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Iranian protests raise tricky questions for US and Saudi policymakers

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If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s chequered foreign policy track record is anything to go by, Iran could tempt him to embark on yet another risky adventure inspired by widespread anti-government protests in Iran, the real focus of his multiple regional quagmires that include the devastating war in Yemen and the failed effort to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign.

In many ways, Prince Mohammed faces the same considerations in deciding how to respond to events in Iran as does US President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump has to this month not only choose whether to certify to Congress Iranian compliance with the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, but also whether to waive US sanctions on Iran. A decision to reimpose economic sanctions could mean a US withdrawal from the agreement.

At the core of Mr. Trump’s decision as well as Prince Mohammed’s deliberations on how and if to respond to the Iranian protests is the question whether the United States and/or Saudi Arabia see a strengthening of hard-line conservative factions in Iran as serving their purpose of at least further containing the Islamic republic, and possibly engineering a situation that would be conducive to regime change.

“The most likely scenario is that the evidence of popular dissatisfaction and the inevitable repression will harden the Trump administration’s position on sustaining the deal and provide additional incentives for ratcheting up new economic pressure on the government, They also may see some possibility of flipping the Europeans if the crackdown is fierce and well-documented,” said Brookings fellow and ormer State Department policy planning Iran expert Suzanne Maloney. Europe has urged Mr. Trump not to nix the nuclear agreement.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in contrast to hard-liners, has sought to reach out to the protesters by recognizing their right to criticize while denouncing violence and promising to address their economic grievances.

Mr. Rouhani may be able to tackle some issues like the fraudulent financial institutions that have deprived many of their savings, but will struggle to fix the country’s structural economic issues, including the power of hard-line institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards Corps. He may also be able to institutionalize and anchor in law the right to protest with the backing of hardliners. Moreover, addressing economic issues would be even more daunting if Mr. Trump effectively withdraws from the nuclear agreement.

Ultimately, the odds are that hard-liners, irrespective of what scenario unfolds, will emerge strengthened by the current crisis either as the result of protests losing momentum as the regime curbs access to social media, a brutal squashing of the protests as a last resort, or because increased external pressure will initially unite rival factions and reinforce widespread disillusionment with the nuclear agreement that has failed to provide tangible economic benefits to a majority of Iranians.

Looming in the background is the risk that Prince Mohammed with or without US backing or cooperation will seek to exploit the Iranian government’s problems by attempting to further destabilize the Islamic republic by stirring unrest among already restive ethnic minority groups such as the Kurds and the Baloch. Kermanshah, a city in predominantly Kurdish western Iran, was one of the first cities to which the protests spread after first erupting in the conservative stronghold of Mashhad.

Saudi Arabia has funnelled large amounts of money in the last 18 months to militant groups and madrassas or religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on the Iranian region of Sistan and Baluchistan, both populated by restive Baloch populations. A Riyadh-based think tank believed to be supported by Prince Mohammed last year published a blueprint for stirring unrest among the Iranian Baluch.

Mr. Trump and the US State Department have in recent days expressed support for the protesters, urged the international community to chirp in, and said they back those in Iran that are seeking a peaceful transition of government.

Various US analysts have argued that Mr. Trump’s anti-Iranian track record, including his attempted bans on granting visas to Iranians, curtails the impact of his support for the protesters and may even strengthen the hardliners by allowing them to point fingers at alleged foreign instigation.

“While we’re on Trump, the impact of his tweets has been marginal at best. They’ve triggered a slew of angry comments, packed with ridicule. Across classes, factions and generations in Iran, there is a shared contempt for #POTUS whose policies look erratic and hypocritical,” tweeted Bloomberg News’ Iran correspondent, Golnar Motevalli.

Rather than speaking out, the analysts proposed concrete steps the United States could take to support the protesters. Ms. Maloney and journalist Maziar Bahari suggested the United States could use its influence with technology, satellite internet providers and social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to try to keep the protesters’ communications channels open.

Former State Department official Reza Marashi argued that advice he and others proffered in 2009 when the Iranian government faced far larger protests against alleged election fraud remained valid in the current situation.

“We advised our superiors to express concern about the violence against protestors, and highlight the importance of respecting free speech, democratic process, and peaceful dissent. We also emphasized a need for the US government to publicly express its respect for Iranian sovereignty, its desire to avoid making America the issue during a domestic Iranian protest, and its belief that it is up to Iranians to determine who Iran’s leaders will be,” Mr. Marashi recalled.

Much of that advice has been ignored by the Trump administration. In doing so, the administration has not only allowed Mr. Rouhani and the hardliners to point to a scapegoat, it has seemingly gone out of its way to raise Iranian fears that US policy, with the Saudis in tow, is focused on regime change.

