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Donald Trump’s Iran policy and the global order

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This is a conversation between Dr.Sajad Abedi from Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth and Dr.Payam mohseni from Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Dr.Payam Mohseni is Iran Project Director & Fellow for Iran Studies in Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Are you surprised by the choice of Donald Trump?

The election of President Donald Trump was never out of the question and he clearly presented a strong electoral threat to the American political establishment–whether to the Democratic or Republican parties. His election, therefore, while surprising, was always in the realm of possibility especially as popular disillusionment against the current state of affairs grew. While the election was shocking to the majority of political analysts in the United States and the world, a longer view of America’s history reveals that anti-establishment candidates have been elected at critical junctures, including perhaps most prominently Andrew Jackson who features on the $20 bill and whose portrait Trump displayed in the oval office shortly after assuming the presidency.

Trump was anti-establishment in both the primaries and the final elections. We have to remember that Trump was spurned by the Republican political elite and opposed by most of the top leadership yet was able to sweep the primaries within his own party, defying the odds against him, before moving on to the general elections where he was financially and institutionally outmatched by Hillary Clinton by a wide margin. That being said, Trump did lose the popular vote by about three million votes and his election does reveal a serious divide within the American electorate and increasing polarization of world views in the country.

Finally, Trump also represents a unique blend of populism and capitalism which is specific to the American context. Historically and even in contemporary times, populism and capitalism do not run hand in hand but Trump was able to simultaneously show himself as champions of both.

What is the meaning of this choice for America’s role in the world?

Trump strongly critiqued American commitments abroad, including the war in Iraq as well as America’s security subsidies provided through NATO. He also critiqued global trade agreements such as NAFTA passed under the Clinton administration which he saw as betraying the American worker for cheaper labor abroad. He promised to put “America first” which means have other countries bear the costs and burdens of upholding global security. However, at the same time, he has surrounded himself with hardline advisors and appointed officials to head the Defense Department and CIA who are known for their aggressive posture towards Iran and policy in the Middle East.

In short, Trump’s policies are partly contradictory and not fully cogent. His critique of American involvement in the sovereign affairs of other countries and anti-liberal cultural stance contradicts his privileging of a hawkish foreign policy team and much of his other bellicose rhetoric. These are currently competing elements that must find an uneasy equilibrium in his administration. I suspect that his policies will be largely ad-hoc and shifting with a strong tilt towards brinkmanship in the Middle East but with a simultaneous desire not to get bogged down in yet another expensive war in the region. His balancing act of these two sides will be determinative of his overall foreign policy.

What is your biggest worry about global stability due to this choice?

This is an important stage in global order and security and the long term effects of Trump’s policies will not be seen for a while. For the near future, global institutions are here to stay: the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and IMF are still supreme players, the world’s largest economic powers (America, China, the EU, Japan, etc.) have stable relations and capitalist-based economic systems, and American security umbrellas stretch across the entire world including SE Asia, the Persian Gulf, and much of Europe.

Trump believes that America is subsidizing this system at far too steep a cost and wants his global partners to share more of the burden. Whether this will fundamentally deter and undermine the current international order is yet to be seen but it seems unlikely that Trump’s policies alone will contribute to the undermining of global stability as it is currently understood. There are larger forces at play than Trump’s election which will affect global stability in the near future. In addition to the structural implications the Trump presidency will have on global order, there is also the ideological implications in terms of US values. Trump has moved away from liberal discourse and has prioritized US interests over the spread of US values such as democracy and human rights. He is not restrained from working with autocratic partners as long as it serves US interests. This will have global implications as to the future of American values in the world and the rise of other political and cultural thought systems.

Is the ISIL threat becoming more serious with regards to Trump’s election?

Irrespective of the election of Trump, ISIS is on the decline and will be defeated in its current state. However ISIS-like mutants very well could reemerge over the long run due to chronic state breakdown in large swaths of the Middle East, the funding of radical proxy groups by outside powers, and the incentive for the remnants of the Baathist regime in Iraq to create instability in the region.  In the areas which have Iranian influence and partnership, salafi-extremism will be largely stifled as we have seen the trend in Iraq and Syria–however its threat will remain in the short term. The larger question is what will happen to the future of US-Saudi alliance and the stability of the Gulf States. So far Trump seems to have given a prominent signal of support to Saudi Arabia in his recent trip to the region. But how this will play out in Syria and in regional posturing and proxy warfare against Iran is still unclear.

What will be the response and reaction of Iran?

Iran has paired with its local partners in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen to turn back the tide against ISIS, and other extremist salafi groups. Under the umbrella of the “Axis of Resistance,” an organic ground up structure is being built to create order and stability in the Middle East and overcome the conditions that breed extremism and instability. The continuation of this policy will see Iran’s power and influence grow in the region as it fills in the vacuum left by a defeated ISIS and the vacuum of state power in the Arab world. Due to the trend line of increased instability and weak state power in the Arab world, the potential for conflict as well as for the potential of Iran increasing its influence by supporting local popular armed movements is high.

What is Trump’s policy on Iran sanctions?

Trump has been very vocal against the Iran deal and routinely has questioned it in public. He believes it should be renegotiated or scrapped.  As such the Trump administration does not oppose the furthering of sanctions against Iran and in fact sees them as a necessity to constrain Iran and keep the country in check. In particular, sanctions will be increased regarding Iran’s ballistic missile program, regional activities, and human rights–however this is not because of Trump but there is nearly united elite consensus for this in the United States. A Clinton victory would have very likely resulted in increased non-nuclear sanctions as well on Iran. Trump however more anti-JCPOA than Clinton is and will try to find ways to undermine the agreement.  It is possible that Trump will not continue verification of Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, but it is less likely that he would not continue waiving nuclear sanctions as agreed to in the terms of the JCPOA. The White House would like to increase pressure on Iran with the hopes that Iran itself will break out of the agreement and will thus be blamed for violating the JCPOA. The bigger question is thus how Iranian elites will react to the continuing series of sanctions against the country and what their toleration will be of such moves.

Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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