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Same dilemma from the MENA

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Both are fully devoted, supported and promoted by the social media. Highly polarizing, both are fracturing any consensus. What Lady Gaga with her gay/gender gigs (or any similar sort of stage-acting à la Pussy Riot) is for the human rights, are the so-called Islamists for the Muslim world– strategic obstructers, assertively trivializing important larger contents that are essential for any human advancement. Does the placement on a proper Facebook page automatically mean being on the right side of history? Is our emphatic and socio-political interaction (increasingly irrelevant as it becomes trivial) reduced to a lame datafied, and monetizable cyber commodity?

Let’s get Sy(i)ria-ous: Where is the counter-narrative?    
The MENA theatre is situated in one of the most fascinating locations of the world. It actually represents, along with the Balkans-Caucasus, the only existing land corridor that connects three continents. It also holds over a half of the world’s proven oil-gas reserves (56% – oil, 48% – gas). Further on, the Gulf OPEC states and Libya have –by far– the lowest costs of oil extraction, thanks to the high crude ‘purity’ (measured by overall properties such as the state of aggregation, excavation gravity, viscosity, weight, sulfuric content and other contaminants) which simplifies and cheapens the refinement process. These petrol-exporters also enjoy the close proximity to open warm seas for the fast and low-cost, convenient overseas shipments. Hence, the costs per barrel of crude for Libya and the Persian Gulf states are under 5USD, for other OPEC members below 10USD. This is in a sharp contrast to countries such as the US, Russia, Norway, Canada and many others that bear production costs of several tens of USD per barrel – according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

 

Therefore, it is an absolute imperative for the external/peripheral powers to dominate such a pivotal geo-economic and geopolitical theater by simply keeping its center soft (e.g. by pre-empting, preventing or hindering the emancipation that might come through any indigenous socio-political modernization and economic diversification). This is the very same imperative that has remained a dominant rational of inner European and Asian machtpolitik for centuries.

 

No wonder that the competition in the MENA theatre, which has a lasting history of external domination or interference (and largely the Versailles, Anglo-French drawn borders), is harsh, multiple, unpredictable. The region is predominantly populated by the Sunni (Arab) Muslims. With its high population density and a demographic growth far outpacing the economic one, this very young median population (on average 23–27 years old) – that is frequently lacking any (universal) access to education, health and housing – is dominated by juvenile, mainly unemployed or underemployed, but socially mobilized and often angry males. An exceptional fact that the Middle East is a cradle of all four monotheistic religions is thus turned into its own paradox: Fueled by severe socio-economic exclusions and exacerbated by exploitation of the Shia–Sunni and of Muslim–Jewish–Christian antagonism, political radica-lization is surely one of the most convenient instruments of tacit control aimed at preserving local governing authorities predatory-alienated, unauthentic and weak, if not incapacitated.

 

It should not be of any surprise that each and every one of the predominantly Sunni-Muslim Balkans-MENA countries of the secular republican type, where the external powers have brokered the political settlement – often by compromising the very sovereignty and territorial integrity,  is enveloped in perpetuated instabilities, remaining thus paralyzed. So far, not a single absolutistic monarchy has been significantly affected. Starting in Bosnia – nearly 20 years ago – followed by Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as well as in the post-Spring Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, all the way to ‘ungoverned’ Mali, South Sudan and Algeria’s south, and up to the post-assassination revolt-torn Tunis or anti-Avanti Mursi‘ Cairo, a purposely dysfunctional and indecisive central government seems to have been put in place.   

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For one thing, as it now seems, the euphorically tam-tamed ‘Facebook revolutions’ across MENA were rather a strategic distractions ‘innocently’ dressed up in the diverting banality of social media networks

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Policy of Timing or No Spring on a single string    
Conclusively, most observers would agree that while the so-called Arab Spring had a cross-Arab impact, this was still far from a pan-Arab ripple effect: It was more of a spontaneous social revolt; a series of isolated events (related to each other more by Al-Jazeera-connecting-pots potting and fanning), rather than a directional process. To channel something so unexpectedly inflammatory and cross-Arab, while studiously avoiding pan-Arabism let alone any hint of real structural socio-economic reform and political emancipation – that could have only been achieved by lighting the torch of Islamism. Lacking any enlightenment, this torch far too often and far too easily brought about the extremist blindness of Islamo-fascism.

