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The Rebellion in Iran: A Comprehensive Assessment

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan

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In late December 2017 and in January 2018, massive protests erupted throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran. The largest countrywide uprising since 2009 started in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, and a few towns on December 28, and spread to some 142 cities and towns in all 31 provinces at a shocking pace.

The uprising was prompted by runaway prices of some of the most basic staples, such as eggs, but became political in a matter of just a few hours.

On the morning of December 29, protests emerged in the western city of Kermanshah, the center of the province of Kermanshah,which was struck by an earthquake in November. It quickly became evident that what was happening was more significant than a short-lived protest – limited to a particular region of the country – but rather a reflection of deeper, more profound anti-regime sentiments.

Unsurprisingly, the Tehran responded to the rebellion, as it did in 2009, with brutality. According to official figures, 22 protesters were killed, but according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, some 50 protesters were killed and a member of the mullahs’ parliament cited the head of the Prisons Organization and said that they had registered 4,972 arrests. The opposition put the number of detainees at 8,000 but there are indications that this may be a somewhat conservative estimate. As of the date of this writing, at least 14 protesters have been identified as having been killed in detention[1].

After two weeks of relative calm, more than a dozen Iranian cities were again scenes of protests on January 31 and February 1, with similar slogans that rejected the regime in its entirety.In the meantime, the world has witnessed a steady stream of protests and strikes by laborers and victims of theft and fraud by state institutions. The extraordinary resilience demonstrated by the Iranian people suggests that protests could reoccur relatively quickly, and perhaps more forcefully.

A careful review of the evidence clearly indicates that the protests were not a short-lived phenomenon with temporary impact. Rather, they marked a turning point and permanent change in the trend of events and political calculations in Iran.

This is significant in various ways.

Iran has historically been an enigma for Western powers and for Washington in particular. In this sense, the protests were significant for the future of Iran.

But from a geo-political perspective, the impact and consequence of major political developments in Iran transcend the country’s borders. In recent history, the region is still reeling from the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iran in 1979, subsequent to deposing the country’s monarchy.

Perceptions among Iran watchers in the West prior to protests 

It is safe to say that the protests caught most experts and Iran analysts in the West by surprise. This is reflected in less than accurate analyses of the realities on the ground during the uprising, as well widespread assessments of the situation inside Iran.

The below assumptions comprised a conventional wisdom regarding Iran and its future prior to the protests that was promoted for years by Tehran’slobbyists and apologists in the West:

  • The Iranian regime enjoys the support of the population, in particular the urban poor and the lower class that served as the backbone of the Iranian Revolution and comprised the main social base of the clerical rule. It stemmed from the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the regime, had ascended to power with the slogan of supporting the Mostazafin or the deprived.
  • The regime in Tehran is stable and strong enough to support interference in the affairs of other countries in the region and, as such, it should be treated as a rising regional player with significant sway.
  • Tehran has been able to suppress all dissent, and opposition is limited to exiles with little to no influence on the current state of affairs inside the country and with no appeal to the youth who comprise the majority in Iran.
  • The Iranian political landscape is defined by a contest between “moderates” and “hardliners” and the outcome of this contest will determine the future of Iran. The West is well served by propping up the “moderates” and allaying their concerns to neutralize the hardliners.
  • The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is in full control. They have restructured on a provincial basis and geared up to prevent popular uprisings.
  • The nuclear agreement and the cash windfall that resulted from sanctions relief improved the welfare of the average Iranian and provided a capital gain for the “moderates.”
  • JCPOA will gradually lead to a change of behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But another school of thought stressed that:

  • The clerics are isolated at home and are loathed by the Iranians, in particular by the youth. People are waiting for the first opportunity to express their wrath.
  • The foreign interventions and wars are not signs of strength. Rather they are taking a big toll on the regime and are maintainedto cover up the shortcomings and failures at home.
  • When it comes to major issues there is not much difference between the various factions and the regime is neither capable nor willing to get engage in any meaningful moderation.

In the major annual international rally of the opposition in Paris on July 1, 2017, Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran said: “The light of change is shining on Iran. The ruling regime is in disarray and paralyzed as never before. Iranian society is simmering with discontent and the international community is finally getting closer to the reality that appeasing the ruling theocracy is misguided.

These observations speak to three fundamental truths related to obtaining freedom and liberty in Iran, as well as peace and tranquility in the region:

  • First, the overthrow of the ruling religious dictatorship is an imperative.
  • Second, the regime’s overthrow is within reach.
  • And third, a democratic alternative and an organized resistance exists which is capable of toppling the theocracy in Iran.

Protests proved the assumptions pushed by Tehran’s apologists to be totally devoid of any bearing in reality and the second school of thought to be more attuned to realities on the ground.

Root causes of the Iran uprising

A correct assessment of the roots of the uprising is of paramount importance in making a good prediction of their future.

The first protest was prompted by a sudden increase in the price of some of the most basic staples, particularly eggs, and by the announcement of a projected major increase in fuel costs. But, the protests quickly took a political tone and quickly came to target the regime in its entirety.

In reality, the protests were the result of several factors and the culmination of the regime’s failures in several key areas over the years.

In the area of economics, despite the unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars under the nuclear agreement, there is total stagnation and the public has not witnessed any benefits. In recent years the private sector has been very much squeezed out. According to reliable estimates, organizations and institutions under the control of Khamenei, which include the IRGC, now control over 50% of Iran’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[2]

Inflation is still in double digits, while unemployment is staggering [3]. This is even worse in towns and smaller cities, where according to some reports unemployment among the youth is as high as 50 percent. Iranian state media is riddled with stories of young people with PhDs or Masters Degrees from some of the country’s best universities who have to drive taxis or work as dishwashers in order to make ends meet.

On priorities, a recent review of the official budget indicated that its allocations for the IRGC and suppressive forces are several times more than allocations for the most basic social needs such as public health and education. According to one study, Iran’s total health care budget for 2018 is $16.3 billion, which is a third of its total war budget. The costs of wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which is up to tens of billions of dollars, as well as financing a range of extremist groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon, has taken a toll on the Iranian economy and the welfare of Iranians. In other words, Tehran’s strategic policies and priorities have had direct impact on the Iranian economy and have become totally intertwined with it.

Little noticed in the West has been the failure in the past few years of a series of major financial institutions affiliated with the IRGC. Millions of middle class and lower income Iranians were lured toinvest in government–affiliated and sanctioned institutions that promised high returns. The institutions were allowed to gamble or run Ponzi schemes with impunity for years because they were owned by well-connected elites: religious foundations, the IRGC and/or other investment funds in the Iranian state. The funds, life savings for many depositors, were either embezzled or diverted to the regime’s priorities[4]. The bankruptcy of these intuitions, known as “mal-baakhtegan” or “property losers”, impacted millions of Iranians and has been steering public unrest for the past couple of years.

A number of the regime’s main banks face bankruptcy,mainly because of bad loans provided to the regime’s senior officials or their trade partners without any guarantee or collateral. Mohammad Reza Bahonr, a former Vice-speaker of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) said on February 1, “A number of our main banks are on the verge of bankruptcy. Let’s pray the Lord that their bottom will not fall out since in reality these banks are in the red.”

Corruption has become so rampant and systematic that hardly a day goes by without a story of embezzlement of mammoth proportions being exposed in the state-run press. The problem is so acute that Supreme Leader Khamenei described it as a “seven headed dragon” in his speech on February 8.

Nepotism is as its peak. The term “Aghazadeh” (son of Agha or noble born) has been a colloquialism in Iran since 1990s,describing the children of elites who emerge as men of means and influence by way of nepotism and corruption. In 2017, the term “good genes” was introduced in the Iranian parlance and became synonymous with the privilege that the children of the elite, notably the sons and grandsons of senior ayatollahs and senior government officials, or Aghazadehs, enjoy.

