Catalonia, Moscow and Tehran: The Shifting Tides of Global Politics


2017-10-07 By Robbin Laird

This week has been certainly an interesting one.

With Catalonia voting for independence, Spain and the broader European Union face a tough challenge.

Clearly, cities and urban regions have become more important as the broader European framework of trade and economic relations have evolved.

In many ways, city states fit the evolving framework better than nations.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has vowed to declare independence from Spain. Credit Photo: REUTERS

Yet nations are the basis for shaping defense and security for the territory on which citizens of those nations live and hope to remain free from the interference of various threats from illiberal states and from trans national crime and terrorism.

Brexit has been part of the shock waves affecting the European framework, but as Brexit is worked the solidarity of the United Kingdom is itself not guaranteed.

Fragmentation on regional grounds is certainly possible.

And overall the challenge is really to launch Europe once again, for the expanded and globalized framework dominated by a bureaucracy in Brussels simply accelerates the problems we are seeing and not resolving them.

But what Europe X.0 is clearly a work in progress.

The Saudi Visit to Russia

The Catalonian vote would have been significant all by itself but we have two other developments, which deserve comment as well.

The Russian engagement in Syria ultimately was about putting Russia back into the Middle Eastern geopolitical game and with that engagement orienting military capabilities towards supporting that engagement.

During the last part of the Obama Administration, the Israeli government brought a full delegation to Moscow to work directly with Russia. Now the Saudis have done something similar.

The Saudi king has now brought a 1500 man entourage to Moscow for the first ever visit of a Saudi King to Moscow.

Saudi officials booked two entire luxury hotels and brought their own carpets and hotel staff with King Salman bin Abdulaziz on his historic visit during the first week of October 2017.

Geopolitics was the center of attention along with concrete agreements on arms and oil.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman pose for a photo during a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. Yuri Kadobnov/Pool Photo via AP

According to a story published by Aljazeera on October 4, 2017:

Saudis no longer demand Assad’s immediate removal from power and do not lambast Russia’s military operation that has entered its third year on Saturday.

Damascus now claims that 92 percent of Syria’s territory has been “liberated” from its foes – and Russian air strikes and unrelenting political backing played a major role. Observers in Moscow claim the king’s visit has to do with a region-wide reassessment of political sympathies.

“Three years ago, Washington’s actions mattered the most,” Anatoly Tsiganok, a Moscow-based defense analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Now, the situation has changed cardinally, that is why now Middle Eastern nations pay attention to Russia.”

On the arms side, an agreement to buy the S-400 system and to become involved in the production of the system was part of the visit.

Under the agreements, Saudi Arabia is set to buy S-400 air defence systems, Kornet anti-tank guided missile systems and multiple rocket launchers.

These agreements are “expected to play a pivotal role in the growth and development of the military and military systems industry in Saudi Arabia,” Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), the Kingdom’s military industries firm said.

“The memorandum of understanding includes the transfer of technology for the local production” of the Kornet anti-tank guided missile systems, advanced multiple rocket launchers and automatic grenade launchers.

“In addition, the parties will cooperate in setting a plan to localise the manufacturing and sustainment of parts of the S-400 air defence system,” SAMI said.

The two countries also agreed on the production in Saudi Arabia of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle and its ammunition as well as educational and training programmes for Saudi nationals.

“These agreements are expected to have tangible economic contributions and create hundreds of direct jobs,” the company said.

They “will also transfer cutting edge technologies that will act as a catalyst for localising 50 percent of the Kingdom’s military spending.”

And an article published in Business Insider on October 5, 2107 highlighted the energy side of the visit:

Russia, which is not a member of OPEC, joined the cartel-led production cut agreement, which aims to combat the world’s oil glut that kept prices depressed for over two years, in November 2016. It was the first time Russia joined OPEC in a coordinated cut since 2001.

Then in May 2017, the two worked together to extend the cuts until the end of March 2018. Before the official OPEC meeting, Saudi Arabia and Russia together said they favored an extension.

Ahead of the king’s visit, Putin said on Wednesday at the Russian Energy Week conference in Moscow that Russia is open to the possibility of extending the production cut deal with OPEC through the end of 2018. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, meanwhile, said the kingdom was “flexible” regarding that suggestion, according to Reuters.

“[C]oordination on oil policy has been perhaps the biggest deliverable, with Russia abandoning its longstanding aversion to cooperating with OPEC and essentially assuming the role of de facto co-president this year,” Croft explained in the note. “Moreover, Putin signaled that he may not be looking to abandon this co-pilot role anytime soon, stating this week that Russia may be willing to extend the output agreement to the end of 2018.”

President Erdogen Visits Iran

And while the Saudi King made the first visit ever of a Saudi monarch to Moscow, on the other side of the Mediterranean, the President of Turkey was visiting Iran.

There is little question that each side had in mind engaging to get support for protecting their interests.

On Erdogen’s side it clearly was about Syria and the Kurds; on the Iranian side it was about protecting their gains in Syria and Iraq.

It is certainly not clear that the perspectives of the two countries fit together into some kind of geopolitical puzzle; but it is clear that they are asserting their right to put puzzle pieces into whatever the next outcome in the geopolitical settlement of what the Middle East might look like.

From a military and security perspective, Erdogan’s visit to Iran is “very important”, as Turkey considers more sanctions on the KRG and its regional capital Erbil, including the shutting of its borders, said Sinem Koseoglu, Al Jazeera’s Turkey-based correspondent and analyst.

She said Turkey could leverage its warming relations with Iran to put more pressure on the KRG to backtrack from its plan to declare an independent state.

On Monday, Erdogan dispatched Gen. Hulusi Akar, the military Chief of General Staff , to Tehran, the first ever visit for a top Turkish military official since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The leaders of Turkey and Iran meet to discuss how to advance their interests in the geopolitical reset in the region. Credit Photo: AFP

At their meeting, Akar and Iran’s military chief, Mohammed Hussein Bagheri, condemned the Kurdish referendum as unconstitutional. In August, Bagheri also became the first ever top military official to visit Ankara since 1979. 

Akar also held separate talks with President Rouhani, who at the meeting warned that the deterioration of geographical boundaries, in the event of a KRG split from Iraq, would harm regional security and stability. 

For his part, Akar said that Turkey and Iran, “will play an important role in the region’s stability and peace with improving cooperation”, following the Kurdish referendum.

On September 25, voters in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly to back a split from Baghdad, setting off a regional crisis.

Neighbouring Turkey and Iran, as well as Iraq’s central government in Baghdad have opposed the referendum, and have threatened to impose sanctions on the KRG should it decide to go ahead with its decision to declare an independent state.

As Sherlock Holmes once put it: “The game is afoot.”