Could the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) create a pathway toward democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran or is the United States investing in a nation whose political portfolio has continually displayed a diminishing return?
We know that democratic nations tend to be less willing to engage in conflict and are generally more cooperative in the realm of international relations. Moreover, democratic nations tend to be economically independent and more developed, and are more likely to hold alliances with other nations. While this is political theory, there is a significant amount of weight behind its importance. So how could the JCPOA lead to the promotion of democracy within Iran and the greater Caspian Region?
If we take the above-mentioned political theory of increased cooperation among democratic states and apply it to the diverse political environment of the Caspian region we observe a series of rivalries exacerbated by political, economic, and religious ideologies that have remained as relics of the Soviet Era. Take, for example, the nations of Iran and Azerbaijan. Iran is a nation whose political structure follows that of a theocracy, which allows for a single “Supreme Leader” to exercise total ideological and political control throughout a system dominated by clerics who manage every function of the state. Iran is home to the world’s largest population of Shi’a Muslims, with its northern neighbor, Azerbaijan, home to the second largest. Due to their contiguity these two countries share a mutual past and hold common links between their cultures. Despite this common culture—which should be a strong element for any relationship—the two nations are stuck in a continual paradox of competition. The reasoning behind this competition lies in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ideologically-motivated foreign and domestic agenda, where its version of Shia Islam influences all aspects of political, social, and economic life.
Unlike Iran, which has observed multiple economic sanctions from the international community, Azerbaijan has been the recipient of over $967 million in U.S. foreign aid. The Obama administration has stated that U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan is to develop democratic institutions and civil society; support the growth of economic sectors not related to oil; strengthen the interoperability of the nation’s armed forces with NATO; as well as increase maritime border security, combat terrorism, eliminate corruption, and prevent the growth of transnational crime. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Azerbaijan allowed U.S. over-flight of its airspace, as well as approved numerous landings and refueling operations at Baku’s civilian airport to assist coalition military operations occurring in Afghanistan. It was the threat of an emerging common enemy—global terrorism—that created a new positive relationship between the two nations, regardless of cultural differences and/or political structures.
These efforts have later become scrutinized by mainly Iran and Russia—the other major super power in the region—which signed a political declaration barring foreign militaries from having a presence in the Caspian Sea region. This is a geostrategic attempt on behalf of Iran and Russia to prevent Western influence in the smaller states making up the region. This is because Western support would undoubtedly come in the form of developing the trans-Caspian pipeline, a move that would diversify other littoral states’ (specifically Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) energy dependence and break the monopoly of Russia’s exports of natural gas to European countries. Moreover, Tehran may observe a Western presence in the Caspian Basin as an attempt to place more pressure on its long-term geostrategic ambitions, including the nuclear issue.
The international isolation of economic sanctions placed upon Iran by the United States and European Union (EU) severely crippled its petroleum-dependent economy. After decades of failing economic polices driven by religious ideology, Iran is now ranked last out of fifteen countries in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. While religious beliefs are a cultural trait and should be embraced with deep conviction by any believer, Iran’s failure to separate religious propaganda from economic, political, and social realities has fueled this decline. Moreover, these failures have impacted not just Iran, but also the bordering states within the Caspian Region, with cascade effects throughout the MENA Region. The JCPOA would undoubtedly lead to socio-economic developments within Iran and create new dynamics–intentional or not–for the Caspian region. Despite the controversy surrounding the nuclear deal, it is these resultant economic developments that could possibly create a pathway to democracy within Iran. However, when Iran has remained the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism despite the crippling sanctions, which seem to have had little effect on quelling Iranian support, can Iran be trusted to not utilize its JCPOA-inspired economic advancement to fund or equip terror organizations more effectively? Iran has previously deceived and defied world powers as well as covertly constructed nuclear facilities throughout the last two decades. And while Iranian leadership declared these nuclear pursuits peaceful, its disregard for democratic processes and cooperation with the international community earned it the label of rogue nation. I think the question that needs to be asked is whether the JCPOA will be ultimately hopeful diplomacy or political folly? Is the U.S. allowing a rogue state to increase its use of proxy forces to build regional hegemony or is it leading said regime out of its ‘roguishness’?
The JCPOA has seen divided support among the political elites of both the U.S. and Iran. So could the agreement rouse a pathway to democratic promotion within Iran or is the deal simply a distraction that holds the potential to create more instability in both the Caspian region and the Middle East? I believe there is a possibility of democracy within Iran because of two hopeful dynamics. First, the historical and religious commonalities shared between Azerbaijan and Iran and the established partnership between the U.S. and Azerbaijan prove that democratic processes can gain ground even in a radically ideological nation. Second, if the agreement is approved by the U.S. Congress, the socio-economic developments that will arise from the lifting of sanctions and the economic opportunities for Iranian citizens will likely produce both social and political change, mostly from a bottom-up approach that is from the citizens themselves.
Acceptance of the JCPOA could possibly establish a pathway to renewed relations with the hopeful prospect of promoting democracy within Iran, while a Congressional rejection could aggravate historical grievances due to economic and political isolation. While either outcome will not be zero-sum in nature, the regional dynamics in trade, terrorism, and energy will be dramatically shaped through the consequential shifts in power. These shifts could either exacerbate the paradox of continual competition as observed in the Iranian-Azerbaijani model or lead to the acceptance of democratic processes through socio-economic developments within Iran. For now only time will tell if Iran will continue to be an isolated nation or if constructive actions can create new American engagement, proving the JCPOA was a positive investment.
After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians
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.
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?’”
IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking
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.
Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya
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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