 

No Spring on a single string, right?! How could any social cohesion indispensible for the MENA democratization possibly work where primary loyalties are (returned) to sect, tribe or ethnicity? This dilemma relates not only to democracy, but also to the very quest of secularism – for the one presupposes the other – ever since the French Revolution. In this or any other part of the (developing) world, institutionalization of democracy without secularization of state inevitably leads to a dysfunctional, destabilizing and (self-)debilitating government: divinization of the post and personalization of power.  The current state of the MENA republics affected by the Arab Spring as well as that of the GCC monarchies provides the best proof of this.

 

For one thing, as it now seems, the euphorically tam-tamed ‘Facebook revolutions’ across MENA were rather a strategic distractions ‘innocently’ dressed up in the diverting banality of social media networks.  The very same role those networks well played elsewhere too.    (Hence, is it of any surprise that the broad and universal right of self-determination has been sadly reduced to the right of internet-freedom? Contrary to the established apotheosis, many fundamental human rights are currently compressed like a zip-file, emailed and entrusted to just a pair of omnipotent, self-centered and self-interested non-state and semi-state actors of unilateral globalism/egoism:  private IT corporations and shadowy intelligence agencies. )

 

Presently, the announced reduction of the American physical presence in Afghanistan, the limitations it faces in the nearly failed (nuclear bomb holding) Pakistan,  and the massive overextensions suffered all over the southwestern flank of the Euro-Asian continent including the recent US Army pullout from Iraq, is felt within the GCC (and in France, UK, Israel and Turkey too) as resulting in dangerous exposure to a neighboring (increasingly anticipated as assertive) Iran as well as to Russia and China behind it.  Right now, Syria pays a proxy-war price for that: This multi-religious country of subtle ancient cultural layers may end up entirely combusted, thereby creating a dangerous security vacuum in the heart of MENA. Or to use the words of frustration of the senior French diplomat who recently told me in Brussels: “we have to demonize and quickly delegitimize the legitimate Syrian government, and topple al-Assad in order to convince Israel not to bomb Iran…”    

 

“Western national interests will no longer determine the moral and political impulses of today’s global community… Whatsoever the outcome, Syria’s agony has underscored a further irreversible weakening of the West’s dominant global role…” claims India’s former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. Perhaps so; the West has indeed become too weak to architecture, but it certainly remains strong enough to destabilize its conceived political peripheries:

As recently, the ‘Group of Friends of Syria’- induced recognition of the so-called Syrian opposition means also that Turkey is now practically at war with Syria. At this point, let me be both instructive and predictive: The fall of al-Assad will most certainly trigger the dissolution of Syria. It will also lead to a formalized federalization of Iraq, in a desperate move to prevent its total decomposition as well as to a serious crisis of Lebanese and Jordanian statehood – in both cases probably beyond reparation.  The winners in such a scenario would then seem to be Israel (a country that remains enveloped in its traumatic European holocaust past and detached from its present neighborhood) along with the GCC monarchies – at least in the short run. However, over the long term the ‘winners’ would be the Kurds and Shias – even though the northern portions of Syria have already been occupied by the Turkish army for quite some time.

 

Consequently, with any proclamation of a Kurdish state (inevitably being of a Black Sea –Eastern Mediterranean stretch, a dream line of all Russian tsars in past), the Erdoğan government (as well as Iraq) would not be able to survive – as it has already created enough enemies at home and in its near abroad.  Ergo, besides the dispersed, rarified and terrified MENA Christians, the moderate (Arab) Sunnis are definitely the long-term losers.  

