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Tasks before reelected Iran President Hassan Rouhani

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]s expected, the 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.

Amid a large 73 percent turnout of eligible voters, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani won a first-round victory in the May 19 presidential election, garnering a decisive 57 percent of the vote, far exceeding his 50.7 percent majority in the 2013 election. Rouhani’s main rival, Ibrahim Raisi, garnered 38 percent of the vote despite having the clear backing of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the security establishment led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Since July 2016, Raisi has been considered a front-runner to potentially succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader. The 2017 election outcome could represent a key turning point in Iranian politics and Iran’s relationship to the international community.

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 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.

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 Rouhani negotiated a historic deal with world powers in 2015 to curb the country’s nuclear program 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.

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.

Iran today faces two most important problems: one its forward looking foreign policy and economic stagnancy- both are intertwined. The core reason for Rouhani’s significant victory is that he had delivered on a key promise—achieving the lifting of sanctions in conjunction with a landmark agreement with the United States and other major powers to implement restraints on Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians have faith in his leadership.

On foreign policy, Rouhani attracted voters with a promise to not only adhere to the seminal nuclear deal but to go beyond the agreement to reach broader understandings with the United States. Such understandings could yield the lifting of the remaining U.S. sanctions that make international firms hesitant to re-engage in Iran, but which would also entail compromises that the Supreme leader and IRGC are likely to thwart. A lifting of US terrorism-related sanctions would require Iran to sharply curtail its support for Lebanese Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria—requirements that the hardline Iranian establishment would not permit under almost any circumstances. Similarly, the lifting of US proliferation sanctions would require Iran to cease developing ballistic missiles—a reversal that Iran’s hardliners would almost certainly block. US approach to the Syrian crisis would determine US policy o for Iran.

Washington wants the Iranian president to reign in the Spiritual leader and take full control of important institutions like IRGC and judiciary, thereby crate tension with the Spiritual leader. Rouhani’s inability to change Iran’s key national security policies will likely ensure that the Trump administration continues to strengthen alliances with Iran’s regional adversaries. President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia this past weekend came with the signing of a major package of new US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including a Saudi purchase of the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile system designed to intercept Iranian missiles. Trump’s visit also included discussions of institutionalizing US-Arab alliances intended, in large part, to counter Iran’s regional influence.

Even though most Iranians have not yet experienced tangible economic benefits from sanctions relief, Iranian voters clearly turned away from Raisi’s candidacy in part for his potential to increase tensions with the international community and possibly trigger a re-imposition of those sanctions.

The economy that received setback due to sanctions form the western powers and allies remains the number one challenge for Rouhani, 68, who signed a nuclear deal between Iran, the USA 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.

A vibrant economy alone could bring Iran closer to the western world. Rouhani, a moderate who agreed a deal with world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program, 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.” Rouhani’s victory is welcomed by Iranian reformists as well as the country’s opposition green movement.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.”

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 the Islamic Revolution. The price tag for this election promise alone is a staggering $2.6bn. 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.

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

Rouhani considers himself a bridge between hardliners and reformists. Rouhani is also expected to face the same restrictions that prevented him from delivering substantial social change in his first term. 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”.

In Iran’s unique and uneasy hybrid of democracy and theocracy, the president has significant power to shape government, although he 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.

The Rouhani re-election offers the potential for the Trump government to incorporate some direct diplomacy with Iran into its overall strategy. While criticizing Iran’s policies extensively, in April the Trump administration certified Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, and it continued to waive US sanctions under the agreement in May. During Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which began as Rouhani was declared the winner in Iran, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that, at some point, he expected to talk directly with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Such direct bilateral engagement could overcome decades of mutual hostility and put the relationship on a more peaceful and productive trajectory, offering a new opportunity for engagement between the two long-time adversaries.

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Middle East

Qatar World Cup offers lessons for human rights struggles

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It’s a good time, almost 12 years after the world soccer body, FIFA, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights and five months before the tournament, to evaluate the campaign to reform the country’s erstwhile onerous labor system and accommodate fans whose lifestyles violate restrictive laws and/or go against deeply rooted cultural attitudes.

Ultimately the balance sheet shows a mixed bag even if one takes into account that Qatari autocracy has proven to be more responsive and flexible in responding to pressure by human rights and labour groups than its Gulf brothers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

On the plus side, the initial wave of condemnation of the country’s repressive kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers persuaded Qatar to become the first Gulf state, if not the first Arab state, to engage with its critics.