The protests, of course, expressed the public’s rage over the mullahs’ plundering of their wealth. Poverty, unemployment, and class differences have inspired it. But the protests were not limited to demands for necessities of life and were not a spontaneous and sudden upheaval by the hungry. Rather, they had clear and distinct social and political elements.

Iran is suffocating from social and political repression, lack of the most basic freedoms, and systematic institutional discrimination and nepotism have pervaded the regime. As such, the protests were also for freedom and popular sovereignty to establish social justice and prosperity.

In other words, the protests were the culmination and convergence of years of the ill-fated policies and priorities of the regime with deep-rooted causes. Several factors had simply postponed the eruption of these crises. The reality caught up with the ayatollahs.

Characteristics and features of the protests

The span and rapid expansion of the protests was quite remarkable. In a few days, they spread to 142 cities inall 31 provinces of Iran, and no major city in Iran was spared. By comparison, the protests in 2009 were mainly limited to Tehran and a number of major cities. Tellingly, in 2018, confrontation between the protesters and the security forces were most fierce in some of the smaller cities and towns including and not limited to Izeh (Khuzestan Province), Touyserkan (Hamadan Province) and Shahinshar (Isfahan Province).

Not only did the protests begin in the holy city of Mashhad, but also some of the strongest slogans on the first days of the protests were chanted in Qom, the other Iranian holy city. These two cities traditionally were perceived to be bastions of clerical rule. The vast geography of the protests not only indicated the general sentiment throughout Iran, but from a security standpoint, it forced the regime to spread its forces and made it impossible to concentrate on major cities by amassing its forcesin a handful of locations to prevent the protests taking place.

The overwhelming majority of those engaged in the uprising were from poor and underprivileged backgrounds, i.e. people who were tired of their circumstances and angry at the regime for ignoring their wellbeing and denying their humanity. In other words, unlike the 2009 protests that were primarily comprised of middle class people, in 2018 the protesters were from “armies of the hungry and the unemployed.” They clearly repudiated Tehran’s claims of enjoying a broad base of social support in general andthe claims by the mullahs’ spin doctors about their popularity among the impoverished in particular.

The mullahs’ claim that they are “defenders of the abased” was totally discredited. The abased cried out in the streets: “People must beg while the supreme leader lives like a God.” Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran University Professor who is an advocate of the “reformers” in Iran, said in an interview on February 17, “The 2009 protests showed that the system has difficulties with the people who reside north of Enghelab (Revolution) Avenue[5]. The problem was with office workers, writers, university students, medical doctors…. But the protests in January 2018 were much more dangerous for the system. I believe those who came out were from south of Enghelab Avenue.”

People from all walks of life and social strata took part in the protests,and young men and women, particularly those who are called “Dahe haftadi” (those have been born in 1990s) played a key role. “Those who chanted those slogans, chanted against the regime, most of them were Dahe Haftadi.”Zibakalam acknowledged. (Dahe Hafadi is the term used in Iran to refer to those who have been born in 1990s).By the regime’s own estimates, 50 percent of those who were detained were between the ages of 19 and 25, and 27 percent were between 25 and 32.

The 2009 protests began and were initiated due to a rift in the leadership of the regime, specifically over the fate of the disputed elections, expressed with slogans like “where is my vote?”. The disenchanted population used the fissure to express its frustrations. Yet, what seemed to be a blessing at the onset turned out to be a majorweakness of the protest movement. As the public slogans became more radical and targeted the leadership of the regime and challenged the regime in its entirety, the individuals who appeared to be the leaders ofthe uprisingbecame more inclined to cut a deal with the status quo and at one point simply abated the movement and the public demands. In 2018, the uprising was not a byproduct of an internal power struggle. To the contrary, it wasa nail in the coffin of the myth of moderation.

From the outset, protesters’ slogans – which included chants of ‘down with Rouhani’ and ‘down with Khamenei’ – demonstrated an outright rejection of the status quo and the regime in its entirety. The slogan ‘no to reformer, no to hardliner, this game is over’ expressed a new awareness that differences between political factions in Iran are distinctions without a difference. The protests showed that the people of Iran detest both regime factions and want it to be overthrown in its entirety.

The protests propelled a new player into the Iranian political landscape: the people’s power. Very quickly it became evident that the demarcation was between the people on one side and the regime on the other.

Slogans like ‘no to Lebanon, no to Gaza, my life for Iran’ demonstrated that the people are rejecting the regime’s regional interference in addition to its domestic policy. (A full analysis of the slogans is provided below.)

Subsequent to 2009, in order to prevent a popular uprising, the IRGC had restructured and one division was designated to control each province (with the exception of Tehran,where two divisions were devoted for its control). Yet, the speed in the movement’s expansion overwhelmed the IRGC and it could not prevent or contain the unrelenting, pervasive, and geographically widespread protests for more than 10 days. This is despite the fact that after the second day, there was no element of surprise and virtually all the details of the protests including locations and times were announced in advance on social media.

It seems the myth of the invincibility of the IRGC has been proven false.

Though the protests began over increased prices for staple items such as eggs, not a single shop or private commercial entity was attacked. Rather, suppressive centers, government buildings, and offices of the Friday prayer leaders[6] – the very institutions that push the regime’s extremist, fundamentalist agenda – were targeted.

By some assessments, the “moderate” faction was the bigger loser in a sense that it became quite evident that they enjoy neither popular base and appeal nor political sway. When the former President Mohammad Khatami, who has been touted by some observers as a champion of “moderation” in the past decades, said “the youth who chanted harsh slogans were not ‘barandaz’ (the person who seeks the regime’s overthrow), rather they were simply protesting for their grievances,” the Iranian youth repudiated him fiercely in social media to a point that #براندازم (I am a barandaz) was rewetted more than 30,000 times in less than 24 hours.

Social media played a key role in organizing and also in making the activists aware of developments and status in other locations, towns and cities. As of July 2017, there were 48 million smart phones in Iran, a country of 80 million people.

Telegram is the king of messaging apps/social media in Iran with more than 40 million users. (Telegram has about 100 million users worldwide.)  According to government statistics, there are more than 586,000 Persian Telegram channels and in an average day more than 3 million messages are exchanged in these channels. The young people – undeterred by the regime’s brutality – used technology to mobilize the masses, open new fronts, and fight back, and the IRGC was stretched to contain the protests.

The role of women was quite dramatic and remarkable. Indeed, women have borne the brunt of repression for the 39 years of the mullahs’ rule. The compulsory veil, as well as subjugation and humiliation of women for failing to observe the veil, are among the most important means for the regime to impose repression on society.

The video clips coming from Iran showed that women wereat the forefront in many scenes and took the lead in charging at the security forces. A scene of a young woman standing at arm’s length from the guards and security forces in Hamedan and shouting in their faces “Death to Khamenei,” went viral on social media.

There were signs of alarm and concern even inside the IRGC and Bassij militia, on which the regime relies for its survival.A number of members of the Bassij burned their membership cards during the days of the uprising and joined the protesters.Some of the people killed by the regime’s forces during the protests were from Bassiji families.

Reaction in 2018 was very different than 2009, particularly where the U.S. is concerned.In 2009,President Obama remained very much indifferent to the protests while reaching out to the ayatollahs and hoping for a nuclear agreement. This was despite explicit calls by protesters who chanted, “Obama, Obama, either with them (i.e. ayatollahs) or with us.” But the Trump administration was emphatic in its support for the protesters and their demands from the moment it appeared that the protests represented a serious force and a challenge to the ayatollahs. President Trump in his State of Union address stated, “When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent.  America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.”