Possible, yet not probable epilogue
However, while the cacophony of European contradictions works towards a self-elimination of the EU from the region, Turkey tries to reinsert itself. The so-called neo-Ottomanism of the current (Anatolian, eastern rural power-base) government is steering the country right into the centre of grand bargaining for both Russia and for the US. To this emerging triangular constellation, ambitious and bold PM Erdoğan wishes to beat his own drum.

 

Past the Arab Spring, neither will Russia effectively sustain its presence in the Middle East on a strict pan-Arabic secular, republican and anti-Islamic idea, nor will the US manage to politically and morally justify its continuous backing off of the absolutistic monarchies that are so energized by the backward, dismissive and oppressive Wahhabism. Ankara tries its best to sublimate both in an effective manner: blending a mix of secular republican modernity and leavened with a traditional, tolerant and emancipating Islam, and to advertise this as an attractive future model across the Middle East. Simply enough, Bosporus wakes up to itself as the empiric proof that Islam and modernity work together. In fact, it is the last European nation that still has both demographic and economic growth.

 

Moreover, Ataturk’s Republic is by large and by far the world’s most successful Muslim state: It was never resting its development on oil or other primary-commodity exports, but on a vibrant socio-economic sector and solid democratic institutions. This is heavily contesting, not only for Russia, but primarily for the insecure regime of the House of Saud (and the other GCC autocracies), which rules by direct royal decree over a country of recent past, oil-export dependent and fizzing present and improbable future. No wonder that on the ideological battlefield these two belligerent parties will be dominating the Middle East, which is currently in a self-questioning, past yet another round of calamities. The outcome will be felt significantly beyond the Arab region and will reverberate all across the Sunni Muslim world.

Ankara is attempting to justify that the Saudi-promoted Islam is actually a toxic, separatist/ sectarian Wahhabist ideology that self-constrains Muslims, and keeps them on a wrong side of history by hindering their socio-economic and political development. It does so, Turkey would claim, by entrenching Muslims on a permanent collision course with the rest of the world, while Turkey-promoted Islam would not be a weaponized ideology, but a Modus Vivendi, one which would permit progress and be acceptable to all (including non-Muslims), with a centuries-long history of success.   

 

References:
1.    Wilkinson, R.G. and Pickett, K. (2009), The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better?, London, Allen Lane (Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Paperback 2nd Edition, Penguin )
2.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2012), Geopolitics of Technology and the Hydrocarbon Status Quo (Why Kyoto Will Fail Again), Geopolitics of Energy, 34 (1), CERI Canada 2012
3.    UNDP (2013), Human Development report HDR-2013 – The Rise of the South: Human progress in a Diverse World, UN – UNDP Publications  
4.    IEA (2012), World Energy Outlook 2012 – Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas, OECD – IEA Publications
5.    World Bank (2012), World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development, WB Publications
6.    OECD (2012), OECD Economic Outlook, (Issue 1, June 2012; and Issue 2, December 2012), OECD Publications
7.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2012) Is There Life After Facebook, Addleton Academic Publishers RCP 11(2) 2012
8.    Rushkoff, D. (2010), Program or Be Programmed – Ten Commands for a Digital Age, OR Books New York    
9.    Pariser, E. (2011), The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Penguin (page: 43)
10.    Dassù, M. (2013), How Obama II is likely to see Europe, Europe’s World – the EU Policy Journal, Spring 2013/23 (page 96)
11.    Krugman, P. (2013) Marches of Folly, IHT/The New York Times (19 MAR 2013, page: 7)
12.    Singh, J. (2012), What Syria means to global community, Jakarta Post – Indonesia (04 SEP 12, page: 6)

Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Chairman Geopolitics of Energy Editorial Member Professor and Chairperson for Intl. Law & Global Pol. Studies contact: anis@bajrektarevic.eu

Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be friends again

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Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.

Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.

Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.

When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar.  Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.

Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.

Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.

Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.

Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.

Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.

While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.

But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.

Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.

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Middle East

Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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