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Iran: Protests and threat of renewed sanctions focus economic thinking

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears in the wake of recent anti-government protests to have put his weight behind President Hasan Rouhani’s repeated calls for reduced military and Revolutionary Guards involvement in the economy.

Mr. Khamenei signalled his support by ordering the military and the Guards to start divesting from commercial holdings and businesses not related to their core tasks except for construction projects considered essential by the government.

The order serves not only to address protesters’ grievances that were sparked in part by losses suffered by millions of Iranians a result of the collapse of fraudulent financial institutions with links to the Guards and other public institutions. The financial entities lured investors with high interest rates that they could not pay.

Mr. Khamenei’s order could also sweeten Iranian efforts to persuade Europe to put in place legal measures that would allow it to invest in the Islamic republic even if the United States imposes new sanctions and withdraws from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Europe shares many of the United States’ concern about the role of the Guards in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and the fact that it runs Iran’s ballistic missile program but has insisted that the agreement should be maintained.

A target of US sanctions, the Guards reportedly are not opposed to a reduced stake that analysts say accounts for as much as 30 percent of the Iranian economy. The Guards operate, among others, Khatam al Anbia, a huge construction company with tens of thousands of employees that is involved in civil development, the oil industry and defense businesses. The Guards build roads, operate ports, manage telecommunication networks, and own business in sectors as far flung as finance and medical.

The “top brass have realized that running companies is actually not their competency. The poor management has been a drag on the economy and–as seen in the recent #IranProtests–a risk to internal security and to the prestige of the armed forces,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an Iran analyst, commentator and business consultant.

In a world in which everything is interlinked, disinvestment by the Guards and military as well as other public institutions like the Social Security Organization, Iran’s largest pension fund, would involve privatization in a country that has found it difficult to attract foreign investment because of the threat of a re-imposition of US sanctions conditionally lifted as part of the nuclear agreement.

US President has threatened not to renew US sanctions relief in May if Europe and the US Congress failed to work towards an agreement with Iran on an addition to the nuclear accord that would restrict Iranian missile testing and development, provide for expanded inspections of Iranian facilities, and extend prohibitions on nuclear-weapons work. Iran insists that the accord cannot be renegotiated.

Europe has been pressing the Trump administration not to walk away from the accord. Iranian officials have suggested that Tehran would adhere to the nuclear deal in case of a US walkout provided that it served its interests.

For Iran to see continued merit in the deal, it would have to believe that European companies would remain interested in investing in the Islamic republic. That would require the European Union adopting legislation that would shield European companies from US secondary sanctions that would target non-American entities invested in Iran.

Privatization of military and Guards-owned companies, given Iran’s undercapitalized financial markets and its small pool of viable domestic investors, would depend on foreign investors, who in turn are unlikely to risk being penalized by potential renewed secondary US sanctions.

“Europe should put in place a viable contingency plan if the United States continues backtracking on the deal and let Washington know it’s ready to use it… Europe will need to present a package (together with China and Russia) that can entice Iran to continue abiding by the core elements of the current nuclear agreement,” said Iran expert Ellie Geranmayeh.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Ms. Geranmayeh argued that Europe should initially attempt to secure from the United States exceptions to the potential sanctions modelled on the US penalties imposed on Russia that provide relief from enforcement for European companies.

“If Washington refuses this approach, European governments should publicly warn that in any instance where the U.S. Treasury actively enforces secondary sanctions targeting European companies dealing with Iran, the European Union will revive measures similar to its ‘blocking regulation’,” Ms. Geranmayeh argued.

The blocking regulation adopted by the European Union in 1996 thwarted then US President Bill Clinton’s attempt to force Europe and others to abide by US sanctions on Libya, Iran and Cuba. The regulation made it illegal for European companies to abide by US sanctions, gave them legal cover to refuse payment of US fines, and opened the door to the EU penalizing US companies in retaliation.

In practice, European companies, if forced to choose between doing business with the United States or Iran, would likely opt to steer clear of the Islamic republic. The EU would be banking on the expectation that the Trump administration would ultimately opt to compromise in a bid to avoid a deterioration of trans-Atlantic relations.

In announcing Mr. Khamenei’s support for reducing the stake in the economy of the military and the Guards, Iranian defense minister Amir Hatami cautioned that “the degree of our success depends on market conditions and the possibility of divestment.”

Said Mr. Batmanghelidj: “If success in privatization is to be achieved…Iran’s equity market investors will need foreign investors to help carry the burden and unlock the opportunity.”

With little insight into what entities will be put up for sale, European investors, even if the EU puts legal protections in place or cuts a deal with the United States, like their Russian and Chinese counterparts, are likely to take a wait-and-see attitude. That could put efforts to reduce the military and Guards’ economic stake in jeopardy, catching it between the rock of lack of Iranian transparency and the hard place of weak domestic financial markets and a limited pool of investors.

If that were not enough, Saudi efforts to counter Iran could further dampen foreign investor appetite. In a sign of the times, South Korean construction company POSCO Engineering & Construction in which Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has a 38 percent stake cancelled a $1.6 billion contract to build a steel mill in Iran because of objections by the company’s two Saudi board members.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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