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A Struggle in Shadows: The Fight between a New and Old Iran

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Prior to the 1979 Revolution Iran had experienced an epic transformation during the Pahlavi monarchy. During this time Iran transformed from a mainly tribal state into a more modern one based largely on its oil and manufacturing sectors.

But this tremendous growth did not come without its costs. The same reforms that had accounted for much of the growth had also alienated many influential Iranians. Land reforms had uprooted many rural Iranians who then ended up in the slums and shantytowns of the swelling cities. This upheaval of much of Iran’s traditional past and the sufferings as Iran strove forward in its march towards modernization led to a resentment of the West and fueled a growing militancy which eventually led to the Shah’s ouster.

Since the revolution, Iran’s domestic politics have mainly revolved around two main ideologies: one being an intense nationalism based on historical achievements and rich culture and the other being centered on an influential role for promoting Shia Islam within the region. These two ideologies have created an enormous internal tension, as those who believe firmly in Persian exceptionalism that prefer a return to more historico-cultural roots based on Iranian identity have clashed with those from a combined religious-secular side that work to push Iran as the leader of the Muslim world and regional political hegemon.

Atop the Islamic Republic’s power structure resides the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Through his role of being responsible for the general policies that guide the Republic, he sets the direction for all foreign and domestic initiatives for the state. He also directly commands both the military and intelligence sections of the country, as well as appointing members of the judiciary, the supreme commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and a number of other representatives, clerical commissars, throughout the government. Second only to the Ayatollah is President Rouhani. In his role as the chief executive, together with the Council of Ministers and Parliament, he is responsible for the day-to-day running of state affairs. Unlike the common Western concept of “President,” he does not control the military nor define state policies. Under the presidential layer is an intricate web of interwoven power centers, both formal and informal, that constitute the heart of the Republic. These are somewhat mysteriously lorded over by members of the leadership elite. The connections, and competitions, between the various power centers create a complex web mainly designed to ensure that no single leader within the structure is capable of posing a threat to the control of the Supreme Leader.

Prior to President Rouhani’s election Iran suffered from a fractured elite leadership and an international community resolved in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon through crippling sanctions. Iran’s technological achievements throughout history are a main source of pride and its ability to successfully develop a nuclear program is seen as a continuation of this exceptionalism. As such, the nuclear program has become somewhat woven into its national identity and is therefore of great importance not only as a security tool but also of national pride. Tired of a history filled with foreign oppression and occupying a unique geographical space between Asia and the Middle East, Persians tend to possess an intense sense of uniqueness and honor that often drive them to resist outside influences even when it creates hardship as in the case of sanctions. As such, Iran’s nuclear development program as a tool in domestic politics continues to play a major role. Additionally, while recent presidencies have seen more pragmatic leaders that are somewhat removed from the religiosity of the revolution, the revolution itself still remains a powerful source of legitimacy.

From the top the leadership of Iran appears to have moved into a stage where it is now more willing to engage foreign leaders and move the state towards globalization. In the years following the revolution much effort was spent on securing power domestically and instituting a system whereby that power could be protected and maintained. Today, it seems Iranian leaders are keen to rejoin the international community. In the most recent presidential election the majority of the focus was on economic reform and the ability for the next leader to effectively manage the country’s struggling economy. In addition, the ability to lead the nation’s merger back into the global environment with religion taking almost no role was a prominent talking point. Consequently, Hassan Rouhani, a man who had campaigned on a platform based on restoring the economy, improving relations with western states, increased access for the general public to information, more personal freedom, and increased women’s rights, was elected as the nation’s seventh president.

On the nuclear issue President Rouhani is seen as a nuclear centrist: a person who is willing to accept some temporary constraints on the uranium enrichment program in order to relieve international sanctions and allow Iran back into the international world order. He firmly believes that Iran has the right to enrich its uranium but that it also needs to possess the ability to work with the international community and be flexible as it continues toward modernization. He walks a tightrope on the nuclear issue, however, as much of Khamenei’s power base, which has final say on the nuclear issue, is comprised of nuclear supporters that believe a nuclear Iran is a necessary geostrategic deterrent to ensure Iran’s security and status. Thus, Rouhani must show positive progress while not “weakening” Iran in order to retain the support of Khamenei, who remains relatively guarded on the issue outwardly.

Politically speaking, President Rouhani does not belong to either of the two main camps, reformist or conservative, but is rather seen as a moderate. This is important as it means that he has to walk a tightrope to draw support from both sides, which becomes of great importance as he manages priorities between nuclear discussions and the domestic issues he campaigned on. The pressure at the moment is on from the reformist side with the nuclear agreement. Domestic issues have largely been ignored and Rouhani has seen a slip in his popularity as the economy continues to flag, several important pro-reform (Green Party) leaders – Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – remain under house arrest, and other campaign promises have failed to materialize. He will clearly be hoping that once sanctions are lifted there will be a boost to the economy, lifting him to re-election.

The relieving of sanctions, however, will also bring another key issue back into focus, one that is especially important to the conservatives who currently hold the majority of power: the issue of foreign investment and involvement inside Iran. Given Iran’s deep resentment and mistrust of outside entities this will be a major hurdle to overcome as the lifting of sanctions will bring a flood of outside companies and nations eager to do business. How Iran deals with the inevitable pressure for further reforms and the increased flow of foreign involvement in its domestic dealings may well hinge on whether those deals are viewed as legitimate business dealings or whether it is some sort of grand plan by western states to control Iran.

Iran is at an important crossroads at this moment. It is still too early to tell whether the lifting of sanctions and inevitable foreign wave will be met with open arms or whether mistrust will take hold and prevent them from accepting change. With the more pro-reform populace pushing for inclusion back into the global economy and the conservative elite keen to continue its tight hold on power, it remains to be seen just how this quiet power struggle will be settled.

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Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Middle East

Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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