It appears the wall of fear in Iranian cities suffered cracks. This can be seen in the audacity and bravery of the young protesters and the continuation of protests by different sectors of society demanding their rights and welfare. Le Monde, the prominent French daily wrote in an article on March 3, 2018, “In Iran the fear has changed camp and the people are no longer fearful of the regime.”

The protesters’ slogans and the new choice

It is impossible to hold an opinion poll in a country like Iran,especially where it pertains to sensitive issues such as anti-government protests and the sentiment of the protesters. But one measure for assessingthe prevailing mood and sentiments of the protests is analysis of the slogans that are chanted. The most striking slogans which put an end to a long misguided perception in the West was, “reformists, hardliners, the game is over.” According to Zibakalam people have passed both the reformists and hardliners. This slogan symbolizes a new era in Iran’s political landscape. The choice in Iran is no longer “moderate” or “hardliners” but the ruling regime or regime change.

A review showed that some 130 slogans were used in the recent protests. While a number of them were used sporadically and in a few towns or cities, some including ‘Down with Khamenei,’ ‘Down with Rouhani,’ or ‘Down with the dictator’, were chanted in almost all the cities and towns that were the scenes of protests

There were 12 slogans such as ‘Down with the clerical regime,’ ‘We are determined to overthrow the regime,’ and ‘This is the last message, the goal is to bring down the regime,’ that called for the overthrow of the regime in its entirety.

Fourteen slogans such as ‘Khamenei is a killer, his rule is illegitimate’, ‘Khamenei be ashamed, abdicate power,’‘Seyed-Ali, it is time to go’ (referring to the first name of Khamenei), and “Down with Rouhani,’ targeted the leaders of the regime and both factions.

Eleven slogans emphasized patriotism and rejected the regime’s strategic policies, in particular meddling in affairs of other countries. Among them were ‘Leave Syria alone, think about us,’ ‘Down with Hezbollah,’ ‘No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran,’ and ‘Dignified Iranian, support, support.’

Eight of the slogans,including ‘We will fight to wrest back our country Iran’ and ‘Either death or freedom,’ referred to continuity of the protests.

One telling aspect of the slogans was that despite the protests taking place in several ethnic areas of Iran, including Kurdistan (northwest) and Balouchistan (southeast), there were no ethnic slogans and all were in tandem with the rest of the country, targeting the regime in its entirety. Many slogans emphasized the notion of Iran and the protesters’ affection for a unified Iranian identity.

Role of the opposition: Were the protests organized?

There are a number of significant issues surrounding the question of the protests’ leadership.

The prospects for repressing and containing a leaderless movement are much better, particularly for a regime like the one ruling in Iran that has shown no hesitancy in using brute force against its demanding citizenry. On the other hand, the chances of success are much higher for a movement that has established leadership and a clear plan. This factor is also significant so far as it pertains to the future course of events and providing an alternative to the status quo.

A key question was about the role of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as the Mujahedeen-e- Khalq (MeK).It has been a leading Iranian opposition group and its existence in the Iranian political landscape predates the clerical regime. The MeK espouses a democratic-anti fundamentalist perception of Islam and played a significant role in the opposition against the Shah that culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy on February 11, 1979.

Soon after the establishment of theocracy in Iran, the MeK stood up to the new regime and rejected its constitution as undemocratic. In the summer of 1980, the MeK staged several rallies in Tehran drawing up to 150,000 people to hear Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the MeK promise to carry on the opposition to Islamist domination[7]. It has been the primary target of the ruling fundamentalists since 1981. In the course of the past three decades, some 120,000 MeK activists from all walks of life and from all over Iran have been executed and a larger number have been incarcerated and persecuted.

In the course of the anti-regime demonstrations in 2009, many MeK supporters were arrested, and some were later executed.

Over the years, the MeK made key revelations on some of the most secret aspects of the Iranian regime’s nefarious conduct including exposing scores of the most important secret nuclear weapons sites and research facilities. The intelligence gathered by MeK operatives inside Tehran was ultimately corroborated by the UN watchdog, the IAEA.That intelligence pointed to the MEK’s network of activists including persons inside some of the most sensitive government intuitions. For anyone with the least knowledge of the Iranian regime’s modus operandi, it was evident that those operatives’ work involvedhuge risks.

While the fact that the MeK enjoyed a constant and formidable presence in Iran was irrefutable, the regime’s focus one liminating the MeK as its arch enemy has made itrather difficult to gauge the scope and extent of the MeK network.

It is somewhat easier to gauge the opposition’s appeal among the Iranian diaspora, a vibrant society of several million people. Historically, Iranians are not a migrating nation. The overwhelming majority of the Iranian diaspora is comprised of Iranians who fled Iran after the establishment of the clerical regime or were born elsewhere. Expatriates throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and even Asia are in constant contact with their homeland. Particularly in the age of communications, the mood among the Iranian diaspora is in a way reflective of the mood at home. The MEK has held massive rallies in Paris in recent years that have drawn more than 100,000 of their supporters from the world over.

In September 2016, after years of intense campaigning, the opposition was able to safely transfer its members, several thousand strong, from camps in Iraq to European countries, most notably Albania.  The opposition leaders and spokespersons pointed out that the transfer, in addition to being a major humanitarian success to guarantee the safety and security of opposition members, was a major strategic achievement. They reasoned this would free up the time and resources of the organized resistance to focus on affairs inside of Iran and on expanding its social base. But outsiders did not initially pay much heed to the opposition’s assessment.

Recent MeK efforts have focused on mobilizing public opinion in Iran on the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. The overwhelming majority of the victims, including juveniles and pregnant women, were MeK activists who rejected the regime’s demand to denounce their sympathy to the MeK and were executed subsequent to one or two minutes trials.

In April and May 2017, in the run-up to the Iranian presidential elections, the activities entered a new phase and the MeKactivists started to systematically place big pictures of Maryam Rajavi, on major highway overpasses and onwalls beside major streets. The MeK network had engaged in similar activities in previous years but the uptick in their frequency and scope was clear. Video clips showed banners and pictures of Rajavi placed in major cities including Tehran, Mashhad, Kermanshah, Shiraz, and Hamedan, as well as in some of the smaller provincial cities. In parallel, the network became active in exposing mullah Ibrahim Raissi, one of the two leading candidates who was one of the key officials involved in the 1988 massacre in Tehran.

Given the state of repression in Iran, it has been rather impossible for the MeKor any other genuine opposition groups to have any public presence in Iran. A key question has been the MeK’s appeal among the young generation, Nasl sevomi (literally meaning the third generation), or the millennials.

A new feature of MeK events in recent years, in particular in the past two years, has been the presence and activism of the youth. Some of them are Iranians who have been born or grown up in Western countries. But more remarkable has been the presence and appearance of MeK activists who have fled Iran recently.A number of them have been incarcerated for several years and have fled Iran subsequent to their release from prison.[8] This was a new phenomenon and a solid indicator that the MeK had made tangible strides in gaining the attention and recruiting the Iranian youth despite Tehran’s systematic and extensive demonization campaign against the MeK.

Some of the young activists had become familiar with the opposition through their relatives or immediate family. But according to their own accounts, and interviews with international media, a number of them had become acquainted to the MeK in recent years for the first time and had decided to join them. The new activists came mostly from urban middle class families but also from all over Iran. The high percentage of women among them was conspicuous.

As the protests broke out in Mashhad and a number of smaller towns on December 28, the MeK network was the first that broke the news and started sending updates and video clips from the protest scenes. Over the course of the following two weeks that the protests were at their peak, the MeKnetwork distributed around-the-clock news and clips that it received from its activists. The MeK network’s role in breaking the mullahs’ censorship was indisputable, and it persisted despite all the restrictions that Tehran imposed on the Internet and popular social media apps.

