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Iran’s elections of February 26, 2016

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On February 26, 2016 elections will be held in Iran both for Parliament (Majlis) and for the Assembly of Experts, the Council created by Khomeini to institutionalize the velayat-e faqih, the “guardianship of the jurist”, which characterizes the specific subjection of Iran’s civil and criminal law (and politics) to the evaluation of the faqih, namely the experts of the Shi’ite Islamic law.

This happens pending the arrival of the twelfth Imam, the Hidden Imam, who will mark the end of time and the universal conversion to Shi’ism. He alone can really make the laws, and therefore the “experts” check the similarity of the rules to those that will be later laid down by the last Sovereign, the Last Imam, a descendant of Ali as his predecessors.

Given this theological and esoteric aspect, which can never be forgotten, from the organization and political viewpoints the Council of Experts is made up of 88 mujtahid, theologians and hence experts on Islamic law, who have not only the task of discussing the country’s political guidance and direction, but also to elect the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, namely the Rahbar.The Council of Experts shall meet at least two days every six months.

The Supreme Leader is also much more powerful than the President elected by the people and appoints the top officers of the intelligence services, the military and the Revolutionary Guards, as well as the senior officials of the central bank and the Public Administration.

These elections had been scheduled for 2014, but they were postponed for two years so as to hold them at the same time as the elections for Parliament (Majlis).The Council, which has the constitutional power to do so, quashed at least 80% of candidates, that is to say all women and Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan.If all goes according to plan, this Council of Guardians will be crucial, because it should elect the successor of the current Rahbar, Ali Khamenei.Tehran has been allocated 16 seats to the Council while, in other districts, the seats range between 6 and 1, which is the seat allocated to provinces such as the Bushehr province, where the oldest and major nuclear site is located.

The Council of Experts shall elect the new Supreme Leader with a majority of two thirds of its members, while the Assembly (Majlis) shall elect the President.The Legislative Assembly consists of 290 members, 285 of whom elected directly and the five remaining ones are reserved for the admitted minorities: the Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Armenians.The constituencies are 196 and include both single-member constituencies based on a first past the post system and constituencies based on a proportional representation system.

In the former ones, with a view to being elected, the candidate shall obtain at least one third of votes in the first round. If this happens, in the second round the choice is between the two best placed candidates.In the latter ones, voters can express as many preferences as the number of seats available for the constituency. With a view to being elected, the candidate must obtain at least one third of the valid votes, as in the former constituencies.

If not all seats are awarded, in the second round elections will be held with twice as many candidates as the seats available.These are the rules, which are essential for understanding the political aspect of these dual elections in Iran.The major competing parties are 12 and they are all fervent Islamist parties.The broadest coalition seems to be the “Principalist group”, which brings together six political groups.The candidate to the Assembly is Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel.Former President of the Majlis, he has a high-profile Western and Shi’ite philosophical education and is not a cleric, namely a faqih.He was a member of Parliament for thirteen years and in four elections he was supported by Abadgaran, the coalition of various parties and associations which, in 2004, brought Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad to power.For years he has been one of the most listened advisers to Ali Khamenei and he ran for the presidential elections of July 2013, without great success.It is a candidacy of high personal profile, but of absolute loyalty to the status quo.

The candidate of the “Reformists’ Coalition”, formed by four parties, is Mohammed Reza Aref.He is a loyal aide of Khatami, with a degree in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. of the Stanford University. With a view to devoting himself to political activity, he refused a government position offered to him by Rowhani.He is the only reformist candidate who can win.

Nevertheless political prospects are currently unpredictable in Iran: a large part of the public that, in Western terms, we would call “reformist” relates the improved economic conditions to a better climate between Iran and the West. However, the “conservative” front (another misnomer we use for the Iranian political sphere) takes advantage of the basic ambiguity of the JCPOA agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 to topicalize the religious-political nationalism typical of the Islamic Republic.

If the national-religious card is played, which is the most accepted by the working classes, the reformers will lose – maybe narrowly – but they will certainly lose.

The candidate of the “People’s Voice Coalition” is Ali Motahari.He has defined himself as a “conservative-liberal” and is the son of an important faqih, Morteza Motahari, who founded the “Council of Revolution of Iran” at the request of Khomeini, of whom he had been a disciple and aide during the Shah’s period. He was murdered by the People’s Mojahedin of Iran in 1979.

The Mojahedin were also those who, in 2002, disclosed the existence of Iran’s nuclear program.The candidate Motahari is a cousin of the current Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, who was one of the most careful negotiators of Iran’s nuclear deal with the P5+1 and is a very fierce critic of Ahmadinedjad.The candidate of the “Islamic Awakening Front” is Shahab od-Din Sadr.He is a doctor who was elected thrice as a member of Parliament in Tehran.

For the time being it is hard to make forecasts, but 28% of Iranian voters support “moderate” candidates, which means politicians who accept the JCPOA – but without some national diminutio capitis – and, above all, want to take advantage of the new international climate to redress and revive the Iranian economy, which is seen as a primary issue by 58% of voters.24% of Iranian voters would like to see a political program in continuity with Ahmadinedjad’s.This means Islamic nationalism, rejection of the JCPOA and what we would call “populism” – again with a Western political misnomer.

If a share of the moderate coalition’s votes adds to the 24% of Ahmadinedjad’s nostalgics, the feeble thread of the relationship with the West will break and the geo-economic solution can only be closer links with the Russian Federation and China, while an armed clash or a low-intensity war with Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies becomes more likely.13% and 23% are the voting intentions predicted for the reformers and for Haddad-Adel’s followers.In total, 41% will vote for candidates linked to Rafsanjani and Hassan Rowhani, the current President, coming from the moderate-reformist area.

Hence the JCPOA will be supported by the government, but with great caution and some probable backlash.Reza Aref, Haddad-Adel Mohammed Reza Aref and Ali Mohtahari are the most popular candidates in the Tehran district and in the most populous constituencies.If the Iranians voted for the whole reformers’ list and not for the individual parties and candidates composing it, they would win hands down.

Conversely, if the list of Haddad-Adel’s “Principalists” presented itself united, with all the parties composing it which collaborate with one another without electoral competition, Haddad-Adel’s followers would win over 80 seats.Hence a highly unpredictable outcome, which will directly concern the nuclear deal and which will finally mark a polarization between “reformers” and “conservatives” – to use again Western misnomers – that will block the political system, with the results we can easily imagine.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An important contribution

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

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

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

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

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

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North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?

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In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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