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An analysis of Iran’s elections

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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First and foremost, it is worth clarifying that in Iran the division between “reformists” and “liberals” on one side and “conservatives” or even “fundamentalists” on the other makes no sense whatsoever.

Both political camps are linked to the memory and teaching of Imam Khomeini, who was a political leader because he was an innovator in the field of Twelver Shia Islam.

For the Imam of the 1979 revolution who, immediately after rising to power, dismissed Iran’s nuclear power inherited from the Shah as “a sign of the devil” – albeit he later changed his mind – the aim of the Prophecy, which for him is equal to human reason, “is to guide mankind towards the establishment of a just society through the implementation of divine laws”.

Hence, unlike what happened in the old Quietist tradition of both strands of Islam, namely Sunni and Shia, for the Imam of the Shia revolution “Islam is a political religion, and every aspect of this religion is political, even its worship”.

Therefore, during the current period of ”concealment of the Last Imam”, the faqih, namely the “experts of Islamic Shia law”, must set up an Islamic State.

In short, the political power is the faqih’s religious duty: this is the basis of the famous velayat-e faqih, namely the “guardianship of the jurist”.

For Imam Khomeini, the whole community of faqih represents the concealed Imam on the earth until his appearance-revelation.

Hence the “experts of Islamic Shia law” have, jointly and collectively, the same authority and responsibility as those that Prophet Muhammad and the first “well-directed” Caliphs had on the earth.

Again to quote Khomeini, “Islamic government is neither tyrannical nor absolute, but constitutional. It is constitutional in the current sense of the word, i.e. based on the approval of laws in accordance with the opinion of the majority. It is constitutional in the sense that the rulers are subject to a certain set of conditions in governing and administering the country, conditions that are set forth in the Noble Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Most Noble Messenger (s). It is the laws and ordinances of Islam comprising this set of conditions that must be observed and practiced. Islamic government may therefore be defined as the rule of divine law over men”.

All the members of the Iranian Parliament and of the other elected or non-elected institutions act within this set of values, principles, as well as legal and Qur’an practices. Needless to think of a Westernization through liberalization, as some Western analysts imagine.

Or to think of a Shia regime rift between pro-Westerners and “reactionaries” because, for the Iranian ruling classes, the core of the issue is how to use the West and not be used by it.

Hence thinking of a specific theocracy “of waiting” – as the one of the Iranian Shia State, a unique case in political theology – as a system divided between “liberals” and “conservatives” (regardless of what both words may mean in the West) is a sign of utmost naivety for those who have to interpret the results of Iran’s 2016 elections.

The Pervasive Coalition of Reformists: the Second Step, named the List of Hope, led by Mohammed Khatami, is the only coalition which openly supports the so-called “reformists”. It is an assemblage of parties or lists such as the Council for Coordinating the Reforms Front, Mehdi Kharroubi’s National Trust Party, the Union of Islamic Iran People Party, which is the Hassan Rowhani’s newly-established political arm, and finally, the Followers of Velayat, led by Ali Larijani, former chief nuclear negotiators (considered a “conservative”) and current Speaker of Parliament.

The political groups allied to the List of Hope, which has great significance in two-round elections such as Iran’s, are the Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers, the Combatant Clergy Society and the Association of Followers of the Imam’s Line.

It is worth recalling that the List of Hope also includes 24 other smaller groups, such as the Islamic Association of Women and the Islamic Labour Party of Iran.

In the elections this party-coalition obtained 28.62% of votes and got 83 Parliamentary seats out of a total of 239.

The Principlists Coalition that the West (gazing, as Narcissus, at its own reflection) passes off as “conservative” is made up of a fraction of the Combatant Clergy Society and the Islamic Coalition Party, as well as four other smaller groups.

It got 64 seats in the Majlis with 22.06% of votes.

Ali Motahari’s People’s Voice Coalition was created to criticize the “conservative” Ahmadinedjad.

A cousin of Ali Larijani, who is now leading his own party within the winning coalition, Motahari is the son of a faqih and is regarded as a liberal-conservative politician.

Motahari’s List obtained 3.44% of votes and got ten seats, but it is difficult to place it in the traditional Downs’ left-right axis we use for the systems derived from the American and French revolutions.

There are many true independent candidates – as many as 55 members of Parliament, who can safely support either camps, which appear to us progressive or conservative.

