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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

Saudi Arabia’s Entertainment Plans: Soft Power at Work?

Dr. Theodore Karasik

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Saudi Arabia recently broke ground on its ambitious “entertainment city” known as Qiddiya, near Riyadh. The splashy launch, attended by 300 dignitaries from around the world, highlights a frequently overlooked aspect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan: the entertainment industry as a growing economic sector. As the kingdom diversifies its economy away from reliance on petro fuels, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been keen to showcase the increasing openness of his country, promoting festivals, concerts and sports events and ending the country’s 35-year ban on cinemas.

These projects are partially intended to bolster the economy and attract FDI—but not only. Saudi Arabia is also playing catch-up with other regional actors, such as Qatar and the UAE, in terms of cultural output and cultural participation. With Qiddiya and the other cultural projects in the works, Saudi is now carving out a road for itself to become a regional culture hub.

Thefirst phase of Qiddiya, which includes high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area, is expected to be completed in 2022.  Saudi officials hope the park will draw in foreign investment and attract 17 million visitors by 2030; the final phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2035, by which point the entertainment resort will be the largest in the world, dwarfing Florida’s Walt Disney World.

Beyond these financial incentives, however, the Qiddiya project is Saudi Arabia’s answer to events like the Dubai Expo 2020 or the Qatar World Cup 2022 and suggests that the kingdom is trying to position itself as the next big destination for lucrative events – which also add to the idea that entertainment, culture, and innovation are key to Saudi Arabia’s economic vision and success.

Vision 2030’s emphasis on entertainment raises a key question: is Riyadh attempting to increase its soft power across the region in a constructive and proactive way?  The answer to that question is yes.

In the immediate future, Qatar and the UAE will remain the region’s foremost entertainment and cultural hubs.  From Qatar’s Islamic Museum of Art, which famous architect I.M. Pei came out of retirement to design, to Dubai’s theme parks, including a $1 billion behemoth which is the world’s largest indoor theme park, these two Gulf states are demonstrating their prowess to develop an arts and culture scene.  In Doha, Qatar is exemplifying its unique outlook towards world affairs by emphasizing humanitarianism and fourteen centuries of history.  Qatar is also hosting the World Cup in 2022, intended to bring Doha center-stage in the sports world. Abu Dhabi’s Louvre has been referred to as “one of the world’s most ambitious cultural projects”, while advertisements throughout the emirate insist that the museum will cause its visitors to “see humanity in a new light”.

Despite these Gulf states’ head start on developing vibrant entertainment sectors, there is still room for Saudi Arabia to offer something new. For one thing, some of its neighbors are dealing with trouble in paradise: Qatar’s once-strong economy is under increasing strain as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt boycott it; meanwhile, the company which owns many of Dubai’s largest theme parks lost $302 million in 2017.

The Qiddiya project also represents a particular vision that’s distinct from neighboring countries’ cultural programs. Qiddiya is designed to mix desert heritage and the ethos of the past with the technological advances of the future. The intended result is to be a fusion between aspirations and building on those achievements from desert to post-modernity, on a colossal scale.

The project is crafted both to satisfy domestic demand—it includes plans to build 11,000 homes to serve as vacation homes for Riyadh residents— and to compete directly against Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the Gulf. With two-thirds of the Saudi population under the age of 35, building a thriving entertainment sector is particularly important.

The kingdom is hoping to use its idea of mixing the past with the future in Qiddiya to significantly alter the flow of tourist revenues in the Gulf. The UAE, Qatar and Bahrain rely on tourists from the Gulf and beyond for essential cash inflows—including the $30 billion a year Saudis spend on tourism abroad every year. By providing new entertainment options in-country for Saudi Arabia’s citizens and residents, who pay more than any other country’s citizens while on vacation, Riyadh aims to redirect some of this overseas tourism spending back into the kingdom. It’s set up concrete goals to this effect, hoping to increase domestic spending on culture and entertainment from about three percent of household income to six percent. Saudi Arabia also likely hopes that Qiddiya will attract significant international tourism as well—one senior official tied the park’s creation to the goal of making Riyadh one of the top 100 cities in the world to live.

