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Hassan Rouhani reelected President

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has been re-elected in a landslide victory, endorsing his efforts to re-engage with the west and offer greater freedoms at home. With a huge turnout, polling stations stayed open until midnight in parts of the country, defying concerns that moderates disillusioned by the weak economy or slow pace of change would not vote. The president received close to 23 million votes, Interior Minister Abdul Reza Rahmani Fazli said on state television, in an election that had an unexpectedly high turnout of about 70%.

Iran’s reformist President Hassan Rouhani has decisively won the country’s presidential election, fending off a challenge by principlist rival, Ebrahim Raisi a conservative cleric. With all of votes in Friday’s poll counted, Rouhani was re-elected with 57 percent, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmanifazli said. “Of some 41.2 million total votes cast, Rouhani got 23.5 and won the election,” Rahmanifazli said in remarks carried live by state TV. Raisi, Rouhani’s closest rival, main challenger, former prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi received 38.5%, or 15.7 million votes, not enough to take the election to a second round. A big turnout on Friday led to the vote being extended by several hours to deal with long queues.

Rouhani, a moderate who agreed a deal with world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear programme, pledged to “remain true” to his promises. The decisive victory gives him a strong mandate to seek reforms and revive Iran’s ailing economy, analysts say. In his first remarks after winning the poll, Rouhani said: “Great people of Iran, you’re the winners of the election.”

Giving full details, Iran’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, announced live on state television that Rouhani received 23,549,616 votes (57%), compared with his conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi, who won 15,786,449 votes (38.5%). More than 41.2 million people voted out of 56 million who were eligible to do so. The two other lesser known candidates, Mostafa Aqa-Mirsalim and Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, got 478,215 and 215,450 votes respectively.

The incumbent saw off a strong challenge from Raisi, a fellow cleric with radically different politics who stirred up populist concerns about the sluggish economy, lambasted Rouhani for seeking foreign investment and appealed to religious conservatives. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, issued a statement addressed to the Iranian people in which he praised the “massive and epic” turnout.

Presidency

In Iran’s unique and uneasy hybrid of democracy and theocracy, the president has significant power to shape government, although he is is ultimately constrained by the supreme leader. Khamenei, a hardliner thought to have favored Raisi in the election and as a possible successor for his own job, generally steers clear of daily politics but controls powerful bodies from the judiciary to the Revolutionary Guards. Despite losing the overall race, Raisi appeared to have won enough votes to allow him to campaign for office again or justify his promotion in unelected bodies.

Rouhani’s campaign headquarters said there was no plan to hold a celebratory rally. Iranians are usually quick to celebrate such victories, mainly by honking car horns or dancing in streets or distributing sweets. The scale of voter turnout was the highest for many years. The governor of the northern province of Gilan was quoted as saying the turnout there was 80%. In Yazd, the home city of former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, there was 91% participation.

Fear of a Raisi presidency prompted many in Iran to vote. In Tehran, even political prisoners such as the prominent human rights lawyer Narges Mohammadi, cast their votes inside the notorious Evin prison. And the double Oscar-winning film director Asghar Farhadi voted in Cannes while participating at the festival.

Significance

Rouhani’s victory will be welcomed by Iranian reformists as well as the country’s opposition green movement.

Opposition leaders under house arrest, Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, had urged people to vote for Rouhani. The president changed his tone on the campaign trail in order to appeal to the opposition. “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein” was a ubiquitous slogan chanted by Rouhani fans in almost every place he campaigned in the three weeks before the vote.

The election was seen by many as a verdict on Rouhani’s policy of opening up Iran to the world and his efforts to rebuild its stagnant economy. Rouhani swept into office four years ago on a promise to reduce Iran’s international isolation.

Friday poll was the first since he negotiated a historic deal with world powers in 2015 to curb the country’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. In the campaign trail, Rouhani sought to frame the vote as a choice between greater civil liberties and “extremism”, criticising the continued arrest of reformist leaders and activists. Raisi, for his part, accused Rouhani of mismanaging the economy and positioned himself as a defender of the poor and calling for a much tougher line with the West.

Political commentator Mostafa Khoshcheshm said that in contrast to the 2013 election campaign, when Rouhani spoke about the removal of sanctions and the improvement of the economy, this time his message was different. “He resorted to other campaign slogans, like [calling for] social and political freedom, and he pushed the boundaries in order to gather public support, especially in large cities,” Khoshcheshm told Al Jazeera. “If he has secured this result, it’s because of the large cities and the middle class society living there – they have voted for him and made him a president and they expect him to do his promises.”

Trita Parsi, of the National Iranian American council, said the results showed Iranians had chosen “a path of gradual transformation through peaceful participation”. “President Rouhani’s convincing win is a sharp rebuke to Iran’s unelected institutions that were a significant brake on progress during his first term,” he said. “It is also a rebuke of Washington hawks who openly called for either a boycott of the vote, or for the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi to win in order to hasten a confrontation.” He said it was now time for Rouhani to deliver on the promises that inspired people to vote him back in.

Hardliners

Iran’s hardliners had pulled all the stops and mobilized all their resources to bring out as many people as possible to grab the last centre of power in Iran that was not under their control, namely the executive branch. Sensing an effort by the hardliners, supporters of President Rouhani who back his promises to steer the country toward moderation came out in big numbers too. Turnout has been unprecedented. In Tehran, five million people turned out to vote – twice as many as in 2013.

