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Saudi Arabia and Iran: When it comes to exiles, the pot calls the kettle black

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If Saudi Arabia is under pressure to give chapter and verse on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul, Iran risks straining relations with Europe at a time that it needs European support the most by targeting ethnic rights activists.

Mr. Khashoggi’s murder has focused attention on Saudi harassment and intimidation of dissidents as part of the kingdom’s effort to silence critical voices. The Saudi campaign had little geopolitical significance until Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

By contrast, Iran’s long history of targeting ethnic rights activists, including Iranians of Arab descent and Kurds, has long been rooted in the Islamic republic’s belief that they enjoy the support of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel in a bid to destabilize the country.

If Saudi Arabia has suffered severe reputational damage with the killing of Mr. Khashoggi and could face sanctioning for the first time in its history, Iran, long struggling to polish its tarnished image, could face sanctioning by Europe at a moment that it needs the Europeans the most.

In the latest Iranian incident, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and intelligence chief Finn Borch Andersen are calling for European Union sanctions after they discovered a plot to kill Danish residents associated with the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), an Iranian Arab group.

The plot, together with at least two other incidents in Europe in the last year, complicates European efforts to salvage a 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program after the United States withdrew from the deal and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran despite Iran’s denials of involvement.

The alleged Danish plot came to a head when authorities in late September closed bridges into Copenhagen and suspended train operations in connection with the case. Mr. Andersen said that Norway had since extradited to Denmark a Norwegian national of Iranian descent who was seen taking pictures of a the Danish home of an ASMLA leader.

ASMLA strives for independence of Iran’s south-eastern oil-rich province of Khuzestan that is home to Iran’s ethnic Arab community and borders on Iraq at the head of the Gulf.

Two other groups, the Islamic State and the Ahvaz National Resistance, claimed responsibility in September for an attack on a Revolutionary Guards parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz in which 29 people were killed and 70 others wounded.

Iranian officials blamed the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel for the attack.

Iran at the time summoned the ambassadors of the Netherlands, Denmark and Britain to protest the three countries’ hosting of Iranian ethnic rights militants.

The Danish plot followed the killing by unidentified gunmen in the Netherlands in November 2017 of Ahmad Mola Nissi, another ASMLA leader. Shot dead on a street in The Hague, Mr. Mola Nissi died the violent life he was alleged to have lived.

A 52-year-old refugee living in the Netherlands since 2005, was believed to have been responsible for attacks in Khuzestan in 2005, 2006 and 2013 on oil facilities, the office of the Khuzestan governor, other government offices, and banks.

Together with Habib Jaber al-Ahvazi also known as Abo Naheth, another ASMLA activist, Mr. Mola Nissi focussed in recent years on media activities and fund raising, at times creating footage of alleged attacks involving gas cylinder explosions to attract Saudi funding, according to Iranian activists.

Mr. Mola Nissi was killed as he was preparing to establish a television station backed by Saudi-trained personnel and funding that would target Khuzestan.

The Netherlands has emerged in recent years as a hub for Iranian activists alongside Britain.

A group of exile Iranian academics and political activists, led by The Hague-based social scientist Damon Golriz, announced in September the creation of a group that intends to campaign for a liberal democracy in Iran under the auspices of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted Shah of Iran who lives in the United States.

Compounding the fallout of Iran’s targeting of activists, is last month’s expulsion by France of an Iranian diplomat accused of being part of a plot to bomb a rally in Paris organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a Saudi-backed Iranian exile group that calls for regime change in Tehran. The diplomat was among six people arrested for allegedly plotting the bombing.

The Mujahedeen enjoy the support of prominent Western politicians like US President Donald J. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal. Mr. Giuliani addressed the targeted rally.

U.S. officials say Iran plotted to attack the group’s massive base in Albania in March.

Support for the Mujahedeen has figured prominently in broadcasts of UK-based television station Iran International that according to The Guardian is owned by a secretive offshore entity with close links to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Guardian reported that Saud al-Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s menacing information czar who was one of several senior Saudi officials removed from office in the wake of the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, was among the station’s main funders.

“I can say that Iran International TV has turned into a platform … for ethnic partisanship and sectarianism,” The Guardian quoted a source as saying.

The Danish, French and Dutch incidents suggest that Iran takes serious indications that Saudi Arabia is considering attempting to destabilize the Islamic republic by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.

Mr. Bolton advocated a similar strategy before becoming Mr. Trump’s national security advisor.

