Week of September 9

Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei (L) and Sadrist Movement Leader Muqtada al-Sadr (R) attend a mourning ceremony on the Day of Ashura in Tehran, Iran on Sept. 11, 2019. Credit: Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office Handout

On Tuesday, after serving as national security advisor to President Donald Trump for a year and a half, John Bolton was fired from his position due to clashes with Trump over foreign policy, specifically related to Iran and Afghanistan. The clashes between Trump and Bolton were no secret, and his appointment came as a surprise to many in the first place. The neo-conservative is known for his uncompromising, hawkish attitude towards U.S rivals and is known for his interventionist stance on a number of foreign policy issues, such as the Vietnam War and post-9/11 Iraq. Moreover, in 2015, before the making of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which he would vehemently criticize, Bolton wrote an op-ed calling on the U.S. to bomb Iran; and in 2018, he wrote an op-ed advocating for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. His pro-interventionist foreign policy is in stark contrast to that of Donald Trump, who is unwilling to send U.S. troops abroad to combat. What made the final push for Bolton’s dismissal was his insistence on the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran at a time when Trump has been trying to arrange a meeting with Iranian President Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly next week. At the same time, Bolton had opposed Trump’s efforts to bring the Taliban to Camp David to sign a peace deal, a plan which was later canceled. Bolton’s dismissal makes way for even more uncertainty in the future of U.S. foreign policy, as now one of the very few political figures capable of challenging Trump is out, leaving more sway for Trump and his inconsistencies.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an largely-unknown figure among the general public who is considered ‘’the most influential Muslim scholar in the western world,’’ has been the target of growing criticism within the Muslim community. Most recently, Yusuf, a Washington-native who converted to Islam at 17, has sparked condemnation after a video of him taken in 2016 in which he spoke on the Syrian refugee crisis was uploaded to social media last week. The video, taken on a trip to Turkey in 2016 for a Sufi retreat, was titled ‘’We Have Humiliated Ourselves’’ and included footage of Yusuf criticizing the Syrian people for uprising against the brutal Assad regime. ‘’Allah can humiliate whoever he pleases. If you humiliate a ruler, God will humiliate you,’’ he says in the short video. Some of his remarks also suggest that he believes Muslims are incapable of self-governance: ‘’We don’t have civil society. We can’t even wait in line for buses,’’ he says. In response to the criticism, on Friday he shared a 10-minute-long statement apologizing for ‘’any pain that [he] caused’’ and asking for forgiveness from those who were offended. “I went into an area I think that I really regret,’’ he added, and rejected claims that of mocking the victims of the war. While some in the Arab world have found his his apology to be genuine, many remain critical of him altogether, especially due to his close ties to the UAE and his silence over the Muslim ban. Additionally, Yusuf has been cozying up to Donald Trump since his election in 2016: he discouraged people from protesting against Trump and has been appointed a member of the U.S. State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, a new panel on human rights. 

Also on Tuesday, in Tehran, Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sat between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani at the annual Ashura ceremonies, a Shia tradition commemorating the death of the third Shia Imam, Ali’s son Hussein. Sadr’s place between two of the most important Iranian political figures came as a shock to observers, especially since Sadr’s Iraqi nationalist policies and anti-Iranian rhetoric have been criticized before by the Iranian government. Meanwhile, Sadr has been openly critical of Iran, especially since Iran-backed former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s re-election in 2010. Thus, despite his Shia identity, Sadr had leaned more towards the Arab world in recent years, and even took a trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017 as a gesture of goodwill towards the monarchy. However, the relationship between Iran and Sadr has been undergoing a change due to the inability of Iran’s traditional Iraqi allies, most which are factions of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), to assert power in Iraq’s political scene. In contrast, Sadr is the leader of the Sairoon Alliance, the largest parliamentary bloc in Iraq, and Saraya al-Salam, an influential military force succeeding al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army. Under these conditions, Iran has started to view al-Sadr as the only strategic ally capable of challenging U.S. and Saudi Arabian influence in Iraq; thus, we may see a deepening of relations between the two. Already, a pro-Khamenei Iranian newspaper has published a piece introducing Sadr as the third pillar of Shia Islam following Lebanon’s Hizbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah and Yemen’s Ansar Allah leader Abdul-Malik Badreddine al-Houthi, and Khameini’s official website has posted photos of the two from the ceremony. 

Tunisians voted Sunday in their second-ever presidential elections, widely seen as a test for one of the world’s youngest democracies — the only one to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. People across the North African nation streamed throughout the day into polling stations that opened up at 8 a.m., choosing from among 26 candidates representing a wide spectrum of political, social and religious views. The vote followed nearly two weeks of campaigning with loud yet peaceful rallies, often held next to each other, unlike anything seen in the Arab world dominated by dictators and monarchs. Despite pride in the distinction, many Tunisians are frustrated by their living conditions and politically alienated from their leaders and political parties, according to polls and analysts. By the evening, as polls closed, election observers said preliminary figures showed a turnout of around 35 percent, roughly 30 percent less than the 2014 presidential elections., which prompted election officials to urge more youths, the biggest group of disillusioned Tunisians, to vote.  Two populists, neither of whom have ever held political office, advanced to the final round of the race: Kaïs Saïed, a little-known law professor and constitutional expert, and Nabil Karoui, a media magnate currently in jail on charges of tax evasion and money laundering. The New York Times said the results indicate disappointment among with the political establishment.

Commercial satellite image of Saudi refinery attacks.

President Donald Trump on Sunday evening tweeted that the U.S. has “reason to believe that we know” who is responsible for an attack on a Saudi Arabian oil field and the country is “locked and loaded depending on verification” following the crippling strike. “Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said. Trump’s tweet, which appeared to raise the possibility of a U.S. military response, further escalated tensions in a region already on edge after Saturday’s attack on the Saudi oil field. A senior administration official said, “It is very difficult to see how these things could have come from anywhere but Iran or Iraq,” arguing that such an attack could not be carried out with 10 drones, which the Houthis claimed to have used. Furthermore, preliminary analysis —  even before commercial images of the oil processing plant were released — suggested the attack did not originate from the direction of Yemen, but rather from southern Iraq or Iran but CNN reported that “that the Iraqis ‘have been very explicit’ that the attack did not originate in their airspace, suggesting Iran was the most likely point of origin.” The same official said the damage was caused by an armed drone attack.

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