Of course, it is likely to be a long wait before the kingdom itself starts producing the cultural output that will make it a real entertainment hub; after all, Saudi public schools still do not teach music, dance and theater, and the kingdom lacks music and film academies. But by taking the first steps of embracing the vast economic potential of the entertainment sector, the kingdom may well be on its way there.

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Israel, Ukraine, and U.S. Crack Down Against Press

Eric Zuesse

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On Wednesday, May 16th, Russian Television reported recent crackdowns against the press, on the part of both Ukraine’s Government and Israel’s Government. One headline story, “9 journalists injured by Israeli gunfire in Gaza ‘massacre’, total now over 20”, reported that Israel had shot dead two journalists:

“Yaser Murtaja, 31, a cameraman for Palestinian Ain Media agency, died on April 7 after he was shot by Israeli forces the previous day while covering a protest south of the Gaza Strip. He wore a blue protective vest marked ‘PRESS’.”

And:

“Ahmad Abu Hussein, 24, was shot by Israeli forces during a protest in the Gaza strip on April 13. He died from his injuries on April 25. He was also wearing a protective vest marked ‘PRESS’ at the time.”

The other 18 instances were only injuries, not murders, but Israel has now made clear that any journalist who reports from the Palestinian side is fair game for Israel’s army snipers — that when Palestinians demonstrate against their being blockaded into the vast Gaza prison, and journalists then report from amongst the demonstrators instead of from the side of the snipers, those journalists are fair game by the snipers, along with those demonstrators.

Some of the surviving 18 journalists are still in critical condition and could die from Israel’s bullets, so the deaths to journalists might be higher than just those two.

Later in the day, RT bannered “Fist-size gunshot wounds, pulverized bones, inadmissible use of force by Israel in Gaza – HRW to RT” and presented a damning interview with the Israel & Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch.

The other crackdown has been by Ukraine. After the U.S. Obama Administration perpetrated a very bloody coup in Ukraine during February of 2014, that country has plunged by every numerical measure, and has carried out raids against newsmedia that have reported unfavorably on the installed regime. The latest such incident was reported on May 16th by Russian Television, under the headline, “US endorses Kiev’s raid on Russian news agency amid international condemnation”. An official of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) stated there: “I reiterate my call on the authorities to refrain from imposing unnecessary limitations on the work of foreign journalists, which affects the free flow of information and freedom of the media.” An official of the CPJ (Committee to Protect journalists) stated: “We call on Ukrainian authorities to disclose the charges and evidence they have against Vyshinsky or release him without delay. … We also call on Ukrainian authorities to stop harassing and obstructing Russian media operating in Ukraine. The criminalization of alternative news and views has no place in a democratic Ukraine.” However, as reported by RT, Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General called the editorial policy of the anti-regime RIA Ukraine “anti-Ukrainian” in nature, amounting to “state treason.” So, the prosecutor is threatening to categorize and prosecute critical press under Ukraine’s treason law.

The U.S. regime is not condemning either of its client-regimes for their crackdowns. (It cites Ukraine’s supposed victimhood from “Russian propaganda” as having caused Ukraine’s action, and justifies Israel’s gunning-down of demonstrators and of journalists as having beeen necessary for Israel’s self-defense against terrorism.) In neither instance is the U.S. dictatorship saying that this is unacceptable behavior for a government that receives large U.S. taxpayers funds. Of course, in the U.S., the mainstream press aren’t allowed to report that either Israel or today’s Ukraine is a dictatorship, so they don’t report this, though Israel clearly is an apartheid racist-fascist (or ideologically nazi, but in their case not against Jews) regime, and Ukraine is clearly also a racist-fascist, or nazi, regime, which engages in ethnic cleansing to get rid of voters for the previous — the pre-coup — Ukrainian government. People who are selected individually by the installed regime, get driven to a big ditch, shot, with the corpses piling up there, and then the whole thing gets covered over. This is America’s client-‘democracy’ in Ukraine, not its client-‘democracy’ in Israel.

May 16th also was the day when the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee voted 10 to 5 to approve as the next CIA Director, Gina Haspel, the person who had headed torture at the CIA’s black site in Thailand where Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and blinded in one eye in order to get him to say that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks; and, since then, Zubaydah, who has never been in court, has been held incommunicado at Guantanamo, so that he can’t testify in court or communicate with the press in any way. “The U.S. Government has never charged Zubaydah with any crime.” And the person who had ordered and overseen his torture will soon head the agency for which she worked, the CIA.