“Washington would be wise to acknowledge the limits of its power inside Iran. Policymakers and pundits cannot change this simple truth: The problems are Iranian, the protestors are Iranian, and the solution will be Iranian,” Mr. Marashi noted.

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Middle East

The Triggering and Deterring Factors of the Recent Protests in Iran

Ramin Jabbarli

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Starting from Thursday, Dec. 28. 2017, the widespread protests continued for a week in Iran. Based on the official reports, at least 21 protesters have been killed in across the country. Officials also have confirmed the death of arrestees in the prisons. The occurrence of the protests for many Iranians was unexpected. For the first time after Islamic Revolution of Iran, in 1979, the protesters have questioned the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic in Iran by burning the posters of the supreme leader and chanting the anti-regime slogans. Now, both reformists and conservatives consider the protests as a threat to the regime. Although in the starting point of demonstrations, in the city of Mashhad, the protesters’ slogans against Rouhani had articulated the economic grievance, then the protests turned to anti-regime protests in consecutive days. The recent events in Iran and the dynamics of the protests in Iran show that causes of the protests cannot be diminished to merely the economic factors.

The Triggering Grievances 

In order to understand the dynamics of protests sociologists like M. Hechter, S. Pfaff, and P. Underwood emphasize the importance of distinguishing between structural and incidental grievances. Structural grievances came from a group’s disadvantaged position in a social structure like oppressed ethnic groups, women’s position in a patriarchal society, and etc. Whereas incidental grievances arise from a wholly unanticipated or unexpected situation that puts groups at risk. While structural grievances are essential factors, these are incidental ones that push people to take collective and coordinated action like protest and demonstration. Being unexpected or unanticipated is a key in this issue because people may react differently to an event If that will happen gradually.

In the case of Iran, the people for a long time, have suffered from structural grievances such as inflation, environmental crisis, ethnic and gender discrimination, corruption, increasing unemployment rate, restricted social and political freedom, the monopoly of power, and etc.  In the terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians experienced high inflation and the sanctions against Iran have intensified some of the problems. However, the pattern of protests in Iranian shows that the protests always follow an incidental grievance. In 2006, Azerbaijanis in Iran took street as Iran Newspaper, an official organ of Iran unexpectedly published a racist cartoon. Three years later in 2009, people took street after unexpectedly winning of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a president. In 2011, the mass protest did not occur until the parliament’s unexpected rejection of an emergency bill on August 17, 2011, to raise the water level of Lake Urmia. The people did protest without being exposed to the incidental grievances while they were aware of the problems. Knowing that all the incidental grievances did not end up with protests, implies that these kinds of grievances are a necessary but not sufficient condition to protest. So, this requires taking into account other factors such as organization, political opportunity, and identity.

To some extent, the occurrence of the current protests should be analyzed in the context of recent unexpected. Because these factors played essential roles in triggering the protests.  President Hasan Rouhani, in both terms, was elected because of his promises such as improving the economic situation and living standard, softening political climate and giving more social and political freedom and so on. He failed, even after nuclear agreement people did not feel a considerable improvement in their lives. His second term has started with moving to conservative side by having a dominantly conservative cabinet. Most recently his budget draft was the topic of hot discussion among Iranians. These were incidental ones which made the people ready to protest. Rouhani’s plan for increasing the fuel price, and cutting subsidies were unexpected plans from a president who had promised to improve living standard. These grievances were perceived as broken promises and along with sharp rising of food prices in the recent days formed a basis to interact with other factors, especially the perceived political opportunity.

The Perceived Political Opportunities

Participating in protests is an extremely costly action in an authoritarian state like Iran. There are some political situations which individuals may consider appropriate to participate in a contentious action. For instance, even in authoritarian states, as a result of political climate during presidential campaigns that candidates criticize each other people psychologically feel comfortable to express themselves. Another case could be when there are disputes among leaders and elites. People perceive these situations as opportunities for contentious actions. Sociologist Douglas McAdam calls these situations Perceived Political Political Opportunities. Indeed, in authoritarian states mostly these are not real political opportunities because follow brutal suppression by the state.

The pattern of protests in Iran reveals that a considerable number of protests happened after an election or coincided with disputes among leaders. The demonstrations after 2009 were held after election and South Azerbaijanis’ demonstrations in northwestern cities of Iran in 2011 are also a manifestation of this association. One of the significant factors which interacted with the grievances and finally has led to the protests is the critical political climate or the disputes among leaders. The current protests proceeded with two main disputes. On the one hand, the intensifying disputes among the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Larijani brothers, especially Saded Larijani, in the conservative wing of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Sadeq Larijani Head of Judiciary and appointed by the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. On the other hand, the increased pressures and accusations of the conservative wing on president Rouhani. Conservatives blame him for the nuclear agreement and not improving the living standard of the Iranians. These disputes finally have led to the protest in the city of Mashhad, where Rouhani’s rival in the recent election, Ebrahim Raisi, is from. But after Mashhad, the protests have been expanded to the other cities.  In fact, the incidental grievances together with the perceived political opportunities led to the protests across the country.