Iran has been the target in the past year of various insurgent groups believed to have Saudi support, sparking repeated clashes with Iranian security forces and the interception of Kurdish, Baloch and other ethnic rebels.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Islamabad this week on an unscheduled visit to discuss the recent kidnapping of at least 12 Iranian border and Revolutionary Guards believed to have been abducted on the Iranian side of the Pakistani-Iranian border by Jaish al-Adl, a Pakistani group that often issues its statements in Arabic rather than Baloch, Urdu or Farsi.

As the United States prepared to next week impose a new round of sanctions against Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the Iranian attacks in Europe to weaken European rejection of the US move.

“For nearly 40 years, Europe has been the target of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks. We call on our allies and partners to confront the full range of Iran’s threats to peace and security,” Mr. Pompeo tweeted.

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

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Middle East

Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’

To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?

Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.  

Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.

AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.

Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.

Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.

Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.

While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden,  who called Erdogan an autocrat.

Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

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Saudi-Turkey Discourse: Is a Resolve Imminent?

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The two prominent Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia and Turkey have had an undulating relationship over the course of decades and despite of the geographical and religious proximity, the two have rarely been on the same page. Recent tide over the relation is an outcry by the Saudi Chambers of Commerce to ‘Boycott everything Turkish’. Allegedly the boycott spans over a wide range: level of investment in the country, tourism interchange and even the imports are to be curbed. This was deemed as a “moral responsibility” of every Saudi citizen against the nation’s enemies; as per the statement of Saudi’s Chamber of Commerce head Ajlan Al Ajlan.

The duo have taken opposing sides for decades, especially when it narrows down to regional conflicts. The history relays strong relations between the two Sunni-majority Muslim countries, however, with polar position in the Syrian crisis followed by a blood-ridden civil war, the relations never recovered to a modest degree. The Saudi Kingdom, under the premiership of Muhammad Bin Salman, shifted its Syria policy in late 2018, seeking to normalize Assad’s regime while Turkey continued to support the opposing forces. Meanwhile, in Libya, Riyadh aided warlord Khalifa Haftar, while Ankara intervened to channel militarily assistance to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

The relations between the two Islamic nations were again triggered by the statement of Turkish president, Receb Tayyib Erdogen, accusing the Gulf nations for the instability in the region. This was the statement that incited such a hoarse reaction from the economic entity within the kingdom. The tie between the two was never a strong one but a major incident strained the relations back in 2018. The murder of Saudi citizen and a columnist of The Washington Post, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi, back in October 2018 set all fires loose when Saudi government was outright accused of involvement in the brutal murder at Saudi Consulate. The Turkish president went as far as insinuating the involvement of crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, in the gruesome murder. Earlier in 2017, Ankara stood as a vital support mechanism, alongside Tehran,to Doha in terms of the rudimentary facets of finance and military when Qatar was excluded and sectionalised by Saudi Arabia and its allies on account of close affiliation with rebellious groups in the region backed by Iran; accounts that were repeatedly denied by the Qatari regime.

The two Islamic republics have been at head once again ever since the recent controversial decision of UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to join hands and normalise relations with Israel came to light. Turkey and Iran, despite of the Shia-Sunni disparity, have relatively been close in ties since both have stood at odds with the foreign involvement in the region while Saudi Arabia has welcomed it with open arms. Even with the normalisation of relations with Israel, UAE and Bahrain met heavy criticism around the Muslim world but majorly championed by Iran and Turkey: former calling the move as a “Stab in the back” while the latter threatening to sever ties with the Gulf states. Both the statements were shrugged by the Saudi representatives as an ‘internal matter’ and warning the duo to refrain from interference. The Saudi position on the normalisation was clear when Israeli flights were allowed to fly through the Kingdom’s airspace en route to UAE.

The growing animosity is not novel between the duo as they have been in contrasting positions on multiple foreign policy issues and have even held starkly different positions over the islamist groups operating in the west European region. Although Saudi government officials have not confirmed the implication of the statement of its Chamber of Commerce, the signs of blooming tensions were sensed earlier this year. Even pre-Covid, the tourism dropped 17% between the countries and Turkey, being the 12th highest trade partner of the kingdom, saw a steady decline in bi-lateral trade. Albeit the externalities of the pandemic, the relations continue to deteriorate, and the signs might turn more apparent over time.

