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Iran’s Competing Futures: Global Economic Participant or Regional Religious Hegemon?

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As the official deadline for the nuclear deal approaches, many are expressing their apprehension over the consequences that may emerge should a deal be reached and sanctions on the Islamic Republic are lifted.

The anxiety mostly has to do with concerns over regional and global stability that may be threatened if Shia Iran plans to export more than oil, gas, and pistachios. Like its Islamic Revolution ideology, for example.

While there is no doubt that Iran – a country that is often accused of aspiring to be a hegemonic power driven by aspirations to dominate the Middle East by spreading its religious ideology – would have a greater influence on Sunni Azerbaijan and the five majority Sunni Central Asian states, there is no evidence that suggests their influence would extend past a purely economic one. In fact, the governments of these former Soviet Republics have high-ranking members that were once affiliated with the Communist Party during the Soviet era. Members who are still deeply suspicious of theocratic rule.

For these states, who have been independent for almost 25 years, there are clear opportunities that may arise from new trade developments in the region. As talks of recreating the ancient Silk Road – the name for the ancient trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China – continue, the possibility that Iran will no longer be off-limits is being eagerly anticipated. Because the Caspian Sea offers little trade potential at the moment due to its contested legal status, this situation may offer opportunities for Central Asia that will allow it to cut back its reliance on countries like Russia to the north and China to the east. A southern route through Iran would effectively change the dynamics of trade, giving the five central Asian countries more leverage at the bargaining table with their superpower neighbors.

A passage through Iran also offers a shorter non-Russian route for shipping Central Asian oil and gas to Europe. The European Union is also looking to decrease its dependence on Russian supplies so it is actively looking to diversify its gas suppliers. Receiving gas from the Caspian Region – known as the Southern Gas Corridor Project – via this route would be enormously advantageous for them. However, this would take a minimum of five years and maybe even closer to a decade before any of these projects would be functional.

In general, coming to a nuclear agreement is welcome among ordinary Iranians who have suffered a great deal from the international sanctions slapped on them by the United States and other nations. These sanctions have imposed restrictions on trade and international banking which have seriously hurt Iran’s economy. To the Iranian people, a deal means more jobs which would lead to a higher standard of living. While many would argue that the Iranian people have gotten a raw deal, it is important to remember that Iran’s Guardian Council regime has often tried to deliberately provoke the United States. When presented with evidence to support it was enriching uranium in the early 2000s, Iran’s regime admitted it had hidden a uranium enrichment program from the world for almost two decades. Iran continued to enrich uranium openly in defiance to the United Nations. Things got worse when Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a very controversial leader, insisted that Iran would not stop enriching uranium and that the West had no business interfering in their affairs. He publicly announced that it was Iran’s intention to destroy the nation of Israel and eventually defeat the United States – the “Great Satan.” This certainly hurt the side effort by calmer voices in Iran that tried to emphasize nuclear energy alone.

The United States – despite Iran’s insistence that it was pursuing a uranium enrichment program only to build nuclear power plants – was convinced Iran was building a nuclear weapon and saw Iran’s actions as deliberately violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Under its provisions, the nations with nuclear weapons at the time agreed not to give nuclear weapons – or the knowledge on how to build them – to any other nation. The United States and its allies – especially Israel and Saudi Arabia – are worried that should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, it would throw the Middle East into turmoil. They believed other countries would want to build their own nuclear weapons and a regional nuclear arms race would ensue that would be tinged with religious extremism.

To be fair, Iran has made real progress in recent years. With the election of Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, the country has taken a different stance toward the nuclear issue. President Rouhani criticized the nuclear stand-off with the West and brought much attention to the state of Iran’s economy that was being smothered by the sanctions. The sanctions isolated Iran from the rest of the world and President Rouhani started negotiations with the P5+1 countries which led to an interim treaty in 2013 that stated Iran would seriously limit their uranium enrichment program in exchange for temporary relief from the sanctions.

However, as many are aware, Iran’s president is the elected head of government but largely fills a ceremonial position. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, is the one who calls the political shots. He has the power to veto any legislation passed by the executive branch per Iran’s unique “Islamic government” constitution. Not surprisingly, there are deep rifts in the country’s government caught in what some might consider a nasty power struggle. On one side are the reformists led by President Rouhani and on the other conservatives led by Ayatollah Khamenei. The reformists want Iran to become more democratic while the conservatives want to keep the country in line with the fundamentalist Islamic social codes introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

Even though Ayatollah Khamenei has been behind President Rouhani on the nuclear issue, these rifts could prevent Iran from improving its global image and from making further progress socially, economically and politically. Unfortunately, the country already has a reputation to some for thuggish behavior as both a violator of human rights and as one of the largest exporters and contributors of terrorism. Even though an argument can be made that the rights and opportunities of women have improved in recent years, the country has lost too many of their best and brightest citizens to relocate to the West and other countries that are more modern and democratic. If sanctions are lifted and it is truly their desire to get involved with projects like the Southern Gas Corridor Project, Iran will need to take some serious steps toward addressing its internal problems, worrying more about being a major participant in the global economy and less about aspirations to be a regional religious hegemon. Right now it seems like most of the country favors the former objective overwhelmingly. But the Guardian Council undoubtedly still dreams of the latter. Checking that desire, or enacting some type of reform on the Guardians, could be the most interesting immediate future for Iran when it comes to economic plans in the greater Caspian region.

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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