Engagement meant giving human rights groups and trade unions access to the country, allowing them to operate and hold news conferences in Qatar, and involving them in drafting reforms and World Cup-related model labour contracts. This was unprecedented in a region where local activists are behind bars or worse and foreign critics don’t even make it onto an inbound flight.

The reforms were imperfect and not far-reaching enough, even if Qatar introduced significant improvements in the conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Furthermore, on the plus side, the hosting rights sparked limited but nonetheless taboo-breaking discussions that touched on sensitive subjects such as LGBT rights and the granting of citizenship to non-nationals.

Qataris openly questioned the granting of citizenship to foreign athletes so they could be included in the Qatar national team for the 2016 Olympics rather than medical personnel and other professionals who had contributed to national welfare and development.

Hosting the World Cup has further forced Qatar, albeit in a limited fashion, to come to grips with issues like LGBT rights that do not simply violate the country’s laws but go against its social grain to produce an inclusive tournament.

In some ways, that may have been more difficult than reforming the labour regime if one considers the difference between standing up for democratic freedoms that may have broad public support and the recognition of LGBT rights. In contrast to democratic rights, opposition to LGBT rights is deeply engrained in Qatar and other Muslim societies. It would likely be socially rejected, even if they were enshrined in law.

The difference means that the defense of LGBT and other socially controversial rights forces activists and human and LGBT rights groups to rethink their strategies and adopt alternative, more long-term approaches.

It also means that they will have to embrace less Western-centric attitudes frequently prevalent in the campaign to reform Qatar’s labour system. Those attitudes were evident in debates that were also often skewed by bias, prejudice, bigotry, and sour grapes.

Moreover, the criticism often failed to consider the context. As a result, achieving results and pushing for reform was, to a degree, undermined by what appeared to be a ganging up on Qatar and a singling out of the Gulf state.

Labour is an example. Human rights groups and trade unions treated onerous labour conditions in Qatar, even if the World Cup turned it into a prime target, as uniquely Qatari rather than a global problem that manifests itself in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and even Western democracies like Britain. Recent reporting by The Guardian showed that expatriate medical and caregiver personnel face similar curtailing of rights and abuse in Britain.

By the same token, Qatar was taken to task for being slow in implementing its reforms and ensuring that they were applied not only to World Cup projects but nationwide.

The fact is that lagging enforcement of policies and legal changes is a problem across the broad spectrum of Qatari policies and reform efforts, including the Gulf state’s high-profile, fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy.

Qatar’s handling of illegal recruitment fees paid by workers is a case in point.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari organizer of the World Cup, has obliged companies it contracts to repay the fees without workers having to provide proof of payment. Companies have so far pledged to repay roughly USD$28.5 million to some 49,000 workers, $22 million of which have already been paid out.

It is a step the government could apply nationally with relative ease to demonstrate sincerity and, more fundamentally, counter the criticism.

Similarly, in response to complaints raised by human rights groups and others, the government could also offer to compensate families of workers who die on construction sites. Again, none of these measures would dent Qatari budgets but would earn the Gulf state immeasurable goodwill.

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‘Effort and patience’ required to restore Iran nuclear agreement

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A view from the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran. (file) Photo: IAEA/Paolo Contri

Despite diplomatic engagements, restoring the so-called Iran nuclear agreement continues to be hindered by political and technical differences, the UN political and peacebuilding chief told the Security Council on Thursday.
 

In the landmark accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.

In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reinstated the sanctions.

Achieving the landmark JCPOA took determined diplomacy. Restoring it will require additional effort and patience,” said UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo.

Although the landmark Joint Commission to restore the Plan resumed in November 2021, she acknowledged that despite their determination to resolve the issues, the US and other participants are yet to return to “full and effective implementation of the Plan, and [Security Council] resolution 2231”.

Appealing to both

Together with the Secretary-General, she urged Iran and the US to “quickly mobilize” in “spirit and commitment” to resume cooperation under the JCPOA.

They welcomed the reinstatement by the US in February of waivers on nuclear non-proliferation projects and appealed to the country to lift its sanctions, as outlined in the Plan, and extend oil trade waivers.

Together they also called on on Iran to reverse the steps it has taken that are inconsistent with its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan.

