A report published on Monday by UPI indicated that an agreement among the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and some non-OPEC oil exporters was likely to be extended for an additional year after having partial success in reducing global oil output as part of a bid to control prices that had sharply declined in 2015. The agreement identified 50 dollars per barrel as the minimum allowable price, and the UPI report notes that Monday’s price for the standard Brent crude oil was 62 dollars per barrel. This is, however, still considerably less than 2010-2014 prices.
The headline of the UPI report called attention to the position of Iran in pushing for this OPEC agreement. Iran is a leading member of the oil cartel, but was exempted from cuts after the initial agreement, based on Iranian negotiators insistence that the country should be permitted to recover from sanctions before signing onto any such agreement. Most sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran were suspended at the start of 2016 with the implementation of the nuclear agreement the country had reached with six world powers.
Iran personally identified a roughly four million barrel per day output of oil as the target to be reached before joining the agreement. This was ostensibly in line with the country’s pre-sanctions output, although other analysts have disputed the figure. Additionally, the initially rapid growth of Iranian oil output slowed down considerably as it drew close to the self-identified benchmark. As long as Iran is permitted to excuse itself from ongoing cuts, it has an opportunity to challenge shares of the oil market that are currently held by regional rivals, chiefly Saudi Arabia.
This fact and the associated tensions are arguably underscored by Iran’s repeated boasting about the multilateral support that exists for extension of the agreement that it is not currently participating in. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in an escalating war of words for many months, and that escalation seemed to accelerate this month after Iran-backed rebels in Yemen fired a missile deep into Saudi territory. At the same time, the Saudis backed the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who used that opportunity to speak out against deepening Iranian influence in his country through the paramilitary group and political party Hezbollah.
Despite the danger of this influence in Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere becoming more entrenched as a result of Iranian revenue streams, neither Saudi Arabia nor its close allies in OPEC have shown an interest in undermining the output agreement, which benefits Iran in the short term but will presumably benefit virtually all oil exporting countries over the long term. As such, the UPI report quoted one American market analyst as saying that Saudi support for the extension of the output limits was “all but guaranteed”.
Vying for Influence
But this is not to say that the Gulf Arab states are declining to push back against the danger of further Iranian ascendancy in the region and in global markets. Quite to the contrary, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia had called for an emergency meeting on the topic. With support from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait, the meeting was held on Sunday in the Egyptian capital of Cairo and focused on developing strategies for diminishing the interference of Iran and Hezbollah into the internal affairs of Arab nations.
However, for its part, Iran has been making clear efforts to work together with its allies in order to strengthen its own foothold in those same areas. Notably, the Cairo meeting took place on the same day as Iranian officials met with their Russian and Turkish counterparts to discuss the future of post-civil war Syria, where the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad has been preserved in large part through the efforts of Iran-sponsored Shiite paramilitary groups. A coalition of those groups has now reportedly been integrated into the Syrian armed forces, thus complicating the project of extricating Iranian influence from that country on the east coast of the Mediterranean.
Tehran enjoys similarly entrenched influence in neighboring Iraq, which joined Syria as the other major theater of conflict against the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Now that that fight is largely ended, other parties to the conflict are struggling to advance their own interests in the region, and Iran is particularly prominent among them. What’s more, the Iranians also seem to be particularly blatant about this project, which involves not only the operation of proxy groups linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps but also the direct, on-the-ground influence of the IRGC’s foreign special operations branch, the Quds Force.
On Monday, the Middle East Monitor reported that photographs had been released showing Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, in Syria on November 14. This lends additional credence to the claims of opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran regarding the leading role played by Suleimani and the IRGC in recent activities in the region, including the retaking of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas from Kurdish forces that had previously captured them from ISIL. The storming of Kirkuk helped to stifle a push for Kurdish independence, and it ostensibly returned the oil-rich region to the control of the Iraqi national government. But various analysts have maintained that in reality the region was largely handed over to Iran, as evidenced by the emergence last week of an agreement granting Iran control over increasing quantities of Kirkuk oil.
The visual confirmation of Suleimani’s presence in Syria also reinvigorates calls for action by the international community to punish Iranian agents and the Islamic Republic itself over the violation of restrictions that remain in place even after the implementation of the nuclear agreement at the start of last year. Suleimani is personally subject to sanctions from multiple nations over his support for terrorism by way of the Quds Force. These activities also justify a United Nations travel ban, which Suleimani has routinely violated throughout the time his involvement has been reported in Syria and Iraq.
Influence Equals Minority Persecution
The issue of terrorist activity by the Quds Force and its affiliates is becoming a more prominent issue in some circles following the loss by ISIL of all towns and cities in the areas where it had formerly laid claim to a Sunni Islamic caliphate. As organizations like the NCRI had previously warned, the defeat of ISIL has in many ways led to the upsurge of comparable extremism and human rights abuses centered in Tehran. Algemeiner published an article on Monday that partially illustrated this trend.
That article points to comments by Wahida Yaqo Hormuz, a Christian representative in the parliament of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, regarding the “flagrant injustice” being done to Christians and other minorities in areas that are now effectively ruled by Iran’s Shiite proxies. Previous reports had similarly indicated that those proxies had in essence taken over for ISIL in persecuting religious minorities that are perceived as threats to militants on both sides of Islam’s sectarian divide. As well as directly attacking Christians who are subject to their authority, the Shiite paramilitaries are also reportedly preventing displaced Christian populations from returning. This is in line with Iran’s apparent efforts to partition much of the Middle East along sectarian lines, thereby securing lasting influence over local populations that are almost entirely Shiite.
But to the extent that this project is recognized by minority groups who have the potential to be affected, it presents an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and other opponents of the Islamic Republic to develop alliances with those groups in order to push back against Iranian influence where it is not yet entrenched. This was the focus of an article that appeared at LobeLog on Monday. Though generalizable to religious minorities, the article actually focused on the Ahwazi Arab ethnic minority, which is largely Shiite but occupies an area of Iran known as Khuzestan that is resource-rich but very poorly served by the Iranian government.
Tehran’s persistent neglect of the minority has already led to the development of closer ties between some Arab movements to counter Iranian imperialism. Naturally, these people have also expressed support for regime change in Tehran – a goal that was officially endorsed by former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal last year, as well as being tacitly endorsed by the White House at several points since President Donald Trump took office.
The LobeLog article suggests that the frustration of marginalized and persecuted minorities is something that could be exploited as part of a strategy for confronting Iran. The article does not explicitly take a position on the advisability of such a course of action, saying only that the White House would have to weigh the matter carefully if the Saudis tried to stir up more action by such minorities.
On the other hand, the BESA Center was somewhat less non-committal in a similar article that was published on its website last week. The article pointed to recent revelations about Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda and other jihadist groups as justification for the tough Iran policy being pushed by the Trump White House. It also made reference to “revived agitation by Kurds, Baloch, and Azeris,” calling it “expressions of longstanding and deep-seated grievances” and suggesting that this might be leveraged for the goal of regime change.
In illustrating that possibility, the article called attention to a January statement by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan in which it announced the resumption of armed struggle and specified that this was motivated less by separatist sentiment and more for the sake of “a struggle against the Islamic Republic for all of Iran.”