2020 In Review

Troubleshooting crisis in Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has witnessed many fluctuations in 2020 with the extremely tense relations between Iran vs the United States and allies, as well as the continued conflicts in many countries. However, the “light at the end of the tunnel” has also emerged on the journey to seek peace and clear deadlocks for regional crises.

General view of the Berlin Conference on Libya in January 2020. (Photo: ATALAYAR)
General view of the Berlin Conference on Libya in January 2020. (Photo: ATALAYAR)

Yet, it remains a difficult problem to maintain stability and development in such a region with many hot spots.

Dangerous confrontation

Iran-US tensions have escalated since early 2020. A US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport (Iraq) killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) Quds Force, kick-started a series of tit-for-tat moves between the two countries. Tehran retaliated by launching missiles at Iraqi bases hosting US troops aiming to destroy the Pentagon’s “military machine”. These incidents triggered an escalation in bilateral tensions and led to an unexpected aviation disaster when Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane thinking it was a potential threat to national security. In order to protect its forces more effectively, the US deployed Patriot air defence systems to military bases in Iraq, while Iran protested the move and argued that Washington pushed the Middle East deeper into security uncertainty.

As for the “Iranian nuclear record”, US President Donald Trump’s administration launched a campaign of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic country through increasing economic sanctions and deterrent actions, pushing US-Iran relations into a dangerous confrontation. US sanctions caused Iran’s domestic currency to be devalued at a record level (over 60%), its inflation to increase dramatically, and its oil exports to plummet, thus seriously affecting Tehran’s revenue. US sanctions dealt a strong blow on the oil sector – the “backbone” of Iran’s economy – causing the Islamic nation’s revenue from “black gold” to decline by 80%. Following the unsuceesful efforts to prevent the United Nations from lifting the arms embargo against Iran, President Trump’s administration activated the “reverse process” to re-impose UN sanctions, a unilateral step damaging the nuclear deal that Israel signed with the P5+1 powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In response to the US’s moves, Iran reduced its commitments to the nuclear accord and increased the amount of enriched uranium, pushing talks over Tehran’s nuclear programme into a standstill. In addition, the Islamic country repeatedly took moves to display its military power, such as planning to build nuclear submarines and announcing the successful launch of its first military satellite.

Most recently, the murder of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist “added fuel to the fire” in Iran’s confrontation with the West. With the accusation that Israel, a close US ally in the Middle East, “played a role” in this case, Israel prepared measures in response. The incidents wrapped up a turbulent year for the “Iranian nuclear record”, pushing US-Iran relations to peak tension and brining the region to the brink of a hot war. In an effort to ease US-Iran confrontation, the UN Security Council’s vote not to extend arms embargo against Iran was aimed at ensuring the implementation of commitments under the JCPOA, the only document that is considered the main pillar of the global non-proliferation structure and should be enforced to maintain regional stability.

“Light at the end of the tunnel”

In the gloomy picture of the MENA region, “bright spots” appeared in cooperation between some Arab countries and Israel, as well as in the efforts to remove deadlocks in the prolonged crises in Syria and Lybia. Brokered by the US, Israel signed agreements to normalise ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan. This is the biggest breakthrough in Israel’s relations with the Arab bloc in the past 26 years, since the country’s signing of a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. The new deals have paved the way for the enhancement of cooperation between Israel and some Arab nations, helping the Jewish state to step by step break isolation in the region while creating a motivation to promote the necessary trend of cooperation and reconciliation in the Middle East.

However, these agreements have yet to resolve the thorniest problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even causing skepticism among Arab countries on the fulfillment of commitments to promoting the Middle East peace process and steadfastness towards the two-state solution. Palestine strongly opposed Arab nations’ signing of normalisation deals with Israel in the context that a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is yet to be worked out. Meanwhile, the Middle East peace process has been negatively affected after US President Donald Trump announced his controversial “Middle East peace plan” allwowing Israel to annex Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. Palestine and many countries around the world objected to the US document, claiming that the US favoured its ally Israel and this was not a peaceful solution for the Middle East. Although the US President called Israel’s normalisation agreements with Arab countries the “dawn of a new Middle East” and these documents open a new page for economic, trade, technology, security and defence cooperation between the two sides, they will still be unable to bring long-term peace to the region unless a more urgent issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is resolved. Furthermore, Israel’s peaceful relations with Arab nations are even said to become a foundation for the US to create a new power alliance to counter and curb Iran’s influence in the region.

The situation in Lybia has also witnessed positive changes with the deadlock in the prolonged crisis being initially been cleared. Under the UN’s mediation and international diplomatic efforts, the warring parties in Libya have reached a long-term cease-fire agreement and conducted political dialogue towards elections. After falling into the civil war since 2011, Libya had been deeply engulfed in profound divisions between factions, with two governments co-existing. This created conditions for increased external intervention in the North African nation. The Libyan situation became complicated when opposing factions in the country received support and weapons from the outside, which “fueled” the escalation of conflicts and turned Libya into a battlefield and a “terrorist training furnace”, thus destabilising the region. Given this fact, the newly reached ceasefire deal has helped put an end to the conflict, allowing oil facilities and domestic transport routes in Libya to resume operations, while facilitating the country to gradually revive the economy and conduct the next political dialogues. The UN, the European Union (EU) and the international community have committed to assisting Libya in protecting the fragile peace process, towards bringing the North African country back to a trajectory of stability and development.

The developments related to the MENA crises show that this region of strategic geopolitical position continues to be strongly influenced by the US’s strategic calculations. With the policy “America First” and the ambition to “make America graet again”, policies of President Trump’s administration in the Middle East have maximised the US’s interests regardless of the moves causing controversy and “heating up” hot spots.

In that context, the relentless mediation efforts made by the UN, especially members of the UN Security Council, along with many countries in the region, have brought about positive progress, helping to remove the deadlock for the crises and triggering hopes of “light at the end of the tunnel” for peace in the MENA “firespan”.