Monitoring enrichment

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran, it estimates that there is currently more than 15 times the allowable amount under the JCPOA, including uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, which Ms. DiCarlo called “extremely worrying”.

Moreover, on 8 and 20 June, IAEA reported that Iran had started to install additional advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and began feeding uranium into advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Fordow.

In his latest report, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, informed the Council that the UN agency’s ability to verify and confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities are key to the JCPOA’s full and effective implementation.

Iran’s decision to remove site cameras and place them and the data they collected under Agency seals, “could have detrimental implications”.

Improved relationships ‘key’

Bilateral and regional initiatives to improve relationships with Iran remain “key” and should be encouraged and built upon, according to Ms. DiCarlo.

Additionally, Member States and the private sector are urged to use available trade instruments to engage with Iran and Tehran is requested to address their concerns in relation to resolution 2231 (2015) on its nuclear issues.

The senior UN official also drew attention to annex B of the resolution, updating ambassadors in the Council on nuclear-related provisions, ballistic missiles and asset freezing.

We hope that diplomacy will prevail – UN political chief

Triumph for multilateralism

The JCPOA was a triumph for non-proliferation and multilateralism,” said the UN political affairs head.

However, after many years of uncertainty, she warned that the Plan is now at “a critical juncture” and encouraged Iran and the US to build on recent momentum to resolve remaining issues.

“The Secretary-General is convinced there is only one path to lasting peace and security for all Member States, and that is the one based on dialogue and cooperation,” she said.  “We hope that diplomacy will prevail”. 

In Iran’s best interest

Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, speaking in his capacity as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA, to the Security Council, recognized the negative economic consequences that the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had on Iran but affirmed that restoring the agreement is “the only way” for the country to reap its full benefits.

He reminded that the Plan would comprehensively lift sanctions, encourage greater international cooperation, and allow Iran to reach its “full economic potential”.  

“It is, therefore, important to show the necessary political will and pragmatism to restore the JCPOA,” said Ambassador Skoog who, while acknowledging the sense of urgency, counselled against “escalatory steps” and to preserve sufficient space for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.

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Dynamic diplomacy: From SCO to BRICS

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Image source: Tehran Times

The tree of Iran’s balanced foreign policy approach is on the verge of being a one-year-old child. Stronger than before, Iran is pursuing dynamic diplomacy in a variety of cities such as Doha, Ashgabat, and other capitals. Baghdad will also join the list soon.

While Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is engaged in intensive negotiations in Qatar with the United States through the European Union delegation, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his oil and foreign ministers are in Ashgabat pursuing transit diplomacy as well as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with the littoral states. 

Prior to his departure for Ashgabat on Wednesday, Raisi spoke to reporters about the purpose of his visit to Turkmenistan. 

“This visit is taking place at the invitation of the esteemed president of the brotherly and friendly country of Turkmenistan in order to attend the Caspian Sea littoral states summit,” he remarked.

The President called the Caspian Sea a common heritage and capital for the littoral states with more than 270 million people. 

“We have good relations with the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, but in addition to reviewing the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and peaceful use of the sea for the purpose of improving security at the sea, what will be discussed at the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states is cooperation between countries in the fields of transport, transit, trade, management of marine living resources, environment, as well as preventing the presence of outsiders in the sea, which is also agreed upon by all coastal countries.”

Prior to the beginning of the summit, Raisi met Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President, as well as Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

During the meeting with the President of Turkmenistan, Raisi pointed out that the implementation of the memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents signed by the two countries during Berdimuhamedow’s recent visit to Tehran will accelerate promotion of cooperation between the two countries.

Later, Raisi met with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev. 

During the meeting, Raisi reminded Aliyev that the presence of the Israeli regime in any part of the world undermines security there.

The president also had a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit. 

There’s little doubt that Tehran has not put all its eggs into the basket of the JCPOA revival, as it actively seeks to establish trade relations with the neighbors. It’s short-sighted thinking to assume that Iran has to wait for the United States to return to the JCPOA, while it can enjoy the benefits of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). 

On Monday, Iran’s former Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who was holding his last presser, told the Tehran Times correspondent that Tehran has submitted a membership request to the BRICS secretariat via Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. While dynamically trailing balanced and active diplomacy with the neighbors, Tehran is awaiting Washington’s serious political decisions to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Source: Tehran Times

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