A number of MeK activists involved in organizing the protests took the risk of speaking to major international media from Tehran and from smaller towns. In one instance, Nik, a female MeK activist was interviewed by Fox News on January 10 while protesting with hundreds of relatives of detainees in front of the notorious Evin Prison in northern Tehran.

“Calls were given on our Telegram channels a few days before the demonstrations,” Mohammed, a 29-year-old engineering student from Tehran and a MeK activist told the UK’s Daily Telegraph on January 6.“We cover every protest, no matter how small. Some of the slogans that were shouted on the first day and were repeated were started by our friends on our networks,” he added.

The regime’s most senior officials repeatedly underscored the role of the MeK.

Hassan Rouhani called French President Emmanuel Macron on January 2and said the MeK was behind the protests in Iran and asked him to restrict the activities of the Iranian opposition. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the coalition that the MeK is its biggest constituent, is headquartered outside of Paris.

In a speech on January 9, Khamenei said, “These incidents had been organized.” The MeK implemented the plans. He added, “The MeK had prepared for this months ago” and “the MeK’s media outlets had called for it.” He said the MeK was at the apex of the triangle that incited the uprising. He attributed the other two angles to foreign powers.

Brig. Gen. Rasoul Sanai Rad, Political Affairs Deputy for the IRGC, provided the most detailed account of the role of the MeK. In his remarks “Role of the ‘hypocrites’ (the derogatory term used by the regime to describe MeK or PMOI) in recent uprisings” he said:

“Eighty percent of those arrested were under 30 years of age. There were several women among them, who are middle aged. In the 1980s, those who were leading MeK protests were mostly women. And now, the main chain of provocation and starting the protests were women. For example, four of these women caused the protests in the city of Ilam (western Iran). After they were detained, we realized they were not from Ilam…,”

“Similarly, those arrested in Kermanshah had come from the city of Karaj (near Tehran). Those who were from Bandar Abbas were arrested in Shiraz. These were the MeK who would go to the cities in an organized fashion and were guiding the slogans. The most radical and sacrilegious slogans, such as ‘they have used Islam as a ladder to harass the people, neither Islam, neither the Quran, let’s sacrifice both for Iran….

“This shows how much they hate Islam and political religion. Directing attacks on military centers, like assaults on the State Security Force and Bassij bases were part of the planning by the MeK. They even attacked the prisons, which means they have their hands in prisons as well.”

It is very difficult to imagine that the protests spread to 142 cities and that people chanted almost identical slogans without some sort of coordination and organization. It was telling that the protesters’ main slogans were the same as those advocated by the MeK for years.

The progress the MeK has made in recent years and remarks by the regime’s most senior officials all lead to the conclusion that the protests were not leaderless or unorganized. Rather, some sort of organization and coordination was involved and the MeK played a much more extensive and prominent role than might have been recognized from the outside.

Regarding future steps, the opposition has been advocating establishing secret centers of resistance in an attempt to unleash the potential of a disenchanted population that is willing to stand up to clerical rule, and to use the simmering situation in Iran in preparation for an uprising.  It has said that practical steps includejoining together large number of individuals who are currently scattered and disconnected, and encouraging people to invite the real hope that the mullahs can be brought down.

Is Iran destined for a crisis like the one in Syria?

Tehran’s advocates have tried to scare the international community from the eruption of an internal conflict and a repeat of the Syrian scenario in Iran. But the situation in Iran is very different than Syria or other countries in the region that experiencedthe Arab Spring. In those countries, the opposition was not organized and was nascent at its best. In Iran, the opposition has a well-definedstructure, a well-known leader and a declared platform and plan for transition. It has weatheredseveralstormsin the span of more thanthree decades and has shown remarkable resilience and perseverance.

As it pertains to Syria, if it were not for the Iranian regime’s full- fledged military and financial support and the direct intervention of the IRGC and its mercenaries, the Assaddictatorship would have been ousted several years ago and the situation would have been totally different.

The road ahead: Intensified conflict between the regime and the people

Tehran is facing serious financial, political and social challenges. The policy of denying people’s demands and outcries has failed. The policy of intervention in the region has run into a deadlock and exhausted its resources. Its adverse consequences are already felt inside the country. The factors that led to the protests are still in force, even aggravated and the regime does not have the power to address and solve them.

Abbas Abdi, one of the leading thinkers of the “reformists” acknowledged on February 3 that “there is no technical solution for the Iranian society. These solutions existed in the past, but currently such solutions do not exist.” That means that tackling the web of crises facing the clerical regime requires quick, substantial, and profound reforms.

The clerical regime seems incapable of major political reform and all signs indicate that Khamenei, who has the final say, is neither willing nor capable of serious reform,least of all after major social unrest, since this might lead to quicker unraveling of the system.

Yet, there is little doubt in Tehran that the protests will reoccur. Saeed Hajarian, one of the strategists of the “reformists” acknowledged on January 24, protests are like sea waves. They recede to return stronger.”

As well as being unable to prevent the resurgence of the uprisings,the mullahs have lost their duplicitous safeguards and can only depend on the repressive apparatus.

Even Khamenei recently acknowledged the continuation of the protests. He said, “This is a battle of the nation against anti-nation, the battle of Iran against anti-Iran, and the battle of Islam against anti-Islam and it will henceforth continue.”

It can be stated unequivocally that Iranian society will not return to the conditions preceding the 2018 protests, and the clerical regime seems incapable of returning to the status quo ante regarding its balance of power vis-a vis the population.It is in a weaker position than any other time.

This means that the confrontation between the people of Iran and the ruling regime will intensify and the power struggle among the regime’s internal factions will be aggravated.

Sadegh Zibakalam described the prospect in this way: “I am fearful that in the next round… there is no way to contain these people. If this happens, this fire will burn all of us together.”

 

[1] Tehran has acknowledged that a number of prisoners have died during detention but claims they have committed suicide during detention, a claim that has strongly been rejected by the relatives of the protesters and have been questioned even by some of the regime’s own officials.

[2] Primary Causes of Poverty and Popular Uprisings in Iran: The Enormous Cost of the Regime’s Warmongering, Terrorism and Domestic Suppression”, Report by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, January 2018

[3] According to Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a former Vice Speaker of the Majlis, average annual inflation rate after 1979 has been 20 percent and the unemployment has always been on double digits. (State0run Fars news agency, August 8, 2017)

[4] Caspian Finance and Credit Institution, www.caspianci.ir was one of the major financial institutions that was involved in this scheme.

[5] Enghelab Avenue is one of the main Avenues in central Tehran and in a way separates lower class people in southern part of Tehran from the more affluent residents of northern Tehran.

[6] According to regime officials, people attacked the offices of 60 Friday prayer leaders throughout the country.

[7] Breaking the Stalemate, The Case for Engaging the Iranian Opposition, study by Mettis Analytics, a Washington, DC-based research company, March 2015.

[8] Farzad Madadzadeh, Shabnam Madadzadeh, Arash Mohammadi, and Paria Kohandel, were among the young MeK activists who had fled Iran in the past couple of years and appeared in public.

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the incoming Executive Director of the School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. For the past eight years, Sheehandirected the graduate programs in Global Affairs & Human Security and Negotiations & Conflict Management in the College of Public Affairs. An award-winning scholar, Sheehan has been influential in shaping Washington’s thinking on the prospect of a democratic transition in Iran and is the author of more than fifty articles in prominent news outlets and academic journals. Learn more about his scholarship on terrorism, counterterrorism, and regime change in Iran at www.professorsheehan.comand follow updates via @ProfSheehan.