The religious minorities accepted in the country, namely Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Armenians, obtained their five constitutional seats and garnered 1.75% of votes.

The results are even more complex to analyze in the case of the Assembly of Experts, the Council entrusted with the task of supervising the Parliament in accordance with the velayat-e-faqih. It is the 88-member Council that will elect the next Rahbar, the Supreme Leader.

As many as 27 seats were obtained by the Principlists Coalition, while the Second Step reformists gained 20 seats.

As many as 35 candidates, however, were supported by both coalitions which we like to ascribe to our camp.

The results reached by the various coalitions show that, in the Assembly of Experts, 19 mujtahid were elected directly by the Second Step coalition, while 27 were elected with the votes of other lists not allied to the “progressives”, for a total of 46 “experts” who, I assume, will be answerable to both political traditions – if any.

The Combatant Clergy Society has 5 Experts directly elected, but as many as 51 voted also by other groups, including many of the camp we define as progressive.

The Combatant Clergy was created in 1977, before the Islamic revolution, to topple the Shah. Its first leaders were Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who is the current leader of other progressive lists, and Morteza Mohtahari, the father of the current leader of the People’s Voice Coalition.

The group now counts 56 members in the Assembly of Experts, accounting for 64%. This rebalances much of the progressive shift in the Majlis.

The Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom elected 3 Experts directly and 51 ones jointly with other lists that sponsored them.

It is the group at the origin of the 1979 revolution, founded by Ayatollah Khomeini’ students as early as 1961, when the Shah seemed unassailable and indeed, according to his Iranian name, “King of Kings”.

As can be easily imagined, in the city and province of Tehran, the People’s Experts list received a landslide victory.

But, as in other countries, including Western ones, here the divide is between urban and rural areas – the same rift which gave rise to capitalism in the West and destroyed centralist socialism in the USSR and, in other respects, in China.

Nevertheless many Rowhani’s personal opponents and competitors were excluded from Parliament or from the Assembly of Experts. Hence, for the President in office, the issue lies in using this power surplus.

The focus of Rowhani’s policy is the economy and, above all, the geopolitical impact of the planned Iranian economic expansion after the agreement with the P5+1.

Iran needs it. It needs a booming economy to tackle the problems and uneasiness of young people (leading to their “Westernization”) and update its obsolete production system, which has grown lazy and idle as a result of an almost completely nationalized economy.

The President will privatize, at first, the automotive industry, but he has also bought a fleet of 118 Airbus airplanes for a total sum of 25 billion US dollars.

Nevertheless the political debate in Iran does not concern reforms, but their pace and their shape.

And especially their political impact on the relations with the United States and some other Western countries. Nobody, within the Majlis or the Council of Experts, wants the United States to monitor Iran’s industrial transformation and its very recent opening onto the “market-world”.

Currently Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) amounts to 4.88 billion US dollars, but Iran has designed a Development Plan for the period 2016-2021. An amount of 361 billion US dollars needs to be invested, 204 of which can be found in Iran, but the rest has to come from foreign countries or private investors.

Hence, if Iran uses the JCPOA to become the largest population and economy to be globalized after the USSR collapse, the geopolitical effects are likely to be the following: it will increase its engagement in the Greater Middle East, but only in connection with the Russian Federation and China; it will counteract the low oil price policy led by Saudi Arabia to “punish” the United States and Russia; it will create its own Shia area of influence, which will not lead to a war against the Sunnis, but to an ongoing attrition with Saudi Arabia and its allies.

The competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be particularly fierce in attracting the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) which is coming to Iran after the signing of the JCPOA and after Saudi Arabia opening for the first time to FDI in June 2015.

The above stated plan envisages a yearly GDP growth exceeding 8%, a Chinese-style growth rate, but it is very likely that – once temporarily put an end to the nuclear power for military purposes (but is it really so?) – Iran will manage a military build- up, funded by economic growth, which will follow the traditional criteria: the primacy of guerrilla warfare and “hybrid strategies”, managed by the Pasdaran, and the ICBM missile system.

The strategic goals will be to strengthen its own regional role and the political management of the many Shia minorities scattered throughout the Sunni universe.

Moreover, the link between economic growth and Iranian remilitarization will be used to revive the relations with Russia and to enable China’s peaceful expansion into the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, finally as guardians of the future new “Silk Road” planned by Xi Jinping as early as 2013.

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 "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. 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 of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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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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