This was a revenge of the people against the hardliners who intimidated them, jailed them, executed them, drove them to exile, pushed them out of their jobs, and discriminated against women.

Campaign

President Rouhani will now have a bigger mandate to push through his reforms, to put an end to extremism, to build bridges with the outside world, to put the economy back on track.

Iranians have said a resounding Yes to President Rouhani who, in recent years and particularly during the last several weeks of campaigning, promised to expand individual and political freedoms and make all those centres of power, like the Revolutionary Guard, accountable. He also promised a moderate vision and an outward-looking Iran and, at rallies, openly attacked the conservative-dominated judiciary and security services. Another challenge, experts say, will come from abroad, and the relations with the new US government. President Donald Trump opposes the nuclear deal which eased sanctions on the Middle Eastern country, but his White House renewed it earlier this week.

As polling day draws closer in Iran, the state of the economy has become the key battleground for the six candidates running for president.

With rampant unemployment, some are promising jobs and others cash hand-outs as they appeal for votes.

Given his record, winning this election ought to be easy for incumbent Hassan Rouhani – but his re-election is by no means a certainty.

Rouhani managed to strike an historic deal in 2015 with world powers over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, resolving a long-standing crisis with the West.

International sanctions were lifted as a result, but average Iranians say they do not feel the economic benefits in their daily lives. “For the past two years, many have stayed away from the property market, first with the hope prices would fall post-sanctions and now for the fear of what happens in the elections,” says Ali Saeedi, a real estate agent. “Many of my colleagues left their jobs because the market is dead,” Saeedi, 33, says.

Iran’s housing sector shrank 13% in the year to March 2017, while the country’s overall economy grew by almost 6.6%, estimates International Monetary Fund.

That growth came mostly from increased oil exports following the lifting of sanctions. Iran’s highest record in the past four decades has been creating 600,000 jobs a year. Iran’s current unemployment rate stands at 12.7%, up 1.7% over the past year. That puts the number of those with absolutely no employment at 3.3 million.

But when it comes to young people, one in every three of those aged 15-24 is jobless. In that age group, every other woman is unemployed. For those without a job, Qalibaf is also offering a 2.5m rial ($66) monthly unemployment benefit, a first in the 38 years since since the Islamic Revolution. The price tag for this election promise alone is a staggering $2.6bn. Qalibaf does not say where he will find the money, nor how he will manage to double Iran’s job creation record.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his two terms (2005-2013) started cash hand-outs when removing subsidies, offered low-interest loans for small businesses and launched massive projects of affordable housing for the poor.

But when Ahmadinejad left office the economy was shrinking by 7% a year and inflation reached 40%. He blamed international sanctions. Economists blamed Ahmadinejad’s populist policies and his mismanagement of the economy.

Challenge

The economy remains the number one challenge. Rouhani, 68, signed a nuclear deal between Iran, the US and other countries in 2015. International sanctions were lifted as a result, but average Iranians say they do not feel the economic benefits in their daily lives. While oil exports have rebounded and inflation is back at single-digits, unemployment remains high, especially among the young people.

Rouhani has brought inflation down from around 40 percent when he took over in 2013, but prices are still rising by over seven percent a year. Oil sales have rebounded since the nuclear deal took effect in January 2016, but growth in the rest of the economy has been limited, leaving unemployment at 12.5 percent overall – close to 30 percent for the young – and many more are under-employed or struggling to get by. “Rouhani now gets his second term, and will be able to continue the work that he started in his first four-year term trying to reform Iran,” Hull said. “And moving on, crucially, from the nuclear deal to try and bring much more economic progress to satisfy the people who have found themselves extremely disappointed with the very slow pace of change since that agreement was signed.”

President Rouhani has brought GDP growth back into the black, inflation into single-digits and trade deficit into a surplus. But expectations are high and Rouhani himself is to blame, having promised miracles once the sanctions were lifted.

Most members of Iran’s fledgling private sector say they will give Mr Rouhani another chance. “We want him to improve the business environment and free the economy from rent-seeking, corruption and monopoly,” says Hamid Hosseini, chief executive of Soroosh oil refinery in Iran.

Hosseini is a board member of Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Mines and the founder of the country’s oil products export union.He says a large group of private sector executives have come together to support Rouhani. “His government has given the society hope with lifting sanctions, increasing growth and tourism, attracting foreign investment and should be confident in this race,” Hosseini says. But the choice for some young Iranians like Ali Saeedi is not crystal-clear.

Rouhani’s re-election is likely to safeguard the 2015 agreement, under which most international sanctions have been lifted in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program. Rouhani has vowed to work towards removing the remaining non-nuclear sanctions, but critics argue that will be hard with Donald Trump as US president – Trump has repeatedly described it as “one of the worst deals ever signed”, although his administration re-authorised waivers from sanctions this week.

Rouhani is also expected to face the same restrictions that prevented him from delivering substantial social change in his first term.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has veto power over all policies and ultimate control of the security forces, While Rouhani has been unable to secure the release of reformist leaders from house arrest.

Rouhani, during an “increasingly acrimonious election campaign, alienated a lot of Iran’s significant state institutions who may be in no mood to cooperate with him going forward”.

While the nuclear deal was at the forefront of the election, the campaign was dominated by the issues of poverty and unemployment.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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