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Why is Iran meeting with Arab Gulf States?

Irina Tsukerman

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KSA and UAE differences on Syria and Yemen: Reasonable Differences or a Clash?

How the Media Created an Impression of a Major Rift and Widened Misunderstandings

In recent months, Western media has bombarded the policymakers with rumors about an alleged divide inside the Arab Coalition, the supposedly irreconcilable differences that are driving UAE and KSA towards an inevitable and irreversible drift, dooming their effort in Yemen.  Indeed, the countries have individual national security concerns that have at times pushed them to focus on some issues while others remained an apparently more urgent concern for their counterpart.

However, much of the current discourse about divisions between the Gulf states has been fueled by a campaign focus on exploiting and exaggerating real divisions to the detriment of all, rather than bringing the countries back to the same page and strengthening their partnership with the United States. That goes against the Iran and Muslim Brotherhood agenda in driving the Coalition – and especially the US – out of Yemen, as soon as possible.

For that reason, mutual recriminations and attacks have been encouraged, and the situation has been portrayed in the most dire terms. Indeed, if the divide continues, it will only strengthen t he Muslim Brotherhood influence in Yemen, and give further fodder to assorted terrorist groups and Iran-induced chaos. To avoid that possibility, the US government should stop listening to what appears to be a clearly divisive political campaign and instead take the time to understand the positions of each country.  US leadership may soon discover that the apparent differences are far from irreconcilable, and that UAE and KSA ultimately wish for a stable region and are both against any sort of radicalism or fanaticism.

The Arabic language media wars between the various columnists from the two states has not been helpful either. Rather than attacking each other and mounting potentially baseless accusations, these analysts would do well to emphasize common ground as well as use the power of their keyboards to clarify the nature of the misunderstandings and to elucidate their countries’ positions in a rational way that will help arrive at common sense solutions – already evident in some of the discourse emerging from both sides.

Perceived Differences,  Unexplained, Are Played Up Causing Confusion

In the midst of tensions between Iran and the United States in the Gulf – tensions which involve oil smuggling, attacks on and hijacking of tankers, and the downing of drones – Iran appears to be pursuing a parallel diplomatic track with some of the regional stakeholders.

Iran’s recent meeting with UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed generated a great deal of discussion and controversy; meetings with Qatari officials, on the other hand, went by largely unnoticed. Is UAE really looking to abandon Saudi Arabia in its stand off against the ayatollahs?  And what is Tehran ultimately seeking to accomplish?

The rare visit by UAE officials to Iran came in the context of other developments, which have raised questions about the possible fissions within the Anti-Terrorism Quartet.

While visiting Moscow after the May attacks on Emirati and Saudi oil tankers, Abdullah bin Zayed refused to name Iran as the culprit, which to many signaled UAE distancing itself from the more confrontational position taken by the United States and Saudi Arabia, as reported by Tom O’Connor in Newsweek on June 26, 2019.  This development came after UAE and Bahrain split from Saudi Arabia in reestablishing diplomatic relations with Syria’s pro-Iran Bashar al-Assad; although even with Russia’s lobbying on Syria’s behalf, there was not enough support to readmit Syria into the Arab League as explained by Youssef Igrouane in Inside Arabia on February 27, 2019. The discussion on whether reopening embassies in Damascus would “normalize” al-Assad, and whether al-Assad, who already was receiving limited political support from Egypt vis-a-vis Turkey, as explained by the author and Mohammed Maher in Modern Diplomacy on May 6, 2019,  was considered a fait accomplit for Syria for the time being by some of the pragmatists in the Arab world and thus the reestablishment of diplomatic relationship was at that point merely a formality acknowledging that Assad is there to stay remains an open question. Was Saudi Arabia being “unreasonable” in refusing to restore relations with Assad, where the other three members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet chose to pursue a different path? And did that decision create or further divisions between Riyadh and the other three countries? Or was this step merely a reasonable and agreed upon approach given the differences in the countries’ interests, that did not affect much their cooperation on other points?

The reality is, in fact, it was a bit of both. For Saudi Arabia, Iran is a central and existential danger. Although KSA’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had articulated that Iran, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey are part of a triangle of evil, in terms of policy, Saudi Arabia clearly has prioritized opposing Iran over complete eradication of the other two “sides” of the triangle. Although the Saudi government has gone to great lengths to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from within the country, it has cooperated with the Islamist brigades that are fighting on behalf of the Yemeni government as a a part of the Arab Coalition against the Houthi terrorists in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, despite tensions with Turkey, which escalated after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, retained diplomatic relations with Ankara, and although there has been a limited boycott of some Turkish products, the majority of Saudi investments have remained in place. Turkey remains a political challenge to Saudi Arabia’s interests in Middle East and Africa; Erdogan is looking for Sunni primacy through populist Islamism, and has invested heavily in various operations in Africa and Asia, to counter Saudi soft power with defense and humanitarian investments.

How Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood overshadow Iran threat for UAE

However, Erdogan has also suffered recent defeats and setbacks, primarily through the fall of his ally Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, and through the stalemate in Libya.  Turkey is a political threat to Saudi Araabia’s influence; however, Erdogan has suffered political blows inside the country, such as the loss of his candidate in Istanbul, the economic fallout from the rising tensions with the United States, and other problems. For that reason, while Erdogan may be a longer-term concern, (any nationalist, even without Erdogan’s Islamists connection, in pursuit of a renewed Ottoman empire will not be looked upon kindly), he is not an immediate existential threat. Furthermore, most of his Arab following comes solely on the basis of his strongman, anti-Israel, anti-American image, but will not likely remain loyal to a non-Arab leader with a vision of reimposition of the Ottoman system from which many of their ancestors have suffered.

Saudi Arabia views Erdogan’s incursions into Syria quite negatively; however, Assad has become increasingly dependent on Iran as a result of the civil war, and Iranian presence in Syria has grown substantially.  Where the various jihadist and Muslim Brotherhood factions are mere annoyances used by state actors to attack each other, Assad is opening doors to Iran’s ideological and political influence, in addition to a military build up and the building of “land bridges” that will facilitate the influx of fighters and weapons into the area. From that perspective, and given the Saudis’ concern with countering that threat above all, not cooperating with Assad in any substantial way makes perfect sense. Turkey is unlikely to take over Syria completely; however much damage it can cause with its presence, Assad is likely to retain control over most of the country. Quite simply, Assad and Iranians are the stronger forces.

For UAE, however, the analysis was quite different, as its tensions with Turkey have intensified over time, with the arrests of UAE-based Palestinian workers (one of whom was found dead and disemboweled in a Turkish jail cell), attacks on Emirati bases in Somalia by Turkey and Qatar-backed militias, as explained by the New York Times on July 22, 2019, as well as Turkey’s support for the Arab Spring, which threatened UAE, a relatively small country, as well as Bahrain, which nearly suffered a coup, as well as the view of the UAE, that Turkey’s incursions into Syria represents an attack on the sovereignty of Arab lands, as written by Bilo Biskan for the Middle East Institute on May 1, 2019.

Erdogan’s support for Muslim Brotherhood and his backing of UAE’s regional rival, Qatar, contributed significantly to this deterioration in relations, as well as a perception of an immediate attack on UAE’s interests.  Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological proclivities have received a zero-tolerance treatment from Abu Dhabi, which has supported Southern separatists in Yemen and has had disagreements with Saudi Arabia over cooperation with the Islamist brigades within the Coalition. Furthermore, UAE has spared no expense in lobbying efforts and backing think tanks in the West to counter Qatari and Turkish backing of the spread of ISlamist ideology, whereas Saudi Arabia has taken a step back from involvement in these ideological battles.