Whether the U.S. regime will soon start similarly to treat its own critical press as “traitors” isn’t clear, except that ever since at least the Obama Administration, and continuing now under Trump, the U.S. Government has made clear that it wants to seize and prosecute both Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for their journalistic whistleblowing, violations of “state secrets,” those being anything that the regime wants to hide from the public — including things that are simply extremely embarrassing for the existing rulers. Therefore, the journalistic-lockdown step, from either Israel, or Ukraine, to U.S., would be small, for the United States itself to take, if it hasn’t yet already been taken in perhaps secret ways. But at least, the Senate Intelligence Committee is strongly supportive of what the U.S. Government has been doing, and wants more of it to be done.

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JCPOA in Post-US Exit: Consequences and Repercussions

Nisar Ahmed Khan

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal signed by the P 5+1 in 2015 was widely hailed as a landmark achievement made possible by sincere dialogue and diplomacy. Indeed, the agreement is to a greater extent an achievement of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that helped checked the increasingly disturbing power symmetry in the Middle East which in return has managed to contain the transformation of low intensity conflicts into all out wars. A relative stability is the hallmark which resulted from JCPOA in the Middle East which is extremely volatile region of the world. A vital question is: how these achievements are going to be affected by the US withdrawal from it?

The US withdrawal from JCPOA will adversely affect the aforementioned three areas of its accumulative achievement with variant degree. First, it has negative consequences for the norm that negotiated settlements in international arenas has the potential and lasting credibility to minimize violence or other coercive means led by war. The momentum and confidence the diplomatic means have garnered in post- JCPOA scenario will come to the crushing halt. The sealed and mutually agreed upon agreements in international arena especially in which the US is the potential party, will come under extreme scrutiny leading to an environment of gross trust deficit. Therefore, on the first instance this withdrawal has negative lasting consequences for the diplomatic norms in itself.

Secondly, US exist from the deal does not augur well for the nascent nuclear non-proliferation regime. This regime has a dearth of good precedents like the JCPOA which has deterred a nation from acquiring and operationalizing nuclear weapons as is the case with Iran. Keeping in view this backdrop of this institution, JCPOA has been its glaring example wherein it has managed to successfully convince a nation to not pursue the path which leads towards the nuclear weapons. Therefore, the US withdrawal has shaken the confidence of the non-proliferation regime to its core. It has engendered a split among the leading nations who were acting as sort of de facto executive to enforce the agreements on the nuclear ambitious states. Therefore, this US withdrawal has undoubtedly far reaching repercussions for the non-proliferation as an institution. This development may affect the nature and its future development as an institutional mechanism to deter the recalcitrant states to change their course regarding the nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, in relation to the above mentioned negative consequences on diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation regime, the US withdrawal from the deal has far serious security ramifications for the volatile and conflict ridden Middle East. It has multiplied the prospects of all-out war between Iran and its regional rivals on one hand and Iran and Israel on the other hand. Just tonight the announcement of Trump exiting JCPOA and the Israeli aggression on Syrian military bases substantiates the assertion that there exists a correlation between this US withdrawal and the Zionist regime`s regional hegemonic designs. It has extremely positive message for the Saudi Arabia. The impulsive and overambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) went on extended tours in the US and Europe to convince Western leadership that Iran should be contained.  Therefore, element of stability in the region – contained low intensity conflicts – got serious motivation to turn into all-out-wars  with non-exclusion of nuclear options at the disposal of Zionist regime in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern region with this exit of the US is going to observe substantial turmoil in the months to come which will have some extra regional ramifications.

As a conclusion it could be argued that the US exit has some far reaching repercussions for the diplomatic norms, non-proliferation regime and above all for the volatile Middle Eastern region. All these ramifications resulted from the US withdrawal will also in return have some serious consequences internally and externally. The status of the US as the sole super power of the world will be diminished with this decision. It will create an unbridgeable gap in the West. Henceforth, the EU foreign will be more autonomous, integrated and autonomous in her conduct.

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