Organization: An Essential Deterring factor of the Protests

No doubt, suppression is one of important deterring factors in autocracies; however, it is not the only factor. Protest as a form of collective action requires a minimum organization to concert and coordinate the people. I use organization in the broadest sense, a way to lead people to a collective action, not necessary an institution or a party. There was no particular known physical organization such as fraction or party behind the protests. The protests had been organized essentially by using Telegram App. Telegram is a widely used app in Iran that based on Pavel Durov, the founder and CEO of Telegram, has approximately 25 million Iranian users. This was an Achilles heel for the recent protests because the protesters were primarily linked with the app, and blocking the app impaired the linkage among them.

The Iranian state blocked the access to Telegram and other social media apps to hinder the protests. As for me, the state had succeeded because the protesters were deprived of the required organizational mean to coordinate people. It seems that linkage or organizational problems could be solved by the support of the constituents of social movements that there is a real interaction with each other. An alternative might be the participation of non-Persian ethnicities’ social movement in the protests. However, chanting slogans in favor of Pahlavi dynasty and few anti-Arab racist slogans by a group of protesters have primed some non-Persian ethnic groups. The slogans recalled the ultra-nationalistic and racist programs of Pahlavi dynasty for the oppressed ethnic groups in Iran. This was a factor which impacted negatively the rate of the oppressed non-Persian ethnicities’ participation in the protests. In order to use the alternative organizational network and guarantee the participation of non-Persian ethnicities in any possible protest, their demands and the possible solutions should be addressed by political groups. Derived from Value Expectancy Theory, it is worthwhile to say that the oppressed ethnicities may join to protest if their goals are expected as a result of taking collective action. Currently, disregarding ethnic rights by major Persian political groups creates a barrier for interethnic collective action in Iran. The recent protests were also a manifestation of the barrier in Iran.

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Middle East

Priorities of Cyber Diplomacy in the Islamic Republic of Iran

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Although in terms of diplomacy priorities, it is usually viewed as a strategy, but in terms of tools, cyber-related developments require the diplomacy system to take this field more than ever before.

The space for policy and cyber interaction or, more accurately, the “cyber policy” environment, is considered to be the latest and most important area of ​​interest among policy and international experts in the field of theoretical and practical arena, the neglect of which could be serious and inescapable damage forecasts to countries as the most important actors in the field of international relations.

Today, cyber policy and cyber security are discussed in the field of international relations and politics. Cyberspace is a real space in the new arena for influencing and, consequently, friendship, cooperation, competition, hostility and even war between nations and other actors. These cases show well that the Internet and cyber space have created a new field for politics, a space in which individuals, groups and governments are acting and policy makers.

The theoretical framework and the most important effects of cyberspace on politics and international relations are three main issues. The first issue is the presentation of a “conceptual order” to explain the relationship between cyberspace and politics. The second issue is identifying and believing in the widespread connection between cyberspace and politics. The third issue is the explanation of the route and the important issues in this connection. In addition to the three levels of humans, governments and the international system, cyberspace requires a different level. At this new level, the global level, the impact of cyberspace is emphasized by the emphasis on the separation between the social system and the natural environment. At the global level, it is emphasized that the Internet space and its widespread impact on the world of politics cannot be discussed with the old levels that emphasize the individual or state or international arena. Internet space is the space for acting on the same time with non-state actors such as terrorists and private companies in terms of economic, cultural, security and even military, so it should be emphasized on the global level that, while combining the other levels, there is a broad interconnection between All levels and dimensions create the ability to analyze other political space, therefore, in lateral pressure theory, there is an attempt to establish a relationship between the level of individual, state and international as the old levels and the level of global analysis.

Based on the experience of past decades, the Internet and cyberspace have affected the relations between countries, especially the United States and Iran. Therefore, cyber policy and cyber security in the present situation are considered by the international relations experts as the main issue along with the older issues of war, economics, women and the environment, and even consider it more important than other areas because the cyberspace covers all the domains and the old stuff. In the same vein, in the next government, the foreign policy apparatus is expected to pay more attention to cyberspace and advance revolutionary diplomacy in the form of cyber diplomacy.

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Salafi mission calls into question Saudi concept of moderation and policy in Yemen

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Plans to open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia raise questions about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salah’s concept of a moderate form of Islam.

The questions are prompted by the fact that Prince Mohammed has so far put little, if any, flesh on his skeletal vow last October to return his ultra-conservative kingdom to “moderate Islam.”

The crown prince has created expectations of more social liberalism with the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, a residual of Bedouin rather than Muslim tradition, as well the granting of female access to male sporting events; the legitimization of various forms of entertainment, including cinema, theatre and music; and the stripping away of the religious police’s right to carry out arrests.