By contrast, Dubai has had a sizeable Iranian community and while UAE has sided with Saudi Arabia against Iran politically, its trade relations with Iran are lively and ongoing. UAE was one of the eight countries to receive a temporary waiver for oil trade with Iran from the United States; the exports from UAE to Iran are four times the number of imports.  UAE considers Iran a threat; it has largely withdrawn its forces from Yemen in response to the increasing tensions in the Gulf and to secure its own citizens from any potential attacks by Iranian forces. However, ultimately, countering Turkey and Sunni ISlamists in Syria may simply have been more of a political priority, and if Assad did not present a direct threat to the Arab states, from UAE perspective, having modest political presence in the country could be beneficial to ensuring that other Emirati interests in countering additional primary threats could be protected.

By the same token, Emirati and Bahraini presence in Syria could be the bridge to keep Saudi Arabia informed and its interests observed if only by proxy. In either case, this minor presence inside the country might not ultimately make much of a difference, particularly if Syria remains outside the Arab League and otherwise largely isolated by the coalition members. From the Western perspective, however, these pragmatic differences that ultimately may not matter all that much on the strategic level of countering primary threats by the ATQ may signal to the West a deepening rift within the Quartet, which makes formulating coherent policy by the White House, already fraught with internal controversies  and contradictions, still more difficult. If, for whatever reasons, some of the Arab partners are staunchly opposed to any convergence with Assad, whereas others find any compromise with Turkey unacceptable while limited dialogue with Assad appears to be not only within reason, but essential to making progress, no matter what the White House ends up doing in Syria, one or more of the parties will be dissatisfied with the outcome.

Recent clashes in Aden expose and exacerbate fissions inside the Arab Coalition, alarming the West

Yemen further complicates the situation. UAE withdrawal, although allegedly coordinated, has been largely interpreted by the Western press, the cadre of analysts, and the political establishment as a significant difference, if not a rift, among the Coalition members. Increasingly, from Western perspective, Saudi Arabia appears to be isolated, and the war, at least in the manner it is being handled today, hopeless and chaotic. Although the Trump administration has recognized the dangers from various non-State actors inside Yemen, as well as Iran’s role in backing the Houthis, the White House has not deemed it necessary either to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, even after multiple, and in some cases, lethal attacks on Saudi civilian sites, nor has it pushed for a new AUMF that would allow combat troops to counter Hizbullah and Houthi forces in addition to Al Qaeda and ISIS.  While the White House appears to count on the Saudis to settle the issue, the situation is complicated by the UAE-backed separatists who have intervened in Aden, demanding independence.

The Houthis, at the same time, demanded the expulsion of the Sunni Islamist fighters and separatists as reported in The Daily Star on August 15, 2019. The talks over managing and settling the new conflict in Saudi Arabia appear to be thwarted by the refusal of the various parties to compromise on the solution. The Islamists, from the Saudi perspective, appear to be a necessary lesser evil to counter the Hizbullah trained Houthis; furthermore, the Yemeni government has taken a step back , with the Saudis shouldering most of the burden.  UAE has attempted to mediate between the Southern Transitional Council writes Bel Trew for The Independent on August 14, 2019, and the other parties in an attempt to avoid further violent clashes.

However, so long as the separatists feel they have backing there appears to be no reason for them not to continue taking advantage of the seeming splintering among the allies to push their own agenda.  The optics of it all are chaotic, and the only party benefiting is Iran, which thrives on mayhem and divisions among anyone who opposes Tehran’s agenda. The natural question of course arises is why would UAE continue backing a group that clearly has less of an interest  in broader agenda of the coalition than pushing for its own bid that could only strengthen Iran’s goal.

The Houthis which largely reside in the lesser developed Northern part of Yemen seek continuity into the South. Dividing the country which had been held together, albeit imperfectly, under Ali Saleh, would not change the goals of Iran, the Houthis, or the various other terrorist groups on the ground, and would only create additional political complexities on top of the existing military and humanitarian difficulties. Furthermore, the unseemly vision of UAE forces clashing with the Saudi-backed forces in Aden and elsewhere are already being exploited by Iran for propaganda value and to create additional tensions and distrust between UAE and KSA.

Contradictory Coverage of the UAE Meeting with Iran Underscores the Role of Information Warfare

Putting aside these considerations for a moment, it is worth examining the dynamics between UAE and Iran outside Yemen. Of course, the meetings between the officials were spun very differently by the pro-Iran media and former Obama officials, now firmly ensconced in the Western foreign policy establishment, and the Gulf responders.  Much of the Western media covered the story as a political rapprochement between Iran and UAE, a political and diplomatic victory to Tehran, and a heavy blow to KSA, which is being stabbed in the back in the midst of a crisis. as reported by Washington Post on July 31, 2019. The Gulf press, on the other hand, disputed the version of significant maritime security agreements that would position UAE as having bought off its own safety in exchange for throwing Saudis under the bus, and instead pointed out that the meetings were routine and focused on relatively trivial fishing issues that do not affect the larger calculus nor change the nature of the relationship.

See for example Khaleej Times coverage on July 31, 2019. One can argue whether such coverage is merely a face saving measure by the ATQ in light of this turn of events; a cynical viewer could even make claim that UAE withdrawal from Yemen had less to do with the apparently hopelessness of the situation or the threat emanating from Iran than with some secret backchannel dialogue with Iran, which would preserve or even grow the trade relationship between the countries in exchange for the PR victory UAE would grant Iran by withdrawing its relatively small forces from Yemen (without necessarily ceasing its backing for the Southern forces). That interpretation would make sense if indeed the more significant nature of the meeting between the two countries were confirmed. However, following the Aytollah Khamenei’s public support for the Houthis, UAE officials publically linked Iran with the Houthis, which Iran had previously denied as Arab News points out on August 14, 2019.

Furthermore, the Emiratis and the Saudis accused Qataris and Turkish media of deliberately fabricating non-existent details to advance Iran’s agenda of creating divisions where there are not any, and fomenting tensions between the close allies, which have consistently pushed for diplomacy and opposed military confrontation with Iran as Radio Farda reported on August 3, 2019. Regardless of what is actually going on behind the scenes, however, neither version of events ultimately answers the question of what exactly Iran is hoping to achieve through this chain of events. Of course, it may have achieved a propaganda victory against the ATQ through the gossipy coverage which exploits or creates differences between UAE and KSA.

How does Iran benefit from the controversy over UAE meeting?

Certainly, whatever the actual reason for UAE’s withdrawal, it is to Iran’s advantage to have fewer people opposing the HOuthis in Yemen, particularly if they do not also change the strategy to become more effective in countering the ground forces with the intimate knowledge of the land and far greater information warfare skills. And most definitely, even a very minor meeting with Emirati officials, sends a strong signal to the rest of the world that Iran is a “reasonable” country that looks to cooperate with its neighbors if not major issues than on routine ones, and that the view of it as a regional aggressor with nothing of value to offer to the region is at the very least exaggerated. In other words, even if from a practical perspective it made sense for the Emiratis to meet with Iranians and to address diplomatically whatever is possible to address, it very likely was a mistake to agree to do so during a public visit to Iran rather than in some neutral and benign location.

The most likely view of the situation by Iran is as follows: regardless of UAE’s interests in the matter, it is clear that Iran has its geopolitical agenda of dominating the region and rebuilding the Persian empire, however long that will take. UAE, most likely, is not its primary target, as Iran has been consistent in pushing for the creation of a “Shi’a crescent”, and UAE simply would not fall into that category. Furthermore, at the current juncture, Iran needs all the financial help it can get, and attacking its trading partner’s territory does not make sense until such point as Tehran has secured its positions sufficiently elsewhere. Attacks on tankers will not warrant much of an international reaction, but a direct attack on UAE could be altogether different.