Now with Mr. Joe Biden prepared to take on the United States’ foreign policy, the Middle East would be the prime focus as per his pensive thoughts over the issues of the region. As he mentioned to ‘Reassess’ the relations with Saudi Arabia, the regard is clearly in terms of Saudi’s nefarious role in fanning the steps of Trump in the region, more specifically its involvement in the Yemen civil war and the controversial killing of the Washington Post columnist, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi. With isolation looming and need for solid alliance for better foundations for US relations, Saudi Arabia may have started with reconciling with Qatar but Turkey is optimistically the next on the radar.

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Why is Melih Bulu Seen as a Pro-AKP “Trustee” Rector?

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Photo: Youth Committees / Twitter

The new year started under the shadow of social tensions triggered by Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Professor Melih Bulu had founded the Sarıyer district organization of the incumbent AK Party in 2002. Bulu who in 2015 became a candidate for being a deputy from AK Party could not gain nomination to run in the elections. Bulu also worked as a rector in two private universities before: İstinye University and Haliç University.

On December 31 2020, Bulu was the rectorate of Haliç University. The abrupt appointment of Bulu as the rector to Turkey’s most prestigious university prompted a major outrage since the move was regarded as a direct interruption of academic freedom.

Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University caused a large unrest among Bosphorus students, graduates and scholars. In addition, people coming from different sectors of society who are critical of Erdoğan administration have also joined the “anti-Bulu” protest campaign on social media. After Bulu’s appointment, Bosphorus University students protested the appointment on social media by using the hashtag #KayyumRektörİstemiyoruz (“We don’t want a trustee rector”). For a couple of days, students of Bosphorus University have been making protests calling Bulu to resign. However Bulu posted an announcement on his Twitter account saying that he will embrace everyone and he is very excited and happy for his new duty.

After Bulu’s appointment, not just his political identity affiliated with AK Party was put under debate but also his academic background was put under scrutiny as well. Allegations of plagiarism against him broke out especially on Twitter. Bulu defined these allegations as “slander” and argued that this was the literature survey part of his PhD thesis and said, “I did not write some parts between quotation marks. We did not have something written available. There were different citation rules but I put it in the bibliography section.”

According to the Global Academic Freedom Index Turkey has only 9.7 points out of 100 and it is in the rank of 135 out of 144 countries. Turkey is in the similar level with Syria and Turkmenistan.

In previous weeks, journalist Cüneyt Özdemir hosted Bulu in his live Youtube programme and in live broadcast, Bulu saluted the students from the window of his office at rectorate building while the students yelled asking for his resign and this act of Bulu caused surprises and ironies on social media. Amid this environment, on January 5, a group of Bosphorus University academics staged a peaceful protest by standing with their backs to the rectorate building during the handover ceremony for Bulu. The academics of Bosphorus University  made a public statement underlining that this appointment is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

Their full statement is as follows:

“’We don’t accept, we don’t give up!’

On January 1, 2021 at midnight, an academic outside Bogazici University community was appointed as rector, which is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

This is yet another case of many ongoing anti-democratic practices since 2016, aiming at abolishing rectorial elections. We do not accept it as it clearly violates academic freedom and scientific autonomy as well as the democratic values of our university. We refuse to compromise the principles the University Senate officially stated in 2012:

1. To enhance scientific research and social development, it is indispensable that universities be free from any pressure or influence from a person or an institution and not be used as a political tool.

2. For academic freedom, it is imperative that decision-making processes be delegated to democratically elected academic administrators and boards. All academic administrators including the Rector, Deans, Directors of Institute, Directors of Schools and Department Heads can be appointed only after being elected by the university community.

3. As universities are autonomous constitutional establishments, it is vital that university instructors and/or university boards decide on academic programs and research policies, which is an essential prerequisite for scientific freedom and creativity.

We strictly adhere to the principles above and we pledge to follow them up with all the other members of our university community.”

On the other hand, police forces detained more than 20 university students in home raids after the protests against the appointment of Bulu. In the mainstream pro-government media actors’ coverage of these events, it is argued that the detained people are not students, but they are members of illegal organizations whereas Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Republican People’s Party’s current provincial president in Istanbul rejected this and argued that they are students.

According to Althusser (1971), the modern state keeps the authority and control through two main systems: Repressive State Apparatuses & Ideological State Apparatuses. One of  areas concerning the ideological state apparatuses is known as education. In this regard, Erdoğan’s appointment of Bulu can be seen as a step of using ideological state apparatuses.

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