While removing Saudi Arabia as the only Muslim country that didn’t permit women to drive or allow various recreational activities, Prince Mohammed has yet to conceptualize what a rollback of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism would mean in a nation whose public life remains steeped in a puritan interpretation of the faith. (The lifting on the ban of women entering stadiums leaves Iran as the only country that restricts female access to male sporting events.)

The disclosure of the plan for a Salafi mission suggests Prince Mohammed may only want to curb ultra-conservatism’s rough edges. It also calls into question Saudi policy in Yemen that is reminiscent of past failures.

Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s.

The plan harks back to the creation of an anti-Shiite Salafi mission near the Houthi stronghold of Saada that sparked a military confrontation in 2011 with the Yemeni government, one of several wars in the region. The centre was closed in 2014 as part of an agreement to end the fighting.

Prince Mohammed’s use of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam in his confrontation with the Houthis was also evident in the appointment as governor of Saada of Hadi Tirshan al-Wa’ili, a member of a tribe hostile to the Shiite sect, and a follower of Saudi-backed Islamic scholar Uthman Mujalli. Mr. Mujalli reportedly serves as an advisor to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled, kingdom-backed Yemeni president.

“Over the past forty years, the Saudi government has invested heavily in Salafi-Wahhabi-style madrasas and mosques in the northern areas, only to realise that this programme was jeopardised by the Zaydi revival movement. If the Houthis were to be defeated in their home province, it is likely that the Salafi-Wahhabi programme will be revived, and implemented more fiercely than in previous years,” said Yemen scholar Gabriele vom Bruck.

The disclosure of the Al-Mahrah plan coincided with a damning 79-page United Nations report that condemned Saudi, Iranian and United Arab Emirates interventions in Yemen. The report concluded that Saudi and UAE proxies threatened peace prospects and that a secession of South Yemen that includes Al Mahrah had become a distinct possibility.

The questions about Prince Mohammed’s concept of a moderate Islam go beyond Yemen. The arts, including cinema, remain subject to censorship that is informed by the kingdom’s long-standing ultra-conservative values. A soccer player and a singer are among those who face legal proceedings for un-Islamic forms of expressing themselves.

The government last year introduced physical education in girls’ schools and legalized women’s fitness clubs, but has yet to say whether restrictions on women competing in a variety of Olympic disciplines will be lifted.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, it has yet to indicate whether male guardianship, gender segregation, dress codes that force women to fully cover, and the obligatory closure of shops at prayer times will be abolished. Also, the government has still to declare a willingness to lift the ban on the practice of non-Muslim faiths or adherence to strands of Islam considered heretic by the ultra-conservatives.

The example of Yemen suggests that little has changed in Saudi Arabia’s four-decade-old, $100 billion global public diplomacy campaign that promoted Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to revolutionary Iranian ideology.

Yemen is but one extreme of the spectrum. The Saudi-funded and operated grand mosque in Brussels is the other. Saudi Arabia, responding to Belgian criticism of the mosque’s ultra-conservative management, last year appointed as its imam, Tamer Abou el Saod, a 57-year polyglot Luxemburg-based, Swedish consultant with a career in the food industry. Senior Saudi officials have moreover responded positively to a Belgian government initiative to prematurely terminate Saudi Arabia’s 99-year lease of the mosque so that it can take control of it.

In contrast to Yemen, where the use of ultra-conservatism is a deliberate choice, Prince Mohammed may feel constrained in his moderation quest in the kingdom by the fact that his ruling Al Saud family derives its legitimacy from its adherence to ultra-conservatism. In addition, the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment has repeatedly signalled that the views of at least some its members have not changed even if it has endorsed the crown prince’s policies.

Saudi Arabia last September suspended Saad al-Hijri, a prominent scholar in charge of fatwas in the province of Asir, for opposing the lifting of the ban on driving because women allegedly had only  half a brain that is reduced to a quarter when they go shopping. Sheikh Saad made his comment after the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, had approved the move.

By the same token, no public action was taken against Sheikh Salih al-Fawzan, a member of the council, who declared on his website that “If women are allowed to drive they will be able to go and come as they please day and night, and will easily have access to temptation, because as we know, women are weak and easily tempted.” A video clip of Sheikh Salih’s view was posted on YouTube in October. It was not clear when the scholar spoke or whether he had approved the posting.

A main thrust of Prince Mohammed’s drive to return to moderate Islam is the fight against extremism, involving among others the creation of a centre to oversee the interpretations of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings in a bid ensure that they do not justify violence.

There is indeed little doubt that the kingdom is serious about countering extremism. Opposing extremism, however, does not automatically equate to moderation or concepts of tolerance and pluralism. Prince Mohammed has yet to clarify if those concepts are part of his notion of moderation. His track record so far is at best a mixed one.

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