Likewise, Iran has no intention of stopping Houthi or Iraqi militia attacks against the Saudis; if anything, for the first time Iran’s reach to its proxies is sufficiently strong that it can now coordinate among these different bodies without facing much of a response from the US or anybody else.  However, creating and fomenting distrust among all allies, and making the White House confused and cross with all the parties involved, ruining any possibility of creating some version of an Arab NATO, and ensuring that no coordinated political action, such as a blockade, can be taken against its own interests is the most likely aim of all of this maneuvering.  The meeting with UAE may not have been of much strategic value in and of itself; particularly if Iran had no intention of attacking UAE to begin with, securing maritime agreements would be rather a symbolic and useless step. All agreements can be violated in a blink of an eye if Iran so chooses, as some have discovered through the folly of the nuclear deal.

However, creating the optics of a meeting and a dispute has furthered the tribalist differences Iran has long since alleged against its rivals, ensuring  that any future steps in the Gulf area may not encounter an unanimous response, because some may feel more invested in preserving a potential symbolic defense than others. If UAE believes that the rapprochement with Iran, even a minor one, is to its benefit in protecting it from physical harm, it will be less likely to be vocal in pushing for additional measures against Iran, and could be even used to oppose further tough actions by the United States, if it ever chooses to launch a military strike for instance.

UAE may not view the situation that way at all; for all anyone knows, the sole point of that expedition was to determine that Iran, once again is playing games, check off this last-resort attempt at peacemaking from the list, and go on business as usual in close coordination with Saudi Arabia. But UAE’s intentions here are irrelevant to Iran; most of this charade is aimed at generating panic among the Gulf masses and to for the benefit of the West, that will now be less sure of its Arab allies because they appear to be splintered, hedging their bets in light of Trump’s relative inaction, or else untrustworthy even towards each other, as some are already alleging. Iran may have engineered the entire situation for the benefit of the West and to create further distrust in the Arab allies and their ability and willingness to advance effective anti-Iran agenda and their overall worth to the United States.

Qatar meeting with Iran may underscore Qatar’s support for Iran agenda in Yemen

As for the meeting with Qatar?  FM Zarif, recently sanctioned by the United States, notably visited with Qatari officials right after visit by a Houthi official as reported by The National, on August 11, 2019.. NOt only is Iran flagrantly demonstrating the depth of its relationship with the Houthis, but it is now fairly open about Qatar’s support not merely for some trade with Iran  in light of the boycott by the ATQ, but Qatar’s support for Iran’s political positions and agenda in the region, which includes the backing of the Houthis. The de facto finance minister of the Houthis was killed during the factional clashes in Sanaa, but the HOuthis blamed his death on the US. Houthis, too, appear to be experiencing infighting. One of their leaders may have been killed during a power struggle. Qatar, which is right across from Iran has a front row view of the attacks on the Emirati and Saudi tankers; it also shares a gas field with Iran.

Despite Qatar’s stated concerns over Iran’s supposed threat, none of Qatari sites or tankers have been attacked by Iran or any of its proxies. Left out from the background to the meeting is  that Qatar has retained ties to both the Houthis and the Islah (ISlamist) brigades in Yemen, funding and backing both sides of the war, though ultimately the ISlamists are hostile to Saudi and Emirati interests in Yemen, writes Samuel Ramani in Al Monitor on November 19, 2018. Qatar’s support for the anti-Houthi Islamists has not appeared to have alarmed Iran, because this step ultimately only creates further friction between the Saudis and Emiratis and further advances Iran’s agenda. In other words, Iran is happy to have a fifth column inside the Arab Coalition, without which, nevertheless, countering the Houthis is unimaginable for lack of sufficient forces with knowledge of the physical landscape, especially after withdrawal by many of the other former Coalition members (including Egyptians, Moroccans, and Sudanese, and now the loss of most Emirati fighters).

However, the meeting with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani has not raised much interest in the Western press, primarily because it is a dog bites man situation and there is less controversy to be explored. The meeting very well may have been planned to coordinate the agenda on Yemen, and certainly on the information warfare campaign in smearing the Arab Coalition members, and setting them up against one another. It is a shame that none in the press have stepped away from sensationalism to ask deeper, more troubling questions about this steadily growing relationship and Qatar’s apparent support and approval of Iran’s backing of the Houthis and their terrorist activity. Instead, they have focused on exploiting perceived divisions and fueling attacks against the allies in Yemen, with the hope of undermining their mutually important relationship and their partnership with the US. 

UAE and KSA should ignore such provocations; instead of playing into the hands of adversarial propaganda, they should issue joint statements emphasizing common goals on the ground; then quietly sit down and hammer out the challenges that have prevented them from unifying behind the same forces. As mentioned above, there is already evidence that much of that has been caused by miscommunication and social pressures of various types, rather than any bad intent or blind unwillingness to embrace the strategically sound positions.  However, if there is anything to be learned from these episodes is that Iran is a ruthlessly deceptive and calculating manipulator which will go to any lengths to clear its path to dominance, and that no matter the priorities and the political differences, the members of the ATQ should not fall for its dirty tricks.

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Death of female Iranian soccer fan puts FIFA and Asian soccer body in the dock

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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photo: IRNA

When Sahar Khodayari this week set herself alight in front of a Tehran courthouse, she indicted world soccer body FIFA, its Asian regional group, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and their presidents, Gianni Infantino and Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

Messrs. Infantino and Al Khalifa have been selective in their support for women’s soccer rights.

Mr. Infantino was in the White House to urge US president Donald J. Trump to endorse equal pay for male and female players on the same day that FIFA expressed regret at the death of Ms. Khodayarí, but did nothing to force Iran to lift its ban on women attending male sporting events.

The statement called on Iranian authorities “to ensure the freedom and safety of any woman engaged in this legitimate fight to end the stadium ban for women in Iran” but failed to exert a price for continued maintenance of the ban.

Dubbed Blue Girl, a reference to the colour of her favourite, storied Tehran soccer team, Esteghlal FC, Ms. Khodayari, put herself on fire after hearing by-standers speculate that the Revolutionary Court could that day sentence her to two years in prison for “openly committing a sinful act by appearing in public without hijab” and “insulting officials.”

Ms. Khodayari was charged after being stopped by security in March as she sought to enter Tehran’s Azadi stadium dressed as a man to watch Esteghlal play an AFC Asian Cup match against the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ain FC.

Ms. Khodayari’s disguise is standard practice for activist female soccer fans in a football-crazy country that has the questionable honour of being the world’s only nation to bar women from attending male sporting events.

Saudi Arabia, the only other country that long maintained a similar ban, abolished the restriction in 2017 as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social reforms.

In a wave of outrage on Twitter under the hashtag #Blue_Girl, Iranian deputy telecommunications minister Amir Nazemi thundered: “The death of #blue_girl is a conviction for all of us.”

Mulanim, another tweeter, went a step further, pointing fingers at FIFA. “Sahar Khodayari burnt herself to death in protest. When would you actually do something? @FIFAcom #fifawwc,” she tweeted.

Taken together, the two tweets put responsibility on the Iranian government for its discrimination of women and on global and regional soccer governors for allowing Iran to get away with it.

FIFA announced this week that it was sending a delegation to Iran to monitor Iranian moves to allow women to attend World Cup qualifying matches.

The problem is that FIFA has exerted punitive pressure only regarding World Cup matches rather than threatening to ban Iran from all international soccer events if it fails to completely lift the ban.

FIFA’s push on World Cup matches could open the door to a complete lifting of the ban. Past experience, however, suggests that Iran could well treat granting women fans access to World Cup matches as an exception that confirms the rule.

