Trump’s advisors, including John Bolton and defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, support a hard-line stance against Iran, and are more in favor of pursuing military action. During the Wednesday morning meeting in the situation room, Trump’s advisors provided several military options, including a proposal to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East. However, Trump decided to explore diplomatic avenues for the time being. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was dispatched to confer with the leader of Oman (Oman has historically been an intermediary between Iran and the U.S.) as well as European officials to discuss how to de-escalate the situation. Despite this action, critics worried that Pompeo’s “12 steps” of what the U.S. requires from Iran may be too heavy-handed and could undermine the effectiveness of diplomacy. These steps included requiring Iran to cease all ballistic missile testing and cutting off all support for militants in Yemen and Syria. These demands were viewed as too unrealistic and unlikely to be met by the Iranians.
Meanwhile, in the United States, an American market research company called Civic Science released the results of a survey asking Americans if “Arabic numerals” should be taught in school. The study did not specify what “Arabic numerals” were to the participants, and many apparently failed to identify Arabic numerals as the numbers Americans use every day. 56% of respondents said that Arabic numerals should be banned from schools, while 29% said they should be included, and 15 percent had no opinion. The digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are referred to as Arabic numerals. The system was first developed by Indian mathematicians in the beginning of the common era before spreading through the Arab world to Europe and becoming popularized around the globe. John Dick, the chief executive of Civic Science, said that the results demonstrated “the saddest and funniest testament to American bigotry we’ve ever seen in our data.”
By the end of the week on Sunday, President Trump began taking a more aggressive tone with Iran, warning the nation via Twitter that threats against the U.S. would cause Iran’s “official end.” The shift in Trump’s attitude from his more conciliatory remarks on Wednesday may have been the result of a rocket attack near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Trump also lashed out on Twitter about the reports of his hawkish military advisors pressuring him into war, stating that accusations about infighting were “hurting our Country [sic].” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Trump’s Twitter threats, saying that “Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone… Try respect – it works!” Zarif went on to mock Trump for being manipulated by his advisors, the Israelis, and the Saudis. For their part, the Saudis expressed a stance similar to Trump’s, saying the kingdom “does not want a war, is not looking for it, and will do everything to prevent it,” but “if the other side chooses a war, the kingdom will respond with strength and determination to defend itself and its interests.”