FIFA and the AFC are missing an opportunity to potentially force Iran to lift the ban given that barring Iranian participation in international tournaments would add to the government’s woes at a time that it is struggling to dampen the impact of harsh US economic sanctions designed to persuade Iran to renegotiate the 2015 agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

The sanctions were imposed last year after Mr. Trump withdrew from the agreement.

Speaking to reporters, government spokesman Ali Rabiei suggested that a threat by FIFA to exclude Iran from international matches could push the country’s rulers over the hump.

The government’s general view is to allow women to enter football stadiums, and infrastructure is needed for women’s presence in stadiums,” Mr. Rabiei said.

Ms. Khodayari’s self-immolation alongside the refusal by an Iranian judoka to withdraw from the 2019 Judo World Championships in Japan on orders of the government sparked a Twitter hashtag, #BanIRSportsFederations, that this month has been used tens of thousands of times.

Taking the call for a ban on Iranian participation in international tournaments and their qualifiers literally, Ali Karimi, a past Asian footballer of the year and top Iranian player opted to lead the way and set an example for FIFA and the AFC.

Mr. Karimi advised his 4.5 million followers on Instagram that he would boycott soccer matches in protest against the ban on women. His post was liked more than 100,000 times in less than 30 minutes.

Amir Etemadi, a liberal activist, seconded Mr. Karimi’s decision, tweeting that “it is time to boycott Iranian sports globally and domestically.”

The , #BanIRSportsFederations hashtag constituted a protest against government interference, a no-no under the rules that govern global sports governance and insist on maintaining a largely fictitious separation of sports and politics.

The online protest was sparked when top-ranking judoka Saeid Mollaei said he feared for his safety because he had rejected a demand to withdraw from the tournament in Japan to avoid the risk of having to face an Israeli athlete.

Mr. Mollaei was spared facing the Israeli after being defeated in the semi-final.

Iran extends its refusal to recognize Israel to barring its athletes from competing against Israelis in international tournaments – a violation of rules governing those competitions.

“State interference in sport competitions is not acceptable. But, somehow IslamicR(epublic). has been practicing it for many years without facing its consequences,” tweeted Iranian sculptor Azin Sadati-Schmutzer.

Said Human Rights Watch: ‘FIFA’s long delay in enforcing its own rules means the ban continues and leaves the brave women and girls in Iran who challenge the ban exposed to harassment, beatings and arrests by the Iranian authorities.”

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Yemen Conflict and OIC: The role of the powerful states

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Authors: Muhammad Rizwan and Tajjalla Munir*

Yemen is an important Muslim state located on southern border of Saudi Arabia. It is situated adjacent to Red Sea, which is most important trade route between East and West .Despite its important geographical location Yemen is not on the path of prosperity. In fact it is plunged into civil war which had destroyed the country. Thousands of people had been died so far and million have been replaced in the last few years of the conflict.

Internal conflict Yemen is a long story now, it was present during the time of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Roots of it can be found in the in conflict of 1962 when Zaydi Shia Imam was removed from power, who was ruling the country since many decades. Houthi’s claimed that when Imam removed from power they were not given equal opportunities. Resentment was always present in different sections of Houthi population but a full scale campaign against government started in 2014. (Key facts about the war in Yemen, 2018)

Many local Sunni fighters those who were not happy with the policies of President Hadi joined hands with Houthi rebels. President Hadi fled to southern city of Aden from where he left Yemen.

Houthis victory in Sana produced a major concern for Saudi Arabia who saw it as result of expansionist policies adopted by Iran. Saudis believe that the Houthi rebels are supported and funded by Iran. Saudi Arabia started air strikes targeting Houthis, along with its allies who are mostly Arab States,. They were supported logistically by US, UK and France. These extra regional powers are also sharing intelligence information with Saudi led coalition.. Houthis are pushed out from capital Sana but still they are controlling large swathes of land. (Yemen crisis: Why is there a war?, 2018)

Continuous fighting has produced terrifying humanitarian crisis in Yemen. While rebels are determined that they will not stop fighting until they can completely overthrow president Hadi’s government. Saudi Arabia is doing its best to crush these rebels. It has used even cluster bombs to stop the rebels advance. Local Yemeni population is suffering a lot due to this relentless fighting between two parties.

This prolonged war in Yemen has produced a severe humanitarian crisis. Ever since the start of the conflict more than 15000 thousand people have been killed and almost 3 million people are forced to leave their home; 22.5 million are in need for humanitarian aid. If aid is not be provided to them we might see a famine in near future. Due to air and naval blockade by Saudis led coalition forces it is very difficult for international organizations to supply food and other supplies to Yemeni people. (YEMEN: THE FORGOTTEN WAR)

This worsening situation in Yemen have put some serious question on credibility of OIC. Organization of Islamic conference (OIC) which is now termed as organization of Islamic cooperation is second largest intergovernmental organization in the world after United Nation. It consists, a total of 57 Islamic Countries. Idea for establishing an organization for Islamic Countries was put forward during Islamic Conference of Rabat in 1969.Basic purpose for the creation of OIC is to secure an independent state for Palestinian people. But it has included many other subjects in the agenda as well. That includes more cooperation between Muslim states, conflict management among them and to have a common voice on issues of mutual interest. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two most important countries of this organization because of their geopolitical position and as leaders of the two most important sects of Islam. (Johnson, 2010)

Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which always had supported solidarity in the Muslim world and had also tried to mediate between Shia-Sunni conflicts, is now taking side. It is the most important reason that OIC is failed to solve Yemen conflict.OIC is continuously supporting Saudis .Saudi Arabia is a dominant state in the Muslim world and also in the OIC. Domination of Saudi Arabia in OIC has few imperative reasons.

First of all Saudi Arabia is a leading state of Arab League and Arab Leagues have strong block in OIC. So if OIC wants to take any decision it should respect the best interests of Arab States. Secondly, Saudi Arabia who is birth place of Islam, is exploiting its religious position for it political purposed. Every Muslim, even he is present in any part of the world will always show sympathy for Saudi Arabia because of the holy places of Islam are present there. They have also made The Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition. Its primary purpose is to counter terrorism but Saudi Arabia is using it for its own geopolitical benefits. It consist total of 41 states and most of them are part of OIC .Thus anything done by this alliance cannot be condemned by OIC because most of OIC members are part of this alliance. This military alliance had carried out many deadly air strikes in Yemen. Despite the claims that they are targeting only terrorist groups many times it resulted in civilian causalities too. But we have not seen any condemnation by OIC about these attacks.

Last but not the least Saudi Arabia is providing huge sum of money to OIC to carry out its activities. Current Secretary General of OIC is also Saudi national .His name is Madni who was formerly serving at position of minister of culture and information. Due to Saudi dominance in OIC has been supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen conflict. During 2016 summit of OIC it has accused Iran of promoting terrorism in the region especially in Yemen. (Ilishev, 2016) But this resolution was silent on human rights abuses by Saudi led coalition forces in Yemen. This is now routine work of OIC members to condemn Houthis and their supporter in Yemen but paying no attention to humanitarian crisis. As in 2018 they have again urged international community to take serious action against Houthi and their masters’ .but still deep silence on humanitarian crisis.(AL-KHUDAIR, 2018)

Pakistan’s former ambassador to Iran once said that “OIC is now dead and Muslim countries should find a new organization for the settlements of their disputes”. (OIC ‘dead’; Pakistan, Iran need find new Muslim alliance: diplomat, 2017)Prevailing situation in Yemen is reflecting his statement. Infect OIC had a negative role in Yemen. This situation also demonstrates that how great powers use International Organization for their own vested interests.

*Tajjalla Munir is research scholar of MS International Relations at COMSATS University Islamabad

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